summing up 84

summing up is a recurring series on topics & insights on user experience and how we can make sense of computers that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it straight in your inbox or find previous editions here.

As We May Link, by Jeremy Keith

The web is just twenty years old and I’m not sure that we have yet come to terms with the power that this new medium grants us. When we create websites, it’s all too easy for us to fall into old patterns of behaviour and treat our creations as independent self-contained islands lacking in outbound links. But that’s not the way the web works. The sites we build should not be cul-de-sacs for the inquisitive visitors who have found their way to our work by whatever unique trails they have followed. We should recognise that when we design and publish information on the humblest homepage or the grandest web app, we are creating connections within a much larger machine of knowledge, a potential Turing machine greater than any memex or calculus racionator.

this is such a powerful idea i've been referring to a lot recently. the computer and the web are powerful tools which could fundamentally amplify our human capabilities. i am only afraid that we're not able to see and grasp the big picture yet.

Error Messages Are Evil, by Don Norman

Our technology is designed by technologists who know what is good for that technology, namely highly precise, accurate, detailed information. Well, that ay be good for machines, but what about what is good for people? People are bad at precision and accuracy. At monitoring dull stuff for long periods. Force us to do those things, to act like machines, and of course we will fail. You call it human error: I call it machine error, or if you prefer, bad design.

too often we punish our users for not being able to predict the system's design, be it a website, app or program. but make no mistake, this is not about eliminating feedback from the system. when needed, the feedback should change to a collaborative one, rather than a confrontational one – human computer interaction, not confrontation.

Wobbly Tables and the Problem with Futurism, by Philip Dhingra

I’m amazed by all the great advances that have been made in the past 15 years, but I’m even more amazed by areas that haven’t changed. But perhaps the silver lining in the Banality of Futurism is that the room for growth won’t be in fixing life’s inconveniences, but rather in the human condition.

a very interesting thought on how acclimated we are to quirks and nuisances in our user interfaces. the future will probably be as awkward as the times we live in today. i've referred to a similar issue in a previous episode.

summing up 83

summing up is a recurring series on topics & insights that compose a large part of my thinking and work. drop your email in the box below to get it straight in your inbox or find previous editions here.

The Web Is a Customer Service Medium, by Paul Ford

The web seemed to fill all niches at once. It was surprisingly good at emulating a TV, a newspaper, a book, or a radio. Which meant that people expected it to answer the questions of each medium, and with the promise of advertising revenue as incentive, web developers set out to provide those answers. As a result, people in the newspaper industry saw the web as a newspaper. People in TV saw the web as TV, and people in book publishing saw it as a weird kind of potential book. But the web is not just some kind of magic all-absorbing meta-medium. It's its own thing. And like other media it has a question that it answers better than any other. That question is:

Why wasn't I consulted?

Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

every form of media has a question that it's fundamentally answering. that is something i've been alluding a few episodes ago. you might think you already understand the web and what users want, but in fact the web is not a publishing medium nor a magic all-absorbing meta-medium. it's its own thing.

Superintelligence: The Idea That Eats Smart People, by Maciej Cegłowski

AI risk is string theory for computer programmers. It's fun to think about, interesting, and completely inaccessible to experiment given our current technology. You can build crystal palaces of thought, working from first principles, then climb up inside them and pull the ladder up behind you.

People who can reach preposterous conclusions from a long chain of abstract reasoning, and feel confident in their truth, are the wrong people to be running a culture.

The pressing ethical questions in machine learning are not about machines becoming self-aware and taking over the world, but about how people can exploit other people, or through carelessness introduce immoral behavior into automated systems.

there is this idea that with the nascent ai technology, computers are going to become superintelligent and subsequently end all live on earth - or variations of this theme. but the real threat here is a different one. these seductive, apocalyptic beliefs prevent people from really working to make a difference and ignoring the harm that is caused by the current machine learning algorithms.

Epistemic learned helplessness, by Scott Alexander

When I was young I used to read pseudohistory books; Immanuel Velikovsky's Ages in Chaos is a good example of the best this genre has to offer. I read it and it seemed so obviously correct, so perfect, that I could barely bring myself to bother to search out rebuttals.

And then I read the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct, so devastating, that I couldn't believe I had ever been so dumb as to believe Velikovsky.

And then I read the rebuttals to the rebuttals, and they were so obviously correct that I felt silly for ever doubting.

