Thursday, August 30, 2007

Classic Software Mistakes: Steve McConnell

Steve McConnell's blog is advertising a survey on the prevalence and severity of software management mistakes. It's worth taking it, just to see the long list of possible disasters. I don't think it's a wonderful survey as surveys go (they are very hard to do well), but it might make you feel slightly better about your current development environment when you see all the things that can go wrong. Or, not.

Some examples:

  • Insufficient planning
  • Abandonment of planning under pressure
  • Subcontractor mismanagement
  • Lack of effective sponsorship (at executive level)
  • Outsourcing to reduce costs
  • Unclear project vision
  • Switching development tools in the middle of a project
  • Lack of automated source code control
They're all defined during the survey, so it may feel a little long to take (plan on 20 minutes). My biggest difficulty was that a lot of them overlap, and it's hard to tell which one to "vote" for! I also wondered what he meant by "catastrophic" results -- I decided it meant people quitting, rather than projects getting killed, since it's often hard to consider the latter a catastrophe instead of a mercy killing.

I admit to mixed feelings about McConnell and this survey doesn't help reduce them -- he and his books are written as if no one but developers are involved in building software, which alienates me as a designer. His discussions of requirements, planning, and design don't seem to allow for the involvement of user researchers or even product managers, let alone interface designers who may have to write the specs. One "classic mistake" I see is to leave all the interaction design, visual design, requirements collection, and user testing to developers who also need to be writing code; may not know how to do the non-coding work well; and may not want to do it "all" themselves.

Software is and has been a multi-disciplinary effort for a long time now. McConnell has a huge readership, but hasn't helped spread that word, which set us all back a bit, I think.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Create the Future Design Contest: My Press Release

I am very pleased to be able to make my own press release for a project I've worked on the last few months, the NASA Tech Briefs Create the Future Design Contest website. The contest this year is co-sponsored by SolidWorks, a great company and my current client. The contest is open to all inventors regardless of their software choice, however!
Design Contest Graphic

Grand Prize is $20,000, and there are significant other prizes in the prize list, too. Plus, a great t-shirt if you enter with a qualified entry. (The contest image was acquired--legally--from the patently absurd inventions archive.)

The Create the Future design contest has been running for at least 5 years now. They regularly receive around 1000 entries. In previous years, the folks at NASA Tech Briefs handled this contest entirely on paper, which was a lot of work for them. There was no website featuring the entries, so the entrants had no idea what their competition was, and the public didn't get to play at all.

SolidWorks (and I) wanted to make the fun more visible and reduce the work for the NTB editorial team. So we've dragged the contest into, okay, about the year 2004 -- the site is pretty basic, was done on a shoestring dime, and next year will be a lot fancier and more dynamic. But I'm still very pleased at what we've done.

We wanted to help people who enter have a better shot at winning, too -- I emailed all the past year's judges and asked them what advice they had for entrants, and we got excellent responses. Anyone considering entering should definitely read the Tips page.

I was particularly struck by how important clear communication is in creating a good entry. Some example quotes:

  • One judge recommends: “Write at least 4 drafts of your presentation and have 2 or 3 people of various levels of understanding review it. This will provide for a presentation suited for the diverse backgrounds of the judges.”
  • "I look for a concise description of the design and ask, ‘Have I seen this before?’ and ‘Do I think this is useful?’ If it passes those tests, it makes it to the ‘for further review’ pile. “Then, I’ll look again at the entries I initially discarded and ask if they are trying to take something similar and existing to a new level. If the answer is ‘yes’ and the idea is useful, it goes on the final’ pile.”
  • “For models of good technical presentations, check out Science, Nature and other well-known technical periodicals. You’ll see a good cross-section of abstracts and structured papers. The contest emphasizes content, not structure—but in a professional setting, structure is important."
The CAD world has a tendency to think it's all about the beautiful image, but the text is enormously important in this contest.

Although the main prizes are awarded by the NASA Tech Briefs' invited judges panel, there are 10 prizes for the entries that most captured the public eye. You can help by coming to view them yourself, and posting links to the entries you particularly like. While you're looking around, try finding the guy who has a real beef with NASA (whoa), the personal cooling system, the strangely redundant (IMO) salt and pepper shaker. You may not be surprised by the entry with the current top page views -- apart from being a very cool idea, it's extremely well-written, too.

Help us advertise the contest and the best entries! And consider entering yourself. There's still plenty of time: the contest closes for entries in October. Even if you're afraid you're not up to NASA Tech Brief's judging panel, you might capture the public eye and get blogged and get famous (and get $250 too).

(After the next round of contest entry validations, when we've got more visible on the site, I'll post some links to my own favorite entries to help them out on their page views.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Dream Jobs and the Test Drive

I had a brief exchange with someone about creative burnout recently, moving this post topic to the top (under bras). The fact is, sometimes burnout is more serious than just a temporary task malaise and means you should think hard about what you're doing for a living, not just the current task or current boss.

