We should teach our kids sports, music, painting…Everything we teach should be different from machines…we have to teach something unique, so that a machine can never catch up with us. – Jack Ma

The sweet spot of innovation

Q: How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A: Does it really have to be a light bulb?

Designers are (in)famous for always trying to come up with the unexpected; the “next big thing”. Early in my career I even described my goal as delivering “not what was asked for, but something new and better”. It’s a dangerous trait that often puts us at odds with our teammates, who are typically more focused on tangible metrics and engineering milestones.

When I worked on Glass, there was disagreement among team members about whether we were building a research prototype or a mass-market consumer product. A research project would focus on pushing the boundaries and learning as much as possible. A consumer product would need to fit existing use cases and appeal to a wide audience. Unsurprisingly, people on each side of the argument proposed wildly different approaches to product design, engineering, marketing, and sales.

In the end, we built a research prototype and marketed it as a consumer product, which didn’t work out very well. We didn’t achieve success in the market, and because we were distracted by selling, we didn’t learn as much as we should have. Glass was the classic example of a product that was ahead of its time…but of course being too early is the same as being wrong.

This talk by Jon Friedman, a designer who worked on the Kin, the Courier, SPOT watches and other Microsoft hardware misadventures, tells some of the same stories. I admire Jon’s work (and I loved the Kin!), but watching the talk I became increasingly uncomfortable with the repeated similar failures. After all, the point of “failing fast” is not the failing–it’s the learning. Designers of these highly innovative products aren’t learning the lessons of past failures.

Glass and the failed Microsoft products share at least one trait: they all tried to change entire systems, all at once. Glass innovated on form factor, hardware technology, interface design, software architecture, marketing, sales, and support. The Microsoft Kin had new industrial design, stored your phone in the cloud, and changed the way you pay for the phone.

One of the most interesting lessons I learned from working for Tony Fadell (who took over the Glass project) was the idea that a new product should be 90% familiar and 10% wildly innovative. A product that’s too far out, that doesn’t feel connected to anything people recognize, will be too uncomfortable to succeed. But of course if you’re not innovative enough, no one will need what you’ve built. So now I set up an “innovation budget” to track how much change my designs are forcing on people, and I’m careful to keep that amount in check. The goal is to find the “sweet spot” of innovation where a design is both desirable and acceptable.

Friedman goes on to describe his own career shift from working on early-stage speculative new products to making smaller improvements to the Exchange platform, a mature system with lots of customers. He found that it was not only an interesting design challenge, but also fulfulling to make an immediate difference at scale.

He also describes a strategy of combining “something new and something old”–taking new technology into existing markets, or existing technology into new markets. In either case, you only have to invent half of the solution, as the other half has already been figured out.

Paul Rand said “Don’t try to be original; just try to be good.” Innovation is plentiful in design today…it’s important to stay focused on making the “basics” great as well. To evolve my younger self’s goal: the sweet spot of innovation is the place where you fulfill what was asked for, and provide something better.

Measuring national curiousity

So, curiosity is a pretty weak motivator, unfortunately…in society, if you measure how much fear motivates you versus how much curiosity motivates you, it’s actually measurable: it’s the ratio of the defense budget versus the science budget. – Peter Diamandis

The purpose of reading is to write

I’ve long struggled with the fact that I forget most of what I read. I read mostly for fun, but it’s disappointing when what I read doesn’t affect my life.

Writing about books seems to help me remember what I read. The additional thinking required to write down and compress my thoughts solidifies the lessons from the book. A good friend once said that “no one can ever teach you anything; they can only help you realize what you actually believe already.” Writing about what I read further distills the ideas and helps me “know what I believe”.

There’s also an imbalance created by only taking in ideas and not putting them back out. Writing helps me let go of ideas, making room for new things.

So now when I find a new book to read, I ask myself “what will you write about this?” The books that seem like good writing inspiration are also usually the best reads as well.

(inspired by a tweet from Steve Sinofsky…sure, tweets count as writing too!)

Hijacking habits

My college (and then Google) friend Tristan Harris has been doing some great work communicating the dangers of “attention-hacking” and the dark sides of social technology. A recent video he made on how the instant gratification of smartphones creates bad habits got me thinking about how I’ve successfully stopped bad habits and started good ones in the past.

1. Hijack bad habits with good ones

BJ Fogg, an expert on persuasive technology who taught Tristan at Stanford, runs a “[Tiny Habits]” course that emphasizes creating “triggers” that will remind you to do your new habit. I find that I can often use the urge to do a bad habit as my trigger to instead do my new good habit.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, calls this “routine replacement”– hijacking the cue and the reward, and inserting a different routine between them.

In my method, the bad habit isn’t technically “forbidden”–it’s just delayed and distracted enough by the good habit that it usually has no power left.

I also find it’s helpful to use a good habit that’s in the opposite direction as the bad habit–if the bad habit is eating junk food, the good habit is eating brocolli

2. Make those new good habits as small as possible

Right now I have a rule that I will do 1 pushup per day, and take one mindful breath per day.

Now, by the time I get down on the floor to do that 1 pushup, or take the time to have one mindful breath, I almost always end up doing a lot more. But even if I don’t, the success of completing the habit each day is the strongest reinforcement I’ve found to solidify it.


