Rumors of my demise...

by Thomas Brady in

How are you doing?

No, I'm not changing the subject… YOU'RE evading the question!!

Okay, yes, it's been quite some time since I posted here, and, heh, my last post wasn't my finest work (NEWS FLASH: Macbook and iPad Pro are two… make that three different products!). So, why the long-time-no-post? Well, several reasons, really.


Just kidding.

But I did make this yesterday:

 Love ya, Schiller, but...

Love ya, Schiller, but...


Okay, not joking around this time. As I think you'll see in the rest of this post, I've had some time to do some serious thinking. Some deep-diving self-evaluation. Some honest consideration of what I'm doing with my life, the people with whom I'm surrounding myself, and the ways I'm investing my most precious resource: my time.

Part of what shook out of all of that thinking was the realization that, more times than not, my "hot-take," (a phrase that had time to be coined, elevated to prime-time sit-com use, and subsequently slip into dads-only usage during my sabbatical) isn't really worth a whole hell of a lot.

This is not self-deprecation. I do think I have a perspective, and, at times, I might even aspire to insight, but the admission I'm getting to is that my blog was rarely the only place someone could get the content I was providing. I won't promise that I'm going to be posting more often, but that's in part because I'm going to try to only post when I really have something interesting to say—something I think isn't being said elsewhere.

Which brings me to

Soul-crushing startup life

In large part, as attest by the date-stamps and title of my antepenultimate post, I quit writing because I simply didn't have enough time.

In my time as "technology director" at Reaction Housing, I spent many, many nights up until one or two in the morning, attempting to communicate with vendors in Asia to decipher spec sheets on parts I was hoping to use, to negotiate prices, to place orders, and even to discuss modifications to custom parts. Then I was up at 6 AM with my son, e-v-e-r-y d-a-y. Seriously, the kid seems to be physically incapable of sleeping past 6 AM, and he was too young to be up on his own, and funny things happen to my wife when she's sleep deprived (well, maybe not funny, per se).

It was at the height of this life-force-draining regimen that I was suddenly pulled into a conference room for an impromptu performance review.

If you know anything about managing humans, you've already seen a few red flags, here, not least of which was the phrase impromptu performance review.

This was not the first red flag for me, either, but it was the scariest, yet.

Just a few weeks prior, I had been seeking advice on how to deal with the leadership at this startup from a former co-worker, and peer of the two men running Reaction at the time. After I rattled off my laundry list of concerns and questions, he sat back in his chair and said, "Yup. They're not managers. They've never managed people, and it doesn't sound like they're even trying to learn how."

So, I enter the conference room, along with the then-CEO and then-COO of Reaction (that's not an awkward power dynamic for an already awkward meeting), and in no time flat I'm told that I'm "phoning it in." I'm told there are complaints about me not working hard enough. About me not being available enough.

I work in a department of two. I know the other member of my team very well. I'm confident that if he was frustrated with me, this would not be the first I'd be hearing of it. In fact, as I reflect, I can't think of a single person, other than the two sitting across from me, who would have not taken up this matter with me personally, before now, if such a matter existed.

"Bullshit," I said.

And I meant it.

The meeting didn't really go anywhere good. I'm not sure how it could have. I did my best to listen, and to try to suss out any kernel of truth within this ambush, but I couldn't find anything.

Months later, discussing it with people who stayed on much longer than I did, and worked even closer with those two C-suite-ees than I did, I was told that I was just the first in a long line of scapegoats. The business was failing, due to poor leadership, and the leadership was unable to cope with blame.

Some incredibly untoward things happened at that place. I'm amazed that so many of my incredible co-workers at Reaction stuck it out as long as they did. Several of them have described the period after they finally left as "PTSD-like." Apt.

Now what?

I interviewed for a few months after that fateful meeting. I don't think my inflated startup title (I was a "Technology Director," despite not having any staff, though that's kind of a funny story in, and of, itself) was doing me any favors. "Why is a director applying for this individual contributor role?" I imagined HR departments saying.

Months went by, with no promise of a new job, and things at work were getting worse and worse. And then it happened.

In one day I got four job offers. Three from leads I'd been working for weeks or months, and 1 out-of-the-wild-blue.

Two of the offers were positions with agencies. Consultancies. One you have heard of, and one you have not (yet, anyway). The other two were positions at product companies.

What have we learned, here?

I looked back on my time at the startup. I took that job, leaving frog, which I loved, because I wanted to work on product. Long-term. I wanted to come in every day, and have to face the same pile of clay on the table, pushing it around a little more each day until we really had something. I wanted to learn to ship. I wanted to learn to support products that had shipped. I wanted to learn how to run a business, like a grown-up.

I looked back at my time in agencies, such as, but not limited to, frog, and reflected on what I felt was missing from those experiences. Responsibility. Accountability. Humility.

I want to quickly say that an agency is not a fixed entity, but an ever-changing zeitgeist, determined by the culture of the day. People come and go, and with them come and go egos, attitudes, behaviors, styles, habits, good and bad.

At its worst, agency life is a never-ending speed-date meetup. You pop in, do your best to make a good impression, and, if you're lucky, you're gone before you've embarrassed yourself. If you're less lucky, you're counting the seconds until you get to stand up and move to the next seat.

At many agencies, you end up spending the vast majority of your time managing your client, no matter what position you're playing. You may be the account manager, the project manager, the designer, the engineer, or the QA specialist; it doesn't really matter. In many cases, a great deal of your time will be spent producing "deliverables" designed to make the client feel one of two very important feelings:

  • You, the agency, are the smartest people in the room, and
  • They, the client, have spent their money—so, so much of their money—wisely

So, between the fact that you're so expensive at your fancy agency, which means they could only afford so precious little of your time, and the fact that you spend so much of that time telling them how lucky they are that you answered their RFP, that before you know it, the project deadline is nearing, and, while you do have a pile of "deliverables," you don't know that you have really understood the problem they came to you with, yet, and you certainly don't feel you've solved it, and, whoops there goes the deadline.

Rinse (if you're lucky). Repeat.

If you've worked with, or near, agency people before, you've heard the familiar refrain of "oh man, yeah, what the client finally went to market with looked NOTHING like what I [designed/built/tested/etc.]." This is because, as we all know, "Clients are so dumb, lolz." Right?

Well, as I stood there, outside Reaction, waiting for a phone call from one of my four leads, I thought to myself, "Wait… we hired an agency."


Even better, we were a bunch of people from an agency playing house together, pretending to be the kind of company that hires agencies.

This is when it clicked for me.

For one thing, what the "dumb ol' client" ships frequently doesn't look like what the agency designer/developer/etc. came up with because the agency people never really deeply understood the constraints. It's quite easy to look at a problem and come up with a clever solution. Even a clever solution that appears to be simple and elegant. This is meaningless, though, unless you can actually act on this solution. The real-world constraints of a given client make a lot of clever solutions irrelevant. Maybe your clever solution doesn't scale. Maybe it's too expensive because you're not operating "at scale" in the first place. Perhaps it ignores some easy-to-miss requirements, like being universally accessible or easily localized or working in Internet Explorer. Maybe the constraint is the prowess of your client's engineering discipline, or the nature of the infrastructure that powers their products, or the cadence of their release cycle.

What I saw at Reaction, I felt, was these agency people being forced to stand there long enough to be faced with the constraints of the real-world, and not knowing how to cope when their clever design turned out to be, not so.

Right, so, now what?

So, I went back to Polycom. Polycom is a corporation, with thousands of employees, where I would work in a cubicle with fluorescent lighting and expense reports and everything that makes my beard invert.

But they ship. Oh man do they ship.

Polycom ships custom embedded hardware, in many flavors. We ship on several different SoCs. We ship on several different software stacks, from RTOSs to Assembly to Java to Node and beyond. We ship a customized operating system of our own, based on Android. We ship end-user applications for Windows, macOS (and Mac OS X), Android, and iOS. We ship cloud software. And Polycom has been doing this for 25 years. We have more than one office (a handful, worldwide, actually), but I can walk around the Austin office and go from someone with a 3D printer to someone with a soldering iron to a sales person to a phone support person to a huge QA lab to a bullpen of developers to another bullpen of designers to a bullpen of technical writers, and back.

It's not easy. Some days I dream of beating the printer with a baseball bat, while I struggle to print my TPS report. I strive, mightily, to wag the dog that is corporate politics, in order to make the product better. It feels like I'm fighting a system that wants to turn out mediocrity, a lot of the time. My better self tells me that I'm actually observing an organism that's attempting self-preservation—attempting to turn out something safe, and easily maintained, not something necessarily mediocre.

And I'm working as a designer. I came onboard as a "Senior User Experience Prototyper," the very same title I left Polycom with a few years back, headed to my "Design Technologist" role at frog. The original idea was that I would be a rapid prototyper, working alongside designers, realizing their visions in interactive simulations that would make it possible to vet out ideas early and often, before productizing those ideas (an expensive, not easily reversible process).

Turns out they really just needed another designer, and that was something I've actually been able to help out with. I've built a few prototypes, but I have mostly been churning out wireframes, comps, UI strings, and design direction.

What were we talking about?

