Gap Experiences, Betaworks, Leadership

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This week, the first official days of summer at the school where I work, I batched four tasks that I had been actively avoiding.  They all had one thing in common: they involved a single prolonged interaction with a website that, I knew from experience, was unpleasant.
I had to do what many parents have to do at this time of year — sign-up my kids for summer activities, sharing information and money with organizations that, day-to-day and offline, are terrific at what they do.  Day-to-day and offline, they engage my children, stretch them, encourage them, and help them practice all kinds of useful life skills. Online, where I intermittently have to engage with them, these same organizations push me away, frustrate me, make me feel demoralized, and sometimes even drive me to spend my money elsewhere.

The distance between their offline and online performance is staggering.  It makes me think about the importance of the gap experiences that exist between users and services, between users and products, between the internet and the world.

In our new book, Reshan Richards and I write about leaders that take responsibility for similar gap experiences and seek to improve them.  Such leaders — who dedicate resources to helping online interactions support, and even improve, face-to-face interactions — are adept at blending their leadership, in the same way that some teachers are adept at blending their instruction.  They enhance face-to-face experiences by being hellbent on building good internet experiences.

I cribbed that italicized phrase from Molly McHugh, who used it to describe Betaworks, a company that describes itself as “a start-up studio based in New York that make essential products that thoughtfully combine art and science.”

McHugh’s article, written for The Ringer, highlights some essential, replicable approaches used by Betaworks on their way to building and supporting beloved products like Instapaper, Chartbeat, and Dots.

[Betaworks] solved pain points (do you remember what searching for and making GIFs used to be like?), addressed technical issues platforms wouldn’t (Bitly fixed tweet links before Twitter would), and just made us happy (I know I’m not the only one who can lose a cool 30 minutes to Dots when I’m in the zone).

Any leader of the organizations whose websites drive me crazy would claim to be people who care about solving pain points, addressing technical issues, and making people happy.  The problem, it seems to me, is that they treat the online components of their businesses as second class experiences.  That’s not bad IT; it’s bad leadership.

Read McHugh’s complete article, which is fascinating for many more reasons than the ones listed above, here:


The Reflective Instinct

I recently listened to an interview with Dr. Reshan Richards on WBAR, the college radio station of Barnard College in New York City.*  Though I enjoyed his reminiscences about his days playing Metallica covers with his middle school friends,** I wanted to highlight a few things that Reshan said about teaching and learning.  The following excerpt is loosely edited for clarity:

I believe that there are things in recent or emerging technologies that allow students to demonstrate understanding and communicate their process of thinking in ways that teachers have always felt was valuable.  But in the past, there was no way to mediate or capture [these understandings and this process of thinking].  Now those means exist, and I think they should start to inform the conversation about what assessment means, or how assessment is approached in schools.

I work hard to separate assessment from grading, to avoid using the word “assessment” as an equivalent to “grading.”  Because of the things people can do with certain tools, especially open-ended tools, a different type of learning process can be captured, shared, and communicated.

If you think about a valuable teacher/student relationship, the best thing is to sit down with the student, talk to her, let her show you what she knows.  And so you have this very human, personal relationship based on understanding, not just based on content or the score on a test.  Sure, those could be fuel for discussion, but that test or that exercise — that task — shouldn’t be the end point. The problem is that it’s impossible to get that type of face-to-face time.  It’s inefficient or literally impossible to do.  I look at technology as a way to bridge that gap, to address that gap, and help us facilitate those types of conversations using tools to make the relationship more human, as opposed to the other end of the spectrum which is, “oh, it’s impossible to get two people in the same room, so let’s try to automate and computerize and dehumanize the process as much as possible for total efficiency.”

My recent work and explorations have really been around five dimensions that basically all mobile devices have:  the ability to take photographs, shoot video, record audio, capture screen shots, and make screen captures or screen recordings.

Those kinds of natural documentation capturing processes, even five years ago, were not ubiquitous. It wasn’t a thing to say or think, “I can just snap a picture of that and send it off to a million people,” or “I can take a video of that right away and edit it, reflect on it, or watch it.”

Those types of processes were not instinctually immediate, and the reason I think people like them today is because they feel very natural.  Maybe it’s narcissism and people like watching themselves, but I think humans have this very natural, reflective instinct.  From an education perspective, we should be looking at these new habits that are forming because of technology, and ask ourselves how working with such habits could promote the process of learning, as opposed to just the judgement that something has been learned or not learned.

*This interview was conducted by DJ Dino for the Ovation Performing Arts Show.

**I shouldn’t downplay the importance of Reshan’s formative years playing music in neighborhood bands.  Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this interview and Reshan’s work in general is the palpable sense of fun that infuses his operating procedures.

Unbelievably Good Sentences

I read two great sentences today, both akin to a good meal — chewy, textured, flavorful, satisfying.  Entire essays are contained in each of them, and they demonstrate two writers who fully understand the past, present, and future of their beat.  

First, from Ben Thompson, writing for his Stratechery blog/newsletter:

For Apple what is next should almost certainly be guided by what the company is the best at: integrating hardware and software to deliver a user experience so compelling that consumers continue to self-select into the company’s own orbit, not building infrastructure on top of platforms it doesn’t control.

Second is from Zoe Camp writing for Pitchfork:

If Rubin’s uniform racket is engineered to tickle the reptile brain, then Burton’s approach to rock production–best illustrated by his recurring collaborations with the Black Keys–seeks to unite a divided audience through commonalities, developing frisson through the simultaneous overlaps and juxtapositions between genres, textures, and patches of negative space.

If you want to write sentences like that, at least three things are necessary:

  1. Deep reading in your subject area.
  2. Deep thinking about your subject area.
  3. Crafting enough sentences to learn how to write long sentences that contain multitudes . . . and don’t fall apart before the end stop.

Bravo Mr. Thompson and Ms. Camp.

Blending Leadership in the Wild

I recently returned to an article from The New York Times Magazine.  It’s about Terry Tao, a mathematician, and I love the description of Tao’s working methods.

Key words: bridge-builder, collaborator, celebrates the work of others, shares, documents, delights in corrections, comments, cooperative, network, connecting.

Tao has emerged as one of the field’s great bridge-­builders. At the time of his Fields Medal, he had already made discoveries with more than 30 different collaborators. Since then, he has also become a prolific math blogger with a decidedly non-­Gaussian ebullience: He celebrates the work of others, shares favorite tricks, documents his progress and delights at any corrections that follow in the comments. He has organized cooperative online efforts to work on problems. ‘‘Terry is what a great 21st-­century mathematician looks like,’’ Jordan Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who has collaborated with Tao, told me. He is ‘‘part of a network, always communicating, always connecting what he is doing with what other people are doing.’’