Our Pride and Delight in ‘I Made This’

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

A news item caught my eye this week. Some clever individual has noticed that someone at the picture-sharing site Flickr has hidden a small message in its website’s code. It’s a ‘We’re Hiring’ notice designed to weed out the people that are REALLY interested in how the site works.

I think it’s a great example of what I call ‘micro-personalization’ – the small ways in which people can put their mark on what they make or do, without affecting the overall integrity of the output.

It’s not a new idea, and has long been used as a mark of quality – buy a V12 Mercedes and you’ll see a signature of the engine’s maker proudly displayed on a prominent plaque. On a more safety-related note, when you pull the ripcord on a parachute, you do so with the certainty that a qualified individual has packed it to an exacting standard, as their signature and seal are featured in its log book. For the record, I’ve not done, nor will do, either of these things.

Technology is offering a new way for micro-personalization to add value, create interest, and…well… have fun. For years technology enthusiasts have hunted down ‘Easter Eggs’ in software. These hidden extras can be as simple as a cheat in a game, or, as the case with Photoshop, feature a comprehensive flight simulation over a landscape that displayed the developers’ names.

Website developers have long hidden messages and images in their code, such as the recent HMV site change, that celebrated the chain’s revival with a hidden picture of Nipper the dog in the HTML.

A few years ago you may remember the phenomenon of Felix the Cat. It was a free piece of software that placed a small black and white cat on your desktop, which chased your cursor, put paw prints on your screen and a range of other cat antics. It was designed to mimic the unpopular Paperclip helper (and also make you buy a certain brand of cat food).  It was charming, pointless, and also the holder of a strange secret…

One day, bored, I put the Felix programme through a Hex Decoder (I’d recently read about the phenomenon of Slag Text where computers ‘tidy up’ programs and fill left-over memory space with random content – sometimes with embarrassing consequences). The Decoder showed me all of the program’s coding… and a rather beautiful, unfathomable piece of philosophy that clearly articulated the developer’s state of mind on the day he made it.

This discovery delighted me, but also I’m sure, delighted the developer. It’s that second part that I think is so important.

I talked in my last blog about the need for people to see the meaning in what they were doing, and I believe micro-personalization is a crucial part of this. The ability for an individual to make something ‘theirs’ is hugely powerful, costs very little, and adds so much for the recipient.

I recently worked with a very successful medical devices company that makes complex wound care products. The cutting floor workers will hand-cut the most difficult ones, and then sign the side of the box. Their manager told me of one new worker who questioned why they did this – he shared with them the reams of thank you letters he had from people that had written in to specifically thank the individuals for making their products. He never got the question again.

We are so quick to label things as ‘mass produced’ and rarely think about the small ways that we can utilize to make it more personal to the maker, and more meaningful for the purchaser. Clearly signing every tin of beans that rushes past you on the production line won’t work, but that doesn’t mean everything that is made in bulk cannot be personalized. I, doubtless like many, always smile when I see a packing note saying ‘inspected by Sanjay’, rather than the impersonal ‘Inspected by 1467’. It’s good to know that a person has put their name to something, and it makes me happier to have bought it.

For those doing the making, having a sense of care, pride, and ownership is a win-win situation.  They will be happier, more aligned with their work and the company will be guaranteed a higher quality product. Letting people personalize what they make is a powerful way of achieving this.

So here’s my challenge – look at what you do, what you make, what you service – and ask yourself the question ‘how can I make this mine?’  Or, if you’re a manager, ask the question ‘how can I help my team make it theirs?’

Think small, what are the additions that a person could add to something that makes it theirs? How could they bring in their own style or approach? What is the value of giving your customers something that’s more bespoke?

We are at our happiest when we see our work as our craft, when we want to sign what we’ve done, and tell people, ‘I made this’.  (This article, in case you didn’t know, was written by a Mr Christopher Preston).

Chris Preston (@Trimprop) is a Psychology graduate and specializes in internal communication and team development. He currently is Director at The Culture Builders.