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Book Review: The Big Red Fez by Seth Godin

Posted by iammarchhare on 20 April 2009

OK, I’ll admit it: I am a fan of Seth Godin.  I got introduced to Seth’s Blog through Small Business Trends (specifically Anita Campbell).  Consider this a free endorsement, guys!  I am not associated with either in any formal manner (but I know Anita from a previous company).

So, that’s why I have such high expectations of Seth’s books.  My expectation of The Big Red Fez: How To Make Any Web Site Better was no different, and it did not disappoint!  If you are in IT and have any say whatsoever in the user interface, especially on the web, drop everything and get this bookNow!  If you are a front-end developer, get this book.  If you are an IT manager overseeing software applications that run on the web, get this book.  If you are a project manager overseeing web projects, get this book.  If you are a QA engineer and test the front end, get this book.  Oh, and did I say to get this book?

Compare the price of this book (under $10) to any user interface guide, and tell me what gives you the bigger bang for the buck!

Godin presents the material from the viewpoint of a user.  We in IT need to face the fact that it is the enduser who is going to either validate or invalidate the interface.  Unfortunately, some engineers forget that it is the enduser who either is going to use the thing or quit and do something else.  If that enduser is internal, then you might have a captive audience, but you will also have a lot of trouble tickets and user frustration.  If that enduser is a customer, they might just decide your competitor’s site is easier.  Not only does Godin provide very practical advice, but he does so in a way that is humorous and engaging.

Godin starts off by telling us that engineer’s and marketers view user interfaces differently.  He then will have us imagine a monkey in a red fez.  You know, the kind that you see in the pictures of organ grinders and such.  What motivates the monkey?  Bananas.  The monkey searches for the banana in the same manner that a user will search the web site for the payoff.

Before I get too far along, Godin isn’t looking down on people.  He includes himself in this by saying “we” and “us”.  He stresses the point that “we” are often too busy and “we” are distracted too much to really think very long about a web page.  In fact, he later on tells us that the average person decides whether or not to stay on a particular web page in 3 seconds.  Therefore, the banana must be so obvious that it sticks out on a web page in 3 seconds or less.

OK, let’s get the cons out of the way first.  Or, should that be “con” singular?  Godin puts in a lot of screenshots, thankfully.  However, be sure to have your reading glasses on!  I was reading it with my lower powered glasses, and it was a bit of a struggle.  Fortunately, the accompanying text pointed out the important bits.

Still, I have to admit that there were times when I was reading through the book and I was ready to exclaim “hallelujah!”  Just about every pet peeve I’ve ever had with websites is in this book.

In more than one section, he points out that a lot of input screens ask for redundant information.  In “If the Computer is so Smart, Why am I Doing All the Work?”, he asks why does it ask for a billing address when you’ve already given it a shipping address.  Right across the page is one of my favorite pet peeves: You know the zip code, so why are you asking for the city and state? Let me add one even further, because I’ve seen some horrendous ones lately that ask for country, state, region of state and nearest municipality, all with the zip code and city already input!!!!!  I can understand why Godin says that 60% of all online shopping carts are abandoned just before checkout.  I know I’ve done it.

OK, another pet peeve I have with about half of existing software is the handling of error states.  They are not graceful, they are usually uninformative and they are sometimes downright cryptic.  Godin’s perception on these is that on the web it is even worse because many error pages do not give any rewards for reporting the error, no way to contact someone about the error and no incentive for even trying again.  In other words, companies are just begging you to go visit the competition through frustration.

Oh, yeah.  Ever been in cubicle and need to check out something online, only to go to the site and have it blare out loud music? What about going to a website and have it play some dumb movie when all you want is to check on the price of an item?

The point is, you don’t want to lose a potential customer in a maze of unrelated activities that not only frustrate them but cause them to become either frustrated and quit or think less of your company or IT as a result.  Decide what the goal should be and put the banana in an obvious place to lead them there.  Make it simple to view and simple to use.  Imagine how much easier tech support would be if everyone did this!

