September 23, 2013

The Dribbblization of Blogging

The blogging community is generous, sharing its wisdom and experiences. It’s a great thing; however, advice taken blindly without context is dangerous.

Early in my professional career, it was the peak of gamification’s popularity, and I was caught in the hype. I read essay after essay about gamification and pitched my employer on a badge system we could use to better engage users for a product we were still developing.

The product never made it to market. I wasted my time and even more dangerously for my career, my employer’s, on an idea that wasn’t well-thought-out.

I failed to digest a true understanding of game mechanics.

Last week Paul Adams wrote about The Dribbblisation of Design, stressing the importance of communicating context in design.

Often designers share pretty pixels without describing the “why”. As visually stunning as their work may appear, good products are designed with purpose - an understanding of the user, business goals, and limitations. Without context, viewers lack information to truly judge and learn from designers’ work.

Designing without context results in bad design. And educating without context results in bad education. If the goal of sharing one’s designs is to educate (and by no means is this always the goal), then it’s the responsibility of the designer to provide context and articulate the purpose behind their work.

Unfortunately, this problem isn’t specific to design. The blogging community is just as guilty.

Shame on You, Blogger

Far too many bloggers write fluff pieces for page views with link-bait titles like, “10 Growth Hacks to Get Your First Million Customers!”

Last week I spoke with Brian Balfour about blogging and content written on growing a business. Growth Hacking is the term du jour (just look how much attention it’s received in the past year on Google Trends) and as a result, many bloggers exploit the attention. Brian described his annoyance:

There’s far too much miseducation on growth. Most blogs that write about this topic describe surface-level tactics and lack deeper insight into why these particular tactics might work and who should use them. The stage of your company, timeline, industry, product, and finances heavily influence your growth strategy. Unfortunately, people - especially those researching the growth field - seek quick wins, hacks to spike growth. They gravitate toward B.S. link-bait rather than invest the time and hard work in understanding.

But it’s not just bloggers that are contributing to this negative trend…

Shame on You, Reader

Readers are also guilty. Too often, readers take bloggers’ advice at face value. Worse, they read the punchline title and internalize it as knowledge without digesting the author’s writing.

Startups - as with most things in life - should not be solely executed from a playbook. There are so many variables and nuances that go into building a product or company that only insiders understand. Read and learn from others, but recognize that 500 words will never encapsulate the entirety of one’s experience or knowledge.

Furthermore, what works for one person at Company A at some point in time does not mean it will work for you today. Technology, user behaviors, and market conditions change the context startups operate in. That Facebook growth hack that worked two weeks ago may not work today. Startup knowledge decays quickly.

Shame on You, Ryan

I often write about product design, deconstructing the components of highly-engaging products and offering suggestions of how its creators might improve it. I write with honesty and a desire to learn through this introspective process; however, readers may misinterpret my words as absolute truth when in reality my context is limited. I lack data and insight its creators possess. That’s not to say I’m wrong in my analysis but I might not be right. Right or wrong, readers must contextualize these learnings into their own product.

On the other side, I’ve made the mistake as a reader, putting too much trust in bloggers’ opinion without critical evaluation. When I wasted my employer’s time on an ill-conceived idea for a badge system, I failed to learn the underlying user psychology of badge systems - the “why” - when I read these articles. I failed to understand how it fit into actually making a product people want and use. It’s not a mistake I will repeat.

We should be grateful for the learnings shared in the blogging community but recognize the necessity to contextualize advice and exercise skepticism. It’s more important to understand the thinking behind their advice and the “why”. Only then can you effectively adapt these learnings to your own context.

P.S. I’m working on a new project with some incredible people. Subscribe to be the first to hear about it and say hello on Twitter (@rrhoover).

P.P.S. Please do not misinterpret this opinion piece as a slam against Dribbble. I have tremendous respect for the product and its creators.

More Writing by Ryan