Triage – an app that lives up to its hype

April 24, 2013 Leave a comment

There are two possible explanations when the best thing of your week turned out to be the discovery of an email productivity app.

One is that it was a very bad week – and last week wouldn’t be collecting an award for the most stellar seven days of my life, not the worst – but definitely sitting middling to poor.

But the other explanation is that I actually discovered an app that lives up to its hype  – and that is no small thing.

It’s called Triage and it’s from Wellington innovation house Southgate Labs. It is awesome. Period.

Triage email app

Triage by Southgate Labs

Triage is so simple. Once you sign in with your Gmail, Yahoo, ICloud or any other IMAP email account it gives you a screen with your emails represented as cards with just enough information to be able to see what the email is about. The ones you want to keep you swipe up the ones you don’t want you swipe down. You can click on an email to read the full thing. And that’s it.

It’s not about engaging with the individual emails (although you can write brief replies if you want to) – it’s about organising your inbox so you are left with only the important emails. The aim is that you can then can go into your inbox later and suddenly it’s all sorted and relevant. The app is only available for IOS at the moment but judging by the international blogging and media attention it’s getting I would imagine Southgate Labs would be building on its success on other platforms.

Southgate Labs founder Rowan Simpson has written an engaging blog about the genesis of the idea – which is well worth a read for an insight into our innovation is born. The final spark came from his colleague Michael Koziarski (Koz) who asked:

“Imagine if there was an app that let me use a spare 5 minutes here and there to quickly filter out all of the emails which I can just read and delete, so that when I get back to my desk I only have to deal with the messages which require a bit more thought and attention”.

“Wouldn’t it be better if the inbox on your phone was just the new messages which have arrived since the last time you checked.”

“What I really need is something which forces me to do something with each message one at a time, rather than presenting an overwhelming list of unread messages, that I just end up scrolling back and forth through without ever really dealing to at all.”

Triage does that. It’s so simple it’s genius. Apply First Aid to you inbox now – get it here.

Flabby finances and fit bodies

April 15, 2013 3 comments

You would think personal finance management – the art of managing your money and achieving goals – would be the easiest thing to provide an online solution for.

That was certainly the thinking three or four years ago when every bank worth its salt started developing online tools that allowed customers to get a rich and useful picture of their overall finances – Kiwibank’s Heaps is an example.

heaps logo

Heaps! personal finance management

I mean it makes perfect logical sense – every bank has a wealth of transactional information that, when packaged right, can provide a huge amount of insight into where a customer’s money is going and also through automation take out all the hard work of having to manually pull together a budget.

This was the topic of a great cubicle conversation with one of my colleagues this week. D and I have been working together for the past five years on a number of major online projects – including online personal finance management.

Now D is probably one of the fittest and strongest men I know as he puts his body through a regular gym/cross fitness regime every week – and has done so as long as I’ve been working with him. His physical and mental discipline have given him a toned and hard-muscled body that would put most of us to shame. That’s his thing and even through major life interventions such as children, injury, work pressure he has kept at the training and never stopped.

My thing is Aikido. I’ve been training three times a week for as long as D and I have been working together – so it’s a good common bond that can set off some good conversations about the physical and mental sacrifices and rewards you get from long-term, dedication to doing something positive with your body.

And that’s how we got to talking about the similarities between personal finance management and physical body management – whether that be the cross-training gym, the dojo or even an organisation like Weightwatchers or Jenny Craig.

“Never be too rich…”

I don’t think there’s one person I know who wouldn’t have just a little sympathy for Wallace Simpson’s notorious quote that: “One can’t be too rich or too thin”.  By that I mean probably 95% of us would love to be a few kilograms lighter and a few thousand dollars richer. Not obsessively thinner or richer – just in control of both.

The trouble is 95 per cent of people who attempt to lose weight fail. This year it’s estimated in the US  100 million people are dieting trying to achieve the latter part of Mrs Simpson’s edict. It’s a billion dollar industry but for most it is a cyclical pattern of joining a gym or weight-loss program in January and abandonment sometime after.

With trying to get your finances into shape it’s a similar pattern – even with tools that take out all the hard work. Some people do stick at it religiously – but they are the people who were running a budget on a spreadsheet before they got these great online tools.

Finance writer Amanda Morrall says the trick is not to treat personal finances as something separate from the rest of your life. In her latest book Money Matters: Get Your Life and $$$ Sorted, Morrall looks at how average people, with ordinary  jobs, have achieved financial management, and indeed wealth, through actually connecting with their true selves. It’s a powerful insight and a great book that combines solutions with motivating tips to get people living the life they should be living.

