Dashboard Design

As a follow on to a previous post – Diluted information, this is a quick review of just two ideas within Stephen Few’s excellent book – Information Dashboard Design.

Spark Lines

Spark lines are an idea from Edward Tufte, author of books such as Envisioning Information. The concept of a spark line is simplicity itself – take a line graph and delete everything but the line itself. This enables you to present a big chunk of information in a very small space, perfect for dashboards. Take the following example:

This is fairly typical of a dashboard or scorecard used to present key performance indicators (KPIs). You’ve got the sales figure, a green light and an arrow going in the right direction. Sales must be good! But how much information do you really have here? You know that your sales number is in a good position today, and compared to your last measurement it is going in the right direction. What does that information really tell you?.

Let’s use a sparkline instead:

The spark line enables you to present a far bigger range of figures with minimal extra space. When you use the traffic light and arrow, you can only see the last two points on this line. But now you can potentially see a whole year’s worth of data. And what does this spark line tell you? That sales are currently good and going in the right direction, but the pattern through the year looks very erratic. Who knows what next month’s figures will look like. Why is that? Can anything be done to settle into a growth curve or are the causes all external and out of your control? Are your suppliers letting you down, disrupting your production line? The spark line encourages you to investigate, providing you with an opportunity to be proactive in resolving issues. Traffic lights create a reactive approach – you only start to investigate when they go red or the arrow is already pointing in the wrong direction.

Bullet Graphs

Bullet graphs are an idea from Stephen Few, providing an alternative to the popular dashboard tool – gauges. Another example:

This is a classic gauge, displaying a measure and the range of values that indicate where you would like it to be. In this case, customer satisfaction is healthily in the green at above 75%. But again, how much information have you been given? A measure and where it sits within a range. That gauge takes up an awful lot of screen estate to give you so little. Enter the bullet graph:

A bullet graph is the perfect diet – it slims down a gauge and gives you extra value to boot. Styled like a thermometer, you can still see the range of values, but now a simple line indicates your current measure. But in addition, the horizontal line can provide a clear alternative measure (this is harder to do with the gauge, where it ends up looking like half a clock). That horizontal line might represent last month’s figure, or could represent the target. Either way, you now have a comparative measure.

To put these two ideas together, it’s worth comparing two dashboards to demonstrate how much or how little information is often presented:

Here is a classic dashboard, with lots of pretty graphs and charts. But, before you even figure out what it all means, how much does it really tell you? Now let’s look at an example that uses spark lines and bullet graphs:

Before you even start to interpret what this dashboard contains, you can see a lot more information is available in a format that you can analyse. And now let’s take it a stage further… Let’s take that dashboard out of the browser…

This screenshot is Excel – your good ol’ spreadsheet (and it’s not even the latest version at that). This simple screen of data inside Excel contains more useful information than I’ve seen in far more complex and expensive business intelligence tools.

How do you create a spark line in Excel? Simple – just create a normal line chart and delete out everything other than the line (go into Chart Options, delete the grid lines, the axis, the heading, the background, everything!).

The screenshots above are all available over on The Dashboard Spy’s web site, a blog I recommend you subscribe to if you are interested in this subject. Having read Stephen Few’s book, it is great fun to critique the different dashboards on display there. I was going to create my own examples in Excel, but others beat me to it and I’m all for not reinventing the wheel. I’ll use a later post to explore if/how Excel 2007’s new data visualisations can enhance dashboards… …and since starting this post, The Dashboard Spy has beaten me to it again.

Final tip

If you are tasked with designing a dashboard or scorecard, there is one important question you should always ask the audience who will be using the end result. Is the dashboard being designed to provide quick answers or prompt for more questions? Too often, the answer is the former when it should be the latter but that’s a whole different political question 🙂 Let’s just focus on designing for the desired role…

Going back to the first image – the sale figure with a green traffic light and an arrow going upwards. That is a classic ‘answer’ KPI. Are my sales good? Yup! Are they going in the right direction? Yup! Great! I can move on to the next task. If that really is all the audience wants to know, then stick with the colourful images and minimal content. The irony is, dashboards that provide quick answers are largely redundant any way. Quick answers are answers you already know and just want validated. If you are interested in sales, you are going to know if the company is doing well or not before you even look
at that dashboard. Just walk down the corridor, lurk by the water cooler, linger in the toilet even – you’ll know from the atmosphere within the office if your sales are good or not. It won’t necessarily tell you whether they are going to stay that way…

The spark line is far more suited to the valuable use of a dashboard – to prompt proactive investigations when the numbers may be good but don’t look quite right…

Technorati Tag: Dashboard

Microsoft Digital Day – Part 2

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This post covers the second half of the Microsoft Digital Day event held on 20th October 2006. The morning sessions were covered in Part 1.

In game advertising; what the trends are in gaming, why games are such a powerful media, how marketers utilise dynamic ad platforms and how effective these can be

Presenter: Mitchell Davis – Massive

(Massive produces in-game advertising and was recently acquired by Microsoft)

I’ve always wondered when in-game advertising and product placement would begin to take-off… it seems it has. It is a logical step as people spend more and more time inside virtual worlds.

