AIAIO: Our Blog

AIAIO: Our Blog

The pulse and reviews of Alexander Interactive

User Experience as Customer Service

Intuit’s QuickBooks has been held up as an example of data standardization and a robust developer platform.  And Quickbooks is most certainly THE de facto standard for small business accounting software.  But, in recent years, newer entrants like Freshbooks and Kashoo (among others) have been stealing market share, feature by feature, with a better user experience.  Accounting is no fun, but it’s actually a pleasure to send invoices and process payroll with these new platforms.

The mighty Intuit appears interested to buck this trend with its latest product update, the new QuickBooks Online.  They are not bringing the update to market with a traditional playbook touting how many reports the product has or how many banks it can connect to.  Instead, they are focused on Why Design Matters, and how the new look of the app will “create a harmonious user experience,” implying that users should care more about the design than about QuickBooks’ storied permissions levels and sales receipt processing.  It may indeed be marketing fluff, but they’re putting their design money where their UX mouth is in a follow-up post on their blog.

To hush a user that posted something along the lines of  “but I want this feature because it’s best for me,” customer services reps are replying with data.  It’s a UX researcher’s dream:

statistically the recurring page is 34th in the list of most used pages, COA is 15th

Blammo.  Stop complaining.  We did our research and built our product around real user usage and needs.

In that initial reply to the customer, the responding customer service agent (who is so fluent in UX language as to make you think he’s actually a product owner) also mentions that the new QuickBooks finally supports tabbed browsing.  The original inquirer pushes back again, “I assume that if you open some links/functions in a new tab/window, that other open windows will not be updated with a transaction performed in a different tab/window without a manual refresh. Is that so?”

Ever-focused on the user, the agent replies:

We actually worked hard to implement that feature, so it is there. Where it applies is mainly on Customers, Vendors, and other transaction list pages.

And still the user was not satisfied, demanding perfect refreshes of every function: “So if I keep the home page [open]….I should see the bank balance shown on the home page change automatically?”

Ever cool, the UX master replies:

I will pass that use case on to our banking team though and see if we can get that working.

Use case!?  They’re talking to a customer here!  The CSR didn’t take it quite as far as saying he would force rank that user story in their backlog and make sure it’s tracked in GreenHopper, but they sure are training their users that direct feedback is important and will be incorporated into future versions of the software.

Smart move, Intuit.  Every time a customer service agent says use case twin unicorns is born in the forest.


Ai’s Annual Halloween Costume Exchange

One of Ai’s most well-known times of year comes in October when we hold our annual Halloween costume exchange.  The workday will be as typical as any Friday, but with a holiday twist…

Candy everywhere? Check.
Office Decorations?  Check.
All things black and orange?  Check.
Costumes?  Check.  But, not your own – your “victim’s”!

Here’s how things go down leading up to October 31st at the Ai office:

Early October:

  • Everyone’s name goes into a bowl
  • Each person picks a name from the bowl
  • The name you pick is your secret victim

Mid October:

  • You ponder ideas of what you can come up with for a costume for your victim (the costume must be in good taste and keep your victim’s personality in mind)
  • You try not to slip and tell anyone who you chose, but we all know the word gets out to a few
  • You choose a costume for your victim (hand made or store bought)

Early during the week of Halloween:

  • We gather as a company at the Sofaplex to exchange costumes
  • One person starts us off and reveals who their victim is, the costume that has been chosen for said victim, and the rationale behind the costume choice
  • The victim then continues the process by sharing who they chose, and so on…

The day of Halloween:

Ai Halloween Collage

  • The day usually starts out with people walking into the office in costume and therefore tons of laughs and photo-ops
  • Scheduled meetings and calls happen as planned, but there’s never a giggle too distant
  • At lunch time we have a pizza party
  • Once we’ve digested we finish off the afternoon with a parade in Madison Square Park to share our costumes with the rest of the Flatiron District
  • An hour before the work day comes to a close, we end the day with a Halloween-themed office happy hour
  • Finally, once we power down our machines and call it a day, we stay in costume and head out for a night on the town in costume

To get a feel for what Halloween has been like for someone who has participated in this Ai tradition over the past seven years, check out the images below.

2006: ANGEL








Pink Lady


Richard Simmons


Morticia Addams

Why do we all find this so fun?  Because I absolutely never would have been any of the characters above for Halloween unless someone else picked out the costumes for me.  Richard Simmons?  I mean, come on.

Funny Stuff

Continuous Integration Overload: Dealing with many projects in Jenkins.

Running an amazing CI tool like Jenkins is a great for productivity, especially when you’re testing throughout multiples stages of development.  But what happens when you need to test multiple stages of development, with multiple features and for more than a few projects?

You may find yourself cutting and pasting some Jenkins Execution shell commands from a master template, or rewriting them by hand for each and every instance.


You have to manually set up each project with each environment, and then remember which template you’re using which is frustrating and, more importantly, time consuming work.


In comes Fabric to save the day. 

Fabric is a python based superhero that can deploy, update, sudo or pretty much anything you can do with a bash script, but over multiple ssh sessions!  This means that you can design one master fabric script and have it create or maintain many instances or build environments.

Integrating Fabric with Jenkins.

Using the same helpful Execution shell, we can call a fabric script and pass it parameters with Jenkins’ parameterization.


And then the Execution Shell.


Now Save and Build!  And the next time you push a new feature, just specify the parameters for Jenkins and you’ll never have to worry about individual instance configurations.

Here’s a quick and dirty FAB file that we can use to control many of our deployments.

from __future__ import with_statement
from fabric.api import run, sudo, cd, env

def setup(setup_type):
    if setup_type == 'stage':
        env.hosts = setup_type.stagingServer
    elif name == 'QA':
        env.hosts = setup_type.qaServer
        raise ValueError('Invalid Setup Type')

#Run commands through sudo - username

def update(user, environment, local_branch, remote_branch):
    run('sudo su - %s -c \'cd ~/%s/ && git checkout  %s\'' %
        (user, environment, local_branch, ))
    run('sudo su - %s -c \'cd ~/%s/ && git pull %s\'' %
        (user, env, remote_branch,))

def clone(user, path, gitpath):
    env.user = user
    with cd(path):
        run('git init')
        run('git clone %s' % gitpath)

def updatewithuser(user, directory, branch):
    run('sudo su - %s -c \'cd ~/%s && git pull\'' %
        (user, directory,))

def status(user,location):
    run('sudo su - %s -c \'cd ~/%s && git status\'' %
        (user, location))

def clone_with_user(user, location, gitpath):
    run('sudo su - %s -c \'mkdir -p %s\'' % location)
    run('sudo su - %s -c \'cd %s && git init && git clone %s\'' %

def branch(user, location):
    run('sudo su - %s -c \'cd %s && git branch\'' %
        (user, location))

Ai Volunteers at Bideawee NYC

Given the amount of cat and dog owners at Ai, needless to mention the dedicated meow@ internal mailing list the company uses for cat-related emails, it only made sense for Ai’s next volunteer event to include animals of some kind.  Luckily enough, we were able to find a perfect match.

Last week, over a dozen Ai employees ventured to the East side of Manhattan for a half day of volunteering at Bideawee.

Bideawee Group Photo

Our itinerary was as follows:

    • 9:30-9:40am: Arrival and Welcome
    • 9:40-9:50am: Introduction to Organization
    • 9:50-10:15am: Tour of facility
    • 10:15-10:55am: Adoption folder assembly for Adoption Center adoptions
    • 10:55-11:30am: Gift bag assembly for Adoption Center adoptions
    • 11:30am-11:50am: Make Kong treats for dogs
    • 11:50-1:15pm: Dog & cat socialization & play session
    • 1:15-1:30pm: Parting gift bag, group picture and goodbyes

“Bideawee” is a Scottish saying that means “stay a while”.  Bideawee believes that every dog and cat deserves to live in a safe, loving, suitable home, and until that home is found, Bideawee employees and volunteers provide that support system for however long it may take to find an adopter.  Bideawee’s mission to cultivate and support the life-long relationships between pets and the people who love them really hit home to many of Ai’s employees.

While we were all extremely tempted, no one left with a new furry companion, but we all definitely left with a great sense of joy that we were able to partake in something so rewarding.


For a full gallery of our day spent at Bideawee, please visit Ai’s Facebook photo album.


Ai Wins IMA Award for My Ring Pop

Ai Takes Home “Best in Class” from Interactive Marketing Awards for My Ring Pop® Website

NEW YORK (June 19, 2013) – The Interactive Marketing Awards (IMAs) has awarded Alexander Interactive (Ai) a 2013 “Best in Class” designation in the consumer goods category for the web design and ecommerce firm’s design and development of the My Ring Pop® website. My Ring Pop® is a brand of Bazooka Candy Brands, which is a division of the The Topps Company, Inc. The “Best in Class” award is the highest honor bestowed by the IMAs; it represents the best in planning, execution and overall professionalism in the industry.

