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8ninths Deep Dive 001 – Home Automation and Outstanding App Design

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We all lead busy lives and for many of us it’s critical to keep up on the latest and greatest tech. To help out, we put together a new video series with Deep Dives on products we have on our radar. We filmed these in Mystery Science Theater style thanks to our partners at B47 Studios.

In the first episode we chat about innovators who are making a splash in home automation, on Android and iOS design:

  1. Dropcam (5 min): Adam reviews the home-automated security camera. See live feeds from the cameras at his new house.
  2. Roadtrippers (7 min): Emily gives us the scoop on the road-trip planning service after using it to plan her Grand Canyon vacation.
  3. Magisto (6 min): Jessica demonstrates the ease of turning your everyday videos and photos into memorable movies with the automated moviemaker.

We hope you find these entertaining & useful. If you have suggestions for products in our future episodes, please let us know.

Your 8ninths team

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8ninths is a Seattle based digital design and development studio.  Our digital artists and seasoned strategists love exploring new and emerging technologies.  Stay tuned for our next episode, where we continue our deep dives on home automation, internet of things and outstanding app design!

To stay up-to-date with interesting tech news, follow us on Twitter.

Microsoft Launches Next Lock Screen App and The Garage

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Microsoft released the Next Lock Screen app for Android which saves you time with quick app launch and access to the information you need. It’s an app that sits above the lock screen and is designed to help busy professionals manage their day without having to unlock their phone. Next allows you to see your calendar, missed calls, email and text messages all at a glance. Perhaps the biggest time saver is that it allows you to connect to a conference call in one tap without unlocking your phone.

Next doesn’t look like a typical Microsoft app, it uses beautiful imagery, simple UX, and very intuitive navigation. You can tell every aspect of the app has been designed thoughtfully. The calendar integration is great; it’s really helpful to have my meetings show up above the lock screen so I always know what’s coming up. My favorite feature is having app shortcuts available with one tap and the apps change depending on if I’m at work, on the go, or at home. I expect the app will get to know me and my habits and become more useful over time. This morning I changed my Next lock screen to ‘On the go’ when I started my commute and listened to the Audible app, it’s what I listen to every morning. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes Next to learn that and in the future when I get in my car, On the go and Audible are there for me with one tap.

Also, it’s interesting to see Microsoft developing apps under The Garage brand. As a former Microsoftie the name was synonymous with late night coding on pet projects and pizza. Most ideas required you to use your influence to get your idea funded. However, with Satya’s new Growth Hacking culture and The Garage brand becoming mainstream, it’s great to see Microsoft consciously funding innovation and expect it to be part of people’s day jobs, not something they do on their own after hours.

We at 8ninths look forward to watching new ideas from Microsoft emerge in The Garage.

Welcome Jessica Jobes, a 14 year Microsoft veteran to the 8ninths crew!

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I am thrilled to be joining 8ninths and the talented, passionate, and rapidly growing team! After 14 years at Microsoft, why did I decide to leave and join an agency? Because 8ninths is unique; the people, the vision, and their approach to designing innovative technology are refreshing. It was a culture I was looking to be a part of even though I wasn’t looking for a change. And actually, this started about 10 years ago when Adam Sheppard, the co-founder and I worked together in MSN. He was MSN’s innovator, he always had a pulse on what’s new and what’s next; consistently influencing the team through his “Shep Reports”. We kept in touch over the years so I knew he left Microsoft to start 8ninths. It wasn’t until this year however, when I was still at Microsoft that I hired 8ninths to work on a challenging project with me. I knew I needed a 10x thinker, so I picked up the phone. Along with having the opportunity to work with Adam again, I was introduced to William and the rest of the 8ninths team. Everyday I worked with them I felt inspired, challenged, and more energized and I knew this was the place I wanted to come to work everyday. So I decided to take the leap and leave Microsoft.

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what makes 8ninths different, there are many things that I love. The open urban studio and the dogs wandering around definitely help. But I think one of the biggest differences is that the team is very diverse and ideas and opinions flow freely, everyone collaborating and contributing to building a better product. And I have to believe that our equal split of female to male talent at 8ninths contributes to what I love about working here. 60% of the 8ninths team is female, that’s an impressive accomplishment when you consider most tech companies have around 30%.

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It’s even more impressive when I segment by females in tech positions: 8ninths is 50% female while the big companies are self-reporting 10%-24% female.

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When I first started talking to Adam and William about joining the company, I was sold when I heard William say, “Many times we design the customer experience before we know if we can even build it. This dynamic creates a fun challenge for our developers.” 8ninths practices true design-led engineering. It’s inspiring. It’s refreshing. We are a team that designs and builds really cool stuff!

With thanks to Adam, William, and the 8ninths crew I look forward to the road ahead.

Jessica

Design Sprint: Fast is better than Good

A majority of the projects at 8ninths are not the typical production work where answers are clear, solutions are known, and execution exercises are relatively straightforward.  Folks come to us with problems that are fuzzy. Whether they’re seeking answers for product strategy, have questions about specific design conundrums or need direction as to what back-end code system to use, we hear it all. The 8ninths team in turn thrives on the challenging ambiguity, and is quite good at providing guidance, recommendations, design or completed products back to our clients.

