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The Cheapest Way to Change Your Plane Ticket

I discovered the cheapest way to change a flight recently.  I was trying to change the time for a $350 ticket by a few hours and the cost came out to $1,300 to change the ticket.  I complained enough that the airline representative mentioned the “Confirmed Flight Change”.  The confirmed flight change for that flight would only cost $75 instead of $1,300!

The way a confirmed flight change works is that you change your ticket within 12 hours of the new flight that you want to take.  So in this case, I wanted to get on a 4:15pm flight- I had to call after 4:15am that day and the price to change to that flight would magically drop to $75.  The risk is that the flight fills up before you get within 12 hours of take-off.  However, you can ask the airline representative how many seats are still available and monitor this.  In addition, I just wanted to change to a flight earlier that day, so I just needed there to be room on some other flight earlier in the day.

 

The Design of Everyday Things: Action Summary and Outline

I recently finished “The Design of Everyday Things”.  I found Norman’s perspective on inanimate objects eye-opening.  But, I did find the book dense and if I have one criticism- it’s that the book isn’t designed to guide you towards becoming a better designer.  “The Design of Everyday Things” is a psychological treatise that is loosely organized with lots of examples.  So what I have tried to do in this post is breakdown the key points and rearrange them a bit, so that it reads more like a manual for better design.  If you haven’t read the book, you can buy it here.

Design Basics

“Design must convey the essence of a device’s operation; the way it works; the possible actions that can be taken; and, through feedback, just what it is doing at any particular moment. Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

“Each time a new technology comes along, new designers make the same horrible mistakes as their predecessors. Technologists are not noted for learning from the errors of the past. They look forward, not behind, so they repeat the same problems over and over again. Today’s wireless devices are appalling.”

“Whenever the number of possible actions exceeds the number of controls, there is apt to be difficulty.”

How People Do Things – The 7 Steps

1)       Forming the goal

2)      Forming the intention

3)      Specifying an action

4)      Executing the action

5)      Perceiving the state of the world

6)      Interpreting the state of the world

7)      Evaluating the outcome

Repeat back to #1 based on what has happened as a result of actions

The point of understanding How People Do Things is to avoid the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation when designing products.

A Gulf of Execution arises when there is a difference between the intentions and the allowable actions provided by a system.  For example, if you want to open the sunroof, but there are no buttons to be found that might allow you to open the sunroof.  Alternatively, a long sequence of actions may be required that are unintelligible to you, so you just don’t open the sunroof.

A Gulf of Evaluation arises when a great amount of effort is required to interpret the physical state of a system and/or determine how well expectations and intentions have been met.  A good example of this is a CD player where it is impossible to tell whether there is a CD in the player or not.  In addition, a system that provides no feedback – i.e. you click a button and nothing happens affirmative or negative – resulting in a Gulf of Evaluation.

Building on these concepts, you can ask yourself 7 questions to make sure your design is inline with How People Do Things:

1)  How easily can one determine the function of the device?

2)  How easily can one tell what actions are possible?

3)  How easily can one tell if the system is in the desired state?

4) How easily can one determine mapping from intention to physical movement?

5)  How easily can one determine mapping from system state to interpretation?

6)  How easily can one perform an action?

7)  How easily can one tell what state the system is in?

The 3 foundations to good design serve to answer these seven questions:

A good conceptual model. The designer provides a good conceptual model for the user, with consistency in the presentation of operations and results and a coherent, consistent system image.

Good mappings. It is possible to determine the relationships between actions and results, between the controls and their effects, and between the system state and what is visible.

Feedback. The user receives full and continuous feedback about the results of actions.

What Knowledge Does Your User Have?

Common and instinctive visual knowledge is easily retrievable and visible/audible.  There is no learning required and ease of use at first encounter is high.  Challenges are that the user may need to try to interpret the design since information is not communicated explicitly.  In addition, the design may not be aesthetically pleasing given a common need to maintain a lot of information.

Remembered or learned knowledge makes for efficient use and minimalist design.  However, it requires learning to use, particularly before initial use.

How Does the User Know What to Do?

Placing constraints makes it easier for the user to know what to do

Physical constraints

Semantic constraints

Cultural constraints

Logical constrains

Allowing the user too many different ways to use a device by not constraining the controls/functionality is a common cause of poor design.

Make the invisible, visible

                Have a good display

                Use sound to enhance visibility

How Do You Keep the User From Making Errors?

