Hacking Bug Reports and Feature Reviews with Animated GIFs

I was asked to be on a conference panel by the Application Developers Alliance recently. The panel was part of one of their App Strategy Workshops and we were focused with a title of Think It, Code, Ship It, Tweak It.

At the end of the panel we were asked what was a useful tool that we use in our work here at YEAY.

Continue reading “Hacking Bug Reports and Feature Reviews with Animated GIFs”

Cooling Off on Indiegogo

Why Consumer Rights is Important to Customer Experience

Recently I backed a piece of tech wizardry on Indiegogo. The iKlips is a USB key with two different ports, one of which plugged into an iPhone. I was excited on the day, really excited. I couldn’t understand how I could live without the little piece of aluminium and silicon wizardry. But that feeling wore off quickly. Continue reading “Cooling Off on Indiegogo”

The Intel Compute Stick

A computer without a screen in your pocket

As you know, I’m stuck in the stone age when it comes to computing. My ideal computing platform is a pebble that I bring with me everywhere I go. I like the cloud but I need the performance of a local machine and local apps. I like the idea of having everything backed up offsite but I also need the ability to work offline. Today Intel brought my special view of the future a little closer to reality.

Even though the Intel Compute Stick isn’t a pebble it looks to a future where everything you need is held in your pocket. It looks like the Compute Stick is like a ChromeCast — you plug it into an HDMI port, power it using USB and then plug in your favorite methods. The idea is appealing: you can pick up wherever you need to from anywhere that has the right kind of screen. Plug it into a projector, into the screen in the seat in front of you during a flight or in your hotel room. Bring it with you between work and home without needing a laptop bag.

I can’t imagine Intel being the organization to successfully commercialize this idea but, being first to the table to show how a simplified architecture powerful enough for most users would work at this level of miniaturization, I hope that Intel sparks others to start thinking about how the pebble might be a form factor worth a second thought.

Robobees make first flight

Ernst Junger's vision of Glass Bees takes shape

Reality mimics art today with the news that Harvard scientists have finally cracked the ability to create robotic bees, or Robobees. Robotic Bees play a large role in the culmination of Ernst Junger’s dystopian Glass Bees on which I wrote a post long ago that still remains appropriate.

You can read the full post at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences website.

Very small, motivated, and focused

In remembrance of some old projects (some shipped, some not) at AP that Neven Mrgan and I had the pleasure of working on.

Thank you Neven for the kind words. It’s been some time since we worked together. But what a time it was. I remember how surprised I knew you’d be after the keynote and then how surprised we both were in the evening when we got to rush on stage briefly to greet Shaan Pruden and be awarded our ADA for what was then called the AP MNN (Mobile News Network). A bit of a rush after a lot of work. Great working with you. And, yes, I still dig the hat.

Stumbling in public

Angela Hewitt and professionalism under pressure

Recently I had the pleasure of attending a recital by Angela Hewitt. She was playing here in Berlin as part of the Berlin Klavierfestival. The concert was in the small room at the Konzerthaus Berlin. For those that haven’t been, the Kleiner Saal is a particularly pleasant setting to see a musician work and on this particular night the room was full.

Angela was playing a program of Bach, Beethoven and Liszt. She plays in a particularly personal way: full of individualism without being too egocentric. She’s precise without being overwhelming and she augments the music with her personality: smiling, nodding, and providing a happy forecast of the pleasure that she takes while playing.

But I’m not talking about how she plays. To see one of the world’s foremost pianists in such an intimate setting is an honour but she stumbled during the program and it was even more of an honor to see how she stumbled.

In the middle of her second piece you could see that she started tripping up. Her face lit up with alarm and her fingers just weren’t doing what she wanted. The spotlights, already bright on her face, seemed to get brighter. Rather than continue stumbling she did what we’ve all wanted to do: bring down both hands on the keyboard, a disharmonious plunk. In the audience we listened to silence, hushed and thrilled. I don’t think I have ever seen someone in this situation before. She gathered her thoughts, said “sorry” in a very quiet voice and started playing again.

