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November 13, 2013#

Thoughts on the Bonaverde

The Bonaverde coffee machine sounds like a coffee connoisseurs’ dream, but I question the maturity of the product and some of the design decisions.

The underlying value proposition of the Bonaverde is to enable consumers to enjoy the freshest coffee possible while cutting out wasteful steps in the coffee production process. The concept tugs at my heart strings given my love for the drink and the industry, but I felt that there was some bias introduced in the pitch as well.

One claim that jumped out at me is that coffee isn’t really “fresh” since it takes 6 months for the coffee to be delivered to a coffee shop. This largely depends on where you go, and most coffee geeks know that serious shops have an almost vertically integrated supply chain — they have a direct relationship with a nearby farm and they receive regular shipments on a weekly basis, wherein the coffee is roasted the day before (or the day of) shipment. As such, you are likely enjoying coffee at a decent shop that’s no more than 1-2 weeks old. If that isn’t a good enough timeframe, you can buy the beans directly from roasters at a local farmer’s market. These bags have a roasting date usually within 1-2 days of the sale date, which is excellent for most. The real point here is that a coffee’s “freshness” is not to be determined from when it is picked from the plant, but from when it is roasted. To the credit of the engineers of the product, they note that they found the 1-2 day claim “inconclusive” and challenge backers to experience the product itself. I look forward, certainly, to when (and if) they come to town. (As an aside, the Whole Foods in Austin is roasting beans on site and delivering them to the buckets in front of the roaster on a daily basis. Not bad.)

Ignoring the freshness, this is a good time to remind ourselves of the risk of backing a KickStarter project, which is more or less an agreement to be a beta tester of a product. I love the concept behind KickStarter because it allows makers to ship ideas, get them tested, and refine their product for deployment to the market. This means that companies like Pebble can reap the benefits of a massive testing audience before realizing how to make the product even more awesome. But, if you are a normal consumer, the risk of buying a Pebble watch on release is quite high, since there isn’t enough development support and there may be manufacturing defects. Similarly, the Bonaverde, while an outstanding concept, looks to have numerous parts in a well designed “black-box.” With one touch of a button, the machine roasts, grinds, and uses a rainfall to produce coffee. As a coffee geek, the appeal is the novelty of the method, but I am very worried about investing money in a product that I have no concept to its workings. There’s also something to be said about each step of the process being broken out and fine-tuned. I own a variable temperature pour-over kettle, a high quality grinder, and a Chemex. First of all, the price of each of these items is still less than the price of one Bonaverde. All that is missing is freshly roasted beans (covered earlier) and some filters (which run cheap). The only major manufacturing risk is having an issue with the grinding element or the Kettle filament not working. I can clearly see how my cup is being made with each element. In contrast, the Bonaverde has an enclosure that, while beautiful, makes the inner workings a mystery. If something went wrong, I know that they are probably going to be swamped taking orders from the high demand (by this writing, they have already met their goal with 26 days to go). So, if you want to be sure of every step of the brewing process, it seems you are way better off investing in the individual “parts.”

The additional nitpicks I have with the product may be unfair as I haven’t actually used the product, but they are worth flagging for those who do make the jump. First, if the machine has a water filtration system, that means the filter will need to be replaced every now and again. What if I already use something like a Brita for this purpose? Can I remove the filter? The second issue is with the smell. The product claims to have found a way to isolate the odors to only that of delicious coffee, but that remains to be seen in actual use.

All this said, I am super excited to see people like Hans Stier leading the charge to deliver exceptional quality to a potentially massive market. The opportunity for the device lies with more of a mainstream market rather than the connoisseur crowd, who likely already takes the time to make their coffee using the devices above and probably already has a method of utilizing the devices as well. On the same thread, people who go to coffee shops and Starbucks are looking for that coffee shop experience — something not encapsulated by a great home brewing system. In the end, I applaud the system as a proof of concept and hope that further iterations focus on improving specific parts of the brew, rather than on the device as a whole. (Perhaps this will come with their idea to open source the manufacturing process.)

