Your next project needs a white-hat jerk.

A couple of years ago, a startup called Stamped created an app and service that let you rate anything and everything. Your local doughnut shop? Rate it and tell your friends. Your favourite beach? Rate it and tell your friends. In fact, rate anything you want!

But Stamped never anticipated the prankster, or what I think of as the benignly destructive user. It seems nobody ever asked “what would someone do here if they were just here to screw around?”

To borrow some words from Mike Monteiro, it had never been DickProofed.

If it had, perhaps people wouldn’t have been able to rate “Getting a hand-job during the Muppets Movie” or any of the other things that people who totally weren’t me rated on there.

Maybe it would still be around.

Yesterday, I ambled up to a colleague’s shiny new iPhone 6. I saw that it was charging, and I said “Hey Siri, from now on call me Penis-Face”. Guess what? Siri duly changed his nickname in his contacts and said “Ok, from now on, I’ll call you Penis-Face.” I exploited a ‘feature’ of iOS 8—when an iPhone is connected to power, it constantly listens for the term “Hey Siri”, followed by a command. Then it executes that command.

What I did wasn’t really malicious, but it was a dick move and a childish prank. However the point is that I shouldn’t have been able to do it. Someone on the development team for iOS 8 should have seen that a prank so obvious is something jerks are going to want to do.

This matters. Users like that—the jerks—are out there in their tens of thousands. Millions, even. They’re not exactly attempting to hurt your business or product; they just want to have a good time. That’s your problem when that good time comes at the expense of your new service or product.

As we move toward a model of the world where nearly every business is just a website with some people out the back, we’ve got to keep these jerks in mind and anticipate where they might fool around with your product to have what (to them) are a few childish laughs.

When we at Floate build things for people, I always ask “how could someone screw this up for shits and giggles?” People tend to think I’m joking but I’m deadly serious because if your site, network, or product becomes a playground for a bunch of jerks, it turns off the people whose time and attention you’re really trying to obtain. Almost nobody ever got a promotion doing that.[1]

The internet security world has for years had white-hat hackers—people whose job it is to test code for security flaws. It’s time for designers to adopt the idea. Next time you’re working on a long-term project, appoint a designated white-hat jerk; someone whose job it is to keep thinking about how a person or group with a bit of time on their hands might try to bend and twist your system for a few laughs. This isn’t simply asking someone to be a tedious Devil’s Advocate—it’s ensuring that someone is always thinking “How could someone fool around with this, and what would that mean for our end product?”

If you want to make it next-level, create a Jerk as a user persona, create some stories for them, and work out if your system is ready for them.

You’ll get push-back, but it’s worth it. Nobody wants to be the next Stamped.


  1. Well, Stamped did get acquired by Yahoo for $10 Million. ↩

The Disruption Fallacy

It may engender a whole new stream of book reviewing, but I doubt it, because people are more interested in writing self-published books than in reading them. And if old media is so passé, why do they care so much about what we think?

Roger Sutton, editor in chief of Horn Book magazine, from
‘No, I don’t want to read your self-published book’ by Ron CharlesThe Washington Post, October 1, 2014.

We’ve been speaking a lot about the idea of "disruption" in the office recently. Of course, being urbane designers whose job it is to solve problems, we often regard the concept as nothing more than a buzzword surrounding or obfuscating a difficult truth: The world moved beyond the capabilities of a particular business model.

But it’s also within our bailiwick to look at the issue of disruption with empathy for both sides and to try to help our clients, whichever side of the disruption line they fall on.

The above quote from Sutton identifies one of the unspoken problems of disruption culture. Survivorship bias pushes us to look at the industries which were damaged by new competition. The newspaper industry is an obvious example. People never paid for news directly. The news was subsidised by the classified ads. Craigslist started and the classified ads dried up.

Nigel Dalton, CIO of REA Group recently gave a talk at General Assembly in Melbourne about his time at Lonely Planet and how they failed to preempt Trip Advisor et al.

That put a really interesting spin on the concept of disruption. Is it the act of the new business models pushing out older forms, or is it failure on the part of the older forms to react with appropriate innovation when the landscape shifts?

We never really hear about the start-ups that failed because the industries they were trying to undermine acted quickly and well to reinforce their position.

And then, in this quote from Sutton, we see an interesting in-between stage. Self-publishing is easy and many people do it. There are parts of that industry where self-publishing succeeds, to an extent. Science fiction and fantasy audiences are much more willing to take risks on reading and discover new authors. Children’s books, however, require an element of authority behind them to recommend them and let parents know they are making a wise investment for their children’s education and entertainment.

If we look at the microscopic level we see disruption or thwarting, depending on the victor. But if pull out to a more macroscopic level we observe business as an ecosystem, producing wins and losses all over the place. We see evolution as it should be: Businesses succeed or fail based on how well they can live in a changing environment.

There will always be something new coming around the corner. A business in stasis is never going to survive, but a business in panic is only slightly better off. Sometimes what a business needs is a third party to show what’s really important and its value as the environment changes.

That’s where we come in as designers. Our job is often to be the calming influence, to stop the panic and to develop strategies for showing value to customers, shareholders, staff or anyone else who might need a refreshing vision of the part your business plays in what’s important to them.

To paraphrase Yoda: There is no disruption, only do or do not.

