Hurst, Mark

Mark HurstWidely credited for popularizing "customer experience" online, and for coining the term "bit literacy," Mark Hurst has worked since the birth of the Web to make Internet technology easier to use. He is a leading authority on making people more productive with technology.

In 2002, Hurst was named "one of the 1,000 most creative individuals in the U.S." in Richard Saul Wurman's book 1,000. Hurst is the founder and host of the Gel conference (Good Experience Live), which is held annually in New York City, and he is also known for founding Creative Good, the world's first user experience consulting firm, which he runs with Phil Terry. Hurst's Good Experience newsletter has tens of thousands of subscribers worldwide. (Sign up for free.) Hurst began his Internet career as a graduate researcher at the MIT Media Lab.

Erik Hansen speaks with Mark Hurst about his book, Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload.

Mark, what is “bit literacy”?

MH: Bit literacy is a set of skills that people need to master in order to thrive in the digital age.

What caused you to write this book?

MH: In the last ten years, I’ve noticed people becoming digitally overloaded, but no one has really addressed the problem. There’s an easy way to avoid or solve this problem of digital overload. I’ve used it for years; it’s the only way I’ve been able to survive online. In 2001, I first mentioned bit literacy in an essay for Ricky Wurman’s book Information Anxiety 2. I followed that up with a free white paper on my site about how to manage incoming email. A couple hundred thousand people downloaded that, and it inspired one chapter of the book.

A lot of people have learned skills that we collectively call computer literacy. Anybody who’s online knows how to use a mouse and maybe even create an Excel or PowerPoint file. But the average skill level has not advanced beyond that.

Computers are everywhere and, rather than being trained, people just figure out how to use them.

MH: In the absence of intentional learning, people do things by default. That’s the source of many of the problems I talk about in the book. People are using their software in whatever the easiest way in the moment happens to be. In the case of email, what’s the easiest thing to do when you get 100 or 200 new messages? You leave them in the inbox. No one’s taught you differently and the software certainly isn’t encouraging you to do anything else. So you leave them in there, and pretty soon you end up with several thousand messages.

I ask people all the time how many emails are in their inbox. I often hear, from those who are brave enough to tell me, numbers like 3,000 or more.

Really? In their inbox?

MH: In their email inbox. No one has taught them how to do things differently. This is a global problem. Anybody with an email address is subject to the problems of email overload. It drives down productivity. It makes people less healthy; it degrades quality of life.

Why does having 3,000 emails in your inbox degrade your quality of life?

MH: Bits are heavy. There’s a myth that bits are weightless and frictionless and we can have it all. That’s just not true. Physically speaking, bits, as electrical impulses, don’t weigh anything. But psychologically or emotionally speaking, bits are very heavy.

A lot of people carry around this stress about all the email sitting in their inbox without even knowing it. Every time you open your inbox, you’re reminded of all the things that you haven’t done. Even worse, you live in fear that you might have forgotten something that’s really important that you can’t remember because there are 3,000 things you’re trying to remember all at once. So then you have to go through the demoralizing task of reading the same messages again and again and again to remember exactly what is in your inbox.

Why bit literacy?

MH: Because we as a society have never engaged this issue as something that people have to learn. My book takes the essential first step by raising questions about how to train people to get ready for the digital age. Which is just starting, by the way.

Some people who have heard about the book make the mistake of thinking it’s about how to empty your inbox. While that’s an important part of Bit Literacy, the larger message of the book is that we have to learn these skills now, because if you think you’re overloaded now, think out five or ten years, to the unbelievable degree of inundation of bits that your life and work are going to experience.

We must learn these basic skills today while we still have time. Master your email today so that in five years, when what I call “life bits” are more common, you’ll be well equipped.

Life bits?

MH: This is the bit stream that captures audio and video of some, or all, of your waking hours, every day. There are some geeks and a couple of celebrities who are beginning to experiment with this, and it’s getting headlines, in the same way that the first users of cell phones got a lot of attention.

The Economist published an article [“The Phone of the Future”, 30 Nov ’06] a few months ago that said cell phones will soon have processing power and storage capacity to capture the audio and video of every moment of every day. Is that going to be as socially necessary as an email address is today? Are you going to have to use that for insurance claims or for keeping in touch with people? I don’t know. But it’s coming. That’s just one of many possibilities of new bit streams that we’re going to have to engage. Email is like kindergarten, and most people don’t even know how to manage that.

