Blog // We excel at listening to ourselves ramble on... and on...

Seth Clifford | August 2014

Apple selects its corporate partners very carefully. Like any company that’s been around for a while, those decisions haven’t all been great. But by and large, it calculates against brutally honest internal evaluations and creates relationships to build (or outright acquires) technologies or capabilities that it lacks.

The ability to do this effectively comes directly from understanding your own weaknesses and being able to recognize when your culture doesn’t mesh with the things you want to accomplish. In Apple’s case, the best recent example of this phenomenon is its partnership with IBM. Apple has been increasing support for enterprise technologies significantly over the past decade, especially on iOS, but there’s a fundamental disconnect between its core values as a company focused on consumer experience and what it’s willing to do for business customers–and what those customers have come to expect from large-scale vendors. By partnering with IBM, Apple gains the ability to further penetrate the enterprise hardware market without having to sacrifice the one-on-one Apple retail service for which it’s renowned. IBM does the dirty work of the on-the-ground relationship management and support, and Apple sells more of its hardware directly into those sales channels–something it couldn’t have done on its own.

Apple saw an avenue to increase sales, but wasn’t willing to lose the parts of itself that define what it would consider an “Apple experience”, so it found an ally to bear that weight. There are plenty of analogs to this in our own companies and experiences. In many cases, this involves identifying parts of your business that aren’t core competencies for your company. Sometimes this is an easy decision, but sometimes it’s also a painful revelation about the plans you made and the path you took. Sometimes it ends up costing money–a lot of money. But the price exacted on the company if you fail to be honest about what’s happening is always bound to be higher. The key is to always critically evaluate your weaknesses and find a way to mitigate them before they take a toll on your output, your culture, or your bottom line. If you can learn to self-examine effectively and make tough choices when they need to be made, the net effect is that the time you spend worrying about how to fix a problem is funneled into something more worthy of your time. Like doing better work, which will reward your effort (and please your customers) far more than suffering with problems you can’t solve.

Seth Clifford | August 2014

I had some thoughts over the weekend on the role of instruction in user interface design that spawned from some comments I noted throughout the days prior on social networks. The bottom line of the post is that people benefit from help. It’s not a free pass to design unintuitive and difficult software by simply tacking on a user manual. But the stigma of showing someone how to do something is simply disingenuous.

I won't retread the same arguments here again, but I will link to another post that I’d read a while back and was brought to my attention again today by a friend and fellow app developer. “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design” is a terrific look at the disparity between where we think UIs should go in our imaginations and where as human beings we *need* them to go. It’s a great post that brings to light so many seemingly obvious things that software development often overlooks.

We discussed this article and other similar topics at length a while back on this episode of Iterate. I encourage you to give both it and the above article some of your time. If you think at all about how real people interact with the data you present to them, it’s an interesting exercise.

Seth Clifford | June 2014

I'm fairly certain that prior to last Sunday, anyone interested in Apple software was excited to see what might be announced at the WWDC keynote, but was cautiously optimistic after last year's releases. While great achievements technically and aesthetically, iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks were not without their share of pain points, some of which were strongly pronounced and felt by developers.

I'm also fairly certain that no one expected what they actually received.

Apple's keynote presentation was one of the most electrifying, exciting, and enjoyable presentations the company has led in the past few years. The presenters knew that they had a killer show, and it was evident in their confidence and levity. There were so many announcements, so many new features, so many enhancements, updates, and changes that we could barely keep up as we watched. Slides that could have sustained large parts of past presentations were blasted by in mere seconds. It was an all-out assault on our expectations, and I didn't hear a single person complain. The changes to OS X and iOS were pleasant surprises that shined a new light on where Apple's focus lies: enhancing and connecting all the parts of its platform. There was no update on retail, no pie charts, and no boring demos from developers. It was non-stop, and it was all building on itself.

And then Apple sullied the inside of the Moscone Center's largest room with brain matter as they announced Swift, an entirely new programming language for apps, making developers' heads explode. I don't think (aside from Apple engineers who worked on it and company insiders) that a single other person saw this coming. There's been plenty of conversation in the community and on podcasts about where the company needs to go to keep moving forward, on the future of Objective-C, and on Apple's own limitations and shortcomings in being able to turn this massive ship and all its passengers against the sheer inertia and mounting technical debt it's been incurring. While many questions remain to be answered over the course of the summer and coming year, the general feeling that I gathered is that people are seriously excited and positive about what's to come.

