Jason Shah

Good Enough

Today I was gazing out of my office window.

What I thought:

Police car. Lights on top of police car. Wow, those look old. Why haven’t those been replaced? Oh, well, I guess those lights are…

Good. Enough.

—-

Why replace them? Oh, yours have GPS on them? That’s cool. Not replacing them. Oh, yours are integrated with crime reporting? Cool. Not good enough. Oh your lights last 10x longer? Cool, mine aren’t broken yet.

Innovators often focus on their solution, convinced that their solution is better, rationalizing the entire feature set around the premise that it’s better than the competition. It might be, but see it from the other side.

And yes, startup folks love to talk about a solution needing to be 10x better than the incumbent to justify switching costs. But that cliche loses meaning without truly, deeply understanding a person’s psychology, naturally.

I reached the conclusion that the police lights didn’t need replacing on my own. This was easier because I am not selling anyone police car lights. But if I were, I’d have a much harder time being rigorous about what’s worth replacing and what’s not. Keep this in mind with your own product.

Understand this point of view. It’s the only way you can be honest about the value your product can deliver.

You Don’t Miss Industry Trends; You Failed to Catalyze Them

I saw this tweet and it bugged me.

Big companies say “We missed mobile.” …”We missed the Internet.”

OK, everyone, and all organizations as a collection of people, are fallible.

But saying one MISSED something fails to take responsibility for the role one could have played in shaping history. It’s a passive response.

Trends don’t appear out of nowhere. It’s not like a surprise shooting star you didn’t run fast enough outside to see. Trends, sure, pop up some times. But mobile. The Internet before that. The PC before that. These are not overnight quirks that arise. Wrinkles you can iron out. These were important technologies that people were working on for years and years before they went mainstream. Reputable companies can participate in those processes. Indeed, they could be at the heart of them the way Bell Labs was in its day.

Sure, one can rationalize this as classic Innovator’s Dilemma. But until companies and leadership stop saying and acting like they just missed trends, and start realizing that they should be more mindful of shifts occurring long before the shifts go mainstream…then big companies are going to continue to miss huge industry shifts.

Maybe that’s fine. Makes room for new entrants. And if you can’t be constantly getting better and defining the future, you don’t deserve the lead your industry. But it begins with attitude and big companies could probably benefit from a more anticipatory than passive stance.

Why I Enjoy Strolling

As I may have mentioned, I’m reading the book Thinking, Fast and Slow right now. One main premise is that there we act based on 2 systems: fast, intuitive thinking (System 1) and slow, deliberate thinking (System 2).

The author, nobel prize winner in economics Daniel Kahneman, also briefly covers the idea of strolling early on the book. I am a fan of strolling. Walking quickly has never suited me, because I just enjoy strolling. I haven’t articulated why exactly I favor strolling in the past or understood it. I never thought too deeply about it, but I also don’t know if I would have had the words for what Kahneman explained.

My interpretation of what Kahneman says is that strolling is better for thinking. Your mind and body share some resources. So, when there is less strain on your body, you’re more able to think. And by think it’s not about how your mind wanders when you’re running 10 mph on the treadmill and you clear your head.

But concentrated, focused thinking. He argues that System 2 needs resources to do what it needs to do. If it’s distracted, it defers to System 1, which is arguably less sophisticated in the realm of critical thinking.

Anyway, I love it when I read or hear or see something that helps me understand myself or the world around me better. I think I understand now why I enjoy strolling.

Why Contrarian Thinking May Be Attractive: FOMO

I’m currently reading Thinking, Fast and Slow. Among other ideas, it’s made me wonder why people are drawn to contrarian ideas. I’m not certain that this premise is true (“people are drawn to contrarian ideas”), but I have observed this to be anecdotally true. (This is an advantage of writing a personal blog vs. an academic paper. I don’t want to spew misinformation, but I like spending more of my time jotting down ideas and us riffing than finding 10 citations just so I can say what I want to say).

When someone says, “You know, buying a house isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” anyone who was thinking about buying a house, or believes buying a house is a good investment, is listening. Indeed, pro-renters may listen as well given confirmation bias. Or when someone says “Tech stocks are surging now, but next week things may turn downward.” Or “Drinking water is actually bad for you.” This makes people’s ears perk up.

Some reasons to listen include:

  • Relevance - if you’re a home buyer, of course you want to consume information relevant to an important part of your life. Whether you agree or disagree is moot.
  • Intrigue - I believe there’s a tendency to be drawn to things different than what we know, or things we don’t understand. Contrarian thinking embodies this property. Indeed, we also fear it because of cognitive stress it burdens us with. So there’s 2 sides.
  • Fear of Missing Out - If water really IS bad for us, then we don’t want to miss out on knowing so.

