Thursday, June 27, 2013

Tiered Systems Suck: Lessons from Airline Customer Satisfaction

This morning I came across this article on Airline customer satisfaction, Airline satisfaction: below post office, above subscription TV. On the one hand, this comes as no surprise to anyone -- airline customer service scores have been terrible for years and, for most of us, there is a long list of painfully unpleasant events that rank above interaction with an airline. I suspect that if you could get across the country in four or five hours traveling by sewer, there would be a line of people opting for that instead of going through the airport.

But the interesting little tidbit in this article is the contrast between the customer satisfaction scores for Southwest Airlines and JetBlue compared to the other major carriers.
Low-cost carriers JetBlue Airways and Southwest Airlines led the industry with scores of 83 and 81, respectively; network airlines Delta, United, American and US Airways rated no better than 68, the survey found.
Now you can deconstruct these results in a lot of ways. You could wonder whether the results are shaped by the volume of traffic that the airline handles, or perhaps the demographic of the passenger. -- if travelers on JetBlue and Southwest are typically infrequent travelers that opted for the airline based on the low cost profile, they may have lower expectations for the results.

Fundamentally though, I think that there is a very different philosophy at play that makes a strong contribution to the contrasting perceptions -- the way that they view the customer. Both JetBlue and Southwest treat the passengers in their system equally. There is no first class. While JetBlue offers a pay-to-upgrade option for extra leg room, the default for both airlines is that all flyers are treated equally.

It's just a tiny variation in the business philosophy, but consider the implications of that difference. On Southwest or JetBlue, everyone on the flight is part of a community. You are equal citizens. When something goes wrong, you don't expect that there is some hidden intent at injustice based on the class of your ticket. Any perks you are awarded are likely equally available to everyone else and potentially available for a small fee.

Contrast that with the tiered service on the other carriers. From serving meals to people in first class to the cramped, unpleasant seats at the back of the plane, if you found yourself stuck in the lower priced ticket options on one of the major carriers, you are treated -- poorly isn't really the right word because it's worse than that; it's more of like testing the limits of human tolerance. Would you be willing to sit in this tiny space for four hours for $50? How about fitting all of your stuff into a carry-on for $50? Can you go without food for four hours for $200? It's kind of depraved and, when your in the system, everything is a reminder of that reality. The major carriers may try customer-service-oriented messaging, but for the majority of people on the plane or interacting with their system, it sounds disingenuous.

Airline customer satisfaction is similar to broader problems with the inequality inherent in the austerity programs. While 'belt tightening' may appear to be equitable to someone looking through the rose-tinted lens of first class, 'equally distributed' has a much larger impact when the standard for economy treatment dances with the definition of humane. Perhaps the biggest difference is that, while I find myself increasingly choosing airlines like Southwest and JetBlue, people in the main cabin class of an economy have no alternative carriers available.

If there is a take-away from these airline customer satisfaction numbers, it should be a reminder about the positioning of options in your product offering. Rather than differentiating products by crippling essential features and making lesser products unappealing, it's probably better to determine a base level service that meets the broad range of customer needs and wow your that base of customers with an amazing product.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Data, Relationships and Story: Marketing and NSA Monitoring

As the Snowden data monitoring story continues to live in the news, one theme that gets a lot of visibility is whether or not, by providing public visibility to these programs, he has exposed the secret inner-workings of a spying infrastructure, and that by exposing that, he has somehow weakened the protections it provides -- or provided, as the case may be.

On one level, this story sounds like yet another one of those Internet privacy stories -- Facebook is watching you online, Google is reading your email, or your computer may actually be a zombie in a bot net. For much of the technology-challenged world, the headline embodies all of the frightening possibility of a campfire ghost story. But, as with other big stories with complexity and depth, this story is far more nuanced than a simple black and white, right and wrong.

The reality is that we live in a data driven world. From the moment you turn on a device and it connects to a network, there is an electronic discussion that takes place. Some of the communications may be innocuous, like a device handshake with the network to give it identity or your computer asking a server what time it is. Or when you pull up a web page in your browser, your computer talks to a server that then sends back the data that your computer needs to build a web page. In the process of sending you data, that server may verify who you are, then call a bunch of it's friends, tell them your name, and ask them to send you data as well. And in a world full of servers and electronic logs, each of these transactions is logged in journals, and your history in each may affect the other.