As creators of software, there's certainly a lot to do. But it's the kind of stuff that takes you in new directions and allows for entirely new experiences. I'm more excited to see what's coming than I could have anticipated.

Let's get to work.

Seth Clifford | April 2014

I recently read a great article on Medium on how there's a prevalent attitude among many designers about working on Android. It's often viewed as a second-class citizen in the eyes of people who are used to, and comfortable with, the pixel-perfection of iOS. It made some terrific points around why the community should take it more seriously, all of which I won't summarize but instead I'll highlight one I found very salient: that the diversity of Android screen sizes and devices poses a positive challenge for those looking to expand their skills as opposed to it being a reason to avoid the platform.

For a very long time, iOS was favored as a design target due to its predictability and constraints. There was a logic to designing for it, and it made sense. Pixel for pixel, you knew where you stood. And when Retina displays deepened the density of those pixels, there was an adjustment, but visual style went through the roof with the clarity it afforded. But for Android, where device targets were widely scattered across innumerable combinations of screens and technologies, it wasn't so clear.

Fragmentation is of course the bête noire of Android design, and is certainly a challenge for designers and engineers alike. But the word itself reflects a subtle framing issue. It’s not hard to think of positive synonyms: fragmentation as choice; fragmentation as diversity.

As web designers have learned over the last few years, device diversity is natural, welcome, and manageable. Many responsive web design techniques — eg fluid layout, breakpoints, resolution independence — are essential principles of Android design. In fact, they’re handled in a more technically profound way on Android than the web.

Android design is indeed more difficult than iOS design in that it offers fewer constraints. But any skilled designer can handle that with a bit of effort. My uncharitable interpretation for this class of responses is simple laziness, and if Android forces designers to drop a pixel-perfect mentality and adopt approaches that suit a diverse world, then that’s no bad thing.

It's important to focus on the details and to get things as close to perfect as you can stand, but there's really something to be said for allowing yourself to adapt to a changing environment and grow in your thinking and approach to solving a problem. A lot of the designers here–myself included–have often bemoaned the aggravating aspects of taking our battle-hardened skill set on iOS and trying to make it work on Android. And I'm not talking about creating a platform-specific experience; we understood implicitly why that's important as the platform continued to grow, and the work that Google has done to make Android truly look great really shows around the OS. But the technicalities of design don't always translate and you really need to use new strategies to solve what feels like the same problem in a new way.

This can be super frustrating, but as the author points out, there's no harm in becoming a better designer by working harder to figure out how you want to achieve your vision. Giving up and making excuses based on your own willingness (or lack thereof) to commit to a new way of doing things is ultimately going to be a detrimental approach to your growth as an artist and professional.

The mobile space continues to blow me away with both its pace of innovation and the sheer saturation in the minds of almost everyone you come across. Never before has there been a consumer technology so universally adopted and positioned to change the way we live our lives. Seeing the growth of Android and iOS as well as the same applications extended to new devices like cars, televisions, and wearables, it's easy to plot this trend line. If you artificially hamstring yourself by only allowing yourself to grow in one dimension right now, you're going to have a lot of catching up to do.

Brian Niemiec | March 2014
Behind the Scenes

This being tax season, and as the CFO of Nickelfish, perhaps I should share some ground breaking new tax strategies involving offshore accounts, multi-layer tax shelters, and a deduction worksheet that is five pages long. Well, that's not going to happen–at least not here anyway. However, I would like to discuss how my role as a small business CFO creates a unique environment when dealing with our more seasoned tax professional.

I am not an accountant by trade. I have a Corporate Finance background and I took the CPA exams to help hone the knowledge necessary for this role. Our accountant, on the other hand, is a grizzled veteran of the annual tax battle; he knows the tax code inside and out, and he's never seen a Form 1040 that scares him. And herein lies the challenge. The CFO is not expected to know everything about taxes, and the accountant is not expected to know everything about how our business operates most efficiently and effectively. Working together to find a comfortable middle ground will ultimately yield the best results.

