Interview with Alex Kaplinsky about Innovative Web Design

For the past twenty years Alex Kaplinsky has been a key and pioneering figure in all things interactive. His career started in 1993 when he founded and managed the Internet consulting firm Networkers. Since then he has served and played vital roles at a host of different organizations including USWeb, Liquid Thinking and Form Studios. Currently, he is founder and CTO of SolutionSet, a web marketing consultancy firm which aims to help companies find innovative solutions to business challenges.

Here are my 5 questions with Alex and his answers:

1) As industry reports continue to confirm that the effectiveness of online media is progressively improving while the effectiveness of terrestrial media is waning, more and more companies are choosing to reboot their online presence. As an industry leader in helping organizations improve, in your opinion, over the last twelve months where are businesses getting it right and what in general are common missteps?

The businesses that are getting it right are the ones that understand that at the end of the day it’s really about the end-user’s needs… that fundamentally users are no longer interested in the marketing messages companies want to “push” out. I think the prime examples of this would be Google or Amazon. At least regarding online businesses, companies that are more agile and provide utility to the user tend to fend better. The old school, traditional approach of pushing a marketing message with a lot of visuals and a lot of copy, opposed to designing your website for what the user really needs to do demonstrates a lack of concern for your customers.

So you see sites like Dropbox where the instructions to get started take up the entire screen, or the classic example of Google where you are greeted basically with just a search box… these businesses have oriented their focus on the user’s task in their flow of everyday life opposed to pushing things on them. This is clearly becoming the way you need to differentiate yourself rather than trying to make the user consume what you want them to consume. Good brands are now about utility, about simplicity, and being able to achieve what you want to do quickly and efficiently. Businesses getting it wrong get in the way of the user. Businesses getting it right understand reciprocity. They understand that by putting the user’s needs first they will be rewarded for their effort.

2) Another current aspect of online marketing getting a lot of attention is personalization. Innovations in content management systems make providing users a tailored experience easier and more affordable. Are we close to seeing Apple’s Siri type functionality as part of standard website usability?

Regardless of the technological interface, it’s always only going to be as good as garbage-in, garbage-out. So, for Apple to make Siri work they expend an immense amount of effort on continued improvement, amassing new data and sorting that data. It is a major effort so I’m not sure that we will see this type of functionality on a wide scale anytime soon regarding traditional websites. However, at the heart of your question is will we see company’s FAQ pages and/or knowledge pages improve? Yes, technology is going to continue to allow knowledgeable companies to give its customers better results.

You have a lot of great new tools to personalize websites. The interfaces for creating that logic are increasingly user friendly where the average webmaster can facilitate this experience opposed to before where that was well beyond their control. Before this could only be done by programmers and usually took heavy lifting. Content targeting is going to get a lot more sophisticated, especially as we continue to integrate Social and develop algorithms on the affinity of your social network. Users will learn to filter content like they filter songs on Pandora, and eventually you will have experiences that quickly tailor to one’s personality. We’re almost there now.

3) Do you subscribe to a set of evidence-based standards, blueprints, and/or formulas when you approach the initial stages of creating an online solution for a client? Or do you find it’s better to start from scratch and pull in best-practices along the way after initial brainstorming and discovery with the client?

It depends on the subject matter and the team you’re working with. So, if you’re talking about a completely new product, whatever that may be, for example video sharing ten years ago and nobody has ever done that before… there are no established accepted practices… then you brainstorm like crazy! Put everyone’s ideas on the table and try to sort them out, evaluating parallels at that point in time and evolve from there.

On the other hand an interactive marketing team redesigning a website, preferably with experience in the industry… I firmly believe they come to the table with their established standards and draw from these. Otherwise you’ll get too many ideas that are outside of the norm.

Let me give you a random example, a designer says, “I would really like to explore the paradigm of having a navigation bar on the bottom of the browser window, sort of like the Macintosh launch bar, for our website controlling the navigation because that would be a really cool thing to do.” However, the data shows that unconventional navigation is hard on the end-user. The more well-known things are, from a functional standpoint, the fewer problems you’re going to face. Take a standard common function like “forgot my password”… there are only two or three ways that people perform forget and recover passwords so you should have those in hand. There are many elements like this that are things you can quickly plug-in. So in an instance where it is called for I would instruct my team, “We’ve seen this before, let’s start with something very similar and adopt it rather than starting from scratch.” In these type of situations it is just a better use of time.

