Meeting room traffic lights at Brilliant Noise

Have you got this room booked?

The dance of the meeting room hunt and bluff-double-bluff has many variations but is common to offices large and small across the UK. Open plan offices are still the dominant template for workspace design despite a growing army of detractors. So when you need a quiet space for an impromptu chat, the hunt for an empty meeting room begins, and then the dance of trying to negotiate your way into rooms.

A delightful bit of making by Brilliant Noise’s creative director Gareth James has made meeting room headaches just a little less frequent for us all.

A pedestrian-crossing style illuminated sign turns red when a room is booked in its dedicated Google calendar, and green when it is not. This alone is helpful – our main office is a long wide space, so opening up calendars or walking down to see if anyone is in there are both clunky ways of working out if you can use the room.

Even better, though – is the instant room booking button. Pressing it gives you the room for five minutes – automatically booking it into the calendar and a couple of seconds later the light turns red.

Simple things. They make me happy.

Gareth’s going to be posting the details of the project soon, so I’ll be sure to update this post with a link to it when he does…

Pencils for notes, keyboards for ideas

TL;DR: “Type as quickly as you can and always carry a pencil.” — Clive Thompson.

When the late Iain Banks talked about the inevitable “where do you get your ideas?” question that authors are dogged by, he said, “we have exactly the same amount of ideas as everybody else – authors are just better at capturing them”.

Getting thoughts out of one’s head and onto something where they can make use of is an essential practice for everyone who works with their mind.

The moment when the idea or insight occurs is where every great inspiration starts where every new novel, screenplay, strategy and scheme either sparks into life or winks out of possible existence as if it had never occurred to anyone.

In the last post here we looked at how an app like Drafts can be An Inbox for the Mind, but what about notebooks?

When it comes to meetings and listening to presentations I currently prefer a notebook over a tablet or laptop for taking notes. Actually, I’ll use a smartphone if it’s more discreet – say on a crowded restaurant table. I’m always careful to make it clear I’m taking notes, however – if people suspect you are attending to email or other things they can find it distracting and even a little stressful.

For focused note-taking, though, nothing beats the reliability and – it turns out – self-editing and précis skills required of physical note-taking.

This video of a short talk by Clive Thompson, a journalist who writes a great deal about how our minds work with machines, confirmed many of my suspicions about why I like note-taking by hand, as well as why when it comes to developing ideas and getting them down in a document, nothing beats the ability to type quickly.

Since watching this I’ve got the pencils and sharpener he talks about finding as a result of his obsessive search for the best example of each. I can confirm that they are fantastic.
For more of Clive’s excellent thinking, one of my favourite books is his Smarter Than You Think.

An inbox for the mind

This post comprises notes on a work in progress – a drive to reduce tech-based distractions and learn how to use personal technology help me get things done more effectively and with less distraction and stress.

There is only one red dot on my smartphone now. It is to remind me to do things with things coming out of my mind not out of my email inbox. It’s for an app called Drafts, which effectively has become an inbox for my mind.

Red dots on apps and pop up “alerts” are needless, selfishly designed distractions – more in the interest of the platform or software designer than the user.

If you put in the effort to decide when the dots and pop-ups appear, then you can use them to support your goals, not nibble away at your reserves of willpower, attention and time.

That’s why I like the one red dot I’ve introduced back onto my phone.

At first, I thought Drafts would be a distraction – another text app, a sub-genre of productivity software of which I cannot resist trying out new examples. Then, as I tried to minimise the number of apps on my home screen – down to a maximum of four on the menu bar – I discovered its unique strengths.

The default screen when you open Drafts is a blank page. You write down your thoughts, notes, reminders or whatever and you can then send them to the app they are for or leave them there until you’re ready to process them.

This removes a friction in one’s workflow I’d not noticed before – deciding and finding an app to write in, post in or whatever. When you’re getting a thought out of your head and into an app you’re often on the move, or int he middle fo something else. You don’t want to start using an app and slip out of flow or walking and start doing something else – you just need the thought to be captured.

