How to Demo Software for 11,000 People

Mainstage at Adobe MAX 2017, Las Vegas

I’ve done a reasonable amount of public speaking in my career but until this year’s Adobe MAX conference, where I appeared onstage during the keynote to present the official release of Adobe XD 1.0, I had never given a public software demo before. It’s true that a demo is not entirely dissimilar from giving a talk or lecture—many of the same presentation skills apply to both—but I discovered that in many ways demos are an entirely different kind of beast. So I thought I would write up some of my personal observations on the whole experience for those who are curious or who might one day have an opportunity to do something similar.

Like many folks working in tech I’ve demoed software countless times in the past but almost always in private settings—for colleagues, customers, investors, or to small groups of users. What makes an occasion like the Adobe MAX keynote unlike those prior experiences is its scale. There were 11,000 attendees in the Las Vegas auditorium where it was held, plus an overflow room and untold more viewers of the live stream.

A live audience of that size demands that even a short, ten-minute demo like the one I gave needs to become something that barely resembles the “real life” version of itself that it’s meant to represent. Most people use software alone in an almost improvised manner—whatever it takes to get the job done—and almost never talk about their actions aloud. A keynote demo upends that solitary activity and transforms it into a public performance that’s heavily rehearsed and narrated live, in real time.

“A keynote demo turns a solitary activity into a public performance.”Twitter

In fact the central thing I learned about these kinds of demos is that they require exhaustive practice. In the two months leading up to the MAX conference, I flew out to San Francisco every single week, leaving New York on Monday and returning on Thursday or Friday, all to rehearse my ten minute demo again and again and again. In San Francisco, I’d spend nearly all day, every day practicing with the keynote’s production team and with the other keynote presenters. When I wasn’t officially in rehearsals, I was often running through my part on my own, usually in my hotel room but occasionally muttering it aloud walking around the Adobe offices. It was an all-consuming process.

You might be thinking to yourself, “That’s excessive,” which is an understandable reaction. But what I also learned is how absolutely necessary all that time was in developing the story of what I was going to be demoing. Even though there was relatively little debate about the aspects of Adobe XD that I would be presenting onstage, the actual narrative of those features really had to be developed through iterative, organic evolution. The version of the demo that I first began rehearsing back in late August was very different from the version that ended up onstage in mid-October, and it changed countless times in between.

Each of those many run-throughs was more than just a matter of learning or memorizing the content. The real value in doing it over and over, a dozen or two times a day, is that it allows you to make an endless number of incremental tweaks along the way—adding or subtracting a word or phrase here or there, trying out different sequences and emphases, learning how to communicate the message a tiny bit more clearly or succinctly.

There’s also the added complexity of the assets, or the sample design file, that forms the heart of the demo. Having a great looking project with which to show off an app’s capabilities makes all the difference. For various reasons, the sample file we started with had to be discarded, and so I spent a lot of time with one of our designers creating something entirely new, from scratch. He’s based in Germany which is five hours ahead of New York and eight hours ahead of San Francisco, which of course exacerbated the interminable jet lag that I was aready experiencing from all my back-and-forth travel. It was a very strange period of my life.

“Having a great looking project to demo makes all the difference.”Twitter

Choreography too is a part of this preparation. Not as in footwork (though I did have to practice the actual route I took as I walked up to the podium) but rather the choreography of what happens on screen. It was much trickier than I had anticipated to synchronize the words that I spoke with the motions of the cursor so that neither came too early nor too late. It got to the point where, by the end of the process, I was moving my mouse and clicking on buttons almost precisely along the same path and with the nearly exactly the same timing on each run through.

All that said, a lot of all that preparatory time was frankly devoted to just getting me used to the concept of demoing. How one figures out the tricky balance between telling the audience and showing the audience is kind of a personal journey. Demoing is neither clearly the former nor the latter, and getting comfortable with that ambiguity just takes time, practice and some measure of self reflection, too. You need to get right with whatever personal ambitions you have for how you want to come across on stage, and to reconcile that with whatever the goals of the demo are and with the feedback that comes from the rehearsal process. It was only through lots of trial and error and many periods of wondering whether I was even tempermentally suited for it at all that I was finally able to figure out “how to demo.” I’m sure there are people for whom this comes naturally but for me, I had to learn it the hard way.

“Don’t disregard the outside possibility of totally random chaos too.”Twitter

Finally, don’t disregard the outside possibility of totally random chaos, too. You can prepare all you want, but there’s always the chance that something completely unexpected could entirely derail the actual demo once you go on stage. And, of course, that happened to me.

After all that rehearsal and practice, after internalizing every movement and detail of the setup of my screen, I walked on stage ready to do my thing and what happens? My trackpad died. It just wouldn’t work, stopping my demo cold in its tracks while a member of the stage crew had to rush another one out for me. You can see it in the video I posted above—not more than a minute into it, everything breaks down. People tell me that I managed to hold it together, but sometimes panic manages to disguise itself as composure.

It’s worth repeating that the inherent tension of a keynote demo is that it takes something you normally do alone—use software—and turns it into a highly public performance. You’re looking down at your keyboard and device most of the time but you’re also trying to augment every click and every word you utter to draw the live audience into it.

And even though every mouse movement is projected at huge scale for the audience to see, you still need to use carefully chosen commentary, expressive body language and judicious pacing to form a narrative, to give it all shape and purpose. The whole thing is both highly staged and strangely improvisational; it’s exacting and methodical yet it’s meant to come across as breezy and casual. It’s a monologue in that only the presenter is talking during those ten minutes, but it’s also a conversation with the audience in that anyone watching is going to be silently asking questions that should be answered in short order by what’s demonstrated on stage. It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been through but it was also a lot of fun.

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Never Use Futura

“Never Use Futura” by Douglas Thomas

Helvetica, much as I adore it, has had more than its fair share of attention. That’s why I’m so happy to see this new book by designer, writer, and historian Douglas Thomas all about the typeface Futura which, it’s worth noting, predated Helvetica by three full decades—and it looks as beautiful and timely as ever.

Sporting the playfully provocative title “Never Use Futura,” Thomas’s book is a cultural biography of a typeface, starting with how Futura began life as a byproduct of Bauhaus ideals, tracing its evolution over many years and countless uses into a nearly invisible “go-to choice for corporate work, logos, motion pictures, and advertisements,” and touching on the current vogue of newer, Futura-derived geometric typefaces. You might expect this book, like most books about design, to be largely illustrative and light on the prose, but a look at the handsomely designed pages promises worthwhile reading.

Spread from “Never Use Futura”
Spread from “Never Use Futura”
Spread from “Never Use Futura”
Spread from “Never Use Futura”
Spread from “Never Use Futura”

Learn more about the book at neverusefutura.com or order it today from amazon.com.

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Me at Adobe MAX 2017

Adobe MAX 2017

Before I started working for Adobe, I never understood the scale of the company’s annual Adobe MAX user conference. This year’s installment, starting tomorrow and running through Friday in Las Vegas, will welcome 12,000 attendees, up twenty percent over last year—that’s a huge chunk of the creative community. Tomorrow morning I’ll be part of the day one keynote address, where we’ll be talking about lots of new stuff we’ve been working on—including new tools and features for designers. You can stream it live at max.adobe.com.

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Disaster Is Relentless

I’m in San Francisco this week where you can actually smell the ash in the air from the wildfires in the north. The damage looks horrifying, and The San Francisco Chronicle captured that feeling perfectly on the front page of yesterday’s edition.

San Francisco Chronicle Page One

I’m not sure I’ve seen edge-to-edge printing on a newspaper’s front page before but the effect is stunning here—and sadly appropriate. The borderless presentation underscores the totality of the fires’ destruction, how the damage stretches as far as the eye can see. My heart goes out to the victims.

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Obit. Brings Death to Life

Still from “Obit” directed by Vanessa Gould

This movie still from Vanessa Gould’s masterful documentary “Obit.” is a snapshot of one of the most exquisitely crafted talking-head film compositions I can remember seeing. First, it gives full, unfussy attention to New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox, allowing the full range of her mesmerizing articulation of the nuances of the obit trade to flourish on the screen. But she’s placed off-center in an extremely clever way; we get the context of the Times newsroom behind her, or at least a charming corner of it with shelves teeming with books and covered with sticky notes, and even a manual typewriter just behind her (not just anachronistic set dressing; the typewriter actually serves a narrative purpose elsewhere in the film). The space that the frame leaves to Fox’s right allows her arm and hand to gesture about balletically as she underscores her words. And, to her far right, the camera just manages to fit in her nameplate mounted on the edge of her cubicle (in the actual film you see the full nameplate, but in this capture I found online it’s cropped slightly for some reason). So much information and expressiveness conveyed in one deceptively simple shot.

