Revisiting”The Danger of Design”

When I was at Hill, Holliday I wrote a controversial blog post (still available on their site) called “The Danger of Design – How Not to Build an Online Community“. It was so controversial, I was actually called into the Executive VP’s office and told “You shouldn’t say stuff like this, this is what we’re trying to sell“.I was just going through my archives and decided to re-read exactly what I wrote, and decide whether I still stand by it today.Yes, I do. Absolutely.When I wrote this, MySpace was the king of social networking. My argument was that MySpace’s “amateurish” design encouraged a sense of community. Nowadays, Facebook is king of the hill. Does this invalidate my argument?Absolutely not, in fact it reinforces it. Facebook succeeds for the same reason MySpace did – and then takes it one step further.Facebook succeeds because, like MySpace, it does not impose Design (again, that’s “capital-D Design”, as I describe in the original post) on the users. And it one-ups MySpace because it prevents its users from imposing Design on others.Design (capital D design!) is polarizing. Design forces you to make a decision – does this product’s image represent me, or does it not? If you want to attract a certain demographic, you want your products’ Design to speak to exactly that demographic. That’s Marketing 101.If you want to appeal to everyone, start undesigning.

“The Wise Old Man”

I came across this joke on a “Joke of the Day” feed I subscribe to and, while funny enough on its own, it struck me that there had to be a hidden marketing “moral” in there somewhere. After thinking about it for a second, I realized what it is… Read my punchline after the joke.

A wise old gentleman retired and purchased a modest home near a junior high school. He spent the first few weeks of his retirement in peace and contentment. Then a new school year began. The very next afternoon three young boys, full of youthful, after-school enthusiasm, came down his street, beating merrily on every trash can they encountered. The crashing percussion continued day after day, until finally the wise old man decided it was time to take some action.

The next afternoon, he walked out to meet the young percussionists as they banged their way down the street. Stopping them, he said, “You kids are a lot of fun. I like to see you express your exuberance like that. In fact, I used to do the same thing when I was your age. Will you do me a favor? I’ll give you each a dollar if you’ll promise to come around every day and do your thing.” The kids were elated and continued to do a bang-up job on the trashcans.

After a few days, the old-timer greeted the kids again, but this time he had a sad smile on his face. “This recession’s really putting a big dent in my income,” he told them. “From now on, I’ll only be able to pay you 50 cents to beat on the cans.” The noisemakers were obviously displeased, but they accepted his offer and continued their afternoon ruckus. A few days later, the wily retiree approached them again as they drummed their way down the street. “Look,” he said, “I haven’t received my Social Security check yet, so I’m not going to be able to give you more than 25 cents. Will that be okay?” “A freakin’ quarter?” the drum leader exclaimed. “If you think we’re going to waste our time, beating these cans around for a quarter, you’re nuts! No way, dude. We quit!” And the old man enjoyed peace and serenity for the rest of his days.

This is exactly how “Consumer Generated Media” is going to die.

You’re Paying for What Gets Thrown Out

Trash CanA while back, when press coverage of the Hollywood writers’ strike was in full swing, a writer was asked why it takes a staff of so many writers, taking such a long time, for so much money, to come up with something as short as a late night monologue. His response was: “You’re paying for the jokes that aren’t on the show”. Writing comedy’s not easy. Trying really hard to come up with five perfect jokes is far less effective than brainstorming 100 and throwing out 95 of them.There’s a perfect parallel here with UI design. Whereas the art of programming typically involves working in a “5 steps forward, 1 step back” process, the good UI designer will know when something’s not coming together correctly, and do the right thing by throwing out the entire design and starting over. It’s more like five steps forward, five steps back, six steps forward, six steps back – repeatedly starting from zero, but each iteration benefiting from knowledge gained in the previous one.A good UI design is one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. No amount of tweaking will repair a UI that has gone too far down the wrong path. If your UI designer isn’t throwing out (a lot) more designs than they’re showing you, they’re not trying hard enough.The creators of the forthcoming OS X personal task manager, “Things” have written a great blog post describing this phenomenon. In the process of designing a single dialog box, they threw out dozens of possible options (they actually display 38 of them). And this was for something that’s already been done (a dialog for entering recurring events on a calendar), which they just wanted to do better. Had they been designing something that’s never been done, there would likely have been a lot more.So, the next time someone spends two weeks designing a single mockup, thank them. Remember you’re paying them for knowing what to throw out.

