Monday, April 23, 2012

Success eludes us

Avinash Kaushik has a typically detailed and clear-headed take on website success metrics: namely, the Key Performance Indicators that you select can either save or destroy your business, because what you choose to measure (and pay attention to) defines you as either a customer-centric or customer-hostile organization.

It's a good point and well worth reading, but it exposes a larger truth that I find equally perplexing: that most organizations have a very hard time defining success in the first place.

Let's say you're running a site and carefully gathering metrics. Let's say that you're also lucky or unlucky enough to be running an internal site, so you can loop in Active Directory and know, not only how many people accessed a page, but what department they work for, which office they're in, and other metrics that allow you to translate clicks and page views into concrete business scenarios. You're swimming in quality metrics, so you must certainly have a good handle on site success, right?

Not necessarily. Let's say there are two employees who sit next to each other: Bob and Sally. Bob thinks that, for any good intranet, the employee is the customer. Bob knows that employees come to the intranet to get their jobs done, so his success metrics focus on site paths to critical resources; the shorter the path the better the metric, since an employee who's clicking around looking for something is not a happy, productive employee. Sally, though, knows that the #1 customer in her world is the CCO, and the CCO's top priority is that employees understand what a great job the company is doing. Sally's success metrics will relate, first, to the number of articles that were published to the home page (getting the message out) and, second, the number of page views that those articles receive. The more page views the better the metric, since in Sally's world that translates into an audience actively engaged with her messaging.

Two definitions of success, both defensible, result in two success metrics that could not be more different.

Avinash underscores the need to choose performance indicators that orient your business in the proper direction, but in my experience a company only rarely will have a single definition of site success. There are many versions of success, some of which can vary from employee to employee, and that complicates the success scenario tremendously.

One truth is undeniable, though: you cannot pretend to build or run a site successfully unless you pull up your socks and engage in the hard work of defining your success metrics. What is your site home page trying to accomplish? What measurable action counts as a success within that scenario? If you get everyone in the room and lead them through that discussion, the various definitions of success have a chance to bubble up to the surface, where they can be reconciled or otherwise dealt with. Without the success metric conversation, the best you're doing is punching the clock and cashing your paycheck, which is good enough for some people but (I trust) not enough for you.

Friday, April 20, 2012


Marco Arment highlights the two things that most of Apple's competitors will never have in their battle against iPhones and iPads: time and taste.

Their lack of time is simply a question of math and the passage of time: unlike Apple, they have not invested years in developing, tweaking, and refining their products; instead they rush to market with a me-too device that most customers will recognize to be cynical and inferior.

Their lack of taste is the more hopeless scenario, though. A patient CEO can eventually invest enough time to get his company into the same ballpark as Apple. Taste, though, is not something you develop through will or patience. It's a quality that almost everyone thinks they have, but relatively few people actually possess. Worse, recognizing good taste when you see it is far, far easier than creating tasteful objects yourself.

If you work in or on the periphery of a creative field, you've seen this happen: someone in your office sees something cool or well-designed and decides, "We should do that, too!" And so a project spins up that seeks to develop a copy of that cool/well-designed something. In the end, it shares many of the qualities of the original, but it's neither cool nor well-designed, because the people involved in the project believe that they possess good taste and many of them don't. Worse, they designed this product by committee, which allowed those with no taste to drag the product down to their level.

It's a problem with no easy solution. Everyone sincerely believes that they have taste, so you can't ask those with bad taste to remove themselves from the process. Everyone is convinced that they have what it takes to design something special, but of course very few of us actually do. So perhaps one approach is to challenge everyone in your organization to design one thing, using the tools and media that suit them best. Gather their products, and where you find beauty, elegance, or that certain indefinable something, grant its creator a chance to participate in the creation of more important things.

Otherwise, your best chance lies in hiring the next Jonathan Ive -- and then not allowing the committee to shout him down when he's trying to design something beautiful.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Totalitarian technology

Wired has a down-beat article on what's come of Singapore, which twenty years ago looked like it was on the fast road to technology utopia. I'm old enough to remember the William Gipson article that bemoaned Singapore's combination of totalitarian control and seemingly visionary planning. Sadly -- or happily, depending on your perspective -- not much has come of those visionary plans. Singapore is still a centrally-planned, repressive state, and those big dreams never made it much past the planning stages.

This article should be of interest to anyone who thinks China will be the next big thing in the technical world. We know enough about innovation to be pretty sure that two elements are required: lots of money, and a vibrant idea economy in which inspirations can build on top of one another. China has no shortage of money, and with their enormous population they certainly have plenty of people to dream up the next big thing, but the Communist government remains allergic to radical ideas and non-conformist styles of thinking. I've seen China's ultimate success celebrated in some quarters as if it's only a matter of time, but Singapore's counter-example raises very interesting questions. China may, in short, need to choose between control and innovation. If it comes to a choice, my money is on the government opting for power over prosperity.

On a wider front, is it realistically possible for a government -- any government -- to set up a tech hub like Silicon Valley by way of careful design and top-down planning? It's hard to imagine that a bureaucracy wouldn't screw it up in some way, through bad laws, bad plans, or simple inertia. If it was that easy to foster hotbeds of ideas and innovation, we'd have more and better examples of such communities to talk about.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Process trumps ideas

This morning brought the discouraging news that Netflix has never used the winning algorithm in its $1 million contest, and has no plans to do so. Apparently the cost of implementing the solution exceeded the expected benefit, and in any case the company had moved on to other priorities by the time the contest was completed.

I've always been one of those starry-eyed optimists who see the potential of crowdsourcing and X-Prize-style innovation. It is, however, a little too easy to announce a contest and whip up enthusiasm around the idea of boundless innovation. If you don't also follow through on the back end and make sure that your internal processes are lined up to accept and implement the solutions that emerge from the contest, it might all come to nothing in the end.

I know that Netflix is probably more or less happy with their contest. It brought a lot of publicity to the company. Maybe not $1 million worth of publicity, but still -- the contest made Netflix look like a cool, forward-thinking company, and the polish that applied to the brand can only be positive. Even so, that sort of thing only goes so far. I've worked in an office where there were a series of internal innovation efforts in which employees were gathered together and invited to propose solutions to business challenges. At first it was very motivating. It felt like every one of us had the chance to make a difference. Once the ideas were collected, though, there was no mechanism in place to turn them into products; we captured our ideas on Post-Its and wrote them on whiteboards, but in retrospect that's as far as it went. The outcome was toxic: employee cynicism ramped up significantly, to the point where it was difficult to generate any enthusiasm around new efforts.

Process trumps ideas. It doesn't matter how many smart people you have contributing great ideas that solve problems for your company if you don't have processes in place to turn those ideas into action. This is the sort of thankless work that's absolutely essential if your high-profile innovation efforts are not to crash and burn.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

To mobile, or not to mobile?

Net Magazine has an article by Josh Clark, in which he takes Jakob Nielsen to task for suggesting that companies need to provide distinct mobile websites, optimized for the mobile experience.
Nielsen is confusing device context with user intent. All that we can really know about mobile users is that they're on a small screen, and we can't divine user intent from that. Just because I'm on a small screen doesn't mean I'm interested in less content or want to do less.  
Stripping out content from a mobile website is like a book author stripping out chapters from a paperback just because it's smaller. We use our phones for everything now; there's no such thing as "this is mobile content, and this is not."
Of course there's some truth to that. Mobile web usage is skyrocketing, and it's increasingly difficult to say with confidence that you know much of anything about the mobile user. When mobile web browsers sucked, you could say that you were designing a mobile site just to alleviate the suffering of trying to view the regular website on that tiny screen. Now, though, iPad, iPhone, and Android users might be perfectly happy with the same view as desktop users.

However, there's a subtle risk to Clark's point of view, because it gives you a reason not to make a choice. Nielsen's approach is to choose a user scenario and optimize for that; Clark appears to be arguing that you should optimize for everyone, in every scenario. And, if that seems like a difficult task, his advice is to just do it better:
Responsive design, adaptive design, progressive enhancement, and progressive disclosure give us the technical tools we need to create a single website that works well on all sites. We're still learning to use those tools the right way. Just because it's a design challenge to use them correctly doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to do it right.
This is great advice for creative geniuses. For everyone else, it's a recipe for failure. I was once peripherally involved in a website redesign project in which the target audience was carefully mapped and defined and put into a series of boxes that, taken together, amounted to everyone who can read. Even people who almost certainly lack the physical capacity to access the website were included in the target audience. It was a complete planning disaster, because when you design for everyone, you design for no one.

That project eventually went off the rails, and it was no surprise to anyone, because one thing that had clearly been established is that the people in charge of the project were not making decisions. Design is about decisions. It's about cutting the cake into smaller pieces, and discarding what you're not going to use. It can be agonizing; the second-guessing can go on forever. But if you choose instead to make no decisions and build your site for everyone, you are headed down the path of creating a site that will delight no one.

Clark, in short, is both right and wrong. He's completely right that we know nothing about mobile users other than that they are using a mobile device, but he is completely wrong in arguing that it is a mistake to optimize for a mobile scenario. Even if the scenario you choose is only partially correct for your visitors, you still stand a better chance of creating a site that users will want to visit.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Words are so 1995

In the midst of an excellent article on Facebook's purchase of Instagram, Paul Ford writes two paragraphs that will strike fear into the heart of any seasoned web editor:
It used to be that web people "published websites" — like the site you’re reading now. But today people who work on the web “manage products.” I'm not sure when that changed, but clearly a memo went around. At one time, in the nineties, everyone was a “webmaster,” then for a while they were “site editors” or “site managers” and now they're “product managers.” A website — even one as simple as Twitter — is no longer a singular thing; it’s a multitude of things from all over the place. 
See what happened? On the web, “product” has gone meta. Companies once made sleds or dreamcatchers or software, but that’s all outsourced; an Internet product is very often a thing that lets other people make things — a kind of metaproduct — and you can get 30 million people working for you, for free, if you do a good job of it.
If you've been paying attention even a little bit, you've seen the same thing happening. When I worked at Microsoft Game Studios I used to joke that the sites we produced were "post word" because -- with great effort -- we had transitioned from boring, ineffective, text-and-image articles to videos and multimedia presentations introduced with a bare minimum of text. That was the market: if you're promoting video games, and you're using a lot of words to do so, you're doing it wrong.

I'm in a different job now, but the experience is the same: articles perform poorly, videos do somewhat better, while photo galleries do the best of all. The visitors to your site are ready to give you perhaps 30 seconds of their time; if your stock in trade is words, you don't have many good options.

The very nature of communications is shifting in response, from words -- in email or face-to-face -- to tools like Twitter, Yammer, and Facebook. The job of communications professionals is now to drive adoption of platforms and engage in real-time dialogue, leaving precious little time for the careful word-crafting that used to be our stock in trade. These can be bewildering times for old school communicators, but if you're comfortable with change it also can be exhilarating. The possibilities are endless, and there's no guarantee that everything will turn out well, but at least it won't be boring.

Monday, April 2, 2012

It's in the increments

Glenn Fleischmann has a very smart article up on TidBITS arguing that Apple's competitors keep trying to match it with big-splash innovation -- LTE, bigger screens, 3D -- when what makes Apple different is its commitment to ongoing, incremental innovation within existing products. The consequence of this disparity is computer and phone makers like Dell and Samsung are hoping that you'll buy every new device when it comes out, while Apple assumes that you'll own your device for three years or more and continues to deliver updates throughout that lifespan. The outcome: customer loyalty.

In part this disparity is a function of different business plans, but I also suspect that companies other than Apple just don't respect incremental innovation. I've seen the same in my work. When leaders speak of innovation, they're generally thinking of big, disruptive, change-the-world thinking. That's the sort of product that Clayton Christensen wrote about in The Innovator's Dilemma, and it's also the sort of sexy change that gets people excited.

Unfortunately, it's a conception of innovation that leads businesses right over the cliff.

There's no doubt that big-splash innovation happens, and when it does the world truly does change. The smart phone, the personal computer, television, radio, the automobile, antibiotics; these had enormous effects. However, truly disruptive products only come around once in a while, and it's very difficult (perhaps impossible) to predict which drawing-board ideas will be disruptive and which will fail to find a market. Betting the company on big-splash innovation is like gambling with money you can't afford to lose: it's bold, it's exciting, you do have a chance to win big, but it's more than likely that you'll lose your shirt.

In the meantime, there's another style of innovation that anyone can pursue, at much less risk. It's not as sexy, and when you win the winnings may not be quite so big, but it has significant potential. That's incremental innovation: the sort of innovation that pursues the improvement of products, services, and processes that already exist.

I believe that innovation is the job of everyone in the company, but that's not to say that everyone should be working on the next big thing. Instead, everyone should be looking every day for ways that they can do what they do better, look at it in a new way, see new possibilities, new ideas, and new ways of measuring outcomes and applying what they've learned to the next version. In a well-run business, there should be a restless, ceaseless striving to learn constantly and do everything better. My experience, though, is that very few businesses take this approach. If innovation is a business goal, it is likely that one team -- or maybe even one person -- will be charged with being innovative, while everyone else is just supposed to do their job.

But imagine if incremental innovation was part of every worker's job description. What if you used the capacity for incremental innovation to guide your hiring? What if your managers were tasked with maximizing the innovative potential of their direct reports? You might be allowing a little bit of creative chaos to enter your business, it's true, but the bottom-line results could be incredible.