1. Presentation tools: past and future

    Today we are unveiling our tribute recognising great presentation tools from the past: blackboard, whiteboard, overhead projector. These tools have made it dramatically easier for each generation to exchange ideas, learn from each other and collaborate. By doing so they added enormously to our collective ability to innovate. 

    The tribute is a set of four illustrations showing these tools in use in their respective eras. Blackboard is set in the 1830s, whiteboard in the 1980s, and the overhead projector in the 2000s. 

    The concluding illustration entitled “2014” slightly differs from the rest. Instead of showing a physical location it simply depicts a window of a web browser. It shows the direction we are taking with coocoo.lu.

    The goal of coocoo.lu has always been to give ideas a form factor that anyone could understand and to make it easier for conversations to develop around them. By doing so our goal is to continue the trajectory established by our predecessors and lead the way to greater innovativeness further still.

    We hope you enjoy this set. Please leave us a comment with what you think on our Facebook page or send us a Tweet with what you think, we’d love to hear your reactions. 

    Presentation tools: past & future

    1830s

    1980s

    2000s

    2014

  2. Preparing for exams with CooCoolu

    Exams aren’t the most fun activity I can think of. But one of the best feelings I know is when you get out of an exam with a feeling that you aced it. It takes sweat to get there and there is no way around it, but when you do, it’s pure nirvana. While there aren’t many shortcuts to a good academic performance (at least legal ones) there are hacks you can use to smoothen the ride. To give you a helping hand, we thought of three ways you can use CooCoolu to get the upper hand at preparing for exams today. 

    1. Single-board overview. Use just one board to capture the essence of a single lecture. I don’t mean crowding the board with all information you can find, but creating a visual snapshot of just the fundamental elements. This takes some tinkering but the creativity you will put into the process will get you working with the information rather than just reproducing it, leading to improved recall over time.

    image

    Summary of my marketing class on approaches to foreign market entry.

    2. Going back in time. Each time you save your work, CooCoolu records the state of your progress and places it on the timeline underneath your board. You can always backtrack to previous versions this way. So after your visualization is complete pick a point in time when the board was less complete and see if you can fill in the gaps from memory. You can work your way down until you can reconstruct the whole picture from the very first version of your board on record.

    image

    CooCoolu stores past board versions on a timeline.

    3. Study groups. Set up a private group as a space for exchanging boards with your classmates. Groups on CooCoolu give you a bird’s eye view of the boards everyone’s sharing, making it easy to spot what the important issues are, and which ones you or others may have overlooked. Give feedback easily by commenting and adding your own versions of the boards made by others. Before you’ll know it, you will have a complete picture of the study material required for the exam. 

    image

    Setting up a group is easy.

    This is just a rundown of the ways you can use CooCoolu to successfully prepare for your exams. We’d love to hear what other exam preparation hacks you can think of, so feel free to experiment with the app further—there are certainly many more applications than these three. And if you don’t have an account yet, request one here and I will send you an invite asap.

    — Piotr


     

  3. Forget version one

    Lean startup’s core premise is to deploy and iterate fast based on KPIs and user feedback. For the most part it’s a perfectly reasonable methodology. However, what seems to go unaccounted for is that sometimes taking more time, especially in the early phases, can actually help speed things up later on.

    Experience shows that the first version you actually build is not the first version that you came up with. Looking back at the work we’ve done with coocoo.lu it is clear that most, if not all, features needed at least 3–4 iterations before we were confident enough to start coding. Not just that: that third or fourth design was far more superior than the first draft. 

    It makes sense. Early ideas are typically also the shallower ones—only a minuscule amount of creativity has been poured into them. On most occasions only after we’ve spent some time with the problem are we able to truly begin innovating. John Cleese in his lecture on creativity corroborates this view:

    I was always intrigued that one of my Monty Python colleagues who seemed to be (to me) more talented than I was {but} did never produce scripts as original as mine. And I watched for some time and then I began to see why. If he was faced with a problem, and fairly soon saw a solution, he was inclined to take it. Even though (I think) he knew the solution was not very original.

    Whereas if I was in the same situation, although I was sorely tempted to take the easy way out, and finish by 5 o’clock, I just couldn’t. I’d sit there with the problem for another hour-and-a-quarter, and by sticking at it would, in the end, almost always come up with something more original.

    How to actually progress towards that third, fourth iteration of the prototype? Being innovative and thinking creatively is different for everyone. Needless to say, staring at a blank piece of paper most likely won’t be enough. In our experience actively opening and narrowing down the scope of research emerged as most relevant. In practical terms, the process would look more or less as follows:

    1. Refer to pragmatic guiding principles for your product’s design. With coocoo.lu we wanted that (a) most of the UI would occur at the blackboard level (not in minuscule menus or inspector panels), and that (b) buttons were relatively big to fit the ergonomics of both mobile and desktop devices. On one hand it’s harder because you limit yourself. On the other hand it helps you narrow down the scope of your research—you know better what you are looking for. 
    2. Speak to your team. A no brainer: quick feedback rounds from your team members will help you establish what the most promising threads are and shoot down the lesser ones, before you even speak to anyone else. Each team member contributes their own unique perspective and acts a sort of idea filter, letting only the best snippets get through. 
    3. Look outside of your product’s domain. This can help you break out of the design conventions typical to your product category. Dramatically different domains that share similar values can shed new light and lead to better solutions. Our goal for coocoo.lu has always been to make a very accessible and creative product, so we naturally drifted towards video games (Fruit Ninja, Little Big Planet) and toys (LEGO!) as a source of inspiration. 

    Two or three loops like that typically allow us to complete a specific design and begin implementing. Certainly, it still needs to progress through several more iterations before users really sign it off. But spending more time “on paper”, so to speak, takes it closer towards the final version without committing substantial resources to engineering in advance.

    Obviously taking weeks to deploy and iterating slowly with disregard to what users say and do, is not what I’m trying to say here. It’s more about being thoughtful and not rushing the creative process. This way user feedback is more likely to lead to refinement, rather than complete overhaul.

  4. Blackboard—is it still relevant?

    image

    Today a blackboard is one of the most recognizable symbols of education, equally loved and feared by scores of adults worldwide. So much that many of us take the blackboard, or its direct descendant, the whiteboard, for granted, never questioning its usefulness or aspects of its design. But with the new developments in both technology and teaching methodologies is it still relevant? 

    As it turns out, the way we know it, blackboard is a relatively new invention, first used in teaching only in the early 18th century. The invention is often attributed to a Scottish scholar named James Pillans who pioneered the use of a blackboard in his geography classes. At the time of its introduction to education the blackboard was a highly innovative idea, offering an unprecedented level of flexibility and ease of use. In fact, to this day its design holds its own: it is incredibly simple, intuitive, and doesn’t require electricity to run. Its only notable drawback is the chalk dust it produces. Still some may argue that it’s a price worth paying. After all, chalk makes writing on a vertical plane easier than marker pens used with a whiteboard, due to the greater friction against the surface of the board that chalk produces. 

    However, blackboard’s widespread adoption had its share of criticisms, mostly centered around the issue of how the blackboard changed the dynamic inside of the classroom. From a more participative model it turned teaching more towards broadcasting of information by the tutor to the students. By doing so it silenced discussions and encouraged copying of whatever information found its way onto the green plane. Some may argue that the damage didn’t stop there as the problem propagates itself in the form of blackboard’s even more distant descendant than the whiteboard — the overhead projector.   

    This presumed fault attributed to blackboards and their descendants alike may be somewhat unfounded, though. That’s because the vertical plane does one thing extremely well: it facilitates our ability to restate ideas, known as reformulation, which is so important to problem solving. In a few swipes one can redo a complete diagram into new forms with minimal effort, comfortably making changes and corrections along the way. In addition, it allows teams to easily put down in writing each milestone of a discussion. That removes the need for everyone to keep complex data entirely in memory leaving more processing power for analysis and brainstorming. It also clarifies where the blanks still are and ensures everyone is on the same page. 

    The backboard undoubtedly revolutionized education, becoming an integral part of the educational landscape for two centuries. It is a status well earned. Still today it can be an incredibly useful tool, aiding our ability to come up with new solutions and making brainstorming sessions so much more effective. Its critics may have a point when it comes to blackboard’s effect on in-class participation but it may very well be a problem of misapplication rather than poor design.

  5. Minimum input, maximum impact

    image

    With the amount of data generated these days information complexity is something none of us can afford. The fault does not seem to lie on the user side, though. Rather, it is the content creation tools that appear to be inadequately designed. They facilitate unbounded dispensing of information but neglect to assist us in distilling messages to their core. It is a precarious proposition, one that can severely undermine the potential of our increased connectivity. We need to re-design technology to effectively assist us in communicating or we risk being swamped in a landfill of information.

    Removing redundancy

    It is apparent that at least a portion of the information we broadcast can be discarded without compromising quality of the communication. One way to achieve this is to design tools that constrain message footprint. The term “constraint” has a traditionally negative undertone when it comes to self-expression, evoking associations with censorship and conformity. In practice, however, constraints are often the root of ingenuity: Columbus set sail to America because of the Ottomans’ obstruction of the “Silk Road” to Indies, while Galileo developed the telescope to make up for the inadequacy of the human eye at watching the sky. In fact, the computer revolution itself could be regarded as a response to the constraints of human mind. Constraining message footprint may, therefore, somewhat counter-intuitively result in not just more efficient dissemination of information but also lead to better ideas and increased ingenuity.

    But not every piece of information that is concise is easy to understand. Mathematical equations are a great example: they can be brutally short, yet without knowing their theoretical underpinnings it’s practically impossible to decipher them. Message brevity on its own isn’t enough; it’s also how we encode it.  

    Thus, to comprehensively explain an idea using limited footprint every pixel of that space has to pack a punch. One of the most effective ways of achieving this goal is visualizing a portion of that information. This way we can communicate complex information at a fraction of the footprint it would take text on its own. But today visualization techniques are focused on numerical information in the form of charts and histograms. The field sidelines somewhat qualitative data such as ideas, concepts, theories or opinions. To meet adequate levels of comprehension under conditions of limited space we’ll need to encode non-numerical data with the same efficacy as its numerical counterpart.   

    Easier said than done

    The problem remains, though, that crafting a message that’s both simple and meaningful doesn’t usually happen by itself. More often than not it takes some tinkering  before the message relays exactly what we want it to. This process is known as “reformulation” which refers to the restatement of ideas, either our own or those of others. Reformulation helps us discover different solutions and is regarded as key to problem solving. It’s an iterative process and maintaining message integrity is a notable challenge. Leonardo da Vinci famously took years to complete his works, meticulously studying every detail of his paintings until they were perfect. Such was the case with “The Last Supper”, which took him four years to complete. Picasso’s “Bull” proves this literally, showing how the Spanish master dissected the image of the bull to its essential features in a series of eleven lithographs until he reached “the absolute ‘spirit’ of the beast”.

    Contrary to this, current tools are predominantly built around static content, clipart being the prime example, which you can only resize and move around but not actually reshape into something else. To better facilitate reformulation, however, it must be possible to visibly alter these kinds of elements into drastically different forms from the originals. Such tinkering must occur without the risk of losing previously reached milestones. This will encourage breaking things up and moving them around at will, releasing the previously unrealized creativity needed to find better angles for expressing the idea that we want to communicate. Such design may even enable a seamless feedback loop with the audience who would be able to remix the message and present their own ideas juxtaposed with the original, as well as recycle and reuse old messages without having to introduce new ones.

