Given today’s earthquake, I’m going to commemorate it by rounding up my favorite tweets and posts.

  • The building I am in was just told to evacuate. I just evacuated my bowels. 
  • Did the Internet bubble just burst? 
  • Breaking: Remaining East Coast VCs make plans to move West. Last remaining reason to avoid San Francisco just eliminated.
  • There was just a 6.0 earthquake in Washington. Obama wanted it to be 3.4, but the Republicans wanted 6.0, so he compromised.
  • There will be a benefit concert for NYC earthquake survivors. Except you have to be on the list to get in.
  • RIP Jenga towers everywhere.

xkcd made a great comic about the speed of tweets:

And of course, the winner is this post, which I’ll copy here:


“Thanks to all of you for your kind words of support, as we look to recover from the devastation of today’s quake!”


I’m often at a loss for words when I see Americans pushing past all obstacles standing in the path to success. Vigilance, determination, and the one-track mindset is deeply ingrained in the American spirit.

We’re trained to jump through hoops and over hurdles. Never stop, and always look ahead.

But sometimes the ‘obstacle’ is actually a fellow citizen, and looking ahead means looking past. So today I have some words.

Consider five situations I’ve observed over the last week:

– A man driving his pickup, filled with tools, with the back tailgate open and pieces falling out. He’s driving down a four-lane freeway filled with cars, in slow traffic.

– Tourist couple with a camera. A man takes a picture of his wife. They switch off and she takes a picture of him. Lots of people walk by or take their own pictures.

– A woman trying to back out of a cramped parking space, blocked in by a car that parked across the street behind her. A line of cars waits for her to figure it out.

– People driving into a filled parking lot, not knowing it’s full. A line of people drive out of the parking lot, having realized it’s full already. They pass each other.

– A woman’s headphones fall out of her pocket as she boards a bus. Five people are in line behind her. They step over the headphones, board, and pay their fares.

Much has been written about the bystander effect, wherein people can watch motionless as a violent crime takes place before them. Being a bystander is an issue of diffusion of responsibility, as everyone believes someone else will take the lead and save the victim.

But being a bypasser is different.

Bystanders stay put, noticing that something is wrong, yet failing to act. Bypassers fail to acknowledge an opportunity to act at all. They remain absorbed in their lives instead.

Having your windows up or an iPhone to stare at provides an excellent escape from being present in the world, and isolates us from natural empathy. We don’t think “gosh, I would wish for some help if I were in that situation.” You’re anonymous, so why care?

All it took was a quick action for me to reverse all five situations. Rolled the window down to tell him about his tailgate. Offered to take a picture of them together. Jumped out of the car to help her back up. Told them to turn around before getting into the full parking lot. Picked up the headphones and handed them to her on the bus.

The reactions were deeply energizing. It completely made my day to see people happy, and made me want to help even more. But it was less heartening to see that they were so surprised.

Lately I’ve been frustrated because I love technology and believe in its power to bring people closer together. Yet all I see are examples of it making us more self-absorbed. Passively, absently — watching the world happen around us.

A few months ago, I read Justin Horner’s beautiful NYT piece on the immigrant family that helped him change his tire. Hundreds of cars sped past him on the highway. So it bears asking yourself as I did then: would you have been one of them?

So if you read this, please give by-pausing a try. Start small, and start today. Watch what’s going on around you, and actively think of how you could help.

I promise it won’t take you long. And these days, lifting a finger for someone else earns you smiles of bewilderment and a round of high-fives.

Happy Fakebook Birthday

Monday was my birthday, but you probably missed it. If you’re a friend of mine, you might have a sinking feeling for a moment. How could you possibly have forgotten to wish me a happy birthday? Did you forget to check your birthday reminders? Cue the open tab to Facebook. But wait a minute.

This year I removed my birthday from Facebook for a reason. It was a small social experiment, and some friends found it sneaky. Please forgive me — I was testing out two life hypotheses:

  1. I’d receive very few happy birthday notifications, if any at all.
  2. I wouldn’t care.

Unsurprisingly, both turned out to be true. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed being free from the inundation of Facebook messages.

You know the type: trying to be quick and on their merry Facebook way, people respond to their right-column reminders with a quick “Happy birthday!!” and they’re good to go. The craftier among them try to make their impersonal birthday posts slightly differ from the last two or three on the wall.

