Another Readability Business Model

I’m a huge fan of the ‘old’ Readability — I hit a button which sucks out the content of a web page into a nicely formatted view, then I usually hit the Evernote button to save it for reading on my Macs or iPhone.

The Readability folks recently amp’d the feature into a business. They added the ‘read later’ function of Instapaper/Evernote, and most notably a subscription revenue model from which they pay 70% to the content creators or publishers to compensate them for the ads Readability sucked out.

There’s a lot I like here, from their reader-first philosophy to the fine folks they’ve chosen as advisors (a few are friends of mine). But I can’t help thinking it’s not going to work. My doubts:

  • They’re competing with ads. Large organizations that depend on ad revenue have huge investments in ad serving and tracking. Readability to asking publishers to give that up for what Readability gives them. 70% sounds generous, until you do the math and realize 70% of not much is not much (see They’re small below)
  • They’re competing with free in the form of their free Read Now offering, the open source version, and Evernote. And Evernote is very, very good.
  • They’re small, so besides the fact that what they pay publishers won’t be much, they haven’t revealed any way to scale to the size necessary to make a material difference in how the publishing industry works. They have an API for developers, but they need to focus on the publisher side of the equation.
  • They’re not giving publishers control. Sophisticated ad serving systems let publishers tweak ad buys based on calculations of page views, content costs, clicks, etc. Readability simply offers a set percentage. And Readability is hoping publishers will do the work of coming to the Readability site to sign up, just to get the deal Readability dictates.
  • The legality is questionable. If I’m an asshole publisher (you can be sure they exist) I only see someone who is stripping out my revenue stream as a threat to my livelihood, and I call my lawyers for their opinion. Chances are the big media houses have more lawyers than Readability.
  • 30% is expensive. Apple takes 30%, but has gorgeous devices and stores and the iTunes marketplace and credit card numbers galore. Publishers can bitch about Apple, but they offer a lot for their 30%. The value that Readability adds is small in comparison.

I could be wrong, there could be a huge infusion of this function into every reading tool. And once it gains a critical mass of readers the publishers get on board. But I don’t think the product is quite positioned for that yet. Here’s an alternate business model leading the same, and sometimes better customer experience:

Readability develops an ad network-facing API and partners with the biggest ad serving networks to integrate the API. When a publisher serves a page, the ad network checks the visitor’s machine for a cookie and if present serves a ‘clean’ page to Readability subscribers and a normal page to everyone else. The impression is recorded and Readability pays the ad network who in turn pays the publisher. In this model publishers don’t have to configure anything new and get paid automatically, the ad networks get paid and get a new revenue stream, Readability gets paid, and Readability subscribers get beautiful, clean pages often with zero clicks.

A Universal Usability Test, Take 1

In one of the darker corners of my mind I imagine a future where there are a set of laws and industry standards that dictate the acceptable usability of digital products and services, much like medical or engineering standards. I have to think that as we grow increasingly reliant on computer technology for our safety and well-being, minimum usability standards must follow. This kind of regulation has already happened for the food we eat, any electrical appliance, and our cars. It’s hard to imagine it won’t happen for software, hardware, and digital services. But it will need to be a different kind of regulation.

Here’s how it might happen: we first create this standard and find ways for people to voluntarily start using it. Perhaps a pro-consumer organization takes on the role of applying it, and consultancies provide testing services. Maybe that’s enough, or maybe industry organizations formally adopt it, and legislators make it mandatory in certain cases.

What does a universal usability test look like? Here’s a sketch:

  1. The basics of the process and the results are simple enough for the average consumer to understand, in the same way as the UL mark or the Consumer Reports harvey balls. As a standard, the results should simply indicate the product has met the standard or not.
  2. The standard is described in terms of the user’s experience:
    1. Time: there’s a maximum amount of time* designated to a task. Seven random people from the product’s user population are asked to complete the task and all must successfully do so in the time allotted.
    2. Emotion: each test participant rates their emotion using the product using a standard measure of feeling like the Wong-Baker Facial Grimace Scale. If the total score of the seven participants exceeds 25 the product fails the test.

Wong-Baker Facial Grimace Scale

* How do we determine the maximum allowable time? I haven’t figured that out yet.

Twitter was a slow hunch

Part of my research into concept design is to look at where successful products and services came from. Today, it’s Twitter.

