How Social Media Makes Us More Polite

Spam. Viruses. Flame wars. Trolls. Hackers. The internet sure seems like a rough and tumble place. But is it possible that using social media makes us more respectful of each other and more polite? Being polite whether online or off, is strongly influenced by your relationship with person on the other side of the conversation. If there’s no chance of seeing that person in real life, doing business with them in the future, or understanding much about them—there’s a much higher incidence of an impolite interaction: anonymity breeds rudeness.

And the more anonymous, the more rude. So, online forums that allow anonymous posting or little user validation are breeding grounds for bile and the vile (see 4chan… if you dare). Even Reddit, which requires that its users reveal zero personal information, still has a reputation system that

On the contrary social networks that promote authenticity and personal identification. Be yourself, and you have to stand by your rep. LinkedIn, AirBnB, even EBay are great examples, though more private invite-only social networks like A Small World demonstrate the concept as well.

Is it possible that the era when the pushiest jerk gets ahead is coming to a close? Maybe not, but the revenge of the nerds has certainly proven its might, and those who participate in the global conversation with impeccable ethics may just see rewards beyond those knowing smiles.

Concrete Interactive Selected as Early Leap Motion Developer

It’s a privilege for us to be working with the futuristic visionaries over at Leap Motion.  In the coming weeks we’ll report our progress building the first apps that take advantage of their 3D hand tracking control.

Concrete Interactive brings extensive 3D graphics and interaction experience to the world of Leap’s new motion control.  But for a start, we thought we’d remake the classic carnival game and are proud to bring you a little demo of what the Leap is capable of with….Smack-A-Rat.

Smack-A-Rat Game for Leap Motion Controller from Brett Levine on Vimeo.

Code as Content

Modern software practices were brought up on computer science pedagogy that promotes clean and beautiful object-oriented (OO) architectures. They were fed a healthy dose of open source-powered movement toward behavior driven development (BDD). Not quite all grown up yet, these efforts are aimed at producing high quality software outcomes. There is still a missing link in the chain that connects a user’s interaction with a software developer’s intention when it comes to content.

The web is full of content. And the line between content and software is becoming more difficult to detect. While many can make persuasive arguments that coding is an art–“artwork” at least has a different character as “content” and it doesn’t nest so nicely in software architects’ object hierarchies. Content requires different standards from both an OO and BDD point of view.

On one side of the line, for example, no one would rightly call an image file “software”. Similarly no one would call a sorting algorithm “artwork”. A procedural flocking animation written for the HTML 5 canvas though is tricky.

When an artist (call them a creative coder) performs that mystical creative act of bringing a piece of artistic content into the world, more and more these days that act may involve writing code, but the artist may consider that code just a means to an end–expression.

So the point isn’t about drawing a line, so to speak, between software and art. This isn’t a metaphysical discussion. The application of OO and BDD techniques to art are different, and recognizing how to architect and how to test content vs code may mean the difference between expending resources effectively, or squandering them. I’ll save the implications of object-oriented architecture on art for another day, for now I’ll focus on the BDD side.

What would behavior driven development tests of artwork look like? Remember BDD starts with user stories in human terms: what experience do I want the person using my software to have? So for example, a common BDD story would be written like this: “As a Facebook user, when I login, then I should see my news feed.” And a programmer could write software tests that perform just those steps: login to facebook with a valid username and password, check what page appears, is it the user’s news feed? If so, PASS.

If the question turns to, “what experience do I want the person viewing my content to have,” the BDD user story might become, “As a Facebook user, when I scroll my news feed, then I want to feel like it has a physical weightiness.” Yikes, how does a programmer write a software test for this nicely articulated artistic motivation? Weightiness? Well, artist, what do you mean by that?

Effective BDD would require the artistic motivation to be reduced to purely software terms, perhaps: “As a Facebook user, when I scroll my news feed, then its scrolling motion should decelerate gradually when I release my mouse.” This is not a naturally artistic statement. The artist had in mind to make a page that feels weighty, so involving words like deceleration pollutes the user story with the “hows” instead of sticking to the “whats.”

As opposed to artists, for non-programmer product designers, BDD requires expressing in human terms what software should do. But it can only be successful if the language those product designers use to describe the software is actually testable by the engineers who write the tests.

Let’s face it, art is hard to describe, and unless its creator is also a bonafide critic, even artists themselves usually do not possess the language to describe the reaction they wish to engender in their audience. Content is in fact, not software, and should not be tested as software.

Content by its nature, even if it involves software, does not fit a software testing model. Perhaps a new model is needed to provide a softer, squishier, more qualitative way to evaluate whether content is operating effectively.

We can test whether an image renders on the screen correctly. We can test whether an animation with easing is slowing according to a cosine or a cubic curve. But how do we test if a user thinks the Facebook news feed feels weighty?

I think the answer is: ask them. BDD forms part of a software “immune system” but it is only one layer, just as unit testing, and human quality assurance testing are others. With all of today’s emphasis on metrics, it is time for BDD to naturally extend outward, beyond the bounds of the continuous integration servers that execute software tests with each commit, beyond the confines of the software develop’s network, and out into the world, where people can look at a software feature combined with its content, react to it, and tell you what they think–analytically, scientifically, measurably.

I imagine a BDD user story of the future to tie with an analytics system like this, “As a facebook user when I scroll my news feed I should feel as if it were weighty.” And I imagine a test report with a result such as “18% feel the news feed is somewhat weight, 48% feel the news feed is very weight, 4% feel the news feed is too weighty.” Some metrics frameworks such as Qualaroo, or conversion experts such as CROmetrics will provide this sort of data, but to use them, you have to separately set up the metrics system, ask the right questions and compare the results outside the normal design and development cycle.

Software maturity would benefit if the distance between the qualitative usage measurement (in the wild) and the design of software were shortened, in the same way that BDD shortens the distance between usage correctness and software implementation. It is time for customer experience data to integrate seamlessly with BDD toolkits so that artist intentions, no matter how much or little code is involved, align with the business, usage and artistic intentions of software products.

Credits: What Is Art

How Concrete and Zencoder brought high quality video to HitRECord

Thanks to Zencoder and HitRECord for the kind words. Encoding high quality video was a snap with their Ruby on Rails cloud technology.

Reposted from: http://blog.zencoder.com/2012/01/31/the-future-of-content-hitrecord-zencoder-and-concrete-interactive/

With infinite “airtime” and consumer demand going through the roof, a consistent theme in 2011 and now for 2012 is that high quality content is essential for entertaining and engaging viewers. To fill the pipes, big companies are pouring big bucks into producing original content for online distribution. Google is investing $100M in original content for YouTube. We all rejoiced as Netflix resurrected “Arrested Development”, and Yahoo landed a Hollywood whale in Tom Hanks and his animated series.

In recognition of the importance of content in advancing the online video industry, we’re highlighting our partner Concrete Interactive and the amazing product that they’ve built for HitRECord. HitRECord, founded by actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, not only facilitates the creation of high quality Internet video but is also unique in that it’s democratizing, and bringing real innovation to, the process of content creation.

Founded in 2005, HitRECord has established itself as a unique destination for video artists, filmmakers, writers, animators, musicians, and videographers to collaborate and interact with Gordon-Levitt and others on a wide variety of creative endeavors. HitRECord’s library has grown to over 20,000 complete videos. Almost 1,000 contributors have used HitRECord to create films and video, which are available in the “TheRecord Store”. Thousands more have contributed to films shown at HitRECord’s live shows. When a production makes money, there’s a 50/50 revenue split between HitRECord and the co-creators.

Even though we didn’t get to hobnob with the stars in Park City, we were excited to hear of the successful showcase of HitRECord’s works, which were featured last week at the prestigious Eccles Theater as part of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Joseph Gordon-Levitt emceed a sold-out screening, presenting films that were developed on HitRECord.

A few factors are making this explosion of Internet content possible. First, it’s getting cheaper and cheaper to create content. The cost of HD cameras and powerful editing suites have fallen rapidly, making it possible to create professional content on a small budget. On the distribution end, highly efficient software and cloud-based infrastructure make it possible to rapidly deploy Internet video applications with a relatively small upfront investment.

To build HitRECord, Concrete Interactive, the San Francisco-based boutique web application development firm, used technologies such as Rubyon Rails, Heroku, Amazon S3, JQuery, New Relic, Splunk, Airbrake, and Kissmetrics. They use Zencoder, and relied on our industry-leading performance to encode HitRECord’s library. They were able to convert tens-of-thousands of videos into web and mobile outputs overnight, for playback across a variety of devices.

Most importantly, the end product is a very high performance platform that facilitates the creative output of its users. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or “RegularJoe” on HitRECord, said, “Since working with Concrete Interactive and Zencoder, HitRECord’s video upload process has been smoother, the quality is excellent and processing times are really quick.”

Software Quality

What is Software Quality?

If you speak of software quality, what do you mean?  Product managers generally mean they want their features to work as designed across all target platforms.  Project managers want software to be completed on time and on budget.  Executives want customers to pay good money for a good experience.  And software developers want to build efficient code that gets deployed to their user audience.  In discussions with my clients, that’s usually about as far as it goes, “We want high quality software.”

In this article, I discuss ways to dissect software quality into six relevant areas: ruggedness, architecture, performance, scale, security, and process.  Each of these aspects of quality can then be prioritized, and following each area I highlight actionable ways to improve (or take shortcuts) in your software project.

Download this article as a PDF

Time. Features. Quality:  Pick Two.

When asked, “What is most important to you for this project?  Time, features, or quality: pick two,” almost everyone these days will actively choose to have a software project come in on time, and be of high quality, while accepting a somewhat more limited feature set.

But maybe this software adage has become as outmoded as the waterfall model. After all, the time we apply to a software project can be shorter or longer.  The features can be many or fewer.  So how can we match software quality in its manifold aspects and degrees to the goals of a project?

First it is necessary to realize that there is no one such thing as “high quality software.”  Quality, when it comes to software, is a way of saying how well a program solves its goal problem.  Let’s break that down into practical areas, since almost all software projects must face choices for budget allocation.

Ruggedness

Software ruggedness is most commonly, and mistakenly, viewed as overall software quality.  In short, rugged software is written correctly, without bugs or user interface flaws, and works well across all its target platforms.  Building rugged software is probably the most widely understood software development practice.  Developing rugged software typically involves human force approaches such as manual quality assurance testing, bug tracking systems (eg. Fogbugz, Lighthouse, Bugzilla, Jira, Trac).

To ensure a software project becomes rugged, most software development teams “put it to the test.”  An adversarial practice is promoted between QA testers and developers.  This is often viewed as healthy, since many developers tend to label a feature as completed and move on to implementing the next ticket in their queue before engaging in the arduous task of cross-platform and stress testing.  In addition the practice of automated testing, using tools such as Selenium, Fake or custom scripts, aids the manual processes, but does not reduce the force required, it just shifts the human testing burden on to a new automated test construction burden, which in turn may have inaccuracies.

Architecture

The single most important aspect of producing high quality software is matching software architecture to its problem domain (read Domain Driven Design).  At times the ultimate domain is not known, such as when a start-up company tries a new concept in the marketplace.  Often the iterative nature of market feedback, combined with an agile software development process, results in patchwork architecture ill-suited to the adapted domain.  Refactoring is the process by which a new software architecture is put in place of an existing one, containing the same feature set but, with increased capacity to solve problems in a new domain.

Refactoring is often seen by product managers as a costly and time-consuming enterprise that developers want for “code cleanliness” but with dire consequences on schedule and budget.  Yet, without refactoring a “dishes in the sink” approach can become endemic to the team mindset, wherein another dish, or in this case a poorly architected feature, gets added to the pile until a major reckoning is required.

Agile methodologies reduce the need for major refactoring by dissolving it into a relatively continuous process done along with the tasks of each sprint.  By shortening milestone deadlines into sprints, say three or four weeks, and reconciling the architecture improvements needed for each milestone, a clean household is maintained, and software architecture is built up continually to match the next few milestones.

  • Enforce use of Design Patterns: have developers do brown bag lunches, put this book on every developer’s desk.
  • Code up architecture for the current release.  Draw out architecture for the next two releases.

Performance

When it comes to massive database crunching, 3D game development, or scientific computing, careful attention is normally paid to algorithmic performance (as opposed to application scaling, addressed below).  However, in the course of building web applications, 2d flash games, or mobile apps, performance is usually examined when it becomes an issue.  This could be when the number of sprites in a flash game slows rendering, when mobile memory overflow causes crashes, or when web database queries become unacceptably long.  Code performance is another area where attention to quality at the right level should be built in as solutions are developed.

Scale

In contrast to performance, scale is often considered at the outset of web application projects, where eager management teams assert the need for servicing hundreds of thousands of concurrent users a la Twitter.  Technologies such as Ruby on Rails, Heroku, Google App Engine, Virtualization, and Amazon EC2 make scaling web applications easier than ever, and there is very little development cost to throwing more hardware at many common problems.  Of course, database design, server APIs and application server caching schemes go a long way to reducing these service costs by using them more efficiently.

Security

Probably the most overlooked area of emphasis when developing a new software product or web service is security.  Frequently security breeches are recoverable, except the damage done to customer opinions (take the recent Sony debacle).  Life does go on (usually) after getting hacked, having a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack take down your site or application access for a time.  Scrambling to plug holes is the normal route.  But as with all other areas of software quality, a few simple steps at the beginning or middle of the development cycle can prevent the vast majority of infiltration.  Spending a day or two on threat modeling, updating security patches, and reading documentation about how to defend against common attacks are equivalent to locking your door when you leave the house: not impenetrable, but likely to encourage the attacker to move along to the next property.

Process

Light enough not be burdensome, sophisticated enough to fit the tasks at hand, software development processes should fit the team, the company and the product.  Easier said than done.  Modern processes such as Agile overturn decades of doctrine involving heavy process such as lengthy code comments and prolonged design cycles in favor of iteration and well, agility.  The best software processes are fun, and since development teams are human, it is easier to convince them to do fun things than arduous ones.  The danger of a methodology such as Agile, or goal definition such as minimum viable product as to use as an excuse for slipshod project management and code practices.  To find balance in this realm is to focus on just what is important and have the right toolset to support just that narrowest of procedures: daily scrum meetings, hand-drawn feature sketches, presenting paper prototypes to potential customers, continuous deployment tools like Hudson and Capistrano.

  • Inculcate Test Driven Development into your process.
  • Use fast, analog approaches where possible: whiteboard, stickies, physical calendar on the wall.
  • Draw paper prototypes by hand (or with a ruler) and iterate frequently.
  • Tell your project manager to scan each design iteration and post to a wiki page.
  • Go to a cafe and buy strangers lunch in exchange for spending 5 minutes playing with your product on a laptop or phone.

Summary

It is my hope that by developing a deeper working definition and understanding of these six aspects of software quality, software projects will avoid many quality-related pitfalls, and make better decisions about how to allocate effort.  It isn’t necessary to spend time on every one of these areas, but it is necessary to consciously decide whether or not to.