Covert Experimentation with Panic’s Status Board App
Sometimes office inspiration requires a secret project with a codename.
"I hate you both. Can’t you just tell me already?" whined my colleague. There are few things she loathes more than not being in the know. "Whyyyyyyy do I have to wait until Monday?" It would only be a few more days before we revealed what it was we were working on.
I’ve followed Panic Software, their products, and their company culture for years. In high school I found myself dabbling in web design, creating sites for local companies and turning a bit of profit in the process. The day I downloaded their FTP client Transmit (originally called Transit), I began to understand the value of well-crafted software. Panic had already won me over years ago.
In 2010, the software company posted about an office status board they had cobbled together. It was a beautiful, elegant and magical way to display and disseminate company information in an approachable way. Since 2010, every place of employment I’ve had has gotten my pitch to build a replica, but recreating it was always prohibitively complex, required too much staff time, and seemed to be a pain to keep updated. Fast-forward to a few weeks ago when Panic posted the newest incarnation of their board, this time powered by an iPad app they had created to make building a replica possible for the rest of us.
As much as I love it, I don’t want this post to be yet another app review. You can read any of the well-written pieces that outline the awesome features (right down to the charm of the setup tutorial) or follow the growing ecosystem of user-created widgets that further extend the capabilities of the app on a daily basis.
Instead, I want to explore how a coworker and I turned a playful exploration of the app into a secret project, an internal pitch for funding and resources, and an opportunity to inspire ourselves (and perhaps the company) in the process—all in the course of a week.
Having worked in some form of agency setting over the last six years, I’ve come to know and recognize the signs of creative frustration in myself and my colleagues—feeling bored, run-down, or feeling generally defeated about their work. That’s agency life; we don’t always get to choose the projects (or clients) that come our way. Sometimes, you just need to build something for yourself to feel a little bit more in control. Panic’s new app provided an opportunity and an outlet. My fanboy infatuation with their company meant I was invested in a project I wanted to work on without my job depending upon it. Whatever the motivation, my coworker’s shared intrigue made us destined to ally. A side project was hatched.
This brings us back to my frustrated colleague who was wondering why we were sneaking off to empty conference rooms or sporadically giggling with excitement after exchanging covert IMs. It’s been a while since I got to test the hypothesis that secrets create intrigue and the opportunity to wow. Also, I wanted to get funding for a few TVs. I figured a surprise demonstration of a functioning prototype would be a much stronger sell.
While Applico has had some awesome successes, we’re still a young mobile company working to mature beyond the scrappy startup mentality. We’ve evolved and expanded our scope and skills as a company, but some of our culture has yet to catch up. In some ways, we’re that awkward pubescent teenager who’s not entirely comfortable in his body. And that’s OK. But if you take a quick tour of the office, your first guess may not reveal that we’re a mobile development company (we don’t have mockups on the walls, our devices are hidden in drawers, etc.). Since we’re experimenting all the time to find our versions of the homegrown Panic status board, why not create a highly visible embodiment of our company’s progress, success, and evolving culture?
[Disclosure: my opinions are my own and not necessarily that of my employer.]
Having discussed the process and value of MVP (minimum viable product) with many of our clients, Linke (my co-conspirator) and I approached our covert operation with the same rigor. What readily available information do we want to display? What ubiquitous technologies do we have at our fingertips to make publishing quick and painless? We employed a quick-and-dirty method, stringing together Google Docs, hand-coded HTML, and Dropbox to publish our project data. With a little assistance from Kelly in HR as well as some data entry support from Deana, we turned birthdays, anniversaries, and company holidays into a set of editable Google calendars to power the personnel tickers on our board. Fast-forward four business days and we had ourselves a Panic status board that easily qualified as MVP. We thought it also qualified as awesome.
I spent a bit of time during one weekend putting together a few lead-in slides for our surprise presentation scheduled for that Monday. The app itself is worthy of a guerrilla overview, but I hoped that extolling the virtues of its gorgeous design, playfulness, and utilitarian qualities would add context and value to our prototype. Perhaps in a bit of a nerd-giddy flurry, my planned four or five slides quickly ballooned to thirty-something. It had been a while since I’d put together a Keynote presentation, and my inner design wannabee quickly crept out of the closet. (Lately, I’ve also had a bit of an interest in increasing my public speaking opportunities and have been poking around the internets looking for inspiration; you can see obvious influences from Zach Holman.)
Aside from (eventually) learning that I awkwardly say “and what not” and “um” too much, the presentation seemed to be well-received. You can judge for yourself; I posted an overview with video/slides of the 13-minute ordeal last week. (It also proved just how easy it is these days to share a short presentation—materials and all—with the world.)
So, what became of all the secrets and intrigue? We got a quick commitment from our CTO to provision a 1st-Gen iPad that had previously made its way to the office’s Device Graveyard. (If you don’t have a shelf of discarded devices, this would be a great use for old, functional but broken-screened iPads, which are cheaply available online.) We’re still working on automating the data a bit more, but I’m hoping interest grows organically as my colleagues find value in the information displayed. No one is running out to Best Buy to snag a few TVs to vertically mount (yet), but I’m hopeful. More importantly, I’ve been catching wind of a few other secret projects brewing in the ranks. Perhaps they’ll need a secret code name for their project to help inspire themselves (we chose Operation: Grand Central). There has been more open discussions about how instituting a 20% time-like program would work and what it might look like. Most exciting, however, is a growing celebration of personal projects, interests, and talents around Applico. Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot we can learn from each other. Now, we’re closer to, you know, actually learning.