Essential tips and tools for stocking your startup’s software stack

My name is Mohammad Keyhani and I’m an entrepreneurship professor at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

moham

I created a list of tools and resources for entrepreneurs on ZEEF and I was lucky to see it go viral and very well received in the ProductHunt community (nearly at 1k upvotes!)

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As an entrepreneurship educator I tend to agree with the notion that ideas are a dime a dozen.

What matters is actually getting the idea off the ground and launching a business. That’s the hard part. 

But the hard part is probably not as hard as you think. You only realize just how much easier it has become in the last few years when you learn about the variety of tools and resources that are available on the web to help you out. I think this is why people love pages like my ZEEF page (Entrepreneur Tools) or Startup Stack that provide a comprehensive list of such tools and resources. You take one look at this page and realize just how much you’re not alone; for so many aspects of your business you don’t have to do it yourself or start from scratch because there are so many things that can be automated.

Today’s best startups are taking advantage of these tools and they often refer to the set of tools they utilize as their “stack”. In this blog post I will provide you with tips on building your own software stack with some of my favorite tools featured on my ZEEF page!


 

1. Finding the right tools

While I have listed many other lists of tools on my ZEEF page, Siftery is among the very few I like better than my own. It helps you deal with a fundamental problem raised by lists like my ZEEF page: which tools to choose among many options? Siftery not only lists the tools, but also tells you which ones are used by other businesses. The companies on Siftery vary from well-known modern start-ups (like Uber, Airbnb, Evernote) to established companies (IBM, Google, Nike, etc.). Siftery also lets you see which tools are trending within the start-up community.

siftery

You can also input a few of the tools in your stack and Siftery will give you recommendations on other resources to consider given what similar successful companies have used. The main value is that seeing the list of respected companies that use a tool gives you confidence about its usefulness.

2. Prototyping

Many people without coding skills don’t realize that in order to turn their website or app idea into a full-fledged software product, they don’t have to do the programming themselves. They can take steps to build a prototype without coding, and use that prototype to communicate their idea to potential coders, designers, and even investors. In fact, even if they do have the skills to build a full product, it’s often better to start with a prototype, so that you can test the idea and receive feedback before committing too much time and resources. Here are some of my favorite tools that make the prototyping job much easier:

InVision

Making a simple prototype for a web or mobile application (iOS, Android, Apple Watch, Android Wear) can take no more than an hour with InVision. You can upload your designs for each web page or app screen you plan to use as Photoshop, Sketch or standard image files, to name a few.

invision

Once on your online InVision account, the pictures can be made part of your prototype by creating hotspots on the pictures and deciding where they link to. It also packs a good series of tools for collaboration, commenting and feedback mechanisms. Once your prototype is “finished” (a prototype should never be too finished), a user testing feature will gather live video and screen capture for feedback from potential customers.

Apart from being a great tool to use, InVision also has an exemplary business model. Jeremy Wells, graphic designer and web developer, attributes the success of InVision to how they respond to and integrate designers’ feedback. And the feedback has created a pretty impressive list of customers: Airbnb, Adobe, Uber, Adidas, LinkedIn, PayPal, to name a few, use InVision in their product development process.

Axure

Axure is also a great tool to create prototypes, especially if you are not experienced in graphic design. Instead of working on uploaded image files, Axure provides its own offline image creator which guides less advanced users on creating the visuals of different screens. Axure’s utility is in the ease of creating page designs out of the box. Finished projects can be published as HTML and Javascript files. It also provides basic collaboration software, although less advanced than InVision’s.

axure

Balsamiq

When focusing on User Experience, balsamiq is an amazing tool for wireframing. It is easy to plan app designs and has a variety of included guides, templates and symbols to help create a realistic basis for a prototype. The resource, which you can download or use online, is designed specifically to plan prototyping so everything looks and interacts like a rough sketch which can be easily changed.

bal

Lora Oehlberg, a computer science professor and expert on interaction design at the University of Calgary gave a talk to our ENTI 381 class in which she explained why balsamiq intentionally uses comic sans fonts and design elements that make your prototype look like an early draft. The idea behind this approach is actually very insightful: when people see drafts they are much more likely to give useful feedback and imagine future possibilities, whereas when they see a more complete prototype or near-finished product, they hesitate to suggest changes that would require major overhaul, and tend to exercise less imagination about how the product could be different. It’s a natural psychological tendency, people will give you less useful feedback the more they see you committed to a pre-existing path or vision.

