Whenever I hear a digital interface praised as "intuitive" my
eyelids twitch. What’s intuition got to do with it? What end users are really
saying is that the interface is so well designed that
it’s pretty much idiot proof. I get why we might not embrace that particular expression, but calling
an interface intuitive shifts much of the credit due the designer to the user.
And that happens because we tend to mistake the simplicity of a well-designed
interface for simpleness, discounting the hard work of good design.
What is good—or if you insist, intuitive—interface design
anyway? Most essentially, good design requires minimal knowledge and experience
on the part of the end user. It allows us to bridge the gap between what we do
know and what we don’t know without a lot of cognitive effort—that is, without
having to think too hard. And that’s a very good thing because more and more
digital tasks are being foisted on consumers, for better or worse. Which means
that good interface design essential: when you go it alone, shit-hot
functionality is useless without a well-designed interface that makes
navigation seem obvious and success practically inevitable.
I collaborate with lots of different teams, and collaboration often involves project management software. I myself am a Basecamp junkie, but when I suggest Basecamp or ask others why they do not use the application I frequently get responses ranging from the relatively benign “Basecamp does not do what we need” all the way to the snarky “Basecamp sucks.” I always find these appraisals of Basecamp curious. I typically make a small sales pitch for Basecamp and then back off, assuming that I might learn something new by collaborating with a different tool. Sadly, I never learn anything new. Every small team I work with uses project management software in the same way: as one big to-do list. So, in my experience, the debate is not about features.
At its core Basecamp is just a fancy to-do list tool. But the folks at Basecamp have done a world-class job of building an amazing application. Adding, assigning, and communicating about tasks is fast, easy, and enjoyable. Basecamp messages are never lost and it is very clear if someone is waiting for you to complete a task. Too often other project management software products on the market fail to achieve the same objectives. As a result, they can be more of an annoyance than a tool.
This post is not a review of Basecamp. What I find so interesting is this: Why isn’t Basecamp used by more of my colleagues? My theory is that Basecamp suffers from “blank canvas” syndrome. When you first create your Basecamp account there is no predefined way to organize your projects. You have an empty window waiting for you to create to-do lists. You have to decide with your team how to use Basecamp. Other project management tools tend to guide you into their way of organizing a project. Being guided is good for getting off the ground—but can be bad for long-term satisfaction with a product.
I can think of at least 10 friends who have spent years counting the days (and hours, minutes, seconds) until retirement. Most of them are fixated on retirement because they hate their job and see no other way out. They are trapped in mediocrity. That way of life is not for me—time is the ultimate nonrenewable resource, and I believe that every moment spent in mediocrity is a waste.
For this reason I would be happy if my tombstone says He Did What He Wanted, When He Wanted, How He Wanted. Not because I am a selfish dick—I live my life this way to avoid falling into the trap of mediocrity. If anything—be it a job, a task, a friend, a surrounding—is unpleasant for very long I make a change. I have trained myself not to fear change because change is often the solution to (rather than the cause of) life’s problems. For example:
I stopped doing yardwork. I hated the endless cycle of cutting the grass only to have it grow back—yet I enjoy having a nice yard. So I decided to have my cake and eat it too by hiring someone else to do the yardwork. The operative word being “hire” meant that I had to free up funds by reviewing the family budget and making some cuts. It turns out I do not need collision insurance on my 1994 Jeep, and I discovered that we were overpaying $50 a month for cell phone usage. Bam! Problem solved.
I put an end to disruptive phone calls. Apparently Phil Libin was reading my mind when he said, “I don’t like it when people call me without a prearrangement via text or email. It’s extremely unlikely that I’ll be able to talk at exactly the time someone arbitrarily decides to call me, so it’s more efficient and more polite to send a text or email first." Hear, hear. About a year ago I changed my voicemail greeting, instructing would-be callers to email me. People have learned to respect this request and communicate on my terms.
The word entrepreneur has been bothering me lately (yes, I know, #firstworldproblems). I have spent almost half of my working life in the tech startup world and the other half in the main street small business world. The tech startup world defines entrepreneurs as individuals with a bright idea who raise money from investors and try to make it big. This type of entrepreneur typically gives up a job at a company like Google to run their own show. But are they really running their own show? I say they are merely trading their managers at Google for managers in the guise of investors and board members. The truth is, a tech startup entrepreneur is not his (or her) own boss. Though the potential payoff for succeeding is enormous, the risks are also great and the tech startup entrepreneur gives up many of the freedoms a main street small business entrepreneur enjoys.
