Howells.

The free work dilemma

Like everyone else, this year I’ve had some fun projects, some challenging, and of course some disappointments. But it’s an interesting exercise to analyse the different types of projects against how they came about, who you worked with, and how financially fruitful they were.

One segment of projects that stand out—for the wrong reasons—were the projects I did for free.

I rarely do work for free but sometimes interesting propositions come along for projects I’d like to do for people that I think will turn out into a good portfolio pieces, or would yield fantastic connections that will bear fruit.

It’s surprising when I look at the outcome of my recent free projects, which have yielded no new business, connections, or tangible benefits. This is in stark contrast to all the work that I have done for myself, be it entire websites or individual blog posts, all of which have all yielded interesting opportunities.

Opportunity cost is tricky to recognise and grasp especially given the fairly amorphous nature of what we do. But before you commit to any favours—however exciting they might seem—I would urge you to consider how else you could spend that same time investing in yourself or your business. You might find that the playful mashup you develop in the same time you planned for the freebie might hit the front page of Hacker News, or that the mock redesign of a website might hit the front page of Behance.

Better for everyone involved is to barter. If the person asking you to develop their site is an incredible designer, decide up-front how much work is required and then ask them to dedicate the same time or equivalent to design your new identity. Or if they are well connected in an industry you want to move into, ask to arrange meetings and introductions up-front. It helps balance the professional relationship and then you don’t have to call the work you did, “free”. (And to this point, make sure you enforce the agreement: I’ve been in situations where the other side of the bargain never materialised since they were too busy to reciprocate.)

Taking equity is an entirely different, more complex conversation that I’ll leave to the experts to discuss. But before you even consider this route you need to believe in the project, the other people behind it, the potential for profitability, and stick to it for the long-term. It’d take a lot for me to seriously entertain taking equity in most startup ideas I hear about.

When I started on my own I did a lot of work for free. After most of it, when the valuable contacts or follow-up work didn’t materialise I regret not spending that time on my own projects; honouring them with more care and attention that they deserved. Your own, carefully considered side-projects make for a much more interesting portfolio piece or talking-point than a quick unpaid job you probably had to rush. Investing your time in yourself before offering your services to other for free ultimately yields more dividends than freebies that risk disappointment.

My notes from Brooklyn Beta… two months late

The original title of this post was “It was Brooklyn last week” and had it closed for two months.

I don’t know why. Going to an event like Brooklyn Beta is tricky to capture in a written post, but there was plenty of insights to take away. So I thought I better return to my notes and capture them in bullet points.

There’s a lot missing, but here are the main take-outs I gleaned from what is undisputedly the best design and technology conference out there, expertly conjured by Chris and Cameron.

  • Ted Nelson—who I didn’t know before the event—was an extraordinary speaker, who simultaneously captivated and lost the audience with his alternative visions of the internet (all tinged with sadness that Tim Berners Lee got there first). Check out Computers for Cynics.
  • Squarespace’s new developer platform looks very interesting.
  • Maciej Ceglowski of Pinbord was by far the most funny, insightful speakers of any tech conference, who delivered these laughably sensible tidbits of advice against a backdrop of VC obsession: “Don’t get in the way when people want to give you money”, “Success feels not much different from failure. But you are not allowed to stop.”, “Barely succeed. Not everybody and everything has to grow super big and scale like crazy”.
  • Cory Brooker: what a legend, and it was exciting to see a potential future President speak at a tech conference. Main take-out, “It’s cheaper to invest in education than to pay for ignorance.”
  • Each year, Chris Shifflet gets up on stage and imparts ridiculously good advice that seems to come from the heart and not from a self-help book. I’ll leave it to his own blog post to explain what he said.
  • Arguably the greatest start-up promo video ever created, for WeBe.at, by OK Focus
  • Lachlan Hardy really loves taking photos. And that’s his way to meet as many people as possible at an event: take great portraits and you’ll end up knowing everybody.
  • This tweet from Whitney Hess amused me, and is basically true. The dress code at Brooklyn Beta is compelling.
  • The words of Seth Godin (possibly the most effortless, charismatic speaker I’ve seen) imparted some sage advice: “Everyone should write a blog because it makes it harder to be a hypocrite. You have to decide what you believe.”, and on social media, “Whisper to the people who want to listen to you, don’t yell at the masses who are trying to avoid you.”
  • Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp was a new initiative started this year, and the participants got a few moments to present their app. The standout apps for me were Farmstand, which helps promote and connect farmers markets and the people that shop at them, and Maker’s Row, which connects makers with factories that can help turn their designs into reality.
  • The king of infographics, Hyperakt, made a beautiful one of the people that constituted the event. My mother even made an appearance in it, on being asked what it is I do: “It’s all a big mystery to me.”
  • Ben Pieratt gave an astonishing heart-felt talk about his experience on being CEO of Svpply: a startup that he founded, and then resigned from 3 years later. The turmoil of running of startup (especially as a designer-founder) are never discussed so for us gathered audience it was refreshing to hear a warts-and-all account.
  • Scott Belsky talked about Behance, and proffered a few words to aspiring founders. Having recently sold his company to Adobe for Good Money, we should listen: “When everyone tells you you’re crazy, you’re either crazy or you’re onto something.”

