More of what the world needs now

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Does more equal better?
With each advancement in computer technology comes more equipment, more power, more ports, more screen, more wires, more wireless, more connections, more manuals, more choices. And more experts telling us that the more technology we have the more we can do, the more we can stay in contact, the more people we can reach, the more we are in control. This only leads me to ask more questions, “Will more technology improve our relationships as individuals, as a society, as a world? Will more technology lead to better communications?”

As a marketing consultant, I could not design a 128-page catalog for print, build a company website, distribute news releases with hi-res photo attachments, or create a multimedia presentation without using today’s constantly improving computer technology. With my trusted partner, the pc, and a suite of professional software tools, I am a one-man band who can play like a symphony. And I am just one of thousands, millions across the globe who can achieve similar feats with the power of today’s digital technology. So yes, more technology can create better communications using a wide range of media to reach, and satisfy the needs of, different audiences.

What works for the individual, will it work for the masses?
With all this power, with our individual ability to create huge amounts of high-end content, as well as respond to content created by others – individuals, corporations and media organizations – we are at a turning point in human history unrealized until today. The well worn phrase, “we are all connected’, is true. The computer and its faithful companion, the worldwide web, give us unprecedented access, at least in theory, to potentially anyone on the planet (provided they have a computer, an internet connection, and the money to pay for both). Again the answer is yes, more technology gives us the opportunity to improve our relationships near and far, and in business and in our personal lives.

With more technology, we are able to talk with the person in the next office, the next state, in any country across the ocean and around the world. And because millions, one day billions, of us can talk to one other, we are building new digital communities through blogs and forums where we share our thoughts, our passions, our collective intelligence. As a group of like-minded individuals linked together through today’s technology, we have the power to directly communicate with, question, challenge and force change on those institutions that seek to control us.

Politicians and corporate executives, once able to retreat to their inner sanctums, are now under constant scrutiny by the ever vigilant digital public. Media conglomerates, which once dominated print and the airwaves, can no longer dictate what is news, nor can they spin a story as easily as before. Digital domination by one group does not exist. There is a system of checks and balances. Imagine that, another well worn phrase, “ the truth shall set you free”, just might be true after all.

We have more power to do good, but will we use it?
This new relationship with the world’s power brokers does not have to be confrontational. Rather, by opening a dialog with each other, we can appreciate another point of view, another’s research and experience and thus make media a more collaborative and enjoyable (and maybe even believable) experience.

Because of this shifting paradigm, we can have an ongoing conversation, a dialog that constantly changes, thus creating a reason to revisit a site, read another print article, pick up a daily paper at the newsstand or purchase a product or service with the confidence that it will perform as advertised.

On a person-to-person level, we can use more technology to become more intimately acquainted. We can learn from one another. Using the power of technology, we can create a new model for a better world. I’m optimistic. And I want more…

References
Jenkins, H. (2006). Introduction: “Worship at the alter of convergence” (pp. 1-24). Convergence Culture. New York: NYU Press.

Felton, E. (2004). Rip, mix, burn, sue: Technology, politics, and the fight to control digital media. Princeton University President’s Lecture Series, no. 1.

Follow the Romans – Build a site that works, and lasts

Fields of Customer Reality
As the line from the popular movie, Field of Dreams, suggests, “If you build it, they will come”, is the basis for a successful business plan of growing a loyal customer base. It applies to everything – from building cars, to retail businesses, to designing websites, if you build it right, prospects will want to get to know you, choose you as their supplier, and become loyal customers.

model-t-ford-ewUnlike Henry Ford’s early view of customers, “They can have any color as long as it is black”, designing your website to satisfy customers’ needs will drive them to your site, and entice them to make a return trip.

Technology is not a replacement for good marketing
Quite honestly, I don’t understand all the fuss about the “new” field of information architecture. It is a fundamental marketing principle to develop a communications program, no matter in print or digital, that speaks to targeted users. It has to be personal, answer their concerns, spark their interest, get them excited about what you do and convince them you are the best company to service their needs. So why wouldn’t a marketing manager or an information architect do this in designing online marketing communications? When you cross the digital divide, why do the basic principles of selling and buying suddenly morph? When did a seller ever want to complicate the process of luring and capturing a new customer?

As technology advances, it appears that proven marketing principles have taken a backseat to the plethora of state-of-the-art advances in web design. Too many web developers, information architects, content managers, whomever, put technology first, not the user. What you can digitally do is not necessarily what you should do. The first question everyone should always ask is, “how does this benefit the user, the prospect, all the people we want as our customers?”

Camel – a horse designed by committee….Man of War – a horse designed to win
A company website is a virtual recreation of the products, services and culture of a diverse body of individuals attempting to present a unified image. The first challenge in creating this is getting together in one room all of these different people with different agendas . The egos and perceived needs of this diverse group often supersede the needs of the intended external users of the site – prospects and customers.spider-webs-w

Politics, rather than good marketing, often takes over the design process. As one in charge of the process and final outcome, you often morph from marcom manager to designer to diplomat at a company version of the U.N. General Assembly. And if left unchaperoned, what this group assembles can lead to visual wars for your targeted users. If visitors to your website are presented with a cluttered, disorganized layout and navigation, it becomes a battle to focus, to find what they need, and to make a purchase.

Everyone in that room should think like a builder, and sharer, of information. Call the person what title you will, if everyone does not think of the user first, then Henry Ford was right. We should all be driving black cars built by one company.

Design for production
In the world of competitive industry, new product development has evolved into a proven science. No longer do designers work in a vacuum where they make the prettiest or most factory-wtechy products. Instead, the concept of “design for manufacturing” is the accepted standard. Designers must understand upfront, before they put a pencil to paper or do one mouse click, how their design will be produced. They have to know the end before they can begin the design process.

It just makes sense. You can’t have an elaborate design that can not be easily produced, just like you can’t design a complex website that a user can not easily navigate. So why all the fuss? When did good ole common sense and proven marketing and manufacturing principles not make it into the development of cyberspace?

By thinking like the targeted customers, getting inside their mindset, knowing the demographics, and most importantly dropping your preconceived notions of what you would do, development of a website should be no different then developing a company catalog. Rather than organizing the facts on paper, the information now must be digitally arranged. There are more options, like streaming video, audio, instant updates and up-to-the minute news, but it still must be laid out so that it is useful to the intended user.

No matter what you are building, if you do it right, they will come…

References
Wodke, Christina (2001). Defining information architecture deliverables. Boxes and Arrows.

Hoffman, Allan (2006). Information architects: Web builders with a sales bent. Monster.com.

Wodke, Christina (2006). Are we there yet? Boxes and Arrows. October 2.

Not me, me, me but you, you, you

It is so refreshing to read an article about using technology from an expert who doesn’t repeat and repeat industry jargon, hollow phrases, cutesy acronyms and try to impress by citing every person who is, or ever was, noteworthy in the field. I liked Steve Krup so much that after reading the first few paragraphs, I went online and bought his book, Don’t Make Me Think. I plan to do exactly what his book advocates – think long and hard about how to redesign my website to work best for people who visit it. After all it’s not about me. It’s about you.

No trick, only treat
His common sense and user friendly approach is very, very attractive to me. It mirrors my philosophy of how to behave in life and business. No tricks, just simply, “Treat others the way I want to be treated.” When designing websites, or any other marcom programs, you must get into the mindset of your target audience. In this case – the intended user of a website – you become the demographic and react like the user, not the maker. It’s not always easy to be objective about your creation, but to achieve success (as defined by lots of hits, returning viewers, and increased sales) Krup’s advice is exactly what every website needs.

Visual hierarchy – designing for success
Krup brought up an important point about working with designers. While talented, many designers want to create something different for the sake of being new, or unlike proven industry standards. While a cutting edge design might win art director awards, it won’t necessarily win customers. The criteria in judging a site’s design is that (just like the book), you don’t have to think about it. How well you understand the user’s needs and how well you design it to satisfy those needs will determine the success of your website.

A good example of this was several years ago when I consulted for a company who had just printed their new product line brochure. The photography was beautiful, the layout was crisp, the copy was dead on, but it was so difficult to use. Instead of the normal 11 x 17 layout with 2-page spreads, this brochure was 30% smaller in size and folded out to almost 6 feet in length. Once it was opened, you never quite knew how to fold it back up. Sort of like a Rand McNally map. The spreads were difficult to read because depending on how you folded it, you had to figure out what picture went with what text. It was not designed with the user in mind. God only knows what that designer would have done to a website.

Turn a ? into a !
This all seems like common sense – putting the user first – but according to Battleson, Booth and Weintrop in their library usability study, it was only a little more than 10 years ago that the user’s needs stepped to the forefront in website design.

