A Rogues Gallery of Ad Formats

Ever wondered what on earth people were thinking when they came up with invasive ad formats that completely undermine the user experience on your favorite websites? Well, here it is in their own words. These are videos by a company that positions itself as an ad network and “digital advertising solution for brands.”

This 970×260 Rising Star Billboard “commands the user’s attention.” It “has a love it or leave it value exchange, allowing the user to minimize it if desired.”

The Rising Star Pushdown goes from a 970×90 teazer image to 415 pixels high on mouseover. “The web content is pushed down to allow space for the expanded advertisement”. It is “often selected for its rich functionality and elegant layout.”

When the user interacts with the Rising Star Slider, “the site content slides to the left as the large expanded ad unit slides in, unveiling a fully branded experience.”

The Rising Star Sidekick starts as a 300×250 unit. On mouseover “the expanded unit pushes page content left to reveal a 850×700 pixel canvas that is perfect for delivering the brand message.”

The Custom Leave Behind is placed behind the browser. “Targeting users who are finished browsing allows complete engagement with the creative.”

The people coming up with this stuff are not on a mission to destroy the web. They are earnestly working to improve their product, the goal of which is to take your attention away from a website’s content and put it on an ad unit. I just wonder whether they have any cognitive dissonance when they go home after work and visit their favorite websites. As the expanded unit pushes the content away, do they feel a prick of regret, or do they smile appreciatively at the fully branded experience that’s unveiled?

Hong Kong’s Orderly iPhone Frenzy

On 19 February, Chinese New Year’s day, Angie and I walked past the Apple store in Hong Kong’s IFC mall. It was just before 11AM (opening time) and we saw a few hundred people lining up outside the store.

We assumed that there must be something special going on, so I approached an Apple store employee and asked what it was. No, she said, this was a typical day. People were lining up to buy the iPhone 6. She called it “in store reservation.” I think they use this language because on most days they run out of stock before everyone in the line gets a phone, and the unlucky people still in line get to reserve their phone of choice. Presumably they get to jump the queue the next day.

Inside, the line hugged the interior wall almost all the way around the store. By routing the line this way, the store could operate normally even as a couple of hundred people were lining up for iPhones.

The line inside the store is best observed from the outside. All of those people against the window below are hoping to get their new iPhone 6 today.

A few hours later we walked past the store again. There were now waiting areas on both sides of the store entrance. The one on the right fed into the store and was throttled by a few redshirts1. When the waiting area on the right was empty, redshirts formed a human corridor to allow people to move from the waiting area on the left to the one on the right.

I talked to a second redshirt who confirmed that yes, they sold out their stock on most days, and yes, it has been like this since September. It struck me how upbeat and happy all the redshirts were. It’s clearly a lot of fun selling hotcakes.

Later that evening we happened to walk past the store a third time on the way to the Star Ferry. It was just after closing time and only the redshirts remained, busily preparing for the next day’s inevitable repeat of the most orderly frenzy I have ever seen.

Just think about that. Five months after launch the Apple Store in Hong Kong serves the kind of demand for the iPhone 6 that any other company would be thrilled to receive for a product on launch day. And they see this demand every day.

Here are a few related things about the iPhone in Hong Kong: First, you see smartphones in use all the time — more so than I notice in US cities. People are mostly messaging, playing games and watching streamed shows. A very large proportion of the phones you see have large screens (5″ and up). And you definitely see more Samsung phones than iPhones. But if the activity at the Apple Store is anything to go by, that’s not going to be the case for long.

  1. The Apple Store kind, not the Star Trek kind.

The Unprivilege Dimension

If we look at life as an optimization problem, what privilege does is to remove one or more dimensions from the space in which people must optimize in order to succeed.

The impact on people who don’t have the benefit of privilege is simple. They have a harder time solving life’s optimization problem.

As obvious as this seems, it is counterintuitive to people who are privileged. They are solving the optimization problem where privilege isn’t a variable. It doesn’t even exist.

It is like human beings trying to understand what it would be like to move around in a 4 dimensional physical space. Having never experienced 4 dimensions, we have no way to truly imagine it. We can conceptualize it using mathematical abstractions and figure out some of the properties of a 4 dimensional space. But this is hard and few people do it.

