February 26, 2015

Net Neutrality and the Death of Self-Government

Back in 2006, I wrote an article about Net Neutrality that has become more relevant given the recent decision to reclassify the Internet as a public utility, which allows it to be regulated as a Title II entity.

If you're just joining us, that sounds like a bunch of gobblygook, and for good reason. It is.

The people who have been calling for Net Neutrality rules, such as Barack Obama, John Oliver, The Oatmeal, as well as most of my colleagues, welcome this news as a signal that ISPs will no longer be allowed to give preferential treatment to certain types of Internet traffic, regardless of what people may be willing to pay for of their own free will. 

One of my colleagues, an Obama supporter whom I nevertheless am very fond of, expressed absolute incredulity that I cautioned patience over his dissatisfaction with his choices of Internet Service Providers (ISP) and the service they offer. It will get better with time, I said, just as it got better from the old CompuServe and America Online days of needing to dial long-distance numbers through a modem to get a connection that allowed you to hook up to a chat room to tell spam jokes (true story). 

On the other side, fellow Texans Ted Cruz and Mark Cuban (whom I've criticized from time to time) find themselves, more or less, on the same side regarding Net Neutrality. 

The intent of Net Neutrality sounds good on the surface. Who wants fast Internet all the time? And for less, too! I do, I do! 

However, we have to separate the INTENT from not only the CONSEQUENCES, but also the MEANS, for ignoring the means or treating them as inconsequential has indirect consequences that affect all of us.

The means they are using for SWEEPING changes to the role the federal government plays in Internet access bypasses people’s own personal choices (first) and their direct representatives (second) in favor of a bureaucratic decision (on a 3-2 vote) that is absent any meaningful oversight. Regardless of what we think of the intent, the process matters. Accepting the maxim that an unelected bureaucracy can and should make such sweeping (rather than, say, incremental) changes on a vote from the board of directors effectively divorces the American people from self-government. We are no longer in control.

Second, the direct consequences of these new regulatory powers are detrimental to the free exchange of goods and labor between private parties — meaning the ISP and the people who are willing to pay for access, on their terms, and substitutes the terms of an unelected regulatory body that apparently has the power to change its mind on a whim. 

Third, having the ability to throttle certain channels taken away from them, ISPs must either slow down the “fast-track” channels to compensate, or invest in infrastructure to expand the bandwidth so speeds can keep up with the increased demand. The natural consequence for this is slower speeds and higher prices, which the ISPs will dutifully either lobby to be paid for by the taxpayer (higher debt or taxes), or pass on to the consumer in the form of higher fees.

What’s worse, it’s going to take a few years for this to get through the courts (more costs!), so by the time we start seeing higher prices and/or poorer service, we’re going to forget how we got here, and we’ll be powerless to do anything about it, because the FCC doesn’t answer to us.

This was passed amidst the singing accolades from people who should, but do not, know better, and those whose knowledge of the issue is limited to the dismissive rantings of a comic or the biting parody of a cartoonist. We should not mistake that for informed consent of the American people.

- Cam Beck

June 30, 2014

No Diving Allowed: Putting Performance First to Make Sure Your Projects Start Right

Starting a new client-agency relationship can be very exciting. It isn’t uncommon for a new pairing to be jointly celebrated with announcements given to a cheering crowd, toasts, and cake. Once a company has decided to invest in a new digital marketing project, those responsible for its completion are under considerable pressure to speed up the development cycle and start getting results. The primary result project managers seek is the conclusion of the project. However, in all of the excitement about the new project and the rush to get it done, design teams must not neglect the first step that will make it possible to determine the project’s success in the first place – the business objectives against which it will be measured. Going forward with design without a structured measurement model is like diving into a pool without knowing how deep the water is – and not being terribly confident that you even know how to swim.

The beginning of a digital project is critical. Take, for example, a website redesign project. The motivation that initiated the request often is no more complicated than an executive team’s general dissatisfaction with the look and feel of the company website. They may have a sense that the site is not “user-friendly,” and they might even have a few anecdotes to support this theory.

This seeming lack of accountability to concrete, measurable results may seem to be a blessing for the team responsible for building it, but it produces a lack of clarity that is actually quite detrimental – and costly.

