How Mobile has Hijacked Human Nature

We live in abundance; why does our attention feel so scarce?

Our biology hasn’t caught up to our technology. Today, we live in a time of abundance — abundance of information, content, and connectivity. Yet our time and attention

 has never felt more scarce — or scattered. How we manage the interplay between these dynamics is critical to our future yet completely unresolved. We are in uncharted territory.

Falling down.

The age-old expression “There’s never a dull moment” has never been more true than it is today.

Just look around at the shoppers in line at the store, the drivers at the traffic light, your co-workers at the happy hour, or even — increasingly and frustratingly — your family at the dinner table. What do you see? Downward gazes toward mobile devices. Fingers on glass clearing notifications, swiping feeds, and dealing with something (ostensibly) important.

The smartphone is the escape portal in our pocket that promises transportation to another place. Distraction. Through our phone’s vibrations come whispers of entertainment, work, messages, whatever.

Give me your attention.

So long as you have a signal and a decent charge no amount of time is too small. In the minutes spent waiting, stuck in traffic jams, or walking to meetings; the seconds between bites of food, at periodic pauses in conversation, or lulls in the Netflix shows we stream — we get little chances to escape.

Marginal time made important, unlocked by our smartphones

Where does the time go? Spinning my wheels.

Estimates suggest we are checking our Mobile devices some 110–150 times a day.¹ All those moments add up. Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends presentation shared that time spent with Mobile has increased from about an hour a day in 2011 to going on 6 hours a day in 2016:

Whether we’ve hit the upper limit in time spent with Mobile or not is yet to be seen (Though there is only so much time in a day). To that end, a recent TED talk given by NYU professor of psychology Adam Alter shared research on the average 24-hour workday, focusing on how time was spent across four categories: Sleep, Work+Commute, Survival, and Personal. You can see the findings below. Note that within “Personal” is a red bar that represents screentime.

Alter’s findings show that from 2007 to 2017 Personal time has been consumed by screentime. It’s hard to grasp the gravity of such a colossal shift in human behavior — one that occurred in a mere ten years, yet self-reflection bears it out. Personal time —our leisure time — feels like it has evaporated. Why?

Standing still — it’s like running on ice.

The value of time is highly subjective to the person experiencing its passing. Consider how someone with nowhere to be might not mind a minor delay at a red light. Contrast that same person with someone trying to make it to the airport in time to catch a flight — this person will find waiting at that red light much more painful.

Before the Internet — and especially before smartphones — having meaningful downtime was normal. In your downtime you could turn on the television, read a book, spend time with a friend (or family), or just sit there and do nothing. You could very easily get bored.

But the Internet, as made ubiquitous through our Mobile devices, has connected us to endless opportunities to distract ourselves, do work, do something. While in our connected era, you can still do all of the same things as before, doing something as simple as doing nothing has become downright hard.

Louis C.K. nailed this idea on Conan almost four years ago (0:55s).

You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away. Is the ability to just sit there like this. That’s being a person, right? — Louis C.K. on Conan

Our constant connectivity made possible by Mobile has made it cheap to always be doing something. By extension it’s raised the price of doing nothing. Doing something on Mobile now costs us only our time and attention. Meanwhile, the price of doing nothing requires willfully ignoring all the possible stuff we could be doing on our Mobile devices.

I only get a little attention when I fall.

All of the stuff we can do on Mobile comes down to content creation and consumption. The device in our pocket gives us the opportunity broadcast or to hunt and devour.

The game is plentiful. There has never been more content to consume than there is today. Whether it’s professional content — the kind of stuff you might pay a premium for like a movie, book, streaming video service, music — or amateur content, which is everything that is shared on social media, our lives are inundated with content.

The abundant sources of streaming music.

Mobile devices are the ultimate content creation devices — sharing is creation. A short three years ago Mary Meeker estimate that 1.8 billion photos were being uploaded every dayYouTube has over one billion hours of video watched daily. Everyone you know on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat is their own little micro-celebrity (Twitter, too).

Creation and consumption of amateur content over social media.

Much of this content amounts to ephemeral noise, but there are enough gems to keep us swiping and searching.

Benedict Evans has written about how our phones are the only device that matters today. It’s the remote control for the world and the Internet is the network. Through Mobile we have access to all the content we could want. Whereas in time’s past distribution channels mattered a great deal (e.g. network TV, cable services, book publishers, music labels, etc.), these proprietary channels matter very little in the age of the Internet.

All of this content clamors for our time and attention. Shouldn’t we be happy to live in a time of such abundance?

Why is it when we look around at our friends and family people seem so distracted, so anxious?

What’s wrong with us?

We aren’t wired for this.

If all of our time can be spent doing something over the Internet and there is a never-ending, growing list of things to do — be it content to create or consume, how might we expect humans to behave?

Mobile connectivity has put a price on our marginal time and that price can be understood by turning to the economic concept of “opportunity cost.”

Opportunity cost is the hypothetical future you give up when you make a choice. It’s the imagined missed opportunities. When we think about what we gave up to do something we are filled with discomfort and anxiety — a sense of loss for some potential future that is now gone forever.

Opportunity cost the fear of missing out.


Consider this situation. Imagine you’re missing work because of a dentist appointment. As you wait to be called, you see a magazine you could pick up and read. Or you could open your Mobile phone, check your work email, and knock off a couple to-dos. If you choose the magazine (or Facebook, Instagram, etc.), the opportunity cost is the foregone stuff you could have done on your Mobile device.

Here’s another one. You spend 20 minutes scanning Netflix for something to watch. You want to pick something you’ll enjoy, but struggle to sift through the hundreds of options available. You know there has to be something worth watching and that knowledge creates anxiety because, well, you don’t have to watch anything, at all. You better make a good choice — the best choice. Otherwise you’re giving up some other use of your time.

