Weeks 18-20: Innovation Economy, Debate Blunders and Creative Computing

Stanford GSB Sloan Study Notes, Week 8-10 (18-20), Autumn quarter

Not to worry, despite of the three week scope in title this is not a monster-length post. Between a lovely wedding, an unexpected funeral and Thanksgiving break in between my focus has temporarily shifted a bit away from school as this quarter concludes. Do enjoy the little there is to share below – and as special gift to reader A.M., yes there are more videos.

Marc & Bill

A notable off campus educational highlight  last week ago was an event at A16Z where  William Janeway (being interviewed by Marc Andreessen on the photo above) discussed his book Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Markets, Speculation and the State. Combining his 40 years in venture capital with a PhD in Economics, Bill has great insights into when, how and where governments should play any role financing tech innovation and where progress should be left for markets. And as a curious subtopic – the need for an occasional bubbles in the latter case.

Covered further in this issue:

  • How to avoid small groups polarizing towards extremes in debate
    • Kõrvalmärkusena Eesti lugejaile: jah, teadus teemal Reformierakond VS Väike Grupp!
  • Centralization VS distribution of control in global organizations
  • More history of Presidential candidates screwing up in public
  • Financial ratios and common size reports in accounting
  • Effective networking tips’n’tricks exchange with Sloan classmates
  • How computing changes human bodies and the definitions of creativity
  • How big internet players have changed hardware IP value chain

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Week 12: Discounting the Future, SEC Investigations and Visiting Founders

Stanford GSB Sloan Study Notes, Week 2, Autumn quarter

Covered in this issue:

  • Rational decision making. Why and by how much discount the future?
  • In search for a strategic fit – those sweet moments when stars actually align for a while. Resulting competitive advantage that holds due to the complexity of interdependencies. Cases: CapitalOne (data driven mass-personalisation) and Lincoln Electric (super productive manufacturing).
  • Real-Life Ethics: Guest Michael Marks on being bullied by huge OEMs while Flextronics CEO. And should a SEC-inestigated company throw an innocent CFO over board to settle? Role of the board in backing the CEO.
  • Guest selling their story: Smule co-founders Jeff Smith & Ge Wang. Andrew Mason of Groupon.
  • Peer-organized public company valuation training.
  • Analysis of a persuasive argument: 1 man turning 11 jurors around in the 12 Angry Men movie. The case of Silicon Valley’s most effective networker.
  • Cash flow reporting. And intangible assets, especially software.

And here on to the full notes: 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.

Estonian State Budget Visualized

Garage48.org guys had another one of their weekend hackathon events, returning to homely Estonia (after Helsinki and before Riga and Stockholm events – check them out) to focus more narrowly on building working apps that address some public service need.

There has been some fair coverage already, on the high quality output from the event (see the project list here) and some of the impediments the event revealed about things like government providing access to data freely for all kinds of app developers. (if you speak Estonian make sure to read Teller and Memokraat).

But more specifically I wanted to share a few thoughts on a special prize I got to hand out – for the state budget visualization app MeieRaha.eu (OurMoney in Estonian):


Why do I think it is important to visualize something seemingly as boring as a state budget?

First and foremost, it is definitely one set of data any country has to have that while touching every single person in a country is almost completely detached from any comprehension by those people. The reasons are multifold:

  • access to data – frequently checking some spreadsheet files on Ministry of Finance webpages as a pasttime, anyone?
  • volume of data – apparently the 2011 budget of relatively tiny Estonia is about 500 pages
  • bureaucratic structure and terminology – regular people have mental models derived from their own life (kids/health/work…) rather than government structure or department responsibilities (different ministries, state vs municipal, etc)
  • just too large numbers – a normal person can freely count money in the scale that they receive monthly on their own bank account, and maybe avoid major mistakes in the range of their annual income. (To argue for anything beyond look at consumer behavior before your average mortage crisis). For too many a million, 100 million or a billion blend together into abstract “a lot of money” that they are not able to grasp pragmatically, let alone have a comparative discussion around.

Understanding the dynamics of our budget, keeping it balanced, the relative scale and interconnections between income and expenditure items becomes double important before the elections (such as the ones we are in right now, to close this Sunday). Every party pays top dollar to put forward oversimplified promises in heavy pre-election advertising – but it is very hard for a voter to understand what the real cost (or alternative cost) of “free higher education for everyone”, “4-lane road from Tallinn to Riga”, “higher pensions for mothers” or rather silly “citizen salary for everyone” would be.

Taking the above thinking and some recent examples by New York Times Budget Puzzle or The Guardian’s Spending Review or Where Does My Money Go? (really, all worth checking out!), we were chatting with a few friends about a month ago on how to create something similar in Estonia before the March elections. As a citizen and technologist I am a huge supporter of anything that creates more transparency, better understanding, less populism and ultimately – more educated decisions in democracy. But as usual, everyone in that particular Skype chat though feeling very much the same played the always handy “I’m really busy this week” card and while at it I also added that if someone gets it done I’m happy to put some money in.

