Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Getting in tune with the UX Group

The December meeting of the UX Group was a great event, despite the appalling weather. Much as with last month’s Ignite Waterloo event, the meeting showed that when people talk about a product design that they are passionate about, the results are always illuminating and engaging.

I thought I’d briefly share the products that I brought to the table.

First was a guitar capo. A capo is a device for holding down the strings on a fretted musical instrument, like a guitar, in order to raise the pitch. There are several styles and designs, ranging from a simple bar with an elastic strap, to more complex inventions. I’ve owned several, with designs optimized for cost (the aforementioned elastic strap) and preservation of tuning (though at the usability cost of requiring very precise placement) amongst them. The capo that I showed is made by Kyser, and is optimized for fast, one-handed operation. The easy to grab handle makes fast changes a breeze, and it can be easily clamped to the headstock when not in use. Mine works quite well and I’m happy with the results.

Next up was a compact tuner. Musicians have long lived with the need to tune their instruments. While being able to do so by ear is a great skill to have, not everyone has the ear to do so reliably when first learning to play, and even those that have developed their ear may need to tune in a noisy environment. Electronic tuners have been around for decades now, and they’ve been a great aid for getting an instrument in tune. My first electronic tuner, which I acquired years ago for tuning my guitar which I and still have, is a large device and has a great analogue needle that shows how far off a note is from being in tune. It’s clumsy to use with an acoustic instrument, though, but it is accurate. The newer tuner that I brought to the event, made by Intelli, is optimized for ease of use with fretted instruments. It clamps onto the head stock of the instrument and detects notes through vibrations transmitted via this direct contact. It swivels to make the display visible, the display is very bright and easy to see, it works with both acoustic and electric instruments, fits all my guitars and my mandolins, and it is small enough to easily fit in an instrument’s case. It’s not perfectly accurate, but it’s great for my needs.

It was fun to share these objects with the group, and I enjoyed the conversations.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Pretty lights on the tree, I’m watching them shine...

I’m really more of a warm weather guy, but there are some fine outdoor events that are worth venturing out into the winter cold for here in Waterloo Region. One that my family enjoys is the Wonders of Winter, a festival of lights that graces Waterloo Park every year. This season’s version started November 28 and runs until January 3. On our visit on Sunday night there were many people, young and old, who there enjoying the installation. My sons and I had a great time; my 4-year-old, in particular, showed a lot of excitement over his first visit to the festival.

It’s a community-supported initiative, powered by volunteers and supported by many sponsors. Thanks folks!

Meanwhile, over at Kitchener’s Victoria Park, there’s Christmas Fantasy, a similar event that looks like it’s worth a visit too. I’m sure that we’ll get there soon.

(By the way, if the headline for this post seems familiar but you can’t quite place it, try to imagine Darlene Love singing it!)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Cloudy, with a chance of thoughts

We have something new at Primal Fusion this week. It’s another Primal Labs release, in this case an interaction prototype that enables you to build what we call a thought cloud to express your thinking on a topic.

We’ve released it into Primal Labs, rather than as a part of our main thought networking service, for a couple of reasons. First, we want to get feedback from our community of users on whether this a is a useful way to express your thoughts. Second, it’s not finished, and there are many things that we could do with it. Rather than take it in a particular direction we want that community feedback as quickly as possible to help us prioritize what we do.

We can certainly see using this in our main service, and we have other ideas about how to use it as well. For now, though, please try it out in Labs area and let us know what you think.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

My November IgniteWaterloo talk

Ignite Waterloo has released videos of 16 talks from the November 25 first event on Vimeo. It’s great to be able to watch the talks again, as it really was a wonderful night. I’m somewhat relieved to discover that my talk, entitled Metaphor in product design: Are you sure that’s an album?, turned out okay. Note that it started life as a blog post here, but the video expands on the post a little and is more fun!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December UX Group event

The next UX Group meeting, on Tuesday December 15, aims for equal parts socializing and design discussion. It’s the second annual December Product Potluck. Don’t bring food, but do bring a product or products whose design you find worthy of discussion. Anything is fair game, as the goal is lively discussion about design. Last year's version was lightly attended due to winter weather, but let’s not be deterred by that! Moreover, we had a great discussion during the November meeting and it would be wonderful to continue the conversation this month.

Note that for this month we’re holding the event at McMullan’s on King, a fine pub in Uptown Waterloo. I know from StartupDrinksWaterloo that the venue is well-suited to an event like this. We have a fine UX community here in Waterloo Region, and it’s worth the effort to get out and meet. I hope to see you there.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Sipping from the data hose

I’ve been wondering what it means to have access to vast amounts of data and information. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the implications, from a user experience perspective, when users assume that data is accurate and synchronized.

Google Maps recently added Street View coverage for Waterloo, Ontario, where I live. As many other people did, I spent some time exploring my city, and there were some interesting revelations. For example, I noticed that pictures of my own house probably came from two different days, based on stuff visible in our yard. Moreover, I was able to pin down one of the days to about three specific dates last spring, based on the apparent weather and on the presence of a car belonging to my brother, who visited from out of town. Fun discoveries!

I also noticed that there’s a mismatch between the street view imagery and the aerial/satellite photo imagery. I’m sure that many other people have noticed this before in other cities, and that it’s not particularly exciting news, but sometimes an issue needs to hit close to home (figuratively and literally) to get my attention.

Here’s a simple example. On King Street, there was some new development work done several years ago. The aerial/satellite imagery in Google Maps shows work in progress. Street View imagery shows completed buildings.

(See this example on Google Maps, though depending on when you access this link the imagery for the aerial view, the street view, or both may have been updated. The image shown on the right preserves the mismatch that I’m writing about.)

A mismatch like this is pretty easy to spot. It’s much bigger than one I alluded to regarding my house, which really only I might notice. What does it mean, though, when a business on a street view image closes and is replaced by another? What does it mean when users add their own photos? How does the addition of historical imagery (in Google Earth at this point) contribute to the mix? Does the fact that the Street View images are taken at different times matter at all?

In short, as more and more data is added to Google Maps, how do such data synchronization issues affect the user experience? I know that I find myself making implicit assumptions about the underlying data (for example, that the it is relatively synchronized chronologically), in part because I find the experience so immersive.

I’m sure that this isn’t an issue specific to Google Maps by any stretch. It’s just visible there, which got me thinking about what it might mean; I’m not yet sure what all the implications are!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

VeloCity, Ignite, and StartupDrinks

Yesterday was pretty busy for me outside the office. I started with a visit to the Student Life Centre at the University of Waterloo with my Primal Fusion colleague Tom Levesque, where we checked out VeloCity Start Up Day. There was quite a crowd perusing the project displays and talking with the students about their projects. I was only able to speak with a couple of students myself, as there were many others trying to do the same, but I was impressed with the turnout and interest by both the participants and the visitors.

