Putting Chicago UX back on the map at the 2017 UX Awards!

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Putting Chicago UX back on the map at the 2017 UX Awards!

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I'm very proud to announce that Eight Bit Studios has put Chicago back on the UX map in this year's User Experience Awards, a summit for exceptional digital experiences.

The best UX teams from around the world compete through a showcase of mobile apps, websites, and software. Entries come from teams big and small including Amazon, Google, GE and SAP labs, among others. Previous winners include MailChimp, American Express, BMW, and Google Cardboard VR labs.

Judges for the summit include UX rockstars like Alan Cooper (considered by many the father of modern UX), Grace Hwang (Partner at IDEO), Itai Vonshak (VP of Design at HP), Jenny Lam (Creative Director at Microsoft), Nick Foster (Head of ID at Google X), Skye Lee (Former Head of UX at FB/OculusVR), among others.

Our winning entry was for a web application and set of mobile apps created for EchoDrive, a new product by Echo Global Logistics, also with Chicago roots. Random aside: they are the U.S.'s Top 10 3PL provider 7 years in a row #dynasty. Eight Bit helped brand, conceptualize, research, architect, design and develop the EchoDrive mobile apps in tandem with the Echo teams. The apps function as a load management system for tracking and communication between drivers, carriers, and transportation professionals.

Learn more about the project in the video below:

The UX Awards are future-oriented and aim to showcase not only the latest and best in this fast-moving industry but also where we’re headed and how to design for the near and distant future. This year's theme was “The Future of UX”.

The Awards span all aspects of “UX”: product design, service design, interaction design, experience design, service design, design strategy, usability, user research, design thinking, information architecture, content strategy, UI design, and increasingly industrial design and urban design when there is a digital component.

 

Carolyn Chandler, Director of UX

Carolyn Chandler, Director of UX

The awards aim to:

  • Inspire: Showcase incredible work that reveals the future, breadth, and impact of UX.
  • Evangelize: Spread awareness of the essential value of UX
  • Honor the best: Celebrate and reward exceptional UX practitioners and companies for their contributions
  • Lead by example: Advance and evolve the craft of UX as a discipline through exceptional case study examples and speakers
  • Reflect the community: Elevate and gather forward-thinking senior practitioners in a forum of concentrated thought leadership combined with practical insights and approaches to creating exceptional work
  • Show real value: Educate the broader business and technology community about the benefits and ROI of UX.

We are so honored to even be in the same room as this world-class group of digital craftspeople. Many thanks to the judges and staff for an incredible summit. Special thanks to our Director of UX, Carolyn Chandler (pictured above) for representing us and agreeing to speak at the event!

To learn more about the summit, click here.

About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award-winning :-D mobile strategy, design, and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of visionary leaders and teams across the United States. His teams have helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like UL, Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studio's work has been featured in Advertising Age, USA Today, ProductHunt, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple.

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The Nut Hacker - an original holiday play by Eight Bit Studios

An original screenplay by Eight Bit Studios. Follow Hera in her journey from 24 hour hackathon to land of the Super Plum API full of dances by Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. With the help of her tin La Croy soldiers and a magic 8 ball, watch her battle the computer mouse king in an effort to save the holiday season.

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Our people-first strategy just proved it can also be the fastest growing in America, Inc 5000

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Our people-first strategy just proved it can also be the fastest growing in America, Inc 5000

Last week, Inc. magazine ranked our 8-year-old baby, Eight Bit Studios, on its 35th annual Inc. 5000, the most prestigious ranking of the nation's fastest-growing private companies. The list represents a unique look at the most successful companies within the American economy’s most dynamic segment— its independent small businesses. Companies such as Microsoft, Dell, Domino’s Pizza, Pandora, Timberland, LinkedIn (#meta), Yelp, Zillow, and many other well-known names gained their first national exposure as honorees of the Inc. 5000.

The Inc. 5000 list stands out where it really counts,” says Inc. President and Editor-In-Chief Eric Schurenberg. “It honors real achievement by a founder or a team of them. No one makes the Inc. 5000 without building something great – usually from scratch. That’s one of the hardest things to do in business, as every company founder knows. But without it, free enterprise fails.

Building and continuing to grow Eight Bit Studios from scratch is an American Ninja Warrior-level challenge, especially in the face of opportunities to take outside investment. The reality is that few digital craft shops that serve the marketing, design and software needs of other companies choose the health and happiness of their teams over the bottom line. It's not the fault or vision of the founders, but the result of misguided corporate teams, large agency-conglomerates,  and industry outsiders switching the priority from the work and the people to hitting financial targets.

Being recognized by Inc means a lot of things, but for us, it proves that you can create a fiscally sound company that puts people (and their families) first. Artists and engineers who have a chance to get a full nights rest, who aren't expected to put in long hours, who are given freedom on their weekends and the sanctity of their holidays will also go on to produce some of the best work in our industry. 

Quality time at home;
Quality time at work;
Results in quality in everything we do.

 

About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award-winning mobile strategy, design, and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. His teams have helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like UL, Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studio's work has been featured in Advertising Age, USA Today, ProductHunt, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup an education-through-creativity lab for mad scientists.

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Robots, telepresence, and our experiment with the future of remote working

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Robots, telepresence, and our experiment with the future of remote working


And they worked remotely, happily ever after... 

The ability to work remotely is like a fairy tale. It's the idea of being able to wake up later and work in your pajamas. It's the story of avoiding your commute or working in a place with a better climate. It's the money you would save on transportation and lunches. It's the promise of regained ownership and autonomy over your career. Those who have it, brag about it to friends and family. You think, "If I could just live the remote working dream, I'd live happily ever after."

Collaboration has always been core to our culture and ability to create great products. We too, wanted to offer the flexibility of working from home, while also leveraging the benefits of daily collaboration in a unique and inspiring work environment. 