Though Garage48 events are never about the prospect of pay I was extremely glad that some people (namely Rene Lasseron, Tanel Kärp, Helena Rebane, Konstantin Tretjakov, Martin Grüner, Reigo Kinusar, Hegle Sarapuu, Henri Laupmaa – let me know if I’m missing someone!) came along with the idea and actually made it happen – and I got to keep my promise.

The site today works showing the actual approved 2011 budget for Republic of Estonia. You can fold items apart and together, resize the bubbles to see cross-dependencies, drag in comparison items (those gray bubbles on the bottom) and attempt to push the budget out of balance (the scales in the middle). Yes, there are a bunch of glitches here and there, but hey: what was the last piece of working software you delivered in a weekend?

On this baseline I hope at least part of the team will stick together and leverage some more organized support from research bodies like Praxis, one of the most prominent policy thinktanks around here (disclaimer: I happen to sit on the board there). There is a bunch of obvious improvements to prioritize and deliver now:

  • translations to Russian, English and other languages
  • automated and ordered data exchange with the government to manage updates (both budget changes inside a year as well as annual regular updates)
  • improved engine for budget item interdependencies, to answer questions on what could happen if unemployment rates change and thus the actual tax collection goes up or down inside a year
  • support for budget item “bundles”, for example to layer a number of budget item changes (like a certain party’s promises all together) on top of the baseline
  • figure out the social possibilities on top of this data – how do people want to customize, record and share their versions of budget changes created by a tool
  • tools for mainstream media to use this tool as a standard way to illustrate the impact of any ongoing public policy discussion
  • … — please do leave more ideas in the comments!


Skype 4.0 is smaller again

As promised in June, the second iteration of Skype 4.0 client is now available for download. If you got on to beta 1 and liked it or hated it, I highly recommend the upgrade to beta 2.

The past quarter has really passed fast. I’m amazed how much the 4.0 research, design, product and project management, development and quality assurance teams got through. Especially given that you have to work under timeline pressure while at the same time being called an ignorant moron (best case) on blogs, forums and random comments across the internet for creating the radically different Skype version you just released. Fortunately we also had plenty of quantified data and user testing around the world in lab environments to separate real issues from pure blind conservatism and hateful noise. Read more about the feedback stats from the official blog post.

That’s the risky transformation the software business seems to go through – applications with tens and hundreds of millions of users get launched in early beta stages, in feature incomplete iterations for feedback and mass-market testing. I am confident the better the end result will be. And if you look at beta 2, it really is powered by the feedback, (re)introducing such things as compact mode, grouping your contacts into categories, a totally revamped alerts and notifications system so you wouldn’t miss any incoming events and many more of the things you asked for.

One of the interesting ones in my circle of friends and colleagues has really been the compact mode. The loudest voices demanding Skype to take up less of their screen. Many happy campers once we enabled mode switching to give the poweruser more control of the screen estate. And funnily, a number of people who have now confessed that they’ve “sort of learned to like” the new one-window layout and really don’t want to go back…

Anyway, there is a new episode of the video series that has been taking world by the storm – Mike Explains Beta 2. In High Definition, of course:

Skype 4.0 Beta 2 for Windows
Uploaded by SkypeConversations

And there is a bunch of screenshots on Flickr. But better download the real thing and give us some more feedback.

See also: Skype 4.0 Beta 1, Beta 3

Skype 4.0 beta 1 is out!

Avatar: Skype 4.0 is here!

Yes, it has taken something like 2 years from first conceptual ideas being bounced around. I’ve been involved in Skype’s Desktop clients team since March and I have to tell you, approaching the first beta launch of our 4.0 client is one of the reasons for deafening silence on this blog. June especially has been very intense and I’m truly proud of what the hundreds of people involved have pulled off.

Please do read the official blog post, download the client and start giving feedback on things you like and things you don’t. This multi-stage beta program of a radical redesign is very special for Skype, so I promise you – feedback will be listened to and even slicker beta 2 will follow.

The high def video clips (briefing, intro demo and advanced demo) might also be worth your time to get a quick start on what’s happening. Or just think of them as your last chance to see Mike’s stellar on-screen performance for free. Next time you might have to stand in line and buy a ticket for the big screen. Of course, you can share these clips in your Skype mood message, also on 4.0.

As for myself, I’ve been using internal versions of the next generation client primarily for almost half a year now. I could not go back to versions before even though there are still a bunch of features yet to be implemented. Unified conversations bringing chat, file transfers, SMS and calls neatly together. Conversation management with proper unread message tracking for heavy traffic multichats. Large crisp video calls. Headsets and USB speakerphones getting managed as I need.

One thing that has been really painful for last months is that I could not share all this neatness with my friends yet. So, here you are now, enjoy. Hope you like it.