I admit, I’m guilty of a large email inbox. I never considered the psychological weight of bits, but you’re right, it’s always lingering in the back of my mind. The problem is, you get an email that doesn’t need an immediate answer, but it might need an answer at some point in the future which requires additional information that you don’t have yet. So it lingers and weighs heavily on you.

MH: The Gmail website states that one of Gmail’s benefits is that you’ll never have to delete another email, as if that’s one of the great benefits of technology—that we’re freed from the responsibility of deleting anything.

I’m glad you brought that up. It speaks to an issue with accountability.

MH: That’s exactly it, Erik. That’s why I ask, early in the book, “Who has the responsibility to make you productive and effective in the digital age?”

Technology companies want to sell you the idea that it’s their responsibility to make you productive. “Don’t worry; we’ll give you ever more features, options, add-ons, and upgrades, and we’ll take care of you.” Anybody who has faithfully upgraded Microsoft Office over the years can judge for themselves whether an endless series of upgrades actually makes them more effective.

The other option is for users to take responsibility for themselves, for their own success. It’s a little scary to have responsibility for these things. But in the end, if you take responsibility for yourself, you get better at it and make intelligent decisions. That’s what bit literacy is.

What does your company, Good Experience, do?

MH: I have two companies. Good Experience, which is a very small company (you’re speaking to most of it), runs my annual conference called Gel (“Good Experience Live”). But my “day job” is partner at Creative Good, my consulting firm, which I’ve run with Phil Terry for years. We consult to corporations on customer experience and productivity. I think I see where you’re going with this question. Have we tried this ourselves? Yes. Over the years, we have made this part of the mandatory training process for all employees at Creative Good and we have been diligent about tracking the productivity of the team, because that’s a really important metric when you run a consulting business. Our team’s productivity has doubled since we made this mandatory. Phil and I both think that it’s directly attributable to these skills; people can do more in less time. That’s the definition of productivity. Bit literacy frees you to finish your work so that you can live your life outside work.

So you’re not an advocate of work and regular life all being one big mix?

MH: My take is, if you’re happiest when you blend your work with your life, then why work on being productive?

What makes people more productive during a day?

MH: It doesn’t matter whether you’re the CEO or a new hire, the value you create is not by reading and re-reading the same emails a hundred times, or wondering what to do next—generally flailing. People don’t have the skills to manage their bits; people are spending more and more of their days flailing. It’s a plague. Whether you want a distinction between work and life or whether you want to work your entire life, it doesn’t matter. What bit literacy does is allow you to do what’s important and minimize the amount of time that you’re flailing.

I took your advice and spent Memorial Day weekend getting bit literate. The one thing I didn’t realize I needed, until finding your Gootodo list, is sending email to the future. That is gold. Sending an email to the future, when I’ll have more information to use to resolve it, is a great idea. The only problem is that I’d send too much to the future.

MH: But the central premise of Bit Literacy is that people need to let the bits go. We’ve living essentially in a world of infinite bits. The only way to survive is to be biased toward deleting, deferring, avoiding, and delaying bits any way we can. The problem with most to-do lists is that there’s no way to defer to-dos that are irrelevant at the moment. During the time between receiving an email and getting the information to act on it, it distracts you.

Inboxes weren’t built to be to-do lists. Using it that way is distracting you unnecessarily. Forwarding emails to the future allows you to let bits go when you don’t need to worry about them. They float off into the future and you don’t see them; they’re totally hidden. They’re not gone. They’re going to pop up at the right time and you can always grab them from the website if you need them before then. But until that point, you’re free.

If you put the method into practice in your inbox, pretty soon you’ll have a zero count in your inbox. There will be nothing to distract you.

But if there’s nothing in my inbox, I’m not important!

MH: No, no, no. When your inbox is empty you turn to your to-do list. Your to-do list may also have items that are irrelevant at the moment. You forward those into the future. And what’s left? The things that you have to work on today. Prioritize them. Now you have an empty inbox and a prioritized list of what you must do, in what order, today. That is the beginning of learning to be bit literate.

When you do a good day’s work on the things you should be working on, not distracted or weighed down unnecessarily, you finish your to-do list for today and you see an empty inbox and an empty to-do list, and you think, “Holy cow, I’m done! I’ve never been done before, but I’m done. I can turn off the computer. I can go home and I can enjoy a nice dinner with my significant other, knowing that I don’t have anything else weighing me down today.”

I like to get people’s words fresh from that experience. They say, “I’m looking at an empty inbox and …” I get the most amazing descriptions of what people feel physically or emotionally or spiritually when they see that.

