The magic of hierarchy

Probably my favourite tool in the arsenal of analyst techniques has to be decomposition. Whether it’s functional or process decomposition there is nothing like it for arranging problems into the big picture. Then breaking that picture down into its component parts so that you can start to make sense of it.

hierarchyAnd yet hierarchy, in recent years, has got a pretty bad reputation. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton wrote this weekend in this LinkedIn article. He was brought up to believe that hierarchy was bad and led to inefficiency, yet research for his new book showed that hierarchy is unavoidable.

Hierarchy is nature’s gift to us in helping us understand the World around us. Citing research by his colleagues Deb Gruenfeld and Lara Tiedens he describes how hierarchy is found in every single group of animals found in nature. To quote Gruenfeld and Tiedens directly:

When scholars attempt to find an organization that is not characterized by hierarchy, they cannot.

Hierarchy structures the relationships between people and things into parent, child and peer relationships. This makes it easier for us to remember those relationships, it provides an organising principle that is standardised across everything. We simply have to know how hierarchy works in order to understand something that is new to us.

This is what makes decomposition so powerful. It comes naturally to us human beings so is not really something that needs much in the way of education. When we apply it, it’s often to an area that seems chaotic and complex. By decomposing we overlay a hierarchy that allows us to understand what was previously incomprehensible. It allows us to break problems down into component parts in order to tackle them effectively and even start to predict what will happen when we make changes.

It doesn’t just aid understanding, it also helps us to remember. Instead of having to remember every single discreet component of an organisation you simply need to remember a small subset. You can then use this along with the hierarchical organising principle and you will be able to fairly accurately calculate the missing pieces.

This is what makes decomposition one of the first things I do when introduced to a new problem.

An extended version of this article is available at


in defence of #email

While I’ve been an enthusiastic adopter of social platforms I’ve never once felt the need to ditch my old and trustworthy friend email. Sure I’ve been down on email before as I wrote here, but I’ve never called for the end as discussed on this article. The commentors on that post highlight some valid reasons that email is not going away anytime soon but the fact that ‘everyone uses it’ is not what keeps me wired into my inbox. In fact most people I communicate with regularly have social profiles, mobile devices and various other means of communication that we all use regularly.

Even with my closest colleagues on a typical day we will communicate using some or all of the following methods; telephone, instant messaging, desktop sharing, micro-blogs, task management system, blogs, wikis and of course email.

No, the main reason I still use email is that I simply haven’t found anything else that fills that space. In fact I would argue that email isn’t social and that’s why nothing has been developed to replace it and why no social media platform signals the death knell for it. Email is private, it can be open, but that’s a conscious choice, in the same way that a private direct message on twitter is a conscious break from the intended use of the platform.

Email is not a stream that you dip in and out of as you please, it’s a point-to-point communication method. Emails don’t disappear off the bottom of the stream to be forgotten about forever, they sit and wait until they have been dealt with. Whether that is through deletion or being opened and read is a choice made by the recipient and no one else.

But for me, the most valuable aspect of email is it allows me to think. My preferred learning style is reading and writing. Often when an idea hits me it’s impossible for me to explain to someone else exactly what it is straight away. I still feel that moment of excitement that I simply must communicate to anyone who is interested. If the idea is related to the current project I’m working on then the only people that need to hear it are those associated with the project. Composing an email, for me, is the only way to really understand the thoughts that are flying around my head. To put enough words down, in my own time, that allows me to explain it to a colleague. If I can explain it in a single email, with a small number of clarifications, then I know I’m on to something.

Our Berlin Wall

It seems the consumerization of the enterprise is over. In this article Owen Thomas, reporting that oil giant Shell is to allow its 135,000 employees to bring their own devices, declares the debate over. For him, at least, it’s no longer an interesting debate, “what’s next?” he calls.

Well let’s just hold on a second. This is, after all, a momentous occasion. Traditional beliefs and customs are tumbling down. I for one would like to stop, contemplate and enjoy this revolutionary milestone.

Approaches such as agile development and the growth of cloud based products created a two tier system. Those businesses that embraced cloud technologies got to experience freedom and a superior experience to those that were stuck using the old enterprise applications. Like East and West Germany the advancements in mobile and improved user experience became the illegal tv sets picking up western TV shows. Where those without watched enviously as those with gorged themselves on the spoils of a decadent capitalist lifestyle.

