Friday, December 28, 2012

Think Twice

I recently read Michael Mauboussin's book that explores common flaws in decision-making processes: how otherwise intelligent people can make catastrophic decisions because they fall into patterns of thinking that defy common sense.   It's all to common, and I do wonder if a single book, especially one as random and disparate as this one, is a solution to the problem - but it is at the least a good start.

In general, the problem is decision-makers rush headlong into making the decision, without a moment's pause to consider how the decision will be made.  Solving problems and making decisions are handled in the same manner as most activities, they immediately fall into the pattern that has succeeded in the past, without considering whether the techniques are appropriate to the situation at hand.   As such, they set to work with the wrong tools, and the results are unsatisfactory.

Aside of that, there are problems with information-gathering: it is much more selective than most would care to admit.   We have certain expectations and are keen on information that is in line with what we anticipate, but dismiss anything that doesn't fit as being irrelevant, or focus or scope so tightly that we a fail to consider the breadth of relevant factors and possible outcomes.

Last are the logical processes themselves - practices such as inductive reasoning, reductive bias, pattern bias, and social influences that lead us to apply (and justify the application of) entirely irrational decision-making processes.

The author's solution to the problem can be distilled into a simple process of pausing to consider each of these factors, not merely in making a decision, but in deciding what steps to take and which tactics to employ in the decision-making process.  It sounds simple, perhaps simplistic, but also quite reasonable, and it seems worthwhile to  consider as an option for improving the overall process and outcome.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Choosing Your Customers

Choosing to serve certain customers often requires a firm to choose not to serve others. It may be difficult for a firm that wishes to serve every consumer to accept, but it is utterly inevitable that chasing one rabbit means not chasing any other. The struggle for firms is that, in attempting to grow their business to serve more customers, it diminishes the fitness of its service to their existing customers: a dilemma that persists against all efforts to overcome it.

The notion that firms choose customers seems a bit awkward, but it is a natural consequence of the decision to pursue a certain mission and undertake a certain set of activities, given a limited amount of resources. To manufacture shampoo is a choice to manufacture nothing else. To manufacture a shampoo for women is to choose not to consider the needs of men. To sell it for $20 a pint is to choose to ignore those who are unwilling to pay that price. To sell it in the northeastern US is to withhold it from those who live in other areas.  

That feels a bit like a logical fallacy - the negative consequences of a choice are not the primary intent - but at the same time I don't think firms are as reckless as people and are well aware that what they choose to do with their resources means not choosing to do other things.  It's called "opportunity cost" in economics classrooms, and a thorough and sound decision will have considered all alternatives and chosen the best course.   You're not culpable for murdering a person because two were drowning at once and you only had the time to save one of them - which is a bit melodramatic but well explains that a firm must choose to pursue one course of action because it does not have the resources to pursue them all.

Even so, it is nonetheless true that a decision to do one thing results in neglecting others, and this is not always bad.   You can't do everything well, but must and should focus on accomplishing what you can.   The problem is in accepting the opportunity costs of action.  To return to the metaphor of saving two drowning people implies that you can save one but not both - that is, you cannot half-save each of them, it's one or the other.   But when it comes to serving customers, you can indeed attempt to serve two at once, or feel that you have achieved success by half-serving each of them - though their perspective is that they have each been poorly served.   It seems a very bad decision.

What I am implicitly advocating is that to be effective, you must not only acknowledge the opportunity cost, but embrace it.    Choose to serve one market segment exceptionally well, rather that attempting to serve multiple segments poorly.   In effect, trying to serve more customers is to diminish quality of the customers you would otherwise have been able to serve well.

Returning to the earlier examples: To add more product lines is to neglect your flagship product. To rebrand or retool the shampoo as a unisex product after years as a women's brand will attract some men, but lose some women. To raise or lower the price will attract customers who think differently about their willingness to pay a given price for a given quality. To expand the geographic domain is to focus less attention on the territory you once commanded.

