I moved to Philadelphia twelve years ago, after spending two years in Northern California. Originally from Long Island I missed the higher energy, 24-hour culture that I grown accustomed to. At the same time I didn’t really want to deal with the hassles of living in NYC or LI. So when I was thinking of returning to the East Coast I was thinking either Boston or DC. Philadelphia wasn’t even a thought.
That was until I visited a few friends from college that lived there. They lived on a tree-lined street in Society Hill, a mostly residential section which was within walking distance of downtown. Even though there was so much to do within only a few blocks their apartment wasn’t the size of a closet nor did they have to make a deal with the devil to afford it. Another big plus was Philly was closer to my friends and family in New York then either of my original options. So when we made the big move back East, Philadelphia became my new home.
After twelve years I still love this town. I love walking its streets, its abundance of BYOB restaurants, and its lack of pretense, Philly just is. Over the years Philly has grown and keeps getting better. At the same time I’ve gotten the chance to go from being the first non-founding employee at an Internet start-up to leading the design for a Fortune 100 company’s premier online property. All the while getting to work with some brilliant people and some that I’m proud to still call friends. For all Philly has to offer, it is the people I’ve shared my time with there that made it such a great experience and so hard to leave.
I’ll miss my Thursday night outings to North Bowl where win or lose we always had a good time. The trips to Blue (the best option PA had to offer for boarding) despite the broken elbow. Late nights in Chinatown watching campy B-movies and killing zombies. An endless supply of Swedish fish. Nights full of Jager Bombs with razor fish. Watching Malachi and Sophie wrestle and run free along Forbidden Drive. Long discussions on fonts, code, technology and all their possibilities (outside of work). Dart the Halls. Annual bike races. The list goes on and on…
The idea behind the hackathon was to turn an idea into reality in 24 hours. Well at noon Arpit, Gabo and myself were still trying to figure out which one of our ideas we should work on. Luckily, when we checked in we came to a consensus. We settled on creating a commenting platform that would be site agnostic and simpler to find relevant content. The full concept includes integration with blogs and sites replacing their silo-ed system with one that helps spread the word and lowers the bar for participation. Obviously, the full package couldn’t be completed in 24 hours so we focused on building and testing the basic concept.
We got off to a rough start, plagued with technical glitches and an overloaded wifi. Since our project, called Yatr (pronounced yatter), was using a number of web based API’s the wifi’es were kinda important. As the night went on our table mates decided to call it quits, as did others. Despite the late hour and reduced numbers there was still a energetic vibe in the room. No doubt the cans of Red Bull and endless coffee had something to do with this.
When the sun started rising my eyes wanted to do the opposite. Thankfully a quick walk outside helped me get my energy back. At that time we were wiring up the designs to the back-end and dealing with some minor bugs. So we were feeling good about making the 9:30 deadline. By the time 9:30 hit I was busy working on the presentation and making sure I could explain our work within 60 seconds. An hour later we piled in to the auditorium (of sorts) where each of the teams sharing with the world what they’ve been working on for the previous 24 hours.
The first one out of the gate was Docracy, a online way to validate legal documents. Very cool idea and definitely set the bar for both concepts and delivery. Not surprisingly they were also one of the winners for the day. Sixty nine teams later it was my turn to present. Almost no one likes presenting to a crowd let alone trying to do so while compressing 24 hours into 1 minute. Since I had been practicing for a while I felt ready. Still 60 seconds is both forever and over in an instant.
Yatr didn’t win, but it’s not just about winning. Instead, we walked out with a working product and a architecture to take it to the next level. We also got a chance to see what other people feel strongly enough about that they would spend 24 hours working on a solution for. There was some really great projects beyond the few that got called out on TechCrunch and exhausted or not staying for all the presentations were just as rewarding as making Yatr into a working product.
Movies like Minority Report, make controlling your computer with little more then the swipe of your hand look easy. With the release of the Xbox Kinect the dream of this power coming to the masses has finally come true…well not exactly.
