Saturday, April 30, 2011

American Ways

After my previous post regarding the myopic approach of user experience design, I sought out references on the American market, hoping to find a bit more information about the psychological characteristics of the mass audience to whom much of the Web is directed. I found a book entitled American Ways: A Cultural Guide to the United States.

The book was written with the intent of providing practical guidance to foreign students and professionals who would be coming to the United States for an extended stay, to brief them on the culture they would find there, and the attitudes and beliefs that drive American behavior and cause it to be idiosyncratic and peculiar to foreign observers.

What I found there was not very flattering, but not at all deniable. The authors present a fairly unbiased view of American culture (their intention being to provide an accurate guide to foreign students, not to critique culture, though I suppose some editorializing to be inevitable), and just as general reading material, it was absorbing: I devoured the book, devoting most of my waking hours to poring over it or reflecting on what I had read. Absolutely fascinating.

Is it a worthwhile read for user experience professionals? Definitely. My sense is that it does much to address the concerns I had originally stated about our notion of the attitudes, beliefs, and precipitating behaviors of users being restricted to the proclivities and peculiarities of the region and demographics of test subjects - and I feel better equipped to assess whether findings are skewed by the culture of a small group who may not be representative of the mass audience.

Does it have shortcomings? Of course. But I don't feel prepared to tender any critical remarks, being as the book was not written for the same purpose for which I read it - to evaluate the book in terms of my personal interests would be unfair, and to evaluate it in terms of the author's intent would be only obliquely related to the topics I'm prepared to discuss in my notebook.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Narcissism and Myopia in User Experience

I've begun reading a book on American culture (notes on which will probably be added to my study site in a number of weeks or), which struck me at first, and strikes me still, as an odd thing to do. Most people, Americans especially, consider that they know their own culture and would not need to consult such a reference to learn about it. But what occurred to me is, "do I really?" That is: do I really know my own culture, or do I presume that my individual experiences and perception are universal. Which in turn raises doubts that I, in fact, do have a firm grasp of the culture of my audience - and whether anyone does. This seems to me an important consideration for user experience design.

Having traveled much and lived in many places, I'm well aware that American culture is by no means uniform, and that there are great differences in beliefs and attitudes from place to place - and yet when communicating through a given channel, especially mass-media such as the Internet, I am communicating to a broad audience of individuals with different cultures, whose experience and precipitating values and beliefs - the elements that compose their culture - are different from my own.

And in the UX profession, it is common to criticize clients and project sponsors for making much the same assumption. that the user of any given interface is "like me" in every way, and failing to consider that the user is very much unlike themselves, primarily in terms of their level of knowledge about the company, industry, and products, and needs more information and a simpler process. It strikes me that the UX Architect/Designer/Producer may be guilty of the very same things - having tunnel-vision. We are generally in a somewhat larger tunnel, but nonetheless constrained to our own myopic conceptions of users based on our personal experience of culture.

It's particularly poignant because I am currently living and working in San Antonio, Texas, a community on the border of the nation, with a distinct and unusual culture compared to other places I have been. And while the firm I work for is well attentive to the notion of serving their customers, and does extensive usability testing, it is generally with test subjects who are also within the San Antonio area - and who are members of very much the same culture.

I had much the same reaction to the foundational work in human-computer interaction done by Jared Spool, whose work is enlightening and highly respected, but whose research is based on a very narrow demographic: college students in southeastern Massachusetts. While I generally accept his findings and the recommendations based on them, there's always the nagging question of whether they are quite correct - especially when designing a site with a target market that does not match the demographics of his test subjects.

In the end, I don't know if there is a good answer to that question - for my own work, for Spool's research, or for anyone. I tend to doubt that there is any company or any scholar that has done a broader study, or done usability testing in a sufficiently broad array of geographic locations to form a truly representative sample of test subjects that would accurately represent the whole of the American market. And in that sense, user experience design may be inevitably tainted by some degree of self-reference and narrowness of vision.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Second Sale

I've noticed a pattern in advertisements I've seen lately - perhaps it's just coincidence - of making an astoundingly good offer in the pitch, and effectively negating that offer in the fine print. My sense, and my observation, is that prospective customers viewed a sweetheart deal with some suspicion - they know it's too good to be true, and are on the lookout for "the catch."

