Open and shut

Ev Williams wrote an important article, Sometimes things stay stuck, in response to a tweet storm from Chris Dixon.

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

As Ev argues, there’s plenty of case history of media going the other way—open to closed—and staying that way. And I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse. 

I worry the web community underestimates the power of capitalism, its sheer mania to sustain itself. After open technologies blew away some weak industries, it was tempting to believe the web would stomp through others just as easily, pushing aside the creaking bones of tycoons and corporations alike. But we now see that when open technology and capitalism do go head-to-head (1), it’s a tough old scrap.

Let’s be clear: the open web is not winning. Today’s most significant tech products and companies are not web-based (2): they are building on proprietary mobile platforms (I include Android here). The ideas, the transformation, the growth are all happening on the closed side. The talent is increasingly moving there, and the money has long since chosen its allegiances. The open web isn't outright losing yet, but its goalkeeper has been sent off and there’s a free kick just outside the box. (3)

I do think there will always be a role for an open web. But it may never again be the primary platform for tech innovation. That’ll be a shame for sure, but I’m a pragmatist and I don’t believe platform sentimentality helps us much. Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.

(1) They don’t have to battle, of course. There are companies that seek profit from open systems. But here I’m talking about companies that seek profit from closed systems.

(2) Well, some would argue they are, if you employ a particularly broad definition of a web-based product. For the sake of this post, my quick stab is “a product you can access by typing a URL into a browser”.

(3) I hear geeks love sport analogies.

Better OKR curves

Something I've learned the hard way about choosing OKRs and planning your team's priorities. Projects that only show late-gating impact, like this…


…are risky choices. Your team may do good work but be unable to show any impact due to, say, choosing to run another round of testing, an external dependency falling through, etc. Pretty demotivating. “Release [feature] and get Y% adoption” skews to this pattern, for any nontrivial feature. 

Diminishing-return projects like this…


…are just as bad. You’ve no incentive to go the extra mile. You get half-arsed and take your foot off the pedal.

Projects like this…


…are happier. People feel the motivating effect of their efforts having some impact, but there's also clear reward for excellence.

'Work' may be the wrong x-axis—Nik Fletcher suggests ‘Investment’, which I like—but hopefully you get the idea.

Moving on

I’m leaving Twitter on 2 April.

I think once you start wearing indentations into your keyboard it’s worth pausing for thought. It’s been a tough decision, but after nearly three exhilarating, demanding years I’m running on empty, and I need some time to reflect and recalibrate.

I’ll miss some of the brightest, most welcoming colleagues I’ve ever had. I’ll miss high-fiving the Hamleys bear on the way to work. I’ll miss enterprise software rather less.

No significant plans: some time off, then hopefully some writing, teaching, and travel. I’ll be looking for freelance projects or perhaps a full-time role after that. If you’re looking for a senior product designer or design manager, please get in touch. If not, please spread the word.

Void and matter

A thought by Allan Cochinov has been bouncing around my mind lately:

I’ve often theorized that there are two kinds of designers: those who like to design things smaller than themselves (appliances, sneakers, phones, book covers), and designers who like to design things bigger than themselves (architecture, interiors, city plans, cars).

How do digital things map to this model? Is our work large or small? 

Well, both. Take Facebook: a damn 1,300,000,000-person megacontinent, sure, but full of microinteractions—the Like, a notification sound—that are smaller.

So we lean back with that knowing grin and explain that dimensions are passé. We contain multitudes. Nanometres and light years, man. 

I tweeted that I don't really have a handle on what information architecture is these days. I’ve wilfully generalised over the past few years, and while I still get the tools of IA, the flavour of the thing, I can't grasp its boundaries, its definition. (As Karen suggests, it’s been a while since I’ve trolled myself.) I think I know the theory, but if I tell my colleagues we should work on IA and they say okay, what's that and how do we start, I don't know how to respond.

But maybe this model has something. Maybe IA is the larger-than-human stuff: the constructions that people inhabit. Topology, routes, flow. Doorways, light, maximum capacities. Designing the void

And then maybe interaction design is the smaller-than-human stuff: the tools people manipulate. Materials with properties and responses. The time axis that makes 3d 4d: how you move and twist things, how they beep and complain. Designing the matter.

Designing the void. Designing the matter. Maybe.

Digital product design mentoring

[Update: I received a remarkable response to this offer – thanks to everyone who contacted me. I've now filled these slots but will post again if I have capacity in the future.]

Looking to take a step forward in the industry? I’m now available to mentor two new junior/mid-level designers.

You should be UK-based, preferably in London (but elsewhere in the country might work), and looking to improve as a full-stack digital product designer, rather than a UX or visual specialist.

I take an informal approach to mentoring, so there’s no set agenda, programme, or anything like that. You're the boss. But areas where I might be able to help include:

  • careers advice, portfolio reviews, mock interviews
  • helping you evaluate your strengths & weaknesses and construct a development plan
  • advice on design tooling and software
  • advice on design process (large and small companies, in-house and consultancy)
  • help with specific design problems – although rest assured: you’ll still be the one doing the design!
  • introductions to other community members or events as appropriate

After a while, my mentoring arrangements typically end up being very flexible and often simply become friendships with a designy slant.

My ideal setup would be to meet face-to-face every 6–8 weeks, with perhaps a couple of emails in between. And to be clear, this is a free offer – I don't charge for mentoring (sometimes people ask).

Please email me at if you think this would be interesting. If I’m oversubscribed I’ll give priority to applicants from under-represented groups.


I made some money off the Twitter IPO. Not as much as startup mythology may have you believe, but a good amount.

While I’ve worked hard for my professional successes, I recognise that I've been playing on the lowest difficulty setting. My background, my education, and many other privileges have steered me toward the right place at the right time.

I see it as both a moral obligation and a simple pleasure to share some of my good fortune with others. Therefore I’m donating a sum of £10,000 to a range of causes I believe in:

Hopefully some of these experts can help make the game easier for others too.

I wavered about whether to speak about this publicly. The reason I’m doing so isn’t because I want praise, but because I hope it might prompt my friends and peers in this thriving industry to reflect on their own advantages.

I'll continue to donate to good causes as my future finances allow. I’d love it if you’d consider doing so too.

The Things of the Future

My 2011 (?) piece The Things of the Future, written for The Manual Issue 2, is now available online. It's definitely of its Occupy-flavoured era, but I still quite like it. It’s accompanied by The Lesson, a sad tale of foot-and-mouth and 20-something hubris.