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Thursday, March 15, 2012

How not to build an error page.

This is crowdSpring's login error page.  My guess is some VIP ended up serving this, but even so - to have your login timeout and then deliver this error shows very poor attention to detail.  Don't be these guys.  Be THESE GUYS instead (keep clicking...)

On editing your own work.

On Thursday I finished my most recent round of edits on Shipping Greatness.  This step involved printing out the 315 pages doublespaced, going through every page with a red pen, and then applying all of those edits to the Word document. 

This process was painful.  It was slow.  I was bored.  When I grew bored I became worried that I was bored because the book was awful.  I have not been able to come up with evidence to the contrary, so I'm running on faith, at the moment.  I found that the editing work was most pleasant at the Pub, but that my productivity wasn't great, particularly after my second pint of Lucille.

I pushed really hard to make it through the red-ink stage to get to the copy-to-computer stage, figuring it would go quickly.  In a fit of curiosity I attempted to edit on an Android Honeycomb tablet, the Samsung Galaxy 10.1 and QuickOffice from the Android App Store.  This was a horrible mistake.  I used a bluetooth keyboard and mouse, but the app was so impossibly slow I couldn't scroll past the table of contents.  Also, there are no shortcut keys to jump back and forth by words, or copy and paste, get the point.

Now I have a quad core Macbook Pro with 12GB of RAM and an SSD.  It seems to run Microsoft Word OK.  Frankly, it should sequence genes OK.  But the process of incorporating the edits was still PAINFUL.  Now I couldn't go to the pub and do work because I needed the laptop and the paper - at some point there's a limit to how much you should spread out.  Also, I needed to sit at a table, which ruled out other fun places to work, like on the couch.  So the process became more painful.

I am done with this pass, however.  I'm not sure if I'll follow the same-two step process again; I certainly find problems more easily on paper, but I think this two-step process is slower than it needs to be.

Thoughts?  Share them with me at

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Crowdsourcing the cover - what I learned.

Two weeks ago I posted a $400 reward on crowdSpring for a book cover design for Shipping Greatness.   I spent $99 to post the award, but haven't paid out the $400 yet.  I've extended the "competition" as a precursor to cancelling it, since I haven't been impressed yet.  You can see the creative brief that I submitted here (pdf).  I learned some things about the current state of crowdsourcing in this process. 
1. Volume is high, quality is low.

I received 63 entries, which is actually more like 35-40 because some designers submitted a cover and full book treatment.  I rated none of them five stars, and only a couple got four stars (a "good" rating).  I wasn't mean enough to give anyone no stars. 

The volume of submissions is very high, the quality of submissions is very low.  The level of polish was low, most of the content came from other locations, and I didn't see much creativity.

It was interesting to me how many of the designers were not native English speakers; that bodes well for crowdsourcing in one regard, because it means the world is flat and the best talent is going to be noticed.

On the flipside, communicating and iterating around design is a major skill and if the consumers are going to be English speakers (many will be) then the designers need to brush up on their language skills.  Or at least proofread better with a copy of MS Word.

2.  The investment designers will make is not large.

The majority of the covers were stock photos with text.  One of the challenges with stock photos is that in addition to the $500 you're spending on crowdSpring, you're spending additional capital on the photo itself.  It's unfortunately hard on iStockPhoto to figure out how much rights will cost, and the designers don't say.  So you can't make a well informed decision.

3. Design is iterative and long-distance crowdsourcing doesn't work well.

One example of this is the first series of designs I received.  Designers didn't read the supplementary materials and as a result I got a lot of pictures of boxes, hand trucks, and packaging.  In their defense, I could have said "NO BOXES," which I did on day two, and that cleared things up.

4. The stupid customer doesn't know what they want!

I'm the stupid customer here and I learned two things on the day of the deadline.  First, that some folks thought the cover should be light and funny-ish. Second, as one reviewer said, "one person tipping up a light bulb is not a team."

The positive part of this is that maybe I have some guidance to give to a local designer - "in addition to the creative brief, emphasize humor/snarky-ness and team-ness." 

