Archives for October 2016

October 28, 2016 - No Comments!

Expanding on Apple’s New Touch Bar

What if, and why not? Apple’s Macbook Pro shakeup, one day later.

During the introduction of the new MacBook Pro, I couldn't help but wonder: what if you could use the technology behind the Touch Bar to separate content from controls in desktop software interfaces? Imagine how simple our affordances and UI language could be if your content and controls were completely separate.

Let’s talk about this.

Here’s all of our interaction points on today’s laptops (stick with me here):

  1. Our screens show us our content.
  2. Our content is in windows that float on top of and around one another.
  3. We use our keyboards for typing text.
  4. We use our mouse or trackpad to move a cursor on our screen to manipulate the objects we see on it.
  5. We also use special key combinations on our keyboards to manipulate the controls on the screen faster than we could with the mouse/trackpad + cursor.

With iOS, Apple generally kept #1 and #3.

Instead of mouse/trackpad + cursor to manipulate on-screen controls (#4), we directly touch them on the touchscreen. This also meant that we don’t need keyboard shortcuts (#5) as much, since we don’t need to overcome the inefficiency of the mouse/trackpad + cursor (though some keyboard shortcuts have started to pop up on the iPad).

Apple dropped the windows (#2), allowing each app to take over the entire screen. This allowed us to drammatically simplify affordances in the UI: we no longer need to differentiate between so many different visual elements to show what is content versus controls in a UI, or which controls are active as part of the active window. This simplification has been so refreshing and focusing on iOS that Mac OS adopted full-screen as well, even though it doesn’t have the benefits of direct manipulation.

But people asked, “what if it did?” The simple answer has always been that it can’t: a touch screen on a laptop would lead to fatigue.

The Touch Bar, introduced yesterday, muddies the lines a little bit. Your screen shows your content and controls. Your Touch Bar shows the most prominent controls to control the focused application (plus, it looks like, some system state information at times like a current phone call). Your keyboard is for typing text, plus controlling the application. Your mouse/trackpad is for controlling the application by moving the cursor around the interface.

This immediately struck me as muddy. You now have 3 very different ways to control apps and their UIs. For what it does, Touch Bar is clearly the best of them. It is the clearest, provides the most feedback, and has more degrees of interaction. Plus, it’s direct manipulation — a first on the Mac.

But that doesn’t change the fact that you can control your application by:

  • Controls on the Touch Bar that can be tapped, scrolled, slid
  • Keyboard shortcuts
  • Moving a cursor on screen (using a mouse/trackpad) to click or click and drag on-screen interface elements

Because the Touch Bar is the best of them, and because it solves the problem the trackpad solves far better, I wondered if:

A) The trackpad and the Touch Bar could be merged, and

B) The Touch Bar could be expanded.

Why expand it?

What if your screen was strictly used to display content, and your expanded Touch Bar was strictly used to control content?

Not even iOS has this kind of simplification and clarity.

Imagine how simple our affordances and UI language could be if your content and controls were completely separate; if you didn’t move a cursor around a big field containing both content and controls to manipulate that content, often not knowing what’s a control and what isn’t?

Now by “strictly,” I don’t mean all-or-nothing all the time — that wouldn’t be immediately possible. But with some graceful fallbacks, could we get the ultimate in interaction design for creators on a laptop?

Let’s check it out:

Imagine a ginormous trackpad that spans the width of the laptop. Let’s call it the Magic Touchpad.


You’ll still use the sides as palm rests and the center as the trackpad field. It’d support force-touch, and it would be solid state, making clicks feel authentic with the haptic engine (much like the iPhone 7’s new home button).

But when you go full screen with an application — allowing that app to take over your screen (simplifying its UI as it doesn’t need to compete with other windows) — it also takes over your Touchpad.

On your screen, it only shows your content. On your Touchpad, it only shows your controls. The controls are in the center of the Touchpad — where you were controlling your cursor before.


But here’s the graceful fallback, should there need to be one. If you start moving your finger, starting in the middle of the Touchpad, where there is a “graceful fallback gap,” the controls slide to the two sides, giving you a full-sized trackpad again. It could dismiss automatically after a delay, or on a button tap on the Touchpad.


Now this is a simple example of how the Touchpad might work in Photos, but what about something more intensive? How would it look to put the controls for a more complex application on the Touchpad?

In Final Cut Pro, a professional creator’s application, the entire Touchpad could be used when the application goes full screen:


Check out the screen: there’s nothing but your content on it! It’s just the video you’re manipulating.

