My Version Is Better

Last night I finally saw the second Hobbit movie (I know, what self-respecting LotR waits over 3mos after the movie drops…apologies to Gandalf and J.R.R). I was really excited to see how Peter Jackson chose to represent Beorn, one of the book’s more enigmatic, and one of my favorite characters in the story. The movie’s portrayal was good, but after the scene I leaned over to my wife and said: "eh, my version is better."

One of my favorite things about reading books—and one of the benefits that comes from reading—is that books force you to use your imagination. You’re holding paper and ink; usually that’s it. The pictures that form in your mind’s eye are the work of your imagination.

I read Tolkien multiple times before I ever saw any of the movies (which is a practice I prefer to take), in part so that I can create the world of the story in my head. I love reading because it’s so immersive—like painting, you can create whatever you want in your head. And I love comparing my versions to those created in movies. Sometimes the movies are better, and other times my versions are. It’s so much fun.

I want my children to have the same fun. My kids love to read, but it wasn’t always like that. My wife and I had to (and still have to) make it a priority, and in this day where screens are so invasive, it’s even harder. I think it’s more challenging for my kids to use their imaginations than it was for me to do so. Technology is a great thing, but if not properly handled, it can rob kids of their ability to imagine.

Books are a very practical way to keep your imagination sharp, but they aren’t the only way. I’m constantly looking for ways to encourage my kids to spend time in their head—it sounds kind of weird, but the ability to imagine is such a precious quality. My kids would rather play or watch screens rather than read books, or paint pictures, or play legos, or spend time in their thoughts.

We have to fight for their imaginations. But it’s most definitely a cause worth fighting for, because I want "their versions" to be better than what they see on screens.

The Iterative Balance

Iterative design is essential in building digital products, applications, or software. As designers we must a) plan for, and design around, an iterative process and b) communicate to our clients why this process is important.

Yet, while we champion iterative design, we can’t toss everything into that basket. Especially for large applications, it might be months or years before your initial design is iterated on. Or, more commonly, you’ll iterate on much smaller details while the bulk of your original design remains the same.

There’s a balance to strike here. We need to design with the "long con" in mind—recognizing that we can’t depend completely on iteration. The idea that, "I’ll just ship this now and worry about it later" doesn’t always a great design make. We can, and should, iterate; but we can’t allow that to be our crutch.

In the words of Frederick Law Olmstead, we must always design "never too much, hardly enough".

The Year 2013

Some of the highlights from the last year:

  • We welcomed Mollie Eden to the family, born March 28. I commissioned my friend Ryan Hamrick to craft her name in type.
  • Caroline turned 3, Cade turned 7. My wife and I both had birthdays too, go figure.
  • Took more photos, and expanded photography as a hobby (still very much an amateur).
  • Moved from Design Lead at Envy Labs and Code School, to Executive Director at Envy, where I now lead the consulting side of the company.
  • Helped rebrand Envy with the help of the Envy design team.
  • Approaching 20,000 paid subscribers and over 500,000 users on our little side product, Code School.
  • Kickstarted and wrote Three Pipe Problems, a collaboration with my friend Sean McCabe.
  • Spoke at Blend Conf and All Things Open
  • Attended my first An Event Apart conference in Chicago with the Envy design team.
  • Travelled to San Francisco, Chicago, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, Columbus, GA, Ft. Myers, Baltimore, and Washington DC.
  • Marked remission for my Crohn’s Disease—continuing on the same medication, and though there are still some bad days, I’ve seen a huge improvement in symptoms.
  • Experienced a bit of a downslide with the back (herniated discs & surgery in 2012). Currently doing lots of therapy, injections, and epidurals. Hoping to find some relief soon.
  • Celebrated 8 years of marriage to Melanie, and we’ll celebrate our 10th Christmas together this year.
  •  Bought a new car—I had been driving my previous one since I was 18.

It’s been a year of some very high highs, and some very low lows; the last three years have felt more like ten. It’s been hard, and I’m tired; but at the same time I’m stronger, and have more hope. Endurance is choosing to lean forward, and perseverance is choosing to hold fast in a storm. The point isn’t the storm; it’s the degree to which you lean and hold.

A few pics from the year:

Haha! Cancellation!

This is a follow up to the post I wrote last week on cancellations.

Here’s the summary: I cancelled two accounts today, Audible and Oyster app. Cancelling my Oyster subscription took all of two clicks with an optional third “tell us why”. Cancelling my Audible subscription took 5 pages of “upsell” and “but wait, are you sure?” language. It’s clear which app’s cancellation flow was driven by a designer and which by a number-crunching-business-type.

In the 1940s, Henry Dreyfuss, a renowned industrial designer, noted that the most successful products—that is, the products that sold the most, and were the most enjoyable to use—were products that were the best designed. In short, design affected the bottom line.

Allow me to hypothesize for a moment. I would imagine that Audible’s cancellation process was ‘designed’ by a number-crunching-business-type, who’s primary goal was to reduce cancellations and thereby protect the bottom line. He or she thought that the best way to accomplish this is to shotgun all of the “but-wait-there’s-more-check-out-this-awesome-thing” things in an effort to resell by way of upsell. I don’t have a problem with upselling, but in this case, at least for me, the methodology had the opposite of the intended effect.

What Dreyfuss pointed out was that the best designed products often were the best selling products. Therefore good design positively affects the bottom line. There doesn’t have to be a dividing line between designers and number-crunching-business-types. There can be, and should be, a harmony between design and ‘business’.

The point here is to design with empathy; to craft pleasant experiences; and to marry design and business in such a way that if the user leaves, they do so with a pleasant taste in their mouths. Because otherwise, business ends up shooting itself in the foot.