This is the electronic ecosystem. Fundamentally, some of these things need to work like this in order for things to operate. Below the web sessions or the phone calls, the core back and forth of devices and interacting requires identity, memory and structure.

Anonymity on a network is not true anonymity, what it really is is a disconnect between identities. In the brick and mortar world, it is possible to have essentially anonymous transactions. You can have a conversation with another person in an isolated room. You can go to a store in a different area and purchase something in cash. But electronic transactions are different. Each electronic communication is like a phone call from one location to another. Electronic payments are essentially promises to transfer funds with a number used to identify the person writing the IOU. While we might want to imagine electronic activities conforming to the realities of our experiential world, they don't. This can have both costs and benefits.

Logs, Logs Everywhere - In Pursuit of Real Identity
Web marketers have long known that, while it's interesting to see what pages people visit, it can be even more interesting if you know where somebody came from and where they go after they visit your site. Is this someone interested in your product? Are they comparing your product to a competitive one? Have they been to your site multiple times? This is the type of data that can be extracted from a simple cross-site tracking cookie. Within that, typically, we try to weave together a tapestry of data points. Can we get the visitor to complete a form and give us some identity or contact info? Did they download files?

In it's simplest way, these are elements that can be tracked from a basic web log on one site. Or, using something like Eloqua, Marketo or Pardot, tracked across multiple sites and marketing deliverables. As marketers, we look for every bit of data that we can get, every touch point, in an effort to build an identity. We want to invest all of our selling resources into the process of converting that potential customer into revenue.

And yet, for all of our efforts, our tracking and our analysis, our best efforts are still just a sketch. Our simple tracking can easily be fooled by someone doing research at home, then going into the office or maybe using a different email address.

This problem of identity has always been an aspect of the web that's been both celebrated and loathed. While we're happy to be 'anonymous' when we're looking at things we might not want people to know about -- competitor's web sites, job listings, embarrassing medical conditions or even online porn -- anyone who has been in a chat room, a forum or the comments section of a blog knows the evil of anonymous trolls posting irrelevant or hateful comments. Real identity is often a thematic solution for these issues, sort of a, "you wouldn't post that if everyone knew who you were" approach.

But in that way, you can see where a government program that reaches across services and joins the various data streams is not particularly mind-blowing in terms of technical scope. For an organization like the NSA, being able to sort through different emails and identify that even though the email address for crazy voice in the alt.discussion.terrorist-bombing-plans isn't the same one as the guy who just ordered 10 pressure cookers on, and even though one uses Gmail and the other uses Yahoo, they both actually originate from the same IP address.

Crafting Persona and The Importance of Story
If you were to look at your typical web site log, what you have is a series of events. Data points. But they are nothing without a story. Consider a typical goal path through your web site ending in someone filling out a registration form and downloading an electronic asset. If you have 100 people visiting the page with the registration form but only 50 downloading the file, you need to build a story that explains the two pools. For those that didn't download, maybe the form was too long. Maybe they just wanted to see browse. Maybe they were competitors.

While it may seem like an arbitrary process and difficult to imagine, we actually do this all time in real life -- it's how we build an understanding of events. Think about when you're driving and you see another car use a turn signal. In simple terms, it's a directional indicator, a single data point that tells you that this car is planning to shift in that direction. But, in order to really understand what they intend to do, you need to put it into context of a larger story.
  • Do they intend to change lanes?
  • Are they planning to exit the freeway?
  • Are they making a turn?
  • Did they forget their blinker and are driving down the road with their turn signal on?
That same story framework helps make sense of traffic patterns -- in the morning, there are a lot of cars trying to get off at this exit -- and creates stress when people behave unusually: Why is this person driving 20mph in a 45mph zone? Why are they shifting across three lanes now? While driving has a reality framework that makes it relatively easy to map cognitively, ultimately, you are still making guesses about what's going on in the other car, about what's going on in the engine inside the other driver's head. We analyze and we predict, but we don't know.

