What story are you telling?

I had a great conversation with my new friend Yoshi last week about journalism… specifically, music journalism. He asked me my opinion of this piece that claims that modern music journalism isn’t about the music anymore… it’s lifestyle journalism, covering the artist more than their craft and output. The article’s writer says that it’s because the writers aren’t qualified to write about music – they don’t have the understanding and training on music – so they write about the easier topic.

This article – and the ensuing conversation – got me thinking about storytelling, agendas and personal narratives.

One thing I always emphasize is how important storytelling is in life. We are wired to listen and respond to stories, and telling stories help you engage with people in a real and (sometimes) intimate way. The best stories have a point and a purpose – to entertain, to make people laugh, to sell in idea or a product. It’s powerful, and there’s a reason Don Draper focused on telling stories during his pitches. It works.

To respond to the point of the article cited above, the reason why music journalism has become lifestyle journalism now is for more reasons than just a lack of music training on the part of the writer – it’s because it works. Lifestyle journalism works because people love stories and want to read about popular figures they admire. We want a glimpse into that life. Another case in point is NBC’s Olympics coverage – the sports are often secondary to the athlete’s stories, because that is what draws the audience in.

What amuses me about all this discussion is that the best songs ARE stories – they evoke a mood, and have a point. Yes, even music such as jazz that has no words. What has happened has music journalists are jest talking about a different story now.

Additionally, it’s easier to frame a narrative and a thesis around a person – Developing that for an album or a musician’s body of work is much harder. A lot of people will be more comfortable and confident in writing about, say, how Myley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball video isn’t as good as Ron Jeremy’s parody than analyzing the chord progressions or lyrical structure . You may have more prestige analyzing the musical choices that Miley made when she created Wrecking Ball, but what audience size will such an essay have?

(Quick sidebar: I studied journalism, many many years ago… and one of the things that was taught was the importance of objectivity and how bias was bad. The thing is… it’s a bunch of baloney. I’m not talking about political agendas, but the most obvious form of bias – selecting what to cover and write about. The line of “what is newsworthy” is never clear cut, and the decision is driven by management. What to showcase, what to report on, what to bury…. bias is part of the process, and it cannot be avoided as long as human beings make these decisions.)

The way we live and present ourselves are also stories, but many people don’t pay attention to this as much as they should. These personal narratives are the stories that people conjure in their minds and they can make or break you. Another words that is used to define this is “reputation.” It proceeds you, and that story is hard to change once its told by your actions and activities.

Personal narratives are all about you deciding the story you are telling, through deeds. What are your actions telling the world? It’s an important thing to understand. What is the point of what you are doing? What is your purpose?

What story are you telling?

The day I saved Timothy Leary’s life

I realized a few days ago I had a couple of pretty good stories that I had never written up. One, involving Richard Simmons, I will not recount until he passes away (dead people can’t sue). The other, involving the time I saved Timothy Leary from grievous bodily harm… that one I can recount here.

It was many many years ago, at Atlanta’s DragonCon convention. Way back in the early 1990s I was a volunteer providing video production services to the convention (If you have ever attended the convention, you may have noticed they have dedicated TV channels in the four main convention hotels that rebroadcasts panels – that was my idea, way back in 1991). I helped setup equipment, run cables, and basically do lots of grunt work video recording panels. I only did it for a couple of years, because A. I was young and B. I enjoyed it. Once I realized DragonCon was exploiting volunteers/slave labor so they could make a pretty profit, I stopped doing it.

One year (I think it was 92) a big guest was Doctor Timothy Leary. I had read a lot of Leary’s work and by that point he had become a living legend of the 60s and 70s counterculture movement. I was excited to see him, and was thrilled to have one of the best “seats” in the house.

I was on an elevated platform manning a video camera during his panel – it was in one of the big rooms, and for Dr. Leary it that was standing room only. He spoke eloquently about how humanity should evolve, should be open to all possibilities… and how LSD was just one of may ways that we could reach higher forms of consciousness. Though I had never done drugs before (or since), his inspiring words made me consider taking that step. He was a great salesman.

And that lead to what happened when his panel ended.

Leary, who was by that point in his late sixties/early seventies, walked down the stairs to the left of the stage and talked to several people who lingered around. One of those people was a long-haired man from England whose intentions were not honorable. From my position I read the body language instantly – this guy was angry, and was charging towards Leary.

By this point, Timothy Leary and the crowd had moved, and he was standing right next to my platform, and his back was to me as the young man shoved past the person Leary was talking too and started screaming at him.

“YOU KILLED MY BROTHER WITH DRUGS YOU SON OF A BITCH YOU DESERVE TO DIE”

And with that I lifted Timothy Leary up and pulled him up to my platform. I’m 6 foot four, and lifting him up was an easy effort. He didn’t know it was coming, obviously, and as I set him down turned to me, shocked, he smiled. I got a sense that this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened.

I grabbed for my walkie-talkie to call for security as the man continued screaming from below, but before I could get a message out two other volunteers bolted over and pulled the young man away. Found out later they guy had a knife on him.

Timothy muttered “Well, that was interesting. Thank you.” Then he walked down the steps off the camera platform and apologized to people for the interruption. Amazing. HE apologized.

I exhaled, thinking that what happened was interesting in the worse possible way. I went about my business, thinking that was the end of it. A couple of hours later a man came up to me and quickly said “Mr. Leary really appreciated what you did early. There’s a get-together in his room after 8 tonight, and he’d like to invite you to attend.” He handed me an index card with a room number and walked away before I could respond, “You bet.”

When you volunteer at a convention like this, getting to engage with a celebrity guest is one of the big (usually unfulfilled) opportunities. And here I was, getting invited to a private party because I had man-handled a 60s icon.

I was there at 8, right on time.

I was let in, and as I entered I saw that the party had started early. In the very large suite were many of the other convention guests – some big names in TV and film. I also smelled a distinct odor – they were enjoying a little weed along with their cigarettes.

I quickly sat down at a couch in the living room, and there – sitting across from me, on the couch opposite mine – was Timothy Leary. He recognized me, and smiled. He looked like… well, I hate to say it, but… Yoda. He looked like Yoda. Smiling, wise… peaceful.

And then he looked down. At the coffee table between us. I did, too.

There, on a dish, were four sugar cubes.

I looked at him, and he looked me. A moment of decision had arrived. And then…

There was a loud knock on the hotel room door.

Police.

I looked over, and saw someone had opened the door to one of Atlanta’s finest, who did not look interested in joining the party. After he introduced himself, he quickly declared “There’s been numerous complaints about noise in your room, and if you people are going to have a party you need to keep it down.”

I turned back to the table and… the sugar cubes were gone. Leary had snagged them off the table in a moment, like a flash. He’d done this before.

I laughed, quietly – the moment had passed.

 

For a while, I wondered… would I have done it? Would have gone on a trip with Timothy Leary? For many years I shook my head at the possibility, thinking “absolutely not.” That was my conservative upbringing talking. Now… Now, I smile ruefully at the lost opportunity.

Ah, well. Such is life.

This year in #UX (and a look ahead at 2014)

As the editor of This Week in UX, I’ve been able to regularly note what was going on in the UX domain. This weekly exposure to the best articles on UX design has given me some insights into what my peers were talking about the past 12 months, and what they were excited about in the year to come. So when the editors of UX Magazine asked me to contribute to a end of the year article, I leapt at the chance.

Unfortunately, they only had room for a few of my thoughts, so here’s what was left on the “cutting room floor.”

The year in review 

Flat Design is the new black

While skeumorphic design isn’t dead, it’s certainly not in the best of health. Flat design is the way of the day, and high-profile sites and operating systems (like IOS and Windows 8) have abandoned textures and leather stitching and moved aggressively into using the new paradigm. This is exciting, in that UX designers are no longer limited by real-world metaphors and can create authentically digital experiences. Is Flat design a fad or a long-term design trend? We’ll see… but I think that flat design will stick around for a long time.

UX gets a high-profile case study

Thanks to the high-profile UX #FAIL of the Healthcare.gov website, UX has been “discovered” by the mass media. While the media rarely used the term “user experience”, almost every report covered the usability and latency issues that plagued the site. The “bad UX as news story” phenomenon didn’t start here, but this was certainly the most coverage such a story ever received. With our increasing reliance on technology, I expect we’ll see more such stories in the future.