August 26, 2013#

Life Beyond Reader

Another Medium post. I discuss what my reading workflow has been post Google Reader.

June 13, 2013#

Rethinking Notifications

Got my invite an Medium recently, so I thought I’d try my hand at the publishing platform with this post on why notifications, as implemented today, suck.

May 22, 2013#

Thoughts Related to Lex Friedman’s Experiment with a Lumia 920

Lex Friedman’s experiment with the Windows Phone reminds me of the some pain points with the OSs experience — and how it hasn’t gotten any better.

(Before plowing through this post, I highly recommend listening to this podcast covering the highlights of a four-part series in which Lex Friedman switches off his iPhone 5 in favor for a Windows Phone. Yes, I know that was from 2 months ago. I’m catching up here).

There are many reasons to love and hate the Windows Phone and iOS experiences. I didn’t make a formal announcement about this, but I switched back to Windows Phone about 3 months ago after switching back to the iOS from a pervious stint with a Lumia 800. This schizophrenic swapping of phones is symbolic of my love-hate relationship with the two phone operating systems. As Lex points out in his detailed, month-long experiment, there is a lot to like (especially initially) about the WP and the Lumia 920. Here is Lex describing his experience during the first week:

Despite its perhaps lackluster adoption in the marketplace, the Windows Phone OS itself is certainly no joke, and the Lumia 920 is a great device. Far from being a chore, my time with this phone is actually fun.

Both of us knew that the ecosystem was ill-supported (it, in fact, still is), but we both accepted that as a flaw of most things that are in their beginnings. Windows Phone 8 is only just now a mature enough to be in the ranks of iOS and Android 4.2+. The pervious Windows Phone version on the Lumia 800, while a dramatic departure from any mobile offering from the firm, failed to deliver in ways that the Lumia 920 makes up for. It’s like the dramatic change from the original iPhone to the iPhone 3G — the difference was night and day even though the experience seems the same on the surface.

Despite the ecosystem flaws, the Windows Phone OS has some joyous, almost genius moments, which I have described in length in this post matching up iOS and WP OS feature by feature. We both seem to agree that the iOS start screen experience is plussed by the WP live tiles view. Lex goes further to say (at least in the first week), that the tiles “add a degree of intelligence to the OSs home screen.” Seeing the content float to the surface makes it easy to “get in and get out” (as the earlier Windows Phone commercials touted as a feature). Lex doesn’t spend much time with the threaded messaging feature, but I feel this is one of the key reasons I keep coming back to the OS. It is effortless and intuitive to switch from a Facebook conversation to text message, and seeing the content from both streams feels more informative than the sectioned-off experience that iOS provides.

Lex fell out of his honeymoon phase quickly, and in the rest of his journey found the OS more annoying than enjoyable. Plagues included lack of notification controls, awful battery life, TellMe’s inferiority to Siri, and feeling the lack of app support. I completely agree with all of his points, and most of them are mostly related to poor hardware design or feature support. The message is that the ideas behind Windows Phone are solid, but the execution is poor. There are so many ideas that feel correct, but in practice they miss the mark enough to be a hinderance. For example, Lex points out that the keyboard doesn’t “trust itself:”

Still, the Windows Phone keyboard frustrates me, because it has the potential to be much better than iOS’s keyboard, yet squanders much of it. One big problem is that Windows Phone doesn’t trust itself enough: As you type, if it’s certain that your typo-laden word is meant to be something else, Windows Phone will autocorrect the word when you hit space. But it’s too often not comfortable enough making the correction on its own; instead, you must tap on the correct word above the keyboard. Trust yourself, Windows Phone! Of course by “vimputer” I meant “computer,” buddy! Don’t second guess.

I have scratched my head at this feature for a while, and my only conclusion is that the implementation is an attempt to be a design for everyone. I know this isn’t entirely the case — I have met some of the Windows Phone designers and they have persona driven work which should inform these decisions. But, if you were a fledgling OS competing with a widely respected platform, the gut instinct would likely be to target as much of the competition as well. It’s a always tough to make trade offs, but I feel that the Windows Phone’s “no compromise” attitude may have left some holes like the one above to be exposed.