A quote in the book has been resounding in my head since reading it. Morrall quotes the Dalai Lama responding to a question about what surprised him most about humanity:

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices his money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die; and then dies having never really lived.”

I think that describes too many of us.

Common link

But back to my cubicle conversation with D. After a bit we found a common link between building physical strength and muscle; mastering a martial art; losing weight and keeping it off or spending less than you earn and building wealth. What’s the secret?

I think it’s a mixture of truly understanding what your life’s purpose is and, as Morrall writes, building your life around that. Otherwise you end up risking falling “into the trap of consumption where financial vampires are only too willing to take advantage of your vulnerability and exploit your financial weaknesses”.

Joining a gym or a dojo or a weightloss programme are pretty much in the same vein as opening up a tool like Heaps, Xero or Sorted. They are all capable of enabling a life-changing action – but only if they can be coupled with some internal motivation to make a life-changing action.

True it may only take one small step to begin the journey – and online can be a powerful source of sparks of inspiration – but the first step must be followed by many others heading in the same direction to get somewhere meaningful.

Creating personality online

March 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Kiwibank customers have been engaging with their Online Relationship Managers for a a year or so now.

Kiwibank ORM

Kiwibank Online Relationship Manager Becks on mobile

I have written about our unique online customer champions before and they also received a fair amount of media attention (for a banking innovation) when we put them into the Kiwibank mobile banking app on IOS and Android. And to cap off the publicity they won the 2012 NZ Innovators Award for Marketing and Communications late last year.

The rationale behind the Online Relationship Managers (or the Oh-Ar-Ems as they have become known at Kiwibank) was to reinvent the traditional personal banking relationship model for customers who are now more at home in a digital world rather than a bricks and mortar one. And, as most banks know, that’s a mobile digital world these days.

The good old days

The traditional, 20th Century-style relationship manager is someone you meet when you first join the bank at a branch somewhere in town. Most people meet them once and then probably won’t see them again until there’s a life-change moment requiring a lending or investment decision e.g. you need a bigger house; want to go on a trip; upgrade the car etc. This happens maybe every couple of years or so. If you’re like me you try and deal with bank relationship managers mostly by email – rather than sacrifice a lunchtime walking down to the branch and sitting in an office for an hour.

And if you get a good one the irony is you probably won’t have them very long because the bank, for good reasons, will probably promote them and they’ll be off become a branch manager somewhere else. With my first bank after coming back to New Zealand from the UK I had three relationship managers in four years. It didn’t bother me too much because I knew I was just another name in a very long list of customers and I tried to keep my dealings with them to emails, because it was easier for the few interactions I had.

The first was reasonably extrovert and bubbly late-20s early 30s woman and sorted out my mortgage; the next was sporty-looking late 30s-early 40s Kiwi bloke who during my set up for internet banking managed to misspell my log in name so I’ve had to misspell it ever since. Maybe not a biggie – and probably made it more secure – but I’ve still always felt that I’ve had to carry a small bank error with me in every online interaction.

The third was a down-to-earth 40-something proud Mum of two who nailed a “moment of truth” refinancing request at a critical time for me and my family. And she also gave me a humorous insight into how her bank set and communicated its interest rates by cheerily sharing with me some insider stories as she tapped away at her computer.

Good eggs each and every one of them – although as I only got to meet each of them once over that four year period I never felt we were that connected.

My banking rite of passage

My interactions with these relationship managers were very different from the first experience I can remember with a bank manager. I would have been about 11 or 12 and my father took me down to our bank branch in Ashburton as “it was about time you met the people at the bank”.  As we approached the glossy pale-wood varnished counter a female teller greeted Dad. Behind her a large man in a dark suit and tie appeared from out of an office and, with a very hale and hearty salutation, came from behind the counter and pumped Dad’s hand. Dad introduced me and said he “thought it was about time my son met the Bank” in a kind of jokey fashion.

The Bank Manager turned his full attention to me, looking me right in the eye and shaking my hand, my other hand clutching the cash to deposit. As my face grew redder as a result of this unrelenting adult attention – he told me how pleased he would be to look after my money over the years. He asked if I wanted to give over that money, I looked to Dad and he nodded approval of this action. I was then directed to the teller where I went through the process of handing over my cash and receiving a passbook with the cash translated into a single entry in blue pen, dated, stamped and signed. The teller explained that over time the bank would pay me interest on what money was in the account – so the more I put in (ie the less I spent on trips to Christchurch toy shops) the more money the bank would pay me.

