I have been working since age 12. An almost daily occurrence since my first day of work is that I screw up. I am human, just like most of you, and all humans make mistakes. What distinguishes good entrepreneurs, good employees, and good people is how we handle our screw-ups. Clearly, all screw-ups are not created equal. They can be as minor as showing up a few minutes late for a meeting or taking longer than necessary to respond to a customer—or as major as blowing a deadline or delivering the wrong product. But because screw-ups are about as inevitable as death and taxes, in business the most important thing is not what happened but what happens next. That is, owning up to the mistake and making it right.
All my professional life I have offered, as a matter of course, some kind of restitution when I screw up. As a consultant, if there is an issue with a deliverable I often lower my price or don’t bill at all. As a service provider, if I am not timely answering a support request I often credit the customer’s account with a few months of free service. It simply never occurred to me not to compensate a customer negatively impacted by a mistake I made. Only recently did it truly soak in that other professionals do not necessarily live by the same code. Over the past few months the employees of some companies I have been doing business with let me down by screwing up repeatedly. Oftentimes, when confronted, they owned up but offered nothing in return to make up for my losses. Not compensating for a significant mistake borders on dishonest.
For humans, a list is an exceedingly common way of organizing data. Typically a list is a collection of related items arranged vertically or horizontally, one item after another. Most databases store data in this very same manner.
A common first step when building a data-driven software application is to prototype data models in Microsoft Excel, a powerful tool for building and manipulating lists and managing raw data. The next step—product design—is the one that ultimately determines whether the software will live or die. And it’s here that Excel is causing great damage by modeling terrible design.
Many developers build data-driven applications that look and feel a lot like Excel. Although mimicking the table-based structure of Excel often seems like the most logical way to display data onscreen, this assumption is flawed because it discounts a very important factor in great software design: the emotional connection between users and the software.
Great software, regardless of how mundane the content is, should evoke an emotional response. Users should have an unexplainable, powerful attachment to the application. Take a look, for example, at the screenshots below. Which one do you feel more compelled to engage with?
I assert that the design of Option 2 is far more engaging. Each item is part of a conversation between people. The effect is personal and meaningful. In contrast, the underachieving design of Option 1 delivers a list and little more. The information slackly dissolves into mere bits on a screen, requiring the viewer to concentrate to make sense of it—sort of like one does with those Magic Eye stereogram images.
Just a month into 2014, we are in the age of instant. Communication is instant. Amazon is getting close to delivering products to our homes via drones. And in the not-too-distant future, homes will have 3D printers to instantly produce products. The waiting times for just about everything are decreasing daily with one big exception: money transfers. It drives me completely nuts that the fastest way to transfer money from an account at one bank to an account at another is to withdraw cash and physically carry it to the receiving bank. As a business person I have to do this almost weekly. Yes, transfers by wire and Automated Clearning House (ACH) are options, but wire transfers are expensive and time consuming to set up and ACH takes days, not hours. And the United States has been frustratingly slow to address the situation—other countries have had instant transfers for more than a decade.
Frankly, I have given up waiting. I need a banking system that is in real time. I need a way send and receive money instantly and globally. Bitcoin has been hyped as a speculative investment opportunity and a means of online money laundering, but the bigger story is the possible shift away from centralized, government-backed currencies to a global digital currency that allows for cheaper, faster, and easier movement of money around the world. To oversimplify, a bitcoin is nothing more than a unique serial number that is protected by the power of cryptography. When I make a purchase using bitcoin, I am transferring this unique serial number to the seller in exchange for a good or service—just like when I hand a dollar bill to someone, who accepts it as value. Bitcoin is essentially the dollar going paperless, but offering the same relative anonymity and freedom as cash.
The phrase “thinking outside the box” has long been a source of consternation rather than inspiration for me. Why do we use a trope to describe thinking that is supposed to be unconventional? It just seems wrong. I get that clichés summarily, if unoriginally, convey complex ideas so when I hear them I generally grimace inwardly and look the other way. But this one seems strangely self-defeating.
I don’t remember being aware of “thinking outside the box” until the saying was suddenly everywhere. (Its use seems to have peaked, but clichés are notoriously tenacious.) Curious, I did a little research into its origins and discovered that “thinking outside the box” is worse than a mere example of the absence of the very creativity the phrase is ostensibly deployed to spark—or, incongruously, announce. The real crime is that it’s misleading: there is no box. We’re focused on thinking outside a box that doesn't even exist.
Cloudmanic Labs is a small company—we can’t do it all. In fact, some tasks get set aside, and I am ashamed to admit that great customer support was sidelined by Cloudmanic Labs in 2013. We did not respond to customers as quickly as we should have and oftentimes our responses were generic and impersonal. As a company we have lots of goals for 2014, but we have only one resolution: to get back on track with great customer support—by which we mean timely and personal responses to all of our customers’ emails.
In addition to reorganizing our company to make sure support requests always receive top priority, we intend to greatly enhance the self-service support we offer. That is, giving our customers the information you need to know in the first place so you will not have to ask. We do love to chat with our customers so if you want to connect, send us an email. However, when you are in need of support we really want you to get the pertinent information as fast as possible. So today I am announcing our new support center, a place where customers can instantly obtain answers to (most of) their burning questions.
The new Cloudmanic Labs support center is located at http://cloudmanic.com/support. (Horn toot!)
I am a pretty instant guy. In fact, I go quite batty when something that should be instant is not. Nowadays, thanks to the internet we have instant information and communication. Anything we want to know right now we can discover simply by visiting google.com. And we can tell our friends about it right away. But recently I have realized that there is a situation in my life where instant is not good. Where instant is a distraction and a detriment. And so, I turn instant off when reading books.