I’m going to repeat my mantra here: Internal users are internal customers.  If internal customers get frustrated, then IT gets a bad rep.  That affects everyone in IT eventually.

The book covers much, much more, but one point that project managers can relate to is measure the changes.  You don’t know if you are improving or not unless you measure.

Once again, even though Godin writes from a “marketing” point of view, he hits a homerun with IT management concerns as well.  Go to his site, go to the link at the top of this review or go to the library, but read this book!

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Posted in Book Review, Usability, Web Apps | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Book Review: The Dip by Seth Godin

Posted by iammarchhare on 17 April 2009

The opening of The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick) by Seth Godin goes like this:

I feel like giving up.

Almost every day, in fact.  Not all day, of course, but there are moments.

~ p 3

Thus, I was immediately drawn in.

For a high-level philosophical viewpoint, I think Godin gets his point across quite well.  For a low-level practical standpoint, though, I’m not so sure.

However, since it is a high-level look, it can apply in so many areas.  It can apply personally or corporately.  It can apply to marketing, general management, IT, or any area where you might have a goal.  It can apply to a corporate strategy or a career path.

Types of Obstacles

Godin outlines 3 types of obstacles:

  1. The dip.  This is what separates the experts from the amateurs.  It takes resources to cross the dip, to get back up the hill and succeed.
  2. The cul-de-sac.  This can also be called the “dead end”.  No amount of effort is going to get you where you want in this space.
  3. The cliff.  You climb up and up, but then you suddenly crash.  A disaster is the result.

I think we can all think of examples of these.  Godin gives the example of passing organic chemistry as the dip for pre-med students.  Getting past HR might be a dip for a job seeker.  A dead-end job is a cul-de-sac.  Cigarette smoking is a cliff.  You puff along and puff along, and all of a sudden you’re dealing with a life debilitating disease like emphysema.

Basically, his advice seems to be that as long as it is worth doing, it is a dip.  If it is not worth doing, then it is a cul-de-sac.  If it is a dip, keep persevering.  However, one should be more than willing to quit for cul-de-sacs and cliffs.

It’s easy enough to say that one should quit if it is a dead-end.  Godin tells of people who quit because they did not cross a dip, though.  Instead of quitting a cul-de-sac, they quit in a dip.  I’m just not convinced that he gave clear enough guidelines to distinguish the 2 in a practical situation.

Woodpeckers and Diversification

Throughout the book, Godin argues that diversification takes away energy from other pursuits.  It takes resources away from the energy that’s needed to overcome the dip.

A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy.  Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.

~ p 29

This analogy breaks, though.  What if there is no dinner to be found in that tree?  The woodpecker starves as much by trying too little in a thousand trees.  I think he tries to address that later on by stating that you should write down the circumstances in which you’ll quit, but this question just screamed out at me when I was reading the book.

The other problem, of course, is that especially in the IT world, you have so many options that it can be hard to narrow them down.  Sometimes you really do have to experiment with different things and ideas before you find something that works and works well.

Cul-de-sacs and Space Shuttles

Godin argues that the space shuttle is a cul-de-sac and not a dip.  It exists because “no one has the guts to cancel it”.

Perhaps he is right.  After all, what is the goal of the space shuttle?  What are we trying to accomplish?  I mean, NASA had a goal when it was trying to be 1st to the moon.  Those were exciting times.  From what I understand, even the space station is likely to be abandoned in the near future, so what should we be trying to do with space?

Does that make it a cul-de-sac, then?  It does seem pretty dead end if you don’t have a goal.  However, if there still were a goal, would it still be a cul-de-sac?  That part isn’t clear to me.

Flexible Dips

To me, it gets even more confusing then, as Godin presents dips as not being concrete objects.  They are subject to change.

