If level two comes naturally to most designers who have grown up in a digital world, level three most definitely does not. States are about understanding all the different possible outcomes of a given task within a product and being able to design for all of them. Things like errors are obvious, albeit often forgotten, while actions like escapes and backs are much less frequently planned for.
To draw a parallel, a great engineer thinks in states. Before they write a line of code they have come to understand all the different outcomes and use that understanding to design a fault-resistant system. One of my favorite lines from one of our engineers recently was, “when I start typing the work’s done.”
I really liked one of the comments in this NYTimes interview with Roman Stanek, the CEO of GoodData. In response to “Anything you have a particularly low tolerance for in your organization?” Stanek answered, “I have a really low tolerance for people making comments, especially managers, without actually positioning them.” When asked to explain he said:
Somebody might say, for example, that our competition has a new product. But is it good news or bad news? Should we do something about it? I always expect my managers to have an opinion and they should not be just messengers. A manager is not a messenger. I don’t like my managers essentially talking to their people without being able to express their opinion and position what they’re discussing.
This is perfectly articulated and drives me crazy as well. It’s so easy to send emails that people have a tendency to just shoot things off with comment or context. I don’t want to know the news, I want to know what you think about the news and why you decided to send it to me.
I really like situations that help describe the fact that lots of factors ultimately go into the way you feel about a brand/design/marketing. I wrote a bit about how Jony Ive feels about it last week and I thought this was another interesting example from a very different place. In the early 90s a designer named Alexander Juilian was given the opportunity to redesign the UNC Tarheels basketball uniform. He was a huge Tarheels fan and thus felt a ton of pressure to deliver something amazing. Not wanting to leave things to chance, he looped Michael Jordan into the decision (Jordan, at the time, was just starting his ascent to the greatest player in the history of the NBA but he was already UNC royalty). Ultimately Julian sent all the designs to Jordan to let him sign off on his favorite:
“And guess what? As soon as Michael [Jordan] said that [the argyle design was his favorite], then the entire team also liked the argyle best. So we made the first uniform in Michael’s size, sent it to Chicago, he worked out in it, then we sent it down to Chapel Hill. There was near frenzy, I’m told, in the locker room as to who was going to be the first Carolina player to put it on after Michael because they wanted Michael’s mojo. Hubert Davis (photo, above right) won, he was the same size and he was the model. Now he’s a great sportscaster.
Ran across an interesting quote (reportedly) by Jony Ive about the difference between measurable (speed, hard drive size, etc.) attributes and the non-measurable ones:
But there are a lot of product attributes that don’t have those sorts of measures. Product attributes that are more emotive and less tangible. But they’re really important. There’s a lot of stuff that’s really important that you can’t distill down to a number. And I think one of the things with design is that when you look at an object you make many many decisions about it, not consciously, and I think one of the jobs of a designer is that you’re very sensitive to trying to understand what goes on between seeing something and filling out your perception of it. You know we all can look at the same object, but we will all perceive it in a very unique way. It means something different to each of us. Part of the job of a designer is to try to understand what happens between physically seeing something and interpreting it.
I think about this a lot. One of the things that inspired Brand Tags originally was a similar quote from my friend Martin Bihl’s 2002 AdWeek article: ”The way I look at it, a brand only exists in the consumer’s mind. That other product isn’t a brand yet because consumers don’t really know about it. It’s still a product.”
I’m playing around with publishing in a few different places these days. Trying out Medium for the first time where I wrote a piece on designing and building for states:
Although I may be bastardizing the term from an engineering point of view, when I talk about states I mean all the possible outcomes of a new feature: What happens when you press this button, or that button, or those buttons together, or we get this data back but not that data. Bugs, for the most part, are a matter of overlooked states. From a design perspective, states are about thinking through all the different ways the elements on the page might live and interact. This includes obvious ones like empty states and error messages as well as not-so-obvious ones like random button combinations or accidental page refreshes.