4) If a company is planning an overhaul of their website, either a reboot or redesign, what steps do you recommend they take before reaching out to an agency to improve their chances of a successful project (ex. audits, gap analysis, user surveys, etc.)? Put another way, what are commonalities you see from companies that are successful at recreating their Web presence versus companies that have failed during this process?

The things you’ve mentioned are a great start. The biggest thing is really the level of technical involvement that your team has… in understanding conceptually the systems that will best benefit the company and at least some technical understanding of those systems. The companies that get it wrong are the ones that do not clearly identify their integration points up front. For instance, midway though a project after functional design they realize they missed important steps because they didn’t do their homework. There are a lot of companies that focus (upfront) exclusively on visual design and don’t look at their technical systems… and therefore what happens is projects are ill-defined and not properly scoped leading to disappointment on both sides of the fence. So companies that get it right do several things that set them up for success:

1) They conduct thorough audits, as many as needed, to understand their systems and all the different data points they’ll need to accomplish their business goals.

2) They have a content strategy upfront. They know who in their organization will be responsible for writing, what they’ll be writing, and have validated that those people have the right experience and the right skill sets to get the job done (plus, the time to do it).

3) They have a realistic timeline and have set clear expectations with the project’s stakeholders.

The last one is important. A fair number of projects fail because they are bound by a timeline but also require the sign-off of an executive who has no availability. Trying to comply with time constraints you are forced to act upon visual designs that haven’t been officially approved, only to find out that the key stakeholder disapproves of the design and now your project is late and over-budget. So these things are commonalities of companies that get it right. The ones that get it wrong don’t plan, have no content strategy, and have unrealistic expectations.

5) You have two decades of Internet experience. When asked to speculate about one of the most profound ways the Internet will be different in the next ten years what’s your guess?

Responsive Design is a trend right now but in a few years it will be called something else. However, the concept of having to think about all of these different form fashions will persist for awhile. So that’s going to be the biggest thing from my perspective is, the fact that for the last fifteen to twenty years we have been worried about the desktop browser. We have thought a lot about the fold, browser compatibility, usability, etc. So I think that from a user experience paradigm, designing for specific devices as they continue to evolve will be the difference. Also the way we view content will change, so not just simply designing for scrolling but now designing for pinching, skimming, zooming and swiping as well. And that is just considering what we can do now. An example of things to come is the Samsung phone which uses the camera in the phone to track the user’s retina to influence the behavior of the browser. In short, the usability standards that have served our industry surprisingly well for almost two decades (given the fast pace of change with technology) are going to get rewritten. Similar to the increase in design complexity when cascading style sheets were introduced to HTML, new devices and new mediums will profoundly increase the complexity of usability design. Therefore, designing for the way we will consume content will be the most profound way the Internet will change over the next ten years.

Live Life Love | Volume Nineteen

Hello Everyone,

As always I hope this message finds you well. Here in California summer has kicked off in spectacular fashion but wherever you are in the world I hope the jovial spirit that summer brings is with you.

This quarter I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Champion Charities benefit breakfast that featured a one hour roundtable discussion with five of California’s most legendary quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Tom Brady. A runner-up for this quarter’s life experience to say the least… but it was also a great opportunity to learn about peak performance from some of the most notable competitors of my time.

Picking just one of the many profound takeaways from that experience to share, it is that all five of these people are where they are today because they persevered. In their lives they have rarely let setbacks influence their ability to be ready when the opportunity to be a champion presents itself. Montana described his 2 and 14 first season with the 49ers. Aaron described how he never let up on getting better even though “Title Town” was not receptive at first to his presence. And Plunkett, his renewed career with the Raiders is simply one of the most incredible stories of perseverance. The thread between them all is that they did not let failure stand in the way of their success. Many of us succumb to the folly of the path of least resistance. These gentlemen stand as an example of the spoils that await those that take the road less traveled.

This quarter’s business interview is with Alex Kaplinsky, the CTO of SolutionSet. Alex is an incredible mind that has helped develop some of today’s most innovative websites. My interview with Alex Kaplinsky about innovative Web design can be found here.

This quarter’s wellness interview is with Brian Russell who is the CEO of Zephyr Technologies, a biotechnological company that specializes in mobile health and remote monitoring products. My interview with Brian Russell about wearable sensors can be found here.

My contribution this quarter went to Caine’s Arcade. As a child in many ways I was very much like Caine and I was incredibly moved that what I do for a living now was used in such a way that an otherwise anonymous community rallied around this child and forever changed his life. Simply amazing!

