Archive for October, 2011

MMOs: Creating a compelling user experience over time

Last weekend, I virtually attended BlizzCon 2011, a conference hosted by Blizzard Entertainment, the game developer behind Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo. A major focus of this annual conference is to provide insights and generate excitement about upcoming content planned for each franchise, but it is also a celebration of gamers, by gamers, and for gamers. Tournaments give us a chance to see the best of our fellow players compete against each other for major prizes (for example, the champion World of Warcraft arena team split a USD75,000 first prize) and glory. Interviews and panels by the game designers and developers provide insight into the work, thought, and passion that fuels the continuing evolution of these games.

It’s these last types of sessions that I’m especially drawn to and from which I gain user experience design insights. Although the focus of the conference is notably different from the UX-focused conferences I’ve written about previously, this conference offers a unique perspective into what goes into creating some of the richest user experiences around. Read the rest of this post »

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Posted in Creative, News, UX

Impact of Android 4.0

After being pelted with all of the news of the Apple iPhone 4s, Androidians™ finally have a reason to smile. Google debuted Android 4.0 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”) last week at the rollout of the Samsung  Galaxy Nexus in Hong Kong. Android 4 is the first unified version for tablets and smart phones. Android smartphone developers have had to deal with multiple versions of the Android operating system since Google made the decision to fork the OS, one geared for phones and one for tablets (but not both).  In the current world, I as an Android developer can target the Android 2.x platform for a smartphone app and 3.x (Honeycomb) platform for tablet-based app but would have a great deal of work to marry the two (despite Google backporting some of the 3.x functionality into the 2.x platform).  The Android 4.0 platform would eliminate the need for that extra work.

However, Android nirvana for developers will not be reached for some time.  Even after new phones (and tablets) are released with 4.0, they will be a small percentage of the installed base.  If I am developing a smartphone app in the coming year, the platform that deliver the greatest “bang for the buck” will be the 2.2/2.3 version. Verizon just announced yesterday that Motorola phones such as the Droid Pro and Droid 2 Global will see the 2.3 Gingerbread upgrade that was promised in May of this year (if you do the math, it is six months).  Don’t expect phones capable of running Android 4.0 to be upgraded by their respective handset producers (Motorola , Samsung, HTC) anytime soon which means as a Android developer, I can’t take advantage of the 4.0 feature set until some time in the 2nd quarter of 2012.

10/27/2011 – update

It is a bit worse than I stated above.  There was a blog post that has analyzed the level of upgrade support enjoyed by Android phones and the conclusion is that there really isn’t any upgrade path.  The OS that is on the phone when purchased is most likely the one you will have for the life of the phone and that OS may not even be the most current version.  To quote the blog author: ” If developers apply that same standard to Android, it will be at least 2015 before they can start requiring 2010’s Gingerbread OS.”

Form, Function and Business

Today Seth Godin posted a blog about how advances in technology affect incumbent businesses and the ways in which they operate.

Mail —> email

Books —> ebooks

DVD —> YouTube/Netflix

1040 —> Online taxes

Visa —> Paypal

Open outcry —> Electronic trading

Voice call centers —> forums and online chat

Direct mail —> permission marketing

Godin makes an observation that firms usually ask the wrong question when there is a technology shift in their business. Instead of asking “how does this shift help our existing business?” they should be asking “how does this shift hurt us or create new opportunities for us?” In the case of publishing, many traditional publishing firms likely saw the rise of ebooks as a positive sign for literature and book sales overall but may have overlooked the dangers to their incumbent industry as a result. With that example, the market for books may get larger but traditional publishing firms may find themselves with a smaller piece of that market when all is said and done.

In each case, the original players in the legacy industry decided that the new form could be bolted onto their existing business model. And in each case they were wrong. Speed and marginal cost and ubiquity and a dozen other elements of digitalness changed the interaction itself, and so the function changes too.

Form and functionSeth’s Blog

Ratings overload?

Though I’m all for the ratings information people freely provide on various social platforms, I often wonder if at some point there will be so many things to rate, people will stop bothering. So I found the following site and video pretty entertaining:

Jotly – Rate Everything

In the video, the narrator reviews ratings on the best ice cube in his glass, girls walking down the street, hiding places, and other people’s reactions. Enjoy!

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Posted in Musings, Trends

Amazon’s New Business Model

How did Amazon get its start? The business model originally focused on selling books. Then Amazon moved into general retailing, where it experienced rapid growth and success. Now it is moving in new directions that play to its software strengths – content distribution and creation.