You could see the strain in her face, you could see her continue to misplay a few times but her strength was to get over her collapse, to pull everything together in front of six hundred strangers and to continue when you felt like just walking away. Not like nothing had happened — she didn’t pretend that — she continued, with humility, to finish the piece. She finished the first half to a ovation full of sympathy and awe. And you can see that Angela disliked the sympathy.

What came in the second half was power. Power and prowess in the mastery of the final two pieces. She learned from and left behind the short-lived failure before living and enjoying the rest of the program as much as her audience.

Fluttering Rush

A collection of very short poems written as tweets

April was National Write a Poem Month and the idea is to write a poem every day. I took part and, in the process, put together Fluttering Rush, a chapbook of short poems that I wrote mostly during my morning commute. That is, I didn’t take part officially in the exercises or prompts that form an optional part of NaPoWriMo. The chapbook site was developed using Chapbook, a free theme for Kirby that I developed for the project. The poems were originally published on Twitter and so had to be 140 characters or less. Each poem is accompanied by an audio recording.

Learning from others

5 Things We Can All Learn from Nathan Kontny's Release Notes for Draft

Have you heard of Nathan Kontny before? He’s an astute developer, working on Draft, a collaborative writing environment designed to help you write better prose.

His tool blows away other online collaborative writing environments. This sounds crazy because, you know, Nathan is doing this on his own.

But Nathan doesn’t just write code or build great UX. Part of his magic lies in how he communicates changes to us, his users. Nathan’s release notes are a thing of beauty. They’re not release notes in the traditional sense, they’re a marketing and re-engagement vehicle. And that is something that every product owner should aim for: every email update I receive from Nathan is something that I want to read. Not just because I love writing and I love writing tools but because of the way that Nathan crafts his emails. Here’s are the five things that I’ve learned by reading his latest email about Draft:

1) Lead with a short summary of features. Nathan’s emails always start with “Hello. I have a few updates to share about Draft.” After that follows a simple list of top features that he’s been working on. This gets me excited. Those titles are designed to be succinct appetite wetters. Yes, I’ll continue reading.

2) Only include features that are going to drive use. To Nathan’s credit: his ability to focus his emails to communicate only features that really make me excited to use his product. I’m sure it might be interesting for us to know about his database refactoring to reflect a new way to deal with collaborators but is this going to drive engagement and excitement. Is this going to make me a better writer? Nope. Cut.

3) Get deep with each change. Nathan always takes the time to explain the frustration or passion that led to a change before explaining exactly how it works. It’s this context, the why to the what, that helps us understand the rationale behind and importance of what he has spent time working on and how this new feature can help us users become better writers.

4) Be visual. Nathan always always includes screenshots, often more than one per feature and very often animated, of how a user should take advantage of a new feature. This is both educational and also reminds you of Draft’s environment, in case you hadn’t logged in for a while.

5) Be grateful. Nathan ended his most recent email with a genuine, personal message: “I wake up everyday grateful for all the feedback and support you are sending in. There are a ton of other improvements that make their way into Draft and aren’t even mentioned here, but are because of your help making this product great.”

Nathan is a great writer and I recommend reading his blog on a regular basis.

Introducing Chapbook

A free Kirby template for poets

NaPoWriMo, the National Poetry Writing Month, is almost over. Lots has been written, agonized over and then deleted. But what about that stuff that makes it past the internal censor. How about an easy way to get that online for people to read? That’s exactly what Chapbook provides. Chapbook is a theme for Kirby, a simple flat file content system that anyone can use. No databases required, nothing more difficult than a text editor.

Chapbook is the answer for those people who feel a blog would be too much or think that the temporal nature of a blog doesn’t suit the way that a poetry collection, or chapbook, works. Chapbook, according to the Wikipedia entry, is a “term currently used to denote publications of up to about 40 pages, usually poetry bound with some form of saddle stitch, though many are perfect bound, folded, or wrapped.” We’ll dispense with the saddle stitching. Chapbook uses web-standard fonts, dispenses with Javascript and only uses a bare minimum of style so that your poetry is displayed clearly. Chapbook is designed to emphasize your words over graphical wizardry.

