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I lead Force Five Partners, a marketing analytics consulting firm (bio). I've been writing here about marketing, technology, e-business, and analytics since 2003 (blog name explained).

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16 posts categorized "usability"

October 13, 2013

Unpacking Healthcare.gov

So healthcare.gov launched, with problems.  I'm trying to understand why, so I can apply some lessons in my professional life.  Here are some ideas.

First, I think it helps to define some levels of the problem.  I can think of four:

1. Strategic / policy level -- what challenges do the goals we set create?  In this case, the objective, basically, is two-fold: first; reduce the costs of late-stage, high-cost uncompensated care by enrolling the people who ultimately use that (middle-aged poor folks and other unfortunates) in health insurance that will get them care earlier and reduce stress / improve outcomes (for them and for society) later; second; reduce the cost of this insurance through exchanges that drive competition.  So, basically, bring a bunch of folks from, in many cases, the wrong side of the Digital Divide, and expose them to a bunch of eligibility- and choice-driven complexity (proof:  need for "Navigators"). Hmm.  (Cue the folks who say that's why we need a simple single-payor model, but the obvious response would be that it simply wasn't politically feasible.  We need to play the cards we're dealt.)

2. Experience level -- In light of that need, let's examine what the government did do for each of the "Attract / Engage / Convert / Retain" phases of a Caveman User Experience.  It did promote ACA -- arguably insufficiently or not creatively enough to distinguish itself from opposing signal levels it should have anticipated (one take here).  But more problematically, from what I can tell, the program skips "Engage" and emphasizes "Convert": Healthcare.gov immediately asks you to "Apply Now" (see screenshot below, where "Apply Now" is prominently  featured over "Learn More", even on the "Learn" tab of the site). This is technically problematic (see #3 below), but also experientially lots to ask for when you don't yet know what's behind the curtain. 

Healthcaregov
3. Technical level -- Excellent piece in Washington Post by Timothy B. Lee. Basically, the system tries to do an eligibility check (for participation and subsidies) before sending you on to enrollment.  Doing this requires checking a bunch of other government systems.  The flowchart explains very clearly why this could be problematic.  There are some front end problems as well, described in rawest form by some of the chatter on Reddit, but from what I've seen these are more superficial, a function of poor process / time management, and fixable.

4. Organizational level -- Great article here in Slate by David Auerbach. Basically, poor coordination structure and execution by HHS of the front and back ends.

Second, here are some things HHS might do differently:

1. Strategic level: Sounds like some segmentation of the potential user base would have suggested a much greater investment in explanation / education, in advance of registration.  Since any responsible design effort starts with users and use cases, I'm sure they did this.  But what came out the other end doesn't seem to reflect that.  What bureaucratic or political considerations got in the way, and what can be revisited, to improve the result? Or, instead of allowing political hacks to infiltrate and dominate the ranks of engineers trying to design a service that works, why not embed competent technologists, perhaps drawn from the ranks of Chief Digital Officers, into the senior political ranks, to advise them on how to get things right online?

2. Experience level: Perhaps the first couple of levels of experience on healthcare.gov should have been explanatory?  "Here's what to expect, here's how this works..." Maybe video (could have used YouTube!)? Maybe also ask a couple of quick anonymous questions to determine whether the eligibility / subsidy check would be relevant, to spare the load on that engine, before seeing what plans might be available, at what price?  You could always re-ask / confirm that data later once the user's past the shopping /evaluation stage, before formally enrolling them into a plan.  In ecommerce, we don't ask untargeted shoppers to enter discount codes until they're about to check out, right?

Or, why not pre-process and cache the answer to the eligibility question the system currently tries to calculate on the fly?  After all, the government already has all our social security numbers and green card numbers, and our tax returns.  So by the time any of us go to the site, it could have pre-determined the size of any potential subsidy, if any, we'd be eligible for, and it could have used this *estimated* subsidy to calculate a *projected* premium we might pay.  We'd need a little registration / security, maybe "enter your last name and social security number, and if they match we'll tell you your estimated subsidy". (I suppose returning a subsidy answer would confirm for a crook who knows my last name that he had my correct SSN, but maybe we could prevent the brute force querying this requires with CAPTCHA. Security friends, please advise.  Naturally, I'd make sure the pre-chached lookup file stays server-side, and isn't exposed as an array in a client-side Javascript snippet!)

3. I see from viewing the page source they have Google Tag Manager running, so perhaps they also have Google Analytics running too, alongside whatever other things...  Since they've open-sourced the front end code and their content on Github, maybe they could also share what they're learning via GA, so we could evaluate ideas for improving the site in the context of that data?

4. It appears they are using Optimizely to test/ optimize their pages (javascript from page source here).  While the nice pictures with people smiling may be optimal, There's plenty of research that suggests that by pushing much of the links to site content below the fold, and forcing us to scroll to see it, they might be burying the very resources the "experience perspective" I've described suggests they need to highlight.  So maybe this layout is in fact what maximizes the results they're looking for -- pressing the "Apply Now" button -- but maybe that's the wrong question to be asking!

Postscript, November 1:

Food for thought (scroll to bottom).  How does this happen?  Software engineer friends, please weigh in!

