A response to Ruth’s comment

 Glad to see you on and about, Ruth! This is a post inspired by my friend Ruth’s comment.

Exactly my point with the different structures of thought. It can be havoc to sit down at a computer after someone else has messed up your preferences and settings, let alone trying to follow the thought chains of people as they’re ruminating.

But then again, this is the inherent balancing question that stems from Bush, Engelbart, and Licklider’s articles for me. Whenever we make a movement to empower the individual we have to keep one eye on maintaining minimum standards.

I guess that my point to all of this is that there always needs to be some balance point, where the free associative indexing of the individual can be carried out in relative peace with a minimum amount of outside-imposed strictures (to capture the innovative and unique perspective of the individual) … and yet there also needs to be a way of translating that technological personal gnosis, as it were, into something that approaches at least a minimal level of structure to allow for sharing. We’re always allowed to smash the temple walls of community standards and expectations in the name of free thought and innovation, but once we do that we are necessarily forced to reinvent a platform or set of standards in order to communicate on any sort of wide level -at all-.

All the way to grad school and I’m staring squarely at the issue of how to find the balance between community standards which empower communication and the individual’s need for disorganized freedom in developing their own symbiosis with their own technological tools. It seems to be a recurrent theme in my life, no?

Only this time, we’re working off of technological assumptions instead of social or mystical ones. I can sort of cheat because we’re all living with the ‘memex’ that Bush described(1945). And we’re also living with the knowledge of what came next, or concurrently, as the internet was developed…. the data communication protocols which empowered networked sharing; namely TCP/IP.

Which all ties in nicely with Engelbart’s conceptual model of the H-LAM/T system (1962)… something I’ll endeavor to render in diagram format in the near future. Basically one of the interdependent portions of how we formulate complex thoughts has to do with first providing a Language, the ‘L’ in the H-LAM/T. In Engelbart he wrote about the Language in terms of the individual building conceptual and symbolic structures in order to facilitate complex thinking using things that were meaningful and intrinsic to the individual.

My point is that it also extends outwards. We can’t begin to assemble the bits of personally inspired data into meaningful relationships to make it into information (a concept introduced to me in ICM501 course lecture, Alex Halavais, 8/30/07) on any sort of scale unless we’re all writing with the same language first. Language tends to influence thought patterns, and in Augmenting Human Intelligence, Engelbart (1962) points out the theoretical school of cognition that holds that if the language we use to think with doesn’t allow a certain conceptual structure then we’ll never actually think in those terms.

I look at the Language element of the H-LAM/T model and wonder what concepts or conceptual structures we’ve already selected out during the initial phase of coming up with the foundational concepts and terminology which have resulted in the Interactive Communications Technologies (ICTs) in the first place.

 I’ve run into problems that are motivated by differences in individual outlooks before in my role as a Web Producer for TracyLocke. Let me introduce the case study we found ourselves in to highlight exactly what kind of ‘communicatus interruptus’ I’m nodding at when you start dealing with individuals who have self-organized around a vastly different conceptual and methodological model (the H-LAM/T scenario, briefly, states that Human intellect operates based on Language, Artifact use, and Methodology, in which they have been Trained. H-LAM/T.)

Case Study: Aprimo’s-  vs. TracyLocke’s mindset

TracyLocke is an advertising giant which has lasted for over 94 years in the industry. They directly influenced our culture by naming and branding 7-11, Tostitos, and for the Haggar brand they coined the term ‘slacks’ to describe dress pants that weren’t jeans or part of a suit.  They’re not just a company with a history either, they’re a company with forward thinking about technology and the way to use it to augment the traditional roles of marketing and advertising processes.

Part of that technological focus happened while I was employed as a Web Producer with them. TracyLocke had purchased a web-based proprietary software solution to help them manage their projects. Up until that point TL relied upon an outdated database and a cadre of entry-level “Project Managers” who ran around the building literally, chasing jobs down and trafficking hard copy bags and folders. TL was getting to a size where this was prohibitive, and they had purchased a solution called ‘SmartPath’.

SmartPath was only one technology provider for this kind of technology, and given the money and time which was invested in this enterprise-level project, rest assured that senior management had done exhaustive research and due dilligence to make sure they were purchasing the best solution for their needs. One of the competitive products which had been evaluated and ultimately decided against was a company named Aprimo. As it happened, after TracyLock had signed the contract with SmartPath, Aprimo acquired the SmartPath company and rights to its technology. TracyLocke had chosen SmartPath over Aprimo, but now they were dealing with Aprimo directly once again.