People who are privileged—particularly smart, successful people who have done a great job solving life’s optimization problem—also often have very strong convictions about the existence of a meritocracy. That’s because their lower dimensional reality is a meritocracy. The truth of their position is unassailable… in the space in which they are operating.

Let’s make a little model to solidify the analogy. First, let’s create a dimension for the absence of privilege. For convenience I will call it U for “unprivilege”. Privileged people are operating in an N-dimensional space where U doesn’t exist. People without the benefit of privilege are operating in an N+1 dimensional space that includes U. In this N+1 dimensional space, privileged people are operating on the N dimensional plane where U = 0.

Since people with privilege are making most of the decisions that determine the outcomes for others, most of the success in life happens where U = 0. Many of the obstacles that impede success exist where U ≠ 0, and therefore beyond the understanding of people with privilege.

In claiming that their company or industry is a meritocracy, for example, privileged people are pointing at an optimum in their N dimensional space and saying with sincerity, “Look, anyone can get here taking the same route as me!” They don’t see how hard it can be to navigate parts of the space where U ≠  0.

One of the things that breaks privileged folks out of their N dimensional thinking is ironically, but essentially, one of the things that is hard for them to understand: Negative tone. In their space, negative tone is not required in order to solve the optimization problem. So initially they will reject it as unnecessary and unproductive. But at some point, they will start to question why it exists at all. The simple explanation that all those people expressing themselves angrily are just unpleasant people won’t hold up. Like physicists struggling to explain the universe in 3 dimensions, they will realize that there must be dimensions beyond the ones that they currently conceive.

Then they will start to see the effects of privilege and start to conceptualize what it must be like to operate in a space with the extra (N+1)th dimension.

The Price of Personal Endorsement in Podcast Sponsor Reads

I love podcasts. I want podcasters to have a lucrative and sustainable business. I think sponsorship is a good business model. But I squirm in my seat a little when I hear sentences like the following during a podcast sponsor read:

  • “Company X are great people.”
  • “I used Product Y before they even sponsored us.”
  • “Company Z was kind enough to send me a sample.”
  • “We only accept sponsorships for things that we like.”

Sponsorships are not charity. For the companies doing them it is a business decision. They are not sending complimentary products out of kindness. They know that the sponsor read will carry more weight if the podcaster can relate a first hand experience. And they are not expecting or receiving an objective review during the sponsor read.

I completely understand that podcasters are grateful to their sponsors. After all, this income is what makes the podcast possible. But no matter how genuinely friendly the relationship between podcaster and sponsor, money is changing hands. This is a paid endorsement.

So here’s the thing: When a a podcaster reinforces a sponsor read with their own personal relationship with the sponsoring company, it erodes their credibility more, not less. Podcasters want to reassure us that their endorsement is honest, but what they do instead is to raise a question about their credibility.

I think podcasters sometimes start with the assumption that accepting the sponsorship is in itself an implicit endorsement. And given that, they take the only reasonable approach, which is to go all in and sell the endorsement. Explain it. Justify it. But I question that starting assumption. I don’t think sponsorship necessarily implies endorsement. Rather, the more professional distance between them and the sponsor, the better off they will be in the long run.

Uncomfortable Overlap

In February Campbell Soups started sponsoring Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. Do we take from this that Sherman loves Campbell Soups? No. The reason we watch him is that he’s going to shut down a wide receiver. He’s not presenting “This Week in Canned Goods.” Even if his sponsor was Nike and he was wearing Nike gear, we’re not listening to his advice on sporting goods. We’re watching him play the game. The thing he’s endorsing and the thing he is doing are related, but different.

Sponsorships on tech podcasts are more complicated in two important ways.

First, tech podcasters are in the business of expressing opinions with candor. When they inject personal endorsement into a sponsor read, they are sharing an opinion for money. This amplifies the potential for perceived conflict of interest a lot.

