TechCrunch Disrupt Presentation

I had the distinct honor and pleasure of presenting a new app that we’ve been working on at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference as part of their Battlefield competition. The competition pits 30+ startups against each other in a judged competition. Each team gets roughly five minutes to present, followed by another five minutes of questions from the judges. Overall, I think it worked out well even though we didn’t win.

Here’s the video (first there’s an ad).

TechCrunch also did a pretty good writeup of the app, which saves me from having to explain it.

Jobs I’ve Had

I was thinking last night about all the different jobs I’ve had over the years, and how many were “relevant” to what I do now. I suppose they were all relevant, since they got me to and are a part of what I am now, but there are a few that I consider to be a direct link to what I do now. They also signal a conscious shift in my outlook with regards to my career. Note that while this is roughly chronological, and includes only wage-earning jobs, I’ve done the same job at multiple employers, so I rolled up those positions.

  • Car wash carhop
    Learned that ill will created by older siblings can negatively affect job duration
  • Gas station attendant
    Learned how change the oil in a VW, smoke Marlboro Reds
  • Busboy in a fancy restaurant
    Leaned how to set a proper table, which side to serve and clear form, hang out with waitresses
  • House painter
    Learned about importance of health insurance. First management experience, and my team sucked
  • Apartment painter
    Learned how to paint student housing interiors, survive all day on a diet coke big gulp
  • Sorority houseboy
    Learned how to steer clear of a house full of college girls
  • Mail room of McDonalds world headquarters
    Discovered they serve beer in the HQ McDonalds
  • Printing plant
    Learned about union-mandated breaks
  • Bartender
    Discovered bar tending isn’t that much fun, really.
  • Stereo equipment sales
    Learned how commission sales work (or doesnt)
  • Lawn maintenance
    Learned how to drive a big truck, second management position
  • Busboy
    Learned that laundromat/bar combinations are a great idea
  • Picture framer
    Learned how to get involved with much of the female sales staff, third management position
  • University telecom warehouse storekeeper
    Learned about DOS/Windows, and all the types of RJ jacks. First direct experience leading to current career.
  • Telephone customer service/technical support
    Learned about flaming co-workers via email not being a good idea, fourth management position. Also first experience working in a meritocratic workplace. Led to beginning of current career.
  • Product design and management
    Learned I loved designing interactive products, fifth management position. Start of current career.
  • University computer science department design intern
    Learned I had no idea how to build a large website, learned a lot about methodologically sound research.
  • Interaction design consultant
    Learned a lot about client management, had to lay off my first employee.
  • Interaction design manager
    Learned a lot about excellent and horrible management, big company politics.

Agile UX NYC Slides

On Saturday, I had the pleasure of speaking at the inaugural Agile UX New York conference here in New York. The roster of speakers was excellent and I learned quite a bit. I spoke about some of what I’ve learned at betaworks over the last four years working in an early stage startup environment. I outlined a number of the elements I saw as contributing to the success of some of the companies I’ve worked with to get up and running. Please take a look at my slides below:

Bonus – If you can bear it, here is a video of me giving this talk, via Ustream.

Speaking at Agile UX New York City

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be speaking at the upcoming Agile UX conference here in New York. I’ll be talking about the how the relationship of design to the world of startups has recently shifted from a question of necessity to a position of criticality. To succeed in this new environment, designers need to adapt their strengths. Specifically, I’ll talk about my experience at betaworks and how designers innovate in an early-stage startup environment and transform ideas into products then companies.

Join me if you can!

The Commuting Surplus

The share of automobile miles driven by people aged 21 to 30 in the U.S. fell to 13.7% in 2009 from 18.3% in 2001 and 20.8% in 1995, according to data from the Federal Highway Administration’s National Household Travel Survey released earlier this year. Meanwhile, Census data show the proportion of people aged 21-30 increased from 13.3% to 13.9%.

According to the experts, young people don’t want to drive anymore, and the Internet is to blame! Aside from criticizing journalists for lazily falling back on not one, but two tired tropes (kids these days + the Internet) to generate interest in something that is not incredibly newsworthy, I wanted to see what else might be causing a decline in US car culture.

I see automobiles as the most prominent (and for many years, almost the only) designed object in most American’s lives. For years, they were also an overt expression of identity. In movies, in cities and towns everywhere, life seemed centered around the car. Sections of cities were destroyed and new cities built for them. Like any strategy predicated on growth, it had to come to some end, right? With the design force Apple and multiple websites and interactive products, there are other options Americans to express themselves.

It may be that American youth is less interested in what’s being offered by auto manufacturers. I don’t have any data, but perhaps cars today are too conservative and aimed at broader market segments, with fewer interesting variants to be appealing. Smaller, cheaper cars for years have been overlooked by manufacturers as worthy of their attention. Practically speaking, people must be doing something with their time, and it seems they all want to be online. All along cars have been just a means to socialize, and now its a lot easier to do that using Facebook and Twitter and mobile apps. It’s very hard to use these while driving.