Understanding can be particularly challenging when you're looking at similar behaviors. Is this person weaving because they are drunk, dialing on their cell phone, or just being buffeted by crosswinds? In this context, one might be an ongoing threat, one a short term threat, and the other a broad-scale operational concern.

Building a story about online activity requires a much broader understanding of the landscape that the person is interacting in. Imagine the example of a single data point in your own system log, one where your system connected to an IP address in China. When your system connected to a server in China, did it go there because you loaded a web page with an ad network that pulled a file or a script from a server there? Did it connect there because your system has some advertising or tracking cookies on it from a previous visit? Did it go there because your system has malware running and it's compromised? Or did it just connect there because you're running Skype and there's a peer-to-peer link that connected there? Without having a broader tapestry of the transaction, this single data point is unintelligible.

Story and Data Correlation
In real life face-to-face interaction, understanding what's inside of someone's head can be difficult. It's potentially more problematic using electronic data. Even with a broad set of data points, algorithmically understanding intent and motivation often fall short. Consider Amazon. A visit to Amazon will get you follow-up emails with pricing deals on the things that you looked at. While this type of remarketing has higher clickthroughs than other programs, how often does it feel like you're being spammed? And, when those items that you searched appear on your 'My Amazon' page, how often do they actually help you get to the thing that you were interested in? On the marketer's side of the equation, that value is greater than zero so it counts as a win, but on you, the customer's side, it's far from a perfect match. If just having lots of personal tracking data was a slam dunk for understanding motivation, Facebook's advertising programs would be far more effective.

Ultimately, our story constructions are shaped by a variation of A/B testing and validation. First, there is the story, the hypothesis -- since this guy just activated his turn signal, I think he's going to exit the freeway. Next, we have the test -- does he get off at the exit? Once we've completed the test, we now have to evaluate the results and reinterpret our story.
Observations about data -- like the correlation between purchasing habits and pregnancy -- don't just bubble up from the data. They require a hypothesis and a framework for analysis. Consider this great article, In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal, in the New York Times interviewing Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google. In the interview, Bock talks about some of the practices that Google used during the hiring process, and how well they correlated to their actual job performance. Essentially, he shoots down the value of famous Google practices like 'brain teasers' and asking all candidates for their GPA (I know what you're thinking, tell me something I didn't already know). Keep in mind, before they could evaluate this to see if it actually correlated to performance, somebody came up with the hypothesis that these things mattered. Google wanted to hire the smartest, best employees, so they defined a hypothetical profile of what those people should look like, then ran interview screening processes based on those. It's only after years of running this experiment that we see their hypothesis is being shot down.

Secrets, Lies, and the World of Cyberspying
Arguably, the most sensitive point in this whole Snowden story surrounds the secret, classified nature of the programs. Admittedly, it's difficult to measure a secret program. On the one hand, you have this big reveal that the government monitors electronic communications and activities, the great NSA version of Eloqua. Yawn. On the other hand, you have the government claiming that it is a national secret and officials saying that they didn't monitor communications.

The government's interest in having access to this kind of data is not new. While it seems like a rather simplistic idea now, remember the clipper chip? This was basically the government saying we can help American businesses with encryption, but we'll keep a key to the back door open so that we can monitor the bad guys using it. After the Bush-era telecom monitoring stories, are you really surprised that the government has an ear on the Internet and is hoovering up your electronic communications?

At the same time, remember the environment that you live in. There are malware exploits out there in the wild that allow non-government entities to monitor your computer, log your keystrokes, even turn on the camera and microphone in your computer -- some criminal or 15-year old pervert could be watching you through your laptop as you read your morning email. There are foreign governments that have exploited your electronic systems to gather intelligence on you, on your business, and on your technology. And the other day, as you drove home chatting with your significant other, you actually broadcast all of those secrets over the radio. Admittedly, it was a cellular radio designed with controls to make it more secure and more private, but did you really think that it was equivalent to the two of you speaking intimately in your bedroom?