A robust UX job market

Companies large and small are paying much more attention to user experience, and as a result there’s a high demand for UX professionals. Which is great… Except that in much of the world there aren’t many talented UXers available. For people who are trying to build design teams (like me), it’s frustrating. Noticing this high demand, many business analysts and developers are transitioning into the UX domain, which (again) is great… as long as they bring the proper skills and focus to the table. Will this continue? I think so, since a new “baseline” has been set – 21st Century consumers of technology expect a quality user experience, and UX professionals are needed to help hit that mark.

Predictions for 2014

Here’s a look ahead at the (emerging) trends that I think will gain prominence in the next year (or so).

UX, Quicker and Leaner

More and more organizations are starting to do agile development, in an attempt to get their software projects “out the door” quicker. This approach means UX work needs to be done quicker and differently, which I’ve seen cause some heartburn with some of my fellow UX professionals. While there was lots of discussion of Lean UX in 2013, this will become a much more prominent focus point next year as the approach we take shifts to support this approach.

Intelligent interfaces will enter the mainstream

We interact with scores of interfaces with every day, and the processing power that drives these screens has never been higher… and yet, the UIs tend to be one-size-fits all, with limited personalization. With this increasing computing power, one of the only places left to go is to leverage data to create a bespoke experience. Early steps have already been taken – You see some of this in the Windows 8 “live tiles” functionality, and Amazon’s ubiquitous recommendations – but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The idea of personal dashboards that intelligently surface important information to the user is now possible, if not probable. Will they catch on? It depends on striking the proper balance between innovation and user control and freedom… and UX professionals need to focus on finding that balance.

Wearable computing presents design opportunities and challenges

Google Glass, the Pebble watch… we are now living in a world where wearable computers are becoming a reality. While they are not yet mainstream, we are one major product release away from that potential reality (cough iWatch cough). Wearable computing presents users with new and different ways to interact with technology, and how we design these new interactions to make them effective and usable will be one of the major design challenges of next year and beyond.

The rule of three: stay organized by working on only three projects at a time

I’m one of those people who have a hard time relaxing – I’m always working on something, whether it is a personal project or something for work. The idea of spending a quite evening at home and doing nothing… well, that’s alien to me. But even with that attitude,  I’ve realized that I needed to not overcommit myself. Whenever I overcommit, I underdeliver.

Which is why I decided a while back to focus and only work on three projects at one time – whether it’s personal or professional, having only three things going on brings a lot of benefits:

It helps prioritize

What projects make the cut? By making that conscious decision you can determine the value you have assigned to each project – and please note the conscious part. Too many people overcommit without thinking about it.

It reduces distractions

If you have only three projects/priorities, you can “shut out” distractions, either deliberately or automatically. Turn off e-mail, or automatically file certain messages based on key criteria.

It’s easy to prioritize

I use the standard prioritization high, medium and low… and applying that to my three projects lets me focus on where I need to apply the most (and the least) time.

It let’s you say no

Finally, having a short list of three things you are doing gives you the power to say “no” to any requests that are not associated with those three projects. You can say no without feeling guilty or feeling you have shirked your responsibilities… because you have an eye on priorities.

Now you may think this is easier said than done, that you have way too many things going on in your life. And here’s the thing: you may be right. You CAN’T only work on three projects. But here’s the great part: You can change the three projects you are working on every day. This gives you a way to start your day by looking at what is going on and identifying your three projects.

Try it… you may find it helps you get more done. And you may even be able to relax on the weekend.

Star Trek is broken – here are ideas on how to fix it

Crosspost from http://www.trekmovie.com (and please check out the… interesting comments to this post there.)

At last month’s official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, I had the privilege to speak about “Treknology”. The experience was great – I was thrilled at the response of my fellow fans to my presentation. What struck me was the response from Jordan Hoffman’s “One Trek Mind” panel on the best Star Trek movie. The feedback from fans was pretty unanimous – the best film was Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and the worst… was Star Trek Into Darkness.

Fans were more kind when a similar vote took place at the Seattle Star Trek Convention a few days later, where STID ranked 6th, but even then the fans were very vocal and very critical of the film. The sometimes-rabid criticism, much of which was echoed by some film critics and online commentators, gave me pause… and as I reflected on this reaction I came to a conclusion.

Star Trek is broken.

Star Trek, like all long-running entertainment properties, has had peaks and valleys – Some very high highs… and very low lows. In my opinion, Star Trek is at (yet another) turning point.
Star Trek reestablished itself as a cultural phenomenon with the 2009 reboot, and now the franchise is… not quite working. An noted above, lots of old-school fans are unhappy with the newest film, and after talking to some casual fans I doubt Into Darkness will have the same success in bringing new fans into the fold like the ’09 reboot did.

