Ripe for Disruption: Bank Authentication

One thing that still drives me crazy, and doesn’t seem to have changed with banks, is they way they handle fraud detection with the customer. Their sophisticated algorithms detect fraudulent activity, they flag it, suspend the card, and give you a call, leaving a message identifying themselves as your bank and asking you to call back a number — which is not on the back of the credit card you have.

So, if you’re like me, you call back the number given in the voice message and have this conversation:

Hello this is Bank A’s fraud detection team, how can I help you today?
Hi, quoting reference 12345.
Thank you, I need some verification details first. Do yo have your credit card details to hand?
I do, but this number I was asked to call was not on the back of my card, so I need some evidenc from you that you are who you say you are first.
Unfortunately, I don’t have anything that would help there.

So then you have to call the number on the card, and then get passed from pillar to post until you reach the right person.

How is this still the case in 2016, and why have no thoughtful disruptive folk thought up an alternative? Could this be done on the blockchain (only half sarcastic here)? I’d love to see banks, or anyone, doing this better.

A simple one would be for them to have a safe word for each client, I should think, which confirms to me that they are who they say they are. It seems silly that they can’t give some information — it doesn’t even have to be private information — that would show who they are, but only a customer would know.

LinkedIn’s Blinkers

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LinkedIn comes across as quite tone deaf when it comes to their UX, makes me wonder if anyone there eats their own dogfood. This annoying popup every time you try to download a deck from SlideShare drives me nuts.

How can it not figure out that no, you don’t want to clip it and remember that?

Awesomeness Fatigue

This is a commentary piece I’ve recorded for the BBC World Service.

I call it awesomeness fatigue – the exhaustion that comes from being bombarded with stories, videos and pictures designed to amaze you. The problem is not that they don’t work: it’s that they’re too good.

In the past week or so I’ve watched people fly off mountains, some figure skating guy and a kid who sued his school after being bullied. All are awesome.

No, the problem is that a sort of “awesome inflation” kicks in, meaning that as your Facebook page, or Twitter feed, or however you consume social media, fills up with these things, so each one needs to be a little more extraordinary than the last one to gain your attention.

And this is the problem. In the past year we’ve seen the rapid emergence of a number of services designed to do just that – to find amazing things on the net and then write a headline that you can’t resist.

Upworthy, one of the most successful, pays a team of freelancers to each unearth no more than seven videos a week. Then they get to work crafting headlines – at least 25 of them for each post, which are then tested rigorously on small focus groups to find the one which would be most viral.

A couple of recent headlines. Resist them if you can: Remember When Music Videos Used To Mean Something? Some Still Do. or Martin Luther King Jr.’s Badass Speech That Everyone Forgot About.

See? They sort of understand us. And so it has worked. Within 18 months, Upworthy has overtaken websites of the New York Times and Disney’s Go.com in the US.

According to Newswhip, a company which measures these things, upworthy got almost as many people to share its 246 items last October as the British newspaper the Daily Mail did with its more than 12,000.

In short, sites like Upworthy have fine-tuned what makes stuff irresistible to us, to click on, watch and then share.

An advertiser’s dream, of course, but this is not a sustainable model.

A few years ago we were quite happy watching a video of baby laughing (‘Baby laughing’, 2006, 21 million hits), or a 7-year old boy groggy from novocaine (‘David After Dentist’, 2009, 122 million hits. Or a guy combining mentos and cola (‘Diet Coke + Mentos’, 17 million hits) to make a fountain.

Now it’s got to be awesome, with a focus-group tested headline.

But it’s hard to envisage how we can keep coming up with amazing things that surprise us. And, more importantly, that we end up getting sick of looking at things that are awesome, and just start yearning for some normality. I am much more selective about which awesomeness I click on. Some of my friends, frankly, are a bit too easily amazed and have slipped in my estimation.

And this is the problem. Digital is making us so hyperefficient that it’s fast squeezing out of life the joys of surprise and serendipity. Surprise that we might define for ourselves the awesomeness – or not – of what we see. Serendipity in discovering something ourselves – rather than having it delivered on a focus-group tested platter.