BUT: Sometimes the current job is just the current job, so don't over-react, either. I've seen 3 people have a bad time from either overwork (dotcom era) or bad roles (at a good company) and change careers very dramatically. One opened a record store in Seattle, and 2 became chefs. I'm not saying they were bad decisions, except maybe the record store; but sometimes you need to try out another company first.

Or, you need to try out the job you think you want, and see if it's really better. That's the service provided by this interesting company, Vocation Vacation. That bookmark goes to the photographers' page, which I occasionally stare at.

The idea is that you go on a vacation where you work with someone in the career who acts as a mentor and shows you the ropes. It's like an internship, only shorter, and probably for older folks like me. If you saw the movie "In Her Shoes," there's a great career switch in there, from high-powered stressed lawyer to something much more fun, along these lines:

Dog Day Care Owner.Do you sit in your office and wonder what Rover is doing at home? If you dream of your life going to the dogs, then this VocationVacations® holiday is for you! Dog Daycare owner Heather Stass would love to share her passion as Top Dog at K9 Capers Doggy Daycare.

Heather has extensive experience working with animals. She has a Bachelor’s degree in animal behavior and multiple years of kennel management experience. As a Dog Daycare owner she belongs to the North American Dog Daycare Association and the American Kennel Association’s Dog Daycare Division. She has owned K9 Capers for four years. more...

Before you completely ditch your job and current career, try out a new one and see if it's really that much more fun. Or, in another bold move, do two at once for a while. That's how one of my friends did it -- she sleep walked through her old bad job (remember, virtually no one gets fired for not doing much) and started up her new career after hours and on weekends, till she was ready to quit the first one.

If you're self-employed, having two jobs at once, either two clients, or two different professions, is another way to stay energized. You always have a backup and an escape from what you have to do Right Now.

Finally, if you're thinking about changing jobs, here's another kick-in-the-pants if you still need it: The Right Career is Yours for the Taking.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Victoria's Secret Market Research? Or not.

From my huge backlog of things to post, today I choose Victoria's Secret's online survey -- because I'll be tickled by the effect on my web logs.

Yes, in the past I have bought from VS, and do still buy their bras from time to time, despite the price tag. So I got sent an online survey. I always take these market research surveys for professional reasons, since I write them myself for clients from time to time. This one was, well, just strange.

It's hard to judge it as bad or good without knowing what branching logic they have built in. Branching means: If a respondent picks option (a), show them a different followup set of questions than if they had picked option (b). So I may not have seen the whole thing, and may have ended up in a strange cul-de-sac for people who buy bras because they're sexy. I hope not.

When I got to this checklist of "how does your bra makes you feel" (or somesuch), I was genuinely surprised. There are no negatives in here, and the word "supported" doesn't appear. I wonder what they can learn from this, apart from what they want to hear? The only way to avoid their positive bias is to check nothing, which I suspect will be tough for that helpfully-minded customer set that like to fill out surveys.

Previous to this question, they asked about other retailers you buy from. Now, if they had the usual sort of market research plan, I would expect to see an attempt at a basic SWOT analysis on the results: analysis of their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

How do you do that? Well, the logic is roughly this:

  1. Ask:Where do you buy your bras?
  2. Ask:What's important to you about your bra?
  3. Ask:What's your feeling about the bra you bought?
  4. Data analysis: For people who bought from us in (1), what's the difference between (2) and (3). If there's a big gap, that's our opportunity, going forward. (And roughly, strengths and weaknesses, when you compare against people who bought from Sears and Macy's and Frederick's of Hollywood on the same dimensions.)
If they're going after pure brand image and evaluation of their own success at achieving it, I think they still screwed up. Or at least they lost a serious opportunity in their data collection. They know where I shop (or where I said I shop, where I remembered I shopped), and they didn't have any adjectives that don't seem to be their personal target brand image in the list.

With the right vocabulary choices, including negatives and neutrals, they could have done some interesting segmentation based on where their own customers fall in "feeling" versus the other retailers' customers. Something like this:

They can always conclude from their data that some of their customers aren't that interesting to them from a marketing perspective (e.g., the people who shop at Sears, like their stuff a lot, and only occasionally go into a VS store -- because they'll be hard to capture if they're not dissatisfied enough with Sears).

In any case, some other common mistakes I see in market research via survey:

  • You try to collect too much in one survey, and can't do the analysis (plus you irritate the people who filled it out). You can always get more data later in other forms.
  • You don't know what you're trying to get out of it, so you can't construct the instrument well to get anything at all.
  • You set it up to learn what you want to hear (which is what I think was going on with VS -- I won't even tell you about the underwear questions), so you learn nothing and waste time, money, and your customers' patience.
  • You collect the data, then don't know what to do with it. You either don't do much, because of lack of skills in data analysis (clustering, mining, etc), or worse, you do nothing. You have it, but didn't take advantage of it. (This makes me quite uptight when I run into it. Good data is gold. My consulting tagline is "data-driven" for a reason.)
  • You solicit data from the wrong people, but don't even know it, because your survey didn't check on their credentials for answering and providing input. So you can't toss out any of the responses to clean the rest of the data.
End data rant of the week... I think I'm going to Sears now.