What I’ve Been Up To Lately

Some of you have noticed that I have dropped off the conference circuit and I haven’t been very active publicly for a while. Here’s what I’ve been working on lately.

In December 2013, I left the testing field and started working full time as a product manager and a software/user experience (UX) designer. My consulting work had evolved so that I was doing a lot of product management and design anyway, and it was time to make a complete transition. It has been quite the ride. I have worked on products and services for web, mobile, smartwatches, wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT) in several industries.

What is a product manager anyway?

Sometimes product managers are called “the CEO of the product” or “mini-CEOs” which means you have responsibility to package a product and/or service into something that can be marketed, sold and solves a real problem for real people. You try to help the organization determine the right thing to build, at the right time, at the right price, using just the right technology.

The product manager doesn’t do this alone, and when we get it right, the team gets the credit. When we get it wrong, the product manager has ultimate responsibility for the product or service, just as a CEO has ultimate responsibility for the organization.

It’s not an easy job, and one of my mentors told me that if I didn’t experience times when it seemed like everyone in the organization was angry with me, I should worry I was doing something wrong.

In the book The Art of Product Management, p. XIV, Rich Mironov describes:

… the product manager is responsible for the long-term development and health of a product, and is constantly faced with co-workers (or customers or partners or company executives) who want short cuts to good results.

The role requires a lot of diplomacy as well as a willingness to make difficult decisions to help do the right thing for the product, the customers and the organization. It’s enormously challenging, but hugely rewarding.

What do you do all day?

Product management varies a lot from organization to organization, and from person to person. It can be as unique as the person in the role, and different people have different aptitudes, interests and strengths. Some of my colleagues do more work on the business and marketing side, and some of them are more big picture strategists with a lot of team members doing the hands on work. Others have more of a role in day to day project management. I tend to focus more on UX and design as well as typical product management activities.

Todd Birzer from Kevolve describes four areas where product managers work:

  1. Market Intelligence
  2. Product Strategy
  3. Product Development
  4. Lifecycle Management

When I am doing work in market intelligence, I may be doing market research, customer research, competitor analysis, technology analysis and I am constantly keeping up with media and trends.

Product strategy work involves product/service idea validation, determining differentiators for a product/service, developing a monetization strategy and financial analysis. At this point I am also helping find the right technology fit and validating technical, legal and business requirements are all in alignment. Usually I start to create initial product roadmaps at this point to help us determine a focus on what we would like to deliver when. Sometimes we prototype or build a proof of concept, and I may do the initial app designs and UX work here as well. A lot of work at this stage involves making sure there is an entire product from a marketing, sales, support, pricing and technical implementation. It is really easy to end up with a “bucket of features” at the end of a release rather than a real, quantifiable product. A bucket of features is incredibly difficult to sell because it is vague, and doesn’t have a clear differentiator from the competition.

There are a lot of business and sales areas to explore here as well as the technical implementation. Analyzing financials and forecasting by testing out revenue models is important. In an early stage startup, I am actively involved in business model validation and helping with business plans, investor pitches and other funding applications.

During product development, I often do hands-on activities such as business analysis (requirements work, modeling, etc.), planning, setting up a project management practice, but mostly I do a lot in UX, design and gamification. In some cases I oversee others doing the work, and on smaller projects, I am heavily involved. I also assist product owners on Agile teams, helping them write stories and epics, figure out testable requirements and quality criteria, and make sure they have support from other areas of the business and enough to do.

Lifecycle management involves analyzing metrics and financials and helping stakeholders make decisions about products/services that are out in the market. You combine your market intelligence and product strategy and customer experiences with metrics to determine enhancements, bug fixes, what features to add, what features to cut, etc. You also look at the lifecycle of the product in the long term and plan for obsolescence. Ongoing funding and cost vs. revenue analysis is also important here as well as measuring ongoing customer engagement. The information we provide is helpful for teams as they plan out future development and other activities.

Why don’t we see you at conferences anymore?

When I decided to make a career transition, I tried at first to work in both worlds. For a couple of years I spent some of my time doing work in testing training and consulting, and the rest of my time doing product management things. The transition got stuck so I cut out testing and made the leap to full time product management. Previously, most of my public appearances were for testing topics, or for conferences heavily associated with quality and testing. Now I speak exclusively about product management, design, UX or gamification. So you won’t see me at the same conferences I used to attend.

On a personal level, I have had some health challenges that have been slow to heal which have made frequent travel difficult, and my wife and I welcomed our son (our first child) into the world. Not travelling very much meant we were able to start a family and I can spend more time with them. It is amazing to be around to see our little guy grow and change before our eyes. Cutting travel down significantly is also much healthier for me overall.

I also started feeling strongly about building more locally. Supporting local organizations can be better for the community we live in, for the people we see around us in our daily lives, not to mention the environment. I have been working with companies in Western Canada, and started a local meetup for Calgary-based software product managers.

What’s next?

One of the most difficult things about a career transition like this is that I don’t see most of you face-to-face anymore. I am now exploring options for more remote work so I can collaborate with more of you and share ideas and learn from working with different people and teams.

I am writing more based on what I have learned, so you will see more from me on topics that I described above. I wrote an article on designing for wearables for Smashing Magazine: Designing For Smartwatches And Wearables To Enhance Real-Life Experience and I have more to come in this space.

I will also slowly begin to explore opportunities for more public events, but sorry, no more testing conferences.

If you would like to keep in touch, feel free to contact me. I always enjoy hearing from anyone who I have met in the past, or people who have read my work and want to chat about it or to just say hi.

Who Moved My Cheese Sandwich?

My Dad was a school teacher for 25 years. For several of those years, he had the same thing for lunch: a plain cheese sandwich. My Mom enjoyed getting all of us ready for school in the morning and would make us our lunches, put them in brown paper bags, and label each of them. My sister and I were finicky eaters at best, constantly changing our minds, or feeling jealous of classmates who had “cooler” lunches (usually junk food.) My Dad stuck to what he wanted, and it made my Mom’s job easy. She’d make him a plain cheese sandwich, and he happily took it to work.

Then one fateful day he snapped.

He told my Mom he never wanted to see a cheese sandwich ever again because he was sick of them. She was a bit shocked at first, but we all had a big laugh about it, since it had only taken him years of having the same thing for lunch every working day to get tired of it. Most of us have far less patience and are far more discriminating in our tastes and a need for variety.

I’ve worked for years as a consultant helping software development teams, and I see their versions of the cheese sandwich constantly.

Software development team’s version of the cheese sandwich tends to be process-related. Teams do the same things over and over because that’s what they are used to, because they are dogmatic in their alignment with a process ideal, or because it seems that is what everyone else is doing.

