How Silicon Valley's elitist mindset affects product design

TL;DR: Did you know you can't plug a Pixel phone into a TV to mirror your screen? Google purposely left this feature out because they want you to buy a Chromecast.

Silicon Valley decides how we use technology. Since they make the products we all use, they have the ultimate say about how we will use our devices. Overall, we benefit from the decisions they make for us - in how we are forced to embrace technological advances that they deem necessary.

Adobe Flash is a great example of something that Apple and Google collectively decided to force out of the market, due to security concerns, battery life issues, and more (if not also for competitive reasons). While I don't know anyone who firmly believes Flash should still be around, it's a marquee example of how Silicon Valley businesses altered how we use technology because they decided it was in our best interest.

But where is the line between what's "good" for us, and what they say is good for us?

In my experience in Silicon Valley, I've worked with several product managers who hold very "elitist views" about how products should be made. Instead of focusing on how the user will use a product today, they tend to architect how they feel it should be used in a decade. The problem with this is that in the short term, you end up with a handicapped product, and the products of today are generally gone (or greatly evolved or rebuilt) in even a couple years from now.

It makes sense that we design for the future, but if we are building so far into the future that a product can't be fully appreciated today, it greatly hampers our ability to fully benefit from this technology.

Apple is a prominent example of this. You must fully buy in to their ecosystem - how they think you should use their products and services - in order for everything to work. If you take even one segment out of their ecosystem, you risk losing data (iCloud backup vs. other syncing services), not being able to play music on certain devices (DRM), or not being able to message certain people (iMessages).

But the reason I decided to write this post is because of how Google decided to build screen mirroring on the Pixel, their flagship Android phone.

You know how with most phones, you can simply plug a cable from a phone into a TV and you can instantly see the screen on your TV? Yeah, Google decided not to support this standardized feature. In fact, it's supported on many of their other devices in the same line, but not the Pixel phone. In order to get content on a TV screen from your Pixel phone, you must use a Chromecast device.

In a perfect world, this makes sense. Everybody should own a Chromecast, and with that setup, you can wirelessly put your content on a screen. Great.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world.

  • Not everyone has a Chromecast. (Yes, I understand they want you to buy one because they've decided this is the ultimate way to enjoy content.)
  • Not everyone has wifi to stream said content. (What about at Grandma's house when you want to show a slideshow on her TV? Trying to play a movie on an outdoor projector when you're camping?)
  • What about presenting at a client's office? Gotta pull out the ol' laptop.

In my current scenario, I live in an RV. I have a wireless router for this very reason, but sometimes RV parks have complicated network setups that don't allow me to directly connect my router. So in my case, I have multiple Chromecasts. I have unlimited data on my Pixel. I have everything Google wants me to have. I even have a third-party USB-C to HDMI cable that should be the solution for getting my content on my TV. But because Google won't support a feature that's been around in nearly every other phone built in the past decade, I'm stuck resorting to plugging in a backup iPhone and carrying a second plan for that phone.

Silicon Valley lives in a bubble. In the Bay Area, everything is connected. Unless Googlers go camping (in which case they don't intend to use technology), they are always connected. And when you have a solid internet connection, everything works perfectly. The problem is that they tend to build products for themselves, instead of the entire world outside Silicon Valley. The world outside of Silicon Valley is far from perfect.

In a decade, all of the connectivity problems of today will likely mostly be solved, and this will be a non-issue because they tried to solve it today. But we'll introduce new problems just like these in the future, and there will be growing pains as a result.

Sometimes I just wished the product managers in Silicon Valley would bring it down a notch and solve problems for real people, outside of the bubble, today, instead of dictating how we should use products just because they think it's the right way to go. In reality, they don't care about the edge cases. They care about solving the problems that they've deemed worthy. They're solving for what happens when you're at home, on your couch, on a Google phone with a Chromecast and Google Fiber in your house. The problem is, there's an entire world outside their bubble.

Redesigns: Stripe UI 👍🏼, Stripe UX 👎🏼

When companies produce redesigns, the intention is usually to make things easier to use, make features more discoverable, and often to provide a visual refresh. As we all know, people don’t like change, so usually their is some level of revolt. This revolt usually subsides over the course of weeks or months and everyone moves on. But not always...

