Ideation is for Chumps

Here's an article from the ever interesting Nielsen Norman Group—Ideation is for Chumps.

It's an April Fool, but in some cases is scarily accurate. 

In my experience, ideation can be dismissed as a waste of time. I've seen people become frustrated and impatient about what they perceive to be a lack of progress—especially so when you write off new ideas and return to previous ones. But in almost all cases when someone creates a design and wants to move forward without any process of ideation, the results are bad. Use cases are usually lacking. Dependencies with other features may not be thoroughly explored. The design is probably a derivative of pre-existing solutions that don't necessarily address the root of the problem being solved. If you step back through the process for a feature that is not performing as well as it should, a lack of ideation is usually apparent.

My experience shows a correlation between successful products and features—things which people love and find easy to use—and a process that values ideation, experimentation, and iteration.


Is our reality just a user interface on top of the truth? Would knowing the absolute truth about the world limit our chances to evolve?

Some of the most thought provoking concepts and theories I've heard. Anyone who is interested at all in psychology, or thinking about thinking, should listen to this.

Then, of course, you should think about it and not blindly accept it or reject it...

Future Directions in Intelligent Sound Engineering

Back in September I was part of a panel discussion on future directions in Intelligent Sound Engineering. This was part of the 2nd AES Workshop on Intelligent Music Production, at the Centre for Digital Music at Queen Mary University of London.

Despite the shaky start (macOS hot corners!) it was an interesting and entertaining event. Thanks to all involved for hosting the event and inviting me to participate.


I came across a really interesting discussion on the importance of prioritisation from a recent episode of the Intercom podcast. There was a great use of the term ‘snacking’ to describe the potentially undesirable attraction to low effort, low impact tasks. There’s a summary here:

This work is easy to justify because “it only took 30 minutes”. And when it achieves nothing useful, it’s easy to excuse because it “took us so little time”. This is not strategy – this is flapping. Do this enough times and you’ll grow a low impact team that doesn’t achieve anything.

The default position for a smart team without a clear plan is to snack.

This is great advice. It's very easy to be tempted into doing work because it seems easy, or because it’s quick. I often hear phrases like “We should put this in because it will only take a few hours”, or “he’s working in this area, so we might as well do this at the same time”. I've certainly made statements like this in the past, and I'll probably making them again soon – hopefully recognising them for what they are at the time. These phrases usually align with work that is of personal interest to the person speaking, addressing particular personal annoyances that they want fixing regardless of their impact. It's fine to act on these statements, as long as you understand and accept the impact for your customers and your business.

Remember that for every hour that you or someone in your team spends snacking on low effort, low impact work, you’re adding an extra hour onto the release of your more important, higher impact work.

There is a counter arguement in which you’ll hear people mention phrases like “death by a thousand cuts”. The arguement is that by spending a day fixing fifty tiny (and low impact) user annoyances, you will add value to your product and make your users happier by fixing the most common small complaints. This is a reasonable arguement, as long as you, your team, and your company, all agree that this is the most effective and productive way to spend your time on that day and you accept the delay to the work that you’re not doing instead.

If not, stop snacking and keep your focus on the goal of high impact work.

As an individual atomic unit, any one of those changes is valuable, right? It’s not that the reward isn’t there. They each have a positive benefit, but they’re all small, local optimizations. They all avoid the big bet you should be making, the more complex question you should be asking yourself, such as are we growing more relevant or less relevant as a product for our users? Is the world around us changing and do we need to be aggressive in changing with it or leading our users to a new reality? A little snack here and there never hurt anybody, but trying to do nothing but eat potato chips all day will eventually leave you dead.

A Huge Little Thing at NAB

Last month, I spent a fascinating and enlightening few days at the NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) Convention in Las Vegas – the biggest broadcast–related gathering in the world.

Every year, there are many exciting and interesting new developments. This year, my favourite thing was small and subtle, but packed full of potential. It’s related to Next Generation Audio.

For you, as a consumer, there are two main benefits provided by next generation audio – immersive audio and personalised audio. Personalised audio is my focus here.

Personalised audio lets you, the consumer, manipulate a programme’s audio. Rather than listening to a static mix as you do now, certain audio elements are delivered to you separately, allowing you to interact with each of them individually. You could, for example, change the language of the dialogue, or choose which elements to listen to. When watching a sports event, you could potentially choose to listen to just the home crowd or just the away crowd. You can add and remove elements and change their balance. You don't need to worry about messing up – at any time you can press a button and set everything back to default, just as the mixer intended.

This could be an availability heuristic, but it seems that many recent complaints about audio on television appear to be regarding low dialogue intelligibility (I’d love to see some data on this if anyone has any). Personalised audio can help with this by giving you control over the level of dialog independently from the rest of the audio content – the ambience, the music, the effects. Yes, the audio should be balanced correctly in the first place, but if you have trouble hearing the dialog, just turn it up – or turn everything else down. 

This ability alone seems so important to me, and I'm convinced it will be very popular and well used by a lot of people. But a problem with all new technologies is in clearly communicating the benefits that the new technologies offer to the people who will use them. 

At NAB, I think there was a big and important step in that direction, in a subtle but very clever way. 

At the ATSC 3.0 Consumer Experience, Dolby occupied a small room, decorated to look and feel like a living room. They had a range of video and audio content to show off all the wonderful features that their new technologies will provide. 

There were demonstrations of immersive audio, making use of a soundbar rather than multiple speakers, high dynamic range, and personalised audio. They were demonstrating how to naivgate the simple on-screen menus to make use of all the new features.

In the section about personalised audio, we were shown how to use the on-screen menus to enable Dialogue Enhancement – a wonderful option that increases the level of the dialogue, and reduces the level of everything else. It made a profound difference to the clarity of the dialogue, compared to the original and already well–balanced content.

Then, someone pressed a single button on the remote. A button reserved solely to toggle dialogue enhancement on and off – and that’s when it all fell into place.

You might imagine a correlation between those who are responsible for many of the complaints about intelligibility and those who are less technically literate. I think there are probably a lot of technically literate people who are also making complaints, but for the sake of this piece – these people might be unlikely to discover functions hidden in menus. Even if they do discover such functions, they may be more likely to forget how to get back there later. But, show someone a button on the remote that with one press makes their favourite show much easier to hear – that’s a stroke of genius right out of the Jobsian playbook. 

  1. Clearly identify and understand a problem
  2. Develop an insanely simple solution
  3. Come up with a way to demonstrate a solution that goes beyond everyone’s expectations in how refreshingly easy it is to use

With a single press of the dialogue enhancement button, you hear the effect immediately. The function is clearly labelled and easy to find, maybe right next to the volume buttons on the remote. Even if you forget about it, you’re very likely to discover it again. Anyone who can change the volume of their TV can use this. 

Importantly, this is a clear and powerful feature that may help to drive sales of new consumer hardware. I don’t have any data, but anecdotally it seems consumers in general lack understanding of improvements in resolution, frame rate, dynamic range, and immersive audio, and are not given simple, clear, and compelling reasons to spend their money. Personalised audio is compelling, and offers lots of easily understandable and demonstrable benefits.

While I’m very excited about the extra potential of personalised audio in general, and there's a much wider subject of object based audio in general, helping to solve the issue of dialogue intelligibility alone makes all the work to create and implement this worthwhile. I’m looking forward to the creative new ideas we’ll see in the years to come.

Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager

I love this canny description of the differences between good and bad Product Managers. There’s always so much more to learn, and there are some great opportunities for improvement in here.

Found via Sean Daniel on Twitter. The original document seems to belong to Andreessen Horowitz. Quoted in full.

Good product managers know the market, the product, the product line and the competition extremely well and operate from a strong basis of knowledge and confidence. A good product manager is the CEO of the product. A good product manager takes full responsibility and measures themselves in terms of the success of the product. The are responsible for right product/right time and all that entails. A good product manager knows the context going in (the company, our revenue funding, competition, etc.), and they take responsibility for devising and executing a winning plan (no excuses).

Bad product managers have lots of excuses. Not enough funding, the engineering manager is an idiot, Microsoft has 10 times as many engineers working on it, I'm overworked, I don't get enough direction. Barksdale doesn't make these kinds of excuses and neither should the CEO of a product.

