Forty five grand to line your trolleys up?

Trolleys lined up at Hong Kong MTR station

They’ve thought about the customer at Hong Kong airport. At every MTR station on the express route to the aiport, the trolleys have been lined up so that they are in front of the passengers getting off the train. No hunting for a free trolley – they are waiting for you! Nice!

But stop to think about that. Someone is employed to line up the trolleys. Given the hours the station is open (18 hours) it is going to be more than one person every day, more likely two; three to cover shifts across the whole week. Trains arrive every 15 minutes, so there will be other tasks for this role to do, but if they are offering a consistent customer experience then the focus will be this role.

So let’s work a UK equivalent, we need to employ three additional employees at, say, £8 per hour. Once Employers National Insurance is factored in (and not including sick pay or any benefits) that’s about £15k for each individual, or an optimistic £45,000 pa for the customer experience of having the trolleys lined up.

Justify that to the beancounters…

Missing planes

Reminder to get to the airport on the the right date.  flight is post-midnight

After a month living out of a suitcase, circumnavigating the globe I’m homeward bound. I’m flying with Oasis… going to be interesting how the words “budget” and “longhaul” reconcile with each other. So far the experience is promising, a nice touch with their e-ticket (the date which I have subsequently changed). The plane flies at 00:50. BA fly back from Hong Kong a little earlier; on their e-ticket they don’t make it clear that the flight is a post-midnight one. Last time I did this trip I arrived at the airport on the Sunday night beleiving my flight was late on Sunday. Only it was a few minutes after midnight… on the Monday morning. I’d missed my flight by 24 hours. An easy, and expensive mistake to make. Oasis have gone out of their way to help me not make this mistake.

Cultural differences in toilet walls

US executive toilet gap legs and all

What do you see? Depends on who you are. In the US it’s just a row of toilet cubicles. Elsewhere in the world it is “what’s with the huge gap between the floor and cubicle wall? A gap large enough to see the legs of the person in the cubicle next to me!”

Apologies for dragging this blog to the level of the toilet, but there is a point to this observation. Things that are normal in one culture may not be quite so normal in other, even the most mundane. On distributed projects with off-shore teams it is not enough to ensure you have robust processes and open channels of communication. You need to ensure that cultural differences are understood and respected. Don’t assume everyone shares your design of toilet.

Humanising the corporate voice

Friday evening, the train is pulling into East Croydon railway station. There’s an announcement.

We are now approaching East Croydon, please mind the gap between the train and the platform. Don’t leave any of your belongings behind…

The usual scripted stuff. Then…

Hey! I’ve just realised its Friday! The Weekend is here.

People on the carriage look up. Did he really say something, that’s something that breaks the mundane monotony of the commute.

Remember folks, drink sensibly!

I looked around and people on the carriage were smiling. An unscripted, personal touch. It wasn’t a canned message from an anodyne voice. For a brief moment South Eastern Railways became really human. It made commuters smile. And commuters travelling into East Croydon rarely have anything to smile at.

There is more to Customer Experience than homogeneity and consistency in interactions. It is more than scripting customer contacts. It is more than sheepishly adhering to the corporate line. It is about empowering employees to have the confidence to be human. It is giving employees some degrees of freedom to do things differently if it is in the interest of the customer. To be spontaneous.

There’s the story of the Ritz-Carlton bell boys being given a budget to help customers. To be spontaneous without having to jump through hoops of approval. No “I’m not really sure, wait a minute and I’ll ask my supervisor (because even though I’m grown-up enough to want to help you the Rules by which I’m employed don’t let me)”.

Maybe I’m getting a bit carried away. But customers remember these human touches. And if they have the seed of a positive emotion planted in their memory, an emotion associated with your brand, you have the seed to grow lifetime value.

Tap on the plane: Engineering solution to an engineering problem

Sink on a boeing 747

Washing your hands is a two handed affair involving a pair of hands, soap and water. There are instructions on how to do it properly. I’ve not done any research on it, but my gut feel is that most people wet and rinse their hands under a running tap (faucet). With this presumption, the Boeing airline toilet wash area is not fit for purpose. I adapt my behaviour to suit the technology. I press the hot and cold buttons down with my thumbs and attempt to rinse the rest of my hands under the running water. I could fill the bowl up, but (a) that is not my habitual behaviour; (b) wouldn’t that mean rinsing in dirty water and (c) those bowls are not always the cleanest of things anyway.

