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General Reviews

Hold up, HEY

The debut of HEY email has been an interesting case study in launching a new service, in part because it took place on social media — a two-way street that led to them getting public feedback that’s already led to significant changes. As others have done in recent years, the launch was a staggered rollout with invite codes and a waitlist, and the resulting members-only feel and scarcity drove tens of thousands more to join the waitlist. Some say this is intentional marketing, but it’s also legitimately done to manage the experience when someone isn’t sure how much interest there will be.

I took notes on my hands-on experience in a previous post, and have spent a week now getting to grips with it, trying to picture it as my primary email service for the foreseeable future. The commitment isn’t just a new email address to inform people about; it’s also paying a perpetual premium service fee. After 16 years of “free” Gmail, that’s a big decision. Yes, you’re free to leave any time and they’ll forward all emails sent to you anywhere else you’d like, but I wouldn’t use a @hey.com address if I wasn’t actually using HEY.

Everybody’s got opinions

But before the details of my decision (like, who cares, right?), I wanted to comment on the fascinating public launch of HEY that we’ve been spectators to, and how its creators have had to walk back some of their design decisions after product met reality.

As my friend YJ says above, Basecamp and HEY are heavily opinionated products by opinionated people; it’s what allows them to take a well-established thing like email, with its standard organizing paradigms of Inbox, Outbox, Sent, Spam, and Trash folders, and try something new. It’s only meant to satisfy a certain type of user with certain needs and preferences.

It’s not easy building something out of new ideas, at huge scale, and making sure it’s robust enough to carry the personal and business correspondence of paying customers who’ll depend on it for time-sensitive messages. By Basecamp’s account, they’ve been working quietly on HEY for two years before this month’s semi-public launch. I think they deserve a tremendous amount of credit both for attempting it and for how stable it has been.

When we design services, we know we won’t catch everything or get it right the first time. It’s about having priorities and principles, and optimizing against them every step of the way. If you’ve defined and studied your target audience, and care about pleasing them to the exception of everyone else, then you can make decisions based on their needs. If you put in the work to develop a core experience that will set your business apart, then that becomes the thing you protect even if Apple or anyone else tries to make you change it. Some companies famously put speed over certainty, and while it dazzled a lot of CIOs and inspired them to try and do the same, its pitfalls are now well known.

We don’t know what HEY’s development process looked like, or what they prioritized, and so we can only guess from what they actually shipped and what they’ve done since. Upon contact with the wider marketplace, some of those opinionated ideas are now being challenged as problematic or discriminatory. Could more user research and testing have caught them before launch? Probably. Was catching them before launch a priority for the team, or did they intend to test them in public and fix unintended consequences as they were discovered? To their credit again, they’ve fixed a lot of things very fast in the past week. From adding disposable functionality suggested by Apple to dumping fully built, non-trivial features… their responsiveness has been impressive.


Things that came broken

Let’s look at a couple of Twitter exchanges and changes I’ve spotted. On my first day with HEY, I noticed an unusual option in the “More” menu on every email thread. It was a button labeled something like “Generate Public Link”. This actually published the entire email conversation thread to a public webpage, allowing any third party to read and follow the exchange. I used it to help share a problem I was seeing with their support team, which is a nice way of enabling them to help customers without giving full access to all mail. And while you could always share private emails to a third party with copy/paste, screenshots, PDFs, etc. there was something unsettling about this. None of the other people would receive any notification that they were being “listened in on”, and anyone with the link would be able to see not just all previous emails, but any new ones added to the thread for as long as it was publicly shared.

You could be in a conversation with 20 people and not know if any one of them had generated a link and leaked it. When I explained this in a group chat, there was some disbelief. One person called it a “built-in whistleblower feature”. After others complained on Twitter about the potential for abuse, this feature was completely removed.

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General

Homework

In my last update here, three long months ago, I’d just set up a new WiFi system with enough reach to connect our largely neglected study, which gave me a new place to hang out and play music too loudly.

