Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Collapse of BlackBerry and When To Be Nervous

Yesterday, Research In Motion, a.k.a. RIM, the company that pioneered smartphones with the BlackBerry, announced they are laying off 11% of their workforce.

Several years ago, I read Jared Diamond's totally depressing book "Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed". The title says it all. Diamond offers a rather bleak analysis and looks at a number of societies which collapsed and a few which managed to survive.

One example is Easter Island.

Easter Island used to be covered with trees and forest so dense it was nearly impassable. Humans arrived and set up a society. In a few decades, they leveled the forests, and their society quickly died a gruesome, futile, bloody death. The environment still hasn't recovered from the humans. The only things that remain are the creepy statues.

One of the most powerful passages in the book is when Diamond asks "What was going through the mind of the person chopping down the last tree on Easter Island?"

Why did the people continue to destroy the very environment they needed to survive? And how and why did they keep going when it was beyond obvious?

Diamond also covers the first Viking settlers in Greenland. They starved to death, resorting to eating their horses (down to the hooves), the meager vegetation in the area, and eventually each other. All this while the native people were literally next to them pulling fish out of the water with their bare hands. See, the Vikings didn't eat seafood. Not part of their culture.

The Easter Islanders and the Vikings had one thing in common. Neither society would change their way of life - their "values", even though it they were not sustainable and obviously not appropriate for the world they inhabited. Quite literally, they chose death over changing how they lived.

I've been working on a BlackBerry application for several months. Previously, I've worked on iOS and Android, and taken a very close look at Windows Phone 7.

I hate working on the BlackBerry platform.

The tools are difficult to configure and painful to use, so much so that even finding them on BlackBerry's site took one whole day, figuring out what I needed to install them took 2 days, and in the end, I've had to resort to using a freeware 3rd-party software.

I've been reading a number of articles about RIM lately, notably http://www.bgr.com/2011/07/13/rims-inside-story-an-exclusive-look-at-the-rise-and-fall-of-the-company-that-made-smartphones-smart/ and http://mobileopportunity.blogspot.com/2010/10/whats-really-wrong-with-blackberry-and.html

They're fascinating reads, and have inspired me to write notes and memos to myself and my fellow employees.

BlackBerry is very much like the Easter Islanders and the Vikings: it chose not to acknowledge the reality it inhabited, doesn't want to change, and it is slowly collapsing as a result. If they survive, it will be as a niche player in an industry they inspired, if not created.

Things to consider:
Don't be worried when things are rough at your company - you usually know what needs to be done. The problems are often obvious: we need a feature or this piece of technology is broken/out-of-date or our marketing sucks.

The challenge is typically in the execution (more on that in the future).

Be nervous when you're on top. That's when hubris tends to rear its ugly head, and that is when you start making fatal mistakes.

Being on top is seldom something that lasts, but being there seems to blind people to that fact. Look at IBM or Xerox or Microsoft or GM or anyone. Who's next? Google? Apple? Facebook? (I'd say "all of the above").

When you're on top, especially if you're the person who brought your company there, it's hard to be objective. It's difficult politically and culturally to say "we don't know what to do next" or "we can't find any more users".

"We need to revisit our fundamental assumptions" is toughest of all. It's a fancy way of saying "we need to change who we are" or "we need to change our way of life".

Things happen. The world becomes different. Your original assumptions are no longer valid. Changing them is akin to "abandoning your identity" or "principles".

But companies ultimately have no identity or principles save making money. Anything beyond that is the result of what you choose to impose. Having a strong identity or principles will not guarantee you users, sales, or existence. And clinging to them in the face of a changing world all but guarantees you will go extinct.

By values I don't mean things like "honesty" or "making a difference". I mean things like "our products will never have a camera or MP3 player" or "8086 architecture only" or "rotary engines" or "we only do black and white".

When you find yourself wondering why the market can't see how incredible your product is, you have 2 choices:
  1. Spend a ton of money in consumer marketing to "educate" them as to why they're "wrong" and your product is awesome
  2. Realize you have built the wrong product. 
Choice 1 is inherently arrogant and fighting against the entire world. Very few companies and products manage to turn this type of perception around. It also costs a lot of money and all your competitors get to ride free on your expenditures. Frequently senior executives prefer to go this route because it is psychologically safer and easier than saying "we are doing it wrong".

After everything falls apart, they can blame bad execution or incompetent minions or lack of cash. These are all ways to deflect thinking about whether or not it was a sound plan in the first place.

