Troubleshooting Theory

Something wrong?

Okay, confused kitten isn't really related to this post. (via flickr/fofurasfelinas)

Well then let’s try to fix it.

We can break troubleshooting theory down into four simple steps:

  1. Determine all possible causes of your problem.
  2. Remove one half of all the potential causes.
  3. Test to see if your problem is still there.
  4. Repeat steps two and three until you’ve narrowed it down to one specific cause.

The process really isn’t difficult.  We all run through these steps when we encounter a problem.  I can’t get in my car.  Is it me?  Is it my car?  What about me isn’t right?  Oh, I left my keys on my desk?  Cause isolated; when I get my keys my problem isn’t a problem anymore.

Of course, we don’t actively follow each of these steps when we go about our daily lives.  But we can apply this process to almost any process we have problems with, from marketing campaigns to computer programs to people development at work.

So where’s the challenge?

We aren’t experts.

This process works well for us when we know something about the field the problem is in.  I could apply all the troubleshooting theory I want, but there’s no way I’m going to be able to isolate the cause of an issue with the space shuttle.  Or diagnose someone suffering from, well, just about any medical problem.

Sometimes we can figure out the first few steps.

Why doesn’t my television turn on?  Is the problem with the remote or the television itself?  Okay, the television turns on when I press the button on the front.  Let’s replace the batteries in the remote and test again.  And so on and so on.

Sometimes we can’t figure out what to do.

Why is the “check engine” light on my car on?  I don’t know.  And I have no idea what possible causes there are so I have no possibilities to split in half (and for that matter no tests to run).  This is where we turn things over to the experts, specialists who can identify and resolve our problem for us.  They do what we’d do, if we knew what we were talking about.  They run tests.  They reduce possibilities.  And so on and so on.

Sometimes we are afraid to do anything.

Then there are times when we don’t want to make a mistake and make things worse.  Even though we might have an idea of what is wrong or where to start, we don’t want to take that risk.  Perhaps fear isn’t the right word.  Maybe it’s trepidation.  We are uncertain in our own ability to fix the problem, so we don’t touch the matter at hand.  We go and find an expert, who applies these troubleshooting steps for us.  And so on and so on.

This can be a good thing, if the solution is esoteric, or if what we would do is potentially harmful to our goals.  But it can also be detrimental when the solution is simple and our fear stops us from acting.  It’s why there are consultants for hiring decisions, for firing decisions, for personal development.  Because we’re not sure what we’re doing, and these may just be among the most important actions of any company.

So what do we do?

The reasons for our fear varies, but I think it is in part because of the quirkiness of our psychology.  Our minds are optimized to succeed – most of the time.  It’s why we have common sense and rules of thumb to follow.  So when we encounter a situation outside of our comfort areas, something doesn’t translate.  We apply the rules we’re used to to situations we’re not.  Which doesn’t always have the happiest of endings.

We’ll never be perfect (surprise!).  But maybe we can get better.  By taking a look at the results of our past troubleshooting attempts, we might just be able to figure out where our psychology goes wrong and take steps to correct it.  I suppose we’re troubleshooting our troubleshooting – and isn’t that something worth doing every once in a while?

A Social Profile Updater

I am a member of way too many online services.  You probably are too.  There’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Posterous, Brazen Careerist, Delicious, Squidoo, Ning, WordPress.com – and those are just the ones that I use at least once a month.  I’ve also got placeholder accounts set up at a variety of services in case I ever want to use them.

Even if I never log in, I still have profiles.  And if I want to do something like change my picture, I have to log in to each and every one to do so.  Granted, I can use Facebook Connect and Twitter OAuth to log in on many sites, which ties my profiles to just two places.  But not every place supports those services, and even if they do, chances are the profiles ask for different information.  On Twitter, I have 160 characters and a URL to describe myself.  On Facebook, I have as much room as I want to use.  And  what if I want to use different elements of each profile?  Maybe I want to include my favorite books from Facebook and my educational background from LinkedIn.  I can’t think of an easy way to do that right now.

I want to build a way to manage my entire identity online.  This is the idea behind OpenID I suppose.  But I want to build the reverse.  Even if I have one set of credentials to log in everywhere, I still have 18 different profiles (I just made that number up, but you get the idea).  What I want to build is kind of a modular system where you input all of your information that you’d ever want to share.  Then you provide the system with your login information and check off what you want your profile to say where.  Every time you update the modules, this updater propagates the changes to all of the other services you interact with.  So it’ll no longer take you a half a day to update your picture and bio on all of your profiles – you do it once and the system does the rest.  The closest analogy I have it that it’s like Ping.fm, but for profiles.