Microsoft, for example, was able to create a dip by becoming the standard.  They themselves overcame dips by persevering with Windows, Word, Excel, etc.  They failed a few times before they won.  Now, the dip has become much larger for those who follow.

Yet, what might appear as a cul-de-sac really is a dip.  Microsoft products run on Microsoft platforms.  Google is now a challenger because their products are online.  In other words, Google is competing on a different platform.

His point is that to overcome a dip, you must act.  It isn’t something you ride out.  You must engage it.

Then, he states that quitting in the dip is a mistake usually based upon short-term concerns.  Here I think, then, is what probably is the key to dip vs. cul-de-sac.  One is a short-term problem that can be overcome and even changed with effort and insight.  The other is long-term and immovable.  I really think not stating this concretely and earlier in the book is the book’s biggest weakness.

Sunk Costs

Godin presents a Harvard Medical Degree as an example of sunk-cost.  Someone who is studying medicine but cannot stand to cut someone open is probably not going to make a great surgeon.

I actually think he could have emphasized this even more.  I’ve been thinking about sunk-costs since reading a post about the sunk-cost fallacy on the blog Get Rich Slowly.  It’s surprising how much it motivates our decision-making.  The problem with it, though, is that it can lead to “throwing good money after bad” instead of knowing when to quit.

How many IT managers have been afraid to shut down a project because some executive wanted it?  How many executives have been afraid to stop a bleeding project because they perceived that was what the customer wanted (when in fact it might not be what they need at all)?

Before You Quit and Before You Start

Perhaps the most practical sections of the book are “Three Questions to Ask Before Quitting” and the one immediately following called “Quitting Before You Start”.

The 3 questions:

  1. Am I panicking? — don’t decide things when panicked
  2. Who am I trying to influence? — markets vs individuals
  3. What sort of measurable progress am I making? — sticking with a situation in spite of forward progress is a waste

He then spends some time on tactics vs strategy.  Quitting a job is not giving up on making a living, for example.  A job is a tactic.  It gets you to where you want to go.  If it doesn’t, then it is time to quit.  Again, I have to believe the difference is short-term vs long-term here.

To me, though, the most valuable part of the book is to write down the circumstances in which you will quit.  This really seems to differentiate the dips from the cul-de-sacs.  An athlete isn’t going to quit because of a bruised knee.  A congenital heart condition might be a good reason to quit, though.

This points out why I say it is more of a philosophical book than a practical book.  The specifics are going to depend upon you or your team as well as your environment.  In the end, it seems to me only you can truly distinguish the cul-de-sac from the dip.  In addition, there are sections of the book that speak of creating your own dips.  In theory, then, even a cul-de-sac might really be a dip in a different market.  Thus, if you can create your own market, you have a distinct advantage.  It just isn’t cut and dried.

In project management, a team really needs to decide upfront what constitutes a failed project and how to pull the plug on it before more money goes down the toilet.

Wrapping It Up

It seems appropriate that there isn’t a neat bow to tidy things up at the end of the book.  Rather, it ends with a lot of questions.  These questions should guide you to further thinking on the subject.  I’ll let you read the book and answer them yourself.

Posted in Book Review, PM Basics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Book Review on The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging

Posted by iammarchhare on 26 March 2009

This post is for the bloggers and would-be bloggers out there. Release your inner blogger, I say!

It was with some amusement that I picked up a copy of The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging. Why did I pick it up? It’s written by the staff of the Huffington Post. Why was I amused? It’s written by the staff of the Huffington Post. No matter, how you slice it and dice it, a book about blogging from the Huffington Post is simultaneously the best and the worst of things. They are certainly the most well known and widely read political blog out there. Arianna Huffington herself has been interviewed by the BBC and others. On the flip side, it’s difficult for anyone with 2 brain cells of common sense to read half of the articles on that site without cringing. It doesn’t seem to matter if the writers are more on the liberal or on the conservative side of things (yes, they have some token conservatives, it appears). You just have to scratch your head and wonder how people can believe half of what they write sometimes. Yet, if you are going to read about a subject, it helps to learn from those who are doing it well. Agree or disagree, Huffington Post does it well.

