There are only two types of trick
Tricks for magicians, and magic for everyone else. And there are only two types of innovative technologies. Those for technologists and those for everyone else.
The best magicians master methods, know their audience and are guided by effect. The same is true for the best technologists, start-ups and innovators.
Know your audience
Tricks for magicians focus on method. Tricks for audiences obsess over effect; how an audience experiences the illusion and how well the trick meets or exceeds their need to be entertained and mystified.
Magician to magician tricks
The audience are other experts in a technical subject matter, i.e. sleights of hand, gimmicks and so on.
This does two things.
- It raises the bar in terms of what is necessary to fool the audience. The information asymmetry between performer and audience is minimal, unlike a lay audience who typically know very little / zero magical technique.
- It changes the quality of enjoyment. Although lay audiences like to guess at methods (more on that later), magicians analyse tricks to reverse engineer them, and this is part of the fun magicians experience.
A magician to magician trick therefore succeeds best when it is a “magician fooler”. It does so in two ways.
First, the audience magicians enjoy exhausting their magical knowledge. They feel smart, but challenged applying their expertise to reverse engineer another’s efforts at creating something new and cutting edge. The fact they failed, can be invigorating, affirming that there is more to learn!
Second, because the audience magicians understand method they are no longer able to experience effect; doing something that allows them to be fooled again creates a very rare experience, and huge value. It satiates a need.
Tech is no different. Engineer to engineer presentations / applications of technology are designed to wow on the basis of their technical complexity and ingenuity’ to create a FOMO that one engineer has mastered or discovered something another has not, and sometimes push debate and enquiry.
Magician to muggle tricks
For lay audience tricks, everything is effect. But wait, don’t audiences love guessing the methods of a magician’s tricks?
Of course they do, but don’t confuse audience enjoyment guessing secrets vs. having them revealed.
Audiences want the secret, but need the effect.
If you give them the secret, there is no effect.
Knowing methods is not the real reason the audience came to see the show: they came to enjoy effects, which includes guessing (rather than knowing) the methods behind them.
There’s a difference between what the user wants (secrets) and needs (experiencing the effect of the secret and the fun of guessing the secret, without needing it revealed). Great magicians execute on needs, not wants.
And so with tech. Although a knowing focus on the method – AI, blockchain, search, rules etc – might grab attention, especially if said tech is flavour of the month in hyped up media coverage, it also distracts from what the user needs, the problems they have and the best solution for the job.
In the end, this serves neither user nor technologist. So how can technologists learn from magicians?
The (Successful) Magician’s Secret
Successful magicians perform for lay audiences. After all, it’s an art form intended primarily to fool non-magician audiences. Likewise, business and consumer-facing technology is designed for end-users who aren’t computer scientists.
Assuming you are a technologist designing, building, marketing, pitching, implementing or driving adoption of, some new product or service – what is it you can learn from the likes of David Blaine, David Copperfield, Dynamo, Penn & Teller and Derren Brown to wow your business and consumer audience?
Master your methods, prioritise by effect
Mastery of method enables excellence at effect. The greatest magicians seek out, voraciously study and obsessively practice methods. They also test, test, test them on audiences, improving them or changing them over time.
But they do so, guided by effect.
They are seeking the best method, or combination of methods, that produce the best effect. In many cases, this will be the method or methods that allow most room for presentation and execution.
These two factors – presentation and execution – are what separate dull from good and good from incredible, even if the underlying trick, plot or method is identical between two magicians.
In other words, attention on the audience’s needs and experience. Great technology does the same.
Simple maybe. But not easy
Without spoiling the film, this conceit is – as the magician Borden puts it – incredibly simple, but not easy.
Indeed, a central plot point is the failure of the rival magician to comprehend that the first magician’s effect (i.e. product) could be achieved so simply, instead obsessing over unnecesary, dangerous and overly complex technological innovations to achieve the same effect.
And this is a key lesson.
Too often, magicians and technologists obsess over the complex, and disregard simpler alternatives. The allure of the complex is also a risk for users and innovators in their organisations. If you’ve ever heard someone say “we should get an AI” or “can we use some AI” when what they need is a simple Word macro you know what we mean.
But this isn’t to say simple is easy.
Often simple done well is just as hard as clever, but for different reasons.
Simple enables thinking space to focus on execution against needs.
In magic this is mostly presentation. In technology this is the product-market fit, UX, whether or not your solution solves a real and significant problem for your users and so on.
Check your geek
As a result, the best technologists and start-ups keep abreast of new ideas, experiment with them but importantly check their geek. They weigh up, often with others (product specialists, users and so on), what best solves the user’s problem.
In most cases, best isn’t cleverest or the most cutting edge shiny new thing. It might be, but it often isn’t or if it is, it is one variable in a much larger equation that must not distract from solving the problem.
Which leads nicely into…
Don’t forget what you have / know
Magicians are famously greedy, gobbling up new tricks as they launch. The best magicians keep this in check, often preferring to perfect existing techniques rather than chase the latest shiny object.
Technology is no different.
During the Space Race, Nasa invested millions designing an over engineered pen that could write in zero gravity where, it was assumed, ink would not flow toward the nib. Russia simply gave its Cosmonauts standard pencils, which work on earth as they do in zero G. Same result: hugely different costs.
It’s a great story, but it’s not true (see here for the real story, or the link under the above photo).
Nevertheless, it’s an instructive parable.
Don’t rush to the most cutting edge solution if all the user needs is something simple, and in the above example, something you might already have but not think to use.
Shiny objects are often sharp
Not all magic tricks are harmless card tricks. For instance, the infamous Russian Roulette trick.
The plot goes something like this:
The magician presents a sharp nail on a wooden base, which is placed point up under a polystyrene cup.
Next, the magician introduces additional upside down polystyrene cups and then asks a spectator to shuffle the cups until it is no longer possible for anyone to identify which cup conceals the nail.
Afterwards, the magician then has the spectator eliminate cups one by one, often reshuffling the cups after each selection to increase the “randomness” and make it even harder to identify the dangerous cup from the safe one(s).
Eventually, two cups remain. The magician asks the spectator to choose one of the remaining cups.
This time the magician does not remove the chosen cup.
Instead, the magician slams either their palm, or the spectator’s, onto the final remaining cup.
There is either a shared outtake of breath from the audience followed by a cheer… or gasps of horror.
The former is when this trick goes well… the magician magically avoids the nail, knowing all along via “psychic” skills where the dangerous nail hid.
The latter is what happens when the trick goes wrong, i.e. nail through hand = hospital visit. No more show bookings. Potential lawsuits. And so on!
This trick has, and continues, to go wrong from time to time, injuring magicians and spectators, including on live TV. See below if you aren’t squeamish. The UK”s most famous magician, Derren Brown, has even gotten this badly wrong during rehearsals (see here).
So what’s this got to do with technology?
Well this is a reminder of why mastery of method is critical, even if the focus is on its relationship to effect.
If the method isn’t clear, safe, and bug-free, for end-users to rely upon in different settings it can harm.
The same is true of technology.
It is often more true for new and “high tech” solutions that aren’t yet well understood by end-users… and sometimes by the technologists themselves, who’ve simply copied and pasted some code, or installed a code library.
AI is a good example.
Today’s AI relies heavily on data, statistics, probability, linear algebra and calculus. Most of these components are poorly understood by users in isolation, let alone in combination when used to deliver AI solutions. Some software engineers building such systems don’t really understand the underlying math, and in some scenarios this doesn’t matter in order to build good products, but in others it absolutely does.
For instance, simple misunderstandings regarding the accuracy and how and why these systems produce the results they do persist.
This is fine if you’re AI product recommends a surfboard instead of toilet roll when shopping for toiletries via an online marketplace (nobody dies) but less good if the AI is autopiloting a plane back to front in stormy weather without the users understanding – or even being able of knowing – what is going on and why.
So the point is this: whatever methods you use, make sure you – and in some cases your users – understand them well enough to ensure they are as bug free and reliable as possible. If you do, you’ll keep things safe but very likely further enhance your execution of your solution.
The Curtain Call
The best magicians master method but prioritize effect. They select the best tools for the job, having invested significant effort in understanding the effect in the mind of the audience.
Simple or familiar methods often do best, allowing greater room to focus on presentation and execution against the needs of effect.
Technology vendors and innovators should do the same.
Master different technologies by all means, demonstrate you’ve considered them even, but prioritise problem-solving based on a deep understanding of your users.
The best technology may not be the smartest, shiniest or most hyped up or cutting edge. It may be something you have (or your customers have) but didn’t think to use.
It may even be something unrelated to a technology! If so, your technology solution – whether vendor or innovator – might not solve the user need.
That’s still a great effect – you’ve not wasted anyone’s time ramming a blockchain down their throat when all they needed was a database, perhaps better use of the one they already had. Your intended users might enjoy your honesty and efforts at working through the problem with them, even if you’re solution isn’t ultimately what they need.
Master your methods but be guided by effect.
Be the David Copperfield of technology and innovation. Your Las Vegas residency awaits.