Musings on Design, Entrepreneurship, and the Creative Economy

Let’s be honest: Smart watches are dumb.


With the recent release of the Apple watch, there’s a lot of buzz about smart watches being the next big thing. I used to believe that, but now I’m tempted with apostasy. In fact, I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and claim that the Apple Watch is probably the dumbest thing Apple has ever made. And I say that as someone who has 2 Macbooks, 2 iPads, and 4 iPhones within reach of me.

I’ve always been a big watch guy, and a big tech geek. So when the Pebble watch Kickstarter launched in 2012, I was super excited. I had been saying for a long time that I wanted something that extended my smart phone out of my pocket, and on to my wrist. And there it was — so I immediately put down my $115 pledge, and patiently waited for it to be delivered many months later.

What arrived looked like a prototype of a smart watch. It was plastic, and felt cheap. But no matter, I wore it consistently for months. I defended the watch as the ideal wearable over things like Glass, which were always in your field of vision, and had serious fashion issues to deal with. I had actually expected this to be a space that Apple moved into sooner, and figured it made so much sense that the Apple version of what Pebble started would be just around the corner.

Had the Apple watch been released in 2013 I would have been first in line. But what the interim years have shown me is that I don’t actually want a smart watch. At least, not anything that’s on the market right now.

Getting notifications on your wrist sounds like a cool thing. You never miss a message because you couldn’t feel your phones brief vibration in your pocket. And you can control your music with it! Neat, right? But in the real world, it quickly becomes a nuisance.

For example, I spend about 8 hours a day at my desk at work, with my phone on my desk. When someone would comment on a Facebook post, or send me an iMessage, I would get a notification on my desktop monitor, then my phone dings, then my watch buzzes. Maybe my iPad too if it was nearby. I’d pick up my phone to respond, then get a message back, with all my devices buzzing away. What time is it? Have to hit a button on the watch to clear the notification and get back to the clock.

Even when my phone was in my pocket, I found the watch mostly useless. Sure, it would give me a more noticeable notification buzz, and show me what exactly my phone was buzzing about. But 9 times out of 10, I still had to pull my phone out of my pocket to respond. Knowing the content of a text message on my watch is neat, but if I’m pulling my phone out regardless, then it’s just another thing in my way, and another button to push to clear the notification.

I look at my phone often, perhaps too often, to need to be reminded to look at it more.

And therein lies the problem with the Apple Watch. They learned nothing from the devices before them, and failed to design an experience that actually makes my day better. And in one big way, the Apple Watch is a step backward from Pebble: The Apple watch has to be activated to show you the time, while the Pebble always shows the time.

But my biggest gripe with smart watches, and in particular with the Apple Watch, is that they seem to have simply tried to scale down a smart phone into a 42mm screen. They have replicated the functionality with little regard to what actually makes sense for a device that size. Most of the functionality on the Apple Watch can be done on an iPhone, and done better. Why am I browsing stocks on my watch? My phone is a better device. Text messages? Browsing photos? Reading a map? Reading email? Way better on the phone, which you must already have, or your watch wouldn’t work at all.

The first featured app in the Apple Watch store right now? Twitter. Which can’t even display a full 140 character tweet on the screen. How is this better? Why does anyone want this?

Watch! Huh? What is it good for?

You can tell it was a struggle to actually come up with use cases for a watch that made sense as watch-first experiences. Hence the heart beat transmitter, which is simply a cute gimmick that nobody will use more than once. The Apple Watch even fails as a watch. Nobody cares about millisecond time accuracy when they can’t simply glance at it to get that time.

The Apple Pay integration is interesting, but that hasn’t really panned out as something people really want. And again, you can use the phone you already have as well.

So all that’s left is the activity tracking. But if that’s all you want, Withings makes a very nice looking analog watch that tracks all that for you, which never turns off the screen, doesn’t require an iPhone, is water proof, and doesn’t need to be recharged for 8 months. And it costs less.

I was really hoping that after my disillusioning experience with smart watches so far that the Apple Watch would do it properly and restore my faith in wearables. But if even Apple hasn’t been able to make it work, what hope is there?

#twitter100: Rediscover Twitter by unfollowing almost everyone.


My generation is waking up to the fact that we don’t need a lot of material ‘stuff’ to be happy, and that in fact our possessions can act as a drag on our freedom and happiness. But we haven’t yet learned that lesson in the digital world. We install dozens of social apps on our smart phones, building networks on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Path, LinkedIn, Quora, Google+, FourSquare, and more. I can flip tabs on my browser between Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, RSS, and Quora, hitting refresh on each one and consume an entire day reading the latest thing on all of them. It is too easy to over-subscribe and over-consume.

This isn’t a good thing.

It’s time we cut some calories out of our information diet. For me, the network with the biggest problem is Twitter. Updates are a mere sentence or two, like a 4-calorie Tic-Tac, so you feel like you can handle a lot of them. But before you know it, you’ve binged and are in a situation where a tweet comes in every second. My twitter following count quickly reached hundreds of people soon after starting a few years ago, as the service makes it easy to follow everyone you’ve ever heard of and more. But with 500+ following, the service became largely unusable for me. I couldn’t hope to keep up with it all.

This meant that I wasn’t able to keep up with the people I really cared about and knew in real life though, because they were all just buried in the noise. The result was that I simply stopped using twitter for the most part.

Recently I decided to do something about it though, so I set out to change the way I use Twitter. I took inspiration from a personal policy I have of having a fixed number of clothes hangers, and pulling an old shirt out of the closet any time I buy a new one, so my wardrobe remains fresh and compact (important when living in San Francisco!).

I decided to do the same thing with the people I follow on Twitter. So I started removing a lot of hangers from my twitter account, so to speak, by unfollowing everyone I could stand to unfollow. I was ruthless: post more than 4x a day? Unfollowed. Can’t remember ever seeing a tweet from you? Unfollowed. Post nothing but trite nonsense? Gone. Can I live without knowing every update? I already am, so I might as well unfollow.

I took my list down from about 500 to less than 100. The remaining accounts are close friends, a few news sources, a few journalists or notable industry commentators, and a few others I find interesting or entertaining. The result has been dramatic! I can check twitter just a couple times a day and pretty much stay on top of what’s happening with everything I really care about. I don’t have a new tweet showing up every few seconds begging to distract me from whatever I’m doing. I actually reach the end of unread updates, look up from my phone, and take part in the real world more.

The Challenge

I think Twitter has done themselves and their users a big disservice by encouraging users to follow as many people as possible. At a certain scale, it is really detrimental to the experience. So I’d like to challenge everyone to a new way of using Twitter: Limit yourself to 100 follows. Concentrate your experience, and force yourself to have the discipline to only follow the really quality accounts. Want to follow #101? Go through and unfollow someone less interesting.

This could have a meaningful impact on the quality of the Twitter community. It means that when you follow someone it’s a high compliment because you don’t simply follow everyone. When someone with <100 follows starts following you, it means that they’re likely to actually see and read your posts. And if everyone is limiting their follow lists, it encourages better quality content, knowing that there is competition to be worthy of a spot on other’s follow lists.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed by Twitter these days, and its just a firehose that you can skim at best, try taking the #twitter100 challenge, and encourage others to do the same (with a tweet, natch). We’ll all be better for it in the end.

(And of course, I’d be honored if you chose to follow me: @BrianScates)

Grace Hopper, inventor of the COBOL language

Men of Silicon Valley: We’re sexist, we just don’t know it.


As someone who moved to San Francisco about a year ago from Dallas, I was really struck by how progressive everything here was. Silicon Valley seems to be the embodiment of the American Dream, and one of the few places left in the country where you have a good shot at realizing it, especially in technology. We like to pride ourselves on being at the cutting edge – technologically, economically, and socially. I know sexism has been a big debate around here lately, so I want to relate some of what I’ve seen as a man who’s relatively new to the scene. In short, there’s definitely a problem.

Last week, my company (Selligy) was competing in a startup competition against 7 other teams. We ended up winning, but barely, with tough competition coming from the only female founder in the group, Kati Bicknell at Kindara.

Kindara is a mobile app for women to track fertility signs, with the goal of conceiving quickly and successfully. It’s a big problem, and one that a woman should be behind solving. Before Kati’s presentation even started, however, it felt like many of the men in the room suddenly reverted to Junior High.

As the event’s host introduced Kindara as an app to help women get pregnant, someone in the audience shouted “I can’t wait to see the demo!” Comments and puns continued after the pitch, many from the all-male panel of judges: “Fertile markets”, “market penetration”, etc., with a pretty giggly audience.