This last piece is what prompted me to write this post. I’m of the belief that most people ascribe to herd thinking. We follow crowdsourced star ratings of venues and media (Yelp, Netflix), we read articles an algorithm suggests are most popular (Facebook), we vacation where friends, family, and the media suggest (How did The Bahamas get so popular?)…this is probably a facet of human condition that various technology and media have simply acknowledged.

But stronger than the ease that comes with joining the herd, is often the anxiety associated with the fear of missing out. And thus, when someone posits a contrarian idea, we don’t want to miss out on the insight or knowledge they’re sharing. Or the benefit that can come from following what they say. And after all, we’re still able to follow and not have the burden of being the decision maker on us, so the onus of original thinking remains elsewhere (the contrarian), but people still get to be sheep — just running with a different, perhaps smaller herd.

Anyway, maybe this is rambling. But I have long found contrarian thinking seductive. Someone contradicts the reality that I know, and I want to know more. I think it has to do with a fear of missing out. What do you think?

Badge Counts Stress Me Out. Here’s something for OCD folks like me.

I’m somewhat OCD. The whole ‘hanging off the top right corner’ and the glaring red discomfort me on a subconscious level. 

image

It’s unnecessarily complex and obtuse. Right?

Here’s a slightly more stressful example:image

So, what if the count was contained but the icon could still seem differentiated? And the brand identity of the icon could be preserved?

image

This was a 4 minute Sketch mockup. But what do you think of it conceptually? If I spent more time on this, only the icon itself would have the opacity (not this weird rounded rectangle around it), and I would play with the weight, color, and general treatment of the count. What’s good and bad about this approach? Maybe I’m crazy.

Or maybe this (because the pro of all the differentiation breeds the con of all the noise): 

Who knows? Happy Memorial Day!

Antagonism Stifles Understanding

In San Francisco these days, it feels like class warfare. Techies vs. everyone else. Specifically, there is a growing resentment towards technology, entrepreneurs, and venture capital.

Rather than getting distracted but the many facets associated with that conversation, I want to focus on a specific scenario. Anti-tech people (I’m being lazy and avoiding a better, nuanced term) protest symbols like the Google bus and others and decry the effect of technology on the Bay Area, etc.  - rising rents, an increasingly homogenous and exclusive culture, etc. 

(Disclaimer: I use anti technology and pro technology as really lazy, oversimplified terms throughout this post. Please forgive me; I choose to allocate my time to other things right now than nailing the identities of those populations in some more articulate fashion.)

In response to this, many technology people point to the irony of such people who organize via Facebook and snap photos of their dismay through their iPhones. “Look! You’re using the very thing you decry! Hypocrite! Let’s not listen to you.”

This brings up a theme I have long thought about - hypocrites aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re just hypocrites. When I call a friend, family member, or anyone else in my life stubborn, a fair reaction for them to have is “Look who’s talking.” I am indeed stubborn. But that has zero material effect in the accuracy of my original statement, when I call someone else stubborn.

So back to the original point. “Anti-tech people” are not wrong about their dismay about the state of things in San Francisco just because they use technology. What do we expect? Are luddites the only people we’re willing to listen to / who have a valid point? That’s absurd. Not only is it absurd, but luddites are likely less able to relate to anything a “pro-technology” person says because they’re less aware of technology and its benefits. Thus it’s damaging to only listen to anti technology arguments from people who are anti technology. So then if we agree that luddites aren’t the only people entitled to anything less than a positive view of technology, we can’t hold it against people when they use smartphones and Facebook to communicate. Technology has indeed become, as it always has been, a fabric of how people do things.

So, point #1 - hypocrisy doesn’t invalidate the accuracy of someone’s point. (It just makes them less credible. But relying on credibility to be any more than a proxy for accuracy is a misappropriation of what credibility is intended for. e.g. You generally trust what a source like the BBC publishes. This is because they’re credible. But that doesn’t dictate truth in 100% of what the BBC prints.)

Then point #2, antagonism stifles understanding. When “anti-tech people” and “pro-tech people” antagonize one another, it shifts the other party into defensive mode. In this mode, people can proactively reach understanding. They disparage each other. This doesn’t help us reach a place of understanding. This doesn’t fix the problem. This is true of political conflicts, such as the Israeli - Palestinian conflict. This is true of social conflicts, such as gender equality. This is true of socioeconomic conflicts, such as the current class warfare we see in the Bay Area.

