Why so quiet on the blog?

Map and Compass by Hilltops and Coffeeshops

I apologize for the virtual silence on the blog in recent months. The reason is that two major projects and social engagements have taken up the majority of my time.

The first is that Joe and I are finally finishing Map and Compass, and it will release on our Noisetrade November 5th.  Follow us on Facebook or Tumblr, or download some of our music on Noisetrade to be notified the moment it’s released. We’ll be so pleased to deliver the product of months of hard work, and even close a chapter in our lives in some way.

Secondly, I’m working on some major updates to Stoneoakbuilders.com, my brother-in-law’s site. I’m excited for how things are turning out, and before too long the site will be fully mobile-optimized.

So that’s why there haven’t been posts recently. Once those two things are out the door, expect more regular posting to resume.

Thoughts on “One-Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com”

One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com

Most Americans who use the web have probably purchased something from Amazon.com.  It’s such a staple of e-commerce now that we don’t often stop to think about the days before it existed.  Listening to this audio book gave me some interesting insights into the business, and also into the “dot com” boom which, truthfully, happened while I was still in middle school.

The author spends a good deal of time talking about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself, particularly his incredible intellect and competitive personality.  I can’t say I find it surprising that such a man is behind such a successful company.  Nor was it surprising that the website started out small and grew exponentially.  But there were some facts that caught me almost completely off guard.

One interesting tidbit is that the choice to start out as an online book retailer was somewhat arbitrary.  I don’t mean “arbitrary” in the sense that it was random, but that Bezos didn’t have a particular passion for books compared to other goods he could have sold.  Instead, he used methods learned in business school to determine the best item to sell.  It just so happened that books were easy to ship, easy to procure through distributors, and lacked a frontrunner when it came to online retail.  By all accounts, his methods of determination were right on.  Over time the site has grown to offer many categories of products, but it all began in a garage with a proprietary database of information about books.

This next part may show my lack of business prowess, but another surprising fact to me is that the company did not turn a quarterly profit until 2002.  Since the company was founded in 1994, that means it endured eight years of operations funded solely by investments.  It is mind-boggling to me that a company could keep its doors open while losing vast sums of money for nearly a decade, even if revenues were growing exponentially.  The book goes into great detail about how many millions of dollars the company accrued in losses over the years before eventually making it into the black.  The most interesting part is that this was the plan all along.  Bezos decided to become the biggest, the only, name in online retailing, no matter the cost.  At that point, and at behest of the markets, he essentially flipped a switch and turned the company profitable.  It wasn’t that simple, of course, but revenues were so high and expenditures so wild that it was somewhat easy to find enough cuts to cause a net profit.

The sections detailing the culture of the company described a strange environment, in my opinion.  Yes, it was very much a gritty, start-up feel from the beginning.  The emphasis was always on making things as easy as possible for the customer, almost to the point of obsession.  With the rise of the dot-com bubble, employee perks matched the lavish level of the rest of Silicon Valley, though austerity crept in as investors began demanding results.  Some of these qualities persist even to the company’s colossal status today, though I can’t help but feel that Amazon may have lost some of its soul in its transition to multinational corporation.  It’s still greatly innovative today, though perhaps a bit out of touch compared to the early days recounted in the book.

In the end, it was a very enjoyable and informative read, much of which documented happenings I was unaware of due to my age.  But I am glad to have learned more about one of the largest successes of the dot-com boom since that era most certainly affects my life today as a technology professional.  I would recommend the book to anyone interested in technology trends, business, or entrepreneurship.  It is available via audio book on the Nashville Public Library site, and (of course) at Amazon.com.

The Process for Finding the Perfect Flight

As I’ll be doing more traveling (flying in particular) this year than the past few years combined, I have learned both the joys and anguish of searching for flights online. On the one hand, more information is available than ever, on the other… more information is available than ever. Particularly hard was the trip I am planning to Spain and the overwhelming permutations of travel arrangements available. So I would like to share what I’ve learned to hopefully help some others dig through the mountains of data and popups (yes – who knew they still existed?) to find the flight you’re looking for as painlessly as possible. Below is the process I devised, which assumes you know roughly the dates you will be traveling.