In addition to the tools listed above, tools like PencilCase and MIT App Inventor allow you to go beyond just visual prototyping and actually create some of the programming logic as well.

3. Hosted Website Building

If your core product is not going to be a website and you just need a website to showcase your brand and products, again, your road to getting there has become much easier with the availability of awesome website building services in the past few years. These services not only take the hassle out of hosting your website, but also provide easy-to-use modular design tools and templates. A couple of my favorites that will take care of the basics for relatively cheap are Weebly and Wix.

More recently, I’ve been impressed by XPRS. A more high-tech tool is PageCloud that allows you to clone any other website as your starting point, and provides amazing flexibility with the drag-and-drop editing functionality, but it is also much more expensive.

While the above mentioned website builders have a generic host of capabilities, there are also a range of similar tools that focus more squarely on the landing page, which is what most startups need to showcase their products, features, pricing, etc. and get interested users to register or sign up for updates. A few tools I like in this category are LaunchRock, POP.co, and Landing.

launchrock

Because of their focus on product launches, some of these tools provide additional functionality specific to managing the launch process and acquiring users. Unbounce is another tool I like because it provides A/B testing functionality which is an essential part of the Lean Startup approach that I advocate and teach in my classes.

4. Email Management

Most entrepreneurs will realize early on that a lot of their time can be taken up with writing and answering emails. If you do this manually you will soon begin to wish there were tools for managing and automatizing some of this process. Fortunately, there are now a host of email management tools available that help you with managing mailing lists, composing mass customized emails that get people’s attention, tracking emails and conversations, as well as scheduling emails to be sent at specific times or after certain trigger events. I introduce a couple of email management tools here:

MailChimp

 Mailchimp has a large variety of templates that work very well for drag-and-drop enthusiasts. It is ideal for smaller businesses or non-coders who work well with the options available and can learn from the site’s many support videos and guides, but it does also offer the option to edit HTML on the emails. Pricing is also very suitable for smaller businesses: it is free if limited to under 12,000 emails per month. Integration with online stores like Shopify and Magento also help with product follow-ups and sending stock status notifications.

zeefemail

Campaign Monitor

Campaign Monitor may be less user-friendly for the novice user, but it offers a lot more flexibility with coding, enables mass customized emails and mailing list management. The list of companies that use Campaign Monitor is impressive, including Adidas, Mercedes-Benz, SXSW, Buzzfeed, Sephora and Pizza Hut. Campaign Monitor interviewed the Director of Newsletters at Buzzfeed, Dan Oshinsky, last year to see how the emails had helped Buzzfeed reach explosive growth. It’s an interesting read that can be found here.

5. Group Collaboration and Project Management

It usually doesn’t take time for a startup to start needing tools to facilitate communication, collaborative work, and task allocation among team members. For such small teams, it’s easy to make the mistake of using overly elaborate project management software that will be nothing but overkill that slows you down rather than make your life easier. In recent years a slew of new tools has become available with the specific needs of small and agile teams in mind. Two in particular have become very popular:

Slack

Slack is an excellent resource for communication within a company. It offers a platform to message or share files with company members in different departments or as a whole. The site also has a very sophisticated search tool which relieves the pain of going through clunky emails. It offers integration with other major communication sites and tools (like Dropbox, Google Drive, Twitter, etc.) to basically offer a central archive for all internal communication.

Even when working with larger groups, Slack provides a much more usable alternative to email for internal communication. The Wall Street Journal and ABC News are examples of large companies which use Slack. A year and a half ago when Slack had 125,000 daily users (now it has 2.3 million), The Verge predicted that it would kill email in the workplace. Although Stewart Butterfield, Slack CEO, stated in an interview with Fortune Magazine that Slack will not kill email on an inter-company level, its exponential growth proves how the functionality of Slack is revolutionizing internal communication in business.

Trello

A good tool to combine with slack to add some task and project management functionality is Trello.

Trello’s platform is based on a list of cards which can be used to list tasks, show progress and track the workflow of a project.

trello

The main appeal of Trello is its simplicity and ease of use, but it does have more sophisticated add-ons you can choose like a calendar, voting options, card aging, etc. Trello is so simple, it can be adapted to a variety of uses, or even a Lifehack. It is used by companies like Google, PayPal, Tumblr and Adobe because the user really gets to choose how to use the product.

6. Workflow Automation

If you take the time to play around with it and learn how to use it, there is no question that one of the most powerful tools listed on Entrepreneur Tools is Zapier. This tool takes the idea of workflow automation found in tools like IFTTT (IF This Then That), and takes it to the next level. Zapier allows you to automate interaction between your most used apps. The site will connect with your accounts on any of its impressive list of 500+ supported applications (including Google services, MailChimp, Trello, Slack, Evernote, Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) and create “zaps” or automated tasks between them to help them interact with one another.

task history

For example, it can turn form data from Eventbrite, Wufoo, SurveyMonkey or Typeform submissions into a Google Sheets form. It can add emails from your Paypal users or your Facebook page followers to your MailChimp list. It can automatically back up Evernote files or Gmail attachments on your Dropbox. It’s a very useful tool which helps avoid the unnecessary grunt work when managing interconnections between the tools in your stack. The possibilities are endless, and finding the best ones can even become a contest. Fortunately, Zapier has lots of examples and help material to get you started.

7. Freelancers

Last but not least, if you need customized software solutions or tweaks to your existing software, one the most cost-effective ways to do it is to assign the task to a freelancer. In fact, the freelancer economy is now so large and diverse, you can get anything from accountants and designers to musicians and writers from a host of marketplace websites for such services. I truly believe that one of the most important skills of the 21st century (that schools are not teaching us) is going to be learning how to take advantage of these freelancer markets. A couple of my favorites are:

Fiverr

For smaller or less specialized teams, Fiverr is a great resource which connects businesses with freelancers of all skills ranging from graphic design to getting featured to translation. It has more than 3 million independent services, with most basic ones like logo and letterhead design starting at $5 USD. I especially recommend Fiverr as the most cost-effective way to get an explainer video produced and edited for your website. For the more adventurous marketer, why not get a rap song for some virality?

fiverrr

Freelancer

Freelancer.com is useful for projects like software development, web design, SEO Marketing or app creation. It requires you to submit your exact needs for your project and freelancers will bid to be hired. You can find some great deals for larger projects if bidding goes your way and you only pay if fully satisfied with the job. Several entrepreneurs that have talked to me about their experience using freelancer.com have told me that they were able to get skilled programmers to complete jobs at a fraction of the regular price for such services.

freelancer


Examples from some of Calgary’s web entrepreneurs

In 2016, especially due to the sudden popularity of my ZEEF page, I have had the good fortune of meeting some local web entrepreneurs here in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Naturally, I have asked them about their stacks and the tools they use for their business.

Wilson Hung, founder of FounderOrigins.com, a resource for entrepreneurial venture ideas, was also a guest lecturer in our ENTI 381 class at the University of Calgary this year, and he spoke to us about user acquisition and growth marketing strategies. He recently told me about the stack of tools he uses and how he discovered new ones through the Entrepreneur Tools ZEEF page:

qilson hung“I only have three websites on my browser’s bookmark bar, and one of them is Mohammad’s ZEEF page. With so much content available out there, it’s helpful to have everything summarized in one easy-to-read web page. My favorite discoveries so far are:

Groove’s Small Business Stack: I used this to get free trials for GetDrip (now I’m a paying customer), Boomerang, and Chatra.

SumoMe: As a result of this discovery, I’ve increased my email conversion rate from 2% to 5% on my blog.

StockSnap.io: My go-to website when looking for specific free stock photos.”

Sam Chow, founder of Hobblit.com, a platform for connecting experts (gurus) to people who want to learn from them, says:

“As a non-tech founder with a little bit of experience in everything, I found the “entrepreneur tools” resource to be invaluable. We started with this list as a means to guide us through the building of our start-up, hobblit.com.”

hobblit

The founder of Hobblit used Sharetribe to produce a minimum viable product (MVP). It allowed him to create a full-fledged online marketplace without any coding. Although it wasn’t the exact product he wanted to make, the prototype allowed him to recruit team members with programming skills that would help him create a custom platform. But they didn’t get straight into coding the product and instead started by mocking up the design with UXpin which, in Sam’s words, “allowed my non-designer self to communicate with the front-end developer.”

Mr. Chow describes some other elements of their software stack as well:

“We use Expensify to keep track of our expenses and Stripe to process our payments. MailChimp to handle our newsletters and Hootsuite for social media marketing. Also, F6S to apply for competitions and gain insight into other similar companies.”

Finally, my students and I were fortunate enough to have Dominique Fraser, founder of TeamFund.ca give our class an inspiring guest lecture recently. TeamFund is the first ever web service of its kind, connecting local vendors to people who want to use their products for fundraising campaigns.

For Dominique, being local, flexible pricing, and customer support were a factors in choosing some of her stack.

“I loved Wave as it’s based out of Toronto and it’s cloud. It’s free, but I have found a tremendous amount of value in paying for the upgrade for 30 days and having Wave essentially set me up and teach me about accounting. I tried to set things up on my own and it took probably about 50 hours of nonsense and frustration. Upgrading for $100 saved me probably 30–40 hours and then I was able to focus on sales. Great value-it’s hard to see that at first, but now when I can upgrade temporarily, I see it as an opportunity to save time. Support is bar-none when you are a startup. At first it seems that every app or software will solve all your problems, but it’s not the case.”

The rest of TeamFund’s stack includes Wix for website building, Wufoo for creating and managing forms, and Zapier for triggering automatic operations with form entries. She uses Campaign Monitor for auto responding to emails, which costs her “one penny per email.” Guru.com and Fiverr.com are tools she uses to help source out freelancers, and she has recently started using Canva.com for design/art and Facebook posts.

canva

“I also use Vcita, which is a customer engagement software. You can view it when you visit my site and it pops up at the bottom right of the screen. This helps my users schedule time for discussion or face to face meet up.”


I end this blog post by extending a warm thank you to the ZEEF team for building a great platform and for inviting me to write here. I hope readers will find the material useful, and I know that many of them will know of better and newer tools that would be awesome for entrepreneurs and startups. One of the beauties of a ZEEF page is the ability to accept and curate suggested links by others, so if you know of any tools you think should be included on Entrepreneur Tools, you know where to find it!

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Note: Iman Tajadod contributed to this article while working as a research assistant at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary.

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7 Essential Resources & Tips to Get Started with UX

Hi, I’m Alexander Kluge, the curator of the ZEEF UX page. I´m a remote worker and co-creator of ON BOARD, a Colombian startup offering transformative travel and experiential learning journeys of 3–30 days in one country at a time — visiting and supporting local mentors and communities around the world.

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I’m also the founder of Coastery Camp. It’s a free write camp,online course and community where you learn to write while you help nonprofits and startups that bootstrap.

In this article I’ve compiled a collection of 7 essential resources & tips (taken from my ZEEF page) to get you started with UX.

 

Resource 1: What is UX?

UX is User Experience and cares about business goals and people’s desires using the product, website, app or service, especially in terms of ease and pleasure of use — which is why it is tightly connected to usability. It is often (not always) related to digital experiences in the web and apps.

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.
— Nielsen Norman Group

UX is generally an interdisciplinary field and not something you do (or a verb). Therefore it comprises aspects of media design, computing, computer science, psychology, culture, marketing, usability and many more (see resource 2).

The basic foundation to understand UX is to put the user (human person) into the center of the design process, in a user-centered design (UCD) approach.

The term is widely and frequently used which makes people confuse it with UI design (see resource 5).

