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Signal v. Noise: Design

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A rallying cry for the Weird Wild Web

Jonas Downey
Jonas Downey wrote this on 2 comments

This year, 2015, marked the 20th anniversary of the first time I stuck some HTML on a server and put it out for the world to see. (Sorry about that one, world.)

Twenty years! Twenty years is a long time to do anything, especially in tech. Given how fast things churn, it’s rather unbelievable that I’m still gainfully employed to write HTML for anything at all in 2015.

I’ve been reflecting on this recently, as the web’s future keeps sounding rather bleak. It seems that nary a week passes without someone predicting the end of the open web as we know it. Perhaps understandably so — at a glance, the web appears to be suffering a death by a thousand cuts.

Let’s recap a few of the most common arguments for why the web is totally screwed.


Cargo Culting

Nathan Kontny
Nathan Kontny wrote this on Discuss

I've been exploring Medium as a new channel for my writing. It's a pretty place to read and share my thoughts – though still written on Draft :) – and getting more and more popular. Yesterday I shared a post: Poison, which received some nice traffic and shares. A couple people began to comment. And that's where I started getting confused.

There's a comment, what Medium calls a "response", but it's not the full comment. In fact, I have to click Read More just to get to the meat of it. When I read the comment and wanted to respond, that even was a new affair, encouraging me to Publish or go Full Screen:


Work in Progress

Nathan Kontny
Nathan Kontny wrote this on 7 comments

Jason and I have now done 18 live chats we've published on YouTube and SoundCloud and we still like each other! :) Just to be transparent, it hasn't been a piece of cake. It's a whole new environment for us to figure out. Not just how to get subscribers. But things like picking topics. Staying interesting. Even things like lighting. Barking dogs. Poor internet connections. Sleeping in-laws. But it's a constant reminder how much work goes into any product. There's always a new challenge or opportunity to learn to get better. It's never done. It's a "Work in Progress". And waiting for perfect is a sure way to fail to get anywhere. Here are some of my favorites of the episodes we've done so far:


Putting on the shipping goggles

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 5 comments

One of the biggest challenges of shipping a product is knowing when to put on the shipping goggles.

The shipping goggles make you less sensitive to little nits and scrapes and things that might be able to be a little bit better, but really don’t need to be right now. Stuff that we could tweak, but really shouldn’t be grabbing our attention given all the other high value bits we need to hit.

It’s sort of like squinting – you lose the detail, but you can still see the overall big picture shape, form, and function. Your peripheral vision shrinks, but the center is still bright. Knowing when to squint is a good thing to know.

It’s not that the details don’t matter. They do, but details aren’t fixed – they’re relative. And of course any time you talk about details mattering, you’re speaking in very broad generalizations. Some matter, some don’t. Some never matter, some matter later, but not now. And some really matter now and can’t wait for later. Like everything, there are varying degrees.

Part of training yourself to ship is to recognize what details are really worth nitpicking and when. There are no hard and fast rules here – it just takes judgement and experience. These are skills that build over time. Once you’ve been around it for a while you tend to improve your sensitivity to what’s worth doing before you ship and what can wait until later.

And BTW, nitpicking may be construed as a pejorative, but I don’t believe it is. Nitpicking is a valuable skill, as long you deploy it at the right time for the right reasons. One of the penalties of nitpicking at the wrong time is that nitpicking often attracts a crowd. Someone nitpicks this which is an invitation for someone else to nitpick that. And before you know it, half a dozen people are spending time discussing tiny details that really don’t demand that level of attention.

Again, there are no facts around when it’s worth nitpicking and what’s worth nitpicking – I’m only speaking to the awareness how situations unfold.

We can all get better at this. I’ve been shipping stuff for years, but I still have to get better at recognizing the right moments to bring up certain things. I definitely fall into the trap of spending time making changes to things in the 11th hour that are really perfectly fine and can be addressed later if necessary. I absolutely find myself regretting going down a rabbit hole that really didn’t need to be investigated. I still find myself distracting others with change requests or suggestions that really didn’t need to cloud their vision and sap their attention. It’s hard!!

