Monday, July 30, 2007

Waterfire Photos

On Saturday, I visited Providence's town-wide art installation, Waterfire. Picture a huge number of bonfires in the middle of the river and a large crowd of fire watchers, some lucky gondola riders with glasses of wine in hand, fire volunteers in black boats with logs, and eerie music. Very pagan. You can smell the smoke and wood from the river banks.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Asshole-Driven Development on Berkun

Time for my weekly post on assholes in corporations, I guess; this is a few weeks behind, but I needed to space out the AH stuff, and I was busy.

Berkun posted an idle conversation starter on what he called "asshole-driven development" and the responses brought down his server. Then Lost Cog did some content analysis of the styles of development described by the comment thread. It seems to be going on and on. Some of the original categories identified:

  • Asshole Driven development (ADD) - Any team where the biggest jerk makes all the big decisions is asshole driven development.
  • Cognitive Dissonance development (CDD) - In any organization where there are two or more divergent beliefs on how software should be made.
  • Cover Your Ass Engineering (CYAE) - The driving force behind most individual efforts is to make sure than when the shit hits the fan, they are not to blame.
  • Development By Denial (DBD) - Everybody pretends there is a method for what’s being done, and that things are going ok, when in reality, things are a mess and the process is on the floor.
  • Get Me Promoted Methodology (GMPM) - People write code and design things to increase their visibility, satisfy their boss’s whims, and accelerate their path to a raise or the corner office no matter how far outside of stated goals their efforts go.

As some posters and Scott noted, bad development management may be subtypes of general Management Antipatterns, like "Death by Planning."

And I'd note that these techniques aren't limited to management of technical problems, but also exist in any other project context, in slightly different forms.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Zen Error Dialog and Flash Victim

I especially like the title bar on this guy: And a friend sent a link to a great animation of a flash victim getting destroyed by the app. Lots of in-jokes for designers who use Flash, and hilarious anyway. You definitely want sound on for it.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

User Experience 2007 Survey Report

The Usability and User Experience Report 2007 from e-consultancy costs money, but the sample data are interesting enough to post about. There were 756 respondents to the survey that fed this report. (Hopefully it represents more than just the UK, where the consultancy that did the survey is based.)

Some highlights:

  • On average, organisations are investing 11.5% of their overall website design and build budgets in usability, and 13.2% of their design budgets. [If you're spending none, or you don't even know what you're spending, this may be an Issue for you.]
  • A quarter of agency / consultancy correspondents say their clients are typically indifferent whereas only 9% say their clients are extremely committed. [I admit I find this surprising -- if you've been hired as a consultant, doesn't that suggest they care? Or is the evaluation of caring based on more complex factors, such as "are you listening to my advice," "is there anyone else in your organization advocating for this," "is it likely anything will change after I leave."]
  • Top benefits/ROI for commitment to user experience and usability included as number one and two, improved perception of brand, and increased conversion rates. [Since brand is now being defined as what a customer thinks of you and what and how you do it, rather than your logo and graphic design [see, e.g., the Brand Gap], this makes a lot of sense to see here.]
  • Two thirds of the respondents say their agencies plan to increase their spending on usability in the next year.
  • The activities that are being "done" in organizations are, in order of frequency, user testing, expert evaluation, information architecture; and lagging behind, "full user-centered design" [a rigorous process that incorporates testing and design during the definition and development cycle].
  • The largest barriers are time pressure to get things done and lack of resources. [We still have a ways to go to educate businesses about the risk factors in not being more rigorous about the processes for good design up front, it seems.]
  • Project management is either not done, or being done "ad hoc." [Coincidentally, I've just written an article for interactions, a professional journal for designers, on the ways in which designers get lured away from doing design and into project management, in order to be sure that things get done. Timely!]

The full report costs $179.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sutton's Weird Ideas

