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A world without Word.

April 28, 2012

Will the cloud bounce Word to obscurity? For many, it already has.

An interesting benchmark for the progress of the software-as-a-service industry might be the first consumer battle on the front: the desktop application of Microsoft Word vs. Google Docs.

It’s no surprise that Microsoft Word has long been the bastion of word processors, and will remain as such in most consumer spectrums for a long while, with yearly estimates overselling 200 million of their 2010 Office suites. A lot of that has to do with legacy, though. In an article from CNET, columnist Charles Cooper writes that he has finally transitioned away from Word, which he had been using for 27 years, to Google’s cloud word processor. And the clincher, here, is that everyone knows which one is “better”. It’s Microsoft.

It may just be that Word, like many of the applications from the early computer usage, is just no longer relevant.

In the last half decade, Google Docs has evolved from a simple glorified cloud notepad into a pretty robust set of applications, allowing easy import, download, and editing of various documents, spreadsheets, presentations, and even now, images (like those with .PSD Photoshop filetypes). One can import their Word documents from their PC as easily as they can import their Pages documents from their Mac. In classic Google style, the program was released in the most ultimate of betas, and after years of revisions, have a product that can meet a variety of needs, and without all of the extra stuff that MS Word has in tow.

And that’s the big piece right there. Google cut through the crap and picked what mattered most to end users (with ownable traits like cloud storage and instantaneous collaboration), while Microsoft added more layers to their suite. Not everyone needs every Latin character, an equation editor, hundreds of memo templates, and the gallimaufry of other add-ons standard in each install. With a good handful of fonts, a clean editing UX, all of the resizing/bolding/italicizing/bulleting mechanisms most need, Google Docs does well to stick with only what matters to keep costs (and importantly, bandwidth) manageable to any users.

Next, a rapid shift away from the PC to the tablet could spell instant trouble and crumbling erosion for the Word franchise. Sure, MS has an inaugural OneNote app… But have you seen those reviews? A feast of other, better competitors already own the space, and with iPads dominating the tablet landscape with a monumental leg up on Windows 8 coming later this year, that’s a lot of assumedly lost Word users. Typing on a tablet is a fully different system with different affordances than the old PC, and Microsoft’s current iterations of Office products are not quite yet equipped for a program that’s touch-first, type-second.

This isn’t even to mention an important draw of the Google services: uh, they’re free.

With the cheapest Microsoft Office 2010 package coming in at a pretty $120, that’s a lot of opportunity cost in the SaaS world.

And, better yet, the introduction of Google Drive as a desktop application to seamlessly drag ‘n’ drop existing MS Office files to Google Docs seems like a potent clincher to many individuals and businesses out there. And, with most interested customers already working from Gmail accounts, it’ll be all that much easier to view and edit documents through Google Docs than anything else.

Sure, it’s not a perfect experience yet. Google Docs has plenty of issues in the document transformation process, endures a few obstacles for new users in its Drive platform, and still has a few features to keep up with modern speed (my primary quibble, which is far in the minority: no Gothic fonts?). But as a core utility, Google Docs has reinvented collaboration and group work everywhere (especially college campuses and businesses with enterprise-level kits), and that’s something that will take Microsoft a while to make anywhere near as accessible, although they do have a very robust online Word app compatible with their SkyDrive platform.

But in the end, it’s Google’s pesky free little processor that will make headlines as it looks to take the cloud to any scale, for any user, at the tiniest fraction of the cost of yore, and maybe one day, drive out the overpriced software for good.

I’m more than positive Word will find its way into a cloud-like software and give Google Docs a true competitor in the field of cloud word processors, but that will take some time, and when that two-horse race changes fields, we’ll all benefit from SaaS gaining that official stamp, and the world Word as we know it will certainly not be the same.

Brought to you by you: the case for crowdfunding.

April 28, 2012

Hey, do you want to be personally responsible for a watch that auto-connects to your iPhone like some kind of awesome sci-fi movie? Or for a project that converts the greatest book ever written into a smartphone guided walking tour? Or for your favorite college a capella group’s debut album to be released to the masses?

And do you want some sweet kitschy prizes related to your passion for contributing to it?

Then you’re apparently not alone: Kickstarter, the ironically venture-funded crowdfunder, was a site designed to harness the tiniest underbelly of the long tail phenomenon, allowing legitimately anyone to toss a few bucks to anyone’s compelling projects, giving the opportunity for anyone to stroke their inner venture capitalist beard and literally bring their favorite creative-based projects to fruition.