Mitchell produced a slide showing game software growth. Online and wireless games are currently way below console games but have already overtaken PC games and are growing in popularity

Graphics are reaching a standard where the virtual world is becoming realistic. The upcoming Xbox game Splinter Cell has taken over 100 developers over 2 years to build, costing $25m. But console games are increasingly looking like replacements for movies. The game Grand Theft Auto achieved $359m in sales, the equivalent of Spiderman the Movie, released in the same year. And people spend far longer playing the game than watching the movie…

…and game players do not multi-task, a big difference to how we often watch TV. When playing a game, you have to be 100% focused on the task or you lose/die (depending on the game). Hence ads are far more likely to be picked up by eyeballs inside a game than on the TV.

Online games are beginning to clock up more hours than traditional console games. In the online game World of Warcraft, some people are now spending over 100 hours per week on it. (At this point, I had a thought – this is like The Matrix in reverse. We are actively plugging ourselves into the grid to the point we could rent out our physical shell because we are barely using it.)

Massive has approached in-game advertising in a similar way to traditional methods. Instead of creating an ad that is permanently embedded in the game (e.g. as you reach the final stage of the level where you have to kill a zombie coming out of a tunnel, the tunnel always has a poster above it advertising a coffee brand), ads are run as campaigns. The ads can be placed in different slots throughout the game, for defined periods of time. They can be geographically targeted (including language-specific ads) and even do time-dependent advertising (i.e. only show the advert at certain times of day within the time zone where the game is being played).

Mitchell described a test campaign that was recently completed. The campaign saw a 14% increase in brand favourability from those exposed to the ad versus the control group, a 11% increase in purchase intent and a 12% increase in ad likeability. The audience was redominantly 13 – 34 year old men (95%)…

…and that, I think, is a challenge for the advertising industry. Tom Peters and others have been talking for an eternity about the need to target women, because over 80% of purchasing decisions are made by women. Not many computer games are currently targeted at women.

But to finish, Mitchell dropped a great quote:

“Whether the game is pirated or not, they still see the advertising!”

It sums up why advertising is becoming increasingly attractive to software companies who sell proprietary software. If you can earn revenue from advertising instead of software licences, the piracy problem just disappears. It could also be a potential business model for community-built open source software.

Traditional Media embracing digital

Presenter: Simon Waldman – Director of Digital Strategy and Development, Guardian Media Group

I am quite a fan of The Guardian because I think they have done a great job of embracing the Internet and emerging trends influencing how we consume news. And this session summed up how they have succeeded.

The Guardian’s mission is “To be the world’s leading liberal voice”. In other words, to go beyond being a physical newspaper you pick up.

One of the experiments they ran last year was to create podcasts with Ricky Gervais (he who created The Office). It led to over 4 million downloads and brought links to the news site from unexpected places – lots came from iTunes, podcast networks, sites like Technorati… all these people had never before visited The Guardian web site.

The attitude at The Guardian is that content must be high quality, distinctive and easy to find. The majority of challenges are around that last point. If you aren’t easy to find, then you are going to disappear – and being easy to find means being out there on the web.

Simon described the 3 characteristics that have emerged from the Internet (you could try and argue Web 2.0 but let’s not):

  • people want to create and communicate, ideally both at the same time
  • people want to control their media – what they want, when (and where) they want it
  • people want to challenge the established order – enough is enough

…and people will do it whether we let them or not. (Whilst the ‘we’ referred to mainstream media, it could equally be applied to governments too – I think (hope) politics is going to be disrupted beyond recognition over the next 10 years)

Simon gave a simple and incredibly clear example to demonstrate the change. People are wrong to compare Wikipedia with Britannica – Wikipedia isn’t aiming to be the same as Britannica, it is 180 degrees to the left of it. Encyclopedias are top-down authoritarian. Wikipedia takes a different approach and serves a different purpose.

Simon talked through some of the different ideas that have been tried by The Guardian:

Obituaries page: The Guardian opened up a section called ‘Other Lives‘ – anyone can write an entry for someone they know who has died, regardless of the so-called importance that would normally determine who gets an entry.

Commentary blog: On the Commentary section, anyone can participate and leave comments – journalists are contributing alongside everybody else rather than being positioned as some kind of authority on the site

Working across channels: The Guardian has a travel site – Been There – people contribute with their experiences, and The Guardian then rolls up weekly to highlight a specific location within the newspaper.

And they have been looking into the world of video-reporting, kitting out journalists with camcorders to capture moments that you would either miss or would struggle to report well in writing. A sample was given – camcorder footage of Cherie Blair in the audience at the recent Labour Party conference. You had to see it to believe it (which I think demonstrates his point). 🙂

The session closed with an audience question – how do we currently consume news: Online only = 14%, Print only = 8%, Mix of both = 78%. Not surprised at the numbers. The web brings about new ways of consuming content, but in some scenarios, the best format has already been invented – paper.