It was all pretty juvenile. Clearly Kati’s startup was taken seriously, as she almost won, but it’s one more thing to have to play along with and endure. Kati chuckled along with everyone else, but I think that’s just a defense mechanism she’s employing. If I were Kati, what I would hear in those jokes is a discomfort among the men in the room when it comes to a woman talking seriously about a sexual issue, and I don’t think it’s a problem a man would face.

Women are a big market, maybe the biggest, and women founders and engineers bring a unique and needed perspective to female-specific pain points. We need them involved, but any women in the audience for the pitch listening to the juvenile wisecracks probably felt discouraged from doing something like this. Why would they want to put so much effort into starting a company if that’s what they would have to endure in front of hundreds of people every time they want to promote their business?

To put it in user experience terms, some men in the room were adding unnecessary and unfair friction for women founders.

Read More

CRM vs. Friendship Relationship Management


Have you ever considered how similar Salesforce is to Facebook? No really. We are frequently discussing in the office how CRM (Customer Relationship Management) is such a dry and boring space, unlike consumer facing services, when it hit me today that Facebook and other social networks aren’t really all that different in purpose.

I think the point we were discussing today was that it doesn’t really make sense any more (if it ever did) to seperate our personal lives from our professional lives, in the sense that during the day we interact with one social circle, and after hours we interact with an entirely different and non-overlapping circle. Salesforce vs. Facebook. But the world is changing, and these worlds are colliding. What we do and say in one circle is going to impact the other. You can’t write a personal blog post and not think about how it will be seen by your company, employees, investors, or the press. So the circles are forced to overlap in a Venn sort of way.

We use CRM tools like Salesforce to manage all of our customer contacts – who they are, how to contact them, notes and interactions, etc. Companies spend enormous amounts of money organizing all that, but nobody gets particularly excited about it. It’s dry, its dull, its “enterprise.”

But in the event that I need to contact a friend, where do I go to look for their phone number if it’s not already in my phone? Where do I go to see what a friend has been up to lately? What city they’re in? What they’re interested in? Facebook. Or what I’m going to heretofore refer to as FRM (Friend Relationship Management). CRM requires you to input data about others, FRM lets others do it for you. CRM is work, FRM is fun.

Does it have to be that way? Why can’t CRM be more like FRM? Why do they need to be distinct circles anyway? Much like our personal and professional lives, it seems they are destined to merge.

My apologies to the design gods for my 5-minutes on the train venn diagram above. I would have used Comic Sans to seal the deal, but I’ve erased it from my computer.

5 Companies Ripe For a Takedown in 2012


Happy 2012! Lets talk about some companies that are ripe for disruption this year. Below are 5 companies that I think are at serious risk of being unseated from their top positions in the near future. If you’re looking for ideas for a new startup, or wanting to know what startups you should be looking to join, consider these as trend lines to jump on.


GoDaddy has been the big-daddy of domain registration for years, aided by obnoxious and tactless super bowl ads which, despite all due criticism, made GoDaddy the registrar who everyone had heard of, and which many people used. They’re like the Wal-Mart of domains and hosting – if you only care about price, GoDaddy has been the go-to registrar.

They’re at the top of my list of companies itching for a takedown right now because of the recent dust up over their support for SOPA, and the ensuing exodus of domains from tech-savvy customers, but GoDaddy has been on my radar for years because of their horrible user experience. Something as simple as purchasing a single domain name turns into a dozen-page nightmare of confusing forms, aggressive add-ons and upsells designed to trick users into buying things they don’t need, and a miserable interface that would make Gandhi want to stab someone in the face. After you’ve registered that domain, managing it is often just as difficult, and despite being a relative pro when it comes to these things, I’ve had to call their phone support multiple times to figure out how to change something. God help you if you have other services with them as well.

SOPA issues aside, and those are certainly valid, GoDaddy has a huge vulnerability when it comes to user experience. Whoever comes up with a “mint for domains” will win a lot of converts, even if the price is slightly higher. I moved most of my domains out a year or so ago after being fed up with GoDaddy’s nightmare of a site, but I have yet to see someone really do it right yet. I expect soon I will. The reality is that domains and hosting and other services once the domain of the tech elite are now being sought by the mainstream, and the experience for purchasing and managing them needs to be updated accordingly.