And according to a recent article from VentureBeat, the total funding has now surpassed $300 million to all of their projects for the year. For perspective, that’s more than the entire funding given out by standby arts funder National Endowment for the Arts yearly.

That’s right. Thanks to the long tail, the power is back with the people. And how beautiful that power is. One of the most enjoyable thirty minutes on the Internet is perusing the sheer variety of funded and ready-to-be-funded projects on the site: from mesh dress shirts for the summer to rockets for space travel. The only uniting factor in all of these is the desire for creativity, a push for something new.

Fund this bad boy with a click. Rocket science degree not included.

This push is exactly the kind of inspiration the long tail can bring. One doesn’t have to have a company or the expertise. All that’s truly required is a plan for what the funds will do and a mode for how to do it. In essence, Kickstarter is one of an endless supply of crowdfunding sites aiming to sweep out the initial hurdles of finding capital (and even the bureaucracy of standard business processes) in favor of rewarding innovation first and foremost, knowing in true long tail fashion that there’s someone somewhere out there that can help you get your project afloat, and help push your passions to the masses.

Plus, there’s nothing cooler than saying, “I was one of 47,000 people that made that iPhone watch you’re wearing the real deal. Best dollar I ever spent.”

Where’s that software labor demand?

April 28, 2012

Credit to Chris Martin at wonksanonymous.com for the image.

A recent post in TechCrunch revealed an interesting crisis that many of us enamored with the tech scene might not consider: the US labor market can’t meet demand for computer engineers. This is troubling for a number of reasons, ranging from macroeconomic considerations like the burgeoning of China and Southeast Asia for its engineering prowess, to domestic pop culture interests, as more degrees were incurred in fine arts from US universities than these obviously high-demand software positions.

So what’s the deal? We’re a smart bunch here in America, and the scenes in Silicon Valley and NYC more than prove that the necessary talent can be reached there for success. Coming out of college, software engineering and computer science degrees have an exceptional starting salary. Every other discipline, whether bioinformatics for classic biology or marketing research and app development for classic marketing, heavily relies on engineers to take their operations to better, more quantifiable decision making. It’s the perfect partner for any other interest.

Assuredly, the stereotype of software engineers from its famous depictions like The Social Network does the scene no benefits, where, despite billion dollar companies being made in the basements and garages everywhere, the stereotype of the reclusive coder with the too-big headphones and too-few friends persists. It’s not a pleasing stigma, to be sure.

A few billion clams later, you can probably get those buddies back anyway.

But then again. Everyone (with proper access) has access to smartphones, everyone regularly interacts online with friends, everyone downloads apps (even sans smartphone) for use… People are aware that the opportunity exists. Entire schools and nonprofits are designed to raise awareness and train to pursue that opportunity. Codeacademy, a startup geared to teach non-coders the art of Javascript, saw a cool 100K sign up for their New Year’s Resolution classes for lessons.

… So why does it only remain to most an opportunity unmet?

As a marketing major myself, I obviously am not currently part of the solution, though as Instagram founder Kevin Systrom proves, formal training may not be necessary. Codeacademy is definitely one of many class or game-based online methods for self-teaching coding to the masses, adding just that  much more approachability to an often brash industry.

Or maybe we should spin this article on its head… The author almost looks to address it, but instead addresses Codeacademy than the other piece of the puzzle. Supply and demand curves involve, well, two parts: supply and demand. So when we say that “the demand can’t be met”, it could be a terrible commentary on how we just can’t staff huge labor opportunities. OR it could mean that demand for these industries is so great from such blossoming that it’s essentially a compliment to the prowess of said industry. We could spin this article’s premise, then, to the success and future investment potential of the tech scene. Always having this kind of demand for an industry, especially considering that we’re within a half decade of a major recession and job crunch, is a powerful statement to the new mobile-driven, app-ified, smartly branded, and highly entrepreneurial tech scene of today.

The challenges are still there (like any STEM field), the industry still suffers from a rough learning curve, and it’s still not as sexy as The Voice, but it’s certainly not a bad thing that demand is outstripping supply in the software engineer job market.

For all of us, it simply means opportunity. Let’s go after it.

Case study: #makeitcount

April 12, 2012

Nike’s #MakeItCount Video: The Best Branded Story Ever Told?.

I like the words “branded story” to describe it. Pretty solid euphemism.

Great example of what a hashtag really represents — something inherently viral. Sure, it’s built into the Nike brand, but that’s exactly it — it’s a natural extension of the brand (doing the work, self-actualization), tailor made for social discussion and empowerment, and supplemented by a fantastic story.