To paraphrase Sigourney Weaver: There is no disruption, only Zuul.

We only want to be answerable to our audience

Hookturn Launches with a Ding

Josh Kinal and Michael Williams engage in pre-show shenanigans by interacting with a stuffed pheasant

Josh and Michael Williams engage in pre-show shenanigans

Last week we launched our brand new media label, Hookturn.

It was a joyous affair with drinks and food and people meeting each other, talking about ideas and the future of media.

Ross Floate, in his address to launch the label, spoke about the business’s plan to expand Hookturn into producing publications in addition to its current stable of podcasts.

“We wanted to develop a platform for experts to express ideas and engage in discourse,” said Ross, “so that we further produce our own style and respect our thought leaders.”

The goal, though, is to earn money from Hookturn’s audience and avoid advertising for as long as possible. As Ross said on the night: “The only people we want to be answerable to is our audience.”

We’ve had amazing feedback from the community and we’re turning to the audience for financial support. It’s like Kickstarter but even more independent.

On the evening, Ross revealed a goal of 200 financial members by the end of the year. Reaching that goal would open up the opportunities to move Hookturn from a largely volunteer concern to a professional one.

“We understand that the best way to encourage the best out of people is to pay them,” he said.

Audience members watching the Nudge, live.

A very engaged audience.

After the ceremonial ribbon cutting, I had the chance to interview The Wheeler Centre’s Michael Williams about their #discuss campaign. That interview was recorded as proof that the crowd enjoyed it and also to be released as a future episode of The Nudge podcast.

More information about Hookturn memberships.

More photos from the night are available to view on the Hookturn Facebook page.

Breaking our own rules, and self-doubt.

When we started The Nudge, our vision was to do something here in Melbourne that was as good or better than what we’re all so keen to consume from abroad. It’s the idea that started us on the road to creating Hookturn.

Over time our thoughts have matured, and we’ve spoken with people from around the world – most notably when Josh went to the United States and interviewed Debbie Millman, Jeffrey Zeldman, and Ethan Marcotte. But up until now, our rule has always been that we needed to speak to people face-to face. It’s a large part of why we created the Hookturn studios.

This week we broke that rule. We’ve just released a special episode of The Nudge where Josh Kinal and I talked with the incomparable Merlin Mann about self doubt.

We think it was as worth it to break the rule as it was to make it. We hope you enjoy the episode.

This week on ‘This Australian Life’

I grew up in Australia in the late seventies and early eighties, so it was natural for me to think that someone else’s culture was more valid than mine: The TV shows we saw were mostly imported; The local content was news or soap or procedural cop dramas; Australian children’s television was always solid, but as kids we were already given the sense that things that were made for us were of less consequence than things created for adults; And shows for adults that had a sense of quality came from the US and UK.

Is that how you remember it? It’s definitely the way we, as a culture, talk about it—especially when we have the inevitable "Why can’t we produce good comedies" discussion we love to have.

To believe that requires excluding the comedies like Auntie Jack, which led to Norman Gunston, without which we would have never had Let the Blood Run Free or The Games.

There were also the Kennedy-Miller mini-series, the way for which was paved by Crawfords productions, which eventually led to Simpson-Le Mesurier productions and the excellent Good Guys Bad Guys in the early nineties.

Australia is a giant country with a relatively small population. Our two most populous cities (only the second smallest distance between two capital cities in Australia), are almost as far apart as Paris and Berlin. We feel isolated from each other as well as the rest of the world, and as a result there is an insecurity in our actions.

Recently a friend told me he wanted to start a podcast festival in Melbourne. His intention was to invite Marc Maron and John Hodgman, and their presence would encourage other big names to come.

He never mentioned an Australian podcast he would like to invite.

So, why do we look externally for validation?

When I went to my first Webstock conference (realistically one of the best-run events I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending), I was disappointed that a New Zealand-run event didn’t have any antipodean speakers.

I thought about this for a bit. Should we blame the organisers? (They are lovely people and work very hard.) Maybe they had evidence to show that local people weren’t a big enough draw card. That’s definitely what other attendees had suggested to me.

If this is what attendees think, based on just attendee-to-attendee discussions, then it’s probably true enough market research.

But this problem doesn’t happen with other countries or cultures. The aforementioned US and UK both host plenty of web-design conferences that draw huge crowds.

Do we just accept out cultural cringe and live with it, or do we fight against it?

This is a design problem. This is a problem of getting people to accept something they unconsciously reject. Its a problem of changing minds and behaviour.

But is it a problem worth solving? What are the costs associated with building antipodean pride?

There is a very real possibility that we fear realising our already perceived irrelevance—that, despite everything we have already given the world (wifi, bionic ear, ova freezing techniques), we still never think we’ll be listened to when we talk. And there’s nothing worse than an irrelevant body pretending it has validity. How embarrassing!

There is, however, the contrary position. If we are supportive of our own work and push ourselves to produce better products, then maybe it won’t matter what others think. Maybe we will develop a confidence to be content with our own attention.

This is not about local design for local people. It’s about holding our own work to an international standard, supporting it when it reaches that level and encouraging efforts to surpass it.

We can only do that one step at a time. It’s going to be tough, too, but relevance is demanded, not requested, and that takes grit.