Please Don’t Go

I’ve had to cancel accounts with two vendors recently, who sadly have virtually the same absurd cancellation process. The first cancellation was with our old friend Adobe — actually, it wasn’t really a cancellation, it was a transference from a personal account to a team account. The second cancellation was with MyFax, an otherwise decent provider of online fax services.

Each of their cancellation processes went something like this:

  1. Try and find the cancel button (no such button or link existed, I had to wade through the swamp of FAQs to find the appropriate section buried at the bottom).
  2. "To cancel your account, please click here to chat with a sales representative". Which, by the way, why the hell would I want to chat with a sales representative? Do they think that by some magic this ‘sales representative’ (who most of the time is a hired gun and really has know real knowledge, or a care, about the product) could convince me to stay? I bet if they ran the numbers on that, under 1% of users actually stayed…and that’s probably being generous.
  3. Open up chat window.
  4. Either a) "You’re number 15 in the line, someone will be with you in 30minutes" or b) "We’re sorry, all our sales representatives are offline, please try again later" (Really? Try again later? You’ve just confirmed that I will never use your service again).
  5. Finally speak to this sales representative who, from experience, usually bats around 100 for actually being able to successfully cancel my account.
  6. Receive a confirmation email that my account was indeed cancelled.

This is how it should work:

  1. Easily find cancel button in your user profile. Click cancel button.
  2. "We’re sorry to see you go language" above a clear, large confirm cancel button.
  3. Receive a confirmation email that my account was indeed cancelled.

We all sweat and fret over the sign-up process, because that’s one of the most important pieces of our site right? Your cancel process should be just as easy as your sign-up process. Don’t play games with your users. Period.

By all means try and make your product such that I won’t want to cancel. But if I do want to cancel, please make it easy for me to do so.

The Room

My wife enters into my 7yr old son’s room for the fifth time in 20 minutes, reiterating what she’s said five times previously: to pick up his damn room (well, that’s how I would’ve said it anyways). The gauntlet of a to-do list is laid again, one which should take any hardworking young man around 15 minutes to complete. He’s out in two. Obviously he’s not getting the message.

I was like this when I was his age. I hated cleaning my room. And I also was distracted. All. The. Time.

My parents did to me decades ago what we’re trying to do as parents now. Make him follow through. All the way through. Even if it takes all night, which there’s a 150% chance it will.

In my newfound wisdom that comes with age, and being a worn-out, flustered parent, I realize The Room is a microcosm for The Life. It’s easy to be distracted and hard to focus. It’s easy to cut corners and hard to go the extra mile. It’s easy to give up and hard to persevere.

He’ll realize this in about 15 years when he’s on deadline for a major project, when people are counting on him, and when the stakes are much higher than a “picked-up” room. And that’s the point I guess. When he gets to that place he’ll have already laid the foundation for hard work, so it won’t be new territory for him. He’ll have traversed the terrain many times over.

And 25 years from now he’ll be sitting where I am, listening to his wife patiently command his son to clean his room. And he’ll note the wisdom in it.

Busy != Productive

We like to measure our purpose, or our life’s value with numbers. How many likes, or followers we have; how many meetings we schedule; how many emails sit clamoring in our inbox. The higher the number, the more purposeful one’s life becomes; the more value one’s life has.

Right?

We know that’s not the case. We know that purpose isn’t in the amount of followers one has, and we know that value isn’t in the amount of time spent at the office. So why do we act as if we don’t understand?

Busyness isn’t noble any more than a follower count is representative of a person’s character. Busyness is not an indication of a purposeful life; purpose is.

Three Pipe Talks

I recently gave a revised version of my Three Pipe Problems talk at Bermon Painter’s awesome BlendConf, and had several folks ask me if I’d ever consider giving the talk and/or expanded workshop to C-Level executives. I hadn’t thought about it before, but now it’s something that I’d like to learn more about.

So, if you know an executive, are an executive, work with an executive, or have any info or thoughts on how to market a talk like this to executives, please email me. I’d greatly appreciate it.

Email: jason [at] jasonvanlue [dot] com

2007 Cortese Barbaresco Rabaja

Piedmont, Italy

NOSE
Cherries, green peppers, black pepper, unripe mango rind, vanilla, some faint black flavors like tobacco and licorice. Very aromatic, really nice.

PALATE
Medium bodied, similar to the nose: cherries, green and red peppers, unripe mango rind. Good acid, moderate finish, fairly soft tannins. Very enjoyable.

COST
$50

TOTAL
92

ADDITIONAL NOTES
It’s predominantly earthy with more vegetal flavors than fruit flavors, so if that’s not your preference you probably won’t like this. But the Barbaresco varietal can be really enjoyable (sort of the less attractive sister to Barolo). I remember picking unripe mangos when I was in Haiti a few years ago, and for some reason this wine reminds me of that. Good acid, decent complexity, and a well balanced effort. At the end of the day though, it’s hard to justify the price point…just not sure it’s that good.

2010 Alloro Pinot Noir Riservata

NOSE
Bright red fruit, berries, rose petals, vanilla, black pepper, baking spices. Beautifully fragrant nose.

PALATE
Medium plus body, very silky with a medium plus finish. Bright red fruit, cherries, black pepper, currants. Tastes like you filled a basket of wild berries and cherries on a mountain side, tossed in some vanilla and baking spices and somehow ate the whole thing. Little to no oak, which for me is perfect. Extremely well balanced and silky smooth.

COST
$45

TOTAL
93+

ADDITIONAL NOTES
This is an exceptional Pinot. Has a very high delicious factor; it’s just plain wonderful to drink. Only 300 cases produced each year, so it’s hard to source. Maybe that’s why it’s not a 94 rating. But I will definitely be procuring more bottles if I can.