Sunday, December 27, 2009

A UI design treasure chest

Here's a great UI/prototyping site that I stumbled upon. One kind soul took the time to collect links to all of the best UI and prototyping tools he could find. Browser templates, controls, icons...tons of stuff. Thanks very much to Henry Jones for this collection.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Happy Winter Solstice

I don't observe a lot of the history-book holidays, like Presidents Day, Columbus Day, etc., but I do take note of the solstices and equinoxes. I guess it's my pagan heritage. Anyway, Happy Winter Solstice, and enjoy the shortest day. And an early Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Graduation Day

Today is graduation day at NCSU. I've completed the MBA program, so I'm done with scholastics, at least for a while. It was difficult at times, but rewarding. I'm glad I went through it, and I'm glad it's done. I'll probably drink some strong tea or coffee to celebrate.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Verizon's fund-raising scheme

We tend to think of poor design as a lack of attention to detail or just plain incompetence. Verizon phones have a nasty design feature that was implemented solely to rip off their customers. Read here in this NYT article by David Pogue. Thanks to Philip Hunter for forwarding this.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jumping on the bus

A few years ago a friend of mine who lived in NY told me that whenever a bus in NY is involved in an accident a few people will jump on the bus and then claim to be injured. The idea, obviously, is to extract some money from the bus company for their so-called "injuries."

I thought about that scenario when I was reading the latest news about Tiger Woods' self-inflicted problems. There are probably a few bus jumpers in the crowd (9?), in addition to the genuine claimants.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Everyone has the same technology

It's true. Everyone has the same technology, or access to the same technology. So why do some self service web sites and IVRs fly like champions with their customers, and why do so many fail? Well, of course part of the reason is the way the technology is designed. It's the way the pieces are put together. You would expect a designer to say something unprofound like that.

Part of it, the part that's neglected too often, is the governance around the web site or the IVR. It's the ongoing commitment by everyone involved to make the site as good as it can be, given the limitations of the technology. That means breaking down institutional barriers that prevent different teams from working together to improve service. It means putting the right metrics in place, metrics that actually drive organizational behavior. It means lots of things that need to happen after the site goes into production. There are too many widowed web sites and IVRs out there - stuff that got pushed into production and then forgotten.

I worked at a company that invested huge sums in developing self service applications, but did little follow up afterwards. After a big project was over all the experienced people were released to new projects. When the self service didn't meet expectations the management's reaction was almost always the same: "The technology is no good. Let's get better technology." It was almost impossible to engage managers in a discussion about their ongoing responsibilities for improving the performance of the self service systems. "That's the service area's problem. They'll deal."

It was very wasteful. And frustrating. Getting the most out of an existing self service application helps ensure a good ROI.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The original Free

Chris Anderson's book Free: the Future of a Radical Price is getting a lot of buzz for its thesis that companies can make a lot of money by offering free digital products. As soon as I started hearing about this stuff I thought, "Someone has been reading Abbie Hoffman."

Hoffman was the original free-ster. He published under the name Free, and took "Barry Freed" as an alias when he was on the run from the law. His book Steal this Book was an underground classic. He was more than talk, though. He helped organize free stores in inner city neighborhoods that gathered cast off goods and gave them away to people in need.

He also was responsible for some of the greatest marketing gimmicks ever invented, not for the purpose of making some company a lot of money, but to bring attention to causes. During the Vietnam war he and his little tribe announced that they were gathering at the Pentagon and would levitate the entire building using witchcraft. The gathering there to participate in the ceremony was probably the first flash mob. He closed down the NYSE one day by throwing dollar bills into the pit from the balcony, causing traders to stop trading and start chasing the bills. During his trial for conspiracy to riot in Chicago he regularly lectured the judge in his Groucho Marxist voice: "In all my years as a defendant that's the most ridiculous ruling I ever heard."

In a sort of sad application of Free, Anderson and others have ripped off Hoffman's riffs and used them to market consumer products. His famous epigram, "Today is the first day of the rest of your life," from his 1968 book Revolution for the Hell of It, adorns countless greeting cards. As Stephen Colbert noted in his interview with Anderson, "So your book Free costs 26 dollars. Well done, my man." Colbert was being more than just a little ironic.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reformatting RTP

I've complained before about the layout of Research Triangle Park between Durham and Raleigh. It's too big and traffic intensive to encourage tech workers to meet each other and exchange ideas. Apparently I'm not the only one who thinks so, as there are plans to repurpose some of the land to encourage collaboration between companies and their knowledge workers.

This is a nice development. I've taken advantage of some of the activities mentioned in this article, including Techie Tuesday and the RTP-based NCSU MBA program. I'd love to see park do more to encourage techs to get together. Kudos to Rick Weddle and his staff for taking steps in that direction.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Remarks on Your Next Move

I picked up Your Next Move: the Leader's Guide to Navigating Major Career Transitions by Michael Watkins as I prepared to start my new position with a local company. Skimming it, it seemed to cover a lot of topics I was interested in: things you need to do first, how to categorize the state the company is in, etc. The book turned out to be an extended outline, with references to follow up in his other books. It was almost like reading an extended abstract for his other publications. I really needed a deep dive on some of the topics.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

End of the job search

The job hunt is over. I'll start my new position on Monday! It was as quick a search as could be expected, given the state of the economy. More details to follow, after I've had a chance to settle in.

