“Web” Category

Design Products As a User

When Apple announced the iPhone in 2007, they presented it as a device that did three things: made calls, played music and video, and browsed the web. When I saw the announcement, I knew that day that I had to have one when it was released.

That wasn’t because I was an Apple geek (although I certainly was). It was because I immediately knew what it did and what it would do for me. It would do what I’d tried to do with a PocketPC for a couple years—put the web, my contacts and calendar in my pocket, wherever I am—and combine my phone and iPod into a single device that is superior to them at their intended function. I knew it because that’s how Apple presented it. They presented it as a device that did those three things.

They could have presented it as a technological marvel, a device that combines a high-resolution multitouch screen, fast mobile processor, cell and WiFi radios, and proximity, ambient light and accelerometer sensors into a handheld device with desktop-breed software and surprisingly-good battery life, a PC in your pocket. But they didn’t; rather, they presented it in terms of what it did for users and what they would find useful about it.

This isn’t important just for presenting the iPhone, however; of course, doing so made it immediately intelligible to me and many others, even those for whom the technology underneath it is closer to magic than science. They presented it from the user’s perspective, rather than from the creator’s, and showed what role it could play in our own lives, rather than make the viewer do that translation on their own. That’s an important lesson for how to market a product, but I think what’s even more important is that this focus on what it does for the user didn’t start at Apple when they began creating the presentation to introduce the iPhone—it began all the way at the beginning of the project itself. They envisioned and designed the product as a user, rather than as a designer or engineer.

What this means is starting with a problem or unfulfilled need that people have, something that, if it were improved, would make people’s lives better in some way. Then, you must understand precisely what that problem is, what the person really wants, and what the underlying causes of it are. Only then will you start designing a product or service. By doing so, the entire product creation process—from generating ideas (“ideation,” a word I loathe) to packaging and delivering it to customers—is within the context of solving a concrete problem. Every design and engineering decision made happens within it, and there is a built-in decision process for whether to add or remove something, and metric for how well each part succeeds: does it better solve the problem for the user?

This goes beyond “empathizing” with users.1 Instead, it means thinking as a user, from beginning to end, and using that perspective to decide what you should or shouldn’t do, and what your product or service should or shouldn’t be.

Apple does this better than any other company, and that’s the case in part because they are ruthlessly focused on it. One of Jobs’s more well-known sayings is that he is as proud of the products they didn’t ship as the ones they have shipped. This line is held up as a reminder that to do great work, companies must focus. But focus on what? This provides us with an answer: focus on what will do the most good for users. All decisions flow from that.

  1. “Empathize with your users” has always seemed rather disgusting a concept to me—it shouldn’t be some great insight to empathize with your users, and in fact, it sounds clinically calculating to me: empathize with your users and you will have more success! Empathy—understanding the feelings of others and caring for them—should be the starting point for all businesses rather than something to bolt on in order to increase sales. []
April 3rd, 2013

Urban TxT’s LA Hacker Space

Urban TxT is an L.A.-based group that introduces Los Angeles high school students to web and software development, and to the process of coming up with an idea for a product, designing it and building it. The group is doing fantastic work, and I’ve been lucky enough to help start a short iOS development course for their students. It’s a wonderful group.

The group and their students have a big idea for how to make L.A. a great place for youth (and people of all ages) to learn how to build things and to work on their own projects: they want to create a “hacker space” that’s open at all times for people to work and learn from others:

Imagine what life could be like if a teen in South Los Angeles could see more computers than liquor stores while walking home from school. Imagine if South LA did not have the highest unemployment rate in the city but instead produced the highest number of tech pioneers in the country. URBAN Teens eXploring Technology (URBAN TxT), a local nonprofit with a city-wide focus, seeks to accomplish that by building a technology innovation center in one of the most underinvested areas in the city. URBAN TxT will build a “hacker space” – a space with technology equipment and an open-door policy for everyone who wants to express creativity, address social issues through computer programing, and innovate through collaboration.

