Zen Digest

  • What is not there is often more important than what is
  • Ask yourself what is most important

The Whole Picture

Years ago, I believed that to convince people I was smart, I had to add something into every conversation.  Opinions, facts, it didn’t matter, as long as I got in some words, I felt I was doing the right thing.  I’m sure tons of people heard me, but I’m not sure they listened.  In fact, I’m sure the more I talked, the less they listened.

Humans are wired very interestingly.  We are very aware of things that break the normal – a loud crash on an otherwise quiet day, a bright light in the dark – contrast is easy to spot.  We are also extremely good at drowning out “white noise.”  When something becomes common our brain simply filters it out.  Because of this, the information we share is actually less important than the things we choose not to share.

The principal is simple but has huge implications in all manners of business and life.  According to Statista 21% of people abandon an online shopping cart because the process is too long.  Often times your name, or address will be asked twice, or information that is simply not necessary (such as a shipping address when buying a digital product) are collected.  All of this additional information leads to noise that makes for difficult solutions.

Or think about a basic marketing flyer.  Imagine the two following possible flyers for a PTA bake sale:

Flyer 1: “PTA Bake Sale – 10/30 3pm – 4pm in the Auditorium”

Flyer 2: “The PTA is having a Bake Sale on October 30th at 3pm to 4pm in the Auditorium.  Cupcakes, brownies, muffins, and more!  Everything $1 – $5.  All proceeds go towards the PTA’s fundraising campaign to help the senior trip.”

Both are informational, but flyer 1 can be in a large font type, easily visible and the most important details can be remembers – 10/30, 3-4pm, Auditorium.  In Flyer 2, the reader has to figure out what are the key details.  When presented with further information, they need to assess – is it important for me to remember that this is for the senior trip?  Do the prices matter?  The critical goal is to get people to show up.

The silence rule also applies to personal matters.  If we are constantly talking, we risk not actually being heard.  I believe I’ve mentioned to the listen that I’ve often written an email then upon re-reading it realized that I wasn’t really saying something new, or adding value, and simply deleted the email instead of sending.  While it felt weird at first, I honestly think more good has come from me hitting delete than send.  I’ve saved myself time – as in some cases I no longer have to defend an unpopular opinion (especially in a debate which can never be won) and by limiting the times I hit send, I actually increase the value of the content that does get sent.  Think of it like a treat.  If you had to eat your favorite desert for every meal, you’d get tired of it quickly, but by having it occasionally, it remains something you are happy to see put in front of you for consumption.

It is that exact reason that I did not send Zens the past two weeks.  I simply did not feel like I had something of value I could send.  I also hope this provided you value, happiness, and satisfaction.  Have a wonderful day.


Memory Management

Zen Digest

  • Outsource the task of remembering lots of short-term tasks
  • Be mindful of how you’re using memory (both technical and human)
  • 7 is the magic number of things we can remember

The Whole Picture

According to Miller’s Law, the human brain can store between 5 and 9 (most commonly 7) objects in short-term active memory.  I’ve always tried my best to be a man of my word, and in doing so, I needed to ensure that I remembered to do everything I agreed to do.  In business meetings, I did this by always taking notes.  I even have a system for marking items that are follow-up questions, tasks, etc.  But, in my personal life, it’s not very convenient to carry around a notebook and take notes during conversations – so I use my phone.

In a previous post, I noted about how I use an app called, which is a very simple task-management (really it’s just a list maker app) and it has been great for me to offload short-term memory management.  For tasks that are time-sensitive – “switch over the laundry” for example – I create a calendar item with a reminder.  An hour or so later, I get a notification that I need to move the laundry.  I free my mind from having to remember about the laundry.

This sort of outsourcing is wonderful as it not only frees up processing and storage in your brain, it also reduces stress – as you never have to worry about remembering little things (or worse, forgetting things).

Now we get technical.  Computers are similar to your brain in that they have two different types of memory – RAM (similar to short term) and a hard drive, similar to your long-term memory.  RAM is extremely fast, but much more expensive than a hard drive (as of writing this, you can get a 1,000 GB hard drive for $50 or 4GB of RAM for $45.  While 4GB is quite a bit of storage, it can get used up very quickly, especially when writing inefficient or sloppy code.  While web programming doesn’t give you much control over how to do memory management, the rules by which the browser does manage memory is well defined.

Whether you are programming or simply trying to remember a grocery list, it’s important to determine the best way to store that information to keep yourself and your code efficient.


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.



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.


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.


Make Someone Smile

The end result of nearly everything we do in life should be to make someone smile.  By setting a goal to make someone smile randomly, you will create a much better experience.

Making an application where there is a 10 second wait time?  Sure, you could have your basic hourglass or spinner, but what about a smiley face?

