Saturday, November 9, 2013

Musings on tech writer interviews

Google recently announced that it's ceasing its practice of asking brain teasers in interviews. Their VP of People Operations said they'd stop asking things like, "How many golf balls fit into an airplane?" and "How many gas stations are in Manhattan?" and “How would you weigh your head?”

I haven't interviewed at Google but I've been asked some pretty goofy questions. I was once asked "If you were an animal what kind of animal would you be?" (to which I said, "I don't have an answer for that"). I once interviewed for a financial analyst job at Wood Gundy and was asked what country clubs my parents belonged to and where our cottage was located. (I had no answer to that, either.) I was once asked no questions... the interviewer just talked and talked nervously and then offered me the job.

Mostly, though, I've had pretty good experiences being both interviewer and interviewee. I think the trick is to make a connection and exchange information frankly. That's why I don't like interviewing unemployed applicants, cruel as that sounds. If someone has to quit a job to take a job, then they will be more interested in ensuring it's a good fit on both sides.

I've always thought that things said in interviews should be considered as semi-contractual. If an employer tells an applicant they're concerned about the applicant's short durations at recent employers and asks if they'll stick around - and the applicant says yes - then the applicant has an obligation to stick around - at least two years, unless there's something really wrong. If the applicant says he wants to move up to manager within a few years and the employer hires him, then there is a presumption that he will have the opportunity to advance, given good performance and favorable conditions at the company.

I think it's folly to ever hire a writer without administering a writing test. Having writing experience, even senior experience, doesn't guarantee that the candidate has any writing chops. The test can be as simple as having the writer edit a poorly constructed paragraph or writing a procedure to perform a simple task. Similarly, it's important to ask questions that validate skills... I once interviewed a woman who said she was expert in SQL but despite ten years documenting databases, she didn't know how to retrieve data from a table.

Fluxible 2013: Recap

Last year I wrote a series of detailed posts about sessions at the Fluxible conference in Kitchener, Ontario. This year I was a volunteer at Fluxible #2 so I was unable to take as good notes. I had to keep dashing out of sessions to put drinks on ice and so on. But I got the gist of things and in some ways, it was an even better way to attend the conference, as I was less lost in the weeds and reflected more on the big picture. So here's my scattershot and/or 10,000 foot view of what was going on at this year's Fluxible.

Warning: I am basing this post off my notes, but I can't guarantee that I'm representing every speaker completely accurately. A particular problem may be omissions since I was not always in the room.

The conference started with a series of five minute talks. Steve Baty started us off by talking about the nature of innovation - from the old meaning of the word (insurrection, rebellion) to its meaning as incremental improvements such as those practiced by Toyota, which constantly pushes ahead with an empowered workforce and small steps in manufacturing and design that enable it to make the best cars. The next speakers talked about disruptive change requiring a new attitude. We were reminded to not focus only on users, but to also research "near users" (people who use a similar product) and non-users.

Trip O'Dell talked about the changing demographics of mobile users and how we need to adjust our thinking. He said previous heuristic expertise is becoming obsolete. He warned that designers are becoming more distanced from their users - up till now, it was "20 year olds designing for 20 year olds": designers tend to be rich, educated, tech savvy, and early adopters of technology - what he calls "high agency users". But now, increasingly, mobile users are in poorer countries, and users are often poor, less educated, and functionally illiterate. He calls these "low agency users". These users aren't just in developing countries: he said that 15% of North American adults are functionally illiterate too. Italy and Mexico have especially high percentages of low agency users.

Low agency users are usually not of low intelligence: we just need to show rather than tell. The main things that need to change are the text-based nature of UIs and icons that are rooted in our culture.

O'Dell pointed out that the current trend in UI design, flat icons, was inspired by transit language in airports: those icons pointing to baggage pickup and so on. Those icons are big, bright, clear, and meaningful across cultures.

He also noted that a new trend among apps for low agency users is playfulness. For example, the Chinese app WeChat, which has 550M users, has a feature where you can shake your phone to connect to other people who are shaking their phone at the same time.

"Low agency countries" tend to have an ownership culture, where people want to own rather than rent. Netflix would not do well there.

Diana Wiffen of Quarry Communications talked about how to design winning digital experience design strategies.

Here are speaker Konrad Sauer's notes on the conference: link.

Cell phones > Smartphones > Superphones > ?

Just fooling around here, but with the rapid evolution of smartphone technology, you have to be wondering where it's going.

Earlier this year we learned of an imager chip that lets mobile phones see through walls, clothes, and other objects.

With Square, we see an evolution to peripheral devices that free consumers from the sales cycle of phone manufacturers. (Square sells a little piece of hardware that turns phones into credit card readers.)

And of course, wearable phones are here, currently as glasses or watches.

But we still seem to be just on the cusp of fundamental change. There is emerging technology that lets finger and hand gestures do many things, that lets brain power direct objects without physical intervention, that replaces phone screens with public viewing areas. In five years the paradigm of typing on tiny keyboards and peering at tiny screens may seem ludicrous. More interestingly, there may be a fundamental change in what we do with our mobile devices.

I don't pretend to have any clear view of the future, but I wonder what the social effects will be. Economist Tyler Cowen worries that technological change will kill the middle class, although he doesn't argue the case very convincingly.

The internet was built on porn. More recently, the economic driver of technological change appears to be advertising and its insatiable need for more and better data on consumers. Game developers even talk about the importance of "digital exhaust" - making gold of information previously thought worthless, like how long certain demographics of player linger on a level in a game.

What will happen if data becomes available to everyone - if, just as free access to the internet became seen as a right of humanity, access to data becomes a right? The killer apps of the future could be ones that mine, analyse, present, and use data. That seems like a future I can get excited about.

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This post is cross-posted on my other blog: Yappa Ding Ding