And while Adam and I are habitual perfectionists, we have learned that just focusing on perfection is often the wrong approach in these types of exercises. In the real world of products and businesses, the competitions are shifting rapidly and continuously and the user behaviors are always changing. Perfect, such as it is, doesn’t exist for very long. Perfect also takes a long time, and by extension, a high cost to achieve.  Certain things are worth the strive for perfection, but many aren’t.  And thus we have had to learn to suppress our instinctual predilection for perfection and develop another skill: Speed.

Recently we read a great article about the rapid design process by Jake Knapp, a design maven at Google that led many of its most successful products. He created a process called Design Sprint that he’s been using in Google Ventures, which is a mix of VC fund as well as an incubator lab for up and coming technology companies that Google invested in.  Each sprint takes a design issue and methodically creates a team understanding of the design, brainstorming and ideation for a number of solutions. Next during the sprint the you build a team consensus and decide on an approach, rapidly prototype the UX, and validate results.  All within five days.

What I found impressive about this method is that the focuses are very well thought out.  For example, spending the entire first day of the five days on building a group understanding of the issues at first seems wasteful, but I’ve found in my experience that achieving that common understanding makes the rest of the way much easier.  The design person will come out of the first day with a much better understanding of the CEO’s motivation for the change, and the CEO has a better understanding of the design constraints for the problem.  Done correctly, this allows the team to focus on solutions for the rest of the sprint, rather than constantly re-engaging on the same arguments.

Another area I was very impressed with is focusing the team on objective facts and data, and placing limits on the usefulness of one single person’s subjective thoughts and intuition.  For example on the first day during the Understanding phase, the process emphasizes on reviewing existing relevant research and data, focusing the team on the tangibles rather than opinions. While on the last day the Validation phase is used to test the prototype on real user subjects and collect important data and insights to gather feedback for the design.  At the same time each sprint participant, whether a CEO or a User Expert, is given opportunities to critique, but are only allowed a limited amount of time as to focus their feedback to those that are most important, preventing any single individual from taking over the design.

I also like his criticism on the traditional brainstorm, which can sometimes turn into a “everybody is shouting” kind of meeting. (Here I do have to humbly brag that at 8ninths we never have this problem :-) )  His twist to make it an individual brainstorm is an interesting one, though I do wonder if it defeats the purpose of a group “jam” that successful brainstorms can brain.

All in all, we at 8ninths will be definitely giving this process an honest try, and will report back in a future post.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

EveryPlay’s FaceCam brings built-in video sharing to mobile games

EveryPlay FaceCam

WHAT IS IT?

Just out of beta, Applifier’s EveryPlay Replay has put out a new social-gaming feature called FaceCam. This product uses your smartphone’s speakers and front-facing camera to record your facial reactions if you’re playing one of the 85 mobile games that have this integrated feature. These videos can easily be styled within the app and shared out to friends via Facebook, Twitter or YouTube.

WHY IS IT RELEVANT?

When users record videos with FaceCam it brings a personal touch to the replay since others can simultaneously see the user’s facial expressions, hear their commentary and watch the game unfold. So by bringing the human element to these videos, it may make mobile gamers more likely to share replays of their highest scoring games, funniest moments or best tactics with friends and could therefore boost the download rate of the game recorded.

There is an SDK available for games developers to integrate the EveryPlay FaceCam feature directly within their mobile games. This could be a great way for smaller game developers to boost the download rate of their lesser-known titles and gain more traction in the app store.

Let us know if you think this is a good way to boost mobile game sales in the comments.

Microsoft Adds Bootstrap to Visual Studio

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While Microsoft nerds have been swooning over Windows 8.1 the Redmond based giant quietly debuted a very cool new feature for developers. Visual Studio 2013 is now going to be bundled with Bootstrap, Twitter’s uber popular framework for building beautiful responsive websites. In fact, Microsoft isn’t just bundling it, they are making it default when you choose to build a web project.

Personally, I am very happy Microsoft is taking this approach. They take a stance by supporting a well backed project which ultimately  helps strengthen there developer ecosystem. Further, it may bring some ‘old school’ Microsoft devs out of the dark ages and into the shiny new bootstrap framework.

Hats off to Microsoft.

Evolve your own car

http://rednuht.org/genetic_cars_2/

In one of the first few Shep Reports I wrote about SodaPlay, an interesting site that allowed people to experiment in creating lifelike geometric creatures that could walk, climb and race. People were able to share their creatures and watch them interact with one another and it was interesting to see creativity at work. I’ve always been fascinated with evolution and today I found something that reminded me of Soda Play with the ‘Genetic Algorithm 2D Thingy‘. A simple but elegant web toy that randomly (or based upon a string like your name) creates a set of simple 2 wheeled vehicles and has them race along a virtual 2D landscape. The winning car after each run is then selected as the fittest and used as the base for the next race with subtle mutations in size and shape of the wheels and chassis. It’s surprisingly fascinating to watch the little guys race across the landscape, occasionally getting stuck on a pointy mountain or other obstacle and watching how a simple change can have a dramatic improvement. Something that’s fun for everyone and what better way to get kids interested in the topic of evolution in such an illustrative and easy to understand way.

