Friday, June 25, 2010

Watching the Detectives

An article published (or perhaps re-published) on Gizmodo notes a "trend" toward the prohibition of surveillance of police officers. The article focuses on the use of cameras that are not necessarily connected to the Internet, and seems to be intended to stir public outrage at the desire of the government to conceal corruption and abuse of authority, but it has broader implications for the "Internet of Things."

In this sense, the phenomenon raises fundamental questions about the use of devices to collect data (video being one kind of data, and cameras being one kind of device) - and it is, at heart, a political issue, as from a functional perspective, anyone who has such a device certainly can collect data. The question is whether legislation will determine whether they have a right to do so, or whether privacy concerns (the right to be unobserved) will take precedence.

The article in question covers only one side of one argument, and it's fairly obvious that the correct conclusion is that videotaping police action is not only just, but socially beneficial in preventing the abuse of authority. But it would be interesting to cross-reference the remarks against others made by the same individuals when the cameras are turned around, and it is the state that is videotaping citizens.

And the same argument can be made, albeit with less passion, in any instance of surveillance: employers who spy on employees but prohibit employees from taking photographs in the workplace, merchants who use security cameras to observe shoppers but do not permit the same people to take video recordings inside their premises, etc. In each instance it's not merely the desire of one party to use surveillance, but to deny the same right to the other party.

Moreover, the same arguments are used by both sides. Regardless of who is videotaping whom, proponents will argue there is no expectation of privacy in most environments, that "honest" people should have no fear of being observed, and so on, whereas the opponents will argue that surveillance is an invasion of privacy, that the mere act of observation is a form or coercion, and so on.

It will be interesting to see how this shakes out, though it will probably take decades for there to be a legislative effort to consider the topic of surveillance in general, rather than getting tangled in the incidental details of a specific set of circumstances ... but if my guess is correct, we will return at last to the functional perspective.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Overview of Strategic Management

In general, strategy has been a thorny subject lately, largely because the word is broadly misused: anyone who has an idea, notion, or concept claims it is "strategic" - but not all ideas qualify. With this in mind, I've read a bit on the subject, and added some study notes to my site on a booklet entitled "strategic management."

It was a quick read - though as such, it skipped along like a stone, barely breaking the surface, and touching in random places, omitting much. Even so, it was worthwhile as a refresher on the topic and a method for structuring deeper exploration into each of the topics it touched upon, which I expect may have been the author's intention in putting out such a short piece of work.

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Mimesis of Depth

I was reading a chapter in a collection of academic papers about the computer-generated 3D models, and my brain went on a tangent (as it's prone to do) about the value we seem to automatically attribute to the quality of mimesis.

Specific to 3D modeling, it's generally accepted that the computer-generated model of a 3D environment that is depicted on a "flat" monitor screen is a very poor imitation of a real-life environment., and the author's point was that much improvement (and special equipment) is needed before we can realistically depict an immersive environment to the user.

What struck me is the degree to which the user is able to accept a "fake" 3D environment, and I'd suggest it's not because we are applying the perceptual skills learned in the real world, but are transferring the cognitive interpretations learned from similar two-dimensional media: paintings, photographs, and television screens.

The artist learns tricks to "fool" the mind into accepting a flat representation as a three-dimensional one: an object that is smaller is further away, as is a one that lies further along diagonal lines that converges at a horizon. A closer object throws a more distinctive shadow, and an object further away isn't as clearly discernable. If an object overlaps another, it is nearer to us.

We learn these visual cues of "closeness" and "farness" specifically to the two-dimensional representation of depth - such that when we see a highly mimetic painting of an apple, we remark that we could almost reach into the painting and pick it up. I posit that the "almost" is because, in spite of all the visual trickery, there is still a quality that is missing that cues us that what we are viewing is, in fact, a clever forgery of depth rather than actual depth.

