Make Us Smart: Ian on Innovative User Interfaces

By Ian

With Apple’s recent success, a much higher premium has been put on design and user interface in consumer applications than ever before. In many cases, taking the idea behind old apps or old concepts, and putting a new spin on the design can drive huge success.
Companies like Nest ( are able to essentially do away with all controls do to some recent advances in machine learning. Simply through user input and temperature control they adjust the internal programming and schedule of the thermostat. There is no programming required, it just ‘magically’ responds to you will. Machine learning advances have made extremely dynamic and personalized UIs like this almost commonplace, at least with technology like Facebook’s EdgeRank. I would also put iRobot’s Roomba in a similar category.

The touchscreen UI of most modern cellphones and tablets really hasn’t been fully realized yet. Clear ( is a nice demo of the possibilities of an app without buttons (it relies entirely on gestures and text input). Swype for Android re-imagines how the keyboard would operate on a touch device. But there is so much more that can be down with touchscreens, like this:

Technologies like the Kinnect or OpenTLD ( are beginning a new wave of three-dimensional interaction. Along these lines, some undergrads at a recent hackathon made a spherical capacitive touch interface for their computer. Apple is rumored to be planning a future AppleTV, hinted at in Steve Jobs’ biography, that uses full three dimensional control via real-life gestures.

The final quick mention goes to Dropbox, for their amazing feat of essentially eliminating a UI entirely. You put stuff in the folder, it just magically syncs. And their folder works exactly the same as every other folder on your computer. The simplicity of how the user interacts with Dropbox is astounding, and as we move towards borader audiences for computer products (especially people like my mom, or my 3 year old nephew) a strong emphasis on UI can make an opportunity where is didn’t seem like there was one before.

Specialized Hardware (as a subset of innovative UI):
This doesn’t really fit as nicely, but I already wrote it up, and thought it was interesting, so I figured I’d include it anyways.

There is a growing consumer demand for far more specialized forms of hardware-software integration. Companies like ELaCarte ( are taking advantage of the lower cost of hardware to make digital menus. And Pebble, a $100 E-Watch, ( recently became the fastest growing Kickstarter project ever, and has become a new platform for app development. Computers and processing used to be slow and expensive, tot he point that every program had to go through your computer. With the iPhone, Apple began to push the boundaries of what kind of specialized devices could run their own operating system, and thus offer much more functionality than simple hardware alone. With Pebble, this ability to combine hardware and software is getting smaller and smaller. We are already starting to see touchscreens integrated with cars and even airplanes (if you haven’t flown Virgin yet, you really should). Where does it end? Who knows. But there are certainly still many places to expand, and many opportunities waiting to be capitalized on. I mean, my coffee cup doesn’t have a computer in it yet.

(I’m gonna park this E-Paper announcement here, just because it seems super futuristic and awesome and is technically hardware:

AAPL: a view from the top of the heap

A blog post that John passed along:

An excerpt:

I’ve compiled more than 10 years of operating data on the Mac maker, starting with the first quarter of fiscal 2002, the fiscal quarter when the iPod was launched — and I’m happy to share my findings with you, my Foolish reader. Let’s take an illustrative trip down memory lane and see the inner workings of Apple’s meteoric rise to become the largest company in the world over the past decade.

Final Assignment Instructions

Final Assignment – to be presented and turned in Thursday, 5/3

Many of our discussions have focused on the strengths and weaknesses of well-known companies like Facebook, Zynga, Amazon, Twitter, and Yelp. For the final assignment, you and your team will consider how you would take down a leader in the field of information-centered ventures. You’ll analyze the market, assess the competition, develop a the outline of a business model, and formulate a market entry strategy. Your deliverables:

  • A seven minute presentation to be delivered to the class with the elements above (Please e-mail your presentation to Paul before class and make sure to bring handouts of your slides – 4 to a page is fine.)
  • A five page paper in the style of a “memo to the board” that details your approach. Use 11 point type, one inch margins, and 1.5 spacing.

Two notes: Yelp is off limits given that we already spent a class session considering how to take on Yelp. If your group is short on inspiration, talk to us for help in coming up with a good target company.

