Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A man walks into a bookstore...

Junot Diaz - Drown
I had 17 minutes until my train departed, so I went to the bookstore on the station concourse and began browsing. I've seen two authors, whose previous works I've read and enjoyed, advertised on the Underground recently, Arundhati Roy and Zadie Smith. So I thought I'd have a look at their latest creations. But quite quickly I picked up Christopher Berry-Dee's Talking with Psychopaths and Savages. Something about the cover grabbed me: maybe it was the sub-title A journey into the evil mind, or the sub-sub-title A chilling study of the most cold-blooded, manipulative people on planet earth. She can't possibly be in this. Can she?

As I scanned the shelf for a second title, the shop assistant asked: "Are you looking for something similar to that one?" and quickly we were engaged in a conversation. We discussed authors and genres, and she even read out an extract from a novel. Then she suggested the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, one of the most enjoyable novels that I've read in the past five years. She hadn't like Junot Diaz's later work This is how you lose her, which I thought was also insightful and entertaining, but she recommended nevertheless Drown, a collection of short stories that pre-dates both. I paid and ran for my train, hopping on as the doors closed.

The conversation I had on that day in that store with that woman is different to the conversation I had on a different day, in another store with a man. They are human and have the qualities that are uniquely human, each time distinct, yet familiar. Today, AI can't replicate this: your voice assistant doesn't even get close. And I don't want it to. I don't want a machine to do this human thing: I don't want Blade Runner. But I do want it.

One time: "What's your favourite book?", she asked. "The Hobbit", I conceded, a little coy. Alternatively: "Do you have The Sellout?", I enquired. "We've sold out, I'm afraid", he replied, suppressing a snicker. And most recently: "I could swear that horse had a name", she said as I approached the counter. "What do you think was the horse's name?" "Bob", she suggested.

Are you enriching human interaction and experience, or chipping away at it?

And as for those books? Psychopaths I found deadly dull; but Drown buoyed me up again.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Getting straight to the Punkt

As I slipped the SIM card into the Punkt MP 01, I was fully aware that my other assorted devices still had wifi connectivity. Only if I left them behind would I be truly bereft of the myriad digital services that punctuate my day with information, entertainment and connections.

Punkt is a Swiss company based in the beautiful region of Lugano, and the MP 01 is a mobile phone capable of… well, not a great deal really: calls and SMS, alarms and reminders. It has less functionality, in other words, than the Nokia 6100 that I’ve had for about 15 years. The makers call it a ‘dumb phone’.

Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX, had passed the phone to me shortly before Christmas, and I was delighted to receive a device that I thought might help me break from obsessive phone checking: I can’t tell you how often I catch myself picking up my iPhone seconds after I’ve put it down, just to check on… who knows what? Punkt has this to say: “The more our phones do, the more they demand of us. Sometimes it’s good to take a break. But until now, the only alternative to hyper-connected smartphones has been the kind of phone you find at the back of a drawer. The Punkt MP 01 is a stylish, well-crafted mobile phone which focuses on modern simplicity, inside and out. It makes phone calls and sends texts. That’s all.” Perfect, I thought.

As I unboxed the phone, noting the 1970s retro-styling, I opened up the fat little instruction manual and turned to the heading “Inserting a SIM card”. Immediately, I encountered the first problem: “the MP 01 is designed to be used with a Micro-SIM (3FF) only… Incompatible SIM cards can damage the card or device…”. My iPhone 7 uses a Nano-SIM.

So Christmas was a digitally-enhanced event. Taking my iPhone along to the family gatherings, I was able to take various pictures, and share them instantly with one or two friends over WhatsApp and iMessage. And I was able to book a cab home using Uber.

Then Marek informed me that there was a Nano- to Micro-SIM converter somewhere in the packaging. I had missed it, although it had been hiding in the same little black envelope in which the SIM tray opener pin (does this thing have a name?) was to be found. To be fair to Punkt, the manual does also say: “Permanent use of SIM adapter is not recommended.” However, the omission of the definite article (“the”) leaves some ambiguity.

A short time passed and I found myself back at work, unable to relinquish my smart device. The MP 01 remained in its box. Until last weekend. I was going to see a preview of the film Fences, followed by a Q&A with Viola Davis, who plays the principal female character. The plan was to put the SIM into the MP 01, and head down to the BFI. Who needs a phone at the cinema?

But I couldn’t do it. Despite the fact that my iPhone always goes into airplane mode before a film starts, and remains so for the duration, I still felt the need to have it with me. The moments around the viewing are where it plays a leading role. At MEX/16, Apala Lahiri Chavan of Human Factors International, made reference to the term ‘unwaiting’, the act of shifting, through a mobile device, to another world. Like many others on the tube, I find myself so immersed in my phone that I would struggle without it: whether it’s communicating via email or text, picking up a signal at each station along the way; or listening to music, from my own library or downloads on Spotify; or scrolling through Twitter and Instagram; or, quite frequently, using the time to compose my own words on the tiny keyboard.

