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Way Too Much Information December 2, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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I received an invitation to Google Wave a few weeks ago.  I was anxious to try it, but got little traction.  Since then, a few more friends have joined, and I’ve been able to experiment a little bit.  The jury is still out on the ultimate usefulness of the tool, but there is one “feature” that gives me pause.

If several people are actively participating in a conversation, the Wave interface actually shows their typing, in real time.  This is the next logical extension of existing instant messaging platforms, which note when another party is actually typing.  This was a handy feature, since it let you know if the person at the other end was actively participating.  Wave’s extension, on the other hand, is unnerving.

Very few people, myself included, write complete, rational thoughts on the first try.  Instead, we type, think, delete, edit, retype, and iterate until we have composed a complete message.  We often start out with something that we later contradict, or use a word or tone that we might regret and subsequently remove.  The end product represents a finished thought.

Google Wave exposes that entire process.  It is weird, and a bit voyeuristic, to watch someone in the act of composition.  In one conversation, I actually began responding to a person’s message, only to have them edit and change it before after I had posted my now-inappropriate response.  My response made no sense, and they knew I had been privy to a thought they later chose to retract.

It should be obvious by now that I am a big fan of all these new-fangled communications tools.  I like the idea of being instantly connected, and I enjoy the immediacy of keeping up with other people.  Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn: I get it, and I use it.

But this crosses a line.  I am happy to share what I am doing, but I am not willing to expose my actual thought processes before they are fully formed.  Rapid communication is fine, but at some point there are aspects of what I am doing that I absolutely do not want to share.

I suspect that the folks at Wave did not set out to design a “thought exposure” feature.  Instead, I suspect they think that this is just a cooler way of showing that the other parties are typing and interacting.  I’m hoping that they’ll see the error of their ways and at least let me turn this feature off.

The whole experience reminded me of a scene from the show Married… With Children. Peg Bundy and her long-suffering husband Al are sitting silently on the couch.  Peg finally tries to break the ice by asking, “Al, what are you thinking?”  Al, speaking on behalf of every man on earth, replies, “If I wanted you to know, I’d be talking.”

Google, if I want people to know what I’m thinking, I’ll click “Done.” Until then, I’ll keep my keystrokes to myself.

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I Feel Your Pain November 4, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Technology.
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Users are in a tough position.  They’ve evolved to the point where they cannot do their jobs without computers.  The systems that they use are becoming more and more sophisticated, with equally sophisticated interfaces.  Worst of all, they have little or no control over how those systems are built.

Our users rely on us to build systems that are easy to use, reliable, and consistent.  They have no idea how we do this, not do they care.  They trust us to take care of the awful details of system design and development to make things that they find useful.  Regrettably, I don’t think we on the IT side of the house do as good a job as we could on their behalf.

We often make design decisions that cause users great angst.  I’m not talking about sweeping design changes; I’m thinking more about the small, subtle things that can make a big difference in a user’s life.  The layout of a screen, the ordering of a menu, the arrangement of a list can dramatically affect the usability of a tool.  Poor usability results in unhappy users.

Many times, these kind of decisions get made on the basis of how complicated it can be to implement a better alternative.  In short, we reduce development time and expect the user to deal with a less-effective interface.  We reduce developer pain at the expense of user pain, and that’s wrong.

I’ve written about this before.  One of my biggest peeves in just about every web site on earth is that you cannot enter anything but digits into a credit card number field.  The developer will not set the field to “numeric only;” instead, they’ll put some awful text near it that explains that you should not type dashes or spaces in the field.  Here’s a big idea: how about you write some code to strip out dashes and spaces, so I can type the number in a way that make sense to me?  The developer saved twenty minutes; users spend collective years trying to type things correctly.

There are countless examples of this in every system we use.  Time and again, developers and designers make their lives easier by asking users to do a little bit more.  The problem is that the development time is incurred once; the user time incurred over and over and over again, for years.

We owe our users better. They trust us to build systems they can use.  We need to feel their pain, take it on ourselves, and remove it from their day-to-day lives.  Users are the most important part of any system; we need to show that we understand that by building things that respect their time and energy.  Show your users some love: build things that put them first.

