Thursday, March 29, 2012

On SXSW: Does Your Product Have A Plot?

Courtesy CNR.
What a curious question.  Does your product have a plot?  Do mine?  Are we talking about a plot in the sense of creative writing with a beginning, complication, climax, and resolution?

Yes, actually, that is exactly what David Womack, at SXSW, was discussing.  His point of view was curious, and while the analogy makes some sense at a high level, when you start considering complications, it became a bit harder wrap my head around.

So here's what I came away from the talk with.

Every product we construct on the web, every process, follows some sort of plot.  The plots may not be very good in most cases, but there is a plot.  Let's use this model:

  • Someone wants to buy a truck.  Specifically, a used Peterbilt 379 semi.
  • They then proceed to Google and search "Used Peterbilt 379".
  • A link there takes me to
  • This person then uses the filters in the navigation to narrow down a candidate truck.
  • They view the ad's detail page.
  • They decide to email or call the seller, or not to.
  • They look for more trucks or navigate somewhere else.

Straight-forward, right?  So how does this follow Freytag's triangle?

The consumer story starts with performing the search on Google.  This is the beginning of their story.  The start of my product story starts with the user's arrival from Google.  While I have some control over where my links appear on Google through SEO and social engagement, as far as user experience is concerned, the story starts with their arrival.

The Complication, or rising action, is the user's use of the filters to narrow down results.  It is their looking at certain ad detail pages and considering those vehicles.  The Climax is them deciding to actually make a phone call or send an email lead.  Or their decision not to.

The Resolution is after closing the deal.

And that's the story.  So what, right?  It's just a clever analogy.

Well, maybe not.  There is more to it than that.  Mr. Womack stresses the features that make a good story.  And what makes a good story?  A story with an engaging Complication and a satisfying Climax.  A story that has emotional complications and hooks.

My thought as David dug into this was something along these lines of:  "How in the hell do I make the process of buying a truck emotional?"

He had an interesting example:  Product Reviews.

So Amazon's story wasn't terribly different from mine in the early days of the internet:  search, find, buy or not to buy.  Then they added product reviews and suddenly added a healthy dose of reality, or humanity, to products.  People could review them and write witty stories about their experiences with them, or warn other customers against poor products.  The reviews helped the Climax element, to buy or not to buy, become more emotional.

Mr. Womack used the example of the 55 gallon drum of Passion Natural water-based lubricant.  Here was something that most of us would have no need to view or look at (or would you?), yet there are 64 reviews, some of them with hundreds of "I found this review helpful" thumbs ups.  Because people are leaving reviews, others are viewing the product, if only to read those reviews.  For the product, there are now thousands of folks that are aware that they can purchase a 55 gallon drum of lube.

Helpful, I know.

A better example, I think, is the 3 Wolf Moon shirt.  For three months straight, this t-shirt became Amazon's top selling piece of apparel.  Why?  Because Brian Govern left an entertaining review that went viral.  Wouldn't everyone like to see that story with their merchandise?  (Learn more here at

If it weren't for Amazon's review process and the emotional engagement it provides, the company that prints these shirts would not have had so much success.  All of this, just because of a customer review.

This happens every day, on a smaller scale for everyone visiting Amazon and every product on Amazon.  They search.  They Find.  They read reviews to assess a product's quality or satisfaction then decide to buy or not to buy.

Not only is this good for the 3 Wolf Moon t-shirt or Passion Natural lubricant companies, it is also good for Amazon.  People come to their site just to leave reviews.  People come to their site just to read reviews.  They might even buy something they normally wouldn't (3 Wolf Moon), just to be a part of the story.

Or they may buy them because of Amazon's suggested items.  The use reads a review of a product and decide not to buy it.  But wait, Amazon has suggested something similar!  This is another example of using additional complication to the rising action of a product story line.  Now there's more to choose from.  All with reviews.

So, how will you make your site more complicated?  How will you engage your users emotionally?  David Womack convinced me this is a part of the puzzle while designing our web and device applications.  Further more, and worth another blog post, is how this plugs in with social engagement and social signals in SEO.

