Superhuman’s Superficial Privacy Fixes Do Not Prevent It From Spying on You

Last week was a good week for privacy. Or was it?

It took an article I almost didn’t publish and tens of thousands of people saying they were creeped out, but Superhuman admitted they were wrong and reduced the danger that their surveillance pixels introduce. Good on Rahul Vohra and team for that.

I will say, however, that I’m a little surprised how quickly some people are rolling over and giving Superhuman credit for fixing a problem that they didn’t actually fix. From tech press articles implying that the company quickly closed all of its privacy issues, to friends sending me nice notes, I don’t think people are paying close enough attention here. This is not “Mission Accomplished” for ethical product design or privacy — at all.

I noticed two people — Walt Mossberg and Josh Constine — who spoke out immediately with the exact thoughts I had in my head.

Let’s take a look at how Superhuman explains their changes. Rahul correctly lays out four of the criticisms leveled at Superhuman’s read receipts:

  1. “Location data could be used in nefarious ways.”
  2. “Read statuses are on by default.”
  3. “Recipients of emails cannot opt out.”
  4. “Superhuman users cannot disable remote image loading.”

However, he also omits the core criticism: Recipients of Superhuman emails do not know their actions are being tracked or sent back to senders.

Rahul then details the five ways they plan to address those concerns:

  1. “We have stopped logging location information for new email, effective immediately.”
  2. “We are releasing new app versions today that no longer show location information.”
  3. “We are deleting all historical location data from our apps.”
  4. “We are keeping the read status feature, but turning it off by default. Users who want it will have to explicitly turn it on.”
  5. “We are prioritizing building an option to disable remote image loading.”

The first three apply only to the first criticism about location, but fine. All good moves. Bravo.

The fourth addresses the concern about teaching customers to surveil by default but also establishes that Superhuman is keeping the feature working almost exactly as-is, with the exception of not collecting or displaying actual locations. I’ve spoken with several people about how they interpreted Rahul’s post on this particular detail. Some believed the whole log of timestamped read events was going away and were happy about that. Others read it the way Walt, Josh, and I did: you can still see exactly when and how many times someone has opened your email, complete with multiple timestamps — you just can’t see the location anymore. That, to me, is not sufficient. “A little less creepy” is still creepy.

Also worth noting, “turning receipts off by default” does nothing to educate customers about the undisclosed surveillance they are enabling if they flip that switch. If they’ve used read receipts at all in the past, they will probably assume it works just like Outlook. At the very least, Superhuman should display a message when you flip that switch saying something like “by turning on Read Receipts, you are monitoring your recipients’ actions without their knowledge or permission. Are you sure you want to do this?”

Rahul’s fifth and final fix is also good in that they now realize pixel spying is a threat that they need to protect their own users from. This introduces a moral paradox, however: if the technology you are using on others is something you need to protect your own users from, then why are you using it on others in the first place? These are all questions I’ve asked Rahul publicly in this series of tweets, which I’m still waiting for a response on, four days later:

Ask yourself, even under this new system, whether you would ever not feel creeped out by someone saying:

“I’ve noticed you’ve opened my email four times, including last night, and even five minutes ago… and you haven’t responded yet.”

What if someone in your family said that? What if your ex said that? What if someone who had threatened you in the past said that? How about someone you didn’t even know? How about your boss?

It would be creepy enough for someone to actually say that to you, but even if they kept their mouth shut, they still know when you are looking at their email, and you don’t even know that they know. All because of these tracking pixels, which Superhuman has decided to continue using.

The message that sender-controlled read receipts send is “I’m watching you, I’ve been watching you, and you didn’t even know it”. Can you imagine ever saying that to someone, in any context, and having it go well?

I cannot. And the reason is that it communicates not only that you don’t trust me, but that I (the recipient) can’t trust you. It also implies that I’m doing something wrong by not emailing you back. As Ray Ozzie says, mess with people’s expectations at your own risk:

“I’m always watching you” is exactly the expectation that sender-controlled read receipts set. It’s how they work. And it’s the reason people don’t (and likely won’t) disclose that they’re using them.

Above all else, I want to know if people feel safe with this implementation. It doesn’t matter if I feel safe or if Rahul feels safe. Do women feel safe? Do people who have been creeped on over work email feel safe? Do people who have been harassed by salespeople feel safe? These are questions I would love for Rahul and team to investigate. You can probably start with someone like Cindy Southworth (hat tip: @amac) or many of the women, like Tracy Chou, who chimed in on the thread:

To Superhuman’s tremendous credit, they appear to have a pretty diverse team. Out of 30 people, I count 10 women and a variety of ethnicities. In Bay Area tech, that usually takes intentionality. Well done on that. It’s hard to believe, then, that not a single person — employee or customer — ever brought up how creepy the display of timestamps and read statuses are. Maybe someone internally did but the culture was not psychologically safe enough to bring it up and advocate against it. I’m just speculating. I don’t actually know. As Derek Powazek said:

Turns out, there seems to have been plenty of feedback, at least as far back as October 2018. Here is a Tweet from Elies Campo, formerly of WhatsApp and now working at Telegram (both known for their attention to privacy):

Read the words from Superhuman “Delight Team” employee Cameron Wiese. He says explicitly says “I agree” and says he thinks Superhuman should turn images off to avoid triggering read receipts and “having your privacy violated”.

Cameron is no longer at the company. I have no reason to believe that is related to this, but it’s proof that Superhuman’s own very small team knew about this a long time ago and decided to do nothing about it.

I began to wonder why, so I started reading up on Rahul. I haven’t followed his career so I wanted to read some things he’d written or said to get a better picture of how he thinks about products. The first thing I came across was this article entitled How Superhuman Built an Engine to Find Product/Market Fit. It’s really well-written and full of a lot of great wisdom from Rahul that can help other entrepreneurs. Stuff I have never thought about for sure. In particular, the bit about zeroing in on the question “how disappointed would you be if you could no longer use this product” is great. It’s kind of an inverse NPS. Really good stuff. There’s one part of the article that may, however, reveal what led to this situation Superhuman now finds itself in: Rahul talks about how he explicitly ignores feedback from people who don’t already love his product. You can read it yourself inside that article or listen to it from his own voice in this interview at the 17:50 mark. Please get the full context from the material provided, but here’s the quote:

“You take the users who most love your product and turn those into an HXC (high-expectation customer), and you use those to narrow the market. And what I mean by that is, deliberately ignore the responses from customers who don’t fit that archetype of people who love your product.”

Bingo.