You can get the code from Github or download a zip of the template right now and get started.

Get Chapbook Now

All products are moral

Addressing the moral concerns of product development in Ernst Junger's 1957 book "Glass Bees"

The year is 1957. Germany not was reduced to the pastoral landscape after World War 2 — the influx of Allied money has restarted the engines of the German economy. Rebuilding wasn’t at the time an idea, it has been a hard-as-hell day job for over 10 years. The women of Germany (don’t forget much of the male youth has perished) get on with the task of pulling down the heaps of rubble, and reusing them to build a new nation.

Out of this rebuilding and embracing of the new grows discomfort, a discomfort beautifully illustrated in Ernst Junger’s Glass Bees, or Glaeserne Bienen, a book that focuses on this discomfort by creating an encounter between Captain Richard, an out-of-work member of the cavalry who prizes old-fashioned attributes (such as honor and duty) with Zapparoni, an industrialist who builds and amazes with technology.

In the book Zapparoni is portrayed as an aging technocrat. When the book is written he has built an empire out of beautiful automata. His company is known for everything from movies to household appliances; the world waits with baited breath for every new introduction of automata from Zapparoni: beautiful, perfectly formed magical devices that delight.

Zapparoni focuses on the small, on the subtle and through this he manages to create products that the world goes crazy about. His methods are highly secretive and his style is paternal. Nobody knows what goes on inside Zapparoni’s factories or inside his house. In that Zapparoni is a cryptic figure, he can be likened to a Steve Jobs.

Junger’s treatment of Zapparoni is incomplete: his background shimmers, leaving space for interpretation. Junger stays away from a dualistic treatment of either Zapparoni, painting him as a force that creates products that are better even than nature, specifically the glass bees of the title — who are capable of collecting nectar more efficiently that natural bees. Zapparoni focuses on creating the most beautiful objects, things that fill us with wonder, contraptions that amaze us with their magic.

But the magic of new isn’t always so easy: it covers up more complex moral issues and, in doing so, reduces the capacity of society to make moral judgment. Junger plays with new (good) vs. old (bad) through conversation in the book between Zapparoni and Richard, the book’s hero.

The book turns the magic of Zapparoni’s products and his empire on its head to portray a dystopic vision where instead of wonderment he makes moral decisions in an environment where those decisions or questions to those decisions are ignored.

The questions that Junger brings up in 1957 are still pressing questions today: even with beautiful, functionally-designed products we still need to be aware of what conversations or standpoints these design decisions shut down and continue to question the long-term effects of making these product decisions. For one of Junger’s later books, this disturbingly real vision of future technologies from over 50 years ago is haunting. I recommend you pick it up.

This day, twelve years ago

The memory and aftermath of September 11, 2001

I remember punching in the floor, 57, that I worked on and stepping into the elevator. It was a beautiful morning and I was late to work, in no hurry to leave those blue skies, that crisp early September weather.

I remember two burly men pushed in behind me with Canon cameras and lenses the like you might see middle-aged men bring on safari. They talked about how they’d get one or two shots and then get the hell out. I thought maybe Michael Jackson, maybe Madonna was having breakfast in the Rainbow Room. For some reason, it didn’t phase me.

I remember the moment we hit my floor; people streaming to the elevator for a way out. We went down again and were stuck in the paradox of the modern age: news tickers around Rockefeller Plaza but no news.

One of the managers from fixed income said that they needed to get the military in. I had no idea at the time what had happened but it became apparent. People who weren’t late to work witnessed an aircraft flying right by our building, which 57 floors up, doesn’t happen too often and isn’t too exciting. It became clear where the plane ended up.

The rest of the details were fuzzy. I noticed that people whom I had earlier taken for bums suddenly were up and directing traffic or pulling over pickup trucks. We mulled around. We got snippets of news from radio dispatches played on the radios of parked cars with open doors.

