I blame myself

You can classify products into two distinct buckets* by asking the following question: How do you feel when you don’t end up using the product that much?

Some products you don’t use, and you blame the product. (“I bought this book and read a quarter of it – it was so bad. Do not get this book.”) Other products you don’t use, and you blame yourself. (“I got a treadmill but I never use it…I really need to get on that.” “I got this electronics kit and have been meaning to use it, but just haven’t gotten the time.”)

What is up with this?  Do you want the “user experience failure mode” to end with the user blaming himself, not your product?

Can you design in this failure mode? In engineering, you design for graceful degradation. If something goes wrong, you don’t want an explosion. You want a nice, clean exit. In product design, is there an equivalent? Can you design in an emotional reaction to your product’s failure to click with the user that doesn’t result in the user blaming you?

I’d argue that designing for failure modes is stupid – just make your thing good. 

That said. I suspect there could be a core nugget about how products emotionally engage that is somehow related to these two distinct failure modes. I’m not sure what this nugget is yet, but if I figure it out — I’ll write it down here.

*Obviously good products get used. I’m talking about what happens when a product doesn’t get used.

Dilate your eyes

Last week I got LASIK surgery – my eyesight was not horrible, but it was not great. Without glasses I could not drive, for example.

The morning before the surgery, the doc checked my eyes, and put some dilating solution in them. The dilation effect lasted a while, and I couldn’t see anything up close for an afternoon. This meant no computers, no reading.

I returned to work after the pre-op unable to sit at my desk and do anything useful. Instead I spent the day talking to people.

Minor epiphany.

I got updates on what they were doing, had short discussions I had intended to have but never had time to have. I watched people work from a distance. I listened to their conversations with each other. With my dilated eyes, I was able to get a feel for what was going on at Sifteo in a way my inbox could never tell me. My near-sightedness was gone; the only things I could see clearly were far away.

Holy metaphors, batman.

Being human; or define X for Homo X

If you could choose a new Latin name for our species, what would it be?

Our name is Homo Sapiens – which means the “thinking man,” or the “rational man.” Our species name says rationality is the thing that makes us unique.

Now, there have been alternate suggestions – Homo Economicus, Homo Faber, Homo Emoticus.

But I think my favorite is Homo Ludens – or “the playing man.” I prefer to think of ourselves in terms of ends, not means. That is, our ability to reason is a means to accomplish things, it is not an end in itself – it’s how we do exist, but not the reason why we want to exist. (OK – You could poke a hole or two in that last statement, and Socrates certainly would. But I’m going to take it as a given – humor me for the length of this post.)

I’d argue that it might be better if we defined ourselves as Homo X, where X gets at why we choose to do what we do.

It might seem silly to say that Play would be that X. But the more I think about it, those moments that I recall fondly, those times where I feel connected to other people and to the world – those moments are moments of play. I don’t necessarily mean all those moments are literally times when I am playing a game –  I would include moments of joking, silliness, amusement, or accomplishment of something simultaneously hard and fun.

Good play experiences are precisely those that feel rewarding. Defining things strictly, the reason why we choose to do the things we do must be inextricably linked to reward seeking. “Linked” may be too mild a word; “co-identical” is better.

You can argue that play makes us better people. And I believe that strongly – good play experiences make good people. They make kids into good adults and make adults better adults. But I am toying with the idea of going farther – that play is the point. That it’s an end, not just a means.


There are plenty of tasks out there that would be good to do, meetings that might be good to take – but these tasks may not really be Absolutely Necessary. That’s OK, you should still do them – just schedule them for Twonsday.

So if that recruiter you don’t know but seems pretty good maybe really wants to put some candidates in front of you, say “sure, let’s talk at 3PM, Twonsday work for you?”

If that weekly meeting that might be fairly useful between teams seems like it might just be fairly useful, pencil it in, noon on Twonsdays.

Definitely schedule that update of your powerpoint template next Twonsday morning.

Done! Feel better?

Twonsday, by the way, is a magical day that exists in a hypothetical time-hole between Tuesday and Wednesday. It’s like the /dev/null of days.

Put a thing on Twonsday is a nice way of deciding it’s not worth doing.

“Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.”
― Lao Tzu

thanks to dave merrill and liam staskawicz for discovering twonsday.

Magical versions of everyday objects

So – what is the Big Idea over at Sifteo?

These days I’m calling it “Magical Versions of Everyday Objects.”

We want to enchant the objects we use every day with a little bit of magic. And that magic is the magic of interactivity – the book that can be any book, the pen that remembers what you wrote, the wall that responds to your gestures and displays whatever you want.

Sifteo isn’t alone in this mission. The computer for the 21st century is precisely the computer that resembles the objects we have known and used for hundreds or thousands of years. Computing power is becoming cheap enough, small enough, and sensing is becoming robust enough that we can now build computers on human terms – as opposed to building computers on a computer’s terms. In the past, we had to give computers an interface that is easy for them to understand (e.g., alphanumeric buttons), but not so easy for us to use. That restriction no longer holds.

There is a sea change happening in the computer interface, and we count products and companies like the KindleiPad, Kinect, Oblong, Livescribe, Fitbit and a slew of others as part of that change.

In Sifteo’s case, we care about the block, lego, domino tile – collections of inch-scale objects that, if enchanted, will understand how you are moving them and respond to those movements with image and sound.

And in Sifteo’s case, we care about play. It’s no accident that our everyday objects of choice are playthings. We believe there are huge opportunities for interactive entertainment – video games – that take the form of classic play objects, and take advantage of these objects’ play patterns. We grew up with video games, building blocks, puzzles and board games, and we love them all – and we’re only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

We’ve got a big vision, and we get to (have to) push the edge of what is possible with technology and design. Our vision and products require a heterogenous mix of extremely bright people working on extremely hard problems in electrical engineering, software theory and design, user experience, game design, art and more. Luckily, Sifteo *is* just these sort of people. (If you are this sort of person, drop us a line. You should work here.)

Can we make an interactive game system that is fun, engaging, and something you can feel good about? With some 21st century magic, yep – we think so.

Junk food

I like junk food, and will – from time to time – defend its existence. My defense is this: junk food isn’t 100% bad, for if it were, it wouldn’t exist. People wouldn’t want it.

Junk food isn’t globally bad – it’s bad for you (it will kill you over time), but it tastes good. It doesn’t taste good in the same way good food tastes good. An arugula salad from Blue Plate is good in a way that is different than the way a McD french fry is good. But that junk food definitely tastes good for a real definition of the term “good.”

Otherwise, it wouldn’t exist.

Junk food’s “goodness profile” over time goes something like this: it is good in the moment while you are eating it, but bad almost immediately afterward. You feel sick, fat, gross, guilty.

Healthy eaters are able to train themselves to experience that badness before they make the choice to eat the french fry, and may even experience its taste as a bad taste. (Addicted eaters experience that badness before they make the choice too, but choose to eat the food anyway. That pattern is probably true for all addiction behavior, I’d bet.)

I’ve found this junk food pattern persists across all sorts of human activities.

Writing crappy code even when you could do it right the first time is junk food coding. It feels good to see the software work but you will have to undo all the hax you committed getting there. That will feel bad.

Saying the nice thing instead of the true thing is junk food communication. It feels good to avoid conflict at the time, but you will have to undo the false understanding you’ve created between you and the person you are talking to. That will be bad.

Junk food behavior will kill your company. Here’s the nice thing about junk food behavior though – you know you are engaging in it at the time, and you can correct it. It takes discipline, but it doesn’t take a lot of analysis and self observation. You know it when you are doing it.

Get a coach.

Almost no one is able to push themselves to their limits without someone else pushing them too.

Think about it: Athletes all have coaches. Athletes are an obvious example of the raw pursuit of excellence (in generally clearly measurable ways). Great artists often have mentors. Great research groups have great PIs (Principal Investigators), and these groups spawn terrific researchers from their labs.

Even the best, most disciplined people will want to flake every now and then. Even the best, most disciplined people will not always identify how they can improve their process, since they are busy in their process.

That’s why you should get advisors. If you don’t have any, watch out. You’ll likely persist in doing something dumb for too long, or at best, you’ll plateau while your competitors keep ascending. Bad.

Finally, not improving feels bad! Getting better – stretching yourself – is ultimately what you’ll find most rewarding. And it’s really hard to stretch yourself without someone helping you along.

(Thanks to Brandon Roy for stimulating this thought. Not this Brandon Roy, by the way. This one.)

How they fail

A follow up thought to my last blog post, which suggested that entrepreneurs can be categorized as either artists or strategists:

What is the failure mode for each?

The artist’s company will fail because he finds a local maxima that is not maximal enough. That is, he probably creates a good product, but it may not address a big enough need. He is more likely to arrive at something that works well without thinking about how robust that product’s market could ever be. The artist may also fail because he never ships. His company becomes a historical footnote.

The strategist’s company fails because he doesn’t know how to create a great product. He identifies a need (read: a market), but doesn’t have the taste or skill to create a real, functioning product that delivers in the way a good product does – by being lovingly crafted and obsessed over. His company becomes an also-ran.

What kind of entrepreneur are you?

Read this synopsis of a recent lecture by Peter Thiel, as compiled by Blake Masters.

Feel smarter I hope? This post got me thinking about a number of different topics, and I’d like to share one.

What kind of entrepreneur are you? 

I’ll suggest two basic types. There are artists and there are strategists.

The artist is intensely product focused. He* has a singular vision for something he wants to bring into the world. He may be driven by an inner voice, or he may be driven by the roar of the crowd. Either way his goal is to create a product. He thinks of everything in terms of product. Without a great product there is nothing, there is no value. Without a great product, all other parts of the business are a futile waste of time. Create a truly great product and all else will follow.

The strategist focuses on charting a path to market dominance. He observes the landscape, looking for paths that get him from where he stands to a massive spread of virgin, fertile land he can own and defend. He thinks intensely about how his business can uniquely create value for a set of people, and builds a product around that value proposition. Without a path to a monster win there’s no point in continuing. Eventually the company will run out of room to operate even with a great product, and that will be that. Without the path, all other parts of the business are a futile waste of time. Follow a truly great path and all else will follow.

You might say the artist is product-first, and the strategist is market-first. That doesn’t mean the artist is necessarily an engineer or designer, nor does it mean the strategist is a marketing person. It’s just a way to describe how an entrepreneur approaches his task.

Thiel’s notes sound very much strategic, and his thoughts are absolutely fascinating. I love this kind of thinking, and I love to think this way – precisely because I naturally tend toward the artist category, I think.

The entrepreneur’s job, of course, is to be both of these kind of people. Product/market fit happens when you do both well.

But I bet you could categorize every founder you meet as primarily an artist, or primarily a strategist. Try it some time.

*I am going to use “he” as the gender neutral, at least for this post. Someone needs to freaking invent a gender neutral pronoun one of these days. “He/She” is a pain in the butt; switching between “he” and “she” is confusing; using “she” instead of “he” doesn’t really solve the problem. I admit scaling the gender neutral pronoun will not be easy.