Monday, October 24, 2011

iPad & Tablet Technology: Out of the Enterprise and Into the Classroom

If you saw the recent episode of 60 Minutes, you saw a tribute to the late Steve Jobs not only in the man that he was but also in the good the products that were developed under his leadership are doing. There was a segment focused on how the iPad has been instrumental in helping some schools teach children with autism.

I most often talk about how technology, and more specifically mobile technology, is useful in the enterprise but the 60 Minutes episode inspired me to look beyond my profession and explore how other professions are benefiting. I have been fortunate enough to know a wonderful Speech-Language Pathologist that has dedicated her life to helping children with various learning disabilities thrive among their peers. Below are the highlights (in her own words) from an interview I did with her this past weekend.

You will not be surprised to learn that the same ease of use and intuitiveness that make the iPad an addicting tool also make it a powerful tool for teaching children. The productivity gains that we experience in our everyday business life through app integration with email and other enterprise services also help teaching professionals quickly produce results and report data.

An Interview with Ms. Shari Hodgson, board certified Speech-Language Pathologist, on how mobile technology has improved her work and benefited her clients

How are you using the iPad/tablet in your work?:
I use the iPad daily with my students to address a variety of speech, language and communication goals and objectives. The iPad is an engaging tool that stimulates receptive and expressive language development. There are apps specifically designed for special needs students. iPads are now being used as Augmentative Communication Devices.

Instead of districts paying thousands of dollars for AAC devices, now with the click of a button, one can download an application for the iPad or iPod. Devices that are made specifically to help people speak are typically very cumbersome, expensive, and not user friendly. The iPad and iPod are less expensive, fairly easy to operate and also help remove some of the social stigma associated with certain augmentative devices.

There are so many apps that can dramatically change the lives of individuals with delayed communication needs. I use close to 100 different apps with my students in therapy to address needs from articulation to answering questions, to improving vocabulary, to following directions and many more. These apps offer great visual cues and auditory feedback that aid children with special needs in the learning process.

The iPad has become a cost-saving, convenient, portable library of intervention materials replacing shelves of manuals, therapy cards, and games.

What benefits have you realized?:
There are numerous benefits associated with using this technology. First and foremost, this allowed me to use 21st century skills with my students on a daily basis. It has allowed for improved communication with parents and colleagues.

Many apps allow me to collect data right on the iPad and then the information can be emailed to parents and teachers. This has reduced time spent calculating and reporting data. Also, in and effort to be more "green", it has reduced the amount of paper copies I once used in therapy. I have found apps to replace many of my cut and paste and paper-pencil activities.

What benefits have your clients/customers realized?:
Aside from the may benefits mentioned above, the iPad is also very motivating for my students which has increased student success. I have found the iPad to be much more engaging than traditional therapy materials. In addition, since so many of my students have access to these devices at home, it is easy to recommend apps for follow through and practice. I have a current, up to date, list of all the apps I use on my
blog. Parents are encouraged to visit the blog for suggestions for their children.

What would you like to use the iPad/tablet for in the future? What would be your wish list of requirements that you could use the tablet or mobile technology in general for?:
Wow, this is a tough one. In my perfect world, I would like to develop apps to use with my students in therapy. While there are so many wonderful apps out there, I often find myself thinking, I wish the app did this, or I wish there was a app for that...maybe someday.

In general, how has mobile technology -tablets, smartphones, etc..- improved the way you work and serve your clients/customers?:
In short, mobile technology has just made me a more efficient, environmentally friendly, and more engaging therapist.

Ms. Shari Hodgson has been practicing speech-language pathology since 2000. Ms. Hodgson received her undergraduate degree from Bowling Green State University in 1998 and my Masters degree from the University of Toledo in 2000. Ms. Hodgson is certified by the Ohio Board of Speech Pathology and Audiology and holds a Certificate of Clinical Competence from the American Speech-Language Hearing Association as well as a pupil services license from the Ohio Department of Education.