Read More

Why Android’s Smartphone Marketshare Doesn’t Matter


This past week at the Le Web conference, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was asked why he thought most mobile developers were choosing to develop for iOS first, and Android second. Schmidt replied, “Six months from now you’ll say the opposite. Because ultimately applications vendors are driven by volume. And the volume is favored by the open approach that Google is taking.” (See video here, answer is at 41 minutes)

I’m not sure if he actually believes that, or if it’s just what he has to say because he’s the CEO of Google. In either case, I think he’s wrong.

Chart: Smartphone Marketshare

Market Share

Schmidt is arguing that because there are more Android phones than iPhones, it only makes sense for developers to focus their efforts on the larger platform. He’s right in that Android currenty has almost twice the market share as iOS, and marketshare is a big part of the puzzle (just ask anyone thinking about building a Windows Phone app), but market share doesn’t tell the whole story. Read More

Redesigning an Elevator’s UI


About six months ago I moved out of my suburban house and into an apartment in a 35 story building in downtown Dallas. This of course necessitated the use of an elevator 5-6 times a day to walk the dog, go to lunch, meetings, etc. Any time I need to go anywhere, the trip starts with an elevator. It’s a typical elevator, lots of round buttons for the floors, buttons for opening and closing the door, etc. It’s pretty much just like every other elevator I’ve ever used, but something about using it all the time has made me realize how poorly designed elevators are in terms of interface, particularly this one. Read More

Designers vs. Developers in Startups – You Need Both!


Dave McClure at Business Week recently published an article about the value of design to startups, in which I thought he made some good points about how important designers and marketers are to the success of startups and applications. Predictably, this didn’t sit so well with developers like Steve at Big Dumb Dev, whose sarcastic response mockingly fails to think of a single startup where design trumped development. As is so often the case, I think the answer lies somewhere in between.

I disagree with Steve that the success of many/all startups was due to stunning technical achievement. While that’s important, and indeed at the heart of many startups, I think design is too often taken for granted. Perhaps I’m a bit bias being a designer myself, but nobody would want to use your awesome new app if there wasn’t a designer on the front end designing a quality UI. In the case where developers are left to their own devices, usually the app is ugly and unusable. Google as the example of a company that doesn’t need designers or marketers is disingenuous. Google is really a case where they are successful despite poor UI/UX design simply because they are reliable and free. Google Analytics, for example, has serious usability problems and a pretty steep learning curve, but it’s popular because it’s free. If it were not free, it would have a big vulnerability from a competitor who invested in a good UX designer, and it’s one of the reasons John P over at Woopra has a business that can compete with free.

Lets look at Flickr as another example. There’s nothing technically amazing about a photo sharing site (I’m sure there are some achievements in there for scaling and performance, but those apply to any large app), and Flickr wasn’t the first. What made Flickr work was design and marketing. It was EASY, you could make friends and comment on photos, and the result was a social network around a hobby. You wouldn’t need a team of MIT grads to build Flickr, but you would need a team of designers driving product development, making careful decisions about whats needed and whats not, where everything on the site goes, what the interface elements are, etc. Those are key advantages Flickr has over other photo sharing sites, and it’s why Flickr actually makes money while other sites struggle to attract members for a free service.

I’m currently working on a startup myself, 1FTP, where we’re rethinking how we can use FTP connections. FTP has been around forever, and has become a commodity, but it has a tender soft underbelly when it comes to usability because the only people who have been working on FTP products to date are developers. We have an awesome developer on our team, but technical achievement isn’t what’s needed to make a better FTP service. What’s needed is to make FTP simpler, easier, and idiot proof. It should be something that is natural to use, not something we loathe to use. Anyone who’s tried to walk an FTP newbie through the process of connecting to a server over the phone will understand where the difficulty is. The 1FTP team is 1 developer, 2 designers, and that ratio reflects the needs of the product.

I think it’s only natural for everyone on a team to view themselves as indispensable, and that is often the case. Design and marketing alone won’t take 1FTP anywhere without a developer. But in today’s market the inverse is also true – development alone is not enough to make a product people want to use, and designers are a critical part of a product’s success. If you’re building a startup for consumers it’s essential to make an investment in a good UI designer, and the earlier you bring them into the process the better.