Like all fairy tales, we rarely get to ask what happens next. We quickly learned that remote working wasn't entirely what it was cracked up to be. With Facetime, Google Hangouts, Fuze, Gotomeeting, Slack, Hipchat, Github, Basecamp and other collaboration and communication tools, being connected with our co-workers was never easier but something was still missing. Despite the fact that we had better access to our remote team members than ever before, they could only participate as long as someone on the team established a connection. 

Essentially, if you worked remotely, you needed a digital handler.

If there's a meeting, the invite always needed a way to dial that person in and a way to share their screen. When doing a working session, whomever had the camera needed to make sure the whiteboards or tables were in full view at all times. If there was something spontaneous happening at the office like a brain storming session, unexpected client visit, birthday, big announcement, you missed it.

Graphic courtesy of DoubleRobotics

Graphic courtesy of DoubleRobotics

Social isolation and missed opportunities were becoming a huge problem, so the team put their heads together to solve the problem. We decided to do an experiment in telepresence. You may have seen the Double Robot before on Modern Family or Silicon Valley. The idea is pretty simple. Take an iPad, put it on something like a Segway and let the person remotely control it, live.

An unforgettable out-of-body experience
— Brian

Have a meeting to go to? Take yourself. Need to see the projection a bit better or you can't hear very well in that part of the room? Move closer. Need more power after that meeting? Go dock yourself at the charger.

 The other benefit to the robot is being able to participate in our many weekly cultural events in the office. In the video above, one of our project managers, Paige, was teaching the team the basics of taekwondo. Watch Steve do the warm ups with our group from his home office in southern California.

The bot has given me some sense of autonomy and physical presence in the office that was non-existent before. Oh, and it probably makes me more memorable/interesting/weird to people who meet me on the bot, than in regular life. haha
— Steve

One of our Ruby on Rails developers lives in Dekalb which is about 1-2 hours with traffic from our offices in downtown Chicago. We setup certain days for him to be in the office but he also enjoys using the robot when working from home. He describes a time using the robot when he needed to stay with his son, home sick from school.

I stayed home sick with my son before and let him try it out. When I asked how he liked it, he replied ‘They need one of these at my school so I never have to leave the house again.’ He also asked if anyone ever attended a meeting with only a t-shirt and no pants.
— James

We were skeptical that the robot would mean any more than a novelty for new business meetings. After using it for 5 months, we can say with complete confidence that telepresence is the absolute way forward. Our meetings start quicker, our collaboration is constant and the magic has been reinvigorated in our remote working fairy tale.

 

About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. His teams have helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studio's work has been featured in Advertising Age, USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup an education through creativity mad scientist lab.

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Pixar inspired a 2 year 'team vision' and how it's completely changed our company

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Pixar inspired a 2 year 'team vision' and how it's completely changed our company

If You Want To Go Fast, Go Alone. If You Want To Go Far, Go Together.

Like many of you, I'm a big time fan of Pixar. I love many of their films, but what I idealize is the perfect marrying of art and technology that brings great storytelling to life. There is a mystique that surrounds their ability to get their teams to create 'the best'. It's been my long term dream to be part of a team that has that type of drive to create things that go well-beyond the status quo.

Last Spring, my cofounder Steve Polacek gifted me a copy of Creativity, Inc. by Pixar/Disney President Ed Catmull. It was a great read, but one of the most interesting things Ed described is how they went about attacking the disconnection of lost ideas and feedback between teams as they grew. This wasn't just collaboration on a particular film, this was the overlapping of processes between departments, how feedback was given by management, why things were the way they were, etc.

What was going to be a 2 hour management meeting, evolved in a proposal to shut down the entire company for a day (including janitorial staff). They created a schedule that included breakout sessions in a series of subject-specific brainstorms with the focus on how things will be done in the next 2 years. Ed describes the structure and incredible results of that day and how the team is already anticipating next years. It's a must-read.... my palms are getting sweaty just typing this.

This. Was. Cool. On the surface it doesn't seem that radical. A series of meetings about process? Borrrinnngg. The hidden genius wasn't professional development. What they were really doing is creating a 2 year vision for the company WITH the team instead of FOR the team. This is a platinum example of bottom up management.

We were inspired and the timing couldn't have been better. Eight Bit was growing quickly and our previous experiences at other agencies had shown that when companies grow, they start to suck and eventually self-destruct. Don, Steve and Brett and I got together and boiled it down to three major reasons this happens. 

Lost identity. Teams lose sight of why they come in each day and stop doing the things they did to become craftspeople — experimentation, research, communication, training, etc.

Settling. Teams rely on the processes they’ve gotten comfortable with over the years — putting limits on themselves instead of pushing into places outside their comfort zone. They don’t voice their opinions. Or when they do, it’s just talk and no action. They just accept things for what they are. It’s a job.

“Management” thinks they’re God’s gift to good ideas and improvement. Teams stop listening, stop improving and every change is either driven by money or logistics. The company becomes that of 2 heads: “Do this and it will be good” and in turn, “I’ll do this, but see how long I care about this place.”

 

It was time to shut down the operation for a day. 8bit Iter8 was the beginning of a new iteration for Eight Bit Studios. We structured the day in similar ways to our iteration planning meetings by breaking it up into sessions. The initial categories for discussion were informed by survey we sent the team prior to the event. We gathered the feedback and consolidated them into 4 major themes:

  1. How we onboard - new team members, clients, strategic partners
  2. How we ship - ux, design, development, project reports, etc
  3. How we communicate - what we communicate and the form factors timelines or structure for that communication
  4. How we balance work / life - what helps us live a more fulfilling career and personal life

On the day, we broke 0ur 24 member team into smaller working groups. In each group there was a stack of cards for that session.  The cards were broken into three parts: "In 2017 we...", "We do it because...", "We can start today by...". Members within each group then filled out 1-5 cards each. We spent some time discussing our ideas and adding notes or creating new cards. We then brung all the groups back together to discuss the themes across the cards and to bring attention to unique ideas we heard in the sessions. 

