05
Aug 14

Curiosity is your best weapon

Funny, I haven’t touched this blog in nine months, and I’ve returned to write about (almost) the same thing I wrote about last time; curiosity.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reviewing 8+ years of journals I’ve kept at IDEO, trying to figure out some of the things I’ve learned over the years. (BTW, first learning is that I need to write more.) There’s a lot in those journals for me. It’s most of my thirties. It’s having two kids. It’s traveling 6 continents. It’s stepping into some really hard problems with really smart people. I’m hoping to blog about it more in the coming weeks to make sense of it all.

I’m pretty amazed at how much the topic of curiosity keeps showing up. It’s a transformative attitude. The minute you’re heading down a dark path, it seems if you can flip the curiosity switch you kind of move from losing to learning. This quote stood out…

“May your frustration make your curious”

One of my mentors had found me at a moment where I was working with a team and things had not gone as planned. I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I was pissed because the team wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Someone wasn’t doing their job. Someone wasn’t being collaborative. It was one of those moments where everyone else was the problem and if I could just figure out how to fix it, we could make progress. It was in this moment I had lost my way.

If only I could have taken off my frustrated glasses and put on a set of curious glasses, I could have found empathy for the people I was working with. I could try to see their world as they see it. When you’re wearing curious glasses you’re just trying to learn, you can reason and judge later, and creating that space for perspective is really powerful. In these moments you see new perspectives and realize often it’s you, not them that have misunderstood the problem or the situation.

Curiosity is important because our mental models often fail us. What we perceive of the world is often different that the actual. We miss nuance and details, we factor things incorrectly. Curiosity is also important because it’s playful; you’re looking forward and backward, playing with new ideas. True curoisty will toy with unimaginable things. 

Every since moments (which was a really shitty day), I’ve tried really hard to catch myself being frustrated, angry, bewildered, or sad and turn it into a moment of curiosity. It’s not running away from that emotion, it’s trying to use that moment as a stimulus to see a path forward I haven’t seen before. 


05
Nov 13

May the Obvious Make You Curious

Today, Eric Paley posted a great piece on Inc. tackling the idea of “obvious feedback”. In the piece he rightly points out the irony that the best advice is often the most obvious. It struck me as a simple maxim that carries many complexities. It had me thinking about the many nuances of feedback…

When we ask for feedback, we’re often looking for novelty
As Eric points out, we rush past the obvious, often looking to discover something we haven’t heard before (silver bullet theory). If the feedback is familiar, it’s easy to be dismissive. In this hunt for novelty, we’re blinded to things we should make the priority. It seems important to have the self-awareness to recognize that if you’re hearing the same feedback over and over, you still have the same issues.

We often treat feedback as a to-do list
It’s easy to look for action in people’s feedback. After all, hearing how things might be better can feel like a directive to go make them better. OK, maybe. But could you look for patterns in the feedback that reveal a bigger principle? Instead of just inspiring action, could that feedback help you think differently about the problem you’re solving? (Feedback often pushes us to focus on outcomes, rather than the problem we’re solving.)

Feedback should make you curious
To the core point of the article, when you’re swimming in obvious feedback, how do you do anything with it? If it’s obvious, you been there before. You’ve probably tried to solve it already. I would offer that the more obvious the feedback is, the more curious you must become. Be curious around what prompted the feedback; be curious around why it feels so obvious.

Dismissing the familiar is a funny thing; it’s either the best idea, or the absolute worst.

(Full disclosure, Eric’s a personal friend…and an excellent guy.)


21
Jul 13

The Art of Savoring

I spent this weekend working with the Director’s Fellows at the MIT Media Lab. It’s an amazingly diverse group of people united by a passion for making things that make the world better. Each Fellow is working with the Lab on a different project that hopes to create impact in the world. Among the projects, there’s learning through fashion, new approaches to maker spaces, smashing together humor and technology, and a project that will help people atone for violent crimes. It’s an understatement to say that it’s an extremely inspiring group.

As we were working on the ideas and directions for the Fellow’s projects this weekend, one of the Fellows, Geetha Narayan, made a comment that stopped me cold.  Referring to the way we bounce madly around in our lives, she noted…

We are driven by a culture of immediacy.
How can we create experiences we can savor?