Lex concludes his saga by suggesting a Frakenphone, but this would likely just create more complexity than desirability. I’ve heard Lex on In Beta and appreciate his desire to be really in-control about his phone experiences — the suggestions he makes would likely work well for his life style. But, Lex is a power user of sorts, given his extensive history with technology. A phone with multiple home screen tiles would likely become an even more cluttered mess of panels for people who wouldn’t spend the time cleaning up the window dressings. The seemingly primitive notification system on Windows Phone works for people who may not want to be bombarded with notifications and prefer the live tile experiences in place of notification center. Again, these are trade offs which I appreciate from both OSs.

Nevertheless, Lex’s opinion piece(s) bring to light many shortcomings of the OS and ecosystem in general. I definitely feel the pinch that Lex had after my second affair with the Windows Phone, and will probably switch back to the iPhone as well. I’ll be more reluctant since there hasn’t been a change to iOS just yet, but the small annoyances are (once again) catching up with me.

May 20, 2013#

The Big Purple Monster

Yahoo has been a busy beast, acquiring several companies and shoring up its mobile and social game. Here’s what we can take away so far.

In case you haven’t noticed, Yahoo has made a lot of moves since Marissa Mayer has taken the helm. This handy Wikipedia page lists every Yahoo! M&A since inception, where I have derived this list that includes those M&A’s that have occurred since her start date (June 16th, 2012) (click to enlarge, or visit the link):

yahoomergers

Some observations:

  • It looks like they are playing catch up in the social space: Stamped, Snip.it, Loki and Tumblr are all platforms that benefit from a strong, social user base. Over the years, Yahoo has evolved from it’s portal-like nature and has attempted to generate content that people would share from the site itself. Yahoo’s major content generators, Sports, Games, Flickr, and News stand to gain significant traction when coupled with the social platforms the company has required.
  • Mobile is the big play: All of these platforms have shined and scaled thanks to mobile usage. Stamped, for example, is a mobile social network that let’s people recommend things by snapping a photo of them and giving a rating on that item. This app could easily be integrated with Flickr photo shares and plugged into Tumblr. Which leads me to…
  • It’s time to build the ecosystem: These acquisitions are made to make it easier to make, share, and propagate content within a larger Yahoo ecosystem. Every acquisition feels like another puzzle piece being added to a greater picture: Stamped, Snip.it, Flickr and other Yahoo content is where the chain starts, Tumblr is the link to share this content, including Summly aggregation and propagation powering the backend. It’s a pretty solid picture on paper, but it will be up to the company to really make the transition and integration seamless.
  • Valuations of these companies are based on the future Yahoo stands to gain: Tumblr didn’t really have a clear revenue model beyond advertising, and it was struggling really to find a solid traction to match its massive scale. Yahoo has a solid advertising network and now has a vehicle to send ads through, but that’s the happy path. It will take a significant amount of further investment to make these services feel integrated as the months go by.

So far, Yahoo has done a pretty good job with cleaning up in house products and showing off their new flair. Their standard mobile offerings, including Weather and Flickr, have been given a great face lift and people have enjoyed the results so far. Yahoo still has a bit more to do before the big “rebranding” and hero updates to Mail and Games left. The M&As above likely serve that purpose, particularly as attractors to the new Yahoo. It’s great that the company already has a decent track record and that the Internet is quite forgiving forgetful.

May 5, 2013#

After an intense, exciting two years, I have completed my Master’s in HCI/d from Indiana University. The last month or so on this blog has been a bit stale, but I am looking forward to getting back to writing my thoughts down.

As always, I am sharing links and thoughts on Twitter as well.

May 5, 2013#

Beyond Activity and Engagement as Metrics for Use

Many companies use statistics to rationalize their need for existence, but these stats are disconnected from the true determinator of success: enjoyability by the users of their service.