More than that, Into Darkness had underperformed at the box-office – while it was a moderate success and is in the Top 10 films of the year, it is nowhere near the billion-dollar blockbuster that Paramount had hoped. With many other competing geek-friendly properties on the market, Star Trek just isn’t appealing as it once was, and a lot of people are pointing their attention elsewhere.

What can be done to bring Trek back to the forefront, to once again be the seminal piece of entertainment it was before? Here are my thoughts on some things that could be done.

It’s about the Mission Statement
The best television series’ have a “mission statement” – a phrase that describes what the show’s premise is and what it’s all about. Decades ago, that premise was often expressly stated in the lyrics to the show’s theme song (The Patty Duke Show, Gilligan’s Island, etc.). Even today’s shows have an “elevator speech” description that the producers use to make sure they never lose sight of their premise (Breaking Bad’s is “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface”). Star Trek’s mission statement is clear and obvious, and we see it at the very beginning of every episode of the original series:

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

The best episodes of Star Trek never lost sight of this very simple statement, and still provided excitement as well as provocative ideas. Where was this mission statement inStar Trek Into Darkness? At the end, just like in 2009?s Star Trek. The placement was appropriate in the first film, as it was less about seeing out new life and new civilizations and more about “putting the band together.” That they put it at the end of STID was also correct… because they STILL haven’t done it yet.
When you now have two films that don’t live up to the basic premise of the concept… you have a problem.

It’s about exploration and new ideas
In order to once again “live” that mission statement, Star Trek has to once again be about exploring the unknown, about going beyond what we are comfortable with. About moving forward, finding out what’s “out there.” It could be a Doomsday Machine, or the Horta, or the Guardian of Forever, or Apollo… or something new. Star Trek was a reflection of the “wanderlust” that is a key part of humanity, and how we continually strive to learn, to grow, to understand.
Actor Karl Urban recently stated in an interview that he wanted the third film to be “an original story” and not a rehash of characters or plots from earlier films.

“I really think that what we should do from here, in my personal opinion, is strive to be original. Strive to be something different and new. You know, let’s not forget that Star Trek as envisioned was about space exploration. And it would be really wonderful to harness the spirit of that and apply it to the next film, so that we do something different than a revenge-based picture.”

Hear, hear. Another issue that many critics had with STID was that the “fan service” references to The Wrath of Khan were not well done and made the new film look worse in comparison.

It’s about good characters
Making Star Trek once again about exploring the unknown isn’t enough. When you encounter the unknown, when you come across something that no one has ever seen before… how do you react? What do you say or do? That’s about character, who the people you see on the screen really are. The appeal of the best of Trek is when you respond to the characters and understand them – we all know who Kirk Spock and McCoy were on the original series because they were clearly drawn and well written. The outcomes of many episodes were informed by their reactions and decisions, and the best Star Trek – the best FICTION – is about character. Good character (and good acting) can elevate bad material and make it better.

The issue many had with STID was that several of the characters were either not the characters we are used to seeing (from the original series) or thin caricatures (Carol Marcus). You can gloss over that first criticism (it IS a different universe, after all) but the second is more of an issue. Trek without solid characters could end up being… well, a live-action cartoon.

It’s about breaking from the past
Most science fiction on TV before Star Trek was, effectively, children’s programming. Shows like Space Cadet or Lost In Space, where fantastical concepts and action sequences were more important than dramatic storytelling and strong characterization. Star Trek and other shows like it broke from that juvenile cycle and were adult stories targeted at intelligent viewers. Looking atStar Trek Into Darkness, one sees the same storytelling trend that other summer blockbusters are suffering from – an over reliance on action sequences and bombast, where visual effects supplant acting and story. It’s more like Space Cadet on the big screen than Star Trek.

Just as the original series broke from convention to tell adult stories, Star Trek needs to once again break from the past and stop being about the Enterprise and crew. Yes, I know, this might be a scandalous idea to many of you reading this, but think about it: We have had hundreds of episodes and almost a dozen movies about the crew of the Enterprise. We need to look at a new ship, a new crew, and explore new ground. Have a link to the past (maybe a crew member or two), but Star Trek needs to move forward.

