Kawasaki on Lies from Engineers

Guy Kawasaki recently posted the Top Ten Lies Told by Engineers.(as an engineer, I’m a little insulted by the photo he chose to display…well, not really). As I’ve said before, what Guy has to say is always insightful and worth the time to consider, his perspective coming from an incredible background of experience. Also, as before, I feel compelled to add to the list:

1. “We can introduce this product change after the alpha test—there’s no risk.” Most engineers want to make their product as perfect as possible before shipping, so they try to squeeze in every improvement they can, even if its after the point when changes can no longer be tested for bugs. They’re good engineers so there certainly couldn’t be anything wrong with their change to the product, so why waste time testing it? Right?

The temptation to ship without testing is high when the release date is critical and you want to make one last change, possibly even to fix a known problem. This is always risky. A few weeks ago, BART kept releasing “fixed” software that didn’t follow their normal release protocol and resulted several shut-downs, including a 90 minute shut down of the whole BART system at the height of rush hour. There’s a simple rule for releasing untested product changes: Don’t Do It.

2. “The design is easy for customers to use—it’s intuitive.” These opinions from engineers who developed the product are as objective (and likely to be as accurate) as a parent’s opinions on the beauty and intelligence of their child. Don’t trust them. In fact, don’t even allow their opinion on usability to have any weight at all in the development process. Of course the product interface is intuitive to the developer—they developed it!

Experts who know and understand usability theory should be consulted, or there should be a group who works closely with potential customers test the usability of a variety of prototypes. IDEO is so successful because they understand this concept so completely.

Engineers also have no idea how badly their product will be misused by customers who don’t intuit the arcane steps that must be taken to achieve certain functions. “Why would a customer ever do that?” I’ve heard said when a developer was asked what would happen if some missteps are taken in the product’s use. “Because it is there,” is the simplest answer.

3. “There’s nothing patentable in this technology—it’s obvious to everyone.” Engineers typically fail to realize how much of what they’ve developed can receive patent protection. They usually think that they’ve developed what any other smart engineer would develop, and where’s the novelty in that? Of course it’s obvious to the inventor—they invented it!

This attitude towards the patentability of their own technology usually goes hand-in-hand with their reaction to patents from their competitors: “I can’t believe they can get away with patenting that—it’s so obvious.” Perhaps, but now you’re in the difficult position of trying to prove the obviousness of your competitor’s claims in court or licensing that patent if you want to productize what’s claimed. I’m not suggesting that anything can be patented (although some would argue that current USPTO actions suggest this), but obviousness is definitely in the eye of the beholder, and those in the center of development are usually the least likely to identify something as novel.

4. “Marketing is not necessary to: (i) specify the product, (ii) assess design decisions, (iii) sell the product.” This risks failure at every level, from product design to success with sales. Technology rarely sells itself, and technology can rarely succeed without market behavior and the needs of the consumer considered throughout the product development process. Perhaps a company’s R&D does, in fact, intimately understand their customer and what their needs are, but more likely they do not have the best knowledge of customer purchasing behavior and product use. Without a doubt, a team of engineers is capable of making every product decision logically in isolation the rest of the company, but they risk designing a product that no one wants and no one can use. Why would any company take those risks?

The Bleak Future of Communication

In Bill Gates description of his work process, he said something that I found disturbing: 

At Microsoft, e-mail is the medium of choice, more than phone calls, documents, blogs, bulletin boards, or even meetings (voicemails and faxes are actually integrated into our e-mail in-boxes).

The future of office communication, if what Gates says is any indication, is its sparsest form: e-mail. I’ve posted about this before, but I’ve got a few more things to add on this topic.

A while ago, I sat beside an interesting person who conducts leadership seminars for the FAA. Among the many insightful thoughts on leadership that he offered, he said that “Communication is 70% body language and facial expression, 20% voice tone, and 10% what is actually being said.” The numbers may be off, but the concept is sound—the actual written transcript of a face-to-face conversation fails to convey a significant amount of what was communicated. Try reading Hemingway’s short story “Hills Like White Elephants” and see how little the words represent what is actually being communicated.

People convey a significant amount of information in their facial reactions and body language without realizing it. I’m not just talking about the “Oh no she di’int” kind of looks that display obvious reactions or emotions, I’m also referring to the cues that are given during conversation that help the listener interpret what the speaker is saying. People can change the meaning of their words with intonation, a smile, a shrug of the shoulders, a furrowed brow. Actors know this from improvisational exercises where they have to create a completely understandable scene with nonsense sounds or create completely different stories using the same dialogue.

Kathy Sierra posted a great commentary on how humans have evolved into sophisticated pattern recognizers to pick up on the subtlest of visual cues from other members of their species. I won’t repeat what she says, its worth reading her post in full. I will add that there has been significant research on our ability to detect intent from seemingly imperceptible facial cues by former UCSF Psychology professor Paul Ekman—you may have read a great profile of him by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker a while ago.

