I have written before about how Facebook has changed the definition of the word “friend”, I think the word “local” has also changed, but somewhat surprisingly not because of the internet.
The article In Florida, Seafood Becomes Less Local, by Damien Cave covers a lot of interesting ground about the Florida fisheries industry. One of the most basic points Cave makes is that when restaurants describe the fish as “local” they just mean that it came from a local fish distributor, while it may have come from half way around the world, and that some people think it’s misleading to call it local.
I think that may have been a valid objection ten or twenty years ago, but with the ability to ship something using a service like FedEx (which is how most fish travels these days), it’s entirely possible that the tilapia that has been flown in from Madagascar is fresher than the Atlantic salmon on the Florida menu. In that sense, it really doesn’t matter how “local” the fish is if your goal is freshness. In many ways the internet has made the word local less meaningful, but in the case of food, transportation has significantly reduced the meaning. Obviously some things, like a cup of coffee and a car wash will always have a local element, but the list of things that don’t matter, or matter less, continues to grow, from banking to movie rental, to food. That’s the reality.
Having said that, as irrelevant as “local” has become in the traditional sense, it is starting to take on more meaning in a different sense. A lot has been written about what some people call “food miles” – that is how many miles the food has traveled to get on your plate, but they are talking about it not because of anything to do with freshness, the focus is on the environmental impact of transporting goods long distances. The carbon footprint of the tilapia, if you will, compared with that of the Atlantic salmon mentioned above.
The assumption is that the fewer “food miles” the food has, the more “local” it is, the better it is for the environment. There are well documented arguments that dismantle the the validity of that point, so I am going to leave that one alone today. I just find it interesting to see such simple words like “friend” and “local” meaning such different things from when I was a little kid. I can’t help but wonder what’s next?
When a company does something silly, I sometimes try to avoid naming names, but not this time. Qwest, the phone company. Friday I was paying my bill online and it took a really long time because I had forgotten the password for my online Qwest account, and they don’t have the option many organizations have where they will just email you your password or reset it and send you a new one. When you don’t know your password, Qwest needs more information to verify you are who you say you are. At first, I was thinking Qwest was really looking out for me in terms of security and privacy and going to great lengths to protect me.
Then it hit me.
All I wanted to do was give them my credit card number to pay my bill.
If someone else wants to pay my bill for me, I don’t want anything to stop them – leave the door open and unlocked, as it were.
It struck me that there is so much noise about internet security and privacy, that it seems some people assume that the more secure something is ,the better, no matter what the situation. Not so.
Somewhat along the lines of the notion that the punishment should fit the crime, people need to take a step back and look at what is going on and then assess the level of security or authentication that is required for the action the person wants to perform. An example I often use (that has nothing to do with the internet in this case) is restaurant reservations. The goal of the restaurant reservation is to secure a table for you at the time you want. In reality, the restaurant doesn’t care what your name is, but that turns out to be a decent placeholder for attaching reservations to different people. In my case, my last name is Merrifield, and 100% of the time when I reserve by phone, I have to spell my name even though I realize the restaurant doesn’t really care who I am. It’s not like they are going to check for ID when I arrive. So I started to make reservations under a simpler name, one that everyone knows how to spell – French. That’s right, I make my reservations under the name Ric French It works for everyone and saves time, and if they put a “k” on Ric, I don’t know or care.
In the case of Qwest, I love that they protect some of my information, but if all I want to do is pay for something, there shouldn’t be any resistance. Accessing any information about my account is a very different story. Companies really need to look at “what” they are doing before they throw the kitchen sink at “how” they authenticate people and enforce security.
In the past several weeks I have seen ads on TV, and gotten a lot of mail telling me that the US census is happening and that it’s against the law to not participate. My first reaction was to wonder how massive the budget is for this in a recession, then I wondered why they can’t use data from sources like the Internal Revenue Service (it’s also illegal not to file tax returns and people know that). But the bigger issue in the year 2010 is that for at least the last five years, and maybe ten now, we have been inundated with information about the importance of maintaining privacy about our information, and that we need to “get” something in return for “giving” information. So asking us to give information to the not-so-trusted government? Back in the 20th century people had a very different sense of privacy (and duty to country), and I am not surprised people willingly, trustingly, provided this information.
Like it or not, that is the current culture and I really don’t see the US census people liking the results they are going to get. It’s not really very different from the manufacturers that have been trying to get information about us since the beginning of mass market retail, and until very recently they had next to nothing.
Over two years ago, Louise Story wrote this super piece in The New York Times explaining that the people who sell us the things that we buy have really crummy information about exactly who is buying it, and which of their advertising efforts cause us to buy. All they really need is basic demographic data, age, gender, geography, means, that sort of thing. They don’t care what my name is, which is what alice.com has figured out (I blogged about alice.com recently) and alice.com has a brilliant model for collecting (and selling) that prized information.
Today there was this interesting article in the paper by Stephanie Rosenbloom talking about how stores are using various methods to film customers in their stores to watch behaviors and make adjustments where appropriate – so if for example, they see several people having a hard time reaching a specific product, they figure out how to make it easier to reach. My bet is that if you speed up the film a bit, you could watch the flow of traffic like a river and see where the jams are, not really having to pay much attention to any one person (for that objective). They mention a company called Envirosell that is apparently the real trailblazer in helping organizations do this. There was some reference to this being an invasion of privacy and that in the not-too-distant future they will have face recognition software to know who we are, but the stores don’t care what our names are in mass market selling – they just want the same demographic data that alice.com is collecting online.
The US government needs to treat us like a customer if they want information from us, and they should take a look at “how” smart companies collect information about their mass market customers. Welcome to the 21st century and welcome to the “how” trap that I talk about in the pages of the book Rethink.
One of the most interesting things that has happened with the internet is some of the most basic assumptions about businesses and customers have been turned on their ear. Black becomes white. An example I have blogged about before is that Netflix used to be seen as one of the biggest competitors of film festivals like the Seattle International Film Festival, and today they can be one of their most powerful partners. It’s not always easy to know when these “flips” happen, but they are happening with increasing frequency and I think it’s really important for organizations to frequently test there core assumptions. I was reminded of this phenomenon earlier today.
There was an interesting article in The New York Times this morning that talked about a drug called Xiaflex, “A Drug’s Delayed Triumph” by Andrew Pollack. Xiaflex is one of those drugs that had been around for decades but never got a foothold until now. Why? For the simple reason that people didn’t know that it cured Dupuytren’s contracture, which I learned this morning is a surprisingly common condition where a person cannot straighten one or more of their fingers – Ronald Reagan was a famous victim of this. It’s not such an unusual situation that a drug is invented for one purpose but it ends up solving a very different problem. The drug that solved “Involuntary Leg Syndrome” was designed for a very different purpose, and it was only in clinical trials that they noticed that it did wonders for what is also a surprisingly common affliction. Essentially the drug makers learn “what” the drug does in trials and in the case of Xiaflex, it took decades to figure it out.
But that’s not what really got my attention.
What I found fascinating is that Xiaflex is based on something that most of us would want to run away from – gangrene.
Yes, that gangrene.
As the article describes, gangrene is really effective at breaking down human tissue which is usually a bad thing, but in the case of Dupuytren’s contracture, that’s exactly what is needed to cure this disease (in small doses). A clear understanding of “what” was needed to cure Dupuytren’s contracture made it painfully obvious that Xiaflex is the right solution. It’s not the first time a “disease” that we fear has become something we (or some) intentionally put in their bodies – botox is based on none other than botulism, another deadly disease in the wrong dosage.
My message is pretty simple, which when you have a “what” that you need to solve, don’t be surprised to find the solution from something that might have seemed like a “disease” yesterday. That’s the world we live in today.
There has been a lot of talk about Foursquare lately, the popular site that allows people to notify select friends where they are with the GPS feature on their wireless device. So if I decide to go downtown in Seattle to the wine bar Purple, I can “check in” to that location when I arrive there and send signals to friends that might be nearby. It’s a pretty handy and as more of us get used to the ubiquity of GPS, especially as GPS can now be specific about a specific location in a mall, even specific to a floor (a la what Point Inside offers).
