Archives For March 2013

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The S4 from Samsung is the talk of the town.  It was a highly anticipated launch event and as with any such event, there was a good amount of criticism to go with it.  May be Samsung needs to be better at PR; may be the storytelling needs to improve.  Whatever be it, one thing you cannot accuse the company of at the moment is innovation on the product itself.  The focus on user experience is clear and the device has been receiving good reviews already with the early assessments.

The thing that strikes me the most is the sensor composition in this device – clearly, Samsung is setting itself up for the future.  Let’s start with the camera.  13MP camera in a phone – that has to be a marketing tick box!  The engineers know that the additional mega pixels are not buying anything on such a small device, with the real capabilities and limitations of the lens.  But, that’s not the coolest part about the camera.  It is the dual capture mode that is fascinating! Imagine the possibilities of inserting the front image or video into the captured scene!  Trying to buy a dress?  Take a picture of the dress and superimpose it on your photo captured at that moment with the front camera.  Be in the party you are capturing.  Capture the moment and don’t lose yourself.  The possibilities are really amazing!  The first round of this may not be perfect, but it is certainly heading in the right direction.  Not to mention the ability to capture sounds with images.  It is unclear how popular the sound capture would be – but, you have to applaud the company for its innovative thinking and focus on the user.

And then come the other sensors.  The Galaxy S family of devices have always been at the cutting edge of sensors, but this one adds the temperature, humidity and IR gesture sensing capabilities.  With the IR gesture sensing, a whole new world of gestures come into existence.  Touch gestures can go so far – but, IR gestures address so many limitations of always-on gesture sensing that exist solely with touch.  Touch gestures always have this limitation where differentiating between an intentional gesture and an unintentional natural use of the device is hard.  Or rather, it is at odds with natural gestures – the more natural a gesture needs to be, the harder it is to separate it from the unintentional use.  Hence, often, an external trigger is needed to know that it is actually a gesture.  However, the IR gestures can really help addressing this limitation and bringing the world of always-on gestures a step closer.

Temperature and humidity sensing are in early stages of use – however, interesting possibilities exist when fused with other types of data in terms of where the device is held (differentiating between a device that is in a pocket vs in a bag hung on a shoulder), what the environment is like and so on.

One step at a time, we see that Samsung is getting closer to a truly personalized experience.  It is interesting that they have chosen to go from “S Life” to “Life Companion” as the slogan for the device – it certainly seems like they are getting closer to delivering that experience!

Cupertino really needs to be worried – what will the next iPhone have that will stump this?

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All products are about the users.  Knowing the average user is critical to understanding how to build a product.  Even after having a successful product, continuing to know the user and following the evolutions users go through is critical to be able to innovate.  Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about user experience on applications, particularly mobile apps and have been realizing that some of the most successful applications have pockets of bad user experience and in some cases, even below average overall experiences.  Here are some examples that really make me wonder how the usability of these apps get impacted, if at all, by these less than ideal experiences.

Annoying popups

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Granted Facebook wants users to really try graph search and explore it – but a popup that is in your face all the time, even as you scroll down the page?  And that too, to a user that has actually tried graph search and hasn’t found it compelling to come back often yet?  Not too long ago, they tried a popup on the mobile that forced you to find friends from contacts or dismiss it every single time you opened the app!  If Facebook didn’t have the kind of user base it does already, would users tolerate this?

Forcing a tie between functionalities when not required

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I used to pretty regularly email myself articles from Pulse, but I have not done it a single time since they started forcing me to highlight the article in order to share it.  In fact, I consume more of my news via Flipboard, as I find the highlight icon overlay on the screen all the time quite annoying.  Seen the reviews on the latest Pulse update yet?  It is clearly not in the direction of enhancing user experience.

Clutter on the main screen or dashboard

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Microsoft products (Powerpoint is shown here, but Word and Excel are no exception) pack all kinds of actions on the main dashboard, while Apple is picky about what is contained in it. I’m a power user and use the Inspector in Keynote quite a bit to have access to other functions – but, I much prefer the cleaner dashboard!

Buried and/or complex functionality

Sometimes, you truly want certain functions to be hidden and hard to get to. Facebook’s privacy settings have been notorious for that.  Studies have shown that links placed on websites in areas that typically contain banner ads are not widely visited.

Here is an example of a complex topic (privacy) made easy to read and understand (a product of the CMU CUPS lab).

Inconsistencies

The human brain tends to remember meta elements such as the portion of a screen where a particular functionality typically resides or a typical action that occurs upon clicking a type of element.  Inconsistencies in this can cause confusions!


Facebook has several such inconsistencies, especially on the mobile app!

Poor handling of connectivity challenges

Sure, everyone wants the connectivity issues to be fixed and the applications to not have to worry about it.  But, we live in an imperfectly connected world.  Some applications particularly handle it poorly.

Here is a case where an upload to Facebook failed due to a momentary disruption in my wireless connectivity.  It not only does not resume when the connectivity is back, the only way to clean up my notifications screen after this happens is to reboot my phone!


Ongoing slow experience on mobile

Not to pick on Facebook here, but the performance of the mobile app, even in conditions of good connectivity, is sometimes abysmal.  Flipboard is another one that I sometimes have issues with in terms of speed and handling pockets of bad connectivity.  Some apps, however, have really nailed the caching and rendering strategies and while may have an initial delay, work flawlessly once launched.

It’s challenging to perfect this on all fronts, but paying some careful attention to detail can go a long way in designing an app well.

