Thursday, April 24, 2008

What do I do?

Today's post is inspired by a challenge from IttyBiz. The author, Naomi Dunford, reflected on how many readers aren't aware - through no fault of their own - of what we blog writers actually do for a living. So, the challenge was to answer five questions to introduce ourselves (again) to our readers:

What’s your game? What do you do?

By day, I'm a web developer working for a major government contractor. By night, I'm a freelance web designer, artist, and writer.

Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?

I love web design. It's the perfect melding of programming, art, and writing.

Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?

Most of my clients are game companies. I've done artwork or websites for a fair few people as individual commissions too. Usually, the people interested in my services are those looking for a friendly face and an understanding of the game industry that just isn't there for the majority of web design companies.

What’s your marketing USP? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?

I don't know what a USP is, but I'll say this - I'm the guy who knows what I'm doing, and I know what my clients are doing too. At the end of the day, I'm a gamer as well as a designer!

What’s next for you? What’s the big plan?

Right now, Mana Trance Creative - the name I do business as a freelancer under - is pretty low on my list of priorities. I take a new client once every three months or so, much reduced from when I was just out of college (and unemployed). However, over the next year I'll be slowly building up MTC. My goal is to be self-employed at roughly the same standard of living I have now by December of 2009.

So, if any of you reading this needs a website (or art) or knows someone who does, shoot me an email (!

What the client wants isn't always what they need.

Guest Post by Monica O'Brien of Twenty Set

I've recently noticed a trend in software development that is along the lines of "If we build it they will come." This is a problem in any type of product development, but it seems to happen more often in software development because there are fewer entry barriers to start a technology-based company.

The problem with "building things" is there are no limits to technology in terms of virtual products. If you can dream it, you can find a way to make it virtual. Which means there are a lot of people trying to make money off of products or enhancements that are missing one thing: a customer need.

What technology companies need most when developing a new product or enhancing an existing product is marketing research. Unfortunately, research is thought to be costly to be hired out, so many companies do an ad hoc version of marketing research which comes down to implementation managers asking customers what they want and reporting back to the company.

This methodology is inherently flawed, however. The first rule of marketing research is you don't ask your customers what they want.

'If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me "A faster horse."' ~ Henry Ford

Customers are good at identifying solutions, not needs. In this example the user needs to get to places faster and comes up with a solution based on previous experience.

But where's the innovation in something a customer has already experienced? Most customers don't understand technology the way a software developer would, and the solutions a customer presents cannot be new or different because they are solutions someone else has already created. A company that uses solutions to determine what to build next will become an aggregator rather than an innovator; and while aggregators can be useful, they are certainly not original, cutting-edge, or exciting.

Aggregation leads to other problems, namely complicated or unnecessary functionality. Which is why most software becomes too expensive, too slow, or too buggy.

Some advice for companies developing software - if you want to be an industry leader, learn how to extracts needs vs. solutions. There is an entire science built around how to do this, and in my experience people without formal training in marketing research are absolutely horrible at understanding the voice of their customer. So maybe hire someone instead - the cost incurred will return tenfold in profits.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Earth Day 2008

oday is Earth Day.

To celebrate, today I'm going to post a short list of some great links in the spirit of the holiday that are relevant to the Millennial. My favorite is the solar-powered iPod, but check them all out!

Reegle - A renewable energy search engine that tries to bill itself as Web 2.0. Technologically speaking, it's not particularly advanced - no social media, the web design itself is a little off in places, and it appears to be trying to model itself after Google but doesn't come close. However, as a resource for renewable energy information and news related to that topic, it does a good job. There IS a blog, too, and though it clearly needs an editor, the content is in the right place and well-informed.

EcoWorld - This site has a wealth of content. Don't let the ugly design put you off - everything is fairly well organized, and there's a few fun things in there, like this biofuel land calculator. I'm no scientist though, so take this - as with all things - with a grain of salt.

