Category Archives: Ideas

Various ideas I have for software, processes and other enhancements to facets of life

Modularity without modules…what’s the point?

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have an idea that my son is currently without one of his rides (i.e. a Razor Cruiser kick scooter). My son is big and tall for his age, and this scooter is perfect for him.

Like most boys his age, though, he doesn’t understand “cruiser” in the face of a neighborhood of boys who all like to jump all manner of wheeled vehicle. :-) As a result of this lack of appreciation (er, love of both scooter and jumping), what looked like

Unridden Razor Cruiser kick scooter

now looks like

Used Razor Cruiser kick scooter front assembly

Failed wood/fiberglass Razor Cruiser kick scooter deck

Failed wood/fiberglass Razor Cruiser kick scooter deck (close-up)

Used Razor Cruiser kick scooter back assembly

Do you see the opportunity?

Razor makes a quality product–one the is easy to use and maintain. Ease of maintenance is largely facilitated by modularity of design.

So when my son came to me with the disappointment of pushing his ride too hard, my first thought was to simply disassemble the scooter to isolate the failed part (deck). Easily accomplished.

Except that apparently Razor and its authorized parts retailers doesn’t stock replacement decks for the Cruiser kick scooter.

So…Razor built a modular kick scooter but doesn’t stock a critical module (deck).

What’s the point of modularity, if there are no modules (i.e. ability to swap module instances that fulfill necessary interfaces)?

My son’s predicament is clearly of his own making, but herein is opportunity for Razor. Beyond already clearly stating what their product is designed to perform, Razor can anticipate that boys will be boys and provide timely relief in the form of complete replacement parts, including readily available decks.

Within earshot of my son are more than a dozen boys of similar age, and they’re always outside planning their next jump. Many already own their own Razor, too. What if he could turn around an accident with word that Razor saved the day? Talk about brand advocacy and social media!

What’s your Razor-like story? What’s your Razor-like opportunity?

Person availability sparkline for Outlook meeting requests

Dear Outlook team:

As I was riding home on the train today talking with my fellow riders, an idea for a practical feature in an upcoming Outlook release developed. Since time is precious, and I’m focused on other pursuits, I wanted to place this idea into the Creative Commons for your consideration.

At least the passengers of the train car I typically occupy find it all too common to receive meeting requests in Outlook that clearly conflict with existing appointments already scheduled. It’s as if the person who called the meeting just added names (reading off a script) without even bothering to click into the Scheduling Assistant UI.

Default Outlook 2010 Meeting Request UI

This is unfortunate since that UI does a fairly good job of actually assisting the caller of a meeting with the scheduling process.

Outlook 2010 Meeting Request Scheduling Assistant

However, it’s hard to teach a drone how to find pollen; so, I think there is an opportunity to bring more assistance into the default Appointment UI.


Here’s the essential idea: as attendees (or resources) are entered into a meeting request, dynamically shade the background of each name according to availability as follows:

  • Green – potential attendee is completely available
  • Yellow – potential attendee has a tentative conflict (i.e. a complet or partial conflict)
  • Red – potential attendee has already committed to attend another meeting

Changes to the date/time of the meeting should trigger event handlers that reflect any change in availability shading.

Additionally, you could also provide another, central visual cue for the overall meeting (e.g. a green highlight effect around the current Send button to indicate that there are presently no scheduling conflicts known to the system).

Frankly, I think it’s fair to question a person calling a meeting who doesn’t bother to confirm attendee availability. However, we are talking about drones not worker bees. So, for those of us who receive such meeting requests all too frequently, please consider this idea for a future release of Outlook. (If you have implementation questions, you can always reach out to your Excel colleagues. :-) )

Thanks for your consideration.

(Re)Balancing atoms and bits

Several years ago, I blogged about how I winnowed atom-based content at that time. When I consider my increasingly digital life now, I smile at how out-dated that post seems.

Maybe some day I’ll let go of my hardcopy altogether and go 100% digital.

Almost two years after my winnowing (paper-based) content post, I briefly waxed sentimental about personal content management. Judging by that post’s imagery, I’m not sure how much “evolution” had actually occurred. I do know that the binders of paper were eventually tosed outright, but even a quick glance at my current technical library at home tells me that I have far from reached any “evolved” state.

As a visual person, I tend to value what I can see and tangibly interact with. Books present a particular challenge to me. A good book, in hard cover format especially, is immediately available to give to someone else as a loan or a gift (e.g. from one generation to the next). The same book in electronic format is more subject to the winds of technology (e.g. will there be a reader for this format? what all is required to actually read the book in terms of supporting hardware and software? etc.). On the other hand, if I took the time to bookmark or otherwise annotate paper, this could distract subsequent reading by others–electronic metadata should be more distinctly layered and separable from original content.

Given the choice between hunter or gatherer in a shopping context, I’m definitely a hunter. Put me in the middle of a men’s department or clothing store and I’ll happily panoramically scan the selection, deciding in mere seconds whether there is something for me (to killpurchase), or not. (Thankfully, my wife is my primary wardrobe consultant; so, my hunter instincts are necessarily balanced and muted. :-) ) However, as much as I may be a hunter over clothes, I am a serious gatherer of books and music. Places like Barnes & Noble and Borders love guys like me.

