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.