Now I know it’s a bit silly to be sharing this on my blog.  What I should do is go find an engineer or two, build this, find funding, and launch it.  By posting it here, I’m letting this idea out into the wild where others can create it without having any obligation to me.  That’s a risk I’m willing to take because, well, I honestly have no idea if I could get this thing off the ground.  For that matter, it may already exist.  Or it could violate the TOS of any of the websites that it would update.

While I figure that all out, what do you think? Would you use this updater? What am I missing? I’d love to get some feedback.

Untemplater Manifesto

I read the Untemplater Manifesto a few days ago.  At it’s most basic, it contains the stories of six people with entirely different backgrounds who have managed to be happy doing something completely outside of the norm for who they are.  If we move to the more complex, I imagine it can be a combination of an inspirational ebook, a call to action, or an affirmation of your plans (those may all be the same thing depending upon who you are).

I want to embrace what they’re writing here.  I’ll be the first to admit that where I am now, six months after graduating college, was not where I planned to be.  I’m sure that correcting the path I’m on is going to be frustrating and tiring and hard work.  I hope that it will also be fun and engaging and educational and uplifting (this is why I’m looking for a new project by the way).  I want Untemplater to be one of the steps forward on the path I’m hoping to follow.

To give you the sense of the manifesto, I went ahead and put the text through Wordle, generating the following:

I really think this does a great job of summing up what the manifesto focuses on – spending your time making your lifestyle all about what you want.  The other items, like school, friends, work, and travel, all become secondary.  I imagine it must be incredibly freeing.  It must also be scary.  The people behind these stories have all taken some kind of leap into the unknown.  They’re out there innovating in their respective fields, and apparently doing it successfully.  Their combined experiences will probably provide Untemplater with plenty of content.  And as they’re all continuing on their own journeys, we’ll be able to follow along as they both find success and make mistakes.

But I can’t help but wonder – isn’t this all a bit oxymoronic?  This is a website that says it’s going to make you think about how you can control your own life.  Isn’t there a possibility that they’re providing one template to substitute for another?  I really don’t know.

Big questions aside, I held off on publishing this because I wanted to see what they would post in these first few days.  So far they’ve provided some good financial advice, looked at the good and the bad of the mobile lifestyle, and called themselves (and probably me and you as well) crazy.  It’s an interesting mix of articles, and I look forward to reading what they produce in the future.  Hopefully it’ll make my own life a little less routine in the process.

(I should note that while I starting writing this shortly after the manifesto was published, I am using this as my submission to one of Untemplater’s giveaways.  Because, you know, why not?)

Mental Accounting

So I’m starting to pay back my student loans. As a result, I decided to take stock of where I am financially. I know that I’m better off than the average NYU student in terms of debt versus savings (thanks mom and dad), but I have to admit that I wasn’t quite as involved in the borrowing process as I should have been four years ago. So I turned to Mint to get a sense of my financial “health.” According to my profile there I’ve been a member for 416 days, but I haven’t used it much. Yes, I would get a monthly summary, and I’d get e-mails if I made any unusual purchases (something I wish my credit card company would do). But I’ve generally pretty good at not spending more than I earn, so I didn’t need to track budgets or compare credit card programs. Now that I’ve been taking a much more active role in my finances, I’ve been thinking more about how my mind views my savings more than I normally do.

Our minds play tricks on us.

On a semi-regular basis I go to the ATM and withdraw some cash. When I do this, I unconsciously begin to differentiate the cash from my savings, even though it is still part of my total net worth. My mind has placed it in a different account, much like a mental balance sheet. In a way I view that cash as “spent” since it’s no longer in my bank account – which is not such a great thing because I won’t approach spending it with the same scrutiny that I do the money in my checking account.

If you think about it, you might do the same thing when you use your credit card. Whenever you swipe your card, you technically loose money. Yet you may not feel that loss until you pay your credit card bill.  Credit cards, loans, and a whole bunch of other modern financial tools divorce the act of purchasing from the act of paying.