I’m sure that a group within Microsoft is hard at work creating a system that incorporates avatars within e-mails or instant messaging systems—serving up customer service Second Life-style—under the assumption that this will restore that need for visual contact while communicating. It won’t.

E-mail is a necessity in business and life, but it is no replacement for face-to-face communication. Previously I discussed miscommunication that can occur by eliminating the additional information from tone and visual cues, resulting in misunderstandings that would never have occurred had either videoconferencing or even a phone been used. There is something more than this lost, however, by relying excessively on e-mail for communication.

What is additionally lost is the back and forth that occurs in conversations, the refinement of what is said, the interplay of minds that can cause the conversation to go into a rewarding and unexpected tangent. Everyone should be able to think of times when a discussion that you expected to be short and on a single topic turned into a rich conversation of new ideas, perhaps producing long-lasting effects or resulting in the development of new initiatives. All of this is lost in e-mail, where there is no interplay. Think of a time when you had a great discussion with a friend over a beer or two, perhaps sitting on their porch at night, with the conversation ranging across all the important issues to you in the world. Now imagine yourself with a beer, sitting in front of a PC monitor, sending e-mails back and forth to that same friend. The ideas just ground to a halt, and not because you are no longer under the stars for inspiration.

One hundred years ago when letters were a much more common form of communication than today, I’m sure that no one suggested that letter writing should replace real conversation if the latter were possible, business or otherwise. Letter writing allowed thoughtful and careful commentary. Face-to-face discussion allowed exploration into unplanned and sometimes exhilarating thoughts, allowed one to realize that the other is misunderstanding and to add clarity to one’s point, allowed the listener to interject and ask questions where they need additional information. Just because e-mail makes delivery of written communication instantaneous doesn’t eliminate these differences.

This week is TV-Turnoff Week. Perhaps we could use an E-mail Elimination Week.

The Bill Gates Way

Bill Gates’ description of his work process in Fortune Magazine has caused some interest in the blogosphere.

Besides the fact that his description is somewhat of an infomercial for Microsoft applications, three items caught my attention. One was the way in which he recruits innovative ideas from within his company: 

Right now, I’m getting ready for Think Week. In May, I’ll go off for a week and read 100 or more papers from Microsoft employees that examine issues related to the company and the future of technology. I’ve been doing this for over 12 years. It used to be an all-paper process in which I was the only one doing the reading and commenting. Today the whole process is digital and open to the entire company.

I’m now far more efficient in picking the right papers to read, and I can add electronic comments that everyone sees in real time.

I’m curious what has made Gates better at deciding which ideas to give his time to—is it a better process, better tools, or is his he better at scanning topics? I’m also curious to know more about Think Week. For a company its size and with a strong focus on new business and technology research, I guess that far more than 100 papers would be submitted if the submission process were open to everyone. There must be a weeding process in there somewhere, and I’d like to know what it is for my own enlightenment.

A second item that I noticed was Gates saying that he gets about 100 e-mails a day, and he says the reason that the number is this low is because his Outlook filter only lets through e-mails from Microsoft employees and people in his address book. Six years ago I used to get over 100 e-mails a day at a company that only had $200 million in revenue, so again I’m guessing that there’s more filtering going on than Gates suggests.

I’ll leave the third item that caught my attention to a separate post since I think it deserves its own space.

I’ll finish by saying that I’m a little disappointed that Gates didn’t use the opportunity to advance Microsoft’s use of blogs for internal communication. As far as I understand, Microsoft uses blogs extensively within their company while only a very small number of other companies use internal blogging as a form of communication. Rod Boothby has been provided compelling reasons for their adaption and it would have been nice to see the concept get some high-level validation.

Expectations and Customer Satisfaction

The launch of Google Calendar two weeks ago was greeted with well deserved acclaim, but some of it sounded a little like idolatry to me. On the first day of its release, one blogger praised its stability relative to other online calendars. Statements about stability of software with less than one day of use seems odd but not surprising given the high expectations that people have towards Google these days.

Expectations can have a profound effect towards biasing the opinions of a customer. This has been demonstrated scientifically many times in many fields of study.

In my field of expertise, the phenomenon of expectation affecting customer satisfaction was made starkly clear in the following experiment at the University of Iowa. Hearing impaired patients were told that they would be wearing two different hearing aids: for one month they would wear a pair with old analog technology and for another month they would wear a pair with new digital technology. In fact, both pairs of hearing aids were the same—there was no difference in technology between the two pairs worn for one month each. After trying both sets of identical aids, patients overwhelmingly reported a strong preference for the aids they had been told had new digital technology. They commented to the effect that, “Everything sounded so much clearer with the digital aids,” and,”My wife says that I understand her much better with these new aids.” Remember that there was no difference between the pairs of aids and subjects should have had no preference for one over the other—the only difference was in the subjects’ expectations.

We experience this impact of expectation on our assessments throughout our normal lives. If the political candidate that you favor stumbles in a debate, well then they simply were human and can be excused for a slight slip-up. If the candidate that you hate stumbles, however, then they have just demonstrated once again that their incompetence makes them unfit for office.

This is a confound that my departments have had to address whenever testing improvements to products: how to ensure that test subjects aren’t preferring the new product simply because they know that it is newer and therefore presumably better than previous technology. Any company that tests products needs to be aware of this potential contamination to their product testing.

A feedback effect can also occur in these situations when the product being assessed is human performance, where expectations not only affect the subjective judgments of the assessor but also affect the performance of who is being judged. This was demonstrated in the Pygmalion in the Classroom study.

In 1966, researchers investigated the expectation phenomenon by giving a meaningless test called “The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition” to young students and then telling their school that some students scored exceptionally high which indicated that they will excel over the next few years at school. One year later, the researchers found that the students who were marked as exceptional did, in fact, do exceptionally well, with higher IQ test scores than the others and better subjective assessments by their teachers. Keep in mind that the students designated as exceptional were selected randomly with no relation to the students’ actual abilities. Most likely what happened was that the teachers treated students differently based on their expectations, and the teachers assessed the quality of those students’ work differently also based on those expectations. I’ve read nothing about the moral regret of these researchers towards the students who received less attention from their teachers because they were not anointed by the Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition. Be wary of such high-falootin’ tests being used in your workplace and their impact on your bosses assessment of your ability.

These studies and others suggest that a company’s reputation affects customer satisfaction with their products—consumers often don’t judge technology on its own merits. Much has been written about the halo affect of the iPod on the rest of Apple’s product line, and about Apple’s dominant market share in portable music players despite excellent products from their competitors. The new dual-boot Macs are going to convert a lot of Windows-only users simply because their expectation of a better experience using Windows on the Apple platform, whether it is true or not.

Finally, any company who has a product that finds it competing against a new Google offering—or against a product from any company with the golden reputation of Google right now—has got to be worried even if they know that they have a better product. A bad reputation is difficult to get rid of and a great reputation is difficult to compete against. Note that this is different from when startups used to fear Microsoft entering their product space: they weren’t worried about a better product from Microsoft, just that Microsoft’s business tactics would strangle them.

Corante Innovation Hub

I’ve been taking a break recently, but big things have happened while I’ve been offline. Corante, a company whose website provides hubs (portals) for targeted blogs that focus on specific business themes, has just launched a new hub for innovation. Innovation Science (this blog) is a part of the new group. The Innovation Hub can be found alongside hubs for Marketing, Media and Web Technology.

In addition to providing a single site to keep up with the top blogs in these areas, Corante also provides editorial commentary on their contributors’ posts with overviews of hot topics in the respective hub areas. Other Corante initiatives include sponsoring conferences in their four main areas, such as the upcoming Innovative Marketing Conference at Columbia University’s business school.

I’m excited about being a part of the innovation group and look forward to contributing along with my colleagues. This should be pretty interesting and I expect to see some innovative applications of our expertise through Corante.

My fellow Corante Innovation Hub bloggers that you should all read are (I’ll update this list as I get more information):

Walter Baets, Complexity, Innovation, and Knowledge – http://euromed.blogs.com/baets/
Johnathan Barrett and Innosight team, Innoblog – http://www.innosight.com/blog/
Rod Boothy, Innovation Creators – http://www.innovationcreators.com/ 
Renee Hopkins Callahan, Idea Flow – http://ideaflow.corante.com/
Don Dodge on The Next Big Thing – http://dondodge.typepad.com/
Brent Edwards, Innovation Science – http://brentblog.typepad.com/brentblog/
Greg Eichenbach, Grassroots Innovation – http://grassrootsinnovation.blogspot.com/
Chuck Frey, Innovation Tools – http://www.innovationtools.com/Weblog/innovation-weblog.asp
Paul Gladen, Chief Innovation Officer – http://www.muzeview.com/cio/
Gordon Graham, Broken Bulbs – http://orxilinasia.blogspot.com/
Steve Hardy,  Creative Generalist – http://creativegeneralist.blogspot.com/
Guy Kawasaki, Signum sinne tinnitu – http://blog.guykawasaki.com/
Egils Milbergs, Accelerating Innovation – http://innovate.typepad.com/
Michael Osofsky on Innovation – http://innov8or.blogspot.com/
Alex Pang, The End Of Cyberspace – http://www.endofcyberspace.com/
Alex Pang/Paul Saffo (Institute For The Future) – IFTF’s Future Now – http://future.iftf.org/
Jeffrey Phillips, Innovate on Purpose – http://innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com/
Boris Pluskowski and Imaginatik team, Corporate Innovation Blog – http://imaginatikresearch.blogspot.com/
Douglas Rushkoff – http://www.rushkoff.com/
Paul Williams, Idea Sandbox – http://www.idea-sandbox.com/blog/
Joyce Wycoff, Heads Up On Organizational Innovation – http://thinksmart.typepad.com/headsup_on_organizational/

Similarities Between Blogging and Giving Presentations

I just returned from my industry’s largest convention (the American Academy of Audiology) where I gave a talk on cognition with Prof. Hafter from UC Berkeley. As always, the audience had a mix of backgrounds, several of whom I met after the talk.