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Chief Guinea Pig October 12, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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As technology penetrates every aspect of the business world, those of us in IT find ourselves deploying tools more and more frequently.  These tools are more tightly integrated to everything our users do.  In days gone by, we provided green screens for data entry and green bar for rudimentary reporting.  Now we control every aspect of communication, including voice, email, and text messaging, and provide interfaces to every system in the business.

Most shops do a lot of testing before rolling out new stuff.  Typically, testing begins on the IT side of the house and ends up on the user side, with qualified end users signing off before something goes into production.  Is there a place in that process for the CIO?

I think there is.  I think I have a responsibility to know how our systems function and what the overall user experience is going to be. I’m the first to admit that I am not qualified to test the business processes behind these systems, but I do think I have a voice in the general experience.

Generally, I consider myself the primary guinea pig for almost everything we deploy in my company.  I usually try out each new laptop, many new phones, and almost all user interfaces that we develop.  I try to see how these tools would impact a typical end user.  Are they easy to use and understand?  Do they have confusing options or weird configuration choices?  Would users be confronted by tedious, pointless interaction sequences?

In short, if I were an end user, would I be happy with the device or system? I feel strongly that I should never ask a user to use a device or participate in a process that I have not personally experienced.

In conversing with other CIOs, I find that some do not wish to engage at this level.  They don’t have time to go through this process and don’t feel that they are qualified to make a reasonable judgment. However, most of them do have trusted coworkers that fulfill the role of guinea pig for them.  They value the testing experience; they’ve just outsourced the task to someone else.

There have been times I find myself doing the same thing.  Some new phones are only available on other carriers; I’ll find someone I trust to see if the phone is acceptable.  Some business processes are beyond my reach (or security level), but I’ll find someone else to give me the unvarnished truth about a new system.

CIOs should be operating at a strategic level above the details.  That altitude, however, does not absolve of us from having the ultimate responsibility for the quality of everything we deliver to the business. Ironically, our distance from a tool or system gives us a different perspective from the developers who toil so closely with it.  By being closer to the forest than the trees, we can often see problems that are overlooked by the tactical developers and testers.

Although it may drive your developers to distraction, simply asking “why?” as you walk through an interface or use a device may ultimately create a better experience for your end users. And that, regardless of your preferred level of engagement, is what our job is all about.

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Signal, Noise, and Bandwidth June 10, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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In case anyone hasn’t noticed, it seems that everyone has to deal with a lot more information these days.  This whole internet idea, if it takes off, could really make it difficult to stay on top of things.  Why, then, are people shifting to technologies that make it harder to keep up?

I recently received an email from a major corporation.  In the email was a link to a video, which contained An Important Message For Our Customers.  Since I like this company, I decided to watch.  The video was a four minute clip of the company president making a speech.  It took four minutes to watch a man read a message to me that I could have skimmed in fifteen seconds.  What was the point of the stretching the content to be sixteen times longer?

I can see the marketing meeting: “Let’s just email this out over his signature.”  “That’s too impersonal; we want to engage our customers.” “We could dress it up with HTML and make the email look really sharp.” “Still not good enough.” “Maybe a podcast?” “I don’t know… how about a video?” “Great!  That will really connect with people!”

I appreciate this.  Really. But I don’t have time to watch it all.  Imagine if every email you received were converted to a video clip of someone reading the message to you.  You’d never get anything done!  Imagine the cacophony in the cube farms!

I see blogs going the same way.  People who used to write a blog are now reading the blog and sending it out as a podcast.  Some people are going the next step and converting it to a video.  This may be cool, but it makes it harder for people to absorb the information.  The content is the same, but the wrapper is much, much bigger.  In the parlance of information theory, the signal stays the same, but the noise has gone way up, and you’re burning a lot more bandwidth to send the same message.

There is a delightful minimalism to Twitter.  You can skim hundreds of tweets in just a minute or two, stopping to absorb ones that catch your interest.  If you had your tweets read to you, you’d never get through a fraction of them.

