Northrop Grumman reached deep into its history, as well as its recent past, to draw inspiration for an airliner of the future — a flying wing much like the B-2 stealth bomber.
The firm designed the concept for NASA’s Environmentally Responsible Aviation program, an effort to develop an airplane that is quieter and more fuel efficient than today’s airliners. Although the program has drawn interest from several aviation firms, only Northrop Grumman is reaching back to the future. The company has been building flying wings since the 1940s, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of aviation can see the concept’s resemblance to Northrop Grumman’s B-2 bomber.
Studies like the Environmentally Responsible Aviation program always draw wild ideas, ranging from blended wing bodies to double-wide fuselage designs. Such things are nothing new for Northrop Grumman.
Jack Northrop first started flight testing flying wing designs in the 1940s. The company has developed several variations on the theme, including propeller- and jet-powered examples. The company also has considered flying wings as massive airliners. But stability problems prompted the company to shelve the idea for decades. Only when computer-controlled, fly-by-wire technology was available did the design become viable as a practical platform for large aircraft.
Northrop Grumman’s flying wing airliner concept has a wingspan of 230 feet, 58 feet wider than the B-2 bomber, according to Aviation Week & Space Technology. The cargo version (top photo) would have a wingspan of 260 feet, though the cabin area would be smaller than the passenger version, according to the article.
The shielded engines greatly reduce the noise signature, and they’re often seen on flying wing ideas. The sleek design also could improve fuel efficiency, though existing flying wing designs have yet to fully realize that potential because of drag penalties that occur through the control of the aircraft.
A flying wing can significantly reduce drag in part because the sleek design does not have protruding surfaces like a tail to disrupt the flow of air. Without a horizontal tail, the aircraft also does not have the added induced drag generated when the tail generates lift, which in the case of conventional aircraft is actually pushing down rather than lifting up.
The tail of most airplanes actually creates a lift force downward to balance the weight of the aircraft and the lift of the main wing. This force is counterproductive to the main wing, which is generating lift to keep the entire airplane aloft.
Aircraft equipped with canard wings, like many of the designs from Burt Rutan, also reduce the drag due to the lack of a conventional tail surface pushing downward during flight.
But because a flying wing does not have a vertical tail surface or winglets, the aircraft tend to have yaw instability. This means it is more likely to rotate in the horizontal plane with the wing tips effectively shuffling forward and back. To control this, and to control the airplane in a turn, drag-producing control surfaces along the wings are used during flight. These constant small corrections eliminate some of the inherent yaw instability of the flying wing. A conventional design flies through the air more like an arrow with feathers (or a conventional tail) guiding it straight (and no fly-by-wire computer having to keep it on path to the bullseye).
These stability issues led to Northrop abandoning the flying wing designs of the 1940s. But with modern fly-by-wire systems, many of the issues can be reduced or eliminated. And in the years to come there may even be ways to fully utilize the aerodynamic benefits of what is an efficient design.
Of course there is still the problem of passenger windows and where to put those slides and emergency exit rows to get everybody out of the airplane in a timely manner. But those problems should be relatively easy to solve.
Willard Mitt Romney is 64, an age when many of us start thinking about retiring, picking up golf, spending time with the grandkids, and reminiscing about the past. But not Romney. This is a guy after all who has earned a BA in English, then a JD and MBA from Harvard. He’s spent a long time as a missionary in France–a place he loves–and speaks French. He was a successful CEO and cofounded a private equity firm that became one of the largest in the U.S. All of this suggests that Mitt is not a big one for chilling out. So assuming that Romney would stay as active should he be elected President, what would that mean for science, technology, and innovation in this country? Would President Mitt use his missionary zeal to drive policy in these directions?