You finally settle on a movie that has decent reviews and you sorta want to watch — only to find that 15 minutes into it, your mind drifts to that possibility engine within arms reach. Hmm … maybe this movie isn’t worth watching, after all.²

Here, the opportunity cost isn’t just the other streaming options you skipped, it’s also the other entertainment options offered up by your Mobile device. Is it a surprise that 70% of streaming, live, or DVR TV watching during Primetime involves other activities³.

Loss aversion and human nature.

If you’ve read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow you’ll recall his discussion of Loss Aversion and Prospect Theory.

A quick summary. At the margins, we are willing to pay a premium to eliminate a small chance of a big loss — the example du jour is settling a frivolous lawsuit. Even if you have a low probability of losing, the small chance nags at us. We’re willing to pay more than would make logical sense (were we rational actors) to eliminate that small chance.

On the other end of the spectrum, we are willing to pay an overly large premium for a small chance to have a big gain. The relatable example? Playing the lottery. You have almost no chance of winning yet you pay a price for a ticket that is significantly greater than the value of the ticket because “You can’t win if you don’t play.”

The small chance to win big helps understand why people play slot machines.

Both of these behaviors at the margin help explain why we have anxiety about our choices in consuming content — there’s a small chance that the content we choose won’t be worth our time. Meanwhile, our Mobile devices present the opportunity for an outsized gain — we have a small chance at making a fortuitous discovery. We overweight that chance in our decision-making and are left feeling compelled to turn to our phones.

We play the lottery with our attention, hoping for outsized gains. We hedge potential losses through multi-tasking.

And ‘round and ‘round we go. “Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.” The modern predicament of our connected era.

Reasserting control.

I’m tired of telling myself it’s okay to be this tired.

How might we reclaim our time and attention? If anything, it starts with awareness of the problem — we are in uncharted territory when it comes to the interplay of access to information and human biology, which has not evolved to catch up to it’s current environment.

Asserting rationality.

Our natural response to turn to the phone to avert potential losses or seek potential gains is irrational, but it’s human. If we can accept the veracity of our nature, we can take steps to thwart it.

Daniel Kahneman talks about cognitive illusions — those times when our brains can’t see the reality of a situation. They are tricked. He makes an analogy to the Müller-Lyer illusion. A.k.a. this:

The Müller-Lyer illusion

If you’re familiar with the above illusion, you know that our minds can’t help but see the lines as being different lengths — yet it simply isn’t the case. By being aware of the illusion, we can take assert rationality over our mistaken perceptions.

When we feel the innate drive to pull out our Mobile devices, ready to play the lottery with our attention or avert spending our time in a less-than-optimal way, we can take a deep breath, and realize our brains are up to their instinctive tricks.

We can re-center our focus and put our Mobile phones down.


This re-focusing of our attention shares much in common with meditation. Acknowledging distractions that take our focus away from the present — centering on the breath — is critical to meditation.

Interest in meditation appears to be on the rise. Take a look at this Google Trends for “meditation:”

Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens and Homo Deus, has given much thought to modern human predicament. Perhaps it’s no coincidence he has taken to meditation — going so far as to take a month a year to meditate.


Perhaps there’s a chance we finally learn: our quest to optimize every moment of our time is futile. It can’t be done, so why chase the impossible?

The future is unknown.

While the future unfolds before us, what’s certain is that there will be no slowing of technology. The demands on our time and attention are only going to become more extreme. What we do about those demands is up to us, but starting from awareness of the problem and taking even small steps to reassert control feel like moves in the right direction.

¹ Android app Locket pegs the number at 110X/day (October 2013) while the TomiAhonen Almanac from 2013 puts the number at 150X.

² I call this streamer’s remorse.

³ GFK, September 2015

Certain section titles are lyrics from Vertical Horizon’s Falling Down.

The Axis of Content Consumption is Attention

The democratization of content may have already happened but it’s far from over. Today, we are all drowning to consume as much content as possible, treading water as we doll out our time to whatever content manages to grab our attention. And no matter what we choose, we never feel like we make the tiniest dent. We’re left dissatisfied and still drowning. The Internet is a flood.

The axis of consumption is attention.

Let’s take a step back before the Internet became widespread.

Twenty years ago, the primary axis for content consumption was how much you were willing to pay to get access to the content. The Internet dethroned content as king. As Benedict Evans put it, “the device is the phone and the network is the internet.”

Today, the axis of consumption is how much attention you are willing to give to any given piece of content. The price of that attention is shifting away from how much you pay for access to the content—because most content these days is near-cheap or free—but how much content you are willing to skip. Your choice to consume one thing comes at the cost of not consuming something else.

In economic terms, the price of your attention is the opportunity cost of missing all the content you choose not to consume. In a world where content is plentiful and effectively free, human attention has become the scarce resource that sets the price.

While it’s nearly objectively true that the type and amount of content available for consumption today is significantly higher quality than that created a few decades ago, are we individually any better off? Are we any happier? I’m skeptical. A look around and people seem more on edge than ever. Perhaps it’s our innate loss aversion at work. It’s our nature to want to avoid losses—but a world that is overrun with content requires every choice we make to cost us our ability to consume something else. We have anxiety—fear of missing out—with regard to the content we choose not to consume.

We are damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

I must make the best choice.

This “no win” situation leaves us anxious about our leisure time—it must be spent wisely! We can’t afford to make a poor choice when it comes to picking a streaming television show—there’s too much good content out there (and you know it!) to waste your attention on something not worthwhile. So we spend 20 minutes flipping through Netflix trying to decide on something to watch.

