The empathy center of the brain

Rebecca Saxe delivered this fascinating speech at TED in 2009. She has discovered the one part of the brain that gets engaged when we are evaluating the intentions of other people. 

Of note:

  • Children don't develop a sense for morality and evaluation of other people's consciousnesses and intention until after age 5.
  • Using trans-cranial magnetic stimulation, Saxe and her researchers were able to disrupt this part of the brain and that it has a significant impact on the ability of people to make judgments about other people's intentions.

This seems to have wide-reaching impact for product designers. Designers must spend time inhabiting the consciousness of others -- to feel their pain and empathize with what they would feel at any given moment in an interaction. 

I would suspect the overdevelopment of this part of the brain is one of the key differentiators between designers who make things pretty and designers who make things well.

The Machine That Changed the World: The Paperback Computer

The Machine That Changed The World was a 90's era PBS documentary that I taped to VHS tape when I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I watched this 5 hour documentary on loop, over and over again. Move aside Disney, it's was all about the computer revolution.

Episode 3 (linked above) was my favorite. In it: interviews with both Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak about the dawn of the paperback computer.

RIP Steve 1955 - 2011

When telepresence will finally be viable

Skype is pretty good for talking with people. Due to schedules these days, it's almost the only way I can meet most of the people who want to meet with me. It works relatively well. It saves everyone travel time. But it doesn't work perfectly for the simple reason that the Internet doesn't work fast enough. For a while I thought Facetime would be the thing that brings us to the telepresence age. Now I'm not entirely sure, though I wait with bated breath hoping that Apple releases better presence indications and multi-party calls for Facetime. Well, any update would do, really. 

Telepresence is a tremendous holy grail for computing. What's better than email? What's better than screen sharing? Actually being able to look into someone's eyes and trusting them, and making a deal. 

In order for it to really work, it has to be:

  • Ubiquitous - like Skype, or better than Skype. This means it has to be a desktop and/or mobile software play. Hardware telepresence works really well today, but only for the well heeled. 
  • High Quality - I mean, the point of telepresence is to have a personal experience of meeting someone without actually moving the atoms there. So 720p HD seems like a reasonable goal. Uncompressed 720p is about 100 megabytes per second, and compressed Bluray is about 15 megabytes per second. The real effective optimized HD telepresence codec of the future I suspect will be someplace in that range of 15 to 100 megabytes per second. 
  • No skips - not even a little bit. This means the bandwidth needs to be overprovisioned... possibly by a lot. You need bandwidth headroom to absorb spikes. 

My guess is Skype or Facetime will be the software/mobile platform for it. Unless some intrepid soul comes along and shocks us all, which I very much hope will happen. Apple may yet amaze us. Skype is useful and probably good enough, but not great.

So then the question basically falls to point-to-point bandwidth. To avoid skips, you need a lot of bandwidth. Especially if you want high quality. Uplink speed on the last mile will be the constraint, since that's typically the slowest link. Modern online speedtests (e.g. speedtest.net) indicate average broadband speeds are coming out to 2 megabytes per second (~15 mbps). Eesh. My Comcast cable modem in California seems to rate limit me to a dismal 500 kilobytes per second.

Randall Stross recently wrote that you can buy 1000 megabits per second broadband for $26/month in Hong Kong. That is awesome! Perhaps telepresence within cities will be viable on a much shorter time frame, a matter of years. The same article mentions Google will be experimenting with gigabit within cities too.

If you wanted to know when real telepresence would really disrupt business travel and be a viable replacement for face-to-face communication, you'd need to do a forecast on broadband speeds. My uneducated guess: anything above 5 megabytes per second bi-directional cross country (e.g. SF to NY) for regular consumer broadband would be the point where you'll start to see technology massively shifting society.

At current rate of broadband speed improvements, it might be a while.

How Steve Jobs handles trolls (WWDC 1997)

An audience member at WWDC in 1997 trolls Steve Jobs in front of everyone, but Steve responds with grace. (Bold emphasis mine.)

Question: I would like, for example, for you to express in clear terms how, say java, in any of it’s incarnations, addresses the idea (inaudible). And when you’re finished with that, perhaps you could tell us what you personally have been doing for the last 7 years. 

Steve: You know, you can please some of the people some of the time, but…. One of the hardest things when you’re trying to effect change is that people like this gentleman are right in some areas.

...

The hardest thing is: how does that fit in to a cohesive, larger vision, that’s going to allow you to sell 8 billion dollars, 10 billion dollars of product a year? And, one of the things I’ve always found is that you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards for the technology”. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it. And I made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it. And I know that it’s the case. 

...

And as we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with “What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?” Not starting with “Let’s sit down with the engineers and figure out what awesome technology we have and then how are we going to market that?” And I think that’s the right path to take. 

Hat tip Dharmesh Shah at onstartups.com and Vic Gundotra's Google Plus

What Babe Ruth teaches startup founders about conviction and recruiting true believers

October 1, 1932: Third game of the World Series, with the Yankees taking on the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Two strikes, two balls. The Cubs are one strike away from stopping the greatest slugger who ever lived.

Babe Ruth points to centerfield. That's where the ball was going to go. The pitcher grips the ball, winds up the pitch and fires a curve ball. With a swing and the crack of the bat, the ball sails in that direction. Going, going, gone. He homers the ball 440 feet into centerfield, just as predicted.

--

CONVICTION

This is possibly the finest example of conviction ever displayed. Babe Ruth's conviction is illustrated in two parts -- telling people you're going to do it -- then doing it.

This should mean a lot to you if you're a startup founder. That's because telling people you're going to do it means believing it and getting others to believe. If you are hiring or looking for a cofounder, my number one advice is to look closer at the people you already know and trust. Few teams seem to push on this nearly enough. 

It seems as though people are afraid of transferring their idea into other people's brains. But that's the entire point of what we're trying to do -- when trying to put a dent in the universe. People close to you are always the best people to try to recruit. As an added benefit: If you can't get your best friends to join, maybe you actually are crazy or wrong. This is your best way and sometimes only way to tell. 

I know you are thinking... people have their own stuff going on. Close friends have jobs and sometimes their own startups. But let me tell you -- if you really know this other kind of world that you have in your head is going to exist, then you are doing them a huge disservice not to tell them about it.

If you can infuse your belief into others, then you will succeed. We all know that true believers can move mountains. Small armies of true believers can conquer mercenary armies of any size. This is why small teams of half a dozen people can take down goliaths.

OBLIGATORY STEVE JOBS REFERENCE: Steve Jobs has called himself a recruiter in interviews. This is not surprising. Everything past the first earliest stage of the garage is about care and feeding of the organization. The company. Steve Jobs is a master at making true believers, and true believers can do truly great things.

As for Babe Ruth... I consider him one of my most revered startup heroes.

From a speech first delivered at Designer Fair last Friday -- thanks to Enrique Allen for the invite and for coming if you attended! Also thanks to Dustin Curtis for inspiring the ideas in this essay over lunch.

Lessons from a stolen laptop: Let this be a warning to you my friends

Friday night, Steph and I were hanging out with good friends in downtown SF... ironically enough, watching blockbuster car heist movie Fast Five. Around midnight, we headed back to our car and found that our car had been burglarized... both of our laptops were gone, along with a number of other random things the thief must have thought were valuable or resalable. No sign of forced entry. The police mentioned that Honda Accords were often burglarized since thieves sometimes use a 'master key'  that unlocks all doors for a particular car-- they case the area and strike. 

Two homeless guys witnessed the whole thing, but the thief was nonchalant enough that they just walked right up and looked like they owned the car. We got a physical description: 5'10" caucasian/latino man in a baseball cap going from the club at 111 Minna to another down the street. It happened just 45 minutes before we got back to our cars. 

Both Steph and I were shaken a bit. Neither of us had ever really been the victim of a crime of this magnitude before. The worst was that Steph lost a hard drive that contained years and years of her past writings, photos and memories. The rest may well be covered (*crosses fingers*) by my renter's insurance policy, but TBD. 

We headed to the police station immediately to report it and file a police report at South Station. The officer was helpful and polite, but didn't hold out much hope for us. 

I *did* install Prey, an open source spy tool for exactly for tracking down laptop thieves. I flipped it into "Missing" mode and hoped the thief would slip up. By the morning, we had a few reports from the software. Steph and I sprung into action. But it looks like we're dealing with pros here -- or at least not complete amateurs. Unlike Joshua Kaufman's successful recovery of his laptop from a thief in Oakland, the thief was smart enough to block the webcam...

That was all we saw. We did, however, track him/her to this specific location in San Francisco, just blocks from Civic Center BART in the Tenderloin. The address was 280 Golden Gate-- at least on the map, it looked like it was a deli of some sort... but we arrived to see the deli closed and boarded up. Above the deli was a seedy San Francisco SRO motel, and the track went cold. The cops shrugged their shoulders but were sympathetic. Not enough info to track down the thief. They advised us to just keep watching the software to see if we could catch the thief in the open. 
Unfortunately, the suspect must have wiped the machine, or just hasn't used it since. The homeless guys who witnessed it told us that the laptops and various things were probably all sold by the next morning, each for about $100-200. "Anything for a crank fiend to get a fix," they said.

I've pretty much given up any chance at recovering our stolen stuff at this point. We've been trying to look at the bright side -- we've learned some lessons, we're alive, we're safe, and tomorrow is a new day.

A few straightforward lessons that I hope you can benefit from:
  1. THE CLOUD
    Use Dropbox, Backblaze, and make sure everything is backed up to cloud. Your data isn't safe unless its in the cloud. It's 2011 -- you have no excuse. 

  2. TIME MACHINE
    Invest in Apple Time Machine or other backup tools -- for anything larger than what you can place in the cloud.

  3. FIGHT BACK
    Install Prey or Hidden, no matter what. It might just let you get your stuff back and get justice. Maybe.

  4. YOUR CAR ISN'T SECURE
    Never ever store anything of value in your car AND trunk. Assume your car has no locks and is accessible to thieves. I had always assumed it was perfectly fine to throw valuables in the trunk. I know better now. 

  5. PROTECT YOUR PERSONAL DATA
    Thieves may steal your identity if they've got all the info stored on your computer. If you're a victim, sign up for free fraud alerts. You could probably skip LifeLock and the like; according to Consumer Reports, the Fair Credit Reporting Act states we get the benefits of these services for free

  6. GET INSURANCE
    Boy was I ever relieved to know I had renter's insurance. I picked it up last year through GEICO, which resells Assurant Renter's insurance. I'll let you know later with a strong recommendation if the claim goes through smoothly. 
Stay safe, friends! An ounce of prevention here is worth... well, in the case of data, once it's gone, there is no cure.

Google Circles is high work and low return: Why Groups are the right way to organize people

Google Circles is what would happen if Twitter forced people to organize people into Twitter Lists the second they follow someone. 

Yet this underscores the fundamental problem with Circles. They're just mine and only I get to see them. In fact, they're even more closed off and private than Twitter Lists, which at the very least show up in your profile, and turn into a way to discover more people who are similar.

On Twitter, you can see how many lists people have been added to, thus turning it into both discovery and social signal. Since Twitter is like high school, social signaling is critical to being able to identify and follow influentials. This fits the social graph of Twitter perfectly, and incentivizes the exact kind of behavior Twitter for which it has always been used.

On Facebook, Groups are the preferred way for people to self-organize. When someone adds someone to the group, it is a shared alteration of the experience. I would argue this is the ideal form of online self-organizing behavior. With Twitter Lists, most of the benefit goes to the user who created it -- while with Circles ALL of the benefit goes to the person who created it. This is one-time work that cannot be reused. On the other hand, with Groups, users who are added to a group can organically add additional members. Once you're in a group, assumedly that group continues to get better over time. A group can arise organically around specific topics. 

