Craft Punk

by Thomas Brady in , , ,


A few years ago I started a new family tradition of making homemade Halloween costumes with my son, Liam.

No, not like

 A perfectly acceptable Halloween costume: two eye-holes punched in a sheet to make a ghost costume.

A perfectly acceptable Halloween costume: two eye-holes punched in a sheet to make a ghost costume.

Okay, I’ll skip to the finished products from the first couple years. Year one, a Creeper, from Minecraft:

 Liam as a Creeper from Minecraft

Liam as a Creeper from Minecraft

I don’t even remember what started this tradition. I don’t remember whose idea it was, or how I decided to use cardboard as my medium (though that’s pretty much the most obvious decision ever), but I do remember how much fun it was working with cardboard. I found it to be most of the pleasure of 3D printing, without as much waiting and/or disappointment.

So the first year was pretty basic. Sadly, Liam got sick on Halloween that year and didn't get to actually go out in it. He did get to answer the door for trick-or-treaters, at least.

The second year we upped our game a bit. This one features glowing eyes, and a web app for his phone that randomly plays Enderman sound effects.

 Liam as an Enderman, also from Minecraft.

Liam as an Enderman, also from Minecraft.

The Stakes Keep Getting Higher

This year, though… this year… my wife says to me, she says, “Hey, I know! You and Liam should go as Daft Punk.

💀

I have drooled over Daft Punk helmets on Etsy for years. There’s a wide range of helmets available, from the ludicrously simplified children’s toys (that still manage a $150 price-tag) to the exquisite, as-good-as-the-originals, thousands of dollars kinds of affairs.

None of them looked plausible as a home project made with cardboard.

I searched. I watched YouTube videos. I found myself prostrate at the feet of a new teacher named the “Dali Lomo.” Oh man is this one awesome blog.

So, for obvious reasons (the opportunity for irony), Liam was assigned the Thomas mask, and I got the Guy-Manuel mask.

Thomas

I immediately set to work on Liam’s mask, which I figure was going to be the harder of the two. It seemed to me that the fidelity of the chrome of his mask was critical, and the hardest thing to accomplish. It meant that the “dome” needed to be immaculate. The Dali Lomo’s build guide involved making a dome out of cardboard (which sounds right up my alley), but also involves a ton of Bondo. I opted out of this, thinking that starting with a batting helmet would save me some time. I went to the local sporting goods store, and found this beauty on sale:

 A bright pink child’s batting helmet.

A bright pink child’s batting helmet.

I think the helmet did save me some time, but nowhere near as much as I’d thought it would. What it did do for this project is add a lot of rigidity and durability to the mask, and give us a comfortable, head-shaped base from which to start. Before I was done, I’d cut a couple inches off the back of the helmet, cut the visor off the front, and cut the ears out. I also had to (my wife would probably like me to say “I chose to) fill in the vents with Bondo, so I didn’t entirely escape having to deal with Bondo (my first time—it’s kinda fun!).

I filled the gaps between the matboard visor pieces and the batting helmet with Sugru, by the way. I was quite concerned the paint wouldn't stick, as they claim you can't easily paint Sugru in their packaging. The Rustoleum primer I used is oil-based, which I think helped, and I put several coats on before painting the chrome on, and it worked quite well.

The first paint I tried was Krylong Looking-Glass Silver. This did not work well at all.

 The Krylon Looking-Glass Silver bubbled and dried very strangely, with nothing close to a “mirror finish.”

The Krylon Looking-Glass Silver bubbled and dried very strangely, with nothing close to a “mirror finish.”

A bunch more sanding, and a new coat of Krylon Premium Metallic Chrome Original, and it looked like this:

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Guy-Manuel

So, again, the Dali Lomo’s guide is fantastic.

One thing the Dali Lomo doesn't mention too emphatically in the YouTube videos for these masks is the difficulty in marrying up the two halves of the matboard masks. There's a seam that runs righ up the middle of the Guy-Manuel mask, and a similarly challenging seam along the left- and right-hand sides of the visor box on the Thomas mask that will split on you if you don't reinforce them well enough. Basically, you will marry up the edges of the two pieces, which means that you will need to glue each side to a piece of thin cardboard (we used cereal boxes). I initially put dots of hot glue at each of the four corners of the cereal box. This let the seam immediately split up when I bend the matboard. You need that seam to be super solid. So instead of a few dots, you basically need to cover the whole area, like this:

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Now, when it came to the visor, I went my own way.

The Dali Lomo cut a plastic bowl into pieces, glued them back together in a slightly different shape, glued on a transparency sheet, Bondo’ed the seam, and then wrapped the whole thing in heat-shrinking sunscreen vinyl.

Yowza.

I started out trying to do the same thing. I bought an acrylic globe, which I thought was about the size of my noggin. I thought I would cut it in half, glue on a transparency sheet, and spray the inside of the assembly with Nite Shades (which the Dali Lomo said would probably be easier than the wrap method).

