April 29th, 2006 — 12:21pm
What follows is a brief tale of customer distress and redemption, featuring a cast of characters including several well-known players in modern drama:
Fret not readers, for this yarn has a happy ending in a windfall for yours truly.
Chapter 1: Sir Quality Control Failure
For a brief period in 2005, JoeLamantia.com happily relied on a Dustbuster to help keep things neat and tidy. When the machine died suddenly after two months of service, we felt sadness at having placed faith in yet another defective consumer good. These feelings turned to relief when Black and Decker promised to send a replacement within “7 to 10 days”.
Chapter 2: Queen Fickle CRM
Four weeks went by. We called again: our records had been “lost”, so another order was placed. Emotionally unreliable CRM systems will sometimes decide to break up with you, but — lacking the confidence to tell you directly — leave you find out in awkward ways like this. Not to worry for us, however, we would have another dustbuster in “7 to 10 days”.
Chapter 3: King Chronically Unstable Supply Chain Management
Four weeks passed. When we called again, the ordering system was down for the weekend, and no information was available. While their enterprise class SCM system with five nines uptime was out, the magic of post-it notes — which rarely experience down time, except during periods of humid weather — allowed Black and Decker to assure us we would receive a replacement in “7 to 10 days”.
Chapter 4: Duke Conflicting Master Data
Four weeks passed, leaving JoeLamantia.com sorely in need of dustbusting capability. We called a fourth time, to learn our replacement was on back order, and would arrive in “7 to 10 days”. As a courtesy, we’d been upgraded to a more powerful model — presumably to help us pick up all the dust accumulated over the past three months.
Chapter 5: Windfall, and Happy Ending
The next day, we found three dustbusters, all different models, shipped from different places, with different order numbers, and different customer IDs on the labels, waiting on the front porch.
1 comment » | Customer Experiences
April 21st, 2006 — 12:23pm
A few months ago I came across a presentation titled Organizations in Crisis and Decline, by Randall Dunham. After giving examples of organizations in crisis and decline that include Kmart, General Motors, United Airlines, and Michael Jackson. (interesting example of an enterprise…), Dunham goes on to summarize typical symptoms of crisis, the strategic consequences of decline, and 10 behaviors of unhealthy organizations.
I came across this while doing some research on how the structures and cultures of organizations influence modes of thinking, resilience, and decision making, so this is related to some of my postings on enterprise software. It might be a while before I have the chance to write up all the ideas, so I’ll share Dunham’s material now.
Why is this of note to IAs? Quite a few Information architects (practitioners, not just those with the title…) are actively looking for effective tools and modes of understanding to help frame and manage enterprise problems.
Understanding the signs of decline and crisis in organizations can help information architects and other change agents understand the environmental context of a situation in the critical early stages of setting expectations and roles, and before it’s “too late”, when everyone at the management table has strong opinions they must defend. In other words, before making a leap is into an active project, a planning and budgeting cycle, a strategic vision session, etc.
I see (at least) two very important aspects of a situation that Dunham’s warning signs could help identify; how healthy an organization is, and what latitude for activity and change is available. Building on this, these criteria can help identify situations to avoid or be wary of. Of course, organizations in crisis and decline can present opportunities as well as risks, but sometimes the ship is going down no matter how much you try to patch the holes…
For those without powerpoint, I’m going to present some of the material here as text, with acknowledgment that I’m borrowing directly from Dunham, who himself credits this source: Mische, M.A. (2001). Ten warning signs of strategic Decline. In Strategic Renewal: Becoming a High-Performance Organization (pp. 25–30). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Typical Symptoms of Crisis/Decline
- Lower earnings & revenues
- Increased employee turnover
- Reduced market presence
- Decrease in customer satisfaction & interest
- Increasing costs & high structural costs
Strategic Consequences of Crisis/Decline
- Lower market value
- Inconsistent strategies
- Misalignment of internal strategies & external goals
- Diminished capacity to attract top talent
- Increased vulnerability
10 Behaviors that Signal Decline
- The organization exhibits a lack of understanding the environmental and economic realities confronting it, or is in denial
- The management of the organization is arrogant with regard to its view of the world & assessment of its internal competencies. Ex: Icarus Paradox
- The organization has lost perspective with respect to customers, products, suppliers, and competitors
- Management and employees have an insular focus or preoccupation with internal processes, internal measurements, and politics
- The organization has lost its sense of urgency and lacks an attitude of self-determination
- The organization is relying on historical and poorly conceptualized or inappropriate business strategies and traditional management methods to address new & different challenges
- The organization has the propensity to repeat mistakes and fails to learn from past experiences
- The organization has low or slow innovation practices and is late to market with new products/services
- The organization has a tendency to recycle marginally performing managers
- The organization relies exclusively on internal talent as a source of leadership
Key Factors that Contribute to Decline
- Age of the organization: Older, more established firms may rely on legacy practices
- Size of the organization: Large firms with many vertical levels can have trouble adapting
- Financial success and past performance: Past success can lead to desire to follow same path in hopes of future success
- Ownership and equity structure: Is there accountability at all times to outside agents?
- Environmental influences: External shocks
- Ability to learn and discern patterns: Lack of learning organization culture
- Certainty/uncertainty: Effectiveness of change management
- Leadership: Young & inexperienced without desire to learn
Success Can Drive Crisis
- The same processes that lead to success in an organization can also lead to failure
- This is because success promotes rigidity, resistance to change, and habitual response
- Biggest problem — people learn the ‘right’ way to solve a problem and do that over and over again, even if that way will no longer solve the problem
It’s true these are quite general. Naturally, the art is in knowing how to apply them as criteria, or interperet what you found. As a quick test of accuracy, I’ve used the behaviors and warning signs to retrospectively review several of the organizations I’ve seen from the inside. When those organizations showed several of the behaviors and warning signs at an aggregate level (not necessarily my group, but the whole enterprise) then the strategic consequence dunham mentioned were visible at the same time.
