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

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.

Product Hunt for abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz

The other day I came across Telescope, a product that lets anyone launch their own community site, Product Hunt-style. Just when you think you’ve seen too many “Product Hunt for X” sites, someone gives you the ability to generate as many of them as humanly possible.

It’s not inherently a bad or stupid idea, I swear. But every time someone develops some sort of platform that “lets you make your very own X”, I get a little terrified at the implications that platform may have on society – or, more specifically, the silly ideas that the platform enables. If the “Uber for X” mentality gave us things like this, I can’t imagine what a well-marketed “Product Hunt for X” solution gives us.

Because I get bored during my commute sometimes, I came up with a few ideas for Telescope sites that I thought might be good1. Yay for rapid brainstorming!

  • Anxiety Hunt: submit what’s making you anxious at any particular moment; others can upvote the things that they’re also anxious about. Let’s all be upfront about our insecurities, k? (Speaking of which, is Post Secret still a thing?)
  • Bitch Hunter Hunt: Upvote the best lines from the amazing, non-existent movie starring Will Ferrell, Bitch Hunter.
  • Crack Overflow: Stack Overflow, but for people who periodically suffer from plumber’s crack. (What do you post on a site like that? I don’t know, I wear skinny jeans.)
  • Duck Duck Hunt Hunt: post and upvote screenshots and videos of your favorite moments from the classic game, Duck Hunt.
  • Ethan Hunt: Product Hunt for all things Mission: Impossible.
  • Fuck Hunt: Basically, Product Hunt for porn. V2: import the top voted porn images into a live web version of Duck Hunt!
  • Grunt Hunt: Inspired by Eugene Mirman’s I’m Sorry, You’re Welcome, this gem lets users upload and vote on the best interpretations of various sound effects performed by their own speaking voice.
  • Helen Hunt: Product Hunt for all people in the world named Helen. Vote which ones you think are the best! Except Helen Hunt, of course.
  • I Hunt Myself: For the ultimate narcissist, this platform allows you to submit virtually anything you care about and upvote them based on your personal ranking of those things. The twist? You’re the only one who can access your list. And every upvote triggers a little “Me me me!” sound effect.
  • Jerk Hunt: Product Hunt for douchebags. You literally post about a shitty person and something shitty they did, and people agree with you. The worst people are highest voted. We’re terrible people, right?
  • Karma Hunt: Post something good you did for somebody, and people upvote the most charitable acts. Do you get any actual good karma from this? Probably not. It’s mostly self-serving.
  • Luck Hunt: Product Hunt, but if you're the Xth person to upvote something, you win money. THIS IS THE NEXT LEVEL OF FANTASY SPORTS, BABIES.
  • Meta Hunt: Product Hunt for “Product Hunt for X” sites. Product Hunt is sort of already this, but I figure let’s cut out the BS and make a site dedicated to this thing.
  • Nuck Hunt: Same as the aforementioned Fuck Hunt, but for Canadians.
  • Oregon Trail, Telescope Edition: This version of insanity takes the original beloved computer game, The Oregon Trail, and puts every possible scenario in a list. You have a limited number of upvotes and can use them toward rations, game, diseases – literally everything the game has to offer – and the game returns a likeliness of you surviving the Oregon Trail with those decisions. Basically, a way less fun version of the game.
  • Problem Hunt: Upvote actual problems around which people should build products to solve – they can be any problems, large or small. (Disclaimer: this one’s kind of a real idea, and it already existed once as Real Problem Hunt but was shut down – I think this deserves to come back at some point.)
  • Quote Pilot: You know all those sites with huge lists of inspirational quotes? Ever want to make your own soundbyte-y quote? Submit it here and people upvote the most moving ones. Because we need more inspirational quotes every day!
  • Reverse Hunt: Vote for the least cool things. The less votes, the better. Countercultures, unite.
  • Sidetracked: the Game: submit something that distracted you today – anything at all. Other people upvote the things also distracting them. The test: seeing how many of those things you can avoid clicking on. It’s totally a game!
  • Telescope Hunt: Product Hunt for all sites made with the Telescope platform. (No relation to Meta Hunt, of course…)
  • Uber Hunt: Product Hunt for Uber drivers. Or is it Uber for Product Hunt fans? THE WORLD MAY NEVER KNOW!
  • Viral Hunt: Product Hunt, but with auto-sharing upon every upvote. You thought you couldn't post any more content to your followers? Think again!
  • Witch Hunt: Post people you think are witches, and then others can upvote if they agree with you. Then we burn the highest-voted ones at the stake!
  • X for Product Hunt: Post and upvote features for Product Hunt. (This isn't actually that bad of an idea for a feature request tool…?)
  • Yerba Hunté: Upvote the best kinds of maté…?
  • Zoo Hunt: Zoo animals. Which ones are the best? I’m done with this list.
  1. That is, ideas that will probably get made regardless of whether they’re actually good. In fact, most of these are completely ridiculous. But so are people who insist on making their own “hunt” sites for every possible niche they can think of. Yay products! ↩︎

