At last year's Big (D)esign Conference, Russ Unger, the co-author of The Project Guide to UX Design, suggested that UX practitioners should start to learn programming, or they risk becomming dinosaurs. I like Russ. He's an extremely talented hack (in the best of ways), and I recently began to brush up on my coding skills, which were formed when we were still coding with hammer and chisel. There is another discipline that is underutilized in the UX field, however, and those of us who do not adopt some rudimentary skills in that area also risk becoming dinosaurs. The discipline they need is analytics.
Most of them have Google Analytics installed already. It's free and most development or design firms will install it without even being asked. The simplest and most direct way of identifying poor usage is to look at the conversion reports. If there are no goals set up, that means they don't know how to use it properly.
What does this likely mean?
They're not getting any insights from how people are really using their site
They're not able to act on the information they're getting
Any action they take is likely to be grossly misinformed and based on the wrong information
Helping them here is a concrete way to demonstrate wins that will resonate with everyone in their organization and yours
This is a wonderful opportunity to start helping your clients get genuine insights into how their website affects their business. But only if you're prepared to dive in and learn something that may be a departure from your (perhaps) primary function as a designer. As a UX person who is responsible for solving user needs, you cannot ignore this rich source of direct user data.
What does how we mourn tell us about what we value?
According to an article I read this morning, published Jan 18, this season, 29 children in the United States have died from influenza. That is 9 more than were killed at the Sandy Hook Elementary Massacre. Yet there were no flags flying at half-staff. There were no media hoards covering the heads-of-state making tearful speeches about this tragic loss of life. To the parents who lost their children, one tragedy is no worse than the other. The end result is a lost innocent life.
It got me thinking about how and why we react the way we do to tragic events.
In 2009, a single gunman murdered 13 soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, and wounded 29 more. Again, flags were flown at half-staff. Leaders gave moving speeches about the way they lived useful lives. Halfway around the world, there have been nearly 1,800 casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq between then and now. There were no special national days of rememberance for these who gave their lives willingly.
What makes one life more worthy of being remembered? Or 20 lives more worthy to be remembered than 29? Or 13 more than 1,800?
Why do we express outrage at mass shootings like Sandy Hook or Fort Hood, while we conveniently disengage when it comes to the everyday loss caused by acts no less evil, against victims no less innocent, and for deaths no less tragic?
Could it be that our speeches, our chest-thumping, our grandstanding is more about ourselves than the victims? About building for ourselves a better brand by capitalizing on concentrated tragedies rather than the everyday?
Maybe it gives us a greater sense of control over the narrative of the human experience... that if we can give meaning to the deaths, we think we can exert some sort of control the evil that lies in the human heart.
I wish I had a clearer picture to paint. - Cam Beck
Last week, I called for marketers to be more responsible in their efforts to move goods and services, by appealing to their better natures rather than their narcissistic or hedonistic tendencies. In light of Friday's massacre of 20 people, mostly children, it seems like a very prescient admonition.
It's difficult to wait for all the facts to come out before we decide on a direction. As we grieve, we want answers. We want solutions. We want a justice that is impossible to achieve here on earth, and we submit it to God to deal with in His way, trusting that He is wiser than we are.
In such situations, perhaps a little perspective is warranted.
Stalin, Mao, and Hitler remind us that sometimes -- more often than we care to admit to ourselves -- evil people gain power and commit such grotesque acts of savagery that it makes Newtown look like a Sunday family picnic. Sometimes they get away with it, and sometimes they don't.
The difference between them is that sometimes good people of character, conscience and will, at great personal risk, steel and equip themselves to stand against them and for good.
No doubt, there were dozens of conditions that led up to the massacre on Friday. We will learn about them, albeit slowly, in the coming weeks. Everything from guns to mental health awareness to violent video games to "kicking God out of schools" will take its turn in the spotlight as the "real reason" we had to witness another event like this.
But when we abstract the principles involved, we know that evil happens in this world for two reasons: 1) We live in a fallen and rebellious world where people with selfish hearts tend to do evil things, both big and small, and 2) Not enough people are prepared to wage war against them (both figuratively before the fact and literally during it) in the precise moment of need.
