User-fiendish Design

April 25, 2011

The letter of the day, for the A-Z Blogging Challenge, is “U”.  I wasn’t really sure what would be a good subject, and then I thought perhaps it was time to inject a small-scale rant about one of my pet peeves.  Feel free to keep moving on by if this doesn’t interest you, I won’t be offended.

Now, in designing things – physical objects, software interfaces and gizmos that incorporate both of these – much has been made of “user-friendly design“.  And yet I often find examples of what I call “user-fiendish design” – things that seem to have been designed expressly to make their use difficult, obscure or downright unpleasant.

I won’t single any one product out here – your experience with the same product may be profoundly different than mine – but I’m sure you will have run across a few that provoke an “Ah-ha! I know exactly what he means” reaction.

Most often, I suspect, these user-fiendish designs are the result of “design by committee” – there’s no overarching coherency to the design; as they say “Too many cooks spoil the broth“.  That’s not to say that a design which is the product of the vision of a single individual is automatically going to be better – it could just end up being coherently bad (although I can tolerate that better than the alternative – at least if it’s consistent, interactions with it can be learned more easily than where the same action produces different results depending on where the interaction takes place).

Since I would expect that most people who are designing things for other people to use have good intentions (they say “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions), I can only surmise that the existence of user-fiendish products is simply an indication that there are a whole lot of unique ways of looking at the world and the things we interact with.

And I can only hope that any of the various things I have been involved in the design of over the years haven’t left too many people muttering “user-fiendish design” under their breath while using them.


April 11, 2011

“Wait a minute,” you say “today’s A-Z Blogging Challenge letter is ‘I’ – there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’.”

Bingo!  A corny aphorism gets me to the letter of the day.

And having spent a lot of time professionally leading project teams, I know it’s one that gets trotted out fairly regularly.  But what got me thinking about it is my perception of the shift in society I’ve seen in my lifetime to where it seems the dominant attitude has become “It’s all about me!”

I’m hoping this post isn’t going to end up sounding like a “Hey, you kids! Get off my lawn!” kind of rant, although it could degenerate into that if I’m not careful.

What worries me about it is that it leads to individuals externalizing costs – financial and social – on a personal level, much in the way that corporate law leads to for-profit corporations behaving that way on a much larger scale; see Life, Inc. by Douglas Rushkoff for a much more lucid explanation than I can provide.

But basically, what it boils down to is that a for-profit corporation owes a duty to its owners or shareholders to maximize profit.  Period.  As a result, it will avoid incurring expenses that it is not obliged to by law – even a so-called “good corporate citizen” that may spend money to support a cause will have a business case that it ultimately increases profits, for example through a tax-deduction, or from increased revenues due to consumer goodwill purchased by publicly supporting popular cause.

A concrete example of externalized costs would be when a municipality uses residential property taxes to pay for infrastructure improvements (roads, traffic signals and water/sewage lines come to mind) done to entice a large retail business to locate there – it you’ve had a Walmart open up in your town, you’ll know what I mean.  Another example would be the outsourcing of work to a location with lower costs, where the standard of living is substantially lower and the company can avoid paying for things like health-care benefits or complying with strict environmental regulations.

Individuals have learned by example, and more than ever people have a sense of entitlement I find worrisome.  As well, it’s not limited to the developed western societies any more – it’s been successfully exported to the rising middle classes of the developing nations.

Solving the many problems facing mankind – environmental, economic, agricultural and more – will take a joint effort and perhaps a shift to what I’ve seen called “for-benefit” corporate laws, which allow social benefits equal footing with making a profit.

And to be clear, I’m not against making a profit – just not at any cost.  Social responsibility and ethical behaviour, both at a personal and a corporate level, are values which also return a profit – just not one that shows up on the balance sheet.


April 6, 2011

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance

Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University

Education is something I am starting to see being, if not undervalued, then perhaps inappropriately valued.  It’s been a slow, insidious erosion and so has flown under the radar for many people.  What I mean is that education as an end has all but lost any currency (pun intended) and the expectation is that education must train you for a job.

Now, to be fair, certain kinds of education are intended to prepare you for a specific profession – not necessarily to train you for it, mind, but to give you the basic skills required to enter the profession and practice it successfully (and for long enough without inadvertently causing irremediable damage to life, limb and property) to obtain the experience needed to truly become a professional.

