An equation for creating awesome

We were bantering in a post-dinner conversation about what sort of ventures would be worth getting into – one of a narrow set topics where you’d find me readily available to engage in and ernestly contribute to.

The discussion took a turn to a well trodden topic of “If you had xxx, what would you do with it?”. N had much insight to offer to the effect of constraints playing a crucial role in driving good design, and how it’s next to impossible for good design to come out a blank check.

We got talking about what kind of awesome we could conjure up with the skills that were at the table; what creations we thought were excellent in that they were highly considered and truly added value to their respective contexts, and shortly after, arriving at an echelon of products whose sole purpose laid squarely in sheer opulence; created for no other reason than for Mr. Ritchie Rich to outspend his peers.

It was then, something became clear to me: what thrilled me most in my pursuit of creating awesomeness is somewhat captured in the following equation:

Fa (awesome factor) = outcome produced / resources committed

Where Fis greater than 1, we’re winning. Where Fa is less than 1, not so winsome.

You could start by sticking some values in. Say 4 coins were spent creating a doodad that was then sold on for 5 coins.

5 / 4 = 1.2 Fa ⇒ winning

If 5 coins were spent creating a doodad that couldn’t be onsold for any more than 4 coins,

4 / 5 = 0.8 Fa ⇒ not so winning

A second example: 5 hours were spent creating a widget that saved 1 hour a day. It’s a little more interesting, because on day 1, it’s looking like

1 / 5 = 0.2 Fa ⇒ not winning

But as the days carry on, things start looking better

Day 5:
5 / 5 = 1 Fa ⇒ tie

Day 50:
50 / 5 = 10 Fa ⇒ awesome winning

And if 50 people had access to it for 50 days:

50 × 50 / 5 = 50 Fa ⇒ mmmmmmonster win

On the flip side, we encountered the provervial “money is not an issue”, things start looking bleak for our little equation.

For example, a thousand coins spent to produce the world’s most exquisite disposable luxury toothpick.

value of a disposable luxury toothpick / 1000 coins ⇒ difficult to win

£3bil for a gold encrusted yacht:

gold encrusted floating device / £3bil ⇒ even more difficult to win

compared to

medium-sized aircraft carrier / £3bil ⇒ a little easier to win

compared to

2 × 360-bed metropolitan paediatric hospitals / £3bil

You get the idea.

Where things really start to fall apart and kill the party is when the resources available approaches infinity, which is one extreme that many a naïve idealist operates with:

(most awesome-st idea ever) / ∞  = very near to 0 Fa ⇒ no fun

The other extreme is the magical unexecuted idea:

(an idea) / 0 = ∞ Fa ⇒ delusional

Conclusion, awesomeness is a function of two values, the resources required and the final outcome. This means that awesome can be sought after in two places: first, incremental outcome improvements over predecessors, and secondly, exponentially doing more with less.

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Make Commodity Beautiful

I’ve noticed something perculiar in the way I’ve begun to use email ever since I switched to Fastmail in my recent mini IT infrastructure shakeup. Previously, I was quite content with Thunderbird hitting up an IMAP account off a cheap web hosting account, and didn’t think much about it.

The big switch came about when I was spending far more time on a work machine than my trusty Thinkpad. I wasn’t comfortable setting up a desktop email client at work, the web email interfaces on my hosting account was downright horrendous, and I wasn’t about to rely on the big G’s ad-funded service for my primary email needs.

So I decided to bite the bullet and pay for a Fastmail account. I’d used Fastmail way back when generous was 16mb’s of email storage, and fast was building your web interface with no images – just straight-up HTML. This was a second coming of sorts.

Every since I’ve started using Fastmail, I’ve even begun to prefer it over firing up Thunderbird on my desktop. Upon further reflection, I’ve been able to narrow it down to one reason – the interface.

The Fastmail web interface is not particularly exciting to look at. I’d say it’s even a little spartan compared to most post-web 2.0 outfits. But where it really sings is the way the whole interface is designed with the power user in mind. The clincher for me was the VIM-like key bindings. I could quickly navigate through my email, report spam, mark, delete and file emails all from my keyboard – no mouse required.

~snips nerdy gush-fest~

The point I’m trying to get at, is that email has largely become a commodified service. Although, I had the the pick of any desktop app, and a choice of 4 different webmail interfaces, I decided instead to paid good money for Fastmail’s web interface.

The more I look, the more I see commodities being bolstered and somewhat “resold” with a coat of thoughtfully applied interface. Programmers all over the world swear by GitHub. Mac OS X coats a BSD Mach kernel with a gratituous gobs of lickability. And, more recently, Sparrow and Fluent are in the market to repackage what is essentially a 26 year old protocol.

If you’re looking for a startup idea, pick a commodity software and make it beautiful. It is a significant, fixable unmet need that is just waiting pay out.

Open source software is particularly suited for this for two reasons. Firstly, you have full access to the source code, and secondly, they usually have a lot of room for improvement as far as UX goes.

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