Good product managers don't get all of their time sucked up by the various organizations that must work together to deliver right product right time. They don't take all the product team minutes, they don't project manage the various functions, they are not gophers for engineering. They are not part of the product team; they manage the product team. Engineering teams don't consider Good Product Managers a "marketing resource." Good product managers are the marketing counterpart of the engineering manager. Good product managers crisply define the target, the "what" (as opposed to the how) and manage the delivery of the "what." Bad product managers feel best about themselves when they figure out "how". Good product managers communicate crisply to engineering in writing as well as verbally. Good product managers don't give direction informally. Good product managers gather information informally.

Good product managers create leveragable collateral, FAQs, presentations, white papers. Bad product managers complain that they spend all day answering questions for the sales force and are swamped. Good product managers anticipate the serious product flaws and build real solutions. Bad product managers put out fires all day. Good product managers take written positions on important issues (competitive silver bullets, tough architectural choices, tough product decisions, markets to attack or yield). Bad product managers voice their opinion verbally and lament that the "powers that be" won't let it happen. Once bad product managers fail, they point out that they predicted they would fail.Good product managers focus the team on revenue and customers. Bad product managers focus team on how many features Microsoft is building. Good product managers define good products that can be executed with a strong effort. Bad product managers define good products that can't be executed or let engineering build whatever they want (i.e. solve the hardest problem).

Good product managers think in terms of delivering superior value to the market place during inbound planning and achieving market share and revenue goals during outbound. Bad product managers get very confused about the differences amongst delivering value, matching competitive features, pricing, and ubiquity. Good product managers decompose problems. Bad product managers combine all problems into one.

Good product managers think about the story they want written by the press. Bad product managers think about covering every feature and being really technically accurate with the press. Good product managers ask the press questions. Bad product managers answer any press question. Good product managers assume press and analyst people are really smart. Bad product managers assume that press and analysts are dumb because they don't understand the difference between "push" and "simulated push.

Good product managers err on the side of clarity vs. explaining the obvious. Bad product managers never explain the obvious. Good product managers define their job and their success. Bad product managers constantly want to be told what to do.

Less Is Not Always More

A few years ago, I was discussing a new product feature with a colleague. What they said in that conversation had me momentarily stunned. I didn't know how to respond.

We were discussing a new design and debating whether or not to include a certain button. I wanted to add it and they didn’t. After hearing many protests about how adding this button would increase the complexity of the interface, I decided to try to understand their motivations. I asked a direct question: “do you really think that the fewer buttons a product has, the simpler it is?” Their response was an emphatic “yes”. 

I didn’t know how to respond—I was disappointed. When first asked the question, I think many people may side with my colleague. I'd like to explain why I thought they were wrong, and why I felt so uncomfortable.

An interface can be difficult to use if it has too few controls. When there are not enough controls, each control must take responsibility for multiple functions. 

Imagine a simple product that opens and closes a garage door. One version of this product’s control interface provides three buttons - open, close, and stop. Another version has one button. Which do you think is simpler for people to understand and use?

The one-button interface makes the function of the button at any time ambiguous. Consider the case when the door is closed. Presumably if I press the button the door will open. But what happens if I press the button while the door is opening? Maybe the door will stop. Now, what happens when I press the button again? Does the door continue opening, or does it start to close? What if when I press the button while the door is moving, it doesn’t stop, but instead starts moving in the other direction? Unless you memorise what the button does in each state, the intended function is not clear or obvious. The functionality of the product is so simple, yet by overloading one button it becomes unnecessarily complicated.

The three-button interface, however, is remarkable in its simplicity. Press open and the door will open. Press stop and a moving door will stop. Press close and the door will close. It’s got more buttons, but it’s much clearer.

I want to be clear that I’m not supporting the opposite position – I don’t think that the more buttons an interface has, the easier it is to use. I don’t think you should make statements like “it has fewer buttons, so it’s simpler” or “it has more buttons, so it’s simpler”. These cases are rarely binary. Every situation needs appropriate thought and a considered response.

As a different example, think about the iPhone. This seems to be used often as an example of the pinnacle of simplicity: “it’s only got one button – one Button! It’s so simple.” Despite the fact that the phone actually has more than one physical control (home button, power button, volume buttons, and possibly a mute/lock switch), it’s a pretty useless device if that is the extent of the controls to which you have access. As soon as you turn the device on, the screen fills with many rich and varied controls, all hopefully designed with an appropriate form and layout to make their function clear.

To me, the beauty and simplicity of devices like the iPhone, is that its interface adapts appropriately to the many and varied functions that it is asked to provide. If the iPhone did only have a single button, and that button somehow had to control every function the iPhone could provide, it would be far from a simple device. 

If you calculate complexity based on the number of buttons, or any type of control, that an interface has, you might consider the iPhone to be the most complicated device in existence. Many people find it to be the opposite.

The Art of Audio Mixing for Sports

This is a great piece about mixing audio for sports. It begins with an accurate description of the experience of sitting in front of the audio desk in a truck.

“Sit in front of your television,” said Phil Adler, a longtime broadcast mixer whose credits include five Olympics and a pair of Super Bowls. “Turn on your favorite show, then turn on a couple of radios and dial in two different talk radio stations; make sure to put them off to the left and right, or behind you, then bring both up in volume close to the TV show you’re watching. Oh, and turn on your laptop and start working on it at the same time! Now listen to what the director, standing on your right, has to say while the producer talking in your ear is making comments. Easy!”

It concludes with a flattering review of Calrec, from Dana Kirkpatrick:

I’m also a big fan of Calrec consoles. We use the extra headroom these boards have. I don’t even compress any more. With golf for example, there are certain things, like a driver hitting a ball, where you want every bit of level. I love everything about Calrec; the sound of their boards is excellent, they’ve got routing all figured out; the manufacturer is very easy to work with; and their software is constantly getting updated. The Artemis and Apollo are the two boards I work mostly with.

Our goal is to make life better for people who create audio. When we hear feedback like this, it motivates us all and reaffirms why we come to work. Thank you Dana – there is so much more good stuff to come.

Give the full article a read.

High Resolution Experiences

Seth's posts are often inspiring. 

Should you visit a college before you decide to go there?

Well, a one-hour personal visit is certainly visceral and emotional and it feels real. But it's also based on the weather, on the route you took to school, on the few people you met or the one class you visited.

None of this is correlated to what the four-year experience is actually like, or what the degree or experience is worth over the lifetime of a career.

By analogy, everything from how angry that last customer was on the phone to precisely how many degrees it is outside right now are not nearly as accurate indicators as we make them out to be.

It's difficult to keep your focus on the big picture, especially when you've just had a "high resolution" experience. The end of a call with a very upset customer can make their problems seem more important than anything else in your world – things that must be fixed as soon as possible, no matter what the cost. Conversely, the end of a call with a very positive and satisfied customer can leave you thinking everything in your world is perfect, hiding problems that actually deserve attention.

Find a way to step back and take a wider look at your problems can be difficult, but it could also be better for you and your customers overall.

How to Create Todoist Items Using Siri, Reminders, and Workflow

I use Todoist to manage my life. It's a really great tool but lacks one really desirable feature – the ability to use Siri to add items. I hope Apple make this possible for developers soon. Until they do, I've found a way around the problem.

When launching apps and typing is too slow or inconvenient, I can quickly capture thoughts by asking Siri to create reminders. The problem is how to get those reminders into Todoist.

I tried using an IFTTT recipe which apparently automatically finds new reminders and creates Todoist items for each one, but I could never get it to work reliably. When it did work, it left the original reminders alone. If I had alarms on those reminders, I'd still get alerts from reminders that I didn't want. I'd slowly end up with a mass of out of date reminders that I'd have to remember to delete. It was not great.

Yesterday, the Workflow App for iOS was updated with a new "Create Todoist Item" action. Perfect. I bought the app right away and created the following workflow:

  1. Get all incomplete items from Reminders
  2. For each Reminder item:
    1. Create a Todoist item in the inbox
    2. Set the Todoist item's content to the Reminder item's label
    3. Set the Todoist item due date and reminder to the Reminder item's due date 
  3. Delete the original items from Reminders

I created a home screen icon to launch the workflow, and put it right next to the Todoist App icon.

Now, I can use Siri to capture ideas by creating reminders. When I'm ready to look at Todoist, I tap the workflow on the home screen. All my reminders including due dates and alarms, are moved into my Todoist inbox, and the original Reminders list is cleaned up. It's only a tap away from having real Siri-Todoist integration, and I can live with that for now.

Here's the link to the workflow.

[edited to include correct date formatting, as suggested in the comments. The latest Workflow update also allows you to select the format of reminders, so I'm using push notifications now instead of emails]

I'd love to know if anyone finds this useful.