Category Archives: Web Design

The Best Things in Life Aren’t Free, but They Are Simple & Fun

If you’re ever bored and desperate for something to kill time, ask my friend Hamud (www.twitter.com/hamudm) about his iPad, a surefire 2 hour conversation starter.  There’s something special about the man’s love for his tablet, and I get the feeling if you ever asked him to choose between setting fire to it, or his hockey gear, that’d he throw the match onto his hockey bag himself.

Why so smitten? Simple, because in his words, “it just works”. There’s no crashes, patches, codecs, or any other nonsense; you just turn it on, sit back, and let yourself be entertained. And what’s really funny about the whole thing is that he’s fulfilling his own prophecy about electronic gadgets. Believe it or not, before anyone had even heard of the iPad, Hamud was already seeing the signs of things to come.

The Age of “Good Enough”

3-4 years ago, during one of our weekly late night drives to hockey, Hamud and I got on the topic of the future of gaming. We’re both PS3 owners, and we love them as entertainment centres, but he felt like the real future of games lay in simpler, quicker, dirtier games, like the kind that came packed with cell phones; games like Brick Breaker, or Bejeweled. His point was simple – the games we play in the future will be portable, will be targeted to the casual gamer who’s looking for fun, and above all else they will simple in design.

He argued that the segment of gamers dying for bleeding edge graphics and sound were minute compared to the legions of bored commuters, travellers, or students killing time on their mobile devices. As long as the graphics and game play were “good enough” without being great, people would accept that trade-off for the fun they were having. Simply put, users want to have fun, and they want it now; there’s no room for complications.

Examples of Light Beating Might

Flash forward to today and we see examples all around us of simple, fun, user interfaces competing and often surpassing their more sophisticated competition.  The iPad (and its iOS) is one example from the world of hardware, but there are success stories elsewhere of this paradigm shift in action.

Call of Duty vs. Minecraft

One of the most highly anticipated video games of 2010 was the latest installment of Activision’s pride and joy, Call of Duty, Black Ops. A first person shooter set during the Cold War, months of anticipation driven by a multi-million dollar marketing campaign culminated in 5.6 million units being sold the first day it was released. And for good reason; the game looked absolutely beautiful:

The trouble is, there was a lot wrong with the game. Users found immediate problems with the prized multiplayer mode, and reports of frequent crashes and bugs poured in. In the end, users gave the game a distinctly lower grade than its predecessors, despite the hype and early sales.

Now, compare the story of Black Ops to that of Minecraft. This, is Minecraft:

That blocky pixellated jumble you’re looking at is one of the most buzzed about games of 2010. It’s hard to pin down Minecraft in a single sentence, but essentially it’s a building game centred on the creation and destruction of single blocks. Users have created vast worlds of giant buildings and elegant castles, all the while looking at graphics that look like something an original Nintendo would scoff at.

But, sales of the Beta just recently crested a million downloads; that’s right, the game isn’t even finished and over a million people have paid to play it. This success has flowered from nothing but word-of-mouth; there has been no traditional marketing, no PR campaigns, and no backing from any sort of publisher.

Its success is purely driven by its simplicity and fun. Anyone can figure out Minecraft in two minutes or less, and what you can build is almost limitless; they’ve basically created Lego for adults. It lives in your browser so it’s incredibly stable, and it’s so lightweight that even older machines can run it. PC Gamer was so impressed they put Minecraft on its cover, and a search on Youtube for Minecraft yeilds 730,000 results. You literally cannot buy that kind of exposure.

The trend toward simple and fun doesn’t just begin and end with gaming. Even something as pedestrian as a classified ads website can become legendary.

Kijiji vs. Craigslist

For a while it seemed like the battle between the incumbent Craigslist and the up-and-coming Kijiji would be epic; could Kijiji finally knock its elder competitor from it’s position as classifieds king?

To some American readers, Kijiji is already dead, replaced by eBay Classifieds, but in Canada is near-corpse is still trudging along; yes, the battle is over almost before it began, and Craigslist was the run away victor.

