Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Don’t be Fooled - Back Office Systems DO Touch your Customers

I have been a UX Designer on many customer support applications, most recently Zendesk, so I have more than a passing interest when I contact customer support for myself. A good application like Zendesk certainly is important but I am always reminded of how the company's back office systems play a huge role in the customer's experience. My own recent experience doing a simple service change to my AT&T landline was such a good example I had to share it. Beyond the frustration it ends up costing the customer real money and fundamentally affects their view of the company and even leads one to question the motives of the company.

Over the years, due to wireless phones, VoIP, web conference software, FAX services, etc,. my business landlines have dwindled down to one. Since I am old school I kept that last one around and figured the $75.00 a month was worth the emergency backup and convenience.  I would periodically call AT&T to ask if there was a way to reduce the cost, perhaps by removing the features like voicemail which we never use on this line. I was always told this was the cheapest I could go. Finally I decided to discontinue the line since I rarely use it.

My customer experience with AT&T begins.

July 22. I call customer service to discontinue the landline. Suddenly I am told that there is a different plan that would keep everything the same except for Caller ID and Voicemail for $35.00. Despite being annoyed that this option did not appear till I actually tried to disconnect I went for it.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gender Roles in Cultural Evolution
or Why Hillary Should be President

by David Simkin, Ph.D.


Ja is a hunter-gatherer living 12,000 years ago in the East African savanna. He often passes a patch of wild growing berries on his journeys to gather food. He begins to identify berries that are sweeter than others and selectively eats them. These berries have evolved alongside mammals who unknowingly spread their seeds.  This happens because the digestive juices of the mammal stomach kick starts the germination process and once passed through the digestive track they find themselves deposited in excellent fertilizer.

Over the years Ja finds these berries - and the sweeter ones at that - growing around his living locations. Ja shares this bounty with members of his family. He begins to be known for these berries and gains greater status in his tribe as a result.  More years pass and Ja begins the rudimentary stages of domestication of these berries. He passes this knowledge on to his offspring. Over many generations this hunter-gatherer society evolves into an agricultural society.

This practical application of knowledge, a technology, allows for more constant and varied food sources, greater health, increased brain size, more people living per acre of the land and the establishment of villages and governments. This village grows in size and eventually the members of this tribe begin to have frequent contact with members of other tribes. Initially these contacts do not end well as the tribes come into conflict. Some of these tribes merge as a result of  conflicts but sharing of culture is slow to develop.

One of Ja’s descendants, now living in a village, comes upon a stranger from another village and prepares to kill him as that is the common practice. Ha, the female he has had children with, stops him and encouraged a nonviolent encounter. The stranger is allowed to live and returns to his village with a slightly changed attitude toward the neighboring tribe. Eventually the tribes peacefully coexist and subsequently merge. The tribes evolve into a chiefdom and eventually a kingdom.

While this process is happening at many scales with numerous technologies, many people have correlated great leaps in our cultural evolution to particularly powerful technologies including Language, Writing, Printing and Electronic Communication. My thesis is that these technologies do have a critical role in Cultural Evolution but it is a cycle of shifting influence in the society from men to women that ignited cultural evolution and explains these leaps.

1. The Process of Cultural Evolution

In terms of the example above, the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers says: "Hunting and gathering was humanity's first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history.” Hunting and gathering as well as agriculture which replaced it are technologies as defined earlier in that they are practical applications of knowledge. As such, and critical to this discussion, they are passed to the next generation by non biological means and tend to increase the fitness of the societies that adopt them.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Best Pizza Ever

It was late afternoon during the lazy summer just after graduating high school before going off to college. Three friends and I had the munchies so we headed to New England Pizza in northeast Philly. We ordered a pepperoni pizza for the table and each of us got a grinder - a toasted hoagie - for you non-Philadelphians think Quiznos, for you Philadelphians forgive the comparison. The pizza came after we had finished our grinders so we got it boxed to go. Now this was not a really big pie but it fit into the glove compartment of my '69 Pontiac GTO - door closed! I drive a Prius now but those cars sure were fun.