It’s hard to imagine that software developers put people last, But then again, they do tend to worship the machine. However, in today’s increasingly internet-based marketplace, there are competing sites for just about everything. Consumers of information or products and services can go anywhere in the world to get what they want. If for no other reason, this reliance on the web should make the proprietors of every website take the time to invest in a design hierarchy that prioritizes information on the page and makes it easy for users to quickly see what they are looking for and where to go next. Users should never have to question how a site works: they have to be wowed!

The website that respects its users and invites them to come in, is friendly, easy to navigate. Now that’s where I, and many others, want to be. It’s like having the choice to visit one of two different homes. One family has plastic covered furniture and the other family has deep, plush couches and soft rugs on the floor. Which house do you want to visit? Where do you want to relax for a while? Where it is designed for the user, where else?

References
Krug, Steve (2000). Don’t Make Me Think. Indianapolis: New Riders, pp. 1-39.

Battleson, B., Booth, A., & Weintrop, J. (2001). Usability testing of an academic library web site: a case study. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 27(3), 188-198.

A stream of technological consciousness

pc_chip-wWhat if technology stopped advancing?
Without further advancements in microchip-based technology, would we survive? As a society? As educational institutions? As businesses and health care organizations?

One of my worse nightmares is that as a society, we give up all thoughts, all choice processes to computers. I refuse to go down that path. I enjoy using my brain to figure things out, especially everyday issues like time (don’t own a digital watch), and calculating the change when I make a purchase. Little things yes, but these are mental processes I control. If I can’t remember what photograph I took with whom on what day and where, then it just couldn’t be that important. I’m one of the few people without caller ID. I like to be surprised when I answer the phone.

We are not machines
Even the strongest of us have a limited capacity for thought, emotions, reactions to external stimuli. It’s one of the reasons we require sleeping almost a third of each day to recharge our complex but fragile systems. We’d explode from overload if we did not.

Unless you need technology to continuously record your physical functions, it seems unhealthy and unnecessary. Blood pressure is easy to chart, but it changes constantly throughout the day as we experience life. A constant monitoring of body systems would probably be the cause of more strokes and heart attacks, just from worrying about how our body naturally reacts to what we put it through every day. While some of these microchip-based healthcare technologies are good for high-risk patients, we don’t need an ubiquitous, electronic friend always nearby, or inside.

What about human advancement?
It seems that so many of the articles I read promote the advancement of technology without considering if we really need it. Maybe it’s time to rethink about how advancing technology effects people. Do we really need to compartmentalize and categorize every moment in our lives with 24/7 microchip-based technology, digital photography and social media?. Total recall didn’t do so well for Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie of the same name.

I want it to be my choice of how I use technology, how I will record and use digitally stored memories. My life is not a television show to be recorded, played back or viewed by others. It is a unique period of time that I am here, that you are here, that we all are here on planet earth. Technology should be one of the many tools we use to make our lives easier. Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean we should.

Technology is just a tool
I just don’t think it’s that important if we have the storage capacity to hold 80 years of personal memory, data, a lifetime of thoughts, if we have not improved the person doing the recording, or the people we are recording. None of us is a research project.

But still this brings me back to how do advancements in technology benefit human development? If as humans, we are still violent, irrational, unkind, selfish, and any other deplorable human trait you wish to include, how much has technology helped us? As Charlton Heston called out at the end of the movie, Soylent Green, “It’s people.” I honestly prefer advancing people to machines. Let’s focus on that.

While it would seem that I view technology as a foe, it is just the opposite. I love technology. I couldn’t do my communications job or the photography I love without its benefits. I’ve worked with computers for more than twenty-five years, and I eagerly look forward to technological advancements in the future.

I believe, quite simply, that technology is just a tool. Like a knife and fork, an automobile, a buzz saw, a great pair of sneakers. It helps me achieve a goal, accomplish a task, save time, reduce cost, easily connect with other people. But it does not dominate my life. Instead I want to live in real time, in real space, with real people and real technology that advances the world and the people who live in it.

References
Czerwinski, M., Gage, D.W., Gemmell, J., Marshall, C., Pérez-Quiñonesis, M., Skeels, et al (2006). Digital memories in an era of ubiquitous computing and abundant storage. Communications of the ACM, 49(1), 45-50.

Kangas, E. & Kinnunen, T. (2005). Applying user-centered design to mobile application development. Communications of the ACM, 48(7), 55-59.

Business not as usual

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Getting closer to the decision makers
I used to own a white 1987 Volvo 240, a silver 1984 Volvo 240 sport model, and a maroon 1982 Volvo 240 wagon. And I spent more money rebuilding each of these cars because Volvo couldn’t seem to make them right the first time. After years of becoming a close friend with my mechanic (always a bad sign), I decided to write up a list of my frustrations. One page turned into another, and another until I had written a five-page, single spaced tome which I entitled, “25 Reasons Why I Love to Hate My Volvo”. It was not a friendly letter. After all, I was not a satisfied customer. But it was factual. Sarcastic, funny I thought, but definitely full of undeniable car facts.

Well, I mailed the letter to Hans-Olov Olsson, then president and CEO of Volvo North America, to his corporate office in northern New Jersey. And then I forgot about it, that is, until one Saturday morning when the phone rang and it was Hans. Putting my sarcastic thoughts on paper was one thing, mailing them was a bolder move, but now I was voice-to-voice with the man I seriously wanted to have a conversation with. I took a deep breath and said hello.

Hans was laughing. He said he had just finished reading my letter and 85% of what I said was correct. I had to stop myself from asking him, “then why did you only make 15% of the car right?”. He said my letter was very technical and he would forward it to engineering. We joked about his company’s negotiations to buy Renault. I told him they were unsafe cars and offered to lend him my Volvo. He finally said he didn’t want to lose me as a customer and offered to give me a free, two-week test drive of the new (at the time) 850 series.

All in all, it was a very pleasant ten-minute conversation with a major corporate executive. I had stated my concerns about his product; he told me his company was making improvements; and he made me an attractive offer. Our conversation was frank, and funny, just the way I like it. We listened to each other. Our two-way communications worked.

I never did get to test drive the new model Volvo. At the end of the call, Hans connected me to his secretary and his offer never materialized. But it didn’t matter. The fact that a company president took the time to read my 5-page letter and picked up the phone to talk won me over. I believed what he said, and to this day I still love to like Volvos.

Blogging: a new way of doing business
At the time, this was a rare and unexpected response to a customer complaint. Back then, as well as now, business as usual did not include a personal response from the CEO. A form letter from customer service was the best anyone could expect. But today, blogs are changing the way companies do business.

In Naked Conversations, authors Robert Scoble and Shel Israel share their interviews and insights of how today’s executives and company personnel are changing the way businesses connect with their customers. They have found that in order to be successful and remain competitive, companies have to “shift the focus from products to relationships”. (1)

One blog that has been successful is Fastlane Blog which features GM chairman Bob Lutz. By talking directly to customers and prospects, his goal is to reinvigorate interest in GM cars and boost sales. Imagine that, you can talk to the man who led the successful Viper team at Chrysler. What better way to understand a company than through the ongoing insights of its upper management team? My phone conversation with Volvo’s CEO was just a one-time experience. With blogs, the opportunities for personal communications are unlimited.

Making the human connections
If you study the nature of man, you see that we have very defined traits as humans. We seek out the company of other humans. We need to share and communicate. This doesn’t suddenly change when people come together in a business environment of buying and selling. In the end, it is human connections that drive commerce. Businesses who build and maintain these relationships with blogs have a market advantage and will stand out among the crowd, be trusted, and be successful.

Citations
1 Scoble, R. & Israel, S. (2006). Naked Conversations, John Wiley & Sons, p.15.

A Play on Worlds

face-virtualworld-wYou’ll never hear “Come out and play” again
It’s the twenty-first century. It’s time to play “inside” a virtual world, a place…

…where you are free to try new things without serious consequences (unless being kicked out of a game for a few days for bad behavior bothers you)

…where the play environment looks familiar, but the laws of physics are anything but law (you can fly, survive long underwater walks without oxygen, be half-man, half animal)

…where you can travel anywhere in a virtual universe and still remain part of the same game

…where you never see the real people you play with

…where you can be whomever you want to be ~ a rule follower or a rule breaker

…where the game never ends. You can play at any time of the day, all day, every day all throughout the year

…where after experiencing a virtual reality game like Second Life, playing will never be the same

virtual_worlds_main-wSound like fun? Millions of people think so, and the numbers of online players grow larger every day. Today, as more colleges use interactive websites in their courses, “playing” has come right into the classroom 1 (right where most students would probably like it). Who ever thought professors would encourage us to “play” at homework?

How to define “play”
Over fifty years ago in 1950, Johan Huizinga, a Dutch historian with a deep interest in physiology, attempted to get serious about play by trying to define it. He concluded that:

* Play is voluntary. We do it at our leisure.
* It is not real life; it is pretend. It is an illusion, a magic world.
* It is limited by time and place. It occurs in a marked off space.
* There is beauty and tension in play.
* Play has rules, but it has no moral function.
* Play creates a temporary order.
* Play has a beginning and an end.

