Episode Fifty Nine: Why Is This So Hard; Dependency; Chief Empathy Officer

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

I still haven’t seen Captain America: Winter Soldier, but I have seen The Lego Movie twice. I have seen That Episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so hey, Hail Hydra. I haven’t changed any passwords yet. This episode should be going out to 764 subscribers.

1.0 Why Is This So Hard

Never mind disruption, I just want the easy stuff worked out. I have a KitchenAid mixer and one day we accidentally put the aluminium beaters in the dishwasher and now they are Not Burnished and Flaky and generally look like they’re going to Kill Us if we use them again. This is what I want to do: buy new beaters.

To do that, this is what I have to do:

1. Log into my webmail and search for “kitchenaid receipt” because, hey, I don’t remember the model number of the Kitchenaid Mixer I have other than the fact that it is Red.

2. Page through a whole bunch of results which I must read the excerpts of until I get to the Amazon email.

3. Click the link and then log into Amazon whereupon I am invited to review my purchase which is not what I want to do.

4. Give up and search for “kitchenaid beaters”

5. Look and see what models the beaters I’m looking at will work with.

6. Look up the model number of my mixer again, because I have forgotten it.

7. See that the model numbers are not the same.

8. Give up.

I mean, seriously. I probably should have Registered My Product or something but Jesus Christ all I want to do is buy some new beaters and essentially give Kitchenaid and Facebook more of my money and why are they making it so difficult? This is stupendously easy to do CRM and all it requires – *ALL* it requires – is for someone, somewhere, to know what parts work with what machines and to say: hey, you bought this thing, here’s all the stuff that works with it.

And you know what the really stupid thing is? It appears to be that the particular model I bought was a special model for Amazon or something so when I search for it, only that model comes up and not an official Kitchenaid listing and hey, I JUST WANT TO BUY SOME BEATERS.

So yes, hurrah, exciting opportunities for disintermediation and disruption but holy baby jesus all I want to do is actually have a reasonable customer service experience from someone I have spent a not unreasonable amount of money with.

At this point, and I realise this is heresy, but I would actually be OK with a fucking QR code on the underside or side of the mixer that I could scan and it would be all: hey – here’s everything you need to know about this mixer, forever, and the stuff you can buy for it. Done. But no, we can’t have that because that would be a Nice Thing and fuck nice things.

I can’t even easily find on the Kitchenaid site a) my mixer or b) when I have found my mixer, the parts I can use with it. Nnngh.

And Amazon – even Amazon – doesn’t get this right. Amazon knows what mixer I’ve got and can’t easily show me the stuff I can buy with it. It can show me stuff that other people have bought, like I don’t know, waffle makers and sausage casings, but showing me peripherals that I can actually use? Oh no. No no no.

So here’s that dumb startup idea: product lifecycle management. Just be an easy way to graph all of the product relationships a manufacturer has. This product works with these other products. These are substitutes. It’s hard work, but no one else is doing it, and then you end up with a stupendous database of what-works-with-what.

So sure, e-commerce is a solved problem if you have Amazon sell stuff, but product life-cycle stuff is still an unholy mess and will get worse (but should get better) now everything is plugged in.

2.0 Dependency

Nat Buckley has an essay[1] talking about the internet of things fostering a network of dependent things. This isn’t necessarily a new argument – witness the reaction from core gamers about how the Xbox One would require a persistent network connection to phone home. Of course the distinction there is that you have a population who are used to devices that are standalone with optional network connectivity, as opposed to the connection-native devices that we have now that aren’t possible *without* connection to the internet. BERG’s Little Printer and Cloudwash naturally fall into those camps; they’re what BERG is interested in of course – objects that are woven into the network fabric.

What Buckley points out is that the flip side of this is being able to see all of those internet connected objects as puppets that are being controlled by an entity that isn’t under your control. The remote control operator issue that at its worst manifests itself in a sort of I, Robot The Disappointing Movie[2] where a software update (spoiler) results in the End of the World, or at least, the End of the World for Mankind.

So I guess there’s a line, or a blurry one. The benefits of network-connected objects are not entirely clear yet: we still have to build a lot of them to see what they can do. But we can easily imagine a future where objects need or expect to be connected to a network in the same way that they need electricity to function. And while *in theory* you could run your own generator or live off-grid, the convenience, the trade off, is one that most people are happy to live with in terms of electricity-as-utility.

But then, connectivity-as-utility and the balance of power and autonomy is something that comes back, especially, I guess, when you think about the cognitive model of connected devices. One way of looking at it is: I buy this thing, which I have in my physical possession, but it is actually an agent for and reporting back to, a third party. I can tell it what to do, but in practicality, what I tell it to do can be overridden. That may be bad business sense on the part of the organization that made the object, but ultimately, it is now both operating under my control and the control of a third party.

You get into the licence-versus-own debate where Cory Doctorow will say: fuck the people who will only licence things to you, you need to own the things you buy. But you also get into the service-power dynamic where yes, I’m paying for this service to Tivo, but *really*, they could reach down the line and delete all the stuff off my DVR if they wanted to be dicks about it.

