The Google Generation

A new generation is growing up who will never know a world without software, without Google and the internet, and without convenient online access to friends, content, and services.

What happens when they begin entering the world of work? Are workers and business practices keeping pace with the widespread changes in society?

Last weekend I had a wonderful lunch at my parents house in the company of several other family members. Afterwards, we all sat around in comfy chairs, drinking tea and reading the papers as we slowly digested the lovely food we just ate. None of this held any interest for my 10 year old Niece, who disappeared upstairs to “play” on the computer.

After an hour or so, she poked her head round the door and asked if I wanted to see what she’d made? As we sat at the computer, she treated me to a brief presentation all about her. She’d used Microsoft PowerPoint to create a set of slides incorporating clipart, colors and bullet points that described everything of importance to her – her interests, friends and family.

I was genuinely in awe.

While it wouldn’t win any communication awards, it was genuinely better than the worst corporate presentations I’ve had the misfortune to sit through. And she’s only 10 years old.

The viral-like spread of technology into every corner of our lives, coupled with an increasingly rapid rate of change, means the same skills many of us proudly display on our resumes today are taken for granted by newer generations. Work places and practices that can’t or won’t accommodate this will struggle to attract the brightest and the best, but what effect will this have on the current generation of workers?

If your key skills suddenly became common place, how would you stand out?

The Vision Thing: 10 reasons the web mirrors society

The original vision for the web might have been great, but reality is setting in, and now were left picking up the pieces, solving all the dirty little real-world problems.

In response to two recent postings by Andy Mitchell, and Paul Robinson, I’m going to lay out my thoughts on what’s been happening in internet-land of late and why. As flattered as I was to be asked by Andy for my take on events, I was reluctant to write any kind of response. In part because I broadly agree with a lot of points that both Paul and Andy raised regarding the current state of the tech industry however, unlike them, I’m neither surprised or overly concerned about it. Where I think we differ is largely a matter of personal belief and expectations, and I’m not sure that combination makes for a great response. As a subject, it lends itself too easily to personal criticism which doesn’t help anyone. Hopefully I’ve managed to avoid that, and managed to stay on topic too…

In his opening paragraph, Paul writes:

I have a problem with “the vision thing” in the industry at the moment. I don’t know where we’re going, or why. The technology – and our insight on how it can be applied – available to us has the ability to change the World, and instead we’re producing pointless crap and obsessing over details of page animations as if they alone will save the World.

I have several problems with that statement, but the one I think really matters is this business of saving the world. The vision alluded to in Andy’s post is not quite so clear, but nonetheless has similar overtones. While i think it is an admirable vision, it’s not one I share. Now, I’m not about to suggest that saving the world isn’t a worthy goal, or that there isn’t a lot of “pointless” cr*p out there on the web, but please. Not every problem in the world requires the services of a superhero. There are lots of problems out there. They come in all sizes, shapes and complexities, and solving them would make someones world a better place. Yes, solving them might not move us closer to world peace, or positively impact every person on the planet, but that doesn’t make them “pointless”. I don’t think that makes either of us right or wrong, but it does mean we have very different expectations, and seeing as how I’m not bothered by the state of things, I think it’s worth a a few words on the subject of expectations before I get to the main act.

Expectations are a tricky tool. You can use them to motivate others, but it often comes at the risk of your own disappointment. Alternatively, you can use them to motivate yourself, at the risk of disappointing everyone else. However, there is one thing about them I’ve found to be true time and again; when I’m regularly getting frustrated and depressed about things, it’s often because my expectations aren’t being met, and when my expectations aren’t being met, it’s usually because my expectations are wrong.

Expectations are a form of belief. Like habits, I think it’s healthy to review your beliefs on a regular basis and make sure they really are supporting you, and not hindering you. This isn’t an easy thing to do. People don’t form beliefs lightly, and if you ever get to the point where you suspect a belief you’ve held is not supporting you, it’s hard to admit this to yourself, and even harder to change it. I don’t know why it’s this way, though I suspect it’s because emotional commitment operates on similar principles to economic commitment – a tendency towards loss aversion means the sunk cost fallacy keeps you from making what would otherwise be the rational choice to abandon one belief and adopt another. I’m not suggesting that we should all adopt new beliefs and loseWeight Exercise old ones at the drop of a hat, there’s definitely a trick to knowing when to stick with it and when to change, but it’s also something that everyone should consider when their expectations aren’t being met.

