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Wwwwhy Designs Fail March 18, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership, Random Musings.
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Here’s a simple test: pick a web site, any web site.  Try typing the URL the old-fashioned way, with “www” in front.  Did it work?  Most certainly.  Now try it again, with just “ww,” “w,” or even “wwww.”  Did any of those work?  I’ll give you even money one or more of them failed.

Why?  People mistype this stuff all the time!  Don’t you think that some considerate, thoughtful systems administrator would have taken the time to create the “near miss” versions of his web site, just to make it easier on the users?  You’d think that, but they certainly didn’t.  And hundreds, maybe thousands of users feel the effects of one unthinking person.

This isn’t about poor web site name management.  The real issue here is that too many developers don’t take the time to figure out where users might make mistakes so that they can program around them.  The goal of any system is to make it as easy as possible for the user, and that includes silently detecting and correcting mistakes wherever possible.

Much like interfaces that force users to perform mundane tasks better left to the computer (like insisting on perfectly formatted credit card numbers) mistake-intolerant tools force the user to do more work for no good reason.  By definition, humans make errors.  When dealing with other people, we silently recognize and correct minor errors all the time.  People are really good at figuring out intent based on context and ignoring minor faux pas.  Computers aren’t naturally good at this, which is why developers need to consider all sorts of potential errors that might occur in their systems.  Wherever possible, they need to accept the error, anticiapte the intent, and move forward.

This kind of design error is not limited to software systems.  It extends to leadership as well.  Too many leaders insist on “correct” behavior from their team, expecting behavior that exactly matches what they might do when presented with a task.  Good leaders allow for creativity and understand that there are many paths to the goal.  Tolerating multiple paths that reach the same goal is a sign of a confident leader.

This isn’t to say that it’s OK to miss the goal.  It’s not, and failure needs to be addressed.  But are you allowing your people the latitude to take routes you didn’t anticipate and still reach the goal?  Like a system that gauges intent and still delivers the desired result, strong leadership encourages creativity that will find other paths.  In the best scenarios, your people will find a way that is better than yours, and even in the worst case, you can use the less-optimal paths as teachable moments to improve your team’s performance in the future.

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Survey Says… March 4, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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Most people are shocked to learn that I like to give my opinion on things.  Normally reluctant to speak out, with a little prodding I can come up with a viewpoint on almost anything.  Given my natural desire to share, it’s also not surprising to learn that I like to fill out surveys.

Most surveys.  Well-written surveys are fun to fill out, and provide the illusion that someone cares about what I have to say.  I always volunteer to be on a customer feedback list and am actually registered with several online survey companies that periodically send me surveys.  I take my role as a shaper of public thought seriously.

That is, until I get sent a lousy survey.  You’ve all seen them.  For some reason, they tend to be attached to subscription renewal forms, wherein I have to describe my budget and spending habits in excruciating detail.  Who writes these surveys?  Who actually uses the results?

They start out simple enough.  A few questions about your business, gross revenue, employees, etc.  Then you get hit with an enormous chart listing two hundred different technology areas.  For each area, you need to provide your projected spending, ranging from $0 to $10,000,000, divided into 15 or 20 buckets.  Good grief!  I don’t know!  And I’m in charge of this stuff!  We’ll spend what we need to spend, as the business needs it.  Just the act of clicking on each item and selecting the range makes my wrists hurt.

Having waded through all that, you then get hit with comparison questions, having you compare one vendor with another on attributes like “trustworthy,” “humble,” and “good with children.”  For each attribute, you get to make Solomonic distinctions between “strongly agree,” “adamantly agree,” and “insistent.”

Even for a hard-core survey-taker like me, getting through this is tough.  I often punt a survey half-way through, leaving me to wonder if my partial answers were counted.  All things considered, I have to wonder if there is any statistical validity to the results when all is said and done.  Most of these things are clearly written by marketing people with no direct exposure to the technology they address.  I have to assume their understanding of statistics is similarly limited.

I do like the idea of these people sitting around a big table, lattes in hand, poring over the results.  Imagine the discussion: “Brandi, why do 77.293% of our customers ‘reluctantly admit’ that we are less likely to ‘offer actionable solutions’ than our competitors?”  “I don’t know, Geoff, but look on the bright side: 58.909% are ‘unwilling to dispute’ that we ‘bring fresh perspectives’ to the market.”

Here’s my fresh perspective: I want to keep filling out surveys, if companies make them sensible, short, and easy to fill out.  On that, I strongly agree.

How Are Things At Home? February 23, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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You can divide the technology at any company into two areas: the enterprise stuff and the end user stuff.  The enterprise stuff includes all the “heavy iron” in the data center: the servers, storage, networks, monitoring systems, databases, firewalls, and what not.  This is the domain of the IT professional, where we get to do deep analysis and evaluation of technology, cost benefits, and strategic value.  The user stuff includes everything a user touches: desktops, laptops, phones, email clients, web browsers, and PDAs.  Our ability to manage this technology hinges less on technology and more on what happens outside of work, in the user’s home.

We all have early adopters in our organizations: people who try out new things at home, way before they are actively considered at work.  (I suspect that most readers of this blog fall into that category). These people provide wonderful free evaluation services, figuring out what works (and what doesn’t) so that we can make better decisions for our companies.

