Archive for April 2006


A Tale of Three Dustbusters

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.
Wind­fall

1 comment » | Customer Experiences

Signs of Crisis and Decline In Organizations

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

NYTimes.com Redesign Includes Tag Clouds

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:

  1. allows users to change the cloud’s con­text — and thus its con­tent — with a set of con­trols (vis­i­ble as tabs, run­ning across the top)
  2. 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
  3. sup­ports the chain of under­stand­ing for cloud con­sumers by pro­vid­ing clear indi­ca­tion of the time period cov­ered (the note about update frequency)
  4. 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.

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Intranet Review Toolkit Version 1.1

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.

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