Thursday, May 03, 2007

Innovation is force fed; someone get the lube!

In an earlier post, I had talked about what users know and what you know, when it comes to listening to your users. That said, when it comes to building new products, either in another line, or something to replace your old product, you should go back to not listening to your users--at least on the first draft. The act of creation is effectively the effort of one (or the few). At least when it comes to first drafts, too many cooks do spoil the broth. That might be a bit Ayn Randian, but the only thing I've ever heard of where design by committee was successful was the Space Shuttle and the Lunar Lander. (If there's more examples, please enlighten me.)

When you're building a product you're essentially forcing your world view onto others. You're basically saying, "I find this to be a pain. And this is not the world as it should be. As a builder, I can correct it after mouthing off for a while." And this is usually why people don't warm up to innovative ideas readily--someone is shoving their world view in your face. And unless you're someone that has been looking for a solution to the same problem when it's introduced to you, you won't be receptive to it. Even innovative people suffer from this affliction of shortsightedness.

“Don’t worry about people stealing an idea. If it’s original, you will have to ram it down their throats.” – Howard Aiken

Because innovative products can be so jarring, they should soften the blow a bit--or as others like to call it lowering the barriers. This is where influences from design, gaming, and etiquette can help.

Beyond the current trend of sleek lines, horn-rimmed glasses and black turtle necks of designers, design isn't just about putting a gradient background on your web app, or painting things in pastel colors. Hackers making a product should understand that design is the study of how to best solve communication and usability problems with limiting constraints. What information would the user need to know right this second, and how should you convey it to make it as easy to understand as possible? And from the answers to those questions will emerge a form that is also pleasing to the eye.

Gaming is an avenue more familiar to hackers than design is. However, games are often seen as mere trifles of play reserved for kids--though this is changing. If you've played enough video games and thought about WHY they're fun, will help also, because to bring out the essence of fun in what's normally perceived as tedium will give your product an edge. In the lecture about the ESP game by Luis von Ahn, he laments the fact that there's millions of cycles of human computation wasted. There was 9 billion hours played of solitaire last year (est.). Considering that the Empire State Building took 7 million hours and Panama Canal took 10 million hours, that's a lot of wasted hours. We should be able to put those cycles to good use by making people play games to solve problems that computers can't yet solve. So a symbiosis of humans and computers can be considered a large distributed computer to solve hard problems, such as object recognition in images. You might have played it.

In other web apps, the idea of a collection is a powerful mechanism of play. Social networking sites play on the idea of collecting friends, much in the same way that in Pokemon, you "gotta catch them all!". In others, the idea of a scoreboard is a powerful motivator, as seen on Digg and Reddit.

And last of all, the idea of etiquette seems far removed from being applicable to innovative products. However, no matter how much technology people surround themselves with, we are still social beings and will have social tendencies. Because of that, we expect certain behaviors and interactions between ourselves and our machines. We get mad and frustrated at computers and devices because they're usually not very polite. They stop responding when they're busy doing something, but don't tell you what they're doing. They don't remember what you told them last time and asks us over and over again. And when they don't know how to ask for help when something goes wrong, since the error messages are unintelligible to most users. These are all hallmarks of an annoying person, and were it a real person, I'd have kick them to the curb.

The iPod, and in general, Apple products, are known for their politeness. When I first got an iPod, it was the 5th generation. I was surprised that it stopped the music, if the ear buds got unplugged, and that it turned itself off, after it's been paused for a while. Basically, it knew what was going on, and reacted to it in a fashion that makes sense to its owner. That sounds like the promise of Agent based software hyped so long ago. Maybe it should make a slow come-back.

The sad thing is, computer apps and devices have been annoying us for so long, that we have kinda gotten use to it. I think as research on classifiers become more readily available to programmers as being embedded in the language, and the rising influence of designers in applications, we should see a trend towards more polite products. If you can make a product that is polite, it'll go a long way in gathering fans.

In the end, you want people to use what you build if it has value. And users want to GET THINGS DONE, so they can move on with their lives. All products should solve problems, there's no doubt that it's essential. All other points are moot if your product is useless. But given that it does solve a problem, if it is also beautiful, fun, and polite, it will go a long way in lowering barriers so that we can all have pearls Before Breakfast.


  1. Haha, thanks. Hope you have cool things to say about med school!