Stripe recently released an update of their dashboard. Initially I didn’t like it, but I decided to give it some time before passing judgment. It’s now been 2 months, and I still believe this is a huge step backwards in terms of usability. Stripe has managed to add additional steps to many steps of my typical workflow. Here are a few examples:

The old dashboard had 3 charts visible at all times: Volume, Charges and Customers Created. It was great to be able to quickly glance at all 3 metrics. 

Let’s break this down:
  • Two of the three main charts have now been buried behind tabs. You now have to actually put effort into viewing the data that used to always be available.
  • The line charts are much harder to parse visually.
  • Stripe added a new row along the bottom (Transfers, Disputes, Radar). Previously, when there was a dispute, it would show an additional box at the bottom. This was great because it was a very obvious call-out that action needed to be taken. In the new design, the Disputes box is always there, even if there are no disputes. Unfortunately, I have completely missed seeing open disputes because the box always appears, and I start to ignore it. I end up not seeing the “0” number changing to something else. Put simply, the visual cue isn’t distinct enough from when that box doesn’t require any action.
  • The Radar section is new, and completely useless to me since it isn’t a feature I use. Of course, it could be an upsell, but if a business doesn’t have a need for Radar, there’s really no reason for it to display there.
In summary, it seems like this new dashboard was designed by someone with a great eye for visual design, but didn’t think through the actual use cases of people like me. (Of course, there’s always the chance I’m in the minority.) But adding additional boxes along the bottom, just to even out the UI, is “pretty”, but completely useless otherwise.

Adding a Subscription
Creating a new subscription (with a trial) used to be a one-step process. It has now turned into a multi-page process that requires me to use Google when manually creating a subscription. First, a screenshot, then I’ll explain. (Pay close attention to the Trial end feature.)

Usually subscriptions are automatically created via the Stripe API, but from time to time, I have to create or modify subscriptions manually. For my case, it usually involves a one-time charge, then creating a subscription starting months from the current date.

In the old UI, clicking in the Trial end box would display a date picker, and you could easily choose the date you wanted.

In the new UI, aside from creating a simple modal into a 4-step process, the Trial period input is now a numerical input. That means you can no longer simply select a date from a calendar. So when I want to choose a date, I now have to go to Google, type “how many days until X, 2017”, and then enter the value.

Now, I can hypothesize some use cases where a numerical entry might be handy. But I can almost guarantee the decision to change the input type was done without due research on how people were actually using the input.

I could go on with more examples of how things have become harder to use, but I’ll save them.

The challenging thing about being a designer is that you are often not the target audience of the product that you’re designing. And without having the inherent understanding of a product - because you don’t use it in a real-world scenario, yourself - you tend to design differently.

It seems as if the people behind the Stripe redesign put form over function.

Hotwire Express: The amazing support team that is no more

May 2010 in Memphis, TN: I open the door to my downtown hotel room. It smells a bit musty, the floors a bit creaky, and the noise from the street is surprisingly audible for a hotel of this rating. I reach for a complimentary water bottle to discover that the bottle's security seal had already been broken, indicating the bottle was already consumed and then refilled.

All this comes after my first impression, where I had trouble getting into the hotel in the first place because they lock their doors at night to keep the crazies of the night outside.

I felt uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. And I didn't want to stay here for the next 3 nights that I had booked. Turns out there's more to Memphis than Beale Street!

So I called Hotwire. I spoke directly to a Hotwire Express support representative in the United States. After listening to my story, she explained that Hotwire doesn't offer refunds or exchanges (which I knew), but due to my history with them, they were going to rebook me in another hotel at their expense.

Little did I know at the time that I had access to a super secret special customer support number for Hotwire, known as Hotwire Express - one that connected me directly with their premier support team, dedicated for frequent travelers who book through Hotwire. I was honored.

In fact, I wasn't the only one. In the late 2000's, Hotwire received three consecutive awards for "Highest in Customer Satisfaction for Independent Travel Web Sites".

Hotwire already had a great product. Now that I knew they had this level of service for their best customers, I was hooked. This was a safety net. In the event the worst happens, they'll be there to make things right.

If you aren't familiar with Hotwire, it's the hotel booking site that rose to fame because they offered discounts over other sites by not revealing the name of the hotel until after you book it, only allowing you to choose the star rating ahead of time. For those of us who like living on the edge, it's kind of fun.

But Hotwire isn't without its faults. One of the things that has irked me the most is the deceptive ways in which they list resort fees, the pesky fees some hotels use to anchor their price within the range of competitors, then later making up the difference with a fee paid directly to the hotel.

