Thursday, October 12, 2017

Facebook and the Problem of 'Bots'

Recently, there has been growing coverage in the media about Russian advertising (and influence) during the run up to the 2016 election. Some of this was driven by fake users (bots) on Facebook. While I'm thinking about writing a longer post about the election influence operation and online marketing in a broader context, one thing jumped out at me recently that I think is worth highlighting as it's somewhat misrepresented in the media.

In this USA Today article, the author wants Facebook to "Guarantee that bots will no longer be able to impersonate humans on the platform."

This fundamentally misunderstands the problem with "Bots". It's not like Facebook ever sat down and invited Bots onto the platform. Bots are carefully crafted bits of code that are scripted to mimic humans as you go through typical online activities. Bots are not obviously bots.

On one of the web sites I run, over the years I've had bots submitting inquiry forms thousands of times (Dear Salesforce.com: Web-to-Lead/Case Spam Sucks). Often, the form submission is some form of Spam. Even an inquiry form on a site in a niche industry can be a target for this type of activity. But what was actually interesting, in a way, was watching the form bots evolve. Essentially, when even when you make it more difficult for the bot to fill out the form, the bot kept exploring the parameters and requirements until you'd see it coming through again.

In that way, initally, my best defense against the form spam bots were to look for aspects that made them seem not human and try to filter against those. But eventually, you get to a point where if the bot fills out the form like a human would, you can't tell the different between an automated form engine and a human.

As you'll note in my Spam Post, at the time, Salesforce.com recommended that I install a Captcha, one of those image recognition test tools on the form. You know the tests, sometimes they're difficult to solve, even as a human. Sure, they provide an increased barrier for bot traffic, but they also provide a significant barrier to user engagement. Imagine if every time you wanted to post something on Facebook, you had to face a Captcha test?

And this is the fundamental problem with the "don't allow bots on your platform" arguement. It's just BS. Something being promoted by someone with a very simplistic view of the problem.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Apple iOS 11: "No" doesn't really mean "No"

Recently, Apple acknowledged that when you use the control center to turn off Bluetooth or Wifi in iOS 11, it doesn't actually turn those services "off". Instead it just disconnects from the things you were connected to -- except Apple devices and some Apple services. That's right. Apple's iOS 11 now features "No" doesn't mean "No" technology.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation warns about this in an article, iOS 11’s Misleading “Off-ish” Setting for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi is Bad for User Security, regarding this issue. They note that
When a phone is designed to behave in a way other than what the UI suggests, it results in both security and privacy problems. A user has no visual or textual clues to understand the device's behavior, which can result in a loss of trust in operating system designers to faithfully communicate what’s going on.
In gets worse.
The Wi-Fi will turn back full-on if you drive or walk to a new location. And both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will turn back on at 5:00 AM. This is not clearly explained to users, nor left to them to choose, which makes security-aware users vulnerable as well.
Wifi and Bluetooth also reactivate when you reboot your phone.

Why did Apple build iOS 11 this way? Because Apple decided that it would be better for them -- make their device interworkings seem better -- than it would be to honor the "no" implied by the controls in the Notification Center.

This isn't the only thing that sucks about iOS 11, but it may be one of the more troubling ones.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Airpods: Apple's Imperfect Audio Port Solution

With the introduction of the iPhone 7, Apple decided to remove the classic audio port from the phone. They claimed to address the elimination of the audio port with a brand new product, Airpods, wireless Bluetooth headphones that would be so awesome, you'd never miss your old headphones. Skip the part about how Airpods weren't even available for the first three months or so of the iPhone 7. Oh, and the part about the limited availability of Airpods even today. Airpods were promised to be be so great, we'd never want to go back to wired headphones.

I have a set of Airpods, had them for several months, and I can only say, "Airpods, you are no wired headphones."

Don't get me wrong, Apple has accomplished something impressive with Airpods. They are, hands down, the best wireless iPhone headset that I've used to date. But that comes with a large number of caveats. But what's important to understand is that, while they're a nice iPhone accessory, they don't come close to replacing my earbuds.

Bluetooth < Wires
Fundamentally, Airpods suffer from the Bluetooth wireless connection. Using them in my office where there are numerous other Bluetooth devices, I experience a lot of drop-outs from both the speakers and the microphone. I blame this on Bluetooth interference. It's so bad that if I have a call, I use my wired earbuds.

But the drop-out problems aren't limited to "Bluetooth noisy" environments. Using the Airpods while listening to music walking around at night, I found the sound dropped several times also. Potentially, this could be related to software that has each ear piece to check in with the other one and verify that it's there -- the auto-detect ear software. Apparently, you can turn this off, but I think I saw where disabling this disables stereo -- which makes sense if you consider that it needs to know whether there is a second headphone in order to send a stereo signal. However, it should be noted that my wired headphones don't experience similar drops.

This brings me to the sensors in the Airpods. With most Bluetooth headsets, there is some functionality that enables you to answer calls with a tap -- similar to hitting the start-stop button on the wired headphones. Unfortunately, with several months of use, all I've succeeded in doing with my Airpods is opening the voice interface at various times. I'm sure that if I were running battery-wasting, time-wasting Siri, I could have asked Siri to answer the phone, but mostly I've had to default to scrambling around, trying to find my phone in order to answer calls on the iPhone instead of the Airpods.

On a related note, I can't count how many times I've accidentally fumbled with one of the Airpod earpieces, only to accidentally bring up the voice interface -- enough to make me cautious about handling the earpieces.

The Good
Let me say that I understand the interest in having a wireless headset. How many times have I found myself listening to music while doing something like cooking when the wire on my headphones gets caught on a knob or the corner of a cabinet? Having my ear yanked or sending my iPhone flying sends me cursing the wire and everything it stands for. With the Airpods in a quiet Bluetooth environment like my home, I can wander around with audio, safe from worrying about whether the cable is about to get caught on something. Do I still experience drop-outs? Yup. But the trade-off of no wires is usually worth it for kitchen tasks.

Airpods also work reasonably well when driving in my non-Bluetooth-enabled vehicles. The wire doesn't usually get in the way while driving, but it's still potentially a concern. Meanwhile, the variability of cell coverage when you're on the road means that the wireless connection is only one of multiple connectivity issues that you deal with.

Finally, another nice thing about the Airpods is that you can use one or both. If you use just one, you can get some pretty serious battery life out of the set by periodically switching earpieces and letting the other one charge.

Summary
All trade-offs aside, Apple's Airpods provide a nice Bluetooth headset experience. At the same time,  one of the reasons that I chose the iPhone 5se was the inclusion of the headset port. Having experienced both the "antique" and what Apple promises us to be the "future" of audio on a phone, I must say that the removal of the audio port still ranks as one of the worst design choices Apple has made.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The iPhone 7 gets a Headphone Jack!

Here's a story I came across on MacRumors this morning. Essentially, this guy modded an iPhone 7 and added a fully functional headphone jack. However, it's an interesting underscore to the BS that they had to eliminate it to make room for the camera.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Must Hate Dogs - The Pet-Friendly Hotel Downside

While I was putting together my recent post on the Hotel Nikko, I began thinking about the implications of "pet-friendly" hotel positioning. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered, "what are the rules for pet friendly hotels?"
  • Do they have special rooms for pet people?
  • Do you have any assurances that you won't wind up in a room that had pets?
  • Do they do any special clean-up for pet hair, dander, etc.?
  • Do they make any effort to post or publish these policies?
And so, I took to the Internet to search, but I was initially surprised by what I found. As I searched, most of the posts that I found about pet-friendly hotels were places promoting their pet friendly business. Others, like this post from the Chicago Tribune, were about how businesses were making more money by accommodating pets. The actual number of posts dealing with non-pet owners and pet friendly hotels were extremely limited. I did find this one post from PetTravel.com, but it's actually written from the pet-owning perspective. I also found a few comments and questions on TripAdvisor, but nothing formal.

Typically the tone of the these pieces -- if they approached the non-pet-owner point of view -- was, sort of a "what's wrong, don't you like dogs?" For the record, I don't not like dogs, nor do I not like cats. That being said, I currently have neither and my allergies thank me for it. And my wife's allergies are worse than mine. Similar to non-smoking rooms, I expect a level of not having to worry about some things in my environment. I also loath overly perfumed hotel rooms (the ones that smell like a potpourri exploded).

For most of these posts, one of the bigger concerns tended to be noise and concerns as to what happens if the pet owner leaves their pet in their room while they're gone -- followed by numerous pet owners talking about how they've found people in hotels to be more noisy than their pets. Apparently some hotels offer pet-sitting services to mitigate this issue.

To answer the questions I raised:
  • Do they have special rooms for pet people? Probably not.
  • Do you have any assurances that you won't wind up in a room that had pets? No. Further, service dogs can stay with their owner in any room).
  • Do they do any special clean-up for pet hair, dander, etc.? Maybe. Some hotels mentioned extra clean up, but there are no guarantees.
  • Do they make any effort to post or publish these policies? No. As I mentioned. there's little published on this subject.
So, if you're somebody with allergies or you don't want to be in an environment with pets, it looks like the advice most people would offer is what you'd find in the PetTravel.com post I mentioned:
If the prospective guest has a serious allergy to pets or just does not like animals, you may be better off suggesting they stay at the Inn down the road. It's better than having them check out early, demanding their money back and leaving you an empty room that you perhaps could have sold to someone else.
At the same time, based on what I've seen, the likelihood is that if you do raise questions about the subject, their response is probably going to be, "what, do you just hate dogs?"

Friday, September 1, 2017

3 Design Aspects I Already Hate on the iPhone 8

With Apple announcing it's September 19th event and the expectation that they will roll out the new iPhone 8, Right now, everything we know about it is really based on rumors and info extracted from Apple's Homepod firmware. That being said, among the media that track Apple's upcoming products, confidence about many aspects of the iPhone 8 is high.

Based on the current rumors, I thought I would share a few aspects of the iPhone 8 design that I hate and consider deal-breakers for purchasing an iPhone 8.
  • No Audio Port. I know that they'll probably never go back on this, but the idiocy of this decision is unparalleled. The lightning-based headset sucks. It doesn't work on anything other than an iPhone 7 (7s, 8, perhaps, but no iPad, Macbook, Mac, or other device). Apple would probably counter with, "what about AirPods?" I have a set of AirPods that I use with my 5se. They work okay, but there are times -- like when I'm in the office with lots of Bluetooth devices -- that the cable just works much better. Better audio, more reliable.
  • Facial recognition-based unlock. This rumored feature seems like its designed to appeal to the technology pundit class. Technology companies love this idea. Customers, not so much. See XBox One Kinnect original implementation for a reminder.
  • The stupid lens protrusion on the back of the phone. This design flaw was introduced in the iPhone 6 and we've been living with it since. It's essentially a "must use case" feature. Wanna make the iPhone 8 better? Use that difference in space between the current design and a flat back design and fill it with more battery. Yet another reason why the iPhone 5se design is better.
Anyway, maybe you're excited.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Yet Another Dreamforce FAIL

I've posted about this quite a bit on Twitter, but I felt it was time to put together a longer synopsis of the great FAIL that is Dreamforce registration.

First, background. I've been eight Dreamforce events over the years. There are upsides and downsides to the conference, but if there is one overarching theme for Dreamforce, it's oversized crowds overwhelming insufficient resources. And it's been that way at every Dreamforce I've been to. Sometimes it is simply an annoyance -- like long lines or the inability to get into a session. At other times, like at last year's Dreamforce Gala, it's kind of surprising that people haven't gotten hurt.

When you look at the history of Dreamforce, you see aspects where things evolve to address the crowds. Aspects like multiple locations for lunches and conference sessions reflect thoughtful efforts to address the crowds and adapt. Even the one year where they brought in the cruise ship as an additional hotel, while it may have been a failed experiment, was a step to addressing the oversubscribed hotel market.

Last year was the first year when I actually saw Salesforce change the conference web site to say that the conference was sold out. This happened a couple of weeks prior to the event (it's possible that it may have happened in year's past, but I didn't see it). Practically speaking, the conference was sold out long before that time, as the available hotel space was essentially gone about a day after registration was opened.

Salesforce has known about the sold out hotel problem for several years (thus, the cruise ship), but when you're using (and selling out) all of the available space, broadly, across the region. there are actual commodity limits that you face. And this brings me to the core strategy that Salesforce has employed in an effort to address this. Their strategy is essentially this:
"Surprise, registration is open!"
Last year, Salesforce introduced a tool that would email you as soon as registration opened. As it happened, I was at San Jose airport waiting to board an early morning flight when I received the email (6:05am), and I jumped through hoops to register before my flight boarded. I was able to book the Hotel Nikko (my preferred hotel) that morning. I also reached out to my colleagues, but they didn't register until that afternoon and the nearest good hotel they could find was the Hilton Financial District.

This year, we'd been planning to send a larger group to Dreamforce and help build some sales manager / power user / evangelists (over the years, one thing that we've found is that when our staff attends Dreamforce, it really opens their eyes to the much broader potential of enterprise software). So, the morning that I received the email announcing that Dreamforce registration had started, the first thing that I did was email my colleagues.

It's worth noting that this year's announcement and registration opening came on the Thursday, June 29th, right before what was for most people in the states, a four-day fourth of July weekend. Many people take the entire week of the fourth off and quite a few leave before that weekend arrives. Not only was this true for our staff, I later learned that our Salesforce AE was also out on vacation at that time. Again, remember the strategy:
"Surprise, registration is open!"
By the time I'd emailed my colleagues and gotten through the registration screen, I couldn't find the Hotel Nikko on the list. Part of the problem is that they way that the Dreamforce registration portal shows available hotels, it can be difficult to sort them. As I searched through the list, it wasn't just the Nikko that was unavailable, all of the Marriott properties in the convention center area were gone. I opted for the Hilton, knowing that some of my colleagues were Hilton loyalists (I used to be, but having "lost" hundreds of thousands of Hilton points multiple times, they're no longer a preferred choice).

While dealing with my own registration, I decided to text one of my colleagues to see if she'd seen my email. She replied via text, asking me to register her as she only had her phone and poor network access. One of the great failures of the Dreamforce registration process is that there is no way to register multiple attendees at the same time. This is also true for their room reservation system. That means that, if you want to make reservations for your entire team so that they can stay at the same hotel, you are hosed. By the time I'd finished my colleagues reservation, the Hilton was no longer an option and I had to put her in the Parc 55.

As the minutes ticked away, I realized that, if my colleagues that I'd emailed hadn't started the registration process on their own already, they were hosed. And if they were on vacation, forget about it. Since some of our colleagues were coming from the east coast, they needed hotel rooms -- commuting wasn't an option. In short, any plans that we might have had for a bigger, more useful Dreamforce -- hosed.

The Aftermath of Registration
As you can imagine, I was feeling pretty frustrated with Salesforce that morning. To have registered twice in succession and not be able to have our team in the same hotel? What's worse, it just kept eating at me, particularly as it became clear that my colleagues hadn't seen my email, hadn't registered, and were probably on vacation. I decided to draft an email to our Salesforce AE with a CC to ceo@salesforce.com. It was not a short email.

Of course, I didn't hear back from our AE until a week and half later, on Monday July 10. Like many of my colleagues, he was on vacation.

When it became clear that I wasn't going to get a quick response back from my AE, I turned to Twitter. I sent out my first tweet at 9:43 that morning. After numerous tweets that day, @Dreamforce began following my Twitter feed. I continued to post complaints about the process and my experience. On July 10th when our Salesforce AE replied, his only real response to the Dreamforce issue was, "Unfortunately, I have no control over the SF hotel market but I had clients last year that had success renting places on Airbnb or VRBO, so if you are still looking you could explore that as an option." 

I continued to post my issues about Dreamforce on and off again until, on Thursday July 27th, almost a month after registration opened, Salesforce's Twitter Customer Support team @asksalesforce replied to me asking if there was anything that they could do to help. They actually referred me to @Dreamforce, where they'd been following me the entire time (hats off to their team for actually trying to help).

