Despite living in Seattle for almost all of my adult life, I haven’t actually worked for a local company in almost ten years. Remote work is great in so many ways, but in-person collaboration is what gives me life.
In confident pursuit of that feeling, I’m thrilled to be joining Microsoft to run Design & Research for their Web Experiences organization.
I was Microsoft-adjacent 10 years ago at MSNBC.com in Building 25, but this will be my first time as a blue badge, so to speak. I’m also thrilled to be joining Liz Danzico and John Maeda, who have also started at Microsoft in the last several months. I’ve known them both for a long time and have wanted to work with them forever.
There are several things which drew me to this opportunity, but at the top of the list is the people. Not just Liz and John, but the thousands of teammates in Seattle, Vancouver, Hyderabad, Barcelona, Beijing, and many other cities. There are certainly some great solo efforts in tech, but almost all of the best work I’ve been around has been the result of getting the right people jammin’ with each other. In my first several days here, I’ve already met so many of those people, and I can’t wait to continue the momentum Albert Shum created by carrying the torch for one of the best Design & Research teams in the Pacific Northwest.
The second thing I’m super excited about is the scale of the work. I’ve worked on the largest sports site in the world and one of the largest social networks in the world, but the properties in this group reach well over a billion people. Between the (refreshingly fast!) Edge browser, MSN, Bing, and several other products, Microsoft has quietly built up one of the top five properties in the world in terms of traffic and reach. They’ve also done it with humility, knowing how far they are from being perfect. I also love that so many of these products can and will be so much more as we begin to use some of the technology that’s emerging within Microsoft. In my first two weeks, I’m already overflowing with ideas.
Finally, the other thing I’m most excited about is getting back into the office in a flexible hybrid environment. I’ve worked in-person for most of my career and remotely for the last four years, and where I’ve landed is that everyone’s preferences are different, and it’s just tradeoffs all the way down. Where you land depends on a mix of your personality, your life outside of work, and what type of job you have. For me personally, I very much like being around people and feel like I do better work when I am… but I also like getting back my commute time a couple of days a week and making daily jogging more convenient. Also, Henry (pictured above) enjoys the extra lap time. Microsoft’s hybrid policy is a nice balance, and it sounds like exactly the right setup for someone like me.
Speaking of the exactly right, this also feels — for me at least — like exactly the right time to join Microsoft. The company has been through several distinct eras over the decades, but this feels like the era of re-commitment to the planet. To customers delightful experiences, to employees a great environment, and to the natural world, a smaller and eventually negative carbon footprint.
It’s a new year, and I couldn’t be any more here for it!
Over the last several weeks, I’ve gotten in the habit of trying to move all of my Twitter activity over to Mastodon instead. I signed up for Mastodon several years ago, but only now are there enough people using it for it to replace a lot of what you might use Twitter for. Some of your friends are there, some of your favorite bots are there, and some news sources are there. What more do you need in life, really?
I’ve been using Pinafore (along with a user stylesheet I created… feel free to grab it for yourself) to use Mastodon on the web, and a combination of Ivory and Metatext on my iPhone. Ivory looks a bit nicer but Metatext has a Notifications tab that acts more you’re used to it working on Twitter.
If you want to move all of your activity over wholesale, go to town. If, however, you want to keep publishing Tweets on Twitter and have them automatically publish to your Mastodon account as well, this short guide is for you. The entire process should take around five minutes. It’s mostly just clicking around on a couple of websites.
Important: If you do this, the goal should not be just replicate your Tweets and never visit or engage on Mastodon. The goal should be to help you build your Mastodon presence and save you from having to manually double-post. Ideally you quickly get to the point where Mastodon becomes your primary crib.
If you’ve already done this, great. If you haven’t, head to any server you want — like mastodon.social, for instance — and set up your account. You can always switch your server (along with any followers you accrue) later, so don’t stress about the server you choose.
There is no shortage of opinions about today’s news that Adobe will be acquiring Figma, so I’ll try not to repeat any of what’s already been said here. A lot of it boils down to designers and engineers being understandably concerned that the product they’ve grown to love and put at the center of their workflows over the past few years is now under the control of another company. Adobe-specific concerns aside, this unease would also exist if the acquirer was Microsoft, Oracle, Amazon, Atlassian or just about anyone else in big tech, save maybe Apple. The jokes would just be different.
