Voting for expat MPs

Yesterday (in America) and today (elsewhere outside of metropolitan France), French citizens registered before 31 December 2011 with their consulate were able to vote for a member of parliament. For the first time, the French living abroad will have dedicated representatives in the lower house (we could previously vote in France through awkward arrangements).

I live in the 11th district of the French-abroad, covering Russia, much of Asia, and Australia. 20 candidates were competing: 8 from established parties (no common candidates were fielded here, either by the parliamentary right nor by the “presidential majority” leftist parties, which is quite common inside France), and 12 others (a very high number, but not uncommon abroad).

While some of my friends voted online (also a first, fraught with technical issues and the worrying requirement to downgrade your Java virtual machine), I know of a couple who did not vote, while they had in the presidential election a couple of weeks ago.

An interesting issue was the emails sent by the candidates to the voters, as authorized by the French state who supplied the data on CDs (first and last name, date of birth, email address, home address).

Obviously, email is cheaper and more effective than paper propaganda (I didn’t receive the official campaign material on time for the presidential election, for example). Outsourcing the sending to the candidates is not a bad idea either (they have to print their own campaign material, although the state mails it to the voters, in one bundle).

But email marketing has rules — some of which have been translated into law, but many of which are simply understood by people, especially in Europe — such as the need for prior approval before “spamming” your recipients.

And this campaign has broken the rule: it wasn’t really possible to opt out of the emails. Some candidates did supply the option, but it was up to them to honor it, and there was no easy way to opt out of the whole election communication.

This is a beautiful real-life example of the pitfalls of old lists and gathering mailing authorizations offline: even if, technically, the candidates had voters’ approval, many experienced the mails as unsolicited and unwelcome.

Politics sometimes takes a page from commercial digital marketing in a very interesting way (the Obama campaign of ’08 and perhaps to a lesser but nonetheless worthy degree, the work done around Hollande this year). However, heavy-handed or tone-deaf tactics can backfire in a way that affects democratic processes. The participation rate in an election isn’t just another conversion goal.

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Interfaces for business software (lessons from working on an e-commerce platform)

A decade ago when I ran web agency Splandigo with a couple of associates, I was in charge of building or maintaining software for the company. Most of the design work went to the front-end of sites, and it’s only late in the game that we started investing in “skinning” our content management system a little bit.

What mattered was the functionality, and the usability of the interfaces, such a vital topic for consumer-facing elements, became a much lower priority. We did give it some thought and worked on it, but it never received anywhere near the same amount of investment or attention.

We often worked on customizing an interface so it was really specialized for the task at hand, i.e. maybe ugly, but extremely clear for its operators because it supports exactly what they’re supposed to do, and maps to their mental model of their work.

Also, because you have so few users and they don’t have a choice whether to use the system or not, you can address the poor usability of an interface through training and documentation. This is increasingly uncommon in consumer-facing services, but remains standard in much of business software, with a few exceptions.

I often rant about Lotus Notes, IBM’s email, calendar, and bureaucracy-support platform, because its interface is riddled with confusing and impractical idiosyncrasies, poorly abstracted or explained technical details, and also because the level of polish of the interface is nowhere near as good as its mass-market competitors. Yet IBM is a huge, and hugely successful business software and consulting company.

SAP, an immensely successful competitor of IBM, is dubbed Systems Against People by some of its users, who find its interface daunting and error-prone, its flexibility severely limited, and find little joy in interacting with it. In both cases, poor implementation may be to blame, but consumer-inspired models are clearly superior.

But both of these companies, and all of their competitors, produce software its users are forced to use.

Having the choice between many options, consumers can afford to be fickle and shop around until they find a service they like. As a result, immense investments are made into creating moments of joy in using those services. Don’t like Facebook’s privacy issues? Switch to Path. Can’t be bothered with Flickr’s focus on the desktop? Jump ship to Instagram. Usability is a very large factor in the success of those services.

Users of business software are not usually consulted in the selection of that business software, the choice is made by the software’s maintainers instead. As long as a program’s goals are met (i.e. can we actually manage our product catalog online with this e-commerce platform?), the CTO’s job is done. The satisfaction of the operator is irrelevant, and therefore nobody bothers to design for it.

I believe there’s a business opportunity here. Of course, training has a hard cost, and while it’s hard to quantify accurately, I am convinced there’s a cost to user frustration, in productivity and good will.

But there’s an even more powerful element: the learning gap. When you divorce the purpose from the gesture, when you increase the distance between your action and its consequences, learning can’t happen. You are still capable of performing the action (with enough training and sense of duty, we’ll perform the most meaningless, most intricate acts), but you’ll never get any better at it, nor will you ever contribute to the field.

