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We are not living in a movie

We're not even living in a lousy reality show.

Entertainment has seduced us into believing that we have a chance to live the life they live in the movies. Even the people in the movies don't live that life.

It doesn't take 135 minutes to make a life, it takes almost a century.

Everything doesn't depend on what happens in the next ninety seconds. Ever.

The people around us don't live secret lives. Spaceships and evil cowboys and pathogens aren't going to upend the world tomorrow, either.

Life is actually far better than it is in the movies. And it takes longer.

First, do no harm–three rules for public interfaces

When we think of design, we usually imagine things that are chosen because they are designed. Vases or comic books or architecture…

It turns out, though, that most of what we make or design is actually aimed at a public that is there for something else. The design is important, but the design is not the point. Call it "public design"…

Public design is for individuals who have to fill out our tax form, interact with our website or check into our hotel room despite the way it's designed, not because of it.

In the quest to make it work better, look better or become more powerful, sometimes we do precisely the wrong thing, because we forget about the 'public' part of public design. If the user isn't focused or interested in the innovation of our design, we have an obligation to get out of the way.

Rule 1: The more often a device is used by first-time users, the more standardized the interface should be. 

For example, the shower in a hotel. Some of the most elegant, clever design ever created by man exists in the dials and wheels in the hotel shower. All of it is worse than a waste–it's dangerous and time-consuming. Guests don't want to learn a new way to turn on the shower, they don't want to burn themselves, they just want the water to come out, at the right temperature, in the right direction, with the right quantity. The first time.

Rule 2: Who gets left out is the most important question.

Small ramps are better than a few stairs, given the choice. The more of the public we include, by definition, the better the choice.

Everyone takes a shower without their glasses, and yet the little, indistinguishable bottles in the shower often have 12 point type describing what's inside. No, I'm not going to wear reading glasses in the shower.
Shampoo maybe

If the disabled, the elderly, or those without the latest browser can't use what you've created, it doesn't deserve to be in public.

Rule 3: The best interface is no interface.

Great design tells a story. It moves a product from one category to another, increases yield, creates efficiencies and most of all, adds beauty to the interaction.

But it doesn't have to shout. Or confuse. The pro user, the individual who chose your design because it is something she wants to use every day–this user appreciates the power and the beauty you've created. But in public, for the infrequent passerby, do not call attention to what you've built. We have other things to do. The best designer understands what's important.

Don't abdicate the responsibility for great public design. Do not settle for inefficient, banal or ugly. But at the same time, respect the rules. Anyone can grandstand, but it takes real skill to do great public design that works. We're not looking for design we notice… no, it's design that improves the experience for the public that is the best public design.

Where are your assets?

Do work and get paid once. Build an asset and get paid for as long as it lasts.

A retailer or a restaurant owner might work 18 hours a day–but the landlord makes just as much money from that effort, often more. The cheeseburger gets paid for once, but the rent bill comes every month.

Real estate is an obvious and simple form of asset. In 1928, my great grandfather traded his real estate assets for the sure thing of the stock market. The biggest difference between the rental houses he owned and the worthless stocks he bought was that the houses paid rent every month, while the stocks offered merely the promise of a later payoff.

Some of the assets you can build, not just buy:

Your brand. A brand isn't a logo. It's a promise and an expectation. When you overdeliver, you earn trust, trust that can bring you repeat business, access to new opportunities and the privilege of being able to count on your customers coming back. (Yes, it does hurt to ask).

Permission. The privilege of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to the people who want to get them. People who would miss you if you were gone.

Expertise. You might lose your job, but they can't take away what you've learned. If all you've just done is what you've done before, you might get paid, but you didn't earn an asset.

In just three words, then, there's the huge chasm between the trusted, experienced freelancer, the one you're happy to hear from when she has a new idea, and the newbie or the short-term maximizer. Those guys have to start from scratch, each and every time.

Think about the individual, the entrepreneur or the small organization that has built up trust with a given market, that has permission to talk to that market and that has the expertise to execute on what it promises… Once you have those three, you call the shots. If, on the other hand, you're merely a hard-working employee, doing what you're told, you're never going to get what your effort ought to produce.

Other assets companies can build include processes or machinery and a loyal and talented workforce. Individuals, though, can pay attention to, protect and amplify the first three as they do their work. They don't take care of themselves, because there's always pressure to trade them in for short-term rewards.

One of the biggest shifts the connection economy has brought is that assets are no longer reserved for companies and organizations. Now that everyone has the ability to own a slice of the attention paid to media, now that everyone can build and nurture a network, assets are no longer off limits to people who work for a living.

Your choice: intentionally build and nurture your assets, or ignore them in the pursuit of the next thing…

Degrees of freedom

The more choices, the more freedom, the more freedom, the harder it is to decide what to do next.

When parachute jumping, at the key point, there are only two degrees of freedom: jump or not.

When marketing, of course, there are more degrees of freedom than in any other endeavor an organization does. It's almost never A or B. You need several alphabets just to list the available options.

If you don't view that as a good thing, it's probably worth doing something else instead.

When you sell unlimited hope…

then all news is bad news. That's because news is fact, what happened, not hope, and the truth can't possibly be as good as the hope was.

The problem with marketing promises that spin out of control, that pile expectations on top of dreams, is that when reality appears, when the quarterly numbers or the new policies or the final product arrives, it will inevitably disappoint.

This is the challenge of the Kickstarter artist, the growth stock CEO and the well-published author. Dreams are irresistible, but they will never match reality when it finally appears.