In a large business or corporation, there are entire tax departments and many employees working on the year-end financials. There’s the Comptroller, the Controller, Treasurer, A/P & A/R departments, all backed up by a slew of finance and tax professionals. The Accounting department will typically prepare the financials and the returns and hand them over to the CFO's office for final review and approval. It can be more or less a hands-off approach. In the small business world–or at least here at Nickelfish, however–there’s just me. Ok, here is where you picture Roland Deschain of Gilead, wandering through the dusty wastelands. The key to success at tax time is to play a leadership role in connecting Finance & Tax to the rest of the Nickelfish Executive team. And that’s why I rely on our accountant for sage advice, for tax wisdom, and for general accounting best practice acumen.

If I were to use a hands-off approach, it would simply be irresponsible. Just passing the year-end financial reports over and waiting for the return is not a prudent course of action. There needs to be meaningful dialog, rounds of feedback, and a deeper discussion surrounding certain items. There is a delicate balance, however. Diving into every single detail and hounding the accountant at every turn can be counter-productive and can overcomplicate the process. There needs to be a high level of trust at both ends. I need to be confident enough in our accountant's abilities and he needs to allow me to defend certain items, to challenge others, and to argue my position if need be.

I also find it important to push the accountant to think outside the box. Yes, I really just said that, but it works here. Searching for new deductions, hunting for possible credits, and asking probing questions are all ways I expect our accountant to leave the comfort zone of standard tax preparation. Tax time is just a compressed, nail-biting version of everyday business here at NF. We want to be timely, to minimize surprises, and to avoid scary situations. Like Stephen King said, "Nobody likes a clown at midnight."

Jeremy Mayes | March 2014
Philosophy, UX

Prior to joining Nickelfish as Director of Creative Services, I worked in the video game industry for 15 years. My purview was game design, art/animation, and front-end development. Why did I switch industries? There were many reasons, but the biggest was that I was looking for a change. I had enough tangential experience in product design, UX, and creative design that I didn’t think the transition would be too painful and, after almost a year at Nickelfish, I think I can safely say that this was accurate (for the most part).

The Biggest Difference
There are ton of differences between the “Games Industry” and the “Design Industry” that are probably immediately apparent to anyone who has worked in either. But if I had to nail down the biggest change for me personally, it would come down to what I consider the single most important factor for success in each industry: For games, you have to find the fun. For design, you have to understand each client’s industry, goals, and customers as if they were your own.

Allow me to elaborate. If you are building a game and your game isn’t fun, you aren’t going to succeed. Period. Making a fun game is way more difficult than it sounds which is why 98% of games in the app store are derivative. Finnish game developer Rovio launched 51 unmemorable games before Angry Birds, and almost all of their success thereafter is directly attributable to that IP and its sequels (which deviate little from the original game mechanics). Difficulty “finding the fun” is also the reason that big licenses are big business in games- having the Lego Movie logo stamped on the cover is a surefire way to help mask lackluster game design or lack of innovation.

So how is FarmVille such a successful game if fun is critical? Good question. Just because you (and, somehow, everybody else you know) hate the game and can’t understand why anybody would want to play it, let alone sink every penny of their social security check into it, that doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience. Which leads to an important point that is shared between the two industries at hand: You are not designing for yourself. You have to understand the end-user. You have to know who they are, what motivates them, what they like, what they’re looking for, what they understand, what their assumptions will be, how familiar they are with UX conventions, and, in the case of a rapidly declining Zynga, what level of tolerance they have for gimmicks/being taken advantage of/treated like numbers in a spreadsheet/pressured to ensnare their friends/called whales.

Which is More Challenging?
I used to think that designing a great game was harder than designing a great app, website, or other interactive experience. Now I look at it on the contrary. You can think of game design as a subset of overall interactive product design, with the particular use case of “fun.” Finding the fun is incredibly challenging to be sure, but not any more difficult than finding the exact right user experience for an army of salespeople who are using your iPad app to tell stories perfectly tailored to each of their prospects, or building a unique new reward system designed to bring merchants and their customers closer together (both projects we’ve worked on).