Second, because of the nature of the audience, there is a large overlap between kinds of products and services that are advertised and the topics of the show itself. Sponsor reads do not pretend to be balanced and perfectly objective, but when they include positive personal experiences they essentially become product reviews that espouse the benefits of something without mentioning its drawbacks. It is jarring when a podcaster switches from lambasting one product during the non-sponsored part of the show, to lauding a different product during the sponsor read a few minutes later.

And even if sponsor reads were studiously accurate reviews, podcasters would have to think beyond any real conflict of interest to the perceived conflict of interest.

Just Give Me Plausible Believability

Of course, the perception of conflict of interest wouldn’t be eliminated if the personal endorsement was absent. Even if sponsor reads were read from a script by a dispassionate electronic voice, there would still be the questions about coverage of a sponsoring company at some other, non-sponsored, point in the show.

But that would be ok with me. I’m perfectly happy to trust that there is a Chinese wall of sorts between the words in the sponsor read and the words during the rest of the show. It is completely plausible to believe that the podcaster maintains this wall, and I want to believe it.

The problem with the personal endorsement is that it takes away my ability to apply benefit of the doubt. It just isn’t plausible that the podcaster’s excitement for every single sponsored product is completely natural and not influenced by the payment they are receiving for saying those words.

Less Personal, More Personality

All else being equal, will advertisers pay less for a less personal endorsement? Or favor a podcast where the endorsements are more personal? I believe so. They know that often the most powerful endorsement is an organic one from someone people look up to, and they want the sponsor read to approximate this as closely as possible.

But there are alternatives to “personal” when it comes to making a compelling and powerful sponsor message. And they come from a place we should have expected: veterans of public radio who were early entrants into the podcasting market.

I was agonizing over an early draft of this post when I discovered Alex Blumberg’s new project, StartUp, a podcast documenting his journey as he starts his new podcasting company. It is gloriously meta, and as well executed as you would expect from someone who previously produced the award winning radio show and podcast, This American Life. What struck me in particular was Alex’s approach to sponsor reads. He mentions being transparent, and plays the same music in the background to every sponsor read to help listeners distinguish between the sponsor read and the rest of the show. He makes the reads interesting by doing them “documentary style”, including tiny interviews with sponsor employees and info about their products in the company’s own words. The sponsor reads are brimming with Alex’s personality, but have none of his personal endorsement for the things they promote.

Another great example is the hit podcast, Serial. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Serial is hosted by another veteran of This American Life, Sarah Koenig. The sponsor message sounds like the result of a producer going into the street, asking a bunch of people to read the sponsor message and splicing the result together for a funny and punchy message that has loads of personality. When Sarah does the read herself, the message is short and her delivery is dry, just like the sponsor messages you hear on public radio.

One of Serial’s advertisers is MailChimp, a company that has sponsored many tech podcasts at some point or another. So maybe other podcasters will follow this lead and put less “personal” and more “personality” into their sponsor reads.

Or perhaps this is unrealistic, and only podcasts with large audiences will have the luxury of forgoing personal endorsement. I hope not, because I don’t think the current approach is sustainable. Even a very slow credibility leak will eventually catch up with podcasters whose value is based on being critics, commentators and thought leaders.

Apple

Surely I’m not the only one seeing this in today’s Apple event.

Or is it just so obvious that it isn’t noteworthy?

The Role of Design

In a design centered company, some people spend more time thinking about design than others, but everyone takes the importance of design to heart. Not only the design of the product itself, but of every way that the company touches a customer’s life. They see the evidence of design in their work environment and in the way the company is managed. They make even the smallest decisions with the design of the customer experience in mind. The quality of the resulting experience drives sales of their products and the success of their company. In turn, the pride in this outcome reinforces their commitment to design.

Programming: The Uncareer

There has been a lot of public introspection by programmers recently. One fascinating thread was kicked off by Ed Finkler, who wrote “The Developer’s Dystopian Future”. This resonated with Marco Arment, and Matt Gemmel followed up both pieces with “Confessions of An Ex-Developer”. All three are accomplished developers and successful writers.