From any rational marketing perspective it makes no sense; Kijiji looked better, had (arguably) better functionality, had a healthy advertising budget, and was backed by old hands eBay. How could it possibly lose to a site that looks like it was designed in 1996? (Oh wait, it actually was designed in ’96).

I attribute Craigslist’s success to being simple, and fun. There is nothing difficult or complicated in posting to Craigslist – I’m confident the average grandmother could have it sorted it out in ten minutes. The site loads quickly, and there are rarely any problems with posting. And it’s fun too! Who hasn’t giggled over The Best of Craigslist? If you haven’t found it yourself, then I’ll bet someone you know has sent you a link or two.

The Value of Fun

There are plenty more examples of the “simple + fun = success” paradigm at work (Angry Birds comes to mind), but I think I’ve made my case; iPad sales alone should be enough proof that the “good enough” generation is here to stay. But I don’t think it’s enough to just make your product or service simple to use (like the iPad). I think going forward we’re going to see more and more businesses embrace the idea of adding fun to their strategy.

At lunch yesterday I was lucky enough to pick Teri Conrad’s (www.twitter.com/TLChome) brain about a variety of issues, and this very topic came up.  We both commented on how underrated fun is in the business world, and how it can be extremely effective in making your offering more engaging, memorable, and attractive. To paraphrase her, consumers are sick of dealing with corporations – they want to see the human side of brands.

Make your product/service simple so everyone can use it, then make it fun so that people enjoy using it. Not only will your product be more accessible to a larger demographic, but it will also put a human face on your company, somethine that’s critical in this age of social media.

There’s nothing more humanizing than fun:

2 Comments

Filed under Marketing, Web Design

The Goods on RockMelt – Is it The Future of Browsers?

When I find something good, be it a restaurant, video game, or movie, I like to let the world know. That’s why I wanted to spend a 1000 words on RockMelt, a web browser that I think is a step forward in functionality and connectivity.

Now, some readers of an, ahem, “older” persuasion might be wondering why I even care about what browser I’m using – I like to call this segment “Internet Explorer users”. The thing is, I’m loving living in the age of the browser wars. When I was growing up our only choices for browsing were Netscape, IE, or stone tablet, and to see all the choice we have now makes me absolutely giddy. A market that was dominated by essentially two competitors has opened up.

A Little Background

Before we dive into what I like (and don’t like) about RockMelt, I need to give a a little primer on the current state of the web browser market. As I said, a two horse race has developed into a legitimate competition, and I think it’s important to understand the other runners.

First and foremost we have the old standby – Internet Explorer. It’s been shipped pre-installed on every PC since the days of Commander Keen, so for many users it has been their defacto browser of choice. But, what IE has in ubiquity it lacks in firepower. For the past 2-3 years it has severely lagged behind the competition in speed, stability, functionality, and technology. As the internet standard has changed to HTML5 and CSS3, IE has been showing significant cracks in what it can do. The latest version (IE 9) is generating some buzz as a game changer, so perhaps the future is looking a little brighter for IE, but currently it’s starting to show its age.

If you’re at all familiar with the browser wars then you know what a big deal Mozilla’s Firefox has become. It’s an open-source, non-profit browser built to go toe-to-toe with IE. Its adoption has been huge, both on PC and Apple (finally, something they can agree on)  because from day one it outperformed IE and left the competition in the dust. Firefox is currently king of the browser hill, and for a long time it was my go-to browser.

That is, until Google Chrome entered the picture. Google never jumps into a market unless they think they have a product that can dominate, and so far Chrome seems to be a winner. Its speed is unrivaled, leaving competitors chugging along with loading screens while its users are already enjoying content. Its minimalist design put the focus on the web page, instead of big toolbars and search boxes (something IE 9 has worked into its new design). Plus, it has some personalization options like new skins that have proven very popular. When I help friends or relatives set up their computer, I always install Chrome because it’s simply the best option for most users.

So What’s RockMelt?

I’d been perfectly happy using Google Chrome for all my surfing needs, but one night while listening to the TechStuff podcast from Howstuffworks.com I learned about RockMelt, and I knew I needed to give it a try.

RockMelt is essentially Google Chrome with a whole lot of social media functionality layered in. It’s built right on top of Google’s opensource browser coding (Chromium), so there are a lot of familiar touches – the speed, the layout of the tabs, and the search functionality that I enjoy so much about Chrome are all right there in RockMelt.

