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Archive for the ‘user interface’ Category

Good Customer Experience Trumps Good Customer Service. Bad CUX Trumps All. A Tale of Chukka Boots and Photoshop.

Posted by Bob Warfield on January 22, 2014

ChukkaBootsGood Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service, even if you are Zappo’s.  My wife quit buying shoes from Zappo’s after they sent her the wrong pair of shoes for the third time and she had to return them.  They didn’t do it all on the same transaction, it happened over a fairly long period of time.  And yes, the Zappo’s Customer Service people were wonderful as always.  But it didn’t matter–the underlying Customer Experience was giving her the wrong shoes and she only allowed that to happen so many times before she gave up on them.

I had a similar experience with Zappo’s, but I didn’t even get as far as Customer Service.  I have bought shoes from them once–a nice pair of Clark’s Chukka Boots.   Great!

Some time later, I went looking for some tennis shoes.  I have a penchant for bright red shoes of the most exotic design possible that I wear when I go to hear live music.  I went straight to Zappo’s, found a pair of shoes I wanted, and tried to purchase.  I expected to be able to use my Amazon account, given they’re owned by Amazon and all, and it looked like I could do that, but I actually couldn’t quite make it work.  I don’t have an account on Zappo’s, because in a time of data breaches like Target’s, I open as few accounts as I can.  So I moved on.  It came time for me to buy another pair of shoes and I went  back to Zappo’s again, thinking that companies as savvy as Amazon and Zappo’s would surely have fixed the problem.  I found the shoes I wanted and tried once more to buy them.  No joy.  I could find no way to buy on my Amazon account and did not want to spend the time opening a Zappo’s account.

Not only did Zappo’s lose the sale of 2 pairs of shoes, but I just won’t go back there again.  It isn’t clear to me Amazon cares much, because in the end, I did buy those 2 pair from Amazon.  But if there was a good alternative I was familiar with, I would’ve skipped Amazon too, just for annoying me.

Now, how hard would it be for Zappo’s not to send my wife the wrong pair of shoes 3 times?  She doesn’t buy shoes all that often, so it was surprising it happened to her so many times.  And how hard would it be for Amazon to make it easy for me to buy shoes from Zappo’s with my existing Amazon account?  Come on, this can’t be rocket science for a company like Amazon.  If Google can figure out to put a birthday logo on their search page on my birthday because it picked up my birthdate somewhere in their far flung empire, Amazon can let me buy Zappo’s shoes with an Amazon account, right?

Fast forward to this morning.  I was doing something and fired up Adobe Photoshop CS3 (yes, I have had it for a long time!).  It immediately announced I had 2 days left to activate or it would die.  Great, I did remember it asking a few days ago.  I had tried and it kept telling me it had an Internet connection problem.  I knew it wasn’t at my end, nothing else was complaining, so I figured I try again–they surely had fixed their problem by now.

No joy.

I was forced to use their phone activation.  With some trepidation I dialed the toll-free number and waited.  I really hate phone support.  It just isn’t ever a happy thing.  Ever.

Eventually, it had me key in a 24 digit serial number followed by a 32 digit activation code using my phone’s keypad.  Wow, that was a joy–not!  But, Photoshop at least did pop up a box that had the phone number to call plus these two lengthy codes to make it easier.  Unfortunately, the phone robot announced my activation code did not have enough digits.

WTF?!??  This was exactly the same code that Photoshop was telling me was the one to use.  How could it be wrong?

I tried twice, to no avail, at which point it told me to hold for a support representative.  Good, I was ready to let some human being know what I thought about all this after having used the software for several years.  Unfortunately, after a 5 minute wait, the Adobe side announced that they were no longer handling activation problems by telephone and gave me a URL I would have to visit with my browser to fix it.  Of course my blood pressure went up to the next DefCon level.

I went to the page suggested and couldn’t find even a hint of clue about what to do.  It was kind of a haphazard FAQ that only listed a few things, none of which could possibly be at issue.  When I got to the bottom, there was a Chat button with a message that cheerfully informed me I could get on right away with an agent if I would simply click.  So I did.

Of course as soon as the chat window opened, it informed me there were other customers ahead of me in line.  WTF?

Okay, deep cleansing breaths.  After no less than 10 messages informing me I was still waiting (no duh, I know I am waiting), Kumar finally popped up.

Kumar is mostly robot.  He is no doubt based on the old ELIZA simulated psychiatrist program which would always turn your question back around without really ever answering much.  It’s a primitive AI technique that’s been around forever.  Try it if you like, it’s kind of creepy in the same way that Kumar was.  I had to provide a description of my problem up front, and Kumar would ask me questions that were phrased along the lines of what I’d already told it, but that didn’t really add much color to the situation:

“Hi Bob.  You’re here because you can’t activate your Photoshop?”

“Yeah Kumar, that’s what I said in the original description.”

This is where Kumar gets clever.  Every time I respond, I get back a message saying, “Okay Bob, I’ll be back in 2-3 minutes after I check into that and take the necessary actions.”  Literally every single response I made, it would do that.  This is because Kumar, or whatever the real human being is named, is sitting in a giant call center somewhere dealing with probably 100 customers simultaneously.  He doesn’t want to get back to any one of us too quickly lest we monopolize too much of his time and annoy the other customers.  So, he uses all this clever software mostly to stall us customers so he can handle more of us.  Sweet!

He asks me to type in my 24-digit serial number (DOH!), but fortunately, I can just copy and paste it (Hah, outsmarted you bozos!).  Then he goes away for extra long–longer than the 2-3 minutes promised.  When he gets back, he wants to know my email for my Adobe customer account.  Oh boy.  Each piece of information will be asked for at 5 to 10 minute intervals–this is going to be painful and I have an appointment in 10 minutes.  I call the appointment to say I am coming, but I will be late.  It’s taken me 45 minutes with Kumar to get this far.

And then, a bit of magic happens.  Kumar comes back and says it’s all fixed, please try again.  I do, and low and behold, the Internet activation works.  A modicum of happiness ensues and I recall the nuclear bombers my DefCon blood pressure rise had summoned.  Then I started thinking about what had happened. Basically, the only reason online activation, had failed, the only reason I had worried whether I would fail to activate and thereby lose a valuable tool, the only reason I had to spend 45 minutes trying to tell Kumar the two pieces of information needed to fix the problem, the only reason I was getting really ticked off at Adobe, was because they wanted to associate my serial number (Kumar didn’t even ask me for the activation code) with my email.

Remember when I said I didn’t create an account with Zappo’s?  Well I also didn’t bother registering Photoshop.  It used to pop up a box about every 2 weeks asking me to fill out an elaborate form, and I would just tell it to go away.  Eventually it offered me the chance to tell it to never ask again, and I did so, thinking what a relief.  Nowhere did they tell me that eventually some power that be would decide they were going to force me to reactivate software that had already been activated and then put me through a painful experience of apparently having that activation fail, just because they wanted me to register.  A registration they no doubt needed so they can send me better marketing spam.

Can we see by now how to apply the maxim that Good Customer Experience trumps Good Customer Service?  Adobe didn’t really give good customer service, BTW, it was terrible.  I don’t blame Kumar for it.  I blame a Draconian wall and a moat filled with alligators designed to keep costs down on a cost center (Customer Service) that was built by a left and a right hand not knowing each other in a large bureaucratic organization and a marketing organization that only cares about filling its lead hungry maw.  It’s about par for the course with large organizations but it also happens to small organizations that pride themselves on treating customers well.  Tragically, it is so unnecessary and counter-productive too.

Let’s take Adobe’s case.  One could argue they never should’ve resorted to all this to connect my email to a serial number.  Let the man not register.  Or, they could’ve just told me I had to register to activate.  Hell, they could’ve just asked for my email as part of the re-activation and I’d have been happy.  Or they could’ve asked me to login to my Adobe account, also acceptable.  There are endless up front Customer Experience things they could have done to eliminate the need for me to deal with Customer Service at all.  Ironically, it would’ve been cheaper to do that.  45 minutes of Kumar and all those automated voice response systems had to cost something.

