Portrait Photography

I’ve always loved taking photos of people. A good camera, lens, good lighting and a great subject really make for the most interesting photos and for me, especially when I know the people well. As I always say, “if you take enough photos, you’re bound to get a good one eventually” and so here are some examples of the ones that I am most proud of both old and new. These were all taken with a Canon 7D Mark II and processed in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC. Would love to hear your feedback in the comments

A missed opportunity for a great customer experience

Where I live in Dublin, Ireland there are multiple domestic waste collection companies and it’s a relatively competitive market. Last year I made the decision to move from one waste company to another for a variety of reasons. I won’t mention the names of the companies here, but those familiar with these services in Ireland will likely be able to identify them due to their contrasting customer service levels.

Both companies send SMS alerts the night before the weekly bin collection reminding their customers of which bin to leave out and when – in Ireland we have three bin types: grey for domestic waste, green for recycling and brown for organic compostable waste. Both companies provide an online system to view your bills. However the new provider goes a step or two beyond this.

My new service provider sends me a monthly email summarising my stats across each waste type versus their overall customer base. They send me weekly personalised SMS messages that details how much I recycled on my last collection. It’s a small thing, but it’s a nice customer experience that informs me about the level of waste I produce and how much recycling I do relative to the average customers.

What struck me in particular was with my old company and how they managed me after I left.

I haven’t yet returned my old bins – they’re sitting unused and empty in my driveway. My old waste collection company knows this – they track and weigh every bin lifted on one of their trucks. They have my email address and my mobile phone number, and I am opted in to receive their marketing emails and SMS’s. Why haven’t they called me? Why haven’t they SMS’d me? Why haven’t I been part of an email customer journey that tempted me to switch back with some special offer? I don’t get it. I’ve gone from being a customer, to very obviously not being one without so much as anyone from my original service provider contacting me through any one of three different methods they could have used to win me back. That’s a lost revenue opportunity for them. Failing that, they didn’t even learn anything about why I switched so they could tailor their services to future prospective customers. They didn’t detect when I was no longer using their service so they could give me instructions on how to have my old bins collected. In fact, they are waiting for me to call them. My guess is that they don’t have anyone looking at nor analysing their customer data to identify customers at risk of leaving, or ones that actually have. All in all a big fat fail, and a missed opportunity for increased revenues and a great customer experience.

Ouya unboxing and first impressions

Ouya First ImpressionsIn August 2012 I became one of many backers (63,416 to be exact) of the Ouya project on Kickstarter – a hugely successful fund raising project to build and ship an affordable Android based game console for the living room. In fact it was so successful they raised >$8m via Kickstarter and went on to raise another $15m in VC funding. I signed up, paid my $99 (plus some additional costs for delivery to Europe) on the promise of a console and one controller if/when they managed to build it. That day came yesterday – my Ouya arrived on my doorstep in Dublin, Ireland and after my very kind wife handed over an additional EUR20 to DHL for the customs fees, it was officially mine. Not sure how many others arrived in Ireland yesterday (May 27th 2013 – you can let me know in the comments) but I like to think that I was one of the first to get one here. The following are my high level thoughts on the unboxing and first impressions of the hardware and software. Note this is not an in-depth review – I’ll leave that to the experts – but hopefully a useful post on the first impressions from an end user.

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Packaging
This is no Apple product but then this cost just $99 and the packaging reflects this. It reminded me very much of the style and quality of packaging that my Google Nexus 10 came in – matt black cardboard. Functional, reasonable quality – gets the job done. I liked the ‘Thank you for believing’ sticker in the box – a nice touch.

Build quality
The console and the controller are very nicely built. They feels like a solid, expensive product. Nothing flimsy or cheap about it at all. There was some protective film around the polished plastic bits to avoid scratching during transit, the parts were all packed nice and securely and it arrived in perfect condition all the way from Hong Kong. Very nicely done.

