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Friday Update

I didn’t post anything about OCRI last Friday because I missed our OCRI session which was on the Monday (somehow I had Tuesday in my calendar). Anyway, next Friday we’ll be back on schedule with our every-two-week updates.

Also, I wrote a post for the company blog today that you may find interesting:

Why I Love Working Closely with Designers

Have a good weekend, everyone!

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Twelve Months Past, Twelve Months Ahead

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of this blog. If you weren’t around in the beginning, you probably missed some cool posts. And if you were around in the beginning, you’ve probably forgetting about some cool posts. So here’s a recap of the past year’s highlights and my plans for the next twelve months:

The Highlights.

Did invites for Google Wave cause a slew of phishing attacks?

This was one of the first posts I wrote for the blog. It was based on the true story of how I fell for a (thankfully harmless) phishing scam, and some thoughts on phishing in general. It’s probably my favourite post from 2009.

Opera vs Reality

This post, from January 2010, is what I often describe as my favourite post. I’m a total browser-geek, so it was nice to let out a bunch of thoughts about what makes some browsers more successful than others. This was also the first post after I decided to commit to a weekly posting schedule.

Improving Performance in Flex and Scaling BlazeDS

This is my most popular post. It’s the first post I wrote for this blog that pulls in a consistent amount of Google traffic, and it’s easily the most niche piece I’ve ever written. Let that be a lesson to you other techie blog-newbs: specs sells.

The Breakfast Experiment

This was the first “experiment” post I wrote, where I tried to cook a full breakfast for myself every morning for a month. I’m planning on running more posts like this next year, because it was fun and I learned a lot from doing it. Stay tuned!

Make Every Day New Year’s Eve

This was the first post I wrote on the subject of motivation, and it’s right up there with that piece on Opera for the title of my favourite post all year. I really like my “voice” in the post, I came up with a great title, and hopefully a few people found it useful.

How to Promote a Mall in the year 2010

This is the first post I wrote that went some (extremely minor) degree of viral. It’s about a mall near my house, and how their marketing team is way, way better than the marketing team at every other mall in Ottawa. It was neat seeing my post shared on a couple of social networks, and this is another one that gets a bit of search traffic.

The Vegas Photo

This “post” triggered the highest single-day traffic burst in this blog’s short life. If you haven’t seen it already, you might want to check it out.

Find Yourself a Canary

It’s difficult to include such a recent post, because I haven’t had a whole lot of time to reflect on it. But it appears this story about my passive interactions with a coworker has resonated with a lot of people, so I thought it warranted inclusion. This post has made the most people tell me in person that they really liked it, which always makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

The Next Twelve Months.

I ended up being a bit busier than I expected in 2010 (most notably, I’m now married) so there were a few things I meant to do that got pushed back a bit. Here’s what I’m going to try to do before October 2011:

Write a short ebook.

I feel like I’ve picked up a lot of knowledge about blogging over the past year, and I thought it might be fun to wrap that up in a quick ebook and share it with the world. In particular, I’m thinking that other small-time bloggers that are just starting out might find something like that useful. And if they don’t, well, that’s ok too.

Run more “experiments”.

I thought the breakfast experiment was a lot of fun, and that I could turn it into an infrequent series where I commit to doing something a bit unusual for a while and let you know how it goes. Look for the second installment in a month or two.

Share more “hacks”.

The canary post was listed as a productivity hack, which it is. I have a bunch more of these that I can share (apparently I do a lot of little quirky things to get myself through the day). I might start doing them on the occasional Friday as quick half-posts — we’ll see how it goes.

Re-design the blog.

A confession: I’m not a horrible designer, and I’m a veritable wizard with html/css. When this blog launched, the theme I chose was just a placeholder until I got around to designing my own theme (which I am entirely capable of doing). I’ve been taking notes about ideas for months, but due to various other commitments, I never found time to put any of them into action. So, (officially) sometime in 2011, this blog is going to get a whole new look and feel.

Any feedback?

If I didn’t mention your favourite post in my summary, I would absolutely love to know what it is (and why). Please leave a comment. Similarly, if you would like to see more of something or have some other suggestion for the future, a comment would be a great way for you to share that with me.

