Ah PowerPoint, the thing that everyone seems to loathe when they walk into a meeting yet still, when it comes time for them to present something, it’s the first tool they look to for getting their idea across. Indeed in my professional career I’ve spent many hours standing in front of a projection screen, the wall behind me illuminated by slide after slide of information I was hoping to convey to my audience, jabbering on about what the words behind me meant. It seems that every year there’s someone calling for the death of the defacto presentation tool with them lamenting its use in many well publicised scandals and failures. However like the poor workman who blames his tools PowerPoint is not responsible for much of the ills aimed at it. That, unfortunately, lies with the people who use it.
PowerPoint, like every Microsoft Office product, when put in the hands of the masses ends up being used in ways that it never should have been. This does not necessarily mean the tool is bad, indeed I’d like to see a valid argument for the death of say Word given the grave misuses it has been put to, more that it was likely not the most appropriate medium for the message it was trying to convey or the audience it was presented to. When used in its most appropriate setting, which I contend is as a sort of public prompt card for both the speaker and the audience, PowerPoint works exceptionally well for conveying ideas and concepts. What it’s not great at doing is presenting complex data in a readily digestible format.
But then again there are very few tools that can.
You see many of the grave misgivings that have been attributed to PowerPoint are the result of its users attempting to cram an inordinate amount of information into a single panel, hoping that it somehow all makes its way across to the audience. PowerPoint, on its own, simply does not have the capability to distill information down in that matter and as such relies on the user’s ability to do that. If the user then lacks the ability to do that both coherent and accurately then the result will, obviously, not be usable. There’s no real easy solution to this as creating infographics that convey real information in a digestible format is a world unto itself but blaming the tool for the ills of its users, and thus calling for the banning of its use, seems awfully shortsighted.
Indeed if it was not for PowerPoint then it would be another one of the Microsoft Office suite that would be met with the same derision as they all have the capability to display information in some capacity, just not in the format that most presentations follow. Every time people have lamented PowerPoint to me I’ve asked them to suggest an alternative tool that solves the issues they speak of and every time I have not recieved a satisfactory answer. The fact of the matter is that, as a presentation tool, PowerPoint is one of the top in its class and that’s why so many turn to it. The fact that it’s found at the center of a lot of well publicised problems isn’t because of its problematic use, just that it’s the most popular tool to use.
What really needs to improve is the way in which take intricate and complex data and distill that down to its essence for imparting it on others. This is an incredibly wide and diverse problem space, one that entire companies have founded their business models on. It is not something that we pin on a simple presentation tool, it is a fundamental shift away from thinking that complex ideas can be summed up in a handful words and a couple pretty pictures. Should we want to impart knowledge upon someone else then it is up to us to take them on that journey, crafting an experience that leaves them with enough information for them to be able to impart that idea on someone else. If you’re not capable of doing nor PowerPoint nor any other piece of software will help you.
Imagine a social gathering, you’re familiar with most of the people there but not all of them so you’ve been engaging with some small talk so you don’t spend the next 4 hours being that weird guy in the corner. Amongst the varying commentary about weather, local sports teams and what have you inevitably the conversation turns to what you all do for a living. Now for most people this is usually a one liner followed by a few back and forths over a few minor details and then it’s off to the other topic of conversation. There are some notable exceptions of course usually when your job is in an industry like IT, medical or (one of the more recent additions to this club) app development. If you dare mention you’re in one of these industries it’s highly likely that someone will launch into a description of their problems or start giving you ideas for their great iPhone app.
Being someone who fits into 2 of these categories (IT and a budding app developer) I get this kind of thing all the time, especially when I’m visiting a friend of a friend who I haven’t met before. Mostly it’s pretty harmless and I don’t mind taking some time out to help people as long as it doesn’t become a recurring theme. Of course IT problems don’t usually exist in isolation so more often than not I’ll be called upon again to come back at which point I usually tell people my going rate and watch the problem evaporate rather quickly. What a lot of people fail to realise is that whilst we might do something for a living we don’t necessarily enjoy doing it out of work, especially if we’ve just spent our whole day doing it.
It’s for that reason alone that I don’t bother people with questions about their professions in a social setting, kind of a common courtesy from someone who knows what they’re going through. I’ll admit it’s not easy sometimes, especially if I have an idea for a project that I want someone to work with me on, but there are much better ways to approach someone than accosting them the second you find out that they could be useful to you.
