Tom Hickey

April 1, 2016

Buzzword: the Internet Of Things

When we moved into our house years ago I discovered that, while the garage door opener worked, there was no remote for it. Replacement remotes are easy to come by these days but my first thought was: why clutter up my life with one more remote that I have to keep track of?  Can I do this with my phone?

At the time I wasn’t familiar with the “Internet of Things” but I WAS feeling the sort of desire for convenience, simplicity and order that led to its emergence.  I’ve seen “Internet of Things” (IOT) has been showing up on a lot of 2016 buzzword lists and it gets my vote as one of the only buzzwords that deserves the attention it’s getting.

The Internet of Things (or “Internet of Everything” as some are calling it) means, simply, that many of the common appliances, machines and devices in our lives, which have always operated in isolation, can now communicate with other devices, generate useful information and operate automatically.  This concept is already driving many products that you’re already (almost) used to seeing:

  • thermostats that can not only be adjusted while you’re out of the house but can learn what your preferred settings are for time of day/day of week and time of year and adjust automatically (Nest and Ecobee)
  • “smart plugs” that can turn your old dumb appliances/lights on and off remotely, schedule them and monitor their energy usage (WeMo and ThinkEco)
  • enhancements to existing garage door openers that lets you know, wherever you are, whether there’s someone in the garage, whether the doors are open, closed or locked (Garageio and MyQ Garage)

There are also lot’s of applications of the idea that seems a bit more… let’s say “luxurious” including coffee makers, pet feeders and, yes, toothbrushes.  It reminds me a bit of the 1980’s when the technology to make tiny LCD clocks became so cheap they started showing up in pens, coffee cups, paperweights, etc.

The technology that allows these devices to communicate to the world is very specialized but, underneath, most of it is simply an extension of TCP/IP, the same protocol that keeps everything on the existing Internet talking to each other.  Since every device on the Internet must have a unique identifier in order for communications to be routed to it the old IPV4 addressing system would have been instantly overwhelmed.  But with IPV6 we’re in no danger of running out of addresses any time soon.

A lot of these products tend to be expensive but, the beauty of having a system that can collect data, analyze it and make adjustments to itself, is that they can become highly efficient.  The Nest thermostat system, for instance, tends to save users significant amounts of money and generally pays for itself by the second year of use.  That’s something that even those who are technophobic can get excited about.

March 21, 2016

Aesthetic – big word, not the big picture

It can be a delicate balance when working with a new client who is looking for a website redesign.  There will always be references and comparisons made to “how it looks/works now” when you’re in the midst of the design process, and you need to remember all the who-what-where-when-why of your client’s business, while making everything fresher and more up-to-date.

One of the scariest conversations to have in the middle of your process, however, is a discussion around aesthetic – particularly when you hear this statement:

“I don’t think this exactly fits our aesthetic”.


So often what is unnerving about this statement is that it’s not just the “look” part of the “look and feel” that a client is anxious about.  It’s the representation of the client’s persona and how they want to present themselves to users – their brand identity.

Aesthetic only scratches the surface of articulating a company’s brand identity through their website, and chances are that the existing website you’re tasked with redesigning isn’t doing a great job of this either, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired you!

The divide between the client and the design team’s perception of the “correct” aesthetic usually originates not from a misunderstanding of what information has been shared, but rather from what hasn’t been shared.  This often leaves the design team asking “how did we get here?”  There are a few possibilities:

  1. The design team didn’t ask the right questions in their discovery about the client’s brand;
  2. The client didn’t convey important information about their brand, target audience, or general company culture; OR, scariest of all –
  3. The client doesn’t know or can’t articulate their own brand identity

The danger of the word “aesthetic” is that it can be used in a design process to signify so much more than what either party thinks it means.  A designer will go on tweaking fonts, calls to action, images, and still not have a satisfied client, because what the client really means is “this website isn’t us, here’s what we want to say and here’s who we want to reach, and here’s how we do that”.

How do you avoid making aesthetic a dirty word in your design process?

  1. Ask the right questions in your discovery meeting.  Make sure both you and your client understand the brand identity that you’re displaying to the world on this site.
  2. You may need to help guide the client in their copywriting (if you aren’t doing that too) so that the message in the copy melds with the true aesthetic of the site.
  3. If you hear that frightening statement midway through your process, help the client articulate what about the design doesn’t match the brand identity goals you agreed on at the beginning of the project.  Sometimes taking a few steps back means a leap forward.



Andy Swindler

March 11, 2016

Real Words I Hope Don’t Become Buzzwords

This month we’re talking about buzzwords we don’t like, mainly because they distract from clarity or the meaning of the word’s themselves.

These two words I don’t believe have become buzzwords quite yet, but as they gain momentum in mindful business communities such as Conscious Capitalism, I hope they are not re-purposed and thwarted by marketing people who insist on turning everything into a buzzword.


Thankfully in much of life and business, there is a growing movement concerned with being mindful and authentic. I believe this will drive humankind prosperity at the most intimate and important levels.

To me, this one is really simple. You can’t fake authenticity. You can’t calculate it. You can’t determine it based on market strategy and committee votes.

You have to be real.

You have to be you.

You have to be vulnerable and open to other perspectives.

You have to know something about who you are. For a company, that has a lot to do with understanding Why you exist. And so you must establish shared values in your culture.

So if you’re in a position where the conversation is leaning toward developing a strategy about how to be (appear) authentic, just leave the room and be yourself.


This is another term that’s used more commonly, particularly when describing a forward-thinking company’s approach to culture and business development via though leadership.

The reason I like this term is that ecosystem is a concept borrowed from nature. As mentioned above, this is a mindful approach since nature rarely rushes yet there is time for everything to get done.

My concern is that like so many other terms, it will be co-opted by people who don’t understand or don’t care what it means in a business context. They simply want to sound like the know the lingo, and their misuse of it will dilute the meaning of the word.

As with authenticity, building an ecosystem is something that takes real time and attention. Ecosystems are fragile by nature and this is one of their most important characteristics. They are far easier to destroy than build.

So using these terms flippantly runs exactly counter to the meaning behind them. By all means, if you are invested in being authentic and building lasting ecosystems, use these words. But if you’re just looking to latch on to a movement without doing the work, please say (and do!) something else.

Hannah Williams

March 4, 2016

Buzz-y Bees


This month’s topic for the Astek team: an industry buzzword or bit of jargon that we particularly dislike.

I’m going to take a step back so I don’t just sound like a grouch. While sometimes jargon is a load of complete rubbish, it also has its place, and a quite important one at times. Randall Munroe did a wonderful job of tackling this question in the discussion around his book Thing Explainer; he uses the way the shape of the earth is described to demonstrate both the importance of jargon and the pitfalls of using it. In calculating flight trajectories, plotting orbits or planning shuttle takeoffs or landings, the earth’s shape as an oblate spheroid is critical. In general conversation, however, referring to the earth as a sphere is perfectly adequate, as there’s no need for precision in that context.

So how does this apply to the world of design and digital strategy? The lessons I take from Randall’s example are:

  1. Words or phrases that we think of as “jargon” can be important in certain applications (and therefore aren’t inherently BS).
  2. Not all contexts call for the use of these words, and sometimes (often?) their use is in fact gratuitous.

Distilling that down: jargon’s value lies in its ability to add precision for the members of the specific community that uses it.

Now back to the grouchy part. With this method of evaluating jargon and its usage, I’m going to pick on a particular word: learnings.

Prior to this context for evaluating jargon and buzzwords, I didn’t entirely understand why this particular term always sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me. It’s just a thing people say, and by no means the silliest or most pretentious of this industry’s jargon. So, Thing Explainer, why has it always made me so nuts?

It adds precisely zero value in terms of additional clarity or precision to the conversation, while also making it less accessible to the average listener. It’s used where “results”, “findings”, “data”, “information” or sometimes just “knowledge” are completely interchangeable and wouldn’t create any errors in our flight trajectory calculations. In short, it’s a term that exists only for the sake of sounding jargon-y without any inherent value.