A few small examples of how I’ve applied this strategy:

  • Before I check my social media feeds, I take 10 mindful breaths
  • Before I read blog posts, I write one (that’s what I’m doing now!)
  • Before I eat candy or junk food, I eat a vegetable
  • Before I drink a beer or glass of wine, I drink two glasses of water
  • Before I say (or write) something bad about someone, I say something good about them

As you might imagine, doing the good habit first usually kills the urge to do the bad one. Some of the good habits address the same core needs as bad ones but in different ways (giving the mind something to focus on; learning something new; satisfying hunger; quenching thirst); others provide a cognitive dissonance that makes it hard to follow one with the other (saying good then bad things about someone).

It sometimes feels trivial to optimize such small things, but they add up. As Annie Dillard wrote:

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

A system for all of us

My all-time favorite last line of a book comes from William McDonough’s “Upcycle” (about ways to build products that enrich the environment rather than harm it) where he closes by saying:

It’s going to take all of us, and it’s going to take forever. And that’s the point.

We’re at an interesting point in history, where for the first time most of the people in the world have significant resources and freedom, but that has brought with it environmental destruction and growing inequality. It’s clear that the current path we’re on is not one that we can follow together forever…but what is a viable alternative?

Economics is one of the foundations of a society, so the economics of a collective system are crucial. Daniel Schmachtenberger has put together an interesting list of the criteria a collective economic system must support :

  • It must align the incentives of all individuals with each other and with the commons
  • It must work well with new systems of governance, law, intelligence, infrastructure, and worldview
  • It must solve the problems of today’s systems: perverse incentives, private ownership, scarcity-based valuation,
  • It must provide a viable transition path from today’s systems to the ideal future. As the author puts it, “this probably requires out-competing the current system, in a way that can scale to everyone, while obsoleting the destructive forms of competition within the new system.” Beat capitalism at its own game, if you will.

Interestingly, he later points to agriculture as the starting point for our current economic system, as it introduced both surplus and unequal scarcity for the first time. Both of these accelerated exponentially over time:

Accumulation has reached a point where single individuals have more accumulated wealth than all of the world combined before the industrial revolution. And abstraction has reached the place where tens of trillions of dollars are moved around the world daily, in digital form only, based on financial statements seeking to maximize profits…the consequences of which can include war, species extinction, climate change, increases in poverty, and so on.

More on this perspective soon, from my recent reading of James C. Scott’s Against the Grain.

The solution, in Schmachtenberger’s view, is to reverse the incentives in our current system, and make that process faster by optimizing the coherence of the people in it:

Extraction is replaced with contextualization; (value) abstraction with instantiation; and accumulation with distribution and flow dynamics…

Its source of competitive advantage (over the current system) has to come from optimizing coherence – of the agents with each other and with reality.

There’s some pretty heavy economics jargon in there, but it’s really interesting to think about designing systems that would feature these traits. My current strategy is optimizing collective intelligence through collaborative software; but worth thinking more broadly about how that interacts with the other parts of a future-viable system for all.

Doing more with less

The fundamental challenge of our generation is to design lifestyles that everyone wants and the earth can support forever. Buckminster Fuller put it well:

The possibility of a good life for any man depends upon the possibility of realizing it for all men. I must be able to convert the resources of the earth, doing more with less, until I reach a point where we can do so much as to be able to service all men in respect to all their needs.

Nunc stans

“Nunc stans” translates to “the now that stays”, and it is sometimes described as an attribute of God, where the experience is separate from time itself.

The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity.- Boethius

Humanity, correctly seen in the context of the last five hundred years, is an extruder of technological material. We take in matter that has a low degree of organization; we put it through mental filters, and we extrude jewelry, gospels, space shuttles. This is what we do. –
Terence McKenna

Two contrasting views on worldbuilding in fiction

M. John Harrison thought worldbuilding was unnecessary and dull:

Every moment of a science fiction story must represent the triumph of writing over worldbuilding.

Worldbuilding is dull. Worldbuilding literalises the urge to invent. Worldbuilding gives an unnecessary permission for acts of writing (indeed, for acts of reading). Worldbuilding numbs the reader’s ability to fulfil their part of the bargain, because it believes that it has to do everything around here if anything is going to get done.

Above all, worldbuilding is not technically necessary. It is the great clomping foot of nerdism. It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there.

Charlie Stross (who points to Harrison in this piece) thinks it’s the defining part of science fiction:

[Humans] exist in a context provided by our culture and history and relationships, and if we’re going to write a fiction about people who live in circumstances other than our own, we need to understand our protagonists’ social context…

For instance, stories about modern life (non-science fiction) fall flat if they don’t connect with the increasingly-bizarre context we live in today:

We’re living in a world where invisible flying killer robots murder wedding parties in Kandahar, a billionaire is about to send a sports car out past Mars, and loneliness is a contagious epidemic…These things are the worms in the heart of the mainstream novel of the 21st century. You don’t have to extract them and put them on public display, but if they aren’t lurking in the implied spaces of your story your protagonists will strike a false note.

By the way, here’s that sports car, which launched today and is currently orbiting Earth:

The big opportunity, to Stross, is building worlds different enough from our own context to illuminate other ways of being; where you can tell other types of stories:

SF should—in my view—be draining the ocean and trying to see at a glance which of the gasping, flopping creatures on the sea bed might be lungfish. But too much SF shrugs at the state of our seas and settles for draining the local aquarium, or even just the bathtub, instead.