Ms. Hodgson first began working in the Columbus Public School system and has worked in clinical, home health, and group home settings. For the past nine years, Ms. Hodgson has been working for the Brecksville-Broadview Heights City School District in Brecksville Ohio, outside Cleveland where she works with grades K-3. Ms. Hodgson works with children diagnosed with speech-language impairments, learning disabilities, multiple handicaps, Autism, Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and developmental delays.

How are you using your tablet at work to do something amazing?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Good Thing Gone Bad: How to Tame Google Doc Sprawl

The Google platform is a fantastic and basically free option to use as a collaboration and productivity tool within a business. My company uses it. It's been key in enabling the flow of ideas, the sharing and storage of information, and collaboration. But, our mantra of "just throw it in google doc" is now becoming a tangled web of one-off information and difficult to find resources.

The first step to taming the beast is recognizing that this will happen. With so much freedom to spin up and share information it can quickly get out of hand. What good is a doc or spreadsheet if no one can find it? Here are two ways to get and keep your info organized:

Consolidate documents through a Google Site
At an enterprise level use the Google Sites feature to logically organize information and create a portal. Google Sites is an entire topic in and of it's own, but you can very quickly build a site that can simply serve as the launch pad for all of your information. The site ties all the random docs together and can be organized in a way that makes sense for your organization. We use a site as the foundation for our company intranet. The information architecture is organized by department. All the relevant google docs for a department are categorized as links within the portal. This has been a handy reference tool particularly in the on-boarding of new employees. We also leave the site permissions open so that anyone can add more links to docs. We've virtually eliminated the need for sophisticated system administration and content management. Although lightweight governance over the site is recommended so that we don't end up with another problem - a disjointed information architecture

Leverage Personalization Capabilities
At the individual level, you can create folders and labels to logically organize documents in a way that makes sense to you. This feature is called Collections. The google documents view allows each person to create their own filing system structure for finding docs. This personalized approach to managing info is more powerful than it may seem on the surface. Think about it, in traditional environment someone else manages the directory structure and naming convention of a shared drive or LAN. They've already decided how information should be organized in terms that make sense to them. We've got a company shared drive too for docs that are required to be static. And guess what, the biggest complaint is that people cant find what they are looking for. This nuisance actually creates a bigger issue when people take things into their own hands and start storing their own versions of documents locally or wasting time trying to find then emailing documents around to each other. Organizing our google docs in my own terms changed my world. While it's simple enough to just do a search to find the right document, categorizing docs keeps all related items together and let's you quickly locate information related together but kept in separate documents.

How are you using the google platform for your business? If you want to more about how to strategically use the Google platform, contact me.

Confessions of a Micromanager

It's been brought to my attention more than once over the past year that I am a micro manager. I am an incredibly introspective person, constantly self examining and analyzing my every action. Micromanagement is considered a negative trait so being my introspective self I am setting out to better understand this trait and how to turn it around.

Wikipedia defines micromanagement as "management especially with excessive control and attention to detail."

Controlling and attention to detail - yep, that's me.

Early in my career that "controlling" trait was celebrated by my managers as "drive" and a "take the bull by the horns" attitude. My managers liked it because they knew I'd get things done. And with my attention to detail it would be done thoroughly and polished. No matter how many hours I needed to put in, I got the job done. In the sea of entry-level green consultants I was able to differentiate and rise to the top quickly because I took control, thought through the minutiae, and the end result was polished.

So where did this all go wrong? How did my best trait become one of my worst?

In my mind it's easy to be confused with why this once positive trait is now being perceived as "a developmental opportunity" - I know how something needs to be done, I love getting into the details, and I don't want anything with my name associated to it to be less than perfect. Where's the flaw in that?

Well here's what I've come up with:

Expectations have changed - I'm not a green consultant anymore. I am a seasoned professional and executive within my company. Just being eager with great attention to detail isn't going to cut it anymore. Enthusiasm and quality are expected. As a company leader, it's about scaling that quality.

Scalability - to grow in your career means to move beyond the individual contributor status. An individual only has a limited amount of throughput. To grow as a leader means to scale yourself so that no single result is dependent on you. You need to inspire and teach teams of individual contributors to put the same level of thought and quality into a task as you would. Otherwise you'll burn out quickly trying to do everything.

