Monday, December 24, 2012

A Critical Thinker’s Perspective on Gun Control and Violence (Part 1)

The tragedy in Newtown has ignited a national debate about gun control, with calls to ban assault weapons making their way back into the headlines, and the NRAs proposal to put armed guards in schools getting widely ridiculed. Like most Americans, especially those with young children, those events of ten days ago have weighed on me heavily and prompted me to seriously think about the issues at hand. I deliberated about writing this blog entry at all (so as not to agitate my three readers) but I am tentatively doing so because I think a critical thinker’s perspective might be valuable in this emotion-filled discussion.

As background, I grew up in a rural area where hunting was popular and gun ownership was commonplace. I’ve fired guns and hunted myself a few times (although it’s been years), and I have many friends and acquaintances who own guns of all types, and who use them for sport shooting and hunting. I support citizens’ rights to own guns, and like many people I believe the gun control debate boils down to where we as a society want to draw the line between the types of arms that are reasonable for citizens to “keep and bear,” and the types of arms that are not. At one extreme are small caliber guns that hold just a few rounds and take some time to reload, and at the other extreme are weapons clearly designed for the battlefield. I actually tend to draw my line closer to the later because I think the second amendment is rooted in our Founding Father's belief that this right was needed as a check against tyranny; not as a means of ensuring people could always hunt and skeet shoot. Our British rulers attempted to disarm the colonists through various means, and these acts were viewed as an attempt to enslave the people. Although the very concept of US citizens rising up to overthrow a tyrannical government may sound absurd today, it is only because of the place and time we live in. This great American experiment is a mere 236 years old... a nanosecond in the history of humanity. Our short lives, memories, and experiences offer no help in predicting how things will be in 100 or 200 years, and history has numerous examples of democracies that have gone bad.

Now that I've made myself sound like a member of the Colorado militia, I will add that I do not own a gun and never intend to. I have not taught my two children to shoot, and I probably never will. One of my neighbors has a carry permit and holsters a handgun every waking moment, even when doing yard work, and this makes me uncomfortable. I wonder what's going on his head that makes him want to constantly protect himself in our crime-free neighborhood, and what would happen if my kids somehow crossed him when he was in bad mood? Although I think the NRA's missions of defending the second amendment and providing gun-safety training and education are reasonable, I'm annoyed by what I perceive as their overly simplistic interpretation of the constitution and black and white positions. Our right to bear arms, as with all of our other rights, is not absolute… it ends when it endangers the rights of others. I think the mantra "guns don't kill people; people kill people" is ridiculous and couldn't be retired soon enough. By this logic automobiles and opioids don't kill people either, so there is no need for speed limits or controlled substances. I'm also very troubled by the cold reality that a gun brought into a home for self-defense is twenty times more likely to be used in a suicide, accidental death, or intentional murder; almost always by a young male.

So it should be pretty clear that I'm actually quite conflicted on the subjects of gun violence and gun control, and the massacre in Connecticut initially pushed me more toward the left. Bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines seem like common sense. It just feels right. Right? Well, to a critical thinker, “common sense” is a code word for “opinion.” We all have different versions of common sense. Therefore I decided to uncover as many facts on the subject as possible, and to make as informed of a decision as possible based on the evidence. What I discovered is that this subject is as complex as they come, with endless dimensions to analyze and hard data available that can support or refute any side of any position. Some of my own opinions were supported, while others were dismantled. I’ll attempt to analyze this data and draw some conclusions in Part 2.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Newspapers Can Rethink Their Business and Survive (A Product Managers View)

An insightful feature in this week's Christian Science Monitor about the ongoing struggles of the newspaper business made wonder if many people in this business understand the discipline of product management. If they did, the substance of these stories might be a little different.

We all know that the printed newspaper industry is in peril. Revenue has been drastically declining because classified and help-wanted ads have moved to the internet. Subscriptions continue to decline as more people get their news from free, online sources. According to many in the industry, this is the decline of modern civilization as we are losing sources of original reporting. There may be a kernel of truth to this, but in my opinion we are not losing too much.