The Holy Trinity: Startups, Cold Cash, And Government
In the same year that Apple’s Macintosh first hit, with images of government-smashing radicalism in its advertising, Mitt Romney was a cofounder of Bain Capital–a spin-off of consulting firm Bain & Co. that Romney had successfully managed before. BC is a private equity firm that’s invested in some huge American brands, with names like Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, Staples, Toys “R” Us, and the Warner Music Group on its client lists. This fuels Romney’s thinking on startups, and he recently gave us a hint of this with what the Washington Post calls a “robust defense of his work” at BC. There he said that while BC’s investments weren’t always successful, it had a good record, and that venture capital helps “grow companies and create jobs,” is a “major part of the economy” and “he’s proud to be a part of it.” MittRomney.com goes into more detail, noting that four of the startups BC funded (including Staples) created up to 120,000 jobs.
It’s all good for Mitt’s job too, as BC earned him much of the hard cash he’s used to fund his political ambitions since then.
In terms of controversies about startup employment, Romney’s separately noted he’s in favor of H1B visas, because he “likes the idea of the best and brightest in the world coming here,” adding “I’d rather have them come here permanently than come and go, but I believe our visa program is designed to help us solve gaps in our employment pool.” It’s all a “competitive battle with the rest of the world; a battle where we need to stay the most powerful nation”…which is a stance the people of France, say, would probably poo poo. But broadly speaking, Romney’s right behind Silicon Valley and the venture capital investment structure, and its role is so important he’s even said he wouldn’t boost capital gains tax.
Outside of the Valley, Romney’s even floated the idea of government-owned technology centers–using advanced research into alternative designs for nuclear reactors as an example. It’s a conflicted position, as Mitt’s not one for big government involvement in these markets, but it’s a start.
So President Mitt would seem keen to preserve much of the status quo of the startup system in the U.S., because he believes it contributes directly to America’s superpower position.
The Siren Call Of Science
Mitt’s Mormonism isn’t an irrelevant part of his character, it’s something that really drives the man. Interestingly, it’s been noted that Romney actually does support both the theory of evolution and human-induced climate change (despite a slightly flip-flopping denialist stance)–something that marks him as relatively unusual in the current Republican Presidential race. And one theory is that the pragmatic stance of his church may be behind this attitude.
Of course in many ways new science drives new innovations and that drives startups and the greater U.S. economy in our technical age, so Romney’s support for H1B visas also influences the future of scientific research under a potential President Mitt. His description of the “pebble” reactor design in the government-owned tech centers ideas was a little, shall we say, sketchy…and he courted much controversy with statements last year on the climate, saying “I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that.” He added: “I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer.” Hmm. How about getting some high-quality, smart, socially-savvy science advisors on board, then? They’d give some solid scientific facts and some names to quote, so then we’d actually start to believe you know what you’re talking about?
But oddly, searching for Romney’s deeper insight into scientific matters like nanotech, neuroscience, or any more of the exciting advances of our time (things Potential President Newt has expressed a stance on) doesn’t yield much. Even his own website doesn’t spin up much info–merely noting in a letter that for over 200 years the U.S. has “excelled in science”…and presumably Mitt would like that to carry on.
That’s not a scientifically sound conclusion, though.
Mitt On The Moon
Just the other day the last man on the moon, Gene Cernan, was a signatory of a letter of support to Romney, along with the first space shuttle pilot and a former NASA administrator. Many big names in the commercial space business also signed their support, arguing that space policy under President Mitt would undo Obama’s “failure of leadership” which has “thrust the space program into disarray.”
Yet, while he wants to “get the job done right” he’s not exactly ready to detail a fully tricked-out space policy. Getting in a bit of a dig at Newt Gingrich, Romney said during a recent debate that he’s “not looking for a colony on the moon” because he’d rather be “rebuilding housing here in the U.S.” What we do know is that he accepts the need to build collaborations between government-funded and private space programs to drive innovation, and that he has in mind a mission like Apollo to “excite young people about the potential of space.”
But he’s not named a destination for that program… which is something that’s key to, you know, designing the missions–a process that could take well over 10 years, and achieve success long after President Mitt left office. Maybe Mitt needs to take some of his criticism of Newt on board–space programs are by their very nature “grandiose.”
