Finding The Best Medium Class Stereo Amplifier

Apologies for the utter audio-gadget-geekiness of this post, but figured I have to share my notes. A Google search for “naim primare densen heed comparison” returned very little useful & recent material when I embarked on a search for a stereo amp recently. I hope the below somehow helps the next person trying.

Setting

For reasons beyond my control I was stuck at home for a few weeks in a state that allowed for little talk or work, but the more for light reading and writing and most of all – listening to music. While at it, I came to a conclusion that I’ve outgrown my good old Arcam AVR200, one of the most “musical” AV receivers in its class and at its time about 10 years ago. It’s the usual story of being too busy to sit down and just listen, and the limits of sleeping kids in the house set to the volume you used to operate on in college. My current setup has been quite fine for the quiet loungy backdrops for when you have some guests over, but just a bit too… bland when you really focus on it.

To make things even more complicated, my upgrade needs are somewhat “temporary” (as in those things that usually end up becoming permanent). After my awe over the sound of the Estelon speakers late last year (disclosure: followed by an investment into the company) it is only a question of time when I’ll make that upgrade step too, just not sure to which model yet. So for now I needed something to match my “temporary” Audes Maestro 145 floorstanders – a good price-performance bet any time, with capacity to fill the room (especially at the lower end), but definitely not the easiest to drive.

As a source I’ve effectively moved away from CD-s (played via Arcam DV88+ or even plain Sony BDP-S383) to Sonos ZP90 streaming either MP3 or ALAC files locally or live from Spotify or Rdio (when available). Everything is increasingly digital, with all the benefits and problems coming with it.

In this context, I set myself on quest to buy a good, musical stereo amp between 1000-2000 EUR, available in Estonia immediately for home audition or purchase.

Read the rest of this entry »


When Annoying Software is Great

A quite a commonly agreed measure of goodness of user experience design is that software should get out of the way from what the user wants to achieve. We praise the removal of clutter and friction, admire the software makers that are brave enough to remove features instead of adding them. There is even an ISO standard that tries to define usability via effectiveness (task completion), efficiency (tasks in time) and user satisfaction.

More than 30 years (an eternity!) have passed since the first word processor and email clients, but there are still new ones entering the market iterating further to remove “unnecessary obstacles” and to get out of the way from the user’s intent: to write stuff and send it away. (See: WriteRoom or Sparrow).

Almost every time I ask a stranger about what they like or dislike about Skype software, it goes something like this:

Well, I like how I simply click on my relative’s name and then just click the green button and then she appears on the entire screen and we can just talk for an hour. It is so cool, it feels like being in the same room! Last week I was talking to my grandma, who has been living in Australia for….

See what just happened there? From the second sentence in giving feedback on software, the software dissapeared. What remained was just the human experience, the long distance relationships and stories about people. The holy grail of great software: becoming invisible, transparent for the user.

Software that Wants to Get in Your Way

Now, on this backdrop, it seems that there still is a counter-current of software that does get in the way of the user intentionally. Note that I do not mean just badly designed software here or  some godawful legacy enterprise application built in COBOL and green-on-balck terminals, eating the productivity of whiteish-blue collar insurance clerks for breakfast, lunch and early dinner.

And generally, even technologically modern and well-designed corporate applications get some slack for getting in the way of their users. After all, every organization has the ways of working it wants it’s employees or partners to standardize on and behaviours it wants to bluntly enforce. It you need a certain doublechecking to happen for SOX compliance or your software development process requires every task to be estimated before entering a sprint backlog – it is probably one of the simplest and most effective ways to knowingly build a few obstacles, nags and annoyances into your enterprise software to enforce people to do the right thing. You know, a little extra checkbox here or mandatory form field there.

Where it gets interesting if  you look at consumer internet software and mobile apps that contain those obstacles in their user experience. There is no enterprise lock-in after an expensive purchase, there is no hierarchy with top-down pressure to use those apps, there are tons of cheap of free competitors to turn to instead. And still, for some weird reason, users love some apps that distract them on their purest way of doing something. In most cases – probably despite of the nags. But in a few elite winners – for the obstacles.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • (UPDATE) Twitter‘s notorious 140-character limit. From one side it is a limit derived from SMS (160char minus room for @username), but on the other hand there are no such external limits on messages transported over internet. SMS compatibility could have been addressed by other means, such as truncation and thus this global limit on messages was a design choice by Twitter that has influenced their DNA massively.
  • Path, a mobile photo sharing app which artificially limits max number of your contacts to 50. In the rat race between social networks for who gets to grow their users’  connection graphs the fastest, it was an eyebrow-raising move, but their users love them for the purity of sharing pictures with just their closest ones. And the pressure to think twice before accepting someone in.
  • GMail has a few tongue-in-cheek dialogues built in that, if you look from the UX purists’ point of way, get right smack in the way of doing the core thing people come to a mail client for, sending a message:

Call for Discussion

Firstly, I would love if you can think of additional examples and submit them in the comments!

