Musings on Design, Entrepreneurship, and the Creative Economy

So this is why it’s so hard to blog!

01/05/2010

If you’re a regular reader of sxates.com (ha!) you may have noticed that after starting relatively strong, posts have trailed off and are now pretty infrequent. This is a pretty common problem for startup blogs – after you’ve dumped the initial genius thoughts you had that prompted you to start the blog, then you look around and think “now what?” But I’ve been enlightened to what I believe is the cause: everything I could share I assume most people already know.

Rajesh Setty has a great post explaining this (“Why some smart people are reluctant to share?“). I use my knowledge every day, I follow expert blogs that reinforce that knowledge, my friends are similarly expert in my field – so I perceive as common knowledge what many would consider expertise.

So for 2010, I’m going to try blogging more, and instead of thinking of my web/designer friends as an audience, I think I’m going to picture my clients. They currently pay me for my knowledge, so apparently it’s worth something right? And if any less experienced designers find the info valuable, so much the better. Come along!

Now I just have to come up with topics about stuff that isn’t proprietary or confidential to somebody …

Going back in time with vinyl

12/29/2009

Used music stores don’t sell 8-tracks anymore, or cassette tapes. But I’ve found several that sell old records. Something about vinyl gives it an enduring quality.

It’s been probably 15-20 years since I played a record, but having found a couple of local caches of vinyl gold, I decided to give it another go. I don’t know what it is about vinyl, but its a unique music experience for me, that my computers and iphones and zunes just can’t match.

turntableI found a couple of old turntables in storage that I tried cleaning up, but they didn’t work very well. For Christmas I got 3 turntables, 2 new, 1 very old. I’m sending the new ones back in favor of the 70’s model pictured here. It was my grandparents, and my dad has been doing some restoration work on it. It needs a bit more tweaking, particularly the amp, but it’s working well enough that I’ve got it hooked up and playing some Simon & Garfunkel tonight.

I think the thing with vinyl is that it requires your undivided attention. We hear music in the background all day long – while we work, while we drive, while we shop, while we watch tv… It’s constant, but never the center of attention. When you have to place a needle and can physically watch the music play, you have to just sit back and listen, and enjoy.

The coming revolt against Apple

08/11/2009

Over the last few years, Apple has solidified itself as the cool kid’s legitimate alternative to the Microsoft mainstream. They have excelled at packaging hardware and software together in sexy ways with usability that has put all the first-movers on defense, scrambling to catch up. The iPhone has been a smash hit and helped them expand their Mac market share substantially. broken-iphoneBut when you’re at the top of the cool mountain, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep your footing. There are storm clouds on the horizon, and there’s a revolution brewing.

The torches are being lit over in iPhone land. The iPhone has been a cult success in spite of itself in many ways. Other phones had better hardware and more features, and the iPhone was missing long standard features like MMS. But nothing matched the allure of the all touch screen form factor and the brilliant iPhone OS. When the App store was released, that made up for many of the (still persistent) feature deficiencies. But now that App Store is becoming a real problem for users and developers alike.

No soup for you!

The biggest issue is that the App Store is the only way to get your software on an iPhone without hacking it. Apple is the gatekeeper, and decides what goes in and what doesn’t. They claim it’s to maintain quality standards, and phone stability, which is a noble goal. The problem is that there are some gray areas as well. For example, applications that contain profanity are regularly rejected (including dictionaries). Ok, maybe we can overlook that. Then there are apps that are rejected because they might use too much of AT&T’s bandwidth, like the sling player. Other phones on AT&T have the sling player, but fine, maybe we can overlook that too. Then there are apps that “replicate existing iPhone functionality”, like competing browsers such as Opera, or most recently, Google’s Voice app. Now it’s getting harder to overlook.

Our phones are less appliances, and more specialized and miniaturized PCs.

