Monday, July 30, 2012

Specifications and Tolerances - relativity strikes again

Over the years i've been noticing a little something about the usage of specs in design and how you should write and interpret the specs for your design.  It's easy to build to a spec (ok, loaded statement but i'll let it stand for the purpose of this article) but what's not easy always is understanding the intent of the spec and the design and building in tolerance for usability.

I think that most of the time we talk about tolerance in engineering as the fudge factor that we allow for in our  designs.  Or to make the nitpickers more happy, it's the variance that we have to plan for we because we can only expend a certain amount of resources achieving the right level of variation.  It's a numbers game filled with trade-off.  There's nothing wrong with that, to me it seems like a perfectly reasonable way for the world to work.  I don't think that people realize, however, just how much personal opinion they put into the tolerances that they choose.

We were in a meeting a little while ago talking about the design of our parking pay stations and we were talking about meeting ADA standards.  (American Disabilities Association).  This included putting our keypad at certain heights, angles and etc so people confined to wheelchairs could use them easily.  We had a design that we were reviewing and one of our VP's said, 'That's not going to cut it, sure it meets the ADA requirements but it's terrible usability for a person over 6'2".  They have to scrunch over to see the keyboard.'

That got me to thinking about such things.  I'd noticed something else myself years ago.  Most of the cars designed in Japan seemed to be technically large enough to fit a person who is over 6' tall but when you actually fit someone in there'd be a problem with headroom and/or legroom and just overall comfort.  But when you put a someone into a similarly sized German car, the tall guy would fit fine.  I don't really know but I've always assumed that they are designing against the similar international standards.

But watching what happened in that meeting i understood a lot better what was really going on. When it came time to approve the design or go through product testing, without someone there that actually pushed the bounds of the tolerance themselves the limitation wouldn't be known.  And without passing that discomfort onto someone with the power to influence decisions, then it likely wouldn't be heard.  In our case the VP made the statement and suddenly it was an important design decision.  Compare the average heights of people in Germany to Japan and suddenly things begin to really make sense.

Over time, Japanese design has tailored itself better for North American sizes and i can fit rather comfortably into most of the cars i get into.  It's too important a lesson to learn if you want to make sales.  I'm sure there's a bunch of science out there about designing for human sizes and if i was a better blogger i might go out and find it for you.  but for now i'm happy enough to have learned my little lesson about tolerance, both internal to human interaction as well as to external.  After all, the chair that's comfortable to a 6' person, likely isn't nearly as comfortable to someone who's only 4'.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


quicky...listening to "Under the Influence" with Terry O'Reilly yesterday and heard some cool things.

it's all in how you look at things.
QWERTY keyboards weren't invented to slow down typists as the myth indicates that they were.
There were already 'faster' key layouts in existence that artificially slowed people down because they kept resulting in jams.  The QWERTY solution allowed people to go much faster without risks of jams.
So QWERTY, in effect, sped up typists.  Today we look at it as a solution to slow down typists but that's a relative statement that doesn't really capture the truth of the matter, it was an efficiency measure.

Side note - also learned that one of the reasons that the exclamation point of the past was much more rarely used was that into the '70's the only way you could get an exclamation point on a typewriter (there was no key) was to type a period, press the backspace key and then type an apostrophe.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

It's good to have a Sacrificial Monkey

This post is a bit about presentation capabilities but also about my own personal management style. 

On a personal level i have very little shame.  There simply isn't much that can happen to me, or that i can cause myself that i can't spin or laugh off or otherwise absorb in some manner.  I think this is a skill that derives from my razor (sometimes far too razor-like) wit and fast reaction times.   I do feel shame when i say or do things that inadvertently hurt another person's feelings for sure but you simply can't make fun of me to the point where i will blush up and hide my face.  Rather in fact i excel at the old give-and-take and it's possibly when i'm feeling most alive.  (having said that out loud, that might be a little sad.)

Fast forward from the slightly awkward confession stage of the blog post to the part where i talk about the benefits of having a sacrificial monkey and how, for the sake of this discussion i, myself, was said monkey.    

Recently my company brought in a speaker who gave a seminar about personal financial health.  A talk about debt managment, managing personal risk (ie buy some insurance from me please) and saving for the future.  A topic, if you will, that is at great risk for being slightly traumatic and highly dry and boring.  

When our paid speaker came out you could tell that this is what she does for a living.  She's dynamic, smiley, friendly and filled with personality.  She has lots of little personal anecdotes and stories and tries to make a personal connection to the crowd right from the start.   She has two assistants with her who help by passing out some high-quality (read expensive) info folders and then essentially stand around for the rest of the presentation.  Attached to each folder is a 'hi my name is' sticker and a pen.  First thing i do is pop my name on that sucker and throw it on my chest.  I am the ONLY person on the room to do so.  I notice this but don't really care and certainly don't take my tag off. 

The talk proceeds and as you might expect, even with the dynamic speaker at the front, the dry and yet awkward material has a fairly quiet and potentially non-receptive crowd.  After all, who wants to know that their spending and saving habits are probably killing them slowly.  She would ask the audience for input or responses to questions and there were only a couple of people who would speak up, the rest were quiet as church mice.    

As we went along it was pretty obvious that while it was a respectful audience there wasn't that sort of give and take that can make a presentation really meaningful and help what you learn really sink in.  Then the presenter called me out by name...remember, mine was the only name tag available, and asked me a question about something I'd said a little before.  And then made fun of me.  And then asked me some more questions and made fun of me some more.   The more that she interacted with me as part of her presentation, the more you could see the rest of the audience becoming engaged with the talk. 

I reacted well to the interplay, joked back with her and effectively kept the humour flowing.  In the end, it made for a more enjoyable and powerful discussion.  At the end as I was leaving she apologized for picking on me, saying that it seemed like i was able to handle it all right.   I agreed, laughed it off and went on with my day. 

This interplay helped bring some clarity to something that i've not only observed but used myself in such situations.  It works in meetings as well as presentations.  It's finding someone to be the 'sacrificial monkey.'  Someone willing to be involved in the discussion, willing to be made to look a little silly and to simply be the example.  Seeing someone else in that humourous or distressful situation helps bring the rest of the audience alive.   You can see the same sort of thing at the circus where a clown plays with an audience member or even with magicians who are using volunteers from the audience.  

Whether it be because the audience identifies with the sacrificial monkey, are glad they aren't them or simply revels in the pain of another, it brings their own personal involvement to the situation to a whole new level. 

Of course i can not warn you strongly enough that choosing the wrong sacrificial monkey can end up in tears, harassment complaints or just bad feelings.  Some people don't react well to the spotlight and you have to be able to see their unease and back away. 

In this case i was fine with it.  Certainly i didn't need to be apologized two because i knew the trick of bringing in an audience foil.  I'm not sure if the presenter actively uses the trick on a regular basis but i'm happy that i was there for her, and more importantly the members of my team that were there and able to have a more powerful learning experience.   Being able to use humour, mocking and other tools as part of your management style can give you some pretty powerful tools.  As i evolve as a manager, i hope to be able to document some of these tricks in a way that people can learn to embrace the methods themselves. 

Until then...will you be my sacrificial monkey?