The challenge with Foursquare is that you have to remember to “check in” your location and depending on circumstances, that can be a hassle, and for the forgetful ones in the crowd, well . . .
Here’s what I think is going to happen.
If we start with the outcome of what people (not everyone, I realize) is going to want, it’s broadcasting to specific groups of friends where you will be, and when.
I actually think the longer term solution will involve less GPS, not more.
Most people already maintain online calendars, and for many of us, the location is already a part of what we include in the block of time. If we simply specify which friends we want to know about it, it becomes pretty easy for the e-mail server to push the notifications to the friends, or for friends to poll who is nearby when they are looking for other people. If someone is supposed to be in an area, the friend can text the other friend and ask them to activate their GPS so they can track them down (since most devices don’t broadcast persistently).
The other reason I think this makes sense, is that most of us are several people in one. There’s the work “me”, the Dad “me”, the workout “me” and then the social “me” – and it wouldn’t be too hard for me to select different groups of people to notify during the day, at night, on the weekend, based on which “me” I am – and having the mail service manage that and push it out to contacts makes sense to me.
I could see Facebook, or Hotmail, or Outlook being in a good position to do this, and I think this is the easiest “how” to achieve the “what” of notifying people where we are. I do think a player like Point Inside is going to be pivotal for this to play itself out.
The other day I was out on Amazon buying a book, something I do often, and when I got to the shipment choices, there was free next day shipping (a perk of shopping there a lot), and next day shipping for a fee, and another button for standard shipping. It assumed I wanted the free second day air, and pre-selected that button, and I would have to select a different button for standard shipping (which I usually do, and they never remember that).
Now perishable things are one thing, but I have to tell you, I think Amazon and other retailers are making a big mistake by not asking us when we want it instead of assuming we want it as soon as possible. Asking that question could be a huge help to online retailers like Amazon as well as the shipping organization.
A really simple example (and the first time I thought of this) was last Summer when my son picked out his Halloween costume. Now of course Halloween is at the end of October, but kids of a certain age really look forward to it, so my little guy knew in July that he wanted to be a skeleton zombie. What eight year-old wouldn’t?
So I went out to the costume site and placed my order and of course they assumed we needed the costume right away, but we really didn’t need it until late October, but there was no way to convey that. Asking that simple question “when do you need it by?” helps everyone involved with the transaction:
1) It helps the merchant with the management of their time in terms of efficiency and schedule management. They might wait until they have several orders for the same product so that they can be more efficient in pulling them off the shelf and packaging them.
2) It helps the transportation company (if they put a delivery date label on it) so that the carrier, whether it’s the postal service or a carrier like UPS or FedEx or DHL, they could be more efficient about scheduling drop offs to my house, as well as the houses around me – with greater line of site to what is due when. Now they won’t want to stockpile things for long, but I am pretty sure some additional schedule control helps them a lot.
3) It helps the customer. If I don’t need something until late October, what am I supposed to do with it in July? What if I forget where I put it? Yes I could wait until October to order it, but then there’s the risk that I will wait too late or that I will lose the magazine with the skeleton zombie costume (circled many, many times). I want to order it when I think of it, and I should be able to say when I need it by. Right?
So rethink the assumption of “how” people get their stuff in terms of assumptions about urgency – ask people when they want things and everyone wins.
In the Sunday magazine section of The New York Times today, there was an article by Elizabeth Green called “Can Good Teaching be Learned” and unsurprisingly her conclusion, or more accurately the conclusion of Doug Lemov, is yes. Lemov spent years watching and filming teachers and discovered 49 specific, simple techniques that result in getting kids to pay attention to the teacher, AND do what they are told.
“So there is Warm/Strict, technique No. 45, in which a correction comes with a smile and an explanation for its cause — “Sweetheart, we don’t do that in this classroom because it keeps us from making the most of our learning time.” The J-Factor, No. 46, is a list of ways to inject a classroom with joy, from giving students nicknames to handing out vocabulary words in sealed envelopes to build suspense. In Cold Call, No. 22, stolen from Harvard Business School, which Lemov attended, the students don’t raise their hands — the teacher picks the one who will answer the question. Lemov’s favorite variety has the teacher ask the question first, and then say the student’s name, forcing every single student to do the work of figuring out an answer.”