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Chosen Words

I’ve done a lot of writing in my life, but I’ve never written anything quite like this.

The words I’ll speak tomorrow are words that I’ll remember forever. They must be perfect. There’s no room for fluff or big words, clichés or anything else that might be less true in fifty years than it is today. They must be timeless — clear, concise, honest, and true.

The lines must be crafted — tied together, with ideal weight and pause. Combining those deliberate, purposeful words that convey as closely as possible my feelings for her.

It’s a daunting task.

I’ve not spent a single day with her that I don’t want to relive, and knowing we’ll face whatever tomorrow brings as one is more than I could ever ask for.

But how to choose such words?

Well, that’s a silly question. These are words I’ve known all along; all I’ve left to do is write them down.

Written October first, twenty-ten.

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What Happens in Vegas…

…Stays there for a reason.



(click image to enlarge)
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The iPad Dilemma, Revisited

Back in early February, I lamented about how hard it was to decide if I wanted a Macbook or an iPad. At the time that I wrote the post, I had already waffled quite a bit on the issue, but the discussion in the comments led me to think that a Macbook was probably better for my needs — a position I held for a long time. Eventually I made my way back to wanting an iPad, though, and I finally picked one up a couple of weeks ago. What changed my mind? Several things:

The Macbook update was less than stellar.

Before the Macbook update, I often claimed that if it included a price drop, I would pick one up the next day. Unfortunately, there was no such price drop, and the update itself was pretty weak. Furthermore, the Macbook Pro update that had happened a little earlier was actually considerably more appealing, and I likely would have gone with a low-end MBP rather than a Macbook + RAM upgrade due to how the pricing worked out. Overall, this was a big turn-off for the Macbook.

The iPhone gained multitasking through a firmware update.

This was pretty big news because it meant that the same thing could easily happen to the iPad. Multitasking was my biggest concern with the device, but knowing that it might not be an issue forever was enough to quell that fear and give the iPad another chance. Granted, the multitasking on the iPhone isn’t the same as the freedom inherent in a full OSX install, but it was certainly enough to get me looking at the iPad’s oh-so-gorgeous screen again.

I was able to get my hands on an iPad through work.

Due to the exciting work we do at my day job, we got an iPad well ahead of its release in Canada. I was slated as the likely candidate for developing an app for it for one of our larger clients, so it was left in my care. I may have borrowed it for a few evenings… and possibly a weekend. I actually read a full book on it in about 3 days (easily a record for me), at which point I realized I was kind of in love with everything about the interface. Spending some time with an iPad really helped me fall for its charms, and this was what probably sealed the deal for me.

There were other miscellaneous factors as well, (price became more of an issue when the wedding costs started to kick in) but overall it simply felt like a bad time to get a Macbook and a good time to get an iPad. And so far, I’ve been very happy with my decision.

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Varied Goals: Not SMART, but Still Effective

I set a different kind of goal for myself this month, and it was pretty unconventional. It made me think of how we set goals, and more importantly, what kind of goals we’re encouraged to set. I’ll tell you about that goal a bit later on, but let’s start with the stuff you probably already know:

If you’re at all familiar with planning and motivation, you probably know that it’s a good idea to set goals for yourself. If you’re up on the latest trends, you probably know that you should set SMART goals. That stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Basically, it means you should make goals that are challenging yet possible, as specific as can be, and with a deadline. “Get 10 accepted answers on Stack Overflow before my performance review in November” is a SMART goal (I’m at two so far).

That’s all well and good, but today I want to talk about a different kind of goal. It doesn’t have a fancy acronym, but for short I like to call them Varied goals (the name will start to make sense soon). As you are about to learn, Varied goals are not at all SMART goals:

  • Varied goals are intentionally vague.
  • Varied goals are not easy to measure.
  • Varied goals are never meant to be fully accomplished.
  • Varied goals are extremely idealistic.
  • Varied goals don’t have a specific deadline.

…but that doesn’t mean they’re not useful.

Varied goals are all about fine-grained motivation.