Pinterest’s latest update boasts a PinIt button on the main screen, overlayed on top of each image.  This action was one click away in its older versions.

ImageWhen images don’t have enough of a clean white space, this overlay of the button clutters the image and obstructs the view, making it less attractive of a home screen.

ImageThe older view was a lot cleaner, which meant the users that wanted to take action needed to get to the next screen of viewing the detailed image before pinning it.

Does this mean that data indicated not enough users were re-pinning from the mobile devices?  Or, is it Pinterest experimenting to see if a lot more users will re-pin as a result of this?  To me, personally, this takes away the eye-candy experience that the main screen was delivering.

But, what really is the right tradeoff here? Do people pin because it is easy to pin or do people pin because they really like what they see.  If it is the latter, you would think that cluttering what they see at first is not the solution…

Having It All!

March 15, 2013 — Leave a comment

As the world is busy debating whether women or men can have it all, it strikes me as unfortunate that we are even having this debate.  “You cannot have it all” is a lesson we teach our kids from a young age.  As part of parenting, many of us teach our kids that they have choices and they need to make a choice.  So, why is it that as adults, we seem to be busy debating who has more or if anyone can have it all?  Of course we cannot have it all. We don’t have infinite time – there are times when we do have to make a call between taking our children to the park and staying late at work to meet a milestone.  Or, even tougher choices about going to our child’s recital vs a big presentation perhaps.  And some women may want to do so much of one that they opt out of the other.  That is perfectly fair and fine.  All the debate only applies to those women that want to have a career (not necessarily at the expense of everything else).  But the key point this debate seems to miss is that it is about encouraging women to believe in themselves and focus on their strengths.

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I wrote about empowering women a while ago.  Sandberg’s TED talk sends a similar message.  If you aspire to have a career, the #1 thing you have to do is to be confident of yourself.  On a related note, over the years, there has been a lot of debate on whether it is necessary for a woman to look good to be successful (do looks matter?).  I strongly believe it is tied back to self-confidence – the confidence that comes naturally when we feel good; the feeling that sometimes comes when we think we look good!  So, it is necessary to dress for success – only in a way that maps to our confidence.

As women, we are wired to think differently from men.  That is a known theory, one that we see play out a lot in life.  However, being more self aware of our strengths and weaknesses can bring so much to our success.  There is no reason for us to hold back.  We need to know that we can do as well as our male counterparts.  We need to forget about gender for that moment and pull up a chair “at the table”, to borrow Sandberg’s phrase.  More often than not, it is us, women, that self-impose restrictions on ourselves.  If we believed we can do it and we acted like we can do it, the rest will follow.  Let’s focus on the fundamental message of leadership here instead of the futile debate on having it all!

Hiring is hard work. Finding the employee that is best skilled in the area of your needs, fits with the culture of the team, works like she owns the product, takes responsibility like it’s hers to win or lose, connects the dots and thinks ahead, is a good mentor and a listener, is a leader that can adapt to changes and cause changes when needed, has a vision and can articulate it, and is so much more, is really hard to find.  Many of us would be lucky if we found half of those qualities in our employees.  Yet, when we are lucky enough to find those gems of employees, many of us forget how to continue motivating them!

ImageThese are your A+ performers.  They may be more capable than you (possibly with less experience, however), who are potentially going to make a fundamental difference to the products and the company as a whole.  They are often self-motivated, need little attention and know exactly when to find you when they need input!  Your competitors want them, badly.  They are smart enough to see through your bullshit and read between the lines.  They are a rare breed!

So, how do you recognize when their motivation drops and how do you keep it up?  Ron Baker’s post on performance appraisals resonated with me quite a bit.  The current appraisal system is just broken – it works for the average employee who does defined tasks, but not for your best performers.  In a follow-up post, Ron makes some very good suggestions on alternative ways of evaluating performance.  Here are some things to realize about motivating the best:

  • It is often not about the money!
    Money can get them in the door, but money won’t keep them.  A seriously under competitive pay might be a problem, but a merely above average pay will not keep them.  Understand this – if it was for the money, they would have left for your competitor by now!
  • Recognize they may be smarter than you!
    Don’t give them management bullshit.  If they can think ahead in abstract terms, they can see through the bullshit even if they don’t tell you so.  Tell them the truth and be genuine when  you say you are trying.  It will go a long way.
  • Genuinely seek out their opinion and use it!
    It does not belittle you to seek input from your employees and act on it.  It tells them you value their input beyond their specific role.
  • When you use their input, give them the recognition!
    When you realize you are using their inputs with your own senior management, give them the recognition and visibility they deserve.  None of the A+ players want to work for a hierarchical organization that masks visibility.  You are going to be better off for it in the long run.
  • Watch for signs of frustration
    Watch for the indirect feedback, the body language, the interactions with the team to spot signs of frustration early.  The best ones know grass is not greener on the other side.  Addressing the frustrations early can help you keep them.

Many of the better companies recognize the pains in hiring and try to do a lot for their good employees.  But rarely do we have managers who can truly keep the motivation of the employees they cannot afford to lose!  As a result, we often see different effects – some leave, some stay with frustration and become A- or B players.  Either way, it is a loss!

It truly makes you a great leader when you recognize that you need to sometimes give up your pride to keep the good ones motivated.  But, that’s what makes exceptional leaders so exceptional – they are not afraid of recognizing and hiring talent that is better then them and finding innovative ways of keeping them!