A/A/B/B split tests for improved certainty

When split testing with a web tool like Optimizely or MixPanel, you may sometimes see inconsistent results, even with relatively large result sets. At OpenSky, we sometimes see test cases’ performance converge and then swap places over time.

If your volume supports it, a quick solution is to do an A/A/B/B test (4 simultaneous tests, duplicating each option) instead of a simple A/B test. This way if either the A’s or B’s are inconsistent with their matching test case then you know the test is wonky. (It’s a somewhat easier alternative to running a test twice, at least from a cross-team perspective.)

Ecommerce photography – 15 ways to take photos that sell

I just revived this old article for OpenSky merchants learning to take better product photography. Cross-posting here in all its glory.

Great photos are your best attention grabber, whether in shoppers’ feeds, in emails, or on your product pages. You don’t need a fancy camera to take product photos that convey your brand and your products’ quality. Instead, simply focus on making your images:

  • Bright
  • Detailed
  • Clear

Here’s 15 steps to improve your product photographs. Keep them in mind to get more glam for your goods!

Lighting your product photographs

You’ll get better photos with some unconventional thinking about lighting:

  1. Don’t use your camera’s flash. Using a camera’s flash might create harsh shadows and bright highlights, obscuring details and washing out textures. This is more true as you move your camera closer to your subject.
  2. Indirect lighting is best. Unlike a flash, indirect lighting softens shadows and highlights. You can diffuse your lights by pointing them away from your product – consider them reflecting off a white surface like a flat bed sheet. The soft reflection will allow the light to reach every part of your product.
  3. Natural light is best. On cloudy days and in the early morning, when the sun’s light is diffused by the atmosphere, natural light is the ultimate indirect light source. You can complement it with a few additional diffuse lights if you see any harsh shadows forming.

Keep the backgrounds simple

Don’t make your background the unintentional subject of your photographs. Patterns and textures compete with your products for a viewer’s attention.

  1. Keep backgrounds simple. Use solid surfaces, such as flat, painted walls and tables. Be careful with backgrounds that demonstrate 3-dimensional space in your pictures, such as plants and landscapes.
  2. Choose a solid background color. Avoid patterns. Remember that even simple patterns like grass, wood grain, and upholstery can distract viewers from your products.
  3. Use neutral colors. Let your products, not the setting, create the drama. Think white, tan, grey, and muted hues. Placing your object on or near a white or light-colored background will also create some diffuse reflections (see the indirect lighting tip above).

Framing your shots

Maximize your images’ impact with strong visual compositions that keep the product at the center of attention.

  1. Keep it close. This isn’t a formal family portrait! Viewers want to get up close and personal with your product. Get as close as you can and let the product fill the frame. A tight focus will often show details of your product while blurring the background.
  2. Look at your corners. When framing your shot, take a moment to look at all 4 corners of your camera’s viewfinder. Those edges build your shot in subtle ways, so choose a different angle if they don’t look great.

Take multiple shots

Digital photography makes it cheap and easy to experiment. Take lots of different shots during your photo shoot, then step back and compare the results to select your best option (and consider sharing the results with some people you trust, so you can learn more about what works).

  1. Get details. Many products have lots of interesting details that surprise and delight shoppers. Take a moment to explore your product and look for interesting details, from buttons to fixtures to accessories, and include them in your photos.
  2. Try every angle. Once you have a good “normal” angle, take some time to explore alternative options – you might discover a dramatic new way of looking at your product.
  3. Remember the packaging! If your product has interesting packaging or labels, include them in your photographs. Help viewers understand that the product is a great experience from start to finish.

Create a unique voice

Once you’re confident that you can clearly showcase your product, explore options for adding a unique or dramatic twist to your photos to help them stand out from the crowd.

