Tuesday, June 30, 2009

How To Tell If A Company Cares About Telephone Customer Service

Do they escort you when they transfer you to another department? If they stay on the line, introduce you and make sure there is a smooth handoff, it is a very good sign that they care.

Obama Gets Healthcare Industry to Promise Not to Raise Prices (Too Much)

I think this is a joke. It reminds me of the long-standing "voluntary import quotas" the Japanese automakers agreed to observe. Those saved Detroit, right?

Automaker Re-Invention Strategy: Eliminate the Dealers

It has already been established that I have a deep antipathy to auto dealers. You might say "but the poor dealers, everybody knows they are struggling, they hardly make anything from new vehicle sales, they rely on used cars and service to keep the doors open". To that I say true, just more proof that they are obsolete.

From a lean manufacturing, just-in-time manufacturing, and inventory management point of view, the large network of dealers, warehousing hundreds of cars each, represents a HUGE source of waste in the system. I think the network of local dealerships should be replaced with regional test-drive centers. You find the car you like, then you order it. Depending how standard your feature list, the wait could be longer or shorter.

Most people can wait to get their new car, rarely are they under the gun to have it TODAY. I know, the psychology of wanting to drive out with new wheels is part of what drives the existing dealer structure. I think that could change, though, if the savings (lean manufacturing = lower costs) and satisfaction (no annoying dealer experience, getting exactly the car you want) to the consumer were there. Anyway, for the rare consumer who just totaled their car, and doesn't have an operational vehicle to use during the 2-4 week wait, the dealers could provide highly subsidized rentals. I think the economics of that would work just fine, and could easily be built into the purchase price.

One of the big challenges to even thinking about implementing such a strategy is the contractual and regulatory challenes to ditching the dealers, along with the overall risk it would involve. Only a desperate company would be likely to take that kind of risk. Well, as they say, never waste the opportunity provided by a crisis. GM, now is the time.

SharePoint Is A Typical MS Product

Good enough (debateable) but no competition, so no improvements. The latest thing to annoy me is that Excel can't be opened, except read-only, if the total URL path exceeds 250 characters. Given how SharePoint generates LONG URL's, it doesn't take much of a folder structure to exceed 250 characters. The problem is intermittent, and generally prevents you from opening anything after the first 1 or 2 Excel files as anything but read-only. So it has work-arounds, and thus does not get escalated or fixed. Shameful--I would dump SharePoint in a heartbeat.

Everybody Wants to Make $ from Ads

I read that TiVo has plans to get revenue from ads. I also read that YouTube is struggling to pay the bills with ads. I still remain a skeptic that there is room for ads to pay the freight on much more internet functions and features. It seems to me that sooner or later most of the ad-supported schemes will collapse under their own weight.

Just like the housing market, or the general economic boom, kept going for a while, as more and more player piled on, figuring that if X could make money flipping real-estate or selling to high-end customers, then they could, too. I think the economy for ad-supported sites is mostly running on fumes.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Website Useability: Do not play audio on any entry page

My corporate Home Page is doing it!!!!

ZoomSafer Software for Cell Phones and Driving

Got a comment to my recent posts, musing on the scariness of teen texting-while-driving, and ideas for counter-measures. From ZoomSafer, promoting their forthcoming software aimed at this problem. It does look promising in several ways, including the text-to-speech feature. (But does not eliminate my desire to have the auditing via correlation mashup feature.)

A quick inventory and comment on ZoomSafer features:

  1. Reminds you to drive safely. Seems likely to be innfective and annoying--like the now-osbsolete airline security questions, or the flight-attendant safety instructions.
  2. Prevents inbound texts and emails--very good.
  3. Manages inbound calls by preference--good.
  4. Selectively notify friends you ARE DRIVING. Could be good, if implemented properly. I.e., if they get that message on the inbound call. This level of interactivity on the inbound call is something I have been after for a while, with the Do Not Disturb feature, and the "I'm coming, hold on 10 seconds" feature.
  5. Voice-based access--good.