The title of Lemov’s upcoming book is Teach Like a Champion: The 49 Techniques That Put Students on the Path to College) Like most of these sorts of stories, the “solution” to the problem is really simple, and is usually the result of a simple rethinking of the problem. Lemov did something that I advocate in my book Rethink, which is to get your head into the mind of who you are talking to (whether you are selling them something or teaching them, the same principle applies), understand what they want and value and be direct with them about what you want them to do. It worked wonders. I also expect that a lot of corporations will also benefit from applying some of the 49 techniques to they lead training classes.
But Green’s article glossed over something that I think is the other half of the education and training. The first half is getting the kids focused and doing what you want them to do – the other half is defining what it is you want them to learn (beyond the basic reading, writing, math skills). That strikes me as a tough nut to crack. What is the real outcome we want for these kids? We want them to grow up to be productive contributors to our society and that includes things like social skills, musical knowledge, knowledge of history, geography, and lots of other disciplines, some of which show up in standardized tests. Is the goal to prepare these kids for college (as the subtitle of Lemov’s book suggests) which is largely decided by a math and verbal test on the SAT? Is the goal to teach kids how to memorize things or is it to really switch on their brains so they can really decide what they get (and give) out of life, be it a lot of money, or a lot of free time, or solving some hard problem, or having a big family, or something else? I would be interested to hear what Lemov thinks about that and whether he thinks the outcome of education also needs some rethinking.
For those of us old enough to remember Garanimals, they were fun and funny ways to figure out which pants go with which shirts, for kids. The tiger tops went with the tiger bottoms, giraffes were in there as well, and I think rhinos. For kids who didn’t yet have a sense of fashion, it was a way to help them make decisions about what goes well together, though I suspect somewhere, the young Isaac Mizrahi’s and Tommy Hilfiger’s of the world were already radically mixing their Garanimals with their Toughskin jeans.
But Garanimals are not the only example of successful “choice” bundling. The combo meals that are offered at most fast food restaurant are in the same vein – most people want a drink, a main course, and a side (for breakfast, lunch, or dinner), so they offer specific combinations of them, so you just say “A” instead of a Coke, a Big Mac, and large fries.
This happens to be a rare case that touches both of the transactional sides of the “how” trap. The consumer has to make decisions about what to wear and what to have for lunch every day, and if “how” they make the decision is the result of a simple combination suggestion, that makes the day a little bit easier, not to mention that it doesn’t really matter “how” we go about making the decision. The other side of this is the merchant (or in the case of Garanimals the manufacturer), the “choice” bundle helps them in more ways than one. First, it’s an immediate up-sell, when you buy one Garanimal, you ought to buy the rest of the “outfit”, or at least another tiger. The other sales-side benefit is less time explaining choices to customers, which isn’t huge in some cases, but in others, it’s a lot of time.
That’s why I was so interested to learn of a the company/site Polyvore. Polyvore has both of the consumer and merchant/manufacturer benefits of choice bundling, but it takes both even farther. Polyvore is a site where people can post favorite clothing “outfit” combinations, with photos, on the site (very wiki-oid), and people can then click through them to see where they can buy them. But these aren’t just matching two tigers, these are higher fashion, shoes, skirts, tops, jackets, purses, clothing head-to-toe, which for the fashion minded grown-up, is very interesting. This offers a creative outlet for the shop-a-holic to assemble various creations and recommend them – and for the too busy workaholic, a time saver. On the merchant/manufacturer side, this is free advertising with strong up-sell messaging, and in the fashion world, the time saved on the store floor offering guidance to customers, could be substantial.
I suspect that we will start to see more of these choice bundle wiki sites across industries and I think that’s a good thing for everyone.
Now I am off to work, I will probably stop in at my favorite breakfast spot and have “B” this morning.