We went about our nightly activities and eventually around 4:00 AM I dropped all the guys off and headed for home. As was my habit, I took a swing through the neighborhood before calling it a night. I turned on Layton Road - short gentle curve slightly downhill - perfect for the kind of last cruise driving you do at 4:00 in the morning. At the last house on the right I saw my older brother Eddie sitting on the stoop outside with his friend Michael. As I drove up Michael yelled to me that he had wanted a pepperoni pizza all night and my brother wouldn't go so now they were starving.  I pulled over took the pizza out of the glove compartment - it was warm from that Pontiac V-8 - and we demolished that thing. To a guy who always wanted to impress his older brother - and more importantly with the kind of older brother who was always pulling for you - it was the best pizza ever.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Pumpkin Pie

People come to our home and are surprised when we offer them pumpkin pie in the middle of the summer. We eat pumpkin pie all year round and the fact that it surprises people so much caused me to think about why pumpkin pie has such a strong hold on me.

My father had a luncheonette in a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood in Philadelphia. Three streets down was the Mrs. Smith's Pie factory. You may know Mrs. Smith's for the frozen pies you see in the supermarket. Well back then it was a real factory putting out fresh pies for the local groceries.

The lunch order would come from the pie factory for steak sandwiches and hoagies. I would make the delivery and would enter through the budget shop - a nondescript concrete stairs leading to a simple sign that you would probably miss if you were not looking for it. This is the way I think of a budget shop - part of the factory offering damaged pies which did not meet the quality criteria for general sale.

After I delivered the food and settled the bill they would take a fresh warm pie and drop it on to the counter from a height of about 2 inches and say "oops looks like a damaged pie." That pie would be my tip. I would bring it back to the luncheonette and my father and older brother and I would sit down and eat a piece of warm fresh pumpkin pie.

My father and brother are both gone now - Pumpkin pies are a moment frozen in time.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Dreaded Mother-Induced Fear

This is a good post to introduce you to the way I see the world. I wrote it many years ago (it was originally published in the Chicago Tribune, May 20, 1983).

It is said that we live in an age of fear. Never has the world been in such a volatile state. But I maintain that there is one category of fear that has been with us from the beginning: Mother-Induced Fear. The objects to which these fears are directed have changed over the years, but its characteristics remain unchanged.

The first characteristic of Mother-Induced Fear is that one never outgrows it. This is not true of Mother-Induced Rules such as "Don't sit on public toilet seats." As we grow older, we are able to assess the validity of this rule. As I matured I came to understand that some public toilet seats were okay to sit on while others were to be avoided. Toilet seats per se never became a feared object.

But no amount of maturity allows one to outgrow a Mother-Induced Fear. Examples:

For breakfast I often enjoy a toasted bagel. The problem is that most toasters are not built wide enough for half a bagel. On those occasions in which the bagel gets stuck, I am forced to undertake one of the most feared procedures known to any human, putting a fork into the toaster. I tell myself it is unplugged, but my palms moisten my heart races and my breathing becomes irregular. It is not until I have extricated the stubborn carbohydrate from the toaster that I can again relax. I suffer from a Mother-Induced Fear of toasters.

Why are these fears so long-lasting? I became aware of the answer when in a fit of guilt I admitted to my mother that in the seven years since I last lived under her roof I have often stuck a fork into the toaster--unplugged of course. She then proceeded to recount numerous newspaper articles in which some other mother's child toasted more than the bread. She claims to personally know some of these mothers.

All Mother-Induced Fears [MIFs] share this characteristic; any mother can immediately bring to mind examples of the feared object causing great harm and all mothers use these same examples. I have the feeling that there is a book somewhere that only mothers are allowed to read. This book is right next to the book of mother's expressions like, "If you keep making that face your face will freeze like that," or "You'll poke out someone's eye with that stick."

If mothers are to be believed, a burned match that has been out for several days is capable of igniting a seven-alarm blaze. While growing up I was sure that a burned match that was not first run under water would cause any flammable objects it came into contact with to burst into flames.

Can there be any object more fear-provoking than the razor-sharp disc of metal one removes when opening a can? Surely this piece of metal has the ability to fly off the kitchen counter and head right for your throat. This object is so universally feared that I have often felt the Russians would quickly sit down to negotiate if they were told we were stockpiling these lethal discs.

There also are objects outside of home that are subject to Mother-Induced Fears. Stepping off an escalator demands total concentration. That space at the top where the steps disappear into the floor is capable of devouring people up to their waists and probably whole small children. I take the steps as often as possible.

I am sure many other Mother-Induced Fear objects exist. These are the ones I grew up with. I hope that in speaking about these fears freely, I will give others the strength to go on, knowing they are not alone.