[FoRK] A Theory of Products: Magic, Alchemy, Science... and Beyond?

Paul Jimenez pj at place.org
Mon Feb 8 19:31:59 PST 2010

An interesting perspective, as always.  I agree, though I think it means 
that no product can ever be finished because it will need to adjust to 
the changes in a user's tastes over time, and it's probably so optimized 
to only be 'in style' for a short time.   A kind of usability overfit, 
to make an analogy to machine learning.  Marketers may think that's a 
feature. I think it's a sustainability bug, personally, but YMMV.


On 01/29/2010 08:48 PM, Jeff Bone wrote:
> The use of the term "magical" in Apple's description of the iPad has 
> been nagging at me...  after quite a bit of consideration, I've come 
> to the conclusion that their use of this term is "meta-anti-ironic."  
> By this, I mean the following:  they are attempting to use the term 
> figuratively to describe one thing --- the product, which that term 
> does not obviously literally describe --- but in doing so have 
> unintentionally used the term to literally describe something else 
> *about* the thing they intended to describe --- the mindset in which 
> and process by which the product was conceived, defined, and created.  
> In doing so they've revealed what I believe to be an atypical (but 
> probably occasionally unavoidable;  magic is, as we all know, 
> unreliable) result of the way they approach product creation:  confusion.
> This gives me an opportunity to dwell (at length ;-) on a topic I've 
> long been fascinated (obsessed?) with:  the intertwined process(es) of 
> product conception, definition, creation, adoption, and refinement / 
> evolution.  I.e., a theory of products and a sort of mini-taxonomy of 
> the evolution of how we approach these processes in making  high 
> technology.  Unfortunately this little write-up doesn't really provide 
> any such theory, despite the title.  But consider it a random walk 
> through some of the prerequisites for understanding any such thing --- 
> which, I ultimately conclude, may not in any case be possible, 
> necessary, or desirable.  Maybe. ;-)
> First, definition of a couple of terms and some scoping.  By "product" 
> I generally mean any technological artifact;  though most of the cases 
> and examples considered and given are software and / or computing or 
> consumer electronic hardware (fuzzy lines, there) the general ideas 
> should apply to any sort of intentional, purposeful artifact --- i.e., 
> all "products" are technological.  By "product management" I mean any 
> process of defining products as a part of the process of creating 
> them.  By "product marketing" I generally mean the process of somehow 
> gathering the information necessary for the definition of products.  
> It should be interpreted as an *inbound*, intelligence-gathering 
> process --- and not confused with "outbound" marketing such as 
> marcomm, pre- and post-sales support, channel / pipeline creation and 
> support, advertising, etc.  Specifically this "product marketing" can 
> entail any number of distinct activities, some of which may be 
> described below, but which are all intended to gather intelligence to 
> inform product definition decisions, requirements creation (or 
> exclusion), and so on.
> So...
> In The Beginning...
> -- The Magicians --
> In The Beginning we had product magicians.  Their product "magic" was 
> / is a process primarily of introspection;  they reflect upon their 
> own attitudes about, uses of, and desires for certain technologies 
> and, from this reflection, can (or attempt to) extrapolate the needs 
> or desires of others and synthesize product definitions accordingly.  
> The result is something equally magical:  a "vision."  It is gestalt, 
> genius, artistry.  It is aesthetic, soft, egoistic, passionate.  The 
> process is highly subjective, intuition driven, and qualitative --- 
> and success or failure relies entirely upon the individual magician's 
> ability to execute this mysterious, internal, creative / synthetic / 
> syncretic process that they themselves probably cannot articulate, 
> much less teach others.  Success or failure also requires the ability 
> of the magician to manage the efforts --- often dictatorially --- of 
> others in actually bringing the product to fruition while maintaining 
> the integrity of the original "vision."
> Most early successful higher technologies relied upon creators that 
> were magicians and processes that were magical.  Some few were really, 
> really good at it, and still manage to practice it effectively today.  
> Examples:  two should suffice, though there are many --- the early 
> computer entrepreneurial landscape was littered with them, both 
> successful and not so.  The master magician of them all, clearly:  
> Jobs.  His apprentice Jonathan Ive, is no less the true believer and 
> practitioner, with his wide-eyes (from staring into the flames of 
> Platonic truth) and his high temple of creative conjuration, his lab.  