Now, with that out of the way, lets get back to this vision thing.

Although I’m not particularly bothered by the state of the tech industry and where it’s headed, I don’t mean to imply that I don’t place any value on a good vision, far from it. I’ve already explained that where I think we differ is largely a matter of personal belief and expectations, so I guess I need to try and get to the crux of why my expectations are what they are. I’ll start by outlining my assumptions, so first up, a few rules of thumb that have served me well and seem relevant to the question at hand:

  • Grand visions go hand in hand with hard problems. Hard problems by their nature are hard, and attract few people to even begin their cause. Even fewer are successful in solving them. Think I’m wrong? Ok, how many people are on the planet? And how many of them are genuinely working on solving problems that would be considered hard? Or world saving? By contrast, so called ‘easy’ problems are trivial, and attract a much greater number of people – this is the generation of convenience, the quick fix, pop-a-pill, unnecessary-surgery, microwave-a-meal generation. None of this is bad or good in itself, it just is. It’s in our nature as humans.
  • Visions, like ideas, are worthless unless acted upon. People can think up all the grand visions they like, but unless somebody actually does something to realise them I’m afraid they’re just day-dreaming.
  • The difficulty of a problem is not always reflected by the value of a solution. Just because a problem is easy to solve, does not mean the solution can’t have significant value. The opposite can also be true. I think geeks (and I consider myself one), often forget this. Geeks tend to value intelligent, innovative solutions over kludgy hacks that just work. The key words in that last sentence are “Geeks tend to value…”, whereas the truth is that, unless you’ve taken the time beforehand to discover what your customer (or boss) actually values and then worked hard to deliver it, you’re both going to be sorely disappointed – it’s those pesky expectations again. Good enough is often, good enough.
  • Shiny new things tend to be more interesting than old dulled ones. Think back to the last time you started a sizable new project, one that would take some time, but had really great potential, nothing was set, you could do things right, make a real difference and you were really enthusiastic about it. Remember that feeling? Now fast forward about 70-80% of the way through it – still feeling as enthusiastic about it now? Or more likely issues have cropped up along the way, reality has set in, and you can’t wait to get this thing out of the way cause you’ve got this really really great new project lined up just as soon as this one is finished. And so it repeats. There are a number of reasons for this, psychological and otherwise, and I’m not going to go into them here. Suffice to say, the same applies to the web. It’s not the brash young thing it once was. Over the course of it’s young life, lots of shiny, new fields kept appearing like nanotech, biotech, ecotech etc… that are much more attractive to a new (and old) generation of visionaries than some tedious web programming job that’s probably only going to get off-shored anyway. They’re much more attractive simply by virtue of their newness, their potential, because like the early web, there is so much basic stuff to be solved and created that it’s almost hard not to have a significant impact on the field. There is, it appears, more than one way to “save the world”.

With that in mind, what broad trends have led the industry to its present state?

  • Web development is being commoditised. Thanks to the frameworks built on the likes of Ruby, Python, and PHP, the explosion of low cost hosting options and highly scalable cloud computing, it’s becoming cheaper, faster, and easier to get a simple web app onto the web. The kinds of applications most amenable to this sort of environment are not world changing, not solving hard problems (and thus more amenable to copy-cat, me-too knock-offs), but they are often viable businesses, in the sense that they generate more in worth than it took to create them. I find it kind particularly ironic that Paul singled out Guy Kawasaki as one of the people he’d like to see a response from, considering Guy’s last two web app efforts; Truemors and Alltop – both of which have been decried by the majority of the tech crowd as falling squarely into the “pointless” category. But are they? They solve a problem for a whole bunch of people and are likely to make Guy some money in the process. So does that really make them pointless?
  • Here comes everybody. With a broad tip of the hat to Clay Shirky’s book of the same name, more people are online than ever before. And guess what? They’re not geeks, techies or web designers, they’re “normal”, everyday people. They don’t obsess over web apps, Getting Things Done, or grand visions and they don’t think about “saving the world”. For the most part, they just want to book a holiday, read the latest celebrity gossip, chat to their mates, or escape to YouTube from the boredom of a zillion tv channels with nothing interesting on any of them. “Wisdom of the crowds” isn’t the same as popularity, instead the web is changing to reflect the societies who use it. In short, the web is “dumbing down” from it’s original roots, and starting to resemble the technically challenged majority, not a tech-savvy minority. That’s life. Get over it.
  • Here comes business. The masses heading online represent a new, untapped market, and where there’s a market, there’s an opportunity for profit. With the huge explosion in the numbers of people online, commercialisation of large parts of the web seem inevitable. Until things change, regardless of your politics, somebody has to pay for all the infrastructure & content, and everyone still has to make a living. Last time I checked, not many businesses had “saving the world” as part of their mission statement. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, just pointing out another reality.
  • Change is slower in the “real world”. If you you want to “save the world”, sooner or later you’re going to have to deal with everything that’s not the internet i.e. the real world. For geeks, things seem old fast on the net, even before 99% of the online public have even heard of them, and change in the real world happens even slower still. You may be able to send a tweet to 5000 people instantly, but changing long held real-world beliefs, traditions and bureaucracies happens on a different, much much longer timescale.
  • Conways law applies to the web too. Briefly, Conways law states that “Any piece of software reflects the organizational structure that produced it.” If you’ve ever written software in a large company for any significant length of time, you’ll know just how true this adage really is. Time and again the same mistakes and bone-headed decisions can be seen across numerous unrelated systems, and a significant proportion can be traced back to corporate politics, structure, hierarchy or some other control structure. The web may not be a a single software system, and it may not be produced by a single organsiation, but that doesn’t make it immune from politics and power struggles. Look at the effect music and movie companies practices are having as they try to protect their failing business models, or the net neutrality debate. The internet has already become a very different place in reaction to these kinds of battles. Whichever side of these debates you are on, one thing is clear, whichever side wins out, the internet will be a very different place afterwards.

Now, these are by no means the only trends influencing the direction of the web, and personally I don’t find that any of them are great predictors of what’s round the next corner, but between them they do go a long way towards explaining why it is where it is for me. Interestingly, after I wrote all of that, I went and looked up Tim Berners-Lee’s original vision for the web:

The dream behind the Web is of a common information space in which we communicate by sharing information. Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished. There was a second part of the dream, too, dependent on the Web being so generally used that it became a realistic mirror (or in fact the primary embodiment) of the ways in which we work and play and socialize. That was that once the state of our interactions was on line, we could then use computers to help us analyse it, make sense of what we are doing, where we individually fit in, and how we can better work together.

In many respects, I think you’d have to agree that TBLs original vision is coming remarkably close to being fulfilled. Truly remarkable, given that it’s only been around for 19 years. It’s true that not every part of the world is represented fairly or equally on the internet, but perhaps you could also argue that in that respect it actually does mirror the organisation of society, however broken you think that society be? I speculated earlier that Conways law applies to the web too, but perhaps it’s a variation on the law; Any global system reflects the social structure that produced it?

Oh, I nearly forgot, it was all going so well too, but alas there’s another, more insidious trend that’s becoming more and more apparent, and if there is a reason to be pessimistic about the tech industry right now, I think #10 is it

  • Geeks are stuck in a open-loop system. An open-loop system is one where “there is no direct connection between the output of the system and the actual conditions encountered”. As geeks we’ve built the tools to publish our thoughts, ideas and comments in long-winded rants & near-realtime to all who will listen. We’ve also built tools to consume more & more of this same stuff. And guess who uses both sets of tools the most by far? That’s right, the same Geeks who created it all – not normal, everyday people. Geeks commenting on geeks commenting on geeks commenting… and so on and so forth. If that’s not a self-inflating ego bubble waiting to burst, I don’t know what is.