Solar-powered iPod charger - With this and an iPod Touch or iPhone, you can take your mobile computing into the bush and not worry about powering the thing. Also, because it's solar power, it's greener than the alternative.

GreenTechnoLog - One of the better green tech blogs I've found. Multiple good articles with great information!

Dumb Little Man has an excellent post on reducing your carbon footprint. I can't recommend this blog enough, and it turns out he had a perfect post for this topic!

GreatGreenGadgets has a blog post about...well, a whole lot of green gadgets, tricks, and websites. Lots. Check it out!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Moving to Mobile: How to work from any computer

Lately, working on multiple computers has started to take its toll on my time and productivity. I regularly use my work computer, my laptop, and my home computer, and occasionally use university computers and conference room computers. That's five different machines on a fairly frequent basis. It's hard to keep track of everything - especially if I need a file that's on machine X, or a password that's in the Firefox password manager on machine Y.

So, to fix that, I'm going full mobile. I'm moving everything that can be securely moved (i.e., nothing proprietary from work) into the cloud. Here's a few of the things I'm doing to accomplish this:

  • KeePass - I'm moving all my passwords and login names into the freely-available KeePass password manager. It's portable and very secure, as well as able to generate some really nice passwords for you - and all you need to know is one password to unlock the database. No more having to remember dozens of different passwords and logins.

  • Google Docs - Documents that I don't use often I'm archiving to DVD. Everything else, which isn't much, I'm moving into Google Docs - both for ease of access and for the unique collaborative quality of document editing in the cloud.

  • Google Reader - Though I love the Flock browser's social media functions, I'm moving to just using Google Reader for all my feeds. That way I can keep up without having to worry about logging on the right machine, and feeds that aren't allowed at work - like the Wizards of the Coast feed - I just keep in a separate, closed folder that doesn't trip the firewall.

  • Google Notebook - No need to keep track of all my favorites/bookmarks separately. Notebook does this for me. It even integrates with Firefox with a nifty toolbar.

  • Portable Apps - For those times when I really need a specific application, I'll just load up Portable Apps on my flash drive. GAIM, OpenOffice, 7zip, Notepad++, it's all there and all portable.

The only applications which I can't transport easily are Photoshop and Star Wars Galaxies, but seeing as Adobe just released a web-based version of Photoshop that's freely available, the former's not going to be a problem. And I really don't need to be playing Galaxies at work, so that's not an issue either, heh.

I'm taking my first steps toward being fully mobile. If you have any suggestions for additional ways to do this, let us know in the comments!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Choice in the workplace? What will they think of next!

It seems that lately more companies are veering towards non-uniformity in system design. Employees are allowed to use any computer they want, as long as certain key criteria (e.g., ability to get onto the company intranet) are met. Google has taken this approach, and I imagine it'd be a good thing for Gen Y to universally follow Google's lead.

With the creep towards distributed computing once again, we could even have "mobile dumb terminals" without too much effort or complication.

So, with all that in mind, let's hear what you think about this. Should companies allow their employees to use whatever computer they want?

Do you REALLY need that?

n the digital age, we are bombarded from all directions with social links, RSS feeds, Twitters, and all manner of other social media gizmos. We are constantly plugged into the world of Look What Just Came Out That You Need Now messages from friends and colleagues. Oddly, we never stop to think whether we really need that new gadget.

Lately, I've been feeling pressure to buy an iPod Touch. A thousand little voices tell me I need it, I can afford it, what will it hurt to just buy the lowest-storage model....but they rarely, if ever, touch on the most important topic: do I need it?

As a web worker and an erstwhile member of the "coworking coffee crowd," I experience near-continual exposure to the Benefits and Advantages of Switching to Mac. I own a first-gen iPod Nano that I almost never use, and that's about the extent of my Apple-ness. So, one voice is telling me to get the Touch because, hey, it's an upgrade over my ancient Nano. Another voice, from the people in the coffee shop, is telling me - sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly - that Apple is what all the Cool Kids have.