We hung around Rockefeller Plaza like sheep. Then I asked myself what I was doing at the base of one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan. I didn’t have a good reason so said farewell to my colleagues and walked back to the subway. Oddly the number 1 or 9 local was still running. I ascended my 72nd street penthouse and listened to the news on my radio (I was then, as now, not a TV person). I remember deciding that now of all times was a great time to shine my shoes. Not just one pair but all the pairs of shoes that I owned. I was vigorous, really vigorous, with the shine.

The news ran around in circles with drips of actual reporting only rarely being introduced. Then I decided that I probably shouldn’t be in a penthouse and should be with my girlfriend, uptown. Subways were down; I took a taxi. There were still taxis in the UWS. Looking back, that seems strange.

I spent the rest of the day glued to our telephones, calling as many people as we could get through to to find out how they were. In the background the television played the same snippets of footage.

At some point, I apocalyptically decided to buy as much water and provisions as I could. It was a strange feeling, in line, with all those groceries, so far from the action, so little awareness of what had actually happened. Uptown, we accumulated downtown friends, friends of friends, sort of friends, all sorts of friends.

That night we went out for dinner, all of us, somewhere in Morningside Heights. It was an early September evening. It was as I remember, paradoxically, a beautifully warm and crisp evening to spend with friends.

Disintermediating the Medium

We need a way to reduce the lock-in of Facebook, Tumblr, Svbtle, Medium and Twitter.

It started with Dustin Curtis deciding to broaden the authorial voice of Svbtle by inviting others to get involved. I’m re-reading the Crunchbase entry:

Svbtle is a publishing network that brings some of the best things from newspapers and magazines to a network of great people. We focus on the people, the writing, and the ideas. Everything else is secondary.

Our goal is to make it easier and more natural for interesting people to write down their thoughts. In the process, we also hope to help our members become better writers. To accomplish these goals, we provide benefits that aren’t usually associated with blogging, like copyediting and fact-checking, to all members, for free.

Dustin says it more succinctly in his own words: “It really is the essence of blogging; there are no plugins, no post types, and no social bullshit.”

I’m not a member of Svbtle (and, given the number of posts that I publish here, that’s completely understandable) but from what I understand, the power behind Svbtle is in its editor which allows a more fluid transition from idea to published artifact. Dustin has a post which explains more about the editor’s overall style. Medium also has a kick-ass editor, that helps you focus on writing.

Whether the road to Svbtle to Medium is straight or crooked, it’s pretty apparent to me that Medium was influenced in many ways by what Dustin was trying to do. Both are minimal platforms that help writers focus on what they do best: writing engaging content. That I can buy.

But there are differences to Svbtle and Medium.

Svbtle is an invite-only platform, a walled garden of authors. Either you’re in or you’re out. I’m out. I expect you are, too.

Medium on the other hand encourages you to sign-up and write. It promises massive traffic for your idea. It becomes an aggregation or syndication platform, focusing its job on promoting and helping users discover new engaging content. I’m going to reserve judgment on whether Medium is a content farm in the traditional sense because, at this point, there’s a lot of interesting material on the site and writers are writing what they want rather than the typical “20 Steps To Replace The Screen On Your iPhone”.

There has been a lot written about Medium and what people think Ev Williams’ company will change in the future. My problem with Svbtle and Medium, and to a similar extent Tumblr and Facebook is more fundamental.

I want the functionality that they bring. I want:

  • Massive traffic
  • Disperse and really relevant distribution of my content
  • People to be able to recommend my work (or give me kudos, or “like this”) and for this to be seen on other sites.
  • Inline commenting on my work.
  • Reblogging
  • User suggestion of related content.

The problem is that I want it all and I want it on my terms.

First up: I want to ensure that any content that I create is mine. I’m fussy like that: I really want ownership of my ideas and want to know that I have the ability to determine that if the content must be monetized I’ll be able to have a say in how it gets monetized.

