Posts Tagged ‘Communication’

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Creating simple, intuitive products

March 2, 2009

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My kids’ grandparents all live out-of-town, so they wanted to set up webcams instead of just using the phone. So, I setup GTalk video on my PC right in Gmail.  Then I sent my mother-in-law instructions to setup iChat on her Mac to work with GTalk. Of course, it doesn’t work. She’s not computer savvy enough to troubleshoot the problem and I don’t know enough about Macs to know what to tell her. After an hour of searching forums and trying to talk her through it, we gave up for another day. But once my mother-in-law shut down iChat, we were immediately able to use video through Gmail. What? Is this a missing step in the instructions? I don’t think we were alone in our frustration since the forum was full of posts about having trouble getting them to talk to each other. 

Was the process intuitive? To some engineers at Google and Apple, it must have been. I’m sure they configured the software and were mooning each other over video in no time. Ideally, they would have also consulted my mother-in-law, or at least other users with her level of experience and understanding, to see if she had any trouble understanding the instructions.

What does it mean to create a simple, intuitive product? Certainly, there are technical challenges to making something simple. But, shouldn’t it be easy to create something that’s intuitive? I think it can be, but it involves a bit of work by the designers.

One challenge is that “intuitive” is a subjective term. Product users don’t all use the same vocabularly or may not understand the subtle intricacies between two options, and they may not have the need, desire, or patience to learn. It doesn’t help them complete their task, which is all they’re trying to do. Therefore, what I may think is clear and obvious in a user interface is anything but. The good news is that understanding your user is not a mystic art. You could just ask them.

If it’s possible to consult with your end-users, get their feedback early and often. Talk to tech wizards, grandmas, and anyone else that might use your product. Can you use the misunderstandings of a few early users to overcome the confusion, apprehension, and fear that will keep your most un-savvy users from loving your product?

Photo credit: John De Boer

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What makes a great teacher?

February 22, 2009
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Is there a message in there?

Who are your teachers? Whom do you learn from?

Whenever I talk to someone, or read an article, or finish a project, isn’t the goal that I come away having learned something? Isn’t that what makes Seth Godin’s stream of content so interesting?  He seems to find insight where others walk on by. Is that because he is a great teacher? He clearly has a lot to teach us. But, perhaps it’s that he is a great student. He’s more receptive to learning something new. Can we be as receptive?

My list of “teachers” is pretty long, but I’d guess none of them are aware of it. I don’t pay tuition, I don’t have tests, but if I don’t pay attention, I may get left behind. 

Are you looking for a teacher, or perhaps you have experience to offer someone else? The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) has an eMentoring program that pairs young engineers with experienced ones. Do other societies have similar programs?

You don’t have to be in a classroom to have teachers. These are simply people you learn from, and they can be everywhere, if you’re listening.

Photo Credit: Rodolfo Clix

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Google To Give The Energy Sector A Jumpstart

February 13, 2009

windpower_hdrThis week, Google announced they’re Beta testing a new application that you can use to track your household (or business) energy use by device in an effort to cut energy usage. Google PowerMeter will break down your energy usage almost in real-time. According to their data, the clothes-line may be due for a comeback. As the old adage goes,

“If you can not measure it, you can not improve it.” – Lord Kelvin

They’ve built the application, but now they’re looking to develop some hardware to go with it. Google is not the only player in the game, though. Pepco is also looking to develop Smart Meters in the DC suburbs, and Agilewaves, comprised of a trio of NASA engineers, developed similar technology after the wave of California’s rolling blackouts in 2006. Even with a decent head-start, it might be hard to beat the raw initiative, seemingly unlimited cash reserves, and amazing grasp of user interfaces that Google has shown time after time. 

Last fall, Google and GE announced a partnership aimed at pushing technology and policy in the energy sector. To kick off the initiative, they’ll both be hosting Plug Into The Smart Grid next Tuesday at 2pm EST. The event appears to be open to the public, but plan for attendance to be maxed. Instead of making you fight the crowds, though, they’ll be posting the  content within 24 hours of the presentations on both Google’s DotOrg channel as well as GE’s YouTube channel. Google has also invited everyone to submit and vote on questions in advance via Google Moderator. This event appears to have some big players, so it’s not exactly a grass-roots effort. But, everyone is going to be called upon to act eventually. Now is a good time to start paying attention. 

Program

  • Introduction and welcome 
    • Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change and Energy Initiatives, Google.org
    • Bob Gilligan, Vice President, GE Energy
       
  • Part I: Envisioning smart power
    Energy tools and technologies to empower people with information and choice    

    • Moderator: Bob Gilligan, GE
    • Adrian Tuck, CEO, Tendril
    • Ron Binz, Chairman, Colorado Public Utilities Commission
    • Jeff Renaud, Director, Ecomagination, GE
    • Ed Lu, Advanced Projects, Google
    • Kelly Speakes-Backman, Principal, RE+GENeration Consultants LLC
    • George Bjelovuk, Managing Director, American Electric Power
       
  • Break
     

Part II: Accelerating the energy revolution
State and federal policies to drive smart power
Opening remarks: The Honorable Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change (invited)  

  • Moderator: Dan Reicher, Google
  • Fred Butler, President, National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners
  • John Podesta, President, Center for American Progress (invited)
  • Andy Karsner, Former Ass. Sec. for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
  • Chris Miller, Office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Photo Credit: John Nyberg

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The Dreaded Product Recall

January 28, 2009

danger_wrongway1Today, peanut butter manufacturers have a problem: salmonella contaminated a huge batch, and hundreds of people have gotten really sick, six have even died. The tainted peanut butter was packaged for industry, not retail, and distributed around the country. Since it was sold to industry to be added to other products, the outbreak was stalled while the product was processed into everything from crackers to dog treats. The FDA and food industry can’t identify everywhere it went, so it could be virtually anywhere. That effectively makes everyone responsible and every candy bar and plate of Pad Thai a potential outbreak. The FDA appears to have tracked the salmonella to its source, but containing the problem is slow-going and far-reaching. The real question is why wasn’t this problem caught by the manufacturers or even via one of the distribution chains? Are food safety precautions not stringent enough or too slow, or was somebody trying to avoid consequences for something they hoped wouldn’t become serious.