Neophilia as a form of hiding

Every once in a while someone will say to me, "yeah, sure, I've heard that before… what do you have that's new?"

In contemporary art or movies, it makes perfect sense to be focused on the bleeding edge, on the new idea that's never been previously contemplated.

But when we're discussing our goals, our passion and the way we interact with the culture, it seems to me that what works is significantly more important than what's new. Racing to build your organization around the latest social network tool or graphics-rendering technology permits you to spend a lot of time learning the new system and skiing in the fresh powder of the unproven, but it might just distract you from the difficult work of telling the truth, looking people in the eye and making a difference.

"I can't describe the value we deliver, I'm too busy integrating this new technology into my workflow!"

All too often, the ones who are aggressively seeking the theory of the day don't have a lot to show for what they did yesterday.


We like positive surprises and fear negative ones.

That means (surprisingly) that it's better to have a consistently negative experience than to confront one that's sometimes negative and sometimes neutral. The TSA, for example, would be easier to take if they were always consistently irrational, time-wasting and disrespectful, thus eliminating the risk and replacing it with certainty.

On the other hand, a positive experience that's positive all the time pales in comparison with the experience that's sometimes neutral but often nice. Beyond a baseline of goodness, you're better off awarding a few people a random discount or a bump up in priority than you are making something consistently (and boringly) slightly more pleasant.

A field guide to the Meeting Troll

The meeting troll is a common creature, one that morphs over time and is good at hiding (snaring you when it's too late to avoid him.)

  1. The meeting troll has a neverending list of reasonable objections. It's the length of the list that makes the objections unreasonable.
  2. The meeting troll never says 'we'. It's all about 'you.'
  3. The meeting troll doesn't actually want you to fail, but is establishing a trail so that if you do, he's off the hook.
  4. Despite his protestations about how much he hates meetings, the meeting troll actually thrives on them, because, after all, this is the only place he gets to do his best work. The very best way to extinguish the meeting troll is to extinguish meetings. The second best way is to not invite him.
  5. A key giveway: The meeting troll will use the phrase, "devil's advocate." More than once.
  6. Growth hackers look for a yes at every turn. The meeting troll thinks his job is to find the no.
  7. The meeting troll never eagerly calls a project meeting, nor does he bring refreshments, volunteer to organize follow up or encourage others to push their ideas even further. He's eager, though, to host the post mortem.
  8. One particularly noxious type of meeting troll says not a thing at the meeting. He uses body language and eye rolling to great advantage, though, and you can be sure that there will be quiet one-on-one undermining going on as soon as the meeting is over. The modern evolution of this is the instant messaging of snide remarks during the meeting.
  9. The meeting troll has a perfect memory for previous failures and complete amnesia when it comes to things that have worked.
  10. Analogies, particularly to vivid flameouts (regardless of how rare or irrelevant) is the easy tool for the amateur troll. He's also good at equating your desire to deal with negative change with the assertion that you somehow caused or were in favor of that negative change.
  11. Open-ended questions that merely hint at failure are sufficient for the experienced troll. He knows that he doesn't have to kill the new project for it to die. He just has to stir up sufficient unease.
  12. The meeting troll is afraid, not merely evil. Change is a threat, and trolling is his well-intentioned but erroneous response to the threat of change.

The loneliness epidemic

The next time you feel lonely, disconnected or unappreciated, consider that unlike many other maladies, this one hits everyone. And unlike other challenges, this one is easily overcome by realizing that you can cure the problem by connecting, appreciating and leading.

The minute we realize that the person sitting next to us needs us (and our tribe, our forward motion and the value we create), we're able to extinguish their aloneness as well as ours.

When you shine a light, both of you can see better.

Is the new Kindle Zero the sign of things to come?

AmazonfreelogoIt was always going to happen, but most of us didn't think it would happen so soon. Every Kindle has been cheaper than the one before it…

This afternoon, Amazon is going to announce the Kindle Zero, (screenshot) the first ebook reader that's free (to Prime members, of which there are millions). If you want one, you should hurry, because free goes quick… (here's a sneak preview of the prototype Zero)

The trend has been clear–electronic devices always get cheaper, and locking people into a platform has always been profitable. Hotmail, search engines… free is the driver of attention.

Beyond the surprise of leaping into the free reader, though, are the announcements from Random House and Wiley that 10% of their titles (the ones that used to be free) will now come with a cash incentive. (HT to Kevin for the original idea).

Read a book, get paid in cash. This is beyond free.

People have long treated reading books as a chore, as work, as something to do as little as possible. Now, for the first time, you can get paid for the drudgery of reading.

What this means is simple: you can now order 150 books and a new Kindle and get paid more than $3,000 just for accepting them and reading them when you can. Dense, difficult books like Russian tragedies and others earn you even more, up to $45. Per book. And of course, how-to books earn you hundreds of dollars each, but you do have to read them.

Of course there will be ads. Once it's free, you're not the customer any more, you're the product.

As a pioneer in free ebooks more than ten years ago, I feel like I have to keep up, hence my announcement today that to go with the new Kindle Zero, the free edition of my new book comes with a new Buick LeSabre or a large fig newton, your choice. While supplies last, one per customer.

[Ways to analyze this post: Check the date. Note the absurdity of $3000 per Kindle (with a million out there, that would a be a three billion dollar hit to an industry that can ill afford it). Note the fig newton reference. Note the silly drawing. See you next year.]