For some cruel reason, I keep finding myself in the position of being introduced to things in their infancy (often before they are even launched), dismissing them as stupid, and then watching them become unbelievably popular. This has happened to me at least four times. Each time I vow never to call anything stupid again, and then, invariably, it happens again.
I'm not sure if there's any lesson here other than a warning against arrogance, but I have two stories to share.
In late 2009, I received an email from a guy asking to meet about his new project. I was a designer at the time, and he was looking for some advice, so I agreed to meet with him at the quintessential startup meeting place in San Francisco, The Creamery.
“I want to make an app for browsing catalogs. It's like a fashion catalog, but you can organize and share outfits,” he said. He pulled out his iPhone and showed me a prototype that barely worked. The UI was decent but clunky; it had side-swiping navigation that only worked every few swipes. He showed me what seemed to be an endless series of women's dresses. “Nice,” I said. But I had already dismissed the idea. How on Earth would this 20-something guy in Silicon Valley reach his target market of middle aged women? And would they even want such a thing? Did they even own iPhones? I think I asked a series of questions, but I don't even remember the answers.
“What a stupid idea,” I thought to myself.
As we finished our coffees, I think he sensed my apathy, and we parted ways. But just before I walked away, he asked a question:
“What do you think about the name we've been using? It's called Pinterest.”
In 2012, I met a guy for dinner at an unassuming restaurant in New York. After we'd started eating, he handed me his phone and said, “I'm making an app that makes it easy to share video, kind of like Instagram.” The app was very well designed and engineered, especially for a prototype, but I've had a lot of experience with photography and video apps, and I knew the odds were hugely against him. The mobile video space is littered with the dead carcasses of previous attempts. How would this guy overcome all of the hurdles that the plethora of other attempts at mobile video have been unable to address?
The app had one awesome feature, though–it would only record when your finger was on the screen, so you could take a bunch of little videos through time and connect them together to build a story. But it was a self-contained app, with its own feed and no obvious viral mechanics. I couldn't see it ever succeeding.
“What a stupid idea,” I thought to myself.
I liked the logo, though. It was a V on a green background, for the name “Vine.”
Thinking back on those meetings with Ben Silbermann, the founder of Pinterest, and Dom Hoffman, the founder of Vine, I am kind of disgusted by my reactions. Both of those guys are unusually passionate and driven, and you can tell within five seconds of meeting them. They saw the future and they built it. But for some reason, my first reaction to their earliest attempts wasn't to give them the benefit of the doubt–it was to immediately find problems and then dismiss their ideas.
The future is extremely hard to see through the lens of the present. It's very easy to unconsciously dismiss the first versions of something as frivolous or useless. Or as stupid ideas.
Note: the quotations here are obviously paraphrased.
Warren Buffett has never invested in new technology companies. In the late 1990's and early 2000's, he completely ignored the rise of the personal computer and the web (avoiding the first bubble), and he has rarely invested in rapidly growing industries. This might seem like a paradoxical stance from one of the greatest investors of all time, but if you look at the investable companies within rapidly growing markets, a pattern emerges: they are not healthy. They're engaged in constant war–a fight to the death, in many cases–for control of the future of their industry in technology, brand, and mindshare.
In his 2009 Berkshire Hathaway annual letter, Buffett explained his philosophy regarding such industries:
Charlie and I avoid businesses whose futures we can’t evaluate, no matter how exciting their products may be. In the past, it required no brilliance for people to foresee the fabulous growth that awaited such industries as autos (in 1910), aircraft (in 1930) and television sets (in 1950). But the future then also included competitive dynamics that would decimate almost all of the companies entering those industries. Even the survivors tended to come away bleeding.
Just because Charlie and I can clearly see dramatic growth ahead for an industry does not mean we can judge what its profit margins and returns on capital will be as a host of competitors battle for supremacy. At Berkshire we will stick with businesses whose profit picture for decades to come seems reasonably predictable. Even then, we will make plenty of mistakes.