  1. Use styling to communicate your brand. Think about what different kinds of backgrounds or product angles “say” about your brand. Consider adding simple items (as props) to your photos to communicate a specific scene.
  2. Highlight the product in use. Build a narrative and show how people actually use your product. Open packages. Put clothes on people. Fill cups and bowls with attractive food. Help viewers’ imagine how they would use the product themselves.
  3. Choose interesting mannequins. If you need to hang or prop up your products, give some thought to what you use as a “mannequin.” Natural elements can make great mannequins: try wood, coral, large seashells, and other interesting forms.

Steady Freddy

And don’t forget to steady your shots. Use a tripod or place your camera on a flat, steady surface to avoid any blurring in your photos. This is particularly important if you’re shooting without bright lights and flashes.

Keep these tips in mind the next time you look through an online shopping site like OpenSky your favorite catalogs. Notice when the photographs seem to “follow the rules” and when they break them. As you become more confident, try breaking some rules too, to create a voice that’s unique to you.

Not selling with OpenSky yet?

Do you sell great products? Learn more about becoming an OpenSky merchant and connecting with your friends and fans.

Thanks Tasra!

This article originated as some ecommerce photo tips from Tasra Mar, who used to be active on OpenSky as a photography expert. Though I don’t think she’s active on OpenSky any more, her blog is still a great read.

Developer team structures, and growth

Working with a dev team? Check out Scott Porad’s The Best Developer Team Structure blog post.

Notes that I’ve also found to be true:

  • Let people work on their passion
  • WIP is deadly (I’ve begun to recognize it as a likely indicator of problems with the goals, design, or passion)
  • 1 PM to 3-5 devs
  • Teams, not groups of people
  • Teams need time to gel
  • Teams have leads
  • Teams share dirty work
  • Coordinating designs is a hard role and requires lots of back n forth
  • Force people to share work

Money quote:

Okay, saving the most important things for last. As your organization grows, the most important things will be “soft management”. Things like documented organizational values. Documented, as in, written down somewhere on paper (by which, I mean, a wiki). Having your company’s mission, values and vision statement written down. Having your product strategy written down. Having your technical design written down.

Nobody, especially, pointy-haired bosses, wants to spend time on this stuff. Those people are fools. That’s why comic strips are written about them.

The fact is, these are the most valuable tools in helping coordinate teams of people to get a job done. People don’t think of these things as tools… they think of them as management fluff. But, that’s exactly what they are: tools. Devices which help get a job done.

These are the tools that allows large groups of developers to have a shared understanding about the job they are working on, and the expectations for how they are to complete it.

The 3×3 Rules

From one of my heroes, @umairh. For the past year I’ve been grappling with some version of his #7 rule, which I phrase as “epitaph, not resume.”

  1. Time will go by (a lot) faster than you think, want, or need.
  2. Most of the stuff you think will make you happy won’t.
  3. You’re capable not just of a tiny bit more than you believe. But of a huge amount more.
  4. The more yourself you are, the less timid you’ll be. The more haters will hate you. It’s a sign you’re living it right.
  5. Never waste a second working with people who don’t support you, or loving people who don’t love you.
  6. Any idiot can be cynical. Most are. You must always believe in love, life, and truth.
  7. The question you must answer isn’t how to get ahead. It’s how to go somewhere that matters. And have fun on the way.
  8. (Bonus rule: ) Learn to compromise. Learn never to settle.
  9. If your life doesn’t surprise you, it’s going to bore you. If your life never satisfies you, it’s going to stress you out. Balance.

I also enjoy that he opened this list with “Three Rules.” Overdeliver!

How to compose link text

When linking part of a sentence, what words belong inside the link? This seems to be a lesson that every new UI designer stumbles on.


Click here to see the next page.

Because readers scan text, the link is read as standalone (“here”) text and is unintelligible.

Still bad

Click here to see the next page.

Link includes the verb – at least the reader knows what action is expected.


Click here to see the next page.

When this link includes the whole sentences as context, it can be scanned and interpreted.


Click here to learn how to compose link text.

