Jan 03

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Gadgets, Products, Smart TV

With 3D TV a Bust, Industry Looks to Smart TVs

Evan Ramstad has an interesting article at the Wall Street Journal that covers the rise of Smart TVs.

For more than a decade, consumer-electronics manufacturers have been trying to marry the Internet and TV. In recent years, they’ve added connectors that let TV sets hook up to the Internet and, in some cases, added software that provides shortcuts to Web-based services from companies like movie-rental service Netflix Inc.

But this year, starting with product announcements at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, manufacturers are making a full-on push with “smart TVs”— models that have built-in computer-style processors and operating software so the sets can be modified with applications just as computers and smartphones are.

Of course, the journey toward a fully connected living room can be perilous. The article mentions Google TV’s notable absence from CES and points out that slim profit margins are already impacting manufacturers.

Other hurdles facing smart television include 10 usability concerns. Many people won’t want to channel surf with a mouse and keyboard, so input devices need to be reconsidered for the space. Finally, while people expect a certain amount of loading from their PCs, they do not enjoy watching their television boot up or load content.

TV manufacturers also are working to reduce the boot-up time associated with the smart part of smart TVs. Consumers are accustomed to TV sets turning on almost instantly and have gotten used to the always-on nature of smartphones.

In order to gain widespread adoption, Smart TVs must deliver an intuitive user experience that performs as fast as a cable tv channel. We’re looking forward to see what advances the TV makers unveil this week at CES.

Dec 28

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Gadgets, Marketing, Products, Stage Two

Five Ways To Write Like Calculator

One of the quickest ways for technology companies (and products) to aggravate and annoy users is to speak “tech-ese.” Tech-ese is like Portuguese but instead of using words, it uses numbers, specs and obscure technical jargon.

The origins of Tech-ese are clear. Specs rule in tech circles. It is only natural for technical professionals to want to tout their amazing specs to the competition and to the general public. In the real world, though, benefits>features>specs. Too many times engineers write press releases or (god forbid) blog posts and the results speak (badly) for themselves.

Stage Two has compiled a list of five common tech-ese mistakes. This list is meant to be illustrative and not exhaustive. There are many more types and kinds of poor tech writing. You can leave your own examples of bad tech-ese in the comments below.

5. Don’t Write Calculator:

If you use more numbers than letters, you are in trouble. If your blog post is a list of specs and features that only resonate with a small, targeted audience, you are in trouble. If users get the feeling that a calculator or a cylon wrote your copy, you are really in trouble. This happens a lot in the technology sector.

Send This Press Release Beep Beep

The following is an actual blog post from an actual company. See if you can grok what the author is getting at.

Open MPI v1.5 (and v1.4.3) released!

Representing over a year of research, development, and testing, the Open MPI team is extremely pleased to release version v1.5.  Read the full announcement here.  Version 1.5 is chock full of new features and countless little enhancements.  We hope you’ll enjoy it!

Open MPI Version v1.4.3 was just released a few days ago, too.   It’s mainly a bug fix release that increases the stability of the time-tested v1.4 series.

After reading this post I felt like a small child lost at the circus. I was confused. I was scared. All I could smell was livestock and grease paint. Frantically, I clicked on the full announcement link to get a better sense of what the heck was going on. Oh what a terrible, terrible mistake. Just look at this monstrosity.

To be fair, this example is taken from an enterprise level networking blog. But it is still a blog that customers can access. And this type of calculator copy writing happens all the time. On consumer electronics sites, in set-up manuals and especially in bad press releases.

Check out this example from Josh Weinberg’s excellent ebook:

This is a product that doesn’t need specs to influence purchases and still insists on using number heavy jargon. To avoid this type of tech-ese, try to think about a potential reader who has never heard about your products and is allergic to numbers. Then write something that talks about the benefits of your product in plain, natural language.

4. Products Have Names

This one is closely linked to calculator blogging, but is its own special level of tech-ese hell.

Let me say this very clearly: Products. Have. Names. The iPod. The iPad. The Kin. Consumers want to relate to their products. It is hard to relate to the The Irex DR800SG or the Toshiba Satellite L505-GS5037 TruBrite 15.6-Inch Laptop.

If your product is a string of useless numbers you are speaking bad tech-ese and alienating customers. How in the world can someone tell their friends how much they love their new VIZIO VA19LHDTV10T 19-Inch ECO 720p LCD HDTV? Again, shout out to the Digital Life Consulting Group and their excellent take on product readiness.

3. Don’t Be So Boring

Regular people relate to technologies with personalities. Blogs, start-up guides and technical manuals all need to have a human voice and point of view. Lifestyle electronics companies (and the technology industry as a whole) should look over their communication matrices and ensure that the benefits and not the specs are highlighted. Bonus points if you can cogently drive brand and product identity through your messaging.

2. Beautiful By Design

Keep information clean and visually appealing in all materials. If your packaging, manuals, blog or newsletter looks like something from the IRS you are speaking tech-ese. Investing in a designer may seem like an added cost with no benefit to tech companies at first. But users want to have an emotional experience with technologies. They want to be inspired by great products and moved by beautiful product design. Companies that deliver great document and packaging design bolster positive feelings and inspire brand loyalty.

1. English, Do You Speak It?

One of the fastest ways to alienate users is to create grammatically flawed technical copy. The spelling, syntax, meaning and flow of product copy must be perfect to create brand affinity and positive mind share. Also, we’re not biased toward English here – if you bring your product to any market, you should localize it to the utmost of your ability!

Avoid Engrish at all costs. Make sure that you hire a copywriter who speaks the native language fluently and spend at least a little time developing a localization strategy or you could wind up with something like this:

The Sweet Hint is Sweet

Dec 28

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Blogging, Gadgets, UI/UX

Microsoft Kinect: A Usability Review

We recently ran across this well written piece over at Alertbox that looks at the ten foot gestural UI of the Kinect.

Kinect, the XBOX peripheral that lets users control games with their bodies, breaks new ground in ten foot usability.

Despite having few established usability standards (this makes sense for a new product) the article points out the many strong points of the device. Quoting from the piece:

Kinect has many great design elements that clearly show that the team (a) knows usability, (b) did user testing, and (c) had management support to prioritize usability improvements, even when they required extra development work.

This makes sense; the only reason for Kinect to exist in the first place is as a casual game system that’s easy to pick up. It’s not for hardcore gamers who are willing to suffer through contorted combos of button-pushes to make their game characters do moves. Kinect is targeted at the much broader masses, which requires strong usability. (Indeed, the game sold 4 M units during the first 6 weeks after launch.)

The article then compares the 10 foot usability with the iPad’s 2′ usability.

While Gestural UI is not a viable path for corporations, governments or NPO’s, the piece concludes that the device makes a strong showing in game usability.

Dec 22

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Gadgets, Stage Two, UI/UX

What do Ikea products and good cookbooks have in common?

Take a look at this recipe for pasta sauce:

Now check out this Ikea chest:

So what does a Swedish dresser have in common with Italian sauce? (Hint: the answer is not Swedish meatballs.)

Both Ikea products and cookbooks deliver a well defined set up process. They explain what materials people will need before they get started and walk individuals step by step through the assembly process. The language in both examples is clear and direct and the layout is logical and aesthetically pleasing. Cooking recipes also give an approximate time frame for cooking. Both show what the finished product should look like.

So why do we mention this here? Because in terms of initial set up, consumer electronics companies can learn a lot from cookbooks and Ikea. The manual should be written in plain English and tell users what materials they will need to complete the process. The design should be appealing. Basically, not like this:

The setup process for any product should be treated like a recipe in a cookbook, setting the user’s expectations for setup duration and required materials/steps from the start. The steps required for setup should be spaced out logically and thoughtfully. The writing should be error free and compelling. We believe that great copy engages people’s emotions and turns customers into fans. Finally, the visual design should be appealing.

Let’s look at an example of a well composed set up manual. It is for Dropcam, a company that makes personal network connected cameras. The entire physical install guide is only one sheet (front and back pictured below) and the remaining set up takes place online via a wizard. For full disclosure, Dropcam is a Stage Two client and we designed the following install guide and online wizard per internal best practices.

Setting up a new device or gadget is one of the first experiences users have with lifestyle technologies. Delivering a confusing or frustrating set up process can destroy positive mind share and erode brand affinity. Conversely, if people know what materials they will need, have a clear install guide and have an idea of how long the set up will take, they will likely enjoy their new gadget. An easy install will also score points with the press and reviewers.So before you ship your next set up guide, be sure to ask yourself, “Is this like a Billy Bookcase?”

Dec 21

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Blogging, Social Media, Stage Two

Get Your Twit Together

Twitter is awesome.