What separates it from Google’s product is the social media aspect. When you use RockMelt, your browsing and social media experiences are intertwined; in fact, the first thing you do when you fire it up is sign into Facebook. As you can see from my screen shot below, there are two columns running down either side of the screen; one features some of my Facebook friend’s profile pics, and the other lists some of my social media accounts.

The lefthand column lets me control my Facebook chats. I don’t tend to use this feature very often, simply because I don’t chat very often, but it’s come in handy a few times. The right hand side I use everyday – it’s an instant connection to my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Clicking on any of the icons brings up the stream for that account – in the screen shot example I’ve opened my Wink Creative twitter feed. There I can read, write, reply, and retweet without ever visiting the Twitter website – everything is driven by the API right to Rockmelt.

It gets even better – I also get alerts when new Tweets or status updates enter my streams:

This keeps me in touch real-time with what’s happening, and it’s allowed me to combine the functionality of my browser with the convenience of my old Twitter client (Tweetdeck). I don’t have to keep Tweetdeck running in the background since RockMelt handles everything nicely.

Let me channel Ron Popeil here for moment – but wait! That’s not all!

There is an awesome “share” button right by the address bar that lets me instantly send whatever content I’m looking at to Twitter or Facebook. Just click the button, select the account, tailor my message, and boom, I’m done. No more copying links into Tweetdeck, I can do everything from RockMelt.

Essentially, RockMelt has really helped me become more productive; by centralizing my browsing and sharing tools, I’m much more likely to be involved with social media, and it takes up less time to do it.

But There is Area for Improvement

While life is great with RockMelt, there are still some things that need to get worked out.

Like any product in beta, there are a few bugs. I occasionally have trouble getting embedded videos to play. A few times I’ve had mysterious crashes. But these kinds of issues tend to get cleaned up before the product hits the public.

My bigger concerns are based around functionality, things like:

  • Making sure “recently closed tabs” are saved after browser crashes
  • Tweaking the “share” button to let users post to more than one account at a time
  • Getting rid of the 2nd Google search bar (everyone just uses the address bar anyway)
  • Allow custom skins for a little personalization

Is this the Future?

All in all, I’ve been really pleased with RockMelt, and if you’re a social media junkie like me, I think you’ll want to give it a try. I’m not one for sweeping proclamations, but in this case I think it’s fair – RockMelt represents that future of browsing. By combining the web and social media experiences, they’ve created a browser that’s more convenient and more fun to use.

RockMelt is currently in an invite-only beta, but I’ve got a few invites left if you’re interested – shoot me a DM on Twitter and we’ll sort something out; www.twitter.com/winktweets.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marketing, Social Media, Web Design

App-easing the Masses – Are Apps The Future of the Web?

I’m a heavy internet user, logging up to 6-8 hours a day connected somehow; between email, internet applications, mobile usage, general surfing and online video, I’m using the internet almost every waking minute of my working day. Right now I’m writing this blog on WordPress, listening to iTunes, with my iPhone beside me to read the emails and text messages that come in.

And I’m not alone.  The World Bank says that almost 75% of Canadians are connected to the internet. According to comScore the average Canadian spends 42 hours per month online, the highest average of any country on Earth. We’re also the #1 users of both Youtube and Wikipedia (per capita). To put it simply – Canadians, like me, love the internet.

So, as an Internet addict in the most connected country in the world, I think it gives me a vested interested when I see articles discussing the future of the web, and recently I read two which give opposing viewpoints as to where we’re headed. They both seek to answer a question that’s a little scary to a person of my generation, but it needs to be asked: is the web dying off?

The Future is What’s In Store

The folks at Wired certainly think so. In a high profile article published this past December, written by Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson, the prognosis for the web as we’ve come to know it is bleak. Oh sure the Internet will always be around, but the way we view content on the Internet is changing, and the world of Apps is taking over.

The centre of Anderson’s argument is that life spent in front of a browser is soon going to be a thing of the past as users move towards a simpler, more stable experience through apps. Users are willing to pay for a secure, easy-to-use interface as opposed to fumbling through the wild and woolly web. They’re rejecting the clumsy web browser for the simplicity of the app store, where the content you want is only a touch away.