Here’s some other examples:

  • Pennies a day – Framing a large long term purchase/subscription as “x cents a day” or “as much as your daily cup of coffee” is more effective than framing it as a cost per year.  This is because we place them in a kind of petty cash mental account.
  • Length of time is a factor – NYC cab drivers rent their cabs in 12 hour shifts. They tend to quit early on busy days because they make up their costs sooner and stay out longer on busier days. This is the exact opposite of what they should do; on busy days they’ll make more if they stay out longer, while they should save their time on slow days.  This occurs because cab drivers look at their earnings on a per day basis instead of on a longer time frame.
  • Bonus versus rebate – In 2001, the “Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act” gave $38 billion back to American taxpayers in $300-600 rebates to stimulate the economy.  However, only 22% actually spent it – the rest saved it or payed back debt. But there is some evidence to suggest that a greater percentage of people would spend it if it was positioned as a bonus (a gain) instead of a rebate (a returned loss).

I could go on.

There are a lot more examples of how mental accounting (and other psychological phenomena) makes us act in irrational ways. One of the best ways to counteract them is to understand and acknowledge them. Tools like Mint leverage technology to help us think smarter and maybe overcome some of the quirks of our own minds. Which is both cool and disconcerting, isn’t it?

Project Wanted

So I’m looking for a new project.  I say “project,” but I use that word loosely.  You could have one big thing that you need done, or you could have six tiny things that all contribute to the goals of your organization.  You could have a team that needs just a little bit of help, or you need just a bit of help building a team.  You could be starting some brand new venture, or taking a look back at what you’ve completed.  For that matter you could be one person who needs a bit of extra help managing things.  I’m open.  What I’m looking for the most is something engaging that I can stretch my mind doing (meeting new people and learning something new would be nice too).

Here’s a quick overview of what I’m looking for:

Two to six month project, working an average of 10-15 hours a week.  I’ll consider this a success is if we both learn something while we work together.

– It’s got to be virtual.  If you have an office in the NYC area, I’d be happy to stop in, say hello, meet everyone, or even work there occasionally.  Realistically, most of the work should be able to be done via the web, and we can keep in touch as many different ways as you’d like – Skype, Twitter, Basecamp, instant message, carrier pigeon.  It’s up to you.

– Ideally I’ll be working in some kind of marketing function for your organization.  That said, I think of marketing pretty broadly.  I think public relations, advertising, internal communications, customer relations, and developer relations are all marketing functions because they all represent your brand to both internal and external customers.  You can think of me as a digital envoy, interacting with others online to help further the goals of your organization.

– I’m not looking to get paid.  Yes, you read that right – I’ll work for you for free.  Again, this is meant to be a learning experience for me, not a second income.  So no stipend or college credit required.  You can think of me as a consultant if you’d like; either way, I’m sure you (or your boss) isn’t going to mind the price tag of zero if they need some extra help.

Now here’s a bit about me:

– Graduated from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where I studied marketing, media, and politics in an attempt to understand what drives people to make decisions (from purchase intent to voting behavior to the impact of the communication channel).  Major highlights there included founding the Ademos Projet, a social marketing venture, and completing my colloquium on the role of propaganda in modern democracy.

– Completed two virtual internships since I’ve graduated (in addition to my day job).  The first was at Careerealism, where I was part of a team working to increase traffic to their site via Twitter.  The second was with Squidoo, where I helped brainstorm ideas for a variety of projects.  Both were interesting experiences, and I actually ended up being interviewed for a Wall Street Journal article about virtual internships as a result.  I’ve also been holding down a full time job since graduation.  I prefer not to say where for privacy, but you can find out if you do a little digging (I’ll take that as a sign of your interest).

– Consider me up to date on most of the social media platforms you’ve heard of.  I can also do some basic video and audio editing in a pinch, and I’ve used WordPress installations on several projects.

– If you want to know more then I’d recommend checking out my writing here.  It should give you a pretty good sense of what my mind is like.  You can also follow me on Twitter or try and stalk me on any other number of social media platforms.  That last bit I’ll leave in your hands.

Like what you’ve read so far?

Then get in touch with me if you think I’m a good fit for what you have in mind.  You can reach me via Twitter, Facebook, or you can even send an e-mail to “me [at] jedcohen [dot] com.”  Or you can, you know, leave a comment.  That works too.

Look forward to hearing from you.

Ritual

Ritual is powerful.  It is larger than us, rising above our family and our friends to encompass something much more.  We take comfort in ritual, we acknowledge it, and we let it guide our decisions.

Ritual works hand in hand with belief to pass traditions from one generation to the next.  It can be the glue that holds society together, or the wedge that drives different groups apart.  It can keep us in line, or it can lead us to jump outside of the normal pattern of behavior.  It can comfort us in times of stress, or it can be the stressor pushing us down a road we don’t want to go.

