Friday, December 23, 2011

The 9 Circles of Air Travel Hell

Over the past 15 or so years of my professional life, I've travelled too much.  I've seen some amazing things and places, ate some amazing foods, met some amazing people that I count as friends for the rest of my life.
Unsuspecting Travelers...
Before 9/11, my wife and I both have traveled in some unorthodox ways that I will not document to protect the relatively innocent.  Early on, achieving premium traveler status was joyous, but the loyalty cards quickly became badges of shame.  Today, on American Airlines, I am Platinum for life and have over 3 million lifetime miles.  Sad.  Post 9/11, I don't look forward to air travel anymore and often joke that it's exotic: exotic long lines, exotic delays, exotic lost luggage, and exotic mechanical issues.

Being the analytical type, however, I have managed to categorize the stages of air travel corresponding to Dante's Inferno and its 9 Circles of Hell.  Enjoy:
1. Limbo: This is either waking up for the flight in time, trusting that nappy hotel alarm clock or wake-up service, or leaving your client meeting on-time.
2. Lust:  How many times have you been stuck in traffic calculating the time before they won't let you get a boarding pass anymore?  Or, doing circles trying to find a parking spot?  One time, in New Delhi (eating biryani, en route, of course), I arrived 2 hours early, and it took 30 minutes, in the cab to get up to the departure area from the street.  I cut to the front of the line to get into the airport, made a lame "dumb American" excuse why I did not have my ticket to get in, and I did not sit down at all the next 90 minutes until I was seated on the airplane.
3. Gluttony: Some airports are awesome in terms of the efficiency of getting your boarding pass and getting through security.  Then, there is making a connection at Charles de Gualle (CDG).
4. Greed: So, you've woken up, traversed rush hour traffic, and made it through security in plenty of time.  Is there a plane at the gate?  Is your plane the one coming in from O'Hare in January?  So sorry.
5. Anger: Late flight?  Lighting push the planes back?  Inefficient airline staff?  Boarding on-time is always a challenge.  Maybe it's a conspiracy to get people to spend more money in the terminals with the local merchants.
6. Heresy: I honestly can feel this happening to me, as I type it.  I'm on the plane.  Seated.  5 minutes before the departure, but they are not buttoning up the plane.  There's some technician that keeps coming in and out of the plane, checking in with the pilots in the cockpit.  Does this plane work?  One time, we were flying to Barcelona, through Paris, and we had to head back to the gate twice because the weather radar did not work.  Apparently, they did not fix it the first time, or the second...
7. Violence: ...because as we approached Boston at 1AM, the pilot informed us that the weather radar was not working and we would head back to JFK, where we stayed the night.  Will we even make it to the destination...or maybe just land in JFK, instead...
8. Fraud: So, one time I was flying home from Nice, France.  Clearly, I was going in the wrong direction.  Anyway, I've documented some of the challenges of flying through CDG, so I chose to fly through a new connection in Zurich.  First sign of danger was when we waited in the plane, connected to the jet bridge for 2 hours.  Then, second sign of danger was when the plane pulled away and parked at the end of the runway right before take-off.  Apparently, there was some dispute between the pilots, the air control in Zurich and the air control in Frankfurt about our plans.  Regardless, we took off  3 hours later and landed home just as a storm hit.  I started to slump as I saw us turn away from the terminals and approach a massive line of planes, waiting for gates to free up.  Two hours later, we officially landed.  What should have been a 10 hour flight turned into a 17 hour affair.
9. Treachery: Lord knows I've secretly wished that our plane would land somewhere tropical instead of my dull destinations, but it has never happened.  However, my luggage, when I have been forced to check them, have probably been to some amazing place, because they often times do not make it back with me to my destination.  One time, when I was in college, I was visiting my wife and her family in Costa Rica for the Winter Holiday.  I arrived December 20th.  My bags arrived December 26th, two days before I left.  That helps.

And this does not even consider the threat of airport evacuation, which has happened to me twice, once in Paris' Charles de Gaulle and a few years ago in London's Heathrow.  Both, quite exotic.

Monday, December 19, 2011


Waves of articles about the embedding of the Carrier IQ quality of service agent in phones in the past few weeks have captured the attention of media and mobile phone users.  It's raises the topic of privacy and the importance of clear disclosure to end users.  Because the bottom line is this: if the phones visually notify the end users of what data they were capturing, what they are going to use the data for, and how the end user can opt-out of such measurement, this is a non-issue.  These 3 privacy commandments are critical not just for market research but for any mobile and internet startup, as well.