He also thought it was necessary.

Although much of his research still holds true, perhaps some of Huizinga’s observations need to be re-examined for players in the twenty-first century. How could he have predicted that “play” would evolve into people engaging in virtual reality games on networked computers with a limitless number of people from around the globe, all at the same time? Whew!

New ways to play
Second Life is a perfect example of how technology has changed the way we play. Unlike the traditional definition of play as having a cycle of start to finish, the purpose of this game is to create a make-believe life. 2 And life by its very own definition is continuous, unpredictable and thus always changing or capable of constant change. Virtual lives have a beginning, but their end is questionable. The game lives on and on, and on.

Unlike conventional forms of play, time is irrelevant in virtual play. You can drop in for a few minutes, or stay the whole day. You call your own timeouts. Since it is conducted in cyberspace, it is a digital “playground” . There are no marked playing fields, no traditional boundaries.

But even though the way we play is different, the humans who play remain the same. Since anyone can play in the virtual game world, you should expect the wide spectrum of human behavior. Rule followers, rule breakers. Polite behavior, outrageous rudeness. It’s all there. Just like in real life, people make it interesting.

Mercedes-wThe business of play
Today, even businesses are learning to play. They must in order to compete in a technology-driven environment. The internet has forever changed the landscape of buying and selling. The interactive world is here, and a company has to understand cutting-edge technology and know how people use it for their benefit.

Mercedes_drive-wMany successful businesses are heading in the direction of a virtual world by creating a unique setting or “play” experience for customers when using their goods and services. As societies around the world have perfected their manufacturing techniques of transforming raw materials into finished goods, many products have become commodity items with little differentiation. What separates one brand from another is how you “experience” or interact with a product.

To succeed, you must “play”. You’ve got to offer customers, or as the Disney Corporation prefers to call them, “guests”, something more than a mere transaction of money for goods or services. You have to connect with your target audience on an emotional level so that they experience a relationship with you, if just for a moment in time.

With all this talk about the modern morphing of simple play, I must say that I still prefer a restaurant that lets customers eat peacefully at their tables, and not have dancing, jungle animals burst into song in the middle of the appetizers. But then, I also prefer to play with real people.

Citations
1 Kennedy, Brian (2004) Creationism, The New Republic Online, December 8.

2 Walker, Jesse (2005) Games People Play, Reason on Line, August 29.

3 Ricketts, Camille (2004) Virtual Reality Check, The Stanford Daily, January 20.

Huizinga, J. (1950) Nature and significance of play as a cultural phenomenon (pp. 1-27). Homo ludens: a study of the play element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press.

Pine, B.J., & Gilmore, J.H. (1999) The Experience Economy. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, pp. 1-26.

Second Life ~ The first time around

I’m not a gamer. The first micro-chip-based game I ever played was Pong, which at the time I thought was pretty cool.

Myst Island Myst Video, A flyby of Riven..

Since I really prefer being a booker, I haven’t purchased many games for my pc. I have tried some, like Myst which I really enjoyed (although cheat sheets seem a necessary tool if you ever want to get to the next level.) I’ve tried racing games, like Need for Speed, but I really need a steering wheel to take a turn at 150 miles per hour.

I must admit that I have a weakness for playing backgammon with anonymous partners from around the globe, so I am probably ready to advance from junior monopoly to the full version at this stage.

I just don’t have the attention span to enjoy spending hours playing these somewhat mindless games, but now that I review my computer gaming history, I can see that perhaps what I need is a more stimulating amusement to keep my interest.

CA-SL_Team-Hw
When asked to sign on to Second Life, I thought, “why not, maybe it’ll be interesting. But what the heck is it?” The answer? Well, nothing like I expected. It’s a 3-D, interactive life simulation game where you need money, just like in real life, to purchase land, homes, clothes, entertainment, etc. And, you get a simulated body called an avatar whose dimensions you can adjust. Oh if only life simulated art!

sl_people-wTwo interesting aspects I first encountered were that you are not alone in this world, but are one of its many residents, and you can fly! Since I’m a new member, I’m still testing my wings in the sky and with the bitmapped people on the ground. I was a little disturbed on my first foray into Second Life when I saw so many other fellow inhabitants. I kinda wanted to explore on my own. But this particular aspect makes the game very interesting because anything, anyone, can happen.

I still prefer my electronic board games, but during the past week, I find myself entering this new world to see what I can learn, and have fun at the same time. I can always use a bookmark to save my place….