User-Centric Design

When I attended the University of New Hampshire, it was located in a small town with a limited number of restaurants and stores in one central area.

None of us had cars and public transportation was spotty so everyone walked everywhere. There was one path we always took to get to the convenience store, restaurants, bars. This major hub for students had this layout:

main streetIf you examine this map closely, you’ll notice two busy one-way streets merging downtown. In this map, all the traffic, both cars and the majority of walkers, was headed towards the right, where the bars and stores were.

At one point there was a crosswalk that everyone used, drawn in blue below.

main street-crosswalkThen one day someone in the city council decided this crosswalk was a hazard, took it out and replaced it with a new, safer formation. It went like this.

main street-new crosswalkI agree, this new formation was much safer than the old. No longer did pedestrians walk in front of two merging thoroughfares. The only problem was no one used it.

The reason no one used it should be clear from the map. To get to where you wanted to go (across the street and to the right), you had to first go against your natural direction and backtrack. Also in this new formulation you had to cross two roads rather than just a single one.

I used to watch section of the street often because my apartment overlooked it and I regularly read novels and smoked cigarettes at the coffee shop nearby. I would sit there for hours, watching enormous groups of students cross the street along the old path where the crosswalk used to be. Not a single group used the newly installed crosswalk, it was too much of a hassle. Something dictated from up high with no regard to how people actually functioned.

Once I was sitting at the coffee shop with two friends, Steve and Bob. Steve noticed the same traffic pattern I did and said, “Someone should repaint that crosswalk.” The other friend, Bob, sat back in his seat, stroked his chin sagely and said, “That’s a good idea.”

Later that summer at 4 am on a Tuesday night, Bob did just that. In an act of “helpful vandalism”, he repainted the crosswalk. He videotaped the act for posterity using my apartment window. You can watch it here:

Feel free to skip around but some key parts are at 2:30 when a car comes by and Bob runs and it happens again at 5:00. You can also see where the cars leave a trail of wet paint on the road.

Bob would later to get his PhD in data visualization but I think his true calling was in user design. He realized one important thing about good UI – it’s more important to notice how users actually use something and not how you want them to use it.

My Worst Cold Call

My worst cold call happened a year ago today. I remember it well because it was near my birthday. That’s right, prostate I went on a disastrous sales call on my birthday right after getting a divorce. 2014 was a bad year for me.

I was just getting started doing freelance work after being introduced to it by the guy down the street. He’d been doing it for years and floated me a few assignments when I told him, seek “I need the work, physician I’ve got mouths to feed.” Pathetic but true.

And I enjoyed it, writing for pay. This will sound stupid but I didn’t know you could make so much money doing it. I’d always listened to writers complain about their low pay and tight deadlines and read tales of Melville dying unknown and penniless and only achieving fame long after he was dead. I foolishly believed it.

Turns out people hate writing and will do anything to avoid it, including paying you to do it for them. Because writing came naturally to me, I always thought it was an easy task that was not worthy of pay. It was a pleasant surprise that, no, you can earn a good living doing it.

As part of my plan to expand my freelance business, I sent out a bunch of emails to local tech companies. In my career, I’ve had the good fortune to work with some smart people at high performing companies and done some interesting things. So I cited these with abandon. It lead to a couple of bites, one of which became my first regular paying client and the other was the world’s worst cold call.

It was at the Harvard Innovation Lab, a student run startup that looked promising that got great press. They didn’t have any money but were interested in talking with me because I was an early employee at a start-up that was a big success.

I got dressed up, drove to Harvard, and met with the guy. It started out promising and, oh God, please don’t make me relive it. Let’s just say it was one of those moments where you feel like a total buffoon afterward. A memory that you remember with a wince. I didn’t know what I was talking about, I didn’t know what he wanted, and it went from bad to terrible in seconds. The thing was a total flame-out.

But the part that burned was he was so dismissive of me. He didn’t have the time to be polite, he was arrogant. “I am the cream of the crop and don’t have time for nonsense,” was the message he conveyed.