This is the reality of the environment that we live in. The fundamental nature of these technologies means that electronic data is available and it can be monitored. But just as in the real world where you're unlikely to physically prevent an armed police officer from entering into your house and searching your premises if he wants to force his way in -- saying "you can't come in" doesn't actually prevent a search. Instead, historically, we have opted to disincentivize forced entry behavior by making any evidence collected without a warrant be inadmissible in legal proceedings. With electronic data right now, we've essentially handing the review of this over to a secret process. Rather than simply handing over the decisions surrounding the implications of this to secret, hidden elements of the government, we need a more open discussion of the potential and the impact of these types of programs. We need to define a framework for what we establish and rights and protections in this modern data environment. Otherwise, what happens when the government starts sending you Target-like coupon books because you might be guilty of a thought-crime?

Again, the real problem here isn't the data, it's the application of the data and the potential for abuse. It's not the terrorist plots that you stop, it's what happens if you know what porn site Mitt Romney looked at. It's not just the government that you fear; instead, it's what happens if the non-profit that you work for finds out that you 'anonymously' publish a blog about your sex life. Or what will your neighbors think if you order birth control from an online pharmacy because your local pharmacist has moral reservations and doesn't fill those orders?

In the vast and expanding world of our digital breadcrumbs, we all have moments that would rather not share with our friends, our colleagues, or our government. In the court that governs shame and embarrassment, there is no way to disincentivize moral outrage. There is no statute of limitations. Whether you're Paula Deen, Lance Armstrong, or (one of my favorite controversies) Sasha Grey, the perception of who you are and what you stand for lives in a sliding scale world that changes over time. Sometimes that time period can be short, sometimes decades.

Our electronic data is a lot like our DNA. With the evolving understanding of DNA, increasingly we know more and more about a person from their DNA. We can understand their genealogy, we can diagnose what's wrong with them, and we can even make predictions about their future. This type of information is so powerful that, as a culture, we attempt to be very careful with the availability, distribution, and use of it. We fear -- and probably rightly so -- discrimination, exclusion, or a wide range of potential limitations to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Because we can imagine the dark potential inherent in all of this, we are cautious. In that same way, we need to approach our digital data in the same way. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

Late Night Mix Tape: We Want The Funk

Here's one that you might want to devote some watching and listening time to. This is Parliament-Funkadelic doing The Mothership Connection back in 1976. This runs over an hour, so you may just want to click through parts, but there's some great stuff here -- real live music, crazy costumes, pretty amusing.

Friday, June 14, 2013

XBox One - Celebrating Microsoft's Design Arrogance

As the news surrounding the XBox One comes pouring out of E3, the details of features and implementation on the platform are seeing some serious PR backlash and groundswell dissatisfaction among their existing XBox customer-base. From stomping on the used game market to the must-connect-and-phone-home once-per-day or the always on Kinect monitoring the room, Microsoft has implemented a lot of features that seem more closely aligned to the interests of Microsoft than those of their customers.

It's not uncommon for products to suffer a misstep or two at launch. For as much time and effort as is put into development, it's still difficult to interpret applied uses. And the are always bugs. But with the XBox One platform, it's difficult to envision a product that has done more to take aim at their existing market and customer base, line up their most sensitive parts, and fire not once, but multiple times. Full disclosure: the XBox game that I'm currently playing is a first person shooter.

Seriously though. Consider some of the design changes that have been implemented on the XBox One platform:
  • While the XBox360 always tries to connect to XBox live when it's turned on and there is a network available, it will function without an Internet connection. Now the platform is being changed so that it won't work without phoning home? What problem does this solve for the user?
  • While the XBox360 can operate without the Kinect and a user has the option to connect the Kinect or opt out, the XBox One will not operate without the Kinect, and the Kinect is always on. Was it really necessary to eliminate this option with the system? What problem does this solve for the user?
  • While killing physical game media may simplify Microsoft's distribution network and reduce costs, killing the used game market essentially takes aim at long tail game market, gives it the finger, then fires both barrels. Again, what problem does this solve for the user? 
All in all, it sort of exemplifies that traditional Microsoft approach.
  1. Start with 'what would be best for Microsoft'. 
  2. Make it the standard on all of our stuff so that it only works this way, our way.
  3. Tell everybody how awesome it is and how they are fools if they don't recognize the Microsoft genius.
Remember all of the various iterations of IE that worked their own way? And Silverlight? Or Microsoft's Java?

