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IxDA F2F: Inputs, process and outputs in interaction design April 8, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Hong Kong, IxDA, Strategy, Tools, Usability.
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I have been a bad blogger! I started this post more than a week ago, and I only post it now… mea culpa!

Last week (two weeks ago now) we had another meeting with fellow IxDA members. This time we tried to set up a discussion instead of just socializing randomly and it seems that it went pretty well. We split the 8 people we had in two groups and chatted for a bit. The idea of the discussion was to cover the inputs, the process and the outputs that we use in our current design-related jobs.

While the first group of 4 people focused on specifics about the processes and the deliverables used, in the group I moderated we spent most of our time exchanging stories and discussing the environment and culture in which we work here in Hong Kong.

I especially like to discuss the Hong Kong user experience environment, because we are all struggling to get people to recognize our work here. Most stories practitioners exchange are about how difficult it is to get their manager or client understand the point of interaction design or usability. So the question is: “Is there any secret weapon to be successful in such an environment?”. Well, we are all still trying to figure it out, but let me try to summarize a few points:

Cultural Differences

The first very important criteria is culture. If you are working in a very “local” (meaning Chinese I guess) company, you will have a hard time. “Local” companies have a very top-down approach to work where subordinates do not ask questions, they execute. In this environment, designing interactions, which require developing a good understanding of users and business goals, is very difficult. A tip that some of the people in the discussion raised is to play on the lack of understanding of the people around you. Lack of understanding usually creates greater freedom; so just do your job as much as possible the way you think it should be done, choose your own deliverables and focus on showing the value of your work. Do not go head on fighting against corporate culture.

Take the Time to Educate

If your company has already some understanding of the issues, then continue to educate people around you. Involve them in decision-making. Make them feel like they are making decisions themselves based on your deliverables and inputs. Work on clear deliverables that other teams can use. Education is a very slow process and can be frustrating, but it can lead to great results and get people to really see the value of interaction design or usability. Integrating your deliverables in decision making is key there… after a while other teams will request for your deliverable to make decisions.

Be ready to become the “problem solver”

Starting to ask questions is dangerous. In some cases, once other people identify you as the critical mind of the company, everything will get thrown at you. Whenever a tricky decision has to be made, you will be requested to help. You will become the person who “thinks about stuff”. Be ready to take on that role for a while at least and face the consequences. Don’t forget along the way to protect yourself and involve others in decision making… or you will not last long.

Networking

Networking in critical in all areas of business and it is even more so in Asia. A good network within or outside an organization will greatly help. Most business deals here are made with people who “trust” each others, meaning have a personal relationship. Focus on keeping good relationship will make your work easier (and harder at the same time, see paragraph above).

Anyway. The conclusion is that there is no silver bullet to solve the usability/interaction design/user experience situation in Hong Kong. From the discussion we had, corporate culture is the main factor affecting all this. As long as companies do not care much about their customers and bosses are only interested in having their ideas implemented (regardless of business sense), interaction design will not flourish fully. Let’s hope the corporate climate continues to evolve in the right direction…

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Follow-up on user-generated content… March 20, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Advertising, Newsweek, Strategy, Trends.
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Here is an article from Wharton “The Experts vs. the Amateurs” that is related to the article I posted about from Newsweek: “Revenge of the Experts” (my post here).

Despite its title, I think the most important issue raised in this latest article is the one about business models. With the “everything is free” idea going on (thank you Wired) everybody is running around trying to come up with an “hybrid business model”. Indeed, current free models offered by formerly paid publications are not sustainable as they don’t generate enough to cover for the loss of subscription money. So, is there an hybrid free business model? … I tend to think there is none. If you want quality, reviewed, edited content, … well it makes sense you have to pay for it somehow. And there is only so much advertising money can cover.

The big problem is that the line between Expert and Amateur content is very blurry as the article states, so it makes matters worse. What makes it even worse is that as human beings we are really bad at reacting to a situation until there is a big crisis. So, as long as old-fashioned professional publications survive, we won’t realize that we actually want to pay for quality content. Personally, I do a lot of consulting work, and I am happy people are actually willing to pay money for my work, instead of having to watch a 5 minute advertising video before every meeting they have with me. I can imagine it is the same for a reporter or an editor. My feeling is that paid publications will come back in the end… I can’t help but think that the whole “free” thing will quite quickly disappear… not that I am an expert on the issue in any way, just a thought.   :o)

Steve Portigal’s Interactions column: Persona Non Grata January 16, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Ethnographic Research, Strategy, Tools, Trends.
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Request a copy of Portigal Consulting new column: Persona Non Grata (link to ACM Interactions Publication). Check out their blog to see how.