We need really good reasons to consume particular content. Social signals are useful—is everyone going to be talking about this show at the water cooler? Who recommends this article? What can I hope to get out of reading this book? Whatever the content offers, the juice better be worth the squeeze.

When it comes to distribution, barriers to content are annoying, at best, and will result in content being skipped or ignored, at worst (this is the more likely outcome). The connection between slow-loading sites and users giving up on content has been researched at length (here’s but one quick set of results from Doubleclick on mobile site loading). The point? Any friction between content and users is going to cost you attention. The less valuable the content, the less friction users will tolerate.

How cheap content affects advertising.

That’s why there is a flight to quality when it comes advertising — users will only tolerate interruptions in content if the content is deemed valuable enough to suffer the ads. Examples are helpful:

  • The Super Bowl. Here you have a time-sensitive event that the majority of Americans consume—and will be talking about the next day. You can’t time-shift your consumption of the Super Bowl because the content’s relevance only lasts for a very short window. The result is commercials are exceptionally expensive. And while the Super Bowl is at the extreme end of this, all live sporting events tend to follow the same pattern — users put up with the advertising friction because the relevance of the content is time-sensitive.
  • Facebook. Facebook content is selected algorithmically. What you see in the stream should be about the best content you can possibly see in your stream. That said, “best” is probably pretty mediocre (no offense to my friends), which is why Facebook’s advertising must be as low-friction as possible—and it is. Ads are targeted specifically to you, which at least removes some of the possible friction of seeing a totally irrelevant bit of marketing. More importantly, the ads aren’t screen takeovers nor do they firewall your feed consumption — they’re just presented in-stream. Even videos auto-play siliently, to be as subtly in your face, passively trying to get your attention as possible.
  • YouTube. YouTube’s pre-roll ads and skippable ads are huge barriers to content consumption, and as such, are much disdained by users. Unlike Facebook, Google’s approach here feels to me like an example of what not to do (And yes, I mentioned this to whoever would listen at Google, but I didn’t exactly have the ear of Susan susan Wojcicki). It’s not bad enough that you sometimes have to wait for a video to load (4 out of 5 will click away if a video stalls while loading — Google), but to have to watch some terribly executed ad for a paltry bit of YouTube video? On a personal note, I never would have opted into YouTube Red but I got it via my Google Play Music All Access plan, which meant I never had to watch any more YouTube ads. The unexpected result? Wow is YouTube so much better without ads. I cannot watch YouTube anymore if it has ads. I will immediately bounce and make sure I’m logged in to Red to avoid YouTube ads. Aint nobody got time for that.
  • Google Search. Now consider Google search. Whereas YouTube ads are painful, Google search ads are “in stream” (you need but scroll past them) so they are low friction. They’re also keyed to your query, which is to say that they are likely to be as relevant an ad as you can get, both in content and in timeliness. It’s no surprise that Google search is still one of the most valuable places to advertise on the web.

The point of the above examples is that advertising in a world that is drowning in content is about making the advertising as friction-free as possible and highly relevant. There is a real flight to quality when it comes to content—users will leave channels that either have low-quality content or content that isn’t worth the price of consumption. Adding noise to channels (and irrelevant advertising is noise) means that users are going to leave that channel for other content-streams that have a stronger signal—higher quality content. Either that or they are going to use tools to shut the advertising down (i.e. ad blockers).

Meanwhile, the wealthy are just going to pay to avoid the advertising entirely. It’s the content equivalent of “white flight” whereby luxury affords you the ability to live in a high-quality content world, free of ads. Scott Galloway has been beating this particular drum for awhile. The rich need not watch ads. I think he’s right.

The high price of attention.

Who doesn’t like having higher quality content that is less expensive? Ads that are being forced to be relevant or, at least, low-friction? Access is incredible.

Yet even as content has been democraticized—in creation, distribution, and consumption—I can’t help but feel anxious, like I’ve lost control of my facilities. I look around at our harried existence when people would sooner risk causing a horrible car accident than to put their phones down and pay attention to the road. Or how I feel the nagging gravitational pull to spend every second consuming or creating some bit of content over the Internet. This anxious existence is the present. Is it the future?

If you are fascinated by attention, take time to read up on the attention economy. Here are a couple resources to get you started:

  • The Attention Economy and the Net — Michael Goldhaber. Prescient read that was written now over 20 years ago (April, 1997)!
  • The Wikipedia article on the Attention Economy is quite useful.
  • Gary Vaynerchuk has indicated that attention is a primary focus of his. He makes mention of attention arbitrage, which I see as relevant to what I call the flight to quality in advertising. Advertising is most impactful when deployed on channels that are low-noise, high-relevance. Watch him talk to Weiden and Kennedy back in 2016 and mention how Zuckerberg is also keyed into something called the “attention graph.”
  • Is it a coincidence that interest in meditation is on the rise? See Google Trends or Google’s Ngram viewer.

The Democratization of Content


Benedict Evans has two thoughtful articles out about content creation versus consumption (and how mobile versus PC relates to the two) and the end of “Content is King.” If you follow Evans on Twitter (and you must if you are at all interested in macro-tech trends, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, etc.), you’ll find both of these articles put lots of words behind ideas he’s been brooding on for some time.

Mobile for creation.

I took two major takeaways from Evans’ articles. The first is that the argument that PCs are for creation whereas Mobile devices for consumption is incorrect. Relevant quote (emphasis mine):

So, 100m or so people are doing things on PCs now that can’t be done on tablets or smartphones. Some portion of those tasks will change and become possible on mobile, and some portion of them will remain restricted to PCs for a long time. But there are another 3bn people who were using PCs (but mostly sharing them) but who weren’t doing any of those things with them, and are now doing on mobile almost all of the stuff that they actually did do on PCs, plus a lot more. And, there’s another 2bn or so people whose first computer of any kind is or will be a smartphone. ‘Creation on PC, consumption on mobile’ seems like a singularly bad way to describe this: vastly more is being created on mobile now by vastly more people than was ever created on PCs.