I won’t disclose the nature of -all- the agreements between them, since I’m sure I’ll get a nice lawyer’s email if I do, but essentially what happened is that as a condition for going forward with the SmartPath purchase and installation, TracyLocke maneuvered themselves into a unique position… Aprimo was working on the latest release of their own product, Aprimo 8 I believe, and TracyLocke was invited along with a few other select companies in a similar position to provide direct feedback to the development team for Aprimo.  I don’t know the truth to it, but I was under the impression that Aprimo had a significant market share in accounting firms, traditional business offices, engineering firms, etc. Left brain market share, is how I thought of it. Again, I never saw data or numbers, so this is simply hearsay.

SmartPath, however, allegedly had a significant share of what I’ll call ‘Right brain market share’, appealing to creative agencies, media companies, advertising and promotions agencies, etc. Aprimo was sincere in wanting our help. They knew that TracyLocke had, for whatever reason, decided consciously not to move forward with purchasing the Aprimo product. They knew that TracyLocke was a good representation of the right brain market share they were allegedly looking to attract. And there was a contractual clause between TracyLocke and Aprimo that will remain undisclosed just out of courtesy, but basically TracyLocke was in a position where Aprimo not only invited their feedback, they had to at least consider it seriously.

As a member of the larger SmartPath implementation team, I was part of the large group of users who was given a ‘sneak peek’ at the Aprimo product. And I gagged when I saw it.

Now, please understand that Aprimo was incredibly feature rich, and from what I understand still is. A veritable technology leader for its industry niche. I’m not in any way panning their product. But I was invited to give critical feedback, so I did. And as it turned out, I ended up getting called on it to defend myself with specifics and particulars. Not only that, under the advice of a reseller of the Aprimo product, I was invited to write a long email which specifically addressed why the agency world would never buy into the Aprimo product as it stood at that stage of development, which I did.

Why did I pan it? Simply, the user interface was atrocious. Nothing made sense, everything was nested nicely in little logical schema which made absolutely no sense whatsoever. There were appalling visual cues for how to proceed, icons which didn’t match with commonly expected functions, unclear at every turn. The application -was- powerful. Immensely so. But we couldn’t even begin to approach how robust it was because the creative agency team couldn’t understand how to use it.

Communication Attempts

I not only wrote an email, but I redesigned their UI to show them in visual terms just how I would have taken where they had ended up and moved forward with it to make it not only appealing, but also consistent with standard interface conventions. I worked dilligently at it for a week, and wrote several drafts of the initial email. When I was done I thought, “At last! They’ll read this and be able to understand exactly how to approach this market.”

They didn’t. The Aprimo team wrote back that all of my recommendations were nice, but non-essential. The software worked, who cared how it looked or how folks were interacting with it? After all, Aprimo would train folks how to use their machine, so no worries about not knowing how.

A complete miss in communication terms. Here we had two completely different groups of individuals, focused on two completely different areas, which made tremendous sense to each of them individually, but which failed completely to connect with the other group. We were all talking about user interfaces for web-based technology, a bona fide Interactive Communication Technology. 

 It took us two weeks of back and forth discussion and debate over email before we finally began to understand that we were talking to the wrong people in the organization. We were talking to the engineers. From a social discourse level, of course they wouldn’t care about how things looked… that was secondary to the functionality of it. I argued back (because it actually sort of devolved to me phrasing the emails for the team in this one specific arena) that the most amazing tool in the world is not going to do much if no one will use it. TracyLocke already had one imposed solution for this kind of job tracking and project and process management software. It was largely ignored because using the tool was inefficient and didn’t improve upon the basic tasks or processes of the agency. No one understood it, so no one used it.

In the end what bridged the gap between our two sides of the conversation was an email of mine where I tried a different approach. Instead of talking about the Aprimo suite of software in question, I described my workplace. The open architecture, the television sets hanging from the ceiling every few feet. The buzz of energy as a converted warehouse space was used by many different teams to work on creative projects. The personal decorations around everyone’s desk. The fact that we all used Macs and that the majority of employees in the building were art directors who spent every waking moment thinking about image, brand, identity, and the customer/user experience.

Not about functionality. Art Directors don’t need to worry over much about functionality because they have an entire department at their disposal called ‘Studio’ who takes their artwork and figures out how to reproduce it exactly, yet in a way which will allow it to work and be printed. No one worried about how robust their applications were because Photoshop and Illustrator are so powerful that there isn’t a user alive who is expert in every possible way to utilize them. (Or if there is, she’s spending way too much time on the computer.)

