Slingboards Lab

Achieve a sense of fulfillment

Building the product “right”

In this post, I am providing a progress status on the development of DayTickler.

As I wrote last June, the first version of DayTickler (the one that we will officially published in the app store) must be a lovable and marketable product.  Because we aim at validating if a product/market fit is obtained, we must avoid publishing a prototype.

A prototype is perfect to test for usability because it allows evaluating facts.  However, it fails miserably for evaluating usefulness. It is not the appropriate tool to validate the degree to which a product satisfies a strong market demand. As stated by Laura Klein in the article Building the right thing vs. building the thing right, “you can’t use a prototype to learn if you are building the right product.

The right product is a product that does what we imagined, but it is design so it has what customers really want and need in a form that is easy to use and atheistically pleasing. In order words, the right product is a product that is built “right” or at least “right enough”.

However, as Ron Jeffries wrote in 2014, “You can't build the right product if you can't build the product right.

prototype Therefore, in June and July, we continued to validate our design with prototypes. As always, we are learning to be humble. Obviously, some of our assumptions were wrong. We found serious problems with the user experience. At such a point that we spent the last month redesigning our application. The good news is that our recent prototype tests are conclusive. We are on the right track.

When will you have access to DayTickler in the app store? Not until November.  We must build the product "right" and to reach that goal we need to do more usability testing.

Success is all about structure

The nameless is the origin of Heaven and Earth, while naming is the origin of the myriad things.— Lao-Tzu

higher mindWe live in a complex world and one of our first challenge is to structure it so that it seems simple. Obviously, we will not be left to ourselves facing this major challenge. Early on, our parents will provide us with the foundations. Among other things, they will teach us a language and the meaning of words. We often forget that the simplest way to reduce complexity is to name things appropriately. A Chinese proverb says that the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.

Slingboards Lab is not the first company that I founded. In 1991, after completing my master's degree in management of technology from the Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, I founded a software company to market a drawing program for value engineering. Unfortunately, my company did not had the expected success. This is explained by the fact that my product, whose name was Fastdraw, found himself competing against the Visio drawing software. I had customers, but not enough for this to be very profitable. After a few years, I closed the business. Oddly enough, 24 years later, I still have an old client using my product. They still consider Fastdraw as a better option than Visio. Lately, they contacted me because they wanted me to program a modern version. I politely refused while freely providing them with the original source code.

FD-DialogA few days ago, I took a look and I was amazed by the structure of the sources. This program was a 16-bits Windows 3.1x app written in C ++ using the Borland C++ v4.0 IDE and OWL library. Each object has its own CPP and H files. The naming convention makes it easy to identify visual objects such as windows and dialogs.

For those too young, in early 90’s the filenames were limited to 8 characters (a MS-DOS constraint), here is why we find names like TOOLBARW instead of TOOLBARWIN.

FD-Windows

As you can see, already at the beginning of my career, I was from the school of those who believes that words have meaning and names have power. By setting up an appropriate structure such as the combination of words with a convention, you can reduce complexity and make your code easily understood even 24 years later. Success is all about structure.

A picture is worth a thousand words

A logo is a graphic mark, emblem, or symbol commonly used by commercial enterprises to aid and promote instant public recognition. This post explains the process by which we design the logo for our product DayTickler.

The adage "A picture is worth a thousand words" refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image. Logos are either purely graphic (symbols/icons) or are composed of the name of the product (a logotype or wordmark). Because the name of the software is always displayed alongside the logo, the smart phone ecosystem favors the use of a purely graphic logo (ideogram).

Logo and branding work together. A brand consists of many components that must all integrate into a seamless, functional whole. In a previous post, we explain why we chose the name DayTickler. We, humans are fond of remembering most of what we see; what we see somehow stays in our subconscious. The importance of logo in branding can be further simplified as:

  • Frontline Representation – A logo provides the software with an image and it should be able to convey the message clearly.
  • Memorizable – A simple and good looking logo will often be easier to remember than the name of a product.
  • Uniqueness – Don’t only make your logo look the best but also make it look unique and different because it’s the identity of your product which stakes its credibility.

