Friday, 21 November 2014

Gone phishing!

I fear it's a fact of life that if you receive email you will receive junk mail of various types, ranging from the harmless but irritating to the downright dangerous: click at your peril!

Such things are very worrying for email users, because it can be very difficult to tell some of them from genuine emails. A sad but typical example has been documented by the BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones, who managed to avoid falling victim to a PayPal payment scam while he was auctioning in aid of the Children in Need charity.

As a recipient you should be able to detect such things by carefully checking any links in the email. (Ideally you shouldn't click on links in emails but, hey, this is the real world.) Usually, by hovering your pointer over a link you should be able to detect the actual address to which it goes, not what the visible text says. If you are more adept you can explore what are called the long headers of a mail to see where it really came from and how it got to you. But some emails are sent legitimately from web servers or other addresses that may not have what is called a mail exchange (MX) record.

I am not a fan of HTML emails but they are here to stay with all the potential for trouble from hidden links and tracking images. I feel it's rather like insisting that telephone calls are sung, not spoken, just because it's nicer. With a text email, it's up to the mail client whether any link text is turned into a real clickable link ... usually triggered by an 'http://'.

Why is this relevant to us as developers and producers of interactive media? I think we need to think carefully about how our clients communicate when using emails to contact their customers, especially if they are asking for information. Our clients are not all banks (or PayPal) so the chances of a scammer sending out emails purporting to be from our clients are slim ... but do their emails always seem to be clearly from them?

Let me give an example. You may use a third party to manage a mailing list for a newsletter. Have you checked to see how those emails actually arrive? The 'Reply to' header may show your domain but the real sender address will be the third party company. The unsubscribe links may be to the third party company. All this is completely above board and I only mention it because there are genuine instances where some of the basic sanity checks on scam emails will fail with the genuine article. To ameliorate this you could be up front about it and say that your mailing list is handled by another company, which will explain the different email domain.

PayPal and eBay have a good technique. They always address you by name whereas phishing emails tend to start Dear customer or even Dear friend. The UK National Savings will send you an email telling you that you need to log onto your online account and read a new message: not particularly friendly but very safe. It's useful to see what other organisations do to help keep their customers safe online. Definitely something that's well worth doing and, coincidentally, good for business.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Digital Usability and Return on Investment

It’s been a while since we looked at this issue - September 2013 - and as in every digital sector, it has moved on leaps and bounds.

UX (User Experience) is now understood as a fundamental business concern for digital. Previously it had been a ‘take it or leave it’ addition. It was hard to identify in quantifiable terms how UX added to business benefits. This has changed too. It’s a discipline that has grown in knowledge that has been tied to business key performance indicators (KPIs). This is what has driven its recognition as a core component of any type of digital communication.

So, this discipline now has its own sets of awards covering various facets of communication. For example, UKUX Awards 29th October 2014 awarded in the following categories: Best Entertainment, Best Student Project, Best Not for Profit, Best Public Sector, Best Effects on Business Goals, Best Innovation, Best Learning or Education Experience, Best Information, Best Transactional Experience, Best Windows Phone App, Best User Experience, For more details of the winners and an explanation of why they won, see www.bunnyfoot.com.

It’s as well to note that a website or other digital applications may well not be able to show such business benefits straight away. It’s often in the refinement of the user experience in use that tightens up the experience and releases the business potential. This means ongoing observation. Will your customers pay for this? Do you have the expertise? Do you recommend that this happens? If you are not a usability company then these are questions you need to ask.

You also need to appreciate that the different digital offerings need different tests to demonstrate where they are not meeting customer expectations and what to do about this. There isn’t a one way solution! If you read Lee Duddell’s account of ‘5 Tips to Improve Mobile UX’ (20 June 2014) in ‘What Users Do’, you’ll see what we mean.

If you want to do some in-depth self-improvement (Professional Development?), there’s a one hour webinar, ‘How to Measure the ROI of User Experience’ by Dr. Susan Weinschenk, at ‘Userzoom’.

This is a field of expertise and unless it is our field of expertise, we can only appreciate whether our companies should be aware of the benefits it can bring, whether we are covering it with experts, and/or whether we have a duty to inform our customers about it. Yes, there’s so much to consider in projects, we know.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Training is the first to go ...

Once upon a time we used to hold training courses based on our book. Sometimes we'd do it for a single company, who'd provide enough people and a venue, and sometimes they were open to anyone. It was a fairly modest affair but even that stopped when the recession hit. So we don't offer it any more although we now have an online course providing an introduction to managing a digital interactive project.

With this in mind I was pleased to hear about the initiative by BIMA and TIGA, trade bodies for the digital creative industries, asking for the government to introduce tax breaks for small companies to invest in their talent by training it. To quote the BIMA blog:
We believe the launch of a pilot SME Training Tax Relief (TTR) scheme to promote skills, training, and productivity is vital to support the future of the creative industries, a sector worth £71.4 billion a year to the UK economy.
How might such a thing work? After all, what your company spends on its business can be offset against tax already can't it?

