December 2013
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Month December 2013

How to take great photos (hint – not with a smartphone)

Posting mostly for my own future reference – here’s a great article on how to get yourself a proper camera rig and shoot better pictures for less than a grand. Despite the title, some of the suggested body and lens combos will only set you back about $600.

I learned to shoot with a Pentax K-1000, a classic all-manual 35mm film camera, have owned a few OK point and shoots and have used a few high-end Nikon and Canon DSLRs for work. This looks like a great guide to getting close to top-end performance for a lot less than you’d think.

That said, there are a few things you can shoot with a midrange P&S or GoPro that DSLR’s can’t touch…


Somehow Pebble is making a better smartwatch than gadget giants like Samsung and Sony

I love stories like this.

update Jan 6/14: Pebble just released the Pebble Steel line of smartwatches – much more of a classic look. $250.


Product Idea: Twitter Reader

One of my favourite IFTTT recipes was to add any tweet that I favourited to Instapaper. Not only was it a good way to keep track of interesting reads, it also ensured I always had a good selection of Instapaper content to read whenever I was offline.

That ended when Twitter stopped support for IFTTT a year or so ago, but I never stopped thinking about how useful that setup was.

But there’s no reason Twitter couldn’t provide the same functionality within their native apps. The UX would be simple and users would understand it immediately. Every time you favorite a tweet, the article content is downloaded in the background and added to your ‘Twitter reader’ list, and stored offline (and synched across devices) an efficient format. Any time you’re offline, or want to catch up on your reading, tap the reader icon in your twitter app and pick something to read. Of course, browsing the reading lists of people you follow would be a big part of it, and would provide a second window for retweets.

Twitter could easily monetize this by selling ads against the content in their reader too – why let Flipboard have all the fun?

What Adobe can learn from Rob Ford

I live in the city where our highest elected official is referred to on evening newscasts as “the crack mayor of Toronto”. He has a particular habit of making incredibly bad decisions, and when finding himself in a deep hole responds by finding a bigger shovel and digging faster. This isn’t exactly the guidance I’m advocating for Adobe, but I think there is a lesson here for one of the Adobe products I use every day.

Adobe’s Omniture analytics software is an industry standard, it’s been the core analytics tool for both of the big media companies I’ve worked for. As you’d expect of an enterprise analytics platform, it ain’t cheap. In the past couple of years much smaller companies like Parsely and Chartbeat have introduced real-time analytics platforms that aimed to win customers with features Omniture and Webtrends didn’t offer (like real-time). With a typical Omniture package running a healthy 6 figures annually, budget-conscious companies are looking to the smaller, hungrier and more agile analytics start ups for alternatives.

Here’s where Rob Ford comes in. Omniture has an Excel plugin called Report Builder, and Report Builder is Omniture’s crack cocaine. With the report builder plugin installed in Excel, you can add an Omniture data call to any Excel cell. Its incredibly powerful, in part because it it empowers users to build reporting tools in Excel. Omniture is great at pulling raw data, but their custom report tools are alien to most of us.

Every weekday morning, I open an excel sheet that I built with report builder, and add yesterday’s date into the input cell. Then I hit ‘refresh data’ and within a minute I have a page views and unique visitor report for the Globe and Mail’s main desktop site, mobile web, and every individual mobile app, plus video starts on every platform. Because it’s Excel, if I want a rough engagement metric for each platform, I can add a simple UV / PV calculation in seconds. You can also modify the data calls to reference individual Omniture segments, so I can target just users in British Columbia or only registered users.


Here’s a block of data in excel that shows weekly pageview data for the past 14 weeks for each of the Globe’s main digital properties. The first data column is built with Report Builder and the rest is a simple copy/paste referencing the top date row. Using Excel references, I just add a new end date to the master cell (top left) and the date ranges update automatically, and then one click to refresh all the Omniture calls.

Best of all, once you have all of this dynamic data in an excel spreadsheet you can manipulate it in all sorts of ways. You can build fancy charts and trend lines to visualize the data, or create simple calculations (e.g. live video starts vs video 50% complete) to track gains or performance issues against historical averages. And whenever you want to update it, just update the report end date and hit the refresh button. Once you get familiar with report builder (assuming reasonable Excel skills) you can put together a pretty sophisticated spreadsheet in an hour or two, and it can be opened and updated by anyone else in your company that also has Report Builder. Jump to the bottom of the post for an example of a detailed Excel report I put together with this Report Builder data.

However, a single seat license for Report Builder costs a few thousand dollars per year. I’m one of the lucky few at the Globe to have one. I can send around static Excel reports but the recipients can’t update the data or modify them on their own. And THAT is Adobe’s strategic mistake. Leveraging the ubiquity of Excel and the ability to quickly build a dynamic, reusable reports adds a huge level of usability – and reliance – on the Omniture platform.

If Adobe made report builder available for free, a sizeable part of the company would be hooked on it in short order. And as Rob Ford has very publicly demonstrated, once you are hooked on something, you tend to make irrational decisions. Adobe is no longer competing with equally pricey enterprise analytics platforms like WebTrends, it’s competing with new players. These startups cost a fraction of what the big guys charge, they innovate faster, focus on real-time data and address traditional pain points like integration

By and large most clients don’t share their internal analytics outside the company, and only comScore and ad serving data have a direct revenue impact. If your favourite media site or one of your competitors changes their analytics platform would you notice? Would you care? For a company looking to trim costs, a 6-figure analytics budget is an big target. Unless, that is, you’re not thinking rationally because a big part of the company is addicted to the product. As the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto continues to demonstrate, addiction and irrational behaviour go hand in hand.


Product Idea: Radio Rewind

I’ve had this idea for a while, but listening to The Sunday Edition on CBC this morning I had a clear idea of the actual user experience. The radio was on, but I was in and out of the kitchen when I heard an interesting bit of an interview (NSA whistleblower Thomas Drake, as it turns out). Just as I really began to pay attention, the interview was over.

It would be simple enough for radio manufacturers to add a little flash memory to their products and allow users to ‘rewind’ the live stream they are listening to. Most live-streaming video interfaces already have this feature. For your standard tabletop radio, imagine a couple of simple push buttons:

Tap the 30 second button to go back a bit, or twice to go back a minute. The 5 minute button takes you back a bit further. The specific durations aren’t important, but that’s the simple idea. A car radio might have a slightly different interface as it already has multifunction knobs for volume and tuning. Tap the rewind button and use the tuning knob to roll back in 5 second increments.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t created this already – (update – Sirius has this in many of their models). I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve zoned out as they read the weather and don’t catch what the announce has said until they’re onto Peterborough and the Kawarthas. Or missed that artist name, or wanted to hear a really interesting 15-minute interview from the top.

update Jan 12/14: Just to note a couple more user stories to this – once you have set the rewind function it will continue to buffer and time shift your radio stream (i.e you will always be 30 minutes or whatever behind the live broadcast) until you a) turn off the radio b) press and hold one of the rewind buttons for 3 seconds (some sort of audio cue would confirm). Also, a slow-strobing LED would indicate when the radio steam currently playing is time shifted. A digital readout telling you exactly how many minutes the audio has been shifted might be nice, but seems like overkill.


I prefer minimal but well thought-out interfaces, the less clutter the better. The Tivoli Model One (with the very handy addition of Bluetooth input) is a can’t miss example of a perfectly designed product.