Social signals will become increasingly important and social activity is a very personal, emotional experience.  How will your product fit in?

Monday, March 19, 2012

On SXSW: Toyota doesn't get auto apps

Panel at SXSW "Auto Meets Mobile:  Building In-Vehicle Apps"
At SXSW I sat in on a panel led by Michelle Avary from Toyota and Rich Brand from NPR.  Michelle represented Toyota's "product" arm and Rich had experience in this space during the development of NPR's auto app.

They started with driving a point home about complexity.  Electronics, including car stereo head units, are hardened devices to withstand the rigors of driving and crashes.  Additionally, inside of a single model, different trim levels will have different head units and those head units will each have different operating systems.

So let's take the Lexus LS as an example.  The base 460 trim level will have one head unit, let's call is A with operating system 1.  The 460L and 460H will have different head units, too, B and C, with operating systems 2 and 3.
  • 460: A - 1
  • 460L: B - 2
  • 460H: C - 3
If one is to build an application to run on each of these trim levels for a single model, you'd need to write it to be compatible with all three operating systems and the different head units will have different capabilities (GPS vs. no GPS).  This further complicates when you consider cross-models and cross-brands.  From a software developer's point of view, this is definitely sub-optimal.  You may be able to write for a particular brand and trim level, but to write for multiple brands would likely become unmanageable rather quickly.

There is also a situation where the version of the operating system may not be up to date.  Currently OS updates to in-car stereos is done either by a dealership or by mailed storage like a DVD or thumb-drive.

Their next point was about the development lag in cars.  Typical development lag, according to Michelle, is five years.  I'm sure this varies between brands, but I'll accept it as a general rule.  So this means that a brand new car today began development in 2007.  What else happened in 2007?  The iPhone was first introduced.  Apps didn't really take off until some time after that.

That certainly helps explain why car interfaces with Android devices are lagging.  My Challenger, as an example, seamlessly interacts with an iOS product at a limited level, but my only Android option is the Auxillary jack.

So I follow all of of this to this point.  Lots of head units, lots of trim levels, lots of operating systems and lots of brands.  Being a developer, my first inclination is to simplify the system.  And the best way to do that is to eliminate the head units.  Or, at least, make them dumber.  By dumber I mean they should provide a simple interface to a tuner and an amplifier.  Out side of that, the brains of the stereo should be provided by a tablet.

Custom iPad dashboard install.  (Source)
The holy grail is the ability to take my tablet, which already has my music library along with my favorite apps and plug it directly into my car transforming it into the dashboard interface.  Sound nice?

This question was asked after the panel.  The responses from Michelle and Rich really missed the mark and the point of mobile applications.  They had these reasons why it wouldn't work:
  • It would look bad against the aesthetics of the car interior.  "Lexus owners expect a certain level of refinement."
  • Trying to design for multiple jacks would be difficult.  (Android's micro-USB vs. Apple's wide-plug)
  • The software would not be in their control and that's dangerous.
So, to get this straight, Toyota and other manufacturers are already designing black 7'' or 10'' screens into dashboards without issue, but designing a dock for a 7'' or 10'' tablet is too much?  Further, designing software for hundreds of operating system and head unit combinations is easier than designing around two different plugs?

The third point has the greatest chance of being valid, but is still a red-herring.  It doesn't matter.  People are already using their docked phones or tablets, and the apps on them, to control their experience in the car.  OEMs have no control over this situation and it falls on the user of the phone or tablet to find applications that are easiest and least distracting to use.

I don't buy it.  There are already aftermarket companies designing iPad docks for cars.  Some going so far as to replace head unit installations with docks that plug into tuners and the in-car speakers. 

Scosche iPad Dock it in a Subaru STI.  (Source)

My Proposal - Open Standards, Open Docks.
The car manufacturers should be working with Apple, Motorola, Asus and others to design an open standard that hardware manufacturers can design against.  This standard says plugs will be in this location, expecting the tablet to be in this orientation.

An open programming standard should also be defined, which allows a measure of control with the "dumb" dock and interface with the tuner, microphone, and speakers.  This open standard describes the API available to programmers.  Apple and Android then develops the necessary updates to their SDK's to give the programmers ability to interface with the dumb terminal.

