Saturday, July 31, 2010

Po Bronson on Techcrunch TV

Here's a great collection of video interviews with Po Bronson, author of The Nudist on the Late Shift: And Other True Tales of Silicon Valley. Lately he's been focused on education and creativity. This post on Techcrunch features five video clips that are worth watching.

Techcrunch -- Po Bronson: “That’s why academics are so boring” [VIDEO]


Problem Solving: The Most Valuable Skill That Won't Get You Hired

So I'm looking at my LinkedIn profile wondering what else I need to do to complete it, and this "specialities" section keeps haunting me. It keeps asking me for content, but most of the important things that come to mind are either so obscure that they will never show up in a search or worse -- they sound like tired, cheesy cliches.

Here's a perfect example: Problem Solving
One of the things that has struck me over the course of my career is how few people have basic problem solving skills. It sounds rather rudimentary and stupid, but understanding how to take apart a problem, analyze it, and produce a solution is... rare. It's surprising really. You can take some of the most competent people that you know and drop them into a situation where the environment or the problem is different than they expected and watch them break down. Many will complain right from the start.

And then there are also those people who just seem comfortable solving problems, creatively adapting solutions to fit the needs of the moment. They are the people you drop into unusual situations and they adapt and work through through the differences. Often, they question rules and assumptions and their approach may not be what you expected. But they produce results.

That's another funny thing about problem solving skills -- it becomes like a safe harbor in a storm. In difficult times, people turn to problem solvers. Drop a stranger in the office and they'll probably turn to nearest desk. For the people in the office -- if the office is large enough to have functional specialists -- they will go to the specialist. But in smaller offices or for problems that live outside of a specialization, people turn to the problem solvers.

Being able to solve problems won't endear you to every organization. Some businesses stick closely to established culture, structure, and processes. Some promote consensus over individual initiative. And while some problem solvers do thrive in those environments (possibly as the underlying catalyst for activity or change), it's probably not the personality trait that the organization screened for -- which brings me back to the focus of this post.

Problem Solving and Umami: Everybody Wants Some
While Kikkoman wants to link the idea of "umami" as a keyword for their products, the concept of umami is about savoriness and the taste of a richness of flavor -- the kind of thing that you would like to have in most things that you eat. But at the heart of it, what we're really talking about here is how you would measure it, characterize it, and differentiate on it. While it's likely that the braised short-ribs from The French Laundry will have significantly more umami than a Black Angus steak, it's equally likely that you won't see it used to differentiate the two. Both could conceivably put umami as a specialty on their LinkedIn profile and even if you were 'interviewing' them both, you probably wouldn't be able to differentiate based on that one characteristic.

The real problem with some of these soft characteristics is that they are difficult to quantify and place a corresponding value on. In the same way that Apple products are frequently recognized for their design, there is also a chunk of the population that downplays the value of design and questions paying extra for it. Is design a "specialty" for Apple?

The problem for you, Problem Solver, is that you want to be in an environment where your problem solving characteristics are recognized, valued, and rewarded. And that means finding a way to feature your design, your umami, and to reach the audience that values it. Good luck.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

iPhone 4 vs. EVO 4G: Yet Another Window Into What Makes Good Design

Recently in the technology press, there was a lot of excitement about the launch of two new products, the iPhone 4 and the Sprint EVO 4G. With launches in June, both phones have received a lot of comparative media, making it the Ali vs. Foreman of the technology press for about a week. As with all historic battles, that conflict isn't framed simply as a comparison of two pieces of hardware, it's about much larger issues shaping the evolution of technology and the smart phone market. Well, it was last week anyway -- this week, we've moved on. Still, if you look at the two products and compare some of the design principles behind them, you'll find some important lessons about design and product marketing that often tend to be underplayed.

Apple, the iPhone, and the Great Problem with all of their Products that Is So Frustrating to Some People in the Technology World
One of the most common strategies for product differentiation is using specifications to create "mine has more" features. While some of these specifications may actually be actual performance differences, often, these differentiators are simply, "this one goes to 11". And yet, in many segments of the consumer world, you can find outrage over products that don't "go to 11" simply because a lot of product marketing simplifies differentiation into specifications. If you're looking for a digital camera this year, you want one with more Megapixels than the one that came out last year, even if the image sensor or the lens of the camera isn't any better -- sure the camera is just creating larger image files, but if you don't know much about cameras, it's an easy way to see that the new one is better (there was a great post about digital cameras on Techcrunch about a month ago).

So with the EVO vs the iPhone4, you have this great battle of kitchen-sink functionality vs good design and intuitive user interface. The EVO approach is all about adding hardware and features, while the iPhone is focused on maximizing select features that people interact with and increasing integration so that things have unified functionality.

Good design is about understanding the essence of the thing that you are trying to achieve, then making the trade-offs that bring you closer to that functionality. Take multitasking as an example: whenever something is running -- even if you aren't looking at it -- it's eating up your battery. Sure you need to run multiple applications on your PC, but on a mobile platform the rules change. Apple's approach to this challenge is been to limit what applications run so that you're always aware of what is using up your battery and enabling you to maximize your battery life. Running Droid, the EVO allows you more flexibility in running multiple applications at the same time, but you suffer a corresponding hit your battery life. Simple equation -- stuff running takes power and eats your battery -- two different strategies for prioritizing what's important.

So What Makes Good Design?
Good design is all about answering the question, what am I using this thing for. While a hammer is a simple tool, you can find a number of options for hammers, depending on the size of the nail you are trying to hit (tack hammer vs. a framing hammer) or a number of other aspects of your application -- a sledge hammer is a poorly designed tool for hammering those tiny tacks that you use to hang pictures. Sure a hammer is a simple tool, but good hammer design means not including a claw on the back-end of a sledge hammer because you won't use it to pull nails out of a wall. And while there are some people out there who might dream of a sledge hammer with the flexibility to remove nails or a tack-hammer that can bust concrete, what core functionality do you lose by adding these capabilities?

Years ago when I started bicycling seriously, I sold my sports car to buy a bicycle. At the time, I was looking at an $800 Cannondale, one step below the top of their line. My parents suggested I look at the sub-$100 bicycles that they had at Sam's Club. To their unresearched eye, both products were equivalent, but the cheaper one offered the benefit of cash in the bank. Looking back, had I gone down the path of the cheap bike, I probably wouldn't have become an avid cyclist or ridden all of the miles that I have. There would be no cycling market in my world.

For some, the sub-$100 bike would have been the wise choice. For those people, a frame was a frame, wheels were wheels, and pedals were pedals. A bike is just a bike. With today's phones, it's big displays, memory, processors, touchscreens and app stores. It's difficult to see the subtleties of design when you just walk into the store and are bombarded by specifications.

The art of design comes through in day-to-day use, in those moment when you encounter and issue or a challenge and you realize that somebody expected you to face that, that they saw it coming and they made it easy for you. Good design is not just when Step 7 follows logically from Step 6, it's also when all of the parts that you need for Step 7 right have been collected in front of you so that you don't find yourself scrambling to find the pieces that you need.

The Elusive Apple 'Recipe for Success'
Right now, in a host of technology companies, there are teams working to craft the iPad killer or the iPhone killer. Odds are, those discussions center around statements like, "it doesn't have enough of this" or "it doesn't do that." Contrast that to the iPod -- it didn't add features to an .mp3 player, it made cool technology easier to use. So the question you have to ask yourself is, what problem are you trying to solve?