Hiring the Right Software

Monday, March 28, 2011

Found this today in a book on interface design. I don't think that I could have possibly given a better metaphor for how we should think about our users when we're doing interface design.

I, like many people (whether they realize it or not), tend to “hire” software the same way I would hire a person. I look for certain qualities, like a helpful nature, reliability, trustworthiness, and other things I’d expect to find in a good Boy Scout. Mostly, I look for software that can get work done in a smart and timely fashion so I can feel productive as a result of having hired the software – just what I’d want in a prospective employee. I look for characteristics that make me say “Hey, you’re swell. I’d like to work with you, take you under my wing, and invite you over for brunch. Come, join me in a game of Parcheesi.”

Software, however, often interrupts me while I’m working, tells me I’ve made a mistake, refuses to help out in a useful way when I get stuck, spends a lot time revealing things about how it works instead of simply telling me the job is done, and exhibits many other behaviors I find undesirable in employees. But usual I’m stuck with it. I can’t find a way to live without the product because it’s so valuable to my work, for whatever reason. I can’t simply trade it in for something that may or may not be better, so I suffer through it. I yell at it, procrastinate dealing with it, and complain about it, but I live with it. This, of course, bugs me to no end.

Designing the Obvious, Robert Hoekman Jr.

Really like the metaphor here. Every time I help people look for ways to implement technology as a tool to help make their lives more efficient, I find that a similar conversation has been playing out in my head. If more people start thinking about the end user of the software "hiring" it to do a job and working on making the software shine as that "employee" we'd all have a lot fewer frustrated users.

Confusing the tool implementation with the solution.

Monday, August 31, 2009

I don't know how many times I've come across the situation where people describe their technology problem by stating the solution they've arrived at. "I'll be all set, once I learn to use product X."

It's frustrating because I think by and large, people in my line of work do a perfectly miserable job understanding how to help people get their work done with technology. We get settled in so quickly on what the solution is that is pitched to us, that we never get at what the problem is.

I find this to be never so true as when we talk about social media. People have completely confused the tools with the concept. I blogged a while back about how we'll look on twitter as a fad like CB radio in a couple of years. It's not because it's a bad idea, or because social media doesn't have staying power. Social media has a lot of staying power. It's helping to even out what had been a gender gap on the Internet. It's become easier and simpler than ever to keep a wide network of people up to date with what is happening in your life. But connecting the dots and proclaiming that twitter will change the world is a rather large leap. What will change is the way people communicate and see your brand. It will be dictated by social media. Much the same way it always had before we had mass media. Having an experience that was wildly popular or unpopular with your brand and communicating it with your family and friends has always had a stronger impact than advertising. What's changed hasn't been the underlying human behavior, it's been the ease of which that experience can be communicated, searched, and retold.

The problem we're trying to solve is how can I communicate to the world at large, specifically the people who are interested in what I'm saying, more effectively?

Is that answer twitter? Well, for now, maybe. But there are problems with the underlying architecture. Maybe I want to tweet my location, but only to my family. Or maybe I want to share a picture of the office building, but only to a group of co-workers. These are obvious extensions of the functionality. Things that people discover they want after they've been in the tool for a while. Things you don't know that you're going to need when "You have to get on Twitter!"

I use the metaphor of a sixteen year old wanting a new car. Yes, they can drive the car, and yes they are absolutely certain of what they need in the car. They will vigorously defend the things that they think they need. But by the time they are twenty five, they will have discovered that the things they thought they needed at sixteen were absolutely unimportant.

Social media is another wave in being able to communicate more effectively with the people around us. The technology around it will continue to innovate. It will discover methods to implement status tagging so that you can define your followers into groups of who can see what. It will allow you to define feeds of information that you are interested in being told about, but aren't interested in talking back to.

The problem for Twitter is that Facebook has the groundwork in terms of technology to execute on those sorts of improvements. All that Facebook needs to eat Twitter's lunch is option to expose status feeds to the general public. And if you followed the mistaken release of a new beta flavor of Facebook, you'll see that's something they are getting ready to roll out.

Want to be ahead of your customer's expectations? Start to listen to what the pain points are for them. What are the things you'd wish you could do. If my time in the brand management group taught me anything, it was a new-found respect for the work in discovering the unmet and under met needs of the customer. That's all about asking the right questions, not about shoving a solution at them.

Listen Attentively, Test Constantly, Fail Fast, Learn Quickly.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One of the things I've really been enjoying about my job here at Kroll is how we're structured to run software development projects. As I interviewed here, I made it a point to give examples of projects I'd been involved in that had come in on time and on budget. Because, in general, I had found at my old place that that was an exceptional result.

Not so in my new work life. There is a dedication to process and excellence in work output that I've not previously encountered in my career in IT and software development. Granted, points of brilliance can always generate good results, but here it's wired in. If I bring a project in on time and on budget, it's not all that exceptional really. The system drives the result.

However, in some ways my role here as a development manager is a little different from some of the other development managers here. Our team is charged with developing an internal tool that can respond quickly to changing needs. To do that, we've done some hybridizing of the Kroll OnTrack software process. We shorten our cycles and work with more of an agile mindset, although to be fair, we're not actually following the agile process to the letter.

How is it different and better?

A lot of companies understand the need to do requirement gathering. Some even do it adequately. The role of the testing here, I think, is the critical component that most companies miss. Testing is something a lot of companies have their developers do, or their end users. It's a mistake.

Developers who test their code, test their code for mistakes that they expect. The inputs they don't expect and haven't coded for aren't going to be tested. If they had expected the input, they would have already coded for it. Sure, developers should test their code, but it's only going to scratch the surface on how your users will actually use the application.

End users, in general, make lousy testers. A couple of reasons for that. One, they already have a day job to do. Running multiple scenarios through your test system isn't on their list of important things to do today. They are much more likely to not even test some of the things you need tested until it's in production. By then, it's a fire drill to fix it, AND you have the added publicity of a bad launch.

Having a dedicated group of testers who work with your development team to unit test the application code, build test cases, and develop user scenarios catches bugs early in the process. They can be fixed as part of the normal development cycle and then released working and whole to your end users.

The problem is that it's not always easy for the people who manage your budgets to understand the value. But that's a subject for another entry.

Connecting to your customer on-line

Monday, September 29, 2008

If you're determined to try to make your connection with your customers on-line and your website isn't ready, you can still do it. At a previous employer, we heard a pitch from a web marketing team for all sorts of user generated content and a vibrant community that would then exist on the website. My reaction at the time, was maybe we didn't understand our customer as well as we wanted to believe. While we were absolute zealots for our products, most of the people who bought them saw them as a commodity. Why would they come to my site to talk about them? They are much more likely to show up at homedepot.com or lowes.com and talk about them there. You can take advantage of that. Ask your customers how they found you on-line, then engage them there!

I'll give you an example.

As a parent of two children, I can identify as a customer for diapers. Many, many diapers. But not once did I ever consider or even remotely think about registering at Pampers.com or Huggies.com or even at Target.com to learn about my child's development. It never once occurred to me. But surf on over to the My Pampers.com site and there it is. For all I know, it might be full of really good information about my toddler. Where did I end up? Babycenter.com It already had a hub of parents exchanging information and letting me learn about my child's development.

I'm sure when they had the strategy meeting to put together a wonderfully constructed site for the myPampers site, they talked about exactly the issues that might be important to me. They probably had a guy like me in their customer persona. But it's a waste of money. What would have been a lot smarter, would have been to go to the sites where parents are already looking for information and offer yourself up as an expert. So when a parent asks on babycenter.com about how to choose diapers, you're right in there, helping educate them and helping them make a decision. Right here as a matter of fact, where babycenter.com has a community section.

Selling locks? Write the installation guide for homedepot.com and lowes.com. Heck make one that you can let independent Ace hardware owners refer to. You don't need to spend your money looking to attract people to your social media on your website if they are already predisposed to look for it in an existing social media hub. The whole point of a social media website is that people can educate each other about products, services, and experiences in their life. Why recreate the wheel if someone else who's product neutral has already built it for you? Use a search engine to watch the site for changes, your products being mentioned, even your competitor's products being mentioned.

Then get in there and act the role of a professional, right in your customer's living room asking you a question in a subject where you're an expert. How delighted will your customer be then?

Predicting Trends on the Internet

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Interesting story on Reuters about how the search requests on the Internet are changing. This quote in particular stood out to me.

Tancer, general manager of global research at Hitwise, an Internet tracking company, said one of the major shifts in Internet use in the past decade had been the fall off in interest in pornography or adult entertainment sites.

He said surfing for porn had dropped to about 10 percent of searches from 20 percent a decade ago, and the hottest Internet searches now are for social networking sites.

"As social networking traffic has increased, visits to porn sites have decreased," said Tancer, indicated that the 18-24 year old age group particularly was searching less for porn.

"My theory is that young users spend so much time on social networks that they don't have time to look at adult sites."

I'm a fan of the technologies that we see coming up on websites now. The ability for the web to adjust and get instant feedback from its users via comments and other user generated content is a powerful tool. However, sometimes I think we as people in the industry get a little excited about what we think we know.

Take a look at this report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (2005). Some of its key findings...

A wide-ranging look at the way American women and men use the internet shows that men continue to pursue many internet activities more intensively than women, and that men are still first out of the blocks in trying the latest technologies.

At the same time, there are trends showing that women are catching up in overall use and are framing their online experience with a greater emphasis on deepening connections with people.

I'm wondering if the rise of social media is perhaps a result of the fact that more women are on the Internet (as a percentage) then ever before, and their interests on-line closely align with the types of activities that social networking promotes.

I still think that connecting your employees, listening to your customers, and letting your suppliers have even better insight into how you are marketing your products is a good thing. But it's a dangerous thing to hitch your wagon to the next great wave on the Internet. If your website already is content rich, now is a fantastic time to start weaving in social media to your website. However if you know your user comments are going to mostly be "Your website sucks!" and "Why can't I find this product on your website?" then that is where you need to focus.

User generated content sounds fantastic, because from far enough way, it sounds like you get content without having to spend the time and resources to generate it yourself. But committing to social media tools on your website means that you will end up spending more time and effort on your website than ever before. Because now you have to react at light speed to the corrections, comments, and outright complaints that your users will generate.

What do you do if you are determined to connect via social networks now to your customers? Hey, that's a good thing, and you can do it even if your website isn't ready. I'll talk about that in a later blog post.

Metadata does a website good.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Maybe you remember that old tag line from the dairy industry here in the US. The advert claimed that "Milk does a body good."

Metadata on the web has a checkered past. Back when I was starting to put up websites in the mid '90s, Metadata tags, embedded in your webpage was what search crawlers used to help determine how significant a particular piece of content was to a website. So you'd overload your meta tags on a piece of HTML to completely spam the page with the terms you wanted to be ranked highly on. It quickly became worthless as everyone would work to put whatever the hot search terms were as metadata, even if the page didn't relate to that subject at all.

So why are we talking about metadata again? A picture is worth a thousand words.

That's United Airlines stock. You can't help but notice that they took a very hard hit on Monday. That's because there was a news story out that they were close to declaring bankruptcy. Unfortunately for the good shareholders and employees of UAL, that story had been dredged up from earlier this decade on a Florida newspaper's website. Google news saw that it was getting a lot of links and play and picked it up, bringing it to the front page for millions of people. Once it started to drop, in rolled the automatic sells and voila, you have the making of a very bad day.

A mistake. But for UAL stockholders and employees, not all that funny. The stock, even after recovering most of it's value that same day, is still trading over 10% lower than it was. That's a lot of value to lose because of an old news story being mistakenly played as current.

That's where metadata comes in. If the Florida newspaper's website had used metadata to tag each of its news stories with a "published date" the crawler could have known to safely ignore that story. Hell, the newspaper could have even built their own crawler to stamp the archived content with simple metadata pieces of information like "Last Published" and "Written By". Metadata can be held in a separate data structure that can then be joined to the content by the publishing system so that you're not having to reconstruct old legacy systems. If you're building a new content system for the web, it's a fantastically powerful tool to allow your users to see things like related content, manuals for your products, aftermarket items that connect to the product you are looking at, service programs for the product, etc.

Got an old stale site? It doesn't take much to wrap a metadata system around it to allow you to be able to flag content. If you've got the content quality at a high enough level, you can even offer to let your web viewers help you tag some of the content groupings. Good luck!

When You Shouldn't Blog

Monday, September 8, 2008

I've worked most of my career in manufacturing and distribution companies. Typically these are companies that are slow to new trends in Information Technology. For instance, I had the privilege of being able to put in the first e-mail system for a $100m distributor back in the mid 90s as well as drop in their website. I've also recently been involved in helping another company try to consolidate their brand presence on-line. In the rush to "get on the web" sometimes companies make strategic errors.

The core of these errors is forgetting the cardinal rule of the web. Content is king. It's not the volume of content that one pushes out or we'd all be so much happier with the volume of spam we receive. It's the content that fulfills three requirements: content that is accurate, relevant, and timely (ART) to the end user.

Think of it, you have spam filters in your email clients to try to use a Bayesian filter to make sure you never have to read email that isn't accurate, relevant, and timely to you. With the migration of web content into digg, delicious, and RSS feeds, you are starting to see some of those same ideas about how to filter content done by humans. It won't be long before you see your web browsers using search engines and your surfing history to suggest stories and sites you might find interesting. Similar to Amazon's recommendation engine, but with your web surfing as input.

So if you're blogging all the time for your company, but you struggle for content to write about that you feel your customers want to read, then you have a problem. You're drowning your signal in noise. Instead, it's important that your customer can expect a certain level of quality and topic consistency. Is your blog about you, or is it about your product, or a topic of interest.

Related, maybe you don't want to be blogging at all. I've found this column by Jakob Nielsen so insightful, that on the strength of it I went to one of his usability conferences. Jakob's point is that given the ease of blogging, and the standard distribution of quality that blog posts will have, it's sometimes better to write an article and let the blogs point to you. (And as I've blogged about his article, you can see it can work.)

Basically, if you are the acknowledged expert on a particular subject, blogging actually detracts from your status as the expert. On any given subject, many people will blog. Some number of them will communicate it better than you, even if they aren't as educated on the topic. And by coming into the blogsphere to write about your expertise, you actually remove part of your expertise.

So my recommendation to you? Blog. But blog with a purpose, not a deadline. If you're writing on your expertise, make the blog post meaty enough to be an article. Give your viewers something solid enough that they always see your posts as high value and worth reading.