I try and rationalize it. The iPod Touch can store contacts. It can access the Web via wifi for free. It lets me view the weather forecast wherever I find a hotspot. It plays music - and doesn't need to be connected to my computer to get new songs. It plays video, and if the rumors are true, Quake III Arena. All things that, as a web worker, I Need.

...but do I really? Will my life be any more complete after buying a Touch? I tend to think not. After all, most purchases we make in our lifetimes should satisfy a genuine need. Entertainment, personal growth, and other less tangible concepts can easily be obtained through non-material means. Hiking every month, for example, is a lot cheaper than buying a new video game every month...and a lot better for you, too.

So the next time you're tempted to buy that new gadget that just came out, think long and hard about WHY you need it. The decision may make you a better person.

If you have a story about a time when you passed up (or bought!) a gadget you didn't really need, go ahead and share it!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Fear and Aggression....the dark side, are they?

ecently I read a blog post railing against the lack of willingness to stand up for others in modern society. Too often, this observation proves widespread. I myself experienced something similar a long time ago, and regret not acting to this day.

Most of this, I speculate, comes from a culture of individualism....and a lack of confrontation. We are sorely lacking in aggressive quality these days. This is not to say we should have more anger and violence; rather, we need to improve everyone's quality of life by introducing a little bit of healthy fear into the mix.

For example, I avoid cobras when possible, as they tend to strike fatally when provoked. This is not a crippling fear, but rather a fear that guides my behavior for my (and the cobra's) safety. Not all fear is bad, no matter what our illustrious long-lost President said.

We must be willing to step in and do what's right, and aggression is necessary for that. Pacifism only works when everyone is pacifist. This isn't just walking around the streets defending little girls from thugs, either - standing up for someone's idea in the office when the office bull-head is beating it down for no good reason is JUST as relevant.

So next time you find yourself in a position to save someone, do it. Don't think about it. Just do it.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Wake up with the sun and regain control of your life.

ost people in college and just out of it are night owls. I even know one or two who regularly sleep until noon. This behavior is reinforced by a student culture that emphasizes socializing at night as the highest priority.

As a wise man once said, that's no way to go through life, son.

I wake up every morning at 6:00 AM on the dot. Sometimes I use my alarm clock. Sometimes I don't. Either way, during winter I'm up before the sun and during summer I wake with the sun. As a result, my days are more productive, more active, and healthier. Ben Franklin had it right when he wrote "early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

  • More Productive. Since I wake up earlier, when fewer people are active, there are fewer distractions. I take a few minutes to just relax and collect my thoughts. Sometimes I'll make a rough plan for the day, though usually I just identify a few key goals I want to accomplish.

  • More Active. Waking up earlier, for whatever reason, gives me more energy than sleeping late. The difference between sleeping from 12:30-8 and 10:30-6, though both give my optimal 7.5 hours, is remarkable. By waking up before everything starts happening, I'm able to set a plan of attack instead of having to react to all the late-morning stimuli exploding around me. As a result, I don't tire as easily later in the day.

  • Healthier. There are two main health benefits to waking up earlier. First and most obvious is lower stress. I lead a life that is almost completely free from long-lasting distress (as opposed to eustress, or good stress). I'm positive that waking up early helps with that, since as I stated before, I don't have to react to anything right away. I can just chill for a good hour or so. The second health benefit is a greater duration of exposure to sun - one of the few places you can get vitamin D. Vitamin D is your friend. Vitamin D is important. Get more vitamin D. Wake up early!

Here are a few links which go into greater depth on this topic, and which offer some tips as to how to get up earlier painlessly:

Zen Habits - Ten Benefits of Waking Up Early and How to Do It

Wikihow - Wake Up Without an Alarm Clock

How to Wake Up Early (dot com)

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

This blog is ending.

Officially, I will never write another word. Ever. After this one. Seriously.

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