Hotwire doesn't list this fee until after you've clicked through to the hotel's detail page. It's a little deceptive, but you get used to it. (The practice of showing an all-inclusive price is the vastly preferred method, like how companies such as Southwest and Stubhub present their pricing.)

But in all cases where there's a resort fee, the fee is listed directly below the BOOK NOW button.

That is... all cases, until this week.

2016 in Lake Arrowhead, CA: During my stay at Lake Arrowhead Resort and Spa, I woke up to a folio slipped under my door with a $20 resort fee listed. With no recollection of this fee, I double-checked the Hotwire listing where I booked the hotel. Sure enough, no resort fee was listed.

I checked in with the front desk, as I didn't recall signing anything acknowledging the fee. As it turns out, they had eliminated the registration card, since they assume the fee is listed when booking the hotel.

So now we've got a hotel that charged a fee without authorization, but really it comes down to Hotwire's lack of transparency when booking the hotel.

After a call to Hotwire, the rep, in broken English, acknowledged there was no resort fee listed. But she simply recited the policy that when you book through Hotwire, you agree to pay any resort fees to the hotel. I asked to speak to a supervisor because of the very obvious lack of transparency about this fee. Without flat out refusing, she refused to let me talk to a manager. I believe she ended up hanging up on me. (Side note: I was very calm, cool and rational - I wasn't being a jerk.)

She proceeded to tell me that, in this particular case, the fee was a "use fee" for using amenities like the pool. "Did you use the pool during your stay?" she asked. Seriously?? (Even though this suggestion sounds crazy, I confirmed with the hotel that they do not charge a fee when amenities are used.)

Emailing Hotwire support stonewalled me just like the phone rep did.
Before you complete the reservation, we provide the terms of the Hot Rate® booking for your review. The policies includes, "You pay the hotel directly for charges like room service or resort fees." Therefore, by clicking the "book now" button, we assume that our customers are fully aware of the policies governing the reservation. We regret we re unable to honor any refund at this time.

Hotwire maintains a separate section of their website that published hotel names, and offers some of the same hotels at listed prices. When looking up the listing for the hotel in which I stayed, this is the information that's presented:

For some reason, the resort fee is listed here, unlike in the Hot Rate section. I'm fairly certain this is a weird bug. I see absolutely no reason why the resort fee would be listed in one place but not another.

This entire scenario is incredibly disappointing to me for a number of reasons:
  • How can I be expected to pay a fee I wasn't aware of? (I likely would not have booked this hotel, had I known about the resort fee.)
  • How are multiple channels of their support team unable to understand a customer's perspective here?
  • How are they not willing to let me talk to someone in charge?
  • Uhh, what happened to their premium customer support line (Hotwire Express)?

I tabulated how much money I've spent with Hotwire over the past 7 years: $16,327.06. This isn't to say that I deserve better support than others, but many companies do keep tabs on the lifetime value of their customers in an effort to keep the more profitable ones happy.

What's more frightening than the fact that this fee wasn't disclosed, is the fact that the people on their front lines have zero compassion or sympathy for their own customers.

As a business owner myself, whenever a customer experiences a problem, I always try to make it right from their perspective, even if that means sucking it up or losing money on the customer. Obviously that level of support doesn't always cascade down to lower-level employees, but for pete's sake, what has happened to Hotwire over the years?

The experience I had with them in 2010 is what has made me stick with them all these years. They did what I was just talking about. They lost money on that sale, but made the effort to make it right, and I think it's paid dividends for them.

But as it turns out, I'm finding out Hotwire has discontinued the Hotwire Express program, the program that boosted their customer loyalty by providing great customer support in the first place.

I'm not sure what's changed over the years. I'm guessing corporate repositioning, a shift in management, and an effort to become more profitable. It seems as if Hotwire has changed their focus to be more on the bottom line and less on their customers. It's sad to see, especially when they used to be known for their customer service amongst their most frequent of customers.

I'm hoping this is a one-off experience that I had, but sadly, this experience will make me think twice the next time I'm booking a hotel.

"We're all about tolerance, unless you disagree with us."

I'm deeply disappointed at the response that the Presidential election has evoked from my industry. Today, the CEO of a food delivery service, Grubhub, wrote a letter to his employees that essentially paired Trump voters with "hateful politics" and, while he didn't directly say it, inferred that if you support Trump, you should resign.

Everyone has a right to their own opinions, but in the same letter, he contradicts himself by saying, "I firmly believe that we must bring together different perspectives ... including ... cultural or ideological preferences."

The mantra of the left seems to be, "We're all about inclusiveness, unless you disagree with us." The hypocrisy of this mindset is ridiculous.

This party of "tolerance" is the same party whose supporters ruthlessly beat up Trump supporters. Before the election, anti-Trump demonstrators protested right here in Orange County by destroying police cars.

Quite honestly, I'm sick and tired of the hypocrisy of the left. Tolerance and inclusion needs to extend beyond the things that they agree withIt seems as if they lose all civility when people disagree with what they've decided is the difference between right and wrong.

Democrats have put themselves into this frenzy by misinterpreting statements by Trump and assigning new meanings to things he's said. Let's look at three Trump statements and analyze them without yelling and screaming at each other.

Misinterpreted Statement #1:

What Trump actually said:

" and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on."

What Democrats say Trump said:

"Trump wants to get rid of all Muslims!"

If you'll recall, Trump made this statement shortly after a terrorist attack by a Muslim extremist. While an ill-advised statement, I fail to see the part where Trump says he wants to ban all Muslims from America. (It's unfortunate that the only groups who want to cause mass destruction to America come from a small subset of an extremist Muslim viewpoint, and that's what Trump was referring to.)

Misinterpreted Statement #2

What Trump actually said:

"They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists." (On illegal immigrants from Mexico)

What Democrats say Trump said:

"Trump is anti-immigration, hates Mexicans and wants to break up families!"

Completely ignoring the fact that this statement holds merit (read on), Democrats have hijacked this statement to somehow encompass anyone from Mexico.

But what Trump is actually referring to is vetting people who come into America (just like the Muslim statement) to ensure their intentions for coming here are pure and simply want a better life. As an example, there's the time last year where a Mexican national, who had been deported 5 previous times, shot and killed a woman in San Francisco. That's what Trump is talking about.

I don't see how people can claim Trump is anti-immigration when his wife came from another country. I guarantee you Trump doesn't want to ban people from coming into the country. He just wants to get our house in order before we can be the savior of the world.

Misinterpreted Statement #3

What Trump said:

"Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything."

What Democrats say about Trump:

Trump is misogynistic and sexist and hates woman.

Really?? Obviously this another horrible thing for Trump to say, but to somehow draw the line between this statement and say that Trump hates woman is an absurd stretch. I'd also like to point out that I've heard plenty of similar statements by my liberal friends when in certain social circles. (This is a douchey guy thing in general, not limited to our President-Elect.) The left has construed this statement to be something completely different in order to smear him and create a false narrative so as to sway potential voters away from him.

This is closely tied to overuse of terms like "racist" and "sexist". The left has managed to hijack these words and generalize them for the purpose of smearing people. They also seem to use race and sex as the primary lens they use to interpret things. I'll give an example:

Yesterday I saw a tweet that referred to the person in the screenshot below being a "racist jokester":

I failed to see the racism in that statement, so I followed up for clarification and the poster said this:

"maybe "racially insensitive" to talk about a civil rights political prisoner on a day when a bigot was elected us president"

If I follow his train of thought, it's something like this: Nelson Mandela is a minority, so talking about his time in jail and talking about it in context of Hillary going to jail is... racist? I honestly can't even follow the mental logic. It makes zero sense!

By and large, the left sees race and sex as the basis for everything. If someone does something they don't agree with, and the victim of the statement or action is a minority, they instantly jump to the conclusion that it was racially motivated. But if we look at both of the above links (the Trump supporter being beaten or the woman being shot and killed) where both victims were white, I don't hear a single mention of race being a factor there. If the situation were reversed, race is the only thing the media would be talking about.

Paul Krugman recently said this:

"We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time. It turns out that we were wrong."

Krugman's worldview assumes the misinterpreted definitions of "racial prejudice" and "misogyny" described above.

Race and sex are used as trump cards (bad pun) when they are factually inaccurate. But by simply making the accusation, they win.

A couple more tweets I've seen:

"Most qualified woman in the world loses to the least qualified man in the world. In case If you were confused about what misogyny looks like"

"It's not about Trump or Hillary. It's about the fact somebody ran on a platform of straight up racism and the U.S. liked it."

If you've read this entire section, you'll know what I have to say. Not electing Hillary has zero to do with being a woman and has everything to do with substance of policy and character, and voting for Trump has zero to do with racism and has everything to do with fixing things seen as broken.

The left needs to stop assuming people don't agree with them because of sex and race. It's bigoted to believe that's what we're voting on.

The left has managed to create this sort of absolutism where if you don't agree with them, then you're wrong! They build their platform on "tolerance", but what they practice is far from that. They essentially believe that if you don't agree with them, then you're uneducated and dumb. (Or deplorable!) Name-calling doesn't sound much like tolerance to me. You can't have a conversation with someone who refuses to hear an opposing viewpoint.

This post was from a Facebook friend of mine yesterday:

Sounds pretty tolerant to me!

I want to make one thing clear, and I believe I speak for President-Elect Trump when I say this: We want assimilation. We are not against anyone coming here. We want America to be the greatest country in the world. People I've met who have come here through the proper channels are some of the best people I know. They've studied American history (for their citizenship test). They understand the Constitution and the principles of America that made it great - the freedom of religion and speech. They come here because they realize it's the best system in the world and they want to be part of it. They have made America their own. Those are real Americans!

People come to America because they want something better! What Trump wants to curtail is limiting the people who don't understand what makes America so great. If we ignore this problem, it will continue the slide to make America just like everybody else. There is a difference between embracing American culture while holding onto the good parts of your own culture, and coming here and trying to make it just like where you came from. (Living in Southern California, I see this often.) If you want to make America just like where you came from, what was the purpose of coming to America in the first place?

I often see behavior of people who don't go through the proper channels as the following (not just immigrants but also visitors): They trash our country, commit acts of violence, and have a sense of entitlement to be here.

When something is yours, you treat it differently. Trump isn't against people coming here. He simply wants people to come here the proper way, because when you do that, you act differently.

I'll end this with a great post from another Facebook friend of mine:

Hillary lost in part because she and her supporters called all the non-racist, non-misogynist, non-homophobic, non-bigoted everyday ordinary people racists, misogynists, homophobes, and bigots every day. Well, ordinary people got very sick and tired being called that, went and voted against Hillary. Hillary has lost. Now her supporters, instead of re-evaluating their personal conduct and strategy of convincing people to share their views, continue to scream, throw tantrums and call everyday people racist, misogynists, homophobes, and bigots for not voting for Hilary. Maybe look in a mirror and see what hate looks like.

I implore you to re-evaluate the lens in which you see the world. There are bad apples everywhere, but in general, people who voted for Trump are not racist, misogynist, homophobic or bigoted. We just want to continue making America the best place in the world, and now after eight years, we finally get to try a different strategy to go about it.

iOS design is falling apart

In recent years (really, the post-Steve Jobs era), the designers on iOS have become lax. In an effort to add new features or "improve" design, they have crippled usability and crammed buttons into places that shouldn't even be places. And without someone like Steve Jobs to send them back to the drawing board, these train wrecks now make it into production. A few examples:

"Back to App" button

When clicking a link that takes you to another app, iOS now crams a "Back to ____" link in the status bar. There are several problem with this:

  • Can't check my reception - If something isn't loading, I don't have an easy way of troubleshooting the problem.
  • Can't see if I'm on wifi or cell network - If I'm clicking on a video link, I might want to double-check to make sure I'm not going to eat through data from my cell plan.
  • Way too small of a tap area - If you read even Apple's design best practices (under Hit Targets), they'll point out that you should allow a good amount of padding for finger tapping.

And now they're a "Forward to ____" button?! Great, now I can't check my battery or diagnose why my sound isn't playing. ("Am I connected to a bluetooth device somewhere?")

Google solved this adequately within their own suite of apps, like in Chrome, by overriding the app's Back button with a button that would return you to the Google app where you came from - a very elegant solution.

Cramming in way too much, and for no good reason

Seriously? 6 apps across? And that tiny little search box? What's even the point? (I'm secretly hoping this is a bug.)

Butchering usability in Podcasts app

Try scrubbing to a specific time using your finger. Oh yeah, YOU CAN'T. The latest Apple Podcasts app makes it impossible to actually drag the time nub when it's near the edge of your screen. And if you have a case on your phone, forget it. (This is another example of Apple completely ignoring their best practices for tappable regions.)

For comparison's sake, here's a screenshot from the old Podcasts app:

It's almost like the people designing iOS these days don't even use this stuff themselves. If they actually used iOS like normal people, they'd realize that these "improvements" in design are huge steps backwards in usability.

Even more than that - with every little design inconvenience, I love iOS less and less, and while this isn't quantifiable in a focus group or user testing session, over time, I guarantee you this will begin to wear on people.