Thursday, December 25, 2008

Happy Christmas 2008

Happy Christmas (War is Over) from 1971 is one of my favorite videos of all time. It's appropriate for the season.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Remarks on Good to Great

I read the classic Good to Great by Jim Collins (2001). Collins and his team looked for the common thread among 11 companies that generated average returns for 15 years or more, then took off and produced great results for 15 years. Good to great companies find the sweet spot along three dimensions:
  • They know what they can be best at
  • They are passionate about what they do
  • They understand where their profits come from and they measure the right thing
Finding the sweet spot is an iterative process. So, rather than sitting down in an offsite one week and hammering out a strategy, their process is one of ongoing discussion. In fact, getting the right people precedes getting the right strategy - once you get the right people the rest will fall into place. None of the companies that went from good to great had a "star quality" CEO. Instead, the leaders of these companies were driven but humble, and they tended to take little credit for themselves when things went well.

Great book. I'll read this again in a few years for more inspiration.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Aiko, the humanoid robot

In 1996 I attended the IROS robotics conference in Osaka, Japan as part of a group of grad student robotics researchers. We toured the robotics labs at Tokyo University (Todai). There were a lot of student projects in humanoid robots.

Here's a video of a recent humanoid robot project. It's similar to the student projects I saw, but a bit more advanced. Aiko can read (apparently) and visually track objects, react to touch, and process some natural language. Note the command language the inventor uses to control the robot: "Aiko, Japanese mode." "Aiko, trace object." These are verbal equivalents to pushing buttons on a control panel.

The entire effect of the lifelike mask, loud mechanical motors whirring, and stilted conversation is a little creepy. I think this demo is relevant to the "Uncanny Valley" hypothesis. I know it's a popular idea, that if we make our machines more "lifelike" then people will trust them and accept them, but I'm not seeing any evidence for that. I mean, look how things turned out in Blade Runner.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sitting out the recession in MBA school

US business schools have reported a big increase in the number of applicants to MBA programs. Apparently a lot of workers have decided to deal with the recession by returning to school and preparing for the day the economy turns around.

Of course, if you're a recent MBA graduate then this fallback plan isn't available anymore, as homeboy James Williamson of Durham, NC discovered. Driving a taxi in NYC is a tough way to earn a living until companies start hiring again.

As I've mentioned before, I'm in the part-time MBA program at NC State, with one year to go before graduation. Things will turn around before then, right?

Friday, December 5, 2008

IBM's Next Five Big Things

This press release from IBM claims that speech recognition for the Web will be a hot technology within five years. As I mentioned previously, IBM has been dedicating some effort to speech recognition. It's a nice idea, I'd like to see it happen, but it's usually a good idea to be skeptical of claims for any speech recognition application.

Here's a slicker presentation on the material in the press release, with a little different spin. The "web" use would be for automatic speech translation, apparently. Automatic translation has been a dream for decades, and in fact it's one of the original AI research projects. I'd like to get a chance to talk to someone in IBM speech research about this.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Wordsmithing: putting band-aids on gunshot wounds

I get this request frequently. "This prompt is giving us trouble. Can you wordsmith it?" It often comes up when a call flow is out of order in some fundamental way, but the client company doesn't want to redesign it. The wordsmithed prompt is supposed to alert the caller that something strange is going to happen and to prepare them for it.

IVRs have to work really well to work at all. Customers' tolerance for ambiguity and confusion in an IVR is far less than for a web form with similar functionality. Wordsmithing a broken call flow is about as helpful as treating gunshot wounds with band-aids.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Can bad bosses kill?

Some time ago I remarked on the fine book The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton. Sutton's thesis is that allowing aggressive, uncivil behavior by so-called "top performers" hurts a company's bottom line in the long term. His thesis has more support now, based on a study by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. This article in the Boston Globe says that the Swedish researchers discovered that people who report to bad bosses (assholes, using Sutton's term) are at increased risk for heart disease.

Interesting story. I'd also be interested in seeing research that explains why companies allow bosses and "top performers" to abuse co-workers and subordinates. Perhaps if we understood why the behavior was allowed to occur - and even rewarded - it would be possible to design effective interventions.

In the meantime, I'll give Scott Adams the last word on bad bosses. I find this strip hysterically funny because it happened to me. The name of the book the manager tried to give me was Crucial Conversations.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Burned by the human factor again

Interesting observation by the New York Times on the financial crisis. Fields like finance and economics are the domain of the "quants," the people who build mathematical models of market behavior. However, the models are only good as the assumptions that underlie them, and managers' abilities to see what the models can and can't do. The models aren't reality, despite the economists trying to sell them as such.

The hardest part to understand in any complex system where human behavior plays a part is the human. And that's the part that's invariably over simplified in finance and economics. There's very little "human factor" in economics, except perhaps in the sub-field of behavioral economics.

As a voice user interface designer, I see it all the time. Project teams spend a great deal of time on the technology itself, because the technology is pretty difficult to implement. Unfortunately, the behavior of customers and callers and customer service reps is often given short shrift. That's too bad, because that's the really hard part to understand, and the success of an implementation is dependent on understanding and designing to accomodate the human part of the system.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Google voice search

Google's voice search capability is available on the iPhone. Based on this review, it appears to work well. "Works well" could mean a number of things, though. It could mean "the recognizer works well" or "it finds a lot of interesting stuff" or "it helps me do things I really need to do." The last criterion is really the important one. It's the thing that will draw people to use the service frequently, and perhaps generate revenue.

Readers' reactions to the app is really interesting. Most of the reactions are pretty positive, but a few people registered complaints. If you work with speech reco technology you know that the underlying language model is based on North American English. You realize that it doesn't work as well with people who are sick with colds. But the readers didn't cut the app any slack for those things, and that's important to remember for people who are delivering speech apps. Users' expectations are already pretty high for speech reco, and this will make it even higher.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Gmail voice and video

Sometimes Google thinks big by thinking small. It has added video and voice chat to Gmail. Very cool. It's just another way to stay in touch with friends. It's also a compelling reason for people to insist that their friends get a Gmail account if they don't already have one. This feature, when used with Google docs, even gives people a very inexpensive video conferencing system.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lessons Learned: Don't ask for the moon

Listening to recorded answers to IVR prompts is a necessary part of tuning a speech IVR application for the purpose of improving recognition performance. It also sometimes reveals what people think about the IVR. Here's a verbatim quote taken from a tuning exercise.

"Oh you gotta be kidding me how the hell am I supposed to know that?"

The IVR had prompted the caller for the last four digits of the credit card number that was used to set up and pay for a service. The service may have been set up as long as a year previously, and many customers have more than one credit card. The question of how the hell the customer was supposed to know that had at least occurred to the IVR designer of this application. There were extra steps placed in the IVR to mitigate this scenario, but none were very effective. Lesson learned: ask for things that you know are easily available to the caller, or prepare them in advance for unusual requests that take time to track down.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Demo: "Please listen carefully..."

"Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed." I've complained about this useless little IVR nugget before. The IVR script writer believes that misroutes are solely caused by callers' inattention to the recorded prompt - certainly not because the menu options are confusing or misleading.

The phrase is really annoying. Some brilliant individual created a working demo that makes that point far better than I can in writing on my blog. Call 888-583-2801 and enjoy. Thank you Brad Lehman for the pointer.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Digression: Voting in Durham County, NC

Walked right in, no lines, no waiting to vote in Durham today. When I tried to vote on Sunday I couldn't even get into the parking lot!

If you haven't voted yet, there's no better time than now. Go!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Political IVR demo

Here's a fine speech-enabled IVR that's being used to collect feedback from real Americans like you and me. This is the best use of technology for democracy building that I've seen in a while.

Thanks to Todd Chapin for forwarding this.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Digression: the Wolf is Howlin'

We VUI designers talk a lot about voice quality and distinctiveness and persona, but nothing you ever hear from any voice talent or stage or screen actor compares to the personae of the old time blues musicians. Here's the great, absolutely unique Howlin' Wolf completely throwing himself into a performance of "How many more years."

CSRs as system integrators

I've written sympathetically about customer service representatives (CSR) in the past. They have a tough job. While trying to serve customers they often have to use multiple software systems, all with a different look-and-feel to the interfaces. Worse, the systems often can't talk to one another, so CSRs spend a lot of time retyping or copy-and-pasting identifying information from one interface to another in order to pull customer records. In this sense, the CSRs are system integrators, often doing repetitive data entry tasks that a well-integrated system would be able to do without human intervention.

