As has been the tradition now for a few years, I sat down with our SVP of Product Paul Adams and our Senior Director of Product Design Emmet Connolly to look back at the year that was 2019.
This year, with the ushering out of one decade and the heralding of a new, we decided to broaden the conversation and also take a look at the decade we are leaving behind and our hopes for tech in the next 10 years.
If you’re short on time, here are some quick takeaways:
If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
Des: Welcome to Intercom on Product. This is our eighth episode. I’m your host, Des Traynor, and I’m joined today by, as usual, Mr. Paul Adams. Hey Paul.
Des: And today we have a special guest who is our Senior Director of Product Design, Mr. Emmet Connolly, how are you?
Emmet: I’m feeling very special to be here, Des.
Des: You are very specially welcome.
Des: This is our 2019 look back where we’re going to talk mostly about things that happened this year, and indeed this decade. Let’s start with what I think, was one of your favorite moments of the year , Paul, the Tesla Cybertruck. You loved it. Questions?
Paul: Yeah, I’d put this in the announcement of the year category. But not for all the reasons you might expect, more for the disastrous announcement itself.
Paul: Yeah, the windows that break. Oh, okay. Next. I think it’s brilliant and I actually liked the design of it, and my point isn’t actually whether you like it or hate it. What I like is that it’s different. It’s crazy. It looks ridiculous. It looks insane and it looks like it’s from the future. I think that’s awesome because if you look over the course of the decade that we’re about to end, there’s been so much assimilation in industrial design and product design. Everything is starting to look the same.
Paul: I have the Google Pixel 4 here, my new phone – it is exactly the same as the iPhone, in hardware. Cars on the street all look the same. You can pull all the badges off, they all look the same. And next thing, it’s cyber truck time. It’s like “Brilliant, amazing.” Even if it makes people think twice about how much they hate it, that’s good.
Des: Great. I mean, I think there’s something interesting there. I think about this as it relates to, say, building aesthetic. No matter what city I’m in these days, all hipster coffee shops look the exact same. No matter what hotel lobby I’m in, they all look the exact same. There’s this epic convergence… I think maybe internet has just sped this up. Maybe it was always this way, but it does seem like that. All products, and it would be Product with a capital P in the broader sense, they’re quickly converged. It’s almost like we have this evolutionary theory of product design where we really quickly find the fitness function is established, the best is adopted and then universally it spreads, and then absolute stagnation happens, and then something like the Cybertruck comes out and says, “All right, so you have all these rules and these Bézier curves and all that. F all that. Here’s a ridiculous thing that you’d barely make with Lego.” And that’s what they achieved, in a sense. Emmet?
Emmet: As you were saying that, I was thinking about a time about 10 years ago now, I got to visit a city design studio, an innovation lab type place for a fairly well known car company. And they were designing these amazing futuristic looking Minority Report-like cars. And so I wonder what the Cybertruck will actually look like when it hits the road, if it ever hits the road.
Des: It’ll be like a Ford Focus with a subtle change or something. It’ll have those Dribbble redesigns where it’s like, “Here’s what IMDB could look like.” And you’re like, “Right, cool.” But then reality kicks in.
Emmet: Yeah. When in fact Craigslist is probably okay the way it looks.
Paul: I think it’s different, though, in that it’s not a concept car. It’s actually the car.
Paul: And people have ordered it. So I think it can’t look different, really.
Des: It’s not an AutoCAD, it’s an actual thing.
Des: Getting back onto things that our listeners might actually listen to us for. What about software products that have characterized 2019? Emmet?
Emmet: So my job here is to run the Product Design team here in Dublin and London, and Figma clearly had the biggest impact on our team this year. I think for our corner of the industry (for designers), the shift towards Figma has been a huge thing.
Des: What do you think that represents? Figma, the best I understand it is, it’s better than Photoshop and it’s multiplayer, in a sense. That’s my limited understanding of it.
Emmet: I think the bigger story is probably the move towards extremely well designed tools for getting work done. So you could probably lump the likes of Superhuman into this category as well, which at some level is just a really well designed email client for getting email done fast. That’s the other product, when we’re doing design work, the product that’s gotten the most name checking in the industry this year, in terms of “Superhuman for X” being almost a new category of product that you might build or a new direction that you might take your own product in.
