On malaise in tech, or how I learned to find products that embrace true problem-solving

February 26, 2016 Uncategorized

I originally wrote this for the Mathys+Potestio blog, this really cool employment agency based in Portland, Oregon. Here’s the link to the original post.

Apple and Google and Facebook and Microsoft and Amazon.
These are the big 5 in consumer tech, and the most commonly used apps on your phone are probably made by some or all of them. Nobody is going to knock them out of their ivory towers. If you go on any tech blog you will almost certainly find no less than 3 articles in the last week about each of these 5 companies (okay, maybe a few others – but you know which ones they are).

I’m a product manager by day, so I spend a lot of time analyzing and collecting feedback on the products and how they solve real user problems. Part of my job also involves being aware of other products solving similar or other problems, so I read about those products the top tech businesses are working on, as well as new ones via sites like Product Hunt. But this is starting lose its luster for me – as I recently wrote on my own blog, I’m becoming less and less impressed with the true problem solving being done by makers of products. It gets old to read about a new photo sharing app every week – why try and address the growing wealth inequality problems in the US? Or the terribly slow pace of government action? Or even the racket that is the wedding industry (a problem currently near & dear to my heart)?

Turns out I’m not alone in my jadedness, so much so that some are quitting the “tech journalism” beat altogether. If you feel jaded by this stuff too, it’s valid – but, again, I don’t blame anybody in particular. Tech products, and those who make them, have just as much a tendency to follow trends as any other sector of popular culture – social products, smart on-demand services and lists of resources are hot right now, so all the makers are trying to make those things. (Oh god, what if someone builds a social network for on-demand delivery workers?)

Behind all the throwaway social networks and overpriced delivery apps, though, there’s even more people building truly interesting, difference-making things for the world. This is probably not a huge surprise, given the number of charitable organizations, biotech firms and activist groups out there. But hold up – you don’t need to look only at these types of groups to find great, innovative solutions being developed to solve tough social and economic problems. Startups (and even individuals) are building these things, using the same cutting-edge (and overhyped) technology and design and business models you read about on tech blogs. You know those things called “hackathons” that media has portrayed to us as high-energy bro-outs? (Thanks, The Social Network…) These people are actually using those to address social problems with great technology.

In fact, if there is a social, political or economic issue that interests you, there’s probably at least a few startups or products out there aiming to tackle that issue in some way or another in some new way. Here’s just a few products that are solving real problems in critical spaces that are worth checking out (each of which even use some buzz-wordy tech or design concept you might be sick of hearing about!)

Interested in helping out a charity? Compute for Humanity uses your computer to mine cryptocurrencies, then automatically donate the output to charities. I recently installed this on my own Mac and was pleasantly surprised that it required absolutely nothing of the machine or my time, and yet in a few hours I had generated a couple bucks. I’ve generated $22.64 so far, again, for doing literally nothing.

Why is this remarkable? Cryptocurrencies! No work for the end-user! But also real money going to real, unsketchy charitable organizations like Pencils of Promise and GlobalGiving.

Want to help people with disabilities? Be My Eyes is an app that lets you help out a blind person from anywhere. Remember this thing? It got a fair share of journalistic praise a year ago but naturally fell out of the limelight – not for any reason in particular other than that people’s attention moved elsewhere. It’s worth reminding ourselves, however, that this is an app that literally helps blind people see. That in itself is an amazing feat we shouldn’t forget about.

Why is this remarkable? (Sort of) social networking! Unconventional use of the iPhone camera! But also it helps blind people.

Want to be more socially conscious? Archives + Absences is an app that notifies you anytime a cop kills a minority in the US. This is based on real data from The Guardian – it’s not a joke. If you are interested in the struggle of minorities in this country, you should download this app now, if anything to set context for yourself.

Why is this remarkable? The most minimal design ever! Push notifications! But also they’re about actual deaths surrounding a controversial social topic.

Know somebody with substance abuse issues and want to try and help?Addicaid is an app that aims to make drug & alcohol recovery a little more comfortable. You can find recovery groups nearby, get tips, maintain a plan, and evaluate your progress toward recovery, all while completely anonymous if desired.

Why is this remarkable? Material design! But also it helps people with real, crippling problems get a little closer to solving them.

Interest in the problems of America’s legal system? Ravel, Everlaw, Judicata and others aiming to make the practice of law, and lawyers, more affordable. The first two are building tools to help make law firms more efficient in their operations, and the third is aiming to capture the “law genome” to simplify complex legal decisions for lawyers and everyday people. As Judicata says, “Legal research isn’t just about finding needles; it’s about understanding the haystack too.“

Why is this remarkable? Big data! But also, lawyers are really expensive and law firms are incredibly inefficient right now.

Generally interested in major social issues and understanding their impact? SumAll.org, a tech non-profit hellbent on “empowering change makers to maximize their social impact through data.” They build amazing, sometimes-interactive studies on key humanitarian issues including human trafficking, homelessness and the Syrian refugee crisis. Its founder, Dane Atkinson, wanted tech to create a tangible impact for social good, and formed the foundation out of a portion of his social marketing tech company, SumAll (including its technology).

Why is this remarkable? Data science! But also, the topics they’re covering are, like, really bad things.

Products and businesses, when done right, are about solving problems, not chasing ideas. It’s worth reminding ourselves that in the midst of product/maker overload, that there are millions of people making great, incredibly important products, and they’re even publicizing them – they’re just a little bit harder to find.