A few years ago, I was helping David Hussman with a book project that eventually became a Pragmatic Press production: Cutting an Agile Groove: The Live Sessions. As I looked over a collection of David’s writings, three key phases of team productivity came to mind:

  1. Getting Started
  2. Getting Productive
  3. Staying Productive

Most teams I have observed are pretty good at getting started and getting productive, but a huge majority have a lot of trouble staying productive. Many teams plateau and even drop off over the life of a project, and especially when they work on projects together year after year. A big part of why they plateau is because they don’t change up their processes and practices, and they get bored.

If the team isn’t willing to change, they won’t. My Mom tried for years to suggest things to mix it up. My Dad stuck with the cheese sandwich. However, once he made up his mind to change, he was ready for it, and he went for it. You can’t force change on people, you can only really support it. It can be frustrating to work with a team that has obvious problems, yet they refuse to look at simple, proven solutions and won’t try anything new.

After slavishly sticking to one thing for so long, Dad got rid of it altogether. Sometimes this is worthwhile, but on software teams this can be overkill. I see this with software development teams all the time – the old way is wrong, throw it all away! This can be unfortunate. There might be good things that are getting thrown aside. What you were doing before wasn’t necessarily all wrong, you are just tired of it and enamoured with something new. Or, it is still a good practice, it just doesn’t work for your team anymore.

Recently, a team I was working with decided to get rid of using a wiki. They had process dysfunction, and saw a fantastic presentation by Ralph Boden “Changing the Laws of Engineering with GitHub Pull Requests” that challenged the usefulness of wikis. The team Ralph was working on got rid of wikis, and had some compelling reasons for doing so. Instead of using this presentation as an example of what worked for one team, the take away was that wikis were bad and now have no place on a software development team. It turned out that for this team, the wiki was a useful tool and throwing it away altogether was premature. We see this a lot in software development communities, often in the form of “___X___ is dead!” pronouncements. No, X isn’t dead, it just doesn’t work for you anymore, so don’t discourage other teams from doing X. Just because your team doesn’t like cheese sandwiches anymore doesn’t give you the right to disparage cheese sandwiches and anyone who enjoys them.

Software development is complex and difficult. It is a huge challenge to get a team together, get productive, stay productive, and sustain this over several product releases. The lesson in the cheese sandwich is to not stick with one process or practice for too long. Just like with food, software processes require variety, serve different needs for different people, have different requirements and restrictions, and will get stale over time.

See Things Change and So Should Processes for more on this theme.

“Don’t Freak Out!” Product Management & Emotion Management

As a product manager, some days it seems like half of my time is spent calming down team members who are freaking out about the project. And on those days, most of the other half seems to be spent re-establishing and maintaining team alignment on a product release. (Usually this is because the people who need to calm down have spread their uncertainty around to others.)

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(image via pixabay)

I used to feel side tracked because I felt that I should be spending my time on market research, helping with monetization plans, supporting sales and marketing, planning and prioritizing features and helping make a decision on a UX improvement or to help the team re-prioritize a feature because of some unforeseen event. I didn’t expect to spend so much time helping keep people calm, and repeating the product vision, priorities and keeping the team on track. I’m a collaborative person, so I always have buy-in before proceeding. Why then, do some days seem like most of what I do is listen, talk, repeat myself, listen, talk and repeat myself some more? Didn’t we all agree on this stuff? What’s going on?

At first, when someone freaked out over something we had settled on and agreed to as a team, it was tempting to just point them the product vision statement written in huge letters and posted above our development board. Or opening a product roadmap, and pointing at it as the person ranting to me insisted we should be doing something else. What happened to the agreement that we had as a team, and more importantly, your agreement and endorsement? What happened?

What I learned is, a lot of times people are just freaking out. Some people freak out more than others, and we all freak out in different ways. As a product manager, I am often the first person they come to when they are freaking out. And, an important part of my job is to deal with freak outs. If I can keep people calm, focused and productive, that helps us reach our shipping targets.

The truth is, we are all emotional creatures and software development projects are incredibly difficult. We all freak out a bit on projects from time to time if we look at the big picture and think of all the work we have to do in such a short time. At any point in time during a software development project, it can be overwhelming if you think about it too much. However, people sometimes also freak out for good reasons.

Techies may get worried that we can’t meet commitments, or implementing a new technology isn’t going as well as planned. Or we may just get bored of the technology, learn about something new, and feel that there is a better way to move ahead than our current roadmap and plan. As business people, we get all kinds of tantalizing offers from potential customers, and we are very swayed by the people who are willing to spend money. It can take what seems like forever for a technical team to deliver a release (because it is so labour intensive), so we may get distracted away from the current release, and start talking about an idea for some time down the road. To be honest, I get freaked out a bit too. Here are some recent minor freakouts:

  • Did we pick the correct web framework? What if it doesn’t support the browser that our first client uses in their organization!??
  • Did I do enough research with our monetization model? What if my research and recommendations and my interpretations of consultations with experts are wrong?
  • Did I misinterpret the usage statistics and engagement metrics from our apps which could potentially mess up our priorities for the next release? At worst, what if we change something that the majority of people are using and annoy our best customers?

See? I can be as neurotic as the next person. I deal with my own freakouts by having my own personal support network. Sometimes I just need to vent to someone else who isn’t directly involved with the team. Other times, I need to bounce ideas off of senior team members to re-evaluate our current path. What if I am missing something important? I also research any freakouts when others agree. And sometimes, we just have to find out and adjust accordingly when we release. If I guided us towards the wrong monetization model and the wrong priorities, we just need to be on top of it and adjust based on market feedback.

Once in a while, someone is right to freak out and disrupt our current path. They had some doubts, researched and realized we are off track and we need to change now. How do I tell the difference between someone who is freaking out and needs a bit of reassurance, and a real issue we need to deal with right now?

Usually, we get unsettled due to reasons that we can’t explain. Some people say our subconscious or our intuition are at work here. When someone brings up an issue but they can’t provide you with a clear explanation of what is wrong, let alone an alternate solution, it is important not to dismiss it. So I always ask for proof driven by research. Can you spend some time looking into the problem to see if it’s a real issue, or just a minor freakout? If we need to change, why? What is the business case? Where is the evidence I could use to show stakeholders we are off track? Once a team member starts to make their freak out defensible, two things usually happen:

  1. once they start to research, they realize their freak out is unfounded, and they calm down by looking at evidence that supports that we are on the right track)
  2. as they gather evidence, they are able to reinforce their misgivings by forming a better idea of what the problem is, and are able to communicate it much more convincingly

In the first case, we just let it go and move forward. In the second case, the freakout turns into a strategic business or technical decision.

Sometimes, freakouts are symptoms of communication problems, poor tools (or poor use of tools) or other issues unrelated to the project itself. These are important to watch for too, because even simple issues can cause people to spend time freaking out instead of working because something is wrong.

As my colleague Aaron West points out, it’s important to provide a safe environment and provide permission for people to freak out. If I am the person they feel safe freaking out to, and we can deal with their feelings in a healthy way, that minimizes them having to go to others and sidetracking them. If the environment is repressive, and there aren’t healthy outlets, people will undermine the mission of the project by releasing that tension in other ways.

