Saturday, April 16, 2011

How Many Emails Does It Take To Make You Call It Spam?

So I was looking at my email inbox the other day when something struck me -- on any given day, I get two to four emails from wine vendors. That's not a total count, that's a per-vendor count. Each wine vendor I've given my email address to likes to celebrate our relationship by sending me multiple offers each day.

And yet for the most part, I don't block these emails. I don't grumble in the same disgusted tone that I use for bulk emails from Consumer Reports or other companies that drip market to me on a weekly or monthly basis.

So my question to you is simply this -- are there vendors or markets that you participate in where you get more than one email a day from the vendor? Are they things that you have signed up for? Have you blocked any of them?

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Why Are People Shocked About Flip?

Earlier this week, Cisco announced a restructuring that basically eliminated the Flip camera group, a company that they bought for $590 million a few years ago. Following that announcement, I've seen a number of posts that reflect a sense of shock surrounding the death of the product. Me, I'm more surprised that people seem surprised.

When the iPhone 3GS was launched and included video capabilities, there were numerous articles and posts about how iPhone video would be the death of the Flip. Since that time, there's been a lot of innovation in mobile video on the smartphone platform -- Apple even added iMovie and basic video editing to the platform with the iPhone 4. Meanwhile, the Flip platform hasn't evolved. This leads to several questions:
  • Was the acquisition simply a strategic blunder on Cisco's part?
  • Was this a technology or other resource acquisition?
  • Was this the result of a large organization being unable to provide the fertile environment needed by a start-up to prosper?
  • Would a start-up version of Flip been able to innovate enough to remain competitive?
In the end though, this shift in the market has been going on for two years. I'm not really sure how that constitutes a surprise.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Reflections on Freakanomics Radio Podcasts

Recently, I've been listening my way through the series of podcasts from the Freakanomics Radio team. If you aren't familiar with them, this is from the same guys that wrote Freakanomics and Superfreakanomics. The catchphrase that they use a lot is "exploring the hidden side of everything."

One of the themes that runs through most of the things that they explore is that, often, when we think about incentives that drive behavior, we underestimate some hidden incentives that actually have a powerful effect on behavior.

One example of this is highlighted in their episode on World Cup soccer. As part of their exploration of soccer, they talk about penalty shots and how the results correlate closely to game theory. At the same time, they point out that, statistically, penalty kicking players under-utilize a kick to the center that should result in more goals if they kicked the ball there. However, players are driven by the hidden incentive of not looking like an idiot if they kick the ball straight and the goalie just stands there and catches it.

What struck me with this is, in our daily lives, how often we are affected by people who are driven by the hidden incentive of not looking like an idiot. This incentive is drilled into us as we grow up. It's something that we learn when we answer questions in front of our class. It's something we are reminded of when we speak in meetings. It's something we participate in when we hide behind consensus.

Creativity, on the other hand, often flies in the face of the not looking like an idiot incentive. It's exploring an under-utilized, under-exploited path. Creativity is a high-wire act where a successful effort results in a goal but everything else falls short.

So the question you might ask yourself is, how many of your successes came as a result of ignoring the incentive of not looking like an idiot? How would you measure those accomplishments in the overall scope of your history? Is there a theme there?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Design: The Essential Element

Often when people think about "design", they narrowly focus on external visual aspects of an object, like looking at the exterior of a car. To these people, design is this practice of taking a functional object with a set of features, then wrapping an elegant wrapper around the object. In that way, the functionality lives in one dimension, and the design, the artistically styled wrapper, exists in another. Offering one in pink, for the ladies, is what constitutes design for people with this mindset.

Design as an add-on is one reason why so many products suck. Design as an add-on means that you don't have an understanding of what and why. It means that users will have to penetrate a layer of wrapper to access the functionality that they need. But it's worse than gift wrap, because the lack of design means that what's inside the wrapper is a mismatched collection of cool stuff and useless garbage, neatly bundled in a colorful garbage bag.

Colorful garbage bags are often spawned in an environment where the push to do something leads any planning or vision. While one group might look at the popularity of the iPhone or the iPad and say "let's add a touch interface to our Windows platform," design weighs the functionality and utility against the cool factor. Design asks, "how does this help" and "does it make it easier".

Design is an editorial process. It's honing and focusing the what and how into it's most simple, straightforward essence. Design is about analyzing the why it is and it's interrelationship to the what. Design isn't just art, design is process -- one that we all follow with various levels of self-awareness.

Design is how we organize our closets or our kitchens. It's how we organize the remote controls for our television and our entertainment center. Imagine all of the places you could designate as 'the place you put the remote control when you watch TV'. Besides the obvious ones like next to you or in front of you, think about reasons you might use to justify some of the really stupid ones.

Too often though, people don't solve problems as designers. Instead of asking, "why do I have to get up and walk over to the remote control storage next to the TV in order to get the remote and change the channel," they ask, "why do I need to change the channel." Few people would consider the remote location as a design problem. And yet, as designers, sometimes our biggest challenge is to overcome people's undying commitment to arbitrary ways of structuring the problem like, "Dad could never find the remote control. He always put it by the television, so I put it there because I can always find it." Design deconstructs and rebuilds in order to explore how the idea is engineered and constructed.

Ultimately, design requires analytical thinking skills. Often, when people 'grow up' in environments where they simply follow processes and mindlessly repeat instruction sets, they don't practice critical analysis nor explore alternate conceptual frameworks. These kinds of environments, be they social, political, educational or workplace, maintain barriers and disincentives to original, analytical thinking.

In the end, the analytical thinking used in design may make you a hero, but it may make you the goat. It may make you an obstacle in the path of someone who doesn't think or understand -- someone who just wants to 'get it done.' There may be no glory in your approach, but trust your instincts -- you'll be glad you did.