Tim R. Todish (from UX Magazine) crisply says:

Too often, UX is narrowly defined as one of the many disciplines that make up UX as a whole (e.g., wireframing, information architecture, etc …). On your next project, if you’re asked to “UX it,” stand up for yourself and kindly explain that UX is a holistic process. It’s not a box you can tick off a to-do list.

 

Resource 2: The Disciplines of UX

You will often find the term UX Design (UXD), not solely UX, because people talk about the actual creation (design) of experiences. So it makes sense to use the term UX Design which you will see in the overview of disciplines of user experience design below and the next resources and tips as well.

userexperiencedesign

 

Dan Saffer about the diagram above:

It’s still not perfect: it’s missing Sound Design and Ergonomics/Human Factors, and the way the circles had to overlap downplays Visual Design. […] HCI is partially out of the circle because of its different (non-design) traditions and methodologies, and also because of its focus on pure research. Industrial design (and, in truth, architecture should do this too), pokes out of the circle because it has involvement in areas that do not directly involve the user, such as manufacturing (or in the case of architecture, building) specifications.

 

Resource 3: The Elements of User Experience (PDF)

As part of the web-centric book “The Elements of User Experience” the author (Jesse James Garrett)has made a very important graphic in the book freely available. Specifically for the web context, it differentiates the web as a software (interaction) and a hypertext system (information). Surely, both exist at the same time.

visual design

UX, according to Garrett, takes user needs and business objectives into consideration and is the conceptional and more abstract starting point of the design process, followed by defining functional and content specifications and eventually creating the actual design for the information, navigation, interface and general visual appearance.

 

Resource 4: The Fundamentals of Experience Design (PDF)

Regarded from a broader perspective, “designing (for) experiences is fundamentally about people, activities, and the context of those activities.” (Steven P. Anderson)

people context

The interesting observation is the dimension Anderson applies when he doesn’t talk about users but people, and activities and their context, not business owners with their goals. It opens up your point of view that it’s not only two parties involved (users and product/service owners) but a whole environment that is affected and benefits from the experience or interaction (see resource 7).

 

Resource 5: The Difference between UX and UI Design

Design is how it looks, feels and works (as famously said by Steve Jobs). While you learnt above that UI/interaction design is part of the whole UX process a short way to differentiate both could be:
You can have an application with a stunning design that is hairy to use (good UI, bad UX). You can also have an application that has a poor look and feel, but is very intuitive to use (poor UI, good UX).
— Onextrapixel

 

Resource 6: The Cooper Goal Directed Design Process

Although it can feel overwhelming getting started to read the goal-directed process Alan Cooper developed, it is very insightful and valuable for more in-depth explorations to creating a mindset of human-centered design.
Basically you find one person, understand their vision and their final desired end state, and then make them ecstatically happy about reaching their end state. That is the essence of Goal-Directed Design.

 — Alan Cooper

He continues:

And what you need are two things: 1) Find (or synthesize) the right person and 2) Design for that person. At a place like Apple, Steve Jobs was already that right person, and they needed look no further.

You can see the whole goal-directed design process here.

 

Resource 7: About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design

For many the most important book and crucial reading in order to profoundly understand designing experiences for the digital age is ¨About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design” by Alan Cooper. It covers topics like:

  • Understanding Goal-Directed Design (see resource 6)
  • Designing Behavior and Form
  • Designing Interaction Details

 

Conclusion

The next level of UX is human story experience design (HSXD) combining the lessons learnt from designing experiences with the power of (transmedia) storytelling and story-writing.

More UX? Explore my ZEEF page for more hands-on articles, guides, tutorials and blogs, there is still tons of UX information to discover. (You can also contribute to the page by suggesting other quality UX links).

 

 

 

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7 Essential Tips & Resources To Get Started With Data Science

Hi, I’m Jan R. Benetka, the curator of the ZEEF Data Science page. I’m also a PhD candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

jenda

 

I specialize in information retrieval and at the moment I’m using data science techniques to predict which information might be useful for a user before she actually opens a browser and starts searching for it. In this post I’m providing 7 essential resources & tips to help you get started with Data Science.