Before I even get on the tube, I’m checking Citymapper to ensure I optimise my time by standing at the ideal end of the platform for the exit at the other end. And on this specific occasion, after the film, I took out my phone and snapped a couple of photographs of Viola Davis, which I shared on Facebook and Instagram on my way back home.

A recent article in Wired UK rails against the notion of the digital detox: digital devices are not de facto bad for us, and I find myself agreeing, while noting, on the other hand, that there are potential side effects. The huge utility that my device, with the various applications running on it, brings to me is so obvious that to say so seems superfluous. Modifying notification settings is important to avoid being repeatedly distracted while in mid-flow. However, the compulsion just to pick it up and to have a speculative look is more problematic. So is setting out to take some specific action and being drawn elsewhere, whether by a visual notification such as a banner or a badge, or an another, unconscious motive.

The solution might be to take short breaks from the iPhone, coping with the Punkt alone. But when? Perhaps I don’t need it when I go to do my groceries, perhaps I don’t need any sort of phone. Then again, I have my shopping list on it, and often make use of the time to listen to a podcast. I don’t carry any sort of device when I’m out running, but on a ramble? Well, in that case I like to take pictures of things I see, and occasionally take notes, but I would have to carry a notebook, pencil, camera… Ironically, I could handle being without the telephony, or the messaging.

To make good on my promise to Marek, I finally made the switch. First, I set a reminder. With an iPhone, you can ask Siri to remind you to do something at a particular date and time, at the press of the home button. But when you take away voice activation and a touchscreen interface, you’re left with multi-level, hierarchical decision trees. While these are logical, they are not natural. Yes, of course, we see them in biology: trees, veins etc. But in our daily activities, the rigid, linear paths rarely occur. So the simplicity of the device engenders a particular kind of complexity arising from the unfamiliarity of the system.

Creating a contact follows a similar process, and is not particularly difficult. Press the contacts key, scroll to ‘add contact’, ‘create new’, and follow the rest of the steps… But being used to having all the fields visible and appropriately sized, it felt strange to step through each one individually. Of course, with regular use, this sort of thing could become more natural.

Next, try typing a text message that says “I’ll call you in 10 minutes”. The lack of a full keyboard on the MP 01 means you input this: 4550225509680460######10#06467*HOME. The multiple # strokes toggle the input mode to enable numerals. I realised it would have been quicker to write “ten” (08360 – zero is a space). There is predictive text, but it is no surprise that txt spk came into existence, along with emoticons, during Nokia’s reign. To send the thing, you have to go through a whole decision tree again, unless you select the contact first, and go down the path before composing the message.

Now to make that call. It’s fairly easy to assign numeric keys 2-9 to speed-dial favourite numbers. But you’ll have to remember which is which, because it dials the number instantly, rather than giving you the opportunity to confirm the selection. It is simpler, when you have just one contact in your phone, to press the contacts key, select the contact and hit the ‘send’ key.

I will find opportunities to use the MP 01. Perhaps meeting up with friends in the evening. I’ll need to make sure I know where I’m going and how to get there before setting out, but otherwise all should be good. Unless they communicate a last-minute venue change on the WhatsApp group.

There are certain things that I instantly loved about the device. The styling first of all is gorgeous. While you might feel ashamed to pull out a 15-year old phone in public, the MP 01 makes a statement. I love the silk matte finish on the chocolatey brown. The shape of the back, with its dimpled surface, is unusual, but it fits very snugly in the hand, and is quite delightful to hold. At 88g it is only slightly heavier than the Nokia 6100, and 50g lighter than the iPhone 7. The screen is big enough for its limited functionality; while the typeface and the range of type sizes are good, albeit in monochrome. It has a micro-USB socket for charging, synchronising with your laptop, and using the handsfree earpiece. Just like the iPhone 7, there is no dedicated headphone jack, and it is Bluetooth-enabled.

A few design choices seem strange to me. The mic is at the bottom, off to the right, which could affect call quality. The USB socket has a cover with a rather flimsy looking hinge. I can’t see it withstanding much use. And while I like it that the volume and lock buttons are flush, it would be easier to change the volume during a call if the buttons had some shape for the thumb to find.

A moment ago, I picked up an email on my iPhone (over wifi), sent via Paperless Post, inviting me to an event. With one tap, I accepted the invitation; and with two taps, I added all the details to my calendar. Shortly, I will go for a run. When I get back, I will log the time and distance in Strava, and the data will then be imported, via the Health app, to Zingy, in which I’ve been logging today’s food, so that it can calculate my energy expenditure and modify my nutritional requirements for the day. 

