Archives for December 2010

What is Design?

Design is a loaded term, Wikipedia’s states there is actually no formal definition for design and goes on to provide a typical scientific definition, which is a fairly useless way of describing anything. Dan Saffer’s presentation on designing with technology offers two key quotes that provide a perspective on design that I found both useful and insightful.

Design is Not Just Problem Solving

Some people(they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.

So, design is about cultural invention. Not just solving the problem, not just providing a plan to accomplish a goal. But to go beyond, perhaps by little or preferably by much. True design invents a culture.

And that is not a humbug definition. Imagine the impact of a Sony Walkman that allowed us to carry our music with us. Or perhaps the mobile phone, which allowed us to call a person instead of a location. Each can be seen to have invented a culture, or at least influenced it significantly.

Design is Profound

Good products change the way we think about that type of product. Great products change the way we think about the world.

A good product influences our thinking about the whole class of similar products. But great products influence our perception of the world. This is a permanent shift in perspective.

Think about that for a moment. Inventing a culture, a shared perspective that unveils some hitherto hidden aspect of the product, service or perhaps in the experience of it.

Beyond Form & Function

True design is not just about form and function. Beyond form and function is the aesthetic experience. Imagine how the iPod and iPad raise our expectations of what a mobile and tablet device should and can be. The BlackBerry, which was the mobile device of choice until the iPhone, is now a bore and a drudge.

With form, function and aesthetic experience sorted there is something much subtler and deeper that can be possible, something that opens us to a higher plane of thought and experience. This is almost philosophical territory.

Think about how the night sky riddled with the eyes of light almost always leaves you humbled. Such a profound experience is the goal of great design. We might not always reach that goal with technology based products but remember, an inch closer to great design is an inch away from mediocrity.

Church of the Checkbox

This tribe thrives in bureaucratic environments.

Its primary output is a list of checkboxes. Its priests man the toll booth of progress. Every man who would pass through it has to pay the price.

The Byzantine maze appears as the model of clarity in front of it.

It bakes in multiple levels of redundancy to ensure no unforeseen progress occurs.

And progress being shy shuns this tribe. Afterall what glory is there in being anticipated.

This tribe justifies its dysfunction citing the apocalypse that would result otherwise. The threat of anarchy keeps its members staring at the wall.

The mouth of the Cave, and all its terror of truth and beauty and serendipity remain hidden in the light of day.

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry.

Politics Trumps Ability..

..about 80% of the time. By politics I mean the machinations that people use to influence other people. I prefer to keep the negative connotation that is often associated with the word.

This is relevant when you are in a forum where more than 2 people come together, whether in politics proper or in large organizations.

When you are stuck on the wrong end of this equation, you have a few ways to go forward.

To Engage or Not To Engage

i) Wait it out – Change is constant. Even the tyrant will pass one day. If feasible, stay out of sight and stay away from the mess. Do the minimum. Seek consensus in everything you do, be a minion. Check every box and bow to every stranger. Bide your time and be prepared to rise up when the situation changes. But ensure the playing the role of a minion does not make you one.

ii) Adopt the methods – If you feel up to it, possess the ability to think through motivations of people and divine their intent then this approach is for you. You need to have built a cachet of people relationships and accumulated social credits over a period of time. Not something you can switch on and just do. You need the stomach for it. The ability to possess a double tongue is key. But this option is cancerous, unless its influence is checked one can turn into something else.

iii) Refuse to play – The easiest option is to refuse to play their game and move on. And perhaps the most difficult too, especially if you lack alternatives or the support to sustain yourself.

And remember, this is a fact of life and there is no wishing it away. It would be naïve to wish for an ideal world where transparency and honesty are the norm. Plato wished for an Utopia but as the times since can attest, it has not moved an inch towards reality.

Mahesh-Majumdar Laws of Email Replies

They say all insight bubbles up from a cauldron of pain. Today there was one of those really annoying incidents where everybody does a reply all to every one and their grandmother. The reply all continued even after a clear message asking people not to do it.

While discussing this with Subrata Majumdar, a colleague and mentor at my current firm, he came out with these Laws of Email Replies 🙂

(1) All mass-recipient e-mails shall continue to receive reply-alls unless directly acted upon by an external force (like a stern rebuke)
(2) For every application of the external force there shall be at least one idiot with an equal and opposite response.

Subrata has a fantastic blog called Confessions of a Digital Immigrant where he writes about Capital Markets, Software Products and other stuff. I did a guest post called Hierarchy of Equals last year there, where I spoke about patterns for winning product teams.

Valhalla Rising–An Elemental Savior


The Story

One-eye is our protagonist, possessing an excess of strength, mute and without a vocabulary beyond the gestures of his physical self. Held prisoner by a tribe, he escapes with the aid of a boy he befriends. They come across a band of men who are on a quest to find the holy land. He accompanies them through their fated journeys and reaches a region that is the very antithesis of holy. A bunch of barbarians, or perhaps even cannibals, who are into this unfortunate habit of performing human sacrifices ensure these new arrivals don’t last long. One-eye and the boy are the last to survive and end up confronting the cannibals. I will not spoil the ending for you but let me just say its an iconic moment that makes you reconsider all the impressions one has made of one-eye.

Characters and Their Motivations

If you are looking for characters that anguish whether to do or not to do, then you’d be disappointed. This is territory and times where deliberation can often mean meeting your maker quicker than normal.

Bareness of the landscape, animality of man and a marginally ennobled primal pursuits come together in a bleak harmony. Without the decorations of a complicated plot or the distractions of a familiar setting, the narrative transports us to a place and time where the actions and motivations of the characters are observed objectively.

Survival is everything here. And of course the elusive myth of the Christian tradition during the middle ages of the Promised Land,  an alluring combination of adventure, salvation and treasure attracts the sort that heaven would cringe from, or at least we believe so. But therein lies the twist.

Beyond the Savage

(Spoiler alert, stop reading if you intend to watch the movie)

One-eye and the boy come across the barbarians who surround them on a jagged terrain. With One-Eye’s skill in violence it is evident there is a slim chance he would come out victorious. He considers the odds carefully and we almost feel a mental switch that goes off in his head and understand a decision has been made and do not know it yet. Having seen his prowess so far we wait in anticipation for a blur of limbs and hope to see the barbarians eased from their cannibalistic predicaments.

Now One-eye calmly glances at the boy, in a look that says little to us. He walks towards the barbarians in silence, when within striking distance he quietly drops his weapon and offers himself as a sacrifice.  In that one single instant our mental model of One-eye and his moral stature undergoes a shock so deep that I found myself zipping through all the impressions of him and his actions in the space of a couple of seconds. Every past act of One-eye I revisited and assessed them in the light of this single and supreme gesture.

And that act elevated the character and this movie to something approaching philosophy, and I mean that in a good way.

A Savior?

Every stage of evolution has its heroes. The yet-to-be-human, the barbarian and the contemporary man each have their heroic standards. Regardless of what the stage the pattern is simple. One who exceeds the conditions of his existence is counted as a hero. But the savior is something beyond the idea of a hero. There is in him a conscious understanding of the terrible price that he must pay to redeem himself and those that depend on him and he willingly pays it.

Our cultural blinkers cloud and constrain our perception of who a savior is and can be. With One-Eye and his sacrifice I left behind a few of these blinkers.

Does Steve Jobs Do Yoga?

Usually the search terms that lead the handful of people to my site are fairly standard. But few days ago the title of this post led someone here. If that was you dear reader, then sorry I did not have a ready reply then and will address it now.