That our social networks are now being filled with stuff that’s got virality baked deep in somewhat takes the joy out of what social media used to be: finding things ourselves and sharing them with others.

And that word awesome? Awesome as a word has lost most of its awesomeness through overuse– I was told I was awesome by an online magazine for subscribing, and I notice my three-year old daughter is informed by her iPad games that she’s awesome a tad too frequently. Me?

I’m back to being impressed if I can remember my wife’s birthday or to charge my phone before I go to bed. Wake up with a fully-charged phone? Now that’s awesome.

The Rising Noise of Silence

This is a commentary piece for a semi-regular slot on the BBC’s World Service. It’s not content that appears on Reuters, nor does it reflect the views of my employer. 

I’m here to report a new scourge of the public space: folk who watch video on their tablets in public without a headset. Just the other day someone sat next to me in a coffee shop watching a local soap opera on her iPad quite oblivious to the disturbance she was causing me and, well, just me.

Now this may sound like a small thing, but I’ve canvassed friends and it’s clearly a problem that extends far and wide. I’m told ferries in Hong Kong are abuzz with this kind of noise pollution, as are subways and buses in Singapore, as well as flights into and across the Philippines and India.

Putting aside my own tendency to be annoyed by more or less anything these days, I think we have here an example of a counterintuitive trend: what sociologists might call the reclaiming of public space from intrusive technology.

Think about it for a second. Up until a few years ago our biggest bugbear were loudmouths on their cellphones intruding on our reverie in trains, coffee shops and dentists’ waiting rooms.

This is not exactly yet a thing of the past, but it’s beginning to be, because as we’ve embraced the smartphone so have we preferred to occupy our time communicating via text or playing games on our devices. Take mobile phone usage in the UK as an example: the number of minutes most people spend talking on their mobile phone has fallen by 19% between 2007 and 2012. This, I believe, is a global trend whenever phones go from those basic ones that just do voice and SMS to smartphones, where you can do lots of other things.

The trend, therefore, is less time spent talking on phones, which means less time annoying other people in public.

This is a good thing. It basically reverses a trend we thought was irreversible – namely that technology was always going to intrude further into our lives.
So back to the watching video in public without a headset thing.

We’ve gone through an interesting couple of years on mobile. We’ve seen a lot more people buy smartphones, and we’ve seen smartphone screens get bigger. We’ve also seen a lot of carriers deploy faster networks, and in many cases reduce prices. All of this makes video on a portable device possible.

So it’s not surprising that folk are consuming video on their devices in extraordinary quantities. In 2013 video accounted for about a third of global mobile data traffic, according to Ericsson. By 2019, it will account for more than half.

Driving this are deeper phenomena: a lot of the people with these devices and connections don’t have a lot of space to call their own: they live and commute through crowded sites, sleep in cramped flats or dorms. While I do worry about all the neck problems we’re going to see in the years to come, it’s hard to begrudge people carving out a little private space for themselves wherever they can find it.

In a way, I’m amazed that this revolution hasn’t been more intrusive and irksome. For all the folks who aren’t wearing a headset when they immerse themselves in streaming soap, there are thousands, millions of folks who are.

So I’ll desist from decrying these inconsiderate souls, and marvel at how quickly we’ve adopted these new ways of reclaiming some privacy out of public space. What’s astonishing is probably how seamless this transition has been – and how quiet our public lives have become.

PR Stands for Presumptious

This is the kind of email that drives me nuts. The subject field:

Can you teleconference w/ xxxxx Software April 7 or 8?

The first line:

Mark xxxxx, CEO of xxxxx Software, would like to teleconference with you Thursday, April 7th or Friday, April 8th. Can you suggest a couple of times and dates that work for you to speak with Mark?

I’ve never heard from this flak before, she has no idea of what I cover, she jumps right in pushing a teleconference on me (when was it just called a phone call?) and the whole thing smacks of foot-in-the-door salesmanship.

