Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Growing Pains

It's said that the value in studying history is in being able to avoid mistakes of the past - but that never seems to happen. Instead, we end up recognizing that people in the past made the exact same mistakes we are making today, and at least find some consolation in the fact that we are not the only ones to have been so painfully stupid.

Case in point, I've been reading David Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy, which was written in 1821, and have recognized that much of the turmoil of the modern economy derives from the same sources that caused problems in another land, two centuries ago. They probably happened well before that, but no-one thought to write it down for future generations ... or perhaps they merely had the wisdom to recognize that there was little point in writing it down, because future generations wouldn't accept the fact that their "new" ideas were really just a rehash of old ideas, and that the old ideas didn't work out so well the first time.

As an example, take Ricardo's chapter on Machinery. At the time Ricardo was writing, the industrial revolution was gathering steam - in some cases, literally gathering steam, in the boilers of steam engines that mechanized industrial production. This meant that a greater quantity of goods could be produced by a smaller number of workers, and that the net result would mean that goods were available in greater supply and cheaper prices.

How can that not be good for everyone? Quite simply: if producers need fewer laborers, it creates widespread unemployment; so while there is the capacity to produce a greater number of goods, there were less people who were able to purchase those goods once they have been purchased.

When technology is introduced in broad manner, it creates unemployment in a broad manner, and sends the economy into a tailspin: producers implement technology that requires fewer workers, people whose jobs have been eliminated lose their income and cannot purchase the products, producers (even those who have not benefitted from technology) need to produce fewer products, so they lay off more workers, even more people no longer have income to purchase products, even fewer products are purchased, and so on.

Since Ricardo's book is about political economy, he goes into detail about the ways in which the State panics and attempts to legislate itself out of the problem - with tariffs, subsidies, price controls, wage controls, and all manner of "cures" that only serve to prevent the economic system from making the natural adjustment to restore stability. I don't see going into that here, as I'd like to keep this notebook clear of political topics, and Ricardo does a good enough job of explaining them in the original manuscript.

The point I'm reaching for is that the economic troubles of the present age are merely echoes of the past, lessons that should have been learned but have instead been ignored, and as such, the ideas of "old" economists still have value centuries later, thousands of miles away, and in an economy people claim to be so different that the lessons of the past no longer apply.

And to compound the irony, Ricardo made the very same observation of the panic in his own age. Long before industrial machinery put many craftsmen out of work, the use of horses and oxen put many agricultural laborers out of work. Ultimately, the result was beneficial, and the welfare of society as a whole was greatly improved, but there were decades during which many felt the growing pains of technological advancement.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Half-Witted Recruiting

Two things happened that likely wouldn't have set my wheels turning, except that they happened at about the same time: I was reading an article about an innovative experiment in recruiting talent and then received an e-mail from a recruiter that showed how the potential of even current technology is being thoroughly wasted.

The Promising Future

The article I was reading (no link, it was on paper) had to do with using text analysis of Facebook postings to identify people who are not happy with their jobs, even temporarily, and are in a state of mind where the chance of getting them to consider an opportunity is much increased.

The details were a bit sketchy, which I take to mean that they either haven't got it quite worked out, want to keep it a secret, or some combination of the two. However, the kernel of the idea is quite brilliant: by analyzing the tone (specifically, word choices) of Facebook comments, you can determine the mood of a person and how it changes over time.

In a simplistic sense, if a person uses terms that express negative emotions, or even just lukewarm ones, more often than they use terms that express positive emotions, it's reasonable to consider that they are not in a happy state of mind. It doesn't necessarily have to be in posts that refer specifically to their job - being as work is such a significant part of life, if your general outlook on life is dour, chances are your job has something to do with it.

The ratio of negative-to-positive is telling, but less significant than the way in which this ratio changes over time. That is, a person tends to have a penchant to be optimistic or pessimistic in general, but when he seems more pessimistic and dejected than usual, chances are that he's in the right state of mind to be open to the prospect of making a significant life-change.

What's more, this is not a conscious choice. Especially when it comes to work, people are prone to keeping up appearances and hiding negative sentiments - but when they write, especially in casual communications, the words they choose at any given moment tend to be a more accurate indication of their state of mind.

