The Best of the Best: Hotel Tonight

I don't think I've written here explicitly about Zipcar but, if I did, you'd think it was a paid advertisement. I can't say enough good things about them and I'm a huge advocate for car sharing (though, if someone invented teleporting, I'd have to switch my stance…). I get regular email communications from them and fairly recently, they sent over a discount code for a hotel booking through an iPhone app called "Hotel Tonight."

Perhaps I'm atypical or maybe this is how I fit into the millennial sterotype, but I don't always book hotels. On at least a couple of occasions, I've gone with the AirBnB-type rental in lieu of a hotel and have been very happy. Additionally, when I do book hotels, I don't have a ton of brand affinity. Generally, I try to stay at nicer hotels but tend to find better deals at boutique hotels so I don't necessarily have Hilton points or anything like that I'm trying to rack up.

That said, Anthony and I were planning for a very abbreviated trip to Boston for my birthday and we were in the market for a hotel room. I had briefly looked at the AirBnB market and the pickings were pretty slim. On a whim, I decided to download the Hotel Tonight app. I think what immediately impressed me about this app is how streamlined it was to use. Many apps push you to create an account before you even start using the app. I typically dislike this approach because it's really a cheap way to gain users — you can say you have 1 million users but if most of them signed up once and then didn't continue to use your app later, what value was it to have those folks signed up?

Want to try out this app?  Use my promo code "JGALLARDO42" and you can get $25 off your first booking.
Want to try out this app? Use my promo code "JGALLARDO42" and you can get $25 off your first booking.

I wanted to use my promo code so, prior to booking, I went to the tab that looks like one for profile information and loaded in all my pertinent information, including the promo code. Once the code is loaded into your account, it will be applied to your reservation at checkout. You don't have to do anything extra to apply it which is nice.

Really clear error messaging when you don't have a signal.  And look!  No "hamburger"!
Really clear error messaging when you don't have a signal. And look! No "hamburger"!

Additionally, another point to note is that you don't have a "hamburger" menu here that hides a whole bunch of options you couldn't figure out how to fit into your app. The options presented make it clear what Hotel Tonight is trying to do: get you to book with their hotel partners AND refer friends to Hotel Tonight to drive their download/membership/engagement numbers higher. Also, the error conditions — when you dont have wireless or cell signal, for example — are really well done.

One of the really neat things about this app is that you can track hotel prices for a given location over a certain period of time in which you want to book and Hotel Tonight will notify you if the prices have gone down. This was actually very helpful to me as I thought I had missed out on a deal but the next day received a notication that the prices were lower and, sure enough, the original hotel I wanted to book was available again.

All you have to do is authenticate with your thumb!
All you have to do is authenticate with your thumb!

The absolute best part of this app, however, is the integration with Apple Pay. Paying for your hotel is incredibly easy. After hitting the "Book Now" button on a listing, there is nothing left for you to enter. Because I've already entered all my information, the only thing left to do is pay. From the confirmation screen, I can see the dates I'm signing up for and the full price I'll be charged. Simply authenticating with my thumbprint is the last step and confirms that I am authorized to make this purchase.

Expedia's app has an accelerometer controlled door tag and really poor error messages...
Expedia's app has an accelerometer controlled door tag and really poor error messages…

In what has lately been a very busy time for me, I've found that apps that make my life easier have truly been vital. Hotel Tonight will definitely fall into that category and I wouldn't hesitate to use it again in the future. Competitors such as Expedia, for example, often do too much or try too hard to sell add ons/gimmicks rather than focusing on the right customer experience to make the act of booking travel less of an ordeal.

The New York Yankees Don't Always Dominate

The New York Yankees are well-known in the baseball world for having many many championships. While I'm a much bigger fan of the other baseball team in the city (the New York Mets), I still end up finding myself at Yankee Stadium often enough. Ah, the things we do for love!

That said, on our most recent trip to Yankee Stadium we were approached by a young lady offering us the opportunity to take our photograph. This seems to happen a lot at most sports venues and, if you are with a large group, it's nice to have someone else take a group shot — even if you do have to go retrieve it later and pay a boatload of money for it. Though the woman who took our photo was very nice, she handed us a poorly designed business card sized piece of paper for us to use in order to retrieve our photo.