Grow someone else to grow yourself - unless you are content to be a one-man show or pigeon-holed (which I am not), it's your duty to help someone else follow your lead. Constantly thinking of ways you can put yourself out of your current job so that you can keep moving is key. It can be unsettling. It's easy to be concerned about - what will I do if someone else is doing my job? That is rarely an issue for someone that likes to keep moving and is open to the next challenge. There's always something new to sink your teeth into and a new problem to solve. Teaching someone else helps a micro manager learn to let go of some of the control and figure out ways to put just enough structure in place that the job will get done well while allowing the individual to learn the ropes in their own way.

People crave structure - without some framework in place, the work that gets done becomes reactive and tactical without a strategic vision behind it. No one sets out to operate in a purely reactive manner but it happens without some set of guidelines for organizing and prioritizing what needs to get accomplished.

People find you annoying - the constant badgering will drive someone insane. The checking if it's done and pounding people with emails on how to do something usually stems from the fact that there wasn't well thought out plan put in place in the first place and there isn't enough transparency in place. A micro manager's gut is to take control by doing the work or badgering people in a very reactive way about what needs to be done. Don't punish your team for your own lack of planning leadership.

So here's my action plan:
1. Communicate desired outcomes, don't dictate how it gets done. Empower and trust others.
2. Put enough structure in place to help people prioritize what needs to be done in the short-term. Plan first, get alignment from the team on what needs to be done and what the definition of done is, then let them execute.
3. Focus my attention to detail on the big picture, analyzing results, and turning results into actions that are followed through
4. Manage through change - our priorities can change on a daily basis and anything worth doing takes time and persistence. A true leader with help the team course correct to adapt to the changing needs of the business, while being the biggest supporter in seeing the work through completion. A bunch of half done projects aren't nearly as good as one "done" project.
5. Listen more, talk less - I may think I know it all but listening to other people's ideas and perspective is a great way to drive innovation and creativity. Putting someone else's idea into action is a great way to build confidence in individual team members. A micro manager thinks only their way will work. And 9 times out of 10 you are probably wrong.

Fellow control freaks, I'd love to hear from you. What's your perspective and what are you doing to beat the urge to "just do it all yourself"?

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dude, where's your profile???

Please make my job easier. Keep your LinkedIN profile current, interesting and, for your own benefit, please bother to have one in the first place. I interact with a lot of people looking for their next career move. I am in a position at Solstice Consulting that is on the front line of matching supply (the talent pool) with demand (our sales pipeline). We've got a very talented recruiting team that works to fill our open positions by screening for talent across two main competencies:

1) the hard skills - technical skills/domain expertise
2) the intangibles - cultural fit, interpersonal & soft skills.

Beyond the resume, the first place we look to assess if it's worth going down the path of evaluating a candidate further is the LinkedIN profile. I can't tell you how many people still aren't on LinkedIN or have below average profiles. I can tell you that if someone falls into either category, those candidates fall to the end of the line for consideration. Here's some advice on what it means to have a comprehensive LinkedIN profile.

Profile Photo: This is your chance to make a first impression and succinctly tell your viewer who you are and what you do. While not having a picture isn't detrimental, having one can make or break you if it isn't a tasteful professional photo. I'm not suggesting all photos be a standard conservative head shot ( mine). Showcasing pride for your Alma Mater, your favorite sports team , your city, or even a symbol of your favorite cause, says a lot about who you are. And, after all, that's what this medium is all about. Don't waste the real-estate by leaving it vacant. It's a personal branding opportunity that shouldn't be wasted. Just think twice about the message you want to send before uploading that favorite picture of yours from your college days.

Recommendations: Since you control which recommendations actually get displayed, of course only the most positive reviews will be posted. This one is a bit of a numbers game. Having 1 or 2 recommendations to show for a 10-15 yr work history isn't great. As a baseline, strive for 5 recommendations total across all of your work history. The bulk can be concentrated around the more current roles but it says a lot about you that colleagues along the way have had positive things to say. Taking the initiative to ask for recommendations (and give other people recommendations) says you care about your brand and that there's a history of good work backing up your skills presented. So strive for 5 but more is better.

