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Top of the Traps

Trap #1: Cutting against the grain

October 01, 2020

In 1996, the year Jeru the Damaja released Ya Playin Yaself, if you wanted to pick up a copy on vinyl, from an ecommerce store you would use a search engine. 

The dominant search engines of the day were Yahoo, Lycos, Excite and Alta Vista. There was a new kid on the scene though because that year, two Stanford computer science PHDs, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin released a new search engine called Backrub, which would later became Google, sweeping aside its competitors in a little over two years with little to no marketing budget.

Do we know why it was called Backrub? That’s right, this was the original concept behind the page-rank algorithm you know and love today. At its heart, this was based on a very simple idea, which was that you could intuit the accuracy of a page in relation to a term, based on how many websites linked to that page using similar terms.

The other search engines, were building ever more complex lexical parsers. In addition, to cover up for the dubious accuracy of the search results, they were busy building directories and media services, trying to add value through a weight of human effort focused around but not on the core technology.

When Google came out it was devastating to those search engine companies, because not only were Google’s results much more accurate, but the user interface was far simpler, because they had faith in the underlying algorithm.

I like to think that the reason Google achieved dominance over the other search engines so quickly, was because they cut with the grain of the world wide web whilst their competitors were cutting against the grain. They built upon the way the web fundamentally worked, instead of trying to graft huge computer science and content marketing effort onto it. They took a colossal short-cut, but like all the best technology, it seemed indistinguishable from magic to the end user.

Many of the most jaw-dropping technical advances, are actually quite simple concepts that occur to an engineer as a shortcut. But when we start digital projects we often ignore these shortcuts, because engineers are absent from the envisioning stage. Instead, we imagine vast, complex difficult to achieve products, because we’re not familiar enough with the underlying medium for those short-cuts to occur to us.

Think about gathering requirements from users, from departments, writing them diligently onto post-it notes, throwing them at a designer, debating the ins and outs, refining and then finally sending them downstairs to engineers, to build out this wondrous product. The trouble is, the thing you’ve envisaged cuts against the grain. It’s hard to build, it takes five times more budget, it’s devoid of pleasure. It’s going nowhere.

Ya Playin’ Yaself

  • Try asking someone a little closer to the data. Ask an engineer - what’s an easy thing we could do, with what we have today? Minimum effort and maximum impact. Ask someone with a reasonable grasp of UX, and a reasonable grasp of code. A technical human. They might surprise you with the cool things they can do, that are a lot less effort than you thought.

  • Google institutes 20% time to ensure that products can still emerge from the minds of engineers. What’s your organisational equivalent?

Trap #10 Building a Monument
Trap #9 100% Digital Coverage
Trap #8 Divide & Conquer
Trap #7 Designing for your CEO’s smartphone
Trap #6 False Prophets
Trap #5 Post-it Fetishism
Trap #4 Building not Buying
Trap #3 Buying not Bodging
Trap #2 Bogus User Stories
Trap #1 Cutting Against the Grain