But, in case you missed it -- or anyone at Salesforce is actually listening -- I'm still pissed off about the registration process. In this report card, you failed to meet expectations. To make it easy for you, here is a simple list of things that I think would make this better.
  • Why can't Salesforce Account Execs work with customers to understand their expectations and intentions for Dreamforce? Your internal team knows when registration will open. If they are intend to bring a block of users, why not create a select number of carve-outs for pre-registration and hotel booking? 
  • Why not let customers know when registration will open in advance of the date? That way, rather than being stuck with whatever situation you're in when registration opens, you can plan for it -- if it's important to you. Seriously, even concerts let you know in advance what day that tickets will go on sale.
  • Why not allow people to register and reserve rooms for up to four people? Dreamforce is better when it's groups of colleagues attending at the same time. And frankly, the idea that each user gets stuck with whatever hotel (as opposed to housing in groups) is just ridiculous.
  • The Promo code option in the registration on the first day is not helpful. I spent several minutes searching the Internet for a promo code to apply. If nothing else, allow people to apply one retroactively, since the housing block allocation is the problematic window.
  • There should be something like a waiting list for hotel rooms such that, if a reservation opens up at a hotel, you draw from the waiting list pool first. That way more people could have access to their preferred locations.
Frankly, I suspect that it's likely that Salesforce does provide carve-outs for their top tier customers. I'm sure that their sales teams also work closely with them to ensure that their needs for Dreamforce are met. What that says to me -- along with the "that's a bummer man. I don't control the San Francisco hotel market, so I can't do anything for you" response from our Salesforce AE -- is that there is a layer of customer lip service going on here. As customers, we matter in that way of "customers matter" slogans, but not in us, the guys who've been on the platform for over 10 years now, but who don't have hundreds or thousands of seat licenses. At Dreamforce last year, they gave us this 10 year customer award.

At the time, I couldn't help but notice the phallic shape of the award. It was probably the funniest aspect of Dreamforce last year, as I couldn't help but feel like it doubled as a reminder for all of the times I felt like I'd been screwed by Salesforce. But hey, I'm sure it wasn't intentional. 

Just for the record, it's now been over two months since registration opened. I'm still pissed off. And I still haven't heard anything from Salesforce except for the aforementioned contacts.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Symptoms of Apple's Design Ailment

As I've posted a number of times before, I believe that Apple has lost it's design "vision", and their products are devolving into me-too answers and mass-market gimmicks. Take for example, the Touchbar on the Macbook Pro. It's not hard to see that the Touchbar is a useless POS, and more of a gimmick that a functional tool. But don't take my word for it, here's a great little piece from a former Apple employee. Here's the Macrumors post that lead me there. Definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

No More United - Extracting Myself from The UA Ecosystem

Despite previously having frequently held status on United Airlines, over the past couple of years, I've completely quit flying the airline. United was an acceptable airline in the old days when you had status and they'd automatically put you in Economy Plus. However, once they stopped doing that and started putting me in the seats with less space in the back of the plane -- let's just say that I don't consider their standard economy seats to be a minimum viable product.

Unfortunately, I'm still somewhat rooted the United Airlines ecosystem. I have a couple hundred thousand Mileage Plus miles. I still haven't ever used miles to book a flight. What's more, I've been carrying a Chase United Explorer card for several years, but it's become increasingly useless for any of the ancillary benefits -- really, the "no international transaction fees" is the only practical thing it does for me.

Then recently while searching Hipmunk for flights for a family trip, I noticed the results that were showing up from United Airlines included this rollover caveat: "Basic Coach: No Overhead Carry-ons Allowed; Seats Assigned at Check-in; Last to Board; No Elite Qualifying Miles; No Changes or Refunds." I'd read something about United Airlines adding this "Basic Coach" ticket, but this was really the first time that I'd seen mention of it appearing in my flight searches. And when I saw it, it spoke to me like a vision that said, "You will never fly on United again."

In that moment, I realized that I needed to extract myself from the United Airlines ecosystem.
So the first problem is, what do I do with about 200K of United Miles that I have no interest in using to fly on the airline. I always used to spend miles for flight upgrades, but somewhere along the way, that became a pain in the ass, particularly once I quit flying United. So, what do I do? Do I subject friends or family to an experience on an airline that I don't believe meets a minimum threshold? Do I save the miles to use on some international code-share flight? Do I just burn the miles on some overpriced merchandise I don't need from the miles-for-products catalog? The reality is, if there was a simple answer, I would have probably cleared the bank out some time ago.

Next there is the Chase United Explorer card. While I haven't received those passes for the United Lounge for two or three years now (what's up with that?), if I do happen to use my United miles on a United flight, I think that the Chase card may provide some ancillary benefits. In that way, it's probably best not to cancel it until I resolve the mileage bank. And yet, every day that I hold that card instead of another card that could provide me with a more useful return is another wasted day in the United Airlines ecosystem.

And while all of this may seem crazy, it's weighing on my mind enough that last night I had a dream about trying to resolve the whole situation. I was at an airport trying to get help from the United customer service counter and they just kept ignoring me, talking among themselves. They reminded me of Salesforce employees at Dreamforce. I gotta get out of this crazy United ecosystem!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Another Apple Design Faux Pas - Magic Mouse 2

I came across this tidbit about Apple design yesterday in a story with leaked details about the iPhone8. While providing comments about the potential new iPhone design, the article mentioned other recent poor Apple designs and referenced the Magic Mouse 2. Specifically, it noted that when Apple redesigned the Magic Mouse 2 to include a rechargeable battery, they put the charging port on the bottom of the mouse. In other words, when the mouse needs to be recharged, you can't use it while it's charging.

This is the part of the story that really caught my attention. Sure, Magic Mouse 2 is old news, but the fact that this product was actually released by Apple seems telling. This is another example of where form outweighed function, where the needs of actual users came second.

If you've ever had the battery die when you were using a wireless mouse, I'm sure you're familiar with the panic of running around, trying to find a battery to replace it and restart whatever you were in the middle of when the mouse died. Now imagine having to stop what you're doing, put your mouse aside, and wait for the mouse to charge.

Sure, with a quick charge, there might not be much of a wait. But the obvious solution -- following a 30+ year long legacy of mouse designs -- would be to put the connector on the top of the mouse so that you could keep working while charging. That would have been a design that considered functionality. The bottom of the mouse? That's more "let's just sweep the ugly parts underneath the rug" design.

Now admittedly, to date, I've bought one magic mouse (v.1) and returned it shortly after I bought it. It wasn't even for my day-to-day system. In short, this aspect of the Magic Mouse 2 design probably would never have come to my attention had I not seen mention of it in the article. Still, I find it yet another indication that Apple's design group has lost touch with the usage requirements of their customer base. Go fashion, f--- function.

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Battle Over Smaller Airlines Seats

I came across this article over the weekend. It will make you pissed off about airlines again.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-07-28/u-s-court-rebukes-faa-over-incredible-shrinking-airline-seat

This is a perfect example of when regulations could force an industry to meet a basic standard of quality because clearly, the market is not responsive to the airline customer.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Design, Remodel, Alienate? The Hotel Nikko in San Francisco

I'm back from a stay at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco for Semicon West. The hotel completed a remodel earlier this year. Remodeling is an interesting canvas for design, not exactly a blank canvas, but pretty close. I found the results surprisingly disappointing. Normally, I probably wouldn't write a blog post about something like this, but, from a design point of view, some very strange decisions were made. I'll elaborate shortly, but first, some background.

The Hotel Nikko - My Go To Hotel in San Francisco
While I'm not sure exactly how long the Hotel Nikko has been in San Francisco, I do know it's been there a long time. Located in the Union Square area, it's conveniently located to many of the tourist attractions and, more importantly for my team during conferences, just a few blocks from the Moscone center. Hotel Nikko is a Japanese hotel chain, so many aspects of the hotel have always appealed to Japanese colleagues staying in San Francisco.

I began staying at the Hotel Nikko several years ago. With multiple conferences in San Francisco each year, I've had the opportunity to stay at numerous hotels in San Francisco, ranging from the premium, globally branded hotels to the tiny "boutique" hotels than you can find at the bottom of the tradeshow housing price spectrum. One of the things that struck me the most the first couple of times that I stayed at the Hotel Nikko was the unusual layout in many of the rooms. Rather than the row of rectangles set side by side that you typically get with most hotels, the Nikko featured unusual layouts, like rooms with inexplicably long entrance halls. What I soon discovered was that this unique layout contributed to minimizing the sounds you hear coming from your neighbor's room. I contrast this with some of the premium hotels that I've stayed at where I could hear nearly every word of the conversation in the room next door. This aspect alone made the Hotel Nikko my preferred hotel choice in San Francisco.