 

1. Data Science

Data science is an umbrella term for a collection of techniques from many distinct areas such as computer science, statistics, machine learning to name just a few. The main objective is to extract information from data and turn it into knowledge which you can base your further decisions on. It sounds easy, but it’s not necessarily always straightforward. Usually the process comprises many steps starting with a research question. Once you know what you want to study, you need to obtain the right data, clean it, explore it, create and evaluate a model, repeat this cycle a couple of times, and finally you are ready to start looking for a way how to properly communicate your results.

The Python for Data Analysis book is a great starting point, it guides you through all these stages and helps you to get this workflow under your skin.

data s def

A definition of ´Data Scientist´ by Josh Wills

 

2. Data Set

First of all you need an interesting data set to play with. Either you already have your own data (congratulations!) or you need to acquire some. We happen to be living in the age of information overload which probably means that data is everywhere and it’s easy to get it, right? Yes and no.

Data is wherever you look, however, it’s not always trivial to get what you want. The path of least resistance when searching for data is to explore publicly available data sets. People tend to organize them in curated lists such as ‘Awesome Public Datasets’ by Xiaming Chen, alternatively you can use one of data repositories like datahub.io. If you don’t succeed, you can try to find a public API and collect the precious data yourself. Chances are high that such an API is not available or is very limited, then you have to find a way to extract the data by other means, for example, by scraping webpages. This approach typically requires some data-cleaning steps, which might be costly in terms of time and effort.

 

3. Statistics

Having a good understanding of statistics is extremely helpful when performing data analysis. A rule of thumb says that the first step after getting a data set is to have a quick look at it, and some basic descriptive statistics is a good friend of yours here. If your data set contains numerical variables, you might be interested in their distributions — their center (i.e., mean) and how spread they are (i.e., variance).

In short, statistics offers you a toolbox for understanding your data, distinguishing between causation and correlation, analyzing patterns, modeling, predicting, etc. Last but not least, statistics quantifies certainty of your outcomes and therefore gives you confidence in your results. In our ZEEF list you can find, among others, this awesome hands-on tutorial called “An Introduction to Statistics” prepared by Thomas Haslwanter.

 

4. Machine Learning

In layman’s terms, the goal of machine learning algorithms is to learn to make decisions based on data. This approach, contrary to designing hard-coded algorithms, has huge benefits in a sense that one method can serve many purposes. Moreover, machine learning systems are designed to improve as new data come in. That’s exactly why your Amazon account looks different when you’re logged in than when you’re not — as you’re browsing their catalogue, it learns your preferences. Google search, to mention another example, is constantly learning the importance of webpages. You don’t have time to manually inspect those X thousands of results it returns, all you want is the ten blue links to be the best hits.

If you want to start with the machine learning right away, then you should visit the Joseph Misiti’s GitHub repository with a great hack-first-get-serious-later tutorial called Dive into Machine Learning. It uses Python and one of its most popular ML libraries, scikit-learn.

 

5. Visualization

I’ve already mentioned the descriptive power of statistics. Let me illustrate the importance of visualization on one example, where simple statistics is not enough: Anscombe’s quartet is a collection of four different data sets with two variables x and y. Interestingly, these data sets (despite looking very different visually) appear nearly the same through the lens of statistics. They share almost identical values of the following properties: mean of x, sample variance of x, mean of y, correlation between x and y, and linear regression line, yet in fact they’re very dissimilar.

anscombe

Anschome´s Quartet (Avenue/Wikipedia)

Data visualization is important both when analyzing data and when conveying your findings. Human eyes and brain are great co-workers when it comes to recognition of patterns. They make it easy for us to immediately spot relationships, trends, outliers or anomalies in visualizations, especially for low-dimensional data. Whenever possible, you should try to leverage the enormous bandwidth of human’s visual system and explain your data in graphical form. I’d recommend you to first get some inspiration in this amazing overview of visualizations based on D3.js library.

 

6. MOOC

Data science in various forms is being introduced as a new program on many universities around the world. Massive online courses go hand-in-hand with this trend and already you can find a plethora of free or very affordable courses that will guide you from Introduction Data Science, through Data Analysis and Statistical Inference, Data Mining or Data Visualization toMachine Learning lectured by Andrew Ng.

 

7. Challenges

Now, when you have all the pieces together, it’s time to apply your knowledge in practice. And what can be more fun than participating in a competition? Data science challenges, such as Kaggle, are a great opportunity to test your own abilities and to learn from others (you’ll also get nice data for free). On top of that, if you manage to win you can be offered a dream job or at least a lot of money. If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there is also another, more noble, reward in some competitions (e.g.,DrivenData.org): saving the world!

I hope you have found these tips and resource useful, especially if you’re starting your first data-related project. The field is evolving incredibly fast and new resources are popping up every day. Keep in mind that it’s good to keep up with latest trends, but it’s essential to learn the basics.

Make sure to check out my ZEEF page for more tutorials, blogs, libraries, data sets, etc. (You can also contribute to the page by suggesting other quality Data Science links).

Have fun with Data!

 

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Optimized page headers and mobile UI

This new version brings tons of visual improvements to ZEEF. We restructured how your page headers look like, improved the mobile experience and smoothed out publishing a page. Scroll down for all the details!

Different versions of the page headerLeaving out parts in the page header was a pain before this version. Some parts were optional, but just stayed empty instead of the interface changing nicely. From this version on you can choose what to display on your page and the page will automatically generate a nice-looking layout. To facilitate this we moved statistics, detailed curator information and other curators to the About section.

We’ve had a lot of requests asking for a way to have a Table of Contents, this is now automatically on everyone’s page. We’re still testing various layouts between pages so the final version might differ. And last but not least we’ve enabled page banners (the big image above your page) platform wide. Looking forward to seeing you experiment with that!

Mobile UI

Mobile UIWe didn’t forget about our mobile users though. Next to starting development on an iOS app, we changed the layout of pages on our mobile website to be more concise. This change should make it a lot easier to navigate to the block you’re looking for.

Other changes

  • When requesting to publish your page in the directory you’re asked to fill in some more metadata to help us categorize and filter
  • Splitting up pages is easier than ever before, directly copy/move links to a new page
  • The links on the homepage are now showing views instead of clicks
  • The algorithm for title suggestions has been improved
  • Dragging links from the ScratchPad is fixed
  • Several additions to the API:
    • /user/me returns imageURL
    • Title suggestions are available for Link and ScratchPadLink
    • Error responses are documented
  • Several other bugs fixed and small improvements
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7 Essential Resources & Tips to Get Started with Game Development

Hi! I’m David Arcila, the curator of the ZEEF Game Development resource page. I’m also a game development teacher that has seen countless student projects crash and burn throughout the years. This has led me to understand what are the common mistakes that people make regarding the game design and game development workflows.

david medium

In this ZEEF curator blog post I’m going to share 7 essential resources & tips to get you started with game development and help you avoid the common pitfalls that this creative process ensues.

Resource 1 — Lay out the Plan — Dundoc

The most important thing to do before actually starting development of your game is defining what the game is going to be about, the best way to do so is by working on a Game Design Document often called a GDD. This document will become your compass when actually developing the game and will save you a lot of time in the long run, but beware! If you’re not meticulous about what goes into the GDD you can end up with a huge document that no one will read and were the important information gets buried among blocks of text thus hindering the team workflow.

My advice is to use Dundoc initially to have a really compact GDD that answers most of the common questions regarding what the game will be about. Later on you will realize that this document has to allow for collaborative input so you probably will migrate it to another platform.

dundoc

Resource 2 — Tell a good story — Twine

If you thought people bought a video game for it’s graphics then take a quick look at this survey taken from the 2015 ESA Report about the computer and video game industry. Turns out last year 22% of gamers were buying games based on the story and/or premise, which sheds light to how important narrative is becoming for gamers.

If you’re wondering where to go to start building your story in a simple and dynamic way then make sure to check out Twine. Twine is an open source tool created by Chris Klimas for telling interactive nonlinear stories, which makes it really convenient for game development. This software allows you to build your narrative in a visual structure based on hypertext that doesn’t require knowledge of programming.

twine

Resource 3 — Get agile — Trello

Once you understand what game you want to make, you must start getting things done and the best way to do so is to use a Project Management System that allows you to organize tasks and get feedback. That tool isTrello, and believe me, I’ve tried dozens of similar resources such as to-do lists, mind maps and even database apps but the most simple and straightforward is this one, especially when you’re working with a team.

The difference and more important aspect of using Trello compared to a to-do list is that you can visualize the importance and impact of the tasks in regards with the project and you can also assign due dates to it, this makesTrello very easy to integrate with Agile methods such as Scrum.

trello

Resource 4 — The Democratization of tools — Unity

Most game developers nowadays can’t even understand how fortunate they are, back in the day if you wanted to use a game engine you either had to buy an expensive license or you had to build it from the ground up. Fortunately, thanks to the democratization of technology today we can find a plethora of game engines that range from 2D, 3D, Free, Subscription based and more.

Because of it’s ease of use and gradual learning curve, Unity is one of the most popular engines among indie game developers so there is more than enough tutorials and information available online for learning.

unity david

(If anybody wants to dive more into Unity make sure to check out Adrian Anta´s ZEEF page here)

 

 

Resource 5 — A prototype is worth a thousand words — Kenney

Now that you know how to start a GDD and how to organize the tasks for the development of your game, it’s important to start building a prototype because this is how you will show the game mechanics and understand how the game is coming altogether. You must be iterating many times until the game feel and the game mechanics work effectively until you end up with the Alpha and subsequently the Beta version of the game.

But, how to start prototyping as soon as possible? With the use of placeholders.

Placeholders are temporary assets (3D Models, Sprites or Sounds) that are meant to dissociate programming and art schedules allowing them to progress independently thus saving time and allowing you to start playing with your basic game mechanics while the final assets are done. So, let me tell you about Kenney, who is also known as the “Asset Jesus” because he has the best placeholders available for making a quick and working prototype. We’re talking about UI, Audio and Sprites that are Public Domain and ready to implement.

kenny david

Resource 6 — Don’t forget the Audio — Incompetech + Freesound

Most indie game developers make the common mistake of defining and implementing the audio at the last moment, the reason why this happens is because generally graphics and programming are priority when developing the game, but having a great sound is integral to making an awesome and memorable game. The good news is that having great sound can turn a so-so game into a better one, the bad news is that composing music and sound effects for videogames requires time and effort.

I’m going to recommend the following resources related to Audio:

  • Incompetech is a music repository made by Kevin MacLeod that has Royalty Free Music available as different “Collections” which can be searched by genre or feel. Some developers use Kevin’s music as audio placeholders because due to Incompetech’s popularity a plethora of Youtube Videos and Web Games already use his songs, so eventually you will find that a song you like has been used before in another product.
  • Freesound is a huge collaborative database of audio snippets, samples and recordings released under Creative Commons licenses that can be reused as you want depending on the type of license the samples have. Using a free audio editor such as Audacity you can remix the samples and adapt them to your needs.

incompetech

 

 

Resource 7 — Knowledge! — GDC Vault

It’s very important to be learning constantly specially in this ever changing industry, and the best way to be aware of the changes is visiting the GDC (Game Developers Conference) because it’s the largest annual gathering of professional video game developers and it features a variety of lectures, tutorials and round-tables on game related topics that cover programming, design, audio, production, business, management, arts and more. But if you’re not in San Francisco or can’t travel there don’t worry, you can enjoy and learn from the free content available in the GDC Vault.

gdc vault

Conclusion

I hope you find this list useful in your game development endeavors, please always remember to have a realistic and reasonable scope for your project, start by making small games and only after you can gradually start developing medium sized games by adding a features.

If you want to improve your prototyping and development pipeline then start participating in Game Jams such as the Global Game Jam or Ludum Dare, it’s a great way to meet people and test yourself.

For more useful resources make sure to check out my ZEEF game development page & join their new Facebook group!

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