Shortly thereafter, I decided the acoustics of that room were too boomy for the Beolit speaker I’d put in, and picked up a little Sonos which can be tuned to suit the space (it’s much better).

Shortly thereafter, a measure of hell broke loose everywhere, which I don’t need to explain. In the tiny window before nationwide lockdown was called, my wife and I decided to celebrate our anniversary with a staycation since getting away was impossible. We booked ourselves in for a weekend, visited the buffets, had cocktails in the lounge, and sat by the pool that first day reading more news and feeling something in the wind.

Literally overnight, we saw the hotel reconfigure their club lounge for social distancing, cutting the capacity in half. With not much else to do but eat canapés and drink while watching the news, I distinctly recall the numbers then: 380,000 infections worldwide. Yesterday, I saw that number in the news again, for global deaths.

According to the log my teammates have been keeping, we started working from home in the third week of March, later than our other colleagues not attached to client projects at the time. For that period of about a week, showing up at a reduced occupancy office building/mall was surreal, recalling Ling Ma’s novel Severance, where the protagonist keeps going to work at her Manhattan office long after the city stops working, and we were glad when the call was made to not take any more chances.

That move to make our home study more usable/livable/enjoyable just before this hit, which on hindsight was just down to luck and the High Fidelity TV series, was probably the most well-timed decision I’ll make all year. It’s given me a separate workspace from my wife who’s taken to occupying the living room’s solar-facing counter. Given that we’re both on calls a lot now, if I had to be nearby for WiFi purposes, I think there’d be trouble.

A lot of what we do with clients and their customers in the business of design used to happen in person. Speaking with people, watching them at work, communicating ideas — it takes a lot of channels to supply the necessary bandwidth, from spoken words and scribblings on a board to body language and moving things around in space. It’s also true for many other professions, and is probably why many fantasize that VR will be the long-term answer in the event that there won’t be a vaccine, if we agree that plexiglass shields in the office aren’t a solution for getting back to work.

We started working from home on a Wednesday and had to figure out how we’d start interviewing people the very next day; interviews that were originally planned to be in-person conversations. For a bunch of reasons, it wasn’t as easy as sending a Zoom meeting link. We ended up keeping those sessions simple and voice only; better to get the basics right and extract some good data than get fancy and fuck it all up.

Two months later, between us and other teams across the studio, I think we’re beginning to see how many of the old activities can be done virtually. The next step will be to devise new activities that aren’t constrained by assumptions about how work should be done. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we won’t. One thing about remote work of this sort, technology constraints (including literacy) have a huge impact on who you can involve and co-create with. Almost anyone can pick up a pen or gesture at a thing. Now try to get them to manipulate content on a Miro or Mural board using an aging laptop. Now try to get them doing it in VR. What’s the equivalent of a Post-It note for virtual work: the simplest, most flexible atom of a tool for thinking aloud with anyone? Texting in a group chat?


Otherwise, I’ve done some of the usual quarantine things. I’ve tried cutting my own hair (bought some clippers for it). I’ve been making cold brew coffee (bought a Hario bottle for it). We made that dalgona coffee one time but it was foul (already had turns out we actually bought the apocalypse-ready instant coffee for it). I’ve been making more cocktails and drinking IPAs at home instead of at the bar (bought the ingredients and ordered the cases, respectively). I’ve put on weight (bought a lot of takeout for it). I’ve been reading more (bought a Kobo reader for it). I’ve played upwards of 110 hours of Animal Crossing New Horizons (bought the game day one for it). Uh… having made that list, I am a little disgusted. Clearly, if life gives me lemons, I buy a juicer.

The national lockdown here in Singapore ends in name next Monday, but the cautious re-opening will surely take more than a couple of months. The first people to be allowed back into office buildings at first will be those who haven’t been able to do their jobs from home for legal or technical reasons, and I think it’ll be September before most white-collared types find out what their leaders think about ending the great WFH experiment vs. saving a ton on commercial rent.

Note: This post contains a couple of Amazon affiliate links, which I’m trying out… again? I have a vague memory of using them on a couple of my sites before.

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Photos

Vintage Poster Exhibition at ION Orchard

Came across an exhibition of beautiful vintage posters at ION Orchard last night. It’s on till tomorrow (Level 4, ION Art), and presented by a gallery from HK. If you want to own any of them, they’re between $1500-3000 from what I saw.

Picture This gallery

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Links

➟ Turning Paper to Pixels with a New Game Design Tool

From Paper to iPad, Pixel Press Turns Drawings Into Videogames
Bonnie Cha, recode.net

I loved play­ing videogames as a kid, but I can’t say that I ever spent any time sketch­ing out ideas for my own games like my broth­er and his friends did. (My doo­dles usu­al­ly involved cute ani­mals or spelling out my crush’s name in bub­ble…

The core concept is every kid’s dream: designing their own games for friends to play through, or just for the heck of it. But without some serious inspiration, what you can do in a short platformer level is very limited. I remember a D&D game maker tool for PCs in the 90s; that was infinitely better because you could create a STORY, and set up narrative funnels for your players. 20 years later, our idea of imaginative play can’t be restricted to letting kids carve out crude worlds in 3D chunks and 2D lines.

Categories
General

Some Recent Games And Storytelling

I’ve had the luxury of some console gaming time these past few months, and managed to complete Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, and the rebooted Tomb Raider, while making progress in Devil May Cry, Luigi’s Mansion 2: Dark Moon, and Super Mario 3D Land.

The observation here is that in my advanced age, the definition of fun has changed. I used to be excited for sandbox experiences, building/business simulations, and multiplayer combat. I think if Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet existed when I was younger, I’d totally see the point of building a giant robot’s head in a mountainside. Now, the thought of spending hours on that kind of play instead of catching up on reading or working on other projects is out of the question.

Open-world games are in a precarious position. Five years ago, I could spend hours collecting Crackdown’s Agility Orbs. I’d mess about in Assassin’s Creed and forget the main quest entirely, writing my own inner narrative about Altair being a medieval pickpocketing Batman. When life next comes collecting, these games will be the first to go.

So when the nights are short, what games make the cut? The aforementioned games on Xbox360 (Metal Gear Rising, BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry) are marked by strong, cinematic narratives, or at least entertaining ones in the case of MGR and DMC. The remaining Nintendo 3DS titles succeed on pure mechanics, where joy is extracted purely from the timing of button presses, helped by exuberant character animations and inventive set pieces.

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Luigi’s Mansion 2 might be one of the most charming games I’ve ever seen, and like most portable titles, it satisfies in a different way than a blockbuster console title. Each level is polished and detailed to the point that it vibrates. From one minute to the next, you’re constantly having your assumptions challenged by experimental level designs, new enemies, and ingenious puzzles. There’s a simple set-up about why the ghosts are loose, but the game’s real Story is located in the way that these parts interoperate, and in how the characters react, much like how design was famously said by Steve Jobs to be the craft of how things work, not how they look.

Stories are perhaps the best reason to engage with any entertainment medium; often they function perfectly being the only reason, but videogames call for a balance between play and involvement to be fully realized.

Take BioShock Infinite, one of the year’s most highly rated games, if not the highest. To experience a playthrough is to see an ambitious, first-person SF story with many smart things to say about games, politics, gender, religion, and whatever else people want to see in it. As a game, mechanically, it’s mediocre for a lack of innovation. Fights play out in the usual fashion, with a few superficial gimmicks. When the supporting character, Elizabeth, throws you a health pack mid-firefight with a press of your "X" button, it’s an Auto Heal/Use Potion action in disguise. Much like how artists can throw new textures atop a game engine to create an expansion pack, BioShock’s gameplay designers have reskinned a generic FPS using emotion and worldcraft.

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Finding the combat somewhat boring, I started to cynically see places where narrative paint was employed to make the shooting gallery journey seem shinier than it was. It’s sad that a week after finishing the game, I mostly remembered its central conceit and frankly awesome ending sequence. This doesn’t happen in Luigi’s Mansion 2, because the gameplay itself is what you think about when not playing.

Why is BioShock Infinite so overloaded on the story side of things, constantly trying to shove more story in your face with voice recordings, environmental artwork, snatches of conversation, meaning-laden anachronistic pop song covers, in-game exposition cutscenes, etc., but so underdeveloped as an action game? I’m pretty sure the experience of watching someone play the game is >90% as satisfying as playing it yourself. It doesn’t have to be your hands on the wheel. I’ve played games where after a momentous moment unfolded on screen, I was left acutely aware of a lingering sensation under my thumb where things had been set in motion. The button press echoed through flesh and time. Triumph seemed to reside directly in my actions. Because of how little I cared for and enjoyed the gameplay, BioShock felt like pressing Play on a rented movie.

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Tomb Raider is more successful in several of these places. While well-written, the story isn’t mind-blowing in the way BioShock’s is, but it has its own surprises and is superbly paced: you always feel like the game’s climax is drawing near, and then the story horizon stretches out in front of you again like a challenge, taunt, and gift all at once. Traversing the world, hunting with a bow & arrow, scouting for hidden objects… did I just get tricked into playing an open-world game I said I didn’t have time for? As a combination of story and fun, and critically, by allowing enough freedom for its player to feel a sense of grace and mastery of the world, it succeeds.

Although progression is linear, how you navigate Tomb Raider’s world feels under your control. Lara is continuously gaining new abilities that open up previously impassable areas. It’s the old Metroid design, and a sound one. You could argue that the superpower-granting Vigors in BioShock play a similar role, but they are few, and the fun is taken out of them by the ammo limits. Tomb Raider doesn’t charge you for the joy of shooting a rope arrow across a chasm and zipping down it. Incidentally, where the ropes go is largely predetermined, but because the player personally installs them, the feeling is completely different from BioShock’s steel skyline cables, which herd you heavy-handedly around the map like the rails they literally are. A minor difference, design-wise, but one with an outsized impact on the experience.

Categories
General Reviews

Finding a Home for Your Copywriting Portfolio or: How I Learned to Stop Channeling an Art Director and Love the Words

Lots of portfolio tools advertise the ability to create a gorgeous website online within minutes, but how many are suited to showcasing a copywriter’s work? This post covers getting a basic presence up for a handful of your projects. More comprehensive site builders are only briefly mentioned.

It’s often said that people only look into their CVs between jobs, but taking stock of what you’ve accomplished on a regular basis is a really good practice. But with a standard resumé, updating a paragraph about your current employment several times a year isn’t attractive. Fortunately for people in the creative industries, there’s the portfolio, which can be very satisfying to compile, if only to remind ourselves how little victories on a project tend to make up a bigger result.

Not Your Creative Director’s Portfolio

Over the last few years, I’ve seen a fair few creative portfolios, and increasingly, when one asks to see some work, a URL gets sent instead of a PDF. When I was starting out in advertising about 8 years ago, we routinely brought physical folders of printouts to interviews. If you wanted the job, you might make an extra copy to leave behind. If you’ve heard some creatives calling their folios “books”, it’s because that’s what they really were.

Another thing that’s changed since the mid-noughties is how the presentation of a copywriter’s work has gone from showing a few ads and/or documents with long-form writing samples, to being very close to how the art guys do it. Big, colorful pictures that would reel even an illiterate eye in. Some writers’ books now haven’t got a word in them.