The Kinect has become the fastest adopted technology to date and that people are using their Kinect’s for everything from gaming to self-guided robots. A quick glance at YouTube is all you need to see tons of videos showing off all the Kinect can do. So why isn’t this the launching point into being able to control our computers with a wave of our hands?
In the real world, body based gestures is anything but simple and smooth. Though there are many people successfully experimenting with the Kinect, many of these experiments don’t translate into real world feasibility. I know this first hand as I too have enjoyed hacking the Kinect, as well as working with physical gesture based UI on more legitimate terms. In both cases it’s clear, regardless of technical limitations you won’t be controlling much beyond your Xbox with gestures. Below are the five biggest reasons why gestures won’t be breaking out of the box anytime soon.
Accuracy: To be blunt, the Kinect is ridiculously underpowered. The resolution of the two cameras combined is under one megapixel (read: garbage). Which means the images used to create the 3D environment are blotchy and inaccurate (see photo above). To make matters worse, even still objects are hard to define as their edges dance about from frame to frame. The actual (circa 1994) video/webcam being used is nearly useless in low light (read: your living room) and it’s poor quality doesn’t provide enough useful information to work as a supplement to the 3D data.
The Lazy Factor: Face it, people are lazy. No one wants to jump up and down, flail their arms just to control their TV or computer. Lazy or not, it’s actually physically tiring to hold your arm outright and use it like a pointing device. Even in filming Minority they had to keep taking breaks because of this. Still doubtful? Hold your arm out straight forward for a minute or two. Part of the beauty of the mouse, trackpad and small touch screens is the limited amount of movement needed to control everything on the screen.
No Sensory Feedback: Think of how simple it is to use a standard remote for one’s TV, or dial a standard phone. You know where the buttons are, you can feel the difference between each button and you feel the button depress beneath your finger. None of these exist between you and the air, so it’s all a guessing game and muscle memory. Touch screens have a similar problem but to a much smaller degree since one can look to see where their fingers are and the device can provide some sort of feedback to signify it received your input. Some touchscreen devices employ some sort of haptic feedback to give their users a sign that their touch has triggered an action.
Children: They love touch screen devices as it’s primal to touch things and even there UI’s need to account for their high energy actions and their potential. To the Kinect cameras a moving child is a bundle of potential gestures or they can just block the camera from seeing yours. Either way a little child is a potential plethora of problems. Older children bring their own issues, their curiosity and interest to explore new things is a plus. While their potential for shorter attention spans and limited patience are in conflict with the limited abilities of today devices.
Is this thing on?: On the technical side, there’s a lot of guessing involve with figuring out when the user is gesturing to control the device or just waving hi to a friend. Most of the videos showing off the cool things you can do with the Kinect are short and in a controlled environment so this issue doesn’t become obvious to the viewer, but rest assured the folks in the video know exactly what I’m talking about here.
Kinect also offers voice support, which brings it’s own set of complications. On their own gesture and voice have a long way to go before they permeate market enough to matter. Both of these technologies are great as an secondary or companion input tools instead of being the primary option. Regardless of effectiveness, they offer a new and fun way to interact with the technologies around us.
According to Deadline Hollywood (via engadget) Netflix is in bidding war with channels like HBO & AMC for a new series from David Fincher staring Kevin Spacey called House of Cards.
Needless to say this would be a huge coup for Netflix. In the growing competition between the online video service this would clearly set them apart from Hulu+ and Amazon Prime‘s video offerings. It also makes them a clearer threat to the current cable business model. Even if this rumor fails to become a reality, the seed has been planted and the game has changed.
Only time will tell if this is Netflix’s first step in becoming a premium content provider? And if so, will the masses change their habits and think about “tuning” to Netflix to catch up on their latest show.