It's been a long, winding, pretty effed-up road, to be honest, but, if I'm honest, that's usually the best way for me to learn. My time at Reaction was punishing, but it was a life-lesson hard-won. I worked harder than I've ever worked. I pushed myself beyond my limits. I met some incredible people. I did some work I'm very proud of. And, most importantly, I drew a big chalk outline around what good leadership looks like. It's not as good as a picture, but let's just say I know exactly where not too look now.

A New Adventure...

by Thomas Brady in

Not quite two years ago I somehow sneaked in the back door at frog, the global product strategy and design firm that started when Steve Jobs convinced Hartmut Esslinger to create a firm in the US to create a product design language for the Macintosh.

Today was my last day.

It has been quite a ride. Oddly enough, the actual client work was, for the most part, not terribly interesting. It's not that frog doesn't do amazing work, I think, but that I was the new guy. I did get to do some cool stuff, and I definitely learned a ton doing client work, but it was, by far, the unbilled work that I did at frog that got me excited.

I've blogged about most of it, and will blog more of it soon.

I thrived at frog. It was an amazing place to work. I got to work alongside people like Jared Ficklin, Joshua Noble, Michael McDaniel and many more... It was the kind of workplace in which you can't help but hone your skills and practice your craft, surrounded all the time by people giving it their all. It's what I imagine it would be like to play professional sports.

It would take something pretty big to pry me away from such an environment. That thing was Reaction (site update coming very soon). Reaction was founded by Michael McDaniel, with whom I got to work quite a bit while we were both at frog. Reaction is a company that Michael started about 8 years ago, just days after Katrina made landfall in the U.S. Michael is from Mississippi, and he was compelled to do something to help those affected. Being a designer, with an industrial design background, he found his problem to solve in the short-term housing options available to FEMA when assisting those displaced from their homes. He designed The Exo as a better solution to the short-term housing problem. He explains it a heck of a lot better than I can (so far), so I'll step aside:

I'll be serving as technology director at Reaction, working on the hardware and software that will make these smart temporary houses that keep occupants safe and comfortable. You'll definitely be hearing more about all of this in the near future. I'm elated to be working on a product that I know is going to make a difference in the world.

That said, it is just now hitting me that I have left frog. I will miss frog, and all my colleagues, dearly. I have written frequently about the difficulty of creating and sustaining a culture of innovation and quality in a corporation, and I will probably spend a few years trying to figure out how frog did it.

I've been busy...

by Thomas Brady in , , , ,

There's been a lot going on at home, at work and in my third place. I'm excited to finally get a chance, and in some cases the clearance, to talk about some of what I've been up to.


A couple months ago I got really hot and bothered about wearable tech. I saw projects like the Pebble Watch and even got a Jawbone UP, but I didn't see the total package in any of these options. I wanted a watch that would vibrate to alert me that I was getting call or text message, and maybe show me caller ID information about the call. At the time, there wasn't a device for sale that I could find that did all—or in some cases just—those things.

So I decided to build my own.

I got an Arduino Fio, a replacement iPod battery (they didn't carry iPod mini replacement batteries at the time, but that looks like a better option), a BlueGiga WT32-based bluetooth module from an off-brand, much more affordable source and a real time clock module, which I had no idea I'd need at the start of the project. That last bit required different voltage than I was using everywhere else (needed 5V, but all I had was 3.3V), so my rigged setup required a AA battery, too, for a good-enough boost to 4.8-ishV (couldn't seem to find a voltage booster that would be small enough/cheap enough). I intended to fashion a bezel with this hand-moldable plastic from Inventables.

The best-laid plans...

Have nothing to do with this story. I spent hours. Hours. HOURS on this project. I don't regret it in the least. Every step was new information. I'd tinkered with Arduinos a bit, but I hadn't encountered one, yet, that required special hardware just to be able to connect to a computer to be programmed (it's called an FTDI adapter—something that can connect to your computer via USB and speak computer languages on one end, and connect via serial connection on the other end, and speak in micro-controller languages. They're built into the flagship Arduinos (Uno, Leonardo, etc.).

Oh, and a .96" OLED screen. It felt unreal the first time I got that thing going. Hours of soldering, writing code, watching video tutorials (available at that link for the screen itself) and testing, and it was just strange to see something I'd made rendered on that tiny little OLED screen. I've been writing software for most of my life, and every new platform is a bit of a thrill. This, for some strange reason, was one of the bigger thrills. I think it's because it felt like a realm in to which I shouldn't be able to reach—like I was manufacturing my own consumer electronics. This less-than-$100 pile of Radio Shack-available parts didn't exist in this form 10 years ago. This was a new frontier.

In the end I learned that it's not as easy as pulling a bunch of Radio Shack parts off the shelf and beating them up with your soldering iron. The package never got small enough that I would actually be willing to wear it. But it did work, which was a pretty satisfying end to what could have been a downer of a project. Here's the working code at Github. With compatible hardware, that'll get you a 5-minute-increments clock (if memory serves), and, when paired with a bluetooth phone, a vibrating alert when an incoming call is received, as well as caller ID info.

