Entries Tagged 'software' ↓
July 9th, 2011 — business, design, economics, mobile, philosophy, software, trends
A lot of people talk about innovation in terms of fulfilling an unmet market need. Specifically, there’s a lot of emphasis on “solving problems.” (I’m looking at you, Dave McClure.) The theory is that entrepreneurs should work on solving a problem that lots of people have, and not get too focused on some technology. That’s fair advice.
However, when entrepreneurs hear this, their first instinct is to often to go ask people about their problems and then try to solve them. Or they look for markets where there is a lot of money being spent.
“The best innovations are those that solve a problem that people didn’t even know that they had,” says Paola Antonelli, curator of design and architecture at MoMA. Twitter certainly falls in this category. In fact most people were sure they didn’t need Twitter, but now it’s a central part of our media landscape.
This class of innovation is the sort you have to shove down people’s throats at first, but then changes the world forever. And they’re tricky to find because no one will tell you they need them. And there’s no market study that outlines the opportunity.
Thinking about this, and stealing some good ideas from design thinking pioneers like Don Norman, Tim Brown, and Daniel Pink, I’ve settled on four key elements that entrepreneurs can use to think about innovation: design, affordances, emergence, and appeal.
Steve Jobs is famously quoted as saying, “design is how it works,” and he’s right. How it works is determined by the design specifications and constraints. If it is software, the major design elements include aspects like synchronous vs. asynchronous, private vs. public, one-to-one vs. one-to-many vs. many-to-many, market size, viral reach, and mode of access. There are many other elements that determine the nature of a product’s design.
The outward aspects – how it looks and feels – are important insofar as they impose an additional set of operational constraints: what’s possible, what’s most likely, how the “happy path” feels, and how brittle the experience is.
When most people think about design, they think about “how it looks.” We’ll get to that in a minute. When you think about design, you really are determining “how it works,” and it’s the most critical part of creating an innovative product.
Affordances are the possibilities that a particular design allows. If your product allows for a particular use, then its design affords that possibility. Sometimes there are negative affordances (a part allows for a hinge to open too widely, possibly damaging the product), as well as positive affordances (an iPod Touch can display streaming video, so it afforded the possibility for HBO to make a mobile subscription TV app.)
Every design offers a wide range of affordances, and you should think critically about what they are.
Sometimes a design enables new behaviors that its creators did not predict. Users of the product start behaving in a new way that was not anticipated, though it is allowed by the original affordances (say hashtags on Twitter).
Sometimes the emergent behavior is incorporated back into the original design (such as when Twitter adopted hashtags and @ replies, and tracked their trends).
Emergence is usually a happy accident. Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, says, “always allow a seat at the table for the unknown.” That is an excellent design goal. By leaving a few doors open, one allows for this kind of emergent behavior to occur, and to capitalize on it.
Designers almost never consider all of the emergent possibilities that their designs afford. Being open to emergence, and incorporating it into later designs, is key to innovation.
This is really a subset of design, but it’s worth discussing all by itself. Your product should have curb appeal and create an emotional connection with people that causes them to return to it again and again.
The finest Swiss clockwork will not go anywhere if it is packaged in an ugly shell. While design is “how it works,” your product’s human appeal has everything to do with “how it works with people.” Because without ongoing engagement from people, most products cannot survive.
So, how it “looks” certainly matters, but only insofar as it affects its ongoing appeal, and “how it works with people.” We know the best products are those that create that emotional, nearly-religious connection, and this can’t be overlooked.
Utility Is Difficult to Predict
I think asking about utility is often the worst way to evaluate a design in its early phases. “Why would I use this? What’s it good for? Who needs this?” are questions that are worth contemplating, but it’s also OK if the answer is “I don’t know yet.”
If a design affords a range of emergent behaviors, if it can be distributed to a large group of users, and it can be made appealing and inspire devotion, odds are it’s something worth experimenting with. The odds that the ultimate utility of an interesting design will exceed early predictions is very high.
I love engineers, and do some engineering, but engineers are particularly prone to evaluate concepts in the frame of “how is it different from XYZ that already exists,” or “what technology does it employ?”
