True Transparency

I hear a lot of companies toss it around – a buzz word like “web 2.0” and “organic.” Think you’re transparent? Call me crazy, but the following things mean “transparent” to me:

  • Total access to numbers and data
  • Public punishment and public reward
  • Open doors (or none at all)
  • No hierarchy, only leadership
  • Forgiveness, not permission
  • Strong communication
  • Free-flowing ideas

While company culture stands to benefit from it, transparency may not work for everyone. Apple is doing just fine without it. If you cannot accept the list above, do not pretend to embrace transparency.

Second Place Rules

Long term, second place can pay off in spades. I see second place more as a second chance than a loss. Watching someone else cross the finish line ahead can empower you with the drive to improve and an insight into the victor’s foundational success strategy. Knowledge and motivation in hand, you have the key ingredients to better yourself against the competition.

On several occasions, I’ve had the pleasure of following the first in line. I was the second graduating class of my high school, so I watched an entire group of kids go through the ropes before me (always being an upperclassman definitely had its perks). We had the opportunity to fix their mistakes and build on their accomplishments. It was a great deal.

I’ve seen companies beat my ideas to the market. A sad day turns happy when you start to find all the flaws in their approach and the opportunity to perform differently or better. You can refocus your efforts and take more informed strategic bets in the space. Also a great deal.

No, you did not cross the finish line first this time. I’m sorry. But next time, you can win the race and break records in brilliant form. All great athletes lose every once in a while. If they didn’t, they would get bored with winning and have no room to grow. Growth is important. A challenge is a great thing. Competition makes the world go round.

Phones Can Call People, Too

I think people forget that phones can still be used for voice conversations. I get so many back and forth text messages or email chains on a day to day basis. In the hours that pass trading notes, the discussion could have passed and resolved in a handful of minutes. Texts make sense for updates. Emails make sense for a bigger pile of information. For making big decisions or catching up? Not even close.

Call someone. It’s quicker, more personal and less ambiguous.

There’s a System for That

If you’re having organizational trouble or find yourself doing the same mundane task over and over, chances are pretty high that someone else out there shares your pain. With a little bit of research, you may even find someone who has already conquered your problem. At any rate, it’s worth a look. The internet is a pretty big place these days. There are apps for everything.

As times change, brand new problems crop up all the time that may not yet have structured solutions. Depending on the complexity of your problem and processes, other people’s solutions may not serve your own. If you cannot find a solution, it’s up to you to build one. Given the challenges and material complexity of designing solutions (be they software, logistical or cost), most people opt out and choose to continue suffering. Don’t do that. Don’t settle for the mundane. You should never have to do the same thing more than once – unless you want to.

Would You Use Your Own App?

Before launching your app into any application marketplace, you should test for demand. That’s business 101. But before doing that, there is an easy way to pre-test the market for interest: honestly ask yourself, “Would I use my own product?” It amazes me how few people ask this question. We are all parents of our creations, so of course we’d say yes. But like parents raising children, we can’t all realistically say our children are physically fit and attractive. Some can. Others would have to make a case. It’s the same thing for products and services. We can’t all say that our tools are useful, amazing or accessible. If that were always the case, failure wouldn’t exist.

When designing a piece of software, put yourself in a user’s shoes. How hard is it to get started using the app? How much privacy must I compromise? Is it fun to use? Will my friends think I’m cool if I use it? Is it better than another app I use that does the same thing? If you don’t like the answers to your own questions, your users won’t either. Do not be afraid to return to the drawing board, especially when you cannot completely endorse your own product. Save yourself the time and shame if, deep down, you know the truth.

Extinguish Distractions

Christopher Nolan, one of the greatest filmmakers of our time, does not have a cell phone. In an effort to live a focused and productive life, he is vigilant about keeping his personal bubble distraction-free. I’ve advocated for periods of digital silence before, but Mr. Nolan’s approach to creative sanctuary is something else entirely. No outside forces may enter the gates of his life while he is working. That’s a special thing.

We consume so much information every single day: emails, articles, status updates, pictures and video. Since the beginning of the year, I have consumed approximately 2,000 emails, 6,400 tweets, 12,500 articles and god knows how many status updates. Let’s conservatively estimate that I spend an average of 20 seconds per item (an overestimate for tweets; a radical underestimate for email and news). By that average, I spend around 58 hours per month or 12% of my time awake consuming emails, tweets and articles alone. Realistically, I think that number is closer to 35% or 40%. Needless to say, that’s a lot.

The numbers make me sick. I could be spending time creating for and giving back to the world. I can only imagine how much more I could get done if I extinguished those distractions from my life. After adopting the Galaxy Nexus, I am now more connected than ever. I’m starting to feel the water rising to my ears – and I don’t like it. Tonight, I vow to wean myself off consumption as much as possible. I will keep this blog up to date with any tips I discover along the way.

Leaving A Data Legacy

I would love to know how my grandparents lived their lives half a century ago. Now that all but one have passed, I’m left with only a few pictures and stories. While there may be a Big Fish fantasy charm to the finite amount of information I have, my curiosity endures.

FoursquareI finally adopted Foursquare in January and checked in nearly a hundred times since. To this day, I struggle to find direct utility in the service (beyond specials, which I have never successfully used). That said, I am a data nut. I appreciate the value of collecting information on my life, whether I do anything with it or not. I’m too lazy to keep a journal, so social and location services help a lot. Despite the fact that my data may be used to serve the gains of others, I (perhaps naively) trust that these services will evolve to capture and interpret the nodes of my life back to me and all who follow.

I am of the camp that sees big data not as a violation of personal privacy, but as a path to building a data legacy. I don’t presume to become wildly famous and expect the world to care what I ate for breakfast yesterday. No, I mean to say that I want to leave slices of history for my children and children’s children to better understand me and the times I live in. Does anybody really care that I had Pad Thai for lunch yesterday? Fuck no. But the next generation might appreciate a rich data set on American dining habits and dietary evolution. My grandchildren might appreciate that Pad Thai is one of my favorite dishes.

Like donating your body to science, I want to donate the computed history of my life to the next generation of sociologists, historians and nostalgics. I want my grandchildren to have access to anything they could possibly want to know about me and learn from my mistakes. We all have an opportunity like never before to contribute to the nuance of our generation’s history books.

So, in spite of all this privacy hooplah, I will continue to check in and contribute to big data through applications and organizations that lend to a long shelf life and value for greater societal context.

Mobile Should Not Port Web (Or Vice Versa)

Cramming the web experience into a smartphone is naïve. Any person with a shred of user interface appreciation should understand that we interact with desktop or laptop computers in very different ways than our phones or tablets. The devices are not directly interchangeable. It amazes me how many designers and companies forget it. Many hop on the mobile bandwagon and try to squeeze every feature into a claustrophobic mess. What’s the point?

I loath Facebook’s latest mobile app. It overwhelms the user with every possible feature from the suite (a collection of nonsense that makes it the slowest and most cumbersome app on my Galaxy Nexus). I do not need access to my pages or Facebook apps; I do not want to curate user groups or manage my friend list. Even events should live outside of the app – preferably in my calendar where they belong. I just need my messages, wall and news feed while I’m on the go. That’s it. Save my processing for something else.

While by no means an elegant app, Wells Fargo keeps things focused by opening with only two options – mobile banking or find an ATM. No offers for loans. No investing or insurance. Just simple tools to manage my money on the go. That’s it. Straightforward, simple and relevant.

On the flip, many mobile-first applications forget that they can approach their mission from a completely different angle via the browser. Instagram, with the mission to “share your life with friends through a series of pictures,” has an irrefutable opportunity to expand photo consumption onto a larger palette. Right now, their website is an embarrassing static splash page. Imagine a stunning and immersive fullscreen browser magazine ripe with friends’ photos, updating live as their world evolves around you. A powerful experience you will never have on a 3.5 inch screen.

Mobile and web can help you approach your core mission from two different angles. The mobile experience should feel immediate, focused, actionable and succinct. The web experience should feel expansive, explorable, comprehensive and open.

Before you port your experience to one device or another, first ask yourself two (rather obvious) questions: (1) What tools do people absolutely need on their phones versus their computers and (2) how would user interaction differ with the same tools on different devices?

Mobile could let you explore all the comprehensive offerings of a cross-platform application if you want to, but the unique-to-mobile (U2M) experience should come first. The Foursquare check-in is a perfect example of a U2M tool that adds to the unique-to-browser (U2B) experience of exploring a map of your data.

More platforms should debate U2M versus U2B and not try to cram a square block into a round hole.

Service Beats the Hunt

We now live in a world where we can expect things to come to us directly. News, messages, deals, and ideas push their way to us instantaneously. To compete in today’s innovative world, you must play this game. You can no longer expect customers or users to come to you; you must find ways to reach them directly. In many ways, this has always been an issue for businesses. The challenge is not just getting people to come through your door, but to keep them coming back. In an era where infinite options compete for our attention, you must fight harder to stay relevant. The 24-hour news cycle is shriveling up. Windows for theatrical film releases are collapsing. Tweet trends often last less than an hour. Before long, consumers will miss you entirely.

If you want your brand or product to have a presence in your audience’s lives, you must find a way to remind them you exist. You must continuously roll out useful content to keep things fresh. And you must go out of your way to deliver it to them directly as soon as it becomes available. From here on out, most people will prefer services that bring to them what other services would expect them to hunt. If you want to stay alive in this feeding frenzy of a world, you must become your own paper boy.