Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Irritating Phrases

Inspired by Tyler Cowen's post, here are a few phrases that never fail to irritate me.

1. A perfect storm. Hoo-boy, do I hate this phrase. Besides feeling like stale pop culture, it seems to have gone from meaning a an awesome event that arose from a confluence of several, highly unlikely factors to just about any event that has more than one cause.

2. No offense, but... Is this ever followed by anything but a patently offensive statement?

3. Outside the box. F%#k the box.

I've also gotten fed up with all of the "real America" imagery that gets tossed about, ranging from fairly innocuous seeming phrases like Main Street and Heartland, all the way to "Pro-America parts of the country." People in cities count, too.

(PS. As you might be able to tell from this post, I am a bit cranky; I've been sick for almost a week. My jovial self will be back soon.)

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Armchair Quarterbacking at the corner of Pop Psych and Business.

I suppose this sort of thing is inevitable.

The Obama phenomenon happened, and happened surprisingly quickly. Over the next year, and I daresay decades, the hows and whys of Obama's presidential campaign are going to be picked apart and analyzed to death. To so many of us, something wonderful just took place, and even people on the other side of the political aisle have been impressed with Obama's ability to campaign.

It is tempting to let the spirit of “newness” overwhelm the narrative and to dominate discussion of what lessons should be taken from Obama’s campaign. But like the "new" economy, the "new" political frontier will really only be matching technological innovations with old realities.

Which is why things like articles like "Obama's Seven Lessons for Radical Innovators" bothers me. It's an attempt to turn something that was remarkable in its own right into something radically different and almost mythological, and to see it as a structural overhaul in some way.

Let's dive a little deeper into Mr. Haque’s deep thoughts:

1. Have a self-organization design. What was really different about Obama's organization? We're used to thinking about organizations in 20th century terms: do we design them to be tall, or flat?

But tall and flat are concepts built for an industrial era. They force us to think - spatially and literally - in two dimensions: tall organizations command unresponsively, and flat organizations respond uncontrollably.

Obama's organization blew past these orthodoxies: it was able to combine the virtues of both tall and flat organizations. How? By tapping the game-changing power of self-organization. Obama's organization was less tall or flat than spherical - a tightly controlled core, surrounded by self-organizing cells of volunteers, donors, contributors, and other participants at the fuzzy edges.

Not to be didactic, but all campaigns are essentially described this way: a tight center controls the messaging, media buying, resource allocation, while the footwork is done by volunteers and “contributors” (how is a contributor different than a donor or volunteer?), and the money comes via donors. The number of volunteers drives the hierarchy of the campaign apparatus, and is itself driven by geography and popularity of the candidate. The description above doesn’t tell you anything about how or why Obama’s campaign was different, and his hierarchy doesn’t look new. It's not as though Obama's volunteers were suddenly making inner-circle decisions.

(Hint: Obama did something really new and cool in terms of organizing; I’ll get to it later!)

2. Seek elasticity of resilience. Obama's 21st century organization was built for a 21st century goal - not to maximize outputs, or minimize inputs, but to, as Gary Hamel has discussed, remain resilient to turbulence. What happened when McCain attacked Obama with negative ads in September? Such attacks would have depleted the coffers of a 20th century organization, who would have been forced to retaliate quickly and decisively in kind. Yet, Obama's organization responded furiously in exactly the opposite way: with record-breaking fundraising. That's resilience: reflexively bouncing back to an existential threat by growing, augmenting, or strengthening resources.

I’m not sure if the author thinks there is something new in trying to use your opponent’s attack adds to both motivate your own base and to drive fundraising, but as a tactic, it’s the oldest in the book. So, at best, this is an observation that Obama succeeded where others have failed, and the real wisdom here is “be better at doing something we all try to do.” It’s nice cheerleading, but not very instructive. And that is accepting the cause-effect that he suggests, which is generous. In fact, Obama broke fundraising records from wire to wire; I’m not sure that it is more attributable to McCain attack ads than his own political talent or appeal.

Further, it’s worth questioning why McCain’s attack ads did less damage than expected. My take is that some of the impact was lessened by the long and brutal primary season, which made targets like Wright and Rezko seem stale and unsuccessful; and the general irrelevance of Ayers, particularly while the period between the conventions and mid-October was dominated by news of a financial crisis. Not the best time to make fear of the radicalism of the 60s your point of differentiation.
3. Minimize strategy. Obama's campaign dispensed almost entirely with strategy in its most naïve sense: strategy as gamesmanship or positioning. They didn't waste resources trying to dominate the news cycle, game the system, strong-arm the party, or out-triangulate competitors' positions. Rather, Obama's campaign took a scalpel to strategy - because they realized that strategy, too often, kills a deeply-lived sense of purpose, destroys credibility, and corrupts meaning.