At this point it's probably worth noting that many of my colleagues tend to prefer the globally branded hotels with broad-reaching loyalty programs like Hilton, Hyatt, or Marriott. The Hotel Nikko has a loyalty program, One Harmony, but there is only one other hotel in Hawaii in that program, so unless you're traveling to Asia frequently, the One Harmony loyalty program is quite limited. Despite it's limitations, I was able to achieve their top tier status -- Exclusive -- simply through stays at the Hotel Nikko. That probably gives you some idea of how much I've stayed at the Nikko. We liked the Nikko so much that, when we had our wedding in San Francisco, the Hotel Nikko was the first place that I contacted to make arrangements for my friends and family to stay. You can safely say that I've been a loyal customer.

The Remodel Designs Me Out
The Nikko closed down in December for about three months to remodel most of the rooms. I'd actually been able to see a draft example of the remodel during my stay at Dreamforce'16, but Semicon West was the first time that I was able to experience the actual remodel. Within two minutes of my arrival in the room, I quickly realized one major failure with the updated room design -- there was no desk.

For some reason that is still entirely unclear to me, the people designing the Nikko remodel eliminated the desk from the room. I noticed it immediately, as the first thing that I began to do when I arrived was to begin setting up my workspace -- or at least, that's what I intended to do. At that point, I went back down to the front desk to request a different room, one with a desk. The staff at the front desk were very courteous, but informed me that none of the rooms -- except for the smallest ones -- had desks now. Apparently, it was not an unusual complaint; they told me that they'd heard the issue from others, and that they would share it with management. So off I went back to my deskless hotel room, questioning the design decision, what my colleagues would thing of the deskless room, and whether the Hotel Nikko would continue to be my preferred hotel in San Francisco.

Of course, the removal of desk wasn't the only thing that had changed, but it certainly focused my attention on the details of the remodel that had issues.
  • The dresser / credenza that replaced the desk and dresser. As I posted on Twitter, this design reminds me of Graceland circa the 1970s. Or perhaps a Holiday Inn near Graceland during that time. This piece provides drawer space, but it also houses the coffee maker that used to be above the minibar. While I know hiding the coffee maker cleans up some of room lines, I think it was reasonably out of the way in the old style.
  • The vanity station in the bathroom next to the sink. This is a new addition, the closest thing to a desk in the room. I actually used this area as a desk, but the downside was my laptop was living in the splash-zone of the sink. And my desk chair had no back. And made noise whenever I slid it in or out. But other than that, it sort of worked as a desk.
  • The "updated" bathroom. For my wife and I, the old version of the Nikko bathroom served as a benchmark for things that we wanted in a bathroom. We were even using some of the size specifications as a guide for what we wanted when we renovate. There are a number of small changes that make the new Nikko bathroom less desirable. First, while we didn't have a tape measure, the tub seems smaller. Additionally, they used to have a spray hose for rinsing your hair at the tub, but that has been removed. In the shower, they changed from a two-nozel showerhead plus showerhead on a hose to an overhead "rainshower" head and a hose that features one of those bar nozels that only has a soft spray, no changeable settings. After using that for a week, I found it to be functionally poor. 
  • Workmanship. Perhaps the single clearest example of issues with the renovation was the toilet seat in my bathroom. I've stayed at many hotels and used many bathrooms in my life, but this is the first one that I've ever seen that was assembled so poorly. To me, the toilet seat was the antithesis of the sensibilities I expect from a Japanese hotel. 
Here are a few photos to show you what I mean.
Hotel Nikko Credenza - gold, mirrored top, reminds me of Graceland
The new, rather useless showerhead on a hose.
The toilet seat at the Hotel Nikko aligned rather poorly.
A Japanese plumbing fixture, but not Japanese quality workmanship


Who's your Target Demographic?
Another interesting aspect of the post-remodel Hotel Nikko is the way that they are marketing the hotel or who they define as their target demographic. There are several aspects to this:

Dog Friendly.
Prior to the renovation, they'd actually added an outdoor area for dogs, but with the renovation, they've elevated their self promotion as dog-friendly. In some ways, this seems to me like a strange strategy for a hotel to pursue. Don't get me wrong, it seems increasingly common to see people with their dogs out at shopping malls and restaurants, particularly places with outdoor seating. Clearly, there is a significant segment of the population that are dog-lovers. At the same time, there is also a percentage of the population like myself and my wife, with allergies. Dogs are a potential allergen. For me, when I see this dog-friendly promotion, I'm always wondering if dogs stayed in my room previously and if that's going to be an allergy-issue. And don't get me started on the anxiety over fleas (enhanced by a run-down hotel experience in the skin-drying Las Vegas air). So I have to wonder whether the heavy dog-friendly promotion generates as much anxiety for others as it does for me.

To highlight the dog-friendly theme, they've added a stuffed dog to the assortment of decorative pillows in the room. The stuffed dog can also be purchased for $25. If you happen to be traveling with a child, you may find the stuffed dog to be a frustrating addition to the room. At the same time, it's probably worth noting one guest we overheard in the lounge (with multiple children) comment that the Hotel Nikko wasn't particularly kid-friendly. While we didn't evaluate the particulars of this, it seems like a funny contrast compared dog-friendly and the stuffed dog.

The Video Loop
A dog similar to the stuffed dog plays a starring role in a special Hotel Nikko video loop that they put on the TV when they do the turn-down service. Normally, I don't watch these kinds of things, but when you're staying for a week, you start to see these kinds of details. Here's a short synopsis of the video loop.
Scruffy guy and lady arrive separately at the Hotel Nikko. They are different in separate rooms and the don't seem to know one another. Scruffy guy spends the day sightseeing in San Francisco. The lady, meanwhile prepares for and gives a presentation to a large meeting room of people. In the early evening, the lady goes to the hotel gym to do yoga. The scruffy guy, meanwhile goes swimming in the pool. Following his swim, the scruffy guy is sitting on the outdoor deck and the live version of the stuffed dog runs up to him. He starts petting the dog, and the lady appears, clearly enticed by his dog petting. Next, they're off to dinner together at Anzu Restaurant in the hotel. Then watching a singer at Feinstein's in the hotel. Then, closing scene, they're looking over the San Francisco skyline (from the Marin side). Clearly, they've hooked up.

And suddenly, it all comes together. Of course, neither scruffy guy nor the lady seem to need a desk to work on, but it's an interesting demographic / lifestyle loop.

The Bottom Line
While I'm sure that there will still be some interest from our Japanese colleagues to stay at the Hotel Nikko, having spent a week there without a desk, I found that it's kind of deal breaker for me. It's kind of disappointing really -- we were actually quite fond of place before.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

British Airways F'ed Up Online & Customer Support System

For the past 14 hours, I've been wrestling with the British Airways online system, trying to correct a problem that their system created. In the process of attempting to correct the seating assignment, I've learned a few things about their system -- and about why you might want to avoid booking flights with them. Put simply, their system is not designed for customer support or customer satisfaction and I've now been told repeatedly that, "if you have an issue in the 24 hours before your flight", your fucked. Harsh words, I know, but British Airways "customer service" people say that they can't do anything in that 24 hour window. If you had one person tell you that, you might attribute it "a bad apple" customer service rep. But when multiple customer service people tell you the same thing, then you know that this is a business strategy.

When you're checking in for a flight, there are many aspects and errors that can go wrong. It's especially challenging for international flights because you have an added layers of documentation and permissions, concerns about connections. Tensions are higher because the costs are higher -- your $1000+ flight is not equivalent to a $100+ domestic flight. You might expect that in this environment, there would be added pressure on an airline to do things right -- or to make things right when things don't go according to plan. This is what makes British Airways system unusual. Rather than being engineered to make things right, the system seems designed to generate customer frustration.

Here's the story of my experience with British Airways and some insight into the underlying mechanisms in their system that appear to be optimized for frustration.

My wife and I booked trips on British Airways about a month ago. My wife needed to go to Helsinki for a business trip and I decided to accompany her and take the time for tourism. Because of the different purposes of our trip, we had to book our tickets separately. Hers through her work travel system, and me selecting the corresponding flight directly from the airline. She opted for the American codeshare version of the BA flight because AA is one of their preferred corporate airlines and she already has a lot of American miles. I opted for British Airways because I'd already flown on them a couple of months earlier on a trip to Brussels.

Our frustrations started with navigating British Airways ticket pricing, which I already wrote about and you can find more about here.

So, one aspect of British Airways default ticket is that you can't select a seat until 24 hours before your flight. Should you choose to, you can pay something like $30 to select a seat in advance, but the default window is 24 hours before. We opted not to pay this as it would be an upcharge that my wife's work would be unwilling to reimburse -- and having one assigned seat without it's mate is kind of stupid.

