Designing for the Extremes

Having worked in Customer Support for some time now, I’ve become quite obsessed with customer experience.

I’m the nerd that notices bugs in software I use on a daily basis. I also make a mental note of both confusing and delightful user interfaces. I get frustrated when buttons I expect to do one thing do something different entirely.

I pay attention to these things because they matter…a lot. As we’ve talked about before, there are far too many options available for customers to choose from. If your product experience sucks, it’s really easy to find a replacement. Boom – you’ve lost a user forever.

On the flip side, I also think there are a ton of quick wins that instantly upgrade the experience and win over customers with little time investment. The language you use in copy, the way in which you highlight key actions within your product, the accessibility of your contact options – they all play a huge role in delighting the people that pay your bills.

On a recent episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast, I was re-introduced to a thought exercise from Brian Chesky of Airbnb – designing for the extremes.

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How (and Why) Do You Protect an Idea?

In the 19th century, Francis Cabot Lowell stole an idea. More importantly, he stole an idea from Britain and brought it back to the United States, largely transforming the American economy.

The target of Lowell’s espionage wasn’t exactly sexy, but it was effective nonetheless.

In 1784, Edmund Cartwright, an English inventor, pioneered the mechanical loom. For many years prior to his invention, looms (a tool for weaving fabric) were powered manually. The invention led to a drastic increase in output and productivity.

As a result, Britain’s textile industry boomed, and they fought hard to protect the source of their dominance. It was illegal to sell power looms to manufacturers outside of Britain and textile workers weren’t allowed to emigrate to other countries for fear that they would spill design secrets. British customs officers even searched visitors as they left the country.

Enter Francis Cabot Lowell.

As author Matt Ridley describes in The Rational Optimist, Lowell made a trip to Britain and visited a number of mills around the country. During his stay, he memorized the details of the power loom and brought them back to the United States. When he returned, he had a mechanic and inventor turn his memories into a close replica.

Idea stolen.

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The Failure of Kodak: Why New Ideas Feel Risky

Way back in the 1970s, an engineer named Steven Sasson at Kodak invented the first digital camera. Sasson’s invention was ahead of its time by a few years so one would assume that this innovation would put Kodak at the forefront of the digital revolution.

If you have read one of the many articles on the topic though, you’ll know this isn’t the case. Despite being ahead of the curve, Kodak eventually fell far behind (filing for bankruptcy in 2012). The term “Kodak moment” now connotes missed opportunities instead of magic moments to be captured on film.

As Scott Anthony points out in his article on Harvard Business Review “Kodak’s Downfall Wasn’t About Technology,” the fall of Kodak has less to do with the actual digital camera technology and more about the culture of the company surrounding innovation and new ideas.

When Sasson originally brought his prototype to management, Kodak made a large chunk of their profits from selling film for their cameras. As one might expect, this new film-less invention didn’t get a warm welcome from leaders at the company. As Sasson recounts: 1

My prototype was big as a toaster, but the technical people loved it. But it was filmless photography, so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute — but don’t tell anyone about it.’

The first digital camera created by Sasson at Kodak

New ideas can be both incredibly exciting and intensely stressful. On one hand, new ideas are necessary to disrupt an industry and create a unique product/service. On the other hand, they represent a change in the status quo. By definition, a new idea is a departure from what you’re comfortable with and what you may have had success with in the past.

Let’s take a deeper dive into why new ideas are so difficult to adopt pulling from Adam Grant, author of Originals, and others.

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