When I presented for the first time at a large international software development conference, I was really nervous. The facilitator could tell, and tried to calm me down with a little pep talk. She told me about her office, how outnumbered the technical IT members were, and how they had insane deadlines with multimillion dollar projects all the time. The projects were heavily publicized, so any delay brought embarrassment to the company, as well as the potential to lose money. It sounded like a very stressful environment to work in, but she said she had learned to thrive there. It was a really easy place to get freaked out in, and a small team could waste time and effort if they got freaked out over the wrong things. So, she printed out a huge poster that said DON’T FREAK OUT! and hung it in the development team bullpen. That didn’t stop people from freaking out, but it helped calm people down, and reduced the freakouts over trivial issues. If someone came to her freaking out, they were freaking out for the right reasons. The message was that I really didn’t need to freak out about presenting my talk, there are a lot more important things in life to freak out over than public speaking.

Sometimes I have to tell myself not to freak out and I remember that pep talk and that DON’T FREAK OUT! poster. Is it really worth freaking out, or am I just stressed and worried? Late at night on a stressful project, all kinds of problems seem large and insurmountable. I have to ask myself, is this worth being freaked out over? Do I need to ask for another opinion? When others come to me freaking out, I need to help them either channel that energy into something productive, or decide that they are freaking out about something important, and we do need to change what we are doing.

Different projects have different levels of freak outs, and they occur during more stressful times on a project. I have to remember that helping people navigate freak outs is just as important as the cool tasks in my job description.

New Article – Designing For Smartwatches And Wearables To Enhance Real-Life Experience

I expanded on my blog post on this topic and wrote an article for Smashing Magazine: Designing For Smartwatches And Wearables To Enhance Real-Life Experience.

Now that smartwatches and wearables are in a huge growth phase, I shared my ideas on treating the real world as your primary interface, and developing app experiences that enhance our lives, rather than needlessly distract.

Lessons Learned When Designing Products for Smartwatches & Wearables

Lately, I have been doing a bit of work designing products for smartwatches and wearables. It’s a challenge, but it is also a lot of fun. I’m just getting started, but I’ll try to describe what I have learned so far.

Designing for these devices has required a shift in my thinking. Here’s why: we have a long and rich history in User Experience (UX) and User Interface (UI) design for programs written for computers with screens. When we made the leap from a command line interface to graphical interface, this movement exploded. For years we have benefitted from the UX community. Whenever I am faced with a design problem when I’m working on a program or web site, I have tons of material to reach for to help design a great user interface.

That isn’t the case with wearables because they are fundamentally different when it comes to user interaction. For example, a smartwatch may have a small, low-fidelity screen, while an exercise bracelet may have no screen at all. It might just have a vibration motor inside and a blinking light on the outside to provide live feedback to the end user.

So where do you start when you are designing software experiences that integrate with wearables? The first thing I did was look at APIs for popular wearables, and for their guidance on how to interact with end users. I did what I always do, I tried to find similarities with computers or mobile devices and designed the experiences the way I would with them.

Trouble was, when we tested these software experiences on real devices, in the real world, they were sometimes really annoying. There were unintended consequences with the devices vibrating, blinking, and interrupting real world activities.
“AHHHH! Turn it off! TURN IT OFF!!”

Ok, back to the drawing board. What did we miss?

One insight I learned from this experience sounds simple, but it required a big adjustment in my design approach. I have been working on software systems that tried to make a virtual experience on a computer relatable to a real-world experience. With wearables devices that we literally embed into our physical lives, that model reverses. It can mess with your mind a bit, but it is actually very obvious once it clicks in your brain.

Simply put, when I don’t have a UI on a device, the world becomes my UI.

Let me expand on my emerging wearable design approach to help explain why.

Understand the Core Value Proposition of Your Product

If you’ve been developing software for computers and mobile devices already, this may sound simple, but it can actually be a difficult concept to nail down.

One approach I take is to reduce the current features. If we cut this feature, does the app still work? Does it prevent the end user from solving problems or being entertained? If we can cut it, it might be a supporting feature, not a core feature. Remember, wearables have less power and screen real estate, so we’ll have to reduce. When I had a group of core features remaining, now it is time to summarize. Can we describe what these features do together to create value and a great experience for users?

Another approach I use is to abstract our application away from computing technology altogether. I map out common user goals and workflows and try to repeat them away from the PC with a paper and pen. With an enterprise productivity application that involved a lot of sharing and collaboration, I was able to do this with different coloured paper (to represent different classes of information), folders (to represent private or shared files), post-its and different coloured pens for labelling, personalization.

In a video game context, I did this by reducing the game and mechanics down to a paper, pen, rule book and dice. I then started adding technology back until I had enough for the wearable design.

Now, how do you describe how you are different? Have you researched other players in this market? Who are your competitors, or who has an offering that is quite similar? How are you different? What sets you apart in a sea of apps and devices? This is vital to understand and express clearly.

How do I know if I am done, or close enough? As a team, we should be able to express what our product is and what it does in a sentence or two. Then, that should be relatable to people outside of our team, preferably people we know who aren’t technologists. If they understand the core offering, and express interest with a level of excitement, then we are on our way.
If you are starting out new, this can be a little simpler since it is often easier to create something new than to change what is established. However, even with a fresh, new product, it is easy to bloat it up with unneeded features, so have the courage to be ruthless about keeping things simple, at least at first.

Research and Understand the Device

With wearables and mobile devices in general, the technology is very different than what we are used to with PCs. I call them “sensor-based devices” since the sensors are a core differentiator from PCs and enable them to be so powerful and engaging to users. The technical capabilities of these devices are incredibly important to understand because it helps frame our world of possibilities when we decide what features to implement on wearables and smart watches. Some people prefer to do blue-sky feature generation without these restrictions in place, but I prefer to work with what is actually appropriate and possible with the technology. Also, if you understand the technology and what it was designed for, you can exploit its strengths rather than try to get it to do something it can’t do, or does very poorly.

This is what I do when I am researching a new device:

  • Read any media reviews I can find. PR firms will send out prototypes or early designs, so even if the device hasn’t been released yet, there are often some information and impressions out there already.
  • Read or at least skim the API documentation. Development teams work very hard to create app development or integration ecosystems for their devices. If you aren’t technical, get a friendly neighbourhood developer on your team to study it and summarize the device capabilities and how it is composed. You need to understand what sensors it has, how they are used, and any wireless integration that it uses to communicate to other devices and systems.
  • If they have provide it, thoroughly read the device’s design/UX/HCI guidelines. If they don’t, read others that are offering similar. For example, Pebble smart watches have a simple but useful Pebble UX Guide for UI development. It also refers to the Android and Apple design guidelines and talks about their design philosophy. Pebble currently emphasize a minimalist design, and recommend creating apps for monitoring, notifications and remote control. That is incredibly helpful for narrowing your focus.
  • Search the web – look for dev forums, etc. for information about what people are doing. You can pick up on chatter about popular features or affordances, common problems, and other ideas that are useful to digest. Dev forums are also full of announcements and advice from the technical teams delivering the devices as well, which is useful to review.