A really good article on Personas… It is well written, entertaining and to the point; i.e. Personas are misused in most cases and a tool meant to “help companies actually get closer to their REAL customers” has been transformed into a tool used to “be perceived as close to real customers”.

Should personas be dumped altogether or should researchers educate marketing and design people about how to use them to actually make a difference in the product lifecycle (instead of just being as a marketing tool). I am for education… but how long will that process be?

Online World vs. Real World – An Increasingly Blurry Line January 14, 2008

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Innovation, Strategy, Trends, User Experience.
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A great article featured on Experientia’s Putting People First: “Technology and the World of Consumption” from the blog apophenia. The article is interesting already and the discussion below is even more.

“her daughter moved seamlessly between the digital and physical worlds to consume”

The whole idea can be summarized by the quote on the right. Up until now, the real and the online worlds have been considered as entirely separate, selling different products and services, and addressing the needs of different customers. But more and more these differences are disappearing. With the new generation growing accustomed to the online world, the distinction is less and less relevant. Consumers are learning how to adapt their shopping behavior to optimize their experience regardless of how retailers are thinking and planning their offering.

Thus behaviors like searching online and buying in the real world, or the reverse – searching in the real world and buying online – becoming common place. This transition is far from an easy one. If we look at the services industry for example, banks have been struggling for a long time to move their customer from branches to the ATM and then online. Only now are they seeing younger customers using cheaper channels. In the case of the banks, cost has been driving the transition and helped companies doing the necessary changes pro-actively (even before customers actually wanted those changes).

But what about retail? The cost component and the complementary of both worlds is not self-apparent. That could explain why companies are slower to react. But react they will have to. Both real and online worlds have their place. They both address different kinds of needs, but surely both will have to adapt to the changing habits of consumers. Personally I see this as one of the most interesting potential for innovation and changes in customer experience.

Changing the advertising experience? December 7, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Advertising, BusinessWeek, Customer Experience, Innovation, Japan, Strategy, Web 2.0.
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BusinessWeek published an article entitled “In Japan, bloggers get to pick their ads” on December 5th 2007 about a new ad network aimed at bloggers called AdButterfly (website in Japanese). Advertising arguably creates one of the worse experience not only for online users, but for people in general. However it is done, advertising is most of the time perceived as intrusive.

I guess we could categorize the reactions to that fact into two. The reaction that seems the most common around the World and especially here in China is to consider that a negative experience with advertising is a given and cannot be changed. If that cannot be impacted on, the important objective for advertisers is to be seen and hope that will create brand awareness (or unintended clicks that would result is a purchase maybe?). If the user is in some ways “forced” to see the ad, the advertiser (or should we blame this on media placement companies?) is happy.  The growing focus on ad clicks only solves part of the problem. Indeed only some advertising campaigns can be measured in terms of clicks, while others are just supposed to raise awareness, or create brand associations. And because of the focus on clicks, the websites where the ad is displayed have an incentive to have flying ads all around, hoping users may click by mistake.

We can definitely put the new venture in Japan mentioned above in the second category. On AdButterfly, although I am not sure about the details, bloggers will be choosing which ad campaigns and brands to associate with. With bloggers endorsing the ad, it is thought that the experience created by the ad will be much more positive. It is very probably true. If I read a blog and I know the ads there have been selected by that person, I would certainly (even though maybe unconsciously) pay more attention to them.

What about the advertisers’ side of the story? Potentially companies with great brand equity can greatly benefit from such a platform. But companies with lower brand equity may be totally blocked from getting access to the network by users. A pretty scary thought for the advertiser who is so conscious about keeping the brand image under control. Scary yes, but maybe a good thing. If people’s experiences with ads can become more positive, everybody is bound to benefit from that. In any case, AdButterfly is a great experiment! I wish I could read Japanese and try the service…

Social Networking: The growth dilemma… November 25, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Customer Experience, Hong Kong, Social Networking, Strategy, Trends, Web 2.0.
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I recently did some work for a mobile social networking start-up here in Hong Kong helping them with their interface and their user experience in general. Although my focus was on the interface (and the project very short as usual) we happened to talk quite a bit about strategy. In fact, I always find it hard to focus on user experience and user interface without poking my nose into the overall strategy behind them (I’d like to spend more time on that, but it is not the point of this post… maybe for a later one).

Anyway, it seems to me that there is a tough dilemma when building a social network. The problem is that the number of users and the amount of interactions going on in the network is everything. Indeed for most social networks (excluding a few business-related or referral-based ones), the networks do not have a clear revenue model. As everything is advertising-based the indicators to get funding and be recognized in the industry are basically number of users and page views. Unfortunately, these indicators in some cases go against user goals and go against the long term survival of the network.

We are now all used to this. We grow a social network and at first all is going well. We have our close friends there and we are having fun exchanging news, pictures, videos, etc. However after a while, our network grows, previous friends, former colleagues, people we actually met via our social network gets added and all goes out of control. Indeed the whole concept is based on encouraging users to “make” more friends. Games are put in place to push them to add people to their network, and simply when somebody asks sombody to be his or her friend it is really hard to say no. It feels like a no return kind of decision. Even though we might never meet the person in real, we just cannot say no to people that easily. And once they are added to our network, we have little control over what they do with their access to our information, thus the beginning of the end and often users drop-out from the network.

Although it means taking more time to grow the network it seems to me that social networks should learn from real life more. Instead of just facing a “friend” or “not friend” situation, users should be able to grow relationships slower and keeping them under their control without feeling like they are making others feel bad (or having themselves the perception that they could make the other person feel bad). It works in this way in the real world. When we meet somebody for the first time, we do not usually invite them home to look at our family pictures or read our private diary. It is just normal that relationships take time to build. It should be the same online. It is of great convenience to be able to exchange information with friends online, but users should not pay the price of this by losing their right to privacy… and if social networks do not realize this, they will all sooner or later face the fact that when the hype is gone, people will choose privacy over convenience.

With all this said, the problem still remains. In a short term focus world like the one we live in, we demand quick results and a slow growing network just does not make sense… or does it?

Cyberslacking… problem or not?! September 12, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Human Resources, Innovation, Social Networking, Strategy.
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An article in the South China Morning Post last Saturday, September 8th 2007, discussed cyberslacking, or how people waste time in the office by going online. Although the word cyberslacking has in itself a negative connotation, the article argues that not all kind of cyberslacking is armful to companies. For example, if people can perform online transactions or activities that would normally require them to extend their lunch hours to complete, then it could be good… yes, but at the same time, if they can do it online, they could do it from home as well, no?

SCMP Article title

Anyway, the author provides quite a number of examples of how employees can spend time online to explore new horizons or just “waste” their time. A 10-point list is provided:

Slacking is nothing new I guess. Before the Internet, people would be wasting their time in the office as well. In France we had the “ten coffee breaks a day” rule (I may exaggerate a bit here). It is impossible to ask an employee to be 100% of the time working in the office. Nobody can do that, and it is even harmful. Our brains just can’t handle non-stop working. I’d say that working 80% of the time is not bad already…

It seems to be that the most important part in the word cyberslacking, is “cyber”. Not that cyberslacking is hard to resist, as the whole world is opened up to you, like the SCMP article mentioned above argues, but “cyber”, as having no contact with real people! Slacking or coffee breaks before were opportunities to chat informally with other employees, thus getting to know co-workers, building a team spirit. However cyberslacking is one person with his or her computer screen well hidden from others.

In that respect, it seems to me that intranets or corporate social networking could be a solution to that. The corporate culture has to be right of course, but if the Internet can be used to make employees interact more among themselves, then cyberslacking could be a powerful tool. Could we call that “social cyberslacking”? But then there is the danger of falling into the Facebook trap, where it is so easy to waste entire hours with no purpose even though you come into contact with other people.

Once again the answer to better efficiency is like in all the business books we can read. You just have to hire great people, have a great corporate culture, assign challenging jobs, and do all that happily… That’s easy, no?

BusinessWeek: Why “Good Enough” Is Good Enough August 27, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in BusinessWeek, Strategy, Trends.
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This is a reply to the commentary made on BusinessWeek entitled: Why “Good Enough” Is Good Enough.

In this short articles the author defends that imperfect technologies and unreliabilities can spur innovation. Two examples are included to support the point. The first is Skype, a service that change the telephony industry, but went off-line for two days in August showing its potential unreliability. The second example is Google, which uses old computer to keep users’ data; old computers that “die” all the time and need back-up.

I think the expression “Good Enough” is very dangerous here. To me the two example cited are totally different in nature. Skype outage is a disruption of service and is not acceptable from a customer’s point of view. Google’s use of old computer is an innovative solution that allows it to save money, while not interfering with customers’ experience. In the first case, it is true that Skype delivers a good service and brings value, but this does not excuse the fact that they went dark for two days. Service reliability is key, especially when you target business users, who cannot afford to use unreliable phone services.