I've done this before but I was surprised to find that, of all the stadiums at which I've done this, the Yankees have the absolute worst fan photo user interface. Let me explain…

The business card instructs me to go to a specific website and that my photo code is XYZ (for example). When I arrive on the website, it isn't immediately clear to me where my photo code comes into play. I click on "Baseball Fan Photos" instead of "Soccer Fan Photos" — that much is clear.

Which game did we go to again?
Which game did we go to again?

Then, once I'm in the baseball area, all I see are various dates of games. Again, it's still not immediately clear where I'm supposed to enter my photo code. Also, I've had this card sitting at the bottom of my purse for a few weeks now — without going back to my calendar, it's really hard for me to remember the date of the game I went to. However, that's exactly the exercise the New York Yankees expect you to embark upon when selecting your photos.

Now which of these cryptic folders should I open?
Now which of these cryptic folders should I open?

I went back to my calendar and found out when I went to the game. It was a Sunday in mid-July so I found it. At this point, it now shows me a list of numbers appended by "NY" — I see "09NY" and notice that this matches my photo code. Again, I still don't have a way of entering my code and quickly retrieving the photos from this particular day.

Searching gets you nowhere...
Searching gets you nowhere…

Nonetheless, I decide to click on "09NY" and see what happens. At this point, over 300 pictures load in a thumbnail view. I'm still not clear on whether I can search but I do see a "Search" button so I click on that to see if maybe I can enter the rest of my photo code to get directly to our photo. Sadly, when I attempt to do that, all I get is a black overlay over the page, but no interface or anything appears via which I can search.

Given that I still can't search, I decide that I'll just browse. The one thing they did get right in this user interface is that they use lazy loading rather than having me click through 10 pages of content. I continue scrolling until I find my photo code number. Once I find it, I'm severely disappointed — the people in this photo are not me and my friends! Not even close to being us. And I have absolutely no way of finding the photo I was trying to find.

Who are these people?!
Who are these people?!

This UI is so severely broken and such a negative touchpoint for an organization that is such an established brand. The New York Yankees may want to consider partnering with a better vendor to do this work in order to maintain the kind of on-the-field dominance they exhibit in their off-the-field interactions with their fans.

Wearables for Women

Wearable tech has been all the rage for a little while now. Everyone is glued to their mobile phone so it seems perfectly reasonable to wear something on our body that makes that connection a bit more seamless. The NIKE Fuel Band was an attractive option but was primarily geared at folks who were interested in measuring their physical fitness rather than the number of likes on their latest Instagram photo. Alternatively, the Moto 360 Smart Watch is — quite frankly — very smartly designed and a great companion for an Android phone…but it is LARGE and in charge. For a woman with a slight wrist like myself, the 360 is simply ginormous.

While I'm a firm believer that companies don't need to make a "pink one" to appeal to women, I do believe that the wearables market is a bit more nuanced. This might sound vain, but I'm in the market to buy a wearable and would like to have something I'm likely to wear daily meaning that it is less likely to clash with my existing wardrobe. Since I am in the market for such a device, I started doing some research to see what exists besides the obvious wrist devices from Jawbone, Samsung, Nike and Motorola. I found that there are quite a few options but none seems to stand out as a clear definitive winner.

MICA cuff designed by Opening Ceremony
MICA cuff designed by Opening Ceremony
One such option is the high concept Opening Ceremony designed MICA cuff by Intel. The website for this product (and reviews I came across) are pretty light on what the technical specs are for this. It's described as a "beautiful bracelet first, a brilliant piece of wearable technology second." This seems to explain the lack of tech specifications as it appears technology is taking a back seat here (which begs the question: do you think women aren't interested in these details?!). As far as I can tell, it doesn't need to be tied to a wearer's mobile phone but then I have so many questions! How do you manage what it knows about you? What is the UI like for setting this up? Can I talk to it (to dictate messages, for example)? Will it talk to me (to feed me real-time directions while I'm walking or driving)? I assume we'll hear a little bit more about this when it actually hits real consumers who have pre-ordered the MICA for delivery in Q1 of 2015. Rebecca Minkoff has a similar offering coming as part of a collaboration with Case-Mate but, per the fashion industry trend, the focus of all communications thus far is on how great the device will look and not so much about how it will become essential to my life.