What this means to recruiting is that if you find a talented individual who is already "happily" employed, you can keep an eye on him to detect when he might be open to an offer to make a change. This seems an entirely plausible notion, and a boon to those who do active recruiting.

The Dreadful Present

Around the same time I was reading the article, an e-mail came in from a recruiter who wanted to feel me out about an opening at his firm (or a client he was recruiting for - they're always vague on that account). The problem was, it was a copywriting job - something that would have been appealing to me (and for which I would have been better qualified to do) twenty years ago.

The sender had likely used software that performed text-matching and found "copywriter" on my LinkedIn profile and thus flagged me as a potential candidate because I had previous experience. I don't know how it went from there, whether the software wasn't smart enough to read the dates and notice that I'd moved on in my career a long time ago, or if the recruiter simply didn't consider the information before spamming out a note to everyone who had ever worked as a copywriter.

Whatever the case, contacting me about that particular position was mistake that showed the recruiter didn't invest much time or effort, and left me less positively disposed toward himself and his firm - until the incident has faded from memory, I'll likely hold them in low regard even if they approach me about an appropriate opportunity.

Don't get me wrong: I am impressed to some degree whenever someone leverages technology in an attempt to be efficient in their operations, even if they are not quite as careful as they ought to be. And it's also impressive when a firm has the vision to know what kind of talent they need and the initiative to go out and find it, rather than merely posting a job opening and hiring the best of whatever happens to wash up on their shores. Even if they haven't gotten it quite right yet, it does show some level of intelligence and effort.

But while gathering resumes that contain desired keywords and sending out e-mail enables a firm to be more proactive in recruiting talent than one who posts a job opening and hopes someone qualified turns up, it is still objectively dreadful that this represents the best they can do to find the talent they need, and likely indicates a need for better software that will filter through user profiles and at least pay attention to dates, or a more attentive user who will pay attention to the data his software gathers.


Putting the two together, we have a promising new technology that will help recruiters recognize when a qualified candidate might be in the proper emotional state to consider an offer, but it is layered on top of dreadful old technology that makes it impossible for them to identify which candidates would be worth watching - or worse, the dreadful old mindset that they don't need to be proactive in recruiting and shouldn't put much thought or effort into their initial overture to a candidate.

All in all, it seems like there's still a great deal of work yet to do in providing innovative technical solutions in the HR industry.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Scanner Panel Data

There's a bit of an uproar lately over Target's use of scanner panel data to analyze customer purchases to determine changes in customer lifestyle: in this instance, they found that one shopper was purchasing items that are commonly purchased by women who are pregnant and sent her a mailer advertising maternity clothing.

It turns out their analysis was accurate: the customer actually was pregnant. It also turns out that the customer was a teenaged girl, and her father was unaware of her condition - so what happened was that the father first went to the store and threw a tantrum about Target sending am inappropriate advert to his daughter, then apologizing a few days later when she admitted her condition to him and he realized the advertisement was entirely appropriate.

The public reaction to the incident (or at least the reaction the media seems to want to provoke in the public) is fear and outrage that companies are invading the most private aspects of our lives, but this strikes me as melodramatic and wrong-headed. Which is to say, it strikes me as being typical of the media.

It shouldn't be shocking news to anyone that stores that issue discount cards are collecting scanner panel data and compiling databases of what customers purchase. They've been doing so for well over a decade. Perhaps it should be shocking news that companies are actually doing something with the information rather than ritually collecting data simply because they can, and even more so that one company, for one customer, actually made an accurate an intelligent prediction.

In regards to privacy concerns, purchases at a store are not private, though they do disclose much about our private lives. I don't think you have grounds to feel invaded when the clerk at the grocery store knows what you're having for dinner out when you show up on a Saturday afternoon and purchase two steaks and a sack of charcoal. Perhaps it' a little less comfortable when he figures out your religion based on the fact that he's been at the register the past five Fridays when you bought fish, but it's still not an amazing incident ... except that a clerk would have the capacity to recognize a single customer and notice a pattern of behavior, given that they deal with hundreds of people every day.

I tend to be impressed, rather than shocked, when this sort of thing happens. To my way of thinking, paying attention to your customers and learning their preferences is a characteristic of good customer service - and being able to make good suggestions based on what you discover takes service to the next level. Such things should happen more often than they presently do, especially given computer technology that enables retailers have a virtually flawless memory of what each customer purchases and perform more accurate and astute analyses of their purchasing history.

Granted, the incident with Target and the pregnant teenager caused some embarrassment, but the company shouldn't be embarrassed about paying attention to customers and trying to provide better service - rather the father should be embarrassed for being less attentive to his daughter's behavior than the store where she sometimes shops has been.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Service versus Policy

Thanks to Chris Brogan for finding this video clip - years ago, one of my marketing professors showed this in class to demonstrate how rigid adherence to policy and procedure can result in terrible customer service - it's well worth two minutes of your time:

I'd ruminate further, but it speaks for itself.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

How Dumb Is Your User?

I've been looking into game design lately, the relevance of which to user experience I have previously considered, and came across an interesting argument that has broader applications. The short version is: the dumber your audience, the more detail they need to understand what you are trying to convey.

In the context of gaming, an intelligent and imaginative player needs just a hint of detail, and his mind will do the rest. The example was early text-based adventure games in which the would provide a few scant details, such as "you are in a cavern; there is a torch on the north wall and a door on the south that is slightly ajar." This is all the detail needed for the player to project himself into that environment and see it with his mind's eye. In contrast, modern adventure games present lavishly detailed virtual worlds for users who may lack the imagination to become mentally engrossed if they were given scant detail.

It's very much like the old contrast between reading a book and watching a video. A book indicates "a gaunt man with deep-set eyes" and leaves the reader to imagine what this character actually looks like, whereas a video presentation presents a complete visual depiction of an actor, leaving nothing to the imagination. Some people can't "get" the picture from a description in a book, and need more assistance. Some people can, and resent an author who belabors them with lengthy descriptions that prevent them from thinking for themselves.

Ultimately, the experience exists in the mind of the user, and the designer of an experience provides cues and is, or ought to be, highly attentive to the choice he makes in the level of detail he provides which requires the user to complete the scene or prevents them from doing so. It's said that Ernest Hemingway could paint an entire scene in a single, short sentence, by providing a few basic details - but it would be more accurate to say that readers who enjoy his work are able to visualize a scene from only a few basic details.

While I don't necessarily agree with the suggestion that only stupid people need details, I'm inclined to agree with the converse: that a user must have a certain level of mental capacity to enjoy, or even understand, a depiction in which he has to use his own mind to complete the details.

Aside of entertainment venues, this difference also pertains to more mundane experiences, such as the design of a screen that enables a user to perform a relatively complicated financial transaction. The minimalist maxim of "less is more" leads us to strip away all the extraneous details in order to make the interaction simple for the user - but in this sense, the removal of help text, guidance, illustration, instruction, prediction, and all the "clutter" makes the interaction less understandable and more intimidating to the user who is not experienced.

An example to concretize this: the data the user needs to provide to set up a 401K is very basic: one text field to indicate what percentage of their salary to invest, six more to indicate how it should be apportioned between six investment options, and a submit button.

From a functional perspective, that's all the user needs, and a user who is familiar with the concept of investing and the options provided can proceed with confidence; whereas a user who is not familiar needs much more coaching to understand the implications of his selections. He's going to need a lot more information, with pictures (charts and graphs), to understand the choices he is making and conceptualize the probable outcomes.

Could the unsophisticated user accomplish his task using a sparse interface? Probably so, at least insofar as he could bumble through the task itself, typing in numbers without fully understanding the consequences of his choices, and setting aside or struggling through his uncertainty. He might even be happy with the outcome, though at the moment of performing the task, he would be clueless as to what that might be.

Could the sophisticated user accomplish his task using a detailed interface? Almost certainly. He might complain about the clutter, but unless the design is really poor, it shouldn't get in his way or slow him down, and the excess detail provided would at best be a minor nuisance, at worst an insult to his intelligence that would lead him to wonder if he was working with the right kind of firm.

And specific to this example, setting up a 401K is something that many people do - even people with very little knowledge or conceptual ability. As such, the designer must accommodate users with a broad range of investment knowledge. Other examples might be drawn from products where the user is presumed to closer to the extremes of inexperience (buying an annuity) or experience (using derivatives to collar an equity) ... or even from outside the realm of financial services (contrast the knowledge of the person who buys a t-shirt versus one who buys a spectrometer).