Now, in the case of CIQ, this all may have been done, in all cases.  From the press articles, it seems that there may have been some breakdowns between all the parties responsible for delivering the end solution.  Given that the situation has attracted the attention of Senator Franken, and the Senator still does not seem to have received all responses or seem to be happy with those he received, there will likely be more disclosures to the public to understand more.

The commandments sound simple enough, but its amazing how the smallest and the largest companies don't do justice to them.  I have met with startups who gloss over this when we discuss privacy, and when companies are small, they want to focus on building the framework of their business, expecting to plumb the details when money is flowing in.  Fair enough, but the early investment likely does not cost much, if anything, and the importance of embedding the edicts of user privacy are important to seed early and often.  Large companies often do everything legally required, but often embed disclosures and  how to opt-out in the middle of much larger, user agreements that no one ever reads.

The reality is that most users are willing to make the trade-off.  Given clear and definable value, they will let you use their information for benefit and profit.  Actually, being very up-front and transparent about privacy and data usage helps users gain more confidence in companies.  Thinking about opt-outs, data storage and removal, and breaches up front and early is infinitely cheaper early on.

Tell the user up-front and right away what data you want to use and why, make it clear and easy to opt-out, and if you give a service of value, they will give you invaluable access and demographic information.  Win-win.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Invisible Computer

I've commented before about a book, The Invisible Computer by Donald A. Norman, that I forced myself to read about 10 years ago.  It discusses the unnecessary complexity of computers and their software, at the time, and the opportunity to embed computing in smart appliances, where the "computer" was invisible.  It would seem, at least in hindsight, that companies like Apple and Google had learned similar lessons with the advent of iPhone and Android smartphones, but one could say that, as an industry, we are still nascent in our progress.

Newer appliances, like the Nest Learning Thermostat, are excellent examples of what Mr. Norman was forecasting.  What once constituted a computer, it's memory and processing power can be found in extremely miniaturized and inexpensive silicon that are economical to integrate into consumer electronics.  Additionally interesting, that the Nest takes advantage of, is the ubiquity of connectivity in the home, via Wi-Fi, and the value that connectivity adds to a consumer device.  Controlling your thermometer from your smartphone, making it ice cold in the dead of winter for a friend or loved-one, when you are warm and cozy in a hotel room traveling for work, for example.

But for every Nest, there are 10s of examples of connected refrigerators, smart washers and connected televisions that have not found the right formula.  The idea of a connected television sounds like a slam dunk, but the video world is so complex in terms of rights and legacy, the obstacles are challenging.  What is the magic, then?  If I knew, I would be retired on the beach, so take this with a grain of salt, but in hindsight, the final answer is always: how did I do this before?  That is, these great technological advances make something so easy, that you look back at the way you did it previously, and it makes you wince.  How did I do this before?

I don't think the majority of the potential innovations that are hanging before our minds are complex.  Simplicity is key, both for the actual advancement and the user experience of the result.  Simplicity usually indicates a focus on what is most important, keeps costs down, allows for easy investor and consumer messaging, and means a normal human, like my mom, actually might understand it and be able to use it without calling her IT department: me.

Think Big, Go Small

Sometimes, you want to bake a cake from scratch.  Other times, someone has baked an excellent cake and offered you a slice, for free, and you would be a fool to pass.  In this case, Google has made an excellent website for brands to understand the importance of mobile in their digital marketing strategy and provides resources to build their mobile site.  They call their initiative GoMo.  It even provides a tool to assess the readiness of your website for mobile, and asks the right questions.

As an example, this year, on Black Friday, online retail sales grew 24.3%, according to IBM Coremetrics data, yet mobile traffic increased 255% and mobile retail sales grew over 300%!  This does not specify the impact that mobile has at the beginning of the consumer journey or the impact that it increasingly has with mobile loyalty schemes.  iPhone and iPad, alone, accounted for 10.2% of all online traffic this Thanksgiving.  The bottom line is designing a web presence today without building in optimized support for tablet and mobile is asking your customers, viewers and fans to go elsewhere.

