Tagcorporate culture

Learn from the Fail Whale: failing doesn’t need to hurt

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If there’s one thing all Twitter users have in common, it’s that they’ve experienced down time. Twitter is famous for it’s long and regular down times, and since the service is growing so fast, it will continue to be unavailable fairly frequently for quite a while. Usually, with the fickle web audience, this would mean the end of the service. Not so for Twitter. Twitter users aren’t a more forgiving bunch than others – it’s a lot of early adopters on the service which usually wouldn’t mind shooting down a service that doesn’t do what it promises. So why does Twitter get away with it?

Twitter's Fail Whale

It’s the Fail Whale, the image that is displayed whenever Twitter is “over capacity”. Every Twitter user is familiar with the Fail Whale.

Of course, it’s not the Fail Whale itself. But the whale is a symbol here, it stands for Twitter’s open, relaxed, ironic and fun way of handling their problems. “Look, we sometimes screw up, but we’ll try to make it fun for you,” they seem to think.

And it works! Not only do Twitter users forgive their favorite micro blogging service all their problems. The Fail Whale has grown its own fan base, and it has even been seen in the wild. Check out the myriad of Fail Whale variations and references on Flickr, a few of which I picked below. (Could you imagine a huge fan base for your average “404 – file not found” page? I think not.)

Image by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid of laughingsquid.com. Image licensed under CC. LED Whale Love” by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid. Licensed under Creative Commons (by-nc-sa). More on the LED Fail Whale here.

another fail whale by Flickr user emdot another fail whale” by emdot. Licensed under Creative Commons (by-nc-sa).

Fail Whale @ the library by flickr user Timothy Greig Fail Whale @ the library” by Timothy Greig. Licensed under Creative Commons (by-nc-sa).

Lesson learned? Your service/company/organization doesn’t have to be perfect in the web 2.0 sphere. That doesn’t mean that it’s ok to launch with a crappy, buggy beta and think your users will fix everything. But it means that if you’re conscious about your problems and communicate them openly and in a relaxed, fun way, chances are your users will stick with you. Don’t pretend to be perfect – nobody is – but talk to your users. The more open, the better.

How to create the best workplace? Ask 37signals

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37signals and their smart & usable (translation: awesome) web solutions like the project management pack Basecamp have always been inspiring. That alone, said about office and productivity software, is an amazing accomplishment. But what’s more, the girls and guys at 37signals also try to figure out the best work experience for all involved, and share the process in their blog.

Among other things, they gave their employees credit cards to buy whatever they need, the default assumption being that this works on a trust basis. By itself, that’s not spectacular, but it sure is a nice feat. Also, they help their staff learning stuff they fancy, for example by paying flying lessons and the like. (Deal: You share what you learn, so everybody profits.) This is quite amazing.

But what really blew my mind is what they did to the traditional 5-day week: It’s gone. As simple as that. I remember talking about the idea of a four-day work week, or a general limit of six hours of work per day in a five-day week, with friends and colleagues. Some of us agreed that you could get the same productivity within a shorter timespan, others said no way. But according to 37signals, their experiences prove that the four-day work week does indeed work without productivity loss:

Last summer we experimented with 4-day work weeks. People should enjoy the weather in the summer. We found that just about the same amount of work gets done in four days vs. five days. (…) So recently we’ve instituted a four-day work week as standard. We take Fridays off. We’re around for emergencies, and we still do customer service/support on Fridays, but other than that work is not required on Fridays. Three-day weekends mean people come back extra refreshed on Monday. Three-day weekends mean people come back happier on Monday. Three-day weekends mean people actually work harder and more efficiently during the four-day work week.

When we were talking about that idea, I never expected to see it implemented anyplace real anytime soon. But there you go – this is great news. Hopefully other companies will take 37signal’s lead and start experimenting with their workplace culture, too.