Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Six Immutable Laws of Mobile Business

I've added reading notes on The Six Immutable Laws of Mobile Business, a book which might have better been titled Six Observations Regarding the Japanese Mobile Market, as the book was almost exclusively focused on the phenomenon of mobile phones in Japan - a market that technology enthusiasts often (mis)represent as a glimpse into the future of mobile everywhere. Simply stated: it is not, but that doesn't mean it doesn't merit attention, as it certainly does.

First, many "facts" about the Japanese mobile market are either entirely fabricated or grossly exaggerated. The assertions that the vast majority of Japanese citizens use their cell phones as a payment method for everyday purchases and that cell phones are even ubiquitous in Japan among all demographic segments are patently false.

The danger in accepting such statements as true is that exaggeration and misrepresentation damages the credibility of assertions that seem equally hyperbolic and unbelievable but are, in fact, entirely true. This seems to divide opinions on the mobile channel between the extremes of the gullible and the incredulous - but given the degree to which the facts have been distorted, perhaps being suspicious of anything that is said is the more reasonable position to take.

Second, many legitimate facts about the Japanese mobile market are too readily dismissed as being something specific to the bizarre and upside-down culture of an Asian island people who in many ways seem to live in a bizarre parallel universe where everything is the exact opposite of the way things are anywhere else on earth. But as the authors point out, Japanese people use their mobile devices to get directions, check the weather, communicate with friends and family, and do many other things that are not culture-specific and could well be done by anyone in any nation.

But to give fair consideration to the counterpoint, much of what is witnessed the Japanese market is, in fact, culture-specific. For example, the Japanese are almost as extreme in their collectivism as Americans are in their individualism: most American companies do not cooperate with one another, and even when forced by necessity to work with one another, are constantly attempting to gain the upper hand; and most American consumers do not blindly follow trends, but are slower to make decisions about whether a given product is right for themselves rather than automatically going along with what everyone else seems to be buying.

Taken together, these issues make it worthwhile to get first-hand information from the marketplace itself, and read the interviews with the founders and executives of some of the major companies in the Japanese market to get a more realistic perspective of what has happened in Japan - some of which might shape the future of mobile in the global market.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Many Unhappy Returns

A 2008 study of product returns in the computer and electronics industry reported a curious statistic: 95% of products that are returned by their owners are in perfect working order. That's a staggering proportion, and a red flag that there is a serious industry-wide problem, though I don't get the sense that firms in the industry consider it to be their problem, or put much effort into solving it.

Unfortunately, the study failed to provide much in the way of details except to provide a few superficial comments - generally along the lines of "the product was fine, but the customer is not smart enough to use it." That's one possible interpretation - and it's very comfortable to assume that problems off this nature are the customer's fault, as the company has laid the blame elsewhere and can carry on business as usual.

From the perspective of the manufacturer, the product is "perfect" if it meets the design specifications; but from the customer's perspective, the product is useless if it does not deliver the benefit they sought to obtain (and were promised they would obtain) by purchasing it. If they can't figure out how to derive that benefit, then the product is broken, even if the manufacturer considers it to be in good working order.

The notion that customers are disinterested and lazy is a convenient but entirely invalid excuse. The level of frustration consumers express with products reflects their level of interest - if they didn't care, they wouldn't be upset. And the (enormous) amount of money spent on "how to" books and periodicals, not to mention the time spent reading them and seeking additional information from online resources, clearly demonstrates how industrious the customer is willing to be in seeking education on how to use things.

The problem for customers is: the manufacturers are not meeting them halfway. "Disinterested and lazy" is more accurate in terms of the manufacturer's approach to providing usable products - they put little effort into it, and don't seem much concerned: they make enough profit on the customers who don't return products to cover the loss of those who do, and so long as the difference is in their favor, that's good enough for them.

