This startup lets your kid design a cardboard castle via tablet

If you’ve ever handed a tablet to a kid and watched them start swiping and tapping like they were born to do it, you know how powerful tech is in the hands of children. Tablets can open an entirely new world to kids, but the rise of tablet play has inevitably led a decline in the amount of time kids spend making their own fun, which is a crucial part of childhood development. There’s a litany of apps that limit screen time in an effort to get kids to unplug and interact with the “real world”, but one startup is taking a different approach and attempting to bridge the gap between digital and imaginative play.

The basic idea behind PopUp Play is that one of the greatest “toys” a kid can have is a giant cardboard box and an imagination, thus transforming a refrigerator box into a castle or spaceship. But recognizing that in today’s world, more playtime on the tablet is translating to less time spent interacting with the world in the jovial, imaginative way that kids are wont to do, Amelia Cosgrove and Bryan Thomas dreamt up PopUp Play, an Austin-based startup that brings tablet play into the real world with cardboard “playscapes” — sturdy cardboard castles that are designed by children via a tablet app.

As a kid, Cosgrove spent a lot of time in cardboard boxes. Co-founder Thomas tells me how their startup started with a conversation over lunch with colleagues during which Cosgrove recounted her experience as a kid, playing in a boxes that became rocket ships and pieces of imagined worlds.

“PopUp Play is this blend between offline, imaginative play and online play,” says Thomas. “Kids start in the PopUp Play Build Lab, which is a 3D design tool for kids, and they design their own custom Playscape –like a castle, a gingerbread house or a rocket ship — and then push a button, and a few days later, we deliver the design to their door, exactly as they designed it in the app. So, they’re literally designing a physical structure in the app that we make and deliver to their house, and they get to play inside.”

PopUp Play starts with letting kids create and design custom Playscapes on its Build Lab app and then gives them the experience of seeing something they designed appear at their doors. Made from rugged, play-tested cardboard, they assemble in a few minutes and can be quickly dismantled and stored flat until playtime comes round again.

Starting from basic frameworks, kids can customize their Playscapes with structural components like drawbridges, towers, and windows, along with design elements like a custom coat of arms or decals of dragons, torches and unicorns. The Build Lab itself is a kid-friendly 3D design program that gives kids a little bit of guidance and a lot of freedom as they create.

“The only thing that’s fixed on the castle is that it has to have four walls. Beyond that, kids can add windows, towers, doors anywhere they want them. And then we provide a little bit of gentle guidance in the app to help them make decisions with respect to the design itself,” says Thomas. “For some of these younger kids, the app has what we call gentle nudges to help them make good decisions about where to put structural components so that the structure actually stands up. Along the way, they’re learning good engineering and design practices.”

Though I’m a bit older than the target demographic, I took the app for a spin and created pretty incredible castle. Really. It has my name, a coat of arms, a dragon and lots of flames. Feel free to tell me how great it is:

  Playscapes are intended for kids age 3-9 and, as such, they’re designed to stand up to a lot of use and abuse. What’s more, playscapes are a flat price of $99 plus $10 for shipping, meaning that whether a kid opts for a simple-but-elegant castle or one that’s got three towers, five windows and a drawbridge, the price is the same. Much unlike the many children’s apps that allow kids to rack up hefty bills with in-app purchases (like the ones that Kanye publicly denounced just a few weeks ago), PopUp Play isn’t looking to limit kids by putting a premium on creatively-designed structures.

“We really wanted kids to feel like they had full breadth of creativity without any incremental costs or repercussions,” says Thomas, “because that’s just lame.”

While the $99 price point might seem a bit high when the alternative is a refrigerator box and a set of markers, the startup believes the educational aspects of the playscapes will provide justification. Though kids have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cool toys, there isn’t much opportunity for them to translate a learning experience into a large physical structure that’s meant for play. PopUp Play’s playscapes present something of a new creative opportunity for kids that comes to life in a big way.

“This is something that a kid designs and actually gets inside,” says Thomas. “When I was a kid, I was really frustrated that everything was always kid-sized and scaled down, and it was never as cool as what you saw in the commercials. So PopUp Play completed focused on this idea that it’s as good as you saw in the commercials. The promise of designing your own thing and then actually going through it is just as awesome as you thought it would be.”

While the castle is the only available framework for now, the end of the month will bring two new frameworks: a gingerbread house and a rocket ship. PopUp Play’s Build Lab is available in the App Store now, and parents and kids will be able to order playscapes right away. And, for those aunts, uncles and grandparents who may want to get in on the action, PopUp Play offers gift codes that kids and parents can redeem in-app for a playscape whenever they’re ready to get to work designing.

Google’s logo gets redesigned for the Alphabet era

Search giant Google unveiled an updated version of its logo today, which last saw a significant change back in 1999.
The redesigned logo was done to mark a new era for Google, the company said in its announcement. Last month Google Inc. restructured and rebranded as Alphabet — a holding company that owns a slightly slimmed down version of Google as well as several other organizations like Nest, Google X, and Calico. The company states: “As you’ll see, we’ve taken the Google logo and branding, which were originally built for a single desktop browser page, and updated them for a world of seamless computing across an endless number of devices and different kinds of inputs (such as tap, type and talk).”
The new logo should debut across all of Google’s products and services in the near future, the company said. Check out the video embedded below for a quick look at all the past versions.

The Return of Middle Managers

“That experiment broke. I just had to admit it.” — Ryan Carson, CEO of Treehouse Island, on his attempt to run the company without managers

There is currently a widely-held view among organizational design experts and pundits that managers, particularly middle managers, are a harmful artifact of hierarchically-structured, command-and-control organizations. Conventional wisdom holds that middle managers, and their responsibilities and stereotypical behaviors, are outdated and severely constrict the speed at which a business can operate. Flat, democratic organizations made up of loose, recombinant relationships have gained favor in the org design world today because they enable agility and efficiency.
There’s just one problem with that view – it’s not entirely accurate. It represent an ideal that may be right for some organizations, but very wrong for many others.
Carson and Treehouse Island’s failed experiment was one of the examples given in a recent Wall Street Journal article (behind paywall) titled “Radical Idea at the Office: Middle Managers”. The common thread between the companies mentioned in the article was that the elimination of bosses had the opposite effect of what had been envisioned. Productivity decreased because workers weren’t sure of their responsibilities and couldn’t forge consensus-based decisions needed to move forward. Innovation also waned, because new ideas went nowhere without a management-level individual to champion and fund them. Employee morale even took a hit, because no one took over the former middle management’s role of providing encouragement and motivation when they were needed.
Research of over 100 organizations conducted by an INSEAD professor led to this conclusion, cited in the WSJ piece:

“Employees want people of authority to reassure them, to give them direction. It’s human nature.”

Enabling Technologies that Don’t

Another problem experienced by many of the organizations mentioned in the WSJ article was that technologies meant to enable employees to work productively in a manager-less workplace failed to do so. Enterprise chat systems were specifically fingered as a culprit, for a variety of reasons.
At Treehouse Island, which had never used email, decision-making was severely compromised by employees opining on chat threads when they had no expertise on the given subject. This led to “endless discussions”. The chat technology drove conversations, but ideas rarely made it past discussion to a more formal plan. Work tasks informally noted and assigned without accountability in the chat application mostly got lost in the shuffle and weren’t completed. Treehouse Island eventually turned to other communications channels and even acknowledged that email has valid uses.

Worker Education and Training, Not Managers, Are the Problem

While I agree with the assessment that human nature is a barrier to effective manager-less workplaces, I also think that our base impulses can be minimized or completely overcome by alternative, learned attitudes and behaviors. Society and institutions in the United States have programmed multiple generations to submit to authority, seeking and accepting its orders and guidance. Our educational system has largely been designed to to produce ‘loyal and reliable’ workers who can thrive in a narrowly-defined role under the direction of a superior. Putting individuals who have been educated this way into situations where they must think for themselves and work with others to get things done is like throwing a fish out of water.
As for enterprise chat technology, it has seen documented success when deployed and used to help small teams coordinate their work. However, most of those teams working in chat channels either have a single, designated manager with the authority to make things happen, or they are able call upon a small number of individuals who can and will assume unofficial, situational leadership roles when needed. Absent people to act with authority, chat-enabled groups become mired in inaction, as document in the WSJ article. As I put it in my recent Gigaom Research post on enterprise real-time messaging,

The real reason that employees and their organizations continue to communicate poorly is human behavior. People generally don’t communicate unless they have something to gain by doing so. Power, influence, prestige, monetary value, etc. Well-designed technology can make it easier and more pleasant for people to communicate, but it does very little to influence, much less actually change, their behaviors.”

We will see more experiments with Holocracy and other forms of organization that eliminate layers of management and depend on individuals to be responsible for planning, coordinating and conducting their own work activities. Some will succeed; most will fail. We can (and should!) create and implement new technologies that, at least in theory, support the democratization of work. However, until systemic changes are made in the way people are educated and trained to function in society and at work, companies without managers will remain a vision, not a common reality.

Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge: A new look for Samsung and a new wallet

We were expecting a major reboot of the Galaxy S line, and that’s what Samsung gave us Sunday night at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, in the form of the S6 and S6 Edge. The two new phones represent a major and stunning redesign of the Samsung line, but the changes weren’t just cosmetic. The biggest new technical feature to arrive in this Galaxy reboot was the much-anticipated mobile wallet Samsung Pay, which uses two different contactless transaction technologies to expand its reach far beyond that of any other mobile payment service.

Samsung has done away from the plastic cases that always characterized its phones and adopted Gorilla Glass front and back panels, which are then encased with a metal band. Also gone are Samsung’s removable battery and micro-SD card slot. The biggest cosmetic difference between the S6 and the S6 Edge is that the Edge has curved edges on both the front and back sides of the device.

Otherwise the two phones have almost identical specs. They both sport 5.1-inch Super AMOLED screens with 577 pixels per inch of resolution. They have an F1.9 lens in their 16-megapixel rear and 5-MP front cameras. They come with 3GB of RAM, and since they have no expandable memory slot, Samsung is selling the phones in three storage configurations ranging from 32 to 128GB.

The device Samsung unveiled at MWC in Barcelona used eight-core Exynos chip, but Samsung didn’t reveal any details about whether it would make a variant for the U.S. market. Qualcomm has supplied its Snapdragon processors to Galaxies in the past, but this Samsung may be making a switch. Qualcomm recently reported a key smartphone customer has dropped Snapdragon from its designs and Samsung has developed its own integrated LTE radio-application processor technology.

The S6 and SG Edge will be the first smartphones to use Samsung Pay, a contactless payments technology that’s intended to match [company]Apple[/company] Pay, but in reality will probably surpass it. That’s because Samsung isn’t just using near-field communications (NFC), which only works on newer terminals, but a special LoopPay-developed chip that generates a magnetic field that can be read by any point-of-sale terminal with a mag stripe reader.

Samsung also announced deals with Visa and MasterCard to support tokenized transactions the way Apple Pay does, as well specific partnerships with card-issuing banks like [company]Chase[/company], [company]Citi[/company], [company]Bank of America[/company] and [company]US Bank[/company] to support their plastic in Samsung Pay. The wallet will initially be available to customers in Korea and the U.S. this summer, shortly after the Galaxy S6es debut on April 10, but Samsung said it will expand to other regions.

Finally, the S6 and S6 Edge will be the first Galaxy smartphones with wireless charging build directly in, replacing the Qi charge covers Samsung used in the S5. These new devices won’t just support Qi, but chargers using from Power Matters Alliance technology as well.


Striking a balance: How YouTube reinvented its TV app

Here’s a little secret about YouTube’s new TV app, which just launched on Roku streaming devices this week: It’s using the wrong shade of red.