I'll be managing the visual UI of the company's applications, so I'm out of the voice user interface business now. That presents a dilemma for me, since the name of the blog is "Interactive Voice Response." I'll need to re-brand the blog. Anyway, it's a good problem to have.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Transcending Products - Offering Experience Design & Strategy

PDMA Carolinas Chapter is hosting an event this Thursday called "Transcending Products - Offering Experience Design & Strategy." You can register by visiting the web site.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Designer or consultant/ designer?

A discussion with the manager of a design group at a local company prompted me to think about the difference between designers and consultant/designers. The manager said that he had some talented graphic designers that he basically kept away from business areas that required design services. Others in the design group or on the projects they worked on acted as the interface to the business areas. There are good, defensible reasons for that. Business people can suck up a lot of time from creatives, asking for concepts, mockups, and ideas, and then rejecting anything that is presented with indefensible requests for changes (see previous blog post on this subject). This can work well if the manager understands the value of the designers' abilities and their time, knows how to manage clients, and isn't simply trying to take credit for the group's work.

On the other hand, being able to lead engagements and work with business areas and clients is a valuable, transferable skill. Leaving the consulting part of a project to someone else, especially someone who doesn't understand or can't sell the value of design, can result in some very good design work being underutilized or ignored. I've seen the same thing with usability analysts who worked only at the direction of a project leader. They couldn't assert themselves in project situations or consulting engagements, and as a result their test results and recommendations were largely ignored.

Personally, I'd like to see every designer and usability pro be able to lead engagements and consult effectively with clients.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Design anti-patterns: the value-add de-motivation technique

In a recent article, Marshall Goldsmith describes a scenario familiar to anyone who designs products or websites. A designer presents a new idea in a meeting that includes his or her manager. The manager pipes up with "improvements" to the designer's original idea. As Goldsmith asks, what does that do to the designer's commitment to the original idea?

I've seen this scenario occur literally dozens of times. In one case, a business analyst was developing a streamlined, iterative software development process for use by an IT department. Another analyst wrangled an invitation to the review sessions where the business analyst was presenting the new process. The invited analyst proceeded to shred the recommended process and, through argumentation and stubborness, inserted her own approach to software development into the process. When the new process was released the invited analyst cheerfully noted that she had gotten everything she wanted in changes to the process. However, the business analyst who had initiated the work and had intended to implement and steward the new process, was so demoralized by the experience that she left her role for another position in the company. The new software process was published but, with no one to steward it, it was never used by project teams in the IT department.

As Goldsmith points out, a lot of this behavior occurs because managers (or analysts) are trying to make themselves look good in front of others. "Looking good" implies that the culture supports and rewards that sort of behavior. The other factor here is that managers value concrete deliverables, whether designs, code, or published processes. There's less awareness of, and value placed on, intangibles like commitment, loyalty, and motivation. How can a manager "prove" that he or she increased his direct reports' commitment to their projects by some percentage in the last quarter? But commitment to a project can make or break the project. Managers need to understand that.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"Innovate violently!"

"Innovate violently!" was poet Guillaume Apollinaire's advice to Picasso. And "innovate violently" he did. I went to the fabulous Picasso exhibit at the Nasher Museum in Durham last weekend. The exhibition shows how Picasso used printed language as part of his painting. It presents some of his poetry. It's great that we have a resource like the Nasher in town. The Picasso exhibit runs through January 3rd.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

GMAT as selection criterion

I took the GMAT four years ago, when I decided to return to school for an MBA. At the time I didn't think it was very important. I already had a lot of job experience and a lot of education, so I knew GMAT wasn't going to be a big factor in my application. I looked at a test prep book for a couple of days and took the test and scored mid 600s. That's not great, but it was good enough for what I needed.

Then I read this article that says the GMAT is being used as a selection criterion by employers who are trying to weed through all of their applications. No matter that the test wasn't designed for that purpose.

This trend is even worse than using personality tests for selection, and that's pretty bad. I wonder if some employers have simply given up on trying to interview people for their qualifications and fit and are looking only at the numbers.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Ally Bank: "We speak human"

Ally Bank is a new pure-play internet bank. To introduce themselves to potential customers they purchased a 2 page ad in a recent Business Week:
"There are times when you just want to speak to a real, live person about your money. And at Ally Bank you can, anytime, 24/7. Just just push "0" to speak to a real live person. It's that easy. No complicated phone trees to navigate and no repeating yourself three times to a robot. We even publish our current wait times on our website. It's just the right thing to do."
With all of the financial turmoil and lost investments and failed banking institutions that have beset consumers recently, Ally Bank's pitch to new customers is this: avoid the stupid IVRs whenever you want and talk to a person. This is not a glowing recommendation for the speech IVR industry.

In fact, when it comes to bad IVRs, there is plenty of blame to go around. Companies that install IVRs as a front end to their call center go often go into projects with inflated expectations of what speech IVRs can reasonably do. Others do not, but don't feel that usability is very important and will settle for "good enough," however that is defined. Vendors will oversell the technology's ability to recognize speech, or put more emphasis on the technology than on design.

There are lots of reasons why speech IVRs fail. And there are now companies like Ally Bank that are exploiting consumers' dissatisfaction with telephone automation. I hope every company with a speech IVR will take notice.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Usability testing next week

I'm working on contract to conduct usability testing of a nice, cutting-edge product that analyzes network traffic. If you're an administrator or network service analyst and would like to see and help test this product, let me know. $75/hr for a one hour (or less) test.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The smartest cities

I live in the "smartest city in the U.S.," according to a website I'd never heard of before this week. I guess that's a good thing, but if our city (metropolitan area) were really smart I think we'd have better public transportation and better bike lanes and be more in touch with new urbanism and things that promote cities instead of sprawl. Research Triangle Park, located between Raleigh and Durham, is a monument to 1950's style suburban planning. Smarts isn't everything--planning and a sense of aesthetics is needed too.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Who needs MS Office...