In that way, you kind of feel sorry for the businesses in the used game market. Like Microsoft's notebook and tablet partners with Surface, they are the latest ecosystem to get oops-ed upside their heads. Classic.

Opportunity Lost
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about XBox One is that it really was an anticipated platform. Microsoft really does have a strong foothold in the living room with the XBox360 console. XBox One could have been a contender. If they had simply made it a consumer friendly, not always-on-nanny-cam that worked with any media, they might not have alienated a huge chunk of their core.

What's more, most hardcore gamers will tell you that, while Kinect can be an amusing accessory, it doesn't really add to or improve their experience for the games that they play the most. It's more of a Wii-wannabe that's makes the platform more accessible for families -- anything but a "Must Have". In that way, must have, always on kind of spits in the eye of some of current platform's most passionate evangelists.

Some of these problematic features could be easily corrected, simply by making them optional. Imagine if they had kept Kinect as an accessory but did a "look what you can do with this" presentation. My guess is that, given the option and enough benefits from having always-on enabled, you would build a large base of users who ran that configuration.

In conclusion, here's a little thought for take-away. With many approaches to technology, there are trade-offs. But a lot of idea acceptance comes in the way something is framed. During some of their presentation materials, Microsoft reps talked about smart phones and always on connectivity. In that way, it's easy to think about the privacy that we give-up by opening geo-location features on our smart phones. But in asking people to adopt this, do we say:
  • Imagine the power of being able to know exactly where you are?
  • Then imagine if, when you are somewhere you don't know, the information was appropriate for that place -- like finding a nearby restaurant? If you open your geo-location information to Yelp, then they can help you when you're someplace you don't know.
Or do we say:
  • Imagine if we knew where you were all the time? 
That is a truly frightening concept.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Marketing, NSA Monitoring and Big Data

In light of the numerous overblown 'scandals' running through the recent stories in the news, the NSA data monitoring story offers a tale that's actually worth looking at, reflecting on, and thinking about in greater detail. The story is an interesting look at both the amazing upside of our modern technology world and a reminder about how difficult it is for us to truly conceptualize the full scope of big data.

Remember this story about how Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did? It's an amazing story about what a corporate data group was able to accomplish with records that they were able to obtain from within the public domain. But, again, the key aspect of this story -- and one that's fundamental to the broader big data story -- is that the individual data points can look trivial because they don't tell the story. It's not the data points, it's what happens when you have lots of data points and you can use them to make correlations. In Target's case, it's not that you bought unscented moisturizing lotion, it's multiple factors that make that an indicator of a stage of pregnancy. One data point that statistically correlates to many, many others in a demographic model.

From a human perceptual perspective, it's really difficult for you to extract yourself from the personal significance of that transaction moment and extrapolate that as a data point in a bigger picture. We all see ourselves as individuals, not as similar patterns. It's part of what makes a big data surveillance program frightening. Instead of seeing the aggregate data and what the potential impact of that could be, we're more likely to worry about those times when we drunk-dialed our exes late and night, and what might happen if somebody found out. Or all of those times where we viewed the web sites with the lingerie models.

On some level, we all break the rules. Whether it's driving 70mph sometimes, even when the posted speed limit is 65 or downloading an episode of that epic cable television show that everyone is talking about because you're unwilling to pay the crazy annual subscription price for one show that only lasts a few weeks. Most of us understand that there's a cloudy area that separates the letter of the law from violating the spirit of the law. In most cases, we -- as members of a society -- hold to a set of values that keep us within that cloud, within our perceived sense of the spirit of the law. And so, while we might tolerate someone driving 10% faster than the posted speed limit, we tend to wish for law enforcement when we see someone operating outside of that range. And so, if some unrestrained adult tweener recklessly drives his Ferrari though your residential neighborhood, you're probably going to be outraged.