Ritual drives us forward as a group.  It ensures that we step together, towards a common goal.  It lets us believe that we can be the master of our own fate, even if the ritual invokes a higher power.  It joins us together in a common experience, breaking down the barriers between the one and the many.

I write these words on one of the many days we’ve created rituals for in modern society – the last day of the year.  We consider it even more special as the decade ends as well.  For parts of the world it has already passed, and for others the night has yet to wane.  Some have already participated in the rituals associated with the new year, and may just be sipping champagne in celebration right now.  Some have woken up and started their day (I’m sure one or two has already broken a resolutions).  And some may be on their way home from work, looking forward to the celebration to come.

We have seen the standard posting of “The Best of 2009” lists in the last few weeks.  And we’ve seen people predict what will happen, both in the year and the decade to come.  Those too are rituals we have; they celebrate our accomplishments, reflect upon our tragedies, and allow us to imagine a bright future.

Regardless of who or where you are, the rituals we’ve created as a society touch your life.  You may take comfort from them or seek to flee from them; either way, we must acknowledge their power.  We have seen these things before, and we will see them again.  There is something grand in that, if only because it touches all of us.

Don’t you think so?

Noise in the Internet Era

The act of communication can be broken down into just a few simple steps:

  • You have a thought and turn it into a message.
  • You send that message out through some kind of medium.
  • I receive that message and assign it some kind of meaning.

It’s a pretty simple process, and one we’ve managed to complete successfully for at least the last 2000 years. And it can also be applied to the Internet as this model doesn’t require two way communication. That said, there are a few differences.

There’s way more noise here.

Photo by David Sim

How many e-mails do you get a day (including spam)? How many tweets are in your stream? Facebook updates? FriendFeed posts? RSS entries? We’re surrounded by so much information on the Internet it’s almost incomprehensible. Some of it is useful. Some of it is junk.

If you’re consuming content, you get to be the judge of what is helpful and what is pointless; the more time you spend on something, the less it’s noise and the more it’s a message.

If you’re creating content, most of it is noise. Noise you have to cut through to accurately convey your message to your intended recipients.

We all try our best at this, and it’s more important for some than others. For marketers, it’s a do or die kind of thing – greater signal to noise ratio means greater chance of conversion into buyers/subscribers/promoters. For friends, it’s not quite as big of a deal.  Still, the digital landscape is awfully cluttered, isn’t it?

We want to be heard.

Ironically, the act of self-promotion produces more noise that others will attempt to cut through (because your message is noise for them). So we do what we can to keep the eyeballs on us. One of the tricks is emotional investment – if you can instill in people a sense of concern, or interest, or desire to know what comes next, they’ll be more likely to spend their own energy seeking you out. Another is to have novel, groundbreaking content that people simply. must. see. A third is to present it in some way they haven’t seen before, whether through video, audio, augmented reality, or whatever the next big medium/fad is.

Of course, these are just a few ways to make your signal stand about above the noise, and they may or may not work for you. But there are times when I can’t help but ask – do we all need to take a step back? Do we need to let the noise wash over us to understand what’s going on now and in turn understand what we have to do next? Or do we just need to keep on pressing forward, shouting out into the noise, letting our voices join the ever growing din?

I think maybe the answer is somewhere in between. I’m really curious to find out.  How about you?

Do Numbers Equal Value?

Every so often, someone new starts to follow me on Twitter.  Most of the time I look at the e-mail, click through to their profile, and decide whether I want to follow them back.  But every so often I get a follower notification that I just delete immediately.  More often than not it’s spam.  But not this time.

Here’s what Twitter told me about a certain “person” who just started following me (names omitted to protect the not-so-innocent):

Does this seem kind of ridiculous to anyone else?  What sort of earth shattering revelations must be in this person’s 99 tweets that over 40,000 people are following him?

Let’s take a look…

I decided to take a slightly scientific approach to this.  Here’s a few vitals:

  • According to When Did You Join Twitter?, this person joined Twitter on March 25, 2009.
  • I looked the handle up on Twitter Grader, where the account scored a 98.
  • I then used Twitterholic to get historical data on friends, followers, and updates.  Then I graphed the results:

To give myself a sense of perspective, I ran a number of other users through Twitter Grader as well.  Guy Kawasaki’s, Justine Ezarik’s, Drew Olanoff’s, Evan Williams’, Biz Stone’s, and Jack Dorsey’s accounts all scored a 98.2.  I plugged in another 15 or so users (not all celebrities), and only four of them had scores lower than 98 (sampling biases include following them and finding them interesting).  Only one had a score lower than a 90.