But they’re all essentially the same: mere variations on the same one-liner with plenty of exclamation marks. I’m certainly guilty of this when I’m viewing Facebook connections as a task to be checked off each day.

Last month, David Plotz conducted a different social experiment by changing his Facebook birthday several times. Lo and behold, he got tons of happy birthdays on all three fake days. It’s called an information cascade: some of David’s friends observed others wishing him a happy birthday, so they did too, without actually examining the underlying information (that they all just got it from the birthdays page). I could see the same cascade dynamic evolving in the particular people who realized it was my birthday from each other.

Unfortunately, many one-liners do not sum up to an actual happy birthday. Instead, what made me happy were the actual conversations I got to strike up with friends.  Whether it was a short text or chat, an e-mail, a phone call, or a visit in person, those real moments were memorable and turned it into a great day.

Therein lies the deeper difference: a wall post forces the poster to wish that the recipient has a happy birthday. But a real message or conversation is so much more powerful, enabling us to actually cause the recipient to have a happy birthday through our actions instead.

I doubt you’re ever impressed by people spending 5 seconds on your Facebook page because the site reminded them to. Which raises a greater point: why do we care about being wished a happy birthday at all?

A birthday is a pretty arbitrary thing to remember. And I have a terrible memory, so I won’t be offended if you don’t remember mine. Please return the favor.

For everyone who posts on my wall, I appreciate the gesture. But every one liner wall post is a missed opportunity to make a real connection. I’d much rather hear from you on any random day than to see your wall exclamation on my birthday.

So I’ll propose a toast. Here’s to all your birthdays, and your unbirthdays. May your happiness be made and not wished.

Design by data: A/B testing

I was just reading Uday Gajendar’s post on why designers don’t like A/B testing. Uday feels that, as a designer, his job is to uphold aesthetic integrity while keeping business metrics in mind. The prevalence of A/B testing, he says, has the effect of diluting a strong design into an “unsightly pastiche of uneven incrementalism.”

Though I have no experience as a designer, I can’t help but disagree with his way of looking at A/B testing. Uday and many of his peers believe that a design must remain thoroughly consistent with its creator’s vision and intent in order for it to accomplish its purpose. He asks that we place more trust in the implicit data from designers’ experience and pattern-recognition as they implement their visions.

But let’s get real. A lot of UI design, just like a lot of engineering design, involves a larger goal supported by many small, arbitrary decisions that could easily take one of several options. Yes, there are lots of choices where a designer’s experience should be trusted completely in rendering an artistic vision. But for every one ‘vision’ decision, I’m willing to bet there are 2-3 choices in which the designer has no strong preference but says ‘I like that better’ and runs with one option.

Painting these small decisions as central to a design seems a bit too auteurist for me. Color me prosaic, but the same design could very easily exist in millions of slight variations, changing one or more of the arbitrary choices. Digging in and refusing to change an original design — in light of evidence that another design accomplishes its purpose better — seems like escalation of commitment.

So it makes perfect sense that designers would want to avoid A/B testing. Changing a design or having to fight for one’s decisions is a lot of work, and I can easily see how it would start feeling like red tape. Why would designers ever want to engage in a process that actively seeks out ways to create more work and question their assumptions? Instead, much easier to stay in the trenches and fight it out.

It’s worth note that good management practice demands prioritization. Optimizing a design isn’t worth the time when more important things still need to be created, and the A/B testing process does take some time. But evidence suggests that qualms about A/B are based on two misconceptions about the right way to apply it. Great design by data is a result of deeply mapping out a solution space, and rapidly testing options with a well-formed experimental design.

Generate lots of possibilities

Web and software designers like Uday often cite examples of truly innovative design in hardware as evidence that a great design need not be A/B tested. Apple for instance did not A/B test the iPhone. But they forget that these products have been extensively prototyped. The absence of A/B testing isn’t for lack of desire to test, but the dynamics of hardware businesses. Apple can’t afford to A/B test a phone because their distribution involves manufacturing, sales training, and so on. So instead, they make tens if not hundreds of prototypes before arriving at features that will ship.