And I’m not alone. Fortunately, as Dave describes, the cure for this is fairly simple remedy – a little cold turkey, and a lot of re-focusing on what’s really important.

So I’m going to end this piece by writing about something important I lost touch with and had to painfully relearn over the last 12 months – things change, people change, everyone looses their way at one time or another and needs to get back in touch with whats important to them, what they need to have in their life. Take some time out for some deep introspection, there’s no hurry, and it’s important to get it right. Stop worrying about the competition, other people, and setting your worth based on their values & interests. Figure out what motivates you, and do that. It’s not rocket science (unless that’s what motivates you, then it is I ‘spose). When you’ve figured out those 2 or 3 things that motivate you like no other, then refocus like a laser beam on those and only those things – cut out everything else that doesn’t in someway support or enhance those areas, and eat, sleep and breathe the stuff that does. Cut back your Tech RSS feeds, prune your tech contacts on twitter & IM, stop going to so many barcamp, foocamp, geekery whatsits. Pay yourself first, and be sure to spend some time on doing your own thing every day. Spend some time with real people, talking about real issues, solving real problems.

Sure, it’s no quick or easy remedy, but the best ones never are, and I guarantee it will get you back on track & all fired up like nothing else.

p.s. If you’re bit of a bookworm like me, then I’d like to recommend a few books that might help you on your journey…

“Getting Unstuck” (Timothy Butler) – this helped me to see that it’s quite normal to loose your way, to loose sight of what’s important, and gave me some useful tools to get back on track.

“Career Guide for Creative and Unconventional Peopl (Career Guide For…)” (Carol Eikleberry) – this helped me to finally realise and accept that I was far more creative than I gave myself credit fort, and figure out exactly what skills I needed to use & not use in my work to be happy.

Kathy Sierra interview

Tim O’Reilly posted a wonderful video interview with Kathy Sierra on her approach to creating passionate users, shown at the Tools of Change (TOC) for Publishing conference. If you’ve never heard of Kathy Sierra, you should definately go watch the video – I guarantee you’ll learn something. And if you have heard of her, why are you still reading this?

I’m the first to admit I’m a huge fan of Kathy Sierra and her inspirational insight on creating passionate users. Like so many others, I was deeply saddened when she announced, for very legitimate reasons, that she felt the need to stop blogging. I’ve learned a lot from Kathys writings, so it’s great to see her back in action again.

Most of what she has to say in the interview has been covered in previous posts to her blog, however during the video Kathy refers to a book I hadn’t heard of before, Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder, and discusses the value of stories and storyboarding techniques used in screenwriting to create compelling content.

This storyboarding approach sounded very similar to a presentation planning technique described in a book I own, Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, whose technique I’ve used to produce a couple of presentation to date with great success. The possibility that the same approach might be applicable to other types of content sounds almost too good to be true.

Needless to say my copy is already on order.

The first Matter Box: What is it? What’s in it?

At half-past ten on Saturday morning, a knock at the door heralded the arrival of my Matter Box.

I’d signed up last week, knowing I was well past the deadline to receive the first box, and wasn’t expecting anything to happen for a while. I was wrong. It turned up on time, as promised, so lets see what all the fuss is about…

Anti-Matterbox

In a recent link round up post on Roo Reynolds blog, he mentioned that he’d signed up for something called “Matter”, and the brief description intrigued me enough to want to know more. I followed the link to the Matter website where their copy said:

Matter is a box full of interesting stuff–a way for companies to talk to people by giving them things.

 

Matter works a little like a magazine by creating specific boxes for different audiences, except each bit of ‘content’ is in fact a different object each created by a different company. Matter works with each company to create items you’ll enjoy getting, which might be something that explains what the company does, its ideas or its values, or simply something to try out.

 

Free Stuff! Through the Post! w00t!

What it doesn’t say is what’s in it – that bit’s a surprise. Dissapointed, I looked around the rest of the site for clues. Several images scattered around on various pages hinted at the content, including one, that looked like it might just be the fabled Matter Box with it’s contents on display. The image was too small to make out most of the items, apart from what appeared to be a carton of Milk, and a Banana!?