You only need to take a quick look around you to see the change in action; the iPad and iPhone are huge forces in the consumer marketplace, Netflix is forcing video rental stores into bankruptcy, our reading is being done on Kindles & Kobos. More and more users are spending their time in closed, regulated systems instead of the web. These “walled gardens” as Anderson calls them are the future, and it’s a space our current browsers can’t penetrate.

App-rehensive about the Future

Not everyone is so quick to embrace our App-heavy future. At the end of January Peter-Paul Koch presented an alternative view on his site Quirksmode. He’s identified some major flaws in the logic of an app-driven future, mainly that it doesn’t consider the economics on the developer’s side. I’m not half the writer Peter-Paul is, but I’ll try to sum up his argument.

Essentially, he doesn’t deny that Apple’s App store has been tremendously successful, and will continue to do well in it’s own ecosystem. But, the model doesn’t translate well to other platforms. Blackberry, Microsoft, Nokia, and Android all pump up their independent app stores, but they’re not attracting the developers needed to produce products (apps). Developers don’t see the money in pouring time and effort in producing content on a closed system that doesn’t have a large audience; there’s just not enough money there.

His feeling is that the advent of HTML5 and all it’s expanded functionality  will give developers the tools they need to create interesting and engaging content on the open web, outside of the walled gardens. Plus, content will be easier to find since it will be located organically via Google, as opposed to relying on users to hunt though massive App stores.

In Wink’s World, Web Wins

I can’t emphasize enough how great these articles are – if you haven’t read them yet you need to do it right now. But, as much as I think I’m a hack compared to Mr. Anderson and Mr. Koch, I can’t help but present a slightly different opinion. Although I agree with  Peter-Paul’s prediction that closed-system systems are not the future, I think it will be users as well as developers that keep innovation alive on the web. Chris Anderson makes a great case, but I can’t help but think he’s missing one vital point – the growth of the Internet has and always will be fueled by people’s desire to connect.

The problem with apps is that they close us off and shut us in; using most apps is a very insular experience. That’s fine if you’re just taking in one-on-one content (like reading an article, or playing a game), but what about sharing across apps? In my opinion the idea of sharing content is the biggest thing that app stores are missing.

Here’s a simple, relevant example. I just Tweeted the sad news that the White Stripes broke up. I saw the story myself in a Tweet that popped up thanks to my web browser, RockMelt. I did a quick Google search, found an article on the National Post, then shared the news with my followers thanks to the “share” button built right into RockMelt.

Let’s compare that to the same experience in the closed, app-world existence. First, I wouldn’t have seen the Tweet unless I happened to be in the Twitter app, which happens pretty infrequently. Assuming that somehow I found out about the poor White Stripes demise, I would’ve had to open up Safari to do a Google search. Then I’d open the page, copy the URL, and go back into the Twitter app. There, I’d compose my Tweet, paste the link, and send it.

You can see how much more labourous that is; even if you ignore the fact that I probably would’ve missed the news in the first place, there’s a lot more clicking and moving about involved in sharing through apps. There are plenty of other examples too; just the other day I was reminded of this when my brother had to call me to recommend a movie on Netflix, since there’s really no way to pass on recommendations inside its walls.

Maybe It’s a Canuck Thing

It very well could be that I’m biased because I’m Canadian, but I think both of the articles I referenced don’t consider the importance web users place on connecting with one another. We Canucks are dumped under bad weather for at least half the year, so we’ve evolved to stay in touch via the web. Sharing and connecting is facilitated by the open web world, and it’s hampered by closed environments where apps live. For that reason alone I think the web & HTML will continue to be the most important driving force for innovation and consumption on the Internet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marketing, Web Design

5 Web Predictions for 2011

I’d like to make it clear right up front that I am without a doubt a terrible prognosticator, as evidenced by my:

  • terrible Sports Action gambling record
  • high expectations for the new Indiana Jones sequel
  • 2010 prediction that sales of the iPad would be tepid

So, take everything I say here with a grain of salt, but I feel confident making five predictions for you, because, hey, guessing games are fun!