> (Be very quiet when you enter, lest you disturb some intricate 
> spell-in-progress.)  The previous heir-apparent, Tony Fadell, is 
> probably an example practitioner of the next step in the evolution of 
> product marketing and management towards science:  an alchemist.  
> (Speculation:  the fundamental conflict between attitudes toward magic 
> vs. alchemy is the reason that Ive is the golden boy while Fadell got 
> "pithed.")
> Digression:  today's "web designers" are most --- perhaps all --- 
> latter-day, would-be magicians, though mostly of the low-end hedge 
> wizard variety, masters of minutia, scam artists mostly --- 
> prestidigitators.  At their best, they may be envious alchemical 
> aspirants, Their major achievements tend to be the conjurations of 
> illusory mountains from trivial molehills.  Oh, how they peddle their 
> mysterious arts!  How they dazzle and confound with their bizarre 
> utterances, their mercurial outbursts, their mystical convictions and 
> religious, inviolable heuristics about font, color, contrast, and oh 
> yes, whitespace;  layout, and (of course) the proper size, 
> orientation, and opacity of drop shadows --- and please, let us make 
> sure that the radius of curvature of those button corners preserves 
> the appropriate ratio of earth, wind, fire and water.  How they seek 
> and seek that deific ideal of "user experience."  They tend to 
> practice a folkloric art, with some apocryphal writings (mostly grad 
> student papers from the mid-80s MIT Media Lab) and oh yes, that Bible 
> of theirs (Apple has a role here) --- the Apple Human Interface 
> Guidelines, or perhaps their Satanic Bible by Raskin, the LaVey of 
> their dark-ish arts, or (for the more sophisticated and sophistical 
> among them) their John Dee:  Tufte.  More misdirection than magic, 
> even less science than alchemy, with few pretenses towards it...
> -- The Alchemists --
> The product alchemists are product magicians that would be product 
> scientists, if merely they understood how.  They attempt to apply 
> various external, reproducible, objective laws, observations, 
> measurements, methods, and so forth to the product creation process in 
> order to achieve the optimal result.  However, there's still a kind of 
> animistic, ad hoc, magical quality to the effort.  They tend to 
> reflect on the objects / artifacts themselves, their abstract purpose 
> and uses (use cases, etc.) and subjective musings about how 
> individuals might use any given artifact with any given configuration 
> of properties in some context to some end.  The methods used tend to 
> be a mix of qualitative and quantitative.  The alchemists have the 
> right goal in mind, but generally not the right tools (i.e., 
> developed-enough models, relying instead on ratios of bilious and 
> phlegmatic humors) or methods (obsessive focus on quantitative means 
> of taking actual input data and turning it into objective meaning.)  
> The input is too selective, the data sets too small, the processes too 
> ad hoc, the experiments too uncontrolled, and the objects of 
> consideration too abstract and animistic to really call what they do 
> science.  To a large extent the success or failure of the effort still 
> devolves to the quality of the intuition of the individual alchemists 
> involved.
> General Magic (ironically...?) was an alchemy shop.  For all their 
> usability studies, rapid prototyping, quantification, feedback 
> processes and loops with partners, focus groups, their UI committee, 
> etc...  they still managed to produce a beautiful egg-laying milk pig 
> (i.e., attempted to be all things to all people, ultimately satisfying 
> none.) By contrast another alchemist --- Jeff Hawkins over at Palm at 
> the same time --- managed to hit the right notes for initial market 
> creation, largely by observing what didn't work with Newton and 
> General Magic and doing exactly the opposite, with some minimum of 
> user input and feedback and a maximum of good intuition.
> Arguably VCs and investors are a kind of product alchemist;  or 
> perhaps more like patrons of alchemy.  They have some of the same 
> interests but different practices and goals;  their focus is 
> different:  they vet product alchemists.  One major area of focus for 
> these guys is understanding market context, opportunity, execution 
> ability, and --- particularly --- friction / barriers to adoption or 
> success.  The failure of this group of folks to come up with any 
> repeatable process should be clear;  in the end, it's all gut-calls 
> and personalities, and the failure rates reflect that.  Their major 
> conceit:  the barrier to entry.  The inevitable conclusion:  
> everything is impossible.