Further, Toyota and other manufacturers can create a certification system that certifies only the best in-car apps as being safe to use.  This will provide a measuring stick for the public to sort the good apps from the bad.  Additionally, Toyota can partner with Apple or an Android tablet manufacturer to sell a tablet with the car.  Not only are you getting a car, but you might be getting The New iPad or an Asus Transformer Ultra Prime.  The manufacturers can write their own applications, as well, as the only "official" dashboard app for a particular model and trim level.

This eliminates your complexity around operating systems and head units.  It becomes decoupled, focusing on the open standards letting the software be the differentiating factor, not the hardware.  It also gives the car manufacturer a way into the car buyer's home.  Those same apps they build for their cars can also provide additional features for their in-home experience.  There is much to be gained!

What the OEMs need to understand is that this is already happening.  There's already a growing user base installing tablet docks into their cars and there's already a very large user base which has smartphone docks. They use these devices for music, GPS, and internet radio now.  Toyota, and the other OEMS, can either fight against the "tipping point", or they can embrace it and push for the advancement of the in-car experience.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On SXSW - Biggest Take Aways from Sessions

I've been thinking on the general and specific takeaways from this year's SXSW Interactive.  What were the things that spoke the loudest to me?  It's been difficult to narrow down, actually.  There are a number of general things about the event, but specifically?  This will require some thought.

"Tipping Point"
I heard this phrase numerous times, mostly seriously, and a few times jokingly.  It seems that there a few industries looking for that point where they become entirely digital.  This always seemed to use the smartphone as an example:  eventually a tipping point was reached where everyone started to acquire smart phones easily and affordably.

More importantly, are you driving the tipping point or are you fighting against it?

Jokingly, this guy, Dean, that I pal'd around with Monday evening kept using it in the context of when the party was about to get wild.  He had a nose for it.

I attended a talk by Gene Kim about a development philosophy called "DevOps".  It is, at its most basic level, about injecting your operational requirements into your agile sprint processes.  DevOps marries the two normally separate groups into one so that they can more effectively support one another.

This will help you increase your operational/release tempo as well as create more hardened systems with the initial releases.

"Distinction Without Difference"
Ray Kurzweil used this phrase in his keynote conversation with Lev Grossman.  Specifically, he was referring to the idea that we might integrate digital devices into our bodies.  He says we already do, in the form of smart phones.  That they are not inside us is a distinction with out difference.  We already carry them everywhere and interface with them while performing any number of tasks.

Deeper on this topic was the idea that we would, through these devices, interact with a digital cloud that would expand our mind's capabilities.  We are already on the cusp of emulating the human brain's thought processes and so it's foreseeable that we'll use cloud-based data centers to expand our cognitive abilities.

Being a budding sci-fi novelist, that was right up my alley to hear, if not slightly disturbing.

"We couldn't create a problem hard enough"
This quote came from a game developer who Katie Salen worked with.  Her talk was "Don't shoot the player", referencing a game in which a segment was too difficult because the player was just learning and the level designers were shooting the player.

This specific quote was about how in Portal 2, a game with co-op 1st person puzzle solving, they could not create a problem that was too difficult for two players to solve.  They found that one person would take the majority of the cognitive load and when they got tired the other person took over, creating a situation in which there was always deep thought being applied to a problem.

This nugget can translate well (and does through Extreme Programming) to software development.

"Reward Failure"
Katie's talk was mostly about education and building a system in which we don't just reward success, but failure, too.  We shouldn't "shoot the player" while they're learning a new skill.  We should also recognize that failure is a legitimate part of success and speed us towards ultimate goals.  However, we're taught that only success is rewarded through our current schooling systems.

This, too, can translate well to software development.  So much of what we do is creative in nature and involves a whole lot of failure before finding the sweet spot of success.

"Does your product have a plot?"
As a new "product guy" with more than a decade of web development behind me, I was very curious about this talk.  Since I'm also a writer, this definitely spoke to me.  I wasn't let down.  David Womack gave a soft-spoken presentation about plot in products and how we can translate the introduction, complication, climax, and resolution formula of writing to product construction.

While his examples were very broad in scope, this can scale down to a web page.  I often refer to the "climax" as "the therefore" for any particular product.  But this concept of applying setting, seeing the user through the process and engaging them is an elegant metaphor.

A side note from this is emotional complication and engagement, with an example being Amazon's reviews.  The reviews provide emotional investment, characterize a product, and help lead to the climax - which is the decision to purchase or not purchase - the product.


"Austin is awesome"
Technically, this wasn't part of any specific session, but I have to say I've really enjoyed Austin.  Even with the weather really making it difficult to get engaged the first couple days, I met some very interesting, engaging folks.  Several of them work with Green Mountain Energy here in Austin.  Others were just relaxed locals who I met through the Google+ HIRL community.

I was able to listen to music of a type I'd never heard before - Noise Revival Orchestra.  Think rock/punk meets orchestra.

The food has been great, if fattening, and once the sun started shining, the weather was fantastic.  I travel back to Virginia tomorrow, but I think I may try to come back when Austin is "normal", although from what I understand, it's all about "Keeping Austin Weird".

Friday, March 2, 2012

You have lost my vote, Republicans

It seems that as this year moves on, the more reactionary the Republican party becomes. I used to call it home, but in the last year or so, it has gradually pushed me away - a moderate college educated male.

We've seen a bill in my home state of Virginia requiring invasive ultra-sound for women before abortion. The amendment swapped it to "jelly on the belly", but it still requires an ultra-sound before an abortion. Purportedly to gauge the age of the fetus.

We've read about the attack on contraceptives, last week led by Rush Limbaugh's calling a law student from Georgetown a "slut" because she wants access to birth control pills through her medical insurance. Never mind the numerous medical reasons why a woman would want them or perfectly valid reasons a married couple may use them.

We've seen Wisconsin also working to repeal a law that requires equal pay for women.

It seems that Romney is particularly out of touch with most Americans, coming from a very wealthy background that has taught him not to worry about the less privileged.  Let's not forget, either, who his top campaign contributors are:  Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse Group, & Citigroup.  It is hard for me to expect someone backed by big banks to want to fix the campaign financing situation.

Then there's Santorum's comments about wanting to "throw up" while reading a JFK speech regarding the separation of church & state.  Mind you, JFK was just echoing the Constitution.

There's wide denial inside the party regarding climate change, despite what the non-cherry-picked data shows.

There was the bill introduced in the Senate which would give health care providers great lee-way in denying contraceptives, or other elements of care, because of a moral contradiction.  Thankfully the Senate defeated this.

Now this: a law proposed in Wisconsin which would say that being a single parent is child abuse.

Once upon a time, 45% of scientists claimed to be conservative and/or Republican. Now a mere 6% do.

Why is that? The party is fading & will vanish if it doesn't find a way to embrace the social & scientific progress that has happened in the last 50 years. It's time to put religion back in the church & leave it out of the government. It's time to be rational.  It's time to work on the real issues in front of the nation: dependence on foreign oil, the concentration of wealth to a very few people, a shrinking middle class, over flowing jails, government & campaign corruption, a sustainable economy, green technology, & perhaps most important:  education.

Education is not the enemy of a democracy, it is its greatest ally.  It does not make people snobs, it shows one's desire for self-improvement.  These bills and statements have alienated me, a conservative leaning college educated male.  The Republican party is seemingly out to discredit science, rewind the social clock for women, and is willing to gamble with the the world, through the denial of climate change, in order to maintain a status quo for a small, very rich group of lobbyists and campaign fundraisers.

While I don't think the President is a great choice, either, I cannot stomach putting someone into the White House who is willing to rewind the social clock, willing to ignore science, & who will put their own religious values ahead of others.  This is our nation's future, and the world's, which is at stake.  Why are we talking about abortion, contraceptives, gay-marriage, and college education when we have sky-rocketing oil, a lagging economic recovery, potential war with Iran, and a degrading climate?

If the party doesn't switch its focus & find people to champion true conservative approaches to issues, then the Republican party will be irrelevant in a much shorter time frame than I think they realize.