As a (cough) veteran programmer there are many feelings expressed by Ed, Marco and Matt that I recognize in myself. In particular, the fear of being left behind. I’ve been lucky enough to work on a wide variety of programming projects over the years. And whether it was specialized DSP engines for high speed image processing, simulations of neutron physics on UNIX workstations, apps on PCs, or experiences on the web, I never reached the point where I felt like I had completely mastered the science or the tools. There was always something new to learn, or someone else, somewhere in the world, who knew more than I did. As soon as I was getting close to mastery, the goalposts moved to some new technology or tool.

The more experience I had, the more I knew, and the more I knew that I didn’t know.

In 2002 I left hands on programming to get an MBA and then wield it in PowerPoint decks at Microsoft. For almost a decade I wasn’t a programmer. I managed teams that included developers, but I didn’t write a single line of shipping code.

At some point I started some after hours tinkering with the web and realized how much I missed the hands on experience of building something. Slowly it sucked me back in. By 2010 I had left Microsoft and was spending a lot of my time programming. Code is not all I do, but I do enough of it to call myself a programmer again.

This time round I still feel that same programmer angst, but with much less intensity. Yes, new tools and technologies are emerging every day, and yes, it is impossible to keep up with all of them. But here’s the thing I realized: you don’t need to. In fact, I think a large part of success is ignoring much of the cacophony about new new things, and focusing on the specific thing you are trying to achieve with the technology.

For evidence that you don’t need an encyclopedic knowledge of current programming technology to have impact, just look to some of the biggest programming success stories. In the early ’90s, in his early twenties, Marc Andreessen wrote the Mosaic web browser. In the early ’00s David Heinemeier Hansson created the Rails web framework. He was in his early twenties. At around the same time Matt Mullenweg released the first version of WordPress before he turned twenty. Mark Zuckerberg was about twenty when he founded Facebook in 2004.

I’m pretty sure that even as Marc, David, Matt and Mark were bringing these things into the world there were older developers somewhere talking about how hard it was to keep up with all the new developments in programming.

Hoodie Not Required

Many people see the success of young developers and draw the conclusion that youth is the essential ingredient. That a young mind, the absence of obligations, and the ability to spend every waking minute coding are prerequisites for success. This isn’t just the point of view of grumpy 30+ year old programmers like me, it is a pattern that has been embraced by prominent early stage investors. But like many patterns, it is one based on correlation, not causation.

The cause here has much more to do with the outdated expectations that programmers have about their career paths. The old model was that you focused on learning the basics in the beginning of your career and then over time transitioned to practicing your craft. Later in your career, your productivity and value lay in your experience.

But the days of earning some sort of tenure as a wise old programmer are gone. Whether you are 25 or 55, the playing field is pretty much level. Sure, older programmers have experience to draw on — inexperienced programmers sometimes look like cartoon characters with legs spinning wildly, but making no forward progress — but that knowledge based on experience is also a burden. It constrains your thinking, convincing you that things can’t be done. Young programmers don’t know what can’t be done. They just do it.

Programmer Half Full

Intellectual vocations with very little dependence on physical vitality are not new to modern civilization. What makes programming different is that the underlying practices and technologies are changing so fast that there is very little static foundation to speak of.

The reality, then, is that long term success as a programmer involves being focused on the task in front of you, but also aware of the changes taking place in your peripheral vision. You need the discipline to stay focused on being productive with your current toolset, often much longer than current vogue dictates. At the same time you need to have an open mind and sufficient awareness of new technologies to selectively and periodically start from scratch.

It is up to individuals to decide what this means for them. Do you enjoy reinventing yourself every few years? Are you comfortable in an environment where people 20 years younger than you are your technical peers? Is the idea of true, lifelong learning exciting, or is it exhausting? If not, then a lifetime spent programming is perhaps not for you.

The good news in all this is that you don’t need to spend a lifetime programming to be successful doing it. Take a decade off and do something else if you like. You can always return. If you do, it won’t take you long to get into the hot new programming language, framework and platform. Before long, you’ll know enough to change the world.

The UI Controls Pendulum

Earlier this month Brent Simmons wrote about the advantages of using standard instead of custom controls in Mac and iOS apps. He points to the cost of developing custom controls and questions their benefit. Standard controls, on the other hand, have features like accessibility built in.