What’s in the box
This I was impressed and pleasantly surprised by. Along with the console and controller there is a manual, the power adapter, two AA batteries for the controller (Duracell – not some cheap and nasty brand you often get with big brand electronics like remote controls), and a HDMI cable (often excluded when buying other consoles and peripherals). In other words, other than your TV and a WiFi internet connection, everything you need to get started – no messing around looking for batteries or cables. My first puzzle was to figure out where to put those nice Duracell batteries. There is no obvious battery compartment in the controller – the type you usually find on the back of a remote control with the little pull-tab. After some head-scratching and unsuccessful references to the manual in my typical RTFM fashion, I figured it out – the two front faceplates of the controller detach to reveal battery compartments. Not very obvious, but nicely designed and engineered and when you think about it, the perfect place to put batteries in order to help them balance the overall feel of the controller. Nice work here, but a reference to this in the manual would help for those a little slow like me! Overall, a great package.

The Manual
On the subject of the manual, it’s got to be about 30 pages long. However all but one of those pages is made up of technical and legal mumbo jumbo. There is one page of instructions which are very high level and unspecific. Other than the battery challenge this was ok for me, but when it comes to selling this console via retail channels I expect Ouya will need to provide a lot more detail on the setup process. Work to do here.

Getting Started
So now it was time to get this puppy fired up and see what it could do. Plug in the power, HDMI cable and power up both the console and the controller and we were away. First impressions – this software is nicely designed and I get an encouraging ‘OUYA’ tone as the machine boots up (in no time). Next was pairing the controller to the console which worked first time, and it was then down to joining my WiFi network. Here’s where things slowed down a little. Figuring out how to use CAPS, go forward and back through the input boxes and submit took a little time – probably no more or less than any console but I came across a few little usability bugs at this stage which also slowed me down. Ultimately I gave up on the WiFi connection and connected an Ethernet cable to the back of the console and went with the wired option. This was more down to my impatience than anything but there are a few little bugs to fix here. Once connected to the internet the console looked for updates, downloaded, rebooted and installed them with some cute progress messages as it went – took about 3 or 4 minutes in total. We were then ready to login.

When prompted to login I realised I had forgotten my username and password to referred back to my email to dig out my username and guessed my password. I eventually got logged in, but again I feel that this is where some people will need more help from the manual. Once logged in I was in what was clearly the main menu with options for Play, Discover, Make and Manage. Of course all I wanted to do at this stage was Play, so I went there to find nothing – no preloaded games or content. That led me to Discover where the options were a little less clear in Check It, Staff Picks, Fresh, Favs, Genres and Sandbox. Some games appeared in a series of thumbnail images to the right but after some clicking in and out of different menu options, they became blank thumbnails (another bug) which later returned to being images. I downloaded a few games and tried them out.

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The Download, Install and Play process
To download a game you Discover it, download it (this can happen in the background though I encountered more weirdness when downloading multiple games at the same time) and you must then install it separately through the Play menu where the game will automatically now be listed. This is a little clunky since as users intention in downloading a game is surely to also install it, so would be good to see these steps combined into one in the future. For now, both need to be done but it’s a straightforward process and only takes a few minutes to get playing a game. I only tried free games – I noticed an area to enter credit card details and I wasn’t going there!

The gameplay experience
One of the games I downloaded was Flashout 3D – a Wipeout clone widely available on iOS and Android. The gameplay and smoothness was great and reminded me of the original Playstation Wipeout title. The graphics are obviously not up to PS3 / XBox standard, but again we’re talking about what is effectively a $99 Android phone connected to your TV here. Overall a fun and smooth gameplay experience. There aren’t a lot of titles available today so looking forward to seeing this build out over time.

The controller
The controller is a critical part of any game console, and Ouya have done a pretty good job here. Its connected wirelessly over Bluetooth and this pairing process works simply and … well … ‘just works’. The balance and comfort of the controller in the hand is bang-on. The analog joysticks and buttons are well positioned and have a good feel to them as you play. The shoulder buttons work but don’t have that same quality feel to them – they have a glossy finish to them, feel light and protrude from the controller which overall impacts the quality. The ‘D-Pad’ feels a little ‘sticky’ but since I won’t be using this much I’m not too bothered. In summary a strong controller with a few little niggles.

Overall impressions
I’ve cast a very critical eye over this product and there are some minor flaws in both the hardware and the software here. I expect the software to improve quickly over time, and no doubt the hardware will come in refreshed formats also but in the end I keep coming back to the fast that this is a $100 v1 Android based living room console, and for that it’s hard to fault. It’s a very well designed, quickly developed and FUN device that I would recommend any console fan or games enthusiast considers purchasing. Clearly this is not a comprehensive review and summarised my main thoughts having spent a total of one hour setting up and playing my Ouya, but hopefully it’s of use to those considering buying one. Would love to get your thoughts and feedback in the comments.

Dublin GAA Club Map

As I attend more and more GAA club games in Dublin for my wife, my son and now my daughter I find my self continually searching for new club locations. Some are new to me, some I’ve been to before but can’t remember the exact location. GAA club websites are mixed in their quality and I find myself reverting to Google Maps / Apple Maps to find where I’m going. As I find new clubs I’ve been adding them to a Google Map which I have embedded below for your viewing pleasure. I’ve opened the map up for public collaboration in the hope that others will contribute the locations of their clubs – making this a reference point for clubs across the county. If you find this useful, please link to it from your website or post a link to your social media channels. Thanks!


View Gaa Clubs – Dublin in a larger map

Google Nexus 10 Review

I recently purchased a Google Nexus 10 tablet. I was in the market for a new tablet since my last one was the original iPad and it has begun to feel very slow, doesn’t have any camera and is not eligible for the upgrade to iOS6. I was pretty well bought into the whole iOS world – between my work and personal equipment I own a MacBook air, two Mac Pro’s, an iPhone, an Apple TV, an Airport Express, two iPods and the aforementioned iPad – and that’s just counting what I own today – I’ve been through several iterations of many of these devices. However several years ago I owned a HTC Desire Android phone and really liked it so an Android tablet was a definite option – especially since all I’ve read recently indicated that Android was really leading the mobile OS pack, and the hardware was getting better and better with each release. The only thing I felt I would really lose was AirPlay compatibility – I use AirPlay on a daily basis to stream audio from my iDevices to a set of powered speakers in my kitchen connected through an AirPort Express. Having mulled all the options (probably a little too much) I finally decided to go with the Nexus 10. I liked the idea of having a different perspective on the tablet offerings today, and generally don’t like the idea of ‘vendor lockin’ despite being a somewhat willing victim of it. The following are my thoughts on the device having used it for approx 48 hours in a personal capacity.

Google Nexus 10
Google Nexus 10

Buying a Nexus 10 in Ireland
First off, let’s talk about the options when it comes to buying a Nexus 10 since I live in Ireland and the Nexus 10 has not been launched here, this is pertinent to my story. Not having been officially launcher here, the Nexus 10 cannot be purchased directly from Google in Ireland. The Nexus 10 has however been officially launched in the UK, France and other European countries, and it can be bought from there but the cheapest place to get one is in the US so I opted to buy one via eBay. The tablet cost $650 for the 32GB version, and shipping was $60 via FedEx – delivered in 48hrs from the US. So $710 all in or €551 once converted to Euro. I was pretty happy with that price. The 32gb WiFi iPad would set me back €609 in Ireland by comparison. The Nexus 10 costs €499 in France, so there’s a good chance I could have had it for slightly cheaper had I bought it from a European e-tailer. But I was impatient, maybe a little hasty and in the end went with the expensive shipping from the US vs going with a unit from France or somewhere else closer to me. Worth researching but ultimately you won’t save too much in the new market.

