I recently picked up Steve Krug's book “Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability” for a re-read.
The examples are hilariously old. Almost on page one is a redesign the author did of Flooz, the virtual currency startup that was famously touted in 1999 by Whoopi Goldberg and burned through 10s of millions of dollars in a couple years before shutting down.
It's funny then how a book written in 2000 is still so full of wisdom we should be paying attention to when creating websites. But probably aren't.
This really resonates for me with one of his first pieces of advice:
One of the most crucial items in the persistent navigation is a button or link that takes me to the site’s Home page. Having a Home button in sight at all times offers reassurance that no matter how lost I may get, I can always start over, like pressing a Reset button or using a “Get out of Jail free” card. There’s an emerging convention that the Site ID doubles as a button that can take you to the site’s Home page. It’s a useful idea that every site should implement, but a surprising number of users still aren’t aware of it.
Home buttons, links, or tabs seem like a waste. We want to add as little chrome and junk as possible. So having a Home button that just duplicates the click functionality of your site's logo at the top of the page seems redundant and unnecessary.
Come on. It's 2012, man. Everyone by now knows you can click a site's logo and it goes to the homepage. Right?
So in website after website I'm part of creating, I find ourselves trying to get by without a Home button.
Last year I was working on Cityposh, a platform companies could use to create their own branded versions of popular games like Sudoku. Here's our version of that game (just an example if Gap were a client).
I remember we didn't have a Home button in the top nav. And then I watched as my wife tried to play our games. She picked up how to play the games quickly. We seemed to be doing well with the on-boarding design to get started with each game.
And then my mouth hit the floor, as she complained: “This looks great, but how to I get back to the beginning. How do I get back Home without having to use the Back button?”
Jesus. This was in 2011. My wife is one of the savviest users of the web that I know. She's often using more new site designs and apps than I do. And she had no idea she could click our logo to go back to the beginning.
We added a Home link to our top navigation.
There's a lot more gems like these in Steve's book. Examples you might try to brush off because they're so old and the web has changed so much in 12 years.
But then I find myself still using sites today that try to get me to do things like pick a filter (e.g. keyword, title, etc) on my search box before I search. How do I know if what I'm looking for is a keyword or a title? I think I know the title or a word found in the title at least. But if I try title and you don't find it, now I have to try the search again with keywords? Can't you just search it all for me?
Jason brings up a great point. If we paid some more attention to what would have worked as good web design in 1998, we'd be creating much more intuitive and less frustrating software today.
P.S. I'd be incredibly thrilled to meet you on Twitter: here
I'll never get tired of folks innovating on things that the rest of us overlook, take for granted, or simply treat as a commodity we can't differntiate from competitors.
So on a bunch of levels, I love seeing this recently in a recipe newsletter my wife and I have been subscribing to for awhile.
just returned from an intensive salad seminar for food recipe developers in Carmel Valley, California, hosted by Dole Fresh Salads. During the course, we learned about some of the latest salad trends and tried some truly innovative ways to incorporate healthy greens and vegetables into all our meals and snacks, including arugula in our pineapple mojitos…
Dole. King of something most people don't think too hard about.
Salad. Lettuce. Greens.
That's a quick part of the grocery store for me. I need spinach. It's there. It's in the cart. No thought at all. What's cheapest.
And so here's Dole, having conferences of all things. Educating people on innovative ways to use their products. Espcially a product I think most people overlook. Arugula.
There are two big lessons that this reminds me of.
First, keep your eyes peeled for how people use a competing product in unique and innovative ways. Then try and clone that use substituting your product as an alternative.
If arugula is my product, I'd spend a bunch of time watching how people use other leafy green vegetables like basil or oregano. Spotting the use of basil in a drink is likely going to open my mind up to experimenting with cocktails and arugula.
Second, out-teach your competition.
Imagine you're trying to launch a new software product, book, web service, church, small business, social cause, consulting practice, school, podcast channel, rock band, whatever. The most important skill you need today is not fund-raising, financial management, or marketing. It's not knowledge management, IT, or human resources. It's not product design, usability, or just-in-time inventory.
You should definitely read Kathy's post on the subject.
If you sell cameras and have zero dollars to try and market your product, don't try and tell the world how awesome the features of the camera are. Spend your time teaching people how to be better photographers.
If you sell arugula, spend your time teaching people how to be better cooks or bartenders.
Just help me be better at the things I wanted to do in the first place whether it's using something you sell or a competitor. The benefit to you after all: you've now got my attention; your competitor doesn't.
P.S. If a Pineapple-Arugula Mojoito sounds as good to you as it does to me: here.
P.P.S. I'd be incredibly thrilled to meet you on Twitter: here
I spotted this in a restaurant here in Chicago. Most people might not recognize it. But the million people that ride it each day would.
It's a drawing of Chicago's elevated train. Our “L”.
I love that an artist was able to elicit these feelings and pride about Chicago and its train from taking something as complicated looking as its map, and recasting it with just a handful of imperfect lines.
It's also an interesting reminder to me that I don't always have to create pixel perfect train maps when creating things. It's easy to get bogged down in designing something that's perfectly laid out, and must contain so many bits of information because EVERYTHING I have to get into this project is so damn important. But sometimes the job you're trying to do doesn't really warrant the layers of complexity you've convinced yourself you needed of the finished product.
Sometimes a handful of lines is just perfect.
The artist who made it is Tim Jarosz. You can follow him on Twitter: here.
If you take the quote too literally, you'll miss the power of what he was trying to teach.
Hemingway realized that we aren't always the same person. We have at least two sides to us when it comes to creating something. Sometimes our brains see endless possibilities, where we feel we can create anything our minds conjure when hearing that whisper from our muse. And the muses are everywhere we look.
Other times, our brains are great at tearing down all the bullshit, and finding the kernels of what's efficient. What's practical. What's actually good. And usually that brain doesn't like what it sees of my other self's work.
When I create, I try to take Hemingway's advice.
To begin a new blog post, or even a new software feature, I'll start when I feel I have a thread of something with tons of possibility. I start from a book I read that has me insanely motivated. Or a TED talk that has me inspired to teach all the things I've learned so far. Or I go for a run, and push myself just a little further than last time. Or a workout where I lift just a little more weight than the last workout.
I hype myself up to get closer to a place where anything is possible.
Eventually, I'll take a break. I'll get a solid night's rest. I'll switch modes.
And I start to edit.
I take all these things and pare them down. I tear apart paragraphs, move them around, throw them away. What you see as 500 words today, probably started with 1200.
The software you might see tomorrow is the result of two dozen versions only my wife had the misfortune of having to use.
One thing I've noticed about editing, is that I know I'm getting closer to something decent, when the editing starts to hurt. When it feels like as I'm cutting, I'm starting to cut bone.
I start to throw away the things that I had perviously considered as good, in order to make room for what's sitting on the canvas now.
When I remove that anecdote that I was originally convinced HAD to be there. Or I realize no one is going to need this feature after all, even if it was the thing that had me the most excited to start.
At the end of my creative projects today, I realize my best work comes when I can create a balance between my two selves. When I can find the person inside me who can do anything, and the person whose the strongest critic of all.
When I find a way to invite both of those people inside me so they each get their share of a project, but I don't actually let them work together at the same time.
There's a lot I don't agree with on the internet. I've got opinions coming out of my ears.
There's this comment I saw on Hacker News that I vehemently want to rebut. There's this company that pissed me off recently online. There's a few people that were pretty rude on a bus ride in Chicago last month.
I could write some flaming pile of words about how someone has done something terribly wrong on the internet, and I could share an opinion where we could all get really enraged as we go to work.
But then I looked at my website analytics recently and saw this:
This reminds me of something very important that I think goes missed by a lot of folks trying to get more traffic to their blog or project.
There's all sorts of negative stuff I have an urge to write.
But seeing the above screenshot reminds me of something I'm super proud of. I often try and write about someone whose habits or teachings have altered the course of my life.
These aren't reviews. I'm not reviewing someone's latest product. I'm not regurgitating what I could easily leave in some bullshit Amazon review.
I'm not kissing ass.
These people don't know me. Some of them have blown me off before when trying to reach out.
What I'm doing is trying to point out to people reading this tiny blog, that there are some insanely inspirational projects or bodies of work that you might not have heard about.
There's Aaron Draplin and his obsession with old notebooks. There's Mailchimp and the quirky things they do to add personality to their products. There's Dr. Cialdini and his life's work on persuasion and how it helped my wife get a new job. And then there's Joe Sugarman who was the marketing genius behind Blue Blockers and wrote a book called Triggers that helped me figure out a technique for saving some money on getting a sandwich at lunch.
In all these cases, I wrote at least one post celebrating something I learned from someone else. Raising these folks up to the attention of the people reading my blog and Twitter account. And sometimes I'll find an email address or Twitter account and let the person I'm writing about know they might like the post I wrote.
Not for the purpose of getting anything in return. After all I've written about some of these folks before, and most often I don't hear anything back. But that's never something I'm looking to get. I merely admire people doing creative things that aren't typical water cooler conversation and think you might dig them too.
But sometimes, you do get something back.
Joe Sugarman sent me a nice thank you over Twitter. Coudal retweeted my blog post and if you look at the Field Notes website you'll find a link to Ninjas and Robots in the sidebar. :)
And the best one of all was after Dr. Cialdini retweeted the link to my blog post, I got an email from his staff saying:
Dr. Cialdini liked the blog post so much he would like permission to possibly use it in his next book as an example.
It was just a feeler, and the odds of it appearing are low I'm sure. But the point is, this practice of teaching others around me all this cool shit I'm seeing and learning has unexpected rewards.
As you write your next post. Or create your next page of something on the internet. Give a real hard think about the habit you're getting into with your writing or marketing. I know you have an opinion. And you are here to correct the wrongs of so many things that have gone before you.
But you might be surprised at how much staying positive and writing about others does for you.
Entrepreneurs often hear, “Your startup idea is stupid. The market is saturated. Move on.”
Of course it's tough to work on products when you have oodles and oodles of people trying to compete. It looks daunting. If you fail, it's easy for people to armchair quarterback the experience and point out that you went the wrong way, the market was just too saturated.
So what really excites me are the companies that figure out how to show everyone around them that while, yes, it is a crowded market, you've been looking at everything all wrong.
There's a much better way.
Often cited examples you'll find in a lot of books on innovation are Cirque du Solei, Southwest Airlines, Whole Foods. And of course Apple. Where they defy the fact that computers are coming out of our ears. The mp3 player market was totally saturated. The cell phone market was completely owned by Nokia and Blackberry. And who knows what's next for Apple. TVs? Everyone already has 3 of them. Shit's been done before man.
I love finding more examples of this.
5-hour Energy caught my eye as a product that had the “market was too saturated” challenge and fingers pointed at them, but showed everyone how they were making the wrong assumptions.
I imagine you've probably heard of 5-hour Energy. It's an energy drink. Jesus, another energy drink? How could that possibly work. Everyone and their brother (if your brother owns or works at a softdrink company) had energy drinks before 2004, when 5-hour Energy was introduced. You not only have Red Bull who just completely owns the market, but you have other big players like Monster, Amp from Pepsi, and Hansen's. You can't possibly create a new energy drink.
But that's exactly what they did. And it's interesting where they do things very differently from the rest of the market.
If you peruse the energy drink refrigerator at your gas station, you'll find Red Bull's 8 oz. cans. But then just next to it, you'll see they also have 12 oz. cans. And if you want to compete with 12 oz, what do people do? Yep, there's 20 oz. cans of Red Bull. And it's not just Red Bull. They ALL come in these sizes.
Then there's the marketing. They all seem to power extreme sports. If there's a car or a bike or a stunt where someone is going to fly to extreme heights and then risk death, there's probably a Red Bull or Monster logo attached to them. Drinking these drinks apparently gives you courage and energy to do crazy things! So let me make this flying machine and run it off a platform into Lake Michigan.
Then there's 5-hour Energy.
You can't even find them in the refrigerator with the other guys. And when everyone is making bigger and bigger cans of even more energy drink. These guys come out with little shots of their “beverage”. Less than 2 oz. bottles.
When everyone is trying to market to young people and athletes, these folks try and get into the heads of adults that this is a solution to their problems at the office.
When everyone has “cool” commercials, these guys put out stuff that looks like it came from a “don't do sexual harassment” training video. They've been given the award for “2010 Runner-Up Worst Ad in America” by The Consumerist.
They've even got consultants! That will help you use 5-hour Energy to get more work done.
And is it working?
5-Hour Energy was introduced to the marketplace in 2004. Retail sales grew to over $1 billion by 2011.
It's worked so well the company behind 5-hour Energy, Living Essentials, made a homemade plaque to commemorate their Worst Ad in America award, which you can find hanging in their corporate headquarters.