I love You can download an office suite of tools that has the functionality of Microsoft Office for free. Don't want to pay for a version of Powerpoint or Excel for your laptop? Go to OpenOffice, get their free tools, and you can create and change those apps for free. Very nice.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Doing" innovation: technique or org design?

I've been answering questions lately about how you "do" innovation and "voice of the customer." What are techniques? How do you gather data? Convert the data into new product ideas?

Those are interesting questions, certainly, but there are a lot of resources out there that present valid frameworks and approaches for doing innovation. The trick, of course, is to be able to apply a framework or approach to a real situation in the messy real world of new product development.

An equally interesting and important question, and one I don't hear much, is "How do you need to change the organization to support innovation," rather than focussing on the individuals? Personally, I think that's the harder challenge, since it requires more organizational change and can take managers out of their comfort zones.

Look, sometimes all you need to do to get individuals to innovate is to give them some tools and get out of the way. But setting up and organization that can catch the ideas generated by its employees can be a real challenge. That's the other side of the innovation equation, and the one that's less talked about.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Is "networking" just a different name for something else

I've been thinking a lot about this "networking" thing--the person-to-person kind. I think I've been doing a lot of it lately, although I'm not really clear on the definition. As far as I can tell, if you are working with people, doing your job successfully and people see it, and helping people when they need help, then you're networking. I think "networking" is just a fancy term for "doing the right thing" with respect to your business and personal relationships. Maybe there's more, but I'm missing it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Appropriateness as a criterion for speech IVR

Someone who is putting together a conference symposium on "the impact of speech technology on society" pinged me and a big bunch of other opiniated people on this topic and asked for input. My quick effort to be an IVR/speech industry forward-thinker follows.
Where the IVR industry will go is away from homegrown, do-everything speech recognition systems running on a company's own platform to highly specific, appropriate applications running on hosted platforms. A lot of companies have spent a ton of money on speech development tools and handed them to IT people who figure that speech is like every other technology - you just hack on it until you get it right. When it doesn't work the companies blame the technology, and the IT department (or communications department) makes excuses.

Examples of highly specific, appropriate use applications are things like name capture and city and address capture. The applications that do this well are created by speech rec companies that understand what they are doing and design and test them for a long time, refining them for a long time. These small, self contained applications may be embedded in larger apps that may be DTMF only.

Hosting allows the speech vendor to gather an enormous amount of data from various companies' callers and use that data to improve their product. IT departments at individual companies don't have the resources or expertise to do that. Another specific, useful application is speech to text transcription. Again, a few speech vendors will succeed at doing this, but most companies don't have the resources.

The idea of speech recognition systems as giant, expensive opportunities to push an auditory brand at customers who call will go away.
"Appropriateness" is really something that is hard to talk to companies about. Once they've made up their minds about speech, based on some conversations you weren't at, it's very hard to pull them back and get them to think about whether speech is an appropriate modality for the IVR app they want to develop. I've tried to engage a number of people at companies, pointing out that a three-item menu of easily discriminable labels is a lot easier to implement and use if done in DTMF. No sale. After the speech decision has been made then it's full steam ahead, and anyone who says otherwise is simply engaging in "analysis paralysis."

Sunday, September 13, 2009

PDMA: Cultivating product development careers

I went to an excellent panel discussion titled "Cultivating product development and management careers," hosted by PDMA Carolina Chapter. The panelists represented a wide range of companies. They had a lot of good advice for people trying to get into new product development, or those already doing NPD trying to move up.

After the panel discussion the panelists and attendees broke into groups and brainstormed on some of the topics that were raised during the panel discussion. Good event. Pictures of the event were posted online. Click on View CJ's Gallery, then select the product development careers gallery.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Remarks on The Management Myth

The Management Myth, by Matthew Stewart, is a harsh look at the management consulting industry. Stewart, a philosopher by training, took a job with a management consulting firm created by former McKinsey associates. His book, which began as an article in The Atlantic three years ago, describes the history of management consulting starting with Frederick Taylor and Elton Mayo and ending with gurus Tom Peters and Jim Collins.

It's tough reading if you're sold on the value of management consulting. The book is probably a lot more enjoyable if you've been on the receiving end of some new consultant-led management fad imposed from above by an unwary exec.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fixing process problems in the UI

Most experienced UI designers will have seen this at least once: a client asks for a new online self service application and insists "we really want a lot of people to use it." Hey, when a client cares about usability of the application you're designing, that's a good thing, right? When you do your up-front analysis you discover that their existing process for servicing customers is awkward and unsatisfying for its users. You point out, reasonably, that in order to create a good self service application, the client needs to tweak its service process. "No," you're told, "we can't do that. You have to work with what you have." And then the kicker: "Just think outside the box." The client rep you are working with either isn't in a position to change its process, or doesn't feel the need to. You're stuck automating a bad process, and your design spirals down into a series of design anti-patterns, workarounds, and random attempts to fix the workarounds. And everyone loses in this scenario: the client, the customers, and you for delivering a bad application.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Taking the PMP exam

I completed the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam yesterday. It was 2:40 long, and I worked pretty quickly. It was a lot of work to prepare for it, and I'm happy to say I passed.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Marketing: focusing on the stuff that matters

I would have loved to be in the meeting when the decision was made to photo-swap one man's head with that of another in this advertisment (You have to click on the image to see a link). I'm also surprised that someone caught the deception -- I usually ignore advertisments this bland and uninformative. Microsoft looks a little silly on this one.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Carrboro Creative Coworking

Do you have an entrepreneurial idea but don't need the hassle of finding/renting/building the office space right away? Want or need interaction with other, like-minded entrepreneurs? Check out Carrboro Creative Coworking, a place where you can find energizing office space at a small cost without the administrative headache. I love this concept. The owners are offering incubator-ish space at a reasonable rate, and also using social networks to build community.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Digression: Remembering Kim Dae-Jung

I was sad to see the news of the passing of Kim Dae-Jung, former president of South Korea. I admired him for his role in building democracy in South Korea, and his efforts to reconcile with North Korea.

I saw him speak at a political rally during the election campaign in 1987. I was an exchange student in Japan, and decided to travel to Pusan, South Korea to sightsee. Kim and his supporters were part of the opposition to the government candidate, Roh Tae Woo. I discovered that Kim was having a political rally, so went to see him speak. A student I met there translated for me. Kim talked about the need to restore relations with North Korea, saying that they weren't enemies, but friends and family. At the time this was a radical thing for a South Korean politician to say. I estimated that there were about 50,000 at the rally.

Kim lost the election that year as the opposition candidates split the reform vote, but he won the presidency 10 years later. His life reminds us that one person can make a difference for the better.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Remarks on Managing with Power

Managing with Power (1992) is a classic text by Jeffrey Pfeffer at Stanford University. This is another one I wish I had read when it was first published. Pfeffer gives the reader a way to diagnose the sources of power in organizations and government. Great ideas don't move themselves through organizations, but require power and influence to see them implemented. He provides numerous case studies of companies where powerful decision makers either helped or hurt their organizations.

Great read, highly recommended. I'll read it again when I have a chance.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Google Voice

I signed up for Google Voice a few days ago. Based on what I've seen so far, it has potential. You get a free phone number and a few services that you might find handy. Call routing to other phones based on incoming number ID, spam filtering on unwanted numbers, and speech to text that sends voice mails to email. I assume they're not using CSRs in call centers to provide the transcription. There's a free SMS feature but I haven't tried it yet. Pretty nice.

Even if you only use the free phone number, it's nice to have. You have complete phone number portability, since you can forward all calls to whichever phone you'd like. Don't care for your current mobile provider? Get a new one, and forward your calls there. Customers' switching costs are essentially zero now, as long as they don't abandon their current provider before the end of their contract.

Google has real plans for voice. This is another market they're going to fight over with Microsoft.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Service research: crossing the Valley of Death

I was talking to an acquaintance recently about the research he was doing on service delivery. The company he was doing the work for had invested heavily in research on services. Part of his job was to apply the research to the way new services were developed within his company's own business units. This turned out to be very difficult, more so than he had expected.

"All the business units want are just some software tool, not the process behind the tool. Not a new approach to service." His team would deliver a software tool, then were placed in the position of having to support it -- not the place you want to be if you're trying to do leading edge research in a new field.

The scenario is familiar to scientists who perform basic research on products. The new service research was falling into the Valley of Death, the space between great ideas generated by research and the development and commercialization of the idea. A lot of what is written about the Valley of Death focuses on lack of funding to commercialize ideas, but there's more to it than that. There's a great deal of skill needed to take a genuinely new idea or prototype and guide it through an organization to a point where it is ready to be commercialized and marketed. That skill is rare.

Service researchers, being new to the commercialization game, are learning what the product R&D folks have experienced already: that great ideas for new services don't sell themselves. Someone needs to guide the prototype service through the Valley of Death. This idea is so new that you won't find much written about the commercialization of new service research.

That's where I'd like to be, generating new ideas for services out of a research framework for delivering service, and then helping to commercialize the idea. But no one out there is hiring those sorts of people, since there's no recognition that a role like that should exist.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

United breaks guitars

Time was when a consumer was abused by a company they had little recourse. Social networking sites have changed the game, and a bad service provider is subject to retaliation. Some companies are still waking up to that fact.

Case in point. United Airlines breaks a musician's guitar, then refuses to pay for the damage. The musician posts this brilliant song on YouTube about his experience with United, and the video gets 4 million hits in less than three weeks. User-generated content on sites like YouTube have helped chang the balance of power between companies and consumers, mostly for the better.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Spinvox: speech-to-human-to-text

If you're a speech-to-text company trying to position yourself in the market as a technology leader, you don't like to see these kinds of news articles about your company. Employees of the company say that they were transcribing voice messages left by users. Spinvox's speech-to-text software is supposed to do it automatically. Thanks to Peter Nann for the pointer to this article.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Studying for the PMP exam

In addition to my job hunt, I'm studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) exam, a certification that is given by the Project Management Institute (PMI). It's a lot of material, but I've finished my Project Management class and I've been doing projects based on PMBOK for a few years, so I should be ready to go by the end of next month.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Digression: Boogie woogie blog

Here's a great blog on record collecting by Ted Barron, with lots of information on my favorites in the blues and folks genres. MP3s for many of the songs that are covered. This is just great. I found an old post about all of the covers of the blues standard "Goin' Down Slow," just as an example (I'm partial to the version by Howlin' Wolf). I could spend too much time on this site if I let myself.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Remarks on The Art of Agile Development

There are a large number of books about agile development, and many more about XP, but the book The Art of Agile Development by James Shore & Shane Warden is really exceptional. In addition to covering the principles and practices of XP, the authors spend a lot of time on the interpersonal aspects of software development. Team building is important on any project. The book shows how XP practices reinforce important values like trust, respect, and teamwork. This book will be a reference that I return to for its clear understanding of agile and, more importantly, how to lead a team. Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Festival for the Eno

I celebrated 4th of July by taking the family to the fabulous Festival for the Eno in Durham yesterday. The music is always great, the crafts booths are interesting, the whole experience is wonderful. If you've never been, then go.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Bitten by the layoff bug

The orders to my company had been slowing for quite a while, so now I'm a laid-off knowledge worker. So, this blog will - in addition to discussing corporate culture and design - deal with my new job hunt.