As we left the bank I felt like I had been inducted through a rite of passage. I had been given an insight into an engine of society and met an engineer who managed that engine. He knew my Dad and now me – so I was now inextricably linked by more than just my passbook and some numbers in it. The Bank Manager knew my name and my face and even though I knew my humble finances were small in this scheme of things – they were now generating interest, both financial and personal. And therefore I was now a person of interest.

And as with many other experiences in life that was the glamour moment of banking for me. After that it was vanilla and in the background as banking became more and more commoditised. Like buying toothpaste or petrol – the only standout experience being Barclays in the UK who gave me a fantastic student package which made the difference during my university years. I stuck with them for 10 years after that before being seduced by a revolving home loan deal with a building society.

For most of us the bank managers of old, who knew you, your business and your family, and could exercise that personal touch at moments of truth have gone the way of the Moa and the Dodo. Their replacements, while decent people, aren’t set up by banks to be anything more than a pale comparison. And most of us don’t have the time or inclination to troop down to their office to engage – what’s the point if there’s no real personality to deal with. You might as well do an email.

Putting the personality back into personal banking

So what if you could have a real individual to look after your banking with all the convenience of online, to ensure your interaction with the bank was on your terms? That’s what we asked ourselves at Kiwibank and came up with the Online Relationship Managers – the relationship managers for 21st century banking but for all our online customers. They would turn the traditional model on its head by focusing on three key problems that came out of customer research :

1. I want to be treated as an individual;

2. I want the convenience of delegating my issues online:

3: I want to deal with one person

What was key was that the service experience had to embody the values of Kiwibank – Make It Easy, Do What’s Right, Raise The Bar and Go Further Together. To be a part of Kiwibank you really have to sign up to these – it’s the only place I’ve worked where they are not just lip-service.The hardest conversations we had in the project were about how we could ensure the Online Relationship Managers would live up to these values. In my opinion they are our Taonga and what make the difference in our service experience.

The easiest decision was to put the Online Relationship Managers onto our mobile app. The internet is now all about mobility and this suddenly meant customers now have a bank in the palm of their hand.

But at the heart of it,  our Online Relationship Managers are not about technology – it’s a service innovation by putting people into an internet banking environment that has been purely about transactional information in the past.

The reaction of customers has been fascinating. There have been two marriage requests; a few “fancy dinner?” invites; regular delight at being wished a happy birthday or Kiwibank anniversary date.

ORM FB comment 2

The most heart-warming was from a woman who needed help to finance a trip for a relative who was dying of cancer and whose problem was sorted out by their Online Relationship Manager.

Bill Gates once famously prophesised that society needed banking, but not necessarily banks. Banks that have looked to gain scale by automating and removing the human factor are living up to that statement. Banking has always been more than a ledger and without personality in the online environment, Bill Gates’ words are bang on.

Paper record players and utopian newspapers

March 11, 2013 Leave a comment
Kelli Anderson

Kelli Anderson (pic courtesy of Webstock Flickr stream)

Kelli Anderson uses design to subvert the everyday through surreal, absurd experiences.

At Webstock 2013 she captivated her audience with a through-the-looking-glass demonstration of the art of the unexpected.

Her paper record player wedding invitation for two musical friends was literally a playful interaction with the physical creation of sound. Using paper, a medium usually associated with visual, but silent art she created a very retro, yet timeless artefact of her friends doing what they love. With love.

In 2008 she collaborated on a meticulously recreated copy of the New York Times — filled only with articles from a Utopian future. The team wrote the entire newspaper, including advertisements, and  created a print run of 80,000 copies of the newspaper and then distributed on the streets of New York one morning.

The reaction of New Yorkers is fascinating as their everyday, habitual fix of the daily news is suddenly turned on its head as they begin to digest what they are reading.

As her Webstock programme details note, Kelli Anderson is an artist creating projects that refuse to behave in the expected way. And in doing so she causes us to re-examine the ordinary and challenges us to look again at the everyday.

Webstock 2013 – Aza Raskin: “Embrace failure and fail forward”

March 4, 2013 Leave a comment

“The problem is, we don’t understand the problem”

Aza Raskin Webstock Flickr 2013

Aza Raskin at Webstock 2013 (Image from Webstock 2013 Flickr stream)

Former creative head for Firefox and named one of the world’s top 40 designers by Fast Company, Aza Raskin, turns design issues inside out. His programme notes from Webstock claim: “It’s not about thinking outside the box. It’s about finding the right box to think inside. The power of constraints is learning to choose the right problem.”