CheckDuring our first drafts, we quickly opted for a check mark. We felt this was a good choice because this image convey a sense of fulfillment, which is the emotion that our software provides when used. Unfortunately, a check mark as a logo is far from unique. A quick glance through the major apps stores shows that almost all the “To-Do List” software uses this ideogram.

So we decided to improve the image of the check mark by adding a symbol of happiness. Here are some prototypes.

Logo-smile

Unfortunately, no image was satisfactory. None was emanating the seriousness required for a productivity software. After reflection, we decided to give up and go back to the fundamental.

A differentiator and unique elements of our product is that it allows to easily team up with your family and friends to achieve your todos. We decided to put this forward while keeping the sense of fulfillment.

Name Logo Here is the final result with which we are very satisfied.

Experiment with a new mobile OS every year

Herbert A. Simon (Nobel Prize - 1976) was interested in the role of knowledge in expertise. He was the first to say that becoming an expert required about 10 years of experience.  He and his colleagues estimated that expertise was the result of learning roughly 50,000 chunks of information.

Malcolm Gladwell highlighted this rule in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success. He states that men and women who have spent more than 10,000 hours to learn something end up being out of the ordinary in this area. In the same vein, regarding software development, Scott Hanselman recommend to ‘'read lots of code and lots of books, pick a language that fits your brain and helps you learn how to think, and when you do think, think about abstractions.

How do you become an expert in architecting mobile applications? Understanding of UX interaction patterns is a key learning for sure. You could read books (and you should) but do not underestimate first hand experiences with real devices. I firmly believe that, of the 50,000 chunks of information to acquire, the most important are the actual experiences with mobile OS. Every year you should experiment with a new mobile OS.

I used to change phones every 6 months. From the initial launch of the iPhone in 2007, I moved to IOS and I have been an enthusiastic user for many years. In 2013, having learned everything I needed to know about IOS and in a need for a phablet, I moved to Android. Last year, I wrote about my experience with a 7-inch tablet Android as a phone.

lumia1320Nine months ago, at the beginning of 2014,  I have migrated to Windows Phone. My current phone is a Nokia Lumia 1320. I am extremely pleased with this 6 inches device and I love the Windows operating system. I agree with Scott Hanselman Windows Phone 8.1 is now definitely as good as Android or IOS.

I would have kept this phone for a while longer, but, unfortunately,  I will changed for an iPhone 5 in the coming weeks. For the upcoming months, I will  thoroughly test the Personal Task Manager that we develop with IOS8. Since we expect that the vast majority of our customers will use IOS8, I want to ensure that the user experience will be perfect. In addition, this will allow me to experiment and update myself with the latest functionalities of IOS8.

So do not be surprised if you see me these days with an old iPhone 5. One day, I will be back with a Windows Phone.  In the meantime, my focus is the good of my product.

Usefulness come from what is not there

I read blogs not only to learn but mostly to aid reflection. On August 12th, on the blog of Jason Cohen, founder of WP Engine & Smart Bear Software, there was an interesting post: In its emptiness, there is the function of a startup.

Jason refers to “emptiness” as it is defined in Chapter 11 of the Chinese classic text Tao Te Ching. One could interpret the Tao Te Ching as a suite of variations on the "Powers of Nothingness". This predates, by half a millennium, the Buddhist Shunyata philosophy of "form is emptiness, emptiness is form". According to tradition, it was written around 6th century BC by the sage Laozi, a record-keeper at the Zhou dynasty court, by whose name the text is known in China. The text, along with the Zhuangzi, is a fundamental text for both philosophical and religious Taoism, and strongly influenced other schools, such as Legalism, Confucianism and Chinese Buddhism.

Here is my preferred English translation of chapter 11:

EMPTINESS
We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.