I am the product of just such an education – I studied engineering in university, and along the way to obtaining my degree I learned more about how to learn rather than just sponging up specific job skills by rote.  There are lots of professions where your education prepares you to enter your chosen profession without guaranteeing that you will leave skule school knowing everything you will ever need to know to have a successful career.

Learning is a journey, not a destination.  Training, on the other hand, takes you to a specific destination, and that’s not a bad thing either, but it’s useful to differentiate one from the other.

But it appears (to me, at least) there’s a new mindset about education, which seems to manifest itself as a self-centred focus on having the right combination of letters on your résumé/CV, whether they be degrees or the ever proliferating certifications (often fueled, I feel, by a country-club exclusionist/job proctecting mentality and pushed by an industry of well-paid consultants and gurus who specialize in offering courses to obtain these sought after certifications – having to pay for that ticket is seen as the cost of entry into that field’s job-market) to match with the laundry-list of letters HR has been given along with the job requirements for a position.

Now there are valid reasons for certifications – when I’m having a diagnostic medical test done on me, I’d really like it if the technician or practitioner has been certified as competent to use the required equipment or perform the necessary procedure. But many certifications these days seem to be inventions, designed solely to give gravitas to what would otherwise be a low-value-add activity and consequently artificially inflate the price.

Hmm… didn’t start out to rant. How did that happen? I guess it comes from being passionate about education – the day I stop learning, you can put the pennies on my eyes.


I had been mulling over a variety of topics for today’s post on a word beginning with “E” for the A-Z Blogging Challenge, and education was one of them. The tipping point came while I listened earlier in the day to episode 291 of my friend Ken’s The Scarborough Dude’s ***NSFW (don’t say I didn’t warn you)*** Dicksnjanes Podcast, and by chance he talked about education – it was a sign, I thought, and the deal was sealed.

OK, now that I’ve got today’s writing out of the way and put to bed, I’m off to read today’s missives from my friends Moe (Maureen) and Mark Blaseckie, who blog at A Sudden Alarm of Donkeys and see[sic] respectively.  Always worth a read, they are.  Oh, and worth listening to as well – you must (don’t make me come after you!) check out their Baba’s Beach podcast.


April 5, 2011

Today’s post for the A-Z Blogging Challenge has been inspired (well, if that can be said of something which is, to me, depressingly bad for the future of my country) by the federal election we Canadians presently find ourselves in the midst of.

And the dunce for who this post tolls? Why, how nice of you to ask – it’s Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).

But I might well have also used Duplicitous as the title for this entry, since that’s one of the most striking of Mr. Harper’s traits which has marked his time as dictator Prime Minister.  Seldom have we seen a politician who so deliberately twists the narrative to suit his own Machiavellian goal of ruling the country with absolute power to implement policies according to his ideological biases.

To be fair – full disclosure: politically, I’m a centre to left-of-centre type.  I am happy to pay my taxes in return for the social services it pays for – even those services I may not use directly, but which I benefit from in the form of a more stable and humane society in which to live.  Sure, I would prefer that government use those taxes as efficiently as possible, so that they can be kept low without the artifice of cutting back the delivery of those services, but I’ve had to call on the social safety net on occasion and can tell you that without it… well, it would not have been a pretty picture.

It bothers me to see that, more and more, compassion seems to be viewed as a sign of weakness – well, except when it takes no more effort or resources than clicking the “Like” or “+1” next to the cause-of-the-moment.

Now some right-wing pundits have been saying “Oh, don’t worry – when Harper gets his majority, he will continue to govern the way he has; sticking to a steady course with incremental changes.”  I fear that I do not share their faith in Mr. Harper – I fully expect that if he wins a majority, like some space alien in a movie he’ll peel off a false-face and reveal his true self.  And people will be shocked by the changes he will ramrod through parliament, to be rubber-stamped by a Senate stuffed with CPC-friendly appointees and a lapdog Governor General – all of our traditional checks-and-balances have been sadly eroded.

In the end, if the Canadian public, either through apathy or gullibility, do give Stephen Harper and the CPC a majority government this time, perhaps they will be the dunces.