Use Twitter to make your images, your core brand essence resonate. Stand out. But only if the people on Twitter are right to hear it. Nike did a great job transcending walks of life, capturing a viral idea, making it the centerpiece of a provocative work, and pushing it as far as it could go, core brand promises bleeding throughout.

And it goes further than the video. Here’s a screenshot of an actual tweet reply to the tweeting of the Mashable article by the director himself.

Perfectly in line with what was consumed by others, perfectly social. It creates dialogue, and all can participate. One can reply to the original Nike tweet, the Mashable tweet, retweet any of those to their friends, reply to Casey’s tweet, or hell, use the hashtag. And just in the time it took to save the image, 61 more users did exactly that:

It’s viral. Nobody forced these users to post content with it. The only topics are the video, the central idea, and because of that, the brand essence. Nike found common ground with the world, shared it, and added value worldwide. Real people are really talking about this one hashtag, each with their own group of followers, all because one central message resonated enough for these people to share it.

This, my friends, is a success story in social media.

(Equally fun fact: if you purchase the product at the very start of the video, there’s an option for you to be able to auto-tweet your run results to your followers, and, the fun kicker, it automatically hashtags the post with #makeitcount. Insta-social [though maybe annoying for followers]. Well done all around, Nike).

Summoning the Lessig within: presenting your passion digitally.

April 12, 2012

Credit to TED for the photo.

Images flicker, single words emblazoned in Courier New linger, antiquated photos focus for just a moment, and then the next thought pushes forward. Lawrence Lessig has been acclaimed as the pioneer of a new wave of presentation styles, one of bold graphics, provocative thoughts, and most of all, rapid fire slideshows perfectly synchronized to the cadence of a speech. We’re talking hundreds of slides, giving the audience slivers of the message with hardly a scan before the next one starts.

One might feel inundated, even at risk for epilepsy at times during the classic Lessig speech, but given the intensity of the message he presents, there’s little in retrospect that would follow more appropriately from his subject matter (free culture, digital copyright, and a host of other digital/societal amalgams). It’s best seen at this TED talk.

But let’s examine what was just said again. The Lessig way of doing things probably won’t fly at the next weekly sales recap meeting, nor would it ever properly substitute for a formal report. Let’s reduce the classic Lessig speech to its core elements and extract the success therein, rather than simply benchmarking it without the context. Let’s analyze the rhetoric of Lessig’s presentation style.

Purpose

Persuade. Given the provocative and bold stance of his most famous works, and that Lessig’s speeches operate in the same opinion (which they often do), his visual aid is made to fulfill that same purpose: to appear modern, well-versed, and equally bold in contrast to the surroundings. Within the contents of his speeches, there’s a reflection of the old way of doing things (black and white photos and newspaper headlines, most often), powerful keywords and language pulled directly from his script, the new (often in edgy graphics). The effect is an educated synthesis of historical trends to develop these opinions, encapsulated in the small triggers of each slide, and moving quickly to build logic to his conclusion.

Excite. Further than this, though, copyright law and politics might need a little “dressing up” for college students to get them excited, and his flashy presentations do this extraordinarily well.

Give the “so what” moment. Often. One of the biggest obstacles to success for any persuasive speechwriter is overcoming the audience’s natural cautiousness to fully believe a new idea. It’s human nature. Garr Reynolds recommends that all presenters design their speech with this key idea in mind. What value does this work add to the audience? What Lessig’s method does is visually emphasize, and consequently reason, just how much support he has for his argument (somewhat of an ethos argument, but only in that there’s so much logos out there). There’s a lot of evidence to display, and by not having it all crammed into seven or eight bullet-pointed slides, the volume is felt.  It’s a locomotive of information density, but it also flashes by in a second.

Audience

The academics of the academics. Lessig, currently a professor at Harvard Law School, and a co-founder of nonprofit organizations to further his causes, knows that he’ll often be speaking to not just academics, but even upper-tier thought leaders in his field (copyright law not being one for the meek, or even for the smart). Knowing this, he doesn’t need to go back and rehash his ideas much, and that they’re fully capable of following along.

Tone

Provocative, but expert. Again, bold. Powerful. The result may incur a bit of hyperbole at times, but powerful language best delivers powerful ideas. He chooses his words very purposefully so they can have that perfect “sound byte” glimpse on the presentation behind him.

Passionate. Another effect of the range of artifacts and thoughts on the screen is that so much is shown and touched on that one can’t help but understand his passion for the subject, for what he’s doing, and subsequently, be that one step closer to believing his message. Passion always shines through, and Lessig’s presentation style reflects that passion well.