So why not furnish the CSRs with well integrated systems that allow them to focus on customers' needs instead of repetitive data entry tasks? One reason is that a lot of new stuff gets thrown at CSRs very quickly. A new system to support a new service gets dropped on their desktop, they take a little training, and the calls start to roll in. Other services get dropped. System integration takes time, and even in the best circumstances would run well behind service changes in the call center.

Another reason is that call center directors would like to spend the money elsewhere, namely, on self service IVR applications that would allow the company to serve customers without speaking to CSRs. That's good for people like me, who design self service IVRs, not as good for the CSRs who are stuck with unintegrated systems.

It's important to keep in mind, though, that employee satisfaction is a major driver of customer satisfaction. Happy CSRs produce happy customers. Something to consider when planning upgrades to call center technology.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

More on Office Communicator

Previously I linked to a blog post about Microsoft's Office Communicator R2. Albert Kooiman from Microsoft responded with info about MS's strategy that I'd never seen anywhere. Interesting discussion in the comments section.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Office Communicator R2

Office Communicator 2007, from Microsoft, is a communications product that unifies voice, e-mail, video, and Office Outlook. My company sells and installs it, and we've installed it in our company. I'm a usability guy who's been pretty critical of Microsoft products in the past, but Office Communicator is very good. The quality of the VoIP calls is still not as good as landline calls, or even as good as Vonage, but it's getting better. It's just a matter of time.

The Office Communicator Server also comes bundled with Microsoft Speech Server. You buy OCS, you get speech recognition for free. If you want to play with speech without paying out a bundle to Nuance, it's a good way to get started in speech recognition.

My associate Marshall Harrison blogs about OCS and Microsoft Speech Server. If you're interested in speech his blog is a good resource.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Remarks on The Future of Managment

For all of the books that are written on the subject of product and service innovation, how many discuss the idea that the structure of management is in dire need of innovation? Gary Hamel's The Future of Management is a wonderful exploration of the idea that workers can effectively manage themselves. Hamel describes the organization of management at companies like Google, WL Gore, and Whole Foods and shows how genuine worker-operated meritocracies can outperform top-down direction from MBA-trained managers. The message is especially compelling coming from Hamel, a long time professor at Harvard Business School.

Chapter titles include "Escaping the Shackles," "Creating a Community of Purpose," "Learning from the Fringe," and "Building an Innovation Democracy." This book is pure inspiration. However, I wonder how many prospective "management innovators" who read the book find Hamel's ideas too radical to be implemented in their own companies.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

What's a marketing guru?

This marketing stuff is new to me, so I followed a link to an article about marketing guru Seth Godin. I read some of the entries on his popular blog and found it to be well-written and interesting. Cool. So I picked up his short book, The Dip, to see what a marketing guru says about marketing. Two hours later I was finished. I can sum it all up like this:
  • Be the best
  • Quit when you're not getting anywhere
  • Stick it out if you think you'll succeed
Sorry, apparently there are millions are rabid SG fans out there, but I don't get it. I felt like I'd just read an extended riff by Stuart Smalley. Perhaps his other books are a little stronger in content, but The Dip isn't the best introduction to marketing.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Digression: Stewart/Colbert interview

EW interviewed the two funniest guys in the country about politics and the press. Stewart and Colbert give voice to things we all know but don't have the courage or cleverness to say properly. This interview made me laugh until I couldn't breathe.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Thank you for calling the Therapy Hotline..."

What do you think when you read a story about psychotherapy delivered over the phone? A room full of customer service representatives in small cubicles staring at monitors and helping callers with their problems? "You say you had a dream about your high school math teacher, a dragon, and a small dark room? Hold on while I access that information..." It's not necessarily like that. Some companies operate virtual call centers with high priced financial advisors or M.D.s working from their own offices, delivering professional advice while building relationships with the callers.

The history of automated therapy goes back to Weizenbaum's Eliza program in 1965. If phone service therapy catches on it won't be long before someone tries to save a little money by implementing an IVR to take the routine therapy questions. "For dream interpretation, press 1. For a pep talk, press 2. All other calls, press zero or remain on the line." Better yet, therapists could set up shop in Second Life so they could meet their clients "face to face."

Monday, September 22, 2008

Security and usability

IT security people have a tough task. They need to provide systems that can't be accessed by outsiders but are easy for insiders to use and allow them to get their work done. The problem is, the outsiders who try to crack systems are much, much better at what they do then most computer users are at understanding security. Most people don't give security a thought unless their identities are stolen or their accounts are hacked. The recent news item about VP candidate Palin's Yahoo! account being hacked shows how easy it is to learn someone's security questions and use them to reset a password.

I attended one of the first meetings of IT security and usability engineers at the CHI conference in Ft. Lauderdale in 2003. It was two groups of people who hadn't given the other much thought before, but we all could clearly see the value of collaborating in the future. Part of this is an organizational problem, because people aren't rewarded for practicing good security behavior, and are rarely called on bad behavior because it's not monitored.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Upcoming workshop: Designing for Efficiency!

TriUPA in the Triangle area presents its second training session for UI and UX designers.

Dr. Deborah Mayhew, editor of “Cost-justifying usability” (among many other books) will be hosted by TriUPA on October 22nd! Register for her workshop "Designing for Efficiency" now at

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Improving productivity by automating management

The book The Numerati by Stephen Baker has generated a little buzz. It's about companies' efforts to model human behavior from real data generated by web surfing, electronic communications, etc. The thing that grabbed me about this review in BusinessWeek was the line about IBM's effort to "improve productivity and automate management."

I guess we've come a long way from the days when managers got together to decide which of the company's functions were going to be outsourced, and which were going to be automated and people replaced entirely. The notion of automating the management function has a sort of visceral appeal to anyone arbitrarily replaced by a downsizing or outsourcing effort. If you're running a company just by the numbers, and attach little importance to leadership, team building, and other kinds of "soft" skills that many managers put little stock in, maybe you could "automate" management. But I doubt it.

I skimmed the Workers chapter of the book that's excerpted in this review. It's not nearly as dire as the article in BusinessWeek describes. But it's a fact that some managers latch onto tools as a means for solving some of their problems without making a committment to learning the processes and assumptions implicit in the design of the tool. Buy, install, use. And if the results aren't what you expected its a problem with the software.

So we're safe from "automated management" right now. But then I thought personality testing as a means of making hiring decisions would never go anywhere.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

HFES Conference in NYC

The Annual Meeting of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society runs Sept. 22-26 in New York. I've been an HFES member for 13 years and have attended quite a few conferences. It's fun to see your old friends and meet new people, and find out what's hot in the HF field. Sorry to say I won't be there this year. Don't have the time/money for it. Next year's meeting is in San Antonio, so I'll try again to make it next year. Going to HFES in NYC? Let me know.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Design anti-patterns: context-free design

I recently presented some training to a group of IT folks who were trying to improve the performance of an existing IVR. Completion rate was only 40%, not high enough to justify the expense of the system. The task seemed easy enough. The caller enters some identifying information, then data about amount of miles driven, fuel used, perhaps a vehicle number, all numeric.

I had started by preaching the importance of writing good scenarios - descriptions of customer behavior in the context of their environment and their tasks. Then I presented some general guidelines for designing prompts. This is harder than it appears because there are often contextual factors that make a suggested prompt worthless in a given case, so every guideline must be wrapped with disclaimers.

Back to the problem with the existing IVR. After cautiously making a few suggestions about prompting I asked the participants to back up and describe the scenario in detail. Then it became clear. The caller was a cashier standing at a check out counter talking to a driver. The driver supplied the information, who sometimes had to pull out a notebook to get the information. Two obvious problems. One, if the system is converted to speech then you'll get a lot of sidetalk recognition errors, where the caller isn't speaking directly to the IVR, but to someone else. Two, speech timeout values are by default pretty short. If you don't have the information the IVR is asking for close at hand, the IVR goes into its Silence error routines.