MEMI wearable bangle
MEMI wearable bangle
An alternative to this is the MEMI (not sure why we're always yelling these product names!) which is closer to the MICA but definitely less feature rich. In the case of the MEMI, it is a bangle with the ability to vibrate and flash some lights. You then configure what these vibrations and flashing lights mean to you so they can serve as important alerts. Their website indicates that you sync it to your cellphone so you'll need to be within range of the device — er, actually, your iDevice as MEMI is only compatible with iPhone 4S and newer. There is definitely some value to having a way for important communications or notifications to "breakthrough" (as they put it) to your bracelet but it feels like it falls a little flat due to its lack of any sort of screen. It wins points for being discreet, but I don't see this working its way into my everyday life. I think a successful wearable should be something that I would feel naked if I left the house without.

Ringly's "Dive Bar" option
Ringly's "Dive Bar" option
Ringly is another wearable, similar to MEMI, except instead of a bracelet, it is a ring that resembles costume jewelry. I kinda dig the one called Dive Bar (it's sooo pretty…) but at $195, it's a bit steep. The manufacturers of Ringly appear to have a nicely designed app by which you can customize your ring to vibrate and change colors for a variety of different notification events. Unlike MEMI, Ringly is compatible with both iOS and Android-based phones. Of course, Ringly is still consumption only it seems. It just pushes notifications to the ring and doesn't offer any means of responding to certain notifications (like calls or text messages, for example). This bothers me a lot about the women's wearables market as I'm noticing a trend. There's very little focus on helping increase productivity (can a girl get a text auto responder at least?). In the case of Ringly, their website indicates you can have a special alert to know when "he texted"; MEMI mentions you can get special alerts for when the babysitter calls — because the babysitter would be calling you, not your husband, because you know, normative gender roles and all that. I get that these are valid use cases for their devices, but they feel really limiting to me.

Yikes, Cuff! Why is she in an alley looking over her shoulder?!
Yikes, Cuff! Why is she in an alley looking over her shoulder?!
Speaking of limiting, a more scary entrant to women's wearables is Cuff. Cuff's positioning is that women need to be notified, tracked and kept. While its app pushes notifications to your bauble of choice — you have the choice of a few different bracelets plus a necklace — the wearable itself has a "Life Alert" type button that, when activated, notifies people (your "In Case of Emergency" list, essentially) that you may be in an emergency situation. This, for me, is a little terrifying; first, this makes the idea of a butt dial so much less innocuous. Usually, when I receive an unintended phone call, I assume the person accidentally called me; with Cuff, I'd have to assume my friend is in dire need of help and with the help of Cuff's geolocation assistance, go find her. Second, I think this is basically saying that women need to have a safety device on their person at all times because you never know when you are going to be abducted. What a terrible thought! Doesn't everyone need a quick way of getting in touch with their ICE contacts (I'm surprised this isn't built into iOS…)? Why is this targeted at women? And, in a real emergency, would a woman think to use her cuff to call a friend? Would this help or hinder in a real emergency? You can decide — Cuff is available for pre-order and ships March 2015 for both iPhone and Android.

Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 7.46.58 AMA more straightforward entrant to the wearables market from the fashion world is Tory Burch. Burch has actually partnered with Fitbit to essentially create "cases" for their Flex tracker product. Instead of the band typically associated with Fitbit products, Fitbit Flex users can insert their Flex into various Tory Burch wearable accessories. At current time, there are three different finish options for a cuff and three different finish options for a pendant. The pendant seems to be an elegant solution to counting your steps while also looking elegant for a business meeting, for example. However, as you can guess, this integration purely tracks your activity and, unlike some of the other examples noted, doesn't provide any degree of interaction or push notification.

So, while wearable technology has been flooding the market lately, it doesn't appear that there are any clear definitive winners — especially with many products officially coming to market in the first half of 2015. With the Apple Watch set to debut in Q2 of 2015, it will be interesting to see how that changes the market. Personally, I'm very curious to see how the Apple device will impact the market of wearables for women, specifically. Apple doesn't market its devices specifically to women but they've already indicated their watch will come in a smaller size that seems to respond to the fact that many existing wearable watches (like the Motorola watch) are just too large for some wrists. That said, I'm not fully sold on the Apple Watch based on what I've seen so far. But then again, I said the same thing about the iPad and now I happily tote one around on my travels.

If you've tried any of the devices I've noted, please feel free to let me know in the comments!

The Value of Computer Science

I read an article today on Read Write Web decrying the Computer Science degree as something that may no longer be necessary for a fruitful career in technology. I don't agree with this statement. Well, at least not entirely.

I admit, I learned a lot of the web development skills that come naturally to me simply by being on the internet beginning at a ridiculously young age. And with the plethora of online learning tools available now (from technical blogs to iTunes University offering free videos of classes at Stanford), you can really gain a lot of knowledge online and at little to no cost. Definitely cheaper than my degree at NYU, anyway.

Also, sure, GPA at a top school (or any school, for that matter) is not a clear indicator as to whether a given person will be successful in a particular role. I know lots of folks who flunked (read: drank) through their first year in college and ended up turning things around, graduating and becoming responsible and accomplished adults.

And then, of course, there's the value of experience. Experience, in my opinion, is the best instructor you can ever have. Banging your head in front of a computer screen for hours because you forgot one (ONE!) semicolon in your code will teach a very valuable lesson. Doing freelance work or gathering a smattering of industry jobs will definitely also help you gain experience as you go.

But…

I've been seeing a disturbing trend. I've met people who say they are proficient in JavaScript, for example, but really only understand abstracted frameworks (like jQuery and etc). I've come across people who know all the right buzz words to use but don't really understand how logic works. I've been in "bootcamp" classes where pre-requisite programming knowledge is required (CS 101, basically), and people don't know what a "variable" or an "object" is.

Look, I'm not saying that I'm the best programmer in the world. I'm also not saying that obtaining a Computer Science degree will make you better than someone who doesn't have one. However, what a Computer Science degree did for me was give me a world within which I can frame problems and solutions. I understand that most programming languages contain similar constructs so the only barrier to entry is just getting the syntax and best practices down (that's the stuff of experience). Plus, I got to spend four years immersing myself in all that. It is hard to find this long of an uninterrupted chunk of time outside of college.

I was at a conference last week Friday (GothamJS) and Tom MacWright said something that really resonated with me.

"Use abstractions for efficiency, not ignorance."

That's exactly the problem I'm seeing with new programmers. They rely on abstractions to just get the job done which unfortunately results in them not REALLY LEARNING ANYTHING. Whether it's leaning heavily on jQuery or other framework when vanilla JS would've been sufficient or (RAGE!) copying and pasting solutions directly from StackOverflow or some other tech solutions site, I see it far too often from novices.

It makes me really sad. I love to encourage people (especially ladies, if you are reading this) to get into coding. I've done career day at various middle schools in the area telling kids that coding is a way for them to gain some control in their lives — for once they can tell something what to do! — but with that great power comes great responsibility. You have to be responsible for the code you push out into the world. This was also something that was echoed at GothamJS. If you don't understand what you are creating, how can you possibly take responsibility for it? Also, if you don't understand what you are creating, how are you sure it is solving a problem? And how are you sure it is solving the RIGHT problem? And how are you sure that you aren't introducing MORE problems (especially performance-related problems)?

Now, that said, I think there's a lot of "real world" stuff for which my Computer Science degree didn't necessarily 100% prepare me. But I have a feeling that's pretty much college in general and a much larger problem to solve. I've always felt that Computer Science degree programs should offer "tracks" that can help students gain more marketable specialized skills. I was always interested in web development so I took EVERY web development class offered at the higher levels. But, if you are interested in networking, for example, your "track" should be specialized so you end up taking all the networking classes offered and etc. Seems to me akin to how you don't just major in "Engineering," but rather you might select Mechanical Engineering or Electrical Engineering. Perhaps Computer Science needs to be a smidgen less broad, at least at the undergraduate level, to better prepare students for life after college.