I went through a product recall once in a past job many years ago. It was a small-batch production, but enough products had the same problem that a recall was issued. At the time, I was preoccupied with other projects, and my responsibility to adequately supervise assembly was sacrificed. The hardest part was accepting and admitting the mistake both with my colleagues and with my customers. Luckily, this was a low-quantity product, the problem was caught early, we had a personal relationship with every customer, and the potential consequences were minimal (aside from the damage to my ego). Our actions seemed straightforward, but customers appeared to really appreciate our proactive approach to retrieving the items, inspecting and fixing them, and returning them quickly. It certainly wasn’t the easiest thing to initiate, but it was the right thing to do and our customers were happy we did it. As a result of this experience, I still strive to remember that the delicate balance of properly supervising someone – somewhere between micro-managing and saying hello at the annual review – should be based on the needs of the employee, not my availability.

Kryptonite Locks once conducted an excellent example of what every customer hopes would happen when bad products make it onto the shelves. Kryptonite makes super strong locks for bikes and motorcycles. The locks are well known for their ability to stifle a thief. In 2004, after being the market leader for years, a video surfaced on YouTube showing a guy breaking into a tubular-cylinder lock in seconds with just the end of a $0.10 BIC pen. Not good for the lock business. Kryptonite initially offered a qualified recall for locks under 2 years old, but then they did the unthinkable – they issued a full and free recall of ANY of their locks using tubular cylinders and ran their manufacturing line around the clock to meet demand. “ANY lock” meant every over-used, 10-year-old, clunker well past its warranty. The Voluntary Lock Exchange Program ran for more than a year and freely replaced over 400,000 Kryptonite locks worldwide. They weren’t the only locks affected, but they were the only company to react so swiftly. It was a brilliant move that kept their reputation intact, although they might still be paying off the free locks and manufacturing overtime for years to come.

Bad things happen to the best companies. How long have you remembered the companies that got it right? How about those that got it wrong?

Photo credit: Enrico Corno

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Cross-train your brain

January 18, 2009

datastreamIf you’re going to run a marathon, or participate in any sporting activity, most experts agree that cross-training is important to improve your overall fitness. Focusing too hard on one set of muscles leaves other muscles weak and prime candidates for injury. As an engineer, focusing too hard on a small skill-set may leave other parts of your brain starving for stimulation.

The internet is FULL of great content. Let your brain do some cross-training by expanding your input stream. Instead of listening to another webinar on the features of the next Solidworks release, maybe you want to stretch out and listen to an interview with Seth Godin on marketing your small business or check up on the state of innovation in the medical device industry for 2009. Not only will you have new things to talk about at dinner parties, but you might learn something related to your everyday.

Who/what are you paying attention to? Please share in the comments.

Photo credit: Rodolfo Clix

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Take this job and …

January 8, 2009
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Build bridges instead of burning them.

I recently wrote a glowing recommendation for an old friend and ex-colleague. A bit ago, he moved on to greener pastures, or taller mountains, to improve his work/life balance. He’s an excellent engineer, and I hope to work with him again. He just needed a change. He tied up loose ends, simplified turnover, and even identified a candidate for his replacement. He reminded me that perhaps how we end a relationship is as important as the way we once cherished it.

This can be easier said than done, particularly when it comes to personal relationships. But, in a professional relationship, it’s generally not a personal issue. There are lots of reasons to leave a job or take your business elsewhere. Maybe you want more pay and less hours, or maybe you need a vendor closer to home to cut your annual shipping costs. However, don’t let these issues sour your professional relationship or conduct.

As satisfying as it might be to tell off your boss or vendor, nothing good can come from it. You’ll be much better served by acting professionally and graciously. Not only are you keeping your network intact, but you’re also leaving a trail of possible recommendations in your wake.

Photo credit: Julie Engal

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The art of communication

December 10, 2008

My family went to North Carolina this weekend. With two small kids, the drive can quickly become an all-day affair. With my wife getting bored in the car, she took the opportunity to explore one of the personality compatibility webapps on her iPhone. It’s about as sophisticated as a teen magazine, but luckily enough, the app says we’re compatible (whew!). Best of all, since we answered certain questions the same, we should have an easy time communicating and an intuitive understanding of the other person’s concerns. Well, let’s just say there’s been a miscommunication or two over 5 years of marriage.

In business, many of my clients are often engineers, or maybe they’ve been one in a previous life. Maybe they’ve even worked in product development for 10 years. So, we have a lot in common; it would seem we’re even speaking the same language. However, I’ve found that no matter how many similarities there are between you, it’s all too easy for two people to be on different wavelengths. It may even take special effort just to realize that fact alone, much less correct it.

Sometimes, this fact can be exacerbated by the use of email. After all, if there’s any question down the road about who said what and when, I can just point to an email I sent notifying you of the change. But, having something said and having something heard can be two wildly different things.

Communicate early, and communicate often. speak clearly (leave out the jargon). LISTEN AND ASK QUESTIONS. Repeat.

If I tell you something, and you don’t understand, it’s my fault.