Having MSN, AOL or Yahoo As Your Default Browser Page...

...is like leaving an open bag of your favorite potato chips out on the counter at all times.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Monster Job Board Decline

Time had an article about how Monster is seeing declining share and revenues, being hit by several competitors, notably LinkedIn. I'm not surprised. Monster seems like the textbook case of a business that had a dominant market share and got comfy and arrogant. Their useability was always mediocre, at best. One thing that particularly disgusted me, as a user, was their insistence on repeatedly presenting me with those click-through ads for some online university. I got those like 100% of the time I logged on. Annoying, wasteful and TOTALLY ineffective. All signs of an out-of-touch company.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cell Phone Carriers should give you tools to manage your minutes

For instance, text you warnings if you are exceeding "run rates". For instance, if you are 1/4 of the way through the billing cycle, and have used >= 1/4 of your total minutes, that would merit a warning. They could be configurable, to avoid annoying people who know what they are doing. Of course this goes against the company's own interests, to an extent, so is not something they have invested in. Another idea for an iPhone/Android app (but tough, because requires account data that could be hard for such an app to access, without the carrier's blessing).

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Chip Keys--Another DIY Item

I started to write full blog post the programmable, "chip keys" that are used to start modern cars, but then I found that someone had already written most of it for me. So I will limit myself first to saying I don't like them. I don't know that they cut down all that much on car theft, and anyway, I am willing to take that chance. They are so bulky, you can't keep a spare in your wallet. I am now realizing that you could have a wallet-key cut for this purpose, which isn't 100% as good, but takes care of the 90% problem, which is locking your keys in the car.

As for the fully-functional spare, the dealer will typically want $40 for the key, and often, another $40 for a programming charge. I find that completely outrageous, especially as we approach having 4 drivers in the family. General consumer irritation on this topic has been stewing in the back of my mind for 5 years, since I first bought cars of recent enough vintage to have chip keys.

So when I noticed a sign at the local Ace Hardware saying "we cut chip keys", I got excited. I figured it would be quite a bit more than the $3 for a generic metal key, but a lot less than the dealer price. I was thinking $25. Imagine my shock when they quoted me $65! I said thanks but no thanks.

That got me thinking more, though, and I started poking around online. I quickly learned that this is a potential Do-It-Yourself item. So I bought a key for $15 online ($20 with shipping). While I was at it, I also ordered a key fob for our Dodge Grand Caravan.

Getting the key working was going to be a little more tedious than the fob, because first I had to go to Menard's to have the blank cut (which they nicely did for free), then I had to go through the programming instructions for the key.

So I went ahead and did the fob first, not feeling like making a special trip to Menard's. That seemed to go well, the special chimes occurred just as the instructions indicated. So I got the first fob done, tried it immediately, and it worked fine. But then I noticed that the original fob didn't work any longer! So I repeated the programming instructions, to re-program it. That worked, but then the new fob no longer worked. So then I read the instructions more carefully, and realized you have to re-program the new fob as well. I guess that sort of makes sense, though it is not entirely obvious. I think what it comes down to is that the transponder in the car only has 1 code--not a separate code for each fob.

So a few days later, I got around to programming my new key. And therein lay a painful glitch. The instructions were sensible enough, as with the fob, and I followed them carefully. However, the promised sequence of single chime, and security indicator light never occurred as promised. And no suprise, the new key would not start the car. I repeated the process 4 times, even resorting to closely timing myself (as opposed to estimating "wait at least 5 seconds but no more than 15 secs"). Still no luck.

So back online. I found the same and very similar instructions online. The very similar ones were interesting--the time intervals were slightly different. I figured, though, that the company I bought the key from and who sent the accompanying instructions had just tweaked them to be sure that people waited long enough. But the thing that stood out was the last, almost off-hand comment:

As a precautionary measure for all of the above procedures, you should wait at least one minute after you have performed this until you start your vehicle.