And so on for several more iterations, until the labyrinth of doubt seemed inescapable. What finally broke me out wasn't so much the lucidity of the consensus view so much as starting to sample different crackpots. Some were almost as bright and rhetorically gifted as Velikovsky, all presented insurmountable evidence for their theories, and all had mutually exclusive ideas.

I guess you could consider this a form of epistemic learned helplessness, where I know any attempt to evaluate the arguments are just going to be a bad idea so I don't even try.

the smarter someone is, the easier it is for them to rationalize and convince you of ideas that sound true even when they're not. epistemic learned helplessness is one of those concepts that's so useful you'll wonder how you did without it.

humane websites

not sure how to tell you this: but just because your website is well-designed doesn’t mean that it’s effective.

and there’s one simple reason for this: most people fail to understand that websites are processes.

i've been talking about this a lot last year at conferences like sfscon 2016 in italy or 12min.me in munich. many people asked me about the slides and further information, so i gladly published an extended version of my slides along with speaker notes. a video recording is available here.

the gist of my talk is the following:

  • websites are processes and start way before people come to your website and end with clients sitting in your meeting room or buying your product
  • it's no longer about optimizing your websites for seo and hoping for the best. it's about optimizing your presence across the web. and in the real world as well
  • take time to carefully craft your value proposition. otherwise people don't get what you do, how you can help them and you'll lose them immediately
  • make sure that your landing page works. a value proposition, a deep dive into your client's big, expensive problem and a call to action are essential
  • if you do have an email list, don't send these spammy newsletters. personalize. give value. a lot

summing up 82

summing up is my recurring series on topics & insights that compose a large part of my thinking and work. please find previous editions here or subscribe below to get them straight in your inbox.

When We Invented the Personal Computer, by Steve Jobs

A few years ago I read a study – I believe it was in Scientific American – about the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the earth. The study determined which species was the most efficient, in terms of getting from point A to point B with the least amount of energy exerted. The condor won. Man made a rather unimpressive showing about 1/3 of the way down the list.

But someone there had the insight to test man riding a bicycle. Man was twice as efficient as the condor! This illustrated man's ability as a tool maker. When man created the bicycle, he created a tool that amplified an inherent ability. That's why I like to compare the personal computer to the bicycle. The personal computer is a 21st century bicycle if you will, because it's a tool that can amplify a certain part of our inherent intelligence.

i just love steve jobs’ idea of comparing computers to a bicycle for the mind. so much actually, that i used it in my talk the lost medium last year. we humans are tool builders and we can fundamentally amplify our human capabilities with tools. tools that take us far beyond our inherent abilities. nevertheless we're only at the early stages of this tool. we've already seen the enormous changes around us, but i think that will be nothing to what's coming in the next hundred years.

Teaching Children Thinking, by Seymour Papert

The phrase “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dullest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box.

there is this notion that our problems are easily being solved with more technology. doing that we're throwing technology against a wall to see what sticks rather than asking what the technology could offer and who that could help. papert is talking about education, and even if that is a vital part of our society, his thinking applies to so much more.

The Computer for the 21st Century, by Mark Weiser

The idea of integrating computers seamlessly into the world at large runs counter to a number of present-day trends. "Ubiquitous computing" in this context does not just mean computers that can be carried to the beach, jungle or airport. Even the most powerful notebook computer, with access to a worldwide information network, still focuses attention on a single box. By analogy to writing, carrying a super-laptop is like owning just one very important book. Customizing this book, even writing millions of other books, does not begin to capture the real power of literacy.

Furthermore, although ubiquitous computers may employ sound and video in addition to text and graphics, that does not make them "multimedia computers." Today's multimedia machine makes the computer screen into a demanding focus of attention rather than allowing it to fade into the background.

computers should fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs. especially mobile computing is a major paradigm shift, but right now we're becoming slaves of our own devices. weiser puts out some very interesting ideas on how computers could integrate in our environment and enhance our abilities there.

websites are processes

so yesterday i had a coffee with a friend. they run a small consulting shop and he proudly showed me their new website. they were working hard on it for months, and to be honest, it was looking good. it was responsive, had a great design and good copy.

however...

they were still failing to attract new clients and leads over their website. he asked me if there was anything glaringly wrong with their website. one thing jumped out: there wasn't a call to action. prospects would have to scroll down the whole page, find the contact form, fill out 10+ fields and hope somebody would get back to them.

but this was just a symptom, and not the main problem. the main problem was this: they failed to understand that websites are processes.

all websites "sell" something, whether you are selling an actual product, a service, you want to do outreach, get more attention or just simply share your ideas. but it takes time to get visitors interested and willing to buy your service or product. and this is a process. take any sales professional and you'll find an efficient, tested process they stick to. and we can do the same with our websites, fully automated and scalable.

let's have a look at the process in detail. it starts with strangers coming to your website. maybe they saw you at an event, got your business card, found you on google or some article you wrote a year ago. they have a look at your website and in case they are interested, they want to learn more.

next you start talking specifically about what you do and how you can help your clients. as you convince your audience that your product or service is the right solution for their problem you move them to the next stage via a call to action where they become leads. this can be done with a free email course, a cheat sheet or any other value exchange.

at the next stage, your audience is convinced that you're able to help them solving their problem, but trust and connection is still missing. as people only stay a short time (if you get more than 20 seconds you're really lucky) on your websites, this step is needed in order to extend the conversation in which you can nurture the connection and exchange value. drip campaigns or well crafted newsletters (no, not these awful spammy things, but something like a personal email) are good tools for this step.

lastly, by giving away valuable content and helpful tips you establish trust and set yourself up as an expert in your domain. only now you have all the ingredients to make a successful sale.

it is important to note, that the only goal of each step in this process is to help your visitors get to the next step. this is not about you, it is about how you can help your clients.

so think about your website for a moment. do you have a process similar to this in place? if not, you're losing money.

summing up 81

i am trying to build a jigsaw puzzle which has no lid and is missing half of the pieces. i am unable to show you what it will be, but i can show you some of the pieces and why they matter to me. if you are building a different puzzle, it is possible that these pieces won't mean much to you, maybe they won't fit or they won't fit yet. then again, these might just be the pieces you're looking for. this is summing up, please find previous editions here.

Computers for Cynics, by Ted Nelson

The computer world deals with imaginary, arbitrary, made up stuff that was all made up by somebody. Everything you see was designed and put there by someone. But so often we have to deal with junk and not knowing whom to blame, we blame technology.

Everyone takes the structure the computer world as god-given. In a field reputedly so innovative and new, the computer world is really a dumbed down imitation of the past, based on ancient traditions and modern oversimplification that people mistake for the computer itself.

it is quite easy to get the idea that the current state of the computer world is the climax of our great progress. and it's really not. ted nelson, one of the founding fathers of personal computing and the man who invented hypertext, presents his cynical, amusing and remarkably astute overview of the history of the personal computer - after all he's been there since the beginnings. it is especially interesting in contrast with our current view on computers, information and user experience.

Deep-Fried Data, by Maciej Cegłowski

A lot of the language around data is extractive. We talk about data processing, data mining, or crunching data. It’s kind of a rocky ore that we smash with heavy machinery to get the good stuff out.

In cultivating communities, I prefer gardening metaphors. You need the right conditions, a propitious climate, fertile soil, and a sprinkling of bullshit. But you also need patience, weeding, and tending. And while you're free to plant seeds, what you wind up with might not be what you expected.

This should make perfect sense. Human cultures are diverse. It's normal that there should be different kinds of food, music, dance, and we enjoy these differences. But online, our horizons narrow. We expect domain experts and programmers to be able to meet everyone's needs, sight unseen. We think it's normal to build a social network for seven billion people.

we hear a lot about artificial intelligence, big data or deep learning these days. they are all referring to the same generic approach of training a computer with lots of data and it learns to recognize structure. these techniques are effective, no doubt, but what we often overlook is that you only get out what you put into it.

Programming and Scaling, by Alan Kay

Leonardo could not invent a single engine for any of his vehicles. Maybe the smartest person of his time, but he was born in the wrong time. His IQ could not transcend his time. Henry Ford was nowhere near Leonardo, but he happened to be born in the right century, a century in which people had already done a lot of work in making mechanical things.

Knowledge, in many many cases, trumps IQ. Why? This is because there are certain special people who invent new ways of looking at things. Henry Ford was powerful because Issac Newton changed the way Europe thought about things. One of the wonderful things about the way knowledge works is if you can get a supreme genius to invent calculus, those of us with more normal IQs can learn it. So we're not shut out from what the genius does. We just can't invent calculus by ourselves, but once one of these guys turns things around, the knowledge of the era changes completely.

we often ignore the context we create a digital product in. however the context defines the space of possible solutions. and not only that, it also defines the borders of our world. what is so interesting about this thought is that you don't need a massive brain, but you need to be able to see and connect ideas in order to advance humanity.


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