We’ll get to what Varied goals are all about in a moment, but first let’s look at an example of where SMART goals fall short:

Suppose I want to get better at soccer. It might help me to set a few SMART goals like “make a really solid pass every shift” or “score a goal in the next five games”. These goals give me specific tasks to fulfill that will help me improve important soccer skills. However, they’re pretty course-grained goals, don’t you think? Every game I’ll probably perform dozens of other actions that don’t impact those goals at all. What is pushing me in those cases? None of my goals apply, and my general desire to get better at soccer is far too general and not particularly inspiring. The idea of Varied goals is to fill that gap.

A Varied goal would be something like “Run harder than last shift”. This is something I can try really hard to do every shift, even though it doesn’t really satisfy any conditions for SMART. If I run into an unexpected soccer-circumstance and don’t really know what I should be doing, I can revert to my Varied goal; running harder is probably a good idea in a lot of situations, so this is something I can depend on. Best of all, it’s quite inspirational. When I’m running to get back to help defend my team’s net, I can think “Remember how fast I did this last shift? I’m going to be even faster right now”.

More formally:

  • Varied goals are meant to complement SMART goals, not replace them.
  • Varied goals are meant to be striven for, not attained.
  • Varied goals favour what’s possible over what’s practical.
  • Varied goals should be applicable to many general situations.
  • Varied goals should be inspirational. Something that really fires you up.

Now, about the name.

I call them Varied goals because it’s very important to keep variety in mind. For starters, as mentioned above, Varied goals should apply to a variety of situations. But even more importantly, it’s a reminder that you should maintain a variety of goals — some Varied, even more SMART.

Back to our soccer example: running harder than my previous shift will apply to a lot of situations, and it will complement a lot of SMART goals very well. How am I going to get that first goal in the next few games? Maybe by outrunning a defenseman when I have the ball, or sprinting up the field so that I’m open when my teammate is looking for someone to pass to.

So, what’s my Varied goal for this month?

Be unstoppable.

That’s it. I have it starred and highlighted at the top of my todo-list, which I check several times a day. It’s a frequent reminder that for this month, every instant of every day, I want to be unstoppable. Am I going to let that IE6 bug slow me down? Not a chance. Am I going to get overwhelmed when my already-overbooked schedule fills up even more? Definitely not. After a long day, when I have to decide whether I should sit on the couch and watch TV or go to my desk and pump out an epic blog post, what’s it going to be? I’ll give you a hint: it’s barely even a choice.

I suspect this sounds a bit crazy, but it’s just what I need right now. I’ve been early on all my deliverables at work so far this month. I’m a wedding-planning machine. I’m out of a so-so slump in softball, and I’m finally getting better at soccer. I wrote this post six (!) days early. Obviously I can’t attribute all of this to a bland, over-arching statement, but I feel it does really drive a lot of small victories that are helping me accomplish my SMART goals more effectively.

Does any of this resonate with you?

I’d love to hear some reactions to this. Are Varied goals something that could help you, or is all this wishy-washy idealism stuff total nonsense to you? I’m still very much figuring this out as I go, and your opinion means a lot.

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iPads and Mondays

Yes, I missed this Monday’s post. This is only the second time since my New Year’s resolution that I’ve missed a Monday! I just wanted to assure all of you that I’m fine, it was just an exceptionally busy 7-day period from last Thursday to this Wednesday, which did not allow for a post to be written. We will resume a normal weekly schedule in a few days.

Furthermore, I’ve written a lovely iPad interaction post on my company blog based on some thoughts from the parody I posted last Friday. Enjoy!

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The Case for Hot Zones

This post is a playful reply to Marco’s thoughts on the iPad. I’m not trying to say that he’s wrong (he brings up a perfectly valid usability issue), just that there are two sides to every coin.

Update: A more fleshed out version of my thoughts on this topic is available on my company blog.

If you’re reading this, there’s a better-than-average chance that you’ve heard about or maybe even played with an iPad. Have you tried to show it to someone extremely nontechnical, like that parent or grandparent who has never really used computers, or those friends who are always scared of technology because their computers always confuse them and cost them money?