  • By far the coolest site I discovered was Hipmunk.com. I’m not usually a huge fan of sites with weird names and large, cartoonish graphics, but this site nailed it. Forgive the few UI quirks on the homepage and enter your information. The results screen that greets you is a beautiful untangling of departures and arrivals with rich sorting options (including “sort by: agony”). So much better than having to think to yourself, “Ok this one leaves at this time… but gets in at this time. And this other one leaves at this time…” Instead, it is laid out plainly where the shorter the line, the shorter the travel time.
    Hipmunk Screenshot
  • Once on this screen, you can easily determine which flights best fit into your schedule, which are the shortest, and which offer the best mix of all factors. This one thing alleviated the biggest frustration I found on most travel sites, and that is most of them don’t want to tell you what day your flight arrives if it spans days. Maybe it’s an oversight, but I can’t tell you how many times I had the perfect flight picked out only to realize it arrives at 7:35 PM on Sunday instead of Saturday. It’s probably not a problem unless you’re flying internationally, but that’s when everything takes much more forethought, isn’t it?
  • Once you have decided on a flight, it’s time to shop around. The prices on Hipmunk seemed comparable, but that’s the beauty of the multitude of travel sites. Competition = lower prices. So I will say that I found these sites to have the broadest choices.
  • They’re nothing earth-shattering, but there is certainly power in breadth of search. I noticed that different sites had different deals, and even those that claimed to aggregate didn’t always catch everything. So once you find the flight you want, look all over the place to find the lowest price. I will also note that some sites have checkboxes that allow you to “search other sites at the same time.” I don’t recommend checking those boxes unless you like being taken back to 1998 and the land of pop-ups, as that’s how they work across the board.
  • So find yours for the lowest price, buy, then fly!

At any rate, I hope this can save someone else some time. Let me know if you find better and less painful ways to see what flights are available and then find the cheapest one

The iPad for Consumers, Not Creators

I just read an article where the author claims that the forthcoming iPad could replace laptops. Link here. Though the reader can quickly see the author is a Mac fanboy, I was still interested in his bold statements. My initial reaction was, “This guy has lost his mind. Does he know what even cheap, humble laptops are capable of these days?” But as I read further, I realized where he was coming from.

I am most assuredly not a “Mac guy.” I don’t really see that changing in the near future for a multitude of reasons (the primary being I actually like to have some control as a user), but maybe Steve Jobs has keyed in on something in the culture that others haven’t: we are increasingly becoming consumers. For all the talk there is about “personal content creation” and “crowd-sourcing” things on the Internet, most people probably just want to get on there and consume. Videos, social networks, music, and anything else that can distract or entertain us is subject to the vacuums of our eyes and ears, for better or worse.

Anyone who produces anything on computers, however, would tell you that the tried and true keyboard and mouse (and possibly other peripherals for graphic artists) are infinitely easier to use than touch screens and software keyboards when it comes to making anything. Whether it’s a novel, code, short film, or something else, anything considered “content” simply cannot be easily created with such an interface (to say nothing of actual hardware capabilities). I would venture that more people than ever are creating on personal computers, but at the same time, it is edging toward becoming the primary device for “consumption” if it isn’t already.

So perhaps that’s why the iPad could be a “game changer” as the author asserts. Anything that makes it easier for the masses to consume without having to think about it (an Apple hallmark), will probably be a hit. Just don’t expect to use it to create anything.

Usability Opportunity #2

I’ve received numerous emails from my alma mater asking me to update my information for their alumni directory. Upon receiving the FINAL request, I decided to oblige, whereby I was directed to a portal from a third party who aggregates the information, and I met a form with this portion on it:

Notice the address fields: street address 1… street address 2… zip code? Have you ever seen it in that order anywhere else? I believe the convention goes something like [city], [state] [zip]. Putting them out of order will slow down any user, and particularly those who are just doing it to get it out of the way (such as myself). In this case, it appears as though they try to do some behind-the-scenes lookup on the zip code to pre-fill your city/state for you (next on the form). That’s a nice thought, but the change didn’t happen until I gave those fields focus. So I put in my current zip code and began typing “Nashville,” and then the “city” box filled as I typed, leaving me with something like “NasNashville.” One more thing to slow me down.

Anyway, that was just another thing I came across recently as a user. I don’t often catch myself thinking like a “typical user,” so it’s nice to have those moments and realize how frustrating bad design can be; it motivates me to work better on any user experiences myself, as I wouldn’t want anyone to leave DaveRamsey.com saying “I can’t believe they changed the order of the address fields. It was so weird,” or worse yet, “It didn’t take my address? I don’t have time for this. I’m outta here.”