> And here we're mostly stuck.  For three decades now we've been trying 
> to build a science of product marketing out of alchemical parts and 
> don't really have a unified discipline, yet.  From the early days of 
> quantitative usability studies at the (MIT) Media Lab back in the 80s 
> to the abstract study technology adoption and innovation (i.e. Frank 
> Bass --- whose work stretches back to 1969 but was little-recognized 
> until the 90s) through the 90s (Clayton Christensen, and so on) to the 
> object-focused alchemists of the late 90s and Oughts (Don Norman, 
> Steve Krug, the Web 2.0 / 37 Signals crowd, etc.) we continue to get 
> bits and pieces of the discipline but still lack any grand unified 
> theory.  And in fact, any such grand unified theory would likely be 
> enormously (perhaps intractably) complicated.  In addition to the 
> above, it's also going to have to have some theory of actors and 
> motivations, some kind of decision theory, some kind of theory of 
> memes, and some well-formed construct that ties together the "outside 
> context" parts of things, i.e. market context, path / history 
> dependency, friction, predictions about the reactions of existing and 
> non-yet-existing competitors and actors, etc.  Makes e.g. forecasting 
> in "mere" economics-at-scale look trivial.
> -- The Scientists ---
> There won't be any.
> -- The Post-Scientists / The Empiricists ---
> There won't be any science of product, no grand unified theory of 
> product creation / innovation / marketing --- not because it's 
> impossible (though it might be) but because we're going to leap right 
> past that to something fuzzier, spookier, more massive, more 
> inscrutable, more data-driven, colder and yet simultaneously "wetter" 
> and more "biological" --- and more effective.  Bigger, yet less 
> substantial;  ectoplasmic.  Something much...  Google-ier.  Cf. "The 
> Unreasonable Effectiveness of Data,"  "The Google Way of Science," 
> "Science Without Theory," etc.
> The basic idea here is:  stop guessing, stop "modeling," stop 
> extrapolating, stop forecasting, stop focus grouping, stop asking...  
> and just measure and evolve.  Measure early, measure often, measure 
> always, measure everything, measure a *whole lot.*  Let the numbers 
> guide the decisions about what to build, how to build it, when to 
> build it, *why* to build it.  What color should that background be?  
> Try them all and measure it.  Should I build X, Y, or Z?  Build them 
> all, see which works best, discard the rest.  Should that button be 
> here or there?  Let the (very large) masses decide.
> Google is the pioneer and the current (and foreseeable) master of 
> this.  Their scale coupled with their stigmergic processes and 
> disorganization allow the exploration of very many possibilities in 
> parallel, through a kind of evolutionary process.  What works, 
> propagates.  What doesn't is culled, absorbed, refactored, and any 
> good bits digested and reused.  Everything is measured --- again and 
> again and again.  Nothing is stagnant;  no solution assumed 
> permanently optimal;  mutation is a constant.  Everything is 
> continuously tested for fitness;  that which is (currently) best is 
> selected and used.  New niches to invade and occupy are constantly 
> sought.  Meta-technology in action.
> They aren't alone in starting to do things this way, but they're 
> certainly driving it forward as fast as possible.
> I have conflicted feelings about this.  Everything reduces to the cold 
> equations, the simple facts, the raw numbers, and the Really Big.  
> Artistry is deprecated, intuition obsoleted, large scale made 
> essential, and incremental bootstrapping from the tiny made difficult 
> or impossible as the ability to conduct the process at small scale is 
> limited.  The world bifurcates;  the distinction between craft 
> products and tools will become ever clearer.  I'm not sure that's a 
> good thing;  maybe it is.  The tools should be more useful, the market 
> overall should become more efficient at delivery of useful goods and 
> services at the right times.  And perhaps the disillusionment that 
> goes along with such distinctions will eventually enable software and 
> other technological *artisans* to conduct their trade for what is is, 
> free from the idea that there's any valid measure other than the 
> aesthetic / subjective / qualitative satisfaction of a limited 
> audience.  (Interesting tangents:  what about the application of this 
> sort of thing to e.g. investments?  Data too limited today, within any 
> given fund or even across funds and industries.  But, maybe...  Also 
> worthy of consideration:  impact of post-scientific product marketing 
> on e.g. bazaar vs. cathedral models.  Obviously, magic and alchemy 
> occur in the cathedral.  But post-science also has to, necessarily, 
> occur in the cathedral today, because that's generally where the 
> critical masses of data, computing resources, and so on reside.  If 
> only there were Turing Awards for product marketing:  "Can 
> Post-Scientific Product Marketing be Liberated from its Cathedral 
> Style?"  If so, how?)