Turns out cutting acrylic is a frickin’ nightmare. Every time I tried to make a cut, cracks splintered out in every direction.

Also, it turned out that the globe was too wide for the mask body to hold.

Luckily it wasn’t expensive.

The problem was, it was now just days before Halloween, and I had no plan for how to make this visor. Luckily I’d been thinking about backup plans the whole time, and at some point I’d come across some blog posts (sorry, I can’t credit them… don’t remember whose they were) regarding Worbla. Yeah, WORE-BLAH. Say it 5 times as slow as you like. It’s just fun.

Worbla is a thermoplastic—a plastic that becomes moldable at certain temperatures, and returns to a hardened, sturdy state at room temperatures. Specifically, I found that they make a transparent version. Thankfully, while doing this research, I ordered a 3-pack of sample sheets of Worbla (9”x9”, roughly) from Amazon, that included just one sheet of transparent Worbla (sometimes called TranspArt).

So, I read up on how to work with transparent Worbla. Thankfully, in my searches, I found this post on Worbla’s site: Using TranspArt for Clear Domes.

Having read that, I went to Home Depot and found an 8 inch glass globe (a replacement for lamp-post covers, I think).

I made a circular jig (out of cardboard, my fave medium!) that had a diameter just about an inch longer than the globe itself, and a height that was about the radius of the globe (4 inches), taped the 9”x9” sheet of TranspArt to it, hit it with the heat gun for about 10 minutes (it’s best, I read, to slowly get to the desired temperature, lest you get discoloring and bubbles), and pushed the glass globe into the TranspArt. It looked a bit like this:

IMG_0099.jpeg

After about 15 minutes of cooling, I pulled the globe out, and it looked great! It took some careful wiggling to get the TranspArt off the glass globe (it was darn-near vacuum sealed to the thing), but once it was free I had a very clear semi-sphere, with a hoop skirt on...

IMG_0100.jpeg

Then I had to figure out how to make the curved-plane front portion of the visor. I went to an office supply store and tried to find transparency sheets. You remember those? Like the things you’d use with one of these:

IMG_0102.JPG

I couldn’t find them there, so I bought some sort of self-adhesive clear sheets from Swingline (you know, like “that’s my stapler”?). Wrong. Too flimsy.

I visited several stores, trying to avoid the inevitable, but each place told me the same thing. “You should go over to Satan’s house. I think they have them there!” So I gave in, and I went to Hobby Lobby. I’m sorry. I really am.

At Hobby Lobby, in among the supplies for building model train set landscapes, I found transparent 8.5”x11” sheets of vinyl in various thicknesses. I got 0.7mm, and they were perfect. 2 sheets for $5. I DID find transparency sheets at one other office supply store, in my searches, but they were $40 for a pack of 50, and I had no idea how thick they would be.

I sprayed the inside of my clear dome and the transparency sheet, and they looked great. Perfect, dark, and well-matched. Now… how to attach them?

It was really hard to try to hold the dome in place just to figure out where to place it within the frame of the mask. I tried several ways to try to hold it in place to see if it would fit, and to try to figure out how to glue it in place safely. I had one shot. I checked. I would not be able to get any more Worbla in town, and if I ordered more from Amazon the soonest I could get it was November 2nd.

I searched the house (at about midnight), and found a 10-inch diameter inflatable beach ball. Deflated just a bit, it made the perfect clothes-horse for the dome. It held it in place just right while I traced the outline of where the dome met the frame, which let me then glue the appropriate spots one at a time by matching up the outline marks.

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Then I curved the transparency sheet around the front of the dome, glued that in place… and I was done!

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Final Note on the Thomas Visor

In hind sight (nota bene to the reader looking to make her own Guy-Manuel mask), I could have just glued the sides of the sheet to the frame of the mask. The seam where the transparency sheet met the dome would have not been secured, but I don’t think it would have mattered. What I did do was glue it there, with superglue, which dried white, and made the seam quite noticeable.

The Gloves

There’s not a lot to tell you about making the gloves, except to say, A) I did those, too, and B) they take longer than you think they will. There’s a lot of cutting involved, and most of it is rounded corners. One tip: cut out the template, and then re-arrange the individual segments of each finger so that all the straight edges between the segments touch. It's a lot faster this way, because you're turning two cuts (the top of one segment and the bottom of another) into one cut, which, for two sets of gloves, turns 80 cuts into 40.

The Results.

So, here’s where we ended up:

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A Note on Visibility

One thing you might wonder, being the thoughtful reader you are, is "could you see while you were trick-or-treating, ostensibly in the dark in these things?"

I couldn't fit my head into my son's mask, but I'll say that he's not the most sure-footed kid in the world, and it was raining, and we were trick-or-treating after dark, and he never fell. He tripped a few times and very nearly ate it, but never actually fell.

