The Software Manager"s Guide to Practical Innovation


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Software teams are constantly looking for new ways to innovate ahead of the competition - from new features to stunning design to modern technology. But have you noticed how little practical, actionable information exists on how to actually achieve this?

The Software Manager's Guide to Practical Innovation. It’s filled with tangible advice on how to differentiate software products through design and development, based on real life lessons learned while working with product managers and teams.

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The Software Manager"s Guide to Practical Innovation

  1. 1. TOP READER-REVIEWED ARTICLES FROMTHE CRITICAL PATH SERIESThe Software Manager’s Guideto Practical Innovation
  2. 2. WHEN WE ADVISE SOFTWARE product executives and product managers on the challenges they face, product innovation and differentiation are consistently at the top of the list. Whether your product is well- established or a first in an emerging market, innovation is key to standing out from the competition. Yet for all the articles and webinars touting the importance of Innovation, there is a severe lack of practical tips on how to actually execute. At Macadamian, we’ve helped clients design and develop hundreds of ground- breaking software products, always with the goal of standing out in the crowd. Since 2004, we’ve been chronicling lessons learned from these projects in a monthly article series called The Critical Path, where we emphasize practical, actionable advice on software product development. This paper is a collection of Critical Path issues on software innovation on which we’ve had overwhelming positive feedback from readers, from the process of generating breakthroughs from technology limitations, to systematically uncovering user-driven features via research and design, to building an organizational culture of innovation. Put them together and you’ve got a comprehensive, end-to-end guide on practical software innovation process that we feel is a must-read for software executives, product managers and developers.3 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  3. 3. ARTICLE ONE The Number One Key To Innovation—Constraint by Didier Thizy HAVE YOU EVER BEEN INVOLVED in a “blue sky” brainstorming session, where teams are encouraged to put aside current constraints and dream up new in- novations? In software, this is most common approach to innovation, and if done right, produces some results. But recently, Uri Neren, founder of The World Database of Innovation initiative, wrote an article announcing the complete opposite: the number one key to innovation is not the blue sky approach, but an approach involving constraint, scarcity, and closed-world thinking. Neren works in collaboration with several universities to profile the world’s inno- vation leaders and commonalities amongst successful innovators. What they’ve found is that there are a number of repeatable methodologies for coming up with innovative solutions. The one thing they all have in common—they deliberately impose “subtraction”, constraint”, and “closed-world” techniques on product development teams to spur new ideas. Having worked at Macadamian for 8 years in software product creation, I realize that a lot of the successful innovations we’ve helped organizations develop have actually been consistent with this idea of constraint. Mobile — A Tiny Screen, A World of New Innovations Mobile applications are without a doubt the source of technology innovation for the decade. While much of it is due to the possibilities mobile apps now afford people who are on the go, we notice a curious phenomenon—many users enjoy using their favorite iPhone and iPad apps even when they’re just sitting on the couch.5 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  4. 4. Luke Wroblewsk, a thought leader in product design, explains that the constraints a Mobile device imposes on product developers force them to come up with clean- er, more usable and less wasteful designs—or they die out quickly in the market. “Mobile Forces You to Focus” he says “Mobile devices require software development teams to focus on only the most important data and actions in an application. There simply isn’t room in a 320 by 480 pixel screen for extraneous, unnecessary elements. You have to prioritize.” The end result is an experience focused on the key tasks users want to accomplish without the extraneous detours and general interface debris that litter today’s desktop-accessed Web sites. That’s good user experience and good for business. At Macadamian, we’ve seen countless examples of enterprise software vendors literally porting their 200-screen desktop software nearly as-is to a mobile device — and quickly being rejected by users. These companies are not accepting the challenge to innovate given the constraints of a mobile device, or are simply not sure how to go about it. The results quickly surface in