The Difference Between Just Showing Up and Moving the Needle

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According to Woody Allen, “80 percent of success is just showing up.” If that’s true, I would say the other 20 percent is sheer perseverance to make progress, or move the needle. Showing up is just the baseline, but it’s not enough.

Back when I practiced martial arts very seriously and it was a huge part of my life, I would train everyday or nearly every day. Sometimes I’d hit a plateau for months where I wasn’t making any progress. I thought that just by showing up every day consistently, that was making a difference, but it wasn’t. I wasn’t pushing myself so I wasn’t making any gains. I was in my comfort zone doing what I could do and not training trying to do what I couldn’t do.

If you want to move a stone to build the pyramid, it’s not enough to just show up and push. If there was not enough force to move the rock even an inch, simply showing up everyday to push it will not get you a pyramid. However if you put in enough force and effort to move it even an inch, eventually you will have something.

I think it’s like that with any craft. If you don’t the same thing you’ve always done, you’ll likely get the same results. If you do marketing and are not seeing new customers, doing the same thing over and over isn’t likely going to change it.

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Why Products Suck

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TL;DR: Compromise

In our life, we come across a lot of products that suck. As a designer of digital products, I see a lot of products so that I can make better products. I play with a lot of mobile apps and web sites so that I can see what works and what doesn’t. The products I make, some are okay but many suck.

One of the major reasons that products suck is that the makers of the product compromise. We don’t set out to make suckey products, but we make little compromises, here and there. And they add up. Eventually the sum those compromises affect the overall impression of the product. There are many forces at play. Over on the business side you have people who want to launch by a certain deadline, so they compromise on time. There may not be enough money so we compromise on quality. A designer might come up with a feature that is a little too hard for an engineer to implement so that gets compromised. Heck even the designs might be compromised because one way is easier to do than the other.

When we lose focus on why we built the product in the first place – which is to make it easier for the user or customer to solve their problem and turn it around and make it easier for us to make, design, engineer, launch or whatever, we inevitably make a subpar product.

When I think of products that have few compromises, I think of the thin Motorola Razr, the Macbook Air, and the old Palm Pilot for those of you who still remember. I’m sure the engineers bitched and moaned when they saw what they had to work with. I’m sure some even said it was impossible. But if the decision makers had budged and placated the engineers, I’m sure we would have had a much thicker Razr with more moving parts.

When I look underneath other laptops, I see a bunch of panels and screws and all sorts of stickers. When I look at the bottom of the Macbook Air it’s one smooth piece with no extraneous panels. The whole laptop was engineered to be one unit as opposed to a Frankenstein of OEM parts clobbered together.

When the Palm Pilot was designed, Jeff Hawkins would walk around with a block of wood the size of the Palm Pilot. If someone had a feature that required hardware that would make it bulkier, they found a way around it. They weren’t going to compromise on the portability of the device because otherwise people wouldn’t carry it around in their pocket much less use it.

Customers may not notice a compromise here and there, but combined together, they create a slightly worse experience that they do notice. Be mindful of what you compromise.

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Why Software Development Projects Fail

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I’m sure you’ve all seen it. Well meaning software projects where everyone seems competent, but at the end, the project is a failure. After seeing over a decade and a half worth of software development, I see a few recurring patterns.

Client doesn’t know what they want. This is a pretty common problem with inexperienced clients or ones that haven’t dealt with a lot of software development shops or consulting firms. This is exacerbated by firms that don’t know how to manage clients and projects properly. The combination is disastrous because clients have a vague idea of what they want and consultants don’t know how to get it out of them.

Client doesn’t know how to articulate what they want. This is very similar to the first problem but not nearly as bad. They know what they want, but don’t have the vocabulary to describe it or the breadth of experience to point you to what they want. It’s up to the consulting firm to be able to guess and point to existing examples in the real world that might be close to the client’s vision.

Clients want the wrong thing. I’ve had potential clients come to me who know exactly what they want and that’s great. However, sometimes the thing they want, you know it’s just a bad idea. By that I mean, they want stuff you know to be bad weather it’s a flash site with tons of music or a social network that bombards you with ads because they think that’s what people want to do: click on ads. I try to convince them that it’s a bad idea but this rarely works because you are basically attacking their ego. That’s their idea and you are saying it’s dumb. I usually just turn these clients down.