From a practical perspective, a rating scale or some indicators of relative degree would be very useful. In order to gauge whether to stay or go, you need to understand the intensity of the decline or crisis and what action you can take: for example, do you have time to go back to the cabin to save your handwritten screenplay before the ship sinks?
1 comment » | Information Architecture
April 11th, 2006 — 9:58pm
Though you may not have noticed it at first (I didn’t — they’re located a few steps off the front page), the recently launched design of NYTimes.com includes tag clouds. After a quick review, I think their version is a good example of a cloud that offers some increased capabilities and contextual information that together fall in line with the likely directions of tag cloud evolution we’ve considered before.
Specifically, the New York Times tag cloud:
- allows users to change the cloud’s context — and thus its content — with a set of controls (visible as tabs, running across the top)
- lets cloud consumers change the display behavior of the cloud by switching modes from list to cloud in-line, not outside the user’s area of activity
- supports the chain of understanding for cloud consumers by providing clear indication of the time period covered (the note about update frequency)
- offers [limited] capabilities to work with / share tag cloud content outside the cloud via email — though the message contains only a link to the cloud page, and not a full rendering
NYtimes.com Tag Cloud
The NYTimes.com tag cloud shows the most popular search terms used by readers within three time frames: the last 24 hours, the last 7 days, and the last 30 days. Choosing search terms as the makeup for a cloud is a bit curious — but it may be as close to socially generated metadata as seemed reasonable for a first exploration (one that doesn’t require a substantial change in the business or publishing model).
Given the way that clouds lend themselves to showing multiple dimensions of meaning, such as change over time, I think the Times tag cloud would be more valuable if it offered the option to see all three time frames at once. I put together a quick cut and paste of a concept screen that shows this sort of layout:
Screen Concept: 3 Clouds for Different Time Frames
In an example of the rapid morphing of memes and definitions to fit shifting usage contexts (as in Thomas Vanderwal’s observations on the shifting usage of folksonomy) the NYTimes.com kept the label tag cloud, while this is more properly a weighted list: the tags shown are in fact search terms, and not labels applied to a focus of some kind by taggers.
It’s plain from the limited presence and visibility of clouds within the overall site that the staff at NYTimes.com are still exploring the value of tag clouds for their specific needs (which I think is a mature approach), otherwise I imagine the new design concept and navigation model would utilize and emphasized tag clouds to a greater degree. So far, the Times uses tag clouds only in the new “Most Popular” section, and they are offered as an alternative to the default list style presentation of popular search terms. This position within the site structure places them a few steps in, and off the standard front page-to-an-article user flow that must be one of the core scenarios supported by the site’s information architecture.
NYTimes.com User Flow to Tag Cloud
Still, I do think it’s a clear sign of increasing awareness of the potential strength of tag clouds as a way of visualizing semantic information. The Times is an established entity (occasionally serving as the definition of ‘the establishment’), and so is less likely to endanger established relationships with customers by changing its core product across any of the many channels used for delivery.
Questions of risk aside, tag clouds (here I mean any visualization of semantic metadata) couLd be a very effective way to scan the headlines for a sense of what’s happening at the moment, and the shifting importance of topics in relation to on another. With a tag cloud highlighting “immigration”, “duke”, and “judas”, visitors can immediately begin to understand what is newsworthy — at least in the minds of NYTimes.com readers.
At first glance, lowering the amount of time spent reading the news could seem like a strong business disincentive for using tag clouds to streamline navigation and user flow. With more consideration, I think it points to a new potential application of tag clouds to enhance comprehension and findability by giving busy customers powerful tools to increase the speed and quality of their judgments about what to devote their attention to in order to acheive understanding greater depth. In the case of publications like the NYTimes.com, tag clouds may be well suited for conveying snapshots or summaries of complex and deep domains that change quickly (what’s the news?), and offering rapid navigation to specific areas or topics.
A new user experience that offers a variety of tag clouds in more places might allow different kinds of movement or flow through the larger environment, enabling new behaviors and supporting differing goals than the current information architecture and user experience.
Possible Screen Flow Incorporating Clouds
Stepping back from the specifics of the design, a broader question is “Why tag clouds now?” They’re certainly timely, but that’s not a business model. This is just speculation, but I recall job postings for an Information Architect position within the NYTimes.com group on that appeared on several recruiting websites a few months ago — maybe the new team members wanted or were directed to include tag clouds in this design? If any of those involved are allowed to share insights, I’d very much like to hear the thoughts of the IAs / designers / product managers or other team members responsible for including tag clouds in the new design and structure.
And in light of Mathew Patterson’s comments here about customer acceptance of multiple clouds in other settings and contexts (priceline europe), I’m curious about any usability testing or other user research that might have been done around the new design, and any the findings related to tag clouds.
Comment » | Ideas
April 1st, 2006 — 7:48pm
Congratulations to James Robertson and StepTwo Designs for releasing an updated version of the Intranet Review Toolkit, just before this year’s IA summit in lovely Vancouver (obligatory flickr link).
Version 1.1 of the Intranet Review Toolkit includes a heuristics summary designed for quick use; it’s based on a condensed version of the complete set of heuristics you may remember I offered a while back. StepTwo was kind enough to credit my modest contribution to the overall effort.
Other additions include a collaboration / community of use destination site http://www.intranetreviewtoolkit.org.
Comment » | Tools