In fact, what I think makes the non-gaming variety of design even more challenging than the game variety is that, as a designer, you have to entrench yourself in an entirely new industry with each new client/project. You have to learn the ins and outs, the players and their customers, the competition, a brand new set of acronyms that accompany an odd new language, industry rules and regulations, and finally, the people you’ll be collaborating with every day. If you don’t do this, you will not build a successful product. Period.

Which is More Rewarding?
So I’ve switched from a discipline defined by an incredibly difficult challenge to one with an even more difficult challenge. Am I happy I changed things up a bit? Absolutely. There is nothing more rewarding than having such a large window into so many interesting companies and industries, being able to compare and contrast different methodologies used to succeed, and seeing the common ground they share. I have learned an absolute ton about interactive design in the past year, but that pales in comparison to what I’ve learned about industries I’ll likely never directly work in. There is little I can think of that would be more fulfilling.

Also, we have clients who are interested in games :-)

Justin Marcucci | March 2014
Philosophy

I recently took a closer look at an old personal credit card that we don’t really use that much. The bill is never more than about $20 or $30 a month, so I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it as most of the time as it consists of miscellaneous drug store purchases and that sort of thing. I happened to pull up the details of that month’s transactions and they showed a weird charge for $9.99 that I didn’t recognize. Curious, I did a little research on the company name and much to my utter amazement, it was the billing arm for a fantasy baseball website… that i haven’t used in ten years.

TEN YEARS.

I quickly started looking through all of my past bills and realized that every month, for ten years, this company has billed me $9.99 for a service that i haven’t used, changed, logged in to, stored data with, or visited — even briefly. Do the math… yikes. What an idiot I was for missing this charge for all this time. I corrected things right away.

Then I started thinking, what part in this ‘oversight’ does the business need to play? Are they accountable for honest business practices and audits of usage? Should they be? At what point did we, as online consumers, give up our rights to be fairly interacted with. Do companies that operate in only the digital space have less of a responsibility to operate equitably? Because it was a small dollar amount does that make it ok? What part of this company’s overall revenue is based on inactive accounts? SO MANY QUESTIONS!!

At Nickelfish, we have a bunch of ongoing monthly engagements where we bill clients a fixed monthly rate for services provided. If our clients stopped using those services, could we get away with still charging them that fee? No way, we’d have a set of furious clients demanding refunds… and they would be right to do so. We always strive to operate with the utmost integrity and even if a true oversight were to occur, we’d own up to it and make it right. But why?

Is that because the dollar amount is higher or because we are honest? Is it because it's a business to business transaction? Is it because we’ve met our clients, they’ve met us, and it’s become a human interaction as opposed to something anonymous? Who the hell knows, but I think it’s time that all online businesses grow a pair and start acting responsibly.

There will always be a cost and risk associated with doing business anonymously, but it has become such a huge part of commerce today that the status quo for digital transactions needs to change.

I believe it comes down to the decency of the folks running online businesses and their personal level of honesty. Do the right thing and operate your business with solid principles and genuine fairness. Doing so is a better long term business plan as the relationships you’ll create with consumers will in most cases be strong enough to fight off their urge to leave and chase a slightly better deal. Those relationships are what create long term success, not just short term gains, because frankly, not only will I never use the company that billed me for absolutely nothing for ten years, but I’ll go out of my way to encourage people to avoid using them as well.

Dave Vioreanu | February 2014
Philosophy

Every other year we are treated to a masterful performance of athleticism, known as the Olympic Games. For the vast majority of us who watch the games, the main focus is entertainment. But, what else can us 9-to-5-businessmen glean from the event, the host cities, and the olympians themselves? When you look past the medal-winning highlights broadcast in primetime, you’ll find a treasure trove of tidbits that will inspire you to better your career and professional tact.

Planning

Sure, we’ve all heard of the hiccups in Sochi, from less-than-perfect hotel rooms to unfinished roads and overly “public” restrooms. Let’s not let this overshadow the tremendous feats that were accomplished: the building of venues to host 98 different events, the assembly of over 2800 athletes from 88 nations, and the coordination of broadcasting the Games for us all to see, just to name a few.