These are nice design issues and potentially solvable, but not unless you understand the context and the likely outcomes of the caller's behavior. In this case, not having information at hand and needing to talk to someone during the call. An expert can look pretty silly and helpless if he's offering recommendations without understanding the scenario.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Lessons learned: Educate the management, pt. 2

In an earlier post, I mentioned several things that business managers need to know before you dive in and develop a speech IVR for them.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of speech rec technology. Pity the poor VUI designer who starts a project whose stakeholders have been educated about speech only by slick sales presentations and glossy brochures. I've been there - it's no fun. Part of the challenge of design is to work within the constraints of current recognition technology, like the ability to discriminate between letters in the "e" group and between the letters s and f.
  • Skills required to implement a good speech IVR. Speech IVRs aren't just another IT shop application. The learning curve for speech rec development and testing is very steep. The learning curve for effective dialog design is very steep. Companies that hand complex speech projects to an internal group need to appreciate that and build in a lot of time for training and development of people before the first speech project even begins.
  • Persona isn't just about the system's voice. This one is a little controversial, but I can say from experience that managers tend to spend too much time selecting the perfect "voice" for the IVR in the belief that this "branding" exercise makes or breaks customer satisfaction with the system. The sound of the voice - the way the prompts are delivered, in particular - is important, but the design and proper functioning of the application is equally important.

If a management group "doesn't have time" to participate in a level setting meeting I'd recommend pushing back on that very hard. Spending a little time before a project kickoff talking to management about speech projects in general can save a lot of thrashing later on.

Monday, August 25, 2008

How you know your "Second Life" is out of control

When your "Second Life" virtual girl friend ties up your dog and tries to kidnap you with a taser. Big shout out here to homegirl Kimberly Jernigan of Durham, NC, who drove to Delaware to attempt the kidnapping.

Whew. I guess we can expect to read a lot of stories about the evil influence of social networking sites for a while.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

IBM speech recognition

IBM has been working on speech recognition for a long time. Still, they've never gained traction with their speech engine in a market dominated by Nuance and its predecessors. This recent article in BusinessWeek about their appearance at SpeechTek 2008 reminded me that they're still there, looking for a market for what may be some pretty good technology.

It's kind of a mystery to me why IBM hasn't made much of an impact on the speech industry. IBM isn't the first company you think of for call center applications, but the engine is available on Avaya's platform. So I don't get it. Any ideas, let me know.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Flying through Denver

I'm flying in and out of Denver this week because I have business in Boulder. The Democratic National Convention starts on August 25, so I'll catch some of the travellers to the convention. Maybe I'll try to score a convention button or a silly hat from someone.

When I get back I start my 2nd year in the part time MBA program at NC State. So I'm going to be busy, and that translates into shorter blog posts, at least this month.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Remarks on Ahead of the Curve

I'm reading a book that is so good I couldn't wait to finish before blogging it. Ahead of the Curve is by Philip Delves Broughton, an English journalist who quit his job to enroll and pursue an MBA at Harvard Business School. HBS is, by reputation, one of the top MBA programs in the country. Delves Broughton was alternately impressed and appalled by the things he saw there, and tells all in a very funny, ironic way.

When he's writing about the content of the coursework the book sometimes reads like his transcribed class notes. It's when he talks about the attitudes of the students and faculty that make the book worth the read. The present and future Masters of the Universe don't always look very attractive in the author's narrative.

As I read I can't help but think about Philip Zimbardo's classic mock prison experiment at Stanford, in which students were assigned the roles of prisoners and guards in a "prison" set up in the basement of a Stanford classroom building. The experiment demonstrated that participants' behavior was heavily influenced by their environment and preconceptions about how guards and prisoners behave in prison. In Delves Broughton's account, HBR students quickly adapt to the priviledges and perks of being part of the "HBR brand," and display a sense of entitlement.

Excellent read, especially if you're in or considering an MBA program of your own.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Persona and in-car navigation devices

This writer for the Washington Post has a problem with the personae of in-car navigation devices, and with speech recognition systems in general. The article a little over the top in its opinions because the writer is trying to be humorous, but it fairly points out that the speech output of devices can become annoying very quickly if not done properly.

Note that the problem as identified isn't necessarily with the sound of the voice, it's the lack of context machines have when giving directions, and the fact that the problem reveals itself over time, as in a long car trip. These things are often not tested well, or tested at all. The article also identifies lack of "naturalness" as a problem with speech systems, but trying to achieve an undefined kind of "naturalness" causes problems as well.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

"Experiential" courses for execs

This BusinessWeek article made me laugh. Companies are sending their execs on junkets to exotic places for leadership training. It's a stroke of genius by some innovative travel agents who have repackaged their expensive tours as "executive development." The travel business in the US is hurting due to the falling economy and rising fuel costs. Big companies have deep pockets and spare no expense in developing their top level managers even if, as the article points out, these "courses" have "dubious educational value." The travel agents are really onto something.

I've decided to jump on this executive development bandwagon and put together my own "experiential learning" course for executives. The difference between my own course and these others is that I think mine would deliver real value. Here's the outline of my course.

  • The exec gets a assignment to write a research paper on a subject he/she is expected to know something about. The first draft submitted is returned with numerous requests for clarifications and a terse note in email from the leader of the exercise who is role playing as the exec's supervisor, "You can do better than this," with no actionable suggestions for improvement.
  • The exec presents his report in a meeting with other "execs," really actors role playing various roles in an organization.
  • The meeting attendees check email and voice mail during the presentation, have side bar conversations with each other on topics unrelated to the meeting, and act generally as if they'd rather be somewhere else. Two attendees at opposite ends of the table text message each other, make eye contact, and giggle after each exchange.
  • The questions during Q&A are unrelated to the content of the presentation. The presenter is frequently interrupted when trying to respond. At the end of the meeting the presenter is thanked for his time and ignored as he shuts down his laptop and gathers his things.
  • The exec receives email from his "supervisor" stating that someone in the audience had some questions about the presentation and that he, the supervisor, answered the questions as best he could. The supervisor doesn't remember what the questions were.

At the end of this grueling exercise the exec learns that this is a not uncommon experience for analysts when presenting to middle managers in many large organizations, perhaps even in his or her own. If a company is trying encourage innovative solutions from everyone in the organization, you can see that this sort of misbehavior doesn't contribute to that goal.

So, if anyone is looking for some experiential sensitivity training for their execs or other managers, drop me a line. I'll do the first class for free. It would be fun.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Speech to text: Jott

A few weeks ago I blogged about the Spinvox demo that transcribes a short message and texts it to your cell phone. Then someone pointed me to Jott, which transcribes your message and sends it in email to someone in your phone book. I'm impressed. Voice transcription has come a long way since I started playing with IBMs Via Voice years ago. The old transcription systems were speaker dependent, and required a high quality microphone and a lot of training for the performance to be very good. Spinvox and Jott are doing speaker independent transcription, and from callers on cell phones as well. There are a lot of potential applications out there, just waiting for someone to develop them.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Specialized" MBA programs

Here's a brief article in BusinessWeek on the rise of specialized MBA programs. Two students from program at NC State are quoted in the article. I'm in the NC State part-time program, and I was glad to see the program get some attention, but I think the article missed the mark. NC State, like other MBA programs, offers various concentrations in areas like biopharma, services, finance, and innovation, but it doesn't grant a specialty degree like Master of Health Administration, for example. A better example of a speciality degree is the Master of Global Innovation Management where students take classes in Raleigh and in France. At any rate, BusinessWeek tends to report on the top-tier schools, so the article was a bit of a departure from the norm.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Remarks on Free Agent Nation

Self employed free agents are unaccounted for in official government statistics, but form a large proportion of the US workforce. Daniel Pink, author of Free Agent Nation, estimated in 2004 that the number of free agents of various stripes was 33 million and growing. Many of these free agents work out of their homes, using the "free agent infrastructure" of the Internet, Starbucks, Kinkos, and FedEx to conduct their business.

Free Agent Nation is both a description of the free agent workforce and a argument for why workers should cut themselves free of large companies and work for themselves. It's a convincing argument if you have a strong set of skills and an entrepreneurial attitude. Easy to read, full of interesting data and opinions. This interview with the author gives a flavor of the book, first published in 2001 and reprinted in 2004. Recommended.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Lessons learned: Educate the management, pt. 1

One of the first things I learned about speech projects is how important it is to educate management about speech recognition IVRs. It's not a pretty scene when you roll out a speech application after a year-long effort and the business managers don't understand what they've been given.

  • Tuning. Speech IVRs aren't fully tested during user acceptance testing. They can't be. Full testing depends on having large numbers of real customers hitting the IVR, evaluating the data, and making tweaks to the prompting and grammars. That's tuning. Business managers who don't know about tuning are shocked when they learn that testing isn't complete until several weeks after roll out.
  • Roll out strategy. Deploying a speech IVR isn't simply a matter of flipping a switch and exposing your customers to the IVR, then walking away. Do you really want everyone to hear version 1.0 (see tuning, above)? Can your CSRs answer the inevitable questions from customers about the new system? Who is going to be responsible for ongoing observation and maintenance (see next point, below)? There are a lot of issues that management needs to settle long before the speech IVR is rolled out.
  • Ongoing observation and maintenance. Believe it or not, some business managers think that once the IVR is deployed the business can just walk away from it. That may be true for some limited-functionality DTMF IVRs (and we all know how much customers love those systems) but it certainly is not true for speech IVRs. There's work to do even after a successful tuning cycle, and management needs to plan for that in advance.
I've described three aspects of speech projects that business managers need to know and be fully engaged in to ensure a successful speech rec project. I'll have several others in upcoming posts.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Phone tree hell

This demo of an abusive IVR is too funny for words. Turn on your speakers and enjoy. I know it's an ad for some company's services, but it's great anyway. Thanks to Phil Shinn for forwarding it.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Microsoft and voice search

I read two apparently unrelated news items about Microsoft recently. The first was its acquisition of Powerset, a natural language search engine for retrieving information from Wikipedia. One Microsoft blogger explains the logic of the Powerset acquisition.

The second item was released by Spinvox, a speech-to-text transcription engine that can be adapted for a number of applications. This news release, which hasn't been commented on much, said that its new senior director for its Microsoft relationship will "charged with driving the co-development of Microsoft unified communications and enterprise applications with SpinVox services." So Spinvox is going to co-develop apps with Microsoft.

If you put these two technologies together, speaker independent speech-to-text and natural language text search, you would have a pretty powerful way of searching Internet content from your mobile phone. Powerset, in particular, still needs some work, but it exists as a proof of concept that you can use natural language to get answers from large text corpora.

Microsoft has been challenging Google on search presented visually, so far without much success. These two recent developments could signal Microsoft's attempt to create a market for voice search.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Speech projects are special

The projects that I've worked on since 2002 have nearly all been implementations of speech recognition systems, or applied research on listener perceptions of speech reco systems. I've learned that speech reco projects have a lot of characteristics that distinguish them from typical software development projects. I've made note of those characteristics, and started to develop a lessons learned file to capture the kinds of things that must occur in order to ensure a successful project. I'll start posting those lessons over the next few months. Of course, if you have any favorite lesson learned from speech reco projects, please leave a comment.

(The title of the blog post is a take off on the "speech is special" argument that some linguists make based on phenomena like categorical perception that were first observed in speech experiments.)

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Friday, June 27, 2008

Remarks on The Innovator's Solution

I read the modern classic The Innovator's Solution by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor. The authors build a theory of how companies that are leaders in their domains are disrupted by smaller, upstart competitors. The successful smaller competitors start by stealing the leaders' least attractive customers and work their way up market. The authors present numerous cases of how this has been a recurring pattern, and show that managers of the industry leaders are acting rationally by failing to challenge the upstarts immediately. Christensen and Raynor go on to say that large companies need to continuously innovate to capture the low end segment of their markets in order to preempt challengers and create new markets for growth.

The prose is difficult to read sometimes. Christensen and Raynor aren't the most elegant writers. When they describe how to identify products for development they get into design territory, and that's not their specialty. They talk about providing solutions for customers' "jobs" rather than basing product decisions on market segments. That's correct, as far as it goes, but the "jobs" language required me to make an almost constant mental translation into terms that are more familiar to designers. When designing, you do so based on the end users' goals instead of their tasks. Look at Alan Cooper's great discussion of users' personal and practical goals in his book The Inmates are Running the Asylum. Tom Kelley has a great discussion of the importance of observation in identifying consumers unstated, unmet needs and designing to meet those needs in The Art of Innovation. Christensen and Raynor are trying to cover the same ground but using their own invented terminology.

That quibbling aside, this is a good book. It presents great ideas for upstart companies that want to challenge industry leaders, and ideas for industry leaders about what they need to do to maintain their position. Recommended.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Red flags over Nuance

Here's an interview with a financial analyst at Disclosure Insight on speech recognition industry leader Nuance Communications. Quoting the analyst, "We found unfavorable trends in receivables, returns on invested capital that are poor, and operating income that exceeds interest expense only twice in the last eight quarters."

Previously I had written about a Sr. VP who exercised a lot of options prior to Nuance's announcement of a new public stock offering. I don't do financial analysis, but this doesn't sound very good for the company.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

No takers for self service at the post office

The local Post Office just installed a new self service machine for mailing large packages. I was at the front of a short line when an office manager approached the older couple waiting behind me and asked if they'd like to use the new self service machine in the lobby. No, they hadn't seen it. No, they wouldn't like to try, they had to pay with a credit card. "It takes credit cards," said the manager. No, they didn't like using machines that took credit cards. The manager exhorted them for a little while longer, then gave up and left.

The manager needed to pick his spots a little more carefully. Everything was working against him at that particular time. All customers who walked in could see that the line was short. A couple of regulars were working their stations, and things were moving along pretty smoothly. The couple could see that they wouldn't have to wait long, and weren't anxious to leave the queue to wrestle with a new device. "New self service machine" doesn't exactly inspire confidence in anyone.

Maybe the biggest disincentive for self service in the post office is that it prevents you from talking to a real person. I attended a talk many years ago on why older consumers wouldn't use ATMs. After working hard for a while on the machines' usability problems, older consumers still refused to use them. The presenter conducted some interviews and discovered, not too surprisingly, that many older consumers simply liked to talk to the bank clerks. They were retired, they had time on their hands, and they liked to talk to people. No amount of usable design was going to overcome that issue.

Companies trying to increase the usage of their self service IVRs during regular office hours face similar issues. Customers already have had experience with a lot of misbehaving IVRs before they reach yours, so there's a tendency to be a little skeptical. If the queues are short, and people know they're short, they'll opt to talk to a CSR. It's fast and easy, and a lot of customers just like to talk to people. After hours, it's a different story. Customers may take a shot at self service to avoid calling back the next day.

If the lines at the Post Office are long, people will be motivated to try the self service machine. As I left, I noticed a problem that will discourage adoption. The machine had been built flush against a wall next to the commonly used mail slots. There was no way to logically form a queue for the machine without standing in the most heavily trafficked area of the lobby. The Post Office will need to learn the lesson that the airlines needed to learn: you have to design a queue for self service, too.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Design and measure the "itties"

How are you designing and measuring your product or service's major "itties?" If you're a usability engineer then you focus on usability - making the product easy to use for consumers. But what about the other "itties?" Here's my short list of the major itties.
  • Usability
  • Utility
  • Identifiability
  • Trustability

Everyone gets usability, right? UEs design and test, and design some more until customers can use the product (it's usually a product, since we don't usability test services much, yet) easily. Utility, we mostly get that. The product is supposed to meet a customer's need. In the worst case, ensuring utility means walking down a list of features the product is supposed to contain. If we're really conscientious, we create a contextual task analysis and design a "whole product" solution, in which the product either supplies a complete solution to a need, or the product complements are easily available to the customer.

Identifiability is the product's distinctiveness, its uniqueness, the design edge that sets it apart from its competition. Think iPod. Product marketers get this, I think, but there are an awful lot of "me too" product and e-commerce web sites out there. We recognize identifiability when we see it, but practice it too infrequently.

Trustability isn't obvious at all, but when I talk to user experience designers about it, something just clicks. Lots of people have had the experience of finding something for sale on a e-commerce site but were unwilling to purchase from the site. Why? The site was easy to use, it was distinctive, it offered the product we wanted and good delivery terms, but we just couldn't click the "purchase" button. We went elsewhere. This is a classic trustability issue. We didn't trust the site, or the company, or something else, and someone lost a sale.

I've done a fair amount of research on trustability. It's a great topic. As a VUI designer I've found that the quality of the system's voice has an aspect of trustability.

All of the "itties" that I mentioned are important, but my observation has been that people involved in product development tend to focus their efforts on one or two. Designing and measuring the full customer experience requires that product designers address all of the itties.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Nuance new stock offering

Here's a couple of recent articles related to speech recognition industry leader Nuance. In an article dated June 4, Nuance's Senior VP of Global Sales was said to have exercised options of 83,000 shares of stock for $19.75 on Friday, May 30.

