Department of Design

Curated by Timoni West.

Primarily focused on product design, technology, cognitive psychology, and the brain. Also—pretty pictures, sometimes moving.


Posts about startups
September 26th, 2014
Here’s how venture capital works: you go to an investor, before you’ve even built the thing you’re building and you tell them how you’re going to exit. It’s called an exit plan or exit strategy. You tell them, for example: “Hey, we’re going to get 100 million people using our new platform in two years time, how much will you give me for 100 million people?” And they go “Umm, we’ll give you this much for 100 million people because we’re pretty sure we can get that amount back several times over when we sell those 100 million people in an exit either to another company or in an IPO.”

When you take venture capital, it is not a matter of if you’re going to sell your users, you already have. It’s called an exit plan. And no investor will give you venture capital without one. In the myopic and upside-down world of venture capital, exits precede the building of the actual thing itself. It would be a comedy if the repercussions of this toxic system were not so tragic.

Let me put it bluntly: if a company has taken venture capital, you have already been sold. It’s not a matter of if, it’s simply a matter of when. (Unless the company goes under before it can exit, that is.) A venture-capital funded startup is a temporary company that has to convince enough people into using their platform so that they can make good on the exit they promised their investors at the very beginning. It is the opposite of a long-term, sustainable business.

 Ello, goodbye. by Aral Balkan .

I signed up for Ello and I dig it, so I’m not quoting this to knock Ello. But Balkan isn’t wrong, and that’s sad. I have devoted my life to making products on a platform so ephemeral people still don’t want to pay for things on it.

September 10th, 2014
Burnout is about resentment," Mayer told the audience at 92Y. "[Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful.

How Google’s Marissa Mayer Prevents Burnout |

I don’t agree with Mayer about everything, but I agree about this.

August 13th, 2014
…No one WANTS to use ads as their business model and they kind of assume they will come up with something better and then they don’t.

Concern-trolling the entire media, by Meghan O’Connell.

I’m always flabbergasted that more products don’t go the subscription route, but then I remind myself I didn’t want to pay $5 a month to use RunKeeper instead of Nike Running. Just didn’t seem better enough, unlike Dropbox or Instapaper.

Which illustrates the point: If your product is not noticeably better, you will lose customers if you go subscription. This has been true for newspapers and media forever.

July 28th, 2014
July 24th, 2014
In the early days I would often let potential customers think we already had a feature they wanted and, if they signed, would come back to the team and say “we’ve got to build this before they launch!” No harm, no foul, I thought, so long as we knew we were able to build the feature before they started using the product. This is a tactic commonly suggested by lean practitioners. My co-founders, though, would often frown on this behavior, worrying it was unethical, causing a huge amount of tension to grow beneath the surface.

Mistakes You Should Never Make

This is incredibly key. Having a cofounder come back after a meeting with clients or investors and re-prioritize features—or, worse, the whole product road map—is the biggest single moral-killer outside of actual layoffs or bad working conditions.

This behavior is almost unethical—not because the founder is being dishonest with customers; they might get the feature done in time. But the founder is ignoring and devaluing their team, who have likely already set up a thoughtful product feature road map that is being ignored.

(This assumes you have a product road map, of course. If you don’t, then by all means build out a product piecemeal based on potential customer whims; it’s as good a goalpost as nothing. But instead of more customer meetings, you should likely sit down and figure out what you’re doing.)

July 23rd, 2014


Work update: Pop recently passed my ‘meal with friends’ design test: my somewhat jaded friends caught a glimpse and asked, “Woa, what is that?”. It made me really happy! You can sign up for our beta now:

Super-psyched about this.

March 20th, 2014

Short of some weekend hackathon you did with your buddies or an internal tool your company uses that took off unexpectedly, every feature of any product you intend to sell or monetize should strive to be as polished as reasonably possible and function just as your end-user expects it should.

Don’t be one of those startups that delivers broken features with the excuse, “It’s just the M.V.P., we’ll fix it later.” Man up, admit it isn’t good enough, and fix it now.

Otherwise, you’re missing the entire point of the M.V.P. in the first place - to iterate quickly on small features based on customer feedback and measurable data. If it doesn’t work right in the first place, the only feedback you’ll get is likely what you already know.

M.V.P., not M.V.P.O.S.

The tide has already gone this direction, so I don’t need to expound much. But it’s true that releasing a MVP at this point is not the same as releasing a MVP in 2007. Unless your product is genuinely new, has no competition, and is absolutely needed, your MVP needs to focus on what features will make it ‘viable’.

March 9th, 2014
February 19th, 2014
…When you’re struck by inspiration and want to build something, you should use whatever you know. Trying to learn something new will kill that inspiration and the frustration of not being able to build what you want will kill the project. Learning new things is reserved for times where you want to expand your creative sphere, need to solve a problem you can’t solve with what already you know, or are feeling stuck/uninspired with your current toolkit.

Breaking Through Mental Blocks & Learning New Things, by Jenn Vargas.

I post this because Vargas is one of those rare people capable of independently executing ideas, which she does on a regular basis. This post not only has good advice, but some interesting insight into her process, and how she remains capable of constantly learning and producing new things.