So to Apple, A/B testing happens on a regular release cycle. They only have one bullet in the chamber and reloading takes 6-12 months, so they choose wisely of many prototypes. But for web companies, we have the advantage of rapid deployment and the ability to live-test multiple potential options in a production environment. It’s like comparing digital photography to analog. Maybe analog photographers developed more finesse taking ten minutes to set up a perfect shot, but digital photographers achieve better outcomes faster taking lots of small variations on the same shot and picking the best one.

The key here is lots of variations. It turns out, all types of innovation benefit from simply coming up with more ideas. In Innovation Tournaments, my design professor Karl Ulrich wrote about the massive marginal returns to producing more raw opportunities. The curve below depicting best opportunity vs quantity of opportunities generated doesn’t level off until between 70-100 options have been created.

That’s a massive challenge to the “trust my vision” type of design thinking. Though it’s a lot of extra cognitive effort, designers need the discipline to push way harder than the average 1-5 ideas for a UI. If the cost to generating many small variations on ideas is low (which it is with web and automated tools), and we have a good process for evaluating their quality, then we should push to have a lot more ideas than we would generate if relying on intuition alone.

Structuring an experimental design

In his post, Uday asks: “A/B testing locks you into just two comparative options, an exclusively binary (and thus limited) way of thinking. What about C or D or Z or some other alternatives?

After generating lots of options, we need an effective way to test them. Fortunately, as others replied in the comments, multivariate testing is possible, using different permutations and combinations of feature choices. The key is to test out several orthogonal groups of options together, and use multivariate analysis to see which groups of options worked best. Then test them together, and test again.

Finally, and most importantly, a designer’s tacit knowledge should always be the final arbiter of these decisions. After exploring the solution space by generating many, many possible options, and then seeing user behavior under options tested, a designer can be armed with the right data to make an informed selection.

A design as a whole can’t be right or wrong, but small arbitrary decisions between different options can be. Designers can improve their practice by learning to use the A/B/n test to rapidly improve their designs. It shouldn’t be applied by business or engineering as a litmus test against designers, but rather demanded and owned by the designers themselves. Beautiful, useful designs — an inherently emotional thing — can be arrived at through the right combination of design and data.

Innovation in India

The Financial Times came out with a great piece on the limitations of India’s entrepreneurial development (via @eugenialeee).  A director quoted mentions that in India, the risk-taking required for right-brain thinking is simply not part of the culture. He says that parents are the ultimate source of this limitation, since they question their children and do not want to allow kids the potential to have to struggle.

I don’t think this is specific to India by any means, though I’m sure those types of parental objections are seen frequently in Indian families. In fact, I’m pretty sure almost every parent has had a similar conversation with their kids around picking a college major or job.  You certainly don’t want to see your kids end up unemployed if everything fails. They need a safe fallback, and often the fallback is so good that the risky opportunity never gets tried at all.

So what leads someone to break out of that protective parental risk aversion bubble?

Part of it, I think, is clearly due to some form of ‘comfort’ — it’s very hard to think about entrepreneurship when you have pressing commitments like kids, overdue bills and loans, and so on.


But the other part is self-confidence. When I meet brilliant people who are afraid of failure, it’s because they always think through the worst situtation possible. They engage in affective forecasting, and overestimate how much the negative state they’d feel after a failed venture would bring them down. They think of reputation effects, of wasted time, of not being able to get married and live the suburban dream life.

This ultimately comes down to things you learn as a young child. When you tried to do something new and experimented, and failed or messed something up, what did your parents say to you? Did they scold you and tell you not to take the phone apart again? Or did they help you figure out how to put it back together correctly next time?

That kind of childhood encouragement is what ultimately fosters an entrepreneurial culture.

Fear of missing life

A lot’s been written about how, as the Facebook Generation, our notion of real human interaction is slowly being withered away. We’ve diluted the term ‘friend’ into an abyss of meaninglessness. Dating has given way to the indeterminate state of ‘hooking up’. And personal identity is no longer defined by the self.

But this is not about the Facebook effect we all know and love. Instead, I’d like to explore something more subtle: the way our public lives online and our ease of communication has led to endemic non-commitment.

Something about all these online services and slick communication interfaces appeals to our deepest insecurities. We want to be included, relevant, important, and in-the-know. So if things are happening when we’re not present, we get an uneasy feeling.