So, in the end, the question with which I'm grappling is whether, when we see a "3d" image on a flat screen, we are recognizing it as being three-dimensional from our experiences in the physical world, or because we recognize the conventions that are used to depict depth in a two-dimensional medium.

I tend to think that it's the latter, which may explain the reason why, in spite of all the advances in 3D presentation technology, we find ourselves unsatisfied with even the most detailed and attentive imitations. No matter the degree of effort the presenter undertakes to "fool" us, we recognize the tricks, and cannot accept the mimicry, though it might delight us, for a time, to engage in the willing suspension of disbelief.

An analogy comes to mind - the distortions to the sense of taste. In this culture, and at this time, it is probably reasonable to assume that more people have tasted artificially lime-flavored candy than have tasted actual limes. So a person who recognizes the lime flavor of candy is borrowing upon his sense memory of lime-flavored candy in the past, not from his memory of ever having tasted an actual lime. In fact, if you gave him a piece candy that tasted like a real lime, he might not be able to accurately identify the flavor. Such is the problem with mimesis in the virtual medium.

I generally accept, albeit with some degree of reservations, that a good approach to design in the online media is to mimic "real world" phenomena. The reservations I have is that the online medium has significantly different capabilities and qualities than the real-world medium.

An early example I recall was a video player that attempted to use an interface that was similar to a television remote control, to enable to user to "click" through video presentations in the same way that they surfed channels. This was well before a on-screen programming guides that allowed users to scroll through lists of programs by name, and even view descriptions before making a selection.

In that instance, mimesis has worked in reverse: the television medium, which was presumed to be more familiar to users, has actually adopted navigation controls from the online medium, rather than the other way around - for no other reason than it was easier to use, and just made sense.

It also occurs to me that I have never seen a cell phone interface with a rotary dial - which was at one time the most familiar paradigm for operating a telephone. And the reason is that a rotary dial, while necessary to a physical telephone until about twenty years ago, simply didn't make sense. Like the analogy to artificial "lime" flavoring, a person presented with a rotary dial would have no idea what it was, or how to use it.

And so after that long meander, I return to the notion of creating realistic 3D environments for the Web. Is it really more convenient? Does it really make sense? For the longest time, the answer seemed a self-evident "yes" ... but the more I think about it, the less plausible it seems.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Customer Relationship Management

I've recently added study notes on an article about customer relationship management. It's nothing new, but more recent than previous material I had read on the same topic, and the article is very brief compared to the books that have been written on the topic - but it is also very matter-of fact and largely devoid of hype.

CRM was a popular notion about fifteen years ago, and like many popular notions, there was a flash of interest, but little understanding. As a result, there were many vendors that offered quick-and-dirty solutions that did little good, the net result of which was that many were led to dismiss CRM as a fad with no inherent value.

But now that the glimmer of novelty has faded, the companies that have been left standing are those who took more methodical approach and have gained ground slowly, and the potential for CRM to create competitive advantage in markets in which there has been no effective first-mover remains, making the concept worth re-consideration.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Google Fail

There's been a lot of uproar over Google's recent attempts to "wow" users with gimmickry: a playable pac-man game on the site's home page that distracted and annoyed users, and their attempt at leveling the playing field against Microsoft's "Bing" search engine by replacing the stark, white background of their home page with an image.

Users objected to both of these changes in droves, and the general reaction seems to be dismissal of the user's complaints as resistance to change. So long as that attitude persists, it can be anticipated that Google will trot out additional "improvements" until it either drives users away, or get rid of whatever executive thinks that this kind of nonsense is a good idea.

But more to the point ... it's an interesting case study in user experience. Google quickly overtook rival search engines by providing a clean interface, uncluttered by useless distractions, and by doing so, it gave users the ability to find information quickly. And now, confident that it "owns" its users and can't possibly be overtaken as the king of search (which is exactly what the companies it toppled would have said), it seems to be making exploratory steps down the very same path to ruin.

Aside of a tasty morsel of schadenfreude, there are a few lessons to be taken:

First, a "good" user experience isn't about gimmickry. It's about giving the user exactly what they need to accomplish their goals, and nothing more. Google's original site took the Web by storm because it was simple: a field to enter text, and a button to click. Aside of their logo (a necessary evil), that was it. And users loved it.

But then, things took a turn. Google added the "I'm Feeling Lucky" button and started replacing its logo with special holiday and event graphics. I can't believe that users asked for either of these things, or wanted them, or found that they made the site a better experience for them. Most users ignored them, or tolerated them, and maybe a few found them to be "cool" for at least a little while.

And that's where the problem begins. It starts with a perfectly good site that does exactly what people want, then the operator starts adding on novelties that will attract or entertain a small number, while the rest won't object too much. So long as it's low-key and not too bad, and so long as they don't cross the line, to the point where the gimmicks overwhelm the core value, why not?

The reason is fairly simple: over time, the little things add up. AltaVista and Yahoo didn't begin as "noisy" sites with a clutter of distractions - they added them incrementally, and eventually buried the core functionality of their sites in a trash heap. I don't recall that either made any major blunders, but it may have been better for them if they had - it's easier to roll back a single big mistake rather than a slough of small ones - though in either case, one big blunder or two dozen small ones both serve to do the same thing: to distract and overwhelm, and make the core functionality (the real value that attracts the users) harder to find.

In effect, Google failed to ask the critical question: when a user comes to our site, what do they want to do? There's typically only one thing - or if there are more, one is the most important. And if any "feature" or "improvement" doesn't enable the user to do that one thing better than they did before, it's simply not worth adding.

And when you consider the user's perspective, the answers become simple: when a user goes to a search engine, they are trying to find information. Does a novelty like a video game or background image help them to do that better than a site without one?

The answer is fairly obvious, and it should have been obvious to Google.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Media and Cultural Theory

I've added reading notes on Media and Cultural Theory, a booklet that took rather a ramble through history, extracting random snippets of what various philosophers had to say about the topic of media. I had hoped for a better orchestrated treatment of the topic, but the authors merely skimmed the surface, picking up superficial bits of lint, and ran out of steam about halfway through.

Even so, it's interesting to consider what some of the historical schools of philosophy had to say on the topic of the media, especially since many of their sentiments have echoed forward through the ages: much of what was originally said about the printing press is echoed in present arguments about the Internet.

All in all, I don't think I gained any practical knowledge, but found a few things that I can ponder, and have a bit of direction for seeking more extensive information from the original sources.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Ethics and Social Marketing

A post in Michael Fleischner's blog about the value of referrals ("Referral Marketing Can Push You Over") got me to thinking about the value of referrals in social marketing.

Word-of-mouth referrals have a great deal of influence in our buying decisions. I'd posit that this is because the recommendation, or even a positive mention, of a product by someone we know, respect, and trust carries far more weight than a promotional message from the seller or even an independent review by someone we don't recognize.

In recognition of that, companies are increasingly turning to social marketing as a way of drumming up sales - if you can get a customer to refer friends, you stand a better chance of those friends becoming customers, and can then get them to refer their friends, and so on, which will result in exponential growth.

The problem I see with having an interest merely in "getting referrals" is that marketers are attracted to short-cuts. If you have to hound your customers, or bribe them, to incent them to refer your product to others, the value of the referral is diminished. And this damages not merely your marketing effort, and not merely your company's reputation, but the trust and respect among your customers.

Said another way, if you have a trusted friend who makes a product recommendation, and you later discover that this recommendation was prompted by the seller, it diminishes the trust you place in that friend. And if product referrals become commonplace, we begin to see "friends" as mouthpieces, which has the potential to undermine the trust we place in every person we know. This does far more harm than good, in the long run.