I have no desire to scapegoat marketing for the evils perpetuated in this world. I don't believe it's to blame, and I wouldn't suggest it is. However, what I would ask all of us to do is look deep inside ourselves and ask a tough question: In our personal and professional lives, are we conducting ourselves in a way that would discourage bad behavior and encourage good?
A few months back, I had a very negative experience with my energy company that cost me $1500 in unexpected electric bills. I was so frustrated and so sure of the righteousness of my cause that I nearly came out of my self-imposed exile from blogging to publically rip the company in violation rules 1-3 of my "10 Somewhat-Flexible Laws of Blogging About Companies."
Never talk ill of a client or potential client.
Almost everyone is a potential client.
If you must violate rule #1, don't mention the company name.
I'm glad I didn't. Even though they never reimbursed those excessive fees, they eventually implemented a program to make sure my situation never happens again.
A Series of Unfortunate Electric Bills
In July, I received a bill that was about 4.5 times the normal amount (for activity in the month of June). Convinced this was a mistake, I called my electric company about it, and they advised me to have my meter re-read, and that it would take about 10 business days for this to take place, but that they would contact me when the read was done.
I did not hear from them again until I got my next bill, which was also 850% more than it was over the same period the previous year. At that point, I wrote them again on August 7 and asked why they hadn't let me know what the results of the re-read were so that I could look at different options. When they responded (2 weeks later after promising a 24-hour response), they said they never put in a request for a re-read.
While this was happening, I contacted my apartments to have them check my air conditioning to make sure everything was working right. They said it was, but that they cleaned the appliance regardless.
Whenever I called the electric company, instead of helping me figure out why my bills were so high, kept trying to sell me a fixed-rate contract. Sure, doing so would have saved me some money, but the scope of their "fix" would have saved me $10-$12 per month, not $500-$600, which is what I really needed. They had their script, and they were sticking to it. It took escalating the issue two levels before I got someone at the company to admit that something seemed "off" about my bill situation.
In the middle of a brutal Texas summer, with my dog staying there and while the bill was in dispute, the electric company shut off power to my apartment to force me to pay at least part of the disputed bill (I later found out this was in violation of the Utility Customer Bill of Rights).
How Energy is Delivered and Billed in Texas
Getting to the bottom of this, I got quite the education on how electricity is delivered and billed in Texas.
Essentially, the company that delivers electricity has nothing to do with how electricity gets billed, and the billing company (which can be one of several) is ready to lose you quickly, because customers are easily replaceable. It can be TXU, Reliant, Green Mountain or any other electric company. All they do is service the billing. Which you choose as a consumer is based on the rates and service you expect to get.
Thanks to the help of a knowledgable friend, I finally found the real cause of the issue, I called the electric company and asked if they would help with the part of the bill due to their lack of responsiveness. They refused. Eventually I protested through regulatory channels, and a very small portion was refunded.
Customer Service: It Is Your Job
I finally spoke with a representative of the office of the president in response to this official complaint, and suggested that they need to be more responsive and help people between bills realize if something is happening between billing periods. Not only did she disagree that their lack of responsiveness imparted on them any responsibility for three months of outrageous bills, but she directly told me that, regarding my suggestion that they notify people when their usage seems to spike 850%, "That's not what we do."
Then I took to Twitter, hoping to find someone higher in authority than the last person I spoke with.
The person who monitors their Twitter channel is a marketer, not a customer service person. She had no authority to help resolve the issues of customers, which only further frusterated me, because though she asked me to tell my story, she could not help. To her credit, she seemed sincere in her concern for my frustration (If she wasn't being authentic, she at least faked it well).
"Remember, it is easier to train a good customer support representative to use social media than to train an experienced social media user to be a good customer support professional."
As for the representative within the office of the president, she was just intent on getting me to pay three months of outrageously high bills, not helping me solve my issue or even making me feel heard. She took a very "That's not my job" approach, not only for herself, but also for their entire organization. Had she met me halfway, had she hinted that she understood why I was upset and her company's role in that frustration, my tone in this article would be much different.