I run a one-man SaaS company (actually there are a couple part timers, but I’m making a point).  I do all the Customer Service myself.  Whenever and wherever I can, I try to change the User Experience to eliminate classes of Customer Service I see over and over again.  I have to just to survive.  Best of all, it makes the Customers happier and less frustrated.  The next time you’re gearing up a new release of your software, e-commerce front end, or whatever, ask what you can do to reduce the need for Customer Service.  Find out what the common sources of it are.  Get rid of a few of them every time you ship another release.  It’ll be a Good Thing for all concerned, I promise.

Posted in amazon, customer service, Marketing, service, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Why Did Mailchimp Decide to Get Less User Friendly?

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 5, 2013

Mailchimp is the third email service I tried for my boostrapped company, CNCCookbook.  I generally like the service because it makes the email chores easier.  When you’re a bootstrapper with limited resources (heh, I’m a one man SaaS company), that’s important.

Did Mojo Jojo take out the original chimp and start implementing plans for world domination?

I ask because lately, Mailchimp seems to be losing its way in the making things easier department.

There’s been at least four changes made fairly recently that all bug me.  I’m sure they were all done to try to reduce Mailchimp’s costs–costs for database activity or cost for Customer Service.  But they’re making my experience the worse for the wear and making Mailchimp seem more like the big faceless services and less like, well, Mailchimp.

Here’s what they did.

Made it harder to search

I love the idea of a simple search type in without recourse to complicated database query UI’s that only thinly veil the SQL underneath.  Mailchimp used to have a search box on every page.  Type something in and it searched everywhere and quickly found every object in Mailchimp that related to the search.

I use search a LOT when I am tracking down various Customer Service issues.  Turns out which lists they’ve subscribed to is important for my business.  Bravo for making that so easy, Mailchimp!

Unfortunately, they’ve now buried that particular map with the treasure.  To search requires the following:

-  Go to the “Lists” list.

-  Pick a list.

-  Click the magnifier icon.

-  Now we finally see a search UI.  But, no joy yet, by default it only searches the current list.  I have to perform another manual step to make it search “Everything” which is not the default as it used to be.

DOH!  That’s less friendly, Mailchimp, and I have to do it constantly every day.

Made it harder to export list extracts

I export my mailing lists to CSV files frequently.  Sometimes it’s for backups, sometimes it is so I can re-import them for various purposes.  Don’t ask me why, but Mailchimp, why didn’t you make it easy to add any new names in one list to another?  Especially since it’s more money for you because you charge on list size.  Yeah, I know you prefer me to do that another way, like I said, don’t ask me why I like this way.

Used to be I could just click an icon and zippity-doo-dah it would shoot down to the bottom as a download in Chrome.  Nice!

But wait, that’s no longer possible.  Instead it gets sent to some queue, and a message pops up telling me they’ll email me the darned thing.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.  I just love when businesses tell me that.  It’s never really for my convenience, is it?

Unfortunately, it gets worse.  The extracts show up zipped–hate that, now I have to perform another step to get at the data.  Come on guys, these files are a meg and a half in size.  Was it really worth saving those few microcents to make me spend that extra time?

Inside the zip file I will find my csv, and it will be named something like, “members_export_5eb7a8c2b4.csv.  Okay guys, are there really some propellor-headed beanies at your end that are going to make my life better by doing something with that whole hexadecimal 5eb7 blah-blah-blah number?  No?  I didn’t think so.  These files used to be called something like, “members_GWEdit_Trial_Nov_2_2013.csv”.  OMG, you mean I can actually glean some valuable information from my file name?  Was there really an important reason to quit letting me glean that valuable information?  Because it sure did result in a lot less user friendly file name.

Made it hard to get support and I have no idea how to give you my help

This one right here was the deal breaker that got me to write this post.  So I’m logged into Mailchimp and encounter these things and decide it’s time I made my voice heard.  I wanted to let the nice people at Mailchimp (well, I assume they’re nice since they have that nice chimp mascot and send me notes that are worded all cutesy and even used to give me a neat chimp link to entertain me every so often) know about all of this.  Because you know, I’m sure it’s just an oversight and if they could hear me and understand what they had done to me, they’d fix it.

Of course you can see where this is going.  There’s no sign of a support link anywhere in the online web-based Mailchimp app UI that I can see.  I think that’s a cardinal sin.  When you’re a web company with a web app, your web presence should be providing your tribe a seamless experience from learning about your company to buying your product to using your product to getting help with your product.  That doesn’t happen here.

Instead, I have to get out of the app and go to the Mailchimp main web site to find a “Support” link.  You go there and you’ve got one option:  Enter a question.  They tell you:

We encourage you to search our knowledge base for answers, but if you don’t see what you’re looking for, you’ll find links to contact our support team after you search.

Okay, I’ve been there and done that.  In fact I think my old Helpstream company was one of the first to offer that approach in our Customer Service system.  BUT…

What if I don’t have a question?  What if I want to give feedback?

Just for fun, I typed in “What if I want to give feedback?”  No joy.  The #1 hit is “How do I know if I’m writing a good subject line?”  Hang on guys, let’s talk about, “How do I know if my users are having a good user experience?”

If you strike out on the question, you get an “Email Us” button.  This takes you to a blank form where you get to submit your trouble ticket.  Isn’t it a bummer that it didn’t stick my question or search words into the subject line?  Could’ve saved me a bit of typing there.

So, I have to fill out this big form.  And since the time of whoever reads the form is more valuable than my time, I have to pass the IQ test by filling out a captcha.  Doesn’t that make me feel like a valued customer?  Well, no, actually, not at all.  So, I go try to remember exactly what email and user name I use with these guys, and then it comes to me:

If they would let me click a support button when I was in the app, I would be an authenticated user and they would not need for me to give them my name, email, Mailchimp username, or captcha.  Wouldn’t that be nice?

Now in fairness, I can’t do that for my own product, but I’m a one-man show here.  I would like to do better, and maybe with an API to my provider, User Voice, I could do it the way I am describing.  I am confident an organization the size of Mailchimp could figure it out though.  It just feels too much like they’ve reached that stage of Evil Corpocracy and Growth where they want to actively discourage Customer Service because some bean counter decided it was a cost center instead of the road to winning the hearts and minds of customers.

Hey, all I wanted to do was give a little feedback fer cryin’ out loud!

Here’s what I have in my little one man SaaS company app to help customers while they’re in the app:

GWHelpResources

BTW, after I had filed 2 support tickets I finally noticed there was a feedback link low and to the right on the page.  You can’t see it until you’re presented with the form, at which point your inclination is to fill out the form.

Template Madness

I keep my emails simple.  Part of my company’s persona is that we’re not all about the marketing spam–we are about providing high quality content for free.  Hence, I don’t use overly slick HTML email templates.  Yeah, maybe I could improve conversions, but they rock compared to everyone else I talk to, so sue me.

The latest Mailchimp UI for creating a mailing has just gone template wild.  There’s jillions of them buried many levels deep, some accessed with large text, some with small.  Turns out I don’t want to look at “My Templates” (I never designed any), “Email Designer” (I still don’t want to design one!), “Predesigned” (it’s a zoo, frickin’ sharks with lasers on their heads in there!  Plus, it leds with a buncha mobile stuff because “Android” starts with “A” or something–I don’t want email to send to mobile devices, thank you!), I don’t want to code my own (if I’m not going to design one I am SURE not gonna code one!), I don’t want to import one (in case I forgot, I DON’T HAVE ANY TEMPLATES!!!), hey wait, what’s absolutely the last thing in the list and in the smallest type with the most unsexyist icon possible?

Classic Templates!  OK, I think this is what I want.  Scroll.  Scroll.  Scroll.  There, “basic” is what I have always used.  Did I mention I don’t want to be too slick or spammy?

How about looking in yer lil primate database and seeing that this is the only template I ever use?  Could you make use of that information to maybe give me a choice of templates I have used in the past?  Would that be a cool thing to have right up front?

I know history lists are kinda avant-garde and they’re for leading edge products like (cough) Microsoft Office, but they can save me time and would’ve saved me time here.  Are you guys really betting your users want to see  your fancy new templates first before they see what they’ve been using for years?  Well maybe, but just know that’s the bet you’ve made with this new UI.  BTW, you can actually instrument your app to see how many people are wandering aimlessly through all those darned templates before they get to one they want to use.  I know my little one man SaaS company does stuff like that.  Might be a good idea, Elon Musk does it with frickin’ cars for Heaven’s sake!