As someone who competed against Figma for a couple of years, I want to talk briefly about what makes them so hard to catch, and why I think Adobe ultimately decided they would never beat them:
Even though I have spent over 20 years in the design industry working directly on consumer products, I never fully appreciated the importance of performance until working in the design tools industry.
Most digital consumer products are used in short bursts over a long period of time. Think about the Amazon app on your phone. You open it maybe once a week, peck around for what you need, hit Buy Now, and you’re on your way. If there is a two-second lag between purchasing and getting your confirmation screen, you don’t even think twice about it. Even in the case of an outright error, you just shake your head, hit reload, and things are usually fixed.
With professional production tools though — whether design, engineering, or otherwise — full-time craftspeople spend almost every hour of every work-week inside of your software. Every time something goes even remotely astray, it is noticed. Putting aside catastrophic stuff like data loss, even things like cursor lag, screen flicker, progress bars, and scroll/zoom performance are tiny paper cuts that form into pools of blood by the end of each day.
Figma did a lot of things right over the ten (yes, ten!) years they’ve worked on the product, but one thing they did that no one else has been able to replicate is meet and in some cases exceed native app performance inside of a web browser.
Nothing Figma has accomplished in the marketplace would be possible without this, and it is the thing that competitors have struggled the hardest to replicate. When you build software using native code, you get a lot of stuff for free. Need a scrolling list? Apple, Microsoft, and Google have multiple pre-built components you can use. Need to draw one semi-transparent shape on top of another? The system already knows how to render that. Need to optimize it all for speed? Most of that work has already been done.
Inside of a browser though, the work is rarely done for you. Even in instances where someone has already built a component, it’s often too slow or glitchy to use in a professional development environment. So what did Figma do about this? Over the course of several years, they:
It was this last one that really made me see how wide the moat was for the first time. Normally companies keep their secret sauce secret. After all, why would you want to give your competitors any information that might help them compete? But a company who routinely publishes information that is useful to competitors? That is some confident shit right there. It reminded me of a tweet I can’t find from several years ago:
“The design tool war is already over, but no one knows it yet.”
Fast forward a few years and everyone who has tried to match Figma’s all-around performance has fallen short. Private companies like Sketch and InVision. Public companies like Adobe. It’s not for lack of effort by hundreds of incredibly smart people. It’s just really frickin’ hard. Combine that with the fact that Figma is a moving target who is now building entirely new capabilities, and you can see why Adobe decided this wasn’t just a move they wanted to make… it was a move they had to make.
… which brings us back to a lot of the reaction we are seeing on Design Twitter today.
I don’t think people mind the abstract concept of Figma being acquired by another company nearly as much as they mind the very real threat of Figma losing what makes it so special in the first place: focusing maniacally on performance, thinking differently, and optimizing for user experience above all else. The backlash is an expression of how a lot of people feel Adobe has done in those categories over the last decade.
If I’m Adobe, I am printing out as many Tweets from today as I can, making a book out of them, and then doing this:
After that, I’m letting Figma lay the tracks for the next decade of this industry and rallying the thousands of talented people at my own company to rethink how the entire organization builds software. Within the next several years, it’s going to be possible to go from idea in the morning, to prototype in the afternoon, to working code in the evening… and the company who can do that most thoughtfully is going to be one of the most important companies in the world.
Let’s get this out of the way first: I am not a dietician, an economist, or an ethicist. I am, however, a guy who likes to occasionally eat at fast food places. I’m also a guy who stops running over the winter, puts on a few pounds, and then has to lose them again in the spring… so I’ve been paying attention to how to eat “least badly” at fast food places.
Below is my dollar-store wisdom, in case you also want to enjoy fast food in moderation.
First, some golden rules:
No soda. This is an easy one. A medium Coke is 210 calories, 56 grams of carbs, and no protein. It’s also about $2 for something that costs about a nickel to make.
Instead, go with free tap water or an unsweetened iced tea. Zero calories and nothing artificial. Another nice hack that works at some places is going to the soda fountain and filling your water cup with club soda. There are usually two small tabs and one of them says “water”. The other one is the “off-menu” free club soda.
No fries… or if you must, get a small every now and then. I understand people like fries. I like fries too. But even a small order of fries is another 220 calories, 29 grams of carbs, and only 3 grams of protein.
Study menus for what’s overpriced and what’s underpriced. For instance, at Mickey Dee’s, a McChicken, a hamburger, and a 6-piece McNuggets are all $2 apiece or less. Meanwhile, a Double Bacon Quarter Pounder with Cheese is $7.
These places all encourage you to buy the Value Meals, but since you aren’t getting the soda or the fries, individual prices matter.
Now onto the meat of the matter: what should you order at each of the major national fast food places?
One of my favorite things about the design industry is that you can have a dozen completely different careers without ever leaving the field. For me, I started in print, then moved to digital, then to desktop web, and then to mobile. In terms of industries, I started in sports, moved to entertainment, then to news, then to social media, and most recently to design tools.
So much of designing is about learning, and the best way to make sure you are always learning is to put yourself into environments that are novel to you. The author Michael Pollan said it best recently when Kara Swisher asked him why he stopped writing about food and started writing about psychedelics:
“As a writer, I like writing nearer to the beginning of the learning curve. I like not knowing. I enjoy that process of learning.”
That sentiment is exactly why I decided to take the leap and join one of the largest digital asset exchanges in the world, Kraken, as their Head of Design & Research.
What is a digital asset exchange? On the surface, it may look like a place to buy and sell cryptocurrencies. Underneath though, the vision is much larger. Imagine a world in which all assets — physical or digital — are tokenizeable and tradeable, more or less instantly, without having to deal with the gatekeepers of the last century.
I am not a Bitcoin maximalist, an Ethereum maximalist, or any type of Other Coin maximalist, and I hold almost no crypto myself other what I’ve spent to support a few NFT creators. It is, however, becoming clear that with more smart people joining this industry, more regulation drafted which accommodates digital assets, and more creative use cases popping up every single day, there is a LOT of frontier to develop here. I look at this emerging part of the internet almost as a musical scene developing across the world. There are good bands, bad bands, old instruments, and new instruments, but more than anything, there is a sense that everyone is working creatively to change the culture around us.
That said, I also have reservations. People who chastise certain cryptocurrencies for consuming meaningful amounts of energy are correct in their criticism. In fact, I hope pressure of this kind stays forceful because it helps create things like:
I also have questions about what gets better and what gets worse in the move from fiat to crypto. For instance, I love that our government can print money to help people make ends meet during times of hardship. I hate that it can print money to produce an endless supply of weapons and wars. I’m not smart enough to know how that all plays out, but I think for the foreseeable future, there will probably be both fiat and crypto so it pays to have a deep understanding of both.
So why Kraken in particular? There are certainly plenty of amazing places one could join in order to explore this new frontier. For me, it came down to:
So what is my role in all of this?
Ultimately, to make the experience of participating in this new frontier easier, safer, and more fun for people all across the world.
In order to do that, I will:
… grow and nurture a diverse Design & Research team full of kind people who work hand-in-hand with Engineering and Product to produce delightful experiences.
And in order to do that, I would love:
… to talk to you if you’re interested in helping build something fun, new, and exciting! I’m still too new to know exactly what I need, but I can tell you for sure we’ll be hiring individual contributors, managers, designers, researchers, content strategists, writers, and many more types of people outside my department (engineers, marketers, customer success peeps, et al). I am also interested in talking to agencies who may want to stop doing client work and join us full-time. Hit me up over email if you’re interested, or if you know people I should talk to (firstname at mikeindustries.com).
If you — like me — are curious about taking the leap into crypto, but you’re nervous about what lurks beneath the surface, come join me at Kraken. I’ve been here a few weeks now, and I can tell you that the water’s warm.
Anyway, that’s it for now. I look forward to building another great team full of fun people, and also reminding everyone in my hometown of Seattle that I don’t work for the new hockey team.
In just a few short days, on December 31, 2020, we will say our final goodbyes to one of the most important internet technologies that ever lived: Flash.
I remember vividly the first time I saw Flash on a computer screen. It was 1997, I was finishing up college, and I had managed to teach myself enough HTML to think about pivoting from print design to interactive design as a career.
Web design, at the time, was a clumsy beast. Most web sites were essentially Times New Roman black text on a grey background with an occasional low-quality image here and there. The “design” part was often just figuring out how to best organize information hierarchies so users could feel their way around.