As we close in on a big launch ourselves, I’m reminded of how important it is to keep time and place and impact in mind when bringing small things up. Again, it’s not that they aren’t important, it’s that they may not be important now. Everything has a cost and the cost of breaking attention goes up during crunch time.

Extra Drawings for The Distance

Nate Otto
Nate Otto wrote this on 1 comment

Last year I shared some extra drawings I made for the Basecamp marketing site that for a variety of reasons never went live or were seen by anyone outside of Basecamp. There have also been many drawings for The Distance that have never seen the light of day until now.

For just over a year, The Distance was dedicated to longform articles about long standing businesses. Under the editorship of Wailin and the art direction of Mig, I made a header illustration for each article and a building drawing that served as the footer. In recent months, The Distance has morphed into a podcast. I still illustrate the cover for each issue, but the header illustration is no longer needed. I like to tell people that I illustrate a podcast, and then I wait to see their reaction. There were a few issues that were both a podcast and a longform article. Here are some of the extra drawings made for those articles and then a link to each corresponding podcast. I’m also hoping to show some of the collaborative process and how we use Basecamp together as a team.

World’s Largest Laundromat

The finished header looked like this. I got a creative brief from Mig with some of the concepts of the story that he wanted to see in the header, and he also shared some visual inspiration, including some anthropomorphic washers and an animated gif of spiraling bubbles. The theme that I latched onto was that this is the world’s largest laundromat, so I knew I wanted to draw a big washing machine. The first image I drew was of a washer amidst a field of bubbles, but that didn’t read well and it didn’t really say anything.

I tried another one with a washing machine looming large on a street with residential buildings. Drawing buildings is my jam so I was playing to my strengths here, and I thought it worked conceptually. I shared it on Basecamp and…

I was ecstatic that they liked the drawing, and that the header came together so quickly. As you will see, it doesn’t always happen that way. I colored in the drawing and that became the final image. I had some time and I was still thinking about washing machine people, so I made the additional drawing of a washer with a top hat!

Ideal Box Company

The final header looks like this.

This article is about a box company that makes a lot of point of purchase displays. I kicked off the to-do with a drawing.

Wailin shared a copy of the story then and she broke down some of the key points and themes. She also shared a few ideas for me to try. I did this drawing but I knew that it didn’t hit on many of the themes (even though I initially tried to champion it).

Mig then chipped in with a winning idea followed by some other points, but I latched on to his origami concept.

Even though I’m relatively inexperienced in editorial illustration, that doesn’t always stop me from being overly opinionated about their purpose. I ranted about that on the thread a little bit. Artists are the worst. In the end Mig is usually right.

Victory Auto Wreckers

The final header looks like this.

I got a copy of the story and some thematic ideas from Wailin: the afterlife of a car; use every part of the animal; from junkyard to recycling center; and new commercial. That gave me enough to sketch out some ideas.

Mig liked that idea but he wanted to see it more dense with car parts.

Mig wasn’t sure about the car in 3D space, so he wanted me to try one flat but with more parts.

I drew up this, and it evolved into the final image.


Video: Ryan teaches product management at Mind the Product in San Francisco

Ryan wrote this on 5 comments

“Finally—a chance to talk about product management to the right audience!”

That’s how I felt when Martin invited me to speak at Mind the Product in San Francisco. It was the right time and place, so I took the opportunity to distill years of blog posts and project experience into a condensed 30 minute talk. Now the video is online so those of you who weren’t at the conference can see it.

There are so many resources for programmers and designers to learn their craft, while those of us who guide products from conception to completion usually invent our own wheels. These are the tools I came up with to help teams focus on what matters and track the progress of a product over time. I hope watching the video gives you new ways to think about product management. Maybe it validates some of the things you were already doing and gives you new insights too.

