Down in front!

Doug gets it, most don’t.

Look around YouTube at car reviews, and you’ll see a lot of people standing in front of cars. Below I’ve snapped captures of early frames in six car reviews. These represent the first time the car is shown whole, in profile.

Who’s on review here? The car reviewer or the car? Get out of the way people!

Take it from Doug DeMuro. His reviews always start with him standing behind the car. The car is in full view, in all its glory, at center stage. Doug comes second — he understands what the viewer is there for.

Doug in the background. Car in the foreground. Doug gets it.

But Wait, There’s More!

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Google won’t be able to resist listening in on your conversations

Mr Algorithm is always listening

The advertising trial balloon from Google Home really shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. Okay, perhaps, the linguistic contortions performed by Google’s PR rep to The Verge should have raised an eyebrow. I mean just listen to the bullshit drip from this one:

This isn’t an ad; the beauty in the Assistant is that it invites our partners to be our guest and share their tales.

But the fact is that Google is an advertisement company. That’s how they make their billions. By selling you to companies who’d like you to buy their stuff. And that process is made much more efficient if Google can sell not only your profile, but your context to these advertisers. Google Home is irresistibly good context.

So this trial balloon of sticking ads in your daily briefing really is just that. Google’s follow-up statement went with as much: “We’re continuing to experiment with new ways to surface unique content for users”. Oh how lovely, how helpful!

Look. Online advertising and privacy has always been at war. Listening in on your conversations because you placed an always-on microphone in your home is just the next obvious hill to capture. Google has already normalized reading your emails for context-aware advertisement. Listening to your dinner conversations is just a natural jump.

In a year’s time, we’ll probably be hearing just how much Google is able to DELIGHT their users by serving up purchase recommendations ten minutes after that dinner. Did someone talk about desert? Ben & Jerry’s can deliver by drone now! It’ll be on your doorstep in 30 minutes if you buy now.

Welcome to the present.

The Art of Designing With Heart

How to make useful, friendly software for real people.

One of the things I love about making software is that it’s a deeply mental exercise, chock full of heady processes, abstractions, and interconnected pathways.

You can fill your brain with the practical nuts and bolts side of it—research, strategy, prototyping, programming, UI, operations, and more. Lots more.

And if that’s not enough? Indulge yourself in metrics and performance. Every last detail can be tested, quantified and optimized to the fullest. Get high on KPIs and keep your eyes on your ROI!

The problem is…with so much to think about, and so many logistics to obsess over, it’s easy to forget the reason you’re doing any of this in the first place:


Designers usually call this notion User Experience or Empathy. I think those names stink. They’re buzzwordy and vague enough to mean different things in different contexts.

I think we should call it what it really is: Designing With Heart.

This isn’t something that’s the responsibility of one specific team in your company, or one step in a process that you can check off. It’s a core value that informs every decision you make.

Here’s what that means in practice.

At the other end of all your strategy and metrics and tech, there are real people. Living, breathing people — who are busy dealing with their weird life, arguing with their kids, trying to figure out what’s for dinner.

When you build software, you’re painstakingly inventing a machine that stands in your place, feigns sentience, and interacts with these people on your behalf so they can accomplish something meaningful.

Your software is not just a bunch of code and UI you smushed together. It’s also a compilation of your best ideas, your best intentions, your desire to help others, your compassion, your feelings, your soul.

Your software is YOU.

(That is, if you believe in the art of it. And you should, if you give a damn about doing it right.)

When you see things in this light, you’ll notice that a lot of software is dull and lifeless.

Consider your bank’s website, or your insurance company’s billing system. They’re probably cold and impersonal. That’s because the designers treated their job as a mechanical sequence: they took a set of requirements, invented imaginary personas, wrote user stories, and sprinted their way through the work until the requirements were met. All head, no heart.

Capital One’s “sign in” page.

Now, you might think it’s fine for a bank site to be plain and transactional. After all, banking is literally a set of transactions.

But compare that to the experience you’d have with a nice bank teller (if you can still remember what that was like.) The teller smiles at you, asks how your day is going, double-checks that your math is right, offers to help with something you might have forgotten, and gives you a lollipop! 🍭

That’s a transaction with a bit of heart.

OK, so let’s say we want our software to take the place of the bank teller. That means it should ideally provide the same humane, helpful service that they did. But how?

One option is to anthropomorphize the interface and stick some personality into it, which results in UI that’s funny, folksy, clever, sarcastic, or cartoonish.