A second article, also dated June 4, announced that Nuance was offering an additional 5.58 million shares for sale. The market didn't respond very positively to the news, because Nuance's stock slid to $17.90/share the next day.

Lucky break for the Sr. VP, eh?

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Digression: the passing of a Giant

Bo Diddley died at his home in Archer, Florida yesterday. I was a fan for years. I used to live in Gainesville, just a few miles from Archer. Bo frequently played a lot of concerts in the area, many of them for free, so I was fortunate to see him several times. Bo was the first person people called when they wanted to put on a charity fund raiser, and he usually came through. He did a lot of good for a lot of people, and he will be missed.

I was on a flight from Gainesville to Indianapolis in 1993 when he sat down in the seat in front of me. He told his seat mate a story. He was in the airport bathroom when a young guy approached him. "Hey, I know you! You're BB KING!" He just laughed about it. "Man, I don't look anything like BB King."

Here's a great video of him in concert. Watch it, and you'll be a fan.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Remarks on The Art of Innovation

Tom Kelley's The Art of Innovation was published in 2001, and I'll bet anyone with a serious interest in design and innovation has read it, so this recommendation won't count for a lot, but I really loved this book. Instead of a cookbook on how to "do innovation," it deals with organizational culture, and what it takes to create and sustain an innovative company. Kelley is general manager of the design shop IDEO, headquartered in Palo Alto.

Every chapter is a delight. If you work (or have worked) for a company that is stumbling down the path to innovation you'll immediately connect with Kelley's stories and observations on company culture. Look at these organizational "Barriers" to innovation in Ch. 9, "Barrier Jumping:"

  • "Hierarchy-Based. Innovation and structure are like oil and water. Forcing ideas to start at the top or rigidly follow a vertical path through an organization tends to weigh down new projects...
  • Anonymous. There are companies where nobody seems to notice or care. Places where you can cruise slowly up a predictable career path...
  • Experts. Expertise is great until it begins to shut you off from new learning. Many self-described more than they listen. Experts can inadvertently block innovation by saying, "It's never been done that way.""

I worked at a large company where some managers were interested in "innovation," and designated a few individuals as innovation experts, with predictable results. Had these managers read Kelley's they might have understood that successful innovation depends on breaking down organizational barriers and changing their own behavior. Or not, since the people who benefit the most from hierarchy and structure are usually the last ones to acknowledge its existence.

The part of the book that was a complete surprise to me was the chapter on the effects of space on innovation. Kelley's company IDEO has spent a good deal of effort designing their own workspace in order to encourage their own design activities. I recognized Kelley's descriptions of workspaces that stifle innovation, but had never considered how powerful the workspace is on the functioning of individuals and groups. I had to read the chapter more than once to understand the lessons. I visited IDEO's offices in Palo Alto two years ago and was really impressed with the layout. I realize now how much deliberate activity went into the design of the place.

I've blogged on another of Kelley's excellent books, The Ten Faces of Innovation. It's a great read, too.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Smoking and other group behaviors

Here's a link to an article in the NYT about some fantastic research on smoking cessation. These researchers tracked smokers for 32 years and made an interesting discovery. People who quit tended to do so groups. That is, when they and their friends tended to quit together. By extension, it's reasonable to assume that smokers' family and friends who also smoke make it harder for a smoker to quit. This is great research, for many reasons.

My background is in information processing psychology. I learned that problem solving was an individual affair. The research I studied included detailed models of memory for words, concept learning, problem solving, and decision making. The models were usually based on highly controlled laboratory experiments. A lot of the interventions for things like smoking are technologies directed at the individual: wearable patches, medication, spiked gum, etc.

But human behavior is social. It's all about families and friends. The smoking cessation research shows that very clearly. The interventions we need should account for both individual and group problem solving and behavior. Need more proof? How about the connection between family behavior and individual obesity? A lot of our successes and failures occur because of group dynamics - and that's where we need to look for solutions.

I know that a lot has changed since I was in school, and a lot has been done recently with modeling group behavior and problem solving. But we still look to technology for all of our fixes, when what we need to understand first is group behavior. Family and group interventions really call for a design approach to a workable solution - designers who can understand and design group problem solving behavior. If we get that right, the technology is the easy part.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Design anti-patterns: Extraordinary rendition

Some years ago I was asked to review and suggest improvements to a touchtone call routing IVR for a financial institution. One of the submenus had seven options, and it wasn't clear to me how callers would be able to select the correct product option. One of the business analysts told me, "Don't worry about redesigning that part. All of those calls go to the same unit. The options are just for reporting purposes." The management was just using the menu to gather statistics on what customers were calling about. Since that time I've seen a number of applications that require callers to select a number of options for the sole purpose of generating automated reports on usage.

Instrumenting your applications is usually a pretty good idea. It allows you to identify and fine tune hotspots and learn all sorts of things about how the application is being used. Requiring customers to wade through several menus of inscrutable options before they reach a representative causes several problems, however. One, it generates bad data, because callers can't be counted on to successfully navigate a poorly designed application. Or even a well designed one, for that matter. There are better ways to collect the data businesses are looking for. Two, it annoys the hell out of people to answer a bunch of questions before being allowed to talk to someone and receive service.

If fact, if the IVR is too disagreeable then people will simply answer prompts randomly or press zero (if it's available). It's like torture: if the experience is painful enough people will say anything in order to make the pain stop. Businesses shouldn't torture their customers (or allow its IVRs to torture customers by proxy). And they shouldn't build multi-layered IVRs full of inscrutable prompts in the misguided idea that reports are more important than happy customers.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

A simple request: CSS for TTS

Text-to-speech produces output that has relatively flat affect, that is, it's mostly free of emotion. TTS engines account somewhat for end of sentences by changing the inflection and pause of the last word before a period or question mark. There are slight pauses for other punctuation in a sentence, but for the most part TTS doesn't do much to interpret sentences.

I'd love to be able to separate text from the presentation of the text, in the same way cascading style sheets allow web designers to separate written text from the presentation of the text. I'd like CSS for TTS. I'd like to be able to control the speed, pitch, intensity and stress of TTS text by tagging the text, and then writing style sheets that recognize the tags and control the TTS output accordingly. It would be a big step towards being able to define the persona of an agent implemented fully in TTS.

This should be perfectly feasible. I'm surprised it hasn't been done. If anyone with a technical background wants to work on this and needs some direction drop me a line.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Design anti-patterns: What's one more option?

You have just finished a solid draft of an IVR call routing application, and you're pretty happy with. The menus follow conventional wisdom for numbers and types of options, and the design has done well in early usability testing. You're looking forward to sign-off on the design, and one of the business analysts pipes up, "Hey, we need to add one more option to the main menu. What's one more option?"

"What's one more of anything," like records in a database or fields on a form, usually isn't a big deal. Computers are supposed to be able to iterate any number of things with a minimum of additional effort, so the same principle should apply to IVR menu options. That's the logic, anyway. Unfortunately, the same logic applied to IVR menus is a disaster, because it's the callers who have trouble sorting through and remembering and verbally reproducing multiple menu options.

The logic of "What's one more option" is very seductive, and can lead to main menus with ten or more options. Big main menus (or "Maim menus," for what they do to callers) just scream "I don't know what I'm doing! Hit the zero key now!"

IVR menus structures are still actively researched. For an excellent recent study on IVR menu options, see "A comparison of broad versus deep auditory menu structures," Commarford et al., (2008), Human Factors, Vol. 50, pp. 77-89.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

An MBA version of "Scared Straight"

In March, I blogged about having heard Walt Pavlo talk about embezzling $6 million from his employer MCI. I compared his presentation to an MBA version of the "Scared Straight" program for youthful offenders.

Last week BusinessWeek carried an article about Pavlo's talks in MBA classes. The story was entitled "Using ex-cons to scare MBAs straight." Coincidence? Maybe.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Alligator in the kitchen

The Holy Grail for IVR designers is a natural language application that can handle a significant percentage of calls to a service desk. 911 call centers are a kind of mission-critical service desk: you call with your problem and address and hope that help arrives before things get much worse. In order to get natural language to work you'd need to anticipate what callers will say when they call (or at least have categorized a number of previously recorded similar calls).

Unfortunately, there is just no way a VUI designer is going to craft a system that will recognize "alligator in my kitchen" as a legitimate problem call. Even human 911 operators have difficulty with the phrase, as you can hear in this recording.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Innovation by "The Chosen Few"

Years ago, as I was documenting work processes in my first big call center project, I made what I thought was an astounding discovery. The experienced call center reps I interviewed had some very good ideas for improving their customer service process. They were having to work around some of the constraints of their IT systems in order to deliver service, and often working around the processes they were given by their managers. When I talked to management about the CSRs processes they were surprised to hear some of my findings. Second astounding discovery: managers don't always know their experienced CSRs' best practices. I recall thinking, "these reps really know their business. If someone could organize their ideas and get them pushed through IT and their own management it would really improve service."

Some years later the organization went through a period of identifying and selecting "innovators" whose role it was to produce innovative ideas and pass them to the rest of the organization. Watching the "innovators" from a distance, it was hard to see that anything was of any more value than the ideas produced by my CSRs in the call center, and most of it was probably a good deal less.

Jack & Suzy Welch's recent BusinessWeek article, Finding Innovation Where it Lives, hits the very point that I thought I'd discovered during my first call center gig. The article may be behind a password, so I'll quote the relevant parts. They debunk the notion that innovations come strictly from individual geniuses working alone, but more often come from coworkers "in the trenches" solving problems as a group and trying to make things work well. However, the organization has to make innovation part of its culture. As I saw in the call center, having great ideas means nothing if no one is there to harvest the ideas and push through changes.

The Welches finish by quoting an e-mail they received from someone who had an idea for a product but didn't know how to introduce it into his organization. They write, "How sad...another place where managers send the message that innovation comes from the chosen few. Imagine the possibilities...not to mention the fun, when organizations engage everyone else in the process, too."

That's innovation management, the ability to change the organization and draw everyone into the challenge of improving services and create processes that harvest and organize everyone's ideas, not just those of the "chosen few."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Designing for downsizers

If you're putting in some extra time at work in the evening or on a weekend and notice a group of people casing your floor and talking about new drapes and upholstery, look out. It could be a sign of an upcoming layoff. In what has become a new trend, apparently, companies are contracting with interior design firms to redesign floorplans and office space before announcing cutbacks. The idea is to make the empty desks disappear as quickly as possible, so that the remaining employees aren't reminded of their co-workers disappearances. Of course, companies want to make efficient use of their space as well.

I've always recognized the importance of designing to improve efficiency, but this seems a little bit too efficient. At any rate, keep an eye out for those interior designers off hours, and if you see one, it might make sense to polish up that resume.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Speech IVRs as hearing-impaired foreigners

I listen to recorded utterances from people talking to speech IVRs. One thing that people often do when when the IVR doesn't understand them is to change their speech pattern: they'll talk louder or more slowly. If the caller is soft spoken and there's noise in the background, then talking louder will help. Under most circumstances, though, shouting doesn't help, and talking more slowly almost never helps.

If you've ever traveled abroad (or live outside the US) then you may have witnessed US tourists trying to make themselves understood to non-English speaking locals. Often, the tourists will shout and talk more slowly, adding helpful gestures in an amusing pantomime, in order to make themselves understood. In fact, adding gestures can help, and speaking more slowly can help if the local speaks some English, and if it isn't done to the point of changing one's pronunciation.

Having witnessed these two scenarios many times here's my theory of the day: callers to speech IVRs believe the systems to be hearing impaired foreigners who are best communicated with by shouting and speaking slowly to. If you were to watch these people on the phone I'm confident that you'd see the pantomime routine as well.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Blogging considered harmful

Is blogging from your home office bad for your health? Yes, according to this slightly hysterical opinion piece in the New York Times. The article cites three reports of heart attacks and some uncredited opinions from people who are worried that "something has gone very wrong."

If I feel tightness in my jaw or shoulder I'll be sure to call 911. Until then, I'll guess I'll keep practicing blogging at home in moderation.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Remarks on Comprehensive Intellectual Capital Management

I've been looking for a book with a roadmap of how to implement an innovation program at companies. Comprehensive Intellectual Capital Management (CICM) by Nermien Al-Ali has delivers that and much more. Al-Ali places innovation within the broader context of Intellectual Capital (IC) management.

In the CICM model, IC is comprised of three stages: Knowledge Management, Innovation Management, and Intellectual Property Management. The book first describes the structure of each of these stages, then presents instructions on how to implement each stage.

A very important aspect of the book is the description of the organizational changes that must occur in order for the program to work. Chapter 10 is called "First get your act together," in which the author correctly acknowledges the importance of vision and corporate culture on the effectiveness of new corporate initiatives.

The chapters regarding culture and innovation really resonated with me. I worked at a company that had tried to implement some small-scale innovation efforts (and had been involved in one myself), but the culture and organizational structure were custom-made to prevent successful innovation: rigidly heirarchical, command-and-control, strong departmental boundaries, compensation and rewards for individual achievement instead of team performance, and, worst of all perhaps, no recognition by management on the importance of organizational culture on the outcome of innovation efforts.

I liked this book. Comprehensive Intellectual Capital Management, 2003, Nermien Al-Ali, Wiley and Sons.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Volunteer to help colonize Mars

Google is offering everyone a chance to help colonize Mars. You can even take a psychometrically validated personality test to see if you'd be a good candidate to join the mission (If you've read my early posts you know what a fan I am of personality testing for personnel selection).

I wonder if it's significant that this item was posted on April Fools Day. Naah. I'm sure it's completely legit.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Why Motorola is selling its mobile division

I really appreciate Bruce Nussbaum's blog on innovation and design. His latest piece is on Motorola's sale of its mobile division. He makes the point that Motorola develops great technology, but can't seem to put that great technology to use in products that consumers want to buy. The take away lesson is that companies need a systematic process for moving their R&D into the marketplace.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

NCSU Design School presentation

Here's a great event that I'd love to go to, but it runs at the same time as my Thursday night Leadership and Ethics class. Bummer. I'll pass it along so that someone can attend for me.

Dear HFES Carolina Members and Friends –

Faculty from the College of Design at NCSU have graciously offered to give a collection of presentations next week at NCSU. They are interested in sharing their research and design ideas with the HFES community.

Time: Thursday, March 27, 5:30-8:00pm
Location: Kamphoefner Hall, College of Design complex, Burns Auditorium, NCSU

There will be a reception (with refreshments) in the lobby area of the Burns Auditorium from 5:30-6pm. Professor Haig Khachatoorian will moderate this event.

Presentations will begin at 6pm and will include the following:

  • Bryan Laffitte / Associate Professor & ID (Industrial Design) Dept. Head - "Visualization as a Tool for Collaborative Innovation"
  • Percy Hooper / Associate Professor & Director of I D Graduate Programs - "Invention, Innovation & Design : Transforming Propositions to Products"
  • Bong-IL Jin / Associate Professor - "The World Traffic Safety Design Competitions"
  • Dr. Sharon Joines / Assistant Professor - "Ergonomic Interventions for Ultrasound Technicians"
  • Tim Buie / Assistant Professor - "Game Design : Designing the Interaction Experience"

Each presentation will last approximately 20 min. and there will be a question and answer session to follow. If you plan to attend the reception, please let Miranda Capra know so that adequate refreshments are available.

Dave Kaber, HFES Carolina Chapter President

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Stolen without a gun

My MBA program's Leadership and Ethics class had a guest lecturer last week. Walter Pavlo was a middle manager at MCI Communications in the mid-1990s. He was involved in helping MCI conceal millions of dollars in bad debt. His ability to hide bad debt led to a scheme to embezzle $6 million. He was caught and convicted, and served 2 years in prison. His book, Stolen Without a Gun, tells the story of his and MCI's downfall.

Pavlo is a very likable, outgoing guy. He was very open about what he did, and freely admitted he was wrong. The most interesting parts of his talk were about the corporate culture at MCI that put all value on making the numbers every quarter. Without using it as an excuse for his behavior, he described a situation where there was a lot of pressure to perform, no oversight, no positive corporate culture for accountability, and lots of money changing hands.

He had an interesting observation about the mortgage meltdown crisis going on now. "The mortgage industry is just the telecom industry in the 1990s." The subprime lenders and borrowers are telecom's wholesalers and high risk, high profit long distance resellers in the 90s. Pavlo says that the mortgage accounting tricks to hide bad debt occurred 3 years ago, and will soon come to light.

