We changed our name! After 14 years of creating award-winning digital products & services, it’s time for a new identity that better reflects the human insights-driven, digital customer experiences we create.
We changed our name! After 14 years of creating award-winning digital products & services, it’s time for a new identity that better reflects the human insights-driven, digital customer experiences we create.

AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

Archive for 2008

Happy Holidays

Happy Holidays to all of our friends, families, clients, blog readers, and fellow internet-makers. Be sure to check out our 2008 Holiday Card.

Each year we close the Ai offices the week before New Year’s. This year, the way the weekends fall, we’ll be out for 11 consecutive days. It’s a well-deserved break for our hard-working staff. And while we’re off, free of blackberries, Photoshops, Rails gems, and AJAX libaries, we’ll be thinking of what is ahead for us in 2009: contributing to open source projects, speaking at conferences, more mobile websites, and continuing to crank out incredible design and dev work on some of the web’s most challenging interactive projects.

Have a wonderful holiday season, and a Happy New Year.


One year at Ai

Junior front-end engineer Skottey Forden penned a heartfelt letter to Ai that he wanted to publish publicly. Happy holidays, and happy anniversary, Skottey:

One year ago today I sat down in my desk chair for the first time. Uncertain of what to expect of my first real-world industry job, especially as a lowly intern, it’s easy for me to express the mix of nerves and excitement I was enduring. To look back on that day seems almost silly considering how much Ai has grown on me. It has become my life and my reason to wake up in the morning, and in one year’s time I now feel like my employers and co-workers are more like family to me than merely people I work with.

Throughout my internship and from the start of my full-time employment, this company has given me endless opportunities to flourish and grow for myself and my abilities in the facets of work that we do here. I learned a great deal in my years of higher education but the skill sets that I have obtained through my time at Ai have no comparison. Every day that I spend in our office I am surrounded by the most inspiring and intelligent people who collectively work together to create the most beautiful and functional interactive works I have seen and am proud to play a role in.

To work at Ai, one must obviously have the talents necessary to do your part in building a quality product for our clients. We must know how to execute the tasks assigned each day, how to manage time, and how to treat your work as if it is your baby.

But a spirited attitude is almost an unspoken prerequisite to be a part of our team. Ai prides itself not only with its work but the cheerful and diligent demeanor of all those who call Ai “home.” The Ai family is constantly motivated to learn and build on capabilities to produce high-level and technology-driven design and interactive works with the end-user in mind. To achieve this sought-after quality of work, sharing a positive attitude is almost a necessity. You will not find a single person through the Ai office doors who does not share a claim to this perspective.

With one year past there is a clear and bright future ahead for myself and Ai as a whole. With a new year just around the corner the boundaries seem endless in all that we as a team are capable of. Tonight our collaborative team of programmers, coders, designers, project managers, strategists, quality assurance specialists, system administrators, information architects, interns, and of course the head honchos all embark on our year-end holiday party. I could easily say, “Hey guys, thanks for throwing me an anniversary party, that’s terrific!”

On the contrary, my humility is saying that our party is just that–a celebration and a time to reflect on the spectacular work that we have accomplished. To the Ai family: I thank you all for taking me under your wing and giving me a place to grow and call home. I look forward to stepping into a new year with all of you and I can’t wait to see what is in store for us.


Throttling ActiveResource

Rate limit. It’s an essential, if somewhat bothersome, consideration in accessing any public API. Twitter’s API limits its clients to 100 requests per 60 minutes. Exceed that, and you, the client, are locked out for a good ten minutes.

The other day, I was using ActiveResource to build a library to interface with the Harvest API, which implements a rate limit of 40 requests per 15 seconds. While a generous limit, I knew that the reporting tool I was building would need to make a lot of requests. And I was indeed getting locked out.

Since ActiveResource provides no throttling functionality, I decided to build a simple gem to add it. Thus was born ActiveResourceThrottle.

To use, create a generic base class to access the given RESTful API. Then, use the throttle method to specify the request limits you’d like imposed. Requests originating from any subclasses, representing the various API resources, will be throttled accordingly.

require 'active_resource_throttle'
class Twitter < ActiveResource::Base
throttle(:requests => 100, :interval => 3600, :sleep_interval => 10)

Further documentation can found in the README. Happy Throttling!


The clever twist

I’ve spent the morning fascinated by Swoopo, a new (to the US, at least) online auction site, which is both more and less innovative than its peers–and a great business model case study.

The site turns eBay’s successful auction model on its ear. eBay uses fixed-duration auctions, free bids, and sellers’ fees for revenue. Swoopo, in contrast, sells bids to buyers, who then bid in 15-cent increments on products. If an item gets a bid in the final 15 seconds, the end time is extended, giving other bidders a chance to dive back in.

This is at once radically different–from eBay–yet more similar to the traditional auction business. In the real world, auctions don’t stop short at 10:13:32; they go until the high bidder has outlasted the competition. Swoopo allows this to happen.

Placing the operating-cost burden on buyers is a shift as well. With bids costing 75 cents each, buyer aggressiveness is artifically limited; the multiple bids required to win a typical auction raise the final cost to the winning bidder. Interestingly, competing (losing) bids help subsidize the winning buyer, which may deflate prices.

