Alexander Singh

Co-founder of Domino. Subway philosophizer.

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Play, Practical Learning & Uncharted Paths

One of the Internet’s greatest gifts is its limitless storehouse of knowledge. We can learn about everything and we can learn to do anything in exchange for a mostly invisible price.

In having the world’s mysteries revealed to us piece by piece, we are unwittingly forced to adopt the ideas, processes, and patterns of our teachers. That’s fine if you’re fixing your sink, but not ideal when exploring esoteric, intellectual, creative or conceptual topics: philosophy, cooking, coding, painting, etc.

Seek to learn from others, but create time and space to play with the knowledge you receive in pursuit of the uncharted paths.

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Experiments in execution

We often confuse ourselves in the space between the idea and its execution.

1. The execution is the sum of your activities to give your idea form. You may need to experiment with many different forms until you find one that sticks.

2. Most of our confusion in execution is borne from a lack of clarity, itself due to a lack of clear insights that we usually uncover through research. In digital product design, that involves the whole “speaking to our end users” thing. In painting, it might involve several studies, or explorations of technique, hue, and color combinations, etc.

3. Another common mistake is to believe your idea can maintain its “purity” after you’ve given it form. This leads to a fallacy wherein you believe the first, ephemeral iteration of your idea is the best one.

4. Whether its form is a digital product, or a wooden chair, a home, or a canvas painting, the act of

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Products: Liquid States

  1. Some digital products are best designed with a liquid form, allowing them to flow around the nuances of each individual user - their knowledge, taste, culture, language, motivations & goals.

  2. Alternatively, maybe only individual features of a digital product are best designed with a liquid form.

  3. How can we design products that can be manipulated like water, by the user? That have the flexibility and materiality of water? From rain, to river, to hurricane to lake to pond to droplet.

  4. I suppose the hypothesis-driven design culture of never ending experimentation that hails from California is the most relevant framework we have right now.

  5. Is this even a good metaphor?

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Products: Observe the “Desire Path”

From Wikipedia:

Desire paths can be a path created as a consequence of erosion caused by human or animal foot-fall or traffic. The path usually represents the shortest or most easily navigated route between an origin and destination.

Further:

A representative example is Twitter, which has “paved” a number of desire paths by integrating them into the service, including @ mentions, hashtags, and group discussions, although not always precisely mimicking the behaviors of users

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Zuihitsu

http://www.are.na is one of my favorite digital products in a very, very long time, and it has quickly become the central repository for creating, collecting and organizing my research.

Today I found a reference to the Japanese literary concept of “Zuihitsu” or “follow the brush”. Per Wikipedia, it is a genre of Japanese literature consisting of loosely connected personal essays and fragmented ideas that typically respond to the author’s surroundings which perfectly sums up my approach to this blog: casual, personal, inquisitive.

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Products: Temporal vs. Stored Value

This is a small piece of a larger puzzle on product design practices. It is mostly unformed, and will be updated accordingly.

Products can be designed to leverage either temporal value, stored value, or a mix of both.

Facebook: A content feed is an example of temporal value. The content in it has value upon being posted, and that value drops over time by virtue of its datedness and its increasing inaccessibility (hidden under the growing pile of newer content).

Google: A search engine is an example of stored value. Every site that’s added to the search index increases the search engine’s total value.

Airbnb: A marketplace is an example that must leverage both. The more listings it has, the greater the value of the marketplace, but only if the supply of those listings accurately matches demand.

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Products: Expressive vs. Prescriptive Design

This is a small piece of a larger puzzle on product design practices. It is mostly unformed, and will be updated accordingly.

  1. Design that encourages expression in the end user. To give them the tools to form their own solution. Examples include Zapier and Minecraft.

  2. Design that discourages individual expression. Prescribing a singular flow to achieve the solution. Examples include Square Cash and Doom.

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On Clarity

I wish I came across more essays that were as simple, succinct and to the point as Bryn Jackson’s on clarity.

Clarity may be like a Rubik’s cube that you’re trying to complete as the colors on each square are slowly shifting. The game never ends.

I have experienced burnout in the same manner that Bryn describes: relentless, aimless action without clarity of purpose, so this topic is of personal interest to me. I worked for over two years without it while building Domino and I craved it every day. A lack of clarity leads to a lack of certainty and then to helplessness and a sense of despair. Unfortunately, I misdiagnosed the source of my struggle and so I could never find the clarity that I craved.

This is an initial attempt - and a work in progress - to distill his ideas, and mine, into a concise approach to finding and leveraging clarity in daily living:


1. Clarity gives context

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The Inverted Lens

A simple device. Whenever you are:

  1. Solving a problem.
  2. Asking a question.
  3. Answering a question
  4. Brainstorming
  5. Communicating
  6. Doing almost anything.

Take time to invert your point of view to see the object of your attention from an opposing angle.

Some objects have a single opposing angle, like looking at an email from the customer’s point of view instead of your own. Others will have many, like mapping out a product feature or determining where your product strategy is failing.

Edit

  1. March 14th 2017 - A further discussion/exploration of inversion thanks to Albert Wenger - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8qo7pzH_NM

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Either / And / Or

I frequently sketch out mind maps to explore product ideas.

Last week I mapped out three simple options for how a product could interact with three different groups. They were all mutually exclusive options until I realized they didn’t have to be.

Why do we so often look at the world through Either / Or statements?

There are enough constraints for us to guide us in our pursuits: Time. Money. Knowledge. Network. Conviction. Motivation. Confidence. Etc.

Why do we constrain ourselves prematurely? Why not start with Either / And and apply the above constraints incrementally, step-by-step, or in different combinations, permutations and intensities to arrive at a clear decision?

To quote Burroughs -

The whole concept of EITHER/OR. Right or wrong, physical or mental, true or false, the whole concept of OR will be deleted from the language and replaced by juxtaposition, by AND. This is

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