Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Design of Everyday Things

Don Norman's Design of Everyday Things has been in my "to read" stack for quite some time, constantly getting bumped back in favor of something more germane to my present interest, but I finally made time to give it attention - and while I've no regrets for putting it off, I don't think the time I spent was a complete waste.

The book is very popular among designers, who seem to pay close attention to everything but the title: The Design of Everyday Things is about designing everyday things.  Light switches, faucets, doorknobs, and other devices that accomplish tasks of very little importance and require very little thought.   And the author provides excellent advice in that context.

The problem is that designers take his advice out of its context - to things that have significant rather than trivial functions, and to things that are not used every day.   It's all good and well to approach the design of a light switch with the idea that it should be easy to use, and that a person should be able to switch a light on or off with little or no conscious effort.

But when it comes to significant tasks that have serious consequences, mindlessness is not an ideal and can be quite dangerous.   You certainly wouldn't want to make turning off the cooling tower at a nuclear power facility to be something that can be done simply and without conscious effort.   Nor should planning a retirement investment portfolio be designed to be done with casual disregard.   Some things are important, can have serious consequences, and merit closer attention.

Norman does acknowledge this in his book, and even suggests methods that can be used to compel a user to slow down and pay attention to what he is doing to avoid unintentional and tragic consequences.  But these parts of the book, like the title, seem to have been ignored by those who advocate that everything should be simple and effortless.

His approach to this is actually quite clever: he first spells out the rules and principles of designing for simplicity, then provides a chapter that tells how each rule can be broken to intentionally add complexity to a device or process in instances in which it is warranted.

And this makes perfect sense: simplicity, like any other principle, is not a panacea but a choice to be applied where it has positive results (and to be avoided when it may have negative ones).   Given the way his work is misinterpreted and misapplied so broadly, perhaps it could use a chapter that explains to readers when to tell the difference.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Fully Loaded Costs

The notion of "cost" is understood to entail more than the money-price of a good or service, but it seems to be only vaguely considered from the perspective of the customer.

When it comes to their own activities, businesses are diligent in determining the fully-loaded cost of any proposed activity.  That is, a business purchasing a machine will include not only the cost of the machine, but the cost of the power to run it, the salaries of the workers who operate and maintain it, and the cost to dispose of it when its useful life has ended.   Cost accountants can be quite clever in identifying all the cash outlays that must be made in order to gain the benefit of a purchase.

I have never seen the same exercise performed with the same punctiliousness for the customer's evaluation of the fully-loaded cost of ownership.   It's likely because the firm feels that it is the customer's problem, and the customer's task to determine how much he ought to pay for something - though for a business that means to sell something to that customer, it's very much their task to predict this with better accuracy.

It's not that non-price costs are entirely ignored, just that they are dealt with very sloppily.   A firm that is seeking a retail location will show great interest in the distance a person will drive to shop a a given store, and will create bulls-eye maps that overlay population grids to determine a profitable location.   But willingness to drive is a rather imprecise reflection of the factors that cause a person to be willing to drive a given distance.  Driving to a store requires money and time - and it's highly likely that these can be calculated with greater precision than they presently are.

I have to concede that time, particularly a consumers time, is far more difficult to quantify.   When it comes to employees, the cost of time is their wage: if you pay them twelve dollars an hour, a task that takes thirty minutes to complete costs six dollars.   But because you do not pay customers for their time, does this mean that their time has no value, that it is worthless or free?  Perhaps to you, but not to them, and if you fail to respect the value of a customer's time, you will certainly fail to obtain or retain their patronage.

In comparing prices in areas that use different locations, economists pay greater attention to the notion of the value of time.   It is not merely a matter of converting the price in foreign currency to a domestic one, though that little trick often gets a great deal of attention from the ignorant:  things seem to be much cheaper overseas if you pay attention to the price and ignore the amount of time it takes to earn the money to purchase it.

Considered in that manner, it might be better to price a product in terms of the time involved - that is, in minutes instead of dollars.  A product that costs six dollars has a time-price of 30 minutes to a worker who earns twelve dollars an hour.   If it requires 10 minutes of driving (each way) and 20 minutes in the store, the product now costs him 70 minutes.   Add in the cost of gasoline and the taxes on the purchase, and it is now a cost of about 80 minutes.   Remonetize that, and 80 minutes at $12 an hour means that the "six dollar" product costs him $15.60 to obtain.   So the same customer would be better off paying nine dollars to purchase the product online and have it delivered to his home than he would to buy it for six at a store ten minutes from his home.