PR needs to be attuned to the journalist’s needs, not the CEO’s desperate craving to fill his schedule with interviews just because his flak is pushy.

I’m considering a sideline: cut a deal with PR flaks to do interviews to keep CEOs quiet and then charge them for it. Any takers?

Podcast: Presentation Blues

The BBC World Service Business Daily version of my column on presentation blues. (The Business Daily podcast is here.)

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To listen to Business Daily on the radio, tune into BBC World Service at the following times, or click here.

Australasia: Mon-Fri 0141*, 0741 
East Asia: Mon-Fri 0041, 1441 
South Asia: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741 
East Africa: Mon-Fri 1941 
West Africa: Mon-Fri 1541* 
Middle East: Mon-Fri 0141*, 1141* 
Europe: Mon-Fri 0741, 2132 
Americas: Tue-Fri 0141*, Mon-Fri 0741, 1041, 2132

Thanks to the BBC for allowing me to reproduce it as a podcast.

Still Sneaky After All These Years

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I still retain the capacity to get bummed out by the intrusiveness of software from companies you’d think would be trying to make us happy these days, not make us madder.

My friend Scotty, the Winpatrol watchdog, has been doing a great job of keeping an eye on these things. The culprits either try to change file associations or add a program to the boot sequence, without telling us. Some recent examples:

Windows Live Mail, without me doing anything at all, suddenly tried to wrest control of my emails by grabbing the extension EML from Thunderbird:

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This was unconnected to anything I was doing, or had asked. I didn’t even know I still had Live Mail installed. Shocking. Imagine if I hadn’t been asking Scotty to keep guard? Or that I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing? (OK, don’t answer that one.)

(Just out of interest, launching Outlook Express will do the same thing:)

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Still, I suppose the Microsoft defence is that everyone else is doing it. I installed WordPerfect Office the other day and found that, without asking, it tried to take over handling DOC files without asking first. Luckily, Scotty woofed a warning:

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No wonder users are baffled about what is going on with their computer and end up heading off to the Apple Store for some TLC. Software companies have got to stop doing this kind of thing. (And no, I’m not saying that Apple are any better at this. It’s just they reduce the choices so people feel their computers behave more predictably. This, after all, is what people yearn for.)

Likewise with starting programs. Once again it’s about predictability: If software starts loading without the user being asked first, then a) the computer is going to slow down and b) the user will have a bunch of new icons and activities to figure out. A couple of examples:

Windows Live forces its Family Safety Client to boot without asking:

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as does eFax, the online faxing service:

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These companies need to stop this. They need to stop it now. Consumer confidence is low, but so is user confidence. I am inundated with letters from readers of the columns who talk about their bafflement and sense of alienation from their computer. (Meanwhile, I read love stories from those who switch to Macs.) The point is this: Not that people believe Macs are better computers—although they may well be—but they are simpler to use, more predictable, more understandable, more, well, user-friendly.

What’s user-friendly about changing the settings on someone’s computer without asking them? Would a company try that with someone’s car, fridge, or dishwasher?

Software, Slowly, Gets Better

Is it just me, or are software developers beginning to get their users? For a long time I’ve felt the only real innovation in software has been in online applications, Web 2.0 non-apps—simple services that exist in your browser—but now it seems that ordinary apps are getting better too.

Evernote, I feel, is one that’s really leading the charge. They’ve taken the feedback that us users have been giving them and have added, incremental release by incremental release, some really cool features. For example: now you can save searches in the Windows version. Reminds me of the old Enfish Tracker Pro, whose departure I still mourn. In fact, Evernote isn’t far off becoming a real database instead of a dumping ground for things you’ll read one day. Maybe.

Skype, too, have pulled their socks up. I hated 4.0  beta, not least for its big bumbling footprint. But the new version is better—a lot better. The main improvement is the option to make it look like your old Skype. But it has some nice new touches, including a chronology scroller that might interest Evernote’s legal department (Skype on the left, Evernote on the right):

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Move the bar on the right and you can move easily through old chats. Legal niceties aside, I think this kind of innovation is great to see, and almost restores my faith in designers realising that we don’t just use software in the here and now, but also as repositories of past heres and nows, if you know what I mean.