Usability Opportunity #1

This post kicks off what will be a sporadic series of entries detailing situations I come across in real life which may be described as “usability opportunities.” I would describe them as “usability fails,” but I like to put a positive spin on it. There’s always room for improvement. They may or may not be technology-related, but a colleague at work has helped me to see the world in terms of usability and how, despite all our great advances in technology, it’s not always apparent how to make something easy to use. Without further adieu…

Usability Opportunity #1 – Parking Garage Entrapment

Last night some friends and I went downtown for a free art gallery crawl. As is often the case with downtown Nashville, reasonably-priced parking is hard to come by. We ended up parking in the garage under the courthouse for $3, and we were on our merry way. When we paid to park, we were given a ticket like the one pictured below.

Ticket

We had our fun then headed back to the parking garage. Upon attempting to leave, we saw that the guy in the booth was now gone. So how were we supposed to get out? Perhaps the gate would open if we got close enough? Nope. Is there somewhere to swipe the ticket we were given? No. Only a couple sensors obviously meant for waving a key fob. So we turned around and went to another exit, at which a sign informed us we needed to go back to the one with no attendant. Alright…

So we sat by the gate and waited for the guy to come back, figuring he’d have to open the gate for us from inside the little booth. Five minutes later we were contemplating trying to get into the booth and open the gate ourselves. We drove up into the lane next to the booth again to hatch our plot, at which point a friend said, “Hey there’s a call button on that thing.” So I pressed a couple times, and there was no response. Just as I was contemplating more or less breaking into the booth to free us from this horrendous trap caused by a parking garage attendant who had left his post, a security guard walked up from behind, apparently alerted by the call box.

“Having problems getting out? Did you put the ticket in the box?”

“Box?” I replied. He motioned to a container below and to the right of the fob sensors. “You mean the trash can?”

He kindly took the ticket and stuck it into a container much like the one pictured below in that it had no markings whatsoever, only a slot on top.

Ticket Box

Magically, the gate opened, and we were free to go. There were no signs instructing that’s what should be done. Not even an “insert ticket here” inconspicuously stuck on top of the repository which was below and to the right of all the other sensors obviously meant to trip the gate. I recommend to Metro government that if they’re going to have a completely non-sensical interface to activate the gate in their parking garage, they may at least have some text to tell people the steps to take to achieve their end goal: getting out of that creepy underground place. So, the next time you are stuck somewhere, try putting something in a trash can; you may be freed.

Free Music for Everyone?

By now it’s no secret that record labels are becoming unnecessary from the perspective of their traditional role of “discovering” musical acts and bringing them to the public. Who needs to pay someone a ton of money to do that when music is literally everywhere you turn? But what does this mean for the future of music in terms of production, distribution, marketing, discovery, and basically every aspect except for the actual creation and performance? Through basic supply and demand, fewer people are willing to pay for music, and certainly not the excessive fees which in prior decades have allowed music executives to drive around in Bentleys while their musical acts got pennies per album sale.

A friend alerted me to a new site with a new concept this past week. GimmieSound.com has a unique model that sounds incredible for all parties involved, but whether it proves to be viable or not is another matter. Essentially artists can put their songs up for download, and anyone can download them for free (provided they create an account at the site), and the artists (and a cause of their choice) get paid out of ad revenues for the site. Theoretically, this is brilliant. What better way to drive traffic to a site than to give away music? And what better way to raise ad revenues than a high flow of highly-targeted traffic?

I made a page for H & C here, and we’ve already had a number of downloads from total strangers (which truthfully is not something that has happened on our MySpace or iLike pages). This already seems to indicate it’s a good channel for listeners to find music with which they can connect. I couldn’t really care less about the twenty-five cents or whatever it is we end up getting per download, but I do think it’s pretty cool that Compassion International will also be getting something every time someone clicks to download, and hopefully people are finding music that points to a deeper truth.

I’m more intrigued to see how signed acts utilize the site. How cool would it be to be able to go on the release date of your favorite band’s album and legally get the whole thing for free knowing that money was going straight to them (and something they care about)? I’ve heard in numerous interviews from artists that music royalties really aren’t a significant portion of their income anymore; it’s almost all concert and merch sales. So it sounds to me like Gimmiesound is actually just cutting the administrative costs out of the picture and would only affect artist income positively. But I have to believe that recording contracts will prohibit this from happening, or at least take the vast majority of money that comes in.

So if you have some time, go check out Gimmiesound.com. I haven’t looked for many bigger-name acts on there yet, but it’s well-designed, easy to navigate, and the ads aren’t obtrusive or irritating – just a banner at the top and some text ads below the player, from what I’ve seen. So stumble across some new music you enjoy, get it for free, and still pay the creator.