Friday, June 29, 2012

Why "PIN Number" is Wrong, Right and Avoidable Anyway

Many people dislike expressions like ATM machine, PIN number and LCD display, where there is an apparent repetition of the last word of the acronym. ATM means "Automatic Teller Machine", they argue, so it makes no sense to say "Automatic Teller Machine Machine". This view is very common; you find it in the Wikipedia page for PIN and in many respectable writing guides like DailyWritingTips.

Actually in a way they are all wrong. Somebody who writes "PIN number" is not writing "Personal Identification Number Number", they are writing "PIN number". Through their use acronyms acquire an identity of their own that replaces the original meaning, usually to the point where few people know what they once stood for. LCD was perhaps originally an acronym for Liquid Crystal Display but now "LCD" has just become descriptive of a type of display, like OLED, plasma or TFT.  

You should, argue the language mavens, just say ATM, PIN and LCD. But the weakness of this approach is that you lose the valuable redundancy of "PIN number". Sometimes redundancy is considered bad but it is actually essential for effective communication. You could conceive a code-based language where there is a character string for each idea. It would be extremely compact but very vulnerable to errors -- just like commercial codes in the telegraph age where a single mistyped letter could literally spell disaster.

Natural human languages are highly redundant but the extra symbols you use to communicate help understand the message when part of it is lost or garbled. Suppose I say ATM and someone coughs at the same time. Quite likely your brain cannot recognize the sound that you hear. But when you say "ATM Machine" even when part of the sound is corrupted my brain can still recognize what you probably said. The redundancy also speeds up understanding because recognition is faster when your brain has fewer choices. There are many sounds that are similar to "ay-tee-em" but few that sound close to "ATM machine". Many acronyms are also used for different things, so adding that extra word avoids confusion.

So on the one hand communication experts will tell you that the redundancy makes your communication more effective. On the other hand writing purists will tell you that it is "erroneous" or "a common mistake". Yet you can't ignore them, because maybe among them are your boss, your best client or someone you hope will hire you. In cases like his when you have to choose between two unattractive alternatives the best idea is to choose the third -- in other words to find a new alternative that is acceptable to everyone -- what I call a "third of two" solution.

In this case the "third of two" solution is very simple: use redundancy for good communication but avoid using the same word that was used in the acronym.  For example, you can replace PIN number with PIN Code -- most cellphone makers in fact do this. Instead of ATM machine you can say cash machine and instead of LCD display you can write LCD screen or, better still, Liquid Crystal Display. Very often acronyms are unnecessary anyway.

Looking towards the future, though, anyone who creates a new product, technology or service might help to avoid this kind of problem by coining terms that can be abbreviated gracefully, perhaps even recruiting a professional writer to help them. By thinking about these issues upfront you can make life easier for everyone else.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Here Be Dragons: How Culture Affects More Than You Think

There is a persistent myth that map makers used to write Hic Sunt Dracones -- "here be dragons" on the parts of the world they knew nothing about. This is actually not true since there are no authentic old maps marked in this way and hic sunt dracones appears just once, on the Lennox Globe made at the beginning of the 1500s. [Update 23 August 2013: a second globe marked Hic Sunt Dracones has now been discovered. New Scientist Article.]

Yet the idea of territory so unexplored that it might as well be populated with dragons describes very well our understanding of other cultures. Most people are aware that people in other places are different -- even if it is only from TV comedy and cartoons like Disney-Pixar's Cars franchise. Very often, though, this understanding does not go much beyond surface differences like the way people greet each other -- visible signs that are almost immediately recognizable. Most people also focus on the unusual and the bizarre in other cultures, especially those things that are visually appealing. This is the view of cultures you learn from National Geographic.

Superficial cultural differences are, in fact, rarely a problem because you see them and because you can ask people what to do. Most intercultural conflicts are caused by deeper differences that are not visible to outsiders. People within a culture are also not aware of their on hidden culture until they go somewhere else or read about it in a book. Though I was born and raised in England and absorbed all the cultural rules I never thought about the taboo on sitting in your front garden until I read about it in Kate Fox's must-read book Watching the English.

Anyone who has attended a culture course or workshop is probably aware that there are models of deeper culture developed by Geert Hofstede, Fons Trompenaars, Michael Minkov and others. These models help to understand hidden differences, connecting visible signs with the underlying cultural drivers. Some cultures, for example, prioritize relationships so that if you meet an old friend it would be immensely rude to say that you have no time to talk because you are on the way to a meeting.Others prioritize rules so they would consider it more rude to be late for a meeting than to miss a chance to talk to a friend.

