Monday, December 29, 2014

Bad government

I am a relatively ardent believer in free markets as long as they are free and fair.  In that light, I believe that any private person or organization should be able to do whatever he/she/it wants to do, no matter how stupid.  The exceptions are that there has to be a level playing field (so I believe in anti-monopoly regulation) and they have to pay for any negative externalities (so I believe in environmental regulation and carbon taxes).  At the extreme, I believe that a private person should be allowed to have racist thoughts and speech and (non-threatening) actions and the appropriate response should be to ostracize them and the let social Darwinism take care of the problem rather than any regulation against it.

But when it comes to government action, my opinion flips on its side.  Government actions should not be allowed to favor any particular demographic, any company, or any industry over another.  And if an industry is getting subsidized from taxpayer money or where competition is limited by government action (which are questionable practices to begin with), they should be similarly constrained.  So for example the net neutrality debate is pretty simple for me. Telecom providers are regulated public service access providers. So they should be able to have different plans based on how much bandwidth a company wants to use.  But any bandwidth deal available to one company should be available to any other.  AT&T can say that 500 mbs costs X and 1000 mbs costs Y.  But not 500 mbs costs X for my partner Netflix but costs Y for Google who doesn’t pay the partner fee. 

Sorry for all that prefacing, but I don’t want to rant without the prebuttal to frame it.  Two stories came to my attention this week that are really bothering me. They are both examples of where I see government going way down the wrong path and directly contradicting what I see as their Constitutional responsibilities.

The first one (December 12 podcast) is a ruling by the Second Circuit where they reversed an insider trading conviction.  The case revolves around the sharing of inside information by hedge fund managers.  If an employee of a company has early, non-public information about the company’s earnings and buys stock based on that information, it is insider trading.  If the employee tells a friend and they buy stock based on that information, that is also insider trading.  Up until last week, if the employee told a hedge fund manager who shared it with another hedge fund manager who shared it with a third hedge fund manager, that would also be insider trading.  But the Second Circuit decided that it was only insider trading if the third hedge fund manager knew where the information originally came from.  It is not enough that he knew that it was insider/non-public information.  So what the hedge fund managers can do is to share information around their social network and just leave out their source.  They can do as much insider trading as they want. One of the defendants in this case made $70 million on a single trade.  And now it is not even a crime.

Then I read this article in Fortune about how Tesla pitted four states against each other over where they would locate their new battery “gigafactory.”  If they were shaking down four private companies (or any corporation not getting government subsidies or preferences) they should be allowed to do anything they want.  If a company is foolish enough to buy in, economic Darwinism can take care of it.  But when it is four state Governors who are gambling with taxpayer money and doing it in secret, that is not kosher.  Tesla really worked them over – I recommend the article as a great primer in negotiation.  The Tesla negotiators were getting the royal treatment and being offered more and more benefits every day.  They got decades long waivers of property taxes, payroll taxes, free land, construction of new roads and rail lines to the site.  They even got offers of hundreds of millions of up front dollars. All done in secret.  That sounds like extortion to me. And no corporate board looking over the governor’s shoulders with the ability to fire their asses.  You can say that voters can petition for a recall election, but that is not even close to the same thing.  Especially since these complicated deals are very easy to spin positively. 

Sorry for ranting.  I promise to write something positive next time.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Brainstorm for the New Year

One of the more frustrating challenges that I come up against in experience design (customer, user, or game experiences) is that experiences work best when they are customized for each user.  But users don’t like to fill out long profile questionnaires, even to help themselves get better service.  They take up time, feel like a violation of privacy, and lose some of the mystique of the experience (e.g. in games).  Ideally, we would know much more than the demographics that you can mine from their profiles, registrations, or gradually build up over time and can be accessed from the major ad-serving companies (yes, most companies do this whether you realize it or not).  We would like to know their current situation: their motivation level, their emotional state, their interest in the process.  But that would mean constantly hassling each user with a series of questionnaires each time he or she starts a new session.  This is simply not feasible.  What’s a designer to do?

Another frustration for me, this one as a user, is the constant stream of quizzes on my social media feeds.  You know the ones I mean.  What Disney character are you?  What 80s sitcom are you?  What 90s grunge band are you?  What US President are you?  What flavor of soup are you?  Do enough people fill these out to justify the cost of developing and launching them (and paying Facebook to appear?)?  Apparently so.  And also apparently, my friends are prime customers because that is why they appear on my feed.  Ugh.

My Take

Why do I bring these two seemingly disparate topics together today?  I have an idea that I would like to run by you to see what you think.  What if we modify these polls to find out “What Disney character do you feel like right now?”  or “What 80s sitcom are you right now?”  Then we modify the questions to be subtly transformed versions of validated questionnaires designed to measure the user’s current emotional state or motivation level. 