Before moving to the answer I will have to state some assumptions. By Yoga I take it to mean something more than the physical aspect of it. Not the smattering of breathing exercises done for physical well-being and balance in life. Yoga is a mystic yearning for the Divine, a perspective that acknowledges the superficiality of material forms and seeks to exceed it into the truth that sustains everything. Yoga is state that the Vedas and Upanishads describe and offer the roadmap for. Yoga is a world-view that sees the connectedness of things and more.

There are two parts to the answer, we move from the abstract to the precise.

All Life if Yoga…

..says Sri Aurobind0. So read that again. All life, not just the virtuous and the religious, all of life is Yoga. This statement, as with many of Sri Aurobindo’s statements, reveals both i) an immanent and essential truth and ii) an available end goal.

The former points to the fact that any life, literally anything, to exist would be impossible without the tacit support of the Divine. (This is a moral minefield when viewed from the stance of day to day life, let us not consider that aspect in this blog post. If you are interested we could return to it later.). The latter is the explicit affirmation of the possibility that all of life can be Yoga or an union with the Divine. Not just the supra-normal states of consciousness like various Samadhi states but even the mundane moments of our lives too can be in Yoga, can be experienced union with the Divine.

With this definition, not just Steve Jobs but even you and I are in Yoga!

Now that is sort of nice but it does not give a method to get to this state in the first place. And besides answers our original question with too abstract a framework. We can do better, so let’s continue.

Yoga is Skill in Works..

..says Sri Aurobindo. This is a more accessible definition and something we can work with. Like a Vedic or Upanishadic mahavakya this little thought’s illumination belies its size! Yoga is said to be skill in works. There is no mention of what works, it does not matter. I could be a serf serving the whims of a landlord  and following instructions to the dot or its modern day equivalent of sitting in a cubicle and following processes to the letter. And still could exceed the conditions of my birth, outgrow the mortal limitations placed upon me and grow into the consciousness of the Divine. All of this while performing the normal works of a human existence.

The divisions set up by society with the Chaturvarna or the Four Fold Caste System, that condemns me to a class of works determined by birth and heredity, though a sham and a corruption of the principle Manu had in mind, do not limit my potential to attain the highest states unavailable to the priest who chants litanies for years.

Skillful execution of work, like the pursuit of a moral living, has no end to its perfection. And beyond a certain threshold of skillful work one is invariably widened and soon see ourselves touching the borders of heaven. What began as work is transmuted into Yoga.

With this approach one would easily agree that Steve’s extraordinary skill for producing, or at least orchestrating the production of, beautiful things he most definitely is doing Yoga. Not in the sense of being seated in meditation and chanting a mantra but more like Arjuna who though in the thick of battle is in union with Sri Krishna due the skill of his craft and devotion to his dharma.

Relevance for India and Indians

The path of salvation through works is especially relevant for us Indians. To do this with all the rigor and perfection and devotion we can muster will yield both material and spiritual rewards. Long have we viewed yoga as something performed after we are old, the current material and moral poverty is a direct result of this world view. 1000 odd years of foreign rule and influence have destroyed our self-identity. It is time now to unshackle ourselves, not just with the mantra and deity but also with the skill that yields material abundance and strength.

NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Rocks!

In short, the NY Times web app on Google WebStore is all kinds of awesome. For the slightly detailed version of why I think so you will need to read further.

Why is NY Times App on Chrome WebStore Special?

The NY Times app has to be viewed in the specific context it lives in. The factors as I see it are

i) News business model is disrupted, to put it mildly. Follow NeimanLab or Clay Shirky to understand how the internet has changed the rules for news firms.

ii) Adoption of Smart Devices like Apple’s iPad, iPhone and various tablet devices have added to the challenges of news firms. Everyone is trying to figure out how to deal with this new distribution channel and how these technology advancements can be used to present this content.

iii) The need to differentiate with quality of news and how its presented. Quality is firmly under the scope of editor-journalist world view and the market’s demand for it. And presentation is a function of technology and the narrative devices the editor-journalist wishes to use.

iv) Ability of large organizations, not just within the news industry, to see the writing on the wall and proactively take measures to address them. Not the half-hearted lame moves that pleases the proletariat and does little to materially improve their situation or at least help understand the ground reality better.