Still intrigued, I signed up. The website had said that midnight, Tuesday 29th January, was the absolute deadline to register for the pilot, and I had waited until late Thursday evening. Even the customary sign up e-mail, in response to my registration, told me that I would get my copy of the first matter box in a few months time. I thought that would be that.

A New Hope

A second e-mail arrived on Friday, letting me know that the first Matter Box would be delivered the following morning. I hoped this was a good omen, and not a cruel taunt for being late to the game. As luck would have it, it was the former. At half-past ten on Saturday morning, a knock at the door heralded the arrival of my Matter Box.

Matter box size comparison
From the light pastel blue of the packaging, to the clever way the perforations hug the top of each letter making up the word matter on the front. Even the size of the box was a deliberate decision to ensure it fits through a letterbox. No doubt about it, a designer has clearly been at work here.

What’s inside?

Upon opening, I was immediately greeted by a small paper insert telling me to expect an e-mail asking me to complete a feedback survey in about a weeks time. Seems fair.

The contents itself was well packaged, and although not padded, the only thing in the box that might have warranted extra protection was a the shower gel sample. In my time, I’ve had more than enough shower gel containers leak in my travel bag to know just what a mess it can be. Thankfully, this one arrived intact.
What's inside the first Matter box?

Unpacking everything onto my dining table, this is what I found:

Complete content of the first Matter box

  • Stolichnaya Vodka – History of Stolichnaya Vodka booklet & Enamel Badge
  • Nintendo – Wii Wristband
  • EVO Magazine – EVO Trump card set
  • Sony Ericsson – Musc Monster plastic figure
  • Penguin / Jordans – “Cereal Poetry” themed muesli sample
  • Virgin Atlantic – Change is in the Air Calender
  • Matter – Introduction to Matter booklet
  • Original Source – Mint and Tea Tree Shower Gel
  • Sony Bravia – Play doh pots
  • Nissan – “Challenging Convention” booklet & Crayon-shaped soap

If Matter had a target audience in mind when putting this list of items together, I would have to guess at males, aged 25-35, although the soap and shower gel seem out of place. My personal favorite was “Mick”, the Music Monster, closely followed by the Enamel badge. I’m a bit of a sucker for physical character & themed objects as my shelves are starting to testify, and these fit the bill nicely.

Sony Ericsson - Music Monster -

The cereal was tasty, and a clever combination of products base on an inspired observation of breakfast behavior. However, I’m afraid I didn’t feel compelled to read the box, I haven’t read a cereal box in any detail for years, and I strongly suspect that cereal-box-readers have been a rapidly declining population for just as long thanks to changing habits and the rising number of televisions and other distractions in the modern breakfast area.

Only three of the products had connections with an online offering to speak of, and assuming my guess about the target audience was right, I found the low number and quality of the experiences very surprising. The Stolichnaya Vodka was perhaps the most engaging and original by extending the experience online through cryptic clues. The Sony Ericsson Music Monster site had plenty of features, and although I’m sure it would appeal to plenty of others, I didn’t really feel compelled to get involved.

Packaging

Clean, modern, and subtle, the design is both practical and attractive. However, although a cut above the usual cardboard box, when compared to the output from someone like Apple, acknowledged masters of the ‘out of the box’ experience, it falls just short of great for a couple of reasons.

While not actually damaged, by the time it was delivered, the had box suffered the usual scrapes & dings that afflict a packages trip through the mail. Although minor, its impact on the outward appearance upon arrival, and thus my initial impression, is changed from receiving something pristine, shiny, and new, and to receiving something clean, travelled, and worn.

Ask anyone familiar with receiving a delivery from Apple, and they will undoubtedly tell you with glowing enthusiasm about the process of opening up their new purchase. Apple carefully avoid the problem of transportation wear & tear by double boxing their items, ensuring the “real” packaging arrives in the same untouched condition as the product it contains. Admittedly double-boxing adds to the expense of putting this kind of thing together, and may not be very practical considering the goal of fitting through a letterbox, so the trade-off may be worthwhile here.