Somebody has already forgotten the primaries, it seems. In the primary phase of this election season (which, I think, was about 75% of it), one of Obama’s great strengths was understanding that he could make better inroads in caucus states, and lining up his organizational strength to get those delegates. His map was not an accident. You can argue whether this was “gaming the system,” but you can’t argue that it was basic, in-the-trenches political strategy and execution.

4. Maximize purpose. Change the game? That's 20th century thinking at its finest - and narrowest. The 21st century is about changing the world. What does "yes we can" really mean? Obama's goal wasn't simply to win an election, garner votes, or run a great campaign. It was larger and more urgent: to change the world.

Bigness of purpose is what separates 20th century and 21st century organizations: yesterday, we built huge corporations to do tiny, incremental things - tomorrow, we must build small organizations that can do tremendously massive things.

And to do that, you must strive to change the world radically for the better - and always believe that yes, you can. You must maximize, stretch, and utterly explode your sense of purpose.
There is something to this, but it is not well explained. There are two things that the author seems to be asking for: greatness of vision, and strategic broadness.

As to greatness of vision: Obama has the ability to give aspirational speeches without sounding naïve. Not an easy task, and one few politicians attempt. But periodically, they do, whether it is about Morning in America or a Great Society. I’ve always been a fan of the quote by Goethe – “Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men." But he was around a little before the 21st Century, and whether broad messages succeed will change with the times and with the messenger.

Strategic boldness: Contra point number three, Obama really rolled out the 50-State Strategy as proposed by Howard Dean. Recent elections have been all about the battleground states; the idea was that you should put your money where it was likely to do the most good, and by looking at the electoral map, you knew which dollars made a difference. In that view, everything else was wasted. Call that the Carville approach.

With the funds and the popularity to expand the board, Obama made a strategic decision to go after lower-probability states in addition to clear battlegrounds like PA/OH/FL. Some panned out (IN, NC?), some did not (MO?). Combined with broad popularity and poor fundamentals for the Republicans, the effect was that McCain had to play defense all over the board. He couldn’t patch leaks fast enough, and he couldn’t focus his own resources in just a few places. Turns out shrinking the map is good for an underdog, but maybe not the best plan if you are in a very strong starting position.
5. Broaden unity. What do marketers traditionally do? Segment and target, slice and dice. We've become great at dividing markets into tinier and tinier bits. But we're terrible at unifying them. Yet Obama succeeded not through division, but through unification: we are, he contended, "not a collection of Red States and Blue States -- We are the United States of America".

Obama intuitively understands a larger truth of next-generation economics. Unified markets are what a world driven to collapse by hyperconsumption is desperately going to need. We're going to need not a hundred different kinds of razors - and their spiralling costs of complexity and waste - but a single razor that everybody, from the slums of Rio to the lofts of Tribeca, is overjoyed to use.

As mentioned above, Obama certainly rejected a slice-and-dice strategic approach. And I’ll agree that a part of his “great vision” is a message about unity; indeed this was also a winning electoral message for George W “Uniter, not a Divider” Bush.

And while I personally believe in a “single razor,” well-designed products that get the basics right (shout out to 37 Signals!) rather than feature-crammed monstrosities, I’m not sure that this was a driving factor in Obama’s campaign. Apart, that is, from the fact that a broad message also tends to sound a) less like an obvious pander and b) harder to attack on specific grounds. But those are features that are fairly unique to politics, and Obama did need to undergird his rhetoric with actual proposals anyway.
6. Thicken power. The power many corporations wield is thin power: the power to instill fear and inculcate greed. True power is what Obama has learned wield: the power to inspire, lead, and engender belief. You can beat people into subjugation - but you can never command their loyalty, creativity, or passion. Thick power is true power: it's radically more durable, less costly, and more intense.