Determine Key Features by Creating an Impact Story

Now we can put together our core value proposition and the device’s capabilities. However, it’s important to understand our target market of users, and where they will use these devices, and why. I’ve been calling these types of stories different things over the years: technical fables, usage narratives, expanded scenarios and others, but nothing felt quite right. Then I took the course User Experience Done Right by Jasvir Shukla and Meghan Armstrong and I was delighted to find out that they use this approach as well. They had a better name: impact stories, so that is what I have adopted as well.

What I do is create an impact story that describe situations where this sort of technology might help. However, I frame them according to people going about their regular everyday lives. Remember that stories have a beginning, middle and end, and they have a scene, protagonists, antagonists, and things don’t always go well. I add in pressures and bad weather conditions that make the user uncomfortable, making sure they are things that actually occur in life, trying to create as realistic situations as I can. Ideally, I have already created some personas on the project and I can use them as the main characters.

Most people aren’t technology-driven – they have goals and tasks and ideas that they want to explore in their everyday lives and technology needs to enable them. I try to leave the technology we are developing out of the picture for the first story. Instead, I describe something related to what our technology might solve, and I explore the positives, negatives, pressures, harmonies and conflicts that inevitably arise. From this story, we can then look at gaps that our technology might fill. Remember that core value proposition we figured out above? Now we use this to figure out how we can use our technology platforms to address any needs or gaps in the story.

Next, we filter those ideas through the technical capabilities of the device(s) we are targeting for development. This is how we can start to generate useful features.

Once we get an idea on some core features, I then write three more short stories: a happy ending story (what we aspire to), a bad ending story (the technology fails them, and we want to make sure we avoid that) and a story that ends unresolved (to help us brainstorm about good and bad user experience outcomes.)

Impact stories and personas are great tools for creating and maintaining alignment with both business and technical stakeholders on teams. Stories have great hooks, they are memorable, and they are relatable. With experienced people, they remind them of good and bad project outcomes in the past, which help spur on the motivation for a great user experience. No one wants their solution to be as crappy as the mobile app that let you down last night at the restaurant and cost you a parking ticket.

Use the Real World as Your User Interface

UX experts will tell you that concrete imagery and wording works better than abstract concepts. That means if you have a virtual folder, create an icon that looks like a folder to represent what it is by using a cue from the physical world. What do we do if we have no user interface on a device to put any imagery on it at all? Or maybe it is just very small and limited, what then? It turns out the physical world around us is full of concrete imagery, so with a bit of awareness of a user’s context, we can use the real world as our UI, and enhance those experiences with a wearable device.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a great source of inspiration and ideas for this sort of approach. For a game development project I was working on, I also looked at Geocaching mechanics. Looking to older cellular or location-based technology and how they solved problems with less powerful devices is an enormous source of information when you are looking at new devices that share some similarities.

I talked to a couple of friends who used to build location-based games for cell phones in the pre-smartphone era, and they told me that one trick with this approach pick things that are universal (roads, trees, bodies of water, etc.) and add a virtual significance to them in your app experience. If I am using an exercise wearable, my exercise path and items in my path that I pass by might trigger events or significance to the data I am creating. If you run past significant points of interest on a path, information notifications to help cheer you on can be incredibly rewarding and engaging.

Enhance situational activities

One thing that bugs me about my smartphone is that it rarely has situational awareness. I have to stop what I am doing and inform it of the context I am in and go through all these steps to get what I want at that moment. I want it to just know. Yesterday I was on my way to a meeting in a part of town I am bit unfamiliar with. I had the destination on my smartphone map, without turn by turn directions turned on. I had to take a detour because of construction, so I needed to start a trip and get turn-by turn directions from the detoured area I was on. I pulled over to the side of the road, pulled out my smartphone, and I spent far too long trying to get it to plan out a trip. I had to re-enter the destination address, get the current location I was at and mess around with it before I could activate it. A better experience would be a maps app that would help and suggest once it senses you have stopped, and allow you to quickly get an adjusted trip going. While you have a an active trip, these devices are quite good at adjusting on the fly, but it would be even better if they knew what I was doing and suggested things that would make sense for me right now, in that particular situation.

It is easy to get irritating and over suggest and bug people to death about inconsequential things, but imagine you are walking past your favorite local restaurant, and a social app tells you your friends are there. Or on the day you usually stop in after work, your smartwatch or wearable alerts you to today’s special. If I leave my doctor’s office and walk to the front counter, a summary of my calendar might be a useful thing to have displayed for me. There are many ways that devices can use sensors and location services to help enhance an existing situation, and I see a massive amount of opportunity for this. Most of the experience takes place in real life, away from a machine, but the machine pops up briefly to help enhance the real life experience.

Rely on the Brain and the Imagination of Your User

If we create or extend a narrative that can make real world activities also have virtual meaning, that can be a powerful engagement tool. One mobile app I like is a jogging app that creates a zombie game overlay on your exercise routine. Zombies, Run! is a fantastic example of framing one activity into a context of another. This app can make my exercise more interesting, and gets your brain involved to help focus on what might become a mundane activity.

With a wearable, we can do this too! You just extend the narrative of what you created on your job and delay telling you what happened until you are complete, and have logged in to your account on a PC or smartphone/tablet. You have to reinforce the imagery and narrative a bit more on the supporting apps on devices with a screen.

ARGs really got me thinking about persisting a narrative. It is one thing to apply virtual significance to real-world objects, but what happens if we have no user interface at all? What are we left with? The most powerful tool we have access to is our human brains, so why not use those too? Sometimes as software designers I think we forget about how powerful this can be, and we almost talk down to our users. We dumb everything down and over praise them rather than respecting that they might have different interpretations or alternative ways of creating value for themselves with our software. Just because we didn’t think of it doesn’t mean it has no merit. It does require a shift towards encouraging overall experiences rather than a set of steps that have to be followed, which can be challenging at first.

Wearable Integration – Data Conversion

If you are working with a wearable that doesn’t have a screen or UI, and is essentially a measuring device, one option to tie in your app experience is to think of converting the data from one context into another. This can be done by tying into APIs for popular wearables. You don’t have an app on the device, but your device ties into the data that is gathered by it and used for something else. For example, convert effort from an exercise wearable into something else in your app. One example of this is Virgin Pulse, an employee engagement application that has a wearable that tracks exercise. Exercise with the wearable can be converted into various rewards within their system. The opportunities for this sort of conversion of data that is measured for one purpose to another experience altogether are endless.