Many people, especially techies like me, don’t really see much distinction between our phones and our computers. Our phones are less appliances, and more specialized and miniaturized PCs. My iPhone basically has the same hardware as the Pentium III PC I took to college a decade ago, only it doesn’t weigh 20lbs. It runs a proper operating system (a stripped down version of OS X in fact), and has much of the same software and applications that I use on my desktop. For all intents and purposes, it is a PC in an ultra mobile form factor (PC here being the general term for a ‘personal computer’, not necessarily a Windows computer).

So imagine if Microsoft said “you can create any app you want for Windows, but it has to go through us first for Quality Assurance.” And then imagine that MS rejected Firefox because it duplicated the built in functionality of IE, or it rejected violent games due to ‘morality standards’, or it rejected applications because they might use too much of your ‘unlimited’ DSL bandwidth, or in some cases, arbitrarily rejected your app for vague and unexplained reasons? It’s hard to imagine that going over well, but that’s exactly what Apple is doing with the iPhone App Store.

A lot of developers have poured a ton of money into development for the iPhone, and a lot of cool apps have been released (I’m raving about the USAA banking app today). But the recent decisions by Apple must be giving developers serious pause.

g1-hpp

Google Android (G1)

It’s one thing to invest a couple hundred thousand dollars into an app and then not have it sell well, it’s a whole other issues to invest that kind of money and not be able to sell it at all because Apple won’t allow it into the store.

Meanwhile, Google has built their own mobile OS, Android, on open source principals. Anyone can develop any app for it, no different from a desktop computer. Android runs on a variety of different devices, across multiple carriers, and compared to the iPhone is looking like a much more free environment.

Certainly AT&T is a big part of the problem – and is taking it’s fair share of heat as well. But Apple should be holding the cards here – their exclusivity contract is nearly up, and they don’t have to play by AT&T’s rules.

Solutions

Developers can then submit their apps for review to get into Tier 1, but know that they can always fall back to Tier 2 if there’s a problem.

I don’t like to be critical without a proposed solution, so here is what I would propose Apple do to calm the revolt. First, don’t renew the exclusivity contract with AT&T. If they’re influencing decisions here, give users the option to use a carrier who won’t. Second, create a tiered App Store. Tier 1 is what we have today – verified software by Apple, no adult content, low risk, with extra functionality like push notifications. Tier 2 is what is available on the black market of jailbroken iPhones today – lacking certification and quality assurance, but providing users and developers the freedom to connect as they should in the computing world, without a middleman. Enable parental controls so that parents can configure phones for their children that only access Tier 1, but we adults can assume the risks of Tier 2. Developers can then submit their apps for review to get into Tier 1, but know that they can always fall back to Tier 2 if there’s a problem.

Apple is exposing a soft underbelly here that you can bet Google and Microsoft will be aiming for. Google’s alliance with Apple is all but dissolved at this point, with Google going it alone with their own devices. Microsoft has some new things cooking with Windows Mobile 7 as well, and it’s getting harder to arbitrarily hate everything Microsoft. Apple needs to get it’s act together or they will find themselves as the anti-competitive villain they claimed to be fighting against.

Tips and Best Practices for HTML Emails in Outlook 2007, 2010.

07/27/2009

While office_2010_outlook_startupMicrosoft has been making great improvements on the web standards front in IE, they’ve been seemingly rolling backwards with HTML support in Outlook. For the 2007 version they switched from the IE rendering engine to the Word engine (apparently for security reasons), which is completely crippled compared to IE. For anyone who does email marketing and designs and codes attractive HTML emails, this decision has no doubt had you shaking your fist and cursing Bill Gates’ mother.

We were all hoping that for the upcoming Outlook 2010 release Microsoft would go back to IE, but they have announced that they are sticking with Word. The pitchforks and torches are waving, but it looks like we’ll be dealing with the Word engine for emails for many years. Even if they switch to IE for 2012, we’ll have clients using 2007 and 2010 for years. So if you haven’t yet learned the ins and outs of designing emails for Outlook, now’s the time to learn!

Forget all your best practices for CSS – go back to 2001 coding practices for an idea of where your head should be.