Conclusion

Does Mailchimp have a lousy UX?  Certainly not!

But they’re starting to do some things that are less than optimal.  I write this piece slightly tongue-in-cheek because I want to pass along some feedback to Mailchimp and I want to give other software startups and UX Designers some notions about how to do a better job on some of these things.  I hope I’ve helped all parties.  I’m pretty sure no chimps were harmed in the writing of this piece and I hope none will be harmed by the reading either.

Happy holidays!

Posted in customer service, user interface | 3 Comments »

6 Ways The Pundits Are Dazed and Confused About Google Reader and RSS

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 14, 2013

mainstream-mediaOne of the you-betcha-surefire Pundit strategies is that when something is getting a lot of heat, like the current flap over Google dropping Google Reader, you can get a lot of attention by disagreeing with the crowd.  You want to do so in the most colorful possible way, in fact.  It’s a common form of link baiting and mild trollership.  So long as all that’s happening is they’re family the flames of emotion for their own benefit and to gain attention, I couldn’t care less.  But, along with this behavior, comes the risk that someone will actually take some of what’s said seriously and be confused about it.  That’s to be avoided.  Hence my list of 6 ways the Pundits are confused about Google Reader and RSS:

1.  Just use Twitter

There are so many problems with Twitter as a replacement for Google Reader that I’ll only list a few of the most important:

-  You can only search 140 characters when looking for meaning, whereas with RSS/Reader you get to search the title and the full contents of a blog post.

-  The signal to noise ration on Twitter is terrible.  Save one silly article where the ZDNet writer said he had failed to organize his RSS feeds but had very carefully tended to his Twitter followings, this is not something many disagree with.  Twitter is overrun by chittering twirping bots.

-  What signal that does exist on Twitter is largely coming from people who use RSS Readers to curate what they pass along.

-  Twitter is the poster child of a company that frequently upsets and destroys its ecosystem in its own self-interest.  If you think that is bad while it’s been private, just wait until it is under the publicly traded spotlight to show growth to sustain its ridiculous multiples.  Why would you trust that whatever you value about Twitter has any permanence at all?  Particularly after watching the Google Reader-you-are-products-not-customers drama unfold?  As the saying goes, fool me once…

-  Twitter has all the problems of the River of News Metaphor, which is next up.

2.  The River of News is a Better Metaphor

I can’t avoid addressing the “River of News” metaphor when RSS inventor Dave Winer says that’s the better mousetrap and when so many who prefer Twitter think they want the River of News.

My problem with the River of News is not that it isn’t a good metaphor.  Rather it’s that Google Reader could function just fine as a River of News (you don’t have to care about unread vs read or put anything in folders, just reader the latest arrivals as you wish) and that the River of News doesn’t solve the problem Google Reader is ideally suited for.  More on that problem below, but right here, let’s focus on what problem the River of News does solve.  It’s the problem of Finding Something Current of Interest Right Now.  That’s a useful problem to solve for many people.  If you just want to be on top of the latest industry gossip so you don’t feel silly at lunch, it works.  If you just need to kill a little time and want to learn something new, it works.  However, if you actually want to solve the Real Problem that Google Reader was the best at solving, the River of News is useless.  The River of News is what True Google Reader Users spent their time trying to get past.  Let me illustrate.

I used Google Reader in some specific ways precisely because I was trying to avoid the River of News.  The River views that the most important dimension is arrival time.  The more recent, the better.  Consequently, I used Reader’s folders to group noisy sites under a category I called “Bulk Feeds”.  These were the general purpose news sources like Techmeme, ZDNet, GigaOm, or (back when I cared) TechCrunch.  Every single day I would start the morning by marking all read except today’s entries in the Bulk Feeds folder.  I wish I could’ve automated it by saying, in essence, “For this folder I only care about what came out in the last 24 hours and you can delete the rest.”

I had a second group of folders I called “A-List”.  This was a group of very very good bloggers who were more likely to be worth wading through more articles than the Bulk Feeds, but who were still extremely general in terms of their content.  Seth Godin would be a good example.  It would’ve been nice to be able to mark these as read if older than a week.

Every thing else went into a folder by subject, because these were blogs that were highly focused on deep areas (outbound marketing, seo, UX design, etc.) and that wrote content that was essentially Evergreen.  Any blogger or SEO marketer knows what Evergreen content is–it’s content that is not perishable and that you’ll get value out of for years.  This is content that I explicitly do not want to see lost in a River of News, that I do want to be able to read through over time so I will not mark it as read without at least skimming it.  This is the content Google Reader is really the best tool for curating, and it is the content that River of News substitutes are the absolute worst at helping me acquire, manage, and consume.

3.  Google Reader Was Preventing Innovation

Mark Masterson gets my award for silliest and most confused outlook on Google Reader.   His long and bizarre rant against it seems to boil down to it being bad for any software to be around for too long, apparently because it stifles innovation.  Apparently it is some sort of impediment to evolution.  Baloney.  There’s been plenty of misguided evolution going on and none of it has solved the problems Google Reader solves.  There are cases where there isn’t any particular benefit to be gained by trying to evolve further solutions to a particular problem.  When that happens, it’s a good thing if the solution has commanding market share and is allowed to stand while others see clearly the ecological niche related to that market is now filled.  Aside from a desire to keep enough competition to avoid monopolistic price gouging, there’s no real evolution needed.

One of the biggest risks is that in their effort to fill the gaping Google Reader void with something new, New, NEW, we will lose sight of what Google Reader did well.  By deciding to fix its shortcomings, we’ll get a magazine like Flipboard, a way to read something later like Instapaper, or an ambient noise generator like Twitter.  These are not innovations on Reader, they’re different eco-niches entirely.

4.  RSS is Dying Because It’s Not Social Enough

We’ve all met people that approach “friends” in one of two ways.  There are those people that form extremely deep and long-lasting friendships.  Then there are those who will refer to anyone they’ve met as a friend.  Certainly there are possibilities between these extremes, but on the whole, people tend to fall more at one end or the other than not.  Those people that argue RSS is not social enough are from the “If I’ve met you, you’re my friend” extreme.  They have a zillion follows on Twitter, a zillion friends on Facebook, and a zillion more connections on LinkedIn.  Or, perhaps their bipolarity is a function of type of relationship, with a zillion business-related connections and relatively few personal connections.

But here is the thing–RSS is for those people that want to form extremely deep and long-lasting connections.  That’s what the RSS experience is all about–I don’t want to miss anything you’re saying so I will subscribe to you in my Reader, and once there, you’ll probably stay there for quite some time.  The River of News crowd thinks that because they’ve exchanged the occasional Tweet with someone they don’t really know and may never Tweet with again, that’s being more Social.  No, not at all–they’re different kinds of Social and we’re losing essentially half of the Social spectrum when we walk away from RSS.

That same ZDNet writer who never organized his RSS feeds but carefully curated his Twitter and then complained RSS was too noisy claimed:

SS readers don’t exactly lend themselves to conversations either — the sorts of conversations that happen quite naturally on social media (including social bookmarking/linking sites like Reddit).

Yet, he has 33 comments on that post as I write this, and I’m sure there’ll be many more before people quit commenting on it.  Many of the comments are more thoughtful than 140 characters can support.  Ironically, so far this year he has had exactly one post (on why the cost of the 128 GB iPad doesn’t matter) that had more comments.  I’m not going to bother counting how many of his Tweets had more conversation as the point is made that he couldn’t hope for a more social medium than RSS and blog comments.  There isn’t one that exists.  I doubt even Fred Wilson could claim otherwise given how his blog comment ecosystem works even though he is an investor in Twitter.

5.  Since Google Reader Was Never Profitable, It’s Best To Shut It Down

This is a popular refrain:

Google is a business it has to make money and it has every right to shut Google Reader down because it wasn’t making money and you have no right to complain about it because it was free.

Bollocks.  If Google was Walmart choosing not to carry some product or other that I used to be able to buy there cheaply, that’d be one thing.  But here is the difference:  Google is igniting real negative sentiment towards the Google Empire as a result of this decision.  They’re making a mockery of their business motto of, “Do no evil.”  In fact, I would argue that very root of the Evil they claim to want to avoid stems from the idea that most of the people who use their software (I am carefully not calling that software “products”) are not their customers.  Google’s Customers pay for advertising and give them money.  Rather, those of us who use their software are in fact the real “products” Google has to sell.  When you look at it that way, any massive sentiment issue among the “products” is a defect that is ultimately bad for the business.  You can only mistreat the “products” for so long before they revolt.  Unfortunately, these “products” are fickle and don’t have to stay with Google.  They can be “products” for lots of others.

Closely related is Google’s Valuation.  It is unnaturally high for a reason–because people believe in them.  Actions like sunsetting Google Reader damage that belief right at its core.  This is a grass roots problem that ultimately leaves only the role of commoditizer open to Google, and this is not good for their long term valuation prospects.

6.  RSS and Reader Are In Decline and the Average Consumer Never Used It, So Why Bother?

Let’s leave aside for the moment that some of the folks who worked with it say this has little to do with decline and everything to do with trying to prop up Google+.  While I find that notion entirely plausible and painfully Microsoft-like in its execution, it’s worth musing about the “decline” of RSS.  It’s a bit like saying that since so many Prius’s have been sold Porsche’s are in decline.  Porsche’s were never meant to take the place of the Prius.  It is not unusual for the power tool to come along first followed by the tool the mere mortals can use, but that does not in any way diminish the value of the power tools.  Look, we started with HTML and people had to know it and deal with it to have a web presence.  Then we got some better tools such as blogs.  Eventually we made it all the way to things like Twitter and Facebook, where anyone can have a web presence very easily with absolutely no need of technical knowledge or even the creative ability to write more than 140 characters or so of text.  That’s great, but it in no way means that since we can create 140 character messages easily we’ve no need of static HTML pages or blogs.  It’s fuzzy thinking.

I have no problem believing the number of people who engage in use of the power tool may have declined a bit, but as I mentioned on the Twitter note above, these other tools remain vitally dependent on the power tools users who are curating content.  It’s less a decline and more of a saturation.  This is the same fuzzy thinking that leads us to declare that since people are buying smartphones and tablets like there is no tomorrow the desktop PC must be dead.

The idea that the only thing that matters is what appeals to the lowest common denominator is what’s wrong with the news today in general.  It’s why there’s a more enlightened crowd out there that very much wants to seek the Long Tail, needs Google Reader to do it, and couldn’t care less about USA Today, Fox News, Huffington Post, or Techcrunch.

What Google Reader Really Was:  Super High Octane Page Rank

Laura Hazard Owen’s, “Google Reader, Please Don’t Go — I Need You To Do My Job” is one of the best takes on what Google Reader really does I have seen.  She makes her case well:

-  Twitter is no substitute for RSS:  The best thing about Google Reader, from my point of view, is that it allows me to scan a lot of information quickly, with the assurance that I’m not missing anything.  Exactly what I’m saying about Twitter and the River of News metaphor.

-  Neither is Flipboard:  Services like Flipboard are great if you want to see the most popular stories on a given topic. But as someone who really geeks out digital book publishing, I don’t just want to see the stories that an aggregator recommends for me because they’ve reached a critical mass.  Amen, sister!  I want to lever myself as far out onto the Long Tail as possible because that’s where the real action is.  Everything else is processed and homogenized for mass consumption.

Let me go beyond what Laura has to say to cut through to essence of what I think Reader is.  Laura talks about it being for someone who wants to, “…keep track of what’s going on at the roots of my beat” or to “…really geek out” on some subject or other.  It solves a very deep Search problem by facilitating a connection between the consumers of the information who want to get it in as dense and pure a form as possible, uncut on the street with the baby laxative the various aggregators use to define what will be popular.  It is information curation in its purest form.  If we once manage to find the true experts in the subjects we thrive on, the very wellsprings from which the best ideas flow, how could we not want to establish a permanent pipeline into those cognitive reservoirs?  How else to do so than by use of a tool like Google Reader.  This is the Super High Octane driven by true Human Intelligence alternative to Page Rank.  It’s Quora done more deeply than a single question at a time.  It’s more deeply Social than anything seen since for those who genuinely want to be a part of a select community of Thinkers.  It is Ernest Hemingway and all of the others in Paris.  It’s plugging directly into particular cyber-cognitive neighborhoods the way only Gibson and Stephenson could imagine before it came along.  And Google wants to burn it down.

Try asking Ernest Hemingway to communicate with his peers 140 characters at a time while anyone who wants can crash the party and conversation.  Writing is a lonely business, but it doesn’t have to be that lonely.

Posted in user interface, Web 2.0 | 5 Comments »

How Many Software Companies Monitor Their Software as Well as Tesla Monitors its Cars?

Posted by Bob Warfield on February 14, 2013

The unfolding story of how the New York Times’ negative review of the Tesla Model S may have actually been faked is a cautionary tale for software vendors.  Basically, there is enough instrumentation and feedback built into the Tesla S that Elon Musk was able to “shred” the review, as Dan Frommer writes.  The graphical plot of exactly what was happening with annotations is particularly damning:

NY Times Tesla Speed Chart

It’ll be fascinating to see how the NYT responds.  Hard to imagine how they do anything but investigate Broder and ultimately move him along elsewhere.  To do much else would imply very little journalistic integrity.

My question for you is that since you’re reading this blog and are likely somehow involved in high tech hardware or software at some level, how does your product compare in terms of how well it can monitor what your users are doing with your product?

I’m fascinated with the idea of closing the feedback loop for the good of customers.  Yes, it’s great Musk can catch the NYT in a bogus review, and perhaps you will catch a reviewer too, but the potential for improving your customer’s experience is of much greater value to your product.  This may seem like a Big-Company-Only idea, but I’m pursuing it with a vengeance for my SaaS bootstrap company (CNCCookbook) because I need precise feedback that pinpoints where I can do the most good for my users with the scarce resources I have available.  I can tell you from experience that the tools are available and straightforward.  You can have the data for very little effort invested.

The next thing I am after is to automate responses to that data.  I’ve been reading the blog of a company called Totango with some interest.  They essentially want to provide SaaS automation for a Customer Success team.  Various folks have written about the importance of Customer Success and I’m also a big believer.  My thoughts at this point are to start out relatively simple.  I want to understand the early lifecycle of my products and be able to trigger automated actions based on that cycle.  For example:

Step 1:  Installation

Monitor the first time the customer has successfully logged into the product.  Offer increasing amounts of help via emails once a day until they achieve this milestone.  The emails can start with self-service help resourcs of various kinds and eventually escalate to offering a call or help webinar.  The goal is to get the customer properly installed.

Step 2:  Configuration

This seems like part of installing, but in fact there is significant post installation configuration needed for CNC Manufacturing software.  Same sort of thing: provide daily emails with increasing levels of help until the system determines that the user has properly configured the system.  Also, this is an opportunity to collect information.  We provide canned configuration for the most common cases and finding out what the next tranche of cases to target should be is very helpful.

Step 3:  The Path to Power Usage

It’d be great if everyone who signed up for our 30 day free trial actually got to see and understand all of the features that set our product apart.  I’ve seen some other products like Dropbox (Full disclosure: they give me another 250MB of storage if you use that link and then sign up. If you’d rather I didn’t get the extra storage, use this link instead. If you sign up, they’ll give you a link where you can get 250MB free too.) walk customers through a usage maturity exercise.  They’ve somewhat gamified it by giving out some of their “currency” in the form of extra storage if you complete the tasks.  My goals here would be to get everyone to see as many of our unique functions as possible during the 30 day trial.

Step 4:  The Holy Grail: Referrals

If all this goes well, the customer gets through the Trial, understands the unique capabilities of our products, and likes the product well enough to buy it, then the final stage in this incarnation is to ask them to refer others they know who might like the product.

That’s a pretty simple roadmap for how to create some closed-loop feedback of telemetry and drip email that improves your customer’s experience.  So I’ll ask again:

Is your company setup to monitor your users as successfully as Tesla monitors its drivers?  Why not?  I’ve used a lot of software where it is pretty clear they’re not monitoring much at all.  I’ve even talked to some of them to encourage change, and they seem receptive.

If you have a story about what sort of work along these lines you’re doing, please share it in the comments below.  I’m very curious.  I think we have the potential to personalize the experience for our customers like never before.

Posted in business, cloud, customer service, software development, strategy, user interface | 6 Comments »

Reading News on an iPad is Astonishly Bad UX

Posted by Bob Warfield on December 13, 2012

pravdaHi, my name is Bob Warfield, and I am a news junkey.  I subscribe to about 200 blogs in my feed reader.  I alternate between my Gmail, Google Reader, and Google News when I have a spare moment of leisure, looking for something new and exciting to discover.  I do this almost entirely on my iPad because it’s nice to get away from my home office desk where I spend most of my time working on my bootstrap company, CNCCookbook.  More and more, I am considering reducing the frequency of my access to Google News and primarily limiting it to my desktop.  The reason?  The User Experience reading news there is astonishingly bad.  Mind you, it’s only a little bit better on the desktop, but I find that accessing it with Chrome instead of the iPad’s built-in browser smooths the journey just ever so slightly, and it needs a Hell of a lot of smoothing.

Welcome to Smoothspan Blog, fasten your seat belts, and keep arms and legs inside the car at all times, because it’s been awhile, and it’s time for a good rant.

Before I go much further, let me give some absolution to Apple and the iPad, though the browser on the device surely could stand to be better.  Some part of what I am about to report is potentially browser related, but I do understand the iPad browser is more like an innocent bystander than the slavering maniac who is dishing out the BS causing my pain (sorry, a little of my inner monologue keeps slipping out when I’m angry).  I will also give partial absolution to Google and their News reader.  Again, it can only be partial, because just as Apple could build a more robust browser (you’ll see what’s needed shortly), Google could treat their news sources like they treat everyone else.  There’ve been SEO-related Google Search releases that heavily penalize sites that are too spammy, for example, but you don’t have to spend long accessing the literary giants like the New York Times via the Google News to see that those who are supposedly well above the commonplace web are offering a UX that has more in common with the worst days of America Online (AOL for you young ‘uns) than it does with their high falutin’ words.

With that aside, it’s time for me to explain what my problem is, and the good news it that it is simple.  When I open the Google News page, here is the sort of thing that happens to me more often than not:

I click an article only to discover I can’t really read it without subscribing due to the pay wall

For example, the Wall Street Journal has been doing this to me.  I’ll wind up on a page with a big giant Pay Wall notice and there is maybe one sentence of actual story text.  Of course Google got to index the whole story and placed it in their News Feed according to the full text, not the one sentence.  This is in violent contradiction to their normal webmaster guidelines where making the experience for Google differ from that of average viewers is strictly Verboten.  It is also in contradiction to their recent changes that heavily penalize pages that show much advertising above the fold.  Advertising?  Fold?  Hah!  On the WSJ stories I’ve been seeing there is nothing but advertising above the fold.  I don’t care who they are or what kind of national treasure their journalists may be, this is spam, served up steaming hot by Google and the WSJ.  Oddly, while this happened to me three times this morning on the iPad, there was no sign of it on my desktop.  I’m sure there’s some cookie or other thing counting off my accesses, and since I mostly read on the iPad, it gets dinged first.

BTW, NY Times, just because you let me see 10 or however many articles before your Pay Wall popup, I’m not any happier.  How about this:

Unlimited articles if accessed via Google News, and however many your Pay Wall allows if I go there via search, a referral link, or directly?

I click on an article and I’m immediately greeted by an offer to download their iPad app

Oh goody.  That’s just what I want.  Guess what guys?  You are needlessly and annoyingly delaying me on the journey to my reward.  I am reading from a feed that has God knows how many different news publications.  What are the chances I want to download an app for each and every one?  This is the Internet in the 2000′s.  There may be some people who want to sit at the breakfast table and read your waste of wood pulp cover to cover.  Leave them to doing that on the wood pulp and leave me out of it.  At least get the hint when I say, “No” the first time and quit asking.

I click on an article and it freezes and reloads multiple times.  Ultimately, it may just crash.

This happens constantly and is the robustness issue I hold Apple partially accountable for.  Apparently, in order to enact their diabolical Pay Wall, Advertising, and Privacy Subversion schemes, the newspapers have to run such wretchedly abusive Javascript, that the browser just can’t handle it smoothly.  I don’t see this in Chrome on my desktop, but it is constant on the mobile devices.  Something comes up.  You start reading.  You might even get one little scroll in.  Then the screen repaints and you’ve lost your place.  Or it freezes and you can’t scroll further until the diabolical machinations have completed.  This may go on through two, three, or even four cycles before it finally settles down.  On any of the cycles, there is a finite chance that the browser evaporates completely due to a crash and you’re left staring at the desktop.  Now you have a question to face, because that newspaper has just asked you in true Clint Eastwood fashion, “Do you feel lucky, punk?”  If you do, you’ll reload.  If not, you’ll demurely return to Google News and look for some other story to read.  After all, you were probably not worthy of the high quality journalism and you mercifully just missed seeing that damned pay wall or an offer to download an iPad app.

Here’s a news flash, if you’ll pardon the pun:  you newspaper guys should fire your IT departments that write this stuff and pick up a nice copy of WordPress.  I never see these problems reading the 200 blogs I subscribe to.  Never.

And gosh, you might save enough to invoke the Pay Wall less often.

I click on an article and it is video.  Worse, it is video that can’t be played on an iPad.

Yes, Steve Jobs can still reach out from the grave with his hatred of Flash and stop us in our tracks on his sacred iDevices.  Excellent.

I don’t tend to like video at all on my iPad.  Playback is often painful, buggy, or nonexistent.  Yet, there’s no way for me to tell in advance that I am headed into a video-only story and that worse, it won’t even play on my iPad.  Sorry Google, I gotta blame this one on you, and yes Apple, you too.  Silly buggers, why did you think this was a good thing?

After I get done reading an article and go back to Google News, it insists on repainting

Hey, love the real time spirit.  But if you spend half your time waiting for repaints either in the news story or Google News, a lot will change and you’ll never even see it.  You Google guys are supposed to be algorithm experts, how about a little algorithm here?  How about if the story isn’t that big a deal, if it is just a rehash of something you already showed, you don’t refresh that more than every 10 minutes or so?  Gimme a chance to get to the bottom of the page once anyway.  If some amazing thing happens, and I’m trusting your algorithm mightily to understand and be reasonable about the definition of “amazing”, then feel free.  But don’t just do it every time anything at all has changed on the front page.

Okay, how do we fix this crappy User Experience?

I could go on for quite a while in that vein.  The UX here really is pathetically bad.  I spend literally hours on the net and never experience anything like it until I get started reading News stories.  That ain’t right.

One approach is for Google to penalize the egregious and Apple to fix their darned browser so it doesn’t crash so much (I have to laugh about the claim Flash accounts for most crashes on Apple devices, pretty sure it is this browser which crashes more than anything I run on my iPad, Flash/AIR apps included).  That’d be nice, but Apple being Apple (“we don’t need no steenking Google Maps and we’ll ship whatever we please whenever we please”) and Google being Google (“honestly, we don’t mean to be Evil, we just are”), that might not happen.

How about just putting some Social voting into Google News?  This way Google can point to real facts from users if the NY Times wonders why it is getting less traffic?  Or, they can point to real facts when Bob Warfield is on a rant and tell him to sit down, users clearly don’t agree.  I believe a lot of good comes of group curation.  Unfortunately, I am just not sure Google cares a lot.  It’s pretty hard to tell what they do care about these days.  Google News might just be something they do so as not to leave an exposed flank and they don’t need to do it particularly well before moving on.

Or, how about counters?  Imagine if each story told what % of the time it was crashing your browser, what % of the time you’d have to go through some full page ad for mobile app or other, the average time it would take to load (another thing Google penalizes everyone but the newspapers for), and, well, you get the idea.  Heads would roll.  Things would get better.

I do find myself wondering about Yahoo.  I used to read their news before I became a Google Guy.  Unfortunately, they’re the people who will constantly log me out of my stock quotes to force me to type in my password expressly so they can sell a full page ad on their login page.  Do I think they will offer a better UX?  Nah, probably not.

(End of Rant)

Wishing you all Happy Holidays and be sure to check out the Geminids meteor storm tonight.  It is happening at a quasi-reasonable hour even.  FWIW, I hit many of the worst problems described above trying to find the details on the Geminids and that’s what drove me to the keyboard.  Sorry for the interruption, and please return to your normally scheduled activities as I will mine.

Posted in apple, business, mobile, user interface | Leave a Comment »

Saw the Microsoft Surface Tablet and Liked It

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 26, 2012

Microsoft Surface

I was at Houston’s Galleria mall during the Thanksgiving weekend and got a chance to spend some time in both the Microsoft and Apple stores there.  I had read a few articles praising the device, such as Jeff Atwood’s piece (which fairly gushes), but was skeptical.  I’m not at all an Apple Fan Boy nor a Windows Fan Boy.  There are things I like about each platform and things I don’t like.  I loved the 17″ Mac Power Book I had at my last job, but hated its lack of Del and other keyboard keys I’m used to as well as its $4000 price tag (the reason I didn’t buy one after leaving and probably the reason they didn’t let me keep theirs, LOL).  I love my iPad and my iPhone, but I stubbornly stick to having the most-powerful Windows machine I can buy (actually build) on my desktop.  I really dig the Apple monitors, and will eventually have to deal with writing the check for one to attach to my crazy homebuilt PC.  You get the idea–I’m all about Best of Breed for each device.

Putting that all aside, I walked into the Microsoft store with an open mind and low expectations.  The first bit of good news and bad news was there weren’t many people there so I got to spend a lot of time with the Surface RT and equally I had a very helpful salesperson do a demo so I didn’t have to struggle learning all the secret gestures folks are complaining about.  It didn’t take long to figure it out and once having done so, I don’t think I’d mind Windows 8 at all.  The biggest issue with it is what others have already said–it’s intended to be used in a touch environment and if you don’t have a touch screen, you’ll be left continually wishing you did.  The bad news was that there weren’t many people.  I went from the Microsoft store to the Apple store within the span of about 45 minutes and the Apple store was completely mobbed.  The big attraction was the tablets, and I got a good look at the new iPad Mini which was also very cool, but I didn’t get to put hands on to any of the pads.  There was a line everywhere I looked.  Clearly the world is thoroughly pre-conditioned at this stage not to bother even stopping in at the Microsoft store, which is a major problem they will have to fix.

Getting back to the Surface RT, I spent a good 20 minutes with it, including the demo.  I got to try both keyboards.  The short story on the keyboards is that they’re both light years ahead of Apple’s touch screen keyboards which I universally hate and avoid unless I absolutely have to get text into one of the devices.  The iPad is truly read only for me.  I will triage email so that anything requiring more than a sentence is left starred in Gmail and waiting for me to get back to my desktop.  With the Surface RT, not only could I type without a problem on either keyboard, but I was doing so in Microsoft Word.  What a joy for someone who writes as much as I do!  The Touch Cover is the thinnest and comes in all those crazy colors.  It’s actually not to bad and I found I could touch type decently on it.  I had read complaints about keys being in weird places and such, but didn’t really notice a problem there.  However, the Type Cover was a revelation because it is a real keyboard.  I had to keep lifting it up to check how thin and light it is because I couldn’t believe they could build that nice a keyboard without having it weigh down the Surface too much.  It’s not a problem.  By all means, try out both, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll want the Touch Cover.

The overall device is super slick.  Apple has little or nothing on Microsoft in terms of the hardware aesthetics.  The touch screen looks great and works great.  I know it isn’t a retina display, but frankly, it looked fine to me.  I loved having access to MS Office, and the demo person was quick to point out that there is a tile that corresponds to the Start menu, so all that gnashing and moaning about the demise of the start menu seems unfounded.  I suspect there are probably some subtle differences that will occasionally be maddening, but it all seemed to hang together really well.

Based on this experience, there were really only two issues I could identify with the Surface.  First, this was a Surface RT, and you really want a Surface that’ll run any Windows software.  That’s coming, and the demo person actually steered us to think hard about waiting for it.  She was very straightforward about trying to understand what we wanted to use the device for, and one of us was looking for a much lighter and slicker alternative to a laptop.  When further queried on which apps she runs most of the time, the salesperson told us the upcoming device would be much better for her.  I think that’s probably true for me too, so I’ll be waiting for the “real” Surface to make a purchase.

The second issue was the troubling difference in traffic to the Apple Store versus the Microsoft Store.  It doesn’t matter how great the device is if nobody knows about it.  It’s early days yet, but I’ll make a prediction.  Once people start seeing the Surface (and not the RT) turning up in work situations and people find it is far lighter but works just as well as a laptop, that’s when it will take off.  It’ll be the workhorse device for what we all used to call Knowledge Workers.  I think Microsoft will have a very nice level of success with it if they handle it reasonably well.  There are shades of the old, “Microsoft wins with the Third Release” rule, and this time it is taking 2 releases as the RT is not the winner.  It’s just kind of a placeholder platform that shows the potential.

The real interesting story will be watching how Apple responds.  Despite all the kvetching about Windows 8, Microsoft now has a unified platform that spans devices.  Yes, it has a UI tuned for tomorrow’s PC’s moreso than today’s through it’s extensive optimization for touch, but historically, betting that tomorrow will get here sooner than expected has been a good bet.  Steve Jobs had been known to roll those very same dice more often than not.  Apple has the challenge that OS/X and iOS are not a unified platform.  They’re vaguely similar platforms.  For now and some time, they have the luxury that their installed base is so large most developers will build for iOS first.  Win 8 has the luxury that a ton of software is already built for it.  It also has the luxury of potentially being the best corporate or business platform.

The other interesting story will be watching who patented what.  Clearly Apple and Microsoft both have huge patent portfolios.  If Apple can patent rectangles with round corners maybe Microsoft can patent tablets with built-in keyboards.  If one gets a decisive patent wedge in, that’ll make it much harder for the other.  I hope there isn’t too much of that because I am firmly in the camp that patents stifle innovation.

It’ll be a great competitive race and consumers can’t help but win from it.

Posted in business, microsoft surface, mobile, platforms, strategy, user interface | 2 Comments »

Gaining the Wisdom of Crowds in a Bootstrapped SaaS Company

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 19, 2012

Beta Survey FormWhen you’re bootstrapping a small company, sometimes it’s hard to do the things larger organizations take for granted, like making sure you’re listening well enough to your customers.  On the other hand, you can take advantage of your nimble nature and the availability of some great technology to do some things that even a lot of larger organizations don’t manage to pull off.  At CNCCookbook, my small Manufacturing Software company, I’ve had to think long and hard about how to register the wisdom of my Crowds to make sure the company is on the right track with its products.  Lest you think small companies with fewer employees than you can count on one hand don’t have Crowds to learn from, CNCCookbook gets over 1 million visitors to its site every year and we’ve had over 15,000 machinists use the software to date.  We count some of the world’s largest manufacturers on our Customer List as well.  In short, there’s plenty of Wisdom to be had from our Crowds, it’s a matter of finding the right ways to capture it and put it to use.

Having come from a Social CRM background at Helpstream, the value of harnessing the Wisdom was not lost on me.  It was something that had worked well for me throughout my career and something I very much wanted to do well with at CNCCookbook.  Here is a brief history of how I went about it and which tools, techniques, and technologies were put to work to do so.

Phase 1:  Forums and Web Analytics

Right from the very start I deployed a set of User Forums which I called the “G-Wizard User Club” (CNCCookbook is our company and web site, G-Wizard is the software brand that labels our products).  Much as I miss the sophisticated capabilities we had at Helpstream (they haven’t been rivaled by any product since), I had to make do with what was available and what fit my budget.  I knew I wanted a SaaS-based service.  However easy it might be for me to install and administer phpBB or some other Open Source bulletin board, it would be one more thing for me to do.  As the sole person working in the company at this time, I made the decision to focus as much of my time as possible on things that were uniquely differentiated for our company.  Deploying phpBB wouldn’t even come close, so I went with an alternative that was both a SaaS service and ad-supported called ProBoards.

It has worked reasonably well, and served its purpose.  I moderated membership and got a lot of mileage out of the boards.  They continue to be popular to this day, and we have not quite 2000 members there today.  To make sure every User was aware, I also instituted an in-app button to take open the browser and take them to the User’s Club.

