Technology

Why I work on productivity software

I made a shift in my career four years ago to work on productivity software. The motivating force was a desire to contribute to solving the climate crisis. I’m not a climate scientist, nor a physicist or even an engineer, who could contribute directly to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

However I can design really good software, and it turns out that’s something everyone who is working on the problem needs.

Nick Bostrom, in his article “Three Ways to Advance Science” does a good job summarizing the opportunity:

Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes.

Bostrom is specifically interesting in medical interventions…but I think in today’s world the more mundane problems of distraction, confusion, and noncooperation are the bigger opportunities to tackle.

Anarchy and our interconnected future

Most societal critiques today come from either the right or the left, so it was interesting to read this (very!) long analysis of multiple interconnected issues–democracy, capitalism, equality, opportunity, the climate crisis, technology, and more–from a self-professed anarchist perspective.

Near the end the author describes the central challenge of defining societal narratives that can compete with the dominant one:

We are increasingly being sold a transhumanist narrative in which nature and the body are presented as limitations to be overcome. This is the same old Enlightenment ideology that anarchists have fallen for time and again, and it rests upon a hatred of the natural world and an implicit belief in (Western) human supremacy and unfettered entitlement. It is also being increasingly used to make the capitalist future enticing and attractive, at a time when one of the primary threats to capitalism is that many people do not see things improving. If anarchists cannot recover our imagination, if we cannot talk about the possibility of a joyful existence, not only in fleeting moments of negation but also in the kind of society we could create, in how we could relate to one another and to the planet, then I don’t believe we have any chance of changing what happens next.

This is one of the few attempts I’ve read to even describe an alternative system encompassing economic, political, environmental, and technological aspects; the Green New Deal is another, though that’s still early in development. It’s clear that trying to change any single aspect of our interconnected society is doomed to fail against the inertia of the status quo; change will come all together or not at all.

The Automation Charade

The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate. – The Automation Charade

The Ethical OS

Great toolkit and checklist for designing software that doesn’t “accidentally” turn into a tool for addiction, oppression, inequality, and hate: The Ethical OS

If the technology you’re building right now will some day be used in unexpected ways, how can you hope to be prepared? What new categories of risk should you pay special attention to now? And which design, team or business model choices can actively safeguard users, communities, society, and your company from future risk?

Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.

Five principles to design by, by Joshua Porter:

  1. Technology serves humans
  2. Design is not art
  3. The experience belongs to the user
  4. Great design is invisible
  5. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

I’ve learned most of these the hard way…take the shortcut by following the list!

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.

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.

Harnessing AI to build better UI

A fascinating article (and set of demos) about how generative and improvisational AI techniques could help us invent better interfaces, and better ways of thinking for humans:

At its deepest, interface design means developing the fundamental primitives human beings think and create with…

We’ve described a third view, in which AIs actually change humanity, helping us invent new cognitive technologies, which expand the range of human thought. Perhaps one day those cognitive technologies will, in turn, speed up the development of AI, in a virtuous feedback cycle.

So not just computers quickly generating lots of options based on existing pieces, but helping us think up new ways to frame the questions, and build new tools to explore them. Your next design colleague could be a machine.