Everpix and Everyone

A bummer of a coincidence from yesterday: after using Everpix for several months and enjoying it immensely, I decided to pony up for the US$49 annual fee. Hours later, I happened to read that Everpix is shutting down. A note signed by the Everpix team said: “We were unable to secure sufficient funding in order to properly scale the business, and our endeavors to find a new home for Everpix did not come to pass. At this point, we have no other options but to discontinue the service.”

Possibly losing forty-nine dollars doesn’t bother me so much, since Everpix promises to refund all of its subscribers (they hope to do this by 15 Dec). It’s the fact that Everpix was a terrific product that in many ways fit the bill for what I think a modern photo experience should be: an inexhaustible storage locker in the cloud that effortlessly backs up my photos from every source.

Facebook, Twitter, Path, Instagram, my phone’s camera roll, even pics that people sent to me via MMS; Everpix comprehensively backed up all of these sources to the Web and made them navigable through an intelligently self-organizing and elegantly designed web interface. It was really a pleasure to use, especially its Flashback feature, which would send me daily emails to remind me of photos taken a year or two ion the past.

While I have no inside knowledge of what went wrong with Everpix (the writing was on the wall for a long while, apparently, and The Verge has a lengthy account of the wind-down), I have some guesses.

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Designer Founders and Choosing Problems

Now and then, designer founders of new startups ask me for advice on the companies they’re building. Having tried and failed to build a sustainable business as a designer founder myself, I feel a little leery about offering advice. At the same time, with the benefit of hindsight, I can recognize some of the same missteps that we made with Mixel.

The most prevalent one is not putting the user at the center of the company. This is somewhat ironic, because designers often pride ourselves on being advocates for the user experience. But there is a difference between user-centric design and building a user-centric business.

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The Race for Mobile News

Here is a quick list I made of some of the many mobile news apps that have entered the market over the past few years: Prismatic, Circa, Pulse, News 360, Summly, and Zite. These are all serious, well-funded and/or well-staffed entrepreneurial attempts at building the next great news brands. You can probably name at least a few others.

To some degree or another, they all propose to define a new kind of news reading experience that lies at the intersection of mobile access and customizable headlines. Some of them are pretty good at it, too. But none of them have truly come to own this category, and similarly none of them have become indispensable mobile brands the way that say Instagram has.

This situation puzzles me, because reading the news is one of the core use cases on a mobile phone — just about everyone does it. It surprises me that we’re almost six years into the iPhone-fueled smartphone era, and we don’t yet have a commonly agreed upon winner among news apps. Not just a clear leader in downloads, installs and active users, but an outright brand leader, an approximate equivalent to what CNN was in the first decades of cable news.

There is a distinction, of course, between producing original news, like CNN does, and aggregating or repackaging it, like almost all of these apps do. And maybe the fact that these brands have already come up against the limits of their popularity suggests that aggregation will always be inferior to original news.

I wouldn’t be surprised if in the long run that turns out to be the case; research suggests that legacy news brands enjoy an advantage in mobile (at least for now).

Still, I highly doubt that the combination of mobile access and customized headlines has already played itself out fully. While I take nothing away from what these apps have done so far, it strikes me that we are still just learning what mobile news consumption means, and how it’s very different from traditional or even desktop media models. As our understanding matures, new apps and brands will enter the market with radically different interaction models.

If you also have a little bit of faith that technology will continue its heretofore unceasing forward march, then it becomes quite reasonable to expect that we are due for huge innovations in relevance and automated customization sometime in the next decade, which will benefit this category of software immensely. That is, solutions to the challenge of creating a news experience tailored just for your interests (explicit and implicit) are bound to get more and more sophisticated — and accurate. The company that is the first to combine such technology with a truly advanced understanding of mobile news consumption will become the next great news brand.

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An Interview with Charles Adler of Kickstarter

Folks, today I’m kicking off a series of occasional interviews with designers-turned-entrepreneurs. The first installment features Charles Adler, who co-founded Kickstarter with Perry Chen and Yancey Strickler. Kickstarter, of course, is the crowdfunding phenomenon that has upended seed economics for new products and projects — the verb “to kickstart” has become practically synonymous with the wildly successful campaigns that the company hosts. To me, one of the many fascinating aspects of Kickstarter is how they’ve leveraged design on many levels to produce increasingly disruptive, real world results.

Charles and I have become friendly over the past year, being both New Yorkers and even neighbors in Brooklyn — we frequently run into one another at Ft. Greene Park when he’s walking his ten-year old mutt Buster and I’m walking my ten-year old mutt Mister President. In this email interview, he talks about the origins of his interests in design and entrepreneurship, and how the two have meshed together in his role at Kickstarter.

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Tracking Airfare Prices

Air fares to Europe are up significantly this year, as I recently discovered when my girlfriend and I started planning a trip to France to see relatives. To try to get a sense of whether there were any deals to be had, I started manually checking prices every day and tracking them in a Google Docs spreadsheet.

I did this for about two weeks. It was laborious, but it was fascinating in that it let me decrypt just a little bit of the arcane logic that goes into the fluctuation of ticket prices. There’s not a tremendous amount of pattern recognition that you can glean from a sample size as small as fourteen days, but the airline industry’s pricing models and schedules are so opaque and inscrutable that even seeing real prices tracked over a short amount of time — watching how they rise and fall — is instructive.

Of course, I realized too late that there are probably Web tools that can automate this kind of search for me. I hunted around a bit and found Yapta, which I’d never heard of before but does more or less what I’m looking for. Yapta layers a tracking service on top of a Kayak-powered booking engine. That’s fortunate because Kayak is my preferred travel booking site and so the search methods were therefore very familiar to me. Yapta returns what are essentially Kayak-flavored results, and you can click on any itinerary to start tracking its fare fluctuations in your Yapta account. The data presentation is rather lackluster in that there’s no graphical charting of pricing trends, and if you’re tracking multiple itineraries, you have to click through to each to see its full pricing history. But Yapta does automatically update and record the prices, saving me a lot of manual labor.

There may be other, more powerful tools out there that do this same thing as well or better than Yapta. (If you know of any, I would welcome tips.) I’m not sure if this is something that a lot of people know that they need, but it would certainly seem to be something a lot of people would use if it were packaged elegantly and if it were better integrated into the booking process.

More importantly, though, what this brought to mind for me was how lopsided the data collection dynamic is in ticket pricing. Over the course of the several weeks when I was actively checking prices, looking for a deal, I was handing over a nontrivial amount of behavioral data to the booking sites and airlines I was patronizing — not just where and when I want to go, but also my preferred carriers, routes, price tolerance and more. Clearly, that would be more than enough data to gouge a customer if a company wanted to, though I’m not accusing these sites of doing that. I’m just saying that the early promise of online travel was that it would allow for pricing transparency, that increasingly sophisticated booking tools would let consumers find the best possible deals. As it turns out, the situation we have today is that those who set the prices know more about how we buy tickets than we know about how they price tickets. That doesn’t seem very empowering to me.

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Getting Airlines off the Ground

Over the weekend my family took a short trip by plane. The experience of flying — which I never enjoy — was so bad, it made me despair again for this incompetent industry that we all seem to be stuck with but have little recourse from. The ineptitudes of nearly every airline’s customer experience just boggle the mind and make me marvel at the fact that they can even exist as businesses.

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What I Learned When I Started a Design Studio

Earlier in the year, I wrote a bit about the design services industry in two blog posts: first, I wrote “The End of Client Services” in July, which outlined my thoughts on why the best interaction design is done outside of the studio/agency model. Then in August I followed up with “In Defense of Client Services,” which expands a little bit on why I believe services is such a difficult way to earn a living as a designer. I had meant to write a third post, but getting Mixel out the door got in the way. Over the past several days I was finally able to find the time to hammer out this follow-up.

Actually, I’ve been making notes for this blog post all year long, because it was ten years ago that I co-founded an interaction studio here in New York City, partnering with some colleagues from a previous employer. I stayed with the studio for four years, and I learned a lot in that time. Building that business significantly changed my outlook on the design industry, but I haven’t written too much on why. A decade later seems like the right opportunity.

What still strikes me the most about that experience was how little my former partners and I understood at the outset about what it takes to build a successful services business. In the years since, I’ve met lots of designers who have either founded or had the ambition to found studios or agencies of their own. Most of them, it seems to me, are laboring under misapprehensions very similar to the ones that hobbled my former partners and myself.

So here are a few of the key lessons that I learned from co-founding my own design studio. The usual caveats apply, of course, in that everything about business is contextual, and so your mileage my vary.

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In Defense of Client Services

While I really do believe that the design industry has changed enormously over the past decade, and that the opportunities available to designers are much greater today than they were even a decade ago, I have to admit that when I recently blogged about this topic I was being a little bit sensationalistic by titling the post “The End of Client Services.”

Several other design bloggers wrote thoughtful posts in response to mine — the best one was probably from Erika Hall at Mule Design — arguing that client services will never go away, and I think they’re right. It’s hard to imagine that all businesses everywhere will ever stop having a real need for outside design expertise; there’s just too much for most companies to know, so being able to access external help will always need to be an option. Now, it’s my belief that the best businesses will meet those needs by internalizing design expertise and methods themselves, and going forward many — if not most — of the choicest design challenges will be tackled by in-house teams.

But there will always be work out there for design studios and agencies, I’m sure of it. What’s more, the services industry is full of smart, talented, visionary people, a disproportionately large number of whom are extraordinarily effective agents of change. What I meant by “the end of client services” is that, within a few years, the landscape for this industry will look very different from how it’s looked up until the recent past. The best of the best from this industry will help evolve the client-designer relationship to meet new expectations and to create new kinds of value.

For me, at this time in my career and my life, client services just isn’t what I want to do, but I wouldn’t ever say that I’ll never return to it either. I’m not sure any designer, no matter how prolific they become as auteurs of their own career and products, ever really rules out the possibility of taking on a fantastic project with an enlightened client. What makes a designer a designer is an inability to resist solving problems, and services is still a great way to get exposure to many different kinds of irresistible problems — and to learn a lot about subject matter areas that most in-house designers will never get to touch. Even better, if you have a good services business — one that satisfies you creatively while rewarding you financially — then you have a great way of getting paid to do design. If you’re passionate about design, like I am, then that’s gold. Not a lot of people can pull this off, but if you can, then more power to you.

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The End of Client Services

Last week, I marked a year since my departure from The New York Times by starting to talk a little bit about what I’ve been doing (see this blog post). Today, I’m going to talk a bit about why I decided to jump into a startup, one in which we’re building a product of our own, rather than starting another design consulting business.

Some longtime readers will remember that about ten years ago I co-founded a design studio of my own. In fact, until I went ‘in-house’ at the Times, I had spent the entirety of my career in the design services industry, working with all sorts of clients doing all sorts of projects, and generally enjoying the variety of challenges and the exposure to many different kinds of businesses. But in the long stretch of months leading up to the day I resigned my position at the Times, I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t return to that kind of work.

There were lots of reasons for this, but one of the main ones is that I think the design industry has undergone a significant and meaningful change, one that opens up opportunities that are not to be missed.

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What the NYT Pay Wall Really Costs

The New York TimesFinally delivering on a long held promise, The New York Times announced yesterday that it would debut a ‘pay wall’ around its digital products, first immediately for users in Canada and then at the end of the month for the U.S. and other countries. This is the culmination of a process that began in the dark days of the so-called Great Recession; I remember first hearing of it while employed at The Times in late 2008, I believe. There was much debate about it the next year, and an exploratory team, including myself, began putting together plans for it in the summer of 2009. By the time I left my job there in July 2010, the project was still evolving, and lots and lots of work remained to be done.

Whether the pay wall succeeds or not is an open question and I won’t pretend to know the answer. To be completely frank I was never a proponent of this concept and it was among the reasons I decided to leave my job there last year. Now that it’s upon us I hope it does succeed, actually, because The Times generates tremendous value for the public good and it would be terrific if we could find a way to continue to reward its talented journalists and staff for their hard work. Still, I can’t help but look at the effort that went into constructing this new revenue model and think that it has exacted an unfortunate opportunity cost on the company.

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