Topics include:

  • How to break the product into “orthogonal capabilities”—separate sections of work that you can track independently
  • How to focus on what the product does instead of getting lost in the details of design and programming
  • How to map out the capabilities and track progress over time
  • How to bring meetings back to earth when people get lost in the clouds

and most importantly…

  • How to sleep well at night because you have a clear view of where you are, what’s done and what’s left to do.

I recommend watching full screen in HD so you can see what I’m writing on the screen. You can see the slides at full size here:

Good Notifications: Project Fi

Jamie wrote this on 3 comments

A few months ago I was invited to join Project Fi, Google’s wireless carrier experiment. International Data (certain countries) is included with your plan. There are no extra fees for SMS or data usage.
Project Fi reminds you of this benefit with a nice notification once you turn off Airplane Mode after landing.
Here’s what I got when I landed at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in the Philippines.

The Welcome to [Country]! is a nice way to start off the notification. Here’s what I got when I landed at Narita International Airport in Japan.

The folks at Project Fi know I’ll be taking my phone out of Airplane Mode. They know I’m in a different country. A notification is small thing, but context and timing is everything.

How an idea comes together for me

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 10 comments

First the idea hits.

Then I think about it some more and it takes a direction.

As I work through the direction, I’ll see another direction. Usually relatively similar, but different enough that it demands its own exploration.

As I dig in into the problem, more layers and possibilities reveal themselves. Sometimes they point in entirely different directions. Some seem like big possibilities, others seem smaller.

As I keep exploring, some more options emerge. Some independent of the ones I’ve already explored, but others branch off from an existing exploration.

As I keep sketching and thinking and mocking and working through variations and conditions in my head, on paper, or in code, a few strong possibilities take the lead. I begin to follow those.

One primary direction becomes the most obvious, but there are still variations on that idea.

As I dig into the variations, I realize they aren’t direct descendants of that primary direction. Instead they’re closely related offshoots, but smaller. They usually fade away.

And finally the solution becomes clear.

Then I check my thinking by going through the process again.

Where it goes from here depends on what it is, but hopefully at the end I’ve enjoyed figuring something out.

The special recipe for DELIGHT

Jonas Downey
Jonas Downey wrote this on 5 comments

Delight is a word interaction designers have been throwing around for the past couple of years. Some people think it’s an overblown buzzword, while others believe it’s a subject worthy of an entire conference.

One part of “designing delight” is about turning otherwise mundane tasks into funny or interesting moments. On the UI side, this might include adding thoughtful animations, cutesy or clever copywriting, and perhaps tossing in a few surprises on top.

These surface-level treatments help make a product seem more human and less computery, which is surely a good thing to do whether you define it as delight or not. At Basecamp, we try to bake this sort of thinking right into our usual design process, rather than calling it out as a specific ideal.

But there’s another, deeper kind of delight. For this post I’ll call it DELIGHT. Here’s an example.

I recently moved my sizable photo library to Google Photos, for a variety of boring reasons: it syncs with Google Drive, storage space is generous, sharing albums is easy, it doesn’t mess with my existing file structure, and searching is miles ahead of competing services. Sure enough, it all works very well — currently besting Apple’s or Dropbox’s offerings.

I was already satisfied, and then Google Photos did something I didn’t expect. When I synced my tens of thousands of photos, the Google Photos “Assistant” bot worked behind the scenes to breathe new life into them, by automatically compiling them into animations, stories, and collages. The stories and collages were roughly what you’d expect a computer to achieve when laying out photos: a fine enough job, but not too mind-blowing.

It was the animation idea that knocked my socks off.

As any parent of a young child (who just WON’T SIT STILL) can tell you, you often need to take 30 photos in a row to get one good one. So we do that a lot. This means our photo libraries are cluttered with countless batches of photos, most of which are basically blurry garbage. Who has the time to go through all of them to find that one perfect gem? Definitely not parents of young children!

Google’s engineers realized this, so they transformed all that garbage into something great.

