The Tools We Use

Sure, I could have posted this talk I gave at UX London last year sooner. But I decided to sit on it in case the global social, economic, and infrastructural system happened to go belly-up and people might want a little distraction.

I possibly went a little self-indulgent on this one, rambling through hammers, monkeys, 2001: A Space Odyssey, pencils tied to bricks, the Whole Earth Catalog, the Space Jam website’s HTML, and 1980s Toyota manufacturing all before arriving at a simple point: designers should iterate on how they work as much as they iterate on their work itself.

If that’s your type of thing you might enjoy it. If video or Irish accents are not your type of thing you can read the full transcript on the Intercom blog.

— 11 May 2020

This Too Shall Pass

“This too shall pass” is often said to struggling new parents. Solid advice! You’re cooped up at home, minding a baby, unsure how to cope, no clue when things might be normal again. It’s a gentle way of advising someone: I know. But you’re going to have to dig in now. You will endure.

“The days are long, but the years are short” is the best parenting advice. In truth there’s a melancholy to being a parent: you’ll want to jump out the window at times, but when it’s all over you’ll wish for that time back again.

“When this is all over…” is something people have been saying a lot recently. When this is all over we’ll meet up more, we’ll have a new appreciation of nature, we’ll hug our parents, we’ll pay the nurses what they deserve, we’ll reinvent society, we’ll have the mother of all sessions.

When this does pass we won’t pine for it. But a couple of weeks in, I’m now trying to notice the little moments in all of this. Our little family cocooned away. We’re doing okay. This is going to be the only summer we’ll ever have with the kids being 6 and 3. There are small moments to be had. These days do feel long, but the year will be short.

TLDR: We’re in lockdown and my kids are giving me Stockholm Syndrome.

— 31 Mar 2020

Design in Interesting Times

Just realised that I never posted my talk from the 2017 Inside Intercom World Tour. It’s about using system thinking to cope with rapid change, whether that’s inside a fast-growing startup, or a world that seems to be going to hell in a handbasket. I gave versions of the talk in New York, Tel Aviv, and finally in San Francisco, which is what’s recorded below. Had a ton of fun working with lovely folks from our Brand Studio on the visuals for this one.

Full transcript on the Intercom blog, or there’s an audio version if that’s your thing.

— 29 Mar 2019

Stories and storytelling

In my post last week about Google Duplex, I mentioned Tristan Harris’ 2013 internal presentation at Google about the ethics of attention.

I looked for a public copy of it, which didn’t exist last week, but does now: it was just leaked/released. It’s an interesting read in itself. But I still often think about this actual presentation – the slide deck itself – as an example of GREAT storytelling. The whole thing is designed to be viewed, not presented. Each slide is a single thought; just an image and a few words. There are no speaker notes. It’s an essay designed to be viewed rather than read. I remember it spreading like wildfire through Google at the time and immediately sparking conversation. It’s a object lesson in the power of presenting your ideas or work narratively.

Another post last week was about the Dissect podcast and how new types of media lead to new forms of content.

Tristan’s slides feel like a desktop predecessor of the most obvious new mobile-first content type: the Story. Invented by Snapchat and mainstreamed by Instagram, Stories are the ne plus ultra of smartphone patterns: atomic units of vertical rectangle content navigated via the simplest possible interaction. Tap, tap, tap, one pellet of info at a time. But done well it can add up to a fully realised narrative told across a single day.

There’s a lineage here. Robin Sloan’s 2012 “Fish” tap essay feels like a more literary precursor to Stories. Both Fish and Tristan’s deck are writing, but the delivery is edited into discreet cue cards to create rhythm and emphasis. Twitter threads are part of this scene too, being a series of atomic thoughts strung together into an argument. Bad threads are bad because they are nothing more than longer essays arbitrarily chopped into 240-character chunks; get a blog, dude. But a well-written thread can use the limitations of the medium to create pacing and tell a story, one thought at a time, and work better than it ever would as prose.

— 17 May 2018

DVD commentary for music


I’m currently deep in binge mode with Dissect, a music podcast that picks an album and spends an entire season analysing it, one episide per track. It’s a one-man show entirely created by host Cole Cuchna, and it’s serious music nerd-out territory.

The first season takes on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, an album which I had already loved, but in retrospect had no real appreciation of the depth of theme and narrative throughout it. Kenrick’s album is genuis on a level that I hadn’t understood before listenting to Cuchna’s 12+ hour critical analysis of it. Which to me is not a bad return.

Dissect fits into what seems like a new category of “breaking down music” podcasts: Switched on Pop (previously recommended here) and Song Exploder do somewhat similar things with individual tracks.

It strikes me that this is a new genre that could really only ever exist in podcast form. More than ever music that deserves analysis like this has become an internal affair, listened to privately on headphones while working or commuting. Podcasts seem like a natural fit. They are well suited to audio exploration, obviously, but also match the intimate nature of how I think people dissect music themselves: largely as a private internal monologue picking apart tiny phrases or production touches. There are probably hundreds of brief moments in songs that I privately recognise as something that resonates, but it would feel weird to talk to someone about. Yet the one-on-one format of someone speaking directly into your ear with no time limit seems to create space for that, even if it does mean a 40 minute episode discussing a 4 minute song.

Looking back at the short period during which DVDs were actually a thing, I only miss bonus material: those little extras that were often included with a movie like a director’s commentary or behind-the-scenes featurette. For a certain type of person, me included, understanding how or why something was made only increases my appreciation of it; to me, that’s the main function of good criticism. The rise of YouTube video essays seems to have bridged the gap for movie criticism, but I can’t think of anything similar that had already existed in this space for music.

Which is why Dissect and other podcasts like it are exciting to me: the content is often great in itself, but it’s also cool that there are new types of media to be invented that are truly native to these new formats – in this case in-depth musical analysis. Who knows what further new art forms podcasts or Stories or messaging apps or whatever else will throw up.

Anyway, I reccomend Dissect, I guess is what I’m saying. Season 2 did Kanye’s epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which I’m fully here for. Meanwhile Spotify gave Cuchna a full time job and Season 3 (subject still a mystery) is dropping next week. Good times for music nerdery! \o/

— 10 May 2018

Trusting Google Duplex

I was interested to see how the big tech companies would adjust their PR message in light of recent tech controversies, but judging by Facebook’s F8 and Google I/O this week, the answer is not very much at all.

The standout item from Google I/O yesterday seems to be this extremely impressive demo of a bot pretending to be a person on a phone call, complete with fake “um”s and “ah”s (jump to 1h 56m):

A not unreasonable reaction: that’s technically marvellous but is it really fair to the person working on the other end of the line? And what about all the ways this could be exploited…? How might you prevent that?

No mention of this on stage though. And the audience sure seemed to lap it up! So either: 1. Google can’t think of any way that this might be abused. 2. They won’t. 3. They just don’t want to acknowledge that stuff by talking about it.

At the same time, the new version of Android has got “Digital Well Being controls”. Which, fair play. Credit where its due.

But it’s at best a gentle take on what @tristanharris was advocating for internally within Google back in 2014. Which means that the half-life of features with potentially negative consequences is many, many years.

Yet a computer that can convincingly talk like a human is now 100% inevitable; it’s absolutely coming, many permutations are going to get thrown against the wall to see what sticks.

I worked at Google for 8 years, and can attest that it takes time for views from the outside world to seep in. It’s like a small country, albeit with the clout of a large one. Giant tech company leaders are politicians, and as such react to public opinion.

So although it’s kind of a downer to witness some magical new tech breakthrough and immediately jump to pointing out its potential flaws, it seems like there’s almost a kind of civic duty to it.

It’s also worth saying that thinking about how new tech may be used or abused is an interesting thought experiment! If the capability seems inevitable, the application is not. That sounds like a decent groove for designers to sit in.

I hope that the recent tech reckoning turns out to be a good thing, and will lead to better products. But it don’t come for free.

However, I fear that we may never disabuse Google of the notion that the world’s biggest problem is taking a break to run an errand.

(I feel like the deep differences in the urban architectures of Jane Jacob’s Greenwich Village and Google’s Mountain View campus has a lot to answer for here. Of course errands are suboptimal… who wants to spend 20 mins each way snared in traffic on the 101?!)

But “a web of public respect and trust” seems to be what’s most obviously missing from the robo-call example, and the duplicity at its core is what makes it sit so uneasy. Trust being in such short supply right now is that makes it seem particularly tin eared.

Finally, this all reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut having a grand old time buying an envelope, which I’ll now quote generously in a showy display of the luxurious, unrestricted superiority of the blog format:

Anyway, I take my pages and I have this thing made out of steel, it’s called a paper clip, and I put my pages together, being careful to number them, too, of course. So I go downstairs, to take off, and I pass my wife, the photo journalist Jill Krementz, who was bloody high tech then, and is even higher tech now. She calls out, “Where are you going?” Her favorite reading when she was a girl was Nancy Drew mysteries, you know, the girl detective. So she can’t help but ask, “Where are you going?” And I say, “I am going out to get an envelope.” And she says, “Well, you’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.” And I say, “Hush.”

So I go down the steps, and this is on 48th Street in New York City between Second Avenue and Third, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. And I know their stock very well, and so I get an envelope, a manila envelope. It is as though whoever made that envelope knew what size of paper I’m using. I get in line because there are people buying lottery tickets, candy, and that sort of thing, and I chat with them. I say, “Do you know anybody who ever won anything in the lottery?” And, “What happened to your foot?”

Finally I get up to the head of the line. The people who own this store are Hindus. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes. Now isn’t that worth the trip? I ask her, “Have there been any big lottery winners lately?” Then I pay for the envelope. I take my manuscript and I put it inside. The envelope has two little metal prongs for going through a hole in the flap. For those of you who have never seen one, there are two ways of closing a manila envelope. I use both of them. First I lick the mucilage—it’s kind of sexy. I put the little thin metal diddle through the hole—I never did know what they call them. Then I glue the flap down.

I go next to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and Second Avenue. This is very close to the United Nations, so there are all these funny-looking people there from all over the world. I go in there and we are lined up again. I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. She doesn’t know it. My wife knows it. I am not about to do anything about it. She is so nice. All I have ever seen of her is from the waist up because she is always behind the counter. But every day she will do something with herself above her waist to cheer us up. Sometimes her hair will be all frizzy. Sometimes she will have ironed it flat. One day she was wearing black lipstick. This is all so exciting and so generous of her, just to cheer us all up, people from all over the world.

So I wait in line, and I say, “Hey what was that language you were talking? Was it Urdu?” I have nice chats. Sometimes not. There is also, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to your little tinhorn dictatorship where you came from?” One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, finally I get up to the head of the line. I don’t reveal to her that I love her. I keep poker-faced. She might as well be looking at a cantaloupe, there is so little information in my face, but my heart is beating. And I give her the envelope, and she weighs it, because I want to put the right number of stamps on it, and have her okay it. If she says that’s the right number of stamps and cancels it, that’s it. They can’t send it back to me. I get the right stamps and I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock.

Then I go outside and there is a mailbox. And I feed the pages to the giant blue bullfrog. And it says, “Ribbit.”

And I go home. And I have had one hell of a good time.

Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something. We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.

— 09 May 2018

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