These early adopters can make or break a product.  Vista was killed in the business market in large part due to the early negative reactions from these leading-edge home users.  Even though Microsoft made huge progress in improving Vista, that early stigma never wore off.

Microsoft learned their lesson.  The early adopter feedback on Windows 7 is almost universally good.  Not coincidentally, I’m beginning to pick up positive buzz from other IT executives about their plans for Windows 7.  Give Microsoft credit: they don’t quit and keep trying until they get it right.

The iPhone is a different story.  Users are adopting these devices at home and love them.  They come to work and want to use them with enterprise email on our networks.  Unfortunately, many IT people (myself included) do not believe the iPhone is secure and manageable enough for corporate use.  As a result, we’ve got a lot of cranky users who can’t use their iPhones at work.  While this provides an opportunity to teach people about security and systems management, it still leaves users feeling disappointed.

Gone are the days when corporate IT led the way in bringing technology to the masses.  Now we are followers, led by the consumer market and ever-more-savvy end users.  To be successful and to stay ahead of the curve, we need to pay attention to what our users are doing and constantly ask them “How are things at home?”

Say The Secret Word! January 19, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings, Technology.
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It has become fairly common for sites to enhance their security by asking you to answer a few “secret questions” to confirm that you are, in fact, you when updating account information or even just logging in.  As a result, users now have the opportunity to forget several bits of information for each web site they visit, instead of just forgetting their password on a regular basis.

We use this approach at my company, where users can reset their passwords by answering special questions.  The system we use even lets people pose their own questions, which led to one user to create this question:

Question 1: How do you feel today?
Answer 1: Good

So far so good.  Here is their second question:

Question 2: How do you feel today?
Answer 2: Bad

I kid you not.  Not surprising, this user eventually forgot their password, and it took quite a while for us to figure out why they could never access the automatic password reset system.

Here’s my helpful usability tip for the day: No matter what the secret question, use the same answer every time.  Choose something different from your password, but use it consistently.

People are astounded when I suggest this.  It never occurs to them that the system cannot check to make sure that “groucho” really is the name of the first person you kissed, or your first pet, or your second grade teacher.  It just wants a string of characters that only you know.

Before all the security people reading this freak out, I’ll concede that this is not a security best practice.  It leaves you vulnerable to some tiny chance of a security breach.  You assume all the risk if you choose to go this route.  Et cetera.

But in reality, this is much better than the approach most people take, which is to write all this stuff down on a Post-It note and stick it on the monitor.  (Security-conscious users put the Post-It under the keyboard, or in their desk drawer.  Thanks for incorporating physical barriers into your security practices!)

Security breaks down when security systems are too complicated. People revert to simple solutions just because they want the computer to get out of the way and let them accomplish the task at hand. We need to stop creating complicated, unusable systems and focus on simple, usable ones. With security, as with everything else on earth, it is tough to make things foolproof because fools are so ingenious.

Brownie points to readers who know why I chose “groucho” as my answer!

At The Tone, The Time Will Be… January 16, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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When it comes to user interface pet peeves, I don’t just have a few pets, I have a whole zoo.  Today, let’s talk about time zones.

Many, many web sites want to know your time zone so they can correctly send you messages or set appointments or reminders.  Fair enough.  But the manner in which they ask for your time zone leaves a lot to be desired.

One long-standing tradition involves providing a pull-down menu with every time zone in the world, starting with Greenwich, England and heading east or west.  Sometimes the list includes the official names of the zones, which may help, but often just lists the offset (in hours) from the time in Greenwich.  This is sometimes known as “Zulu” time or the increasingly common “UTC,” which is the French acronym (acronym Français?) for Universal Coordinated Time.  This is so handy: ask your Mom if she is in UTC-4 or UTC-5 next time you chat.  I’m sure she’ll know in a heartbeat.

Occasionally the list presents you with major cities in each time zone.  Presumably, you pick a big city near you and your time zone is set to match.  Why, then, do they list several cities in each zone?  Atlanta, New York, and Washington, DC, are all in the Eastern Time Zone (UTC-5, duh).  Why three choices?  Are we catering to the city slickers but rebuffing small-town America?  Seems like someone is going to get offended, somehow.  And then, you need that special time zone for Indiana, or at least you did until this year, and parts of New Mexico, I think.

You might also get prompted for Daylight Savings Time.  I always read too much into this question.  Are they asking if my locale use DST in general, or if it is in effect right now?  In the summer, the safe answer is always “yes,” but in the winter you are rolling the dice, my friend.

I’ve seen lots of interfaces for setting the time zone, and they all violate the important rules of user interfaces: they require too much geeky user knowledge, they are hard to understand, and they make the user do more work than the computer.

All but one, that is.  I recently came across a delightfully elegant interface that asks one simple question of the user: “What is your current time right now?”  It then presents a pull-down menu with the current time in every time zone.  The user just finds the time that is closest to their current time (usually within a few minutes either way) and the computer figures out the rest!  What a concept!  Gather one bit of trivial data from the user and do the heavy lifting to compute UTC offset, look up DST rules for that zone, and set the time zone accordingly.

Kudos to the developer!  There is always a better way that respects the user and exploits the computer, if we only work hard enough to find it.  Every aspect of every user interface should be this elegant and clever.