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Personal essays

Nothing Left - Essay from Newsletter 129

It’s all be done

Seeing a problem

I’m fascinated by behavioral economics.

In a way it feels more like a science to me than economics itself. Experiments can help us understand what factors lead us to making the decisions we make.

Real economics? For me anyway, not so much.

I took the guns-and-butter, supply-and-demand course in college and my eyes glazed over for a semester and my grade reflected it.

Let’s just say that that course and one other put me on the Dean’s list.

No, not that Dean’s list - the other one where they wonder if you really belong in college.

One of the only things I remember from the class is the professor telling the story of biking to work in the rain and the bottom of his pants getting wet.

His coat kept the rest of him dry but the bottom of his pants legs were always soaked.

So he thought of creating some sort of protector you would step into with an elastic band at the bottom, it would cover the pants up to just below the knee and he would tie them off. Today we’d use velcro.

He researched it and found dozens of patents for the same idea and decided not to pursue it.

Now what

The professors lesson to us was that any good idea we might have - no matter how niche and specific to our needs - many other people have had the same idea.

The lesson he took away was that that meant he shouldn’t pursue his idea.

Sometimes that’s the right decision but I think that’s probably the moment I stopped listening to him. (Note to self - that probably wasn’t a good idea until the grades were in.)

He wouldn’t have perceived the need for this product if he’d seen it available elsewhere. Even if he’d seen it, the existing ones might not have met his need.

Again, maybe for him the effort wasn’t worth it - but just because something exists doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for something better or different.

I don’t mean you rip off an idea and add nothing to it. We see plenty of that.

Most of Apple’s products weren’t the first in a category.

There were other music players before they introduced the iPod. The iPod was more expensive than other existing players but it fit in to the Apple ecosystem and the original design was simple and satisfying. The device mainly disappeared as we used it to access our music on the go.

Almost every category that Apple has entered, computers, laptops, watches, tablets, … they weren’t the first. A cynic would say they saw a market they could capture. A fan would say they had something unique to offer.

I don’t know that it’s still the case, but at one time Android phones accounted for the great majority of sales while Apple phones accounted for the great majority of profit.

Everyday things

We’re not going to build the next phone, vr glasses, or electric car. But there are things that come up in our every day lives that we can design a fix for.

App developers make fun of other developers who build another ToDo app or Weather app and yet Malin just gave a talk about a new weather app that will be released when iOS 16 ships. It looks great and she used brand new features from Apple to pack a lot of information into a simple looking view.

Do we need another weather app? I don’t know. With Dark Sky coming to the end of its life, I’ve been looking for another one and I’ve paid for several only to later discard them. I’ll give Mercury a try.

I can’t tell you how many ToDo apps I’ve bought and none are quite right for me. Many are good enough and that may be enough to prevent me from writing my own but I’ve had an idea for one for more than a decade. Perhaps after I rewrite my music app (which no one wants - and besides you can just use Apple’s built-in music app), perhaps then I’ll work on my ToDo app.

I love that people see things that don’t meet their needs and they suggest improvements.

When I travel and use a shower, the linen shower curtain will often get wet and start to move towards me inside the shower. I don’t know the physics - if it’s the warm shower and the cold room but I hate when the linen shower curtain invades the space so much that I can’t turn around or move in the shower without touching it. It grosses me out.

A while ago I noticed that in some hotels, the rod that holds the shower curtain has a bend in it so the middle bends out. I love this. So simple. It means that the shower and tub are the same size but somehow it feels as if I have more room as the shower curtain is being held away from me.

Recently I saw another genius improvement. Some hotels have a single glass divider in the shower in place of a curtain. The glass keeps the water from spraying into the room and onto the floor. In order to do that the glass is fixed (if it isn’t on sliders) at the end of the shower with the shower head so you have to enter the shower from the other end.

This means you have to enter the shower before its on and at the temperature you want.

At the hotel in Vermont I stayed at, they had a great fix for it. Even with the taps there was a hole in the glass. The hole didn’t allow water to naturally escape onto the floor but it did allow me to reach the taps and turn the water on and adjust the temperature. Then I could enter the shower with the water at the perfect temperature and strength.

I love seeing things like this. It reminds us that even for problems we think have well-established solutions there is always room for a different approach.

My dough app, my music app, and my ToDo app all scratch my own itches. There are plenty of existing apps that address the same issues but there’s room for one more.

Is it a good use of my time? Will I make money off of it? Who knows. Fortunately, I love problem solving.

A behavioral economist would nod because that aspect of my personality explains the decisions I make.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 129. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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