Saturday, November 22, 2008

Faux simplicity

It's finally gotten cold enough here in North Carolina (it's 24 degrees outside right now) that I climbed up in the attic and got out our space heater for the kids' playroom. In doing so, it reminded me of one of my least favorite design techniques - what I call "faux simplicity". Take a look at the control panel for the heater:

Wow... it's soooooo simple that it only has ONE button! They even advertise the "1 Touch" interface below the panel. What could be simpler than one button?

How do you turn it on? You click the button.

How do you turn it up to the next degree setting? You click the button and the temperature goes up one setting.

How do you switch it from high to low? You keep clicking the button as it toggles through the high and low temperature settings.

How do you set it be always-on? You click the button until none of the temperatures are lit up.

How do you turn it off? You click the button and hold it down until it powers off.

SIMPLE! One button!

As a real life example, I usually have it set to Hi and 75 degrees. My kids wake up and they're cold so they click it twice (once to Hi/80 then to Hi/Always-on). Then I walk in, irritated, and tell them that the heater doesn't get any hotter just because it's set to always on (they think 75 degree is the temperature that the heater is running at, not the temperature that it shuts down automatically). So I want to switch it back to Hi/75. By clicking the button TEN TIMES.

1. Lo/60
2. Lo/65
3. Lo/70
4. Lo/75
5. Lo/80
6. Lo/Always-on
7. Hi/60
8. Hi/65
9. Hi/70
10. Hi/75

Woops... I clicked too fast and ended up on Hi/80. Now I need to click 11 more times to move it down one degree setting.

By having a single button, they didn't make it simpler, they made it more complex. They didn't simplify the feature set, only the interface, by overloading their single button with a bunch of different capabilities. The interface would be much simpler with an on/off button, "temp up" and "temp down" buttons, and an "always on/temp control" toggle. In this case, 4 buttons is simpler than 1.

The iPod has a similar example of this - the fact that you need to turn the iPod off by clicking and holding down the Pause button. This annoys me everytime. Please, people, On/Off buttons do not add unnecessary complexity in items that are turned on and off repeatedly!

We experienced this in one of our products a few years ago. Customers were complaining that our install was too difficult. At the time, our install process accomplished two things: it asked the few standard, necessary questions so we could put the product onto the machine (install directory, etc.), and a few questions that were required as "pre-configuration" so that the product would work the first time you used it (to our credit, we had reduced this set down to a bare minimum). So what was the proposal to simplify install? Simple! We'll separate the install into two parts! One part is the normal install that you see for every product and the second is a post-installation configuration wizard. By pulling the configuration out of the install, we'll make install way simpler!!

Of course, that's not simpler at all. From the customer's point of view, "install" translates to "all the crap I need to do before I can get the product running", including the post-installation/pre-configuration stuff.

We began referring to this as "small i" install and "big I" Install. Small i install is the "putting the bits on the box" process, and big I Install is the whole enchilada for completing and managing the installation. And we were able to successfully make the point that shifted some complexity from one place to another within the Big I Install is not simplifying anything for the customer, it's just changing where they encounter the complexity.

As discussed previously, "simplicity" is not a valid goal... it's a distraction.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Multiple instances of one persona?

A colleague has run into an interesting problem during the development of some personas... er, personae. They have a situation where there are common scenarios that require collaboration between different people that all have the same job description/role/tasks/responsibilities. In other words, normally it would be a no-brainer that these different people could be represented easily with a single persona because there aren't any significant differences between them that would merit creating an entirely new persona.

But they work together. If you create a single persona (say, "Elvis"), how do you write the scenario to describe the collaboration ("Elvis sends an instant message to Elvis to check on progress...")?

But if we create 2 personas that are basically identical except for the name, then it doubles the amount of reading that someone would need to do to understand the personas. And there will inevitably be confusion on the part of the consumers ("Hey, Elvis and Jerry Lee look almost the same... why did I have to read both of these damn things?").

Oddly, I don't recall seeing any best practices on how to handle this situation, even though I suspect it's a common one. If anyone has any pointers or advice, I'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Null sets in girl's bikes

It's Christmas time and I'm thinking about buying my 8 year old daughter a new bike. I'm trying to find a bike with 20" tires that also has multiple speeds (she has a single speed bike now and is getting frustrated that she can't shift gears on our bike rides). So I was looking at some bikes on and ran across this:

Note the bullet points at the bottom...

- 20" Wheel Size Fits Most 6 - 11 Year Olds
- Recommended for Ages 12 yrs. and Up

So I guess they are marketing this bike to short 12 year olds?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

UPS: Worst customer experience of my life

I was in Barcelona last week for a customer conference. Yes, envy is a natural reaction to that statement. I was running a series of customer feedback sessions throughout the conference, and as preparation for these sessions, I shipped a box of materials to Barcelona via UPS. This turned out to be a mistake of colossal proportions.

To understand just how ridiculously bad UPS handled this shipment, I need to go into boring, gory detail and describe step-by-step the series of events that took place. For those who understandably don't want to read the full narrative I will summarize it in one sentence: The box arrived in Barcelona on Tuesday the week before the conference but never made it to the conference center... I finally gave up on it nine days later.

Here's the full story:

I received shipping instructions from the conference coordinators, and they requested that boxes should arrive on Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday the week before the conference. The conference began on Monday, with some early registration on Sunday night. One of the things in my box was 800 flyers to be inserted into everyone's conference messenger bag that they receive when they register, so it was important that the box be waiting for me when I arrived on Saturday so I could do all the inserts. To make sure this happened, I sent the box out the Friday before it needed to be there and specified a Wednesday delivery.

On Tuesday afternoon, I got a call from UPS. They said they tried to deliver the package, but they weren't able to do it because the recipient wasn't there. I told them to re-deliver it the next day (as originally scheduled), and I was encouraged because I knew the package had made it to Barcelona... early! Great, no problems.

I arrived on Saturday and the box wasn't there. And UPS was closed on Saturday and Sunday. No useful information in the tracking information online. We called UPS in America and tried to get a number for someone in UPS Spain - no can do. We said, "Listen. You work for a multinational corporation. I work for a multinational corporation. I guarantee that if I had to get someone from IBM Spain on the phone on a Sunday, I could do it." The UPS person said, "I can't even make international calls."

So on Monday morning we called UPS -- they opened at 9:00 AM. They said the problem is that they can't deliver the package because it's stuck in customs and they need someone to fax over a passport. Of course, they'd previously said they tried to deliver it on Tuesday, but the person had no record of that happening. We asked why they hadn't called to let anyone know about the problem... they said they weren't sure. So we asked how long it would take to get through customs, and they said, "A few days." We asked them to expedite it and they said they'd try and to call back that afternoon for more information.

We called back Monday afternoon and they said it hadn't cleared customs yet. They told us to call back in the morning.

We called back on Tuesday morning and they said it hadn't cleared customs yet but they expected it to clear that day, so we could call back in the afternoon and either pick it up ourselves or arrange deliver the next day.

We called back on Tuesday afternoon and it had cleared customs! Yes! We said, "Great, we'll come to pick it up right now." And they said, pick it up? No, you can't pick it up. We have to deliver it. Tomorrow. Okay, fine. We asked them to mark it urgent so it would be delivered in the morning. They said, "It wasn't marked urgent when it was shipped." We explained that things had changed since it arrived in Barcelona a week ago. They said, "No, we can't change something from not urgent to urgent. It will be delivered sometime on Wednesday, but we can't give you any information whatsoever about what time it will be delivered."

The box never arrived on Wednesday.

We called back on Thursday and asked why it hadn't been delivered the day before. They said that someone had called and changed the address, but the address wasn't right so they sent it back to the warehouse.

I'm not making this up.

So they switched it back to the original (correct) address and said they'd send it back to us on Thursday. We asked again if it could be delivered urgently. They again said that they couldn't do that.

At 5:00 PM on Thursday the box still hadn't arrived. We called and changed it to Return to Sender.

No, it hasn't made it back to me yet.

At no point during this entire process did anyone from UPS do anything to actually help us. It was as if shipping something from one place to another in a timely fashion was not a core part of their business.

Here's what I can't figure out - how much money did UPS just lose? Obviously, I am never going to use their service again... for the rest of my life. This is not something I'm going to forget. So add up all the money I might have spent on UPS from here on out. How much would it have cost UPS to actually try to help me during this ordeal? Then, what is the difference between those two numbers?

I'm guessing tens of thousands of dollars.

Nice work, UPS.

Hmmm... that's a good question

I wonder what the consequences are for picking the wrong answer?