Who Moved my Button?

Zen Digest

  • When a user looks for something, they have an expectation on where it should be.
  • Put your buttons and actions where the user expects them.
  • In nearly all other cases, people love to be surprised and delighted.

The Whole Picture

Continuing in my thought on identity, I was trying to justify the concept that “variety is the spice of life” and the “who moved my cheese” principle that people dislike change at first, even if it is for the better.  Often times, especially in the hard sciences, when you have two conflicting theories or concepts, only one (or neither) is correct.  But, in the social sciences, it is possible that both could be true – or at least that both could apply at the same time without conflict.

I set out to try to identify situations where we love consistency yet variety.  I came up with tons of examples.  When in a long-term relationship, we love seeing the same person, but appreciate when they wear a variety of clothing.  We like driving the same car every day, but would go crazy listening to the same song on repeat during our commute.  Everywhere I looked, I found specific attributes that are more desirable static, and others that are more desirable as variable.

When designing or creating anything, it is important to determine what attributes should remain similar to a user’s desire, and what can be different.  If you’re designing a car, you want to make sure the gas pedal, brake pedal, and steering wheel are in the same relative position as every other car – that’s something people want static.  But, when designing cup holders, the radio controls, etc, you have much more freedom.  When it comes to products of all varieties, I imagine there are much more variable attributes than the current designers imagine.  But, inversely, when it comes to the internet, it feels to me like designers see too many items as variable when indeed they should be viewed at static.

There are certain design concepts that are pretty standard for nearly every website.  Take sign in and sign up.  While there are some well-defined design principles around this, I’ve seen all manners of sign in and sign up forms that have buttons in all different locations of the site.  With the advent and the rise of mobile phone use (and small device use) designers rushed to optimize.  Now, different paradigms exist for a user.  You have the same website/app on your phone and your computer, but what are you expectations for functionality or button placement?  If something is a static element, then as a user, I expect it in the same place in all experiences.  If it is not, it causes me confusion and unhappiness. But, if the button is exactly where I was looking for it, that makes me a happy user.

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Identity

Identity is one of the strongest concepts of both life and technology.  Identities define who we are, what we can – and cannot – do.  They are extremely powerful, but with all power comes the potential for abuse.

To be honest, I’ve written this post many times before, yet, deleted them over and over again.  By the end, I either failed to clearly get my message across, or simply tried to say too much in 1000 or so words.  This is such a critical topic, that I wanted to do it justice.  I wanted to make sure that my words were clear, my story complete, and that people came out with a better understanding of the power of identity and how it can be used to make themselves better and to make their creations better.

The best place to start is probably the beginning.  When I was a kid, I was different from others.  And I had an ego to boot.  That combination made me an easy target for bullying.  At the time, it wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I can happily say that I made it out alive and with no physical scars and minimal emotional scars.  In fact, I’d even say that if it weren’t for the teasing and the bullying, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.

It was either the summer before my junior or senior year of high school that I realized maybe it was something I was doing that brought about all the teasing.  At the time I couldn’t quite grasp that I wasn’t perfect, but I clearly saw that people didn’t see me as perfect.  The question became – how do I bridge the identity crisis I had that the identity I had for myself was different from the identity that others had placed on me.  This disconnect lead to miscommunication, and probably a large amount of bullying and teasing.

So began my yearly quest to re-evaluate my identity.  It started small – I tried to go through a week in my life in third person.  I watched my mannerisms, my words, and how they affected others.  Annoying traits that I had, I tried to suppress, and things that people enjoyed, I tried to accentuate.  It made things a little easier, but it didn’t get to the root of the problem – the identity I had given myself was not in tune with reality.  No amount of acting would change that.

After a few years of re-evaluation, I came across a crazy programming concept of the completely-mutable object.  This is a concept/object in which you do not predefine any functions or attributes.  They are all defined when the application is run.  This allows for great flexibility, but arguably, too much.  Imagine a car being able to transform into a plane, then a house, then a horse.  A drive down I95 becomes a bit more complex, no?

I discovered this concept around the same time as I was taking my yearly re-evaluation and I had an epiphany – maybe humans have a completely mutable identity, we just refuse to change the values.  This thinking took me down a path of complete mutability.  I mirrored the personalities of whomever I was spending time with.  I tried to give up the attributes that I thought were me while taking on new attributes.  The experiment had interesting results, but ultimately ended in failure.  For those who didn’t know me, they accepted my identity as whatever I showed them, which was very much a mirror of themselves.  For those that knew me, my changes caused confusion and uneasiness.

Ultimately, a mutable identity made me lose a sense of self, because I never knew if I was a car, plane, house, or a horse.  But, the experiment showed me that I don’t have to live in a box, and that I can have fun if I just let go.  It also taught me the power of perception.  Following this experiment, I quickly fell back into the old me, mainly because that is how others saw me and it was easier for me to accept that identity than to try to forge yet another.

Identity is a powerful force.  It is what leads to racism, hate, and mislead ignorance.  Evolutionary, it probably has some strong purpose.  We can learn which animal species we can trust, and which we must avoid.  We can learn behavioral patterns and apply them to other animals of the same species to best capture them or avoid being their prey.

