How to Start a Startup

Stanford University is teaching a course on startups, called “How to Start a Startup”. Several universities across the world are streaming it in groups. In Stockholm, the first lecture was streamed yesterday at SUP46 (Start-Up People of Sweden). Here are some notes from the event (speakers: Sam Altman and Dustin Moskovitz).

What you need to have a successful startup

  1. A great idea.
  2. A great product, based on your great idea.
  3. A great team.
  4. A great execution.

The idea is very important:

  • Competition won’t kill your startup. But if you don’t have a great idea, you won’t go far.
  • You need a real problem to solve, and you need to be passionate about it.
  • You need to think about market: start with a few users who really love your product; they’ll give you feedback. Then expand. The first users will spread the word and you’ll end up with a lot of users. But the market has to be real: you need to do something people want and care about.
  • Good startups are based on good ideas that seem bad at first (see Facebook, or Google).
  • Ideas comes from problems in everyday life. Find a problem, something that doesn’t work: there’s an opportunity there.

Why do you want to start a startup?

Expectation:

  • You’ll be your own boss.
  • You’ll have flexibility.
  • You’ll make more money.
  • You’ll have a bigger impact.

None of this is actually true.

Reality:

  • You’ll have a lot of bosses: employees, users,  partners, etc.
  • You’ll work 24/7. Being an entrepreneur is not easy.
  • You can become rich by being an employee at a good company, instead.
  • You can have greater impact by being an employee at a good company.

So, why do it? Because you need to. And because you’re passionate about the problem you want to solve.

Reading online

The experience of reading online has changed through the years and the whole “people don’t read online” thing may not always be true—if only because the word “online” means something different now. However, as our sources of reading material become more and more digital (real books vs. ebooks, papers vs. websites, notepads vs. tablets or whatever, etc.) we may end up missing one important tool: tangibility.

Maria Konnikova has a great article about it in the New Yorker:

We don’t read the same way online as we do on paper. […] The contrast of pixels, the layout of the words, the concept of scrolling versus turning a page, the physicality of a book versus the ephemerality of a screen, the ability to hyperlink and move from source to source within seconds online—all these variables translate into a different reading experience.

Moreover, when reading online we lack physical contact with the reading material; we’re also exposed to a constant change of context and layout and design, leading to additional cognitive work:

The font, color, and size of text can all act in tandem to make our reading experience easier or more difficult. And while these variables surely exist on paper just as they do on-screen, the range of formats and layouts online is far greater than it is in print. Online, you can find yourself transitioning to entirely new layouts from moment to moment, and, each time you do so, your eyes and your reading approach need to adjust. Each adjustment, in turn, takes mental and physical energy.

It’s not only reading that gets better with paper: researchers recently reported that taking notes by hands helps long term comprehension and keeps you focused.

Moving forward, though, we shouldn’t be forced to discard either paper or digital: taking the best of the two to create a tangible digital-enhanced experience should be our goal.

Photography in the digital age

Can The Printed Photo Ever Regain Its Former Glory? asks Ainsley O’Connell in a piece about a new startup that “wants to bring the physical photo back by streamlining the photo printing process with automated monthly deliveries”.

It’s an interesting idea, but someone had a better one, focused on serendipity: Photobox, an actual box that “searches it’s [sic] owners flickr account for photos that have been organized in some way and, picking one at random, prints the photo out internally using the small photo printer contained in the lid”. The researchers behind the project wrote a paper about it and won a Best Paper Award at CHI 2014.

They describe three stages of interaction over time: “initial excitement in the first few weeks, followed by tensions that emerged around a lack of control over the prototype, and, eventually key moments of acceptance as the Photobox settled into everyday life”. It’s a fascinating read if you’re interested in affective computing and slow technology.

These ideas remind me of something Donald Norman wrote about the value of photography in his book Emotional Design back in 2005: photography is powerful because it elicits memories, but printing can be a tiresome process and only few people bother with it. How to make it easier to search for the right picture among a multitude after years? The more pictures we take, the more difficult it is.

The power of personal photography lies in its ability to transport the viewer back in time. […] Numerous studies have shown that the work required to transform a picture in the camera into a print that can be shared defeats many people. […] The design challenge is to keep the virtues while removing the barriers: make it easier to store, send, share. Make it easier to find just the desired pictures years after they have been taken and put into storage.

Don’t listen to users

Tomer Sharon from Google recently gave useful advice to app developers, stating a golden rule of effective user experience research: never listen to your users.

The first rule of research is don’t listen to users. Instead, observe their behavior.

In fact, that’s the main difference between user research and market research:

Market research focuses on opinions and preferences, whereas UX research focuses on behaviours.

— Nate Bolt and Tony Tulathimutte in Remote Research (2010)

A book on the subject: Observing the User Experience by Elizabeth Goodman, Mike Kuniavsky, Andrea Moed.

Reading list: UX roles, good typography, Android L

Interesting articles I read in the past week:

Reading list: IA vs. navigation, backups, crime in Scandinavia

Interesting articles I read in the past week:

Book notes: “Emotional Design” by Donald Norman

I read The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman quite some time ago, but I never had the chance to read his follow up Emotional Design.

While not being as great, the book is really ahead of its time and still worth reading: a lot of the ideas discussed here are now part of reality. For example, Norman predicts “that automobiles will drive themselves. When? I have no idea: it might be twenty years, it might be one hundred.”

The second part of the book, however, spends too much time with robots, wondering about futuristic predictions that will not come to be for centuries at least. I can see why emotional robots are appealing (we’re still trying to create them today), but more concrete examples would have helped.

That being said, there’s still a lot to save from it.

Some useful definitions of different levels of design:

  • “Visceral design is about initial reactions, […] immediate emotional impact. It has to feel good, look good. Sensuality and sexuality play roles.”
  • “Behavioral design is all about use. […] The very first behavioral test a product must pass is whether it fulfills needs.”
  • “Reflective design > Self-image, personal satisfaction, memories.”

Why some products will never be satisfactory:

With the large range of individual, cultural, and physical differences among the people of the world, it is impossible for a single product to satisfy everyone. […] The only way to satisfy a wide variety of needs and preferences is to have a wide variety of products.

Why physical feel is important (yet, it’s mostly missing from our devices):

Physical feel matters. We are, after all, biological creatures, with physical bodies, arms, and legs. […] Touch, vibration, feel, smell, sound, visual appearance. And now imagine doing all this on a computer screen, where what you see may look real, but with no feel, no scent, no vibrations, no sound.

On social interaction and the fear of distraction:

William James, the famous philosopher/psychologist, once said that his attention span was approximately ten seconds, and this in the late 1800s, far before the advent of modern distractions. […] If all my friends were always to keep in touch, there would be no time for anything else. Life would be filled with interruptions, twenty-four hours a day. […] We need technologies that provide the rich power of interaction without the disruption: we need to regain control over our lives.

An anecdote about the telephone:

The telephone was thought to be an instrument for business, and in the early days, telephone companies tried to dissuade customers from using the phone for mere conversation and gossip.

And finally, the tie between usability and emotions:

Emotions are inseparable from and a necessary part of cognition. […] Usable designs are not necessarily enjoyable to use. […] Being happy broadens the thought processes and facilitates creative thinking. […] Things intended to be used under stressful situations require a lot more care, with much more attention to detail.

If you need a more recent, practical book about emotional design you can try Designing for Emotion by Aarron Walter (A Book Apart, 2011).

The Turing Test is outdated

A lot has been written about the Turing Test in the past few days, following the news that a computer allegedly passed it. It actually didn’t. But that doesn’t matter.

As Bennie Mols explains, the test is nowadays too old and trivial to be meaningful:

The Turing Test has become an icon of popular culture, but it is too vague, too controversial, and too outdated to consider a true scientific test. […] It does not measure our progress in artificial intelligence. It is too much of a competition of humans against machines, where our current reality is one of humans cooperating with machines. Some things are done better by machines, others by humans. We should look for the best form of cooperation between the two.

Besides, Alva Noë writes on NPR, Turing’s goal was different:

It was never Turing’s aim to devise an empirically robust way of telling whether someone or something is really thinking. Can a machine think? For Turing that question was, as he wrote, “too meaningless to deserve discussion.” What is “thinking” anyway? We can hardly hope to make that notion precise.

So, artificial intelligence still has a lot of progress to do.

Book notes: “No Place to Hide” by Glenn Greenwald

Last Thursday, June 5, saw the launch of the Reset the Net campaign, aimed at making people aware of the importance of privacy. The event took place one year after the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden.

No better time than this to read No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald. It’s the story of how Greenwald (along with Laura Poitras) met Snowden and later arranged for the documents to be published. The story itself is so good that it’s obviously going to be a movie (“This is a surreal international thriller set in Hong Kong”, Greenwald writes at one point).

Don’t expect anything new from the book, though. If you followed the news, you know what Greenwald is talking about.

The essential take is that privacy is a right:

Privacy is a core condition of being a free person. […] If you believe you are always being watched and judged, you are not really a free individual. All oppressive authorities—political, religious, societal, parental—rely on this vital truth, using it as a principal tool to enforce orthodoxies, compel adherence, and quash dissent.

Being watched changes our behavior:

Literature on hand washing has repeatedly confirmed that the way to increase the likelihood of someone washing his or her hands is to put someone nearby.

Also, any justification given for mass surveillance falls short when you realize this:

More American citizens have “undoubtedly” died “overseas from traffic accidents or intestinal illnesses than from terrorism.”

It puts things in perspective.

Successful Responsive Web Design

Responsive Web Design Weekly this week has an interview with Stephen Hay, author of Responsive Design Workflow (a book in which he describes a possible workflow to develop responsive websites: it’s quite good, I used it for my thesis project).

Hay makes a good point about judging a responsive website:

I think a good responsive site is simply a good website that is also responsive. If a site is a pain to use but it is wonderfully responsive, then it’s still a pain to use and responsiveness has no bearing on that fact. Responsiveness is ultimately a single facet of a successful website.

Side note: on the subject of HTML wireframes, which Hay discusses in his book, Brad Frost has written an article, highlighting their many advantages.