They’re competing for a grant from the Goldhirsh Foundation to make this a reality. I think it’s not only a wonderful idea, one that would benefit a lot of people, but the kind of idea that can improve how our staid and ineffective education system works—and make it more engaging and more transformative for students.

Watch the video they’ve made about their vision, and if you think it’s a good idea too, you can help them out by leaving a comment showing your support (or, even better, with your own ideas for the project). They’re doing fantastic work, and I think they deserve all of our support. Let’s help make this happen.

April 1st, 2013

The Pebble as Model A

Stephen Hackett:

The Pebble is like the Model A. When people looked at the Model A, some realized it was the future, and that one day, everyone would drive one. Others thought Henry Ford was off his rocker and that his invention was a one-off that wouldn’t ever go anywhere.

Good analogy.

March 29th, 2013

Simplicity, Ingenuity and Gumption

Patrick Rhone:

I’ve started to notice a trend with the apps that garner my personal praise. Some traits that they almost always share.

Simplicity, ingenuity and gumption. I love that. Very good way to summarize what good design is.

March 29th, 2013

Sean Sperte On #hashtags

Sean Sperte wrote a short, but very good, piece on hashtags. Here’s one part that stuck out to me:

Hashtags do have great potential. Even in their most basic form – for taxonomy – hashtags can trump inferral through machines. No one knows better what they’re saying than the person saying it.

So, so right. One of Cheddar’s features that seemed immediately obvious to me after seeing it, but had never even entered my mind beforehand, was categorizing tasks using hashtags within the task itself. Then, to see tasks with a certain hashtag, you just tap one of the hashtags. It’s instant categorization that somehow feels both quicker and more natural than managing a categories list and choosing one from a drop-down menu.

That’s one small example, but Sean’s right that it could provide much more accurate taxonomy for virtually all forms of text (or anything, really) with very little effort from users themselves.

March 28th, 2013

Google Introduces Same-Day Shopping

Google introduced a same-day shopping service called Shopping Express. Here’s John Gruber’s take:

This, from the company that shitcanned Google Reader because they wanted to “focus”.

Hard to disagree. And undermines much of what I wrote last week about Google. And by “undermine,” I mean “make completely wrong.”

March 28th, 2013

Why Developers Shouldn’t Use iCloud Syncing

Brent Simmons on why you shouldn’t use iCloud, even if it worked without issue:

Here’s the thing: half the mobile revolution is about designing and building apps for smartphones and tablets.

The other half is about writing the web services that power those apps.

How comfortable are you with outsourcing half your app to another company? The answer should be: not at all comfortable.

That’s right, and his other arguments (which are similar to the ones I made last year) are convincing, too.

iCloud is limiting, and building your own service allows you to provide more services. All true, but sometimes, all we want is for our data to follow us around to each device we use. With Quotebook, for example, I don’t really want unique social features that they could only build with a custom sync service—I just want all of my quotes on my iPhone and iPad, and I want to be able to add them from any of my devices.

In cases like Quotebook, it’s still possible that iCloud isn’t the right answer, because there’s no way for them to build a web application on top of iCloud. But that doesn’t mean they should have to write their own sync service. We should, ideally, be able to build on top of existing sync solutions, and write our own only if it’s truly necessary. I don’t think it’s good for the future of mobile computing if everyone is effectively required to write their own sync service. The number of devices people use is getting larger, but syncing data across them is still a difficult task. The goal should be to solve much of it for people.

March 27th, 2013

Nasty Gal

Nasty Gal:

In 2006, Ms. Amoruso was a 22-year-old community college dropout, living in her step-aunt’s cottage, working at an art school checking student IDs for $13 an hour. Then she started a side project, Nasty Gal, an eBay page that sold vintage women’s clothing.

Last year, Nasty Gal sold nearly $100 million of clothing and accessories — profitably.

