Book Review: Made To Stick

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Communicating ideas and, frankly, persuasion are becoming more vital in the work place. I’ve grown to realize this in the past few years. Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is a wonderful book summarizing the best concepts around making your ideas stick in other people’s minds.

If I had to give a singular tweet for a review, it would be this:

Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. The Curse of Knowledge prohibits simple concreteness.

It really does come down to that. Remember that you had to gain a lot of expertise to come to “The Answer”, but then that time and expertise works against you when telling others about it. You can communicate effective strategy or make an idea stick by focusing on the “Telling Others” part, not finding “The Answer” precursor.

There were some really good nuggets in the book:

  • Good metaphors are generative
  • Metaphors are the Holy Grail of simplicity (pretty meta)
  • A way to keep people’s attention is to create a need for closure
  • Language is often abstract, but life is not
  • Concreteness is the root of making ideas stick. So what is concreteness? If you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete.
  • Belief is one thing, but to persuade action, people have to care
  • The one reliable way of making people care is invoking self-interest
  • Features aren’t emotional, but benefits are
  • If you’re a great spotter, you’ll always trump a great creator
  • Strategy is a guide to behavior; thus a bad strategy is one which doesn’t drive action

Mostly, the book provided great anecdotes and analysis on: Keep it simple, keep it concrete, tell great stories, be unexpected, emotional, and credible.

I strongly recommend the book to everyone. It’s a quick, valuable read.

Book Review: Design for Hackers

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I’m a sucker for books on design. In high school and college, I’d read as many as I could whenever I had time. Throughout the years, though, I’ve noticed less challenge and inspiration derived from these books. This is probably because I’m reaching a rate of marginal return on the subject, yet I admit there is a lot I still have yet to learn. Further expansion of growth will not be from reading design books anymore, but rather practical application and practice of the concepts.

So the past few years I’ve avoided design books or articles with beginner to intermediate content. But Design for Hackers: Reverse-Engineering Beauty by David Kadavy caught my eye. The promise of a programmatic (or better yet scientific) approach to the touchy-feely explanations of design concepts from past books excited me.

Regrettably, the book was still a level or two below the challenge I sought. There was not much new to me, although I did find the chapter on proportions to be enlightening. I appreciated the amount of scientific explanation on the design fundamentals, but just about all of it was material I’ve read somewhere else. The most entertaining part of the book for me were the examples Kadavy used to explain composition, color theory, etc. It was fun to analyze Seurat’s painting along with him.

With that said, I do think the author’s real target audience will find immense value in the book. Developers (or hackers) who want to understand the most important fundamentals of design should read this book. I have no doubt it will be the best book they can find to help them level up several steps. Even design novices will find it engaging. Design professionals, however, should probably stick to Python tutorials and your 2012 resolutions.

Book Review: Flow

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I originally wrote a lengthy review for Flow from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. But then I realized everything could be said in just a few paragraphs.

Psychology has traditionally been considered a soft science, but that has since changed since the first dot-com boom. Flow is a shining example of this new-found scientific legitimacy.

A few weeks ago I heard an entrepreneur say that the best innovation we can do in the next decade is to make everything we’ve made in the previous decade more usable for more people. We don’t need new technology; we need current technology to be better designed.

Csikszentmihalyi’s book is the blue print for that idea. It can be summed up with this illustration.

If you give people too much of a challenge for their skills, they will have anxiety. If you give them not enough, they will be bored. It’s only with the proportion is just right for the task at hand that they will accomplish the task and feel good doing so.

The technology we’ve made so far has suffered from being outside of the flow channel. Csikszentmihalyi’s findings give us insight, as designers and developers, on how to make our products more useful. His recommendations will lead to higher adoption and retention rates.

Psychology has real, growing practicality for technologists. I recommend everyone who works with software to give it a quick read through.

Book Review: Steve Jobs

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Like many, I spent the better part of this fall engrossed in the life story of Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson’s biography of this century’s greatest visionary thinker does a good job of creating drama and intrigue. For fanatics of Apple’s history, there isn’t anything new or groundbreaking. But for those wondering who Steve Jobs was and what it would be like to have him in your life, this book does not disappoint.

And, after finishing, who would want Steve Jobs in their life? The author’s portrayal of Job’s continual gruffness and complete lack of tact was cringeworthy at times. But was it accurate? I highly doubt it. My main issue with the biography was how Isaacson made Jobs to be some hellbent monster, and nothing but. Readers walk away thinking Jobs was the antagonist of his own life story.

You could tell the book was rushed due to Jobs health. The author and his constituency say it was because Jobs wanted to see it published in his life time. But I can’t help but have a cynical view—the publishers saw an opportunity to sell a lot of copies at the height of his popularity riding the coat tails of his death. The end result is a terribly rushed book that didn’t seem to do justice to the man.

But there were some interesting insights.

Insight 1: Jobs iterated a lot, and it just might be the hidden secret to his success.

From his first blue box project with Woz to the polished process at the time of his death, Jobs iterated a lot. What struck me was the time frames of his iteration. In the early days of the Apple I, he would iterate almost daily. His process looked like this:

  • Hire a strong team and trust them to get work done.
  • At the end of the day, review what progress they made. And not just casually look, but actually use heavily the prototypes they created. This meant a clear requirement existed: don’t deal in hypotheticals.
  • Give feedback on what to change for tomorrow. If it was big enough changes, teams would have to work all night.
  • Start the day over in the same manner.

Intense. The reason why I think this is a sneaky secret to Apple’s success is because I believe strongly what Tim Hartford says in his TED Talk, embedded below. In short: The best advanced throughout history are due to heavy trial and error experimentation.

I disagree with Malcolm Gladwell’s synthesis of Isaacson’s book, and I think Jobs’ innovations is due to heavy trial and error experimentation. He did not steal existing ideas and simply implement as Gladwell states. He truly innovated, and I believe it was due to this process.

I plan to break my development process into smaller steps with better checkpoints so I and my team can iterate better.

Insight 2: Everything is a negotiation. Accept that fact and then learn how it’s done.

A maxim coined long before Jobs, but emphasized throughout his life story. Jobs was a master negotiator, and all of his huge successes were not just due to his skill as a product guy. All included an element of good timing and negotiation that put Jobs and his party in a place to succeed. The Pixar stories best illustrated it.

I often wondered while reading if the reason for Jobs disconnection from the emotions of others was because he was always negotiating. Separating yourself from the how others feel or what they think about you is a real key to negotiating. Perhaps Jobs took it too far.

I certainly plan to be better at this skill. Step one is being better at caring less about what others think about me.

Insight 3: If you want to do great things, it’s really important to have a broad background.

And no I don’t mean we all need to take trips to India for a year. I’m referring more to the liberal arts emphasis Jobs had throughout his career. I totally agree with him, and always have.

Far too often, I run into an engineer or programmer who isn’t versed about the other side of the coin. You know, the stereotypical IT vet who has zero empathy towards the world he is building for.

Or on the opposite side, I’m disheartened by the volume of art/english/design/music/psychology/theater/etc type students who have zero experience or interest in technology. Too many of them are going to end up as a barista with impossible student loans wondering what happened. Some of them will make it without ever having to touch a computer, but everyone else would have a better chance at changing the world by embracing technology.

I’m by no means an all-star on both sides of the isle. But I embrace liberal arts and have a genuine interest in just about everything. I wish more students understood the value in combining art and science.


You could read this book. But if you didn’t I wouldn’t be heartbroken. Instead, you should take an hour out of your day and watch this recently unearthed interview with Jobs from 1995. Or this one where he digs for carrots.