I had tried the new key immediately every time I had gone through the sequence. I went back out, and put the new, previously inoperative key in the ignition, and turned it. Voila, the car started! So my instructions seems doubly faulty--the confirmation chimes never occurred, and they never hinted to me that I should wait.

So at the end of the day, this was a typical DIY adventure. Success was achieved, but with unexpected difficulty and frustration. And while I am not an electronics and car geek, I am a bit more savvy than average, so I have a mental model of what can go wrong, and I am a particularly aggressive web researcher, so I was able to leverage the idea that I was close, but not quite there, with the ability and motivation to search out better instructions, to correct the problem. But that persist until you get it barrier is high enough to weed out at least 75% of potential DIYers, resulting in the dealers continuing to get their excessive profits on key copies!

Hmmm, I think I will recommend this topic to Consumer Reports magazine.

Coffee More Healthy Than Green Tea!

Green tea has gotten a lot of press for its healthy properties. But it turns out that coffee may be better for your colon, according to research reported in the International Journal of Cancer. Yes!!!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

iPhone Find Me Feature

Looks like the new iPhone may have implemented a version of my Find Me! feature:

If you have a MobileMe account ($100 a year), you can also make your iPhone beep for two minutes — and display a plaintive message on the screen — when
you’ve misplaced it. How many times have you wished your cellphone had that

Pretty close to my version of the feature. But needs to be a stand-alone $5 app (max).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran Elections: "Landslide Ahmadinejad"--NOT

Very exciting events in Iran. What I wonder about though--what if instead of stealing a landslide, the Ahmadinejad government had settled for stealing a close victory? A win is still a win, after all. But a more plausible win would have let them claim, more plausibly, that they had not stolen the election. After all, it was good enough for Lyndon "Landslide" Johnson.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Facebook Parental Feature: Comment-Scraping

Our teens have Facebook pages. A requirement was that they let us be their friends. Of course I refrain from actually posting anything on their pages, but I check them every now and then. Here is the Facebook feature/add-in I would like. I would like a robot that scrapes their comments page every hour, aggregates it and emails it to me each day. I would particularly like it to highlight any comments that had been deleted!


Dave Winer: As I build layers of software, the simpler I make each layer, the higher I can build. If you don't design to hide complexity behind interfaces, you get overwhelmed by the complexity sooner, and your project can't do as much. Early in my career I often scrapped multiple levels and went down to the roots and rebuilt. Once I understood what the higher levels looked like, it exposed deficiencies in the lower levels. Reworking the lower levels allowed me to build higher.
This almost never happens with in-house corporate software development. Where I have seen large companies go wrong, repeatedly, is that they fail to find a way to start a large project by biting off a small chunk, learning from that, and using that hard-won knowledge to revise their approach. Instead, one way or another, sometimes in total ignorance, sometimes despite better intentions, they wind up making a huge, multi-year bet on a big-bang delivery. And in my experience, that typically leads to either total failure, in the form of outright cancellation, after several years and millions of dollars expended, or substantial failure, in the form of a stunted delivery accompanied by a pro-forma declaration of victory, after several years and millions of dollars expended[1].

Here are some reasons this happens:

1. The proof-of-concept is too small. This is probably the least common reason, but in this case, leadership is smart enough to realize that they need to test the waters. However, the test devised is much too small to provide the kind of reality check needed to provide insight into the much larger project.

2. Gross under-estimation of project scope. This is a common one. If you start out believing the project is medium-sized rather than jumbo, then you won't be thinking you need a significant trial-run. Two comments here. One, I personally feel like I have seen this happen enough to recognize the warning signs, so I would question whether this mistake could be avoided 80% of the time, if companies found a way to tap the experience of their senior people--including being open to bad news. Second comment--even if you accept that this will sometimes happen, despite best intentions, it is a problem that can be recognized before it is too late. The first time that 9-month project is extended to 15 months is a huge warning sign to take a big time-out, and ask--okay, what can we deliver in the original 9 months scope? Then we take stock and re-plan the project. And at this point, we face the facts--its not 9 months, its not 15 months, its going to be at least 24 months.