Ultimately what this amounts to is a shared reality. In the same way Wikipedia becomes better after every single edit forever, Facebook Groups provides a shared reality that, given proper management by the admins, will always get better. And that will always beat Google Circles because it spreads the work of organization over many people instead of just one. 

In summary:
  • Twitter Lists provide social signal and discovery. High level of effort, but at least there's some modicum of gain to be had. 
  • Facebook Groups provide a semi-public shared space that automatically gets better. Low level of effort but high amount of social benefit. 
  • Google+ Circles force people to do a lot of work, but that work is pretty much only useful to themselves. High level of effort and low level of return. 
If you're Google, this seems like the wrong end of the spectrum to be at. High work, low return. That's the opposite of what we've come to know about successful social structures online. 

The achievement sound

Ever notice this sound when you unlock something on Xbox Live? Isn't it amazing how satisfying it feels? Play it back a few times. For gamers, this is like hitting the little button in the cage that dispenses crack.

Now that you have access to this Youtube video, you can hit that crack button as many times as you want.

If you're creating a service or game online, think about the sounds that you can associate with peak experiences. Human beings are emotional creatures... the more we are aware of how these emotions can be associated with sounds, sights or actions, the better we can design things that are pleasurable and addictive.

Why the new task UI in Taskrabbit has great behavioral design

Taskrabbit is a cool service that helps people list local tasks that they'd like to hire people to do. It's also a great example of behavioral design-- helping users not just complete the task but want to do it as well. 

Here's the new task UI:

1) Great copy is great communication

Copy is UI, UI is copy. The only way you can explain what's happening on the screen is by the text and elements on the screen. They work together. You must explain what's going on, and what's next. Yes, you know what's happening, but you're the creator of the UI. Users have no such context.

Remember that as a designer, you must design with intention in mind, but evaluate what you create with beginner's eyes. Often in YC office hours, PG will point out glaring holes in people's designs -- but it is because he has honed this skill of viewing a web page with the eyes of a novice, even if you've been talking about the idea with him for hours.

Clear your mind, read what you've got, and if it doesn't make sense, then explain. Rinse, repeat.

2) Great use of contrast to determine what's important and what's more information 

You'll notice the darkest pieces of information (highest contrast) are the headers for the specific inputs. "Title of your Task" for instance. It's big, it's dark, and it commands the most initial attention. This establishes a visual hierarchy. All things below that title pertain to that particular input. There's proper padding between inputs so that the grouping is further reinforced. 

Some products mistake extreme brevity for being simple. Wrong. You should strive to have enough text to properly guide the user to their task. A long block of text that is undifferentiated won't be read, of course -- so your main tool here is to make the important stuff bolder, larger, and command more attention. Then write additional text in a smaller, lower contrast font.

If they care, they'll read it. If they don't, they won't. And that's just OK. The important part is that people complete the task. 

3) Show a lot of examples

It's the worst when UI doesn't show an example at all. It's the rudest experience. Imagine a brusque waiter, or a bank clerk who can't be bothered to help you with what you're trying to do. That's what you're doing when you don't show more examples. 

Yes, that even means helping people with writing titles.Notice how Taskrabbit drops a greyed-out tip right there in the textbox.

DO THIS. There's nothing that will orient a user more as to what they should put than text right there inside the textbox they're about to fill out. Don't forget to clear it when the textbox gets focus, though.

4) Progressive Disclosure

See those little links at the bottom? They're optional. And they don't take more space than they need. If someone wants it, they'll click. If someone doesn't want it, they won't. 

This is virtually your only tool to create things that are both powerful and simple. Use it everywhere and you too will be both easy to use and powerful. 

--

Remember, UI is a conversation that you have with your users, hundreds if not thousands of times a day. But if you can make that conversation go well... it'll be a few million times a day soon enough. 

Again, props to Sarah Harrison, @sourjayne, Taskrabbit Director of UX. I am impressed. Two thumbs up, way up.

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