Get in touch!
920 264.0976
Project Login

Quote: Dave Wiskus on Design Criticism

April 25th, 2011

Great design is tricky. It’s easy to pick apart decisions after an app ships and second-guess its creators. What’s harder — as anyone who has ever created something knows — is being the guy in the room who has to fashion those decisions from whole cloth. Sure, everyone likes to think they have good taste. But the smart ones still hire a designer.

(from his article “Cheap Magic” on Better Elevation)

Quote: Marco Arment on Overdoing the Interface Metaphor

July 19th, 2010

“DVD players don’t make fake whirring noises for five minutes before letting you eject a disc to simulate rewinding. Similarly, nobody should need to perform a full-width swipe gesture and wait two seconds for their fake page to turn in their fake book, and nobody should need to click the fake Clear button and start their calculation over because their fake calculator only has a one-line, non-editable fake LCD.”

(from his post “Overdoing the interface metaphor” on

Quote: Steven Johnson on Measurement and Discovery

July 1st, 2010

“This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase in their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected.”

(from his book The Invention of Air: A story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America)

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“)

Quote: Arthur C. Clarke on Technology

June 17th, 2010

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

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?”

Quote: Clay Shirky on Human Behavior and Motivation

June 1st, 2010

“Behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity.”

(from the Wired Magazine article: Cognitive Surplus: The Great Spare-Time Revolution)

Quote: Antoine de Saint-Exuper on Perfection

May 24th, 2010

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Quote: Ira Glass on Creative Tinkering and Cutting “Crap”

May 21st, 2010

“More than half of our week is simply engaged in looking for stories and then trying stuff out. [...] We’re really good at our jobs–we’re as good as anybody who does this kind of thing–and I’ve gotta say, we tinker around at a lot of stories, and between a half and a third of everything we try, we’ll go out, we’ll get the tape, and then we kill it. [...] By killing, you will make something else even better live. I think that not enough gets said about abandoning crap.

Quote: Leonardo da Vinci on Simplicity

May 18th, 2010

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

Video: Dan Meyer on Teaching Real-World Problem Solving

May 15th, 2010

“What problem have you solved, ever–that was worth solving–where you knew all of the given information in advance? Where you didn’t have a surplus of information and you had to filter it out; or you didn’t have insufficient information and you had to go find some.”

Quote: Jakob Nielsen on the Problem with Completely Re-Thinking User Interface

May 10th, 2010

“The penalty for [the iPad's] beauty is the re-emergence of a usability problem we haven’t seen since the mid-1990s: Users don’t know where they can click.

For the last 15 years of Web usability research, the main problems have been that users don’t know where to go or which option to choose — not that they don’t even know which options exist. With iPad UIs, we’re back to this square one.”

(from Jakob Nielsen’s post: iPad Usability: First Findings From User Testing)

Quote: Albert Einstein on the Value of Problems

May 7th, 2010

“The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill.”

Trying Blackbird Pie

May 4th, 2010

So today the Twitter Media blog suggested a new feature to streamline the process of showing tweets in html instead of screen grabs. Okay, it turns out it was just a script the blogger whipped up, but still a good idea…

Here is what a tweet looks like after being encoded via the Blackbird Pie script:

Going to give this Blackbird Pie (html single-tweet inline quoting) a try…less than a minute ago via Tweetie

And that’s that… I’ll see about maybe using this as a tool in future posts (when appropriate, of course). @twittermedia suggests using it instead of trying to quote tweets, and it does seem to do a good job of keeping tweets “live”, in the sense that the information that would be clickable on Twitter’s own service is kept clickable.

UPDATE: @twittermedia has acknowledged that Blackbird Pie is an experiment that the individual was toying with, not a full-fledged Twitter-sanctioned feature:

Wow, I’m really glad everybody’s eager to ditch screen grabs of tweets! But, let me caveat this little hack of mine: than a minute ago via web

As such, I think I’ll hold off on crating BBP-specific styles for my own site… for a little while, at least. As you can see there are a few display inconsistencies (i.e. the CSS background property of the latter tweet overwriting the background of the earlier tweet), but it’s still better than just quoting in text.


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.”

Subscribe via RSS

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?"