Friday, November 23, 2007

Personality testing in the hiring process

Personality testing is big with many companies. Employers are using instruments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Big Five personality tests for things like assigning employees to teams. Some companies use them in hiring decisions, and that can be a problem.

The creators of the MBTI specifically state that the test shouldn't be used for selection. They specifically state that no personality type is better than another. The test is a self report measure of one's personal preferences for interacting with others. It doesn't claim to measure ability or motivation. Some researchers question its validity and reliability, and the evidence that it predicts on-the-job performance is mixed at best. But the tool is out there, and HR types are going to use what tools are available when they need help with selection.

Disclaimer: Even though I'm a Ph.D. psychologist, I didn't study personality theory in grad school. I haven't read the primary literature, only the HR and Org Behavior textbook versions of the literature, so I don't claim in-depth knowledge about personality testing. Apparently, though, there is evidence that the five-factor model (Big Five) predicts job performance for certain kinds of jobs. Researchers point to some studies that show that people with high scores on the extroversion and conscientiousness scales tend to perform well on the job. Those sorts of results are enough to encourage HR departments to employ the tests for selection.

What does this mean to you? If you're presented with a personality test during the hiring process you would be advised to answer in a way that maximizes your extroversion and conscientiousness scores. "I love to go to parties and talk to a lot of people. Agree or Disagree?" "I'm not satisfied until the job is done. Agree or Disagree?" The questions are nearly that obvious. What you want to do is get past the HR screening portion of the selection process and talk to the hiring manager about the real requirements for the job. At that point you can find out whether things like mixing with strangers at parties is a necessary function of the job.

Good luck, and let me know if you encounter personality testing during your interview.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bad IVRs: You find them everywhere

I got a laugh out of this. Speech Technology magazine, which publishes articles about best of class call automation, admitted that their own IVR is pretty bad. So bad, in fact, that they're taking suggestions from readers about how to fix it.

Some of Speech Technology's readership is savvy enough to offer usable suggestions. Most businesses don't have the luxury of simply asking their customers for design advice, which is usually bad practice. Customers can tell you what works for them and what doesn't, but they can't do your design for you. Of course, someone at the magazine will need to sort out the conflicting advice they get.

Kudos to Speech Technology. The first step to solving a problem is to recognize that you have a problem. Sometimes that's the hardest thing for a company to do.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The usual suspects

I used to work for a large company that frequently announced new initiatives by sending out an an e-mail with a list of participants at the initiatives' kickoff meeting. The names on the participants' list rarely changed. I and some others in my work group referred to the names on the list as "The Usual Suspects" as in, "So, who was at the kickoff of The Next Great Thing Program?" "Oh, you know, The Usual Suspects." It was understood that the new initiative would follow the arc of previous initiatives. Everyone would advocate on behalf of their own business area, any new ideas would be compromised or eliminated from the final product, then everyone would declare victory and run off to the next big initiative. The script rarely changed no matter the real outcome of the project.

So when I was reading Jack and Suzy Welch's column on executive decision making in Business Week I almost split a gut when they used the phrase "the usual suspects" in the same way. Jack, of course, was an enormously successful CEO and leader, and it's impressive that he's able to see problems and solutions that seem almost to go unremarked on in many companies. At my old company, any suggestion from an employee that a kickoff include other than The Usual Suspects would have been rejected out of hand.

The Welches advocate for change agents in their column. Designers are by nature change agents. They're good to have around because they can see things from different perspectives. Execs and decision makers need to figure out how to identify and include them in new initiatives. And to stop relying so heavily on The Usual Suspects.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Caution: Design archeologist at work

I was leading a requirements meeting for a self service application recently when I heard the words that all experienced VUI designers have heard at some point in their careers: "This application is on our web site. Just look at that and use that for your design." I nodded, took a breath, tried not to digress too far into an explanation of how web design and VUI design differ, and agreed to look at the web application.

Trying to understand requirements from visual web designs is something I call design archeology. Any software interface is a collection of design decisions constrained by business requirements, user requirements, technical limitations, prior practice, existing standards, and often just the arbitrary personal preference of the designer. One field on a web page follows another because there's a business or technical reason, and sometimes there's no reason at all. Working backwards from design to requirements is a little like a physical archeologist trying to learn something about the way a culture functioned by excavating the site of an ancient city. The archeologist, digging through the dirt, makes inferences about artefacts based on the depth to which they are buried, the condition they are in, their location within a room, their proximity to one another, and so on. It's guesswork a lot of the time.

So it is with design archeology. I have the advantage over my counterparts because I can ask my clients questions about my hypotheses. Often, though, the creators of the web application have moved on and the answer is, "It's done that way because that's the way it was when I arrived." Often the original business rules were never captured anywhere but in the design itself.

Of course, it's important to parse out the requirements from the arbitrary aspects of the design because you need to know what you can safely change and what you need to preserve in your own design. And so it goes: dig dig dig, find, form hypothesis, check with client, dig some more. All in pursuit of a usable VUI design that will serve callers' needs.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Oddcast avatar

This text-to-speech demo by Oddcast is interesting in a couple of ways. Text to speech has improved quite a bit in just the last 3 or 4 years. This demo shows how easy it's become for non specialists to manipulate the sound of a TTS voice in different ways. I must say, some of the accents are less than convincing, but are fun to play with nevertheless. The avatar's responses to the movement of the pointer are quite natural and the timing for returning its gaze to you is well done.

Follow the SitePal link on the upper right side of the page and you'll discover that the company is promoting these avatars as a means of increasing conversion rates on e-commerce web sites. They even provide a high level description of a study. I'm skeptical. I'd really like to see some larger, more-conclusive studies before I'm convinced that an avatar can improve conversion rates. And I'd like an explanation as to why they work.

The demo raises questions about a hypothesis called the The Uncanny Valley phenomenon. To quote the wikipedia definition, the hypothesis states:
As a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong repulsion. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-to-human empathy level.

The Max Headroom videos deliberately exploited the creepiness of a close-but-not-human avatar. The Uncanny Valley is an attractive hypothesis, but there's not a lot of real data to support it. On the other hand, I've seen badly-implemented, unironic Max Headroom-ish trying-too-hard-to-look-real avatars on the websites of major companies and wondered, "what are those people thinking? Have they tested that? That thing is TWITCHING and STARING at me!" The Uncanny Valley was at work. The Oddcast demo is really well done, in part because its not real enough to fall into the Uncanny Valley, but I'm curious about the real business benefit of these avatars.