So, normally I would have cut off ties with the company regardless. End of story. Although I'm better equipped now -- having learned an awful lot about how electricity works in Texas -- I had no faith that this is the company I wanted to do business with should I ever have any difficulty again. Then the organization did something that suprised me.
They implemented my recommendation.
Now, I receive a weekly email between bills that tells me my usage for that week. And I am able to spot if something is amiss and don't have to wait an entire billing period -- while the meter is still running -- to discover it.
Now, I don't presume that I was the first to provide that recommendation, or that they went through with it because of my issue. Something like that takes more time to develop and execute than they had from the time of my first complaint and suggestion.
So someone besides me had to have thought it was a good idea. But the value of that idea did not trickle down to the customer service reps or to the office of the president, or at least they had no interest at all in acknowledging it, or admitting I had a valid point.
Though if they had, I'd not only be naming the company, but praising them to my friends about how well the company treated me, how awesome this service is, and how they should use this company for electricity as well.
How much better could companies do if they only trained and empowered their customer service reps to treat people as people and not means to and end? If they trained them to listen instead of follow a script?
And they're right. Also big sellers: gluttony (of a particular type), sloth, envy, pride and the rest of the seven deadly sins. But sustainable commerce isn't going to belong to those who market to our vices, but those who appeal to our virtues.
This is not to say that we are a virtuous people. A trip to Walmart on Black Friday would strongly suggest that we fall quite short of that standard. However depraved we really are, each of us likes to think we subscribe to some sort of higher calling.
There are two ways acheive this in advertising and marketing:
Encourage bad behavior and lead people to believe it is good
Encourage good behavior
Of the two, only the second option is sustainable. While necessary to communicate how a product or service advances the audience's self-interests, it's the relationship between that interest and a higher calling that keeps self-interest from devolving into envy and gluttony, which affect not only by the private market, but also public politics.
When it comes to commerce, every person is a hedonist, and every company is a narcissist.
In practical terms, this means that everyone is more receptive to products and services that A) reduce pain or B) increase pleasure, and every company markets to them in a way that belies a belief that they deserve more attention (Why else would they advertise?).
What are you selling?
If your livelihood depends on people buying your brand of beer, are you selling beer, or are you selling a responsible community?
Are you need people to buy trucks, are you selling power steering, or are you selling freedom to traverse vast distances to maintain familial relationships? Or are you selling the appreciation that comes when a friend takes an entire day to help his friends move?
As marketing budgets are shifted over the next few years from traditional to digital (including social media), it's useful to ponder what sort of company people will want to listen to regularly, and what sort of things they'll want to hear. Will it be endless promotions? Or will it be information and advice on how they can become better, more worthwhile people?
"I would rather have it said 'he lived usefully' than 'he died rich.'" - Benjamin Franklin
According to a Gallup poll conducted last year, the Advertising and Public Relations industry ranked #10 as one of the most hated industries in America. 37% of Americans view the profession negatively, which puts it squarely in the camp of "things you're not supposed to talk about in mixed company." Why this vitriol for the sponsors of free television and radio entertainment since the dawn of mass communication? Do people really hate advertising that much?
I don't say this without disappointment. I've long advocated transparency and honesty in all marketing endeavors, and I continue believng that permission-based marketing is still the mold to follow in the 21st century. Advertising should be expected, welcome and invited.
So why the controversy?
When asked, people will say that they hate being marketed to. They're frightened by the spectre of privacy violations, even if it's based on observation of their own behavior. It's hard to blame them. What people do in private and what they think rarely mirrors the persona they wish to convey to the public. The manner in which data is collected and results are fed back to the consumer may matter -- if consumers really understood it. But it's clear that they don't, or that they don't believe it will stay this way forever.
The industry should have a modicum of self-awareness in admitting that the particular methods of interruption-based advertising we've engaged in over the decades have accelerated the rate at which people have learned to ignore and distrust advertising. But dig a little deeper... People hate feeling like they're being manipulated because they feel like they should control their own decisions and destiny.
Apparently their pricing and value was a fair deal before they discontinued their sales and reduced prices across the board. However, as it turns out, something needs to get people through their doors rather than the doors of their competitors.
Sometimes, people need to feel like they're being wooed. What's your take?
If you go to college, you will earn more money than if you did not. College admissions departments send collateral that show increases in income levels for those who earn degrees. Teachers, undoubtedly with the best intentions, hoping to find something that will motivate their students to learn the material they're being taught, repeat the same chorus: "If you don't pay attention now, you will not be able to go to college. If you don't go to college, you won't be successful."
They ask you to look the other way when they teach you about people from this august list.
The Wright Brothers
None of them earned college degrees. All were brilliant. All were succesful. And in case it's not clear from the list, several in the group had to overcome modest -- even oppressive -- circumstances of their youth to achieve great things.
There may be an explanation for this. In his classic book, How to Lie with Statistics, Darrell Huff suggessts that the premise of the statement is the child of a post-hoc fallacy, that presumes that because many people who have degrees are successful, the degree must have caused it.
"Actually we don't know but that these people are the people who would have made more money even if they had not gone to college. There are a couple of things that indicate rather strongly that this is so. College get a disproportionate number of two groups of kids: the bright and the rich. The bright show good earning power without college knowledge. And as for the rich one... well, money breeds money in several number of ways. Few sons of rich men are found in low-income brackets whether they go to college or not."
People like Lincoln, the Wright Brothers, Douglass, etc., weren't stupid on account of their lack of a degree, and they weren't self-made men. They were "Open-Source Learners" -- people who tapped into the resources of their age to improve their understanding about how some part of the universe works.
How much more should we in the 21st century, who can write and talk with and see people halfway around the world in an instant -- for next to nothing -- be able to improve our understanding of how some useful part of the universe works, and with the tools at our disposal, put it to good use?
A little background
My brother Gannon ran into a motivation wall when we were kids. Convinced by the world that he needed to go to college to be successful, once he got it into his head that he could neither afford college nor earn a scholarship, he lost hope, checked out mentally, did as little as he thought he needed to in order to stay eligible for sports and bided his time until he could graduate and join the Marines.
And he was smart. One semester in high school, he dedicated himself and got straight As. Just to prove that he could. After having accomplished that, not believing the effort was worth it, he fell back to Bs, Cs and Ds.
Since then, I've watched his very intentional transformation from a amatuer hobbiest illustrator to a master craftsman. (You can follow some of his work on his blog). His skill can't be chalked up to superior genetics or fancy schooling. It is a product of reading, collaboration, and 5 years or 10,000 hours of practice.
How to Pursue a Degree Without Going to College
In his book, Schoolless (Available on Amazon in paperback and for the Kindle), Gannon doesn't argue that college isn't useful repository of excellent learning tools, or that people should eschew a college degree... Rather, it is a celebration of alternative learning strategies that don't cost $27,000 (the average cost of a 4-year college degree in 2005).
Wondering how you're going to possibly send your kids to college? Lost hope in ever getting a degree without a mountain of debt? The good news is that you have options. There's still time to get this book for Christmas! Do it today. - Cam Beck
A few months ago, with my iPhone 3GS spiraling into obsolescence, I waited anxiously for the announcement of the iPhone 5. Android would also release its newest software, named "Ice Cream Sandwich," the same month, but with my existing music library so dependent on Apple's iTunes network, I initially considered the idea of going to Android to be a far-fetched dream. However, with the prodding of some Android-centric friends, positive reviews of Ice Cream Sandwich, and an overpowering curiosity that might exceed the boundaries of helpfulness, I decided to ditch my old iPhone for the Samsung Galaxy S II "Skyrocket."
After a week, though -- and to the disappointment of my very good, helpful, generous and patient Android friends -- I had to switch back to the sweet familiar taste of the iPhone.
What I learned
First, some background. I have never had any use for those "Mac vs. PC" debates of yesteryear, and less so for the "Android vs. iPhone" debates of today.
I mean, I used to build my own computers and was pleased enough that I could customize to my heart's desire. If one piece failed it was no big deal, because I could replace the piece, not the entire computer. At work, I worked on both PCs and Macs. I think I was hired into my early design jobs mostly because I could use both platforms equally well, and they couldn't find anyone (except clients) who would venture to design on a PC.
Eventually, I discovered that it's a lot of work (and money) to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology, and I opted to go with easy, instead, which leads us to my brief sojourn into Android-land.
Size Matters, and Bigger Isn't Always Better
Samsung's advertising campaign focuses on the device's size and screen quality.
It is nice; there's no doubt. Its Super AMOLED+ (whatever that means) screen is a beauty that delivers rich colors and deep blacks. I could watch a movie on it. Except that I don't use my phone that way. The increased size just makes it difficult for me to use with one hand -- especially when typing.
A Little Tactile Feedback Goes a Long Way (or not)
One of the early gripes of the iPhone is that it had no tactile feedback. Steve Ballmer famously laughed off the iPhone for business use because of the lack of tactile keyboard.
However, the iPhone DOES have four well-designed points that give tactile feedback. The home button allows you to orient and activate your phone easily. The three switches that control volume, the vibration setting, and the power are firm and discourage accidental interaction.
By contrast, every time I pulled the Samsung out of my pocket, I had to reorient it, and I often pressed buttons I didn't intend to press, which forced me to spend more time than I should have to recover from those accidental interactions.
Also, the lack of tactile feedback on the Android is more of a liability for me than it is on the iPhone. Autocorrect humor notwithstanding, the iPhone's screen keyboard just predicts my intent better, even when I make errors.
Here's an example of one of my very typical Android typing attempts:
"Just? Ade SwiftKey? You default keyboard. I auto irreconcilable not imprrssive"
What I was TRYING to say was this:
"Just made SwiftKey my default keyboard. Its autocorrect is not impressive."
Just for grins, I typed the same message on the iPhone just now. Here's what it gave me: "
Just made swift key my default keyboard. It's autocorrect is not impressive."
Not perfect spelling or grammar, but at least sensible to someone who knows what SwiftKey is.
Android allows you to pick your own keyboard, I tried several and was never able to find any that matched the iPhone's sensitivity and effective error mapping.
More Options Can Slow You Down
One of the things I was most anxious to try was the advanced customization options that the Android device allows. I was able to put a weather app on my lock screen, so I don't even have to unlock the device (let alone launch an app) to see what the weather is going to be like for the next few days.
There was an app that transcribed my voicemails (though I never got it to work, I don't doubt that it could). Another app could back up all my texts into an email.
It took awhile (and patience) to figure these features out, but with persistence (and patience of one of my Android friends), I was able to do a lot of cool stuff. Google Maps on Android devices is also clearly superior.
But once I had amy device all tricked out, I realized that I just don't use my phone that way, and that I still had to deal with the device's drawbacks for my day-to-day use.
Galaxy S II Not Fully Compatible with my Car's Entertainment System
I like listening to my music and my audiobooks while I drive. When I use the iPhone, I can see what's playing and who is singing it on my navigation/entertainment display. On the Android, the best I could get is affirmation that something is streaming from my phone.
My Android friends expressed dismay over the industry's fascination with ensuring compatability with the iPhone over the platform that has more market share (though part of the compatability that is important to me deals with the music player aspect, which leverages Apple's dominance there).
In the end, whatever their reasons (probably fragmentation), the Android device just doesn't work for how I want to use it. And I'm more likely to switch the phone to work with my car than I am to switch my car to work with my phone.
Android Will Continue to Do Well
Patent Wars aside, it's good for there to be competition in OSes, as long as it forces the players to innovate. I hope Android devices continue to do well, but at least for now, I'm not going to be one of their customers. But I don't have to be. They don't need me to be. As one iPhone Lover at Techcrunch put it, "they probably don’t (or shouldn’t) care too much about converting iOS users over to Android. All the non-smartphone users out there remain the much bigger prize to go after (for both Google and Apple)."
Since my last post, we've had a few major events in the mobile space.
The iPhone 4s was released to the general public, and people who have been able to overlook the new phone's battery issues (apparently a software issue that will be resolved in a few weeks), they've been so enthralled by its semantic-web (or Subservient Chicken) inspired Siri that they even launched a website that highlights both its ability to recognize complex speech and its personality while doing so.
A little while later, Google announced its new new Android mobile OS, Ice Cream Sandwich, and the sound of geeks drooling could be heard around the world.
Now Amazon said that it is launching a book-lending service to go along with its Prime membership (as long as they own a Kindle). It's sort of like Netflix, but in addition to movies, it also provides books. Oh, and free 2-day shipping on most of the items you can order on Amazon. Gizmodo calls it "Officially the Greatest Deal in Tech." Certainly Amazon just became more of a digital content juggernaut than it already was.
I'll have more to say on these developments later, but for now, let it suffice to say that this confirms that mobile is reaching the critical tipping point I mentioned before.
(As an aside, I can always tell when some technology reaches the tipping point when my parents start using it. RIght after they joined Facebook, the rest of the world did, even though I had been on it for about two years by the time they joined. True to form, my dad started texting me recently.)
What does this mean? It means that the best computer is the one you have on you. It means if you need to reach people, they need to be able to access you wherever they have a need for whatever it is that you sell. Finally, it means that not having a mobile strategy at this point may well be, competitively speaking, like one of those dreams where you accidentally show up to school without your clothes on ("Shoot! I KNEW I forgot something...")
So what do you do? You get your butt moving, that's what! As I'm sure I heard Seth Godin say at some point, the best time to start is a year ago. The second-best time is right now.
And it's not enough to produce any old thing. Says Jakob Nielsen, "Last year, it might have been cool simply to have an app. Now, that app better be good. Requirements have gone up."
Here are three strategies to get your brain going. By no means is this list exhaustive.
This is when you take everything that is on your website and cram it into your mobile website, but optimize it for the smaller screen sizes. Everything can be reformatted to fit the screen, of course, but for all intents and purposes, they are carbon copies of one another.
This is when you design a mobile experience instead and in exclusion of a desktop website. I can't think of any effective examples for this. Maybe some independent developers looking to create a killer app -- but even most (all?) realize the importance of having a website to support it. Plus, being developers, they also know how easy it is to get something credible up quickly.
A displacement strategy is when the experience designed for each device is married to its respective strengths and divorced from its weaknesses. For instance, desktop devices have a bigger screen area that can be used to enhance navigation or display more information, but you won't have it on you when you're out with your friends wondering what is happening in the city today. Mobile phones, on the other hand, are instantly available when you need quick information, they can identify what's around you due to enormous (and growing) infrastructure support, but doing certain things, like typing, can be murder.
To successfully pull off any strategy, you really need to put yourself in your audience's' shoes. Which is great if you are your own audience. If not, you're going to need to do some research. Don't skimp on this! If you don't have a much of a budget, start with some guerilla stuff. Take your small wins and build on them.
And be quick about it, will you?
What are some of your favorite strategies for mobile implementation?
According to Nielsen, 40% of all mobile phones in the U.S. are smartphones, which are poised to overtake feature phones later this year, and although tablets are showing only a 5% penetration, as the cost of entry falls and Amazon throws its hat into the tablet ring, smart money is on a boom in the next few years. If you've been holding out on designing for mobile over the last few years, your time is up.
The good news is that your mobile site doesn't necessarily have to do the same things your website does. The bad news is that it could take some serious sleuthing to figure out what it does need to do.
The challenge for designers is that this is all very time consuming. Each platform is inherently different and has its own strengths and weaknesses. You can do some things better on a PC because of the additional space. You can do some things better on a smartphone because it's with you and connected when you need it.
The market for personal computers is still growing in a down economy -- partly because it's still highly relevant for enterprise use, and partly because the market maturity leads to lower costs of entry than newer technologies. Along with the fact that it is a known quantity with established home and business uses, its low cost of entry makes it a safe bet people in the market for a new device. In short, the PC will evolve, but it is not going away anytime soon.
However, as more people adopt these mobile technologies, their expectations for a good experience will not deminish. If anything, they will demand better and eschew those experiences that do not take into account their mode of arrival.
If you want to attract planes, first build a runway.
If you want to attract people with enough disposable income to risk on a trendy device, build a remarkable experience for them for that device -- and give them the ability to share.
Next time, I'll write about three mobile strategies to consider when planning your mobile presence: