The Apple Method. Steal it, If You Can!

So Samsung’s marketing firm interviews those in queue for the new Apple iPhone 5S and 5C. Wonder why they even bothered to do that. Here is the secret that Apple “fanboys” intuitively get, even if they cannot articulate it always. The Apple Method is available in the open. Are you fit enough to steal it?

From such simple and obvious principles emerge the confounding complexity of building a sophisticated phone and surrounding ecosystem.

Every time Apple sneezes, folks in town are rallied, pitchforks raised to rid the land of this “otherness”. I wonder what rankles and rouses everybody to react so. Perhaps because Apple has an opinion? That they are presumptuous enough to know what matters? Or is it just old-fashioned tribal thinking, whoever does not look, think, dress, dream, play and pray like me is evil or uncivilized?

Anyway, the video is another example of craftsmanship and resulting from deep introspection. Just for fun, watch it with headphones on and observe the delightful soundscape.

Apple caters for those who delight in the details. They don’t always get it right, but then no company can.

Android and iOS – Two Approaches to Managing Constraints

iOS-Home

In a perfect world with infinite resources, one can create a perfect product. It would be a thing of beauty, with oodles of functional excellence and be dirt cheap. Unfortunately that world does not exist but in the fevered imaginations of dreamers. The rest of us have to live with constraints the real world imposes. We think hard about which audience we create the product for, how will it help solve their problems, what price will they pay, and so on. I have learnt a lot from this post on constraints by Matt Gemmell. Some quotes from that post, which should be read and assimilated in its entirety by the way.

All technology imposes constraints.

There are many factors to consider. Performance and power consumption. Size and weight. Noise and heat. Beauty, durability, and portability. Connectivity and upgradeability. Compatibility and of course cost. At buying time, we presumably consider availability too. They’re all interrelated in various ways, forming a complex web of trade-offs.

What will you optimize for, given the constraints imposed. What is more important to you as a creator. What is important to users you wish to target. But the hard reality is this, Users don’t really get to make a complete choice.  The hard choices are already made by the designer.

I remember Steve Jobs mentioning in one of his presentations that users employ product creators to make these decisions on their behalf. It is the job of the designer to choose between constraints judiciously. Not to randomly tack on features because it helps tick off one more check box in the minds of consumers who might not think deeply. Whether multi-tasking is a benefit when considering power management on a mobile device. Whether screen-size accounts for ergonomics of a human holding the device.

Superficial customization, extensibility options provide an illusion of control for the end user but come saddled with unacceptable tradeoffs for some users. For example extensible memory on my Galaxy S2 was seldom used. I preferred syncing over Wi-Fi or even a cable with my PC.

As a concrete example of how engineering decisions impact user experience, see this post by a Google engineer on why Android does not have a Fluid UI experience and might never have one. Here is the money quote:

It’s not GC pauses. It’s not because Android runs bytecode and iOS runs native code. It’s because on iOS all UI rendering occurs in a dedicated UI thread with real-time priority. On the other hand, Android follows the traditional PC model of rendering occurring on the main thread with normal priority.

That gentlemen is a classic example of a design decision taken on the Android platform. Deep in the bowels of the OS is a decision that ripples up to the UI. Of course am not sure if this was a decision to not optimize for fluid user interface. Or perhaps it was a legacy constraint that Android engineers could not work around.

The point is this, what are you optimizing for. Will you take the hard engineering decisions, that would not be seen or even understood by 99% of your users? Will you ask user’s to trust your judgement or will you take the lazy route and give everything the user asks for?

Apple chooses to optimize for user experience, for tactile responsiveness. Android chooses to optimize, or not, for broadest compatibility across a range of devices. Seen another way, the choices seem to be whether to work well on a single class of devices or work sub-optimally on a range of devices. What the designer chooses says a lot about their priorities. Which platform a customer chooses says a lot about what constraints they are willing to live with in exchange for what services.

Don’t miss reading Matt’s post, it opens up additional perspectives on how one should think when creating anything.

A Word Holds a World – Pitfalls in Design Thinking

To design something is not a random process. The creative act has its characteristic associative leaps within and between concepts. Pinning words to these concepts can limit design thinking. A few thoughts on this topic.

If we’re thinking of a lunchbox, we’ll be really careful not to have the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas which are … quite narrow.– Jonathan Ive

David McGillivray has written a beautiful post on how labels are saddled with assumptions and how it narrows design thinking. The context is a design competition to build a lunchbox that is also a bag and a pencil box. Some fantastic quotes from David’s post. 

Labels have to exist because we have to talk about projects with people when we’re working on them, and if an element doesn’t have a name, we need to give it one so people know what the hell we’re talking about.

..right, next is the “Profile Page.” Just this generic label alone starts the design process in my head. Immediately, my subconscious cross-references all the profile pages I’ve seen and compiles a generic layout for me. 

it’s not our fault, it’s (hopefully) not because we’re bad designers, but because ofhow our brains are wired to work. The association that occurs is an unconscious process that plots its commute along well-worn neural pathways that are formed and reinforced everyday as we work, and discuss design.

