Something different

You ever feel like you're working really hard at something with not a lot of results?

Well then, it's probably a good idea to try something different.

As Albert Einstein once said, “I’m Albert Einstein, and this is a real quote from me. Also, there’s no need to keep banging your head into that wall!”

And so it is in that spirit that I’m stepping back from these week-daily emails for a bit.

I hope they were helpful to you in some small way even just once.

The main takeaway for me is something I’ve talked about before: You gotta know who you’re making a thing for, you gotta give them a reason to give a shit about it, and you gotta deliver on that reason.

Thank you so much for all your time reading these and your feedback throughout. I truly hope even one of these emails moved you in some small way.

And if not, no worries - there won’t be very many more, anyways! You can unsubscribe if you like to keep your inbox super clean or feel free to stay on the list if you want to be up to speed when “what’s next” turns into “what’s now.”

All the best,

Sam

You only need one thing

You ever feel really stumbly when trying to tell someone about your app? You can't seem to find the simple hook that draws them in so you fumble around searching for ANYTHING that might appeal to them till eventually you're explaining your login system while their eyes glazed over.

Or maybe you really are excited about every single bit of your app and you think your login system is the best thing since sliced bread! But it'll probably get met with eye rolls when you try and tell other people about it.

It's no good.

You really only need one thing.

It helps focus you in your marketing (at parties, at pitches, in Facebook ads…) and also in your development.

What's the thing that makes your app special? Then highlight that.

You can't be all things to all people.

But you can do your thing really really well.

And when you know what it is and focus on it, instead of chasing a million different ideas, it's much easier to get people's eyes to light up.

Have a great weekend,

Sam

How to teach fishing

“When you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. When you teach a person someone to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.”
Blah blah blah, you get the point. If you’re working on a tech project, chances are pretty good you’re trying to teach fishing rather than give out some floppy, slippery, friends.

But the challenge is that there are a million ways to teach someone how to fish. How can you tell which is right for you and your business? Consider these three options:

  1. Hand out pamphlets with the best spots in the area

  2. Produce a video series on the proper way to set your line

  3. Foster an online community focused on sharing tips for the latest and greatest lure crafting techniques

Each one has a different cost for your business, each one has a different amount of touch points with your audience, and each one teaches a different amount of how to fish.

In general, those variables are highly correlated - cost, touch points, and learning. You want to impart as much knowledge and skills as possible. The challenge is to find your sweet spot. Is there a place that lets you have lots of conversations at very little cost? Or give out tons of knowledge in very condensed form?

Maybe producing tons of videos is easy for you. Maybe a single pamphlet is equivalent to a year’s worth of Instagram posts because of your graphic design skills.

I don’t know. But you probably do.

What’s going to help your audience catch the most fish, and how can you help get them there?

🐠🐟🐡,

Sam

Don't hide your light

For lots of folks, Facebook's early credo of “move fast and break things,” is rightfully scary. The arc of Facebook shows what can happen when that ethos gets left unchecked. It's dangerous, and can do immeasurable harm to people and countries.

And equally true is that that story can be used to strengthen an inner-critic that prevents you from trying something audacious and scary that could end up being truly beneficial.

Trying something new is hard. It's easy to say, “Well, I don't want to go to fast and get too big. Look what happened to Facebook!!”

That's useful, yes, but if you have that voice, and you're motivated to help people, check if that voice is preventing you from taking the risks that you need to take.

Are you really worried about becoming corrupt? Or are you worried your idea will flop in the first place?

There's all sorts of ways we talk ourselves out of taking risks. If you think you've got something that's gonna be of service to folks, try it.

Don't hide your light.

🔥🔥🔥,

Sam

You will mess up

You will mess up. It's inevitable. On your way to designing a wonderful, usable, helpful app, you're going to make a million design mistakes.

You'll leave fields out of forms, exclude regions of people from signing up, alienate folks, and piss off stakeholders.

It's ok.

It's part of the process and part of being human, too.

There are two bigger dangers to not doing so:

a) not releasing anything for fear of making a mistake

and b) refusing to admit that yes, you have screwed up.

Choose the middle. Choose to screw up and recognize it. It happens.

😊,

Sam

Got a map?

If you’re trying to drive across the country, it’s useful to have a map.

But a map’s only so good as your ability to tell where you are on said map.

So when you’re making some sort of product, it’s really nice to have your roadmap all laid out in front of you. You know exactly what you’re going to build in what order all on the way to building the best damn MVP anyone has ever seen.

Feature x, then feature y, then feature z! And all along the way, you’re getting closer and closer to your goal: a super amazing, effective, helpful product.

It says so right on the map!

Except… are you?

How do you know?

More important than the map itself is how you tell where you are on the map.

You need to get feedback. Back in the days of printed maps, we read street signs in the physical world. Nowadays, we watch the little blue dot on Google maps.

Talking to your customers is the equivalent of those updates. You can do it in person.

You can send and receive surveys.

You can watch other metrics (retention rate, Heart Rate Variability for mental health apps, course completion percentage for study-buddy apps) and see how they’re changing.

Whatever you watch, make sure you’re watching something. Because you drew the map. You need to make sure you’re staying on it.

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-Sam

HELLO, FELLOW HUMANS

Greetings, fellow humans! Have you heard about HRV, aka “heart rate variability”? What about the “hippocampus” (which is a region in your braaaiiin)? What about your nervous systems comma autonomic, sympathetic, and parasympathetic? No? Maybe? Oh, well no matter, you probably know how how to measure electro-magnetic frequency though.

These terms are incredibly robotic. Almost certainly, they mean nothing to you, and they mean nothing to your audience.

However, they are super important!

Heart rate variability is a very good indicator of overall health, depression, and anxiety!

Those terms (“health, depression, anxiety”) are supremely human, and they probably mean something to your audience. Especially if you’re in the mental health space. And if you’re working with people on their anxiety or depression, HRV & all that brain science under the hood may be important features, but it’s hard to connect with people about it.

You can tell stories about depression. You can connect your own experiences to anxiety much easier than you can to “your parasympathetic nervous system.”

Just another reason to talk about benefits rather than features.

Cheers,

Sam

Features or benefits?

Are you selling features or benefits?

If you're making videos on dental health meditation visualizations, a feature would be “stunning 4k video.” A benefit is “decrease your chance of osteopetrosis.”

People do care about features, but not if they're not getting the benefit. You need the benefit first, and if folks can't find that… 🤷🏻‍♂️

Plus, how you talk about your features may not make any sense to your customers! Do YOU know what 4k is? Is it different than HD? I don't know! Jargon is the enemy, and features are full of it.

On the other hand, I know intimately what dental surgery feels like, and if you tell me you can remove that from my life… PHEW!

Sign me up :-)

Benefits matter. Start talking about them.

☁️ Pause ☁️

Are you taking care of yourself, dear reader?

When you’re starting something new (a product, a marketing endeavor, a whole company) it’s easy to go go go. It makes total sense, and it’s a little ironic if the thing you’re trying to start is in service of helping people take care of themselves, each other, and the Earth.

So consider this a gentle reminder: your tasks will be there tomorrow, too.

You can work hard and still take time to not burn out.

Your own health and well-being is worth pausing for.

Even for an hour.

Even for a breath.

😘,

Sam

Shmix it up

The number one predictor of injury in child athletes isn't how they play sports, it's how specialized they are - it's how infrequently they mix it up. Cross-training is good for injury prevention, essentially.

And it's good for keeping your interest, too.

It's really hard to ask someone to do the exact same thing over and over again. You gotta mix it up a bit.

The supremely minimal game Desert Golfing does a great job of this. There's only one challenge in the game: very pared-down 2-d golf. One home after another repeating forever and ever amen.

And yet, I'm on hole 3,406 and have played over 9,200 strokes of golf.

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Why? Well, each hole is slightly different. Some are very hilly. Some are flat. Some are easy, some are hard. About one out of 80 or so will have a water hazard! Some go uphill and some go downhill. The point is, it varies.

And that's not all. The background is also constantly slowly, almost imperceptibly shifting shades.

What's now a deep purple on light purple landscape was magenta on pink 100 holes ago and green on orange back in the 1500s. It's so slow but totally wild to step back and see the huge changes after a while.

These two things - from hole to hole (second to second) and over the course of hundreds of holes (probably weeks in real-time) keep the game compelling on a meta level.

So think, what can you vary in your app each time someone picks it up? And what can be shifting on a longer timescale?

Adding either keeps brains flexible and interested.

😊🧠,

Sam

Feedback as kindness

Have you heard of “kind” vs “wicked” learning environments? In a kind environment, you get immediate, tight feedback on your decisions and actions and can thus adjust your hypotheses quickly and easily. In wicked environments, feedback comes in slowly and very noisily, and learning what you did right or wrong is really really hard.

This excellent article notes how free throws are a kind environment in basketball while scouting draft picks is terribly wicked.

But it's more than just how quickly you can learn. When you're designing an app or tool for someone else to use, there's an emotional kindness to giving feedback, as well.

It's encouraging and reassuring to let them know, “Hey, I see you, and I see how you're doing.” That's kindness. Coaching can be kindness.

Letting people stumble around in the dark (because of bad UI, or lack of time to fix a bug, or whatever) can not only create a harsh learning environment, but reduces connection and kindness between you and the person on the other side of the screen.

Feedback is crucial. It needs to be timely and clear, and doing so is doing a kindness.

😊,

Sam

How'd that get there?

Where do you expect your app to be deployed? Are you picturing it on the phones in pockets of individual audience members or clients you serve? Or are you picturing it projected on a screen in front of a room full of teachers at an in-house training?

Whatever the case, it may be useful to question those assumptions. Doubly so if you're having trouble actually getting it out there.

So take a minute and list three different possible locations for your product to live.

It could be a school, a church, a bathroom stall, whatever. Try and stick to physical locations where someone could use your app.

After that, try and list three different form factors for your product. Sure, you've pictured a VR experience, but maybe it could live as a podcast instead. Or a standalone kiosk or arcade cabinet. Do this for each of your locations.

If you're stuck, you don't know where the right fit will turn up until you start looking in some unexpected places.

-Sam

You're doing great!

Ah… negative bias. It’s very real, and it’s very strong. Our brains have a tendency to notice the negative more than the positive - a leftover from our survivalist days of evolution.

Unfortunately, this makes it hard for us to accurately judge our own progress.

Fortunately, this leaves room for others to tell us how great we’re doing.

So first of all, you’re doing great. Better than you think, I’m sure of it. Even if you feel like you’re fucking up all the time and your app isn’t going anywhere and nobody knows who you are, and you haven’t made any progress.

You’re reading this email, and that’s something.

Second of all, don’t forget to tell your audience how great they’re doing. It’s easy to dangle carrots just out of reach all the time. It’s easy to motivate by saying, “Sure, a 7-day streak is great, but don’t you really want that 30 day streak??

Really celebrate successes. Let it in.

Tell your people how great they’re doing. The negative bias is strong. Work to counter it :-)

-Sam

Learning to dunk

I’d be pretty damn pumped if I could learn how to dunk. Like, for real - that’d be amazing. Unfortunately, I’m super short, and it’s just not gonna happen.

But goals are really motivating! They’re useful things to move towards. It’s just that sometimes, they’re actually either physically impossible to achieve (like dunking) or very much outside of our control (like changing global politics).

So what to do in those situations?

  1. Set smaller, achievable goals and celebrate them. This is pretty common advice, and it’s good. If you’re working up to a marathon, hitting your first 10-miler is huge. What is your audience building towards? And similarly, how can you give them the feeling of a huge celebration on hitting that mark? Why not set up a huge “finish line” tape to cross at the end of a training run? Why not set up a trampoline and a 9-foot hoop for us vertically-challenged folk after increasing our leaping ability 3 inches? There are multiple ways to define success. Let your people taste them.

  2. Make the process as enjoyable as possible. This is similar to last week’s email, “Peace is Every Step.” If the actual experience of working towards the larger goal is fun, then it’s not work at all. If I love the feeling I get from lifting weights, I’m not worried about if I can dunk or not. If I enjoy walking with my friends and knocking on doors, I’m more likely to come back week after week. Is it fun for your people to do their work? Or is it work? (and if it is work, that’s OK, too, because sometimes… it is.)

  3. Dedicate yourself to the work regardless of outcome. Lastly, this is pillar is easy to skip because it’s less traditionally fun. We show up because it’s right. Not because it feels good or because we believe it will change the world or ourselves in a way that will be readily apparent. We do the work because we are committed to it - because it is the way we want to be in the world. For lots of your people, this is a deep truth that can be hard to recognize, and it’s so easy to mask it with goals and games. But really, we want to be healthy. We want to be just. We want to be kind. If you are giving people an opportunity to express that - to themselves, to others - even if it’s in service of a goal, you’re still giving them a chance to be that thing. So as a designer, honor that. You can ask people to commit to it. You can also create time to pause and notice how good it feels when they do align with their values. You just might be surprised what happens in that space.

The art of moving towards is to do it. Setting smaller goals, making it fun, and then doing it anyways - because it’s right.

May you continue to move towards and experience joy and success at each step :-)

-Sam

"I was looking for that!"

Have you ever googled for an app to solve a problem even when you didn’t know such an app existed? That phrase, “There’s an app for that!” is still really powerful.

Some phrases I’ve googled:

So now imagine your app in the app store. If someone didn’t know it already existed, how would they find it?

What specific words would a person type into the search bar that would lead them to your app?

What problem would a person be experiencing that your app solves?

Or what analog product would people search for the digital version of?

You may think your app helps solve a great problem for the world, and it really might! But if it doesn’t serve an important function in the mind of your potential adoptees, then it’s dead in the water.

Thinking of potential search terms from their perspective will give you insight into what that function may be.