After showing Facebook Home, Mark Zuckerberg spent a few minutes talking about the future of computing. What he said is the epitome of a vision statement, and it sets the philosophy driving Facebook's work:
At one level, [Home] is just the next mobile version of Facebook. At a deeper level, I think this can start to be a change in the relationship that we have with how we use computing devices. For more than thirty years, computers have mostly just been about tasks, and they had to be–they were too expensive and clunky and hard to use, so you wouldn't really want to use them for anything else. But the modern computing device has a very different place in our lives. It's not just for productivity and business, although it's great for that too. It's for making us more connected, more social, more aware.
Home, by putting people first, and then apps–by just flipping the order–is one of many small but meaningful changes in our relationship with technology over time.
When I think about the world today, what amazes me most is the number of people who are getting on the internet every day and how it's improving their lives as they join this modern knowledge economy. I grew up with the internet, and I can't really imagine a world without sharing, and messaging, and searching, but actually only about a third of the world is on the internet today–a little more than two billion people. So we're really very close to the beginning of this. If you look out, maybe five or ten years, when all five billion people who have feature phones are going to have smart phones, we're soon going to be living in a world where the majority of people who have a smart phone–a modern computing device–will have never seen in their lives what you and I call a “computer.”
So, just think about that for a moment.
The very definition of what a computer is and what our relationship with it should be hasn't been set for the majority of the world. And when it is, I think a lot of that definition is going to be around people first. We're about to see the most empowered generation of people in history, and it's really an honor to be able to work on these problems.
This is a deeply technical problem and it's also a deeply social problem. This is the kind of problem that Facebook, our culture and our community, are uniquely built to work on. And we look forward to continuing to do it and to sharing what we come up with with all of you. Thank you.
When I first heard about Google Glass, I thought it was a bit too ambitious. It reminded me of the original Microsoft Surface, a $10,000 touchscreen table that was obscenely cool but wholly impractical. The difference is that Google is actually delivering on Glass as a consumer device, and the glimpse that we've seen is so transformative that I think it's worth the benefit of the doubt. What surprises me is the number of people dismissing it so early as ugly and un-productizable.
In the early 1980's, when most people dismissed the personal computer as a mere curiosity, Steve Jobs attempted to rationalize its existence with a fascinating metaphor:
I think one of the things that really separates us from the higher primates is that we're tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The Condor used the least amount of energy to move a kilometer. And humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud of a showing for the crown of creation.
That didn't look so good. But then, somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And a man on a bicycle completely blew the Condor away, completely off the top of the chart. And that's what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me, is it's the most remarkable tool that we've ever come up with. It's the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.
When I see the Google Glass UI sitting in the upper right hand corner of my vision, I think of it as potentially being one of the greatest tools man has ever come up with. It's the true bicycle for our minds. It'll make everyone smarter, faster, and better connected. It takes away the clunky interface of the computer, and it brings the world's information directly to your mind.
The difference between Wikipedia twenty seconds away in your pocket and the answer to your question instantly and unobtrusively in your vision is enormous.
When you're first shown the future, it's hard to see it. If you don't immediately use some imagination to evolve what you're being shown into what it can or will become, you might dismiss it as something frivolous or a mere curiosity. You might even call it a toy. Microsoft built an absurd $10,000 table. Apple built a $499 tablet for everyone. Glass will play out the same way, I think, but it might be Google that makes the product for everyone.
A question that inevitably comes up very early in the process of designing a new app is this: should the interface refer to the user as “your” or “my” when talking about the user's stuff, as in “my profile” or “your settings”? For a long time, this question ate at my soul. Which is right?
The answer actually has quite a few implications, even if they're subconscious. If you refer to a user's profile as “your profile,” the implication is that the interface is communicating with you, whereas if you refer to it as “my profile,” you're implying that the interface is an extension of the user, as though it is communicating for you.
There are two groups of neurological adaptations that I think might roughly support each of the approaches.
As humans have evolved the ability to use tools, the brain has developed a function for assimilating external objects into its motor mapping. After using a hammer for a while, your body starts to build systems that treat the hammer like an external appendage, or at least an extension of your existing appendages. In fact, these on-the-fly mappings can even replace your actual arm: When test subjects are shown a fake arm that replaces their real arm (using mirror magic), a researcher can make them flinch in pain by poking the fake arm with a pin.