One app I designed extended data generation activities to a narrative in an app. We extended the our app concepts to the physical activity and tapped into the creative minds and vivid imaginations of the humans using the devices with a few well placed cues. This was initially the most difficult app for me to design, but it turned out that this was the overwhelming favourite from a “fun to use” perspective. The delay between generating the data out in the real world, and then coming home and using your PC or tablet to discover what your data measured by the wearable had created in our app was powerful. Anticipation is a powerful thing.

However, be careful when you do this. Here are a couple of things to be aware of:

  • Make sure the conversion rules are completely transparent and communicated to the users. Users need to feel like the system is fair, and if they feel taken advantage of, they will stop using your app. Furthermore, many consumer protection groups and laws could be broken in different jurisdictions if you don’t publish it, and change it without user consent.
  • Study currency conversion for ideas on how to do this well. Many games use the US dollar as a baseline for virtual currencies in-game, mirroring the real world markets. These are sophisticated systems with a long history, so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel, you can build on knowledge and systems that are already there.
  • Add Variability Design Mechanics to Combat Boredom

    It can be really boring to use a device that just does the same things over and over. Eventually, it can just fade into the background and users don’t notice it anymore, which causes you to lose them. If they are filtering out your app, they won’t engage with it. Now, this is a tricky area to address because the last thing you want to do is harass people or irritate them. I get angry if an app nags me too much to use it like some needy ex, or try hard salesman. However, a bit of design work here can help add some interest without being bothersome, and in many cases, add to the positive experience.

    Here are some simple ideas on adding variation:

  • Easter Eggs: add in navigation time savers that will be discovered by more savvy users and shared with friends to surprise and delight
  • Variable Results: don’t do the same thing every time. Add in different screen designs for slightly different events. One trick is to use time and seasons as cues to update a screen with themes that fit daytime, night time, and seasons. Another is to use the current context of use to change the application behaviour or look. There are lots of things you can do here.
  • Game Mechanics: levelling and progression can help people feel a sense of progress and accomplishment, and if there are rewards or features that get unlocked at different levels, it can be a powerful motivator. It also adds dimensions to something repetitive that changes the user’s perspective and keeps it from getting stale.

Provide for User Control and Error Correction

As we learned when designing notifications for a smartwatch, it can be incredibly irritating if it is going off all the time and buzzing on your wrist. Since wearables are integrated with our clothing, or worn directly next to our bodies, it is incredibly important to provide options and control for users. If your app is irritating, people will stop using it. However, one person’s irritating is another person’s delight, so be sure to allow for notifications and vibrations and similar affordances in your product to be turned on and off.

Conclusion

This is one of the most fun areas for me right now in my work, and I hope you find my initial brain dump of ideas on the topic helpful. Sensor-based devices are gaining in popularity, and all indications show that some combination of them will become much more popular in the future.

Interview with Anna Sort: Gamification in Health Care – Part 2

This is Part 2 of my interview with Anna Sort. If you haven’t already, check out Part 1 of the interview. Anna is a professional nurse who is working to bring together smartphone and video-game technology into healthcare. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Barcelona, and works both as a gamification and as a serious games consultant.

Designing a Better Life Interview with Anna Sort – Part 2

Jonathan: What can go wrong with a system that utilizes technology and gaming mechanisms with a worldwide pool of contributors (aka “the crowd”)? For example, how do you design your game to prevent or deal with the abuse the rules or take advantage of bugs or loopholes?

Anna:
I think you cannot really prevent people from trying to cheat in a game, it is part of the challenge and the fun for some people to try to exploit games, so you just have to do your best designing to make it fun to play the regular way rather to make it “uncheatable.”

In our World of Warcraft diabetes add-on we are still deciding if we want the add-on in itself to be fun or not. However, what is clear is that if people wantsto cheat they are allowed to. The add-on is created to fit an exploring environment rather than a “win” situation, it is there for the player to decide whether to play using risky behavior and try what happens if you mix certain things/eat certain foods or to try their best to always “keep in track” with their glucose. It will definitely be exciting as well to see what people will do with the add-on in the end! We are here to learn about how people interact and react to “serious gaming” (using an already existing game for other learning purposes).

Jonathan: What are the biggest challenges you face from a design perspective to create something that people will interact with? How do they apply their virtual learning to their own real lives?

Anna:
This is a very interesting question and is something we ask ourselves. This isn’t explored that much in “serious games” in general. We hope to find out more about this with this experiment. However, we hope to help people understand how the diet and exercise affects diabetes, so in this first experiment we aren’t looking to change behavior in real life, but we will have a couple of questions regarding whether users have made any changes in their lifestyle at the end of the experiment.

Jonathan: What does success look like for your World of Warcraft Diabetes mod project?

Anna:
This is a very difficult question. In this first trial it will be complicated to have a bar to measure to say: “Yes, I’ve succeeded”. At the moment we are working on the add-on but there is a lot of work to do regarding questionnaires. How many will download it? How many will play it? What will be their reaction? There is a lot of work still to be done to determine a good answer for this question.

Jonathan: No problem. When you are truly innovating, you don’t really know until you try out an idea, discover what happens, and refine. Moving on, what new thing/trend/innovation are you keeping your eye on at the moment? Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

Anna:
I’m very much into gamification and self-tracking apps. I’m a nurse so I’m all about prevention and I think mHealth (mobile health) offers us a great opportunity to focus on that and giving the user tools to take charge in their well being, lifestyle and health.

For more on these ideas and more, check out Anna’s latest presentation: Video Games and Gamification for Health Care .

Jonathan:
Thank you again Anna. I hope for the best in your work, and thanks for contributing to something that is important to all of us!

If you’d like to help out Anna with her WoW diabetes mod project, contact me and I’ll put you in touch with her and her project team.

Interview with Anna Sort: Gamification in Health Care – Part 1

For my first blog interview in my Designing a Better Life series, we will be chatting with Anna Sort. Anna is a professional nurse who is working to bring together smartphone and video-game technology into healthcare. She is also an Associate Professor at the University of Barcelona, and works both as a gamification and as a serious games consultant. I find Anna inspiring because she is working hard in the area of mHealth (mobile health) and games for health.

anna_sort
Anna Sort speaking at the Gamification World Congress

Anna is based in Spain, and graciously agreed to this interview in English for me, and for you, our readers. For more about Anna, check out her blog: Lost Nurse in the Digital Era and these two videos on youtube of her presenting: Designing Games as a Nurse, Gamification of Health Products.You can find her on Twitter here: @LostNurse.

Designing a Better Life Interview with Anna Sort – Part 1

Jonathan: Please tell us a bit about yourself. How did you get involved in the games for health field?

Anna:
I have always been a gamer but programming never attracted me. I was looking for a job as a nurse abroad when Blizzard Entertainment called me to be a customer support representative in France. They offered to take care of housing and banking, making it easy to move and start work in a new country. Also the multinational office work was something I had always wanted to try (and being a CS for the game World of Warcraft also seemed very cool). After 6 months I took the nurse spot in the company, and being a gamer working with gamers made me realize how much easier it would be to communicate and experiment some health information through games rather than 30 minute talks plus a flyer to never read at home.

After a while I started to look for Masters degrees that would allow me to go into a “techie-nurse” path. I found an interesting Master’s degree called CSIM, which was focused on a multidisciplinary approach to problem solving. I was the only healthcare student in the class, most of my classmates were designers, artists and programmers, but surprisingly 2 of the 8 Masters Thesis projects would have benefited from a healthcare professional, a rehabilitation system and an exergaming platform. In a way that reassured my idea that this “new profession” I wanted to pursue would eventually exist.

My thesis was about the quantity of exercise the children did while playing on an inflatable slide that had a game projected on and kids interacted with through an infrared system (it’s called an “exergaming platform”). I took part in the game design as well as the exercise experiment for my thesis so it was really interesting. I worked on a multidisciplinary team and I loved it. After my master’s I started my career alone, and soon enough I was contacted by Homero Rivas in Stanford, whom I talked about my vision in games and we are currently developing with MIT the first World of Warcraft health add-on to raise awareness on Diabetes.

Jonathan: The research and work that you do sounds fascinating. Can you explain how your work can help make our lives better?

Anna:
Behavior-wise humans are prone to play, and games offer a wide variety of play, such as exploring, competing, collaborating and self expression. Taking gaming into healthcare is a way to make taking charge of one’s health more interesting, intriguing and motivating. It is not about making fun of having diseases or trivializing them, making it less important because it’s a game. It’s about providing the tools and inspiring the motivation and behavior change to be healthy and improve your lifestyle.

Jonathan: I love your World of Warcraft Diabetes mod project. Can you tell us about this project and your goals? Is there anything we can do to help you?

Anna:
Thank you. It is a very exciting project indeed, and challenging! Especially because the game World of Warcraft has a pool of 9 million users, which means if 5% of these users download and play the add-on, we will have the biggest Health Game research experiment ever made!

The add-on is an “add” on the game which you download that changes the user interface. What we have done is add a glucometer on the side that is impacted by the player’s actions, such as running, fighting and eating foods. World of Warcraft has a lot of foods, drinks and alcoholic beverages so it makes the experimentation part very interesting. It isn’t focused on the disease itself, as we are aware not everyone reacts the same way to foods and drinks, and compositions aren’t equal worldwide. We want to raise awareness, and maybe even make new users having youngsters encourage family to play to see what is it like to live with diabetes.

We are not sure what people we will attract and we also are still debating whether we should gamify the add-on or if the game is good enough as-is people will still enjoy the game with the add-on. All the steps should be taken care of very wisely as the amount of research information might overwhelm us otherwise and turn out to be unusable.

How can people help? We still need a good experiment designer to take part of the team, so anything on that regard is helpful. And programmers. Hands are always needed!

Jonathan: What design concepts do you find the most useful for this project?

Anna:
Possibly the most important part of our design process will be focused on the tutorial. World of Warcraft has an excellent tutorial to help new players get on board, and since the new players we might attract will already have a whole game to learn, we want to make sure the on-boarding of the add-on doesn’t collide with the game tutorial and so it doesn’t overwhelm the player.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Designing a Better Life

Often, my public work lags behind my current interests or passions. That’s ok, it usually catches up in time. However I wanted to talk about my current focus and passion right now: designing systems for a better life. If you read my blog regularly, you will notice a shift towards design, user engagement and other topics. I wanted to explain why.

This has been a tough year. I’ve been on the road a lot, and I have met a lot of fantastic people and worked with some amazing organizations. However, I have been away from my family and friends here at home, and I have missed out locally. The Alberta flood disaster forced me to look at my local, real life. This spring we found ourselves evacuated from our home, staying with friends wondering if the flood would wipe out our house and property. Unlike many others, we were very fortunate and came home to no damage, but it changed our perspective. A few days earlier, we took for granted that we had a safe, dry, secure home to always use as a refuge no matter what happened in our work or public lives. We came home and celebrated with our neighbors that we were all ok, and then we did what we could to help each other. I realized I need to do more to contribute to my local community as well as virtual communities.

The Alberta floods, like so many natural disasters, brought the best out in people. Organizers were turning away volunteers because they had too many, and entrepreneurial types turned their energies towards creating systems to harness that energy and that willingness to help others. I was amazed at how people used social media to mobilize people to work for a common goal and to help out others. Mobile technology wasn’t just about screen sizes and sensors and wireless conditions or merely staying informed about the emergency going on around them, (which was incredibly useful and important.) What was more interesting was the technology was helping people help others, and to mobilize together to collaborate. This is incredibly powerful. The technology enabled people to do something in real life. It wasn’t just about sharing pictures of food and videos of cats on social media, or wiling away hours playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds. This technology was exploited to make all of our lives a bit better as we lived through a natural disaster together. Those who were unaffected and wanted to help just had to grab their mobile device and utilize social media to find out what they could do to help. Those who were affected could get informed, ask for help or just read messages of encouragement.

Mobilization and collaboration to help work together to help others or to solve problems is an important area that I am exploring through human and technology systems.

Mobilization can be harnessed for helping organizations and groups of people solve really hard problems. Distributed computing can be combined with crowdsourcing to distribute problem solving amongst our most powerful tool at our disposal: the human brain. Projects like fold.it provide problems in a gaming context to help provide vital information for researchers who are looking at combating disease, or providing health care technology to improve our lives. These are enormous problems that have an impact on all of us. On a smaller scale, we can focus our energy and mobilize the people in our social circles to help us achieve health goals or recover from injury with the SuperBetter game created by Jane McGonigal. These are two powerful examples of how we can use technology and humanity together to solve problems.

Those of you who follow my writing know that this is an area that is important to me, even on simple tasks like test automation where I prefer human involvement in the computing work (see Man and Machine: Combining the Power of the Human Mind with Automation for more.) In the past, we have tried to outsource difficult problems to machines, and now we are learning better ways of getting the best of both worlds – the computing systems support us and do what they do well and enable us to really take advantage of collective wisdom and interests. I think we are just scratching the surface on this space.

Distributed collaboration to solve really hard problems is an area I am looking into more.

I’ve done a lot of work with mobile applications, and many of you are familiar with my book and course on testing mobile applications. I have trained hundreds of people, and many more have read my ideas about testing mobile apps or web experiences, but that is only part of the picture, and I do a lot more in this space than my public work suggests. To create a great mobile experience, we need vision from business leaders on how they want to use the tech – are they merely supporting it, or are they embracing mobile technology to transform their interactions with the people they are trying to help? Are they looking at mobile as something they are forced into, or are they looking to it as a new area to help increase revenue and loyalty? If business leaders are reluctant, that vision (or lack of vision) will make its way all the way down through the project, and ultimately in a poor customer experience. On the other hand, a great mobile vision is only as good as the technology that was chosen, the design of the application, and the quality of the customer experience. I have been helping organizations to create great mobile experiences in each of these areas.

