Welcome back.

Have you thought about subscribing? It's free.

Learning from the Amazon gift card snafu

Millions of people got this email last night:

It’s legitimate, but it’s a mistake. A mistake because:

  • the subject line is wrong (you didn’t buy a gift card yesterday)
  • it was sent Saturday night at 8 pm
  • the formatting is off and it feels like a scam

We can learn a lot about what not to do from this.

First, if you make a mistake by email, fix it. Fix it by email AND fix it on your site. Let everyone who got the wrong note know, even if it’s embarrassing.

Second, if your company is built on email, establish a consistent look and feel, an approval process and most of all, definitely, a way to confirm that you actually sent it. For example, if you ever get an email from me, it will also be here on this blog. If it’s not, it’s a scam.

Now that Amazon has bolloxed up both parts of this process (they got thousands and thousands of complaints last night, overwhelming their hard-working frontline support workers) they’ve opened the door for countless spammers and scammers who lack imagination but are good at following a trail.

While it may seem unrelated, part of the problem is the fear that people have in writing clearly. Here’s a sign I saw at Avis yesterday:

I’m pretty sure that the person who cared enough to make this sign doesn’t actually speak this way. Perhaps if it had said,

“We don’t have a car wash here, but the insides of our cars have been cleaned regularly. If you’d like to get a car wash, we’re delighted to pay you back up to $15 per rental. Thanks for understanding.”

The Amazon email was simultaneously overwritten and under-edited. It didn’t say what it meant, and the formatting simply made it worse.

And then the bureaucracy refused to quickly take responsibility and make it clear to millions of people.

As a result of error and fog and denial, trust disappears.

Confusion and certainty

When facing a complex problem, it’s easy to become confused.

Lately, it’s become socially acceptable to express your confusion with certainty. Untrained in the field, make a pronouncement that makes it clear that you have not just an understanding of what’s going on, but also that you’ve figured out the causes and the next steps.

The thing is, confusion shared often leads to the learning we need to become productive as we move forward. “I don’t understand this part,” is a great thing to say before someone helps you understand it.

On the other hand, certainty is almost guaranteed to maintain your confusion, particularly when the thing you were sure was going to work, doesn’t.

Solving invented problems

Some problems, when well solved, lead to making things better.

Some problems give us a chance to get back on course.

And some problems are opportunities to be generous.

But many of the problems that we seek to solve are actually invented, and maybe we could benefit by simply walking away.

There are two interesting kinds of invented problems:

First, it might be a situation, not a problem. You’re stuck on an elevator. The repair people have been called. They will come when they come. There’s no way for you to make anything better… there’s no available solution to your current predicament–it’s a situation and the only thing to do is wait.

The second kind is a problem that’s so trivial that solving it will have little impact. We feel it looming and lend it our anxiety and focus simply to keep our mind off the other problems, the ones that matter.

Freedom of attitude

There are two franchised pack-and-ship shops about equidistant from my home.

One has a 4.5 rating and is reliably busy. The other has an astonishingly low 1.5 out of 5 rating.

The physical plant is virtually identical, and the marketing and promo are the same. The only difference is the owner running the second shop.

Tomorrow, he gets yet another chance to make yet another decision about what sort of attitude to bring to his day.

As Victor Frankl reminds us, this is our core freedom. To decide how to face the day.

A small shopping list (floss and more)

Here are some books and household items that I wanted to share. I’m mostly into audiobooks these days–a good narrator combined with a good author is pretty rare and wonderful…

It turns out that a breakthrough rice cooker is a bargain, even if it seems expensive at first. The Cuckoo is an extraordinary device. It comes in many shapes and colors, most of them will not be to your taste, but persist until you find one.

Nasty, Brutish and Short, is the most accessible and fun book on philosophy you’ll encounter this year.

King: A Life, is a clear and direct biography of one of our greatest citizens.

My friend Nicole has written a provocative, funny and honest memoir. Nothing Is Missing: A Memoir of Living Boldly. I’ll be interviewing her in NYC on October 9.

Unsurprisingly, the best gluten-free pasta in the world comes from Italy.

Herbie Hancock’s autobiography is worthwhile even if you’re not a jazz fan. An honest look at a creative’s journey.

No, I’m not an expert on dental floss, but not only is this biodegradable (most competitors are made of plastic) but it actually seems to work a lot better.

Dan Ariely’s book Misbelief is a must-listen for anyone trying to understand how social dynamics are changing the way some people see the world.

There are two kinds of kitchens: happy ones with air fryers, and the holdouts that have let their skepticism get in the way. I hardly ever use my oven anymore. I’m not sure it matters which brand you buy.

Years later, Kafka on the Shore remains one of my favorite all-time audiobooks. It’s an extraordinary story, beautifully told.

The Song of Significance has led to more heartfelt emails to me than any book I’ve ever written. And my calendar pre-sold so well they’ve just asked me to write a new edition. None of this would be possible without you. Thanks to everyone who supports the work of authors and musicians and creators…

Thoughts on the manual

We have more ways to offer instructions than ever before, but it’s not obvious that we’re getting better at it. Not just the operator’s manual, but every way we have to teach and offer instructions… Some (uncategorized) things to consider:

  • Assume that some people will not read the manual, no matter how clear it is or what format it takes. If reading the manual is essential for safety or success, consider redesigning the product so that’s not the case.
  • If it’s important, say it a few times, in a few places.
  • People learn by doing. If that’s difficult or dangerous, they learn by understanding the concept. If that’s too much, they learn by watching someone else. And finally, in last place, they learn by reading about the steps.
  • Every time someone looks to the manual for instructions, they’re acknowledging that you know something they don’t know. The worst instructions fail to have empathy for that gap.
  • Video instructions have spread on YouTube. That’s because the creators can monetize them and Google gives them a boost in search.
  • Video instructions offer a few real benefits. First, in a post-literate world, more people can absorb them. Second, they enforce a linear process, as it’s difficult to skip ahead.
  • Video instructions are a problem, though, because they’re slow, unscannable, hard to review, time-consuming to update and frustrating for someone who simply wants to understand the concept.
  • One reason linear instructions are problematic is that the teacher doesn’t know what the student doesn’t know. So we end up including too much, just to be sure we aren’t leaving someone behind. Which is boring, so people zone out or skip ahead.
  • And one reason that interactive instructions are challenging is that sometimes, the student doesn’t know what the student doesn’t know. Giving an overview gives users a way in, a chance to then tell you what they don’t know.
  • Some instructions are written by lawyers. They are defensive in nature. The many, many pages of warnings (don’t use the camera in the bathtub!) aren’t designed to be read or understood, and as a result, we’ve been trained to ignore all of them.
  • The Ikea-led trend of not using words in printed instructions is a fine nod to the international nature of the world, but it harms the user. If you know enough about where the product is going to put a language on the outside of the box, you know enough to put the words in the pictograph manual as well. If someone doesn’t want to read the words, they’re no worse off than they are now, but if they understand the language, it can help a lot.
  • Instructions can now be context-aware and they should be. It doesn’t make sense to simply move the instruction manual to the web–make it interactive, find out where I’m stuck and show me what I need to know.
  • There are instructions designed to help us understand the context, the system and the strategy of the thing we’re going to be using. These should be written with that in mind, clearly and with a narrative. A story that helps us see what you see is worth telling.
  • There are instructions that we only need to go through once (assembly, for example) and these instructions should reward linearity. For example, assembling a piece of furniture or a bike should always come with a link to a video where we can see someone doing every single one of the steps we’re going to need to do.
  • Different people learn in different ways, so why have only way way for them to read the manual?
  • If you’re going to make a video explaining something, record it and then delete all the throat-clearing, preambles and asides you put in to make yourself comfortable.
  • If you’re not changing the instruction manual in response to user feedback, then your user manual is obsolete.
  • Everything else about your product or service was built by a professional. Your instructions should be too.

The first manual I created, in 1983, was for eight year old kids. I was an amateur. You can learn by doing.

The Jenga situation

When an organization first sets out to have an impact, it discovers that it has no customers, no clients, no constituents. So it shows up, it makes an offer and it listens.

The early days are exciting. Customers are seen and heard and served. Variations are created and value is produced as problems are solved.

In the early days, the most celebrated employees are the ones who figure out what someone needs and then determines a way to fill that need.

Once the organization gains traction, it’s possible that a short-term profit maximizer will join the team. They push to treat the customers as replaceable flanges, almost identical, income opportunities to be processed. And the employees? They are expenses, not part of a team.

Kids play a game called Jenga. In it, identical wooden sticks are built into a tower, and you win the game by removing sticks without having the tower fall over.

It can seem like the fastest way for a stable business to increase profits is simply to remove some sticks. Process more flanges with fewer expenses. Lower overhead, measure the easy stuff, do it faster.

A simple service business example to prove the point:

Labcorp had a valuable idea: blood tests at scale, well-priced and convenient for doctors and patients. A nationwide chain meant that doctors didn’t have to wonder about instructions being understood. Offices in medical parks meant that patients didn’t have to go to the hospital for something that hardly needed a hospital. A large number of patients would mean that the organization would have the resources to build better calendaring and reporting software.

And then what?

Take out some Jenga pieces. Why bother with a receptionist when you can staff the entire facility with just one tech? If people have to wait an hour or two, no big deal. Don’t worry so much about turnover–simply give people too much to do, and if they quit, hire someone else. Customer service? Well, you can put up forms and offer surveys, but there’s no need to actually read them…

The Jenga situation is contagious. Once a competitor starts doing it, there’s pressure from short-term shareholders for you to do it as well. The profits that motivated growth become the entire point, a race to the bottom with no winners.

But then, often when one-too-many Jenga pieces are removed, or when technology shifts, the tower gets too shaky and someone else builds a competitor that starts the process all over again.

The biggest challenge a marketer at a big company faces is the specter of industrial short-term thinking. Going along with the bean counters might be the worst marketing mistake you can make. Beans aren’t the point of the organization, they’re a side effect.

We spend too much time dealing with shaky towers. The resilience of people connecting, of organizations evolving, of service and clarity and generative work is far too important to be threatened by a few hustlers who insist on measuring the wrong thing.

Toward stickiness

Getting the word out is easy to measure and exciting as well.

Focusing on this misses the point.

You might be able to get a song played on the radio, but will the song motivate listeners to show up at the concert?

The math is simple: You can’t build a freelance career or a restaurant or a medical practice on one-time interactions. Charities that fundraise a few dollars at a time, door to door, pitching strangers… they have a rough road.

The hype and the tension and the promo work for a while, but they aren’t sustainable.

Which means, “this might not be for you,” isn’t a problem, it’s a feature.

We’re not looking for everyone, we’re looking for someone.

Purple.space launched about two weeks ago. The sign up page is really clear about what it is and what it’s for, and it’s thrilling to see that only a third of the people who signed up dropped out.

A third? That’s thrilling?

Yes. Because when only 35% of the people trying something in good faith say, “it’s not for me,” you are on your way to finding the people it is for.

People who would miss what you do if you stopped offering it. People who seek connection or possibility or whatever change it is you bring to the world.

Stickiness isn’t a hack. It’s a sign of enrollment. People who want to go where you’d like to take them.

Opening weekend box office and the ratings of your first episode are interesting, but only because they create the possibility that next week, some folks might be back.

More vs. better

If every building in the shopping district in a big city was owned by one landlord, rents would go up. So would the prices of everything sold. The landlord would keep a significant percentage of each store’s profits and innovation would suffer as well.

Google’s monopoly is real.

They pay Apple more than a million dollars an hour to be the default search engine on phones. It’s more profitable for Apple to threaten to build a search engine than it is for them to actually run one. Google overpays for the default status because their hegemony gives advertisers fewer options. And by controlling the flow of attention across the web, they can dictate how websites work and what our experience is online.

Ever since Adam Smith began writing about capitalism, it’s been understood that monopolies are a defect in the structure of free markets. Locking in an advantage gives the monopolist the power to ignore its customers and we all suffer as a result.

A company grows by getting ever better at serving its customers, its vendors and its employees.

A company becomes a monopoly by becoming ever better at becoming a monopoly.

Few companies have done a better job of marketing the benefits of their monopoly than Google. They rarely charge their users, but offer free software and engaging stories instead. But they have relentlessly grabbed more and more of our attention, and used it to create a sinecure that costs all of us. It’s not just ecosia, duckduckgo and kagi that are paying for this monopoly. When a company can shift the rules and focus on more instead of better, we all pay.

While standing on one foot

Make it easy! they insist.

One of the longest-running direct response ads of all time was for a piano playing course. For more than forty years, people mailed in money for a simple, fast way to impress their friends by playing the piano. They sold a lot of manuals, but I’m guessing not many people actually learned to play.

And every year, there are new electronic devices, pills and procedures that promise to help people lose weight or get fit without trying very hard.

Of course, the one-foot shortcut fails. Almost every time.

Not only don’t we learn anything, but we waste the time and the money we spent standing impatiently on one foot.

A fundamental reason that high-overhead educational settings like med school succeed is that sunk costs and commitment dramatically increase our willingness to stick it out. If the easy thing worked, you would have done it already.

The most successful students insist that the teacher make it difficult. So difficult that we’re tempted to quit (but don’t).

Commitment gets us through the frustration, and frustration is the partner of learning.