To make his point he uses the story of  US mechanical engineer Paul MacCready who was the designer of the first human-powered aircraft. MacCready was the eventual winner of a competition set up in 1959 by a British industry magnate, Henry Kremer, who waged £50,000 to anyone who could make a human-powered aircraft. He also offered £100,000 for a successful crossing of the English Channel in such an aircraft. Almost two decades later the prize money was still with Kremer and the wreckages of failed attempts lay abandoned in hangars and garages.

MacCready took up the challenge. As Raskin retells: “He came to the startling realization that people were solving the wrong problem. ‘The problem is,’ he said, ‘that we don’t understand the problem’.”

His insight was that innovators would spend up to a year creating an aircraft based on theory and design, without empirical tests, which would then crash on first flight. Or the pilot would ditch the plane exhausted. The team would then take the learning and go back to the drawing board and wheel out another version a year or so later. MacCready’s Satori-like moment was that they were all solving the wrong problem.

Says Raskin: “He came up with a new problem that he set out to solve: how can you build a plane that could be rebuilt in hours not months.”

Being able to iterate a new version in hours, not months, meant MacCready and team had innovated the design process to a point where six months later, in 1978, his Gossamer Condor flew 2.1km and took the Kremer prize. A year later – 20 years after Kremer set the challenge –  his Gossamer Albatross crossed the Channel.

For Raskin, MacCready’s genius was that he embraced failure and “failed forward” and created a great design because of the necessary constraints, rather than despite them.

“It’s not about thinking outside the box it’s about finding the right box to think inside”, says Raskin. He cites Japanese Haiku; Monet’s constraint of hues; InstagramSnap Chat and the Polish architect who designed a one-metre-wide house between two other buildings as further examples of the genius idea born of strict parameters.

He offers research that has shown thinking there’s an obstacle actually makes humans think more laterally by forcing us out of habitual, safe thinking. Apparently it’s even been proven that a detour on the journey home leads to a greater likelihood of the commuter changing what they will have for dinner that night.

“In problem solving or design, the part where you should spend the most time is at the start rather than on the solution.”

For Raskin constraints are just focused obstacles
1. That preclude reliable already recognised answers
2. That promote novel ones
3. That help you fail forward

Webstock 2013 – Clay Johnson

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Clay Johnson

The man who created Obama’s election site, Clay Johnson, kicked things off at Webstock 2013 with a presentation that possibly should’ve been the grande finale.

Clay Johnson at Webstock 2013

Clay Johnson at Webstock 2013 (Image from Webstock 2013 Flickr stream)

Like a surgeon performing Bariatric procedure he carefully laid open the flabby body of media we have today – where the news we get is saccharine and designed to affirm the perceptions of the mass market consumer, rather than challenging.

“MSNBC tells the ‘Left’ what they want to hear. Fox News tells the ‘Right’ what they want to hear.”

It’s an old adage that a society gets the news it deserves and Johnson’s prescription for the consumer was to use a diet analogy and treat news like food. Opinion may taste better than fact-based news in the same way that pizza tastes better than broccoli, but opinion-based news also comes with side-effects you don’t get with green veges. So as with managing food, he advises we need to consciously consume news – rather than unthinkingly graze through the day on the content equivalent of fried potatoes or meat.

He made five recommendations:

  1. Consciously consume – write down content you consume for a week and analyse it to see when you were consuming, what it was and whether it added value.
  2. Schedule your daily social media or TV consumption ‘urges’. “Time is our true non- renewable resource. You can always get more money but not more time.”
  3. Go local with your news consumption – be aware of your local environment. You can influence more at a local level, so understand what’s going on in your backyard.
  4. Be a producer rather than consumer. Take action/react rather than just passively consume. He gave each delegate the challenge of writing 500 words before 8am every day. Johnson said he treats this as if it were gym – stretch and strengthen the mind on a daily basis. Become mentally active in a way that adds to the betterment of humanity.
  5. Enable whole news movement. Support content rather than advertising. “Every click we make is an ethical choice – we vote for more of that.”

Johnson’s presentation left me with two other thoughts that have been ringing in my ears since the conference. The first that in 10 years time people who don’t get computers will be same as people now who can’t read. And there’s a lot of people risk being left behind in this transformation.

Threat to society?

But he also talked to an even more worrisome future state where the sheep-like affirmation-centric behaviour of digital consumers clicking on the advertising links they are given by the likes of Facebook or other online behemoths, slowly transforms the rights and liberties that sustain our society.