In general, I am left with the sense that firms face a choice, the extremes of which are to provide a limited selection of high-quality products to a well defined market segment, or to attempt to sell a broad array of low-quality products to a poorly defined market segment. It seems to boil down to the omnipresent argument of quality and price, but it touches on a larger concept of the market a firm chooses to serve, and that quality/price is merely one of many consequences of making such a choice.

Ultimately, it becomes a strategic decision: to determine how much you can do well - better, in fact, than anyone who might seek to compete with you - and accept those limitations. Obviously, a firm that imagines it can be everything to everyone is wrong. But the same problem expresses itself in more subtle ways when firms attempt to stretch even a little: to offer a new product line that has affinity to an existing one, to expand your market by one demographic factor, to make minor adjustments in price, or to make modest increases in territory.

Moreover, it is not as dramatic as saving one and leaving the rest to drown, but serving whom you can leaves the rest for others to serve.  You're not the only lifeguard on the beach.   Or more directly, you are not the only firm that provides service, and in most instances attempting to serve everyone means serving no-one particularly well.   Better to leave the other markets to other suppliers until you have the resources to pursue them yourself.

The success or failure is small, and one counterbalances the other in minor ways. A firm may not collapse overnight, but may experience a minute loss in profitability (even if revenue may seem to be increasing) over the course of many years, as the result of a bad decision - and pile of additional bad decisions as a way to make the original bad decision work out for the better.

It all comes back to the basic strategy: the importance of choosing your customers wisely, playing to your strengths, and making sure that your reach does not exceed your grasp. It's likely easier said than done, and likely easier to recognize in arrears when a mistake has been made.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Social Media Double Standard

The suggestion that the vast majority of businesses and nonprofit organizations don't get social media "right" seems to be based on the criterion of interactivity.   That is, they do not use it in an interactive manner, but as a one-way broadcast channel to pump out sales promotions and image marketing material, and otherwise have no interest in the community.   They are, in effect, scavengers and parasites of the social media rather than participants.

Advocates of social media must search long and hard to dredge up an example of a post that was made by an organization that is of genuine value to the audience.   At best, they can find a series of posts in a campaign that might qualify, if you are willing to suspend disbelief or ignore the hooks - but IO have yet to see an example of an organization, commercial or nonprofit, that consistently demonstrates audience-oriented behavior.  As a methodology, consider at the last 100 posts that have been made (hopefully, this would be three months or more, not a few weeks) and count the number that are anything but broadcast messages overtly promoting product or soliciting donations - it's likely far less than half.

However, I wonder if it's entirely fair to use interactivity as a sole criterion.  We don't apply the same standard to the behavior of people in social media - and while most don't seem to have an overt mercenary agenda (hire me, date me, give me something I want from you), the majority of things that people post are self-centered and superficial.    Strictly speaking, to participate at all is to presume that other people care what's going on in your life and want to hear about it, which is inherently egocentric.  And so it follows that people post are all about themselves, mostly for image purposes (showing others they are are clever, cool, and interesting) rather than any direct or specific motive to influence others to do something to benefit them (other than acknowledge how clever, cool, and interesting they are).

One ostensible reason that people engage in social media is to maintain a sense of connectedness to one another - such that when they "friend" or "follow" a you, it's because they want to know what's on your mind, and what's going on in your life, even if they are not directly included or impact it.   But even if you wish to disclaim that it gratifies your ego, it likely does, and that is why you are willing to feed their interest.   As a consequence, social conversation can be characterized by people blabbering about themselves, then listening to other people do the same - and in most instances the thread of a conversation, online or offline, is simply people taking turns speaking and listening.

It occurs to me that there's likely a way to assess this balance by comparing the ratio of original posts to the number of comments on other posts ... but that would be a stilted outcome: people do not comment on everything they read, and in many instances a post doesn't require a response.   So while it might seem to measure the level of interactivity, it is merely a measure of loquaciousness - unless you can track the number of things actually read (even if a they do not comment or respond) and not scrolled past, it's not an accurate estimation.