Second: I want to ensure that my content stays on a system that I put my belief in. For me this is my own server: one that I own and manage. One that I can control the code of. For others it may be Medium, or Svbtle, or Facebook, or whatever, but not for me.

What does this mean?

I would like to see a world in which a “Medium” doesn’t own my content or doesn’t require me to use their system to post.

I’d be happy to share ownership of the metadata on my content (the links, reblogs, posts, recommendations). I’d be more than happy to share this if I knew that this new “Medium” was going to bring like-minded people to me to continue the conversation (drive traffic) to my site based on the quality of my writing. That traffic is valuable to me, the access to deep insights into the traffic analytics behind the traffic even more so.

I’d be willing to pay (handsomely) for a service that provided a simple API for standard “Medium” style functionality that I could integrate myself or plug-in to a WordPress installation.

There is more value to opening up the walled gardens.

Should we call this Medium Pro or should we create this for ourselves. Your call.

I’ll be joining L’ArcoBaleno

Rainbow's arc, a playground for people who love design.

These days, it wouldn’t be Berlin if I didn’t say that I was joining a startup. The city is buzzing with activity and awash with investment.

So, I’ll be joining a startup.

I’m proud to announce that I’ll be joining Ambra Medda, Oliver Weyergraf and a small group of really talented colleagues as Director of Product at L’ArcoBaleno. The premise of L’ArcoBaleno is straightforward: it is a marketplace of highly-curated design objects with magazine-style content.

The team has experience and a solid execution background in its founders: Ambra Medda is the co-founder and former director of Design Miami. Oliver was the CEO of erento and is a former member of the eBay German Leadership Team.

In addition, L’ArcoBaleno’s committee of advisors reads like a who’s who of the design, music and media worlds.

The differentiation, L’ArcoBaleno’s 3Cs, is in the curation, content and customer service. It is a marketplace by and for people who really value design across multiple categories: furniture, lighting, crafts, decorative arts, fashion and technology. It’s for people who celebrate traditional techniques and those who bend them in new ways.

For me, L’ArcoBaleno is a mix of three great passions: designing and managing great digital products, creating new forms of engaging media, and–this one from my parents–the craft of designing and manufacturing physical objects.

Congratulations on the launch, L’ArcoBaleno and “cin cin” for the future.

I’m leaving Nokia

And there's gold at the end of the rainbow

After three years at Nokia, I have decided to move on and join a brand new Berlin-based startup. More on that later. The last three years at Nokia have been packed, and filled with change.

When I joined Nokia, Symbian–once a dominant force in mobile–was becoming more and more irrelevant. It was replaced with Meego and the beautiful N9 and then, finally, with the introduction of Nokia’s most-recent CEO Steven Elop, the company reorganized its smartphone product portfolio around a then-immature platform called Windows Phone.

It was a time of upheaval. When I joined it seemed that there are groups throughout the organization working on similar products with their own vision and setting their own direction. As these projects bumped into each other, like tectonic plates moving towards each other, the political squabbles became friction: one plate eventually dominating the other. And not without considerable disruption.

A project I was working on was no exception to this. When I first joined the company, I worked on the launch of a product called App Wizard. App Wizard took content from long tail publisher feeds, added monetization and metrics layers and created applications that could be run on any Nokia device. It was a simple service with a strong vision to drive value for publishers by creating new audiences in new markets.

App Wizard launched with a strong roadmap for the future and rapidly grew to a service used by over 26,000 publishers worldwide before being ramped down. The product became a casualty of this disjointed vision and, sadly, the version 2 of App Wizard was shut down before it launched.

I moved immediately into working with global app publishers to create apps for our new platform, Meego. The Nokia N9 was a beautiful device. From the experience of setting up the phone, to using apps, you could see the decisions that had been made were made with style and thought. You could see how those design decisions clearly impacted the usage of the phone in positive ways.

The N9 was an inspiring device that reminded me of those first heady days when the iPhone launched. The device came with that kind of quality and deep thinking about how a user would use the device on a daily basis. Something I can relate to.