But the experience 21 years ago was awful. I was a freshman in high school and we had to do a “fitness test”. This involved all sorts of ick. The worst was the fat test. All of us had to stand around a pool in our school issued speedos and get pinched with those body fat calipers. Why would kids get subjected to this?
We also had to see how many pull-ups we could do. I could do zero. I wasn't alone. Still, I'm not entirely sure what lesson I was being taught by making a 13 year old try to do a single pull-up and failing in front of a bunch of people.
I tell that story because it really etched into my brain my complete inability to do a pull-up.
Even after that experience and years of playing sports and exercising, I still reached my 30s and I still couldn't do a friggin pull-up.
But something changed it all.
I started recording my workouts.
And pull-ups were one of those exercises. When I started, I couldn't do a single one, but I used a chair to lighten the weight of my legs so I could do some pull-ups at a lighter weight. And I'd record the number.
For every single workout I did, I'd try to beat the numbers from the previous workout. I'd try and do one more pull up than the last set I had recorded, or one more push-up, or add an extra 5 pounds to an exercise.
It wasn't easy. I definitely couldn't always accomplish one more. Some days I completely failed and did even less than the last time.
But I kept trying.
And before I knew it, I didn't need the chair anymore.
Today, I can do dozens and dozens of pull ups. My 13 year old self is insanely proud.
When I workout these days, I can't help but see how powerful it is to record what I did today and try to just one up myself tomorrow by something small.
As I look back on my life, I see how the 'one upping myself by just a little bit' behavior had been so important in getting better and stronger in other things too.
13 years ago, I had a job I didn't like. So every single day I tried to create some kind of software project or business. This wasn't something I was trained to do, or something I even felt naturally great at, but every single day I tried to create something. Having that type of habit eventually got me a better position at the company I was at, and better projects. Then I got a job that gave me more freedom. Then I started my own company. Then I started another one.
All because I just keep trying to do something I couldn't accomplish yesterday.
It wasn't easy. It was a struggle. Often, I failed and thought I'd finally reached the limit of who I am. But I was always wrong.
Many businesses create innovation by simply moving time.
They take time that's usually spent doing things or waiting, and shift that time to other places in the process or to other people. The result usually at worst still feels original and novel to customers, but more often is a much more efficient and productive process. Here's a few examples.
Keurig makes those single cup coffee machines. I've always been intrigued and now I finally use one at the office. They took the time I used to spend preparing a new filter basket with grounds, collecting water for my pot of coffee and heating the water, and just moved the time.
Now someone else at a factory has to prepare the coffee in a little single serve cup. And now instead of sitting there waiting for the water to heat in my coffee maker just before I want the coffee, the water in most Keurig machines is pre-heated many minutes before I even want coffee, and sits around heated in its reservoir (perfect in an office environment where the machine gets lots of use).
Keurig took time I spent on different parts of the coffee making process and shifted that time to other places and people.
Instagram shifted time. Most photo apps take a photo, and then offer you options afterward of where you want to share your photo. You pick an option and then wait and wait for the upload to occur.
Instragram put that time into the process before you even finish selecting options on your photo. So now, as soon as you take a photo, Instagram starts uploading in the background immediately. As soon as you're done picking filters and Instagram options, the photo is already mostly uploaded by the time you click save.
Data warehouses moved time. Using just a relational database businesses would spend tons and tons of time just waitiing for reports to run. But a data warehouse allows you to move the time to the front of the process. So now, you can spend time loading your data into this “warehouse”, where it's being denormalized, a way of putting your data into the most efficient structures you've told it you need. The load to a data warehouse can be slow. But now the queries are fast, and business reporting can be in real time.
Moving time becomes an awesome way to explore new innovative ideas. Just look at a process, and imagine ways in which you can move blocks of time and how you'd innovate to make that a reality.
Let's pick something random from my day as an example to explore.
I wanted to buy a new shirt this weekend. I went to a clothing store and spent a bunch of time having to gaze around a large store looking for what I wanted. Then spent a bunch of time in the dressing room. Damn, need a different size. Put clothes back on. Went back out in the store to find a couple more things. Back to the dressing room. Finally, liked what I found. Waited in line to purchase.
There's multiple blocks of time here we could fool with moving.
What if dressing room time could be moved. What if we moved that time to be spent at home. What would that mean?
I mean Zappos has effectively done this. You can buy 10 pairs of shoes, try them all on at home and send 9 back when you've found the one you like. No extra charge.