I wrote a piece over at Forbes.com about some stuff I’ve been thinking about lately, specifically how to start to understand the shifts we’re seeing in social. Here’s the opening two paragraphs:
A few months ago I was asked to put together a presentation about the future of social. As would be expected, I was pretty overwhelmed with the topic and turned it over and over in my head trying to figure out the best way to approach the question. Whenever I find myself in a situation like this I turn to my personal intellectual hero and the person I believe to be the greatest media thinker of the 20th Century, Marshall McLuhan. While he wrote long before the web existed, his theories around how media evolves and interacts with culture are more relevant than they’ve ever been.
At the heart of McLuhan’s theories is his most famous saying: “The medium is the message.” Though like most things McLuhan it requires a fair amount of unpacking, at its core is the idea that we’re affected more by our interactions with the medium itself than we are with the content we experience on it. “The ‘message’ of any medium or technology,” McLuhan explained, “is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” In his book “Understanding Media” he goes on to give an example: “The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure.” In other words, it realigned personal expectations and culture and expanded the definition of local.
Last week I sent myself an email with this quote from Felix Salmon’s blog post about the media’s response to the Boston mayhem:
There’s an art to working out where to find fast and reliable information, and to judging new information in light of old information, and to judging old information in light of new information. And there’s an art to synthesizing everything you know, from hundreds of different sources, into a single coherent narrative. It’s not easy, it’s not a skill that most people have, and it’s precisely where news organizations add value.
I have been thinking (and talking) a fair amount about media literacy lately and this quote seemed to sum up the challenge really nicely. Media literacy is a very hard thing to nail down because, unlike regular literacy, it’s pretty hard to test for. Ultimately I think it’s about making sure people understand the role of media (whatever that might mean) in the way they experience and interact with the world around them. That can mean simply being aware that the order of the Google results you’re seeing are most likely not the same as mine (even for the same query) to, as Felix says, “working out where to find fast and reliable information.” Media literacy, like regular literacy I guess, is a scale (one with an ever-moving endgame, but I guess the same could be said of language).
Anyway, when I read this quote from Felix I thought of a few different games I like to play with myself that, although I never really thought of them that way, were sort of mini media-literacy tests:
The Snopes Test: When you read something, especially an email from a distant family member, you can immediately sniff out whether you’re going to be able to find an entry for it on Snopes. Knowing whether it’s been proven true or false is good for bonus points.
The GoDaddy Test: This is a funny one, and definitely less useful than the Snopes test, but it’s interesting to predict whether a random domain name someone comes up with is already taken or not.
The Wikipedia Test: This one is actually important I think. If I gave you a random topic, say Snoop Dogg, could you predict whether or not Wikipedia would be the top result? (Bonus points if you predict the actual top result.)
Anyway, all these things help illustrate the challenge with media literacy, which is ultimately it’s an “I know it when I see it” skill. With that said, it’s one that will continue to have a larger and larger impact on culture as more people’s voices (and information) become a part of the news we all sift through on a daily basis.
I Tweeted this, but I thought it was worth sharing (and I’m trying to blog more). From the New England Journal of Medicine (which I grabbed the RSS for years ago and am always excited to run across), a bit of a post-mortem on the medical response to the Boston Marathon bombings. The whole thing is interesting (and very different than most of the stories on the bombing you’ll read), but the most interesting tidbit to me was this:
Although most health care providers in the United States have never treated a bombing victim, lessons learned by military surgeons, emergency physicians, and nurses in Iraq and Afghanistan are progressively percolating through the trauma care community.
I find stories of how new products and technology get adopted quite fascinating. While propaganda is much more associated with politics than brands, there’s a long history of companies using some of the same tactics to sway public opinion in favor of their product. The two examples that come to mind for me are stories like the diamond myth and Listerine’s introduction of halitosis.
Anyway, a podcast I’ve been listening to recently, 99% Invisible, recently covered one of these public relations campaigns that ultimately lead to the acceptance of cars (and invention of “jaywalking”). At the time, in the early 20s, cars were killing lots of people who weren’t used to sharing the streets with them. The car industry had to do something so they pushed a campaign that has now become familiar to us by way of the NRA: Cars don’t kill people, bad drivers kill people. But more interesting, to me at least, was where jaywalking came from:
In the early 20th Century, “jay” was a derogatory term for someone from the countryside. Therefore, a “jaywalker” is someone who walks around the city like a jay, gawking at all the big buildings, and who is oblivious to traffic around him. The term was originally used to disparage those who got in the way of other pedestrians, but Motordom rebranded it as a legal term to mean someone who crossed the street at the wrong place or time.
