Thursday, December 21, 2017

Facebook Partners With Companies to Violate Employment Law

I came across this article from the New York Times on Twitter. Since it's from the New York Times, it may be behind a paywall and you may have trouble getting to the actual article (here's another link to the article on ProPublica). However, if you can get to it, it's totally worth a read. As well, I've tried to craft a click-worthy title because I think that this story is really a must see.

The gist of the story is simple. Companies have been running job ads on Facebook that are targeted -- and thus, were only visible -- to a specific age demographic. In other words, if you're not 26-35 years of age, you don't see the ads because the company isn't interested in hiring you.

Facebook defends these ads. They want to make the case that the companies doing this type of advertising also run other programs on other platforms that target the people who aren't 25-36 years old. They think that it's great that companies recruit this way because of... well, whatever they say, it's really about ad revenue for them.

Knowing Silicon Valley, you might expect that we're talking about start-ups here, but not so. These ads are also coming from companies like Verizon, Amazon, and Target. Theoretically, these companies know that they can't put an "only under 50 need apply" in employment ad, so why would they use the age demographic targeting for an employment ad?
  • It's easy. They simply need to tick a checkbox and they've focused their employment search on the candidates that they really want.
  • It's very difficult for people to complain about something that they never see. Since the ads are only visible to the target demographic, it's unlikely that anyone outside of that demographic would know to complain. 
What I find most telling in this whole story is the difference between Facebook and LinkedIn when it comes to their reaction to ProPublica challenging them on the age-based ad targeting.
Other tech companies also offer employers opportunities to discriminate by age. ProPublica bought job ads on Google and LinkedIn that excluded audiences older than 40 — and the ads were instantly approved. Google said it does not prevent advertisers from displaying ads based on the user’s age. After being contacted by ProPublica, LinkedIn changed its system to prevent such targeting in employment ads.
Contrast that with Facebook's defense of the practice.
Facebook has argued in court filings that the law, the Communications Decency Act, makes it immune from liability for discriminatory ads.
Facebook also claims that since advertisers have to click a checkbox, the ads must be legal.
Facebook helps educate advertisers about the legal requirements they face so that they understand their responsibilities. We've also begun requiring businesses that show employment ads on Facebook to certify that they comply with the law before we show their ads.
While it's hard to say how the courts will ultimately rule on things, it strikes me that the spirit of the protections provided by the Communications Decency Act is about not being held responsible if someone posts something illegal on your platform. It's not designed to protect you from building a platform that sells them access to something that is inherently illegal.

Like the Russian political ads that helped shape the election, Facebook's advertising business seems to lack a moral/legal/ethical compass -- if not to avoid these kinds of issues entirely, at least enough of a sense of direction to get them out of it cleanly (see LinkedIn). It's like the ad revenue end of the business is fully-on Wall-Street-Bro-Culture-dollars-before-all-else, the kind of story you'd expect to hear coming out of Uber.

I actually am more sympathetic to Facebook's enabling of the Russian political ads using fake accounts than I am about this age-based targeting of employment ads story. In the Russian political advertising story, Facebook can fall back on the excuse that their systems were abused and that they were duped. With this, they set the system up to do this.

Of course, once this all plays out, when Facebook issues it's mea culpa and is forced to change it's practices, we all know that nothing will really change with hiring. After all, while Facebook built an advertising platform that enabled these businesses to selectively reach a specific age range, it was the prospective employers that implemented programs (that unexpectedly became public) that exposed decision criteria that have been operating in the background long before Facebook ever ran an employment ad.

This quote in the article from HubSpot spokeswoman, Ellie Botelho, made me laugh.
The use of the targeted age-range selection on the Facebook ad was frankly a mistake on our part given our lack of experience using that platform for job postings and not a feature we will use again.
While I haven't set up a Facebook employment ad, having configured numerous other online ad programs, I can say with some authority -- selectively narrowing the scope of an advertising program down to a specific granular segment isn't something you just accidentally click on. An accident could explain why their ad was also viewed in Europe or by people under the age of 18. An accident would have cost them more money. Selectively targeting an ad so that they only need spend on their actual, intended candidate criteria -- that takes extra effort.

Frankly, I hope that it costs the companies that have participated in this significantly. Perhaps if they'd had somebody from an older age demographic in their employ, that person would have had enough experience to keep them from going down such a stupid path.