There is already a huge survivorship bias problem whenever you survey existing customers (which is why people like Elies and me aren’t even represented in these surveys), but doing things the way Rahul describes is like some sort of “devotional bias” on top of the existing survivorship bias.

I will say this: if you were skeptical of Superhuman’s commitment to privacy and safety after reading the last article, you should probably be even more skeptical after these changes. The company’s efforts demonstrate a desire to tamp down liability and damage to their brand, but they do not show an understanding of the core problem: you should not build software that surreptitiously collects data on people in a way that would surprise and frighten them. Superhuman needs to realize that the people their customers send emails to aren’t “externalities”. They are people. And they deserve not to be spied on by software they don’t even know about and never signed up to use. This was an opportunity for Superhuman to internalize what it means to respect privacy, and model behavior for the next generation of companies by doing just that. Instead, they have done little more than the minimum.

I want to quickly detour into a few other issues unearthed by the conversation last week, and then we’ll get back to Superhuman.

First and foremost, it’s important to understand how dissatisfying it is that I happen to be the one who was able to break through on this issue. I am not the internet’s ombudsman or a beacon of morality. For that, I would turn to someone like danah boyd or Anil Dash, who are always a step ahead in thinking about unintended consequences of technology. Second, to my knowledge, I have never been stalked or abused. I am not a victim speaking out. I’m just another white guy of moderately impeachable character who got on my privileged soapbox and said something.

There are several reasons I was able to do this:

  • Because of my background and the way I look, I don’t have to worry about getting discredited or blackballed.
  • Despite tweeting stuff like this, I have a decent size following on Twitter.
  • I got extremely lucky twice in tech, so I’m secure enough financially and career-wise to where I don’t have to give a shit what the technology and venture capital world think of me.
  • I haven’t personally wielded the sort of granular tracking technology I am railing against.
  • I took the time to write a proper argument in long-form, litigating issues and not people.

Without all five of those things aligning, I think this whole thing wouldn’t have registered a blip. Furthermore, the first four of those things are about who I am and not what I wrote. Think about how frustrating this is for all of the people in the world who have something important they want to bring to light but are only able to do number five. This happens every day, and we miss a lot of it.

Conversely, I will also say that there are a lot of people in the world who have either all or some of the first four taken care of and instead take the easy route by tweeting out some thought-terminating-cliches (hat tip: Kristy Tillman), and then moving on to the next thing they feel like tweeting. If you have an argument to make, put in the work.

Along these lines, it’s been interesting to see who has reacted (and how) to my original article. If you search for who has linked to it on Twitter, you have to scroll through more than 50 posts before you find a single detractor. I didn’t research any further, and I could be biased by how Twitter displays search results, but my gut is that this is at least a 95%/5% situation, if not higher. To anyone who thinks “everyone knows this stuff is going on”, this is a death blow to that theory. “Everyone” in ad tech might know about email surveillance, but the great majority of people in the world do not… and those are the people you are either signing up to be honest with or signing up to deceive. As Upton Sinclair said:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

In this case, the statement refers to getting people who surreptitiously track others to understand that those being tracked do not know they are being tracked nor want to be tracked and that it is a violation of their privacy.

It’s also been interesting to see who has not weighed in. That includes a lot of people on both sides of this issue, including most of Superhuman’s VCs and 120 well-placed angel investors. I have, however, gotten DMs from some very prominent people in the investment community expressing solidarity but unwilling to say anything publicly. I’ve also gotten similar messages from people involved in the creation of Outlook and other tools that have had to wrangle these sorts of issues. I’ve also heard from entrepreneurs who have been specifically told by investors not to engage in discussions like these because it may limit their ability to fundraise in the future.

To those who have spoken out publicly or messaged me privately, thank you!

Conversely, there are also probably people on the other side of the issue who haven’t spoken up because they don’t want to look like jerks. This issue can really make you look like a jerk quite easily, so it’s sometimes easier to just let everyone else tell on themselves instead, like this guy from Founders Fund:

Exactly the caring, benevolent way the venture capital world would love to be represented, I’m sure.

While we’re on the topic of Twitter, I should mention that I’m generally not a fan of having public, free-for-all debates about heated subjects on the platform. I think the format often turns us into the worst versions of ourselves, expelling incomplete thoughts in such staccato bursts that we are often talking past each other and to the larger audience we are trying to impress. Twitter at its best exposes us to wonderful things we’ve never seen before. But Twitter at its worst is just bad performance art. I feel bad that Rahul and team had to absorb the tens of thousands of Tweets directed at them last week. But at the same time, I also feel like they had advance warning several months ago from myself and surely others that what Superhuman is doing is not right.

Being on the inside of this whole clandestine web of intrigue for a few days has made me think twice about this tech ecosystem of ours and what sorts of behaviors we are enabling with it. How many VCs and powerful people hate what Superhuman is doing with people’s privacy but won’t say anything because they aren’t sure if another company in their portfolio does something similarly sketchy with data? How many won’t say anything because they are concerned about their relationship with Andreessen Horowitz?

This episode has also made me take stock of whether there’s anything in my own life which is collecting data it doesn’t need to collect. Someone on Twitter brought up the fact that I use Mailchimp to send out newsletters. That’s a good place to start. A few years ago, I enlisted Mailchimp to automate newsletter creation for me. I wanted to give people an easy way receive an email every time I wrote a new post. That’s about two or three times a year. Mailchimp makes this so easy that since installing it, I’ve never once logged into the service. I didn’t even know what, if any, data they were collecting aside from the number of subscribers I had. Turns out, they can collect a lot more data than I am comfortable with. Thankfully you can disable substantially all of it, which I have done. It bothers me that these services are choosing to collect all of this data for people who don’t even need it or want it. It turns people into “unwitting data collectors”.

It reminds me of the early days of Android when developers immediately asked for every single permission they could get from you. Now the conventional wisdom is to only ask for what you need, when you need it. It makes things slightly better that people are at least opting into these newsletters, but to use my same test from the original post, there is no way they know how much data is being collected on them. That said, I’m generally not moved by straw man arguments that attempt to paint bulk newsletter analytics with the same brush as email surveillance. News organizations are well within their rights to employ the former while criticizing the latter.

The second thing someone asked me on Twitter is whether the company I work for uses tracking pixels anywhere. I’m not in sales or I.T. so I have to look into how different people use analytics over here, but I imagine there are a variety of ways. I’m going to be proposing an explicit policy against the sort of thing described in this article this week and I don’t expect that will be controversial.

Ok, so back to Superhuman.