Choice 2 is difficult. It requires some amount of risk (which can be mitigated). But I believe it is the best thing to do. Truly successful companies are asking themselves if they're doing it wrong all the time, and frequently have small research projects looking at alternatives to their core products all the time.

Adapt or die. Face reality. It's really that simple.

It's hard to believe RIM is based in a town named "Waterloo". Come ON!

Monday, July 25, 2011

TIP reunion, part 1

I went back to Duke University for TIP's 30th reunion and to bestow thanks on Dr. Robert Sawyer.

Saw this for the first time. True in so many ways:

More to come...

Saturday, July 16, 2011


I wake up slow. My wife has brought me bacon donuts and is making me an espresso. I am groggy and torn between the certain deliciousness of the donuts and espresso and the potential comfort of sleeping a bit longer. I close my eyes briefly and feel my body, relaxed, creaky, a bit sore. I weigh my options, considering multiple variables.

The espresso wins. I pull myself up and into some clothes. By the time I've made it to a comfy chair in the living room, Fennesz/Sakamoto on the stereo, she's got me covered.
Does it matter where you're going
Or where you're coming from?
Or is your life just like a grain of sand...
(Love and Rockets, "Sweet F.A.") 
42 today. 

"Seven times six is forty-two...seven times six is forty-two..." I am 7 years old and hopping around the dining room table, holding my left leg. I am in the second grade, having recently been moved from one second grade classroom to a combined 2nd/3rd grade one next door. My school desk is full of crumpled-up math homework which I have no intention of finishing. Long division is hard and boring.  I am having trouble memorizing my multiplication tables. 

My mother has decided the fastest way to get me to remember is to do this. For better or worse, it works, though I will think of hopping around this table for the rest of my life when multiplying many numbers. And will always have an easier time with 7 × 6 than 6 × 7.

A few weeks from now I will empty my desk of all the failed, incomplete homework and start fresh. At the end of this school year, my parents will argue with my teacher about whether or not I should be in a gifted program. Tests will be taken. Shrinks will be seen. Parents will win, Mrs. Weimer will lose, and I will spend the rest of my school career working hard and going to different schools every year or two.

"The answer to the life, the universe, and everything." I am 12 years old and sitting in the small TV room in the Great Oaks Way house in Fairfax, Virginia. I am watching the end of the BBC "Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy" show on PBS. 

I've enjoyed the show, even if the reception is poor and I haven't been able to catch all of the episodes. I love the multiple smaller characters and throw-away bits. "Disaster Area". Marvin the mopey robot. 

I want a Hitchhiker's Guide for myself some day - a handheld computer with all the world's knowledge at my disposal.

Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect have landed on ancient Earth, in a kind of time-travel apocalypse, and have apparently ruined the purpose of the entire planet. I am only slightly amused by this finale, and more bummed out. Seems like a terribly lonely and awful way to die, trapped in a prehistoric past with a bunch of telephone cleaners. And a pointless existence for an entire planet. It will take me many years to realize this may have Douglas Adams' point about life, the universe and everything - something about "there is no point" and "it's kind of sad" and "it's a bit silly."

I am a nerd in a world that does not yet appreciate them. I am a rather lonely and misunderstood kid. I spend a lot of time on the Apple ][ in the attic or sitting in my room listening to music. I have recently discovered rock music and am learning as much as I can. My favorite records are Tomita's "Kosmos" and Jean-Michel Jarre's "Oxygene". Next year, my parents will ship me off to North Carolina for the summer to attend something called the "Duke University Talent Identification Program".

I was rolling down the window of my car
And I was thinking where the game had got me so far... 
(Love and Rockets, "Sweet F.A.")
21 × 2. I am in a car, heading for California and my future as a rock star. A beautiful blonde girl sits next to me. I graduated from college with an economics degree three months ago.

All of my worldly possessions are jammed in the back. A guitar. A stereo. A P.A. Some clothes. A desk. Music. Some hand-me-down cups and dishes. It seems like a ridiculous amount of stuff to lug around, and yet it will only take me 90 minutes to unpack. Except the music and a microphone, all of these items will vanish from my life in the next few years.

The girl and I pass through multiple states each day. We stop at Graceland to pay our respects to Elvis, drive through lightning storms in Oklahoma, and eventually alight in Santa Fe, parting ways before I head for Los Angeles. Against all odds, she will remain a part of my life and become one of my best friends. 