Mural does a lot of HTML email work for some of our bread and butter clients, and we literally have thousands of campaigns in our archive dating back many years, so we have a lot of experience testing for lots of different clients and learning the various techniques needed for each. With Outlook 2007 we have our most challenging client, and in general if your email works well in Outlook it’s probably working well everywhere.

Limitations

The first thing you need to understand when designing and coding for Outlook is that the usual rules do not apply. Forget all your best practices for CSS – go back to 2001 coding practices for an idea of where your head should be. Note that some of these things might work in Outlook, but I advise against them because in my experience they do not work consistently, and it’s embarrassing to get an email back from your client asking why it broke when they sent it, so just trust me.

General “best practices” for Outlook 2007:

  • Forget about separating content from design with CSS. Build your emails with tables and spacer gifs. No divs. See example below…
  • No background images, only background colors. If you want to have HTML text over an image area, you’ll have to make the area behind it a solid color so you can slice it out of the layout.
  • You can use basic styles, but use them inline attached to each tag, not in the header. Don’t get fancy – a lot of what works in a browser will not work in Outlook.
  • Don’t use padding, only margins. Padding does not work properly.
  • Keep your code as simple as possible.
  • Optimize your email for ‘images off’ mode, which is likely to be default for your recipients. If you don’t define a height for images, they’ll collapse vertically, moving your text content up. Do specify width though.

Lets take a look at a sample email:

webmetrics-email

View the HTML version for code.

Lets take a look at the first paragraph of HTML text for an example of how the email should be coded for outlook.

webmetrics-zoom

<tr>
<td width=”20″>
<img src=”http://client.muralconsulting.com/neustar/7ways/spacer.gif” width=”20″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” />
</td>
<td bgcolor=”#ffffff” width=”530″>
<p style=”font: 14px/20px Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif; color: #002765; margin-bottom:10px;”>
<strong>Budgets are tight, yet your customers’ demands for high performance from your online service are growing.</strong> The good news is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to make your web applications faster&hellip; if you know where to look!</p>
</td>
<td width=”20″>
<img src=”http://client.muralconsulting.com/neustar/7ways/spacer.gif” width=”20″ height=”1″ border=”0″ alt=”” />
</td>
</tr>

Note that we’re using tables to define the layout, not css, and we’re reinforcing cells with spacer gifs. All the styling is attached inline to the individual <p> tag itself, and not as a global p. Also note that we’re controlling vertical space with margins, not padding.

While many web designers and coders frown on tools like Dreamweaver for not providing accurate design modes for advanced CSS, Dreamweaver is actually a really good tool for emails, and can display them quite accurately. It was originally designed for building websites before the semantic web was popular, so it does old-school well. It definitely helps when building tables, so don’t be afraid to use it.

Testing your emails

There are three ways to test your emails: Sending it to yourself on a lot of different computers and clients, using a testing service like Litmus, and the ‘send page as email’ trick (Windows/IE only). While I don’t really recommend the former for practical reasons, the latter two are essential.

If you’re  using windows and have Outlook on your machine, the quick and dirty way to test is to open your email in IE, and then go to File > Send > Page by email. This will open a new Outlook email and insert the code faithfully into it. Don’t trust the compose view though, send it to yourself, and then you can see how it will appear when it arrives.

If you’re a Mac user, that will not work for you, and you’ll probably want to use a browser testing service that includes email testing. We use Litmus, which lets you test emails in a dozen web and desktop clients to ensure that it works properly. It also lets you test things like the fold, and turning images on and off. It’s expensive, but if you do this a lot it’s worthwhile. HTML clients can have even more compatibility issues than their browser counterparts, and can require just as much testing.

Certainly this is not an exhaustive article about all the ins and outs of Outlook emails, but it should give you a good working foundation. Like anything on the web, you’re bound to find more quirks, but following the guidelines here should get you 90% there.

Don’t define your customers, let your customers define you.

