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Quote: Mike Lazaridis on Continued Relevance

June 22nd, 2010

“In business, no matter how good the process is, no matter how much you’ve got it down pat, no matter how much money you’re making, how efficient, you have to always go back and say ‘Is there something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re seeing the market?  Are we dealing with incomplete information?’  Because that’s what’s going to get you: it’s not necessarily that some young whippersnapper’s going to come up with some better idea than you.  They’re going to start from a different premise and they’re going to come to a different conclusion that makes you irrelevant.”

(Talking about RIM’s “Design Thinking” approach to beating the analog pager with the digital Blackberry, via Roger Martin’s “The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage“)

Reining in the Web, Loosing the Local

June 14th, 2010

Over the past two decades of the web, the working mental model we’ve formed to understand it has been a confluence of trend lines running toward infinity: data stored, data transferred, websites, user accounts, dollars spent online, number of articles available, et cetera. Almost every metric has been shooting up steeply, seemingly without limit.

Entire companies are rising up to handle super-specific roles in the the abstraction of an expanding web.  Think of them as single-purpose “objects” (to borrow a programming term of similar meaning).  These objects exist to handle one type of task, billions of times, from thousands (maybe millions) of sources.  Their value to the overall system is in the freedom they give to developers of more-broadly-focused apps to spend time on the things that make their app unique, instead of re-inventing the proverbial wheel every time a developer wants to, for example, make use of geodata.

There are thousands of examples of this across the web, but I’ll give one that’s particularly relevant to this discussion: SimpleGeo.

SimpleGeo’s single professed purpose is to make location-aware programming simpler by providing a top notch, pre-packaged geodata infrastructure (and an application programming interface to go with it).  It’s a result (a conscious move on the part of its founders, but a result nonetheless) of a refactoring of the web.  Resources that exist in a smaller but similar fashion across many applications are, through market forces and programmers’ constant drive for efficiency, reallocated as centralized resources and made available for collective use.

In layman’s terms, this means a programmer doesn’t have to burn time and money developing their own infrastructure for geodata (which would undoubtedly consume more system resources, be less reliable than SimpleGeo’s, and be very similar to every other programmer’s individual effort).  Instead, they can focus on building and refining the higher-level (more specialized) functions of their application while SimpleGeo whirrs on reliably in the background.

Think of SimpleGeo (and other programmer-friendly web services like it) as super-specialized, but highly-efficient nodes in a web awash with aggregators and general-purpose applications… as a coalesced foundation on which a further-abstracted, hyper-efficient, data behemoth of a web is being built.

[and... breathe... *phew*]

At the same time that the web trends toward a sublime infinity (perhaps, even, as a result), real-world interactions have been growing in appeal. I’m thinking, for instance, of the increase of farmers’ markets and desire to know where our food is coming from (i.e. “buy local” movement); of a backlash against malls and chain stores in favor of more locally-authentic mom & pop shops. It seems “users” like to be reminded that they are, in fact, “people”.

Recognizing this, many real-world chain stores are subtly rebranding themselves and their products to reflect a more localized aesthetic. Starbucks has been particularly adept at this, and has even gone so far as to open “undercover” locations, one of which was given the handle “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea“.  It broke with corporate style conventions to appear to be a one-off shop.

(Just by chance, the company that prompted me to write this was also Starbucks, but for a different reason, which I’ll get back to in a second…)

So we have these two trends: the ever-abstracting web and an increasing awareness of the real-world “local”.  How do they co-exist?

One can do an insane number of things on the web, and any one given thing (website, application, et cetera) can be “done” by an unmanageable number of people.  This leads to scaling headaches for programmers, erratic traffic spikes, a host of factors that need to be taken into account to serve either tens or millions, depending on the day.

More publicly, this leads to the free (in most every sense) dissemination of information (articles, music, movies, etc.) across the web, much to the chagrin of content producers accustomed to earning money via the delivery of that content (articles via newspapers, music and movies via discs…).  Scarcity, it seemed, was dead in the digital age.