New app ideas are probably the worst out of the lot as many people are convinced their ideas are fantastic and all they need is you for a couple hours to just bang it out for them. Luckily for me I can tell them that the last app I tried to develop took about a year and barely lead anywhere but even that doesn’t deter some of the more enthusiastic punters. It’s even worse that I completely understand their motivations too as I tried hard to get other people excited about the idea but inevitably you can only talk about something for so long before people just don’t want to hear about it anymore.
It’s for that exact reason that I haven’t been talking at all about my most recent project, except in the most general terms. There’s also a multitude of other factors as well (like first mover advantage, which I believe I have in this case) but it also comes down to a the fact that talking about your goals triggers the same neurological response as actually completing them. Thus I feel those who are approaching me to develop an idea for them have already got what they needed (that feeling of completion) and attempting to follow the idea to its conclusion is usually an exercise in futility.
Even though we’re all familiar with the old adage of “Genius is: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” the opposite seems to hold true for commonly held opinions about ideas. The notion that all it takes is an amazing idea to realize your dreams (made worse by the fact that people think iPhone apps are just so damn easy to make) and so the second they get something they think is novel suddenly the hard part is over. Being someone who’s had 50+ of those “amazing” ideas and only been able to execute a couple of them I can tell you the easy part is getting an idea, the hard part is tuning out everything else and working solidly on that idea for months on end. So you should really ask yourself “Would I be willing to work on this day in day out in order for it to succeed?” and if you’re answer is anything but an unconditional yes then you should wonder why others would bother to work on it with you.
Like many engineers I have trouble with throwing out things that are potentially useful. I’ve got several containers stuffed with computer parts, a few more laden with electronics bits and a shed full of other miscellanea that I have a hard time writing off as completely useless. Thankfully at least once a year I’ll do a clean out of the entire house and any of the real trash will get tossed at that point, meaning that most of the stuff I have actually has some potential to be used. My hoarder tendencies have also led me down the rather unexpected path of self discovery and brought insight into some of our societal norms.
One of the things I find hard to let go of are my socks. Like anyone I’d do a wash only to find myself one or two socks short, leaving me with at best mismatched pairs and at worst socks that were never to be used again. For the longest time I can remember just quietly cursing under my breath and tossing them into a pile, never to be looked at again. Then one day I accidentally chucked that entire pile of socks into my regular wash and interestingly enough I came out of it with many more pairs of socks than what came in. It was then I realised that for the most part my missing socks weren’t missing at all, they had either been misplaced or a complete pair had been sitting in the lost socks pile for however long. From then on I have continued the ritual of rifling through my lost sock drawer every time I find myself coming up short and around 75% of the time I find myself with a completed pair once again.
This experience got me thinking about how we as a society come to accept certain inevitabilities simply because the are accepted by everyone. It’s a well known “fact” that washing machines somehow eat a sock every so often and with that idea firmly implanted in your head you don’t think twice about it when you come up short in the wash every week. Of course most people are rational beings and if you really push the topic they’ll eventually cave and say that they’ve probably misplaced them somewhere but rarely do I hear of anyone trying to figure out a solution to it.
I hadn’t really considered the idea passed “Hey I can find most of my lost socks if I just keep them all” until I watched TED Talk by Kathryn Schulz titled On Being Wrong:
At its heart the idea that a washing machine can magically disappear socks is wrong, they’re simply not designed that way. Realistically the blame lies with us for having misplaced them but admitting that to ourselves is much harder than laying blame on some external, uncontrollable factor. We’re much more comfortable believing we’re right about the washing machines working against us than taking that leap into thinking we’re wrong and working out a solution. Taking this one step further its easy to see when people become trapped in these notions that they believe are right when objectively they’re completely wrong and there’s usually a path to follow to remedy it.
Just like my Straight Line Theory before it the Lost Sock Theory came about not through hours of philosophical study but just a realisation through going about my normal, everyday life. Perhaps its my engineering bent that causes me to seek out problems like this and work on their solutions as I often find myself seeing analogies in everyday life to philosophical ideals. Indeed it is my hope that in sharing these ideas with you that you too will embark on a similar path of self discovery, or at least find some of those socks that have gone walk about.