Hands down this quarter’s true life experience was celebrating my first Father’s Day as a father with my daughter.

Father's Day | Michael Rucker

Father’s Day 2012

There is only a distant second from this experience, which is either breakfast with Aaron Rodgers, Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana, Steve Young and Tom Brady as described above, or the trip Anna and I took to the Pacific Pinball Museum in Caine’s honor.

Pacific Pinball Museum  | Michael Rucker

Pacific Pinball Museum | 2012

All around an exceptional past three months, in addition to the what I’ve already discussed, professionally I launched another enterprise project If you have a quick second, take a look and let me know what you think.

Warm regards,

PQQ and Reported Side Effects

The data for PQQ’s safety is excellent, at least for limited or short-term use (e.g. up to a year) in humans and longer-term use in animals. Long-term (multiple year) safety in humans remains to be assessed.  However, based on pyrroloquinoline quinone direct to market sales, it may be concluded that hundreds of individuals now take PQQ.  Some of these users tend to be aggressive about supplementation (including myself), so the chance that an interaction with PQQ may be adverse seems highly unlikely based on the lack of any published reports.

Although there are no direct studies on the potential interaction of PQQ with psychotropic drugs, several studies suggest that the idea is worth exploring.  What data that are available regarding cognition are in two animal studies and one human study (see below). The human study is well controlled and the results of the study suggest that PQQ alone or with CoQ10 may be useful for improving higher brain function. Likewise, the animal studies are supportive of this perspective.

To be very clear, not all these supplements and medicines work independently? The best answer about food supplementation and drug interaction is going to come from your personal physician and pharmacist. Although one can identify major mechanisms or even specific functions for given compounds, from a global physiological perspective, there can be cross talk between the numerous cell-signaling pathways that control cellular function and an enzyme cofactor may interact with numerous enzymes each with a specific function.

1: Takatsu H, Owada K, Abe K, Nakano M, Urano S. Effect of vitamin E on learning and memory deficit in aged rats. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2009; 55:389-93.

2: Ohwada K, Takeda H, Yamazaki M, Isogai H, Nakano M, Shimomura M, Fukui K, Urano S. Pyrroloquinoline Quinone (PQQ) Prevents Cognitive Deficit Caused by Oxidative Stress in Rats. J Clin Biochem Nutr. 2008; 42:29-34.

3: Pyrroloquinoline quinone disodium salt improves higher brain function.  Medical Consultation and New Remedies 2011; 48(5): 519 – A Japanese food/supplement journal

Interview with Brian Russell about Wearable Sensors

Brian Russell is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Zephyr Technologies, a biotechnological company that specializes in remote monitoring and mobile health (mHealth) products. Zephyr Technologies is an industry leader in health monitoring solutions and has been supplying advanced monitoring technology to groups such as the National Football League, US Special Forces, National Guard Civil Support Teams, and the NASA Ames Research Center (to name a few) for nearly a decade. Zephyr also has a proven track record of helping athletes measure, track and subsequently enhance their performance and endurance.

Here are my 5 questions with Brian and his answers:

1) Science has come a long way regarding the ability to tailor performance enhancing regimes against one’s biological markers. Where is science now with regards to tailoring performance enhancing regimes as it pertains to immediate biological feedback (allowing users to make adjustments in real-time)?

So previously accuracy was the problem, which has been solved for the most part now. Now companies like our own are looking at specific problems and doing a complete integration of the solution. Smart phones have really moved us forward in that regard, and biometric devices are also getting a lot more wearable. The overall experience can now be a very natural, entertaining experience that is also helping you improve performance. Furthermore, the devices are more user-friendly today so the education load needed to get going on a device has almost gone to zero, plus the experience is becoming more social.

The fact that we can now accurately measure somebody in either a shirt, patch or strap, and give them information in real time on devices they are familiar with is incredible. Plus, you have devices like Motorola’s MOTOACTV that can alter your environment based on your performance. In the case of MOTOACTV it is the music you hear, but that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Devices are now letting people close the loop on their goals too. Up until recently one could argue biometric devices were really just arming people with data, which is great. However, now a user can say, “what’s my goal?” and can use these devices to make better choices. It used to be that the primary success metric for most was race day. That is nonsensical and not appropriate for the masses. With something like our new product ZephyrLIFE you can assess your stress level and/or fitness level and manipulate your activity against real-time feedback. So again, we can now close the loop for the user. We start the goal at the top, then we add a stimulus and track the performance of that stimulus (which is what the industry has been doing for years), but now we also are adding the element of immediate feedback whether it is suggested tweaks to behavior or a change in the users environment such as the example with MOTOACTV.

