Six Degrees of a User

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🗓️ Publish Date
February 14, 2005
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How many people are between you and real users? Each person in the middle is another point-of-communication-failure, and by the time the message gets back to the real engineers, god only knows what's happened to it.

We had a phone call with Tim O'Reilly a couple days ago about some communication problems of our own, and his theory was that we were all suffering from "The Telephone Game", where each iteration of the message lost information. Entropy sucks.

I talked about this before in Users Aren't Dangerous, but it's tricky to do. In Los Angeles I once worked for what had been the coolest training company on the planet, Mind Over Macintosh. (There's no link, because it no longer exits.) The owner, Bruce Kaplan, was a brilliant marketer and creative force... he was largely responsible for bringing places like the LA Times into the digital/desktop publishing world, and then repeated this again by introducing much of Hollywood to new media.

In some other blog I'll talk about more of the amazing things he did that made the place so special, but here I want to mention the one that struck me as the most obvious difference between his company vs. Sun Education--talking to customers. When I first came there to design and teach courses in interactive multimedia, Bruce would suggest that we have personal conversations with each student before they ever showed up to class. While most students were at first surprised that the teacher of their upcoming course was calling to chat, everyone agreed that it made a huge difference. I knew exactly who was coming, what they wanted and needed, and I could usually tailor the course around the students who would be there that particular week, based on what I'd learned. By the time they showed up on the first day, we'd already established a relationship.

In a few cases, we were able to stop someone from ending up in a course that wasn't right for them, and could steer them in a better direction (even if that meant they ended up with a different vendor). This practice of talking to every student before the course started became standard practice for me, and I couldn't imagine doing otherwise.

Until it was time to teach my first course as a Sun employee. I (silly me) asked my manager for the student phone list for my upcoming course. She looked at me like I had just asked for an AK-47. "You want to what?" she asked, as though the notion of the instructor phoning the students was bizarre and unthinkable. Clearly, only official Marketing or Customer Service employees had direct phone contact with students. "But these people are going to be spending 40 hours with me next week... so it's not like I won't be talking with them then." And while there wasn't exactly a rule that said instructors-don't-talk-to-students-prior-to-the-course, it was just beyond anyone's imagination why I'd want to do such a thing. I was of course horrified that they didn't have a policy requiring instructors to talk to their students!

And it showed. I was once asked to teach a custom advanced enterprise Java class at a customer location, where a previous instructor of ours had already taught it and the customer was upset with it. My job was to go in and try to give them what they really wanted. When I spoke with the customer's representative, he described what went wrong:"The instructor came in and started teaching. The students quickly realized that the level of the course was too introductory for these students. But the poor teacher was constrained by his slides, so he dutifully went through the course doing the best he could under the circumstances."

There's so much wrong there that I hardly know where to start. The idea of an instructor being "constrained by his slides" is insane, but that's a different (bad) issue--the notion of having the course materials completely drive the course! (I'll have a lot more to say about the use of slides/presentations in another entry, but the folks at Missing Link know a lot about presentations).

But the whole thing could have been avoided had the instructor spoken to the students in advance, so that he'd at least have known what they were really looking for. Instead, he was forced to rely on the message that came through three people before he heard it--the sales rep, the custom course developer, and then his manager who scheduled him for the course.

Anyway, I'll have more to say about Bruce later because contrasting what he did to the other training companies I have worked for couldn't be more dramatic. Just one of his insights was, for example, that the kind of coffee you served in the break area could actually be the deciding factor for a customer. His brochures (which were actually collectible posters) specifically mentioned the coffee. So you might wonder why Mind Over Macintosh no longer exists... given how fabulous it was? Because Bruce eventually sold it to a Big Corporate Training Company that sucked the soul out of it (I won't mention names), starting with the name change.

(But now he's living another creative life and dream as a musician, playing mandolin with his wife Claudia.)

So, if talking to customers/users can be such a simple thing, why do some companies find it so hard and strange to do? Why was it that what was unthinkable at one place (to not talk to customers), was the status quo at another?