Daddy’s little Dexter

Drawing with Win is always a serendipitous adventure. We work together like Warhol and Basquiat, with me coloring inside the lines and her deconstructing contemporary cultural icons.

Here’s her latest work, and I think her best.
I call it “Sheriff Lecter”:
Sheriff Woody, eater of the dead
If you ask Win what her favorite color is, she’ll tell you purple. But when she reaches into the bucket of markers, you can always bet on red.

While I hate to be too critical of her budding talent, I am glad she’s past her “blacking out every princess’s eyes and mouth” phase.

How to game KickStarter

KickStarter‘s cool but I feel like I see too many projects hit their funding numbers at the last minute of the pledge window. Call me a cynic, but after thinking about this on the train one morning, I devised this scheme for getting “free” money for your project.

  1. Start your project the old-fashioned way: gather up the cash you’ll need to cover it.
  2. Get your project listed on KickStarter. Set the tipping point to match the amount of cash you have on hand.
  3. During the KickStarter pledge period, play by their rules and try to raise as much money as you can.
  4. At the last hour of the pledge period, check your numbers. If the project’s funding level is between 10% and 100% of the tipping point, take your own cash and pledge the remainder to tip the project.
  5. You’ll take home whatever amount you’ve raised, even if it would’ve normally been below the tipping point.

The only case where this isn’t effective is if a project fails to raise at least 10% of the tipping point: KickStarter takes a 5% commission and Amazon payments amount to 3-5% of payments, so the first 10% of real pledges are needed to cover those commissions. But beyond that, any already-funded project is on a risk-free gravy train.

This means that if you’re going to embark on an artistic endeavor and have enough cash on hand to finance it, there’s no reason not to try to get it listed on KickStarter to offset some portion of the cost. If enough KickStarter projects shift to this model, the spirit of the site goes from a collection Cinderella barn-raising stories to cases of “I’m going to do this anyway, anyone feel like chipping in?”

…which makes me wonder if there’s a business case for facilitating the latter from the outset, rather than waiting for the inevitable (or fighting it).

So sayeth Ms. Gags

I used to walk down the street like I was a fucking star. I want people to walk around delusional about how great they can be – and then to fight so hard for it every day that the lie becomes the truth.

All that ever holds somebody back, I think, is fear. For a minute I had fear. I went into the [dressing] room and shot my fear in the face.

— Lady Gaga

Stuff I’m reading – Sept 10

“The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

Here’s stuff that tickled me brain this week:

  1. Andy Cranberry referenced this article as an argument for the prodmans’ continued existence. Contrast with Posterous founder’s article about the last thing a product needs is a prodman.
  2. An old article from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and some other guy about how Google manages smart people effectively.
  3. A couple of articles from Chris Dixon and Caterina Fake about using APIs as cheap, Darwinian business development tools. I could not agree more. There’s something beautiful about telling a small scrappy startup who wants to partner with you that “your idea sounds great – here’s an API key. Take a shot and let us know how it goes.” Similarly, as a small fry it’s fun to have that key to get started on a proof of concept. We’re doing some of that with various APIs at OpenSky for things like tools to match shoppers to sellers. But it’s not always super clean, as we learned at KickApps, so Hunch’s BizDev lead wrote this great overview about how to merge traditional BD with self-serve APIs to optimize your growth.
  4. This great Mormon design blog has a slick paraphrasing of Edwin Land via Fred Brooks:

    Edwin Land, inventor of the Polaroid camera, once said that his method of design was to start with a vision of what you want and then, one by one, remove the technical obstacles until you have it. I think that’s what Steve Jobs does. He starts with a vision rather than a list of features.

    (original Wired article)

  5. Don’t waste your precious pre-launch time” is a great cautionary tale of some common pitfalls that people should avoid when starting a company. The 1st and 3rd, not worrying about your name and aggressively cutting features, are obvious but bear repeating. The 2nd, not chasing early adopters, was a new concept to me and worth considering.
  6. And finally, these 6 tips for increasing creativity are meh. I wish someone would really tackle this topic well.

And here’s Evan Williams talking about how he made Twitter grow so big so fast:

Neurological definition of “flow”

From this Newsweek article (about halfway through):

During improvisation, the highly trained music majors used their brains in a way the nonmusicians could not: they deactivated their right-temporoparietal junction. Normally, the r-TPJ reads incoming stimuli, sorting the stream for relevance. By turning that off, the musicians blocked out all distraction. They hit an extra gear of concentration, allowing them to work with the notes and create music spontaneously.

Sounds like flow, no?

And more:

  • The definition of creativity is “production of something original and useful.”
  • The mental process of creative thinking is “alternating between divergent and convergent thinking.”