Now the link includes an indication of what to expect after clicking. Also note that the destination page’s main heading mirrors the link.

Going overboard

Click here to learn how to compose link text.

Because the destination is the primary goal of the link, you can emphasize it to help the reader focus on the meat of the interaction — the destiation.

Cleaning it up

Learn how to compose link text.

At this point in the life of the Internet, users know that links are clickable. No need for “click here” if the link is styled to look like a link.

Models for defining a social network user experiences

As we’re making OpenSky more social I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at social networks and recently realized that social interactions on social networking sites can be reduced to verb-noun-verb definitions that:

  • Outline a share-object-consume chain
  • Have simple, well-defined verbs

Here are some examples of those definitions:

Tweet links to click
Share photos to comment on
Post resumes to recruit
Post art to fave
Announce meetups to attend
Review restaurants to visit

Facebook sort of breaks the definition with their shared focus on both loves and comments, but their feedback loop focuses on notifying sharers (and other commenters) of comments, so I think it’s the more central user experience.

The best share-object-consume chains are designed so the consumption gives the sharer direct positive feedback. In cases like Yelp where attending a restaurant doesn’t feed back to a reviewer, a scaffolding of alternative feedback becomes necessary. This is where Yelp beat Citysearch: their review tags and compliments are likely precursors to the reader visiting a restaurant. It’s a stretch to scaffold the feedback in this manner; Yelp nailed it with solid product design while Citysearch never seems to have recognized the problem.

Another goal for a successful network is making consumption easy, so positive feedback happens often, thereby encouraging additional subsequent shares. This is typically solved by going one step upstream from the consuming action to the indicator of intent: Meetup talks about members more than attendees (and Twitter focuses on followers more than clickers).

Abstracted in this way, social networks are marketplaces where sharers play the role of vendors and consumers are buyers. So social network design needs to solve many of the same user experience problems as marketplaces:

  • Is there a large population of interested consumers?
  • Is it easy for them to find good vendors (where “good” is a function of quality and relevance)?
  • Are consumables cheap to generate?
  • Is it easy to put consumables into the marketplace?
  • Is it easy to consume them?
  • Is it clear to what makes a consumable valuable?

All of this points to designing networks where there’s a clear way to share a specific object via a consistent, easy process, so that it can be consumed in a specific manner (and making sure that people want to consume that thing).

Growth School

A few months ago, I began to focus heavily on driving organic member growth at OpenSky. Since then we’ve seen significant gains to viral coefficient and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Step #1 for anyone should be a hyper-detailed cohort report. Looking at organic growth, I maintain a day-by-day funnel report of how new users come through our system, both the inviters and the invitees. Record numbers at every point where a user can make a choice, because some growth tactics will have a positive impact in one area while damaging another.

Here’s a list of articles and that got me started in this area:

a. Andy Johns, previously from Facebook’s Growth team, explains things on Quora:

And another good growth page: What are some top strategies for conversion optimization?

b. Andrew Chen on growth

From an OpenSky perspective, ecommerce emails in inboxes seems like “the last war,” so we’re actively looking at alternative channels. Honestly, any marketing email is probably a “last war” – while still valuable, it’s a declining option so you need to look elsewhere.

c. Turntable explained by Quora:

d. Mint:

e. Badoo. I thought their recent NYC subway ads were beautifully designed as a “platform with a voice”, so I looked them up and it turns out they know a thing or 2 about growth:

f. And random answer re address book imports:

Nice little data visualization tools list

DataVisualization.ch offers this selection of data visualization tools that they use frequently.

They include a nice note in the footer of their page that this isn’t a comprehensive list of information visualization tools, just the libraries that they prefer for their own work.

Urban Rainbow

Rainbow over New York City
Shared with me by Andy Fisher, a photo taken by his bro from an NYC office.

Creating from sun and sand

The output is pretty raw, but this is an exciting first step.

Markus Kayser – Solar Sinter Project from Markus Kayser on Vimeo.