Once we got bored of basic HTML (there was no CSS at the time), we started doing unholy things with images. We’d set entire pages in Photoshop, slice our layouts into grids of smaller images, and then reassemble everything into a clickable mess. These were dark times.
My college, having invented PINE, was considered “on the front edge” of the internet at the time. Here’s is what our site looked like back then:
Even the most beautifully designed sites felt a bit lifeless, and once someone came up with a new layout that worked well, everyone would just ape it. To make matters worse, every new advancement in methods required more convoluted hacking to display correctly across Netscape, Internet Explorer, and every other fringe browser in use at the time. It was a total mess.
Here is the first version of Zeldman.com I could find, from 1998. Amazing for the era, and holds up impressively in a nostalgic, cyber-Americana sort of way, but you can see how limited we were by screen widths, color palettes, and layout technologies.
Then one day in 1997, I clicked on a link to Kanwa Nagafuji’s Image Dive site and the whole trajectory of web design changed for me. It looked like nothing I had ever seen in a web browser. A beautiful, dynamic interface, driven by anti-aliased Helvetica type and buttery smooth vector animation? And the whole thing loaded instantly on a dial-up connection with nothing suspicious to install? What was this sorcery? Sadly, I can’t find any representation of the site online anymore, but imagine the difference in going not just from black-and-white TV to color TV, but from newspaper to television.
Nagafuji’s work was such a huge, unexpected leap from everything that came before it that I had to figure out how it was done. A quick
View Source later revealed an
object/embed tag pointing to a file that ended in “.swf”. A few AltaVista searches later led me to the website of Macromedia, makers of ShockWave Flash (“SWF”), the technology that powered this amazing site.
I downloaded a trial version and was blown away at the editing interface. Instead of a shotgun marriage of Photoshop, HTML, browser hacks, and a bunch of other stuff that felt more like assembly than design, here was a single interface to lay out text, shapes, images, and buttons, and animate everything together into an interactive experience! It was magic.
After mucking around in the Flash editor (version 2 at the time) for a few hours, I did what every self-respecting web designer would do and immediately set out to find other cool stuff to copy. Over the course of the next several months and years I would find such gems as:
Yugop from Yugo Nakamura
Once Upon a Forest and Praystation from Joshua Davis
Nose Pilot by Alex Sacui
Natzke.com by Eric Natzke
Presstube by James Paterson
Gabocorp from Gabo Mendoza
John Mark Sorum by WDDG
2Advanced by Eric Jordan
NRG Design by Peter Van Den Wyngaert
The Hoover Vacuum Site by Fred Flade>
… and of course, everything by Hillman Curtis (Rest in Peace)
(Sadly, much of this work is hard to relive due to Flash already being disabled in many browsers. I’ve tried to point to video demos where possible, but you can also try your luck with the Ruffle plug-in.)
From there, a bunch of us new designers set out to learn more about animation, type, scripting, and everything else that put you at the vanguard of the profession in those days. Flash was the first technology that showed us we could be great.
My initial effort was mdavidson.com, a rudimentary personal site that was the precursor to Mike Industries:
From there, I would move on to design Flash sites and features for ESPN, Disney, K2, The New York Rangers, and dozens of other organizations, never matching the quality of the masters listed above, but always breaking new ground in one way or another.
Other fun projects I collaborated on with my friend Danny Mavromatis included a virtual observation deck for the Space Needle, an interactive on-demand SportsCenter, and a Disney movies-on-demand service fully 20 years ahead of Disney+! All in Flash.
Perhaps the thing that gives me the most joy though is something we built and gave away for free: sIFR. What started as our brute-force attempt to use Akzidenz Grotesk for headlines on the front page of ESPN, turned into a more elegant implementation by Shaun Inman, which then turned into a scalable solution by Mark Wubben and me. We poured hundreds of hours into sIFR not to make any money but just to advance the state of typography on the web.
Over the next several years, sIFR was used to display rich type on tens of thousands of web sites. Although it relied on Flash, it was standards-compliant and accessible in its implementation, so it was the preferred choice for rich type until Typekit came along in 2009 and obviated the need for it.
All of this is to say, the role Flash played in helping transition the web from its awkward teenage years to a more mature adulthood is one I will always appreciate. And we haven’t even talked about its role in game development.