As basic customer experience states, each element of the customer experience “multiplies” itself with the next (“Clued In” from Lewis Carbone). The result is that if one element delivers a bad experience (equals to zero), then the whole experience is negative. Customers should not be forced to live with below average reliability only because a company delivers an added-value service.

We all know that perfection does not exist, but aiming for it, will always help delivering better experience, products or services. And as these solutions will not be perfect, then there will still be innovation opportunities. Imagine a product development manager telling his team, now please design me a “Good Enough” product… Would that make sense? Would that motivate people? What would be the end result? Surely the end result would be a “Not Good Enough” product.

My take on this… just ban the “Good Enough” expression. If we look at China right now. For quite a few years, Chinese people have been encouraged to design and produce “Good Enough” products; “Good Enough” to be sold cheap. And now we realize that the standards of these products are… well, “Not Good Enough”, as they are unsafe, can explode, can poison people, etc. Still, these products are sold all over the world. Are they “Good Enough” because they deliver value (being cheaper)?

Personally, I don’t want to live in a “Good Enough” world. I prefer to live in a “Aiming for Perfection” world, even though it is clear that perfection does not exist and that aiming for it not easy.

Few Links: Social Networking August 22, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Innovation, Strategy.
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Social networking is the next big thing… or is it?

Below are few links that discuss the present and future of social networking on the Web. Is the future an umbrella network that allows you to connect to multiple sites? Is the future corporate networks? Is there no future at all? Or are we just reinventing “new” tools with the same ingredients? The links below won’t give you any answers… but still interesting to read:

  • Do You Want One Social Networking Profile to Rule Them All? – Web Worker Daily (August 20th 2007)
  • Corporate Social Networking Startups Attract VC Funding – Information Week (August 21st 2007)
  • The Internet’s new Dr. Spock? – CNET (August 17th 2007)
  • Facebook surfers cost their bosses billions – Reuters (August 20th 2007)

The answer may very well be that social networking is in its infancy and that we have no idea were it is going to go. In the end… it will all depends on who can generate real bucks. In the meantime, I will go back playing games on Facebook, or am I supposed to do networking there?!

Too many shopping malls?… NEVER!! August 17, 2007

Posted by psychobserver in Cultural Differences, Hong Kong, Strategy.
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Mega Box Shopping MallHong Kong is a shopping paradise. Usually when people visit the place for the first time, they are amazed by the number of people in the streets and the fact that … they are all shopping, regardless of the time of the day, or night. If we follow European standard, Hong Kong would be considered overloaded with shops and shopping malls already, but not quite in Asian standards if we look at the newest addition to Hong Kong long list of shopping malls.

The newest shopping mall is called Mega Box (see picture). It is a massive 19 floors complex with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and an ice skating ring. The strange particularity of this shopping mall is its location. It is not in one of those trendy areas of the city. It is located in Kowloon Bay, an area more famous for old factory buildings than fashionable shopping.

The problem for the shopping mall is not only the district, but its location far away from the MTR (HK Metro) station as well, that makes its access quite troublesome. It took me around 15 minutes by foot to reach the mall from the MTR station. I also got lost on the way. Indeed, although the mall is easy to spot from the other side of the harbor, within Kowloon Bay it is rather hard to locate.

Taken this difficulty into account, the shopping mall has positioned itself as a specialty mall, offering solutions and products for home improvement. The highlight is a huge B&Q store (first in Hong Kong) that even though I am not a manual type of person, made me dream of adding a few items to my home.

Still, I felt as if the concept had been taken only half-way. Although the mall has two huge home improvement stores, we don’t find many smaller outlets in the same category. The rest of the shopping mall offers similar options as other shopping malls, but less varied as much space is taken by these two home improvement stores. The mall also includes a NOVO concept store that is targeted towards young and fashion-conscious consumers. Although the shop is interesting, I wonder if its location in Kowloon Bay is logical. I don’t think one store will be enough to attract large crowds of these consumers that usually walk the streets of Mong Kok or Causeway Bay.

Finally, one major problem I found is the entrance of the shopping mall. As the mall is away from the MTR station it seems that the designers catered exclusively for people arriving by car, taxi or bus. The result is a very unwelcoming feeling when crossing by foot several car lanes before reaching the mall doors.

Enough criticism here. Mega Box is still a very impressive complex that I guess has to be visited at least once. To me, Langham Place in Mong Kok will still remain my favorite hanging out place (among shopping malls), although I almost never bought anything there apart from coffees…

Small addition: A short analysis regarding the competitiveness of the shopping malls in this area of Hong Kong.