The world has adapted to the smartphone: many pre-existing systems have been uprooted. It is difficult to do things the way we used to do them. It is not only the phone that has changed, but the world itself, both society and individuals. We do things differently, and many of the processes and objects that we once used have disappeared. There was a time when the A-Z was many people’s most helpful possession, residing in handbags, jacket pockets and glove compartments all over the country. Attempting to turn back the clock is about as easy as choosing to heat your home from time to time with coal.

The MP 01 is a philosophical statement: it is not a phone.

This piece originally appear at mobileuserexperience.com

Sunday, 13 November 2016

On failing fast and the fartiness of bread

A small shitty loaf
I baked a shitty loaf of bread today. I was pretty certain it was going to be shitty almost from the start. Why? Because I now have sufficient knowledge and experience of baking bread to determine when things aren't going to plan.

My wholemeal bread recipe calls for:
  • 300g wholemeal flour 
  • 200g strong white flour 
  • 10g salt 
  • 5g yeast 
  • 150ml cold milk 
  • 150ml hot water 
  • 5ml olive oil 
Usually, I put the dry ingredients into a mixing bowl. Then combine the milk and water and pour it into the bowl. Mix it all up with my hands. Then add the oil and mix it up. Then we can start kneading.

But things went wrong even before I got to the kneading stage. I was 30g short of wholemeal flour. Not a drama, it would be sub optimal but ok. I compensated with an extra 30g of white. Of course, I could have reduced all the amounts by 10%. That would have been the better option.

I was distracted, listening to Queen Calypso Rose on Cerys Matthews’ show on BBC6 Radio. Lovely music. Instead of mixing the liquids together I poured the hot water straight into the bowl. Not only that, but I poured a full 300ml in. Actually, using only water for the liquid is fine. Not quite as good a result – for my taste – but still delicious. I also overpoured by 20ml, which means a wetter dough, not ideal, but again still very workable. Such a small difference can be ignored, or rectified with a little more flour. The problem, however, is that the water was really hot, and high temperatures kill yeast. Dead yeast don’t eat, and dead yeast don’t fart, and it’s the yeast farts that make the dough rise. Yeah, sorry, bread’s a load of farty gluten.

But I persisted, wishfully thinking that somehow all would be ok. I kneaded the dough and left it to rise. I left it longer than usual and it only rose a little.

And still I persisted. I knocked it back, and left it to prove, turning the oven on to max, ready to receive the loaf. Quite some time later, the dough was rather firm to the touch, and had only risen a little.

Still I persisted. I prepared the loaf for baking, running my bread knife along its length. The cut should have opened up immediately. It didn't. That means there's no tension in the bread. The yeast hasn't done its job.

But I persisted. I placed the loaf in the oven, and during 40 minutes, I watched as a small heavy loaf gradually cooked.

I should have thrown away the mix right at the start. I knew the bread was doomed to shit, but it felt wasteful to throw away the ingredients, so instead I went ahead and wasted some more stuff:
  • All the mix, including the olive oil, which I hadn't yet added. 
  • The effort kneading the dough. 
  • Clingfilm to cover the dough. 
  • The time spent kneading, knocking back, putting in the oven, checking it etc. 
  • The energy to heat the oven. 
  • The energy to boil the water that gets poured onto a tray at the bottom of the oven. 
  • The hot water and washing up liquid to clean all the stuff used in the baking process. 
And for all my persisting, all I have now, is a small, shitty loaf of bread, when an admission of error, and a fresh start would have meant that at this moment, a delicious loaf would be cooling on the wire rack in the kitchen.

Now, if you think the lesson is about not hiring dead people to do work, you've missed the point. If you’re in this camp, let me just explain clearly what I’m trying to share. There are times when we push on with something, because we've made some effort. We know it isn't quite right; things aren't going to plan. Yet we stifle that part of our mind that is calling us to quit, and we persevere, hoping it’ll be all right. And the result is shitty.

There is another part to this, which seems to be rarely explored. Don’t get into things that you don’t fully understand. How can you know to quit, when you don’t know that you've cocked it up? How do you know when you've killed your yeast? How can you predict that your yeast won’t fart, when you don’t even understand the fartiness of bread?

The flipside, of course, is having sufficient experience to know that things are on track. You've mixed the ingredients together in the right way, and now there's a whole load of work to be done to move it along to the next stage. Sometimes, that work will seem arduous, repetitive and boring, but having the experience to tell that it's going to deliver results, makes it feel worthwhile, as it will prove.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Is Myers-Briggs up to the job?

The FT asks the question this morning and gives a summary of the debate: http://on.ft.com/1V5PqT8  It seems to me, however, that both sides of the table have it slightly off. 