Sadly, I fried the Fio when trying to clean up my late-night soldering job, and I only just realized I never got photos or video of the working rig. : (

Research on Rails

After a few weeks of not having a side project, I got the bug to a) learn Ruby on Rails and b) build a research tool I'd been kicking around for a while. When you design products for clients, they get pretty picky about where you keep your notes. It's become a tradition at frog to build internal-use-only clones of services like Dropbox, Evernote and the like, because, well, we're jealous. We can't store our client's data outside our firewall, so we have to build our own toys.

For everything but client work, you can pry Evernote from my cold, dead hands, so I set out to build something similar for client work. I've long been interested in collaborative workspaces, so I also took more than a couple cues from Pinterest. I call it Catcher. It's my first Ruby on Rails app, and it's currently in use by a couple dozen frogs. I couldn't be happier. Here's a demo:

One feature not shown there is the ability to email items to an internal-only email address, which get scraped and added to your list, including attached or embedded images, URLS and keword tags that were in the subject line. I was trying to make sure that this was a tool that could serve alongside the ways that we frogs currently solve this problem, one of which is by sending emails. Of course, this is better than those emails, because in six months when you go looking for that thing you know you got from somebody on some project about something kinda like… Well, good luck searching your inbox. The email you're looking for probably has a ssubject line that reads something like, "Exactly like this:" and the body of the email is just an image or a URL. If you added it to Catcher, which you could do just by forwarding the email, you might have taken a moment to add some keyword tags. Even if you didn't do that—shame on you—you stand a better chance picking out the image or a big block quote on the infinitely scrolling "Home Plate."

At least that's the idea.

You might recognize a bit of Pinterest in there, too. At frog, and other agencies where I've worked, it's another common practice to have big pegboards up around team areas, where you can print and pin project-related artifacts. These are anything from wireframes to Gantt charts, but most of the time they're inspiration bits—mood-boards, funny pictures, mockups and just plain pretty pictures. I wanted that kind of content to have a home in Catcher, too. A forthcoming feature will add a filter that will let you see just "inspiration" items, or just "bookmarks," etc.

I spent hours on this project, too, enjoying every minute. The vast majority of them were outside work hours. Note to employers: I ended up building something very similar to this for a client in record time because I had just done it for this side project. And screen captures of the tool have ended up in some pitch decks, too. Free time, in the hands of the right people, can be a very powerful thing.

I'll spend a lot more, hours on this, too. Looks like someone in China just started using it, even though I've tried to keep it under wraps while it's in "beta."

SxSW 2013

frog Austin has been an integral part of SxSW for over a decade now, in that we have thrown the kickoff party for all but a couple years of the existence of the conference. Each year got a little crazier. Apparently the party was broken up by the fire department one year.

It's a chance for a bunch of frogs to get together in a warehouse with power tools, buckets of electronics parts, loud music and the goal of making crazy-cool attractions for a party full of thousands of geeks.

Sadly, I got tricked (I kid) into doing something for the party that didn't involve any of that. I ended up working a good number of hours alone at coffee shops and at my dining room table, at all hours of the night. It sure paid off, though. The attraction I got to work on was an experiment in crowdsourced DJing. We teamed up(again) with TouchTunes(again—we partnered with them to design their latest hardware and software), makers of touch-powered digital jukeboxes found in thousands of bars and restaurants. They brought 20 of their jukeboxes (an intimidating sight by daylight, and the closest thing I've experienced to being a moth near a fluorescent light at night) and added the event space as a venue in their smartphone app. This made it possible for any or all 6,000-ish party-goers we had that night to cast a vote for what would be played by walking up to the Tron-tastic jukeboxes or whipping out their smartphones. And they did. We had nearly 10,000 votes, playing over forty songs chosen by the crowd all night.

I got to build a very-large-screen experience that visualized all this activity real-time. A projected screen near the jukeboxes showed, on rotation, something akin to a slide presentation wherein the slide were alive with data. I got to do a lot of the design of the experience, as well, at the information architecture/wireframe stage. Thankfully I got to work with a visual designer to bring those to vivid, neon life—thanks, Gloria! I'm no data-viz-whiz, but I think it turned out all right. I tried to make sure to balance the exposure the votes got. If we only showed you which songs were in the top 5, for instance, those songs would be assured their top 5 spot. If you're standing there and you look up at that big screen and see a song title, you're likely to say, "Oh, I love that song!" and vote for it. So I tried to expose the underdogs. There was a screen that only showed songs that had recently (within the last 30 seconds) received their first vote. Another show every song that had received any votes at all as various sized squares—the more votes the bigger. At regular intervals a random song from that collection was chosen and spotlighted, showing you the artist's name and the song's title.