The reality is that most people who subscribed to newspapers didn't actually read most of the newspaper anyway. They scanned the headlines, checked sports scores, and maybe read the Dave Barry column and letters to the editor, along with a comic or two. This type of short attention span news consumption was no different than what's happening online now, without the wood pulp. My 3 pound Sunday paper contained 2.5 pounds of mattress ads and 1/2 pound of fluffy special interest stories. And not just this year or last year, but for as long as I can remember! That's why I stopped subscribing; not because my attention span has gotten shorter.

So what's the kernel of truth in the dire prediction? Borrowing a quote from the referenced feature, it's that newspapers have historically provided "local journalism that holds leaders accountable and knits communities together," and they can continue to do so. The subset of people that were interested in this stuff still are; and they're still willing to pay for it. This is where the product management-thinking comes in. Good product managers know how to successfully match the needs of the market with their company's distinctive competencies. The market still wants news, but it has lots of ways to get most of it now... except at the local level. Newspapers have journalists, reporters, and delivery mechanisms that can provide that news, but they remain mostly focused on the wrong things... compiling content from around the world that is available from a thousand other sources.

What if newspapers focused 100% of their decreasing people, resources, revenue, and time on local news and journalism, and delivered it in an electronic-only format? That subset of readers who really care about the journalism would still be willing to pay for this, and although circulation would decline, so would costs. Over time, circulation might actually increase as the "Voice of Springfield" refocused itself on walking the walk, instead of being the voice of the world with 1 page about Springfield. In other words, newspaper companies need to stop thinking about how to prop up their historical business, and start doing what they're good at for the people that are willing to pay for it. If they do that, maybe they have a chance.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Has the Great American Beer Festival Gotten Too Big?

The coming of autumn means cooler temperatures, turning of the leaves, and for craft beer enthusiasts, it means the Great American Beer Festival (GABF). Those of us who live in Denver have the added bonus of the festival being held here every year since its inception in the late eighties. (Technically, I think the first couple were held in Boulder, but I'm splitting hairs.)

GABF is produced by the Brewer's Association (BA). According to BA, the primary purpose of GABF "is to educate the consumer about the quality and diversity in beer-styles and breweries that exist across the United States." Impressively, more than 500 of BA's 1,400 brewery members were in attendance this year, so thumbs up for diversity of beers! On the other hand, with 49,000 attendees opportunities to "educate" the consumer were limited at best.

Tickets to this year's GABF sold out in minutes. Even those of us eligible for the BA members-only  presale were in disbelief how quickly tickets were swiped up, and I was only able to score tickets for the Friday night session... happy hour. Most of the festival floor was shoulder-to-shoulder, and although the organizers did an amazing job of ushering so many people through so quickly, the crowd was just overwhelming.

For serious home brewers, intimacy and the ability to interact with professional brewers has been one of the GABF hallmarks. Because of the crowds, that intimacy and ability was gone this year.  It's nearly impossible to have a conversation with a brewer about aroma-hopping with Simcoe instead of Citra when there are twenty people lined up behind you waiting for a sample of beer. Most breweries are just rushing people through, and that's understandable.

My suggestions for improving GABF in the future are:
1. Hold more BA and AHA members-only events. BA and AHA members are some of the biggest proponents of craft beer. We tell everybody we know about great new beers, beer-styles, hops, and breweries. I think there would be a positive trickle down affect from giving us a little more access without the crowds.
2. Establish an education track in which serious home brewers and craft beer enthusiasts can learn more about brewing, ingredients, and the business of brewing. Sessions could be limited in size and taught by professional brewers or other respected people in the craft beer industry. We would be willing to pay more for such an opportunity.