#1 Augmented Reality will hit the Mainstream

I’m starting with an easy one – the rise of augmented reality (AR) will finally break through to the general population. For those still unaware, AR utilizes web cams to deliver virtual content delivered over top of a real world image. One of the best examples comes from Britain, and the “nearest tube” app that will be available  soon. Users launch the app, then look through the video feed from their camera on the phone’s display. Overlaid on the display are brightly coloured lines directing the user to the closest terminal. You can watch a video of it in action here:

Here’s another great example using Avatar toys:

Other examples of AR are popping up everyday, extending all the way to unlikely products like Cornpops cereal. As smartphones become the norm for users and now that the iPad is (finally) getting a camera, this technology will become familiar to nearly everyone in 2011.

#2 QR codes will get smaller, and more common

We’ve all seen these funny square bar codes before, and some of us might have even used them. They very useful for giving targeted, precise product information to people with smartphones. They’ve been used for ages in Japan, but they’re starting to gain a lot of traction in the West.

I don’t think QR codes are going anywhere, in fact I see them rising in prominence this year, but not before someone in the tech world is going to find a way shrink them.

One of the issues with QR codes is that they can take up a fair size of real estate, depending on your product. Sure you can always find a 1.25″ square space on a cereal box, but what about items that place a great emphasis on brevity? Here I’m thinking cough drops, business cards, gum, or even pop cans; all products where space is at a premium.  Take a look at the space the QR code takes up on this business card:

It’s a safe bet that someone is going to find a way to make these codes smaller, so that they’re more usable in tighter spaces.

#3 Uncertainty in the NFL will Lead to a New Wave of Social Marketing

Those of you who aren’t NFL football fans might not be aware that the league is entering into a period of labour unrest, not unlike what the NHL and its players went through a few seasons ago. While both sides talk of finding middle ground, i’s pretty clear to the common fan that there will very likely be a work stoppage, and the NFL will lock out its players. Without NFL football for a whole year, where will advertisers spend their money?

My prediction is social media. Sure, advertisers could choose to sink their money into other programming aimed at the same target, say the NHL, or NASCAR. But an interesting recent trend has appeared around Super Bowl advertising, that I think will carry over into the lockout year.

For the 2nd year in a row, spending on Super Bowl advertising is falling while investment in social media is up. The perfect example is the Pepsi refresh project – Pepsi specifically eschewed the biggest game of the year to launch the Refresh Project on social networks, and the response has been very positive. I predict more companies will follow Pepsi as they look spend their ad budgets in 2011.

#4 Digg will Close their Doors

Ah Digg, what great memories we have. Always finding great content for me to read, a place where I could promote stories I liked. And who could forget the Digg effect that would swamp unprepared content providers. Digg will surely go down as one of the great early pioneers of social media.

Unfortunately, Digg’s demise will come from the rise of a new breed of social media – Facebook and Twitter. No longer do users head to an independent site to find out what’s hot, they look to their own circle of friends and social connections. Why make the effort of submitting pages to Digg when you can tweet them to your dedicated followers?

To their credit, Digg isn’t going down without a fight. In 2010 they redesigned their entire site to better take advantage of social networks. But I get the feeling the problems with its model go beyond what a makeover can fix. They’re caught in a debilitating circle; users don’t visit the site as often, so new links aren’t submitted as often, which causes the quality of the links to fall, which gives people even less reason to visit. It’s a paralyzing cycle that Digg won’t recover from.

#5 Apple stock will Fall…Hard

Speaking with a couple of friends before I wrote the blog, this was easily one of my most controversial predictions. Let me make it clear that I don’t think Apple Corp. is going to make any big mistakes this year, or release a lemon of a product. No, what I’m unfortunately predicting is the end of Steve Jobs’ term as CEO.

It’s well known that Jobs is not in the best of health; heck the “health concerns” section of his Wikipedia entry is longer than the “personal life” section. As of January 17th 2011 he was on medical leave to deal with undisclosed medical concerns, and there was no timetable for his return.