    Time to evolve

    It is clear that communication tools we are currently using must evolve as information continues to play an increasingly important role in our lives. To this end it is imperative for them to enable us to craft more thoughtful and refined messages, making brevity, meaningfulness and flexibility the foremost priorities in the way we design them. This way we will be able to reap the benefits that our unprecedented interconnectedness can grant us and not become overpowered by it.

  6. As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.

    — Denis Diderot, “Encyclopédie” (1755)

  7. Performing, not Postponing

    One of our greatest heroes Albert Einstein is quoted to once have said that if he had only one hour to save the world he would “spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” It’s a profoundly illuminating statement of the late genius’ philosophy and his approach to tackling problems. It proposes that better understanding of complications leads to better solutions.

    Undeniably it is so. However, the underlying assumption of this proposition appears to be that one actually can, or is able to, understand the problem in question. The reality shows that it may not always be that way. Even if understanding of the problem is within our capabilities, we may not necessarily have the resources to actually do so, and vice versa. Not all situations are of course like that, but where gathering required information in itself is not an impossible task it simply may not make business sense to do so. This is especially true in day-to-day operations where cost of failure can be marginal compared to the cost of due diligence. Therefore, in certain situations it may pay to do things by trial and error as opposed to calculated steps. In those cases, rather than spending an hour exploring a problem, it may be more effective to implement the best possible solution we can think of right away and see if it works, iterating when necessary.

    We see innumerable examples in our own work that suggest this to be true: third-parties-turned-partners after we only dropped them a casual email, successful presentations scribbled down on the knee on our way to the lecture hall, random chatting up of VCs on networking events that lead to great intros. All while meticulously prepared and rehearsed pitches turned to a naught and letters on headed paper brought zero responses.

    I remember how realizing this for the first time left me puzzled. Why would more effort lead to worse results? One possibility is that by overthinking a problem we come up with complications that may not actually be there. Invariably, more often than not this could lead to a protracted stalemate, rather than a swift resolution. If that is true, then if you are not in a position to get a complete picture of the situation at hand in the first place perhaps you simply shouldn’t bother and take your best guess instead. Quincy Jones had a good saying for it: “paralysis from analysis” and he had a point there. Sometimes “just doing” is the solution itself: perform, not postpone.

    Performing, not Postponing
One of our greatest heroes Albert Einstein is quoted to once have said that if he had only one hour to save the world he would “spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” It’s a profoundly illuminating statement of the late genius’ philosophy and his approach to tackling problems. It proposes that better understanding of complications leads to better solutions.
Undeniably it is so. However, the underlying assumption of this proposition appears to be that one actually can, or is able to, understand the problem in question. The reality shows that it may not always be that way. Even if understanding of the problem is within our capabilities, we may not necessarily have the resources to actually do so, and vice versa. Not all situations are of course like that, but where gathering required information in itself is not an impossible task it simply may not make business sense to do so. This is especially true in day-to-day operations where cost of failure can be marginal compared to the cost of due diligence. Therefore, in certain situations it may pay to do things by trial and error as opposed to calculated steps. In those cases, rather than spending an hour exploring a problem, it may be more effective to implement the best possible solution we can think of right away and see if it works, iterating when necessary.
We see innumerable examples in our own work that suggest this to be true: third-parties-turned-partners after we only dropped them a casual email, successful presentations scribbled down on the knee on our way to the lecture hall, random chatting up of VCs on networking events that lead to great intros. All while meticulously prepared and rehearsed pitches turned to a naught and letters on headed paper brought zero responses.
I remember how realizing this for the first time left me puzzled. Why would more effort lead to worse results? One possibility is that by overthinking a problem we come up with complications that may not actually be there. Invariably, more often than not this could lead to a protracted stalemate, rather than a swift resolution. If that is true, then if you are not in a position to get a complete picture of the situation at hand in the first place perhaps you simply shouldn’t bother and take your best guess instead. Quincy Jones had a good saying for it: “paralysis from analysis” and he had a point there. Sometimes “just doing” is the solution itself: perform, not postpone.

    Performing, not Postponing

    One of our greatest heroes Albert Einstein is quoted to once have said that if he had only one hour to save the world he would “spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution.” It’s a profoundly illuminating statement of the late genius’ philosophy and his approach to tackling problems. It proposes that better understanding of complications leads to better solutions.

    Undeniably it is so. However, the underlying assumption of this proposition appears to be that one actually can, or is able to, understand the problem in question. The reality shows that it may not always be that way. Even if understanding of the problem is within our capabilities, we may not necessarily have the resources to actually do so, and vice versa. Not all situations are of course like that, but where gathering required information in itself is not an impossible task it simply may not make business sense to do so. This is especially true in day-to-day operations where cost of failure can be marginal compared to the cost of due diligence. Therefore, in certain situations it may pay to do things by trial and error as opposed to calculated steps. In those cases, rather than spending an hour exploring a problem, it may be more effective to implement the best possible solution we can think of right away and see if it works, iterating when necessary.

    We see innumerable examples in our own work that suggest this to be true: third-parties-turned-partners after we only dropped them a casual email, successful presentations scribbled down on the knee on our way to the lecture hall, random chatting up of VCs on networking events that lead to great intros. All while meticulously prepared and rehearsed pitches turned to a naught and letters on headed paper brought zero responses.

    I remember how realizing this for the first time left me puzzled. Why would more effort lead to worse results? One possibility is that by overthinking a problem we come up with complications that may not actually be there. Invariably, more often than not this could lead to a protracted stalemate, rather than a swift resolution. If that is true, then if you are not in a position to get a complete picture of the situation at hand in the first place perhaps you simply shouldn’t bother and take your best guess instead. Quincy Jones had a good saying for it: “paralysis from analysis” and he had a point there. Sometimes “just doing” is the solution itself: perform, not postpone.

  8. Expertise that is now geographically dispersed and isolated will become increasingly interconnected to the benefit of lifelong learning.

    — Roy D. Pea, 2002

  9. Silicon Valley Cheat Sheet

    Building a company in Silicon Valley is a different kind of ball game. What’s mentioned most often is that people take more risks, it is OK to fail, and talking to competition is business as usual. But not all differences are clear right off the bat, some are harder to articulate. We did our best and put together a list of six such hidden from the naked eye differences that stood out the most in our opinion. If you’ve recently moved, or contemplating a move to the Valley, these should definitely help you hit the ground running. 

    Silicon Valley Cheat Sheet
Building a company in Silicon Valley is a different kind of ball game. What’s mentioned most often is that people take more risks, it is OK to fail, and talking to competition is business as usual. But not all differences are clear right off the bat, some are harder to articulate. We did our best and put together a list of six such hidden from the naked eye differences that stood out the most in our opinion. If you’ve recently moved, or contemplating a move to the Valley, these should definitely help you hit the ground running. 

    Silicon Valley Cheat Sheet

    Building a company in Silicon Valley is a different kind of ball game. What’s mentioned most often is that people take more risks, it is OK to fail, and talking to competition is business as usual. But not all differences are clear right off the bat, some are harder to articulate. We did our best and put together a list of six such hidden from the naked eye differences that stood out the most in our opinion. If you’ve recently moved, or contemplating a move to the Valley, these should definitely help you hit the ground running. 

  10. Next episode

    image

    It’s been 14 months since we’ve begun development. During these months we learnt and discovered new ideas. We grew together as a team. We endured difficulties and prevailed upon challenges. Now we are about to do something we always dreamed of. At the end of this week we’ll begin our journey to California. We are going to spend 6 months working right under the steep hills of San Francisco. Out of everything we’ve ever done, this is probably the most daring one so far. We quit our jobs, rented out our apartments and pulled out our savings. There are no safeguards, no safety nets to fall onto, not even a plan B. What will be the outcome, only time will tell. Deep down in our hearts we feel that this is the right thing to do. Let the next episode begin.