Yelp accelerates the pleasure principle, and that lets us all live better lives

As Freud pointed out, people spend a shocking amount of time in a continuous cycle seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Our internal monologue is but a continuous questioning -- how am I doing, and what should I be doing next? When we meet with friends and family, in between the great stories and moments of laughter and levity-- we ask how they're doing, how that food is, what are you going to order, how was that movie, what's new, and so on.

In essence, when we ask each other how things were, we're comparing our experiences. How was that steak? Great? Awesome, I'm going to have that too. The Other Guys was a great movie? Sweet, I have to see it. It sucked? Thanks for letting me avoid that one. (It was awesome by the way)

Even when we watch movies, we experience, temporarily, the lives of others. We learn not just through the stories and experiences of people we know but also through the media we consume. Thanks to the amazing existence of mirror neurons, as we see and hear things happen to others, our brains fire up the same patterns they would had they happened directly to us.

As it turns out, our brains and minds are elaborate engines for processing information and experiences. That goes for everything from websites to a good meal at a restaurant. So it's natural that we want to avoid pain and seek pleasure through foreknowledge by people we trust.

But that's what Yelp is for. And the web. And Google. The arc of history is that of an ever-increasing amount of empathy -- and the web is merely the latest and greatest enabler in that. The beginning of this arc? Verbal language. Written language. Scrolls. Codexes. The printing press. Paperback books. Paperback computers. And now the infinitely vast and instantaneous Internet.

At first blush, the now-dominant social way we use the Internet seems shallow. Who cares what movie so-and-so watched? Or that they ate at that fancy new restaurant and it sucked. Why should it appear on my Facebook feed at all? But we should care. We do care. It allows us to live better lives. If there is less friction in knowledge, then the good restaurants and the good movies get the attention they deserve. Bad service is penalized. People don't get ripped off so often. Because a durable public channel for feedback exists, restaurants and services can get better.

Less spit in coffee, more awesomeness. We each have a voice in this, and if we pay into the system, we help each other live better... One blog post or Yelp review at a time. 

Fix it now

At this moment there are thousands of people connecting to this website and others that are hosted on Posterous. Each of those people comes away from that interaction with a positive or negative experience.

This is true for all websites and all consumer brand experiences actually... If you are Hertz, American Airlines, or even the corner coffee shop, there are experiences and interactions that happen with great frequency.

Our challenge is to make as many of those experiences positive. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now. Because it is easy to envision a distant future that is better. But until that future is realized, thousands or millions of other people will have to endure a bad experience before you can get your act together. They may be tiny grievances accumulated over hours and days, but in the meantime a better future is sitting in a Gantt chart or bug tracker or Excel spreadsheet someplace.

These are only the minor annoyances, though I'm sure there are a few major ones as well. But when you add it all up over time and frequency that is one heck of a lot of human pain. Luckily, it is within our hands as designers and engineers and experience creators to turn that pain into happiness. It is our job. We care and we are working on it. So should you.

Trader Joe's is going national. Did you know they were owned by a secretive German supermarket-owning family?

Trader Joe's is no ordinary grocery chain. It's an offbeat, fun discovery zone that elevates food shopping from a chore to a cultural experience. It stocks its shelves with a winning combination of low-cost, yuppie-friendly staples (cage-free eggs and organic blue agave sweetener) and exotic, affordable luxuries -- Belgian butter waffle cookies or Thai lime-and-chili cashews -- that you simply can't find anyplace else.

Trader Joe's is an amazing place, and with very little coverage. But Fortune does an admirable job of filling us in.

Did not realize that the store had been sold to a German family that is better known for a large German chain of supermarkets. And that they're expanding like mad. Good on them. They rock.

Society and civilization are made possible by empathy, through the magic of Mirror Neurons

via fora.tv

Profound revelation: All humans are WIRED to experience that which they see happen to others, as if they are having the experience themselves.

Dustin Curtis first told me about this concept on a bus ride from Boston to New York two years ago. I was despondent over how mechanistic and selfish neurobiology seems to paint human beings. Survival of the fittest and all of that. From an economic perspective, we all seek our own rational self-interest above that of others. What prevents us all from becoming infinitely bloodthirsty selfish pirates, anyway?

Dustin replied -- well, there's this thing called mirror neurons. He recently wrote about it in his blogazine. Our brains are wired to experience things that we see happening to others. Ultimately that is what empathy is -- being able to feel what others experience. And it comes built in to every one of us, thankfully.

As Jeremy Rifkin explains in the video above, the arrow of human history is really one about ever-increasing levels of empathy. Before we only had empathy for a our family group, then your tribe, onwards to a whole nation state, and so on. Recent developments in the state-of-the-art in empathy has now extended empathy to all human beings who live, and now even the whole Earth and all its creatures. Through this empathy, we are moving forward human capability, creation, love, and ultimately goodness in the world. 

I'm certain we were put on this earth to make other people's experiences and lives better. So by giving into empathy, we can truly feel the same experiences as others and thereby improve them. This affects your life right now, no matter what you do. If you're creating something, anything, you probably want it to be good. You want to solve problems for your customers. You want their experience to be better. That's good for you, but even better for others. And making things better for others is what it's really all about.

This concept of mirror neurons as an underpinning of empathy and society fills me with great hope. We've got a shot, guys!

Positivity and negativity in the mirror: You are what you think others to be

Point a finger at someone and three point right back to you. It turns out this is not just a childhood adage.