The last time Jobs was away from his post for a significant amount of time, Apple stock took a hit to the tune of a 23% drop. As much as I like Apple, I’m predicting another similar drop in price this go around, specifically timed when Job announces he will not return to act as CEO, which I would guess is probably sometime near the end of March. He’ll leave behind an amazing legacy, but the company’s stock price will take a hit until his replacement can prove to be up for the challenge.

Bonus – Twitter will Monetize with Paid Tweets

Finally, I couldn’t really call this a prediction since Twitter has all but confirmed it’s happening, but this is the year you will finally see paid distribution Tweets in your Twitter feed. With third party applications like Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, and RockMelt utilizing the Twitter API and driving people away from the Twitter website, this really the only logical step to monetize the service in advance of an IPO.

Here’s to 2011! And let’s hope for my pride’s sake that at least a couple of these predictions come to pass.

2 Comments

Filed under Web Design

A look at internet marketing in 2011

You would think that after 10 solid years of building successful models for doing business on the Internet that it would be easy to market your company on the web. But the web is constantly shifting and changing, and it’s incumbent on businesses to keep up. What do you need to know about the web of today (and tomorrow)? I’m hoping this blog will shed a little (superficial) light on the web in 2011 as we begin a new decade.

We Don’t Web Like We Used To

Remember the last time you heard the phrase “internet superhighway”? I’m guessing it was a long time ago, and for good reason – the internet is no longer one straight line with a bunch of exits off of it. It’s messier now, more like an amorphous mass of sticky, interconnected blobs. Users tend to clump together on the same major sites, then share information they find across dozens others. The way people surf the web now has totally changed the game.

10 years ago my wife hardly went on the internet – it was a land of geeks and nerds as far as she was concerned. Today, her average morning starts with a trip to Facebook, then to the Celebrity Baby blog, then to Perez Hilton’s blog, and if she finds something interesting she’ll go back to Facebook and share it with her friends. Lather, rinse, and repeat, with the odd visit to recipes.com thrown in there. This type of user didn’t exist a decade ago, but how do you reach them today?

Likewise, my use of the internet has changed a great deal. I was an internet early adopter, but a lot has changed since those halcyon days. Back then there were no websites I visited on a daily basis – at the most I might come back once a month to if new animations or games had been added. Today there’s a whole ream of sites I visit daily, and I share the stuff I find on Facebook and Twitter. My consumption has gone way up, but how does a company capitalize on my increased appetite?

Content is King

The difference, as I see it, is content. 10 years ago content on the web was generally static. With the exception of a few sites, what you saw from one day to the next was pretty much the same. At that time site owners didn’t worry about updating their sites, because nothing much changed. Sure, you might change physical addresses and need to swap in the new info on your page, but you weren’t really giving users a compelling reason to return.

Now sites add new content everyday (or at the very least, weekly) to encourage repeat viewership. Sites like PerezHilton.com, Cracked.com, and aintitcoolnews.com learned long ago that adding new content means more eyes, more often, and so advertising can be sold at a premium. Content is king may be a modern day cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.

Putting Content Where it Counts

Okay, so you know producing regular, interesting, engaging content (whether via blogs, videos, or photos) can be a boon to your business. But, are you putting it in the right place? Think of the example I used of my wife earlier – she’s not going to see your content unless you post it where she lives – places like Facebook.

A few months ago I was involved in a discussion regarding marketing a consumables product to children. Before I was brought in the thinking was to develop a huge Flash website with a bunch of games aimed at the appropriate age group. As this was discussed, I couldn’t help but interject and say “why are driving kids towards some other site when we know so many of them use Facebook?”. If we could integrate the game with Facebook, we’d be much more likely to get the client’s brand in front of kids, either through them using the game or through their friends  seeing the games status updates.

Be Fresh, and Be Sharable

This example illustrates what I think is the most important lesson to take into 2011. Not only do you need to post frequent content updates to your site, but you have to make sure it’s getting in front of your audience in a way they’re used to taking it in. Go ahead and run a photo contest, regularly updating your site with submitted photos, but make sure you’re posting those updates to Facebook too. It’s no longer enough just to have a presence on the web, you need to be giving people what they want, where they want it, and you need to make sure they can pass it on.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marketing, Web Design