The success of the Wii is one of the wins that stymied many engineers. “The graphics sucked, the games were primitive, and there were better technologies on the market.” And those things were not the point. The Wii won because of its design, it affordances, its appeal, and the emergent behaviors (and user communities) it enabled and reached.
So be playful in your designs. Give things a chance. See what happens. Learn from emergent behaviors. And always leave a seat at the table for the unknown.
July 8th, 2011 — design, economics, iPhone, mobile, philosophy, programming, software, trends
There are so many new technologies today: tablets, geolocation, video chat, great app frameworks. It is easy to cherry-pick off “combinatorial” innovations that seem compelling, and can maybe even be monetized readily.
But all those innovations are inevitable. If our technologies afford a certain possibility, they will occur. “That’s not a company, that’s a feature,” is one criticism I’ve heard of many “startups.”
These combinatorial, feature-oriented “X for Y” endeavors are often attractive because they can often be built quickly.
Startup Weekend events send an implicit message that a meaningful business can be fleshed out in just a couple of days. And I argue that is not true. That might be a good forum to get practice with building a quick combinatorial technology and working with others, but a real innovation, much less a meaningful business, takes real time.
I think people are often looking in the wrong places for innovation, often because they don’t really take the time to do the homework, observation, and deep reflection necessary to arrive at a true insight. We want things to be quick and easy.
Changing Minds, and Behaviors
The biggest innovations require asking people to change their beliefs, habits, and behaviors.
iPhone: “why would I want a smartphone without a physical keyboard? It’s too expensive. I can’t install apps.”
Twitter: “what is this for? Why would anyone do this? Who cares what I had for breakfast?”
iPad: “an expensive toy. Could never replace a real laptop. Can’t run real office applications. The enterprise will never adopt it.”
Foursquare: “only hipsters and bar hoppers would ever do this. They are letting people know when to rob them. I don’t want people to know where I am.”
And these innovations have taken years of constant attention to bring to their current state. And they are not done.
One Innovator’s Story
Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, was in the room at Wherecamp in 2007 where I was giving a talk about location check-in habits via Twitter (a subject I knew well because of my Twittervision service, which allowed this.)
Dennis, of course, also founded the precursor to Foursquare, Dodgeball, which he sold to Google in 2004 (they promptly killed it.)
But Dennis wanted to see his vision come to pass, and he knew it would someday be possible — though at that point the iPhone had not been released and it would be nearly two years before it supported GPS location technology.
But there Dennis was, doing his homework in 2007, studying user behavior to figure out exactly what behaviors he would have to encourage to make Foursquare work.
He asked me, “so, people are really putting their home and work locations formatted inside tweets in order to update their location?”
“Yep, a few thousand times a day,” I replied.
“That’s cool. That’s really cool stuff,” he said. And from that, and years of similar evidence-gathering and study, Foursquare would be born.
So, creating Foursquare took about five years. (I could have “stolen” the idea and built Foursquare myself. But I didn’t execute on that; it was his vision to pursue.) Dennis did his homework. He was prepared. And his vision preceded the technology that enabled it.
Why, not How
Real innovation doesn’t come from a weekend. It comes from passion, years of study, understanding deep insights and the “why,” and persistence in seeing something new to market, along with the marketing and cheerleading that will make it successful.
The iPad owes much to Steve Jobs’ love of calligraphy. He cultivated a sense of aesthetics because of that initial interest. He didn’t set out to “make money” but rather dedicated himself to changing the world for the better using the entirety of his humanity. Time studying art wasn’t “lost,” it was R&D for the Mac, iPhone, and iPad.
Many of today’s entrepreneurs could stand to do less “hustling” and more reading, exploring, reflecting, and gathering input — and when it is time to make stuff, set their sights as high as possible.
There is more to this world than money, and there are countless opportunities to make it a vastly better place. Rather than using our CPU cycles just playing with combinatorial innovations, let’s devote ourselves to making the world as amazing as possible. Try to take time to reflect on how you can make the world better, and not just on what current technology affords.