The notes are in an inbox which you can then process later. That’s where the red dot is useful – to remind me I have some notes that need to be sent to where they will be most useful. An email goes out via the email app using the share function or a list of options in Drafts (it will format it straight into the app with the first line becoming the subject line). An idea for a blog post goes into Ulysses Inbox, the draft of an idea into Slack to share with my team, the list of things to remember into Reminders, the sketched agenda points into Trello.

Image: The operations options for Drafts – these can be changed to the apps you use most.

I’ve been trying this out for a week, and it seems to be very useful. My ways of working don’t often stay the same for long – but this one feels like a small leap forward in personal workflow.

Image: A satisfyingly minimal clear home screen and dock.

 

Opt in tracking – an all too rare experience

I use the Overcast app for podcasts on my iPhone and iPad. It’s really good – straightforward with some useful features like keeping synced between devices and being able to control the speed of playback.

Today it asked me if I wanted to “go anonymous”.

So simple. So much simpler and less queasy an experience to be able to opt out completely of having my data tracked than the post-Cambridge Analytica, pre-GDPR emails and terms and conditions alerts from apps and online services elsewhere. While they are all getting you to click more user agreements you might have a 20% better chance of understanding or even seeing than the old ones, all in the hope of evading a fine or further market cap slips – this approach is so refreshing.

“In or out?,” It says. “We don’t really have to know your date of birth and closest friends and family in order to provide you with an acceptable podcast app.”

The curse of the red dot

Mark Wilson at Co.Design temporarily switched from his iPhone to Android and never went back. Among the things he like better about the Pixel 2 was that it was calmer:

How does Apple tell you that you have a new email or message? A red dot on the app. It’s the color choice of both bullfighters and Defcon 5. It incites urgency. “Come back to work,” Slack warns after 5 p.m. “Have you even seen the latest on Trump?” Facebook beckons. Numbers live in those red dots to list the triple digits of your unanswered inbox. And this is not to mention Apple’s worst sin : All those “out of iCloud storage!” notifications that Apple pushes to your home screen in the hope that you’ll spend money on services that other companies offer for free.

You want to know how Android tells you there’s an update waiting? A pale blue or pink or yellow dot. A digital baby blanket. Developers can choose one that coordinates with their icon badge. These washed-out hues are the least urgent colors that I can imagine, and their psychology sinks in quickly. As I use the Pixel, my stomach doesn’t tighten with the guilt of every waiting message or task. “The easy thing to do would have been to put a badge and numbers on our home screen, but that was part of the direction of not being too distracting that we wanted to take,” says Google product manager Allen Huang when we spoke on the topic last month. “There’s no benefit to distracting the user on the way to accomplishing a task.”

I know exactly what he means about iOS – though it’s the same with Macs and Windows on computers.

They all have distraction built into their apps as default.

Whenever I have a fresh install of an OS I turn off all of the default alerts and notifications. When to look at things is not something I want to be dictated by developers’ algorithms.

Over the next few days  I turn on notifications for things I would like to know about – usually just in the “history” section, so I can choose to go and see if anyone has emailed or Slacked me for instance, instead of being distracted by messages and sounds every time any message arrives or my running app thinks that now is the perfect moment to badger me to go for a run.

In recent years, a feature that was only available with specialist apps like F.lux has become standard on phone and computer operating systems – night mode. Lowering the amount of blue light means people can get a better night’s sleep.

But how about the daytime? Interruption free mode should come as a standard set up option on new devices. Not just a “do not disturb” mode, but a “never disturb” mode. Users should be able to opt-in to alerts and notifications, not opt-out.

I’m trying out an Android device at the moment – it’s not distraction free, but it is easier to quieten the thing down. This alone wouldn’t be enough to make me switch permanently, but coupled with the superior voice UI of Google, it’s making a strong case. Apple beware.