In a discussion with customer service (either through her travel agent, AA, or BA), my wife was able to address the issue of us traveling together and get our two seats grouped. When we went to check in, it assigned her one seat and me the seat next to her. Unfortunately, when I went to create my online boarding pass, British Airways system counted it as a second check in and relocated my seat (and hers) to an entirely different location. The first one was better, the second one seemed to be triggered just a few hours before the departure, and those seats weren't very good. After spending some time on the phone with British Airways customer support, they assured as that everything was fine. But when we went to the airport service counter to get boarding passes -- you guessed it, they were messed up and wrong. Eventually the service counter people just manually moved us to the original seats that we had together -- but they acted rather pained to have had to do that. They also gave us the explanation that "they'd changed planes, so that probably messed up the process".

On the return flight, the leg from Helsinki to London is a codeshare operated by Finnair. As we ticked off the time, trying to get into the system right after it opened, we hit a couple of roadblocks as British Airways system seemed to struggle with the record exchange with Finnair. Eventually, we were able to both get checked in -- and change seats since the first leg of the flight was only about half full. I say change seats because, despite many empty rows, British Airways auto-seat assignment software assigned me a middle seat near the middle of the plane. It also assigned me a middle seat for the second leg of the trip, the transcontinental flight back to San Jose.

No matter how I tried, I couldn't change the BA seat assignment. I couldn't access it. And they stuck me in a middle seat. Despite trying to check in right near the start of the 24 hour window, British Airways stuck me in a middle seat.

So I reached out to British Airways and Finnair customer service on Twitter. The Finnair customer service team responded quickly, and when I provided them with my flight details, they told me that the couldn't access the British Airways seat assignment system. They couldn't change it. I would need to work with British Airways to change that seat. So I continued to reach out to British Airways -- that all started at about 11:00 in the morning.

My wife and I speculated that we might be able to access the BA flight once the 24 hour mark for that flight arrived. Meanwhile, I continued to try and reach out to British Airways. When the 24 hour mark before the second leg of the flight came and we still couldn't access our seat assignment, I attempted to call the airline. I'd tried calling earlier, but the local customer support number was only good for Monday through Friday, so the only number "for travel problems within the 24 hour period" was an international number. When I called that number, I waited on hold for 12 minutes before a woman from their customer service team took my info, then told me that she couldn't make any changes during the 24 hours before the flight. I told her about how my wife had tried to purchase an upgraded meal, but the transaction didn't seem like it would go all the way through. She said she couldn't fix that because it was within the 24 hours before the flight. In short, it was a 15 minute international call -- at my expense -- to learn that British Airways could not help me. They were unwilling or unable to make any changes within the 24 hour window.

So I continued on to post complaints on Twitter. Eventually, around 6pm local time, British Airways Twitter support team responded to me. After sending a direct message to them with my flight details, an hour or so later, they finally responded with this:
"as you're due to travel within 24 hours, we're unable to amend your seat. The airport have control of the flight and seating. You'll need to make any amendments to your seats at the airport. Please accept our apologies for any inconvenience caused."
Somewhere in all of this (perhaps on the telephone), it became clear that it would never have been possible for us to edit the second leg seat assignment. Whatever we were assigned, we were assigned and their "24 hour lock" on the system meant that, for your second leg seat, you were essentially hosed. Suddenly it made more sense why, on my return trip from Brussels, I was stuck in a middle seat in the back of the section despite aisle and window seats still open. And how, when I'd tried to change my seat online, their system wouldn't let me.

Keep in mind that my wife and I travel on airlines frequently. We often manage our seats using online the online interface after check-in has opened. In fact, my wife has sometimes made multiple changes. I mention this only to underscore a point -- while many airlines block out a wait time and only allow check-ins 24 hours before a flight, most flights will allow you to manage and change your seat up until the time you're at the airport getting on the plane. As long as there is space available. Unless you're attempting to change class -- where they'll upcharge you. So this limitation in the BA system is both unusual and bizarre. It's also a giant FU to their "customers", the people who are paying for seats on the plane.

This experience comes on a flight that is supposed to transport me into "bronze" status in British Airways frequent flier program. Another special British Airways surprise for me was that I fully expected to have already achieved status on my flight to Helsinki. However, surprisingly, the fare that we purchased for these tickets meant that the "points" value for my transcontinental flight on the carrier was only 20 points, what looks to be the minimum value. My previous one hour flight from London to Brussels was actually worth more "points". Yet another FU to their customers.

This is truly "Customer Lip Service".

While we can never be certain of what the future holds, despite my "frequent flier" status that I will have earned after this flight, I won't be rushing to rebook another flight on British Airways and, as I mentioned in my previous blog post about the business, I would advise anyone considering doing business with British Airways -- Caveat Emptor!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Why Hawaiian Airlines Bid-to-Upgrade Auction Sucks

As it happens, we're leaving for Hawaii tomorrow for my wife's birthday. This is the trip that we've been planning for a while -- since our Napa trip fell through. It goes without saying that, we had a number of options for the flight -- I even considered using my United miles, but I could just imagine that unfolding into a very unpleasant birthday. However, on our previous trip to Hawaii, we flew on Hawaiian Airlines and we were reasonably amused by the experience. Besides, with Hawaiian Airlines, we could do direct from San Jose to Maui.

Booking the tickets on the Hawaiian Airlines web site was pretty straightforward -- it's one of those sites that shows you the fares for the different tiers of service. I like being able to see and compare the different fare tiers. For this trip, because the fare difference wasn't that significant -- and it was a special birthday trip -- I would up paying for first class on the return flight. Unfortunately, the outbound flight was about $700 more for a first class ticket, so that was out.

Then, about a week later, I received an email from Hawaiian Airlines, "Bid to Upgrade on Your Hawaiian Airlines Flight". If you are unfamiliar with this -- I was -- Hawaiian runs a system that allows you to bid on an upgrade to first class.

Initially, I liked the idea. From an economics standpoint, it makes a lot of sense. Rather than arbitrarily assigning upgrades or leaving some premium class seats unfilled, it offers a more democratic method for allocating those seats. Instead, you can reach your theoretical price-point. This seems like a great deal.

At least, that was my initial thought.

When I first presented the idea to my wife, she was intrigued. However, once we loaded the interface and discovered that the minimum bit was $205 per seat, the whole thing turned into an argument. Suddenly, her price and budget concerns kicked in and overwhelmed any sense of birthday pampering. And now I felt stupid for having even brought it up. Mahalo.

After half an hour or so of debate, she decided that she might have been a bit hasty in her response and decided to leave the upgrade decision to me. Now, with an enhanced feeling of my wife's cost-sensitivity, I decided to go with the minimum bid. Then, about a week ago, I received a second email from Hawaiian. This one was titled "We are reviewing your upgrade request!" The subtitle was "INCREASE YOUR CHANCES FOR A FIRST CLASS UPGRADE", and here's the content from that email.
Thank you for making an offer for a First Class Upgrade via Bid Up by Hawaiian Airlines. We are currently reviewing all offers for your flight xxxxx, departing on April 26, 2017 and upgrades will be awarded soon.

To increase your chances that your offer will be accepted, would you like to review your current offer?
That's all of the information -- other than a return to the bidding screen -- provided. Needless to say, I did not change our bid.

