Tuesday, November 25, 2008

UX Book Club Sydney

UX Book Club has a new home at uxbookclub.org. Check out the site for details and add your name if you're interested. (If you've already sent your details via twitter or email, there's no need to add it again.)

This description has been posted to the IA Institute members list; and will go out to the IxDA list later day. But for those who aren't subscribed to either...

I'm thinking of starting up a UX Book Club in Sydney. The group would meet once a month (1 - see below), and would come together to discuss a particular UX book. The club would operate as follows:
  • Everyone who attends needs to read the nominated book (you won't be barred from entry, but it helps everyone get more out of the night);
  • Everyone needs to jot down and bring along: 2 things in the book that really struck a chord; and 1 thing they either hated, disagreed with; or don't understand.
  • The book would be within the practice of user experience, which might include books like Indi Young's Mental Models; Dan Saffer's Design Gestural Interfaces; Todd Zakiwarfel's Prototyping; and classics such as Don't Make Me Think; the Inmates Are Running the Asylum; etc.
  • The book should not be arduous to read!
  • Next Month's book will be announced at the current meeting.
  • Communication via twitter & through mailing lists like IAI-members, IxDA and some of the LinkedIn groups dealing with UX and/or IA.
In keeping with the book-club theme the location would be somewhere like a wine bar (or a bookstore), although the noise level has to be low, and be able to accommodate a group of 15-30 people.

As an added twist, each book might - where appropriate - include a film reference to watch along with reading the book. So, for example, Todd's book on prototyping - or Buxton's book on sketching - might be read in conjunction with a viewing of IronMan. Dan Saffer's book on gestural interfaces might be read in conjunction with a viewing of Minority Report or Quantum of Solace. People would be instructed to watch the film with the topic of the book in mind. An alternative - if a venue could be found - would be to show parts of the movie at the book club meeting, but I think it's more managable if people watch it themselves.

I know some of the authors who's books we'll be reading/critiquing follow this list: in principle, would you be willing to provide a signed copy of your book as a prize for the group? Would it get to be too much of a burden if this sort of thing sprang up in a bunch of different places and each one was asking for a freebie!?

Such a meeting would provide experienced folks with a chance to revisit some classics in a critical light; as well as getting an incentive to read some more current materials. And for less experienced folks it would provide them with a forum to ask those 'I don't get it' questions that they might otherwise never understand.

I haven't sorted out a location for the get-together; and it will probably not start meeting until after Christmas.

Do you think that would work? Do you know if anything similar has been tried (and failed) previously?

Note 1: There has been some discussion as to whether monthly would be too frequent. Thoughts on this point would be welcome.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Why I don't go to cinemas...

Over the years I've put a fairly large investment into our home theatre set up. We have a nice TV - not HD, but close; really good speakers - without being stupidly expensive; and good-quality wiring and layout to get the most from each component.

And, of course, we have a very nice, large, and extremely comfortable sofa: it can seat four people easily across, and still leaves room for a 5th & 6th if need be; or just a 5th person lain out in the corner.

We have a large living area, that flows straight on to the kitchen, so it's easy to hit the fridge for refreshments in the middle of the movie; grab a snack; make a coffee; pour a glass of wine etc. And the TV is wall-mounted, so you can easily see it from the kitchen - you don't miss the action while you're up and about.

As the home theatre has gotten better over the years, we've been seeing films at the cinema less and less. Instead, we buy DVDs and watch them at home.

Last Christmas we received a $100 Gift Card for the new Gold Class cinemas in Sydney (Greater Union, George St). We finally decided to take advantage of that, break out of our home-viewing habits, and go to see Quantum of Solace (new Bond film) at the cinema. Gold Class cinemas provide you with big comfy seats, food & drink service during the film; and a relatively small audience. All the benefits of home, but someone does all the hard work, and the cinema experience is always going to out-do our little set-up at home.

Ordering the tickets for the movie online was a pain in the ass, just to get the whole experience started. The booking process was singularly unhelpful, and the seat layout displayed during the selection stage didn't match the layout printed at the confirmation stage - so we had no idea whether our seats would be what we hoped. Getting the site to accept the Gift Card serial number was similarly painful, but after several attempts - and the realisation that Gift Cards were different to Gift Vouchers - we were successful. $82.50 later and we have our tickets.

Arriving at the cinema everything was good. We were there in plenty of time, but the foyer at the cinema has no signage to indicate where the Gold Class lounge is situated. After looking around blankly for a while we asked a staff member who pointed us upstairs and said "Through the glass doors". "Up there?" I asked. "Yes, we only have one set of glass doors." Right. Silly us for not knowing that already.

We placed an order for a gourmet pizza ($21); and two banana smoothies ($8.50 each). Asked for them to be brought in around the 30 minute mark of the film; paid; and waited for the theatre to open.

Five minutes before the scheduled opening time we were asked to head in; up some more stairs and into the theatre. We were shown to our seats and given a cursory demonstration of the seat controls - "The seat controls are located here." *Shrug* OK.

First things first: try out the seat controls. Foot rest: check; reclining: check. Look over to my wife - nothing. Controls are dead. Go off to find the stewardess who comes over; wiggles something in back of the seat and now it works.

The gourmet pizza place that delivers our pizza on a Friday night sends us two medium pizzas for around $30. The local cafe makes a mean banana smoothie - all fresh ingredients, natural yoghurt, honey, wheatgerm - all for $6.50.

The food and smoothies served up at the Gold Class cinema were very average by comparison. The pizza was passable, but not worth the $21. The smoothies were really milkshakes, and used that banana-flavoured concentrate instead of real bananas. When they arrived during the movie, the waitress stood in front of me (blocking my view of the screen) while she fluffed around re-arranging the tray table between us. Eventually the food and drinks were served; the waitress left. And apparently someone significant had been killed, rather spectacularly and gruesomely.

The whole point of the Gold Class cinema is that it should be substantially better than any other movie viewing experience. The cinema operators seem to think that they can get away with serving over-priced, sub-standard food and drinks and people will put up with it because it's better than seeing a movie in the cheap seats among the great unwashed.

But guess what: I get a better movie experience at home! No-one gets in my way while the film's running. The ingredients are fresh; and I can at least pause the film to get the pizza when it arrives. Hell, we can make our own smoothies for a quarter of the price, and they'll be just the way we like them.

Our outing cost us a total of $120.50 + bus fares. For the same price I could have bought two new-release HD DVD titles; pizza; wine; smoothies; and be able to watch them again and again at any time.

Greater Union blew an opportunity to get my wife and I out of the house and seeing new release films with them - and paying a premium for the better seats etc - by realising that we weren't going to compare the experience with what we get in the general-admission cinemas. A little bit of care with the service; serving up food and drinks that matched or bettered the fare available from a decent local cafe; and we'd be coming back for more.

Instead, I think next time we'll be buying the movie when it's released on DVD, and enjoying ourselves at home with friends.

PS: The movie itself was enjoyable. Worth seeing, if only to see the continuing evolution of the Bond character in this new, grittier incarnation.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The problem with banks and social media

I've been doing some thinking recently about the different ways corporations of varying types could use social media as a way to reach out and communicate more openly and effectively with their customers, staff, shareholders, and the community. I've been thinking about it in the context of extending the brand values of the organisation into social media and what it means for different organisations to be 'authentic' in their engagement. And I've been thinking about how to make that social engagement a consistent part of the overall brand experience.

And I keep running into problems with two particular types of organisations: Government; and Banks.

Government & Social Media
There is so much that government - at all levels - can do with social media. The possibility for engagement with the community around policy development, social justice, customer service and law reform is just incredible; and that's without getting into the campaign and electioneering side of things we've seen recently (that's more politics than government, though).

The problem I see with Government using social media revolves around policy. Policies are formal statements of the government department's position on a particular topic. Policies are concrete guidelines, and as such aren't really open for interpretation or discussion. Which makes it hard for front-line departmental staff to communicate openly about issues except by quoting the relevant policy.

So while there's a lot of potential for Government to use social media, they also need to put in place a strategy for handling situations honestly, openly, and with real intent to listen.

Banks & Social Media
We put a lot of faith in our banks. They hold our mortgages; they hold our cash; they transfer money to other companies when we ask them to, to pay off our bills, or donate money, or simply move funds around.

We need to trust our banks; all our financial institutions. And as we've seen recently, that trust is both critical to the smooth operation of our financial markets; and incredibly fragile. Social media, and the increased level of engagement that comes from it, places that trust at risk. At least, that's how it looks when you let all of your front-line employees - any employee - interact with any customer, or potential customer, in an open and transparent manner.

I mean, as much as we like the idea that our bank will be honest and own up to making a mistake; what we'd prefer more is a bank that doesn't make mistakes in the first place. The thing is: I know they sometimes make mistakes. Sometimes systems screw up; people get the process wrong; hit the wrong button; type in the wrong amount; and the wrong amount of money ends up in the wrong account.

What I'd prefer, when that happens, is that they be honest with me. You know - own up to their mistake, and tell me what they're doing to a) make it right; and b) stop it happening again. Seth Godin put it like this:

"I'd replace the expensive sponsorships and buildings with something more valuable, quicker to market and far more efficient: people. Real people, trustworthy people, honest people... people who take their time, look you in the eye, answer the phone and keep their promises. Not as easy to implement as writing a big check for the Super Bowl, but a lot more effective." - Seth Godin

So yes, it's difficult. And yes, there are risks. But if you keep screwin' with your customers: taking their money; making a huge profit; not being honest with them; and not providing good, honest service... they'll join a community bank; or go somewhere else. And you'll have no-one to blame but yourself.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The importance of reflection

We've all been in situations in our professional lives where things didn't go exactly according to plan. But how often do we take the time to sit down and take the time to reflect on where it all went wrong?

There are any number of ways in which we can stuff things up. It's a sad fact of life that we makes mistakes - spectacularly so at times. None of us are perfect; and, more importantly, most of us are constantly trying to expand our skill set, experience, and knowledge. Learning is a critical aspect of our professional lives, and one of the best ways to learn is to just give it a try. And when you give things a try, sometimes you'll get it wrong.

Get used to it.

More importantly, if you really want to get the most out of the failure as a learning experience, you need to go back and think critically about what went wrong.

In order to learn from our mistakes our reflection needs to include several components:
  1. Reflection is best done in proximity to the event itself;
  2. Be objective;
  3. Look at the problem from a range of different perspectives;
  4. Explore different possibilities for avoiding such errors in the future;
  5. Commit to improve and do better next time.
1. Reflect quickly
It's important to take the time to look back at the events while they're still clear in your head. The longer you wait the harder it will be to remember exactly what happened, and a lot of the details will be lost.

2. Be Objective
This is probably one of the most important elements of good reflection and learning. It's normal to feel angry, frustrated, or just plain stupid when things go wrong. While you're in that frame of mind is the wrong time to try to reflect on the problem. Wait until you've calmed down; get some distance - but not too much! Don't forget point 1.

Objectivity is necessary for the reflection to really provide any value. If you're not looking objectively at the situation, then it's likely that a lot of what's going through your head is more blame than responsibility. Reflecting should be an opportunity for you to ask: 'What did I do wrong?' 'What can I do better next time?'

If you find yourself cataloguing all the instances where other people stuffed up, then I suggest you give it a rest for a while and come back when you have a bit more distance. What others did wrong is not the focus of the exercise.

3. Different Perspectives
A good way to uncover insights into why things went awry is to put yourself into the shoes of some of the other actors in the situation - client, colleagues, family etc. Try to look at the situation from their perspective: what were their expectations? How did the actual events match those expectations? Were they being listened to? What would they have seen?

If possible, and if you have the opportunity, it can be useful to actually discuss the events with others. Not as a formal de-brief - although these can be good for the project team - but as a way to gain an extra dimension to the problem. Remember, the idea here is to gain a better understanding of the path events took so that you can start to look at ways to avoid the same problem in the future.

4. Explore possibilities
Thinking about our mistakes can be painful; and something that we'd like to get over quickly. One way to do that is to come up with one good idea for not making the mistake in the future and calling a job well done.

But like most ideation activities, the first ideas are often not the best. Treat reflection in the same way: throw down a whole bunch of ideas and then start going through them. Look at each possible solution both in terms of how it might have affected the mistake for the better; and whether there would possibly be any further consequences down the track. The last thing you want to do is take a different tack next time and make things worse!

5. Commit to doing it better
OK, so you've thought about your mistakes; looked at it from different perspectives; come up with a few ideas that you think would work in the future. For many people, that's the end of it. When the same situation arises in the future, they fall into the exact same behaviour; make the same decisions; and the same mistakes occur.

The point of reflecting on our mistakes is to make ourselves better at that activity in the future. But it usually takes an explicit commitment on our parts before that change in behaviour, thinking, and action comes together and actually results in a different approach next time.

Things to reflect on...
Short answer: everything. A meeting that goes pear-shaped; a design document that is completed misunderstood; a decision that cascades into a project disaster (budget, time, etc); taking a bad job/client; a clash with a colleague.

It can also be interesting, and useful, to spend time reflecting on things that we've seen or read - articles, books, a design, a product, a presentation. In this case, the aim is to think about how we can fit this idea or concept into our knowledge and make use of it in future.

I don't have time to think!
This is a pretty common reaction whenever the topic of reflection comes up: I don't have time to sit and think. So let me ask you: do you have time to make the same mistakes over and over again.