Breather Brings App Accessible Secret Rooms to NYC

Breather App

Soon to be launched in New York City, the new Breather app is hoping to help commuting or traveling workers to get a bit of peace and quiet by allowing them access to secret rooms spread across the city. Whether you’re looking to take a nap, find a temporary office space or just need a place to think, Breather will rent you a nicely furnished room with Wi-Fi at any time of day for a small fee.

Rooms are booked through the Breather app and are then unlocked using Lockitron technology via your smartphone. Watch Breather’s product video below to learn more about the app:

8ninths has recently moved down to the SODO district of Seattle with our offices looking directly out at Century Link Field and SafeCo Field where the Mariners, Seahawks and Seattle Sounders frequently play. As cool as it is to be this close to all of our city’s professional sports action, it can become quite difficult to host meetings, or even come in to the office in general, because of the expensive parking situation. A service like Breather would be perfect for the days that our office gets displaced by baseball games and would be much more convenient that working at a coffee shop or on my living room table. I’m sure other businesses feel the same way so I for one hope that this service expands out to Seattle soon.

WiFi Enabled Smart Film Turns Clear Windows Opaque With Your Smartphone

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WHAT IS IT?

Ever wanted to have affordable on demand window privacy without the hassle of drawing dusty old curtains or lowering bulky window blinds? With SONTE Film you’ll be able to make clear windows look instantly opaque right from your smartphone.

This easily applicable WiFi enabled smart film pairs with a smartphone app to turn “on” see-through windows when you’re looking for a view and turn them “off” if you’re in need of a bit of privacy. The user is also able to tailor their level of privacy by dialing each window’s amount of opacity up or down to achieve a custom frosted affect.

Currently SONTE Film is undergoing a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first round of this product. Watch their campaign video below to learn more about the product:

 WHY IS IT RELEVANT?

Since SONTE Film is promoting themselves to developers (with an available SDK on Kickstarter) as well as consumers they are opening the door to new innovations in home automation. In addition to the formal uses of the app it may one day be possible to customize the experience by enabling all of the windows in your house to turn “on” or “off” depending on which room you’re in. Maybe you could automate your windows so that they turn opaque when certain sounds, such as turning on a sink tap or shower, are made.

WWDC 2013 – iOS 7

 


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As we head into next week the world is gearing up for Apple’s WWDC keynote address. Apple plans on showcasing updates to their software and services offerings and according to some reports, some hardware as well. Here at 8ninths we are hopeful to see some incredible advancements of Apple’s product line.

It’s been quite a while since Apple has released something new to its users, seven months to be exact. Monday is the day to watch where Tim Cook, Phil Schiller and even possibly Jony Ive will take the stage to surprise and delight, enrich lives, and whatever other Apple lingo you might want to use to describe the day. Apple has promised updates to iOS (7) and OS X (Sea Lion?). We are very eager to see the design direction Apple has taken with its OS’s since its re-org last summer. Tim Cook let Scott Forestall go, ushering in a new era in software design by putting Jony Ive at the helm. Forestall was always a strong advocate for Skeumorphic design. Ive was knighted in honor of his contributions to the hardware design world. So will we see a dump of all the fake paper, linen backgrounds, and cardboard UI elements? Will it be so sleek and simple the software will be just as beautiful as the hardware? We are really curious about iOS 7. Here is our take.

It would be very difficult for Apple to completely abandon its current look. Millions upon millions of users have grown comfortable with the existing format so expect Apple to subtly, take it easy. They will probably learn from Microsoft, countless users still gripe and complain about the Windows 8 start menu. Those users are now coming around, but it was a painful adjustment for many. Apple will also never forget Mapsgate 2012. We expect them to make small adjustments to “flatten” the design but if there is a long term vision, or complete re-design, expect a slow change over a couple of iterations of iOS 7. Say by iOS 8-9 we will see what Sir Ive really wants users to be experiencing. Earlier this week a screenshot popped up that looks like it might show off some new iOS icons. I doubt that is all we will see but it may be a good example of Apple slowly making adjustments.

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Digging into each proprietary app we hope to see some stronger design direction in usability and flat ascetics. More and more apps these days are pushing the limits of usability and design. Apple will probably take note and improve the experience overall. Much of it may not be noticeable up front but given the time they have spent and resources they have committed, expect big things. Recently Apple released the WWDC app for conference attendee’s. Its doubtful that they pulled the curtain back on the look and feel of their new design direction however it is a great example of Apple taking baby steps to move towards something new. Imagine that app, but pushed much further.

By far the most anticipated update to iOS is the interface. However, there are a few other updates we might see. Specifically keep an eye out for more gesture control. Probably on iPad devices. They have slowly introduced 4 and 5 finger gestures over the past couple of years, this round they may roll out similar control that a trackpad does on a mac.

Until Monday we won’t know for sure. We will be watching the Keynote live so follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates and reviews on Apple’s latest releases.

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