Lately I’m also perusing Stephen Johnson’s thoughts on Where Do Good Ideas Come From. In this context it’s interesting to read here and here about Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s years of experience creating software to dispatch messages, and how this interest goes back to his childhood, so in Johnson’s terminology, the idea for Twitter looks like a slow hunch not a eureka moment, typical of many good ideas in Johnson’s view.

Here’s his sketch from 2000 showing key parts of the user interface:
early sketch of a Twitter user interface

Fast forward to 2006 via Dom Sagolla:

“Rebooting” or reinventing [Odeo, the struggling podcasting startup] started with a daylong brainstorming session where we broke up into teams to talk about our best ideas. I was lucky enough to be in @Jack’s group, where he first described a service that uses SMS to tell small groups what you are doing. We happened to be on top of the slide on the north end of South Park. It was sunny and brisk. We were eating Mexican food. His idea made us stop eating and start talking.

I remember that @Jack’s first use case was city-related: telling people that the club he’s at is happening. “I want to have a dispatch service that connects us on our phones using text.” His idea was to make it so simple that you don’t even think about what you’re doing, you just type something and send it. Typing something on your phone in those days meant you were probably messing with T9 text input, unless you were sporting a relatively rare smartphone. Even so, everyone in our group got the idea instantly and wanted it.

This telling from an Odeo developer helpfully points out that this session was one of several:

When it became clear that Odeo was not going to become a huge success in the podcasting space, there was a period of soul searching and hack days. One of those hack days, Jack, Noah, and Florian (another rails dev at Odeo), created Twitter. The initial version seemed interesting, Noah, Jack, and Florian kept working on it for several months, while the rest of the team stayed focused on Odeo.

This interview with Dorsey shows he really did have the essence of the idea years before, and had to wait for technology to catch up:

We were limited until 2005-2006 when SMS took off in this country and I could finally send a message from Cingular to Verizon. And that just crystallized — well, now’s the time for this idea. And we started working on it.

and again:

At that time, one of my co-workers introduced me to SMS (short message service), which I had never seen before. She used it all the time. Once I saw that, I’m like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome!’ This communication blew my mind, and the way she was using it blew my mind. I thought, What if we simply set status, archive it on the Web, use SMS to do it, and it all happens in real time? We all kind of went into a corner, wrote out a bunch of user scenarios, and started inviting co-workers in. They fell in love with it. We knew we had something.


A prototype was built in two weeks
and Twitter was publicly launched almost four months later.

There’s a few lessons here for anyone creating product or service concepts. One is that slow hunches are slow and take time to evolve. Two, sometimes technology needs to catch up to ideas. Three, nurturing company environments like Odeo help these concepts take shape.

Four, obviously Twitter is a very emergent concept and less goal-oriented than even many startups would attempt; it feels more like a demo you’d see on a Labs page, except it just wouldn’t work on a Labs page. And it’s different than how we usually create concepts that require making money; the New York Times profile states, They freely acknowledged that they had no idea how people would use it or how it would make money. But they thought it had potential…

I.B.M.’s Watson, Like a Good Designer, Thinks in Possibilities

After studying concept design for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that the single best thing designers can do to come up with better concepts is to do more of them. Generating more options increases the chances we’ll find better ideas.

With that in mind, I perked up while reading What Is I.B.M.’s Watson?, part of the NY Times’s series on artificial intelligence, which incorporates a similar process as great designers I’ve seen…

Watson’s speed allows it to try thousands of ways of simultaneously tackling a “Jeopardy!” clue. Most question-answering systems rely on a handful of algorithms, but Ferrucci decided this was why those systems do not work very well: no single algorithm can simulate the human ability to parse language and facts. Instead, Watson uses more than a hundred algorithms at the same time to analyze a question in different ways, generating hundreds of possible solutions. Another set of algorithms ranks these answers according to plausibility; for example, if dozens of algorithms working in different directions all arrive at the same answer, it’s more likely to be the right one. In essence, Watson thinks in probabilities. It produces not one single “right” answer, but an enormous number of possibilities, then ranks them by assessing how likely each one is to answer the question.

Why I Think Posture Makes the iPad Different

Of all the images to come out of the iPad announcement, the one struck me the most was less about the device and more about the experience of it:

iPad in Lounging Position

iPad in Lounging Position

Lying back on the sofa — isn’t that a nice way to be?

