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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Hanging Around

On the occasion of the Rolling Stones’ 30 year anniversary, a journalist asked laconic drummer Charlie Watts, “what had it been like to spend three decades working with the band?”

“Five years of hard work,” he replied. “And 25 years of hangin’ around.”

Now Charlie Watts put the slink into Sympathy for the Devil and the pop into Satisfaction, so you can forgive a man a lot of hanging around when that’s what happens when he’s working. But if, in your next monthly catch up with your manager you announced you’d replicated this productivity ratio in the office – five days of hard work, 25 spent “hangin’ around” – you would likely be facing some tough questions. For all that digital leaders talk about outcomes not output, there is an invisible standard, a sort of “I know it when I see it” quality to what counts as being productive.

Most of us have internalised the fact there is no time for hanging around. Most productivity methods – Agile, Getting Things Done, Bullet Journals – have their things to say about “value” and “focus”, but the answers, the process, and the meat of what they’re about is basically throughput.

Make a list. Process it in some way, into categories. Get through it. Put a lot of ticks next to a lot of things.

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Maybe it just fades away

“It’s not going to last forever, but the best thing you can do is pack [your time] full of so much weirdness and ideas that when you look at the wall of memories… we’re not feeling sadness for what once was, we’re just overwhelmed at everything we got to accomplish.”

Great talk by Cabel Sasser from Panic – it’s mostly about anxiety, of both the short term and the long term type. It reminds me of this Steve Jobs video, where he talks about the way digital work becomes obsolete very, very quickly – and in that case, what does it mean to really care about it? What persists?

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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