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


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


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:


  • 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).

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]


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

Amen to a tool that helps the user focus on the craft; not the end result!

The Holga.D is one of the best examples of thoughtful and beautiful ID work I have seen in a long time.  I love the concept of a digital camera that forces user to wait to products of their labor, like the old analog film cameras.  I think this will allow the user to enjoy, and focus on, more the photo-taking experience (trying to capture the images they are seeing in the real world) rather than worrying too much–in that instant–how the images look.   See picture below of camera rear, lacking an LCD display.   Amen to a tool that helps the user focus on the craft; not the end result!

The first digital camera without an LCD display:


A switch hitting camera?  …let’em bat lefty!


Learn more about this concept and its designer: http://www.saikatbiswas.com/web/Projects/Holga_D.htm

wooden electronics

So I’m keen on the recent trend of infusing real wood into the list of materials used in the design of electronics.   Partly, just because I like it, but also because I think the growing number of electronics that are being designed to include wood as a material reflects a growing desire to stay connected to the analog elements of our world (i.e. where things grow linearly over time, things moving slowly is ok and even feels right, and where uncertainty is embraced, and where the experience is about feeling and interpretation; not computation, nor exponential growth, nor optimization).   We cannot help but be drawn to mother nature; and the opportunities to feel connected to her in this digital age are growing slimmer  by the moment.    Headphones and other electronics built out of wood is evidence of this.  These designs are telling us that people have so little opportunity to engage with the analog mother-nature part of world, that we have to integrate this part of world into our digital experiences.

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Casa Santo Domingo (Antigua, Guatemala)

If you ever travel to Antigua, Guatemala (say for a destination wedding like I did), I highly recommend staying at the Casa Santo Domingo.  The converted 16th century convent, now luxury hotel, is a special place.   In January 2010, it was a Conde Nast Gold List Hotel (#681) – World’s Best Places To Stay, and #1 in Guatemala.   Thing seem in balance there.  Nothing moves too quick or too slow.  The centuries old architecture (from the monastery) blends in balanced form with modern accents and accommodations.  The rhythm of nature dominates that of fast-paced technology, making for a relaxing retreat inside the walled fortress-like compound of the hotel property.  Gardens, patios and balconies off every room, tropical plants that grow in the air drape walkways, and even macaw parrots are kept near the pool area.   Everything is kept in proper proportion to remind you just enough of where you are, which is very much still an ancient Spanish speaking village.

The food served at the hotel restaurant is also excellent.  Knowing we were staying in a country where tap water was not safe to drink, we all ate and drank confidently and happily the food and drink served by the resort restaurant.

Pricey, yes, but Casa Santa Domingo is worth well worth visiting if you travel to Guatemala.  If you are looking to get away from it all and just decompress, it may even be worth traveling to Guatemala just to stay at Casa Santa Domingo.    P.S. You would be mistaken to interpret the outdated design of the resort’s website to be reflective of anything more than it being a low priority of the resort.


One style of room at Casa Santa Domingo