For example, one immense area to think about is advertising inside web apps (not just content sites) and in mobile apps. Slapping a banner with animated penguins in front of the “OK” button user intended to press is bad for the experience. On the other hand, Google’s search users are known to confess that text ads often enhance their experience to find what they’re looking for. What makes advertising part of the experience?

Trying to generalize it seems that while a piece of software that in its entirety gets in a way of the user attempting to achieve their goals can not be considered a good user experience, carefully picking the moments to get in the way of the user on the feature level can actually be a good thing.

How to recognize the those moments? From the few examples above one might say that the motivation is to avoid something negative, to protect the user from acting silly (aka being human) – like confirming every incoming contact request as their “friend” to avoid insulting anyone. And it would be likely that there can be cases of positive motivation too – helping a user to achieve more than they expected.

What do you think?

UPDATE: Realized this could be a Quora question too and added it. So wherever you’d like to chip in.


Product Manage Your Blog

Andrew Chen is an entrepreneur and a blogger. He is one of the top minds in the industry for understanding and analyzing viral loops. After we met in that context in early 2010, I’ve been keeping an eye on his blog and reading some of his insightful essays from the archives.

Over the last few years since the raise of Twitter, blogging circles have been struggling. Significantly reduced friction of quick updates and link sharing have been taking many writers’ attention, time and dedication away from their previously regular blogs.

What I’ve found is that the perceived value of and expectations to a blog post have gone up. You can think of it as a hierarchy of “weight” when broadly & publicly communicating out, something in the lines of:

Re-tweet -> Tweet -> Facebook post (with comment action) -> Blog post -> A-list media

(Two side remarks here: 1) There branded list of particular communication services changes over time of course. For example Quora is currently entering this hierarchy aggressively, and far more right than Twitter/Facebook. 2) A-list media is on the end here not for its reach for broader audiences — you can actually do much better with blogging by reaching the right ones — but for their remaining editorial authority and the share of control you as an author have to hand over to them when submitting your work, i.e ou can’t change and improve later what’s “on paper”.)

Many people broadcasting online spend majority of their allocated time on the left of this scale now. You can (re)tweet 10 messages a minute and there is a lot of slack for the quality and integrity of what gets through. It is a cloud of ideas for the receivers to pick (and re-share) what they find valuable. The little time still remaining for the right side of the scale makes you pick meatier and meatier topics and weigh much more carefully what is worth the proper writing time. Have you noticed how the blog posts that matter move away from pure subjective opinion, improve in structure, display much more carefully gathered evidence, first hand experiences analyzed, research committed?

The heavy traffic on the left slowly fades to oblivion (hey, Memolane! :)) while the content you publish on the right remains more and more with you, to represent and define you. The conscious or subconscious pressure to take proper time and be great if you take time at all could be one of the reasons we see less blogging that we used to.

Texts define people. And the ones that remain on the first page of the Google results on your name search — ever more so.

Coming back to Andrew, he recently did two things that christallized my line of thought above and triggered me to write this post here:

  1. He surveyed his dedicated readers and found that a 2/3 landslide asked him to focus on high-quality long essays on a monthly interval given options for shorter and more frequent posts.
  2. He now published a full content roadmap for his 2011 blogging plans, focusing on the life challenges of early stage startups and clearly defining his goals and milestones for covering this area.

Especially I think the latter is a great idea – treat your personal content production as a product and manage it as such: define your audiences, pick the channels to market, consider the resources available, build a backlog of topics you will cover and keep that stack-ranked as life changes, iterate and see what works and what not.

Even doing it for yourself will help you structure your thoughts and manage time, which will lead to better content for your readers. By taking the next step and publishing these detailed plans, Andrew has of course achieved additional benefits: it is much easier for users to decide if they want to subscribe, and there is a high likelihood of early feedback to help him finetune his roadmap to match actual “market needs” and interest.

So all he has to do now is write, write, write for his alert audience. No pressure, Andrew.


PS: I’ve written two slightly related attempts to touch this topic in 2009:


Intervjuu Kolmeraudsele

Neljapäeva hilisõhtul, pärast kuidagi eriti pikaks veninud tööpäeva veetsin mõned tunnid telemajas. Seekordne TV3 Kolmeraudne oli üks veidramaid laiv-teleesinemisi nende 6-7 seas, mis mul elus ette on tulnud. Nimelt tabas Lasnamäed elektrikatkestus ja grimmitoa musta ekraaniga teleka eest tehti ohtraid telefonikõnesid, kus teemadeks genekad, UPSid, signaaliruutingud läbi Läti jne. Käigupealt muutus esinejate järjekord ja loobuti vaatajaküsimustest.

Aga Priit (@priitkoff) oli toimetanud päris head küsimused ja Mihkel (@mihkelraud) esitas neid endale omase intensiivsusega. Rääkisime e-riigist, IT-haridusest ja -ettevõtlusest ja õige pisut Skype’ist. Tulemus, kokku ca 19 minutit on näha siin: