Why hello, Minority Report…

From Samsung at CES.


Hang on, will just check something…

check var jawStatus
  > jawStatus = dropped

Yep, thought as much.

Mass production in the next couple of months, you say?  Hello new kitchen window…

(via George)

Perfect Taste Discrimination (can idiots blend their own brew?)

An interesting wee experiment first thing this morning… comparing three different types of coffee.

The main reason is to test out the coffee I just received from eightpointnine.com, a new service that offers you the chance to blend your own coffee, and give it whatever name you choose…

My first attempt at a blend is called “Smithery House #1”.

Now, unsurprisingly, I’m a keen supporter of the general principles around changing the ways goods and services are created by involving people further back down the line (going all the way back to the Social Production thing I talked about in 2009).

But one of the questions it always raises, when you talk about getting people involved in the  is the design and making of things, is the Homer Car question…

…if you get idiots involved, won’t you just end up with something rubbish?

The idiot in question here is me; I know a bit about coffee, but nowhere near enough to be properly informed.  ‘Keen amateur’ probably overstates my competence here.

So how will the eightpointnine.com approach fare in this respect; by letting me sit behind a computer screen, sliding a few things back and forwards to adjust the blend, will the end result be very average cup of coffee?

Let’s see.

I set out to compare “Smithery House #1” to some Monmouth Coffee and some Small Batch Coffee.  Naturally, I tried to keep things as constant as I could; for each coffee, I brewed the same amount of coffee in the same amount of water at the same temperature for the same duration, using the same device, an Aeropress (which Mr Barnes jivvied me in to buying).


Experiment conditions were far from perfect though; whilst the Monmouth (Brazilian) and Small Batch (Peruvian) were both single origin beans, “Smithery House #1” is a blend.  It’d be better to compare with the espresso blends of each company, perhaps.

The other, much more fundamental problem was the date each coffee was ground; the Small Batch stuff was the last of a bag I’d bought last weekend, whilst the other two had been ground in the last couple of days.

Chris pointed out the importance of freshly ground over Christmas…

…but it never really hit home until this morning just how much it affects the coffee.

The Small Batch, which when first brewed had been amazing, has really lost a lot of the more subtle notes and become a lot more bitter in comparison to the other two.  For that reason, I excluded the Small Batch from the comparison.

The final thing I should have thought about is a blind test; brewed them, then asked Helen to mix the coffee cups so I didn’t know which was which.  Classic Pepsi challenge territory.  So I’m trusting myself to navigate through prior perceptions, really.  Which is an utterly forlorn hope, I know, but there we go.

So, results.

Ok, no surprises – the Monmouth single origin is better.  But then Monmouth single origin coffee has been better than anything else I’ve bought in various coffee forays around London & Oslo over the last couple of years (Nude, Square Mile, Union, Tapped & Packed, Kaffebrenneriet etc etc…).

It’s better because there’s a lot more tastes and aromas to find in the coffee.  It tastes more complex, deeper, somehow.

What’s encouraging though, is that (to these tastebuds at least), “Smithery House #1” is not at all bad.  It hits all the taste profile things it suggested on the profiling information, and whilst it doesn’t have the depth and interest of Monmouth, it’s definitely something I’ve dived back in to tweak and test again (“Smithery House #2” will arrive in a fortnight).


So, apart from demonstrating I can run highly flawed scientific comparisons, what else is occurring?

Well, models like this challenge some of the assumptions around the classic economics of price setting.

Price discrimination has always been something of interesting to me, particularly perfect price discrimination, where…

the firm separates the whole market into each individual consumer and charges them the price they are willing and able to pay.  If successful, the firm can extract all consumer surplus that lies beneath the demand curve and turn it into extra producer revenue (or producer surplus).  This is impossible to achieve unless the firm knows every consumer’s preferences and, as a result, is unlikely to occur in the real world.

(source: tutor2u.net)

For instance, ‘traditionally’ you start by setting one price for your product (on the y axis, £) and selling a set number of units (x axis, U) at that price.

You find the price where you maximise revenues (the dark area under the graph) at a set point on the demand curve.


Perfect price discrimination would allow you to sell your product to everyone along that demand curve.

A quick demonstration:

Tom loves your coffee, and would pay £10, Dick thinks it’s great, would pay £8, Harry thinks it’s ok, so is only willing to pay £6, and George isn’t fussed, but wouldn’t say no at £4.

If the coffee costs you £6 to make and send, and you had to set one price, you’d set it at £8, so that Tom and Dick would buy.  You’d sell two bags, and make £4 profit.

If you could operate some form of price discrimination though, you’d sell Tom a bag at £10 (£4 profit) and Dick a bag at £8 (£2 profit).  You’d make more profit than before.

Now, if you’re after growth of market share, you might decide to sell Harry a bag at cost (no profit), and take a loss on a bag to George (£2 loss).

You’d be a bigger player in the market, hope to persuade Harry & George you’re worth more, and yet you still make the same profit as it you’d set one price and sold two bags.


Now, in this traditional line of thinking, the product you make is a constant, because mass-manufacture demanded they were constant, and there was little point thinking about products any differently.

But maybe (MAYBE) a model like the eightpointnine one means that the product can be the variable, whilst the price remains the constant.

For instance, if you only made one variant of coffee, you would have to set the taste as you would have to set the price in the previous model.

But if you allow everyone to select the taste they wanted in a coffee, you start to head towards a place where you can operate Perfect Taste Discrimination.

You could a constant price which allows you to run the service that can supply everyone with their precise variation of the product.

Not only do they get the version of something they themselves like better, but you hand the marketing story of that precise iteration over to them, to talk about however they wish (much like I talked about “Smithery House #1” above).


I need to sweat this a lot harder, of course, but as an initial train of thought, I think it’s quite interesting.  It’s certainly good to revisit and test some of the assumptions around the social production things.

And it can help develop more interesting and compelling reasons for companies to connect with people around creating interesting things together, rather than simply seeing ‘social media’ as a marketing bolt-on to ask people to ‘like’ the things they’re not allowed to change, critique, improve etc etc.

It does occur is that Taste and Price are not mutually exclusive levers to pull upon; any company can use both in combination.  But it is a lot easier for a startup company in the FMCG sector to start with Perfect Taste Discrimination , and price set accordingly, than it is for an established FMCG producer to move into Perfect Taste Discrimination to satisfy a market.

So we could see a lot of challenger companies and models upsetting various aisles in the supermarket over the next few years.  It’s a new sort of disruption, perhaps, and maybe companies like P&G, Unilever and Kraft are the new record labels…


POSTSCRIPT: Should you fancy giving eightpointnine a go, would you mind using code ENKWNSA?  You get the same offer of first bag for free, but then I get a bag half price, which will keep me experimenting more 😉

2012 Projects – Making Things

Happy New Year, folks.  Hope you had a lovely break.

2011 was an excellent year here at Smithery.  Starting, for one.  Working on some brilliant projects with lovely people, for another.  And finding time and headspace to work on things that I wouldn’t have had in a previous life.

Anyway, I though the first posts of the new year should be about projects for the coming few months… firstly, a post about making things, and then next up a post about things I’m thinking about.

So, making things; one new project, and two existing.


1. Twine

Let’s start here, because I received a nice card over the holidays…

In March I’ll receive my Twine from Supermechanical.

There’s no better way to describe Twine than in their own words:

Listen to your world, talk to the Internet

Want to hook up things to the Web without a nerd degree? Maybe you want to get a tweet when your laundry’s done, or get an email when the basement floods while you’re on vacation.

Twine is the simplest possible way to get the objects in your life texting, tweeting or emailing. Instead of worrying about wiring or networking code, you can focus on your idea.

There are two inbuilt sensors for movement and temperature, and you can add more sensors for other things too.  Then you control it with Spool, a very easy, intuitive visual programming platform (not unlike Minibloq for Arduino I talked about before Christmas).

I think it’s a brilliant idea, and I’m clearly not the only one – they blew their Kickstarter funding goal out of the water this week when funding closed; they were after $35,000, and they’ve raised $556,541.  Not shabby.

Anyway, I want to play around with that, and given its promised robustness, I might try and see if it’s childproof and make something for James.

I might need to ask for an extra-toughened reinforced one…

But it might be something to combine with Rolobox & Makedo, especially given the accelerometer inside Twine.


Why Bloody Bother (WBB) – the internet of things movement continues apace, but I suspect that it will be projects like Twine that kick it into something stratospheric; by lowering the access point of the technology to more people, more ideas and energy will flow into the space.

Wooly Doable Goal (WDG) – make enough time to make Twine do something interesting for James, and share it for other parents to have a go too.


2. Arduino stomp-box

So I have a fragile working prototype of a thing

It was designed to be a productivity setter; turn the dial, set the level, press the button and tweet what ‘productivity’ you were working at for the next hour.  More details here.

It was developed in the Arduino commune Matt Weston instigated and provided the space for during November & December.

He’s continuing it through to Easter (and getting a nice big table in to accommodate more people) if you’re around brighton and fancy it.  More details here.

I shall be making as much time as I can to go down, but I also want to get a most robust shell around the thing.

I was partially inspired by POPA

Popa is the big red button that turns your iPhone 4 into a camera.

It really changes the way you hold and think of your iPhone, which I thought was remarkable.  And it integrates with things like Instagram, Dropbox and many, many more apps (though not Hipstamatic as yet, which would be excellent for me).  You should probably buy one, if you haven’t already.  That’s what your Christmas Money is for.

But the inspiration really took hold when creator Brendan Dawes told the story of how they developed it at Playful, it inspired me to think that getting a product off the ground might be closer than I had imagined (though still lots of bloody hard work and perseverance).

The other inspiration, from a deep and distant memory, is probably Poke’s BakerTweet.

BakerTweet from POKE on Vimeo.

2009 that was.  Doesn’t time fly?

Anyway, I think the thing is tilting towards being a stomp-box for the internet – something like a guitar effects pedal thing that modifies your signal into the world.

It might set productivity, change your avatars on various sites, autotweet a series of swearwords depending on how angry you are… it could do lots of things.

But I don’t really want to define exactly what it does – I’d rather take the Minibloq/Spool approach of ‘here’s a thing, now you decide exactly what it does’.

A mix of hardware and software that become like plasticineware.  Or plastiware.

There’s probably a better term already for this; if you know what it is, let me know.

WBB – A lot of the work (client & personal) I seem to be doing is surfing the crack in the universe between physical and digital, but rather than just focussing on turning digital things into physical stuff, I want to explore different sorts of interfaces that lets people control digital things with more natural, physical gestures.

The controller in the third episode of Black Mirror is a great example.  Mike’s written a great post on the design fiction of that.

WDG – Get a version working in a self contained guitar-pedal-esqe box, possibly even make more than one, and see who’s interested in playing.



3. Artefact Cards 

One of the first client projects I did under the Smithery guise used the earliest iteration of the Artefact Cards to play around with a group of people to create lots of ideas quickly, order them, refresh and finesse them.

I used blank playing cards because I wanted people to consider the ideas they committed to the cards more; post-it notes are transitory, disposable rubbish, and are too often treated as such.

It made me realise how individuals and people can use these cards to create, capture, structure and move ideas around more readily, whether working together or on their own.

So I recruited a first wave of testers, mocked up some prototypes and sent them out…


These testers started using them around the beginning of November, and since then I’ve caught up with the majority of them to download their experiences.

There’s loads of interesting aspects around how people approach them… Will Corke likened them to the way Nabokov wrote his books on index cards, which led me to this excellent post on the nonlinearity of thinking that approach allows:

Nabokov’s writing method typically included composing on index cards. Quirkily, he would shuffle these cards daily, allowing him to see different paths to take by looking at the story unfolding in different ways.

This non-linearity in structure was also matched by a non-linearity in focus: he often wrote the middle of the story last.

But an important part was the drawing too – making yourself draw things into your ideas changes them, makes them take a different path than searching to find the right words.

Ben Maxwell said it was like the cards ‘gave doodles permission to exist’.  And Ben doodled well too; this is one of his…


The plan moving forward is this; finish first wave testing interviews, write it up, recruit a second wave of folk with a more honed “how to…” guide, and then finish them as a complete product to sell.

Although I actually wonder if it’s a few different things; a technique workshop around using the cards, a simple version of the product to sell, and a more regular subscription version of oblique slants on the cards (a little like Field Notes, which both Ben & Toby mentioned separately).

And once that’s done, I can get round to the mobile app half of the equation… more on that another day.

If you like the sound of the cards, and want to be kept abreast of developments, sign up to the Artefact Cards mailing list here.

WBB – I’ve found it such a refreshing way to change how I think and work up ideas that I believe there’s value in the approach for other people.  And I’m really enjoying the journey in working out how best to bring it to life in the right way.

WDG – turn the Artefact Cards into a good product rather than just an interesting idea.


So, that’s the making focus for the first bit of the year.  I will write up the thinking focus in a bit.  Though maybe next week.

In the meantime, if you do see or know of anything interestingly tangential to any of these three in any way,  please do send it my way.

Here’s to a great 2012, folks.


From Dusk Till Dawn – Art & Comment for Insomniacs

A couple of weeks back, I met up with Chris Thorpe of Jaggeree, formerly of the Guardian, and now co-founder of Artfinder (think Last.FM for art).


Anyway, over two large cups of Earl Grey, we started talking about how Chris might take some of the stuff they’ve been building and turn it into something for the Guardian SxSW hack day, which was this weekend just gone.  The hack day was about finding new ways to present news & cultural information to people.


Chris sums up the idea here:


“We’d get real people to tell us how different bits of art made them feel, get their impressions and the put them together in a sort of image and audio slideshow and then see what came out”


…and this is what Chris put together to show at the end of the hack.



It’s wonderfully calming, I think, to hear gentle, considered opinions on the pieces from other people… too many audio guides in Museums don’t really work for me, they’ve too formal / haughty / monotonous in tone.  Full of detail and facts, not warmth and feeling.


I think there’s something very soothing about hearing a random mix of folk commenting on a piece, and the interesting, different takes on the same pieces takes your thoughts on lots of different journeys.


It’s very apt title that Chris bestowed upon the project “From Dusk till Dawn – the insomniac’s ambient audio guide to art in Austin”.


Anyway, you should sign up for an artfinder invite, and see what comes next…


BMW; back in the film business, but now in the future business

Years ago (in the early noughties), BMW made some films.  They were great, lavish, statement making films.  They had Clive Owen in them.  They had freakin’ Madonna in them.



They told you this:  BMWs are for driving fast, looking amazing, living dangerously.


Especially if you were an insurance salesman in the home counties.


Looking back, it’s easy to see how the mental picture of the BMW driver was a gregarious, suited, loudmouthed wanker… it was all about the badge, that shiny BMW medal of belonging for Kevin and Justin and the golf club mafia.


Now, BMW are back in the film business.  But in a wonderfully different way…


A series of four films based around “The Future of Mobility”; a look to the future where we need to create a sustainable lifestyle for the human race.  They’ll all be released this month, and first is up here now




That guy?  That’s Buzz Aldrin.  Yes, the second man on the moon.  “You get where you wanna go, when you wanna go, with the least fuss… that’s what we need”.  Doesn’t sound like the message Kevin & Justin would bandy around the 19th hole.


It’s well worth a watch.


What’s beautiful about the films, and the idea, is that you get a sense of BMW as a group, a movement, an ideology… not because it’s chock-a-block full of BMW people (it isn’t), but because this is the kind of statement they want to make about themselves to the world.


And the thing about an ideology is that it can last forever, and transcend whatever it is you physically make or do as a company in any one era.  It’s probably as much of a message internally to BMW as it is externally for us.


In 1975, Theodore Levitt said this of marketers:


“To survive, they themselves will have to plot the obsolescence of what now produces their livelihood”


I guess “The Future of Mobility” feels like a future for BMW too… now let’s see what actions they use to back up the words.

A compact post on the compact disc



We went looking at cars yesterday. Second hand, enough space for kid and stuff, that sort of idea.

The salesman at one garage, after going through all the spec of the car, leaned over slightly, and with a conspiratorial twinkle added ‘…and it’s got a six-CD changer in the boot’. He might as well have said it was steam powered.

On Thursday, I met a lovely guy who writes music for ads, and produces bands too. So he’s got a good inside track on the music industry. “You just hear so many stories” he said “of well established bands who just can’t make the financials on CD sales stack up”.

This morning, I used this picture of my CD player as the latest submission to http://Instaterrestrial.tumblr.com. It looks like a lovely, friendly robot. But I realised it’s the only thing I’ve used it for in months and months… it sits dormant, the CD tray unloved & unused.

It’s the dog end of the CD days, isn’t it? And I don’t even see a small, passionate fanbase for the format like you have with vinyl.

“You can spill coffee on them and they’ll be fine” they said when they launched CDs. Very soon, all we’ll be using them for is coasters.

The death of Myspace… and lessons for everyone else

Last weekend, I had to build a Myspace equivalent.


No, not the whole thing from scratch.  That’d have taken longer.  Five days, maybe…


Nope, just a page for our band, Gamages Model Train Club.  Over the course of an afternoon, by stringing together bits of Tumblr, Soundcloud, iTunes, Facebook, Google Analytics and Feedburner, I made something that meant we’ve got somewhere where people can:


i) listening to / buy songs
ii) declare their love for the GMTC (or ‘like’ as Facebook would have it)
iii) follow what we’re up to
iv) subscribe for future updates


It’s here, if you’re so interested:





But hang on, you say, Myspace is still in existence, and gets millions of people sailing through its straits every day.


And what’s more, they’ve recently launched their new version.  It’s easier to use than before.  It’s got lots of different and new features…


Why not keep using it?  Why leave now?


Well, there’s three things contributing, from a personal ‘end user’ perspective, all of which I think are good lessons for Facebook or indeed any social platform that’s being built to last.


And these are they…



Never stand still


Nobody can ever accuse Myspace of ever having been terribly easy to use.  Wanted to change your profile?  You had to learn some HTML (or at least have the ability to copy it from other places).


But before the News Corp takeover, at least there were piecemeal improvements… week by week, new things would emerge, be talked about, asked for by the community or created internally by the team.  And it gave the people at myspace something to talk to people about.


Then it stopped.  Dead.


I think what happened is the same that happens when any big, old company takes over a small, nimble, new company.  The new company becomes subject to the same rules and expectations as the new one.


Don’t launch things small and often, let’s launch things infrequently, but talk about all the changes we make at once.  So don’t talk about anything in between that spoils this, please.  Oh, and we need a major review of what we’re doing with the site, platform, tech, so don’t do anything till that’s complete….


…and so and and so forth.  By trying to sort everything all at once, as old, established companies want to, and as you’d have to do with a newspaper redesign, Myspace stopped evolving.


It was dead in the water whilst the new crew sat around debating, discussing and analysing what it was that made the engine work best.  And the good ship Facebook sailed right on past…


Lesson one:  keep evolving in the open, trying things consistently with the people who know your platform best (i.e. NOT you, your keenest users)




Aim for simplicity 


Here’s the new Myspace home page.


In between the ads, it’s and endless array of buttons, options, drop down menus, updates, messages waiting…





Every time someone has a good idea, it seems to get ladled on top of what’s already there.  I’ve started to lose track of where everything is, and how to do things.  I can no longer work out how to remove some old songs from our profile (and believe me, I’ve looked through all of these options).  there are ten ‘major menus’ along the top.  TEN.  And then, to add to the confusion, the eleventh is a drop down offering ‘more’…


It’s an awful user experience that keeps getting worse.  And this is the new improved version.  No wonder people leave never to return… they probably can’t work out what they were there to do in the first place.


Lesson two:  if you do keep adding stuff, then more sure you keep taking stuff away too… clutter sucks




Small networks can make you… or break you


Despite the other two being important, I think this one is the killer.


Myspace for the GMTC has become a cold, dead world, inhabited by the occasional spectre of another band pleading ‘…please… come and see our band…


Of course, this is just our little corner of Myspace, where our friends, fans and other bands we like have stopped participating.  It’s not true for everywhere.  Not yet, at any rate.  So why is it important?


If (as Shirky, Watts et al propose) we are tightly connected as small groups, and loosely connected as large groups, the disappearance of a small group can have bigger repercussions than just the people within that group.






When a social network passes out of favour in a small network, the large network suffers.  The loose connections that held the wider network together start to disappear.  So the occasional thing which crossed over into different tightly knitted groups has also disappeared.


Our group has stopped functioning as a node in the network.  Just one small network has disappeared, yet the repercussions go beyond just that group.


There feels like there’s less going on, there’s less diversity.  If this starts happening with more and more small networks, it’s obvious that the large network suffers.  It becomes a less interesting, less lively place.  It becomes more boring.


And when it becomes boring, people have got no reason to come back.  Which is a pattern which can start repeating across the whole network, but spreads like a virus from small group to small group, as they’re loosely connected to each other.


All common sense, really.  And something you’d try your hardest to stop happening, if you were running a social network.


However, it’s really hard to spot it.


The more you’re focussed on the big, overall network numbers (this many unique users, that many daily hits), you’re going to miss the disappearance of small networks.


Or, rather, you’re not going to miss them, because the picture you’re looking at is far too big.


You really need to focus on early groups that were once hives of activity, but have dwindled to nothing.  Or those who were in your first 10% of users, but haven’t logged on for a month or more.


Lesson 3: Large network numbers are important, but put attention to what’s happening in your small networks. 





So, three things, admittedly all from a very small network viewpoint too.  But it’s really important for social platforms to develop and keep that perspective as they grow (or indeed are bought by bigger companies).


Because people aren’t on your platform because they’ve invested emotionally in your platform.


They’re there because they’re emotionally investing in the relationships with their friends.


And if their friends move on… so will they.