When discussing the life and death of Flash, people often point to Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash” as the moment things turned south for it. Worse yet, the idea that “Steve Jobs killed Flash”. I don’t think either of those things is actually true.
Flash, from the very beginning, was a transitional technology. It was a language that compiled into a binary executable. This made it consistent and performant, but was in conflict with how most of the web works. It was designed for a desktop world which wasn’t compatible with the emerging mobile web. Perhaps most importantly, it was developed by a single company. This allowed it to evolve more quickly for awhile, but goes against the very spirit of the entire internet. Long-term, we never want single companies — no matter who they may be — controlling the very building blocks of the web. The internet is a marketplace of technologies loosely tied together, each living and dying in rhythm with the utility it provides.
Most technology is transitional if your window is long enough. Cassette tapes showed us that taking our music with us was possible. Tapes served their purpose until compact discs and then MP3s came along. Then they took their rightful place in history alongside other evolutionary technologies. Flash showed us where we could go, without ever promising that it would be the long-term solution once we got there.
So here lies Flash. Granddaddy of the rich, interactive internet. Inspiration for tens of thousands of careers in design and gaming. Loved by fans, reviled by enemies, but forever remembered for pushing us further down this windy road of interactive design, lighting the path for generations to come.
RIP Flash. 1996-2020.
If you feel so moved, pour one out for our old friend in the comment section below.
This is a very niche post, but I’m posting it mainly to help people who might be searching Google for the solution to this problem: if you have been using Shaun Inman’s Mint for self-hosted website stats, you may have noticed that it no long works in PHP 7 and above.
When I noticed it broke, I spent several hours trying to figure out why and to fix it as quickly and easily as possible. Essentially, there are two reasons why it doesn’t work anymore:
"=&"to “assign a new object by reference”. I don’t even really know what this means, but I do know you can solve it simply by removing the
&. There is only one place you need to do this in Mint’s code and that is on line 3409 of
/mint/app/lib/mint.phpwhere it says
$DOM =& new SI_Dom($xml);. This problem was infuriating because it just makes the whole app fail silently, without throwing a single error. I spent a half a day deleting random code just to identify the culprit.
PDO_MySQLAPIs, but after a few hours of trying to do this, I realized my PHP skills were not up to the task and I opted for an easier solution instead. There’s a wrapper you can just include with your Mint install that translates all of the functions on the fly for you. This method is generally “not recommended” by people who actually know what they’re doing, but for a quick fix, it worked perfectly for me. If someone wants to patch Mint correctly, I will gladly post a pointer to it here. Anyway, all you have to do is download that file, upload it to
path.php), call it something like
mysql_bridge.phpand then add this line right above the first
Voila! You’re done. The whole procedure should take only a few minutes.
There’s nothing like a great cover.
You’re rekindling angst at a Pearl Jam show and without any warning they go right into a Beatles song. You recognize some David Bowie lyrics on Spotify, and you discover it’s an unrecognizable version of Let’s Dance by M. Ward. You listen to Tiny Cities by Sun Kil Moon several times before you even realize it’s an entire album of beautifully fermented Modest Mouse songs.
How often have you thought to yourself, I would love to hear this person sing this other band’s song in their own style? For instance, I wish I could listen to Mike Doughty sing just about anything.
Over the past year or two, we’ve started to see artificial intelligence begin to approximate that dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective). First it was eye-opening deep fake videos of past presidents appearing to say things they never said, but now it’s moved on to much more creative and cool endeavors like OpenAI Jukebox. You should read the full description on the site, but essentially they are training models to identify everything that goes into a song: instruments, lyrics, musical style, and a whole lot more. The models are primitive for now, but even at this early stage, they can start recombining things in interesting ways like having Ella Fitzgerald sing a Prince song but in the style of folk rock.
I spent a good part of the weekend messing around in Jukebox, and it’s mesmerizing. It really feels like the beginning of something big, and just as excitingly, something that could get orders of magnitude better within only a few years.
When you listen to it, it almost feels like the first words of a child… or if you prefer, the first song from Jimmy Page.