The first year we did this, we weren't sure what to expect. We were warned by mentors and friends that gathering feedback is meaningless without investment and action. So, with the help of whole team, we went about implementing as many as the good (and common) ideas we could. 

The result and how we evolved as a company in the first year was staggering. We retooled how we onboard new members of the team, created giant calendars for teams and events, reserved standard days for no meetings, creating more opportunities for sharing passion projects through lunch and learns, hosted and started meetups, refined the teams involved in documentation, planned more outings and launch parties, created our own tools and published them for others, converted a majority of the team to w2 and tailored our benefits package, and made loads of refinements to small parts in our communication and process with our clients. We even got a damn robot and it's changed how our remote workers communicate and engage within the office. Our attitudes didn't just change, our environment was beginning to reflect our collective vision. 

Last week, we did this for a second time showing how much we achieved in just the 1st year (it's always a 2 year plan). This year we limited our categories from 4 to 3 and added some cheat sheets. We also shared the themes from the breakout sessions with the whole group. We're really proud of what we achieved together and what we hope to achieve in the next 2 years. 

Reflecting back, there comes a point in our careers where we start to be measured by what we DON'T DO, rather than what we DO. As an owner, that often puts a huge weight on the single perspective for where you (and management) think the team should be going and the priority of matters it should be tending to. Although that type of strategy and leadership is critical, it also paves the way for ignorance, lack of strategic feedback and missed opportunities.

We don't think it's enough to just collect feedback. The challenge is to come up with frameworks for channeling feedback that can be converted into action. In this case, we wanted to illustrate how important vision statements are to achieving a new vision of future self. Instead of it being a list of personal goals, it's a demonstration of how our collective goals lead to better ideas and more effective (and strategic) decisions. As a result, the Eight Bit Studios is stronger and more focused than it has ever been.

Thanks Ed & the Disney/Pixar team for inspiring us!

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Project Managers are reinventing the project status report, no login required

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Project Managers are reinventing the project status report, no login required

Preface

If you hire a designer, you have designs. If you hire a developer you have code. If you hire a Project Manager you have... a timeline, a checklist, an organized team? 

Regardless of the deliverables, if you don't see the value in good project management, it's probably the case you haven't experienced good project management. They are the glue of a team that allows anything of complexity to be built on a timeline or budget.

In our early days working with Chicago startups on their mobile apps and websites, we'd often get questions about the time our Project Managers spend on projects. Outside of the more common goals of keeping the project on time and on budget, we'd follow up with a 50 line excel spreadsheet that outlined all the responsibilities our Project Managers have on a week-to-week basis. 

The current state of Project Management deliverables

Currently, Project Managers illustrate their activity and keep tabs on both their teams and clients through tools like Basecamp (http://basecamp.com), Jira (https://www.atlassian.com/software/jira), Pivotal Tracker (https://www.pivotaltracker.com), Harvest (https://www.getharvest.com/), and Trello (https://trello.com/). These tools have spent their short lifetimes making it as easy as possible for anyone to use, including non-technical users.

This has manifested into a era of transparency where any client or stakeholder can login and witness the work happen on their project. That's been helpful and few people would argue that more transparency is a bad thing. However, where it becomes a problem is when it comes time for clients and stakeholders to interpret the activity in the tool. 

  • Project Managers want to be able to quickly and easily identify who's ahead and behind and how this translates to budgets or other metrics so they can report them clearly. 
  • Teams want powerful and often sophisticated tools that allow them to quickly communicate, reassign tasks, add metadata and worry less about how this translates to the rest of the world.
  • Clients and stakeholders want clarity so that they can react and make changes to priorities and process as early as possible. Instead, they are at the mercy of their teams and tool preferences, often having to be trained for how they're used and not having a gauge for what the raw data is telling them.

Because of these varying needs, tools like Basecamp that offer SO MANY great features to teams at various levels in an organization, are being dumbed down to a glorified email thread, file repository, and shared to do lists. Clients and stakeholders are going back to relying on phone calls, emails, and in-person meetings to gauge their projects status and evaluate the quality of project management. Yikes.

The fundamental problem with productivity tools

Regardless of how great the user experience is (and many are outstanding), all the project management tools in the world suffer from the same fundamental problem. Registration and logins are the gateways to two things clients, stakeholders, and teams don't want: having to remember another password and learn yet another tool for the sake of organizing and reporting their progress. 

Instead of trying to invent a new way of onboarding, we decided to go back to first principles: Project Managers need to communicate between lots of teams who realistically have ideal tools for information and communication

Instead of trying to invent a new way of onboarding, we decided to go back to first principles: Project Managers need to communicate between lots of teams who realistically have ideal tools for information and communication. We set out to create something that adds value and efficiency to the project management process and prevents everyone from changing their individualized workflows.

Rebirth of the emailed status report

Email may, at times, be a necessary evil of communication, but the one thing that you cannot deny is that email is fast, connected everywhere, requires no additional setup and has next to no learning curve. It just works.

There is a few reasons emailing status reports has failed in the past.

