Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Old Skoolin With Cassettes

I had this big box of cassette tapes of old recordings from the last 40 years of my life. It took me almost a month of working here and there, but I’ve digitized them all. Before I could even begin, I had to purchase a new cassette deck, after finding that my old one from 10 years ago stopped working. The stereo store had one left in a back office that they sold to me for $50 (originally sold for $350).

It was really strange. It brought back all kinds of sensations of the experience of working with cassette tapes. When fast forwarding through songs, you used to get this knack for knowing when to stop and play, listening to the magnetic heads drop down to touch the oxide strip. You’d also have to guesstimate how much music you could get on each side before running out of tape. I remembered having to deal with them in my car, and how sometimes the tape would get stuck in the stereo and you’d have to finesse it out.

So now, everything on the tapes is now in MP3 format on my computer and iPod. I can forward through dozens of recordings in seconds, create playlists and shuffle them. How spoiled we are.

Here is some fruits of my labor:

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Invisible Computer Generation: Results From The Circuits of Cool/Digital Playground Study

It's been almost 10 years since Donald Norman wrote, "The Invisible Computer." His core principles still hold true, and putting humans at the core of a product lifecycle is as important as it has ever been. It is interesting though, to look back on this book though with a generation that has grown up with technologies that did not exist at that time.

Last week Microsoft and Viacom published a report they did with 18,000 8-24 year olds in 16 countries. "The Circuits of Cool/Digital Playground" report shows that role of technology is now an invisible, organic part of this generation. Only 20% of those surveyed say they were interested in technology, while almost all say they couldn’t live without it. They are constantly on their cell phones and internet creating deeper, closer relationships with others. They don’t look at computers as people did ten years ago. Computers are just another means to communicate as the telephone was before them.

Look at the technologies that they have at their fingertips today that were part of the report:

  • Internet
  • Email
  • PC
  • TV
  • Mobile
  • IM
  • Cable and Satellite TV
  • DVD
  • MP3
  • Stereo
  • Digital Cameras
  • Social Networks
  • Online and Offline Videogames
  • CDs
  • HDTV
  • VHS
  • Webcams
  • MP4 players
  • DVR/PVRs
  • Hand-held game consoles

Here is what I had available to me while growing up:

  • TV
  • Cable TV
  • Stereo
  • Videogames

Do Merlin and Mattel's Classic Football count as a handheld game consoles? I don't think I’ve ever seen them cited as technology gadgets in any reports before, so I’ll leave them off.

What I find really interesting is that while most companies don't follow Norman's human-centered development process and for the most part don’t produce user-friendly products, they have still become organic or invisible to the younger generation. How will this influence product lifecycle methodology in years to come?

Here are some interesting findings from the report:

  • 100% of those surveyed said they communicate every time they go online
  • Top IM topics for 14-24s are gossiping (62%), making arrangements (57%), talking about the opposite sex (57%) and flirting (55%), work or school (54%), and TV and music (52%)
  • Youth audiences also want more control of what they watch and when they want it: They expect content to be on all platforms - mobile, computer and TV - and they want it to be searchable and increasingly expect it to be supplied on demand and online
  • Almost 60% of all young people prefer TV to computer
  • The term "web 2.0" is used by very few people (8%) outside China.
  • 16% admitted to using the phrase "social networking"
  • Friends influence each other as much as marketers do. Friends are as important as brands.
  • Despite the plethora of new communicating tools, a majority in almost every nation expressed a preference for meeting in person; Japanese, Chinese, Poles and Germans scored higher than others when it came to wanting to communicate online; only Chinese youth actually expressed a majority preference for texting over face-to-face meetings

Here is a detailed overview of the findings done by MarketingCharts.

Friday, July 27, 2007

When Technology Takeovers Impact User Experience

I had a Flickr account. I don't know if I do anymore. It seems that Yahoo is trying to merge Flickr and Yahoo user id's. This is two years after they’ve purchased Flickr for $54 Million. With that many zeroes and timeline, you'd think they'd integrate nicely and create a good user experience. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to follow their instructions so I can't login. I feel as if I'm pretty savvy when it comes to the web, so either I’m now unsavvy or this process is facockt.

It turns out I'm not alone, and I'm not as bad off as others:

...My yahoo account and flickr were merged just fine. Now they are not. I cannot explain it. And when I try to sign in, it sends me to yahoo. Round and round I go. I call yahoo, they tell me to call flickr and give me a phone number that doesn't work. I email flickr and they were kind enough to send me an automated reply promising to get back to me within three days. *stab*

...I have tried various logins and the one login that works only works for Yahoo!. This then tells me that I can merge my Yahoo account with my Flickr account. Only I can't. It doesn't recognise the details that I enter for Flickr.

... So I now have... no account? I try the help files. No luck with any term including the word "Flickr." I could set up a new account, of course, and start from scratch. Bonus points: no contact with Yahoo. So what to do now? Is my Flickr account, years of work, now inaccessible to me? Is anyone from Yahoo listening?

...So, then there is also a message. That you can create a new account. But it is not possible to use the same ID. I remember that I started 2 years ago with a different name on Flickr ‘trendgevoelig' So after struggling for an hour I made a fatal mistake. I connected a new account ‘trendgevoelig' to my Yahoo account. So there it happened. A new completely empty account to my Yahoo ID.

Follow-up from the same guy here.

One interesting thing I found on the Flickr blog itself posted over 2 years ago is them trying to address a lot of concerns they thought people would have from the Yahoo takeover. Sad thing is they knew people feared these things would happen, they promised us that they wouldn't happen, and of course they have. For example:

Do I have to have a Yahoo ID to use Flickr?
No. In the future, you'll be able to log into Flickr using your Yahoo account, but you can continue logging on as before. – If only this were true! Sad that they knew this would be an issue two years ago and still screwed it up.

I liked Flickr BEFORE you even heard of it!
You shall be recognized for your discerning taste in web sites!! I bet you also liked the Flaming Lips before they appeared on Beverly Hills 90210, and for that we salute you. Pro account holders will get super mega bonuses, to be announced soon. – Super mega bonuses? How about just being able to manage my photos?

But I never upgraded!
Free accounts will have more storage and uploads – pro accounts too — AND they'll be cheaper. – Not true. You are limited to a certain number of photo sets. Even worse, if you had a Pro account and move to a free account, you can no longer access those files.

Flickr's tagline is "Flickr Loves You." I don't need to be loved by Flickr, I just want to login. Picasa web albums are not as good, but at least they let me log in. Web 2.0, take me away! (Web 2.0 is the new Calgon). I'm Fckt.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Elastic Term: User Experience

I read this article by Radialpoint about a survey they conducted. It was titled, "Survey Indicates Most Consumers Seek Better User Experience for Internet Services." No shit. I feel like there are more and more articles like this, containing quotes like these:

Nearly half of respondents indicated that they would be more likely to stay with their ISP if their ISP provided a better user experience to discover, acquire, and use these services on an ongoing basis.

Only half? Imagine if they defined what that "better user experience" was. Maybe 125% of the respondents would be happy to stay. I bet you could do a lot with that data point.

Garrison Keillor once offered his thoughts on the defecatory habits of bears to the U.S. Forestry Service. He did so after hearing that the U.S. Department of Education spent $750,000 on a study to learn if looking at art is good for schoolchildren. I'm going to patent the concept that all people want better user experience. Please pay me a small stipend instead of asking this question in your next survey.

User Experience, the term, has become elastic. Just as UX Designfolk quite often fight against Alan Cooper's elastic user, we now have to work hard to define what UX is. People are using it for so many things, and they are all seeking to expand or enhance it. It is now a big huge bucket for all those things that are hard to define when it comes to customers interacting with a product. A problem is that people don't go that extra mile to attempt to define it. It's become like the term "organic." It's hard to define but everyone accepts it as a good thing. Label any food organic and you can immediately charge more for it and people will accept it.

Maybe this is the result of it being a buzzword these days. Maybe it is easier for people to consume than usability or ethnography. Is it sexier? The new Black? One thing for sure is that we now have The Elastic Term to deal with: User Experience.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sensory User Experience

My April issue of Wired Magazine was shoved under some kid stuff so I didn't get to read it until yesterday. There was this article by Sunny Bains on how the brain processes sensory data and can adapt to new inputs. There were examples in the article of people using their tongue to sense images or objects, and others wearing things that lets you constantly sense where magnetic north pole is. Yet another test was something that pilots can wear that allows them to avoid spatial disorientations by giving them an alternative method of sensing 'down.' Most of the participants in these studies had lingering effects of the tests even when the sensory devices were removed.

Most of us in user experience design don't work with tongue input devices, but we do come across customers that have used software for a long time. These users develop a similar sort of sensitivity that goes way beyond the screen. There will come a time when the software will need to evolve, and there will be an inability to transfer these sensitivities to new designs without the same investment it took to become aware of input as they had with the old screens. In all the examples in the Wired article it took time for the brain to adjust to the new input. This has nothing to do with intuitive user interface design. That can grease the wheels, but there is something we should be more aware of when it comes to software design that is not visual. It reminds me of people that have practiced guitar to the point of not having to look at the frets, or how you know where your light switch is in your bedroom even in complete darkness. How can we harness this extra sense in the design process?

The Department of Defense Holds Contests Instead of Innovates

The United States Department of Defense is offering $1 Million to anyone who can lighten the current backpack for U.S. troops. The current backpack is bogged down mainly by 20 – 40 pounds of batteries to power all the latest tech gadgets they carry. These outweigh ammunition in most cases, which speaks volumes. To win the money you have to design a powerpack that weighs 8.8 pounds or less and carry enough power for 4 days. Second prize is $500,000 and third is $250,000.

Throw in the cost to have the 5 day event in the fall and you are easily over $2 Million for this project. Why couldn't you put that money into salaries for people to work on this stuff full time? Why do we as a society covet the story of the amateur winning the big prize, toiling away in his garage for weeks? Why don't we adore making this a part of the actual design process? Is it that is seems like wasteful spending because you can't connect the dots easily on spreadsheets for your annual reports?

I blogged about NASA doing this at the beginning of the month. Seeing the Department of Defense do it didn’t sit right with me in a time of war. We should have people innovating and being paid for it full-time, especially while there is such a high cost for not doing it. Why aren't we dedicating resources to this instead of holding contests for amateurs? How many people are we eliminating from this design process because they have to have a job and can't work on this in their spare time? This may be the price we are paying for American Idolatry.

UPDATE: The winner announced today. So where does innovation come from for the U.S. Military? Germany! Read all about it

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bunnyfoot: User Experience Getting More of the Lionshare

I just read this article that connects the dots from customer experience to bottom line. While obvious to user experience folk, corporate culture has to be bashed over the head for this to sink in. Bunnyfoot has a survey report on Usability and User Experience that touches on where organizations are dedicating resources. They say that 72% of companies surveyed are increasing what they spend on website usability in the coming year. That works out to 13% of the design budget. Not surprising is seeing brand darlings Amazon, Google and the BBC regarded as the best in user experience.

Here is what these companies view as major benefits of usability:

  • Improved perceptions of brand
  • Increased conversion rates
  • Greater customer loyalty and retention
  • Increased customer advocacy
  • Increased traffic
  • Improved search rankings

It's nice to hear this from them instead of preaching it to them. Over half of these companies used outside consultants to improve the user experience. It was also interesting to note that the biggest barrier to not delivering the best possible user experience is time. I wish there was some powerful example out there that shows how much you gain with relatively little time dedicated to a better user experience. It’s hard to budge deployment dates with stories about a better user experience, but development or hardware issues usually are able to do so.

It would be interesting to see where these companies place usability in the design process and where it lives in the food chain. It sounds like a lot of this goes on well past the idea phase.

You can download the sample report here. The entire report costs $179.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Grindhouse: Innovative Planet Terror and Prudent Death Proof

In the April 2007 issue of Wired magazine there is an interview with director Robert Rodriguez. He talks about trying to convince Quentin Tarantino to shoot his half of Grindhouse digitally. Rodriguez takes footage from Sin City and From Dusk Till Dawn and degrades the quality to make it look like a old film. Tarantino was blown away and says, "All right. You win." Unfortunately, Quentin did what he knew even though Robert showed him proof that he could do it a better way.

I've seen this happen many times in Technology. A new and better way of developing and delivering things comes out, but in order to implement it would require major changes on many levels from the top down. Who will take this risk? Most don’t, as Quentin didn't.

This often isn't about technology choices solely. To innovate in the space of customer experience requires dedicating resources and time to things that are not guaranteed to show a return immediately. Upper management just cancelled 13 projects just because of my last comment.

It is very difficult to get people to change. Add risk to the equation and your chances to see change just became drastically lower. If Quentin isn't biting, how can you expect the Volvo-driving senior manager to do so?

Wisdom of The King of Queens

Over the weekend I was watching a New York Mets game. Kevin James and Adam Sandler joined the booth announcers to promote their new movie, "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry." During the typical, trite promotional banter, Kevin James was asked about his golf game. He said that there is a relationship between his golf game and his career. When one is going well, the other suffers. I feel the same about my blog. There is one good thing which is different than the King of Queens star's dilemma. I don't think Kevin's golf game helps his acting career, but I know that my blogging energies are recharged as busy projects come to an end.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

This Summer, Canadians Will Lounge With Nice Cans

Coke is unveiling a new can design that goes back to its “roots”. Marketing folks use words like “timeless elements” and “taking people back to what they love about Coke and present it in a fresh way”. This also marks the total phase out of the word “Classic” on the can which was introduced after the “New Coke” fiasco. Here is a history of the can design. They are going to use paint vs. red aluminum. I wonder which one is cheaper?

At the same time, there is a Diet Coke pop-culture tour going on in Canada to celebrate 25 years of Diet Coke. The “Diet Coke Lounge” will be making its way across Canada stopping at select shopping centers and malls. There will be interactive displays, memorabilia and lots of ice-cold Diet Coke. Seriously. Who thought this up?

By the way, Coke stopped using sugar in 1984, replacing it with high fructose corn syrup. If you are in Mexico though, they still use good old sugar.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

This Is How It All Started

I was going through a bunch of pictures of my kids when I stumbled across one that caught my eye. I remember this look. I had it when I played Pong and Atari and Intellivison and Colecovision and Every gaming console since then. This led me to composing music on an Amiga in college and setting type on my Mac SE in Adobe Illustrator 88. Now there are iPhones and blogs and YouTube. I wonder where all this will lead her and her sister?

Improve The Customer Experience By Terminating The Customer Experience

This story has been all over the place. Sprint is getting rid of customers that call them too much. Here is what Sprint spokeswoman Roni Singleton said:
"If the average person is calling less than once per month and these people are calling 40 or 50 times more, that takes away from customer service," Singleton said. "Our priority is to improve the customer experience."

Excellent spin. Is this Sprint utilizing a Darwinian approach to customer retention? We know what it costs for companies to attain customers. Now we know what it costs to attain bitchy, cantankerous customers. I haven't been able to find the content of these calls. I've only seen the numbers that Sprint saves by cancelling their service. Were they really just annoying cows?

What made this story interesting to me is that recently I had to deal with Cingular, many times. Cingular has left voicemails on my cell for the last month telling me to contact them. Every time I do, they tell me they don't know why I was contacted. Nothing wrong with the account whatsoever. But every day or so, I'd get another message saying for me to call them. I must have called them 15 times. Would I be a candidate for cancellation if this was Sprint?

It turns out that Cingular, like so many companies, has multiple databases that don't talk nicely to each other. Someone at Cingular had mistakenly put my cell phone number into another customer's data as their home phone. This other person was late on their bill, so when they tried to contact them they accidentally called me. Over and over. This would never have been solved by the brilliant Cingular database technology unless I was lucky enough one day to answer the call before it went to voice mail. At that point they had the other person's data on the screen and we could close the case.

I clearly couldn't be the only person this has happened to with Cingular. How much does this error cost Cingular a year? You would think that if the cost was so much that it forced Sprint to cancel customers that it is substantial. I guess it is OK if it is their technology mistake versus me being a crankypants.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

What Happened to Good Old Coffee Machines? The Flavia Creation 400 Drinks Station

What is that thing with the fancy lights and buttons where the coffee maker used to be next to the bottle of Fantastik? [Cue the heavenly music like in The Simpsons opening] This is the brand new coffee machine! A Creation 400 Drinks Station by Flavia. Look...It has a screen that tells me things! I now have "over 30 drinks to inspire my imagination!" [If only someone had told procurement to order 30 types of drinks this would be heaven...wah wah] Coffees, Teas, Indulgence, Chocolates, Wellbeing, and Even More Choices too! It reminds me to "Catch that aroma of prefect freshly brewed coffee" and to "Enjoy my drink!" just in case I may have forgotten. It also has a lovely loading animation while the little bag is spitting coffee into my cup. Wait – [Cue the needle scratching across the record sound] Loading animation? Don't they use those things on websites when things take too long to do something? OK...the honeymoon is over.

There are people that post slideshows of their Flavia experience. Flavia has a "myflavia.com" website with demo flash animations. Flavia uses language like this to describe the experience:

The new 'funky' look combines an almost retro feel with modern ergonomics
  • It moves FLAVIA away from the more 'industrial' and functional presentation typical of hot drinks systems
  • Its stylish design compliments any office and follows through the FLAVIA family of drinks stations
  • Specially designed to suggest choice
  • Stimulates with a welcoming, easy and fun to use interface

OK...so now I am feeling like the guy who walked 10 miles uphill with no legs to get to school when he was a kid. Remember when you used to take a filter and real coffee and put it into one of those machines that basically had a couple burners and a hot water dispenser? No directions needed. A couple red switches and lights and you were good to go. It took as long as it took to brew.

The old Bunn machine used to create stories and personas. There were those who would be heroic and always put on a fresh pot to brew. Some would do it and bitch about the ones who would just take coffee and never make any for others. There were times when you were running late for a meeting but had just enough time to get a fresh pot brewing and you had that great feeling of helping out others while having a nice cup to look forward to after the meeting. So what that your choices were basically coffee or tea? Did we really want this many choices to basically throw caffeine into our system to help get through the day? [Check out this video Barry Schwartz speaking at Google on this topic] Now, we each get our own cup brewed fresh every time and don't ever have to think about anyone else. We don't even have to talk to anyone else in the coffee room anymore. We can talk to the Creation 400.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Web 2.0 Social Tools Working Well on ABCNews.com...To Depress Me.

I know sex sells, but it's still sad to see that on ABCNews.com's new social features how people are more interested in an all-female beach than the other top 5 stories combined. People left 76 comments on the buxom beach story, but only 66 comments were left in total on the other top five stories including the UK terror situation, the pregnant woman mother, and the devastation left behind by the flooding from Kansas to Texas. Sorry snapshot of where our interests lie. Ignorance may have been bliss here.

Midnight Discoveries Not Happening In Your Cube

There was an interesting article in the New York Times this weekend about people that take part in mad scientist competitions thrown by institutions such as NASA. Peter K. Homer, an unemployed man, was one of those searchers for the elusive eureka moment who won one of these competitions. In the article by Jack Hitt, he talks about the "outside inventor" and their place in America's folklore:

NASA is banking on the idea that a renascence of technological ingenuity is just a treasure chest away. The hope is that the lure of the prize will attract another bright-faced inventor out there like Charles Lindbergh, a guy who tinkered with the tradeoffs of weight, fuel, speed and route to jigger a plane that could make it to Paris on a single tank. He so profoundly changed the public's perception of flight that international commercial air travel soon followed.

So why does NASA and many corporations have to look outside their organization in order to innovate? Is it built into us as Americans? Is that what the key and the kite story did to us? It makes you think of companies that are innovation example darlings like YouTube, Google and Apple. All of these type of stories have origins in a garage or a dorm room that make their stories more compelling, like the key and the kite we learned as children.

Why don't corporations inspire the same type of midnight discoveries that these competitions do? An unemployed man from Maine has a lot more to lose than someone making a salary. Then again, a lot of valid reasons come to mind as to why he has the advantage. Peter Homer built his prototype on a Singer sewing machine. A corporation might have not approved the expense for such a tool. Peter may have had his Outlook calendar filled up with status meetings and had a lot of bureaucracy to deal with that he didn't in his home. Having a eureka moment at midnight is also probably not going to happen in your cube. Peter is in a more comfortable place to innovate at all hours. There is also the chance at winning a treasure chest of money. Corporations own you and your ideas, and there usually isn't a treasure chest to be found.

Peter also didn't have to just discover a great new idea. He had to come up with a process to innovate. Most companies don't have product lifecycles that lend themselves to innovation. Also, if innovation happens in the lifecycle where it isn't intended, it actually could cause a disruption. If you design an interface for a product in the middle of the overall process, you now would have to rewrite test scripts, business requirements, functional specifications, technical documentation, etc. Are you a hero or a pain in the ass that has just caused a lot of people to redo work?

Monday, July 2, 2007

iPhone Post

Testing blogging capabilities from the iPhone. Don't have much to say except this is freakin cool! I'm hip like Hollywood stars!

Ratatouille: Customer Research Makes Everything Richer, From Animated Movies to Product Experience

Incorporating customer research into the product lifecycle can lead to drastic changes in the way a product is designed. This same impact can be felt in movies when they consult domain experts. This weekend I went to see Ratatouille with my 4 year old, and was amazed at the attention to culinary detail. It turns out that they worked with chef gurus Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, and others and you can see how rich the results are. Here is some info from a recent NY Times article:

The Pixar crew took cooking classes, ate at notable restaurants in Paris and worked alongside Mr. Keller at the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif.

…Gusteau's is an amalgam of several restaurants in Paris, including Guy Savoy, Le Train Bleu and Taillevent. At a staff meeting at Taillevent, Mr. Lewis finally understood the intensity of high-level service. "They had recorded that one woman took 10 minutes between her first sip of white Burgundy and her second," he said. "So they concluded that the wine was too cold and were going to adjust accordingly."

What a great job! I'd love to shadow Thomas Keller at any of his restaurants or fly to Paris to experience 3 Michelin star restaurants. What an even greater decision by Pixar to allow the designers to do this. The more we know about an experience the better the design of the product.