Sunday, November 24, 2013

Sure, It Does More Stuff, But Can You Understand It?

Just because your technologies can "do more stuff," doesn't mean you the consumer understand it.

One of the questions I face as a product reviewer is whether "doing more stuff" makes one product better than others in the same class that do less.

The ability to "do more" or "have more features," however, does not necessarily indicate a better product. The term "feature creep" alone is a tip-off that too many features can easily become "useless features." Too many features creates a too-busy design or confusing interface.

But the problem goes deeper than that.

In the case of technology products and software, the user should be able understand at all times what value they are deriving from the product, and it's the product's job to present that information. Products (and especially software, which is my area of focus as a technology writer) are responsible for giving their users feedback. If the user cannot  understand that feedback or see how and why it's relevant, than the product is failing to some degree.

The most clear example that I've seen lately is fitness gadgets, like the Fitbit line of products, Nike+ FuelBand line, Jawbone UP, and so forth. They're all modern-day pedometers. They count how many steps you take in a day, and most of them measure a bunch of other metrics, too. But can you make sense of the data they are measuring? And more importantly, are the data they are measuring relevant to you?

With fitness trackers, I personally get a lot of value out of those that have a complete ecosystem that includes a calorie-counting component and weight-tracking component. And I want my account to show me trends that relate my fitness level (i.e., how many steps I took in a day) with those other things: how much I ate and what I weighed. I want to see week-by-week analysis of those data points, not just day-to-day summaries of each one on a separate page. I want to see the relationship between all that information, not just the information itself.

A few fitness technology companies are getting pretty good at making data relevant and understandable to users (I'll point to Basis for that), but a lot of them are poor at it (ehem, Nike). It's an area that can't be overlooked though if the companies that make these devices want to stick around for the long term. As soon as consumers wise up to the fact that they can't really make sense of their data in a way that leads to actions and new habits, they'll recognize there's no sense in tracking the data in the first place.

Monday, November 4, 2013

How to Write About the People You Love

"What did you do to rebel?" A writer friend asked me this one night, over a glass of wine, after she had listened to a bunch of stories about my messed-up teenage years living in a very dysfunctional household.

"Nothing," I said.

"Nothing? No crazy drug use? No going out and sleeping with a bunch of older guys?"

"No. I mean, I was really focused on graduating early so I could get the hell out of there."

She didn't understand. This was far from her life's story, which was full of rebellion.

"You have to bear in mind," I said, "the adults in my life were the ones doing irresponsible things. So I didn't want to be like them. I didn't want to do what they were doing."

"Well," she said, "I think in your story, you're being too protective of your mother."

That hit home. She was referring to an oral storytelling piece that's still in progress that only minimally mentions my mother. "Why are you protecting your mother?"

"My mother's a good person," I said. "There are a bunch of twists and turns in this particular story that don't make her look great, but that's not the complete person. It would be unfair and not true to only show those things without giving mention to the fact that she did a lot of stuff right, particularly in raising me and my sisters."

"You don't have to protect her. This is your story. There are people in my family who won't even talk to me anymore because of things I've written or performed, but fuck them. They have to deal with that."

I have yet to figure out how to write personal, emotional, evocative, engaging stories without exposing the people I love. I struggle with it a lot.

Sometimes I want a pen name, an ounce of anonymity, just so I can say what I really feel about people, positively, negatively, and with the full complexity of the emotional relationship as I have experienced it.

But it feels so unfair to expose someone like that. My storytelling is only one point of view. Stories help us make meaning, and so my portrayal of a person in my life is my way of making meaning of that person, or my relationship with him or her. But it doesn't allow them to have any voice or representation.

Any other writers out here: How do you handle this?