Practically: if the tool with which I create a promotion does not offer me a clear view of that promotion’s performance, I’m going to have to go seek that information out myself. I’ll probably do it anyway because it’s my job and I’ve been trained, but my work is clearly less efficient, and it limits opportunities for implicit learning.

If the platform isn’t even trying to learn from its users but just forces itself on them, it means the collective knowledge that is being built up by all the operators carrying out their tasks every day is being left on the table.

And the more esoteric the platform, the fewer chances it has to create joy for its operators. And that’s too bad because joy for the company’s staff is a powerful raw material to foster more effective work and increase consumer satisfaction.

So here are a couple of principles I’ll be pursuing here at ASICS for our e-commerce project over the next few months, as we are choosing a platform:

  • first, pick a partner that understands the issue, and is committed to tackling it
  • group tools around tasks, and align tasks with overall program goals, to encourage effective activity
  • embed performance testing and measurement into operational tools, to make learning constant and easy
  • give users the ability to change their environment and make their own tools, but still offer great defaults
  • involve operators, observe them, iterate and optimize, just as we would for consumer-facing systems

And I want to call out Demandware for having identified the issue and being in the process of addressing it (kudos!), and Hybris for having started as well. The other guys out there, I think you’re letting your clients leave money on the table.

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Juniper Network Connect VPN client messes around with my hosts file [edit]

Somehow, we got my company’s Cisco Juniper VPN to work on my Mac (we just needed to create an appropriate policy for Macs, not that complicated). [Edit: I got the brand wrong, sorry!]

But while I was able to connect from the company’s internal network (as a test, as it’s obviously not very useful), I didn’t manage to connect from outside. My company Windows machine could, but not my Mac.

I’ve finally tracked down the cause (after a lot of irrelevant debugging attempts, investigating our firewall and doing various DNS lookups): actually, Network Connect writes to /private/etc/hosts and hard-codes there the IP address of the VPN machine, after you successfully connect. And of course, after I’d connected (as a test) to the VPN over the internal network, the IP address it wrote there was the internal IP. This subsequently prevented it from connecting over a public network.

This is a bit of a note to self, in case I run into this problem again and forget the fix. (Of course it would be nice if the Cisco software didn’t do such a dirty thing in the first place, or at least cleaned up after itself, but that might be a lot to ask for.)

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Visiting Amanohashidate

My third 日本三景 (Nihon Sankei, or three views of Japan) with a colleague today.

(PS. I’m not completely sure I visited Matsushima. I am sure I only visited one of the three gardens, and none of the castles. Some more work to do.)

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Survival books (my minimal library)

When getting ready to move from the Netherlands to Japan last fall (a somewhat haphazard process, it must be said), I went through my bookshelves (three rather full Billy units) and made a selection of the books I couldn’t live without, leaving the rest to be shipped to my dad’s house.

The books have been in a trunk for the past 6 months, and I finally took them out today, as I’ve now given up on actually finding shelves.

You’ll find the complete list after the jump.

Continue reading

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When usability makes headlines

Recently picked up an article about the usability of a mobile phone setting in the UK quality newspaper the Guardian: iPhone download setting doesn’t stop downloads – and can cost users dear.

The problem it outlines is a disconnect between the mental model of the users (what do I expect this setting to do?) and the mental model of the system (choice of words / interface copywriting, and the way the feature is then actually implemented). If somewhat misleading, it isn’t outright deceptive, and it’s probably an edge case (few people will in fact be affected by the issue).

Morris says that he understood the “Use Mobile Data” switch to control whether apps would be downloaded over the mobile network, and that if it was off that there would be no download.

Why is it news? Because smartphones are used by an increasingly large portion of the population, and because such minute details of the user experience have an increasingly large impact on tangible issues, such as people’s phone bill. (Also, I suspect the Guardian has a policy of vigorously reporting tech issues, perhaps encouraged by the increasingly large traffic they get when covering such topics.)

Another issue highlighted here is a challenge to Apple’s policy of delivering a consistent level of quality across hardware, software, service, and packaging. When interacting with any Apple tool (iTunes, the carrier settings on the iPhone, Spotlight search in OS X, etc.), the experience is supposed to be positive, obvious, and free of surprises.

Obviously, Apple lavished tremendous high-level attention on delivering the perfect experience to AT&T subscribers (activation difficulties around the first iPhone were corrected quite quickly). It then proceeded to replicate this experience with other partner networks across the world, and generally did a stellar job. But managing the experience of such a complex product is a huge undertaking, composed of thousands of tiny interactions that all add up. For example, the issue mentioned in the article above occurs while roaming outside of your home phone network, when starting to download app updates over wifi, and then moving outside of wifi coverage back into 3G roaming.