The problem for companies is: customers talk. In the present age, social media gives customers a method for expressing their frustration - every complaint made online is dent in your firm's esteem that damages your ability to attract and retain customers. Recognizing this, many firms have social media departments that seek to squelch complains - diverting resources to deal with problems that might better have been dedicated to preventing them.

This likely takes me further from shore, into the problems with the current way in which firms utilize social media - which merits separate consideration.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Social Media Spin Wars

I caught a couple of television commercials last night about reputation management that ran back-to-back, and found it to be an interesting juxtaposition that suggests a conflict in the are of reputation management that seems entirely misguided:

The first commercial was for a firm that enabled people to run background checks on others, primarily targeting people who use online dating services and want to find out if there's anything shady about a person they are considering a real-life encounter with.

The second commercial was for a firm that offered a service to people, primarily targeting professional job-seekers, who have a shady reputation and would like to either remove any item that would give a negative impression, or attempt to bury it in a lot of positive-reputation pieces that the company would whip up for them.

And it struck me: what a paradox is all this noise about reputation management, with some people wanting to find out the dirty truth about others, and others wanting to cover up the dirty truth about themselves, and companies getting paid on both ends.

How unfortunate it is for the firms in question, and how fortunate it is for the consumer, that these two particular advertisements ran back-to-back. A person who have to be exceedingly gullible to trust either of them, given that they both claim to be effective at doing exactly the opposite of one another.

What it all points to is that the reputation of "reputation" itself is in jeopardy. If you know that a person can merely hire a firm to hide the skeletons in their closet, can you really trust another firm that claims to be able to find them? That is, can you trust "the Internet" to tell you the truth?

Perhaps that's a rhetorical question, and perhaps it's exceedingly naive to believe that it ever did. Like any other communications medium, the Internet is a distorted reflection of reality, created by people who pump out information for the sake of controlling or at least influencing the thoughts and behavior of others.

But I did have the sense that this is what people were expecting of social media: to be able to get the "real" thoughts of "real" people in a medium that has become so overrun with marketing as to have lost all credibility. I suppose it was just a matter of time before Web 2.0 became more of the same, all over again.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Control, Convenience, and Control of Convenience

A snatch of conversation I couldn't help overhearing has got me thinking about two distinctly different approaches to the use of technology: control and convenience. My gut reaction is that the second is ultimately of greater value than the first, but that the notion of empowerment and control merits some consideration.

The bit of dialogue, or perhaps monologue, was about the use if cell phones to monitor houseplants - the person speaking was going on about how much he would like to be able to wire his home to his iPhone, install a sensor that would tell him when the lawn needed watering so he could get an instant message and press a button to feed the grass.

Aside of the obvious psychological issues, it seemed to me a half-baked idea: it the point of technology is to alleviate us of the necessity of annoying but necessary little tasks, wouldn't a better system use a hygrometer that communicates directly with a sprinkler system? That way, when the grass needs watering, it gets watered - without having to interrupt my day and require me even to push a button?

(Granted, the flaw in the notion is that a fully-automated system might put on the sprinklers at any given moment - but it should be simple enough to rig the system to water only at times when I'd be unlikely to be in the lawn, or have an override I could use on the rare occasions I'd be there - but that's entirely perpendicular to the thread.)

It struck me that these two perspectives, control and convenience, are quite common, and are largely matters of consumer preference. While I'd like to think that using technology to make a task easier is just a stepping stone on the path to making the task unnecessary, there's no denying that certain people prefer to have some modicum of control.

Perhaps it would be accurate to say that each person has differing preferences for different products: I'd be delighted by a system that transferred funds between checking and savings accounts to maximize interest earnings (a notion I've proposed to bankers, who took absolutely zero interest in the idea) but am entirely leery of a system that would automate the management of my investment portfolio (a system I have produced, in spite of the sense that I was doing something that would ultimately be unappealing and disadvantageous to consumers). So I want convenience in some tasks, control over others, and I don't sense that everyone would be in agreement about the level of control/convenience in every situation.

Ultimately, it's a product design decision that will lead to consumer preference of one solution or another - though ideally, a product would be designed to enable the customer to indicate and implement their own preferences for convenience or control.

While I still have the sense that control is still a step on the evolutionary path toward convenience, I also have to admit that not every consumer is comfortable making the transition from one to the other in every situation. Perhaps it's that I'm not yet ready to concede the point.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Practical Classification

"Taxonomy" and "ontology" sound like the substance of academic debate, but it's a subject of much interest to merchandising in the retail industry: when a vendor offers an array of products or services, how can he categorize them in a way that it makes it easy for the user to find? It's possible to take a cue from library science, as many companies have, and enter into the academic practices of categorization and classification. But taken too far, these can be detrimental rather than helpful.

The academic librarian is face with the challenge, given a vast amount of literature on a myriad of topics, of devising a categorization scheme that will result in a clear and understandable method for a person who wants a given book to be able to find it in the collection. The commercial bookseller is faced with exactly the same dilemma, so it would seem reasonable for him to take the same approach.

However, there is a difference between them: the bookseller actually cares that people are able to find the book that they are looking for, and will place it where they are likely to try to find it. The librarian does not: his interest is in having an orderly collection, according to his own concept of how things ought to be, and if people want to find something, they will simply have to learn his system.

Take the example of a single book Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea: it is a fiction story, translated from a foreign language, that expresses philosophical ideas. A bookstore owner would logically choose to have three copies in inventory: one in fiction, another in philosophy, a third in foreign books. A librarian would put it in one and only one place: P3Z, the "general" category of "language and literature." Look for it anywhere else, and you'll be disappointed.

This difference is critical to the quality of service they provide - I could expand on it, but a few questions should make this difference self-evident: When was the last time you walked into a library, at all? Did the staff at the library seem at all happy to see you? Was it easy to find what you were looking for, or did you have to learn the system in order to get what you wanted? Was it in any way a pleasant experience?

And, in case your answers to any of those questions was positive, did you look around to see how many other people were there? Chances are, it was a quiet and vacant place, and that if the library weren't paid for by taxes or the generosity of patrons, it would not be able to survive as a business.

That's not to say that retail is in all cases superior. Consider the layout of the brick-and-mortar department store: if you're looking for a pair of men's dress shoes, you might follow the map to the "men's" department and then the signage to the formal wear. And there, you will be told by a store clerk, in a matter as disdainful as that of any librarian, that you ought to have gone to the shoe department. The retailer can't be bothered to make things available where you would think to look for them, and you have to learn their system of categorization.

The Internet brings the opportunity for retailers to overcome the limitations of the physical store. It's simple and inexpensive to add a link to inventory under mens/formal/shoes as well as shoes/mens/formal (and even formal/shoes/men for the customer who might be inclined to look for them in that manner) - and it should not matter one bit to the retailer that they are listed in multiple places in inventory, as doing so doesn't require having multiple copies of the same item in different physical locations.

However, almost two decades after businesses took to the Internet, they still have yet to get it right. Some sites have broken out of rigid classification systems, but for distressingly many, they remain locked in the librarian mindset of one-and-only-one place for a given product, in a rigid classification system, that may not consider the perspective of the customer at all (many sites classify products according to their org chart).

And technology has done little to solve the problem. Having been through the exercise of evaluating content (mis)management systems a few years ago, I can confidently say that virtually all of them are based on a rigid classification system that insists that any given item can be in only one place. What was once indifference to the customer is now being shrugged off as a system requirement - but the net effect is still the same.

Ultiamtely, to goal of customer service is to serve the customer - and while that seems as self-evident as any other tautology, it's clearly a lesson that retailers have yet to learn, and a critical issue for user experience in which the operations and IT departments are unmotivated to consider a solution.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sales Mastery

I recently read Chuck Bauer's book on salesmanship, having mentioned some time ago that I had been looking for a reference on salesmanship that was worth the time to read. Too many books on the subject are clearly below-the-belt tactics for salesmen who approach their customers in the same way a con artist approaches a mark - and while this book strayed into that territory from time to time, it was generally good advice from a salesman who recognizes the value of a long-term relationship with a customer, which is a rare find.

Naturally, I'm not looking to get into the profession, but in designing user experiences in the context of a company that's looking to sell product, I've found that salesmanship is either absent (resulting in poor conversion rates) or done very poorly (resulting in a good conversion rate initially, but a customer who doesn't return when they need to repurchase or renew).

To my way of thinking, a long-term relationship doesn't begin with dirty tricks to get a prospect to make a purchase, and advice given on how to sell a product right away often neglects to consider the damage that using deceitful or subversive tactics does to the potential relationship.

The author's system for sales can be summed up in a few steps - which, after reading them, seem like so much common sense:
  1. Market yourself aggressively to people who don't know you.
  2. Listen carefully to the customer to learn their specific needs.
  3. Demonstrate how your product serves those specific needs.
  4. Address any lingering doubts or objections.
  5. Close the deal.
  6. Keep in contact so that they call you the next time they're in need (even if you miss this time).
There's a great deal more detail on each of these steps, which I don't feel the need to rehash here, but also a fair amount of information that seems to jeopardize your relationship with the customer in order to get an immediate sale out of them - which is likely a difficult balance to achieve.

I may need to look a bit further and do more reading to find an author who has an approach that I think is completely in line with the notion of customer relationship management - but for now, this one is as close as I've seen.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Communication Power

I've been meditating on a clumsy analysis of communication channels that I stumbled across, fairly certain that its creator was close to getting it right, his analysis was attempting to tackle too many factors all at once, which was leading him to the wrong conclusion. It's going to take some work to untangle it and sort it all out, but I think I've made a little progress in accurately simplifying communication power to a two-factor analysis.

"Accurately" is of importance: far too many theorists inaccurately simplify - and I realize by using two-factor analysis, a clumsy tool that has led to innumerable bad conclusions, I may be doing the same, but my sense is this is about right:

In its most fundamental sense, communication power can be distilled to the ability to send or receive information. The two are not necessarily related, and by comparing them in a binary sense (you either can or cannot communicate - though these are extremes on a spectrum in which communication is possible, but constrained - though I'm avoiding that level of complexity at this time), four categories of communication power are defined:

Interactive Communication

A fully interactive communication, in which a person is able to communicate to others and receive communication from others, is widely considered to be the "gold standard" of communication, to which technology should always aspire.

However, I disagree: from the perspective of both the sender and the receiver, there are instances in which interactive communication is not effective, efficient, or even desirable: there is an appropriate place for the other three categories of communication empowerment.

Neither is interactivity particularly high-tech. The most primitive form of communication, face-to-face discourse, is the most highly interactive form of communication that exists, and for all the effort that has been placed on research and development, technology is laughably impotent at achieving the same richness of interaction as a simple conversation.

Indifferent Broadcast

Indifferent broadcast pertains to a situation in which one party is fully capable of transmitting information, but incapable of receiving any information in return from the receiver. This is the mode of communication of most mass-media: newspapers, television, film, radio, billboards, and the like are all methods of broadcasting a message to an audience.

I've appended "indifferent" because, frankly, it applies to most individuals who seek to communicate in this manner. It is a highly egocentric method of communication chosen by those who are indifferent to their audience - in effect, it is the mind-set of an individual who declares "I will speak, and you will keep your mouth shut and listen to me." Such people are considered boorish in interpersonal communications, and it is no less so when a politician delivers a speech or an advertiser delivers a commercial message: they don't want to have a conversation, but to inflict their ideas upon a captive audience, and expect only their reception and obedience.

