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Max Choong's Blog

  • A state of mind

    I came across the term "humanist technologist", which is what Prof. John Maeda calls himself. I'm not sure if this is an oxymoron. You will often see these two words used in opposition not in unison. People align themselves to one of the camps - it's quite black and white.

    The predicament that technologists find themselves in is that they see technology as good and so more technology must be better. The technologists motto is:

    I do because I can.

    This is where we get ourselves into trouble. This attitude allows technologists to be seduced by the "beauty" of the technology itself; so technology for technology's sake. Humanists (and I would like to think that user-centered design practitioners belong to this set) have a different motto:

    I do because I care.

    Both of these are mindsets. This is something I've always said about user-centred design and user experience. It's not really about the tools and techniques (although knowing how to use them help), it's about what drives you. Call it a philosophy, a human imperative, a state of mind. So long as you are constantly ensuring that your technology solution is making a positive contribution to the user and society, then you can happily call yourself a "humanist technologist".

    Sometimes, even to me this can be a bit too fluffy and philanthropic. In a business world, I like one of the Agile imperatives:

    I do because I add business value.

    This makes sense to me as it doesn't imply technology or user centricity. In fact, it sounds more like "success-centric design". Isn't that just plain obvious? When the business, the technology and the users are all given respectful consideration, we have the right mindset to maximise success.

  • Agile innovation

    Up to now we've been talking about Agile development. So what we do are development iterations and what we get is incremental delivery of functionality. These iterations allow the business to be agile, to be responsive to changes (and there are always changes). The process is simplicity itself - inspect and adapt.

    My question is does "inspect and adapt" lend itself to creating innovative solutions or does it merely optimise them?

    By innovation, I mean an idea which is a step change - a discontinuity - from what we already know or do. Innovation is about thinking out-of-the-box, changing the rules and revolutionising. Optimisation, on the other hand, is about taking what we already have and evolving it.

    From my experience, project pressures usually mean the Agile process is an optimising machine. Clients want to keep going forward even when they know full well the solution isn't right. What happens is a solution which may be fundamentally flawed is polished and band-aided into something passable. It takes a brave soul to say: "This isn't working. Let's go back to the drawing board!"

    I'm not saying that there is no place for innovation in Agile. The problem is we don't seem to have time for it. No one quite knows who's responsible for it. And people are by nature quite precious about their work, so any radical departure from what has already been done is always regarded suspiciously and as a backward step in the project.

    You're probably thinking the answer is really simple: just put the (innovative) features on the backlog and prioritise them. That is indeed what we should do but, by its nature, innovations are often so full of unknown quantities that no one wants to or can estimate and scope them, which means they languish on a product backlog, never making it on to a Sprint backlog. A wacky, way-out idea is often difficult to visualise - the clients can't do it nor can the developers - so how do we quantify it?

    It could potentially go into a Sprint as a research task - a spike solution. I think that depends on the knowledge gap. Another approach is to take it out of the Sprint cycle altogether. I don't suggest doing this for every backlog item. I see it as an R&D stream or a proving ground for the difficult-to-visualise features. In most projects, a product backlog will mainly consist of features we have seen before and so by experience we can confidently quantify them. At best we will have recourse to design patterns that pretty much detail the solution for that feature. And often we can comfortably extrapolate or create composite solutions from parts we are familiar with.

    I have an ulterior motive for suggesting this "R&D stream" that runs in parallel to the iterative development cycle. It gives user-centred design its own space. We can storyboard, prototype and carry out in-depth research to test ideas. These activities are time-boxed as required and the outputs (if appropriate) eventually feed into the backlog as properly qualified and considered items.

    In one way, the "R&D stream" is helping the development team estimate by clarifying the unknowns. But more importantly, the "R&D stream" is helping the client innovate by generating, testing and visualising ideas in a user-centred way.

    In conclusion, I think we can indeed innovate in an Agile environment and one of the best ways to do that is by taking a user-centred approach. However, in order to not disrupt the Agile development cycle and to not distract the User Experience delivery team members, I see an "R&D stream" running alongside with a mandate to let their imaginations run wild!

  • Marketing and selling online

    I'm going to recap the basics because marketing and selling are so intertwined that it's easy to get confused as to what is what. The line can be quite blur sometimes but put simply:
    • Marketing is all about bringing in the leads; and
    • Selling is all about closing the deal.