Secondly, the inside of the box doesn’t appear to have received the same design attention as the outside, and is typical of the inside of any cardboard box. It feels like they’re missing out on something by not using the box interior to continue or further the Matter concept.

Surprise!

The element of surprise played a good role in the experience too, though I’m sure it put some people off signing up until they knew what they were letting themselves in for. It’s always difficult to balance the desire to surprise and the need to inform, but I think the secrecy surrounding the nature of the content was a sound idea, and is well worth sticking with. Indeed, it opens up all manner of possibilities.

One idea would be raising pre-delivery interest by providing cryptic clues as to who or what will be featured in the next box. Another might include mixing up several different boxes, each with a slightly different content. This would help to prolong the element of surprise for everyone involved, as even if you saw the contents of a box listed on the internet, you wouldn’t know which box you’d actually received until you’d opened it. It would also encourage additional lines of communication, such as comparing differences in the items you and others received.

Engagement

In the real world, with a box full of physical, tangible products at your fingertips, conversations form freely and naturally around them, around receiving them, opening them, playing with them. This aspect of Matter seems very well thought out, and the execution supports it every step of the way.

Online is different story however – from what I can tell, the Matter box pilot wasn’t widely publicised. I only heard about Matter thanks to electronic word of mouth, but not until after the registration date had passed. It was pilot after all, so I can understand that Matter may have wanted to keep the number of participants deliberately small at this stage and not sought publicity. I can also believe I may not have been part of the target audience for the pilot, and don’t frequent the kind of places Matter was announced. I can think of any number of legitimate reasons why it didn’t appear to be widely publicised, so it may not reflect future efforts fairly or accurately.

The Matter Box has a blog which is a great start, but in the face of the rapid rise of social networking with sites such as facebook, myspace, and even real time social services such as twitter, I think they could be doing more to encourage online conversation and awareness of the concept. Where is the facebook group & app? What about a twitter account describing the ongoing process of compiling the box, and capturing live feedback on ideas and concepts?

Some of people who received the pilot Matter Box were enthusiastic enough to post photos, write ups, and even videos. If there is one thing to learn from the Pilot, I think this it. Consider the interactive and instant nature of the web, and encourage online conversation by building aspects of it in to the products and concepts. For example, Matter box could think about aggregating the fan material on their site, actively encouraging people to post about Matter, maybe offer a competition for best review / photo / video. I think Stolichnaya Vodka had the right idea here, offering cryptic problems to solve, furthering and prolonging the experience, and encouraging conversations between those who had solved it and those who had not but perhaps needed some help. I see lots of possibilities here.

While writing this I received an e-mail from Matter informing me that Tim, the driving force behind Matter, had created a Flickr group to capture peoples pictures – kudos for recognising what was happening and reacting to the unorthodox feedback so quickly.

Final Thoughts

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I signed up for a Matter Box. Would it be a of box of joy – full of goodies, creativity, and fresh ideas? or, a box of cr*p – that companies could use to dump their leftover conference schwag & supermarket samples? The secrecy surrounding the nature of content offered no clues.

On reflection, I can safely say I was pleasently surprised. The packaging was expertly designed, the concept original and well executed, and aside from the inclusion of several “product samples”, an otherwise excellent selection of items. I have no idea what conditions, budgets or other constraints conspired to influence the form of the pilot Matter Box, but they always play a significant role. With that in mind, I’d like to say congratulations to Tim and Artomatic on a great pilot, and thanks for my Matter Box.

I’m looking forward to the next one.

What do you think of the Matter Box?

Did you receive a Matter Box? What would you change? I’d love to hear from other Matter box recipients – what was your experience with it?

Introducing matterPenguin / Jordans - Cereal Poetry

Nintendo Wii WristbandNissan - Challenging Convention: Soap

Virgin Atlantic - Change Is In The Air CalendarOriginal Source - Mint and Tea Tree Shower Gel

Stolichnaya Vodka - The Unveiling Of A Russian Icon

Sony Ericsson - Music Monster

EVO Magazine - EVO Trumps

Sony Bravia - Play Doh Pots