Embracing the design and UX amateur

Seth Godin published two excellent blog posts over the holidays: How to make a website: a tactical guide for marketers, which was promptly followed up by True professionals don’t fear amateurs.

The latter produced whining and pitchfork-cries from many designers in the community, though as hard as I tried I failed to uncover any coherent argument as to the problem Godin’s posts posed.

In the first post, Godin recommends to his audience an approach to designing a website that wouldn’t look out of place in any design studio’s own working practices. First, research elements of other sites that they feel work well. Second, create the site entirely on Keynote. Third, don’t do any coding at all. Leave this until last when you should give your developers your prototype to be developed.

Most critics of this approach simply furious that Godin recommends not using a professional to do the job of UX and design, and that it was a job that could only be done by a seasoned professional. In other words, hand-wringing job protection, and fear of the amateur which his diligently knocked into place with his follow-up post, responding to critics on Twitter:

If you’re upset that the hoi polloi are busy doing what you used to do, get better instead of getting angry.

These posts on the reactions made me think more about how our industry can be incredibly self-serving and fearful of advice like this, and how suddenly there are distinct barriers to entry to the industry.

Firstly, consider Seth Godin’s audience. Principally they will not be C-level executives running million-dollar organisations. Nor will they be ambitious start-up leaders brandishing millions of dollars in VC. They are people who are working hard to make their fledging organisations work, who like to cherry pick Godin’s excellent tidbits of inspiration and advice from his vast trove of experience.

These are the people I would advise specifically not to hire an web designer or UX specialist. With limited cash at their disposal, there are myriad of ways that a few dollars can go a long to make a site: using an inexpensive service like Squarespace or Shopify, or a free blogging engine like Tumblr with an off-the-shelf theme can easily deliver an effective commercial site to help launch their businesses.

An amateur site might as easily be brilliant as it is terrible. Luck Scheybeler suggested it was analogous to visiting a charming market stall over a cold Bond Street boutique. Further, David Cole suggested that in fact, “not everything needs A+ UX. Some categories are served fine by okay work”. It’s easy to forget this: we (me included) usually fall into the trap of insisting that every site should be a paragon of UX and artistic merit when in fact, okay is simply okay.

And honestly—as a side note—in my career I’ve seen better, more considered sites created by eager start-up founders in Keynote and Powerpoint than self-proclaimed UX and web design experts.

Many, though, focussed their frustrations at the last paragraph:

Hand the Keynote doc to your developers and go away until it’s finished.

Of course I agree with the critics that the best results comes from collaboration between designers, developers, strategists and UX professionals. You can’t simply hand something off without a feedback loop.

But the criticism here reminded me that the sites I have made of which I am least proud (and I’ll never share them - sorry) were those whose in which I had no involvement with the UX or design. Instead I was handed a bundle of Photoshop documents that had to be recreated in CSS to the pixel, and I wasn’t able to critique or suggest any amendments. The goal was the recreate the design precisely without technical consideration, and thus create a site that was devoid of any vestige good UX.

If you were one of those people who were disgusted by the idea of just “handing off” to developers, reflect and think very carefully about how you work with your own team. You could be doing the same thing, yet consider yourself the professional in the scenario, not the amateur with the Keynote deck.