During Passover, we are supposed to take inventory and examine ourselves. After moving a lot of articles onto a new blog site, it is time to take stock and remind myself of why I’m doing this. Perhaps other bloggers can relate (I know there are a couple of you peeking in). Perhaps others who have considered it can relate.

So, Why Blog?

  1. Today, we have instant communication. Yet, it has created a paradox that there is so much information that important information gets overlooked or even ignored by the traditional media.
  2. It is a lot more open than traditional media. It becomes personal, conversational and allows the writer to express their passion.
  3. Writing blogs can be a lot of work, but they can be a lot of fun.
  4. “Why blog? Here’s a better question: Why not blog? As you’ll learn in the upcoming chapters, blogging is easier than smoking, can take less time and money, and isn’t banned in restaurants.” ~ p 18
  5. To know you’re not alone. You can get instant feedback.
  6. To establish yourself as an expert. This is one of the reasons I recently started the Random Acts of IT Project Management blog. I was recently certified by the Project Management Institute, and I have 13 full time years in IT. However, some things a resume just do not do justice to.
  7. To make money. It doesn’t pull any punches about telling you that you won’t make oodles of money right away. Of course, the Huffington Post does make money, and it is one of the few really big ones. Don’t forget that if you own a business, then you can use a blog to drive people to your product if done correctly.
  8. To create a community. To me, this is important thing for the Church of God Perspective blog. I want it to be a place to have discussions and civil debates on topics of doctrine, prophecy and current events. It has become obvious to me that with the COG community scattered everywhere, it would be nice to have a place where real discussions about some of those differences can take place. Furthermore, print media all over is failing, and even The Journal has had difficulty getting its editions out on time. While there are a lot of websites, there didn’t seem to be that many blogs at the time. Print and web sites are fine for static content, but they don’t allow for other points of view.

Getting Traffic

The book goes a little into Google alerts, Technorati and Alexa. In addition, some mention of tools is in the book. I’m not convinced that enough time was spent on these, especially the former. In addition, some sites like MySpace, Facebook and StumbleUpon aren’t even mentioned until the appendix.

One thing the book does do a good job of is explaining Search Engine Optimization. Although it is not listed under it, the book talks about the URL, and states in several places that good content is the main key. It even goes into keywords. It explains it with just enough detail, I think, for the beginning blogger.

Downsides

Jonah did not take “a dark journey in the belly of the whale for his complacency and relentless triviality.” Someone needs to lay off the wacky weed.

Well, like I said before, it is Huffington Post, and the example blog posts reminded me of why I don’t frequent that site. The language is enough to turn me off towards visiting it regularly, quite frankly. One of the example posts perpetuates the lie that Bush vetoed a bill that would have enabled health care for “poor kids”, when in fact the bill in question tried to raise the bar to somewhere over $100k per year. It even had the audacity to praise Communist medicine. Seems they have forgotten that people in the Soviet Union often had to stand in line just to buy bread, let alone that many waited so long for medical care that they died in the meantime.

If Huffington Post wants to use borderline language or use metaphors and language with graphic sexual imagery, that is their right under the 1st Amendment. However, please don’t call it “journalism”. Furthermore, Arianna & gang, it isn’t a requirement to sell your book!

Wanna Blog?

I hope that a few of you may be considering taking up blogging as a result of this post. I hope that more of you will be encouraged to comment on blogs you follow. If you are a fellow blogger and have an interest in the COG or IT PM, please stop by and leave a comment or two (on the appropriate blog, of course). We are all a virtual community, after all.

Posted in Book Review, Mostly off-topic rambling rabbit holes | Tagged: , , , | 5 Comments »