There are many cultural dimensions like this. Some are easy to grasp, like the difference between people who believe it is good to show emotion and those who think it is better to conceal them, maintaining what the British call a "stiff upper lip". Some are harder to grasp for beginners because our experience is usually strongly anchored in one pole of the dimension. In Fons Trompenaar's model of culture there is a dimension rconcerning our relationship with the world around us. Some cultures believe that people control their destiny while others are more inclined to think that things will just happen. Initially I thought I was totally on the "in control" side until I read about scientists studying how to stop hurricanes. Then I realized that there is a point where even I just accept fate -- it had never occurred to me to try to stop them. Many Americans -- the furthest towards the "in control" pole -- evidently are more confident than me. This subtle difference actually goes a long way to explaining some of the most misunderstood aspects of American culture.

But even if you study the cultural models, you are still a long way from understanding how deep the influence of culture can go, probably because scientists are still digging in the deeper parts of this mine, exploring new veins and discovering new surprises every year.  One of the reasons for this delayed discovery is that most psychology research is conducted on a very uniform population. The other is the egocentric habit we have of not testing things that we incorrectly assume are the same everywhere.

One of these faulty assumptions is that visual illusions are the same for everyone. Take the classical Müller-Lyer illusion where two lines are compared, each having arrowheads at the ends of the lines, but in one case pointing inward and in another case pointing outward. Common sense will tell you that everyone perceives the inward-ended line as longer. Well common sense is wrong. This is the way US undergraduates see it, but people in many cultures see it differently and the San people of the Kalahari desert barely see the effect at all. (How Weird are you?, New Scientist, 13 November 2010, page 142).

Over the last two or three years scientists have reported many other cases like this, the latest being the way people perceive the flow of time.If you are like me you probably imagine time past as being behind you and time future in front of you. The Aymara people of The Andes see it the other way around: with the unknown future behind their back and the known past in front of them. The Yupno people of Papua New Guinea would disagree with both. Recent research shows that they see time flowing uphill, so that the past is below them and the future is above them. (Time flows uphill for the YupnoNew Scientist, 12 June 2012, page 14).

No matter how much you learn about culture there will always be more differences and more misunderstandings that are simply not on our radar today. It is only in the last few years that science has begun to explore in depth unsuspected differences that for years have been hidden because of the observation bias in most research. But now we are starting to explore this unknown territory. We probably won't find any dragons, but I am sure we will find things that are much more interesting.

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Related Posts About Intercultural Topics

Doing Business in Italy: Three Key Concepts You Need to Know
Cultural Stereotypes in Cartoons: Do Germans Really Wear Monocles
Doing Business in Sweden Three Things You Need to Know
How Building Team Culture Makes Global Teams More Effective
Culture and Technology. How Cultural Factors Impact Engineering Decisions
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Creation of Levi's and Why Writers and Speakers Should Always Check Facts

Back in the pre-Internet days fact checking was not something you did lightly. Except for some basic facts you could find in an encyclopedia, most questions required a trip to the library and hours of work leafing through musty books or scrolling through reels of microfilm. Not surprisingly when people were on deadline to write an article or prepare a speech they often skipped this step, so many stories were copied from one work to another without verification. People sometimes blame mindless copying on the world-wide web, but in reality it happened long before the web was invented.

Today I was reminded of this when I went to check the story about the invention of Levi's jeans. You have probably heard the popular story that Levi Strauss was selling dry goods to miners in the California gold rush of the mid 1800s when he noticed they were wearing out their clothes in the rough mining work. He took some brown canvas, made it into jeans and added rivets to strengthen the joints. Miners loved them, Strauss sold millions and is still selling them today.

This legend is not actually true and the Levi Strauss company admits this openly on their company website. In the heritage section there is a long and detailed article on the history of denim that tells the true story. What I also liked is that they acknowledge the well-known legend, explaining that this inaccurate version might be partly due to the loss of company records and other documents in the fire that followed the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

Almost every time when I factcheck widely accepted stories I find that often they are not entirely true and sometimes they are entirely not true, convincing me that you need to factcheck everything.

Take the popular legend that Henry Ford once said "If I had asked people what they wanted they would have said a faster horse". This never sounded like the way Ford spoke and was effectively debunked by Patrick Vlaskovitz in the Harvard Business Review blogs with a post titled "Henry Ford, Innovation and that "Faster Horse" Quote, of 29 August 2011. If you don't have time to read the whole article here is the executive summary: Ford never said this and there is no record of anyone saying he said it before 2002. 