 

May 10, 2013

Book Review: Converge by @rwlord and @rvelez #convergebook

I just finished reading Converge, the new book on integrating technology, creativity, and media by Razorfish CEO Bob Lord and his colleague Ray Velez, the firm’s CTO.  (Full disclosure: I’ve known Bob as a colleague, former boss, and friend for more than twenty years and I’m a proud Razorfish alum from a decade ago.)

Reflecting on the book I’m reminded of the novelist William Gibson’s famous comment in a 2003 Economist interview that “The future’s already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”  In this case, the near-perfect perch that two already-smart guys have on the Digital Revolution and its impact on global brands has provided them a view of a new reality most of the rest of us perceive only dimly.

So what is this emerging reality?  Somewhere along the line in my business education I heard the phrase, “A brand is a promise.”  Bob and Ray now say, “The brand is a service.”  In virtually all businesses that touch end consumers, and extending well into relevant supply chains, information technology has now made it possible to turn what used to be communication media into elements of the actual fulfillment of whatever product or service the firm provides.  

One example they point to is Tesco’s virtual store format, in which images of stocked store shelves are projected on the wall of, say, a train station, and commuters can snap the QR codes on the yogurt or quarts of milk displayed and have their order delivered to their homes by the time they arrive there: Tesco’s turned the billboard into your cupboard.  Another example they cite is Audi City, the Kinnect-powered configurator experience through which you can explore and order the Audi of your dreams.  As the authors say, “marketing is commerce, and commerce is marketing.”

But Bob and Ray don’t just describe, they also prescribe.  I’ll leave you to read the specific suggestions, which aren’t necessarily new.  What is fresh here is the compelling case they make for them; for example, their point-by-point case for leveraging the public cloud is very persuasive, even for the most security-conscious CIO.  Also useful is their summary of the Agile method, and of how they’ve applied it for their clients.

Looking more deeply, the book isn’t just another surf on the zeitgeist, but is theoretically well-grounded.  At one point early on, they say, “The villain in this book is the silo.”  On reading this (nicely turned phrase), I was reminded of the “experience curve” business strategy concept I learned at Bain & Company many years ago.  The experience curve, based on the idea that the more you make and sell of something, the better you (should) get at it, describes a fairly predictable mathematical relationship between experience and cost, and therefore between relative market share and profit margins.  One of the ways you can maximize experience is through functional specialization, which of course has the side effect of encouraging the development of organizational silos.  A hidden assumption in this strategy is that customer needs and associated attention spans stay pinned down and stable long enough to achieve experience-driven profitable ways to serve them.  But in today’s super-fragmented, hyper-connected, kaleidoscopic marketplace, this assumption breaks down, and the way to compete shifts from capturing experience through specialization, to generating experience “at-bats” through speedy iteration, innovation, and execution.  And this latter competitive mode relies more on the kind of cross-disciplinary integration that Bob and Ray describe so richly.

The book is a quick, engaging read, full of good stories drawn from their extensive experiences with blue-chip brands and interesting upstarts, and with some useful bits of historical analysis that frame their arguments well (in particular, I Iiked their exposition of the television upfront).  But maybe the best thing I can say about it is that it encouraged me to push harder and faster to stay in front of the future that’s already here.  Or, as a friend says, “We gotta get with the ‘90’s, they’re almost over!”

(See this review and buy the book on Amazon.com)


July 16, 2012

Congratulations @marissamayer on your new #Yahoo gig. Now what? Some ideas

Paul Simon wrote, "Every generation throws a hero at the pop charts."  Now it's Marissa Mayer's turn to try to make Yahoo!'s chart pop.  This will be hard because few tech companies are able to sustain value creation much past their IPOs.  

What strategic path for Yahoo! satisfies the following important requirements?

  • Solves a keenly felt customer / user / audience / human problem?
  • Fits within but doesn't totally overlap what other competitors provide?
  • Builds off things Yahoo! has / does well?
  • Fits Ms. Mayer's experiences, so she's playing from a position of strength and confidence?
  • As a consequence of all this, will bring advertisers back at premium prices?

Yahoo!'s company profile is a little buzzwordy but offers a potential point of departure.  What Yahoo! says:

"Our vision is to deliver your world, your way. We do that by using technology, insights, and intuition to create deeply personal digital experiences that keep more than half a billion people connected to what matters the most to them – across devices, on every continent, in more than 30 languages. And we connect advertisers to the consumers who matter to them most – the ones who will build their businesses – through our unique combination of Science + Art + Scale."

What Cesar infers:

Yahoo! is a filter.

Here are some big things the Internet helps us do:

  • Find
  • Connect
  • Share
  • Shop
  • Work
  • Learn
  • Argue
  • Relax
  • Filter

Every one of these functions has an 800 lb. gorilla, and a few aspirants, attached to it:

  • Find -- Google
  • Connect -- Facebook, LinkedIn
  • Share -- Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo!/Flickr (well, for the moment...)
  • Shop -- Amazon, eBay
  • Work -- Microsoft, Google, GitHub
  • Learn -- Wikipedia, Khan Academy
  • Argue -- Wordpress, Typepad, [insert major MSM digital presence here]
  • Relax -- Netflix, Hulu, Pandora, Spotify
  • Filter -- ...