Can anyone tell me what this actually means? I don’t think I get the metaphor. In general, it is certainly easier to arouse fear than inspire passion. I think it is a little premature to describe the lasting nature of the power that you get by doing so. Bush and Cheney inspired a lot of fear, and they got a lot of power that they were actually able to employ to their own ends; their power was certainly too “true” for my tastes. I think it is worth studying whether and how strong an affinity to a candidate is created by these types of appeals, but this election hardly answers even that question, and once the candidate shifts into governance, it is not clear to me that this matters much.
7. Remember that there is nothing more asymmetrical than an ideal. Obama ended his last speech before the election by saying: "let's go change the world." Why are those words important? Because the world needs changing. A world riven by economic meltdown, religious conflict, resource scarcity, and intractable poverty and violence - such a world demands fresh ideals. We must mold and shape a better world - or we will surely all suffer together. As Obama said: "we rise or fall ... as one people."

In such a world, forget about a short-lived, often meaningless "competitive advantage". It's a concept built for the 20th century. In the 21st century, there is nothing more asymmetrical - more disruptive, more revolutionary, or more innovative -- than the world-changing power of an ideal.

And this one… can I admit I’m lost? Ideals and even lofty goals are certainly not new, and have been used in politics both successfully and unsuccessfully for generations. Again, I am a fan of looking of both having morals and looking for emerging disruptive technologies, but… there is nothing actually instructional here, is there? Is the author suggesting that going forward, cynicism will now and forever fail? Count me skeptical.

So, now for the cool part – the things that the Obama campaign really did well:

Lower the barrier to entry by asking for very small commitments:

I’m furiously digging for the report of this that I read, but the story was as follows: among somewhat committed people (e.g. unions), Obama and other organizers asked at his speeches for people to make three calls. They handed out pieces of paper with scripts and three phone numbers. Between the short amount of effort (ten minutes at most) required, and the appeal to duty, they were able to get a lot of people to make this small effort. But what really happened was that a lot of people found out making a few calls wasn’t so bad. They moved themselves out of the “I could never see myself calling someone” category. Once that step had been made, and the psychological hurdle had been cleared, it was a lot easier to get people to make more calls, and at the same time to see themselves as quite deeply invested.

Create reassurance and solidarity, before facing opposition:

In many places, volunteers’ first assignments weren’t to get out into the cold with a clipboard, but to call people that had already expressed interest either by donating or giving money, and their “entry” goal was increasing the volunteer staff rather than converting voters. Speaking first to the most friendly audiences makes for a better experience, and more hands mean more solidarity. The work became more pleasant; at the same time, there were more hands to tackle the hard stuff.

Let the message get personal:

The temptation in politics, as in business, is to retain a tight control over what people are saying about you, and on your behalf. But letting people own a small personal stake in your message is a powerful thing for commitment. Don’t be too afraid that someone might get something wrong – it takes an Ashley Todd to make the news in the wrong way, and the personalization is powerful both for your volunteers and for their audience.

Face your critics:

Joe the Plumber became famous during the debate and after. But he got his start when Barack Obama took the time to explain, patiently but unyieldingly, why he thought his plans were better to Joe, an unsympathetic listener. This approach, the opposite of the “kick people out that are wearing my opponent’s shirt” approach , confers an amazing amount of credibility.

In the end, most of what Obama did in terms of campaigning was evolutionary, not revolutionary. But that doesn’t mean that the lessons are any less powerful.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Experience of Having Less - Transportation Edition

I have too much stuff. Don't you? I watch shows like Clean House, Clean Sweep and Organize This with an overexcited fervor. I *could* only have 1 of everything, monk-like closets and always know where everything is.

I'm a little bit of a pack-rat, and I tend to hold onto things for the potential fun. "Wow, that t-shirt COULD be modded into a rag rug! How much fun would that be? No, we're going to make a collage out of that old TV atenna and some USB cables! Really! It's art." I'm doing better - I have less crap, and set expiration dates on the stuff that's in the 'almost fun category'.

I have managed to get serious with transportation. Today, we became a one-car family. We've been been testing this out for about two months, since my clutch was shaky at best. Since we're fortunate to telecommute, live in an urban area, and have scooters for supplemental transit, we found out that we just don't drive that much.

- We rarely drive about 40.
- We don't go much past a 6 mile radius.
- We tend to drive when we have to carry a lot of stuff (the grocery store), date night, and when we visit friends.
- We drive to town.
- Brad drives to play hockey.