The program says that it will let you know within 48 hours if you got the upgrade and will notify you 26 hours before your flight that you didn't, so when you don't get an email prior to the 26 hours, you've got a pretty good idea that you didn't get the upgrade. So that's kind of annoying. But there were aspects of the whole experience that were even more annoying -- downright sucking even. Let's run through them in a list.
  1. I didn't get to buy an upgrade -- even though I was told there might be a chance I could get one. This kind of sucks. 
  2. There's no insight into what's happening in the auction -- it's basically blind. While that may seem like it makes aspects more exciting, like the unknown chance of winning, it's actually very frustrating. It means that when Hawaiian Airlines comes back to you and says, "would you like to increase your bid", you don't know whether you're already sitting on a winning bid. It could be that they only send those "increase your bid" emails to people who are low bidders, but at some point, you're potentially bidding against yourself -- which is really uncool.
  3. Reason 2 is what makes the whole experience suck. Because instead of seeming like an equitable way to allocate first class tickets, the whole thing felt like a bait-and-switch scam for constantly squeezing you for more money for small aspects of service. Imagine if it was baggage fees. For $10 you can check a small, carry-on sized bag. for $50, you can carry on a regular carry on bag, but if you go in for the $10, you can bid for an upgrade to the size of the bag you can bring -- then repeatedly asking if you wanted to increase your bid. Contrast this auction system with one where you had visibility of the high bid -- like eBay. Then you might consider upping your bid. Or what if the system worked like Google Adwords bidding system, where your high bid meant that you only bid like $.05 more than the other highest bid? Anything along this line would have made this whole process feel less like an aggressive grift for more cash.
  4. After the entire experience, part of me feels like I'm owed an upgrade. Having been through the process and, essentially, having tried to buy one, I feel like I've been screwed. Like one of those parents who went looking for the "must have" toy during the Christmas holiday, only to have had one yanked from my hands by some other customer. Mahalo. From a customer service experience, this is not what I would want to come from my upgrade program. Rather, wouldn't it be better if Hawaiian Airlines just randomly upgraded you, like winning the Lotto. While not everyone would win, those that did would certainly feel rewarded.
So, after all is said and done, I've walked away from the whole experience kind of pissed at Hawaiian Airlines. In psychological economic terms, I've been primed to be unhappy and unsatisfied with my experience. That seems like a poor approach to customer service. Definitely an unpleasant way to start a vacation. Mahalo.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

SiriusXM's Lead Nurture Marketing Spam

Last year we bought a car with SiriusXM integrated into the audio system. As most new owners do, we activated the service for the trial period. While we were moderately amused, our usage was somewhat limited -- it's not like we're always driving long distances during the daily commute through Silicon Valley. For that reason, radio seemed adequate enough, so the cost of the SiriusXM service seemed excessive and unnecessary. By not signing up for the service, we got put into their lead nurture email system.

For the past 6 months, I've been receiving offers, but I've been a bit surprised by the frequency. For example, for their most recent series, I've received three emails over the past three days. Needless to say, the offer hasn't really changed materially. Essentially, their offer is a one-time teaser price of about $25-30 for six months, then you're charged full price until you unsubscribe. But wait, there's more -- they'll also let you have unlimited online streaming to your computer as part of the deal.

It strikes me as funny, because I really thought they might actually improve on their offer. Even funnier, juxtapose the email subject line with the reality that their offer doesn't really materially change. Here's a snapshot of some of their subject line teasers.
  • You Deserve this Amazing Deal! Enjoy this Great Offer and FREE STREAMING. See Details.
  • Congratulations you have been chosen to receive this terrific offer. We hope you enjoy it, it is tr…
  • You Deserve this Amazing Deal! Enjoy this Great Offer and FREE STREAMING. See Details.
  • FINAL Notice! Please Open for More Details
  • Urgent Notice! Please Open for More Details
  • Turn your SiriusXM back on with this great offer! | See details
Of course, FINAL Notice isn't really final either.

Today, after receiving the third email in three days, I had to unsubscribe. I know, that means I may miss "this Amazing Deal," but I guess we'll have to find a way to survive.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

United's "Re-accommodate" and the "Customer" Lie in Airline Doublespeak

The Internet is abuzz with the story of the doctor on the United Airlines flight who was "asked" to give up his seat, then beaten and forcibly removed from the plane. If you haven't seen it, the Jimmy Kimmel show had a pretty good synopsis. As shocking as the video footage of the event is, perhaps what might be even more surprising was when United came out with the statement:
Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation.
I say shock, but I don't really mean shock, because in many respects while we're surprised that a business might say something like this, we're not surprised to see this kind of language and attitude from an airline. In that way, what I should probably say is that, while the footage and story is distressing, it's not really surprising.

The Grand Airline Lie: "Customer"
Most of us have expectations for "customer service". Inherent in that relationship is the principle that, as a customer, you have options and by choosing to spend your money with a vendor, part of your decision will be based on what you get for the service and how you are treated throughout the transactional experience. Or as you'd find on Wikipedia:
Customer service is the provision of service to customers before, during and after a purchase. The perception of success of such interactions is dependent on employees "who can adjust themselves to the personality of the guest". Customer service concerns the priority an organization assigns to customer service relative to components such as product innovation and pricing. In this sense, an organization that values good customer service may spend more money in training employees than the average organization or may proactively interview customers for feedback.
While you'll hear the airlines use the word "customer" a lot, for most travelers, there is little meaning beyond an exchange of money. Rather than being treated like customers, most airline passengers are treated more like cattle or sheep. We probably have more in common with the animals at factory farms than we do with the classic notion of a "customer".

And it's not just United Airlines. On CNN during the news cycle around the United story, the network ran a series of clips of people being thrown off the plane, all from different airlines. American, Delta, Spirit. They even lumped in a woman who was forced to buy pajama pants because JetBlue wouldn't let her on the plane wearing shorts that they didn't like.

Let's face it. They all suck. Some suck worse than others. People joke about it, but nothing gets better. Instead, things just deteriorate further.

So how did we get to this point? Here's a piece from Wired that does a good job of characterizing the problems with United. How United Turned the Friendly Skies into a Flying Hellscape is an interesting look at the recent history of the carrier and the impact of the merger with Continental. But in some sense, as noted, this issue transcends United.

The Inherent Tension of Flying
Traveling can be stressful. Some stresses are common -- we all struggle with time zone changes -- and some stresses are individual -- I may not be afraid of flying, but you might be. Time and schedules also ratchet up stress levels -- from concerns about making a flight or connecting flights to factors outside of the flight itself like business meetings, appointments or even vacation itineraries.

In the midst of this stressful environment for travelers, the airlines have been doing everything they can to ease traveler stresses (haha). Seriously though, rather than that, for the past 10 years or so, the airlines have increasingly pursued strategies of testing the limits of what passengers will tolerate, all with an eye towards increasing profitability. The Wired article talks about "Calculated Misery" and links to this New Yorker article, Why Airlines Want to Make You Suffer. The article talks about JetBlue being a hold-out on charging baggage fees and what drove them to change:
Wall Street analysts, however, accused JetBlue of being “overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed.”
In short, not only do airlines, as a business, not care about you, the "customer", they're business model is increasingly built on taking advantage of you. United Airlines profited to the tune of nearly $10 billion dollars over the past two years with that business strategy.

And the effect on "customers" is to put them on edge, forcing them into a combative, defensive mindset. It's not really difficult to see the equation, build systems that impose misery, tensions rise. Add in a good portion of unequal treatment -- like walking past the first class section and seeing spacious seating that is such a contrast to the cramped seating that you're being put in -- raises tensions higher. That's partly why we have more incidents of "air rage" taking place.

You Must Obey the Uniformed Flight Crew
Since we returned to flying following the 9-11 highjackings, we've all been chartered with paying special deference to the uniformed flight crew. It goes without saying that it's an essential rule for the safety and security of the flight. At the same time, there are flights that it seems like turn into something just short of the Stanford prison experiment. Whether it's a result of the "psychological effects of perceived power", or simply a flight attendant having a bad day, airline passengers have to be aware that something that starts as a simple customer service incident can easily escalate to an event that brings in law enforcement. After all, who could forget the guy in the "Princess Bride" shirt?

These incidents between passengers and airlines staff will keep coming up because that's the business model. To quote from the Wikipedia page on the Stanford prison experiment:
The experiment's results favor situational attribution of behavior over dispositional attribution (a result caused by internal characteristics). It seemed that the situation, rather than their individual personalities, caused the participants' behavior.
The "customer" environment created by the airlines, while endorsed by Wall Street, is toxic. These days, when you engage with an airline as a "customer", you have to devote an inordinate amount of energy to mitigating the stresses inherent in the experience. That's why "the friendly skies" is laughable. There is no joy in the base level experience. There isn't really much that an airline can do to "wow" you. And the hostile environment turns minor events into seeming random acts of cruelty.

Take the United Airlines incident as an example. When United decided to remove those people, was it clear who they chose and why? Were they flying on standby? Did they pick Dr. Dao because he's asian? Did he pay less for his ticket than other passengers? While news stories may relate different answers to this, that we can believe that it was a random act of cruelty speaks volumes to the toxic  customer environment.

