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.