07/22/2009

Never underestimate the creativity of your customers. You may think you have a great product, but don’t get married to your intended purpose for it. It’s quite possible that customers will find alternative uses you may not have even thought of, maybe even better uses. If you’re launching a new product, particularly a web app, be prepared to adapt it to the way your customers actually use it, and not necessarily the way you designed it.

Original sketch of what would become Twitter

Original sketch of what would become Twitter

The most recent, and high profile example of this is Twitter. Twitter was originally designed as a “what are you doing/thinking/status” feed for friends. 140 character limits forced you to keep it short and sweet, and post more often. At first, this is how people used it, but after a while we all grew bored reading about how so and so was heading to the mall, or feeling a bit down today, or enjoying the rain.

Looking at twitter today, I think celebrities are the only ones left posting the mundane details of their daily activities. The rest of us have re-purposed Twitter for other uses. We have conversations, we share the latest news with shortened URLs, we plug our latest blog posts and company announcements, and then we ‘retweet’ anything we think our followers would think is interesting. Twitter is being used as a gauge for measuring hot topics, and for insight into consumer opinion and behavior. Brands are engaging with customers, providing technical support, hawking their wares, and turning their customer service reps loose. Then there are those who use Twitter as an alternative to RSS. And on the dark side, some users are trying to establish a Twitter beachhead for their “make money from home” affiliate businesses.

The reason there isn’t a plan for monetizing Twitter is that the primary use of Twitter has not really been established yet – it’s in constant flux.

Twitter has done a good job at adapting to these new uses. They have adopted the @user nomenclature for mentions, added top 10 trending lists, and opened up an API for data mining, spawning a whole industry of satellite businesses built around the information in the Twitter network. A new Twitter app shows up about every 3 days. Twitter would be nowhere if they had insisted that their service just be used for stream of conscious updates from teenagers.

At Mural, we’re close to officially launching a new site called CloudProfile, with sister company SMBLive. We’ve designed it with a specific purpose in mind – connecting small businesses with customers on the web, and in particular with social networks. But we’re already thinking of alternative uses, just for ourselves. Instead of setting up a central company blog, for example, we’re planning to simply give every employee their own CloudProfile, and then setting up a page on our site that aggregates the collective wisdom of all of our employees. It means everyone is connected to their own networks, as well as the corporate network, and upkeep of the blog doesn’t fall to one person or become a laborious task.

I love the idea of building tools that can be used in a myriad of new ways, and can’t wait to see what the world does with CloudProfile. As you build your apps, make sure that you’re building tools that empower users, not restrict them. Don’t spend forever building the perfect feature-complete app, but get an initial version out early and watch what people do with it. It may be used in ways you didn’t expect, and you should be nimble enough to assign development resources to supporting those unexpected uses. Connect your users together so they can share how they use it and allow good ideas to spread. The more uses your app has, the more valuable it becomes to more customers, so embrace it!

AT&T = Fail.

07/19/2009

After reading Tech Crunch’s article about AT&T’s current visual voicemail problems (AT&T Is A Big, Steaming Heap Of Failure), I realized I haven’t received a voicemail in a long time myself. So I went to test it – first I called my wife’s first-gen iphone and left her a message. It didn’t show up immediately, but a couple minutes later it appeared. Then I called my 3G phone from my wife’s and left a message. It’s been half an hour, and I haven’t received anything yet. In fact, I can’t see my deleted voicemails either – it appears it’s simply not working at all. Now of course I have to wonder if I’ve missed any important calls. Not cool.

Adding this to AT&T’s lack of MMS and tethering (and the reported $60/mo additional cost when it does come) with the 3.0 software, and I’m starting to agree that AT&T is sucking it hard. So I’ll add my voice to the chorus – Apple needs to end their exclusivity and give iPhone owners a choice. I like Verizon’s recent decision to limit their exclusivity contracts to 6 months, and think the other carriers should follow suit.

Lets hope AT&T gets their act together quickly!

UPDATE:

Just found out that if you press and hold ‘1’ on your iPhone dial pad, that it will call your voicemail the old fashioned way. I had a couple of unheard messages in there – recommend everyone with an iPhone try this if you’re having trouble.