Ultimately I get dismayed by the arrogance of suggesting that only professional designers can be charged with creating a website. I would encourage any true “hustler” trying to create business to have a go at designing their site if only to understand the process. Sure—the result might suck—but that is okay: it can be changed later once their target market or audience responds. Or it might be fantastic, in which case let’s just embrace that the amateur with a Keynote file has taught us a thing or two.

We should embrace the democratisation that the design and UX community has to offer inherent in its very nature, and should encourage everybody with a vested interest to experiment with whatever tools they have. Only then might we even be able to fix the problem of the woeful lack of talent in our industry.

Update: throughout this post I seem to equate using Keynote with amateurism, which absolutely isn’t the case. It’s an excellent tool for rapid prototyping and has been championed by none other than Edenspiekermann.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

I hadn’t heard this quote by Steve Jobs before.

I’m not sure where he said it nor in what context, but I love it. It’s a sentiment that often gets ignored in the ongoing debates between designers and developers.

It particularly resonates after having recently worked with a number of designers who have created designs without any technical, structural and usability considerations, thus rendering them inadequate at best; wholly unimplementable at worst.

I don’t believe good design is as binary as he suggests, but it’s refreshing to know a design revolutionary respected how a product works more than how it is decorated.

On the “flat design” aesthetic

I’ve recently enjoyed two excellent articles by two guys (intriguingly both called Allan) celebrating a new era of “flat design”, and ultimately about how—as interactive designers—we should embrace the medium with which we work, and steadily reject the skeumorphic, dropshadow-y hellhole we’ve found ourselves in. While I like a touch of dropshadow as much as the next man, when overdown with leather textures and heavy gradients, they get a little nauseating. These posts are the best I’ve read at offering a reason why.

From Allan Grinshtein of LayerVault’s post, “The Flat Design Era”:

Well-loved products on the web share a similar design aesthetic, with roughly the same kinds of bevels, inset shadows, and drop shadows. For designers, achieving this level of “lickable” interface is a point of pride. For us, and for a minority of UI designers out there, it feels wrong.

We interpret recent shots taken at skeumorphism as a sign of the coming of “Honest Design.” Much like we were not too long ago, designers working for the web are getting fed up with the irrational, ugly shortcuts being praised as good design.

If your product philosophy is to create small, lean, products why doesn’t your design follow?

…to Svpply’s eBay’s Allan Yu who composed a terrific (and hilarious) response:

I think the use of skeuomorphism definitely helped bridge our connection between the tangible and the intangible. It’s been a huge catalyst in maturing our relationship with the web, however, when I look at that relationship now I find that the majority of people understand the web as the web. We no longer need that analogy to make it tangible. The web has earned its own sense of tangibility especially with the use of smartphones and tablets where we can literally hold the web in our hands. With that being said, skeuomorphism now has lost its purpose and seems more like a cheap trick that masks the true quality of an UI

Remember in college where one of the first lessons they teach you is to understand your medium? Well our medium isn’t the “screen” its really…glass.

And because we’re designing on glass, at least for me, designing a button that creates a sense of reflection and depth using reflective properties not only seem redundant since your glass is already reflective, but dishonest. In real life, when a button is pushed, you can feel its give and its bounce, but on a phone or on the screen, there is a lack of that physical feedback. A physicality that your mind knows exists but in skeuomorphic reality it doesn’t. So for me at least, it becomes one of those moments where reality doesn’t meet expectations and that disappoints me.

Skeumorphism is as much of an UI as the frosting is as a cupcake. Yes, the frosting is delicious, its the part that says “you should eat this”, but we all know it’s the cake part itself that’s doing all the grunt work. It’s the part that you hold, it’s the part that you actually eat, it’s the part that fills you, and it’s the part where you can slather that copious amount of frosting on. The cupcake is the UI, the frosting is just the bells and whistles, the pointless skeurmorphism that is slathered on top.

Insites: The Book (and why I wanted to sponsor it)

insites-the-book-and-why-i-wanted-to-sponsor-it

Around this time last year at Brooklyn Beta, Keir Whitaker and Elliot Jay Stocks told me they were going to create a book of the same name as their excellent series of talks/meet-ups, Insites, which was to feature a series of in-depth interviews with notable people in our industry. This was to be the first project of Viewport Industries, their new venture which was their break from the grind of client work:

Earlier this year we organised Insites Tour together, and with all sorts of ideas for products — both digital and physical — bubbling around every time we went for a beer, we eventually decided to form a company, ditch the majority of our client work, and make some cool shit.