We sat at our desks looking at the depressing blue/grey of a SAP transaction while we dreamt of cute kittens on Youtube or poking long forgotten friends on Facebook. Allowing employees to bring their own mobile devices to the office seemed like a small concession to keep the masses happy. But then they began to take photos of their colleagues over lunch and published amusing edits on Flickr. Before long they were spending more and more time updating statuses (or is that statii?) and tending to their virtual farm animals.

Some even learnt how to connect these devices, against IT policy, to collect work email. They no longer needed to hide the device when the boss walked in, they could now claim to be checking the latest sales figures or sending out a contract. Like the East German police, there were pockets of resistance, some tried to stop this from happening but they soon realised the cost of doing so was unacceptable. Powerless to stop the crowd they just stepped aside and let the wall come down.

Recent #UX experiences

I’ve been fascinated by the psychology of how humans interact with the world around them for years. Here are some examples of poor user experience I picked up recently.

water cooler

IMAG0057This was installed in our office in San Francisco, it took two days before facilities were forced to stick those white labels below the hot and cold buttons. Clearly the manufacturer had overestimated our ability to associate their icons with hot and cold.

hand dryer

02386928132We had this hand dryer in one of our UK offices. This manufacturer got a bit carried away with the rather creative diagonal design on the front cover. Every time you washed your hands you naturally put them under the right hand side of the unit below the pattern. The problem was that the air flow came out the center so the back of your left hand always dried first!

Despite knowing this your brain forced your hands to drift back to the right side. I guess if you were short enough to see under the unit you’d be be OK.

local bar

This happened to me yesterday as I drove through a local village looking for somewhere to stop for coffee. Two bars sat next to each other on the same side of the road. Both advertised they were open daily and served coffee. We decided to take the one nearest our parking space. The first door we approached appeared to be the entrance to the kitchen so we carried on past the windows that looked in to empty tables. We didn’t find another door so we went to the other bar.

Only later did I discover, from a neighbor, that the entrance to the first bar is through a narrow gate that leads to a door on the opposite side of the building to the road. I guess next time I happen to stop there I’ll take a look. If I remember.

Why you should think like a hair stylist…

foilOne of the essential tools for a hair stylist is the foil strip used to separate layers of hair while dye is applied and gets to work. The foil comes in a pre-formed strip and is simply torn off at the length required.

I asked a stylist friend why she bought this rather than turkey foil? After all turkey foil can be used to cook a turkey, or any other large meat like product, and it can be cut into strips to use on hair! Turkey foil is a much more comprehensive and diverse product… Well you can imagine the look she gave me, I could see she was weighing up whether my question even deserved an answer or not, in the end she simply said:

Cutting foil into strips takes time and time is money!

It’s a pretty obvious assessment and yet we confuse the convenience of hair foil over the flexibility of turkey foil all the time when choosing tools to help us in business. One example of this is in the field of user interface/experience design:

Wireframing tools make the process of creating an app or website fundamentally easier, by visually stripping the product down and allowing all involved to focus purely on functions and user interactivity.

You can read about the plethora of wireframing products available here on the Creative BloqSome of the tools listed do exactly as described while others, such as Microsoft’s Visio, go much further allowing you to model everything from the layout of your new kitchen, business processes to creating realistic looking mockups of Windows apps.

My favorite product on the list is balsamiq, it’s simple, it’s specifically for wireframing and doesn’t do anything else. It’s like the hair foil to Microsoft Visio’s turkey foil. Working with customers and stakeholders I can use balsamiq to mockup hypothetical applications and features, in minutes, live in the meeting. We can alter, update and deconstruct while we discuss the pros and cons of each approach. While I can’t create a seating plan for a wedding, as I can with Visio, I simply couldn’t use Visio to create mockups live in this way, it’s too clunky for that.

And the same is true for many of the different types of model you can create in Visio, there are very often more specific tools for the job, tools that make it faster and easier to create and add more value. But this doesn’t make Visio, or other similar comprehensive tools, bad it just means you have to consider your use case and whether it matches the features of the tool.

If you’re doing lots of wireframing consider a product like balsamiq, it will save you a lot of time. But if you’re only going to create one or two mockups and you may also need to model a business process at some point and maybe a UML diagram  in the future then you’re probably better off investing in Visio.

My wife is not a stylist but she does, every now and then, put color in her own hair and for this she needs strips of foil. But she never uses enough to justify buying a specialist product, instead she cuts strips of turkey foil as we always have it in the cupboard for cooking!

Want to improve loyalty? improve the experience

I’m told that customer loyalty is the new battle ground for the retail industry. New predictive technologies allow your favorite retailer to send you updates and offers before you even need them. They will know when you’re in or near a store and update you accordingly with latest offers so you have an irresistible desire to go into the shop and part with your cash for something you don’t need.

I find it all a bit creepy.

Last weekend I was doing my ‘weekly’ and got talking to the Computer Science undergrad working the checkout. It seems we had a lot of interests in common. Anyway he pointed out the new system being installed to help reduce queues at checkout.

Asda, Walmart’s UK supermarket chain, have always been a no frills supermarket. No loyalty program, large out of town stores, extensive product range and consistently low prices, the last of which is what brings us back here most weeks. The length of time we spend waiting to checkout is testament to the fact many others agree.

Well over the last 2 years the innovation guys at Asda have been doing something about that. Their new system, Queue Clarity, tracks the number of shoppers entering the store, how long they take to fill their trolleys and predict how many checkouts they need open before the queues start to form. They’re improving the shopping experience, making it easier for me to get in there, get what I want and get out again as painlessly as possible. And no need for me to signup to a loyalty program, no concerns about what they are doing with my data and who they are selling it to.

ps. I don’t shop online, I prefer to choose my own fresh groceries and I like to go to the store for inspiration for the next week’s meals.

The Real Inefficiency?

In my last post I outlined how concepts of product usability might be applied to the work place as Business Usability. I want to expand the idea of the conceptual model and how the modern knowledge worker is often at a disadvantage compared to their historic colleagues.

In everything we do there is a conceptual model and a mental model. The conceptual model describes how something actually works and the mental model is how we ‘think’ something works. The success in anything working properly for us is when those two models converge. When our mental model matches the conceptual model things are obvious and easy to do.

In many workplaces the conceptual model of how things work is embedded in the environment. Think of a train station, there is a ticket desk, a platform and a train. You go in, you buy your ticket at the desk, you go to the platform and then board the train. There are sometimes signposts to help you in larger stations. Here we know what the steps are because the environment, and our cultural knowledge, dictate this. Some stations/airports work better than others.

Think how relevant this is in manufacturing environments, production lines, where every machine and person has a place, the trigger is the incoming widget the output is the outgoing widget+. It’s easy to train people, and for them to sustain their understanding of what to do because their environment provides so many visual indicators. They don’t have to remember everything only enough to mentally piece together what they actually need to do. As humans we use this type of construct to save us having to store information in our long-term memory. For the vast majority of us long-term memory is incredibly inefficient, you know what it’s like when you try to remember the name of ‘that’ song or the author of ‘that’ book. What we are very good at is piecing together, or constructing, memory based on recognizable identifiers.

Now consider the typical office worker, or knowledge worker, where the environment provides no clues as to what happens next. A computer, desk and a telephone. Without these traditional indicators we have become inefficient as we have to work harder to piece together the steps required to meet our goals. We must rely heavily on long-term memory and spend a good deal of time looking for information, discussing with colleagues and guessing at the steps we need in order to get there. This is, perhaps, one reason why process improvement methodologies have not been as successful in the information domain as they have in traditional industries.

As we spend so much of our time staring at the computer screen it seems sensible that these identifiers should be embedded there. There are many software apps available that do a good job of providing the right amount of information at the right time to help you understand what you are supposed to do when you are using them. But outstanding user interfaces are still in the minority and they are generally limited to the activities for which they are used. They do not provide clues that lead you to them in the first place, nor what you do after you have finished using them.

What is required is a common platform that provides just enough information at the right time to the help user achieve their goals. Detailed procedures or complex flow diagrams are not ideal; they require examination and concentration that takes time away from real work. These new ‘conceptual models’ need to be instantly accessible and, where appropriate, interact with the underlying tools and applications that are required in order to complete the process.

Perhaps the biggest inefficiency in modern business is the time workers spend trying to piece together what they are supposed to do.