Technically, Amazon has always been a content distributor. Authors wrote books and Amazon sold and shipped them. Manufacturers created products and Amazon sold and shipped them. The difference between then and now is that the content is becoming increasingly digital. Digital content distribution is a low-cost business, where the only marginal cost added for a sale is the cost of bandwidth to allow the user to download it. Artists and record labels produce music and Amazon sells and distributes it for a low cost to consumers. Authors and publishers create books and Amazon makes it available for download and purchase. The Kindle follows the original iPod business model – sell the technology to consumers at an affordable price and make money off of content. The new Amazon Kindle Fire tablet takes that business model forward even further; content is no longer limited to e-books and now includes music, video and applications.

So what’s next? Well, take a look at some of these prices and tell me what’s wrong here:

In this case, the book costs the same as the Kindle e-book. Despite the costs of printing, binding and creating a physical product the prices are the same. If you opt to buy a new book from a reseller or buy a used book, the e-book is more expensive! Why is that? Check out the Kindle e-book price – this price was set by the publisher. Because of this, Amazon’s next move is into content creation. There have been several notable authors this year who have decided to publish through Amazon rather than a traditional publisher.

In some cases it could be about the money (a deal with former TV star Penny Marshall was reportedly for $800,000 according to theNew York Times), but in many cases it seems to be mostly about getting past some of the legacy processes that are typical with traditional publishers, and expanding the potential market for a book.

Authors have the ability to self-publish and sell through Amazon as a Kindle e-book and keep 70% of the profits, or they can use Amazon as a traditional publisher and market their books as both physical and e-books. New York Times bestselling author Barry Eisler chose Amazon over a traditional publisher because contracts were drawn up immediately, the books could be distributed more quickly (both in e-book and paperback form) and he got to keep a higher percentage of the profits.

Amazon is continuing to play on their strengths and disrupting the traditional models of doing business. Amazon’s focus is on creating value for their suppliers and customers and they’re doing very well for it.

Publishers: What are you doing while Amazon eats your lunch? – on GigaOM
Amazon to book publishers: Welcome to the jungle, baby – on GigaOM 



Beware the slash: Distinguishing between UI and UX

Graphic showing an angry cat growling defiance at a monstrous / punctuation.A colleague and I were discussing challenges in explaining what we do as user experience practitioners. He mentioned a shared pet peeve, the slashing together of UI/UX. I see this most often in job postings, but it appears in technology news, blogs, and even how some people describe their work. The concern that my colleague and I share is that UI and UX are not the same thing. Treating them as synonymous concepts risks diluting the contributions offered by each.

UI and UX are closely related terms, so I understand the temptation to simply consider them as a whole. A discussion on UX.stackexchange considers the distinction between UI and UX. Many good points are made about the roles UI and UX fill when considering design and development. The diversity of comments as well as the long duration in which comments were gathered, however, suggests even professionals in these fields struggle to draw a fixed and firm line between the two concepts.

One way to distinguish between UI and UX is to consider what each brings to their relationship. The UI is a deliverable of the UX and development processes, but it is also the foundation from which user experience, from a psychological perspective, emerges. That is, the user interface is the primary and tangible means by which the user experience of a product occurs. Read the rest of this post »

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Posted in Musings, UI implementation, UX

Mobile Enterprise Application Platforms

I had some down time which allowed me to explore an alternative mobile development strategy which is to use a Mobile Enterprise Application Platform (or MEAP, a technical term coined by Gartner) to build cross-mobile device applications.  Back in 2009, Gartner made one of their famous quotes that seem to get a lot of airplay on the ‘Net’ and it was:  “We believe that more than 95% of organizations will be choosing MEAP or packaged mobile application vendors as their primary mobile development platforms through 2012”. Obviously, coming into the 4th quarter of 2011, most organizations that are looking at mobile are not targeting the use of MEAPs in the construction of a mobile solution.  To be fair to Gartner, they have come out with a revised report this year that did not reiterate that statement.

I took two MEAP vendors (Sybase and Pyxis) for a spin, trying out both their canned samples and one I came up with on my own.  Obviously, the samples played to the platforms strengths and if you followed the script and stayed on the path, a very nice app came out on the other end (usually deployable to multiple device types).  The samples show the strength of a MEAP around capabilities such as:

  • Data caching and data synchronization (offline support)
  • Connections with enterprise systems such as CRM
  • Multiple platform support (Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Mobile)

But what if you wandered off the path, the areas on the map marked “There be dragons here”?

Read the rest of this post »

Software Success Story: Lytro Light Field Camera

Marc Andreessen believes that “software is eating the world” – that companies thriving today are doing so with the competitive advantage they’ve developed through technology and software. While Lytro may not be dominating the photography industry yet, it is a frontrunner in the technology and software quickly developing in the world of photography.

