2/20/15

Variables Make Life Work

Should I do it?

For the vast majority of my life I had been paralyzed by a fear of trying anything new. I think it might have been partially due to the fact that I moved around so much. I lived in so many different places that I needed some kind of grounding; something constant. Don't make me eat Chinese food, I've had macaroni and cheese my whole life and I'm not about to stop! That all changed when I started to set down roots in the Tampa Bay area. I realized I was missing a lot, so I branched out. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. But sometimes I'm still plagued by insecurity when I get a great new idea. Is it really that great? Am I missing something that's gonna screw someone else down the line if I change the status quo? It's taken me a while, but I'm getting quicker and quicker at saying Yes. Yes, I should do it.

And here's why that's important: I should do the thing not because the thing is going to work, but because it's a variable. And variables are the heartbeat of life. They don't just make life interesting, they make life possible. Evolution is driven on the engine of mutation. Mutations are tiny, random variables in genetic information. Without variables, evolution wouldn't work, so you can see I mean "they make life possible" quite literally. What I've learned by branching out and adding variables into my life, is that holding fast to established rules, while it may be comforting, holds you back. Stagnation kills. And throwing a pile of crap against a wall and seeing what sticks just might be how you discover the next great adhesive polymer.
Google is a great example of a company that throws crap against the wall to see what sticks. It's part of what makes me love them so much. By now everyone knows that it is (or was, if some reports are true) part of their employee policy that 20% of their time is supposed to be used on their own projects using Google resources. Often, those 20% time projects rise to the top and become vital parts of various Google projects. They are literally random variables that no one in charge was planning on, but they became what made Google great. 20% time is what created Gmail... and the rest is history.

But Google also has another policy that's very important to making random variables work. In evolution, if a mutation doesn't work, the species goes extinct. In Google, if a new project doesn't gain traction, it dies. And now, a moment of silence for Google Wave, Google Reader, Orkut, and countless other products and features that just didn't make the cut...
And there's the thing. Google is not afraid to fail. As a matter of fact, they're not afraid to get really excited about a thing! and then still fail. That is something that I learned as I started breaking out of my shell. One of the reasons I didn't try anything new is because I was desperate not to fail at what I was doing. And when you fear failing, you stagnate, and when you stagnate, you die. Go out and fail, fall on your face, be humiliated, get up, and try something else, because either you learned something as you fell, or you calloused your face against getting hurt again. You cannot be afraid of failing, you cannot be afraid of being humiliated. As a matter of fact, humiliation humanizes you. People will actually start to like you if you fail, acknowledge your failure, and move on. And this was a lesson that was especially difficult for me to learn.

What got me going down this line of thought was a Fifth Element-reference-riddled piece by Kiki Schirr on Medium, "Why I’m suspicious of A/B tests." In it, Kiki tells the story of how A/B testing led a company to give her a terrible UX which, apparently, was at least better than it used to be, but still sent her on a rage. (Go read it. I'll wait...)
Anyway, as I was reading that, my gears started turning, as they usually do, about what could be a good alternative to A/B testing. It became obvious when I considered the policy of the company I just joined, GreenBarLabs. The "Labs" part isn't just a bit of cute imagery to show that we're techy and scientific. It is literally our policy to experiment, as if in a lab, with whatever sounds like a good idea, throwing away what doesn't work and keeping what does. And not just to do this when there's a problem, but to constantly throw in new variables so that we can keep evolving.

So, here's my unsolicited answer to the unasked question, "Steve, what's a better solution than A/B testing?" Well, Kiki, I'm glad you asked! Throw a pile of crap against a wall and see what sticks. And, perhaps more importantly, don't be afraid to fail. Kiki makes the point in her article that the human element is important, and I totally agree with that, too. Take a look at your UX through your own human eyes and see how it makes you feel. But, in the meantime, keep on throwing crap against the wall again and again and again, whether it seems like you should or not. There's nothing wrong with a little change. Change is what makes life possible.