Lots of people, myself included, gamed the system. You could, if you so chose, stand at the jukebox and choose the same song again and again, if you didn't mind looking a little, obsessed. Early in the evening, this was fairly easy to do. Into the third hour, you'd have to vote hundreds of times this way to break the top 10. I single-handedly chose the second song of the night. I was determined to hear some Tom Waits, and we did. I was kind and played "Jockey Full of Bourbon" and not "Earth Died Screaming" or "Pony."

There was also a slide that showed a real-time 10-band EQ graph of the sound of the event. A mic was connected to the server running the event, which captured not only the music, but crowd noise.

Here's a video from our marketing department covering the event, with a section—starting at 2:06 on the crowdsourced DJ attraction, and some shots of the part I worked on starting at 2:22:

The Aftermath... math

I spent a lot of time building and testing and testing and rebuilding and testing and... You get the idea. The app was pulling voting data from Heroku, synchronizing that data with a local SQLite database, and then going through the same hoops to get song metadata. We had a test server and a production server. For some reason, every time we tested with the production server everything crapped out. Up to just a couple hours before the event. I was sitting in the rain at the outdoor venue re-writing whole chunks of the application. In the end, it worked. Perfectly. I started the app, and only watched—never had to touch—the admin console I'd built for it, except to call up the "Bar's closing/Last call" slide.

I was as tired as I've been in a long time that day after the event, having been up very late for a couple weeks working on this code, up early the day of the event rebuilding signage girders and setting up PA equipment, and up late again that night tearing things down. But I was sitting there the next afternoon with a database full of 10,000 votes cast by thousands of people, and 250,000 pixels worth of graphed waveforms recorded at the party. I had to see what was in there. I wanted everyone to see what was in there. So I set out to learn some more HTML5 and some d3, and the next thing I knew I had another side project. A couple weeks later, with some much-needed design help from fellow frogs Michael "Gondola" McDaniel and Mike Herdzina, this popped out:

 A screenshot of the SxSW Opening Party Data Visualization

A screenshot of the SxSW Opening Party Data Visualization

The coolest/craziest/scariest part is that this thing has been published. First by Core 77, in part three of their coverage of the crowdsourced DJ thing from SxSW itself (crazy just doubled, Inception-style), and soon, as I understand it, on Design Mind.

Until very recently, it had been about five or six years since the last time I had actually shipped an HTML application, one where cross-browser use actually had to be supported. The web has change so much, and so little in that time. There are myriad little pains in developing for the web, but the ubiquity of software that can make use of your work is intoxicating. And making use of a good web browser to lay out text or deliver content to a screen-reader is like riding downhill on a bicycle. Hardware-agnosticism in the form of Java and similar technologies is, to me, a myth. They try to tell you, "We can make it easy to write your software once, and run it anywhere." Web development sounds, on first blush, like it's making the same promise. The difference, though, is that no one ever said it would be easy. You'll be able to run your software in lots of places, but you're still on the line to support all the thousands of little differences between hardware, software and user needs your software will find itself surrounded by. To me that's a lot more realistic. Honest.


I'm coming up on my first anniversary at frog. I had a great start in my technology career at a little eLearning house called Enspire Learning. I was hired as a technical writer, but they trusted me when I said I could learn to be a developer, and, what's more, they equipped me. They surrounded me with smart people who cared about their craft. They gave me time to learn on the job. They cultivated an environment where people shared their knowledge (with lunch-and-learns and even after-hours classes offered by colleagues). After lots of false-starts, Enspire was where I really became a developer. I outgrew the work in a few years, but for the next several years I felt like I would never find that environment again. I feel I've finally found it in frog. I'm very happy to be here.

Special thanks to Jared Ficklin, who owns the frog SxSW engagement, for involving me, and giving me such a fun bit of the work to tackle.

The Biggest Apple News Since Jobs's Passing

by Thomas Brady in , , , ,

Pro tip: If…

  1. You're in, say, the top third of the S&P 500
  2. Your last report card wasn't so good, or you think your next one might not be
  3. Wall Street shuts down for a day or two due to a storm

Let's just say maybe it's a good time to start buttering up your LinkedIn "friends."

Just ask Scott Forstall and John Browett, who, at least by the end of the year in Forstall's case, no longer work for Apple.

This is big.

Big enough to pull me out of an uplanned hiatus from the blog. Family emergency. My mother-in-law is recovering quite well, if slowly, from cardiac arrest while competing in a—not her first—triathlon.