Which lead some content producers to construct pay walls, metering access to their content and requiring some form of payment (be it dollars or marketing-relevant personal data).  They didn’t require payment because that mode of delivery was costing them (the marginal cost of delivering a web page is super close to $0.00); they required payment because there was no longer a perception of scarcity around that now-digital content, so their delivery-system cash machines were losing customers.

Enter Starbucks (told you I’d get back to them), and their new in-store WiFi initiative (described on the personal blog of one of its leaders here).  As told by Stephen Gillett, the new digital network– accessible only via in-store WiFi –will:

“source the best paid-wall content on the internet but available ad-free and a no-cost to our customers.”

Wow.  Do you see what just happened there?  The Starbucks store just became that source of scarcity for online publishing giants. Their pay wall is down, but only for as many individuals as can be in-store Starbucks patrons at a given time.

The web just used the real world as a filter.  And the real-world just capitalized on the near-zero delivery cost of a near-infinite amount of web content.  The web and location, acting symbiotically on the shared edge of two business models.

In this particular case, it appears that the definition of “location-based, therefore hooked up to the free content pipleline” is provided by the WiFi networks themselves… you have to be connected to the Starbucks network in order to get the goods.

But it’s not hard to imagine, especially with the growing prevalence of location-aware devices and applications (which will only become more numerous thanks to services like SimpleGeo), that location can be defined as specifically or as broadly as suits the situation.

Maybe, for instance, a web-based service with ties to the physical wants to limit use of their web app to a “deliverable region” (think of a web or mobile-device-based ordering app for any non-ubiquitous pizza delivery shop).  That locally-defined business could make use of all the “programmability” of the web (highly efficient, super fast, replicable, leaves a data trail, instantly verifiable), while simultaneously designing experiences with the knowledge that the user (we’re talking web again) is located within a defined region.

What’s happening, in essence, is a reining-in of the web (re-introducing limits and scarcity) as the local is given more leash (processing power, access to the digital domain).

I can’t even fully grasp the near-time implications of this, but I’m certain these functions will begin to reveal themselves over the next few years, much as a web/location game like Foursquare– which was hard to conceive of even 5 years ago –has risen and thrived in the past few months.

The question that remains is not “Will companies thrive in this developing digital/local sweet spot?”, but “Doing what?”

Video: Motivation for Non-Menial Tasks & Careers

May 14th, 2010

Found this video summarizing Dan Pink’s “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us“, and had to post. In addition to expressing significant ideas in a digestible way, the video animator is just plain fun to watch!

“The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table. Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about the money, they’re thinking about the work.”

Quote: Will Smith on Preparedness

May 11th, 2010

“If you stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.”

Quote: Merlin Mann’s “Step Zero” for Productivity

April 20th, 2010

“Before you sweat the logistics of focus: first, care. Care intensely.”


March 30th, 2010

Throughout my life, and increasingly since starting The Image Distillery in 2006, I’ve been intrigued with the concept of continuous incremental improvement.  It was only yesterday I learned that the Japanese have a word for this: “kaizen“.

Continuous improvement has two immediately-apparent side effects: 1) it frees us from the paralysis of having to achieve perfection all at once, and 2) it breaks the decisions we make into manageable chunks.

Kaizen is reflected in the web development maxim: “Release early and release often.” That is, don’t let fussing over details keep you from building and launching something.  As “living” (constantly evolving) documents, websites can be continuously refined and improved… all the while gaining traffic and spreading your message (instead of sitting on a development server for months awaiting tweaks that will unlock the mysteries of the universe).