Ultimately it comes down to surprises.  Have you ever been to an office that has a silly poster up next to the copy machine or office printer?  You often have about a minute of downtime while your document prints, and you could pull out your phone and check messages, but you often look around and do nothing.  A simple poster gives you something to read – and a chance to smile.

Little things like this add up.  Back in college, I ran I website called CollegeBoredom.  My roommate, to help promote, printed up signs that said “Thanks to wifi, this stall brings you!” and it included a random funny image from the site.  He stuck them in bathroom stalls around campus.  Since smartphones weren’t a thing at the time, people read the posters, laughed, and I saw a pretty big spike in traffic.


Stupid Questions

When solving any problem, ask stupid questions and ask them first.  We’ve all heard “there are no stupid questions…” but what does that really mean, and what is a “stupid” question.  Many feel that a stupid question is one that you should know the answer to: “What year is it?” “What color is my hair?” and “What is Google?” may be classified as stupid questions.  Additionally, stupid questions may also be classified as ones for which the answer seems too obvious, “Why would you use an umbrella when it rains?”  “Why can’t cars drive themselves?”  “Why can’t it be sunny every day?”

These questions – without any context – are fairly meaningless, but a stupid question with the right context can actually be the most intelligent question.

To address the first type of “stupid” questions – if you need clarity on a term being used, chances are others do to.  Ask it early, it will help your understanding and ensure that everyone is on the same page.  Many people have correct, yet slightly off-target definitions of things.  When a speaker clarifies their definitions, it helps everyone.

As for the second, asking silly questions can ultimately yield to a more creative and better solution than traditional thinking will get you to.  Sometimes push your question to an extreme.  “What if I ate the same thing for breakfast every morning?”  “What if we get customers to answer their own questions?”  “What if we reward customers for helping other customers?”  “What if we get the art department to design awards for other departments during their downtime?”  “What if we pull out all the food about to expire and make a meal with it…”  The possibilities are endless and can lead to some very positive results.


UI vs UX

UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) are common design terms and are sometimes used interchangeably.  The reality is – they are two very different concepts with two very different purposes.

The UI is the way a user interfaces with a computer.  UI can include a mouse and buttons that get clicked, text inputs where information is entered via a keyboard, or a microphone where the user speaks and the commands are parsed from voice.  When you view a website and things fly in from all directions, and ask to be clicked, that is all user interface.

UX is one step beyond all that.  If done correctly, the UI is born of the UX.  The UX is about mapping the user’s experience and desires.  When a user signs in to Facebook, what do they really want to see?  How do they want to see it?  What information is most important, and how should it be displayed.  Once those questions have been answered, only then can a truly effective UI be created.

This doesn’t just apply to the digital world.  Lets say you are in charge of your office’s “What’s going on” board.  You could simply put up a cork board and let people put up fliers wherever, or you could give guidance and put up some dates, so that things get posted in chronological order.  Or, have things geared towards kids at the bottom (so kids can read them) and adults at the top.  By giving visual prompts or proper signage, you greatly increase the value of the function as well as reduce the time spent figuring out what may be of interest.

Whenever there is an interaction, there is an experience.  In our personal and professional lives we should all strive to create the best experiences possible for those around us.  Life is too short not to.


What you see…

Since the rise of desktop computing, there has been a great deal of software labeled WYSIWYG (Wizzy-wig – What You See Is What You Get).  For example, Microsoft Word.  When you typed was exactly what you saw on a printed page.  This is great when dealing with a static medium (a printed page, a video that will be put on a DVD) but when you’re dealing with software (and yes, ebooks are software) WYSIWYG can actually be a terrible misnomer and create headaches.

With technology, there is always a trade off between control and ease.  If something is to be made very easy (such as creating a 1-page document in Word) you’re sacrificing control over what you can do with that document, as well as how portable it is.  This is where learning how to program, such as HTML & CSS can be very useful.

As with anything, it is important to know what your desired outcome is and to use the tool that is best for the job.  Hand-coding a simple document in LaTeX that you only intend to print out is unnecessary, but writing a science textbook in Word that you plan to distribute an ebook is a terrible idea.



Language was developed as a means for species to effectively translate important messages.  The most memorable of messages is one delivered in a story.  From the simplest – “Bear large, run from bear.  Boar small, hit with pointy stick, feast,” to the most complex, what makes them truly memorable is that they are part of a story.

In whatever you do, ask yourself, what is the narrative?  How can you connect the dots?  If you’re trying to convey a new idea, explain it from the point of view of the user – what is the user’s problem, what is their mood — what is their story.

One of the reasons social media has exploded is that it lets us tell stories.  Facebook even changed their “wall” to be a timeline – a series of events.  While our daily lives may not be as interesting as those in fiction novels, we are invested in the lives of our friends and family, and can’t wait to turn the page to see what happens next.

This can apply to any job, any technology, any situation.  Have a story to tell.