Assorted headlines that caught my eye this morning

October 10, 2009

I was perusing the BBC News website this morning and these headlines caught my eye:

  1. What happened to global warming?
  2. Marge gracing Playboy mag cover
  3. ‘Scary’ climate message from past
  4. McDo: A love-‘ate relationship?
  1. Empirical evidence indicates global temperature is currently trending down, not up as predicted by climate models.  Personally, I think that just indicates the unreliability of the models, not that human activities don’t affect the climate.  In my opinion, there are still plenty of reasons, global warming debate aside, for reducing CO2 output and other forms of pollution.
  2. What can I say… sort of makes sense in an age of virtual reality, I suppose.  Not that centrefold models have ever been that connected to reality.
  3. In a similar vein to 1. there appears to be new evidence that connects atmospheric CO2 levels in the distant past that are similar to the levels we are rapidly attaining to increased global temperatures and melting of polar icecaps followed by a consequent rise in the sea-level (with disastrous consequences for populations living in low lying coastal areas or on islands).  I am still cautious about the cause-and-effect conclusion that’s implied — I have to wonder if the events are correlated but not necessarily causal, or at least not in the simplistic manner alluded to.  Again, though, I still believe there are plenty of good reasons for doing a much better job of looking after our environment, regardless of whether the science here is bang-on or not.
  4. Ah, La Belle France.  If you’ve been reading my bons mots for a while, you will know that I spent some time living in France — I was seconded, by the Canadian subsidiary I was working for at the time, to their head office in Lyon, France as the project manager of a global IT implementation project involving a project team with members from the company’s sites in France, Canada and the US.  In the end, K and I lived there for four years, spanning the turn of the millennium — in fact, we arrived in France just a few months after José Bové lead a protest (referred to in the BBC News article) against globalization of the food industry and its impact on French food, culture and farmers.  During our stay in France, we did eat in McDo (pronounced “Mack-Doh” by the French) from time to time, particularly when travelling within France (we ended up seeing more of France than many French people ever do, we were told by the people we got to know there) — the food, if uninspired, was at least a known and predictable source of reasonably priced nourishment, accompanied by (most of the time, anyway) a decent set of toilets and air-conditioning, items which were probably more valuable than the food to us on a hot, humid summer day of touring around an unfamiliar city or town we were visiting.  So during that time we saw a lot of this shift in the attitude of the French that the BBC News article describes, and I can completely believe that the opening of a McDo in the underground shopping concourse linked to the Louvre was a non-event for the French media and population in general.  We did eventually stop eating at McDo, although not for reasons of globalization of the food industry — one of the perks of working in France was the “Comité d’Entreprise” or CE (here’s a Google translation of the French text for non-Francophones), which among other things often organizes subsidized events for the company’s employees, including trips scheduled during holiday periods.  The CE had planned a trip to Egypt in 2003 and we were all signed up for it, looking forward to the trip with great anticipation (we had previously gone to Tunisia on a CE arranged trip and had a wonderful time) as visiting Egypt from Canada was something we would not likely be able to afford later on.  And then… Dubbya decides to invade Iraq.  Due to concerns for the security of employees, travel to the area at the time was prohibited by the company and the CE duly cancelled the trip… merde.  We have not (to the best of my recollection) set foot in a McDo, anywhere, since then.

Of course, YMMV — read the articles and form your own opinion, dear readers.

Just how untransparent can they be?

March 24, 2009

In the snailmail today was a notice from Bell Canada:

We’re going green.

Dear R LEE

We are writing to notify you about an important change to our eBill program.

You are currently receiving a paper invoice, along with a monthly email notification advising you that your online bill can be viewed by logging in at the Bell Web site.  Following your next bill, we will be discontinuing your paper invoice to help reduce paper waste and protect our forests.

If you would prefer to continue receiving a paper bill in the mail, you have the option of keeping this arrangement now and in the future.  Simply log in to and click on “I wish to keep receiving paper bills”.

Thank you for choosing Bell.

Jim Myers
Senior Vice-President, Customer Experience

OK, let’s start with “We’re going green.” — this has become the “ISO 9000” of the 21st century IMHO.

What I mean by that is back when the ISO 9000-series standards were first developed, they were initally the business equivalent of cod-liver oil — they were told it was good for them, but implementing the requirements for certification wasn’t always terribly palatable.

For companies that already had good quality and documentation practices in place, it wasn’t that difficult, but for many it was a real sea-change — and when they came out the other side, they probably really were better companies, with more consistent quality in their products and services (note: I didn’t say better quality, since implementing any of the ISO 9000-series requirements doesn’t guarantee that quality will improve, just that you will have documented the quality — good or poor — of what you do.)

But as more and more large companies insisted on their vendors being ISO certified, an industry of consultants sprang up around certification (and training to go with it) to make it cheaper, easier and more palatable, with the result being that getting ISO certification became a part of the price of entry into the game.  I won’t go so far as to say it became meaningless, but it certainly has lost some of its value as a differentiator between a supplier you want to deal with and one you don’t.