Monday, December 18, 2017

iOS11 Continues It's Buggy Reign of Terror

One morning last week, I received an unusual call from my wife. She was in Japan and, back at the hotel after a day of meetings and a work dinner, she'd tried to set an alarm for an early morning meeting the next day. Suddenly, her iPhone 8 began restarting. Repeatedly. She tried a number of different things to fix it, but when they didn't work, she called me.

After some online searching, I was able to find a path that temporarily fixed it. As you may have guessed by now, it looks like what she was experiencing was the "Calendar bug" in iOS 11.1.2. Later, I was able to text her an alert her to the 11.2 update that patched the bug.

Yet Another iOS 11 bug -- who could have imagined?

And then there's Apple Pay
And so, that same day, I updated my phone to iOS 11.2. It turns out that beyond the patch the highlight feature that's been added with iOS 11.2 is the, "you should really turn on Apple Pay" feature.

After you install iOS 11.2, the phone says that you need to "Complete the Installation Process". It then takes you into an Apple Pay configuration wizard. Don't want to enable Apple Pay? Then iOS 11.2 drops a big red notification bullet on your iOS settings app icon. The only way to turn this off is to either enable Apple Pay or dive into the settings in Wallet and turn off Apple Pay Cash.

About a day after I did this, I was suddenly greeting with a pop-up screen that basically said, "Don't you really want to enable Apple Pay?" I'm not sure what triggered this -- or whether it will recur -- but it occurs to me that when you're having to advertise "an upgrade" in your operating system software in order to gain adoption, you've got some underlying issues with the feature.

Put a different way. I've gone several years without enabling Apple Pay. What could possibly drive the product team to think that if I hadn't activated it, that this feature was the trigger that would make me choose to enable it?

Instead, what this is another example of is Apple's software team starting with the conclusion that this whole Apple Pay Cash system would work more like their imagined model if it was enabled universally. In other words, this design, this feature set, is entirely centered on Apple's imagined needs for themselves and completely disregards my needs as a user. Fundamentally, this is what's wrong with today's Apple on a broader scale.

Apple's new slogan should be "Think marginally different than Android".

And One Patch Follows the Next
Of course, about a day after installing the 11.2 update, there was iOS 11.2.1, another patch to address a camera auto-focus issue introduced with the 11.2 update. It goes without saying that they still haven't fixed a whole host of animation or screen presentation bugs that affect operation.
  • The calculator will still miscalculate 1+2+3 if you type it too fast.
  • My email client often shows emails in my VIP mailbox, even though I have not received any emails from VIPs. For whatever reason, it errors in it's calculation and display of these mailbox roll-up folders. Additionally, these numbers will linger for a length of time.
As I've noted, it really makes you question the products coming out of Apple these days. These days, when I look at my iPhone, I never think, "this is the best phone I've ever owned." Instead, virtually every time I look at my iPhone, I'm struck by how much of the damn thing has been broken.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

LB Steak: Clever Marketing, Puffery or Misdirection?

So I had dinner last night at LB Steak in Santana Row. It was part of a group/work dinner. Like most typical group dinners, my expectations for the food wasn't particularly high -- work dinners aren't something you go to expecting to enjoy the food. What's more, having been to LB Steak for some truly mediocre brunch in the past (nice outdoor seating in Santana Row), I already had some sense of what to expect. I feel like I had a reasonably low bar going in.

Still, I was thoroughly surprised by the restaurant's marketing of their food and their dining room -- and not surprised in a good way.

Prior to grinding my way through rush-hour traffic to get there for dinner, one of my colleagues had told me that we'd be seated at the "Chef's Table". Now, being someone who enjoys my share of food and restaurant experiences, I must say that the idea of being at the Chef's Table had me hopefully optimistic. Perhaps this would be one of those enjoyably unique experiences that would walk back my previous brunch experiences. Imagine my surprise to see some of my colleagues sitting at a large table by the front window of the restaurant as I walked up.

I wasn't the only one. A couple of others asked the waiter about the "Chef's Table" and he said, "oh, that's just what we call this."

As I posted on Twitter last night, I suspected that they had switched tables on us for some reason (perhaps group size), but when I spoke with my wife about it, she said that she knew about LB Steak's "Chef's Table". So I looked it up this morning. Here's the link to LB Steak's private dining page. Further, on the PDF of their private dining menu (page 3), you'll find a description and picture of their "Chef's Table".

