Thursday, December 25, 2008

Air Tran's argument clinic

I have recently been flying every other week on several different carriers and have had experiences that leave me flummoxed.

All of the actual flights I took were relatively pleasurable. Yes I know most flying experiences are mildly painful at best... remember I said RELATIVELY.

I flew on AirTran round trip to DFW.

Making the Reservation - Good.
Getting my tickets and seats - Good.
Flying - Good.

Applying my A+ rewards number... not so much.

Given that one of my co-workers made the reservation for me, my rewards number was not attached to the reservation. I talked with the ticketing agent. No dice. I called the 1-800 number. No dice.

Listed below in ascending order are the three things that were really frustrating for me:

1) Poor systems design - any person along the reservation and flight supply chain should be able to serve a passenger in common use cases. This is good multi-channel experience design.

2) Poor understanding of the human mind - who memorizes their A+ rewards number? I already have enough numbers in my brain and companies want to keep tossing more numbers at me when I have no space to keep them in my wallet, or facility to write them down. The only time I have to be on the phone with them is in the car, where I can't write. Good design requires basic understanding of your customer and their lifestyle.

3) Poor customer service philosophy - when I called the 1-800 number, the representative went into detail about why I was wrong to expect him or the ticketing agent to be able to attach my number to my reservation.

I highly doubt that he was trained to argue with customers, and when I asked him why he was arguing with me, I got the proverbial Monty Python response. Here are some responses I would deem as acceptable when my request goes beyond the boundaries of policy or system capability:

a) I'm sorry Mr. Fishman, our systems are not designed to do that.

b) I'm sorry Mr. Fishman, our policies won't allow me to do that.

c) I'm sorry Mr. Fishman, I'm not authorized to do that.

d) I'm sorry Mr. Fishman, I am unable to do that right at this time, however, I could take your information down and call you back when this is done.

e) Any of the above followed by: I'll mention it to my supervisor that I had a problem expediting a customer request.

Here are the two most common responses:

1) I can't do that. <- I hate this one with a passion. Can't means unable. What they actually mean in most of these situations is that my request is against policy or that they are individually are unwilling.

2) You need to call to do that. <- This one raises all the original problems listed above. The very simple and compelling aim is this: One face to the customer.

Separately, I flew Delta this week and while the Sky Cap applied my frequent flyer number (YAY! Woo-Hoo!). The customer service person had to give me another number to call to log a "lost and found" request that left me on hold for 20 minutes before I gave up (BOO! DOH!).

Official Rating:

Most airline's customer service experience design - Crap

Tip your servers well. I'll be here all weekend.

Why I don't love my Nuvi

Now don't get me wrong, I do indeed like my Nuvi. As GPS devices go it is really usable and useful, but there are some simple improvements a good UX designer could have implemented if just a little more effort had been put into the design process.

Without further ado, here is my open letter to Garmin as to how to improve the Nuvi experience:

1) Change the alphabetical ordering of the keypad to QWERTY. This is a no-brainer and needs no explanation.

2) Modify the algorithm and interface for finding fuel, restaurants, etc. to allow the user to filter the results that are on or close to the current route. Picture yourself driving on a road-trip to Albuquerque and wanting to stop for a quick bite to eat or to grab a coffee at Starbucks. Now you passed the last exit 3 miles ago and you're not really into turning around. The current interface always shows the closest first and only allows filtering by restaurant type or name...but not "on the way". C'mon folks, this isn't rocket science UX work here.

That's it. Short and sweet. I do think that they are wasting their time on device unification features like making the Nuvi hold photos and music. This is feature bloat that the device and brand are just not elastic enough to support in my mind.

Anyway, it's rating time:

Nuvi - Like it
Nuvi's design team attention to detail - Garbage

See you dudes on the flip-flop. I'm out.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New Frontiers for our Celebrity Obsessed Culture

Two years back or so I remember seeing some statistic where more than 2/3 of respondents said they would rather be an assistant to a celebrity than a US Senator. I think this really says a lot about loneliness in our society and many people's complete lack of meaningful connections with other people in their everyday lives (along with a complete lack of meaningful connections with intelligent ideas).

Everyone already knows about American's deep obsession with fame. Within the last couple of years, however, a new form of celebrity has emerged - The Internet Celebrity. Crossing over on to the cover of WIRED, or showing up on the Today Show are meat-space nobodies who have what it takes to be cyber-space somebodies.

You may have seen them pop-up every now and then - David Elsewhere, Philip Chbeeb, lonelygirl15. Marina Orlova, the Hot For Words woman, has taken it to a new level. If you have not seen her, she is the hands down favorite of every word-nerd. She has all the bases covered - her own youtube channel, facebook page, twitter following - and her own ecommerce site - all centering around her brief entymological explanations on the most mundane words. She has used her web-based platform to get on the Today show, the O'Reilly factor and several others - and now it is a career for her. What is that career? Selling herself as a brand through her web content (i.e., advertising) and her product (i.e., pin-up calendar).

The concept of web celebrities as a a concept is even crossing over to the mainstream (e.g., Weezer's "Pork & Beans" video at the top of this entry) and the phenomenon is now feeding on itself. Facebook's video posting application has allowed for the faster spread of viral videos and of course allows for shameless self promotion.

Speaking of self promotion... I know I have some guilty pleasure when people comment on my blog and I've just added subscription and "following" links. Part of the enjoyment of writing for me is knowing that people read it and find it interesting. So yes... I have been shamelessly promoting my blog on my facebook page. Will I ever become a web celeb? Probably not. But I'll still keep experimenting with ways to increase my web profile. Why? I guess it's like the lottery, you gotta be in it to win it.

Celebrity Obsession = Garbage
Web Celebs = It is a guilty pleasure, but I have to admit I like it.

You stay classy San Diego.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Improper affordance

For the non UX (User Experience) professionals out there, affordance is a term from "The Design of Everyday Things" by Don Norman, that speaks to concept of how objects in life seem to speak out to people in terms of how they can be used. e.g.,

  • A door with a protruding handle "affords" a pulling action.
  • An image on the web that looks like a button "affords" pushing (i.e., clicking).
  • A baseball "affords" throwing based on it's size, density and shape along with it's cultural context.
So what?

Who cares?

If you have a facebook account, you care. The current facebook interface affords messaging through the "wall" in such a way that messages meant for private consumption are being written in public places. This is exacerbated by the explosion of facebook to the masses, many of whom are unfamiliar with social networking. People are using facebook to stay in touch with extended family and friends and now the mixing of these groups in a "public" context like the "wall" is becoming quite embarrassing for many users.

Think of the posts that could show up from one of your crazy friends that your mom might see:

"yeeeeeeah boy! did u get any action wit that grrl last night? she waz so drunk and totally HOT!"

Think of the posts that your crazy friend might see:

"I do not like the idea of you prowling around for girls at bars! Go meet a nice Jewish girl at temple. And make sure you wear that nice blue suit I bought you. You look so smart! A real Mensch!."

It would be easy to blame the unfamiliar users with not knowing that facebook has private messaging capabilities, but that would be pointing in the wrong direction. The real problem lies in how facebook is revealing its functionality to its user base. Facebook was designed for college students and technorati - not thier grandparents. And thus we come to the big problem facing UX professionals - How do you design an interface that is at once targeted towards people of many demographics and experience levels without moving the design to the "lowest common denominator".

Many designers lose sleep over this and no clear solution has emerged at this point short of designing multiple or adaptive interfaces which are cost prohbitive. Either way, I still love facebook. It's greatness is showing in an odd way - it is a victim of its own success and many users are feeling the mild pain of being embarrassed within their social circles.


Facebook - like it
Facebook wall/message design - garbage

Peace up. A-Town Down.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Design by committee

Ruth's Chris Steak House?

Lettuce Souprise You?

WTF! What is a "Chris Steak House"? I would say this about the worst choice I have seen for a restaurant name except I have a hard time picking between "Ruth's Horribly Named Restaurant" and "Lettuce Surprise You With A Really Bad Pun". One of my wierd eccentricities, I will refrain from patronizing establishements that have made bad marketing decisions for that reason alone.

Actually these do not surprise me. Why not? One big reason... Steve Jobs aside, taste does not often correlate with power. Many executives, managers, owners, directors etc. have great vision while at the same time, have little to no aesthetic taste or ability to remove themselves from their own shoes in perceiving their vision. This realizes itself when project owners, sponsors and their bosses give "creative feedback" in the only way they can. A bad way. "It needs to POP more", "I love Apple's taste for design. Make it like that with MORE!", "Be MORE creative!" All of these exact quotes belie the same actual lack of a clear vocabulary and understanding of design and are the result of a desire to imbue a design with their fingerprints so they can feel they were a part of the design process without any actual aesthetic motivation.

One of my favorite illustrations of this sort of behavior is...

props to Danny Elfman - composer for the music, originally from one of the modern movie masterpieces... "Pee Wee's Big Adventure".

One of my smartest friends once told me - when you take two great visions and mix them together sometimes all you get is a watered down version of both that actually appeals to no-one. Someday I hope to run into a sponsor who can own the vision and be confident enough in their own contribution to let designers do their job


Business Executives making design decisions - Crap
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure - Like it.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What is a facebook friend anyway?

So I have been using linkedin for professional relationships and facebook for personal ones and I am very comfortable with that. But I have recently been bombarded by friend requests from people with whom I have no interest in re-connecting with or personally connecting with. Maybe I'm kind of whacked (well, I actually already know that I am whacked, but that is more like a chapter in a book than a blog post), but I do not want to have the entire world as "facebook friends". In fact, I almost long to have some new sections:
  • facebook enemies - for people who have invited me and I want to ignore with extreme predjudice
  • facebook acquaintances - for people who I might meet once or twice but they are not really friends yet
  • facebook co-workers - for people with whom I have a professional relationship with but am not really comfortable with them having full access to my profile
What's more unusual to me is that I am not a private guy. I really don't care who knows what about my status and infomation. I just don't like calling them "friends". Am I so crazy in that I don't like the label "friends" for people whom I am not "friends" with? Doesn't this devalue the people whom I am friends with? Does the facebook modifier actually have an effect on the meaning of the term? Facebook is still too new for me to know.


Facebook - Like it. It really has set a new standard in terms of a killer RIA.

People who want to be "friends" with everybody - Garbage