When I was able to frame the work environment, the daily tasks, and the overall feel of the agency world as we knew it and lived it at TracyLocke (I miss Beer Cart Fridays and Bagel Wednesdays still), suddenly the connections started firing. The engineers were making a simple mistake, and so were we in the agency. We each assumed that because -we- felt at home and ‘normal’ in our environment, that -we- must represent at least a significant portion of the target audience. After all, we were normal, right? So everyone else must be, too.

This was a communication breakdown which needed two weeks of time before it was identified and resolved. In the business world, that’s an eternity. In those two weeks I was spending a large portion of my time working on that problem instead of actually developing the Rich Internet Applications which were my primary function (before the budget reforecasting took away my bottom line, that is… ah corporations!).  In both scenarios, we were both focusing on Interactive Communication Technologies. We had developed a rapport and a set of expectations which were unique to us as individuals between how our minds worked and how we used our computers.  But we weren’t starting from the same page.

Two individual mindsets had developed their own unique symbiosis in order to handle the processing and furthering of complex thought, yet we were moving to opposite ends of an ideological spectrum and still assuming we stood at center. Not only that, because of those unseen individual expectations we were starting to reach a place where our common language (English) was no longer facilitating the sharing of conceptual structures. Without those conceptual structures in place, we were unable to transfer concept to mental structure (internalize things).

Looking back on it in terms of Engelbart’s conceptual framework of H-LAM/T, we were both trying to achieve the end goal of empowering or augmenting higher intelligence in workers. But they were focusing on the specific artifact repertoire (what the machine could do by itself) and we were looking at the integrated human/artifact relationship as a whole.

End Run for Resolution

We resolved the matter by escalating things from the engineering team to the Vice President of Marketing, who already shared the vocabulary of ‘branding’ and ‘brand experience’ with the agency side. I don’t know whether or not the engineering team ever came around fully to appreciate why a decent user interface was necessary (that’s not really fair — I’m sure they felt it necessary, but we disagreed on what ‘decent’ meant). In my wicked inside self I have to admit I sometimes imagine a cobwebbed and decrepit group of software engineers whimpering softly in some conference room somewhere that they’ve been locked.  But the example is a perfect one to illustrate the broader problem.

When we begin to approach a society of empowered individuals, especially networked and empowered individuals who are able to transcend the limitations of time and place and connect with like minds and sympathetic people all over the world, we start seeing a breakdown in the overall communication efforts. We begin having to augment what previously would have been a simple exercise in language skills by framing them in our own particular frame of reference. We have to not only share the idea through a medium on its own, we have to continually remind ourselves that the key to effective communication in a society of ‘disorganized individuals’ we must also be clear to a lesser or greater extent about how we have arrived at these conclusions or ideas ourselves.

It’s something I can only see increasing in complexity. Since the H-LAM/T system of Engelbart’s is not only interdependent but regenerative and most importantly, compound, the tiny changes in the interaction between individuals nowadays of dissimilar perspectives will only continue to require more and more attention in order to achieve even the preliminaries of a true exchange of ideas.

References

Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly, July.

Engelbart, D. (1962). Augmented human intellect study, Conceptual framework (Part II, pp 8-46). SRI.

Licklider, J.C.R. (1968). Man-Computer Symbiosis. Science and Technology.

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4 responses to “A response to Ruth’s comment

  1. Really interesting case, and nice application here. I came out of it with a better understanding than when I started, which I consider the sin qua non of a good posting. Bravo.

  2. I’ve used Aprimo at a couple of my clients; I completely agree, it looks terrible. I think what they did was try to reproduce a “Windows” interface in the browser. Completely missing the point, i.e. this is a BROWSER – it’s supposed to be intuitive and attractive!. We also looked at their DAM solution, that was pretty basic too, no where near feature rich enough to be used by a studio or agency (or one contracted by a client to use it)

  3. So if not Aprimo....

    Thanks for a candid assessment of Aprimo. We are evaluating MRM tools and looking at Aprimo. So if Aprimo’s UI is awful, what product(s) out there look good to you or you have heard about that alleviate this problem?

  4. Please remember that this was during a development phase for an Aprimo product which has since rolled out. I wasn’t there for the long haul, just the intial attempt to bridge the communication gap between the Aprimo engineers and the TracyLocke designers, two worlds which were *so* not communicating well.

    As far as what’s out there for Marketing Resource Management software, I honestly am not familiar with many products shy of Aprimo.

    I would actually suggest that anyone who is looking into MRM solutions should talk to some of the resellers out there. Aprimo is handled in our neck of the woods (Northeast US) by NAPC.com. I’d highly advise checking with them to take a look at how the UI actually turned out and make your concerns known up front. They might be able to suggest a better solution, or perhaps there might be the potential solution for UI revision or customization to a deeper level than skinning in the newer releases.

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