Next up was a lunch meeting over sushi with a few of the folks who put together Ignite Wateroo. We talked about what went right (a great deal) and wrong (very little) with our first event last week. It looks like we’ll do the next event in March of next year, and we’re already looking for speaker suggestions. We don’t anticipate changing much in what turned out to be a successful approach to the event. Having said that, though, we’re curious about what others think. Let us know.

Finally, I attended the third edition of StartupDrinksWaterloo. There had to be 30 people in attendance, and the conversations were a real treat. I met a few new people as well as seeing familiar faces, and I continue to marvel at the engaged and interested people who come out to events like this. I feel like a pretty committed attendee at this point, and I’m looking forward to the next edition in January. Congratulations and thanks to Dan Silivestru for initiating the Waterloo version of this event.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Instant websites! Just add water!

I recently wrote about a demo that a colleague and I gave at StartupCampWaterloo, showing a prototype that we had created at Primal Fusion. Yesterday, our founder Peter Sweeney showed this prototype at NextMedia in Toronto.

We’ve released that prototype into a new area at the Primal Fusion site, Primal Labs. It’s still not a product yet, and it’s still pretty rough around the edges, but it does show some of the promise of thought networking.

Our Automatic Website Generator does exactly what the name suggests. It takes a user-supplied topic, builds related thoughts using our Primal Fusion platform, and then searches the web for related content. The results are then almost instantly presented as a website on that topic. It works reasonably well, though the fact that we’ve put it in Primal Labs should make it clear that we have more work to do. Still, it’s a fine start and we wanted to share it with the world and get feedback from people. Do try it out — you’ll need a Primal Fusion account at this point, but signing up is easy and it shouldn’t be long before you can try both the Automatic Website Generator and our original product as well.

Monday, November 30, 2009


StartupDrinksWaterloo is a fine initiative aimed at, and enabled by, the sociable tech community here in Waterloo. Basically, it’s an opportunity to meet people in the greater startup/tech community and engage in conversation over drinks. It’s part of a loose federation of similar events in other cities. I managed to get out the the second edition last month, and I enjoyed the low-key conversation (and even the beer). Happily, it’s on ongoing event, happening on the first Tuesday of every month, and tomorrow night is the third Waterloo edition. It’s at 6:00pm at McMullen’s in Waterloo. Come on out and relax, talk with like-minded folks, and enjoy the connections.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

5 minutes, 20 slides, and a stage

Ignite Waterloo now has its first event in the rear-view mirror. I’m happy to have been able to give a talk — Metaphor in product design: Are you sure that’s an album? — and even happier that it went reasonably well. Ignite is a challenging format, and I wasn’t at all certain that I’d pull it off. I think I did, despite what feels in retrospect like an inadequate amount of rehearsal on my part. I can’t stop editing and revising the talk my head though!

The other speakers were all terrific, and the range of topics and experiences presented was inspiring. I have to confess that I especially enjoyed the talk given by my wife, Jayne Thompson, on climate change at a local level and flooding on the Maitland River.

The cupcake decorating contest was a success too, though I didn’t get a close look at all the entries — I spent the early part of the evening on door duty, which turned out to be a fine way to meet folks.

It’s less than 24 hours later and I’m already looking forward to the next event sometime next year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Waterloo Region Tech Startups

I occasionally post items in this blog about technology- and startup-related events in Waterloo Region that I attend or plan to attend. A terrific new resource has recently appeared that makes it easy to keep on top of these events, as well as much more. Waterloo Region Tech Startups includes a calendar, links to blogs and other resources, and a stream of related tweets. It’s the brainchild of Jesse Rodgers and Joseph Fung both of whom are active and visible in the community through various other initiatives. Great work, guys!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

It didn’t rain on my parade

What do Toronto, Waterloo, and Wroxeter have in common? Apart from all of them being cities (and a town) in southern Ontario, each has an annual Santa Claus parade that happens in November. The Toronto edition for 2009 was last week, Waterloo had its parade yesterday, and tiny Wroxeter holds its 2009 parade next Friday. Actually, I think that every small town in southern Ontario has a parade of its own, but I mention Wroxeter’s as my wife knows about it!

As with Oktoberfest, it wasn’t until after I had children that I really enjoyed and appreciated Waterloo’s Santa Claus parade. This year’s edition was a big improvement over last year’s, in that it didn’t pour rain. Not surprisingly my sons all enjoyed the parade, and I got a huge kick out of it too. Between pipes and drums, Rudolph, a steel drum band, a roller derby team, and a Christmas tree made out of recycled cans, there was a lot to enjoy. And that’s just the non-traditional stuff! (Well, pipes and drums are probably traditional in many parades in Ontario at this point.) It’s really quite hard not to have fun.

There was also a toy drive and a food drive, which my sons each contributed to. Of course, Santa appeared at the end, on a flatbed trailer with his reindeer, and then it was time to head home. Great fun, and a real treat every year.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Primal Fusion gets out of the house

This week was active on the Primal Fusion front, with two milestones of a sort.

First up, we released an update to the alpha version of our thought networking service. Our initial version was launched last Spring at the DEMO09 conference. We’ve received a lot of feedback since then, and have made improvements that address the biggest issues. You can read all about the details on the Primal Fusion products blog.

Next up, my Primal Fusion colleague Tom Ayre and I demonstrated a brand new Primal Fusion prototype at StartupCampWaterloo. The prototype is an automatic website generator (“Instant web sites! Just add water!”) that's built on our thought networking platform. While still quite rough, and not yet released in any form, we feel good enough about this prototype to have shared it with the community at this great event and get feedback. There were interesting questions, some great suggestions, and even a little healthy skepticism. It was all appreciated, and we do listen closely to what we hear. We also appreciated all the votes that we received after we made our pitch to demo — great pitch, Tom! We both also enjoyed the rest of the demos and conversations. If you haven’t been to one of these events, it’s well worth a visit.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

November UX Group meeting on Thursday

The November meeting of the UX Group of Waterloo is on Thursday. This session is a group discussion on a big UX topic:
This month we want to explore the factors and issues that will have an impact on user experience design in the near future. As the world goes mobile, what does it mean for users? If everything is accessible, how can it all be managed? What does the move from point-and-click to tap-and-pinch mean? Bring your own issues and questions, and share them in a group discussion with our inquisitive and curious UX community. If you have online videos or other resources to share, let’s have a look at them.
Check out the details and make sure to come out and share your thoughts.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Entrepreneur Week in Waterloo

Entrepreneur Week is happening November 16–22 in Waterloo, and there’s a great range of sessions to attend and things to learn:
Entrepreneurs! start your engines: Entrepreneur Week, North America’s largest annual innovation festival dedicated to the entrepreneurial spirit, will be held in Waterloo November 16-22 and it promises to be another high-octane event to inspire innovation.
Entrepreneur Week is an invigorating week-long festival of events dedicated to celebrating the significant contributions of our greatest community asset – our entrepreneurs!
Waterloo Region is the best place in the world to do a tech startup. Just ask the 200 tech startups doing their thing here. And Entrepreneur Week is a festival unlike any other on the planet. Entrepreneur Week connects entrepreneurs, financiers, students, youth, mentors and the services that support them to success.
I’m still not sure which of the sessions I’ll be able to attend (work commitments make for a busy week) but I know I’ll be at the next edition of StartupCampWaterloo on Wednesday November 18.