I remember the first time I heard the term “meritocracy.”
I was playing baseball on a junior-league team, and our coach (the father of one of my teammates) told us that the team would function as a “meritocracy.” We were told that this meant that the players that were the most deserving would get the coveted infield positions and the best batting lineup slots. What intrigued me most about this concept was that the term “deserving” was not about who had been on the team the longest, whose father was the coach, or who had the most experience. It was based solely on ability, and who, based on their own merit, should be given a particular role.
Although that may have been the first time I heard the term meritocracy, the concept itself seemed native to me.
During law school and shortly thereafter, I had the opportunity to work with some really great law firms and their clients, which typically consisted of large corporations. In working there, it became obvious to me that in most of these corporate environments, decisions around career advancement and promotion were often based on legacy and tenure rather than sheer ability.
A few years earlier, I encountered a similar phenomenon while trying to sell T-shirts and promotional products to a large university. I was advised by the school’s procurement office that despite my company having far better pricing and products, the school preferred to give the contract to the same supplier they had been working with for the past few years. Hearing that only motivated me further, and eventually I was able to convince that school (and many others like it) to allocate their contracts not on the basis of past experience alone, but rather by taking into account a number of different weighted factors.
It was around that time that I realized that the real path to success and upward mobility, whether on a kids’ baseball team or in closing a commercial contract, would stem from merit, and an ability to better execute. As such, my age, my experience (or lack thereof), and even my network would come second to my ability and my determination to do great work.
I couldn’t help but notice, however, that while certain environments and work cultures embraced the concept of a meritocracy, others work places seemed fundamentally against it. The latter group, which in my experience tended to be large corporations and service providers, seemed to prefer measures such as seniority, legacy, and rank in deciding issues such as who should own critical tasks and who should be promoted.
I am sensitive to the fact that with experience often comes expertise, and those that have “been there, done that” can be better suited than a “newbie” for a particular task. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that length of service should never be the only criteria for selection in any environment, and I believe that merit is a far better evaluation metric.
Similarly, I have the found that one of the primary tenets of entrepreneurship is the idea that the person or company with the best product, service, or offering will ultimately win. And what attracted me initially to entrepreneurship was the fact that it didn’t matter who I was or how long I had been in business, the only thing that mattered was my value proposition and how that compared to my competitors or others around me.
Practically speaking, one of the hiring practices that we often use at Shopify is to have candidates complete a coding test as the initial step in the interview process. The reason for this is to ascertain the candidate’s programming aptitude on an objective and unbiased level. The result of this exercise allows us to begin the interview process by evaluating candidates on their coding abilities exclusively, and only then we will begin to look into their background and past experiences.
We use a similar line of thinking when it comes to determining compensation packages for new hires; whereby the overriding consideration in determining salary is based on the value that an individual brings to our company, as opposed to their age, seniority, or past accomplishments (although we do look at those as well, to a lesser degree).
In terms of geography, I also believe that certain areas have a higher propensity to accept the meritocracy model than others, and I have found that cities with vibrant startup communities tend to embrace merit-based promotion with greater fervor. Anecdotally, I am reminded of this phenomenon whenever I meet with a large corporation or a government body at our offices here in Ottawa, and they inevitably look around and ask about my age and the average age of our team–as if that matters. And while someone’s age has little connection to their value-add, it seems that those outside the entrepreneurial realm often get caught up with trying to correlate vintage with perceived value, which is perhaps “scar tissue” from a previous time.
There’s an amazing dialogue from Ayn Rand’s book Atlas Shrugged, where Francisco d’Anconia explains that the reason for his family’s multi-generational prosperity is due to the fact that each new member of the family isn’t truly considered to be a “d’Anconia” until they prove themselves based on their own merits and abilities. I always loved this explanation, as despite Francisco’s nobility, he was committed to succeeding on his own merits and worked ferociously to prove himself without any support from his family.
