Posts tagged “software”

Adventures in Consumption

Here’s a bunch of examples of surprise, delight, dismay and beyond from my recent interactions in the consumo-sphere.

From the travel section at The Container Store. Lots of fun little bottles for packing your unguents and potions for travel. Nalgene bottles are guaranteed not to leak, even in the unpressurized airplane cargo hold. Given that the most you can carry onto a plane under TSA regulations is 3 oz., that seems like a likely size. Nalgene doesn’t make that size, despite sufficient demand that The Container Store has printed up a special sign to try and deflect the inevitable inquiries. What are those conversations like between the Nalgene sales rep and the buyer from The Container Store?

Paying online for the San Francisco Chronicle. In addition to the cost of the paper, I can also add a tip for the carrier, or donate some money to NIE. Not a misspelled Monty Python reference, it’s Newspapers in Education (I Googled). You’d imagine they’d get more uptake if they told us what it was they are asking for money for.

From the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “No peeking” (and “come back”) is so much nicer than “keep out.” And so knowing; of course when you see an installation-in-progress you are curious! The SFMOMA acknowledges that curiosity and harnesses the energy behind it to encourage you, rather than discourage you.

The menu at Oyaji in San Francisco. We see the risk of software that uses default form entries when you end up with Spider Roll that consists of “Give a brief description of the dish.”

At Crate and Barrel, shoppers can send a text to the manager to give feedback about their shopping experience. I hadn’t heard of this service (from recent Google acquisition TalkBin) before.

A travel poster advertising Alaska. And bears. Funny, friendly bears. Who, if you read the news, keep eating people.

A poster from a local cafe advertising Elizabeth’s range of services. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more tangible demonstration of the importance of specializing in your positioning. While I’m sure Elizabeth is wonderful and if I got to know her I’d trust with everything including yard maintenance and meal preparation, but to a new customer, someone who is qualified to look after precious offspring isn’t therefore qualified to look after precious animals (and in fact my be less qualified…do you want your toddler in a house full of someone else’s dogs?). Pick what you are good at and sell the one thing. If you need to diversity, create a range of separate messages.

Rooms at the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle have lovely specialized bottles of hair care products that reflect their brand and overall attitude. Unlike most hotels with their tiny (3 oz.) sample bottles, these are big, easy-to-handle bottles like you might have at home. A sign warns you that it’ll cost you $25 to take them home, so you know it’s good stuff. Mind you, on the housekeeping cart are these ketchup-and-mustard-evoking-bottles with stick-on labels that are used to refill those lovely bottles. Delightfulness denied.

Pike’s Place Market in Seattle. Past the faulty grammar (How the elephant got in my pajamas, I’ll never know!) the motivation for this extreme warning is clear enough.

