Steve Jobs, thank you for being a source of inspiration

Dear Steve,

This morning when browsing some tweets on my iPad the first thing that hit me was that you resigned from Apple. My first thought was, OMG I hope your health isn't getting worse. I hope you are getting better and this is a decision made base on your trust in the apple team and not because you have to. Once again I hope you get better soon. The whole day I was busy, but got overwhelmed with news about you. I had to travel quite a bit, what gave me time to think things over a bit.

You and Apple have been a great source of inspiration for my professional career. I'm an engineer by trade, but you made me realize it's not about the technology, it's about what people can do with the technology. It's not about the mega pixels of the camera, but it's about taking great pictures. You made me see I need to serve people and place the user front and center. In my more recent career I turned this into a User Experience evangelist role. Your eye for the smallest detail and focus on simplicity also thought be a few things. When looking at engineering failures from the past, it always leads back to either a lack of focus on the details or not being bullish enough to focus on a simpler solution. You make me realize that mediocre is not good enough and a constant focus on even the smallest and unimportant looking detail is crucial for success. This is hard and that's why solutions should be kept simple.

I'm convinced that Apple as a company will continue to inspire me with great products, but I will miss you as the mentor and personalization of the inspiration. I wish you and Apple all the best for the future

Thank you
-Aad

User Centric software development teams

Last week I wrote about the importance of strategic User Experience design and a transformation toward a user centric organization. A mention briefly the requirement of multi-skilled and multi-functional engineering teams, but before going into that I want to take you back say 15 years.

In the mid nineties the bulk of software engineers either worked on the Windows platform or on some kind of mainframe. I was part of the first group and remember very well that Microsoft encouraged us the follow the Windows DNA (if I remember well) that basically was marketing speak for three tiered solutions with a data, business and user tier. The story was nice and correct, but the implementation was hard. The technology based on COM and DCOM was just difficult to get deployed and hard to get robust. Many decided to ignore and just build very fat client applications. For this engineering teams used their favorite development tool, for instance Visual Basic, Visual C++, Delphi, DBase, FoxPro, etc. and an engineer would cover a chunk of functionality from the database up to the user interface. Working on the user interface was more focused on following the Windows style guide as it was focusing on the user and how the execute tasks. The companies successful in this era differentiated based on their technology capabilities, as I also said in the importance of strategic UX article.

Fast forwarding to today we can also see that Microsoft consistently have been telling us to separate the business logic from the user interface and always has provided tooling and architecture patterns to do so. We also see that the scope of solutions we need to offer today has has become much broader. Depending on your solution you might need a native Windows and/or Mac client, a web client (including one working on tablets) and mobile clients for iOS, Android, Windows Phone and Blackberry. The number of platforms, each with their specific engineering challenges, has exploded and at the same time we want to transform the business to have a more user centric focus. This is your challenge of today.

The generic software engineer from the mid nineties is not going to solve this challenge, you need specialists for each individual area. If you ever watch Pimp my Ride on MTV you see that there is a specialist for the bodywork, interior, sound system, engine, wheels, etc. and they all work together to deliver the end product. In software development, unless you want to settle for mediocre, you need exactly the same, a specialist for every single little detail of the solution.

Since you want to be user centric you have to start with the user interface. For web applications you need real web developers, those guys that together with your designers can really make a beautiful web front end. They know everything about HTML, CSS, Javascript and the available libraries to make compelling dynamic web pages. They don't need to worry about the business logic and database, all they do is bridging between the designer and the API guy that understands how dynamic web applications are made, but also realizes that the API is used by many other clients. At the same time your iOS, Android, Windows, and Mac client engineers talk to the same API guy. The API guy translates the business logic into a usable API to be used by all his front end buddies. He knows everything about web services, REST, XML, JSON and other API standards. He realizes that API access needs to be safe and secure and does this with today's standards on authentication. The API guy bridges the gap between the user interface and the business logic and since he is close to the logic he is also the one that can really talk to the logic engineers that know everything about complex algorithms, object models, functions and procedures. Finally the logic engineers work with the database engineers to realize a perfect data storage model. Here you go, you need at least five different expertise's: Front end engineers (depending on the platform), API guys, logic engineers and database engineers and an architect to set guidelines and direct the final solutions.

If you're an engineer reading this you have to decide who you want to be and study to become one. It might sound harsh, but you won't survive if you don't specialize. If you're a manager reading this you have to review your team and/or organization and restructure, reeducate and rehire to make sure you get the right expertise in the right place.

Scrum brought use multi-functional teams that build end to end solutions, however there is a limit to the size of an effective scrum team. It might not be possible to fit all in a single team and you might have to rethink the scope of your solutions. What if the API is the end product? In this case your scrum teams can deliver up to the API and other teams than deliver the various client solutions. This scales better in your organization and allows easier outsourcing of expertise you don't have or is to costly to gain. This especially might be true for developing many different mobile clients.

Great software can only be delivered by a team of specialists.

Test Driving a BMW 3.18 touring

For about a year now I've done without a car, or better said I've shared a car with my girlfriend. This worked out pretty well, it required some more planning but it has been doable. However business is picking up and I believe it's not a sustainable situation to only have one car among the two of us and I'm exploring car options. It's always a difficult decision between a rational sensible option and an emotional option. An hour test drive usually only gives a short impression, making it even harder to choose.

When my girlfriends Mini had to go for a little damage repair (I actually crashed it into something that fell of a truck on the highway) I asked BMW if I could have a BMW 3 touring as a replacement, explaining that I was considering it as one of the options to buy. One thing that is really good with BMW is their service, and they immediately promised me to organize this.

The car

A few days later I brought the Mini to the workshop and in exchange I got the keys of a brand new BMW  3.18 touring. It was a fairly standard business line, grey, with dark upholstery and an automatic gearbox. The automatic gearbox was nice, because I always have doubts about going standard or automatic and this allowed me to do an extensive test. I found the car well equipped and the navigation system was easy to use (although I had to ask another BMW drive how to turn on the voice over) and did a good job, even on places where I've seen others go wrong. The same applied for the build in phone features, it was easy to connect a blue tooth phone and it was very easy to use. I found in general all the equipment very easy to use and matched my expectations on features. Further the interior was roomy and actually bigger then I expected, the booth was huge in my opinion (criteria here is: does it fit 2 snowboards). The exterior on the  other hand is very modest and probably fits very well with the business like family car market segment, but is a bit too boring for me.

The ride

The first thing I noticed was how soft the suspension was, as my girlfriend said: It's a boat, meaning smoothly moving up and down with the waves. This soft suspension did a good job smoothing out the road, but for me it was too smooth, because in fast corners it was leaning over quite a bit and the steering wasn't that razor sharp as I like it. The automatic gearbox was good, you hardly noticed shifting gears, except for some more engine noise when shifting down. However I felt it was shifting a bit too much, but that is probably because the engine might be a bit under powered when running it at lower revs. In general the ride was smooth and comfortable and I'm sure many people will like the comfort. For those interested, I drove it the way I always drive and the fuel economy was somewhere around 9 liters per 100 km. I found this reasonable.

Conclusion

It was really good to have the opportunity to do a three day test drive and I thank BMW for making it possible. The car was good, easy to use sound, phone and navigation systems and the ride was smooth. Everything felt of good quality and comes with the great BMW service. It's a sensible option to buy.

However, I prefer a bit stiffer suspension, sharper steering and a bit more power so I do need to drive a version with a sport suspension, manual gearbox and larger engine to make a final judgement on my personal purchase.

I'm open for other few day test drives in the Delft, the Netherlands area. Just contact me for details

Aadjemonkeyrock now also on Facebook

A while back I introduced my personal social networking policy and I still believe I made the right choices, but there are a few caveats. In the description of my social networks I still included updates of this blog in my Facebook stream, but came back on this decision and removed blog updates from my Facebook feed. I also learned that with the constant growth of Facebook the number of friend requests increased all the time and my policy enforced me to either ignore or reject most of the requests.

Ignoring or rejecting 'friends' is just wrong, because when people show an interest in other people this shouldn't stay unnoticed. The consequence was that my guidelines started to slide and became a moving target and it just became even more unclear. The only thing that remained clear is that I wanted to keep my Facebook crowd limited and fairly private. A proper solution was needed.

A while back I registered Aadjemonkeyrock as my business and a Facebook page for the business was created. The solution I have for you today is very simple: You can become a fan of the Aadjemonkeyrock Facebook page and interact. This blog will be republished on Aadjemonkeyrock on Facebook and I will post other business related updates, new customers, pictures, presentations, product launches, anything that can be shared at the right time.

The advantages for you are simple: You can easily follow what Aadjemonkeyrock is up to, like, comment and interact. We might even be able to build stronger relationships and you might even be able to promote to my personal space. Did you already like Aadjemonkeyrock in the sidebar?

While a appreciate you as fans I also value my private space, so don't be offended if I remove you from my personal Facebook friends, Aadjemonkeyrock is open for everyone.


The Importance of Strategic User Experience (UX)

Part of what I do is helping business software companies to embed user experience (UX) in their strategic software development. I do this not as a user experience specialist, but as a user experience evangelist and change agent. There is a lot of interest from companies into the subject and there is awareness on the importance of improved user experiences. However not many companies manage to successfully transform from an engineering focus toward a user focus and embed user experience into the strategic product development process. While I'm preparing another workshop I realized that it would be good to share some of my learnings from the last few years.

I've always been told, and for long I believed it, that the reason is that the business software buying process is based on comparing features and the buying decision maker is not one of the actual users. These facts are true, but aren't the main reasons why it's hard for companies to transform.

First lets look at some general characteristics of these business software companies. They come in two flavors, those that have a long track record and often already existed during the first internet bubble and those that are younger and more recent companies. Lets call the first category the establishment and the second category the challengers. You can easily recognize the different categories by looking at their Software as a Services solutions: Old versus new world SaaS

The establishment
  • Their current success is a result of their technology and engineering advantage in the past
  • The focus was always on using technology to improve efficiency and productivity
  • User experience is the number of clicks to efficiently reach a goal
  • Have accumulated a significant and loyal customer base (otherwise they wouldn't exist anymore)
  • Helped many customers through the various stages of technology evolutions and learned the importance of compatibility and comparing features
  • Believe customers are conservative and risk avers
  • Innovation is based on evolution 

The challengers
  • Their current success in most cases isn't proven yet
  • The focus is on improved effectivity by doing things differently
  • User experience is how it looks. 
  • Have customers, but need to expand the customer base significantly become sustainable
  • Convinced customers to start doing things differently
  • Believe customers want to innovate their business
  • Innovations is based on disruption

I'm well aware this is a generalization of the two groups, the reality will be in most cases somewhere in the middle, but it helps to explain a few things.

Another way of looking at this is from a strategic perspective, are you serving or steering?
  • Tactical versus Strategic
  • Efficiency versus Effectivity
  • What is your problem? versus What is your strategy?
  • What do you want? versus What do you need?

Most software companies today are serving their customers and focus on the tactical operations by improving efficiency and solving problems. Customer feedback is used to determine what a customer wants. This is very logical, because it's easy and low risk, just listen and improve. The establishment is very good in doing this and maintaining the status quo. Is there an incentive for them to change?

The alternative is to investigate how a company can become more effective by asking about the strategy and research the companies and user needs. This research requires specialist expertise for doing user research and is the area where user experience begins. This way you can move to become a strategic partner by making companies more effective. This is what the challengers aim for, sometimes successful, but more often not. It doesn't matter as long it's a wake up call for the establishment to realize the need to transform.

It's a company DNA change from an engineering focus on efficiency to wards a user focus on effectiveness. To illustrate this point: CRM and Time tracking systems are introduced to increase the efficiency and productivity in the company, but there is no sales guy or consultant in the world that loves using those systems. The only reason they use them is because their bosses, or the bosses of their bosses, tell them they have to use them in order to get their commissions. However the same sales guys and consultants use Foursquare to constantly check-in into places, while nobody is telling them to do it, meaning it's possible to motivate them without using a stick. The sales guy or consultant has no advantage in becoming more efficient or productive, all they want is to become more effective and make a bigger impact for the customer, themselves and the company. User experience shouldn't be aimed on efficiency and productivity but on effectiveness.

Now you know why user experience is so important, it allows you to become a strategic partner by making the business more effective. It's actually the next maturity level for a software company that can be reached.

Now the key question is how to get there. In the first alinea I already mentioned that not many companies succeed in implementing user experience in their strategic product development cycle. I'll give you a few points to get started with and feel free to use the comment section below for a further conversation:
  • It's strategic so you need to start to evangelize at the C-level in the company. You can start telling this story or hire me for a more independent opinion
  • Realize you need specialists, not only for user experience but also in engineering. The generic engineer is a thing of the past, you need web front-end engineers, back-end logic engineers, API engineers, database engineers, test engineers, etc. all with a clear focus and skill development plan and organized in multi-functional teams. 
  • Cluster customer feedback and research he why question. Don't make assumptions, but research the facts. Do customers want SaaS or a pay as you go business model? Do you want a camera with more pixels or do you want to better capture you memories? These are two different things.
  • Make things beautiful, the first advice a start-up gets applies also for an established business.
  • Technology advance move fast, what might not have been possible 2 years ago might be a commodity today. Be alert on what is going on and keep your skill sets and product offering up to date. 

In a later article I'll give more in-depth information about multi skilled and functional engineering teams.  With platforms and technology becoming more and more divers building the right engineering team becomes also more of a challenge, but that is a subject in itself.

Other articles you might be interested in:


... and don't hesitate to join the conversation below.

My top 9 most used Microsoft products

Years ago there was a time that all I used were Microsoft products, but since becoming an Apple fanboy, leaving my corporate job and adopting a Apple and Google lifestyle this has changed. However this doesn't mean all Microsoft products are gone, they are still part of my daily use pattern.
  1. Skype, since I'm working as an independent, freelance consultant it's the communication tool of my choice. I'm actually surprised in how many organizations Skype is used, even when they have a OCS/Lync infrastructure. When Microsoft decides to integrate them, or at least allow inter communication I can see the value of the Microsoft Skype acquisition.
  2. Microsoft Exchange Protocol, used to connect my iPad/iPhone/Nokia to Gmail. GMail on Google Apps, another important communication channel. It's funny how all this different companies have to license Microsoft technology to realize inter operability between the various vendors.
  3. A Microsoft blanket, a few years ago my girlfriend joined me to Seattle on a Microsoft visit. Microsoft made them very welcome with a hotel room with a gold fish, a goodie back and a few bottles of wine. The goodie back contained a nice comfortable blanket that is frequently used, especially on chilly summer days when snuggling on the couch watching some television.
  4. SkyDrive, over the years I've given a few presentations and I've archived them all on SkyDrive. I ofter refer back to old stories and reuse slides for new stories. The graphical presentations tend to get very big quickly, but SkyDrive with the 25Gb of free storage is more than sufficient to maintain the archive. I never need to think about carrying the presentations with me, they are always there and I can easily browse them without having to download them. It would be great if one day I can actually copy paste between different presentations with PowerPoint online so I can easily re-assemble new presentations.
  5. PowerPoint, together with Prezi the presentation tool of my choice. Prezi has the advantage that I can do everything online and don't need to rely on installed (and licensed) software on each of the various clients I'm using, but PowerPoint has the advantage that I can easily reuse the enormous archive of presentations and story lines. I look forward to the day I that PowerPoint online is powerful enough to replace the desktop client.
  6. Yahoo/Bing for sanity check searches. I'll admit that 90+% of my searches are on Google, but I quite often use Yahoo/Bing to get another view on the results. Sometimes I just think Google knows too much about me to return objective results, Yahoo and Bing just know less about me and in some situations this pays off.
  7. Microsoft powered web sites and Software as a Service applications. These will be plenty, but they usually aren't advertised in that way.
  8. Excel, not because it's my favorite spreadsheet tool, actually I don't like spreadsheets at all. However my business partner does like spreadsheets and does a great job getting numbers and plans organized and visual using Excel. It's giving and taking when working together
  9. Word, because I've learned that most collaboration still takes place over email. Sharing documents with email is still the de-facto usage pattern and it will still take a while to convince all people that there are other ways. Knowing this there are only two uniform document formats, use PDF if you want to give a read-only version and in all other situations Microsoft Words can be used by almost everyone. 

The list might not be very long, there aren't very many client applications present and this indicates that I might be a front runner of a transition to come. Over time Microsoft will power more and more services we consume through the cloud and we all will become heavy Microsoft users without actually know it. The focus might change from the user focused logo on screen to the back-end powered service. 

This list would have been a bit longer if my last Microsoft Windows computer hadn't died on me. I still believe Windows (7) is good and offers a productive working environment. May be one day when I invest in hardware again, the coin might flip the Microsoft site and I will give you an updated list.

Science fiction has become reality

Today when going thru some technology news there were several mentions of Skype adding video chat to another 17 android phones and that Skype will definitely bring video calling to Windows Phone. This is all great news, but not really shocking. Technology has become so advanced that video calling more or less becomes a commodity. This got me thinking and brought back some childhood memories.

When I was a kid this was very different, phones were something still sort of special and we could only dream of video calling. The phones where big, heavy, wired, had rotating dials to select a number and took center stage in the living room. Video calling was science fiction and at best we believed the future of making calls. The phone evolution was imagined to enrich voice with video like the transition from radio to television. The devices got bigger, complemented with a screen and would offer a richer experience by attracting more senses.

At that point in time I never imaged the phone evolution would take a complete different route to video calling. First the phones lost their wires and became sort of mobile. They were still bulky but over a ten year period the continued to reduce in size and loose weight. The miniature phone emerged until it became impossible to put a screen and keyboard on a device the size of your thumb. Now the phone had gotten so small that either the keyboard or the screen had to go, because style and size was no longer a differentiator. As we see so often with technology products it became a battle of who can add the most features. Thus we got the feature phone that later emerged into the smartphone. Since they had become little computer that are almost running our lives they also needed a decent screen so once again the phones started to grow. It was not until these newer and larger screen sizes that video calling made sense again and now we hardly blink our eyes on video calling and take it for granted.

Science fiction has become reality, but it took a little detour from the imagined evolutionary path.