See also: Skype 4.0 Beta 2, Beta 3

Apple/Yahoo’s Flashback from 11th Century

Yahoo weather on iPhone: Tartu is still called Yuryev?!
This is an actual screenshot of an attempt to get a weather report for Tartu, Estonia on my iPhone, using the standard Weather app, powered by Yahoo data.
What’s the joke?
Yes, the city of Tartu used to be called Yuryev at some point. Namely between 1030 and 1061 when Prince of Kiev, Yaroslav I the Wise burnt down the wooden fortification dating back to 7th century and built his own.
Just checked, Yahoo! Weather on the web has the up-to-date name. So apparently it takes a tunnel through Apple to get medieval.

Surnult sündinud laps?

Avastasin üllatusega, et vastsündinud lapsele interneti vahendusel nime panemine on mõnevõrra kõrgema barjääriga tegevus kui loodus sellesama lapse saamisel ette seab.

Perekonnaseisuamet (nagu see maja seal Pärnu maanteel) on vist kohaliku tähtsusega asutus? Teen närvid kõvaks, et taas kord läbida tallinn.ee lootusetult haiget navigatsioonipuud. Sünni registreerimise lehel räägitakse paberist ja kohaleilmumisest, ei sobi. Täpsemat lugemist pakkuvalt Perekonnaseisuameti veebilehel on sisu sama meeleolukas nagu aadressikuju: http://www.tallinn.ee/g4253s505

[loe edasi…]

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Me-too Moments: iPhone

I just checked, it has been 14 months since my enthusiastic post on the iPhone announcement and a liminal devices rant. Operator locking pushed me back from actually getting an iPhone for over a year. Will I get thrown out of the true gadget geek directory now?

And now there I am, the last me-too kid on the block with the cool running shoes. Can’t help but share some comments. As the whole internet is full of reviews already, I’ll stick to just a few personal notes.

  • I was a bit afraid that the visual fancyness of the UI will get on my nerves. You know how the last thing you need is an animation when you need to place a quick call or send an SMS? iPhone is extremely well balanced between flashy effects and functionality. When a deleted e-mail folds itself into the trashcan or icons ready for rearrangement rattle on their spots, it feels very natural and intuitive. So do most of the input gestures, except for some isolated cases of double-tapping or tap-and-hold which I actually had to look up from new user guide.

  • How come it takes an Apple on a tiny gadget to be the first to do the mobile network connectivity right, with all those much more powerful pieces of hardware and software we carry around calling notebooks? Getting EDGE data going on a roaming network, discovering and setting up wifi hotspots and connecting over bluetooth to my car’s handsfree (with the best audio quality I’ve had in the car!) did not take a single setting or split second more than absolutely necessary. Instead of the half-hour efforts I’m used to from setting up any previous devices I’ve had.

  • Safari (and the fact that Mail relies on the same rendering engine) are the best mobile internet experience I’ve had, period. I have moved my personal GMail box reading over from my Blackberry (which I still keep for corporate e-mail and calendaring) if not for anything else then the joy of reading the Daily Dilbert strips again, as the java-based GMail client did not support even inline images. Google Reader looks so good on an iPhone as if it were a native local app.

  • That said, why on earth does iPhone Safari lack ultrabasic features like storing passwords for web pages you frequently visit or saving images from the web to the gigabytes of local storage available?

  • iPhone camera is utter crap. Just see an example of the noise it can store. And don’t even mention the low resolution and lack of auto-focus. This step back is truly painful after mo-blogging some 800 images from my trusty K800.

  • The screen, on the other hand, with its high DPI, colour depth and contrast is a modern piece of art.

  • The on-screen keyboard is no competition to physical keys, even in the most cluttered layout like on a BlackBerry. Forget one-handed usage while driving. Even when walking around the office, you have to stop and concentrate to reply a quick “ok” to an incoming SMS. Especially error-prone with my big thumbs, I terribly miss a way to jump back to any place in typed text when you see a mistake too late (there is only backspace!) and copy-paste functionality.

  • iTunes syncing works like a charm for all media involved, including contacts from Outlook. (Before you get there – if connecting to iTunes causes you a blue screen like my first experience was, blame Logitech webcam drivers.)

To summarize: iPhone brings a great all-around experience with occasional saddening surprises in some very basic features. The good news is that most of the room for improvement can be filled with software updates, and Apple has already released a number of those. The only truly broken part that would make you want to rather wait for the next-gen hardware version is the camera.

Virtuaalsest paberist Päevaleht

Saadeti mulle täna link Eesti Päevalehe uuele “virtuaalse paberlehe” sirvimise võimalusele.

Seni on vist vaid Äripäev jaganud paberlehe koopiat PDF-versioonina, aga lehetäie reklaamide pildid ajavad failid suureks ja läbilappamise aeglaseks.

Kiire, intuitiivne ja puhtalt veebibrauseris toimiv flash-aplikatsioon on suurepärane lahendus, lisaks elegantne teostus. Päevalehe paberlehe infoarhitektuur ja kujundus on mulle alati meeldinud, aga olen seda tegelikult näinud väga harva, kuna loen uudiseid peamisel internetist. Nüüd siis ilmselt sagedamini.