If you are trying to convey an idea to someone, you must do it in a way that makes it easy as possible for that person to absorb the idea.  There is a place for audio and video.  If you are conveying instructions, a video may be the perfect vehicle, far more efficient that trying to explain the same idea in prose.  If your message involves sounds, audio is the way to go.  But the vast, vast amount of what we send back and forth is perfectly captured as text. Wonderful, simple, written words, perfected several thousand years ago.  Our brains absorb written words at an amazing rate, far faster than if we were listening to them or watching someone recite them.

As in all things, respect your audience.  Send them information in the form that works best for them.  Use audio and video where it truly adds value, and rely on the written word for everything else.  Your audience will thank you, hopefully in writing.

Idiot Or Thief? April 24, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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I love shopping in a store and being accused of being both stupid and a thief.  What better way to win my long-term loyalty?

It all started back in 1973.  A nearby grocery store had installed a high-tech checkout system that used new-fangled “bar codes” to scan items at checkout, eliminating the hand-keying of prices into the cash register.  Well, what could be better?  As bacon is to all foods, lasers are to all technology.  There is no device that does not get better by adding a laser in some fashion.  And these checkout systems had visible lasers, flickering across the products, ready to blind or maim at a moment’s notice!  Dangerous technology, bent to the will of man!

Over the years, scanners replaced cash registers, until they were pervasive in every shopping experience.  But the technology was off-limits to all but a select few: the highly trained cadre of cashiers who were granted access to the mysterious machines.  Only they knew how to hold the products just so, and move them at the right speed, to get a good scan each and every time.  Mere mortals stood back in awe as these artists worked their magic with cans, boxes, and even plastic bags.

The desire to use the machine and scan something was overpowering.  Alas, my career choice precluded being a cashier, so I tried to manage my impulses.  A rare encounter with a cashier that would let you scan something was like a brief glimpse into another world.  It felt so good!

Imagine my excitement when my local grocery installed self-checkout machines.  I could be my own cashier, scanning all by myself!  This was heady stuff, and I was quick to use those lanes whenever possible.

The fun was cut short when I found that the machine assumes that I am both an idiot and a thief.  As you scan each item, the system tells you to place it in the bagging area.  If it doesn’t arrive in the bagging area in quickly enough, the system repeats the command and then locks up, awaiting intervention from the system manager.  After the manager unlocks the system from their console, I can then move on to the next item.

As to the idiot assumption: where do they think I am going to put the item?  Throw it to the floor? Back in my basket?  Juggle it?  I know to put it in the bag.  Why would you tell me this for each and every item I am buying?  Thanks for assuming that a typical adult has no idea how the purchasing process works.

And a thief? Apparently, these machines are built with scales in the bagging area, and some poor soul has entered the weight of every conceivable item you might buy.  As you scan an item, the system is carefully checking to see if what you bought is correctly placed into a bag.  If that weight is not registered in the bag, the system assumes you have not bagged it and must therefore be committing some sort of fraud.  Did you scan one item but bag two?  Scan a cheap item but bag something far more expensive?

The reality is that the scales on these machines are not that great, so that bagging errors happen all the time.  Set an item down too hard or too gently, and it is misread.  Jostle the scale or try to shift things in the bag, and you upset the system.  Most items weigh so little that they cannot possibly register accurately every time.  Yet the assumption is that the system is right, you are wrong, and some shenanigans are going on in aisle seven.

Let me clarify something for my local grocer: my long-term retirement plan does not involve skimming extra candy bars and razor blades for potential resale on eBay.  I am not out to rob you; I just want to quickly check out while experiencing the vicarious thrill of using a laser to do so.  I understand that certain miscreants might uses lasers for nefarious purposes, but that usually involves sharks.  I am honest, long-term customer that wants to be treated that way.  For goodness sake, I scanned my frequent shopper card when I started; if there was some sort of problem, you know whre I live!

Once again, companies are usnig technology with the best of intentions but ending up alienating and irritating customers.  We preach about trust and relationship with customers, but that seems to only go one way.  Our systems assume there is no trust or relationship, and customers are quick to perceive that.  We need to live the customer experience more often and translate our feelings into the systems we design.  Then we can start building trust and earning a relationship with our customers.