Des: For sure. Superhuman has actually been called out quite a bit as the breakout product of 2019 and I think a lot of it is really well deserved. It is undeniable that we had not seen, at least for a decade, a software product emerge by an independent team, where they went to an irrational level of polish, like truly irrational. They charged what might be considered a pathological price for an email client where everyone’s base price is zero and they came in saying it’s $29 a month and people are like, “What the hell? What sort of email client could possibly be worth that?” I think the macro shift that I’m impressed by there is that people are characterizing it as luxury software.
I think in general the idea is that if you use a thing every day, or even multiple times a day, then it’s potentially ROI positive for you to invest in the best possible version of it. I think that’s starting to catch on, which is good. And then I think, should Superhuman have wild breakthrough success, it will potentially be the best case study of the ROI of software product design that we’ve seen in decades. What do you think Paul? You’re not a user, or are you?
Paul: No I’m not. I don’t use Superhuman. I suppose it’s ironic, given what you’re saying, that I’ve tried to start using it multiple times and set up the customer onboarding and ended up cancelling or postponing multiples times in a row.
Des: You haven’t gotten around to start using it.
Paul: Yeah, I’ve never gone through their manual onboarding process because it got scheduled and rescheduled and then I gave up. And the reason to give up was …
Des: It sounds like our meetings.
Paul: You don’t want to go there. The reason I gave up is that I use Gmail and I actually think Gmail is really good. What Superhuman represents to me isn’t the big problem in my life. The money thing’s interesting though because I wonder if there is a bigger thing going on here too, around people becoming more willing to pay for software. As in people meaning regular people, as opposed to businesses. Again, going back to the theme of the decade. In the early part of the decade when the app stores started to come out and people were building apps and it was a real race to the bottom. Over time I think people have started to appreciate that you need to pay for stuff.
Des: Or that good stuff is worth money.
Paul: Good stuff’s worth money. And that could be three dollars. A lot of things we buy online these days are two dollars and three dollars, and actually that kind of transactional nature of just buying stuff means we appreciate that, “Oh if Gmail is free and this thing’s better, then clearly it’s not free. Clearly it’s 10 bucks or even 20 bucks.”
Des: And that’s okay.
Des: I guess the pushback for Superhuman might be at the actual price point rather than there being a price. The idea of a price people might be okay with.
Thinking about products that we started using this year specifically. Maybe I’ll go first. At the start of this year, I was a Bear user, so Bear.app is a really, really high quality note taking app. I daresay it’s like Superhuman for note taking, although it’s a much smaller product space. Bear costs, I think, $1.49 a month, but is undeniably the single best solution to note taking I’ve experienced. It’s a small team in Italy who created it and I would guess they’re doing wildly successfully well. But it’s just a really beautiful everyday product. I’d say I use it 10 times a day. They could honestly charge, and I hope they’re not listening, but they could honestly charge 14 dollars a month and I wouldn’t really blink.
Paul: How much is it?
Des: It’s $1.49 a month, which after your Apple taxes and all that sort of stuff, makes it pretty cheap for them. However, I’m guessing that considering it’s a relatively bug free product, they could probably support millions of users and still do really, really well, and I hope they are. What would your equivalent be?
Paul: So yeah, it’s a fascinating question. The answer is Productive. I’m a sucker for the end of the year, this time of year, because I’m a big believer in the first January (even if it’s a pretty arbitrary thing someone made up thousands years ago) being a sort of reset mode. And so at the start of last year I wanted to track my life better, and the reason for that was to try and get a better balance. Am I spending enough time my kids and how much time am I spending at work? Did I do this today? Was today a good day? And did I drink too much coffee, too much booze, not enough running? These are all aspirational things that define a good life, if you’d like. So this app Productive, I stumbled across it as a habit tracker. And it has literally changed how I operate. I use it every single day. I have about 10 habits that I track in it and at the end of every day before I go to bed I just go tick, tick, tick, tick. And now I have a record for the whole year.
