Capturing the learning process with the Under Cloud

Learning is a fluid process — sometimes difficult, sometimes not so much.

When it’s difficult, we often plan ahead and build up our resources, which might include required documentation, such as a good book. Once done, we have the evidence to support the continued learning process.

However, when the learning process is more ad hoc and on-the-go, this reactive learning process means we often don’t have the time to document what we’re learning.

I wrote the Under Cloud for a number of reasons, but the core underlying principle was that of documenting the data and information I was gathering and transforming them into knowledge.

Now, some of you might be wondering: Hold on, what’s the difference between data, information, and knowledge? A lot — data is to DNA what information is to human, what knowledge is to culture. Once you understand the hierarchical nature of these three structures, it makes learning a bit more layered.

As an example, a spreadsheet contains numbers (data), which are — in and of themselves — not much use until someone transforms those numbers into a useful chart (information), based upon which decisions are made which then contribute to a greater whole (knowledge).

But I digress…

Still, there is the challenge of capturing that fast-paced learning process. If you’re using Microsoft OneNote or Evernote, you have access to their neat ‘clipper’ extensions and plugins for the various web browsers. While these tools are excellent — and often indispensable to some — they’re not solving the fundamental problem.

Take, for example, of the office junior who is watching the senior members of the team work on the aforementioned spreadsheet. Peter adds the numbers. Sarah creates the chart. Anne, John, Catherine, and Gina begin a discussion as to how to implement the information contained in several charts supplied by their team.

Here is a flow of events, one connected to another, as a narrative. You could either ‘clip’ each stage of the process, or write one long rambling note. But how flexible are either of these approaches? Sometimes, one part of that process is relevant elsewhere, but if it’s hidden in one long rambling note, how do reference that? If it’s one distinct note — which is ideal — you’re then hoping that you used some sensible organisational pattern for those notes.

What the Under Cloud does is to allow you to build your own narrative, one that doesn’t care which folder you put your notes in. You link one note to the next, annotating that link. So, as an example, if you had a bookmark for apples and a note for oranges, the link annotation would be fruit, since this would be the vital context connecting the two.

As of writing, the Under Cloud has its own extension for Google Chrome, which allows you to capture part of or an entire web page. However, there is no equivalent option to add comments or links to that bookmark, which is the next logical step.

Once this is in place, capturing that learning process would be low friction and robust.

Thinking further ahead, perhaps something that allows screen capturing that records audio, so that the video becomes your own screencast.

Cutting the social web down to size for the perfect fit

While at the launch of the Northern Hub of Enterprise Nation, at the Digital Media Centre, in Barnsley, I had the pleasure of speaking with Reynaldo Robinson, the co-owner of Vyn Johns, a specialist in vintage bridal gowns and menswear, based in Sheffield.

It’s always fascinating to talk to people from different business backgrounds to myself, and Vyn Johns are as different to Octane as anyone could imagine. But, despite the differences, there are the same themes: too few hours; making difficult decisions about which jobs to take on; meeting the expectations of the customer of client. The list goes on.

Reynaldo has a background in marketing, who — as you might imagine — is making solid use of Twitter, Facebook, et cetera. Please, take the time to skim down their Instagram feed, where you’ll discover a fascinating use of tiled images of two large photographs, because the effect is very impressive.

As a business that creates and curates vintage bridal garments, the photography is everything, and Vyn Johns making the most of that.

Sizing things up

What’s clear is that Reynaldo has everything under control, so there was little I could recommend, other than tightening things up a little, which Reynaldo is aware of, and on his to-do list.

So where do I come in? Little of what I suggested was news to Reynaldo, which is encouraging to see. So instead, I’ll write up those thoughts, recommendations, and suggestions for the benefit of everyone else.

But first, if you’re not using Google Analytics for your website, then you’re missing a big trick.

Getting a feel for social media

So you’re on Twitter and you’ve completed your profile by adding a link to your website. Good. Now let’s imagine someone visits your profile and follows the link straight to the home page. We can better than that.

Social media is about creating a dialogue and establishing a narrative around yourself. Here, you’ve already warmed the person up enough for them to visit your website, so why not keep things going by sending them to a web page which expands on you, your business, and what it is you do?

I point people to a page that isn’t that easy to find (via the website itself), so when people visit that page, I’m 99% certain they came from Twitter, which I’m able to see in — you’ve guessed it — Google Analytics. I’m able to quantify where people are coming from with a bit more precision, and I’m keeping that conversation moving along.

You can do the same thing anywhere (Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, a Page on Facebook, et cetera) that allows you to add a link to your website.

Almost anyone can jump into social media, but it’s all about quality and not quantity. Here, the goal is to create a feel, and a texture that speaks about you and the passion you have for your work.

A one-size-fits-all website

I often describe Google as being a fussiest 13 year-old who wants to read everything, but has a short attention span. It’s a shame I don’t take heed of my own advice! Fortunately, my clients do. The goal here is to write articles and to write often, to keep little Miss Google enthralled. This might seem a daunting task, but — again — it’s all about being specific.

Reynaldo attends trade fairs up and down the Yorkshire and surrounding regions. If, like Vyn Johns, you’re often out and about, why not announce this in an article ahead of the event, giving those prospective far-flung customers the chance to meet you.

If you’re going to be writing articles, you’ll need to best tools to do it, and I would recommend WordPress. You have two basic options:

  1. a “hosted” version of WordPress, whereby you sign up and get going within minutes;
  2. or you download WordPress, configure it (which involves a degree of technical knowledge) and then get going.

WordPress is very flexible, with a wealth of options to configure it exactly to your tastes and needs. Here, the second option offers the most flexibility, but that comes with the cost of being more technical to configure and manage.

Once up and running, you have the power to write articles whenever you choose, without having to pay for the services of someone like me!

Making adjustments for a tighter fit

So you’ve got yourself in on the social media act, and you have your website, which you control. Now what? We begin joining the dots.

You’re at the trade fair, you have prospective customers approaching you, and you need to give them something tangible, as a reminder. You also need to quantify those people, and in doing so, you get a measure of your own relative success; after all, it’s pointless attending a trade fair if you have no idea whether someone who came to your booth or stall made a purchase at a later date.

A pattern for landing pages

Everyone has seen those adverts on TV asking us to call a number or visit a website and either quote or use a code. We can do the same. It’s cheap and easy to print out fliers containing your campaign code, which you then hand out.

Now, on your website — powered by WordPress, or similar — you create a page whose link address would be, for example:, which you include on your flier.

What’s a landing page? It’s a clutter-free page with one purpose, and that is to encourage the visitor to do something. That something is either:

  • buy a particular item;
  • make contact with you for further information;
  • download an ebook, or some other digital item;
  • or perhaps sign up to a newsletter.

A common pattern for landing pages is the minimalist approach, in that they don’t include any of the navigation elements a regular web page would, for the simple reason that you don’t want anything to distract the visitor, and to detract from the experience, where you’re attempting to funnel them towards a specific goal.

In the case of the trade fair, perhaps have photographs of the items you had on show, with a call-to-action, such as a “Buy Now” button, for example.

As people visit your landing page, you’re quantifying the interest you generated at the trade fair, and perhaps converting that interest into actual sales.

A seamless narrative

While at the trade fair, why not have your own hashtag, so that like-minded visitors to your booth or stall get to share in and become part of the narrative. Similarly, take photographs of your display, talk about what’s happening, encourage visitors to mention you, and for them to take photographs, too.

Afterwards, all those photographs, the conversations, and the happy visitors mentioning you and your efforts that have been working so hard, building layer upon layer of an on-going tapestry, where you treat each moment as a success, one on top of the other, so that — in effect — you’re creating a continuous and seamless narrative, made to measure.

How to respond to failure. Or, after the problem came the procedure.

Encountering problems and making mistakes is a consequence of life, business, and everything else — and unavoidable. But the value is in how you respond to them.

As I said on Twitter this past week:

I’ve found that the best lessons in life — by far — are those where you learn how NOT to do something.

But still, as good as vicarious experiences are, they only get you so far.

In the beginning, there was the mistake…

By gum, was it a doozy! I’ll spare you the gory details (because they are — for the most part — irrelevant) but it was less a bug and more an infestation in the code. In the grand scheme of things, it has caused problems for our schedule, but the Under Cloud remains on course.

Stripping the whole problem down and tracing it to its source, it was — as these things often are — a failure to communicate, which resulted in team members and myself labouring under the assumption that something was when it wasn’t.

And then came the procedure…

So how did I respond?

We’re using a number of things to manage what we do. As a team of 3, we don’t need a lot, but we find that Slack and Trello are enough to keep things together, although we often find things said and done become lost inside the whirring cogs of the communication machine!

I created a list in Trello and added a card entitled: “Deprecated”, within which I wrote the following description:

“Here are all of the parts, components, and libraries of the application that have been deprecated, and what they’ve been superseded with.

Please update this card as and when required, but also refer to it, too!”

Some might argue it’s just a patching of holes, while some might claim it’s only of any use if people follow the procedure, but I would counter by saying that’s life, business, and everything else…

Why I switch web browsers, and — perhaps — you should, too!

When it comes to web browsers, I’m a bit of a nomad; I tend to shift around a lot. Also, I use a particular web browser for a specific task. Obvious question, here: why? So here are few things I do, which you might find useful…

Work smart with web browsers

What, you’re using just the one web browser? Madness! It’s all about being efficient. I find it faster and easier to switch between applications than tabs, since there are more keyboard shortcuts for the former than there are for the latter.

Here’s a bunch of essential keyboard shortcuts for Mac and Windows.

So let’s say I’m cataloguing web pages in the not-so hush-hush project I’m working on, the Under Cloud. I have the web page open in Apple’s Safari — for example — and the Under Cloud open in Google Chrome, using the keyboard shortcuts to switch between the two, copying and pasting between the two (we’re working on an extension for Google Chrome, which would cut out the copy-paste thing).

Whether you’re on a Mac or Windows, switching between applications is simple (command+tab for Mac, and alt+tab on Windows).

I mostly use Safari for phpMyAdmin, to manage the databases for client and personal projects, whereas I tend to use Google Chrome for Pocket, doing research, and so on. I sometimes use Firefox Developer Edition for development and testing. But as I said, I’m a web browser nomad, so things can change (I was using Opera for a time).

Getting more from Google Chrome

If you are using Google Chrome (which a lot of people are, these days), and you use lots of tabs, as I do, I recommend you use the following extensions, both by Suspension Labs:

  • Spaces, allows you to store windows containing tabs and load them when you need them. You can also assign a keyboard shortcut to bring up a dialogue listing your spaces (I use alt+space), which can navigate via the up and down arrow keys, and active via the return key.
  • The Great Suspender, “pauses” tabs so they don’t take up tons of memory, which is a boon for active websites (web applications) such as Twitter or Facebook.

I hope you gleaned something new and / or useful from this minor excursion into my workflow…

On being bold, and risking everything on an idea

I have an idea. I believe it’s an excellent idea. But belief doesn’t write code. People do.

I’m 4 years into a project — Under Cloud — which is a web application focused on the creation, curation, and management of research. It’s about capturing that moment of serendipity; when you realise you have something that fits with something else you did, or read, or wrote, and then linking them together with similar items, to create a narrative, and a stream of thought.

At present, the project is at an usable stage of development — I’m using it on a regular basis to manage my own personal and professional needs. However, much remains to be done. So, I had another idea.

The power of 3

By the end of the week, Octane will have gone from 1 employee (me), to 3. In the end, I had no choice, because to move the gain line forward, I needed to do something so different that it would mean transforming Octane and risking just about everything on a belief in an idea. I’d be running the risk of losing control, and — once more — staring into that darkness, not knowing where things were going.

Yes, I have a plan. Of course I do. But I’m charting a different course, and heading for unknown waters. It’s amazing.

I was asked: “Why not do [x] yourself?” which was an option, but it would have meant missing the chance to recruit two people who — if their delivery is commensurate with their obvious talents — could propel the Under Cloud forward at a pace and in a direction I couldn’t hope to do alone. Or worse, I do the work myself, and then 6 weeks later those same two people are no longer available to take things further.

I’m not just spending £x per hour on two people, I’m investing in a possible future for 3 people.

I could go on, but you get the idea.

So this is it, the biggest and most expensive gamble I’ve ever undertaken.