  1. They were inefficient. Project Managers who elected to send status reports in the email message body would have to copy and paste user stories from development tools, to-dos from productivity tools and budgets from time tracking tools. Formatting would have to be cleared and reapplied and if things changed the day before sending the report, they'd have to begin the process all over again. It was slow, redundant, visually unappealing, and prone to inaccuracies.
  2. They were trying to do too much. Some chose to email Excel and Google Spreadsheets attachments. Spreadsheets are easier to manage and powerful, and made sense. Unfortunately, it turned out big spreadsheets aren't the best form factors for digesting data for clients, stakeholders, and teams because of the large breadth of information and lack of organization. Some Project Managers optimized their spreadsheets to double as a development tool which became an even bigger nightmare for larger teams who wanted to use the spreadsheets to track communication, quickly move information, and track versions.
  3. They weren't customized or optimized to the end user. As a client or stakeholder, if you're interested in key milestones, you had to troll through rows and sheets of information to find summaries or extract your own conclusions. Nothing about email made it easy to customize the content to each user.

The fundamental issue is that status reports in emails were never broken, it's just that nobody took the time to make them powerful enough to be formatted, connected, and superiorly relevant.

Introducing the future of beautiful, powerful and effective status reporting: Sushi Status

Today, we're introducing a tool that let's Project Managers once and for all speed up their process, granulize information, demonstrate their value and impress, without the need for anyone else to have a login or learn a new tool. Sushi Status is a two year internal project we at Eight Bit Studios built from the ground up led by our Project Managers. 

Instead of making another new tool for teams to login to, Sushi Status integrates with other tools to pull the most relevant information into a beautifully designed and organized email. No more copying, pasting, and reformatting to create status reports. Pull in todos from Basecamp, user stories from Trello, and budget figures and time entry from Freshbooks with three clicks of a button.

Let's embrace the reality that every person and team has unique information needs to track the success of a project

Let's embrace the reality that every person and team has unique information needs to track a project. Some measure their projects success by hitting deadlines, others budgets, others the weekly tasks completed and so on. This is the first tool with a few clicks, a CTO can get a user story feed and high level budget, while a CEO can get a timeline and red flags, and an internal team can get a list of upcoming and completed to do's, all pulled from the freshest data sets being used on any number of other tools. Need a report from last week or last month? No problem, everything is automatically tracked and versioned.

There is a mountain of technology built on a glacier of research conducted with Entrepreneurs, Project Managers and development teams. With over 1000 Project Managers in the Facebook community, and sign ups steadily increasing every day, Sushi Status is on track in 2016 to improve the productivity and quality what we consider the most important role in the product creation process.

If this gets you as hot and bothered as us, we'll hope you'll give it a free test run: http://sushistatus.com

 

About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. He has helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studios work has been featured in the USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup.

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A race to the bottom: RFP's are broken and what to do about it

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We meet with a lot of companies and startups every week that come from established brands, 1871, 600 West Chicago, LightBank and other incubators and accelerators looking to make their mark in the app universe. In many of these conversations, we are 1 of at least 3 firms that are bidding on their next digital initiative through an RFP (Request For Proposal) process.

Plus or minus an in-person visit, the request goes as follows:

  1. The idea, goals and why
  2. A breakdown of features that should be included in the estimate
  3. An opportunity for written group question and answers

Over the course of several days, we regroup with our team and produce a lengthy document that includes an estimate of effort/costs broken up by tasks, assumptions and hours. The baseline for these numbers end up being a measure of what it would ultimately take to do a good job for all of the listed features.

Therein lies the problem: A business or organization goes to agencies with a list of features so that they can objectively compare those agencies via their costs for building each or all of those features. What few business units realize is that when they begin utilizing the talents of an agency to solve their business goals, the underlying strategy, vision, and identified opportunities will also evolve and crystalize. 

What few business units realize is that when they begin utilizing the talents of an agency to solve their business goals, the underlying strategy, vision, and identified opportunities will also evolve and crystalize. 

For example, a request for login/signup via Facebook could be a basic API integration. Simple? Sure, not a whole lot of man hours. But through the working process, you might identify Facebook activity as one of your core KPI's. Because of that, the app might need a better way to onboard Facebook login users, or modify settings for notifications, or will require copy development in those messages, or integrate tracking, or pull social graph data, and the list goes on and on. Some firms can speak to that implementation in the RFP process, but when you compare the numbers it's hard to tell how one feature means one thing to one team based on their experience and something completely different to another. 

This is the race to the bottom. This is why so few design awards are going to Chicago-built interactive projects. We purposely build rigidity into our process to try to objectively find the right partner instead of choosing a partner based on their ability to strategize and build against our core goals. By contrast, the Valley's access to venture money and experience has helped them execute on not a feature-driven road, but a goal-driven plateau. There is a global understanding where by production value translates to business value. There are agencies in Chicago that are capable of doing great work, but they aren't even given a chance because of this RFP process.

Why? Because objectively you can't justify hiring them. Comparing apples to apples, the teams that execute at a higher level will rarely rise to the surface. One, because they're being conditioned to be as competitive as possible, and two, because they'll never be able to convince you that the potential strategic production value of their work is worth the additional investment.

What can we do to get back on track?

Stay goal-oriented.  Don't put together a list of features you think you might need. Come up with the core thing your app is going to do better than everyone else, and pitch that to potential agency partners. If you nail the core of what your app solves for users, history has shown that users will thank you by telling you the key pieces they feel are still missing. This keeps your team and partners from running around building 15 half-thought-out widgets on a short timeline or thin budget. 

Focus on the end-to-end.  You've probably heard the phrase, "A. players like to play with A. players." True craftsmen tune into a shared vision, only when they feel like the part they are contributing isn't going to be compromised by their peers. With the right team, trust and communication can take a long time to develop. If you're hiring an agency that has a great development team but isn't known for great design, find out a way to fill in that gap WITH your partner. The people you hire, whether in-house or not, must be able to communicate, work and trust each other at a craftsman level. By not doing so, you introduce tremendous rink to the quality and efficiencies you established to keep your production on budget and on time.

True craftsmen tune into a shared vision, only when they feel like the part they are contributing isn't going to be compromised by their peers.