There’s much more to like in “Obit.” too. The film is a wonderful examination of the counter-intuitively life-affirming profession of obituary writer. It follows the atypically large staff of these specialized journalists at The New York Times as they scramble to write respectfully cogent and compelling stories about the lives of people who have just passed away. Like its subject matter, director Vanessa Gould has produced a careful, thoughtful film full of unexpected joy. It also continues the surprisingly strong batting average of that cinematic sub-genre known as “the newspaper movie.” “Obit.” holds its own next to more dramatic or hallowed fare like “Spotlight,” “All the President’s Men” and “His Girl Friday” by diving deep into the process of reporting. The results are fascinating not just from the perspective of understanding the process of how obituaries are created, but also understanding how we think about and memorialize notable lives.

Also worth mentioning: “Obit.” sports a gloriously tasteful poster. This thing is gorgeous.

Poster for “Obit.”

“Obit.” is available for streaming now. Learn more at obitdoc.com.

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Papyrus and How Fonts Get Famous

This sketch from Saturday Night Live making fun of the use of the font Papyrus in the logo for James Cameron’s fantastically boring “Avatar” has already made the rounds. It’s hilarious.

It made me think though: with the possible exception of Helvetica, the only time popular culture acknowledges typography is when something has gone wrong—really wrong. Think of Comic Sans, which has earned a wide reputation for being a severely overused, terrible choice. Or Calibri which figured centrally into a major corruption story in Pakistan earlier this year (that scandal even became known as “fontgate”). Papyrus now joins those ranks as being remarkable for being notorious.

It says something about our craft when the only time the uninitiated have an opinion about it is when it’s gone off the rails somehow. This is not to say we shouldn’t have a sense of humor about what we do. We should—this SNL short had me in stitches. At the same time though, it would be nice to be recognized for the good we do, too. Design needs to do a better of job of explaining the value that we contribute to society, otherwise it’s just going to mean more ridicule.

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Movies Watched, September 2017

Logan Lucky

Thanks in part to a ridiculous amount of recent business travel I managed to watch seventeen movies in September, though I only got out to the theaters to see one of them, the sublime “Logan Lucky.” Actually, to be more accurate, I watched it in one of the 330 drive-in theaters that still exist in America. That number is down from 4,000 or so when the phenomenon of watching a movie outdoors from the comfort of your own car was at its peak. And visiting the Hyde Park Drive-in Theater in upstate New York almost felt like a time warp back to that era. The concessions stand, a wide, low-profile concrete structure towards the back of the lot, clearly looked like a remnant of post-War architecture’s least exuberant building trends. But everything looked over a half-century old, too: weathered and repainted over dozens of times, as if maintained by ghosts on a budget.

Movies Watched, September 2017

It wasn’t exactly what you’d call a cinephile’s experience, either—the sound was tinny over the FM frequency that you tune your car radio to, and the picture wasn’t particularly crisply projected onto the patchy, billboard-sized screen. But I’ve never been to a drive-in theater before, and I could see the appeal, even in this age when 4K screens and Dolby Atmos audio can be had at home. One, you’re watching a huge movie screen out under the stars; we went on a particularly perfect late summer evening, when the air had a cool snap to it without being cold. And two, you’re not at home, you’re out in the world, with other people. That’s a good thing.

As for “Logan Lucky,” it was kind of implausible and silly but it was good solid fun. Maybe more importantly it brings the talents of Steven Soderbergh back to the big screen; even his most trifling cinematic dalliances are fascinating works. I liked it a lot and can’t wait to watch it again.

Here’s September’s full list of the movies I watched.

  • Logan Lucky
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” Demonstrates that the logical outcome of fan service is a descent into bureaucracy.
  • Colossal” A blithely ridiculous premise that almost works.
  • Silence” Grueling but, as with everything Scorsese does, still worthwhile.
  • Kill Bill: Vol. 1” Still amazing. Not as rich as volume 2, but stunning in its own vibrancy.
  • Hot Fuzz” Okay I get it now. I didn’t before, but I see the appeal.
  • She’s Gotta Have It” A document of pure directorial ambition.
  • Tango & Cash” They really made this movie.
  • Raging Bull” Unbelievably beautiful.
  • Smithereens” A fantasy of rotten New York.
  • Kill Bill: Vol. 2” A masterpiece.
  • Free Fire” Not a masterpiece.
  • Moana” Hey, this movie is really, really good, people.
  • A Face in the Crowd” An amazing, sadly prescient story of a megalomaniacal TV personality who comes to abuse his outsized influence on the American public.
  • Star Wars” Fun.
  • American Graffiti” Actually, this would’ve been the perfect movie to see at a drive-in.
  • Chi-Raq” There’s not a frame that here that’s anything less than riveting—it’s hearbreaking, shocking, hilarious, and ridiculous all at once.

If you’re interested, here is what I watched in in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February and in January, as well as my full list of everything I watched in 2016. You can also follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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Bumpr for High Sierra

Bumpr for High Sierra Is Here

Just a quick note to say we’ve updated Bumpr—the simple but indispensable Mac utility that lets you choose which app you want to open your links in, on the fly—so that it works beautifully with the newly released macOS High Sierra. Bumpr 1.1.8 is available right now in the Mac App Store.

If you haven’t used Bumpr before, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. Here’s how it works:

Click on a web link in, say, Slack or Preview or your desktop Twitter client—basically any desktop app—and Bumpr seamlessly intercepts the link. Basically, Bumpr is acting as your default web browser, but instead of opening your page, it very, very speedily displays a simple, compact menu of the web browsers you have installed. Click on one and that link opens in that browser. It’s simple and easy and fast, and it’s particularly useful if you have more than one Gmail or G Suite account and want to use a different browser for each.

Bumpr also handles email links the same way, so if you use more than one mail app, Bumpr will let you choose which of them to use with any given link. Just as with web links, Bumpr gives you the power of choice, letting you use the right mail app or browser for whatever your needs are at any given time. I still use Bumpr every day on every one of my Macs, and I can’t live without it.

As a side note, we’ve been cooking up some pretty cool enhancements to Bumpr for a big new release coming up soon. Stay tuned for that, but in the meantime, grab the latest version in the Mac App Store right now.

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Unfinish—the Funnest Sketchbook You’ll Ever Use

Unfinish Notebook from Baron Fig and Khoi Vinh

Here’s a brand new product that I cooked up with my friends over at Baron Fig, makers of exquisitely useful notebooks, pens, bags and more: it’s called Unfinish and it’s “an interactive notebook.” Wait, it’s much more interesting than that sounds!

Actually “notebook” isn’t quite the right word for it, and neither is “sketchbook.” Unfinish is more of a “doodle-book.” Instead of confronting you with hundreds of stark white blank pages, it gives your creativity a bit of a kickstart with a unique, quirky, incomplete image printed on each page. There’s a horse without a head, a floating lighthouse, the top of a suit of armor and much more—a different one on each of its 192 pages. Each of them is unfinished in some way, inviting you to add a background to it, trace it, extend it or even ignore it altogether. (The images are printed in non-repro blue ink so it won’t transfer when photocopied and is easily dropped out in image editors.)

Sample Pages from Unfinish Notebook by Baron Fig and Khoi Vinh
Detail from a Page in Unfinish

There’s no implied meaning to the images, no goal or purpose aside from whatever you might want to bring to it yourself. You would think that this would be true for any old notebook or sketchbook as well, but I think a lot of people would agree that a blank page can be so confrontational that sometimes it actually demands a declaration of purpose. So when I first dreamed up Unfinish, I wanted to defuse that blank page problem and to make a playground for your brain, a space to free-associate, stoke your creativity and most importantly to have fun.

The team at Baron Fig did an amazing job bringing this to life. Unfinish is based on the company’s signature Confidant notebook line—it’s got acid-free paper, the book opens and lays flat for easy doodling and writing, and it’s bound in beautifully tactile hardcover material. It’s also a limited edition, which means it ships in a gorgeous, collector-grade box and it’s on sale only for as long as supplies last. You can get yours today for just US$20 at baronfig.com. If you pick one of these up—please snap some pics and show me your doodles!

Shot of Closed Unfinish Notebook
Unfinish Collectors’ Box
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An App to End NYC Parking Woes

DropCar Illustration

There are more important problems in the world than where to park one’s car but in New York City, particularly, a good parking solution can be irrationally satisfying. There aren’t a lot of driveways here, you see, and so New Yorkers are left with painfully imperfect alternatives. There’s street parking, of course, which is free if you don’t get ticketed and cutthroat no matter what. There’s the option of paying for monthly parking in a garage, which in some cases costs as much as renting a place to live. And there’s even buying a dedicated spot, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (and are sometimes even pitched as investment opportunities).

If you lack the financial temerity to rent or buy a spot, the on-demand parking service DropCar presents another option. When you don’t need your car for at least several hours, you can use the DropCar app to schedule one of their “personal car concierges” to meet you anywhere within the service’s coverage area and drive your car off to one of their centralized parking lots. When you need it back, you just schedule a dropoff and a concierge will drive it to you and hand the keys back over.

DropCar costs a still-not-insignificant US$349 monthly, but it does let you order ten pickups and dropoffs each month. (The company also offers a parallel service that sends a valet to mind or move your car for US$15 per hour, handy if you have business in a place where there’s no parking. It sounds especially handy for Manhattan and doesn’t require a subscription, but I have yet to try it.) The service is not cheap, but on a recent trip out of town I left my car at long-term airport parking for fourteen days and that alone cost me US$290. That was basically for one pickup and dropoff that I had to do myself—and to and from a particularly inconvenient parking lot. When you consider that DropCar also picks up and drops off at LaGuardia Airport and JFK Airport the service starts to look somewhat more reasonable.

Travel, in fact, is the excuse I’ve allowed myself for trying DropCar. If you lack the financial temerity to rent or buy a garage spot, street parking your car is particularly inconvenient when you’re away from home. Neither my wife nor I use our car to commute (or much during the week, really), so when I’m off on a business trip, as I seem to be a lot these days, the chore of re-parking the car is a burden on her. New York’s extensive alternate side parking rules mean that you can’t leave a vehicle parked in one spot on the street for more than a few days at a time. DropCar allows us to schedule a pickup at the start of my trip and a dropoff when I’ve returned, dramatically simplifying stints of soloing parenting.

We’ve been using the service for several weeks now and it’s been great. On all but one occasion, the valets have been prompt or even early (the one time a valet was late, he texted me well in advance and gladly rerouted to a more convenient dropoff point that was even outside of DropCar’s coverage zone) and they’ve been consistently polite and friendly. Using DropCar’s iOS app is fairly straightforward even if its design and user experience are rough around the edges—the interface looks like a clumsy web interface unetnthusiastically wrapped in a native mobile app. Customer service has also been reliable; responses to my inquiries generally came within a day or two, though apparently from generic mailboxes (they were all written by “Trevor,” a seemingly nonexistent agent).

In fact, I have only one major complaint with DropCar—which, in a way, I’m grateful for. The company boasts parking lots in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and it even allows you to follow the path your valet drives your car on a map view in the DropCar app. Though our pickups and drop offs have all been in Brooklyn, more often than not our car gets driven to the Bronx, some fifteen or so miles away.

This means that we have to be sure to order a dropoff at least an hour in advance (one valet suggested at least two) but more importantly, the distance means a each trip consumes a nontrivial amount of gas and generates a nontrivial amount of pollution. That, combined with whatever small but still meaningful contribution the trips make to traffic congestion in New York City, makes it hard to set aside my nagging conscience: as a service, DropCar makes my life easier, but it’s probably not doing much good for the planet. I find this fact to be something of a relief because, well, it’s a sufficiently concrete reason not to indulge in a DropCar subscription. The service is a great luxury that I would enjoy immensely but I can’t justify the environmental impact let alone the cost.

There’s probably some version of DropCar that makes sense in the near future though, and maybe the company can hang on where other, similar services like Luxe and Zirx have stumbled. When electric cars are the norm then the round trips to the Bronx will be significantly easier to justify for the environmentally minded. On the other hand, if and when our roads are dominated by self-driving cars, it may turn out that valets become moot and every paid parking lot becomes a remote lot; we’ll all just be sending our driverless autos to the Bronx via an app.

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