Consider for a moment how much our need for progress and satisfaction informs the way we live our lives and what we choose to create. We live in a world that despises waiting. But this also has us often with our body in the present and our mind somewhere else. Geetha’s comment strikes me as a massively important observation, both as a life principle and a design principle.

As a life principle, it’s advice for the world we’ve created for each other. (And I’m terrible about this.) We’re all creatures of endless options and immediate satisfaction. If we aren’t particularly interested with a certain pursuit, we’re immediately on to the next thing. But in this frenetic pursuit of happiness, I wonder if we’re leaving enough space to learn about ourselves? I love the challenge of savoring an experience. It’s not consuming more and more. It’s not about riding the roller coaster over and over. It’s about experiencing something, then reflecting and considering how it affected you. Like sipping good wine and pausing to consider how the chemistry of the drink has altered the feeling in your mouth.

As a design principle, it seems equally powerful. In this case, the idea of savoring becomes and invitation, not an obligation. Instead of always designing for progress and forward flow, you build moments for people to pause. (I’ve heard service designers refer to these moments as eddies, referring to the swirls that happen on the side of a riverbank.) Premium services know how to incorporate the idea of savoring. High-end markets will sample ingredients and share its story. Great hotels have a knock for suspending the idea of time upon arrival; bags disappear and attendants have you relax while they arrange your room. These moments encourage you to break your pace, breathe and consider where you are.

Today, it feels like a small victory to hold people’s attention long enough to create a meaningful moment. Geetha’s comment had me wondering how to savor more, and it’s an inspiration to create services that inspire the same. I don’t mean to rally against progress; building an interconnected world that moves faster each day is just a reality. But we’re responsible for the future we create. I’m  wondering if we don’t design a little more savoring into our lives, if we’ll flow effortlessly through more and more frictionless experiences, we’ll end up slipping memoryless through our lives. 


29
Jun 13

Rebirth of the Newsletter

After a week of vacation (which was excellent), I needed to go through the normal re-entry of catching up on all the emails I had missed in my absence. In the middle of the missives, it dawned on me how many newsletters I read. (I think I counted twenty from the last week?!?) They aren’t sales or promotions; those get spam-hammered immediately. These newsletters were from friends (or services) that I actually look forward to, and the fact they arrive as emails was actually really helpful, (better than just another piece of content floating on the internet.) Now, I can read the letter when I have time, and I’ll only have to go to the web if I find something interesting (and since it’s from a friend, chances are it will be.)

The greater internet (for me) is sort of a nightmare at the moment. It’s hard to find much that’s worthwhile. That which is interesting is usually crowded out by behemoth paid-by-the word, advertising-driven sites. I used to use the internet to find refuge from reality television, until the internet also became reality television.  I just can’t do deep internet trawls anymore, but I very rely (and need) the web to serve up new inspirations and constantly help me reframe my world. (It’s actually why i’m so addicted to the information super highway.)

A good read is tough to find, (that which is valuable is rarely plentiful.) There’s a certain amount of hunt-and-gather that has always been the nature of the web. And as dorky as they are, RSS readers are excellent here (RIP Google Reader). Unfortunately, for me the stories I’d rather read are buried beneath sites counting down the top 10/20/50 best whatevers, with every entry serving up a new round of ads. (The latest in ad-driven internet crack.)

Good content usually doesn’t live off ads, and it’s usually hidden deep in the niche, (the more different from your normal routine, the harder it is to find.) That content has a point of view and stirs something inside you. It inspires, or provokes, or has you seeing things you would have never seen. You can usually spot “good content” because it has a shelf-life. It’s worth reading/discussing several days/weeks after it’s published.

WIth that obvious rant out-of-the-way, here’s few newsletters I’m loving lately in-case you’re so inclined….

  • Just Another Crowd by Sean Bonner – technology, anti-establishment, and antagonism from my favorite misanthrope.
  • The Ann Freeman Weekly – #realtalk about journalism, feminism, and spirit animals.
  • Tuesday Ten by Rosie Simon – The best of current culture, social media stunts, etc.
  • Percolate Daily Brew – Five of the top articles suggested daily based on my Twitter feed (and their algorithm for weighting/rating content is *excellent*.) Not sure they support consumer web accounts anymore (pivot), but it looks like I can invite people; email me if interested.
  • Quibb Daily – Quibb filters content to you based on your Twitter feed, (I wrote about them here previously.) It’s a great service, I just wish their audience had a little wider aperture (It’s mostly tech start-ups, VC blogs, 23-year-old know-it-all’s, etc….which I’m worn-thin on at the moment.) Still, I scan the newsletter daily and always find something I’m glad I saw.

I’m definitely on the hunt for inspired newsletters…if you have any favorites; email me, please. (I ended up closing the comments on this blog…the constant spam attacks were too much. (Death of the blog comment is another trend for another time.))


20
Apr 13

Crowdsourcing the Manhunt

In 2003, Howard Reingold wrote a book called Smart Mobs. At the beginning of that book he wrote about an anti-war protest held in San Francisco in 2002. He noted that it was one of the first decentralized protests in human history. Instead of everyone meeting in one place to demonstrate, protesters passed on some simple instructions to anyone who was interested. The instructions were simple; shut down business, traffic, and cause peaceful mayhem to protest the war.

I was living in San Francisco at the time and to get to work I had to walk through South of Market, where most of the protests were scheduled. That day was total chaos. People chained themselves together on the freeway on-ramp, blocking all inbound traffic on the bay bridge. Another group staged a big press scene by vomiting on the Federal Building. Reingold pointed out that this was one of the moments that illustrated that we had reached a tipping point as a connected society, and it had changed our social actions in a major way. People had shared their goal for the protest over SMS and email, and the end result of the demonstration was far superior than anyone could have programmed individually. And so it has gone with most things crowd-sourced since that time, (so much so that this story doesn’t seem all that novel ten years later.)

Which brings me to the man hunt for the alleged Boston Marathon bomber that (thankfully) concluded tonight. If the San Francisco protest in 2002 was a watershed moment for how we organized and collaborated, I think this week has tons of signifigance both in how we collectively solve problems, and the impact of living with devices that are constantly capturing data (phones, tweets, geo-tags, sensors, etc, etc.) 

This week, we saw

  • Reddit and 4Chan turn into full-on detective agencies using open platforms and their own style of communication to identify possible suspects.
  • News reports that had a photos of the boat the boy was hiding in before they could gain access to the perimeter.
  • Analysis on the suspect’s Twitter account to figure out his daily patterns
  • Collaboratively created maps of anything and everything related to the series of events. 
  • A collective fundraising to help one of the amputees pay for health insurance. 
  • Police using data from the marathon to identify runners who would have been finishing at the time of the explosion in order to possibly connect with their families in the search for the suspects. 
  • Reddit order pizza for all the participating police departments.

Indeed, when we had very little to go on, we had the data created as a byproduct of the event and of the suspects lives….and that turned out to be quite a lot to work with.

The Boston Marathon bombing and ensuing manhunt will probably go down as one of the biggest news events of this decade. But I actually think the way the internet voluntarily assembled to solve problems together with all the residual data from the event is a much bigger moment. 


10
Apr 13

Data is Everything

I never thought of photos as “data”. Obviously they are, but they’re so visceral they usually hit a different part of my brain. I usually think of data as a thing that resolves to text and numbers. I think it’s from my days as a programmer; I mostly dealt with text, I’ve never coded against image or video codecs. But recently I’ve had a few experiences that remind me how powerful it is to realize data is in everything. We’re so flooded with data we’re interpreting and with the data we’re creating, the fish doesn’t know the water it swims in.

I’ve had two experiences over the past few years that have floored me into remembering new ways to see data. (Actually, easily more than two, but these are iconic for me.) In the spirit of writing to inspire others, I thought I’d share the experiences that have inspire me to see data in new places.

First Moment: Nick Felton’s 2011 talk at Eyeo Festival. In the talk, he goes over how he created his 2010 annual report to document his father’s life. Felton is someone who seems to see data in every interaction, so it’s inspiring to understand how he processes the world. About 33 minutes into the video, he talks about working with some of his father’s old photographs to determine the places he’s traveled. He has a few great moments of using data within the photographs to reconcile images to places, (a few of those come from the help of strangers, which inspire even further.)

Second Moment: Today, my colleague Todd send a link about a project that uses the Street View data from Google Maps to reconstruct visual travel sequences (more examples here.) Every photo from Google Maps becomes a moment in a video, stitching together an experience of traveling in a place you’ve possibly never visited. It reminded me of Jenny Odell’s Travel By Approximation, a project where she ‘travelled’ around the country via Google Maps – such a clever idea, it’s always stuck with me. It also reminded me of Wilderness Downtown, Arcade Fire’s multimedia experience from a year or so ago that uses google maps and your home address. 

Both of these experiences used data created for one purpose to create meaning in a new way. (As an aside, it’s interesting that the reinterpretations are more powerful than their first incarnation.) These moments also underscore the power of neutral data to create new views into the world (photos are usually neutral, they just represent the world…interpreted/text-based data isn’t always so neutral.) 

For me, both of these examples are great reminders that everything we do, everything we make creates data. Still, there’s something futuristic about machines defining insight from visual data (though it’s an old trick.) It’s a very old idea, but it still feels like we’re at the tip of an iceberg.

Edit: If you enjoyed this, you’ll probably love this article from @Faris’s too.


08
Apr 13

The Future: Near & Far

I was catching up with David Cranor today. He’s one of the smarty-pants people who helped bring the Form 1, and we had a great chat. David’s been hanging out in Shenzhen, marveling at the ecosystem that’s emerging there from all the high-tech manufacturers existing in such close proximity. We were sort of just chatting about China, Google Glass and whatever when he made this offhand comment that really struck me. He said

It’s really easy to predict the far-future, but it’s really hard to predict the near-future.

He’s dead on, and that thought caused a lot of things to line up for me. Technology has always accelerated our environment. But the changes in the past ~10 yrs have actually created a space between what is emerging (near-future) and what is true change (far-future). This is a powerful distinction for me because it (rightly) implies we have a few problems when we bring new ideas into the world. We have near-future problems, which mostly hinge on behavior and adoption. And we have far-future problems, which are more about scale, economics and competition. And as the saying implies; if you cant create a near-future, you have no shot at a far-future. 

The Near-Future
As David rightly stated, it’s really hard to figure out which ideas people will adopt in the short-term. We each live such a full existence, we’re regularly trading experiences. And we have endless ideas vying for our attention. At this point, you’re off better asking what someone would trade for your experience rather than understanding if you have a “good idea”…it’s all relative. I feel like this competition for  attention (and affection) is one of the reasons design has become such a powerful tool in such a short period of time. To survive the near-future, things have to be engaging, they have to be easy. These are the new table stakes. 

The Far-Future
The far-future is a different set of problems. It’s about scaling an idea and learning at a much bigger scale. If you’ve exist in the space, you can use your scale to bend the will of the world (for a short time, anyway…think airlines and mobile phone companies.) Sometimes we miss the near-future for the far-future because certain ideas just seem inevitable (like robots, as @Faris pointed out on Twitter.) For things to bridge to the far-future, you have to build some sort of on-ramp through the near-future. Amazon is a great example of this, Netflix may me one. 

These are not new problems, but I’m interested that the pace of our lives may be separating what once seemed like one problem into two distinct spaces. Either way, it’s a helpful framework to understand which problem you’re solving; interest/adoption or scale/competition.


03
Apr 13

The Evolution of Social Filtering

So this morning, I started playing around with Quibb (w/some help from Andrew Weissman - thnx Andrew.) I’ve not spent lots of time with the service, but very quickly it had me thinking about how we filter content online, and how we’ve evolve to this point. I think Quibb might be on to a big idea, but they have a little bit to go before it’s realized (and I write this with patience and respect). It’s hard to have a vision, build a team, write software, and scale the whole circus to a real-deal offering. But I saw a few things today that inspired me, so I’ll try to point them out. (And apologies, heavy nerding ahead.)

Evolution of Social News
So, we’ve been collectively taking stabs at curating content on the web for around 15-16 years now, according to this Wikipedia article (which isn’t a bad recount). I would basically break everything down into a few phases…

  • Static-Curation – The early days when the editors of a site would decide which articles are featured over the whole body of content.
  • Crowd-Curation – This is the era of Digg.com & Reddit where we rely on the crowd writ large. We start to up-vote/down-vote, content placement becomes dynamic.
  • Social-Curation – At this point we lose faith in the larger crowd for meaningful curation, and we start to hook our wagons to the social graph (courtesy of the Facebook API.) 
  • Portal-Curation – Realizing the social graph doesn’t really provide much excitement, we lean on portals like Tumblr and Pintrest to show us the darker corners of the web. It’s an evolution because we start following content-specific curators, but it’s best for bite-sized content (mostly images, and quotes.) 
  • Participatory-Curation – I think we’re edging into this. Built on a graph of curators and a mechanism for conversation, we start to filter news we’ll be interested with a place to for discussion (probably in the portal over the site). So it feels like Digg/Reddit, but the underlying curation focuses the conversation (and cuts down on the content gaming that killed Digg). We’ll take responsibility for fashioning the curatorial lens that filters all this. (We used to filter by domains, now we filter by people…Twitter taught us this.) 
Exhausted by Social
So, as I pointed out in a recent post, I’m pretty convinced that the initial emotions that drove the growth of the social web are different than the emotions that have sustained it. In the beginning, we found friends we hadn’t heard from in years. And, much like our first experiences on the web, these were very human moments. There was a sense of this great big world that we were connecting to (again.) As social scaled, things changed. Because our search results, our news feeds, our preferences drove everything, we ended up with too much of the same thing.
 
It’s new/old saw that Facebook is a where you follow your actual friends, and Twitter is the where you follow the people you hope to be friends with. This becomes really important when you deal with curation. Beyond daily news, we read the content from people we aspire to be. So it’s only right that Twitter (or some similar graph) is a better curator. But Twitter as a service is the river Nile – too huge to digest, too fast to keep up.
 
Participatory Curation
So, we’re at this interesting point where we haven’t (collectively) figured out a way to get great content without it being a big stream of the obvious. If you devour news online right now, there is no killer app; we all have a series of hacks. (Which is partially why so many people are upset about Google Reader dying; it was platform to hack together your own graph of curators.) We’re looking for something that gets us to interesting, surprising content, and probably something beyond the bigger news portals. In many ways the mechanism that killed the front page of physical newspapers is killing the standard news portals of the web. In a phrase; if news is important it will find me.
 
To get there, I think we need each other. I don’t think we’ll find interesting news through algorithms, I think we’ll have to help each other find the zeitgeist using our human sensibilities. We have a sixth-sense for online culture, and we know the moment a meme is over-played. We also know know that magic moment when the random becomes brilliant. So I think the two mechanics that point us toward the next phase are (simply) curation and voting. Not a flooring statement, but follow me.
 
Quibb and where (I hope) it’s heading.
So Quibb provoked all this reflection out of a very simple mechanism. (If you use Path, you’ll recognize it.) As it lists articles, it indicates who in your graph has seen the article, and that looks like this:
  Quibb
 
So, here you see an listing where someone has posted an article of interest, and below the article you’ll see who’s read the article, (in and outside my graph.) Much like a true network diagram, I only need to know one person in that group for it to appear in my feed; that person is my gateway to this content.
 
This is beginning to hint at what I’m referring to as participatory curation. Quibb shows content from people I care about, but (today) it’s only tracking their clickstream. I think if Quibb evolved this curation to ask people to flag/recommend content, it gets pretty powerful. Then I’m getting the equivalent of LongReads from my aspirational crowd. I care about these people, and they are telling me the content they care about. From this you’ll create a very compelling content stream. In that moment, we’ve individually mined the corners of the web and collectively shared the best pieces with each other. And what binds us in this new moment will be the same emotion that has bound us before technology, our shared interests. 
 
Good luck Quibb.

27
Mar 13

Design for Anonymity, Participation, & Surprise

My colleague Andrew just pointed me toward a new app named Rando (Which he found through this Fast Company article.)

A couple of years ago, I wrote about data being Designed to Disappear, (years before SnapChat, people.) So I’m going to try and start to note the (rare) moments that technology shows a glint of a new direction. For me this is less about keeping score, and more about paying attention. So…with that, here’s why I’m sort of inspired by this seemingly insignificant app. 

The idea behind the app is quite simple; you send a photo, and you’ll receive a random photo in return. No friend lists, no ratings, no social graph, no klout points; it’s incredibly simple. BUT there are a couple of really powerfully design principles behind the app that I have a feeling we’ll see more of (even if Rando only has a brief moment in the spotlight.)

