No, Tell Me What You Really Think. . .

13 Apr

People around town have talked about Swift, and some were invited to a feedback session on Swift. Already, comments have come out about that session, and I’m even mentioned in one of them.

First off, based on what I saw at the session, I’m going to respectfully disagree with Meredith who says:

Yes, the emails were annoying (especially when your picture was used in adverts for it… wtf?). Yes, the platform met a need that simply doesn’t exist. Yes, the platform is awful. Yes, the terms of service were ridiculous. But we always talk in this profession about not castigating people for their failures so that they will feel comfortable taking risks and trying new things. And I felt that we did exactly the opposite. There was no telling Kathleen what we would like out of an online conference community. There was very little in the way of constructive criticism. It was largely a venting of spleen.

From my point of view, the problem was less that people were not willing to provide constructive criticism, but that there was no constructive criticism to give. To re-iterate what I said during the session, there was no product — no (or wrong) consideration of what value Swift was going to bring to users. In that realm, there is no consideration of what we would like out of an online conference community, only a “go back to the drawing board and consider user needs.” Sometimes that’s all you have to say. It’s not spleen; it’s feedback. Not everything can be a brainstorm.

Take a comparison: I think ITI got user needs right for the conference. My needs? Top of the line speakers, organized sessions with paths to help me keep things relevant. Great moderators that help both audiences and presenters feel good about the space they are speaking in. Easy access to the internet (the only miss this time around — I’m sure they’ll learn for next time though). Ways to hook up with friends (the wiki and Twitter covered this for me) for social events. An RSS Aggregator to capture the blog posts about the conference (Google Reader covered this for me). And so on. One thing I personally did not need was something to aggregate materials together. There’s a website and a wiki and a whole lot of links to tie the two together. That’s more than sufficient aggregration for me. Then I’ll go to Twitter, Facebook, my Google Reader and whatnot to cover the rest. Then friends will tell me more.

As far as whether our anger castigated people for failures, I do not feel that that was what happened at the session. I think most of the tension resulted from the difficulty that comes from telling someone openly and honestly that a failure exists. More than once I heard “you know, if you want to have us in on the early stages of the process we could probably help.” That’s a pretty generous offer, no foolin’.

The rest of the anger came from a sense of, well, ego. The group in that room did not need to have platforms, TOS agreements and low resources explained to them. We were there to offer what we had in our fairly intelligent minds and having to wait on a sales pitch did not seem to sit well with most of the room. That said, the people in that room were the customers, worthy of an overblown ego. We were giving up something valuable: our open and honest feedback. Having that piece held back created tension, and, as I commented a series of “let’s cut to the chase” moments.

And now I’m going to respectfully disagree (sort of) with Cindi Trainor’s comment here:

However, a fully-functioning Swift or a product like it might be useful for attendees who don’t have time or inclination to follow their own flickr, delicious or blog post RSS feeds. The key there will be unveiling the product in just the right way and providing the *right* information to the *right* group of potential users at the *right* time. …and we weren’t it, but we’re willing to help. Honestly, how many other conference planners would have provided this forum for us?

While I agree with the sentiment — clearly not everyone will be using Twitter and Google Reader and Flickr or whatnot to the extent that I would — I think Kathleen Gilroy and Jane Dysart had precisely the right people there. Most people come to new technologies by asking someone else about them. That’s the way I do it. I’m not cutting edge when it comes to new stuff, so I’m on the lookout for what other people have to say about a product before I spend my time on it. Even if something would totally work for me, I’m not likely to use it until I know someone cool is using it too. I believe that other people are like that too. In fact, there’s empirical evidence to suggest this is the case.

So now here’s my advice, as best I can give it. In the end, I feel the Swift project tried to do too many things at once. That product was way too much for the resources being put into it. I would suggest applying one simple, innovative idea that answers a fundamental need for people at conferences. How about a registration service that gives you a nice page of your conference schedule with some basic resources (presentation info, locations, etc.) to go with it. Then you can hook it into your hand-held or icalendar feed with some alerts. Then provide a simple api and you could (in time) see some Twitter, facebook and etc. action. (eg. I could easily make it so my presentation details showed up as a Twitter status).

If Otter Group did that really well, I would use it — because it would make my life easier. And that’s what a product is all about — value to the customer. Bring me value, and I’ll invite my friends along to make good ole Metcalfe’s law come in to play for good ole lucrative ad revenue.

Finally, I’ll add (as almost everyone else did) that Dysart & Jones did a great job of the conference as usual and in my mind none of this stuff reflects negatively on them. They tried something and it didn’t work. Then they were smart enough to seek feedback for it. I also think we ought not be too worried about them not taking risks. At that level of experience and professionalism, having a few customers angry at a minor piece of the CIL pie is hardly going to keep them from moving on other innovative ideas.

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4 Responses to “No, Tell Me What You Really Think. . .”

  1. K.G. Schneider April 14, 2008 at 10:14 am #

    Ryan, this is a lucid and spot-on post (in other words, I agree with it). In the end, CiL worked and SWIFT didn’t. We’re there for CiL. They can get a few things wrong and we’ll come back. I also told Tom Hogan Jr. that there are any of us who would LOVE to help evaluate products.

  2. Meredith April 14, 2008 at 10:18 am #

    Hey Ryan, I replied to your comment on my post here http://meredith.wolfwater.com/wordpress/index.php/2008/04/10/on-not-so-swift-otters-and-instilling-a-fear-of-failure/#comment-185017

    I think we agree for the most part except for how effective or “right” it is to criticize someone in such an angry tone. In the comment on my post, you made it sound like the anger came out in an effort to effectively communicate criticism. In this post, you make it sound like it came out of frustration with the sales pitch and, well, ego. I’m much more willing to buy the latter, because I don’t believe that a message is better communicated in an angry tone. I worked as a therapist with enough people with anger problems (and I’m not saying that any of you have anger problems, you don’t) to know that most people stop listening to them or communicating with them because of how they react to things.

    But I don’t think we disagree on the platform itself; we just had a different reaction to it.

  3. Sarah Cohen April 14, 2008 at 12:22 pm #

    Great post. I especially appreciated your noting what influences you to use new technology: what others, especially people you trust, think about it. The reason I went to CiL was to learn about new technology and think about it critically. And that is what we did with Swift. Perhaps the communication of that examination might have been a hard nosed for some, but the value of a critical examination of a new product still stands.

  4. Ryan Deschamps April 14, 2008 at 12:52 pm #

    I promised myself that I would let Meredith have the last word, but I feel I need to explain the discrepancy between what I said on her post and the post here.

    When I think back to the session, I do not believe that I was angry. Honestly, I had zero stake in whether Swift was or was not a success and I was even less concerned about the terms of service issues.

    I think I was “angry sounding” because I felt a need to say “let’s cut to the chase here.” Not to blow my own horn, but I think my comments (and others) were heard quite well despite (or maybe because of) the tone I said it. No one in that room owed Swift anything, nor does Swift have to take the advice seriously. I do know that I darn well appreciate any feedback I get (angry or otherwise) for our online services. Of course, I draw the line at abusive comments, but angry-sounding constructive commentary is like gold in an environment where you have to guess at user experience most times.

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