A lot of the stuff in the library is pretty rough, but here are some of the most interesting ones I found:
Everything feels very Frankensteiny right now, but imagine a few years from now when these techniques are improved and expanded. We may reach a point where there is a virtually unlimited universe of concert-quality covers you can create with just a few taps. As a music lover, this is super intriguing, but on the other hand, I wonder how musicians will feel about it. And will their opinions change based on whether we can find a way to monetize it generously for them? I could see some artists rejecting this sort of thing outright because it’s not real music in the traditional sense, and I wouldn’t blame them. But what if you told them that every time their voice was mixed into another song, they made a royalty off of it? That might change some opinions.
This is going to be a really fun space to watch closely over the next few years. Until then, I leave you with another great cover: Metallica’s Orion — by Rodrigo y Gabriela. Incidentally, the header image for this page is from their Masonic Auditorium show in 2015. Pure luck but probably the best photo I’ve ever taken.
I have never been less qualified to write about anything than I am about NFL labor negotiations, but I had a crazy idea a little while ago for how NFL players can win their labor dispute with owners and I want to get it out there for battle-testing.
Players put their bodies on the line every day to a degree that most of them are not fairly compensated for, so I will almost always side with players in terms of wanting them to get the best deal possible. This is a unconventional idea to help achieve that goal and get both sides to a good and equitable place as quickly as possible.
Before the start of the 2020 NFL season, all 32 starting quarterbacks should initiate a quarterback-only strike. Everyone else shows up to work and gets paid. If there is no acceptable deal in place by opening week, the games begin, the quality of play degrades dramatically, ratings/attendance/sales tank, and owners — unable to wait out a group of 32 players with many millions more in financial security than 99% of the league — are forced back to the bargaining table with a 16-game season, a true 50/50 revenue split, and a few other things players are quite reasonably asking for.
Athletes get out-negotiated by owners for a very simple reason: there are 32 owners and none of them ever need another paycheck again. Losing even vast amounts of their fortunes will not degrade their quality of life. There are 1696 active NFL players and most of them are materially affected every time they miss even a single game check. 32 billionaires vs over a thousand normal people who need paychecks is a recipe for exactly the sort of terrible deal that was signed ten years ago and threatens to be signed again. The goal of a Quarterback-Only Strike is to change the equation to 32 billionaires vs 32 of the most popular cash-rich players.
Do quarterbacks really have that much cash cushion? Let’s take a look at lifetime earnings for the 32 starting quarterbacks in the league right now. Note that this doesn’t even include endorsements, but also doesn’t include taxes:
I have no idea how these guys invest or spend their money, but in my estimation, until you get down to the final few players (especially Dak… sorry Dak!), you are looking at pretty good financial cushions. Certainly enough to weather a few games or an entire season… especially if you include lost backpay in your deal requirements. Most position players in the league cannot afford this sort of holdout, but pretty much all starting QBs can.
It’s also possible that other players who have lifetime earnings over, say $25m, decide to join this strike in solidarity, but it’s not strictly necessary. Some marquee names might include J.J. Watt ($85m), Richard Sherman ($69m), or the NFL’s top selling non-QB jersey title holder Odell Beckham Jr. ($48m).
The other thing that’s nice about this proposal is that it’s literally the only position in any sport that could pull it off. Football could easily weather a strike at any other position, but not quarterback. Baseball could weather a strike from any position — even pitchers. Fans love offense! Basketball could weather a strike from any position because superstars are spread out amongst all five positions. I don’t watch a lot of hockey or soccer so I will just assume they fit my narrative too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Quarterbacks are almost always the face of the franchise, the entire game runs through them in today’s pass-heavy NFL, and this is the perfect time to consolidate that power against owners and use it to improve conditions for the other 1664 players who don’t hold the same cards they do.
When I initially came up with this cockamamie scheme a few months ago, the reason I thought it might not work is that of all players on an NFL team, you would think quarterbacks would be the coziest with owners. But now that I see my own team’s QB, Russell Wilson, along with Aaron Rodgers, come out as strongly against the current CBA proposal, I think this thing could have some legs.
If players cannot get the very best deal they deserve this offseason, a Quarterback-Only Strike should be actively considered because it changes the negotiation from 32 vs 1696 to 32 vs 32. Additionally, you only need a majority of owners to cave, so if a few owners are insulated by the fact that they don’t have star quarterbacks yet, the rest of the owners are still vulnerable.
It’s also entirely possible someone else has already thought of this and kicked enough holes in it to show why it wouldn’t work. Basically, I need some more eyes on this thing. Agents, players, sports attorneys, whoever. If you know of someone who you think would have an opinion about it, I’d love to hear from them. The comment section is open below.