I'm happier with the one car - for one thing, it's nicer than either of the two cars we had. It's also making me think about consuming less,

- less impulse purchases, since most transit is on scooter
- more appropriate grocery buying - more trips, less quantity (yes, I use more gas, but I waste less food - and it's on something that gets 80-100mpg.)
- more walking for trips to the bank, post office, library, etc (about a mile)
- more thoughtful purchasing - driving the car is a bigger deal
- driving the car is more fun, since it's not something we do all the time, or have to do
- we're starting to combine trips more - last weekend, we both were going to up to Maryland, but we carpooled.
- pressure to keep the car cleaner, since we're sharing

Maybe part of the answer to my less cluttered dreams is to have less stuff, but enjoy it more.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Most Inappopriate Job Post EVER

I'm not sure what they're thinking over at Arnold Worldwide. I know that they hire people they'd want to have a beer with, and collegiality is nice. Honestly, I never ever thought the state of anyone's nipples were EVER a criteria for employment (with a few entertainment industries excepted). Plus, do you really want to tell me that my job sucks before I even start?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Buddy System

WARNING: I'm scooter crazed what with the novelty and nice riding weather. Plus, the product design of it all keeps me thinking about how you can really give people what they want without feature creep.

Top 5 Things I Heart About Buddy

1. It has a storage compartment in the leg panel big enough to tuck a small purse or use as a steady cupholder for a small coffee. No spills, no tipping!

2. The seat storage pops open when I press in the key, just like my car.

3. There are pre-drilled holes in the front to install a basket, should I want to.

4. The parts are plastic and lightweight, so Buddy can accelerate fast, despite being a 50cc (roughly like riding a big chainsaw).

5. The starter has a tiny bell to signal when it's engaged, so I don't flood the engine. It also serves an alert, should I hit the wrong button.

Buddy reminds me of TiVO - easy to use, not more than you need, gives you what you need to do well.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A Brad Fan Fest!

I got an email from the Washington Caps today with the following subject line:

Brad Fan Fest is July 12 Make Sure You Are There

All I can say is... aww shucks, fellas, you shouldn't have. I'm not that special.

Remind me why people think adding a first name to an email message (or subject line!) is "customization"?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Genuine, Accept No Substitutes

I've finalized my hipster dork gear (MacBook, iPod, tomtom, cel phone, bento box lunchpail, tattoo, knee-high boots, twitter feed - I'm making myself a little queasy) with a Buddy scooter from Genuine.

There are lots of fantastic reasons why I bought a Genuine - price point, colors, cargo space, 100MPG. Best of all - it has a 12V outlet and a place to hang your cel phone.

It's the teensy things that make a product really resonate. Vespa may have old school cool, and Kymco may be more resilient, but Genuine knows its market. Dorks need their gadgets, and never want to miss a call.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Enter To Exit

The other night I was at an ATM. That was the command given to finalize my transaction. It is so very zen that I can't even complain. I can only sit back and enjoy the symmetry and perfection of it.

One throat to choke

I must have missed the original meaning of this expression. But the other day, in a kickoff meeting, someone from one of my clients used this term when asking, essentially, who their primary point of contact would be. I sort of like it.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why Don't Women Present at Conferences?

Liv posted twice to her blog, asking why women don't present at conferences, and what we can do about it. Everyone knows that this immediately put a bee in my bonnet. I made a lot of suggestions about how to encourage women to participate in communities more. Now I want to get into the why.

Simply but, It's not easy being a lady in America's misogynous society. If you want a career, you're too ambitious. If you speak up, you're being 'too aggressive.' If you kick ass and take no prisoners, you're a nutcracker. If you yell, you're unbalanced. And if you negotiate, you're somehow icky.

Human beings are adaptable - once you continue to fail when you behave in the way that successful men do, you realize that there's something up. For a while, you sit in a corner and shut up, or qualify and second guess everything until the cows come home. Women don't present because they're not encouraged to.

Women are consistently cited as building relationships and making connections. Use your personal capital to push the envelope a little harder, and toss out your fear of the b-word. It's ok to ruffle feathers and make some trouble.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Topless and Twitter

Brad has recently opined the lovely uses of twitter in meetings. I love his utopian ideals. It would be great if we're all paying attention to the same things, but that's not the culture of the meeting. (You know you've started your xmas list in more than one meeting...fess up)

In a glorious time, we would all be paying attention to what's going on, and have an additive comment or two in a big group. We did this pretty successfully at the IA summit this year. However, the Summit is a conference of like minded people celebrating the joy of what they do.