I was once told, without any hint of irony, that I wasn't paid to sit around and think. That was, and remains, perhaps the most short-sighted thing I've ever heard.

I once read that senior managers should spend at least 25% of their time thinking about the future of their company; and another 25% reflecting on the past. Whenever I mention that to people in senior roles they can't help but laugh. It seems ridiculous that we might spend that much time 'not doing any real work'. But again I ask: if you're not learning from your mistakes, then what 'real work' are you really doing?

Do you take the time to reflect? Don't you think you should?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Sample Size Oddities on UXMatters

My latest column for UXMatters was published over night. Sample Size Oddities - http://www.uxmatters.com/MT/archives/000352.php

"It might seem counterintuitive, but the larger the proportion of a population that holds a given opinion, the fewer people you need to interview when doing user research. Conversely, the smaller the minority of people who share an opinion, the more people you need to interview.

Mariana Da Silva has written an article about sample sizes in market research—or user research—titled “The More the Merrier.” In the article, Mariana made a comment that has caused some consternation—and for good reason."

Take a read, and let me know what you think.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

They're not 'volunteers'...

The October 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review carries a feature story on the ways in which organizations can harness the power of the customer-base to enhance the product or service on offer. The article: "The Contribution Revolution" by Scott Cook - sounds like a good article on the use of customer engagement in business, but instead highlights the lack of understanding of social media in business.

We'll get to the negative aspect of the article shortly. On the plus side The Contribution Revolution puts forward a model for a 'user contribution system' - new phrase; makes a good TLA - UCS. The UCS describes the different types of user contribution - active/passive; aggregates content/stuff for sale/behavioural data/resources. Utilising the power of such contribution can provide companies with a number of solid, fundamental benefits:
  • Reduced costs
  • Increased scalability
  • Competitive advantage
The article goes on to talk about the ways in which user contribution can help your company. These include:
  • customer service
  • marketing
  • employee support (intranet-based)
  • capital resources
  • design and development
  • production
There aren't really any great surprises in here for anyone familiar with social media and customer engagement, with the possible exception of 'capital resources'. So lets take a more detailed look at that item.

Capital Resources
The example offered here is Skype. Their voice-over-IP service was built using existing infrastructure - the Internet - and relies on the processing capacity of your computer instead of needing network infrastructure of their own. This is one notion of social media or user contribution that isn't widely discussed: in addition to contributing their own time, ideas, and passion - they also bring their own hardware infrastructure to the party.

This is true of all the video uploaded to youtube: the production work - what there is of it - is carried out on the contributors' own equipment. It's true of the applications submitted to Apple's appstore (for iPhones and iPod Touch) and those in use on Facebook - strong contributors to the value proposition of those services.

The bad part...
OK, so far we've seen a fairly uncontroversial discussion of the ways in which an organization can open up it's boundaries a little and reap some of the rewards discussed above. However, let me come back to the article title, in full this time: "The Contribution Revolution: letting volunteers build your business".

The choice of 'volunteers' as the label to apply to contributors in this context is rather unfortunate. It reinforces an 'us' and 'them' mentality that is at the heart of many organizations' difficulties in understanding the power of customer engagement strategies and the use of social media.

It explains why the section on Customer Service talks about company-sponsored forums rather than strategies for going out and engaging with customers wherever they may happen to be. This is why we see companies struggling to stem a tide of negative sentiment through strategies centred on the creation of 'controlled' public spaces. The aim is to control the message rather than to seriously understand the issues and address them. And companies are scared of such negativity in the public domain; they don't understand the frustration that drives such negativity; and so they assign reasons and motivations that speak to this lack of understanding rather than recognising the root cause lies with them.

It also explains why the article doesn't talk at all about customer engagement occuring beyond the bounds of the organization in channels such as Twitter. To be honest, the article doesn't cover engagement strategies at all. It doesn't cover the need for authenticity and transparency in customer engagement: look at the recent farce perpetrated by the National Australia Bank with their uBank social media experiment; or the robot-like early attempts by Telstra on Twitter. At least Telstra seems to be improving (@bigpondteam) in that issues are no longer being shuttled off-channel to be dealt with 'quietly'.

To characterise the social media and co-creation movements as a form of volunteerism is ludicrous. These trends represent a blurring of the lines demarcing the boundaries of traditional businesses. They represent a change in the economics of product and service design, and manufacturing; a fundamental shift from concrete and discrete corporate entities to networked entities whose boundaries are amorphous at best.