19
Feb 14

Consumption is the biggest problem, Design is one of the best solutions

Picture courtesy NASA

Picture courtesy NASA

We all want to do the right thing when it comes to sustainability and the environment. We want to make the right choices – earth friendly choices when presented with one. Do we really know which choice is better? We rely on folklore to help us decide between paper and plastic for example. But is paper really better than plastic?. While our heart is in the right place we may not be doing much to help the environment until we change our consumption patterns.

The saw this TED talk today and it really resonated with me. Please spare 18 minutes of your time to watch this talk by Leyla Acaroglu (http://on.ted.com/EnvironmentalMyths)

The talk especially has important lessons for designers. Designing for sustainability is not just about using eco friendly materials – it is about taking the entire system and the entire lifecycle into account. And most importantly, to design in such a way to change how one uses your products to reduce consumption.


13
Feb 14

Staples have it right !

Staples, the office superstore, announced that they are abandoning Responsive Design and moving towards building different applications for mobile vs the web. See story here.

I think they made the right decision.

Responsive design is a concept that allows for the development of a web application in a such way that it can be rendered on multiple devices accounting for the screen sizes of those devices without having to build a special version for each device. The basic idea is to think of a regular website to be made up of a number of columns and rows like a grid. Content is then assigned to a multiple of these columns and rows. During the rendering of the page, CSS media queries are used to identify the device and knowing how many columns will fit on the screen, CSS is used to render the page appropriately by wrapping columns of content and stacking them one above the other. This makes it possible for the user to scroll through the entire page in a vertical arrangement on a smartphone for instance compared to seeing it arranged across on the desktop.

Historically, designers have approached the web first and mobile as secondary.  The buzz word associated with this is Graceful Degradation.  The content from the desktop browser is first gracefully degraded to fit the tablet and then further adjusted to fit the smartphone.  Mobile first argues for the concept of Progressive Enhancement.  Think smartphone first and then build up a full fledged desktop browser.  Mobile first strategy to put it simply accounts for some of the constraints of a smart phone like avoiding adobe flash, smarter use of bandwidth e.g. avoiding big image files, avoiding triggers like hover to activate something, avoiding concepts like right-click, double-click and so on.

The key reason to adopt the Responsive web design methodology is speed to market. It is hard enough getting one product ready for public use through the software development lifecycle. Imagine getting three versions of the software done. The thinking is that the team can focus on the intent of the app while accounting for certain constraints of mobile device and allow technology to make that app consumable on a number of devices.

When combined with Mobile First, Responsive design is a reasonable way to develop moderns applications. 

The need for speed exists for both startups and established companies. This was the approach we took after much deliberation in my previous company.

There are more people accessing application and sites on their mobile devices than desktops now.  It is extremely important to provide the experience that is tailored for the device rather than just adapting the content to fit the device. How users typically use the device and what actions they are used to on the device must be factored into the design.  This is especially true if you are selling something through your app. The responsive design may still be fine for content distribution.

It is time to develop specifically for the device and not employ build once use everywhere mindset.  Whether you build Native applications or Web applications that run on the device is not that important as long as you are complying with user expectations and making the application easier to use on the device – living within the constraints but also making use of the richness of sensors and input capabilities (touch, camera, microphone for example) of modern devices.

The typical use of the Staples site is to buy something you are looking for. Making it easier to search, compare and buy on the smartphone is as important as making it easier to search and buy on the desktop via a browser. While the end goal is the same, the how you get there is very different on the two devices.

I think Staples has come to the right conclusion by putting customer first and making it easy for that customer rather than ease, time and cost of development.


10
Feb 14

Enterprise Planning Software – Weak links remain

 

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Photo Credit: Darwin Bell via Compfight cc

In early 2010 as I was moving into a product manager role for a start-up company, I discussed the then current state of enterprise planning apps and their problems with someone who has spent a long time in retail planning and is someone I deeply respect and admire. My objective was to pick his brain to help design new planning solutions that addressed these problems from the beginning.

In that discussion, he identified four problems with Enterprise Software as it pertains to Planning in Retail.  I suspect that the same apply in general to Enterprise Applications across the board.

The four areas identified as weak links increase the risk of retail planning implementations failing and solutions not being adopted by the user community are Configurability, Scalability, Usability and Reporting. It has been four years since and I believe the weak links still remain and are as valid today as they were years ago.

Configurability

Many systems require an army of people with very specialized skills to implement adding significantly to the cost.   Complexity comes from proprietary/closed systems and need to learn specific planning language to be able to configure the system.  The definition of configuration itself is very loose.  Some systems need you to be able to write scripts to “configure” the systems whereas others give you an IDE in which you can write the code to configure the system.

In evaluating the configurability of the system, questions like the following should be considered.