Partially, he was right. I did look foolish. But sometimes it is a good practice to play nice as you never know when you will encounter that person again. I think of the scene in Election where Matthew Broderick is undone by the lowly janitor to whom he was rude. One maxim I follow is, “Be nice to those you meet on your way to the top, as you never know who you will meet on your way down.”

The good news is I rebounded and over time I refined my sales technique. In those early days I accepted every interview I could just to practice. By doing this I learned what worked, what didn’t, which lines I could say that would draw a laugh, and how to tell a compelling story.

After a lot of work doing this, I now have a regular list of paying clients and am getting referrals. Word of mouth is a great thing, it removes the need to chase down leads and allows you to devote more time to billable work. And I love having several bosses instead of being tied to the whims of one. That’s real job security for me.

A couple months ago I did a search on that startup where I gave my worst sales pitch. The site is down and has been since I checked. Looks like one of us, the one that didn’t go to Harvard, knows how to set up a viable business. How do you like them apples?

The Futility of “Inbox Zero”

Today I read with some amusement “8 tips for getting to inbox zero — and staying there” on Vox. I had no idea people actually attempt this, getting all their emails marked as read and filed away.

"Inbox 965"

“Inbox 965”

I take the opposite approach to “Inbox Zero” I like to call “Inbox One Thousand.” That’s a photo of my unread email status on the right. After “Inbox One Thousand” is achieved the next goal will be “Inbox Two Thousand” and I hope to live long enough to see “Inbox Ten Thousand.” As you might expect, the idea of filing every email I receive into categories is unbearably tedious to me.

I’ve noticed that sometimes people confuse being busy with being productive. As The Onion wrote long ago, “Work Avoided Through Extensive List Making” and so it would appear to be with filing away emails into nice neat folders for use someday.

Turns out I’m with Ezra Klein, as he writes “I have this theory that people overestimate the hassle of how hard it is to fix things when they go wrong and underestimate the hassle of the buildup of small things we do every day to keep them from going wrong.”

I support Klein’s theory and it is supported by my experience at Yahoo. Hard as it is to believe now, Yahoo was not a search engine, it was a directory. We employed an entire building full of people we called “surfers” whose job it was to file websites into slots in the directory. That’s right, we hired people to manually categorize all the pages on the internet.

Yahoo in 1999

Yahoo in 1999. Notice how difficult it is find the search box, the thing everyone used

This exercise in futility was reflected on the Yahoo home page. Take a look at the page and you’ll notice 70% of the page is made up of the directory, something no one used.

Drilling down to find exactly the website I want to find? You’ve got to be kidding me. I, along with everyone else, instead used the tiny search box at the top of the screen. But we were tied to the directory, it was the thing Jerry and David built that was the cornerstone of the whole company. It wasn’t long before Yahoo was usurped by a company that did away with the directory and gave users what they wanted – search.

So it is with filing your email. Doing so is a relic of the days when we kept things in file folders and cabinets. It doesn’t scale with the volume of emails being sent out and received today. Don’t bother, just leave it in an unsorted pile in your inbox. When you want to find something use the search. It’s sometimes a hassle but it beats sorting emails a hundred times every day.

Putting on a Show

PP-2When I worked for Yahoo we used to have a big annual sales conference in some distant location. The year I went it was at a resort in Phoenix.

It was a huge expense, flying employees in from all over the world, housing and feeding us for three days. So, as all corporations do, in order to justify the cost our days were crammed with meetings and presentations.

Most of them were tedious. Except for one. I arrived for it 15 minutes late and hungover and it was the only corporate presentation I’ve ever wished I arrived early so I could have witnessed the whole thing.

The speaker, Tim Sanders, was a new employee from the recently acquired Hardly any of us knew him. But he stood out immediately because he dressed like a rock musician – long sideburns, modish haircut, clothes that looked vaguely corporate but with a rock star twist, like when The Beatles wore suits on stage.

He also stood out because the things he was presenting were, for the first time at the conference, genuinely insightful and interesting. He didn’t just recite from a piece of paper and drone on about revenue charts.

