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Design posts:

Introducing WalkaboutNYC Agency Edition

When I joined Harvest a little more than a year ago, I was really excited about the work we do here. However, there was one project in particular that I really wanted to get involved in – WalkaboutNYC. The event had 2 successful runs prior to my joining Harvest, and I was very excited to work with Karen (WalkaboutNYC’s organizer), Danny, and  Shawn to see if we could blow it out.

The idea that kept rising to the top of the list for all of us was to run another event that was built around Harvest’s customers. The original WalkaboutNYC features Harvest’s peers in the NYC technology ecosystem. This new event would be for and about the Creative Agencies that we are proud to have as our customers.

All that background is to share how excited we all are that this vision has become a reality. On October 19th, 2012 we will be running the first ever WalkaboutNYC Agency Edition. We also have a brand spanking new site to celebrate this event.

The 17 companies who have bravely volunteered to open themselves up to curious New Yorkers on October 19th are paving the way for what we hope will be an annual tradition. If you are in NYC on 10/19 and run an agency that you’d like to have featured in this year’s WalkaboutNYC, please contact us. If you’re just curious how these agencies work and would like to meet the folks behind the scenes, RSVP today.

New and Improved Harvest Navigation

Today we’re excited to launch a new simple navigation. This new navigation is only one part of a larger effort to make Harvest better for tablets and touch devices, and clear up some usability issues. We’re launching this in preparation for a couple of big updates coming this Fall.

The new navigation is designed with larger click/tap areas, which make it easier to get around within Harvest. The new look is visually simpler and out of the way, allowing you to focus on the important bits below. It also introduces a new Profile Menu (click your profile photo in the upper-right of the new navigation) which offers quick access to your profile, weekly time report, and sign out. Tip: Add a profile photo if you haven’t already.

Note to Administrators: A common support question we hear is where an administrator can change their Account Settings. We’ve made now made Account Settings easier to get to by moving it from under the Manage tab to its new home: the Profile Menu.

Along with the visual updates, the code behind the navigation is much cleaner and lighter. We’re really excited to launch this upgrade. Enjoy, and let us know what you think.

Say Goodbye To The Generic Profile Picture

The internet has been co-existing with the infamous generic person (examples above) and his brethren for years. You’ve probably seen them around. They’re the gender-neutral, grayish, human-esque figures whose regular haunts include forums, social networks, and probably one or two of your account profiles. To be clear, they’re not evil. They’re just… there.

This week, we took some time to rethink our default profile pictures. We wanted to pull away from generic icons and make something fun and vibrant. So, from now on, all new people added to Harvest will be given one of three hand-painted clock tower avatars:

From left to right: Allen-Bradley Clock Tower (Wisconsin, US), Big Ben (London, England), Abraj Al-Bait Towers (Mecca, Saudi Arabia)

When I said hand-painted, I meant I “painted” them on the iPad with one of my favorite apps, Brushes. We want to keep expanding on this idea and provide even more options for you in the future. If you know of any clock towers that you think would make a great profile picture, let us know and it could make it into the next batch!

The New Harvest Mobile Timesheet

The new Harvest Mobile Timesheet is now ready for everyone! Here’s a short and sweet video to show you the highlights:

New Features: Team Status & Recent Tasks

There are many tweaks and improvements to the interface. The two most significant features are:

  • Team Status. This feature is built for project managers who are constantly asking, “what’s the team working on?” This page automatically refreshes itself with the latest information, a little touch that busy project managers would surely appreciate. Note: for this first version, you’ll need to be an admin to see Team Status.
  • Recent Tasks. Instead of choosing from a list of projects and tasks, you can now quickly select from a list of five most recent tasks. Once you start using it, you’ll be amazed at how much faster it is to start a timer in Harvest.

And a tip: you can use the new mobile timesheet from your computer or iPad by going to

Continue reading…

A Product Company Plays Agency

A couple of days ago I read this article about the newly designed #taxioftomorrow that will start appearing on New York streets in 2013. There were a lot of interesting tidbits in the article, among them, the yellow color is going to be brighter, the floor mats will be made from recycled materials, and the sound of the honk is changing. But what really struck me was the story of how Nissan, an automotive manufacturing company nearing its 80th year of operations had to learn how to behave like an agency.

For the Nissan designers every decision needed to be vetted internally and then approved by the client. Some decisions that Nissan thought would be easy approvals became lengthy discussions. One such decision was the partition between driver and rider. Wanting to embrace technology, the Nissan team pitched the idea of an intercom system. David Yassky, NYC Taxi Commissioner, didn’t approve. In addition to worrying about sound quality, Yassky shared a widely held belief by Drivers – connecting with riders generally earns them a better tip.