The ice cream menu at Cold Stone Creamery. Random, unfunny, unintegrated product name puns. One evokes James Bond, but why? None of the others do. Other names are silly but decidedly not clever. My favorite is Cookie Minster, made with mint, so you’d think it’d be Cookie Mintster but no. Not that.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from julienorvaisas] StatSheet Is Writing Sports Stories With Software [] – [And you thought mainstream sports writing was formulaic now…] I asked Michael W. White, a specialist in the field of natural language generation, for his professional opinion of the quality of the writing. We visited the StatSheet site for Ohio State’s team and looked at the write-up of its Nov. 12 season opener, written expressly for Buckeyes fans: ”Ohio State Gets 102-61 Monster Win Over North Carolina A&T.” “Ohio State has already started living up to monumental expectations with a good first game,” it began. “On November 12th on their home court, the Buckeyes waxed the Aggies, 102-61.” The story had 10 sentences and 156 words. Over all, Professor White said, it read “pretty well.” He praised the first sentence as very good and said the use of “waxed” in the second was a nice touch. Then he pointed out some glitches. It was a bit overeager to show that Ohio State was undefeated so far this season, when its record was still just 1-0.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • This isn’t the page of a magazine, this is my desktop [Reddit] – (With link to screenshot of PC desktop at The tv plays youtube, the middle speaker controls volume while the one on the left and right open up Rhythmbox and VLC, the cabinets are notepads, the trashbin is clearly a widget, the clock and alarm clock actually work, the books also serve as launchers, the top bar with the date lets me know of future events. I created the desktop for fun, but don't really recommend it as screenlets seem to use a lot of RAM.
  • Bob and Beyond: A Microsoft Insider Remembers [Technologizer] – [Tandy Trower relates several – ultimately unsuccessful – attempts at Microsoft to ship a UI that leverages key research from Nass and Reeves about the social interactions people have with any technology. In his view, there is tremendous value if it's done right and it wasn't ever done right.] The Office team picked up Microsoft Agent for their next release, but opted not to use the characters I had created as they preferred their own unique ones. To avoid the past user-reported annoyances, they gave users more control over when the character would appear, but did little to reform its behavior when it was present. So, you still had the same cognitive disconnect between the character’s reaction to your actions in the application’s primary interface. The character just became a sugar coating for the Help interface, which, if it failed to come up with useful results, left the user unimpressed and thinking that the character was not very useful.
  • Japanese Food Companies Seek Growth Abroad [] – [What will this mean to collectors/fans of Foreign Groceries 🙂 ] Ichiro Nakamura, spokesman for Lotte in Japan, said that the 400 versions of Koala’s March cookies — some smile and some cry, some hold musical instruments and some play sports — are much more challenging to manufacture than people might think. “We have a special technology that puffs up the koala-shaped cookies so there is hollow space inside where soft chocolate can be injected later,” Mr. Nakamura said. “And unless you have the right technology, the cookies are going to break easily when packed into boxes.”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Sherry Turkle is Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and a sociologist. – She has focused her research on psychoanalysis and culture and on the psychology of people's relationship with technology, especially computer technology and computer addiction.
  • apophenia – danah boyd's blog – danah boyd is a researcher at Microsoft Research New England and a Fellow at the Harvard University Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
  • Michael Wesch's IA Summit 09 Keynote – Even though the presentation itself uses a lot of visuals and YouTube examples, I found the podcast to be extremely interesting and provocative. Wesch takes many examples of Internet and social media culture that we're familiar with but wraps them together to create a new and exciting story about the kinds of new things that technology is enabling. While I might have thought I knew it all already via danah boyd and Sherry Turkle, I learned a lot (that's not to say that boyd and Turkle haven't covered this material, I have no idea; but for me this podcast was a huge leap forward in my grokking of the issues).

Calling out, around the world?

(originally published at Core77)

Subway ad for Suica, transit fare payment by mobile phone, Tokyo, 2008

Why Japan’s Smartphones Haven’t Gone Global is a toe-dip into the case study of factors that have limited export of Japan’s cutting-edge mobile phone innovations.

Yet Japan’s lack of global clout is all the more surprising because its cellphones set the pace in almost every industry innovation: e-mail capabilities in 1999, camera phones in 2000, third-generation networks in 2001, full music downloads in 2002, electronic payments in 2004 and digital TV in 2005.

Despite their advanced hardware, handsets here often have primitive, clunky interfaces. Because each handset model is designed with a customized user interface, development is time-consuming and expensive, said Tetsuzo Matsumoto, senior executive vice president at Softbank Mobile, a leading carrier. “Japan’s phones are all ‘handmade’ from scratch,” he said. “That’s reaching the limit.”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • How commercial software products are developed (or "get some empathy for clients, right here") – I worked on the "Windows Mobile PC User Experience" team. This team was part of Longhorn from a feature standpoint but was organizationally part of the Tablet PC group. To find a common manager to other people I needed to work with required walking 6 or 7 steps up the org chart from me. My team's raison d'etre was: improve the experience for users on laptops, notebooks and ultra-mobile PCs. Noble enough. Of course the Windows Shell team, whose code I needed to muck about in to accomplish my tiny piece of this, had a charter of their own which may or may not have intersected ours.

    My team had a very talented UI designer and my particular feature had a good, headstrong program manager with strong ideas about user experience. We had a Mac [owned personally by a team member] that we looked to as a paragon of clean UI. Of course the Shell team also had some great UI designers and numerous good, headstrong PMs who valued (I can only assume) simplicity and so on.

  • Not quite-credible story about Best Buy differentiating on making technology usable/understandable – Mr. Dunn said he wanted to create an atmosphere where consumers were attracted not just to products but also to services that help them master fast-changing technology and configure and connect devices.

    One of Best Buy’s main competitive strategies has been services, something it has done better in the past than any national electronics retailer. That translates into selling product warranties, or help with installing a home theater or configuring a computer.
    Mr. Dunn said a chief example of the kind of thing Best Buy wants to be known for is a service it calls Walk Out Working that it began introducing in May 2007. The service, which is free, helps consumers configure new mobile phones so that when they leave the store they are able to use features like music playback and Web surfing.

    …He argues that [other retailers] cannot compete with Best Buy when it comes to offering individual service, explaining technology to customers and charging to help them adapt to it.