Of course, as I mentioned on Twitter last night, I don't think that the common perception of "Chef's Table" is "Big Table in the dining room by the front window and door". So I went looking for a definition of "Chef's Table". Here's what's on the Wikipedia page for restaurant:
A chef's table is a table located in the kitchen of a restaurant, reserved for VIPs and special guests. Patrons may be served a themed tasting menu prepared and served by the head chef. Restaurants can require a minimum party and charge a higher flat fee. Because of the demand on the kitchen's facilities, chef's tables are generally only available during off-peak times.
 Note: the emphasis added is mine. 

Clearly, LB Steak intends to set an expectation with the "Chef's Table" designation. It's an obvious attempt at priming (psychology) the customer's perception with a perception of exclusivity. For me, that core misrepresentation ate at me more throughout the evening than I ate at the food.

Being Sold on the Prime Rib Eye
In another round of adventures in labels versus products, the waiter sold a significant portion of the table on the 12oz Prime Rib Eye. He made some explanation about it, but mostly emphasized about how tender it was. Perhaps you are wondering what a Prime Rib Eye is?
  • Expectation-wise, you might think it was Prime Rib...
  • Or maybe you might expect that it's a big thick Rib Eye steak. 
As it turns out, it's a steak that's about the typical thickness of a slice of prime rib (about 3/4"), grilled like a rib eye. It's hard to represent the difference between the plates of steak that were presented to the table and what you probably were expecting if your mind was aligned with either of those bullets I've listed above. Visually, the product looked like something an inexpensive market steak you'd expect to get your average local grocery store. Or perhaps something you might get at one of those low-end chain steak restaurants.

The LB Steak menu lists this "35 Day Dry Aged Prime 12 oz Boneless Ribeye" at $52. I suspect that if I went to Costco right now, I could get a three-pack of prime Ribeye steaks for about the same price, any one of which would have delivered a product closer to what I would expect a business that features "steak" in it's name to be able to produce.

So the question that you might ask is, are these misrepresentations by the business puffery? Merriam Webster has the definition of puffery as, "exaggerated commendation especially for promotional purposes : hype". Wikipedia goes further.
In everyday language, puffery refers to exaggerated or false praise. In law, puffery is a promotional statement or claim that expresses subjective rather than objective views, which no "reasonable person" would take literally. Puffery serves to "puff up" an exaggerated image of what is being described and is especially featured in testimonials.
There's also this great link from the puffery page to restaurant menu writing style. In short, it's not unusual to attempt to inflate the description of dishes or make them sound more exotic. In one sense, you could say that that is what LB Steak is doing.

At the same time, while a "tenderloin of pork avec compĂ´te de Pommes" may be "a pork chop with a dollop of applesauce," most people would probably be unhappy to be served some thin slices of lunch-meat-cut ham with some applesauce under the guise of a "tenderloin of pork".

This is the problem with their "Chef's Table" nomenclature. They could name it anything -- the Silicon Valley table, the Grand Table, anything -- without creating the false expectation of a "Chef's Table". Rather than elevating the dining experience, I think it undercuts the restaurant's credibility with the customer. I think that this is a clear-cut case of marketing quackery.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Apple Releases Bug Fix Overnight

So it looks like Apple jumped through a few hoops last night to patch and release a fix for the Root Access bug that came out yesterday. If nothing else, it's proof that if they prioritize and issue and apply resources, they can still be agile company. Or at least, an agile support organization.

Given that, it's kind of funny that the iOS calculator bug is still there.

I Am Root - Apple Introduces Amazing New Bug with High Sierra Mac OS

When I came across news of this new, critical bug that was discovered in the new High Sierra version of Mac OS, I'd like to say that I was surprised. I might have been in the past. These days, not so much. Truth be told, I'd be surprised if we don't see several more critical bugs discovered in High Sierra.

This is exactly why I've been hesitant to upgrade. Perhaps you're like me. High Sierra is one of those "upgrades" that, I don't think I've seen any really useful "features" that they've added (other than this new "universal access feature"). Apple is engaged in a full-on path of Devolution.

So what next Apple? A glass-bottom Macbook Pro so can wirelessly charge the new extra-rapid-draining batteries fueling a new "Super-sized" Touchbar? Imagine the joys of "the thinnest Macbook Pro ever" that requires you use a thick rubber case lest you crack the bottom and wind up with glass fragments in your laptop. Sounds like exactly what every "Pro" user needs.

In the short term, a great fix would be to stop triggering the pop-ups telling me that I should upgrade to High Sierra. Thanks.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Why Apple Products are a Dark Cloud Over the Tech Industry

You would never know it from the stock price, but Apple, the company who's products we once loved, is falling apart. Design, once a cornerstone of every Apple product, is eroding under the weight of copy-cat features and an arbitrary bend through the iPhone looking glass. And quality?

Consider iOS 11. As of this post, we're on iOS 11.1.2, the seventh release of the 11th version of their iPhone software. Take a look at this MacRumors iOS 11 round-up. This update to Apple's iOS, while described as a "major design change", doesn't bundle huge new feature sets. In fact, the second paragraph of the round-up talks about "subtle design changes to interface elements throughout the operating system". And yet, iOS 11 introduced a broad range of bugs into the OS. Seven releases and they still haven't fixed their calculator animation bug.

Now, some companies might offer the excuse that they don't have enough resources build a perfect product. And yet, Apple, with multiple campuses throughout Silicon Valley, hardly seems to be the resource strapped company that it once was. What's more, Apple is sitting on over $261 Billion in cash, so it's not like they can't afford to hire a few good software developers, if that was what was needed to fix iOS.

Contrast iOS with In the past, I've often complained about issues with, but Salesforce releases an update to it's platform three times a year without breaking it's core feature sets or functionality. In iOS 11, I've had issues where the Mail client indicates that I have unread emails from one of my VIPs, even though none of my recent VIPs have even emailed me. I would call that a bug in the core functionality of the device. And this is simply one more issue -- I wish that I had a way to characterize some of the issues that I've had with the touch screen since iOS 11. These days, my iPhone just does stupid stuff -- like randomly playing audio when I put my Airpods away after a phone call.

The Broader Problem with Apple
At it's core, I think that Apple is struggling with a vision problem. While Apple has long been considered a visionary company, I think the current iteration of the company has lost it's way. Consider the new iPhone X and it's facial recognition capabilities. Have they really done anything beyond adding Microsoft Kinect to a phone? Or the Touchbar that was added to the Macbook Pro line -- do you see that anywhere else in their Mac platform? Essentially, the seem to be grabbing at feature straws, wildly swiping through the air trying to capture another brass ring that might equate to iPhone or iMac gold.

But these are not the moves of a mad genius. Instead, they feel more like the flailing efforts of a committee that seems to reach for a consensus view of what they imagine somebody in a black turtleneck might dream of.

Say what you will about skeuomorphic design, I think that when Apple leaned more skeuomorphic, there was a clearer framework to shape the thinking of the people inside the company.

And while today's Apple may consider designers and "pro-users" to be just "some small segment" of their much broader cash cow, I think that they truly underestimate why Apple products became so beloved within that segment -- and it wasn't simply because Apple offered different color options or a rose gold (pink) version. Fundamentally, the core aspect that made Apple product so much better was good design.

These days, Apple just bolts on products and features to build some arbitrary unity around an ecosystem of unnecessary accessories. If Apple were the Marvel Universe, it would be like having Howard the Duck show up in all of their content because, hey, Howard the Duck. And so, we have the Amazon Echo copy, Apple Homepod, so that you can say "Hey Siri" at home. And you also have Siri making a random, Howard the Duck appearance on the Mac. Hey Siri, can you turn my wifi off for real this time?

I'm sure that over in the halls of whichever Apple campus, that they still have product management meetings. They still make product roadmaps. They track their bugs and they schedule their releases. I'm sure that, when it comes to the formal dance of a product, they go through the steps. And yet, iOS 11.

So what does it mean for other companies more broadly, when a company can have more money than most of us can imagine, all of the resources that they could possibly need, and yet to still struggle so fundamentally in something like this "update" to their iPhone OS? What does it mean when innovation for "the most successful technology company" simply means thinner, or slapping a "Touchbar" on it?

So this is what happens with tech companies grow up.

Monday, November 13, 2017's Dreamforce '17 Wrap-up

This is just a quick post to share some of my observations and experiences from this year's Dreamforce with you.

Salesforce Tower at night

In all, the weather worked out well for this year's Dreamforce. The last time when Dreamforce took place at this time of year, it rained all week, so rain only on Wednesday night was an improvement from that -- though one not made by anyone.

New Announcements
Whether it was the timing of the event, or just that Salesforce has changed the way that they deal with Dreamforce, there wasn't a host of new features announced during the event. From a features standpoint, I think everything that they talked about is already available in the current Winter'18 release. They did talk about a new partnership/closer integration with Google, but they did something similar 10 years ago, so I'm a bit skeptical about what the real impact of this agreement will be.

The biggest challenge with Dreamforce -- and has been the last several years -- is the overwhelmingly large crowds. Lines, lines, everywhere lines. On Monday, I attempted to go to a roadmap session, only to find a line of 15 people waiting outside a full ballroom at the Marriott. As is usual for Dreamforce, for whatever reason, the lines and crowds for the breakout sessions are much longer on the first day of the conference, then they lighten up after that. Not that it wasn't still crowded later in the week. On Wednesday, I tried going to a Google advertising session in the Palace hotel, and the line to get in ran more than the length of the hall on the main floor. I left for a bit, convinced that the session would be too full, then came back after the session began to discover that I was able to get in. It was crowded, but still a fair amount of seats in the room.

Einstein AI
This is the second year that Salesforce has been promoting their Einstein AI functionality. Einstein is more visible in Winter'18, but if you're using Salesforce Classic like we are, that functionality isn't available. This year, they've rebranded the Wave Analytics package as Einstien Analytics. They were also showing off some ability to configure Einstein's analysis parameters and build some advanced Einstein capability. For this reason, I sat through several data science and Einstein sessions, only to get to the part in one where they told you, "you need to contact your Account Exec" to enable this feature. In other words, "there is a cost to enable this, contact your AE to find out how much". Considering that Einstein is a carrot to enable the Lightning interface, I found it kind of funny to dangle the carrot, then take it away.

Put another way -- like Portal -> Community or Wave Analytics -> Einstein Analytics, I'd have to say, "those are some nice features, but I don't think that management would agree to a doubling of our Salesforce costs just for that."

Creative Visualization, Design Thinking, and Drawing to Win
Perhaps the best sessions that I've sat through in a long time and probably the biggest surprises for me were sessions that I went to on Creative Visualization and visual story-telling,  Design Thinking and Drawing. Essentially, these sessions revolved around using visual imagery to present ideas and conceptual frameworks. They were an altogether unexpected bright light for me in an otherwise uninspiring Dreamforce week. With exercises like "draw the toast", these sessions were really engaging. What I found even more surprising was that many of these people came from a team at Salesforce that does exactly what they were presenting -- meets with customers and uses these visualization and drawing techniques to explain, define, and then craft solution plans for customers.

What's more, during the keynote interview with the CEO of IBM, Ginni Rometty, she mentioned that IBM has added a significant number of design teams (I don't remember the exact number). But, as you can see from this design thinking page on their site, design thinking is thematically important to IBM too. In that way, it feels like this is probably representative of a broader trend in business -- or at least in the software industry.

Of course, what would Dreamforce be without the band / concert experience. As I mentioned in my post about last year's event at the Cow Palace, I couldn't imagine a band that would make me want to go to another Dreamfest event. This year, the band was Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys, and the event was held at AT&T park again. Last time they had the event there, the band was Greenday, it poured rain, and most people hung out in the stands trying to avoid the rain. This year, since the event was within walking distance again, I walked to the event just to check it out. Overall, the park experience was similar to the previous time at the venue -- ball-park food, VIPs directed to luxury box level, crazy crowds.

As I've noted previously, possibly the funniest thing about all of this is how surprisingly rudely selfish the Dreamfest concert crowd is. For example, there were huge lines backed up into the alcoves trying to follow designated paths down to the field. At the back end of this, the line became a mass, choking the walkway around the food stands. And yet, there was no give in the mob of people there, no flex to allow people to pass through the walkway. I've been to many other general admission events where the audience was far more polite to one another. It's something in the demographic of this audience. And, at the same time, you have to know that most of these people have been to concerts and events before, but they act like a ravenous mob being thrown a small, insufficient allocation of food -- a couple of steps away from a riot or a stampede.

Needless to say, between the food not being great, the crowd, and the music not really appealing to me, I left after three songs from the Lenny Kravitz set. Perhaps the best part of the night was walking back to the hotel, knowing that I didn't need to stand and wait with that crowd for a shuttle bus to arrive some time later than most would expect.