But what if a retail store still allowed me to do this? Let me browse, which is still a much more high fidelity experience then shopping online, AND made it easy for me to take 10 shirts home knowing I'm going to return 9 of them. Give customers a way to pick up some kind of scanning device that's tied to their credit card (NFC seems like good tech for this) that makes it easy to buy lots of clothes quickly. Then give me a drop off area in the store I can come back to within a couple weeks to quickly drop most of them back off.
Sounds like some challenges there. But it also sounds like something more enjoyable for a customer. The fidelity of seeing and touching clothes you want to buy, but the convenience of trying on clothes at home: how does your spouse like how it looks, how does this look with something you already own, etc.
So if your looking for a way to brainstorm ways to innovate something, one great tool to try is to just imagine what it would be like if you could move time for your customers. Take a process and where people spend time, and simply move the blocks to different places to see what you come up with.
Recently a company launched a product named Grid that comes from some pretty original thinking of how a spreadsheet can look and function.
Immediately there was a discussion about “Can this product really call itself a spreadsheet? It doesn't do calculations,” which was pointed a little critically at Grid.
Paul Graham, one of the investors behind Grid said:
The reason I interpreted your question as a snarky one is that it seemed such a pointless one otherwise– like asking, say, whether a boat can be called a boat at a stage so early in its construction that it wouldn't float.
Actually, I like that question a lot.
Can a boat still be a boat if it doesn't float?
But not for the purpose it tried to serve in the above discussion. For the reason that it helps us break down the prejudices and stereotypes we have of the products we use every day.
It's an incredibly enlightening thought experiment. Can you have a boat that doesn't float?
Normally when I think boat, I think of water and floating. But thinking about a boat without water and floating helps me see how people enjoy a boat without those stereotypical accompaniments.
I was just on a pretty nice boat about a month ago. It had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms. It was awesome.
One very interesting thing about the experience was that after we had taken the boat out for a spin on the lake, we just enjoyed a good chunk of time sitting in the harbor on the boat, eating, drinking and chatting. So did a ton of other people in their boats.
As I think about it, I live near one of the biggest harbors in Chicago on the lake. Most of those boats never leave the harbor when they're parked there over the summer. One huge reason is because of the high gas prices.
But people keep coming back to their boats just to hang out on the boat in the harbor.
Is floating what's really getting these people excited about hanging out on their boat in a harbor full of water you probably don't want to swim in?
I don't think so. I think they enjoy the experience of having a small compartment of life outside. Something slightly exposed, close to a view of water, with all their own choices of food, drink, and entertainment, but still seperated enough from other people sharing the experience. After all, when you're on these bigger boats, you can't even tell that the boat is floating.
Taking that experience and realizing that a boat remains special to these people, while floating (especially in open water) isn't integral, you can come up with product ideas you may have not considered before: hotels, bars, restaurants that recreate that feeling of a boat compartment; services that allow you to rent some harbor time on a boat for a party; etc.
The companies and products that get me excited to use and create aren't the “me too” products or the incremental innovations. It's the companies and products that show me that I have stereotypes in my mind for things I use everyday and that I was wrong for having those stereotypes. It's the things they put in front of me that remind me to be more imaginative.
Cirque du Soleil shows us you can have a circus without the typical elements of a circus (animals, big tents). Apple shows us that you can have an extremely useful computer that doesn't have typical computer accessories (optical drives, memory slots). Southwest Airlines shows us you can sell airline tickets without food or seating assignments. Greg Achatz shows us you can have a restaurant that doesn't take reservations but instead sells tickets like the theater.
People look at these creations and say “Huh. That's different.” A bunch of people become critics immediately. “How can that work!? That won't be useful or enjoyable at all.” But then many people proceed to enjoy the product without the things they originally expected them to have. In the above cases: many, many people.
It's because their creators had the courage to ask the question, can you still have the “thing” without an essence of the “thing”?
Use this as a tool for your mind to explore ways to innovate. To poke holes in our preconceptions of what a product is.
You'll find you can come up with some pretty exciting ideas when you can imagine a boat that doesn't float.
The advice is useful for anyone struggling to think about balance.
But what really stands out is his simple heuristic on creativity:
Create something, whether it be a screenplay or a deck. Build something with your hands or your keyboard. Take pride in losing yourself in something you love doing. Share it with people, even if it sucks. Stay on it until it doesn't anymore.