Lack of communication. Software development is a collaborative process. Consultants rarely know everything about the business of the client and relies heavily on the client to bring their domain expertise. It’s not like going to a car dealership and just picking out the car you like and agreeing on the price. The software firm will need a lot of information from you. A lot of times, getting content, feedback from clients is like pulling teeth. This usually holds up the project and adds needless delays.

Client doesn’t know what customers want. This is a common problem among startup clients. The fledgling company may have a clear vision of what they want, however, that doesn’t mean that it will work. It’s merely a hypothesis. Even if everything is executed as the vision, there’s no guarantee that users will flock to it. Color comes to mind. Clients may think they know what users want, but that is not always the case.

Trying to finish a project by throwing more people at it. You can’t just throw more people at it. Nine women can’t give birth in 1 month. Software development is problem solving. It’s not a simple application of force like adding more people to move a boulder. Thus just throwing more people at it without understanding how to apply them doesn’t necessarily lead to project completion or success. I highly recommend this book “The Mythical Man Month” regarding this topic.

Software as a checklist. This occurs more at big organizations. Software is treated as little more than a feature list to be checked off. Little thought is given on usability, whether or not it actually solves any problem, or if people end up actually using it. When software doesn’t solve the problem or is so hard and unintuitive to use, even if it was delivered on budget and on time, it’s not a success.

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Great Quotes from Steve Jobs Book

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I recently read the beast that is Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs, creatively titled “Steve Jobs”. For those of you who have never followed or read about Steve, this book may be a shocker. He was not a nice man, but he did get things done and was very successful. CEOs view him as a visionary business leader. I found some really great quotes that I like to highlight and share.

On motivation:

(Y)ou should never start a company with the goal of getting rich. Your goal should be making something you believe in and making a company that will last.

On impressions:

People DO judge a book by its cover. We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software etc.; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.

A great Jonny Ive quote:

Steve and I care about things like that, which ruin the purity and detract from the essence of something like a utensil, and we think alike about how products should be made to look pure and seamless.

On Apple stores:

Jobs decided that Apple stores should have only one entrance, which would make it easier to control the experience.

On problems:

If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later,” he said. “That’s what other companies do.

On how ruthlessly focused he was:

“What are the ten things we should be doing next?” People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down, and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of ten. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, “We can only do three.”

On the simplicity of the iPod:

In order to make the iPod really easy to use—and this took a lot of arguing on my part—we needed to limit what the device itself would do. Instead we put that functionality in iTunes on the computer.

On creativity:

There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” he said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.

On Apple’s approach to building great products:

We believe that it’s technology married with the humanities that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.

On focus:

Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do,” he said. “That’s true for companies, and it’s true for products.

These quotes are courtesy of Isaacson, Walter (2011). Steve Jobs (Kindle Location 1601). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

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How to Become More Productive

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I feel like there’s just not enough time to do everything I want to do. I think many of you can relate. People want to be more productive in general. However much of the day is wasted in such unnoticeable ways. Also, some work rituals we cling to because of pure dogma not realizing it can be improved or streamlined.

For example, for years I clung to the ritual of paying my bills by writing physical checks. I liked going through the process because it felt like I was paying more attention to my finances by doing so. When I finally awakened to paying my bills online and even setting the recurring payments to autopay – it was amazing. You don’t have to pay attention to it anymore. It’s always good to every once in a while make sure you are not being billed for anything you didn’t want but in general, setting this and forgetting this task is an overal productivity plus.

As part of my work, I design a lot. I can spend hours on Photoshop. One thing I started to finally notice after years of using Photoshop was that I kept doing a certain task a lot. I would copy a Layer Style of one design element and apply it to another. This would take several clicks – Right clicking on the element I liked and click on the menu item. Then I had to right click the new element and apply that style. There weren’t any shortcut keys, or at least none that I saw. It dawned on me that it was so inefficient and time consuming and that there had to be a better way.

I finally started researching this and found that you can create your own shortcut keys and I did so. Now I can do the same set of routine tasks that would take at least 4 steps and reduced them to 2.

Of course not everyone uses Photoshop but if you generalize this lesson, you have to be aware of the things you do. You have to be critical of all the steps you take to accomplish a task. Ask yourself, can this be simplified, reduced or automated in any way. Can you systematize this. Even better, can you remove yourself from the steps. I’ve really started to think about this and it has helped streamline my day and focus on the things I have to focus on.

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