Team Assignments

Team 1:

Ariel C, Andrew C, Brendan C and Travis Y

Team 2:

Ian D, Philipp G, and Lena Hoeck

Team 3:

Casey L, Kari M, and Thomas M

Team 4:

Prayag N, Angel R, and Darya S

Questioning Gamification, and some unintended consequences

Ian mentioned CowClicker today, and I highly recommend reading this article about Ian Bogost and his quest to make a point about the rise of social games of the Zynga variety:

An excerpt:

Remembering his cow-clicker idea, Bogost threw together a bare-bones Facebook game in three days. The rules were simple to the point of absurdity: There was a picture of a cow, which players were allowed to click once every six hours. Each time they did, they received one point, called a click. Players could invite as many as eight friends to join their “pasture”; whenever anyone within the pasture clicked their cow, they all received a click. A leaderboard tracked the game’s most prodigious clickers. Players could purchase in-game currency, called mooney, which they could use to buy more cows or circumvent the time restriction. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement—”I’m clicking a cow“—appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.

And that was pretty much it. That’s not a nutshell description of the game; that’s literally all there was to it. As a play experience, it was nothing more than a collection of cheap ruses, blatantly designed to get players to keep coming back, exploit their friends, and part with their money. “I didn’t set out to make it fun,” Bogost says. “Players were supposed to recognize that clicking a cow is a ridiculous thing to want to do.”

Bogost launched Cow Clicker during the NYU event in July 2010. Within weeks, it had achieved cult status among indie-game fans and social-game critics. Every “I’m clicking a cow” newsfeed update served as a badge of ironic protest. Players gleefully clicked cows to send a message to their FarmVille-loving friends or to identify themselves as members of the anti-Zynga underground. The game began attracting press on sites like TechCrunch and Slashdot.

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts  of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

“Make us smart” with smarchive and crowdfunding

My “make us smart” contribution for today is about a Munich-based company founded in 2010 that developed a cloud based archive where users can store all their paperwork.

You can either scan your documents or take a picture with your Smartphone and put them into your virtual folder in the cloud. The technology would actually label and sort the documents and store them for you. If you already receive your invoices per email or have some online access to your account, you can just forward it to a virtual mailbox that would then include those documents into your archive. It helps you keeping all your stuff in one central place.

Why is the archive actually smart?
The technology automatically reads out addresses and dates and more importantly reminds you of specific dates, e.g. when you have to cancel a subscription or a contract. Moreover, it reads out other data such as monthly spendings and gives you an overview of your total expenses.

As you can see on their website they are still in closed beta, slowly but surely adapting the product to the customer needs!
If you would like to participate in the beta, fell free to sign up on

Recently, they received a 100k € funding in crowdfunding. Within only 3 days they got 144 investors on board!

That’s why I actually want also to point out the concept of crowdfunding here. I think it is pretty interesting from the point of view that it gives you a lot of credibility and validation when you can get so many people to invest in you on an individual basis. Doesn’t that also confirm somehow that there are some people that are keen on getting the product out there?

Here are some crowdfunding opportunities for those of you who are interested:
Also watch the TEDx Event with Victoria Westcott: Crowdfunding 101

Feel free to comment on anything or raise questions on the product or the company!

“Make Us Smart” Post – Rapid Prototyping and User Testing in the Cloud

I am posting this blog entry as my “Make Us Smart” contribution to the class–the theme is centered around tools and techniques for rapid prototyping and remote user testing. These are tools that can help us minimize the total time around what Eric Ries refers to as the “Build-Measure-Learn” feedback loop.

My previous career in user research largely depended on client companies that conducted research in a slow, methodical, and expensive way.  The tools and techniques I will point to here are part of a growing lean UX movement that aims to speed up the process and reduce the cost of producing prototypes, getting feedback from real people, and measuring performance.  A good source for more information on the lean UX approach is

Rapid Prototyping

HotGloo is a powerful web-based wireframing tool that allows you to quickly mock-up interactive prototypes of your user interface and share them with others.  By providing you with a series of basic shapes and common controls, as well as the ability to upload your own images, HotGloo is capable of creating prototypes of varying fidelity–from sketchy to highly realistic.  And more importantly, as web-based applications become more like desktop software in their level of dynamic control and responsiveness, HotGloo offers a few key capabilities that can help you test these types of features in a prototype.  You can use the “Interactions” settings to add “click” / “over” / “out” behaviors to shapes so that they behave like buttons when the user rolls over them with the mouse, etc.  The “Viewstacks” feature allows you to create dynamic content areas within a page that can change based on different events or interactions.  And the “Observer” feature allows you to set different states of your site for different types of users, so users who are signed in can see things differently than guests or administrators, etc.  There is a series of great tutorial videos that take you through the different features here.

