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Gift cards, serial numbers and hard technology

I bought someone a digital gift card the other day. That’s generally a bad idea, since there’s so much waste and breakage, but it was the right answer to the problem in the moment.

The code the person would have to type in to redeem the card was: X5LMFP478DRYTHQY

I’m sure that the team who worked on creating a secure platform for the transfer of billions of dollars of transactions was proud of the hard work they did.

Except no one wants to type this in, and it’s incredibly impersonal.

It could have been just as secure if there was a list of 1,000 words and the code was five of the words. All the words could be positive and easy to spell and remember. Typing in “happy love birthday celebrate friend walrus” is going to be more memorable, fun and engaging, and the computer is smart enough to ignore the spaces.

The day before, the tech support folks at a different big company wanted me to read off the serial number on the bottom of a device. I’m sure the tech folks were proud of the check digits and other elements that were embedded in the serial number, which was printed in grey type considerably smaller than this blog is written in. It included a 0 and an O as well as a 1 and perhaps an l.

And the serial number for my oven requires lying on the floor to read it.

In all of these cases, the organizations failed because they decided that humanity and technical issues don’t overlap. These minor issues I’m complaining about are nothing compared to the life-changing impacts that technology that avoids the hard problems can create.

In medical school, they spend days teaching people to operate on lungs, and no time at all helping young doctors learn how to get their patients to stop smoking and get vaccinated. The technologists forgot about the human issues.

This is most glaring when we go near the edges of a bell curve. Disabled people or folks who are out of the mean in any way are shunted aside by what the busy but blindered tech people think is important. A captcha that doesn’t work, machine learning that doesn’t learn well, systems that don’t serve the people who need them…

Technology that doesn’t solve a problem for the people using it isn’t finished yet.

Raining on your picnic (on your birthday)

A friend just got handed an unreasonable rejection. It came on a platter, delivered with very little in the way of kindness and no hints at all about what to do next.

It is not personal.

Not about her.

She did nothing wrong. It might not even be about her idea.

No one wants exactly what you want, sees what you see, believes what you believe. That’s normal.

Oh, that happened. Now what?

Go plan another picnic.

The programmatic ask

Favors are part of the glue of our culture. It’s not easy to ask for a favor, it’s not always easy to say yes, but when the two people engaged in this dance find a connection, it means something.

Alas, the modern hustle, amplified by databases and computers, has turned this equation upside down.

“It doesn’t hurt to ask,” the hustling spammer says, using second-order connections to “reach out” to hundreds of people. “No pressure,” they add, as if this diminishes the coarsening of the conversation.

If you ask 100 people for a favor to “get the word out,” then of course you don’t care so much if 80 or 90 people decline. The problem is that you’ve just hurt the relationship you had with these people (as thin as it was) as well as made it more difficult for the next person, the one who actually put some effort and care into making a connection.

The honest first line of the programmatic ask is, “I’m using you to get what I want right now, because I didn’t plan ahead, care enough or show up with enough generosity to do it the old way.”

No one wants to be hustled.

Just because you are in a hurry, know how to use mailmerge and have figured out how to hustle people doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

The simple market

If you want something that makes your life better, you can buy it.

If you want to get the money to buy something, you can make something or do something that makes someone’s life better.

It stops being simple when externalities, market failures and greed show up.

Copy design

Copywriting turns words into action.

But which words? And which action?

Often, copywriters take a strategy for granted. They don’t take the time to think about what this sentence or that paragraph might be for. They hesitate to describe the foundations of their method, and instead resort to time-tested tricks and phrases.

We have a word for the strategies involved in creating a product or service that fills a niche and solves a problem. That’s what designers do. The pretty part comes next (and it’s confusingly called design as well, when it should probably be called craft.)

Design leads to leaps and breakthroughs. Craft ensures that great design accomplishes its mission.

Designing effective copy begins with the presumption that you can then craft the sentences that support that strategy.

But beginning with design ensures that good craft won’t go to waste.

[Check out my friend Margo Aaron’s breakthrough Copy Workshop. It’s cohort-based, peer-to-peer and live, and signups begins today. She’s doing it with the folks at Akimbo, and I’ve seen how powerful this work is.]

If it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing effectively.

Appropriate risk

We talk about risk like it’s a bad thing.

But all forward motion involves risk. You can’t find a risk-free way to accomplish much of anything.

Appropriate risk has two elements:

  1. The odds of it working out are commensurate with the benefits.
  2. The consequences of being wrong don’t eliminate your chance to try a different path next time.

We don’t try something simply because there’s no downside. Instead, we intelligently choose projects where the downside is understood and the work is worth doing.

Respecting their time

When we go around the room and have each person introduce themselves, we’re burning time, attention and trust. 40 people: 45 minutes, gone. Worse—the person who goes first spends 43 minutes daydreaming, and the person who goes last spends 44 minutes worrying about what to say.

When we read our powerpoint slides to the audience, we’re sabotaging our message and wasting the attention that we’ve been granted.

When a school fritters away live classroom time requiring lectures instead of answering questions, they’re squandering precious real-time engagement. It’s far more productive to assign the lecture on video to be done at the student’s own pace.

When a conference organizer (remember conferences?) has people wait in a long line to check in instead of using a web-driven smartphone system, they’ve burned a million dollars in time and travel expenses.

One of the little-seen benefits of a networked world is that we’ve re-configured what needs to be done in a queue and what can be done in parallel.

The simple rule is: If this can be done on multiple tracks, at our own pace, it should be. If it creates a benefit when we all do it together, then let’s.

People have already decided that they’d rather watch a movie at home. But people who love the theater can’t wait to get back to it. That’s because only one of them is better together, in real time.

It’s much easier to demonstrate power (and to get a quick result) if we simply demand that people do it when we say. But the effort in creating a platform for interaction, attention and growth pays off.

We’re not just respecting people’s time. We’re respecting their voice and their passion.

Synchronized, real-time interaction is precious. It creates magic. We shouldn’t waste it on bureaucracy or displays of false control–it’s better saved for moments of connection and possibility.

Assume that both are true

Syncretism is the act of integrating new cultural ideas into the ones that already exist.

It’s very common in the evolution of religious practice. Instead of ‘this’ or ‘that’, the answer might be ‘both’.

Sometimes, we’re so eager to fight off a new idea (to protect an old one) that we miss an opportunity to imagine how our world could go forward instead.

It’s much easier to be unequivocal. It’s also not that productive.

It’s possible to be in favor of something without being against something else.

We are not astronomers

Unlike most of the sciences, astronomy is always done at a distance. You can see the stars, but you can’t do anything about them.

Sometimes the media would like us to believe that we’re all astronomers, simply passive witnesses in a world out of our control.

But the world is never out of our influence.

Remembrance, connection, possibility, invention, empathy, insight, correction, care and justice are all up to us.

We not only observe, but we make changes happen. Our participation (or apathy) leads to a different future.

The ocean is made of drops. And the drops are up to us. Who else is going to care enough to make an impact?

Fuzzy type

Digital typography always looks crisp. The words on our screen seem official, because they’re not the victim of sloppy or rushed handwriting.

But sometimes, we might be better off with a little less crispness.

Malka Older points out that polling data and predictions would probably be better understood if the graphs and charts were intentionally fuzzy. The less sure we are of the prediction, the fuzzier it ought to be.

For example:

The weather next Saturday is going to be crisp and clear, with no chance of rain.

becomes

And if it’s something we’re quite unsure about, better to set it like this:

The fact that we have to squint a little bit is far more effective than adding a disclaimer about our margin of error. If you’re not willing to make it fuzzy, it might be better to not say it.