The size of GABF this year is simply a reflection of the growing popularity of craft beer, and that's good. But in terms of educating the consumer via intimacy and direct interaction with brewers, I think the GABF has gotten too big. Until some new ideas are implemented, like the ones I've suggested above, I'll be skipping next year's GABF and instead going to the smaller and more intimate events and tastings that happen around town in the weeks leading up to the festival.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

AirTrain in Vain: Good and Bad Visual Design

BART Light Rail Map: An example of good visual design.
On a recent trip to San Francisco I was confronted with side-by-side examples of excellent and awful visual design.  I needed to get from the airport to downtown San Francisco via the light rail, or BART system. After finding my way to the BART station, the light rail map was exactly what I expected. Like almost all subway and light rail maps today, it's based on the style of Harry Beck's London Underground Tube map. This style is a classic example of elegant and effective visual design. One of the few criticisms is that these maps are not always geographically accurate, but this flaw is typically far outweighed by the fact that such maps are so easy to understand.

However, getting to the BART station was another matter entirely. The signs in the airport terminal directed me to the AirTrain, where I was confronted with a dreadful map. The first thing you notice on this map is all the white space, roads, and terminal buildings. Although the geographical accuracy may be useful to some, it probably does not need to be to scale, as less empty white space would make the stuff of interest much bigger and higher in resolution. The orange and green fill on the buildings serves no purpose whatsoever, except to distract the viewer. It is pure visual noise. Is there a train on this map somewhere? Since I am on a train and would like to know where get off, that would be fitting. Eliminate the colored fill, and place the emphasis on the AirTrain route itself.

AirTrain Map: is there a train in here somewhere?
After I finally figured out that I could access the BART station from the AirTrain, the next problem revealed itself. The train line leaving the BART station is shown in a reddish/ magenta color. Anybody who's done a little research in advance knows they are looking for the yellow line, but there is no yellow line on the map. Must I get on the red line instead? It turns out that the colors on the AirTrain map have nothing to do with the lines on the BART system. I guess somebody just thought red or magenta would like nice with the orange and green terminal buildings.

I confirmed this suspicion with a passerby and had about 10 minutes to kill before the next yellow line train arrived, so I decided to wander around the station and stretch my legs. That's when I came across another AirTrain map even more bewildering than the first one. Note the Zaxxon-style isometric projection of the AirTrain and terminals. Confused? Then just drop your eyes a little to the detailed top views and side view, where you can count the number of steps on each escalator and find the location of the nearest trash can. What is the purpose of this map? My theory is that it was drawn by a first year drafting or architectural student and placed in the station as a prize for getting the highest grade on the project.

Anybody up for a game of Zaxxon?
The entire purpose of visual display of information is to improve understanding beyond what can be conveyed with words. In these examples the BART light rail map does exactly that, while the AirTrain maps fall way short. They may actually create confusion and decrease understanding, which is the antithesis of good visual design. Map making is one of the oldest forms of graphical design, and great examples of professional maps surround us. It's perplexing how the maps for a key transportation link in a major metropolitan area could have missed this.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Product Managers Can Learn From Babies and Toddlers

A recent, wonderful article at about Fisher-Price made me ask myself, "From a product manager's perspective, are babies and toddlers the ultimate user?" Let me explain. Fisher-Price is an 83 year old company that started out selling painted, wooden blocks for kids to play with. They have managed to stay successful and relevant through a delicate balance of adopting new trends and technology, and sticking to their roots. Among other things, the article describes Fisher-Price’s PlayLab proving ground for new products, where employees simply observe the way babies and parents play.

As product managers we are charged with being the voice of the market and being in tune with what users need and are willing to pay for. To know what potential customers want and will buy, we can simply ask them, but experienced product managers know this only gets you so far. People answer the questions you ask them; not the ones you don't ask them. They often tell you what they think you want to hear. Occasionally they lie. A good facilitator can sometimes break through these barriers and extract the truth, but it gets harder as the products, features, and solutions become more disruptive. This is particularly true for technology products. Potential customers will reliably tell you they prefer the white BMW over the green one, but try asking them about BMW's iDrive system when they've only used old, analog, discrete controls and it's a whole different scenario. Good luck with that.

To outwit our users, we product managers take a different tact. We don't ask them what they want; we watch them. We experience their worlds, understand what frustrates them, and try to gain insight into product gaps that force them to a work-around, substitute, or completely different product. As Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot just by watching." Armed with these observations, our development teams will come up with clever ways to address the problems.

