“That Will Be A Good Problem To Have”

…is a terrible phrase.

I’ve noticed this phrase creep its head above ground when someone is rationalizing a strategy or tactic that is initially highly inefficient and will create headaches in the future, but at the delight of increased revenue/traffic/whatever.

It has now entered my cage of canaries. When I hear this excuse uttered, it is a signal that something has not been properly thought out to the fullest extent necessary to make a sound decision. It triggers a personal moment of reflection; it prompts me to take time to analyze all the variables at hand.

Let’s break down the phrase’s two key parts.

“Will Be” — Future tense prediction of some turning point. But when? Can you tell me when it will shift from an acceptable poor decision to an unacceptable one? You’re also assuming that at some point it will shift.

“Good Problem” — A subtle oxymoron. You’re qualifying a decision as a positive problem, one that’s ok to deal with, because of the net good its causing. While not a ridiculous idea on its own, it assumes that the future problem will inherently be good. And good, in this context, is obnoxiously generic. Good how? To what extent? Relatively compared to what?

Next time you hear this phrase, stop and think. Notice if it’s being used as a way to validate or rationalize a side of an argument. Or as a way to sidestep further questioning or discussion of a point. You’ll come to realize it’s a red flare for poor planning.

Hacking Communication Theory

One way to look at communication is through the prism of fidelity. In this simple image, I have listed out the most common modes of communication in our present society. It is ordered based on highest to lowest. Fidelity is defined as how messages are sent and received. With more methods, more information is transmitted from sender to receiver—and perhaps reciprocating through a feedback loop.

A simple example. I’m talking to my friend and say, “Sounds great.”

Over Twitter, that could be taken as literal.

But in person, there are many extra methods beyond just the words being spoken. Also present we find vocal nuance (I had a short tone, downward inflection, spoke very fast, and was quiet), mannerisms (I was fidgeting and tapping my foot), eye contact (my eyes were looking away, almost like I was distracted), facial recognition (I winced).

The two different modes tell separate stories. Via chat, I sound excited. In person, it’s obvious I’m annoyed.

Some patterns emerge. First, mannerisms are more important than voice, which is more important than text (or words). Second, Synchronous is more important than asynchronous. With that in mind, the chart could be redrawn to look like this.

Voicemail is an interesting layer. It clearly has more fidelity than similar asynchronous textual communication. But it suffers in utility by comparison. It’s only available, generally speaking, on your individual (smart)phone handset. It doesn’t play well with other applications we use day-to-day, like email. It’s basically locked in a jail.

But there are areas of business that enage with voice every day. Voicemail is ineffective, but they must use voice, so they are forced to use synchronous phone calls. Unfortunately, they lose the common productivity gains provided in the text world. They key is, though, they don’t actually need a live phone call. They just need the fidelity of the voice.

So the Voicemail layer is often overlooked and criminally underused.

Thinking about Jobs To Be Done while innovating this layer of communication theory has been the goal of HarQen. We first started with Voice Advantage, an automated interview/screening tool for busy HR and Staffing professionals. We found that staffing firms would receive thousands of resumes and applications for a single job opening in one week. Often a single recruiter would be in charge! The process was normally:

  1. Gather all resumes and applicants into an Applicant Tracking System
  2. Put resumes into three piles: A, B, and C.
  3. A’s would be called on (“smile and dial!”)
  4. C’s were discarded
  5. B’s were a mystical “maybe” pile were there might be some gems, but who knows
  6. The recruiter would waste her entire week calling pile A, and eventually make an offer to a candidate and move on

Many innovations are making this process easier for all. The way job boards funnel into the ATSes is a big example. Our novel idea, though, was targetted on the Smile And Dial. Just think of these problems:

  • The recruiter is saying the same thing almost every phone call; a massive waste of time.
  • Sometimes calls would take 30 minutes, but the recruiter might know 5 minutes in that this candidate isn’t a fit. This is called a “courtesy interview”.
  • Scheduling hassles. Lots and lots of scheduling hassles. Even more wasted time.

So the thought became What if we could convert the Smile And Dial procedure into an asynchronous format? The recruiter would only need to record her questions once, and then could listen to each candidate’s answers.

This break through has been a success. It has been so well received that it created an industry: virtual interviewing. Many companies are doing great things in this space now, although most are focusing on video interviews. We consciously stayed with voice. We felt more candidates had access to a phone, and the workflow would be considerably easier for recruiters and candidates alike. Going back to our pyramid, our hypothesis was that bumping up from the “phone call” layer to the “video chat” layer wasn’t as much of a requirement for recruiters as they thought. And the technical and user experience gains with keeping it simple with the phone made the most sense. It was the best intersection of value creation.

This mode of thinking is very exciting to me. Continuing to discover communication problems and solving them by rethinking what’s possible layer-by-layer in the pyramid is a wonderful day job.