I think it’s brilliant. I love Seth Godin’s blurb, “This is The Elements of Style for the digital age.” I think that’s absolutely true. We’ve become accustomed to this heaviness. I think it will take awhile to become accustomed to weightlessness.

MH: Messages of liberation are never easy to “sell.”

I have a 15 year-old nephew who just lives on the Web. He’s making websites left and right; I think he’s actually making money. His parents don’t know what’s going on. But I don’t think he’s ever learned how to type. Are kids growing up now missing out on this very fundamental aspect of bit literacy, which is proficient typing?

MH: Proficient typing is one of the essential skills that I mention. Even so, typing itself is only one percent of bit literacy. So yes, kids should learn how to type and they should learn everything else in the book. A friend of mine who works in childhood education said that this book should be read and taught in grade school, all across the country; these are the skills that kids should learn and they’re not being taught. Instead, most school districts, if they’re fortunate enough to have a budget for computers at all, are teaching kids the ins and outs of Microsoft Office.

Using Office is a secondary tool to the primary skills that users have to learn. If all we teach kids are the dominant tools, as the technology companies tell us to use them, we’ll continue to have the workforce we have today, which is overloaded and inefficient.

There is an enormous challenge, not just for me, but for all of us who believe in this, to take this message out and to teach the world these skills.

Yet after reading it, I bought your software.

MH: One of the gripes that some people have when they read the book is, “Oh, he’s trying to sell us his software.” I should have been clearer in my writing: I wish I had not had to build Gootodo. But there simply was no other tool that had this basic feature of forwarding to-dos to the future. I didn’t have any choice. But I hope in a few years there will be a number of tools that have this feature. My goal with the book was not to make money, although I’m happy to make money if that’s a side effect. I haven’t yet.

You don’t make money from books?

MH: My primary goal with this book is to get the message out; to invite people to free themselves of the ineffective, inefficient, stress-inducing ways that they currently work with technology.

I’m very impressed. It’s changed my life in the last week, since I read your book. I’m starting to get there in the digital world, but now I look at my floor and see twelve different stacks of magazines and file folders and books. We’re accustomed to going from analog to digital, but I have to do the opposite. You even talk about that in your book. I’m impressed with the comprehensiveness. This really is, in a way, a bible for the white-collar worker.

MH: No matter what your collar, you’re invited to do this. Anybody with an email address could change their life if they read this book.

I’m curious about the Dvorak keyboard. It’s supposed to allow you to type faster. How can I convert my keyboard?

MH: Google it. In the Mac, you click a few things in the system preferences and suddenly your keyboard is in Dvorak format. If you can’t remember the keys, you can buy little labels to stick on your keys until you have memorized what the keys are.

How can I learn a whole new way of typing without taking a typing course?

MH: I can only speak for myself. I went cold turkey. It took me about a month to be at a reasonable speed. I was really fast on QWERTY before, but using the Dvorak key map plus my bit lever probably pushes me over 100 words a minute.

That brings Buzz Bruggeman and Active Words to mind.

MH: Active Words is great. It’s the best bit lever that I know of for Windows.

Any phrase that has “lever” in it always scares me. I don’t know why.

MH: You don’t like Lever soap?

I haven’t gotten near that in years.

MH: You don’t leverage your investments?

When people start talking about leveraging, I shut down, because it makes me nervous. But what is a bit lever?

MH: It only makes sense that we should have tools that allow us to be more effective in the bits we create. A bit lever is just that. You define expansions for a typing shorthand. I don’t actually type out my email address anymore. If I type the letters “ea” and hit a space, it types out my email address for me. When you start using the tool, you wonder how and why you lived your life without this. I mean, that’s what computers are for.

This is a life-altering change. It’s a bit scary, moving that fast.

MH: Fear has come up a lot with this. It’s a scary prospect, taking on responsibility and improving the way that you work and live in this era.

It’s a fundamental change, and change is always scary.

MH: But it’s for the better.

The Creating Bits chapter is about being very short, sweet, and to the point …

MH: It’s really about being empathetic to the recipient who’s probably suffering from the same problems of overload that you are. Be kind to the other guy; make your message easy to read and understand, and make it short. It’s empathetic, but from a pragmatic sense, it’s more likely that your message will be read and understood.

I know someone who writes tight, brief emails. He said that his boss made it very clear early on that email messages could not have one excess word in them. I think that’s a necessary skill.

MH: Remember that bit literacy is not just about email. It goes for website design, white papers, PowerPoints; anything that you create digitally falls under these guidelines.

Thanks for spending time with us.

MH: It’s been fun.

Email: mark (at) –