  • How many people and what skills are needed for the implementation?
  • How configurable is the solution?  Is the configuration through an interface, text files, etc?  What is the language using which the software is configured to meet the functional needs?
  • Does the vendor have to be involved in the configuration? Is there an ecosystem of third parties that can deploy the solution?
  • Is the technology and data storage proprietary?
  • Handling of software bugs – patches, upgrades and such
  • Can the tool be configured to meet all/most/some requirements?
  • What kind of skills does it take to maintain post deployment?

Scalability

Retail problems are naturally big. The usual refrain from vendors is that their solutions scale linearly – meaning that you need to throw more resources at the problem as the problem size grows.  While this is technically true, I believe this is a cop-out. Product managers should own coming up with a solution to both the scalability and usability questions by better understanding the use cases and proper design and factoring of the workflows.  In evaluating the scalability of a solution being proposed, questions of the following nature should be considered.

  • How scalable is the application?  What are some of the largest deployments?
  • Special hardware required? Can it run on generic low-cost off the shelf hardware?  What hardware was used in the largest deployment?
  • How much data is moved back and forth?  If the user community is geographically distributed, do we have to consider virtualized environment (e.g. Citrix) solutions to improve response times?

Usability

The biggest competitor to a planning system is excel.  Planners love excel and it is the yardstick against which the performance of the tool is measured.  Usability is a huge impediment to tool adoption.  Almost all vendors have adopted an internal mandate (technology driven) to move towards a common UI platform across all applications.  These platforms were built for transaction environments and are misfits for the planning tasks.  Planning tasks are naturally data entry intensive and are usually entered in a grid of some kind that is a window into the multi-dimensional nature of the problem.  None of the Web UI widgets current being used meet the needs of a planning application.  Various vendors have made efforts that go to different lengths in trying to mimic excel like look and feel for the planning grid but have not been successful in replicating excel like responsiveness in Web UIs.

In evaluating the tool for usability questions like the following should be considered

  • Response times to planner actions – how long to make one edit and move to the next cell?
  • Is it web based, desktop? Are both a thick and thin client available?  Is the user experience in terms of responsiveness the same in both clients?
  • Is there a mobile client?  What capabilities are supported/not supported in the mobile client?
  • What are the typical response times to be expected in the context of specific planning tasks -e.g. opening a Department-season plan, or reforecasting for a quarter, saving the plan, etc
  • Support for planner productivity tasks like copy/paste, export/import from excel, mass updates, etc
  • Configurability of the user interface – both design time and at run time by the end user
  • Support for things like annotations like notes, comments, colors
  • Collaboration – can two people be in the same plan at the same time?  How does the tool support a planner and a buyer working together on a plan at the same time for example

Reporting

Reporting is often overlooked in implementations but is extremely important.  Costs associated with reporting are typically high – often much more than the cost of the tool implementation itself. Moreover, it is a key part of user adoption and satisfaction with the new tool.

This includes questions like

  • What reports are available as part of the tool?  What aspects of the planning process are being addressed by these reports?
  • Is the data model open? Can any BI tool be used?
  • What capability natively exists in the tool? Is there a reporting solution built into the application or the platform?
  • Can the reports always reflect the status of the plan in real time? If there is latency, how much, what are the guidelines?
  • Can both formal (pixel perfect) reporting and ad-hoc reporting be supported?

After four years my recent experience shows that the problems remain.  Most vendors have focussed on internal mandates like common UI, common platform.  While this does reduce the internal costs for development and maintenance, it has done nothing to alleviate the concerns of usability and inevitable comparisons to the configurability and usability of excel that the retail planning community will make with any system.


05
Feb 14

Whats the matter with all the new iOS apps?

in 2010 we gave my mom (completely computer illiterate) an iPad and my father in law (self thought savvy computer user) an Android tablet (the first Sony tablet).

Four years since, my mom is googling, youtube-ing, facetime-ing, emailing, photographing, shopping and cannot imagine her life without her iPad. My father in law returned his tablet to us last year very dissatisfied. He moved to Windows Surface Pro. He just could not figure out Android.

The simplicity and consistent behavior of iOS is one of the primary reasons for its adoption. Just three basic gestures to learn – swipe up/down, swipe left and right and pinch zoom and you were never lost in the navigation because of the single page app design and big bold navigation buttons that gave you the option of what is possible – Back, Next or cancel. It was impossible to get lost in the navigation tree.

Most apps today are no longer complying to the standards. Most apps just run in a container on the iOS but are really web apps. There is a competition to dream up the next user paradigm, the next cool UI. It is making the apps hard to use and will eventually hurt iOS because no longer will there be a difference between the app on iOS or Android.

Apps now need a manual on all the gestures that are needed. Not intuitive any more. Take the Facebook paper for instance, Swipe up does not scroll as you would have expected, it navigates you into the story and when you are in the story, swipe up will go further into the story by opening the video or the link in the story.

I recently started using two apps – Inside and Facebook Paper. Both do essentially the same thing. They help navigated stories – stories within a category and stories across categories. Each of them accomplishes this very differently – almost opposites.

Consider the problem as follows. Imagine a large table on which stories printed on paper are arranged in rows and columns. Stories that are of the same genre are arranged one below the other in a column. Each column then represents a genre. You start with the first story and decide if you want to read more stories in the same genre or move to another genre. The process repeats in each genre. This is essentially the navigation that both Paper and Inside are enabling.

The way to navigate in the Inside app is that you scroll through a genre (swipe up and down) and you switch genre by swiping left and right. Simple but you still need to read the instructions since it is not obvious that one can/should swipe right/left. But not a big departure from how you use other apps.

Facebook Paper on the other hand splits the screen into two. The top shows you a story in a bigger frame. The rest of the stories are arranged in film strip like fashion at the bottom of the screen. The gesture to navigate is swipe left and right. It matters where you swipe – if you swipe on the strip at the bottom you are navigating stories within the same genre. If you swipe on the big frame at the top you are swiping between genres. You select a story by touching the story. Once in the story you can swipe up and down. Swiping up and down means different things depending on the story. If the story is longer than the page up and down scrolls the page. If there is a link to another story then swipe up navigates into that linked story. You better remember where you are and the actions that got you there so that you are reverse your actions to uncoil back to where you want to be.

The animation and movement is cool but it makes Facebook Paper hard to use without first reading and committing the instructions to memory because there is nothing within the app to help you remember the gestures.

The navigation problem that both Inside and Facebook Paper deal with are the same ones that existed from the very beginning and one that almost all apps dealing with content face. Navigating within a context , navigating across to another context and drilling down to details of an item within a context.

Whats wrong with an overlay that shows navigation possibilities (back, next) and leave the gestures as they are? Why the fascination to dream up new ways to navigate and all by gestures alone? I am all for new ways of doing things but I believe it is the designers’ responsibility to know the difference between a better way and just a new way. Just to be different.

I am afraid to upgrade any of the apps on my mom’s iPad anymore. They may render one of the best things in her day useless.


03
Feb 14

Is “curated” content the new normal?

noise

For the past couple of years I noticed that I like curated content more than raw content.  I know this because of the types of apps I use and the sites I frequent.  For e.g. on most days my first stop for news is google news and then my feeds in Feedly (I used google reader until it was decommissioned).

My interests are diverse and it is hard to keep up with a large number of sites.  If there is something out there that can help me stay in touch with my interests by sifting through all the noise, I am all for it.

I want to go to a few hubs of information and get what I am looking for.

The big companies and individuals with big ideas detected this trend a while ago and starting retooling towards this new reality.

Move towards curated content

I am moving more and more towards curated content… relying on experts (algorithms actually in most cases – more on that later) to help me get to best information.  Being a consultant myself, I want the best consultants helping me with the most important news, the best music from around the world, the best games, the best entertainment, the best restaurants, fun things to do in a city, etc.

I am moving to Apps/sites like Skimm (a delightful way to start the day by the way) and Inside. Or Alltop for whats trending…

I love Pandora but I am beginning to prefer Songza – which introduces me to delightful new music I would never hear but for the curators.

I like architecture and design of spaces and from various websites/blogs I find that I like Houzz better.

There is a clear move from all the big players towards surfacing content of interest from the noise generated by billions putting forth their thoughts of a number of issues – most mundane but some profound and interesting. Lately, there is more breaking news as people tweet from the location of historical events as they happen.

The constant stream of updates and tweeting and retweeting creates a cacophony in which noises I want to hear are lost.  The noise is deafening ….   Blogs like this being part of the pollution.

Facebook just announced Paper.

Google added Explore to Google+.

Jason Calacanis and team just launched inside.

My favorite curated content source is Feedly… it has all my feeds – content curated by me… hard to argue about the relevance of this information !

The next step will be to offer true experts who will personally ensure that you are getting what you are asking for.  This trend is already here in fashion.

When it comes to fashion – people need help. There are a number of Curated Fashion Sites on the internet today.  Better yet, there are personalized shopping sites that do more than help, they deliver (like fruit of the month club) a box with fashion that is selected specially for you based on your tastes and your profile.  The trunk club being just one of them.

But will you like the results?

I believe experts matter.  I find their inputs and first attempts to surface information of interest to me is useful.  It is a much better start that me having to sift through the information.  I know the information is biased therefore it is important for me to know who/what is behind the curation.  If I know the person or the methodology, I can appropriately deal with the information.  In most cases, I can fine tune what is shown by providing proper feedback on the results being presented.

It is no surprise that with the volume of information, most sites use algorithms to help in the process.  An algorithm that curates news is no Walter Cronkite but it still helps me and I can tune it further to my liking.  Many sites use simple ranking algorithm that floats news that is most talked about (the definition of talked about can vary from the number of likes, or comments, trackbacks, or tweets/retweets,  etc).  If there are topics that a large number of people are interested in, then I want to know about it. If nothing else then to be participatory in a water cooler conversation.

So who is more valuable in the future: the ones who create original content, or those who filter through the noise to curate the most valuable content?

While I do not see the spate of new apps as truly curating content, I am expecting that things will evolve.