Be open about the budget. If relationships start with communication, having your budget tucked away might be the best way to guarantee your expectations won't be met. It doesn't have to be a specific number, but be prepared to provide a range. In digital, literally everything is possible if the talent is up to the challenge. At domestic agencies, teams are made up of those who have spent their professional lives practicing architecting, designing and developing their dream apps. If they did that slow or always the most complex way possible, they wouldn't last very long on the team. Offer an agency opportunities to work within budget constraints both high and low and see what ideas are introduced to meet the product challenges.

Understand that quality is always in balance with cost. When a team achieves great UX or great development, you and your users shouldn't notice. There are many studios and agencies in Chicago that are capable of building the best apps in the world. With that, be realistic about how much time and money those apps cost to make. If you are citing Instagram, know the rough financials around what it took to build certain pieces of that app. Have conversations with potential teams about the pieces you feel make that experience special. 

Bake autonomy into your vendor relationship.  Try to avoid always dictating the way your site or app needs to be designed and built in your RFP. It's very disingenuous to assert that you want the partner you work with to believe in your vision, then not trust them to bring it to life. Nitpicking the executions has it's place in production and is healthy as a shared team, but those things ultimately won't be what makes your app successful. The best products are the ones where the team executing KNOWS it's just as responsible for the success of your application as you are. If you dictate every implementation before you even start, you take away the teams stake in the action.

The best products are the ones where the team executing KNOWS it's just as responsible for the success of your application as you are.

As the Chicago tech entrepreneurial community grows, it's important that it grows in concert with the teams executing the work. I'm of the belief that eliminating the communication and process breakdowns between our threaded goals is the only way we will reach our ever-growing potential.

The money the Valley has always had is here now. We have a decision to make: Continue to cheapen our projects to the lowest bidder, youngest talent, offshore, and scrap our way to the bottom. Or refocus on great strategy, expertise, quality, and get back to the core of what makes our apps great.  

Together, let's get back to racing to the top.

 

About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. He has helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studios work has been featured in the USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup.

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Creative agencies are secretly building Chicago's tech scene

Many of you reading this might be thinking it takes a certain type of entrepreneur or startup to work with an agency. We know this because when we go to meetups or talk to startups for the first time, the idea that we'd work together is usually cut short with a response like:

We're not outsourcing because we're focused on hiring our own team." 

When a startup is seeded at places like 1871 or any other incubator, the advice often given is to start hiring developers and designers and/or bring on a technical co-founder. If you need social proof, check out the job board on Builtinchicago.org. The problem with that advice by itself, is it assumes that an entrepreneur has the business acumen and focus to build a business AND the expertise to bring together and manage world class ux, design and technical talent.

The truth is, every startup that has raised more than an angel round of funding has had several major components of their apps and websites designed and developed by these secret agency teams. These investments are happening because few startups are adequately equipped to hire, manage and handle the benchmarks and quality needs of a product, while also meeting the strategic and funding goals required to move the business forward.

This could be more obvious, but agencies aren't always recognized for the work done because of strict non-disclosure agreements. To give you a glimpse, for the 5-10 projects our agency Eight Bit Studios is able to showcase, we've also helped launched over 100 big and small startups over the past 2 years. Of those, almost all of them either had several of their own team members or now have built teams around their existing product. It's worth noting, almost all of them have secured additional rounds of funding and are still in business.

To the inexperienced, agencies are expensive rentals.

To the inexperienced, agencies are expensive rentals. The reality is, reputable agencies literally spend years finding, recruiting, training and honing their teams skills and workflow to maximize the value of the output and speed for which they produce great work. It's hard to quantify that kind of value without having spent years building products. It also helps illustrate why so few agencies are still privately held or why so many VP and Directors at more established startups are former agency rockstars.

What's the point?

There is a stigma in our community that not wholly hiring your own team means that you won't own your product. We find this type of thinking and advice ignorant and effectively a race to the bottom. The reality is that Chicago startups that make headlines each day are taking a hybrid approach, building stronger brands quicker and with higher quality products than their competition. They won't tell you because it's part of their competitive advantage. We can't tell you because we legally can't talk about it. 

 

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. He has helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His studios work has been featured in the USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup.

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5 lessons a band can teach a startup

Photo Credit: Soapstone Lion Photography

I've been playing drums pretty much my whole life. I came from a musical family. I grew up with musical friends. I was in bands through high school and college. I also had the unique opportunity to do it professionally for 3 years touring the United States, sleeping on floors (and in a tent), playing hundreds of shows with well-known indie bands, building a fan base, recording in studios big and small, having countless conversations with record labels and releasing a lot of music.

I now help employ the most talented user experience, design and development technicians (many who are musicians) at Eight Bit Studios in Chicago. Through that experience, these are five of the major lessons I have used as a lens to help build Eight Bit Studios and the startups we help launch every month.

1. Strategize: Creating a great demo

When you start a band, nobody really cares about your name. Nobody really cares about your merchandise. Aside from your friends, nobody else will book your band or go to your show without first hearing something. The demo, no matter the quality, is your group's perspective in the music world.

Entrepreneurs and startups often make this mistake. They think their investment should be in that full length album. Their first release isn't meant to be an opus. Thebiggest companies in the world with all the funds in the world don't shoot for an opus. What you need is a strategy and the willingness to release the foundations of ideas so that you can discover and validate your perspective. Is it unique? Is it worth sharing? Does it matter?

2. Prototype: Making time for practice

Bands need to practice together. It's not just about making great music, it's about sharing ideas, finding your sound and understanding how your ideas come together as a unit. This means trying out lots of riffs, writing and rewriting lyrics and ultimately scrapping songs that just don't make the group's cut. 

Equally with a startup, your team needs a chance to create and more importantly destroy features that can't be validated or don't prove their value within your group. This gives your team a chance to try new ideas, establish a feature release tempo and better understand where their time is best spent. 

Photo Credit: Soapstone Lion Photography

3. Iterate & Test: Building your fan base

Inexperienced musicians always shoot for the dream of getting lucky and creating that one song the whole world loves. The reality is, it's beyond rare. Good bands know, in order to survive long term, you need a strong fan base. Valuing the long-term fan and doing everything you can to keep your their attention is how experienced bands get big. That means continuously releasing new material, innovating, communicating, creating ambassadors (like a street team) and involving fans in exclusives and providing a means to give feedback. 

It's the same with a startup. Inexperienced entrepreneurs think that if their idea is good enough that Google or Facebook will buy them for a billion dollars. Experienced entrepreneurs are relentless in engagement of users, establishing KPI's for sustained growth and focus everything on long term retention. You need these metrics to help refine your strategy, please your purpose for existing and please your current and future investors.

4. Market & Advertise: Releasing new material

If you want a lot of people to show up at your event, be ready to physically and digitally do whatever you can think of to get people there. For every 1000 people you don't know, 1 of those will come to your show. You don't just have to do a great job getting their friends out to shows, but you have to be able to get friends of friends out. You need to get on the radio, you need to harass local newspapers magazine writers and you need to befriend EVERYONE. Your event needs to be posted everywhere. It's a big deal because you make it a big deal. 

If you're launching an app, a big update, or solving a major problem and the extent of your promotion is emailing some friends, sending out a press release and putting it on Facebook, don't be surprised when the response you get doesn't meet your expectations. Know that what you are building is newsworthy. Make sure it's not too hard to articulate in person, in interviews, to journalists, to friends or in your pay per click. Create an easy to understand message and support it through physical events, reaching out to all your known networks and news sources. Invest in targeted advertising and exhaust yourself for every major release, update or new problem solved.

5. Fundraise: Getting a record deal

It took us a long time to realize this, but bands are generally signed on potential, not for what they produce on their own. Record labels don't necessarily want a produced record, because a produced record rarely has untapped potential (unless your fanbase is growing out of control). The focus can quickly shift from potential to the group's current fanbase and current record sales and try to model them to a wider audience. That becomes the reality. Instead, what labels want is something authentic and sounds good even when it's not produced. It makes it easier to hear your potential, for them to put their polish and spread the word through their networks to help your band live up to its full potential. 

Raising money follows a similar path. Making an attempt to over-polish your product, work all your business relationships and realize your startup's full potential without the proper resources will make it that much harder for investors to see how they can help and ultimately turn your startup into a superstar. This doesn't mean put out a lousy product. It means if you focus your resources on creating something great that is truly valued, it will be that much easier for an investor to come in and shore up the rest of the deals, scaling and polish you need to reach a critical mass. 

Photo Credit: Christopher Chouinard

 

About the author

John W Ostler (@seahostler) is Co-Founder and Principal of UX & UI at Eight Bit Studios (@eightbitstudios), an award winning mobile strategy, design and development studio that focuses on strategizing and executing the visions of Chicago's most promising startups. He has helped lead and produce technical and interaction design engagements with brands like Cadbury Adams, Burger King, Motorola, Career Builder, Groupon, Exelon, Sidley Austin, and HSBC. His work has been featured in the USA Today, Brandweek, The Daily Beast, NewYork Times Tech blog, Mashable.com, featured on multiple CSS design blogs, and had multiple apps reach in the Top 25 and receive a "New and Noteworthy" nod from Apple. He is also Co-Founder of Bughouse (@bughousekids) a kids app, toy, game, books startup.

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Smart Watches - a Chicago UX, Design, Tech Perspective

The Pebble Smartwatch just destroyed Kickstarter’s fund raising record. March 9th marks the official launch of Apple’s “most personal device” the Apple Watch. Chicago-based Motorola created one of the most beautiful time keepers with the Moto 360 last fall. The industry is betting big on the market wanting smart watches that connect to your smartphone.

The smart watch user experience
John W Ostler (@seahostler)

Smartphone usage is quickly becoming synonymous with bad habits and questionable etiquette. It seems innocent enough, but when we pull our smartphones out of our purses or pockets, we habitually commit to prolonged usage. Simple actions like checking the time or getting a meeting reminders manifest into checking social feeds, reading email, messaging and ultimately distract from the space and people around us.

On the surface, a smart watch appears to be “just one more device to distract us.” In reality, I view it as an opportunity to untether our smartphones and elevate the only truly relevant data points we need to navigate our day. When we are finding a location, making a payment, checking the time, seeing a calendar reminder or tracking our steps, these are low touchpoint interactions that are better suited for a less immersive device.

In recent years, brands have become hyper-aware of what functionality is appropriate for a handheld device versus a tablet or website. To truly understand what makes technology personal, we must set out to create software that enhances real world experiences rather than detract. Instead of asking what a watch app could do, I think the question should effectively shift to how we can simplify and empower people to continue declutter the less-digital aspects of their lives.

The smart watch interface design
Steve Polacek (@stevepolacek)

Now’s not the time to rest on our responsive design laurels. The Apple Watch introduces a fashionable new challenge to embrace and an opportunity to dip our wrists into the wearables market. One thing’s for sure, you’ll be hearing “digital crowns” and “haptics” come up a lot more.

The minimalist in me is excited, as I expect interface designers to do some of their best work within the 38-44mm Apple Watch screens. It’s counterintuitive, but constraints can be liberating and increase creativity. Limitations force decisions about what’s important. Hierarchy is good for design.