Poncho the sassy weathercat sends you messages that say “Zzz Zzzzzzz” and “Purrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

I think this only works in small doses, because humans have a low tolerance for bullshit. Unless you’re really good at it, jokey and cutesy stuff gets irritating quickly. That’s even worse than just being mechanical, because it’s a waste of time. It’s usually better to cut to the chase.

So if mechanical is bad, and excess personality is also bad…Then what’s good?

The sweet spot is right in the middle. Good software is friendly, casual, approachable — but also serious, gracious, and respectful. Just like a pleasant real-life experience you’d have at a local business.

Achieving this sounds difficult (it is) but there’s an easy trick that helps a lot.

When you’re designing something, imagine you’re sitting in a room, helping a real person with the task at hand. What would you say to them? How would you explain this screen or feature? What advice would you give? What would you tell them to do next?

Say the answers out loud, and then write down what you said. Now you’re 80% of the way there!

If you were helping someone in person, you wouldn’t be austere or formal. You wouldn’t use buzzwords or jargon or business-speak. You also wouldn’t drop HOT SARCASTIC JOKE BOMBS on them and distract them with goofy asides. You’d watch what they do, see where they get stuck, and walk them through it. You’d speak from the heart.

This common sense technique helps you see the forest for the trees. If you struggle to explain something out loud, it’s probably not clear enough. That insight leads you to ask questions like…

  • Can we make this interface simpler or more direct?
  • Can we reduce or eliminate the choices someone has to make?
  • Are we using natural, casual language to explain things fully?
  • Is this design respectful of a person’s time and attention?
  • Is this something I would personally enjoy using?
  • Did we take any shortcuts that benefit US instead of THEM?
  • Did we make any incorrect assumptions?

Now your design will inevitably end up clearer and friendlier. That makes your customers happier and more efficient, so they can stop fiddling with software and get back to dinner with their argumentative kids.

That should be the underlying motivation for your work. Not tech, not styling, not stats, and not money. Helping people comes first. The rest follows.

Designing With Heart doesn’t just apply to making a product, either. It can also guide your marketing, advertising, and sales work.

For example, let’s say you want to increase the number of paying customers for your product. (Who doesn’t?) That’s a business-first problem, not a people-first problem.

If you only think business-first, you might blast out canned promotional emails, or show “BUY NOW” callouts all over the place, or interrupt key workflows with interstitial popup ads.

The Wall Street Journal asks you to buy before you’ve even arrived.

These techniques may well be useful for increasing raw business performance, but they can be annoying and smarmy to customers. That’s the opposite of what we want. So how do we reconcile the difference?

Easy: think about people again!

There’s nothing inherently bad about clearly communicating the value of your product, making it easier to buy it, spreading your message to new audiences, or even asking for referrals or reviews — as long as you do so in a way that’s considerate, honest, and at the right moment.

Don’t interrupt people when they’re in the middle of something, nag them incessantly, or hard-sell them into doing what you want. If you ask for a favor, make it worth their time by thoughtfully explaining why you need their help, and perhaps offering an incentive in trade.

Follow this approach and your promotional efforts won’t just benefit you, they’ll benefit people too.

There’s one more thing you can do to Design With Heart: don’t be afraid to reveal yourself.

People develop emotional connections to other people—not machines.

When your customers can see who’s behind the curtain, and when you speak to them with honesty and authenticity, they’ll be more likely to identify with your message and approach.

Nate Kontny’s Highrise updates always have a personal touch.

If you built something because you fundamentally care about helping people, and you intend to have their back…say it! Put your name on it, tell your story, show your face, and stand behind your work. Share your real personality rather than trying to graft a fake one onto an inanimate program.

Your customers will respond in kind — and that’s the most rewarding thing of all. 💞

Curious for more examples? Check out these ideas put into practice inside Basecamp 3. And if you ❤️ this post about ❤️, please hit the ❤️ button below or give me a shout on Twitter.

Don’t be the gorilla

Photo from Stu pendousmat

Many of us starting or running businesses often have a problem — no one cares

It’s the same problem high school seniors have competing to get into a good college. It’s hard. The ivy league? Yale’s acceptance rate is 6.3%. Stanford? Fogettaboutit. 4.7%

About a month ago news broke that a high school senior, Brittany Stinson, wrote an incredibly original essay that helped get her accepted not just into the university of her choice, but into 5 ivy league schools including Stanford. And oddly enough, it was about Costco.

But, something I feel that has gone overlooked is that this essay didn’t just help her with college applications; it’s brought her national fame.