How positively you see others is linked to how happy, kind-hearted and emotionally stable you are, according to new research by a Wake Forest University psychology professor... They discovered particularly strong associations between positively judging others and how enthusiastic, happy, kind-hearted, courteous, emotionally stable and capable the person describes oneself and is described by others.

“Seeing others positively reveals our own positive traits,” Wood says.

The study also found that how positively you see other people shows how satisfied you are with your own life, and how much you are liked by others.

In contrast, negative perceptions of others are linked to higher levels of narcissism and antisocial behavior. “A huge suite of negative personality traits are associated with viewing others negatively,” Wood says. “The simple tendency to see people negatively indicates a greater likelihood of depression and various personality disorders.”

...

This research suggests that when you ask someone to rate the personality of a particular coworker or acquaintance, you may learn as much about the rater providing the personality description as the person they are describing. The level of negativity the rater uses in describing the other person may indeed indicate that the other person has negative characteristics, but may also be a tip off that the rater is unhappy, disagreeable, neurotic — or has other negative personality traits.

What we choose to say about the people around us reflects heavily on ourselves -- who we are, what we feel, and what our own personality is like.

See the good in others and they shall see the good in you. And wisely choose the company you keep for they will in turn form who you shall become.

Dieter Rams: His first Braun design, and 10 principles of good design

Good design is innovative
Good design makes a product useful
Good design is aesthetic
Good design makes a product understandable
Good design is unobtrusive
Good design is honest
Good design is long-lasting
Good design is thorough down to the last detail
Good design is environmentally friendly
Good design is as little design as possible

 

Kurt Vonnegut goes to buy an envelope. Profundity ensues.

[When Vonnegut tells his wife he's going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know. The moral of the story is, is we're here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.

Kurt had most of this right. But computers can be used to dance too. If anything, that's what the Internet needs.

More dancing, less office supply purchasing.

Scott Adams suggests a panopticon with privacy: Could such a world exist?

In my book The Dilbert Future I imagined a world with cameras in every room, and on every street corner, recording all the time, but encrypted so that literally no one could view the video without a court order. You wouldn't need much of a police force in that scenario because every crime would be on video, along with the entire escape route, all the way to the criminal's bedroom. Maybe that's too Big Brother for you, but if you reflect on how much privacy you've already given up to technology, it's not that much of a stretch.
--Scott Adams via dilbert.com

This sounds like an excellent plot for a sci fi film. Without some colossally amazing improvements in camera and encryption technology, there are major risks. Diebold would probably try to make these cameras, and fail miserably, just as they have consistently failed at creating reliable voting machines.

Only the consequences are far more dire than a stolen election here or there. Imagine a vast network of cameras recording forever the actions of every single human. Yet through incompetence, that data falls into the hands of anyone willing to pay.

Organized crime? Obsessed exes? Those are just the misanthropic ones. The long arm of the law would have access too. A world of no forgetting. Such a world would be a realization of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon, a place of invisible omniscience. Though a very interesting concept, above all one shouldn't forget a panopticon is still a prison.

And turning free society into a prison is something that should give us all pause.

Bureaucracies don't reward the excellent.

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.
--William Deresiewicz via theamericanscholar.org

This is why small teams with no BS can outmaneuver the big boys day in and day out. This is why we build startups.

Hat tip @johnmaeda

iPhone 4 Antenna issues are a UX issue: What the user doesn't know makes them happy.

Apple this morning is reporting that they've figured out what is really going on with the iPhone 4 antenna. 

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately (ed: emphasis mine), providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

As Gruber reports, this is the best phone antenna ever created. All the lab tests show its amazing. So what's the cause? The antenna does get attenuated if you hold it a certain way, but in a less dramatic way than 4 bars dropping. Perhaps only 20-30%. Not worse than other phones at all. Turns out it is not an antenna issue, but a user experience issue. 

Mark Twain said if you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything. The pithy saying applies here. I can just imagine the wheels turning as Apple engineers and execs scramble to understand the situation. But it starts with a simple, pretty innocent idea: gosh, the bars look so low. AT&T reception is terrible. Lets just add a couple bars, and nobody will be the wiser. Years later, the issue is exposed in a public and grand fashion as a truly unintended consequence.

While truth will set you free, a little fib will make people happy...

When I was at Microsoft, we had a related UX problem with Microsoft ActiveSync. Customers would consistently complain about how awful ActiveSync was, even calling it ActiveStink. But after a pretty comprehensive review of feedback and failure rates, we figured out that ActiveSync wasn't that bad at all. For instance, we'd often show this error:

The server happened to be down at that very moment, but it would sync again and be fine. We put "Attention Required" and we'd call out that they hadn't synchronized against Exchange. 

What did Blackberry do? Nothing. It wouldn't tell you that the server couldn't be contacted. Users just kept thinking they were up to date. And if they weren't? Oh, it wasn't the Blackberry's fault. It was probably the server or the network or something. Everything is fine. They loved their Blackberries. Brand loyalty through the roof.

Is it important that I'm connected? Or that I FEEL connected?

When it comes to communication technologies, there's a unique UX force at work. There are few things more annoying than a communication device (that costs hundreds of dollars no less!) that makes me feel disconnected. So device makers are forced to think about ways to make people happier by hiding errors or pretending things are fine. There is a very real incentive for them to do so, as I saw first hand with the Blackberry vs ActiveSync status issue. Sometimes it can literally make your brand.

But in the case of Apple, sometimes the things you do to make your users happy can come back to haunt you.