July 4th, 2011 — business, design, software, trends
Thinking about what works for entrepreneurs and what doesn’t, it occurred to me that it’s not always enough to do the right things. You have to do the right things in the right order.
That sounds hard. It is tough enough to know what the right things are, without also knowing what order to do them in.
But the order matters. Adding a particular investor first helps you get the interest of others. There is a right order to seek investors.
There is a right order in which to seek press and PR for your products, and possibly a different order that’s best for your company as a whole.
You could call it “strategic,” but that implies that it might be hard to figure out, or that a wrong move might cost you dearly. That’s probably not quite right; but there is usually one story that’s better than the others.
I think in the end we are all just telling stories: about ourselves, our companies, and our products. We tell a story to prospective employees, and all sales is really storytelling.
So here’s the trick: tell a good story. If you tell a story that has good characters doing interesting things in a compelling order, you’ll win.
And the inverse is also true. Tell a sad story, or a boring one, or one where the elements don’t build towards a climax, and odds are, you won’t get very far.
So the next time you’re worrying over strategy, or wondering how to get investors interested in what you’re doing, start thinking about your story: the characters, their beliefs, the heroes, and the villains.
Write a story that motivates you, and odds are, others will want to play a part too.
January 26th, 2011 — business, design, economics, philosophy, software, trends
David Lee Roth
“He who knows how will always work for he who knows why.”
- David Lee Roth
There are 168 hours in a week and you must decide how to spend them. You’ll probably want to spend some sleeping and eating. What will you do with the rest?
Many people that work with technology pride themselves on knowing how to do things the best way, with the best tools. In fact, the history of technology and its evolution is all about “how” and finding new, better ways to do things.
But in some important ways, “How” is the enemy of “Why.” Why should you do one thing instead of another thing? Why is it sometimes important to choose one technology over another? Some technologists would argue that it’s important to choose the better technology. Better for what?
After about age 15, I have always bristled when people called me a “tech guy.” And I wasn’t sure why. While I may be (on the best days) intelligent enough to pay attention to and use technology well, and maybe to have read a thing or two about algorithms and software, I always felt offended by the label. It was as if people were saying that I knew “how” to do things, but that I didn’t know why.
But I do know why. I’ve read enough philosophy, literature, and scripture to have a sense of what we should be doing on this earth. So calling me a “tech guy” feels wrong. I’m as much of a “why” guy as I am a “how” guy. They’re not mutually exclusive.
People who really know “why” often end up with real power and wealth. To save time, the “why” progeny formed a tribe. They go to the right schools and give each other important-sounding jobs. And they control many people who know “how” (but who may not yet know why.) Too often, though, the offspring of powerful people don’t really know “why.” They took a shortcut and there is none.
I spend a lot of time with tech people; in tech conferences; in the tech community. And many of those people know how to do a great many things. Fewer know “why.” Some have yet to realize it’s worth knowing. That’s OK, because learning why takes time.
It’s troubling to hear good, smart tech people get into the minutiae of a “how” question that doesn’t matter. (For me, home media usually falls into this category.) When I was younger, I might have had time to figure out the details of streaming movies to three televisions. Now I just don’t care. This is why Apple is making a fortune on its products. They generally deliver good results without requiring people to waste time on the details. (Steve Jobs knows both “why” and “how.”)
Here’s a challenge, tech people: learn “why.” And understand that “how” sometimes comes at the expense of “why.” You need to balance your priorities between both and choose how you’re going to spend your time each week. If you know only “how”, and never take the time to know “why,” rest assured you’ll be working for someone else who does.
As a tech-aware person you have a head start, because today it’s not enough to know only “why.” Someone who may know why but excludes technological study from their life can’t understand the world properly today because technology shifts so quickly. Sometimes things that once were important simply become obsolete.
Sometimes I talk to tech people who think they don’t have any real power because they are not part of the old-school power-tribe. But nothing is further from the truth, for inherited power is not real power.
No one has more power than someone who knows both “how” and “why.” Become that person and you change the world.