Proving that someone never said something is impossible, but when there is a complete absence of proof in a well-documented life like Henry Ford's it would be irresponsible to use the story without at least noting that it is probably apocryphal. Another story in this category is an old legend about Western Union. When Bell demonstrated his telephone to company officials, the legends recounts, they rejected it because they could not see what the point was. A funny tale but again there is no documented source for this story and given the state of telephone technology at the time their skepticism was probably justified. I have occasionally mentioned this story in lectures about innovation, but I add always that I cannot verify the story so it might not be true...

These are just three examples, You see dozens more in those annoying "inspirational quotes" tweets and pins that mostly inspire me to unfollow/defriend people who are so careless with the truth. But for writers, speakers and educators there is a lesson here: always verify every fact, every story, every date and every number. You'd be surprised how much of the stuff "everyone knows" is either out of date or plain wrong. With most of the world's knowledge a google away, you have no excuses.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why the New Top Level Internet Domains Are Pointless

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is presenting another 1410 proposals for top level domains, the final "dot-something" suffix at the end of Internet domain names (details in the Guardian). These proposals still have to be discussed and voted, so many will not actually be adopted, but any addition to the 300 or so top-level domains already in use is largely a waste of time today, for three reasons:

1. HOW OFTEN DO YOU TYPE ADDRESSES ANYWAY?  Most of the time when I visit websites i am not typing anything, I am just following links. They might be links on a social media page, in an email or in some document. Be honest. how many of you reached this page by typing in the address? If the server stats are to be trusted most of you clicked on social media links and the rest came through search engines.

2.EVEN IF YOU DO YOU DON'T NEED THE COMPLETE ADDRESS. Modern browsers have a single window for typing addresses and searching. This means that if you type in the first part of a domain name it will usually suggest the rest before you get to the top level domain suffix at the end. Nobody types anymore since "guardian" is usually enough.

3.MEMORABLE URLs ARE LARGELY IRRELEVANT IN THE TWENTY-ONETIES. Most people today are reaching websites by following a link or by searching. The rest will be arriving through Siri and it's rivals. Others are not even going to visit your website as mobile apps replace pc-centric technology. In this scenario people are not going to need to remember your URL any more than they need to remember your phone number,.so having a cool URL is about as relevant as having a memorable IP address, an easy-to-remember phone number or, going back a few more years, a telegraphic address.

ICANN is selling top level domains for an initial fee of $180,000 plus a stiff annual fee. It is hard to see what purpose adding dozens of new top-level domains can serve except to generate more revenue. Businesses dislike them intensely because they are foced to register multiple domains for brand protection -- if you register a domain like acme.cola you have to register also to stop others squattng there or to deal with the people who just assume you have a .com address. More domains just means more brand protection headaches, more work and more expense -- all for an address that no longer has any value.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Love it, Fancy it or Pin it? Rivals Start to Challenge Pinterest

Just two years ago if you had pitched a startup idea like Pinterest to investors they would have asked why you think anyone would want it. Today nobody asks who wants a visual social platform but they will ask what you do that's different. In this scenario it is no surprise that there are rivals coming to market, each with its own twist on the basic formula.

At least two of these rivals already have a usable product available for testing so we can compare them with Pinterest: Fancy, open for public beta testing, and Loveit, still in private beta. Both are conceptually so similar to the original that any Pinterest user can sign up and start "fancying" or "loving it" immediately without looking at the help page. At the same time both also have some interesting features that differentiate them from Pinterest.

Fancy appears to be designed from the outset to support businesses, who can offer special deals to users who "fancy" their products and other partnership opportunities -- like the option to book a hotel related to the image. Fancy combines this brand-friendly approach with an element of gamification, giving users badges like "Senior Womens Stylist" to people who "fancy" more than 150 items in that category. This builds an influence metric into the fabric of the site which in turn enables better merchant deal features.

Loveit takes a different approach, offering better ways to manage their collections and allowing users to have private collections or collections curated by groups of users. Loveit also emphasizes discovery features, using an image recommendation engine to suggest things and users that could interest you.

Both sites have both an intuitive interface and a clean graphic style.  Loveit  follows the normal Pinterest-like page layout while Fancy shows fewer but larger images, as though it were aiming more at mobile use. They also have some issues with the brand name: "fancy" and "love it" are common terms that are harder to google than the invented word Pinterest. Fancy does not even have the "" domain name so they are obliged to use "", which is hard to remember and every time I end up on another site. More people should read my 2011 post about Googleable brand names: Branding in the Age of Search Engines: Practical Guidelines for Professionals, Startups, Businesses

Fancy, Loveit or any other visual platforms are not likely to replace Pinterest in the same way that Facebook replaced Myspace or that Google replaced Altavista. When Facebook replaced Myspace it wasn't that people dropped the older site and moved their things to the new one; in most cases new users adopted Facebook until it became the place to be. When Google replaced Altavista users could simply switch from one to the other since they had no "investment" to lose. Users who already have hundreds of pins, likes, comments and followers on Pinterest are less likely to be motivated to change, and the dominant users are not teenagers, so there is no yearly turnover of new users to drive a shift.