WPF Reader offering a highly-differentiated visual experiences

Presenter: Michael Cooper – Director Strategic Relationships, Advanced Reading Technologies, Microsoft

This session focused on the New York Times Reader that has been recently announced.

In a nutshell, the reader does a better job than a browser at managing news layout to fit different screen sizes, and to navigate content. There are no scrollbars – all navigation is based on cursors (e.g. left – right moves between stories, up – down scrolls through the story. Columns are added or removed (and news stories repositioned) depending on screen size.

The New York Times web site currently averages 4 page views per session. The aim of the reader is to increase the time the reader spends on the site, to create more advertising opportunities. Ad placement within the reader is dynamically driven – the ad message can be optimised based on the story it is displayed within (click through goes to different locations depending on the message – e.g. an insurance company can advertise different types of insurance in different sections. Where you click on the ad affects the type of insurance promoted and forms to be completed). The layout is also dynamic in that it can change as you go back/forward – the same page can display different ads in different places.

In trials with the reader, page views per session jumped to 80.

I have mixed feelings about this reader. The navigation elements are similar to the offline experience provided by AvantGo, where you can synchronise content from multiple different sources and read it offline. It certainly demonstrated well, but I’m not sure that I would use it. It would be useful to be able to download a digital edition of a newspaper, but I just want a simple link off the web site – ‘download offline’ – where I can quickly sync the content to a device when I want to… and I don’t want the whole news, I want to choose sections I am going to want to read. And I don’t always just want one paper, I want a mash-up of the different sources I like to read. You get halfway there with news feeds, except most news sites insist on only doing partial feeds which are rendered useless when you are offline. And to finish, the ability to view in newspaper format is only suited to a laptop or tabletPC (i.e. you need a reasonable amout of screen space) – useful when I am at home or in the office, but not when out and about travelling. Mobile devices need a different layout to newspaper style.

Subscriptions are also broken when it comes to newspapers. When I’m travelling on public transport to meetings, I will often buy a newspaper at the station to read on the journey. But I don’t buy the same news paper every day. That’s easy to do when you pay for the item on the spot. But the web sites want you to pay monthly subscriptions – those subscriptions add up to a lot of money if you aggregate all the news sources that you read… and the cheeky publishers still push adverts at you, littering the page and slowing down page load times, even when you’ve paid to access the content…

Still some work to be done in this area…

Microsoft’s vision, strategy and commitment to the online advertising industry

Presenter: Steve Ballmer – CEO, Microsoft Corporation

Some of the comments made in this presentation align with a lot of what was said in the Gartner podcast recently published.

Microsoft is very much repositioning away from the enterprise perspective (much of the last 10 years has been spent persuading businesses that Microsoft is an enterprise-level supplier) to ‘from the end user to the enterprise’. This covers the two traditional areas – desktop and server – plus the two new focus areas – entertainment/devices and online services.

Whilst the ‘G’ word wasn’t directly mentioned, Steve compared Microsoft’s current search position to that of their spreadsheet position 15 years ago, when Excel was challenging the established leader – Lotus 1-2-3. (Oh how the memories flooded back, there wasn’t much you couldn’t do with the ‘/’ key in Lotus 1-2-3). The focus back in the early 1990s was on building a suite of applications (Microsoft was simultaneously targeting the word processor market, then dominated by Word Perfect). Fast forward to today, and search is broadening out into a set of investments, spanning software and devices, digital advertising and a ‘Live’ platform on which to build it all.

Steve talked through the dawn ’til dusk scenario referenced in other sessions – mapping the various Microsoft products and services to the different activities in the home and at work.

If you think the above slide looks like Microsoft overload, you would not be alone. One of the audience questions started with a reference to “the slightly scary 16-hours a day with Microsoft slide…” 🙂

Steve closed his speech with an overview of the plans for AdCenter and a review of statistics from the various services. Some snippets: 243m Messenger users, 465m unique MSN visitors, 60m Spaces, 261m LiveMail users.

Some interesting comments cropped up during the Q and A. Steve’s favourite future scenario – being able to tune in and watch his old high school’s TV channel covering a live basketball game. This is the potential when the Internet enables TV to move to millions of channels. (It’s nice to hear a positive view on having more channels to choose from instead of the usual negative assumptions.)

This post is filed in the Library under Research > Talks

Technorati Tag: Microsoft Digital Day

Microsoft Digital Day – Part 1

Last Friday I attended the Microsoft Digital Day conference, held in London. The day was targeted at the advertising industry and had a great line up of speakers. Here are some notes and thoughts scribbled on the day. I’ve broken them across two posts due to length. This post covers the morning sessions.

First things first, it was interesting to not the line of products listed under the title ‘Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions:

  • MSN
  • Windows Live
  • XBox
  • Office

Yes, the last one sneaking in on the act is Office, not just Office Live but Office whole.

The changing online media landscape, industry trends and our business and market vision for the UK

Presenter: Steve Berkowitz – Senior Vice President, Online Services Group

The session began with an overview of the advertising industry, its size compared to the software industry (it is 4x larger if you are wondering) and the percentage of online advertising today and its future predicted growth. Three-quarters of the UK now has broadband, and 28% of consumer media time is now spent online.