Des: So you design your life as to how you want to live and then just fill out a report card every day?
Paul: Yeah, and then I look at trends sometimes. Really what I’m trying to do is I’m trying to tweak… it’s kind of like the theory of nudging in habit building, trying to nudge myself all the time. We can all get up in the morning and go like, “I’m not going to drink for the whole month of March.” And in reality, life happens, whereas this thing is just nudging you. And so if I didn’t do a thing for multiple days in a row or did do a thing that I shouldn’t be doing multiple days in a row, I look at it and go, “Oh shit, I should probably just tweak my life in teeny tiny ways.” But doing it every day, I look back at the year and go, “Wow.” I don’t want to say “I did it” because it’s not really that black and white, but I’m better off as a result, to be sure.
Paul: Yeah. Emmet: It reminds me of a friend of mine who is a building architect and he was saying how one of the most important things he takes into consideration when giving people advice in their houses is to ask themselves what’s their idealized lifestyle that they want to have. If you want to spend more time reading books, make sure to design a reading nook into your house and your environment so you create those little triggers that will actually push you in that direction.
Des: What about yours? What’s your product of the year? The product you started using this year?
Emmet: You know the mattress company Casper?
Des: Did you start using a mattress this year?
Emmet: I did not. I was using a mattress before now. Casper’s been doing mattresses and then they did pillows and they brought out a bedside lamp called the Casper Glow. It didn’t get a huge amount of attention but I think it’s a really beautiful product. It’s an Internet of Things connected device, basically, is the pitch. It’s a smart night light which looks like a home pod. A very sleek, sealed thing. The interactions are really nice, you leave it on an inductive charging base and you flip it over to turn it on and off and you twist it around to adjust the brightness. The idea is that it gradually fades in brightness over time to encourage you to actually go to sleep on time. From a design point of view, one of the things I really liked about it was that it is an IOT device but it works without connecting it to your Wi-Fi.
It works as a dumb device as well, as a dumb nightlight. And I’m kind of done with IOT devices right now.
Emmet: So I didn’t do any pairing and it still works great and reminded me of graceful degradation. That idea of an escalator that stops working still works as a set of stairs. Similarly, this works really well and I don’t want to go in and change the hue or anything like that so I’m happy with how it works. And I find myself really wishing that more technology infused household devices worked that way, a bit smarter but still pretty dumb, which is what I want for most of my devices.
Des: Don’t make me fiddle with like Bluetooth for two hours only for it to sync with the wrong phone or whatever. There’s a lot of interesting things in there. We could talk about the Internet of Things and what a failure that’s ultimately been. We could also talk about Casper as probably one of the iconic direct to consumer brands in a sense, which is again something that’s kind of broken out of this decade. I think direct to consumer to me, I’ve been shocked by the idea that you can build an entire business online with a few Instagram ads and if your product is good enough, you’re good.
I was kind of skeptical of that and yet when I look around my house now, I see so much direct to consumer stuff and think, “Oh, I never realized I was buying all this shit all along,” but people were telling me, “Oh, you should buy this towel, you should buy that wallet, you should buy this phone cover.” And I’m picking them all up only to realize afterwards that actually most of the products I’ve been buying of late have fallen into that category. What other D2C stuff have either of you picked up?
Paul: Yeah, it’s going to interesting to watch where D2C goes in the next decade or even next year. I was in the Glossier store in New York City a month ago. So my wife buys a lot of stuff from Glossier. It’s direct to consumer.
Paul: Yeah. So I went into the New York store because she was like, “Oh, if you’re in New York, can you get a couple of these bits and bobs?” So in I went, and the store’s wild. It’s one of the craziest retail experiences I’ve had in a long time. This is New York. It’s on Broadway. Obviously crazy high rent. They are clearly not looking to make money off that store. It’s an experience. It’s just very hard to describe. I took photos of these robot things that deliver the goods, and it looks like a pink cave inside. It’s like the future. It’s like the Jetsons meets, I don’t know what, a pink cave?