But looking at the big picture, the realist in me is skeptical about our ability to deliver great design on every screen and beyond. The Apple Watch is just one flavor in the wearables market, which is predicted to reach 170 million devices sold in 2016 (source: IHS). That’s a drop in the bigger bucket of 50 billion internet-connected devices expected to be online by 2020 (source: Cisco). With so many available options and combinations, we will have unlimited opportunities to muck things up.

The need for great design thinking is only increasing. We must base our choices on what’s right instead of what’s possible. I’m encouraged to see more and more organizations, new and old, adopting this kind of values-based approach when facing the challenges of our time.

Creating for the Apple Watch will hone our design skills, testing our ability to deliver timely, lightweight, and meaningful interactions. The screen limitations will force us to examine each communication with even more scrutiny than smartphones. This should make us more sensitive to the moments that make up our daily lives. This could help untether ourselves from more invasive technology, freeing some bandwidth to be more present. Or will we create a new wave of distractions and go further down the information rabbit hole? It’s up to us all to design the future we want to live in.

The smart watch software development
Don Bora (@dbora)

Unlike some of my nerd brothers and sisters, I am not enamored of the emerging smart watch ecosystem. The watch, in its current envisioned state, shaves seconds off otherwise mundane tasks, like checking the time or seeing if I have any unread emails. Any meaningful productivity bump will come from serious hardware support that is just not available right now. Apple is coming close with a robust and dedicated user interaction experience but my iPhone needs to be in my pocket to get the most out of the watch.

What we need is time! See what I did there? We need to super-speed Moore’s Law. With the currently limited technical capacity of these platforms coupled with the increasing resource demands of modern app development, it is not likely we will see anything with teeth on smart watches anytime soon. Today, yes, a smart watch must be paired with a much more powerful device. This device will run the watch's application while the watch merely displays data, responds to a few prescribed user interaction events, and interacts with whatever hardware is available on the watch.

While it is true that these smart accessories are relatively underpowered, we can be sure of this: hardware will continue to get smaller and faster. Ingenious engineering has found ways around the feared physical limitations that have threatened the past 20 years of computer and device advancements. Having the current resource capacity we enjoy on our phones was unimaginable 10-15 years ago.

If I had a prescient scope, my watch would do all kind of Bond-ishly cool things. I want to see evolution in these platforms; I want to talk to my watch for the geek factor alone. My watch can be intimately aligned with my health and activity levels to collect and analyse meaningful data, giving me actionable feedback. That would be insanely cool and I know that’s where everyone wants to be.

What excites me the most is the unknown. The imagination of people dreaming in Lean Startup Business Canvases who seek to create new ways for people to experience the world. That’s what keeps me putting this suit and tie on to build products for my fellow citizens. Ok, I don’t wear a suit and all my ties are from the 90s but you get the gist.

We’re all pretty excited about the ever moving target that is the device industry. The sheer amount of progress we’ve seen over the past 10 years is nothing short of stunning. Heightening the user’s experience through screen real-estate restriction will force us makers to be ever more diligent and judicious about our design, user interfaces, and feature sets. This is the job we signed up for; these challenges excited us; this is why we get out of bed in the morning.

Have you purchased or are you planning to purchase a smart watch? Let us know in the comments and you'll use it!

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Testing your iPhone and iPad apps: Testflight and what you need to know before Feb 26th

On Feb 26, Testflight in it's original form will shut down as a means to send out builds to your iOS test group. Here's what you need to know:

Why

Apple bought Testflight to take the pain out of being an App tester. It's a long, technical and traditionally very complicated process. Downloading an App to test and provide feedback is now pretty darn simple and similar to how things work in the App store. Testers accept an invite, download the Testflight app on their device, and use their iTunes credentials to login, send feedback, etc. No new accounts, registration, or fancy provisioning permissions goodness. Bish, bash, bosh.

Internal Testers vs Beta Testers

You get 25 internal testers. Internal testers are resources on your development, admin and marketing teams that will have itunesconnect access with permissions. When a testing build is submitted, this internal testing group will have immediate access to your app (like you're used to).

You get 1000 beta testers. This is where your external testers will go. The catch here is that when you submit a build for them to test, Apple must approve your build to be sent to testers. Yes, you read that right. Apple has to approve your beta to testers, which is subject to the normal 4-9 day approval times. That may be a deal breaker for many of you. HOWEVER, there is a silver lining. Once the initial Beta is approved, some app developers/apps will be granted permissions to send immediate builds to their beta team. Translation: If your app isn't sketchy, in theory you'll get to bypass this approval process.

30 day expiration 

New builds to the test group only live for 30 days before they expire. You can submit a new build before that expiration but your testers and your team must be active to keep a steady stream of logs. For apps that are looking to track long-term user behavior, clocks or lifestyle tracking, this may be a deal breaker. 

iOS 8.0+ only

If you need to regression test for devices that are not iOS 8.0 compatible, you'll need to work with either a different or second testing suite. For iPad applications, the iPad 1 is the only tablet not supported. For iPhones and iPods this is going to be a much different story. iOS 8 has a 71% marketshare on iOS devices but know that some of your testers will have to upgrade their devices to be able to test your apps. That may be conclusive for many. This may be a good time to look at your analytics to see what your the makeup of your userbase is. iOS 9.0 so you can delay your panic for another 9 months or so. 

Next steps for teams:

  • Export any .ipa and log files you want to keep for legacy purposes
  • Export your testing group in Testflight
  • Import your testing group into the Beta Testers Tab in iTunes Connect
  • Create a new distribution provisioning profile with the beta tester designation (this is new radio button). Once this is done, simply build against it and submit the app to iTunes Connect per usual
  • Inform your users about the change in process and that they'll be getting a new invite in their email

The BIG Takeaway

Decide on a testing strategy NOW. If you don't, you'll lose all your testing group contact information, your current app builds and logs. That could be a huge setback in the effeciency of your team. There are other cross-platform solutions you could use to continue your immediate build workflow like http://hockeyapp.net/features/ across both Android, iOS and Microsoft (Disclaimer: Microsoft just bought this company so it's future may also be a little fuzzy). 