So, you might think that my struggle over books (i.e. physical or digital) is a struggle I have with music, too. Perhaps, but I think that my music-as-content evolution is a bit more “advanced” and, therefore, may be informative.

Although I still buy physical CDs more than digital downloads, all of my music is immediately rendered in digital format and almost entirely consumed digitally thereafter. Going “essentially digital” has enabled me to take full advantage of classification software (e.g. MusicBrainz, freedb, etc.), playback software (e.g. Apple iTunes, Microsoft Zune, etc.), recommendation engines like Pandora, etc. and also various playback hardware (e.g. an Apple iDevice, laptop, PC, etc.). If I read the liner notes for an album, I do so once (typically after unwrapping the CD). From then on, interaction with music is based on bits rather than atoms (the occasional CD play through my high fidelity entertainment system notwithstanding).

Perhaps with the advent of The Undesigned Web, software like Instapaper, and hardware like iPad, etc., my interaction with reading material will tip to become predominantly digital. Certainly, as I use the Read Later feature of Instapaper, I find it to be a digital equivalent to my paper-based content winnowing approach from years ago. (Tapping into familiar workstreams is always an effective catalyst to change my behavior.)

…if I did go digital my office would be too Spartan.

Actually, I think another contributing factor to my attempt at balancing the gathering of atoms with gathering bits instead is the fact that there is limited physical space to house either. Today, it’s not really a concern over becoming Spartan, it’s about using limited wall and desktop space to display physical items of the greatest value (e.g. family photos, art, sculpture, etc.).

Just like I’m able to visualize the “height” (or “depth”) of, say, my iPod (i.e. the number of digitized albums stored in terms of a stack of CD cases), I’m beginning to visualize my iPad in a similar manner (i.e. in terms of the stack of print magazines and books available electronically instead). Virtually speaking, such devices “fill a room.”

Who knows, I may just have to invest in my own book scanner to help free up some shelf space… :-)

Suggestions to improve conference scheduling

So, I finally was able to complete my PDC sessions scheduling. It was a bit more “involved” then I expected, and I have a few suggestions for, in this case, Microsoft as they prepare for future conferences:

  • Enable Outlook (ICS-based) scheduling sooner
  • Include the online session home page as a link in the ICS file
  • Default to “no alert” in ICS files (e.g. avoid creating noise from multiple sessions of interest all vying for my attention on my smart phone)
  • Add a map link to help guide attendees to where sessions are being held (i.e. nowadays location-aware service is expected, IMHO; so, allow users to opt-in where correlating to present location (device GPS coordinates) is concerned)
  • Promote session hashtags (e.g. help guide the use of Twitter et al by going beyond just #PDC09)
  • When you post a location and date/time, and you change it, indicate the change more prominently (e.g. maintain version history)

Next year, I’d love to say something like, “I’m a PC. PDC10 scheduling…was my idea.” :-)

In Pursuit of Elegance

Last month I read In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing and am finally posting my thoughts on this book by Matthew May.

First of all, it’s a well-written book that applies its message to itself.

I’m glad that I found it after my previous read, since it covers similar ground in places as does Subject To Change but ends up exploring different vistas, too. As a matter of fact, I can relate the contents of this book to several previous reads, and In Pursuit of Elegance has refined my thinking drawn from past reading through deeper correlation and, well, elegance.

“To find elegance, you must appreciate, embrace, and then travel beyond complexity.” The pursuit of elegance is more like chess than checkers. Elegance is “far side,” not “near side,” simplicity; it is at once symmetrical, seductive, subtractive and sustainable.

Concerning this book’s refining effect, take the somewhat popular subject of kaizen–a principle and a practice of “change for the better.” A student of kaizen creates a standard, follows it, and finds a better way. A student of kaizen understands that there are two types of work: value-adding and non-value-adding. In the pursuit of value-adding work, one must be wary of muri (overload), mura (inconsistency), and muda (waste).

Up to this point, I focused more on muda (waste) as a concern, drawing from lessons learned in The Machine That Changed the World while contemplating software factories. However, May writes: “Muda is the easiest to target because it is generally more visible. But muri and mura are often the more evil of the sins, as they can be the actual cause of all muda.” Yes, of course!

Taiichi Ohno, Toyota engineering pioneer and the man behind kaizen, taught his colleagues that new thoughts and better ideas do not come out of the blue, they come from a true understanding of the process. [Aside: Developing and applying empathy is an important theme in Subject To Change.] Writes May: “By requiring keen observation before action, by demanding that one look beyond the obvious surface symptoms to better see the deeper causes, by never giving answers and only asking questions, Ohno taught people to stop and think.”

Make decisions that are based on observation, not assumption (or necessarily inference alone). Therefore, actively form your mental model through firsthand observation (empathy) to ask “What is possible?;” don’t passively succumb to the “ladder of inference” and prematurely ask “What should be done?”