Um, filter...  Filter.   There's a flood of information out there.  Who's doing a great job of filtering it for me?  Google alerts?  Useful but very crude.  Twitter?  I browse my followings for nuggets, but sometimes these are hard to parse from the droppings.  Facebook?  Sorry friends, but my inner sociopath complains it has to work too hard to sift the news I can use from the River of Life.

Filtering is still a tough, unsolved problem, arguably the problem of the age (or at least it was last year when I said so).  The best tool I've found for helping me build filters is Yahoo! Pipes.  (Example)

As far as I can tell, Pipes has remained this slightly wonky tool in Yahoo's bazaar suite of products.  Nerds like me get a lot of leverage from the service, but it's a bit hard to explain the concept, and the semi-programmatic interface is powerful but definitely not for the general public.

Now, what if Yahoo! were to embrace filtering as its core proposition, and build off the Pipes idea and experience under the guidance of Google's own UI guru -- the very same Ms. Mayer, hopefully applying the lessons of iGoogle's rise and fall -- to make it possible for its users to filter their worlds more effectively?  If you think about it, there are various services out there that tackle individual aspects of the filtering challenge: professional (e.g. NY Times, Vogue, Car and Driver), social (Facebook, subReddits), tribal (online communities extending from often offline affinities), algorithmic (Amazon-style collaborative filtering), sponsored (e.g., coupon sites).  No one is doing a good job of pulling these all together and allowing me to tailor their spews to my life.  Right now it's up to me to follow Gina Trapani's Lifehacker suggestion, which is to use Pipes.

OK so let's review:

  • Valuable unsolved problem for customers / users: check.
  • Fragmented, undominated competitive space: check.
  • Yahoo! has credibly assets / experience: check.
  • Marissa Mayer plays from position of strength and experience: check.
  • Advertisers willing to pay premium prices, in droves: ...

Well, let's look at this a bit.  I'd argue that a good filter is effectively a "passive search engine".  Basically through the filters people construct -- effectively "stored searches" -- they tell you what it is they are really interested in, and in what context and time they want it.  With cookie-based targeting under pressure on multiple fronts, advertisers will be looking for impression inventories that provide search-like value propositions without the tracking headaches.  Whoever can do this well could make major bank from advertisers looking for an alternative to the online ad biz Hydra (aka Google, Facebook, Apple, plus assorted minor others).

Savvy advertisers and publishers will pooh-pooh the idea that individual Pipemakers would be numerous enough or consistent enough on their own to provide the reach that is the reason Yahoo! is still in business.  But I think there's lots of ways around this.  For one, there's already plenty of precedent at other media companies for suggesting proto-Pipes -- usually called "channels", Yahoo! calls them "sites" (example), and they have RSS feeds.  Portals like Yahoo!, major media like the NYT, and universities like Harvard suggest categories, offer pre-packaged RSS feeds, and even give you the ability to roll your own feed out of their content.  The problem is that it's still marketed as RSS, which even in this day and age is still a bit beyond for most folks.  But if you find a more user-friendly way to "clone and extend" suggested Pipes, friends' Pipes, sponsored Pipes, etc., you've got a start.

Check?  Lots of hand-waving, I know.  But what's true is that Yahoo! has suffered from a loss of a clear identity.  And the path to re-growing its value starts with fixing that problem.

Good luck Marissa!

 

 

 

February 02, 2012

Please Help Me Get Listed On The #Google #Currents Catalog. And Please ReTweet!

Hi folks, I need a favor.  I need 200 subscribers to this blog via Google Currents to get Octavianworld listed in the Currents catalog.  If you're reading this on an iPhone, iPad, or Android device, follow this link:

http://www.google.com/producer/editions/CAow75wQ/octavianworld

If you are looking at this on a PC, just snap this QR code with your iPhone or Android phone after getting the Currents app.

 

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Here's what I look like on Currents:

 

Photo

 

 

What is Currents?  If you've used Flipboard or Zite, this is Google's entry. If you've used an RSS reader, but haven't used any of these yet, you're probably a nerdy holdout (it takes one to know one).  If you've used none of these, and have no idea what I'm talking about, apps like these help folks like me (and big media firms too) publish online magazines that make screen-scrollable content page-flippable and still-clickable.  Yet another distribution channel to help reach new audiences.  

Thank you!

February 16, 2011

#Watson Wins #Jeopardy! The Singularity Is Near(er): Are You Ready for Computational Engine Optimization ("CEO")?

Saw the news (though missed the show) that IBM's Watson won on Jeopardy.  Interesting to see this and other articles call out Watson's "stumble" -- as though they expected perfection, which is a milestone in itself.  Here's a great explanation of "what went wrong"

There are two notable things to me about this development / achievement.

The first is to ask whether this puts us ahead or behind Ray Kurzweil's schedule for 2019 (as predicted in 1999).  (Really worth reading his predictions, since we're within shouting distance!  What would you "keep / change / drop / add"?)  

The second is a little closer in.   Given the pace of this development, what does it mean for us as humans / users / consumers / citizens on the one hand, and as marketers / investors, etc. on the other -- from "now" to, say, "two years out"?