Increasingly consumers are looking to access services for free leading to advertising being the model to generate revenue. Microsoft is building up services to be able to better target users based on preferences gleaned from the use of online services (i.e. Live). The big question to answer – how can you get advertising in a position where it is being considered content?

This is an interesting question that warrants more thought. The reason Google has scored so well with its model of adverts is that they are not annoying, just simple text boxes that sit at the peripheral of your vision. If I am searching for a specific product, more often these days I will deliberately click on one of the sponsored links because it is for the company I am actually looking for. Online news and magazines, on the other hand, seem to have defaulted to those incredibly annoying ads that still manage to pop up in front of the text, forcing you to locate and close a tiny little X in the top right corner to get rid of the damn thing. How on earth that sort of advertising leads to purchases is beyond me. Sure, occasionally I accidentally click on the ad trying to close it, but that just annoys me even more to the point I will actively not purchase from the company responsible. And what do they register? A positive click through result. Doh!

Steve described there being three ways that consumers enter the Internet:

  • Search
  • Portals
  • Communities

MSN is being positioned as the pre-programmed entertainment experience (portal). Live.com is about entering through mail, search, community….). Microsoft is focusing on building audience. Steve positioned software and services as being a combination of technology, user experience and business models. Microsoft’s Live initiative is about building a platform for services (messaging, storage…) and making the experience of the web consistent across any and all devices.

If you want to get an idea of how Microsoft is building that platform, check out Operations: the new secret source, by Tim O’Reilly. Wired also ran an article on this subject, looking at Google’s activities – The Information Factories

When culture meets technology and when technology meets culture – How consumers’ behaviour is changing as a result of technological and cultural developments

Presenter: Anne Kirah – Senior Design Anthropologist MSN Advertising and Trade Marketing Research

Anne has an interesting role at Microsoft, observing how people use technology in their everyday lives. This is sooo important. If you design products purely from within your organisation, particularly as a technology company, you will be in danger of building for the market of geeks, which on planet Earth is much smaller than the total population. Andrew Till (presenting at the Cambridge Technology Management symposium) described this same phenomena at Motorola, where engineers are actively discouraged from using the products they build to avoid the geek effect.

Anne highlighted the challenges and importance of observing the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. This is a pet frustration of mine when working on IT projects. When defining end-user requirements, too much emphasis is placed on asking them what their complaints are with the current system or what they would like to see from the new one, rather than observing what actually happens in their working day. The current classic is around workflow. The complaint/wish is “We want to implement workflow to make sure all documents go through a rigid approval process before they are published.” leading to the design of a complex workflow with multiple steps. The observation is: “Documents need sign off before they get published but it gets forgotten if not completed within 48 hours.” leading to the design of a simple workflow with one step involving a big red flag.

Anne talked through some of her recent research activities that produced some interesting insights into the tension between technology and culture. For example, when looking at broadband adoption, she found that the Netherlands had more in common with Korea (I’m assuming South) than with Germany in terms of usage – both countries were very big adopters of social networking and community sites. Both countries were also very early to adopt broadband en masse with encouragement from the government.

Another example was the use of social networking sites to find answers that historically we would never have investigated. She described the example of a couple from Arizona called Howard and Martha. They have been usability testers for eight years. Martha became ill at the start of the year and showed signs of developing Senile Dementia. Doctors advised that she move into a care home. Howard went on to a social networking site and asked for help – did anyone have a cure for Dementia? And he got a response, advising that he get the doctor to check Martha’s medication. Howard did just that, Martha’s medication was changed and she was cured! Five years ago, this would never have happened. It’s an amazing example of the positive effects social networks and virtual worlds can have on our physical lives (I’ll be delving into this area further in a separate post). The story had a sad ending. Howard recently died, and Anne was leaving straight after the conference to attend his funeral.

In another example of the clash between culture and technology, Anne talked about the example of using instant messaging in Japan (or why it hadn’t taken off as well there as in other countries). Manners and etiquette mean everything in Japan – when unwell, people where masks to protect others from their germs. (We tend to assume it is the other way round.) Communication is conducted in a very polite way. Texting is popular because it is not intrusive. Instant messaging can be considered the rudest form of communication because it interrupts.

To conclude, Anne made a great comment about how our use of technology is changing and becoming a natural part of our environment:

“Eight years ago, if you asked people what they are doing, they would respond ‘I’m on the computer’, now they would just say ‘I’m talking to my friends'”

Social Networking Research – The impact of Social Networking and how consumers use technology in their Digital Life

Presenter: Caroline Vogt – Head of International Research, EMEA and Americas

There were 450 attendees at this conference, and we were all given digital communicators during sessions that could be used to vote
on answers to questions and to send questions and comments via text. They scrolled the text messages on screen at the end of the event (Note to self: next time send message promoting business 😉 )

Caroline started with a session asking how much we all knew about social networking. 47% answered “Lots”. Then we were asked how many had a blog or space. 51% said Yes. My heart would have sank at this point if I were the presenter – you’re about to preach your subject to an audience that pretty much already knows all about it. To her credit, Caroline continued and delivered a great session. The focus was on research in the different approaches to social networking across countries. For example, in the UK, FriendsReunited has 71% of the market compared to 20% for MySpace.