Great story. There’s a lot to learn from what Amoruso’s done.

March 25th, 2013

Black Pixel Talks NetNewsWire

Black Pixel said a little about what’s happening with NetNewsWire. The good news: they’re developing new Mac and iOS versions. The bad news:

As far as sync is concerned, we knew we would likely need an alternative to Google Reader as early as last year. At the time, the option that seemed to make the most sense was to embrace iCloud and Core Data as the new sync solution of choice. We spent a considerable amount of time on this effort, but iCloud and Core Data syncing had issues that we simply could not resolve.

Ugh. As Steve Streza said on Twitter, if they can’t get it to work—a team of incredibly talented people—who can?

I really hope Apple’s working to fix iCloud’s issues. It needs to work, both for developers and for Apple.

March 20th, 2013


John Siracusa:

Google’s present position looks weak, but it has two big trump cards. First, Google has proven to be one of the few companies capable of creating, popularizing, and supporting a platform. Despite all the skinning and branding by handset makers, Google is still the driving force behind Android. This power can only be negated by another company that’s willing and able to match Google’s Android efforts on all fronts: OS development, app store, developer tools, evangelism, the works. That’s a tall order.

And they’re getting pretty good at hardware, too. Great piece—make sure you read it.

Apple’s biggest weakness right now is web services. Is Apple getting better at it faster than Google is getting better at hardware, as they move toward a more integrated approach? I don’t think so.

March 19th, 2013

Reader and Google’s New Integrated Strategy

Last week, Google announced they are shutting down Reader. Many people were upset by the move, especially because so many of us depend on Reader for reading RSS feeds even if we don’t directly use it. I’ve settled into using NetNewsWire on my Mac (which I have for years) and Reeder on my iPad and iPhone, and this set up has worked very well for a long time. It certainly is a pain to figure out a new workflow.

Some, though, have suggested that Google could charge for Reader or for developer access to its (private, undocumented) API if they really wanted to, so this is more evidence that Google believes so much in free-with-advertising they’d rather forego that revenue and kill the service than keep it around and charge.

I think that’s a misread of the situation. First, Reader was released during a very different part of Google’s history. In 2005, Google experimented with many different services that didn’t necessarily fit an obvious plan; instead, the strategy seemed to be to plant many different seeds, see which ones grew, which ones sprouted beautiful flowers, and which ones didn’t. And even within that environment, Google’s leadership was apparently unsure about Reader from the very beginning. I believe, then, that Google’s mistake was in releasing a product they cared little about, and for refusing to develop it into something more that could contribute to Google’s top and bottom lines. One of Google Reader’s creators, Chris Wetherell, wrote in 2011 that Google was ignoring many opportunities with Reader; specifically, it was a direct publishing mechanism from content creator and audience, and a huge opportunity to direct it toward information junkies (journalists, etc). The opportunity was there, but Google didn’t take it.

That’s a smart criticism, but it’s different than criticizing Google for shutting down Reader. Since Larry Page took over the company two years ago, Google has revamped their products to form a cohesive whole, largely in orbit around Google+, and have eliminated products, projects and teams that don’t fit their new focused strategy. Google’s management team apparently doesn’t believe that Reader is a part of that, and that seems more than valid to me; a pure RSS reader (which is, more or less, what Reader is) doesn’t have much opportunity, whether it’s monetized through a developer API or not (and, to be clear, there’s not much money there anyway). So they cut it, so they can focus their time and resources on projects they believe are important to Google’s future. That’s the right move.

I think this is a tiny part of a much larger movement within Google to follow a more integrated approach with their products. Until 2012 or so, Google used Android as a means to control the mobile market and to commoditize hardware, which together would make Google the dominant company in mobile and put them in position to make it their next big revenue source through advertising. This hasn’t been successful, though. Google makes relatively little from Android while one company—Samsung—makes more operating income from Android than Google as a whole. Think about that! Google is doing the hard work of developing the operating system and applications, but Samsung is capturing all of the revenue and income. Google’s Android strategy failed.