3. Insistence on business value. Several times I have seen companies that do want to break the delivery down into phases, but they are very insistent that even the very first phase must deliver business value (delvier ROI). This is a huge mistake. It just doesn't usually work this way, any more than the foundation to a house delivers significant value, without the rest of the house sitting on top of it. The tragic result of this approach is that the first pass winds up being way too big and high risk to start with, and more often than not gets expanded from there, as other stakeholders become involved in the project elaboration, and add more requirements.

Here is the right way to look at it. The only value that the pilot has to deliver is to give you the information you need to assess how big the full project really is (still guessing, but less wildly), whether it is worth doing, how much resources it might take to get done, and what different, creative approaches might be employed in planning the project. If you spend 10-30% of your estimated total budget on this phase, and the only result is that you conclude that the project should be scrapped, that is a HUGE win. Because in that case, you clearly were way off in your pre-project estimates, so the ultimate project budget would have been 3-5X that initial estimate--and you still probably wouldn't have gotten what you hoped for. Think of it like buying insurance--a relatively small and manageable outlay to provide a huge risk-mitigation.

4. Unwillingness to take the time to do it right. This is where the corporate reward system, as well as plain-old human impatience, take their toll. Experience tells us that major projects take years. Often, management is not willing to spend a year on a pilot, just to find out whether a larger multi-year project is feasible. Instead, they would rather pretend that the whole thing can be done in less than 2 years.


[1] Incidentally, the partial failure may be more expensive in the long run than the complete failure, because this is the kind of thing that leads to the old system remaining in place for certain functions that were cut from the new system. This contributes to the problem of an increasingly complex, rigid and expensive-to-maintain systems environment, which is also something that seems to burden many/most large companies.

HSA Plans

NYT Article:
The investment firm Fidelity recently surveyed employees at various companies who had opted for a high-deductible health plan linked to a health savings account. About half of those workers said they or a family member had chosen not to seek medical care for minor ailments as many as four times in the last year to avoid paying the out-of-pocket expenses.
And they call this "Consumer-Driven Healthcare"?! Now, I'm not saying this is all bad. I am definitely in favor of the concept, at least in theory, of exposing consumers to more of the costs of health care. In my own family, we have seen a number of times when we held off going to the doctor by a day or three, for some relatively minor thing, and it wound up clearing up on its own. So definitely some efficiency there. But please, let's be clear--consumers are not voluntarily "driving" this change. Calling HSA plans "consumer driven" is a classic example of corporate-speak.

Text-to-Speech Cell Phone Feature

I am surprised that text-to-speech has not emerged as a cell phone feature. So that a synthesized voice would read your text message aloud. I'm not sure if it would make texting-while-driving worse or better (worse, because some people will listen to their texts who would not read them; better, because some people who would otherwise read them will instead just listen, which is an improvement, if still problematic).

Either way, though, that would only address the less scary half of texting-while-driving, the reading part (which is still scary enough).

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Corporate Mailbox Size

I am forever having to archive my corporate email because I am running out of space. What a ridiculous waste of my time, in this era of personal terabyte drives! Usually this is driven by a few large attachments. Why can Outlook/Exchange have some built-in features to help with this?
  1. Automatically zip emails with total attachments larger than 500K (the threshold of course could be configurable).
  2. Have a utility to have Outlook convert all attachments to zip files, post-hoc.
  3. Provide a utility to store all attachments automcially, post-hoc, and provide a link in the original email to that post-hoc location.
My question was rhetorical. I know the answer. It is the usual answer with Microsoft--because there is no competition. Outlook/Exchange owns the corporate email client market, so there is no need to make improvements. Someday, that will be the death of you, GM Micro$osft.