One of the most interesting points was how there are two different forms of social network emerging – open and closed. The type of network influences how people view and use it. An open network is usually perceived as unsafe and lots of anonymous viewers. But the attitude is fun – content is usually shallow but participation is addictive. (Similar to the traditional gossip networks and similar-minded news channels.). A closed network is the opposite – attitude can be both serious and fun, but content is often deeper and participants are identifiable.

Caroline used a word that cropped in a few of the sessions on the day – the need to be authentic. In the context of this session, advertisers on social networking sites need to behave ‘like a good Spaces member’, in other words be like everyone else – participate in conversations, create word of mouth. This can not be done in a mass-processed way, you have to create exclusivity within different social networks.

The power shift from corporations to consumers. How Windows Live builds connections and brings our fragmented world together

Presenter: Blake Irving – Corporate Vice President, Windows Live Platform Group

Perhaps the most interesting slide of the day – Microsoft using the Long Tail to clarify the difference between MSN and Windows Live (a lot of people tend to assume Windows Live is just MSN renamed):

I think that slide works well. I think Microsoft should put it in a big press release and publish it on the home page at microsoft.com to help clarify that MSN and Windows Live are not one and the same.

This session talked about Windows Live as unifying your world – relationships, information, everything – and providing services to connect a fragmented world of devices – work PC, home PC, Zune, phone, Xbox etc.). AdCentre then becomes the method for serving up targeted ads.

I have to confess, this all sounded a bit like the Hailstorm furore from a few years back – people using Microsoft devices from dawn ’til dusk and beyond, and all your information being stored up in a Microsoft cloud. It remains to be seen if Microsoft as a brand is considered trusted enough for this approach to succeed. But the demos given were quite impressive:

  • Windows Live Expressions – enables people to brand/skin their sites and spaces. The demo showed how you could click on a targeted ad and use a ‘skin’* , the example given involved selecting your favourite football player from a team, and then having your site branded based on the player. This is a very interesting concept – taking the idea that people where clothes that identify their personality, and that they will do the same in the future in their online world. (Will Adidas be selling virtual clothes in SecondLife?)
  • Windows Live Gadgets – the ability to add content your site/space, served up inside individual windows (the corporate version is web parts, ala SharePoint)
  • Windows Live RSS – advertising-funded information feeds

* ‘skin’ means to change the look of your site as opposed to the content, e.g. blue background instead of white, purple text, different fonts, images etc.) <– pity that so many are unable to detach colour from content in the physical world, but that’s a whole other subject…

Blake closed by emphasising that targeted advertising will be an opt-in process, the aim is to offer a better ‘experience’. This will be the difficult balance for Microsoft to achieve – create a business model that generates revenue through advertising without driving away your ‘other’ customers.

Building the Future of Search Advertising

Presenter: Chris Ward – Commercial Director – UK, Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions

The session started with IAB market date – that £531m was spent on search marketing in the first 6 months of the year. The rest of the session was very visual (i.e. hard to describe here).

There was a demo of a beta product – Microsoft StreetSide. It combines driving directions with Windows Live Local to give you a virtual tour of your journey, showing what local landmarks look like… of course, those local landmarks can include advertising billboards etc…

Chris also showed a video talking about PhotoSynth. This is a very exciting product – the ability to create a 3d view by stitching together photos. The typical example given is the use of holiday pictures. But imagine applying this concept to the Flickr store, combining everybody’s pictures to create an online footprint of the physical world… add in all the photos now being taken on mobile phones, that can be immediately uploaded ‘somewhere’ in real-time. A major incident occurs (such as the July bombing in London last year), and now you have a service that can stitch together all photo evidence taken on the spot at the moment it happened. It’s an interesting thought…

..and taking it a step further – you have a store that is able to search through, and stitch together, photos to create a 3D representation of a location. You get lost in a city, use your mobile phone to take a picture of the nearest landmark you can see and submit it to the store. A search matches your photo and is able to tell you where you are and give you directions to where you want to go… For me, these are the most interesting possibilities with emerging technologies – the ability for online and virtual worlds to benefit what we are doing in the physical one, as opposed to existing as a separate reality.

Case study on Search / adCenter

Presenter: Nick Hynes – The IMW Group (The Search Works & The Technology Works

To give an idea of who was attending the event, 43% of the audience had clients spending over £1m in search advertising…

Nick presented some of the facts and figures around search advertising. Paid search is currently growing year-on-year by 57.5%. The 2005 total was £768m, it had reached £531m within the first half of 2006. Google dominates in Europe (for example, has 77% of the UK market compared to 45% in US). Yahoo dominates Asia-Pacific with 53% of the market.

