Data and Usability
Not all data is usable on its own.
The vast majority of it isn’t in its raw form. Its coal. It has potential. But on its own, it has limited uses.
Algorithms are the modern day equivalent to machinery. Fire (combustion) is really just statistical analysis – a violent process that generates waste in the form of heat and soot.
Our modern day Watt Pump is Google. Their coal is HTML. The best coal used to be the HREF link.
The algorithm that drives Google’s primary product is PageRank. It runs on a massive amount of coal. Most people aren’t aware of the complexity that goes on – and why should they. All the mine owners really cared about was removing water from a mine. They knew, at a high level, how steam worked. But they probably couldn’t explain Boyle’s Law. Same with you today. All you really care about is finding the most relevant search result.
The algorithm that drives Facebook’s primary product is GraphRank. It runs on another massive amount of coal. Of course, it’s you. You are the coal. At least, you feed it. Hundreds of millions feed it. Every visit, like, read, connection and piece of meta-data you insert into it, you’re helping Facebook organize the world along the way you want to see it. You get a useful product in exchange. You most certainly are paying for it. But you pay in the form that most don’t value.
Things got real when coal was turned into electrical current and transported across huge distances. It enabled invention. A lot of invention. Anything that plugs into a wall in your home is a product of that. Power became standardized, and ultimately turned into a utility. These products are mostly usable. The fridge, at one end, is the most usable. (The light switch still requires somebody to flick it on. Don’t even get me started on the relative complexity of the dimmer). The modern PC and microwave are at the other spectrum. (Though, I still don’t understand why the microwave continues to be such a horrible appliance).
The language of power back then was electrical engineering. To an extent, it still is a language that has power.
A new power is emerging – and it’s not just purely engineering.
Apple has caused some insight here – on the intersection of usability, engineering, and algorithms. All three factors need to work together. It’s not enough for something to do something very well. It has to be usable – and – quite possibly, to the extent of joy of use. And so, this applies not only to virtual goods, like software, but also to an emerging class of physical goods.
What are you inventing? Are you actively considering usability?