The article gets a lot better in the latter half, including a sketch of a problem-solving process:

  1. Fact-finding. Understand what’s going on. This is a perpetual process, but becomes targeted as you enter a project.
  2. Problem-finding. Defining all of the challenges to be overcome.
  3. Idea-finding. Now that you understand the space and the challenges, brainstorm.
  4. Solution-finding. The editorial phase where each idea is judged (and criteria for judgement are defined).
  5. Testing implementations. (It gets a little fuzzy here.)

I think action can be woven into more of these phases, from idea-finding onwards.

The secret to success is many inexpensive failures

This is a video of Frans Johansson’s presentation at the 99% Conference, titled “The Secret Truth About Executing Great Ideas”. I have his book, The Medici Effect, sitting on my nightstand, next in line. He makes some great points here about what I’d call disposable decisions, or “strong beliefs, loosely held.”

Notes:

  • Most successful innovators win with volume. Picasso created 20,000 works of art, most of which suck.
  • Only use the minimum amount of resources required to test, so you can pivot.
  • The purpose of a strategy is to convince yourself that it could work, not to come up with a correct answer or a final decision. It’s only successful insofar as it empowers actions.
  • “We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” – Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines
  • The likelihood that your initial plan is wrong is nearly 100%. You manage this by taking the smallest executable steps.
  • Props to Behance for sharing their conference speakers online.

Less stuff, more relationships and experiences

This weekend I read 2 interesting articles from the NYTimes that relate to our vision for the new commercial community we’re building at OpenSky:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/business/08proto.html
It’s too bad the good folks at Daily Grommet don’t know of anyone else in their space, given that OpenSky is creating a Daily Grommet in every niche, for every interest. Why limit this “referral and endorsement” role to a limited population of thought leaders when everyone knows someone they trust to recommend the perfect product or solution for any number of needs? Let a daily grommet bloom in every home, in every conversation. There’s an opportunity for every OpenSky seller to watch and learn best practices from Daily Grommet’s success.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/business/08consume.html
This is the new American dream: editing down to the right stuff, not having more stuff. OpenSky’s role is a proponent a new, quality-oriented economy rather than a traditional marketing machine: the purveyor of rampant consumerism.

A joint note from the 2 articles: the founder of Daily Grommet claims consumers have “a burning hunger for real leadership and access to authentic experiences and trustworthy people.” According to sources cited in the happiness article, experiences and relationships are the key to persistent happiness.

So the question for us at OpenSky and anyone else trying to innovate in this space isn’t “how can we sell more stuff?” It’s “how are we providing great experiences and connecting people?”

The $25,000 web page

Here’s how Yaro Starak, internet marketing royalty, sets the stage to collect $25,000 simply by talking to 5 people.

I occasionally enjoy Yaro’s blog and email newsletter for their clear demonstrations of direct marketing tactics. Most recently, Yaro pitched his forthcoming “Elite Entrepreneur Coaching Program” on this page. When it works, he’ll collect $25,000 by simply having conversations with 5 people, on his own terms.

Check it out – it’s a great demonstration of a long sales letter. After reading through it a couple of times myself, I noticed a framework emerge. This is essentially the same pitch that convinces people to part with their hard-earned cash in all kinds of scenarios:

  • It begins by assuming that the reader is interested in a purchase (too many sales efforts waste time trying to lure disinterested buyers).
  • The bulk of the content makes an emotional right-brained appeal while overloading the left brain with numbers and case studies.

The net effect is similar to the psych study that asked people to memorize a sequence of random numbers and then offered them a healthy snack or a slice of rich chocolate cakes. Participants whose brains were overloaded by longer number sequences (a left-brained activity) unconsciously tended to shift the decision to the relatively unburdened right brain and more often chose the delicious-but-unhealthy cake.

Step 1: set the stage for an emotional decision

  1. Background = aspirational intro (“I’m rich and so can you!”).
  2. Aspirational value proposition. Too many sales efforts waste time describing the product or service instead of the value it creates for the buyer. “Sell the dream, not the dirt,” declares Donald Trump as he explains his successful real estate ventures.
  3. Aspirational “qualifier” questions. Begins to set a tone of exclusivity, a seller’s market.
  4. Details: product description and list of problems solved. (Overwhelming the left brain with lists leads to right-brain, emotional decision-making.) Lists are key here.

Step 2: appeal to the emotional brain with a scarce luxury good

  1. Velvet rope of work (“You have to really want it.”) Raises perceived value, sets luxury status.
  2. “Trust me” background info.
  3. Velvet rope of price (“Yes, it’s expensive.”) Reinforces luxury status.
  4. No refunds. What?! Yes. It’s so good he doesn’t have to offer refunds. Reinforces luxury status, creates seller’s market mindset.
  5. Charity. Reinforces aspirational tone. I’m not convinced of the value on this one, but it’s a popular sales angle.
  6. “You’ll ‘know’ if this is right for you.” Or, “don’t figure it out, go with your gut!” Driving the shopper to make an emotional decision.

