The Horrible Pain and Awesome Opportunity of Tech Blind Spots
Between moonshots and randoms tests falls the shadow. It can be curse or salvation. Here are blind spots in desperate need of light.
As with so many other things, Google has shaped the way people view the tech industry’s pursuit of the future. As the top Googlers see it, change can be categorized in two ways: small steps and giant leaps — increments and moonshots. Such a world view is useful, particularly if you run a gigantic company that must satisfy billions of daily customers who want steadily improving service, while also exciting investors who want to see that you’re hopping the next wave.
But this model omits a lot of the improvable territory on the tech landscape. It leaves out all those problems that we don’t bother changing because we’ve stopped seeing them as solvable. We’ve accepted them as part of the way our flawed universe works, and don’t even think about what to do to relieve them. Or we just never saw them in the first place.
These are the blind spots. And they are everywhere.
For small fixes, we do spot tests until we get the little stuff optimized. For big breakthroughs, we send moonshots until we hit something big. But how do we correct for those blind spots? In hindsight, blind spots are thuddingly obvious. But once they emerge — and make us pay the price — they are, all too often, blinding.
Shedding light on a blind spot can make fortunes and reshape the world. The hardest part can be convincing others who refuse to see. When Google began its life at Stanford in 1998, its founders had a hard time persuading the tech establishment that there was any need for its product — a better search tool dead center on an otherwise empty page. After all, we had AltaVista, Hotbot, Excite, Infoseek, Lycos, and more. The Web was infested with spiders! As CEO Larry Page put it to Steven Levy in Wired two years ago, “When we started with search, everyone said, ‘You guys are gonna fail, there’s already five search companies.’”
You’ll hear this same dismissal — “We took care of that already” — like a choral refrain in the early-day ballads of startup legend. It’s there in the sagas of Paypal and Facebook, Dropbox and Slack. None of these were “first movers”; they all entered markets that tech investors and pundits had declared sewn up.
“I felt the problem had already been solved,” the designer Slack hired for its rollout wrote recently, here on Medium, about his initial skepticism. “We were avid users of Campfire, and had tested out the many copycat products that had come out over the years. It was a crowded market and I knew it would be difficult to make this product stand out from the crowd.”
So how do you see into such a blind spot? How can we periscope around the corner of our assumptions and peer into the future? If we want to create a list of the blind-spot problems that await better solutions from tomorrow’s innovators — which is what I want to do with this piece — where do we begin?
The business world has its own set of tricks. You can drag a bunch of people into a focus-group room with a one-way see-through wall and watch them as they struggle with a problem or a product. You can conduct an “I’m just here from Mars” thought experiment and try to trick your brain into looking at our status-quo world with fresh, innocent eyes. You can take a page from the software world, with its “scratch your own itch” imperative, and scrutinize your own daily experience for evidence of blind-spot problems.
Whatever you do, it’s tough to expose things that, by definition, you can’t see. They are, in Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous formulation, “unknown unknowns.” I sought ideas from friends and pundits but, I have to confess, the results were, aside from some thoughtful discussions on a brainy mailing list, meager. Maybe I wasn’t framing the question sharply enough; maybe it’s just a wicked-hard question.
So instead, I’m going to offer you my own brief list of exemplary blind-spot problems — dysfunctions of digital existence that we just take for granted. They feel immutable, and I’m quite sure they will continue that way — until someone comes along with an idea, a startup or a standard that makes us all say, in unison, “Of course!”
Blind Spot 1: Authentication, or: Who am I?
Last month I charged a deposit on a summer-school abroad program for one of my sons. The next morning, someone in Scotland went on a shopping spree with my card number.
Since 42 percent of Americans (as of 2012) have had their own credit-card fraud experiences, the odds are you already know just how much fun this is.
Still: Visa knows me very well. Visa knows that I’ve never been to Scotland. It caught on quick, alerted me, and retired the card number.
But now I had to deal with the fallout. A new credit card number meant remembering the bevy of websites that use this number to charge me for their services, which I pay for because I need them. It meant digging up the username/password combinations I have on file — somewhere! — in order to update the information.
This was painful. Also — I’m embarrassed to admit — it’s practically become a routine. I’ve had to repeat this dreadful ritual several times in the past few years. And each time I perform it, my snout is rubbed afresh in the mess of one of the Internet’s great unsolved problems.
To wit: our digital world doesn’t have a good system for identifying us, or helping others confirm that we are who we say we are. Because no one has solved this problem, we all live in dune-drifts of lousy passwords. Email addresses — email addresses! — have become our de facto names. Password vaults can be a useful Bandaid, but the bleeding continues. Two-factor authentication, typically using login IDs and smartphones, provides additional safety at the price of additional pain.
Someone is going to come along and figure this out. In my ideal world it would be a standard-based, open-source project, because identity is too critical to be owned by a corporation (and even Facebook doesn’t own it yet). But recent history suggests it might well be a company that comes out of nowhere with an in-retrospect-obvious new idea. And that company — the Google of identity — will be something to behold.
