Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Hazards of Magic

Designers and people who admire designers have been talking for awhile about this concept of "magic". That is, making a product that feels so magical it doesn't matter that it wasn't the first in it's field or even necessarily the most powerful, but that it brings things together in a way that seem really intuitive, beautiful and magical. This has become so common that I no longer know who generated this theory. Apple is widely held to generally produce magical devices, devices that work really well, are seamlessly integrated, and that are beautiful. The iPod wasn't the first digital music player, but don't tell that to legions of people who think it is the only music player. The iPhone wasn't the first smart phone, or even the most powerful, but it just worked and felt intuitive. Or at least that's what people tell me. To be honest I've always been partial to Android and not just because I'm tribal. But that's not important here.

Google also has that magic in web search or Google Earth. People look at it and just marvel. Old time GIS people are often frustrated by Google Earth, for instance, that they were doing maps and looking at satellite imagery, and if you just downloaded ArcView, and installed....and at that point they've lost the magic. No offense to ESRI products, they make some great stuff and for analysis there is nothing that beats them, but there isn't that easy, intuitive use to it that you find with Google's mapping products.

"Magic" often distracts people from the limitations of a device or site. Apple's products tie you into using iTunes for instance, and lock you into a platform. But people who love iPhones will line up to buy a new white version of the iPhone with little or no feature updates. Just because it's white. I'm not blaming them, it's an amazing job that Apple has done, creating that desire for a white iPhone you never knew that you had.

Netflix had the magic too, right? They have a really amazing recommendation engine, far better at surfacing movies and shows you wanted to see than any other similar site. Amazon, in my view, comes closest and their recommendations for movies and their interface are just terrible compared with Netflix. No one cared that Silverlight was being kept alive by Netflix, and we paid a nice premium to have it on a variety of devices. Ooops, can't view it in Australia, well there's always VPN right? The number of movies available, and free, and in the early days their ability to get you movies sometimes the day after you returned yours was truly magical.

Well, that's gone right? The hazard of magic, I think, is that when you lose it you really lose it. The vehemence that people reacted with was really incredible. There's been a lot of analysis of why this happened. There's an interesting piece on O'Reilly today about What publishers can learn from Netflix's problems. One of the singular moments in the whole thing was, however, when Netflix reassured us that DVDs from Qwikster would still be in the little red envelopes. The Oatmeal had a great comic on that. That was the moment the magic was gone, when people started screaming about that. The distraction, the attempt to get users to focus on things that don't add functionality, to create a mystique around a small aspect of the brand, had failed miserably.

I'm not sure United Airlines ever really had the magic. I fly a lot, and ended up on United flights frequently in the last year. They merged with Continental, and at the beginning of every flight in the last 6 months, they would put up a video with the president of United extolling the virtues of the merger. What were those virtues? Well, they were repainting planes. That's right. Continental planes were being repainted to United planes. By the third time I saw that video, which I couldn't get away from, I wanted to scream. Untied has an aging fleet of planes. Mostly uncomfortable, with TV screens placed above our heads in the ailes instead of in the seat backs, uncomfortable chairs, and food that is usually pretty bad and that you have to pay for. But they are a low cost airline that goes everywhere and has a great frequent flyer program with lots of partners. What I wanted to hear about was their plans for modernizing their fleet, or providing more leg room, or something like that. No magic at all.

OK, so what's the lesson of this? If you've got magic, you can get people excited by surface changes and get them to look away from your problems. If you lose that magic, or never had it, don't focus on the surface, focus on what people care the most about. In Netflix it was the price and then integrated app, DVDs and streaming together, working on fast, easy, and nice delivery of your product, video, to every platform. In United's case, focus on what's working for you and don't keep talking about appearance. People don't care about that as much as you think. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The School of Information's Alumni Day: What I said and wish I'd said

In 2006 I graduated from UC Berkeley's School of Information. One of my professors, Bob Glushko, who runs 202, the Information Organization and Retrieval class, invites alumni to come back every year and discuss what they've done with their education. I thought I'd write it up as a blog post incorporating what I said, my responses to some of the questions, and a few bits I wished I'd said:

Bob wants me to talk about how this class helps me with my work, and I'll certainly be doing that. But I also want to talk about how your two years here will inform the work that you do, since these are probably two of the most important years of your life.

I'm Mano Marks, a Developer Advocate at Google. What that means is I travel the world helping Developers put Google Geographic technologies on the sites, and advocating on their behalf with the engineering teams. People who graduate from the School of Information have gone on to be user experience researchers, designers, coders, policy wonks, product managers, directors, developer advocates, academics, lawyers, and much more. They work at Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, startups, design firms, consulting firms, nonprofits, think tanks, for the government, and many other places I haven't thought of.

Back in 2004 when I started at what was then the School of Information Management and Systems, or SIMS, we were trying to figure out what the program was. One of my classmates, Benjamin Hill, who taught 290TA the Information Organization Laboratory this semester, ran a survey asking people what their elevator pitch for SIMS would be. The answer that won was something like "Mumble it's interdisciplinary and walk away." SIMS, now the I School, was in search of itself. No one knew exactly what we were doing. But at the same time the professors, and hence the students, were passionate about it. I hope that hasn't changed. The dynamic tension inherent in the exercise of what-are-we-doing drove innovative new approaches and discussions that I still value today.

What does 202 do for you? What it did for me give me a greater sense of the whole picture of organizational practices. We can get lost in the details of a particular system, which database we use, whether to use Python or Ruby, all the fascinating and fun details for geeks. But what 202 got me to do is look at an organization as a system built on top of information flows. How information flows internally but also how it flows in relation to external partners and customers.

This helps me in my daily work, working with external partners who are using Google's mapping products. It helps me see, and hopefully communicate to them, that their maps are not just a map slapped up on a site, but rather a way of communicating information to their partners and customers, and gathering information from them. It is a part of an entire ecosystem of data that their company/organization/loose network uses, consumes, and produces. Our maps (or substitute your own application or document format) don't just have to be artifacts or dead things, but living interaction devices.

But beyond 202, beyond the underlying data and information flows in an organization is a whole context that the organization exists in, a legal and sociological framework that shapes and guides it. That context is what the rest of the I School experience is about. Understanding that context, and how it relates to the core concepts of 202 is what the School of Information is all about. Or at least, that's my proposal. Please challenge that, after all I'd hate for there to be a last word on what the I School is or does.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Some quick links

Experimenting with different ways of distributing links. Mostly I do it using Google+ but I get concerned I post too much there, so here's some stuff I'm reading today:

WebGL Playground: a great tool for playing with WebGL code, allows you to change things live and see the results.

Hangout-3d: Demo code for using WebGL in a Google+ hangout.

Porting 3D graphics to the web: Opera tutorial. Shows techniques for porting 3D graphics from commonly used 3D graphics programs to JSON to use in WebGL.

These were pulled from Learning WebGL.

Latest imagery updates in Google Earth

NORAD Santa Tracker Coming