Disconnect (product that protects our online privacy and speeds up internet browsing)

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Like most great products, services, and businesses that I am inspired to write about, Disconnect seems to share my philosophy that there is no detail too small when it comes to the user experience; and that this philosophy doesn’t stop at just the product design. User experience includes all stages of the product lifecycle, including support; and this is reflected in Disconnect’s payment / donation web page and experience.

What Disconnect does and why the company/product is interesting:

  • Disconnect is browser plug-in/extension available on Chrome that blocks the multitude of websites that are capturing your browsing activity on a given website.  These sites that are capturing your activity are advertisers, analytics, and social sites; and they are not only capturing your browsing data but this capturing of your data greatly affects your web browsing experience, which is what really bothers me.
  • It is pay-what-you-want software.  You can pay nothing or whatever you are able.
  • Send them an email with any feedback or concerns up to a year after you’ve paid them, and they will refund your money for any reason–even if they’ve already donated your money to charity.
  • You can pay with BitCoins
  • You can “pay/donate” for the software and make a separate donation to the “Charity of the month – as voted by Disconnect users”

 

The largest lost-and-found in the world

Tile.

Source: http://www.thetileapp.com

I just came across the Tiles and the Tile smartphone app product (watch video demo here), the product/company that will create the largest lost-and-found in the world.

Below, I’ve highlighted both why I think this is a noteworthy invention and app that we should all download, and two quick ideas for how the value proposition might be further extended.

 

What I really like about Tiles and the Tile app:

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  • App harnesses the power of mobile and sensor technologies to remember where it last “saw” a given tile.  I guess the app is remembering when and where it last was within a certain proximity of a given Tile.
  • App “surfs the crowd” to locate Tiles/items that have been reported as lost/stolen.   Much like the winning MIT team from the DARPA Network Challenge, Tiles and the Tile app harness the fundamental power of mobile technologies and the crowd.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tile app soon becomes a top-downloaded/used app of all time, demonstrating people’s comfort with trusting services that–in theory–could be used to infringe on one’s privacy when when the value they are receiving in return is large enough.  Working in the mobile technology field, I know that it is easy enough to design the system and tech such that all personally identifiable information is safeguarded, and so I predict Tiles will be a great success so long as the company (Reveal Labs) addresses customer privacy in an opaque and easy-to-understand manner.
  • Company makes it easy to recycle Tiles.  Since Tiles last one year and electronics are highly toxic to the environment, I like that the company reminds you when it’s time to order new Tiles and also sends you an envelope to recycle your old ones.

The ironic thing now is that Tiles and the Tile app (as a system for locating my most prized possessions) now make my smartphone an even more critical tool in my life, so what do I do to locate my lost/stolen smartphone and the tile I put on it?

 

Two ideas for further strengthening the value proposition:

1. Integration with police systems

Also, now that Tiles, the Tile app, and cloud can be used to locate stolen items, can a feature be built into the app that enables one share a live feed of a lost/stolen Tile/item location information with police? Or another feature that could enable the owner of a given Tile to request police assistance for retrieving an item at a specific location?

2. Sponsorship by insurance companies

If Tiles and the Tile system can be shown to reduce theft and/or increase recovery of stolen items, will insurance companies be willing to compensate customers who use them? Didn’t car insurance companies reduce premiums for customers who used LowJack?

P.S. The company is currently raising investment funds via Selfstarter, and expects to begin shipping Tiles to customers winter of 2013.  You can pre-order Tiles here (limited quantities).

What are insights and what role do they play in leading innovative changes in business?

I just finished reading a well-written and insightful paper about insights and the role they play in innovation consulting.  The author, Mark Payne, Fahrenheit 212 co-founder and President, seems to practice what he preaches.  The fundamental role of “commercial insights” he explains to be necessary for successful innovation consulting, for example, seem to have greatly influenced the design of his firm, the kinds of people they employ, and how they solve problems for clients.

Below are some of my favorite quotes and takeaways from this paper.

Quote:
“To innovators, great insights are springboards with tensile value.  Throw weight of your imagination upon them and they will forcefully propel you in new directions.”

Quote:
“…an energizing truth because yes, our reaction does matter.  Insight needs to inspire and ignite ideas and action among the people it touches.  Forget the lonely inventor in the garage.  Innovation is a team sport and great insights will electrify and galvanize teams around a sense of new possibility.”

Quote:
“Consume insight is absolutely critical and instrumental, but it isn’t enough to ensure an idea represents as big a step forward for the business as it does for the consumer.”

Takeaway:
I am an Introspector type of insight generator.
It was a tough call, because I think I generate insights in all three ways (Detective, Empathizer, Introspector), but if I had to pick just one, I think most of my insights come from personal experiences that I then seek to understand and validate with other people.