New products that are starting to grow but have yet to find a strong business model – local search, mobile search, demographic search. They are also somewhat dependent on each other. Most mobile searches are location-dependent – you want to use your mobile to find something nearby (for example, I wish I could use my mobile to locate the nearest coffee shop when I am out and about in London and have time for a coffee/snack between meetings). Nick highlighted that local search has to take off before mobile search will succeed.

Nick also called out that it will be a while before we get truly personalised targeting of ads. People are still very protective of their data – they want something in return, beyond targeted advertising. He predicted the death of the TV schedule editor, as more people choose
when and where to view TV programmes. Hence the focus will shift from 30-second slots in prime time to wrapping adverts around content, regardless of when or where it is pulled.

Introducing Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions

Presenter: Sharon Baylay – General Manager, Microsoft Online Services Group, UK

Sharon wrapped up the morning sessions with a review of how Microsoft has re-organised to focus on advertising in the online world. The top level organisation is the Microsoft Online Services Group (OSG). There are now three areas within OSG – Microsoft Digital Advertising Solutions (MDAS), MSN and Windows Live. MDAS will enable advertising to be targeted across a very diverse set of audiences, spanning MSN, Live, Office and Xbox.

Related post: Microsoft Digital Day – Part 2

This post is filed under Research > Talks

Technorati Tag: Microsoft Digital Day

Web Design Flaws – part 2

So, more on my pet frustrations with organisations unable to get Web 1.0 right and why that should be fixed before everyone gets too carried away with the potential of Web 2.0… (You can read part 1 here)

Part 2 – Email

Why do companies do such a bad job of using email to connect with customers? They force you to enter your email address before you can do anything (e.g. download a document or trial software) and then spam you with useless automated messages from that point onwards but don’t provide a way for you to respond.

Sample culprit: Handango (http://www.handango.com)

I have an iPaq 4150 – gorgeous little skinny PDA that, thanks to a spare battery, can keep running all day (8 hours+ including watching movies). It serves 3 primary functions: my organiser (calendar, contacts, notes, tasks, email + syncs the lot with my work and home PCs), research (AvantGo, RSS reader + viewers for most doc formats), and play (games, movies, music, ebooks etc. – thanks to 1.5Gb of SD storage). Actually, it’s now got a 4th use, having acquired a GPS receiver and installed PocketStreets, but I digress. I decided I needed a new game for distraction during travel times, and went for a browse on Handango’s site. I decided to ‘trial’ Riven (‘trial’ = trailer rather than demo, as it turned out), which naturally required me to enter my email address in order to download the required file. Sure enough, a few days later, I receive an automated email thanking me for recently downloading a trial and including the link should I wish to purchase the full program. The email then includes a ‘few suggestions’, should I be looking for something else. The closing blurb goes as follows:

This is a one time email sent to the email address as entered when downloading a trial application from Handango. You are not subscribed to any additional mailing lists.

THIS EMAIL WAS SENT FROM AN UNATTENDED MAILBOX. PLEASE DO NOT REPLY AS YOUR MESSAGE WILL NOT BE SEEN

Why would Handango not be interested in any reply I might want to make? Had the email instead ended along the lines ‘We’re interested in your feedback on this trial and how we can improve our services, please send any comments to [insert email address]’, I would have clicked the link and sent them the following response:

“Thanks for the email. I have actually already purchased Riven but from another web site. Whilst checking reviews to see what others thought of the game running on a PDA, an advert popped up offering the product at a 25% discount over on ClickGamer and I purchased it from there. Had you also been offering the same discount, I would have purchased it from you having previously purchased from your site.”

At least that way, Handango would know a) the trial worked, in that it led to a purchase, and b) they lost the sale because the identical product was available on discount somewhere else. As a result, they could perhaps work with the supplier to negotiate a discount to protect future potential sales and even, shock horror, go one step further and respond with something along the lines: “We’re sorry not to have been able to offer the product at the same price as one of our competitors. Next time, please do contact us first as we will always try to match the lowest available price for software.” And you know what, if they replied like that, I would check back with them first next time. If you want to increase your potential sales, basic analytics from your web site won’t help much, you need feedback. I don’t doubt I could revisit the web site, locate the ‘contact us’ link that is likely to exist and supply some feedback there, but a) it takes a lot more effort on my part, and b) will disappear amongst unrelated emails within the standard website inbox.

The web offers also sorts of ways to increase sales and improve customer service, but it requires different methods and processes to traditional channels. First and foremost, it needs to be as easy as possible for your potential customers to get what they want. If you want rich feedback, make it as easy as possible to do so (you went to the trouble of collecting that email address…) It seems that very few companies really take the effort to use the Web well to improve their business…

(Again, just like the last post, I must stress, the culprit named here just happened to be a site I’ve visited recently. They are not alone and there will be plenty of other examples out in cyberspace.)

Web Design Flaws – part 1

Whilst everybody warbles on about the wonders of Web 2.0, am I the only person who wonders why so many companies do such a lousy job of implementing Web 1.0 technologies (i.e. web site and email services)?