They asked me whether I wanted to sponsor the book, and I said yes for two main reasons:

  • Keir and Elliot are two of the nicest and up-standing gents in our industry. Always humble, respectful and supportive of others.
  • It’s very exciting to see two people follow-through on their dream of doing their own thing. We all want to do that, but so few follow-through and execute.

I’m excited to see that Insites the book is now ready after many months of hard work and graft, and looks terrific as this Flickr set shows.

So congratulations to Keir and Elliot: I’m excited to see what they do and make next, but in the mean time I’m sure the book is going to be a succes and will inspire others to do their own thing.

Ultimately the moral of their story is, be nice and make nice things.

Innovation isn’t a hover-board

Another product launch from Apple, another round of groans and whinging about how as a company they have lost their way, and that innovation has withered.

This is despite the fact that they just launched the most powerful, carefully—beautifully—engineered piece of consumer electronics that the world has ever seen. And if the “me too” copy-cat attitude of everyone else in the industry continues (see NB below), it will be the best piece we’ll see for some time to come.

The whinging confuses me: we already have near-perfection in a phone yet people still want more. It’s unclear what the “more” is, and nobody I ask can articulate what features they are expecting to see. Amorphous prototypes sprinkled in the science and technology section of The Economist perhaps, or technology which is sexy but whose use cases are malformed (wireless charging for instance: is that really a problem we need to solve, especially by plugging in another bulky charging unit?).

Apple’s launch made me think about what innovation means to me.

Innovation is not magic. A lot of the disappointment in the new phone (and in fact every iteration since the original) stems from the first time someone touched an iPhone: an interface without moving parts that helped you swoosh through pages of newfangled “apps” felt like magic. But it was simply a gestalt of parts that were readily available; refined by the creativity of hardware and software engineers. The innovation wasn’t creating magic; it was the combination of the parts with a smattering of “how on earth did they do that?”.

Innovation can be measured by potential. It’s sometimes tough to identify the baby steps veruss a full-blown innovative break-through. I see this all the time when a new website or webapp is launched, riddled with bugs and which is barely useable. But there’s a kernel of supreme innovative thinking there that’s just aching to be executed well. It just takes time, real-world usage, and iterations of development. (I wrote a blog post about the innovation potential of Apple’s Passbook.)

Innovation is inside-out. I flip between front-end and back-end web design and development so I’m in the lucky position where I can appreciate both sides of my industry. Obviously I get excited by hot new design trends and UI patterns, but the nerd in me gets thrilled when I find an article on Hacker News where someone has discovered a way to cache objects 10x faster than Memcached. (Don’t worry if you didn’t understand that sentence: I barely do.)

I get thrilled, but the end user of whatever app makes use of that system won’t even notice it. Ergo, the hacker’s sexy innovation that the end user doesn’t see (or barely even feels) washes over them. (And vice versa: I doubt that many sysadmins were that bothered when native CSS drop shadows appeared in webkit…) Watch the video of how the new iPhone is manufactured and you can see the innovation and thought that is helping pack an extraordinary array of components into an astonishingly slim casing. And appreciate that the hardware decisions being made are going to shape another decade of development. That’s innovation.

Innovation is not a hover-board. Echoing my slightly facetious title, innovation doesn’t need to be seen or experienced by everyone to exist. It’s there in varying, subtle forms: a button on a screen, a switch on a piece of casing, or a fleck of silicon on a circuit board. It doesn’t need to enable me to fly or do anything that is impossible or commercially unfeasible for me to feel that something is innovative.

Let’s just remember that actually, everything is amazing, so it’s the small improvements to products that are the exciting ones.

NB: While I’ll admit I’m an Apply fan-boy, the reason I am is that I’ve yet to see anything that specifically excites me come from Nokia, Microsoft, or Samsung to make me think otherwise.

Why Passbook’s scope is massive and important

I keep on asserting that the scope and importance of Passbook—a new feature in iOS 6 that allows you to store airline boarding passes, coupons, etc.—is massive, and people are asking why.