So what’s the lesson from this?
Chances are, your clients aren’t as up-to-date on the industry as you are (then again, if they were, you might be out of a job). So even if you’re not ready to crusade against gratuitous usage out of pure zeal, consider accessibility when you evaluate your own use of jargon. I’d like you to ask yourself if you’re adding anything by using a buzzword, and use those learnings to adjust if necessary.

Hannah Williams

January 26, 2016

Work Clean: Layers, a Piece of Cake?


What does “Work Clean” mean on the design side?

“If you hand this Photoshop file to a developer, they will never speak to you again.”

Well, yes. Possibly that. But beyond token attempts not to drive our coworkers insane, what else should we be doing, and why?

Working clean while designing is akin to cleaning as you go if you’re preparing an intricate meal for lots of guests. It slows you down during the process, especially if you’re not accustomed to working that way, but if you don’t do it, you’re asking for trouble. To extend the cooking metaphor: if you don’t clean as you go, it won’t affect you much at first. You can probably keep most stuff out of the way, or put it in the sink. Gradually, though, you start spending more and more time moving dishes around, restacking things, trying to find space. Maybe you start chopping things unevenly because you have other things taking up the cutting board. And then the moment comes when you realize just about all your pots/pans/large bowls/whatever are in use, so now to do anything you need to wash something. Somehow. Around the giant mountain of dishes already lurking in the sink that you’ve been managing to look away from all this time. Before long, instead of focusing on the meal, you’re gazing around at a kitchen that looks something like this:


Clearly I love both cooking and pushing the limits of my metaphors. Working in a program like Photoshop, though, can feel quite similar when things get out of control:


What a mess. Not only is it unpleasant to look at, it’s just inefficient. Making updates takes much longer when you have to hunt through so many layers, hiding and showing different groups to try to figure out what’s what. Frustrating at best, setting you up for real problems down the line at worst. So, how do we avoid Layerpocalypse?

Heading off the Photoshop equivalent of a hoarder’s basement takes some practice, but there’s one place to start: NAMES. Name your layers; each and every one. Making it a point to banish “Vector Smart Object copy 27” or “Rectangle 8 copy 6” will go a long way toward keeping your files organized. It seems simple, of course, but when working quickly it’s easy to duplicate something, manipulate it and then move on without making sure everything is in order.

Once you’ve got naming down, the rest of the organization is easy to keep up, sometimes surprisingly so. Sure, this is basic (bordering on elementary), but “working clean” is truly about getting back to basics. Creative Cloud has some lovely tools to keep track of your color palettes, custom shapes and more in Libraries, but those tools can’t do it all.

“Take care of the pennies, and the pounds will take care of themselves” doesn’t apply to every situation, but here it goes a long way towards keeping you sane… and on speaking terms with your developers.



January 15, 2016

Work Clean: The Joy of Project Wrap-up

When the to-do list is your friend

The site is launched, the wrap-up email is sent, you’ve celebrated with your favorite chocolate bar/bag of Cheetos/glass of Malbec…and then the fun begins.

For me there’s almost nothing more satisfying than wrapping up our post-launch checklist at the end of a project.  Running the numbers, downloading all the pertinent files, tucking the passwords away for safe keeping.  And watching that to-do list get shorter and shorter.  Some of the most important to-dos include:

  • Saving and labeling final design files
  • Documenting the domain registrar, hosting and support information for the site
  • Saving any pertinent admin passwords needed to update the site in the future
  • Double-checking all analytics codes to verify they are reporting correctly


But it’s more than the list, more than calling a project “done”.  Because, as we so often learn, the project is never done.  It will be tested, stared at and tweaked.  It will continue to grow as the business does.  That is why the to-do list is so important.  The designs will need to be unearthed, the passwords found in a pinch, the code revisited and the content edited.  It’s about making someone’s life easier in the future – so we can be at the ready even if we don’t touch the site for 3 years.

It’s not about calling the project done.  It’s about making sure we’re ready for its next life.