    You could think of it as a continuum - it's commonly referred to as a sales pipeline and usually depicted with a funnel at one end. The analogy being you market to get prospects into the funnel (not all of them will buy), then qualify them into cold and warm leads (so you can prioritise your efforts). There'll be fewer hot leads (customers ready to buy) and lots of cold ones, hence the narrowing of the pipeline. The point here is with a fixed amount of resource, you'll want to apply it so that the flow through the pipeline is smooth and predictable. There's no point overfilling the top of the funnel (over-marketing) and leaving a bottleneck at the closing-the-sale end. Likewise, if you are closing all your hot leads faster than you can replenish this supply, you're not maximising your flow rate.

    Seen another way, marketing is actually a range of business activities aimed at bringing together buyers and sellers. This is not to be further confused with advertising. Advertising is a subset of marketing activities, sitting alongside market research, media planning, public relations, product pricing, sales strategy, customer support, etc. Traditional advertising is essentially a paid-for, non-personal announcement of a persuasive message by a company to its existing and potential customers. Marketers are constantly looking at new ways to connect with customers (read Loyalty through the brand), who are either jaded or savvy to the tricks of the trade. These cynical customers look beyond the superficialities of the product to the values associated to the brand when making their purchasing decisions.

    In online retail, marketing gets customers to your store and sets brand expectations. Once there, 7 out of 10 visitors intend to purchase, so we need to close the sale. Paul Dawson blogged about the failure of retail websites to convert these potential customers (see "Point of sale" online?). The biggest problem in the virtual sales process is the lack of human interaction. The successful sales guy/gal is an empathic, people-person. They establish rapport and trust; they respond and guide. As much as 90% of this is communicated non-verbally! So, you begin to see what's missing in stores online. We're struggling to advance customers along the sales journey by not providing guided selling, not addressing micro-barriers (those little customer worries that stop them committing), and focussing too much on product features and not solutions to the customer's problem.

    Retailers need to change the online store experience or rather translate the elements that work from the brick-and-mortar world into the virtual world. We need to move from:
    • 'non-personal advertising' to 'personalisation and targeted messaging'
    • 'talking about features' to 'selling solutions'
    • 'informing' to 'persuading'
    • 'engaging rationally' to 'engaging emotionally'
    • 'monologue' to 'dialogue'
    • 'listening about the brand from a distance' to 'experiencing the brand at close quarters'
    • 'us and them' to 'just us'

    Of course, I'm going to hold up user-centred design (UCD) as an approach to achieve this new paradigm - it's my job. However, it is worth noting that UCD also got us to the old one. UCD in itself won't give you the big idea. You still need the clever clogs to give you the big idea. UCD is used as an approach in all sorts of industries and it works because it is generic in so far as it considers users within a system.

    Bryan Eisenberg gives us another flavour that focuses on retail information architecture - persuasion architecture. Arguably, it's UCD again but with a twist, a retail focus. He talks about meeting the user psychological needs and so on but the bit I really liked was the simple analogy of brick-and-mortar store layouts and how it's done to persuade customers to navigate the store the way retailers want them to. Clients are always telling me about the different types of users and the myriads of user goals/needs and asking how we can satisfy them all. The answer is always: develop a number of key personas that will handle the majority of users (remember doing some things well is more often than not better than doing all things badly) optimally and try to sweep up the rest gracefully.

    We first have to acknowledge that if we mapped real customer paths through our website, it is guaranteed not to be a clean arrow from the homepage to the checkout. What we hope though is that the path isn't random. It should still broadly resemble the path as the retailer intended. We call the ideal path the customer journey - lots of research goes into defining this and it's a result of examining the user and the business needs (and often the technical constraints). I like to think of the customer journey at the highest level as 'stepping stones', like the ones leading a user through a garden. IKEA has taken this literally into their physical stores. Customers can still short circuit the paths but because the waypoints are clearly marked and the shopping process made explicit, customers easily orientate themselves and rejoin the journey. So, the customer journey is optimised in terms of merchandising, guided selling and user satisfaction. The customer journey tolerates divergence from the intended routing but if designed carefully customers will inevitably return as it is ultimately taking them to where they want to go.

    The mechanics of selling should be very similar online or offline. After all we are dealing with the same entities - products/services and customers. There are, of course, implementation differences and constraints of the platform but if customers see online as merely as another means of communication, then to them the messaging and the processes don't fundamentally change because they are now in front of a computer. By breaking down the buying and selling processes into little steps, retailers should be able to re-create a meaningful customer journey in the online world.
  • Our living rooms are converging again!