I've been reading Robert Sutton's Weird Ideas That Work, which is Yet Another Book on Innovation. I like his Assholes bookand Evidence-Based Management, and this one is entertaining and provoking too. Here is the summary of the weird ideas, which he counts as 11.5, but this is hard to do automatically in html so for me it's 12:
  1. Hire "Slow Learners" (of the Organizational Code)
  2. Hire People Who Make You Uncomfortable, Even Those You Dislike
  3. Hire People You (Probably) Don't Need
  4. Use Job Interviews to Get Ideas, Not to Screen Candidates
  5. Encourage People to Ignore and Defy Superiors and Peers
  6. Find Some Happy People and Get Them to Fight
  7. Reward Success and Failure, Punish Inaction
  8. Decide to Do Something That Will Probably Fail, Then Convince Yourself and Everyone Else That Success Is Certain
  9. Think of Some Ridiculous or Impractical Things to Do, Then Plan to Do Them
  10. Avoid, Distract, and Ignore Customers, Critics, and Anyone Who Just Wants to Talk about Money
  11. Don't Try to Learn Anything from People Who Seem to Have Solved the Problems You Face
  12. Forget the Past, Especially Your Company's Successes
He says executive audiences responded to him with an "all very amusing, Bob, but we need to get things done here." I admit I'm a little bit with them on this -- it's great for consultants to come in and be creative at you, but end of the day, most of us need to ship code/product, which means teamwork of some variety, goals and means mapped out, achievable successes. But an innovation factory is a different thing, perhaps.

This said, I have seen the teamwork and normative workplace culture taken to extremes of unhealthiness, usually to the detriment of new hires with different ideas from other places. It's possible to be both infused with creative new ideas that threaten your status quo AND ship products, in my opinion. It's a challenge for mature management! To test your own culture: Check carefully how many managers, especially senior ones, were promoted from within versus hired externally. Then look at how experienced the people being hired are (sometimes, very). It might tell you something interesting about status quo thinking versus desire for fresh input.

Another test of your culture: In interviews, does the corporate "fit" come across as paramount, or the resume and evidence of work product elsewhere? I once watched a very senior statistician get turned down in favor of a more junior candidate who was just like everyone else in her skillset. I didn't fight hard enough myself on that one, I was part of the problem.

Defying authority certainly doesn't go over well in most corporate cultures I've worked in. Hierarchy is very much part of the American firm (Larry Prusack pointed this out recently at a great Boston CHI talk)-- the larger and more established the company, the more ingrained it is. I think there's a function related to size, corporate age, hierarchical position, and a person's tenure at a company that will predict how resistant she/he is to new ideas about doing things differently. Because large, successful companies are most reluctant to change what they do now (which is making money), for some sensible reasons: shareholders, golden handcuffs, employees to retain and feed, etc.

For designers, this often cashes out in how much change to an old shipping product you can make... a lesson it took me many jobs to really understand. (Note to designers hunting for jobs: Don't believe them when they say you're going to redesign it, especially if it's selling! The inertia will be strong and may become an actual undertow.) Historical success limits how much change you can make to processes that produced a selling product, even if they were flawed or painful in various ways for the people who worked on it. People are always more comfortable the way things are, regardless of what could be better.

Edited to add: It's a cultural failure mode to assume that everything is great or okay as is, but it's another one to fail to critically understand your successes, too. You can do root cause analysis for the good things too, and it might even teach you more than the failures do. If you aren't good at understanding success, you can't duplicate it, and you might make the critical morale error of celebrating the wrong factors.

Of all the weird ideas, the sensible-sounding "punish inaction" is particularly hard to see really happening in most offices. Few people are ever fired for not rocking the boat. People who aren't often noticed usually have a job for life, as long as their company keeps doing the same old expected thing.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Travel Need: Can someone help?

I'm a frustrated impulse traveler. It takes way too long to search through even existing ajax-rich travel websites for deals that meet my criteria. I'm on travel deal mailing lists (BookingBuddy, for one) but haven't found what I need. I know it's possible today, and it's a business that might already exist:

I want a search agent that's heavily customizable to send me updates when certain things happen. What I specifically want is the ability to watch for fares of certain types to specific places FROM MY LOCAL AIRPORTS, or fares for vacation deals, again, FROM MY LOCAL AIRPORTS.

Sample criteria I want to have an agent look for:

  • Boston to Greece, unusually low, no more than 1 stopover (and it can't be a 12 hour stopover)
  • Long weekend vacation packages to certain Caribbean islands, from Boston, flights no longer than 4 hours (including any stopovers). Under a certain price threshold.
  • Extraordinary low prices on fares to certain continents, again from Boston or local airports here.
  • Alerts for fares from Boston to key cities I care about (e.g., Paris, London, Cleveland, San Jose).
  • Unusual travel packages like volunteer work, adventure (er, not athletic, but cultural), educational. I get to rate these as they come in and get more like them or less like them, till it learns what I like.
  • A home page where I can tune and browse, and easily set up new email alerts; something like Amazon's Recommendations system. I want it to know me and learn about me.
Again, all this is possible. Am I missing someone's service somewhere? The cheap travel browsing sites are all very similar, too much work, and too manual for me.

PS. If someone wants to start this business, I'd be very motivated to help design it and to collect more requirements. Drop me a note.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Declassified Defense Research and Archaeological Mysteries

Wired online has had a couple recent pieces on defense research on ESP, paranormal, remote viewing, homing pigeons, etc. -- there are a bunch of abstracts now visible in the Scientific and Technical Information Network (a .mil site). Note: It is, in fact, extremely hard to use. Good luck.

I get challenged occasionally as to why a seemingly well-educated, presumably rational person would be interested in the paranormal. I'm always a little surprised by this question: Why not? Do we know everything? Isn't it rational and intelligent to assume we don't yet? Remember, a UFO is just unidentified, it's not necessarily from another planet. It's interesting to me that there are so many worth talking about, and the stories people tell about them are interesting in themselves. I'm certainly open to believing in many things, while being a strong skeptic about what counts as good data and strong argument.

Another really entertaining collection, equally amateur web-design but much easier to use: The Photo Galleries of Mystery from the MMMGroup. Truly, if you like archaeological mysteries, this is the place to browse. Make sure you hit page two, too. It might make you wonder about time travel... The phenomenon of OOPARTS, or Out of Place Artifacts, is a strong feature of the pictures of rock carvings (people with lightbulbs, space suits...) and fossilized items. Here's a blog post about this type of find with particular reference to a find in 19th century Massachusetts, a metal fossil apparently blasted out of solid rock.

On the other hand, sometimes these things are explicit funny fakes; here's a guy who briefly got away with rock art depicting a caveman pushing a shopping cart in a British Museum Exhibit (2005).

Banksy also hung a sign saying the cave art showed "early man venturing towards the out-of-town hunting grounds". It read: "This finely preserved example of primitive art dates from the Post-Catatonic era. The artist responsible is known to have created a substantial body of work across South East of England under the moniker Banksymus Maximus but little else is known about him. Most art of this type has unfortunately not survived. The majority is destroyed by zealous municipal officials who fail to recognise the artistic merit and historical value of daubing on walls."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

CEOs Who Work Too Much

A great article in the Huffington Post on CEOs who neglect their families but get written up in Fortune for it. Low-income fathers who work too much get critizied, but Fortune blithely praises it in executives. Towards the end there's a nice bit on the long hours phenomenon more generally:
Fortunately, respect for this sort of parenting outside the board room is dwindling as baby boomers disappear from the parenting picture and Gen-Xers take their place. Sylvia Hewlett presents research to show that while baby boomers are willing to work extreme hours, younger people scoff at the idea of doing that for more than a year. And recent polls (via Hole in the Fence) show that men are sick of the long hours and want more time with their kids: Almost 40 percent of working dads would take a pay cut to spend more time with their kids. It'll be a great day when CEOs are dismissed for neglecting their kids. Meanwhile, employees, beware: CEOs like Stringer and Immelt have a negative effect on your own ability to keep your personal life intact, because work-life policy starts at the top and trickles down.

Amen. Some ways to figure out what the real corporate values around work-life balance are: Do people regularly have email exchanges on weekends or at strange hours of the night? (When you start a contract, do the execs welcome you via email sent on the weekend? :-) Who's still working at 7pm in the office?

Another point I'd add: How effective are they if they have that much to do, even at the office where they spend all their time? Executives at one of my past companies-- who praised it as an "aggressive" company with no ability to promise new hires good work-life balance and reasonable hours during their growth plans-- were themselves too busy to pay attention to many of the critical management issues that cross their desks! They're way past the tipping point on being good parents at the office, or good peers-- blowing off visiting VPs, even-- never mind what their wife and kids think of them for neglecting them! (This is, of course, my own opinion on them as seen from the middle management trenches, and may not be their own or their peers' opinions.)

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Dutch Near Death Experiences

A fascinating Lancet article (pdf) on a study of NDEs (near death experiences):
  • No relationship to any pre-existing medical conditions found, although young people may be more likely to experience them
  • Corroborated evidence of out-of-body experiences, despite flat EEG and coma states which should indicate impossibility of observation or recall during "death"
  • Long-term excellent recall, from interviews at 2 year and 8 year periods, of the phenomena experienced
  • Life-changing effects, even for non-religios etc. who experience them

Angry Bluebird, Happy Bunny

Both of these fellows were seen at Drumlin Farm, an Audubon site in Lincoln, MA.