By the way, from one the same instigators, there’s FailCamp Waterloo happening on Monday night. The theme is essentially learning from failure, and it sounds like a fun time. Failure seems to be in the air, as Scott Berkun wrote recently about failure, why it needs more attention, and recent initiatives to give it just that.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rampaging giant ape foils startup’s plans

I’ve written a couple of previous posts on movies (The Dam Busters, The Adventures of Robin Hood) that are good metaphors for a startup company. I recently re-watched another favourite movie, King Kong (the original version from 1933), and enjoyed the startup elements in the story. In contrast with the previous posts, though, King Kong doesn’t end well at all for the startup!

King Kong features a visionary serial entrepreneur (movie maker Carl Denham) who has an innovative idea (a trip to a scary and mysterious island to make a movie like none that anyone has seen) to solve a pressing problem (putting patrons in seats at movie theatres despite the hard economic times).

Denham hires his key employees (Captain Englehorn and his ship the Venture, ship’s first mate Jack Driscoll, lead actress Ann Darrow) convincing them that his vision will lead to success (“It’s money and adventure and fame. Its the thrill of a lifetime and a long sea voyage that starts at six o’clock tomorrow morning.”) Denham successfully grows his startup company and hires a team who buy into his vision (he recruits a large crew for the voyage), and then goes deep into R&D mode (sets sail for the mysterious island on his ship of choice, the Venture).

Having achieved initial technical success (camera tests on the voyage, discovering the island), Denham and his company suffer one great setback (Anne is taken by islanders) after another (Ann is taken by Kong, a giant ape). Through determination and effort Denham’s team survives early trials (attacks by various giant beasts: Brontosaurus, T. Rex, Stegosaurus, Kong), recovers from early losses (they find Ann, though several crew are lost), and adjusts to new market conditions with a bold and risky plan (they decide to bring Kong back to New York, rather than just a film). Denham puts together an equity sharing plan (excitedly tells the survivors that he’ll share the money they make by exhibiting Kong).

Denham and his team take their product to market (with a plan to exhibit Kong live on stage) and appear poised to reap their rewards (lots of buzz in the sold-out theatre). The product launch is a disaster, though, (Kong escapes his bonds and rampages through New York looking for Ann) and a key employee is lost (Kong again abducts Ann). Denham’s hubris has left his company with nothing, having led to untold damage in his intended market (Kong’s rampage through New York was costly), and the loss of his biggest asset (Kong dies, falling from the Empire State Building, though Ann survives). Disruptive innovation indeed!

Son of Kong (1933), a sequel, isn’t as good as the original, but is fun and interesting for its references to the consequences (lawsuits, etc.) of the action in the earlier film.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Ignite Waterloo is ready to go with first event

There’s a lot of great stuff going on in Waterloo Region. Something that I’ve been working on for some time with a group of like-minded co-consprators is Ignite Waterloo, a local version of a global movement that presents events at which people have five minutes and twenty slides to make a presentation on just about any topic. The results are engaging, funny, enlightening, and help to build connections in local communities and across the world.

Planning and preparations have been going on for many weeks now, and it’s been a great experience to see the group come together. The first Ignite Waterloo Event is on November 25 at the Children’s Museum in Kitchener. There are 16 talks scheduled for this night, as well as a cupcake decorating contest that anyone can participate in. There will be food and drink on hand, and a chance to talk with the presenters and with anyone else who shows up for what promises to me a fun evening. I’m even doing a presentation myself on this first night.

Tickets are available today, and are free. If you’re interested in attending, get your tickets soon, as space is limited.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Co-op students at Primal Fusion

As I’ve mentioned often in this blog, I work at Primal Fusion. We’re doing some pretty cool stuff, some of which you can see in our alpha products. We have a committed group of folks in the shop, and we’re not afraid to take on tough problems. That’s not to say that we aren’t always open to getting help and hearing fresh ideas. One of the strategies that we employ in that regard is to hire students through the University of Waterloo’s co-op program.

As we approach the mid-way point of the current work term, it feels like a good time to reflect on what Primal Fusion gets from co-op, as well as on what students get from spending time at Primal Fusion.

We’re a still a small startup, and we can’t afford to waste resources. We need everyone who works here to contribute, and that includes our co-op students and interns. On the research and development side, that means we look for smart and engaged students to help us solve big problems for our products, not just take on side projects.

In exchange, our students get to do work that makes a valuable impact on real products. In some cases, the work that they do gets released in a product during the course of the work term. That’s quick validation of a job well done.

Are you a student looking for a fast-paced and challenging work term? Primal Fusion may be the place for you.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

iPhone as infinite music generator

Many years ago I discovered Brian Eno’s ambient music through vinyl LP releases like Discreet Music, Music for Airports, and others. The generative aspects of these pieces were appealing to me, and I found the results to be quite beautiful. The only weakness in the pieces, for me, was the limitation of appearing on vinyl albums in short segments. I wanted the pieces to play uninterupted for much longer.

In the mid-eighties, the introduction of the compact disc provided an option that supported longer playing times, and Eno took advantage of that with Thursday Afternoon, a CD-specific version of music he had composed for a video project. That was a CD that I repeatedly played for hours at a stretch while I worked on various design projects. (More recently, the videos from the series have been released on DVD.)

Skipping ahead to the current millennium, last year Eno collaborated with Peter Chilvers to create Bloom, an iPhone app that provides an essentially infinite number of possibilities for ambient pieces. Bloom relies on the computer at the heart of the iPhone to generate music based on minimal input from the user/creator/listener. The results are wonderful, though I did notice that Bloom runs the battery down more quickly than simply listening to Thursday Afternoon does, for obvious reasons. Bloom feels like the ultimate realization of the promise of Eno’s earlier ambient pieces, and has the great advantage of working on a mobile device. As an aside, I think Bloom was the second app that I bought for my iPhone.