Design for Participation
Quite simply, Rando holds to a quid pro quo interaction. You will not experience the app unless you provide a photo of your own. This pulls the user into the experience; gawking is not allowed. Demanding user engagement is hard, but if the ‘reward’ is right you change the paradigm.

Design for Surprise
This app isn’t going for delight, it’s swinging for full-on surprise. We’re quickly becoming so jaded as a connected culture…we’re forgetting how amazing our lives can be because of technology, (which is sad, really…television boyed our parent’s generation for decades). The fact that this app is stepping up to serve up the randomness of humanity is sort of commendable. It’s like getting a message in a bottle and trying to decode what’s going on in the sender’s mind. (I’m sure this will devolve into full-on Chat Roullet foulness before this is all over, it is the Internet after all.)

Design for Anonymity
As I mentioned, there is no social graph. There isn’t a username. This app could care less who you are, it only wants you to participate. (This isn’t a new idea…but it’s really on my mind lately.) One of my big take aways from SxSW this year was how selfish social media has made the web. We’re editing and preening, always making sure we have the most enviable Instagram’d existence. The superficial acknowledgment of our online social circles has us trapped like rats in a skinner box.  This app has a different point of view. It doesn’t need to be your portal of everything, it just needs to be 5 seconds of fun. 

Rando is an excellent example of a strong, simple design point of view. It’s also a great example of what we owe each other as we collectively wade deeper into technology. If technology isn’t underlining the human experience, it’s failing us. (Which is our fault, but that’s another rant.) Not everything has to be a life solving app, sometimes a little hit of dopamine is a enough. 

(BTW, my prediction is that Facebook will add some sort of random content feature in the next 6 months…their hyper-focused content feeds are choking the life out of the service, the pendulum will have to swing.
 

 


20
Mar 13

Serendipity, so what?

(Note: This is last piece of a larger exploration I’ve been working on around serendipity. You can find all the articles here.)

So, I think this will be the last post about serendipity (for a bit anyway.) I looked, and I’ve written more on Serendipity in this blog over the last few weeks than I wrote most of last year. It’s been fun to write and explore ideas again. I hope/plan to keep this cadence up. Exploring ideas through writing is good for me; I’m too easily distracted otherwise. But enough about that. 

So after reading and writing about serendipity for the better part of 5 months (obviously a lot more reading than writing), I was left to wonder where it’s taken me.  Serendipity is this ethereal concept, and you can’t really plan or program for it. You can position and prepare for things, but there’s no assurance. I was wondering about all this a few nights ago. At the outset, I was excited about this magical nature of luck, but now that I know much, much more what changes? Sure it’s good dinner conversation, but what could anyone take from this? 

I think I’ve decided that serendipity is probably more about the journey than the spoils it might reward. Adopting a lot of the practices to move you closer to serendipity probably leads you to a more interesting, fulfilling, waking life. If we all found inspiration at the edges of our network, or worked toward a beginners mind, or built our world our passions, or were generous with everything we had to offer we would shake off a lot of the cynicism and weariness we earn with age and experience. And after prying these barnacles off our mental bow, we might see new waters.

I’ve also noticed that the principles behind serendipity have huge parallels with the processes of creativity and design; learning through making, finding inspiration anywhere, provoking thought through action. In this same way, serendipity is more of a means than an end. Because of your creative process you see and create new things. You won’t know where you’ll end up, but the process helps your mind move through things. (I’m left wondering is you can sharpen and tune your process for serendipity in the same way you your creative process.)

As a process, serendipity lays out some principles for a life best lived. It’s not a quid pro quo existence. It requires a faith in something bigger; faith in people, faith in the greater human potential. This for me is probably the big idea. If serendipity only occurs in 1% of our lives, its principles set us up brilliantly to experience the other 99%. The idea invites you to be more open, more curious, more engaged, and more generous. And we can’t encounter serendipity alone, we need each other to stir our thoughts. We have to trigger each other’s soft machines.

So, if we’re pursuing serendipity, we’re better together. This more networked and messy process flies in the face of some of the capitalistic and objectivist tenants infused in our culture. I’m sort of excited to see serendipity popping up so much in the zeitgeist. Hopefully we’re moving beyond the selfish idea of luck and the collective concept of potential.