In other words, usefulness come from what is not there. Emptiness is the essential complement that create value. What I like about Jason post is that he wonders how to apply this learning in his own business startup. In summary, he concludes that what defines the startup and its purpose is not the products but, instead, it is the “values” — the inviolable constitution that create the startup’s culture.

I spent several days thinking back to this post. What I find intriguing is that we can apply the same learning when designing a software. In this particular case, if profit comes from the software features (what is there), what is the emptiness that generate real usefulness?

Here's my hypothesis.

I think software usefulness come from the navigation between screens. This is the invisible part that makes the software valuable. Unfortunately, this workflow is what is difficult to show, that is what is difficult to make explicit for users.

In recent years, one of the strategies was to put all the functionality within a single screen. In the end, I do not think this is an optimal solution. By removing the navigation we lose the ability to provide a mental context (a workflow) and, therefore we can hardly design simple screens with only one purpose.

The approach I advocate is to align the navigation between screens with the workflow expected by the user. Here is an example that I encountered this summer. For those of you who follow this blog, you know that in recent months we have repositioned our startup Slingboards Lab and that I am currently designing a personal task planner for mobile phones.

In regard with task planning, you might think, based on the list metaphor, a user wishes to make the following workflow with a task: Add, Edit and Delete. Rather, my research leads me to believe that the core workflow is the following: Prioritize, Commit and Achieve.

usefullness

Even if profit come from managing a list of tasks (Add, Edit, Delete), the real usefulness of a personal task planner is through the Prioritize, Commit and Achieve workflow.

Getting a sense of fulfillment

I just finished Windows 8.1 UX Design Jump Start online training on the Microsoft Virtual Academy. One of the major learning from this training is to focus on the "less is more" approach. This approach was adopted by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as a precept for minimalist design.

In the "less is more" approach, it is essential to establish the "Great at" statement.  This involves defining in one sentence what truly differentiates your software from the competition. Your product should focus on the scenarios and features that deliver on that greatness. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Hooked-How-to-Build-Habit-Forming-Products-220x222For several years, I thought that limiting scenarios and features to support the "Great at" statement was the main justification for creating this statement. A book that I read last spring has totally changed my understanding of what is a "Great at" statement. This book is Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

This book provides a fascinating process for creating products and technologies based on human psychology, persuasion, habits, needs, etc. It describes the techniques you can use to keep the users of your software coming back to it frequently. This book covers the psychological side of business, but does so for the modern tech entrepreneur and business owner, not for the modern psychologist.

When building a habit-forming product, start with the source of emotion then build the product around one habit that fulfill this emotion. Hooked is not only about making things into a habit, but it’s also about where to make things seamless, where to give a variable reward, and how to pull people back to your product through action triggers. I've never read a book that covers all of these subjects so well.

Cognitive psychologists define habits as, “automatic behaviors triggered by situational cues.” In this book, you will learn that building a habit consists of four parts: the trigger (make the user realize they must take action), the action (should be easy to achieve), a variable reward (keeps them coming back), and investment (leading people to engage and create value, which keeps them coming back).

After reading this book, I changed my approach to defining the "Great at" statement. Now, I start with the source of the emotion (eg, pain, joy, fear, etc.) - then I build the product around it (and not the other way around). I write the "Great at" statement from the point of view of the users, what they feel, and how the product will fill the emotional need they have.

In a previous post, I explained that the concrete measures and tasks presented in this book had greatly helped us during our last pivot. At the end of the pivoting process, after deciding to build a personal task planner, we developed the following "Great at" statement:

  • Our product is great at getting a sense of fulfillment.

Our goal is to reproduce the positive emotion that makes you happy when you get an achievement. Our personal task planner provides a sense of fulfillment when a user acknowledges, commits and achieves a task. The scenarios and features must support this emotion. This is the narrative frame of our product.

In closing, I highly recommend reading Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. It’s a fascinating book, well-written read, and honestly – if you have a startup it’s a requirement on your reading list.