It makes me wonder what the marketers are thinking. Are they counting on the gullibility of customers to make the deal? Do they expect that a customer who accepts a deal won't back out when the vendor changes the price at the last moment? But more importantly: do they think that this is going to win a customer's business for the long term?

There is an incorrect assumption that customers will mindlessly purchase the same brands as they have purchased in the past to meet the same needs. This tends to bear out in reality - customers very often will repurchase - but for the word "mindlessly." The customer is mindful, and will repurchase only if their previous experience was satisfactory.

And in that way, dishonest promotional tactics undermine their own intent: the prospect who recognizes the dishonesty of the offer will not buy, will be galvanized against future offers, and will likely share the story with others. The prospect who does not recognize the dishonesty of the offer might buy, but in doing so will come to recognize that he has been swindled, and his unwillingness to be taken in a second time as well as his propensity to warn others will be exaggerated.

My sense is that a company that wants to escape this cycle would need to take a more long-term perspective to achieve greater long-term success: to look beyond the new customers marketers are bringing in, and emphasize the value of repeat customers - basing their metrics and the rewards and incentives to the marketing department on repeat customers.

In terms of strategic metrics, this means considering the longevity of customer relationships as the primary measure of success, and de-emphasizing first-time customers in favor of customers to whom the company has made a second sale.

If marketers were to focus on the second sale, my sense is much of the dishonesty in sales promotion would evaporate. It's terribly difficult to fool the same person twice, and to win the second sale, you must ensure that they are entirely satisfied with the first - end to end.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Designing the Mobile User Experience

I've added reading notes on Barbara Ballard's Designing the Mobile User Experience. It's a fairly good read, and takes a sensible approach to designing for the mobile device and user that's worth considering, in spite of the fact that the content of the book will become dated as technology and user behaviors progress.

The thrust of her argument merits consideration: that mobile is "different," that is, the way in which people use mobile devices is significantly different from the way in which they use desktop computers, which may explain why mobile has struggled to gain acceptance for over a decade now (the first phase of mobile mania started in 1999, when it was believed that people would pay for information services on primitive phones that could handle two 16-charqacter lines of text).

The main problem is that the design approach to mobile has been to miniaturize desktop applications and Web services, failing to consider that the mobile user uses their device while in motion, using one hand, in an environment of distractions, and for quick reference in the context of location. With that in mind, the reason most mobile applications have been terrible failures is clear: they are ported haphazardly from one channel to another without any though of the needs of the user in a very different channel.

The differences considered, most applications meant for the desktop are simply not suited to be carried over to the mobile platform, whereas the unique needs of the mobile user, given the context of use, suggest additional opportunities for applications that would be of little use to the desktop.

In all, the mobile channel requires a different approach - and until it is considered as a medium unto itself, rather than a miniaturized version of the personal computer, there is likely to be little success in exploiting the channel.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Reconciling Profit and Savings

Keynes reckons that in the aggregation of all production and consumption in a market can be viewed in terms of the following syllogism:
  1. Income = Consumption + Investment
  2. Savings = Income - Consumption
  3. Savings = (Consumption + Investment) - Consumption
  4. Savings = Investment
I have two objections. First, that the first equation seems to imply that a producer can increase his income by increasing his consumption or investment, which is plainly wrong. Income is derived by subtracting both consumption and investment from revenue. Second, that the income and consumption of the consumer are the same as the income and consumption of the producer, when they are in fact two different things.

  1. Producer Profit = Revenue - Producer Consumption - Capital Investment
  2. Consumer Savings = Consumer Income - Consumer Consumption
There seems to be no connection between the two, until you consider that in the aggregation of all production and consumption, the producers' revenue is equal to the consumers' consumption (the consumers having purchased everything they consumes from producers), and that the income of the consumer is equal to the labor costs of the producer (the act of production based upon labor and materials, but the materials being provided by labor of other producers).

I also have the sense that capital investment is wrongly identified as something separate from cost. Investment in a business is a cash outflow that is ultimately a cost of production. The differentiation of a machine that will be consumed by the act of production, slowly and over the course of a decade, from other materials that will be consumed immediately in the creation of the current product is a matter of accounting in order to pay taxes on an annual basis (to spread the long-term costs over a longer period of time). It is essentially a cost of production and, going by the reasoning of the last paragraph, it too must be considered a labor cost (the cost of building a machine being the labor cost to mine ore, refine metal, forge parts, etc.)

To revisit the premises:
  1. Producer Profit = Consumer Consumption - Labor Cost
  2. Consumer Savings = Labor Cost - Consumer Consumption
Just looking at the equations, this would seem to set up a system of perpetual degradation, where the laborers consume as much as they produce, and at the same cost, but there is nothing to cover the non-labor cost, which must be covered either out of consumer savings or producer income, until one or the other (or both) is depleted entirely.

To return to syllogisms, this boils down as follows:
  1. Producer Profit = Consumer Consumption - Labor Cost
  2. Consumer Savings = Labor Cost - Consumer Consumption
  3. Producer Profit = (Labor Cost - Consumer Savings) - Labor Cost
  4. Producer Profit = - Consumer Savings
This ultimately leads to the notion that there is a negative relationship (rather than a positive one, as Keynes concludes) between producer profit and consumer savings, which makes sense in the notion of exchange: the consumer can only save less by paying less for goods (decreasing producer profit) and the producer can only increase profit by charging more for goods (decreasing consumer savings).

However, my sense is that this overlooks the nature of production - in effect, something is produced by the act of production, that is of greater value than the inputs consumed by its production. It's simple enough to conceive that when producer and consumer are one person (a single individual who consumes what he produces), the "savings" or "profit" are any amount of production above the needs of consumption. So it is not necessarily a zero-sum equation. But when the tasks of production and consumption are split among two parties, it creates the sense that something is lost or destroyed, rather than created, by virtue of the act of production. This cannot be correct.

In the end, I think I'm only confusing myself further - and it's probably best to stumble forward and revisit this notion at a later time and figure out where I went wrong. If there's been any value to this meditation, it may be in understanding one of the fundamental flaws of Keynes's general theory.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Economic Ripple Effect

I've been reading on economics lately, and I'm stumbling across traces of a theory that doesn't seem to have been fully examined (or perhaps, I simply haven't read quite enough to find where it has been): that the interdependencies among industries and markets have a specific and aggregate ripple effect: that supply and demand for one good impact the supply and demand for specific other goods, and that each good has a potential impact on market demand for all goods.

The specific ripple effect is fairly simple to conceive, as it is generally evident on the large scale and has a significant impact on the demand of specific goods that are component materials of specific other goods.

It's no great leap of logic to understand that an immediate increase or decrease in the consumer demand for bread in a given market initially impacts the baker, whose reaction is to increase or decrease his production - thereby increasing or decreasing his demands for component materials for his own product. In that way, an increased demand for bread yields an increased demand for wheat.

The more general impact on demand for all goods in a market is derivative of the increased or reduced need for a specific component of production: labor. Just as the baker needs less what to make less bread, so does he need fewer workers to make the bread. However, the decrease in demand for labor has a more widespread effect on the market, in that the value given in exchange for labor (wages) is itself exchanged for a wide array of goods needed by the laborers.

This is clearly evident in the example of the "mill town" where the closing of a cotton mill is devastating not only to the farmers who grow cotton, but to the laborers who worked in the mill, whose income is eliminated and, as a result, all local merchants suffer a significant loss in business.

My sense is that this ripple effect is evident, to a lesser degree, in the broader market of goods, where a change in demand for a given good creates economic ripples throughout related industries and specific local economies. A 10% decrease in the demand for cloth leads to a 10% decrease in the demand for cotton and a 10% decrease in the demand for labor (more or less - the precise ratio of labor to materials varies).

Where demand of one good is decreased as a result of substitution of another good, the "general" ripples likely cancel one another out - labor is not eliminated, but merely transferred from one industry to another. Hence in the mill-town example, a decreased demand for cotton cloth as a result of substitution of wool would lead to a decreased demand for cotton as an agricultural product, an increase in the demand for raw wool, and no significant effect on the demand for labor (except as there are inequities of productivity in the separate industries).

I'm likely venturing into deeper waters at this point, and will end this note here.