Before Twitter, I had to use fan forums, illegal wiretaps and high powered telescopes to keep up with the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation. After Twitter came along, I can stay up to date on all my Brent Spiner news without getting charged with stalking.

The micro blogging platform has changed the way we communicate with one another. And not just because the Reading Rainbow Host is in my twitter stream.  Twitter has emboldened citizen journalists and social spammers brand evangelists. It has connected bloggers and helped people “tweet up.” Never mind the new neologisms and political activism the service created.

Despite the social media advances the service engendered, there are places where Twitter can improve. As 2011 approaches, it’s time for Twitter to grow up and get its twit together.

Kill the Fail Whale

It seems like I see the fail whale more than I see my siblings. Technical issues are expected for internet service companies – even Google hiccups once in a while – but in order to grow, scale and mature as a messaging platform, twitter needs to deliver a web page that works flawlessly for new and existing users. After a recent $200 million dollar round of funding, it’s time to pay for servers that work all the time.

Don’t Count Usernames and URLs as Characters

It’s microblogging. I get it. But for the love of fun, be reasonable twitter. Your strict adherence to the 140 character dogma is proving you to be a techno-philistine. Surely we can agree to a new (better) set of standards where usernames and URLs don’t count toward the 140 character limit.

Won’t spammers abuse this with an endless stream of links and hashtags and callouts?

Yes, but people are smart enough to ostracize those accounts. The system will self-correct. For every eastern european spam bot that would tear up the relaxed rules there would be (at least) one real user who benefits from character counting changes.

Auto shorten my incredibly long URL.

It’s time for twitter to automatically shorten long URLs and, like,  provide some basic metrics on the links people share within the site proper.

Make Money

Time for Twitter to sell out ads. Sponsored tweets, banner ads and commercials are coming. With the number of creative professionals using the service, look for innovative social campaigns in the coming months.

Drop the 140 character limit

The 140 character limit made sense when the service launched. Most people were using SMS messages that capped character counts. Now with smart devices and twitter apps, the technology allows for longer posts. I’m not suggesting that people be able to post War and Peace to their tweeple, but something like 250 characters seems more reasonable.

Dec 21

Posted by jsteele

Posted in Clients

Client News: Pogoplug Raises $15 Million

Today Pogoplug announced today it has received $15 Million in funding  from new investors Softbank Capital and Morgan Stanley Alternative Investment Partners (AIP) and existing investor Foundry Group.

Pogoplug will use the funds to continue to expand the global distribution of the Pogoplug service and devices (they recently opened an office in Israel!)

Pogoplug announced the news this morning via a MarketWire release The press coverage we’ve seen so far is below – we’ll update the list as we see more stories go up.

They news also made it on to Techmeme!

Dec 17

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Press, Smart TV

Internet Television Security Risk, Says Security Firm

The Register has a smart piece of reporting that looks at a recent report from a security company that points to the potential security flaws of internet televisions.

Mocana said its researchers were able to use hacking techniques familiar to the world of PC skullduggery (such as “rogue DNS”, “rogue DHCP server”, or TCP session hijacking techniques) to inject JavaScript onto a vulnerable device “allowing attackers script integrity before running code”.

However, much like the cable sports network that released a study showing “cord cutting” is near 0%, the motives of Mocana likely color their research. Again quoting from the article:

Overall, however, we can’t help but conclude that Mocana is talking up a threat in the hope of later selling into it, thereby helping it to establish a new line of business. The supposed threat of hackers turning off internet-connected fridges, thereby causing your milk to go sour, has been around for more than 10 years (example here). Hacking TVs is a new spin on a similar theme and for that, at least, Mocana is to be congratulated.

While the study may be biased, fear of hackers and spammers will likely keep people from adopting internet connected TVs. The industry as a whole needs to educate consumers to ease their security fears.

Dec 17

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Stage Two

Nominate The S2 Family For The Crunchies!

We are thrilled to work with some of the most exciting companies in the consumer electronics space. Their innovation and passion inspires us to deliver incredible results on a daily basis. Please help us nominate some amazing technologies for the Crunchie Awards. It’s fast, free and only takes two clicks. Just click on the links below and you’re done!