> Nonetheless, that's where we're at.
> "Welcome to the brave new world of post-scientific product marketing.  
> Your color is #C2D9FF.  Enjoy it!  We know you will."
> ---  Beyond-the-Beyond ---
> For now, humans remain in the loop, the analysts and actors, human 
> judgments and proactivity still essential to acts of invention, to the 
> product-conceiving and product-making creative process.  That won't 
> always be the case.  The next meta-level up the stack is automating 
> away that part of the process, closing the loop entirely, humans 
> merely as reactive agents and input signals, the population as a whole 
> an experimental testbed on which the process operates.  Quo bono?  Us, 
> hopefully.  But not entirely certainly, and perhaps not forever...
> At the end of the line, we will find ourselves back to magic.  Clarke 
> was right, of course;  "any sufficiently advanced technology..."  When 
> the technology in question is the meta-technology of technology 
> creation, and when you've moved beyond theory to pure, inscrutable, 
> dense, automatically-derived, data-driven mathematical models, 
> predictions, and processes...  the creative process is out of our 
> hands, becomes recursive...  the exclusive domain of focused (if 
> global, hopefully friendly (*cough*)) optimizers, optimizing away, 
> refining, perfecting, chiseling away at product-space oh-so-efficiently.
> And so we have a world of agents and daemons roaming invisibly through 
> virtual planes that intersect the desert of the real at select 
> touch-points, a whole bestiarum vocabulum of artificial, narrow beings 
> so eager to please:  barely-aware fabs and repraps and reality 
> printers, vision-projectors and consensus hallucinator-facilitators, 
> stock feed logisticians, meta-compilers, automatic user interface 
> builders and mass customizers, usage statisticians and reality miners, 
> attention heat-mappers and points-of-sale streamers, all manner of 
> other localizers and trackers, transaction and other pattern 
> recognizers, time-on-page and other attention-attenders, 
> similarity-clusterers and preference-predictors, action-modality 
> specialists and subculture classifiers and fashion advisors and 
> memetic imagineers, cluestream-sniffers and cluehounds and sensor-node 
> watchers, remembrance agents and interest detectors, gaze gazers and 
> meta-suggestive sell suggesters, and so on...  more attention and 
> effort and urgent need-to-please lavished instantaneously yet 
> continually on each individual than the sum of human attention and 
> effort throughout history...
> A swarm of cold intelligences operating for and on us, navigating, 
> searching silently and tirelessly across vast multi-dimensional 
> fitness landscapes of shimmery, roiling, chaotic, noisy, raw, rich, 
> pure data;  mining it, sifting it, finding, reminding, refining, 
> synthesizing...  competing, negotiating, cooperating, mutating, 
> replicating, mating, creating, minimizing the experimental error, 
> "understanding" their human experimental subjects by reduction to pure 
> math..  Climbing that hill...  dancing some weird and intricate dance 
> of creative destruction and destructive creation...  Simultaneously 
> the most personalized, customized, bespoke user experience for each 
> individual, a cornucopia of products, a consumer's Elysium...  a 
> reality tailored perfectly and obsessively to each person, yet not 
> lovingly;  so impersonal, so cold, too...  perfect.  Flawless.  
> Nothing objectionable, nothing out of place, no surprises - ever 
> (except when you want one and don't know it.  They do.)
> And the whole thing certainly begins to look like magic.  Spooky, 
> virtual, cold, alien magic.
> "Wonderful?"  Certainly, if literally.  Desirable?  Arguable.*  
> Inevitable?  Probably.
> -- 
> $0.02,
> jb
> * Me?  I guess I dig the idea.  Count me in.  But then, meatheads 
> never impress me much anyway. ;-)
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