Step 3: Decision time

  1. Application” reinforces notion of luxury good and seller’s market – you’ll be lucky to get this!
  2. Finally, pricing. At this point it’s an emotional decision. Don’t lead with the price, it allows the user to make a decision without enough cognitive load.

35 tips for writing for the web

During a meeting today someone said “writing for the web is easy, just use proper English!” Sadly, we all shook our heads and replied that no, writing for the web often means breaking the rules that you’ve learned through so many grammar lessons and style guides.

Below are some rules for better web and interface writing, courtesy of Jakob Nielsen and my own interactive product design experience. These are my strong opinions, weakly held – please post comments, corrections, and disagreements at the end of this article.

Here’s Jakob’s why we break the rules for better results. In summary, people scan web pages and apps instead of reading them word by word.

Create scannable text by using:

  1. the inverted pyramid style, starting with the conclusion, then supporting information, then background / framework.
  2. half the word count (or less) than conventional writing. Users read 20% of the words (28% at most). Total % read drops as word count increases.
  3. highlighted keywords (links and bold).
  4. meaningful sub-headings (not “clever” ones).
  5. bulleted lists.
  6. 1 idea per paragraph, in the first few words.

Here are some more “writing for the web” tips from Jakob:

  1. Users scan instead of reading (though new ereaders, e.g. the iPad seem to buck this trend).
  2. Best online content is linear, reader-driven, actionable content composed of specific, comprehensive data. Fragments trump sentences.
  3. Write numbers as integers (1) instead of text (one). It’s better to use “23” than “twenty-three” to catch users’ eyes when they scan Web pages for facts, according to eyetracking data.
  4. Your headline text gets 40-60 characters of attention. It must stand on its own and make sense when the rest of the content is not available.

More rules for writing for the web

These are my own basic style rules, based on ad hoc experience (and therefore shakier than Jakob’s).

Design interfaces for hormonal, ADD-addled adolescents. “What would the NY Post do?” Think tabloids, not novels.

  1. 1 action per page.
  2. 1 idea per paragraph. This typically means 1 sentence per paragraph, sometimes 2. A 4-sentence paragraph is almost always too long.
  3. Numbers, not words.
  4. Lists, whether numbered or bulleted, are your friend.
  5. People look at photos first, especially photos of people.
  6. It’s better to display nothing than default images or filler text.
  7. Semicolons are almost never okay.
  8. Short lines of text are easier to read. Lines of text generally shouldn’t be longer than 34 ems long. (An “em” is generally equal to the height of the typeface – it’s a measurement based on the width of the letter M at the text’s current size.)

You’re always better minimizing visual emphasis. Focus on using fewer words, so they aren’t all competing for the reader’s attention.

  1. You can center 1 piece of information per page. Centering breaks a design grid and thereby becomes the most important thing on the page.
  2. Stick with bold for emphasis.
  3. Don’t present text in all caps unless you know the reader will stop – it destroys the letterforms. Sentence case is best. Possible exception – small words in buttons.
  4. Italics are almost never a good idea. Italic sans-serif is a typographic foul and italics generally distort letterforms too much for pixelated screens. Stick with bold. If you need a backup, try changing your emphasis style to display a highlight color on the text rather than italicizing it.
  5. Use bold sparingly. Words, not sentences.
  6. Don’t use bold, italics, and/or caps together on the same word.

Links are often the victim of “form before function” design thinking. Keep links visible!

  1. Use a very different color from the text.
  2. Include verbs in links.
  3. Include the destination page title in the link.
  4. If you hide everything else on the page, the reader should still know what the link will point to by reading the link text.

Grammar for teh internets:

  1. Log in is a verb. Login is a noun. Same with sign in, back up, etc. You almost always use the verb form.
  2. A lot is always 2 words except when it’s a verb, which is probably not what you mean. Remember it this way: “a pound, a bunch, a lot.”
  3. “It’s” is the contraction, “its” is the possessive pronoun. Possessive pronouns never have apostrophes: his, hers, its.
  4. When creating possessive nouns, use “‘s” for singular nouns, even if they end with s, e.g. “my dog’s collar is silver” or “Chris’s tutorial is helpful.” The latter is optional in some books, but if you always do it this way (“‘s”) you’ll avoid some crazy coding whenever you have to build an interface that creates a possessive noun from dynamic values like usernames.
    Put an apostrophe after the s if the noun is plural and ends in s, e.g. “the 7 dogs’ collars were all silver” or “The Judds’ interview was full of shocking revelations.”
  5. 1 space after periods, not 2. Too much spacing creates visual “rivers” of whitespace within large blocks of text.
  6. “Everyday” means common, mundane, or pedestrian. “Every day” describes the frequency of an occurrence. I wish I could write an epic blog post every day, but I can barely squeak out an everyday post on a quarterly basis.
  7. “Anytime” means “at any time” but I don’t think it’s ever okay to write “at anytime.”