Imagine for example that in two years, IBM provides access to a more generalized form of Watson as a cloud-based API.   What might you, as a person or as a business or other organization, do with a service that can understand speech, parse meanings, and optimize spending and investment recommendations based on how sure it is of the answer?

Cesar: "Watson, our lease is up soon, can you suggest some available space options nearby that would make sense for a business like Force Five Partners?"

Watson: "Cesar, here are five choices, with suggestions for what you should be paying for each, based on what I can find out right now..."

A stretch?  Apple's integrated Wolfram Alpha - based support into the Siri app for the iPhone now.  Try asking Siri, out loud: "What is the market capitalization of Goldman Sachs, divided by the US population?"   Answer back to me, in three seconds (iPhone 3GS / AT&T):

Photo

(Cross-check: Wolfram Alpha direct. Or,  GS on Google Finance / US Population on Google Search.)

 (FWIW, this hits 3 of 4 criteria in a prediction framework I suggested nearly six years ago.)

Wow.  We had barely figured out SEO, when we got slammed with SNO -- Social Network Optimization (as well as the frozen kind)!  Now we have to figure out Computational Engine Optimization?  (Confusingly, natch, "CEO" -- you read it here first!)  How do I optimize for "What inexpensive steakhouses are nearby?"   How do we even think about that?  

(Possible direction: Semantic Web Optimization -- "SWO", of course.  Make sure you are well tagged-for, and indexed-by, the data stores and services where the terms "inexpensive", "steakhouse", and "nearby" would be judged.  Or, in plain English: if Wolfram Alpha looks to Yelp to help answer this question, make sure your restaurant's entry there is labeled as a steakhouse, has an accurate address, and is accurately price-rated as "$".  Whatever gaming ensues,  just don't blame IBM / Apple / Wolfram /(Google too) for going for the mega-cheddar.)

It's trite to say that change is accelerating as technology develops.  ("We're only in the second inning!")  Some dismiss this (as Arthur C. Clarke said, we always overestimate the impact of technology in the short term, but underestimate it in the long term).  But, if you doubt, this chart is worth a look.  And then think about the degree to which "social" and "mobile" are now reinforcing, amplifying, and accelerating each other...

(Insert shameless commercial:) What are you doing to help your organization keep up? 

 

January 06, 2011

#Google Search and The Limits of #Location

I broke my own rule earlier today and twitched (that's tweeted+*itched -- you read it here first) an impulsive complaint about how Google does not allow you to opt out of having it consider your location as a relevance factor in the search results it offers you:

Epic fail

I don't take it back.  But, I do think I owe a constructive suggestion for how this could be done, in a way that doesn't compromise the business logic I infer behind this regrettable choice.  Plus, I'll lay out what I infer this logic to be, and the drivers for it, in the hope that someone can improve my understanding.  Finally, I'll lay out some possible options for SEO in an ever-more-local digital business context.

OK, first, here's the problem.  In one client situation I'm involved with, we're designing an online strategy with SEO as a central objective.  There are a number of themes we're trying to optimize for.  One way you improve SEO is to identify the folks who rank / index highly on terms you care about, and cultivate a mutually valuable relationship in which they eventually may link to relevant content you have on a target theme.  To get a clean look at who indexes well on a particular theme and related terms, you can de-personalize your search.  You do this with a little url surgery:

Start with the search query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]

Then graft on a little string to depersonalize the query:

http://www.google.com/search?q=[theme]&pws=0

Now, when I did this, I noticed that Google was still showing me local results.  These usually seem less intrusive.  But now, like some invasive weed, they'd choked off my results, ranging all the way to the third position and clogging up most of the rest of the first page, for a relatively innocuous term ("law"; lots of local law firms, I guess).  

Then I realized that "&pws=0" tells Google to stop rummaging around in the cookies it's set on my browser, plus other information in my http requests, and won't help me prevent Google guessing / using my location, since that's based on the location of the ISP's router between my computer and the Google cloud.

 Annoyed, I poked around to see what else I could do about it.  Midway down the left-hand margin of the search results page, I noticed this:

Google Search Location Control

 

So naturally, my first thought was to specify "none", or "null", to see if I could turn this off.  No joy. 

Next, some homework to see if there's some way to configure my way out of this.  That led me to Rishi's post (see the third answer, dated 12/2/2010, to the question).  

Unbelieving that an organization with as fantastic a UI aesthetic -- that is to say, functional / usable in the extreme -- as Google would do this, I probed further. 

First stop: Web Search Help.  The critical part:

Q. Can I turn off location-based customization?

A. The customization of search results based on location is an important component of a consistent, high-quality search experience. Therefore, we haven't provided a way to turn off location customization, although we've made it easy for you to set your own location or to customize using a general location as broad as the country that matches your local domain...

Ah, so, "It's a feature, not a bug." :-)

...If you find that your results for a particular search are more local than what you're looking for, you can set your location to a broader geographical area (such as a country instead of a city, zip code, or street address). Please note that this will greatly reduce the amount of locally relevant results that you’ll see. [emphasis mine]

 Exactly!  So I tried to game the system:

Google Search Location Control world

Drat!  Foiled again.  Ironic, this "Location not recognized" -- from the people who bring us Google Earth!