Further, his stage manner was effusive – he bounced around the stage, directing our attention this way and that. He pointed, he raised his voice, he slowed down, he paused. His story had twists and turns. We didn’t know where it would go next and hung on every word. I don’t know how many people were in the room, I’d guess 500-1,000, but he captivated all of us. Some in the audience were literally billionaires.

This speech happened early in the conference and he was the talk of it for the rest of our stay. You’d hear “Who is Tim Sanders?”, “What does he do here?” at lunch, dinner, and over drinks. I remember seeing him at the bar and everyone was trying to get in his face, all of the girls were cozying up to him.

A star was born. In a few months management created an entire department for him. The speech catapulted him from being an unknown newbie to managing a team that was well known to the execs. Apparently he honed his performance chops from playing in various types of bands so my tagging him with the “musician” label wasn’t far off. When he left Yahoo, he became a writer and professional public speaker. It is a good role for him.

I think about this story sometimes when I attend meetings. So many have been such clear time wasters. They consist of PowerPoint presentations thrown together minutes before the speech with bullet points that are dutifully recited by presenter. What is the point of that? We can already read the speech on the screen. There’s no reason to attend.


The only thing I remember from 15 hours of meetings in Moscow

I once sat through fifteen hours of meetings at a department conference in Moscow. The only thing I remember was, “Dina used a really cool slide.” That’s a photo of it at right. It shows the difference between the coronation of Pope Benedict in 2005 and Pope Francis in 2013.

Fifteen hours, eight time zones away, and this is all I remember. Oh, one other thing I remember, the head of the department was so bored he was flipping through Facebook on his phone while people talked. Whether that was his bad or the presenters, I don’t know but it was not a good sign for anyone.

But Sanders’ speech was a good example for me of how presentations can be re-conceptualized as enormous opportunities instead of being chores. Underlying his captivating presentation that looked so effortless was hours of practice and refinement. Everything was configured to make an impression, to give the audience a show. This wasn’t something he threw together to fill an hour. It was an opportunity for him to convince, persuade, inform, and entertain and he nailed it.

I’ve read if you want to blow people away with a speech, practice for an hour for every minute you will be speaking. That might seem like overkill but I guarantee you will destroy in that one minute.

The next presentation you give, devote some serious time to making it a good one. You will be giving respect and honoring those in attendance and they will gladly repay you in kind. They may even create a whole department for you.

DeJargonator is Back

Sometimes I read things online and wonder “Why do people write like this?” Here’s an example:

RAMP (formerly EveryZing) is an advanced Content Optimization SaaS platform providing publishers’ workflow, discovery and engagement solutions to drive monetization of online content to users’ search and browsing behavior. RAMP offers publishers an open, flexible and modular capability to optimize large amounts of content, including text, audio, video and images, within dynamic publishing environments. As a result, publishers’ content becomes positioned for discovery and precise targeting, both on search engines and within publishers’ own websites. Users rely on such precision to discover and engage with content, thereby increasing the commercial viability of content for publishers while curtailing publishing costs.

There is a saying among lawyers, “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” It’s clear the text above has gone with the latter option.

Just for fun let’s count the buzzwords – “SaaS, Content Optimization, modular capabilities…” Actually, forget it, the whole thing is buzzwords. It’s so heavy and ponderous I can barely make it through the first sentence.

I think it starts in high school where we learn to puff up our writing with garbage like this. In high school this style of writing, because it is incomprehensible, baffles people into submission and gets an A from the teacher because most likely they don’t know what the person is talking about either. It is safer to give the person an A than to ask “What the fuck does ‘advanced Content Optimization SaaS platform providing publishers’ workflow’ mean?”

But imagine a world where instead of using this tortured prose we wrote like we talked. I don’t work for [Company Name] but I’ll take a stab at rewriting the paragraph above into English:

“RAMP (formerly EveryZing) is a software package for web publishers. It allows them to easily manage their content including text, audio, video and images. It also helps with getting their web pages found in search engines.”


Remember the saying “Brevity is the soul of wit.” The shorter the sentence you can use to describe your company, the smarter you are going to look.