Any leads for an experienced researcher and designer with an almost-MBA? Here's a summary of my background on LinkedIn.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The use of stories to change corporate culture

I've worked at companies for 10+ years, and I know how important corporate culture is to the success of a business. Changing a culture for the better is no easy task, even when the execs understand that it needs to change. More recently, I've learned to appreciate the importance of the stories that associates tell about their company to explain and maintain a particular culture.

I agree that stories can be influential, but I'm afraid that this article attaches too much importance to the power of stories. The author has confused cause and effect. The company described in the article has some fundamental problems with its values. The company is experiencing turnover because of the way management treats people. If you want to keep people, treat 'em right in a consistent, visible way. If you do that the old stories will be replaced by new ones. Performing a few one-off good deeds in the hope that people will make up stories about them will just breed cynicism and contempt.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An analysis of design feedback: sources and handling

Here's a nice article by Francisco Inchauste about how to handle feedback from a designer's perspective. All designers get feedback from sources of every type, and are rarely in a position to simply say "no." Sometimes the designer's job seems to be more about handling this feedback diplomatically then doing design. Representative piece of advice:

  • "Don’t let your life turn into a "Kinko’s" where everything is expected to be turned around in a few hours and you are never able to spend the needed time to get it right."

Easier said than done, of course, but the article gives some guidance on how to prevent that from happening.

The categories of feedback givers and their motivations are right on the mark. I can generate personal examples of all of these categories, and it's nice that someone has thought about this hard enough to provide some perspective and some framing. This author has really Been There.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Digression: Best info source on Middle East

I get very encouraged whenever I read about people demanding more freedom for themselves from their government. The events unfolding in Iran are fascinating. Unfortunately, stories in the mainstream media don't go into much depth. That's why I rely on Juan Cole's Informed Comment blog for news about the Middle East.

Stephen Colbert took his show to Iraq because he thought the story had disappeared from the news media. It didn't disappear from Informed Comment. Great read, highly informative.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Research parks: best configuration?

Here are a couple of recent BusinessWeek articles on business parks and their role as drivers of economic growth. The first article touts Research Triangle Park as an attractive model for research parks. I live a few minutes away from RTP and attend MBA classes in the park.

The second article is skeptical of the idea of siting a research park in the woods, and argues that research parks need to be part of larger, urban communities. Ideas for new products and companies are hatched when tech workers can easily bump into each other.

Being in and around RTP, I can vouch for the fact that it's hard to find people who are interested in new products and are willing to talk business. The layout of the park, with company campuses hidden behind security gates and trees, doesn't lend itself to meeting and talking with people.

The idea of cities as optimal places for innovation and technology development is laid out in detail in a great book I read recently, Who's Your City, by Richard Florida. Florida shows how important geography is for economic development, and shows that cities are increasingly becoming centers of economic development. Nice read, and a good perspective when talking about siting new research parks.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Project management - the class

I'm in a project management class for my MBA program. I like the discussions and case studies, and to hear people's perspectives on project work. I've being been doing projects for a while, so it's nice to have a framework on which to hang my observations of project life.

One of the things I've found is that I can now pretty easily sort people who have project management training from those who don't, and people with project experience from those who don't. It's not just the jargon, it's the knowledge of things like tradeoffs and how to work with customers. It's good to have knowledge of project methodology when you go into a project, and to know who shares the same background.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Process vs progress - when the process gets in the way

I loved this article on internal process. The author describes a situtation I encountered numerous times in previous positions - the use of bureaucratic processes to prevent real work from being performed.

I worked on a team of designers and researchers that did internal consulting jobs and research for a large company. The group elevated bureaucratic process for approving work requests to an art form. The owners of the approval process used this innovation-crushing process to prevent work from being performed that didn't benefit them personally, and to steer work into their own pet projects. The team lost a lot of talented people because of it.

Kudos to Harold Sirkin for highlighting an insidious practice.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Class trip to Switzerland

I'm leaving for Switzerland today on a trip sponsored by my MBA program at NC State University. Our little group will visit companies in Zurich, Geneva, and Lausanne to talk to company representatives about business process. I'll be back in 10 days with lots of updates.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Design as paint-by-numbers

Without really trying, I've recently been identifying blogs and columns that give me a fresh perspective. I read Bill Buxton irregularly, but when I do he usually has some insight that makes me smile and nod. Here's a recent article about educating engineers and others on what user experience types do. I've gotten some of the same questions that Buxton responded to. "Could you write down a list of things you do for design, maybe like a one page bulleted list or something?"

Part of the problem is that if you do design right it looks obvious and simple in retrospect. If you do it wrong then everyone notices and comments on your failure, an instantiation of the Exploding Whale phenomenon.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Blog: Schneier on security

Bruce Schneier became one of my favorite writers after I read his excellent Secrets and lies: digital security in a networked world. He was and is an expert security tech guy, but his focus has changed over time to the behavioral aspects of security. The chapter called The Human Factor explains why people are the weakest link in any security system. Good stuff.

He also posts often to his security blog. Timely and interesting. I liked the 4/30 article on the biometric fingerprint reader in the gym. I guess no one wrote a "sweaty guy with barbell indents on his fingertips" use case.

Quick trip to New Orleans

I took a quick business trip to New Orleans this week. That's my favorite city in the US, so it was a real pleasure to go back. I only wish I had more time to explore different places other than Bourbon St. and Jackson Square. That's OK. I'll plan for a longer trip next time.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

End of semester time adjustment

The end of a semester always requires a little adjustment, because I have free time in the evening. It takes about three days to adjust, and find new ways to fill that time. I'll only have a few days to enjoy the downtime, and then summer session starts.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The "automated lady" isn't helping

This CNN article describes the frustration of homeowners who reach a recorded message when they call banks regarding foreclosure. I cringed at the homeowner's exasperation with the "automated lady," because I know how frustrating the situation is. The callers need to talk to a person but the banks are using a simple IVR to keep customers away rather than using the IVR to serve them. I can just imagine the chipper "automated lady" persona starting her greeting with pain-enducing phrase "Your call is important to us..."

The banks have resorted to a conventional solution to an unprecedented situation - play a recorded message and drop the callers into a queue. I understand that the number of calls and average call times are overwhelming the call centers, but there are much better uses of the technology. For example, you can use automated call backs to let the customers go about their business rather than forcing them to stay on the line.

There's really a huge opportunity here for an IVR integration company to help banks, if they can get into the banks and talk to managers about solutions. If anyone in an overworked bank call center wants to find a way to make their IVR help with their workload, contact me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Digression: The Grateful Dead in Greensboro

I went to see one of my old favorites Sunday, the Grateful Dead (or just "the Dead"). The Coliseum was the first stop on their new tour. Good show. They still really rock after all this time. Warren Haynes filled in on lead for the late great Jerry Garcia. Sorry, no video of the concert unless someone has posted some that I don't know about. But here's a recent Touch of Grey instead.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Real money in Second Life

As things go bad in our first lives, apparently some performers are making money in Second Life. I've spent a lot of time listening to live music. I've spent only a little time in SL, just doing projects for my MBA program, and I must say I don't see the attraction of listening to music in SL. Maybe I'm just Old School, but performances need to be seen live to get the real experience. But, if people can make some extra cash by working as virtual performers, I say good for them.

Monday, April 6, 2009

When the speech reco finally works we'll see...

Is there anything more attention-getting than a software exec gushing about the future when we finally get speech recognition working to perfection? This article in the online Guardian delivers an interview with an unnamed (for obvious reasons) exec at Microsoft who touts virtual secretaries as an application of avatar+speech reco technology. Thanks to Todd Chapin for forwarding this article.

The Guardian reporter is suitable skeptical, which is a nice change from most articles that deal with these sorts of predictions. To get this to work right Microsoft will need to have solved the general AI problem, which is to produce a human-level-or-better intelligence in a machine. If that happens Microsoft won't be wasting its time producing virtual assistants.

When I try to visualize the avatar the exec is talking about, I get an image of the funny Oddcast avatar that I'd written about previously.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Digression: Shakori Hill Grassroots Festival

Here's an unsolicited plug for my favorite music festival of all time, the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival. When I first moved to the area in 2006 I went to the festival, and it was just like meeting old friends. Different obligations kept me from going again in 2007 and 2008, but I look forward to going this year. I mean, Ralph Stanley is the headliner. How can you beat that?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Just because you can write VXML...

...doesn't mean you should. That's what the head of an IVR and system integration company has been known to tell people. There's a lot of specific skills and knowledge required to implement speech systems correctly, beyond simply being able to write code.

When you get it wrong, people post amusing videos of your system on YouTube. Didn't I just say the "press or say" construct won't die? Thanks to Phil Shinn for forwarding this.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Social network analysis - a misapplication

I went to an interesting on social network analysis a few weeks ago. An analyst presented a visual graph of the numbers and types of communication between members of three geographically dispersed work units that were working on the same project. The network showed that peers working in the two groups in the US were communicating regularly. However, there was no communication between peers in the US and the overseas unit, where in fact managers had expected to see communication. The analysis had accurately uncovered a previously-unknown issue.

The analyst had stressed the importance of knowing the context in which the analysis was done. The graphs by themselves weren't of value unless you knew who and what was going on in the project. He wrapped numerous caveats around social network analysis, including some privacy issues.

Here's an unfortunate use of social network analysis being touted by a company that, unsurprisingly, sells data mining services that apparently include social network analysis. Dots and circles and lines on a chart represent employee "performance," as captured by this wholly inadequate tool. The employees with the dark colored circles? "On a relative scale, they don't add a hell of a lot," asserts the CEO of said data mining company. Really? Without knowing what the employee's skills are, their productivity level, their opportunities to contribute? HR departments should start cutting based on this company's little graphs of numbers of phone calls and emails sent?

I hope HR departments are smarter than that. Of course, I've complained about the use of personality testing as an HR tool for selection, but that seems to be making some inroads as well.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Gold Star for service: Kroeger pharmacy

Since I notice (and write about) examples of bad service, it's only fair that I should rave about an example of excellent service I received recently. My daughter had been given a prescription for a penicillin-like drug. The pharmacist at Kroeger noticed on my daughter's record that she'd had an allergic reaction to penicillin previously. She called to tell me about the prescription drug's similarity to penicillin. After talking to the doctor we determined that the drug would be OK. The pharmacist didn't have it in stock, but called around town, and found it at a competing store. She then called me with directions to the other store. Wow. Who does that today? The effort was so exceptional I called the Kroeger store manager with my compliments.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Kindle's text-to-speech function

I know I'm a little late on this story, but the Authors Guild objection to Kindle's text-to-speech function is really absurd. If I buy a book I can read it then share it with my (sighted) spouse and no one will complain. If my spouse is visually impaired then I can't share my book--she has to buy a completely new copy. Sorry, but that's just cruel. In any case text to speech has improved in quality in the last three or so years, but it's still painful to listen to after just a short time. It isn't a credible substitute for a well-recorded audio book. The Authors Guild has picked a bad fight.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The rising popularity of working from home

This work-at-home thing seems to go in cycles, depending on how a company is doing financially. This article in BusinessWeek claims that companies are offering incentives for some workers to stay home and phone it in. Great picture, by the way--very apt. I work at home, and I don't miss the daily commute, or the office politics, one bit.

Keeping the others who inhabit the same space out of the office is sometimes an issue, as this Dilbert strip accurately depicts.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Design anti-patterns: Which Pot of Money?

This is one of the most pernicious problems in organizations. Decision making is often twisted by a single question that stakeholders apply to possible solutions: which pot of money is this coming out of?

To illustrate: I worked on a program to implement desktop applications in the call center of a financial services organization. One business was handed a large pot of money with these words: "Spend this pot of money for your call center. You can run as many projects as you like, but after the pot is empty you must pay for new projects from your own budget. The IT department is at your disposal. Defects or routine maintenance that are required after the applications go in comes from their budget."

The business unit, naturally, wanted to get the maximum amount of functionality onto the desktop as they could before the pot of money was empty, so they opened new projects as fast as they could write the statements of work--at one point the projects kept 15 project managers busy. The B.U. whipped the IT project managers to get the applications released as quickly as possible, secure in the knowledge that money to fix defects wouldn't come out of their budget, but the IT department's. Many PMs were happy to comply, since their performance was evaluated in part based on the number of projects they completed. Post production, requests for new functionality were disguised as "defects" and "routine maintenance," and handed to an overworked non-project service area within IT to implement. It was chaotic.

Of course, there were other considerations the B.U. had for getting applications released quickly. There was a schedule by which it was supposed to earn a profit, for example, and it needed the functionality on the CSRs desktop in order to deliver service to customers. In fact, that was a regular reason given for needing projects done so quickly. But the Which Pot of Money consideration was always there, like an unacknowledged whale shark in a swimming pool.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Telling stories in Second Life

Organizational cultures and sub-cultures was a big topic in my Org Behavior class this semester. Although people within companies often speak of "the company culture" which is determined by its executives, researchers typically find a variety of cultures within a single organization. Each culture has its own assumptions, values, and language, and the differences are sometimes sources of conflict.

Our project this semester was to shoot a video in Second Life that told an organizational story. My team's machinima video attempted to illustrate the differences between engineering and marketing cultures. This "culture clash" has been a rich source of material for Scott Adams, so we freely borrowed from the Dilbert strips, while providing narration based on academic research and our own experiences.

The video lacks in its execution, but was a nice learning experience. Videos like these would be a fast, cheap way to develop prototypes for new services. The prototypes could be viewed by potential customers and their feedback collected prior to giving the demos to managers. That's something I'd like to try to do some day.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Amazon and customer experience

BusinessWeek voted Amazon #1 in customer service for 2008. In this article, Jeff Bezos explains "the distinctions Amazon makes between customer experience and customer service. The latter is only when customers deal with Amazon employees—and Bezos wants that to be the exception rather than the rule."

A few weeks ago I blogged about the book The Best Service is No Service. One of the authors is a former Amazon manager. The book explains in detail Amazon's approach to customer experience--and how it reduces the need for customer service. Great read.

This is a funny thing. The fundamentals of customer experience and customer service are known by all (or could be, if people bothered to read and learn). But few companies are able and willing to execute. The reasons are rarely technical. It often has to do with managers who can't adapt, organizations that are silo'ed, departments that measure and reward the wrong thing. It's organizational, not technical. At this point, everyone has the same technology, so there's no silver bullet that will let companies beat their competition. It really comes down to execution of stuff that we already know how to do. Amazon mostly gets it right. A lot of companies could learn from Amazon.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The audio environment

I've always been an audio guy, if you can't tell from my blog posts. Speech recognition systems and the music digressions, that's most of what I talk about. Fact is, I was an audio recording engineer at several radio stations before I started the speech/psychology thing.

In the 1970s we kept our libraries of sound effects on old scratchy vinyl LPs to use for recording commercials and promos and such. I hadn't thought about that for years until I found this absolutely wonderful website for free sound effects and environmental sounds. I happened to have a need for some background music for a project I'm working on, so this was a nice find.

Royalty Free Music and Sound Effects Download the music and sound effects you need for your multimedia project today at Partners In Rhyme.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"First, tell the caller to do this...."

There's nothing that demonstrates the differences in assumptions between VUI designers and IT or business people than the way they express their ideas for how prompts should be written.
  • "First, tell the caller to do this. Then tell them to do that. Then, they'll pick this option and they'll be where they should be."
That's IT/business speak. "Telling" callers to do things over the phone is a losing proposition. Assuming that they'll follow your cryptic commands isn't reasonable. Usually, they aren't your subordinates, and even if they are they usually aren't compelled to follow your instructions. In fact, you're often dealing with customers who may have the funny idea that YOU should be responsive to THEM.

The assumption that you can tell callers what to do leads to a logical fallacy.
  • If callers obey instruction n they'll obey instruction n + 1.
This leads IT/business types to propose endlessly long dialogs, another assumption being that the caller on the other end of the line has no alternative but to obey instructions. VUI designers know that's not how people operate. At each step in the dialog callers evaluate whether they're getting closer to their goal, and whether it makes more sense to press the magic zero key (or say "agent," or play possum, or press the pound key three times, etc). People aren't calling to make the company's life easier, they're calling to get something--and that thing may be something they've already paid for and you owe them.

You can present the business people with call statistics that show you lose a percentage of callers on every question asked in a dialog, but often the message doesn't sink in. It's a matter of assumptions, and getting people to change unvoiced assumptions is a difficult thing indeed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The "press or say" construct will not die

The "press or say 1" construct for IVR menus was rolled out by AT&T about 15 years ago, when speech recognition was new. There was a "wow" factor at the time, but those days are long gone. Still, I work with companies that feel a need to use this in their own IVRs and I can't understand why. When I ask why this is needed usually the response is "someone else decided this, we're not sure who, we just do project work." So someone high up in the food chain made the decision and we, the lowly consulting company, can't talk to them and try to get the decision changed.

There's no IVR design guild but if there were one it would dedicate itself to iradicating this practice.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

You call this Agile?

I started a small project recently with a company that touts its Agile development process. The assignment was straightforward enough: determine why callers aren't completing what should be a simple registration process using a speech IVR.

A couple of things you probably already know about Agile. If done correctly, it's faster than traditional waterfall methodologies for getting projects completed. It also de-emphasizes the creation of documentation during the project. Of course, after the project is over no one wants to hang around and create documentation from scratch.

So, a week after the start of the project, no one has been able to produce any documentation of the existing system - no grammars, no call flows, nothing. This makes it just a little hard to review. This is one of my least favorite aspects of Agile.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Nuance + IBM speech technology

Here's one that got by me for a few days. Nuance and IBM announced a plan to combine IBM's speech technology with Nuance's. I've blogged previously about IBM's effort to get competitive in speech technology. One of their research managers had said that IBM was working with partners like Vlingo and others, but there was no mention of Nuance.

This is interesting. It seems to signal that IBM has some good technology but no good idea of how to market it. So, it was over to Nuance to bring IBM's technology to market. That's too bad. I was hoping that IBM speech recognition could provide a challenge to Nuance. I don't see that happening now.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Mac's 25th anniversary

Everyone's written an article about the Macintosh computer's 25th birthday, so I don't have anything new to add. Just to say that it was a great leap forward not just in computing, but in recognition that intuitive, easy to use, attractive user interfaces really matter.

Just a couple of years earlier, in 1982, I'd started to learn to program in Cobol on a large creaking mainframe--"real" computing, we used to tell ourselves. At the same time I learned to program in Basic on a TRS 80 Model III with 16K memory and a cassette tape player for storing programs. Man, the Mac just destroyed peoples' idea of what a micro should look like. Trouble was, I couldn't afford it, and settled for a cheap, underpowered PC clone. My mistake.

I bought a Performa in the mid 90s. It was a huge disappointment. It was sluggish and featureless, and the monitor quit within about a year. I never went back to Mac after that, but I still like them, and I appreciate what Apple was able to do.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Snow day

We had about 2 or 3 inches of snow last night and today. In central N.C., that means everything shuts down, including the universities. That's a lot different from, say, central Illinois, where it takes a blizzard to close schools and people are expected to make it to work on snowshoes. I missed my marketing class, which was a shame. I'm taking marketing and services management this semester in my MBA program at NC State. If every things goes according to plan I'll graduate in December.

Of course, not everyone thinks an MBA is the best way to improve one's life.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Telephone etiquette and VUI guidelines

A lot has been written on the topic of persona and best practices for designing voice user interfaces. Here's an early Bell Systems manual that tells you just about all you need to know. Thanks to Crispin Reedy for forwarding this.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The fabulous Georgia Aquarium

My family and I spent a wonderful three hours at the fabulous Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta recently. Talk about a well designed user experience. It was awesome. Where else can you walk through a glass corridor and see whale sharks swimming above you?

Here's a webcam of the main underwater habitat. See if you can spot the manta ray, the hammerhead shark, or one of the four whale sharks.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Re-inventing the wheel is usually a bad idea

In the marketing battle between form and function, form too often wins. The Onion shows what happens when a hot interface is pasted onto the wrong device to do the wrong thing. Thanks to Jonathan Bloom for forwarding this item.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Remarks on The Best Service Is No Service

The Best Service is No Service (2008) by Bill Price and David Jaffe is a wonderful book about how to improve customer service. Their ideas are simple in concept but difficult to implement properly. The idea is this. If companies understand why customers contact them they should be able to identify "triggers" for inbound contacts. If companies proactively contact their customers with information that customers want then they should be able to eliminate a large proportion of inbound contacts.

Most of the book gives solid advice on how to implement this seemingly simple idea. It also points out some of the difficulties that companies will encounter, one being that the business area that is catching all the incoming flak - the customer service area - has little organizational pull in getting effective incoming contact mitigation implemented.

I work at the IVR and contact center end of customer service, and I can vouch for the fact that a lot of incoming calls could be prevented simply by communicating more effectively with customers - giving them information they need before they call and ask. Companies are just dying for design approachs to customer service, and this book is a good place to start.