A quality mobile experience requires great vision, careful choice of technology, a design that engages customers, and is reliable for people who are on the move in the real world. That reliability also depends on great design, programming and testing. That quality experience can’t be tested in at the end, so many organizations are asking for my help in other areas, such as a mobile strategy from an executive level, how to choose the best mobile technology to fit that vision, what areas need to be addressed in mobile design, and then quality practices in programming and testing. This is a fascinating area to work in, because there are many more areas to be aware of than we are used to in software development.

A fantastic mobile experience from project vision, design and execution on down to you, the person holding the device, can make your life easier, but a poor quality experience can ruin your day. I am learning how to improve this experience and I want to show you how you can too.

Some of you have wondered why I am talking about things like gamification. I am less concerned about the gaming aspect, I am more concerned with what lessons we can learn from this field with regards to collaboration and finding meaning in what we do. Modern knowledge work can be difficult to deal with over time. If the power goes out, all our work disappears, so many struggle to find motivation and meaning in their work and careers.

To me, gamification is just one of several potential models of engagement, and we can use it in different ways. If you are in a job that is difficult and you are losing hope, don’t be threatened if I talk about gamification. If making your work more like a game fits your context and your personality, as well as the people working with you, then yes, we might look at creating some sort of Alternate Reality Game (ARG). Always know I would never force that if you weren’t interested, or if it wasn’t appropriate. However, I may use mechanisms that I have learned from game designers to help with areas of work that are difficult, feel hopeless and don’t have meaning. If I do it correctly, you won’t recognize it as a game – I won’t just put up superficial gold stars and leaderboards, or worse, trivialize the important work that you do. I may however, collaborate with you to create something to help you get more meaning in what you do using engagement or other concepts I have learned from games.

That is vital in human and software systems that people work with. Can we make this activity or program engaging so they want to use it more? Can we design the system to not only solve the problems of an organization, but also to help reinforce meaning in what people do? Gamification is an interesting and powerful area of research, with a lot of potential for good, but it can also create harm. I am carefully researching how I can use this in my own work, because it is one mechanism that I see to help do something more for us.

Studying engagement models and finding and experiencing meaning in the things we spend our days working at is important and I am spending more time looking at how the intersection of software and people systems can help.

Design principles are another area of research and problem-solving for me, which are often under the umbrella of UX (User Experience). Creating great software experiences can really help us since we interact with it, or it affects us indirectly in everything that we do. A better software or computer system experience has an enormous impact on our lives. When they go wrong, they can really cause problems, but a simple, elegant solution can bring joy. User experience and design in an era where wireless and sensor technology is common, touch and gesture interaction on different technology with different screens is hard enough. What do we do when nanotechnology and other distributed or pervasive systems become much more common? I love the research and work in this space, and it is a part of what I do on projects.

The challenges we have are fascinating, so product management and product design are areas of project work for me, and what I am increasingly spending time on in my spare time.

Some of you have heard me talk about health projects. One of the most rewarding projects of my career was working on a medical program for mobile devices. It was great to try to break new ground with new technology, and determine how we could make health-care professionals lives easier, and to enable them to provide better patient care. My Mother still works as a medical professional, it is a calling, and we tease her that if she refuses to retire, she’ll pass on “in harness”. She is absolutely fine with that, she is committed to her work and patients, and takes courses every year on areas that interest her, and how to better use technology in her own work. She has passed that down to me, and finally as a professional, I have had some chances to help create better software for medical professionals. I enjoy working on medical software because I can see how we are contributing to actually make people’s lives better. When we do it right, we enable others to do great work, solve difficult problems and help real people. It’s easy to find meaning when your work has an impact on others, and we can do so much better with technology and health than we have been.

Systems that help us live more healthy lives are an area of keen interest for me, and I am interested in mobile, games for health, distributed computing, crowdsourcing and all sorts of things in that space. Healthcare professionals like Anna Sort inspire me with their creative and innovative ideas that they turn into action, and programs like Strokelink to help stroke patients using mobile technology are great.

I’m also interested in how we can create software for health professionals that is easier to use, more reliable, and enables them to focus on patients and not fight with systems that don’t take them and their unique context and work as well as the environment they are working in into account.

Finding ways to use software and related technology in health care and health research is another area of huge interest for me.

So there you have it. Watch this space for more of the above topics on how we can explore the intersection of people and technology to help design better lives for ourselves.

A Bad Mobile Experience is Bad Customer Service

As a travelling consultant, I get insight into a lot of organizations. One theme that I see over and over is a lack of understanding about mobile experiences among decision makers and technical teams. When it comes to interpersonal or written communication, companies have sensible rules and practices about making that exchange great. You’ll hear or read slogans about treating the customer right, or to go beyond and satisfy and impress them. Most organizations have great alignment on that message, and when I walk into an office, I am greeted by friendly security and front office staff who smile, are pleasant and help me get to where I need to go. They want all of us to have a great first impression, so they invest in human-friendly lobbies with art, comfortable furniture, and great lighting. This extends to email and voice communications as well. People try to be professional, pleasant, and make me feel welcome as a customer or consultant. However, that is rarely my first impression of that organization. For me, and millions like me, I get my first impression of that organization through their mobile experience.

In many cases, that mobile experience is the opposite of their interpersonal customer service. They fail to realize that a bad digital experience is just plain old bad customer service. It is the virtual equivalent of a rude call center employee, or an office administrator who tells me to go f— myself when I walk through the door. Instead of feeling valued by the organization, my mobile experience feels like they don’t care. They make me feel confused (what does this company do?), they make me feel frustrated (I can’t solve the problem I need to sort out!) and that they don’t value my time (why do I have to gesture so many times and spend so much time to do a simple task?)

These organizations would be horrified if I was flipped off when I walked in the door, but they have no problem making me feel just like that when I try to interact with them virtually on my mobile device. And they don’t seem to have a problem with it. On the other hand, organizations that realize great customer service extends to digital experiences have alignment on their customer-first values. Instead of worrying about mobile frameworks and handsets and technology development, they seek the solutions that provide a great customer service on virtual mediums. Thankfully, that means we have a lot of examples on how to do it well.

Here is an example of contrasts: airline mobile experiences. I won’t name names, but I will describe 3 different mobile experiences and the technology they are using to either create great customer service, or do the digital equivalent of flipping us off.

I travel a lot, and when I am travelling, I need the following at a minimum:

  1. Ease of use (so I can get my information quickly when under pressure on a trip)
  2. My booking details stored: confirmation number, flight numbers, seating details (this eliminates printing out paper that often gets out of date)
  3. Access to my booking details when I don’t have network connectivity (when you travel, you are frequently without wifi or cellular data, particularly if you don’t want to purchase an expensive data plan during a short trip)
  4. Up to date flight information when I am connected to a network (so I can get out of jams when there are delays or cancellations)
  5. Ability to book or modify or cancel flights
  6. Simple contact to customer service if all else fails on my own

Let’s look at three different mobile experiences from three different airlines:

  • App 1: a native mobile application
  • App 2: a hybrid mobile application
  • Web 1: mobile optimized web-only access

How do they stack up?