Quote:
“Outside-In means looking inward at company assets from the standpoint of the consumer’s tensions and emerging needs.  Inside-Out means looking out at the consumer from the perspective of the under leveraged assets and tensions embedded in the company.”

Quote:
“…it’s far easier to excite a consumer with creative, new transformational possibility than it is to get a company to embrace something it’s never done before.  Commercial insights hold the keys to winning over the company.”

Takeaway:
I would partially define insight to be about seeing what is already there, but that others have not seen.  Nature already is already providing all the information we need, but we have to connect the dots, analyze the information, look for patterns, and look for the explanatory variables.

Keepon dance robot video

When I watch the Keepon robot respond to the music, I feel like I could learn new dance moves from it; and I am really curious to learn what the design of the controlling software algorithms look like.  My Carnegie Mellon University robotics friends and classmates of the inventor tell me the algorithms are not terribly innovative, however, but I digress.  The technology is not why I am writing this post.

I am writing this post to share an exquisite piece of storytelling.  Not one word is ever spoken in the video, and yet the value proposition and technology’s capabilities, such as the little bit of artificial intelligence built into it to generate human like responses to some situations it encounters, are clearly and amuzingly communicated.

[youtube_video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWcNYFQ5TLE&w=560&h=315]

 

Will this technology replace 3D printing for design prototyping?

Maybe this technology could take a CADD file and quickly generate an interactive 3D model, which could be sent to colleagues over the internet!   …I think it offers a compelling sense for spatial aesthetics of a 3D product design, and then we wouldn’t have to wait for the 3D printer anymore.

A most inspiring story and definition of “design”

In his TedTalk, John Hockenberry, helps me understand why I so love design, feel passionately about it’s importance, and why I am so attracted to people–especially women–who have style…it is all about our intent.

Quotes from John’s Ted Talk:

“You’re right between horse and squirrel, John.”

“Design is, supplying intent.”

“Reality itself needed a designer.”

 

 

Takeaways in business and innovation from an internet icon

Marc Andreessen was recently recognized as a Wired Icon and pioneer of the internet.   Given his 20+ year history within the industry as an entrepreneur and now venture capitalist, his perspective has proven to be an insightful one; and so I read the transcript from his interview Chris Anderson.

At one point, Andreessen said something that I think is pretty powerful for innovators and business:

But making it [the internet] easier to use also made it more apparent how to use it, all the different things that people could do with it—which then made people want it more. And it’s also clear that we helped drive faster bandwidth: By creating the demand, we helped increase the supply.

This quote is dense.   It is a comment on multi-sided business models.   It is also a comment on the power of user-centered and service (since we cannot design experiences) design.

Another interesting strategic business lesson to learn came is Andreessen’s comment on why the LoudCloud business didn’t work:

Well, it worked beautifully right up to the point when all the startups went bankrupt, and then all our big clients decided they didn’t have to worry about competing with the startups anymore. After that, it went completely sideways.   ….

and the pivot:

So we just went back to basics and we said, OK, we couldn’t make it work as a service provider, but we think we can make it work as a software company, selling the back-end software to manage big networks of servers. We changed our name to Opsware. That ultimately worked, as a business.

On the importance of timing to market adoption and overall success of an innovative product/business:

Andreessen:  We see [social] playing out in retail, where ecommerce is becoming a group activity. Long before Ning, actually, in 1999, I invested in a company called Mobshop, which was Reed’s law applied to commerce, through group sales. It didn’t work back then. But 10 years later, I invested in Groupon, because I could see it was the same idea—finding, on the fly, a group of people who want the same product and using their massive numbers to command steep discounts. …

Anderson: What changed between 1999 and 2009 that made Groupon—and Facebook, and all these other profitable consumer Internet companies—possible?

Andreessen:A big part of it was broadband. Ironically, it was during the nuclear winter, from 2000 to 2005, that broadband happened. DSL got built out, cable modems got built out. So then you started to have 100, 200, 300 million people worldwide on broadband.

How society and culture changes influence success of innovations:

Andreessen: I often wonder if we should have built social into the browser from the start. The idea that you want to be connected with your friends, your social circle, the people you work with—we could have built that into Mosaic. But at the time, the culture on the Internet revolved around anonymity and pseudonyms.

On the power of optimism or the lack of cynicism, Andreessen comments that this is one of the reasons Zuckerberg and Andrew Mason were able to pursue their ideas (i.e. they weren’t burned by the previous dotcom bust).

On which industries are closest on the horizon to being improved by internet technologies:

Andreessen:  The next stops, I believe, are education, financial services, health care, and then ultimately government—the huge swaths of the economy that historically have not been addressable by technology, that haven’t been amenable to the entrance of Silicon Valley-style software companies. But increasingly I think they’re going to be.

On “software expressed as hardware”:

Andreessen:  … There’s a lot of hardware engineering that goes into it, but 90 percent of the intellectual property is software.  So we look at Lytro and we look at Jawbone and we see software expressed as hardware—highly specialized hardware that will be hard to clone.