Facebook’s business model is to mine personal data and use that for advertising  – as a publicly listed company the pressure from Wall Street to deliver on this logically means Facebook’s hunger for our personal data will only increase. Which, to some, may make them the most dangerous company on earth.

And if you follow this argument of a now global profit-driven organisation reliant on extracting ever more personal details of its members to supply ever more relevant advertising   – well, you can get to quite a dark place. It is dark because it’s about driving consumer behaviour through advertising that is based on very good data about who we are as individuals – but on a global scale.

Now one could argue that advertising has been doing this for decades, based on focus groups and quantitative data from surveys – but there’s never been a platform where one organisation can record whatever intimate details and relationships that members share with friends, in such detail and on a global scale.

We have a choice
Of course, at the end of the day, we all have a choice with our level of engagement in social media. We don’t have to put all our lives in updates and tweets for the world to consume. But Facebook has a decidedly chequered history on privacy issues – graph search is the latest to raise concerns. And the stories of young gay people being outed to their parents because of the often opaque nature of Facebook’s privacy settings calls into question how much “choice” Facebook really allows members.

But Johnson’s underlying message – and a theme that continued throughout Webstock – was that there is the potential of a  positive outcome for society as we as individuals act in a more discerning way. By not blindly consuming, by focusing our attention rather than abdicating it, on an individual basis we can ensure a brighter future – despite the commercial pressures of the internet giants of today.

“A billion people dictating how people communicate and interact is law,” said Johnson.

Our choice is whether we want a future driven by advertising clicks, or  or future driven by betterment of humanity.

Webstock and why it’s life-changing

February 24, 2013 Leave a comment

Has Webstock become the greatest internet conference of the century?

Webstock 2013

Webstock 2013 opening (Webstock Flickr stream)

Last week was my fourth Webstock and the fact that I describe it as an experience rather than just as a plain event (“fourth time I went to Webstock”) is an indication of the intensely powerful and inspirational feelings it leaves you with.

In fact Boing Boing described this year’s as “the most radical” tech conference ever.

What is Webstock? It’s a web technology and design conference and workshops held here in Wellington every February since 2006 and which attracts the great and good from the global internet community to present to, this year, 875 delegates.

The calibre of international speakers attracted to this New Zealand conference is high and in itself attracts many delegates who travel also from the US and Europe to listen and participate.

Speakers from the past include software luminaries such as Ben Goodger (Firefox/Google); Nat Torkington (Perl); Michael Lopp (Apple/Palantir); Thomas Fuchs (Ruby); Kathy Sierra (Creating Passionate Users); Technologists such as Tom Coates; Scott Hanselman; writers like Bruce Sterling and Lauren Beukes; designers like Jared Spool and John Gruber; entrepreneurs such as Sam Morgan; Eric Ries; Jim Coudal; Derek Handley and Tony Hsieh; musicians and artists like Jason Webley; Amanda Fucking Palmer; Scott McCloud and The Oatmeal and even a Hollywood big hitter like Michael B Johnson.

Despite the variety of the 24 or so speakers across the conference, individual Webstocks seem to coalesce into a theme over the two days of presentations.There is always a huge amount of pure design; UX and technology inspiration but each year the carefully crafted programme appears to want to leave you with a deeper. more soul-searching message.

I remember 2010 feeling particularly entrepreneurial in nature, with the likes of lean start-up guru Eric Ries and Digg founder Kevin Rose. 2011 felt like we’d learnt how to create a cool internet business and were now making the product look beautiful and inspiring; 2012 felt like a mid-life realisation that it wasn’t all about the money and we need to be doing greater things for humanity to live with ourselves; and this year it felt like the what-the-hell-have-we-let-happen-to-our-internet? moment.

Like other attendees I spoke to I left Webstock with my brain overflowing with an ever-expanding mixture of inspiration, insight and philosophical questions. Last year I kept the pages of notes I took on my desk and used them for an injection of the above when the metaphorical skies were grey and drive to do good in my work waned. In terms of getting me back into a creative, dynamic space it beat the coffee or the snack machine every time.

This year I want to use this blog to expand on my notes and pull out some of the speakers and thoughts that I think are worth sharing.

My first piece looks at the thoughts of Clay Johnson.

NB: For other notes on Webstock 2013 the shining light is Mike Riversdale’s (@MiramarMike) shared note taking on Google docs. While one may not agree with all his opinions, Mike has become a Webstock recorder of note and an invaluable repository of goodness from the week. Scoop also has a briefer file notes overview on Webstock 2013.