Remote User Testing

Steve Blank is famously quoted as telling startups to “get out of the building!”  As seemingly obvious as this recommendation seems, it’s something that we need to constantly remind ourselves as it’s easy for entrepreneurs to keep their heads down and focus on development without taking the time to show their work to real people.  If you’re too busy (or too socially awkward) to intercept people at Starbucks and offer them a free coffee in exchange for checking out your app, then remote user testing may be your best option.


Using a free or inexpensive online survey tool like Google Forms (link to survey templates), SurveyMonkey or QuestionPro, you can create a series of “screener” questions that ask people some basic information about their behavior and help you screen out those who would not be in the target market for your offering. So if your app is meant for people with iPhones who are comfortable doing mobile banking, then you will want to ask non-leading questions that determine whether someone has these qualities.  A good introduction to writing a screener questionairre can be found here.

You can send a link to this survey out to your e-mail contacts and social network, or post it on Craigslist, public forums, etc.  At the end of your survey you tell people that you may follow-up with them for an interview, ask if they would be willing to speak with you over the phone or via skype, and ask them to provide their contact information and availability. You can even post a link to the screener survey on Mechanical Turk, and with a little advanced planning in your survey design (technique explained here) you can get hundreds of responses from willing participants for only a few cents each.

Conducting the Interview:

Once you have screened and recruited some willing participants, you will want to individually invite them to join you in an online meeting tool with voice, webcam, and screen sharing capabilities such as Skype. Screen sharing allows you to watch them using your prototype, and the webcam lets you see their facial expressions and note their physical reaction to things.  And even if you do have the luxury of someone taking notes for you, you’ll probably want to use a tool to record the interviews so you can refer back to the video later to answer any questions that come up. Silverback is great for mac, and Camtasia works well for pc.  Just be sure to politely let the participant know if you’re recording the interview that it’s for note-taking purposes only and that you will not be posting it on YouTube or anything.   Hit record, share screen with the participant, and watch them interact with your prototype.  For more information on remote usability testing procedures check out this article from expert Nate Bolt.


Before the interview you will want to write a test plan for the tasks you want to bring the participant through, and decide on some key questions/metrics in advance that you will use to measure their performance.  These metrics could be observing the number of clicks it took for them to get to the right page, or getting their response to a 5-point likert scale judging their experience completing a particular task.  The point is to repeatedly collect these metrics with subsequent participants, and subsequent prototypes, to measure whether or not you are making progress. Another great way to demonstrate the “validated learning” that you are accomplishing is through the video recordings–make a montage of several participants completing a task before and after a redesign as a way of sharing your progress with stakeholders.

Besides getting the data that you need to track your progress, witnessing user behavior and feedback first hand is always the best way to build empathy for the customer among your team, and that’s something awesome that can’t be measured.

Automated User Testing

In addition to remote user testing, there are tools that will automate the process of showing users’ your site, by quickly showing them your homepage design and asking for their impression, or by taking them through a series of screens that form a task and asking them questions throughout the process.  Free services like UsabilityHub offer several different tests of this nature and will connect you with other users who are willing to give feedback to get it (most likely others who are testing their own apps).  These services will output some nice looking charts, including a heatmap of where users click, or a bar chart displaying the “drop-off rate” as users move through a task.

Unfortunately, while you may get some nice numbers out of the process, they are basically meaningless–without any context you have no idea why a participant clicked here instead of there, or why others continually abandoned the task after the third page.  Furthermore you have no idea who these people are, and whether or not they were putting any real effort into trying out your offering.  If you want to step up your automated testing so that you can get real video of demographically relevant people using your offering and answering your questions, you can try something like  However, you will basically be paying someone a considerable amount of money to do something that you could definitely do better yourself.  I say skip the world of automated testing altogether and get your hands dirty by (remotely) getting out of the building and talking to users on your own.  Or you can always go down to Starbucks. 🙂

60 Minutes on Groupon

I thought this was a relatively good interview featuring Andrew Mason of Groupon.

60 Minutes asks some good questions about where Groupon came from, what they’re doing, and how they’re going to stick around. Related to today’s discussion with regard to personalization of offers (do you need another spa treatment?).