Embracing Randomness in Your Product — Or Your Life

Kathy Sierra recently hit on one of the themes of this blog which is "randomness". She notes that adding randomness to your product or service can be a wonderful idea. Products should be neither fully predictable nor chaotic: just look at the iPod shuffle.

When the iPod Shuffle first came out, the ads were based on the theme, "Life is random." I thought it was one of the lamest marketing spins ever. I imagined the meetings, "Let’s spin the lack of display as a feature. Yeah, that’s it. We’ll sell the inability to choose your music as a benefit!"

But I was so so so wrong. Within a few weeks’ of the Shuffle’s release, the serendipity effect had kicked in. "OMG! That was the perfect song for this!"  "Seriously. It can’t be random. It’s putting songs together that just… work" The Shuffle was getting people out of their playlist ruts. Out of the music comfort zones we all fall into. Exposing them to songs they’d loaded onto their pre-Shuffle iPod but that never seemed to be one of The Chosen Ones. Think about it. Think about all the music on your (non-Shuffle) iPod, computer, or vintage CD rack. Now think about the subset you actually listen to regularly. For most of us, it’s a pathetically small set. By literally forcing people to listen to randomly-chosen songs, the Shuffle was constantly delighting, surprising, rewarding, stretching users. And users loved it.

Randomness is the story of my life. Nearly every good thing that’s happened to me is because of a random event or conversation. I think our default mode is to shut off randomness by being overly focused on some goal or plan. Specific plans and goals are useful until they blind your peripheral vision — and it’s in life’s periphery where some of the most interesting opportunities are. I’m absolutely committed to trying new things, talking to random people, and being open to changing my life path at any moment.

Randomness, for example, is a big reason why I decided to enroll in a four year traditional college: it maximizes the possibility of a lot of random shit happening in my life. My "Real Life University" conception – four years of self-directed education – was limited by the boundaries of my imagination.

So if you were to ask me what my 10 year life plan is, I’d tell you I have no such plan, and that I like wandering. After all, it’s easy in hindsight to connect the dots in your life logically. It’s stupid, in most cases, to try to draw out the dots as you’re living.

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