Getting back to the point, one of he fundamental considerations of user experience design is: how dumb is your user? Overestimate his intelligence, and you risk alienating those with less; underestimate it, and you risk alienating those with more.

Where, by the nature of the transaction, we can predict that users will be skewed to one side or the other of intelligence, imagination, creativity, sophistication, experience, etc. the design choices become clear. Where a product has a broader appeal, there is a consideration of how much elaboration the user will need to get through it - there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and any attempt to be all-encompassing is at best a weak compromise.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

What You See Isn't What You Get

A clever blogger posted some images of fast food items, contrasting them with pictures of the actual items that he purchased at the same restaurants. To him, it was largely an exercise in photography, attempting to shoot the items from the same angles and the same lighting as it was depicted in marketing materials, but the contrast is interesting ...

Here is the advertising shot from Macdonald's own web site, the idealized vision of what the Big Mac ought to be.

I don't think anyone, anywhere, ever has been served a Big Mac that looked at all like this.

It's not permissible by law (anymore) to use mock-food for the item being advertised, so this is likely a real burger, very carefully assembled, and likely what the corporate office really wants its franchisees to offer customers.

Here is a depiction of what "Dario D" posted as the burger he actually got.

This is snagged from his blog, "Aphalia" - it's worth visiting to see what he got from other restaurants as well, as the Big Mac is far from the worst example Dario shows, but I figured it would be the easiest to find additional images of this particular item on Flickr.

To make sure that Dario was being honest about the actual offerings, and not going out of his way to mash the burger and make it appear unattractive, I grabbed five photos from Flickr.

This first snap comes from OPBuzz on Flickr. It's not as lopsided, shows a bit more vegetation, but is generally more attractive than Dario's example.
Another Flickr example, from "The Food Pornographer," seems about the same: less lopsided, and showing a little more greenery.

If anything, this example suggests that Dario at least attempted to straighten up the burger he used.
From scotttdd2 on Flickr, this is probably the worst of the lot. To be fair, the photographer mentioned it was in an overseas location (Egypt, I think), but even so, it's reasonable to expect that if a brand sells franchises in remote locations, they accept the responsibility of preserving the same quality.
Another example, from seattlekenny on Flickr, shows a bit more beef and a lot less vegetation. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but neither is it quite what is depicted.
Fianlly, markthedoc on Flickr captured what might be considered the closest of these examples to the idealized Big Mac.

The most likely question this raises is: how does Mcdonald's get away with serving a product that is so far removed from the one depicted in its advertising? And the most likely answer is: because the customer will accept it.

Technically, the customer is getting the product that they have been promised - the burg served has all the components shown (two all-beef patties, "special" sauce, lettuce, cheese, and so on) in roughly the same proportions as promised by the photograph and the flavor and nutritional value (such as they are) of the product are the same if it's assembled with care or slopped together. Laugh about it, complain about it, but when you unwrap your order to find a big sloppy mess, you eat it - and in the end, that's proof of acceptance.

It would be highly unlikely that the practice of showing one thing and selling another would be acceptable for any other class of product. If car dealers widely sold vehicles that were smashed and dented, with scratched paint and torn upholstery, consumers likely wouldn't stand for it. Technically, the seller would still be delivering an engine, four wheels, and a chassis - just as the lopsided and wilted burgers shown above technically have all the ingredients promised to the buyer, albeit in various quantities and states of disarray.

But there seems to be a lower standard for food products in general. In spite of Ray Croc's best efforts to make his burgers standardized and precise as any factory product, the quality and freshness of food ingredients varies greatly, and even if a franchisee took great pains to attempt to offer the ideal version offered in advertising, he likely could not do so.

And in fairness, I don't sense they have the same problem with their other offerings - fries, McNuggets, and even the shorter sandwiches are generally well-executed, but the Big Mac is just a sloppy pile of food that defies conformity. Considered that way, its rebellious and individualistic nature seems almost endearing, in theory at least.

On the other hand, I have to wonder if what I'm seeing here really is the best they can do - and while I'd like to think you could find a Big Mac "in the wild" that more closely resembled the version depicted in advertising, I also think that if such a product existed, someone might have captured a photo.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Selling to the Affluent

I read, with some interest, Matt Oechsli's book on Selling to the Affluent, which is based on a few studies he has done of customers who have an annual income of $100K or higher - primarily, a study done for the financial services industry (financial advisors and wealth management firms), but it seems to have broader implications for the consumer market.

Most of it simply echoes what has been said for years about high-ticket purchases: when making major purchases, customers are resistant to sales tactics that might be used for consumer goods - they seek suggestions from people they know, do a lot of research before contacting vendors, and place a high level of concern not only on the value of the product, but the reputation of the provider and the quality of after-sale service and support they can expect to receive.

What's largely unique to the "affluent" customer is their degree of independence in making decisions: other people and media sources can make them aware of the existence of a product, and can provide information for them to consider (if they believe the source to be reliable), but ultimately their make a purchasing decisions based on their own judgment. As such, the bandwagon approach to marketing, as well as any of th tactics that leverage social influence to override a person's resistance, are not only ineffective, but counterproductive.

But again, this gets back to Marketing 101 principles of "soft" selling versus "hard" selling - although, as I recall, this was considered in light of the product itself, regardless of the qualities of the consumer. If the product has benefits and the buyer can be convinced, by means of logic, that the benefits are worth the cost, than a soft selling approach is required. If the product has no such benefits, then it's time to get "creative" with marketing tactics, convince the person they should buy the product for reasons other than the benefits it delivers. This always seemed greasy to me, but there are a lot of products for which logic fails and, admittedly, there seems to be no other way to move them.

Switching to the perspective of the customer seems a bit more rational - as what one customer would purchase after "soft" persuasion may be a "hard" sell to another, or a given consumer might be more tractable by one method than another.

I dispute the suggestion that this mind-set applies only to people of a certain income level. The methodology of the author's study focused exclusively on this group of customers - so it's fair to say that these behaviors are a quality of the affluent classification, but not necessarily unique to or characteristic of them. I'd be more comfortable accepting the assertion that these qualities are characteristics of the affluent consumer had the author done a broader study and found the qualities absent, or significantly less pronounced, at lower income levels.

As such, I have the sense that the same behaviors likely apply to any mindful consumer, regardless of their level of income. But perhaps there's some corruption of cause and effect: a person who is mindful of their expenses is likely to be savvy enough to amass wealth and become affluent, and given that 99.4% of affluent persons made their own fortunes rather than inheriting them, it's likely that people at lower levels of income who are mindful about expenses will eventually become affluent.

This may be of interest to businesses that seek to serve customers who have become affluent, but who are completely indifferent to them until they have achieved a certain level of income. If it were possible to flag a customer at age 25 or 30 who is already showing the tendencies of an affluent customer and make contact with them prior to their becoming affluent, it could be give them considerable advantage against firms who don't show up until a person has a certain level of income (at which point, their competitors are all knocking on the same doors).

Friday, February 3, 2012

Nonprofit Brands

I had an encounter today with the kind of person who answer their own rhetorical questions. In this instance, the question was “What do nonprofits know about branding? Nothing!” I wasn’t enjoying the conversation and wanted to get away from the [erspn as quickly as possible, so I just let it go – but I’ve thought about that remark since, and am somewhat confounded by it.

If anything, brand (the reputation of the firm) is far more important to a nonprofit organization than it is to any commercial enterprise, and for the very reason some people assume that it isn’t important at all: the nonprofit organization has no product or service to offer.

Think about it this way: a lot of people who shop at a Wal-Mart will express a strong negative opinion about the brand. The list of grievances against the retailer is documented, with no small amount of proof, on several different Web sites. There are many other companies, and even entire industries, held in extremely low regard by the same people who continue to purchase products and services from them.

If consumers feel a firm offers the best product, the lowest price, or is simply more convenient than driving two blocks to do business with a more reputable firm, that gives them a reason (or perhaps an excuse) to do business with one that they find to be wholly deplorable. I could rant about the hypocrisy of that, but that would be hypocritical of me – and it takes this meditation into a different direction than I intended.

When it comes to nonprofits, there is no benefit to the donor or volunteer that would lead them to feel compelled to give over their money or their time to an organization whose brand is tarnished. There is no reason/excuse for anyone to give time or money to a dishonorable charity, and it’s far easier not to do so at all.

And in that sense, brand is far more important in the nonprofit sector than in the commercial sector, because it’s all they have.