That feeling is what draws you to your Facebook wall, Twitter feed, e-mail inbox, text messages, news aggregator, and Groupon notifications. We call this effect “fear of missing out,” or FOMO for short.

In the realm of our daily activities, FOMO results in distraction and procrastination. App designers use this thirst as an intentional strategy, and it makes us all a little addicted. The Times wrote a great piece on the FOMO effect in April. By appealing to our insecure desires to be important, apps and services win our valuable attention — generally while we’re alone and bored.

But when you take FOMO into the domain of real life, away from a screen and in front of other people, we see an even more insidious effect. We’re all pathetically noncommittal about the people right in front of us.

We’ve all been there. You’re at a party and suddenly your friends are texting, checking Facebook, and waiting for updates.  Sherry Turkle calls this being alone together.

Everyone’s utterly paralyzed by the thought of taking a position, and deciding to be with a certain group of people or at a certain place. Which makes sense, because at any second, our phones could make us aware of something MUCH better that we need to leave for. And we want to be the first ones to know about it.

I once asked Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, about the effect of Facebook and texting on our choices. He told me that by putting our lives on display, and constantly comparing our own happenings with others, it makes even small choices (where to eat tonight, who to spend time with, what party to go to) seem dramatically consequential. Which leads us to waste our time not making any choice at all.

Barry couldn’t be more right, and it’s getting worse. Last week, Nokia released a ‘heat map‘ that enables us to see exactly where everyone else is hanging out right now, so you can always make sure you’re going to the hottest scene. Real-time, location-based technology means we’re getting better and better at finding what’s up at any moment.

Unfortunately, if we all wait to see what everyone else is doing, no one does anything. It’s a prisoner’s dilemma, and the strictly-dominant strategy is to delay making a decision until others commit first. Then you’ll never miss out on the coolest thing, right?

Remember the last time someone sent out a Facebook invite? And everyone waited to see who would say Yes first, only to realize that Yes and No were meaningless and most people flake or don’t show up. You’re witnessing FOMO in action. That party was everyone’s backup, until the crowd decided on what was better.

We’ve been slowly coaxed into a backward, quantitative mentality about socializing. If friends, followers, and attendees are all quantified, put on display, and photographed, then the only value we get out of being present with each other is critical mass. The makings of an epic time, to be sure. But in reality, we have the power to choose where we have fun, and to be alive in those moments. We just have to use it without fear.

Personally, my solution has been selectively disconnecting. Fighting FOMO at the source, by making myself less aware of the ever-present updates. My phone’s been on silent for over a year now. It’s useful for many things, but I have to remind myself that it’s only a tool, and ultimately I have to take responsibility for committing to the people and experiences that will make up my memories. Photos, statuses, and comments are salient and visible, but no substitute.

Let’s convert fear of missing out into fear of missing life.

Failure of compromise: the debt ceiling

While reading Howard Marks’ excellent memo on the debt ceiling crisis, titled “Down to the Wire,” I was struck by how deeply the political issue here relates to a core human behavioral problem called irrational escalation of commitment.

Escalation is most commonly seen in the context of financial investments.  For example, gambler’s fallacy leads players to double-down on their original bets to make lost money back. And businesses continue spending money on dying product lines because they’ve already invested so much in manufacturing. It’s usually summarized by the phrase “throwing good money after bad.”

But here we see escalation in a different context: public credibility. Politicians know the consequences of their legislative actions, such as fighting spending cuts and continuing unhealthy tax rebates, but have already publicly taken position in favor of those actions.  So they continue fighting tooth and nail, entrenched in their prior positions, to avoid sacrificing political capital.

It’s perfectly summarized by page 7 of the memo:

There’s another important difference of opinion; which is more important, adherence to avowed principles or action to address the short-term problem? Many politicians have made public pronouncements that render the two mutually exclusive.

As always, acknowledging that you’ve made a mistake and your prior public pronouncement was misguided is a tough pill to swallow.  It requires character, intellectual honesty, and the willingness to submit yourself to questioning. Sadly, politicians lack many of these skills.


Or perhaps I’m being too harsh on politicians. After all, politicians are only marketers at their core, and respond to the demands of their consumers. So maybe voters are really at fault here. In Isaiah Berlin’s conception, people prefer “hedgehog” thinking over “fox” thinking.  The voting public likes its politicans to be firm, resolute, and predictable. Learning and owning up to mistakes are too scary to handle.

I should hope this will change in the near future.  As Marks says, “Repairing the situation will require difficult decisions and great sacrifices, especially on the part of lawmakers required to vote for unpopular solutions.”  And I’d prefer not being forced to switch countries.

Like riding a bike

Today I learned to ride a bike for the first time.  No, this isn’t the beginning of a retrospective on my life as a five year-old. Rapidly approaching my 22nd birthday, I had yet to sit on a bicycle and attempt to ride since my first elementary school. Until today.

Several questions naturally arise. What stopped me from trying to ride a bike for the last fifteen years? And what made me suddenly decide to pick it up now?

But first, a more basic question: how did it go?

Pretty awfully, to start. I couldn’t get my feet on the pedals, kept tipping over, nearly hit two stationary cars, and needed my teammate to hold me upright so I could get started. I was embarrassed, completely gave up at least three times, and thought myself hopeless.

Probably my lowest point was when a little girl sped past me on her pink Barbie bike with tassels flying alongside her hands.

But I kept going.

In the span of about forty minutes, I went from not being able to balance upright and cursing myself out to pedaling up and downhill, stopping with brakes, and maintaining stability over several runs around the block.

True to form, I can’t help but wonder what lessons I can take from this experience. All too often, I find myself procrastinating on long-term goals and picking up new skills through some kind of rationalized avoidance. Fear of embarrassment contributes. But it often goes deeper than social fears — that I didn’t have a strong enough plan for how to succeed.

Cal Newport has an excellent post about the evolutionary significance of complex planning. And my reluctance to pick up a bike stems from this natural reaction: I failed the last time I tried, and didn’t have a convincing plan for how to succeed this time. So I avoided it altogether.

But what’s uplifting is that all my fears were overcome by a little pressure from my friends and a desire to just get up and try it.  And, as it turns out, biking isn’t so hard to learn. So as I move forward, I’ll constantly re-evaluate other situations where I’ve failed, and invest in just trying again in spite of all the time that’s passed.

Rely on others, fail publicly, plan, fail again, and keep planning until your mind believes you can succeed. And then you might just surprise yourself.

GPS gripes

Today I had a minor annoyance with the UI of GPS systems — both the OEM versions in car dashboards as well as handheld and smartphone GPS.  Why is it that in almost every GPS system, you can’t get an instant reroute around a road that’s blocked off?

It seems that in the quest to build the simplest UI possible for getting the directions, the UI forchanging them suffered. I shouldn’t have to pull over and change the mode from shortest time to avoidall highways just to get around one blocked off section of one highway.

If anyone knows of a GPS device / app that gets this right, I’d love to know about it — I haven’t tried them all.

Nevertheless, this is a great lesson in UI development.  While certain features are more crucial in the sense of being used frequently, others are more crucial when you think about failure modes.  Case in point: driving on a highway and having your route blocked demands a simple action to get around it.  This is important to remind myself when I start designing a product for real people to use.

iMorning: wasting 2% of your life by sleeping next to your phone

This morning, I woke up and did what I’ve done almost every day since I got a smartphone: checked my e-mail, text messages, and various social feeds.  One thing led to another and I read 3 news articles, and watched a YouTube video.  All without even getting out of bed.

Pew Center research found that 65% of American adults sleep with a cell phone next to their beds.  Among people 18-30, that figure reaches 90%.  And with the smartphone trend at 40% of mobile subscribers and climbing, all those phone-sleepers have a ton of content to distract them while in bed.

Naturally, that’s led to lots of people losing sleep to their smartphones, and even to prioritize it over their domestic partners.

What’s alarming is that time spent in bed using my iPhone is not a direct substitute for time on my computer.  I do a lot of the same tasks, but less efficiently using a small keyboard.  And often I find myself reopening the same e-mails I checked on my phone when I get to the computer.

I think this is a dangerous behavior, but a difficult one to shake.  The phone experience is compelling, feature-rich, and easy to sit in bed with to procrastinate on sleeping or starting the day.