I believe that Google is streamlining and re-focusing its products around Google+ so they can create integrated products. Rather than just create Nexus devices (manufactured by other companies) that have been little more than reference designs, Google instead intends to combine Android/Chrome, their services (Gmail, Maps, Google Now, Google+, et al) with their new-found ability to create great hardware, and create first-class computing devices. Phones, tablets, notebooks, and wearable computing, all designed by Google, under the Google name and sold by Google.

This makes a lot of sense. Not only can Google create better products by doing so, and better push the bounds of the technology industry, but this also answers how they’re going to make money from Android: sell devices. Everyone is better off. Except, of course, for Google’s “partners” on Android. Samsung certainly isn’t, but HTC and the many others that make Android-based phones will be hurt as well. Perhaps Samsung will decide (or already intends to) fork Android and develop their own platform, but I don’t think that really hurts Google at all; Google already receives basically zero benefit from Samsung’s use of Android, so making and selling their own hardware and losing Samsung in the process seems like a worthwhile trade to me.

I want to say, too, that I not only think this is exactly the right thing for Google to do, but it’s exciting that they are. This embraces what makes Google great—their obsession with pushing the bounds of what’s possible in ways that are useful to everyone—but does so with a bring-it-to-market focus. This isn’t the old days of forever “betas” that we are used to; I don’t think it’s any accident that we’ve been hearing so much of Google’s X lab recently, considering that in years past, all of Google was effectively a lab.

Google’s undergoing a transformation before our eyes, and I love where it’s headed. I’ve been quite critical of Google Glass, but it’s part of a much bigger change at Google that I think is not only necessary but positive.

March 18th, 2013

Here Comes Basil 1.5

For the past few months, I’ve been working on a big update to Basil. It’s probably large enough to call it a 2.0, but I’m going with 1.5. There are a number of features I think you are going to love, but the big one is photos. Photos for recipes from the web, photos for your own recipes, browsing through your recipe’s photos—it’s all there, and it turns Basil into an entirely new app. It’s awesome to be able to look through your recipes and browse their photos to see what you want to cook, especially when they’re photos you’ve taken.

The release is coming soon, and I am beyond excited. To be notified the second it’s out, you can sign up here.

I have another announcement, too. I’m going to do something a little special for this release. Signing up there will also give you the chance to win a Baratza Virtuoso coffee grinder and a few bags of fantastic coffee courtesy of Tonx!

It’s hard to go wrong with that combination, whether you’re already a, uh, coffee enthusiast, or are just starting. I hope you are all excited for the new version of Basil and for the chance to get a Baratza grinder and Tonx coffee!

March 12th, 2013

Philips hue API

Philips released an API and iOS SDK for its Hue lighting system.

I love the future, where even lights have an API.

March 11th, 2013

Still Abiding After 15 Years

The Big Lebowski was released 15 years ago today. Ashley Fetters has an… interesting take on its legacy:

Over the last 15 years, the Coen brothers’ oddball noir-Western-surrealist comedy about one man’s complicated quest to get his rug replaced after a mistaken hitman pees on it hasn’t just become a cult classic—it’s become something closer to an actual cult. Not only has it launched at least one known, priest-ordaining faith; it’s also become a field of study for religion and mythology scholars, too. In other words, some seek meaning in the movie, while others find meaning, and meaningful fellowship, because of it.

That’s just, like, your opinion, man.

March 6th, 2013

Some of Your Best Ideas Are Someone Else’s

Matt Bischoff while explaining the origins for Quotebook:

Some great ideas come from other people who don’t have the time to expertise to build them.

Which is also why the initial idea isn’t worth very much on its own. It’s only worth something when it finds its way into the right person’s head—who knows how to cultivate it, develop it, iterate on it, build it—and has enough patience and drive to follow through.

(Via Marcelo Somers.)

February 28th, 2013