Episode Sixty: We Have Always Been At War; Our Independence Day; Spimes, Duh

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

It’s not sunny in Portland anymore, but I’m excited because I get to go to O’Reilly Solid and see a bunch of interesting people who will make my head explode. If they don’t, I’ll ask for my money back. If you are going to O’Reilly Solid too, it’d be cool to meet up and not in the slightest bit creepy.

1.0 We Have Always Been At War

Last episode I talked about the Chief Empathy Officer, and in case I wasn’t clear, I want to make it abundantly so this time: I think having a chief empathy officer is a stupid idea, exactly the kind of tactic that makes it look like you’re jumping on a bandwagon and fixing something without fixing anything at all. It’s almost as bad as having a hived-off UX team and exactly the kind of thing where, as Matt Locke points out, a general good practice in business is promoted up to the C-level suite so that you don’t have to do deal with it anymore.

Let me put it clearly: no one person in an organisation should have sole responsibility for “empathy”, especially in a manner that’s going to make it easy for detractors to make fun of it. Instead, customer-centricism is something that needs to be distributed throughout, from the bottom-up as well as top-down

Leisa Reichelt tweeted at me in response to that episode the concept of ‘exposure hours'[1], which is such a blindingly simple idea that you’re kind of surprised (and then when you think about, it understand why) more companies or organisations don’t use it. It’s just this: the more time your designers or product owners spend with end-users, the better designed those products or services tend to be: “There is a direct correlation between this exposure and the improvements we see in the designs that team produces.” And this isn’t just for design personnel – as soon as non-design personnel were included in the contact hours, the entire group would fall together. This is as much an argument for audience/customer contact across each functional unit or team across an organisation.

An aside: there’s a wonderful tv series (it’s true! Such things exist!) called Back To The Floor[2] which started in the UK in which, for entertainment purposes (and the occasional tear-jerker), C-level executives are forced to take entry level jobs in their organisations and are bluntly confronted with the humanity of their employees. Because, you know, living in a bubble.

At this point my brain wanders off and looks at the anti-pattern. Capitalism is all too often thought of as being combative and the American strand in particular borrows heavily from sports metaphors (crushing it, home run, left field, sprint). It’s all anyone can do to try and impress that often capitalism doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum game, and that type of thinking feels like it’s at odds with a customer-centric or empathy-driven organisation.

The anti-pattern, of course, is dehumanising your enemies so you can make it easier to kill them. Losing shopkeepers with face-to-face interaction dehumanises customers. Interchangeable call-center workers dehumanise customers. Reducing a customer to a statistic and traffic-light feedback mechanisms. In essence, putting up barriers and abstracting away difficult-to-quantise or measure or digitise measures that seek to make the customer experience more predictable and scaleable.

In some ways, you can get at this empathy intuitively and by having strong direction – if you’re lucky. And by lucky, I mean *really* lucky – you’re the kind of person who’s a one in a million Steve Jobs type, and remember even *he* got it wrong with things like the hocky puck mouse and, well, iTunes, where the strategy was right and the initial user experience (plug in a first gen iPod, FireWire your songs over) was great but then degraded over time with lack of focus. And Jobs, well, Jobs was just making sure that he understood *himself* really well and appeared to be pretty true to that and wouldn’t stand for any shit. So at least you get clarity of vision for products like iPhone or iPad that way.

But for everyone else, and for everyone else, chances are blindingly highly likely that you’re not Steve Jobs, in which case research to understand the audience and the user need is absolutely critical. So the question is: why do hardly any organisations do this?

It’s interesting because for engineers and entrepreneuers the first product is often the “scratch your own itch”, which makes sense, because you understand your own itch and you know exactly where it’s itching and what you might need to un-itch yourself. But when that product or service starts to grow outside of that market or that population, then having the ability to understand the people you’re interacting with becomes super important, I think.