“We are thrilled to receive another ‘Best in Class’ designation from the Interactive Marketing Awards,” said Alex Schmelkin, founder and CEO of Ai. “The Ai team had a blast bringing My Ring Pop® to life with a vibrant, user-friendly ecommerce experience.”

Ai was engaged to build an interactive space where people would be able to customize their own Ring Pop® lollipops for any occasion. Customers can select their preferred flavors and wrappers to celebrate engagements, bachelorette parties, birth announcements, or graduation events. The experience was created to inspire and delight its users by providing user-generated content from around the web that is delivered in a fresh, brand-relevant voice.

“We realized that the power of Ring Pop’s nostalgia and consumers’ overall love for the product could extend beyond the typical youth audience,” said Scott Utke, director of marketing for Topps. “We knew that Ai would be the perfect partner to launch My Ring Pop® into the marketplace, bringing the joy of ‘wearable bling’ to Ring Pop fans of all ages, and we couldn’t be happier with the result.”

Created by the Interactive Media Council, Inc. (IMC), a nonprofit organization of leading web designers, developers, programmers, advertisers and other web-related professionals, the IMA competition is designed to elevate the standards of excellence on the Internet. IMC serves as the primary sponsor and governing body of the Interactive Media Awards™, establishes the judging system and provides the judges for the competition.

Ai defines and implements unique digital commerce experiences for innovative brands. We are dedicated to the principle of Transactional Intelligence, which focuses on behavior, action and measurable success. Ai builds award-winning sites for clients including Lowe’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, Schwinn, Citi, Time Inc., Pepperidge Farm and

Bazooka Candy Brands is a division of the Topps Company, Inc. Founded in 1938, Topps is a leading creator and marketer of sports and related cards, entertainment products, and distinctive confectionery. Topps entertainment products include Major League Baseball, National Football League, and other trading cards, sticker album collections, and collectible games. The Company’s confectionery brands include “Bazooka” bubble gum, “Ring Pop,” “Push Pop,” “Baby Bottle Pop” and “Juicy Drop Pop” lollipops. For additional information, visit,, and


FLASHBACK: Seven Years at Ai

Seven years ago today I walked into an office of 11 on Park Avenue South, a wide eyed college graduate with no knowledge of what it took to build a Web site, let alone manage the entire process.  I remember signing the contract in my college dorm room a few weeks before graduation to become a full-time Jr. Project Manager at Ai.  What ensued from there was more than I could have imagined.

In seven years, I’ve worked with some of the most smart, talented, people who all exhibit the DNA that makes up the humans who call Ai their home.  I’ve gained experience managing projects, managing relationships, and contributing to the overall improvement and quality of Ai’s processes among other things.  I’ve learned how to problem solve, how to communicate based on my audience, and how to consistently manage against living project plans and defined budgets.  I’ve contributed to the launch of dozens of Web sites, went from being the interviewee to the interviewer, and grew up a member of a passionate team of creative tech nerds.

That office of 11 grew into an office of almost 40.  The suite on Park Avenue South became an entire floor on 5th Avenue, and that inexperienced college grad became a project leader and Ai veteran teaching those who come after her the lay of the land.

A lot has changed over the past seven years, between people who have come and gone, Mayor Jack Reynolds transitioning from a young pup to a well-groomed VP of Security, two office relocations, and a newfound respect for our beloved Morgan Freeman.  But, through the past seven years, a few things have remained constant – Ai has always been a place to recognize the potential in its employees, to encourage an open forum for new ideas, and to seek innovation and improvements on a process that will forever be evolving.

Tonight my little sister graduates from college, and I can’t help but wonder how her next seven years will unravel.  I can only hope she gets the opportunity to grow in the same ways that I’ve had the chance to by being an employee of Ai.  So, on my seventh anniversary of beginning my evolution from a college grad to a Senior Project Manager at Ai, I look back and can only feel proud and fortunate to have witnessed all the growth Ai has seen and that I’ve seen within myself.


Visit Ai’s Booth at IRCE 2013


AI is heading to Chi-town, and we want to see you!

We will be at the 9th annual Internet Retailer Conference and Exhibition from June 4-6th at McCormick Place West. Please stop by Booth #1666 to say hi and talk shop… or just talk.

IRCE is the world’s largest e-commerce event and is a major educational event that offers online retailing and wholesaling professionals and consumer marketers the insights and analysis they need to give their businesses a competitive advantage in this expanded world of possibilities.