Des: It’s for me the future in more than one way. I suspect, the mall of the future will just be a load of shop windows where you can walk in but you don’t buy a product there. You pay for the product there maybe but the product arrives at home.
Emmet: That shop sounds like more of an ad than a shop.
Paul: Yeah, totally, 100%. But what’s interesting to me is that they have the store. Why? They’re a New York company and so maybe there’s just some sentimentality about it.
Des: But don’t Warby Parker and the other places do similar? You could argue that maybe Apple who by all accounts run their most profitable stores in New York. But I bet they probably still do more revenue online. It’s an interesting transition where what used to be online was the ads, and real world was the purchase. I do wonder in the next decade will we see that actually invert. Where basically the real world is just advertisements, physical in-person advertisements, for things that you should really be buying online.
Emmet: It might also be some reflection of these things meeting some balance. Like I was talking about everything going crazy with the Internet of Things, and actually I like it being dialed back a bit. Likewise, you could argue that the future is just D2C. I’m never going to a shop again. And yet you find that Warby Parker, who would have been one of the trailblazers here, now have tons of shops around the place. Meanwhile a bunch of traditional retailers are building out their online capabilities and so perhaps these things are all going to meet in the middle in some way.
Des: The other thing your little lamp reminds me of, Emmet, is the astonishing failure of the connected home, the Internet of Things. The idea that you can WhatsApp your blender. What’s gone so wrong there? And what will it take to go right?
Emmet: Again, back to my example of “I don’t want to be dealing with my phone.” I was literally setting up nightlights for my kids. So I didn’t want to be dealing with Bluetooth connection and so on. And so the setup costs, the costs of actually getting this all working, versus the benefit.
Des: A lot of these things, taking “smart” ovens for example – at best, they have some ability to set a timer on your phone. But you can always set a timer on an oven. So the idea that you can do on your phone isn’t that remarkable.
Emmet: I think you can trace this back to your VCR from the 80s blinking 12:00 forever. Because there was no point. You could set up the timer, but it wasn’t worth it.
Des: Yeah, totally. I feel like it’s still not worth it in some sense.
Paul: I think there’s actually an interesting thread running through this. Earlier I spoke about about productive habits and nudging and now we’re into the Internet of Things or the connected home not taking off.
Another thing that strikes me about this is that the last decade’s been probably the most stimulated decade in the history of humanity. We’re overstimulated – there’s all this stuff, our phones are buzzing and our things are doing this and that. Even my phone alone, one simple small thing in my pocket, is driving me nuts half the time. The idea of having that in my house is now insane. My house buzzing left, right, and center with beeps and bops and constant noise.
Des: I remember an Alexa advertisement saying “When you come home, Alexa can read out your email.” And I’m like, “That is the last thing I want.” There’s definitely something there. I think the other funny thing is that the technology never really made it to the party. Everyone was working off their own standards and their own ideas.
I saw, was it yesterday, Apple, Amazon, and Google entered this Open Home Alliance. Or what’s it called again?
Des: Oh, sorry. ZigBee were in there too and that you can never forget. It’s called the Connected Home over IP Alliance.
Des: Yeah. This whole thing reminds me of when Android was basically shit and Google were running around the house, trying to get people to sign up for the Open Handset Alliance. And I remember reading at the time, I think it was John Gruber who said, “You don’t see Google trying to form an Open Search Alliance, do you?” There’s something valid to the idea that you set up these alliances, and it’s us against the world or whatever, when your product category isn’t winning. And what’s so unique here is that Apple are in it. Apple, everyone just presumed behind the scenes, was working on something that would have emerged and it would have looked at all the existing standards and given them two fingers. And they would have just pressed on with whatever they wanted to do and everyone else would have to catch up or get on with it. Much like they’re doing in pretty much every other area. Facetime, iMessage, you name it. We don’t care about your standards, here’s ours. Somehow this thing with Apple’s backing, Amazon’s backing and Google’s backing, you feel like if they can’t make it work, that either 2020 to 2030 will either be the decade of the smart home, or that it turns out the smart home’s just not going to ever happen.