This takes us back to Fisher-Price. When the users are babies and toddlers, there is no choice other than simply observing them. No questions to ask, and no answers to lead them to. You're forced to see what makes them tick and what frustrates them in a pure, unfiltered way. Does this make them the ultimate end-user? Perhaps.

Next time you visit a customer for a day-in-the-life-of visit, take a page from Fisher-Price's book: imagine your user in diapers, bring along some Goldfish crackers, and keep your mouth closed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Presenting Data and Information: A Day with Edward Tufte

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending Edward Tufte's lecture entitled "Presenting Data and Information" in downtown Denver.  Tufte is a professor at Yale where he teaches courses on statistical evidence and information design.  He's been called the DaVinci of data and graphical information, and one of his books (The Visual Display of Quantitative Information) is widely considered one of the greatest non-fiction works of the 20th century.  For many data geeks like myself, it is a go-to treatise referred to routinely.

Speaking of those books, all four were included in the $380 cost of the lecture, which made the price tag more palatable since they retail for $40 to $50 each.  And they are gorgeous!  Self-published by Tufte, he practices what he preaches and has produced what are truly heirloom quality collectibles.  Everything about these volumes is beautiful: the paper, type-faces, use of color, and printing quality.

So what about the lecture?  For those already familiar with Tufte's work and presentation philosophy, there was nothing new or earth-shattering offered.  The lecture could have been called "the world according to ET in six hours."  His disdain for Powerpoint is well-known, and he did not disappoint in reinforcing this.  Having said that, I truly enjoyed seeing his well-rehearsed and choreographed lecture, and it was nice to hear what he considered the most important take-aways from his four volumes.

My summary of those take-aways is as follows:
  1. All problems worth talking about are multi-dimensional.  They shouldn't be presented serially or one-dimensionally, which is what Powerpoint forces us to do.
  2. Start the presentation by giving a thorough data-dump on a high-resolution display (i.e. a printed document), and spend the first 15 minutes of the meeting telling people to read it.  For comparison's sake, printed documents have 6 to 7 times the resolution of most computer screens, and still twice the resolution as the latest retina displays.  Your audience isn't stupid.  They routinely read and understand charts and tables with 200 numbers or more in the newspaper, magazines, and internet.
  3. Follow that with a summary of the items you wish to highlight and discuss, and open it up for their questions and discussion.  The whole purpose of visually presenting data is to improve understanding, so that's what the focus of the meeting should be.
  4. You don't need to be a designer.  Find some good non-fiction reporting sources that you like, and model your documents after those.  Just copy the fonts, color-schemes, spacing, etc.  Sources that Tufte repeatedly referred to were the journal of Nature,,, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
  5. Show your sources, and make your data available to anybody who wants it.
Would I pay $380 to see Tufte again?  Probably not.  But this is one of those things that I'm glad I did once.  (For more info, check out Tufte's website.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Beer Labels as Fine Art? Occasionally.

While recently enjoying a Sierra Nevada Ruthless Rye, I decided that I liked the beer label more than the beer itself.  Don’t get me wrong – I think this beer is good; it’s just not great.  It’s very restrained for a “rye-PA,” so I admire that Sierra Nevada is not joining the malt and hops one-upmanship game that so many craft brewers are playing.  But overall I found it to be, well… meh.  Apparently this is a replacement for their Glissade spring bock, which is a little surprising to me, as this rye ale just screams autumn.  As does its label.

And the label is striking!  Done in a style reminiscent of high-end graphic novels, the first thing you’re drawn to is the color scheme.  The hues are analogous enough to be soothing, but just far enough apart to throw you off a little and create an uneasy feeling.  The woman is haunting yet beautiful, like Patrick Nagel meets the witches from MacBeth.  Details, like the ominous clouds and strands of hair in the woman’s face, complete the picture.  The overall impression is chilling, hypnotic, and mysterious.