I come back to the essay I wrote when Google bought Nest. You could look at a house right now and say: how many of the objects in this house are or may be under the active control of someone other than the owner/occupier of the physical location. There’s a psychological difference to that, I think, that’s going to take people some time to get used to. Well, I say that, I *reckon* it’s going to take people some time to get used to. This may well be what “data natives” are completely OK with, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s an *OK with* as it is an opaque and unknown interaction. Everything is all well and good with the smart thermostat in your house until suddenly what you think was yours isn’t.

I don’t think this is necessarily the Doctorow-esque digital rights management argument: that’s quite clear with content and not owning, just licensing the ability to access it at any given moment until revoked. This is something different, I feel, because it’s not quite rights-management, it’s access-and-capabilities-management. I think Buckley hits on something with the idea that this is “my” phone and that I feel like I should know what’s going on with it *regardless of whether that’s the reflection of reality or not*.

This line of thought feels at times alarmist and luddite-esque, the sort of fear that “hey, if I stop my in-app fridge subscription then I’m going to come home one day and all my milk will be off and I remember the old days when you just plugged a fridge in to the electricity and it didn’t report back on you and couldn’t, you know, stop refridgerating because it was too dumb not to.” Is General Electric going to come out with some sort of EULA with fridges that says “no matter what, this fridge will always keep fridging, but other features may be turned off”? Or is some government regulatory body going to step in and say: “objects that are supposed to do things should keep doing them”.

It’s a bit like the whole Other OS functionality that the PlayStation 3 had – it was sold with the ability to boot another OS and as part of a gigantic security fuckup and people rooting the console, that functionality was eventually turned off and disabled if you wanted continued access to the PlayStation Network. Now, this being America of course there was a lawsuit and that lawsuit was ultimately dismissed[3] but not without the judge noting the “dismay” that customers who did want continued Other OS functionality likely suffered.

I guess the point is this: the promise of net-connected devices is that by making them dumb and their smarts in the cloud, they can be supported for a lot longer. That’s, of course, if the companies selling them *want* to support them for much longer. And ultimately: how dumb is the device going to be if it can’t access the cloud? Or if the service agreement is terminated?

[1] http://ntlk.net/2014/03/20/internet-of-dependent-things/
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Robot_(film), http://amzn.to/1t2nV0c
[3] http://www.ign.com/articles/2011/12/13/sony-other-os-lawsuit-dismissed-by-court

3.0 Chief Empathy Officer

In retrospect, the amount of fun had at the expense of Counsellor Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation was probably misplaced. Yes, she was the one who explained to Captain Picard and Number One what the aliens were “feeling” and was the ship’s counselor and resident psychiatrist concerned with the mental wellbeing of the crew.

But here’s the thing: if you’re able to look at empathy as the ability to understand an audience, user or customer and their position, then it starts to feel like something that’s pretty important in the business environment today. You could look at companies that place a high value on good design (and it doesn’t even particularly matter what definition of design you end up using) and whether they do a good job of placing themselves in their audience’s position. Ultimately, when we’re talking about the (from my point of view) fluffy category of user experience, then having the capacity for empathy is pretty important. Sure, there are varying degrees: product and service design instinctively feel like they could do with oodles of empathy for the end-user, whereas engineering less so (but not none at all).

I have a thing that I’m thinking about in terms of the empathy gap: that distance between an organisation and its audience such that at worst, it’s clear that the organisation is willfully ignoring how its audience might feel (cable companies, for example) and those that are making almost herculean attempts in terms of attempting to understanding and anticipating their audience’s needs. This isn’t just CRM and relationship management, it’s the types of organisations that start from the ground-up with an understanding of what they do to help their users.

One quick example of deep user empathy: the canonical example is Zappos customer support, who’re trained to help you find the shoe you’re looking for *even if they don’t sell it*. Because a happy customer with a need fulfilled is one who will come back. And a customer service agent who *actually understands your problem* and helps to solve it, even when that solution doesn’t in the short term align with their interests, is demonstrating that their future worth.

A bad way of doing this, one imagines, after reading the book that I haven’t written yet, would be for a Fortune 100 company to appoint a Chief Empathy Officer, rather like the role of a Reader’s Editor, whose role is to see things from the customer’s point of view and show how aligning the company’s interests and the customer’s can be additive instead of subtractive. But this is like any kind of bad management: a lot of these companies and organisation, I feel, suffer from a *systemic* lack of empathy and even when they’re able to be empathic, they’re frequently not empowered to act upon it. In which case, front line customer service agents who *are* capable of empathy and merely following orders despite clearly understanding their customer’s needs, inevitably end up with job dissatisfaction and want to leave. I rather get the feeling that I should drop Tony Hsieh a line and ask to talk to him about this.

No: empathy is something that feels like a Core Value, something in the Mission Statement. Wait, no, that’s wrong too. Empathy is something that you need to build from the ground up, something that everyone in the organisation needs to believe in. It’s more important now given the number of channels that are open for communication and the expectation that an audience has. This stuff, thanks to the promise of computers, should be *easy*. Companies listen, more than ever before, and say that collect more data than ever before. But it appears that all of that data collection is, without the fuzziness of “empathy” isn’t necessarily resulting products and services that are better fits that better service user needs.

Blarg. I kind of petered out there. Sorry. Anyway: notes. What do you like? What do you don’t like? If you don’t like things that I do like, then hey, it’s my newsletter and I’ll probably keep doing those things. Especially things like being long and rambley.