The Touchpad allows you to scrub around the timeline, directly touch elements, drag in transitions from a slide-in pane on the right, etc.

This really cleans up affordances in the app, and allows your content to shine on screen. This new interaction paradigm separates content from controls. The possibilities for interaction are limitless, and can be far more intuitive, with far better feedback, using only direct manipulation — on a desktop OS, with full-powered applications.

Back to graceful fallbacks:

Imagine you’re browsing the web. You need a normal trackpad in the middle, and your wrists are on either side.


Imagine your “favorites” are on the left, under your wrist. If you lift your wrist, your favorites fade in. Tapping any one allows instant navigation.


Lifting your right wrist could show your open tabs, with live previews, allowing you to pop over to another one.



As cool as it is, there are some obvious downsides to this approach, which probably highlight why this isn’t the product that was launched yesterday.

I’ve written before on the ergonomics of software, something often ignored but terribly important.

It gets you looking way down at the bottom of your field of vision. You never have to look that low right now. Apple was probably comfortable with the Touchbar where it is because it’s only slightly lower than the screen, and while users may have letter locations memorized, many are probably already looking at the function keys when using some of them. Having to look down where your trackpad is currently is not ideal. Looking back and forth between the two screens could be jarring — I’d be curious to try it. Plus, the best view of the Touchpad is when you hunch over the laptop. While that’s probably my most common position already, it’s terrible for your neck and back.

Also, in your most likely resting position for your hands, while using the Touchpad — even if the controls are in the very center — you’ll likely cover up far more of them than you do with your iPhone or iPad. Try it: leave your wrists where they usually are, and then use your trackpad. Now imagine if there were app-specific controls lit up under there. You wouldn’t be able to see them that well.

Cool ideas I’d be curious to see expanded on. Want to play with it? Download this PSD, and you’ll be able to edit the screen and Touchpad.

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October 13, 2016 - No Comments!

How I launched my company without outside funding, connections, or even a track record, and how you can too.

Coming up:

As unknown undergrads with no prior network or track record, we would have to raise $1,000 a day, from total strangers, for 35 days straight.

This is where I honestly expected the story to end.

Somehow, it was just the beginning.

In this article, I’m going to share with you my own entrepreneurial journey. Are you embarking on yours, but stuck on something? If so, let’s schedule a time to chat. I’d love to see if I can share anything with you that might help. Just shoot me an email to schedule 30 minutes to discuss what you’re working on.


I’m lucky enough to run a young, bootstrapped company that I founded. Here’s how that came to be.


In 2011, during my senior year at Virginia Tech, I was taking my favorite course — Design of Information. We had a journal check a few weeks into the semester, so the day before, I did what any college senior would do: I ran to Staples and bought a notebook.

To try and fill the minimum number of pages, I considered what problem would be so difficult that I wouldn’t be able to come to a fast solution on; one that would easily fill 10 pages.

I chose email. Everyone hated email, everyone complained about it, and it seemed that no one had figured out a good system for it (or if they had, it was intensely cumbersome).

I started to journal around email. I was trying to find the mismatch between how we actually use email today versus how it’s designed to work. My first challenge was to boil email down to its essence. I wanted to find the root of it: what the essence of email is to us today.


Once I felt that I had figured that out, I ignored all previous ideas and implementations I had ever seen, and I designed how an email client would work, based solely around that essence.


What I drew I quickly fell in love with.

I immediately showed it to my now-wife, and she resonated with the ideas immediately. The next day I showed it to a few friends, and their emphatic responses were clearly more than the minimum courtesy typically extended to a friend showing off scribbles in a notebook.

For a few weeks, I discussed the ideas with as many people as I could, refining them as I learned more, and iterating on the language I used to describe the concept. I kept hearing two things:

  1. “I need this,” and
  2. “I will pay money for this.”

That’s how I knew it was time to give it a shot.

With graduation 6 months away, I wanted to see if I could secure the funding to go full-time on the idea after college. But before turning to angel investors and VCs — a long shot, given that we had no experience, no connections, no prototype, and were still students — I wanted to first see if I could make an even longer shot work: crowdfunding.

The benefits of turning to a site like Kickstarter were that I would retain equity at this stage, and I wouldn’t be on the hook with someone else’s money if the idea failed (if it didn’t resonate in the market, then it wouldn’t be funded; conversely if it did resontate in the market, it would be funded, and a fan base would come with it — all three benefits tip together when a campaign reaches 100%, a feature unique to funding via the crowd with an all-or-nothing campaign).