The logic of the above is irrefutable. I think Evans is correct.

Why does it matter? Because Mobile is about both creation and consumption. And on the creation side, Mobile has made it incredibly cheap to create content. A quick spin through Instagram or Snapchat and you’ll be inundated with a massive pile of content that was created on Mobile phones. Most of the use of Twitter or Facebook is on Mobile and while much of that is consumption, a large portion of it is also creation. Sharing ideas is content. And it all happens on Mobile.

Unfettered access to content.

The second article by Evans — Content isn’t King — explains how content, which Evans explicitly refers to as music, books, and TV, has ceased being important for the tech industry. Evans writes, “Content and access to content was a strategic lever for technology. I’m not sure how much this is true anymore.” A few thousand words of thoughtful explanation later, he concludes:

The tech industry has been trying to get onto the TV and into the living room since before the consumer internet – the ‘information superhighway’ of the early 1990s was really about interactive TV, not the web. Yet after a couple of decades of trying, the tech industry now dominates the living room, and is transforming what ‘video’ means, but with the phone, not the TV. The reason Apple TV, Chromecast, FireTV and everything else feel so anti-climactic is that getting onto the TV was a red herring – the device is the phone and the network is the internet.

Put differently, the Internet provides ubiquitous access to content and doesn’t play well with owned models of distribution (e.g. traditional channels like TV networks, cable, music labels, book publishers, etc.).

What does this mean? Expanding on Evans’ analysis.

Both of the macro trends Evans discusses are intimately related. It’s the interplay between these two trends where things get interesting.

Too much content.

Mobile has resulted in massive piles of content being created. Photos, video, tweets, sharing (sharing is derivative creation) — it’s all content created on Mobile devices. The supply of this “amatuer” form of content is growing every second.

On the other side of the content spectrum is “professional” content. Professional content is almost always the kind of stuff that you can’t create easily on Mobile. Like amateur content, the supply of professional content is growing, as well, but at a somewhat slower rate — likely because it’s growing from a much smaller base of creators. Regardless, professionally created music is cheap and plentiful. As far as long-form content, there’s far too much to read, whether books, news, or blog posts. Any number of streaming services exist to supply you with endless video—from YouTube to Netflix, HBO to Hulu. Or use Kodi. Professional content may not be cheap to produce (like amateur content), but it’s now (relative to the past) cheap to consume — just like amateur content.

I lack a fancy stat, but it seems self-apparent that we live in a time — right now — when there has never been more content to consume. There’s too much content, and really, of the content to which we have access, much of it (so more than we can possibly consume) is very, very good.

The supply of content has affected how much we are willing to pay for it. We can only watch so many shows, swipe so many photos, read so many books, and listen to so much whatever.

Content isn’t king because it’s been democratized by the Internet. “The device is the phone and the network is the Internet.”

Is there a place for PC-created content?

While creation of content on Mobile is growing and the quality is improving, PC-based content creation still matters. Why?

Evans writes at length about how little creation happens only on PCs. And he’s right. However, what I think is missing from his discussion is consideration for the kind of content created on PCs. PCs (still) allow for a certain quality of creation that Mobile devices can’t (yet) match. What more, the use of PCs selects for content creators who are more likely to be experts and are more likely to create higher caliber content.

How many books have been written on a Mobile device? What percentage of the most-watched vloggers are exclusively using their Mobile devices to edit their videos? What device did Evans use to write his articles?

So while the democratization of content creation matters, it does not mean all content that is created is of equal quality. The highest-caliber creators will still gravitate toward tools that allow them to do more nuanced things or more complicated tasks — the demands of their craft require more capable tools. That matters — at least for now.

A Framework for Understanding Human Decisions—Jobs to be Done

This following post originally written for the FullStory blog, but since I am such a Clayton Christensen fan and have blogged about this topic here in the past, syndicating the post for anyone interested.

Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma and Harvard business professor, makes the case that in order to understand what motivates people to act, we first must understand what it is they need done — the why behind the what.

Christensen first articulated this idea in a 2005 paper for the Harvard Business Review titled The Cause and the Cure of Marketing Malpractice when he wrote:

When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them 

If a [businessperson] can understand the job, design a product and associated experiences in purchase and use to do that job, and deliver it in a way that reinforces its intended use, then when customers find themselves needing to get that job done they will hire that product.

Christensen’s theory has become known as the “Jobs” or “Jobs to be done” theory (“JTBD”) as it’s built around a central question: what is the job a person is hiring a product to do?

What is the job to be done?

How do you satisfy your hunger on your commute?

Professor Christensen tells a wonderful story to illustrate JTBD theory. It’s about a fast food company’s attempt to make a better milkshake. Said fast food company took the classic approach. They identified their target milkshake-slurping demographic, surveyed them about their milkshake preferences, implemented their findings, and didn’t improve milkshake sales whatsoever. What happened?

Christensen tells the milkshake story so well that we recommend you give him a listen (4 minutes, YouTube). Alternatively, the story is transcribed below.

Clayton Christensen talks about milkshakes.

We actually hire products to do things for us. And understanding what job we have to do in our lives for which we would hire a product is really the key to cracking this problem of motivating customers to buy what we’re offering.

