An App for That

Anniversaries are a cheap way of finding an excuse to talk about something.  Nonetheless, the 5-year anniversary of the iPhone is as good a time as any to talk about how mobile app design has evolved over the past five years.

The slogan, “there’s an app for that” is cliche today, almost quaint: for every task, an appropriate app.  Before the iPhone, one might have been tempted to say “there’s a google search for that” or “there’s an AOL keyword for that.”  But now: apps.  They are how we do things.

But not everything, of course…

Implicit in the “there’s an app for that” slogan is the idea that “that” is a single thing, an atomic task: reading the news, doing a crossword, booking a flight.  Whether designing an app for Android, iOS, or Windows Phone, the mantra has been the same: do one thing and do it well.

This laser-like focus has generally served app designers well. When the App Store launched, the conventional wisdom was that one should design for quick, easy-to-consume experiences that relied on a mobile user who might only be using one thumb, one eye, and a jacked-up AT&T Edge connection.  And so we designed fairly shallow, low-information-density apps.

Over the past five years, though, the constraints have slowly but inexorably changed.  We now have:

  • GPS standard in every phone
  • Fast mobile processors
  • Better, smarter back-end data services that can provide only the most relevant content
  • high-resolution screens
  • faster, more stable LTE connections (in some places, anyway)
  • More mobile use at home and in the office, where data connections and attention spans are pretty decent
  • a wider array of “mobile” devices, including large-screen tablets
  • more sophisticated users who better understand mobile conventions and gestures
  • authentication services like Facebook that allow for richer customization

All of this means re-thinking how we design apps.  Today’s apps can – and should – aim to do more than they did 5 years ago.  Functionality that we might have spread across two or three apps can now be consolidated in one. Apps can be more ambitious.

In the past, my advice to clients asking about app strategy has generally been to be super-specific and focused. But I might be starting to re-think that.  My 2013 resolution is to be more ambitious about these sorts of things.

Measuring Journalistic Success

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram on Andrew Sullivan’s decision to erect a paywall and start charing for content:

Despite his following, however, it is far from clear that Sullivan will be able to make the transition work — yet if he does, he could become the first real success story of the post-industrial journalism era. [emphasis added]

I have a problem with this quote.  I don’t mean to pick on Ingram, who I think is a good writer, but rather an overall trend I see when people write about paywalls. There’s an implicit assumption that financial solvency equals success.

The truth, I think, is more complicated.  One of the great things about the Internet when it comes to journalism is that it has explicitly decoupled financial renumeration from success. There are plenty of people blogging and writing for no money whatsoever, either because they think it will further their professional career or they just plain like having a venue in which to spout off (like me).

Even if we assume that being able to make a living as a writer/journalist is the end goal, then it’s far from clear that all financial models are created equal.  Presumably many writer/blogger/journalists are in the game to influence the debate.  They want to have an impact, have their ideas get out there and change the world. If that’s the case, then, an ad-supported model is clearly superior, all else being equal.  If you can make $100k/year from a member-supported site that reaches 10,000 readers or an ad-supported site that reaches 1,000,000 readers, doesn’t the latter have the potential to make a greater impact?

Of course, there are all sorts of caveats here.  For one, it may not actually be possible to make an equal amount of revenue. Ad-supported journalism online is a really hard game to play.  HuffPo does it better than most and they need millions of pageviews and lots of crappy content to make it pencil. Alternatively, those 10,000 readers could theoretically be incredibly influential policymakers and therefore have a lot more impact than a million schmucks like me reading your writing.  Finally, I don’t know the particulars of Sullivan’s paywall but I imagine it will have some porousness for allowing links from social media or other sources so as to maintain some broad appeal.

All of which is to say it’s not a clear cut case one way or the other.  So when we talk about “success” in journalism, there’s a lot more at work these days than whether you can pay the rent.

New Models for Arts Organizations

I’d been thinking about Michael Kaiser’s call for new models for arts organizations, and was happy to stumble across this post from playwright Gwydion Suilebhan on the subject.   His idea for a “New Model Theater,” a “platform” for artists, sounds a lot like the organization we originally intended when we founded Shunpike 12 years ago.

The point is: everything about the New Model Theater would be redesigned around a DIY approach. Its whole existence would be centered around helpingother people put on shows. The theater itself wouldn’t have an artistic identity. In fact, it would probably do best to keep its own identity as thoroughly submerged as possible, letting the artists come forward and become the face of the theater. After all, organizations don’t make art, artists do.