So I’ve decided to try my hand at being a game developer after spending way too many hours thinking about it and wanting to do something more exciting than developing yet another web application. This isn’t the first time I’ve tried my hand at developing games either, I did a semester long course in games development back when I was in university. That course still rates as one of the most fun and interesting semesters I ever spent there, especially when your games were put up against the harshest critics I’ve ever met: the lecturer’s two kids. After finishing that course however I never really continued to try and make games until a mate of mine introduced me to Unity.
For a straight up programmer like myself Unity is a bit of an odd beast. The Unity editor reminded me of the brief foray I had with 3D Studio Max back in college, as it sported many of the same features like the split screen viewport and right hand column with all object’s properties in it. It’s very easy to navigate around and it didn’t take me long to whip up a simple littlesolar system simulator, albeit one that lacks any form of gameplay or semblance of realism. Still being able to go from never having used the product before to making something that would’ve taken me weeks in the space of a single weekend was pretty exciting, so I started about working on my game idea.
So of course the first game I want to make is based in space and the demo I’ve linked to before was the first steps to realizing the idea. It was however very unrealistic as the motion of the planet is governed by simply tracing out a circle, with no hint of gravity to influence things. Additionally the relative sizes and distances were completely ludicrous so I first set about making things a little more realistic to satisfy the scientist in me. Doing some rough calculations and devising my own in game scale (1 unit = 1,000KM) I made everything realistic and the result was pretty tragic.
The sun took up the vast majority of the screen until you zoomed out to crazy levels, at which point I couldn’t find where the hell my little planet had gotten off to. After panning around for a bit I saw it hiding about 4 meters above the top of my monitor, indistinguishable from the grey background it sat on. Considering this game will hopefully be played on mobile phones and tablets the thought of having to scroll like a madman constantly didn’t seem like a fantastic idea, and I relegated myself to ditching realism in favor of better gameplay. My artistic friend said we should go for something like “stylized physics”, which seems quite apt for the idea we’re going after.
It might seem obvious but the idea of suspending parts of reality for the sake of game play is what makes so many games we play today fun. The Call of Duty series of games would be no where near as fun if you got shot once in the arm and then proceeded to spend the next hour screaming for a medic, only to not be able to go back into the mission for another couple weeks while your avatar recuperated. The onus is on the developer however to find that right balance of realism and fantasy so that the unrealistic parts flow naturally into the realistic, creating a game experience that’s both fun and doesn’t make the player think that it’s an unrealistic (or unfathomable) mess.
I’m sure my walk down the game developer road will be littered with many obvious-yet-unrealized revelations like these and even my last two weeks with Unity have been a bit of an eye opener for me. Like with any of my endeavors I’ll be posting up our progress for everyone to have a fiddle with over in The Lab and I’ll routinely be pestering everyone for feedback. Since I’m not going at this solo anymore hopefully progress will be a little bit more speedy than with my previous projects and I’ll spend a lot less time talking about it 🙂
If I’m honest I can’t really tell you where the inspiration for Lobaco came from. Sure the idea itself is pretty simple (what’s going on there?) but I can’t really tell you what place or event first inspired me. The pursuit of the idea itself is much easier as it basically comes down to my inner dialog that constantly shouts put up or shut up at the back of my head and I felt hypocritical telling people to aggressively pursue their goals if I myself didn’t do the same thing. The 3 redesigns and one renaming Lobaco have much more solid roots having all stemmed from taking a break from developing and then taking a fresh look at the work I was doing.
Most of the inspiration came from a conscious desire to improve the product. In an effort to duplicate what I currently perceived as success many of the changes came from me taking ideas from places like Twitter and Foursquare and wrangling them into my product. Some of these ideas worked quite well like the UI redesign that took some serious cues from Twitter (large post box in the middle of the screen, 3 column layout) and others like the achievement service which mirrored Foursquare’s badge system (only has one unlockable, First Post!) proved to be a whole lot of effort for not a whole lot of gain. If you’re one of the brave souls testing the iPhone client (you can sign up here) you’ll notice that the latter feature is completely absent, for that exact reason.
Unconsciously however I believe I was thinking that Lobaco would end up being the platform upon which location based communication would be done. Sure many of the design decisions I made like making the API RESTful and JSON based were to increase cross-platform compatibility but ultimately I knew that the real power was being a platform, and even blogged to that effect. Whilst I don’t believe Lobaco suffered unduly because of this I hadn’t really considered the influence that outside forces were having on me subconsciously until 4chan creator Christopher “moot” Poole said this:
One of the biggest startup cliches is that every other startup wants to become a platform for other startups to build on. But to Christopher Poole, the founder of Canvas and 4Chan, that is the wrong approach. “People get caught up in trends—game mechanics, building a platform,” he tells Chris Dixon in the Founder Stories video above. Instead of trying to copy what works for others, founders should “focus on building what you love, focus on the product and building the community.”