App 1 (native):

  1. Ease of use: incredibly easy to use, and it takes 2 gestures to get my current flight information. It takes about 15 seconds to tap the app and get all the info I need to fly
  2. Flight details stored: all my flight information is stored so I don’t need to search elsewhere
  3. Offline access: this app not only displays all my information when I don’t have networking or wireless access, but if I am not connected, it provides a warning message and tells me the data may be out of date. This is useful in cabs, in areas of an airport without connectivity (such as in security) or in an aircraft while in airplane mode so I can check my next flight if I have a connection
  4. Information updates: this app lets me know of gate changes, delays, and even lets me check on in-bound aircraft status and other dependencies. When there are problems, I and others with the app know before official announcements are made, which gives us a jump on the competition for rebooking or making alternative arrangements. This app has helped me get to a client site or get home on time on a number of occasions.
  5. Flight bookings: this isn’t easy to do on mobile devices, but with a few taps and gestures, you can get the job done without feeling frustrated
  6. Easy contact to a real person for help: one or two taps and I am speaking to a customer service rep who can help with a problem I can’t sort out with the app

App 1 overall customer experience: great!

This app has really improved my flying experience and I am growing to like this airline more over time.

App 2 (hybrid – combo of web and native technologies):

  1. Ease of use: not bad, but it is a bit clunky and doesn’t respond as smoothly to input gestures as the native app. I can’t zoom in on some screens, and on others, it takes me out of the app to the website, which is irritating. It feels quite slow, but I don’t have to do a lot of inputs, I just feel like I am waiting
  2. Flight details stored: This is a thin-client app (not taking advantage of local storage that hybrid apps provide), so I have to store my booking reference in a note, leave the app, copy it from a note, paste it in, and then wait for it to load my details. This is frustrating and takes a lot of time. There is no excuse for overlooking this with a hybrid app.
  3. Offline access: The app will not function without a good wireless connection. That means it is useless in many areas of an airport. If I want to check my flight number for a connection while the app is in airplane mode, it crashes. I have to take screenshots of details when they are available as a workaround.
  4. Information updates: The app does not provide updates. I have to navigate to the airline website or airport website and search for details on the flight. This is too time consuming and is frustrating. I get no information advantages and have to get in line with everyone else if there is a delay or cancellation
  5. Flight bookings: Not bad. Nice interface, and few gestures to get the job done. It just feels slow compared to a native app.
  6. Easy contact to a real person for help: I have to do a lot of navigating, and then I get redirected to their corp web site which is slow, cumbersome and frustrating

App 2 overall customer experience: poor.

Every time I use the app I get frustrated and I project that frustration on the airline. In one case, I was having trouble checking in at a kiosk, so I opened up the app. It gave me a cryptic error message that made me feel like my flight had been cancelled. I had to stand in a line up for a half hour to find out from a human to look into the problem and sort things out. This app requires workarounds (save my booking reference in a note or search for an email confirmation and screen shots of up to date data) to be even useful when I fly. They chose hybrid to get cross platform support, yet they don’t even take advantage of the affordances of a hybrid app.

Web 1 (mobile web site):

  1. Ease of use: horrible. I have to open a web browser, and to just enter in their URL is over 20 taps! I probably don’t have 20 taps in a month of using the other apps in total. Once I enter in their URL in my device and fix typos, 30 seconds has passed. I am then redirected to a mobile optimized web site. I can’t get both my flight status and my booking information in the same place, so to get the same information I get with 2 taps from a native app takes me over 50 taps and gestures and can take 2-3 minutes, under ideal conditions. Their image carousel on each page takes forever to load, and gets in the way of my interaction.
  2. Flight details stored: As a web app, there is no local storage, so again I have to store my booking reference in a note, leave the web browser, copy it from a note, paste it in, and then wait for it to load my details. This is frustrating and takes a lot of time.
  3. Offline access: None. I can’t do anything without a good wireless connection.
  4. Information updates: No updates. I have to go to a different website for that, and tap away on the URL, and experience the same pain.
  5. Flight bookings: Not bad. Nice interface, and few gestures to get the job done. Again, it feels slow compared to a native app and there are some inconsistencies from screen to screen.
  6. Easy contact to a real person for help: I have to go to their corp web site, which means I usually have to find the option to go to their full web site (a tiny URL at the bottom of some of the mobile screens.

App 2 overall customer experience: Rage inducing.

When this app lets me down in an airport because it takes too long to get anything done, I look longingly at the competition counters across the hall. This experience is beyond useless and it causes me to lose faith in the organization as a whole. If this is so painful, how is the flight? Also, I found that staff members have very little faith in the mobile experience. Even though I had a PassBook ticket that was valid, they reprint a hard copy when I try to board the aircraft because they “don’t trust the mobile app”. PassBook integration is one thing they do well, but people get so frustrated with an experience that doesn’t fit the needs of customers and staff on the front lines hear about it and try to adjust.

So whose app do I use the most? App 1 of course, and I also fly with them the most. I get a great customer experience with their mobile app, and they also do a decent to please us in their interpersonal interactions. The airlines that supply App 2 and Web 1 actually have better interpersonal interactions – they are friendlier and more helpful, but the mobile digital experiences are not convenient, so I don’t fly with them as often. This has less to do with the technology they have each chosen, but in how they have chosen to implement it and whether they are making technical decisions or customer-serving decisions in how they create mobile experiences.

A great customer experience that enhances convenience goes a long way. In fact, I will put up with less than ideal interpersonal interactions with a company if their mobile experience is convenient and makes my life easier. Next time you are looking at your mobile experience, no matter what the technology, ask the question: are we creating a great customer experience with our technology as well as with our people? The extent to which you use mobile technology to address that means much more to your customers than just “going mobile” and putting something out there. In some cases, no mobile access is better than one that makes people hate your company.

In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about ways our hybrid and web-only airline friends can improve their mobile customer service.

New Article – Things Change (And So Should Processes)

I wrote an article for Better Software magazine for the July/August 2013 issue about innovation in processes. The PDF of the article is available here: Things Change (And So Should Processes) and you can download the entire magazine here: Better Software July/Aug 2013.

Many teams struggle when a process lets them down because their unique situation and mix of people, technology and target market don’t fit a generic process. It’s also surprising to find out how old many of the popular processes we are trying to follow are. The technology we are creating has changed a great deal since the 1990s, so why are we surprised when processes created in the ’90s let some teams down?

Instead of feeling guilty that they aren’t following the crowd and doing what the experts tell them to do, I encourage teams to take pride in their innovation not just in technology, but in how they create powerful processes for themselves.

Thoughts on product development, management, design, mobile and other topics.