Big enough that it brings a pretty obvious final answer to a series I'd been working on that could have been titled, "Who the hell is in charge of User Experience at Apple?" (Part 1: "What's missing from Apple's Org Chart?" & Part 2: "Apple and The CXO")

It's clearer now than it has ever been who it was that answered for user experience design across Apple. Just look at the lanugage of that press release, on what activities are being transfered from Forstall to Ive:

Jony Ive will provide leadership and direction for Human Interface (HI) across the company in addition to his role as the leader of Industrial Design. His incredible design aesthetic has been the driving force behind the look and feel of Apple’s products for more than a decade.

Who's the CXO at Apple? Well, now we know. It's Jony Ive. The oh-so-obvious, but oh-so-wrong answer that so many people would have offered for so many years now has become the right answer.

And I think this might be the biggest news since October 5th, 2011.

I don't think that for all his time as VP (or senior VP) of iOS Forstall called all the UX shots. I believe that when Steve Jobs was alive, this—along with whatever else he cared about that day—was Jobs's purview. But when you phrase it in the business organization classic definition of "a throat to choke," that throat was Forstall's, I think, for some time now.

But the most dramatic subplot of this whole story is Sir Jony Ive's. Ive doesn't have any UI/UX design under his belt, at least not any that anyone knows of. He has seen great success designing hardware for Apple for over two decades, but from what we can see from the outside he hasn't touched a pixel.

This could go two ways. In the first scenario, Ive could turn out to be an incredible UI/UX designer as well as an industrial designer, or, perhaps more likely, he could prove to be able to lead a team of UI/UX designers effectively. In the second, he could terrible, or even only mediocre at the job, either of which would have the same outcome.

Apple is more vulnerable than it has been in some time. If it turns out that Ive is no good at this, Apple's reputation will be shaken like it hasn't been since the Newton. People already have high expectations of the man that was knighted for being such a design badass. People are looking for someone on whom to pin the Steve Jobs legacy. If Ive fails, "beleaguered," will be the nice thing the press says about Apple, which will certainly catch the attention of both the customers and Wall Street.

There is a hell of a lot (around $604 per share at the moment, not to put too fine a point on it, but, of course, Wall Street is closed for a few days) riding on that young man right now. For once I don't envy him.

How to pre-order an iPhone 5 for pickup on Friday, today

by Thomas Brady in , ,

Here's how I see my Friday morning going:

  1. Get up, at the usual time.
  2. Have breakfast with my family.
  3. Get ready for work at the usual pace.
  4. Drop by Target on my way to work.
  5. Walk right up to the cell phone stand.
  6. Trade in an iPhone 4 for $158, and keep my cables and AC adapters.
  7. Pick up the iPhone 5 I pre-ordered last night.

This could go wrong, but currently I have a very low single-digit reservation at my local Target, mère minutes away. They did tell me that they were required to say the phone might not arrive until Monday, too. That still beats the heck out of the 2-3 weeks I'm hearing elsewhere.

How did this happen? Well, I don't think it was any accident.

While AT&T seems to be screwing up people's orders left and right—one way this could go wrong for me is that AT&T might not cancel the pre-order they somehow managed to already botch before Friday, thus using up my upgrade eligibility for an order that can't actually be fulfilled, oh, and I'm just one example of this predicament out of dozens I've encountered without even trying—Target is, well, just being Target. Doing what they do well. Focusing on great customer experiences, and trusting that a healthy bottom line will follow.

So while stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart are offering "pre-orders" that are really just gift cards and a chance to wait in line on Friday, Target is setting up a one-stop(okay, two-stop, since you have to pre-order in person, but I have kids, so it's not like I wasn't already at Target several times this week) shop where you can trade-in old phones for cash and pick up your actually-reserved pre-order in mere minutes.

Why isn't everybody pre-ordering at Target, then? I'm guessing two reasons: obscurity and planned obscurity. I think this is the first year that Target has gotten to participate in pre-order/day 0 iPhone sales, so, at least this year, it's not one of the first places people think of to go for day 0 purchasing. And, this being the first year, I think Target is choosing not to promote this so as to dip their toe and see how it goes. For one thing, at this stage, I don't think Target knows what kind of inventory they'll be getting Friday, and they're definitely an under-promise-and-over-deliver kind of outfit.

So, if you haven't secured an iPhone 5 pre-order, but you'd like to, and you don't want to get in line tomorrow afternoon at your local Apple store, drop by Target.

Apple and The CXO

by Thomas Brady in , , , , ,

Previously, on Bash Modern Quantity…

Coming up on a year ago, I asked the Internet "What's missing from Apple's Org Chart?". My premise went…

  1. Apple's biggest advantage over its competitors is its superior user experience,
  2. this superior user experience is the result of having a strong UX team at Apple and that
  3. a key to maintaining or growing this team and its strength would be strong, empowered leadership.

