Better

January 7, 2018

A new year, and a bit of difficulties in business led me to a lot of thinking.

This post doesn’t have a lot of structure, but I hope the combined thoughts make some sense and give you something to think about as well.

In my day job, I am a UI designer, and most of my work is concentrated on designing applications.

I’ve been tremendously focussed on trying to do projects where the applications that we design actually do something useful.

And I notice that I am the happiest when I see useful working software that does a good job.

What makes me unhappy is shallow work that doesn’t offer an actual benefit.

When the winner at the local tech startup competition is an app that lets you send messages to the future, or yet another food delivery startup, I think that’s a bit sad.

When people get sent to New York with government money on a “startup mission” with a super flawed business concept I can’t help but think that some people are just surfing this startup wave as some kind of lifestyle.

What is “useful software” then?

For example, a few years ago I worked on ticketing software, and when I order a concert ticket using that system and it works like I wanted it to, that makes me happy.

And then when I enter the concert hall, and the security people swiftly scan my ticket using a piece of software I helped create, that makes me happy as well.

Some time ago I also worked on a software project to organise TV shows, and now I saw that it was being used for Music for Life (1) to make sure everything would go smoothly.

We only worked a few weeks on this project with Mono, but I can see that what is there now is a massive evolution of what we worked on. I think that’s great.

(Obviously this is group work I can only take a bit of credit for.)

I think people are always looking for the next big thing, but in my opinion, the next best thing is a target that doesn’t exist.

The only thing you can do is to improve the current situation.

In design, we say over and over that the process is all about iteration.

When you iterate, you hopefully improve something, and ideally you elevate the starting point that someone else can build upon.

When you create a website, you are standing on the shoulders of giants.

The fact that you can create a drop shadow with a single line of code is the result of combined years of work by many people (2).

A drop shadow might be a silly example, but the point is: you need to try to build something that you can build upon.

For example, when I look at Hidde’s work, I see someone who is building things that follow that philosophy.

My work is building and designing software, but in this process, we don’t just make decisions about drop shadows.

We also make decisions about what it is that we build, why it should exist, and what it ultimately does.

When we discuss features, how to move around data, whether a user should be allowed to do X, Y or Z, we are essentially focussed on very human things.

What if the user wants to switch to another service? Do we lock down this data? Do we provide an export function?

Do we allow someone to delete their account?

Both questions should, in my opinion, obviously be answered with a resounding yes.

But I have had these discussion so many times and for a lot of people, this is not such an obvious yes.

So, where do we go from here?

I think we need to be careful that what we build is not a shallow solution for short-term gains.

We need to embrace open standards, even more than we already are doing.

We need to take control over our own data.

And if we give someone data, we need to hold them responsible when they don’t secure our data properly.

We can’t allow corporations to build big databases about our behavior that they will use for commercial purposes.

Think twice before you upload all of your photos to a cloud service. Do you really want BigCorp X to build a data profile on your kid already?

Every image gets analyzed and you can bet that at some point somebody will use it for malicious purposes. And that somebody will justify that because they’re making money with it and they need to put bread on the table.

So why not prevent the situation in the first place?

Data leaks easily, and like we discovered this week, 5 lines of Javascript can bring down almost every Intel chip.

Please, when you browse the internet, use an ad blocker and software that helps you prevent tracking (3).

Get your own domain name, and when you sign up to something, use a different e-mail address for every service you use.

Get a password management system and use a different password for every service.

Avoid leaning too much on one company for all your online needs (i.e. Google).

When you create an event for your friends, maybe think twice to do it on Facebook. Not everybody has or wants a Facebook account.

We need to avoid locking up our stuff in central, closed databases.

We need to work on keeping computing human.

I don’t know yet what that exactly means, but I hope to figure it out.

The future is not a thousand apps on your phone, posting a fake version of yourself on the internet, or immersing yourself in virtual reality.

(Don’t get me wrong, some parts of VR are awesome, but something has to be said about its escapist nature)

Maybe the future is that you just have this device that helps you augment your thoughts, and that you can also put down when you’re having diner with your family.

So, maybe that future is already here, and we just need to iterate on it.

We have already created a lot of things that are great and an obvious addition to life.

Software like Excel is awesome, if you look at what it allows you to do vs. what you had to do before computers. The concept has evolved to a shared spreadsheet that is always in sync (4).

I was complaining about the lack of a proper filesystem for iOS on Twitter, but I should be happy that I have this computer in my pocket that can do an amazing number of things.

And I am pretty sure Apple will iterate on the Files app (as they have done already) and that in the end it will be worthy enough to stand next to macOS’s finder.

The computer is like a bicycle for our minds.

They are a worthwhile addition to our lives but we need to realize that they are just this tool, that we should be able to live without.

I saw someone complaining on Twitter 3 times about Deliveroo not working like he was used to.

And I all I can think is: you know, maybe you can learn to cook? So the internet doesn’t have to be your nanny?

In 2018 I want to put down whatever gizmo I have at the moment a bit more, and live in the moment. And can everyone please stop filming half the show with their smartphone when I go to a concert? Seriously.

Over the years, I keep coming to the same conclusion.

I want things to be better.

And what’s better is very personal, but I can idenfity with Merlin Mann’s Better:

To be honest, I don’t have a specific agenda for what I want to do all that differently, apart from what I’m already trying to do every day:

* identify and destroy small-return bullshit;
* shut off anything that’s noisier than it is useful;
* make brutally fast decisions about what I don’t need to be doing;
* avoid anything that feels like fake sincerity (esp. where it may touch money);
* demand personal focus on making good things;
* put a handful of real people near the center of everything.

This was written 8 years ago, and it still rings true.

Originally, we wanted to name Mono “Augment”, where the “Augment” part would be about making something better.

It didn’t exactly roll of the tongue so we went with Mono, but that’s what my still my mission.

Make things better.

(1) This is a big solidarity event that happens every year in Belgium where people collect money for charities
(2) I remember drawing 9 elaborate PNGs in Photoshop to do the same work, and then creating an elaborate HTML table to position those. Ugh.
(3) I would say Ghostery is a good starting point
(4) Google Spreadsheets, but also Office 365, and a bunch of competitors

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