How costly? 

According to an article written for the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE), avoidable errors in software design waste billions per year. Some of the more egregious examples include a $400 million purchasing system abandoned by Ford (2004), $3.45 billion tax-credit overpayment by the UK Inland Revenue (2004-2005), and the explosion of a $350 million rocket by Arianespace (1996).

In fact, claims IEEE, the total estimated yearly cost for faulty software is enough to

“…launch the space shuttle 100 times, build and deploy the entire 24-sattellite Global Positioning System, and develop the Boeing 777 from scratch – and still have a few billion left over.”

The scope of the losses is difficult to put into context when accustomed to considerably smaller budgets for digital projects, but since digital marketing consumes 17% of a typical marketing budget for the year, it had better not be wasted. Regardless of how meticulously it was conceived, no effort is without risk. However, the IEEE study suggests twelve ways to mitigate that risk.

Two of them deserve special attention:

  1. Set and document realistic and meaningful project goals, and
  2. Craft well designed project requirements.

Think about that for a moment. Two of the major reasons software projects fail (and a website is a form of software) – costing billions to the organizations who initiate them (passed on to everyone else through higher prices, taxes, or debt) – have to do with the act of defining the thing the team is building. Analytics guru Avinash Kaushik (Web Analytics an Hour a Day, Web Analytics 2.0) put it this way

“The root cause of failure in most digital marketing campaigns is not the lack of creativity in the banner ad or TV spot or the sexiness of the website. It is not even (often) the people involved. It is quite simply the lack of structured thinking about what the real purpose of the campaign is and a lack of an objective set of measures with which to identify success or failure.”

 The problem, more often than not, isn’t the lack of a definition, but an abundance of them. To make sure your team working toward the same end, your company needs a well-designed, structured measurement model that follows the project through each stage of the development cycle. This will keep the entire team focused on the objectives and guide the user experience strategy.

 There are 5 steps to building an effective measurement model.

  1. Define Your Objectives – There are three outcomes that can be defined here. Only three. Increase revenue, decrease costs, and improve customer/audience loyalty. Everything else is in service of one of these three. These objectives must be specific, measurable, achievable, and they must deliver value to the organization.
  2. Assign Goals for Each Objective – Goals are the ways to achieve the business objectives. They represent the strategy (not the tactics) the campaign is delivering on. To demonstrate this, consider that one of your goals may be to generate leads. A company can debate the way to get that lead based on effectiveness and resources. Is a simple contact form sufficient, or should they require contact information to download a whitepaper?
  3. Identify Key Performance Indicators (KPI) – A KPI is just a metric on steroids -- one that ties performance directly to your business goals. There are a number of metrics that it’s a good idea to track, but if a metric you feel is critical to your success doesn’t meet that criterion, either the metric is wrong or the model is.
  4. Set Targets – These are specific, numeric goals for your KPIs. In order to know whether the target is achievable, you will need to know or be able to find out what it is worth to your organization. Get the finance department involved. Look at your historical metrics. Use one of the lifetime customer value calculators floating out there.
  5. Segment – This is the key to getting actionable intelligence out of the data. It allows you to see who your most valuable consumers are. It allows you to see which advertising is most effective, under what circumstances, and how long it takes to convert and what the most common paths are.

It seems paradoxical, but the best way to improve your business quickly is to slow down. Do not rush right past the definition stage into the project design faintly hoping that it will provide executives comfort that the project is moving forward. Instead pace the progress appropriately to help them understand the activities that are necessary to improve their business. This will save you time and money in the design process by eliminating rework as each team member attempts to identify all of the incongruous assumptions on the fly, and will increase your opportunity for success for the entire project. 

January 02, 2014

Getting Them to Click: Information Foraging in the Wild

In spite of traditional marketers’ best efforts over the years to influence human behavior, mind control is still thankfully beyond our reach. But getting people to do what they ought to do in the wild doesn’t require mind control any more than getting a lion to chase a gazelle does. All you need to know is what they’re looking for and provide a clear trail to their prey. The lion provides the appetite.

That’s the basis of a theory developed by a couple of researchers at the Palo Alto Research Center in the early 90s. They postulated that people’s information-seeking behaviors are analogous to the food-seeking behaviors of animals. Put simply, we subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis when we are seeking information with the goal of expending as little energy as necessary to get it.

People are ruthless when they’re on the hunt for information. Depending on the goodwill they have stored up with you, they might not stick around long to find out whether they can find it with you.

This demonstrated lack of patience forces us to look at visits from a different perspective. An undisciplined obsession with clickstream analytics has given many companies the wrong idea. More pageviews and time on site are good things, right? Well, maybe, maybe not, and there lies the rub. We don’t know. If your visiting informavores are jumping from page to page because they lost the scent of their prey, then more time on site or more pageviews are undesirable. However, if they are confidently creeping closer and closer to their hunt, then a higher pageview count may be, in fact, desirable.

In reality, the real brand goal—for any brand—is not typically to keep visitors on your site longer, it’s to increase the audience’s storage of goodwill, which will give them the sort of confidence that you want them to have in your brand: that you can provide them what they’re looking for, even if their immediate experience tells them otherwise. 

So how do you make your website appealing to these starving information hunters? The core principles are pretty simple:

  1. Make something they want to consume.
  2. Make sure it is easy to catch.

This brings us to two key aspects to finding information, which are information scent and mental models.

Information Scent

Information scent in user experience design is the extent to which a given thing accurately communicates its function and the information the author intended to communicate. That sounds pretty academic, but think of your web visitor as a predator who is sniffing for clues that might lead it to its desired target. If the scent gets stronger, they will keep pursuing. If it gets weaker, they either change course or abandon the pursuit altogether.

Information scent has applications beyond the digital realm. Think of the last time you were at a door and you pulled when it was push only. The “Push” sign was right in front of you, yet you still pulled. Why? The door’s interface (handles) communicated “pull” more strongly than the word communicated “push.” Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, put it this way: 

“When a device as simple as a door has to come with an instruction manual—even an one-word manual—then it is a failure, poorly designed.”

The same is true of digital interfaces. Your average visitor in a mass-consumer market won’t stick around long enough to learn a simple interface, much less a complicated one. Your audience shouldn’t have to learn it at all. It should just work the way they expect it to work. A strong information scent will help your visitors get from Point A to Point B with little effort.

Mental Models

Where do people get their expectations about how something should work? It’s a complicated question, especially when we’re discussing complicated tasks and human needs.  For now let’s focus on the micro-interactions that help users complete complex tasks. People come to your website with all sorts of baggage that they’ve accumulated through years of activities in their analog and digital universes. Much of that baggage, as it turns out, is sensory, or more specifically, visual.

“The visual part of the brain takes up half of the brain processing power.”
 – Susan M Weinschenk, Ph.D., Neuro Web Design 

In human factors design, we call this baggage “mental models.” The informavore’s sense of smell depends on their mental models, which is why our design decisions must take account of them. 


ButtonWhen designing things that should be clicked, think about what people perceive to be clickable. The button metaphor has worked so well for so long because the mimicked three-dimensional button icon invites users to press on it. This is called a “skeuomorph,” which has been falling out of favor with designers in recent years, most notably with the Windows 8 redesign, and culminating in the iOS 7 launch, which eschewed the traditional skeuomorph with what has been called “flat design.”



Windows 8The early results from usability tests on interfaces with flat design have been mixed. One of the most prominent usability experts, Jakob Nielsen, has called for some sort of “golden middle ground between skeuomorphism and a dearth of distinguishing signifiers for UI elements.”  In an early review of Windows 8, Nielsen stated, “The Windows 8 UI is completely flat… There’s no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what’s clickable… Icons are supposed to (a) help users interpret the system and (b) attract clicks. Not the Win8 icons.”

Skeuomorphs are not the only way to tap into the mental models of a digital audience, but it is certainly worthwhile to consider why they are helpful and what purpose they serve before abandoning them altogether simply to chase after something because it seems more modern.


KindleAnother example where the digital realm borrows from the real-world models is the popular eBook reader. Whether the manufacturer of this reader is Amazon, Sony, or Apple, they wisely continued the page-turn metaphor for advancing to the next page that people have nearly a thousand years experience using.

Mental models evolve over time just as real-world experiences evolve. Children growing up in an automated, digital, touch-screen world will have different mental models than their parents. Children can be seen waving their hands in front of a lever-operated towel dispenser waiting for a towel to come out. Their mental model is shaped by automation, not simple machines.

The Google Imperative

The dominance and sophistication of search have made the situation more severe than ever. As people become more confident in the search engines than they are in any given landing page, rather than spend time trying to figure out the interface, they’ll go back to search and pick a different result. This learned behavior occurs more frequently as search engines improve their algorithms.

What’s more, the search engines are always adjusting their algorithms to make sure the most relevant results bubble to the top. Their brand depends on it. So if an interface itself doesn’t help solve the problem, chances are that the page will be so obsolete that it will rarely be seen by people searching for whatever the page was supposed to provide. The best strategy to get good search engine optimization from Google is to align your ideals with theirs: 

“Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
—from the Google Company Philosophy

Tapping into the Mainframe

The brain is a complex labyrinth of memories and relationships. Designing an interface to get and keep its attention amidst that complexity means simplifying the experiences that people have by borrowing from the real world and providing obvious cues to aid people in the discovery of how the interface works. Tapping into the existing, relevant mental models of the target audience creates the information scent that will lead informavores to their prey.   - Cam Beck

Helpful Links

The Usable Planet” 

Windows 8 – Disappointing Usability for Both Novice and Power Users

Google Company Philosophy 

November 05, 2013

But what if they leave my site?!

Small- to mid-sized companies may have a heck of a time getting attention. Because of their size, they likely don't have the resources to afford integrated, enterprise-level solutions, and therefore rely on third parties to fulfill certain functions in a potential customer's web experience. These third party solutions may, in the short term, take users to a different domain or subdomain. They may or may not include:

  • eCommerce storefront
  • Loyalty programs
  • Application process

And small- to mid-sized companies aren't alone. Even larger companies looking to be efficient with their budgets may run a trial program and hope to curtail some of the up-front development costs by leaning on the companies that specialize in these sorts of things. 

So the question inevitably arises -- When people try to access these services, should we open a new window/tab, or should we direct them to the service in the same window/tab?

Marketing professionals tend to think that they lose something if the user navigates away from their site. Over the years, they've learned to focus on the wrong things.

Let's go ahead and put that baby to rest. People will leave your site. They will always leave your site. In fact, they'll probably spend most of their time on sites other than yours. Now relax. And focus instead on delighting your customer. 

If you really think there is an opportunity to delight your users by increasing their pageviews and time on site (and there may be), give them something that delights them. Don't annoy them by making it difficult to manage their windows and tabs.

How annoying is it? In my years of observing and moderating usability studies, I've met people who have expressed...

  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in the same window
  • ...satisfaction that a link opened in a new window
  • ...disappointment that a link opened in a new window

What I've never once seen is someone who has expressed disappointment that a link opened in the same window. 

Ultimately, how you handle outside links depends on a number of factors that I won't go into here, but don't automatically assume that linking them off is going to harm your brand. - Cam Beck @cambeck

 

October 03, 2013

Hobby Lobby: The Intersection of Belief and Business

Hobby_lobby

Hobby Lobby finds itself amidst controversy again this year when, allegedly, some frontline workers expressed some sort of rejection of or indifference towards the business of Jews. 

I've never looked into it, but I can imagine that Hobby Lobby probably attracts people who identify as Christian, just by reputation of the company. However, I wonder if there is a corporate culture that endeavors to teach how Christian principles meet everyday management and interaction with non-Christians. The Bible tells Christians to spread the Good News to all nations, but even as a company that (probably) attracts Christians, what mechanisms do they put in place to provide spiritual guidance to their workers to do that? How does that intersect with what they lawfully can do?

(As far as I know, Hobby Lobby does not discriminate against people for unlawful reasons. The above is conjecture concerning who they probably attract.)

The failure of Hobby Lobby in this case isn't about selling things for Hanukkah -- lots of companies don't sell Hanukkah stuff -- it's about teaching its people how to interact with honest, hardworking people, willing to spend money, who have a simple, unassuming question -- or even those who set out to trap or embarrass them.

The corporate office seems to "get" that the original interaction was flawed. Now we get to see what they do about it.

Photo credit: Fan of Retail