On Noticing

I’ve been working – or at the very least, sitting at various desks, typing – for about 18 years. Before I had a career, I thought what I would do was write literature, or at the very least, serviceable novels. Then I spent a few years as a technology journalist, and another few as an editor. By the time I was 30 that had plateaued. I’ve worked in Product Management for nearly a decade since then, and I’ve actually been fairly successful. I lead a great team, and the product we work on reaches hundreds of millions of people.

But I’m not sure “Product Management” is really the thing I am good at. For starters, it’s not a specific, single thing, and for seconds, it’s such an early 21st century role that it may well disappear or certainly change radically over the next 20 years, to the point that it won’t make any sense to look back and say “I was good at that,” because that will not be there any more.

So what have I become good at over the course of working for nearly two decades? What skills have I developed?

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On Stone Circles and Building Things

1.

Itis fairly common in England to see small plaques set into the front of older houses with chiselled numbers saying when they were built. 1906, 1871, 1832. In Cartmel, a little village at the southern tip of the Lake District, home of a couple of very good restaurants, there’s a little whitewashed stone cottage, and in black paint above the door, the date of its construction: 1776.

At the same time as the Declaration of Independence was being signed in North America, under the cloudy skies of Northern England, somebody built this small house, putting stone after stone on top of each other to fashion solid, rough walls with their backs to the rising hills.

People still argue over America’s founding ideals; they wonder if those ideals make sense still. The white house in Cartmel still makes perfect sense today. It is lived in, wired up for power, water and wifi and worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. So it functions just as you’d expect any brand new house to function: as a home, as an asset and as a node on the network.

For some reason, I have no photos of this house, even though I can picture it exactly. I remember having this thought, too — about it being built at such an interesting point in history — as we walked past, and I didn’t tweet it. My little interaction with it is gone, but no matter. The next person to go past doesn’t need any written clues from me. They know what the little house is for.

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On Snowfallen, and pollen for readers

Bobbie Johnson wrote a good critique of Snowfall, and I wrote a riposte on the work blog:

“Johnson assumes there’s one type of reader, the dedicated long-hauler who will diligently read 8,000 words about your topic. There are indeed some of these people. But there are many other types of readers, many skimmers, who will likely not be that entranced by your topic, or your opening line.

It is for these types of people that “magazine-style design” (for want of a better term), where you have a core story of flowing text surrounded by many box-outs, pull-quotes, maps and sidebars developed. These act like pollen to bees: they’re attractive, interesting and sticky. They provide a different take on the topic the article is addressing, and different entry points.”

 

Search is a local maximum

The local maximum is one of the most interesting and frightening[1] 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.

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Print is dying, but it’s not black and white

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.

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On Quora, empathy and editorial value

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.

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Where you come from, where you go

In the phone's gallery

I went to New York last week, mostly for work, but I had two free days at the end to explore the city. I took, as always, a Lonely Planet guidebook, but most of the time I built a list of places to go from going online. It strikes me now how easy the world has become, and simultaneously, how difficult.

It’s easy to find places in a new city now. I wrote ‘in New York’ on Facebook and people sent me bits and pieces of information. I looked at I suppose what you would call conventional review sites, places like Tripadvisor and Chowhound. I had places bookmarked and saved in a list on Simplenote, restaurants and shops and bars that had been mentioned in RSS feeds the few months previous to the trip. There were some saved bookmarks (Pinboard now Delicious is dying), and I went for a coffee at La Colombe Torrefaction in Soho because Joanne McNeil posted a photo of a beautiful coffee on Instagram just the week before I was due to go, and of course, everything on Instagram is neatly geo-tagged.

It’s hard to work all this out. It’s hard if you’re someone who doesn’t live on the internet; conventional search is just so bad at getting to it. I’ve built this delicate web of connections and conduits over years. Ways of filing information, having it there and ready. Ways of trusting people, too – I’ve never actually met Joanne McNeil, just swapped a few tweets and read her blog for a long time and yet that picture was all I needed to know that La Colombe Torrefaction would be selling one fine cup of coffee. Typing “best places in NYC for x” into Google is weak compared to all this, but it’s all most people have.

And it’s hard to work out if you’re talking about advertising. One of the chimeras on the web is stats: you get some numbers and you think they describe the world perfectly, completely. Entry pages, exit pages. Conversion rates. Numbers leave no room for the messiness and the softness, the permeability of the real world. Advertising played a role in where I went: it was on the sites I visited, and to take the coffee place as an example, the look and feel of its own site was important to me. But accounting for that? When, as a commercial person, you’re doing your reports for the money you spent? That would be hard. So much of the research for that trip wasn’t caught in the numbers – or to give the Google argument maybe it was, it’s just buried very deeply.