Another aspect not covered is how the rise of hacker and maker culture comes into play. Cars can’t be hacked so easily anymore (exception noted), with blackbox computers and sophisticated engines and drivetrains. Computers and websites can be easily customized and are vastly cheaper than cars, too. The economy has been in a prolonged recession and new cars are inaccessible for many.

Lastly, it seems collaboration and environmental concerns are powerful motivators for people to consider public transport, sharing services, and living in denser urban areas.

Compared to older generations, Millennials participate in and are more open to collaborative consumption programs, such as media, car and home or vacation sharing. – Millenials Prefer Sharing Over Ownership

In many ways, they are trying to undo what their parents and grandparents did when they fled the cities for “greener” pastures.

The challenge for designers is systemic, and has been for some time. Its a massive service design challenge in some ways, and one that seems to be coming from the bottom up, rather than the corporate-driven suburbanization effort. Better urban planning and a much wider array of transportation options are needed for people who want to use their cognitive surplus.

Who “Gets” Product?

Like many in my field, I’m always amazed when poorly conceived or executed products find their way to market. While every case study of failure is unique, starting with a great product team is a variable we’d like to have under control. Finding people who work in product development with a compatible outlook and skillset is difficult, but identifying higher-order abilities in those people is hard. How do you know if someone “gets” product?* You want to find these people, but what are you really looking for? This is a deceptively hard question, and the easy (but unsatisfying) answer is that you can’t. The other easy answer is that there are many answers. I’ve shared my own perspective, but I also asked a number of people to hear what they thought.

What I Look For – The Short List

  • X-ray Eyes
    People I know that get product can “see through” a product along multiple dimensions to understand all of what goes into making it and where it can go. What the decisions were, the trade-offs and meetings during the process of development. How many times did they test a part, and did they fix it? What will happen over time? How are they planning for the unknown?
  • Mostly Makers
    Skills in making, editing, and curation are very important to me, but are only part of a holistic skill set and outlook (and many great product people aren’t makers). Curiosity about how and why things work and succeed (or fail – why does Hollywood make so many bad films?). A good track record helps, but being flexible about what success is may be necessary. Some of the best product people I know I’ve known for a long time, but its hard to get that insider perspective.
  • Well Spoken
    I like it when someone can articulate the stance a product takes. Is a company trying to break out or fit in? They see how people use it (can they use it, is it meaningful, do they like it, will they keep it) now and in the future, and everything orbits around that. More literally, can people talk about products with clarity and directness (and metaphor). Many fields have a specific language set so insiders can be very specific, and product people should be well-versed or be able to adopt the local language.

From the Experts
I asked several friends and colleagues to share their experiences, and was delighted with their responses. Several commented on the difficulty of the question itself, but all took up the challenge. I’ve synthesized their responses below, but thanks to Charles Adler, John Borthwick, Dan Boyarski, Liz Danzico, Alex Rainert, and Khoi Vinh for taking time to respond. Here are their key points:

  • Its About People
    People that get product understand that fundamentally this is about people. Product people use products. They talk about products in the context of use (as opposed to the features) and about the emotional engagement that exists for them. Development is a human process, and requires an understanding of the interaction of the roles involved and, of course, who the audience is.
  • It Takes Holistic Thinking
    Getting product also requires (or may be an outcome of) holistic thinking. They think about all aspects of the product: market, technology, operations, support, design. They can talk about and balance the relationships among them.
  • Bring a POV
    Despite being able to balance across disciplines and requirements, they have opinions that they hold strongly and can trust and defend them. They can say smart things about products – their own and other people’s. They understand where they’ve failed and can build on that.
  • Prove It
    Being able to demonstrate the ways they go about solving problems is important. Seeing past work is one measure, and seeing the results of in-person problem solving is used often. They understand the roles required, and they actually have experience shipping something.
  • Legacy
    Perhaps the most elusive, but in some ways critical quality, is whether someone can be trusted in the future to continue, extend and grow a product.


*By “getting product”, I mean people who can understand how and why products are made and succeed (or don’t), and can articulate and repeat that outcome.

Behind the Bitly Mascot

Ok, so its a bit of a puff piece, but I was interviewed by Mashable about the origins of the Bitly mascot.

How did the pufferfish develop?

We started looking at renderings of pufferfish, and one of the things that I hit on was why not show two pufferfish and show them in the states you would encounter it, puffed out and shrunken down. Once we played with that, we hit on the relationship between these two. So we invented a backstory that the little is always pranking the big one and the big one is sort of clumsy. The little one is the smart one because it’s a shortened link and there’s a lot of data and valuable attributes that are useful to people, where as the big one is the sort of big, dumb long link that breaks in emails when you send it to people or IM it.

The full post is here.


A couple quick quotes on the meaning of design:

“In most people’s vocabularies, design means veneer. It’s interior decorating. It’s the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.” – Steve Jobs

“…you cannot have depths without surfaces. They communicate with what is within; between the two there is always a great dialogue.” – Linda Grant