If we refer to the user's stuff as “my stuff,” we're potentially using this artificial mapping system by assuming the brain has assimilated the interface into its existing spacial mapping. In that case, calling a part of that interface “mine,” as though it already belongs to me, makes sense, because my brain considers it a literal extension of myself.
On the other hand, humans are social creatures and we've evolved extremely complex systems for social interaction with other humans. There are entire areas of the human brain dedicated to understanding, interpreting, creating, and analyzing language. When we talk with people, we have a very constant, strict set of absolutes that guide us through sorting out our thoughts: There is me, and I am communicating with a series of other people called “you”.
Additionally, we've evolved systems for making estimations and assumptions about what other people are actually trying to communicate despite the actual words that come out of their mouths. These assumptions help us to limit explicitness and increase efficiency in social interactions.
If we think about interfaces as literal “interfaces” to tasks (like how people are interfaces to their ideas), instead of as tools themselves, it makes sense for the interface to take on a personality, and to become a “you” to the user. Thus, it would make sense for the interface to refer to a user's stuff as “your stuff,” because the interface is just a medium between the user and what she wants to accomplish or find. In a way, the interface takes on a social characteristic, and becomes a humanoid assistant by utilizing existing functions of the human brain's social systems.
After thinking about this stuff for a very long time, I've settled pretty firmly in the camp of thinking that interfaces should mimic social creatures, that they should have personalities, and that I should be communicating with the interface rather than the interface being an extension of myself. Tools have almost always been physical objects that are manipulated tactually. Interfaces are much more abstract, and much more intelligent; they far more closely resemble social interactions than physical tools.
The answer for me, then, is that you're having a conversation with the interface. It's “Your stuff.”
In isolation, American Airlines' previous visual identity, designed by Massimo Vignelli in 1967, was a beautiful tribute to modern American design. The simplicity of Helvetica, set in red, white, and blue, and positioned next to an iconic eagle, defined the company with a subtle homage to the country it represents. It is too bad that such a great, enduring identity was placed into such careless hands. And now it is gone.
The design problems at American Airlines have never stemmed from its visual identity, but rather from its execution of that identity and from its culture around customer experience. But the bankrupt company, in a misguided attempt to change its external perception, set out to remake itself visually. Here is the new American Airlines:
After forty-six years, one of the finest corporate brands in history has been reduced to patriotic lipstick.
For a demonstration of the important relationship between brand and product quality, look no further than Tide detergent, as profiled in this New York Magazine piece by Ben Paynter:
Shoppers have surprisingly strong feelings about laundry detergent. In a 2009 survey, Tide ranked in the top three brand names that consumers at all income levels were least likely to give up regardless of the recession, alongside Kraft and Coca-Cola. That loyalty has enabled its manufacturer, Procter & Gamble, to position the product in a way that defies economic trends. At upwards of $20 per 150-ounce bottle, Tide costs about 50 percent more than the average liquid detergent yet outsells Gain, the closest competitor by market share (and another P&G product), by more than two to one. According to research firm SymphonyIRI Group, Tide is now a $1.7 billion business representing more than 30 percent of the liquid-detergent market.
The technology behind Tide–the alkylbenzene sulfonate surfactant–was so revolutionary when it was introduced that it actually led to an increase in the amount of clothing people now own. And Tide's brand, scent, and effectiveness is so deeply associated with cleanliness that Procter & Gamble has been able to command a 50% price premium over its competitors since the late forties.
It's amazing what brand trust and loyalty, when mixed with truly good technology, can achieve.
When personal photography was first becoming popular, it was mostly used for experimentation and artistic expression, like portraiture. Over time, as costs decreased and fidelity increased, photos gained a second function: they became a system for people to store their memories. And only very recently have we begun to experience the third major function of photography, and I think it's far more important than the other two: photos for individual communication.
Before Instagram launched, there was a huge ecosystem of photo sharing apps that were trying to capitalize on the sudden convergence of mobile phones and cameras. Some friends of mine were working on one of them, an app called Treehouse. It was shut down long ago, after Instagram suddenly sucked up the entire photo sharing market, but the first prototype captured something magical about photos that nothing has been able to replicate until very recently.