It turns out the artist is rock and roll illustrator Ken Taylor.  Best known for his album covers and concert posters, he dabbles in other areas too.  Somebody at Sierra Nevada must be a fan, so now he can add beer labels to that list.  Perhaps he’s a craft beer lover too?  Check out his portfolio.

Most beer labels have an illustration of an animal, landscape, person, or some other scene that matches the beer’s name.  It is usually competent and professional, but unmemorable.  Those who try to make the artwork take center-stage often go over the top in my opinion, producing art that’s better suited for the next Motorhead or Insane Clown Posse album cover.  (Sorry Coney Island and Ska Brewing.)  To me, the best beer labels are ones like those shown below.  The monochromatic, accented color schemes and easy to read fonts make beautiful, elegant designs.  But they are not art.  And that’s just fine, because it’s about what’s inside the bottle.

But Sierra Nevada may have changed the rules with their latest label.  Look at the crowded craft beer section in any well-stocked liquor store, and you’ll notice that Ruthless Rye really stands out.  That's the whole point of packaging.  You are drawn to it because it’s unique; it’s fancy, but it’s classy.  It’s a Bellagio in a sea of tacky Las Vegas strip hotels.

As the craft beer scene becomes more crowded, small brewers are struggling to come up with unique beer names and packaging that attracts attention.  I have a hunch that some of these brewers will follow Sierra Nevada’s example and start employing established artists.  For us beer-geeks who love art and design, this will be a nice bonus!

Please comment and share some your favorite beer label designs, and check out these links for more on this topic: The Pour Curator, and  15 Beer Labels we Love.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Product Development Use Cases and the Libyan Civil War

We all know that social media played a role in last year's Arab Spring, but I certainly didn't appreciate the extent of that role. This article from Technology Review is a fantastic read: Technology Review: People Power 2.0.  It provides some truly mesmerizing examples of how social media was used in the Libyan civil war to gather intelligence and receive critical weapons knowledge.   For product development professionals, it also leads to an interesting discussion regarding "use cases."

Most product development processes require "use cases" to be created very early in the process.  The purpose of doing this is to try and define all the ways a customer or user will interact with the product.  In other words, what will they use it for, and how do they want to go about doing that?  From my experience developing new products, I've concluded that there are typically three valid categories of use cases:  1) The ones the development team and product management come up with based on their experience; 2) The additional ones actual or potential customers and users come up (using interviews focus groups, demonstrations, etc,); and 3) The ones nobody came up with, but the product ends up being used that way none-the-less.  Kleenex and WD-40 are well-known, classic examples of the third category in which the unanticipated use cases led to vast, commercial success.  More recent examples are SMS text messaging and Gorilla Glass.

I have a hunch some of the examples cited in the Technology Review article fall into the third category as well.  In one example, Twitter was used to crowd source weapons knowledge, and an unusual type of landmine was identified in less than 40 minutes.  In another example a rebel commander received critical information about how a certain type of rocket launcher works from two civilians a continent away, using Skype.  This allowed his brigade to successfully attack the weapon.

I'm fairly certain Twitter never had a focus group to understand how their product might be used for weapons identification.  I'm also reasonably sure that Skype doesn't have an "intelligence" division tucked between the cubicles focused on small business and grandma.

So what does this all this mean regarding the way we develop new products?  I'm not ready to throw the baby out with the bath water.  Today's product development methodologies work pretty well, and most companies are able to bring new product to market faster than ever.  But product development professionals need to be opened-minded and acknowledge there are potential use cases that nobody can imagine... think of Donald Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns."  I once worked for somebody twenty years ago whose philosophy was to "just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks."  Perhaps he has never been more right.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Building a Better Bug: the Anti-Apple

If you work in product development and technology, you're probably sick of hearing, "this is how Apple does it!"  I certainly am.  The attached article about VW's great success the past few years provides a nice counterpoint.  A more traditional (but always evolving) management approach is what works for most companies.  Think big, lofty goals; understanding your core competencies; and constant, incremental growth from great execution.  Building a Better Bug Colorado Business Magazine