Posts About Business and Startups

Great Content Transcends Devices

Ryan wrote this on March 05, 2013 in . It has 3 comments.

We've been having more and more conversations around content and mobile lately. Last week, while we were in the midsts of releasing Foundation 4, Bryan made an observation on how we have to take a critical eye to how content is placed in a mobile context. Which brought to mind, does that mean mobile also changes the way we write that content?

The other day, we came across LukeW's notes on Karen McGrane's talk at An Event Apart, "The Mobile Content Mandate." What particularly caught our eye was this bit in Luke's notes:

There is no such thing as writing for mobile. There is just good writing.

Mobile is a catalyst that forces you to write better, more concise copy without sacrificing clarity, Karen stated. There's no need to write separate copy for desktop, tablet and smartphones. If the content is well-written and engaging, it can carry you from device to device.

After all, well-written content in concert with form elements and visuals can make a page more desirable to use, regardless if it's on a desktop browser or a mobile one. But what makes good copy? SEOmoz says that great content has the makings of:

  • Credibility: Think of this as write what you know. Better yet, write to your expertise, your strengths.
  • Real effort: It really shines through when a post is well-researched and the writer has put time into it. That care shows.
  • Actionable: This is the takeaway that urges readers or users to take action
  • Begs to be shared: Good content is something that needs to be shared, but you should also want and be proud to share it.

But that's not to say there isn't a need for a mobile strategy, that you don't have to plan out how best to structure your content. It's a good rule of thumb to have just that. However, what Karen is saying, in the end, is that if you have all the makings of great copy, you don't need to write specifically for mobile. That your copy will transcend the device it's read on.


Chatting with LukeW on Mobile First and Foundation 4

Ryan wrote this on February 27, 2013 in . It has 9 comments.

The other day, our friend and advisor Luke Wroblewski stopped by for a chat with Jonathan, Chris and myself. We're in the midst of working on the finishing touches to Foundation 4, polishing the chrome and making her seaworthy. And Luke's visit was a pleasant distraction.

Luke turned us on to Mobile First and his work has greatly influenced how we're approaching Foundation 4, which we talked about during our conversation with him. While we talked, Chris was furiously pounding away on the code — he can pat his head and rub his tummy at the same time.

Some good stuff was said and we didn't want you to feel left out. Here are a few snippets from our conversation:

Mobile First and Responsive

Luke: Step out to any street corner and people have their face in a smartphone. That trend doesn't show any signs of letting up. In fact, it's constantly growing. I think the whole idea of Mobile First is reaching all these audiences anywhere and everywhere. 'Cause you can pull out your mobile device anywhere and everywhere. All the kinds of things people are doing are all the kinds of things we used to make websites about — buying things, looking up information, talking to their friends, killing some downtime, anything and everything is now mobile.

Mobile First, in a responsive paradigm, for me, forces you to focus on the stuff that matters, front and center. So what you see is people designing things desktop site down. What you end up is that they cram everything and the kitchen sink into the site. They make it huge and bloated in terms of performance, in terms of content, in terms of features. What they end up doing to get down to a mobile view, they stack everything into one long list. It's huge and it takes forever. It basically creates a crappy mobile experience.

Shifting Paradigms

Jonathan: We're doing something different with 4 than we did with 3. When we did 3, we said "2 is dead." With 4, 3 is still there. Because even with our clients, it's going to be another year of us beating the drum as much as we can to get our clients to sign up doing things Mobile First.

The nice thing about Foundation is we've always built Foundation so that it's probably six months to a year ahead of where we are.

Luke: That's an interesting philosophy. Sorta building ahead of where your clients are and bring them there over time and learn the lessons.

Jonathan: We have to drag them kicking and screaming. On the way, we get there ourselves.

Luke: I talk with a lot of companies around this sort of stuff. All of them know the terms. They know responsive web design. They know Mobile First. They know that they should be acting on it. But what's really holding them back is their existing properties and processes. To be clear, what makes people uncomfortable is that it's a different way of working. It's different than what we've been doing for 20-plus years.

My counter argument to that is that it's a pretty different web, pretty different world than it was 20 years ago. If you're expecting things that worked for you 20 years ago work today, I don't think that's a viable way to run a business.

The other argument that I hear is that it costs more, takes more time. My response is: OK, so you can keep making a desktop and laptop site and just not have all these new audiences on tablets, on smartphones and all that stuff. If you want more usage on these more devices, more online time, you have to invest a little more. It's not going to come for free. Nobody just comes hands you a pile of money or customers if you do nothing.

Jonathan: At some point, it's just going to be the cost of doing business.

Forward the (Mobile First) Foundation

Jonathan: Luke got us turned on to the whole thing. We had lunch ... how long ago?

Chris: Back in November ... maybe September ...

Jonathan: About six months ago, we had lunch with Luke. And Luke was like beating us over the head with "Foundation ought to go Mobile First". And we talked about it before but that was the first conversation where we got to the end of it and was "like OK that makes some sense."

Chris: He made us look at Zepto too.

Jonathan: He turned us on to Zepto. So that was a good conversation. I think it was a confluence of — he made a pretty good case for it. Honestly, I think, at last to me, the best case so far. Since we're doing things mobile first, technically, we have the capability with Foundation to build experiences that don't suck for like really old phones and feature phones. We're not going to inherit all the styles we try to cram in there. It will actually be a mobile site.

So we can broaden our appeal by simplifying what we present for devices like that or older browsers like IE6 or 7. You could reasonably say you can build a site for IE6 using Foundation 4, which wasn't the case with Foundation 3. That was a win.

Luke: To build on that. The promise of tomorrow, for me, is more and more multi-device web. There's no shortage of devices.

Toward Tomorrow and Beyond

Luke: I think that it's encouraging to see that more and more people are understanding this opportunity and jumping on it. You guys, potential working with clients, using Foundation — it's a great vehicle understanding kind of what they're inevitably going to have to do on the Web. I appreciate that you guys are moving it forward and pushing it past where the clients are right now. In the end, I think it's going to be good for you and for them. It's not a negative thing for me. I do agree that change is hard. It's inevitable to deny that the mobile thing is here. And you're going to have to deal with it. And eventually deal with it in a good way.

Jonathan: Pretty stoked to where Foundation is going. We wouldn't have taken the direction we did if you hadn't badger us for the last year and a half.

We want to thank Luke for dropping in and chatting with us!


Mobile is No Longer a Choice

Bryan wrote this on February 26, 2013 in . It has 4 comments.

Over the last few years, we've heard many of our customers dismiss the need to address their web presence on mobile devices. It was understandable considering the small mobile adoption rates of their Enterprise customers. But it's no longer feasible for any business not to think about how they're solving problems for the Mobile Web. Mobile growth is outpacing desktop usage, and people are becoming more comfortable getting work done on portable devices.

We can use our own business as an example. We're a business-to-business company that has quickly shifted to a multi-device office. On a regular day at ZURB, you'll see people sketching on iPads, projecting design work on a TV and reviewing agenda notes on a phone.

For some customer perspective, our newsletter email opens are now 40% mobile. 7.5% to 20% of our visitors come to our various properties on a mobile device. Those numbers continue to climb each month for us, especially overseas. Comscore is reporting that 1/3 of all page views in the UK are from a connected device.

It's our hope with the upcoming release of Foundation 4 that many business will not only make the decision to move forward, they'll look to start their efforts around small devices first. It's a concept our advisor Luke Wroblewski has been pushing for quite some time: Mobile First. With the proliferation of connected devices and US mobile usage surpassing desktop in 2015 (it's already happening in India), designing the mobile experience first is a solid bet. Actually, you really don't have a choice if you want to remain relevant.


Forecast the Future Better Than a Weatherman

Ryan wrote this on February 11, 2013 in . It has 2 comments.

At one time or another, we've all wished that we could predict the future. That we could take out a crystal ball and peek through the cloudy haze, getting a glimpse of what is to come. But we can't predict the future with certainty. We can, however, forecast it.

But we shouldn't be weathermen about it. Our friends at Human Factors International recently did a paper arguing that designers should really take a page from the futurist playbook.

Of course, it's crucial that we design with the future in mind, especially since we no longer have control of the screen-size our products will appear on. Our products must work on any device, if not all of them. Which means a designer has to be aware, be prepared — like a futurist. As HFI writes:

So that's what the futurist is trying to do all the time. Not trying to predict with certainty ' because we need to have enough room to change what is going to happen. That's the goal of the futurist.

What's needed for a designer to shape the future is to listen, act and design for now with tomorrow in mind. Let's take a closer look at what that means.

Pay Attention to What's Around You

Ever hear the old joke, "pay attention, it's free"? Well, it's true. Paying attention doesn't cost you anything, but failing to pay attention can cost you dearly. Not paying attention cost BeenVerified's co-founders dearly, burning through $550,000 in funding because they built a product that wasn't needed.

It's important to not just listen to what's happening to you, but to really take it in. Absorb what's going on around you. Doing so, opportunities will reveal themselves, and you may pick up on patterns. It's what futurists do, as HFI points out, scanning what's around them to see what patterns they can ferret out.

Take Steve Jobs. He's probably the quintessential example of this. He constantly had an ear to the ground on what was going on, spotting opportunities that others missed. For instance, when he saw Xerox's computer and mouse, he immediately noticed what they had missed. Xerox saw a device for experts. Jobs saw a device for the masses, figuring out how to make it better and affordable. He was inspired to improve on what they had done.

Actually hearing, not just listening, also keeps you on your toes. Box stayed ahead of the competition by paying attention to it. For example, the scare of G-Drive was enough to spur them to turn to a fermium business model. Seeing what the competition was doing also forced them to ensure their product didn't look like anything else on the market. It also forced them to focus 100% on the Enterprise Cloud.

Imagine where the company would be had it just keep its blinders on. They might very well have suffered the same faith as BeenVerified.

Don't React, Act on Data

A futurist is investigating when he pays attention to the world around him. He's on the hunt for data, which he can use to forecast tomorrow. Designers can do the same.

We've said it before, designers shouldn't be afraid of data. Decisions can be better influenced and not based on intuition. Hard data can tell us a lot of what's going on, where we are and where we need to be down the road.

Data can allow you to see where your efforts need to be focused (or refocused). Which came in handy for One Kings Lane to stay ahead. As CEO Doug Mack said at his recent soapbox, sales in mobile have skyrocketed, going from 0% to 25% last year. During Thanksgiving, there was a 40% spike in the usual holiday traffic that carried through the Christmas season.

Those numbers showed One Kings Lane that mobile is changing the way people shop. Now, they're focused heavily on mobile, working on its iPad app and retrofitting its iPhone app. They're also making the site responsive for Android users.

Design for Now, Keep Tomorrow in Mind

A designer has to design for now, but keep it scalable and flexible enough for tomorrow. Or design with trends in mind and change user behavior. Let's go back to our friends at HFI one last time, as they put it:

The designer needs to realize that this is something that isn't happening yet, but will happen five years from now.

In order to shape and influence the future, it must be on your mind. But don't look so far down the road that you don't see what's in front of or around you. If you don't pay attention to the market and data of now, then you might not be able to meet the needs of tomorrow.


Design and the Mobile Web: The Enterprise Weighs In

Forrest wrote this on January 24, 2013 in . It has 3 comments.

This morning, Appcelerator released their latest version of "The State of the Mobile Enterprise," which highlights how the enterprise is approaching all types of mobile development.

Their survey of 770 enterprise leaders resulted in some interesting mobile insights. We dove headfirst into the insights from the report, and dug up three key takeaways that we believe all designers should note as we rocket more into a mobile-first world.

Mobile Development vs. Desktop Development

The first core takeaway is a necessary (and possibly obvious) one — mobile has arrived and will only continue to grow in importance. 87% of enterprise survey respondents believe that mobile app development will outpace their desktop counterparts.

Our next iteration of Foundation takes mobile first to heart, as we believe that designers will shift the way they design as more and more devices sprout up on a daily basis.

Developers Want to Develop for the Mobile Web

Platform preferences are also another key area to find nice insights. The report examined how interested the enterprise and developers were in developing for specific platforms — the mobile web being one of them.

It turns out that the mobile web is a key area of interest for many developers. 56% of enterprise respondents said they'd be "very interested" in developing for the mobile web. Developers seem even more bullish — 63% of developer respondents weighed in at "very interested."

We've outlined our thoughts on HTML5 vs. Native before, specifically highlighting Mark Zuckerberg's thoughts on the matter. We've chosen to prioritize the responsive web because we realize it won't go away, and we're confident that a well-designed responsive app that works on all devices is a great play for the mobile-first future.

Great App Design is Crucial to Remain Relevant

User experience is a highly-important factor to creating a great mobile app. The study found that 85.6% of enterprise founders believe that UX matters just as much in B2E/B2B apps as B2C. Beyond user experience, great holistic product design is crucial.

Appcelerator analyzed their findings as such:

This heralds the fact that we now live in a user-experience-centric world where beauty, functionality, and user delight triumph, whether for mobilizing internal enterprise processes or for transforming consumer relationships.

Ultimately, all this tells us that the enterprise realizes that great design is crucial, whether or not an app gets in front of a consumer's face.

If design is deprioritized or ignored in a mobile app, it's likely that users will abandon it for a better-designed, pleasant solution to use. Companies that can capitalize on design, especially with apps that target the enterprise, will quickly gain an edge on their larger, slower-moving competitors.


The 3 Habits of Great Collaborative Ensembles

Ryan wrote this on December 28, 2012 in . It has 2 comments.

We're big fans of superhero teams, such as The Avengers or the Justice League. When we were kids, a lot of us probably thought, "why does Superman need to be part of a superpowers team?" He's the most powerful superhero around after all. Sure, he's more powerful than a locomotive and has heat vision, but he also needs someone to balance out his tendency to trust everyone no matter what. That's where Batman comes in. And Batman needs Superman as well.

It's the same with teams. Individually we can do amazing things. But combine forces with someone who can see things differently, then we can truly achieve greatness. That's something Keith Yamashita, of SYPartners, has spent a lot of time thinking about.

Keith knows a thing or two about collaboration, having worked with dozens of companies, such as Apple, and helping them further solidify their teams. Watch the talk below and take note of the three habits that Keith says allow a collaborative ensemble to soar.

What really spoke to us was when Keith started talking about the inherent contradiction between being a soloist and part of a larger team. As he puts it:

We tend to think of creativity as the work of a soloist ... interestingly, virtually all acts of greatness are the work of an ensemble.

Often, we're taught to think of the solitary artist — the writer, the painter or the designer — as a force to be reckoned with, the one who creates the next great thing. The Steve Jobs, so to speak. But even Steve Jobs had a partner in Steve Wozniak.

We all need someone to bounce our ideas off of, which can spark ideas that we might not have considered had we been working in solitary confinement. After all, chance favors the connected mind.

Yet, how do we reconcile the soloist and the ensemble? Let's take a closer look at the three habits of great creative teams as Keith outlines them.

See, Don't Look

At the top of the list is focus. Keith says that we often look but don't really see what's in front of us. More importantly, what lens we're using can also shape how we actually see a problem. Is it an obstacle? Or is it an opportunity? If we're not seeing properly, opportunities can fall through the cracks.

But what Keith is talking about is Focus with a capital "F", which is the type of concentration needed to help businesses and teams grow, which has been pointed out before by our own Chief Instigator. It's so easy for us to get our noses to the grindstone that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Strong teams, as Keith puts it, need to see the entire landscape. Focus (big "F") helps us because it allows us to balance the short-term gains with long-term goals.

Know Your Superpower

One way to help galvanize a group of soloists is for everyone to know their superpower, or the strength they bring to the team. Keith mentions it in human psychology terms, such as an energetic person complimenting a person who is a systems thinker. But we'd take it another step further.

Another way to think about superpowers is skill sets. What is the particular skill set that a person brings to the team and can they work across other disciplines in a business, or what Tim Brown calls the T-Shaped individual.

For Keith, it's crucial that teammates bring their superpowers to any collaborative interaction so they can feel that they individually make a contribution. Being T-Shaped allows for that. That's because each person is contributing their strong skill set and expertise, allowing their unique talents to drive decision making. At the same time, this helps reconcile the contradiction between the soloist and the ensemble.

Form a Dynamic Duo

The smallest unit of trust and collaboration is the duo, says Keith. You don't know yet when you bring two individuals together what spark can be ignited. Occasionally, that can cause friction. One way to resolve that, as Keith puts it, is to start by extending trust rather than apprehension (or love rather than fear).

One benefit of a small dynamic duo is that it also helps move projects along faster. That's why a lot of our projects only have a designer and a lead. It allows for both collaboration and for individuals to make decisions that get projects done without a middle manager running interference.

Cultivate These Habits

Collaboration is essential to creativity and greatness. Without partnership, without someone to trust, it's hard to achieve both. You can't see the movie of what you're working on when you're in it. We all need someone to look at it from the outside, providing the feedback and insights we need. Cultivating these three habits allows you and your team to become a victorious collaborative ensemble.


The Spark is Your Product

Ryan wrote this on December 18, 2012 in . It has 2 comments.

Remember the old "Mission: Impossible" show? Each episode started with someone striking a match to ignite a fuse. It's a pop culture image that is sparked (pun fully intended) in our minds every time someone mentions lighting the fire of their business.

We thought of that particular image recently when we read this article by strategic advisors Karl Stark and Bill Stewart. They make some good points about igniting the flame of a startup. But a lot of those points are centered around a business model, or strategy, such as "what are your biggest strengths as a business" or "who is likely to copy your business model or enter your market."

Which are all valid things to ask, what should eventually be asked once the gears of a startup are going. But Karl and Bill dance around and really fail to address the very basic problem that needs to be solved first: what is the spark of your product?

Here's what they say:

So often we find entrepreneurial leaders are focused on the quality of the idea rather than the quality of their own strategic assets. That's akin to focusing on the idea of a roaring fire than creating the spark to get it going.

Product First

True, an idea in of itself isn't enough. It's the execution of the idea that counts. Yet, how does that idea form and how does it turn into a product. Something has to spark it. It doesn't conjure itself up from thin air. To do that, we need to seek opportunity and find solutions to problems.

Take for instance, Airbnb.

The idea for the service, as co-founder Joe Gebbia told us at his soapbox, was sparked out of two problems: a need to pay rent and every hotel room in town being booked. Joe and his eventual co-founder Brian Chesky had both left their jobs in 2007 and had dwindling bank accounts. That meant they could no longer afford the rent on their San Francisco apartment after it went up.

The same week their rent got hiked, a design conference came to town, booking every hotel around. Soon they realized they could rent space in their apartment by throwing down a couple of air beds. In that moment, Airbnb was born. A product that solved a problem for their potential customers.

The idea for Joe and Brian's product came out of solving a need and a problem for customers not from dwelling first on a business plan or strategy.

To be fair, Karl and Bill do mention "what do you know about the needs of these customers," but they don't frame it as a means to figure out your product or how it is differentiates itself in the marketplace.

Yet there will come a time when you'll have to address the strategic questions that will keep the fuse of your startup going, as Karl and Bill point out. However, if you don't have a product that meets a customer's needs then you don't really have a spark that will keep your business going.

All that to say, product first, strategy second. Without the product, you don't really have a startup.


Passion to Fail Fast

Ryan wrote this on December 17, 2012 in . It has 1 comment.

Our friend Cass Phillipps knows a bit about failure. After all, she produces FailCon, a conference where leading entrepreneurs and designers speak about their own failures. So it's no surprise that she's got a story or two of her own. And she's got a good one on how failure turned into her passion.

Watch the video below and take note of how Cass took an interest in her own failure and turned it into an advantage:

Our ears perked up when Cass said:

Failure hurts. Failure hurts a lot.

She makes a good point when she says that failure becomes riskier as we get older. It no longer becomes falling off a bike, as she put it. After all, as she showed, passion is dangerous and failure is inevitable. It's easier to give up. Or is it?

Fail to Win, Not Fail to Lose

What's needed is not just passion, but passion to fail and do so fast. Before we go on, let's be clear on the type of passion and failure we're discussing.

When it comes to passion, we're talking about investing yourself fully into your craft and your ideas, even when there may only be a slim chance of a financial reward or none at all.

For failure, we're referring to the concept of fail fast, which is not a strategy for coping with defeat. Quite the opposite, in fact. It's a means to win by shedding the wrong answers quickly. The concept isn't an excuse to seek failure. In other words, it's knowing how to fall flat on your face so that you can triumph in the end.

Which brings us back to Cass and how she spoke about getting the blueprint to failure. But it's more than just studying the plans. It's dissecting them, figuring out the mechanics of why you failed and how that can speed you to a win. It's something winners have long since figured out.

After all the more you win, the more you're likely to win again. So it's not passion for failure that we're seeking. It's passion to fail fast so that we can succeed.


Polling App Polar Debuts To A Melting Start

Forrest wrote this on December 07, 2012 in . It has 4 comments.

Polling your friends is a great thing. You can gather quick feedback and come up with an answer — especially when you have basic questions that need basic answers.

Given that feedback is an important part of the design process, we were stoked to see a new app make a debut yesterday, Polar. In case you haven't heard of it, Polar by LukeW and team (disclosure: Luke is a ZURB advisor and good friend) is an app that allows you to create quick polls to share with your friends on mobile devices.

Curious to learn more about how people interpreted the design, we ran a series of Verify tests on the app's new design. Is a user easily able to vote on polls and follow users?

The results await below.

Does a user know where to tap to vote on a specific answer?

The first test we ran examined if a user knew where to go to vote on an answer. For the purposes of this test, we asked users specifically to vote on the 'Words with Friends' answer — one person was clearly not compliant.

This question is actually not overwhelmingly difficult — the answer in and of itself is obvious. We were looking to see what % of people would tap on the 'Words with Friends' text in comparison to the graphic underneath the text.

A user can touch either the text or the graphic to vote on a poll. Given the larger size of the graphic in relation to the text, it isn't surprising to see that most users opted to touch the picture than the text.

The median user took only 2.66 seconds to make a selection.

Does a user know where to tap to find a list of voted-on polls?

One of the key parts of any polling service is the ability to collect results. The Results page on Polar has three main tabs: a tab to see the latest updates on polls you're running, all created polls and polls you've voted on.

In this test, we started on the Results page to see if people were able to accomplish a fairly basic task — view polls they've voted on. Here's what we found:

Great news — the results page is actually very clear as to what action a user should take. About 75% of testers selected the correct button — the 'Voted' button in the top-right hand side of the screen.

The median user took 5.00 seconds to make a selection on this screen.

Does a user know where to go to follow a poll creator in the feed?

Finally, we examined if a user knew where to go to follow a user from the feed. Surprisingly, this test yielded several mixed results.

The two places where a user can go to follow a user are the icon (in the upper-right hand side) and 'More,' found underneath the '2' in this graphic.

Six users incorrectly selected the username in the top-left hand side. Nine people selected an answer to the test, which was also an incorrect answer (voting on a poll does not lead to a follow) action.

One potential area of improvement could be improving the visibility of the following system. It seems that users aren't sure where to go to follow a user within the feed.

UPDATE: Luke Wroblewski from the comments section below: "The folks selecting the username or user photo are right too. There's a prominent call to action to Follow on the profile page in our app."

Conclusion

Despite some minor confusion about how to follow in-stream, we're excited about the app and think that the initial design of the app accomplishes the main goal ' getting users creating their own polls and driving users to action with large selection buttons.

We're excited about Polar and its ability to change the way people poll on mobile devices. It will be most interesting to see how the app evolves over time, especially given the app is only available on iOS at the moment.


Cultural Values Can't Be Imposed on Day One

Ryan wrote this on December 05, 2012 in . It has 2 comments.

Seems a lot of people are talking culture lately. What it takes to build a strong company culture? How does culture affect employees? What are the cultural values that a company holds dear?

We touched a bit on this in yesterday's article. And just this morning, we ran into the above interview clip from Inc. Magazine of Zappos CEO and Founder Tony Hsieh talking on this very topic.

Watch the video below and take note of the one thing Tony would change if he started the company today.

We completely understand where Tony's coming from and get his desire to have all his ducks in a row from the very beginning. After all, Zappos has written the book on culture and we greatly respect what he and Zappos has done in that arena. But, as we said yesterday, outlining cultural values from the very first day isn't really feasible, agreeing with Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson that it's something you can't create but can only articulate.

It's like what Levar Burton recently said about the casting of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The producers didn't know when they were casting the series whether the actors would have chemistry. That was something that evolved as the actors worked together. The same goes for culture and a company's values.

You can't impose cultural values from the start. You're still figuring out the chemistry of the company, the employees. You're still user testing, so to speak, your company as a product, exploring and refining what you exactly stand for. But the day will come when you'll want to put the stake in the ground and articulate the values that have sprouted from those early days.

That being said, like an acting troupe, you have to toss a group together and see what chemistry comes of it first.


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