It’s the Storefront, Stupid

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 2

Andy Budd has done some great work on a bunch of major sites, from BBC on down. He’s a user interface and usability guru.

He started his talk putting the value pyramid into a usability context. If you take a business that provides a commodity (coffee bean), then a product (packaged coffee), then a service-backed offering (coffee shop), then a complete experience (coffee shop with baristas and sexy acid jazz piped music), you’ll normally increase profit at every point. (Ed: gross profit, what happens when you factor the cost of all the premium customer support staff and beautiful designer stuff is another story).

But in a Web paradigm, moving from a ‘commodity’ web service to an ‘experience’ for users is a critical and necessary step for long term success, because if you can do a basic site, so can a hundred other people.

Budd had an interesting pyramid on product/service maturity, particularly relevant to creators of Web service: first functional, then useful, then usable, then delightful, then meaningful. As in, people would hate to live without it.

And key to this is great user experience. Not the technology. Not the cleverness of the site. Not the number of features. The user experience. Think Apple. (Sorry, they’re the obvious standard.)

These are his main points when designing sites for usability:

Think of your Website as a shopfront – and think about it in the same way as Mary Queen of Shops (the TV show).

* First impressions count
* Shop window must communicate your purpose and intent
* ‘Desire lines’ drive people deeper into the store (cute, clever, creative things that pull people in further)
* What is your advisor and your guide to visitors? (think hotel concierge)
* Look at video tours to make your users experts quickly… show people around
* Have a gimmick that makes it fun
* Be helpful
* Keep things simple, and focus
* Reduce the number of options available
* Use sensible defaults
* Wow your users with exciters and delighters (think of the little chocolates left on the pillow at hotels)

In terms of feature planning:
* As a startup create a minimum viable product
* Do one thing and one thing well

In service:
* Provide exceptional service
* Be there when things go wrong – great things can happen at the intersection of customers and the business at the point where things go wrong

Of course, the problem in SA is our business culture is not usually one of excellence, of constant improvement. It will be a hard job for Web design teams to convince management once the site is finished to spend another million bucks on usability testing, user experience research, tweaking, trying different things. They’ll probably say, “The site is up. It works. Piss off.”

Budd’s suggestion is for the Web team to sit with the marketing team (the most likely allies in building usability) to help create a business case to take to management.

Good luck with that.

Roger Hislop

The knowledge economy is the kitchen of ideas

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

Curry paste? … what on earth does curry paste have to do with the knowledge economy? Steve Song says the knowledge economy is like the “kitchen of ideas”. If you don’t have access to the recipe, you waste time making it all up from scratch. But if you do have access to the recipe, then you can tinker, add value, make something totally delicious and explore what it would taste like if you … added more coriander?
Essentially (and with apologies to Isaac Newton), you can stand on the shoulders of giants.
Steve maintains that when the costs of accessing telephony are driven down, it opens up space for a “torrent of innovation”. Give people the basics and set their genius free!

At the presentation of Tech4Africa entitled “Three pieces of kit for a neighbourhood network”, Steve (Telecommunications Fellow for Shuttleworth Foundation) spoke about an initiative called the mesh potato, named for a lovely, obscure sort of connection between the acronyms POTS (plain old telephone system) and ATA (analog telephone adapter) … and possibly some late night Spanish patata bravas?

The mesh potato is an Open Hardware project to create wireless telephony, designed to address the needs of developing countries. In Africa, where most people spend vast amounts of disposable income (in some cases more than 50%) on telecommunications, the cost of access is a substantial barrier to innovation. The mesh potato is designed to eradicate that barrier and give people the freedom to explore creatively without worrying about how much it’s going to cost them. With the mesh potato, people in a village can talk to one another, or connect into a broader network, at minimal cost. Where this will take us, only the future can tell.

In a world where the only certainty is unpredictability and no-one knows what the next big thing is, the question is how to cope in an environment that you can’t plan for? Trial and error is the new planning. Steve advises that you need to take an evolutionary, organic approach. Success survives – and the only way to plan for this is to develop tools that facilitate everyone being a creator.

Mobile networks in South Africa today are making the same mistake that commercial Internet providers in the USA (such as compuserve, MSN and others) made 15 years ago,
when customized internet services were just developing. Their revenue model is based on walled gardens, which automatically restricts innovation. Steve advocates for paradigm shift to an open approach, giving cheap access to telephony, which opens the door to local innovation and problem solving for community problems.

The range of the mesh potato is currently around 400m (although this can be extended through ‘scaffolding’). In South Africa it is legal to use these networks as long as you’re not charging customers. However, if you want to run a commercial service you would need to apply for a license.

Mobile phones haven’t yet fulfilled their potential in the knowledge economy. That change is coming, but it needs to happen faster. The mesh potato will go a long way towards making that happen because it provides, at low cost, the opportunity for people to build their own telephone networks and take it from there.

(The mesh potato is on sale from next month – buy one online from the village telco. It’s designed to survive the weather (and dummies who might not know what cables to stick where), so you can stick one outside your house (UV and weather resistant) and get connected.
Also, the Village Telco is looking for volunteers, partners, investors –contact Steve if you are interested –

Find out more about the mesh potato on this podcast with Steve Song.

Samantha Fleming

Design at Tech4Africa

With only a week to go till Tech4Africa kicks off in Johannesburg on the 10th of August, we take a final look at some of the exciting sessions and speakers that have been lined up to make this THE conference to attend this year.

When launching a new site or product online, probably the most important factor is how it looks, and your users can use it without hassle. Design is key to making sure your users will keep coming back for more. At Tech4Africa, we will be hosting some of most prolific experts in user interface & design.

First up, be sure not to miss the session entitled “Ignore User Experience at your peril”, hosted by leading UI design expert Andy Budd. Andy comes from a long history of user design and interface, and currently heads up User Experience at Clear Left in the USA. Andy will lead you through a 1 hour session on why you should pay attention to user experience and what you can do about it.

Another “must-attend” session if you design is your thing, is an all South African panel hosted by the indomitable Allan Kent from Saatchi & Saatchi AtPlay. The panel of leading practitioners takes you through the thinking and output for a redesign of a well known, high profile, local website, Joining Allan on the panel are Rian van der Merwe from South African start-up, now based in San Fransisco, Yola. Mike Lewis from Origin Interactive will also be joining the panel, in what should be an interesting session on this intuitive South African site, that allows you to pay your traffic fines online.

Be sure to book your place for Tech4Africa now. All our Early Bird offers have been scooped up, and it won’t be long before all the remaining seats are being snapped up at a crazy pace.

See you next week for the biggest & best tech conference South Africa has EVER seen !!