[Editor's Note: This turned a bit rambly and I'm definitely out of my zone talking about the law, so feel free to skip if you're not up for a non-lawyers opinion on the law after reading two articles about it.]
Sorry, but I’ve got some time this morning and, like many of you I’m sure, I’m spending it reading as much as I can about yesterday’s situation in Boston. If you were watching TV while the second suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was found or listening later during the press conference, the question of whether he would be/was read his Miranda rights came up. In the moments after the capture there was some confusion, which was eventually cleared up during the press conference when the US Attorney Carmen Ortiz confirmed that he had not been read his Miranda rights under the “public safety” exception. I, like most I’d imagine, had never heard of the public safety exception before yesterday (or spent much time thinking about Miranda rights, to be honest).
Slate had an excellent explanation of what happened and why it’s a dangerous precedent:
And so the FBI will surely ask 19-year-old Tsarnaev anything it sees fit. Not just what law enforcement needs to know to prevent a terrorist threat and keep the public safe but anything else it deemed related to “valuable and timely intelligence.” Couldn’t that be just about anything about Tsarnaev’s life, or his family, given that his alleged accomplice was his older brother (killed in a shootout with police)? There won’t be a public uproar. Whatever the FBI learns will be secret: We won’t know how far the interrogation went. And besides, no one is crying over the rights of the young man who is accused of killing innocent people, helping his brother set off bombs that were loaded to maim, and terrorizing Boston Thursday night and Friday. But the next time you read about an abusive interrogation, or a wrongful conviction that resulted from a false confession, think about why we have Miranda in the first place. It’s to stop law enforcement authorities from committing abuses. Because when they can make their own rules, sometime, somewhere, they inevitably will.
This is one of those things where I don’t know quite how to feel. The FBI has a pretty extensive article on the subject that shed some additional light (I know the FBI is probably not the most balanced outlet for this sort of stuff, but the article is a pretty good and comprehensible look at the history of the law and, also, the FBI is very incentivized to get this stuff right since if they don’t any questions could be thrown out). The public safety exception was apparently introduced in a case where the police were chasing a rapist who, the victim informed them, had a gun. When they cornered him in a grocery he had an empty holster and the police asked where the gun was. The man, Benjamin Quarles, told the police where he hid the gun and they retrieved it. The court excluded the gun because the police had not read Quarles his rights. The ruling was appealed and eventually reached the supreme court, who decided that in situations where public safety was endangered suspects could be questioned without being read their Miranda rights. (I’m not entirely sure why I’m summarizing all this and I’d suggest reading the whole article.)
Anyway, the more interesting case, also mentioned in the FBI piece, seems like a case where the police raided an apartment in Brooklyn where two suspected bombers lived. “During the raid, both men were shot and wounded as one of them grabbed the gun of a police officer and the other crawled toward a black bag believed to contain a bomb. When the officers looked inside the black bag, they saw pipe bombs and observed that a switch on one bomb was flipped.” From there, the police used the public safety exception to question one of the bombers who had not yet been read his rights:
Officers went to the hospital to question Abu Mezer about the bombs. They asked Abu Mezer “how many bombs there were, how many switches were on each bomb, which wires should be cut to disarm the bombs, and whether there were any timers.” Abu Mezer answered each question and also was asked whether he planned to kill himself in the explosion. He responded by saying, “Poof.”
This case seems, at least to me, to be much closer to the root of the question. I don’t really understand how a gun hidden in a supermarket presents a public safety concern since presumably the police could search the market for the gun after arresting the suspect. However, this latter situation, where there was a big bag of bombs, some of them ready to explode, seems like a pretty reasonable time to question someone prior to their rights being read.
What’s interesting about this, though, is the question isn’t really whether you can question someone before their rights are read, since it’s obviously possible (and likely a frequent occurrence). But rather, in what situations can those questions be used in court against the suspect. Here, again, I agree with Slate: If the questions they asked Tsarnaev were about whether he had planted more bombs around Boston, then that’s fair game, but as soon as they move outside that things start to feel a lot less right.