We spent weeks prepping — recording a video, planning the kickbacks, very unsuccessfully reaching out to press and bloggers, writing content to publish during the campaign, starting to build up an email newsletter, etc.

In January of my senior year, with 5 months until graduation, we launched the Kickstarter campaign. We set the goal at $35,000 and the time at 5 weeks. As unknown undergrads with no prior network or track record, we’d have to raise $1,000 a day, from total strangers, for 35 days straight.

This is where I honestly expected the story to end.

Somehow, it was just the beginning.


It blew up on Hacker News with the headline “Email is broken. But we fixed it.” (which was changed midway through the day), and Twitter shortly thereafter.


People were backing the campaign faster than we expected, but we still feared it tapering off. The WIRED Insider selection was exciting nonetheless. Oh, and Jason Fried tweeting me about it didn’t hurt, either. (As a huge fan of his book REWORK, I geeked out when that tweet came in.)

A week into the campaign, David Pogue sent us a late Christmas gift:


Pogue wrote an article about Kickstarter, focusing in on just a few campaigns. One was ours.

He called our idea for Mail Pilot “ingenious.” In the New York Times. In print. At this moment, amid all the excitement, I fully accepted that this was it; I had peaked in life, and this was as good as it gets. It was all downhill from here.

Luckily, I was wrong.


After 5 weeks, our campaign ended with 1,623 backers pledging $54,205 to make Mail Pilot a reality. That’s over $1,500 a day.

With 3 months to go before graduation, $54k in the bank, and now a job offer from 1,623 fans of my ideas, I couldn’t wait to go full-time. If I didn’t have senioritis before, I definitely did by then. (Honestly, I probably had senioritis since the fourth grade.)

By June, we launched the first backer beta. In September, we launched the first publicly available version of the product — a web app.


This launch went so well — quickly making more than the Kickstarter campaign — that some pretty big people started reaching out. Most notably, Apple.

When asked if we’d be available for a call, I believe my immediate response was “whenever you call this number I will answer halfway through the first ring.”

Someone that handles Apple’s promos on the App Store editorial team asked us if we were considering bringing Mail Pilot to their platforms — iOS and Mac OS X (as it was named at the time). We were of course already planning on it, but with their recommendation, we re-prioritized iOS over Mac.


In April 2013, we launched Mail Pilot for iPhone and iPad. Apple featured it on the front page of the App Store (at this point I was certain we had peaked, and it was all downhill from here).

Along with a Techcrunch article, this was a stereotypical startup launch success story, but it wasn’t without one large snafu that I wrote about recently.


In January 2014, we launched Mail Pilot for Mac.


This launch might look the same, but it was very, very different. It was featured with a banner, and listed as a best new app, but look in the bottom right corner. It became the #1 Top Paid app in the entire Mac App Store within hours of debut. It took that spot in over 50 countries by the end of the year. It took that spot in its category in an additional 40 countries.

This was a whole new world for us.


In 2016, we launched an entirely new product, Throttle. It took the #1 spot on Product Hunt the day it launched, quickly joining the 1,000 club along the likes of the Tesla Model X.


Do you remember how we got here?

Back up five years. Even if you’ve read this whole story, you may have forgotten: this began when an unknown and inexperienced, but eager and ambitious undergrad decided to give Kickstarter a go with a strange idea to solve a tough problem in a new way. That’s it.

If you’ve been considering starting your own thing, creating and selling your own product, starting your own business to solve a problem you see in the world or your local community, then hear this: don’t worry about all the reasons why it probably isn’t possible, or all the things that might be going against you.

How You Can Do It Too

If you’re in the beginning or middle of your side-hustle, or a full-on startup, I’d love to chat. I promise I’m not selling anything; I enjoy mentoring the startups I’ve been connected to locally, but I’d love to see if I can help entrepreneurs and founders globally that have been reading these articles, and that need a sounding board. I’d love to schedule 30 minutes to discuss what you’re working on. Just shoot me an email.

If you’re not ready to chat yet, just subscribe to my newsletter. Every Thursday, I’ll send you a new article, which will also serve as a reminder for when the time is right to shoot me an email so we can hop on the phone.

I also just moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, so if you’re in the area, let’s grab coffee.

Learn to make world-class products that sell themselves.

Get actionable insights on product design and product ideation each Thursday morning, so you can become a pro at creating products people will love.

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