And this pertains only to the cost of acquisition.  The cost of use is another matter, which is the reason that products that are more convenient to use are of greater value to consumers.   A tool that will last five years and reduce the time required to perform a task that is done once a day by one minute represents a savings of 1,826 minutes of about $365 to the person who values their time at twelve dollars an hour.

I have the sense that I have become tedious - but these examples should underscore the point with which I opened: that the cost of a product is more than the money price, and significantly more in many instances.   Were this accounted for with greater precision, producers would understand the true cost of their product to the consumer, and have a more reliable measurement of the value proposition their product presents.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Importance Versus Urgency

Most commercial communication is predicated on the notion that a person who recognizes that their needs are important will purchase a product that is relevant to those needs.   It’s sound logic and entirely plausible, but messages that persuade a customer that a product is important do not have an impact on immediate sales.  This is because importance and urgency are two different things.

Human beings are notorious procrastinators, and in an environment in which they are constantly bombarded with things that demand their attention, procrastination (along with ignorance) is entirely necessary to avoid spending every moment in frenzy to satisfy all the demands on our attention.   So even if you are capable of convincing someone that your product is important, they are likely to disregard your overtures unless they also feel that it is urgent.

Urgency is the perception that something needs to be addressed right away – and it is a perception, in that logic doesn’t enter into the assessment of urgency.  The urgency of eating and drinking, particularly in developed countries, defies logical criteria: people feel the need to take a meal at an appointed time even if they are not hungry, and to have a beverage constantly within reach even if they are not thirsty.   Survival needs have nothing to do with the degree of urgency they feel.

Meanwhile, things that are very important are not regarded as urgent.  It’s particularly evident when it is necessary to act in the present for a need that will not occur until a future time.  Retirement savings are an excellent example: people recognize that they will need to save for retirement, and that the earlier they start in life the less difficult it will be to accumulate sufficient funds.  Yet the vast majority do not even think of it, particularly when it is twenty or more years in the future.

With this in mind, urgency is a more reliable predictor of human action than is importance.   This is likely a reason that sales promotion often ahs to be split off from advertising in marketing departments: advertising convinces its audience that something is important, promotion that it is urgent.

While the tactics that succeed in getting a person to regard a product as being important are straightforward (cause them to recognize their need and the product to be relevant), the tactics of urgency are not very well developed, and are so clumsy that they are ineffective.

Attempting to cause a person to feel fear and panic of an impending problem, or suggesting a problem will arise if they fail to act immediately, have been attempted so often that it has lost all credibility.  A melodramatic sales pitch is automatically regarded as false and is more often ignored simply for its tone.

Attempting to give a person the sense that an opportunity will be lost is also less effective that it once was, particularly in a competitive market.  The artificial “deadline” of a promotional event has less impact to a customer who has multiple options (what is “on sale” at one store this week will be “on sale” at another next week, and is probably available from a third vendor at a regular price that’s lower than either of the promotional ones).

In all, promoters are relegated to waiting for urgency to naturally occur, and left to deal with importance – in hopes that convincing someone that something is important will implant the brand in their mind for a time when they feel a natural sense of urgency to have it.  That tends to be effective, but the effects are not immediate.

It’s also worth noting that advertisers very often focus overmuch on importance, even for trivial products.  It is certain that every chewing gum brand has a staff of marketers who have devoted an inordinate amount of time and energy to mapping out the mental model of various market segments in various gum-buying scenarios to determine how best to associate their brand to the need.  It seems highly unlikely that the gum-buyer puts much deliberation into the decision, and merely chooses among options available at the time of need based on their superficial preferences.

But at that, it seems this line of thought has petered out and is moving in an altogether different direction.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Content Creation and Word of Mouth

The "rule" of 90/9/1, ascribed to various sources, maintains that 90% of Internet users are passive consumers of information, 9% are active consumers of information who will pass along content from other sources, and only 1% are creators of original content.   There are various sources that cite these figures - and while none of them provides a reference to the original research, the proportions seem entirely plausible.

Consider that very few individuals maintain blogs or personal websites, and even many of those are merely collections of content that has been gathered from other sources, so it's more likely that the 1% of "originators" may well be closer to  0.1% or even 0.01% - and in all the "voice" of the Internet is merely people repeating things that other people have said.

Until the advent of social media, user-generated content was largely a niche activity and was often communicated in closed environments (the limited number of participants in a bulletin board that was behind a password gateway).  But in the present day it is quite voluminous, highly visible, and is given greater credibility that company-sponsored content on the Internet.

However, given that the vast majority of people who communicate in social media are merely commenting on, sharing, or otherwise calling attention to something that someone else said rather than contributing something of their own to the conversation, the notion that the voice of the crowd will entirely replace traditional advertising seems to be ill-conceived.  The crowd is merely repeating things it heard elsewhere - so while people might not be hearing the message directly from the advertiser, the advertiser is still the point of origin and the crowd is more of a medium through which their message is spread.

Given that people who redistribute information are picking it up from another source, the voice of the advertiser may in fact be stronger than ever before.  In literal word-of-mouth promotion, the message was likely mutated by intention or fault of memory - people can often remember an interesting or funny commercial, but not the brand.  So when they speak of it, chances are the brand identity is stripped - but when they link to it, or cut-and-paste the content, the message is redistributed intact, complete with the identity components.

A common caution relates to the "telephone game" in which each person modifies a message as they repeat it to someone else - but this too is an inaccurate reflection of the manner in which messages are passed along in social media.    People do not rewrite an advertisers content - they link to it in its original source, or create a digital copy without modification.  At worst, they may excerpt a shorter message from a longer one, but it is not a common observation that they alter the substance of the message itself.

In all, this suggest that the "voice of the crowd" is less ominous than many would imply: the crowd is merely a flock of parrots, and the advertiser is still firmly in control of the message they deliver.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Healthy Conflict

It seems to me that I have been asked about half a dozen times over the past week, ‘How is your relationship with ______?” – in which ______ was a team member or stakeholder in a project that is altering the customer experience.   The way in which I answered these questions began to fall into a pattern, and it seems to be culminating into a general method of assessing working relationships.  So I’ve mulled over it a bit more, and here’s what I have come up with …

In general, my assessment of a working relationship seemed to be based largely on the level of conflict and the friction of negotiating toward a common goal and a strategy that was mutually acceptable.    I’ve commented before that I spend at least double the amount of time persuading others to support a design than I do crafting it, and all things considered that might be a gross understatement.

But to lurch back toward the point I was setting out to make, a good working relationship seems to be based on the manner in which the work product is negotiated, and I think I’ve arrived at a ratio of healthy conflict that defines a good working relationship:
  • 75% of the time, the other person trusts in my expertise and accepts my decisions.
  • 20% of the time, the other person questions my expertise, demands that I explain a decision, and then either accepts it or negotiates to a mutually acceptable modification.
  • 5% of the time, the other person completely ignores my expertise, digs in, and insists on having things done their way.
Here’s the reasoning I think that this ratio is about right:

75% Faith

A project team is assembled of people from certain areas – software developers, systems analysts, product managers, operations managers, marketers, and the like – each of whom is an expert in their domain of knowledge.  While they all contribute to the definition of the final solution, the negotiation between them must entail a high level of respect for the expertise of other people.

Said another way, a database programmer may have a suggestion for the way in which the product should be marketed – but should ultimately defer to the judgment of the marketer in decisions pertaining to marketing.  Just as the marketer may make a suggestion about the way in which he things the database should be schematized, but ultimately defer to the expertise of the database programmer.

Even so, I don’t think that an expert, however experienced and knowledgeable, should ever demand or expect complete faith in 100% of all instances.   If that ever happens, he has intimidated his colleagues to the point where they do not feel that they can question something they find to be  unusual, which is not by any means the sign of a healthy relationship.

20% Debate

Debate should account for about 20% of a healthy relationship.  This need not be a protracted argument to come to a decision, but may be as simple as someone asking “why do you propose to do it that way?” followed by an “oh, I see” after a brief explanation has been tendered.

A certain level of debate is healthy, in that it causes an expert to check himself from time to time, and be ready to explain any decision he has made.  Where that doesn’t happen, experts tend to become high on their own fumes and to be less diligent in their work, knowing that they will never be questioned.

There is also the possibility that a non-expert will contribute “out of the box” thinking that an expert will often fail to exercise – because expertise in an area is often based on assumptions of what will and will not work, and it sometimes takes a person who doesn’t accept that a given idea is impossible to get an expert to pause to explore whether it actually might be possible.

A lack of debate can also be a sign of a lack of engagement – a person who doesn’t care about something will not bother to ask questions or make arguments.  Or worse, it is a sign that the “expert really isn’t contributing any expertise, and is telling the rest of the group things that they already know.

5% Inflexibility

The last mode of interaction, inflexibility, is not at all healthy, but I have nonetheless decided to include it because it is entirely inevitable.   People in positions of power like to exercise their authority at times, and even the most complaisant and respectful leader still feels the need to wield his power to see his orders carried out without question.

That’s not to say that inflexibility is the sole demesne of executives and managers – as there are quite a few little tyrants in the lower echelons, people who insist on having their way as a method of feeling empowered, or who sense that if they do not interfere in the work of others they will be perceived as non-contributors.  While they are largely gnats in the grand scheme of things, their buzz can be quite the nuisance at times.

So perhaps the ideal ratio would eliminate this manner of behavior altogether, but I don’t expect it is a realistic expectation to do so, and as such I’ve included it as a “no more than” percentage rather than a desirable goal.

Possible Broader Applicability

While I have meditated on this in the context of a project team, my sense is that this notion of conflict and the ratio of types might be germane to other working relationships as ell: superior-to-subordinate, peer-to-peer, and so on.   But admittedly I haven’t thought much about that broader context, so this is merely a musing without much deliberation.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Increasing Human Efficiency

It is interesting, and more than a bit depressing, to read some of the classical works on topics such as management and economics - as it can very often be observed that a "new" trend is merely the revival of an idea that has been around for decades or centuries. And that there are many ideas that seem confounding simple - such that you can't read them without a sense of "of course this is so" and "why would anyone think otherwise" - but have been ignored or abandoned.

Reading Walter Dill Scott's book on Increasing Human Efficiency gave me exactly that sense.  Written in 1911, it outlines a number of ideas that seem entirely reasonable, and which have largely been ignored or forgotten over the course of the past century.   My sense is that productive workplaces employ at least some of the principles he mentions, and that unproductive ones ignore some or all of them.

There are so many principles in this book that are clearly beneficial to efficiency and effectiveness of work, and which are just as clearly being violated in many workplaces, that to do it justice would require re-typing the entire book - but to keep this meditation manageable, I'll focus on five ideas that seemed to strike a nerve.

The efficiency of work can only be improved by a change in the technique or technology by which it is done.  Simply insisting that men work faster and harder is insufficient.

Scott considers the practices of "scientific management" in which a manager observes his workers, notices the practices of those who are most efficient, and then teaches those practices to the less efficient worker in order to boost productivity.

Frank Gilbreth's work with masons is an excellent example: Gilbreth noticed the average worker used eighteen motions to lay a single brick, where the productive worker used but seven, and he was able to eliminate two of them.   By teaching a five-step process to a crew, he was able to boost the productivity from 40 bricks per hour per man to 120 - tripling the speed of work.

However, this practice does not seem to exist in the modern workplace.   Managers simply set production quotas without providing any indication of how they may be achieved: if you produced 1,000 units last month, you goal for this month is 1,100 or if you completed a task in thirty days you must now do it in twenty-eight.   Ask "how may I accomplish this?" and the answer will be "figure it out for yourself."

The bosses (who are not managing anything, merely bossing people around) do not even understand what a worker does, but insists that he must somehow figure out on his own a way to do it faster and better.  This is not scientific management by any means, and yet it is all too familiar to many workers.

In order to discover more efficient ways of working, the worker must be allowed to experiment with the process and technique by which he accomplishes a task.

Scott's insistence that men must be taught a process by which to work is mitigated by the insistence that they be provided some latitude in getting their work done: so long as their product is good and the rate of production is acceptable, they should be left alone.

The value in giving workers such latitude, and even being tolerant of some temporary decreases in productivity, is that they have the freedom to innovate - to deviate from standard practices and discover more efficient ways of working, which workers have an uncanny ability for doing.  If held too rigidly to standard procedures, the workers can only become as efficient as the procedure.

To discover a new method requires deviating from the prescribed method, in a process of trial and error to discover more efficient means of accomplishing a goal - with the risk that the new method may not be more efficient, and acceptance that a new method may be less efficient at first but be modified or habituated to gain proficiency.

But again, this does not happen. In the present day, workers are given the paradoxical command to "innovate while following procedures" - which is as logical as ordering them to "sit down while standing up."   It simply cannot be done, so workers end up following procedure - to attempt to innovate is to risk punishment merely for doing something in an unauthorized manner, and since the reward for success is paltry (if any at all) and the punishment of failure grievous, most workers regard innovation as an unacceptable risk.

When a worker's task is intellectual, more dependent on thought than physical action, he can only be productive if he is protected from distractions.

Scott gives special attention to the "intellectual worker," those who are in positions where the activity of their work is more mental than physical.   It would be entirely foolish to expect the task-worker to complete his work while he is constantly being physically jostled - and it is equally foolish to expect the mental-worker to give focus to his work while being constantly distracted.

This is clearly violated in the present workplace under the banner of "collaboration," which eliminates quiet places in the office in favor of creating an environment in which employees are constantly talking to one another, in meeting rooms or on the work floor, and having no opportunity to retreat to a quiet place and attend to the work that results from the conversation.

While it cannot be disputed that information exchange is a good thing, there can be too much of it.   In a circus-like environment in which there is too much noise and motion to remain focused on a thought for more than a few minutes, the mental worker simply cannot get tasks done in an efficient manner.   And yet, "open" office spaces with constant noise and distraction have come into fashion, in direct contradiction to Scott's principle of the necessity of concentration.

Loyalty is reciprocal.  An employer wins the loyalty of his workers by showing loyalty to them.  He cannot expect them to be attentive to his welfare unless he is attentive to theirs.

During the early industrial era, the workplace became a very unpleasant environment, and unions formed to protect the basic health and safety of workers, as well as to negotiate a fair wage, reasonable hours, and continuity of employment.  The result was a hostile relationship between employee and employer, and perhaps the worst in human history outside of the institution of slavery or serfdom.

An yet, even in his age of antipathy, there were stunning examples in which union workers would abdicate the terms of their contracts to give an extra effort to help employers in time of need: to work longer hours, accept less pay, and otherwise sacrifice for the good of their employers.

Scott was very quick to point out that "loyalty begets loyalty" and through real-world examples demonstrates that in every instance that workers were loyal to an employer during a time of crisis, the employer showed great loyalty to the workers well before the crisis arose.

There are many firms even in the present day that covet that level of devotion - and worse, who expect that level of devotion as a matter of course.   It is not uncommon for salaried workers to be expected to work fifty-hour weeks for no additional pay on a long-term basis (and sometimes on an ongoing basis), for exceptional performance to go unrewarded, for the annual increase in pay to be well below the increase in the cost of living.  And all of this from firms who wonder why employees have no loyalty to them.

Work becomes efficient when the worker is able to apply his skills in a consistent manner and discover methods of efficiency.  Any change disrupts his progress to efficiency, and constant change prevent him from ever becoming efficient.

Of all the various methods of increasing the efficiency of work, Scott considers habituation to be the most powerful.   The worker gains efficiency where there are consistent practices he may follow, devoting his attention to the things that are most important by being able to ignore the many things that are unimportant.   Any change in procedures, particularly for routine and inconsequential parts of a job, require attention and discipline until they can become routinized - and it is wholly unproductive if the practices that are changed are not contributing to production.

And yet, in the modern workplace, the pace of change is relentless.  Employees must constantly be attentive to the "new way" of doing something that is different to the "new way" it was done the month before.   It is insisted, without rationale, that changes bring improvement - but it is a consequence that constant change prevents efficiency from ever developing.  The employee is prodded from one awkward and unfamiliar way of doing things to another awkward and unfamiliar way, never becoming habituated enough to gain efficiency (and to reap the full benefit of the method prescribed).

It is not that change is universally undesirable, but should be mitigated: a change should be made when it provides an improvement to a process that creates greater efficiency in the work.  But in the present day, change is seldom explained - and it is wondered if it is ever considered in any meaningful way.   And moreover, many changes are implemented to create efficiency for non-productive staff (such as accounting clerks) by placing additional burden on productive staff (those who do the work to produce and deliver the product or service of the firm).


In all, I have the pessimistic sense that I should perhaps simply stop reading so much to and instead focus my attention on mindless acceptance of things such as they are.   Knowledge of a better way only makes the present ways more noxious - and discovering that the "better way" has existed for decades or centuries but has simply been ignored depresses me profoundly.