We are left now in a better state than we were last week. The threat level has decreased. But I am still left wondering, why is Superhuman taking this feature — which clearly creeps people out — and doing barely more than the minimum to make it less creepy? Rahul said exactly why in his post:

“If one of us creates something new, and that innovation becomes popular, then market dynamics will pull us all in that direction. This is how we ended up with location tracking inside of Superhuman, Mixmax, Yesware, Streak, and many others.”

Rahul is not wrong. But that is not how the greatest innovators think. The reason Slack is now an $18b company whose software is loved by millions of customers is that Stewart Butterfield created a new workplace communications tool based on how he thinks workplace communications should work. Stewart and team looked at what tools people were currently using, invented a new service full of things that seemed good, and left out everything that seemed bad. Are there any deceptive, creepy, or harmful features that exist in Slack because they already exist in other products? Not that I can think of. Someone please tell me if I’m wrong. Heck, Slack doesn’t even have read receipts! And it would be easy to design them ethically within Slack if they wanted to.

Either Rahul thinks email apps should be able to spy on recipients’ behavior without their knowledge or permission, or he doesn’t think they should — but he’s doing it anyway because other bad actors do. Neither of these represents the standard we should hold our entrepreneurs to… especially those we point to as models for great design and great leadership.

The other thing that’s been bugging me is that Superhuman’s other co-founder, Vivek Sodera, has openly compared Superhuman to Apple. See this thread:

Notwithstanding the fact that I believe Google could extinguish Superhuman’s entire existence with the flip of an API access switch, it strains credulity to see how the decision to surreptitiously collect behavioral data on unsuspecting users is Apple-like at all. Vivek is talking here about whether they will license their data out in the future, but still… if you are going to say you are like Apple, then you should at least try and act like Apple. Do I think Apple would ever insert invisible tracking pixels into emails so senders could monitor the actions of recipients without their knowledge or permission? Not in a million years. Do you?

To test my assumptions about how Apple, and in particular Steve Jobs, might approach a problem like this, I asked the only person I know who has worked directly for Jobs, across several decades: Mike Slade. Mike is the founder of ESPN.com, the original product manager of Excel, and worked directly alongside Jobs at both NeXT and Apple. Here’s what Mike said to me:

“Steve was the most consumer-first person I’ve ever worked with. If he didn’t like what the consumer was going to experience, he changed it. This functionality would’ve definitely creeped him out and he would’ve never implemented something as creepy as this.” — Mike Slade

Sadly, we’ll never know for sure, but this makes sense. Jobs used to talk a lot about the importance of taste in product development. That is exactly the concept that is missing here.

You just raised $36m so you could build a product for the long term. You think tracking pixels in emails are even going to be around in a few years? Differentiate yourselves from your competitors by giving a shit about privacy. Think Different.

To show you how this might work, I’ve taken the liberty of redesigning your sales pitch for you. Here is how you currently describe Read Receipts on your front page:

Now here’s how it would look if you decided to take a stand on privacy and protect people from both tracking and being tracked:

I feel like I am doing an unusual amount of free work here. THIS is the sort of morality I want to see in enterprise software. It’s funny, one of the things people like to talk about is how the iPhone kicked off “the consumerization of enterprise software”. Meaning, because the iPhone set the bar so high for how consumers experience digital products, all enterprise software eventually rose to meet this bar. If we can now expect our enterprise apps to look and feel as nice as our consumer apps, why can’t we also expect them to behave as nice?

To harken back again to the tao of Steve: “Design is how it works.”

Alright, that’s all I have on the subject of Superhuman specifically. Take my advice or leave it. It’s your company.

A couple of more things before I go. One of the valid criticisms of my article from last week is that I didn’t call out any of the various other companies that enable email spying. This is fair. I frankly didn’t know about most of them, since I don’t use email tracking myself. For instance, I had heard of Mixmax but thought it was just an extension which let people book time on your calendar (it does this too). I am more than happy to name the names of every company who does this. From Rahul’s post, that looks like Mixmax, Yesware, Streak, Mailtrack, and HubSpot (whose founder is a Superhuman investor). There are probably others too. To all of you: what you are enabling is bad and you should feel bad about enabling it. None of you pitch yourself as a well-designed email client so you avoided attention in my first post, but isn’t there a way for you to operate your business without enabling your customers to spy on their customers? Mixmax, you have that useful calendar thing. Is that not enough? HubSpot, Streak, and Yesware, you offer a bunch of services that are unrelated to this. Mailtrack, welp… this seems like pretty much all you do from what I can tell.

Is this stuff even useful in a material way? If you send someone an email and they don’t respond, you can either let it go or reach out again. Does knowing whether someone read it really change what you’re going to do? On top of that, aren’t we already in a world where you’re getting false positives and false negatives from that data? If I have images off (which, for the love of god, everyone should at this point), you’re seeing that I haven’t read email, when maybe I have. If Gmail or something else is proxying my email images, you might be seeing that I have read email, when maybe I haven’t. The data may be “usually right” because most normals don’t pay attention to this stuff, but how can you be sure? You can’t. This seems like a case of very low value data being collected and distributed in a potentially very harmful way.

To wrap things up, I want to address the final issue brought up from the first article: what are the big three mail platforms (Apple, Microsoft, and Google) doing to protect us? The answer seems to be “some, but not enough”. All three allow users to disable images, but none make that a default. I could make the argument that email should be text-only by default, but I don’t think that’s realistic given the sorts of emails people subscribe to these days (real estate listings, deals of the day, etc). Accepting this, it seems like email providers should use the same sort of filtering they use to keep us safe from malware. If an email with a Mailtrack pixel comes in, for instance, strip it. You’d have to maintain a growing list of these things as they mutate across IP addresses, but it would send a strong signal to the industry that this sort of stuff is on the outs.

Google and possibly also Microsoft could also stop this stuff from the other side: disallow extensions which provide this functionality. You don’t have to kill most of these companies’ entire businesses. Just specifically disallow this behavior.

Because neither of these solutions stops companies from using large, visible, legit images in their emails to provide the same tracking abilities, the big three should also proxy and cache remote images in email whenever they can. I believe Google already does some sort of this, but it’s unclear to me exactly how obfuscatory it is. I don’t believe either Microsoft or Apple does any of this yet.

This is almost certainly a case of “if you think the solution is easy, you don’t understand the problem”, so I recognize there’s a lot of implementation complexity I’m missing here. I guess I would just like to see all of these companies do everything they can to protect the majority of the world, who — unless they were paying attention last week — still doesn’t know they are naked with their curtains open for all people using spyware pixels to see.