The Threshold and the Target
With all of the data available on these networks, it's hard to imagine not aggregating intelligence from it. As with the Target story, there are aspects of this process that are somewhat common in the modern Internet age (which is probably one factor in why there isn't an overwhelming amount of outrage surrounding the privacy concerns). At the same time, because these practices are so common, it's almost more surprising to hear the outrage from some government officials over these programs being revealed -- sort of like unveiling the secret that Facebook tracks your activity and builds an electronic profile of you. I would describe the outrage as laughable were it not for the mysteries that still remain cloaked -- both the Guardian and the Post have only published limited details of the program.

So, if it's helping keep you safe from the terrorists and it's commonplace, what's the concern here? Well, first and foremost, is the application of that data-gathering intelligence. While it seems surprising that Target can make good guesses about whether a woman is pregnant based on her buying habits, imagine what the government might be able to profile and demographically target. While international terrorists might avoid electronic communications, what about some of these lone wolf crazies? Imagine if you could build a profile to identify and monitor them? The upside of all of this has the potential to capture bad people and prevent bad things. At the same time, what happens if you're one of those people who thinks that the Occupy Wall Street participants are terrorists? Or those people from the Tea Party showing up at political rallies carrying guns? Maybe part of Code Pink and potentially going to heckle the President?

And think about the Target story again. Remember how Target was sending it's pregnant prospects coupons? Understanding that this is a potential use of the data, how does the government handle it? And at what stage of their 'terrorist' or 'criminal' pregnancy term do they target the person profiled? And when does behavior or electronic communication become 'thought crime' or 'pre-crime'?

Ultimately, I think that this is where we need more sunlight and a more publicly visible oversight of the process. While the overall problem is complex and probably difficult for the 'tubes' using Internet public, the potential to abuse this process is vast and powerful. After all, one of the biggest differences between the profiling that Target does and the profiling being done by the government -- if we don't like what Target does, we can opt not to shop there. We can opt to not participate, to not give them data. With the government, we don't have that option.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Are Upsells Being Oversold

During my recent series of travel, I was struck by the number of times I was offered opportunities to spend on upgraded services. From upgraded airline seats to hotel rooms, it seemed like every service wanted to entice me to pay just a little bit more for something extra. By my third trip I was so exhausted by upgrade offers that I began to imagine a one price all encompassing service.

Remember when the Saturn dealerships offered their one quote, no haggle pricing?

One of the funnier ones was the hotel reservation upgrade system. Essentially, there's an online business out there that, once you make your reservation, will offer you the chance to commit to spending a bit more for an upgraded room if it's available when you check in. For the hotel, they pitch the service as a no-lose offer. You're already committed to the service, but now there is a chance that you'll spend more, but only if it's available. What I found funny was, when I was checking in, they offered me the same upgrade deal -- there was no benefit to making the online commitment. Of course, the sad part is, remember when they used to just upgrade you? It's like they were just frivolously throwing money away on good customer experience. 

But it's not just travel. In the old days it was warranties and service agreements, but now retail upsells happen all the time. As more and more cities here in Silicon Valley impose bag bans, the transaction close is just the beginning of the sale. "Would you like a bag for 10 cents? Or we also have this nice reusable bag for two dollars. Would you like to donate a couple of dollars to the local charity?" At one of the local hardware stores, they seem to run a contest where they try and get the cashiers to compete at adding in something to the ticket.

As tired as I am of the world of constant upgrade selling, I don't foresee it going away. Look at the airlines and their checked bag fees. They have been able to rake in a ton of money from these fees -- enough to drive that same approach to all of the other aspects of their customer experience.
  • Want legroom?
  • Want to make it less of a hassle to go through security?
  • Want to have a nice experience at the airport in our lounge? 
  • How about miles? 
  • Food? 
  • Want to turn off the rolling in-flight advertisements running on the entertainment system?
  • Would you like to upgrade from cattle-class to being treated like a customer?
How long before we see credit card sliders on the bathroom doors? Or, if you commit to purchasing bathroom services before your flight, you can get unlimited trips to the bathroom for the entire flight for $10 ($15 on flights over two hours).