You can see there’s more than just the User’s Club there on that Login Bar, but it started with just the User’s Club and grew to encompass a number of resources every User needs to be aware of.  While our app doesn’t run in a browser (it’s an Adobe AIR app as disconnected running is often important to our audience), it behaves in every other way like a browser-based SaaS app and we have embraced a lot of the design concepts for such apps, such as seamless access to the important parts of our web presence and incorporating that presence as a first class citizen of our navigation structure.

Another critical source of the Wisdom of Crowds is your Web Analytics.  We use Google Analytics, and there is a wealth of information to be gleaned.  For example, our User Guides are entirely online and we can see from the Web Analytics which parts of the product are more interesting than others just by watching the traffic patterns.  As we do each new release we write a blog post that discusses the new functionality in the release and again this provides a framework for using Web Analytics to understand what’s going on with the product.

In app access to Getting Started Resources, our Support Portal, and the User’s Club Forums…

Phase 2:  Blog Comments, Social, and Surveys on the Web Site

CNCCookbook started as a plain old web site and went for quite a while like that.  We had an area where articles were presented in a quasi-blog format, but it wasn’t really a blog.  It didn’t take long before we’d outgrown that format and it was time to add a real blog based on WordPress.  If I had it to do over again, I would recommend that every company simply start with WordPress and eschew the plain old web site phase.  It’s a fantastic content management system that has a rich ecosystem supporting it.  In keeping with my SaaS philosophy (why would I spend my scarce time maintaining a commodity like WordPress instead of focusing on what makes our company different?), we signed up with page.ly to host WordPress for us.  We spliced the blog into our plain old web site using DNS Made Easy, a SaaS DNS service that’s been excellent.

This transition marked a big step up for us in a whole lot of ways.  There were obvious SEO advantages that were very visible in the Google Analytics reports.  It became much easier to manage our content and we did a major upgrade to the site’s look and feel (it’s getting close to time to do another, I think).  Best of all, we now had comments on every post and could deploy a host of social widgets to help harvest as much feedback from our audience as possible.  One of the first things I did once WordPress was up and running was to go out and survey key sites to see what sorts of plugins they were using with WordPress.  My approach was to use a variation of a Blackjack card counting strategy I had perfected to decide my Social Widget strategy.  I’ll say more about the Blackjack in a future post, but suffice to say I analyzed the widgets used by a number of top marketing blogs on the theory that these people should know.  I went to companies that clearly had lots of experience with conversion and A/B testing like Unbounce.  I went to specific marketing gurus like Neil Patel’s Quick Sprout blog.  It was an excellent way to focus my efforts and populate the CNCCookbook blog with what I think are an excellent set of Social plug-ins to maximize engagement.

Having done that, I turned to Surveys.  While it was kind of an expensive luxury, I bought two different tools.  I wanted a survey tool that would be innocuous and unobtrusive.  I hate visiting a site and getting hammered with a full stop “please answer our survey” ten seconds after I get there.  At that point, I have formed no opinion but a negative one about the damned survey.  At the time, KissMetrics had an awesome tool called KissInsights that would slide up from the bottom of screen in a very low key way.  That tool is now sold by Qualaroo and works great.  It’s biggest issue, and the reason I don’t use it for all my surveys, is it is limited to simple surveys.  So, I also subscribed to SurveyMonkey.

I use the Qualaroo tool to derive a Net Promoter-style feedback score on the overall product (ours is very high) and I use the Survey Monkey to do more detailed surveys aimed at understand the details of my audience.  For example, I have done surveys of which CAM software they use or which CNC control is on their machines.  Not only is this invaluable data (sort of like surveying which PC, OS, or browser a PC software audience uses), but it makes great content to publish on the blog.  Some of my all-time best traffic articles are just the results of such surveys.  Apparently others also want to understand the Wisdom of Crowds.

Phase 3:  Ideation and CRM

For Phase 3, I wanted some Social and Conventional CRM.  It was time to get a Trouble Ticketing system going.  I chose a vendor called UserVoice for several reasons.  First, it comes with a very nice Ideation App.  Ideation gives my audience the ability to suggest new features and vote on them, like Dell’s Ideastorm.  This is an extremely powerful capability for a small organization to use to focus scarce development resources.  The results will often surprise you.  Ideation is one aspect of what we had at Helpstream, so it was nice to get some of that back.  Second, it’s SaaS.  And third, I got a great deal on it via AppSumo.  BTW, AppSumo has yielded several good deals for my bootstrap venture.  I’ll warn you in advance, they’re very spammy in their email and you really have to know what you’re looking at when you consider the products they push, but if you are patient about wading through some spam and have a clear idea what your business needs, you’ll find some great deals to keep the overhead down.

One of our products, G-Wizard Calculator, is much more mature than our later products because it has a 2 year head start on them.  While I still have a lot of ideas about where I want to take that product, it has a solid conceptual foundation.  What I mean by that is that it is ready to be steered to a much greater extent by customers.  Ideation tools are a great way to do this as they force customers to ration their votes.  On our site, they get to use 10 votes, and can vote no more than 3 votes on any given idea.  Submitting a new idea uses up a vote.  Once the votes are used, they have to wait until the fait of an idea is decided, they are either implemented or rejected, at which time they get the votes back, or they can redeploy the votes.  This scarcity of votes gives a clearer signal of what really matters to your tribe.  Any time I am preparing to do a new release of the Calculator, I always start with our Customer Support Portal and look over the Ideation results.

Phase 4:  In-app Feedback and ET Phone Home Telemetry

This brings me to our current stage of evolution–In-application Feedback and Telemetry.  In keeping with our theme of making the product behave like a web application, we added a Beta Survey popup such as you see above.  This has been a very useful way to monitor our progress from Beta to release-ready.  After spending 10 days focusing development entirely on issues raised in the Beta Survey, we’ve been able to move to 81% of respondents scoring the app during the last week as either “3 – I could use this” or “4 – GWE rocks!”  For the period older than 1 week, the score was only 47%.  Clearly, users were able to tell us what they needed that was missing from the app.  We intend to continue for a while longer until we see a point of diminishing returns and then we’ll declare the Beta done.

In addition to the Beta Survey, we also receive what I call, “ET Phone Home Telemetry.”  This is basic telemetry on which parts of the app are actually being used and how well they perform.  For example, the centerpiece of the application is a complex 3D graphics simulation that shows how the machine tool cutter will move as it executes the g-code program loaded into GW Editor.  We monitor and report back the longest runs so we can get an idea of how the system is performing and whether we need to do more work on performance.  We also track usage information like how many times the user has logged into the app.

The technology that makes the in-app telemetry and Beta Survey easy is something called “Mandrill” that is offered by the MailChimp people.  Rather than having to build back-end server infrastructure that loads all this data into some form of database using an API, the app simply emails it back to us with Mandrill.  The volumes are such that it is very straightforward to collate the information in Excel for analysis.  Building a full-on database application for a 2000 person Beta test would have been needless complexity and time taken away from our focus on doing what differentiates our software.  Mandrill is what MailChimp calls “transactional email”.  I take that to mean email generated by machines, rather than by people, and that’s exactly what we’re doing here.  MailChimp has a Freemium model, and at our level, Mandrill is essentially free.  Not only was it very easy to implement, but it doesn’t cost us anything.  For bootstrappers, that’s a hard combination to ignore.

Conclusion

Just because you’re bootstrapping and have minimal budget and resources is no reason to ignore the Wisdom of Crowds.  In fact, I’d argue that having the Wisdom of Crowds helps you to allocate your scarce resources where they will really matter.  Towards that end, what we do differently at CNCCookbook as bootstrappers is build as little software as possible.  We want to focus every line of code written on problems that you simply can’t get solutions for elsewhere.  Problems that are unique to our audience of CNC machinists.  The more of those problems we can solve, the more value we bring to our customers.  Everything else is just overhead.  Towards that end, we have relied heavily on SaaS, on the Amazon Cloud, and on our ingenuity to lash together the available off-the-shelf technologies to give us the ability to deliver an overall User Experience that is arguably better than almost everywhere I’ve ever worked.  This despite every where else having vastly more budget and resources at their disposal.