On the first day, I was on my way from one breakout session to another when I noticed a large line of people on Mission. They were queued from the corner on 3rd back nearly to the Metreon. Isoon realized that this was the line for the opening keynote that was still over an hour away. For the Michelle Obama keynote, I was in Moscone West and the event staff was already redirecting people from the two overflow keynote viewing areas there to the Marriott. It was probably ten minutes after that when I heard them saying the Marriott was full. Needless to say, I found the best way to watch most of the keynote presentations was from my laptop in my hotel room. While I occasionally had drop outs (thanks Hilton wifi), not having to deal with the crowds was a huge advantage. At the same time, it was a little disappointing to know that, when they had a give-away based on a "golden ticket" at the end of the Sales Cloud keynote, I was fairly confident that my hotel desk chair didn't have anything taped underneath it.

For all of the crowds, it's also worth noting that there was a stepped up security presence at this year's conference. You could see security staff at any event you went to, any gathering of people. In all, while it was an ugly reminder of recent events in the world, it was some comfort seeing all of the efforts that were done to ensure everyone's security. In all, it was present, but unobtrusive.

The Expo
In some ways, you had to feel bad for the companies exhibiting at the Dreamforce Expo. This year, the Expo was in the reopened South hall. However, the current layout (and, from my understanding of Semicon West in July, this will also be true through that time) has the only entrance to the show floor down near the 3rd Street side of the hall -- essentially, the 100 - 400 aisles in an event. It made going into the South hall kind of like venturing into a cave, with the far, 4th Street side feeling rather disconnected from the entrance. To make things more accessible, Salesforce opened one of the emergency exits near the 4th Street end out to the Howard Street "Dream Valley" and decorated it with a bit of artwork suggesting you were exploring a cave.

Additionally, most of the sponsors were relegated to using a standard inline 10x10 system, so you had rows and rows of partners, all struggling to differentiate themselves or display some sort of unique identity. Mostly, as somebody walking through, it was like walking through endless white wall partitions. As a result, I found myself spending little time there.

In summary, it was another event and another year. Most of the time, I found little joy in being there. Would I recommend it? Hard to say. There are certainly some interesting take-aways, but at the same time, I'm not sure how well it stacks up against the raw costs in terms of ROI (when you consider the astronomical cost of hotels -- ~$395/night -- and the full $1500 conference cost). When you add in the oversubscribed crowds, you'll probably find that you're asking yourself why you subjected yourself to this -- an even more common thought than, is this worth it.

Monday, November 6, 2017

More on Facebook Manipulating the 2016 Election

As I wrote about back in 2014 in this post, Facebook Can (and has) Manipulated You With Their Feed Algorithm, we already know that Facebook can manipulate it's audience just by tweaking their algorithm regarding what's displayed. In much of the discussion regarding Russian advertising during the election and the various fake accounts that were being run by these Russian interests, I haven't seen this referenced once in the media.

And yet, after I wrote this post on online advertising the other day (and after I had a chance to see some of the ads and other Russian programs released by Congress), a broader realization occurred to me.

While the 2014 research by Facebook involved Facebook tweaking their algorithm, what if, instead of tweaking the algorithm, you simply changed the nature of many of the resources that the algorithm drew from? In other words, if the core algorithm behaved neutrally, but the assets that it presented were broadly colored, it would probably have the same effect as changing the algorithm.

Again, back to the point that I wrote in the previous post -- it doesn't really matter whether people clicked on Russian ads or not. Their presence there worked to change the color of their target audience's feed on a much broader scale.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Underestimating the Impact of Facebook and Political Ads

I happened to catch this story on Talking Points Memo, Rosenstein: Americans Not ‘Influenced By Ads Posted By Foreign Governments’. In the post, here's the key quote from Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein.
“American citizens are pretty savvy, and they decide who to vote for,” he said in a podcast interview on the Target USA network. “I don’t think they’d be influenced by ads posted by foreign governments.”
Previously, I've also seen a similar quote from House Speaker Paul Ryan. The general theme is sort of a play to the vanity of an audience as a way to psychologically put a thumb on the scale of perception. Phrased a different way, it's sort of like, "come on, millions of people see infomercials every day, but people like you and I are smart enough not to actually order those products."