Websites: The websites section is a great chance to differentiate. Do you have a blog? A personal website? Are you on Twitter? These say a lot about who you are. The more you are involved in having an opinion on a particular topic or sharing useful information says something about what can be expected of you in your next job. Stepping outside the confines of what a job description asks by blogging or making it a point to be followed and follow others on Twitter tells employers you have initiative and that staying current is important to you.

Job Experience: The Job Experience section is typically where people spend the most time adding details. I can tell you, if you have a good solid representation of yourself covered across the other areas of your profile (picture, websites, links, info about groups & honors) you should keep this short and sweet. But don't skimp on the detail of noting specifically what month and year your time at a particular post spanned. It's a red flag anytime only years are listed as a timeframe (2010-2010). That sends the message that it was probably a short term assignment and there's a story behind it. Be upfront, and be prepared to explain any short-term roles.

Groups and Associations: This is another area to help reflect who you are and differentiate. Are you involved in your the local chapter of your alumni association? Leading the PTA at your child's school? Do you volunteer? Have you done any professional speaking or belong to professional associations? This is a chance to show that you are well-rounded and a leader in areas outside of the workplace. Joining groups on LinkedIN is also great way to expand your network and get noticed. Groups are typically formed around specific domains of expertise or a professional commonality - alumni association, company groups etc... If you are going to belong to a group, participation in discussions and sharing information are key to getting the most out of them. Don't just be an observer, participate in the conversation.

Status Updates: Last but certainly not least, the status update feature. This is my personal favorite. Here is where I believe the real value of LinkedIN from a personal perspective comes into play. The status update gives you the opportunity to keep a dialogue going with your network. And after all, isn't that what having a network is all about? If you never communicate, what good is having 5, 50, or even 500 connections? I make it a rule to post something new everyday. This puts my face (the profile photo) and my personality (what I have to say and how I say it) in front of my network on a daily basis. While I can't claim to maintaining close relationships with everyone in my network, I know I am connected to people that can help me both professionally and personally when I need it. If they don't know more about me beyond just the invitation to connect, I can't imagine they'd respond in my time of need.

There you have it. My personal rant on the importance of a solid LinkedIN profile. Tell me if you agree or disagree with my perspective. And, how have you found LinkedIN to be useful as a tool for branding yourself?

Monday, March 7, 2011

How a Great App Improved My Bottom Line

As a followup to a blog I published last year on how to use the Google platform to help run your household, I wanted to share my latest passion - managing my family's finances like a business. I discovered about a year ago and it's consumed me ever since. It offers a more user friendly way to ingest and create a consolidated view of your bank accounts, investment accounts, and debt (credit cards, loans). I'm a huge fan of a dashboard. And I love pouring over data to observe trends. Whether or not you share my love for detail, everyone can appreciate trying to answer "where does my money go?" & "how much do we really need to live on?". Well, since I've managed to collect a solid year's worth of transaction data and utilizing the standard reporting functions in Mint, I can tell you my family's top 3 spending categories, how much money we need on a monthly basis, and our projected yearly savings. I may not always like what I see but I now am able to get a realistic view that I can do something about.

So why I am sharing this? Because I know a lot of people trying to get a better handle on their finances. It can seem like a daunting task managing transactional data but it's also necessary to get an accurate financial picture you can act on. I love spreading the word about technology that makes your life easier, especially when it's free. And, I think has done an great job of translating what can be a complicated data intensive task into a simple to use web based application and mobile app. Here's where my personal life intersects with my professional life - I appreciate a great app because my company helps companies build great apps. Here's what Mint is doing right that can be applied to any mobile app:

Seamless desktop & mobile experience: is a desktop application, with a primary focus on the financial management tools most useful in a desktop world. What Mint has done right is identify the functions most useful in the mobile context and provided seamless accessibility with that information in a fast & useful way. From app download to first log in you can productive in under 60 seconds.
Make it easy on-the-go:
Mint is tasked with organizing a lot of data. Creating a meaningful experience with all of that data in the mobile context can be challenging. Mint focused on 2 things in the mobile app - balance information & categorizing transactions. While the desktop application allows a lot of preference setting and reporting, in the mobile context the most important thing is: How does my financial picture look RIGHT NOW. This is achieved through functions that show summary of account balances, cash flow, and budget tracking.

Make it enjoyable:

I actually like digging into the details of balancing my checking account and figuring out how to improve my family's bottom line next month. It's a joy interacting with the Mint user interface - both desktop app and mobile app. In the desktop version the report generation is really slick. In the mobile app world while historical reporting is not a focus, the ability to categorize my transactions as granular as I'd like is great. It's almost become a game to categorize my spending as soon as I can. The transactions are downloaded fast using background processes eliminating frustrations with waiting for data to load. Enjoying using an app is 80% of battle when striving to create an app that's "sticky" and viral.
The joy of interacting with this app has helped me be more responsible about managing my family's finances. Which apps do you love and how have they brought positive change to your life?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Decoding Apple's Human Interface Guidelines Part 2: Designing Great Apps

The User Experience guidelines are probably the most crucial "rules" in Apple's suite of Human Interface Guidelines. These provide the insight and advice you'd typically pay a pricey design firm for. By understanding and embracing the User Experience guidelines you'll know how to not only use the mobile medium most effectively but also create mobile apps that people genuinely enjoy interacting with. Creating a delightful user experience leads to word-of-mouth exposure that no amount of marketing dollars can secure.

There are 26 guidelines that Apple recommends following. I've broken them down and consolidated them into what I call the "The 6 Commandments of iPhone Design".

1. Have a clear focus

Unlike the desktop browser world, the mobile world is task driven. The mobile context means that your users are likely multi-tasking and are looking to an app when they have a few minutes to spare to and want to accomplish something very specific. Your app needs to have a clear purpose and emphasize the most current content/information. Given the screen real-estate constraints it's important to approach app design by asking:

What's needed right now? - based on the purpose of your app, the most relevant and timely information should be the most prominent. i.e. Breaking News, current weather conditions

Is this needed at all? - the most difficult decision is not what you include but what you don't include in your app. It's more important to create an app that helps the use achieve one primary goal really well than be functionality rich.

2. Make it work like I think it should

Your app should be intuitive. If it requires help text or instructions to use, it's time to go back to the drawing board. The main function of the app should be obvious. A great example is the native stop watch or compass app that comes with the iPhone. It's pretty clear by looking at the app what it does and how to work it. The physicality aspect of the compass helps make it intuitive. It looks like a compass, you physically turn your phone like you would an actual compass to get a reading. It's simple and intuitive. And the graphics are fantastic to look at.

3. It's not about you

Along the lines of creating user-centric apps, don't crowd the already precious real-estate with your logos or anything not relevant to the user achieving a goal. Your marketing and branding opportunity comes with designing your app launch icon and in crafting an effective app store description.

4. Make it seamless

Apps that are mobile variations to a wired web browser based parent should have seamless connection with the data available. Don't require a cumbersome app set up process, leverage what you already know to create a ready to use app moments after app store download. In today's social media world, people like to share for better and worse. Encourage collaboration and make it easy for users to tell their friends about your app and share content.

5. I want to find, I don't want to browse

The mobile context is all about relevant information ready before I know I need it. The search capabilities should be tailored to fast and rewarding searches. Display partial results quickly and use on-screen controls to help users quickly filter through results sets. There are out of the box user interface elements called scope bars that can help with limiting the data that an app pulls back. Tap into the phone senses such as the GPS to order results by those "closest" to where the user is now. And keep the search box near the top or header of the app where users expect it to be.

6. Entertain me

Creating a truly enjoyable experience relies on not only a focused, user-centric purpose but also stunning graphics and the use of physicality and realism. Enhancing a user's sense of direct manipulation such as turning pages or physically rotating a phone to engage the compass creates apps that are delightful to use. They can make performing the simplest of tasks a truly memorable experience. And help create the buzz that you are looking for.

There you have it. 6 golden rules for designing iPhone apps that will have your users coming back for more and spreading the good word about your app. Read the Part 1 of my blog series on Decoding Apple's Human Interface Guidelines here.

Use the comments below to tell me more about the apps you love and which apps keep you coming back for more.