Blind Spot 2: Tab overload
If you work at a desk, odds are pretty good that your web browser has too many open tabs. I used to think this was just my problem, as a journalist whose work involves looking at tons of online publications, collecting bits of information, and editing other people’s work. But it’s pretty clear this is a near-universal condition, a byproduct of today’s dominant news-feed-driven model of browsing, under which we scan lists of shares and likes and open up several new pages at a time, each one adding to the pile of future content-consumption commitments that we understand we will never meet.
Responses to this problem have included the rise of “read it later” tools like Instapaper and Pocket; the development of better tools for managing tabs (OneTab is pretty simple and foolproof); and the emergence of reading-app environments like Flipboard that bypass the browser tab completely. These fixes lull us into thinking we’ve licked the problem — yet, strangely, most of our systems still groan under the weight of Too Many Tabs, so somehow the solutions are not working.
The mobile universe sidesteps the whole issue completely, since so much reading gets done inside apps. So maybe the tab-overload condition will simply ameliorate over time. But I wouldn’t count on it. The field is way open for imaginative rethinking of tabs.
Blind Spot 3: Collaborative editing
If you want to collaborate with a partner on writing, revising, or editing a document today, you have way more choices than ever, and many offer neat features and twists, but none of them gives you a great tool’s shiver-of-delight. It’s a crime that Microsoft Word — with its impenetrably overloaded interface and its archaic file format — is still the fallback for so many organizations and businesses; Google Docs, with its recently added “suggested edits” mode, is much better — but it still comes with some frustrating limitations (it’s hard to combine or split multiple documents; it’s easy to lose things in your Google Drive). Medium is beautiful to look at but can be hard to use to organize lengthy complex edits. You can find great incremental innovations in new services like Poetica (revision suggestions that mimic handwritten editing marks) and Draft (a “Hemingway mode” that blocks you from revising until you’ve worked your way to the end of a draft).
Amazingly, no one has yet assembled a complete environment in which two or more people can easily discuss, review, and approve changes to a document through an interface that doesn’t get in the way. On the one hand, I’m sure that the brains in startup-investor-land aren’t looking at the world of media, publishing and journalism and thinking, here’s a market we should jump into to make billions. On the other, the need for a great tool that people can use to edit documents together isn’t limited to professional writers. Somebody’s going to do this someday, and we will all look back and wonder how we lived without it.
Blind Spot 4: A printer that isn’t junk
Maybe I just have bad consumer luck, but I have yet to buy a printer for home or home-office use that has not broken down in some significant way soon after I’ve taken it home. The printer market froze several years ago into two simple tiers: big, expensive laser printers for offices, and crappy inkjet printers for home use that are designed to make money on refills and that break when you touch them. (You can get decent black and white laser printers for home use but they won’t print your photos, except in arty monochrome.)
It should be possible, in 2015, to spend a little more for a basic printer and get something that will survive to New Year’s Day. Breville is a kitchen-and-home gadget manufacturer that figured out people would pay more for a better toaster-oven. Where is the Breville of digital printing?
Blind Spot 5: Everything Beyond the Developer’s Over-Contemplated Navel
The canonical advice in startup-land is to find problems to solve by locating “pain-points” in your own existence. You figure out how to scratch these personal itches; then, if you think your itch might be widely enough shared, you take your idea into the marketplace.
Good advice in many ways! But the demographic makeup of the startup world being what it is, we have become very adept at scratching the itches of young, single geeks in places that closely resemble Silicon Valley —there are so many options for high-end food delivery and funding indie game projects! — and not so great at relieving the pains of the rest of the population.
Large companies and nonprofits are more imaginative about trying to serve the needs of a more diverse base of users. But the tech industry still typically treats services for disabled people, seniors, minors, the undocumented and other underserved groups as “save for later” problems. Investors and entrepreneurs just assume that the operating-system vendors and standards bodies will take care of “accessibility” issues. They think these problems have been solved for them already.
This might well be the biggest blind-spot problem of all. Of course, it’s not limited to the tech universe. But our nimble, agile, pivot-friendly industry could be leading the charge instead of hanging back with the crowd.
This list is obviously personal, shaped by my work and experience. No matter what suggestions you make, there’s bound to be people who’ll protest, “That’s not a problem at all!” — as I’m sure some of you did while reading my ideas. As long as there’s also an occasional “You’re right — why didn’t I see that?”, it’s worth it.
As Google proved, erasing a blind spot can be bigger than a moonshot. If my blind-spot model makes sense to you, I’d love to hear your nominations. Post a response here and if there are enough, I’ll follow up with a curated list.
Let’s lift the blinds.
You heard Scott — what are the blind spots we’re missing? Or is the whole concept flawed? Please build on his story by responding below.