Part 1 – Web Sites

Why do web sites make it difficult for you to find and buy what you want? For example, I’ve been researching laptops and sometimes the only way to find out about the products is to avoid the vendor web site and go to a review site instead. Bad strategy for the initial vendor in mind, ‘cos the review site introduces all sorts of other models for consideration and you start to see a pattern from reading customer reviews (hint to Sony – I think you need to address your apparent customer service problems…)

Sample culprit: Toshiba

Type in www.toshiba.com. Get to a home page with a screenshot telling me they are ‘committed to people, committed to the future.’ Lovely. Click on ‘Products and Services’. Presented with a page listing the various products and services. Click on ‘Tablet PCs’. At this point, I’d like to see a list of available Tablet PCs to start reviewing which one I’d like… What I get is a search box (no drop down list, assumes you know the model number I guess) or 4 options: Home/Home Office, Small/Medium Business, Enterprise, Government/Education. Toshiba should try reading ‘What customers want‘. If I click on Home/Home Office, I get offered various links organised under Computers, Accessories, Projects, DVD store and Electronics. Listed under Computers is ‘Notebooks’ and ‘TabletPCs’. Now, let’s see, I’ve already clicked on Tablet PCs once, so why do I now have to do it again? I click on Tablet PCs and am finally presented with a page listing the different TabletPC models. If I click on Small/Medium Business, I get the same page as Home/Home Office, but without the DVD store and Electronics list. If I click on Enterprise, I can find out info about ‘Corporate Direct’ and have 3 links to choose from: ‘computers’, ‘accessories’, and ‘projectors’. So I have to click on Computers, that presents a page with 2 links – notebooks and TabletPCs, I click on TabletPC and, lo and behold, finally get to the page listing the TabletPC models. If I select Government/Education, it’s the same painful process as for Enterprise, except ‘Community’ info replaces ‘Corporate Direct’.

Hint to Toshiba – fix your Products & Services page. At the moment, if you click any option listed under ‘Computer Systems and Digital Products’, you get presented with the damn same page – select from one of 4 options: Home/Home Office, Small/Medium business etc. none of which reflect what your potential customer expected when clicking on ‘TabletPCs’, ‘Notebooks’, or whatever…

And Toshiba is far from the only culprit. HP has the same crazy demographic method. I wanted to check out the current iPaq range (my beloved iPaq 4150 is nearly 3 years old now so maybe it’s time to see what new toys are available). Go to http://www.hp.com. Big fat menu on the right for demographics (click on home/home office, small/medium business…) But in small print below the irrelevant advert image is ‘Handhelds and calculators’. Click on it and, lo and behold, 2 links – PDAs for home/home office, and PDAs for business. Click on home/home office, now have another 2 links – iPaq Pocket PCs and iPaq+phone+camera. Click on iPaq Pocket PCs and finally get a list of 3 iPaqs. Then have to go back and click on iPaq+phone+camera to see those models of iPaqs (hint: some people may not have decided beforehand on whether to take the phone option or not). Go back and back again and click on PDAs for Business and, surprise surprise, there are some different models listed here. For some reason, HP has decided home/home office users don’t travel and hence don’t need to be shown the GPS editions… Doh!!!!!! Why would you try and limit your potential sales?

Even the well designed sites manage to cock up at some part of the process. Sony has a great site for viewing their notebooks. Simple and clean, few clicks required to be presented with the full choice of models. But try and buy one… well that’s another matter entirely for those of us who do not reside in the USA (I’m in the UK). You can view the laptop and simply click the orange button to add it to your cart. Only when you get to the shipping stage of checkout do you discover it is only applicable to addresses within the USA. Cancel out and go back to the home page and, whilst it does say ‘Sony USA’ there is no obvious link on either http://sonystyle.com or http://sony.com to switch to the international site. So off we go to Google to locate the UK site (http://sony.co.uk). The site design isn’t quite as good but still only takes a few clicks to get to the page about laptops. Find the slightly different version (I was looking at the Vaio TX range) but now I have to click the ‘buy online’ button, which takes me to a new site (Sony Europe) where I now have to re-navigate through the options again to get to the Vaio TX, different options to the UK site but hey ho, I can finally choose the laptop and actually buy it if I want to… except I’m not sure I want to anymore, having read the customer reviews criticising support.

I wandered through various vendor sites and all bar 1 suffered from these sorts of problems – they all made it difficult to review/compare products and difficult/impossible to purchase if you lived outside the USA. The one exception: Apple. On the Apple site, it is easy to review/compare products. On the home page, the last option on the menu is ‘Where to buy’ that provides links to the international online stores. The only improvement would be to make it more obvious – if you are reviewing a product and click to buy, add a button on the cart for ‘international purchases’ and then take your cart automatically to your appropriate online store.

I can’t stress enough that these 3 examples are by no means unique and are in fact better than an awful lot of other sites out there. If organisations still haven’t mastered the basics of simple Web 1.0 technologies for presenting content and allowing people to buy stuff, there’s no point getting giddy and excited about the potential from adopting Web 2.0 stuff…

Down the drain

Nicholas Carr has a nice summary on his blog post ‘Down the drain‘ describing why large projects so often fail.

