Interview with Shifd Creators: Nick Bilton and Michael Young, Pt. II

At our recent London Hack Day, Nick Bilton and Michael Young of the New York Times Research & Development Lab walked away with the top award ("Best Overall Hack") for their mobile/desktop synchronization and toggling solution: Shifd.

In the second part of this interview, we followed up with these two to talk a bit more about their solution, how they conceived and executed it, what's next for Shifd, and more.

Q: Shifd was one of the few specifically Mobile-focused applications we saw at this Hack Day. What design considerations did you make based on your past usage of mobile devices?

Mobile devices in general have terrible user interface and even worse browser specifications, and because of both of these problems, people really don't understand how to create or design content for these devices. It's apparent that mobile devices are really important in our life as you can see from the hoopla that arrived with the iPhone. We really aimed to make the design and User Interface simple, clean and easy to understand.

Q: How did the idea of Shifd come about? Did you know you wanted to build this before arriving at Hack Day?

We were trying to come up with an idea for Hack Day a week or so before we came out there, but there was so much going on we didn't really have time to talk about it. A couple of days before we left, we found a white board floating around our office and we attacked it with a marker, making three columns: 1. Devices, 2. Code, and 3. Communication and then started to try to tie ideas together. We soon gave up on the board and barely a day before leaving for London we came up with the idea for Shifd. Primarily basing it on the concept of shifting content from your various devices in a seamless manner.

Q: What feature/functionality did you leave out due to the time constraints?

We wanted to add a few features including being able to interact with shifd.com through text message. For example, you would be able to send a text message of a note, or a URL to Shifd and it would automatically be saved to your Shifd page to be viewed or edited later when you're back at your desk.

Q: What user feedback did you bring to the process from your work in the Times R&D lab (or before)?

We have a series of presentations that we have given to The New York Times Company over the past few months explaining where the R&D Lab sees technology in the next 18-24 months, and one of the ideas we talked about was your devices being aware of your presence and even aware of your friends and family's presence making the way we interact with content and each other much more social and dynamic. The real push and idea for Shifd came from the idea of presence and wanting to build something that we can actually use and that we would find useful.

Q: Are there Yahoo! APIs/Web Services that you wish were available (that weren't so at the time of this event)?

The collection of Yahoo! APIs is really impressive! We used the Local Search (version 2) API in the hack, to let users search for local listings. An API or tool to handle the feed aggregation would have helped, but wasn't necessary.

We are huge fans of the Yahoo! APIs and tools in the R&D group and use a lot of them in the prototypes and applications we build in our group: Maps, Local Search, YUI, Geocoding, Content Analysis, etc. The Content Analysis (text extraction) API has been very helpful to us! Any plans for an expanded version that supports entity extraction? We'd love to see that! (Ed. note: Sounds like a good idea. We'll pass this along to the development team.)

Q: You mentioned in your podcast that you'd build a non-RFID-based version of Shifd. What design trade-offs will you need to balance in such a version?

The reason we used RFID was to detect your presence so you wouldn't need to do anything to access your content. You would be able to just pick up your phone, or put it down, and the computer would know what environment you're in. With the non-RFID version there will be a couple of extra steps, like typing in the shifd.com URL to get to the site and also clicking a SEND button when you walk away. Although this isn't that much of a trade-off, it's a few extra steps to a project that was intended to be seamless and ultra simple for the user. We are also going to explore a Bluetooth version.

Q: Have you had any interesting conversations or opportunities regarding Shifd or your work arise since participating in Hack Day?

We are aiming to get this to an Alpha release so we can start to explore how people will use Shifd.com. An interesting idea that has arisen from our time at Hack Day would entail us doing a few videos around hacking Apps together for The New York Times. We'll have more info on this exciting prospect soon.

Q: You received a Wii as the Hack Day prize. Any plans to setup the NY-based alternative to Yahoo! Brickhouse's Wii Wednesdays?

We actually ended up donating the Wii to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London, besides, we already have one in the Lab. Anyone at Yahoo! feel like getting beaten at Wii Tennis? (Ed. note: Next time we're out in New York, we'll gladly take you up on that challenge, gentlemen.)

All of us at the Developer Network were impressed with the project's scope, execution, and finesse. Further, it was a great demonstration of taking Yahoo!'s tools to a new experience. (While Yahoo! has many mobile offerings, Shifd showed a great offline mobile experience in a manner our products haven't supported.)
For those who haven't seen Shifd in action, be sure to visit the Lab's Shifd product page. And, for those curious, the Yahoo! tools used for this hack were:


If you've used a Yahoo! tool, submit your product to our Gallery (regardless of whether your product is a site, a mashup, a downloadable application, or a video). We want to help evangelize your successful use of our suite of services!

Micah Laaker