February 12th, 2014
The rate at which web users consume and discard new apps is accelerating. Proof of that is clear: Chatroulette was popular for around nine months before users lost interest in its often-lewd content., which exploded in the summer of 2011, peaked that fall before people tired of its novelty interface. It was popular for long enough to raise $7 million in venture funding before finally shutting down late last year. Draw Something, a game which took off in early 2012, climbed the App Store rankings for just six weeks before Zynga (ZNGA) acquired its parent company, OMGPop, for $200 million. Almost immediately after the deal, the app began losing users. Recent viral hits which the jury is still out on include Snapchat, Vine, and Frontback, a photo-sharing app which gained traction over the summer but has been quiet since. The moral is: The majority of viral apps and companies have ended up as losers.

How long can you keep a Secret? - Fortune Tech

This is something I’ve noticed, but from from another direction: discussions around popular apps losing younger users.

Younger users are quick to jump onboard with trending apps. But they are not the biggest online spenders—that’s baby boomers—and they are likely to discard an app once it’s perceived as less cool. (Just a guess here, but likely it gets ‘less cool’ when the older, financially solvent user segments come along.)

In short: apps are currently evaluated and funded based on their popularity with a cash-poor, fickle user segment. VCs and financial analysts are not only aware of this, but have decided those are ideal metrics on which to base their investments.

Clearly it is to their advantage to invest in a briefly popular app rather than an app with a smaller, more stable user base. Which begs the question: why even pretend most popular apps have a future?

November 18th, 2013

Product design. This is my definition, at least. The term is being used to describe any interface designer who happens to work on a product, which is unfortunate, but I’ll keep using this one.

But why us? Why should designers be in these roles? Well, one immediate answer is simply that I would like to be in control over the future I’m building. Right now, many of us can only change our answer to Wilson’s questions by just quitting and finding a new job where we’re bought into the vision.

But deeper, I think this is something designers can be really great at. We already understand how to induce utility, delight, motivation at the level of the interface. Expanding that toolset to apply to the bigger picture is not a huge leap.

This is a way of thinking about design that’s growing in popularity, but I recognize that it’s still a minority, maybe even an extreme minority. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic. When I look at the major shifts in our field over the past years — user-centered design, standards-based design, responsive design — years of advocacy have led to genuine, sustained progress. I’m confident we’ll get there.

April 2nd, 2013
Startups are run by people who do what’s necessary at the time it’s needed. A lot of time that’s unglamorous work. A lot of times that’s not heroic work. Is that heroic? Is that standing on a stage in a black turtleneck, in front of 20,000 people talking about the future of phones? No. But that’s how companies are built. That person who did that for the iPhone launch at Apple, we don’t know who he is. All we know is that Steve Jobs came up with the iPhone. But he didn’t ship it. The person who bought the donuts did.

The Silent Partner, a really wonderful interview about Jason Goldman, product manager at Twitter, and cofounder of Obvious Corp.

March 29th, 2013
Entrepreneurs: build your product, not someone else’s. The most successful products execute on a vision that aligns with their product’s and users’ goals. It’s hard to put blinders on when your stats are slowly coming down and you see other startups skyrocketing around you with various tactics and strategies. For the love of god, put them on. It’s the only way to build what you should instead of chasing others’ ideas.
December 14th, 2012
The project aims to draw attention to the fact that if you have access to technical labor, the startup and operating costs for an online project in 2013 are negligible. The biggest obstacle to creating something useful is finding the time to build it and attracting an initial pool of paying customers.
October 25th, 2012

Do you ever worry your Flickr photos may vanish? Or wish that you had a better way to browse your old Instagram photos? Or that you could easily jump to a past date and see where you were on Foursquare. Or that Twitter’s archive wasn’t such a miserable wreck and you could actually search your old tweets or, well, do anything useful with your messages that were more than a few days old? Meet Recollect. It’s here to save your social media, in more ways than one, and it’s officially in an open public beta now.

Recollect acts as both an archive to back up your tweets, photos, and check-ins, and as a discovery engine that puts a pretty Web-facing skin on your social media services that’s both searchable and browsable by date. Right now, it works with Flickr, Foursquare, Instagram and Twitter, but the company says it has plans to add more services. Facebook, for example, is on its list of future services.

Recollect came from the founders’ vision that although we’re sharing so much as it happens, the things we post online tend to be ephemeral and largely vanish after a few days. ”We’re all sharing more now than anyone ever did in the past,” founder Chris Martin told Wired. “But for most of the services we use to share, the primary use is real time. But you’re telling your story, and we hope that Recollect can become a place where you can go back and revisit that story and all that content you created.”

Recollect works like this: Sign up for one of its (paid) plans and authorize it with your various services, and it imports all of your posts (or, in Twitter’s case, the most recent 3,200, the limit set by Twitter’s API), as well as the associated social data, such as comments and likes. After you set things up, Recollect continually collects your new tweets, photos and check-ins–as well as comments and interactions–and rescans your older posts. So if someone comments on one of your photos a few weeks after you posted it, Recollect will grab that, too. It’s built to take advantage of push APIs when possible, but it also has a nightly job that runs and checks for updates. It also lets you download all that data into a zip file to your hard drive.

Recollect Gives Social Media Ephemera A Permanent Home | Gadget Lab |

My company, Recollect, is going into public beta today. Mat Honan at Wired did an amazing write-up.