Steal This Idea: Auto-Temperature Coffee Mug

07/18/2009

Steal This Idea is intended to be a series on my blog. Like many of you, I occasionally have these flashes of brilliance, and I’m just going to throw humility out the window and call them genius. Often, I see them on the market a couple years later, so apparently I’m not the only one. I don’t really have time to go execute on all of them though, so I’ve decided to start giving them away, in the hope that someone else who has the resources and the time will.  So by all means – steal this idea!

Several years ago, my wife and I stopped by Starbucks on our way to church, and got our respective beverages in our own insulated mugs (I’m not a coffee drinker, so I just get hot chocolate). As often happens at Starbucks, the drink I received was much too hot to drink. Because I had it in an insulated mug, it stayed at that temperature for a long time. In fact, 20 minutes later when we arrived at church, it was still too hot, and I ended up leaving it in the car and not drinking any of it.

So all through church I’m thinking about how to solve this problem, and what occurred to me is that what I need is a selectively insulated mug – a mug where the insulation can be broken to allow heat to escape, and then reestablish the insulation to hold it at that preferred temperature. What I envisioned were a series of metal ‘tabs’ inside the insulation layer that would expand when heated, and could be calibrated to connect with the metal exterior of the mug at n degrees, and then contract away from the outside when the temperature drops below n degrees. I sketched what that might look like below:

Auto temp mug schematic

Auto temp mug schematic

I’ve spent some time researching what might make this work. Unfortunately, the only things I’ve found that expand and contract substantially in the 100-140 degree range are toxic, like mercury, and something tells me that wouldn’t go over real well with the Starbucks crowd. Chemistry and material physics isn’t really my forte though, so maybe I’m overlooking something.

The other option, of course, is something that doesn’t work automatically, but manually. It wouldn’t be an elegant solution, and would require more attention from the user, but I can envision some kind of mechanical switch which would connect or disconnect the inner and outer layers. You’d just need to occasionally burn your tongue as a test, or integrate some kind of temperature gauge.

Either way, developing something like this is a bit outside my expertise, but I still want this mug. So if this sort of thing is your bag, and you know more about material science than me – please, build me a mug that fixes this. And if you sell it to Starbucks for millions of dollars, send me a 10% cut and I’ll be happy.

Update: My dad turned me on to PCMs (Phase Change Materials) as a possible solution to this, and after research it does look like they would work well for this application. A few weeks after finding PCMs the Fraunhofer Institute released photos of a prototype PCM cup that did just that. So I guess I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about it 🙂

How to respond to bad press online

07/18/2009

Following up on my earlier post about customer service being the new marketing, I just came across a great example of how your business should respond to bad press online.

TTAC BlogFor some reason, an insensitive phone call with a Spanish speaking customer was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, to the embarrassment of Frank Myers Auto Maxx. It got picked up by a very popular blog, The Truth About Cars, giving it broad exposure. Immediately the comments started coming, all of them disparaging to the dealer.

Fortunately, the owner of the dealership was paying attention, and responded quickly in the comments of the blog:

frankmyersauto :
July 17th, 2009 at 4:58 pm

I am the owner of Frank Myers Auto Maxx and I appreciate the person that brought this sick and pathetic video to my attention. Yes, it was made at my dealership but I can assure you that this type of behavior is NOT tolerated when it is known about. It is unfortunate that the “good guys” in the industry are not spotlighted more and this is the type of news that makes the headlines. I have called and personally apologized to the customer for this fiasco, I have had it removed from Youtube, and the people involved are being dealt with according to our strict company policy. In addition, all employees will be attending a mandatory sensitivity class. Once again, I owe anyone that had to sit through this embarrasing video an apology from the bottom of my heart and “thank you” for bringing it to my attention.

Great response – note that the subsequent comments turned around completely, becoming sympathetic with a business owner who can’t control everything his employees do, and thanking him for addressing it properly. Liability turned into an asset – done.

Newer Posts
Older Posts