Companies (airlines, retailers, etc.) are going to fall over themselves to get their “Passbook strategy” in place to get themselves into the hands of millions of savvy customers. Not having some sort of presence or offering for Passbook will soon be as strange as not having a Twitter account or Facebook page. And on the flip-side, customers will expect, even demand, that their favourite companies to part of Passbook. I’m a loyal Virgin Atlantic customer: in a short time I would expect to be able to board a plane with Passbook.

iPhone users will get used to the convenience and presence of their favourite companies in their pocket, and again come to expect and demand the ability to do more with their favourite brands and companies with their phone.

When the technology is ready and proven (it isn’t yet), Apple will integrate near-field communication (NFC) technology in the iPhone. Then when a new generation of iPhones are released with NFC comes with it the ability to pay for services and goods (with their iTunes credit card information), claim a coupon, check-in to an flight, travel on the Underground, etc.

But the ability to do these things is only half the story.

With Passbook, Apple are “baking in” the behaviour, familiarity, and software that underpins this sort of interactivity. Of course, Samsung could release a half-baked NFC solution tomorrow, yet how many companies would seriously take notice, and align their systems with them? None. Yet because Apple have managed to create an eco-system where millions of users entrust their credit card and personal details with them, aligning transactional systems with Apple and iPhone users alone suddenly becomes very compelling.

The immediate use case for Passbook on day zero is limited, but what it will achieve is a familiarity and expectation, all in preparation for subsequent iterations of hardware, software and infrastructure development where your phone replaces all the cash and loyalty/membership ephemera that sites in your wallet.

What features would you like to see from a new blogging platform?

This is largely a follow-on from a previous blog post, but also to elucidate a few recent tweets about the fact I’m building my own blogging platform.

It’s a hosted solution somewhere between Svbtle and Medium (or at least in so far as much as I know about them) to make posting and sharing links easier than using ExpressionEngine which as I’ve said before, is a wonderful tool but far too complex for the simple job I want it to perform.

While I’m building it primarily for my own use, I’m baking in multi-user use from the outset so that if anybody expresses an interest in using it, they can. If nobody is interested, it’s no big deal: it’s an interesting exercise either way.

My question to you is: if you currently use a blogging/publishing tool, what do you love and hate about it? And if you don’t blog at all, or have tried but gave up, what functionality would you expect to get from a tool you would want to use?

Obviously I wouldn’t want to, nor be able to, accommodate everyone’s input but I’m keen to hear any great insights and ideas.

A few updates to my New York list

A little while ago I wrote about some of my favourite places in NYC (which I have now added to a Foursquare list). Having just come back from a week’s trip there I thought I’d add a few more places:

  • Little Branch in the West Village swoops into the top-spot of my favourite cocktail places. I could quite happily spend all my time there and turn into a light-shy alcoholic. Delicious cocktails, and a (carefully designed) run-down ramshackle interior, make for one of the most “authentic” prohibition style bars in the city.

  • Bareburger is a wonderful burger joint in Greenwich Village that Nitzan introduced me to. A myriad of meats, toppings, and breads make for a infinite array of burger goodness.

  • Tipsy Parson in Chelsea. I’m not sure how they describe themselves, but contemporary southern American comfort food might be close. Fried green tomatoes, indulgent (and very garlicky) mac and cheese, and other meaty treats make for a really special dinner or brunch place.

  • Smorgasburg in Williamsburg boasts a fantastic selection of foodie goodness from all over the city. Independent food stalls set up shop alongside more recognisable local outlets, and offer every cuisine you can imagine in cost-effective morsals, where you can start with a lobster roll, follow up with a taco, and finish with an ice cream sandwich. Someone described it as the sort of place people who like to take photos of their food like to go. That’s about right..

  • La Esquina is by far the best dining experience I’ve had in a long time. Trying to get past the doorman into the main restaurant is a challenge in itself: I was laughed at having no reservation on a Saturday night, but one word from a plucky friend meant we ended up at the bar where you can eat the astonishing Mexican food and indulge in the terrific cocktails. If you don’t get in, try the cafe around the corner or even just the sandwiches upstairs. Eli suggested that the food at Tacombi is even better, but I’ve yet to try it.

More suggestions are always welcome, particularly since I’m going to be there in October for Brooklyn Beta. (You should come then too, even if you don’t have a ticket. There’s plenty going on that week.)