So after deconstructing the Lessig style, it comes back to that Garr Reynolds point: so what? Bring value to the table. Be new. Be different. Enchant. The Lessig styles deconstructs this idea, throws it in a visual, and shines a magnifying glass over it. Really, there’s nothing all that revolutionary happening in the style and tone; what’s really being reveled is the sheer perfection of execution of an idea, of a brand, even, and shining a few core ideas through every touchpoint with the audience. In the diction, in the presentation, in the visual equities, in the volume and harshness of voice. Everywhere. Lessig developed his brand, played to his audience, and found a way to find common ground. He resounded.

Let’s scale it back to us presentation mortals. That’s the key word. Resound. Match audience needs or wants with your unique value. Fill that niche, and fill it purposefully. That might not be the same excitement that Lessig brings to his audience, but it’s the central idea that lets him resonate on the stage he created for himself. It’s the Lessig method for the Lessig purpose and the Lessig audience. He’s careful to find that value, and push his brand there.

Key successes, then, can go this far: What’s your brand? Why are you speaking, and to who? How can you inject your brand in a way that creates value for that purpose and to those people?

Then do it.

 

The curse of the blessing of PowerPoint.

April 11, 2012

By the way, don’t watch all nine minutes of this video. A few seconds to a minute should be plenty. The point is exactly this: PowerPoints can get pretty bland, as can long-winded discussions about their execution.

Which is why, of course, the focus of this blog post is Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within.

In his booklet, Tufte, the premier source and scholar for visual displays of information and building arguments with visual evidence, argues that PowerPoint, in its one duty to serve the interest of sharing common points with large groups of people in a visual manner, has grown in practical use to hurt our ability to display logic and reasoning, essentially nullifying any benefit of displaying this information.

The biggest problem? Instead of affording us the ability to display visual cues, PowerPoints instead encourage and enable us to unnecessarily simplify very complex ideas and arguments into compact “slides”, often with insufficient development of thought and hierarchies of logic development.

This very literally damaged lives when he recounts his tenure at NASA, recounting the inability of a PowerPoint presentation concerning the 1982 Challenger’s damaging liftoff into orbit to properly convey the complexity of the situation. Engineers who examined the takeoff footage, noting the damage, could not properly convey the necessary logic to management to give them the resources to make an informed decision about the safety of returning to Earth. In fact, the slides, with oversimplified explanations and visual cues, enabled a groupthink mentality to implicitly support what management favored, rather than objectively examine and analyze the life-threatening (and ultimately tragic) situation.

But certainly, it can’t all be bad, right? 

Exactly. But the affordances of PowerPoint itself do most novice users no favors. Graphing capabilities are limited to simple descriptive statistics, resolution is paltry in giving opportunities to list substantial arguments, and slide sizes give arbitrary quotas and character limits to develop an argument, which is often unnatural to the growth of the argument itself.

But… It’s just a visual aid. It aids the presenter. There’s still a person going into all of the details.

True. But according to Tufte, by inadequately using visual space through tools like PowerPoint, the opportunity cost is immense: visual space under normal circumstances allows us to examine very thick, complex relationships, such as tables, data visualizations, and reading paragraphs of verbal explanations. What he calls “chartjunk” is instead preferred in most organizations, consisting of colorful, toe-deep examinations of two or three variables in bar charts or line graphs, often oversimplifying and focusing on one or two relationships in a vast web of context between and within variables. This hardly aids the presenter, if not outright undermines the nature of the presentation.

In fact, rather than enabling quick comparisons between variables, which a table can do quickly and succinctly for a number of variables on one page of a handout, analysis is often reduced to devoting an entire slide to one relationship between 2-3 variables. If there are 15 important relationships and cross-relationships to examine, time is hardly saved by the visual referent. As Tufte notes, “People see, read, and think all the time at intensities vastly greater than those presented in printed PP slides” (2006).

Tufte’s recommendation: “To make smarter presentations, try smarter tools:”

  • Technical reports.
  • Long tables or more robust data visualization techniques.
  • Projecting word processors (like Microsoft Word).
  • The “four pager” handout.
  • For the love of everything, do not use the given templates.

All not bad ideas. Three counterarguments exist now that might not have existed a half decade ago, though.