I suppose roaming is one of the key issues in negotiations between Apple and carriers, which might explain why this feature was implemented differently for AT&T and the UK’s O2 networks. Or it could come from the asynchronous evolution of Apple’s offer in different territories:

That is clearer in the US, where Apple has enabled the iTunes Match service which allows people to synchronise their music libraries with the cloud. There, the setting (which reads “Use Cellular Data” and defaults to off) has explanatory text saying “Use cellular network for iTunes Match and to automatically download purchases.”

As a user of an iPhone supplied by Japan’s au mobile carrier, it seems obvious to me that the feature set degrades the further away you get from Apple’s power base: Siri doesn’t offer directions outside of the US, au was allowed to ship crippled phones that support neither iMessage nor FaceTime (not even over wifi), and neither visual voicemail nor tethering. But within reason, the feature set isn’t the driving factor in picking a product and sticking with it.

Wherever you buy them, Apple’s products still deliver an incredibly pleasing and consistent experience, over time and across generations of devices, across different sales channels and user support touchpoints, as well as across networks and territories. It’s an amazing feat of industrial management, which very few other brands have even attempted. I’m still angry about the ugly duckling offered to me by SonyEricsson and Vodafone a couple years ago — it wasn’t even that bad a phone, but was so poorly put together I sent it back after a week.

As pointed out elsewhere, this extremely polished end-user experience is probably the single most important ingredient in Apple’s ability to command such a large price premium over the competition: all other aspects (hardware, design, software, service, functionality, usability) are matched or topped by other vendors. But nobody else quite knows how to put it together the way Apple does.

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Amazon preloads search results

Just noticed a very interesting practice from Amazon: the first three search results of the next page are pre-loaded.

Screenshot: preloading search results.

One issue with search engine results pages is that people only rarely use more than the first page for a given query. Depending on the browsing context and the user’s purpose, Amazon probably sees a bit more use of its subsequent results pages, as people are using them as an alternative to browsing, or simply display more persistence because they’re pretty sure Amazon actually has the product they’re looking for.

Google focuses on the first page. Google Live Search constantly updates this first page of results, progressively increasing its usefulness, by making the best possible use of the input supplied by the user. I would guess this has marginally increased the success rate of Google searches, while further reducing the use of page 2 and more.

When clicking on the link to get the next page of results, there are a few moments when the screen is bare of useful information. Many services have started to refresh the results inside the existing page, with Ajax, which avoids having to re-draw the entire screen, and probably helps maintain the user’s context.

For example, LinkedIn scrolls back up, fades the current results (I blanked out the names on the screenshot below), and displays a “loading” device until the new results are available:

Screenshot: blanking out search results.

Still, the Amazon solution goes a step further: even for highly-motivated users, those few moments when the screen isn’t offering any information relevant to the task at hand are an invitation to switch to another task. With a fairly simple technical trick (keep 3 search results hidden to mitigate the wait), user time spent on system tasks (waiting for information to appear) is cut down to almost nothing. I expect Amazon has seen a significant rise in the usage of subsequent search results pages.

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Good pre-sales meetings, and less good ones

Today, some colleagues and I have met with several potential vendors for professional services and software we will need over the next several years. Based on the same brief, we were given one solid presentation, one excellent presentation, and also a dreadful one that inspired a disparaging Star Wars comparison (in a private email to my colleagues).

So what goes into a good pre-sales meeting? Here are a few suggestions, if you’re on the agency / supplier / vendor side:

  • start with a big question: the audience engages, as it creates a sense of co-ownership of the meeting
  • listen to the client: weave their points into your own narrative, make them feel smart and understood
  • bring knowledge to the table: ensure participants learn stuff they didn’t know, or get to think along new lines
  • keep your team tight: don’t bring an army, only people who can contribute to the conversation
  • know your stuff, in particular know your own products and services (no, it’s not that obvious!)
  • … and this ought to be obvious as well: joke with your client, not with your colleagues

What makes your meetings tick?

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Do Lectures: a picture

Nice portraits of the Do Lectures speakers, and one of yours truly, a little tense in the Feral Choir:

Raphaël Mazoyer at the Do Lectures 2011

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Trade union at work

On Wednesdays, we are not allowed to stay in the office after 17:40, as per company regulations negotiated with the house trade union.

As a manager, if I want to stay after 17:40, I have to apply for special overtime authorization to my own manager.

Quoting my HR contact person: “Please go out of the office on time.”

I think this is pretty cool, actually.

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