She’s been covered by dozens of major publications. Business Insider wrote the first piece on it. Then NBC News, MTV, Cosmopolitan, Inc Magazine, Quartz, and I’ve given up counting at this point, have all chimed in or interviewed Brittany. Now how do we tap into that?

And here’s the thing, her essay is original. It’s unique. But I think there’s another component that if missed in our original work, we’d also miss the effect Brittany created.

Are original advertisements effective?

Most of us have seen an ad where on the next day we can’t even remember what it was for. That seems like a failure. Effective ads get attention but they also stick the ad’s brand into the memory of consumers.

Rik Pieters is a professor at the Tilburg School of Economics and Management where he specializes in marketing and consumer behavior. He realized that a great deal of money is spent making original advertising, but there’s not much research to see if it actually works. So he set out to measure it.

His hypothesis, was that, intuitively, original ads would perform better. So he took 119 participants and used infrared corneal reflection eye tracking to measure what folks look at when they scan through magazines. After the eye tracking study, he also gave them a test on what they remembered. A separate group of judges rated ads in those magazines on how “original” they were.

His hypothesis was confirmed. Folks do pay more attention and have more brand memory of original ads.

But Pieters also wanted to study the effect of “familiarity” of an ad. For example, an ad for a minivan might feel familiar no matter how original it is because we’ve all seen minivans and ads for them. Or an incredibly original ad like Dos Equis’ “most interesting man in the world” becomes familiar because we’ve seen it a hundred times.

The problem for advertisers is that we tend to pay less attention to things that even seem “familiar”. Pieters wanted to know: does originality get people to pay more attention and remember familiar ads? So he also had judges rate ads in magazines as familiar or not familiar.

Again, Pieters hypothesis was confirmed. Original ads did help people pay more attention and remember familiar ads.

But, you might figure original + unfamiliar ads get the most attention and are remembered the most.

Here’s the surprise. Original and familiar ads did better than all other types of ads (original + unfamiliar, unoriginal + familiar, unoriginal + unfamiliar).

It wasn’t just that original and familiar ads were more effective; they were the MOST effective.

Going back to Brittany’s essay, you’ll see already in the first couple lines it’s original. Brittany was asked to share a story about her background, identity, interest or talent. She starts with:

Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two­ year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning.

That’s original. It doesn’t read like a college essay. It reads like humorous fiction. But it’s not just original, it’s familiar.

She made a bet that folks reading this would know what Costco was. Costco has 81 million customers who are extremely loyal. And they tend to be college educated and make over $100k. Odds are the folks reading her essay know exactly what she’s talking about when she writes:

I contemplated the philosophical: If there exists a thirty­three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will?

Same familiar thought has probably crossed your mind. What’s up with giant tubs of Nutella? 🙂

Imagine how much success her essay would have had if it was written in this same original style, but about her experience with something unfamiliar to you, like an african thumb piano.

It’s Brittany’s ability to be original and familiar that gets our attention, and helps folks remember her when they have thousands of essays to go through.

So why did she also elevate to the point of national stardom? Well that’s another interesting benefit of surprise.

Research also shows that surprising events greatly improve the Word of Mouth of those events. By creating an original and familiar story, she not only elicits the most surprise from her readers, but readers want to pass it on. And they did. In droves.

As I look at what I’ve been the most successful at spreading, I can confirm Brittany’s technique is a useful one. I took a writing class at Gotham Writer’s Workshop. One of the instructor’s key tenets was to be original, but hook into a familiar topic. Use the news. What is everyone talking about?

So now my news reader is filled with pop-culture magazines like People and Vanity Fair. The essay I wrote for that class, Why are some people so much luckier than others, went viral. It has some original elements, but its success is also from the familiar story at the time of James Garner’s passing.

Since then, I’ve written a number of original pieces that have spread successfully, again I think due to a big effort to make them familiar. They’re about Ramen noodles, stolen cars, and even Ben Affleck — I bet no one else has compared Ben Affleck to an open source module, but you know who Ben Affleck is.

Here’s one last thing you might already be familiar with: The famous invisible gorilla experiment. Researchers had participants count how many passes a “white shirted” team made with a basketball, and participants completely missed the gorilla who took 9 seconds to cross the court.

Analysis of the experiment spends a lot of time talking about how it represents our selective blindness to the world. We only see what’s important to us. But I think there’s another incredibly interesting perspective to the experiment.

We’re often the ones in the gorilla suit. We try and get folks attention but they don’t see us; they’re engrossed in something else — the familiar. What would have happened instead if the basketballs changed colors or one of the players in white shirts disappeared from the game? I bet you would have noticed them. Those would have been surprising events, but would have also fit inside the familiarity of the task you were working on.

Don’t be the gorilla.

P.S. If you enjoyed this article, you should follow my YouTube channel, where I share more about how history, psychology, and science can help us make better decisions. And if you find yourself needing to better organize your small business, check out how Highrise can help!

Disruption is better when it’s other people’s jobs

Many writers and publishers are freaking out after Apple opened Safari to ad blockers in iOS9. Ad blockers have been around for a long time, but the fear is that this is the move that will take the concept mainstream.

That fear appears well justified. The App Store’s charts have been dominated by ad blockers since the release of iOS9 last week. Currently, the #1 paid app is Crystal, an ad blocker, and so is #3, Purify. Clearly some pent up demand.

Another data point is the following poll from The Verge. It was setup with an almost satirically over-the-top slant, and yet readers pummeled them:

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it — Upton Sinclair

The prevailing response from the media business to this challenge is hysteria: The World Of Journalism As We Known It Is About To End.

It’s easy to make fun of such a frantic response. Just like it’s easy to make fun of French farmers driving their tractors into Paris to rebel against new environmental standards and falling prices. Or — it’s always the French, isn’t it? — French cabbies blocking Uber drivers at the airport.

But I think more than a little empathy is in order. The natural response to having your livelihood threatened is universally to FREAK OUT. It doesn’t matter if you’re a French farmer or cabbie or if you’re an internet writer or publisher.

Parallels in movies and music

In 1982, the movie industry infamously went before congress to involve them in a fight against the perceived threat of the VCR:

I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone… The investment of hundreds of millions of dollars each year to produce quality programs to theaters and television will surely decline.

Consumers are going to stop going to movie theaters, or they’ll skip over commercials on broadcasts, and the entire industry is doomed! Ring familiar?

Fast forward to 2014: The movie industry just set another revenue record. Despite VHS, despite torrents, despite Chinese bootlegs.

But the movie and TV industry has indeed made great changes since 1982. Customers wanted to enjoy movies and TV shows without commercials. From their home. On demand. And when the industry woke up to the futility of first blaming, then suing their customer base, they found a big market just waiting to pay for their creative output (oh, and the public never did stop going to the cinema either).

Another parallel is the music industry. MP3s and Napster caused similar consternation in the early 2000s (and the cassette player before that). Nobody was going to put out music anymore in this new world of flippant piracy!

Yet here, unlike the movie business, there actually was shrinkage of the overall market. From 2002 to 2014, the US music industry went from $25 billion to $15 billion.

So one story of better than ever results, another story of shrinking results. Such is the nature of business! If you believe that you’re somehow morally entitled to an ever-increasing industry pie, reality is going to be a merciless teacher.


The lesson to take away from disruption, beside that it’s better when it happens to other people, is not “everything is going to turn out as well as today or better”. Rather, it’s that fighting what consumers want is a losing battle. Blaming them or shaming them doesn’t work. Those are merely stalling tactics — a way to cope with the pressure and anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow is going to look like, or whether you’re still going to have the same job you do now.

The sooner you stop fighting the present, the sooner you can get to work on figuring out the future.

People are spending more time reading online than ever. If the written media business can only see a dichotomy between “we must have privacy-invasive trackers along with bandwidth-hogging and overlaying full-size ads” and “death”, they’re just not looking hard enough. But that’s okay: YOU’RE FREAKING OUT. It’ll pass, or at least recede, and you will come to your senses.


The pendulum had swung too far. Publishers had abdicated far too much responsibility for the user experience and privacy concerns of their readers for too long. The ad pushers grabbed that opening and cranked the nasty to 11. There was bound to be a reaction. This is it.

It’s a soothing story to blame Apple, pin them with a motive of treating journalists and publishers like collateral damage in a war against Google. But there’s an easier answer: It’s simply better for Apple’s customers!

(Remember reader mode in Safari? Hiding all the ads, reformatting the text? Same motivation, no complaints from the industry because it still loaded the ads, so even if readers never saw them, they still counted.)

Anyway, the proof is in the App Store chart pudding! Customers are flocking to pay for a solution that restores some sanity to their mobile browsing experience.

You can cry about it, you can stomp your feet, you can call Apple and readers mean names, but the ice cream isn’t going back on top of your cone. Take a few weeks to grieve, then get on with the mission of figuring out how the written word carries on without shoving intrusive ads down readers’ throats.

You can do it.

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