Emmet: You’re totally right about those standards alliances. I can think of other examples like what Google did Open Social back when they were playing catch-up, when they were failing at social. But I don’t get what’s in it for them because I would have though that all of those companies fancy their own chances of being the winner who takes all. So I’m not sure why they’re doing it.
Des: I do wonder, is it that there’s just so many different products? Such that Kenwood’s going to make your fryer and Bosch is going to make your oven and Samsung’s going to do your fridge. Do Apple, Amazon, or Google think that they’re going to do all of that? Maybe it’s just easier for the three of them to agree on some protocol for a hub or maybe a home pod. The three of them have agreed effectively to divide Rome in a sense, or divide home, I guess.
I think Apple are probably backing themselves in the same way they backed themselves in the phone handset. Like “We’re going to have the best product.” And Amazon are probably backing themselves in the way they always would, which is “We’re going to have the cheapest product.” And I bet you that Google are backing themselves saying, “We’re going to be the product that 90% of the market uses and we’re going to sell ads.” And maybe all three like will win depending on the type of home you want to be in.
Emmet: They essentially care about the hubs and not the spokes.
Des: I think that’s probable because otherwise you have to go and build blenders and I just can’t see… jokes aside, there’s no way that they could actually get into building all of these devices specifically because the money’s not there. People change their fridge once a decade, they change their phone once a year.
Emmet: And conversely, the blender manufacturer is really struggling to satisfy three protocols at once.
Des: Exactly. And it turns out they’re not a dab hand at Bluetooth either. But there is an interesting thing there. This is the first open initiative in a while that I felt actually has a chance. There has been this sort of theme over the last 10 years or so of the death of openness in a lot of ways. We’ve seen a lot of this kind of buzz, where open source has dialed down a bit. Probably with the rise of SaaS and in effect the death of the file format. And everything is now like what you were mentioning with Figma earlier. You don’t send me your Figma files, you send me your Figma URLs.
I do wonder, are we looking at a future where the idea of something being open is actually relevant? We’re basically just collecting walled gardens in the tabs of our browser and never the two shall speak. Or if they do speak, it’s through some middle man like Zapier. The idea of having a piece of information in a file that controls what your design is for the next messenger home screen or whatever is just gone. It’s literally dead. What do you think?
Emmet: Yeah, I think that’s true. Definitely, if you think about it at the decade level. I think the decade before this one, you think web 2.0, everything was incredibly connected. It was very webby and certainly there’s been a consolidation of things. If I think about the file system thing, that probably has as much to do with things moving the cloud and then –
Des: The phones not really supporting them either.
Emmet: Yeah, that’s true. I suppose I’m thinking about desktop even moving to the cloud. And then the file system – no one seems to have made it work. I guess Dropbox is the exception, but their file system more so lives on your device and syncs with the cloud. Google Drive might’ve done an awful lot to kill the file because they have a file system. It’s just very hard for most people, I think, to figure out how that works. And you end up sharing URLs over Slack instead and some search is the new file system.
Des: Search plus messaging is the new browse plus explore, which is kind of crazy.
Des: Going with the idea of the decade. If you take the Time magazine sense of the word, what has been the product of the decade? By Time magazine, what I mean is, warts and all, what has been the one that would go down in the history books for tech, do you think? Let’s start with you Emmet.
Emmet: This might initially sound like a boring answer but I would probably choose Uber, given your framing. It’s not necessarily my personal favorite product or my company of the decade. Although I do think it’s an excellent product when you step back and think about it.
Des: The positive side of its impact has been huge. Even the product itself is just really well designed.
Emmet: Even the app and experience is pretty.
Des: Whenever I hear people questioning Uber, I’m like ,”Do we really think people want to go out and put their thumb out on the street?” I don’t even want to do that ever again. So clearly, no.
Emmet: It’s definitely a better experience.
Des: Undeniably a superior experience to deal with the world.
Emmet: I think their impact on our industry has been fairly outsized. There was a couple of years there where you couldn’t move for “Uber for X” startup pitches.
Des: Some of which went on to become billion dollar companies in their own right.
Emmet: And that whole category of companies that took products as merely being screen-based and purely digital and bringing the digital experience into the real world and so on. They’re probably also the poster child for like the decade that we’ve had in tech. In terms of the hubris, the growth, the insane valuation, the tech backlash. And then lastly, maybe, I think it’s the product that probably still has – in the way the car has shaped the 20th century environment to such a strong degree – still has the biggest potential, especially when you get onto the self-driving stuff, to reshape how we live on a day to day basis.
Paul: It kind of re-wired the supply and demand in the physical world, re-wired how that works. Now you’re mediating, which wasn’t possible before, mediating between people with a thing and people who want that thing.
Emmet: It ushered in the gig economy, the two sided marketplace etc.
Des: They even branched out themselves. Like Uber Eats, Uber Freight. There’ll be more like that I’m sure. They’re probably going to launch private jets and and the like if they haven’t already. And what about you, Paul? Last 10 years?
Paul: Yeah, my answer on the face of it might seem a bit boring too to be honest. The product that I think is probably the best product that I use is Google Maps. And what’s interesting to me about Google Maps when thinking about a product of the decade is that at the beginning of this decade, and even the first half of the decade, I remember giving conference talks and so on, and showing Google Maps, and what I was using it as an example for was all wayfinding. Street stuff. And I would talk about changes and how people go on holidays or vacation where they literally land in the city, have no map, no physical map, which is unheard of 10, 20 years ago. No idea where their hotel is, and they just up open Google Maps and off they go. There is the directions.
And that was the 10 year ago story, and that was amazing alone. Not on an Uber scale but similar in that it is totally changing how we interact with the physical world. And if you fast forward to today, I personally use Google Maps for a lot of things like finding a new restaurant. Maybe this is the marrying of Google search and Google Maps.
If you think Foursquare and Yelp and all these things I used to use – they’re all dead to me. It’s all Google Maps. They have hundreds of reviews for almost any business, not just food, a hardware store, or all sorts of random stuff. Even services. Everything is through Google Maps for me.
Des: Then they have all the deep links as well. You can order an Uber through Google Maps. You can reserve a scooter through Google Maps. You can basically take any actions you want, in the context of a journey. Which is pretty impressive.
Emmet: I agree. I think it’s a fantastic and fantastically well designed product. I do wonder how much more functionality it can bear before it collapses under its own weight. Because I always find myself using it in this weird mode of, I’ve managed to find my way through it, but I don’t have a clear mental model. I’m discovering it almost every time. I’m discovering how to get to what I want to get to. Another interesting thing about Google Maps is that I think they have been at the vanguard of a lot of technical innovation over the last decades. Like about 10 years ago, they were one of the most –
Emmet: Amazing Ajax apps, right? Like dynamic in-browser apps. Then sometime around the middle of the decade they switched over to WebGL, away from static pre-rendering of tiles which was an amazing technical feat. And I think a lot of the things that we were talking about earlier, like Figma, wouldn’t be happening today maybe if that hadn’t happened. So it certainly led the way. So they’ve been really good at productizing cutting edge technology and making that useful and not just the hot thing.
Des: That’s right, they have. Even Ajax itself was something where they literally changed people’s understanding of what was achievable in a browser. And right up until the AR stuff they continued to do it, it’s incredible.
If I had to pick, I’m kind of stuck between two. I guess on one hand I’d pick WhatsApp but in general I want to say messaging. Messaging’s a little fragmented but I still want to kind of just say messaging in general. I think we entered this decade mostly using SMS and we’ve exited using 27 messaging apps. Whether or not it’s good or bad, leave it to the listener to decide but I think we have shifted massively towards messaging. WhatsApp is probably the iconic one specifically in Europe, but you’ve got iMessage, Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, Instagram messenger, Kik, WeChat etc. Right? There’s been no shortage of them.
The other one, from a B2B SaaS perspective, that will define the next decade is Stripe. I think their impact on the industry is today massively underestimated and I think they’ve set in place a series of changes that will define software. If you think about it, 10 years ago to incorporate a business and start charging credit cards – those two things alone would probably take you six weeks. Today it takes you about six minutes with Atlas and Stripe.
So think about the butterfly effect of that massive reduction in pain. And they’ve also made it possible in countries where it was never possible. And I think if you play that out over the next decade, I think we’ll be looking back at their impact as it issues credit cards, point of sale systems. They’re going to keep going. I really think that we’re going to look back at this as an enlightenment of sorts for how easy it got to start businesses and I think we’ll see the dividends over the next decade.
Emmet: I think they have had one of the best missions actually of the decade. If you were to pick that as a very niche category of “Favorite mission of the decade,” it’s a great thing. But their thing is to increase the GDP of the internet or something like that, which is expansive enough to allow them to do business in a box or Delaware incorporated business in a box and point of sale and online command line tools for payments and so on. And I don’t think a lot of other companies have had that. Maybe Google had an amazing mission that really drove an incredible decade for them. And I think it definitely underscores for me the importance of getting that right at the start.
Des: I absolutely agree. I think they’re possibly working in one of the last Google sized opportunities that we’ll probably see of this 10, 20 year period.
Speaking of decades though, maybe let’s end on a real good negative note. Emmet: That’s how Des runs every meeting.
Des: What about disappointments of the decade and these can be funny or harsh. When you think about the last 10 years in tech, what has not maybe worked out as well as you’d hoped?
Emmet: Have we talked about Slack yet?
Paul: I think we should, because it’s the flip side of messaging. If messaging is the achievement of the decade.
Des: Over messaging is probably the dark side, right?
Emmet: I mean in many ways Slack would be one of my products at the decades in that it’s a brilliant product, so well designed, generated so much excitement, changed the way people worked. But you know, looking back on it, I think that they still have a bit of work to do. I at least got super excited by the motto, “Hey, email kind of sucks, doesn’t it? Well Slack can make it better.” You have this problem of email, use Slack. I feel like we all went there and now you have two problems. You’re overloaded on both and they haven’t really been able to figure out the information overload problem. The noise problem, yet at least.
Paul: I feel they’re struggling a bit from their success. I want Slack in my life versus just email for example, but it’s very hard I imagine for them to deliberately reduce engagement. That’s what it would look like on the metrics. Right. It might be a better customer experience and user experience and actually better generally if it was productivity, but it would look like a reduction. And that’s what they’d have to do.
Emmet: In that sense, it’s possibly very similar to the time well spent or I forgot what the Apple version of it is, but the screen time features that are being built into phones now where it’s like this implicit admission that like we actually have to get you to use this less for it to be better for your life. Which is hard for a company to wrap their heads around that.
Des: So I’ve actually decided to make sure we finish on a happy tone – what do you hope for Slack over the coming decade?
Emmet: I think that in order to cite something as a disappointment, you have to have been really excited about it and still some hope for its future as well. So I’d love to get to a point where we don’t have to use both email and Slack. They do seem too similar to me to warrant them being separate and so maybe they need to morph in that direction. I do think Slack has created a large opportunity to disrupt or come up with something that maybe sits in between email and Slack, whether that’s their ability to move into that space or someone else’s chance to move into.
Des: Paul, what about you? What has been maybe a disappointment of the past decade? What do you hope will change in the next?
Paul: I mean on the Slack thing real quick – and I can give you another example in a minute – on Slack, similar to what you mention with messaging earlier Des, in our personal lives messaging has changed the landscape of humanity and how we connect with each other. You can talk about this for hours; it has changed in unfathomable ways. Because we are living through this, I don’t think we will ever be able to fully comprehend it. And you can see it play out in politics that’s like a sharp edge of this whole thing. The kind of rise of “post truth” etc. So messaging has fueled that and so there’s a dark side to this too. But for Slack itself, Slack is a lot more like the live chat clients of olds than it is like a modern messenger.
And clearly email is a tool that is kind of outdated in terms of technology and it doesn’t have emoji and emoji are a very important way because so much of our expressions are now gestural, etc. We’d talk about words and so I’d love them to really understand what’s the difference between what they have, email and messaging because I think there’s actually a new product which ideally is a better version of Slack or there’s an opportunity for a new company to really embrace messaging as a concept versus live chat and create something that just maps a bit better to how people actually want to communicate.
Emmet: Is the distinction there live chat? Synchronous versus asynchronous, is that what you mean? And that Slack doesn’t work that well in an asynchronous way?
Paul: Yeah. And there’s a lot of subtlety to this, for example: expectations of reply time and how notifications create interruptions.
Des: There’s also like just human expectations as well. Say if Emmet takes a day off, I don’t feel the need to catch him up on everything that me and you discussed. Whereas with Slack it’s kind of designed that way where you’re going to probably read the whole backlog of the product design channel and see what was going on. That’s just a weird thing that it does. That is both useful and weird and it just creates this sort of FOMO sense of like, “Well I need to first of all consume all of the diatribes that happened while I was away.”
Emmet: Or worse, read it while I was away.
Des: Yeah. Even worse exactly. There’s a lot there.
Paul: Yeah, what’s interesting for me is self driving cars. If you go back three to five years ago, people were extremely optimistic with self driving cars. “Clearly it’s going to be inevitable,” people would say, and it’s clearly better on a whole bunch of dimensions and Google have lots of data about traffic jams and how self driving cars would fix those, etc. And they kind of model it all through LA and those sort of places. And if you fast forward to today, like where are self driving cars?
The technology is there, these things exist and they drive around the place by themselves, the error rate is way lower than humans. So it’s better. The data would say it’s better and yet because there’s been, I don’t know what, three deaths maybe. But by any measure incidences and accidents have been crazy low. But somehow, it was the robots who did it. It’s a sudden difference like “Whoa, no, no, no. Whoa, whoa. We can’t have that. We can’t have the robots out there driving in our cars, on our streets, killing people.” So there’s a psychology at play where things like this and people who are investing in these types of things for the future really, I think, underestimate the impact that small changes like that can have.
Des: They’re like the new shark attacks in that sense. They’re ridiculously rare but massively over publicized. And as a result they create or generate a lot more paranoia or fear probably than is probably proportionate versus something like just texting and driving, you know?
Emmet: So there’s maybe a lesson for people making products. They’ve possibly passed the point of confidence where the biggest challenges for them are technological challenges. Get the thing to drive well in all these different situations. There are also social acceptance challenges, regulatory challenges. And then you look at something like Facebook and and the woes that they have enjoyed over recent years and you’re like, “Oh, it’s a similar thing.” And so this is a lesson of thinking about the much broader context.
Des: How do we change the narrative or how do we aggregate the stats of self-driving hours without any accident? How do we make it really clear to anyone who wants to be paranoid that they can’t be, because actually these things are massively outperforming humans?
Paul: And just how do we talk about these things? This is what I said with instant messaging, we do not understand the impact messaging has had out in the world yet and won’t for 10, 20 years. So our inability to be able to catch up with that kind of holds all these things back.
Des: So your hope is that we can get a more proportionate sense or at least accelerate our ability to understand and thus analyze more maturely.
Paul: Yeah, I kind of went to a depressing place there. On a hopeful note, I hope we just get better at these types of things… We’re in this kind of global cycle at the minute between Brexit and the U.S election cycle and where we’re actually learning, independent of how you feel about those thing, whether you feel strongly one way or the other, we have millions and millions people who feel strongly in both camps. Independently of how you feel about it, we’re going to learn a lot from this like phase of human life. Because we’re going to come out the other side knowing a lot more about the psychological impact of these technological developments.
Des: Yeah. And ideally that will feed back in and make us better designers.
Paul: And the hope is that we learn from us as a society and can actually make positive changes and don’t get dragged into the things that our old brain naturally gravitates to, the kind of fight or flight type mentality. So I’m optimistic and hopeful that we can actually learn from these things.
Des: That would be a small Christmas wish. All of society accelerates its ability to learn!
Emmet: We should check back in 2030.
Paul: If we’re still here.
Emmet: Check back in 2030 and see if you’re right.
Des: Okay, cool. Thank you very much, Paul. Thank you, Emmet and happy holidays to all of our listeners.