VUDU: Best Technology Achievement, Best Design, Best Time Sink Application

Pogoplug: Best New Device, Best Overall Startup Or Product Of 2010

Redux: Best Time Sink Application

Clicker: Best Internet Application

Superfish: Best Social Commerce App, Best Enterprise

Worldmate: Best Mobile Application

NudgeMail: Best Bootstrapped Startup (For the record, Nudge has raised exactly $0. We’ve all been skipping meals to help finance our favorite email based reminder system. Share some Crunchie love here, people, the intern looks sickly.)

Tynt: Best Enterprise

Thank you for supporting the S2 family!

Dec 16

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Gadgets, Smart TV

The Real Reason to Cut the Cable? To Get Higher Quality Video!

ESPN made news recently when they released a study claiming that only 0.1% of Americans are cutting the cord. Some experts quickly claimed that the data was misleading, and noted that “research from ESPN is hardly neutral.” Other industry studies echo the sentiment that cord cutting is a myth, while different data suggests that the phenomenon is on the rise.

So are people cutting the cord or not? We wont know for sure for quite some time. The phenomenon is relatively new and the Nielsen numbers used for the ESPN findings cannot be seen as definitive (it is not in the cable industry’s best interest to share this information under any circumstances). As the LA Times recently stated, “there are a lot more stories about cord-cutting than there probably are people cutting the cord.

So why is this happening? Reasons for dropping cable range from the technical (people love gadgets) to the ideological (people dislike cable companies) to the practical (people can’t afford the cable bill). I think the main reason to kiss cable goodbye is simpler: the HD video they are giving us is just plain awful.

I recently upgraded to a new 63 inch HDTV. It is a beautiful television. Even the box it came in was beautiful.

I set it up, popped popcorn (not really, too many carbs), and sat down to enjoy a glorious home theater experience. I turn it on and what do I see? Jaggies. Compression. Artifacts. Let me be clear: we’re talking really easy-to-notice stuff. Instead of watching the TV of the future, it looked like I was watching old episodes of MacGyver on the top-loading VCR we used in high school (outdated reference lost on younger audience, I know). How was this possible?

Just to make sure I wasn’t going crazy, I fired up the XBOX, installed the Zune app (Zune, seriously? yup) and started watching movie previews. Oh man. Glorious 1080p. The picture quality looked so good even my wife noticed (no disrespect to my wife, but she doesn’t care that much about TVs. If she noticed the difference in picture, it means something significant happened).

It looks like I’m not the only one having this issue with my cable company. Look at these screencaps from the same programs at the same time: one with Verizon FiOS and one with Comcast.

Verizon FiOS








TVs are getting bigger, better, and cheaper every day.  As a result, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of how good they are supposed to look.  When the mass audiences start noticing pixelization during mainstream content yet their video game console can stream perfect quality movies and videos, it will cause a ruckus (much more so than any of the media streamers, 3DTVs, Smart TVs, or anything else).

What the cable industry needs to do is justify the money people pay them every month. They need to make all those big beautiful smart TVs look big and beautiful and smart.  Heck, it’s probably an opportunity to make even more money.

But if they can’t deliver an amazing picture all the time, and primetime television starts looking more like youtube on the big screen, that alone will drive consumers to seek out different sources.

Dec 15

Posted by Jeremy Toeman and Greg Franzese

Posted in Blogging, Clients, Smart TV, Social Media, Stage Two, UI/UX

Stage Two Announces New Client Vualla

We are pleased to announce Vualla (pronounced Voila) as a new client. Vualla is a new start up with a vision for creating an amazing social TV experience.

Vualla recently created the Vualla Guide, a Social TV Companion that allows users to find and share shows using their iPads. The Vualla Guide incorporates Twitter streams and Facebook updates into the TV watching experience and alerts people when shows they are interested in are about to air. Rather than placing social content on the big screen, Vualla moves conversations to the iPad’s second screen, creating a harmonious Social Television experience. Users can also comment on specific shows and customize search results based on their location and individual preferences.

Stage Two has a passion for smart TVs and social television. We’ve been thinking about this space since 1999. No, seriously. We want to push the boundaries of convergence to deliver cutting edge media devices to market. We are pleased to work with the Vualla team and their mobi-social television companion.

We are currently developing an improved product experience for the Vualla iPad App, including detailed UI / UX work. Stage Two is also creating a positioning and messaging strategy for the growing firm and handling all Public and Media relations.

As broadband, cloud and mobile computing gain traction, people will increasingly look for elegant, powerful and fun solutions to deliver meaningful information. Vualla has created a TV centric social media hub that lets fans connect with content and each other.

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