The local maximum is one of the most interesting and frightening ideas in UX and product management:
“The local maximum is a point in which you’ve hit the limit of the current design… Even if you make 100 tweaks you can only get so much improvement; [the design] is as effective as it’s ever going to be on its current structural foundation.”
For many tasks and activities targeted by digital services, Google search, and everything that follows (SEO, “How to do X” titles for posts, prioritisation of the freshest content etc) – represents a local maximum: a reasonable but ultimately sub-optimal approach.
Search’s influence is extremely deep. It’s what the web has been built around for the last ten years: it’s where journeys start and it’s how many commercial sites make money. It’s why content is created as it is, why sites are designed just so and its business model is what we look to. If you’ve grown up with the web and are now thinking about digital products, it’s practically in your bones. You can minimise the importance of search – Buzzfeed is one such example – but that tends to mean focussing on Social. Yet even Facebook, which is regularly touted as ushering in a post-Google world, has just deliberately moved back towards search, as though it’s a mountain it needs to conquer.
Tomorrow, the ABC figures for UK magazines will be released, and for many titles, these will show big drops in circulation. You’ll see a lot of tweets, posts and commentary about how the dead tree media is dying, and how traditional publishers are failing to deal with the hand digital is dealing them.
There is some truth to this, but of course the story is more complex than that.
One of the things I wanted to do more of this year was write about digital products. I’m going to start with Quora, because it’s a site I keep coming back to you, and yet I don’t think they know what they’re doing.
Their announcement of a blogging platform this week is a good illustration of how lost they are. Quora hasn’t given a compelling reason for it to exist, so it looks like the main motivation was the momentum behind Medium and Branch. It’s a shame Quora feels so lost, because part of what has been created there – by both the team and community – is brilliant. I also think Quora is worth studying because it exemplifies both the thinness and the brilliance of many shoot-for-the-moon start-ups with digital products.
“Quora connects you to everything you want to know about,” says the site’s About page (though they just changed it to “Quora is your best source of knowledge”).
Lofty. That’s shooting for the moon. And of course, a terrible curse to place on your product.
A walk, a train ride and another walk; the office to home, the home to the office. It’s a thin but strong thread, past hotels and theatres, schools and council houses. This evening, past a Japanese couple, silk and suit, flowing seamlessly from a Mercedes to the Opera House, and a bundle of sleeping bags in a Post Office doorway and an EMT huddled against the window of an ambulance, waiting with coffee and paper in hand. I only notice these few, because I have a train to catch and only 19 minutes to get desk to platform, and 10 minutes the other side, platform to kitchen.
Every now and then in London, you catch yourself, suddenly aware of the volume of people. All sense of it: noise and mass, an endless surge. You can stand back from the tube platform and watch train after train sweep people in and sweep people out, and endless flow. They are almost never empty. If you’ve ever got on the tube and wondered who are these people, where do they come from and why they’re wearing their expressions, then Craig Taylor’s book Londoners is perfect – it feels like you’re peeking inside the millions who pass you every day, as it’s a series of interviews with a wide range of people linked to the city, brilliantly paced, arranged and edited. It starts and ends with a pilot, talking about the descent and ascent from Heathrow, and in between are, it seems, all the multitudes who share the streets, all talking about who they are.
It’s a testament to how good a year in reading 2012 was that such a great book wasn’t the best thing I read. In short, 2012 was probably my best year in books since I started tracking what I was reading on this blog in 2007: I gave seven of this year’s choices five stars. Of course, I don’t really write full reviews and scoring books seems pointless, so really five stars is just a shorthand for “books I will buy over and over as presents, apologies, reminders and inspiration.”
Thanks to work, I spent the second half of the year with even more and ever better reading devices than ever before – iPhone 5, retina iPad, Kindles of many stripe – but the list of books read is as slender as it’s been since I started tracking it. While I’ve been really enjoying saving stuff from the web to Pocket and reading them at my leisure, the real cause in the drop was a conscious effort to learn more for work. I spent a lot of time in the autumn reading business tomes, product management manifestos and UX volumes, often picking chapters, so it just didn’t seem right recording them here. Below, then, is just the fun stuff.
‘It took me several months to make it back, and he grew annoyed. When I finally let myself in through the front door, he didn’t get up from his chair. His form sagged so exaggeratedly into the sofa, it was as if thieves had crept through and stolen his bones and left him there. He gestured at the smoky stone fireplace with its enormous black andirons and said, “Boy, I’m sorry the wood’s so poor. I had no idea I’d be alive in November.”’
That’s a stellar paragraph I clipped from Pulphead, the widely praised collection of essays by US journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan. The essay in question – Mr Lytle – can be read in full on the Paris Review website. I’ve still not finished the book itself, but it’s really terrific, each essay a well crafted story with sentences that confound the reader in the best possible ways. Recommended.
One of the few regular things I’ve done regularly on this blog is tracking books I’ve read; I started the year off by defecting to Pinterest, but got nowhere with it. Something about that layout. For all that people make out Pinterest is a site for curating and collecting, it’s really a shop, isn’t it? Showing all these book covers makes it seem more like the 3-for-2 tables at Waterstones than a library…
So, here I am, back on the blog. After the jump, books from the first half of the year, summary verdicts and mistake filled summaries.
It’s been over a year since I walked slowly away from Flickr; I really love Instagram, but I take Instagram photos for my Instagram friends with it. Since my quiet exit from Flickr the pictures I take with my dSLR have just been sitting on my hard disk, and every now and then I’ve taken them out on my iPad. Until now, that is: I think Tumblr is terrific and I found an excellent photo-friendly theme, so I’ve decided to try and run a daily photo blog.
It’s called Malevolent Aesthetic Bacon Takedown, just so I can prove SEO hasn’t won. That, and I’ve had the name on the shelf for too long. Take a look, daily updates, pretty pictures, it’ll be great.
A photo from this time last year, taken inside Montreal’s amazing Biosphere. Designed by Buckminster Fuller and built in 1967 for the World’s Fair, it’s a geodesic dome, strong, light, and enclosing a huge amount of space. It’s a beautiful building – full of benign faith in the future.
“This isn’t just false humility. It’s false humility with a point. My case illustrates how success is always rationalized. People really don’t like to hear success explained away as luck — especially successful people. As they age, and succeed, people feel their success was somehow inevitable. They don’t want to acknowledge the role played by accident in their lives. There is a reason for this: the world does not want to acknowledge it either.”
Michael Lewis’ speech at Princeton has some great one liners wrapped around a really interesting point, and one that’s come up in a few things I’ve been reading recently: the importance -unfashionable and anti-individualistic though it is – of luck. Or positioning, or being on the right side of big shifts. I think about it a lot when it comes to my work (digital product design), and the decline of print. I think about it when it comes to success and attention, and politics too, given the UK’s current government, and their desire to reduce the reach of the welfare state. And I like Lewis’ speech especially because it’s not just about recognising the role of luck and saying, “yes, luck helped me”; it’s where he takes that message:
“Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck — and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your Gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.”