So I wanted just to tell you a story about a project we did for one of the big fast food restaurants. They were trying to goose up the sales of their milkshakes. They had just studied this problem up the gazoo. They brought in customers who fit the profile of the quintessential milkshake consumer. They’d give them samples and ask, “Could you tell us how we could improve our milkshakes so you’d buy more of them? Do you want it chocolate-ier, cheaper, chunkier, or chewier?”

They’d get very clear feedback and they’d improve the milkshake on those dimensions and it had no impact on sales or profits whatsoever.

So one of our colleagues went in with a different question on his mind. And that was, “I wonder what job arises in people’s lives that cause them to come to this restaurant to hire a milkshake?” We stood in a restaurant for 18 hours one day and just took very careful data. What time did they buy these milkshakes? What were they wearing? Were they alone? Did they buy other food with it? Did they eat it in the restaurant or drive off with it?

It turned out that nearly half of the milkshakes were sold before 8 o’clock in the morning. The people who bought them were always alone. It was the only thing they bought and they all got in the car and drove off with it.

To figure out what job they were trying to hire it to do, we came back the next day and stood outside the restaurant so we could confront these folks as they left milkshake-in-hand. And in language that they could understand we essentially asked, “Excuse me please but I gotta sort this puzzle out. What job were you trying to do for yourself that caused you to come here and hire that milkshake?”

They’d struggle to answer so we then helped them by asking other questions like, “Well, think about the last time you were in the same situation needing to get the same job done but you didn’t come here to hire a milkshake. What did you hire?”

And then as we put all their answers together it became clear that they all had the same job to be done in the morning. That is that they had a long and boring drive to work and they just needed something to do while they drove to keep the commute interesting. One hand had to be on the wheel but someone had given them another hand and there wasn’t anything in it. And they just needed something to do when they drove. They weren’t hungry yet but they knew they would be hungry by 10 o’clock so they also wanted something that would just plunk down there and stay for their morning.

Christensen paraphrasing the commuting milkshake buyer:

“Good question. What do I hire when I do this job? You know, I’ve never framed the question that way before, but last Friday I hired a banana to do the job. Take my word for it. Never hire bananas. They’re gone in three minutes — you’re hungry by 7:30am.

“If you promise not to tell my wife I probably hire donuts twice a week, but they don’t do it well either. They’re gone fast. They crumb all over my clothes. They get my fingers gooey.

“Sometimes I hire bagels but as you know they’re so dry and tasteless. Then I have to steer the car with my knees while I’m putting jam on it and if the phone rings we got a crisis.

“I remember I hired a Snickers bar once but I felt so guilty I’ve never hired Snickers again.

“Let me tell you when I hire this milkshake it is so viscous that it easily takes me 20 minutes to suck it up through that thin little straw. Who cares what the ingredients are — I don’t.

“All I know is I’m full all morning and it fits right here in my cupholder.”

Christensen concludes:

Well it turns out that the milkshake does the job better than any of the competitors, which in the customer’s minds are not Burger King milkshakes but bananas, donuts, bagels, Snickers bars, coffee, and so on.

I hope you can see how if you understand the job, how to improve the product becomes just obvious.

Source: Clayton Christensen, YouTube

When the most direct route is the wrong way.

Christensen’s story about milkshakes implies that the traditional approach — asking a logically defined audience of milkshake consumers “What would make our milkshakes better?” — may be a waste of time.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised: this approach confuses the means (The milkshake consumers) with the ends (Satisfying hunger, boring commute, whatever job). The result is “a one-size-fits-none product,” per Christensen, that does nothing for sales.

A business that organizes around solving for the actual needs of consumers has a clear reason for being because it’s those needs — those objectives — that are driving a customer’s behavior in the first place.

Forget the needs of your consumers at your own peril.


Method to the madness.

JTBD brings to our attention something we already know: everyone has reasons for the choices they make — a need, desire, self-actualization, whatever! Shakespeare wrote about this quintessentially human insight some 400 years ago in Hamlet when he penned, “Though this be madness yet there is method in it.”

Understanding the method behind the madness is about having empathy for the user.

When it comes to building products, success requires applied empathy towards better solving needs. That’s why it’s important to question whether features we’re building or product branches we’re developing will do the job better than [something else].

If the development we’re advancing is done without the customer need in focus, we might find we’ve developed the most amazing product that no one wants. (Like the piston-powered airliner — see Benedict Evans on The Best is the Last.)

Putting Jobs to be Done to work.

Using JTBD to understand consumer needs can be as easy as asking, “What did you turn to the last time you needed to do this?” In Christensen’s milkshake story, it helped consumers to think back on a previous time they were in the same situation and needed that job done — that is, the milkshake buyer needed something to satiate their hunger and their boredom on their long commute to work.

Reflecting on the products you “fired” can help clarify just what you needed to get done. In this regard, JTBD can be used to explain how many once-successful businesses were displaced by competitors that simply did the job better. Examples:

  • Netflix doing the job of Blockbuster — “I need something to entertain me,”
  • Uber, Lyft replacing taxis (and impacting the rental car business) — “I need to get from point A to point B,”
  • Google — “I need ______” … all the things,
  • Amazon — “I need ______” … all the things,
  • Smartphones — “I need _____” … all the things!

The question, “What does our product do better than the competitors?” is at the center of a recent post by Jason Fried (Signal vs. Noise), who channeled JTBD when he wrote, “What are people going to stop doing once they start using your product?”

If you can’t answer this question clearly, could you reasonably expect a potential customer to?

While JTBD is often relegated to business discussions, it can be extended to think about just anything — your career, your hobbies, your relationships. You can ask yourself, “Why do I [X]? What is the job I’m getting done through [Y]?” Applying the JTBD frame introspectively may surprise you.

Applying Jobs to be Done to customer experience on the web.

