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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.


Design Rule #005—Follow the Specifications

Years ago, when I was the Technical editor of CADENCE magazine, reviewing the latest hardware and software products every month, I came to the conclusion that engineers don’t read specs.

The conclusion was not based on talking with any engineers or product managers about the subject, just on my own observations of comparing product features—especially those relevant to interoperability—against the actual specifications (or excerpts) I could get my hands on.

I have held this conviction ever since, and although I don’t get to test it frequently, I see ample evidence of it, and whenever I do get the chance to talk to engineers about specs, they always uphold my maxim.

The widely practiced alternative is to copy how another few products have implemented the specification. But since none are complete, only parts of the specification get implemented, and not always completely or correctly.

The natural result is that the products are less capable and far less interoperable than the specification authors intended.

This hurts the consumers of the product, and it hurts the company who made it, because they have failed to deliver a complete product that operates well—inevitably leading to disappointment and frustration, and fewer sales.

I was reminded of this yesterday when I had a new batch of personal business cards printed, with a rectangular Data Matrix barcode, holding the URL to my vCard.

But when I fired up my half-dozen iPhone 2D barcode scanners, none of them succeeded.

Perplexed, I tried them on an older card, with a much larger Data Matrix that held the whole vCard. Success! Even though it was blurry and I had forgotten the white space between fields, at least it decoded.

After much experimentation and tweaking the zoom setting of several apps that used the same engine, I failed completely. Trusty-old RedLaser, which I swear had worked on this very code before, failed, too. Worse, when I read their post on supported code types, it was clear they had deliverately disabled all Data Matrix decoding (not just rectangular ones) because they “aren’t associated with store products.” Funny, though, I have a tube of Crest with a Data Matrix, so this isn’t really accurate.

I searched online for references to one that might succeed, and was reminded of NeoReader, which I had once used, then discarded for some reason.

Of the seven 2D barcode scanners now on my iPhone, NeoReader is the only one that can scan my business card. Alas, neither it nor the iPhone can extract the contents of that URL and feed them to the Contacts app, as would seem natural.

A good amount of frustration was caused for me simply because the developers of these apps either didn’t read or read and chose not to fully implement well-known specifications:

  • The international ISO standard for Data Matrix
  • The RFC for vCard
  • The international GSN standards which call for support of Data Matrix on store products

I’m convinced the only way this sorry state of affairs will improve is when universities start teaching engineering students how to find and read specifications.

A whole class on this subject for mechanical, electrical, and software engineers, architects, and other designers would be a great idea (although it alone would not be enough). The first step is for the engineering libraries to keep the more important standards on the shelves. (Many, though not all, are too expensive for students to afford on their own.)

Posted in Design.

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Innovation Inspiration #024—Read 10-Year-Old Books

I had planned on not writing this post until I had finished reading Seth Godin’s Purple Cow, but the remarkableness of it dictated not waiting.

The concept is simple—the most successful products have stood out from the competition as clearly as a purple cow would among a bunch of black and white spots.

(And, I already have the title of a future post: Otaku Your Purple Cow.)

Great, innovative, unusual ideas can take a while to catch on, but the very best of them can spread like a virus. This is a very rough paraphrasing of the book. I’ve seen this happen time and time again, and why this happens is key to understanding how to design and market an amazing product.

I have come across several other books over the past two years that have immensely changed my view of marketing and product design. Each one seems to build upon the previous set, adding another clue to how they all fit together.

Drive, Where Good Ideas Come From, and How to Win Friends and Influence People have been the most powerful. Purple Cow ranks as their peer, and I’m still only at page 79.

The book carries a powerful message—that standing out from the crowd is key to success. But a secondary message is given and demonstrated repeatedly–that avoiding risk is generally deadly to long-term success. Staying safe keeps companies from creating Purple Cows. And new, smaller companies (or long-time second-fiddle rivals) will inevitability notice the gap and figure out how to exploit it.

So put aside your fear, and take a chance.

I promise a longer, more insightful post once I have digested the Purple Cow.

Posted in Design, Innovation.

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