Ultimately there are three identities in play when dealing with another human.  There is the identity that person believes, the identity you have formed from your interactions, and the identity you’ve inferred.  Inferred identity is where bias and prejudice comes from.  Someone wears a specific type of clothes, therefore they must be in a gang.  If they are in a gang, they are dangerous.  If they are dangerous, they should be avoided…  All of that inferred simply from an article of clothing.  Unless it’s a shirt with a gang slogan or emblem on it, with gang colors, in an area where that gang resides, it’s probably off base.

But then there is the more subtle identity crisis.  The one between the identity you’ve given someone and the identity they believe is their own.  Chances are, neither of those matches with reality, which increases the chances that those two identities differ.  It is true that first impressions are amazingly strong.  The identity you associate with someone when first meeting them sticks hard.  Meet someone when you’re having a bad day?  Chances are it will take you a long time for them to update their identity of you.

These disconnects lead us to fear and miscommunication.  How many times have you thought “X will may this person happy” then done X, and it didn’t make them happy?  From their side, they think, “How did they not know Y makes me happy?”  Everyone feels dissatisfied, simply because there was not an acknowledgement of the identity gap.  Worse is when we refuse to accept that an identity has changed.  Treating an adult like a child, or a smoker who wants to quit as still a smoker.  By pushing your concept of an identity on someone else, you could make it more difficult for that person to change their own identity.

I used to think it was love that would save the world – compassion.  While we need compassion, the only thing that will save the world is education, understanding, and an acceptance that identities are both mutable and powerful.  There are religious zealots who cannot let go of words spoken over 1500 years ago and continue to fight and kill an enemy that they cannot possibly reason with.  The identity gap is simply too far.  Around the world, there is conflict everywhere that stems so greatly from identity gaps.  Pride and the inability to accept that the identities you have for people and yourself may not match up with reality have held us back from such great progress.

This is normally the point where I read through what I’ve written, and delete it all, because I’ve failed to convey my message, or worse, failed to come up with a conclusion that tied it all together.  While a better writer would have done a much better job, this message will reach your eyes, and hopefully the message will be clear.  I have no conclusion, and by far I have no solution.  But, I hope to continue to educate, and to share my insights and maybe even inspire people to be happier, and to help others be better.  It’s hard to think of myself as a grown man, because inside I feel like a child, still searching for his purpose, searching for his identity.  I’ve spent years refining, chipping away at the ego I hated so much, and trying to bolster the good.  I’ve come so far, but my journey has barely begun.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

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Responsibility

Zen Digest

  • We have a responsibility to do the right thing
  • Our responsibility is derived from a desire to persist the human race

The Whole Picture

When we produce, we affect the world around us.  Every action we have has consequences.  Every plant we plant reduces carbon in our atmosphere, while every mile we drive in our car increases carbon.  Every mile we walk instead of drive saves potential emissions.

But there are less black and white cause and effects.  I started my corporate life in the Finance industry.  For the most part, the products we created helped the rich get richer.  At the end of the day, I wanted to have a more positive impact on the world around me, so I got back into the start-up world working on products that provided more value to general consumers.

But, on an even smaller scale, the decisions we make – such as build or buy – when it comes to software or technology make a great difference.  You could upgrade your phone every 2 years, or every 3.  The amount of waste saved by upgrading every 3 truly adds up.  Also, when faced with having to create your own solution to a problem, if you can find an existing solution, you can save yourself days of work with simply a small amount of up-front research.  This time can be spent solving bigger and more complex problems.

Education is the crux of all of this.  We must constantly learn about how our world works.  Everything we do has a cost, and it isn’t always in dollars.  In fact, it’s often the items that cost the least amount of money that have the greatest overall cost to the world.

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One Size Does Not Fit All

Zen Digest

  • You cannot be all things to all people
  • You can only solve one problem at a time

The Whole Picture

Last week I attended a Think Tank of sorts who’s purpose was to create the perfect bookstore.  It was a two-day event for which I was a passive participant (I listened in to the live-stream) on the first day, and attended the second.  The first day was full of excitement and grandiose ideas.  Terms like “zero-click reading” were being tossed around, and the team seemed to believe that they were about to create this world where authors were well paid, readers were getting the best prices, and everyone was perfectly happy.  While all of these goals are great, reality set in on day two.

The first thing we realized was that, assuming all our assumption were correct, to build this new bookstore would take resources far beyond our means.  As we tried to narrow down the purpose into an MVP (minimal viable product) we started to realize the struggle between what is good for one party, what the current publishing ecosystem supports, etc.  Ultimately it can be summarized by noting that there is no perfect bookstore for all players.

In attempting to create something that is meant to solve too many problems, you are often left with something that doesn’t completely solve any problems, and tries to fit in places it should not.  This isn’t to say that everything you create should be a single-purpose device, but think of the best multi-tools (leatherman, swiss army knife, etc).  They have eight to ten tools, but all of them solve common and different problems.  They are small enough to comfortably fit into a pocket.

One final note – you don’t even need to solve a problem of the masses.  There are plenty of under-served demographics, such as people with disabilities, where technology could greatly benefit.

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