Unboxing experience
The packaging was really nice – not quite to the same standard as the legendary apple packaging but as close as matters for what in the end is a box you will likely discard. The tablet comes wrapped in a screen protector and rear film to prevent scratches during delivery. Also in the box is a micro USB cable, an adapter to the cable to charge via a mains outlet (as US one as per above), a manual and the Nexus 10 itself. The tablet came approx 60% charged so it was ready to use right out of the box – nice for impatient people like me 😉 As I already have a Google account, it took me 2mins to follow the setup wizard, connect to a WiFi network, login via my Google account and be up and running. I spent another few hours installing apps, configuring my widgets, customising the tablet to my preferences and generally familiarising myself with how to use it. Rather than reading the paper manual I downloaded the PDF version of the Google Nexus 10 user manual and used it to figure out a few things such as how to setup user accounts (see commentary on this feature below), but overall learning how to use the device was very intuitive and easy.

Call outs
One big advantage Android has over iOS on a tablet is the idea of user accounts – this is a new feature that comes with Android 4.2 ‘JellyBean’. In a family environment a tablet is a device that is typically shared. In my case, my iPad is used by my wife, my three kids and myself. The problem with this is that once you unlock an iPad, the experience is the same for everyone. Documents are shared, the apps are the same, preference and app logins are the same for every user. Android has this solved via user accounts – you can create accounts for several users, and each user has their own login, profile, apps, downloads, and preferences that are unique to them – much in the same way as they would on Windows, OSX etc. This is a significant advantage for anyone wishing to share their tablet amongst several others and it’s really elegantly (and simply) implemented. I also really like the idea of widgets. I’m used to these in the OSX Dashboard world, and it’s nice to be able to have more than just icons in your launcher (ala iOS).

In many of the reviews I read of this tablet before I purchased it, there was mention of a couple of disappointing sides to this device – the first, and most immediately obvious being the low quality plasticky case. I was not as disappointed by the quality as I had expected – maybe because I was forewarned about this from reading these reviews. Sure, the case quality is not up to the same standards as Apples but it still feels like a quality device, and the back has a better grip when placed directly on a desk. Not a concern for me. The other disappointment raised in reviews I read (one in particular on ZDNet) was the poor microphone quality. I can’t speak to this one as in the time I’ve had it, I have not yet tested the microphone though I’ll be doing a Google+ Hangout or a Skype in the near future and will update the post based on my experience here.

Apps
Overall, I could download all of the apps I most frequently use on my iPad for the Android platform via the Play Store. Sure there are lots of apps that are particular to each platform, but I couldn’t find any that were essential to me that I couldn’t either download the Android version of, or find a workable alternative to. As will be familiar to any Android user, there’s the ability to give each app individual permissions to update itself which is better than the manual process via iOS. Another huge advantage is that when you connect an Android device to your computer, you can directly access the filesystem to upload files. This means you can store media such as music, video and photos for later playback rather than being held hostage by the likes of iTunes. VLC is available in Beta on Android, though I found it to play smoothly without hiccup despite the warnings that it was beta software and crashes should be expected. The only real downside I saw on the app side is that many of the apps seem designed for phones rather than tablets (at least at this stage) and in these cases, those apps only work in portrait orientation. Not a huge issue and something that I am sure will develop over time as developers make their apps tablet friendly when more Android tablets are sold, but worth mentioning. Oh, and in some cases (notably the Facebook the TweetDeck apps for Android) they are considerably more basic, and frankly ugly on Android than on iOS.

In summary, I love my new tablet. There are some Pro’s and Con’s to it as a platform and hardware choice, but I wasn’t really expecting a slam-dunk here. Overall I found the Nexus 10 to be a very strong contender among the latest tablet devices available today (January 2013). It’s really interesting to see the differences between the different mobile platforms – both on the hardware and software sides. One thing I believe strongly is that the fierce competition in this space only means positive things for consumers – as one platform makes a significant step forward, the other is automatically in catchup mode and that is driving innovation and bringing new devices, apps and features to the market at an incredible pace. Whether you choose iOS or Android, and the many hardware decisions on the Android platform you can assume that you are benefiting from all the platform innovation going on. Of course I don’t mention Windows here – primarily because I don’t have any experience with the Windows Mobile (or Windows 8) solutions, but clearly that is an important player in the mix. The downside is that without doubt I will be replacing my Nexus 10 with the latest gadget before too long, but that’s a luxury I hope to be able to afford.