There are ways to mitigate needing to have a super-developed corporate sense of empathy, though. You can use network effects to tie people in social applications, you can use local monopolies like in fixed-line telecommunications, and plain-old regulation of competitors and limited service in air travel. But the flip side of Moore’s Law is that communication and computation has gotten ever cheaper, so all of these organisations got “social”, which the consultants remind us is all about having “conversations”. And the thing about having conversations with an organisation that lacks empathy, or lacks the ability to act upon empathy, is that over time, they end up feeling like a sociopath.

For those of you who have been following along at home, the protracted amount of thinking in this area may or may not have something to do with one of my side projects.

[1] http://www.uie.com/articles/user_exposure_hours/
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Back_to_the_Floor_(UK_TV_series)

2.0 Independence Day

Never mind taking out our satellites and blocking our ability to bounce signals around the world to communicate with each other, here’s what an alien invading force needs to do to cripple us: perform static analysis on all of our code and find all of the bugs thanks to C’s null terminated strings. Every single thing on the planet crashes. The end.


Terminator, but Skynet is written in C and it’s trivial to find an exploit to bring the system down.
Elysium, but the station control software is written in C and it’s trivial to – oh wait.
Star Wars but the Death Star runs on a SCADA implemented in C and it’s trivial to bring the system down.
Star Trek but the Borg base operating system runs on C and you can easily access the sleep subroutine.
The Matrix, but the Machines run on C.


Jurassic Park, bu the park control systems run on C – oh wait.

3.0 Spimes, Duh

It’s rather embarrassing, but @debcha pointed out that what I’d basically described yesterday with the whole Kitchenaid beater rant (for which thank you the people who replied on Twitter saying that this *exact* thing had happened to them, and also to Rachel Coldicutt for saying that she had the opposite experience with Kenwood Chefs) was basically: spimes, duh, which is embarassingly only because I remember being sat in the audience when Bruce Sterling was busy ranting about them at SXSW years ago.

Which makes this *even more frustrating*: it’s one thing to have imagined technology out of grasp ten years ago (smart objects, sure), but another thing to have a pretty complete and utter failure at the user experience of the peripheral experience or “stuff I want to do with the thing I bought, what are those things and how do I do them”. I mean: it’s a fucking mixer. At some point, I might need new or different beaters for it. How hard is it to imagine that someone might want those things and then to act upon that need?

And at this point, I’m not even talking about the six attributes that Wikipedia’s writeup of Sterling’s Spimes posit[1], I’m just talking about stupid simple stuff. What is this. What does it work with. Where do I buy it. This isn’t even cradle-to-the-grave stuff, this is elementary “I’m selling you a machine that is designed to work with other things, can you at least tell me what the other things are.”

Sure, there’s a stupendously complicated version of this which would involve things like giving every object and collection of objects a unique URL, which to be honest doesn’t even have to be that hard, you just have to do it on the manufacturer/sell-side and then “let Amazon figure it out”, I mean I don’t even need to remotely identify objects over short range if I have the receipt for them. Identification is a pretty much solved problem at this point, and a use that most of us can even agree that QR codes or image recognition would be good for. But I suppose what gets me really irritated is that Kitchenaid are selling what we would call an “ecosystem” full of objects and parts that interrelate and work together and they can’t even get that fucking bit right, but at least the marketing worked and we have a cinnamon red mixer in our middle-class kitchen.

And what *really* annoys me about this (I mean, even more), is that the cognitive overhead of all of this crap gets foisted on me, the consumer, who’s too busy to spend time figuring all of this stuff out. Great, I can have an awesome mixing experience, but god forbid if anything related to that mixing experience is awesome too. Now I have to spend all this time figuring out what beaters to get. Actually: maybe I should just buy a Kindle Fire and use MayDay and hold it up to the stuff I bought on Amazon and just plead at the Real Live Human Attractive Red-Haired Woman WHAT BEATERS WILL WORK WITH THIS I JUST WANT TO BUY THEM.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spime

It’s Wednesday and it’s mid-week and I ended the newsletter on a rant so now I’m still angry. Please send me examples of why I shouldn’t be angry, but I bet you can’t, which is why I’m angry in the first place.