My Thoughts on Microsoft/Yahoo.

imageAn acquisition of Yahoo by Microsoft would undoubtedly be a boon for Microsoft, no matter how bad they bungle it, if only due to the subtraction of competition. But is it good for the consumer? Well, my initial reaction was one of fear and trepidation. Microsoft has a history of buying valuable properties, stripping them for parts, and baking them into their same old bread and butter offerings (Office, Windows, and MSN). Can you think of a single major online “brand” that has come out of Microsoft in the past 5 years? Windows Live? Maybe, but that’s a stretch.Yahoo, on the other hand, has successfully acquired and fortified brands like Flickr and “Microsoft™ Yahoo!™” is one thing, but “Microsoft™ Flickr™”, Well that idea can bring your typical Web 2.0 utopian to tears. Stripping Yahoo for parts would be terrible for the average Joe. Yahoo is loaded with so many interesting technologies and tools (Pipes, anyone?) that would undoubtedly be lost in the shuffle if Microsoft tries to pick it apart.However, what would be good for Microsoft, and for the consumer is if Microsoft plays it smart and realizes that Yahoo is a far more relevant brand in this day and age, and doesn’t mess with it. What the Yahoo acquisition can do for Microsoft is allow it to stop their hopeless and incredibly annoying strategy of building desktop software that tries to supplant the web.If Yahoo became Microsoft’s “bread and butter” (which would mean figuring out how to beat Google in the advertising market – no small feat), it would take an enormous amount of pressure off of Windows, which could actually once again become a useful, streamlined OS, instead of a bundle of “Look, you can’t do that on the Web!” whiz-bang eye candy features.Time will tell how this will play out. The great thing these days is that for every Yahoo site or feature that Microsoft ruins, there will be 10 scrappy startups ready to jump in and pick up the slack. And let’s not forget that Google was a scrappy startup a mere 10 years ago. Play your cards carefully, Microsoft…

The 0-1-N Fallacy

I don’t remember where I first heard the term “0-1-N Fallacy” (and Google doesn’t want to help), but I’m pretty sure I didn’t make it up. If anyone knows the source, please let me know so I can give credit where it is due.


The “0-1-N Fallacy” is a misguided design process based around the idea that if an application displays data records of some sort, it must handle exactly three cases – displaying 0 records, displaying 1 record, and displaying N records (where N can be any number from 2 – infinity)


The problem with the 0-1-N fallacy is that if you always design a product to scale to handle infinite records, you will invariably wind up with an overcomplicated user interface when N is a small number. In cases where N is almost always a small number, designing for unlimited scalability makes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.


One simple example is the usage of radio buttons vs. select boxes. Radio buttons are almost always preferable to select boxes when presenting a very small amount of choices – because the choices are always fully visible. If you absolutely must handle a case of unlimited options, you have to go with the select box. But if 90% of the time, you only have a small amount of options, you’ve made life much harder for the vast majority of cases, to handle the extreme outlying cases.


It may seem heresy to most engineers to claim that anything less than infinite scalability is good enough, but in UI design that is definitely the case. The iPhone, for example can only have 9 web pages open at once. It probably has the memory to hold dozens more, but if it held dozens, it would have to abandon the extremely elegant UI of “flicking” thumbnails to move between pages, and use a clunky list instead.


It may also seem heresy to apply semi-arbitrary limits on presented data but that’s why UI design is sometimes more of an art than a science. It takes experience and confidence to tell a developer “I don’t care if your search algorithm can present 1,000 options – presenting 5 is what’s right for the user.”


Advertising vs. Product Design

I used to work in advertising. Now I work in product design.Advertising is kind of like product design in reverse. You take a product that already exists – that may have gone through hundreds of incarnations and several changes of direction – and you pick it apart, asking yourself:

“What is there about this product that just happens to be different from all of its competitors? What Big Idea can we convince people was the motivating force behind this product all along?” 