Seems like the design on the airline faucet was an engineering solution to an engineering problem. You don’t want to have the tap left running. So let’s make it really difficult to use. Let’s demand our users have to learn a new technique to use it. If the designers had considered the human factor, the design would probably be quite different. If they’d prototyped and user-tested the design they would have seen that it was sub-optimal.

Yet it is easy to criticise. (There is one good thing about it, it is clear which is hot and cold – assuming you know that red = hot and blue = cold). How could it be better? Maybe a foot control or infra-red sensor. But inevitably such solutions are costly to implement and costly to maintain. Why not a spring-loaded press button that gives a timed flow of water (not fail safe?) In designing solutions there are always trade-offs and compromises and maybe other more user friendly options were considered but discounted on the grounds of cost to implement or maintain. And as a customer in coach, a little hassle in washing my hands is an acceptable price to pay. But that is not going to stop me grumbling every time I struggle with the tap on the plane. (Oh dear, am I sounding rather obsessed?)

Is a Singapore Sling at Raffles a cliché?

Singapore Sling at Raffles

I used to consider myself a travel snob. Certainly not a tourist and even back-backing was beneath me. I went for the authentic experience; small holdall with only the bare necessities, travelling and staying with the locals, keeping off the beaten track. So when I was in Singapore recently the question of whether to go to Raffles for a Singapore Sling agonised me. My old self would have shuddered at the idea. What a tourist cliché! I’d find a smoky café in the Arab area and drink thick coffee and puff on a hookah. What is worse, I’d preach against any way but my way- if you’d been to Singapore and stayed at Raffles you hadn’t really been to Singapore. Unless you’d eaten from street stalls and slept under a fan you were just a (spit) tourist.

But I’m in Singapore on business and I’m older and wiser and I hit the Long Bar in Raffles and like almost everyone else, I do the tourist thing and order the Sling. And the experience was appropriate to my circumstances.

Sometimes I wonder if this snobbery rears its head in my professional world. We choose Firefox over IE, Ubuntu over Vista, agile over waterfall. Ruby on Rails is our passion, anything else is just beneath us. Commercial success is to be looked down upon; “selling out.” Bob Dylan sold out when he went electric, right! There’s a thin line between passion, pragmatism and snobbery. The thing is to know the set, setting and circumstances. Who are you working with, what’s the context and why are you there. Keep those questions in mind and the appropriate level of snobbery you may revel in should become clear.

Software Dams and recipient participation

There once was a time that international development was all about big capital projects, building dams and the likes. Times change, now the focus is on eliminating poverty; DFID “focus [their] aid on the poorest countries and those most in need”. There is a realisation that those big projects did very little to address poverty, indeed they kept countries poor forcing them into debt (read Confessions of an Economic Hit Man for a cynical view of this). And besides, dam projects are rarely successful and before you know it they silt up.

A focus on reducing poverty requires a new approach. It requires an understanding of the root problems, it means spending time with the poor to understand their circumstances to be able to create appropriate and sustainable solutions rather than prescribed programmes that develop and maintain a dependency culture.

There are parallels here with the IT industry. Much of the IT game remains focussed upon those big projects. Software dams that can be launched with great fanfare but do little sustainable good to those most in need. The customer.

Before I wound up in IT I worked in international development. My PhD. “Ergonomics tool and methods for use in Industrially Developing Countries” was based on working with farmers in Sub Saharan Africa, looking at how technology is transferred and how it can be made more appropriate, sustainable and usable. Many of the tools and techniques I used in the bush I apply with the corporations I work with today. These came under the umbrella of “Participatory Technology Development” and “Participatory Rural Appraisal”.

Rather than the delivering the white elephants of expensive machinery that you see littered around Africa, Participatory Technology Development is an approach for developing simple low cost innovative solutions that have the ownership of the community who work with researchers to build them. The PTD framework starts with gaining a shared understanding problems and opportunities. This is followed by defining priority problems then experimentation. Experimentation is collaborative with options derived from indigenous knowledge and support from the researchers experience and expertise. The farmers own the experiments and the results. This leads to the next step of the framework; sharing the results with farmer led extension. (Traditionally dissemination of agricultural advice is done by agricultural extension officers – government employees who despite their best intentions preach too the farmers, sharing centrally defined agricultural advice rather than the more appropriate, locally developed technologies that the farming community have developed themselves). The final step to the process is the researchers withdrawing, leaving the community with the capacity to continue the process of change.

