Sunday, 23 September 2012

Forgiving Design and Reversible Choices

Yesterday as I was ruminating on topic of this post, I wandered into a large supermarket and headed downstairs to pick up some large bottles of juice. Rushing along the drinks aisle I realised I probably should've picked up a basket at the entrance. Fortunately, the supermarket had allowed for this slip of judgement and had a stack of baskets waiting by the bottom of the escalator.

They had understood that shoppers make mistakes and designed the store in a way that forgives these mistakes.

When designing any user journey, it’s vital to think to think about how fallible humans will use your product in practice. Don Norman devotes a whole chapter to this in The Design of Everyday Things. Often a tiny fix can result in a significant improvement in user experience. You can either design your processes such that errors can easily be rectified later (as with the shopping basket example), or you can allow users to immediately reverse an action that they’ve made by accident.

One major benefit of this approach is that it immediately makes users more comfortable in exploring your product, knowing that nothing they do is irreversible without warning (assuming you're consistent in this!)

A few well known examples should make this clear

1. Gmail’s “undo” feature.

Almonst any significant action in Gmail gives you the option to undo it immediately. Obviously this is a feature that most desktop software has had for years, but for some reason it’s still uncommon in web applications.

Most famously, simply by introducing a short time delay, Gmail allows you to undo the sending of an email, letting you to claw back that hasty rant or add that missing bullet.

2. Facebook’s “Edit comment” feature.

Hit return thinking it would insert a new line rather than submitting your comment? Realised that without that final emoticon people might not realise you're joking? No problem, there’s an edit link right there.

3. Chrome’s "Reopen Closed Tab" feature

Ever closed a browser tab by accident? Ctrl-Shift-T in Chrome will bring it right back. A lifesaver.

To err is human

Next time you’re designing a user flow, see if you can find it in your heart to forgive your users their little mistakes. They’ll love you for it.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Encouraging an Adversarial Environment

A few years back I was working on a project managing a development team. We’d recently had junior developer join the team, and one day he came over to me, looking a little troubled.

“Zeshan, do you think we don’t get on very well?”

“What makes you say that?” I replied

“Well, somebody mentioned that we’re always arguing”

What he thought of as arguing, I considered to be robust debate. He was bright guy, but inexperienced. He’d frequently come up with crazy ideas, many of which were unworkable. But the important thing was that he came up with ideas. We argue through them, and more often than not, once I’d explained why a particular solution wouldn't work, he’d accept it and move on. Similarly I got into the habit of using him as a sounding board for solutions to problems, and he’d often have good criticisms.

More recently at TrialReach, I joked to one of my colleagues that we have at least one big argument in the office a day. I think this is great, and extremely important in both startups like ours, and larger companies too. I get some funny looks when I tell people that we had a great argument at work today; presumably because the word argument tends to carry negative connotations. However it’s not that we have a great work environment despite our arguments, but rather because of them (amongst other things).

The key is that arguments always need to be about the substantive matter at hand, not the people arguing the position. Every now and again I find myself arguing one side with a colleague, only to find that halfway through we've swapped sides. Adversarial discussion should not be seen as a competition where one person wins over the other, but rather a tool to determine the best possible course of action. This demands a level of intellectual honesty and maturity on both sides, as well as the ability to separate the person from the argument.

Encouraging this kind of adversarial environment is particularly important at a startup because most startups are built on a shaky foundation of unproven hypotheses and unverified assumptions. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s vital that these hypotheses and assumptions are made explicit, and adversarial discussion is a great way to to drill down to these.

Note I’m not advocating argument simply for the sake of argument. It’s as important a skill to understand what needs discussion and what doesn’t. When it’s late on a Friday evening, and you find yourself arguing about the size of a font, then it makes sense to step back and realise it’s unlikely to make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things, and can always be fixed later.

Of course, what I'm suggesting here is nothing new. Socrates was doing this 2,500 years ago and most law and business schools use this approach to teach case studies.

Disagree with any of this? I’d love to hear your argument.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Go learn something

As an undergraduate at Imperial in the late 90s, I recall having a conversation with a professor asking why the university didn't put past exam papers and lecture material online. He informed me that the department was looking into the matter, but needed a way to ensure outsiders couldn't gain access to the material. He seemed oblivious to the irony of a seat of learning trying to keep education secret, out of the hands of those who couldn't pay or meet our entry standards. It seemed odd to my idealistic teenage ears, and it still seems odd to me now.

Fortunately, the world moved on from such medieval attitudes to learning. MIT led the way in 2002 with their open courseware initiative, and in the past decade we've seen huge growth in the availability of top quality course material online. Nowadays we've moved well beyond lecture notes to videos of the lectures themselves. All students can now have access to the best professors in the world. For those of you who spent time wrestling with the joys of linear algebra as a student, there’s a good chance you used Gilbert Strang’s Introducton to Linear Algebra. Now you can see the man himself lecture the topic, thanks to MIT OCW. Last year, Stanford opened up its AI course to the public, not only uploading recordings of lectures, but allowing interaction with the teachers, issuing and grading exams, and encouraging people to form remote study groups.

Nor is this wealth of material constrained to the technophile sciences. A quick look at iTunes University reveals lecture courses on all manner of subjects encompassing the humanities and social sciences. University courses as well as popular introductions to various topics abound. In the weeks leading up to a trip to China last year, I went through the episodes of Lazlo Montogmery’s China History Podcast series, covering China from its early mythical dynasties through to the modern day.

Understandably, not everyone may feel up to the challenge of doing an undergraduate level course in their spare time, but thanks to Khan Academy, you can now study topics from a primary school level upwards. Never understood how to do long division? Let Salman Khan teach you in the embarassment free environment of your living room.

No discussion of online education would be complete without mention of TED. At no other time in our history could one so easily access speeches and lectures given by the leading thinkers of our day in person. If you've not yet had the pleasure, go pick a list of top TED talks and watch one a day for the next month. It will be worth the investment of your time.

Education is not something that should stop at the age of 20, or worse still, even earlier. By this I’m not suggesting that we should all spend our time in full time study for longer. Rather I mean that education no longer has to take place only in universities, nor does it have to be done full time. But before we go all wide eyed at this upcoming age of enlightenment, let us be clear - listening to a podcast on Number Theory will not turn you into Karl Friedrich Gauss. Education still requires active participation. Technology can make opportunities available, but there's no substitute for the hard work it will take to master these topics.

We're repeatedly told that the driving force for all modern economies is a highly educated workforce. Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, believes that talent rather than capital is our most important resource. Some in the US have suggested that education should be considered a national security issue. Everyone that has the ability to view this blog post has the ability to educate themselves online.

Whether you chose to avail yourself of these opportunities or not, I guarantee you this: on the other side of the world, in neighbourhoods you've never heard of, there are kids drinking from this firehose of knowledge. One or more of them will grow up to become the next Newton or Einstein.

Never has so much high quality knowledge been made available to so many at such little cost.

So what are you waiting for? Go learn something.