The talk was, in a way, a showing of the "Scared Straight" documentary for MBAs. Message: play clean, keep your moorings, resist the urge to bend the rules when it looks like everyone else is doing it.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Design anti-patterns: Possession by hobgoblins

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Consistency in the design of a user interface is often a good thing. Re-using a small set of salient, simple interactions within a single application, or across a suite of applications, allows users to apply what they've learned during one interaction to many others. It makes the user interface predictable, thereby making it easier to use. Scott Berkun made a similar point in an extended meditation on consistency way back in 1999, a point that still stands.

I'm a proponent of consistency. I've written about the usefulness of standards and guidelines, one way of supporting consistency among applications. However, it's misapplied when the benefit of a local optimization outweighs the benefit of enforcing consistency throughout an application. It's also misapplied when a presentation style developed for one domain (like radio advertising or visual web) is applied to a wholly different domain (like VUI dialogs). I was recently handed a dialog by a company's branding expert that read like this: "Press 1 to do x, or press 2 to do y," where x and y were rambling treatises on what services could be obtained. It was thought that this dialog was "consistent" with the company's auditory brand derived from web and advertising dialogs. Unfortunately, it violated one of the really useful consistency rules in IVR design, which orders options like this: "For (goal), (press/say) (action)."

At times when I'm arguing against the misuse of consistency I say (with a nod to Emerson) that I'm practicing exorcism of possession by hobgoblins.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Digression: got my mojo workin'

Here's a video of the great blues master Muddy Waters. Proof that if you have a great team that works well together you can nail a tough project cold and make it seem effortless.

Nothing here about innovation or VUI. This is just one of my favorite musicians, and it's my blog.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Innovation meets the Law of Unintended Consequences

Sometimes you get an idea for a product or service that feels so profoundly good and so right that it seems there is no way it can fail with your customers. Funny thing about customers, though. They have their own agendas, and they don't always respond exactly as you predict they would.

Leah Santini is a home health care nurse in Peoria, Ill. One of her charges, 91 year old Rosemary Kramm, had seemed depressed for some time, and Ms. Santini was thinking of a way to cheer her up. She noticed that Ms. Kramm perked up at the sight of Uno, the champion beagle, on TV. Ms. Santini, by an amazing coincidence, knew one of Uno's owners, and a personal visit from Uno was arranged.

Slam dunk, right? Perhaps not, according to this story in the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

"Oh, I can't believe it!" Kramm said repeatedly, as she patted and stroked the dog. "I can die now. I can leave this planet."

"Leaving the planet" is exactly what the visit from the world-famous dog was intended to prevent. Let's hope that Ms. Kramm was speaking only metaphorically, or else Ms. Santini's career as a health care innovator will take a serious hit.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

GetHuman in the news

The GetHuman standard for call center customer service were covered in a recent BusinessWeek story. The gist of the story was that the GetHuman "movement" has lost steam, and gave some reasons why.

There's no doubt that customer service should be a top priority for companies, and that automated phone attendants are a frequent source of poor service. The GetHuman standard falls short because a company's call center needs to commit to a far higher level of service than is embodied by the standards. Companies that are committed to good service don't need the GetHuman standards; they have managers in charge who understand where the company needs to be and the amount work it will take to get it there. Companies whose call center managers think they can offer quality service by following a checklist are lost in the woods, and won't find their way out without some serious help.

I think standards and guidelines have their place in promoting good design practice if followed properly; I've said so before. I give GetHuman a lot of credit for raising the issue of poor customer phone service. However, standards can only take one so far; delivering great service is a matter of a company's planning, desire, and execution.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Personality testing pt. 3: let's get social

I thought I was finished with this topic. Then I saw a rather credulous interview in with a CEO about his company's online personality test. According to the interviewee, "enlightened employers consider personality as only one facet of the selection process." This CEO was touting his online personality test as one of the selection criteria. If you follow the links far enough you can take the test. I did, and got a report that had a little more information than an average horoscope. To get the detailed report you need to pay.

The website turns out to be a social networking site where people can meet others of similar "temperaments." Good grief. I sincerely hope no one in an HR department would be foolish enough to adopt this thing as a selection criterion. I've written about personality testing before, and this does nothing to change my opinion.

I think Scott Adams was on the mark with his send up of personality testing in companies.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

All of our computers are assisting other customers...

Ray Kurzweil is an innovative thinker and inventor who has gotten a lot of attention for his wild predictions about the future of technology. Here's a link to a story with some of his predictions (Thanks to Ahmed Bouzid for pointing out this article). Kurzweil gets a hearing because he's delivered some real cutting edge technology with his work on optical character recognition and automatic speech recognition.

So, what are the implications for speech-enabled IVRs if, as Kurzweil predicts, computers become smarter than humans? It isn't hard to imagine the following Blade Runner-like scenario.

[Customer calls a company and reaches a human customer service rep]
  • CSR: "All of our computers are currently assisting other customers. If you'd like, I can try to help you. Otherwise, please remain on the line for the next available computer."
  • Caller: "NO! Please, just let me talk to a MACHINE!"

Ha ha. We voice interface designers enjoy our little jokes. Seriously, though, people really get bent out of shape when discussing machine intelligence. I think it violates peoples' sense of specialness to have their intellect compared to a computer's. In any case, predictions by Kurzweil and others about the future of technology are great topics for conversation, so long as one keeps things in perspective.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Design thinking and the hype cycle

"Design thinking" refers to an approach to design that combines art, craft, and analytical skill to produce unique, innovative consumer products. Done properly, design thinking can be usefully applied to customer services, business processes, and strategy as well. I've blogged about design thinking before, and remarked on some of the good work others have done to describe this hard-to-define concept. A lot of companies are starting to take notice of design thinking, and are wondering how to apply it to their own problems.

Like any promising new (to business execs) process, there will be a shake-out period until companies figure out how and when to apply design thinking to anything more than product design. Some writers are already predicting a possible backlash as design thinking fails to deliver a silver bullet solution for every problem. To borrow a concept that is applied to new technologies, design thinking is moving up a "peak of inflated expectations" phase with regards to its utility for solving business process and strategy problems.

Gartner research and consulting publishes a "hype cycle" each year that tracks the acceptance of new technologies. According to their theory, technologies follow a trajectory that begins with a "technology trigger" and ends with a "plateau of productivity" in which the technology is properly utilized. Between these beginning and ending phases are the "peak of inflated expectations," "trough of disillusionment," and "slope of enlightenment" phases.

The same analysis can be usefully applied to business processes. TQM, Six Sigma, CMM, and a number of similar processes, have been embraced by management initally as a cure-all for their company's ills. The process moves up the "peak of inflated expectations," only to fall into disfavor when it fails to deliver on all of its champions' promises.

If design thinking is on the up-slope of the peak of inflated expectations, it can be predicted that it will eventually fall into the trough of disillusionment one day. Champions of design thinking should prepare for that phase, taking care not to oversell it before it's entrenched in the company culture, and nuturing it through the hard times. Eventually design thinking will reach its plateau of productivity phase, to the benefit of the company's bottom line.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Personality testing pt. 2: the DPPI

In an earlier blog post I discussed the use and potential misuse of personality testing by companies. Specifically, the HR department may use personality testing for selection and placement in ways unintended by the creators of the tests.

It looks like I'm not the only one who feels that personality testing can be abused by HR.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Is your IVR persona Devo?

Distinctiveness and originality count for much when establishing a brand. Brand managers often push designers to create unique, memorable products, which designers are usually happy to do. A speech IVRs persona, the image created in the mind of the customer by the system's voice, vocabulary, and interaction style, is a tempting target for marketers who want to create a differentiated experience for callers.

When distinctivess and originality are pushed far enough, as in this fine video, the audience may be left puzzled, confused, even outraged. I call highly idiosyncratic, over-the-top IVR personas Devo IVRs, in honor of the band's memorably distinctive songs and videos.

Nearly all IVRs are intended to help callers accomplish a work goal. Highly idiosyncratic personas rarely help callers achieve goals, and may even hurt if the presentation is distracting enough. Sometimes this is a hard message for branding experts and marketers to hear.

Monday, February 4, 2008

"Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed..."

There's always some unnecessary verbiage in any IVR, but this little message seems to be the favorite. I've listened to some systems present this nugget for over a year without changing anything. It signals to me that no one is really minding the IVR store at whichever company I'm trying to get some service from.