I have to acknowledge that there are lots more organizations that are at the edge of how content can be packaged and delivered. I would quote Flipboard as an example, my earlier post on them is here. Flipboard innovates in presenting content that arrive as links via Twitter and Facebook streams in a magazine format on the iPad.

Web News UX Evolved

Now let us go through some screenshots with a brief description of each.

The home page is a really standard view, nothing special here. But neat typography, a clean layout and not complicated. On the right hand side is a tabular menu that lists the various sections. Clicking each section provides a fluid page transition behavior.

A little subtlety around the scroll behavior. Its like having the newspaper on a 2 dimensional plane. Vertical scrolls are between sections and horizontal within sections. Try using the scroll arrows in the app and you will experience this.

Clicking ‘Customize’ option brings up the customization interface, almost like a designer mode. You will see that the tabular menu has changed now to show a list of options. The next screenshot has a better view of the options here.

Each option is a theme, again nothing special. But the point is this, for a large traditional news firm to get it to this extent is nothing short of amazing. This is standard HTML content, rendered in different layouts, or should I say mashed up differently, based on the theme chosen. The default theme applied is titled ‘Serendipity’ and its visible in the first 2 screenshots you see above.

The ‘Doric’ theme is a columnar layout, presumably a reference to Doric columns of Ancient Greek Architecture. In my book even a passing reference to Greece gets the inner nerd all jelly-like.

The ‘Flow’ layout is quite interesting. Its like a Web 2.0 style word-cloud but with titles and a brief description all laid out end to end in a sequence. Ideal to quickly scan titles, without the distraction of pictures.

Or if you really prefer the staid but efficient line based interface, much like RSS readers, then you would like the ‘Lines’ theme.

Other themes are Gallery(for of course a gallery of images contained within each article), Stack(a stack of articles one over the other..), Slideshow etc. There is another theme called Priority but I could not quite figure how the priority was being decided, especially whether it is curated by a human or an algorithm.

NY Times Could Do More

I see the theme infrastructure ripe for extension. I can think of a few options:

i) Better Filters: Category based filters and popularity(most emailed, commented etc.) is already available. But let us say we could filter this by region, and tie it to my social graph. Then I get a Flipboard-like experience of NY Times news.

ii) Sharing: Right now it is possible to share articles to Twitter, Facebook etc. But within this interface I would love to be able to see how popular an article is. FriendFeed and Feedly already do this by indicating popularity against each article.

iii) Consumption-based Customization: Right now categories are defined upfront and I get to apply themes within them. In addition I would like to see news customized for me based on my past consumption patterns and working out with which news topic I have engaged the post. Bubble up these suggestions automatically under the Serendipity theme. Until I ask why a particular option has been suggested don’t offer the information to me. Pandora’s web interface does this rather well, by giving details on why a particular song has been suggested.

There is lots more I wish to guess about here, especially about i) the workflow that might surround the publishing system here ii) how the iPad form-factor has clearly influenced the design thinking here iii) how a HTML UX is comparable to what a native smart device can provide etc. But will stop here for now.

What do you think, am I justified in my excitement? Or are these fan-boy symptoms?

Analogy as the Core of Cognition

Since writing the post on creativity I have been trying to make some connections of my own. Something that would explain the mechanics behind creativity and perhaps the nature of the thinker too. And then it struck me, the connections that Steve Jobs was referring to as the origin of creativity is very similar to the processes that Douglas Hofstadter talks about in a lecture called Analogy as the Core of Cognition.

Douglas takes an even more hardcore stand. He considers this ability to see patterns, this analogical mode of perception, as the very basis of cognition. That is to say the foundation of thinking.