This makes a lot of sense. Just take a look Marco Arment’s new podcast app to see standard controls in a beautiful, functional UI. But I wonder whether this isn’t a cyclical thing tied to the lifecycle of the OS user interface design.

The first iteration of Apple’s iOS user interface was in market for about 7 years before the major refresh that happened in iOS 7. There were design changes during the first 6 major versions, but they were relatively small and evolutionary. The platform owner, Apple in this case, won’t make these major changes often, partly because they are hard and costly, but mostly because they don’t want to undermine the familiarity of the design among their users.

Early in the life of a new UI design language there is pretty much only upside to using fresh and new standard controls in your app. In fact, in the really early stages of an OS design refresh the apps that use standard controls are distinctive and in the minority. People will seek them out to get the new hotness. And the halo of freshness might extend well beyond that. We’re 10 months into iOS and it still feels new.

Later in the life of an OS design language this balance starts to shift. Now almost every app, even very crappy ones, are using the standard controls. And using them well. The great app makers who used the standard controls effectively have been copied by everyone else.

Also, the design language no longer feels fresh. Rather, it feels old fashioned. Staid even.

So at some point in the cycle custom controls start to become valuable again. Apps that use them effectively will stand out and will be hard to copy. Consider the discussions about TweetBot’s famously custom UI, or the raving about Loren Brichter’s beautifully simple Letterpress design. In the latter half of the life of the original iOS design it became positively passé to rely on standard controls for your app.

Every app developer will design UI in the context of their own situation — their goals, budget, capabilities, and brand. Some will invest more than others in being unique. But wherever they are on the continuum, it would probably be good to also factor the OS lifecycle into design decisions.

Satya Nadella’s Email, Decoded

I was very excited when I read Satya Nadella’s recent public email message about his direction for Microsoft. I left the company in early 2010, frustrated with its direction. The email seemed to confirm what I had hoped about his appointment as CEO.

Then I saw Jean-Louis Gassée’s critique of the message and realized that I had read Satya’s words through Microsoft goggles. Having lived the internal corporate process that takes a few strong, simple ideas and makes them into thousands of words of compromised language, I had subconsciously decoded his message.

Here’s the way I interpreted Satya’s words. I’m not saying this is the email he could have or should have written. It is simply the words I heard as opposed to the ones he wrote.

In Apple the world has a company that is about simplicity. A company that in its DNA is about things that are beautiful and easy to use. But it also needs a company that is about productivity.

Microsoft is that company.

Our DNA is about getting things done and making products that help people to get things done. Sometimes those products are less beautiful and more complicated, but they do more. We do more. That’s who we are.

Our mistake in the past was thinking that we needed to shift our focus from businesses to consumers. And that we could make this shift with the same essential strategies as before, and by continuing to bet heavily on our client OS. This approach simultaneously took us away from our strengths and kept our thinking in the past.

Instead, we will do three things.

One, we will unapologetically focus on productivity. Of course this means business productivity, but it also means personal productivity. As people embrace mobile and cloud they will become more demanding and more sophisticated. They will be less afraid of the technology. They will want more. We will give them more.

Two, we will shift our platform priorities from the client OS to the cloud. Today the platform has exploded out of client devices and is in the cloud. That’s where the core of our platform effort will be. It will drive user experiences that are delightful on devices, but also across devices. The Windows and Windows Phone client OSs are important, but they are secondary to the platform we are creating in the cloud.

Three, our user experiences will start where most people use computing today: on their phone. All experiences are important, but mobile experiences are most important. Our thinking will be mobile-first.

We’ll need to make a lot of changes. Changes in our strategy, in our products and in our organization. Change is hard, but this change will be made easier by the fact that we’ll be returning to what we do best. And by the fact that in parts of Microsoft, like our Azure cloud platform, it has been underway for some time. Our changes will not sacrifice a current position of strength. They will take us to a position of greater strength.

Native Versus Web: A Moment In Time

Whenever I see punditry about web versus app, or worse, web versus mobile, I see a graph in my mind’s eye. It is inspired by disruption theory, but I’m not a deep student of Christensen’s work so please don’t read his implicit support into anything I’m writing here.

Skipping to the punchline, here’s that graph.

For those who don’t find it self-explanatory, here’s the TLDR;

Quality of UX Over Time

It starts with a simplistic graph of quality over time for app user experience on computers. Sometime in the early ’80s apps went mainstream in the sense that many consumers were using and purchasing them.

The exact date really isn’t important. The point is that apps exceeded a certain threshold in quality when they became “good enough” for mass adoption. An exact definition of “quality” also isn’t important, but it would encompass all aspects of the user experience in a very broad sense. That is, not only ease of use in the user interface, but also things like installation and interoperation with hardware and other software.

To further state the obvious:

  • This curve is conceptual, not based on accurate measurements of quality.
  • This is an aggregate curve, but curves would be different for different classes of application.
  • “good enough” might not be constant, and is probably rising over time along with our expectations.

The Internet Arrives

At some point in the mid to late ‘90s the web was good enough for a lot of things and started inflating the first tech bubble as people switched to lower cost web apps. By the mid 2000’s, the web had all but destroyed the economy for consumer native apps on Windows. With the exceptions of hard core gaming, productivity software and professional apps, most new experiences were being delivered via web apps. Even in those areas, web based alternatives were starting to challenge the entrenched native app incumbents (e.g. Google Docs versus Microsoft Office).

iPhone and a New Set of Curves

In 2006 Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone and opened the door to mainstream mobile computing. Initially 3rd party apps could only be web based, but soon there was an SDK and native apps were possible. What followed was a remarkable explosion of innovation and consumption as the iPhone — and then Android — liberated our connected computing experiences from desktop and laptop PCs.

This is where things got interesting. The fundamentally different user experience offered by the opportunities (ubiquity, location) and limitations (size, network quality) of mobile devices meant that we had jumped to a new set of quality curves. And on these new curves we had regressed to a situation where the web wasn’t good enough and native apps were once again dominant.

Today native apps offer a far superior experience in most cases. There are some exceptions, like news, where the advantages of surfing from web page to web page reading hyperlinked articles outweighs the performance benefits of installing all the apps for your favorite news sites. But for the most part the native apps are better. Will this be true forever?

I think that’s a risky bet to make. It’s not a question of if, but rather when web apps will be good enough for most purposes on mobile devices. The words “good enough” are important here. Although my graph has web apps overtaking native apps at some point, maybe they don’t need to. It is possible that good enough, combined with cost savings driven by developing apps without platform imposed restrictions and without revenue share arrangements (e.g Apple’s 30% share of developer revenues), will be sufficient to send the mainstream back to web apps.

The red arrow I have added in this final graph represents the reason I think so many observers draw the wrong conclusions. Web apps went from unquestioned supremacy on PCs to second rate experiences on mobile devices. At the same time, good native apps on mobile devices catalyzed the explosion of the smart phone market. If you only look at a small piece of the elephant you can misinterpret what you see, and in this case people are misinterpreting this moment in time shift from web to mobile, or from web pages to apps, as unidirectional trends.

Web and native are just two different ways of building and distributing apps. They both have advantages and disadvantages. Right now, in the relatively early stages of the phone as computing device, the web isn’t a good enough platform to deliver most mobile experiences. Web apps on phones are jerky and slow and encumbered by browser chrome that was inherited from the desktop. They don’t have good access to local hardware resources. But the trajectory is clear — things are improving rapidly in all these areas.

The Web is Independence

All of the above is predicated on the assumption that a distinction between web and native apps will still make sense in the future. Perhaps the future proof way to look at this is to view “native” as a proxy for experiences that are delivered via a platform owner acting as gatekeeper, and the “web” as a proxy for experiences that are delivered to consumers across platforms, with seamless interconnectivity, and unencumbered by the restrictions put in place by platform owners.

Put differently, the web represents independence from platform owners. It offers incredible freedom to build what you to want build, and to ship when you are ready to ship, without any gatekeepers. While I love my native apps today, I believe in the long term potential of this freedom. Other problems that native app stores solve today — and there are many, like discoverability, security and peace of mind — will be solved on the web in ways that won’t require a platform overlord.

By @xkcdComic, via @duppy: