Published on 30 Nov 2020.
Reading time: 3 min.

Originally published in UX Collective.

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The Tony Hsieh challenge

Tony Hsieh, the entrepreneur behind one of the earliest internet startups, tragically died on Friday, aged 46. He died on Friday “peacefully and surrounded by family”, according to a statement from DTP Companies, an organisation he founded in 2012 to revitalise downtown Las Vegas.

Stories have been flooding in across the internet about what a kind and generous person he was to work with. Tony Hawk, the skateboarding star, wrote that:

“Tony Hsieh was a visionary. He was generous with his time and willing to share his invaluable expertise with anyone. And he was very, very cool.”

One great story I read came from Golden Krishna. (He’s the author of one of my favourite books for designers, called The Best Interface is No Interface). The whole tweetstorm is worth a read, but this last tweet inpsired me.

The challenge is this: can we make something like fire? Something that will be used 400 years from now?

What a challenge.

Good products aim to improve people’s lives. They have a clear purpose, aiming to fulfil a specific need that a person has. For example, food fulfils the need of a person to have energy. Clothes performs a primary purposes of keeping a person warm and covered. Once we move up Maslow’s hierarchy, we get to less fundamental products, that don’t aim to solve life’s big problems, but just aim to improve life. The printing press. Cars. Smartphones. Slightly faster smartphones.

The product design process becomes iterative. Already, daily life for humans in the Western world is pretty good, especially compared to 100 years ago, 500 years ago, 1000 years ago. New products just aim to improve quality of life by a tiny bit more.

And all this applies to digital products too. Digital products, like Spotify, Headspace, or Sound Off, are all aiming to improve people’s lives. They just make use of digital platforms.

But fire? Fire is something totally different. It doesn’t fit in the same category of a ‘product,’ even if we go back to the fundamental solutions to basic human needs. Fire is instead something totally transformative. The discovery of ways to yield fire for use was earth-shattering; a watershed event for humanity.

And, to be honest, our hominid ancestors that were around for 1.2 million years ago weren’t like modern human beings that we think of now. In fact, cooked meat is one possible catalyst for encephalization in ancestral hominins, meaning that it’s old enough to predate anything we consider human. Fire was literally one of the things that led to the next stage of our evolution.

In the original quote, Tony’s challenge is to make ‘something that will be used 400 years from now.’ So let’s not worry about going for something as cataclysmically groundbreaking as the discovery of fire. Let’s scale down our amibtions a bit.

400 years though? That’s still a long time for something to be around.

All digital products are reliant on the technologies of today: laptops, tablets and smartphones. It’s not controversial to think that, in at least 100 years, the way we interact with digital content will have shifted. (My bet is we’ll move into other modalities in a big way; or, if we stick with visual content, then fixed screens will get replaced with AR and holography.)

What was invented in the 1600s that’s still around today?

Well, in 1609, the first newspaper (the Relation) went out in Strasbourg. In 1620, the first submarine was invented. And in the middle of the century, modern calculus was formalised by Newton and Leibniz independently. Hopefully these give you an idea of the ambition that’s needed.

So what can you create that will cause a paradigm shift? That will be around for the next 400 years, and longer? That will improve the world, but not in some minute way, but in a truly revolutionary way?

That’s the Tony Hsieh challenge. Are you up for it?

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