Taking the example of the husband and wife at a party, saying that one of them wants to leave the party early because they're an introvert is the wrong way to look at it. 'Introvert' is merely the tag you give someone who wants to leave a party early. So explaining the behaviour as the outcome of the tag is simply saying 'you want to leave the party early because you want to leave the party early'. 

Nevertheless, that does have its uses. Once you begin to pay attention to personality types, you are, in fact, paying attention to personality, thereby accepting certain aspects of personality, which might include wanting to leave the party early. Accepting differences in personality, even if by the proxy of artificial personality types, can result in negotiating compromises, hence more effective relationships. 

The danger, however, arises from stereotyping, as well as the excessive emphasis placed on the I-E axis. My LinkedIn timeline is full of superficial, trite analysis and recommendations on the differences between I and E types. These are often simply wrong; but also fail to take into account all the many different aspects of personality. One of the important points of all the different introspective exercises that we undertook at IMD was the multitude of layers that might influence personality: culture, family, travel... 

In sum, using structures can help to understand differences in behaviour, thereby assisting in developing better relationships. But it's vital to avoid placing undue emphasis on the descriptor, and drawing superficial conclusions that stereotype, otherwise you miss the point, which is to better relate to each individual. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Ten PR Tips for Tech Startups

For startups, understanding how to get coverage in the media is often a source of frustration. Every startup I ever mentored has asked for advice on PR. By following a few simple steps, you can make a lot of progress in getting your news reported. News stories are an important part of your PR armoury and you should achieve significant success if you keep the following in mind. Just be aware that your story might not get covered simply because there's something bigger going on.

1. Research your media

Fundamentally, you should be tracking which journalists write about topics relating to your company, industry, markets etc. Note that the journalist is more important than the publication: contacting the 'newsdesk' is rarely a successful strategy.

Be aware that journalists are frequently freelancers and will often write for more than one news outlet, sometimes about a broad variety of subjects. They don't always to stick to the same broad subject matter. I knew a journalist who went from writing about architecture to eyeware. While both are strongly design-led, none of her previous sources were of any relevance anymore, and conversely, from a professional perspective, she was no longer of any use to architects. Yes, architects do PR too.

2. Get to the point

You are one of many people trying to contact a journalist. Forget the niceties: it might go against your upbringing but the opening line should get straight into the pitch rather than ask after the journalist's wellbeing.

"Geoffrey, following the news that bears have been caught defecating in the woods, grrrizz.ly has launched a smartwatch app to keep you from stepping on the stools, while out strolling."

3. Make it topical

In the above example, the pitch is linked to some news that has recently broken. Journalists get interested in a subject for a little while then move on to another subject. Your challenge is to ensure that your story relates to a current topic of interest. Nobody cares that you launched an app. But if your app solves something that is topical and significant, then you have a story.

4. Be concise

Whether or not you write a press release - some journalists hate them, others like them - keep your pitch brief. Get rid of any puffery - vague, unsubstantiated claims like 'leading', 'defining', 'brilliant'.

Many journalists want a quote they can lift from your press release and drop into a story. Make it useful rather than formulaic. I often see bland statements like: "Wizzooo is delighted to be partnering with Wazzooo on this project", said Bonita McGonigal, founder. Try instead something like: "The combination of Wizzooo's tinting technology and Wazzooo's leather-cutting devices will create the bluest suede shoes you ever danced in."

5. News is new

Is it happening now? It's news. Anything else isn't.

6. Don't ask for permission to send information

Just send it.

7. Don't ask journalists to promote you

Journalists write stories of interest to the readers of their publications, for money. Every day they have competing opportunities. If yours didn't make it, too bad. Try to work out why - without asking the journalists. Maybe you'll get some success next time.

However, never ask a journalist to tweet or retweet or do any other form of promotional activity on your behalf. That's what friends and family are for. If your product's any good, your customers will do it for you too.

8. Offer exclusives

Every journalist wants an exclusive. They can be useful for securing coverage from certain outlets but they aren't always necessary and, of course, the flipside is that you reduce the number of outlets covering you. Be clear that the exclusivity has an expiry date eg for the next two days.

9. Don't give 'exclusives' to multiple journalists

If you tell more than one journalist that you're giving them an exclusive, you will never get written up by them again. Unless there's some bad news; then they'll tear you apart and you'll have deserved it for lying and manipulating.

10. Use embargoes for major news

If you want to coordinate a major news story across multiple outlets so that they appear simultaneously but not before a certain date, you can release the news in advance under embargo, which should be clearly stated at the top of your news item, including the time and date before which it shouldn't be published. Be aware that a small number of journalists don't adhere to embargoes but they usually publicise the fact. If you research them properly, you'll know what to expect.

BONUS Be responsive

If you're putting out a story make sure that you're available to communicate immediately with any journalist who responds. If you leave it even a couple of hours to reply to an email, you've probably wasted the opportunity.