I realize this may come across as exaggeration - the notion that society will ever devolve to the point where you're constantly being bombarded with commercial messages and can't trust in the motives of anyone around you belongs in a dystopic novel. But then, it probably would have seemed equally absurd, twenty years ago, to suggest that people would be reluctant to answer their telephones because 90% of inbound calls were salesmen.

For what it's worth, Fleischner gets it right in the original article. He notes that people who make recommendations generally do so because they have had an excellent customer experience, one that they wish to share with their acquaintances. This implies that a company that wants referrals should be highly attentive to their customers, to create the kind of experience that people will want to talk about, without prompting or bribery.

But again, businesses love to take short-cuts, and if they can figure out a way to "get referrals" without having to undertake the (considerable) work and expense of creating a customer experience that's required to delight their customers, they'll certainly do so - and, just as they have done with telephone calls and e-mail messages - their attempts will be so clumsy and so frequent that they poison the well. And when "the well" is the relationships among people in a society, the potential damage is far more pervasive.

So in the end, what I take from this is a great deal of caution and suspicion about social media marketing. In particular, I wonder whether it should be a priority for a business, or if t is a potential hazard and a distraction from the thing that's most important of all: providing excellent customer service.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

There is no such thing as Social TV

A series of posts at Trendspotting (link), along with a poorly conceived chapter in a book on social media (no link yet, study notes will appear later) has me thinking about the notion of "Social Television." Specifically, it's got me thinking that it's merely a notion, and not a "real" thing.

The concept of Social TV is the "enhancement" of broadcast programming with interactive features, such as the ability to interact with other viewers or post and access user-contributed reviews and ratings. But my point is: once you've added input devices such as a mouse or keyboard (or even an "enhanced" remote control that has similar input capabilities) to a television set, it's not a television set anymore, but a computer with a large monitor.

The qualities that define television as a medium are its broadcast nature (one sender to many receivers), scheduled programming (a program, or even coverage of an event, happens at a certain time), and the passive consumption by the audience (specifically, non-interactive).

The first quality (broadcasting) is not unique to the television medium. Any video presentation (or even a text one, such as a newspaper article or Web page) is a broadcast. The message is created by one person and transmitted to others. And if the others "interact" with the message, what they are in fact doing is creating a version of it and retransmitting it, becoming in effect a broadcaster of an altered message. Which is to say that, while television is a broadcast medium, not all broadcast media qualify as being "television."

The second quality (scheduled programming) was broken long ago, by home recording devices such as the VCR, which has evolved into the DVR, not to mention the release of television programs on hard media (a television series can be purchased on videotape or DVD), not to mention the availability via the Internet (on YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, or the broadcaster's own Web site). However, we make a clear distinction between the two: when a person is watching a sitcom episode on DVD or a Web site, they may be watching a program that originally aired on television, but they are not watching television.

The third quality (passive consumption) is perhaps the objective of the broadcasters, but is seldom fully realized. If an individual is watching television alone, and is wholly mesmerized by the program, that is passive consumption. But if other people (or just one other person) are in the room, they interact with one another only when the programming fails to hold their attention (commercial breaks, dull moments in the program, etc.), and in some instances, such as a thoroughly rotten movie, the interaction among viewers is more entertaining than the program. But it stands to note that this is not interacting with the program, but interacting with other people. In a holistic sense, the activity seems to involve both, but there are distinct differences between the moments when the viewers are actually watching television and other moments in which they are interacting with one another and not paying attention to the program.

The notion of Social TV undermines all three of these qualities that essentially define television as a medium. The activities that Social TV presumes to have introduced are already available on the Internet - a person can watch video content, post their ratings and tags, and interact with other viewers on a myriad of different Web sites. While there may be differences in the device or the room one might be sitting in, these are entirely incidental.

Which leads me to my conclusions. First, should "Social TV" become popular, I submit that it is not because the television medium has evolved and survived, but that television has died and been replaced by something that cannot rightly be considered to be "television" at all. Second, that the notion of Social TV is not new, but merely a label being placed on an activity that is already taking place in the Internet medium.