Software companies typically rely on number of users as one measurement of health, but some companies pass over the fact that a proportion of these users are inactive. To compound this issue, there is no standard definition of activity — it is defined by the company who wishes to provide this information (and some companies don’t even do that much). In late 2012, Twitter ‘tweeted’ that it had more than 200 million active users on the service. In August 2012, Mint.com announced 10 million registered users. In early 2012, Airbnb was found to have 2.1 million registered users, but 85% were apparently declared inactive. All of these reports lack any standard or yardstick as to what their claims imply, so it is difficult to exactly know what true usage means. On the whole, the total number of users doesn’t seem to be a great stat in terms of how successful a company is really doing, which is why many people often point to ‘harder’ stats, like revenues per user.

But I’d like to actually draw your attention to those inactive people — the people that so many people chop off or dismiss from such metrics. Let’s suppose we defined a true, blue active Twitter user as someone all the users who meet any of the following:

  1. Has created an account within the past two weeks.
  2. Has posted a tweet to the account within the past week.
  3. Follows at least 10 people and is followed by 1 person.

It is likely that the number of users engaged with Twitter is closer to 30-50 million; therefore, the number of inactive users is conservatively 100 million. These 100 million accounts (owned by supposed “customers“) are just sitting there, taking up some space on server racks, waiting to be accessed by their owners. Are we to presume that Twitter is a healthy service with this much waste?

A wastefully created account is one that neither engages with the service and is not adding to the enjoyment of others who are engaged with the service. It’s an account that just sits there in a void of inactivity, only contributing to the user count metric. If we take this definition as a lens, then perhaps inactive accounts aren’t wasteful after all. Consider a person’s financials on Mint.com. This person may have only used Mint for a day or two before reverting back to traditional financial management (online or otherwise). Even though he or she isn’t using the features Mint can provide, the data he or she has kept on the service is to the benefit of others, since it is used towards metrics like “average spending for your area” or “trends for people who eat out a lot.” These metrics can be thought of as a common pool resource of information, where more people benefit from the metric’s robustness when more data is present. But, there is also a diminishing return to the number of accounts on a service. It could be that the data provided by users could go “stale,” or rendered obsolete due to the changing of times, economy, or other spending behavior. Mint (and other companies) may have algorithms to curb these issues, but data complexity may outpace these algorithms.

My speculations only lead to a demand for more critical metrics for usage and consumption on software services. While scale is a useful metric for startups to make the pitch to VCs as a metric of their product’s viability, there should be greater scrutiny to the quality of these accounts. In other words, thinking of success in terms of shipment, usage, or activity seems highly disconnected compared to the actual goals of the software: making life better for the users themselves.

March 22, 2013#

IBM

After a six month-ish job search, a lot of traveling and meeting some great people, I have formally accepted an offer to join IBM design after completing my MS degree.

IBM is undergoing a massive transformation, but in a way that goes back to its roots. The company has always been one focused on business/enterprise solutions, but they have had some great design perspective come through the doors. Most designers know about the Eames’ impact on the company, but it was Elliot Noyes who kickstarted the golden age of corporate design through the company (In fact, he recruited the Eames to join IBM). Noyes hired architects to construct some of IBM’s buildings, but also shaped the corporate image that IBM embodies today. The narrative fades away in the 70s and 80s as machine power and scaling were primary drivers of information for computing technology. What we know as “user centered design” didn’t really kick off until the tail end of this period. While IBM continued to innovate, they did so relatively quietly compared to most consumer-facing companies, like Apple or Google. Now, the lull is over and the firm is making a serious commitment to hire talent from all levels to help shape the next “100 years.”

It’s an exciting proposition for me as the job promises an intersection of a lot of my interests: rigorous rationale to shape design products, defining design process at scale, and creating/shaping ideas at a massive scale that can create impact. I got a chance to meet so many cool people while thinking about where to start a career. Startups had a strong pull given the fast-paced, scrappy lifestyle. On the other hand, corporations often had long-term, sustained design challenges. Design at IBM seems to sit between these two extremes — they are hiring many designers to help support their massive product portfolio in a startup-like fashion. While I may be assigned to work on a particular product offering, the scale and diversity of IBM’s systems allow for multiple learning opportunities with many teams and types of projects.