Not to defend Twitter’s recent actions, but this is just the next step in the evolution of Twitter from a social service to a becoming a destination. As Twitter’s popularity has grown, they need to change to support their new users. They are no longer targeting the early adopters and the techies that helped Twitter grow during it’s early years. There was hints of this last year during the launch of the “new” Twitter and earlier when they bought/rebranded the most popular 3rd party app as official.
No doubt Twitter is looking at how users experience Facebook through the official sites and apps. There are alternative Facebook clients but no one is using them, so if Facebook killed access to these clients there may be some rumblings from a few developers but overall no one else would care. Based off the numbers provided by Twitter in September this may already be true for Twitter as well. The thinking then was that users of these alternative clients were the power users and creating the lion’s share of the content seen on Twitter so it makes sense that Twitter is still in support of 3rd party apps for adding content.
Overall Twitter can be improved and the third party apps have help fill these voids. I like some of the idea posted and it’d be great for either Twitter or other service to bring these to the forefront. At the end of the day most users may not be directly effected by this latest change, at least not immediately. In the long-term this will change how and what Twitter is and how it gets used. In the short-term this seems to be about Twitter trying to take control of their service and finally make some money off it, which they have every right to do. I don’t agree with their tactics and it does make me wonder: if the 3rd party apps were such a small percentage of the users, what does Twitter gain by cutting them out of the equation?
Looking back at the last year or so, one theme kept surfacing in all the projects I worked on – the need for a user experience framework. Many of these projects focused around Xfinity.com, part of Comcast’s branding initiative that launched last year during the Olympics. Overall, the projects focused on how to introduce new Comcast subscribers to the XFINITY service and the benefits that come with it, while providing more initiated customers deep access to the wealth of content available online. One project was to design a future version of the site, which would grow alongside individual customers and present an experience tailored to them. This project focused on optimizing both the experience of customers as well as Comcast’s understanding of its customers’ needs.
Clearly these projects needed something more involved then simple wireframes, design guidelines and some magic in Fireworks/Photoshop and HTML…they needed systematic frameworks to support both the design process and the business needs. Besides coming up with concepts and designs that fueled these projects it was my job to create said frameworks.
The embedded Seven Steps to Creating a Framework is the distilled process I employed to conquer the challenges presented to me over this past year. I believe it is universal enough to guide you through creating UX frameworks of your own.
Email is dead or so they said, well it seems like Facebook has another idea. A few weeks ago Facebook announced their plan for merging all your communication to be found in one place, and including a @facebook address as a way to be reached. Though they’re suggesting it’s not email and calling it a conversation hub, since they’re removing the subject line as part of the message. Regardless of what they want to call it makes a good case that email is in fact not dead, just due for an upgrade.
Despite it’s failure, Google Wave had some solid ideas on bringing email inline with modern technology. The good parts of Wave will resurface in Gmail and other services. For example earlier this week Posterous launched Groups which has number of the things I liked about Wave with simpler and prettier UI. Been testing is over the last few days and thought there are still a few odd UI issues, the overall UI is simple enough for non-geeks to use and that’s key for mass adoption. In the sample at left (from Posterous) you can see the basic layout and support for photos/video etc. Not as pretty as some of the standard Posterous themes but I’m sure that will come with time. The big question is whether the masses start adopting it, especially with competitors like Facebook Groups; though they are different offerings, Facebook already has the masses using their services everyday.
AOL is also giving email another try with their recently launched Project Phoenix. I love the paper cut-out animation they used to announce the project (see below) and for the users of Aol Mail this will be a welcome addition. They’ve simplified the UI, added the ability to import your other email services and now lets you send text messages. Another plus is I didn’t notice any ads cluttering up the interface. I assume they’ll be there sooner or later and if not, this is an even bigger plus for the consumer. I also like their “quick bar” access to multiple communication tools. Despite these improvements I’m not sure it’s enough to attract new users, though it may help keep their current customer base.