“Way back when” we first built FullStory it was to solve an explicit job that we needed done: we needed to understand what users were doing on a site through high-fidelity session playback, down to the movement of the mouse.

That was only the beginning.

We soon realized that since we were already capturing all the data about user interactions on a web application, we could do other jobs, too.

  • We could do the job of visualizing aggregated, on-page user clicks — so we built Page Insights with Click Maps (Like heatmaps but with actionable clarity, that is, better!).
  • We could do the job of segmenting users by behaviors in order to better understand what job they are trying to do —FullStory users can now build on-the-fly marketing funnels based on specific, user-defined events with OmniSearch (e.g. find users who are referred by Google, add a product to their cart, and complete the sale).
  • We could do the job of finding where users are getting frustrated — so we started identifying frustration events. We call them rage clicks, error clicks, and dead clicks.
  • We could do the job of visualizing the data in aggregate — so we built easy-to-grok graphs that autobuild based on segments (We call them “Searchies”).

When it comes to the job of building better customer experiences on the web, there are many jobs to be done — whether it’s the jobs of designers, engineers, product managers, marketers, customer support.

We all have a lot of work to do to make the web a better place.

This post originally made for the FullStory blog. (Come find me there for regular bits like this!)

Further reading

  • JTBD has also made its way into a 2016 book called Competing Against Luck by Clayton Christensen. Also see The Innovator’s Dilemma
  • The average-driven, “one-size-fits-none” milkshake reminds us of the problem with averages
  • Everything Bagel 340 Calories, Dunkin’ Donuts ~600 calories, Snickers 250 calories, Banana ~100 calories, McDonald’s Vanilla Milkshake (M) 610 Calories

FullStory—I am here!

If you’ve been reading along lately, you picked up on the fact that last week was my last at Google.

And this week was my first at FullStory.

What is FullStory? How you answer that really depends on your job and how you use the tool. I’m not trying to be obtuse; it’s just that FullStory is an analytics (SaaS) platform that captures everything your users do on your website. Understood in its most basic form, FullStory allows you to watch (Literally! Like a DVR) how a user engaged with your site down to the mouse movements, clicks, pauses, everything.

You can mine user sessions for all sorts of reasons, whether they’re for product marketing managers, customer support, design, user experience (UX), user interface (UI), development (finding errors, fixing bugs), etc.

It’s pretty rad.

I began paying attention to FullStory way back in 2014. A couple Xooglers from Atlanta I’d kept up with were two of the three founders and I was enthusiastically watching to see what they were cooking up.

Fast forward to late 2015 and I started seriously inquiring about roles at FullStory, had a few conversations, and started imagining the possibilities. The timing wasn’t quite right then but all was kept on the backburner. Things quieted down for a bit though I think it stayed on the backburner until late 2016 when things started getting “serious.”

Now here I am.

I’m going to be handling content marketing. You could say my job title is FullStory-teller. I hope to do for FullStory a lot of what I did for a certain minimalist footwear site. I’m just getting started, but you’ll be able to follow along at; also, if you’re not already there, add me on instagram and twitter (these are my personal accounts).

Very excited about the future here. There is just so much potential, excitement, and opportunities.

And if you have a website and care about making it better for whatever reason or whatever function, yeah, you should totally check out FullStory.

Justin Owings, Googler [Deprecated]

It’s been a shade under seven years working here at Google in Atlanta; the longest I’ve worked anywhere.

Today is my last day.

If you know me, you know I’ve been a Google fanboy for years, pushing Gmail on friends and family; getting on the Nexus (Android) bandwagon back in early 2010; owning Google Glass and embarrassing my wife (but impressing my kids); feeling a goofy kinship with Sergey Brin back when he wore Vibrams; and on and on. I’ve had a tribal pride in working at Google, and I’ll always be a card-carrying Xoogler.

While my work in Google was most commonly behind the scenes in sales, my legacy to Google Atlanta is as visible as it gets — a half-decent logo that adorns walls, t-shirts, and more (e.g. the adapted metal sign above; the image below; some other use-cases).

There’s so much I could share about working at Google: good, bad, and ugly. Perhaps in time I’ll dabble in sharing it all. For now, here’s a bit of good.

  • I felt lucky when Google paid me to spend seven weeks with my second daughter shortly after she was born; and later, again, when I spent thirteen weeks with my youngest son after he was born.
  • I felt lucky when Christmas came and it meant I got some new-fangled gadget, whether a phone, a tablet, or the ill-fated Sony Google TV (still works!).
  • I felt lucky to have worked at a place that values doing good within the world whether or not it helped the bottom line; where “don’t be evil” was a mantra that helped safeguard Google from the temptation to make questionable decisions in the name of “business.”
  • I felt lucky to work among people of the highest-caliber who challenged me to be better and grow.
  • I felt lucky to have had visionaries as leaders who could have just sat back and played it safe; instead, they made audacious bets about self-driving cars, AI, solving aging, VR/AR, delivery, bringing Internet to the remote places of the planet with balloons, and on and on.
  • I felt lucky to be able to say I was a Googler. I got to be a part of one of the most incredible companies in history …

… And I feel lucky even as I say “Goodbye, Google,” and go a new way at a young company that was founded by brilliant, incredible people I only know because I worked at Google.

Thanks, Larry and Sergey! It was a pleasure.

Now, to the future!

The Canary in the Coal Mine and Leaving Dysfunctional Groups

The expression “canary in a coal mine” originates from coal miners using canaries as a kind of early warning system. The miners would take the birds into the mine and periodically check-in on their status. The delicate canaries were more susceptible to gases like carbon monoxide, so if they suddenly stopped moving, miners would be alerted of dangerous air conditions.