Perhaps if the big platforms aren’t able to sufficiently protect people, the last resort is the law. I’m not a COPPA or GDPR expert, but it seems crazy that collecting information via a website about someone under 13 without parental consent is illegal, but providing software that can automatically track that child’s movements when they open an email is not.

This whole thing may already be advancing through the legal system, as just a few days ago, the British Information Commissioner’s Office issued guidelines requiring consent and transparency for email tracking pixels. If ethics can’t keep companies from doing these sorts of things, maybe fines can.

It seems to me we’ve still got a lot of work to do here to keep people safe. Until that work is done, the best way to stay safe is to follow the same two pieces of advice from my previous article:

  1. Don’t use Superhuman yourself. They have not given a date for when they will protect you from other people’s tracking pixels and they have not shown a proper appreciation for privacy. Remember, when Superhuman says “you can turn it off”, that only means you can stop sending your own tracking pixels out.
  2. Turn off remote image loading in whatever email client you use. You may also want to consider using an always-on VPN to keep your location from ever being revealed.

Thank you for reading this. Stay safe out there.

Superhuman is Spying on You

Over the past 25 years, email has weaved itself into the daily fabric of life. Our inboxes contain everything from very personal letters, to work correspondence, to unsolicited inbound sales pitches. In many ways, they are an extension of our homes: private places where we are free to deal with what life throws at us in whatever way we see fit. Have an inbox zero policy? That’s up to you. Let your inbox build into the thousands and only deal with what you can stay on top of? That’s your business too.

It is disappointing then that one of the most hyped new email clients, Superhuman, has decided to embed hidden tracking pixels inside of the emails its customers send out. Superhuman calls this feature “Read Receipts” and turns it on by default for its customers, without the consent of its recipients. You’ve heard the term “Read Receipts” before, so you have most likely been conditioned to believe it’s a simple “Read/Unread” status that people can opt out of. With Superhuman, it is not. If I send you an email using Superhuman (no matter what email client you use), and you open it 9 times, this is what I see:

A log of every time someone has opened your email and what location they opened it from.

That’s right. A running log of every single time you have opened my email, including your location when you opened it. Before we continue, ask yourself if you expect this information to be collected on you and relayed back to your parent, your child, your spouse, your co-worker, a salesperson, an ex, a random stranger, or a stalker every time you read an email. Although some one-to-many email blasting software has used similar technologies to track open rates, the answer is no; most people don’t expect this. People reasonably expect that when — and especially where — they read their email is their own business.

When I initially tweeted about this last week, the tweet was faved by a wide variety of people, including current and former employees and CEOs of companies ranging from Facebook, to Apple, to Twitter:

It was also met critically by several Superhuman users, as well as some Superhuman investors (who never disclosed that they were investors, even in past, private conversations with me). I want to talk about this issue because I think it’s instructive to how we build products and companies with a sense of ethics and responsibility. I think what Superhuman is doing here demonstrates a lack of regard for both.

First, a few caveats:

Read more…

Newsletters I’m Digging

Reading Craig Mod’s excellent piece The Future Book is Here, but It’s Not What We Expected got me thinking more about newsletters. I’ve never been a big consumer of newsletters, mostly because I still use RSS regularly and don’t really need more stuff in my inbox.

Then the other day I happened to find the first new blog I wanted to subscribe to in years, and lo and behold, Aaron doesn’t even have an RSS feed! Just an email newsletter.

So I added Aaron’s newsletter to a dedicated newsletter app I’m testing called Stoop and now we’re golden.

Although I still use Twitter and RSS feeds for finding interesting links, there’s something nice about a well-curated newsletter that aligns with your interests. I still don’t subscribe to many of them, but my favorites so far are:

  • Dense Discovery: A weekly list of mostly design-oriented interestingness from Kai Brach. I probably click on over 50% of the links. Very high signal-to-noise ratio.
  • Sentiers: A weekly list of articles related to how technology is reshaping society, curated by Patrick Tanguay.
  • Axios Edge: 99% of “news” published every week simply does not matter. Axios Edge from Felix Salmon shows you only what does matter, why it matters, and what it might mean for you.
  • Recomendo: A weekly list of six practical, nerdy product recommendations every week from Kevin Kelly, Mark Frauenfelder, and Claudia Dawson.
  • Cumberland Advisors: If you are sickened by the clickbait at mainstream financial sites but still want to know what developments in the world mean for the markets, David Kotok’s emails from this list are particularly informative. The other authors can be a little too niche.
  • The Howard Marks Memo: Marks is famous for his financial memos, which generally only come out a few times a year. Very long, very infrequent, and very well-written.

If anyone has any other recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments! I reserve the right to delete anything that looks spammy, self-promotional, or low quality, however. Only the good stuff, please! :)

⇗ The State of UX in 2019

A wonderful state-of-the-union for the design industry as we move out of the age of attention hijacking towards a mindset that puts users' health and happiness first. Great writing from Fabricio Teixeira and Caio Braga.

The comfort of our design jobs, especially in Silicon Valley, has, in many ways, limited our power to advocate for the right thing. We are comfortable in our expensive chairs, busy pleasing our internal stakeholders and pretending we can keep our responsibilities as citizens out of our work, and the impact of our work out of our personal lives. For a long time, we even ignored harassment issues in our offices.

Read more ⇗

Clocking Back In… at InVision!

As a designer, I owe my entire livelihood to tools.

Some people survive on talent, vision, persistence, or a host of other superpowers, but to make up for what I lack, I’ve always been a tool nerd.

Whether it was messing around with Print Shop on a Commodore 64 when I was 10, teaching myself Photoshop 3.0 in my teens, or learning HTML via “HoT MetaL” while most designers were only doing print work, aggressively learning the tools of the near future has been one of the only consistencies of my career.

For that, and other reasons I’ll explain below, I’m incredibly excited to announce that after a refreshing two-year sabbatical from work, I’m joining one of my favorite companies — InVision — to head up Partnerships & Community!

That’s me at my last job… talking about my next job.

We are entering a golden age of product design tools right now, and I’ve seen first-hand what introducing great prototyping and collaboration software like InVision can do within a company. It breaks down barriers between different groups and gets everyone thinking about user experience. It demystifies what product design actually is. It replaces 50-slide presentations and exhaustive spec documents with quick-to-create working demos that everyone can hold in their hand. More showing, less telling.

As my friend at Google, Darren Delaye once told me, there’s no better way to communicate a product idea than pulling out your phone and saying “Hey, wanna see something cool?”

When Clark and I first started talking about working together a little while ago — and about this role in particular — I’ll admit I had some question marks. In particular:

1. InVision is a fully distributed company with no offices.

A lot of people probably view this as a positive, but the thing I miss most about my last job at Twitter is being around my team and all of the other great people there. I’m an extrovert, and even if I have to brave open-office plans and commute times, being around teammates has always been important to me. Video calls, in fact, have always felt like a burden because face-to-face is the default mode of communication at most companies.

Still miss you, @design fam! Glad you’re doing well!

I had a really tough time evaluating what working remotely would be like, but in talking to Clark, Stephen, Aarron, David, Hilary and others at the company, everyone says exactly the same thing: it sounds like it’s going to be awkward, but after a couple of months, you never want to work any other way again. It’s great to be able to spend the first few hours of your day working from your couch, then go on a run whenever the weather clears up, and then spend the rest of the day working from your patio or your local coffee shop… all without ever getting stuck in traffic! InVision even gives you a $100 coffee & tea credit every month to encourage you to explore new surroundings.

It seems that when everyone is remote, the working dynamic changes. You aren’t sitting in a room with 10 people and then figuring out a way to dial in your poor London teammate with a choppy internet connection. You aren’t keying off of all of the social cues in the conference room and losing nuance from your one teammate in India. When everyone’s in the same boat — even if it’s a metaphorical boat held together by thousands of miles of fiber — something apparently changes.

I am now looking forward to this social experiment in telepresence, even if it means I have to remove the Zuck Tape covering my laptop’s camera. I think InVision is correct that this will be the new normal for a lot of companies over the next decade, and if you are a designer who doesn’t want to (or can’t) live in San Francisco, this seems like good news for you too. Either way, I will report back in a few weeks to let you know how it’s going.

Got my green-screen video conferencing background all dialed in
2. I’m used to working on consumer products, as opposed to products that help people make other products.

Whether at ESPN, Newsvine, NBC, or Twitter, most of my career has been spent building things that consumers use. In evaluating each of those opportunities, I’ve tried to ask myself “what kind of impact is this going to have on the world?” This opportunity is a bit different because InVision doesn’t really touch consumers directly, but rather, it touches the designers, engineers, PMs, researchers, writers and others responsible for making the products that touch consumers. In that sense, it’s hard to trace the social impact of your work because you aren’t even aware of all the products that are being built with it. Having used InVision regularly myself, however, I am confident of three things: it tends to raise the profile of design work inside of companies, it facilitates a more inclusive product development process, and it ultimately helps create better user experiences. All great things.

You may say to yourself “but I like another tool better!” That’s totally fine. Any of the options available today are light years better than what we did ten years ago when we emailed JPEGs back and forth. I happen to think InVision is the best set of tools out there for entire organizations to use (with more products and capabilities on the way), but a world in which designers have several great options to choose from is a world I want to live in. Competition breeds excellence, and there is a lot more work for all of us to do.

Remember this fun tool from the ’80s? LOAD “*”,8,1

One last note on tools and their impact: even though it was over ten years ago now and it started as a fun little hack, sIFR is still one of the projects I’ve enjoyed working on the most. None of us ever made a penny on it, or even tried to, but watching that little tool help people beautify typography across the web was really fulfilling. Seeing the need for it slowly disappear with the advent of TypeKit and proper web fonts was just as satisfying. It’s great to work on things that inch the world forward and make other people’s work better, and I look forward to doing that again in whatever ways I can at InVision.

3. The output of my work will, for the most part, not be directly within the product.

The role I’m taking on at InVision is not within Product, Engineering, or Design, so I won’t actually be working on the products themselves (but you can be sure I’ll be in people’s grills with ideas and feedback! 🧐).

Instead, I’ll be doing the following:

  • Working with hundreds of companies and design teams around the world listening to how they currently develop products, how they want to develop products, and how we might be able to help.
  • Keeping an eye on interesting new products and teams in the design software space and working on acquisitions when it makes sense.
  • Designing and executing product integrations that bring the functionality of InVision to other platforms, and vice versa. InVision is already integrated with the largest platforms that drive digital product success, including those from Slack, Atlassian, Dropbox, and Microsoft, but there are still a lot more nodes in the digital product ecosystem to connect. The goal is to make the workflow of product design as seamless as possible, no matter what assortment of platforms a team is using.
  • Emceeing InVision’s Design Leadership Forum, which hosts private events for design leaders from around the world. Its goal is to advance the practice of design leadership by creating a community where leaders can learn from one another.
  • Further building out InVision’s programs within the traditional and continuing education spaces.
  • Working on inclusive ways to bring the design community together, both online and off.

It’s a different sort of role for me, but at the same time, I’ve actually been doing a decent amount of exactly this sort of thing during my time off.

In some ways, this seems like the perfect opportunity at the perfect company right now, and yet, in other ways, I’ve never done anything like it! One thing that feels palpable already, however, is that this is a company driven by producing great experiences — for its customers, its partners, and its employees — and for that reason, I already feel at home (also, I *am* at home).

I’m not sure what my hiring plan is just yet, but if I’ve ever worked with you in the past or if you see anything you like in the 71 positions posted here, feel free to reach out to me directly! If you’re interested in helping power the next decade of digital product development from the comfort of wherever you choose to work, now is a great time to be joining InVision.

⇗ Complicating the Narratives

A wonderful article from Amanda Ripley about how people process, accept, and reject information that doesn't fit their existing worldview. Amanda's ideas for how journalists (and the rest of us) can encourage more openness and understanding are insightful and worth adopting.

"When people feel heard and seen as they wish to be heard and seen, they relax their guard," says Melissa Weintraub, a rabbi and the co-founder of Resetting the Table. "It's both very simple and very hard to accomplish. We have to give them the most powerful and eloquent articulation of their own thinking." Then and only then will people even begin to consider information that does not fit their usual narratives. In fact, this is one of the only ways to get people to listen when they are emotional or entrenched in a particular worldview. Humans need to be heard before they will listen.

Read more ⇗

Design-Driven Companies. Are We There Yet?

It’s fashionable these days for companies to proclaim their commitment to great design.

You may hear things like “Design is very important to us” or “Design has a seat at the table” or even “We’re a design-driven organization”. As a designer evaluating job opportunities, should you take statements like this at face value or might you be able to get a clearer picture by asking questions, reviewing a company’s products, and other investigative means?

Throughout my 20 years in design, I’ve worked in everything from design-hostile to design-driven environments, and I can tell you that succeeding (and being happy) within each requires a different mindset going in.

Before discussing strategies, let’s describe several types of organizations along the design spectrum so as to identify what they look like. Importantly, when I say things like “design-driven”, I don’t necessarily mean Design-ER driven. In other words, it doesn’t mean that designers call all the shots. It just means that great care goes into every detail of the user experience of a company’s products. That level of detail could come from engineers, researchers, execs, or any number of other people (and often does!), but it also tends to correlate with designers playing key roles at the company.

The Spectrum of Design Drivenness

Design Hostile

CRMster is a 20-person startup that develops Customer Relationship Management software. There are 10 salespeople, 8 engineers, 1 CEO, and one contract designer. Most product decisions are made by the CEO and one salesperson. The rest of the team just builds whatever they are told to build. If a designer or engineer brings up concerns about a product feature, they are told to just stick to the program and produce what the CEO asked for as quickly as possible.

Design Ignorant

GitBusy is a 5-person startup building a new way to sync files across computers. All five team members are back-end engineers and they have spent their first year building out core functionality. The product is a bear to use, but it’s starting to work reliably. They keep making minor usability improvements but they’ve never thought to hire someone full-time who specializes in user experience.

Design Agnostic

MegaloBank is a Fortune 100 financial institution that employs over 10,000 people. They employ plenty of designers and design-minded people around the company, but mainly as support for other teams. If you asked the CEO of the company what his or her designers did, the response would be something like “I think they make our logos and business cards.” Important product design work does get done at Design Agnostic companies, but the people who do it just aren’t looked at as core talent the same way as sales, engineering, or marketing might be. Their compensation unfortunately reflects this.

Design Interested

CellYou is a 20-year old wireless carrier, employing over 10,000 people. They are feeling the heat from their competitors and have just embarked on a high-profile effort to redesign their product line so it is much easier to use. They don’t have all the right people in place yet, they aren’t walking the walk in terms of a user-centered product development process, and they still pay their designers a lot less than PMs and engineers, but they are starting to talk about things in the right way and starting to recognize the value of design. It may take a few years, but they are moving in the right direction. A lot of companies who say they are Design Driven are actually in this category instead.

Design Driven

HyperBowl is a 500 person company that makes a versatile kitchen appliance which can cook hundreds of different foods. It started as one chef and one engineer, but even from the very beginning, there was a relentless focus on building product prototypes and iterating them rigorously based on how they performed with users. New products are developed only when they can perform important jobs for users. At HyperBowl, there are 10 full-time designers but everyone in the company considers user experience to be one of their most important job functions. Many decisions are made with data and research, but there’s room for subjectivity, taste, and long-term vision as well.

Those are the five archetypes you’ll generally run across in the market today.

The Challenges of Each

As a designer, you may immediately think to yourself “I only want to work for a Design Driven organization!” If your goal is to join an environment that immediately affords you the ability to practice great design, then this is a natural choice. Take Apple, for instance. Whether you are fresh out of school or a 20-year design veteran, as a new employee at Apple, you won’t need to spend any of your time convincing anyone of the value of design. You will be paid roughly on par with engineers, expected to help lead the product development process, and likely do some of the best work of your career. I have a bunch of friends who have worked at Apple, and one of them summed it up best: it’s like career rocket fuel. You may find the work/life balance unsustainable in the long term, but your time there will be unencumbered by any fights about the value of design.

A lot of companies (even some of the largest and most successful in the world) will tell you they are Design Driven, but they are actually one level away, in the Design Interested category. You should always maintain a healthy suspicion about this, in fact. Like our cellular carrier above, they are in the midst of a positive transformation, but they just aren’t there yet. What this means for you as a designer (or researcher, or front-end engineer) is that not that you won’t be respected to listened to, but rather that part of your job will be to move the company from its old way of doing things to a new way of doing things. This involves a lot more than just your technical skills. It involves the patience to work in suboptimal conditions and the willingness to help lead the process of becoming more Design Driven. Thankfully since the company is already Design Interested, the “what”, “when”, and “why” have already been taken care of for you, but the “who” and “how” are still open questions. You are part of the who that will help determine the how!

A large number of companies in the world fit into the next category: Design Agnostic. These companies have found a way to turn a profit without paying as much attention to user experience as they could or should. Sometimes when you find a market need that is strong enough, you can get away with selling a “merely adequate” solution. Other times, your business is specifically aimed at gathering the most profit for the least amount of work possible. Joining a company like this requires you to be cool with one of two things. Either you are content to produce “good enough” work in a system that doesn’t value you as core talent, or you are interested in taking on the much larger challenge of turning your company into more of a Design Driven organization. To be clear, thousands of designers have no problem with the former, and I have no problem with that career choice. In fact, sometimes it’s all that exists, depending on geography, experience, economy health and other factors. The latter, however, is one of the hardest and most substantial things you could ever accomplish in your career. Imagine being the person (or small group of people in this case) who got Google to care about design? If you find yourself thinking about joining one of the many Design Agnostic companies in the world today, don’t think of it necessarily as “settling”. Think of it as an opportunity to redesign the entire product development factory within. If you succeed, they’ll carry you around on a rickshaw.

The next category, Design Ignorant companies, are actually a bit easier to make an impact in than Design Agnostic companies. That is because Design Ignorant companies haven’t normalized the role of design yet. They simply haven’t experienced it yet. In fact, you may even be treated more as a hero upon your arrival at a Design Ignorant company than a Design Driven company. Going back to our example above with the file-syncing startup, imagine how much immediate impact you’ll make when you optimize the sign-up flow, improve the product copy, and flatten the navigation. If you do your job well, you’ll be appreciated right from the start. Unfortunately, you probably won’t be paid well, but Design Driven companies are usually the only companies that pay designers what they are worth at this point. This is changing for the better, but it is a multi-year process.

Finally, at the end of the spectrum, are Design Hostile companies. Think of the challenges and rewards here much the same as Design Agnostic companies except these companies have already decided that your craft is but a necessary evil for them. This by far the least desirable company type for people in our field to work at, but hey, there are plenty of cases of these sorts of companies turning around eventually. In fact, I would venture to say that using my definitions here, there are plenty of Design Agnostic companies today that ten years ago may have been Design Hostile. If you find yourself entertaining an offer from a company like this, you really need to determine how pliable they are with regard to how they view design and whether you’re ok with that.

Strategies to Know What You’re Getting Into

There are four ways to determine what sort of company you’re thinking about working at: looking, listening, asking, and verifying. You should do all four.

Looking

Thinking about working for that popular, growing auto insurance company in town? Start looking at their products. Does their visual identity seem professionally executed? How usable is their app or website? Go ahead and actually sign up if you can. Was the process reasonably well designed? Nothing is ever perfect, but often times, just spending an hour or two with a company’s product will give you a feel for how much they care about details. And when I say “details”, I don’t just mean how buttery smooth is the animation but also how smooth is the “Forgot Password” process?

Take notes as you go, in case you end up interviewing there. It’s always good to have firsthand knowledge and constructive criticism ready for when someone asks you what changes you’d make to their product (do this tactfully though, as you don’t know what factors went into a given product decision).

Make sure to also look at competitors’ offerings. While the auto insurance site may not be as modern as your favorite social networking site, maybe it’s head and shoulders better designed than all other auto insurance sites. In an industry that perhaps moves slowly in terms of technology upgrades, maybe this company is moving 10x faster than its competitors. That would be a pretty good sign.

Listening

When recruiters or employees of the auto insurance company try to pitch their company to you, they will usually do so in a way that portrays their company in as positive of a light as possible. In other words, although it does happen, you’ll rarely hear a prospective employer tell you “design is an absolute mess here”, even though it very well might be. Instead, listen for coded language. Things like:

“Over the last year, design has become a real priority.” Why? What happened before that?

“Design has a seat at the table now.” Cool, why now? What problems occurred before that?

“We’re looking to bring some fresh design blood into the company.” What are you doing with all of this blood? What problems with the current staff are you trying to solve?

Every statement should be examined for possible hidden meaning. By the way, these people are just doing their jobs. When I recruit designers, I also try to accentuate the positive. It’s your job as a candidate though, to dig deeper. Especially since your prospective employer will be digging deeply into your work as well.

Asking

In addition to responding to statements like the coded ones above, there are some good universal questions you can ask on your own:

“What is the attrition rate of designers at your company?” This should ideally be low.

“Are designers paid on par with engineers and PMs? If not, how close are they?” Pay should ideally be close or equal. Don’t be surprised if you get some bad answers or non-answers here, depending on company.

“Who does the Head of Design report to?” The CEO is always the best answer, but a great COO, CTO, CPO, GM is fine too.

“When someone needs to break a rule here, what is the process?” If they need help, perhaps give an example of a rule you’ve needed to break in the past, and ask how they’d handle it.

“What is the one negative or challenging thing about working here that no one is telling me right now and I will only find out after I start?” It’s a bad sign if they don’t have an answer.

“When someone has an idea for something they want to build, what is the process of getting approval and then building it?” Ask for a lot of detail here, right down to prototyping, user testing, and release.

“How do decisions get made when Design, Engineering, and PM can’t agree on something?” You’ll have to judge for yourself whether you like the answer.

“Tell me about a time when a product design was made subjectively or in the face of opposing data.” You might need to ask a particular person to get a good answer here, but if the answer is “never”, that’s indicative of an overly rigid decision making process.

“How are designers judged and promoted here? Is it different than Engineering and PM?” Ideally there is a thoughtful, well-articulated process in place that rewards behaviors and not just outcomes. If you’re judged solely on the metrics you move, that’s a bad sign.

It’s up to you to ask these questions with tact and at the appropriate times, but you are well within your rights to ask them. In fact, it’s a bit reckless not to.

Verifying

Do you know anyone who has worked for this company, past or present? If so, ask to get coffee with them. Depending on how secret your candidacy is, you may need to keep your questions general, but there is a lot to be gleaned from employees who aren’t trying to pitch you on anything. Start by asking what their overall experience was like. Would they recommend the company to a friend as a good place to work? Dig, if you can, into some of the things the recruiter or hiring manager told you.

“I’ve heard the decision making process is pretty egalitarian. Design, PM, and Eng all take part in that process.”

To which you might hear:

“Yep. It’s a great system. I always felt like an equal partner.”

Or:

“Haha. I am dying of laughter right now. If you’re in the room at all, it will just be to tell you what decision has been made without you.”

Importantly, when you hear things like this, you need to get a feel for whether those conditions still exist. Did this employee work there three months ago or three years ago? Is the person who enacted that decision-making process still even there? Because of the passage of time, you may get both false positive and false negative results from ex-employees. It’s ok though… it’s just a data point for you.

Also, at massive, sprawling companies, you may get different answers depending on which department’s employees you talk to. Maybe the auto insurance company’s consumer product is built in San Francisco and its broker product is built in Seattle. Maybe the working environment in San Francisco sucks but it’s great in Seattle.

So… by looking, listening, asking, and verifying, you can get a pretty accurate idea of what sort of company you are thinking about joining.

Fixing the Product Development Process, One Company at a Time

One of the reasons I wrote this piece was that I read a Tweet from a well-followed person in San Francisco talking about how the best companies in the world are all design-driven now. I get what he was trying to say, and I think that directionally, more companies are design-driven now than ever, but the vast majority of boots-on-the-ground designers in the world know how much work is still left to do. They also know that just because some high-profile companies have figured out that design is important, that doesn’t mean their own company in Seattle, or Omaha, or Bangalore has. A rising tide lifts all boats, but this is more of a slow motion wave you need to stay upright long enough to ride.

Finally, I also think it’s important to highlight the value of helping upgrade your own company’s product development processes. Designers love talking about the actual product design work they’ve done in the form of visual artifacts and launched services. Just as valuable, however, is the work that went into reshaping the processes that made these products possible. PMs make their own PM-centric contributions to what product development processes look like, and engineers do the same with their own lens. By adding your own perspective as a designer and improving the product development process at your own company, you’re accomplishing something you may not even get to accomplish at a place like Apple… and that, is something to be proud of.

(This post also available on Medium.)

An Epitaph for Newsvine

Today, the creation I am most proud to have brought into the world disappeared from the internet.

After 11 years and 7 months in service, Newsvine, a participatory news site I launched with four friends on March 1st, 2006 was officially sunsetted by NBCNews.

Although I’ve been away from the company and the service for five years now, today brings back a rush of memories and some perspective on how the problems Newsvine set out to solve over a decade ago are actually the opposite of the problems that most need solving today.

In 2005, I found myself five years into a stint at Disney, wondering what was next for news. We owned ESPN, ABCNews, and several other media properties, but most of the fresh new takes on news seemed to be coming from non-traditional sources. Neither Twitter nor the iPhone had been invented yet, and Facebook was still just a campus dating site, but blogs were sprouting up by the thousands and sites like Digg and Slashdot were becoming popular destinations.

There seemed to be this growing bifurcation between mainstream media and citizen journalism. Mainstream newsrooms didn’t want to share their platform with amateur writers, and a lot of amateur writers grew more distrustful of mainstream media. Our big idea with Newsvine was to license the same Associated Press feed of professional reporting that made up the majority of what you’d see on a site like CNN.com, publish it faster than any other site in the world, and enlist citizens from around the world to create original, paid journalism around and alongside it… and open up every single piece of content for threaded discussion as well.

In other words:

CNN = AP Wire stories + Professional Journalism
Newsvine = AP Wire stories + Citizen Journalism + Discussion

… and we could do it all with a staff of under 10 people.

We didn’t know for sure if it was going to work, but the day we decided we’d be happy to have tried it even if it failed was the day we ended up quitting our jobs (incidentally, if you are thinking about leaving your job for a new risky thing, this is the acid test I recommend).

We spent about 6 months getting the company off the ground and the service into public beta, and it wasn’t long until extraordinary acts of journalism began appearing. Chris Thomas, one of our most prolific users, broke news of the Virginia Tech shootings on Newsvine before it appeared anywhere else. Jerry Firman, a 70 year old Newsviner from Ohio, got his name on the ballot for Congress and documented the process of running for office. Corey Spring, a student at Ohio State, scored an original interview with Dave Chappelle.

The design, tech, and operational work associated with growing Newsvine were fairly straightforward, but the one thing that seemed to get more and more difficult as the site grew was moderating and cultivating the community. Your first 1000 users are easy. People are just happy to be there. Then when you get to 10,000 you have a few fights here and there but nothing unmanageable. Even at 100,000, a small team of thoughtful people can stay on top of things. But when you hit 1 million, 10 million, and beyond, the community becomes much less intimate and more volatile.

Such was the case when we were acquired in 2007 by MSNBC.com (now NBCNews.com). Our site was already decently big but MSNBC’s was many times bigger… about 45 million people at the time. The post-acquisition work was twofold: 1) continue growing Newsvine as a standalone property, 2) use our technology to add registration, profiles, discussion threads, and other features to MSNBC.com. We also ended up powering all of the company’s blogs and some other things.

I ended up staying at MSNBC for about five years, and I would say the results of the experiment were mixed overall. On the upside, we provided technology that helped launch new editorial brands quickly and connect journalists to their audiences, but on the downside, “community” at that scale can be very messy. Additionally, with the eventual rise of Twitter and Facebook, Newsvine never grew to those usage levels. MSNBC.com was a great parent throughout though, and I have nothing but love for the people I worked with.

It’s interesting to compare Newsvine (and sites like it) to the now wildly successful fortunes of Facebook and Twitter. Newsvine at its core was a news site with a social network wrapped around it. Facebook at its core is a social network with news (and photos, and events, etc) wrapped around it. Twitter is probably structured more like Facebook in this regard as well, but its biggest challenge, in my opinion, has always been a lack of commitment to building those real-life social connections into the service.

When we look at how the average person’s news and media diet has changed over the last decade or so, we can trace it directly back to the way these and other modern organizations have begun feeding us our news. Up until 10 or 15 years ago, we essentially drank a protein shake full of news. A good amount of fruits and vegetables, some grains, some dairy, some tofu, and then a little bit of sugar, all blended together. Maybe it wasn’t the tastiest thing in the world but it kept us healthy and reasonably informed. Then, with cable news we created a fruit-only shake for half the population and a vegetable-only shake for the other half. Then with internet news, we deconstructed the shake entirely and let you pick your ingredients, often to your own detriment. And finally, with peer-reinforced, social news networks, we’ve given you the illusion of a balanced diet, but it’s often packed with sugar, carcinogens, and other harmful substances without you ever knowing. And it all tastes great!

As someone who has created Newsvine, worked at Twitter, and had many discussions with people at Facebook, I can tell you that this sort of effect was never “part of the business plan”. However, maximizing engagement was and still is, and that has led to a world in which what appears on people’s screens is what is most likely to keep one’s attention, as opposed to what is actually most important to know and understand.

The solutions to these problems will not come easy. They aren’t as simple as banning some jerk from Twitter or improving bot detection on Facebook. We’ve trained people to get their news and information from the cookie jar, and since we now know exactly what that world looks like, we must begin the job of untraining them… or at least engineering a healthy cookie.

We probably got a lot of things wrong at Newsvine, but one thing I still feel we got absolutely right is our longstanding tagline:

Get Smarter Here.

That’s really the only promise we ever wanted the service to fulfill.

After 800,000 articles, 65 million comments, 11+ years, thousands of new friendships, and at least one marriage and child from the site that I’m aware of, I’m confident it has fulfilled its mission for at least some who roamed its jungles.

(Special thanks to the entire Newsvine community. Without the dedicated efforts of all of you, we would have never had this special corner of the internet to write, meet new people, and have our perspectives changed. Thanks also to my partners Calvin, Mark, Lance, Josh, Tom, Tyler, Sally, Luke, Todd, Bobby, Dave, Arun, Jim, Mike, Brenda, Carl, Charlie, Rex, and everyone else at MSNBC.com for making this all possible. Also, extra special thanks to Nick, one of our investors, for introducing me to my wife, who I would have never met were it not for this little chance we took. And finally, thanks to my wife who helped get me through everything back then and since.)

(This post also available on Medium.)

⇗ When Will the Planet Be Too Hot for Humans?

Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries — a helpful perspective, in a way, since it is the carbon-burning processes that began in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent. Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime.

Fascinating required reading about all the environmental disasters facing us over the next several decades. In reading this, I wonder what effect emotionless terms like "global warming" and "climate change" have had on public apathy about the existential dangers facing us. "Warming" (and arguably even "Change" to a certain degree) are words with positive connotations. It seems like the right time to move to something like "self-induced extinction" or "boiled earth". There's probably a better term out there, but the way we talk about it now isn't cutting it.

Read more ⇗

How To Give Helpful Product Design Feedback

It may seem hard to believe, but only a couple of decades ago, it was nearly impossible to provide feedback on new or redesigned products. Take for example, Crystal Pepsi. One day in 1992, while you were looking for your favorite dark brown soda on the shelves, here was this new clear thing! You tried it, shrugged it off, and likely never bought it again. Because the process of providing feedback to companies was so difficult back then, you simply voted with your feet.

If you were intensely motivated, you’d pick up a phone book, call Pepsi headquarters long-distance, hope to get routed to anyone close to the Crystal Pepsi “user experience” division, and then come up with some sort of feedback smart enough to justify the amount of effort you just exerted. Or maybe you’d handwrite a letter and mail it off to a possibly unmonitored mailbox.

Barely anybody did this, and the end result was that a lot of products, including Crystal Pepsi, failed without their creators knowing quickly enough why people were rejecting them.

But now we have Twitter! And evvvvvverybody has feedback.

On evvvvvverything.

Always.

Read more…

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