I remember about 15 years ago — before the launch of the iPhone — thinking quite resolutely that internet-connected phones were just a really unexciting transition phase between the desktop internet and immersive technologies like contact lenses and brain implants. We knew where we already were: amazing high bandwidth experiences on the desktop, and it seemed pretty clear where we were going in a couple of decades: even better experiences with no visible hardware whatsoever.
The new class of experiences on mobile phones at the time, however, was uninspiring. Palm Treos with barely functional browsers on them. Blackberries that handled email but little else well. T9 keyboards that were a pain to use. Barely any designers wanted to work on this stuff. It wasn’t very fun to create, use, or even tell anyone you worked on.
When the iPhone came along in 2007, it was the first mobile device that was fun to design for and fun to use for a wide variety of things. As it grew more and more useful, I began to think of internet-connected phones as quite a bit more exciting but still ultimately a transition state to full cyborg land. It seems inconceivable that in 10 or 20 years, we will still be staring down at these glass rectangles instead of directly at the world with whatever augmented reality experiences we choose in between.
As phones have gotten more comically large and the services on them more tragically addictive over the past few years, I’ve found myself wondering if there is more value in letting some of this connectivity go. Clearly smartphones provide a lot of value for us, but what is the true cost of all this convenience? Being able to receive a text from your spouse while you’re at the supermarket is valuable, but the same device that delivers you that text can deliver a social network notification while you’re driving that ends up killing you or others.
Attempting to quantify the large and small harm caused by smartphone use is a big project better suited to places like Tristan Harris’ Center for Humane Technology, but you don’t need to quantify it to admit it’s doing you some amount of harm.
There is no shortage of advice about how to make your phone less addictive. Turn off a bunch of notifications. Flip on Do Not Disturb. Use Black & White mode. Delete social networking apps. It’s all good advice, but for me, having that giant, heavy glass brick in my pocket is a constant reminder of what’s at my fingertips.
What I’ve really grown to want is less at my fingertips.
Minimum viable connectivity.
Wherever I happen to be, I want the least amount of potential digital distractions and appholes around me. It’s no different than the concept of eating healthier. When you want to lose weight, you don’t keep a bunch of junk food in your pockets and just promise to never open it. You remove junk food from your house completely.
Until recently, there was no great way to stop carrying your smartphone with you without giving up a ton of benefits. Over the past two weeks, however, I’ve begun using an Apple Watch without a phone almost all day long, and it’s been great. It’s introduced exactly the amount of digital friction I need in my life and I don’t imagine going back to hyper-connected smartphone world anytime soon.
“The best way to guarantee success is by preemptively engineering systems to reduce friction for positive habits, and increase friction for negative ones.” — Craig Mod, from the great piece I linked to above
I love that I am still generally reachable by phone or text when I wear it. I love that I can still navigate with maps. I love that I can track my runs without third party services and listen to podcasts along the way. I love that I can see when it’s about to rain.
And I love that that’s about all I can do. I don’t mind that texts are a little harder to send. I don’t even mind that there’s no camera. If I’m on vacation in an interesting place, I will surely take my phone, but do I really need to be taking more photos around town? Probably not. This is the point many people will break with me on this whole strategy, but try it. You may be surprised.
In terms of things I don’t like about about this experiment so far, it really just comes down to a couple of flaws with the watch itself: the LTE radio is pretty spotty and the Apple Podcast app is a usability disaster, both on the phone and the watch. Because the radio is weak, you really need to make sure anything you want to listen to is downloaded already, and because the apps are so bad, it’s very hard to ensure that actually happens. You’ll generally have some podcasts downloaded and ready to listen to but they just aren’t always the ones you expected. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Even with those problems, I still feel great about this less-connected road I’m going down. Somewhat surprisingly, I don’t even feel like I’m missing out on anything.
The hyper-connected future will probably still happen, but the form it will take doesn’t feel so inevitable to me anymore. I’ve learned in these two weeks alone that I don’t actually want every distracting digital experience in the world at my fingertips. I only want what is helpful and stays out of the way.
The last time I wore a watch was in high school, and I distinctly remember how excited I was to finally get a cell phone my junior year.
27 years later, I’m just as excited now to do the opposite.
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