The Wall Street Journal ran a great story yesterday about the early days of the iPhone. It’s worth a read, but if you’re crunched for time, just grab the picture above. It says so much. It’s from 2006, and shows the early prototype of the iPhone: a touch screen interface, tethered to a Mac, with an ACTUAL phone, speakers, and a rat’s nest of cables.
I dunno about you, but that gives me chills.
Last week I had the incredible honor of teaching a class at a big, global ad agency. The topic was engagement strategy, which I understood to mean, “Getting people to use things that you make.” This is a real, live issue for people in advertising & communications, but it’s generally applicable to “business” as everyone adds, or grows a technology layer in and around their core offering. Click to see the talk.
I began, as we often do at Undercurrent, with an excursion through The Internet: why I love it, why I think it’s important, why it matters and in which ways. The talk below is meant for a pretty wide range of tastes and experience levels, and these are speaker notes, so there’s that.
First things first: this is a concept drawing for The Matternet – a series of autonomous drones that aim to revolutionize infrastructure, city planning, health, everything in the developing world. If you need medical equipment in a place like Myanmar, where people are getting smartphones before they have roads, The Matternet will bring it to you. Way more important than Amazon Drones, say.
On that topic, we all want to talk about Amazon’s Drone Deliveries, but what most don’t know is that they’ve already got drone-powered deliveries: Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, a company that makes little robots that reorganize warehouses based on available information. Not just on the things that are likely to be ordered based on geography and past orders, but let’s say that the Superbowl is coming to NYC in a few weeks: they know that people want beanbags, serving bowls, crock pots, big screens this week and next more than most other times in the year. And they bring shelves with those items closer to the pickers and packers in the warehouse, driving costs down.
Instagram is great, right? But the cool thing to me is that you can take 12 talented people, and turn a couple years worth of work into one billion dollars.
And you can take a decent $100 product, 200 people, and three years, and turn that into three billion dollars of market value.
Or how you can use the internet to start and sustain an actual revolution.
But what I’m more interested in, at least in the context of this talk, is the great wealth of ideas that the internet makes possible, makes lucrative, makes interesting – all by adding an interface. There’s this great image, a clip of which is here, that shows all the startups that have come from Craigslist. Almost every single one of Craigslist’s sections is an opportunity for a very focused business.
The second thing that I’m interested in is the power law of The Internet. 80/20 comes alive here like nowhere else. This is a graphic showing Gawker’s traffic over the last few months, and you can see this big lime green section in the middle, dominating everyone else’s pageviews. That’s the traffic created by one dude, Neetzan Zimmerman. He’s just a guy, but he’s a guy that ran The Daily What until 2012, sold it to the Cheezburger network, and subsequently went on to more or less fund Gawker becoming what it is today, based on the ad revenue he helped bring in with his spreadable posts.
So the thing here is to realize that with no budget, no marketing trickery, you can drive huge traffic. All you need is the taste and the platform to do it right.
Two versions of the same idea: simple version, and a jargon-rich version.
A must-read person in this space is Clay Shirky. Not only does he have a great name, he’s responsible for a lot of people at UC and elsewhere having the thoughts that we do about this whole thing. He was thinking HARD about The Internet before most of us were even using it. This is the quote where we think Collective Action really became a thing. And philosophically, it’s all about sharing and cooperation OUTSIDE of traditional institutions. Think broadly about that point, the traditional institutions point – it’s not just say, “Company X” or “Country Y” but, “people watching the Seahawks game” or “Designers on Dribble” or “Members of the ragecomic subreddit.”
But my current hypothesis is that the most important part of all of this is play. We do all this because at some level it’s fun to do it.
So the first play topic is memes. This is the Doge meme, and it started in 2010 with an image of a shiba inu that looked suspicious. The image resurfaced on Reddit and Tumblr a few times until 2013, when it was used in 4chan to create a meme using ridiculous internal commentary from the Shiba. As a forum, 4chan is amazing for play because it automatically deletes old posts as new ones are created. So it enforces anonymity and only lets the funniest stuff stick.
This is LeBroning, and it’s the example of a meme coming alive off the internet. Background: LeBron James is the best current player in basketball, but he has a penchant for falling on purpose in order to get a call from the referees, despite the fact that he’s 6’8”, 275.
So let’s call this IRL play, shared digitally, and made accessible to everyone because the internet makes that easy. It also makes criticism of athletes easier. Also fun.
Saturday on Strava is a digital experiment that a developer at Strava made. Strava is a startup that is basically Nike+ on steroids, designed for serious, design-conscious runners and cyclists. People track their workouts using a GPS device or their mobile apps, and for a variety of reasons they’ve had a ton of traction. But the fun thing to me is that they’ve created opportunities for play. People have used Strava to write “will you marry me” in GPS tracks, discover new places, and find new people to ride or run with. But I love this Saturday on Strava thing because it shows internal developer play, too. One of their devs thought it would be neat to show their activity and spent a weekend working on this interface. It wasn’t part of his job to do so – he did it to have fun with the platform.
This is a framework we used to use all the time at UC. It’s the most basic and useful way to shape a method for getting people to do stuff for free.
Bonus Mike Arauz-ism: I don’t share your brand because I like your brand, I share your brand because I like my friends.
Bonus framework! I cut this from the deck, but it’s a good one. It’s super intense but really hard to talk through, so I skipped it.
Two versions of the same idea: simple version, and a jargon-rich version.
Bonus here: Look up the Bored at Work Network.
This is one of the best examples of cognitive surplus that I’ve ever found. In 2009, Time Magazine made a crowdsourced “most influential people” list. 4chan heard about it, and tried to hack the system to spell out “marblecake, also the game” using the first letter of the individuals on the list. They started with autovoters, which worked for a while until the Time developers saw what was happening and put a stop to it. So 4chan switched to a brute force attack: One of the members of the board made a voting mechanism that ported in the captchas and fields from time.com, and people sat in front of the screen and voted for hours on end. They kept improving the interface and ultimately landed on a system that loaded in 3 voting fields at a time. So good. And they won! Fun.
And this is Quirky, a business which launches new products each week, using input and contributions from thousands of inventors to take ideas to market faster than any other consumer-goods manufacturer, ever. They do open evaluations weekly, and offer tons of support to inventors, in the form of product design, marketing, sales, and distribution. It’s totally revolutionary.
Bonus: FoldIt! Look it up.
Local Motors is disrupting automotive in a few really important ways. With only 59 employees, they’ve been able to gather a community of over 30,000 engineers that collaborate across hundreds of projects – from designing new door handles for Local Motors’ first car, the Rally Fighter, to reworking their manufacturing process to be faster. The speed is really the impressive thing created by the community, though: they’re able to bring changes to life in months that would take Ford and others many years to copy.
All because they’re able to reliably commit to their community and give them opportunities to shine.
Note: If you have a strong purpose, you get to skip the Money/Work phases. If not, you’ve got to provide those as an offer. But ultimately there are some pretty core drivers that we know to be true intuitively, but research tells us are even more true on The Internet.
AirBnB – we all know it and most of us love it, but it’s also got one of the best growth-hacking stories I’ve ever heard. They created an algorithm to email users on Craigslist, pretending to be travelers, recommending AirBnB as a way to process transactions for short-term rentals. Even though they were fake emails, the awareness they generated was real.
Dropbox is a service that we all know well – the first example of consumer cloud storage that really took off (there were a bunch that came before Dropbox) – but most don’t know that they took a very traditional approach to marketing at first. They used things like SEM to drive user growth, but for a product that was designed to bring in $95 annually per user, the cost to acquire new users was in the $250 range. When they switched to a graduated referral system, as you see here, their user-growth rate went up 60%, and acquisition cost went down to pennies. Don’t force yourself to use old tactics to grow your userbase, just because that’s what others have done. Build the thing that works for you.
Who uses Mailbox? If you’re not, you’re missing out. Mailbox famously launched with the “beta queue” idea, where users got in line behind their friends to get access to the app. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the app and saw that they had thousands of people in front of them. It was a trick that many copied to little success. But what most don’t know is that Mailbox is a pivot from Orchestra, a to-do list app that failed to grow because people just wanted to email tasks to each other. They observed that user behavior and turned email into a better to-do list. Don’t force an idea to grow if your users don’t want it.
Memorize the Agile Manifesto. Immediately.
Create a minimum viable product in order to test the market, not the product. The biggest failure you can make is to create something that nobody wants.
User stories are huge. Write them for everything you do. Write as many as you can. MECE applies in full.
As a __, I want to ___, so that ___
Here’s a framework that we use frequently at UC with our clients to come up with good ideas. It requires three inputs and a bit of synthesis.
- Market truth: Something specific that’s currently “correct” about the world, ideally about a particular set of users that you want to reach. What makes this market unique?
- Brand truth: What’s the brand’s superpower? This should ideally be differentiated and very specific. Avoid your big-brand planning instincts here; if additional words add clarity, add them.
- Adjacent (or technology) truth: What’s about to come true in the world of technology? This is ideally not something special or particular to the brand.
Write each of these inside a circle on a Venn diagram.
With a bit of thinking, each overlap in the diagram becomes an insight. Write those down.