So, where to start?  First, since mobile web is the principle destination from search, having an optimized mobile web presence is key.  With modern, responsive design techniques, one design can scale from larger PC and tablet sizes down to smaller smartphone and feature phone form factors, optimizing what content and actions are available based on key user scenarios.  In smaller form factors, the focus can be on quick hitting information and actions.  Starting the design from the smallest form factor also helps to focus on simplicity and impact, which can benefit the designs for larger form factor devices, as well.

From there, brands can branch out to offer optimized app experiences that many fans and consumers prefer.  Companies like Facebook and LinkedIn have done an excellent job of blurring the lines between mobile web and apps, but for most brands, they can think of an app on the user's home screen like a loyalty card in their wallet.  If they like a brand enough to carry their card, it is a meaningful indicator of the affinity they have for the brand.  A brand needs to capitalize on that and deliver value from the app, or run the risk of abandonment.

For many companies, they need to walk before they can run, but ignoring the growing impact on mobile in digital marketing is an increasingly dangerous gamble.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The UX Teeter Totter

I think it's very impressive the mobile work that companies like LinkedIn and Facebook are producing today.  Click on their app or their mobile website and the experience is almost identical, as much as the two mobile channels will allow.  Especially in the case of Facebook, which I do wonder how it remembers who I am, in mobile Safari, without cookies enabled...hmm...

I believe companies shade too far away from utility towards fancier user interfaces, on mobile.   Bob Robinson, Executive Creative Director at Rockfish, always talks about the balance of user experience and brand experience in digital design.  On the web and on tablet, a company who demands more brand experience can reach more and push the envelope, but on mobile, the platform itself demands more utility, by its nature.  People browse longer on tablets and frequently want quick information and action on smartphones.  User experiences need to be optimized for both, which might limit, in the case of mobile web, how much responsive design is used, if a more brand oriented experience is chosen for the tablet or web.

The recent LinkedIn mobile app re-design, while visually interesting, strays too far from utility in its approach and at times is confusing on what a user should do where.  I find LinkedIn an awesome tool for business, and before I meet someone for the first time, I constantly find myself looking them up on my mobile, reminding myself of their experience and taking a quick mantal snapshot of what they look like.  Something about the redesign though makes me think that the mapping of mental model to conceptual model is not right yet.  It does not intuitively click for me, even after some months of use.

I have more issues with Facebook's redesign, though.  I was using Facebook more and more on mobile, as are many people according to Eric Tseng, but in hindsight, since the redesign, I find myself coming back to my laptop more and more to interact with Facebook.  While there still seem to be some defects in the iPhone app that cause more user action than is required, especially with notifications and updates, I feel like any action that I plan takes several more steps than what might be optimally required.  It would be interesting to do an industrial engineering time study on Facebook mobile use.  Maybe this is why I find myself hovering back to my laptop when I want to engage with Facebook?

The different models of how users expect to interact with the different channels challenges the design to balance reuse and optimal experience.  It's expensive and difficult to do an optimized design for each platform and channel.  A good approach starts with the right content architecture that allows for the same source data, without sacrificing performance on the apps, by splitting the presentation from the data.  In this way, each platform can be optimized to host that data with the best experience.

In the coming weeks, we'll dive into some approaches on how this might be done.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Free, Easy, Angry, Loyal

Monday: Angry
Tuesday: Free
Wednesday: Easy
Friday: Loyal
Sunday: Lucia

Lucia and Mr. Mesero

This past week has been a whirlwind, but I've managed to try a couple of new spots around the Metroplex that are worth noting and passing on to my D/FW peeps:

1. Lucia - We had an excellent meal here with friends this week.  First, I got $10 off by checking in with Foursquare.  Thank you, American Express!  We ordered various antipasta, pasata, segundi and dolci dishes and the ones that really stood out were the crispy pork belly, the gnocchi, and all the main dishes: the pork shoulder, the duck breast, the merluza, and the steak.  All were delicious and well prepared, but the pork shoulder was tremendous.  The only thing they messed up was not having a proper expresso machine to make real coffee.  If the desserts don't float your boat, just walk next door to Dude, Sweet Chocolate and try their home made chocolates, fudges and marshmallows.  Very nice, and you can buy more to bring home after you're done grazing their samples.

2. Mr. Mesero - Mico Rodriguez, of the MCrowd fame (Mi Cocina, Taco Diner, The Mercury), opened a small, excellent taco restaurant in the former location of Burger Girl at 4444 McKinney Avenue in the Knox-Henderson area of Dallas.  We have been back twice, once with the kids, and we have not had a bad dish yet, and apparently others think the same.  We have not tried the drinks yet, as we're both on medication recovering from the crud, but I'll be back again soon to rectify that miss.  I really liked the crispy carnitas tacos from my first visit.  Nice, intimate locale, good service, great guac' and very tasty, unique flavors in the dishes.  It's opening makes up for CafĂ© San Miguel's surprising closing.  Mico is awesome.  Go tomorrow!

I've done my public service for my Dallas peeps and those friends who travel here.  Go, eat, and share a nice meal with family and friends.  Heck, invite me!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Loyal, to the End

Loyalty is an incredible element of leading fearlessly.  Clearly, there are limits to which any loyal relationship can be and should be broken, but the leader who can, without hesitation diffuse a situation and stand up for their team is a leader that people will jump through fiery hoops again and again for.

Sometimes loyalty is dealing with bad news and bad performance.  My proudest moment as a manager, to this day, is when I had to give a yearly performance review to someone where they were "zeroed out".  No wage increase.  No bonus.  The message was deliberate: the performance was totally mismatched with expectations.  The employee was a super smart individual but had lost his way.  The discussion was totally awkward, and it would have been easier to just fire the individual.  The harder task was to confront and resolve the situation, to get the individual to agree with the assessment, to recognize and relish the expectations, and to focus on the goals and not the past.

The individual killed it the following year.  The same co-workers who did not want to work with him voted him a top technical resource in the company.  He ranked in the top 20% of employees based on his performance.  I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure he would jump through fiery hoops for me, if he worked for me today.  Not just because of getting a bad review and turning it around, but because of consistent communication and support.  

Clearly, waiting for a yearly reviews is not a great way to deal with performance issues.  Different companies have different paces and styles in regards to such things.  Constant communication about expectations and performance and demonstrating fierce loyalty are ways to make sure that nothing ever deviates far from the intended path, though.  Lead fearlessly, and people will follow with passion.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Easy, Peasy, Fast, and Cheesy

I once had a Director, early in my career, who if nothing else, taught me that, "if it was easy, everyone would do it."  It was a motivational statement for all the hard work we had to put into a product we were working on.  His message was that stuff that is worth it normally takes hard work.  If it's easy to do, likely consumers won't be willing to pay you or pay you much for it.  The reverse is true, as well: if something is free, it has no value.

Barrier to entry is one good barometer when you are thinking about new propositions.  If it's too easy for your competitors to do the same thing, then its only a temporary advantage and not strategic.  Getting there first has advantages some times, but sometimes, being a fast follower offers you perspective of what the first did wrong.

Most great new propositions has some key differentiation that distinguishes them from legacy and the competition.  The differentiation normally adds a lot of value to the consumer and makes it tough for them to switch and tough for competition to match.  Once in a while that differentiation is so good, it disenfranchises the way things have been done historically.  Those are the gems.

Next time you are burning the midnight oil on something important, think about whether you are just running ahead of competition on the same road, or building new roads that they have yet to find or traverse.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Breaking Free

In eighth grade, we had Physical Education at the end of the day.  Mr. McIntyre was my PE instructor.  He was my PE instructor throughout my primary entire education, actually.  Well, towards the end of the school year, we were playing softball, and I was playing shortstop, and there was a popup in shallow centerfield.  I drifted back and called it, but Oliver Krug did not hear me and crashed into my leg, breaking my femur cleanly in two piece.  I heard the crack.  I yelled some obscenities, at the top of my young lungs, and attracted hundreds of school kids to the windows of the school.  I did still catch the ball, I must say, which was the final out of the game.

Plump, with cast and T-Rex arm...
Mr. McIntyre came to help me up, and I told him that it was broken, and in classic PE teacher stereotype, he must have said something like, "ah, it's just a scratch", or, "toughen up, Yonker!", or, "broken?  I'll show you broken, now get up!" And, he proceeded to pick me up and let me stand on my two legs, one broken, without support.  My right leg, the broken one, bent in the direction that legs are not meant to bend, and, once again, I yelled those same obscenities, at some higher peak of my lungs that I did not realize, just moments earlier, that I could reach, and attracted hundreds of kids back to the windows of the school, all trying to figure out what the hell was going on.

It actually took me 24 hours to convince anyone that my leg was indeed broken.  Apparently, I cried wolf a lot in my younger years, but once I did, they straightened my leg which had atrophied, wrapped me in a waterproof cast and sent me on my way with crutches.  It was the single most important event in my life that helped me to gain my independence.

You see, I was, and likely always will be, a momma's boy.  I was the youngest.  Always picked on (never a pest, of course).  Only in retrospect, do I realize what a royal pain the arse I was to my mother those early years, but something about that extra challenge of dealing with a cast at the end of school and that summer focused me to do it my damn self!

I learned how to flip off the diving board, with my cast on.  Everyone signed my cast at school.  I walked miles with my crutches, refusing rides from my mom.  I also did not bathe and dry the cast according to Dr. Bartolett's instructions, actually, and when they removed it, I remember my brother's horror at the shriveled, smelly horror that my leg had become.  Either way, it was one of the best summers I have ever had.

Challenges can bring out the best in us or the worst in us.  Keeping an even keel and focus is key to making great decisions in times of need, and perseverance can help to surmount almost any obstacle.  It helps to be stubborn, as well.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Angry Smartphones

I was joking last week, when I saw a poster of an Angry Bird in the window of Barnes and Noble, that read "Birds and Noble", that maybe 2011 was the year that Angry Birds jumped the Cabbage Patch and over-saturated.  Probably not likely, but you can't swing a dead cat without seeing a bird or pig flip flop, tee shirt, stuffed animal or coffee mug this holiday season.  More importantly, however, is the vehicle that drove the birds and pigs to this swank party, the smartphone, and its impressive growth here in the United States and abroad.

Android Biggest OS, Apple Biggest Manufacturer
The Nielsen Company recently noted that Android and iPhones make up 71% of smartphone owners in the U.S. but 83% of the app downloads.  Of the embedded market, 44% own smartphones now, while 56% of new purchases are smartphones.  People want their Angry Birds.

Recently, in the United Kingdom, Kantar Worldwide ComTech found that the pent-up demand for the iPhone 4S accelerated new iOS phone sales shares to 42.8% of all smartphone sales in October.  Smartphones made up 69.1% of all new mobile sales!  It will be interesting to see 4Q numbers to see if the iPhone trend is local or global.  I normally would also not expect it to be sustainable, but the only wrinkle in that opinion is the massive amounts of litigation going on between Apple and Android licensees.  Tomorrow, there is a ruling which could result in an import ban for HTC, for example, and if it happened, that could boost other Android sales, like Motorola's new, stylish DROID RAZR, or maybe give Apple a bump.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Steep Cliffs

We are all arm-chair quarterbacks when it comes to predicting the past in the digital world.  Of course AOL would tumble because of their reliance on dial-up.  MySpace?!  Seriously?!?  Everyone could see their demise.  After it happened.

I suppose if I had really good advice for predicting such future, I would be retired on a beach somewhere and not writing this blog.  Well, maybe I would still be writing this blog, but I would be more relaxed.  The reality is there is no crystal ball, but the cliffs are steep when leaders fall.  We have a hard time imagining Google or Apple or Facebook not being leaders in their space, but it's almost inevitable that their time will pass, as well.  The great companies are always reinventing themselves, because any combination of market forces, competition, technology, etc. change the environment that made them successful.  IBM did it.  Apple did it.  Nokia was renowned for attempting to reinvent itself every year, but somewhere along the way, they have stumbled and chosen the wrong path.

I once forced myself to read the book The Invisible Computer, by Donald Norman, and at the time, I worked in the computer industry.  The concepts described in this book are much of what makes Apple a leader today: embedding computers in everything, making them smart and seamless, invisible.  The book was published in 1999.  I remember thinking that the concepts that Mr. Norman discussed were interesting, but he ignored the realities of the business aspects of the market and the economies of scale that existed and the advantages they provided to the PC world.  I've learned since that those advantages go away quickly when consumers and businesses vote through their purchases.  It's happening to Nokia, and now Apple is recognized to have the advantages of economies of scale.  It's a prize you receive, if you run a tight, smart ship, when you make good products.

Great strategic leadership can help to identify the cliffs before you drive the bus off them.  Always be aware and never be content.