YouTube user experience designer Henry Benjamin told me recently that his team intended to use the official YouTube red for the app’s new sidebar, only to find out during testing that it simply didn’t work. “It actually skews orange” when displayed on a TV screen, he explained, which is why his team decided to ultimately go with a slightly different shade.

YouTube's new TV app just launched on Roku's streaming devices.

YouTube’s new TV app just launched on Roku’s streaming devices.

Moving away from the brand-approved color may seem like a minor detail, but it shows how designing for TVs can be different from designing websites or even mobile apps. YouTube has been trying to get the experience on the TV screen right for some time. The Google-owned video service was one of the first to play with a leanback experience back in 2010, and has since rolled out three different iterations of its TV app. Benjamin and YouTube product manager Sarah Ali recently gave me a look behind the curtains on the evolution of the YouTube TV app.

The first version of YouTube's TV app had a too complicated information architecture.

The first version of YouTube’s TV app had a too complicated information architecture.

YouTube’s first full-featured TV app used a very hierarchical approach to organize videos. Users had to click through categories, channels and ultimately lists of videos to find what they wanted to watch. “Videos vs. clicks is a real key challenge,” explained Ali, adding that this first iteration was way too click-heavy, hiding the actual videos behind multiple layers and making it way too hard for users to actually find what they wanted to watch.

The second version of YouTube's TV app was flatter, but didn't put enough of an emphasis on channels.

The second version of YouTube’s TV app was flatter, but didn’t put enough of an emphasis on channels.

The second version of the TV app, which launched on the PS3 in late 2012 and found its way onto other devices in 2013, tried to do away with these layers by putting videos front and center, making it easier to just jump right in and start watching without having to seek out content and navigate through lots of menus. This resulted in tens of thousands of hours of more videos viewed in the first week alone, Ali told me.

However, by focusing primarily on single videos, YouTube also deemphasized channels and playlists. That ran counter to the service’s attempts to get more people to subscribe to channels and return to keep watching serialized content with higher production values, which is also easier to sell to advertisers.

The new app comes with a sidebar than can be accessed when needed, but otherwise remains invisible.

The new app comes with a sidebar than can be accessed when needed, but otherwise remains invisible.

That’s why YouTube launched a new version of its TV app late last year, which has since found its way onto Xbox One, Sony’s PS3 and PS4, Wii U, many smart TVs, and now Roku’s current-generation streaming devices. The new app is aiming for more consistency across devices, which includes a left-hand sidebar that is hidden until used, much like on YouTube’s mobile apps.

The slide-out option also gave YouTube’s designers a chance to use up more space: The previous version of the app just used small icons for the sidebar channel guide, and only displayed titles when actually scrolling through the list. The new app combines icons with words, allowing users to more quickly find what they want.

The new app introduces a channel view that's very similar to the way YouTube presents channels on the web.

The new app introduces a channel view that’s very similar to the way YouTube presents channels on the web.

Also new is a channel view, which more closely resembles the channel page on YouTube’s website or within YouTube’s mobile apps. The previous version of YouTube’s TV app simply presented signed-in users with a gallery view of the most recent videos of a given channel.

Now, they are being greeted by channel art, and have an option to watch the channel trailer, or even subscribe to or unsubscribe from any channel. The new channel view also offers access to multiple rows of content, allowing publishers to show off their playlists and other curated content on the TV, much like they’ve already been doing on the web ad on mobile devices.

A design exploration of YouTube's TV app next to apps on other platforms, as shown off at Google I/0 2013.

A design exploration of YouTube’s TV app next to apps on other platforms, as shown off at Google I/0 2013.

YouTube’s designers originally considered an even bolder and somewhat more cinematic approach for its new TV app, which they first showed off during Google’s I/O developer conference in 2013. The actual implementation is a little more subdued, and much closer aligned with the look of the mobile and web apps, something that has become a key goal at YouTube. Said Benjamin: “If there is a deviation in consistency, then there needs to be a really good explanation.”

You know, like a shade of red that just doesn’t look right.

Will Pinterest prove its worth in 2015?

