Monthly Archives: September 2010

New Addition To The Home: Mortimer The Letterpress!

As I wrote earlier, I really like letterpress stuff. I’ve been thinking of getting into it on my own, so I scoured eBay and craigslist looking for a printing press for myself. I wanted a tabletop press that wasn’t too heavy.

I ended up getting a Kelsey Excelsior 5×8 model from a guy just outside of Lansing. Emily and I drove over there to pick it up, then we took it to her parent’s place in Grand Rapids where Randy did a super good job fixing it up with WD-40 and oil. He also attached it to a piece of wood for easy letterpress action! Thanks, Randy!

We learned from the seller that this particular press was rescued from a funeral home, where it was used to print memorials and stuff. We also found some pre-set type along with the press with words like “DIED” and “INTERNMENT.” Creepy! I hope no ghosts decide to haunt my press. Because of its history, I named the press Mortimer. It also sounds like a good old-timey name. The serial number on the press’ chase bed reads “B41D” which tells me that the thing was built in April 1941.

Although I need to buy new rollers for the press, I decided to practice setting type. I made a pseudo business card and made a blind impression with the type. I made the imprint on some of my old Microsoft business cards (won’t need those ones anymore).

I can’t wait to see what the results look like with ink and paper that’s made for letterpress. I also have a few other supplies I need to buy before I’m in business. Stay tuned for updates on letterpress stuff!

foursquare 2.0 UX Sloppiness

Foursquare just released a new version of its iPhone app.

Something I noticed right away which disappointed me was that they basically slapped on a new view to the existing app, and didn’t even bother to match the style of the original app!

Screenshot from official foursquare blog

Not only is the new bar a different color, it’s also a different height than the existing one! It also lacks labels where the original one has labels below the icons. This is simply sloppy design. These two screens exist in the same version of their app! It wouldn’t have taken much more work to either update the app so both bars are grey, or match the new views to the old one.

I recently saw that foursquare is looking for a new Product Manager. I’m considering applying to help them out with their product issues ๐Ÿ™‚

After emailing back and forth with Alex Rainert, foursquare’s head of product, it seems that, to answer my own question, this was a conscious design decision to change the visual style of the buttons. In one context, they are for navigating various top level features, and in another, they are buttons for various pop-up actions. It’s of my opinion that the change in visual style is a bit too much (the change in height along with the loss of the location footer in some screens), but that’s a design choice that foursquare made intentionally.

Performance vs. Brand Advertising on iAd

I’ve got some more thoughts on iAd after trying iAd out on one of my apps for about a month now.

As I noted in an earlier post, Apple responded to a really low fill rate on their iAd program by enabling developer ads. Developer ads are simple banner ads that entice a user to download an iPhone app. Here’s what the use case looks like via Business Insider:

To Apple’s credit, the workflow is actually pretty good. It doesn’t require users to leave the app to download another one.

Since developers can’t really afford the insane $2 cost per click that the big media customers pay, Apple is charging $.25 a click instead, and no cost per impression. Theoretically, this should mean that the fill rate would be very high (as long as developers are not maxing out on their daily spend limit or too aggressively filtering out apps). Yet I’ve noticed a pretty big fall in fill rate (from about 30% to 20%) in the last month.

I think the main issue is that Apple never really intended iAd to be used for performance advertising. Performance advertising is about getting that direct action (in this case, an app download). Apple’s been pushing iAd as a great Brand advertising solution (where the user is not expected to go out and buy Dove soap from their phone). That’s why the premium brands are willing to pay so much per click and impression. By comparison, AdMob ads on the iPhone seem to be more geared toward performance advertising.

By introducing developer ads, I think Apple has tried to appease publishers at the cost of the perceived premium value of iAds. Sure, the developer ads aren’t as flashy as the premium advertisers’, but $.25 versus $2 a click for the same piece of real estate is quite a difference. Add the perception that iAds for developers are not cost-effective and you could come to the conclusion that Apple is doing it wrong. It doesn’t help that the premium brand advertisers seem to be frustrated with the process of dealing with Apple as a gatekeeper.

So what can Apple do to fix this? They should go back to their specialization: doing one or a few things really well. They should focus on iAd as a brand advertising platform. They should work on getting as many large partners onto iAd as quickly as possible. This will alleviate the growing pains that publishers (including me) are feeling with fill rates. Right now it seems like Apple is reacting rather than acting; following rather than leading. They need to show that they’re serious about carving their own niche in the mobile advertising space.


I finally heard about Quora enough times (I suppose I reached my contagion threshold) to make a profile for it a week or so ago, and I ended up exploring it in depth today.

Quora is basically a site that lets you ask questions and answer other people’s questions. Facebook also just recently released a feature called Questions that seems sort of similar. While Quora hasn’t put limits on what kinds of questions you can ask, the bulk seem to be about technology and startups, probably because of the types of early adopters who are using the site.