In short, our decision to commit to software is largely based on how much we will be able to get out of it. Not just in terms of hours saved in what we do now, but in what past information we’ll be able to get out of it. We have been using computers long enough now to have built up a huge repository of interactions and memos, and we want, nay we insist, to be able to get that stuff back. Quickly and easily. And, increasingly, to be able to move it to other places should we wish.

Google understands this relatively well. A chat in GTalk, for example, can be readily accessed via Gmail. And, now, we can also see and search our other data held within Google’s silos, right within Gmail, via some widgets from Google’s Gmail Labs. Here are two widgets that let you view your calendar:

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and here’s one to see your documents within Google Docs:

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Note the window at the top for searching through your document titles. This means one less step to access your data.

All these things have some basic concepts in common:

As I’ve mentioned, it’s about being able to get what you’ve put in out. Skype have listened to their customers and realised it’s less about the interface and more about the information the interface gives access to. If they were smart they’d find an easy way to send old chats to your email account or at least make it easy to search all your chats from one box. (I’m told that, or something like it, is coming in the ‘Gold’ version of  Skype 4.0 next year. Until now only group chats—three or more people can be saved to your contact list.)

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Secondly, software should, where possible, work with other people’s software. Emusic’s new download manager (above), for example, does something that has been missing ever since the service launched. Previously, if you wanted to include MP3 files you’d bought from the service in iTunes, you’d need to either drag them across into iTunes or re-introduce the folder into iTunes. The new version of the downloader tool now synchronizes automatically with iTunes, meaning you don’t need to do anything. Thank God for that.

There are tons of other things that software needs to do that it presently doesn’t. I could start listing them but I need to go to bed. But maybe in this downturn developers could take a note from some of these examples, and use the time to look more carefully at what users need, at how they use your software, and explore new and better ways for them to use it for what they do, not what you think they should do.

Is New Media Ready for Old Media?

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I’m very excited by the fact that newspapers are beginning to carry content from the top five or so Web 2.0/tech sites. These blogs (the word no longer seems apt for what they do; Vindu Goel calls them ‘news sources’) have really evolved in the past three years and the quality of their coverage, particularly that of ReadWrite Web, has grown in leaps and bounds. Now it’s being carried by the New York Times.

A couple of nagging questions remain, however.

1) Is this old media eating new media, or new media eating the old? On the surface this is a big coup for folk like ReadWriteWeb—which didn’t really exist three years ago—but look more closely, and I suspect we may consider this kind of thing as the beginning of the acknowledgement by old media that they have ceded some important ground that they used to dominate. This, in short, marks the recognition of traditional media that theses news sources are, to all intents and purposes, news agencies that operate on a par with, and have the same values as, their own institutions.

2) Is new media ready for old media? I have a lot of respect for ReadWriteWeb, and most of the other tech sites included in this new direction. But they all need to recognise that by participating with old media they need to follow the same rules. There’s no room for conflicts of interest here: Even the NYT has reported on potential conflicts of interest for Om Malik and Michael Arrington (here’s a great piece from The Inquistr about the issue, via Steve Rubel’s shared Google Reader feed.)

The thing with conflicts of interest is that they’re tough. It’s hard to escape them. And it’s not enough to disclose them. You have, as a writer (let’s not say journalist here, it’s too loaded a word, like blogger), a duty to avoid conflicts of interest. Your commitment as a writer has to be to your reader. If your reader doesn’t believe that you’re writing free of prejudice or favor, then you’re a hack. And I don’t mean that in a nice way.

Which means you have to avoid not only all conflicts of interest, but appearances of conflict of interest. Your duty is not just to disclose conflicts of interest, and potential conflicts of interest, but to avoid them. If that means making less money, then tough.

