Ask the Dumb Questions

“Question Everything” is a hammer and a magnifying glass. Depending on its use, it can undermine certainty or clarify understanding. The difference usually lies in the complexity of the question. The bloggable twist: contrary to supposition, the “dumber” the question, the greater the clarity.

Ask the dumb question. Start with the dumbest and work your way up to smart. It’s the dumbest questions that offer the incontrovertible facts. It’s the smart ones that leave otherwise intelligent people debating semantics, or how many use cases can dance on the head of a pin.

It’s inevitable that people will initially advocate for a strategic path that treats dissent as adversarial—to be overruled. Conversely, an unconvinced party will treat pre-buy-in strategy as antithesis to be undermined. An adversarial approach to truth-finding might serve us judicially, but in product-development or content strategy, consensus is the interpersonal goal, while maximal simplicity/grace—not zero-sum victory—is the material goal. The dumber the question, the more incontrovertible the resolution, the less potential for antagonism.

Non-technical stakeholders have a right to explanations that start with no-brainer antecedents and expand from there. Developers shouldn’t be expected to divine nuts-and-bolts logic from high-flown abstractions. You all deserve a map of the decisions and assumptions that have moved your project from the crudest axioms to the most refined experiences.

Introducing Tunedon.es — Music for web professionals to _____to

Tuned Ones

Tunedon.es is a music discovery site focused on linking music to web design activities. Why web design and not every kind of activity you ask – we’re not sure, it just feels right – for now.

The last few years we’ve seen an explosion in music discovery sites. Pandora, Last.fm, Ex.fm, Grooveshark, Spotify, Rdio, thesixtyone and many others. Most of those services operate on the premise of channels and you selecting a band which leads you to some other bands like those bands and genres like those genres and comments tacked on for good measure. I’ve found some great music on these sites but none explore the relationship between what you are doing and what you are listening to. Recommendations and thumbs-up lack the excitement of finding something new. New like when your best friend says, “Why weren’t you at the Gallery East last night. This band Minor Threat played with SSD Control. It was life changing.”- And then you hear the band and it does change your life. The stories behind music discover sometimes changes lives and leads people towards a more independent and creative life – it did for us.

The Science of Music
There is solid science linking music types to music activities and cognitive development. For instance low-information load music (repetitive, major key – like dub) significantly improved test scores when compared to both silence and high-information load music (jazz or baroque.)[Kiger] — This makes it a great music type for wireframing. If you are a copywriter and fancy listening to Jay-Z, keep this in mind: People listening to music with lyrics tend to make significantly more mistakes than instrumental music. [Saleme and Baddeley] Science aside, we like what we like and whether we work at home or at an agency, there’s probably some music being played.

The Web Crowd
We creatives seek continuous inspiration. We admire, worship, borrow and steal from one another in order to create. We rearrange our offices and rent new lofts because the energy needs refreshing. We are affected by our surroundings and seek to shape our workplaces to optimize for inspiration. Tunedon.es seeks to mix a little science, a little community and influential stories to create a unique music discovery service. (So, yes it’s a bit more than a few dropdowns.)

When you explore inspiration in the context of community, you get not only to see what influences the creative decisions of others but also explore the mechanics of how others bring their inspiration to life. This can be valuable in helping you fine new methods of approaching your own work,” Todd Henry, The Accidental Creative.

“…the best work we accomplish is frequently a result of being inspired by someone else,” Todd Henry, The Accidental Creative.

 

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Email me with any thoughts or comments.

People and Process: Maybe there shouldn’t be an app for that?

I recently had a conversation with Doug Rushkoff about a project he is working on. My first instinct was, “This could be a product or an app.” Not so much for the commerce aspect but rather to translate the value inherent in his thinking/project to something people could use. And Doug said: Not everything is a product. Some things are process only, and processes are better implemented and actualized by people from start to finish.

Every day a new app that curates knowledge or helps users skip the process and get right to decision making is pushed to web. I use many of these sites/applications — they save me time and money. But at what cost?

To Doug’s point, at the cost of process creation, process understanding and the information/experience loss that comes from understanding complexities. Is opinion formed from a deep understanding of process more valuable than a decision quickly culled from a slider, input box, submit button and results page?

—Ian

Not feeling so shiny and new? Tackle this list.

With all this talk of the new year and fresh starts, showing up to the office today made me feel squirrely. The leftovers of pre-holiday office bustle glare against the January sun, and it’s time to take action. Once I charge through this list, I’m going to buy myself a new notebook and focus on my vision for 2011. Ah, Zen.

1) Update all passwords. Dig up passwords to the sites I can never log in to (that means you, EZ Pass). Add everything to my beloved Keeper app. Add license plate numbers and other important account numbers while I’m at it.

2) Update projects sites and remove stale people. We have a ton of outdated people on Basecamp–clients who no longer work for their former company, vendors we no longer work with, etc. Time to clean house and make room for new partners.

3) Manage email filters and subscriptions. Late last year, we migrated to Gmail for Business. I love the filters–all my newsletters skip the inbox and go straight to the Biz Newsletters folder. But based on the 406 unread newsletters in that folder, I think a better use of my time/inbox space would be updating my Google Reader and unsubscribing from 99% of my newsletters.

4) Do a massive paper purge. Before I transfer all our 2010 paperwork to those tax document storage boxes my bookkeeper orders for me, I’m going to scan and shred as much as possible. You don’t realize how much paper you have until you move offices (like we did last year). Paper clutter is a huge mental weight for me, and I want to get rid of it. Ditto for all the project folders hogging valuable space in my filing cabinet. They are all digitized and backed up–I don’t need paper copies, too.

5) Ditch vendors or services that aren’t working. For us, that means our payroll company, who insists on sending us gigantic stacks of paperwork 2x a month and acts as if we owe them the world for sending us PDF statements. Among other annoyances big and small. Switching payroll is one of those pain in the ass tasks, at least mentally, but there’s no time like the new year to tackle it.

BONUS POINTS: Block out vacations for the year. I’m determined to spend 10 days in Salt Spring Island this summer. So I’m going to put it on the calendar and make it happen.
(Not familiar with Salt Spring? Check out “What It’s Like Living Here” from my dear friend Carrie Cogan.)

–Britta

Kodachrome: Another Digital Obituary for Photography

The digital revolution has driven another stake into the heart of the old world. And as a journalist who’s entry into the field was as a photographer, this one hurts.

Kodak announced on June 22 that it was ending the production of Kodachrome slide film, it’s oldest film product, and for many photographers, the gold standard for capturing life-like color.

This comes on the heels of other bad news in the photographic world.

Nikon, probably the world’s most famous manufacturer of cameras, now builds only two flim cameras, both SLRs, one pro model and one for amateurs. It makes no point and shoot film cameras. None. This contrasts with the nine digital SLRs it builds and the 17 digital point and shoot models it carries.

As a photography buff and a student of the art, this is a low moment indeed.

Sure, digital cameras make images instantly available, and I doubt the growing clamor for instant gratification in the United States will ever be slaked, but whatever happened to the good things that come to people who wait?

And yes, digital photos can be e-mailed around the world at the touch of a button, and yes, digital photos can be printed in the comfort of your own home, but hasn’t this level of convenience cheapened the value of a photograph? Are they still even worth a thousand words?

Of course, the quality of digital prints is still lower than what comes from 35 mm film. Even the best digital cameras only capture a fraction of the amount of information that’s enclosed in a single frame of 35 mm. That, coupled with most people trying to print digital photos on poor quality paper and using as low a resolution as possible, means that many, many digital photos barely qualify as snapshots.

But the worst thing about digital photography is that it kills the magical alchemy behind photography. It used to be an art, something that required skill, innate talent and time spent working in an apprenticeship role to someone who could pass on years of knowledge.

Photography classes must still teach composition and exposure, but with ever-more-automatic cameras and computer programs to fix nearly any photographic glitch, how long will it be before we are looking at nothing but perfectly composed, perfectly cropped and perfectly exposed — yet utterly lifeless and soulless — photographs?

Yes, I’m talking to you, Photoshop.

The days of students learning how to mix chemicals and how to work an enlarger in total darkness are long past, and the art is certainly poorer for it. Photography no longer requires a knowledge of chemistry, mathematics and physics. Everything is reduced to little ones and zeros, like so much else in the world.

I still yearn to have a darkroom in my home, a place filled with trays of acrid chemicals and kept in soothing darkness much of the time. A place where the right combination of science and artistry can still yield magic, magic in the deep blacks, the bright whites and the countless shades of gray of a real photograph.

—Jonathan

Photo by michelphoto53 en Rénovation

What’s on Your iPhone?

New iPhones hit the stores last week, and consumers—weak economy and two-year contract with AT&T be damned—went home with more than one million of the devices.

Despite the name, iPhones are not phones; they are powerful handheld computers. I own a first-generation iPhone and it can do things that early cell phones could never dream of; in fact, it can do things my first Apple product, a Macintosh SE purchased in 1990, never dreamed of.

Sure it can do all the standard smartphone tricks—texting, calendar, camera, maps with turn-by-turn directions, etc., but where the iPhone really excels is in it’s expandability through The App Store.

There are more than 36,000 apps available for the iPhone and those apps will do just about anything. Apple maintains tight control over the types of apps approved for distribution, but that has not stopped a flood of fart apps from spewing their effervescence throughout the App Store.

Without further ado, here’s a glance at the apps—good, bad and ugly—that grace the iPhones here at Eat Media:

Britta
My five favorite apps:
1.    Camera (Blackberry didn’t have one. Don’t know how I lived without it.)
2.    Maps
3.    Facebook
4.    YouTube (for playing Sesame Street clips to a cranky baby in the car)
5.    Amazon.com

The most disappointing app: Twitteriffic

The app that likely no one else in the office has: iPregnancy

Wendy
My five favorite apps:
1.    History Lite
2.    Wikipanion
3.    Facebook
4.    Pac Man
5.    NPR Mobile

The most disappointing app: UrbanSpoon is a great idea, but always recommends me to go to restaurants in St. Pete and Tampa. None of the suggestions are helpful, and Sarasota seems to be off the map.

The apps that likely no one else in the office has:
1.    The “Festivals” app, which lists every major religious festival this year and next, for eight major world religions.
2.    ”Snow,” which features snow falling across the screen while “Snow!” flashes. For some reason, I haven’t deleted it.

Jonathan
My five favorite apps:
1.    Oakley Surf Report: With a five-year-old obsessed with his Boogie Board, a good surf report is essential each weekend.
2.    Flashlight: Simple, but useful.
3.    YouTube: Time-kill central.
4.    Stars: I love the seasonal ballet in the sky and Stars helps me keep track.
5.    3banana: Note taking that syncs with my desktop computer at home.

The most disappointing app: Adventure. Thought this would be a fun trip down memory lane, but it was just sad to see what used to pass for quality entertainment.

The apps that likely no one else in the office has: Tracking the Eye. Hurricane season is on here in Florida.

—Jonathan (@bentpiton)

Old school and new school content promotion tactics

OK, so let’s say you are managing a website. It could be as simple as a blog written by one person on one general topic or something complicated that weaves massive amounts of content into an eCommerce matrix. Either way, it’s a large interconnected web of content—your content ecosystem.

Bottom line: your content already rocks, but it’s not bringing in the readership and without the readership, you are failing to deliver what you promised the CTO (sales leads, widget sold, butts in seats, whatever metric you are beholden to) when you were given control of the site.

So now what? How do you spread the word? How do you evangelize for your content without being obnoxious?

New school versus joins old school
This is going to require a blitz that’s at once comprehensive and low key. It’s going to require the latest social media savvy as well as traditional marketing tactics.

Navigating social media
Do you have a Facebook page? Are you still using MySpace? Who’s tweeting about you? Have you snagged the obvious domain names and Gmail accounts for your brand? (For a mighty herd of social media marketing tools, go here, or for a counterpoint on the value of social media for business, go here.)

Social networking
Facebook is growing explosively and has recently accelerated past MySpace in several key user metrics. Continue to ignore Facebook at your peril. This is not to say that Facebook in three years won’t be in the same tailspin that MySpace is currently experiencing, but you can’t afford to give those years away to your competitors.

Content promotion tactic: Establish a Facebook page. Do not let anyone who doesn’t have a personal Facebook page operate it. Give the operator free reign to update the page with the appropriate multimedia content and use the status update as an additional outlet to promote new content on your main site.

Micro-blogging
Twitter is something that makes no intuitive sense to many people before they start to use it. Once they do, however, its utility as an instantly updated and instantly responsive news and information kiosk becomes abundantly clear. How is your brand being talked about on Twitter? Are you tweeting, or has some impostor hijacked your brand for nefarious purposes? If your brand has yet to be sucked into a Twitterstorm, consider yourself lucky and be prepared.

Content promotion tactic: Establish a Twitter identity for your brand. The person in charge of your Twitter account should already be a Twitter user as they will know the etiquette as well as the advantages and disadvantages of the medium. Encourage them to start tweeting, but more than anything, encourage them to listen, monitoring what is being said about your brand and using Twitter to respond to customer relations issues. A little good will is going to go a long way. Then start using Twitter to promote your content.

Social aggregation
Search engines are just one gateway to online information. While SEO is important for now (but is likely to be made irrelevant by semantic search very soon) there are ways to avoid the deep dark pit of the Google algorithm and promote content through other types of search.  Social aggregation sites like Digg, Mixx, StumbleUpon and Delicious all offer some variation on the theme of sharing stories.

Content promotion tactic: Post a story to Digg and get some colleagues to Digg it. If it’s good content, it will gain its own traction and move up the list. Don’t overdo this. Same deal with StumbleUpon and some of the others. Be selective and use your best content.

Old School
Yes, you still need to be writing SEO friendly copy, entering appropriate and comprehensive metadata for each piece of content, sending out email newsletters, blogging, posting videos to YouTube, posting photos to Flickr and more. No one said all this free promotion wasn’t going to be time consuming.

Happy curating. Your content ecosystem will be all the healthier with a little care and feeding.

—Jonathan (@bentpiton)

Photo by baxterclaws

Rube Goldberg: Information Architect?

Rube Goldberg was a cartoonist known for his intricate and elaborate single panels that depicted simple tasks being performed in a complicated, tortuous fashion.

Goldberg may have died in 1970, but our fascination with the types of devices generated by his fertile brain has accelerated in the Internet age. Go to Youtube, type Rube Goldberg in the search box and welcome yourself to time-kill central.

Check out this video that was the result of a content hosted by chocolatier Cadbury as a part of its “Crème That Egg” promotion:


As diverting as these videos are, watching what should be a one-step task divided a hundred times or more, Rube Goldberg should not be your inspiration when you are mapping out the navigation for your website.

You can make it easy or hard for people to get where they want to, depending on what you want them to take away, but the one thing you don’t want them to leave with is a suitcase full of frustration.

Five iron-clad rules for site navigation:

1.    Make it easy for people to contact you. The “Contact Us” link should be on every page. Put it where you want, footer, top nav, wherever, but make sure it’s a logical spot.
2.    Make it easy for people to learn more about you. One of the first things I usually do when I stumble across a new site is see who’s behind it. If there’s no “About Us” page or it’s sparsely populated, my interest plummets. I know the Internet allows anonymity, but it’s not a trust builder.
3.    Site search should be on every page. It’s a gateway into more of your content and allows the visitor a degree of control. It’s a win-win.

4.    Don’t leave people hanging. If you’ve just had them read an inspiring story, many visitors are going to wonder how they can do more. Have a strong call to action that fulfils this need. It made me nuts yesterday when I read a moving story on the New York Times about a family who had a child battling cancer and was struggling to find health insurance and there was no way listed to contact the family or contribute to help them out. I was able to send a message to the article’s author, but got an auto-reply stating that I may not receive a response. Bad New York Times, bad! If you’re going to be too busy to respond to feedback, don’t accept it at all or warn me beforehand. But don’t let me spend my time writing something and then tell me my message went straight to email purgatory. UPDATE 4/21/09New York Times national correspondent Kevin Sack wrote back and supplied the information I was looking for. Shaming of NYT is hereby retracted. Rule number 4 still stands.
5.    Don’t waste people’s time. See item #4.

You can make it as easy or as hard as possible for people to get what they want on your site. Consider carefully the ramifications of making it too hard. We may sit through a 10-photo slideshow that has each photo on a separate page so you can increase your click count, but waste too much of our time and it’s time for “Adieu.”

— Jonathan