Its not one big thing, but rather a lot of little things

Today, early Facebook employee and now Quora founder, Charlie Cheer, came to Tepper to talk to us about his entrepreneurial experiences in the web 2.0 space.  He said a lot of interesting things, but one thing in particular I thought was quite smart and different.   When asked how Quora competes with other question-and-answer websites, especially as a late entrant, he said that Quora’s competitive advantage–and I am paraphrasing–

It’s not one big thing, but rather a bunch of little things.

He then went on to give an example of one of these little things that Quora has done with the design of its product; and that’s when I started to believe in my theory that a web-based platform business can not only compete with but beet incumbents with better user-centered design.   This made me then wonder why might this be true?  Are these web-based platform businesses unique from other businesses in this way?  Could any other business enter a market and create better user experiences by simply out-designing the competition?

Fortunately, I had the chance to ask Charlie what his biggest challenge(s) was in running such a web-based platform as opposed to say, a web app that taps into a platform, and he said it was growing the number of users that use the platform.  This of course made sense, and so I wondered, if users are the lifeblood of the platform, and the entire user experience dictates whether users continue using, join, or stop using the platform, shouldn’t we expect these platform businesses, which sometimes depend on network effects, to consistently announce that their competitive advantage will be user experience and product/service design?

All businesses need to care about the experiences of their users/customers, but I think network effect-dependent businesses/products may be uniquely positioned to make a focus on user experience design a market entry strategy against a sea of incumbent players.    This may be especially true given customers/users have such low costs of switching to competing products.

Objectified [movie]

Objectified

For all my friends who aren’t too familiar with industrial design and the role it will play in our future, I recommend watching this movie called Objectified.   It is available on Netflix.

Some of my favorite highlights from the film are:

  • Japanese toothpick design that features a breakable tip that breaks off flat and that is intended to act as a rest to keep the toothpick off dirty surfaces, such as tables, so that you can reuse the toothpick without worry.
  • Practitioners of the Japanese craft of bonsai say that one should trim the tree in such a way to imagine that a small bird should be able to fly through the tree.
  • For all the time Apple spends on designing its devices, Apple spends a significant amount of time designing manufacturing processes.  For example, one critical component of the MacBook Air (a solid piece of aluminum into which multiple other pieces are bolted) required being physically held by a variety of different tooling machines; hence Apple had to figure out how to have its robot tooling machines hold the piece at different stages of its crafting, so that it could be produced in large scale operations.
  • An indicator should only be visible when indicating something, and it should therefor be hidden otherwise.
  • Design firm SmartDesign, designs for the extremes and lets the middle take care of itself.  That is, it designs for the most capable of experts and the most incapable of novices, because the firm believes that such as process yields designs that will naturally satisfy the needs to users that sit between these two extremes.  For example, when the firm designed the OXO brand of kitchen utensils, it designed them for use by people with arthritis and weak grips.
  • Hamster and hamster-ball directed Rumba vacuum; and the innovations that are made possible by opening up technology platforms for development by third parties.  This was an ingenious way to satisfy the random pattern of covering the room floor.

Hand-made stuff is cool.

Many people ask me why I like automatic watches, and it got me thinking…

Fine automatic watches do more than tell time.  Perhaps most important, fine watches enforce our belief in the idea that time is important, because it is the one thing none of us can buy more of.  Eventually, my time will run out and I will die.  Perhaps wearing and looking into the face of a watch that cost you significant amount of money and/or effort to own, reminds us to value our time the same way we value our money.

Another more subtle way in which fine and expensive watches are not a shallow symbol of success, is that they demonstrate an appreciation for the time and dedication of the person who designed and built the watch–paratially by hand.  Things created directly by human hands are inherently more special to me.  Like a fine pair of leather shoes, that began with harvesting leather from an animal, tanning, and then working into a shoe, a fine watch is such thing made special by the time and dedication required by man/woman who created it with his/her own hands.

The final other reason a fine watch is more than a shallow symbol of success, is that it can reflect the style of the individual wearing it.   All aspects of the watches’ design–price, materials, size, aesthetics, functionality (chronograph) digital vs. analog output, etc.–reflect personal style.   Why is style not shallow What makes us humans so interesting is our differences; and fundamental to these differences is our own individual “style”, which can be much more than just the clothes we wear–although, I think the way we assemble our clothes is an absolutely real expression of our unique personality.     Our individual “style” can be seen in the work we produce, how we speak, and how we think–all of which reflect nothing less than perhaps the most fundamental quality of the human experience: our values.

So, I leave you with but one example of a fine watch craftsmanship.  It is the first watch to feature a mechanical depth gauge, and is water-resistant to 300 meters: http://www.jaeger-lecoultre.com/eu/en/watches/diving/master-compressor-diving-pro-geographic-navy-seals