His second point is the classic trap that so many knowledge-based projects fall into:

…Always create software to solve the day-to-day problems faced by the actual users, not to meet big abstract organizational challenges. Solve enough little problems, and the big ones take care of themselves. Fail to make users’ lives easier, and they’ll simply bypass the system (and never trust anything you do ever again).

This has been consistently demonstrated over the past 14 years, particularly in relation to content-management systems. Organisations spend vast amounts of time and resource designing the ‘perfect’ intranet with the ‘perfect’ taxonomy, ‘perfect’ search engine, ‘perfect’ workflow processes, ‘perfect’ metadata set, ‘perfect’ rules for adding, modifying, approving, archiving content (and all its glorious metadata)… you get the idea, and the project fails miserably because it is focused on solving a perceived organisational problem (‘we need a knowledge management system’) rather than solving actual user problems (‘I don’t know who to contact for help on…’, ‘I can’t find previous reports on…’). The end result: people avoid using the system because a) it is difficult and time-consuming to use and b) it does not provide them with enough benefits.

In recent years, I’ve seen customer-relationship management (CRM) projects fall into exactly the same trap. The focus seems to be more on generating lots of reports to support business plans than on helping people improve customer relations. Yet it is through improved relationships that business metrics will be achieved, not from viewing charts about the current state of play. (See also: Seven Productivity Tips)

The most successful information-based projects are typically started by the content users themselves, rather than the IT department or management. They grow bottom-up, with minimal investment, and spread organically through popularity – they are useful, they solve a problem. Instead of being concerned with clamping down and stamping out these projects, the IT department should embrace their benefits and help convert the projects from start-ups to fully supported applications. And that does not mean spending the next 3 years designing and implementing the ‘perfect’ replacement…

Update: FT article describing the successful approach adopted by the BBC, via the person who did the adopting

Space – the first frontier?

The desire to improve knowledge and collaboration systems during the past 15 years has tended to focus on information technology and virtual environments. And in the process, we sometimes forget about the other form of collaboration – the spaces we inhabit, working together in the physical world.  Read More

Copyright damages usability

Interesting article over on Wired – Thinking outside the box office (thanks, as usual, to http://tech.memeorandum for highlighting it)

The article makes a great point about why current copyright legislation increases piracy, i.e. it makes it difficult to use stuff in the way you want to:

I was channel surfing the other night and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho was on. It would be fascinating to do a mash-up of Gus’ version with Hitchcock’s version…

…So right now, I could do that at home and give it to a friend, just as something for them to watch on a Friday night. But we don’t live in a world where that can be made commercially available. So it goes underground. And underground is just a sexier word for illegal. It’s frustrating.

Here here! I would often like to include an image or media clip to stress a point in a presentation or article. But until we see better implementations of copyright and micro-payments, it is just too difficult and/or slow and/or expensive to do so. I lose the opportunity to help enhance my content (or else use the clip illegally) and the content creator loses the opportunity for additional recognition and revenue.

Hopefully the disruption and benefits that mash-ups are starting to provide, combined with efforts such as the work of the Creative Commons organisation, will push us towards a change that is long overdue. The technology is ready and (not always) waiting…

And while I’m on the soapbox, who thought it would be a good idea to plonk an anti-piracy advert at the start of film DVDs? As if it wasn’t bad enough having to sit through the copyright notice. For goodness sake, if it were a pirated copy, the pirate would have edited out both elements when making the copy, so all you are doing is annoying people who bought a legitimate copy of the film, lecturing them about something they didn’t do. Doh! Stick ’em at the end of the film (hint: there’s a reason why the legal small print comes at the end of a contract). It might help media companies if they didn’t keep giving people reasons to be annoyed with media companies…

The importance of a good user interface

When Microsoft launched SharePoint Portal Server 2001, it was regularly slated by most competitors and analysts, and written off by many customers. Now it did have its challenges, scalability being the biggest one, and some of the features needed (a lot of) improvement. But it had one advantage over most, if not all, of its competitors at the time – its user interface (UI). It integrated with Windows and Office (2000 and XP), and made simple document management, including applying basic workflow and metadata, very easy to do with minimal training. I have seen examples of incredibly expensive IT projects fail for want of a good user interface. From personal experience, my frustrations with Siebel were caused purely by its confusing and illogical navigation. (The benefits of working for a software company? An internal team wrote an in-house client that made it much more usable.)

With I.T. projects, I always worry when the UI gets dismissed as unimportant or irrelevant (it happens a lot), and all focus is placed on ‘back room’ features. Sure, you need a system to be reliable, secure, scalable, and it has to be able to do the job it’s designed for. But it’s pointless having the king of applications deployed, if the user interface is so bad nobody ever uses it or, worse, wastes hours of time trying to get to grips with it or, worse still, uses it incorrectly…

…and this issue is multipled 1000x when dealing with I.T systems that require regular human interaction. Think portals, content management, team workspaces, all forms of messaging…