I used to read books on my iPad. Oftentimes while I was reading, an impulse would pop into my mind. Maybe the author sparked a thought and I wanted to look something up. Or instant message a friend about what I was reading. Or take a quick break to check my email. I always convinced myself it would take just a second, but of course it never did. It was just too easy to close the book and get caught up in something else because I could—instantly.
More than ever before everything is data and data is everything. Regrettably, managing data has become a black art involving Microsoft Excel VLOOKUPs and highly individualized spreadsheets. Though there has been a push to move data to more robust systems such as SQL Server, a large portion of data ends up at the opposite end of the software spectrum—in scary spreadsheets that are emailed and cut and pasted and generally lack the validation necessary to maintain data integrity.
The reasons for this misuse of software are numerous, but the most common are a lack of resources and limited skills. In both small businesses and large institutions (particularly those whose IT budgets have been slashed in the current recession), individuals often find it necessary to go it alone and come up with ad hoc methods for entering and retrieving data in programs they are familiar with—usually Excel. Overreliance on spreadsheets occurs when other options seem prohibitively difficult or expensive to implement. It can also be the result of a bunker mentality that sets in or when IT enforces the use of specialized, tightly controlled databases, driving some users to go rogue.
The spreadsheet solution seems great at first. You are empowering yourself and getting over on The Man. But over time a spreadsheet tends to turn into a mess of workbooks and worksheets that starts looking more like game of Battleship as your data sinks in a grid of B9:Z88 cells. Ultimately each one evolves into a hopelessly idiosyncratic contrivance that only one user understands. And then you go on vacation and someone renames a worksheet and all your VLOOKUPS and calculations fail. Or worse, you work late one evening and distractedly sort your columns—and scramble your data. Sometimes the spreadsheet solution is flexible to a fault.
Most people hate receiving long emails. In fact, some people think emails should be no more than 3 lines long (or 2, or 4, or 5). This is not my personal style. I like to give recipients everything they need in one email. I believe that doing so optimizes my time and theirs. One of two things happen when I send a long, detailed email to someone: either they never read it and drop off or they appreciate having all of the pertinent information in a single reference document. Either way, it amounts to one focused episode in my life versus scattered smaller ones.
Let’s look at the first case in which the recipient never reads my email. Maybe this person is a contractor, vendor, employee, friend looking for advice, or my mom :). If the person is not detail oriented enough to read and process my long email (my nice way of saying they are lazy), then they simply are not a good fit for me in terms of communication style (sorry, mom). And, most likely, working together is not in our best interest. In the case of friends or relatives seeking my advice, many simply move on and get the advice elsewhere if a long reply is too much of a hurdle for them. Simply put, long emails can serve to weed out lazy and needy people—a real time saver in the long run.
In the second case, in which the recipient of a lengthy email is appreciative, the flow of information is optimized to reduce the likelihood of lots of back and forth dialogue. This is a good thing because the fragmented nature of lengthy email exchanges makes them hard to follow and too often results in offhandedness. Providing a single, thoroughly informative document to which the recipient can refer as needed is much more efficient.
The first phone app I ever downloaded was Magic 8 Ball. Technically, the app is called Fortune Ball for trademark reasons, but the ersatz legalistic name does not obscure its identity. (Just as a freezer pop is a popsicle and sparkling wine is champagne, trademark and terroir issues be damned.) I was thrilled to have a digital Magic 8 Ball to help me make decisions, in no small part because it is much more portable than its analog cousin.
Magic 8 Ball had been a trusted guide of mine since childhood. My older sister had one that I borrowed when she was not around. I became enthralled and decided that she did not appreciate its true value, so I neglected to return it. In its physical form the Magic 8 Ball invited contemplation. It had the heft of a scaled-down bowling ball and the gravitas of its dark horse namesake and was filled with a mysterious liquid that concealed the answer on the icosahedral die until it floated into view in the circular window.
That Magic 8 Ball was eventually dropped one too many times, developing a crack and losing an alarming quantity of its inky lifeblood—which led to its confiscation by my mother. I didn’t buy or pilfer a replacement, but its power as a decision-making tool stayed with me. And then, years later, some magical thinking programmers developed the Fortune Ball. The app lacks the comforting solidity of the original, but it is surprisingly satisfying as so many physical things that we once believed could not be replaced digitally are. (Not that long ago I couldn’t imagine buying shoes online. I now buy shoes online almost exclusively. Sorry, shoe stores.)
Most people building software these days have heard of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) strategy: construct only what is necessary to get a few users onboard and worry about the rest of the planned features later. The problem is, most of us suck at figuring out just how much is enough for a product to be minimally viable. As a result, we often times err on the side of too much. Cloudmanic Labs has launched a variety of products, and I like to think we are pretty good at gauging an MVP feature list. So recently I sat down and looked at the numbers to see how accurate we were at building an MVP release of Photomanic, our photo application for Evernote launched about a month ago.
We measure the usage of all features, which helps us determine whether we should invest more in a feature or not. One feature I insisted on was the ability to rotate images. I was convinced that without this feature users would not consider Photomanic viable. As it turns out, only 0.84% of the images uploaded to date have been rotated. Yet this feature is the one our development team spent the most time building—and one for which we generated a laundry list of upgrade ideas. Even I rarely rotate images, and I was the biggest proponent of the feature. Clearly, our perceptions of what is important are not always accurate.