Personally, I still use email for some things, but for many things email’s formality and permanence isn’t needed. If I just want to share a link, or something else temporal email is overkill. At the same time having an archive for things is still needed at times. It’s good to see some progress in allowing us to have our cake and eat it too. Only time will tell how this will shake out but for now these are a step in the right direction.
Web 2.0 was about making the web social (and glassy buttons), now let’s make it personal, relevant and about the user.
There’s so much content it’s hard to filter out the noise and get to the stuff you want. This is true be it from Twitter, your Facebook news feed or what to watch on TV. The growth of smartphones only exacerbates the need for a personalized experience. Our phones have become an extension of ourselves, though their smaller form factor requires us to only put the important stuff on them. The way we use our phones also dictates a need for faster access to the important things. Besides streamlining the features and the design, the mass of content needs to be streamlined as well. Quicker access to the things that matter to you is the core concept behind Microsoft’s current ad campaign for WindowPhone7.
The mobile space isn’t the only place where this streamlining is welcomed, take Netflix for example. They’ve grown from a simple DVD-by-mail service to one of the biggest online streaming services. There’s a reason people love Netflix. It’s not about the number of movies they have but rather they showcase the videos that you may actually want to watch. When first signing up to the service you’re asked to rate a few movies so it can begin to make recommendations. Netflix even had a ongoing contest looking for anyone that could significantly improve (their already lauded) recommendation algorithms. In Sept. 2009, they had a winner but the real winner was Netflix and their customers.
Personalization doesn’t always need to be complicated, even the smallest touches of personalization will do wonders for the user experience. The latest browsers have removed their default homepages in lieu of quick views of sites that you visit most. Above is the message Safari displays when you launch it for the first time. Like Netflix, it’s aim is to show you content that’s relevant to you based on your actions. Below is a basic recommendation system I created to demonstrate how user actions can be used to bias content towards more items of a similar nature (in this case color).
Apple steals the headlines again. This time with their relaunch of the MacBook Air. Though the first MacBook Air wasn’t a big win in the sales department it did test the waters of the uni-body design that became part of the entire MacBook Family. This time around Apple is trying out a new idea, no internal drives. At 64GB of internal storage the low-end model (11″) is clearly targeting the netbook crowd. While the 13″ comes in 128GB & 256GB flavors, which are much more manageable in today’s world of digital everything. The flash only memory allows “instant on” and sleep/hibernate to be one and the same providing 30 days of stand-by life. The other upgrade was the resolution of the monitors, both models get Apple’s new higher density screens giving each one step up in the resolution game (1366×768, 1440×900 respectively).
– – – – –
After mailing over 2 billion disks Netflix announced they are now primarily a streaming media service. In simple terms this means they are now providing more content via streaming then they do via DVD/Blu-ray discs and will soon offer a streaming only plan to US customers. Their Canadian service is already streaming only and with the growth of Apple TV, Google TV and smart TVs the demand for streaming only will only get stronger. Keeping in step with improving their streaming service they’ve also gone disk free on the Wii & PS3 (Xbox to follow in Q1) a simple addition to an already great product. For the Wii there’s a bit of a UI upgrade offering search. I can’t say I noticed any difference but I may have had a newer version of the disk based version that had this already. For the PS3 you also get 1080p and 5.1 surround sound.
– – – – –
Windows Mobile 7 went live last week and picked up a number of good reviews in the process. Engadget goes pretty in depth with their review covering everything from the basic UI to the camera to the Zune/Xbox integration. I have to say it’s great to see Microsoft, or anyone for that matter, work on a unique solution rather then just playing the “me too” game. The core UI hasn’t changed much since they announced their Metro guidelines back in April. From everything I’ve seen WInMo7 is attempting to take mobile smart phones to the next level. The question is whether the masses will flock to WinMo or did that window already pass Microsoft by? If nothing else, I can see Android developers incorporating some of the new thinking that went into WinMo as the two battle Apple for the top.
– – – – –
There are some things that though we learn and it makes sense, people seem to need to be remind of them time and time again. Flowtown has a great infographic about the value of keeping an existing customer. And though some of the facts contained in their poster are well known it seems that big companies still reward the new customer over the old. Just about every cell phone service service, gym etc all give deep discounts to lure customers but do little to encourage the current customers from jumping for a competitor’s deal.
Another example of things we know but need to be reminded of is Jeremy Toeman’s editorial about the future of connected TV is not about the apps. It’s about the experience and apps are just a tool in providing those experiences. To sell those TVs you’ll need to entice and connect with the people through stories rather then just a list of apps.
– – – – –
Two weeks ago Google launches Google TV, this week ABC, CBS, Hulu and supposedly NBC have all decided to block their content. It’s not a technical limitation but a licensing one. Having worked at Comcast for the last few years I’ve seen licensing get in the way of progress more then once. In the case of Google TV the networks are suggesting that web content displayed on a TV is different then web content displayed on your monitor. I find this logic to be a bit of a stretch and stinks of desperation. Regardless of my opinion Google is in talks with all the networks in order to remedy things. Though I doubt Google will be able to make any headway with Hulu, besides being direct competitors, Hulu wants to push their Hulu Plus service (currently $9.99/month).
– – – – –
With all the talk about smart TV’s, Apple TV, Google TV, Boxee, Ruko, blah, blah blah. I’m pretty sure the average American glazes over when they start hearing about all the latest gadgets and the tech talk that surrounds them. While many Americans will buy one of these, as the real goal is to get their favorite TV shows and movies onto their TV’s in the simplest and cheapest way possible. Simply put, when it comes to vegging out we’re lazy. As it stands now Cable has the convenience thing down. While the internet has the best pricing plan (for most it’s free). So while each of the many connected devices and services battle it out the Internet already what the people are looking for. HTML, Flash, Silverlight and it’s accessible everywhere. Pretty sure this was part of Google’s thinking with their Google TV bringing the web to your TV. Well, Andrew Baron is suggesting The Future Of TV Is HTML and he makes a strong case for his logic.
– – – – –
The end of an era , as Sony announced that they will stop manufacturing their iconic Walkman. I can still remember my first Walkman and it coming everywhere with me. Then I upgraded to the Sports model. It was big, clunky and yellow with high-tech features like auto-reverse. Though that one didn’t last long as it’s bright yellow attracted a few school mates to free it from my locker while I was in class. It’s replacement took me through the dawning of the MP3 player. I even sold my Rio 64 because it couldn’t compete with the simple convenience of the portable cassette player. That was until the iPod came along. Last year there, for the Walkman’s 30th anniversary BBC magazine gave a 13yr old the original Walkman for a week. Not only was it entertaining, but some great insights into how much technology is integrated into our lives even while it’s so transient.
Apple’s “there’s an app for that” marketing has been causing companies to go app crazy and forget that a websites are still the primary point of interaction for users. A few weeks back the folks at Twitter reminded people that despite the fact that the heavy users all use 3rd party apps (desktop or mobile) the majority of users (78%) use Twitter.com. This week the folks at Twitter launched a new version of Twitter.com that features a number of elements that were previously only available in the app world. They added a dynamic side panel to showcase user profiles and conversation view all while not disturbing the core of what Twitter.com was. They’ve brought the sophistication of the external apps to the masses and with this they may have inadvertently signaled the return to web apps. For those that haven’t gotten the (rolling) invite to the new site check out TechCrunch’s overview “Best subtle things about new Twitter“.
– – – – –
A week doesn’t go by without Google making an announcement about something or other. This week they get their Google Voice app back on the iPhone. MacRumors gives a detailed run through of the app. Looks like Google has cleaned up their UI a bit with this version and offers just about everything the phone could do with the addition feature of translating your voice-mails into text. The one thing it can’t do at the moment is MMS, otherwise for $2.99 you can double the number of phones in your pocket without the bulk.
Also Google related is the steady growth of their Android platform, which is now 17% of the smartphone market. To put that in perspective the iPhone is at 24% and RIM’s BlackBerry commands 39%. Also note that the overall smartphone market has grown and these numbers are percentages of that growing market (data from Wired).
Part of Android’s success is it promotion from Verizon not having the iPhone to promote and instead needing to compete with it. Now Verizon wants a bigger cut of the action and has opened their own app marketplace. They say it’s for improved customer choice, but I’ll go with control and money.
While Android is growing into the third largest smartphone platform Nokia held it’s Nokia World 2010 event. They boasted that Nokia has a larger market penetration then Apple and Android combined, the threat is clear (as in they’re threatened). They followed their showcase of facts with info on their latest models, the N8 being the darling of the bunch. They flaunted “they perform day in and day out no matter how you hold them,” an obvious dig on the iPhone4. Then went into talking about the latest advances in Symbian and coding for it. Sadly, for US customers as nice as Nokia’s equipment is, if no carrier picks them up they don’t exist.
Final reference to Google (for this week) is their recent site/blog conveniently called Google New where they are posting all their latest products/projects. And by the looks of it they’ve been busy.
– – – – –
FCC is looking at opening up some radio frequencies, one of the selling points for opening these frequencies is the potential for Super WiFi. The are suggesting that this new Super WiFi would be able to travel farther and through buildings due to the longer wavelengths.
– – – – –
“Flash is dead, long live HTML5/CSS3.” Ever since Steve Job’s BS’ed his reasons why he didn’t want Flash on the iPhone this mantra of many front-end developers had some indisputable logic in regards to the mobile market. Now Android 2.1 supports Flash inside a browser as well as HTML5 true comparisons can finally be made. Based on the finding of Christopher Black’s tests (the video below) and a number of others Steve’s claims are no longer valid, if they ever truly were. So once again, developers have a choice as to what the right tool for the job.
– – – – –
It’s so easy in the world of technology and tight time frames to skip some seemingly tangential steps in order get the product or design out in time. Sometimes we just need to be reminded that we need to get back to the basics. I know that one thing that often gets skipped are the rough little sketches, Spyrestudios has done a nice write up to remind us of the benefits of sketching (and wireframes) in fleshing out ideas and saving time. It’s also a great way to look back and see the progress of ideas and inspire new ones.
A different way to look back and see how things progressed is BookTwo‘s 12 book collection displaying the changes to the “facts” of the Iraq War over the course of 5 years. The concept is simple enough, collect all the changes to the Wikipedia page on the Iraq War in one place. What it reveals is anything but simple, more of antithesis of the Orwellian nightmare 1984, where news/history was rewritten with no trace of what was. Then again, out side of BookTwo’s project how many people are looking into trail of changes that make today’s truth.
Returning to the temporal life where now is everything, context-aware computers will be a welcomed addition to the ever growing overflow of information. For years this has been an “up and coming” technology, now (read: once again) the researchers at IBM (and many others) are hoping the power of smartphones will provide the always on, GPS info and increased processing needed to make context-aware computers a reality. What’s interesting about all this technology and it’s promise still echoes some of the thoughts of Marshall McLuhan and Norman Mailer from the late 60’s. Beyond theory and technical abilities data sensitivity will also have to be addressed before the masses should be adopting little brother to guide them through life.
– – – – –
The value of ideas is one that seems to fluctuate depending on personal circumstance. If you’re the creator of the idea, then the idea is everything. If you’re the producer of ideas (production) then it’s the implementation of the idea that matters most. So which is it? As someone that straddles both sides it’s not any simpler to define. Like most things in life the truth lies in the gray area between the extremes. Recently, my buddy Arpit delivered his take on this topic and I think he’s on to something…iteration. A back and forth between pure concept and implementation. Love the connection to dogfighting as a example of idea->action proving iteration is the actual key to success (courtesy of Jeff Atwood’s own post on the subject).