Surely, I thought, some careful consideration must have gone into turning the Greatest Tool The World Has Ever Known into the local Yellow Pages.  So, I checked the Google blog.  A quick search there for "location", and presto, this. Note that at this point, February 26, 2010, it was still something you could add.  

Later, on October 18, 2010 -- where I have I been? -- this, which effectively makes "search nearby" non-optional:

We’ve always focused on offering people the most relevant results. Location is one important factor we’ve used for many years to customize the information that you find. For example, if you’re searching for great restaurants, you probably want to find ones near you, so we use location information to show you places nearby.

Today we’re moving your location setting to the left-hand panel of the results page to make it easier for you to see and control your preferences. With this new display you’re still getting the same locally relevant results as before, but now it’s much easier for you to see your location setting and make changes to it.

(BTW, is it just me, or is every Google product manager a farmer's-market-shopping, restaurant-hopping foodie?  Just sayin'... but I seriously wonder how much designers' own demographic biases end up influencing assumptions about users' needs and product execution.)

Now, why would Google care so much about "local" all of a sudden?  Is it because Marissa Mayer now carries a torch for location (and Foursquare especially)?  Maybe.  But it's also a pretty good bet that it's at least partly about the Benjamins.  From the February Google post, a link to a helpful post on SocialBeat, with some interesting snippets: 

"Location may get a central place in Google’s web search redesign"

Google has factored location into search results for awhile without explicitly telling the user that the company knows their whereabouts. It recently launched ‘Nearby’ search in February, returning results from local venues overlaid on top of a map.

Other companies also use your IP address to send you location-specific content. Facebook has long served location-sensitive advertising on its website while Twitter recently launched a feature letting users geotag where they are directly from the site. [emphasis mine]

Facebook's stolen a march on Google in the social realm (everywhere but Orkut-crazed Brazil; go figure).  Twitter's done the same to Google on the real-time front.  Now, Groupon's pay-only-for-real-sales-and-then-only-if-the-volumes-justify-the-discount threatens the down-market end of Google's pay-per-click business with a better mousetrap, from the small biz perspective.  (BTW, that's why Groupon's worth $6 billion all of a sudden.)  All of these have increasingly (and in Groupon's case, dominantly) local angles  where the value to both advertiser and publisher (Facebook / Twitter / Groupon) are presumably highest.

Ergo, Google gets more local.  But that's just playing defense, and Eric, Sergey, Larry, and Marissa are too smart (and, with $33 billion in cash on hand, too rich) to do just that.

Enter Android.  Hmm.  Just passed Apple's iOS and now is running the table in the mobile operating system market share game.  Why wouldn't I tune my search engine to emphasize local search results, if more and more of the searches are coming from mobile devices, and especially ones running my OS?  Yes, it's an open system, but surely dominating it at multiple layers means I can squeeze out more "rent", as the economists say?

The transcript of Google's Q3 earnings call is worth a read.

Now, back to my little problem.  What could Google do that would still serve its objective of global domination through local search optimization, while satisfying my nerdy need for "de-localized" results?  The answer's already outlined above -- just let me type in "world", and recognize it for the pathetic niche plea that it is.  Most folks will never do this, and this blog's not a bully-enough pulpit to change that. Yet.

The bigger question, though, is how to do SEO in a world where it's all location, location, location, or as SEOmoz writes

"Is Every Query Local Now?" 

Location-based results raise political debates, such as "this candidate is great" showing up as the result in one location while "this candidate is evil" in another.  Location-based queries may increase this debate.  I need only type in a candidate's name and Instant will tell me what is the prevailing opinion in my area.  I may not know if that area is the size of a city block or the entire world, but if I am easily influenced then the effect of the popular opinion has taken one step closer (from search result to search query) to the root of thought.   The philosphers among you can debate whether or not the words change the very nature of ideas.

Heavy.

OK, never leave without a recommendation.  Here are two:

First, consider that for any given theme, some keywords might be more "local" than others.  Under the theme "Law", the keyword "law" will dredge up a bunch of local law firms.  But another keyword, say "legal theory", is less likely to have that effect (until discussing that topic in local indie coffee shops becomes popular, anyway).  So you might explore re-optimizing for these less-local alternatives.  (Here's an idea: some enterprising young SEO expert might build a web service that would, for any "richly local" keyword, suggest less-local alternatives from a crowd-sourced database compiled by angry folks like me.  Sort of a "de-localization thesaurus".  Then, eventually, sell it to a big ad agency holding company.)

Second, as location kudzu crawls its way up Google's search results, there's another phenomenon happening in parallel.  These days, for virtually any major topic, the Wikipedia entry for it sits at or near the top of Google's results.  So, if as with politics, now too search and SEO are local, and much harder therefore to play, why not shift your optimization efforts to the place that the odds-on top Google result will take you, if theme leadership is a strategic objective?

 

PS Google I still love you.  Especially because you know where I am. 

 

April 28, 2010

MITX Panel: "Integrating Cross-Channel Customer Experiences" (April 29, 2010 8-10a) Part II

We've assembled a terrific panel for tomorrow's event:

  • SmartDestinations' Rob Schmults is also a Creative Good Council Leader;
  • Judah Phillips is a leader at the cutting edge of analytics in his role at Monster;
  • At Staples, Colin Hynes plays a leading role in figuring out store / digital integration, and is heavily focused on mobile's role in that;
  • VisualIQ's Manu Mathew sees a broad assortment of situations in facilitating his customers' efforts to develop a cross-channel perspective and optimize based on it.

Here are some of the questions we thought to cover:

  • What integrated experiences do you look to as best practice models?
  • What are you doing in your organizations (or your clients') to better integrate experiences?
  • Where do you believe the greatest opportunities for better integration still lie for you?
  • How are you addressing the organizational and technical challenges required for better integration?
  • How far down the path toward a more integrated, globally-optimized analytic perspective do you see yourself today?
  • What's your favorite integrated experience story, for good -- or not so good?
  • What resources have you found helpful for learning more / tracking what's going on in this area?
  • What advice would you have for folks trying to push further down this path?

Suggestions for questions welcome -- just email me via the link at left.

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Postscript:  a recap of the panel on the MITX blog

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By this point, many of you will be familiar with some of the more interesting and exotic examples of "integrated cross-channel product experiences", such as the Nike+ product/ service/ community.  But the approach has gone mainstream too.  Here's a recent example I experienced:

I went with my family to the "99" Restaurant in Centerville, on Cape Cod in Massachusetts (the one on Route 28).  Lying on the table was a pad of these forms:

99 Restaurant Loyalty Coupon Form0001

  I texted my information in, and 24 hours later this appeared in my inbox:

99 email

I clicked through:

99 coupon



Store to text to email to web to store, all nicely connected.  Cool!  Hope we're back before it expires.  Otherwise we'll have to sacrifice another family member's phone.  (Maybe do that anyway, and ask for separate checks... Hey, times are tough!) 

This program is run soup-to-nuts for the "99" by an external service called Fishbowl Marketing.  It's pretty good! I'm hoping to speak with them about experiences and results with it.

A few observations:

  • Instead of texting "99", they might have asked for "CapeCod", or "Cville" to track the geographic location of the signup, allowing them to compare signups to store traffic across regions. (Fishbowl might need an SMS address unique to the "99" client for this, and that's more expensive.)
  • I may not get back to the Cape soon.  When I clicked through from the email to the landing page from home, they could have recognized where the request was coming from and returned a link to a map of nearby locations under the coupon.  I'm betting most folks won't explicitly update their preferences, especially with the unremarkable landing page copy exhorting them to do so (good testing opportunity!).
  • I sometimes participate in other offers like this.  They could offer me an opportunity to personalize my offer based on crossing my cell number against other databases that also might have it, to see what other information might be there that might have helped them -- and me (analogous to caller ID).
  • Some sample of users could (may?) have been asked to participate in an exit survey about their experience, perhaps for additional benefits.
  • maybe implement a "Share this coupon with three friends and get another $5-off when they sign up" opportunity? (I did get follow up email messages on holidays inviting me back, and suggesting I invite friends; but when I clicked through to landing pages for inviting friends, the forms asked me to tell them who I was, again, even though I hadn't cleared cookies in the interim.)
  • Also, they might have added links to their social media presences like Twitter and Facebook (for feedback, or to offer other promotions), below the coupon. 
  • Finally, and I'm sure this is on Fishbowl Marketing's agenda, they might consider signing up with a mobile location-based service provider, like Foursquare or Gowalla, either as part of the vendor branded experience or via a "white label" application developed off those vendors' APIs.  That way the "99" could vary loyalty rewards granted according to number of check-ins, and take advantage of the viral marketing advantages of these services (your friends get notified when you check in at the "99", so maybe they stop by too).   Of course you say, are "99" customers leading-edge tech adopters with the latest 3G smartphones, with OC(I)D (Obsessive Check-In Disorder)?  Not yet, but what were we saying about Facebook a couple of years ago?

What's your favorite example?  Hope to see you tomorrow morning!

March 09, 2010

Filtering The Collective Preconscious: Darwin Ecosystem

More and more, people agree that filtering the flood of information that's coming at us is supplanting publishing, finding, and connecting as the problem of the Information Age.  Today, the state of the art for doing this includes several approaches:

  • Professional filters: we follow people whose jobs are to cover an area.  Tom Friedman covers international issues, Walt Mossberg covers personal technology.
  • Technical filters: we use services like Google Alerts to tell us when there's something new on a topic we're interested in
  • Social filters: we use services like Digg, Reddit, and Stumbleupon to point us to popular things
  • Tribal filters: we use Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and (Google hopes) Buzz to get pointed to things folks we know and trust think are important

In addition to what gets through, there's how it's presented.  RSS readers for example offer a huge productivity boost to anyone trying to keep up with more than a few sources of information.  However, once you get several hundreds items in your RSS reader, unsorted by anything other than "last in", it's back to information overload.  To solve this, innovative services like Newsmap provide multi-dimensional visual displays to try to push your information awareness productivity even further.  But so far, they've seen only modest adoption.

One limitation of today's filtering and productivity tools is that they pick items up either too early, before it's clear they represent something meaningful, or too late, once the advantages of recognizing a trend have passed.

Yesterday, I visited the team behind a new service called Darwin Ecosystem  that takes a different and potentially more powerful and useful approach to helping you "filter the collective preconscious"  -- that is, to identify emergent signals in the vast noise of the Internet (or any other body of information you might point to -- say, for example, customer service call logs).  Co-founder and CEO Thierry Hubert is a veteran of the knowledge management world going back to senior technical roles at Lotus and IBM; his partner Frederic Deriot shares similar experiences; and, my friend Bill Ives -- formerly head of Accenture's KM client practice -- is also involved as VP Marketing.

Briefly, the service presents a tag cloud of topics that it thinks represent emergent themes to pay attention to in the "corpus" filled by sources you point it to (in the demo, sources run to hundreds of news sources and social media).  The bigger the font, the more important the theme.  Hover your mouse over a theme, and it highlights other related themes to put them all into a collective context.  The service also provides a dynamic view of what's hot / not with a stock-ticker-style ribbon running at the top of the page.  You can view the cloud of emergent themes either in an "unfiltered view", or more usefully, filtered with "attractor" keywords you can specify.

This interface, while interesting, will likely not be the eventual "user/use-case" packaging of the service.  I can see this as a built-in "front page" for an RSS reader, for example, or, minus the tag cloud, as the basis for a more conventional looking email alert service.

The service is based on the math behind Chaos Theory.  This is the math that helps us understand how the proverbial beating of a butterfly's wings in China might become a massive storm.  (Math nerds will appreciate the Lorenz-attractor-plot-as-butterfly-wings logo.)  The service uses this math to tell you not only what individual topics are gaining or losing momentum, but also to highlight relationships between and among different topics to put them into context  -- like why "underwear" and "bomber" might be related. 

Now in beta, with a few large organizations (including large media firms) as early adopters, the service has had some early wins that demonstrate its potential.  It told users, for example, that Lou Dobbs might be on his way out at CNN a week before his departure was reported in the mainstream press.  It also picked up news of UCLA's planned tuition hikes 48 hours in advance of this getting reported in popular mainstream or social media.

It strikes me that a service like Darwin is complementary to that of  Crimson Hexagon, a sentiment analysis firm based on Prof. Gary King's work at Harvard (here's the software that came out of that work), with a variety of marketing, media, and customer support applications.  Darwin helps tell you what to pay attention to -- suggests emergent themes and their context; Crimson Hexagon can then tell you how people feel about these issues in a nuanced way, beyond simple positive / negative buzz.

The current business model has Darwin pursuing enterprise licensing deals with major firms, but depending on partners that emerge, that may not be the last stop on the adoption / monetization express.  For example, it seems to me that a user's interaction with a tool like Darwin represents highly intentional behavior that would be useful data for ad / offer targeting, or personalization of content generally.  This potential use as a marketing analytics input makes it especially interesting to me.

Bottom line: if you are responsible for syndicating and helping users usefully navigate a highly dynamic information set collected through a multitude of sources -- say, a news organization, a university, a large consumer products or services firm -- and are evaluating monitoring technologies, Darwin is worth a look.

January 01, 2010

Grokking Google Wave: The Homeland Security Use Case (And Why You Should Care)

A few people asked me recently what I thought of Google WaveLike others, I've struggled to answer this.

In the past few days I've been following the news about the failed attempt to blow up Northwest 253 on Christmas Day, and the finger-pointing among various agencies that's followed it.  More particularly, I've been thinking less about whose fault it is and more about how social media / collaboration tools might be applied to reduce the chance of a Missed Connection like this.

A lot of the comments by folks in these agencies went something like, "Well, they didn't tell us that they knew X," or "We didn't think we needed to pass this information on."  What most of these comments have in common is that they're rooted in a model of person-to-person (or point-to-point) communication, which creates the possibility that one might "be left out of the loop" or "not get the memo".

For me, this created a helpful context for understanding how Google Wave is different from email and IM, and why the difference is important.  Google Wave's issue isn't that the fundamental concept's not a good idea.  It is.  Rather, its problem is that it's paradigmatically foreign to how most people (excepting the wikifringe) still think.

Put simply, Google Wave makes conversations ("Waves") primary, and who's participating secondary.  Email, in contrast, makes participants primary, and the subjects of conversations secondary.  In Google Wave, with the right permissions, folks can opt into reading and participating in conversations, and they can invite others.  The onus for awareness shifts from the initiator of a conversation to folks who have the permission and responsibility to be aware of the conversation.  (Here's a good video from the Wave team that explains the difference right up front.)  If the conversation about Mr. Abdulmutallab's activities had been primary, the focus today would be about who read the memo, rather than who got it.  That would be good.  I'd rather we had a filtering problem than an information access / integration problem.