But it isn't going to change. Because profits and "shareholders enthusiasm" for more profits. Despite the tremendous first day dip in United Airlines stock value, it's value is returning. And it's unlikely that you'll see any government regulation that makes it better. At least, anytime soon. So, until such time as there is something like governmental regulation that forces the airline industry to end their "calculated misery" approach, you need to recognize that when the airline industry uses the word "customer", they really mean something "transactional actor". Sure, they will do things that seem kind of like customer service -- like having people respond to your frustrated posts on Twitter -- but their ability to do much of anything beyond kind words is quite limited. In the end, their goal is not really to make you happy, it's to get you to stop squeaking.

Rep. Sensenbrenner: "Nobody has to use the Internet"

In another one of those world class, technologically disconnected statements that old Republicans find themselves making, Wisconsin Representative Jim Sensenbrenner made this statement at a town hall meeting with his constituents, "nobody has to use the Internet." This was his response to questions of why he voted to repeal the Broadband Consumer Privacy Rules passed by the FCC last October and to allow ISPs to sell Internet access information without the permission of their customers.

Sensenbrenner, who's been in congress since 1979, seems to envision the world of 1992 or 93, long before the Internet became an essential part of business, commerce, entertainment -- even government. Taken at face value, his statement seems downright delusional. Taken as an attempt to spin an unpopular position, it goes beyond clownishly ham-handed. Perhaps the only saving grace is that the basic phrase is so generic, it probably won't reach the level of "a series of tubes" meme.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Pro Mac Users: Your Negativity May be Working

I saw this the other day on Macrumors and I wanted to share. 'Constant Negativity' From Pro Users Led Apple to Develop Modular Mac Pro, Which May Not Ship Until 2019. Here's a snippet:
Apparently, the negative response to the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, which many complained was not oriented towards pro users, was a major factor. Apple saw a surge of orders for older MacBook Pros instead of the new model, and that, combined with the reaction to the LG 5K display and the "constant negativity" from professional users, led Apple to "double down on professional users."

The decision to move ahead with a modular Mac Pro replacement was made "in recent months" with development starting "only a few weeks ago," suggesting it's going to be a long wait.
Of course, none of that really gets to other questionable aspects, like how many generations of USB-C will we have to see before it actually becomes something with an ecosystem, how long before they decide that the audio port must be removed from all of their other devices, or that classic, looking for MagSafe.

But let's not kid ourselves -- the idea that Apple "may" have a new Mac Pro system design in two years and that this represents a "recommitment" to pro users is laughable. First and foremost, at the heart of this issue is what is commonly referred to as a roadmap issue. That means that within management and planning, they now have a perception that they've sort of missed the mark. Not FAILed. No, it couldn't be that. So instead, their going to hedge their bets and try and promise something further down the road. But it's not like their designing something like an autonomous car that's never been done -- these are desktop and notebook computers and they have a pretty clear historical track. I mean think about that. Apple needs two years to design and bring to market a desktop computer? 

So, while I'm optimistic that Apple may actually start making Apple products again, this "rumor" seems a bit more like a Trump distraction tweet than actual insight into the roadmap at the Fruit.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

British Airways Pricing Dynamics Deconstructed

Last month, I flew on British Airways to Brussels for a conference. It was a good flight as flights to Europe go and, as we're expecting to make several trips to Europe this year, it had me expecting that we would be flying British Airways frequently this year.

Here are a few of the reasons why I liked the flight:
  • It departed and returned to San Jose. It's hard to underestimate how awesome this is. Besides the smaller airport, saving on the hour drive on each end of the trip... priceless.
  • The flight was on a new 787. The 787 really is much nicer to fly on.
  • British Airways offered "Premium Economy" tickets for a lower price than "Economy". (Their "Premium Economy" class is essentially what Business Class was 15 years ago). 
Anyway, no complaints. Until we got ready to book another flight. Essentially, my wife has a business trip, I'm going to travel with her, and so we need to coordinate our flight while purchasing from two different systems -- her corporate purchasing and me directly. While it should be reasonably easy, you have to remember two important factors when considering a corporate travel portal.
  1. It's going to price compare and force you to take either the lowest price -- or something within say $100 of the lowest price it sees. Otherwise, it's out of policy.
  2. You may face other limitations and limited choices, so you may not be able to easily mix and match as you might do with a third party tool.
Naturally, the first place that I went to check pricing was the British Airways site. We were playing around with dates, because we still hadn't determined how long we'd stay or the parameters of what we'd do. For a simple search, I tried flying out on Sunday May 14 (for her to arrive in time for her meetings on Tuesday), and flying back on Saturday, May 20. This is what the results looked like:

$366 for Premium Economy?!? Sweet! This is looking promising. So then, I went to look at the return flight.

$2182 for Premium Economy on the return? That seems a bit steep, but it is cheaper than economy. At the same time, you can see in the date tab above that, returning on Sunday looks like it's only $746. So I decided to try changing the return date to Sunday. FYI, you'll notice the check box about changing outbound dates. I'm not exactly sure what functionality that's supposed to provide, but it had no effect on the pricing changes that happened.

When I selected the return date on Sunday, not only did the return date change, but the Outbound pricing changed. Here's the new outbound pricing.

What happened to my $366 Premium Economy seat outbound? Now my options are $366 for regular economy or $648 for Premium Economy? WTF? When I first saw this, I was enraged. Just so you know, here's the return on Sunday.





Now, the return in Economy is $765 and Premium Economy is $963. So, while the total cost of the fare on a Premium Economy seat is lower than it was, it's been undercut by the regular economy seat price. Of course, if you're purchasing through a business portal, you're probably not going to be about to get that lower priced Premium Economy seat because your pricing system will have been undercut by the economy seat.

Just to explore some more dates and pricing dynamics, I decided to try changing the outbound date to Saturday, May 13 (using the interface and keeping the return date on Sunday, the 21st).  Here's the outbound result of that.

And here's the return.

Note the outbound $391 and $698 the return $765 and $963 for economy and premium economy respectively. Now, for the final piece of the experiment with the British Airways interface, I changed the return date back to May 20 (while leaving the outbound date as the 14th). Here's that screen, first with the outbound.


And then with the return.

With these dates, the return on May the 20th is priced at $765 and $963. In other words, while the day you're traveling affect British Airways pricing partially, a more significant factor is how many days you're staying there. It's sort of like the old "Saturday Stay" rate, where if you stayed through Saturday, your fare would be lower. Except, in this case, if you stay long enough for British Airways to consider it not business, your fare may be lower, but you need to fly economy.

So what's the strategy behind this? Why do they price their economy seats artificially high if you choose a short set of dates? Why do they lead with a super-low price on the outbound Premium Economy seat on that business length stay fare? Since I don't work for British Airways marketing or pricing groups, I can't say. However, from our black box testing, I think we can put forth a few theories.
  1. Overall, they are anxious to win some business traveler flyers. By offering somewhat competitive rates for a Premium Economy seat versus say, an Economy seat on another international carrier, they hope to win some of those premium seats. As you can see, when you pick fly on their short schedule, you'll end up paying $937 more than what they value the seat for on either end of the extended date range. 
  2. Why lead with the $366? I think this works as a loss leader to entice you into the rest of their pricing web. If I had to guess, I'd expect that it's sort of like a prime to trick your brain into thinking, "this is not that expensive... and I get Premium Economy."

Based on running our numbers though, I don't think we're going to book on British Airways. Despite my overall positive experience on my previous flight, we can't escape the feeling of "Shenanigans". Besides, as noted, there's no way my wife could select Premium Economy in the her corporate business travel portal when the economy prices are lower. Instead, we're now looking for an airline with a more predictable pricing practice.

The French Laundry Follow-up

I just wanted to take a few minutes to follow up on my post about The French Laundry. They actually reached out to me last week, following my blog post, and I'm sorry that I've been neglectful in not posting a follow-up sooner.

Based on my conversations with them, it sounds like they were planning the transition for two years and that the transition project was complex. In addition to switching systems, they needed to load existing reservations into the system. It sounds like a big pain point was having people calling in constantly, being put on hold, and some other issues along those lines.

Another issue which they didn't explicitly say, but I imagine may have been an issue for them; if they pre-announced their switch to the TockTix system, Open Table may have reacted by dropping their existing service, leaving The French Laundry in a big reservation mess. While we like to imagine business relationships behaving professionally, the reality is that, even in business, these kinds of breaks aren't as clean and unemotional as we'd hope.

It goes without saying that switching a core business system like this is not a decision that the business makes lightly, but the team at The French Laundry clearly hopes that this will help streamline the reservation process and make the restaurant more accessible than it has been in the past.