It’s absolutely obvious that this user is gaming the system.  They’re using any one of the hundreds of ways out there to increase their follower numbers, probably by agreeing to follow everyone back.

So?

We’ve come to use following/follower numbers as a measurement of influence or value.  But it’s simply not true.  I don’t care what rationale you have, 99 tweets in 270 days can’t enrich the lives of 40,000 people.  It’s just not possible.

Numbers have become a heuristic for the social web.  We have a mental shortcut that says that higher numbers are better than lower ones, and we use it to judge authenticity or likability or popularity or any other number of traits.  But we can’t keep on using numbers as an indicator.  This user that I’ve featured here shows us that it’s much too easy to fake them.  And if you don’t believe me, consider that there are 15,740 experts on Twitter according to Mashable (Pete Cashmore scores a 100 on Twitter Grader by the way).

What else is there?

There’s a lot written on how to sell social media to your boss, and almost everything will at least mention return on investment.  And ROI is always going to be measured based on numbers – whether it’s sales, cost per thousand (CPM), click-throughs, subscriptions, or customer surveys.  It’s a numbers game, sadly.

But maybe, together, we can come up with some better numbers.  What do you think?

Emoticons – Online Body Language?

Emoticon Pumpkin
Photo by Neal Gills (via Flickr).

Chances are you’ve used some variant of that pumpkin’s symbol somewhere.  It could have been in an e-mail, a text message, or a tweet.  Maybe it was to a friend, a relative, or someone you’ve never even met.  Perhaps you were surprised, or happy, or just plain confused.

When you think about it, text based communication online is lacking quite a bit compared to person-to-person interactions.  Perhaps the most significant  difference is body language.  There is quite a bit of contention about how much communication is nonverbal, and it certainly depends upon the circumstances of the situation as to whether you’re going to trust someone’s words, tone, or body language more.  But the bottom line is that in most forms of digital communication we don’t even have the option of using the extra data that tone or facial expressions provide.  We’ve got to go on text alone.

And let’s face it, the written word isn’t always crystal clear (consider the case of Roger Casement, who may or may not have been hanged because of a comma).  So oftentimes we can be left in the dark about the writer’s state of mind – they may despise you or think you’re the best thing since sliced bread.  No way to tell.

Well that’s not entirely true.  When you think about it, we can use text based representations of emotions like emoticons and emoji as a substitute for nonverbal communication when we’re online.  They can provide us with at least a hint of a person’s mood or intended tone in a quick and dirty fashion.  Sure, they may not necessarily be appropriate for the corporate world (yet), but they’re great for two friends talking.  And with over four billion people across the world connected to both one another and the web via cell phones, these icons may just represent one way to overcome some of the language barriers that separate us all.

And that’s kind of cool, don’t you think? 😛

Inside Outside Upside Downside

We all want to be on the inside.  It means we’ve got it (whatever “it” is).  Being on the inside means that you know what’s going on, that you have access to information that those on the outside may not know.  It means that you are in a position to find out information that your friends aren’t.  And it means that we can cloak ourselves in the aura of exclusivity that comes with being “in the know.”

There are times when we want the line between inside and outside to stay concrete.  Research and development and public relations both strive for this; in R&D you want your secrets to stay secret, and in PR you want the company line to be the one everyone hears.  Conversely, sales and support agents may jump to the end of the pitch or reach for the most complicated solution because they’ve been inside for so long they’ve memorized the basics.  After all, it’s easy to fall into the trap of expecting the questions we know the answers to or not explaining the fundamentals because we know them like the back of our metaphorical hands.

In a way getting to that stage is a good thing; experience and expertise means that a) your company is still alive and b) you can have better interactions with your customers.  But it has its problems.  As demand increases, so does the chance that some element of the purchase or support process may become transactionalized instead of individualized.  The technology we employ often doesn’t help this either – when was the last time you had a pleasant conversation with an automated phone system?

In the end, the human element may be one of the few things that can keep the flow of information from in to out steady.  Creating an open corporate culture can help us step away from the transactional elements of our interactions with others.  And providing opportunities for both mentorship and the fresh perspective of the outsider is another step we can take from building impenetrable barriers between the inside and the outside.  Because once that happens, chances are that both you and your customers will experience the downside of your success.