The very first prototype of Treehouse, which was really just a technical test, had only one feature – you could take a photo and share it within our small group of friends. That was it. Nothing had been built yet for interaction, so there were no photo titles, no “liking,” and no commenting. It was just a feed of photos. And because we didn't care about the technology or who would see what we were sharing, we used Treehouse as a private group communication tool. Instead of taking photos to maintain memories, we used them for instantaneous communication. And the resolution of information in a photo, it turns out, is huge when compared to text or even to voice. A photo can tell you where someone is, what time it is, who they are with, and much more. When you focus heavily on artistry, which Instagram does, it becomes much harder to take photos that truly represent the moment you're sharing.
Because Treehouse didn't have comments or liking, if you wanted to respond to someone, you had to respond with a photo. After a few days, someone figured out that he could write a comment on a piece of paper, take a photo of it, and share it with the group. Suddenly, all of the necessary pieces for a successful social app were there: the communication system and the feedback mechanism. It was an awesome experience, and I loved the app.
That is, until liking, comments, and titles were added. Everyone wanted and begged for those features, of course, but adding them had an unforeseeable negative side effect: they removed the expectation that photos should be used for communication, and instead gave the impression that communication should happen around the photos. The centuries-old expectation that photos should be artistic crept in, and the fun photo chats we had suddenly stopped.
How could adding features that people were begging for make the experience completely different, and much worse? It was a tough lesson for Treehouse: the way you design something–including which features you add or omit–informs users about how the product should be used.
Since using that early prototype of Treehouse, I've been wanting something that replicated the feeling of using photos for communication, and nothing has come close. It seems that every photo sharing app ends up adding features like commenting, which destroys the fundamental value of the photos themselves; all photo sharing apps have regressed into apps for artistic expression.
Until Snapchat, which has captured the essence of using photos as communication. Because it is completely ephemeral – and because the photos are deleted after 1-10 seconds – it's impossible to use the photos for anything but communication. It's an amazing app, and its popularity is just a hint of how I think we'll use photos in the future.
A few months ago, the mute half of the famous magic duo Penn & Teller published an article in Smithsonian Magazine describing seven principles that drive the development of his magic tricks. One of them, “Make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems worth,” instantly resonated with me as a designer and engineer. Teller:
You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest. My partner, Penn, and I once produced 500 live cockroaches from a top hat on the desk of talk-show host David Letterman. To prepare this took weeks. We hired an entomologist who provided slow-moving, camera-friendly cockroaches (the kind from under your stove don’t hang around for close-ups) and taught us to pick the bugs up without screaming like preadolescent girls. Then we built a secret compartment out of foam-core (one of the few materials cockroaches can’t cling to) and worked out a devious routine for sneaking the compartment into the hat. More trouble than the trick was worth? To you, probably. But not to magicians.
This is magic in its truest form. It is not purely physical or optical trickery, but mental trickery. Unable to come up with a sane explanation for the events unfolding before their eyes, most people will simply smile and enjoy the performance. Delight. There is something calming about the ability to surrender to someone else's trickery.
Teller is so successful because he obsesses about every detail of his performance. He will never accept anything less than perfection because it would be a personal reflection of himself; he loves what he does and it shows through his work.
The ultimate goal of any magician is to create a sense of delight in the audience, and it's the exact same feeling that great product designers strive to create through their work. Product design, done properly, is magic. But while magicians are expected to focus all of their time on obsessively improving their performance, designers and engineers tend to exist as cogs in a larger complex system. If they slow down in pursuit of perfection–or even something slightly better than usual–the entire machine is affected. In most companies, designers and engineers are actively discouraged from doing their best and most satisfying work by process, organization, and 'best practices'.
What if we thought about products as performances instead of tools or deliverables? Everything takes on a different meaning. Bugs and “known issues” become personal flaws. How well the user accomplishes his or her goals become a personal reflection of the creators. In fact, most creative industries throughout history have had this component, called craftsmanship, and it's a bond between creator and user. But it seems to have been lost, somehow, in the expanding bureaucracy and process of modern companies. In very few companies do designers and engineers feel personally and emotionally attached to the end result of their work.
I think this is largely due to the way teams tend to operate within companies. Things are designed. Then they are engineered. Then they are tested. Then they are released. Then issues go to customer support. Each stage is so disconnected from the one before it that no one can possibly create a long, obsessive relationship with the holistic product. Assembly lines work fantastically well for raw assembly, but they suck the life out of creative people.