The open-ended auction timing is what fascinates me most. I watched a Playstation 3 controller auction on the Swoopo home page ratchet up from $23 to nearly $41, all in 15-cent increments, for several minutes before the auction ended. Sniping is eliminated, and in its place is a tense few minutes and frequent page refreshes. And, most likely, a handful of additional bids, each adding 75 cents to Swoopo’s bottom line.

Swoopo has a remarkably clever (or truly wicked) business concept. It’s also beautifully timed. As eBay evolves away from auctions, the market is probably ready for a savvy competitor to nibble away at market share.

Expect several Swoopo (and eBay) competitors to appear in the next year or two, all with new twists on the auction model. And keep a watchful eye on eBay, which may or may not realize that its auctions, while slowing in growth, are the make-or-break business proposition of its flagship.

Update: this write-up of Swoopo is worth reading, as it notes the clever (if insidious) model behind the business, and also exposes some of Swoopo’s questionable business practices, which I hadn’t caught on first observation. “It’s not clear that Swoopo even has the items they auction; they appear to sell first, then use the money they gain from the completed auction to buy and ship the item. Furthermore, they have a clause in their Help under Delivery and Shipping that lets them ship ‘equivalent’ items.” The post later calls Swoopo “pure, distilled evil,” which may be pushing it a bit, but point well taken.


Online sales and the economy

The latest news from the world of ecommerce is that the weekend was much better online than it was elsewhere. Sales rose 13% on ComScore’s Black Friday-through-Cyber Monday annual index–not a huge number in online terms, but strikingly robust when compared with the overall 4% retail decline in November.

Some tips for ecommerce sites looking to maintain the pace through Christmas:

Compete on price. Ugly, and the last thing I usually recommend, but when the New York Times is running 1000-word articles on coupons, penny-saving is a mainstream fact. Use discounts and promo codes to make customers comfortable with your price points.

Accommodate. Comfort levels are always a differentiator: extended return policies, prepaid shipping labels, and custom order requests will make people feel good about buying from you.

Don’t run scared. In this environment, customers are getting skeptical of sites with continual “Buy today!” come-ons. Maintain a consistent voice and use promotions in the typical manner, so people aren’t spooked away from completing a transaction.

As mentioned previously, a successful, happy purchase now can lead to low-cost repeat business leads in 2009. Despite today’s challenges, retailers must avoid sacrificing the future.


The power of people

How many times this weekend did someone warn you not to buy gift cards this holiday season? I bet the warning came with mention of an email that had in it a crazy long list of store closings. Indeed, a million people are saying the same thing right now.

Never mind that the email in question is misleading at best and fear-mongering at worst. How quickly did it spread? How deep was its impact? How hard will it be for the stores in that email, unwitting participants in a national red flag, to undo the damage contained in that one email? How many people do you know that will give cash instead of credit this season?

Bad news travels fast, even when it shouldn’t. Companies today must work twice as hard as they once did to monitor, repair and prevent the spread of misinformation. One angry customer can affect a million potential shoppers (much as one happy customer can reach a million readers too, only far more effectively).

Today’s consumer is carefully weighing options on every spending decision. Service and positivity will be more important than ever in earning trust and repeat business.


Swimming against the tide

The New York Times reports ecommerce is shrinking this month, the first time since the industry began.

This is distressing news as we head into the holiday season. What can the industry do for 2009?

1. Improve incrementally. Test pages and categories at length. Small victories can lead to substantial gains in an economy looking for good news.

2. Improve correspondence. Talk to customers more often. Survey them, get their feedback, respond to their requests and suggestions. Because….

3. UX is king. Any degree of user experience improvement will be welcome at this time, and the easiest place to try harder is in customer service. Flexible, friendly assistance will create good impessions and loyalty, minimizing acquisition costs. And “minimizing costs” is the magic phrase right now.


UX Critic: cold medicine

I’ve spent much of the week battling a nasty cold. One of the last things I expected when sent to the pharmacy was to think about user experience. Doc said, “Get some Mucinex D,” so off I went.

But what is Mucinex D? I asked for it at my usual pharmacy but they only had plain Mucinex and Mucinex DM. This sent me to the nearby chain pharmacy, where my head began to spin.

Mucinex–a basic guaifenesin expectorant–comes in seven varieties. There’s plain; D, with a decongestant (requiring the pharmacist keep it behind the counter); DM, with cough suppressants; a dedicated cough version; a maximum strength version; a severe-cold formula; and a nasal spray. Each has its own color scheme.

This theme plays out similarly throughout the entire cough-and-cold aisle. Every product has multiple versions that exist in part to satisfy finicky customer demand but mostly to consume shelf space at competitors’ expense. Thus the pharmacy becomes an experiment in patience at the exact point in time when pharmacy customers want speed and efficiency.

I ultimately got my Mucinex D (and a righteous bout of post-nasal drip, thank you very much). But I also got overwhelmed. Is this the best way we’ve found to treat the sick?


Exposing online video trends

Techcrunch posted a great item on online video penetration earlier this week. The numbers are both inspiring and sobering.

Among them:

  • YouTube is streaming 5 billion videos per month
  • Only 4% of those videos support paid advertising
  • Online video is generating ad revenue at one-tenth the CPM of television ads
  • So far, only 1.4% of video watched by Americans is online
  • The online component is expected to double by 2010

As it always has been, video streaming is a great potential resource, but it remains largely potential in nature. Financial aspects will have to catch up to other mediums (or expand greatly in volume) for the industry to become fully viable.