You hand it to them, the screen auto-rotates, and they’re amazed for a second as they wonder what they just did.

With universal auto-rotation, the massive touch screen, and highly reactive apps, the iPad (and the iPhone, but it’s even cooler on the iPad) is always “hot” — touch anywhere on the screen, brush off a speck of dust, or change its orientation slightly (often unintentionally), and something happens. You found something! Maybe you discovered a feature you didn’t know about, maybe you noticed something you hadn’t originally seen, or maybe you’re simply in awe for a few seconds.

We’re not accustomed to this. You can pick up a TV remote, twirl it around, and run your finger over some buttons without learning anything. It has very small hot zones that you’re unlikely to accidentally discover.

When the hot zone is the entire device, and it’s a device you’re likely to be frequently picking up and handling, using it is actually kind of exciting: you never know when you’ll uncover unexpected behavior, so you’re more curious and exploratory. Every time it auto-rotates when you didn’t know if it would, it’s a minor joy: this device is a step ahead, it’s thinking for you, and you don’t need to be “good” at it.

One reason the Kindle seems like a less exciting ebook reader, and why the Kindle 2 is so much more boring than the first Kindle, is that it has almost no hot zones. Accidentally rotate it a bit in bed? Nothing happens. Grab the side and pick it up? Nothing happens. Accidentally rest your thumb on the button without deliberately pushing down on the inner edge? Nothing happens. Brush some dust off the screen? You guessed it: nothing happens.

When you want to take an action, it’s not fun or exciting — it’s just like every other piece of hardware from the past twenty-five years.

By minimizing hot zones, the result is a less-innovative product that provides little discoverability for people with low technical confidence. When everything is a hot zone, user excitement and experimentation increases.

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Make Every Day New Year’s Eve

One of my favourite things about New Year’s Eve is that it’s a good time to reflect on the past year, and maybe gather some ideas of things to do better going forward. The net result of this introspective process is one or more New Year’s Resolutions.

I like making resolutions because I like setting goals for myself. One of my resolutions for 2010, which longtime readers of this blog may recall, is that I would have a new post up every Monday (and I’ve only missed one so far). I made other resolutions this New Year’s as well, and (as ridiculous as this sounds) by March I was already planning resolutions for next year. That’s when it hit me:

Set goals more than once per year.

Why wait until some arbitrary holiday to set goals? You can set realistic, helpful, attainable goals for yourself right now. And they don’t have to be scoped to a full year, either. Mix it up and have some that are month- or week-based. I find that short-term goals are usually easier to keep, provide benefits right away, and can help build confidence to hit more lofty goals that take a bit longer to reach. For example, here are some goals that I’ve set for myself recently:

I learned something interesting from each of these goals. In particular, I’ve realized that writing blog posts gets easier the more you do it, cooking breakfast helps me sort out my day/is delicious, and (perhaps most of all) I am not meant to be up at the crack of dawn. Which brings me to my next point:

It’s ok to fail.

Many of my goals don’t play out exactly as planned, and sometimes they get flat-out canceled if they turn out to be terrible ideas (6:30 mornings, I’m looking at you). The point is to experiment and see what works for you. Instead of getting discouraged when you’re constantly not hitting a goal, pause and reconsider if this is a goal you should really be pursuing. Did you over-estimate how much you could do? Is there a better way to get the result you were after when setting this goal? Often it’s the goal that is the problem, not you.

How I Hit my Goals

I use a few simple tricks to help me keep up with whatever goals my optimistic past-self may have signed present-me up for. In particular, this is what I find works best for me:

First and foremost, I try to be realistic. It won’t do me any good to set a goal that I won’t be able to reach, so especially for goals that are more than a week long, I’ll run my idea by someone I can trust to give me honest feedback as a sort of sanity-check. This way if the goal is too ambitious, at least I’ll have a red flag going in that I can use to adjust my targets. Of course, ultimately I know best; if I really think I can do something, I’ll still try it even if the feedback I’m getting isn’t all that positive.