To elaborate on a comment I left at the bottom of the post, there’s a tension in such a business because businesses – especially small businesses – need to focus and specialize to be successful.  Shunpike toyed with the idea of being both a rental venue for artists and a consultancy on the business of art, but decided to focus on the latter.  In part this was because we identified the latter as a bigger need in Seattle at the time, and in part it was because we knew that a successful rental venue would have to focus on attracting renters from everywhere, and a successful consultancy would have to focus on consulting for anyone who asked.  There wasn’t an inherent synergy between the two lines of business.

But I want to return to the idea of a platform, because I think it has promise.  When I think of a technology platform, I think of Microsoft Windows or Apple’s iOS.  Former Microsoft employee Charlie Kindel describes the success of the Windows platform thusly:

In each of these cases, and other examples I’m sure you can come up with, there was a multi-sided market, and, at least for a while, a virtuous cycle existed because one vendor created a platform with the characteristics required to allow the sides of the market exchange value efficiently.

I think the example most people understand is Windows. The market sides were (are): Windows, Intel, OEMs (e.g. Compaq, DELL), IHVs (e.g. ATI, SoundBlaster), ISVs (e.g. Lotus, Adobe, Office), retailers & channel (e.g. Egghead), and of course, end users.

The ISVs of today are the app developers. For Windows to continue to be a platform that enables a virtuous cycle (and therefore to generate the historical profits it has in the past) there must be an efficient and natural exchange of value between app developers and the other sides of the market.

The phrase “efficient and natural exchange of value” nicely encapsulates the value that a platform can provide. Windows customers bough more software because they knew platform was likely to be around, hardware companies could standardize and lower prices, etc. Standardization creates efficiencies.

So how would you structure a platform in the arts so as to create a similarly virtuous cycle? A multi-sided arts market might include artists, administrators, funders, venues, and audiences.   You’d want to structure it so that audiences benefit from having guaranteed expectations of quality, artists are more productive and profitable, venues make more money, and funders get more impact for their buck.

So, to use theater as an example, a series of venues might open around the country that all feature the same size stage and lighting grid, and use the same ticketing system.  An artist could then easily tour a show from one to the next. Audiences who created an account on the platform could buy tickets and learn about upcoming shows.  Administrators would optimize their services around serving these audiences.

To take this even further, playwrights on the platform might agree to write shows with a certain number of actors and of a certain length. This would allow more streamlined casting and reliable revenues. Rehearsal hours could potentially be shortened, as actors who are on the platform begin to learn the platform’s plays.

So who would oversee such a platform? There are several options.  In the Windows/iOS model, the platform provider is a gatekeeper, deciding who’s in and out.  The venues themselves would be a natural fit for this role.  You could also imagine a more decentralized “open source” approach, like the Linux platform, or any number of approaches in between. Whomever it ends up being, the overseer would have to navigate thorny questions about how to restrict or open up the platform in a way that maximizes artistic creativity, efficiency and value creation for all the players.

Would we like the resulting art that would emerge from such a system? Or would we have created the Olive Garden of theater? These are interesting questions that merit further exploration.

The Five Companies You Meet in Technology

Nick Bilton’s article on Twitter CEO Dick Costolo:

Mr. McCue of Flipboard says Twitter and its C.E.O. are pushing the traditional limits of what it means to be a company that delivers media to people. It is neither a technology company nor a media company, he says.

“Twitter is an entirely new thing,” Mr. McCue says. “I like the fact that Twitter is unapologetic to that. Dick is the same way with his decisions.”

When something new comes on the scene, we often have a hard time classifying it.  You see this all the time with music.  Or TV: when “reality TV” first appeared a dozen or so years ago, we didn’t quite know what to make of it.  A couple of years ago, the Emmys started a “reality” category.  But what we call “reality” is really two distinct genres: prime-time game shows like Survivor, The Bachelor and Top Chef, where contestants win prizes (true, sometimes the “prize” is a husband, which is a little creepy), and trashy documentaries (Housewives, Jersey Shore, etc.).

There’s something similar afoot in “technology.”  With due respect to Mr. McCue of Flipboard, I’m fairly certain Twitter is a media company.  The way I see it, there are really only five types of companies that tend to get branded with the “technology” label. Or rather, there are five business models typically associated with technology.

  • Hardware companies, who sell people physical devices in exchange for money, like Apple, HP, and Dell.
  • Software companies, who sell bits.  Microsoft, Adobe, and Salesforce are all in this camp.  I’d argue even web companies like PayPal fall into this camp – PayPal business is selling its credit card processing software in exchange for a fee.
  • Media companies, who aggregate eyeballs and sell them to advertisers (Twitter, Google, Facebook, Yahoo!).
  • Marketplaces, like eBay, Amazon, and Craigslist, who facilitate the sale of goods, often in exchange for a fee.
  • And finally, consultants, like agencies and IT shops, who build software or service hardware in exchange for money.