Interesting, the FBI article goes on to explain that Abu Mezer, from the bag of bombs, felt the same way and eventually tried to get his last statement, about whether he intended to kill himself, thrown out:
Abu Mezer sought to suppress each of his statements, but the trial court permitted them, ruling that they fell within the public safety exception. On appeal, Abu Mezer only challenged the admissibility of the last question, whether he intended to kill himself when detonating the bombs. He claimed the question was unrelated to public safety. The circuit court disagreed and noted “Abu Mezer’s vision as to whether or not he would survive his attempt to detonate the bomb had the potential for shedding light on the bomb’s stability.”
Here, without reading the full decision or being a lawyer or knowing anything else about the case, I think I disagree with the court. Seems pretty thin to suggest that the police were given valuable information about the “stability” of the bomb by asking whether he intended to kill himself.
Yesterday morning I laid in bed and watched Twitter fly by. It was somewhere around 7am and lots of crazy things had happened overnight in Boston between the police and the marathon bombers. I don’t remember exactly where things were in the series of events when I woke up, but while I was watching the still-on-the-loose suspect’s name was released for the first time. As reports started to come in and then, later, get confirmed, people on Twitter did the same thing as me: They started Googling.
As I watched the tiny facts we all uncovered start to turn up in the stream (he was a wrestler, he won a scholarship from the city of Cambridge, he had a link to a YouTube video) I was brought back to an idea I first came across in Bill Wasik’s excellent And Then There’s This. In the book he posits that as a culture we’ve become more obsessed with how a things spreads than the thing itself. He uses the success of Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point to help make the point:
Underlying the success of The Tipping Point and its literary progeny [Freakonomics] is, I would argue, the advent of a new and enthusiastically social-scientific way of engaging with culture. Call it the age of the the model: our meta-analyses of culture (tipping points, long tails, crossing chasms, ideaviruses) have come to seem more relevant and vital than the content of culture itself.
Everyone wanted to be involved in “the hunt,” whether it was on Twitter and Google for information about the suspected bomber, on the TV where reporters were literally chasing these guys around, or the police who were battling these two young men on a suburban street. Watching the new tweets pop up I got a sense that the content didn’t matter as much as the feeling of being involved, the thrill of the hunt if you will. As Wasik notes, we’ve entered an age where how things spread through culture is more interesting than the content itself.
To be clear, I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing (I do my best to stay away from that sort of stuff), but it’s definitely a real thing and an integral part of how we all experience culture today. When I opened the newspaper this morning it was as much to see how much I knew and how closely I’d followed as it was to learn something new about the chase. After reading the cover story that recounted the previous day’s events I turned to Brian Stetler’s appropriately titled News Media and Social Media Become Part of a Real-Time Manhunt Drama.
Bruce Schneier on how one might hack the papal election. Here’s one of the extra security measures he’d add:
I would also add some kind of white-glove treatment to prevent a scrutineer from hiding a pencil lead or pen tip under his fingernails. Although the requirement to write out the candidate’s name in full provides some resistance against this sort of attack
I’ve written in the past about how a big part of what separated McLuhan from the rest of the pack was his ability to separate his morals from his observations. Well, I particularly liked this explanation of McLuhan’s approach from the introduction to the newest edition of The Gutenberg Galaxy: “We have to remember that Marshall McLuhan portrayed himself as an explorer and not as an explainer of media environments.”
Although I must admit I’ve never actually made it all the way through a David McCullough book, I really enjoyed this interview with him and particularly this explanation of his writing process (with a typewriter):
I love putting paper in. I love the way the keys come up and actually print the letters. I love it when I swing that carriage and the bell rings like an old trolley car. I love the feeling of making something with my hands. People say, But with a computer you could go so much faster. Well, I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I should go slower. I don’t think all that fast. They say, But you could change things so readily. I can change things very readily as it is. I take a pen and draw a circle around what I want to move up or down or wherever and then I retype it. Then they say, But you wouldn’t have to retype it. But when I’m retyping I’m also rewriting. And I’m listening, hearing what I’ve written. Writing should be done for the ear. Rosalee reads aloud wonderfully and it’s a tremendous help to me to hear her speak what I’ve written. Or sometimes I read it to her. It’s so important. You hear things that are wrong, that call for editing.
Makes me want to buy a typewriter.
In this essay about McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy is a pretty good summation of his approach to media theorizing:
While book-lovers sometimes deride the blog/tweet/Facebook post/text message/YouTube video/surfing/gaming/Skyping world we’ve created, I don’t think proclaiming it right or wrong, or better or worse, is useful. I prefer McLuhan’s approach which is simply to ask: how far has new media seeped into popular consciousness?
I’ve been thinking about big data lately. Mostly I’ve been trying to articulate why it’s a big deal, which I know, but isn’t often put succinctly. Recently I had a thought that the reason it’s such a big deal is because it means we can move away from using samples to infer to using actuals to understand. That seems really obvious, but it wasn’t a connection I had made before (though I sort of think it was obvious to everyone else).
Anyway, on the big data tip, I found this Wired piece on “long data” pretty interesting (even though I thought I was going to hate it based on the title). The gist:
By “long” data, I mean datasets that have massive historical sweep — taking you from the dawn of civilization to the present day. The kinds of datasets you see in Michael Kremer’s “Population growth and technological change: one million BC to 1990,” which provides an economic model tied to the world’s population data for a million years; or in Tertius Chandler’s Four Thousand Years of Urban Growth, which contains an exhaustive dataset of city populations over millennia. These datasets can humble us and inspire wonder, but they also hold tremendous potential for learning about ourselves.
There’s something magical about the first few moments of a new medium, as people experiment and try to figure out what it’s all about. It’s a period of uncertainty as a small group of people fumble with new technology and it’s fun to watch. Go back and read early Tweets or look at early Instagram photos and you get the equivalent of tapping the mic to see if it’s on.
I say this because I stumbled onto Vinepeek this morning, which shows a continuous stream of new Vines from Twitter. (For the uninitiated Vine is a new product Twitter announced that lets people make 6-second looping videos.) Watching Vinepeek, I got to thinking that there was something really fascinating with combining a new technology people are getting acquainted to with an API that people can make experimental outputs of. It’s like letting people play with the input and the output at the same time, and in the case of Vinepeek you get a very odd thing that feels like a little TV network that peeks into people’s lives.
I’m sure it won’t be interesting in a few days, but there’s a real magic to combining experimentation on creation and distribution at the exact same time.
We’re doing a little conferencey thing on Monday in NYC for community managers and I just wanted to take the change to invite some of you. We don’t have a ton of spots left, but if you’re interested drop me an email (noah at percolate).
To celebrate #CMGRs, Percolate is hosting a small invite-only event expanding on our SPEAKEASY Happy Hours called SPEAKEASY #CMAD. It’ll be a day full of learnings from brands, agencies and platforms including incredible speakers from LinkedIn, Denny’s, Getty Images, GE, MasterCard, Tumblr, IPG Media Labs and American Express.
I know I’ve mentioned this in the past, but I really love to read or listen to people who know lots about something (like music) describe why someone within that discipline (like a band) is good. Reading this little retrospective on Nirvana and Smells Like Teen Spirit feels a little like that. An excerpt:
Nirvana had the right song at the right time. Guys like these guitar store guys had seemingly never heard anything quite like it. They had been listening to classic rock, likely some Pat Metheney, Leo Kotke, and prog rock, no doubt. They probably listened at one point or another to some Clash and Ramones. But this song represented something significantly different for them. It astonished them like a shiny object. They hit repeat again.
Over at The Awl, Choire Sicha has an interesting little piece on how headlines have changed in the last few years. The gist:
Here’s a flashback. In 2007, a popular video of a baby getting dropkicked by a breakdancer (hard to believe I just typed that) was headlined “Times Square Still Extremely Unsafe for Children” on Gawker, which is pretty so-so as a headline but still funny. There’s no way that would get that headline now. (“Breakdancing in Times Square – Baby goes flying!” was the YouTube video headline.) “Watch This Baby Get Drop-Kicked By a Subway Breakdancer” is what I’d predict for our age. You have to really tell the folks on Twitter what’s happening for your clicks ‘n’ shares, you see.