Second, I find it helps to tell people if it’s an interesting goal (like breakfast). Maybe they’ll want to do it too, which makes motivation easier, or maybe they’ll pressure me into remembering to do it, which is nice when needed. Especially with this goal, I’d like to remind you that you’re not me and this may not work for you; it seems my opinion on this subject is not very popular.

Lastly, I find it’s important to give myself visual reminders of my goals. The tool I use most for this is a web-based task-management application called HiTask. For my month-long breakfast experiment, for example, I added a task to HiTask with a flashy-coloured label and a star, so that it really stuck out and was always at the top of my to-do list. You can also go low-tech; in January I printed out a grid of every Monday in 2010 broken down by month so that I could check them off throughout the year after publishing each weekly post.

Have you set any goals lately?

I’d love to hear about anything you’re striving for right now. What tools do you use? What else works for you? If you haven’t set any goals for yourself lately, why not start now? What do you have to lose?

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The Breakfast Experiment

Around the end of February, I came across this inspiring post about how cooking breakfast every morning will help you work better and feel happier. I was curious to see how that would turn out if I tried it, so for the entire month of March I made a point to cook a real breakfast every morning.

My definition of “real breakfast”.

A real breakfast (to me) is a breakfast that is relatively healthy and takes some effort to make. A stove should be involved, and eggs are definitely encouraged, but probably the most important rule is that it can’t be just one thing like “a bagel” or “a bowl of cereal” (but a balanced meal that may happen to involve a bagel or some cereal is fine).

My definition of “every morning”.

This quickly slipped to “every weekday morning” because my Monday-to-Friday morning routine is very different from its weekend counterpart, and then further slipped to “most weekday mornings” towards the end of the month — but we’ll get to that in a moment. Here’s how it went:

The good news.

I do agree with pretty much all the points Joe made in his post. I definitely found that it was a great way to start my day off because it gave me a solid 30~40 minutes where I could wake up, get focused, and plan out the rest of my day. I also found that as the weeks went by, I was getting more and more adventurous with what I was willing to try to cook (I’m far from hopeless in the kitchen, but up until a few weeks ago my repertoire of breakfast ingredients consisted mostly of toast and associated spreads).

One other benefit that was probably more specific to me is that it gave me a good excuse to get out of bed on time. I used to be the kind of person that abused the Snooze button a fair bit; a typical morning for me consisted of groggily mauling my alarm clock 3 or 4 times before actually getting up, which means I was more-or-less losing a solid half hour of my day, every day, Monday through Friday. With breakfast as a motivator, I found I was able to get up much more easily sans Snooze, which gave me back part of my day that I then turned into productive cooking time.

The bad news.

Even thought I was quite evangelical about the whole concept of a real breakfast every morning, somehow when people asked me about it I’d often catch myself joking that I was tired all the time. As you might expect, I had to wake up earlier to fit breakfast into my day, and I had a hard time getting to bed early enough to make up for it — even though all I needed was an extra half hour of sleep. This really added up week over week and started to become a bit of a problem towards the end of the month; but to be fair, it was certainly compounded by my incredibly-overloaded March schedule.

Another issue is the typical motivation problem for similar activities like going to the gym. At first it’s really easy, because you told everyone you were going to start doing it and you have to prove to them that you weren’t talking out of your ass. But over time, the novelty wears off and it becomes almost chore-like — resentment sets in, and a spiral of increasing difficulty is spawned (during the last week of March, I skipped breakfast more often than not, which was disappointing). Again it’s tempting to blame this on my overburdened schedule, but I feel like what I really needed to make the entire month work was someone else doing it with me so that we could feed off of each other’s positive energy to keep going (the gym analogy still holds — maybe my similes are improving?).

That said, the pros definitely outweighed the cons, and I am going to try to keep it up through April.

You should try this.

I really recommend giving this a shot. Maybe not for a whole month, but at least try to manage a full week (I went almost three before my first skip). Independent of all the typical bonuses proclaimed in the original article, I did learn a fair bit about cooking breakfast and even more about how important it is for me to spend a little time thinking about my day before tackling it. You might be surprised by what you learn, too!