When I was growing up my dad was a main street entrepreneur. He ran his own insurance company in addition to some side businesses. He was his own boss. He attended every one of my soccer games, never missed a parent-teacher conference, and was always there to say goodbye to me as I trucked off to school. And he took our family on several weeks’ worth of vacations every year. He was present, happy, and in control of his own life.
I am not at all suggesting that a main street entrepreneur does not work hard. My dad sure did—but he was in charge of when, how, and what he worked on. It’s not news that we all have days when we do not want to be at work. You might be tired from the night before or distracted by something else, but if you are not your own boss you probably have to just sit there and chug through the day. The main street entrepreneur does not. He can focus on that something else and take care of work when the time is right. He is not lazy—he simply has more options.
Almost daily I talk to someone who claims to be slammed. Swamped. Super busy. I hope these people are just exaggerating and not actually missing out on life. Because time is the one resource we can’t get more of, in recent years I have focused on making sure life does not pass me by because I am busy. And if I am busy, it better be worth it. Below are some strategies I use to avoid common time drains.
Mail in forms are a time drain. For me every paper bill represents 10 to 20 minutes of time. I need to get it from the mailbox, open it, review it, scan it, pay it, record the payment, and then dispose of it. For a business owner like me paper bills can add up to days of lost productivity each month.
Like most people I opt for paperless billing and automatic payments whenever possible. And that’s the catch: many companies do not yet offer those options. If digital billing and payment options are not available I often try to pay a year in advance to minimize bill paying to a yearly event.
You might laugh, but receiving a paper check in the mail causes me a great deal of anguish. As a business owner I receive paper checks several times a week. Presuming that each check takes about 30 minutes to process and deposit, which involves a trip to the bank, I lose a great deal of time and money per check.
I avoid receiving paper checks at all costs. I push for payment via direct deposit, which is more secure and faster for everyone involved. Even payment by credit card, which takes a 3% bite, is preferable to paper checks that can cost even more to cash. Going forward I am considering charging a fee for processing paper checks. I am also considering requiring payment in Bitcoin.
What is a good seat in this fast-moving business environment? Traditionally, our first thought would be the cozy corner office far away from those bright, naked cubicles by reception. But this is the 21st century and peace of mind is dictated more by solving problems and being productive than creature comforts like a quiet environment or a pleasant view—or even the freedom of a virtual office. No, the “good seat” in business is about managing technology and personnel needs. And that can be done from either side of the hypothetical desk.
Whether you are performing the job or having someone perform it for you does not matter. The important thing is understanding the big picture of what it takes to get the job done. Make sure you have a contract that clearly defines the scope of work, the infrastructure necessary for success, and the procedures for resolving problems. Not understanding the business model and its processes will put you in a no?win situation. Does the upgrade require new hardware or software? What does the maintenance phase look like? Who has control over the data? Will the budget be enough to see the project from start to finish? You don’t want to go in half?assed because cutting corners simply won’t get the job done. No, you are going to need to be fully assed to sit in that seat over the long haul.
So you have a fresh new idea for a product. Maybe an iPhone app, a web application, whatever. You saved up some money or wangled some investors, but instead of hiring a team to develop your project you want to subcontract out to an agency. Your thinking is that the agency can get your product to market swiftly as they have in house all of the designers and developers needed to build your dream.
In the last 15 years I have hired many agencies. I have also worked for many agencies. Heck, I even ran an agency. Let’s say I’ve seen the agency issue from all sides. So I wrote this post to share a few things to keep in mind when going the agency route. Most also apply to hiring a freelance designer or developer, but the focus is agencies—the types of companies that have fancy offices, charge boatloads per hour, and invite 25 people to every meeting (account managers, project managers, salespeople, developers, designers, freelancers, random dude not doing anything that day).
You Can’t Have It All
When hiring an agency you can’t expect to get a high-quality product at a good price delivered on a fixed schedule. An agency salesperson will always try to convince you that they can deliver on your schedule. If they are working on an hourly basis they will assure you that they “already added tons of padding to the budget.” And besides, their designers and developers are the best in the world! Simply accepting that you can’t have an outcome where quality, budget, and schedule are achieved you should maximize for one or two. Don’t be fooled into thinking you can have it all.
Most Agencies Don’t Care About Your Little Project
The best agencies spend their days working with the big boys, the Fortune 500. These clients have massive budgets and are a good agency’s bread and butter. Simply put, your little startup project is not going to get the best resources or the most attention. An agency will always choose a Fortune 500 client over you. Sorry.
Agencies Hire Lots of Freelancers
Agencies rely on freelancers to save money. They pay some eager freelancer $50 an hour (no benefits, no taxes) and bill them out for $150 an hour. The problem with these subcontractors is that they come and go—in some cases halfway through a project. Transferring knowledge from one person to another is costly, jeopardizes the schedule, and can negatively impact quality. Agency turnover can make you wonder if you should have just hired a freelancer yourself.
Your best bet is to make sure your agency is not going to subcontract out your project. If it’s unavoidable, be sure that your contract details what happens if things go wrong with the subcontractor. Also, confirm that an agency employee will manage the project. I have seen it happen over and over again: the agency hires a subcontractor for your project, puts you in contact with said subcontractor, and then takes a backseat. Dumping project management on the client is pure negligence on the part of the agency. (I doubt that it happens with their Fortune 500 clients.)
Ah, feedback. Life is unbearable if you cannot speak your mind, but in our everyone’s-a-winner culture anything short of ebullient praise is viewed as an affront. And so, to show that you’re not a glass-half-empty sort—you see the positive stuff, too!—you start with a few compliments before slipping in the unpleasant news. But you don’t want to end on a bad note so you close with something upbeat—another compliment or some hearty encouragement. Congratulations. You just served a “shit sandwich.” In more refined circles it’s called a “praise sandwich.” Either way, it’s a classic rookie mistake. Your protégé will take one look at this questionable offering and either see only the praise or only the criticism. You end up with the status quo or a new enemy.
(And in these wild and wooly times you don’t want an enemy. Best case: low-level passive aggressive retribution. Worst case: a digital smear campaign against you—that inexplicably goes viral. But I digress…) Negative feedback is not more palatable when it is preceded by a warm fuzzy: “You did a great job, really. But you don’t seem to understand the concept of a budget.” Even worse is verbally teeing up with a qualifier calculated to (a) distance yourself from the turd (“I hate to tell you, but…”), which often sounds disingenuous or (b) manage the response (“Don’t freak out, but…”), which usually has the opposite effect. Rather than feel gently enlightened, the recipient of your mixed message will either be confused or think you’re an asshole.
I hate cash. I think most people do. Life is much simpler in a paperless world. But I don’t love plastic, either—I am looking forward to Bitcoin taking over the world. Until Bitcoin is a household name, however, credit and debit cards are the next best thing. With a few caveats: some merchants only accept credit cards for values greater than a certain amount. And some merchants charge you a fee for using your credit card (it might not hurt, but it does sting). What many of these merchants do not know is that they are in violation of the law and credit card network rules.
Minimum Purchase Maximum
Thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which went into effect in 2010, merchants that accept credit cards can legally impose a $10 minimum on credit card charges. However, they must impose it on all cards (not just American Express, for example). For more information check out the article Merchants May Require Up to $10 Minimum Credit Card Purchase. And the next time you encounter a minimum of more than $10 raise a stink with the merchant. I do.
Checkout Fee Limits
In 2013 the credit card networks set a limit to the checkout fee a merchant can charge. Has a merchant ever charged you 50 cents for using your credit card to buy a soda? Unless you were buying a $12 soda, that charge was against the rules. The limit to how much a merchant can charge is typically around 4% (0% in at least 10 states). For more information read this great article: Checkout Fee: Charging Credit Card Fees to Customers. Don’t let merchants overcharge you for using your credit card.
You will get more out of life by saying yes. Not saying yes (i.e., saying no) is often rooted in fear. Perhaps you are afraid of failure. Or financial ruin, burnout, injury, insanity... It’s a clusterfuck out there, and saying yes could be asking for a big bowl of trouble. But have you ever admired someone who seems truly unbounded? Someone who eagerly accepts offers you wouldn’t even consider? Someone who confidently launches farfetched schemes? Free from the burden of doubt and worry, these people seem to be able to improvise their way through any situation. Who are these yea-sayers and have they really transcended their limits and stepped into the flow of abundance? Or have they just stepped in it?
Because as any naysayer knows, if you say yes all the time you will get too much out of life. Saying yes is like asking to be spammed. You will end up doing things you don’t want to do. If not actual disaster, you at least run the risk of disappointment, boredom, and annoyance. It’s ok to say no. Life will go on. Sure, there’s a lot of pressure—both external and internal—to say yes. People like it when you like the things they like and do the things they do. And there’s your own fear of missing out, fueled by the constant view of the other side of the fence afforded by carefully edited Facebook and Instagram posts. But it’s ok to say no if you’re not truly motivated by the opportunity. It’s ok to say no if saying yes would cause you great inconvenience. It’s ok to say no without a detailed excuse.