Recently I discovered that there was an update to Bloom available. I downloaded it right away, and discovered a few enhancements to the app. More intriguingly were the links to two new apps with a similar heritage: Trope, by Eno and Chilvers again, and Air, by Chilvers and Sandra O’Neil. I’ve bought both, as they are ridiculously inexpensive, and am slowly working my way through them.

What is that I find so striking about these apps? First, as I’ve already written, they seem to deliver on what has in the past felt to me like the unrealized potential of Eno’s generative music. Second, they play to the gestural strengths of the iPhone user experience to deliver a simple application that anyone can use to make music in collaboration with the creators of the apps. Finally, the simple update to Bloom provided a great way to let me know about the newly available Trope and Air.

A lot has been written in recent years, by more thoughtful observers than me, on the state of the music industry and its struggles with new technologies. These three apps feel to me like one way to address a new technology head on and create something new and vital in the process.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Learn about personas at the next UX Group meeting

This month’s UX Group of Waterloo Region meeting is on Thursday October 15 and features a special treat. My Primal Fusion colleague Robert Barlow-Busch will be doing a presentation on personas. Bob will draw upon his own ‘stories from the trenches’ to help you to understand how to get the best from this product design tool. Come on out and enjoy the learning opportunity, and meet other folks in Waterloo Region’s thriving UX community.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Thanks for Oktoberfest

Well, it's that time of year again here in Kitchener-Waterloo. Oktoberfest is a long-running Bavarian festival that celebrates the region’s German heritage. While beer is certainly a well-known part of that heritage and the festival, there’s much more to celebrate than fine German lagers. I have to confess, though, that it wasn’t until I had kids that I took in more events and enjoyed the celebration. My family and I enjoyed two of those events over this Thanksgiving weekend.

Saturday morning was the Oktoberfest Pancake Breakfast at the public square in Uptown Waterloo. The volunteers and organizers do a terrific job preparing and serving breakfast for hundreds of people in a fast and efficient way. My sons and I made sure to drop off our contributions to the Food Bank of Waterloo Region.

Monday morning we took in the Oktoberfest parade. We’re particularly lucky because the parade route passes by only a block from our home. My kids look forward to this every year, even when there’s rain pouring down. Happily, this year’s edition was free of rain, if more than a little chilly.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Primal Fusion sponsors Cory Doctorow at the Quantum To Cosmos Festival

I mentioned the Quantum To Cosmos Festival some time ago when it was first announced. I’m lucky enough to have secured tickets to a few events and I’m looking forward to taking them in.

More exciting for me is the news that Primal Fusion is sponsoring one of the events. Cory Doctorow will be speaking on Thursday October 22 at 4:00pm on the subject Copyright versus Universal Access to All Human Knowledge and Groups Without Cost: the state of play in the global copyfight.

We’re so excited at Primal Fusion, in fact, that our founder Peter Sweeney’s most recent blog post, Want to Build a Better Internet? Stop Searching for Solutions, takes a cue from an article that Doctorow wrote earlier in the summer. Have a look, and then let Pete know what you think. Is he on to something big? Is he way off-base? Is he somewhere else?

If you’re not able to get to Doctorow’s festival presentation in person, keep in mind that Q2C will be streaming events live over the Internet. Check it out and set aside some time to drink from the metaphorical cup of learning offered by Quantum to Cosmos.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Raising and lowering the volume on an iPhone

I’m an iPhone owner and I think it's a pretty amazing device. It’s not perfect, of course, but I’m generally happy to live within the bounds of its constraints and take advantage of its strengths. Any device that breaks new ground, though, is bound to have its own idiosyncrasies. Here’s one on the iPhone that’s more amusing than annoying for me, but it does occasionally trip me up.

The iPhone includes a hardware-based volume control in the form of a pair of buttons. When viewed in vertical orientation, the buttons are at the top of the left edge of the device. Pressing the higher button (1) makes the volume go up, or higher. Pressing the lower button (2) makes the volume go down, or lower. So far, pretty straightforward. There’s a clear mapping between the buttons and their effect on the volume

There’s a little twist introduced when in the iPod app. There is also a volume control in the form of a slider on the touchscreen (3). Dragging the slider to the right raises the volume and dragging it to the left lowers the volume. Pressing the volume buttons will move the slider too. The slider is is oriented perpendicularly to the hardware buttons, but it works.

Things get more interesting when viewing the iPhone in horizontal orientation. The two hardware buttons are now at the left side of the bottom edge of the device. Pressing the left button (1) makes the volume go up, or higher. Pressing the right button (2) makes the volume go down, or lower.

Here’s where things get most interesting. In the YouTube app there is a volume slider (3) that is identical in functionality to the one in the iPod app. That is, dragging the slider to the right raises the volume and dragging it to the left lowers the volume. So far, so good. Pressing the volume buttons will still move the slider too, but with counter-intuitive results. Pressing the left button moved the slider to the right, raising the volume. Pressing the right button moved the slider to the left, lowering the volume.

One could make the case that the slider and the hardware controls are behaving consistently regardless of orientation, which is true. The trouble is that the consistent behaviour leads to an unexpected result when the iPhone is in horizontal orientation. In the end, though, it might not matter much, since it’s only a problem when the slider is visible on screen. The YouTube app usually hides the controls, and the hardware control obviously works without the slider being visible. Still, it’s an interesting quirk.

Monday, September 28, 2009

DemoCampGuelph11 coming up on Wednesday

The next DemoCampGuelph event is at 6:30pm on Wednesday September 30 at The Ebar in Guelph. As it says on the description:
Anyone in and around Guelph interested in software, the web and technology! Startup junkies, wage slaves, consultants, students, indie professionals, engineers, designers, money and marketing guys. If you want to see and talk about some interesting things, and get to know other people in the Guelph tech community, come on out! You don't have to demo to attend.
Sound interesting? Of course it does! Get signed up and get to the Ebar. Beer and software demos make for an event that’s just too good to miss.

Monday, September 21, 2009

IDEA2009 is in the rear view mirror

IDEA2009 has come and gone and I've been reflecting upon my experience there. The event was well-organized and in a fine location in downtown Toronto (MaRS). There was a diverse set of presentations over the two days of the conference; it was mix of good and very good, with useful information nuggets in all. Highlights for me included Leisa Reichelt’s story of working with the Drupal open source community, Matthew Milan’s Innovation Parkour, Stephen Anderson’s take on Seductive Interactions, Christina Wodtke’s tour of great design ideas, and Mari Luangrath’s engaging tale of how she grew her business using Twitter.