    I'm a bit behind the times – in terms of commenting on Viiv, Intel's platform for digital entertainment, and actually having any sort of digital media hub in my living room. I've got my TV (not wide-screen and only 4.0 surround), a cable box, an old VCR and a DVD player. Together they keep me pretty entertained. I'm not really happy though as I've got power cables and connector leads running riot, making my living room a health and safety hazard. All those components barely fit into the TV cabinet, which was designed to house a VCR and some videos. More than that is the gigabytes of digital media that is sitting in my PC in the bedroom. I can't access them from the living room downstairs.


    I immediately dismissed moving the PC downstairs, as it's a really ugly beige box, I've run out of extension power sockets, there are enough cables already and I really don't have anywhere to put it that will allow me to actually sit at it and use actively. Oh, and I almost forgot, the fan is really noisy.


    At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas at the beginning of the year, Intel told the world that digital media would never be the same again. As expected most observers were sceptical. (Read this article in the Washington Post and the related comments in Digg). What is Viiv? It's not anything tangible in itself. It relies on Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) as the brains – the operating system. Wikipedia says: 

    Viiv (pron. IPA /'vaiv/ rhymes with five) is a platform marketing initiative from Intel. Like Intel's Centrino and vPro, Viiv is a computer platform certification for a particular combination of Intel products as its primary components. It is an open specification for an Intel-based Media Center PC.

    A BBC news article described it as:

    A set of standards to help bring on-demand, high definition video from the internet (preferably Intel's portal) into all parts of the home, wirelessly.

    The critics attacked it as marketing hype and that there was nothing new here. True. There are lots of products out there that you could cobble together to give you the same end-result. Loads of people refer to MythTV, an open source Personal Video Recorder (PVR), which is like a TiVo. That's not quite the same thing as an MCE system, although for many people a PVR is plenty. Apple, of course, has Front Row which can connect to other Apple devices via Bonjour.


    I've thought of setting up my PC as a media server, using something like the SageTV Media Extender. But in the end, I was far too lazy as I would have had to learn how to do it; I was worried that after buying the kit it wouldn't work and would have wasted all that money; it would probably have been an eye sore; and because all the kit was of varying ages I knew the set-up wouldn't be optimal and that would have nagged at me.


    This is why Viiv and its story stand a chance in spite of the negative coverage. Geeks might complain about digital rights management (DRM), proprietary technology, and over-specification to sell more Intel products. I even read someone say that Viiv is just a 'horsepower sticker'. But average consumers just want something that works. Viiv is trying to offer that. If it is to succeed in the majority of living rooms, the box shouldn't be like a Swiss knife that has loads of features that you never use. It needs to behave like good consumer-friendly electronics – simple, dedicated to doing core tasks well, ergonomic, good looking. Hopefully, with Intel's prompting, manufacturers will produce an array of form factors from traditional towers to sleek DVD-like boxes so consumers can choose the hardware combination that best suits their needs.


    Furthermore, to complete the digital media lifestyle story, Intel has signed up entertainment providers. It's not just about the hardware; it's as much about the content. Like I mentioned in another blog post (Loyalty through the brand), Apple's iPods are successful not only because of the nice product design, but because all parts of the story link up – the end-to-end experience. There is the music management software, iTunes, and the content provider, iTunes Music Store.


    So, convergence is not all about getting rid of components and making one integrated box. It's not about moving the computer into the living room. Convergence will end up meaning moving more and more content to a digital media hub (i.e. the PC), especially as bandwidth and content providers increases, and downloading becomes the norm for accessing content.


    There will be a multitude of hardware combinations based on a flexible nerve centre, the digital media hub. I look forward to a MCE PC in the study, where I can surf the web and type up a document (at the 2-foot interface), while the other members of my family can listen to the mp3 collection via a wireless music adapter in the garden and, at the same time, select, download and enjoy a rented movie from CinemaNow in the living room.

  • Loyalty through the brand

    Brand management is big business. Brand management is also hard, as it deals in perceived value to the customer. All this subjectivity means you're never 100% sure if your marketing campaigns and brand promises are offering the right messages to the right customers at the right time. To add to that, these customers are fickle and their expectations are constantly rising.

    According to the Brand Keys Customer Loyalty Index for 2006:

    The average level of consumer expectation across 35 major brand categories rose by 4.5% from last year. Over the same period the survey, shows, the average ability of brands to keep up with those hopes decreased 9.2%. Put another way, while brands certainly try to meet the expectations of their loyal customers, those expectations are nonetheless growing two times faster than the brands' ability to keep up with them.

    Apple is often wheeled out as a paragon of branding excellence but the survey notes that even at mighty Apple there is still a so-called 'loyalty gap'. Apple do make mistakes; after all it's run by people. There was a big hoo-hah last month when the media reported: "Apple makes girl cry!" I guess lawyers will be lawyers. You can see that even this was a brand experience, albeit a negative one, for a customer via a touch point that wasn't probably covered in Apple's customer loyalty briefing.

    Nevertheless, Apple does still do so many things right. One of those is the Apple store, of which the latest, biggest is the one on Fifth Avenue in NYC - it's open 24hrs. Apple knows its brand recognition and momentum is at an all time high, so rather than sit back and wait for the competition to copy them and catch up, they go on the offensive to make Apple even more of an icon - Steve Jobs explains Apple's strategy on CNBC. Forrester's Apple case study brought up some good points. For a long time now, we've been saying retail marketing is all about selling a lifestyle. Well, Apple stores do just that. They don't just sell the products, they sell digital experiences (or lifestyle solutions). The stores are organised into solution zones, e.g. gaming, video production, music.

    We all know what they've done with music. The iPod is a phenomenon. However, the success of the iPod is not just about the style and usability of the hardware - that's just one third of the digital experience. The remaining two thirds, and Apple supplied these too, are the iTunes music management software and the online music store. Together they make a complete digital experience. This was a tipping point for success back when it launched. Today, this has probably started to become a sore point with some (less technically savvy) customers who feel locked into the iTunes online store and AAC music format.

    Anyway, back to the Fifth Avenue store, which opened to great fanfare (see the great brand affinity of Apple's customer base on Flickr and YouTube) on May 19th, 2006. The store provides training and expertise, and crucially a community feel. Things like workshops and the Genius Bar keeps customers coming back. Of course, all this is supported by the online side - from a calendar of in-store events to a concierge service to manage bookings with technicians. Apple are focusing on helping customers achieve their goals.

    You might think all this is pure investment in the brand and the stores don't make money. Think again, Forrester says that Apple stores' sales per square foot trumps those of pile-them-high retailers like Target and Best Buy. Same-store sales are also growing year on year. They've found a balance between being a retail and a concept store. The same cannot be said for other experience-led stores like Niketown, Lego Store and Sony Style.

    Talking about copycats, Dell is planning to open two retail stores. It will be interesting to see what they come up with. Another interesting initiative by American retail institution J.C. Penney was the opening of a temporary (for 3 weeks) virtual store at New York's Times Square to showcase its exclusive brands' spring collection and to introduce customers to its e-commerce offering. Forrester gives a good examination of the JCPenney Experience. I think there's something here, especially for pure-play retailers wanting to get their products into the hands of their customers (in the same way Apple stores create the 'ownership' experience) and from a brand building point of view (just like haute couture catwalk shows wow the public).

    So in a long-winded way I've stated the obvious that retailers (especially of electronic goods) are fighting hard against commodification of their products. Many retailers still believe that they can manipulate customer loyalty through top-down brand management. Unless they are truly grounded to their customers, this is plainly arrogant and insults the intelligence of consumers in the new millennium who have grown weary of marketing propaganda. If retailers continue on this tack, the 'loyalty gap' will never close, as they desperately over-promise to differentiate themselves and then disappoint when they fail to deliver.

    A mind-shift is needed. Customers don't want retailers who are trying to control them. They want retailers who are trying to help them. Customers were never or will ever be loyal to a brand; they are loyal through a brand. It's not us and them, it should just be us. How can there be a 'loyalty gap' if we're on the same side? This means customers should see retailers as comrades fighting for the same cause. Retailers need to find common ground with customers. Lasting loyalty is engendered through genuine shared experiences. This might just be how Apple has got it so right.

  • O brave new world of Microsoft® Expression® tools…

    At the recent “Computer Arts in association with Microsoft: Designing The Next Generation of User Experiences” conference, Microsoft presented the tools that will help us create the ‘brave new world’ where user interfaces are rich, beautiful, usable and a pleasure to use. Microsoft Expression tools comprises Graphic Designer, Interactive Designer and Web Designer.

    Graphic Designer is a tool for creating vector and raster graphics. It’s a mixture of Adobe’s Photoshop and Illustrator. It’s not a match against such tried and tested, mature products but that’s not its USP. That would be XAML. XAML is Microsoft’s version of a user interface markup language and it’s a key component of the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF). WPF and XAML are both vector-based technologies and this means goodbye to the limitations of 2-D bitmaps. So, visual designers use Graphic Designer.

    Web Designer was really impressive as HTML editors go. Front-end developers constantly moan about how Dreamweaver doesn’t produce clean and standard compliant code. Web Designer has focused on sorting out this bugbear and providing superior handling of CSS. The control and transparency of the development environment means even the most careless coders make few mistakes and that debugging is no longer so hit-and-miss. It’s quite clear that web designers/developers use Web Designer.

    This leaves us with Interactive Designer – the tool that really interests me. People seem to think this is a “Flash-killer”. It is a foray into rich media development for Microsoft but it does not compete directly with Flash (WPF/E might though!). I would say it’s more equivalent to something like Flex Builder. What Microsoft has done is integrate Interactive Designer tightly with WPF, which means it is hooked directly into Windows operating system. With Interactive Designer, you can design full-scale applications. If you wanted to re-do Photoshop in this, you could.

    Sounds like something for everyone then. What intrigues me most is who should be using Interactive Designer. It has two modes – the design view and the code view. The idea being that designers can do the pretty pictures and then the developers code up the functionality and wire it to the back-end. Is that the utopia for rich media application development? Do things really work that way? Come to think of it, what’s happened to the usability guy or the interaction designer? Hmm, interaction designer (what’s that?), that looks suspiciously close to Interactive Designer. Is that who should be using this bit of software?

    There’s obviously some confusion here. Partly, it’s the fact that the world is changing and so we need to change with it and partly it’s because designers have traditionally not done it the Microsoft way. Interactive Designer will be great for Windows developers. It shares common UI elements with other Microsoft developer tools. Designers, on the other hand, will have to get used to how Interactive Designer handles timelines and key frames, to thinking in terms of objects (e.g. a list box control) rather than flat graphics, to dealing with the collection of files in a project rather than a single PDF or FLA file, and that the ‘rich design surface’ is not as rich as what you get in, say, Flash or After Effects (I’ve no doubt it’ll get there but it’ll take a while).

    Anyway, back to who uses Interactive Designer… In many cases it’ll be a front-end developer’s tool. Visual designers will continue to use Photoshop and Illustrator with a plug-in that exports XAML and pass the visuals on to developers. The more techie-minded designers (maybe even Flash ones) will venture into using Interactive Designer but will need to accept a more Microsoft approach and also adopt more of a programmer’s mindset. After all, they need to speak the same language and work seamlessly together. This should make design and development more tightly coordinated and potentially speed up turnaround times. I guess, in the brave new world, unless the interaction designer wants to get his hands dirty, he’ll just have to stick with paper and Visio.

  • Agile growing pains

    I thought I'd better stop talking about all this blogging malarkey and actually start doing it. It's time I imposed my random thoughts on the rest of you!

    I've noticed that recently that the hot topic on Agile has been centring on its effectiveness. Officially, Agile Software Development is about five years old (the Agile Manifesto was signed in early 2001, although many of the practices were around in the late 1990s). Back when Agile came into the consciousness of CTOs, those that were enlightened or brave enough jumped on to the bandwagon, hoping that this would mark the end of the masochistic torture that was ‘Waterfall’. The promise of getting what you want (early) and not drowning in documentation and bureaucracy was compelling enough. Today, companies are looking at Agile as an alternative approach to development and they are more circumspect. They are hearing ‘war’ stories in which those who have tried it claim Agile doesn’t work. I’ve not found any statistics yet but I wonder (as I imagine many a decision-maker is also doing likewise) how well Agile projects compare with more traditional and sequential approaches. Remember the oft quoted 75% (this number varies from 60-80%, I guess depending on what constitutes as failure) of IT implementations fail to deliver business benefits. What would it be for Agile projects?

    A common explanation for less than successful project outcomes (given by proponents of Agile) is that “the project that you just worked on that was called Agile really wasn’t Agile”. In other words you executed it badly – don’t blame the tools! An article by Scott W. Ambler, “The Agile Edge: How Agile Are You?” tries to put down a few key characteristics that he looks out for when he evaluates whether a project is agile or not. When the characteristics are tools, artefacts or formal activities, they’re relatively easy to spot and rectify. What’s difficult is the ‘softer’ stuff, e.g. individual personalities, team dynamics, organisational culture. What are the characteristics of an agile team or individual? How can we make sure that the right people are chosen so that the resulting team is high-performing and how we can foster behaviour that reinforces the Agile principles?

    It’s clear that Agile is suffering from growing pains where it is experiencing greater scrutiny (of its credibility) and trying to define its true identity (what is Agile and what are agile implementations?). And I haven’t yet mentioned User Experience – this thread is to be continued (with answers if you’re lucky)...

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