You may well ask, "Isn't the emperor scantily clad -- how is this different from a threaded bboard?"  Great question.   One answer might be that "Bboards typically exist either independently, or as features of separate purpose-specific web sites.  Google Wave is to threaded bboard discussions as Google Reader is to RSS feeds -- a site-independent conversation aggregator, just as Google Reader is a site-independent content aggregator."   Nice!  Almost: one problem of course is that Google Wave today only supports conversations that start natively in Google Wave.  And, of course, that you can (sometimes) subscribe to RSS feeds of bboard posts, as in Google Groups, or by following conversations by subscribing to RSS feeds for Twitter hashtags.  Another question: "How is Google Wave different from chat rooms?"  In general, most chats are more evanescent, while Waves appear (to me) to support both synchronous chat and asynchronous exchanges equally well.

Now the Big Question: "Why should I care?  No one is using Google Wave anyway."  True (only 1 million invitation-only beta accounts as of mid-November, active number unknown) -- but at least 146 million people use Gmail.  Others already expect Google Wave eventually will be introduced as a feature for Gmail: instead of / in addition to sending a message, you'll be able to start a "Wave".  It's one of the top requests for the Wave team.  (Gmail already approximates Wave by organizing its list of messages into threads, and by supporting labeling and filtering.)  Facebook, with groups and fan pages, appears to have stolen a march on Google for now, but for the vast bulk of the world that still lives in email, it's clunky to switch back and forth.  The killer social media / collaboration app is one that tightly integrates conversations and collaboration with messaging, and the prospect of Google-Wave-in-Gmail is the closest solution with any realistic adoption prospects that I can imagine right now.

So while it's absurdly early, marketers, you read it here first: Sponsored Google Waves :-)  And for you developers, it's not too early to get started hacking the Google Wave API and planning how to monetize your apps.

Oh, and Happy New Year!

Postscript: It was the software's fault...

Postscript #2: Beware the echo chamber

December 26, 2009

A Springier #iPhone Springboard: Why, When, and How

Once again it's the Year Of Mobile.  Let's put aside for the moment whether you think this is still another macromyopic projection.  Assuming you buy that, there's no denying the iPhone's leadership position in the mobile ecosystem.  If mobile's important to you, the iPhone desktop is "strategic ground" whose evolution you should care about.

A frequent beef about the iPhone is that all apps are accessed from a single-level desktop, and that you have to swipe across several screens to get to the app you want.  (Sometimes, this can be life-threatening, as when a friend launches PhoneSaber, and you're slow on the draw.)  Today we're mostly stuck with this AFAIK, since my cursory research (browsing plus buttonholing some Apple Store folks) didn't reveal any immediate plans to upgrade the iPhone OS to address this.

It's interesting to see how what tribe you're from influences how you'd solve this.  If Microsoft (of yore, anyway) made the iPhone, the solution might likely be some sort of Windows Explorer-type hierarchical folders.  If Google made the iPhone, the answer to this challenge might be Gmail-style labels / tags.  If you come from the Apple/ Adobe RIA world, Expose might appeal to you.

From the business side, my mind runs to the "Why" that will shape the "When" and "How".  Here's a 2010 prediction:  big firms will stop thinking in terms of having one iPhone app, and more in terms of fielding "branded suites" of iPhone apps. 

Let's say you're a media firm, with multiple media properties.  These properties might share a similar functional need solved by a common app, like a reader.  Or, a single media property (say, a men's lifestyle one) might want a collection of lighter-weight, function-specific apps like a wine-chooser, a tie-chooser (take pictures of your ties, then have the app suggest -- via expert opinion, crowdsourcing, or an API for your significant other to code to -- which of your ties might go well with a shirt you see / snap a picture of at the store), and so on.

Without more dimensionality to Springboard, the BigCo app developer has two choices:

  • Lard up a single app to do more within the "brand experience" it creates with its iPhone app.  But monolithic apps are slower and less reliable, presumably even if you're using the Tab Bar framework.  Plus, monolithic apps don't expand BigCo's share of the iPhone Springboard desktop, presumably a desirable strategic objective.
  • Build multiple apps that get scattered across the Springboard, compromising the "critical mass" feel of the "branded suite" (apps that appear together make more of a brand impression than apps appearing separately, on different screens.  I don't have any data to support this, and you could argue the opposite, that apps scattered across screens provide more frequent brand reminders.  I think folks might be likelier mnemonically to remember "five swipes to the men's lifestyle screen".  Anybody got data?).

The BigCo marketing department has a choice not available to the lowly app developer, however, and that's to write Apple a check.  It's reasonable to expect that we won't all get access to the new "MDS" (Multi-Dimensional Springboard) API BigCo gets.  Today, Apple already price-discriminates among iPhone developers: the Standard enrollment charge is $99, while the Enterprise is $299.  As this platform becomes even more important, and as BigCos want to do more with it, it's reasonable to expect that Apple will get even more creative with its pricing, private or publicly.

So that's the "Why".  As for "When", I'm guessing no earlier than 2011, given Apple's Cathedral-style approach to iPhone development (this might provide an opportunity for Android, BTW). (Thanks for re-tweeting this, @perryhewitt .)

And "How"? I'm betting on an Expose-style interface.  Swipe down to "zoom in" to a single screen, swipe up to move to a "higher altitude" and view multiple screens at once, perhaps with a subtle label or background (brand-appropriate, natch) for each one.

Who's closer to this?  What do you know?

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Cesar Brea