In my previous life at a large corporation I was always on the client side of agency interactions. Giving creative feedback was never easy, I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. However, as a brand manager I knew my job was as an advocate for the customer and the company. If my feedback was focused on customer insights, it was generally well received and aided in the creative process. The story about the divider reminded me of this. It’s a great example of a client and an agency working well together. Yassky didn’t tell Nissan that he didn’t like the closed divider, he told them about his customers’ needs. In this case the drivers’ need to make human contact.

For an old product company and a bunch of city politicians, this article portrays a relatively smooth process. I can’t wait to ride in the result!

Demand Better

Simply put, a big part of my job is to acquire more Harvest Customers. One approach we’ve been discussing lately is marketing our product to different industry verticals. Yesterday, I stumbled across a time tracking software specifically “designed” for lawyers. Naturally, I watched the demo so that I could see how we stack up. Harvest was the clear winner…by a wide margin. If your law firm uses this particular software, you have multiple (more than 5!) steps to go through each time you want to make a time entry. In other words, it costs time to track your time.

I have asked many lawyers about how they manage their billable hours. Several — not all — record time on scraps of paper or put it into an excel sheet. These time entries get passed along to admins who enter the time into the firms’ systems. Most don’t enter time as they work, rather they go through their calendars when timesheets are due and use memory. Firms are spending thousands of dollars on software that the lawyers don’t use because they don’t like it. These firms are wasting time and money, and missing out on countless billable hours.

Believe me, I understand the inertia that keeps inefficient systems in place. At my last job we used many clunky systems; we were on Lotus Notes until 2011. We all complained, but no one took the time to do anything about it.

As I watched the legal time tracking demo, I got to thinking: why don’t people demand better?

I think it’s because they don’t know that better exists. My epiphany of the day is that my job isn’t to sell Harvest — it’s to educate people that better exists.

Finding Comfort in Thermostat Design

When will all hotels replace their thermostats with the Nest?

I’m currently traveling in the Bay Area and staying at a hotel. On the first night here, it was cold so I tried to turn up the heat. I pressed the “up” button and the temperature on the display increased. After a few minutes, the room didn’t seem to be heating up though so I tried the other buttons. There’s an icon on the screen – I switched it from frost to sun, hoping that would do the trick (it didn’t).

The on-call technician came and explained that I should’ve used the auto mode, which is represented by a square icon with little arrows (like a poorly designed “refresh” icon). Aren’t poorly executed icons frustrating?

Left: What I had to deal with. Right: Nest.

Confusing icons aside, the bigger problem here was a lack of feedback; that most basic design principle that we’re all familiar with but often neglect. As a user, we look for feedback to answer the simple question of “did it work?” In this case, I wanted to know if what I did with the thermostat worked. I was looking for a “got it – I will now give you some heat” kind of confirmation. For example, the thermostat could’ve turned red, or displayed the word “heat”, or sang me a tune – anything.

More importantly, beyond the thermostat interface, I wanted some kind of physical feedback to tell me that the room was heating up. In a car, this feedback is literally in your face: you turn up the heat, and can feel the warm air coming out of the vent. That can be harder in a room where the vent could be out of reach. Personally, the feedback I’m used to is the clinking, mechanical sound of the heating system in a house or building. However, that audible feedback seems to be disappearing with better technology. I don’t know the mechanics of it, but it would be nice for the thermostat to receive information from the overall heating/air conditioning system and tell me what’s going on.

Disclaimer: I don’t own a Nest, and I cannot speak for its usability. I was thinking about my little problem with this hotel’s thermostat and thought of the gorgeous new thermostat. From everything I can gather from their site, it looks to be an amazing product, and I love its dial input.

I Don’t Like the Taste of Gmail’s Icon Soup

Update (3/21/12): Google now offers a setting to change Gmail’s buttons to a text label. Icon buttons are still the Gmail default, but this is a welcome change for anyone who feels that the icons slow their flow down.

Recently, Google released an updated Gmail look which affected the interface pretty drastically. My gut reaction to the change was not good. People tend to be fairly averse to sudden, dramatic change and it’s very easy to have a knee-jerk reaction of “I hate this” whenever something you’re familiar with changes. With that in mind, I decided to use the new design for awhile before I gave up and ruled it a disaster. Sure enough, I’ve grown to appreciate many of the choices the Gmail team made and have found some of the changes to be quite an improvement.