Of course, the obvious extension of that is that, some people do order these products. In the same way, it's easy to assume that no one would click on an attachment in a strange email or no one would fall for a Nigerian prince scam. But they do. In pure advertising terms, you can call these conversions. And while it's easy to say that well over a majority of people viewing ads, impressions, wouldn't convert, that's normal. With Adwords, Google considers 5% a good conversion rate. That means that 95% of the people who searched a specific term will see ads on that term without clicking on them. That's a successful ad.

The Impact May Have Been Much Greater Than A Conversion Rate Implies
The impact of these Facebook ads may have been far greater than the specific dollar amount sited or that any conversion rate implies. There are a couple of reasons behind this.

First, one aspect that hasn't really highlighted in the media coverage of these ads is the nature of the campaigns being run. For example, if the ads were running on a cost-per-click (CPC) model, then it's possible that the optimal cost result (for the people placing the ads) would have been few clicks, but many impressions. Essentially, this is like a brand identity campaign -- you don't necessarily need clicks, just the impressions can build mind share.

Another element might have used re-marketing campaign techniques to only show ads to people who had visited other specific content in the past. Using this technique, you could help identify and heavily target the ones who were most likely to buy into your message.

But perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is related to this story from back in 2014, Facebook Can (and has) Manipulated You With Their Feed Algorithm. In summary, what Facebook posted a paper detailing how they modified the algorithm that delivers the feed to users, and for one set, they delivered more negative, less positive emotionally colored results, and for the other set, they delivered more positive, less negative emotionally colored results. As you might imagine, both groups essentially began echoing and amplifying the tone of their feed -- the negative group producing more negative content while the positive group produced more positive emotions.

As I wrote back in 2014,
For me, I see a much bigger danger implied by the Facebook study reference here. If you think of the ability to influence in this way, then the Facebook "scientific" paper is potentially a press release announcing their offering of an entirely new type of advertising. Imagine if you wanted to broadly shift public option. With the right amount of money and access to the right platform, you could pay for shifting the filter of the algorithm.  
What if you didn't need to broadly shift public opinion, you just needed a marginal push? What's more, you probably don't need to change the whole algorithm -- the algorithm already responds to a certain level of political polarization. Instead, perhaps all you need to do is color in some of the spaces...

In summary, I'd say, don't buy into the notion that these ads had no impact, that there's no there there.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

YA Apple FAIL: iOS 11 Worse at Math that Intel Pentium

TL:DR: iOS 11 speeds the iPhone down the path from best phone ever to complete laughing-stock embarrassment.  

In case you were wondering, iOS 11 sucks, big time. Sucks. Sucks. Sucks. I've been intending to write a more comprehensive breakdown of the suckage, but other things have been keeping me too busy to devote the time to fully detail the flaws that I've found. It goes without saying that, if it were possible to go back a version -- other than any security flaws that they've theoretically patched, downgrading would be one hell of an upgrade.

I've posted previously about how for Apple iOS 11 and "No doesn't really mean no." because all of those services you think you shut off in the Notification Center don't actually turn off.

Additionally, if you've tried to use the notification center to select an audio source (like say, select you Apple Airpods), selection is now two clicks away under a tiny thumbnail of a control panel.

Should you want to change the brightness of your iPad while watching a video on Netflix, you're looking at two clicks or more to be able to make a simple change to screen brightness.

And now, I just came across this bug on MacRumors. iOS 11 Bug: Typing 1+2+3 Quickly in the Calculator App Won't Get You 6. That's right, if you type 1+2+3 quickly in the calculator app on your iPhone in iOS 11, the calculator will show you 24 instead of 6. In short, it's a worse math error than the infamous Pentium math error. The article goes on to detail an animation bug that blocks screen inputs while the animation resolves. And while it's probably a simple correction for Apple to fix their Calculator app, I think it's symptomatic of broader touch screen interface issues that have been introduced with iOS 11.

While using iOS 11, I've had numerous issues (somewhat randomly) with inputs to the touchscreen. Often, inputs near the edge of the display on my iPhone 5se fail. I've also had issues where the Messages app won't enable you to get to the bottom the display / see the most recent messages.

Perhaps the funniest thing about all of this was when I saw some pundit writing about facial recognition on the upcoming iPhone X, saying something to the effect that they were confident that it would be good because "Apple wouldn't let another Apple Maps - like fiasco take place." Yeah right. All I could think at the time was look at the joke that is iOS 11.

iOS 11 is so bad, it makes a compelling case for not updating your Mac OS to High Sierra.

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 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, 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.

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, 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 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 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.

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.