"Indifferent" not the same as "undifferentiated," though mass-media may give that perception. A letter written from one person to another is a one-way communication to a single recipient, and segmented marketing seeks to communicate to very specific audiences, but in a mode that is still broadcast communication.

Passive Reception

Passive reception is a mode in which a person is able to receive information but not send any information in return. Most generally, this is done when one is a compliant recipient of an indifferent broadcast - which may be done willingly (a person chooses to read a book or watch a television program) or unwillingly (a person cannot avoid a roadside billboard or an announcement made over a loudspeaker).

As with indifferent broadcast, passive reception may be a matter of ability or a matter of choice. A person can choose to be passively receptive to information that another party may be unintentionally broadcasting. This is common practice when interpreting nonverbal communication: in most instances, the transmitter is not aware of the information he is sending, and the recipient remains observant but not responsive to it to avoid calling attention to the fact that he is gathering information.

It is (wrongly) assumed that passive reception indicates agreement with and agreeableness to the information they are receiving, and that they will choose to act upon the information in the way that the transmitter intends: the interaction of indifferent broadcaster and passive receiver is inherent in most approaches to advertising and marketing.

Absence of Communication

In this situation, the individual can neither send nor receive information. The most extreme example of such a situation is that of a hermit, living alone and apart from other people in a remote location, who hasn't the ability to communicate at all.

However, it's not only at the extremes that absence of communication exists. Driving a car through a long tunnel, with no cell phone signal, puts a person in a situation where they are unable to communicate. Riding in an airplane also prevents communication - you may chat with fellow passengers, but can't have meaningful conversation with people in other locations.

Neither ins absence of communication entirely undesirable. There are times when a person simply wants to be left alone for a while: few people cared to be bothered by anyone in the workplace while on vacation, and virtually no-one cares to be interrupted when engrossed in a book.


Primarily, I must concede that this analysis is highly simplistic, and as such may not be entirely accurate (though at this time, I have a sense it is so), nor of much use in and of itself. It's not so much a discovery as the exploration of a common premise that is very often overlooked.

Another drawback is that I have not made much distinction between the ability and willingness of the parties involved. I have referred to it in some instances, but have not fully considered the differentiation between a person who is utterly unable to send or receive information and one who simply chooses not to do so.

A third note is that this has been a binary analysis, which assumes that a party is either fully able or fully unable (or willing) to send or receive information. I have a sense that it is common for a person to be able/willing to communicate to a degree, rather than all-or-noting, that bears further consideration.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Coming Soon: Mobile 2.0

The boom-crash phenomenon of the Internet in the late twentieth century resulted from traditional retailers (store and catalog) investing billions of dollars in extending their operations to the Internet without considering that the new channel might require them to take a different approach. It was not until there was a widespread catastrophe that most firms decided to start over, and try to get it right, after having learned the hard way that the Web is a thing unto itself, fundamentally different from traditional channels, and requiring a fundamentally different approach.

The emergence of the mobile channel has given them the opportunity to repeat the same mistake, and they seem to be doing an excellent job of it: companies are approaching the mobile channel in the exact same way they are approaching the Internet channel, as if the mobile device is merely a miniature computer. Many seem to be making their mobile presence a virtual clone of their Web sites, to enable (or compel) the customer to do the exact same things, in the exact same way, as they do in a fundamentally different channel, with very little regard for the nature of the channel or the way in which people seek to use it.

Sooner or later, they will achieve the exact same results: a complete and spectacular failure that will give them the incentive to do what they should have done in the first place ... consider mobile as a thing unto itself, fundamentally different from the Web channel, and requiring a fundamentally different approach.

From all I've seen and experienced, I don't hold out much hope that companies will see the mistake they are making before they venture too far and invest too much in going in a familiar direction that's altogether inappropriate for the new medium. I do expect that they will learn the same painful lesson and that, before much longer, we will see the rise of Mobile 2.0 - and hopefully, they'll only need two chances to get it right this time.