Monday, March 22, 2010

A fretboard tribe leads to print success

Traditional print publishers have been facing a challenging environment the last few years (though I have to think that there have been challenges of one kind or another for as long as there has been print). More astute observers than me have written extensively on the travails of the industry, but as a former designer of print publications it’s hard for me not to hope that the industry figures out how to make it work.

There are pockets of hope out there though. For a while now I’ve been telling friends and colleagues about one publication that I read that seems to have found a winning formula.

The Fretboard Journal started life as a high-quality quarterly magazine featuring beautiful photography and well-written articles by people passionate about music. Now in its fifth year, it remains that today, but the FJ team has augmented the magazine with a variety of online activities that support the printed product, build a community of passionate readers, and make real offline connections.
  • There’s a monthly email newsletter to subscribe to on their home page. Perhaps that’s a little quaint in the Internet of the 21st century, but I devour it as eagerly as I do the quarterly print magazine.
  • FJ is active on Twitter via both a @fbjournal and, somewhat more erratically, individual staff accounts. They’ve also created Twitter lists related to various fretted instruments. Nice!
  • I have to confess that I make little use of Facebook these days. In fact, the main reason that I check in is to see FJ updates — there’s a steady stream of announcements and pointers to YouTube videos.
  • The FJ podcast (also on iTunes) is an audio treat, with the focus being great conversations with a variety of musicians, luthiers, music store owners, and other folks. It has been weekly in the past, but seems to be on hiatus right now.
  • The FJ blog was far more active in the early days, and seems to have been supplanted by other activities. Still, it’s a presence. Of course, there’s also a website.
Is this a formula that can support a business? As it turns out, a new issue of The Fretboard Journal arrived in my mailbox while I had this post in draft form. It included the following from editor Marc Greilsamer in his ‘Opening Notes’ column:
It seems that the death of the magazine industry is upon us, or so we’ve been told by whatever media outlets still remain. But while it’s certainly true that many publications — young and old, big and small — seem to be falling by the wayside, The Fretboard Journal somehow continues to grow. For that we only have our wonderful readers (and fellow tribesmen) to thanks.
Not just a community, but a tribe. Sounds like a pretty healthy business to me.

Update (April 7, 2010): FJ recently unveiled a new web site and blog, with exclusive web-only content.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What I’ve learned on my current vacation

The week before last I wrote about my interest in opening up the thinking process around next steps in my career. I felt like I needed to keep an open mind following my departure from Primal Fusion and, more importantly, get as much input as possible during this discovery phase of my new adventure. Since then I’ve enjoyed a number of conversations with friends and colleagues, old and new, who have been generous in sharing their thoughts and listening to mine. There are, of course, various moves that would make sense and my job is to sort out the right next step.

I have to confess that, at the moment, the most interesting possibility that has emerged is creating a new startup company with a couple of like-minded friends. We’ve had some great conversations already and have even managed to get our creative juices flowing with some initial product work. Fun stuff guys!

I’m still talking with people and maintaining my open mind, though this week I’m more focused on home life as my sons are off school for March break. It continues to be a fascinating journey of discovery for me, and I’m looking forward to more conversations and learning. My thanks go out to everyone who has taken the time to talk and to listen.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Big-ass table computing

This month’s meeting of the UX Group promises to be an exciting look at Next Generation Tabletop Interfaces. Stacey Scott will overview some of the digital tabletop research being conducted in the Collaborative Systems Laboratory at the University of Waterloo. And yes, there’s more to tabletop computing than that “big-ass table” parody video of Microsoft Surface! (As an aside, Surface was the interesting focus of an earlier UX Group event).

Hope to see you at the meeting!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Abbott and Costello on team communication

I was talking with a colleague recently about the February UX Group meeting on guerrilla usability, and how one of my strategies has always been to try to work closely with developers and understand their concerns. She reminded me of a meeting that I had once called to reinforce the strong connection between a UX team and a development team.

When I worked at Platform Computing the user experience team had a pretty good relationship with various development teams. Nevertheless, issues occasionally arose where it wasn’t at all clear what the nature of the problem was, and further discussion only muddied the water. When that happened, one of the UX team would smile and interject with the apparent non sequitur “third base”. It was a bit of shorthand we used for a situation where communication just isn’t happening and folks are getting frustrated. Sometimes communication problems can make it seem like people or teams aren’t aligned, when really they’re just misunderstanding each other. Explanations to the developers as to what we meant by “third base”, though, weren’t any clearer!

I decided to share more clearly the source of the “third base” comment with the development team that we worked with most often. I called a meeting with our two teams and showed a video clip of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello’s famous Who’s On First comedy routine. (Here’s a version of it on YouTube.) None of the development team members had seen it previously, probably because the routine is many decades old and that whole team was made up of Chinese-Canadians who hadn’t been exposed to that corner of American culture. As it turns out, they all loved it, and remarked that the kind of wordplay on display has parallels in Chinese comedy. Watching the video together reminded us all that mis-communication is natural, and that we can work to overcome it while having fun building products together.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Perils of a gestural UI

The iPhone was Apple’s first product that leapt completely into the world of gestural interface; it was later followed by the similar iPod Touch. The recent iPad looks to build upon the success of those products. While the iPhone isn’t perfect, as I’ve written previously, it’s a wonderful product for me.

The company’s gestural endeavours aren’t confined to new product categories. Apple has also built multi-touch gestural trackpads into various models of MacBook. I’ve never made a lot use of the extended capabilities in the trackpads — I found two-fingered scrolling to be pretty awkward (though rotation is fine for me).

While I hadn’t previously tried to analyze my response, I recently took a closer look and figured out what has thrown me about scrolling using the trackpad. To paraphrase Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that gesture. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Let me explain.

On the iPhone, dragging my finger on the display causes what’s visible on the screen to move in the direction that my finger is moving. A good example of this is seen in Safari, the iPhone’s web browser. If a web page doesn’t fit on the screen I can put my finger on the screen, drag it across the screen, and the web page moves with my finger. It’s as if the page were sitting on a table and I put a finger on the page to move it across the table in a particular direction. If I move my finger towards me, the page moves towards me — scrolling “up” on the screen. If I move my finger away from me, the page moves away from me — scrolling “down” on the screen.

The trackpad on my MacBook is different. Using Safari as an example again, when viewing a web page the entire page may not appear within the browser window. I can scroll the page in a few ways. I can use the cursor to move the scroll bar, or I can use the arrow keys on the keyboard to move the scroll bar. The key in both these cases is that I’m controlling the scroll bar, which in turn scrolls the page. A third way to scroll the page is via two-finger scrolling on the trackpad. Here is where things get interesting.  If I move my fingers towards me, the page moves away from me — scrolling “down” on the screen. If I move my fingers away from me, the page moves towards me — scrolling “up” on the screen. These behaviours are the opposite of what’s happening on iPhone. The reason is that two-fingered trackpad scrolling is linked to moving the scroll bars rather than moving the page directly.

Moving back and forth between iPhone and Mac made it easier for me to finally identify the source of my trackpad scrolling discomfort.

This really feels like a collision between the historically dominant interaction paradigm as found in Mac OS X and Windows, and a new gestural paradigm as seen on iPhone. For me, when I’m gesturing to scroll I’m moving the page, not the UI control. iPhone supports that model. The MacBook trackpad doesn’t. The question I have is, how many more of these collisions will appear as Apple continues to build on its gestural UI (and, of course, as other companies add their own twists).

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Ignite Waterloo 2 was a mid-week treat

Ignite Waterloo hosted another great evening of talks last night. It was the second local event, but this time it was part of the much larger Global Ignite Week. The Waterloo speakers presented talks on a diverse range of topics, and the large audience was engaged, and engaging, throughout the night. It’s great fun to help organize this event.

Highlights for me included Alex Matan’s accordion workout, Erica Waugh’s directions on how to drive in a roundabout, Jeff Henry’s practical advice on working with politicians, and Sunshine Chen’s storytelling story. My favourite, though, as Brendan Lowther’s talk on Geocaching. It wasn’t so much for the topic, but for his passion and for the aplomb that he showed when confronted with slides that didn’t seem to be displaying all his pictures. He made it into a fun thing and demonstrated that, in the end, a successful talk is about the speaker, not the technology.

Finally, the Lego building competition was also a fine succes, though I missed much of it as I was working the door while the competition was on. At the end of the night, though, while helping to clean up I was able to take the accompanying picture of one of the contest entries after it had been returned to the large bin of Lego pieces. Pretty cool entry!

After the split, what’s next?

Having left Primal Fusion, I’ve been giving some thought to what’s next. At the moment, I’m really in discovery mode — thinking about possibilities, talking to friends and colleagues, and generally trying to keep an open mind. It’s a liberating state to be in, as is the beginning of any new adventure, though it’s obviously not without its moments of uncertainty.

Having said that, I’m still pretty committed to living and working in the Waterloo area. There’s a great technology and startup community here with a lot of thoughtful, engaged, and passionate people who share their knowledge and experience through a variety of activities. And, Waterloo is also a fine place to live — as I’ve written previously, there are many reasons why my family and I enjoy living here.

Which brings me to what feels like quite an odd request.

I’d like to hear from anyone who would like to share any ideas on how I might think about what’s next. Let’s get together for coffee, or talk at a community event, or exchange email or tweets, whatever. I’m always impressed by the depth of knowledge, the wisdom, and the generosity of spirit that I’ve encountered in people in our community, and I want to find out whether its possible to tap into that at this stage in my adventure. It’s not quite crowd-sourcing a next career move; it’s more like seeing what I might learn by opening up the thinking process. For that matter, I’m also happy to share my own thoughts with anyone who has their own career questions and would like to chat.

For context, I hope that it’s clear from my various posts on this blog what my interests, skills, and experiences are (user experience, software products, startups, etc.).

Beyond this blog, I write in much shorter bursts on Twitter as @uxMark; reading my tweets there may or may provide more clarity! Connect with me there, or send me an email. My email address is my first name [at] connollydesign [dot] com.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Primal Fission

It’s been about a year since I started writing this blog. Many of the posts in that time have been about my experience at Primal Fusion. This post is one of those, but it’s a significant one as I’m now no longer with the company. From fusion to fission, so to speak.

Working at Primal Fusion has been a great experience. I was able to work on challenging projects and did so with with smart and devoted people, many of whom are still with the company.

I’d like to extend my thanks to Bob Barlow-Busch, who brought me to Primal Fusion, and to Shane O’Neil, who gave me a team to run. It was wonderful to work with them both. I’d also like to say thanks to my team, working with whom has been a great gift and a privilege for me. I learned something from each of them, and as a team we did great things. I’m proud of what we accomplished and will miss working with them all. If you’re reading this, guys, thanks for everything. Finally, thanks to all the other Primates who have made the Primal Fusion what it is and made my time there so meaningful.

Best of luck to all of you.

Monday, March 1, 2010

March roars in like a lion with Ignite Waterloo 2

Last week’s TEDxWaterloo event will be a hard act to follow, as it was a resounding success enjoyed by all.

Nevertheless, this week sees the second Ignite Waterloo event happening on Wednesday at the Children’s Museum. The first event was held last November and a fine time was had by all. The upcoming second event promises to be every bit as engaging and thought-provoking. I’m looking forward to the talks and the conversations.

Prior to Ignite Waterloo, the March edition of StartupDrinksWaterloo in happening on Tuesday night at McMullan’s in Waterloo. I’ve managed to attend every edition except the inaugural one, and have enjoyed them all.  I’m once again looking forward to the beer and conversations!