So, for these ‘news sources’, the issue is going to become a more central one. Of course, the question will grow larger as these outfits move mainstream. But it may become more pressing for the carrier of the news, not for the provider: Who, say, accepts responsibility for errors and conflicts of interest? NYT and The Washington Post, or the carriers of the news? I’m sure there will be lots of caveats in the small print, but if material is on the NYT website, I think a reader would assume it reflects that paper’s ethical standards. If you’re in doubt, think of the recent United Airlines case.

That story’s reappearance started on Google News, and then was picked up by Income Securities Advisors, a financial information company, which was then picked up by Bloomberg. The technical error was Google’s, in finding it on a newspaper website and miscategorising it  as new, but the human error was in the ‘news source’, which saw it and then fired it off to their service, which is distributed via Bloomberg. Who is to blame for that mess? Well, the focus is all on Google, but to me the human element is the problem here, namely the reporter/writer who failed to double check the source/date etc of the piece itself.

The bottom line? It’s great that old media are recognising the quality of new media. What I want to see is this rising tide lifting all boats. Old media needs to not only grab at these news sources out of desperation but learn from their ingenuity, easy writing style and quality, and these outfits need—or at least some of them need—to take a cue from old media, take a look long and hard at themselves and ask themselves whether they could serve their readers better by shedding all conflicts—real, potential, or perceived—of interest.

Babylon? Oh So 1999

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I used to think that small programs that sat in your computer’s memory and could be accessed quickly by a keystroke were the future, but nowadays I’m not sure that’s true. At least, they’ve got to be real careful. If they’re not, they end up looking and behaving dangerously like adware.

An example that steers dangerously close is Babylon. Once a service with great promise, and still used by at least one of my friends, Babylon offers access to all sorts of online content — dictionaries, thesaurii, Wikipedia entries — just by highlighting a word in any application and hitting a couple of keys. A wonderful idea, and, with so much great reference material online, something that should by now have come into its own. But the experience falls short.

Install the software and you immediately get a pop-up suggesting you buy the product. It’s strange how out of sync that sort of behaviour is in today’s more demanding, less patient world. And while the information Babylon retrieves for you is impressively large, it’s probably too large to be useful. Nowadays we need surgical strikes on information, not carpet bombing.

Given it’s supposed to be a writer’s and browser’s tool, the occasional pop-up balloon from the system tray doesn’t help either. I don’t want programs blitzing me with reminders that the program is there, or that I am still using a trial version. This behaviour is, frankly, so 1999 it’s not funny.

Needless to say, I uninstalled the software within ten minutes. Or at least I tried to: Babylon has a few more tricks up its sleeve to make sure that isn’t as painless as installing it.

First off, there’s no uninstall shortcut in the Start menu, only the application that sits proudly alone outside a folder:

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This approach–not putting a shortcut inside a folder along with an uninstall link–always strikes me as the refuge of the pompous and delusional. Microsoft does it; Adobe does it; Real does it. They could just about get away with it. Everyone else is kidding themselves.

So, it’s to the Add or Remove Programs folder, which, under XP, always takes so long to load it gives you time to wonder why you haven’t switched to a Mac already. And there, one finds two more surprises from Babylon:

Firstly, there are two entries, not one in the list:

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Interesting. I don’t recall for a while coming across a program thinking it carried that kind of weight. More pumped up self-importance, I fear.

That’s not the end of the fun. Click on the first of these and instead of the usual confirmation box about uninstalling, you’re given one last chance to cough up:

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I’m pretty sure that breaks all sorts of user design rules. It’s annoying: Why would someone who had gotten this far in uninstalling suddenly say to themselves “Doggone it! What was I thinking? Why don’t I just buy the thing instead?” By now I’m regretting even downloading Babylon to start with. All I wanted, for Chrissakes, was a decent Thesaurus.

The truth is that software has now learnt to fit better to the way we work, and not to intrude in the way that Babylon does. Look at browser widgets or the Mac’s Spotlight, or even Answers.com’s 1-Click Answers. Luckily, perhaps, Babylon’s lack of manners stands out because it’s just not how programs are written these days.