the form of poor sales and customer feedback.In product On the other hand, companies that do rise to the scarcity challenge of the mobiledevelopment, environment and develop an intuitive product that gets the experience just right end up with innovative solutions that users prefer, often over the more complexyou need to be desktop version of the same product.intimately aware of Do You Know Your Users’ Constraints?the constraints your In product development, you need to be intimately aware of the constraints your users face. This is the fuel for your team’s innovation.users face. This is the We have done a lot of work on software for physicians, particularly Electronicfuel for your team’s Medical Records and Clinical Practice Management software. In this space, 90% of physicians expressed concerns about the solutions meeting their needs. Yetinnovation. ” the developers of these systems keep adding what they feel are more innovative features and making what they believe are improvements to the interface design. So where is the disconnect? What we’ve seen is that vendors are often out of touch with the context in which their users use their solutions. Physicians are a great example because they are subject to a tremendous amount of constraints: • they are extremely pressed for time • they need to maintain eye contact, listen and bedside manner while speaking with patients • they are moving from room to room • there is no room for error in the data they enter When software developers work directly with physicians, or any users for that matter, to develop a solution, what we see is that they typically spend a lot more time discussing solutions—what the features and screens should look like—when they should be spending a lot more time exploring the specific problems and constraints they face. This is where usability testing and observation are critical for innovation. UX pro- 6 fessionals are trained to note the constraints that specific users are under and
  5. 5. highlight these as opportunities for innovation to the product teams. In a recent example, we noted that physicians in very small practices still had unreliable internet cohhnnections, and worked with our client to develop a hybrid online/offline solution that allowed the users an uninterrupted workflow, even when their lines were down. Capitalize On The Constraints Of Modern Technology The software industry is fast-moving. Vendors are continually introducing new technologies, which lately include tablets, touch screens, digital ink, rich internet technology (RIA), cloud computing, and social networks. But every new technology comes with drawbacks and limitations. Digital ink, for example, is an exciting prospect for any professional who wants to seamlessly transition from a pen and paper workflow to a digitized workflow —sales professionals, clinicians, legal staff, etc. But digital ink technology is rife with constraints—loss of writing precision, error detection and prevention, dif- ficulty in converting free-form text to classified data. Rather than rejecting the technology or “putting up with” its constraints, vendors that can directly improve the technology or use what exists in a novel way are the ones that will stand out above the competition. For example, Anoto’s line of increasingly precise digital pens and paper has gained them recognition not only for improving e-Ink technology, but offering it in novel ways to the education and business enterprise domains. Websites were still largely thought of as static pages until Google unveiled its first version of Google Maps—blowing away what were thought to be major constraints of the web through creative use of Ajax technology and the XmlHttpRequest() function. Even Microsoft is pushing the boundaries of the traditional mobile OS and by treating the small screen size of a smartphone as a window to an infinite landscape. In all these cases, the relationship between the product manager and software architect is critical. Both are highly sophisticated individuals in an organization, bringing business and technology expertise, respectively. But how often do they meet? If not to discuss a critical bug or slipping release date. The Pragmatic Marketing framework identifies Technology Assessment as a critical step in the product creation process, and also one of the steps that is most frequently skipped. Bottom line—make time for your business and technical gurus to meet, specifically on the topic of technology innovation. Organizations need to be aware of the constraints of their industry - from the constraints their users face to the constraints of the technologies available to them. Constraint, scarcity and obstacles - these are the opportunities that teams have to go above and beyond in solving users’ problems that will ultimately skyrocket their solutions to success. Mobile technology is living proof. The biggest source of innovation this decade comes on a 320 by 480 pixel screen! What other constraints can you think of7 that will generate the next big breakthrough?
  6. 6. ARTICLE TWO Even Genius Strikes Out. Why Even the Best Designers Need User Research. by Scott Plewes CLIENTS OFTEN ASK ME “CAN’T YOU DESIGN SOMETHING great and innova- tive without user feedback?” The short answer is “we might be able to, but there may be some high risk involved”. Occasionally they’ll push back, implying that this is the fault of my designer’s skill level. This brings to mind a cautionary tale from another field about relying on genius alone to deliver “the answer”. Albert Einstein is the poster boy for Genius in the 20th Century. For my graduate thesis in physics I actually had to learn what’s regarded as his greatest achieve- ment (The General Theory of Relativity) and to the extent that I can appreciate the theory, I think all the accolades are well deserved. It’s the epitome of “out of the box” thinking, or “inspired genius”, or whatever term you think is fitting for a Mozart or an Einstein. One thing people sometimes forget about Einstein, though, is that he was—as my thesis supervisor pointed out—“a lot like a home run hitter, he struck out a fair amount too”. People will, of course, remember Einstein’s achievements or Babe Ruth’s home runs, but sometimes forget that when you swing for the fences you’ll sometimes never even make contact with the ball, much less hit it out of the park. What’s That Got To Do With User Experience Design? In the about 20 years I’ve been in this field I’ve come across a few creative geniuses, great designers and innovative thinkers in design (or more likely a design team that is aptly described by those terms) and they will absolutely hit home runs. The gotcha with design is that its more like physics than baseball. When Arod hits a home run we all know it. When you create a design or a revolutionary theory in physics, you really don’t know if its a home run until you get independent and unbiased feedback.9 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  7. 7. The business risk is your ingenious and creative team has some fundamental misunderstanding or assumption about the product or its users that will undermine it being the huge success you hope it is. Einstein threw in the “cosmological constant” into his theory (in his words, his “biggest mistake”) because he couldn’t get his head around the fact the universe could be expanding. Not too many people would claim he wasn’t too bright or talented in his field of work. But he was human, and had to make assumptions and guesses. You can have the smartest and most talented design team and they are subject to the same constraint. They are human and have to make some assumptions and guesses about their users, so they might be wrong sometimes. In science, assumptions are tested because even the most talented people can be wrong sometimes. In User Experience design, the same thing must be done to ensure a home run. There’s a lot out there that is already known, in both science and design. When dealing with a problem that has already been solved in UX design (just like physics) you can trust your experienced and trained designers to get the right answer. However, in design there are so many variables that can impact the user experience, that previously established user conventions cannot account for the full picture. User testing should always be a part of the process. In summary. When you have a new or innovative idea which you want to try, then go ahead, of course. It’s the foundation of progress in any field. Keep in mind, though, that your Einsteins aren’t always going to hit a home run at first. Do whatever you can to help test, guide and evolve their ideas and decisions with the support of other key team members and a scientific approach to user feedback.10
  8. 8. ARTICLE THREE Sustained Innovation with User Centered Design by Melanie Rodney ASK ANY LEADER, IN ANY INDUSTRY, where innovation ranks on their list of priorities and they will rank it in the top three. Every company wants to be more innovative. Every company wants to discover the “next-big-thing” that will propel them to record profits. But ask a leader about their innovation strategy—how they will systematically drive innovation, and the answer may be more vague. There are a number of factors that either encourage or stifle innovation—your company’s tolerance for failure, the time you invest in invention and innovation, and the type of people you hire. These alone will not bring repeatable success; you need systematic ways of getting closer to your customer and capturing the insights that result. The User Centered Design process can help you do that. It gives you the tools and a repeatable process to uncover customer needs, and innovate both in the “what”—new capabilities and new feature sets, and the “how”—simplifying someone’s workflow. Innovation With UCD There are three key junctures in the UCD process where opportunities for innovation arise: 1. Requirements workshop 2. User requirements research 3. User interaction design and testing Requirements Workshop In the UCD process, you start the project with a business and user requirements workshop that typically takes two days of intense and structured discussion. The goal is to gather information on the product goals, and compile what you know about your users and their tasks.11 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  9. 9. The opportunity for innovation arises because the workshop brings together all the information that was previously dispersed throughout different people and different teams. Bringing this information together helps to crystallize opportuni- ties that were not apparent before. We recently worked with a health sciences company who wanted to create a product that would make it easier for nurses to follow an industry standard of care. They were specifically looking for ways to help their end users (nurses) by providing critical content at the right time through their clinical decision support system. We brought together a team of people from different departments— sales, customer support, product management, and so on—as well as customers, to participate in the workshop. We documented the process for this industry standard of care and identified where they were experiencing pain points. While many on the product team felt they had enough information about the standard of care, it wasn’t until we did a deep-dive into the nurses’ workflow that we were able to pinpoint a whole bunch of previously undiscovered areas where nurses required support, and, even better, for which the company could provide straightforward solutions. The concept was validated with some rapid prototypes, and customers are eagerly waiting for the next release. User Research A second opportunity for innovation is at the user research stage. User research is conducted with existing or potential users of a product or service—observing them in their natural habitat to understand their goals, habits, and how they like to work. As users identify their goals and preferred ways to complete tasks, both ‘what’ and ‘how’ innovation opportunities can emerge. We’ve often observed users improvising a solution where there was a gap in the feature set. The most extreme example was among a tech-savvy group who were using a GPS locating software. They were so limited by its functionality that they built their own GUI. This was an eye-opener for the makers of the GPS software, who was able to leverage some of the lessons learned in the user research to create new functionality. A more common example is users developing workarounds because the task flow of the product didn’t match their natural workflow. In a recent research project we watched inspectors review the contents of shipping containers and take notes on paper, and then return to the office to transfer all their notes to a spreadsheet. In observing the inspectors in their day-to-day job, we were able to identify a product opportunity that no-one else had previously. The resulting product was a mobile so- lution that would allow them to enter data on the spot while being rugged enough to withstand the demands of a shipping environment. Identifying these types of user requirements can result in innovations that significantly simplify the user interaction and provide substantive competitive advantage. Interaction Design And Usability Testing The biggest opportunity for innovation comes during the design phase, where you start to develop concept designs that you can test with users. While the out- comes of usability testing most often result in design changes, it also uncovers opportunities for innovation.12
  10. 10. In testing initial design concepts of a new product that let consumers to monitor their home power consumption, we uncovered an opportunity to innovate in the “how”, and highly differentiate the product through its design. The objective of the testing was to determine whether consumers could buy the product off the shelf, take it home and successfully install the two components—the usage tracking device on the meter and an indoor display device showing various usage statistics. The results of the testing showed users struggling to install the device on the meter—orienting of the device, securing it, and accessing the meter in difficult to reach locations. It also demonstrated that typically (men in particular) people would open the box and try to install the device without reading the ten- step instructions. These results clearly showed us that the product was not ready for primetime. We conducted a follow-up brainstorming session during which the physical product was thoroughly re-designed to prevent the most common issues. The result—the installation process was reduced from 10 steps to 3 steps.Innovative new This innovative new design could not have occurred without first knowing howdesign could not have the user would approach the product and what difficulties they were likely to experience.occurred without first Putting It Into Practiceknowing how the We sometimes have to drag product teams kicking and screaming through theuser would approach user centered design process. Many of our clients are initially very skeptical about the value of a user requirements workshop or user research. Typicalthe product and what reactions include “we already know our users” or “this is just going to slow us down—we prefer to get something out there, gauge reaction, and adjust”.difficulties they were However, those we are able to convince become raving converts. “You read our minds!” was a comment we heard recently after seeing the concept designs.likely to experience. ” Another product manager told us “This is the way we should be developing products—I’m preaching this process to anyone who will listen.” I’m a firm believer that the User Centered Design Process, applied correctly, drives innovation. If you can convince your team to follow the process, which requires more work and thought up-front in the project, you will uncover new opportunities for innovation that weren’t apparent before. 13 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  11. 11. ARTICLE FOUR But I AM the User! by Scott Plewes ONE OF THE TRUISMS OF USER EXPERIENCE DESIGN is that if you want to design something usable, you need to know how the user thinks and behaves. So, let’s say you’re creating a very technical product, like a network management system or an IDE, where the user is very technical, just like you. Or let’s say you are the product manager for a healthcare product, and it so happens you are a doctor by trade, so the user is just like you. You should have a pretty good idea of how to design the product, right? In fact, it should be a piece of cake to design a usable product. Wrong. If you want to design for you, or someone like you, you need to know how you behave. The truth is, we suck at observing ourselves. How you say you behave, and how you actually behave, are quite different. Let me give you an example. Suppose I were to give you a trivia quiz of 100 questions—things like “What is the capital of Arkansas?” and “Who won the 1965 World Series?” A week passes, and we meet so I can share your results. Before telling you your score, I give you the answers. Then I ask you how you think you did. You will probably say “I think I did well! I would guess around 90%”. In fact you only scored 60% (you need to brush up on your trivia if you’re ever going to be invited on Jeopardy). If I were to repeat the experiment, but this time I didn’t give you the answers, your guess would be much more accurate. Knowing the answers biases you to drastically overestimate your score. Now let me give you more practical example. Suppose I were to ask you whether you were successful shopping for a book on an ecommerce site. The first ten times you purchased a book were successful1414
  12. 12. and the experience delightful. The last two times, however, were miserable— the site was slow, or you had to re-enter your credit card information. You would likely tell me, with conviction, that the experience was rotten. You will put significantly more weight on the last few negative experiences, even if the positive experiences were much more numerous. Psychologists call this the recency effect. It turns out our brains don’t work like computer memory—faithfully and accurately filing away data for later retrieval; they are more like backfilling devices, filling in the blanks with assumptions based on experiences. And by the way, it’s our logical left-brain that is responsible for making up stories to backfill our memory. Simply put, we’re terrible at observing our own behavior. This imperfection is why we need to do user research and usability testing. A good user researcher observes real behavior and helps us make better design decisions. Many usability problems are obvious only after we see it in a usability test. Here’s a common example. You develop a web form that asks for a telephone number, and will only accept it in a certain format. You put an example beside the field showing the format you are asking for (e.g. 123-456-7890). You even choose what you think is a common format. I can guarantee you that in a usability test, people will type dots between the numbers, use no dashes, parentheses, or even add a country code if they are outside the US—anything to sabotage your wonderfully logical form. To you, it can’t be more obvious. I even hear you yelling through the soundproof, one-way glass at the user “it’s written right beside the field, you idiot!” Occasionally, even the best designer will incorrectly guess user behavior, even if they are designing for someone remarkably like themselves. If you want to create a truly usable product, there’s simply no substitute for user research.15 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  13. 13. ARTICLE FIVE Managers Who Use LSD Get Innovative Results by Didier Thizy FROM SIGMUND FREUD TO JIMI HENDRIX to Stephen King, some of the greatest minds have resorted to extreme measures to unleash their creativity and push the limits of innovation. Now think of your company’s management team—do you feel that same commitment to ground-breaking innovation? The last time I interviewed project managers, I asked them the typical questions about scheduling, budgeting, difficult employees, etc. and they gave me the typical answers. But when I asked the question, “How do you promote innovation?”, I got a lot of blank stares. Despite companies across the nation espousing the need for innovation and creativity, in the software industry, “creative types” are usually relegated to specific areas like UI design (the one area in fact, where there is probably a stronger need for rigorous analysis than creativity). Creativity in process and management is not often a top consideration. But wait! Management teams don’t have to break out mind-altering drugs in order to bring their organizations to the next level. A simple commitment to innovation will go a long way—a 3-step process we’ve labeled LSD (an acronym we’re sure you’ll remember): • Let the team brainstorm… on any topic • Support creative immersion • Drive ideas to results1717 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  14. 14. Let The Team Brainstorm… On Any Topic It is well-known that The Beatles would try recording songs in the studio in doz- ens of different ways. Rumor has it they did 102 takes of the song “Not Guilty”. Now let me ask an almost rhetorical question—does your company’s brainstorm- ing sessions let you get up to 102 ideas? Or do you get stuck on 1 or 2 ideas early on and start debating their merits, whether they are practical, etc. The company IDEO, a design firm widely known for its creativity and innovation, found that too often in business we’re tempted to be practical and realistic and start cutting down each others’ ideas rather than building on them. That’s why they have entrenched 7 rules of quality brainstorming into their culture, going so far as to engrave them in every boardroom of their office. Be Visual. Defer judgment. Encourage Wild Ideas. Build on the Ideas of Others. Go for Quantity. One Conversation at a Time. Stay Focused on the Topic. If I had to add an 8th rule it would be this: No Topic Is Off-Limits. Brainstorming is often limited to new feature and UI ideas. But why stop there? Brainstorm onReward creative process improvement, management efficiency, and communication methods. These areas desperately need innovation too. And don’t start cutting down ideasideas...if your until you’ve reached the symbolic 102 gives Support Creative Immersionquarterly awards When my company first decided to be involved in Health Informatics, we held some brainstorming sessions. We brainstormed product ideas, technology ideas,or employee of and we held back until we had a lot of ideas. But arguably, none of the ideas were “quality” ideas. Simply, we weren’t immersed in Health Care at the time.the month, ensure Our team didn’t know enough about trends like the drive to adopt EMR, thecreative ideas are latest ideas like Health 2.0, nor the problems plaguing the industry like privacy and security. We didn’t have mHealth devices in the office or a runnable copy ofpart of the criteria for Mirth. How were we supposed to come up with quality ideas? Today, we are immersed in the space. Our team participates in conferences andnomination. ” works directly with modern IT. Now we are able to build on the latest ideas when we develop products with our customers. Looking back on the process, admittedly we could have sped things up. Supporting team creativity doesn’t just mean giving the team time to brainstorm in quantity, it means fostering quality brainstorming. • Keep links to domain-specific blogs and news sites from your intranet. Encourage team members to discuss the latest ideas. We do this using news feeds with Confluence. • Invest in equipment and devices. How is your team going to be innovative about leveraging your product on iPhone unless there is at least 1 iPhone in the office to use? • Dedicate time for employees to be creative. Not every company can dedicate 1 day per week like Google, but even a Friday afternoon or 1 official day a month will show the company’s commitment. Asking employees to do their “real work” during company hours and be creative after work hours sends the 18 wrong message.
  15. 15. • Timing is critical—if your team just released a 1.0 product, set up a 2.0 feature brainstorming meeting ASAP while the team is still immersed in that product. • Reward creative ideas. For example, if your company gives quarterly awards or employee of the month, ensure creative ideas are part of the criteria for nomination. • Set the example. Start conversations and discussions regarding the latest news and trends. If you are enthusiastic, your team will be too. Drive Ideas To Results I met with the Creative Director of a design company recently and had an eye- opening conversation. “So what does a Creative Director do exactly? Encourage people to come up with good ideas?” I asked. “That’s only part of it,” he informed me. “Not every idea is a winner. Once people have their ideas, I either drop them or I drive them to either turn them into ac- tions and results.” “You mean you don’t just try to encourage them?” “This is business—either you make something out of your idea, or you move on to another one.” Once the team has developed ideas in quantity and quality, then it’s time to drive those ideas into results—or drop them. For new product and feature ideas, establish process for taking ideas to the next step. For example, build ongoing lists of new feature ideas which marketing will use when they start planning version 2.0. Have a dedicated marketing manager who can be reached by anyone with new product and service ideas. For new UI ideas, employ user testing, a usability technique to verify how users interact with the UI. Observers are often surprised when they realize how the most well-intentioned creative UI simply does not make sense to new users, and vice versa. For new process ideas, try them out on a small project. A new kind of code review process? A new testing framework? The best way to know if the ideas will sink or swim is to try them for a short time and see the results. Really good ideas usually catch on and spread like wildfire. The list of authors, musicians, scientists and entrepreneurs whose work is considered ground-breaking goes on and on. But how many software industry players are currently considered ground breaking in terms of innovation? Apple? Google? IDEO? Comparatively, the software space is wide open for more big innovative names. But just as a band like The Beatles started with a commitment to creativity, so must a company, its management and its people commit to the same. This doesn’t have to mean millions of dollars in R&D—the simple steps we’ve outlined above go a long way towards shifting teams towards Jimi Hendrix- like ingenuity. Minus the purple haze.19 CRITICAL PATH SERIES
  16. 16. Conclusion Whether you’re in an emerging market or a mature industry, the competition in software is fierce. Staying ahead means continually innovating and differentiating your product—from valuable features, to stunning design, to modern technology. Rather than take a blue-sky approach, or leave innovation to upper management, we recommend you establish a rigorous process for systematic innovation. Every organization is different and therefore every process will be different, but the fundamentals are the same. In this paper, we’ve covered those fundamentals, including building a team culture of innovation, the correct way to brainstorm to reveal value, specific processes for uncovering needs directly from customers, and how to validate genius ideas. In our experience these ideas generate a lot of discussion, and we recommend you share them with colleagues you think might be interested, as a first step towards improving your own process of innovation. About Macadamian Macadamian is a global UI design and software innovation studio that provides a complete range of highest quality usability, design, and software engineering services to industry leaders across North America. Our experience, and proven ability to work seamlessly with product management executives and software teams is why companies turn to Macadamian to develop product strategies, design compelling user experiences, and build quality software. Whether you’re a small start-up or a corporate giant, we can help you transform ideas into market-ready features or products that will stand out from your competition and delight customers. Contact Us For questions or comments about this white paper, or for more information on a technology or usability consultation, please contact: Matthew Hately General Manager and VP + 1 877-779-6336 x112 Additional information can be found at www.macadamian.com20