What seems more likely is that neither company really expects to replace Pinterest. I wonder if their goal is to be acquired by Facebook, Google or another major player, either for their knowhow or their talent. To counter the growing threat from Pinterest the leading social media platforms will need to add similar capabilities. Buying a working system could be a short cut that eliminates the need to roll out untested products to a highly-critical customer base. Perhaps even Pinterest itself could be a buyer, looking to add new algorithms, new talent and at the same time to keep these companies out of the hands of Facebook and Google.

In the near future what is more likely to happen is that Pinterest will quickly adopt their unique features, blunting their advantage, so ultimately the people who gain the most from the new sites could actually be Pinterest users. Look at how much Facebook was improved in the wake of the Google+ launch in the summer of 2011. I suspect that we will see something similar happen to Pinterest. These are going to be interesting times for visual platforms.

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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Singly's $10K App Challenge: How the Real Winner of Hackathon is Singly

Today's rich ecosystem of software apps is possible because the people coding them build on the work of the coders who came before them. Tools like Flipboard are only possible because they build new levels on top of existing products like Facebook and Twitter. And finding things like the physical location of users is trivial today because the coding work has already been done.  This brings two huge benefits to both developers and users. First of all, the time taken to build a new app is much less. Second, it allows people to implement creative new app ideas without getting bogged down in coding basics.

Singly is a startup that makes the development of social-network-based apps even easier because it provides a standard interface for Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and other networks. Instead of having to learn the API interface details for each of them, a developer can send standardized requests to Singly, which takes care of the rest.  This is already an interesting idea but what really caught my attention was the effective way they found to promote this new service.

To demonstrate how Singly speeds up the development process the company organized a hackathon, the Singly App Challenge during the long weekend from 1st to 3rd June 2012. Contestants simply had to turn up on Friday and then spend the weekend coding a new app using the singly uniform API, demonstrating a working prototype on Sunday. The winning team takes home a $10000 prize.

Among the apps in the challenge were Pipe,  that helps you identify and contact one person from your network each day, Vippit, a tool for handling shared payments when groups of people do things together and Calm, an app that filters tweets and Facebook posts so you see exactly the ones you want to. Officially the winner is @Yardrush, "The Optimal Way to Get Rid of Anything", but I suspect that in the end the real winner is Singly, who demonstrated through this interesting initiative the key selling point of their product.

Related Posts about Startups

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Friday, June 1, 2012

How Your Organization Communicates Without Words; Lessons from SpaceX Mission Control

Watching the coverage of SpaceX's first mission to the International Space Station on NASA TV turned out to be much more interesting than I expected. One thing that really surprised me was the comparison between NASA's ISS Flight Control Room in Houston and SpaceX's mission control at their Hawthorne, Florida facility.

SpaceX's mission control is noteworthy for its minimalist, almost spartan style based on basic tables you might pick up at IKEA and simple computer monitors. Almost nothing else is visible. In comparison NASA's flight control room looks unmistakably luxurious and extravagant. In all fairness the NASA facility was probably first built in the age of paper documents and CRT displays, so this look is probably a legacy. But intentional or not the comparison sends a clear message about SpaceX.

Most organizations have a communications department that, with some help from corporate legal, will evaluate meticulously every word -- and punctuation mark -- that the organization sends to outsiders. Yet at the same time many are not so careful with these wordless messages that they are transmitting in parallel.  In the SpaceX case the unspoken message of the mission control images fits perfectly with the company's messages about economy and cost effectiveness.

Not everyone is so careful or lucky. Without naming any names, there are others who preach austerity with no visible signs of anything resembling practice. In the same way there are companies that boast about their openness while the design of their offices suggests the opposite. There are also people who stress their desire to delight customers, while at the same time keeping them at a safe distance.

Unwritten and unspoken messages are very powerful and I am sure that the style of the SpaceX facility will remain in people's minds and will inspire other companies to deliberately emulate it. But others would be better advised to take a look at the hidden messages that their businesses are sending unwittingly and watch especially for the message that are out of tune with the organizations values.

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