On Maker Overload, or why I’m okay with not solving all the problems

Following up on this, which was dead on. In the words of indie darling Courtney Barnett, sometimes I (want to) sit and think, and sometimes I just (want to) sit.

I’m a product manager, which means I spend virtually every weekday (and some weekends) doing two things: solving problems and making things happen to ship good, need-fulfilling products. Anyone who does product management can obviously break this up into many more buckets of duties, glorify it, debate its role in larger business culture, whatever – but that’s essentially what we do.

Sometimes I think I want to build something on my own – I wouldn’t be surprised if most PMs also get this urge. Thanks to a handful of tools that now exist, virtually anyone with Internet access and some spare time can build anything in a matter of hours or days. There’s a lot of people who create their own products on their own these days, using free or cheap existing tools, then publish them on sites like Product Hunt and write about them on Medium. When I read all these posts about “makers” making “products,” I react in a few ways.

First, curiosity, then a little bit of envy.

I love that we now have technology and platforms available for anyone to turn some idea into a packaged product in a matter of hours. Some of the problems people have solved are incredibly niche – I would never have thought of them. Sometimes I wish I had.

Then, jealousy-fueled anxiety.

Why aren't I identifying those problems? Why can’t I be making those things? What do those people have that I don't? What do I need in order to build amazing profitable things myself? WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE??!!?!!?!!!

Then, a ramble.

Hours and hours on Product Hunt. More things made by more people. Curiosity and anxiety on subsequent repeat.

Then, I'm tired.

I burned myself out worrying about other people's problems instead of solving my own or those problems which I care about.

Why did I do that?


We used to have information overload. Then people rebranded this as #content in an attempt to legitimize it. Now, if the content wasn't enough, we're in maker overload. New startups and new people announcing new products being announced almost every hour on the hour. Call it a lovechild of social media and freelancer culture, both powered by the good ol’ Internet – now everyone can have their own voice, so there’s millions more voices, all yelling incessantly over each other for top placement on your Twitter feed. All so you try the hot new products they each built on their own.

What is the impact of all those new products? Sure, it's huge in aggregate – if anything this is proven by how much pundits are talking about Product Hunt. But what value does each individual new solution to a problem have in the scheme of things?

Product management is really all about solving (the right) problems and enabling the people around you to solve them. Some of the "products" I come across solve problems that aren’t relevant to me at all, but because everyone is posting and writing and tweeting and retweeting about them I run into them anyway. Some of these products don’t solve any problem at all – they generate a problem of their own and attempt to solve it, even if the average person didn’t even need to recognize that as a problem in the first place. Some of those products are really just repackaging the exact same #content that other products already contain, only presented in a slightly different way. Just this year there were 50 products launched, all featured on Product Hunt, that repackage existing tools and content that already wasn’t too hard to find with a bit of Googling. Some of them are totally redundant with each other.

I’m not saying this is inherently a problem – after all, competition makes the world go ‘round. But is this really what makers want to be known for?

Maybe so, or more likely those makers are just trying to make some money or followers. This isn't new – companies have been making redundant products for the sake of staying competitive a long time – but now that the Internet has enabled for a product to get noticed and hyped in a matter of hours, there's too much noise to be continuously making products that don't matter in the scheme of things. It only adds to the information overload, except under the guise of something meant to solve a problem – so people who read about this product (especially those who religiously follow communities like Product Hunt) are inclined to take them more seriously than your standard clickbait. When they do, the maker gets noticed for a day, then just like clickbait, it usually gets lost in the ether of the Internet. Some makers then keep trying to optimize their offering and market fit until something sticks.

Perhaps “maker culture” in tech has also gone the way of the pop music industry.