I value these interactions that arise from responses to my presentations, as I do the ones that have arisen from responses to my blog. The vast majority of those who read my blog are not associated with my field of work, and my communications resulting from the blog have been with people whom I would have never met otherwise. Thinking about these two ways of meeting new people with common interests, I thought about the similarities that exist between giving presentations and blogging—the former I’ve done for many years and the latter just for a few months.


For me, both blogging and giving presentations have multiple purposes. Both are forums for conveying thoughts and ideas to others, a way to communicate with several people at once on a topic of common interest. Both require that I spend time to understand the topic in a coherent way. I try to express my ideas as a compelling story and with a logical structure, requiring that I be able to give the big picture on ideas but also tie them to supportive details. Giving presentations and blogging causes me to refine my thoughts and understand the topic at hand in a more thorough way.

Dedicated Audience Members

At the conference where I just spoke, there were many competing talks on a variety of topics. Those who attended my presentation therefore made the choice to invest their time to the one-way communication: they read the program, they planned their schedule to attend, and they spent a significant amount of time listening to what I had to say. I see this as similar to people who subscribe to my blog or are repeat visitors. They actively seek to hear what I have to say in my blog posts because we share similar interests, and they dedicate a certain amount of time to reading the posts. But, while the majority of people who hear my presentations fall into this category, the majority of people who read my blog fall into the different category of…

Drive-by Visitors

By analyzing the statistics of daily visitors to my blog, I can see that most of my readers are people who found my blog from a keyword search. They most likely skim the post that they were directed to and then go back to what they were doing. My post may or may not have been what they were looking for (“Those weren’t photos of Lindsay Lohan!”), and many spent negligible effort absorbing the thoughts that I was conveying. The equivalent of this for presentations doesn’t really exist. If it did, this would be a large and slightly unreal conference where attendees jump in and out of meeting rooms based on posted titles on the door or from snippets of words they hear from the hallway, making quick judgments whether to stay and hear the whole presentation or move on to something else.

Audience Feedback

I think that both bloggers and presenters hope to receive feedback from their audience on what they say, and that usually happens when people come up and talk to you after the presentation or when people add comments to a blog post. Most blogs that I read, though—as well as my own blog—have received few comments from readers, with most posts having none at all. As with presentations, the vast majority of a blog’s audience are passive receivers of information who choose not to become active participants in the discussion. In general, only the most popular blogs receive comments on every post. This could be because those blogs are so interesting that they elicit a desire in the reader to respond while other blogs are not, but I suspect that it is simply numbers: if only 0.1% of blog readers write comments, then there will be an average of one comment for every 1000 viewers of a post. Most of us do not have that kind of traffic.

FYI, the talk I gave was very successful. About 250 people were in the audience, and someone actually yelled out a cheer at the end of it! I got to meet several interesting people afterwards, including a cognitive scientist from Brandeis University, the author of the blog HearingMojo that I link to on my Squidoo site, and audiologists whose office is close to where I work.

Inspiring Creativity at Ferrari

The latest Harvard Business Review (HBR) has a story on innovation processes at Ferrari. I previously posted on an HBR story about Porsche’s innovative use of students within their R&D process–I guess Ferrari is making sure that Porsche doesn’t steal all of the innovation limelight!

Mario Almondo, head of Ferrari’s HR, tells how Ferrari has on-site creativity classes outside of business hours that are open to its 3000 employees. These classes are on a variety of topics, but they all relate to creativity: sculpting, photography, writing. The classes usually involve an artist describing their craft and talking how they create and obtain inspiration, with questions from the Ferrari attendees. Sometimes a moderator leads the discussion (Almondo mentions once using a local TV talk show host), and the classes are purposefully kept small to allow interaction between the artist and Ferrari employees.

How does this help Ferrari? Well, that is unclear, but the intent is to nurture creative thinking in their employees and hope that it flows into their work–classes are in Ferrari buildings and not at local schools to create an association between creativity and their jobs. Almondo states that

We want to let the creativity metaphor work at the level of their unconscious.

I’d like to hear from an executive within Ferrari’s R&D department about whether this initiative has increased employees’ creativity in their job performance and generated useful ideas.