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Commentary on 7 Steps for Effective Brainstorming

In a LifeHacker post from yesterday, Thorin Klosowski proposes A Seven Step Plan for Effective Brainstorming:

  1. Define the problem and solutions space
  2. Break the problem down
  3. Make the problem personal
  4. Seek the perspectives of outsiders
  5. Diverge before you converge
  6. Create “idea resumes”
  7. Create a plan to learn

The substance, and rough order of this is very, very good. However, I believe “Make the problem personal” is too high on the list.

Many technically minded people grab onto the first reasonable problem and first reasonable solution they come across, and are also worse than non-technical types at putting themselves in the shoes of others. To overcome these vision-constraining traits, let’s re-order the list, and throw in one other change:

  1. Define the problem and solutions space
  2. Break the problem down
  3. Seek the perspectives of outsiders
  4. Diverge before you converge
  5. Create “idea resumes”
  6. Goto Step 2 and iterate until you have created a vision and a plan that gets the attention of the above outsiders and has at least one significant USP
  7. Make the problem personal
  8. Create a plan to learn

The two key changes here are adding the iteration at step 6, and postponing making it personal until you can empathize with and understand the outsiders’ problems. Once you truly understand their problems, then it’s the appropriate time to internalize it to the point you feel passionate about the subject.

Posted in Delighting Customers, Innovation, Leadership.


How to Win Customers With a Dab of Glue or Two

It’s known that Apple’s design teams “obsess over corners”—but that level of caring about detail need not be confined to electronics, or even excluded from disposable goods to earn a lasting bond with customers. I noticed this stickiness more than a year ago, but didn’t research its origins until this morning.

Say what you will about Starbucks vs. Peet’s coffee flavor (and do try Clover-brewed if you think the latter always wins out, but that’s another post); however there is more to the coffee experience than just that. Only a bit over 5% of Starbucks customers bring in their own cups or tumblers, which means >90% of customers use a paper or plastic cup. And those getting a hot beverage usually get one of those brown sleeves.

And how many times have you had a non-Starbucks coffee sleeve slip off the cup? How many of you noticed that Starbucks’ sleeves rarely slip off, and then peeled one off to discover why? Probably more than a few, but in googling for coverage of this, I only found one person who wrote about the glue’s impact on the customer experience.

Copywriter Jennifer Rotman blogged about her experience drinking from a coffee cup where the sleeve kept falling off. When she (like I) realized this didn’t happen with Starbucks coffee, she tore off the sleeve and found the little magical Unique Selling Point. In following the trail of the glue, I first found Starbucks’ 2005 patent for the generation of sleeve Jennifer noticed. This patent details some of the complex issues involved in manufacturing the sleeve—most notably the need to use a glue that would melt when placed against a hot cup of coffee, but which could be made to not melt during manufacturing when the sleeve is folded and the hot-melt glue that affixes the ends to form a ring is sealed in close proximity to the flaps. (Search for item “22″ in the figures and description.)

That led to finding the press release and other references.

The person behind the Starbucks sleeve is Matthew Cook, of LBP Manufacturing, who is an inventor of many other food industry things, but the magic of the glue came from Henkel Corporation. You most likely do not know the Henkel name, but you know some of their brands: Dial soap, Locktite glue, and a few others.

The net win for Starbucks? This helped win me as a regular customer, but Jennifer said it best:

“If I can avoid hurtling along in traffic at the edge of disaster because of an errant coffee sleeve, I know where I’ll be buying coffee for the commute.”

And that’s the story small, usually unnoticed feature on a 3-cent sleeve won Starbucks a couple of loyal customers who shared their happy tales, gave Starbucks a bit of free PR, and probably won many more customers who noticed the benefit but didn’t bother figuring out why. All with about  1/10th of a cent worth of glue (from the maker of Dial) per cup of coffee.

Further Reading:

Posted in Design, Innovation.


Taped-Up Security

Twice in the past seven days—in the same coffee shop—I have seen two different road warriors plugging away at their notebooks.

With their RSA security tokens blatantly taped to their laptop lids.

The first time I figured it was a fluke. The second time I wondered why I hadn’t seen this before (I probably had, but just didn’t register the significance). These two examples are a great way of highlighting the need to rise above the technical details and see the forest for the trees.

The engineers who originally created the concept of the token solved a very real problem—the need to create a more secure password. The technical solution is brilliant, but being engineers, they didn’t empathize with users who would react based on the inconvenience their little hack caused. Putting it in the form of anything that can be taped to a laptop is probably bad (however rare this is). Putting it in the form of something they wouldn’t dare (a cell phone) is a much smarter idea, for instance.

So when you, as a geek, create something that appears radically different from the previous solution let me offer this advice (once you’ve filed at least a patent disclosure, if you think it might be worthy):

To to a bar with a decent variety of women (by their nature, they think differently from you). Order (and finish) one stiff drink before continuing. Order only weak drinks thereafter.

Offer to buy at least three different women top-shelf drinks (read: anything the bar can make) in exchange for as much time as it takes them to finish (make it 15 minutes if they order a shot). Save the receipt, as this is a proper business expense.

Give them the elevator pitch for your thing–20 seconds max. Then ask them these questions:

  1. Does this invention solve a problem you have?
  2. Does this invention annoy you?
  3. What would you pay for this?
  4. Where would you keep it?

Write down all their answers after each interview. A bar napkin will suffice, and make you seem like less of a geek. Do not take notes on any sort of computing device, though if you must use something more formal, use a Moleskine.

Question 1 answered with a no might be a show-stopper. Either what you created has no value, your elevator pitch sucks (you are an geek, after-all), or your subject is the wrong target audience. Figure out which of the three this is after a handful of interviews.

Question 2 is critical because nobody else asks this. If they answer anything similar to yes, then you haven’t solved their problem (or you have, but have also created a new one). In either case, you’re not done designing. This will take a few more sprint cycles to figure out.

Question 3 directly gets to the value proposition. Don’t give them a multiple choice list unless they draw a blank. Left to their own devices, they might come up with a figur larger than you think you could get. The more this answer surprises you in that direction, the more you should focus on this project and ignore other projects.

Question 4 is designed to be a bit of a double entendre on purpose. Because you’re a geek, and you need practice flirting. But mostly because it’s both a proxy for value (verifying their answer for #3), and designed to illicit actual usage models. If it’s software, and they say “on my desktop”, this probably equates to high usage and value. If it’s a widget, and they say “in my purse”, that probably equates to low value. But if it’s a widget and they say “on my keychain” or “clipped to my purse” then you have a winner. These are highly specific examples, but you get the point—if they would keep it somewhere accessible, then it’s more important than something that would go in their purse, gym bag, car trunk, Start Menu, bottom-left desk drawer, etc.

The exercise I describe may sound silly, but it is designed to be a framework for doing something difficult—to think outside of the box and understand someone else’s perspective.

Posted in Hardware, Security.


To Create Loyal Customers, go OCD over the UI and UX

This is not an article about the design of gadgets or computer peripherals. It is, instead, all about the forgotten items that all of us interact with on a daily basis.

Most importantly, it is aimed at brick-and-mortar business leaders and managers, and the gestation was a 10-foot tall ladder in a drive-through lane.

Chutes & Ladders & Kiosks

The fast food joint where I get my somewhat daily fix of breakfast sausage expanded their drive-through to two lanes a while back—two order stations funneling into one pay/pickup lane with (usually) separate windows for each. At the same time, the owners installed video displays in the car-side intercom kiosks, designed to display the customer’s order in real-time. When the displays are working, and the clerk is proficient, this is an amazingly enjoyable way to order food, for there is little doubt about whether your voiced order has been recorded accurately.

Yet my recent experiences show that this store’s owners don’t have the level of OCD needed to consistently ensure good customer service. You heard me—some level of OCD is desirable for success. It can always be followed to excess, yet if it is moderated and properly focused (as well as explained and guided with a gentle touch), it can have profound effects on business success. This is why Apple designers obsess over even corners of their creations.

This worked very well for several months, until one of the two kiosk displays failed. My reaction was simple; I simply avoided the lane with the dark display.

Then someone started blocking off one of the two lanes with a ladder when traffic was light enough to only warrant one lane being operational. And consistently, the ladder was placed in the only lane with a working display.

I am quite sure there was a very logical operational reason for this that made sense to management and employees. However, the effect was to degrade customer service, and since that is how this company makes money, those decisions, in reality, were incorrect.

Once these problems were fixed, I started noticing other defects—an ad on the order display for a burger that you can’t buy any longer, for instance. Or how I would order an item substituting the American cheese with cheddar, and upon delivering the order, the server would always say, “burger with no cheese, right?”, confusing me and forcing me to double-check my order.

What’s going on here? Very likely it’s this: The store’s training teaches order takers to push the button for “no cheese” whenever a substitution is requested. The result is that the order is reported as three separate lines: 1) burger, 2) no cheese), 3) sub cheddar, and the server (and sometimes the burger-maker) simply reads the first two lines.

How do you fix this? Simple: 1) Train order-takers to not push the “no cheese” button when a customer requests a substitution (the system has a “sub” button, and it works just fine), AND 2) reprogram the software to delete the “no cheese” line as soon as the order-taker presses the “substitute cheese” button.

I’m just guessing, but I rather suspect that this store is behind the curve of corporate expectations for revenue.

In business, it is all too easy to get mired down in the wrong details. The way to rise above this is to step out of your shoes and into a customer’s shoes for a bit, and then go OCD.

In this case, I’d advise the manager to go outside, take a picture of the menu boards (both lanes), and then spend the next couple of weeks ordering everything on the menu, from their car, alternating lanes. Keep a notebook in your pocket, and log everything that doesn’t happen perfectly.

When the list is complete, go find someone with the know-how to fix these problems. However, it can’t be just anyone, and should not be a geek! The fixes need to be designed and done by someone who can implicitly feel the pain and frustration of the customer, and who cares about that far more than operational or management issues. A psych major would be a good starting point.

This much attention to detail is the only way to design great customer experiences, period.

If you’re not enjoying and taking pride in the process, then you’re not quite doing it right. So stop, go talk to some customers (at a franchise where you’re not known!), and figure out what of their experience you haven’t quite comprehended yet.

Now go try a similar test again. When you start to smile when you’re doing this tedious research, because you’re figuring out simple or clever ways to make the customer happy, you are doing the exercise right.

Posted in Service, Uncategorized.


Undercover Boss: Understanding the Mood

Upon watching the teaser, I was apprehensive about watching Friday’s episode of Undercover Boss, as it hit a bit too close to home.

So I watched the beginning, found Mr. Abony to be interesting, humble, and clearly one of the good guys, then turned the dial to something else for a while.

(If you look in next year’s dictionary, I fully expect to see a picture of Lorne climbing a ladder next to the definitions of humble, brave, and a few other words associated with great leaders. It takes guts to expose your deepest, but silly-to-the-outside-world fears on national television.)

In the end, however, I tuned back into the program to catch the ending, where Lorne reunites with his father, whom he had not seen in something over fifteen years.

From the age of five, I too grew up without a father. I last saw him more than 30 years ago, and for many years held deep-seated anger at his behavior and abandonment, even as I remember hating the court-ordered visitations, and even being just a few minutes away from grabbing my sister and running away on BART back home. (As a ~10 year-old, I had just a vague sense that while it was the right thing to do, the courts would likely cause the family more grief than completing the visit.)

As the years passed, the anger subsided into indifference, but one still tinged with never wanting to see him again. But over the past couple of years, as I have discovered the circumstances I was raised in, and thus what most likely drove his behavior and him away, I have come to a very interesting place in my life. A place where I might even want to reunite, and forgive him.

Life is funny, sometimes. The trigger of realizing why he disappeared is deeply personal, and not something to share here, but suffice it to say I have happened to have experienced similar circumstances. However, it has made me a stronger, more insightful, and more empathic man as a result. I long ago vowed to be a better man than Dad, and now that I know why and how, I could not fathom ever running away from the same issue. Having gone through such abandonment, I would not inflict that pain on others.

It’s simply not who I am. And as anyone who has worked with me before knows, I never take the simple approach to solving problems.

There are, of course, people who should not reunite with their fathers. However, for Lorne and I, it just might be the right path forward.

Postscript

I could not have shared this story a year ago; perhaps not even three months ago. But this is a very important thing to share about nurturing leadership. We are the product of how we were raised, and as established or aspiring leaders, we have a duty to share reality with those we are leading. We must show that we are human, and can rise above adversity. Sharing our foibles and failures is one of the best ways to motivate others to overcome theirs.

Posted in Leadership, Personal.


Be Lighter Than Air

I strive to be fair and kind in my coverage of technology, and so worry this post will come across as a bit of a rant, but my entire point is that the focus on the end-result of software must be an amazing experience for the user.

Tools and frameworks that save time for developers and allow to build more powerful programs are a wonderful way to achieve that.

Alas, Adobe Air is not one of those tools. It is a clever way to build cross-platform software quickly, but the results suffer on a number of fronts:

  • They never look or behave the same as a native application.
  • They are never as fast as a native application
  • The rest are important but more subtle; the above two are the ones that matter most.

Air has its place. The more I use applications built with it, I’m convinced that place is exactly what Alan Cooper has for Visual Basic: Prototyping.

If you’ve built something in Air that works reasonably well and that people like, there is only one appropriate course of action.

Call it an Alpha test/experiment, throw the source code away, and rebuild it with C/C++/Objective C and a good framework for each platform that uses native UI features, and then start your beta test.

What started this not-quite-rant?

I’ve become enamored with a great productivity tool that runs on the Web, my work MacBook Pro, my personal ThinkPad, and my iPhone. It has no toolbar in Windows, is frighteningly slow and cantankerous to update, and it behaves differently enough on each platform to make switching seamlessly difficult. I hope the developer will work in earnest on native apps, but will wait to name them here until I’ve had a chance to share my complaints privately.

Posted in Design, Usability.


Be Better Than Free

An interesting experience with technology over the past two days gave me some insight that will help guide you in building amazing products.

The Experience

My ThinkPad was running low on disk space, and I wanted a belt-and-suspender backup approach. As I’m not willing to go through the pain of reinstalling everything from scratch, finding a fast, easy, and reliable way to clone a drive seemed like the best way to tackle both problems.

So I bought two new identical drives about double the size of what I currently have, and a Unitek UM-3022 dual-drive USB 3.0 dock, with a nifty “Clone” button. I figured I could clone my old laptop drive to one of the two new ones, repurpose the old one, then use the other new drive to make a rolling clone every week or two, ensuring I could quickly recover from a hard-drive crash.

Continued…

Posted in Design, Innovation.


Undercover Boss—Rick Silva of Checkers

It’s been a full month since I saw this episode of Undercover Boss, yet Mr. Silva’s actions are still fresh in my memory. (Season 3, episode 4 on iTunes.)

Though I have yet to watch all the episodes, Silva’s episode has struck me as the most impressive yet, earning him huge kudos from me.

At the very first store he discovered an operation that had clearly gone haywire. A new manager had been installed before finishing his training, and was treating his employees barely better than Roman slaves—with predictable results in the food quality and customer service.

While talking with his “mentor” during a lunch break, he realized just how badly this young fellow as  being treated, and barely hesitated in confronting the manager. About half-way into the conversation, he decided he had no choice but to break the cardinal rule and reveal his identity. So he could immediately shut the restaurant down and begin rectifying the problem.

What happened next showed how much class Silva has, and makes me want to find the closest Checkers.

His first action was to call HQ and arrange for other local managers to fill-in and reopen the store to corporate standards. Informing all the workers of the shutdown, he reassured them that nobody was losing their job, and that everyone would get the training needed to meet the corporate service expectations (including the newbie manager, who lesser leaders would have canned on the spot).

Silva’s generosity to the employees that “mentored” him at each store were no less impressive.

If you haven’t seen this episode, spend the $2.99 and watch how a great leader supports and inspires those in his care. These are the skills we need in our future Presidents.

Posted in Leadership.


Innovation Inspiration #025—Prioritize the Inflexible

Yesterday I missed the event of a lifetime—watching the Endeavor  fly across the Golden Gate Bridge, because I scheduled my day in the wrong order, and didn’t flip it around when circumstances changed.

I was in the City coincidentally, taking care of two important tasks; one at the edge and one in the middle of the city. When I realized the shuttle was coming, I believed I would finish with the second one in time to get back to a good viewing spot.

Then a signal breakdown on Caltrain delayed my whole schedule by 45+ minutes, and I continued on with my plan, frantically rushing back to the Ferry Building just in time to see a spec of the shuttle flash by through the window of a MUNI bus. Continued…

Posted in Innovation.


Polish, Perfectionism, and Presentations

Earlier in my career, I obsessed over small, seemingly insignificant details, because I thought they were important.

Some were frustrated by this, and I know at times I took the process to extremes. But now that I know where this trait comes from (it’s related to one of the fundamental things that drove Steve Jobs  to create such amazing things), I have learned how and when to harness the obsession to turn otherwise mediocre content into things that get extraordinary reactions from people.

I was thinking about this today, as I spent the entire morning editing, polishing, and tweaking the content and appearance of my newest personal web page. All four pages of it.

This project was for me, so I didn’t have to worry about someone else’s clock, and since the site’s whole purpose is self-promotion, being persnickety about the presentation was entirely appropriate.

But I still felt a little guilty over the pace. Until I opened The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs and got to the bottom of page 3.

That’s where the author shares how much time design experts (including those at Apple) recommend spending on the creation of a 60-minute presentation.

Ninety hours. For thirty slides.

And suddenly I felt at home again. (This prep time is specifically attributed to Nancy Duarte, who coached Al Gore.)

To get the right value from spending three hours per slide, you have to do a lot more than polish—you have to strive for perfection.

You will never get there, of course, but the key talent is knowing when you have reached the “good enough” point, so that you don’t waste time on elements that hardly anyone will notice.

I don’t have a clue how to teach that last point—I think you simply have to be blessed with a gut feel for what it is, and adjust it based on your hunch of what others with a slightly less-critical eye than yours will notice.

Posted in Design.