Happily, the slide decks for the presentations are being made available online. I need to trawl through the Twitter feeds to find them!

Monday, September 14, 2009

UX Group of Waterloo Region kicks off new season

A new season of UX Group of Waterloo Region fun starts this Thursday, September 17 at 5:30pm at the Accelerator Centre. This first event, inspired by Scott Berkun, will be a design interactionary, an evening of hands on design fun in which teams take solving on design challenges in a ridiculously short amount of time. It promises to be good fun, and it’s a great opportunity to get to know other designers in our community and get to work with them.

Check out the details, and note the RRSP. Sadly, I'll have to miss this great event myself due to immovable commitments elsewhere.

Friday, September 11, 2009

IDEA09 is practically here!

Boy, sometimes stuff just sneaks up on me!

I'll be going to the IDEA2009 conference in Toronto next week. I’ve been registered for a while, and it was always on my radar, but it just felt like it was off over the horizon. Now it's here and IDEA2009 should be a great event. My friend and Primal Fusion colleague Bob Barlow-Busch will be driving up together and and we’re looking forward to a stimulating couple of days of conversations, presentations, and general interaction design goodness.

Kudos to the organizers for putting together such an interesting program.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Next BarCampWaterloo is this Saturday

The next edition of BarCampWaterloo is coming up on Saturday September 12 at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo. It runs from 11:00am to 5:00pm. There aren’t a lot of details available online right now, but have a look at what there is, and then sign up here. Demos are always interesting, and the conversations ought to be as well; there may well be food and drink as well.

Friday, September 4, 2009

A metaphor several times removed

There have been reports, recently, that Apple will reveal a new focus on albums on iTunes sometime soon. This news got me thinking about the use of metaphor in designing a user experience.

There are a couple of kinds of ‘albums’ available to users of Apple products (Mac, iPod, iPhone). One is a photo album, which is a collection of photos. The metaphor makes sense, as a digital photo album has a strong association with its physical world counterpart, in which photos are kept in pages bound into an album.

Another is an album of songs, which is a collection of tunes typically assembled for purchase together. The most recent physical world counterpart of a digital album of tunes is probably an album in compact disc (CD) form, a convenient medium for selling music. The metaphor also makes sense, though compact disc really isn’t much like a photo album — why is it also called an album?

Referring to a CD as an album is a continuation of the use of the word for a collection of songs on a Long Playing (LP) vinyl disc (initially in either 10" or 12" formats, later in predominantly 12" format), an earlier medium for selling music. The fact that many CDs were reissues of earlier vinyl albums, as in Bruce Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle, made the association an easy one. The thing is, many vinyl albums aren’t much more than a highly decorative (and often informative) cardboard sleeve with an internal paper sleeve containing a vinyl disc. That’s not much like a photo album either. Why is a vinyl record also called an album?

Go back a little further, and you find the 78 rpm record medium that preceded vinyl albums. While a vinyl record could easily hold as much as 40 minutes of music, 78s were much more limited. Each 78 could hold only a few minutes of music, and was typically sold in a plain paper sleeve. 78s were sometimes sold as a group for longer pieces of music that couldn’t fit on a single disc, classical music pieces being a prime example. For such a group, the 78s were kept in paper sleeves bound into an album, as in this release of Symphony No. 3 in C Minor by Saint-SaĆ«ns. And that’s very much like a photo album.

It wasn’t a big leap to collect previously released songs into an album of 78s. Nat ‘King’ Cole was a hit maker whose music has been repackaged extensively over the years, going back to the 78 era.

Finally, here’s an example where the packaging of a product is deliberately evocative of an earlier form for reasons other than metaphor. Aladdin was a record label that released songs in the 78 rpm disc medium. A CD of reissues from a few years ago featured a package design that resembled an album of 78s.

I’m curious to see what Apple comes up with, if anything, to bring yet another variation to the music album.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Video of Scott Berkun speaking in Waterloo

I was inspired to start this blog after seeing Scott Berkun give a talk in Waterloo at the RIM Enterprise Theater last Feb 25 and having an opportunity to meet him afterward. Henry Chen has made a video of the talk available online and it’s worth spending a little time with it. About 28 minutes minutes in you'll hear Berkun talk about the movie The Great Escape, which led directly to the first real post in this blog. As well, about an hour in Scott responds to my comment on the role of the critique in the design process. Of course, there's much else of interest as well.

Thanks to Henry for making the video available.

Monday, August 24, 2009

An affordance worth writing about

My friend James Wu recently wrote an essay on the design of motorcycle turn signals. It’s a great read that has sparked some lively discussion and is well worth checking out. James starts off with a tip of the hat to The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman, which is probably the first book that I read on the kind of design that I do now. It’s certainly the place where I first encountered the word affordance, a quality of an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an action

Reading the essay reminded me of an incident that I had shared with James some time ago while we were working together.

I was in a meeting where I needed to sign quite a few documents. Someone handed a ballpoint pen to me, and I started on the first document, only to realize that the pen wasn’t working — the writing point wasn’t out. I tried to extract the writing point, and was a little confused as I fumbled with the pen trying to figure out how to make it write. There was no clickable end, and turning the barrel didn’t work. I finally noticed, on looking more closely, that the shiny chrome end where I expected the writing point to appear had no hole and could not possibly accommodate a point.

A little more exploration revealed that this pen had a cap at the other end, which was covering the point. The faux point was strikingly similar to the business end of the pen, and, indeed, to many other pen points. The affordance was strongly one of write with this end. Even now, knowing which end of the pen gets the job done, it’s easy for me to look at it and be misled. Whatever the merits of the pen’s design, they’re negated by an affordance that’s misaligned with the pen’s functionality.

I was so struck by the ingeniously hidden writing point on this pen, that I remarked on it to the person who had handed it to me, explaining my professional interest. He told me that others had been thrown by this style of pen as well, and he let me keep it as a memento of the meeting.

Since that meeting I’ve informally tested out the pen on people when the opportunity arose to do so, and wasn’t surprised to find that some of them mis-read the pen as well. I’ve kept the pen, in a safe place, as a tangible reminder of the importance of affordance in design.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Deliver

Why does deliver matter at a startup?

Not everyone has to deliver. I have three little boys, the two oldest of whom play soccer. I go to the games and I have a wonderful time watching them run around, get the ball, occasionally score, and generally try to play the game. When they’re done, I tell them that they played great, and I ask them if the had fun. Effort and having fun are what they’re going for; I don’t expect them to deliver goals or a win at this stage.