After lots of digging I could only find evidence of a director-level position within the UX discipline at Apple (also here). No vice presidents. No senior vice presidents. Nobody with a C in their title. It seemed obvious enough that Steve Jobs would have seen himself as the C-level representation of UX concerns at Apple, but it seemed equally obvious—to me, at least—that Tim Cook is not similarly capable of wearing that hat. It seemed to me it was time to appoint a high-level head of user experience design at Apple.

This week, on Twitter…

I read, via Crystal Ehrlich, Reuben Steiger's article, "Who's the Chief Experience Officer?", in which he described the need for such high-level representation thusly,

The crux of the problem is that building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job.

If anyone was to have a CXO, wouldn't it be Apple?

Well, I think they do have a CXO, of sorts, and I'll tell you who it is. Well, actually, I'll let Steve Jobs tell you what he told Fast Company:

Think of it this way. If you look at your own body, your cells are specialized, but every single one of them has the master plan for the whole body. We think our company will be the best possible company if every single person working here understands the whole master plan and can use that as a yardstick to make decisions against. We think a lot of little and medium and big decisions will be made better if all our people know that.

John Siracusa, if he's reading this, just thought the phrase, "hippie-dippy," and who can blame him? This sounds like idealist, weirdo, airy Steve Jobs rambling, doesn't it? But here's the science behind it.

Business science.

James Allworth thinks "Steve Jobs Solved The Innovator's Dilemma." I think he's right. And I think this is a big part of how he did it.

In case you aren't familiar with The Innovator's Dilemma [yes, that's a dirty, dirty affiliate link], it was the 1997 Harvard Business School Publishing release by Clayton Christensen wherein he coined the term "disruptive innovation." Disruption theory is beyond[me and] the scope of this post, but it describes the vicious cycle in which what we would call a startup can become a big, slow-moving beast of a corporation, and can, therefore, stagnate, stop innovating, and fail to thrive while another startup comes along and steals its market. In short, it's not enough to come up with an incredible product. You have to keep coming up with incredible products, even if the new ones threaten sales of your old ones, or even your current, successful products. It means taking some risks, getting into markets you don't have any proven ground in and not holding onto anything too tightly. It's being able to change what your company is and does when the market changes, or, preferably, before the market changes. Like turning "Apple Computer," manufacturers of Macintosh personal computers into "Apple," the consumer electronics and media company.

I'll leave it to the Harvard guys'n'gals to go any further with that line of thought, but there's a nugget within there that's germane to our topic (no, I haven't forgotten what it was). How do you keep your finger so close to the pulse of the market that you know how and when to change what your company is and does? This is where the Venn diagram of "User Experience Design" and "Business Model Innovation" overlap, and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

In "The hiring and firing of milkshakes and candy bars," episode 19 of Horace Dediu and Dan Benjamin's "The Critical Path," Dediu describes his own independent arrival at Christensen's theoretical solution to the innovator's dilemma, while observing user experience researchers at work:

The idea is that rather than asking people what they want—showing them things and asking, 'What do you think of that?' you would observe them using the product… It was very useful in identifying why people were clicking in the wrong places. This was a process of cleaning up the interface and finding out where people might be led astray. And I remember trying to actually suggest that method—and I was learning about this at a time before I knew job-to-be-done theory at all, I mean, it was actually before the second book was published, which I think is where it was introduced, in The Innovator's Solution [TQB: yes, another affiliate link]—and so it sort of clicked in my mind… that observation of actual behavior is more important than asking wishes, or asking of people what they want."

This is job-to-be-done theory: the idea that you can predict a market's behavior by looking at why your customer wants your product—what your customer hires your product to do—and optimizing your product to do that job well. If you're really good at this, you can figure out that customers are hiring unlikely products to do certain jobs because there are no better options, in which case you've just found an invisible untapped market. Or you might figure out that a sizable portion of the market is hiring a particular product because it's the best suited to do the job for which they've hired it, but that it's not really getting the job done. It's a "successful" product in terms of metrics such as sales or brand recognition, but customers may ultimately be very frustrated with it, even if they aren't aware of their frustration. This is how RIM's wildly "popular" BlackBerry could be toppled, among several others, in such short order by such an inexperienced little company such as Apple.

And how do you find out what your customer has hired your product to do? As Dediu said, you do user research, in the tradition of the user experience designer.

Obviously, then, I'm all the more justified in my cry for a C-level representative of the UX discipline at Apple, right?

I don't think so.

I think I was right when I said, "Steve Jobs was the de facto [head] of UX at Apple," but I think I was only half right. Whereas Steiger put it so poignantly, as quoted earlier in this article, "building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and nobody’s job," I think at Apple building great experiences is everyone’s responsibility and everyone's job, especially if you have a C in your title. I think this is what Steve Jobs was talking about with his each-cell-knowing-the-master-plan analogy.

The executive leadership at Apple has been in charge of this for years. Think about keynote events. Who does the demos? Sure, while he was alive, Steve Jobs did the lion's share (yes, an intentional pun), but come on. Steve Jobs doesn't sit on the bench. More and more, though, even while he was still doing the majority of demos, executives of the top several levels demoed their hardware and software. As far back as 2000 you'd see these guys in the promotional videos released alongside the G3 Cube or the first aluminum PowerBooks. Yes, I realize that even Microsoft executives demo their own software, but I challenge you to compare those demos favorably. On one side you'll get a lot of boilerplate, stiff, clearly-rehearsed deliveries of speeds and feeds. On the other you'll hear someone speak with obvious first-hand, deep knowledge of the practical benefits of what they're showing you—the improvements to the user experience.

Not enough to convince you that the executive leadership at Apple is the apparent co-CXO of the company? How about this one, quite possibly the most important UX design datail in the history of Apple, the feature that could be credited for bringing Apple back to life: the iPod's click wheel? It was invented by Sr. VP of World Marketing, Phil Schiller.

This is the body-and-cell analogy quoted above. I don't think Steve Jobs tried to hide his solution to the innovator's dilemma, I think he just phrased it in ways he knew his competitors would never even try to understand. Here he is spilling the beans in Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson,

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products. Everything else was secondary. Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It's a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything.

Sounds a lot like one of Steve Jobs's heroes, Walt Disney:

We don't make movies to make money. We make money to make more movies.

It also sounds a lot like something one of the other cells in the Apple body—Jon Ive—was quoted saying to Wired:

We are really pleased with our revenues, but our goal isn't to make money. It sounds a little flippant, but it's the truth. Our goal and what makes us excited is to make great products. If we are successful people will like them and if we are operationally competent, we will make money.

That's good user experience design summed up quite nicely by someone who neither came from a UX background nor occupies a UX role at Apple. People often credit Ive with all things design at Apple, but he and his team are industrial designers. To be sure, what he does is a major part of the experience in an Apple product, but he doesn't work alone, or even head the division. Ive doesn't likely call any shots when it comes to pixels.

At most places, a user experience designer, if that title even exists, works in the domain of pixels. If it's a really enlightened company, they might get to sit at the table when decisions about hardware or services are being made. At Apple, they don't stop at pixels, they don't stop at power buttons and they don't stop at unibody construction. They don't stop at the packaging, and they don't even stop at the store display. They keep going. It's why you can buy most items in an Apple store right from your phone, without having to stop and wait in a checkout line. It's why you can get first-class support in person at the Genius Bar. It's why I haven't had to call them more than once in a decade, and why I never heard hold music that one time I did.


It's way too late for that header, isn't it?

This seemingly fussy little organizational detail may hold half of the secrets to Apple's wild success. They don't have a CXO because they don't need one. They don't need one because they've infused their very business model with the concerns, the metrics and even the techniques of user experience design.


Horace Dediu, responding via Twitter:

@thomasqbrady That's right. The CXO's job description is a "value" or priority that should be embedded in every employee.

Lorne Michaels on Here's The Thing

by Thomas Brady in , ,

Not many people are funny for 40 years. Even fewer people are successfully in charge of funny for 40 years. Saturday Night Live has been relevant and funny (most of the time, anyway) for over 40 years because of the brilliant oversigut of Lorne Michaels.

That's why I'm saying, whatever you're doing right now, stop it. Go listen to this episode of Alec Baldwin's podcast, "Here's The Thing," or, if you prefer, read it.

This is probably the part that hit me hardest with its head-smacking insight:

No one believes that we do what we do here in six days ‘cause there’s not much an approval process.

Out of context that sentence structure is a little weird, so I'll rephrase. Saturday Night Live can do in a week what most production teams can't do in a month because there's not much of an approval process.

He goes on:

Exactly. With the movie business, because it’s way better run as is primetime television, every paragraph is scrutinized and reviewed and I say it every week, we don’t go on because we’re ready, we go on because it’s 11:30. It somehow focusses people and I trust that process.

And to sum it up with a gut-punch:

The pace of "SNL" was like think of it, do it, and then think of something else. And that puts the creative people in charge.

And there it is. Looking back at my career so far, this was the difference between the places where I saw creativity thrive and where I saw it writhing in agony. It's a big part of why I just can't stomach most companies with more than a hundred employees.

Ken Segall, in Insanely Simple(that's a dirty, dirty affiliate link), argues that this is one of the ways Steve Jobs kept Apple from acting like a "big company."

P.S. I can't not include this quote:

Producing, for me anyway, is like an invisible art. If you’re any good at it you leave no fingerprints.