I am certain I will succeed in the music business. I have no idea what's ahead of me, what the music business means or is, or that by the end of the 20th century, it won't exist in the same fashion. And that all of that is probably the best thing that could happen to me.


I have lived in San Francisco for 11 years. California is more home than Virginia now, San Francisco more home than L.A. or DC or Fairfax. I look out the window at the gray July skies. Sip my espresso.

The news says the 405 freeway is closed this weekend. Only people who've lived in L.A. know what a big deal that is. I used to live right off the 405. Fucking Sepulveda, indeed. I don't miss being in L.A., but I think fondly back on my youth there. Floating in the pool at 3 am. Laughing with my brother and my bandmate. Z, before, during, after. "Days filled with music, nights filled with music, music all the time". Massive fires, turning the sky gray and orange with the ashes of trees and homes. Earthquakes. Floods. Riots.

The memories flow, converge, and split off, like L.A. traffic through the freeways and city street grid.

And, as the song goes, I remember leaving, and the feeling of a great weight lifting from my shoulders as I drove up the 5, the city shrinking behind me in the rear view mirror. I will return to visit friends, but probably not as much as I should.

I sip some Pellegrino, hoping to take the edge off the vague, floating headache lurking. I flip through the self-portraits I shot yesterday. I think I look like my Dad and my brother more each day. I particularly like the mutiple images caught at different angles in the mirrors. My wife says they're incredibly unflattering. I say they look just like me, and what I see in the mirror. I suspect we're both right.

Next week I'll return to DC to visit some family, and see Claire's baby, the vanguard of the extended family's new generation. My brother and his wife will be contributing before the end of the year. More multiplication. I'll see my Mom, perhaps a few old friends, and see how the place has changed.

After that, I return to Duke for a "30th anniversary reunion" for TIP. I've been asked to give closing remarks. I'm looking forward to the trip, if a bit apprehensive about the numbers involved. I suppose I could say the same thing about this birthday...and life in general.

I glance at my email. 5 birthday greetings, all from robots. A sign of the times, I suppose. I'll take some ibuprofen, hit the gym, play some bass. Nice dinner with Iran later. Nothing too elaborate. At this age, I find I enjoy giving presents to others more than I enjoy receiving them, and that I am buying myself tiny presents all the time. My father and I have agreed to some birthday gift d├ętente this year.


I have learned much. I believe I have changed, or at least the knowledge I have won informs my decisions and behavior.

I know I am incredibly lucky - not just in the usual "born in upper class white America" ways, but in other more significant and personal ways. I have a wonderful life and a wonderful wife. My body is a little banged up and imperfect, but for all the years and miles on it, it's in pretty good shape. I have a good job, and one I really enjoy, and one with some very cool colleagues. I still work in the music business, having more of an impact than I could have possibly imagined in my youth. 

I'm still making music, too, and feel that my recent work is by far my best. I have 2 completed albums ("Reflection" and "The Ghost Town") in the pipeline waiting on artwork. I have a new Captain Kirk album underway. Plans for the next Anu album. I'm also helping my friend Sid with his next record.

I'm imperfect. I wish I was less of a jerk, less impatient with myself and the world, less prone to being lazy. I am trying. Every day. I expect the people who know me best would both laugh at these statements.

But I also have great appreciation for the progress I've made, for what I've got in my life, and for who I am. In the last decade I've learned to enjoy life moment-to-moment. To savor the delicious certainty of now while still planning for the uncertain future.

I am grateful to be here, for as long as it lasts. At this point, I've probably got more days in the rear view mirror than on the road in front of me. That makes each memory and each new second precious, valuable, special.

I review what I've written this morning. I don't think it's gloomy - it's like the weather outside. These clouds are what July mornings are like in San Francisco. It won't last. It will get better. 


It's going to be a nice day. 
There is always sunshine above the gray skies. 
I will try to find it, yes I will try

My mind has been wandering
I hardly noticed
It's running on its own steam
I let it go

Oh, here comes my childhood...
A penny for your secrets...
It's standing in the window
Not out here where it belongs

There's a fire in the forest
It's taking down some trees
When things are overwhelming
I let them be 
I would like to see you
It's lovely to see you
Come and take me somewhere
Come take me out

There is always sunshine far above the gray sky
I know that I will find it
Yes, I will try 
 (David Sylvian, "A Fire In The Forest")

Friday, July 08, 2011

The Wrong Users: Targeting, Testing, and Design

This blog post is causing a lot of hand-wringing and discussion in the product design world.