The final overlap – all three circles – will usually be an idea for something to build, or test.
For example, a project we did at UC. There are these mundane titanium brackets that are used to attach airplane engines to airframes. They’re pretty big, and are cast (a super old-school but still relevant way of making “stuff”).
We posted the design specs onto GrabCAD (upper right, image below), along with a call to action: the redesign of this object, using additive manufacturing techniques, with the best strength-to-weight ratio (and passing a final physical test), wins $10,000.
The results were astounding. We got 600 or so entries, and the community tacitly cooperated to push toward better, more effective designs. We saw some evolutionary algorithms that resulted in some wild, natural shapes, and a lot of iterating. Amazing stuff.
In the end, a dude from Indonesia took home the prize. On average, the entrants took out 70-80% of the weight of the object. Over time, just considering one item additively manufactured using this crowd-powered method, we’re talking about millions of dollars saved in fuel costs. Awesome.
And this is how we think of this example, broken-down into a framework (using the Truths and User Stories), and informed by thinking on Cognitive Surplus and Play.
There you have it!
- Kiva Systems
- Craigslist’s competition
- Gawker.com/Stats, Neetzan Zimmerman
- Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody, Cognitive Surplus
- LeBroning, Buzzfeed Sports, Know Your Meme
- A Saturday on Strava
- Jane McGonigal: Reality Is Broken
- Why People Share
- Yochai Benkler: The Wealth of Networks
- Bored at Work Network
- Quirky Evals
- Local Motors
- Daren Brabham
- AirBnB Growth Hacking
- Dropbox Growth Hacking
- Orchestra » Mailbox
- Agile Manifesto
- Lean Startup Methodology
- Jobs to be done
- GE Bracket Challenge
1% rule (or 80/20, or Power Law): a heuristic stating that only 1% of the users of a website actively create new content, while the other 99% of the participants only lurk.
Collective Action: people coming together for effective purposes, particularly to improve the environmental conditions experienced by members of the group.
Meme: “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” – Atran
IRL: In Real Life
Cognitive Surplus: people using free time more constructively for creative acts rather than consumptive ones, particularly with the advent of online tools that allow new forms of collaboration. (Shirky)
Growth Hacking: low- or zero-budget, user-, community- and product-driven marketing tactics that focus on permanently changing acquisition rates.
Pivot: “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.” – Ries
Minimum Viable Product: “version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” – Ries
User Stories: expressions of functionality, framed around user desires. “As a «user type», I want to «complete some action», so that I can «achieve some goal».” User stories are used in Agile software development to guide output.
Insight: a synthetic combination of available data that expresses some underlying truth in a situation, while providing clear guidance for action. Typically explains cause and effect in a single statement.
Click to embiggen.
In the past year, I read three books that have had an immeasurable impact on the way I view the world: The Timeless Way of Building, A Pattern Language, and Notes on the Synthesis of Form, all by Christopher Alexander. ATMO they are required reading for anyone doing strategic work, particularly for those with an emphasis on organizational design.
The diagram offered above is a synthesis of an early concept in Timeless: that there is an unnameable but very specific quality that is common among successful structures. Alexander avoids pinning it down with a definition, instead offering a set of seven contrasts to give it context. I’ve summarized them here:
- They’re Alive, invigorated by inexhaustible energy. » Not to be confused with literally alive; they’re structures, after all.
- They’re Whole, free from environmental contradictions. » Not to be confused with “cut off” from the world; their boundaries are permeable.
- They’re Comfortable, purposefully tuned, fit for a situation. » Not to be confused with “soft” or yielding
- They’re Free, wild, true to nature. » Not to be confused with “without constraint”
- They’re Exact, in that they are particular to specification. » Not to be confused with perfect.
- They’re Egoless, unselfconscious. » But they’ve still got the maker’s mark.
- They’re Eternal, in that they’re self-maintaining. » But they’re not mysterious, nor religious.
My favorite example is the one he offers for Eternal:
I once saw a simple fish pond in a Japanese village which was perhaps eternal.
A farmer made it for his farm. The pond was a simple rectangle, about 6 feet wide, and 8 feet long; opening off a little irrigation stream. At one end, a bush of flowers hung over the water. At the other end, under the water, was a circle of wood, its top perhaps 12 inches below the surface of the water. In the pond there were eight great ancient carp, each maybe 18 inches long, orange, gold, purple, and black: the oldest one had been there eighty years. The eight fish swam, slowly, slowly, in circles—often within the wooden circle. The whole world was in that pond. Every day the farmer sat by it for a few minutes. I was there only one day and I sat by it all afternoon. Even now, I cannot think of it without tears. Those ancient fish had been swimming, slowly, in that pond for eighty years. It was so true to the nature of the fish, and flowers, and the water, and the farmers, that it had sustained itself for all that time, endlessly repeating, always different. There is no degree of wholeness or reality which can be reached beyond that simple pond. (p. 38)
There’s hope, I guess. When it comes to building things, you can get it right. It can be finished. But it won’t be perfect. And it’ll be there after you’re gone.
If you’re not aware, Strava is like a more aggressive version of Nike+, designed specifically for cyclists and runners. It tracks workouts via sport-specific apps for smartphones and from connected GPS devices like Garmin. Its interface and community are leagues beyond competitors in its verticals; this is most evident in Strava Challenges, which draw their own community and brand support.
My cycling buddy Ilya noticed an awesome new beta feature over the weekend: Strava Nutrition. Based on the looks of the sign-up page (accessible only after sign-in), it’ll use your workouts to customize a nutrition subscription program so you never run out AND have the right food for your particular training regimen. Presumably this is another way for them to monetize the platform, on top of the paid annual membership model.
When launched, this will be an amazing opportunity for Skratch, Nuun, Osmo, CLIF and others to drive trial, and probably a lower-cost option for distribution, with built-in marketing and fulfillment.
Blue thing on the lower-left? I know you’re an ad.
Ambiguous image on the lower-right, beneath Louis C.K.? Are you an ad?
Of course you are. You’re an ad for an Audi. But that’s not exactly clear here.
Slate’s one of those websites I go to every day – direct traffic! – and the redesign might stop me. What a mess.
Just make it look like Jalopnik and be done with it.
There’s an idea that as time passes, media artifacts (tv shows, movies, commercials, etc.) grow increasingly complex. It’s a premise that I believe in, and one that points to an useful concept for designers of things that people use.
It’s a pretty simple idea, but one that gets overlooked with unnerving frequency: people want to figure things out.
Take for example Arrested Development: it’s so complex, so meta, so referential, that the depth of its humor only becomes apparent on subsequent watchings. Season 4 takes this idea to the limits of its applicability: it only began to make me laugh on my second complete viewing of the season.
For a less-popular example, take the recent political comedies by Armando Ianucci, In The Loop and Veep, both of which are eerily similar in style and both require the audience to pay close fucking attention to be enjoyable. You can’t pick Veep up midseason and expect it to be a good time.
Once, when discussing the lack of interesting detail contained in a client’s video, my client asked an interesting question: “What about a sense of mystery?” My first reaction – that the Internet doesn’t want mystery, necessarily, that you should reveal as much detail as possible – was partly incorrect. As a culture we crave mystery, but we crave mystery of the figure-out-able kind. The search for the Higgs boson is an example of this. Metafilter is an example. Terrible reality programming of the “Real Lives of (insert strange subculture)” variety. So are treasure-seekers with their metal detectors, sunburns and backpacks full of kit.
We’ve been discussing the idea of complex brands for what seems like an eternity in the Plannersphere, but for those who missed that boat, there’s a belief that companies that intentionally create and cultivate complexity in their presence, identity, offering and delivery will have better financial outcomes than those that do not. Before you case-study thumpers get to thumping, I’m not talking about line extensions for the sake of line extensions, overcooked design, or the willful generation of three-letter acronyms (TLAs). That’s not complexity, that’s complication. You can have complexity and sell one thing, from one store.
The problem most companies have is that it’s difficult to create natural-feeling, authentic complexity, especially in commoditized categories, or when a company has grown to a size where complexity has been engineered out of their internal environment.
For example, there’s a lot to learn about, a lot to figure out, a lot of inbuilt interestingness if you’re considering an item from Everlane. There’s less inherent interestingness in a similar, competitive item from The Gap.
Same thing goes for Red Bull, though I’d argue that this is due to their ongoing efforts as a publisher/creator than to something intrinsic to their company. They’re much more learn-able than their competitors at Monster (who seem to be content to copy everything that Red Bull does, but without the finesse).
Most makers of inherently complex things do a decent job of this when they focus on certain portions of their customer base.
For a loyal Ford Mustang fan, there is much to learn. Buying a Toyota Corolla or Honda Civic? Some to learn, but frequently the canon is focused on marketing efforts rather than on the thing itself.* And partly with good reason: the production methods are standardized, the materials are generic, and the features are common. If this is a systemic change, then automakers are in a structural pickle: generally they’re functionally and legally separated from their purchase destinations, fouling through complication what could be made interesting and complex.
And for me, the glorious thing about this confluence of pervasive Internet culture, increasing media complexity, a shift toward corporate transparency, and more considerate consumption patterns is creating segments and categories where paying close fucking attention is the norm, not the exception. More companies are packing more interesting details into their products and services, and companies that miss this trend are losing share.
*The work we’re doing on the Fiesta Movement is in line with this idea: we’re making a pretty straightforward if astonishingly complete car a little more learnable than its competitors.
File this under “Rad”: Mozilla’s new office furniture in Japan is open-source. The drawings for all the important pieces – save for the chairs – are available online in .dxf format for easy editing in AutoCAD.
My favorite is the corner piece, which is used in the lamps, the shelves and the desks, and appears to be cut and folded from a sheet of metal.
The following is from a great longish read on the design/development of the Rocketdyne F-1 engine (of Saturn V fame), and a modern rebuild/redesign using current technology.
Why was NASA working with ancient engines instead of building a new F-1 or a full Saturn V? One urban legend holds that key “plans” or “blueprints” were disposed of long ago through carelessness or bureaucratic oversight. Nothing could be further from the truth; every scrap of documentation produced during Project Apollo, including the design documents for the Saturn V and the F-1 engines, remains on file. If re-creating the F-1 engine were simply a matter of cribbing from some 1960s blueprints, NASA would have already done so.
A typical design document for something like the F-1, though, was produced under intense deadline pressure and lacked even the barest forms of computerized design aids. Such a document simply cannot tell the entire story of the hardware. Each F-1 engine was uniquely built by hand, and each has its own undocumented quirks. In addition, the design process used in the 1960s was necessarily iterative: engineers would design a component, fabricate it, test it, and see how it performed. Then they would modify the design, build the new version, and test it again. This would continue until the design was “good enough.”
Further, although the principles behind the F-1 are well known, some aspects of its operation simply weren’t fully understood at the time. The thrust instability problem is a perfect example. As the F-1 was being built, early examples tended to explode on the test stand. Repeated testing revealed that the problem was caused by the burning plume of propellent rotating as it combusted in the nozzle. These rotations would increase in speed until they were happening thousands of times per second, causing violent oscillations in the thrust that eventually blew the engine apart. The problem could have derailed the Saturn program and jeopardized President Kennedy’s Moon landing deadline, but engineers eventually used a set of stubby barriers (baffles) sticking up from the big hole-riddled plate that sprayed fuel and liquid oxygen into the combustion chamber (the “injector plate”). These baffles damped down the oscillation to acceptable levels, but no one knew if the exact layout was optimal.
I love that in the face of massive, barely understood complexity, the design process evolved to become more physical and ad-hoc.
In general, my preferred forms of online/digital product marketing are those that respect my desire for an outrageous level of detail on the thing that I’m thinking about buying. This means the pages are usually super long. And there’s usually a lot of copy.
Leather Soul has great product pages; they’re not as in-depth as they could be, but their social channels (inclusive, I suppose, of the comment section) act like supplements to the product display. Tom is amazingly responsive and helpful throughout, and though there’s no traditional e-commerce, they seem to process and ship a number of email orders while driving destination usage of their growing store empire.
Sticking with shoes: handmade/artisan/low-volume casual shoemaker Feit has a simpler approach to product pages (and an interesting pre-order model) but basically sticks to a good script: enormous, clear product imagery.
Feit happens to make shoes for Outlier, a cycling-influenced tailored/technical clothing brand with manufacturing in NYC, which have in my estimation some of the best product pages on the internet. Lots of photos. No clicking, just scrolling. Loads of fit details. Comprehensive descriptions of their fabric and construction methodology. And a set of social/marketing channels that keep me up-to-date on new releases, behind-the-scenes stuff, and restocks. Doesn’t hurt that their clothes are amazing. Their 60/30 Chinos make Bonobos look/feel like hobo pants.
Chevy’s product pages kick the pants off most of their competitors. So much detail, so easily accessible, and with a pretty fresh design for the category. I’m sure J.D. Power doesn’t approve, but I do.
I love Kaufmann Mercantile. 90% of that love is due to the site and their emails, which in general are fantastically detailed. The other 10% of that love came from meeting the founder, a guy that wanted to build a simple, accessible and ethical business that he could run and grow for the rest of his life, and seems to be giving it a really good go.
Next, a site that was built by one of my favorite strategic builders (Odopod, in SF) and atop strategy that we created at Undercurrent: International Watch Company. This particular set of pages is for an outlandishly expensive watch, and there’s (in my mind) a commensurate level of detail provided to substantiate desire.
And finally an example from the digital world: Squarespace. Hat tip to Mr. Daniels. Nothing fancy. Just a comprehensive description of the thing you’re buying, and how it works.