Even the very first Olympic Games would not have been possible without extensive organization, and each iteration typically includes more events, more athletes and the demand for incorporating the latest technologies, social or otherwise. The current edition in Russia proves this to be true, and to realize it was all accomplished in 7 years is mind boggling. Think 7 years is a lifetime to plan anything? Try finding an empty field, lay down some dirt for an infield, set up a hot dog stand and find 18 baseball players from 5 neighboring towns to play for a few hours. Now, do all that in 7 days.

What it all boils down to is planning. It is very easy to jump head-first into building something with nothing but excitement and determination. With a little bit of forethought, you can minimize the roadblocks that may avert you from the path to success. Let planning be your first step, and you’ll find the extra time spent up front will recoup itself ten-fold through the course of completing your task.

Pride

One of the overwhelming feelings found throughout the Olympic Games is pride. The host city overflows with it as the ringmaster of the largest international sporting event. The athletes beam with it as they represent their country and show off the fruits of their hard work. And we, the bystanders, burst with pride as we see our nation’s flag rise at the medal ceremonies.

We should look to the examples set by hosts and Olympians as guides to our jobs. Like the athletes, when we take pride in what we do, we achieve better results. Achieving better results typically brings rewards, which means a better job that becomes easier and easier to take pride in. And take pride in the company you work for, not just for your own personal accomplishments.

Professionalism (aka, Sportsmanship)

Just like in business, even the Olympics has its share of cynics. But the level of professionalism–or in this case, sportsmanship–is at its peak during the Games. The athletes recognize the blood, sweat, and tears shed by those attending, having shed them themselves. There is mutual respect between participants, even when their ideals or approaches may not align.

Personally, I feel that the Olympians who epitomize good sportsmanship best are the snowboarders, particularly the women. It is clear that they are all friends before rivals, share in each others successes, and in the pain of a nasty spill. Above all, they recognize that working together to better the sport will prove more fruitful than a focus on self-promotion. And it is working; Snowboarding has become one of the most widely broadcast Olympic sports, showing its rapid rise in popularity.

Let’s use the two-and-a-half weeks of festivities as an opportunity to reflect on how we can better approach our careers. By planning more thoroughly, taking pride in every aspect of our job, and working hand-in-hand with coworkers to promote each other and our companies, we can find ourselves looking forward to our work, and reaping the benefits that will come.

Seth Clifford | February 2014
Philosophy

It’s no secret that as our culture continues to move along the path that it’s followed for the past two decades or so that our personal signal-to-noise ratios are trending in the wrong direction. Internet ubiquity, constant connectivity, and a sense of urgency around almost everything all slowly permeate our lives and unless we become cognizant of their influence, our interactions with others and the places in which we choose to focus change over time.

Being able to carefully identify and apply yourself to solving the right problems and answering the right questions is part of this challenge. In the past ten years, I’ve found myself in a leadership position within our company–a company that’s grown tremendously in that time–and that requires a different level of focus from me than my work in the past. I have different responsibilities, am involved in far more projects overall, and there’s a lot of administrative details that get added to the mix. Noise is higher, signal occasionally muddied in the process–it’s just naturally what happens when your role changes.

As such, I’m often asked to evaluate approaches, aid in decision-making, and support technical and user experience choices from our teams, and what I say and do in response needs to be reasoned and correctly applied to the problems we’re solving. Some of this comes down to having all the information you need to make a choice, but it also sometimes requires stepping back and realizing the superstructure around the specific issue you’re working on and how it all fits together. It requires changing focus.

Sometimes this is enlightening. Other times it shines light on a whole new set of questions or problems. But you always see things differently as a result, and that’s when you start to realize the value in the exercise. And sometimes you need to go in closer–to hyper-focus on some minute detail, just to get it right–because while it might not be the linchpin holding the entire project together, it’s that important. It comes down to where you apply your focus.

There is no end to the number of things calling our attention. When tackling a challenge, in order to make the right choices, we actively need to filter out everything that isn’t pertinent to that solution and make sure we’re asking the right questions. I’ve by no means mastered this, but it’s something I see as intrinsically important to what we do and the products we build. As technology users continue to become more sophisticated and aware of smaller details in both design and interaction, our attention and focus will be rewarded as it will have been spent in the pursuit of those elements.

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