But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m not suggesting that people stop building things for my own sake. Eventually you might happen across a brilliant solution to a truly challenging problem. Making things to satisfy urges or curiosities, make money, or to grow a personal brand is not inherently problematic – it does, however, create envy within others who aren’t sure they have those same needs. Especially when some of the most “popular” of those products made are redundant with each other or debated incessantly as to whether or not they’re dead.

I thought building my own things was what I should be doing with my life, but it turns out all the product overload is toxic for me. I get into a vicious cycle of anxiety and regret and forced ideation around problem spaces that really don't need solutions at that moment. I don’t personally build things constantly to satisfy some inner need, but I also don’t want to build a career out of making things that follow trends.

I solve problems all day, some of which are incredibly rewarding (like those that make my fiancée happy) and some of which are incredibly dull or frustrating (solved typically between the hours of 9am and 5pm, but even those are sometimes challenging and/or rewarding). In a world where an app can launch and die in a matter, and much of the writing about said app is about whether or not it’s actually dead, I don't want to come home every day and keep doing the same thing – it only stresses me out more. My catharsis is writing songs or posts (like this). Sometimes I want to just watch something mindless or live vicariously through someone else.

And that’s probably why I go on Product Hunt for hours on end. Now I understand the appeal of reality television.

I came into 2016 thinking that I wanted to launch a product, and now that I’m understanding myself better in 2016, the less I feel a need to do that. I have a day job, I better satisfy my curiosities via music and writing, and I don’t have any immediately-obvious solutions to problems I care about. It’s more important to me to be with the people I love and be reflecting and thinking about those problems I do want to solve. If you think you need to be launching products for the sake of launching products, take a minute to think about the merits of doing so. Don’t be a maker just because everyone else is.


Did you enjoy reading this? Feel the same way about maker and product overload? Nice. I’d love a like or share if you do, or you can follow me on Twitter. Thanks!

Apple Music Connect, the experiment

Federico Viticci of MacStories wrote this yesterday and it got me thinking about Apple Music Connect, which I’ve started to check daily:

The responses to this tweet are varied, but they generally echo the sentiment that I've been seeing in music industry writing: it's largely doomed to fail. The UX is somewhat crap (not denying this) and the positioning is unclear (also not denying this). I'm sure Apple will work on this over time, but it's hard to convert users if they start off with a bad first impression (hey, iTunes Ping / Tidal / any other music network that fails to catch on).

But we shouldn't be surprised that Apple Music Connect is adopting slowly. For major artists, their labels (or the artists themselves) have already bought into another streaming service – most of the majors into Spotify, and the dozen-or-so upper-echelon folks who co-sponsored Tidal – so why should we expect them to suddenly release a single on Apple Music Connect for the sake of their fans? Fans by nature are rabid, so they’ll follow you to whichever network you choose (this is why Tidal didn’t die on arrival). What’s the incentive for Kanye West to post his new stuff on Apple Music?

SoundCloud is in a weird spot in that it has the adoption of millions (including Europe and Asia, perhaps most importantly), but isn't necessarily tied directly to labels. In other words, there’s no incentive for Kanye West to NOT post new music on SoundCloud – no conflict of interest, no problem. That said, the network's moves to partner with brands is probably causing other strings to pull artists toward it. The general public will probably never know the full scope of it, but it’s worth assuming that major artists are probably picking their music networks of choice very strategically.

But Apple Music (and more specifically, Connect) is not going to pick up like this, with the exception of a few possible artists with existing partnerships with Apple (read: Trent Reznor, Dr. Dre, Adele & Coldplay)1. And I’m fine with that: it’s not done. Apple admitted that they still have work to do. Anyone who’s tried to build or work at a startup knows the difficulty in launching a good MVP quickly. While we instinctively seem to hold Apple to a higher standard given their massive stack of cash, you can’t blame them for putting out a brand-new streaming music service and wanting to iterate & experiment. I’ll be a contrarian: I love the idea of integrating streaming & social music discovery within the existing music player. Why not talk about music in the same app that you listen to music? Sure, it may look cluttered due to “bad UX” and purposeless due to low adoption, but it’s an interesting approach at trying to bring the relationship between artist and listener closer to the music itself that establishes that relationship in the first place. That’s a pretty massive and difficult concept to get right, so I can’t be surprised that it’s a little messy the first go-around.

Any new, minimum-viable product requires iteration and experimentation. No matter what they say in PR announcements, Apple has to be trying to experiment with Connect. You can’t write a music product off immediately when artists don’t flock to it immediately; great things take time to get right.

  1. Woah, rhymes. ↩︎