Errors come in two different flavors- 1) slips result from automatic behavior and 2) mistakes result from conscious deliberations

Common slip errors

  • Capture error – a frequently done activity is swapped with another frequently done activity
  • Description error – the intended action has much in common with others that are possible
  • Data-Driven error – data-driven activities can intrude into an ongoing action sequence causing unintended behavior
  • Associate Activation error – internal thought triggers incorrect action – Freudian slip
  • Loss-of-activation error – forgetting to do something
  • Mode error – when a device has different modes of operation, and the action appropriate for one mode has different meanings in other modes

You need feedback loops in place for the user to detect that there has been a slip!

Lean Startup Action Summary and Outline

If you are like me and just read The Lean Startup, you are probably thinking – wow, I learned a lot, what do I do now?  What was the beginning of the book about again?  This action summary is designed to highlight the key points and action items from the book, so that you can go out and conquer.  If you haven’t read the book, you can buy it here.

What is the point of The Lean Startup?

“The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build- the thing customers want and will pay for- as quickly as possible.  In other words, the Lean Startup is a new way of looking at the development of innovative new products that emphasizes fast iteration and customer insight, a huge vision, and great ambition, all at the same time.

A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”

The key to successfully operating under these conditions is to gather a group of people and investors that can make the Build-Measure-Learn cycle as fast and as effective as possible.

Learn

You can only learn if you can validate your learning with data or experience.  So product development is not a department within a company, but a series of hypotheses that you need to test.  The Minimum Viable Product is the basic learning tool that you test hypotheses on.  It is the most stripped down version of the product that will help you learn what you need to know.  Once you have your idea, the MVP is what you use to measure, learn and adjust.

So you think people want to buy hot dogs online?  In order to learn, break that statement into its constituent assumptions – people are comfortable buying food online, people want hot dogs delivered to them, people look online for hotdogs, etc…Now go build a product as cheaply and fast as possible to show to initial customers.  It can’t be a static webpage, a sketch on a piece of paper, whatever.  But whatever you do, don’t just throw up a website.  Go sit down with your customers and watch them use it.  Your success will depend on your ability to design as many insightful experiments such as these as fast as possible as cheaply as possible.

No matter what hypotheses you test, don’t forget to test two hypotheses:  the value hypothesis and the growth hypothesis.  The value hypothesis tests whether a product or service really delivers value to customers once they are using it.  The growth hypothesis tests how new customers will discover the product.  These hypotheses are best tested on early adopters – customers who feel the need for the product the most.

When your hypotheses are being tested and generating positive results, it’s easy keep adding features.  So don’t forget to ask yourself the following questions before adding more features or developing the product further:

1)      Do customers recognize that they have the problem you are trying to solve?

2)      If there was a solution, would they buy it?

3)      Would they buy it from us?

4)      Can we build a solution to the problem?

Success is not delivering a feature.  Success is learning how to solve the customer’s problem.  You really can’t do this without A LOT of customer interaction.

Before we move on from “Learning”, a note on Minimum Viable Products.  They probably feel like they are inadequate to show to the world, but they are less inadequate than wasting money on something that no one wants.  Plus should users prefer the Minimum Viable Product to the full-featured one, then you will save yourself a lot of time and money.

“As you consider your own minimum viable product, let this simple rule suffice:  remove any feature, process or effort that does not contribute directly to the learning you seek.”

Measure

Don’t measure what your investors want to see.  Measure the component parts of what will make you successful.

So, what to measure?  First establish a baseline of relevant metrics with an MVP – conversion rates, sign-up rates, trial rates, payment rates, etc…Second, adjust the product to improve these rates.  Third, if the product features/marketing can’t be adjusted to make these rates into a business, pivot.  The hardest part about this is figuring out what metrics to focus on and then gathering data on those metrics.

Tools for helping you measure.  Cohorts help you figure out what customers are doing what on your site.  The more granular the data, the more actionable it can be to figuring out what features you should add and whether you should pivot.  Split testing means putting different versions of a product to different sets of customers to test whether different features are having the desired effect.  For organizational purposes, make sure the measurements are actionable, accessible and auditable.  If not there will be gridlock, indifference or disputes.

Pivots.  You built.  You measured.  You learned.  And the relevant metrics aren’t getting better.  It’s probably time to consider a pivot.  Here are your options:

Zoom-in:  A single feature of the product becomes the product.

Zoom-out:  The whole product becomes the feature of a larger product.

Customer Segment:  Change the type of customer you serve (i.e. corporate vs. consumer, for-profit vs. non-profit, etc…)

Customer Need:  The initial problem you were solving was not very important.  But because of your research a new problem becomes more pressing and you solve it instead.