  • Jobless Benefits Web Site Adds Insult to Injury – Jobless people seeking information about their benefits on the Brazilian Labor Ministry's Web were forced to type in passwords such as "bum" and "shameless." A private company that created the site's security system is blamed; its contract with the ministry wasn't being renewed, which may have prompted the pranks.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • The Computer Will See You Now – how the computer interferes with the doctor-patient interaction – Doctors struggle daily to figure out a way to keep the computer from interfering with what should be going on in the exam room — making that crucial connection between doctor and patient. I find myself apologizing often, as I stare at a series of questions and boxes to be clicked on the screen and try to adapt them to the patient sitting before me. I am forced to bring up questions in the order they appear, to ask the parents of a laughing 2-year-old if she is “in pain,” and to restrain my potty mouth when the computer malfunctions or the screen locks up.

    The computer depersonalizes medicine. It ignores nuances that we do not measure but clearly influence care. Room is provided for text, but in the computer’s font, important points often get lost.

    A box clicked unintentionally is as detrimental as an order written illegibly — maybe worse because it looks official. It takes more effort and thought to write a prescription than to pull up a menu of medications and click a box.

  • Tension between medical and colloquial language – an issue I explored in interactions column (Poets, Priests, and Politicians) – (via MeFi) Dr Ardill, in evidence, said he did not use the words alleged by Ms McQuade. He said he asked her was she “next or near a man’s willy bits” in the last six months and in relation to her sleeping he did suggest a drink, light exercise, a trashy novel or some “rumpy pumpy”. He said he used this kind of “childish” language with all patients to make them feel at ease. Nobody before had found it offensive. He said he would not use the term “willy bits” again.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Wired on the big big money being made selling virtual items in online games – With about 30 workers on staff, Liu was able to keep a gold-farming setup running around the clock. While the night shift slept upstairs on plywood bunks, day-shift workers sat in the hot, dimly lit workshop, each tending three or four computers. They were "playing" World of Warcraft, farming gold at an impressive clip by hunting and looting monsters, their productivity greatly abetted by automated bots that allowed them to handle multiple characters with little effort. They worked 84-hour weeks, got a couple of days off per month, and earned about $4 a day, which even for China was not a stellar wage.
  • Wired on Ray Ozzie and cultural change at MSFT: At first, the skunk works-like nature of Ozzie's operation engendered suspicion and resentment – Previously, a big part of any development team at Microsoft was making sure its new product worked in lockstep with everything else the company produced. While that approach avoided annoying conflicts, it also tended to smother innovation. "This philosophy of independent innovation…is something Ray pushed very strongly," Ozzie's approach was to encourage people to rush ahead and build things. Then he'd have a team of what he calls the spacklers fill in the gaps and get things ready for release.
    He spent a lot of time on the physical workspace for his team. He had workers rip down the labyrinthine corridors on one floor and called in architects to create a more open design. Now, walking into the Windows Live Core group is like leaving Microsoft and visiting a Futurama set. Office windows open onto hallways so that quick eye contact can trigger spontaneous discussions. Whiteboards are everywhere. Pool tables, mini-lounges, and snack zones draw people toward the center of the space.

Industries have culture; culture drives usage

This piece in the Financial Times about how anthropology is important to understand the behaviors of bankers is well-timed and relevant (if indirectly related) to the story of Société Générale’s Jerome Kerviel, the rogue trader.

For one thing that anthropology imparts is a healthy respect for the importance of micro-level incentives and political structures. And right now these issues are becoming critically important for Wall Street and the City, as the credit crunch deepens by the day.

But what is crystal clear is that if you want to understand which banks will emerge as winners from the current mess, it is no longer enough to look at their computer systems and balance sheets. Now, more than ever, investors need to understand a bank’s culture too – and the degree to which it is tribal.

We just wrapped up our second study of traders and it’s really gratifying to see this column. Traders, as a profession, have a lot of strong character traits (humor, macho/aggression, social) and much of their work is competitive and manipulative. The tools they use are pretty straight transaction machines, though, that don’t reflect the complex layers of intention that are driving everything the trader does. The only product that seems to echo or reinforce trading culture is the Bloomberg terminal which, in addition to all the data-oriented tracking and graphic capabilities, also offers an IM/email/Facebook-like platform to a closed, consistent, and co-located (The City in London, Wall Street in New York, and other neighborhoods in major financial markets) community.

There’s enormous potential for the other software tools used by these traders to similarly match their offering to the dynamic culture of their users. It’ll require these vendors to take a fresh look at how their products can really bring exceptional value to the people who make their living with them. Failure to understand and design for these folks will undoubtedly lead to more stories like the current scandal.