Hence, the expression “canary in a coal mine” is an idiomatic way of talking about events that portend negative things to come.

Dysfunctional Families, Groups, and Organizations

A psychiatrist friend observed that with (truly) dysfunctional families, it’s the healthy members who leave.

Here’s the implied theory. If you are a healthy and functioning human being, there’s only so much dysfunction you can tolerate before you have to get out of that relationship.

I think you can take the idea further.

Let’s assume this is you. You’re in a dysfunctional family. Maybe you fight it or try to fix it. Maybe you’re successful. Maybe not. Eventually one of three things is going to happen.

  • You’re going to succumb to the dysfunction and change to conform to the family norm.
  • You’re going to reject it and leave the family.
  • The family is going to reject you.

These dynamics are not limited to families. They extend to just about any group or organization.

But it’s not easy to leave.

Leaving a dysfunctional group means we can’t ignore the ugly bits that have been, to some degree, a part of our identity. After all, we chose to be a part of that group (exception: family). The individuals in that group are, in a way, mirrors of us. If the group is dysfunctional are we similarly broken? While I don’t think that necessarily follows, it’s not fun to ask these questions.

Leaving is hard because it’s a decision riddled with self-doubt. It means making judgments about ourselves and people we care about. It’s made even harder because very often the individuals in these groups are good; perhaps they’re just caught up in the cage. We have real empathy for these friends.

Breaking free of the cage and leaving is hard.

It’s that hardness that makes leaving such a powerful signal that something might not be right.

Perhaps leavers are the canaries in the coal mine.

Casey Neistat and Success by Doing (Plus Stochasticity)

If you aren’t familiar with Casey Neistat, allow me to remedy the situation.

Casey Neistat is likely the most burgeoning YouTube star of 2016. Here’s his channel. I’m approaching a year having subscribed to his daily vlog videos and to my eye what Neistat is doing on YouTube is a testament to the democraticization of video content.

First a little context: Neistat has racked up over a billion video views and is likely to cross the 5 million subscriber mark sometime in the next few days. He’s 35 (a month younger than me), lives in NYC, and has been in film and video production for almost 15 years though he never went to school for it and got his start on an iMac/

You might have come across Casey’s work in the past. See: real-life Alladin/magic carpet in New York (he worked to produce this) or his Jan 2016, mid-NYC-blizzard snowboarding  the streets video set to “New York, New York.” For more background, take a watch on Reddit’s Formative Moment video on Casey Neistat.

For a classic Neistat video, watch this video of him retrieving a drone he lost on top of a building in New York. It showcases his wild use of cameras and general scrappiness with both his videos and his approach to life.

Just think about what he’s doing. Every single day he records a slew of content using a mix of DSLR cameras, handheld point and shoot cameras, drones, smartphones, and god knows what other equipment, bringing to life the adage that the best camera is the one you have with you. He takes all this content at the end of the day and then spends a few hours editing it down into a video that is less than 10 minutes.

In so many ways, Casey’s channel is a one-man reality TV show that is direct to viewer and without all the absurd drama that you’ve come to associate with “reality TV.” Neistat’s body of work is reality TV “IRL,” but unlike real life which is often boring, it’s been supercut into something fun to watch.

(It also helps that Neistat’s life is, actually, pretty fascinating, particularly as he has ascended into celebrity status, gets sent on trips around the world, and is almost a mascot for NYC.)

Bear in mind what’s not seen on camera — all the work and effort Neistat puts into getting the raw content that makes his daily vlogs visual treats. Note that you don’t usually see the cameras. Or think about how when you see a shot of Neistat walking or running “on scene” (a common shot is him entering his production studio, as seen from his desk): Casey had to do that very action at least twice — once to set up the camera and once to record the action. In other words, this “real life” video is manufactured. It’s deliberate. It’s not really “real” in the “your life just sorta unfolds” way and more real from the perspective of telling a story about life. It’s a story. Duh.

That Casey Neistat does all of this every day is a serious feat. Kudos to his dedication; he’s upleveled the conversation on YouTube (in the off chance you’re reading this, thanks!).

So about that stochasticity …

Right, so now that you’re familiar with Neistat and realize that he’s putting out solid work every day (each video is getting a million plus views), let’s talk about his viral successes.

I remember when Casey’s snowboarding video hit. I recall waking up and actually wondering, “I wonder how NYC is doing amidst this blizzard — I bet Neistat will do a video,” and (no joke) about 30 seconds later I saw the notification that he’d uploaded his snowboarding NYC video.

That video has received nearly 15 million views to date and got re-shared all over the web and picked up by all sorts of news stations. It was a big moment for Casey and got him a whole lot of attention and new subscribers.

It also spawned another wave of questions about how Casey creates viral videos. Not surprisingly, he’s vlogged about this subject. And like anyone who has had success, Casey has a few thoughts about how to create viral videos — things like tapping into the zeitgeist, timing, relevance, generality — he even made a diagram in that video:

Note the bottom right …
What’s refreshing about Neistat is his self-awareness about viral success — he wraps that diagram up with a statement:

The truth is I have no idea how or why the video goes viral.

Casey echos this sentiment some 240 videos later after his $21K First Class plane ticket video published about 10 days ago achieved 20 million views in ~7 days, bumping his subscriber base by about 500K subscribers. Mind that any YouTuber would kill for 5K subscribers.

That’s repeat success. So is Neistat a viral video machine or are his viral video hits just dumb luck?

It’s neither, and Neistat outright says as much. Neistat’s viral success is due to lots and lots of attempts, lots of everyday successes (most of his videos still achieved around a million views), and the occasional colossal blow-up.