I couldn’t be more excited — but for now it’s time to finish up my thesis with gusto!

February 22, 2013#

Why We Still Buy Into Retail

MG Siegler draws a connection between the rumored Google stores and Microsoft’s fledgling operations based off of Apple’s playbook:

Naturally, this led others to take a page from Apple’s playbook. Notably, Microsoft. And while the experiment is ongoing, so far, those stores do not appear to be taking off in the same way. So when you hear the news that Google is considering opening their own retail stores as well, you might, well, scoff. But I think that would be a mistake. I think Google could be poised to nail retail as well.

It makes sense for a company that makes a hardware play to enter the retail store business. You can control the entire product experience by having a brick and mortar store to boot. Apple stores are like tourist attractions in many places, and their brand has become synonymous with style and luxury as a result. Microsoft, as MG notes, is taking a copycat approach, but at least they realize the importance of showcasing their products in the way they want to, rather than relying on Best Buy.

It’s the little things that make the Apple store retail model one to copy. You walk into a store and are (usually) greeted by a blue shirt to get your buying experience going. It’s usually 10-15 seconds before the first touch point. If you skip the greeters, you can drift back to the genius bar area and check in. You don’t have to stand in line thanks to a check-in system (where they note what you are wearing so they find you later). This leaves your wallet time to fly out of your pants and buy that extra lightning cable or take a look at the latest iPod. Once you get service, the company goes to great strides to make sure they have exhausted all options in order to get you to walk away happy. Some people don’t realize this: the company will bend over backwards and do things in order to make sure you tell others about them. A little over warranty? Ask (nicely) and you’ll get that new phone anyway. Want some data migrated? Normally you’d be charged for this service, but Apple does it for free. It’s like crack that is supposed to keep you coming back.

It takes a long time to built a strong promotion ecosystem, one in which the customers themselves are the lifeblood. Making a play for retail is great to showcase products, but it is the experience around them that makes the stores the most successful. Today, Best Buy is more of an Amazon showroom, especially thanks to recent advancements in the Amazon mobile app, which has a fantastic price-checking experience using a smartphone camera. As such, traditional retailers are borrowing from the Apple playbook to drive people into the stores, so that they can keep revenues in tact and provide a physical presence to the product’s typically sold online.

I like the idea of a coffee shop in a retail store, and in general it is a reason why malls are still a popular destination. At a shopping mall, you get to experience brands that you care about alongside food and people in the area. Shopping is a primary consideration, but a secondary purpose to a mall is entertainment. Starbucks understands the inverse: people come to Starbucks mainly to hang out as a “third-place.” Selling coffee is the added reason people come. Genius bar customers are in a similar bucket: they are coming to get a repair job, but they also get to shop while they wait. The picture painted here is that people are amazingly fickle. We go out and shop for things we want, and those wants change like the wind. What doesn’t change is the need for human connectivity, entertainment, and activity. The best retailers know this and bring those needs to the forefront.

February 22, 2013#

Reinvent Payphones Submission

Recently I worked with a team of grad design students (in the HCI/d master’s program at IU) to produce a concept video and interactive prototype for New York City’s “Reinvent Payphones” project. You can check out our video submission to see the design we produced if you are interested.

We set aside about 3 weeks to complete this greenfield concepting exercise, where we were mainly tested on our ability to constrain a problem space with fuzzy project requirements. The team of judges made it clear during a Q&A discussion that the space was wide open, and they encouraged teams to explore any and all types of concepts around five main requirements: connectivity, creativity, visual design, functionality, and community impact. We felt that the payphone is something that is utilized for many types of situations, so we first moved to design for a particular case: the everyday phone call. The phone call where you are wanting to meet up with someone, or just have a few minutes to catch up. Payphones are not only a way to connect with others, but they are a symbol of New York City. We wanted to accentuate both aspects of the payphone by creating an immersive sound and light experience for people.

The finalists of the contest will be announced next week, but we enjoyed producing a design regardless of the outcome. It’s always good to brush up on design skills and produce work for real world projects, especially when they are as wide open as this one.