So, what I mean is that being green in the noughties is something companies have to do just to stay in the game, and which any good profit-seeking company will want to spend the least amount of money on to acheive the appearance of.

Which for me means that they may as well have said “We’re still here to make as much profit off you as we can.”  Fair enough, that’s what they’re in business for — I just object to the lack of transparency in cloaking it with green.

Next: I don’t particularly enjoy having them shout out my name in the salutation, I mean really, how hard is it to automate putting it into proper upper and lower case letters…

Then, the use of the Royal “We” — alright, so that’s a stylistic letter writing formula that I’m quibbling about, but the letter is written over the name of one individual, the Vice-President of Customer Experience.  Why not say “I am writing you…” — it’s certainly not as if the whole company was in on writing the letter…

OK, on to the part that really gets up my nose:

Following your next bill, we will be discontinuing your paper invoice to help reduce paper waste and protect our forests.

Now, as an individual concerned with the environment, I will certainly choose ways that I can “reduce paper waste and protect our forests”, but their statement says that they will be doing it for that reason.

Which is a load of crap: they’re doing it to reduce their costs and maximize profit.

As I’ve said before, I don’t have a problem with a company wanting to make a profit and reducing costs can certainly be a legitimate way to do that — I just take issue with it when there’s a attendant increase in the cost to society as a result (but that’s a rant for another day…)

So if they would not be so untransparent and just admit that they’re eliminating the paper bill using a “negative option” strategy (something which got the Rogers Cable company into hot water some time ago…) I would happily elect to not receive the bill in the mail.

Maybe if enough of Bell’s customers insisted the same thing, that they come clean and say the reason for eliminating the paper bill is to cut their costs and increase their profit, before allowing them to discontinue sending it, then maybe they’d do it.

Well, I don’t plan on holding my breath waiting for Mr. Myers to ‘fess up and admit that Bell is just trying to squeeze a few more pennies of profit out of each customer this way, but if you are a customer of Bell Canada and feel the way I do about this, then why not let them know how you feel and just perhaps we can get him to do it — particularly if we all threaten to click on “I wish to keep receiving paper bills” if they don’t.

And thank you for choosing Unconventional Wisdom.

Make them REALLY earn those bonuses

January 31, 2009

When I heard about President Obama’s stern rebuke to Wall Street bankers over the bonuses paid to their employees in the wake of the collapse of the financial sector and the subsequent bailout of those same banks under the Bush administration, I marvelled at his political courage in calling them out on this.

And then it got me to thinking, what would be an appropriate way to make them really earn those bonuses — after the fact.  Here’s what I came up with:

To earn their bonus, they each need to visit — in person, so as to give names and faces to the victims of their moral, ethical and professional failings; and at their own expense, so as not to divert any more of the bailout funds — all the people who have lost their homes, lost their jobs, lost their savings as a result of the fiscal irresponsibility of the people earning those obscene bonuses.

And when they are face to face with them, they need to justify to each and every one of them why they deserve their bonus.

But how to make this happen?  Maybe by implementing an income tax provision that would provide a penalty to anyone employed by a financial institution that benefitted from the bailout, and who received a bonus, if they did not participate in the scheme.  Set a target number of affected families to be visited, based on the size of the bailout the company received and the bonus paid, then pro-rate the tax penalty on the bonus based on how closely they “make their numbers” (just to inject a little irony…).

To be effective, the maximum tax penalty applicable should be sufficiently high to make it painful enough even for these high-rollers to think twice about letting it slide — let’s say the penalty for 0% compliance were set at 1,000% of (10 time s) the bonus amount.  As well, the number of visits required needs to be non-trivial — a minimum of one per week, or perhaps even more.

At 50% compliance, that is if they completed 1/2 of the required visits, the penalty would drop to 500% (5 times the bonus amount) and at full compliance there would be no penalty at all — they would still have to declare the bonus as income and pay the usual tax on it, of course, although I’m sure they all have well-paid tax lawyers or accountants to make sure they don’t pay much.

And the penalties paid should then be directed back to all the people who suffered as a result of the bankers fiscal irresponsibility.

So, let me know what you think about my idea for some social justice.  And if you think it’s a good idea, spread the word — as a Canadian, I have no influence on US policy, but if you are a US citizen and think this is a good idea, let your elected representatives know how you feel.