For example, take life trackers. Each time a user logs in, he gets some fun quizzes to fill out.  They can be optional and placed in banners like we see on many web sites today.  But the answers get added to the logs from their fitness watch and eating journal.  We now have a big picture model of how this user’s motivation level and emotional state vary over time and we can correlate it with other activities.  How does it change when he is exercising, waiting in line at the grocery store, working at his desk, hanging out with particular friends or family members, or driving in rush hour traffic (well, not this last one – no texting and driving!!!)? 

The models we could develop from this would be tremendously valuable wouldn’t they?  The user would get a much more powerful picture of his life.  The life tracker could offer more targeted ways to improve his health or his work motivation.  Companies could benefit by offering products or services that have a better chance of helping the user out and converting a customer for life.

Your Turn

Am I on to something here?  If you are one of those people who loves filling out these surveys, wouldn’t it be better if you got a tangible benefit from the answers?  If you don’t fill these out, would you start if the results provided some real value?

Friday, December 26, 2014

This Week in EID - Episode 34

Holiday season is giving us a bunch of short weeks this year.  Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s weeks each have/will have just three posts.  I think we had three pretty good ones this week and I am pretty sure most of you missed at least one.  Especially the one on smartwatches on Wednesday because I didn’t cross post them on social media.

Monday I promoted the new HFES initiative called Scouting the Future.  The idea is to identify long term trends in design, culture, or user experience and position the discipline of human factors to get in early in the game.  I am a member of the Scouts and I am looking forward to sharing these ideas with the others.

Tuesday’s post looked at the reliability of our off-line memory storage (to-do lists, smartphones, or asking your friend Joe to remind you when it is 7pm).  The research we cited found that if that offline resource is reliable, we open up our working memory so we can concentrate on other things. But if we don’t offload it, or if we offload it to something for which we are not 100% sure it will really remember the information for us (or won’t remind us to check at the right time), our brains instinctively save the information anyway.  So we get no benefit from unreliable storage.  I keep lots of to-do lists and I can appreciate this personally.  When I save a file on my computer (and also a summary in Evernote), I have a sneaky suspicion that I won’t be able to find it later.  So I can’t recycle the original and my brain can’t let the information go. 

The Wednesday post discussed the only smartwatch that I might actually want.  It is from Martian watches, which I had never even heard of before. But the design looks like a real watch.  Not too fancy – more like a Timex or Casio – but the display is really subtle.  And it leverages some interesting haptic UI that I am curious about.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Holiday Message (sort of)

Most religious holidays (of all religions) have their origins in ancient practices that were based on nature: the cycle of seasons, agriculture and mating seasons.  So just about every religion has some holiday that corresponds to the winter solstice.  A celebration of the shortest day of the year because that means things will start to get better.  The spirits must be looking favorably upon on.  Each religion added on its own particular story to make it personal and to create a differentiation.  The baby Jesus narrative.  The Maccabian victory over the Greeks.  Etc.

Now in our era of globalization, a secularization trend has taken over.  No matter what practices used to set each religion’s version of the holiday apart, we now all have presents, and candle lighting, and many other similarities.  Twelve days of Christmas versus eight days of Hanukkah.  Hanukkah bushes to satisfy Jewish Christmas tree envy.  I heard today that many Muslims in Baghdad buy Christmas trees and hang Santas on their front doors.  I am not an expert at religious anthropology, but my minor in religious philosophy many decades ago at least prepared me to notice these trends and recognize them honestly for what they are.

An even more recent trend towards mixed marriages makes it really hard to maintain any differences at all.  What do you tell the kids when you have a Jewish mom, atheist dad, Christian step-mom, Wiccan step-dad, living in a Muslim community with a Buddhist teacher and Hindu best friend? 

My Take

This is really hard on companies and school systems trying to set vacation schedules and stores deciding when to have their holiday sales.  We have “holiday trees” and other pathetic sounding, artificial, politically correct contrivances to keep everyone happy.

Luckily there is a solution.  New Years Eve.  It wouldn’t be that hard to extend our New Year’s Eve holiday into a ten day break beginning on December 21.  It starts with a night of family dinners, gift exchanges, and goodwill towards all.  It culminates with a New Year’s Eve celebration of bacchanalian partying.  It concludes with a day of watching college football.  On the days in between, each person or family can insert any other practices that match their personal beliefs or preferences.  But it could be the same dates and basic milestones for everyone so the stores would know when to have their holiday sales and vacations could be aligned.

What do you think?