Now that, right there, is DELIGHT.

Not only did this feature make amazing use of all those junky photos I haven’t looked at in years, it did so automatically. Google Photos just made my entire library much better without my intervention.

This feature has been around for a couple of years, but it doesn’t show off its true power until you backload your 10 years’ worth of stuff. And before now, backloading all your stuff sounded rather unappealing since the Photos feature was deeply intertwined with a big social network.

It took Google a long time to find the special recipe — that perfect combination of features, capabilities, and surprises — to get DELIGHT. To make it happen, they needed to mix cheap storage, tons of processing power, robust file syncing, plus a healthy dose of smart thinking and a willingness to decouple Photos from its social networking parent.

Now, DELIGHT isn’t really about the software itself. Seeing photos of your kid from 3 years ago in a brand new way is sentimental and emotional. It just so happens that the software helped make those emotions happen. I love my kid, not the software, but now I’m certainly more endeared to the software and the people who created it.

This is what product design is about. Finding the special recipe for DELIGHT. Making people badasses by giving them new superpowers they couldn’t have achieved on their own. Everything else along the way — the animations, the copywriting, the tech, etc. — is just supporting material for the main act.


Nathan Kontny
Nathan Kontny wrote this on 1 comment

How do we get better at making things people want?

We strive to better discern the needs of our customers, so we reach for a number of tools. Surveys. User testing. 'Jobs to be done' interviews (an interview process I highly recommend). But in our effort to understand our customers, we often miss sight of something much more basic and integral to those things working well.

The University of Edinburgh Medical School, one of the best medical schools in the United Kingdom, was created in 1726, also making it one of the oldest medical schools in the English speaking world. Given its age, it has quite an interesting group of alumni. Like Joseph Bell.

He was a graduate and professor at the school in the 1800s. Bell had an uncanny ability to determine things about his patients from what seemed to be unrelated and insignificant details. For example, without even talking to the man, Bell determined one patient was a soldier, a non-commissioned officer, and served in Bermuda. How'd achieve such a feat? Bell had observed the patient walking into the room without taking his hat off, as a soldier would. His authoritative posture and age gave him a clue that he was a non-commissioned officer. And the rash on his head? Could only have come from Bermuda.

Joseph Bell's name probably still doesn't sound familiar. But you know his alias – Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes wasn't pure fiction. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, was also an alumnus of The University of Edinburgh Medical School where he trained as a physician. Sherlock Holmes was an amalgamation of people he'd crossed paths with, especially his medical school professors Joseph Bell and Sir Robert Christison.

Christison was an early forefather of forensic medicine. In 1828, there was a string of murders in Edinburgh, Scotland. Christison helped prove that William Burke and William Hare had been suffocating their victims and then selling the corpses to medical schools.

But Christison was also known for calabar beans. Calabar beans are poisonous, and were used as a justice system in African tribes. They would crush the beans into a milk-like drink for prisoners. Those who died from the drink were "guilty". Those who lived – innocent.

Researchers today find this form of justice might be more accurate than it at first sounds. People who believed in their innocence and the system would probably drink the poison instantly, causing their stomach to immediately vomit and regurgitate the poison, sparing their life. Guilty people, however, believing the drink would kill them, drank slowly trying to elongate their life, but instead dampened their stomach's ability to reject the poison.

Christison knew of the calabar beans' danger, and yet one day, he took a lethal dose and ingested them. Why? Was he trying to kill himself? Was he trying to prove his innocence of something?

If you were anywhere near Facebook or Twitter at the end of February 2015, you've seen this photo. The photo of #thedress was taken by Cecilia Bleasdale, the mother of a bride-to-be, who wanted to show her daughter and bridal party what she'd be wearing at her daughter's wedding.

But they couldn't tell. People split into two camps: you saw blue and black or you saw white and gold. The entire internet broke into debate. I watched friends, designers, photographers, neuroscientists, engineers, even magicians dissecting the photo, trying to explain what we were seeing.

In the end, a representative of the company that makes the dress put an end to the debate: it was blue and black. They don't make a white and gold one. (They probably will, now.) And here's another photo of Cecilia, with the newly married couple:

What I found most interesting about the original photo is the gap it shows between explicit and tacit knowledge.

Explicit knowledge is: "knowledge that can be readily articulated, codified, accessed and verbalized. It can be easily transmitted to others."

The photograph codified what Grace's mom saw that day of her dress, and it was easily sent across the globe to millions of people. But so many of us were wrong about what the information actually described. We saw one thing, and it described another.

Scientist and philosopher, Michael Polanyi, invented the term "tacit knowledge" in 1958. Tacit knowledge is: "knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it." It's knowledge that we can only experience ourselves.

Polanyi would describe riding a bike as an example of tacit knowledge. I couldn't show you how to ride one by teaching you about gravity and centripetal force. I couldn't even give you step by step directions on the mechanics of how the body needs to pedal a bike for you to succeed. Only after you get on that bike and fall, try again, and fall, will you eventually gain the tacit knowledge you need to ride.

We experience this world, but we can't transmit all of it to others. Even the simple stuff, like a photograph of a dress, can be misinterpreted.

Professor Stephen Westland, is an expert in color science at the University of Leeds who the BBC consulted with when writing about #thedress. He explained: "It is possible that people could literally be seeing different colours but it's impossible to know what is in someone's head."

Exactly what Polanyi said about tacit knowledge:

We can know more than we can tell.

After Christison ingested the poisonous beans, he began feeling the symptoms. Paralysis. He started going blind. He began to die.

But Christison grabbed a bowl of water he used to clean his shaving razor and face, and drank it. He immediately began vomiting, which saved himself from the rest of the poison's effects. Christison lived.

Christison wasn't trying to kill himself. He was trying to bridge the gap between explicit and tacit knowledge. As a doctor, all he's given is what a patient tells him, or what he can see. Like the photograph of the dress. But he couldn't read a patient's mind. He couldn't tell if a patient was describing correctly how they feel or the history of what they've gone through.

Christison needed to experience what the actual symptoms were of being poisoned. He needed tacit knowledge to reach his full potential as a physician.

Mike Markkula gave two guys $250,000 to fund a business they were running out of their garage, Apple. But Markkula wasn't just a source of funds. In an interview, Steve Wozniak says Markkula was probably more responsible for the early success of Apple than Wozniak was himself. He chased down more capital. He found the first CEO and become the second CEO when the first left. He was even the one who approved the original plan for the Macintosh.

One of the most interesting contributions Markkula made to Apple was a marketing philosophy that appears to still guide Apple today. Just 3 points he wrote up in 1977:

1) Focus. In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.

You especially see this play out in Apple's revival when Jobs returned in 1997. Jobs re-focused the company from dozens of different products and variations (Apple once made printers and game consoles) to just 4 product lines: consumer, pro, desktop and mobile.

2) Impute. People DO judge a book by its cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.

The time and attention Apple spends presenting its products is often unheard of, and the results speak for themselves.

But the point on Markkula's list that I think should draw more attention from people making products is:

3) Empathy. We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.

Markkula chose his words wisely. Just like Christison, he knew that to truly understand a customer's needs better than anyone else, we need to empathize with them – not sympathize. Listening with sympathetic ears to our customers isn't enough. Why? That photo shows us why. People can't communicate everything they experience. Even if they present us with a photo, we easily misinterpret it. And we can't read their minds.

It's of course not always easy. Some things are difficult to mirror. But if we want to be able to gain the deepest insights from the interviews we have with customers, if we want to reach our full potential as a designer, as a listener, as a human being, we need to improve our ability to empathize. This isn't just "dogfooding" our products. We need to share the actual life experiences of our customers and neighbors. It's up to us to poison ourselves.

P.S. You should follow me on Twitter: here for more articles.