So how do we avoid antagonism? I’m not bullish on this happening. People are people. A stone is thrown, someone’s feelings get hurt, they get defensive, they attack the other party, the other party defends, then they attack, and so on. Only when a third party mediator, or a celestial meteor, intervenes, or the parties are exhausted (or some other event occurs I’m unaware of), do things calm down. But if we could figure out how to be more conciliatory, I imagine things would be better and we’d reach a place of understanding much faster. And we need to. Because otherwise the Bay Area is going to change for the worse over time.

Successful Products: Solving Problems or Creating Novel Technology

More details to come soon, but right now I’m working on a product that helps people run productive meetings.

As we’ve explored this product and problem space, a common reaction can be ‘Why not just use Google Docs for this?’ 

(There are some great posts about how businesses like Salesforce were just better, verticalized spreadsheets…but I don’t have the links handy.)

This got me thinking whether it’s more important to solve a problem or create novel technology when trying to build a successful company? When people say “Can’t X do Y?” they’re not wrong. X can do Y. But it often doesn’t solve the Y (for a variety of reasons - one of which is a subpar user experience). Beautiful, focused interfaces are on the rise again as lots of technology has already been developed to support these focused interfaces / solutions.

  • You can track tasks in a Google Doc - it’s realtime, cloud-based, and works well on mobile. But there’s still benefits from going deep the way that Basecamp, Trello, and Asana allow you to do.
  • You could always take notes in Word, but Evernote went deep into note-taking (not complex word processing), and we’d all prefer a quick Evernote than to open a Word doc for our notes. Facebook (and its predecessors) gave people ‘personal web pages’ but Linkedin nailed the professional use case.
  • Technically you could have made your Facebook public and professional to make it serve the purpose Linkedin did — or some of the purposes. Or put your resume online as a PDF. Aside from the obvious drawbacks (e.g. Facebook wasn’t intended for professional networking and PDFs are hard to edit vs. forms through the Linkedin application) —- none of these oppositions proved correct in attempting to defend the status quo.

That being said, many things are spectra. So, do you need a separate Uber competitor that only does SUVs and goes deep into that use case…probably not. Do you need a Google Docs for whiteboarding - maybe, maybe not. Do you need a separate note-taking app for X and Y and Z…maybe? Maybe there will be an Evernote focused solely on the images or video use cases. 

Usually hindsight is the only thing that can really tell us whether applying commoditized technology to a niche use case was worth doing. If you told me that bookmark managers and Digg didn’t go deep enough on visuals, or social, or shopping, I may have scoffed 5 years ago. But lo and behold, Pinterest. (And of course, over time these companies become much larger than just commoditized technology applied to a worthy, narrow use case, just as Pinterest is much more than Digg for when you want to be visual and social).

My sense is with a lot of the hard technology problems required to service the current state of technology adoption (vast smartphone penetration, consumer addiction to the Internet), we’re seeing a renaissance of sorts with people focusing on behavior-first, rather than technology-first, products. And so long as it solves a problem, no one cares if you invented a new stack or solved some scaling problem no one else touched before. Solve the problem.

That being said, you may be able to uniquely solve certain problems by innovating on the technology rather than the application of technology. Twitter couldn’t fully tap into realtime, public news if it didn’t scale well - imagine the Fail Whale when you were trying to report news during the Arab Spring. Womp womp. And their ability to scale gave them an advantage of other realtime public microblogging services. But the 140 characters, the feed, the following model — these were not technological feats — and they preceded the eventual scaling challenges. The original product was not a huge technology feat.

Novel, sophisticated technology can be a critical competitive advantage. And we should, as a society, continue to support people and organizations build technology that everyone comes to rely on. I’m not saying otherwise. But my sense right now is that we’re seeing many technology startups simply leverage existing technology for niche use cases where the user experience can be beautifully tailored, and this is something consumers flock to…because people care more about solving their problems than using technology. I’m interested to see how this evolves. We’ll need to continue innovating on core technology, and people are, in order to keep moving things forward. But it also appears like there’s a renaissance happening with people building tailored applications that focus more on behavior and core problems than technology.

Thoughts?

Social Constructions and How We Spend Our Time

Sometimes I get home from work at 9 or 10pm. I enjoy what I do right now, so that’s fine because it means our team was at the office in the throes of some product debate or I needed to crank something out to help move the company along. I enjoy those moments, and I like that I believe my work has impact.