And to borrow on Nassim Taleb, you can attribute Casey Neistat’s viral success to taking a stochastic approach to content creation. Casey noted in his “viral video secrets” video (the one with the diagram) the following:

I’ve gotten lucky and had a few viral hits beyond just this snowboarding one but I’ve also uploaded 310 movies in the last 305 days so if 2 of them or 1 of them has gone viral that’s less than 1 third of 1 percent of every movie I make so I don’t know what it is.

For most people, this rate of success might be a deterrent to even trying. But to someone like Casey Neistat — a real “doer” — it’s just the way to live life.

And that’s the takeaway. Expose yourself to upside success in life by writing a lot of options or buying a lot of lottery tickets — in the figurative sense — that is, by engaging in activities that you enjoy, that are hard, and that pay off by themselves but also have huge upside potential.

And really, that’s why I blog*.

* Yes, I’m trying to blog again. Been quite a hiatus and it’s not easy to get back but I’m trying!

Questioning daily defaults: what’s the job I need done?

Channeling Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done frame, I’ve started thinking about my daily default decisions. What is the job I need done by [fill-in the blank]?

It’s a useful exercise.

  • I drink coffee and other caffeinated beverages: if the job I need done is mental alertness and waking up, what’s the best thing to hire for that job?
  • After getting the kids down for bed at night, I often want to watcha show on some streaming service (we don’t have cable), what’s the job I need done that has me turning to consuming video? Relaxing? Escaping the routine? Something else? How effective is my default st accomplishing that job?

That sort of thing.

It’s making me take an outside perspective on unquestioned decisions. Channeling John Gall’s observation that destiny is unquestioned assumptions (See John Gall and Systemantics):

The decision to become involved with a particular System should be made carefully, on the basis of a balanced judgment of one’s interests. One need not drift (or sail, or barge) into Systems uncritically: CHOOSE YOUR SYSTEMS WITH CARE Remember: DESTINY IS LARGELY A SET OF UNQUESTIONED ASSUMPTIONS

So true, so relevant to our daily routines! Giving me much food for thought and the impetus for changing my defaults. I am where I am because of the decisions I make things I do, every day, and every moment.

So if I want to get a job done, I need to hire the right solutions, and change my destiny by default.

Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done Theory

I have written much more about Clayton Christensen’s Jobs-to-be-done framework over at the FullStory blog:

Clayton Christensen (along with a few other co-authors) is soon releasing a book called Competing Against Luck that will go more in-depth on Christensen’s “Jobs-to-be-done theory,” which is a way to reframe product design and product selling away from fallacious, post ergo hoc propter hoc data and towards first principles.

Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) is something Christensen cooked up at least a decade ago and the best way to grok the theory is to listen to Christensen tell the milkshake story. Take a listen below (Look past the the over-styling of the video):

Reflecting on the reasons people do the things they do rather than trying to come up with some complicated, aggregated story about certain demos doing certain things is a much more effective way to understand behavior.

In the world of marketing and advertising, I’m daily confronted with the approach that carving up people into segments is the way to understand customers. It works okay, at best, but necessarily paints with broad strokes, misses nuances left and right, and generally just feels a little half-baked. By comparison, understanding the “why” people do the things they do gets to the heart of the matter.

Even more, it often reveals hidden, underlying truths. That milkshakes make for good driving-to-work breakfast food is a surprising revelation you’d probably not guess.

Another example: we drive a Honda Odyssey as our family car. However, many of our family friends have opted to go the SUV route. Why? Big SUVs are generally inferior as a family vehicle to a mini-van in almost every way possible. The only catch is that mini-vans have large negative connotations to parents. Mini-vans aren’t “cool,” right? Parents, and I think particularly mothers, who drive mini-vans feel old and uncool driving them. They don’t want to identify with their own parents or feel like they’re not fun, anymore. SUVs somehow skirt this psychological problem*. Using JTBD, the SUV decision makes all the more sense: parents need to feel young and vibrant. Who cares if a van is more practical if it makes you feel old or tangibly represents how much your life pivots around your children? Even if it may be irrational, we tie up our identity in our vehicles, and our identity is paramount for our sense of self, and our sustained happiness.

SUVs make sense as a vehicle that satisfies the job parents need to be done — move the family around — but don’t harm my sense of self in the process!

JTBD feels like an extension of economic theories, which themselves are ways to frame and understand human behavior. I find reframing life — things I want, things my kids want, things I need to do for work, and more — using the question, “What is the job I need done here?” Is a useful exercise that can have surprising results and/or make sense of sometimes irrational-looking behaviors. JTBD reframing can be used to drive my own decisions or understand my own behavior. It’s surprising but I find I’m often making decisions for reasons that make sense but aren’t at the top level of my conscious thought.

I’m not unusual. Lots of people are doing the same thing. Human beings are complex!

Have you heard of this theory? I’d be curious if you can think of any examples of how JTBD makes sense of your life or your work. Let me know!

Aside: I don’t know how I made it this long without being aware of Clayton Christensen, Harvard business professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma (A book I’ve heard of but not read). Yet here I am only first hearing him speak a couple weeks ago via this Talk @ Google.

Christensen has a gentle demeanor in the way he speaks that exudes thoughtfulness, and the guy is clearly a thinker, having originated a solid handful of business theories. They are conveniently organized on his website here (That link is to Christensen’s theory of disruptive innovation but see the left column at that link for more, including the one I’m fixated on at the moment).

*I often think how absurd it is to pick an obviously inferior vehicle for the job-to-be-done of getting your young family around town like a Suburban over the swiss-army of family vehicles like an Odyssey for the purpose of appearing “cool” — you can’t be cool when your grimy rugrats fall over themselves trying to get in and out of a Suburban. SUVs don’t magically erase the real reason you feel old, which is that you have young kids!