The Three Reasons You’re Failing In Product Design And In Life


In product design and life, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. All too often, we contrive complex, Rube Goldberg-like reasons for why things are or are not working. These explanations serve a purpose, albeit an empty one: they pander to our ego and self-image. Individuals who are particularly intelligent also tend to like long-winded explanations because they enjoy “using their brains” and playing with complex ideas more than they enjoy simple, razor-sharp explanations. Simplicity is boring. There are too few variables. This is one of the reasons that so many apps coming out of Silicon Valley take seemingly strange, even nonsensical, turns.*

In the world of design, a product's problems can be attributed to three root causes:

1.     The product didn’t solve a real problem in people’s lives

2.     The product was too challenging to use (too complicated)

3.     The product was forgotten (and no reminder was sent)

We can unpack all three of these explanations as much as we want, which my nerdy self likes to do endlessly. But such exercises in analysis don’t necessarily add much to the fundamental insight contained in each statement, since each of these explanations consists of simple common sense. In many ways, this is the core of good product design: common sense that’s liberally applied.

These same explanations are at the heart of most personal shortcomings in our own lives. We stop exercising because it isn’t solving a tangible problem in our lives. Sure, we may look better, but if we’re not dating or dealing with a concrete, immediate health problem, it’s not immediately useful to us.

We might stop eating a Paleo diet because it’s hard to find the right food at nearby restaurants and cooking just takes too much time. In other words, it’s too challenging.

We might stop reading before bed because, in the tired blur of the evening, we forget to pick up the novel that's been in progress finish for months. We aren’t reminded.

While it’s tempting to launch into complex explanations for these personal shortcomings (“I wasn’t raised this way…”, “If only my parents…”, “I guess I just don’t value fitness…”, “I’m just not talented enough…”, etc.) we should first ask ourselves if there’s a simple reason why these things weren’t done. Could it be that these “shortcomings” are actually not shortcomings at all? It’s quite possible (and usually the case) that you didn’t read or go running because these tasks are actually not very important to you. It doesn’t solve a problem in your life. It also might be the case that you forgot to do it—we have busy lives, after all—or that what you’re asking yourself to do is too challenging for your skill level.

Whatever you do, don’t get lost in your mind and come up with convoluted explanations based on slivers of evidence excavated from your memory. We all have failures in our lives, but the causes of those failures are usually a bit simpler—and a bit less nefarious—than we think. Complex explanations make for good stories, but rarely make for good remedies.

*Don’t even get my started on the literature coming out of our universities.

Image: Steve Jurvetson / Flickr 

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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