Platform:  Moving from selling a killer app to building a platform.  Or vice-versa.

Business Architecture:  high margin/low volume to low margin/high volume.  Or vice-versa.

Value Capture:  How a product is monetized (usually an integral part of the product)

Engine of Growth:  Viral, sticky or paid.  Typically the engine of growth pivot corresponds with a value capture pivot.

Channel:  Mechanism by which the product is sold to customers.

Technology:  Same solution, different technology to address it.

Grow

Where does growth come from?  1) Word of mouth  2) As a side effect of product usage  3) Through funded advertising  4) Through repeat purchase or use

The 3 Growth Engines

Sticky Engine – You add existing customers at a rate and they stick around longer at a rate that exceeds the rate at which they leave

Key Metrics:  Customer adds.  Customer churn.

Viral Engine – New customers bring more than one new customer to the service.

Key Metric:  The viral coefficient.  The number of new customers each new customer brings with them.  You need this number to be greater than 1.  If not, your viral business model won’t work.

Paid Engine – The cost of acquiring customers is less than each customer’s value to you.  So you spend money on services like advertising to drive growth.

Key Metric:  Cost of acquiring customers/customer value.  The lower the number, the faster you will grow

A final word on growth.  Small batches actually lend themselves to faster work than large single batches with specialized functions.  This means functional areas of teams need to work together.

(image credit: cornerstonetechnology.com)

How to Set up the P90X Pull-Up Bar

P90X worked for some of my friends so I thought I would give it a try.  So far so good.  Except for the pull-up bar that is recommended with the program.  There are a bunch of complaints online about how to set it up and it isn’t easy.  The most important tidbit I’d like to share from my experience is that the pull-up bar doesn’t work in most door frames.

What do I mean by this?  If the frame around your door is more than 3.5′ wide, then you can’t use the bar at all.  So if you live on the East Coast or in a not new home or in a luxury home, you probably can’t install the bar – so measure the door frame before you order.

The second thing I wish I had known before setting it up is that the part that goes over the door needs to slide over the part that you pull up.  THIS MEANS THAT EVERY SCREW YOU SCREW IN HAS A SPECIFIC ORIENTATION.  The drawings make it seem like you can just screw everything together willy-nilly because they are not very detailed.  So lay it all out first and slide everything together before working with the screws.

The reason getting the set up right is important is that the tools included in the box are inadequate for really putting the bar together.  If you have a strong set of pliers and a flat head screw driver, just use those.

Adult-Proof Your Internet

A lot is made of child-proofing the internet, but it could use some adult-proofing as well.  What does this mean?  Blocking the sites that adults waste time on.  I just figured this out recently (I am not the fastest) – that you can just block certain websites without buying an expensive “child-proofing” software package.  It was amazing – it added, like, 30% to my day.  Not only because I am spending less time wasting time on websites, but I am also spending more time getting work done in continuous blocks.  Working in longer continuous blocks, also means getting better work done.  Why websites did I block for myself at work?

http://www.facebook.com

http://www.techcrunch.com

http://www.twitter.com

http://www.gmail.com

http://www.youtube.com

http://www.hulu.com

How about that, I am blocking the Web 2.0.  Who would have thought?  Leave me a note in the comments about which websites you block.

The way to go about adult-proofing your browsers is to download a simple plug-in that lets you block websites.  The software won’t permanently block a particular website; it will just make it inconvenient for you to visit the website in the future.  And if your obsession with techcrunch.com is so overwhelming, you can always delete the plug-in and have unfettered access.

Where can you find these plug-ins?  I would recommend the following:

Firefox:  Give BlockSite a try.  It is very easy to use.

Chrome:  I use Website Blocker at home.

Internet Explorer:  If you are really using Internet Explorer, get yourself on over to the Firefox and Chrome websites- you are missing out on the internet.

(Photo credit:  Techcrunch.com)

Are Power Bands a Fraud?

The best answer is:  sort of.  They work as advertised, but not for the reasons advertised.  My mom recently got me a Power Band because I was in a rut.  And out of curiosity, I put it on.

If you don’t know what a Power Band is, I didn’t either until two weeks ago.  It’s a rubber bracelet (like the Livestrong ones) that has a hologram on it.  By wearing it, you are supposed to achieve maximum concentration, sleep better, be more relaxed, improve athletic performance – you name it.  The reason for this improvement is that the Power Band helps you improve your balance.  It has gotten the endorsement of Shaq and a number of world class athletes.  Sales have taken off.  Tens of millions of dollars of rubber bands have been sold.