And sitting or lying on the sofa with a 9.7 inch screen means we’ll typically hold this about 2 feet (.6 meter) away from our eyes, versus 1 foot with an iPhone, which means you can rest it on your lap. While some may buy the dock, putting the iPad on a surface means having to uncomfortably lean over it. I think lounging will be much more common. We can do this with a laptop, but the separation of output (display) and input (keyboard and trackpad) is disjointed in comparison. And the iPad will be a little awkward and heavy to hold aloft like a phone.

Consequently the mood while interacting with an iPad may be more relaxed. The interaction has the potential to be more passive, though not necessarily. We’ll make bigger gestures and pivot at the elbow and shoulder rather than the wrist. We’ll scroll/size less than on a phone, using more eye movement to scan the screen. And while Apple has had to succumb to menus to make more functions available, we have the potential for powerful new forms of direct manipulation.

As a designer I’m tempted to display more, denser visual content at one time that a person can sit back and absorb, and offer control with fewer, grander gestures.

Given the physical similarity, it’s tempting to look at the iPad and call it a big iPhone. But I think the posture we adopt and interaction with the device will make it an experience unlike a phone or a laptop.

Aside: how long until someone designs a lounge chair specifically for optimal iPad use?!

Support for Innovation is Not the Same as Support for R&D

In case you’re wondering how to expose business leaders to the innovative power of design and design research without using those words, read how John Kay does it in the FT:

For years research and development scorecards have dutifully recorded how much pharmaceuticals companies spend on the search for new drugs and the expenditure of governments on defence electronics. But a Nesta report, presenting plans for a new innovation index has now recognised that most of the spending that promotes innovation does not take place in science departments. The financial services industry may have been Britain’s most innovative industry in the past two decades – perhaps too innovative – but practically none of the expenditure behind that innovation comes under “R&D”. And the same is true in retailing, media and a host of other innovative industries.

Support for innovation is not the same as support for R&D. Important contributions to commercial innovation come from new businesses such as Easyjet, which see opportunities that others have missed. Most of these opportunities do not actually exist and the innovations fail. But only a few such entrepreneurs have to be right to change the face of business. Other innovations come from successful companies, such as Apple, which may not be at the frontiers of science but are in close touch with consumers. Like all business success, innovative success is based on matching capabilities to market.

Though even Kay needs to mention Apple :-)

Immelt Calls Out Managers for ‘Meanness and Greed’

As reported in FT:

“We are at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership … tough-mindedness, a good trait, was replaced by meanness and greed, both terrible traits,” said Mr Immelt, who succeeded Jack Welch, one of the toughest leaders of his generation, at the helm of the US conglomerate. “Rewards became perverted. The richest people made the most mistakes with the least accountability.”

Several executives, especially in financial services, have apologised for their companies’ role in the crisis but Mr Immelt’s remarks went further, linking bad leadership to growing inequality.

“The bottom 25 per cent of the American population is poorer than they were 25 years ago. That is just wrong,” he said. “Ethically, leaders do share a common responsibility to narrow the gap between the weak and the strong.”

Full-text of speech

Who is Advising Executives on Customer Experience?

A few years ago I wrote an essay on “Strategic Delivery Points” to try and show how great product/service design, customer service, and other points where we deliver service to a customer can actually be a strategic advantage. There’s nothing new about this idea, of course, except that the emphasis on this approach is more important now more than ever, and why we read so much about design in the business press. Where before the product design or customer service was the responsibility of a low- or middle-manager, executives are now focusing on it.

Does that sound like hyperbole? Stop rolling your eyes and read this:

Robbie Bach, head of Microsoft’s entertainment and devices division, admitted that Windows Mobile isn’t losing market share because of sales or marketing or distribution or feature set, but that, “Our experiences aren’t as rich as they need to be.

This one is better:

The engagement with our users wasn’t there. One of the things we’re focused on is relentlessly improving the user experience.
— Owen Van Natta, a former Facebook executive who replaced Chris DeWolfe as chief executive of MySpace six months ago

Interesting — we’ve now got CEO’s talking about the strategic importance of user experience.

So who’s advising them?

Meanwhile, Nokia’s attempt to match the iPhone, with the N97 launched in June, has failed to impress. Credit Suisse analysts gave the N97 a score of 63 out of a 100, compared with 91 for the iPhone.

Credit Suisse? Yes, I’m sure they can hire for UX expertise, but when thinking of core competencies is a bank the one you go to for UX expertise? Or even for a quote in the Financial Times?