Also, the software is getting better. VO2 Max use to be the big thing but a big part of that marker is genetic. Your anaerobic threshold can now be determined with a high degree of accuracy through consumer biometric devices. Using good software we can create custom workout regimens tailored to the user based on training zones, which is nothing new, but it doesn’t end there… these protocols use to only be prescriptive, now the software is adaptable so you can challenge your program’s recommendations and change up the workout to see if you get better results. If you do, the software starts to learn this and continues to optimize a workout for you that gets you results as quickly as possible. The days of using normative data to calibrate these initiatives will soon be a thing of the past and that’s terrific and is leading to a super cool user experience.

2) With the advances in sport biometric devices, do you think that there might be some interesting synergies with the expanding consumer biofeedback market?

That’s a great question actually. If you look at the latest research regarding all the 10,000 step programs, they are failing in a lot of areas because we are learning through study that exercise intensity is an important part of the equation for reducing stress. So for the sake of improving our nation’s health, I am hoping people will move on from just these counting step type programs. Accelerometers are neat, they are very cheap and simple, but they don’t address using muscle or heart rate activity. You lose visibility regarding heart rate and stress and therefore nothing about the user’s mental state is captured.

If you are healthy and you introduce some sort of stress, great. However, if you are unhealthy then maybe adding a high level of stress into your life is not a good idea. This is where advances, such as the ones we are driving, are really adding value for consumers. We are enabling people to make healthy choices about their activity, so we are a perfect example of something that started with sport and now is really improving the lives of a broader audience. For instance, hypertension is one of the top three killers in the country at the moment so we can also use devices in conjunction with behavioral psychology and motivate people to take action using their own data. And here is the magic: we know exercise metabolizes stress hormones so sport, exercise, fitness, whatever you want to call it is not just for athletes. It is proven to improve overall well-being. And it goes both ways, products that are being designed for consumers regarding sleep and stress will help athletes perform better too.

Also, most people now agree exercise is medicine. The medical bill for this country is almost up to 25 percent of GDP, which is significantly higher than any of the other G6 countries. We know that exercise reduces diabetes when introduced to an at risk population. And it is not like these people need to become Ironmen, simple changes at the right intensity have huge results and so with regards to your question there is a significant benefit in the two sides influencing each other. If we agree exercise is medicine then these devices give us visibility and tools across the health continuum. They help focus people on staying well instead of the alternative, which is medical intervention. As a society we are only accustomed to worrying about health when we are sick. The departure for this flawed system is exciting!

3) For someone just starting to track athletic performance through data, what do you believe should be focused on first (regarding this new information) to make the biggest personal impact?

Let’s start with someone who used to be active but because of various life events adopted a sedentary lifestyle and now is motivated to get back in shape. For the sake of this example let’s say the person in question has chosen to run as the way to get fit. First off, for the majority of the population one shouldn’t jump into a standard training regimen (ex. some 5 day a week program). So I would suggest to this person, for a couple of weeks choose to run one or two times during the week, for no more than 20 minutes. In these training sessions focus not on the effort but running “well”, good form, steady biometrics, etc. In layman terms, run in a way your body really likes… feel your feet, feel your heels, feel your knees, make sure your muscles, your glutes, your thighs, are doing what they should do. So that is the first thing I suggest.

Number two is looking at your sleep. Sleep hygiene is so underrated when it comes to performance. So track your sleep and do what it takes to improve in this area. Figure out what works best for you, whether that is lowering your caffeine consumption or not watching television in your bedroom, do whatever it takes to get restful sleep and start doing it every night.

Three is about creating a closed loop system with your device of choice based on personalized goals. So whether someone is motivated by performance, or reducing stress, we calibrate the routine to optimizing against that goal which keeps the person engaged and then this positive cycle feeds itself.

And the last pieces are the workout and proper recovery, so I personally believe that workouts should be spaced out at least 48 hours apart from each other. If you workout smart and give yourself enough time to recover from your workouts most people will see measurable improvement in their wellness within four weeks.

Once we’ve accomplished getting you fit then we can talk about more advance tactics like gamification, social sharing, and competition to see if any of these initiatives are in line with your personality… helping you move the needle even more.

4) I asked Gear Fisher this same question, and I would be interested to hear your answer: where do you think the balance between a platform’s utility and ability to be user friendly lie? Dealing with the unfortunate reality that in the world of fitness that positive outcomes are for the most part reliant on user compliance, is it sometimes necessary to compromise sophistication for usability?