Recent Talk: Audio UX

I recently gave a talk at the Milwaukee UX meet up. I spoke about the user experience of audio. It was meant to be short (less than 10 minutes).

Here’s the deck.

Some notes and summaries per slide:

  1. The user experience of audio is deeper than we think.
  2. I’ve had about five years experience working with audio through my company HarQen. We’ve transitioned a lot, but a mainstay has been the capturing and playback of voice. Right now, HarQen can be called a Voice Asset Management company—we manage the voice data layer for enterprise companies.
  3. We know that audio is linear. It has a beginning and an end. You don’t know where you are at any given point unless you look at the timestamp.
  4. In the 2D world, we have several tools that guide and aid us. We have things like bold contrast, bullet points, color, layout, etc.
  5. So what if we could apply those 2D tools to audio? How could we do it? My hypothesis is through metadata linked to timestamps.
  6. I did a demo of our two products, Voice Advantage and Symposia.
  7. All interactions with computers come down to one of two things: input and output. The key thing is that output is mostly useless or nonexistent without input. So the success of good audio consumption hangs on the related input.
  8. Audio is really nothing more than communication. Thus, we can learn a lot by thinking about audio in the context of communication theory. (I went into talking about various theories.)
  9. To date, experiences with audio have been mostly synchronous. The main way you interact with voice and audio is with real time communication. (Excluding music here.)
  10. Well, unless you count voicemail.
  11. Which we do at HarQen…
  12. Because it’s our competitor, just like email is Basecamp’s competitor.
  13. So perhaps a way to heighten the input (read: metadata generation) of audio which would aid the output (read: listening of audio) is by rethinking about how we can make more audio interactions asynchronous?

Naming As The First Step

Knowing what to call something is surprisingly important.

Getting the name right is not as important.

But those moments at the very onset of something new are vital. Committing to give what lies before you a name and calling it that has turned out to be crucial to all success I’ve encountered.

When you have a name, then you have the possibility of your team understanding the vision/objective/goal/strategy. When you don’t have a name, then it’s practically guaranteed misunderstanding and inefficiencies will exist. And those are the heart disease and cancer of teamwork.

To extend the thought: thus, branding early isn’t too soon of a project. Especially since it impacts the quality of the package.

Book Review: Made To Stick

Image Credit: Amazon

Communicating ideas and, frankly, persuasion are becoming more vital in the work place. I’ve grown to realize this in the past few years. Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is a wonderful book summarizing the best concepts around making your ideas stick in other people’s minds.

If I had to give a singular tweet for a review, it would be this:

Abstraction is the luxury of the expert. The Curse of Knowledge prohibits simple concreteness.

It really does come down to that. Remember that you had to gain a lot of expertise to come to “The Answer”, but then that time and expertise works against you when telling others about it. You can communicate effective strategy or make an idea stick by focusing on the “Telling Others” part, not finding “The Answer” precursor.

There were some really good nuggets in the book:

  • Good metaphors are generative
  • Metaphors are the Holy Grail of simplicity (pretty meta)
  • A way to keep people’s attention is to create a need for closure
  • Language is often abstract, but life is not
  • Concreteness is the root of making ideas stick. So what is concreteness? If you can examine something with your senses, it’s concrete.
  • Belief is one thing, but to persuade action, people have to care
  • The one reliable way of making people care is invoking self-interest
  • Features aren’t emotional, but benefits are
  • If you’re a great spotter, you’ll always trump a great creator
  • Strategy is a guide to behavior; thus a bad strategy is one which doesn’t drive action

Mostly, the book provided great anecdotes and analysis on: Keep it simple, keep it concrete, tell great stories, be unexpected, emotional, and credible.

I strongly recommend the book to everyone. It’s a quick, valuable read.

Hyperbole As Self-Promotion

I can’t help but shake this observation that hyperbole has been sewn into our society’s fabric with some kind of super thread, incapable of being torn.

The source is unclear. (Most obvious answer is it’s a by-product of social media.) But its utility is crystal clear: if you are going to talk about yourself, you better make an impact.

Call it the new social darwin trait; the next evolution from the cynicism of the past decade. We all know you’re speaking in hyperbole, but if you didn’t, you’d lose credibility.

Twitter As Life’s Platform

My colleague Pehr once said something interesting about Twitter during lunch. To paraphrase:

People are looking at their mobile screens at such accelerating rates. It’s fascinating to look at Twitter’s role in it. Twitter works because it seamlessly fits into our daily brain activity, and thus our lives. It succeeds because it doesn’t produce a mental burden when scanned, but yet provides vast, diverse quantities of information. The 140 character size is perfect for always providing something new and interesting, yet is never painful.

It’s no secret the overall increased activity people have with their mobile devices. Many people are observing and critiquing this behavior. (Luke Wroblewski is one of my favorite authorities.) But specifically with Twitter, I’d like to take a moment to discuss why it’s one of the catalysts for this trend, and what it is we yearn for.