Dunkin’ Donuts is a huge client for Hill, Holliday. Their idea is: “America Runs on Dunkin’”. It’s a GREAT idea. Dunkin’ Donuts stores are everywhere. People go to them when they need a pick me up during their day. An ad agency took a fast food chain that was selling a lot of coffee and donuts and saw it for what it really was: a gas station for human fuel.Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t even realize what it was until an ad agency told them. The ad agency extracted a Big Idea from an existing product. That’s quite a skill, and for that I hold talented advertising people in the highest regard.But advertising and its “idea archaelogy” strikes me as a tactic of last resort for a company that forgot to put the Big Idea in in the first place. And I’d much rather spend my time working with companies that need help putting their Big Ideas into new stuff, than with companies that need help digging Big Ideas out of old stuff.But that’s just me.

The Omni Future Almanac on Inflation

A while ago, I bought one of the coolest books ever – the Omni Future Almanac. The Omni Future Almanac was written in 1982, and its purpose is to describe what life will be like, well, now.An entire blog could be devoted to the contents of this book. Sometimes it’s spot on, sometimes it’s way off, but the most interesting parts are the ones where life could easily have turned out they way they describe if a butterfly flapped its wings in just a slightly different way.I’ve kept this book on a table in my office that I always walk by, and I’m constantly picking it up and perusing a random page. Today, it was about the effects of inflation. So, without further ado, here are the prices we’re looking at in 2010, three years from now (p. 158).

  • Hamburger (1 lb.) $22.71
  • Dozen Large Eggs: $18.00
  • Magazine: $30.00
  • Calculator: $50.00 (he he)
  • Postage Stamp: $2.25
  • Cup of coffee: $4.50 (OK, they kind of got that one right, in a weird way)
  • Three Room Apartment Monthly Rent: $10,000
  • Three Bedroom House: $1,000,000

Oh, but wait:

  • Gallon of Gas: $2.00

Well, the good news is that a factory worker will be making $197,000 a year to help pay for all this stuff (p. 159).

My Take on Amazon Kindle

Another year another eBook reader.   Ignoring the Kindle’s circa 1981 industrial design, here’s a simple experiment to explain why eBooks will never succeed:

  1. Make a list of the top 10 biggest geeks you know
  2. Make a list of the 10 people you know who own the most books

Create a Venn diagram of these lists.If the geeks don’t want their books digitized, who does?

Leopard Has Been a Bummer, Overall

So, anyone on the fence about upgrading to Mac OS X Leopard, just… don’t. I mean, it’s not as much a step backward as going from XP to Vista, but I’ve found very little in it that has improved my life. In fact, I’ve spent a whole lot of time figuring out how to hack away most of its changes:

  1. Removing the horrible translucent menu bar. Here’s how I did it.
  2. Getting rid of the ridiculous 3D dock. Here’s how I did it.
  3. Changing the folder icons to ones that are, well, distinguishable. Here’s a good set.
  4. Getting rid of the abysmal Stacks. Oops, can’t be done. But putting Aliases instead of folders in the dock can help. You don’t get the “show-as-menu-mouse-button-hold” thing, but at least you can avoid the stupid Fan and Grid views, and use a recognizable icon.

I also have never gotten my Aiport Disk drives to work quite right in Leopard, and Time Machine, the one compelling reason to upgrade, required a hack to work with my wireless drives.And just as a final note, the OS has literally lost its sheen. Sure, early versions of brushed metal were a bit tacky, but I really miss the faint pinstripes, metal textures and other subtle effects. The totally flat gray widows of Leopard are just… blah.I guess there’s some good back-end stuff going on in the Leopard kernel and whatnot but nothing that’s really changed MY life. And, of course, you can’t sell a $129 OS upgrade to regular folks without throwing in some new whizbang features. But I get the feeling that (aside from the brilliant Time Machine) Apple just focused on the back end for Leopard, and threw in some entirely rushed and thoughtless UI changes just to give folks the impression that they were buying an improved experience. I wouldn’t say that Emperor Leopard has no clothes, but they’re wearing out as quickly as a $20 acrylic sweater.