A startup is different. Effort is great, but results are what matter. Effort can, of course, lead to results; in the end, being able to deliver matters more than anything.

In a sense, the other posts in this short series are really about behaviours that support being able to deliver results.

At Primal Fusion, we saw how making an effort delivered results when we launched at DEMO. All the work and preparation were invisible to the world, though, and what mattered was what was visible on stage: our founder showing our thought networking service live on laptop computer. The effort would have been worth far less without that successful demonstration.

We have more milestones to reach in our journey at Primal Fusion, and we know what it will take to reach them and to deliver results.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Respect

Why does respect matter at a startup?

At Primal Fusion, we talk about having respect for each other, our customers and users, our competitors, shareholder investments, and the opportunity we have to build something meaningful. Beyond the obvious truth that respect is something that we all deserve, these people and things are important to us at Primal Fusion and it just makes good business sense to be respectful of them.

For example, I periodically respond to user issues in both email and on our public presence on GetSatisfaction.com. Knowledgeable responses are a requirement, but respect is the key to successful interactions here. I'll let others judge whether I’m delivering, but it’s certainly a goal that I aim for.

In the end, respectful interactions with people are just easier and more productive.

You do need to know where you stand, though, and realize that on occasion you’ll encounter a situation where you just can’t get alignment on an issue. You need to be able to respectfully agree to disagree.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome to Wozerloo

Well, today’s Communitech breakfast with Steve Wozniak and David Flynn was a great success by just about any measure. Woz was an engaging raconteur who was speaking to a crowd that was in large measure there to see the legend in person. His passion for users of technology products seems genuine. Flynn was a smooth and articulate speaker who walked us through their company’s product offering in some detail and with a great deal of clarity. 700+ people attended, apparently the largest attendance for a Communitech event by far.
Communitech's president Iain Klugman wrote, in a tweet, after the event:
Spoke to the Woz afterwards #communitech -- he was blown away -- was expecting 50-100 people -- not over 700. says he's coming back
All in all, a fine day in Wozerloo.

August meeting of the UX Group

The UX Group of Waterloo Region is nothing if not pragmatic. If the thought of coming out to a meeting in the heat of August seems daunting, then a casual meeting on the patio at the Heuther may be just the thing to clear away your reservations. The next meeting is on Thursday August 20 at 5:30pm. All the details can be found here, but, really, what are you waiting for?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Making art in a button factory

I’ve written previously about needing to find summer activities for my three sons, and the great ESQ program at the University of Waterloo. Another terrific option for us has been the summer programming offered at the Waterloo Community Arts Centre (WCAC), otherwise known as the Button Factory. Each summer’s sessions are built on a particular arts-related theme. This summer the theme has been Raiders of the Lost Art, and my two oldest sons have thoroughly enjoyed their hands-on view into art throughout history.

There are many other events and activities at WCAC during the year, but it’s these summer day camps that my family enjoys the most.

In short, fun and learning while making stuff, and it’s walking distance from our home! That really can’t be beat.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Woz speaking in town next week

Steve Wozniak, probably best known as co-founder of Apple, is coming to Waterloo Region. He’ll be speaking at a Communitech breakfast on August 17. He's currently Chief Scientist at Fusion-io, and will be joined at the breakfast by David Flynn, the company’s CTO. It really feels superfluous for me to write much more about this, other than to say the event has generated a lot of buzz in town and that a large number of people are looking forward to hearing ‘Woz’ speak. I'm definitely one of them.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Kitchener’s queen of parks

I've mentioned Kitchener’s Victoria Park in a previous post about cycling the Iron Horse Trail. It’s a wonderful city park with much to recommend it. I’ve spent more time there since having children than I did previously, as it’s a great place to have fun with my family. The playground area in particular is something that my sons enjoy. Truth be told, their joyful abandon as my two oldest make their leaps in the accompanying picture is the reason for this post.

There’s more to Victoria Park as well: a fine water playground, gardens, a small lake, and picnic areas. In addition, there are the various events and festivals that the park plays host to over the course of a year. Finally, it’s in downtown Kitchener, making it readily accessible to anyone.

There may well be greater or better-known parks in the world, but Victoria Park is a small treasure that makes living and working in Waterloo that much better.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Communication

Why does communication matter at a startup?

Resources are often constrained at a startup, meaning that there isn’t a lot of room for waste. Effective communication means that everyone understands what they are doing and why, and they don’t waste time doing the wrong thing. First, though, you need a shared clarity of vision to ensure that everyone knows what the right things are at your startup.

At Primal Fusion we take communication seriously, and have several ways in which we make it a part of our culture. For example, we hold a short company-wide meeting every Monday to share news about various activities and achievements.

More formally, we use Scrum to drive our software development. That means maintaining a backlog of work to be done on a product as well as holding daily “standup” meetings in which each team member answers three questions: “What did you do since the last standup?”, “Is there anything blocking you?”, and “What are you going to do today?”.

Clear communication all around means that issues are visible sooner, meaning you can more quickly and effectively course-correct. That goes a long way towards making the company a success.

Of course, communication is important anywhere, not just at a startup and not just in your work life. But you already knew that!

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Young Engineers and Scientists on a Quest

Every summer my wife and I need to find interesting ways to keep our three sons busy while school is out. Typically we sign them up for a mix of day-long activities, looking to balance location, cost, availability, and our boys' interests.

One winning option is the University of Waterloo’s Engineering Science Quest. In their words:
Engineering Science Quest (ESQ) is a not-for-profit program that operates with the goal of exposing children, in the Kitchener-Waterloo region and beyond, to the worlds of Engineering, Science and Technology through a variety of fun engaging hands on activities. ESQ is offered in conjunction with the University of Waterloo's Faculties of Engineering and Science.
The budding engineers and scientists are grouped by the grade that they are about to go into at school, and each week of ESQ has a theme around which are built activities that draw on various science and engineering disciplines. For example, my seven-year-old was excited about showing me a little model that he built which shows how a lung works! That he was as excited by this as he was by doing archery at another day camp earlier in the summer is a testament to the programming and staff at ESQ.

I may not get to experience it directly, but ESQ is one of the great things about living in Waterloo.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Six demos and a BBQ

I went to an end-of-term Demo Night at the University of Waterloo's VeloCity Residence last night. The evening started with a nice barbecue and an opportunity to mingle and talk with students and other visitors. There was then a program of six presentations by student teams that included two complete and functioning products as well as some product concept presentations, and even a great overview on the subtleties of creating applications for the iPhone. The discussions after each presentation were engaging and instructive. At the end of the night the crowd favourites were the guys from giftah.com, who I had previously seen at StartupCampWaterloo, and who seem to have found a winning proposition in their business.

The folks who run VeloCity are building something special here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How fast can VeloCity students demo?

I've written previously about a presentation that I made at the University of Waterloo's VeloCity Residence (which, by the way, led to my Ten Thoughts series of posts). VeloCity is a great idea that seems to be thriving.

For the end of their third term VeloCity is holding a Demo Night on Monday July 27. Here's what they have planned:

As the end of our third term approaches, we’ve decided to try something a little different to showcase the projects that our VeloCity students have been working on.

We would like to invite you to join us for Demo Night at the VeloCity Residence. Drop by to listen to pitches from 6 of our teams, view demos of their projects, and interact with and provide feedback to the students. Afterwards, join us for refreshments and a BBQ to celebrate the end of the Spring term at VeloCity.

We hope that you’re able to join us in this casual celebration of the accomplishments of our Spring-term students.
Have a look here for all the details.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A desire for streetcars

I've written a few posts on things that I enjoy about living in Waterloo. Sometimes what I enjoy is that Waterloo is close to something special. One example is the Halton County Radial Railway, an amazing museum where visitors can ride on functioning streetcars and other rail cars. While it's not in Waterloo, the museum is just a short drive to the east and is well worth a trip if you've never been there.

I've been taking my sons there every summer for years, and we've never tired of riding vintage streetcars through the woods or of hearing about where the cars were originally used. All the work that is done to restore decades-old equipment to running condition is done by volunteers, and the results are beautiful. Until my first visit it just never would have occurred to me that streetcars could have stained glass windows! It's volunteers, too, who run the equipment with such cheer and enthusiasm.

Thank-you to everyone who helps make the Halton County Radial Railway such a special place.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Culture

Why does culture matter at a startup?

A culture will emerge, whether explicitly created or not. You’ll be happier, and the startup more successful, if the culture is positive and rewards productivity. A bad culture will drag productivity down and drive good people away.

There are a lot of things that can contribute to a company's culture. Irreverence can be a great reminder not to take yourselves too seriously. At one company where I worked, the washroom walls were covered with the degrees earned by founders and employees at the various universities we had attended.

At Primal Fusion we do a few things that contribute to a positive culture, some of them driven by the fact that we like to learn. We have lunch and learn sessions on a variety topics. When someone goes to a conference or other event, they'll often do a “teach back” session to share the learning. While it's hardly revolutionary, we use an internal blog for which everyone has an account and is encouraged to post on any topic of interest.

Of course it's probably best to avoid encouraging cultural activities that, no matter how much fun they are, detract from productivity.

Finally, the flip side of a positive culture is one that's just not fun to contemplate. I recently encountered a wonderful aphorism in a tweet by John Maeda: “Pessimism loves company. Optimism makes companies.” Better to focus on building a positive culture and making your company successful.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Friday, July 10, 2009

On the Iron Horse Trail

I previously wrote about the charms of cycling the Grand River Trail in RIM Park. Another favourite cycling route is to ride the Iron Horse Trail between Kitchener and Waterloo. Like the trail at RIM Park, this trail is paved and supports multiple uses. As the name implies, the Iron Horse Trail makes use of a what once had been a railway right-of-way. It passes by current (and also former) industrial ares, as well as making its way through residential neighbourhoods.

The trail also passes Victoria Park in Kitchener, which is a great destination for my sons when we cycle on the trail. The trail has served them well in terms of learning to cycle and enjoying longer rides.

Another great feature of the trail is the evocative equipment-as-art that can be found along it. Pieces of now-retired heavy machinery from the region’s industrial past document the kinds of work that was done, the output of which may well have have traveled by rail.

I'm lucky that I live close to one end of the trail, and have enjoyed using it for many years. Judging by the varied traffic that I see along it, others enjoy it as well.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Alpha beta soup, summer edition

Back in March I wrote about a major milestone at Primal Fusion. We went public with our first product and put out an alpha release for people to try. I also wrote a little about what it means to be in alpha release, particularly in a world of permanent beta products such as Gmail. We certainly decided what alpha means at Primal Fusion, as I wrote in that post, and we continue to make progress with our releases.

Meanwhile, over at Google, as of yesterday the the beta designation has been removed from Gmail and other Google apps. Wonderfully, for Gmail users made nervous by such an epochal move, ‘Back to Beta’ is a Google Labs feature that restores the now-missing word ‘beta’ to the Gmail logo. I wonder how they'll measure the impact of that feature?

Perhaps alpha is no longer the new beta. Maybe it now really is the place for innovators!

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Fit

Why does fit matter at a startup?

You'll likely spend more time with your team than with your family. Each member of the team needs to fit, and a startup needs to hire carefully. At Primal Fusion, we talk about fit in terms of a “three be” approach.

Be Talented: You need to have the skills and expertise to do your job. If you can't help deliver then you're not going to add value. This is really table stakes, isn't it?

Believe: You need to believe in the company and where it's going. If the startup makes accounting software and you think it should make games, there will be friction. Resources are too tight to recalibrate your expectations on an ongoing basis.

Belong: You need to be able to get along with others and contribute to the culture. Make yourself useful, support your team, and get to work.

If you're missing any of the “three be’s” you'll have trouble fitting in and adding the most value to the venture.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Monday, July 6, 2009

DemoCampGuelph on Wednesday July 15

DemoCampGuelph10 is happening on Wednesday July 15 from 6:30pm–9:00pm. I demonstrated Primal Fusion's thought networking service at the last edition of GuelphDemoCamp, and enjoyed the great questions and feedback. I'm looking forward to this edition and the opportunity to just enjoy what others are showing without thinking about my own demo. As with the last edition, the venue is eBar at 41 Quebec Street.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Ten thoughts on what matters at a startup: Balance

Why does balance matter at a startup?

There can't be a large number of people who looked back on their life from their death bed and said “I wish I had spent more time at the office”. It's important to maintain some balance between work and the rest of your life. Even if you're lucky enough to love your work, which is almost certainly the case if you're working at a startup, being able to get away from it and do other things will help reduce stress. Moreover, you'll also get a little distance from pressing problems, which can help you see them in a different way and even discover solutions.

It's also important to maintain some balance between the perspectives of the various stakeholders that matter to your startup. To achieve a balance, you need to understand your customers, your users, your team mates, and your investors. Critically, you need to understand yourself and why you’re doing this. Without balance, your customers can pull you in a direction that isn't strategically important to your company, or your users can push for features that add more clutter than value, or you can push for features that your team mates know are extremely costly to implement. Balancing the various perspectives will help keep you on track.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

On the Grand River Trail at RIM Park

One of the great things about living in Waterloo is the cycling opportunities.