If you are sort of missing the point here, let me illustrate.

Ability to see connections –> Creativity

Ability to see analogies –> Cognition

Do you see the parallels now? Good..So seen from that perspective, one could say that the very act of thinking, or just cognizing, is a creative act. And perhaps creativity is just an exalted mode of thinking, something that extends it in ways we are unable to nail properly but still built on the same foundation of thinking. Which is not bad at all and very egalitarian too.

I think, therefore I am, could very well have a corollary(or should I say analogy? Eeks this is getting recursive!) saying I analogize, therefore I think.

Damn, as I wrote the above lines I see possibilities that my feeble mind cannot comprehend fully. Am entering philosophical territory here. I shall come back to this another day!

On Creativity – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs on Creativity, via Autocatalyst / Wired.

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

That just about nails it, as far as my understanding of creativity goes.

To be focused on a specific domain provides depth but starves the mind of raw material it needs to go beyond the algorithmic mode of thinking. Perceiving connections or parallels between multiple disparate topics leads to uncovering possibilities and opportunities to fuse attributes that would not be feasible if one had considered a topic in isolation. Am sure there is more to it but we could go with this definition.

If that did not make sense let us consider a few examples.

Timeless way of Building by Christopher Alexander, a book on design principles involved in architecture of buildings provided inspiration for the software Design Patterns, authored by the Gang of Four and has fundamentally changed our views on constructing software.

Star Wars was created by George Lucas after being inspired The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, who studied world mythology and the archetypes that influence them.

Steve Jobs aimed for perfect typography on the Mac after being exposed many years before to the beauty of calligraphy. Check the commencement speech here where he speaks about the incident and how it influenced his thinking.

Anyway, do you think these examples qualify? Would like to hear your views either way. Or even better share your examples below in the comments or drop me a line.

Deep Linking or Winer Links

Couple of key innovations out this week from NY Times. Very small but when done at scale can allow mainstream adoption of deep linking.

What is deep linking. For example if you have a link to a page then deep link would point you to a specific section within the page. So a dual action is performed – first navigate to the page and then navigate to the section within the page.

So what are the innovations?

Permalink to any paragraph on the NY Times website

Head over now to NY Times, hit Shift key twice in succession and you will see the paragraph mark, Pilcrows, appear. Try it now, I shall be around. Each paragraph mark provides a link to itself directly.

Now intra page links have always been available using the named section approach. So what makes this special? Instead of the content creator deciding upfront what sections should be marked out for navigation, the ability to generate links to a paragraph is baked into the infrastructure. The syntax is simple too, it uses the named section idiom by appending a name after the #. You just add the letter ‘p’ followed by the paragraph number.

Now this is not a new innovation. Dave Winer, the guru of RSS spec, has been doing this on his site for ages. Check Winer’s coverage of NY Times implementing this feature. But for someone with the reach of NY Times to do this makes it ready for mainstream consideration and adoption.

Highlight any paragraph or sentence(s)

This feature extends the idiom of the paragraph linking mentioned above. Just that it highlights a paragraph or a sentence or even a set of sentences. If you need to do this for multiple sections or sentences you could just append the required markup together.

Benefits of Paragraph Permalinks and Highlight Idioms

The benefit is not just time saved for the content creator. It could go to the very root of how content is packaged, distributed, consumed, commented upon and tracked. The creator of the page provides his view of packaging his content. Consumers can subsequently opine about specific sections, have conversations around them and more. They can also assemble sections of content from different pages and further distribute it. Permalinks and ability to highlight sections, using both these approaches, will be available by naturally extending the idioms that the Web infrastructure already provides.

WordPress Plug-in

This blog too has Winer Links implemented. Go to any post instead of the home page and you can see it action. For example check this post. You can implement this on your WordPress site too using the excellent plug-in by Daniel Bachhuber called WinerLinks.

Anyway, that is my take on this feature. What do you think? You should add comments below on what you think.