5. crowdSpring's site is good, but not Great.

The overall site latency is so poor that it becomes very hard to use.  One kind focus group participant had such a hard time that he sent a screenshot of his votes because he couldn't actually submit them!  (see below).

Other details are also problematic, like the images you see above are all cropped so you can't really see what the book cover looks like.  Or like the screenshot below, where you click on the thumbnail and it increases the size by 30% or so - still too small to get a feel for it, even though the native image resolution is at least 1024x768.

6. All in, I wasn't wowed.

If I received one design that was the clear winner or was clearly great, I'd be stoked and would forgive the latency and strangeness of the process.  But I wasn't.  Here are the top three covers (annoying cropped by crowdSpring so you can't see them properly!).  Feel free to tell me what you think on

PS: Screens like this do not inspire confidence, nor does being down for ~8hrs today.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Engineering in Seattle

Credit: Me.
Things are heating up in Seattle.  eBay is expanding their offices from Redmond to include Seattle.   Ticketmaster is growing their outfit here.  Zygna has an office, Salesforce has an office, and there's a bevy of startups, including BigDoor which has some crazy smart people and Stripes39 who are looking for CEO material as part of an incubator.  Even some of our favorite VCs, like Madrona Venture Capital, are going great guns.

All of these companies bode well for our fair city.  And why would you move here, or stay here during the rainy season?

Reach out to the folks at these companies if you want to come to where the water tastes of caffeine and there's not state income tax. 

PS: people here can't drive.  Not like in Boston, where you fight to the death in the Octagon of the Big Dig, but more like, they stop dead in the middle of snowy hills and get deeply confused by four way intersections.  And make left hand turns at traffic circles!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

How to make one click social posting work!

Updated 03/12/2012 - I'm still fighting with these various social networks.  Twitter, despite its features, seems incapable of actually posting to my Facebook Page.  Therefore, I'm changing the direction and originating content on my Page, and having the Facebook Page post to Twitter with #in.  This, I hope, will work.  I updated the instructions below...


After two weeks of fighting with various social networks I have conquered the diaspora that is today's social ecosystem (modulo Google+, which doesn't yet import Tweets AFAIK).  If you too are trying to use social networks to drive awareness of your products, here's what you need to do.  It'll take some time to set up, but once it's going you'll have a low-overhead approach to social media.

1. Create a blog.  This is where your primary content will go.  You want a blog because you can create rich content with images, tags, searching, etc.  It's also easy for people to add your content to their readers, which they can't do with Facebook Pages.  Obviously I've done this -

2. Advertise your blog on your website.  This is self evident, I hope.

3. Create a twitter account.  This is where you'll originate your recommendations, not your content.  You're limited to 40 characters, but you can pitch your blogpost in 40 characters.  I'm @ShippingChris.  Watch out for "adult" spammers!  Yowsa.

4. Create a Facebook Page.  The Facebook page ( is all about interacting with your community.  Or so my pal James who works at Facebook tells me.

5. Create a LinkedIn profile.  You probably already have one of these, but make sure to add your blog and website to it.
Link up on Linked In.
6. Link your LinkedIn profile to Twitter and your Facebook Page to Twitter.  Don't link your Twitter account to Facebook within Twitter; AFAIK I can't get this to work properly

Apparently you can now link to Twitter- do this just for your Page.

7. When you make a new blogpost, post it to your Facebook page with hashtag "#in".  The process you want is, post to your Facebook page, which will add the post to your personal page and also upload it to twitter.  If you add the hashtag "#in" it should show up on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Going too far: what you can learn from a $5000 water filter.

This is a $5,000 Natura water filtration system.  It makes great sparkling, cold, and room-temp water.  It was built by great engineers and one ding-dong designer.  What's wrong with this picture?

Right, there is no way to tell which tap is which!  Wait, the left tap has a tiny green ring (see it?) the middle tap has a blue one, and the right tab has a white one.  I will guess that Blue is cold, but which is sparkling? 