Keep in mind you balance any solution with it's ease of use to setup users, send them builds and get effective feedback. At Eight Bit, on average 1 in 10 testers follow through with signing up and installing apps from our startups. We're always looking for ways to optimize this workflow and for iOS, this may still be the drink of choice.  Just keep in mind that you're not just making a technical decision, you're making an experience decision for your testing group. 

 

A short history lesson on testing iOS apps

When iPhone app development first started, to test apps with any size team used to be a long and complicated process: 

A tester had to plug in your device to a computer, go into a settings area of itunes, right click on the name of the device, copy and paste the UDID and send it to the developmer. Then all that went into a spreadsheet that was imported or entered one-by-one into iTunes Connect. Provisioning profiles had to be emailed, installed on the devices often involving deleting old profiles, restarting devices and mountains of troubleshooting. Oh you want crash logs? Ugh, here we go again. It was insane. 

After a year or so, companies began to emerge that helped ease this process. Testflight was one of them. Finally, you had a place where users could send testers to register their device that would automatically do most of this. It still required installing some things and registered but it was nothing compared to the old system. For a little while Testflight was handling both Android and iOS development and developers were loving their lives. Apple then purchased the company and immediately discontinued support for Android. #shocking

Written by John W Ostler
Principal and Co-Founder of Eight Bit Studios

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Users aren't adopting your MVP. Now what?

A serious congratulations are in order! You followed the advice of those at 1871. You went to Technori pitches. You met with your tech-savvy friends. You read and shared countless articles in Fast Company and have now successfully launched your MVP (Minimum Viable Product). You have shown your investors that you can ship. You have proven to yourself that you are a true tech entrepreneur. It's a tale only Disney® could write and cast you as the main character. The marquee went up, the show went on and the reviews are in: It's not good. Users simply aren't adopting your product. Now what?

This is not a matter of intelligence. Unfortunately, all the work we put in to release our MVP was just training for this moment. This is the place where the real entrepreneurs are separated from professionals and technicians with ideas and money. There are many books on the subject of goal setting and what to emotionally anticipate: The Dip by Seth Godin. There are also many books on the difference between what it means to be an entrepreneur and a technician with an idea: The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber. If you haven't already, I would encourage you to read both.

It's okay if this is the end of the road. This path is a statistic that anyone with a degree in finance or a soft spot for investment is counting on. However, if you are poised and have the conviction that your best is still yet to come, read on.

I've spent the last 15 years experiencing first hand the tests and tribulations of this moment: will my idea fail or be refined, liberated and celebrated by the masses. In that time, I have developed some guiding principles that I, and the brands I have had the pleasure to help, successfully implemented to go on to achieve post-MVP greatness. If you have other tips, please add them in the comments below.

Listen to your early adopters. Early adopters (popularly referred to as influencers) are the hunters of the digital plain. They are most satisfied when they find products that align with their beliefs. I'm phrasing that very carefully. Their bounty comes in the form of credit when sharing your product with their networks. Your MVP does not have to be polished to effectively solve a problem. In fact, most early adopters would prefer it not be feature complete, because it proves that they found it first. This demographic can tell you very quickly just how clear you're communicating your beliefs. This will give you incredible insights for what you're doing right or wrong.

Tell other people about your idea. Qualitative research at a startup typically involves asking colleagues, friends and family what they think and whether they'd adopt your product. This is rarely productive. We surround ourselves with people who like us. This means they're going to be tactful about giving you feedback. Instead, start going to meetups outside of your comfort zone. If you're more business oriented, start going to design meetups. Find the customers of your biggest competitor and lay out your idea to them. There are countless ways to gather feedback. The point is to start gathering information from people that don't give a shit about your emotional well-being. They represent what your startup is to the real world.

Stop trying to open all your own doors. Are you trying to do this all by yourself? I've never met a successful entrepreneur who couldn't quickly point to the many people and institutions that lead to their success and character. Try thinking about your startup as a person (I'll bet you already treat it like your baby). Instead of trying to raise your startup by yourself, give it a chance to learn from others as it grows. What are the strategic relationships and partnerships you have made to bring your product to market? Use the tools that lead to your personal success as a way to help your product attain adoptive success.

Assess your marketing like you would plan a party. Your MVP may be fantastic, it's just that know one knows about it. Digital advertising is rarely the solution all by itself. Try thinking about your product like you would when planning a party. What type of party would you find your ideal customer base and why? Who do you need to invite? What does the invitation look like? How will they remember your product after they leave? I've found analogy to be fantastic tool. It helps you shape your messaging. It also helps explain why more famous entrepreneurs are able to attract users and investors to their products with seemingly no effort. I have found that when you look at your product through this lens, you will quickly see where your marketing is succeeding or failing.

Stop asking what features your MVP could have and instead ask what your MVP should do. I blogged at length about entrepreneurs who ask the question 'could' instead of 'should'. Take this one to heart. When you're sharing your vision with anyone, start posing the question of what you should do to better achieve your goals. You'll be surprised to learn how many people hold back their true opinions until this more strategic question is asked of them. Read more thoughts on 'should' questions here.

Congrats again on getting to this point. You have our attention. Despite how difficult and complicated creating products can be, this is just the beginning of the true "path less traveled." MVP's are now the beaten trail and you have now entered the real game of survival of the fittest. The next step into the forest is the big one. This is the place where your leadership and resourcefulness will finally be tested. It's as thrilling and challenging as it sounds. I can't wait to meet a few of you along the way.

Illustration by Jordan Polonsky

Written by John W Ostler
Principal and Co-Founder of Eight Bit Studios

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