Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Value of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously stated "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." It's easy for me to get caught up in the practicalities of the business of software—aligning development resources with strategic plans, executing against a road map, leveraging relevant frameworks, etc. But even perfectly executed software can fall flat and fail to matter. Perfectly executed or haphazardly hacked, the software that really makes an impact is the one that delivers magic.

I remember the first time I got exposed to chromatography data systems. The thing that impressed me most wasn't the instrument control aspects of the system, but rather the way the data from the detector snaked onto the screen and turned into peaks, and magically the system determined where the peaks started and stopped, drew their baselines, and calculated the area under the curve. Even though the method to do so was relatively straightforward, there was an essence of magic in it. It was non-obvious to me.


There is a science behind cool. There are cognitive underpinnings to what makes us react the way I did the first time I saw a chromatogram being drawn in real time. It goes beyond what is aesthetically pleasing or practically functional—it has something to do with the non-obvious nature of it. I get the same reaction when I see an unexpected conclusion emerge from a mass of information, the aha moment you so desperately seek from the promise of big data.

I see popular software and services criticized for not being novel, useful or monetizeable, and yet these services generate a lot of attention. Some of them are successful because they act on the deeply human need for interaction and personal engagement. They facilitate a conversation, perhaps with complete strangers, but with people reacting to what you have to say or share. The closer to real time, the more personal and authentic this interaction, the more it delights us. Some are successful because they facilitate or automate a workflow and let you perform tasks more efficiently than before. But the examples that fascinate me most are the ones that do the unexpected. Maybe they let you apply cool filters to your photos that transform them in a way you didn't anticipate, or they respond to your voice commands with an uncanny accuracy. Visually, through analytics, or in the way data is combined and correlated to achieve an unexpected conclusion, they deliver a magical experience that didn't occur to you a priori.

Over the years, in the many and varied systems I've worked on, there has always been at least one aspect of the system that seemed magical. I admit now that I haven't always credited those magical elements with the value they deserve. Magic can be hard to achieve, and investing in it can be hard to justify. But it can also represent a barrier of entry to your competitors and a delight for your users and customers—it is your purple cow. Another Arther C. Clarke tenet is "the only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible." As technologists, we have the opportunity to build something that ventures into the (seemingly) impossible. Whether or not you consider it a key component of your value proposition, be cognizant of the magic in the systems you build, and know it can be the one thing that makes all the difference in the world.
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