When all IVRs were DTMF only the good ones enabled key ahead, the ability to press several keys in succession, without waiting for the prompt to play. Frequent callers to an IVR learned the keypress sequence to get them to their preferred transfer or function very quickly without having to listen to all the prompting. If the menu options changed, however, the speed dialers would up transferring to the wrong department, generating complaints back to the IVR manager. I think this was how the "menu options have changed..." phrase was born. The message may also reflect IVR managers' beliefs about why callers misroute. If the callers would only listen carefully to the options, the belief goes, then misroutes would be eliminated. It doesn't occur to some IVR managers that the prompting could be confusing or unclear. Thus, the phrase "please listen carefully."

Unfortunately, it's easier (process wise) to put phrases into IVRs than take them out. Power users, the ones who learn to key ahead, call frequently. And they don't listen to prompting. Playing the message for longer than a week is nearly useless, because the power users have already adjusted after a week, and it provides no information to occasional users. In speech systems it's even more useless, since you can leave the original menu grammars in place even if you change the prompting.

The message lives on, however, a legacy of another era and some magical thinking about how callers behave.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Design by committee vs. design by team

Most experienced interface designers have been in the position of working on projects that include representatives from multiple business units. In the worst case scenario, each representative advocates strongly on behalf of his or her own business unit, trying to optimize the design to the business unit's advantage. If the designer doesn't have the explicit support of the project manager and other stakeholders and loses control of the design, the interface design specification can become a sort of battleground for the competing interests of the BU representatives. Design decisions are made on the basis of political power rather than on good design principles; the interface design and the designer both suffer. "Design by committee" is the perjorative term given to the unwieldy output of such exercises.

A few companies ignore the negative connotation of designing in groups and practice design by team. Those who do include designers, engineers, and user researchers on the team. To get this to work right, the participants must be both designers and committed team players who can subordinate their own egos for the good of the team. Two very different, and somewhat rare, skill sets. Teams take time to function together at a very high level, so the successful team would have had to go through a period of getting to know each other's style.

It's an interesting approach, and I'd love to study design teams over time, and find out what works and what doesn't. Teams and design, what could be better.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Buzzword alert: innovation, incubator, value chain

Has anyone noticed that terms like "innovation," "incubator," and "value chain" have achieved buzzword status? I think Scott Adams noticed.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Voice control of consumer products: Sync

Speech recognition is showing up in consumer products. The 2008 Ford Focus includes Sync, which was designed by Microsoft. The product was reviewed very favorably by Cnet. Sync gets two things very right. First, the speech recognition of the car's audio works well even in a car interior, which is usually a pretty noisy environment. Second, it's easy for the user to connect the car's speech rec system with the user's own Bluetooth-enabled phone. Drivers then have voice control over their own phones. As often happens, the acceptance and usage of the product depends on the product's usability, and in this case Ford gets it right with Sync. I haven't used the system, but I'm impressed with Cnet's review.

Why worry about voice activating communication media inside a car? Ford, for its part, seems to be rethinking its view of a vehicle as a thing that you drive from point A to point B. If you think about a car as an extension of your office or your home, then you start to put in features that you have come to expect in your office or home. Of course, in a vehicle you're constrained by the fact that drivers need to hold onto the steering wheel when they drive, so they need another way to control their communication devices.

Microsoft, for its part, has a vision of turning every phone and PC into an always-on virtual conferencing device, part of their Unified Communication vision. This product fits nicely into that vision. It allows drivers to conduct business while in their vehicles, which, if you commute, is an enormous time saver. People in the voice business sometimes refer to vehicles as "BAMDs" (big ass mobile devices). Ford's Sync is a big step in the direction of turning a lot of vehicles into BAMDs.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Voice authentication Christmas toy

My daughter received an interesting gift for Christmas: a personal journal with voice authentication security. This little toy, called Password Journal, allows the child to record a spoken word of his or her choosing, and then access the journal with the same spoken word. If someone besides the registered owner tries to access the journal a chirpy British female voice exclaims "Intruder!" and a siren-like alarm goes off. The journal also recognizes a small number of voice commands, like setting the time of day and turning on/off an alarm.

In fact, the toy is a little hard to use for a child, and even for many adults. To get geeky-technical about it, the failure to enroll, false alarm, and false accept rates are pretty high. There aren't a lot of writing pages inside the journal, the novelty is in the voice activation itself. If you read the reviews by following the link, above, there's a lot of dissatisfaction with the product.

I helped design a voice authentication security system that is in use by a financial institution. I've also conducted research into consumers' acceptance of voice authentication. At the time the research was done (2005), people were still suspicious of VA, uncertain about its usability and effectiveness as a security solution. If people start growing up with toys that include VA, there won't be any novelty to it when they encounter VA in financial and other self service IVRs. Of course, if the toys don't perform properly then people may reject VA based on their previous experience with it. It's an interesting idea, though, that acceptance of VA as a security solution could be affected by peoples' experiences with childrens' toys.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Design anti-patterns: Hostage-taking sign off

Many companies employ "stage gates" in their development process, whereby a project is reviewed by management after major phases and a "go/no-go" decision is made. The project is reviewed in terms of whether it's tracking to its objectives, the soundness of the business case, and other criteria, depending on the phase. The go/no go decision results either in sign off and permission to proceed, or in cancellation. Used properly, stage gates can prevent unnecessary, off-track projects from going forward and costing the company money it can't recover. However, if there are no parameters around the sign off process it can also allow authorizers to engage in some dysfunctional behavior.

For a project team that is heavily invested in the completion of the project, the go/no go review meetings can be a source of stress. Great efforts are made to present the project in a good light during sign off meetings. Who, after all, wants to get to the end of an employee review cycle with nothing but cancelled projects to their credit? Knowing this, authorizers can leverage their position as stage gate attendants to add requirements to the project, insist on additional functionality, and even--my personal favorite--indulge their latent design skills.

"OK. This project is approved to go forward, IF..." where the Big If is some personally preferred enhancement or design change. The project team can argue against the new requirement, saying that it's out of scope or that it adds unnecessary complexity, but a hostage-taking authorizer usally isn't going to be moved by appeals to logic. The project team grumbles, agrees to make the changes, gets the hostage (the application design) released, and the project moves on.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Scott Adams, blogger

I recently discovered Scott Adams' blog. Of course, Adams' comments on corporate culture in his Dilbert comic strip are delightful. His blog lets him range around a little more than the strip allows. Judging from the number of comments he gets to each posting, his blog is quite popular.

Apparently, the Dilbert comic strip really ticks some people off. A casino worker in Fort Madison, Iowa, was fired recently for posting a strip that referred to managers as "drunken lemurs." I would say that by firing the employee the casino management sort of proved the strip's point. No telling how lemurs felt about being compared to human managers.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Creating a "design culture"

Is "design thinking" qualitatively different from the decision making processes of managers in corporations? Perhaps. It's an attractive idea, the notion that design thinking--the way designers solve design problems--can be applied to any number of challenges that corporations face. I've blogged about design schools that are teaching students business skills so that they will have the background to help set strategy and solve business problems.

With the interest in design thinking, I've started to see presentatations by consultants exhorting companies to "create design cultures" and "make innovation part of the firm's DNA." Design and innovation are motherhood and apple pie issues: how could anyone argue against them? If you make design and innovation part of your everyday corporate culture you'll unleash the creative potential of every employee and leave your competition begging for scraps.

Culture change in corporations is a different beast, however. Corporate cultures vary on a number of dimensions. They include team orientation, outcome orientation, and stability: the degree to which the culture maintains the status quo. The dimension that needs to change, of course, is capacity for innovation and risk taking. Where the company currently sits on these dimensions determines how difficult it will be to build a design culture.

There are two things to keep in mind about company culture. One, company culture is determined in large part (though not exclusively) by its leadership. How does the leadership behave? Who do they reward and promote? What behaviors are recognized? That's determines company culture far more than memos from human resources and published mission statements.

Two, changing company culture for the better is difficult. The consultants pushing design culture might forget to raise this issue with clients. Even when the leadership is fully committed to changing the culture it's difficult. All companies show resistance to change, some more than others. Jack Welch changed the company culture of GE with Six Sigma, which shows that it can be done, but it wasn't easy.

Any plan for building a design culture would start with a pretty serious change management plan. Senior leadership would need to know what's it's getting into, and the things they would need to change about themselves. Otherwise, any effort to inject design thinking and innovation into the company culture will just be the fad of the week, and will join the long list of "seemed like a good idea at the time" initiatives that wound up on the scrap heap of indifference.