Lytro is a small firm that is currently developing a Light Field Camera. What’s the difference between a light field camera and the cameras we shoot with today? Images created from a light field camera have the ability to be dynamically refocused after the photo has been taken; the software in the camera stores more data than a normal digital camera and makes it available for manipulation later. The software captures enough data to allow the user to shift the focus from a close subject to a distant subject, along with other features.

Keep in mind that the end result isn’t quite like these unrealistic CSI “zoom and enhance” scenes:

It’s rather more like this:

Notice that each frame focuses on a different individual (or two); each of these frames came from the same original photo. For a more interactive look at the experience of refocusing light field photos, check out Lytro’s photo gallery here. The gallery allows you to click on different sections in a picture to dynamically refocus the image. Lytro’s website offers this explanation of the science behind the camera:

By substituting powerful software for many of the internal parts of regular cameras, light field processing introduces new capabilities that were never before possible. Sophisticated algorithms use the full light field to unleash new ways to make and view pictures.

Relying on software rather than components can improve performance, from increased speed of picture taking to the potential for capturing better pictures in low light. It also creates new opportunities to innovate on camera lenses, controls and design.

Although Lytro’s camera is not yet publicly available, the technology seems poised to offer an increasingly interactive view of photography due to the software running behind the scenes. If you’re interested in learning more about the technology, check out PCWorld or Engadget.

Why I Don’t Watch CSI – YouTube
CSI Photo Enhancement – YouTube

The New Enterprise Software Model

In an article on TechCrunch Aaron Levie, the founder and CEO of, details his vision for how enterprise software has historically operated and what will make or break a company in the years to come. The author points out that many IT projects encounter roadblocks, achieve less than forecasted returns, or end up failing; he argues that the business model for enterprise software has favored the software vendor over the enterprise customer.

Levie seeks to address what he perceives as a disconnect between the people who make enterprise software purchasing decisions and the people who use it on a day-to-day basis – the CIO receives proposals and installs software for the firm’s ground-level employees to use. “This has created an oddly perverse dynamic where the vendors with the most feature-rich solutions win the contracts, but the users lose due to the complexity of the technology.”

As Marc Andreessen mentioned, the ability of firms to deploy and serve over the web could prove to be a game changing trend in the software economy; Levie points out that “now that enterprise software can be delivered over the web and iterated quickly, we’re seeing the barriers for development, distribution and adoption shrink to levels previously only witnessed by consumer internet companies.” With user-facing applications or back-end services delivered over the web, “releases often occur on a weekly (or daily) basis … Engineers get to see their projects come to life immediately, and the organization benefits from instant product feedback.”

Levie says the approach of some new enterprise software firms is to build a simple, usable service that achieves a targeted goal or solves a specific pain for a firm’s users, letting the users drive demand for the service up to the CIO. Although the ultimate decision rests with management, users are frequently using the software for their own purposes, at work or in their personal life. The process is almost a reverse-adoption, from bottom to top.

Traditionally, the responsibility for the software changed hands across the table at the same time as the money did. Firms paid money for software and then were given the responsibility of deploying, using and managing it. Upgrades and support may or may not be included. How can the market change so that both parties carry responsibility? Levie responds:

With the new wave of enterprise software companies, customers are no longer solely financially responsible for the victorious implementation of their purchased solutions. The unstoppable trend toward “renting” vs. “buying” software, means the vendor gets paid only as the software continues to solve problems for its customer. As forcing functions go, this is a pretty good one to ensure customers are happy — and it means implementation services, constant feedback loops, and deep customer engagement are all critical to successful retention.

Incumbent companies versus next generation startup rivalry aside, here’s the best news –in the end, the customer wins. In some cases, startup firms delivering value through an iterative web application could be exactly what they need at a price they’re happy to pay. In other cases, the business needs may call for an established history of enterprise software success and a licensed or purchased solution that ties deeply into established systems. Either way, competition and alternative business models ensure better quality and more flexibility at a lower price for the enterprise consumer.


Building an Enterprise Software Company That Doesn’t Suck – by Aaron Levie founder Aaron Levie is poised on the edge of startup stardom – by Matthew Lynley

Customizing Widget Tables in Axure

In UI design communication: General approaches and tips for Axure, I discussed the kind of content to include in a UI design specification and showed how to customize the information you annotate in Axure. This post discusses customizing the final specification. While this post describes using Axure to create a specification, the underlying organizational principles can be used in any context since easier to read and better organized specifications will benefit every team.

Because it would take a very long post to discuss each customization Axure supports, I’m focusing specifically on customizing the widget tables, which contain the bulk of the content in a generated specification.  If you are creating content for multiple audiences, and therefore, likely to be generating several documents from Axure, custom widget tables are essential. Read the rest of this post »