  • The presentation technology folks have upgraded the software, at least somewhat. There’s more room for words per slide, more advanced graphing tools (financial and stock-related ones come to mind, though overall tools are still lagging), less egregious templates, new ways to visualize a report if diagrammed (Prezi), video tools, diagram-building tools, and much more freedom to extend outside of text boxes and bar charts. It’s not quite a valid argument in the present, but the continuing improving of the software is promising.
  • Simplification is possible. Think about the relationship between calculus and economics (stop snoring). Sure, textbooks about economics can be written and well-liked (relatively) without use of any partial derivatives or fundamental theorems. Without calculus, authors use the tool Tufte suggests: paragraphs upon paragraphs, churning out textbook with well over 2,000 pages. But with calculus, relationships can be explained much easier and cohesively, reducing those works by over 50% to the 800-900 page range for the same content. The intent of PowerPoint is probably something similar, I’d guess. We just don’t have the time to write technical reports and intense verbiage as a visual aid, because again, it’s just aid.

PowerPoint is still the most accessible (given one can afford, pirate, or use open source alternatives for it) means of presentation aid, and rightfully so. Not every presentation is rocket science, nor does it need to be, so PowerPoint has a niche within a great deal of communications and purposes.

I’m all for respecting the complexity of issues, as we live in a world that is exactly that. But technical reports and essays are tenuous and unnecessary. We’d rather talk. And we still choose to. A little visual bookmark or reminder on a screen shouldn’t hinder that too much, so long as the aid remains the aid. You want the full version of the presentation on my report? I’ll send you my paper, or better yet, you can just save my video presentation.

Tufte lists that 10^10 PowerPoint presentations were used and consumed in 2005, to which he questions how much argument was lost by the restrictions in the software. He forgets one bigger question: how many of these presentations needed anything  better?

An infographic is worth a thousand stats.

April 6, 2012

Perhaps a lot unlike the peers in my generation and interest set, I’ve never been on the proverbial infographics train.

But they make boring statistics fun! And colorful!

Which is fantastic, and I agree. I don’t doubt that they make what could be a pretty intimidating list of statistics accessible, and they can often be a great primer on any topic or phenomenon, if done properly. My issue lies with the integrity of the data collected. Often, infographics are prepared using a variety of sources to display a variety of perspectives on a topic, which is fine, and in a lot of cases, harmless.

But too many times, the opposite is the case. Statistics are pulled from a variety of different sources, and placed right next to one another, claiming that these facts are the product of the same methodology, the same study, the same context, when they are not. A good portion of infographics will pull the collective logic of one study, combine it with the next, and not take into account the differences in how the data was collected, the survey question and design (if applicable), the sample, and the integrity, without properly investigating if the data should be used together. They violate what Porter et. al. state as “Graphics must not use data out of context.

Again, that doesn’t mean that infographics are a bad thing. If a researcher collects primary data, and decides to display their findings in an accessible, interesting, and relevant infographic to the right audiences, then the presentation would be immensely successful. Based on the organization of most, though, the sources are strewn to the bottom in fine print.

Good infographics are out there, even like the below one, which is anecdotal in nature. However, the data found in this infographic are segregated into separate contexts enough that the main argument of the graphic — that the virality of social networks can often be a foe to brands — resounds. Here’s a look at it below (original source here):

The above infographic argues that brands today should constantly be wary of the "social consumer", armed with tools like Facebook and Twitter to voice opinions of their favorite brands. Their power lies in their virality.

Big graphic, huh?

Well let’s be concise with the main arguments it  has:

  • A mob mentality tends to ignite these groups of social consumers, allowing for rapidly disseminating, ad-hoc messages to unite and centralize efforts (see the BofA example: 300,000 digital signatures is no accident).
  • They’re a persuasive bunch. SOPA protestors had the ability to sway other major organizations, like Wikipedia, to force GoDaddy to surrender their support of SOPA, doing so by adding a much-needed financial penchant to their stance (the lost domain fees from Wikipedia).
  • Feedback can almost be instantaneous these days. See: Coke. It’s the firm’s choice whether or not to listen and react with the same speed (relatively).
  • There’s a lot of work to do: the last statistic (which again, might be out of context), states that 70% of @ mentions to brands go unanswered… That’s a potential 70% encountering a negative experience with the brand, and a huge chance to oust a customer by not paying attention to them. A bit overzealous, sure, but the point remains.

Infographics are great tools for delivering scannable, appealing, and interesting facts in a way that normal stories or graphics couldn’t, and their growth in the past half decade is merited. So long as the integrity to data is maintained, it’s an exceptional realm to explore.


Works Cited

Porter, James, Sullivan, Patricia, and Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Professional Writing Online 3.0 [Electronic version]. Pearson Education.

Frugal Dad. Giants Kneel to a Tweet: When Social Consumers Go Viral. 2012. Infographic. Mashable.comWeb. 6 Apr 2012. <http://mashable.com/2012/02/29/social-consumer-infographic/>.

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