Stuck users

Getting user experience design right is all about getting user flows right.

The first question when it comes to optimizing flows is asking – how would a user make it from one end of the process to the other? This is important because every added step or inconsistency results in drop offs.

An oft-overlooked second question is – where do users get stuck? Or, put differently – where are user dead ends?

User dead ends typically happen due to two reasons –

  1. No “escape” button
  2. Poor error notifications

No “escape” Button

The early version of Windows got the “escape” button idea right. If you weren’t used to computers, you had a way out of whatever hole you had dug yourself into. Apple did this well in their first decade with the iPhone. You were never stuck on an iPhone because the button always offered you a way out.

The lack of an escape button is all too common in customer service processes. For example, I keep getting stuck at this screen when trying to get to the results of a case dispute I filed with Equifax. The only escape here is “Please try again later” because there is no easy link to contact them directly.

Poor error notifications

The first iterations of Windows were legendary for poor error notifications. An error on Windows might say something like – “X000snjksfn9843940 – Bad command.”

Of course, this meant nothing to a user. Luckily, Google searches and forums helped solve these problems. But, if you weren’t internet search literate back then, you were in trouble.

I experienced a version of this issue today thanks to our HP Laserjet printer. It is cliche to say you are troubleshooting printer issues at your parents’ place. But, that is exactly what I was doing. The error, it turned out, was, well, “Error – Printing.”

That’s helpful.

We solved the issue by unplugging and re-plugging the printer. While it amazing how many problems that solves, an error notification that says nothing is a recipe for stuck users.

In the know

Ryan Stephens, a long time reader and friend of this blog, shared 48 of his favorite quotes from 2017 recently.

A quote that stuck out to me was from Dave Pell – “The notion that you need to know about world events right when they happen is a marketing creation of media brands.”

The first order consequence of the quote is to cut down on the amount of news we take in. I’ve been streamlining this over time. But, I’ve got more to go.

But, there’s a second order implication. I’d consider editing that line further to say – The notion that you need to know about world events right when they happen is a marketing creation of media brands.”

We live at a time when we are more exposed to events about or from people we know than at any time in human history. In a small percentage of these cases, this exposure is helpful. That happens when we learn something that furthers our growth or when we learn something important about someone we do business with that helps build rapport. Most of the rest of the exposure benefits media companies and advertisers more than it benefits us.

I work on ads on the LinkedIn feed. So, as a participant on the media company side of the table, I have both a strong interest in this topic and a (somewhat controversial?) point of view. My learning is that feeds are not benevolent – they are the equivalent of the house in a casino. Casinos can be great places to visit for a while. They’re fun if you go with friends. And, if you’re a fan of a game like poker which offers wonderful lessons in decision making, they can be a source of learning too.

But, the house always wins. So, it is important to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve and get out once you’ve achieved it.

Analogy aside, the TLDR version of this is the same as what lies at the heart of Dave Pell’s note – being “in the know” is overrated.

Friendship and trouble

I saw a quote on friendship recently that said – “Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.”

While support during trouble is a sign of good friendship, I’ve found shared happiness to be a better indicator.

Often, sharing troubles with friends is much easier than sharing happiness with the belief that our friends will be genuinely happy for us.

How much do you squat?

At the risk of becoming labelled a Quartz fanboy (which I am), a recent “obsession” note from Quartz on squatting has stuck with me. Here are my favorite pieces.

So, why does squatting matter?
According to osteopath and author Phillip Beach, the deep squat is one of a few “archetypal postures” that are not just good for us, but “deeply embedded into the way our bodies are built.” When you look at our evolutionary history, he’s not wrong—our ancient ancestors squatted for a very long time.

To be clear, we’re talking about a deep squat: feet flat, spine lengthened, and bum hovering above the floor. Those squats you do in CrossFit and Pilates aren’t the same thing. That partial, often weight-bearing squat is not one early hominids needed to perform. Walking a mile with wild game on their backs, and then resting in a deep squat by the fire? Sure. Doing repetitive partial squats while holding an antelope? Probs not.

In its natural form, the deep squat is a form of active rest. Hanging out in one briefly a few times a day helps provide the movement and compression that keeps our joints well lubricated with synovial fluid. Otherwise, the body basically doesn’t bother producing this fluid, and our joints dry up. In other words: Use it or lose it.

The deep squat is also about getting grounded. Experts including Beach say that “floor life”—which literally means getting close to the floor, much like you might do in your weekly yoga class—is a key to wellness. The practice creates a sense of physical embodiment that’s increasingly absent from our hyper-intellectualized, screen-dominated lives.

Why do we not squat? 

While squatting becomes more uncomfortable as we do less of it,, the West’s aversion to the squat is cultural, too. While squatting or sitting cross legged in an office chair would be great for the hip joint, the modern worker’s wardrobe—not to mention formal office etiquette—generally makes this kind of posture unfeasible. The only time we might expect a Western leader or elected official to hover close to the ground is for a photo-op with cute kindergarteners. Indeed, the people we see squatting on the sidewalk in a city like New York or London tend to be the types of people we blow past in self-important rush.

“It’s considered primitive and of low social status to squat somewhere,” says Jam. “When we think of squatting we think of a peasant in India, or an African village tribesman, or an unhygienic city floor. We think we’ve evolved past that—but really we’ve devolved away from it.”

Grounding ourselves

But for those of us who have largely abandoned squatting, Beach says, “you can’t really overdo this stuff.” Beyond this kind of movement improving our joint health and flexibility, Trivedi points out that a growing interest in yoga worldwide is perhaps in part a recognition that “being on the ground helps you physically be grounded in yourself”—something that’s largely missing from our screen-dominated, hyper-intellectualized lives.

Beach agrees that this is not a trend, but an evolutionary impulse. Modern wellness movements are starting to acknowledge that “floor life” is key. He argues that the physical act of grounding ourselves has been nothing short of instrumental to our species’ becoming.

In a sense, squatting is where humans—every single one of us—came from, so it behooves us to revisit it as often as we can.


I need to squat more.

Hacking money, travel and points with Chris Hutchins

I enjoyed a podcast on “Hacking money, travel and points” with Chris Hutchins, the founder of a personal finance app, and Kevin Rose (VC at True Ventures and founder of Digg). Every few months, I seek out a refresher on how to think about personal finance. My objective is rarely about learning something new as the principles rarely change. But, I’m beginning to appreciate the value of revisiting important topics to further help me synthesize.

Nuggets / top reminders

  • Retirement: Multiply what you will need per year after retirement x 25 – that’s the size of your retirement fund. Most folks don’t know what their retirement fund should be (I didn’t think about this previously as well).
  • Learn to have conversations about your salary: After a certain point in your career, this ends up making a huge difference.
  • House: If you’re ever considering buying a house, consider it carefully. It’ll likely be the largest purchase in your lifetime.

Confirmation / Things I do (mostly)

  • Credit Karma: Monitor your credit card status – important if you live in the US.
  • Save.
  • Spend on happiness versus things.
  • Cook and eat healthy.
  • Use low cost ETFs via vanguard. Consider a target date retirement fund. That does what robo advisors like Wealthfront do.

Things I’m not sure I want to do

  • Credit card points: Their conversation about credit cards was fascinating even if I know I’d never go down that path. The principle was sound though – get a credit card that rewards your biggest expenses. Decide how much you want to optimize. Chase (for those in the US) has great cards.
  • Travel: If you travel a ton, optimize for points. Starwood points are the best points.

PS: If you’re interested in learning more about the topic, here’s an old learnographic on personal finance.

Rich conversations

This is the best time of the year for rich conversations.

My go to is to start every conversation with the question – what have been your biggest learnings or revelations in the past year?

Great conversations are focused on ideas. And, December’s natural propensity to be a reflective time of year lends itself beautifully to great conversations.

We have a lovely 30 day window to reflect and learn before we change direction and look forward again. Limited time offer only.

Let’s use it well.

The first zero emissions natural gas plant from Net Power

Every time the Quartz team introduces a new series, I sign up. Their current “Quartz Obsession” is a two week series on “The Race to Zero Emissions.” And, today’s series is about the world’s first zero emissions natural gas plant from Net Power.

The logic behind this is simple and powerful. There are two ways we can solve the over-heating of the earth’s atmosphere – a) find ways to reflect the sun’s rays back using, say, Sulphur particles in the atmosphere or b) reduce the amount of Carbon dioxide we send up.

There is no consensus on the downstream effects of the former and would require a lot of international cooperation. But, the latter becomes particularly interesting if we find a way to do so. Most of our emissions come because we burn fossil fuels to generate electricity. And, Net Power’s founders have found a way to create a zero emissions fossil fuel plant. By replacing gases like steam that power turbines with the excess Carbon dioxide from the burning of natural gas, they’ve created a system that is emission free and, as a bonus, more efficient than traditional plants.

This is an absolute game changer and will hopefully go live by early next year. The Net Power team hope to license this technology.

For this transformation to happen, we’ll need more new plants like Net Power created to service the growing electricity demand from electric vehicles. Many think tanks believe natural gas will be the best way to do that.

And, this technology would be a huge step forward.

PS: To learn more, check out the Quartz series on https://bit.ly/RacetoZeroEmissions.

Cost of a meeting

I find it helpful to mentally calculate the cost of a large meeting from time to time. The rough math is ~$100 x # of people in the meeting.

The more closer you get to folks at the top of the organizational food chain, replace $100 with $200 or $300.

So, if your average large meeting costs $1,000-$2,000 per hour, what would you do differently?

The world will roll on

There’s a line that’s stuck with me over the years – “Be kind. The world will roll on without you.”

It is a simple and beautiful idea and resonates deeply with me as it is provides an instant dash of perspective.

That instant dash of perspective, in turn, adds so much calm to life. It reminds me that it is futile to to stress or panic about the little things. The world will roll on.

Instead, we’re better off staying engaged with life, keeping focused on what we control and doing our best to make this all meaningful.

Can do

I was faced with a small situation recently where I got a reasonable request in a constrained situation.

In normal course, the request would have been easy to get done. But, current conditions made things hard.  My initial thought was to write out an excuse note detailing why it isn’t possible.

But, I paused and asked around instead. Initial prognosis – not good.

Wrote up that excuse note.

I think of myself as persistent. So, I asked around some more. Still no alternatives.

Completed that excuse note. I’m about to press send and then I stop. Have I really tried?

This time, I chat with a couple of folks who are just brimming with a can do attitude – one I’m clearly lacking at this point given my half hearted attempts at solving the problem. They rapidly think through solutions. That inspires me to ask around some more. And, this time, against all odds, we found someone who could replicate what we were looking for.

Problem solved. I removed the excuse email and shared the solution.

I was reflecting on that experience and took away a couple of lessons.

First, even if we had failed, I know from experience that it would have been well worth our effort. This is the often unacknowledged benefit of attempting something whose results are far from guaranteed. These journeys are worth it for the creativity and camaraderie they inspire.

Second, I was deeply inspired by the can do attitude of a couple of folks through the process. The odds didn’t look good but they attempted to spin up solutions anyway. And, that built the kind of momentum that was necessary to solve the problem. We are the average of the folks we spend our time with. Make sure these are folks who possess a can do attitude.

It is these folk who understand the nature of life’s most interesting problems. They all appear un-solvable.

Until they are.