Sunday, September 30, 2007

Giving LinkedIn some Love

I like LinkedIn. I joined less than a year ago but I've already logged considerable time on it, sending invites and exploring its features. I've used it primarily as a way of keeping track of my business associates, and since I work at home, keeping track of my associates online is a natural. Here's a good article on how to make the most of your social networking site membership. I must confess that I don't always follow best practice for sending an invitition, but I'm going to get better at it now that I've read this article.

One of the really powerful features is the support LinkedIn gives for job searches. Specifically, how to find and connect with hiring managers in the companies you've targetted for a position. By now, everyone knows that you don't send your applications to HR, you try to make contact with hiring managers. It's not that easy, though. However, LinkedIn gives you a way of finding your connections to those individuals. It supports good practice for finding a job, and as a designer, I appreciate the thought that went into doing something this well.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Wanted - VPs of Design

I've think I've ranted about this before, but BusinessWeek does excellent work explaining innovation and design. I found their recent article about bringing designers into management interesting because, well, I'm trying to position myself as a VP for design.

The article addresses the question of how to provide management skills to people who have worked as designers. A few schools, like Illinois Institute of Technology, have design programs that provide some business training, but most design programs do not. For me, the interesting thing is that companies are starting to recognize the value of having people with designer sensibility in upper management.

Of course, I've entered the NCSU MBA program in order to develop my business skills. I'll get a better sense of how many companies value people with a foot in both worlds, so to speak, as I talk to managers for the many companies that are based here in the Raleigh Durham area.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Digression: Homage to blues musicians from another era

In the early 1960s in the US there was a good deal of interest in authentic American folk music, the so-called "folk boom." Some of the people who were in that scene developed an appreciation for old-time blues recordings made in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Very little was known about these recording artists and all that remained, apparently, were a few hard-to-find 78 rpm records and some old publicity photos. It occurred to a few blues enthusiasts that perhaps some of the musicians who had made the records might still be alive, so they set about trying to find them.

In fact, many blues musicians from that time and place (primarily Mississippi and Texas) were already gone. The Depression had wiped out the small recording companies that had recorded the artists, tastes in music had changed, and nearly all of the old time blues artists had died or otherwise faded into obscurity. A few, however, remained, and there are several dramatic stories of how some of the musicians were rediscovered.

For blues fans it was like travelling to London to find a group of theater actors from the Elizabethan era still performing plays by Shakespeare. The musicians were of a completely different place and time, playing in a unique, emotional style that had been lost for decades. A few, like Skip James, Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and Bukka White, enjoyed a few short years of popularity in the mid 1960s as they played the college music and folk festival circuit and re-recorded some of their earlier songs.

Here is Skip James singing "Crow Jane" and "Devil got my Woman." James had lost a little bit of his facility with the guitar and vocal power when these movies were taken, but we're fortunate to have anything at all. It's hard to find anything more emotionally powerful than Son House singing "Death Letter." It's possible to find some video of John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, and Lightnin' Hopkins as well. Give a listen.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The passing of Alex, and the "Alex Rule"

Alex, the African Grey Parrot who was said to be able to use language, died last week of unknown causes. The announcement of his passing was delayed in order to give researchers time to "get over the shock and talk about it."

I became aware of Alex in the mid 1990's when I was doing research on spoken word perception. A visitor to the lab where I worked described meeting Alex, who was already famous among language researchers. She was required to wear sterile surgical scrubs before entering the room where Alex was kept. We lab workers were very impressed with our visitor and her story of having met near royalty in the language world.

One of the issues regarding Alex's use of vocalizations was whether the bird was using language in a human sense. That is, did Alex use words and word order (syntax) in order to express ideas? Selective portions of written transcripts of conversations between scientists and Alex appear to show language use at about a three-year-old level. A portion of a conversation is found in this article in Scientific American.

The really compelling examples of Alex's language skill are the recorded conversations. It's hard for people to see and hear these snippets of interactions and not think that the bird is using language in a human way. Maybe we're wired this way, to accept human vocalizations as expressing human-level emotion and thought.

In a way, our speech IVRs are a little like Alex. They're programmed to produce human vocalizations and recognize and act on snippets of input ("utterances" is the preferred term, instead of words, phrases, or sentences). From this very meager verbal repertoire the humans who call and talk to the systems tend to ascribe capabilities to the system that don't exist. This shows up in callers' generating long, verbose utterances, and courtesy language, and descriptions of such systems as "smart" or "stupid," depending on the systems' performance. Unlike Alex, however, most speech IVRs are neither cute nor engaging, and people who talk to them are usually just trying to get a request fulfilled and get on with their day. Designers who "personify" their VUIs-that is, name them and embue them with personality-are usually making a mistake.

To designers of VUIs I submit the Alex Rule: Don't personify your VUI unless you can make it as charming as Alex. You can't create a VUI as charming as Alex, so don't try.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

"First do no harm" and other epigrams for managers

I have at various times-as have many others-struggled to get a project off the ground, or completed on deadline, when some random manager with no stake in the completion of the work demands changes to the project that negatively affect the timeliness, quality, or scope of the project. At these times I mutter bad words about the general cluelessness of the random manager in question, make the necessary changes in order to satisfy the gatekeeper, and push on with the project, only partially prepared to answer questions later about why the project was late or why the quality of the work was so compromised.

I enjoy reading Bob Sutton's stuff on the management and the corporate world. I've blogged about his excellent book The No Asshole Rule. One of his great strengths is the ability to write these perfect little epigrammatic phrases that resonate strongly with anyone who has spent significant time industry and still operates with some self awareness. To the aforementioned example he states as one of his core beliefs:

He goes on to state that "innovation often happens despite rather than because of senior management." He illustrates his statements with anecdotes from his own experience, and solicits others to contribute their own stories. Reading his take on the corporate life vindicates a lot of opinions I've formed about working for companies but was never able enough to clearly articulate.

Surely his beliefs about "leadership by getting out of the way" seem like heresy coming from a professor of management at Stanford, but many of Sutton's opinions challenge the conventional wisdom on the role of managers in companies. That's why he's worth reading.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Happy Labor Day

I celebrated Labor Day today, like many others, by staying home and getting some chores done. But I wasn't completely oblivious to the significance of the day. I thought about what I do and its significance to peoples work lives.

Sometimes I'm asked if automated phone systems are costing people their jobs. That's a fair question, because some businesses that put in automation do so only with the misguided goal of saving money by cutting a lot of CSRs. I don't think it costs jobs in the US, and in fact I think IVRs that are implemented correctly make CSRs' jobs more enjoyable. I've done analysis in enough call centers to know that one of the the biggest problems call centers face is turnover: keeping experienced CSRs in their seats.

CSRs have a tough job. They work with difficult software systems to serve customers who are sometimes abusive. They are constantly monitored by supervisors and QA analysts. The pay isn't that great. Career paths aren't that attractive. And, depending on the call center, a high proportion of the calls are mind-numbingly simple and tedious: password resets, transfers to another department, account balances, "did you receive my check/paperwork/order yet?" types of questions, and so on. People who don't find satisfaction with their jobs tend to move on, and there isn't a great deal of satisfaction in resetting passwords day after day.

It's that last category of call that needs to be automated properly - the simple, repetitive requests that can occupy a large proportion of a CSRs day. Keeping all of the simple questions away from the CSRs would allow them to spend all of their time on questions that require thought and expertise. Of course, the call center managers need to do their part and provide the sort of training that allows CSRs to deliver real value and properly reward those who do.

So I'll go on thinking that I'm doing my little part for the gallant CSRs who work in our call centers until someone sets me straight.