Core blimey

Not much of note of late.  But I did come second in the Defra apple-peeling competition recently, with a mighty 1m 54cm.  Not quite FTW, but certainly noteworthy.  I beat our Minister into fifth place.

And for the record, it was a Granny Smith.  And I still had a third of the apple left when the peel tore.  Argh.

Good and bad design: passports, cables and .dots

I’ve been thinking lately about the amount of effort that goes into product and service design, specifically when compared to the amount of usage that product or service is expected to attract.

I present four examples:

The CAT5 Ethernet cable connector is rubbish.  (Geeks can launch their tirade at this juncture if I’ve mis-used the term CAT5 (or indeed the words Ethernet and cable).  In pristine condition, it snaps into place beautifully, but you’re equally likely to pick up a cable with that little plastic bit having come off as you are encountering one that’s still intact.  (In fact, that little plastic thing deserves a name, such is the annoyance when it’s missing.  Always better to be able to curse something by name.)

But as a colleague informed me, they were designed for servers and switches, devices that hardly ever move.  So their ability to survive swathes of careless laptop users shoving the cable into their devices and yanking them out again without a care in the world was never designed into the product.

Now to the Passport Service.  I recently bought my daughter her first passport, and the end-to-end experience was utter pleasure.  I completed the form with the relevant countersignature, had my daughter pose for a photo and called the Passport Service one Thursday to book an appointment.  They offered me Monday, which I couldn’t make, so I opted for Tuesday lunchtime.

I arrived ten minutes early for my 1.20pm appointment and was seen at 1.27pm.  I was out of the building by 1.35pm having visited one counter to submit the appropriate documentation and another to pay.  The passport arrived in the mail three days later.  This is a service that was clearly designed in beautiful detail, every step designed to save hassle and maximise efficiency.  The appointment system was a joy to behold, particularly for someone who had the misfortune of suffering its predecessor, Petty France.

The average recruitment agency CV template is shocking.  It’s used and abused, fonts proliferating, styles leaking into one another and the general formatting leaving a lot to be desired.  (The quality of the text therein is probably the subject of a tirade of its own.)  On the rare occasion when formatting is consistent, its look and feel is usually so dreadfully bad as to put you off the content therein.

But when designed, the agency must have known that the CV would get some serious usage.  They must have been aware that this was the shop front for the agency, the most important template they would ever create.  So I’m afraid there are no excuses for this one.

And finally, the USB cable, like the Ethernet cable, is rubbish.  Its fundamental flaw is that at a glance it looks to be 180° rotationally symmetrical.  But it’s not.  And so 50% of the time, you (or I, at least) fail miserably when trying to shove the cable into my laptop.  But unlike the Ethernet cable before it, there are no excuses here.  The inventors of this one knew that the cable would be used heavily, and that it would be in and out like a proverbial you-know-what.

So of the four examples that have presented themselves to me recently, the government wins hands down.  Are there any other examples out there—good or bad—worthy of a mention?

Media: where’s it going?

I had a conversation with my brother last night about, among other things, the dynamics that are going on in the world of media.  I found it quite interesting, sufficiently so to share.  So here’s sharing.

Traditionally, the benefits of advertising have been relatively difficult to quantify.  So people have done it on the off-chance that it works (i.e. its benefits outweigh its costs), and in the fear that if they pull it, things will turn to dust.

New media (or new meejah) has now come along and made advertising way more measurable.  If things work (and are proven to work), then do more of the same.  If they don’t, then pull them.  Meanwhile, media owners in the less direct media (i.e. those that are generally about enhancing the brand than getting someone to click on the link or pick up the phone) are suffering.  A good example here is TV.  ITV is losing money hand over fist, partly because of the recession, but also in part because people are questioning the overall value of TV advertising.  Further, with the likes of Sky+ and V+ becoming more commonplace, there is no longer a need to sit through adverts.  (I generally watch Sunday night’s X Factor in about 16 minutes, avoiding the bulk of each performance and the adverts that litter the programme itself.  A question for another time: does my active focus on the advertising as I try to perfectly-time hitting the play button make it more effective?)

Now the trouble is, traditionally the media owners have made a wedge of cash and used that very wedge to cross-subsidise the making of programming that, in isolation, isn’t worthwhile financially but which enhances the value and perception of their medium.  Wildlife programmes may be a good example of this: they’re costly to make and don’t necessarily draw the same viewing figures as an X Factor, but they’re made to broaden the range of the channel and the overall appeal of the offering.  And it goes even wider than this: for the big boys like News International, they can afford to keep the Sun website going because of the wedge of cash they make out of Sky.  (Note here the difference between Sky the platform and Sky the media channel.)

Now with the media owners struggling, they will focus more and more on doing the profitable and avoiding the unprofitable, likely at the detriment of the overall quality of TV programming, perhaps even bringingabout the demise of TV as we know it.

The internet revolution means that people are less and less willing to pay for stuff (although the escalating costs of entertainment platforms into the home seem to buck this trend).  And given that advertising is increasingly seen as an ineffective method of paying for good quality programming (TV advertising costs have reduced by 15% in the last twelve months), the only logical outcome is for TV to become unviable, just as newspapers seem to be going.  (While the cost of content delivery is variable, the cost of producing good quality programming is somewhat fixed.)

But people generally miss things when they’re gone, as John Willshire pointed out with respect to Media Week and its recent move to an online-only medium.  And rarely are those people given the choice (not that they’d necessarily take it) to pay to save what they unknowingly love.  So unless there are some forces that come into play fundamentally change the dynamics of the media industry, we’ll lose some stuff that we love but aren’t prepared to pay for: newspapers and TV to name but a couple.

Thanks to Ben for the insight.

Ministers: stop tiffing about!

Once in a proverbial blue moon, I receive an email containing a communication from a government minister.  They’re not sent to me directly.  Instead they’re forwarded a number of times until eventually they end up in my inbox. Today’s example was from an MP to another MP.

The letter is always attached to the email as a tif file.  And the tif is a multi-page file (scanned at a jaunty angle) containing a scanned letter.  It’s often on letterhead with the MP’s details and is always typed with a hand-written signature and, depending on the MP, sometimes a handwritten salutation up top.

I’m always amused by the process that I assume must go on in advance of the file arriving in my inbox.

  1. Minister dictates letter into Dictaphone
  2. Secretary types up the letter
  3. Secretary prints the letter and gives to minister for amendments
  4. Minister makes handwritten amendments to letter and hands back to secretary
  5. Secretary makes amendments on the electronic copy
  6. Secretary prints the letter and gives to minister for amendments
  7. Repeat steps 4, 5 and 6 as necessary
  8. Minister tops and tails the letter and hands back to secretary
  9. Secretary scans letter at a jaunty angle and saves the file as a tif
  10. Secretary emails tif to the intended recipients.

Genius.  Utter genius.