The Security Mirage

I have become more and more data-driven as I get older, especially when it comes to “big picture” things like politics, economics and security. Although like anything it can be manipulated, it is much easier to spot the manipulation if we can all look at the model and the underlying data. One of my favorite authors on the subject of security (in various forms from computers and networks to physical security issues and terrorism) is Bruce Schneier. He gave a talk at TEDxPSU last year and it is now available on TED – well worth watching.

Personalization, Perception & Procrastination

While the cool kids like Facebook, MySpace and YouTube get most of the attention when we think of how the Web has changed over the last few years, I was reminded this week of what is in many ways a more important but much more subtle change that has emerged in the form of personalization.

It is subtle in the sense that it has become so mainstream that you often don’t notice it, but when it is missing you certainly do. Almost single-handedly Amazon is probably most responsible for this shift in how we interact with web sites. Anyone who has made a purchase on Amazon has had the experience of the site not only remembering your credit card and shipping details but even making recommendations on other purchases. One of the interesting aspects of this is that while the recommendations clearly have a selfish purchase (to get you to buy more stuff), I find their recommendations often highly relevant and have made purchases I would not have otherwise.

This notion of marketing actually being useful to the consumer is something we would have laughed only recently, writing it off as something marketing types in power suits thought was a good idea after their third Martini. Yet it is becoming more common on the Web. How often have you searched for something on Google and found yourself clicking on the ads instead of other links. Indeed I often find the ads more relevant than the search results. Not always to be sure, but often.

This is all well and good but the subject of this post is how all this personalization has shifted user expectations. Due to services like Amazon, Google and others, users of a service now expect it to tailor itself to them. This might be as simple as remembering your login details for a few weeks in the form of a cookie (assuming its not a site that needs high degrees of security such as a financial site of course) or noticing what features you use and adopting the interface to those usage patterns.

Sadly many sites seem not to be learning these lessons and are probably losing customers left, right and center without even realizing it. I frequently encounter a new site where the buying process is just tedious.

Examples include:

  • Requiring me to go through a laborious registration process to set up an account to buy an item that costs less than $10 from a site I will probably have no need to visit again.
  • Showing an items availability as “Please call”. Call?! If I wanted to talk to a real human being I wouldn’t spend 12 hours a day in a dark room staring at a computer screen now would I? Think people.

The really silly thing is that building things the right way is not hard. All you have to do is look at how Amazon does it and unless you can come up with a really strong reason for not doing it the way they do, you’re done. (Except customer service. Amazon’s customer service pretty much sucks if you have the unfortunate need to actually contact them about something.)

It struck me this week that this shift in expectations is also transferring to the real world, at least for me. My local pubic radio station has been running a fund drive all this week. Now I am well known among family and friends as a great procrastinator. Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next week? (David Allen would be rolling in his grave. If he were dead. Which he is not.)

Anyhoo, in an unusual mix of caffeine withdrawal and Catholic guilt, I actually made a donation on Monday, the first day of the fund drive. I then found myself getting increasingly annoyed as the week wore on and I had to continue to listen to all the pleas for money. For hours. Every day. What are you people thinking? Don’t you know I have already paid? Oh, that’s right. They have no idea. Or at least no ability to easily connect the fact that I am the guy who made the contribution and certainly no technology to allow me to get back to regularly scheduled programming.

This is a huge challenge for big media companies. It is one thing for users to be interested in getting access to their favorite programming over the Web or on mobile devices. It is a whole other deal if in addition to that they begin to get annoyed with the old ways of doing things. Hulu is great and all guys, but don’t pat yourselves too hard on the back – you’ve got a long way to go.

If media companies continue to take baby steps and attempt to delay the gut wrenching change it will bring to how they generate revenue, they will end up, like the music industry, curled up in a little ball by the side of the road, drinking too much and mumbling lines from On The Waterfront.

And it didn’t have to be that way.

