The high risk of low-risk behavior

"Necessity is the mother of taking chances."
-Mark Twain

Occasionally I encounter a motorist on the highway who is driving very slowly, some 20 miles per hour slower than the flow of traffic. This driver undoubtedly believes himself to be driving in a reasonable manner, equating his slow speed with safety. Unfortunately, he fails to recognize the greater risk of a much faster car plowing into him from behind. His slow speed has made his car into a barrier rather than part of the traffic flow, and yet he cruises on, oblivious to the squealing tires and honking horns directly behind him.

Is this really a safe practice? Not on the highways in Silicon Valley.

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Bridging the gap between design and engineering cultures

A few years ago I conducted a workshop on ethnographic mapping methods with a Pueblo community in the Southwest. While I wasn’t familiar with Pueblo cultures, I had heard they were rigorously private. For example, I was asked not to discuss the specific details of the Pueblo’s history or personal stories—normally a key topic in the workshop.

Despite these precautions, I was surprised when the group seemed unimpressed by the exercises in the workshop. They were often hesitant to participate, especially in the exercises that focused on developing skills for mapping personal stories, historical accounts, and cultural data. I was told, instead, that they were not prepared to talk about these things in the presence of outsiders—meaning myself and some other attendees from a nearby Pueblo. Instead, they asked for handouts.

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Innovate, one step at a time

I believe most things run in cycles: the economy, the stock market, fashion, moral codes, even one’s own personal status and influence (your personal "stock price," so to speak)—sometimes you’re hot, sometimes you’re not. The past couple of years have been particularly harsh in reinforcing a history lesson for us: when the pendulum swings very hard and far in one direction, it will most assuredly swing just as decisively in the other eventually.

During recessions, uncertainty prevails, and like a driver trying to weave his way along a mountain road in heavy fog, many businesspeople eventually tire and just pull their businesses over to what seems like a safe embankment, turn off their engines of innovation and progress, and wait for the fog to lift. But how long can one afford to sit on the roadside? At what point does it become riskier to do nothing than to proceed with caution? One has to wonder if there’s a better way, a way to keep moving forward in measured, confident increments, rather than eventually creating an additional element of uncertainty by deferring innovation altogether.

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Reconciling market segments and personas

Market segmentation and personas are two different techniques that are often perceived as conflicting methods, but they are actually complementary tools that organizations can use to design and sell successful products.

The value of market segmentation

The marketing profession has taken much of the guesswork out of determining what motivates people to buy. One of the most powerful tools for doing so is market segmentation, which groups people by their distinct needs to determine what types of consumers will be most receptive to a particular product or marketing message. These groups form a consumer model.

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A breath of fresh air

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you have never seen a wrench or a screwdriver you will have a hard time seeing what you need, even once you discover that your hammer does not work very well on bolts or screws. This makes it hard to break away from tools that do not serve you. Under pressure, companies tend to fall back upon what they know, so they often end up trying to solve problems with the same tools that got them into trouble in the first place. When this tactic threatens to choke an organization, we call it "breathing your own exhaust."

Right now, many companies see an opportunity to approach product creation from a fresh perspective. With the frenzied dot-com "business model" no longer a distraction, and the recession apparently easing, these companies are looking for ways to benefit from their painful experiences and create a better crop of products and services. They want to nurture customer loyalty by building products that please their customers, rather than following fads or stacking up long lists of features that no one really wants. Everyone knows pleasing customers is the right thing to do, but how do you really do it?

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5 insights for improving product development cycle success

In my article last month, Innovate, one step at a time, I discussed how the process of innovation easily derails during difficult economic times, such as today’s. When creating software and digital products, innovation typically spans many months, and it can become disrupted by unobservable or frequently changing business conditions that make it extremely difficult to form and evaluate viable options. When people can’t see where they’re going, they typically just stop. This is tragic with respect to innovation, since it is innovation that propels business and society forward.

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Goal-directed content management

A year ago, most software industry analysts were predicting that Content Management (CM) was going to be the hot sector this year. Unfortunately, sales for most CM software providers are not meeting expectations, and even CM insiders are suggesting that the cause could be a growing disappointment with CM implementation results. Anecdotal evidence from within the CM industry indicates that CM implementations fail to meet corporate expectations about half of the time.

Part of the reason for missed expectations could be poor usability. Forrester Research recently released a research paper on the subject: "Packaged Apps Fail The Usability Test." In it, they don’t name the vendors, but they rate the usability of two popular CM systems. Both rated very poorly. Forrester’s conclusion is that much better design is needed to win user adoption and higher rates of corporate satisfaction.

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Don’t get burned by bad mapping

Have you ever tried to use a kitchen stove and ended up turning the wrong burner on by mistake? Yeah, us too. Just about everyone who cooks has run into this minor annoyance at some point in their life, if not repeatedly. So what do naughty stoves have to do with software? You may be surprised to learn that your digital products may suffer from the same fundamental problem that makes these stoves annoying and counterintuitive.

The problem with these stoves is poor or unnatural mapping. The term mapping describes the relationship between a control, the thing it affects, and the intended result. Poor mapping is evident when a control does not relate visually or symbolically with the object it affects, requiring the user to stop and think, "what’s going to happen when I turn this knob?"

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Product complexity driving you crazy? learn where to cut.

All other things being equal, the more complex your product is, the harder it will be to use. And the harder your product is to use, the more your customers will rely on your technical support department, which tends to increase your costs and decrease your customers’ overall satisfaction with the product. The good news is that one of the most simple and effective ways to reduce complexity is to cut unnecessary features from your product. But how do you know which features to cut?

Well, it’s not easy. Marketing wants a feature that one of your competitors has so they can cook up one of those bulleted feature comparison charts. The engineers have an idea for a feature that they think is really interesting, and one of them spent the entire weekend coding it. And then there’s the "squeaky wheel" customer in Arizona that wants a particular esoteric feature that no one else seems to care about…

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Managing the risk in digital customer touch-points

Are your customers getting a helping hand or the cold shoulder?

The great thing about big American businesses is that they give us many of the stories that become the fabric of our lives. Frankly, we’d rather not endure the circumstances that result in the stories, but like train wrecks and tornados, they are entirely unforgettable and we talk about them for years. I’m talking about customer service horror stories, of course.

We all have many of them. The stories get particularly interesting when they relate to monopolies or near monopolies, otherwise known as oligopolies. Why? Because any interactions we have with such firms are biased from the get-go by the distrust we have for important players in our lives over whom we have little influence and control. We feel victimized before we even pick up the phone to attempt to do business with them. From their business perspectives, this should present them with an interesting challenge: how do we make our customers trust and love us, so that they won’t find ways to live without us? Unfortunately, such firms rarely seem to rise to the challenge.

A good example would be a very unpleasant run-in I had recently with my oligopolist ISP (Internet Service Provider). The setup for the story is that I moved about six months ago. I called my ISP during the move to have them disconnect DSL at my old address and transfer it to my new address-simple enough. Six months later, still no DSL; however, my credit card bill continues to be charged. I decided to give them a call, but having already called them three times previously in recent months, it’s fair to say I was already not in the best of moods and pessimistic about the quality of service I would receive. Suffice it to say that they lived down to my expectations. The customer service interactions went like this:

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