Crime & Punishment on the Internet: Should we forgive a thief?


This is a story of what not to do on the internet. It’s a story of theft, of law suits, of a community coming together to fight a common foe. It’s a story that I thought was over years ago (2006 is ancient history in internet time). It may yet turn out to be a story of forgiveness. But before we get to the story, let me share with you the email that prompted this post:


My name is [Kevin C].  A few years ago you posted a photo about me stealing photos on the internet. I am looking for you to delete the photo on flickr:

(link withheld, here’s a screenshot)

What I did was extremely wrong and I was able to apologize to the other photographers and mend fences a week after the incident happened. I was younger at that time and much more immature than I am now after a few years.  I’m not a photographer by any means – in fact I sold my last camera last year and have no intention of doing any photography work in the future.

However, the internet is not as forgiving and that image has sat at the top of Google results for my name for at least four years.  In this time I have struggled to find adequate employment and do simple things like form new friendships with people in fear of them finding out my last name.   It has been mentally draining on my psyche to say the least.

In 2010, I am looking to get a new start in life and looking for a second chance.  I am asking for you to look into your heart and help me move forward in my life.  This will give me greater peace of mind and help with future employment opportunities which will lead me to live a meaningful and fulfilling life which is what I want more than anything.

Thank you for your time and consideration, please write me back when you get a chance.

– [Kevin C]

It’s a very nice letter, and a lot nicer than what some of my photographer friends received from him when they blogged about him stealing their work in 2006. Back then he had a lawyer send them letters threatening a defamation lawsuit if they didn’t take down posts showing that he had stolen their photos. Of course they wisely responded by posting the threatening letters, resulting in a flood of attention to the matter that spread over the internet in dozens of blogs (see: Streisand effect).

Kevin felt the full wrath of the internet, and rightly so. He was blatantly taking credit for work he did not do, and then had the balls to sue those who called him on it. I commented at the time that this mistake would haunt him forever, and he’d likely have to legally change his name if he ever wanted to work in the creative industry. Looks like I was right, because here we are 4 years later and he’s still trying to recover.

Kevin’s email this morning asking me to help him put all this behind him stirred up a mix of feelings for me. One the one hand, I am not sure the punishment of a scarlet letter for the rest of his life is fair. We were all young and stupid once. I was actually guilty of plagiarism when I was young as well, but  fortunately for me I learned my lesson in third grade, not in college.

On the other hand, he really should have known better. He wasn’t in the third grade, he was an adult, and should have the foresight of consequences. It was a real dick move, compounded by the fact that he stole from really high profile people with really high profile friends. By all standards he deserves to have a hard time finding work in a field where this sort of thing is not just embarrassing, but potentially a multi-million dollar liability for an employer.

Crime and punishment on the internet is a strange thing. There’s no judge, no sentence, no debt to repay. You’re judged by everyone, perpetually, forever.

Crime and punishment on the internet is a strange thing. There’s no judge, no sentence, no debt to repay. You’re judged by everyone, perpetually, forever. I don’t think that’s really a good thing. Maybe Kevin deserves the consequences he’s served in the last 4 years, but does he deserve them in the next 4? Or 40?
So I still haven’t figured out what I’m going to do with my little piece of his sins. I’m not sure it should be entirely up to me. His punishment was doled out by the community, perhaps the community should be involved in lifting it.

So what do we think, viewers? Should Kevin get a fresh start, or should the scars of lessons learned remain as a reminder and as a warning to others? Sound off in the comments.

(Please note that I have withheld Kevin’s full name in the hope that this post will not add anything more about him to Google. If you know his full name, please just keep it to first name only in the comments. I’ll edit it if you don’t)

Getting Started in Social Media: Twitter for Business


After one of our clients recently set up a twitter account for her company and we connected, she sent me an email that read “OK, seriously – how did you manage to get 439 people to follow you?  I mean, I’m sure you’re an interesting guy, but 439?  The race is on!”

I had to admit that 400 wasn’t really that many compared to a lot of the people I follow, and we continued a conversation about how twitter and other social networks could fit into their marketing plan. In keeping with my new years resolution to blog more for clients than creatives, I thought this topic would make a good blog post – so here we go: how to use social media for your business (an introduction). Read More

Older Posts