Makalu is a small digital agency located on the southern coast of Spain that has worked with clients to create apps and web-based services, and has even worked with Google & Virgin America to create a game-based marketing campaign. Matt Henderson founded Makalu with his business partner in 2000 and has been using Daylite for over 10 years to organize his business and to help spread the word about new apps that Makalu develops like RaceSplitter and Rego.
The best part about designing apps is receiving positive feedback from our users. Hearing first hand how a product of ours has added meaningful value to someone’s life gives us great satisfaction, and keeps us motivated. There’s a tremendous amount of iterative work involved in getting an app to a point where it can be used without friction or difficulty. Days can be spent getting a single workflow right, and so it’s really great when a user writes us back saying, “I was so happy to discover that I can get directions to my Rego places, and it all worked just like I’d expect it to.” That really makes us feel good, and makes all the time spent worth it.
When working with clients, the end product often looks quite different than what they originally imagined. The important thing is that the outcome is what they expected, and that’s where the focus should lie. For example, one time we were hired by the European Space Agency (ESA) to review the user interface for a satellite control system. This is the system that the operators use to send and receive commands to their satellites. At the beginning of the project, the customer tended to guide the conversation around aesthetics—How can we clean up the display? How can we make the buttons more readable? But through a process of trying to deeply understand the outcome they expected, we soon learned that the real issue was the minimization of operator errors. The current system was very prone to operator error, and in the context of satellite operations—where the communication window to a satellite on each pass can be limited to 10 minutes—errors can be costly or even catastrophic. In the aerospace environment, user interfaces had historically been designed to model the physical architecture of the controlled system. You’d see an antenna connected to a receiver, in turn connected to a demodulator—i.e. a very physical view of the system. Thinking about what the customer wanted to achieve, it occurred to us that perhaps a workflow or task-based interface could work better. The operators were trying to perform tasks; the physical architecture of the system was incidental. We ended up designing a task-based user interface and it was really successful—but it was dramatically different from what the client had in mind when they engaged us!
It takes a lot longer to design and build a software system than most people would imagine, and even with more than a decade of experience, our estimates today are at best “educated guesses, informed through experience”. In our experience, it’s absolutely not uncommon for a project to require twice the originally estimated effort. With Rego, for example, we figured it would take six months, and it ended up taking a year. When working with clients, though, as long as this uncertainty is clearly understood, and accounted for, by everybody up front, then it’s fine.
Around 2009, we stopped taking fixed-price projects at Makalu, a decision we blogged about. That decision excluded us from being considered for a lot of projects, but it also landed us some great projects with companies like Google and Virgin America, who also believed that an iterative approach, that aligns provider and customer incentives, is the best path to great work. All clients have objectives they are trying to achieve, and usually have time and budgetary constraints. Our first step in potential new projects is a high-level assessment of whether the objectives and constraints are compatible. If we believe that they are, then we start with the customer on an iterative path towards those objectives—making small steps toward a minimally viable product (in order to minimize risk), continually reviewing the budget and constraints, and making necessary adjustments along the way. Since adopting this model of working, we’ve literally had only successful projects since. It of course requires a lot of trust on the part of the client, but as we’ve discovered, those clients willing to work in this way tend to be those clients who are also deeply interested in seeing great work get done.
I’ve been using Daylite to manage my companies and customer relationships for more than 10 years. Although we use Basecamp to manage our projects, I track key dates, budgets, schedules, minutes of meetings and decisions for all our projects—both internal and those for clients—in Daylite. Since I’m continually switching contexts in my daily work, having all my critical information so readily at hand is just fantastic. Tracking so much information across a broad context of two internal products, and hundreds of client projects, I’ve historically made extensive use of Smart Lists in Daylite. For example, I have Smart Lists that collect all the milestones accomplished in 2010, 2011, 2012, etc. I’ve seen that Daylite 5 has some wonderful new analytics possibilities (Insight). Once I have a chance to dig into that more, I expect that I’ll be even more effectively able to monitor our activities over time. With Daylite, I’m able to track a contact’s context, role and relationship, as we outlined in this article. By tracking these different dimensions, I can then create highly targeted segmented mailing lists for things like product announcements. This lets me speak differently to someone who’s a long-time customer and personal friend, and someone I casually met years ago. This capability has proven really effective! I have Daylite on my Mac, iPad and iPhone, and keep them in sync with Daylite Server running on an internet-hosted Mac mini. I particularly appreciate the iPad version, since I like to play out my day early each morning over coffee. I’ve noticed that when working on the iPad, in single-app mode, my mind stays focussed, and I’m less likely to be distracted by Twitter or email. So I sit down at the local café each morning, open up Daylite for iPad, and review my calendar, projects and activities.
I really appreciate all the user interface improvements made in Daylite 5. For example, as someone who works with a lot of Smart Lists, being able to organize those now into folders is just great. I have a Smart List called, “New RaceSplitter Customers”, and contains contacts that are unclassified and have attached emails containing the phrase “Welcome to RaceSplitter”. (Those emails make their way into Daylite via the Daylite Mail Assistant plugin for Mail.app.) I have another called “New Rego Customers”. In total, I have 12 such “inbox”-style Smart Lists, and being able to group all those into an “Inboxes” folder is wonderful. One of the biggest new benefits of Daylite 5, for me personally, was the ability to edit contact data in Daylite without leaving Mail.app—directly via the Daylite Mail Assistant user interface. That’s something that has probably doubled my contact management efficiency!
Along with the benefits of such a powerful and flexible tool as Daylite comes some inherent complexity. After all, it is a client/server system, with processes running on various machines and databases that are processing lots of transactions. Having our company’s critical business information in such a system, it’s tremendously comforting knowing that great support is quickly accessible from Marketcircle. I’ve had particularly wonderful support from JD. Anyone who’s worked with technology for a long time knows how frustrating it is to contact a company with a complex problem, and receive some boilerplate reply starting with, “Is your computer plugged in?” JD has a great ability to assess his customer’s level of expertise and understand, and respond accordingly. For example, I once reported a synchronization issue, that he immediately recognized required a database restore. On the same day, he organized a screen share session on my server, and had me up and running within just a few hours. In addition to the great service, another reason I’ve stuck with Daylite over the years is the feeling of a personal connection, having gotten to know AJ a bit through some email exchanges. It’s nice when you feel you have a bit of a personal connection with the people behind a product. Daylite really is a great product, made by some great people!
When I’m not working, I like to ride mountain bikes, go hiking and practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I started training BJJ back in 2000, and have won gold medal three times at the European BJJ Championships, held each year in Lisbon, Portugal. In 2012 I was awarded my black belt, which a really special milestone for me. These days though, I’ve dialed back the training a bit, as my two kids have gotten deeply into the game of chess. Chess is very popular in Spain, and so we now spend pretty much every weekend and vacation traveling to chess tournaments.