And, conversely, "learn to code" bootcamps may need to incorporate a little more theory into their offerings. My experience has been that "breadth" of knowledge — knowing how to discover solutions to problems that may not exist yet! — can be a great complement to "depth" of knowledge.

To leave you with a very real life example, consider Flash. Flash (and ActionScript, the language that powered it) used to be a coveted skill for a web professional to have. Since the proliferation of the iPad and emergence of client-side methods for simple animating (HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript frameworks), the demand for Flash skills has diminished. If you focused on learning Flash but not truly understanding the underlying programming concepts that made ActionScript work, for example, you might be shit out of luck right now. However, if you learned basic programming constructs as you learned ActionScript, you might be finding success applying those same concepts to JavaScript (or some other scripting language) with great success.

The moral of this story? Understanding the LOGIC behind WHY things work the way they do, by whatever means you get there, is the REAL must have skill.

On Being an Adult: Handling Conflict in Professional Settings

There's a story of some weight unfolding around some people in the tech community who were fired as a result of some offensive-leaning comments made at PyCon. I won't go into too much detail but basically a woman, Adria Richards, overheard some comments which she deemed to be offensive. She tweeted about them and included in said tweet a photo she snapped of the men who made the comments. The men's identity was eventually confirmed by the conference organizers and not only were they booted from the conference but they also lost their jobs. Richards, who tweeted about the behavior that she deemed to be offensive, has also lost her job. Reactions to the story have been mixed. Should the guys have made the comments? Should the photo have been posted on Twitter? Were the comments blown out of proportion? Should anyone have been fired? Everyone has their own opinion and, for better or for worse (I hear Richards is on the receiving end of threats of bodily harm), the right to express that opinion.

I don't want to fan any flames here so I won't go into my opinion on the matter. To be honest, the issue is not black and white so I'm sure we could discuss that for hours on end. My objective is to talk about something that never really gets discussed as much as it should: conflict resolution in professional environments. Continue reading "On Being an Adult: Handling Conflict in Professional Settings"

Why The Beatles on iTunes is Important

Yesterday, Apple (Apple Computer, the company behind my beloved iPhone) changed their homepage to read that on Tuesday November 16th, a big announcement was coming from iTunes.  Over the years, Apple has made lots of big announcements but usually they are pretty easy to forecast.  For example, around "back to school" season, Apple usually has a music event where they'll release new iPods and refresh iTunes software.  This big announcement, in the middle of November, was not really in keeping with Apple's usual release cycle.  My first thought: The Beatles must be coming to iTunes.

The Beatles on iTunes
Screenshot of Apple.com announcement of Beatles on iTunes

And turns out, I was correct!  The Apple.com homepage changed to reveal that The Beatles have officially come to iTunes.  The new content available for purchase on iTunes now includes the fab four's 13 studio albums as well as video content (concerts, commercials, and etc).  As a big Beatles fan, I'm really happy to see their catalog added to iTunes; but truthfully, it's far more important than just making me happy.  A lot of folks on the internet (well, in my twitter-verse at least) are making noise about being somewhat disappointed by this announcement.  It's actually a really big deal for The Beatles' members and their estates, as well as a big deal for Apple Computer.  However, it's a much bigger deal for music history. Continue reading "Why The Beatles on iTunes is Important"

Photoshop v. Illustrator (or: who cares?)

Lately, I've been hearing a lot of chatter about which tools web professionals should use and why. I'd like to begin by saying that I've never been one to drone on about tools. My perspective is you need to choose the right tool for the job. How do you ascertain which tool is the right one? The right tool is the one that does the job.

Let's take an example from the painting world: Bob Ross. I remember being a small kid, watching Bob Ross create beautiful paintings on PBS. Later, I re-watched those programs and found that he was not using a fancy set of expensive brushes. But rather, he was using a standard painter's brush — something most people own or can easily and cheaply find at their local hardware store. In 30 minutes at a time, using a big bushy brush, he created some pretty great work and a following of folks who suddenly realized that painting was accessible to them. Continue reading "Photoshop v. Illustrator (or: who cares?)"