People, fill this gap.

Stepping Back, Squinting

I’m finally in a position to use much of my design and business experience and thinking, as well as facing challenges where I have no experience. And the situation is causing me to question much of what I knew about how to effectively deliver design consulting.

In short, there’s a lot of blah blah blah in our industry, and little knowledge and practice of what actually works. And now that my ass is on the line to make something work, the blah blah blah gets no attention from me.

Presentation Hardware: Tiny USB Speakers

I’m learning the hard way that presenting concepts may mean giving them to someone else to show on an unknown laptop across the world somewhere. I can control for many factors by simply making a video of my design concept, with voice over. But that laptop won’t get the audio loud enough, and no one ever has a cable to plug into a projector’s speaker.

We need speakers.

Here’s what I would like in my show-off-my-design-concept speakers:

  1. Tiny, tiny enough to fit in a laptop bag
  2. Powered by USB so there are no extra cables or batteries to worry about
  3. Great looks
  4. Decent sound, at least good for speech

Here’s a few candidates:

Do We Live in a Fantasy World?

Rolf Jensen says so, but that doesn’t feel quite right to me. Though his point of view is certainly interesting…

In the Dreamtelligence era, we trade in stories and dreams, in the extraordinary and the implausible. In this new age, industry can make anything you want, but what it can’t manufacture is fantasy – and that’s where imagination comes in, for both brands and consumers. The blur between fantasy, reality, adulthood and childhood is inspiring brand communications that truly enchant, surprise and engage. Designers are dreaming up playful landscapes – playscapes – to which our inner child can escape, and to give consumers the ability to discover through playful interaction with products, spaces and brands.

We live in a fantasy world and we need to make products to fill it,’ says Rolf Jensen, chief imagination officer of futures consultancy Dream Company. ‘Fantasy products may never materialise in the real world. They could be robot milk, a computer game or a concept car. The product is a by-product of a fantasy.’

We Put the ‘No’ in Innovation

Here’s an ad that I saw in the May 1, 2009 issue of The Week magazine. It’s from Post advertising their Shredded Wheat cereal with creative from Ogilvy:

Progress is Overrated

Personally, I love it. Just as wrong-headed financial management is being righted in this economy, we can reclaim the oft-maligned word innovation to mean actual progress.

So where does real progress exist? It’s in between the innovation hucksters and those too reluctant to strive to make things better. I think Barry Curewitz, managing partner of Whole-Brain Brand Expansion, advocates for a rational, balanced approach to developing new products in his article, “Innovate with Balance.” due out in the May/June 2009 issue of Marketing Management magazine.

In summary, Barry argues two major points:

  1. His research shows companies are chasing too many strategies in a time when there’s too few resources, with identifiable shortcomings in the operations of otherwise good product ideas. In other words, in this time of tight budgets, invest wisely by supporting only what has potential, and then invest with real commitment. His examples of market performance for common household products demonstrates the point clearly.
  2. Companies can benefit by balancing structured, analytical methods with less structured, creative methods. We need the former to execute development plans, and we need the latter to create unique products, e.g. collaboration between MBA’s and creatives; coordination of innovation methods with Stage Gate methods.

Brad Bird on Sacrificing Ideas

Here’s a quick clip of Brad Bird talking about the film creation process and giving up particular ideas for the good of the overall concept. I find that’s one thing people learn along the way: it’s good to critique and trash ideas, just as long as it doesn’t get personal.

His dig on “businessmen” is over-generalization of course, and we understand his point: making a film is a design process, and can’t be reduced to analysis.

The clip is from an interview on The Incredibles DVD, and includes bits of negotiation between Bird and the producer who has to get the film made on-time and on-budget, an insightful peek into how Pixar makes fantastic movies and fantastic profits.

Democratized Design at BMW

At the end of the concept design phase you’ll need to select among the concepts you’ve developed, and there are various methods for doing so: customer feedback (e.g. desirability testing), a decision market, an executive decision, a vote, and so on. The last option, voting, becomes more interesting when you keep the designers anonymous to keep the focus of the decision on quality.

In the case of BMW and their new Z4 they arrived at this…

by anonymously choosing these designers…

Most people are surprised the male-dominated role of BMW auto design was awarded to two women. To me that’s a useful case study for using an anonymous competition for not only getting to the best design, but also breaking through cultural barriers to do so.