As Simple As Possible but No Simpler

ReadWriteWeb has a short but great post discussing some key trends on how to build clean, simple interfaces for web applications. I am particularly a fan of the concept of gradual engagement that is discussed.

Make it drop-dead simple for people to try your application and only force them through a sign-up process once they have had a chance to dip their toe in the water and begun to see the value your application brings to them. And even then, keep it as short as possible. You don’t need their life story and they sure don’t want to have to tell you.

Finding Hard Data on e-Learning Effectiveness

Colleague Pierre Khawand was recently rounding up links to hard data on e-Learning effectiveness and I contributed a few based on my own past experiences with LMS and LCMS deployments. Pierre has now summarized his findings in a blog post and its well worth a read.

Getting hard numbers on e-Learning effectiveness is notoriously difficult and often case study presentations at conferences are the only ones you can find but no one really collects and publishes these numbers in one place. Partly this is a result of companies being a little hesitant to release this data (though in practice it tends to have a positive impact, regardless of what the numbers themselves show.)

It is also partly due to the somewhat bizarre issue that companies seem to not be too interested in seeing data on e-Learning effectiveness. Some believe it is inherently difficult to interpret the numbers (partially true no doubt) and some are perhaps concerned that negative results will impact their ability to get projects funded. This is unfortunate as any numbers I have ever seen show how powerful e-Learning can be and negative numbers tend to highlight bad practices rather than condemn the entire field of e-Learning.

Focus Is About Saying No

Two Apple posts in a row is really starting to risk blowing a hole in my objectivity but I couldn’t allow this one to slip by. In a current interview in Fortune, Steve Jobs has plenty of interesting things to say but by far the best comment for my money is his view on focus. Apple and Jobs are well known for their laser-like focus and here is what it means to El Jobso:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”

What The Apple Store Can Teach Us

I have been thinking about writing about Apple Stores for a while now. I think there is so much to learn about how to interact with your customers and what it means to market to them in the age of the Web. I have resisted because I am, as many people know, a self-described unabashed Apple bigot and therefore people might on occasion, and perhaps with some justification, question the objectivity of my views.

The main point I was interested in writing about is the general buzz (and buying as far as I can tell) that seems to be going on at any Apple Store I have been in. Although most people cannot articulate it, there is general agreement that the experience in an Apple Store is both very positive and quite unlike any technology or gadget store they have ever been in. There are great lessons in how to really focus on customers, treat them as intelligent rather than stupid and still makes gobs of money doing it. (Apple Stores sell everything at full retail prices and, much to my amazement, people pay it even though they could go home and buy it from Amazon cheaper with no tax and free shipping.)

Today (via Gruber) I came across this great two part article by a non-techie of his experiences in an Apple Store. It indirectly covers pretty much everything I wanted to say.

Secondly the ferocious reaction to it by (one assumes based on the content) PC fan boys is hilarious and also answers the fundamental question of why Dell and everyone else don’t just copy the Apple formula (Its not like its a secret.)

Answer: Its simply not in their DNA. They think providing something that is technically or functionally equivalent is all you need to do. They don’t understand how their customers think or pretty much anything to do with the concept of customer experience. Sure is fun to read though.

Do Not Read This Book

One of my favorite sites (and pretty much the only one worth reading on good presentation style) is Presentation Zen. I really like Garr‘s approach, which is highly visual.

Despite the fact that I have been giving public presentations for over a decade, I must admit I have often been guilty of many of the classic errors such as creating something that was meant to be read rather than viewed and trying to use PowerPoint as a report generation tool, particularly for internal company stuff.

In the last few years I have very consciously made an effort to move towards a more visual style, in large part based on things Garr talks about, and the feedback has been excellent. (Guy Kawasaki is another good source here and I have been following his advice for things like demos ever since I first read The MacIntosh Way in 1991.)

Well Garr has recently published a book, also called Presentation Zen, which does a great job of boiling down his philosophy on creating and giving great presentations. If giving presentations is part of your life, you should run (don’t walk) to Amazon and grab a copy.

I seriously considered not actually posting about this book because it feels like a collection of superb insider secrets that you almost don’t want anyone else to know. In the end though, my conscience got the better of me.

(Plus the cynic in me says hardly anyone who reads it will be willing to make the fairly dramatic changes in style it requires, because it can really feel like flying without a net at first and it goes against the de facto ‘standard’ approach 99% of PowerPoint presentations take. Of course that’s the point though.)

The single best reason to go vertical

If you have ever struggled to convince your management, investors or team members why successful software companies have almost always focused on a given vertical or niche market on the path to glory, Seth Godin sums it up well in his short post “The more people you reach the more likely it is that you’re reaching the wrong people.”

A successful technology executive and great strategic thinker I know explains it even more succinctly: “There is no ‘and’ in ‘focus’.”

PowerPoint is evil. Duh.

Kevin pointed me to an article on Wired1 by well-known visual presentation guru Edward Tufte, with the awesome title "PowerPoint Is Evil".

Tufte is probably best known for his book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information. Not the easiest read (ironically) but well worth it if you are interested in learning how to improve your use of visuals in your writing or presentations.

The Wired article is excellent and Tufte makes his case clearly, essentially pointing out how we are now in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. This is perhaps best summed up by his presentation equivalent of the Hypocratic Oath:

"At a minimum, a presentation format should do no harm. Yet the PowerPoint style routinely disrupts, dominates, and trivializes content. Thus PowerPoint presentations too often resemble a school play – very loud, very slow, and very simple."

Tufte has been railing on PowerPoint for years but for some reason has not gotten much mainstream attention on what to many of us is quite obvious – PowerPoint has lowered the quality of presentations, not raised it. Now I don”t know any of the folks who created PowerPoint, but I am sure they are well-intentioned, smart and fun to have at parties. I am equally sure that the situation we now find ourselves in was in fact the opposite of their intention.

It reminds me of the early days of desktop publishing where suddenly people were able to create their own company newsletter, flyers and what have you. This was incredibly empowering, taking something that had been the purview of typographers and graphic designers and putting it into the hands of mere mortals. Yet in the beginning, while the quantity of content produced soared, the quality followed an equally sloped but opposite trend line.

Initially the speed, flexibility and economics of DTP far outweighed any quality issues but over time two related things happened. First, readers began to focus more on the quality of the layout. They may not have had the words to articulate the issue with the company newsletter in terms of use of white space, serifs versus san-serifs and and so on, but the design still left an overall impression that was sub-par. It doesn”t take a professional typographer to figure out that cramming 40 different typefaces on to the same page isn’t going to look quite right. Perhaps more importantly, it distracts from the message.

The second thing that occurred however was that people producing these newsletters, once they got comfortable with the basic use of the tools, began to devote more time to the visuals of the output. Just like any new skill or tool, first we learn the basics of how to use it, then we refine our use of it. One of the best ways to do this is, if you will, by osmosis. By looking at examples produced by others and consciously deciding what we like and what we don’t, we tend to both develop our own style and also acquire more knowledge of what works well and what does not.

In the case of PowerPoint2 however this has, by and large, not happened. I believe this is largely an issue of motivation. While many people out there enjoy the nuances of creating and delivering a great presentation (in whatever form), for most folks it is simply an obligation that comes along occasionally as part of their job. How many people do you know who say "I’ve got to make a presentation to management next Monday. Fantastic! This news has brought a little ray of sunshine to my day." (as opposed to "Oh, crap, there goes my weekend.")

Given that situation, it is not surprising, or indeed even unreasonable, that most people will take the quickest and easiest path to completing the task. Looking to the arsenal of tools with which your employer endows you, your main decision is likely to be which of the Microsoft Office applications you will use. Need I say more.

Presentation Zen recently had a great article on another very common (mis)use of PowerPoint, using it to generate a printed report, with some real-world examples that, in this case, potentially have some extremely serious consequences. Garr also references Tufte (because he is, you know, the man on this stuff)

And to top it all off, I came across an article in The Sydney Morning Herald on a discovery by researchers that the human brain can process information very well if it is received in either written or verbal form but runs into trouble if it is trying to do both at the same time. While this all makes sense, the author makes a leap that, much as I would love to believe it is true, only makes sense in the absence of, well, the real world:

“The Australian researchers who made the findings may have pronounced the death of the PowerPoint presentation.”

The problem here of course, as stated above, is that using PowerPoint is likely to continue to be the easiest and quickest route for most people. and they don’t really care about how well you remember it or even if you had a good time. They just want to get the meeting over and go play with their kid, ski, watch football or any of the thousands of other things that are more important to them than giving this fricking presentation.

For those of us that need to give presentations for a living and/or just enjoy the whole art of it, we should pay attention to Tufte and others like him and try to improve our craft. For everyone else, maybe we can at least get them to read the Tufte article and also Guy Kawasaki’s post on The 10/20/30 Rule of PowerPoint.

1 Remind me again why I bother paying for a subscription to Wired when I can read any of the decent articles online for free, and more importantly not have to wade through the mess of drug-induced layout and typography that is so last century?

2 Both Tufte and I are picking on PowerPoint here because, well, its a Microsoft product and who doesn’t love a good Microsoft bashing session? Of course it is equally true of other similar tools such as OpenOffice or, dare I risk the wrath of my fellow Macheads by saying so, Keynote. Keynote is my preferred tool of the bunch and it gives you a better interface, better templates and better visuals, but the quality of your work, as Tufte teaches us, shouldn’t depend on any of that or you are already sunk. And I hear the new visual engine in PowerPoint 2007 is great but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

Welcome to the Enterprise Social. Fo’ shizzle.

With apologies to Microsoft for ripping off their Zune tag line and apologies to everyone else (and Snoop Dogg) for using such a bad tag line in the first place, some significant developments are underway in the world of social networks.

Most people think of MySpace, Facebook and Friendster when they think of social networks. Perhaps LinkedIn as well. But an interesting confluence of events is occurring which I believe will drive the growth of private social networks and particularly in the enterprise space.

Google recently announced something called (inspiringly enough) OpenSocial. Om has an article on it and TechCrunch has coverage also, so feel free to pop off and read those articles if you want all the gory details. We’ll wait.

Back now? OK. The basic idea in its current form is much less than the hype might have you believe. After Facebook opened up its platform to third party developers, there was a recognition among other social networks and companies like Google that the we might be seeing the early stages of a new platform evolving. Platform in the sense that with the addtion of hundreds of third party mini-applications (call them widgets if you prefer) inside of Facebook, members would have less and less reason to go elsewhere. If you make your living selling advertising on your site, either directly or through Google, Yahoo or Microsoft, this is of course reason to worry.

Google has both the foresight and the clout to bring most of the other social network companies together and pitch a defined set of programming interfaces (APIs) for building third party applications inside a social network. (As opposed to Facebook’s own proporietary platform which doesn’t work anyhwere else.)

But in its current initial form, there are really only two things you need to know:

1. OpenSocial provides a set of programming interfaces that allows developers to create widgets that can then run in any social network (or any web site for that matter) that supports them.

2. It however does not allow end users to have an account on one social network function on any other. That is, as a user, if you want to network with MySpace members, you still have to have a MySpace account and it (and all your friends and apps) on MySpace will still be separate from your friends and widgets on, say, Orkut or Ning.

So its a start but mostly a shot across Facebook’s bow by Google for now.

Its bigger impact may turn out to be raising the profile of what social networks are and what they can be. The exposure this creates within the enterprise, and its subsequent impact, will be particularly interesting and that will be the subject of a follow-up post.