And that means saying goodbye to what came before, in a clean break.

It’s about good writing
A lot of critical barbs were aimed at the writers of Star Trek Into Darkness about the script and plot of the film. I won’t join in that chorus, because writing a multi-billion dollar film is something I have never had to do. The pressure must be IMMENSE, and there are many hoops that you have to jump through to produce a script for such a project. That being said, Star Trek at its best has always had top-notch writing, no matter the series.

How can we once again elevate the writing in Star Trek? Simple: Go outside of the Hollywood bubble and hire some science fiction writers. Lots of science fiction writers are also Trek fans, and asking writers like Neil Gaimen or John Scalzi to write new Trek would immediately elevate the profile of Trek with many fans.

Having writers such as these working on a big-budget Hollywood screenplay is not the best idea. You need to let them play in a bigger, more expansive playground. Which is why the final and number one way to fix Star Trek is…

It’s about being on TV
Where is the quality writing coming from right now? No offense to the writers of Hollywood films, but the best writing is on television right now. Shows like Homeland, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and more demonstrate that the golden age of entertainment isn’t in cinemas, it’s on TV. Star Trek started out on TV, and it is the best medium for the property. Even William Shatner recently said that Star Trek is best suited to TV, and he makes the argument better than I could. Here’s the relevant quote:

“When you get into the small screen, you need stories… entertaining, interesting, vital stories that have a philosophy and also have an excitement about them, so that the viewer stays with it, but receives the philosophy as a byproduct. Those were the best of Star Trek, those kinds of stories. And that kind of thing, there is always room for that. That kind of imaginative approach that stirs young people into wanting to be connected with science.”

Right on, Mr. Shatner. Star Trek should be back on TV. Period.

Closing
There you have it, some very direct ideas on how to “fix” Star Trek and make it relevant and exciting once more. What say you?

Process or talent? Companies can’t focus on both…

“The Most Important Document to ever come out of Silicon Valley” was released last week… at least, that’s what Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called it. This Most Important Document wasn’t a cutting-edge business plan, or a product roadmap… Far from it. It was Netflix’s “Corporate Culture” guidelines, a document that is usually quite dry and boring.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings authored much more than your typical “Respect your employees, treat your customers well” boilerplate: He created a manifesto about how companies should grow, how to trust and empower employees, and how a talent-based company should work in the twenty-first century.

Here’s the Netflix presentation:

One of the most key points in the presentation is a discussion of organizational growth, detailing how large organizations typically start out being talent-based and talent-driven. As these organizations grow and become more complex they shift, becoming process-driven and paralyzed with rules and regulations. This, Hastings states, drives the talented people out and thus when the marketplace changes the company loses its competitive edge (s process can’t respond to a paradigm shift in an industry, but talented people can). How Hastings staffs and grows Netflix is the opposite of that model – he continues to focus on acquiring and keeping the best talent he can possibly find, paying them more than the market rate to keep them engaged and motivated.

This key point is presented matter-of-factly, with no doubt or ambiguity. And when you read it, it’s obvious and exactly right: you can see how institutional processes have hampered and hamstrung major companies over the past few decades (Microsoft, I’m looking in your direction).

Not to say that I want to go to work for Netflix, but after reading this document they are precisely the type of company I want to align my fortunes with – an organization that values talent above process, that lets professionals be professionals.

This article also made me consider my approach to user experience design. In the past I have been very pro-process, but recently I’ve come around to a completely different opinion. UX design is a creative effort, and a good UX designer needs to be versed in a dozen different domains (technical, psychological, commercial, you name it). There’s plenty of people who put “UX” in front of their names, but many of them are developers or graphic designers in disguise. You can have the best design process in the world, but if you don’t have talented people in the right roles working at their best… well, the results will speak for themselves (again, I cast a glance towards Redmond).

Finally, I’ve been very frustrated in my present job of late, and this Netflix presentation gave me a clear perspective on why. The processes and org charts and silos at the company are completely hampering my ability to do my job. I can’t make an impact, can’t “make a dent in the universe” as Steve Jobs famously said. At this company, talent is not important; process is king…. even if the processes put in place make things worse.

I’ve outgrown it.

What happens next… well, who knows? I have some very ambitious goals, both professionally and personally, and I’m looking to go somewhere and work for people who appreciate and support such goals.

And as of this moment… it ain’t where I’m at now.