Design flaws and why best practices fail

Just before Christmas, I was having lunch with a friend and former colleague (no prizes for guessing where from). As per usual, out came the gadgets. Including my iPod and his Zune.

Let’s rewind back to when I first got an iPod. It seemed obvious how to scroll through the menus – move your finger around the wheel. Less obvious was how to adjust the volume when playing music. It took a couple of attempts at prodding the forward and rewind buttons, despite the labels telling me they were not the volume controls, before realising that the same action to scroll through menus applied to adjusting the volume.

The iPod

No manual required and all pretty logical really. The colour and texture help guide your finger around the wheel. You immediately discover that the centre of the wheel is the button you click to select. And the remaining actions are clearly labeled – press menu to get the menu, forward to go forward, rewind to go backwards and play/pause to play or pause.

So fast forward to the present and the Zune. My friend hands over the Zune and then sighs as I attempt to use it like an iPod. The Zune looks vaguely like an iPod but isn’t an iPod.

The Zune

The big button in the middle isn’t quite a circle but is a long way from being a rectangle with rounded edges so we will refer to it as the circle for the rest of this post. Net result. I try moving my thumb in a circular motion to scroll through the menu. That doesn’t work. You press the top of the circle to go up the menu and the bottom of the circle to go down the menu. Once shown how, you can also swipe up and down to accelerate through the menu. There are two other buttons. One has the familiar play/pause icon. The other has an arrow. Can’t remember what it does but would assume it’s simliar to the MENU on an iPod.

The reason the iPod wheel is so easy to use is that the shape is logical to the action. The reason the Zune is so confusing is because the shape does not match the action. Compare the two images below.

On the left is how the iPod works. 6 possible actions all contained on a single wheel: 5 buttons and a circular sliding motion. Your thumb is guided around the wheel by using a different texture for the wheel than the rest of the iPod (including the centre of the wheel). The circular motion works both clockwise and anti-clockwise, as you would expect. Four buttons at North, South, East and West and a fifth button in the middle.

On the right is how the Zune works. 8 possible actions: On the circle there are 5 buttons and two sliding motions. There are 2 additional buttons either side of the circle. The sliding motions are up/down and left/right, not that you would know from the look and feel of the circle. The motions do not match the shape. And you have to assume that there are buttons on the circle, because there is no indication icon-wise.

Why did Microsoft choose to use a circle on the Zune?

I have zero formal design or usability qualifications. But if I were given the spec of designing a large ‘button’ interface that you press at the top to go up, the bottom to go down, and can stroke up or down to accelerate (and similar applies for left and right), I would have used a shape that matched the action. Something like this:

My version of the Zune

And it’s a small point, but if you can’t fit the word ‘menu’ on a button and you are Microsoft, why wouldn’t you just use the same icon you use on Windows? Most people would figure out what it means… They certainly wouldn’t mistake it for the rewind button.

There’s an ironic twist to this. Two years ago, a YouTube video appeared – What if Microsoft designed the iPod packaging? It is hilarious and embedded at the end of this post in case you’ve not seen it. It was later revealed that the video came from within Microsoft. When the Zune launched, it shipped in a simple box.

So why did Microsoft choose to use a circle on the Zune? Was it to make it look like the iPod? A daft decision when the form does not match the function.

This is a common mistake and not just confined to design or usability. How many organisations implement a ‘best practice’ on the basis it worked for a similar organisation, and yet fail? It is rare to find a perfect match in terms of context and conditions. Instead, it is better to apply lessons learned but adjust them to your own situation, not bend your situation to fit the lesson. Apple’s lesson was that form and function should be as simple as possible and align. Microsoft followed the form but changed the function. Wrong.

If Microsoft designed the iPod packaging

World Usability Day

World Usability Day was held during November and this year’s theme was Healthcare. Microsoft took part and hosted a day of sessions that were recorded on their Live Meeting virtual conferencing service. You can access the presentations (available for download, at the time of writing) here – Best Practices for Creating “People-Ready” Solutions

To find out more about World Usability day, visit the web site and/or community blog.

Filed under: Usability

Technorati tags: Usability; User Experience

How buildings learn

I had come across several recommendations to read ‘How Buildings Learn‘, by Stewart Brand, during the past year and finally picked up a copy of the book. Here are some snippets to (hopefully) help explain the valuable lessons this book can teach the IT industry, particularly the newer architect-style roles that are cropping up (enterprise-, solution-, software-, system-, information- etc.):

“…Almost no buildings adapt well. They’re designed not to adapt… But all buildings (except monuments) adapt anyway, however poorly, because the usages in and around them are changing constantly… Architecture, we imagine, is permanent. And so our buildings thwart us.”

The book describes the concept of time layering and its relevance to buildings. The six layers (simplified here): SITE (geographical setting, duration: eternal); STRUCTURE (foundations and load-bearing elements, duration: 30 – 300 years); SKIN (exterior surfaces, duration: 2o years); SERVICES (inner workings of the building – wiring, elevators, etc., duration: 7 – 15 years); SPACE PLAN (interior layout, duration: 3+ years); STUFF (furniture and movable items, duration: mobile).

“…Ecosystems could be better understood by observing the rate of change of different components. Hummingbirds and flowers are quick, redwood trees are slow and whole redwood forests even slower. Most interaction is within the same pace level. The dynamics of the system will be dominated by the slow components… The same goes with buildings. Site dominates structure (location determines foundations), which dominates skin, which dominates services etc.”

Interestingly, the reverse becomes true in extreme situations.

“Ecologist Buzz Holling points out that it is at times of major change in a system that the quick processes can most influence the slow.”

New ‘stuff’ (e.g. replacing desktop computers with laptops, wireless technologies, switching from individual working in cubicles to group collaboration in open plan environments) may demand adjustments to space plans and services. And the need to change services can even result in the premature demolition of buildings. This issue leads on to some interesting comments that IT solution architects should consider:

“An adaptive building has to allow slippage between the differently-paced systems of site, structure, skin, services, space plan and stuff. Otherwise the slow systems block the flow of the quick ones, and the quick ones tear up the slow ones with their constant change. Embedding the systems together may look efficient at first, but over time it is the opposite… and destructive as well.”

The book recommends an alternate approach to traditional building methods: the use of scenarios:

The benefits of scenario-planning are simple – design a building/system to accomodate multiple different possible outcomes. This can help avoid the problems that occur when the designers idea of expected use does not match the actual use.

There is another book that follows this theme, applying it to the design of everyday things and how we conform to, or adapt, their purpose: ‘Thoughtless Acts?‘ by Jane Fulton Suri + IDEO

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

iStock_tunnel1

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.)