It is no secret: even though Nokia launched the N9, they had already changed their strategy to focus on Windows Phone. I changed with that into a global partnering role. We worked to create apps for Nokia platforms with strategic partners.

At this time it was clear that, with Symbian still ramping down and the N9 born still, the company needed to go through a monumental change in mindset. Elop put that in place dragging the company to adopt what he called the challenger mindset. And he was very successful in this cultural shift.

The people at Nokia are great. I haven’t met a more independent, highly capable group of people than those I worked with. Despite so many languages, so many time-zones, and so many challenges everyone that I came into contact with was powerfully aware of how they could contribute to Nokia’s renovation and went out of their way to do so.

I guess what I saw in the last 18 months was a change in culture, a shift from disorganized groups with their own vision to the adoption of a more unified vision. It felt like people started pulling together, finally.

Nokia still has a long way to go: it is hard to go from the dominant manufacturer in an industry to being perceived as a marginal figure. The teams I work with have done phenomenal work in pushing the adoption of Windows Phone by publishers and have outdone themselves in pushing the limits of what people expect from a Windows Phone application.

On the low end, it has been a great ride seeing the quality of applications and the surge in demand for apps in the Asha range. It has been a great run since we celebrated 1MM downloads/day and now we’re over 17MM downloads/day on S40 devices.

One thing has become clear over the last three and a bit years: the importance of quality applications for any emerging ecosystem is not to be undervalued. It isn’t a question of how many but whether users download them and use them.

It was time to leave and I am happy to be moving on. I’ll miss some of the exciting app projects that I was working on but am confident that the team I leave behind at Nokia is the right team to continue to drive the importance of award-winning apps on Windows Phone and, increasingly, S40.

Let it cool

Coffee and the creative process

I bet that if you were like me you’d drink your coffee as strong as you can make it, with milk. You’d drink two cups, because one wasn’t enough. Three cups maybe but that might be pushing it over the edge, just. Like me, you add milk to reduce the temperature to somewhere just below scalding. You brew the coffee so strong that it wasn’t coffee anymore but more of a kind of particulate slurry.

If someone was to say stop using milk you’d balk: coffee without milk is like drinking battery acid. No, no, the milk is definitely needed to take the edge off, to make sure that your stomach doesn’t reject the daily brew. Hell, sometimes you might even add sugar just to further reduce that effect.

Turns out that if you brew coffee with the ratio 1 part coffee:12 parts water you’ve got yourself a reasonable amount of caffeine in the morning brew and a pretty potent drink but you’ve also got a cup of coffee that can be drunk black.

Why would you do that?

Well, first things first, let it cool. As the coffee cools it starts to sweeten and the flavour profile becomes more pronounced. Let it cool some more. You can start to really discern the different elements. Today, for instance, I drank cinnamon and lemon. Yesterday it was like blueberry and raspberry.

You really don’t need the sugar. You start to realize that since the brew is already cool you don’t need the milk. In fact adding either masks those great tastes you’re drinking.

Why are you telling me this?

Well, the ritual of making coffee can be applied to any work. How many mistakes have I made on the basis of an initial confused response to something. How many times have I added or implemented some additional work or had a team member get started on something without first letting the situation cool for a while.

You may find that the thermodynamic properties of your project change over time and that you may be able to discern positive elements that are already there, in front of your nose. You may not have to waste time coming up with processes to mask the original project.

Take what you are working on today whether it is a design, a feature, a presentation, a pitch. Print it out, pin it up and let it sit, let it cool. You don’t need to get additional input on it. You don’t need to fiddle with it.

As it cools, you’ll be able to see the colors and characteristics of your work more clearly. Let it cool some more, see if your response to the work changes. Taste it again and note what you like and don’t like. When it is cold a good cup of coffee is still sweet, still highly fragrant.

You’re looking for a new approach to your work, one based on reflection rather than rushed response and “always worked before” method.

Now, that you have a clear idea of what is working and not working make a new cup of coffee. Start the idea again, from scratch. Let it sit. Do it again.