A special thanks and a hat-tip to the team at The French Laundry for reaching out to us and responding. I do think that businesses that reach out to customers (or potential customers) like that deserve kudos.

On a personal note, we won't be going to The French Laundry for my wife's birthday. While we imagine the experience would would make for a very magical milestone, the memory of a lifetime; in the flurry of all of this, we opted to go to Hawaii. That being said, I'm confident that the guy behind us in line will be positively thrilled with the experience.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

TockTix and The French Laundry Reservation We Never Got

As you'll note from previous posts that I've written as well as the food blog that we don't really update much anymore, my wife and I enjoy food and dining. Leading up to her birthday this year, she had one simple idea for what she wanted -- for us to share a dinner at The French Laundry.

The French Laundry holds a special position of royalty in the food pantheon, one of those places we revere and, even as restaurant ratings change and prestige hops from one establishment to the next, it remains a benchmark for once-in-a-lifetime dining. We've never been there, but we've seen glimpses of the food in film and video, tasted approximations in dishes we made from the cookbook.

As one of the world's greatest restaurants, The French Laundry has always been difficult to get reservations at, and that's been true since well before the first time my wife and I went to Napa together in 2006 (before there was OpenTable and smart phones). And over the years, we've made a few casual attempts to get reservations, but never anything to concerted as the actual prospect of getting reservations, combined with a window of opportunity to go, seemed unlikely.

The Plan is Made
Once we decided that we would try to do The French Laundry for my wife's birthday dinner, I needed to prepare the support logistics. After an epic meal with wine pairings, nobody has any business driving, so you need to stay in close proximity to the restaurant, so I booked a hotel in Yountville. And, while the price for the hotel rooms seemed extremely high -- we even considered abandoning the Napa plan and heading for Hawaii -- we decided that it would be worth it. Additionally, since we were already going to be up there, it seemed worthwhile to book reservations at another restaurant on Friday night, the 28th. As we'd always wanted to try Redd (heard great things about it), that was the first place I checked -- and booked a reservation. Finally, my wife requested a couple's massage, so I tracked down a spa in Yountville for that -- and booked at the beginning of March. All that remained was to book our dinner at The French Laundry.

While I don't follow their site and I haven't ever successfully gotten a reservation there, I can say with some confidence that, for the longest time The French Laundry maintained a policy of taking reservations one month to the calendar date before the actual date -- as you'll note from this snapshot grabbed from the WayBack Machine.

This was the case until March 20 of this year. Why? Because while I planned and prepared to go on OpenTable and make a reservation at 12:01 on March 27 -- and I kept checking on The French Laundry website to verify that information; suddenly, on March 20. everything changed. On that day, preceded by one day's notice on their Twitter feed, The French Laundry rolled out a new ticketing system by Tock. And suddenly, reservations were open through June 30.

While this was probably a windfall for some seeking reservations, if you were like me and last visited The French Laundry site on say, March 19, you didn't know anything about it. And, if you were like me, you sat, thinking you were in the non-existent virtual line waiting for the reservation day opening to appear. Perhaps I should have called. Pestered the staff at the restaurant. Ah, hindsight perhaps. But it wasn't until Sunday evening, March 26, when I decided to visit the site again, thinking I would check on the Open Table portal, that I discovered the new ticketing system... and that all of the reservation opportunities were now gone.

Perhaps, I thought, I'm just missing something. Perhaps if I call the restaurant in the morning at 10:00am (as the web site used to say), I can speak with a human. Perhaps they can help me understand what's happening. Maybe they have some tables set aside for something special like my wife's birthday. And, having spent the night wracked with unpleasant French Laundry dreams, I got up, went to work, and called The French Laundry at 10:00am. Of course, the number doesn't do anything now except take you to an electronic message detailing the new reservation system.

#FAIL -- Suprises in Queueing are a Recipe for Customer Frustration
You don't have to be an expert in queue theory to know that people in a queue don't like surprises. Imaging if the window for taking food orders has a long line and then, suddenly, that window closes and another window opens up on the other side of the building. Without careful line management, the odds are unlikely that the people who were nearest the front of the line will find themselves near the front of the line at the new window. And there will be much frustration.

But it doesn't have to be that way. With careful queue management, a business can exert control over the line, manage the changes, and maintain customer satisfaction (like the clerk who comes to get the next person in line). It's not difficult for a business to do this, it's just that customer satisfaction and customer experience must be a consideration for the business.

And that's why, as I wrote on Twitter, it's surprising that The French Laundry would be so haphazard with their roll-out of this new ticketing system. Surely, The French Laundry, the restaurant that lands the plates of diners with such precisely timed synchronization, would be the pinnacle of customer awareness. Sadly, it looks as though all of that careful attention to detail and customer experience only happens in the dining room. It certainly didn't carry over to the roll-out of this ticketing system.

Consider the timeline as I can backdate it from news and communication reports.
  • March 19, 2017 -- @_TFL_ announces the new ticketing system on their Twitter feed
  • March 20, 2017 -- Local news outlets, SFGate and NBC Bay Area pick up the story
  • March 23, 2017 -- Wine Spectator does a piece on the new ticketing system
  • March 24, 2017 -- Food and Wine piece notes all reservations through June 30 are booked
Remember, as of March 19, The French Laundry web site still said you need to wait until the calendar day one month ahead. So, when did they decide on this system? It's hard for me to believe that they just found it and decided to activate it on March 19. Wouldn't it have been a bit more customer-friendly to provide some sort of transition -- say 30 days notice -- before rolling out the new ticketing system?

What's up with TockTix?
Fundamentally, the difference between the Open Table system and the TockTix system is that users must essentially purchase their spot at the restaurant -- their experience -- at the time of booking. The strategy behind this, from the restaurant's perspective, is to prevent no-shows.

When I first encountered the Tocktix system on Sunday night, March 26, I had a number of reactions. My initial reaction was, what happened to the old reservations screen? Initially, I thought that perhaps this was the result of the opening of a new window of bookings for April 27th, and I was excited to see a booking time/interface. Of course, that was not the case.

Here's an example (taken today) of the Tocktix interface.

Initially, I think I accidentally tried to make a reservation on March 27 because I actually thought it was just the opening of the calendar month window interface. What I didn't see was that this was further down the screen.
Instead, when I clicked the date, the calendar interface was gone. Same result, sort of, but up until this point, I thought I was making progress. So I clicked on "Add Me to the Wait List."



It was at this moment that I realized that things were unfolding badly for me. I went ahead and added my name to the wait list. At the same time, I was extremely frustrated that I couldn't add anything, no notes or comments, to clarify that this wasn't just any day, that it was my wife's birthday. Sure, I could add us to a wait list a week later, but that day wouldn't be anywhere nearly as important as the first day that I signed up for.

Since that time, I've also realized that there are other issues with the TockTix waiting line system.
  1. I can't tell what position in line that I am.
  2. I can't drop my listing from the wait list, like if say, we decided to cancel the entire trip to Yountville and go somewhere else.
  3. I get no sense of movement or updates from the list. I don't even get an initial confirmation email confirming my place in line. What if all of the other "people" in front of me are ticketing bots?
Needless to say, I my frustration with the entire experience hasn't dissipated.

Prospective Customers and The French Laundry
As a business, The French Laundry doesn't have to care about potential customers in the queue in the same way that some businesses do. As long as they have limited seats and a consistent parade of butts in the seats, and as long as they deliver a premium, desirable experience to them, they don't really need to care about the people in line. If I get frustrated or you get frustrated, who cares. It won't stop the guy behind you from happily filling a seat, given the opportunity. And maybe you're so frustrated that you write a review on Yelp, but you haven't even been there, so your complaints are hollow. In short, even if you say, "they suck," it's pretty unlikely that you're voice will be heard over the din of oohs and ahs from people who have been there. In the end, it doesn't matter. The French Laundry brand will transcend your unhappiness. They don't need you.

For me, this whole experience diminished the brand. Ultimately, that won't matter to you, the next guy in line, or probably anyone considering going to the restaurant.

And so you're probably thinking that, if they called me today and said, we've got a table for you and your wife, I would change my tune. To that, I'd say, you're probably right about going -- we still haven't canceled all of our Yountville plans yet. And at the same time, The French Laundry brand will never hold the same elevated benchmark status for me as it once did. And I think it's unlikely that I ever will go there. I certainly won't pursue reservations or try to get into the line again.