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Dealing With Goldilocks December 19, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Recently, my wife’s car wouldn’t start.  Drawing on my deep technical acumen, I jump-started the car and took it to a local repair shop.  They agreed with my diagnosis of a bad battery, but to be sure, they wanted to test my battery with their special equipment.  This would ensure that the battery was the culprit, keeping me from wasting my money when the problem might lie elsewhere.  They would even provide me with the diagnostic printout showing the exact problem.

I hate getting car repairs, and this kind of customer service was pleasantly unexpected.  After a little while, the technician returned with the promised printout.  Along with the date and time, the printout provided this complete technical analysis of my battery:


Wow! With this kind of detailed analysis, it was clear that my $130 would be well-spent.

Where were the voltages and amps?  Where was the graphical display of the cells in the battery, with one or two in red?  Where was some sort of chart, showing how quickly the battery would charge and then die?  Where was the link to the online version of the report that I could view years from now? How about a special code I could text to a server, or a Twitter stream for my car?

Clearly, my expectations of the diagnostic report were very different from what the vendor provided.  And in the mechanic’s defense, many customers need only see that printed confirmation to verify their battery suspicions.  Volts and amps don’t mean much to most people.

Every customer is Goldilocks: they don’t it want it too hot, or too cold.  They want it just right.  As technology designers, we struggle constantly to anticipate “just right” and deliver it quickly and reliably.  But we rarely get it right, because every user has a different definition of “just right.”

What to do?  Personalization may be the answer, but can be cumbersome and very expensive to implement.  Presenting progressively detailed data can help, allowing users to dig in deeper as their interests dictate.  Even offering a few versions of a report or interface (beginner, experienced, and expert) can mitigate a lot of user complaints.

Although it is difficult, we cannot give up on finding the sweet spot for our users.  Because if we do, we may find that one day our boss shows up with a diagnostic report of their own:



Where Does This Go? October 27, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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This weekend my son found a bolt lying in our driveway, where I normally park my car.

Sigh.  I had a lot of work done on my car last week, all of which seemed to go well.  The goal was to stop stuff from dripping out of the engine (accomplished) and to replace the timing belt (presumably accomplished).  I also put on new wiper blades, but there were no bolts involved with that.

I inspected the bolt carefully.  Covered with grime and oil.  No apparent wrench marks on the head.  No shiny threads, indicated that it had recently been loosened.  No, based upon my expert mechanical analysis, this bolt looked… inactive.

I completed my diligent investigation by doing what any guy would do.  I lifted the hood and looked at the engine.  There were no obvious open bolt holes.  In fact, all of the bolts I could see were pretty clean, furthering bolstering my “inactive” assessment.  While in there, I topped off my windshield washer fluid.  (I have got wiper-related maintenance covered).

The car runs fine.  Nothing is clattering (a sure sign of missing bolts) or dripping (possibly bolt-related, I’m sure).  Plus, I have to believe that really important engine parts are attached with more than one bolt, so nothing is going to immediately fall off the car.  What to do?

Loyal readers know that I do not like taking my car to the shop. Still, this cannot be ignored.  So I will take the car back to the shop, bolt in hand, and ask, “Where should I put this bolt?”

I’ll let you know what they say.

Cars, Computers, and Trust April 23, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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I dread getting any sort of work done on my car. Although I am fascinated by automotive technology, I am utterly incapable of working on cars or diagnosing their problems. I’ve always worked with guys who knew cars inside and out; they would tear down engines, replace crucial parts, and rebuild things with careless abandon.  I envy their skills and confidence.  My limited experience with cars usually resulted in expensive trips to a real mechanic to correct my errors.

As I write this, my car is having new tires installed.  I don’t mind this, since I understand the value of tires in helping me get from here to there.  What I do mind is the inevitable visit from the mechanic during the process:

We gave your car a courtesy check while we had it up on the lift.  Honestly, we don’t know how you even drove here this morning!  Your brakes are completely shot.  The suspension is worn out.  It looks like the electrical system is about to burst into flames, and we think you’re actually missing a piston.  We’re afraid to even drive your car out of the garage bay.  You want to get all that fixed while you’re here?  If not, the law requires that you sign this waiver so we can let you leave the lot.

Argghhh!  I have no idea if any of this is true, or expected, or even possible.  The car has been running fine.  Does disaster loom around the corner?  Will I be left helpless on the side of the road?  I am totally at their mercy, with absolutely no information to help.

Such poetic justice!  This is exactly how our users feel, every day.  For anyone not in the secret computing geek club, computers are mysterious, magical, confusing devices.  When they work, they get the job done, but when they break, the average user is completely clueless.

Our explanations are equally arcane and absolutely inscrutable.  Here are the actual fixes I made to my wife’s laptop last night to (hopefully) correct a Vista network printing problem:

The Linksys router firmware is out of date and needs to be upgraded from version 1.00.9 to 1.02.5.  According to some web postings, I need to disable the IPv6 dual stack support on both network adapters. Finally, according to some other postings, the Dell BIOS settings are incorrect: we need to disable the flash cache support and switch the SATA controller from AHCI to ATA mode.    All this might fix the problem, but it might also require a complete reformat and reinstall of Vista, resulting in a loss of all your data and settings.  You want to get all that work done?

And we wonder why people have a love/hate relationship with computers?

Things are no different in the corporate world.  The rest of the company has no idea what we really do with all those blinking lights and wires in the data center.  They don’t know what it really does, or really costs, or if they really need it at all.  They place their faith, their wallets, and increasingly, the fate of their company in our hands and hope for the best.

Everyone in IT is responsible for earning and keeping the trust of our users.  We have to police ourselves, making sure that we give good advice and provide accurate service.  We cannot spend money foolishly or buy technology because it is cool.  By scrupulously managing ourselves, we’ll give our users good solutions that meet their needs, further the business, and don’t break the bank.  If we fail in this, we’ll lose their trust and lose the privilege of serving them.  As CIOs, we must instill this attitude in every person at every level in our organization.  Our success, and our company’s success, rides on it.