The entire post is a fantastic deconstruction of how designers approach designing. Make sure you read it. 

Its fascinating how a mind cognizes the world. Every sensory input is labelled, classified, stored and processed away. Being aware of this cognitive process invariably makes you a better thinker. It does not matter if you are not a designer, even as programmers or product managers, one invariably has to name a class or a feature or an entire product. Awareness of how an idea will be perceived makes you able to choose an appropriate name.

And I also find the idea of conjuring a whole world of visuals, feelings, ideas, words and preferences from merely uttering a word as akin to magic. Assume I said, “Game of Thrones” or “Mahabharatha” or “Illiad” or “Scala”. Based on your exposure to these works, a whole set of impressions would have been brought in front of your mind’s eye. It is miraculous how the mind has an entire set of impressions stored and indexed and is able to retrieve it in real-time. And this is not just lexical matches, even semantically associated/related terms are brought out.

A mythologically inclined mind would treat us as magicians, by our ability to bring up worlds of experience with a mere word! Perhaps there is something to it when Vyaasa said, 

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story. – Rishi Vyaasa

And watch the video of Jony Ive reviewing lunchbox designs. Such humility in his stance. And the Apple lab is not shabby either! 

How do you think about thinking and design? What is occurring in your head just now?

Massive. Ugly. Asymmetric. Behold the Iron Throne!

So formidably beautiful. Behold the Iron Throne, the seat of power for which “Kings are dying like flies”.

GoT-IronThrone

If you have not yet caught up with Game of Thrones, it might be time you did so. The novel by George RR Martin, and the HBO series of it are both awesome.

In George’s own words about the Iron Throne:

This Iron Throne is massive. Ugly. Assymetric. It’s a throne made by blacksmiths hammering together half-melted, broken, twisted swords, wrenched from the hands of dead men or yielded up by defeated foes… a symbol of conquest… it has the steps I describe, and the height. From on top, the king dominates the throne room. And there are thousands of swords in it, not just a few.

This Iron Throne is scary. And not at all a comfortable seat, just as Aegon intended.

Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.

George has a way with words, a unique ability to bring his imaginary worlds to life and make it tangible for mere mortals like us to gape at. The art work itself is by Marc Simonetti.

(via iO9)

Inventor, Invention and Intent – Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart passed away on July 3rd 2013. The father of the “Mother of all demos“, he was a visionary inventor. In response to obituaries from popular news sites, Brett Victor digs into what tech writers get wrong about Engelbart’s work. Here are some quotes. 

When I read tech writers’ interviews with Engelbart, I imagine these writers interviewing George Orwell, asking in-depth probing questions about his typewriter.

Brett has a point. Tech writers are prone to simplify. Constraints of getting message across to a wider audience, lack of time, or even lack of comprehension all manage to simplify the message to the extent of saying nothing. The point is that the larger motivations of an inventor are drowned out. As Brett so eloquently states,

This is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil. 

Engelbart’s vision was to build systems that augment human intelligence. And again as Brett states,

Engelbart’s vision, from the beginning, was collaborative. His vision was people working together in a shared intellectual space. His entire system was designed around that intent.

Intent of an inventor is nuanced by necessity. If you read the paper by Engelbart you understand the depth of this thinking. It does take time to explain anything of value. Besides an online journal or tech blog is not usually a place for nuance or depth.

That said, I do understand the constraints of tech writers or journalists. Visitors to their portals don’t have time. The header has to capture attention. The body has to communicate the message as briefly as possible. Attention is a scarce resource.

I face these issues when talking about our product CollabLayer to potential customers. Articulating the proposition, and our intent to amplify collaboration & insight discovery takes a lot of work and time. Reducing it to small sound bites eats away the nuance. Elaborating leaves the customer with too much detail or just plain bored.

I try to understand context and constraints of audience to adapt my pitch. In the last few weeks, my pitch has gotten refined but there is a long long way to go before we can emulate the “Mother of all demos”. Don’t miss that demo, you will learn what a ‘visionary inventor’ means. Check out our baby too. Doug would have understood where we are headed, we hope you check us out and agree too  🙂

How Not to Do Content Recommendation

Good intentions are sunk by bad copywriting. LinkedIn sent me this a little while ago. I did not click a single one of these “Influencer Summer Guides”.

LinkedIn-Content Recommendations Not

 

First that repetition of “on the best” made me cringe. They could have put the original titles, if there were any. I don’t care about value of content behind those links, bad post titles, especially from large networks like LinkedIn, should not be rewarded. Else the system (both machines and/or the humans behind them) would generate more such ‘content recommendation‘ junk.

The “Top 10 Blog Post Title Patterns of All Time” school of copywriting & content generation has gone out of control.

Sure, to gain audience you might have to resort to these tricks..but damn this is LinkedIn! They have a large global audience and have supposed influencers..could they not attempt something original? Why perpetuate the mediocrity?

This is our Signature. And it means everything.

This is it.
This is what matters.
The experience of a product.

How it makes someone feel.
Will it make life better?
Does it deserve to exist?

We spend a lot of time
On a few great things.
Until every idea we touch
Enhances each life it touches.

You may rarely look at it.
But you’ll always feel it.

This is our signature.
And it means everything.

My iPhone 4S drowned around 5 months back. Not wanting to spend a ton of cash on an iPhone, I took another route. I opted for a Windows Phone, a Lumia 820. I could handle it for a few months.

About two weeks back, I had enough. I had enough compromising on my own design and aesthetic sensibilities, enough compromising on what I valued and enjoyed in any device I used. I gave in and bought an iPhone 5. If there is one thing I have noticed that good engineering is not just about features, it is primarily what informed the design thinking of the creators, it is about what they wanted to evoke in you every time you used their creation.

Now, more than ever, I utterly understand what Apple means by “You may rarely look at it. But you will always feel it”, every damn time I lift the phone and use any of the apps.

Other platforms can try their best to cram features, add bigger screens, be first to add a visual idiom etc. But most do not understand whatever deep design-based thinking can accomplish can only be bettered by superior design thinking. Without it one builds castles in sand.

Pixate – Style your iOS Apps Using CSS!

It is a truth universally held by all learned men and women that Apple’s development environment and tools suck big time. Others say XCode and iOS dev environment have grown mature lately, perhaps it is true but I can only imagine the horror it must have been! Last week I came across a effort called Pixate on Kickstarter that should alleviate some pain for iOS developers.

Pixate – Styling in iOS

To be honest XCode does a half-decent job to let you style controls. But the workflow of importing graphical assets of multiple resolutions remains convoluted, leave alone making UI respond to state changes within the application. Pixate seems to have solved this problem rather elegantly, they propose styling apps their components using CSS and their custom CSS Engine. This is awesome at couple of levels. First developers can piggy back on their knowledge of CSS from web development world and two it enables an extra level of separation between Views and how content within is actually styled.

Ancestry of Pixate

I personally do not know what exactly inspired Pixate developers to use CSS as the styling engine. Use of CSS in web development as mentioned above is well known, so that is an obvious starting point. But there are precedents in other areas too.

Take for example how XAML works in WPF and Silverlight. There too is a clean separation of control elements and the code to style them. In fact, though XAML is a proprietary language, I thought it was a well engineered technology. Of course Microsoft never quite nailed positioning for XAML leading to its poor adoption and high failure rate. I have seen projects on WPF/Silverlight being used for purposes they were never designed for, say real-time rendition of high volume graphs, that too on half a decade old hardware.

A minor detail, XAML is not just about building UIs and styling them, it was a markup for object serialization..which explains why Workflow Foundation rules/graphs could be described in XAML. Sadly it did not take off but am fond of XAML still.

Support Pixate on Kickstarter!

Without digging into the past, let me just say I love what Pixate are attempting. Driving look and feel in iOS apps via CSS-like syntax is a good thing. So I have registered myself on Kickstarter as a supporter of this project. If you are curious am going for the $99 pledge, gets me a single user dev license if the project goes through. I would highly recommend you take a look at Pixate and support them, we all win if tools surrounding iOS(they have an Android equivalent on their plans too) development get more smarter.

Update – Pixate now supports importing Adobe Photoshop Layers in Real-Time! This is awesome, check it and give it your support!

Google Nexus Very Shy, Shirks Unboxing

Google Nexus must be the first Android device to receive unanimously positive reviews, including Apple fans. Always good to have some competition to keep Apple on its toes. But this is just surprising, see the video below.

Google Nexus Engineering Let Down by Packaging

Clearly shows someone did not view the product as a customer would. Or the product managers and engineers who designed it went home early leaving package design to Asus?

The last mile of a marathon is the hardest

Quick thought.  So it is with building products. All the complex engineering and management challenges faced to build a good product like Nexus is hidden to the end user, what they crib about is the tape that sticks the box together.

For my own clarity, attention to detail is not just about the cool industrial engineering, the software and apps. Most important is the last mile of product management that starts from unboxing, to switching on the device to the time the device is let go off.

Nest Gets Engineering and Marketing Right

Nest-thermostat

Nest is a thermostat. A thermostat is not usually worth talking about. Nest though is worth talking about and many have in the past.

Engineering or Marketing

There are products that are engineered well but the messaging falls flat. Some products get the marketing right but engineering fails to measure up. But there are times when engineering and the messaging surrounding it come together in perfect harmony. In such rare moments, the engineer and creative person can be content at what they have accomplished.

Nest’s latest advertisement does justice to the engineering behind it. Watch it first.

Reminds me of another product messaging.

Thinking Time

Instead of listing down how both examples resonate with me, am going to try something different.

First. Which other unsexy and green utility like Nest has better marketing?

Second. How would you introduce an iconic device like the Apple iPhone that might change how people communicate?

Fire away in the comments or drop me a note..details in the contact page. I shall post my views in comments mid next week.