Stories before the fall

Stories are wonderful things. What sounds like a heroic quest can often turn out to be a tragedy, as the current unravelling of superstar blood-testing start-up Theranos has become. If you’ve been living under a rock reading those rare business publications un-obsessed with Silicon Valley, the sorry story can is summarised well in BBC article Bad blood: The rise and fall of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes.

In The Financial Times, Andrew Hill notes the adoration by magazine cover that the company and its storytelling, story-embodying CEO attracted.

After decades of male dominance on the newsstand, Ms Holmes made an irresistible cover story. She was the bright young upstart disrupting an ugly oligopoly of laboratories that were allegedly blocking US citizens’ quest to find out about their own health. This tale, which she told repeatedly at conferences, on television, and in press interviews was one many people, journalists included, wanted to believe.

Hill points out that Inc magazine had a cover calling Holmes “The New Steve Jobs” in the same month that investigative reporters from the Wall Street Journal went public with an analysis of serious problems at the company.

Magazines don’t care if their cover-story coronation of the Next Great CEO, or The New Queen or King of Silicon Valley is prophetic or just plain wrong. The story is king. the story lives in the moment. And with the fall of Theranos, the story is still strong and the descent – as celebrity gossip writers know – is every bit as attractive to readers as the rise. Accuracy, while not irrelevant is secondary to that and as for considered analysis of what might actually happen. Then again, we’re less accurate than monkeys throwing darts at stock market data, aren’t we?

Inc. and its start-up cheering kind aren’t there to look deep into the dark hearts of businesses and tell us what might go wrong. They are bought by entrepreneurs – both actual and aspiring – to give them a shot of optimism.

Then again, maybe too much too much positive attention and media cheerleading could be a useful indicator that a company is doomed. Andrew Hill notes:

A 2007 study of two decades of Businessweek, Fortune and Forbes covers found positive stories presaged a fall in the company’s stock price, and vice versa

What is novel is the speed with which today’s cover stars rise and fall. In their haste to expand, companies cut corners or exaggerate advances. “Fast growth stresses processes, controls and the leadership itself,” says Matt Nixon, author of Pariahs, a book about hubris and organisational crises.

To a degree, she was only following the template for marketing success. “The well-told story erases scepticism by wrapping [its] meaning inside an emotion,” points out Robert McKee, superstar lecturer on the art of the story in filmmaking, in Storynomics, a new book about how to use storytelling skills in a “post-advertising world”.

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Scott Galloway on the break up of big tech – notes and video from DLD18

I’ve been mostly travelling since the DLD conference, so just catching up on my notes and reflections now.

Scott Galloway was one of the people I was really keen to see speak in Munich. His recent book The Four was one of my best reads of 2017 – I bought several copies for our office and recommend on Brilliant Noise reading lists for our digital mindset and leadership programmes.

What sets Galloway apart from most tech commentators is that he does his homework, brings fresh insights and lays out his thinking in an engaging but above all provocative style. This year’s theme of his annual DLD talk was close to the bone for many of the attendees – the break up of big tech.

Galloway repeated and build on the themes in his book about “the four” – Amazon, Google, Facebook and Apple – essentially that they are now so big that they are destroying more value than they are creating. Amazon and Facebook seemed to take the most flak in the talk.

Here are some themes and highlights, depending on your point of view:

  • Facebook is a media company and disingenuous in pretending it isn’t: “[Facebook says] We can’t be arbiters of the truth and you don’t want us to be.’ No, we’d like you to try.”

The four treat fines from breaking the law as costs of doing business. In proportion to the size of deals they are getting “$25 parking tickets”.

While Amazon dwarfs all other retailers it pays hardly any tax (see below).

What happens when the most successful companies in the world don’t pay taxes? Simple, the less successful companies pay more taxes. We have opted for a regressive corporate tax system.

The four will destroy almost 200,000 jobs in the advertising industry.

These have been fantastic vessels for the transfer of wealth from the rest of the world to the United States and from the middle of the United States to the coasts.

He also used “the shitshow” of Amazon’s HQ2 location selection process. US cities effectively bid against one other to be the one that waived its tax and other. Laws the most to attract the company to settle there.

At one point he suggested that the Chinese response to big tech had been effective from a national security point of view – ban the US company, support local versions of e-commerce, search and social and effectively lock them out. “There haven’t been any concerns about Russian hackers interfering with elections in China.” The fact it is a totalitarian regime probably helps too, though, right?

At times, then, you could think that Galloway was completely in tune with the protectionists of the hard left and right. In fact, he showed a clip of him being introduced on a Fox News show as a socialist – although one suspects that Fox’s owners would love to Google and Facebook hobbled or broken up by governments. But Galloway insists that his call for the four big tech giants to be broken up is driven by capitalist logic. Like Microsoft in the 90s, he says, the big tech companies are shutting down challenger companies – think Facebook’s assimilation of Snap’s features – and need to be constrained to allow the next generation of tech innovators to emerge. Without the anti-trust suits against Microsoft, Google and Facebook might never have emerged.

This claim was categorically denied by The Second Machine Age author, Andrew McAfee on a later panel that morning. Microsoft was beaten in some markets by the Four because it failed to execute fast enough or well enough in search or mobile, says McAfee, and the responsibility to deal with their excesses is down to citizens and consumers.

Will it happen? If it does it will be the EU leading the charge, since US regulators seem to have no interest in hampering companies that hoover up the world’s cash and data so efficiently. Also, Galloway’s says: “The break up of big tech will not be easy because Jeff Bezos is smarter than all of us.”

You can watch the whole session here:

Lastly here are Galloway’s predictions for 2018. He started the session by showing all of the things he called wrong last year – but he still has a pretty good hit rate.

Cabbies at the gate – Uber’s CEO at DLD18

Arriving at the DLD conference shortly before Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi took to the stage there was a real buzz in the streets. Not delirious VC fanboys or ride-hailing fans, but a group of Munich’s taxi drivers none too pleased to welcome Travis Kalanick’s successor to the city.

Protest was a theme that connected Khosrowshahi with his street-critics. He was wearing a t-shirt proclaiming “We are all dreamers”, a protest slogan referencing the Dreamers, children of illegal US immigrants whom had been given the right to stay in the US under Obama-era legislation.

Khosrowshahi was interviewed by Tanit Koch, Editor in Chief of German tabloid Bild. She noted her personal preference for Uber after a two-year feud with taxi drivers in Berlin who, despite being legally obliged to, would refuse and verbally abuse her whenever she tried to pay with a credit card.

Like Satya Nadella at Microsoft, Khosrowshahi is clearly differentiating himself from his predecessor by sounding like a leader that reasonable people might actually want to be associated with.

He was keen to stress that turnaround of the company’s culture was going to be down to creating great teams, not any dazzling acts of genius by him:  “There’s an obsession with the cult of personality in Silicon Valley, and to me, that’s just BS.”

He helped the company define its values, but rather than dictating homilies from on high, Khosrowshahi led a crowdsourcing effort to define the behaviours that employees wanted to exemplify in their everyday work. The input from thousands of employees was curated and refined by the employees – “We were editors, not authors”, he said.

While Uber is still not profitable, it is getting more focused and also looking for more sources of revenue. UberEats will be the biggest food delivery service in the world this year, he claimed.

Like many other speakers who actually have skin in the driverless car game, Khosrowshahi was quick to play down how quickly autonomous vehicles would become a reality on our roads. He did confidently predict that within 10 – fifteen years another long-time futurist dream, the flying car, would start being used “maybe not in Europe but certainly in places like Dallas, Texas.”

All the while during the talk, overhead hung a kind of flying car – the Volocoptor – suspended from the conference hall roof.