I’ll give one last plug to SaaS and the Wisdom of Crowds.  We do as much testing as possible, but again, as a bootstrapped organization, we don’t have large numbers of testers.  Our software quality is therefore a focus of three things.  First, unit testing is important.  Whenever complex new subsystems are added to the software, we make sure there are unit tests.  I personally believe in single stepping the debugger until I’ve seen all the lines of code executed and verified the intermediate results are good.  Unit Tests not only help tee up the execution of all the paths, they also ensure that down the road we can validate intermediate results as changes are made.  Second, we release often.  I don’t like to change too many things without doing a release.  This means that the amount of testing per release is relatively contained to new functionality and our scarce testing capabilities can be focused.

Lastly, we use what I call a “feathered” release methodology.  Each time we release, there is a 7 day cycle.  On each day, we expose an additional 1/7 of the user base to the availability of the release.  Customers that insist on having the latest and greatest can change a setting so they see every release immediately, but most stick to the default.  This ensures that if anything is too badly broken, we’ll hear about it before a very large fraction of the installed base is exposed to it.  In this way, we’re also using the Wisdom of Crowds to help safeguard the quality of our software, and it has worked extremely well to date.

So, whether you’re a bootstrapper or a big company, think about how you could take advantage of the Wisdom of Crowds.  Not only will it make a big difference for your software, but it’ll show your audience that you care and that they have a voice.

Posted in bootstrapping, business, customer service, saas, software development, strategy, user interface | 7 Comments »

Facebook’s Next Business Model

Posted by Bob Warfield on May 16, 2012

Chillin with my PeepsVC Chris Dixon muses in a recent post that Facebook has yet to uncover a business model that will support its IPO valuation and drive future growth in that valuation.  As he puts it:

Facebook relies on an old internet business model: display ads. Display ads generally hurt the user experience, and are also not very efficient at producing revenues. Facebook makes about 1/10th of Google’s revenues even though they have 2x the pageviews. Some estimates put Google’s search revenues per pageviews at 100-200x Facebook’s.

The good news for Facebook is there is a lot of room to target ads more effectively and put ads in more places. The bad news is that, if there is one consistent theme in both online and offline advertising, it’s that ads work dramatically better when consumers have purchasing intent.

I think he’s right about the ad model.  Google has uniquely cornered the market in delivering an ad at precisely the moment the user is searching for something to buy, hence the remarks about purchasing intent.  A banner ad, on the other hand, lurks in hopes that someone with purchasing intent will happen to see it at exactly the right time and place to make a difference.  Given the odds, it’s no wonder the ads make 1/10 the revenue despite 2x the pageviews.  Unless Facebook can engage the timing and content properly to capture purchasing intent, that isn’t likely to change.

So what’s a poor Facebook to do?

Let’s get back to basics: what exactly is Facebook?  If Google, from a monetization standpoint, is the place you go to find something when you want to buy, what is the analogous elevator pitch for Facebook?  It’s pretty simple, really:

Facebook is a platform for chilling with your friends.

Doesn’t that really capture in a nutshell what people do with Facebook?  Put aside what marketers wish they were doing (yeah, we all go there to worship the sugary soft drinks that use those adorable polar bear cartoons as mascots), this is what’s really going on with Facebook.  And guess what, isn’t owning the world’s leading platform for chilling with your friends apt to be extremely valuable?  It’s got to be.  If for no other reason, look at how big a part of the economy entertainment is.  In 2010, Arts, Entertainment, Recreation, Accomodation, and Food Services amounted to 3.6% of the nation’s GDP.  That’s the platform Facebook has available to tap into.  It’s not as good as say the 5.9% that is the retail trade Amazon and Google tap into, but heck, it’s still not bad at all.  It is a sufficient market on which to base a huge business.  Look at what Apple has been able to do with music alone, for example.

The key for Facebook is to get focused with laser-like precision on how to monetize their Chillin’ Platform before the opportunity seeps away.  Eyeballs and leisure time are fickle as those old enough to remember things like pet rocks and CB radios will tell you.  Right now, Facebook is focused on advertising revenue, but they could get a lot more creative and, given all the capital they’re raising and the opportunity available to them, they should be getting very creative and testing everything under the sun.

What are some potential ways to monetize a platform for chillin’?

-  Social games are an obvious first choice.  Facebook has to relentlessly build this platform and creates as many barriers around it as possible.

-  Making Dates:  Dinner anyone?  They should own Open Table.  Movie Times?  Why am I going to Google to figure that out.  Hook me up.  Make it easy for me to plan and coordinate a date.

-  Music:  Gotta be part of any chillin’ for me.  While we’re at it, plug in media of all kinds.  If Google is gonna do hangouts, Facebook needs to up the ante in some chillin’ fool kinda way.

-  Vacation and Travel:  The ultimate chillin’ game and big bucks involved too.

-  Party Time:  Coordination, invitation, planning, decorations, photos (oops!), eats and drinks.

-  Devices:  What devices do we have around when chillin’?  What facilitates communicating the vicarious virtual thrill of chillin’?  Video, phones, cameras, yada, yada.  But what else, and how does Facebook uniquely home in on all that?

Being successful with all of this will require Facebook to think BIG.  I mean Steve Jobs kinda BIG.  They have to seriously simplify and amplify the act of chillin’ in ways that only a platform can accomplish.  If they do that.  If they can reinvent chillin’ the way Apple reinvented music and the phone, they’ll be here for a long time and folks buying in at today’s market caps will stand to make a lot of money going forward.

This is a big time innovation and UX problem: reinventing the art of chillin’ with your peeps.

Posted in business, Marketing, strategy, user interface | 2 Comments »

Mac vs PC: A Picture is Worth 1000 Words

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 25, 2011

I saw this over at Google+ (second thing I’ve posted from there):

These are McDonald’s instructions for how to connect to WiFi.  If you have XP, a full page plus another third of a page.  Vista is a little better, taking essentially a page.  Maybe there is some progress in Redmond, after all.

On the other hand, the Mac is there all by itself taking 1/3 of a page and looking happy for it underneath the beaming McDonald’s logo.

I’ve personally had the experience more than once of trying to get a Windows Laptop to connect, failing, and then whipping out my iPad and having it immediately connect without a problem.  I’ve wished on several occasions the iPad could just tell me what it did so I could do that on the PC.  Hey, maybe there’s an app for that!

The amazing thing is Microsoft spends billions on R&D, billions trying to create a viable web business, and has access to more smart developers than anyone except possibly Google or IBM.  It isn’t that they can’t do it, it’s that they’re not even trying.  They have no earthly idea what they should be doing to delight customers.  Kinnect?  Well, even a blind squirrel gets a nut every now and then.  Apple doesn’t get everything right either, but jeez Louise, when it’s right under your nose you have to make the effort.  You gotta play to win.

Posted in user interface | 2 Comments »

Why Do the Cool Kids Keep Missing the Tragically Knowable?

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 8, 2011

I just read an article on GigaOm about Facebook (Techmeme caught it too) app vendors being up in arms because Facebook’s new spam control was too strong and knocked out a bunch of legit apps.  It isn’t just Facebook, we read these stories constantly about various Valley companies.  Mostly they are companies that don’t have enough grey hairs so far as I can tell.  Twitter is another one that keeps thrashing around.

I don’t get it.  I’ve been spending a lot of time lately telling various Marketers that Marketing is a Product.  It has a UX, you want to delight your prospects with it, yada, yada.  I guess I need to be telling Product Guys that Products are Marketing after I read stories like this.  They can be A/B tested.  They can be trialed.  You don’t have to roll out changes wholesale and wait to see who screams, and then frantically roll back what doesn’t work.  In fact, it’s much better if you don’t.

Look people, in an online / social / connected / mobile / viral / cloud world, the distinction between marketing and product blurs to the point of being nonexistent.  It all carries a message and a User Experience that either strengthens or weakens your position.  And, it is all Tragically Knowable.

Talk to your customers.  Listen to your customers.  It isn’t hard to do.  You’re supposed to be Social Networks for Heaven’s Sake.  Once you get good at it, you’ll realize it’s actually a lot of fun.

Why screw around with your entire audience and momentum when you could do some tests and do what’s right?  I don’t care how brilliant the wunderkind at the top may be, they are wrong sometimes.  Save us poor customers and prospects the pain.  Life is short, we don’t need any more pain, and we’d like to get on with just loving your products if you’d let us.  Quit doing stuff that was Tragically Knowable.

Posted in Marketing, strategy, user interface | Leave a Comment »

 
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