Obviously some companies engage in more than one of the above lines of business.  The fact that Apple sells software or Google gives software away does not change the fundamentals of their business model.  LinkedIn sells both advertising and software (professional recruiter tools).  Calling them all “tech” companies illuminates very little.


Transforming the TV Industry as the 800-lb Gorilla

MG Siegler says of course Apple is talking to the TV content companies and of course they won’t be able to transform that industry overnight:

It seems that the shock of this news is more around the fact that Apple may not actually completely transform the industry overnight. No shit. You know what other industry they didn’t transform overnight? The mobile industry.

John Gruber links and comments:

Or the music industry for that matter. The iTunes Music Store wasn’t some all-new thing that obviated the existing music industry — it was built on top of the existing music industry.

All true. But two things are different now: Apple is the most valuable company in the world and Steve Jobs isn’t around to cajole the TV industry into playing by his terms. The latter is less important (although Jobs was a master salesman), but it’s easy to forget that back in 2003 the music industry was willing to take a chance on Apple because the iPod only worked if you had a Mac (!) and thus was limited in its potential impact.  As for the iPhone, clearly AT&T’s made a lot of money off it, but if you asked them to do it all over again and take the kind of terms that Apple’s offering (no cut of app sales, marginalized SMS fees, huge data usage and infrastructure costs), they’d probably ask to renegotiate.

Apple’s been so successful at redefining industries on their own terms that it’s no surprise the content companies are wary this time around. They’ll eventually give in, because they’re terrible at building compelling customer-facing digital experiences and Apple is fantastic at it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t spend some time trying to go it alone first.



Seattle and the Future of Retail

I saw this provocative post appear on my Twitter feed the day Starbucks announced a partnership with Square:

Seattle does seem to have an uncanny knack for producing best-in-class retailers, doesn’t it? Amazon, Costco, REI, Starbucks, Nordstrom.  All of these are dominant in their respective niches in one way or another.

Is it something in the water?  Is it just that we treat other people nicely, and this leads to successful retailing? Or, more likely, is it just our relative isolation from the rest of America that produces a DIY sensibility?

Designing Services

Service Blueprints

CP+B CEO Andrew Keller writes about the need for a “fundamentally different way to make a brand”:

We need a fundamentally different way to create a brand: the way it talks, behaves and thinks and the way to leverage ALL touch points–especially those beyond the obvious “social” touch points like TV. The opportunity is to build a brand that is relevant and explosive within the world’s new social contract and to socialize old media points, uncover/activate new touch points and bring it all together to create a system that connects people to a brand.

Keller’s argument boils down to a few key points, which are:

  • People experience a brand through certain touch points
  • These touch points are how the brand comes to be perceived
  • Conversations with customers means having good content for sharing social media (another touch point)
  • All touch points need to be designed in a way that reflects the brand

Put another way, it doesn’t matter how good Delta’s TV commercials are if they lose your bags or you get a rude flight attendant. The touch points are the brand.  Keller concludes:

So whatever you want to call it–marketing, advertising, Hollywood meets Silicon Valley, branding, inventing–it’s never been more exciting. But brands will need to be made ready for this world, this new social contract, and then activated.

There actually is a word for this idea: service design.  It means designing customer experiences wherever they occur.  It’s great to see Keller getting the memo.  The question is, can those of us in user experience design who’ve been doing this kind of work for years can convince our clients to help us tinker with their core operations in this way?  I hope so.

Making it Better

Jonathan Ive on Apple’s design process:

Q: What are your goals when setting out to build a new product?


A: Our goals are very simple – to design and make better products. If we can’t make something that is better, we won’t do it.


Q: Why has Apple’s competition struggled to do that?


A: That’s quite unusual, most of our competitors are interesting in doing something different, or want to appear new – I think those are completely the wrong goals. A product has to be genuinely better. This requires real discipline, and that’s what drives us – a sincere, genuine appetite to do something that is better. Committees just don’t work, and it’s not about price, schedule or a bizarre marketing goal to appear different – they are corporate goals with scant regard for people who use the product.


That’s actually a fairly radical statement if you think about it, one that’s at odds with how the company is viewed in the popular imagination.  People who don’t understand Apple tend to applaud the company for being new and different, but Ive says that “new” and “different” is specifically not what Apple’s about.  Apple’s about being better.  Better than whom? The implication is that someone else is doing something poorly already, and Apple’s poised to swoop in and improve upon it.

  • Apple didn’t invent the PC, they made it better.
  • Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, they made it better.
  • Apple didn’t invent the smartphone, they made it better.
  • Apple didn’t invent the tablet, they made it better.

Ironically, Apple’s critics get this better than many of its fans. The critics, though, mean it as an insult: “Microsoft invented tablets back in 2002!” “It’s all just marketing,” etc. But real success comes when you drill down to the essence of a product or an idea and make it better.  Why do you think Apple’s R&D budget is so small? They’re not wasting money inventing “the living room of tomorrow” or whatnot. They’re just taking the living room of today and removing all the stuff that sucks about it.

All of this makes sense if you view apple as a conservative company.  I don’t mean that in the American political sense.  I mean small-“c” conservative, in the sense of resisting change for change’s sake.  This manifests itself in various ways, from the giant cash hoard to the schmaltzy, throwback design style of iCal and Game Center to the 70s-era suburban mega campus.  Perhaps this originates with Steve Jobs’ back-to-the-farm hippie roots, or maybe it’s the hard-won knowledge that people can only process so much change at once.  Whatever the reason, Apple clearly values moving slowly when they enter new markets.  Better to come in later after everyone’s made all the mistakes.

Creativity and the Arts

Barry Hessenius examines whether it was worthwhile for the arts sector to re-brand itself as part of the “creative economy” to chase the Richard Florida gold rush:

So while the bigger tent provided by our embracing creativity has opened doors to us, given us additional ways to make the case for our value, and arguably even expanded the audience for our arguments, it hasn’t yet anyway turned out to be the magic bullet that is our savior.

I agree that simply rebranding the arts as part of the “creative economy” is not going to bring success.  The way that arts organizations join the creative economy is by actually joining the creative economy.  That means either (a) creating lots of high-paying jobs, or (b) serving as an amenity that attracts the sort of people who get high-paying jobs.

Arts orgs don’t do too badly at (a), but they’re certainly not the best at it.  A pure cost-benefit analysis would tell you that there are cheaper ways of creating high-paying jobs than subsidizing a large arts organization.

Where arts orgs can have the most impact is (b), creating the kind of city in which young, creative class types want to live.  But they won’t get there simply by re-staging the same repertory of plays, ballets, and symphonies of the past or by holding a thirty-something mixer event every now and then.  They need to fundamentally rethink their programming to attract this audience.  Simply re-labeling themselves to chase more funding isn’t enough.

The Rise of the Suburban Mega-Landlord

Note: a version of this post was originally published on Seattle Transit Blog.

Foreclosure by AKZO on Flickr

In The Rent is too Damn High, Matt Yglesias argues that single-family homes are typically owned, not rented, because the costs of managing the property make it inefficient to do so. And indeed, it’s cheaper to be a landlord for a multi-family building, since much of the infrastructure and common space is shared by multiple tenants.

Nonetheless, the wave of foreclosures in America over the last few years has led to a wave of investment companies scooping up distressed homes and turning them into rental properties:

With home prices down more than a third from their peak and the market swamped with foreclosures, large investors are salivating at the opportunity to buy perhaps thousands of homes at deep discounts and fill them with tenants. Nobody has ever tried this on such a large scale, and critics worry these new investors could face big challenges managing large portfolios of dispersed rental houses. Typically, landlords tend to be individuals or small firms that own just a handful of homes.

It’s possible that single-family housing has gotten so cheap – and other investment opportunities have gotten so scarce – that this new wave of investors will actually make a profit. It’s also possible that advances in technology, like the ability to remotely monitor houses or dispatch plumbers, have fundamentally changed the economics of landlording.

More interesting, though, is the question of how this new industry will make its mark on suburbia. Defenders of the home mortgage tax deduction often claim that homeowners are better stewards of their property and more invested in their community than renters. But surely large-scale landlords managing an investment portfolio have interests as well, and unlike single-family homeowners, they’ll be able to dedicate significant resources to lobbying.

Unlike suburban developers, who close the sale and are gone, suburban landlords will need to make money from their neighborhoods over time. They’ll also need to attract a different clientele than the typical urban renter, probably a family (multi-generational?) that can fill a 2600 sq ft house. Will they advocate for more density in the ‘burbs, so as to lower maintenance costs? Or perhaps less density, so as to keep rents high? More parks? Better schools? More highways?  If this new business model proves successful (and that’s a big if) it could fundamentally change the landscape (both political and actual) of suburban America.