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Carbonmade: Your online portfolio, the door to a bright future in children’s illustrations

Most of the people I’ve met showed off work on portfolio cum social networking sites for creatives. Places with start-uppy Web 2.x names like Carbonmade, Krop, the Behance Network, Cargo, Coroflot, and to some extent, Dribbble. Some respectable, shirt-wearing creatives had portfolio sites on their own domains, and the ones who didn’t return their pencils used blogging services like Tumblr.

What I’ve noticed is that very few of these solutions are suited to the needs of creatives who self-identify as copywriters.

Copywriters Are A Needy Bunch

Designers, illustrators, and art directors are well served by the many visual portfolio tools out there. Flip through a few examples and you’ll notice a tendency to not explain the images — when it comes to showing off craft, the work often speaks for itself. Maybe it’s because most tools just don’t allow text at all, but I’ll come to that later.

I think a writer needs a little room to take his viewer through the work. So much of what we do is problem solving and just not visible in the finished consumer-facing work (nor should it be). Some of the things a writer could supply to complement a piece of work are: some background info, a project or team story, the strategic line between proposition and product, an elucidation of the idea (if one exists), how the piece works with a wider campaign or positioning that the brand has pursued, and any measured results that came out of it. Touching on just a little of the above, versus a caption reading “Banner Execution #2” on a photo of a toothpaste tube telling a joke, can help explain yourself come Judgement Day.

Five Steps to Happier Portfolioing

The more I saw, the more I started to wonder, where should a copywriter put their work online? To answer that question, I signed up for a bunch and put them through their paces, and also asked colleagues and industry friends for their (possibly subjective) opinions on the leading ones. Here’s what I know, filtered through what I didn’t like.

1. Keep Good Company

Maybe this won’t apply where you are, but Cargo (or CargoCollective) ostensibly carries a reputation for being full of student work. I don’t know where that comes from; too many cans of Heinz baked beans styled like Warhol prints? That said, there’s probably nothing wrong with using Cargo if you ARE a student. Coroflot seems to be another good place for junior creatives to get their work in front of recruiters and large brands. DeviantArt was ranked below the two, because your application will disappear into an HR drawer labeled ‘Slashfic Writers’.

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Krop: Your killer headlines will need killer headlines

For professionalism, I was advised to try Krop. It charges a not-insignificant monthly price of US$10, in the league of premium site-building services like Squarespace. I didn’t see anything that justified the price against Krop’s drawbacks. Amongst those I asked, Behance enjoys a neutral to positive reputation that will not stand in the way of your looking righteous.

As far as domains and URLs are concerned, it’s also about the right associations. If you’re on a site built for creative work, then piggybacking on their domain isn’t an issue. For example, having “behance.net/name” is okay, but “name.tumblr.com” looks like a collection of meme gifs. Using a “name.com” is great as long it’s not the “best-name-online.com” that GoDaddy recommends when your name of choice is taken.

2. Know the Tools You’ll Need

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Behance: Owned by Adobe now, so you’ll have to hit refresh for minor HTML updates every 10 minutes

Plenty of sites simply don’t let you annotate or supply a paragraph of text beside your large and beautiful images. It’s practically textist. Krop is a major offender. And since we’re talking your garden-variety copywriter here, and not those mystical hybrid writer-designers who can tastefully superimpose text within their images, an ideal tool would allow writers to enter text on the page itself. In that regard, Behance trumps Krop, which only allows a short caption for each image. Not only is Behance free, it allows the mixing of as many images, embedded videos, and text blocks on a project page as needed.

Most importantly, if you’re going to be uploading work where you’re especially proud of the writing, make sure it can be read! Being able to click and zoom in (or load the original image) is table stakes, but plenty of sites I’ve seen don’t do it. This is the point where your portfolio’s tab gets closed and your reader goes back to a ‘Hunger Games Wedding Ideas’ board on Pinterest.

For this reason, I do not recommend using ‘free’ services that reserve this ability for paying customers, e.g. Carbonmade. Behance won’t zoom either, but you can at least reproduce your copy on the page using a text block.