A quick note: I’m purposely leaving out Facebook from this discussion. It’s a different subset of the root concept, but more complex and worthy of its own critique.

Why do we check Twitter on our mobile devices?

Because it’s quick, informative, intuitively organized, instantly up-to-date, and rarely (if ever) painful to do so.

What do we check?

Comments from friends, information from “in the know” pundits, insight from personal celebrities (artists, musicians, authors, actors, etc; people we personally enjoy), and general news from our macro and micro worlds.

Twitter Works

The blessing of The New. We habitually check Twitter on our mobile devices because the feeling of newness draws us. The pain to digest the constant fire hose of updates from interests is zero.

There are limits, however. These interests must be sought out. I find it difficult to track down the friends, musicians, and so forth I care to follow. And then there is a period where you aren’t sure who are worth engaging. And what if it’s not really them, but a ghost writer or, worse, a bot? Twitter is mostly human (that is, obvious to identify stripper spam from your college roommate), but that’s a problem because then the information is basically social in nature. The information is rarely personal.

Whenever you do ease into the right amount of interests populating your stream with bits of information, there is no guarantee that the signal-to-noise ratio will fit your preference.

The fact that Twitter sees itself as a social platform is the biggest limitation. Eventually, the novelty of social information will slowly dwindle, settling on a different ratio for the average user. (I think impact from demographics can be tracked as well. For example, age: teenagers have a different threshold of info going in and out of their consciousness while retirees just want to see and share pictures of their grandkids.)

Expanding The Twitter Platform

For Twitter to be truly useful, it needs to expand beyond the human-to-human social engagement. I propose a new concept for Twitter’s platform.

Twitter should be a short message platform.

Let’s break down each word:

  • Short
    As discussed earlier, the reason Twitter works is because 140 characters is perfect to deliver vast amounts of messages with zero mental burden to digest.
  • Message
    A message is the most generic, abstract way to explain how information travels. Information only exists if it is communicated. “Messages” are the package that delivers information in tidy boxes. Messages are en entity—the action-based object that makes communication possible.
  • Platform
    The marketplace that brings together users and providers. Twitter’s platform gathers and distributes tweets in many forms.

The troublesome word for Twitter is currently “message”. They’ve limited themselves to the social subset of its users’ lives. They need to expand the abstraction and target all modes and types of information people receive on a daily basis.

The real key is to expand contributors from simply people to inanimate objects and entities as well. For example, what if in my Twitter stream I had tweets with the following types of messages:

  • My car telling me it’s time for an oil change with a link to Google Maps, displaying all the shops in the area, prices, and which ones are running specials. (Realize that “Maint. Req.” on a car dashboard is nothing more than a message less than 140 characters telling you something of importance.)
  • My credit card telling me my balance is due, how much, and when the deadline is.
  • My doctor’s office telling me it’s been two years since my last physical.
  • Or better yet, my body telling me that this week is when 26-year-old males have their teeth/eyes/prostate/whatever checked out.
  • The weather telling me it’s going to be rainy and cold tomorrow.
  • My package telling me it will be arriving today at the office.
  • My subpump telling me it just broke and I better get home ASAP.
  • My fridge saying it blew a motor, and I should pick one up on the way home to fix. It shares links with me to the part’s information, documentation on how to fix it, and stores in the area where I can pick it up.
  • The dryer telling me the clothes are done. Good thing too because I forgot about them when I was trying to fix the fridge.
  • And so on and so forth. The possibilities are literally endless.

Now, Twitter becomes the information platform of my life because it is the supreme message platform of my life. So easy to quickly check and scan, but now I have personal—not social—reasons.

Think of how this beats the pants off every other business model they could approach. Twitter can serve you an ad to the fridge motor because you just found out you need it. It’s the absolute best, quickest, most relevant, most targeted way to serve advertisements.

Other points of interest that allude to success:

  • Roughly 90% or more of Twitter users are lurkers. We, as a population, check way more than we socially share. Why does Twitter cater to the sharers? Filling the lurkers’ timelines with tweets that are meaningful to them is ok, and a much better business model.
  • Every inanimate object communicates with you in some way.
  • And most only need 140 characters.

My wife, a perfect target for this concept, had some feedback.

Isn’t the purpose of Twitter, and thus social networks in general, to allow people to escape from the things they need to do in real life? I need to change the cat’s litter box, but I don’t want to. I’d rather quickly check Twitter or Facebook instead. A normal person would be so annoyed having these toys tell me I’m not doing something I should be doing.

Touché. But this is why Twitter has a ceiling.

The Future

I see the future as such:

  1. Everything will be creating data in the future. Out clothes. Our cars. Our social circles. Everything.
  2. Data is the foundation of information.
  3. Information is only useful if communicated.
  4. Humans require messages in order to process communication.

Twitter’s dynamics make it perfectly situated to be the short message platform of this future.