In startups, the mantra “release early, release often” is constantly chanted as justification for shipping crappy products. But the truth is this–and I have personally witnessed it a hundred times–if a team feels personally obsessed with a product or company's success, and if they genuinely love what they are doing, they will spend every waking minute perfecting and fixing whatever is needed before anything is released. This is probably similar to performers on Broadway; once the tickets are sold, the actors won't allow themselves to put on a bad show. They will practice obsessively, into the night, until they are confident in their ability to deliver a great performance. What drives those performers is the same thing that drove Teller to visit an entomologist while researching a five-minute magic trick.
Great startups work like this too. The best and most successful teams invariably exhibit these characteristics and failing companies almost never do. It's an emotional and personal attachment that a team has to the end result of their work.
There are two main reasons for poor products to exist. Either the team was broken by paralyzing bureaucracy and process during development, or the creators didn't care enough to obsess over ultimate quality. Both of these possibilities might be fixed by changing the expectation of what a product fundamentally is–a reflection of its creators' vision, personality, and trickery cast upon its users. A performance.
When I got back to San Francisco after a three month trip to Southeast Asia last year, I had no possessions. I was living out of hotels. Everything I carried had to fit into a backpack, so I spent the time to carefully research and buy only the very best of each individual item I was carrying. The best towel. The best pen and notebook. The best headlamp. The best headphones. The best wallet. Everything I owned had been carefully designed by a person who cared deeply about the problem being solved.
An interesting side effect, which I hadn't anticipated, was that I developed a blind trust in the things I used. I trusted my lamp to be bright enough to light up the wheel well of a truck when its tire went flat, and it was. I trusted my wallet to hold cash, boarding passes, and IDs without deforming or falling apart, and it did. I trusted that my towel would dry quickly, because it was designed for travel, and it did. I trusted the zippers on my backpack to stay closed as I hiked through the night, and they did. These might seem like stupid things to worry about, but when you have trust in everything you own, you don't have to worry about anything. It's liberating and an amazing feeling. My life was markedly better because of it.
When I finally moved into an apartment, I resolved to continue the same lifestyle. I'd only buy the very best of everything, even if that meant owning very few things. If I wanted flatware, for example, I'd force myself to research the industry, history, and philosophy behind flatware, then explore the biological implications of different designs, and finally–but only after becoming completely confident in my ability to gauge quality–I'd carefully select the very best, and most practical, flatware that is for sale.
As it turns out, Sori Yanagi, a Japanese product designer from a family that made Samurai swords, created the perfect flatware in 2002. You can see and buy it at MoMA.
Yanagi's flatware is great because he designed it from a position of functional design instead of salable design. Yanagi:
Things that are easy to use survive, regardless of what is fashionable, and people want to use them forever. But if things are created merely for a passing vogue and not for a purpose, people soon get bored with them and throw them away. The fundamental problem is that many products are created to be sold, not used.
Some of the things that matter in flatware design are obvious, like the material and weight. Other things, which are arguably more important, are seemingly never even considered, like how the metal feels against your teeth, for example, or how the weight balances in your hand. The long term durability of each utensil is also important, and so is the slipperiness of the metal against food. Yanagi thought about these things.
Yanagi designed his flatware to stand the test of time. He died in 2011, but his design lives on.
“The best” isn't necessarily a product or thing. It's the reward for winning the battle fought between patience, obsession, and desire. It takes an unreasonably long amount of time to find the best of something. It requires that you know everything about a product's market, manufacture, and design, and that you can navigate deceptive pricing and marketing. It requires that you find the best thing for yourself, which means you need to know what actually matters to you.
Reasonable people would probably not spend the time to read a book about the history of flatware, buy twenty sets, and test the feeling of each metal utensil against their teeth. That sounds completely insane. But who cares about reasonable people?
If you're an unreasonable person, trust me: the time it takes to find the best of something is completely worth it. It's better to have a few fantastic things designed for you than to have many untrustworthy things poorly designed to please everyone. The result–being able to blindly trust the things you own–is intensely liberating.