Quora is interesting to me because it’s basically enabling people to share knowledge. In a way, it’s like Wikipedia, but with a seemingly smaller barrier to entry. While Wikipedia has some harsh rules on how to edit an article, Quora is centered around questions and answers on various topics. You can literally sign up and answer questions within a few minutes.

As with any great piece of social software, Quora seems to work because it makes the right things visible, which gives incentives for people to keep contributing. Personally, I see it as a way to build up my online reputation as an expert on a number of subjects. It’s interesting because the incentives to use the site are baked into the site itself. It’s easy to see who has answered many questions, who has a lot of followers, who has been “endorsed” by others, etc. With this system, pretty much everyone wins. The question askers have their questions answered, the answerers get the glory of answering a question well, and even users who do neither can still benefit from reading good answers to good questions.

Another neat aspect of the site is that there are many users who could be considered “internet celebrities” or important in some other right. There are many founders of companies and other execs who go to the trouble of answering questions about the companies they founded. This is cool because users are all sort of on the same level (or at least have the potential to be). Think of the opportunities if you were one of the first 1000 people on Twitter and could have great conversations with the other early adopters.

From playing around with it a bit today, I’m very impressed and excited about Quora. By comparison, I just goofed off on Facebook Questions and unlocked the Rickroll Easter Egg (ask “How is babby formed?”). Quora still has a few things it could do better (like make it easier to find really great answers to really great questions, perhaps older ones) but even now it seems like a great tool. With the right attention to detail and community, I feel like it could be the next Wikipedia in terms of social computing success stories.

Oh, and here’s an example of a really good answer to a question: Why is Facebook creating a Q&A product to compete against Quora?

What I Learned From Checkmate

Just about two weeks ago, I released my first paid iPhone app, Checkmate. The experience has been priceless, plus I made a few bucks as well. I thought I’d share the stuff I learned, both technical and otherwise.


Core Location. Being the first iPhone app I’ve done that uses Core Location, I learned a lot about the process of starting up the location manager, filtering location updates and getting them to work in the background. The background stuff is pretty new, just released in iOS 4.

Design takes thought. One of the most difficult things in designing an app is balancing between user expectations (“it should work like magic”) and real-world constraints (battery, accuracy tradeoffs). I’ve taken the approach of leaving the details under the hood (another app that does something similar gives users full control) for simplicity. This is a deliberate design decision. I’ve found that many users are happy with the app, and some are unhappy. I assume there is a minority that is unhappy, but that they seem to be more vocal (more on that later).

Core Data. I also learned about Core Data, since I use that for storing venue data persistently. There’s a bit of a learning curve with Core Data, but I have a pretty good idea of how it works. I guess it helps that I’ve designed a bunch of database schema in the past.

Get to good enough. I definitely feel like I have accomplished something by releasing the app. I have wrestled in the past between releasing something when it’s “good enough” but not getting stuck in perfectionist limbo. In the case of Checkmate, I got to a point where I was happy enough with its performance (it works) and did not want to delay any further, lest I lose steam and give up on ever releasing it. Now that I’ve gotten a feedback loop going, it’ll be easier to improve and update the app anyway. As far as interface design goes, the app is a bit clunky for my taste. Having admitted that, I think I could go back and make some things more obvious (like the login screen) and polish up the user experience.


Ask for reviews. Ask satisfied customers for reviews. Because if you don’t, only the unhappy users will post them. And you’ll end up getting a pretty bad average rating. Even if your app makes crap into gold, there will be users who don’t see the value in it, or think that $2 is too much to pay. Encourage users to post reviews in-app and you’ll see a well-rounded view of what people think about your app.

It’s okay to have a competitor. While developing my app, I found that another similar app had launched and gotten some press from Techcrunch. This was a bit depressing as I wanted to have that exposure. I ended up using it as a motivator since the blog post and app validated my own idea. There’s always room for competition, especially if you can outdo them.

Popular takes all on the App Store. There have been blog posts on the subject of iTunes ranking and how valuable it is to make a top 100 list. Apps seem to be ranked in search based on their sales volume, which means that popular apps will become more popular. Having been featured on Mashable at launch, my app got to #2 for a “foursquare” search. This helped a lot for residual sales. I’m assuming that most apps are sold directly from app store searches. There are other ways to discover apps.

Have fun! It was really exhilarating to see my app get into the app store and into the hands of users. I set up a twitter account to communicate with users, monitored twitter searches for my app and answered emails sent through a contact form on my website. It was really fun having people react to work that I did. It’s probably one of the strongest motivators for me to keep doing what I’m doing.

I have learned a great deal from my first commercial app launch. I’m really glad that I had an idea and stuck with it to completion. I’m still learning a great deal from Checkmate. I know that this experience will make the launch of my next product/app (whatever it might be) more smooth, both for me and users!