He doesn’t understand “this obsession with building platforms. Focus on building something worth scaling. You don’t even have something worthy of an API yet. Focus on users and have them fall in love with your thing.” Amen.
Indeed many of the ideas I had emulated in Lobaco were done because I saw other successful companies doing them and figured that they would work for me as well. In reality I would have been much better served by focusing on the core product, refining the idea to the point where its utility was obvious to anyone. Since the idea was hinged on the idea of localized information I probably should have done things backwards, getting the core handset product right before attempting to bring it onto the web. That would have forced me to cut all of the fat out of the application, lest I create a cluttered and useless handset experience.
No matter how hard you try to fight it you will always be influenced by your experiences and for an information junkie like myself this meant that the service I was building emulated those which I considered most successful. My latest endeavor (which shall remain a secret, for now) is already showing signs of this kind of influence but I’m at least taking the lessons learned from Lobaco and applying them aggressively. I’m hoping this current project will be the fast track to self-sustainability that I’ve been hungering after for almost 2 years now and hopefully the time spent in the trenches for Lobaco will pay dividends in bringing this project to fruition.
I’ve been an on again, off again developer ever since my first year of university. I wasn’t particularly good at it either and it took me a good year of slogging through various programming languages before the penny finally dropped when I started using C#. After that initial hump however I found it much easier to pick up on new languages and technologies which has ultimately culminated in me attempting to create my own web application from the ground up, something I would’ve seen as impossible just a few years ago. It’s just over a year and a half since I began work on my pet project and in that time it’s gone through 3 complete rewrites, 4 redesigns and several months of me staring at a computer screen wondering if this is the best thing to do with my time.
It was that little hater getting into my head again.
I hadn’t really been thinking about much until a friend of mine commented on how he’d noticed that my writings indicated I was getting tired of developing Lobaco. After thinking about it for a while I knew he was right, the long weekends spent coding and testing had been taking their toll on me mentally. I had begun to fantasise about other applications I could be developing or other hobbies I could pick up, losing hours in research. After a while they started to meld together and my new found hobbies were turning into other potential start up ideas and I began lusting after them as they began to look so much more tangible than Lobaco. It was the dreaded unknowing procrastination beginning to slip in again and I had been welcoming it willingly.
As Jay Smooth put so aptly it was being in the thick of creation for so long that was making me lose sight of the end game. I’ve been writing on this blog for over 2 years now and there have been many times I’ve thought I should just give it up and shut the whole thing down (I would gain a considerable amount of time per day back again) but every time I get a comment either here or in real life I know that the work I do here is appreciated and it keeps me going that much longer. I’ve finally come to terms with the fact that some days I just won’t be able to find anything to write about and that doesn’t mean this blog is worthless. Still I do enjoy blogging and when I’ve got a topic I’m passionate about I feel it shows and it’s posts like that that keep me coming back every day in the hopes I’ll hit on one of those topics.
Ever since that realisation I’ve been making great strides with the Lobaco iPhone application. Last weekend was probably my most productive ever with 4 core features being implemented and many improvements made thanks to some open source libraries I hadn’t come across before. Now it feels like I’ve hit one of those points where my progress as an iPhone developer is accelerating and my formerly hacker style approach is now becoming more standardized and new features are just rolling off my fingers. I’ve still got a couple months of development effort ahead of me before I’ll be releasing the iPhone application to beta testers but now its only a matter of time rather than the impossible mountain it used to be.
I guess this is why the majority of start ups are founded with more than just a single person. It’s so easy to get lost in your own world when you’re trying to bring an idea into reality and having someone there beside you really helps to keep you in the game and focused on the goal. Whilst I haven’t found anyone (yet, but I’m still looking!) who’s willing to go on this startup journey with me my group of close friends have acted as the sounding board and grounding rod that’s gotten me this far into the project. The next few months are going to be the make or break time for Lobaco but with the progress I’ve made in just the past couple weeks I have a much renewed level of confidence, and a desire to succeed that is yet to be satiated.