We have some fundamental beliefs here at Zephyr. If you can present people’s data to them in an easy to understand way… they will get it, they’ll see the picture. Once they get it, the experience will be entertaining which assists one in making positive changes easier. The story I love to tell is the time I had a bioharness on my young daughter and I caught her playing with her breath so that she could see how it affected her ECG on our family’s computer monitor. I didn’t provoke her or encourage her… good devices when designed right foster this type of self discovery.

We use a ZephyrLife Score to give users an easy biometric gauge if that is something that works for them, other products have similar functionality. With a well designed product if you want to go deeper you have the ability to do that easily as well, it is about usability. Something like the ZephyrLife Score also lets people compare themselves against other groups whether that is other members of the same sex in their age group, their friends, or their cohorts at work is up to the way the campaign is set up. Regardless, of the specific set up it is all about letting people self educate in a way that is meaningful and specific to their goals and style of achieving goals. Technology should never smack someone in the forehead; usability is paramount.

5) Looking out at the landscape of mHealth and wearable devices with regards to biometric tracking, what do you think is going to be the next industry game changer?

I think it is three things, two are current and one is up and coming. The first, which is now, is that the option for insertion of biometric sensors in wearable items is plentiful. You can put them is a compression shirt, you can put them in a watch, people now have choices about what to wear and how to wear them, so that is happening now. There are even disposable devices entering the market for certain applications, so choice – moving beyond just a chest strap – that is exciting!

Second, accuracy is now a requirement. We are getting medical grade data now, so with the right algorithms you can get home from a workout and an alert is waiting for you that says, “This is not a diagnosis but your heart rate data suggests you might benefit from seeing a cardiologist,” and as such you are able to save lives with simply your own data. How cool is that?

The third thing is the way we will soon be handling the data. Frictionless sharing – using things like cellular transmitters – getting the biometric data to the Cloud will involve no effort on the user’s part… this is also very exciting. The data is there when the user is ready for it but it is always being collected. We are removing all of the hassle factors for the user, which will lead to better adoption and ultimately help this country get back on its feet again regarding their health.

Brief History of the Quantified Self Movement

People who use technology such as apps to keep track everything from air quality to their heart rate are often referred to as “Quantified Selfers” …or QSers for short. The information gathered by QSers is usually used to help them improve their health and/or well-being through the use of data. This makes the Quantified Self Movement not only beneficial in the behavior change community, but also for every individual who wants a better quality of life.

How Did the Movement Begin?

The Quantified Self Movement began in 2007 by Wired Magazine editors Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly. It’s purpose was to promote an interest in self-tracking amongst users and developers. Mr. Wolf and Mr. Kelly now help maintain and moderate the Quantified Self website.

What is the Quantified Self Movement?

You may not have heard of the term ‘Quantified Self Movement’ as it goes by other aliases in the media such as ‘auto-analytics’, ‘self-tracking’, ‘life-logging’, and ‘life-hacking’. The movement uses many methodologies to achieve its goals.

The major methodologies are:

  • data collection
  • visualization
  • cross-referencing
  • discovery of correlations

(These are just the primary methods used based on the most widely utilized platforms of data-collection.)

Sharing Information

QSers are quick to share information about the tools they’ve used to life-log, as well as any tips they’ve gleaned and information about personal projects. Information is shared through various forums and blogs online as well as conferences where users can meet face-to-face.

The face-to-face meetings are called “Quantified Self Show and Tell Meetings”. These meetings are held all over the world, but the first ones began in the San Francisco Bay Area (of which I’ve attended many). The Quantified Self Conferences are working meetings for tool makers and users interested in the Quantified Self Movement.

Methods of Data Collection

Recent advancements in mobile technology has made it a lot easier to store, record, and track data. Most Quantified Selfers use handheld devices such as mobile phones or tablets to self-track. The data is normally stored in downloadable software or an app’s database (often in the cloud).

Currently some popular programs for self-tracking are:

  • Nike+ FuelBand
  • Fitbit
  • Body Media FIT
  • WakeMate
  • Zeo
  • Withings Body Scale

There are hundreds of devices and apps now used for a variety of different tracking purposes. Some of these innovations record activity data, some take biometric measurements… the innovation around what can be recorded is quickly expanding. The advances in recording and sharing health data on mobile devices has made mHealth extremely popular. As a zealot of this space I’m going to try and keep an updated list of wellness innovation related to tracking here.