However, when I get home, I sometimes convince myself I “deserve” to watch TV, or “deserve” to sit on the couch and have some ice cream. During this time, I don’t usually blog or read — which are two activities I find fulfilling and enjoyable — but for whatever reason, I don’t end up doing those things after long days of work even though I enjoy both of these things more than the former activities, not to mention blogging and reading are both better for me than TV or ice cream.

I noticed a mindset that’s a vestige from working for other people: the desire to have “me” time when I’m not at my day job. Now, I’m all for work-life balance (although I define it differently than others). That being said, if there are things one enjoys more, then why do the things one enjoys less? 

In my twisted psyche, blogging and reading still do feel like work. And from some cultural influences, and working for someone else for some time, doing purely pleasure activities like TV and ice cream — perhaps with the pleasure magnified by the lack of work required compared to blogging and reading — felt like things I deserved to enjoy at the end of the day and stood in stark enough contrast to what I did during the day. But really these are just commonly accepted ways of relaxing we’ve learned. Why don’t we question these uses of time?

This is all going to sound weird to someone else. It’s normal to want to conk out after a long day. Sure. But I think there’s cultural norms we absorb and apply without deeper thought, or deep enough scrutiny. And we all have impulses, and indulging them (in moderation) seems to be reasonable enough. But why do something that isn’t the best thing for either your happiness or your productivity just because it helps one feel like they’re conforming more to a social norm? Therein lies the heart of the tension. It’s something that’s taken me a while to identify albeit somewhat simple ultimately. Imagine if one could rewire themselves to lead the life they want, rather than the one that norms propel them into. This is what I’m striving for and it applies to a number of other habits (e.g. healthy eating). Anyway, it’s not a baked thought, but a musing…

May 3

Headfakes

I’m watching the NBA Playoffs. Observed something notable.

Someone on offense was preparing to shoot. He did a headfake first. The defended jumped right past him trying to defend the shot.

The offensive player quickly stepped up, past the near-befallen shooter, and drained an undefended shot.

I wondered, how can one recreate a headfake in business? Or alternatively, how to avoid tossing oneself right past a shooter when merely trying to defend?

I’m not proposing anything malicious. And to be clear, some times in basketball, the defender is trained to not jump right past the shooter, and instead often is advised: “Don’t leave your feet” (I think I’m remembering that right…), or basically don’t jump and lose your position.

Sure, one could mislead people or competitors. That’s sort of a headfake. But also, on the flipside, how does on avoid being misled?

Anyway, just some food for thought. No answers here.

Mar 5

Understand the Full Cost

[Side Note: I am trying to tell more stories, rather than dole out advice. Stories have a specific meaning and context. These stories are not easily generalizable if one wants to maintain the integrity of the story or make an accurate generalization. Yet in the past, I felt some undue pressure to make a story bigger than what it was and treat it as an overblown epiphany. So instead of extrapolating this one experience, I’ll just tell you the story now…and let you do with it what you will.]

[Side Note 2: Two side notes and no post yet. Terrible. Well, it feels good to be back on the blog again. Been too long.]

I was just filling out a form. I made a typo (as if I often do). I hit CMD+A (Select All) and retyped my email address. I did not find the one spot where my email was mistyped, move my cursor there, click, and add a single character to correct the typo. Instead, I preferred to retype the entire thing.

In theory, the greater cost is retyping the entire email address. In theory, it’s much easier to add one character vs. several.

However, of course, this ignores the cognitive cost, and one type of physical cost — while only accounting for the most obvious physical cost - typing characters. The cognitive cost is of course figuring out what the error is and what exactly needs to change — this is meaningfully different than the binary decision of whether something is right or wrong. It’s more nuanced, and thus requires more work. Additionally, there is the subtle physical cost of moving the cursor - either via mouse or keyboard - to the exact position of this error vs. CMD+A and then DELETE.

This type of nuance reminds me of Apple’s decision to position application menus at the top of one’s computer screen — not the top of the application window (which could be halfway down the page). In doing so, Apple eliminated the precision required to get the mouse exactly on top of the menu item you wanted — you need to be horizontally correct, but otherwise you can just swing your mouse up there and it’ll stop where you need it to (at the top). With a menu that’s positioned with the application window, you can’t swing up vertically because you’ll go too far — and thus you have to get 2 things precisely write: horizontal and vertical position — instead of one thing precise (horizontal) and another thing kinda sort in the neighborhood (vertical).

Anyway, I found my behavior notable here. It’s quite mundane really, but carries nuance that is emblematic of microbehaviors that matter to product design. And I’ll really resist the urge to try to generalize and tell you how this kinda sort (but not really) related to reengagement emails, signup flows, viral loops, etc.