(Sounding like agile?)

If PTD is a framework, then PRA is a basket of tools and techniques that can be used to support it. These can be broken down into nine categories:

  • Secondary data reviews – reviewing existing sources of information
  • Workshops – getting key stakeholders round the table (or more appropriately under the banyan tree)
  • Semi-structured interviewing – talking to people with a loose conversation direction
  • Ranking and classification techniques – identifying “things” and ordering them according to different criteria. (Often this will involve moving pebbles around boxes drawn in the sand).
  • Diagramming, illustrations and graphics – pictures to convey ideas and concepts, through “boxes and arrows”, Venn diagrams and charting to cartoons and imagery
  • Mapping – drawings or models that represent the local environment
  • Structured observation – watching people doing
  • Timelines – What happens when, for example seasonal calendars, a line in the sand and people put pebbles down against the time to show when crops are sown, harvested, how the price fluctuates, labour migration etc.
  • Community meetings – meeting the whole community rather than just the immediate stakeholders who participate in stakeholders. Showcases?

Are you building a Software Dam? Or are you focussing your aid on those most in need? PTD and PRA are approaches that have developed to help introduce appropriate, sustainable improvements to the life and wellbeing of subsistence farmers. Much of their content can be transferred to IT projects, helping introduce appropriate, sustainable improvements to the life and wellbeing of customers / users.

What does red mean to you?

I’ve recently been in Hong Kong and ran a really quick retrospective with the project team. I handed out red and green post-it notes and asked the team to write down things that went well and things that went not so well. They then stuck the post-its on the board, red “not so wells” on the left and green “goods” on the right. Only it didn’t quite work like that. In my western mind I’d assumed that green is good and red is bad. Not so in China where red is an auspicious and lucky colour…

Red and green post-its confused in a project retrospective.  cultural differences were forgotten

Do you want to be famous?

I’m in Hong Kong and my wife and Children are out here with me. When we walk on the streets with my daughter sitting on my shoulders many people stare and point. Over the weekend we went to a beach and people were pointing their camera and taking photos of her. None more so than the mainland Chinese in their coach parties. It’s not every day they see a blond three year old with a riot of curly blond hair. And it bothers me. Who are they to take pictures of my children. Some peope ask and I generally refuse. I begin to get a feel for what I might me like to be a celebrity. There is however, a lack of consistency in my approach. Why will I not let the Chinese tourists take photos, yet I post my own on Flickr for all the world to see? My rationale for Flickr is to let family members to see our pictures, but they are in the public domain.

We live in (the UK) a world where 1 in 7 teenagers wants to “be famous” when they grow up. Not “be rich” as is used to be – there was an implication of effort and graft in that statement, no-one got rich by doing nothing at all. But now it is possible to get rich by being talentless and doing nothing but being on a reality TV show. A sad state of affairs I feel. And anyway, who would want to be famous, to have random people pointing at you and sticking their camera phones in your face? I certainly didn’t like my brief experience of that.
But then I must wonder. With social networking is there an element of all of us wanting to become famous? I’m broadcasting to the world who I am via flickr, through my blog (and I watch how many subscribers I have and strive for a higher ranking within technorati). I look at google analytics to see who is visiting my site (Hello Hanoi, Singapore, Kuopio and Buffalo). I increase my professional network on Linkedin. Maybe I put my videos of myself on Youtube or MySpace. It is all about creating a personal cult of fame. Maybe I don’t like the TV version of it, but I think that on the web I’m hooked. I do want to be famous. Grrrrrrr.


Apparently my website is not accesible in China.  I can only think this is because of content I wrote about Tibet, and most likely links to external Tibetan websites.  Once on a restricted list it is probably impossible to come off it.  But it does pose the question, should I remove content from my site, effectively censoring myself (like Google)?  Or should I continue to deny a large potential audience of my words of wisdom?!

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