Someone kindly hacked this device by adding a cute printed picture above the taps - little bubbles, snowflakes, and a cup.  Boy, you could do so much better still!  Remember that these taps are nearly waist level, always below your eyeline, making labels on the FRONT of the taps bad.  Also, colors don't help the colorblind, do they?

So here's a quick mock of a much better design in my opinion, built in ~4 mins according to the techniques in the Book

Isn't that better?  It's legible, understandable, works for the colorblind, and the Germans would approve since it's simple line art and doesn't mess with the function of the system.  Since the handles are injection molded the cost for this design is effectively zero (maybe the paint you'd apply inside the molding might be marginal) but you also have to do less assembly because the handle is a single part, not two!  Win-win.

Natura, you can have this design for free. Just stop making $5,000 water filters that are not user friendly!

Remember, if you want to learn to make quick mocks like this, Sign Up to get the book.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why crowdsourcing changed software.

Back in the far past, in the third age of men, when you wanted something creative (copy, a graphic, a logo, you name it) you went to the phone book and found an agency.  You called them and hoped it came out and maybe you got lucky.

In the near-olden days, like, the early 'oughts, if you wanted a great graphic, you asked your colleagues and sent some email to someone they'd worked with in the past.  And maybe you got lucky.

Today, if your software needs icons, colors, or copy you can "crowdsource."  Specifically, throw up a hail mary creative brief and see what you get.  The thing is that unlike football where there are one or two receivers that are heavily covered (I'm still unhappy about the Giants), there are millions of possible receivers out there.  The mass of partially or barely employed creatives are there to solve your problem!

CrowdSpring is one tool you can use.  It's a fascinating portal where you post an award and pick a design.  You are the judge and jury and if you don't like what you get by your deadline, you get your money back (sans the $90 or so to post).  Chuck Palahniuk did it for his new novel, and CrowdSpring claims very high customer satisfaction.

I'm trying it with ShippingGreatness, so if you are a designer looking for $400 ($99 went to CrowdSpring, leaving you a $400 fee), check out the creative brief.

CrowdSpring is pretty easy to use.  The only thing that's a bit silly is you compile your entire creative brief before you've logged in, which means that it's profoundly easy to lose your work.  This is a bad design, but doesn't mean the concept is broken.  CrowdSpring also isn't very transparent up front that you lose your "posting fees" if you choose not to go with any submissions, so beware.

I'll post on how the results turn out.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Even the apples are optimized at Google!

Now, with lower latency to the core!

"Beauty," "Slickness," and the Germans.

Lately I've been hearing a lot of statements along the lines of "it has to be beautiful," and "slickness is a feature."  I've also been seeing puzzled and scared looks on the faces of the engineers who hear these things.  These looks are responded to with allusions to Apple almost always, but I find such explanations lacking.  I think you can explain what the more-slickness-people are driving at by looking at the Germans.

There are many German things that I love.  Three of them are the Leica, the Audi, and the Omega.  OK, Omega is Swiss but they speak Swiss-German so I'm counting them.

Leica M9
Omega Speedmaster
Audi S4
These three artifacts are all slick and beautiful.  They're coveted and carefully handled.   They are polished and treated with kid gloves and respect.  And they got this "slickness" and "beauty" not because the Germans are revolutionary artists, in the way Italian renaissance painters were, but because the Germans paid exacting attention to detail on a minute level and reduced each device to its essence.

There are few extraneous lines or shapes in these designs.  Buttons, markers, and curves nearly all have purpose.  Even that leatherette casing on the bottom of the Leica is there to make it easier to hold.  There are no numerals on the Omega because they would clutter the face and make the added precision of the second markers too hard to read - and you don't need them.  It's a clock, you know what the tick marks mean.  In the case of the Audi, its now-famous daytime running lights are not Xenon gas (which burns out but is brighter than LED) but are a series of LEDs, carefully sculpted into a patter that is visible and provides enough surface area to accomplish the mission.

The lesson the Germans are teaching us about beauty and slickness in software is that they are the product of dedication to careful technical design.  Reduce the necessary functions to what they need to do and no less, organize them carefully around the user, and don't add a lot of spinny-glowy-showy crap.  That's how you make a product slick.