To summarize, the author was doing a test on tabbed browsing usage at a mall, and he found a man named Joe, aged 60, who claimed he'd never used a computer before. Unsurprisingly, Joe had a terrible time using Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome. He was confused by the most basic operations and did not have a grasp of the fundamental metaphors in use.

The original blog post does a decent job of teasing obvious conclusions out of the experience, but all of the commentary around it and all of the coverage I've read is of the "oh my god, computers are terrible, people have failed to make good designs, can't we make them easier, the first person who figures out how to make computing culturally relevant will be a billionaire" and so forth.

I think this is all misguided and silly.

In my opinion, the author made a huge mistake and wasted 3 hours of his time working with Joe in the first place. I'm sure it was interesting from an anthropological perspective, but it didn't really help him with the problem he was trying to investigate. Joe was the wrong user to test.

One would no more expect useful feedback on tabbed browsing from someone like Joe than one would get asking questions about dashboard layout for someone who's never driven a car. And in 2011, finding someone who's never used a computer is a bit like finding someone who's never been in a car before.

I'm not saying there's absolutely nothing to be learned - there's always something to be learned - but this is a terribly inefficient way to gather data. Makes for a good blog post but not a much better product (perhaps like my own scribblings!)

The design community is also overblowing the state of computer interfaces. Let's set aside all of the tedious anecdotes about how toddlers can manipulate the iPad and other touch interfaces (toddlers can also turn the stove on, but that doesn't mean they know how to cook). Toddlers aren't the right users for these devices, either. Point is, computer interfaces have made tremendous strides in a fairly short period of time.

Computers are still not "easy" to use without prior context and education, but no sophisticated tool is. I would argue most people don't know how to properly use a hammer or knives, and training would benefit them. Clock radios are still so confusing that hotels have to put "1-2-3" instructions on them, and most guests still either use their own or arrange a wake-up call. Hell, we have to keep reminding people to lift with their knees, not their backs. Some degree of education is always important.

More importantly, when doing user testing, you must pick the right users to test. Someone who's never used a computer before is generally the wrong user to be testing. Someone fundamentally uninterested in your product is the wrong user. Even the wrong demographic is not worth talking to or considering. You're wasting your time (at best) and drawing the wrong conclusions which leads to bad design decisions (at worst).

Knowing who your users are and who you want them to be is critically important for your business and for your design. If you or your company does not have a good idea of who your desired users are, you need to figure that out or you will flail and fail. You must target and test with the "right" users.

Saying things like "it's everybody" is a sign of naivete and/or hubris - tragic flaws. It's not everybody. If you're doing software in 2011, it's people who've at least used a computer before (or whatever your product is). Probably have to have broadband or other "always-on" connectivity. Have to be interested in what your product is about.

I've worked on a number of streaming products in the music space. I always write out a list of assumptions at the start of every product describing the potential users. For example:

  • Desire to listen to music beyond current solution
  • Broadband connections where they listen to music
  • Smartphone owner (Android or iPhone)
  • Willing to pay for music
  • Enough disposable income to pay regularly
  • Not afraid of technology
This list may not include specific demographic information, but it's already starting to filter out significantly from "everybody". 10 years ago, the "broadband connection" item was a big filter. 3 years ago, the "smartphone owner" was a big filter. The other items are also important filters to consider.

These items can be used to start building or inferring a demographic profile. They may seem stupidly obvious, but it is extremely important to understand these to combat the "it's everybody" argument. It's not everybody. Focus on the right users.

You can make reasonable assumptions about users based on their existing knowledge and experience. If your target user is an iPhone user, it is probably safe to assume they know the basics of operating an iPhone. This also means if you hew to most existing iPhone conventions, you don't have to worry about the user understanding them.

However, it is not safe to assume they know to experiment with every arcane gesture or mystery UI element. Unlike you, the designer, the user does not spend all day experimenting with every new, trendy, weird app. They'll know how to scroll and tap. If you make your app look like the other apps the user works with, they might pick up things like pinch. But in my own testing, I've found very few users even know about "swipe to enable delete". Android users seldom hit the "menu" button unless really stuck, and they typically expect the menu options to be the same through most of the app.

Know who you're going after. Don't chase down Joe. Don't run after the wrong users.