My mask felt like wearing a motorcycle helmet with a tinted face shield, which is pretty siilar to wearing sunglasses (which cover your whole face). It wasn't super easy to see details, but I could get around well enough.

What This Project Meant to Me

I didn't know this the whole time I was working on this project, but some soul-searching and long conversations with my wife in the midst of it revealed something about my motivation to do this project. I grew up without a dad. My single mom bent and broke herself to make sure that I didn't feel that loss, that I had role models of all kinds, and that I didn't feel left out or different or weird because I didn't have a dad, and she did a great job of it.

But the thing I do notice, looking back, is that there were a lot of things that felt out of reach for me because I didn't have a parent that could walk me through those things. How to fix a car, for instance. I'm not saying only dads can do those sorts of things, but I am saying that in my childhood there was not a parent that filed that sort of role. I didn't study computer science in school, for instance, because it didn't occur to me that it was a profession that existed. I didn't have those sorts of professions modeled for me. Likewise design of any kind.

I wanted to do this with my son because I thought it would be fun. I thought it would be good to get him doing something with his hands. He didn't really get very involved this time, which is my fault. We didn't start early enough, so I didn't have time to let him fail a few times. A lot of the materials we were working with (super glue) and tools we were working with (mouse sander) were dangerous, too. My hope, though, and the thing that drove me to finish this, despite spending more than 30 hours on this over about 2.5 weeks, was that he would at least see me doing this. He would know "This is a thing people can do. Dad is not a costume-maker. If he can do it, maybe I can, too. Maybe Dad could even teach me."

Maybe we can get his little sister involved, too.

Here's to next year.

Happy (Belated) Halloween, dear reader!


Øredev 2013

by Thomas Brady in , , ,


Update

I am mortified. My speaker notes included credits for Gloria Wu for visual design in the first application show in the video below (the TouchTunes SxSW visualization), and Michael McDaniel for visual design on the subsequent data visualization. I only realized after watching this video that I didn't actually mention those notes. Profuse apologies to you both.


A much longer post is due, and will come soon, but, hopefully suffice it to say for now that it's been an incredible honor and pleasure to have been invited to participate in Øredev 2013. I did two talks, one technical talk on Ember JS, which I think may be a little too technical to share here but was a sneak peek at the book Jesse Cravens and I are releasing soon with O'Reilly, and one personal talk on the power of story to unite designers and developers, which you can watch below. Thank you (Tack!) Øredev. Thank you Linda, my wife, for making this possible, for picking up all my slack all those nights while I worked on these talks, for being a single parent for a week so I could be in Sweden. For being excited for me, so selflessly, when it meant so much cost to you .

Thank you, thank you, thank you.


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.

Wearables

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.

Thanks

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.


Orchestrating the sounds of your interface

by Thomas Brady in ,


I'm a sucker for big-picture pieces like this, solutions to the problem of creating consistent, yet distinct experiences across a platform. Here we have GE creating a "sound palette" from which to pluck bleeps, blorps and chimes for distinct interactions with microwaves, refrigerators, stovetops, etc. Via Small Surfaces.


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.


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.

TLDR;

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.

UPDATES

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.


Real artists

by Thomas Brady in , , ,


So if you're any kind of Mac nerd you've by now seen numerous photos of early iPhone prototypes now made public domain by inclusion as evidence in the ongoing Apple v. Samsung case.

The Verge featured write-ups, with galleries, on the 26th and the 30th and NetworkWorld today posts a deposition from Douglas Satzger, an industrial design lead who worked at Apple at the time the iPhone was being developed.

There are a few interesting things to me about all this. On the snarky end, the inexcusably poor coverage has been a bit of a surprise. The number of headlines and even whole articles accusing Apple of ripping off Sony design, having clearly not read any of the words in the source materials that weren't in one of the pictures of the prototypes is appalling. It's pretty clear, if you bother to read any of this, that a designer (or some designers) was (were) asked to design something in Sony's style.

The most striking thing of all, to me, is the design itself. This composition from The Verge tells the story best:

It's clear, looking at that 2005 design, that Apple envisioned the iPhone as we know it now—the iPhone 4 and 4s industrial design—before they designed the original iPhone and the 3G/3GS.

I'm very impressed by a company that can not only devise what is, in their estimation, the perfect design and eventually realize it in a shipping product, but can also ship iterative, real-world-constraints-compatible versions on the way there—iterative, real-world versions, by the way, that disrupt entire industries, several at a time. The iPhone was clear two steps forward for Apple, despite the one-step back design and capabilities of the first generation.

Apple had to make some compromises to get that design to market. They had to choose: do we make something that is as powerful as we want, but is maybe a tad way-too-gigantic, or do we sacrifice some power to get the right size? What can we ship now that will be a good jumping off point for the next version, which can be another step toward the product we dream of shipping?

Two of my favorite Steve Jobs quotes come to mind.

"I'm as proud of what we don't do as I am of what we do"

And, of course, "Real artists ship."