But that's a digression from the consideration of the behavior of organizations in social media.  The point I was staggering toward is that, when you consider their core motivation, companies and nonprofits don't behave all that much differently to the way that individuals behave.   Just like people, organizations post things that are aggrandize themselves, little interested in what others have to say except as a potential opportunity to make a self-serving comment.

The irony is, that's what they are encouraged to do, even by those who paradoxically suggest they should not do so.   Most (and possibly all) advice to businesses for approaching social media includes with particular emphasis the suggestion to conform to the rules and norms of the community.  Given that "normal" behavior for people in social media is self-centered, then most organizations are playing by the rules and behaving by the norms.

It begs the question as to whether this is worthwhile advice.   There are different rules and norms for marketing letters than there are for personal ones, and it would seem to follow that there would be different rules and norms for organizational behavior in social media, because we understand that it is carefully crafted (rather than extemporaneous) and overtly supportive of a mercenary agenda (rather than covertly or unintentionally so).

Ultimately, it begs the question as to whether it is fair to hold organizations to a separate set of standards in social media - if they behave just as people behave, are they really doing it wrong?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Service, Smothered in Arrogance

Firms in the US market seem to be evolving (or, arguably, returning)  to customer orientation.  There is slow and painstaking progress toward customer service rather than operational efficiency, long-term objectives rather than short-term, innovation rather than governance, and the like.   But throughout them all there is the subtle sense of something pernicious: a spirit of arrogance that slows and subverts progress toward the goal.

In a general sense, people seem to recognize, almost instinctively, the arrogance of the opposing argument, but that same sense is less attuned to that of their own.   That is to say: there is a great deal of arrogance on the part of those who argue in favor of customer service, long-term objectives, and innovation that, objectively considered, accounts for the lack of progress and the resolution of those who are resistant to it.

In more specific terms: even firms who seem to be growing the right culture are simultaneously smothering it with their own arrogance.  Every employee may be focused on customer service, but each has a different idea about what constitutes great service as well as the way in which it might be achieved and is far more fond of his own ideas than anything that someone else might suggest for achieving the very same goal - that much is inevitable and quite natural - but the winnowing process in which the various ideas are considered is infected with a virulent strain of narcissism, that is so widespread that it has gone beyond a psychological defect on the part of a few misguided individuals to a cultural one that has become typical of a depressing many.

In a culture of arrogance, ideas are not considered, but dismissed. There is a preference for the first idea, regardless of whether it has any merit, which is vigorously defended against any suggestion of an alternate course or objective.   Any culture or any individual that maintains that there can only be one right answer is smothered in arrogance, and will smother better ideas to avoid even considering that the first-blush conclusion or knee-jerk reaction may have been entirely wrong.

In a culture of arrogance, everyone may be encouraged to speak freely, but no-one will be heard.  The first mover has an advantage, to the disadvantage of ultimately achieving the best results, and it's the person who speaks longest and loudest rather than the one who has the most well-reasoned ideas that holds sway.   The notion of scholarly humility - which encourages us to accept the possibility we're wrong especially when we're at our most certain - is utterly unheard of.

In a culture of arrogance, information is solicited so that it may be dismissed.   The first mover's argument may not be based on facts, secondary research is chosen carefully to support a foregone conclusion, and primary research is rigged or subverted to gather evidence for a hypothesis rather than explore its veracity.

In a culture of arrogance, the quality of an idea is far less compelling than its popularity or the approval of those in positions of authority.  While lip-service is paid to innovation, tradition typically wins out when a decision is ratified by a ranking authority or relegated to the consensus of the irrational and uninformed.  Two plus two equals five when a person with an impressive job title says so, or when it is supported by the vote of lesser mortals who do not know the fundamentals of mathematics.

I could likely go on for a while, but sense I am already belaboring the point: that one of the greatest obstacles to progress is the arrogance of those who claim, and might even genuinely wish, to support progress.   And while there are far more immediate objectives to achieve toward the goal of evolving organizations to survive an increasingly competitive marketplace, it's likely that this merits some consideration before it becomes epidemic.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Misinformation Age

An article I read presented a study that suggested about 70% of customers are misinformed - such that the task of helping them select a product that is likely to meet their actual needs is made more difficult because the customers have done research on the internet and have been misled by inaccurate, incomplete, or misleading information.

I won't link to the article or the study because I find it to be specious, stilted, and unscientific. It was an informal survey done of salesman - whom I suspect to be strongly biased (to say the least) to dismiss any information that gives the customer the idea they don't need what the salesman wants to sell them. While I regard the survey as invalid, that's not to say it doesn't raise a very good point that would likely be supported by a less questionable investigation.

It speaks to the problem of half-wittedness, which I sense to be one of the major issues of the present age: a person who knows nothing is able to learn, but a person who knows something acts boldly and with confidence, even if the information he has is insufficient or wrong. Such people do a great deal of damage to themselves, and in some situation do a great deal of damage to others.

To better concretize the problem, consider the issue of medical information on the Internet: a person becomes very certain of his condition and the treatment he requires because of the incomplete and inaccurate information he is able to find online, even to the point that he becomes confrontational with a medical professional who is attempting to treat him.

If a doctor's diagnosis disagrees with what the patient has found online, he is likely to disregard the advice and regard the doctor as incompetent. The same problem is evident in a variety of situations: the misinformed patient, the misinformed customer, the misinformed executive, etc. In virtually any situation where information is taken into account when a decision is made, it has the potential to be poisoned by incomplete and inaccurate data - and given the degree to which people turn to the Internet as a tool for gathering information to make decisions, the potential is being fulfilled.

From what I have seen, social media is making the problem worse rather than better. When information from alternative sources disagrees with information from traditional sources, some people seem to believe that they have discovered something new or a truth that the establishment is attempting to prevent from leaking out, and they leverage social media to spread the disinformation.

Not only does this person spread misinformation, but social media metrics are based on the number of people who express an opinion, rather than the validity of the opinion itself. Therefor, a bad opinion that is widely discussed is given more prominence and, by some measures, more creditability that valid information.

This likely leads my meditation in a different direction than I had intended, so to drag it back on track ... the point I intended to work toward was that the amount of misinformation and the level of faith that is being placed in it makes it extremely difficult to provide good customer service. Where customers are misinformed, yet staunch in their belief that they have valid information, it is difficult to un-poison their minds and get them to recognize valid information.

The problem is so difficult that many firms seem to have given up even on trying: they give the customer exactly what the customer demands in order to please them immediately, but later find themselves in confrontations with dissatisfied customers because the product or service they specifically demanded did not achieve the outcome they had hoped for.

What results, in disturbingly many instances, is service providers that must defend their products against customers who found them to be unsatisfactory - by the wording of the contract, the print on the label, and the disclaimers on the Web site, the service provider has delivered as promised. This is generally a valid defense against consumer lawsuits, but it is also highly effective in preventing customer satisfaction.

There doesn't seem to be a singular solution to what has become a widespread problem - but it is a frequent, widespread, and persistent issue with which companies and brands must contend in the (mis)information age.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Customer Experience Fad

In one of the forums I frequent, someone issued a lengthy diatribe against customer experience - suggesting it was just snake oil and didn't do firms any good, and that many corporate bigwigs feel the same way.   I'm copying my response (a little different to what was posted to the forum because character limits compelled me to shorten it) here, as I think this attitude is worth considering  when making any suggestion to the contrary...


The concept of "customer experience" is fairly new and I cannot disagree that it has the distinct aroma of a fad.   Some practitioners are dishonest, and use CX as a label on the very same bunkum they sold as "intercompetitive synergistics" or whatever the popular thing happened to be called last year, and clients who don't understand what it means but want to buy some anyway, hand buckets of cash to anyone who promises to deliver - and are disappointed when the magic doesn't happen overnight.

You can't expect a C-level officer to admit he was mesmerized by buzzwords and failed to practice due diligence, disregarded the advice he paid for, or rolled up a program prematurely to admit he got fast-talked, willfully disregarded expertise, or lost his nerve too soon ... such an executive would seem incompetent.   He must let on that he made a sound decision and that CX just doesn't work.

The core principles that drive CX are difficult to refute: all income is given to a firm by customers, who assess their willingness to do business with the firm according to the experience they had - and whose word-of-mouth is the most credible source of information for others who are assessing whether engaging with the firm is worthwhile.   If customers have a positive experience of interacting with the firm and using the product, they will buy again and encourage others to do the same.   If they have a poor experience, they will take their business elsewhere and encourage others to do the same.   I don't think you can disagree with any of that that.

The problem within CX is that it is still very young.   Practitioners seek to understand what causes the customer to have a positive experience, and those who are intelligent and humble will readily admit customer satisfaction derives from a number of sources - the functional benefits of the product, the full price (which is more than the nominal money-price), the way they are treated by the firm in each interaction, what other people think of them for using the product, etc.    There is no single, simple answer, and many are clutching at straws.  Even the few who do research find there are factors they fail to identify, often revealed only when their plans are being executed.

Some of the factors that impact customer experience are not fully understood - and the reasons they are not understood are likely 20% that more study is needed to understand the factors, and 80% that the firm needs to understand how reasonable and well-researched theories can be put into practice, given the idiosyncrasies of their own customer base.   If their desire is genuine, it's likely that the firm was unwilling to invest the time and budget in doing sufficient research - to understand, before planing, before acting.

The more common problem in the business world is much more fundamental: the customer isn't sufficiently valued in the first place, which is why firms are unwilling to spend the time and money on understanding how to serve them better.   There's a great deal of navel-gazing and a desire to keep things the way they are, longing for the good old days when the customer would accept what ever was offered and kowtow to the provider because a single seller was the only source from which customers could get a specific product or service they needed ... and if they didn't like it, they would have to do without the product and suffer from unfulfilled needs because there was no other source.   That has changed and businesses must change, or cede the market to competitors who will.

However, some firms cherish business-as-usual so much that, when there is an opportunity to change their business processes to better serve the customers, they decide would rather keep their business processes than their customers.   So they reject the notion of customer experience, or compromise based on what little they are willing to do in order to avoid changing the business processes.   It's not until the customers leave in sufficient number that they realize that the firm does not exist by preserving its business practices, but by serving its customers.

What all of this implies is this: customer experience isn't something a firm can pay a consultant to do for them.   It has to start within, with a company that recognizes the customers are the source of all its revenue - and it must seek to understand the reasons customers are willing to do business with them, and be willing in turn to make the changes necessary to genuinely serve those needs and desires better than anyone else can.

Said another way: a business that doesn't understand and value its customers will likely hire consultants that don't understand or value them either - and the only good that will come of it is that the executives will have someone else to blame.

If you want to achieve real results, put real effort into it.   Hiring a consultant and letting them do what they will is tantamount to abdicating your own responsibility to discover and deliver the value your organization provides to the market.   Instead, seek to hire the help you need to understand what customers value, then hire the help you need to make the changes necessary to deliver an experience that achieves that end.   You must be very closely involved throughout, and not merely hand over the keys.

If you fail to be careful and deliberate, understanding what you're buying into, you will not achieve much except by accident ... but don't make out it's someone else's fault when that happens.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Scientific Selling

I've recently added reading notes for Scientific Selling, which discuses the value of applied psychology to the sales process - or more aptly, its application to the management of sales staff - largely stilted to promote the authors' own consulting services, but which nevertheless provides some insight into the possible application of valid science to the selling process.

It's an interesting read, as many books on the topic of sales are based on folksy wisdom and self-aggrandizing tall tales, neither of which contributes to an understanding of the topic or a sense of practical application that would be beneficial outside the idiosyncratic case-studies presented.

Aside of the obvious topic (selling and sales management), there are some valuable insights into the selection, hiring, training, and coaching of employees that might be valuable in any context.

There's also excellent food for thought that can be put to practical use when designing user interfaces that are intended to serve as a substitute for a "live" salesman or customer support representative. It's definitely worth taking into account when designing user experiences related to prospecting and selling.

I have the sense that this note is more in the nature of a book report than a meditation - just too many topics to reflect upon at the moment, and it's more of a reminder of myself to dig back through the book and explore some of them in future notes.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Compromising Experience

I noticed an off-brand of tomato sauce at the supermarket - it caught my eye because it was sold in a slightly larger can than the other brands between which it was shelved, and it struck me as an interesting and effective packaging gimmick - but on closer inspection, it led my thoughts in a different direction: to the way in which customer experience is compromised for other goals.

Specifically, the "large" off-brand can contained 16 ounces of product - an even pint - whereas the leading brands were sold in odd quantities, 15 ounces or 14.5 ounces.   Quite some time ago, most products were packaged in more or less even quantities (a 16-ounce pint, an 8-ounce cup, or a 4-ounce half-cup) and that today, most brands seem to offer slightly less (14 ounces, 7.5 ounces, 11 ounces) that don't even come out to an even quantity in metric units.

This is a common observation, and the knee-jerk reaction among people who notice is along the lines of "they are cheating me."  There's some argument that firms were faced with increasing ingredient costs and made a compromise: to keep the unit cost to the customer the same, they would reduce quantity per unit, so it's for the economic benefit of the customer that package sizes were reduced so the package price could stay the same.  I don't think this dismisses the complaint, especially since the producers who short their content during a crisis never seem to size their products back up to the previous standard when ingredient costs normalize.  Also, when you consider price-per-ounce, the customer is still paying more, and the producer is hoping they don't notice.

But more to the point, companies that make such decisions have clearly failed to consider the impact to customer experience.   That is to say that the producer didn't consider the consequences of downsizing their product after the financial exchange - specifically to the experience of the consumer who will be using the product after it has been purchased.

Obviously, a shopper buys tomato sauce because it is an ingredient in a recipe (I'm not aware people heat the stuff up and eat it like soup) - and the recipe calls for a pint of tomato sauce.   So in a situation where 16 ounces is needed and the product is sold in 14-ounce increments, the ultimate outcome is negative:

  • Compromise: the customer can buy one can and accept that the meal they make will taste slightly off due to the imbalance.   The conclusion: "Brand X makes my recipes taste worse"
  • Complexity: the customer can buy one can and adjust the remaining ingredients proportionally, doing the calculations to consider that if they use 14 ounces of tomato sauce rather than a pint, they would have to add 1.75 tablespoons of basil instead of two.  The conclusion: "Brand X makes cooking more complicated."
  • Dissatisfaction: Another consequence of the previous solution, downsizing the recipe to accommodate a smaller package, also means having less benefit (food) than is needed.  It's just a little less, bit it leads to the conclusion: "Brand X does not fully satisfy my needs."
  • Guilt: the customer can buy two cans, use 16 ounces, and throw the other twelve ounces away because it is not needed.   The conclusion "Brand X is wasteful."
  • Obligation: the customer who buys two cans and has leftover, and can't bear the guilt of throwing away perfectly good food, could find another use for the leftover 12 ounces.  The conclusion: "Brand X burdens me with additional tasks"
  • Disgust: the customer who has leftover and fails to make use of it quickly will eventually notice a smell of rotten tomato in his refrigerator, emanating from a container of leftover sauce that has turned foul.  The conclusion: "Brand X is disgusting"

I don't think that any of these conclusions are attributes a firm would like to be associated to its brand - nor do I think that if the full range of outcomes were considered, producers would have been so hasty to make this compromise.   All that was considered is that reducing package volume would enable the firm to maintain profit, and maybe get people to buy an extra unit once in a while.   And if customer experience were really considered, it would be clear that all of these problems are not worth saving a nickel or a dime on the purchase price.

It's worth noting that all of this is speculation - that customers have largely accepted the compromises above, though likely not because they had a choice: all a customer can do is decide whether to accept what is offered or undertake the effort to find other alternatives, and when their preferred brands and close competitors all made the same operational decision, the customer has to accept as fact that tomato sauce now comes in 15-ounce cans (for all brands) and to ratify the decision with their dollars.

It would be interesting to see if the emergence of a competitor (the off-brand that caught my eye) will lead the remaining brands to upsize their packages, but I don't expect that to be so.   People have strong loyalty to the brands they buy habitually and accept disappointment as a matter of course, and its likely that recipes that call for "a can" of product are used by the people whose palates are not that discerning to begin with.   It's a bit depressing, and very counterproductive to the general welfare ... but such is the way of things.

I recognize that I am lapsing in a cynical state of mind and meditating on this topic urther will likely not be productive - but to end with a quick summary of the points: decisions made for reasons of economy and efficiency can easily achieve their primary goals, but often at the cost of customer experience - and that it's worthwhile, and perhaps even critical in the long run, to pause for a moment to consider the full breadth of the consequences.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Broken But Usable

A site I use to track investments was still broken this morning - though I suspect that it wasn't the site itself, but one of the gateways, proxies, or whatnot that constitute the labyrinthine firewall at work was preventing the stylesheet from loading, so what I saw was a bit ugly - here's a screenshot of the "broken" and "normal" views of part of the screen:

What struck me as worth mentioning is that the broken site was still entirely usable.  For my immediate purposes, I still had an at-a-glance view of all the securities I was tracking (though I had to guess what the second symbol was and squint to see the first, third, and fourth), I could still click links to ancillary information such as the chart and board.   Within about ten minutes, the situation was rectified and back to normal, so I didn't get the chance to fiddle around with the other links and utilities - but by that point, I had all the information I originally wanted and was done with it.

I tried the same experiment with a different finance site I occasionally use - went into the browser settings and told it to ignore the stylesheet.  Not only did the display render in a completely unreadable manner, but none of the buttons worked, and most of them had disappeared.   It was completely hosed, useful for nothing at all.

I would very much like to give credit to the designers of the first site for making sure that it was usable even when conditions weren't perfect ... though I don't know for a fact that they even thought about it, and the way that the left column overlays the first column of the table suggests that the result is a lucky accident.   But I was nonetheless impressed by the fact that the site, while broken, was still completely usable, insofar as I needed it to be at the time.

This calls to mind some of the incidents I've had with my vehicle, as opposed to my wife's experience with hers.   I ran over rather a large piece of rebar, but the "self-healing tires" enabled me to get through my day just fine and have the tire replaced after work; another time, my transmission broke (I'm not mechanically inclined enough to be more specific than that) and the vehicle went into "limp-home" mode and enabled me to drive it, albeit very slowly, to a repair facility a few miles away.   Meanwhile, my wife once went out to her car to find it wouldn't start at all - the battery was fine, but the starter would not engage.  Why was this?  Because the parking brake sensor, which has absolutely nothing to do with the vehicle's ability to run (and safely), had failed and the onboard computer, noticing this picayune issue, went completely limp.  German engineering at its finest.

The point I'm getting at is that I expect, and feel I am right to expect, that the things I own will still work even when there is a minor defect and conditions are less than perfect.   Certainly, there are catastrophic errors that, when they occur, should cause the entire system to shut down and prevent any kind of interaction at all to prevent serious damage.   If my wife's brakes had failed, not just a parking brake sensor, shutting the system down and not letting her drive at all could prevent serious property damage, injury, and even death.   And I would be grateful that the designers had the foresight to prevent the vehicle from being driven.   But again, I can't give them credit for that - they had a system that stopped working altogether, likely by happenstance rather than intention, when a minor and inconsequential part failed.

Ultimately, this brings me to the notion that a site, product, or system of any kind that will operate only under perfect conditions and will break down completely when even something relatively minor goes wrong cannot be described as being well designed.   And given the way in which many products become entirely unusable when something small goes wrong (and especially that they are cheaper to replace entirely than repair, but that's a different rant entirely), I'm led to the sense that many of the products available today are, in spite of great effort, very poorly designed.   They just don't make them like they used to.