According to the manufacturer, the mylar holograms help bring your negative ions and scalar frequency in line (seriously).  And the fact of the matter is that the Power Band works.  In a test suggested by Power Band, a person stands on one foot and holds out their arms, someone pushes down on one arm and the person falls over.  Now the person puts on a Power Band, stands in a similar position and has an arm pushed down.  The person never falls over.  Ta-daa!

So the Power Band works, but it has nothing to do with the mylar or the frequencies or any of that stuff.  It works because of the placebo effect.  Studies have shown that people know the push is coming and think the Power Band works, so they don’t fall over the second time.  Any old rubber band will have the same effect.

How to Write on a Mirror

The easiest way to write on a mirror is to use a wet erase marker – just mop up with a moist towel when you are done.  DO NOT use a dry erase marker on a mirror.  If you use a dry erase marker on mirrors, acrylic or polycarbonate surfaces, it will leave a “ghost” behind.  Dry erase will come right off with a dry towel, however, when you look at the mirror at an angle, you will still see a faint outline of whatever it is that you wrote on the mirror.  Should this happen, don’t throw away the mirror, just use glass cleaner and it will come off.

Perhaps I jumped to conclusions and you want to write on a mirror permanently.  Then lipstick or other waxy materials will work great to make a mirror, er, not work as a mirror anymore.

Why on earth would you want to write on a mirror?  You might want to leave yourself a reminder that you are awesome for the next time you look in the mirror.  Or, in my case, I am trying to film a video where the audience can see me writing and talking at the same time.  You can do this in two ways:  1) by writing on a mirror or 2) by writing on glass that is clear with the camera in front of you.  For the latter method, unfortunately, you have to write backwards, which I am not that good at.

Avoiding Elance Scams: A Practitioner’s Guide

Elance can be exceptionally helpful for getting work done.  However, websites like Elance are filled with scam artists looking to take advantage of newer users or folks who don’t know much about writing code.  There are a lot of SEO optimized sites explaining how to avoid getting scammed and there are sites offering to advise you on avoiding getting scammed if you pay them money (smells like a scam about a scam).  This post is practitioner’s guide to avoiding those scams – I have hired dozens of individuals and firms on Elance and I’ve included a running DO NOT HIRE list of providers that perpetuate those scams.  So if you have been scammed, please send me an email describing the situation at newtomefeedback at gmail.com and I’ll add them to the blacklist on this post.

Here are six simple things that you can do to avoid getting scammed.  Just do these and I think you’ll have a great experience on Elance:

1) Ask Questions – Once you have received bids based on your initial specification, send a list of questions to all of the bids you receive.  Have a list of “how would you do…” questions regarding your project.  Don’t worry if these questions show that you are naive and don’t know what you are talking about – frame it is a simple query to screen providers.  Cap it off with a question asking for feedback on the specification that you laid out and how it might be accomplished more efficiently/at a lower cost.  This makes it easy to weed out the coders who know what they are talking about and those that don’t.  It also makes it easy to see which firms are just marketing organizations and which ones.  In my experience, this simple set reduces the chance you get scammed by 90%.

2)  Hire Individuals – This sounds counterintuitive and I have had to learn it the hard way.  There seems safety in the large firms on Elance with great ratings, but these firms manipulate these rating aggressively and will outsource your work to individuals anyway.  That’s right these large firms are really marketing organizations that hand off the work to coders who may or may not be good and are certainly not of your choosing.

3)  Don’t Believe Elance Feedback – Firms and individuals on Elance can manipulate the feedback in a myriad of ways – including getting Elance to delete bad feedback.  So use it as a guide, but not as a decision-making tool.

4)  Don’t Hire in India/Pakistan – This is a soft rule for me.  I bend it every once in a while if #1 and #2 check out.  I’ve only been scammed by Indian/Pakistani firms.

5)  Bad Communication is a Red Flag -  If you have to have conversation after conversation and email chain after email chain explaining the specification with multiple people – ABORT.  The opposite is also true – if someone wants to get hired with no questions about the job and can do it all perfectly immediately – ABORT.

6)  Google the People You Hiring – This is so obvious, but it took me a long time to start doing it.  It is a no-cost background check.

So with that, I’ll get to what you have been waiting for – the Elance Blacklist.  The firms and individuals below may have done good work for some people, but they have documented evidence that they have scammed trusting employers.

