Welcome to my 2018 annual review. This review is an opportunity to talk about what I made, what I learned and where I failed. It provides a way for me reflect on the year.
Each review is a benchmark of the year-to-year progress I’ve made professionally. This review is special, because I’ve now been publishing these annual reviews for five years. If you’re interested, you can take a look at my 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017 reviews. It may give you some context for this one.
It is amazing to look back on that time frame.
In 2014 I desperately wanted to leave the agency world and begin working on software products. That happened in 2015 when I decided to start SidePrize, a fantasy sports company. In 2016 I left SidePrize to contract for a friend building a Net Promoter Score tool. Trustfuel then pivoted to become a customer success CRM. I got to design our Salesforce Sync full-time. It didn’t work out though. In early 2017 I had to leave Trustfuel. Fortunately, I discovered SalesLoft.
So, what happened in 2018?
I almost killed one of my side projects, but then decided to take a different approach. I think it’s working. Problems we are solving at work became more complex. Then I stopped sending out a newsletter, because I got bored with it. I took a ton of awesome pictures. What else? I still find my self explaining what a product designer does.
That’s the gist of it.
Table of contents
As usual I’ve broken this review up into a few different sections. Feel free to go through the entire thing or skip around to what interests you.
The best part of writing these reviews is talking about the projects I’ve worked on throughout the year. Three of last year’s projects made the list this year. It’s incredibly interesting to see how they evolve.
Anyways, here are some of the things I worked on this year:
I’ve come full-circle. In early 2017 I started Product Dork as a bookmarking blog of sorts. It was something kind of like Svpply or Canopy. When I found a cool product—like this IKEA speaker—I’d post it.
But the site was mostly a collection of pictures and I didn’t have any real way to gain traction. So I started publishing reviews as well. My hope was my detailed, long-form reviews would bring search traffic—that was the plan for 2018.
The long-form approach didn’t work for me. It made writing about cool products a chore. I’d start writing various reviews and never finish them. Dozens of reviews were sitting in my drafts folder.
Then in August I realized I was still paying the hosting bill and had made no progress with this project. Most of the reviews required photos, layout work—I just didn’t have the time to finish them. I was close to canceling my hosting and giving up on the project.
In mid-September I decided to try something different. I converted most of my posts into forum topics and then invited the few people who had commented on the blog. Forums have less formality to them. I figured that it would be easier to post couple paragraphs than a long-form review.
I’d say the transition has been a success. It is less formal and I don’t feel ashamed to share a paragraph or two as opposed to a full-fledged review. It certainly has made me more inclined to post. At this point the site has had healthy growth in search traffic. While, it’s still mostly me and friends that I’ve prodded to post things, internet strangers have started to join discussions.
In its current incarnation Product Dork is split into a few different categories.
- Reviews – Notes and reviews on purchases I’ve made
- Recommendations – Where to ask for product recommendations
- Deals – Links to discounted products
- Questions – Questions that can be answered
- Finds – Back to the bookmarking idea—cool things I’ve found
- General – Well, everything else
If you’re a gadget nerd or just someone who does a ton of research before making a purchase, I’d encourage you to sign up and join the discussion.
Last year I wrote a bit about this flight deals thing I built. It’s a system that notifies me whenever there’s a discount on flights out of Atlanta. Some are pricing mistakes, while others are legitimate deals.
This year I haven’t done much with it. Although, it did get me a trip to Chicago for a little less than $100 this summer.
I explored taking the flights and putting them into some sort of WordPress site. I know WordPress well and that way others could see the same deals. Unfortunately, I decided against that idea. It would be a ton of work and the site isn’t particularly useful without notifications.
Then around Thanksgiving I realized that Discourse might be a better starting point for the project. While building Product Dork, I learned how powerful and flexible the software was. So I spent a few weekends in December working on it—that is partly to blame for this delayed yearly review. That’s the story anyways.
And it worked! So far this year there are already a ton of awesome flight deals:
- $371 Atlanta to London roundtrip (Usually $600)
- $573 Atlanta to Tokyo roundtrip (Usually $1,300)
- $460 Atlanta to Budapest roundtrip (Usually $1,000)
- $452 Atlanta to Prague roundtrip (Usually $900)
- $292 Atlanta to Seattle roundtrip (Usually $400)
- $368 Atlanta to Shanghai roundtrip ($Usually 900)
- $450 Atlanta to Barcelona or Madrid roundtrip (Usually $1,600)
I was hoping to have it live by the time I published this review. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite ready. There are a few minor things I need to work out before making it live.
However, there is good news!
If you want an invite, you can fill out this form and provide your email. I’ll send you an invitation when the product launches.
I am planning to make the product invite-only for now. The services that I need to run it could cost me a decent amount of money, if too many people join at once. Perhaps I could make it one of those things where only existing members can invite people.
This year I updated my personal site again. This is the fourth time I’ve made a big update since 2011. Instead of building the site from scratch like I did for the last iteration I started with a child theme and changed what I wanted—it saved an enormous amount of time.
I am watching the WordPress ecosystem pretty closely. WordPress 5.0 and the Gutenberg layout engine are significant changes. I am skeptical of the updates in the near term, but think they will be fantastic a year or two from now.
In either case I’m probably going to hold off of doing any major updates for a while.
Recently, I started publishing old interviews from DN FM and Signal Tower on this site. My most recent ones are now published, but there are still about 30 or 40 more to add. It’s something that’s been on my backlog for a while.
Will I start publishing interviews again in 2019? I don’t know. I do have an itch to start again.
The problem is that each interview takes an immense amount of time—not just the interview, but research, outreach and post-production. I’ll need to figure out a way to make the process more efficient. How can I spend more time on the enjoyable parts of it and less on the tedious and boring?
If I do start doing interviews again, there won’t be a regular cadence. Running the content treadmill completely takes the fun out of publishing.
Ice Cube Celebrates the Eames Poster
There’s this rare poster I’ve been eyeing for a couple of years. It was designed to promote an exhibit about art in Los Angeles from 1945 to 1980. Only about 200 of them were produced.
Front and center is Ice Cube. He’s smoking a pipe with his legs crossed. He’s sitting in an Eames DAT Desk Chair on top of a coffee table. It’s a recreation of the famousCharles Eames advertisement featuring Ice Cube. “Ice Cube Celebrates the Eames” is written under the photo in all caps.
The poster is incredibly rare and whenever one does pop up on Ebay it sells for $400 or $500 bucks. It’s a cool, but not $500 cool.
So one day I decided to recreate the poster.
I found a high enough quality photo to use in a large print. It took couple hours tweaking fonts and colors to get right. Then about $80 on printing and frames. It would have been cheaper, but I forgot to to leave a gutter the first time—that’s what happen when product designers try and go to print!
Anyways, I’m incredibly pleased with the result for the time and money.
Keeping Tabs, was a newsletter I sent out once or twice a month that included commentary on articles I’ve read. I thought it was a clever name considering that most of what I published were both interesting stories and links I’ve saved.
After a few months of the newsletter I decided there were other projects worth considering and kind of gave up. I’ll still send newsletters whenever I publish something new, but I’m done with the commentary and the regular publishing schedule.
After years as a product designer, I still have a difficult time explaining to others what I do. Friends will ask and I’ll tell them that I’m a product designer. I design software for sales teams. Often that still doesn’t answer their question.
“But what do you actually do?”
To be honest, I still don’t know how to describe what product designers do. At a certain point I usually just say that I draw rectangles on the computer.
Maybe this year I’ll write a post—What is a Product Designer? That way when I get into these discussions, I can send them a link explaining it.
Speaking of sales software—it has been almost two years since I joined SalesLoft. I’m fortunate to work with so many talented people on such an interesting product.
I spent a good part of the year working on three product delivery teams: workflow, CRM and enterprise features. I’m particularly happy with our work on global search and improvements to our data tables. Both features will improve the experience for our customers.
Thinking forward there are a few places where I can be impactful. Perhaps the most important is standardizing our UI components. SalesLoft is a big application and we have a lot of designers working on the product. Ensuring that we have a standardized library of components will allows us to work faster and with more consistency.
I took only one project this past year. The project was a decent size and involved concept work for a travel management startup. It was an interesting project, but was glad to be through with it.
Taking on freelance work interferes with my workouts, socializing and personal projects. It’s hard to say for certain, but I think I’m done doing freelance work for now. I don’t intend to take on any freelance work in 2019.
Including this review I’ve wrote five posts for this blog in 2018. That’s less than I usually write, but it doesn’t include my notes and reviews on Product Dork.
Here’s what I wrote about in 2018:
A Brief History of Clip Art
The post is presented as a timeline showing the history of clip art. It is an adaptation of a presentation I gave at SalesLoft in July. The talk was well-received so I thought it could make an entertaining post.
Several commenters were upset that I did not include CorelDraw, Printshop and Freehand in my analysis. Perhaps, at some point in the future I will consider adding them.
More than anything it was an excuse to turn a bunch of obscure artwork into a collage. As you might expect, it was a blast!
A Guide to Setting up Discourse on DigitalOcean
There’s honestly a ton of things it can do. It contains built-in support for a email notifications and newsletters. It has a robust invite system. I want to experiment with it. Would this work for a job board or mailing list? I think so.
Anyways, I spent a weekend building and destroying Discourse instances on DigitalOcean trying to get everything set up. I did it enough, where I thought a guide would be worthwhile—both for others and in case I wanted to do it again and forgot.
It requires a little technical knowledge, but anybody who knows basic Unix commands should be fine. Hopefully, others will find it useful.
Oh, DigitalOcean also sent me a T-shirt because of this article. That was cool!
Team Badge Design: License to Trill
Just some notes on a badge I designed for one of the product delivery teams I’m on. There are some color combinations that I really like—even if they weren’t right for this project.
I thought this might be a one-off thing, but it seems like every team in the company wants a badge now. I’d love to do more of these. It’s a nice change of pace from product design. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.
Course Notes: A Skeptic’s Guide to American History
I’ve enjoyed The Great Courses immensely—specifically their history courses. Last year I wrote a good bit about The Fall and Rise of China in my review.
My notes from A Skeptic’s Guide to American History are just that—class notes. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to take notes on a course and publish them. Unfortunately, the notes are incomplete, because I haven’t finished all the lessons.
I used to listen to this and take notes while taking the train to work. This year I moved and am now walking distance to the office—which is great. Unfortunately, I can’t take notes while I’m walking—I don’t want to get hit by a car.
I’ve still published notes from six lessons. If you’re curious about the course, I would suggest reading my notes on lesson five, Jefferson and Hamilton. That section covers a particularly fascinating piece of American history.
Anyways, I do plan to continue adding to those notes as I listen to more lectures.
Books and Courses
Every year I post a handful of books I’d recommend to others. In the past this has been the section that’s received the most comments.
These aren’t all the books and courses I went through this year, but they are the ones worth mentioning.
I’ve intentionally placed this book at the top of this list. The order of everything else is mostly interchangeable, but Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now is the book I would encourage everyone to read.
In particular I would encourage those who are generally pessimistic about the future—overpopulation, the environment, suicide rates or authoritarian populism–to read this book. In the mean time I do have a few notes about the above issues.
The primary source of pressure on our environment, human population growth, peaked in 1962 and is in steep decline. It is likely that as countries modernize, this problem will have solved itself by the end of the century.
The environment is likely doing better than most believe. Yale’s Environmental Performance Index shows baseline improvements for almost every country. The outlier across the board is, of course, carbon emissions, which continue to rise.
Global suicide rates have fallen 34 percent since 1994. The outlier in this trend is the United States, which has mostly been flat at about 12 of 100,000 people per year. It’s likely that drug overdoses play a major role in this number.
Despite a recent boost in interest, authoritarian populism has plateaued. A consistent majority of Americans disapprove of Donald Trump. In the 2018 elections European Nationalist won a median of only 13 percent of voters.
Furthermore, the demographics which authoritarian populism appeal to—less educated, older, rural ethnic majorities—are in sharp decline.
The truth is a few hundred years of trade and property rights has left the world safer, healthier and wealthier. There has never been a better time to be a human being. The slow creep of progress inches forwards, unnoticed, while disasters make the news daily.
If you read one book on this list let it be Enlightenment Now. I promise that you will not regret it.
So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work
Both would have been excellent books for me 10 years ago, but I mostly found myself nodding along. It was an affirmation of things I mostly know.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You Newport encourages readers not to chase their passions, but instead to hone skills that are valuable. If you have rare and valuable skills, you can easily find work that you are passionate about.
I do like Newport’s concept of career capital, which is made up of skills, relationships and your portfolio of work. The more career capital you’re able to accumulate, the better your options are.
While So Good They Can’t Ignore you lays out a general strategy for your career, Deep Work provides some tactical solutions to developing those skills. The main ones are removing distractions such as social media, practicing a routine that allows concentration and taking a break when you’re no longer being productive.
I would recommend these books any high school or college student (or those with children of that age). It’s an excellent book for those who are ambitious, but lack discipline or direction. Both were interesting to read, but less useful at this point in my career.
The Rational Optimist
I decided to pick up Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist after seeing it appear repeatedly in Hacker News threads. This book is about 8 years younger than Enlightenment Now, but bolsters the same idea that the world won’t end tomorrow. In fact tomorrow will be better than today.
There is so much nonsense in the media about why things are terrible today and that tomorrow the world will end. This book provides a nice counterpoint. Ridley argues that things have never been better and that the common doomsday scenarios are overblown.
The truth is things are objectively better today for most people than at any point in human history. Since 1800, real income has grown almost ten-fold. Today’s poor are better off than almost everyone on the planet 50 years ago.
Ridley address two pessimisms about the future that plague many: Overpopulation and climate change. He agrees these are acute challenges, but that there is a high probability that these problems will be solved this century. I was so surprised by this chapter (Chapter 10)—I went back through it three times.
I would recommend The Rational Optimist to everyone. However, I would strongly recommend it to anyone who has anxiety about the state of the world—be it environment, politics or capitalism. If it sounds interesting, I’d suggest reading my full review of The Rational Optimist.
Seeing Like a State
Seeing Like a State has a single focus—how well-intentioned schemes to improve the human condition have failed. Specifically, it tries to answer how the pursuit of legibility and high-modernist ideals have led to disaster.
The pre-modern state was mostly blind. It knew little about its citizens, their wealth, landholdings and productivity. The ability to understand—or see—these things provides the groundwork for it to be manipulated.
This ability to see the capacity for large-scale social engineering. High-modernism leads to over-confidence about the mastery of nature (and human nature) and a desire to manipulate it. Authoritarian states provide the determination and means to act on that desire. An incapable civil society provides a level ground on which the state can build.
On their own the results are poor, but relatively harmless. There’s an interesting focus on failures of planned cities by Le Corbusier and his students. However, when these are combined, the results have historically been catastrophic.
While Scott’s views on high-modernism seem very one-sided, he does do a good job balancing the benefits of a legibility. Namely, efficient taxation, production and disease tracking.
Seeing Like a State was one of my favorite books this year, but I don’t think most people will find it as interesting as I do. However, I think the book presents ideas critical to understanding how government shapes society and the unintended consequences of those actions. If you have an interest in political science, economic systems or high-modernism, this might be for you.
There’s a lot to unpack here. If this excerpt piqued your interest, I’d encourage you to read the Slate Star Codex review.
I haven’t quite read anything like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. The book has an incredible ambition—it attempts to provide the history of humans.
The book is filled with interesting ideas and the author does an excellent job explaining them. I find the the author’s idea that Homo Sapiens rely on shared fictions—gods, nations, money, corporations—rather interesting. On their own these, they have no meaning. It is our shared perception of them that provide meaning helps us progress.
So, does the author accomplish his goal? Perhaps. The book lacks evidence, but contains a ton of interesting ideas about how modern humans came to be. It’s worth a read.
12 Rules for Life
12 Rules for Life is Jordan Peterson’s self-help book. I picked up this book after hearing Peterson on Joe Rogan’s podcast. His advice is sensible—stand up straight. Have confidence in your abilities and in your potential. Make friends with people who want the best for you. Take responsibility for yourself.
In particular I think his emphasis on personal responsibility is important. Your situation may not be your fault, but blaming others does no good. Only you are responsible for improving your situation.
Throughout the book he uses religious analogies. I found it a bit much. There’s also a point where he talks about how male lobsters determine their social order by fighting each other. There is a correlation between serotonin and this order. It gets his point across, but the comparison comes off as a bit silly.
After reading this book and listening to him on a few podcasts, I cannot understand the hate and vitriol Peterson draws. He’s not some evil cult leader. The guy is obviously conservative, but that doesn’t discount his ideas.
All-in-all it’s a solid book with fundamentally good advice. I think it’s the target audience is probably confused 16-year-olds. However, I think the part about accepting responsibility makes this book a worthwhile read for anyone.
A Skeptic’s Guide to American History (incomplete)
I am a little embarrassed that this course is incomplete, but I’m still putting A Skeptic’s Guide to American History in this review. It’s been that good.
People think politics are crazy in U.S. right now, but consider the following. In the early 1800s when Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States, kills Alexander Hamilton, leader of the opposing political party, in a duel.
Burr is indicted for murder in New Jersey and New York. Burr, along with revolutionary war general, James Wilkinson, flees and attempts to carve out a new empire in the American Southwest.
Professor Mark Stoler paints a realistic picture of the messy history of the United States. I found he does an excellent job of keeping the context of the time period front and center.
I recommend this course for anyone who wants a better understanding of U.S. history. If you’re interested, see my notes on the first few chapters.
Plans for 2019
There are a handful of things I want to do in 2019.
The easy one is to continue working on my current projects. I think both Product Dork and my flight deal projects have the opportunity for some real traction this year. Also, I want to keep experimenting with Discourse. I think there’s a ton of interesting things that it can do—it’s just a matter of trying to make it work.
I’d like to start doing interviews again. In the last year I’ve had a few people ask me when I was going to get back to it. It’s not a promise, but it is something I have been considering. I don’t know if I’d stick with the long-form style of Signal Tower or do a podcast like DN FM. Before I touch any of that I need to finish transitioning my old Signal Tower interviews to this site.
I’d like to start writing about product design this year. Other than writing about designing some of Trustfuel’s features I really haven’t written a ton about the subject.
While there’s a fair amount of information out there for people already in the field, there’s not a lot of material out there for novices that are interested in the field. If I were going to teach someone who doesn’t work in software about product design, how would I go about doing it?
Telling people I draw squares on the computer just isn’t doing it.
This review is just over 4,000 words. If you made it through the entire thing, I commend you. I’d also love to hear what you find interesting. Is it keeping up with my projects or my brief book reviews? Leave me a comment. I’d like to know what keeps you reading.