This idea is also readily applied to anyone thinking about starting a new venture… instead of waiting for the timing to be perfect and your skills/product to be honed to perfection, start working toward that venture today.  Take a conscious step–any step–that gets you closer to your goal, and continue to improve yourself throughout the process by actively seeking experience, knowledge (read!) and mentorship.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from the owner of a commercial printing shop that I ran jobs through back when I was more involved with print.  He’d opened a small printing business right out of college, and he was now in his late 40′s with a much larger, more comprehensive operation with highly-capable machinery and the clientele to match.  He told me (I paraphrase):

“Do one thing every day that improves your business.  Maybe it’s getting a new client, maybe it’s investing in new machinery, maybe it’s having a conversation with someone you can learn something from… but always be conscious that you’re taking steps forward.”

Quote: Dale Carnegie on the Human Side of Success in Tech

March 19th, 2010

“Even in such technical lines as engineering, about 15% of one’s financial success is due one’s technical knowledge and about 85% is due to skill in human engineering, to personality and the ability to lead people.”

Be Your Own Test Subject

February 26th, 2010

It can’t be done in every situation (it’d be useless for me to be the subject of my own website usability test, for example), but in situations where it IS possible to experience a process from “the outside”, do it.

Before I got into web design, I worked exclusively in print and created a lot of postcards to be sent to a lot of (hopefully interested) people.  One particular client happened to have a reasonably nice laser printer which they used to print their own marketing materials (instead of having a professional print shop run them).

The pieces always looked good fresh out of the printer, and they ran through the client’s addressing and postage-labeling machines just fine.  Going out the door, they looked great!

To be sure they were received that way (and because I’m kind of picky about my work), I picked out a card from the over print pile, addressed it to myself, added a stamp and dropped it in the outgoing mailbox.

When I received the postcard a day or two later it had been beaten up and smeared by what I can only assume were the postal service’s sorting machines.  Complete sections of the card had been rubbed clean of ink, and the main image was barely discernible… let alone the copy on the other side.  This is what the client had been printing and mailing out by the hundreds…

As a regular practice, I now set aside a few moments from every project to experience it from the “other” side.  Browser compatibility testing ensures I see each site in each of the top browsers before it launches (one way I ensure design stability), but even just seeing something isn’t always enough.

Does the user find the site via search engine, or are most users keying a URL?

If the former, is the engine using the description meta-tag in the search results, or is it pulling the first few lines of copy from the page itself?  Which is the highest-ranked page of the site?  If that’s where most traffic will be landing, can users easily navigate from there?

If the latter, are there any tripping points in the URL? (“i” vs “l” vs “1″, for example)  Are my domain settings such that the URL can be keyed both with and without the “www.”?

Communication isn’t about what you say (write, broadcast, show, etc.); it’s about how that message is received.  If we’re reaching out to clients, the onus is on us to make sure the message they receive is perceptible, understandable and actionable.  You’d be surprised how often that first hurdle becomes the point at which communication breaks down… the good news is that it’s the easiest problem to diagnose and correct.

But first, you have to know there’s a problem…

The Importance of Asking “Why?”

February 24th, 2010

The feedback I get from my web design clients is very often given in the context of what their industry peers are doing. And, almost as often, when I press them for clarification about why their peers do things that way, I get a blank look in return.

They hadn’t thought about that…

It’s easy, especially in well-established industries, to believe that your predecessors know more than you. If they do something (advertise somewhere, use a particular tool, follow a certain code of conduct, etc.), they must be doing it for a reason, and that’s “good enough for me”.

While this is true for many aspects of most business, great businesses are the ones that know why they do what they do; they’re the ones that take those “because-that’s-how-it’s-done” processes and flip them on their head to better fit the circumstances of today.

Why is “why” important?  Because without it, we can’t be leaders.

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What is tID?

The Image Distillery is a clarity-focused creative shop which specializes in website design and consulting for small businesses.

We've operated out of Green Bay, Wisconsin since 2006, crafting and maintaining websites for small businesses, typically those with 50 or fewer employees.

Favorite Entries

Reining in the Web, Loosing the Local


Limit Options, Make Decisions, Maintain Sanity (an anecdote)

The Importance of Asking "Why?"