Design Matters

file6691334414281For a dozen years or more, I have used Associated Bank’s ATM machines. After selecting “English,” the screen says “retrieving preferences.” What a strange message. I don’t recall ever setting preferences, and if I did, wouldn’t language have been a preference rather than a separate selection? And If I hadn’t set preferences in the past, it certainly wasn’t intuitive how to set them now.

This bothered me. It was inefficient that I always had to answer the same questions. Every. Single. Time. What language? What account? Receipt or no receipt?

Lo and behold, my wife enlightened me just a few weeks ago. Apparently, you have to select “next screen” and after pushing a few more buttons, you’ll find a place to set preferences. I finally set my preferences, only a decade or so too late! Some may disagree, but I don’t think I’m that oblivious that I couldn’t have figured it out at some point. The only logical explanation is that it is poor design.

If a reasonably intelligent, high volume user is struggling, there’s got to be a better way. Couldn’t the machine learn customer preferences? My behavior makes it really easy—I always answer the questions the same way. What about a simple prompt that asks if you would like to set preferences, and then gives the choices of “yes,” “no,” or “don’t ask again?” Could it ask if I would like to save this transaction as a favorite or default?

I wonder if anyone has ever checked what percentage of ATM users have set preferences. I’m guessing it’s very small, putting me in the majority who repeatedly go through the same questions each time that don’t add any value to the transaction. It’s not like ATMs have changed much over time—they do the same basic withdrawals, deposits, transfers and balance inquiries they’ve always done.

Understanding the customer experience and how to design an interface that is simple, understandable, and without extraneous required inputs doesn’t have to be that hard. Saving your customers years of frustration is worth it.

Providing Quick Meaning to Data

abraham-lincoln-60558_640According to The New Yorker, Abe Lincoln liked infographics*, putting me in good company.  I was exposed to Edward Tufte (an American statistician and expert in informational graphics) and his series of books more than a dozen years ago. His representations of data, and the stories that came from their effective display, were elegant and powerful. My fascination continues today.

I recently purchased The Best American Infographics 2014, a self-explanatory compilation by Gareth Cook. It is a beautiful collection of examples and the insights they reveal. It will join other my other treasures that include:

Despite all of our technology advances, it still takes a creative mind to determine how to craft a story from the data. Or, perhaps it’s the reverse: representing the data differently creates learning and then knowledge. It’s all in how you ask questions of the data and interpret the answers. Regardless, I can’t get enough.

*From Mashable: “Information graphics or infographics are graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge. These graphics present complex information quickly and clearly, such as in signs, maps, journalism, technical writing, and education.”

Un-Unified Communication

My recent post demonstrated a difficult method to share notes. I want to contrast that experience with a very different one.

Several weeks ago, I connected with a regional sales leader for a national technology company that I’ve worked with. We spoke about how we are working differently and collaborating across companies in new and different ways. He was going to be attending an enterprise communications and collaboration conference the following week, and offered to share what he learned and subsequently get together to discuss.

To facilitate sharing, he launched a Cisco Spark collaboration room. My first reaction was a sarcastic groan, “Perfect, just what I need, another application.” But, in the spirit of embracing new approaches, I gave it a try.

Photo by Mark Baker

Photo by Mark Baker

Surprisingly, this proved to be an easy way to share content, links, and even coordinate our meeting over coffee. The reason why became clear when we spoke. While I, like many others, have always have a quest for “one”—one thing, one place, one neatly organized inbox or to-do list—I realized that the definition of “one” has shifted. Instead of using one application, the new standard is one mobile/tablet device filled with notifications. A speaker at the aforementioned conference labeled it “Un-Unified Communications.” Instead of one phone number, one voice mail system, and one email address, we now have multiple tools for communication and collaboration. Our inbox is a set of tiles with various notifications. Aha! This made total sense. While “fewer” may be easier to manage, the quest for “one” does not have to be the Holy Grail.

Beyond Spark, there are many other providers in this category, including Slack, Asana, Verse (coming soon from IBM), Quip, and HipChat. You may have seen the HipChat commercials during the NCAA basketball tournament, starring boss Bill Lumbergh from the classic business comedy, Office Space. These ads are so humorous because, unfortunately, they reflect the daily reality in a lot of companies. My fervent goal, as I test and try new ways to work and collaborate, is to avoid becoming a Lumbergh.

A New Category of Device

apple watchEarlier this month Apple unveiled the Apple Watch and made several other announcements.  Here are a few tidbits before getting to my thoughts on the watch:

  • Doing good. Apple is opening up a tool called ResearchKit for opensource development that works across platforms. They have realized that medical research could benefit from wider participation and easy (don’t need to enroll in a research project) feedback, unencumbered by the barriers of a research. A lot of feedback can be gathered from an iPhone, such as the performance of motor skills by Parkinson’s disease patients. I’m excited to see where this goes.
  • The all-new MacBook is pretty cool. New screen, new keyboard, new touchpad, new USB Type-C (one cable for everything), new unibody case, new batteries and main processor board. This is an indicator of ultraportable laptops yet to come. There’s still no touch screen, but the operating system requires a revamp first.

Now, the Apple Watch. Prices range from $349 to $17,000 (18K gold). While I’m not going to be standing in line to buy one, I do see the promise of this new category. It’s a new form factor, data tracker, small display and smart user interface all rolled into a fashion accessory. Christy Turlington was on stage to prove that point (and not much else).

Let’s recall the trajectory of the cellular phone. Motorola was on the top of their game with the StarTAC. Then, there were a series of attempts that seemed to smash together a cell phone with a PalmPilot (before the advent of the wireless internet), resulting in various clunky devices. Eventually, with the launch of the iPhone in 2007, the package of features that we now recognize as a smartphone began to come together.

There is likely to be a similar evolution with smartwatches. Who remembers the Casio models from the 1980s? Wearables have also been around a long time for athletes, and are just now coming into the mainstream. Products like Pebble Time integrate notifications with your phone and other smartphone based applications. The Apple Watch takes it to a whole new level. It’s a multifunction, multi-sensory, customizable, touch and voice enabled, interconnected, watch-to-watch and watch-to-phone device. Plus it has its own app store.

Like all new technology, it’s not going to be about the hardware (although it is pretty spiffy)—it’s going to be about how it impacts our behaviors. I believe the package of functionality and variety of different uses will be pretty compelling.

Is it like a new iPod (another escalation of an entire category brought on by Apple)? After all, who remembers the Zune or Rio portable media players? Or is it destined to go the way of Apple’s MessagePad that ran on a Newton OS platform? Only time will tell, but I wouldn’t bet against Apple on this one.

Is it Time for Email to Go Away?


Has email lived its useful life? Recently articles* about new products such as Slack and Facebook at Work highlight the emerging second generation of social business applications and ponder their usefulness. Will they replace old guard products like email, or create a new space? Even IBM is getting into the game. Their offering, Verse, was touted as “a new way to work” in recent TV commercials that aired during the NFL divisional championship football games.

My opinion? Who knows what will happen. I recall writing about this very topic about 10 years ago—clearly, “if” and “when” are difficult questions to answer.

Email’s inherent problems are many:

  • It grabs our attention, not necessarily in a good way. With a LIFO approach, each new message pops up on our screen and announces itself. It interrupts our thought process and begs for an immediate response.
  • It’s not easy to manage. Questions abound. What do I need to store in folders for future retrieval? What needs to be followed up on? What responses am I waiting on from someone else? In the end, the size of our inbox and the amount of care and feeding it requires creates stress.
  • It doesn’t have a memory, making it hard to find/file/recall/share with others after the fact.
  • Email isn’t designed for collaboration. Attempting to share back and forth and have a conversation leads to unwieldy, long conversation threads.
  • It simple does many things poorly, namely transferring files, generating notifications, knowledge sharing and document management.

The new tools are certainly exciting, but how well they can mitigate and replace the challenges of email is yet to be seen.

*Additional reading:

Weekly Download 14.24

download-158006_640Here’s a recap of news and notes from around the Web that caught my attention over the past week or so.

Just when you think the development of artificial Intelligence has stalled, here are The Three Breakthroughs That Have Finally Unleashed AI on the World.

How We Trick Our Brains Into Feeling Productive is an interesting take on procrastination and productivity.

The complete guide to using your smartphone abroad is just that.

Malcolm Gladwell on What Really Makes People Disruptive: attitude. This attribute trumps tech, money and brainpower.

In A Data Analyst’s Blog Is Transforming How New Yorkers See Their City, NPR reveals the power of data, presentation and social media tools. A smart 33-year-old living on Brooklyn is affecting government policy in a big way through his blog.  A perfect story on inquiring minds using the newly published large data sources (New York City’s open data) and asking questions/displaying data in easy to consume ways and making it visible.

For Your Edification

As an avid reader, I usually have multiple books going at any one time. Here is a current sampling:

the future of work

the innovators

leaders eat last






The Future of Work by Jacob Morgan

The Innovators by Walter Issacson. Did you know that one of the innovators behind the first computer studied at UW Madison? That “punch cards” were initially used for loom-based weaving? A low cost, infinite resource was a breakthrough for programming. Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, wrote a series of notes in the 1840s that outlined the key concepts in the first electronic computer nearly 100 years before it was made in the 1940s? While parts of the book at too tedious for me, there are some very interesting facts that I never really appreciated.

Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. I just started this one, but really enjoyed his previous Start with Why.