To wrap up, in short – some Pro’s and Con’s of the Nexus 10 (not exhaustive, but important from my own perspective) – from the context of a comparison with the latest iPad from Apple.

Pros

  • Lighter, bigger screen, higher screen resolution, more powerful, better cameras, thinner, better battery life and cheaper than the equivalent iPad (32GB WiFi).
  • User account switching – huge plus for those sharing their tablet – families, schools, small businesses etc.
  • A more advanced mobile OS.

Cons

  • Max 32gb (no card expansion as with other Android based tablets)
  • No 3/4g option. WiFi only (iPad offers both, as do some Android based tablets)
  • Occasional instability (I’ve seen at least 6 crashes/random reboots in 48hrs use)
  • Slow charging via micro usb – another issue identified by ZDNet in their review.

*** UPDATE *** Having read about the random reboots a bit more, I came across this great article explaining some of the background and the next steps.

iPhone vs DSLR

I have a passion for digital photography and photo post production. I guess it comes from my technical background – I’ve always been a photoshop meddler, and curious about computers and hardware of all sorts. I studied computer programming and was always good with hardware – I worked for Gateway as a phone tech support rep in the 90’s. So as soon as I was able to afford one, I had a digital camera. I started off with a ‘compact’ (it wasn’t all that compact – believe me!) which dissapeared in my luggage between LA and Dublin one time, followed by a bridge digital camera which I used until it fell apart, and then finally moved on to a DSLR. The combination of using the camera hardware, lenses, flash and accessories to create something that can be manipulated later on a computer using programs such as Photoshop has always been interesting to me, and it’s brought out my creative side. As much as I’d love to, I can’t draw or paint or play music (beyond a few simple chords on the guitar) so digital photography is my single creative outlet and I really enjoy it. I’m no pro, and there’s a lot I’ve still to learn but I’ve done some nice stuff – even if I do say so myself. Some examples below.

Up until a few years ago I spent quite a bit of time taking photos with my SLR. I’d take it everywhere, take tonnes of photos (I have 68,000 in my personal collection) and spend hours afterwards cataloguing, tagging, and doing post-production work on them using Photoshop and Photoshop Lightroom. I’d then post them to Flickr, and spend even more hours tagging, commenting and promoting the photos – adding them to groups, etc.

Then I bought an iPhone and it all changed. For me, the world of digital photography was thrown upside down with the advent of instagram. What I used to spend an hour doing on my SLR and Photoshop could now be completed in seconds with a few clicks on my iPhone. What’s more, I could also share my photos on flickr, twitter, facebook etc with another few clicks. From a user experience point of view, the workflow was simplified ten-fold. Sure, the results weren’t the same quality as I could get with my SLR and the options for processing my photos were limited to some preset filters and basic editing, but the benefits outweigh those limitations in the vast majority of cases. I’m lazy, and the easy route wins. Result – my SLR is gathering dust on a shelf.

However, I somehow miss the labour of love required to produce something truly unique. There isn’t that same sense of satisfaction generated from pointing my iPhone, pressing a few buttons and being done. There’s something about enjoying the output from hours of work that I just can’t get from a couple of clicks. I guess it’s probably similar to how people feel when they bake their own bread, build a house rather than buy one, fix something themselves rather than replace it or pay someone else to fix it. Maybe there’s something innate in us that compels us to feel reward for effort put in – a basic survival instinct. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it! Either way, I’m going to stop being lazy and put some more time into something I know I get great personal satisfaction from.

PS: You can see some of my work on my website here: ragorder.com/photography and on instagram here gramfeed.com/markstanley

What do you think? Comments below…

Incredible lack of customer support from fiverr – @fiverrhq

I recently visited fiverr.com for a cheap service I was looking to purchase knowing that there was a good chance someone would be offering it, and looking forward to making my second purchase on the site – my first one was way back in March 2010. For those who haven’t heard of fiverr, they describe themselves as being “The world’s largest marketplace for small services, starting at $5”. As a web guy, I love the idea and it’s a great site. My initial purchase was for some minor SEO scripting services which was well worth the $5 I paid.

Back to recent events. When I went to login, I had forgotten my password. I tried and tried several combinations without any joy, and soon realised that my account had actually been disabled. Come to think of it, I thought, it had been a while since I had a weekly digest email from fiverr – makes sense. So, I logged a support case with them expecting to find an easy way to re-enable my account (I was working on the flawed assumption that my account had been disabled for lack of activity). How wrong was I. Turns out, my account was “restricted due to suspicions of multiple accounts possibly from the same location and/or with the same PayPal address”. Restricted, as in disabled. As in, I could not login. What’s more, I was told “The account will not be reinstated”. mmmm odd. Ok, these things happen right? It’s the internet. People claim to be other people, fraud sometimes happen, but there’s a way for the genuine user with a genuine account to get their account back right? Wrong. When I asked should I create a new account, I was told to “refrain from opening any new accounts”. Huh? I realise I am not paying for this service, and I’m at no financial loss, but REALLY?!

In this day and age where impersonation online happens countless times daily, where fraud is being committed from dusk till dawn, and where online customer support is more important than ever, surely there is a more sophisticated way to identify genuine users, and to treat your customers with the dignity and respect they deserve?

Below is a transcript of the conversation with their support rep so far. To be fair to him (because I am a nice guy and respect his privacy), I will not name him. I haven’t heard back in 24hrs, whereas the other responses were almost instant. I’m really not expecting a response, so I took to writing this post to see if it prompts some action.

Anyone else have similar experiences with fiverr? Anyone else think this is incredible? Comments below please.

Mark Stanley
Jul 15 01:57
My account has been disabled. What gives? [USERNAME PROVIDED]

[SUPPORT GUYS NAME] – Fiverr’s Customer Support Team
July 15, 2012 10:37
Fiverr.com’s Help Desk
Hi Mark,

Your account has been restricted due to suspicions of multiple accounts possibly from the same location and/or with the same PayPal address. The account will not be reinstated.

Regards,

[SUPPORT GUYS NAME]

Mark Stanley
July 15, 2012 10:58
Hi [SUPPORT GUYS NAME]. I am a legitimate user with only one account (this one). What should I do to get my account back? Create a new one?

[SUPPORT GUYS NAME] – Fiverr’s Customer Support Team
July 15, 2012 10:59
Fiverr.com’s Help Desk
Hi Mark,

Please refrain from opening any new accounts.

Regards,
[SUPPORT GUYS NAME]

Mark Stanley
July 15, 2012 11:15
[SUPPORT GUYS NAME] you have to be joking right? I am a legitimate user who was using your service and then suddenly had my account closed with no notice from you and only when I asked a vague explanation referring to multiple accounts, of which I have no knowledge. I genuinely want to purchase a service through your site and you are telling me my account has been shut down with no recourse and I cannot open a new account? That is incredible. Do you understand the term ‘customer support’? I can understand if there was some sort of strange activity on my account by some third party – it happens – this is the internet, but any reputably service would provide a system through which an innocent user can reestablish their account. I am flabbergasted quite frankly. Surely you can do better than this?!!!

No response since….

Recommended reading via Amazon Store

I’ve been busy doing some leadership development courses recently, reading books and listening to audio books on management topics. Over the last few weeks I’ve received lots of recommended reading which I’ve put together in a small amazon.co.uk store on the website here. I intend to read each one of these books one by one – I may even add some reviews here. I figured these may also be of use to some of my website visitors, so go for it! Please let me know if you’ve read any of these and whether they are worthwhile.

Find me on Instagr.am

Due to the fact that I now carry an iPhone4 everywhere, and a DSLR hardly anywhere I find myself taking more and more photos with my phone. There are more and more impressive mobile photography apps appearing every week, so I’m now using flickr less and less over time and using facebook and instagr.am on a much more regular basis. My photos page pulls in my flickr feed. When I get some time I will find a nice way to integrate my instagr.am feed into this page. In the meantime, please check out my photos via web.stagram.com and add me with the handle markstanley.