SocGen (as it’s known by people in the industry) in London (actual fieldwork photo!)

A new Krispy Kreme located in the heart of London’s The City (the financial district) gives away free boxes of donuts, causing a run

FT story via

Out of the box? There is no box. Really.


Software advertised on the web is often showed in some version of what it might look like on the shelf. Even if there is no box; the software is ordered online and downloaded. There’s no physical tangible artifact. No box, no printed manual, no shrink-wrap, no CD. But the box denotes “I’m for sale” and persists as a representation of the purchase.

Note that some of the above may be actually available in boxes, but I suspect most of them are not. Indeed, some of the box images are incredibly simplistic, iconic rather than representative of what you might see in a store. Maybe someone read these Photoshop tips for creating an image of a product box.

New features on All This ChittahChattah

Thanks to some great technical sleuthing and hacking, we’ve got some good improvements here on the blog
– an “email this post” link with every post
– an improved “tag cloud” off the right that links to other postings, rather than back to Technorati (who seem to have stopped indexing this blog 55 days ago)
– The blog title is now All This ChittahChattah rather than Portigal Consulting both on the page and in feeds
– I got rid of CoComment because it was (as others had suggested when I started using it) causing some problems. It was slow and was messing up pingbacks (i.e., posts here that refer to other posts here)

Please let me know if you see any weirdness or broken stuff that needs to be fixed!

Lovely Phone; Ugly Software

David Pogue reviews some new phone in Lovely Phone; Ugly Software. I’m mostly interested in the headline, though.

I’m so sick of this as the status quo. Aren’t you?

Award-winning, or attractive industrial design is achievable. Usable, joyous, lovely software is achievable. Why is the combination so damn hard? When will companies figure out how to do better? As advanced as we think we are in these fields, it seems big companies are still launching stuff that wrecks your life while making you look hip. We can blame it on organizational silos, or increasingly complex design problems as screen sizes gets smaller and usage gets more advanced, but I think there’s a cultural problem (of course) in organizations, as they still don’t get it. They aren’t figuring out how to work together and they aren’t setting high enough standards for what’s good enough to launch.

Sure, this is Motorola in this article, but the story seems so familiar, this could be anyone. I don’t propose simple solutions here, but I do feel so very tired of the problem.

appalled, indeed

37 Signals jumps the shark (if they hadn’t already)

While we appreciate customers who take the time to write in and tell us what they want, the way people phrase things often leads to raised eyebrows. Every feature that’s missing is essential, a must-have, and the fact that it’s missing is killing someone. Yet the #1 thing that people like about our software is how simple it is. To give you an idea of what it’s like to be on the receiving end, here are some excerpts from recent 37signals support emails and forum posts

The excerpts are meant to ridicule the customers/users/people who contact them. For being too intense or too clueless or in whatever way just not as cool as the folks at 37 Signals.

This is a company that makes software but also wants to teach the world about making great products. I’m not sure that their products are really that great, but their credibility for teaching anyone how to do anything is nil once they start using the bully pulpit of their own blog to mock people – customers! And of course, there’s an ensuing pile-in on the comments “hyuk-hyuk, people are morons.” It’s too easy to get your pals to agree with that sort of thing, and ultimately it reveals contempt for the wrong people. That’s a critical failure at the root of what they are setting out to do.

Update: several other bloggers agree with me.

Baby and toddler education technology – is it bunk?

The New York Times does a great cover story about all the technology products that make strong and unsubstantiated claims about how much smarter they’ll make your baby.

New media products for babies, toddlers and preschoolers began flooding the market in the late 1990’s, starting with video series like “Baby Einstein” and “Brainy Baby.” But now, the young children’s market has exploded into a host of new and more elaborate electronics for pre-schoolers, including video game consoles like the V.Smile and handheld game systems like the Leapster, all marketed as educational.

Despite the commercial success, though, a report released yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation, “A Teacher in the Living Room? Educational Media for Babies, Toddlers and Pre-schoolers,” indicates there is little understanding of how the new media affect young children – and almost no research to support the idea that they are educational.

“The market is expanding rapidly, with all kinds of brand-new product lines for little kids,” said Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Foundation. “But the research hasn’t advanced much. There really isn’t any outcomes-based research on these kinds of products and their effects on young children, and there doesn’t seem to be any theoretical basis for saying that kids under 2 can learn from media.

In 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended no screen time at all for babies under 2, out of concern that the increasing use of media might displace human interaction and impede the crucially important brain growth and development of a baby’s first two years. But it is a recommendation that parents routinely ignore. According to Kaiser, babies 6 months to 3 years old spend, on average, an hour a day watching TV and 47 minutes a day on other screen media, like videos, computers and video games.

Others have less restrained marketing: The “Brainy Baby – Left Brain” package has a cover featuring a cartoon baby with a thought balloon saying, “2 + 2 = 4” and promises that it will inspire logical thinking and “teach your child about language and logic, patterns and sequencing, analyzing details and more.”

“There’s nothing that shows it helps, but there’s nothing that shows it’s does harm, either,” said Marcia Grimsley, senior producer of “Brainy Baby” videos.

Incredulous italics mine, of course.

Rambling thoughts on “User Research Strategies: What Works, What Does Not Work”

Last night’s BayCHI event was a good experience. A panel of champions of user research (Director, Manager, Lead, etc.) at key Silicon Valley companies (Google, Yahoo, Adobe, Intuit, and eBay) attracted a large and energetic crowd. The pre-meeting dinner was extremely well-attended. It felt like the discipline is having a good moment in the zeitgeist.

Each panelist gave a 10-minute summary of what’s going on at their firm. What types of methods they are using, how they are feeding design, strategy. How they might interface with market research and other areas of the business. Where they have been, historically, and what may have changed in how they are embraced (or not).

Rashmi Sinha moderated, and only spent a bit of time asking her own followup questions after the panelists finished; and then it was basically an hour (?) of audience questions. Although I stood up and asked a question, I would rather have had more questions from her and less from the audience (that’s my bias, I guess, as someone who’s played that role in the past); the audience questions are not usually about creating conversation, and the moderator is obviously in a role to do that. By the time we finished with questions people were asking about how to recruit participants for studies; a tactical question that had no place in this meeting, if we were there to discuss the practice and how it integrates into corporate America, then let’s not deal with newbie process questions. I’m not minimizing the importance of that question to the person who asked it, but it wasn’t on topic and kinda brought things down for me.

People mumbled afterwards about wanting to see some conflict between the panelists, who represented competitive firms (but maybe didn’t see themselves individually as competitors) and who sometimes expressed different points of view on how to use the tools of user research (it’s hard for me to be specific from memory, but there were several examples from Google about how user research wasn’t always necessary, but they were ridiculous examples, as in, “should we have told people not to build a search interface until they had done years of research” as the strawman questions, when I don’t think anyone was advocating years of research, more so the opposite). It wasn’t in panelists charge to debate what they heard from the others; they were there to tell their own story and they all did that very well.

Perhaps the comments about conflict are proxies for my desire for more conversation; something that (as user reseachers know) takes good questions, and frankly, audience members just aren’t going to ask good questions. This sounds terribly snobby and let me clarify – there are questions that are informational (what type of deliverables do you use? how do you recruit) and there are questions that provoke conversation and interaction.

There’s another panel phenomenon at work here – “question drift” – whoever answers the question first is the most on target; as other answers come from the panelists, we end up hearing about an entirely different question, and we’ve lost the thread. I don’t have a solution to this. Sometimes the drift is interesting, but often it’s just a bit frustrating.

So it was hard to take much specific away from the evening – there was a lot of info; a lot of bits of perspective and insight and jargon thrown out quickly, with something new on the heels, so I felt like it was an immersion more than an education.

But here’s what I took away:

  • this is a mature field; you can see the newer practices (Google) presented as adolescent next to their more wizened counterparts
  • I’ve lived as a consultant for a very long time; there’s a whole set of challenges and benefits that these corporate folks have that are almost alien to me – I felt very aware of how I can deal with some of their situations so much more easily, and how there’s so much more formalized and permanent processes being created that I’m not at all engaged with
  • it’s just tradeoffs and contrast, one isn’t better than the other, we need to be in-house and out-of-house both
  • it’s not clear to me how research is different from design (and I don’t mean Research and Design) – this was my question and I don’t know that I got an answer except a fallback to corporate structures (and one person pointed out that designers and researchers have very different skill sets, but that wasn’t my question – if this is collaborative work, can’t teams of people with complementary skills deliver ONE thing – “design” – rather than breaking it down so much) and formalized processes
  • this is a bit of a hot topic among software/tech/design types right now
  • MORE I REMEMBERED: Christian Rohrer from eBay defined success criteria for user research as impact (which I really liked), and he defined impact as
    1. credibility
    2. consumability
    3. relevance


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