The next year will be the most important one of Pinterest’s life. Until now, the company has focused on its application and its audience, to the detriment of its coffers. It had the luxury to ignore money because it raised a nosebleed $764 million in venture funding to sustain itself. Like most adventurous startups, the money was raised on an unrealized, untested, uncertain premise: That advertising on a visual inspiration application would be highly lucrative.

Come New Year’s Day, that hypothesis will be put to the test for the first time on a large scale. After endless preparation, Pinterest’s year of reckoning has arrived.

In 2015, any brands will be able to do native advertising on Pinterest by paying to promote pins that appear alongside regular Pinterest content. Companies can use Pinterest’s reservation-based system, paying set prices to make sure their ads appear in people’s feeds. The auction-based system, where advertisers bid against each other, is still in beta.

Pinterest has been beta testing reservation-based promoted pins with a select group of partners since September 2013, moving slowly to make sure it nailed its advertising process and didn’t scare off users. According to Pinterest’s blog post about the wider-scale release, the beta test was hugely successful. Like regular pins, promoted pins are shared an average of 11 times, resulting in additional free impressions for advertisers (they only cough up money for the initial impression). These pins continue to be seen and shared after the advertiser stops paying to promote them.

The quiet social company decided to herald its big advertising news when the least amount of people would see it: Over the holiday break. It broke the story by publishing a blog post that ran at the same time as a New York Times feature on the news.

This is par for the course for Pinterest. The company regularly holds big parties at its office to celebrate the introduction of new product features, but when it comes to its revenue stream it prefers not to raise a fuss.

It’s possible that Pinterest is nervous about its reckoning moment and wants to experiment with advertising outside the prying eyes of the public. It’s hard to get to a $5 billion valuation in Silicon Valley without having brought in a cent of revenue. At this point, the stakes are high for Pinterest’s investors and the path is risky.

In the next twelve months, we’ll learn for the first time whether investors overvalued Pinterest or if the company is worth the war chest of funding it’s sitting on. If it’s the latter, [company]Google[/company] better look out. It has another rival creeping up to compete in the category of search.

Pinterest’s image-heavy application may give it a distinct advertising edge in the visual web.

Secret tries to save itself by imitating Yik Yak

Secret’s “dramatic” app update (which I foreshadowed earlier this month) has arrived. The Verge has published an in-depth look at the confessional app’s attempt to relaunch itself after user downloads and app engagement plummeted.

Secret now looks and operates a whole lot more like its rising competitor Yik Yak. Images no longer dominate the feed. Instead, it’s primarily text-based, with the pictures appearing as thumbnails. It has turned away from the media emphasis of its nemesis Whisper and has abolished the website that curated the popular Secrets.

Power Secret users (if there are any left) will cheer about the new addition of one-to-one messaging. In the first version of Secret, users wanted a chatting tool so badly they turned en masse to alternative service Anonyfish, which was created to address the hole in the Secret product. But now when someone posts a Secret, others can directly chat them, keeping their anonymity.

The biggest change in Secret’s relaunch is that users’ feeds will be divided into “friends” and “nearby” instead of “friends” and “explore.” The nearby function shows posts from anyone within set locations, like cities or universities. “It’s more important what is said than who said it,” Secret CEO David Byttow told The Verge. “Our goal is to facilitate conversation — either in a physical location, or socially, with your friends.”

That’s a total ripoff of Yik Yak’s core function, but before you scoff at the move you should know Secret isn’t the only one doing so. Twitter previewed a nearly identical feature itself during its recent earnings call and is reportedly working with Foursquare to power it. Take a look at the three product comparisons: Yik Yak first, Twitter second, and Secret third. See some similarities?

Screenshots of Yik Yak's location based post tool

Screenshots of Yik Yak’s location-based post tool

Twitter's location curated timelines

Twitter’s location curated timelines

Screenshot of Secret's new feed, via The Verge

Screenshot of Secret’s new feed, via The Verge

Yik Yak clearly has these other social apps on the run, lest they get overtaken by a newcomer. Since Yik Yak’s appearance, it has skyrocketed through the app download charts, gone viral in college communities (much the way [company]Facebook[/company] did), and raised $62 million from WhatsApp backer Sequoia in late November. Its location-feed premise is by no means proven, but it has shown enough traction to worry far bigger companies.

When I wrote a feature on Yik Yak in October, I asked “Could Yik Yak be the real winner among anonymity apps?” It looks as if the answer may be yes.

Here’s the strategy behind Airbnb’s mobile web redesign

Airbnb has redesigned its mobile web experience, bringing it into responsive union with its desktop website. The two applications will now work in sync, so changes made and features added to one will also appear on the other.

The shift highlights the growing importance of the mobile web and how to tackle its design structure. Airbnb has taken the stance that the mobile web is a funnel for people who are new to the Airbnb experience. They end up there by clicking links shared by friends or other media. They haven’t yet downloaded the app, but they want to be able to explore what Airbnb is about.

Therefore Airbnb wanted its mobile web homepage, unlike its mobile app, to look more like a landing page for newcomers. The mobile web became its own distinct experience, instead of a copy cat of either the mobile or desktop app.

It entices them with visuals and a search bar. “We needed to create an opportunity to learn about Airbnb without feeling like you’ve got to download the app,” Justin Santamaria, mobile product lead, told me. Like most other web properties, Airbnb has seen a huge shift to usage on mobile. One fifth of its users come through the mobile web specifically.

Because it’s a responsive design, features added to the desktop web will automatically translate to the mobile web too. That shift will also allow Airbnb to do more with its team of engineers, instead of having to devote clusters of people to mobile web changes and others to desktop. The design will allow for screen size flexibility. For example, the number of options shown in the “weekend getaways” feature could be six on mobile and twelve on desktop.

You can see the differences between the two mobile web home screens here (before: left; after: right). Instead of hammering people with listings, they’re prompted as to Airbnb’s purpose and given a search bar to peruse their own interests.

Old Airbnb mobile web home screen (left); New Airbnb mobile web home screen (right)

Old Airbnb mobile web home screen (left), new Airbnb mobile web home screen (right)

The new LinkedIn homepage is all about the warm fuzzies

LinkedIn introduced small but significant changes to its homepage design Thursday, simplifying its newsfeed and highlighting some interaction features that will come to all users next year. The shifts in the design bring the connection element of the service front and center, encouraging users to build their relationships with each other over time.

The first most obvious change is the number of user views at the top of the page. It gives someone a snapshot of how many people saw the content they post. LinkedIn offered these features before, but they were buried in the righthand sidebar, out of eyesight. “We realized this was something we needed to bring front and center to the desktop,” LinkedIn VP Joff Redfern told me.

New LinkedIn homepage design

New LinkedIn homepage design

Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 2.00.10 PM

Old LinkedIn homepage design


LinkedIn is also doubling down on its content strategy, no doubt following behind competitors like Facebook. When there are compelling articles and posts to peruse on a social network feed, its users stick around longer. And the best way to motivate users to post is to highlight the feedback they receive when they do.

Keeping with that theme, the company has cleaned up its newsfeed. There’s less button clutter at the top, drawing users attention straight to the content.

The second change to LinkedIn’s homepage is the Keep in Touch system in the top right corner. You can quickly click through profile cards to see who has had big business changes recently, from adding new photos to switching jobs. It makes it easy for you to congratulate them or touch base in these moments, keeping the relationship strong. It’s based on LinkedIn’s Connected app, which was designed to help people stay in touch with professional contacts.

A wide range of users liked it, so LinkedIn decided to introduce it to a wider audience via the desktop app. “These two brand new modules are so important for keeping track of how you’re doing professionally that without them that stuff was harder,” Redfern said. “Now we’re giving the member that ability.”

Google News: The biggest missed opportunity in media right now

Despite all of its power and resources, Google has done relatively nothing to improve Google News since it launched. A German designer’s rethinking of the site shows just a fraction of the useful things the search giant could do if it wanted to.