Creativity is just connecting things

I am in the process of writing a longer post about the difference between Google’s and Apple’s approach to ‘User Experience’ and stumbled over this wonderful quote from Steve Jobs:

When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.

The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

– Steve Jobs


A ultra local computer generated newspaper (Research project #2)

Research project #2. This is part of a series of research projects. See the first project #1 where we tried to make a page rank algoritm for physical locations.

Project: We wanted to create an ultra-localized newspaper with the visual language of print but based only on RSS feeds and with no human intervention. Usage examples: allowing real estate agents to offer a localized newspaper, adding information that is related to a homeowner –  popular venues, local council info, what people on the street tweet about, local news headlines, and so on.

Background: There were two core drivers behind the idea of this research project.

1.Our fascination with just how superior offline print design is compared to digital when it comes to the experience of consuming text. While the internet offers a world of opportunities when it comes to creating engaging storytelling experiences, it seems that the innovations around reading text online has a long way to go. Print papers offers many subtle but powerful properties not yet found online:

  • a great way to find out how much content there is still to be read (by gauging how many pages are left)
  • added visual clues to enforce the emotional impact of the story
  • a structure/format that creates a reading flow and a sense of “freedom from choice” in what to read next
  • a  focus point that doesn’t get interrupted with hyperlinks, pop-ups, or ads.

2. Our respect for how Netflix taught us how to introduce new technology when users are ready for it (rather than when it can be done). About 10 years ago I gave a talk at Harvard Business School about digital television. Someone from the audience asked me what I thought about Netflix. My answer was that Netflix was missing the point and that VOD would overtake them shortly. In retrospect, it is clear that Nexflix had actually done something very smart. They met their users with a product (movie rental) that was aligned with their users’ technology comfort level and then established a business relationship with them on the users’ terms. Now as broadband and connected devices are commonly used, they can migrate their business alongside their users into new digital platforms and offer their own VOD offering. I don’t know the Netflix people, but I assume that they are so smart that they had this planned all along. The lesson from Netflix is to keep an eye on where the users are in their adoption of new technology and then think how you can design new products so users don’t have to change their behavior too much in order to start adopting the service. With that in mind, consider this fact: the direct mail business in the US is still several times bigger than all internet advertising.

The Project

Gavin, Stacey, and I were discussing the above and came up with the idea of making an ultra-localized print paper that would utilize all the amazing local content that is available online and create a system that would format the content into a visually pleasing paper design, which would then be printed and delivered to people’s homes.

We started to find great sources of content that could be extracted from the web by only knowing a user’s zip/postcode. The thinking was that real estate agents would sponsor the print of these magazines and target the streets/postcodes they wanted to sell houses in. We found there was a lot of great content out there. Here are a few examples of sources we used:

  • Foursquare check-ins to find out what places were hot on your street/block
  • Meet-up information about what meetings were going on
  • Price information about your street, so you can see if you are making money on your apartment/house
  • Free things that people around you are giving away on Craigslist
  • The Guardian’s local API for local news
  • Local reviews on Yelp
  • Local council meetings

Our “hacker in residence” Andras did some research on how to do some formatting and choosing of the content we had taken in and Gavin did some nice designs. We then teamed up to get this printed on real newspaper paper with the awesome guys at Newspaperclub who had already done an interesting and rather similar prototype of a service for people moving into a new area.

Below is the result. A nicely designed ultra-local newspaper based on my postcode. We could now do these week in and week out based on any postcode without having to do much or any work.

As this was a research project we don’t plan to take the concept further, but we might use it for other projects we are involved in. To test the concept we applied the same solution to myheritage.com (se pictures below) to see if we could apply the same system to another problem. Here we took the data (dummy data was used) that was already available and created a yearly update paper for my family. The thought was that many people would like to get access to online data but would find paper better suited as a medium.

I realize that many will say that (i)Pads can provide the same experience and there is no clear business model for this idea. This is partly true. The iPad has already seen an amazing growth in apps that mirror the visual design of papers and magazines. For us this was not about arguing about whether one business, platform, or process was  better than another, but to experiment on how to use convergence to come up with a completely new experiences. When sat down with a nicely designed magazine about our street – that had been made totally automatically – we felt we somewhat succeeded.

Postcode NewsPaper
Digital version:
[issuu layout=http%3A%2F%2Fskin.issuu.com%2Fv%2Flight%2Flayout.xml showflipbtn=true autoflip=true autofliptime=6000 documentid=100506162413-7bb2653b39b9491c9cc77e22c82b61b6 docname=localmag username=gavinocarroll loadinginfotext=Local%20Paper showhtmllink=true tag=property width=420 height=325 unit=px]

The MyHeritage.com proof of concept:

Printed edition:

PDF version:

Trying to become more creative by unplugging

More and more research is popping up pointing to negative effects of being online and available all the time. Most of us are pretty accessible and judging gets slightly restless if we dont get our information fix:

” Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.”

From todays New York Times; Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price: http://bit.ly/aDLLAW

Its not just the constant need for information, I have also noticed that I increasingly dont remember information that I can easily access by googling my past emails in Gmail.  A trend that is also being researched; An Ugly Toll of Technology: Impatience and Forgetfulness also from todays New York Times http://bit.ly/dhD7Qe

So from today, I’ll try to experience with offline creative hours. The plan is to allocate certain amount of hours every day for creative problems I have to solve. The then force myself to have email/twitter/facebook and messenger platforms closed for those hours and continue working on the problems for the specified time – even if I solve the problems quicker. Its a summer digital detox experiment 😉 . Might even try some of all those new tools that are coming out to keep us from our information addiction like Writeroom and other of these tips. I’ll let you know how it goes.