One of my favourite routes includes the portion of the Grand River Trail that winds its way through RIM Park. The trail is paved, which makes it ideal for people walking, roller blading, cycling, or pushing baby strollers, all of whom easily co-exist on the trail. Apparently there are even horses, based on the “deposits” that I saw on a recent visit! The trail includes plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view of the river.

While I mainly cycle the trail on my own, my kids have enjoyed riding and walking the trail as well. The pace is little slower when we use the trail as a family!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Canada designs, builds, and shares

Today is the July 1 Canada Day holiday where I live. In a departure from the bulk of my posts, I'll celebrate, in a small way, Canadian achievements based on the design/build/share theme of this blog.

Design: Not only did Canadians at de Havilland Canada design the DHC-2 Beaver, they also built hundreds of examples of it for use around the world. It's arguably the greatest bush plane ever, and even has the distinction of appearing on a 1999 commemorative Canadian 25-cent piece. That's distinct from the beaver that appears on our 5-cent piece!

Build: We build a lot of things, and do it well. One that's close to home for me is the Toyota Corolla. Yes, it's a Japanese car, but thousands of them have been assembled just down the road from Waterloo, in Toyota's Cambridge plant, and the build quality is outstanding. Corollas are built to last; my family's is 12 years old and still going strong.

Share: The Perimeter Institute of Theoretical Physics here in Waterloo exists because Mike Lazaridis, co-founder and co-CEO of RIM (makers of the Blackberry), decided that he wanted to share his wealth by funding basic research. He supplied a large seed in the form of $100 million. The result, with a lot of help from others, of course, is a world-class research facility. It's not the only example of his sharing, but it's one from which I get direct benefit as a result of living here in Waterloo.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup: Help

Why does help matter at a startup?

At a startup there’s a lot to do, you’re under-resourced, and you’re all in it together. You'll need help from your team and they'll need help from you.

"That's not my job" is not something that anyone wants to hear when a milestone is looming. "How can I help?" has a much better ring to it, and is much more likely to lead to success at a startup. Having said that, knowing your own limitations is fine. A willingness to help is what's important.

One of my favourite emails at Primal Fusion came in the days after we launched our product at DEMO. The influx of users led, inevitably, to issues that needed to be addressed. My manager and I dived into answering emails from users who encountered problems. We had good fun, and at one point he sent me this email: “All these years of professional services and you and I have finally been promoted to help desk ;)”

I'm pretty proud of that, even though it really had little to do with my job.

Finally, two things to keep in mind regarding your willingness to help. First, help isn't about stepping all over your team mates. Remember, “How can I help” is a question to ask, not a directive to interfere. Second, make sure that the work you’re actually accountable for gets done, or negotiate something else.

• • •

This is one in a short series of posts called Ten Thoughts on what matters at a startup. The thoughts started life as a presentation I made at VeloCity residence at the University of Waterloo. While they're far from definitive, and aren't a top ten, they've mattered to me in my software startup experience.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sherwood Forest Incorporated

In my second post for this blog, I wrote about The Dam Busters and how that movie provides a fine metaphor for a startup company. I recently re-watched another favourite movie, 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn in the title role. The parallels with a startup company jumped out at me, and here's the resulting movie-as-metaphor post.

The Adventures of Robin Hood features a visionary founder (Robin of Loxley) with an innovative and disruptive idea (stealing from the rich to give to the poor) to solve a pressing problem (the oppression of the people by Prince John and his cohorts). There are co-founders (Little John, Friar Tuck, and a few others) who support Robin through the hard work (freeing various peasants, retrieving ill-gotten gains) of proving that his idea will work.

Having successfully launched his startup company (his band of merry men), Robin goes to market (larger scale interference with the Prince's nefarious looting of the countryside) and builds a loyal following (more merry men and supporters) who buy into his vision (now expanded to include freeing King Richard from a foreign prison).

Robin's success as a leader (his followers have clarity on his vision and work hard to deliver on it) makes the merry men a great success (they even steal from Guy of Gisbourne and the Sherriff of Nottingham). Their competitors strike back (capturing Robin during an archery contest) but Robin's team perseveres (rescuing Robin in dramatic fashion) and build on their lead in the market.

Robin and his men continue to work hard and when an unexpected opportunity arises (King Richard returns to England and finds Robin) he capitalizes on it (executes a plan that restores Richard to the throne in place of Prince John) to decisively win the marketplace.

Robin steps aside as CEO and turns over his company to an experienced executive (King Richard) while negotiating a great payoff for his team (pardons all around for the merry men). As founder, he is amply rewarded (various new titles from Richard) and retires (to marry Lady Marian).

The movie is loads of fun, if you like this sort of thing (which I do).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

June UX Group event is on Thursday

The June meeting of the UX Group of Waterloo Region is happening at 5:00pm on Thursday June 25 at the Accelerator Centre. This month it's a presentation by Qixing Zheng called From Concept to Production: Prototyping with Expression Blend 3. The event is hosted by the Infusion Angels Innovation Centre and registration is required.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The solace of a Quantum To Cosmos festival

I've written before about lectures that the Perimeter Institute puts on here in Waterloo. Their public outreach program is a wonderful part of life in Waterloo. Science, fun, and accessible? PI has it covered. They've recently announced Quantum To Cosmos: Ideas for the Future, an amazing 10-day festival to be held next October. The mix of science and the arts is quite inspiring to see, and I'm excited about this even though it's four months away.

I'm particularly lucky as PI is walking distance from my home — not everyone has that luxury. Everyone in Waterloo region does have access to PI and this festival, though, and living and working in here is strikingly enhanced as a result. Thanks, PI!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Why work at Primal Fusion?

As I've often written here, I work at Primal Fusion, a software startup in Waterloo. Some of the background regarding what we're doing can be gleaned in blog posts by our founder, Peter Sweeney. It's challenging stuff, and we think what we're doing is important and will change the Web. A bold vision? Certainly. Can we deliver? We can. Is Primal Fusion a great place to work? Absolutely.

We're always looking for smart, motivated people to join Primal Fusion and make the vision a reality. It's fun and rewarding work. It's also hard, and fast-paced, and even uncertain. We've made great progress, though, and with the help of new team members we can do even more. Try our thought networking service by signing up for our private alpha release. Have a look at our careers page and see if you might fit in.

Right now, I'm particularly interested in finding a couple of great developers with strong UI skills to join my development team. We're a Scrum shop, and my team builds products on the Primal Fusion semantic synthesis platform. If you have what we're looking for, you'll have a chance to put your skills to use and make a meaningful impact. If that sounds like what you're looking for, get in touch.