The Blacklist

Xicom – I have been scammed by them personally, but examples abound.

SynapseIndia – Click here for one example.

Hypeconcepts

Learn How to Program

I recently took up an interest in programming – no, not radio programming – but telling computers what to do.  Creating technology.  Sharing it with the world.  For a bunch of 1’s and 0’s, it is harder than it sounds.  But not because programming is actually hard.  That is the easy part.  The hard part is figuring out what is the right way to go about learning the right programming language.  There are dozens to choose from, so how do you choose?

Assuming you are totally new to this, which I was a few months ago – here is what I would go with.  My goals are to create web applications, databases and cool webpages that I can share with others, without spending 4 years learning a language.  A month would be preferred.  So I went with Ruby on Rails.

Here is why.  In order to have a user interact with whatever code you have written, you need a programming language like PHP, Javascript, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, etc…Of the popular languages, Ruby on Rails is kind of like a rocketship on training wheels, so when you need the training wheels you can use them.  And when you don’t want them, you don’t have to.  This is a stark difference from PHP or Javascript, where to make anything happen at a basic level of complexity, you’ve got to write a ton of code yourself…just to take the first step forward.  These are all great languages that can accomplish the same stuff, but when it comes down to it, the fact that you don’t have to set up your own virtual server to start using Ruby on Rails will be the biggest selling point from the get go for a newbie like myself.  If you don’t know what a virtual server is, you can spend dozens of hours banging your head against the wall with another programming language.  Or you can just take my advice and go with Ruby on Rails.

So how to go about learning Ruby on Rails?  I tried all the tutorials that are popular on Google, which all have their shortcomings:

Ruby on Rails Tutorial –  Learn Rails by Example – Is not that useful because it is written assuming you are on the Mac OS and using the Textmate text editor…so if you are a newbie, it is hard to follow along.  And you should probably learn how to build stuff with the command prompt rather than relying on the text editor to do some of the lifting.

Ruby on Rails Guides – Sponsored by the folks at Ruby on Rails, it really isn’t meant for beginners and is hard to navigate if you don’t already know what you are doing.

Rails for Zombies – Is a popular video, but just doesn’t take you far enough to go out on your own.

The winner is hands down Agile Web Development on Rails (4th Edition).  It has none of the drawbacks of other popular tutorials and takes you from total novice to expert with about two months of effort.  I can lose my patience with my computer quickly and don’t really know anything about programming, but this tutorial just made the whole experience very smooth.  Unfortunately, the tutorial costs $24.  I am so cheap that I tried all the other ones before going with this one – so at least save yourself the time.

How to Fix a Thrown Out Back Fast

I throw my back out far too often.  It happened again yesterday as I went to lean over and plug in my blackberry.  That’s all it took.  What really happened is that I got lazy at doing the preventative exercises that I should have been doing, which had actually been working.  So what I’ll do in this post is give you the step-by-step of what I do to get better fast (1-2 days) and then stay better.  As a word of caution – this only applies to folks who throw out their back because of muscle spasms.  If you have a herniated disk or other spine issues, I can’t really be of much help.  I am not a doctor; I am just a guy who has figured out what works for me.

1)  Take some ibuprofen.  I take 4x 200mg three times a day for the first two days.

2)  Fill up a nalgene or other water bottle with boiling water.  Lie on it for 30 minutes right after you throw out your back.  Repeat twice a day for the first two days.

3)  Steps #1 and #2 should get you operational again.  Now for the first two days, avoid sitting up as much as possible.  Lie down as much as you can.

4)  When you aren’t lying down, do the following Egoscue exercise.  There are a lot of different Egoscue exercises, but the one that works best for me is the following – lie on your back at the base of your bed, with your butt against the bed.  Put your calves and feet on top of the bed, so that your back is on the ground, your quadriceps are against the side of the bed and your feet are on top of the bed.  Now lie there for 5 minutes.  Repeat a few times per day for the first two days.

5)  This regimen should get you better in two days.  But more importantly, to keep it from happening again, I recommend doing two exercises for 5 minutes per day plus the Egoscue stance I described in #4.  The first is a sort of extended sit-up which you can do with a pillow (no need to buy the equipment in the video).  The second is a simple hand and leg extension exercise.  The point of both exercises is to strengthen your core, which should keep you from throwing out your back again.

Do 15 of these a day:

 

And 15 of these a day.  This one may look easy, but put a water bottle on the small of your back – it should not move while you do the exercise.  This forces you to “suck in” your stomach and stabilize your body.

 

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