There have been tax initiatives to help research and development for a while now, and they presumably provide a model. The basic idea is that for every pound you spend on whatever the scheme applies to, you can claim more than that amount against tax. For example, to quote HM Revenue and Customs ...
The tax relief on allowable R&D costs incurred on or after 1 April 2012 is 225% - that is, for each £100 of qualifying costs, your company or organisation could have its Corporation Tax profits reduced by an additional £125 on top of the £100 spent.
There is a similar arrangement should you be making an accounting loss during that particular financial year.

This makes such a scheme attractive financially to a company. Clearly there will be strings attached. For example, in R&D, any intellectual property from the R&D has to belong to the company. With training you might find that it is a condition that anyone trained remains employed with the company for a certain time, so that both the employee and the company benefit from the training. As a slight aside, it has been suggested that training costs should be treated as a capital cost rather than expenditure, since the benefit can be seen to last well beyond the immediate period. At the moment, since as a small company you can offset 100% of capital costs (up to a limit) that wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but the revenue have said that such an interpretation would be 'difficult to imagine'. (See the document linked below.)

For the company, any tax relief will ameliorate the double whammy that (superficially) training staff has: you lose productive staff time and you have to pay for it. But training, especially if the courses include people from outside the immediate working environment, has additional benefits; bringing people together. It's the same with conferences: the time spent socialising is as important as the time spent in sessions.

A final hope, from me for obvious reasons, would be that online training would be eligible for tax relief as well as face-to-face training. This would be by no means a given, based on past experience, but for many activities such as programming, online training can be particularly productive.

As a final note, you should read this document from the revenue:
Sometimes, the government gets suggestions that employers should be given tax relief for the costs of training their employees. That surprises us, since except in cases where the employee has some link with the employer outside the employment itself, the disallowance of expenditure by an employer on staff training and development will be extremely unusual indeed.
See ... even the tax man says you should go for it!

[PS: Full disclosure ... I used to be Chair of BIMA]

Friday, 17 October 2014

Digital marketing and user understanding getting together

Apart from the blurring of digital roles like programmer, designer, and project manager, the blurring of digital marketing and usability specialists occurs but has not been recognised. The overlap comes from the interest in the users’ reactions to products and services that are offered electronically. Traditionally both professionals have employed concept testing to assess the reactions of potential users to an idea, new product or service. However, the market researchers keep a strong eye on the market conditions while the usability experts are biased towards the immediate user experience with the technology process. Both have merit, of course. Imagine a new product that the market seemed to want but it returns a poor result because of technology difficulties in users trying to buy it.

It comes back to the emphasis on which concept is being tested: the type of product or service, or how the user gets information and access to the product and service. We can see that the traditional approach to marketing and concept testing has a rounded approach covering the product, the packaging, the branding and the proposed advertising. [www.decisionanalyst.com]

More than this, the concept testing needs to take account of: the users’ needs for particular solutions, the clarity of the presentation of the item, whether the users are prepared to pay for the proposed new solution, how to move past the hypothetical to real responses. [www.circle-research.com]

So, concept testing covers far more than you imagined? Quite right. But companies are expecting a blend of skills and experience in the job descriptions they are drawing up, such as a Senior Digital User Researcher.

You know these skills are in demand when a technological solution is offered to cover them; see the description of various online tools that are designed to test concepts at Decisionanalyst.com.

The user perspective is noted much more strongly than it used to be. They are more vocal after all, and technology provides a means for them to voice opinions. How is your company dealing with this shift? Do you partner with a marketing/usability company that offers complimentary skillsets to yourselves that will serve your client-base? Are you conscious of the blending of usability and marketing insights? If you have a partnership, is there a bias towards the core skillset that might be limiting the research?

Searching questions for many iMedia development companies, I’d imagine.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

What’s in a name? Are you missing out on recognition and funding?

We often come back to the thorny problem of what this whole industry (is it even defined as an industry?) is called. Multimedia, Interactive Media, Digital, Digital Media, Mobile Communications and so on. Then the pieces of whatever it is – digital marketing, games, animation, digital effects, digital data, social media, e-learning, front-end, back-end, digital graphics, ?????. Where do they fit?

You may well react with a, ‘what the hell does it matter?’ attitude because there’s so much to try to keep up with that this seems nit-picking. But, if the government doesn’t recognise you and keep statistics on you, they won’t apportion any of their money to you. That’s the fundamental problem. Government makes decisions on where to place investment as a result of stats collected according to definitions of ‘industries’ and their contribution to the economy: data that is gathered adhering to data codes of standards. Now, if their definition of an industry sector is non-inclusive, businesses not defined in their definitions don’t get a look in.

Do you define yourself within the ‘creative industries’? Do you know what they are? Finally people are recognising that we in digital are contributing significantly to the UK’s economy. In fact, the DCMS (Department for Media, Culture and Sport) cited some key figures in January where the creative industries value added growth of 15.6% between 2008-2012 was almost three times the 5.4% of the economy as a whole. More encouraging, employment rose far faster in our sector – almost 8:1 ahead of the general employment growth.

The traditional definition of ‘creative industries’ included film, television, writers, artists, musicians, theatre and even antiques, but with the rise of cgi, digital effects, animation, digital games and so on, exactly what constitutes ‘creative industries’ has been under scrutiny (hurray!). The DCMS gave some credence to the wider ‘creative economy’ where the official figures state that 1 in 12 jobs in 2012 were in it and that IT, software and computer services account for 31% of employment within this.

Oliver and Ohlbaum Associates did some research for Google in December 2013 where they used a redefined stance on ‘creative industries’: The Internet and the Creative Industries: measuring growth within a changing sector ecology. Here the wider digital value chain is recognised as ‘enabling industries’ that serve the digital creative chain. Their research recognises variances of definition of ‘creative industries’ across Europe as well as realising that the contribution to a country’s economy might be from global recognition of worth as well as a country’s GDP. They give a strong recommendation on behalf of SMEs and sole traders so that their contribution is recognised in future as they have been poorly represented so far. They warn that if the influence of the internet on the traditional creative industries is ignored then the measurement indicators for these industries might well report a decline while the opposite is true. There are some great graphics used in this report and it’s worth scanning if you have the interest.

It’ll come as no surprise then that, with such a rapid growth of employment, a skills shortage is recognised: don’t we know that. The Landing organised an interesting panel event in Greater Manchester to look at this specifically.

But there are several initiatives that it’d be good to know about – namely, thecreativeindustries.co.uk, and NESTA - an innovation charity that has funding opportunities for ‘creative’ businesses, among others. Things are finally moving in a positive direction. Keep shouting!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Risk management - a conflict for iMedia companies

Trying to get a snapshot of risk management in digital development proved difficult and confusing. I was looking to find information about specific risks in project development but they didn’t surface; what did is actually more strategic and thought-provoking.

There is a complete spectrum of risks for tech companies ranging from lack of innovation to the higher risk of insolvency because of not managing financial risks. It’s a minefield. You find examples of larger companies valuing the smaller entrepreneurial risk-taking tech companies because they themselves are too big and slow to evolve business solutions that suit the fast-changing consumer environment. They appreciate the iterative progress/test cycle and user-lead style projects that give faster results. Hence the Accelerator Centre in West London where 11 tech companies have been selected by Barclays Bank and Techstars to invent future financial services. Another such partnership is Centrica and Hive where ‘normal management structures don’t apply’. General Electric (GE) outsource innovation including offering open competitions for ways to improve their products. Get more information on these from the BBC Business News (9 September 2014).

So from risk takers and their culture to the more traditional ‘control risks or else’ cultures. R3 – an insolvency trade body – has reported that tech firms are at higher risk of insolvency because of their failure to ‘factor in the full costs of development or assess the competition’. Apparently tech firms in the North-East are most vulnerable which explains the news item in the Lancashire Evening Post, Tech Sector has high number of firms at risk (29 September 2014).

The key word from the last paragraph was ‘cultures’. The ‘soft risks’ or ‘culture’ of a company are beginning to get serious recognition as a possible financial drain – a hard risk factor! The Dialogue blog (16 September 2014) Soft risk: how culture can fail business, by Richard Finn, gives interesting examples of where a culture misaligned with business purpose has had serious consequences. This is BIG, since he calls for senior management to create a new senior management position (non-executive director) and committee to manage soft risks! How does your company’s culture line up? Richard cites six consequences of a ‘bad’ culture as: business under-achievement, poor products, poor service, damaged investor sentiment, reputation destruction, and talent flight. Well, I’m sure no company wants those.

We’ll end with a conundrum. As I said, this risk assessment seems to follow a circular path. Enter the larger tech company that is targeting bespoke development companies in the government sector: KnowledgeKube from Mercato Solutions. They cite bespoke solutions as costing more and taking more time to develop. They offer a platform and services approach that will drive down costs and give government departments more control. It sells itself on being able to ‘remove the risk associated with bespoke development.

So you see the conflict between the start of this blog where innovation and risk-taking are valued and this last example where bespoke development is itself risky and to be avoided.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Lolcats and the lexicon of being online

When we put together the various editions of our book, one of the things we included was a glossary. Abbreviations, acronyms and slang terms are a part of any subject and can often be used by specialists as a shorthand. Unfortunately, if you don't know the shorthand then this can make it impossible to understand a subject that you actually may be able to follow were you to speak the language. Hence glossaries.

Our glossary is getting a little elderly now, although it should still be useful.

An altogether more up-to-date and wide-ranging glossary was recently published by the Guardian, modestly called The ultimate internet glossary. It goes from 4chan to Zoopla (or is it Zynga) and includes lots of cats.

What is it about cats? It has been jokingly suggested that problems with the internet could be fixed if they took all the cats off it. This lets me mention Henri le chat noir and lolcats.com, en passant. (Wasn't Lolcats a song by the Cure? That's a QTWTAIN by the way.)

As with all things in life you can Google glossaries. They range from the technical (from pc.net and Matisse Enzer) to the basic but undoubtedly useful (such as this glossary for 'older adults' from the American National Institute on Ageing).

If you feel like contributing to the daunting task of keeping such a thing up to date then there is a Wikipedia glossary, however at the time of writing it is somewhat poor IMHO and in need of TLC.

TTFN