Imagine what would happen if we had this continuous chatter going on in a set meeting with a set agenda.

Real Person: So, in chart A
Twitter: Chart A looks like ass
Twitter: Dave, can I get a chart A? Didn't read the meeting notice yet.
Real Person: Chart A shows the change of behavior over time
Twitter: Behavior? of what?
Twitter: When's lunch?

In all seriousness, I have heard comments from fellow practitioners hosting kickoff meetings, where everyone brought a laptop, and they all instant messaged each other about other projects. Not one single person actually was paying attention to the meeting - nothing got done.

Instead, I propose the 1 top meeting. Let's bring back the old fashioned function of the secretary who takes notes. There should be a designated note taker at every meeting; let them periodically twitter to have an additional record for remote staff to see in conjunction with a conference call or webex. But that's it - everyone else gets notebooks, whiteboards, or, if they're very good, a big sketchpad.

New technologies are supposed to enhance in-person contacts, not smash them flat, or fritter them into a sidebar. Meetings are not democracies, either - they're benevolent dictatorships run by a facilitator. Let everyone do what they are supposed to effectively, and we'll all benefit.

Hello! UX isn't cool anymore - we're keeping score now!

Dear Fellow UXers -

I've been talking with many of you lately, and I see that you are not keeping metrics. Your project goal setting is to make something better. That's it.

I sympathize, I really do. Your insight and your empathy magically push all those pixels together in a more pleasant, satisfying, wonderful experience that will compel all the users in the world to come back again and again. You close your eyes, and Steve Jobs floats in front you, waving an iPhone in benediction.

The Boom is over, children. While I whole-heartedly support more beauty and elegance in the world, it needs to support some goal. More traffic? Less phone calls? More times written on the blog? More people showing up to your cocktail party?

ROI got way overused in the boom, but I say it's time to bring it back. If you're not calculating some ROI for your website with both offline and online activities, you're just wasting your time. If your only metric is web traffic, you are excused from the discussion until you see the utter foolishness of the short one-time visit.

Check this for more detail on what you can measure. Read Marketing Sherpa religiously.

Then meld your great ideas and map them to measurable goals that translate into money and affinity. Just like all those sweaty guys from eCommerce.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Do They Just Know Their Customers?

There is a combination convenience store/lunch counter in the courtyard near my work. It's a pretty large store, maybe 1.5 times the size of a typical 7-11. In addition to their sandwich counter, they have everything from cereal (a wide variety, including Go Lean for me) to canned veggies, baked goods to fresh fruit. They have an aisle devoted to hygiene/personal care, a huge selection of imported and good chocolates, and, well, pretty much everything else.

In the store, they have three signs that hang from the ceiling to let you know where to find certain products. They are:

  • "Wine"
  • "Chips and Dip"
  • "Ice Cream/Frozen Foods"

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dear DTV Tivo, Get a Taxonomist

It's extremely necessary for me to watch whatever else anyone else is talking about, trend-watcher that I am. I HAD to see an episode of the F-word .

As an early adopter, I have a legacy DirectTV/Tivo hybrid, which kicked butt for the price point when I bought it. Step by step recording, useful guide, good options, downloaded updates regularly like a miracle (are you listening, Apple?) and let me fast forward through commercials. It even searches by keyword.

I headed over to Tivo's search by title and laboriously typed in "f-word" (it's like texting. I'm old. Not fun.)


But perhaps I can't spell f-word. Yay! DTV Tivo has a list of ways to filter - but wait, I have to spell it first. And what the heck a is a lifestyle show? or Interests? Is space exploration so popular that it needs a category? Where's food? Isn't foodtv more popular than my beloved science channel?

There is an actor list, as well, but you can only put in last name. How do you spell it? Ramsay? Ramsey? Arg.

I finally did find it, after I trucked over the the BBC America site, which has it listed as 'Ramsay's F-word'. Filed under R. For a show that starts with F.

I *know* that DTV collects every kind of data about my watching habits (I'm pretty sure the box is bugged so they can hear what I say about the Office). It's got a (suprisingly bad) suggestion engine.

Does it not look for my searching habits? How will it know what I'm calling things? Would it have been so hard to use a pretty basic CV and set of synonyms to help me find mega-celebrity chefs? Or even had an expanded search on its website?

With the popularity of the Internet, TV has gotten terrified of being too boring, and started a lot of niche channels. (I have a particular weakness for How It's Made) Science, food, travel, lifestyle - it's boggling. (actually, now that I think about it, I'm competing for eyeballs and attention with Tina Fey. I feel smarter and insignificant all a once.)

TV has a become a paradox of choice for me - there's so much that unless I've heard about it somewhere else, I'm not likely to browse my guide. DirectTV is really missing out on opportunities to connect with the internet, and induce me to new shows. Labelling content is cheap, losing advertising revenue is not.

Narration as meta-information

I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with narration as a dramatic device. It always seemed forced or lazy (or, perhaps, condescending); often, the narrator tells you something that could have been more artfully accomplished within the story. It’s rarely actually helpful , and sometimes downright distracting. Scrubs and Grey’s Anatomy are particularly bad this way – does Zach Braff really need to intone “Sometimes, you realize that the people you rely on have problems of their own” for us to get the point?

So, when the video below made the internet rounds, it made me realize part of what is so frustrating about narration: it’s meta-information, and it is so distractingly placed within the dramatic narrative that it actually pulls you away from your natural involvement. That disembodied voice reminds you that you are watching a show, or movie, or whatever. It tells you to pay attention to something besides the story, and worse, it tells you to instead pay attention to what someone (the writer, the character) wants you to think about the story.

Of course, you could just laugh at how strange and oddly sociopathic the characters seem without their voiceover.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Blik: The Saddest Slogan

What's not to love about a company that does something new, allowing people to reimagine their living space as art while still being accessible? That gives opportunity to new artists through a partnership with Threadless? That makes, lets face it, a kickass product?

How about the tagline that accompanied my recent purchase:

Blik. No More Forever.

I understand what they are getting at. Art that you can remove when you are tired of it. Some of it can even be reapplied to new surfaces. But still... "no more, forever." That conjures a very specific image for me, one of the most heart-wrenching speeches ever given:

I want to have time to look for my children
And see how many of them I can find.
Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired.
My heart is sad and sick.
From where the sun now stands

I will fight no more forever.

Some words just make bad slogans.

Update: Maybe they've heard this already. While my print packaging contained the slogan, it doesn't seem to appear on their website. Hey Blik: pay for new printing. Thank you.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Buzz Bites Back: Where Best Buy Failed

Unfortunately, it isn’t all wine and roses in the land of the blue and the yellow. While Best Buy had earned quite a reservoir of goodwill with our appliance purchases (and our subsequent small electronics buys), they managed to do just about everything wrong when I went to buy a car stereo.

Bad Experience part 1: Nobody home
If you’ve never shopped for a car stereo at Best Buy, this is what it feels like: you walk up to a series of walls that have car stereos mounted on them. The prices range from $125-500, and you can see what each unit’s interface looks like with the power off. The prices seem somewhat, but not completely, dependent on things like power, inputs, etc. There is a good deal of random variance.

With nobody nearby to help me, I make the best guess about what I need: a manufacturer I like, my minimum requirements (output, iPod, etc). Then, I proceed to look for the corresponding box among the inventory. But there’s a problem: it’s not there. Actually, that’s a normal problem. My problem is a bit more unusual – none of the options on the wall are there for purchase. The options available for purchase are not on the wall. There is no way to know what the products that I can actually buy cost.

So, fine. I need help. Despite being there for about ten minutes completely alone, none of the helpful people have shown up, so I ask someone from a different department to get someone. They promise to. Another 10 minutes pass, so I ask the same thing from the info/help desk. Finally, someone shows up to explain to me that they have last year’s model up in display, and the current models that you can buy. He helps me find a unit in my range, and tells me that they could set up an installation for me a week away, or I could come by on Sunday morning, which is first-come first-serve. Sunday is good for me.

Bad Experience part 2: How $50 = $180, and adventures in waiting.
Sunday morning. I show up early, and am the second person in line. After the shop opens, the one employee there –let’s call him Trevor-- spends about 45 minutes doing something akin to mis en place. Eventually, he talks to us, has us fill out forms, and gives us our estimate. Me: 3 hours (really?). In the store, my install was advertised as $50. However, here in the grimy world of actual installations, Trevor informs me the price has risen. In addition to the $50 (labor), there are two $20 parts that I will need. iPod “installation” adds a $30 part, and another $20 labor. Incredibly, there was also an $8 “parts fee.” Literally, a charge for buying things from them! I’m still not sure how this all added up to $180, but somehow it did.

Bad Experience part 3: Get it Yourself
But wait. It turns out that they don’t have the iPod cable in stock in the shop. Trevor suggests I check inside the store, but neglects to unlock the door from the shop so I can get it. Grudgingly, and only after I mention that I don’t want to walk the circumference of the building to look in the section of the store that is right on the other side of the door, he lets me through.

Turns out, they don’t have it inside the store either. Trevor suggests I hoof it over to another store in the strip mall to pick it up, and “if they don’t have it, Circuit City will.” After a quick walk to discover that the nearby shop is closed, I was left facing the choice of walking a considerable distance to Circuit City, or going iPod-less (or, trying to disassemble/reassemble the stereo later). With this in mind, as well as the fact that the Best Buy install shop has been open now for well over an hour, and nobody’s car has undergone anything resembling “work,” I decide to ask Trevor for my keys back. Though slightly puzzled, he doesn't seem to mind at all.

So, what can be learned here?
  1. Updates aren't just for websites. Leaving the old stereos on display after the new ones were in stock created a very poor contextual experience, leaving me without even the most basic and critical of purchasing information (price). Additionally, since there was no way to interact with the stereos (as there is for so many of their other products), even mounting them on the wall served little purpose.
  2. Implement changes throughout your service lines. It was painfully clear that automotive stereo was a service line unto itself. If Trevor had heard of Buzz and Carrie, I’d be shocked.
  3. Set proper expectations. I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck, so I was prepared for some addition to the cost of my stereo installation. But a final price that is 350% of the original price is hard to swallow.
  4. Experience doesn’t end at the sale. Nothing says you don’t care about customers like literally telling them to take a hike.
  5. Ownership matters. Trevor didn't own a single part of that experience. It was, like, whatever. In the real world, just as in the web world, if nobody owns the customer experience, it is likely to be a poor one.
  6. Be fair. While the whole experience was unpleasant, the part that really galled me was the $8 “parts fee.” For that small amount of money, they removed any doubt whatsoever that once they made the sale of a stereo, their goal was to see just how much money they could extract from a customer in a vulnerable state. That $8, more than anything else, cost them not just my business but my goodwill – there is no way to attribute that to just one bad employee or off day.

Monday, April 21, 2008

UCD and Employee Empowerment at Best Buy

When Best Buy decided to use personas to drive their entire retail experience, the marketing world gasped in awe. It's pretty impressive, really - take market research and design separate experiences for each group that you serve. Now that I look at it, I see that the three Best Buys near me (one near my work, my house and my mom's house - I'm not so obsessed that I need to go check these things out), I see it in action. There is more Maria and Rico near me (lots of El Salvadorian and Bolivians in my hood - the Best Buy is down the street from Pollo Campero), more Empty Nesters near my mom, and slightly more Buzz and Carrie (urban trendsetters) near my office (lots of new condos and a hipster neighborhood)

You can read all about it in detail, but what I think is impressive is the way I found out. Not from one of my academic geeked-out mailing lists, but from an employee. He told me with pride about how his company is dedicated to serving customers and educating their employees so that they can make decisions to serve employees. All managers are now empowered to layout their stores as they see fit, offer discounts and services within certain guidelines, and are encouraged to ask customers about their experience.

I found all this out when I was buying a floor model high-end washer and dryer. It the manager a long time to sort out all the details, but by the end, he explained a lot of what he was doing was an effort to win the loyalty of people like me: Carrie, the trendsetter who researches, knows what she wants, and will go where ever it takes to get it. He was able to offer me a discount and express installation, even though it's not store policy, knowing my profile and how I was likely to behave.

It worked - Best Buy is still my first stop, even after some missteps. It's going to take a lot for me to stop going there, because they provide an experience that's pleasant more often than not. On some gut level, I feel like the store "gets it."

Here's the bigger morals of the story:

- Don't just use all that data you harvest from your analytics for your website. Expand your practice to all your collateral, your customer service, your service offerings and your outlook. Experience goes across all mediums, and all contacts. Loyalty is won or lost with the little things.

- Teach your employees about your customers, empower them to serve and reward them for making independent decisions. If you could have seen the pride that the appliances manager puts in his bottom line and satisfaction scores, you would immediately run right out and start doing this research. This gentleman was so savvy that he not only knew how to approach me with excellent service, respect and expert knowledge, he also knew enough to tell me that the store was dedicated to preserving this experience. Relinquish control, and get out of the way of the success.

- The people who buy from you are not your only customers. As a manager and a business owner, you have an important group to serve - your employees. Without content, independent, empowered employees, your customers will have a consistently bad experience. Your customers may pay the bills, but you can't serve the customers without your staff. Treat them as well as you would anyone who writes you a check, and you'll never have to worry about another disgruntled phone call.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

"Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff"

Is Harvey Pekar an IA?

I'm crashed out in the living room on Saturday, recovering from 10 crazy days of IA Summit and deadlines. Lovely serendipity! American Splendor is on IFC. I always loved the comics in college, and I'm happily re-falling in love with Paul Giamati as Harvey Pekar and James Urbaniak (also the voice of Dr. Venture) as R. Crumb.

American Splendor has a phenominal narrative approach. There are four points in time, represented by the formats of cinema (the movie set in the 70s with Paul Giamati), documentary (white screen interviews with Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and others), comic (time passes through shots of comic covers), and animation (the meta-space of Harvey's mind, transitioning into illustration). Now I want to make little videos of all my IA deliverables, using different narrative styles into one long entertaining story. It would be a huge pain to implement, so I supposed I'd have to make ... more documentation...

I'm relating to Harvey Pekar's struggle to communicate the world he envisions, especially since he can't draw but can see what he wants to produce so vividly.

Forty-five minutes in, Harvey has:

- Done ethnographic research - observing his "everyman" at work moving a mattress to record conversations that everyone can relate to

- Assessed a user flow, concluding: "Standing in checkout line is pretty complicated, there's a lot of things you gotta consider." Rings true to me, especially after the last time I had to plot out shopping cart error messaging.

- Explained to stakeholders on why it's important to have good design: "Average is dumb"

- Summarized why it's important to write all the details down: "Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff"

- Got exasperated when his drawings didn't come close to his imagination: "I don't draw, I just write the story"

Can someone PLEASE be my Visio R. Crumb?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Oh Semantic Web, Whereart Thou?

Like everyone else, I'm on Facebook. Because I never got over the pain, I use ComparePeople, so I can find out what everyone really thinks. ComparePeople informs me of my good and past aspects.

most absentee

most fashionable
most reliable

What does this say about modern values? Being absent is good (take it from me, 99% of life really is showing up)? Being reliable is bad? (am I really that much of a stickler?)

The most fashionable thing? It's true. You just told me it was bad because you're all jealous of my green purse.

This makes me incredibly happy

From Slate:

"Anyone who complains about having a Starbucks put in next to you is crazy," he told me. "You want to welcome the manager, give them flowers. It should be the best news that any local coffeehouse ever had."

Ships and Nutshells

I have a fascination with language. Half of my job is communication (isn't half of everyone's job communication?), so I am always thinking about how well language works.

One of my colleagues was explaining our various administrative systems to a new hire. After several minutes of explanation, he wrapped up by saying "that's it in a nutshell."

Now, this just seems like a bad metaphor. Granted, a nutshell is a small container, but just about the only thing you ever find in a nutshell is a nut. What is complicated about a nut? When someone says "that's it in a nutshell," aren't they usually talking about condensing some big idea, or complicated info, into something small?

So here's my idea for a replacement metaphor:

"That's the whole ship in a bottle."

Try it out at your next dinner party.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Comics at the IA Summit

How much do I love the IA Summit? It's like a teensy summer camp for dorks, hyped up on coffee and constantly spinning ideas like a monsoon of smart. I learn stuff I think about all year, and when I'm just about fed up with the whole internet racket, I come back and think some more.

This year, I sat in on a focus group on a book about comics. Kevin Cheng (that OK/Cancel guy) is collaborating with Rosenfeld Media to produce a book about comic strips as a way to explain the internet in a little snapshot.

I took Kevin's workshop a couple of years ago, and I thought comics were the best idea EVER, but I have yet to produce a single UCD comic strip.
  • I am not a representational artist (also known as "I can't draw")
  • My clients have smaller budgets that do not allow me make something legible in the time allotted
  • I wonder if it's just too abstract for anyone to think who isn't a fan of the medium
It made me wonder if we make our clients think way too hard about what should be simple: how their complete content and apps tell a focused story about their company to an engaged audience. The IA experience that I'm interested is like a haiku - easy to think about, but requires an artisan's skill to be masterful. Every can write a nice haiku, though, with a little thought. Like a good experience.

A Good Place to Start

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