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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.

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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.

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.

Change Is Good. You Go First. January 23, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Leadership.
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Once again, a seemingly Minor Event in my life causes Great Consternation and, upon reflection, provides a Greater Lesson for us all.  In this case, the Minor Event was the arrival of a new cell phone.

Let’s be clear: I love cell phones, and PDAs, and any sort of handheld device that you carry about.  If it fits in your hand, needs to be charged, has a screen, and can be endlessly configured and customized, it is my kind of device.  In the spirit of clarity, I’ll also share that I am extremely picky about user interfaces and the user experience in general.  I will tinker endlessly to get the screen layout just right, or to optimize the sequence of clicks to perform some action.

Disclosures made, let’s move to the Minor Event. Last week, I upgraded from my wonderful Samsung Blackjack II cellphone to the Samsung Epix.  Both devices run Windows Mobile and sport dedicated keyboards.  The big difference: the Epix has a touchscreen and the Blackjack does not. I was excited to try out a touch interface, along with the Epix’s built-in WiFi.

I was astounded at how difficult it was to switch to the Epix.  I had been using the Blackjack for over a year, and my fingers had long ago learned the key patterns to accomplish everything I needed to do on the phone.  I had tweaked every nuance of the Blackjack, installed a ton of third-party tools, and had that phone perfectly configured.

After one day of the Epix, I was ready to give the it back.  I was absolutely inept with the thing.  The ringtones were wrong, the applications felt clunky, and my constant desire to click on a directional pad was thwarted by the fact the the Epix doesn’t have one.  The WiFi was indeed cool, and the virtual mouse touchpad was clever.  Even so, I felt clumsy and frustrated with every aspect of the phone.

Great Consternation had set in.  I took a deep breath, drew on my deep reserves of inner strength, and vowed to use the phone for another full day.  By then, things had gotten a little better: I found some decent software for the phone, reinstalled touchscreen versions of my favorite tools, and even found better versions of others.  I was acclimating to the phone.

After a week, I have come to really like this phone.  Some things still need some tweaking, but other features are too good to give up and go back.  So my beloved Blackjack II will be placed, gently, into my Drawer of Abandoned Devices, next to my RAZR, Palm LifeDrive, Palm Tx, and Casio Zoomer.  The Epix becomes my device of choice, at least until my contract expires.

Which brings us to the Greater Lesson: If this kind of minor, self-inflicted change is this distracting and painful, imagine how annoying the change that we inflict on others must be.  Those of us in IT like to see ourselves as agents of change, disrupting existing practices with new tools and processes for the greater good of all.  Let’s get real: we drive people nuts, making seemingly arbitrary decisions that turn their world upside down for no apparent reason.

We can’t ever, ever forget how painful change really is for our users.  Minor Events that we fully understand generate Great Consternation out in the real world.  Nonetheless, our job is to find and fix things.  As you go about doing that, don’t lose sight of how hard it is for people to put up with the changes we promote.  And if you do forget how hard that can be, I have an easy solution: go get a new phone.

Another Web Irritant November 21, 2008

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Technology.
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I understand that advertising helps keep vast swaths of the web free.  I respect a site’s right to sell ads; I just wish they would respect my intelligence.

The latest affront to my self-esteem comes along with interstitial ads, those full-page popups that appear for a fixed period of time before letting you see the real content you were seeking.  I don’t mind the ads; that’s part of life, and that’s why Firefox has all those clever ad-blocking plug-ins.

I do mind the inane message that accompanies the ad, the one that says something to the effect of “Please wait while your page is loading…”  While my page is loading? Come on!

I suppose there are some folks who may think that web pages are handcrafted as you request them, with teams of web artisans standing by to put all that content together in the fifteen seconds that the ad stays on your screen.  For those folks, it may seem like a courtesy to provide something to look at, instead of a blank screen and an hour-glass cursor.

If only they knew the exact opposite: your page starts rendering after the ad goes away, and the twenty-something web designer who put that “Please wait” message on your screen got a snarky chuckle over getting away with such a blatant, insulting lie. It’s as if a full page ad in a print magazine had a tag line at the bottom: “Please wait for fifteen seconds while we print the next page.”

How about a little truth in advertising?  I’d much prefer a message like “Please, please take a moment to look at this ad.  We’re running out of VC funding, and unless we get some positive cash-flow out of our ad-based revenue model, I’ll be looking for my fifth job in three years.”  If I see that message on my screen, I’ll not only read the ad, I’ll click through just for good measure!