There is one facet of the new design, however, that I cannot get past. Whenever I view an email, I am presented with these controls at the top of each message:

Gmail’s new message toolbar

Can you tell me with certainty what each of those buttons will do to the message? I can’t and I have to stop and think about what these icons mean every time I try to do something. Icons that aren’t instantly and naturally understood slow me down — and getting slowed down for no good reason makes me cranky.

In my opinion, these new button styles are a giant step back from the previous version of Gmail. Is there any doubt about what most of these buttons will do?

Gmail’s old message toolbar

When you see icons that aren’t intuitive, it’s often because the software team chose their convenience over making things easier for the user. Designers like icons because they are prettier than text and they more easily fit in a confined space (you don’t need to worry about text overflow on a 16×16 graphic). Programmers like icons because there’s no need to translate an extra label.

The best icons express crystal clear functionality with their simplicity and context. A trash can or an “x” next to an item in a list is a good indicator you’re about to delete or remove something. A lock graphic next to a disabled form element helps emphasize that an item is not editable. A partially shaded battery on an electronic device is a clear way to express remaining charge.

Icons in software can be a beautiful thing when executed properly. Given a choice between an ambiguous icon and a text label, however, text is the clear choice for conveying a buttons’s function quickly and clearly. Your users will never have to guess what that stop-sign exclamation looking icon means when they want to mark their 1000th viagra email as spam.

Gmail’s buttons when composing a message

Frustratingly, Google uses text labels when you’re composing a message. I wish they would be consistent and apply this style to all of their buttons in the new Gmail. How about you?

Handmade: Knife Making in Brooklyn

I’m in awe whenever I come across a physical object that’s been made by hand. I’ll often pick up the piece and study it, like a work of art. It’s easy to forget to appreciate handicraft, especially if your days are spent building for the digital world.

That’s why it was a pleasant surprise to hear about Brooklyn based Joel Bukeiwicz, a professional knife maker (not far from Harvest HQ) who does all his work by hand. Joel is one of only a handful of knife makers in the country to practice this art form. You can watch the video from Made by Hand below, or read on to learn more about Joel and his story.

Joel came to knife making from the unrelated craft of writing. After having a hard time selling his manuscript, he decided to take a 3 month hiatus from writing. He fed his desire to create by building physical objects — bookshelves, tables. Anything. For Joel, creating tangible things was a breath of fresh air. He eventually came to knife making and quickly became passionate about it.

After toiling in the shop for two years, Joel came away competent of his craft. He now sells handmade cutlery to fine chefs in Brooklyn and beyond out of Cut Brooklyn. Each knife gets 15 hours of attention, versus your high-end German knife which takes 10 robots, 15 minutes to spit off the line.

Cut Brooklyn’s mission is to make every knife the very best knife they’ve ever made. As Joel learns and iterates, the quality of the knives improve. This human element makes every piece unique and brilliant. It’s this level of care and attention to detail that we admire as software builders, and it’s why I continue to pick up the pieces made by hand.

Oink vs Stamped: Two Approaches to Free Trial

I downloaded two iPhone apps this morning: Oink & Stamped. Both are well-crafted, simple mobile apps with a similar goal: to share reviews for things. Both have been getting a lot of attention lately.

Although they serve a similar purpose, the first thing I noticed is that they have a very different first-time user experience. Here are the first screens you see in each app :

With Oink, you see an intro and two big buttons to let you sign up easily through your Facebook or Twitter account. The intention here is clear: they want to get you into the app as quickly as possible.

Stamped takes a different approach, the initial message is clear though: just one sentence, and it helps to reinforce their brand: “Put your stamp of approval on the world.” After that, you can go through four well-designed slides to learn what the app does. The emphasis here is education, to explain to new users what Stamped is all about.

In my opinion, Stamped offers a better design for their introduction – but I wonder how many people take the time to go through the slides. As an application, what you want is for people to use it, and the biggest obstacle between a user’s interest in an app and getting them to actually use it is the sign-up form. Oink lets you sign up directly via Facebook and Twitter. Stamped makes you fill out this form:

It’s short, but enough of a hindrance to prevent me from signing up this morning (maybe I’ll do it later, if I remember).

Both Oink and Stamped are created by smart and proven teams, and there are a lot of interesting, custom UI patterns in both apps (I’m particularly amused by Oink’s little loading bar on top). I’d highly recommend that you give them a look, if you’re an iOS user!