Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for June, 2010

Design Thinking Conversation in Japanese

Several weeks ago, there was a lively discussion on the definition of “design thinking” in the Japanese design thinking Twitter community including people involved at Tokyo University’s

Twitter user na0ka did a wonderful job summarizing what was said on her tweet:

「デザイン思考」って何? 皆さんの答えは・・・”Posture””Mindset””態度””姿勢””思考の癖、習慣””理念”。重要なのは、定型的なメソッドやプロセスではな いということ。 @tamdai99 @mrym3 @masaya21 @sushisuzuki

Translating each part:

「デザイン思考」って何? 皆さんの答えは・・・
What is “Design Thinking”? Everyone’s response…


“Mindset” (This was my response)

“態度” – Attitude

“姿勢” – Posture or position, both physically and metaphorically

“思考の癖、習慣” – Habit or tendency of thinking (this one is very difficult to translate the nuances).

“理念” – Ideology


What’s important is that it’s not a fixed method or process.

It’s great to see vibrant conversation on design thinking happen outside of the English language. also recently published a book called 「東大式 世界を変えるイノベーションのつくりかた」which translates to “How to create innovations that changes the world, Tokyo University Style.”

Design thinking in Japan is starting to spread and best wishes to everyone who is trying to make it happen. Now back to France for me.


Is this a Wild World Cup?

With the group stage of the World Cup over, there are a lot of talk about how this is the year of upsets, with people like Dunga declaring that the era of ‘big nations’ is over.

With the early exit of France and Italy, it seems like this World Cup has been wilder than most, but is that really the case? Let’s see the data.

The rank within the group is determined using the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking just prior to the World Cup. As you can see, besides the catastrophic downfall of France and Italy, all the top ranked teams in each group qualified for the knock-out round, and most of them in 1st place. Of the 16 teams that moved on, 11 of the teams were ranked in the top half of their respective groups and only 5 were ranked in the bottom half.

Above is the heat map demonstration of the same data. In a world where there are no upsets (first ranked team places first, second ranked team places second…) the main diagonal of the matrix (from the top left to the bottom right) would be red and the rest would be blue. While that is not the case here, the area around the main diagonal is definitely hotter than the far edges.

Of course this data doesn’t mean much unless you have something to compare against. Following are the same matrices for the last three World Cups which all had the same format (In 1994, only 24 teams made it to the World Cup and 16 teams proceeded to the knock-out round).

Looking at the data, it’s hard to argue that this World Cup is any different than the three World Cups prior. Our notion of upsets probably comes from the fact that we had two high profile exits and some early upsets (Spain to Switzerland, Germany to Serbia), but overall, the better teams won and qualified.

I created the upset index in trying to reduce each World Cup down to one number. It’s sum total of the differences between expected finish from the rank within the group and the actual placing. So if a fourth ranked team finishes first, add 3 points to the index, if a third ranked team finishes second, add 1 point to the index, if a first ranked team finishes first, add no points to the index, and so on. The higher the index the higher the degree of upset. The maximum possible value is 64.

Interesting notes:

  • The last time a top ranked team finished fourth was in 2002 when France (again), then the reigning world champions,  lost to Senegal and Denmark and tied Uruguay and departed without scoring a single goal.
  • The two teams that finished first as the lowest ranked teams in 2002 were Japan and Korea, both host nations.
  • 12 lowest ranked teams have qualified for the knock-out round in the last four World Cups but only 8 third ranked teams have qualified (25 for top ranked and 19 for second ranked teams).



The other value of Facebook

There is no shortage of debate over the value of Facebook with proponents arguing the virtues of sharing and social media and the critics pointing out the privacy issues and calling it a simple waste of time. I don’t intend to join the debate by adding another view point, but beyond what has already been mentioned, I find Facebook to be an incredibly valuable self-updating address book.

In my most recent trip to Tokyo, I met up with a friend from undergrad who I hadn’t seen since graduation (6 years) and a friend from middle school who I hadn’t seen since 7th grade (15 years!!!). They both saw that I was coming to Tokyo and sent me messages through Facebook.

Addresses, phone numbers, and even e-mail addresses change all the time. Heck, gmail is only 6 years old. Even hotmail, the original webmail service was started 14 years ago. For people in our generation in most developed countries (interestingly, not Japan), Facebook is now the most convenient way of keeping in touch with people.

What are the implications?

The data used to live on people’s shelves as address books and people’s computers as excel files, but the information is now held on an online server being managed by a for-profit company. It’s hard to imagine Facebook going away entirely, but people are kicked off all the time from Facebook (my account has been frozen twice). In fact, as more and more of our lives move online, increasing amounts information are being managed by private companies: photo albums (Flickr, Picasa, Facebook), address books (Google, Yahoo,  Facebook), mailboxes (Google, Yahoo, Microsoft), music collection (Spotify, Pandora,, personal videos (YouTube, Facebook), professional contact (LinkedIn, Plaxo), etc. I think we all use these services without full comprehension of the consequences, which I’m still not quite sure about.

There is also the issue of fragmentation over different generations and cultures. I am connected to very few of my friends over forty through Facebook, which should be no surprise. I mentioned above that Facebook is not the most convenient way of staying in touch with people in Japan, that is because we have our own social networking service called Mixi that is much more popular than Facebook. There is a strong likelihood that the generations behind us will deny Facebook and use some other service to keep in touch with each other, further fragmenting our address books.

Another issue I’ve recently realized is that not everyone treats Facebook as a self-updating address book. Since my account has been frozen twice and I put a tremendous amount of value in my Facebook account, I backup my account periodically using a $3 software called SocialSafe (perfectly legal and approved by Facebook). The interesting side effect of this software is that I see the people with whom I am no longer friends. Sometimes this is due to account closure (of which some are temporary) but more often they are the result of the now popular buzzword “unfriending.” I see this happening with people I met several times when I lived somewhere and either they or I moved away. They were never close friends so It’s perfectly understandable to be unfriended, but it could be rather sad, as he or she was deleted out of my address book. In a way it’s similar to changing phone numbers or e-mail addresses and not notifying people, but the process of unfriending seems a little bit more deliberate and personal than that.

In finishing, I sometimes wonder about and worry over our over-reliance on Facebook. To a certain extent, it is probably distracting us from managing our contacts the traditional way through pen and paper, excel files, or even online address books. I still carefully manage my contacts through Google Contacts (which is backed up on my hard drive) and keep a binder of all the business cards I collect.

Having said all this, what I experienced in Tokyo as a result of Facebook was absolutely wonderful and near impossible few years ago. I am glad Facebook exists and that many people, including myself use it. Who knows what kind of other salient connections it can build in the future.

PS I had a similar experience when I went to Ireland in February, where I met up with two friends whom I didn’t even know lived in Ireland.


The need for ambiguity, the need for certainty

Do you mind a messy room? Or must everything be in order?

I’m sure your preference between ambiguity and certainty sits somewhere between the two extremes. Furthermore, I believe that people have different tolerances for ambiguity in different issues.

I prefer to keep my things (organization of objects) rather neat so I can find them when I need to, but I am comfortable with an ambiguous career path that I am following now. In fact, an overly defined career path scares me because I feel that my life will become predictable. Some people must define relationships exactly while others are scared of commitment or prefer multiple nebulous partners.

Other issues that lies on this ambiguity-certainty spectrum include: schedule, finance, and location.

Here is where I perceive myself to lie for each of the issues above:

Where do you lie?


The bilingual post

I have this theory that for any new form of media, the majority of the content being communicated is about the new media itself.


Once the hype subsides, much more diverse and meaningful communication happens on the media. I’m not suggesting that a bilingual blog post is another new form of media.


Seamlessly writing in two languages is very difficult. My theory is that there are two almost entirely different thought processes at play here and switching back and forth is not easy.


Japanese is also very different from English compared to the other Romance languages like French, so a bilingual post with French and English might be easier to write, and surely easier on the eyes.


Another thing I noticed recently is that as French and Japanese are both very complex languages compared to English, it’s easier to judge people on their usage of the language.


I wonder how many non-Japanese people bothered to read this, either directly or through using an online translation service, and if it actually made sense.



Digital Boundaries

What’s the point of democratizing technologies when we keep building walls with it?

We used to build physical walls to hinder the movement of people. Now we are building digital walls to hinder the movement of information.

Is it human nature to separate, segregate, and sequester?

Or will we ever we ever achieve the promises of technology?


User needs and Creator needs

We often think of products and services as a way of satisfying the needs of the user, but that doesn’t always happen. Then whose needs are actually being satisfied? I would argue that much of new product and service creation is about satisfying the needs of the creators rather than that of the user.

Engineers in companies, especially new hires, feel the need to design overly complicated system to show that they are capable of “engineering,” even if the user desires something that is simple. Product managers need to show their boss that they are implementing eighteen new features even if the users only want two. Bank managers who create four page forms for one simple procedure need to feel thorough even if a half-page form would suffice.

The problem rarely lies with a single manager, designer, or engineer but is systemic in the environment that they operate in. In an ideal world, the needs of the creators are met when the needs of the users are met. What managers of creators and CEOs should do is not micromanage their subordinates but to create a culture where the needs of the creators are satisfied when the needs of the users are met. Creators should not be satisfying their bosses but satisfying the needs of the customers (or ideally, both).

The Japanese have an interesting saying that encapsulates this belief: “The customer is god” (The word god doesn’t have the same level of religious undertone in Japanese as it does in Western cultures). There is of course the issue that customers/users don’t always know or can express what they want, but that’s for another blog post.

P.S. I wrote this post originally on my iPhone before realizing that the iPhone made my sentences curt and crude. I rewrote the entire post on my laptop having realized that the interface to media affects how we form the media. It should be no surprise that the way we write is significantly different when we write with a pen, pencil, keyboard, T9, Blackberry, or iPhone.


Digital Change

Can you imagine what the world would be like if you could give change virtually like you would physically to the homeless?

Besides the fact that all the homeless around the world will now have to compete with each other, there could be some very interesting applications. If paying few cents was as easy online as it is physically, a tremendous amount of new business models could be unleashed. Newspapers and content sites can now charge small fractions of a dollar for every page view, nonprofits could collect donations by the cents, and few cents per vote could deter bots (and real people) from trying to rig online voting systems.

This was the vision of micropayments, and it’s existed for over ten years. There were plenty of dialogue at the turn of the century, and plenty of failed startups over the last decade. Judging from the current state of affairs, it looks like the naysayers were right. I tend to agree with Clay Shirky in that people don’t want to think about few cents and take the extra effort just to pay such a trivial amount. I found the proponents of micropayment to be techno-optimistic, believing that society will adopt what is beneficial and technologically capable.

Then I wondered, why do we make micropayments in the physical world? Why do people give few coins to the homeless, drop a few pennies in the UNICEF collections, or pay a quarter to use those pay-per-view binoculars at tourist sites?

We actually do make micropayments online, but no one seems to consider them micropyaments. A song on iTunes is 99 cents, a five-minute international call on Skype costs less than a quarter, and most items on SecondLife, after the exchange rate, are priced under a dollar. The unifying characteristic of these micropayment systems is that you charge your account in one large sum and then start making small payments.

Of course Bitpass, the much heralded startup from 2003 that disappeared in 2007, worked the same way. So why did it not work? I would argue that Bitpass was a platform without a killer app. When Bitpass was launched, there were no good reasons for anyone to fill up their accounts because there were no websites that supported Bitpass, and there were no good reasons for content owners to sell through Bitpass because no one had accounts. Imagine being told that the Fancy Money was going to be the new and easy way of making payments in New York City so you should go get some or your store should support it. You wouldn’t want to be the first one do you? There is a significant difference between micropayments through Bitpass and micropayments in the physical world: People don’t make change (i.e. Bitpass equivalent of charging your account) just so that they can pay the homeless.

Every single micropayment system that exists out there, both physical and virtual, started with some concrete use case: Telephone cards, Skype, iTunes, etc. There was a reason for people to buy those credits in bulk and they were mostly a way of minimizing transaction cost by applying economies of scale (i.e. buying in bulk). Bitpass didn’t have that.

Last December when I was in Charles De Gaulle airport, I discovered Skype Access, a way to pay for WiFi access by the minute. I almost never pay for airport WiFi access since I find them horribly overpriced but Skype Access allowed me to pay for minutes at cents in stead of hours at dollars. This allowed me to connect for few minutes and download my e-mails, disconnect and write the responses, reconnect and send them for under a dollar. This made me realize, Skype could be a great platform for micropayments online. They already have an incredible user base (last count, 521 million), software that people download and install, and a system where users charge their accounts.

Imagine a system where you click on a website to make a payment or donation for few cents, Skype loads a pop-up to confirm your action, and you click “yes” to verify your intent. While it’s not as simple as digging into your pocket to reach for that loose change, this is probably as simple as it can get online.

I don’t think the killer app of micropayment will be purchasing web content. As Clay Shirky accurately pointed out, content creation is now much more about fame than fortune, and any kind of barrier to consumption will block the pathway to fame. Would you have paid a nickel to read this blogpost? Do you think any video will go viral if people had to pay few cents to watch it? Very few web content these days can command any kind of payment, and those are already under subscription or pay-per-download services (e.g. Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review). If the New York Times can’t survive under a subscription system, most blogs will disappear into obscurity under a payment system.

I write web content to distinguish from media content such as audio and video, and I think there is some future in media content purchase through micropayments, but there are already established systems out there (e.g. iTunes, Spotify, etc.). Also, just like web content, only the highest quality media content could command any kind of payment. The rest will compete for fame before competing for fortune.

I see the initial use case to be donations rather than purchases. Imagine if you could have donated to the Haitian earthquake relief through Skype credits. The people who wanted to donate $10 probably did through Paypal or with credit cards. However, I don’t think most people who wanted to donate $1 did because the time and effort required to donate a dollar is too high online. This could revolutionize the donations industry from universities to relief organizations, and if you think this is a niche market, UNICEF raises over $2 billion every year (albeit, not all from private donors).

Another use case could be the purchase of virtual goods in online gaming. Currently most virtual goods or credits for online games are priced from few dollars to tens of dollars. This is not cheap for items whose incremental costs are zero. Could an established micropayment system spur the purchase of virtual goods? Most likely.

This is also the focus for the current micropayment darling startup Spare Change. However, their million users are nothing compared to Skype and the services accepting Spare Change are obscure at best. Again, if you think the virtual goods market is niche, in 2009, Zynga, the company behind Farmville and other Facebook apps, was PayPal’s second largest merchant in 2009 after eBay.

There are other possibilities for micropayment platforms besides Skype. However, with Apple’s tendency to control their entire ecosystem, I doubt iTunes would become the a micropayment platform. Second Life could be interesting as they already have an established economy online, but the millions of “residents” probably aren’t enough people to constitute critical mass.

Micropayments have been failing for over a decade and most people have written it off as something that will never happen. I believe that we are in the “trough of disillusionment” in the Gartner Hype Cycle and that there is a future for micropayments. Will we get there? I think so. We need to stop treating micropayments as the main issue but something that is a byproduct of how we live our virtual lives, just like how change is a byproduct how we use money in the physical world.

I hope micropayments will take off because once there is an established platform, there will be a lot of innovations, and I can say things like…

“Got some spare change?”
“Sorry, I gave it to the single mother of seven in Nepal.”


Minimize guilt of consumption to sell

Three years ago, I wrote about how the new computer purchase experience could be improved by a service that would help you transfer your files to the new system. While I haven’t seen something exactly like it show up, the Mac OS X Migration Assistant (introduced in 2009) eases the difficulty of switching from one computer to another. There remains one problem, however, you still have your old computer.

Conspicuous consumption is becoming more and more unfashionable, and people are withholding purchases because what they own is good enough. This is a serious challenge for companies and capitalism which rely on the continuous consumption of products to remain profitable. What if you could minimize the guilt of consumption by allowing the purchasers to rid their old products in a guiltless fashion?

The consumer electronics companies already do this with various recycling programs. Dell even goes further by allowing people to donate their computers to economically disadvantaged children. Most of these programs are under-advertised, and more exposure could help the company’s brand value in the future.

Can you imagine other industries doing this? What if you could walk into an apparel store and leave with new clothes while donating the old ones to charity? What if your furniture store picked up your old furniture to recycle or reuse? What if you could get a discount on your TV by turning in your old one (similar to trade-ins for cars)?

I sense that we are on the verge of transitioning from consumption to upgrade where people don’t necessarily buy more things but spend money improving the products they own (or themselves). In such an age, companies that figure out how to allow people to upgrade their lives more seamlessly and elegantly will succeed over those that don’t.


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