3. Create a Gallery, Not a Blog

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If you must Tumblr, your portfolio should look a lil’ sumthin like this wicka wicka

When a portfolio site is built on a blogging CMS, and looks like a linear blog, expectations are set for a diary of constantly evolving works-in-progress. Visitors will be less impressed by your last post being 18 months old, even if it was ahead of its time.

Of the sites I’ve seen built on simplistic platforms like Posterous, Tumblr, Blogger, Pinterest (you gotta see this Hunger Games wedding), too few employ themes with a static front page serving as a table of contents. If your platform of choice doesn’t let you do that, find a new one. A scrolling page of entries without proper navigation is counterintuitive to your purpose: showing your recent work at a glance, and putting more details one click away.

Some sites will also format and present a version of your resumé in addition to your portfolio. Behance and Coroflot are two that stood out for me.

4. Decide If You Want Feedback with That

Socially enabled sites like Behance are proud of their communities. You can follow people doing interesting work, and browse a stream of their recent work right from your front page. Gold stars, comments, resharing; all that stuff. But there’s a real need for portfolios that don’t talk back, and if you’re familiar with the teen movie trope of parents embarrassing their sons with baby stories whenever a girl comes over, you’ll understand not letting a potential mentor or employer see the “helpful” suggestions you’ve been given by others. Or your witty mom-centric replies.

Moreover, as we’ve already covered, many of these sites are for designers and not copywriters. I’ve heard this sentiment several times: “Designers have Dribbble, but where do copywriters go to share their work and get constructive feedback from peers?” It’s a gap that no one has filled. Until then, my advice would be to keep the two as separate as you can. Find an avenue for copy feedback that works for you, and display your work on a pedestal where it belongs.

5. Keep Open Secrets

Another feature that’s rather important but not always available: the ability to secure projects with a password. Some client work can never be fully public, but if there’s a story in there worth telling, you might open it up to select viewers. Please don’t set your password to “password” or your first name, or have no password at all and instruct the HR person to ‘just press Enter’, because that just makes it look like passwords are a new concept to you.

Choose Your Own Ad Venture

The first conclusion I drew is that you’ll want to spend some money to get this right, although it doesn’t have to be a lot. Whatever your choice, make sure it looks good on mobile devices and doesn’t rely on Flash.

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Squarespace: Can you handle this much customization? Find out with a free 14-day trial.

My preferred solution has always been to create pages on a personal site, using whatever CMS you’re comfortable with, but that involves a fair amount of set-up and manual work. In contrast, the allure of these modern portfolio services is undeniable. Most come with the promise of page views from fellow creatives baked in, and who doesn’t like getting ‘Liked’? The drag-and-drop features and professionally designed templates are also particularly good for copywriters. Uploading a bunch of comps and artwork almost always results in a presentable page.

Of all these services I evaluated, the only free one that would meet the needs outlined was Behance. Their paid option is called ProSite, but its fancy templates frustratingly strip away the extra text that makes their free pages compelling for writers. If that gets fixed, it would be a complete winner.

If you’re willing to get your hands a little dirty, then Squarespace, Breezi, Virb, and WordPress are sound bets. The first two have no free options and start at around $8/mo for a standards-compliant, responsive design site. With templates as starting points and pixel-level control over every detail, they are suited to people with knowledge of web design but who don’t want to code.

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Virb: If it’s good enough for a coffee bar in Portland, why not your portfolio?

Virb is another all-in-one hosted site & blog solution that costs the same as Krop ($10/mo) but lets you do more. There are templates that let you bundle images and text together quite simply and beautifully.

The open-source WordPress.org software is pretty much the gold standard for consumer CMS on the web, and if you don’t want the hassle of installing it on your own servers, WordPress.com has an ad-supported “hosted service” that takes care of everything for you, with few compromises. A number of portfolio-ready themes are available, but do pay for the domain mapping upgrade, because “name.wordpress.com” looks almost as bad as it would if it said Tumblr. Almost.