In a startup setting, and certainly at Shopify, we reward and promote the most deserving of individuals, despite age, experience, or length of service. While I can appreciate the need to be patient in certain professional advancement, I can’t endorse a practice where the vehicle to success and advancement is based on “time served” rather than merit. I believe that we should all endeavor to produce our best work, and managers and entrepreneurs alike should look at the merit of their employees and partners as the most important and most relevant criteria for evaluation.
Unemployment has been high for far too long, and voluntary turnover has slowed to a crawl in just about every sector of the economy. So why are employers worried about a talent shortage?
That’s the paradox Deloitte has been tracking since 2010 in its longitudinal survey series, “Talent Edge 2020.“ The latest report, released in January 2012, asked executives to list their three most pressing concerns about talent. The top concern for corporate leaders was brain drain–over 70% were highly concerned about retaining critical talent over the next year; two-thirds expressed the same concerns about high-potential employees.
These worries are well founded. Only about one-third of employees at larger companies expect to stay with their employers when the recession ends. Of course, employees with mission-critical leadership skills don’t even need to wait for the economic tide to turn, and many are not.
And leadership is key. As Good to Great author Jim Collins has demonstrated, leadership drives great business performance; the absence of leadership doesn’t just invite poor performance, it actually creates risk.
People often describe certain individuals as “natural-born leaders,” but the truth is that business leaders are made, not born–shaped through the assignments they receive and the experiences they have. That formation can happen by accident or by design. Leaving leadership development to chance can be chaotic and unpredictable; organizations that want to ensure that they have the leaders they need, now and in the future, would do well to embrace leadership development by design.
Most of the executives in the latest survey agreed that leadership development is a high priority at their companies, but few believe their organization’s capabilities are up to the challenge. And while over half the companies surveyed identified leadership development as an important priority, there remains a large disparity in how they put this into action.
Some companies remain reluctant to invest heavily in training because chances are that some of the people they’re investing in may eventually take their newly honed skills elsewhere. Turnover is a fact of life in business today, but by investing in employees, by demonstrating a genuine concern for their career development, by enhancing their skills, we can create and retain more high-performing, high-potential leaders.
Though some will inevitably leave, it is important that the investment in them is not seen as a loss. These individuals become valued alumni–some of whom may return in time–and potential clients, who can appreciate firsthand the benefits that accrued from the organizations where the focus was on education and development. It’s a strong value proposition for businesses, and it’s attracting a lot of attention.
At Deloitte, the centerpiece of our leadership development and retention strategy is Deloitte University in Westlake, Texas, where we help our people build the capabilities to better deliver valuable insights and to address our clients’ most critical and complex business challenges.
Not every organization is going to be willing or able to make such a massive investment–nor is it a quick fix, and the talent paradox is a challenge that must be addressed immediately. There are steps a business can take right now to prevent the impending brain drain.
Immediate Steps for Developing Tomorrow’s Leaders
If two out of three members of the workforce are considering leaving their jobs once the economy improves, it implies a deep reservoir of personal dissatisfaction across the entire corporate sector.
Here are a few thoughts businesses should take into consideration to ensure high-performing talent feels a combination of purpose, impact, and mastery in their current jobs–and are ready, willing, and able to serve as the leaders of the future.
1. Identify your next generation of leaders–and then ask them to step up. Leadership should not wait for the best talent to come to them–at that point, they may already be on the way out the door. Instead, prioritize and reach out to the people that demonstrate the most leadership potential. Create a plan together that aligns their goals and career satisfaction with the overall business strategy. Whether they are members of the Boomer generation, Gen X, or Gen Y, employees across the board say promotion and job advancement is the number one thing that would keep them with a company. Employees are eager to step up and lead, they just need the right support.
2. Align the work with the purpose. Just as companies must provide products or services that are needed and relevant in the marketplace or their client matrix, every person within an organization wants to feel that the work they are doing is meaningful, their role is important, and they have the power to affect the company, their community, and importantly, their own career.
3. Then, give them the capabilities to go do it. Once you’ve identified future leaders and ensured they feel satisfied with their position and future potential, empower them with the skills and tools to do their jobs well. That means providing training opportunities, mentoring, networking, stretch assignments, and on-the-job learning that will enhance their professional development. At Deloitte University, we’ve designed state-of-the-art classrooms for cutting-edge simulations that put our professionals in real-world client scenarios. Whether it’s in-person or virtual, learning is critical to attracting top talent and keeping them satisfied.
Yes, even in a recession–even with high unemployment–companies that rely on highly skilled leaders risk losing them. Practice leadership development by design, and become an organization that leaders seek out…and stay with.
Diana O’Brien and Alice Kwan of Deloitte Consulting are coauthors of this article. O’Brien is principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, and Managing Principal, Deloitte University; Kwan is principal, Deloitte Consulting LLP, and U.S. Talent Services Leader.
Hoping to make it easier for crime victims and witnesses to recall license plate numbers, Massachusetts may begin handing out plates with fewer characters and a symbol in place of one digit.
The proposal is the brainchild of Gary Richard, a Bay State businessman and inventor. After reading about several high-profile kidnappings, Richard dedicated himself to using his time and skills to prevent future abductions. What does that have to do with license plates?
“I set about trying to analyze the dynamics of an abduction,” he said. “The common denominator is a private vehicle, and how do you identify a vehicle? The license plate.”
Unfortunately, young children and anyone with limited literacy often cannot recognize some letters and numbers, especially if they go by in a flash. Hell — most adults can barely remember their own plate numbers. Armed with studies that show symbols can ingrain themselves in the minds of toddlers for more than a week, Richard set to work.
He designed a license plate with fewer characters and symbols alongside the typical alphanumerics. He calls it the EZ-ID license plate, and has for 10 years been pushing his home state of Massachusetts to adopt it for all randomly issued general-issue registrations.
He’s finally gaining traction.
EZ-ID license plates add a symbol and use fewer characters to make license plates easier to remember. Image: Gary Richard
Under Richard’s plan, which is gaining support from legislators, law enforcement and child advocacy organizations throughout New England, EZ-ID license plates would add a diamond, star, heart or triangle to the existing set of characters. Registries would need no more than four characters to allow for 107 million possible combinations, or three times what current plates allow. Fewer characters also allows using a larger font, making plates easier to read.
“If such license plates are indeed easier to memorize or recognize, this could help, for example, a victim relay a license plate to law enforcement after an incident,” said Cynthia Lum, a professor of criminology and director of George Mason University’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. “Memorizing a plate is difficult in a stressful situation.”
No one’s empirically tested the effectiveness of the new plates, but the math shows that fewer numbers on a license plate makes even a partially remembered registration more valuable. According to Richard, just the style and color of the car with a symbol alone would narrow it down to one of 360 cars, and more information would further focus the search.
“If you said it was a blue SUV and ‘Diamond 5,’ it’s one of about 12 cars,” he said.
The ability to quickly narrow a list of suspected vehicles helps law enforcement track down the owner of a vehicle. Although the owner of the vehicle may have had nothing whatsoever to do with the crime, it is still an important lead.
“By connecting with the owner, the police can determine who had the vehicle at a given time, or whether the car or license plate had been stolen,” Lum said.
Because there’s no easy way to input a star or diamond on a computer keyboard (unless you’re using a Commodore 64), EZ-ID uses a small two-digit code to indicate its symbol and where it’s located in the character stream. For instance, a diamond in the second position would be entered as “D2.” Vanity and affinity plates would stay the same, so Bostonians could keep their coveted low-number or Red Sox plates, and the addition of symbols would open up a slew of personalized plates people may be willing to pay for.
A bill to adopt EZ-ID has been wending through the state Legislature for years, but Richard remains hopeful lawmakers will act on it this year. The only significant pushback he’s received has been about the cost of the program, but he’s convinced supporters in the State House that implementing EZ-ID would be a minimal expense. Richard said state officials estimate it would cost $30,000 to upgrade the tooling to manufacture the new plates.
“If that’s an obstacle, I’ll pay for that myself,” he said.
Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, got paid $30.87 million last year, making her the most highly compensated employee at the company in 2011.
That disclosure, including in Facebook’s S-1 filing with the SEC on Wednesday, further outlines that Sandberg got $295,833 in salary plus a bonus of $85,133 and stock awards worth $30,491,613.
That trumps the $1.49 million that CEO Mark Zuckerberg received. Zuckerberg’s compensation included a salary of $483,333 plus a $220,500 bonus and “other compensation” worth $783,529. The bulk of that figure was related to “personal use of aircraft chartered in connection with his comprehensive security program for his family and friends. Another $90,850 of that amount was for “costs related to estate and financial planning.”
David Ebersman, the company’s CFO, meanwhile, received $18.68 million last year, which includes a $295,833 salary, a bonus of $86,133 and $18.3 million in stock awards. Rounding out the list are Mike Schroepfer, vice president of engineering, who got $24.7 million in total and Theodore Ullyot, vp, general counsel and secretary, who received $7 million.
Though those employees were the highest-compensated in 2011, none of them stand to gain nearly as much in Facebook’s IPO as Mark Zuckerberg.
The next on the list of top shareholders among company executive officers and directors is James Breyer, a venture capitalist, who owns 201 million shares and has 11.4% voting rights in the company. Peter Thiel, another VC, has 44 million shares, which translates to 2.5% voting rights. Sandberg, meanwhile, has 1.9 million shares.
Among outside investors, Goldman Sachs holds 65.9 million shares while Dustin Moskovitz, a co-founder, holds 133.8 million shares.
The pricing for the stock has not been set at this time.
“Twitter is not a media company,” Twitter CEO Dick Costolo declared on stage at AllThingsD‘s media conference in Laguna Nigel, CA, Monday evening. The statement was surprising given Twitter’s well-publicized role as a platform for breaking news, entertainment and other communications.
“You even sell advertising,” AllThingsD‘s Peter Kafka pointed out.
“We’re in the media business, but we’re not necessarily a media company,” Costolo elaborated. “We don’t create our own content; we’re a distributor of content and traffic. We’re one of the largest drivers of traffic to other media properties, namely to other online web properties, even to films.”
Costolo pointed to a Super8 campaign Paramount Pictures ran on Twitter last June. The studio promoted the hashtag #Super8Secret, through which it offered advanced screening tickets to the film. The film performed “50% better” during opening weekend than Paramount expected, Costolo said.
Kafka and Costolo went on to discuss the origins of Twitter’s advertising business. “When you came to Twitter in 2009, Twitter’s business model wasn’t clear,” Kafka recalled. “Now it’s solidly an ad business. Did you push the company in that direction?” he asked.
“I was certainly involved in it,” said Costolo. “The honest answer is that i was a key participant in it, certainly advocated for it. By no means was it my idea to create and launch the products we have now.”
Kafka asked Costolo if the company explored any other business models at the time, but Costolo evaded the question. “The notion that there were other ideas we considered and that I disposed of makes it sound too palace intrigue-y,” he complained. “It makes it sound a little too Hamlet. The reality of life is that it’s a lot more Tom Stoppard than Shakespeare,” he said.
Costolo likewise skirted questions about whether Twitter would have its first profitable year in 2012 — “We don’t discuss financials,” he said — but did stress the health of Twitter’s advertising business. In particular, he noted that engagement in several recent Promoted campaigns was above 50%, and that the cost per customer acquisition rate — by which we assume he means the cost per follower acquisition rate — is “fantastic.”
At the moment, Twitter is less interested in developing new products or revenue streams than growing the ones it’s already developed, Costolo suggested. “It’s all about scaling that now, launching these products globally,” he said.
Customers are increasingly expecting to get help from companies through social media, like Twitter and Facebook, in addition to traditional channels like phone, email, and web. That’s why Salesforce is launching a new application, called Desk.com, aimed at small and medium sized businesses (SMBs).
Desk.com expands on the suite of social applications for large enterprises that Salesforce launched last summer. Built on technology from Assistly, which Salesforce acquired last fall, Desk.com lets SMBs manage requests for help wherever they start from—Facebook, phone, Twitter, web. It also has a mobile component, so staffers can support their customers even when they’re out of the office.
But what’s equally interesting is Desk.com’s pricing structure. They have the standard “per seat” model ($49 per agent after the first seat, which is free). But they also have a “per hour” model for what they call “casual” customer support reps.
“We realized that small and medium sized businesses might have a small customer service department, but, really, everyone in the company is doing support,” Alex Bard, the former CEO of Assistly who is now vice president and general manager of Desk.com, tells Fast Company.
He gave the example of a clothing company. A customer might post a note to Facebook with a complaint about a pair of pants. The company’s primary customer service agent might initially field the ticket. But they might also forward it to the product manager. The product manager might then pick up the phone to talk the customer, not just to help resolve the immediate problem, but also because, by hearing what’s not working with the current line of pants, they might get good ideas for the next batch.
For staffers like the product manager, who only do customer service a small part of the time, Desk.com offers “flex” pricing at $1 per hour.
“That enables companies to create accounts for everyone in the system,” Bard said, but only pay for casual support reps’ actual usage.
Such innovations are possible now that more and more software is being served in the cloud. With desktop applications, software companies by definition had to sell by the seat. But with a cloud-based application, like Desk.com, which can track actual usage, companies like Salesforce can develop more innovative pricing structures based on real-world use–thus making them more affordable to a larger range of SMBs with smaller budgets.
“Life used to be simpler,” my mom says while making her fourth attempt to update her Windows firmware in order to install Office 2011 on top of Office 2008.
I don’t correct her, but I don’t believe her either. As far as I can tell, life has always been complicated; and certainly as long as my mother has been alive, there has been incredibly sophisticated technology in the world. (When she was my age, people were landing on the moon. Nothing simple about it.) What I do believe, though, is that life used to be more usable. What’s different now is that complex technology has become so freakin’ cheap that it seems free to include “one more” feature in your product. The unforeseen cost, of course, is that those extra features hurt usability.
But we know all this. There is plenty of literature on the subject, and good usability is table stakes for a modern product. If your product isn’t usable, your business is in a dangerous position. Maybe you can get by in the short term by boasting your killer feature set; but the fact is that if people can’t figure out how to use your bells and whistles, you’re going to feel it on your bottom line sooner or later.
It may be old news, or even obvious to some, that poor usability can hurt customer relationships and hold back sales. But what isn’t obvious to business leaders is: How do I tell if it’s happening to me?
Before I get right to answering that, consider customer service for a moment. The adage “the customer is always right” has been uttered many times, in many languages, for many years. Long before the cash register was even invented, businesspeople intuitively knew that cultivating relationships with loyal customers was key to long-term success. Yet still, even in 2012, there is no end of companies who find ways to pull short-term profits out of their customers, at the expense of the longer-term customer relationship. (Example: So-called free three-month magazine subscriptions that you have to remember to opt out of before you get automatically charged.)
As the service economy continues to evolve, more and more companies are working to measure and improve their customer-service performance as a key indicator of success. And to this end, a minor revolution occurred in 2003, when the corporate world was introduced to Net Promoter Scores (NPS). In only a few years, NPS had become far and away the leading measure of customer loyalty.
Here’s the beautiful thing about NPS: Organizations get results from the data, but it’s amazingly simple to collect. You simply ask your customers, on a scale of 1 to 10, how likely they are to recommend your company/product to their friends and colleagues. People who give high marks are “promoters,” (i.e., will recommend you) people who rate low are “detractors,” (i.e., will bad-mouth you), and in the middle are “passives” (i.e., don’t care enough to do either one). The theory, which has been backed up by evidence, is that companies who have more promoters than detractors (i.e., a high Net Promoter Score) will win. They will acquire more customers and make more money.
Critics of the metric say it is a blunt instrument, and maybe it is. But if your NPS is -20, and your biggest competitor’s is 80, you had better do something about it. It could certainly be argued there are better ways to measure customer loyalty; but the success of the Net Promoter Score was closely tied to being the most usable way to measure customer loyalty. This is all by way of saying that even one of the oldest goals in the business world–to keep the customer happy–has only recently been armed with a really useful, usable metric.
Now, back to usability. I suspect that even if you believe wholeheartedly in the power of usability, you probably aren’t measuring it in a useful way and making it a key part of your business strategy. I am willing to bet that one of the major reasons people don’t effectively measure usability is that they don’t know how. One of the other major reasons is that the established usability metrics take a lot of effort and analysis to get anything out of them, so ironically, the usability measurements themselves aren’t terribly usable. So here’s my thought. Let’s apply the broader lessons of the Net Promoter Score to usability. No complicated metrics, no long surveys, just one “ultimate question for usability” that lets us know if we need to invest more in making our products intuitive.
What, then, should that question be? When I was in college, we were taught that the quantitative measures of usability are efficiency (how long a task takes), effectiveness (whether or not a subject can complete a particular task), subjective satisfaction (whether or not the experience is enjoyable), and error rate (how many times the subject makes a mistake, even if they eventually complete the task). All good stuff to know, but too low level for this purpose.
The famed usability expert and evangelist Jakob Nielsen says that quantitative measures of usability are low bang for the buck; he favors qualitative evaluation instead. When it comes to making a product better, I also firmly advocate qual over quant. But qualitative evaluation is just too much work to answer the simple question, “How do I know if I need to invest in usability?” I asked all of my “usability guru” friends, dug into the existing metrics, and came up with some of my own ideas; and the one I came across that most succinctly captured it was “How confident are you using this system/product/service?”
Unfortunately for me, this wasn’t one of my original ideas. It is a question I poached from the System Usability Scale (aka the “SUS”), originally published by John Brooke at Digital Equipment Corporation in 1986. It’s actually a nice survey in and of itself, but it takes several minutes to complete and doesn’t overtly tie to business goals, and I’ve never actually seen it done. Put another way, it’s usable but not usable enough to actually ever get used.
I settled on that notion of self-reported confidence, because it captures two important factors from both a human and business perspective. First, technology is supposed to work for people, and not the other way around. Second, as my uncle Fred once told me, “The worst thing you can do to an adult is make them feel stupid.”
In our modern world of automated interactions, the usability of your product or service is an important part of your relationship with your customers, and it had better not suck. If people knew that the complexity of their products was causing serious brand damage, they would surely make the investment to prevent it. But by no fault of their own, people outside of the design and usability world just don’t necessarily know when there is a problem. So even if this one question is under-nuanced, over-generalized, and does not tell you how to fix your usability issue, it does answer the question, “Do I have a problem I need to address?” with a yes or no.
So I propose that we all ask one simple question of as many potential users of our products as we can. The question I asked above was “On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident do you feel using this system?” But in truth, the question itself is less important than making sure you ask it. It’s a well-understood quirk of human nature that we tend not to take things seriously unless we’re measuring them. Whatever you ask, pay attention to the percentage of scores that are under 7. Those are all the customers you’ll lose, customers you’ll keep without delighting, or customers you’ll perennially frustrate, and for an embarrassingly fixable reason. It’s easy to do, and it might just move us toward a more usable world, which I know my mom would appreciate.