Archive for February, 2007

Password Pains

How many times have I gone to a website and forgot my username or password? Actually, I didn’t forget the password, I forgot which ones I used. Was it one of the ones with less than 6 characters, 8 characters, or more? Did it include numbers? What about case-sensitivity (mixed upper and lower case)? I use many passwords for each category, but which category is it? Each web site follows it’s own rules for password strength.

The stronger the password, the less likely a stranger (or hacker) could guess or discover the password. That’s why using birthdays, anniversaries, children’s names, and other basic information is highly discouraged. Of course, strong passwords are also much harder to remember. In fact the strongest passwords disappear after use and are created new the next time, but that’s a different blog entry.

What makes for a strong password anyway?

  • Longer is better – the longer it is the harder it is to guess or break
  • Use non-sensical letters or words – “treeball” or “xiqjlkr” are much better than “Jane”
  • Mix letters (uppercase and lowercase), numbers, and symbols, if at all possible
  • Don’t use information about you that is discoverable such as names, places, or dates
  • Don’t use sequences such as 12345, abcde, 5555, or qwerty
  • Don’t reuse it – each site or system gets it’s own password
  • Don’t write it down…anywhere – as soon as it’s written it’s available for anyone

Want to test your password strength? Try this site.

In any case, what prompted me to write this entry is the pain of passwords. Every site and system has different rules such as 6 alphabetical characters at most, 4 numbers only, and no more than 8 characters that must include at least 1 number not at the beginning or end. They are more than happy to remind me during registration of their unique rules and not let me move forward until I follow them. However, when it comes time to recall the password the rules are far from sight. If the webmasters are going to require strong passwords (which is good), then at least tell me at the login screen what the rules were. Does it require a number or a length? Tell me that. It will reduce my frustration and has no impact on security.

While I’m on this rant, let me say that any internal corporate system should use any one of a number of Single Sign-on approaches. For example, requiring users to log in to Windows, then into the intranet, then into the LMS, and then into the course almost guarantees that learners are going to drop out before they start the course. The systems should already know who I am from the first time I was authenticated. From there, I should be able to click one link/item/button and be directly into the part of the course that I need right now.

There are plenty of other security approaches that avoid passwords all together, but for now passwords are still the most common security approach. So, as long as we’re still doing security this way, can the programmers and system designers at least help the users keep the system secure by not having to write down all of the passwords? Providing the required format on the screen where the passwords are requested is one step in the right direction.


The Dangers of Clamshell Packaging

Clamshell packages are a relatively new invention that caught on almost instantly it seems, and now they are everywhere. Almost all small electronics, many small toys, and a whole variety of other products are packaged and hung on the racks at our local retailers using clamshells.

Yes, they make the product easier to see than boxes and I’m sure it costs a lot less than the old packaging using boxes or blister packs. They are apparently even designed to deter theft which they do so well that the items are nearly impossible to remove even once I get them home. The plastic is too hard for all but industrial strength scissors. I actually broke a pair of scissors on one particularly nasty package. I’ve even had to break out my box cutter on occasion to get into a few of these. Even more dangerous than trying to open these things are the amazingly sharp edges of the plastic once they’ve been cut. Yesterday, I was trying to open one and nearly sliced my finger open. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit on this yet.

A few months ago I was opening one and was struggling even more than usual. I made it through the thick outer edge, but couldn’t make any more progress. As with most of these packages, sandwiched between the exterior layers of plastic were two layers of thin, glossy cardboard sheets containing basic branding on the front and product details on the back. I couldn’t see why I couldn’t cut through these. Turns out, they placed a CD containing instructions and other related materials between the layers of cardboard. Nowhere on the packaging did it mention a CD or software, and it couldn’t be seen through the packaging. I had cut so hard, I actually took a chunk out of the edge of the CD. No wonder I couldn’t cut through it. Thankfully, the CD still worked.

I don’t have any numbers, but I would suspect that injuries and environmental impact are both up. I do know that my own frustration level is certainly up. I doubt it’s a good to have the customer frustrated as the first impression of the product they just bought.

Volunteers as New Recruits

Over my career, I’ve been fortunate to work for 3 companies that were all at the time (and some still) ranked as the best companies to work for in the U.S. For anybody that’s been involved in the rankings, the award is a great honor and, as like all rankings, has a few problems but that’s not the point of this blog entry. In any case, it can be said that the companies on the list are doing a lot of things right and can serve as great examples for a variety of ideas that other companies can implement. Many criteria are used to determine these rankings such as company culture, employee benefits, training hours, community involvement, and even hiring processes.

I know I’ve written about them a couple times now (Double Your Costs to Save Money, Be Your Own SME) , but if Menlo (a custom programming shop here in Ann Arbor, Michigan) were just a little bit larger, they should most definitely apply. I’m quite sure they’d win if not for all of the other things they do well most certainly for what turns out to be a combination of recruiting, marketing, and community service programs. Much like all of the great companies to work for, Menlo has people knocking down the doors to work there, far more than they could ever employ. So many so, that people began asking to work there for free! Imagine that. People love the company so much that they’d be willing to show up for free. Of course, Michigan employment law won’t allow that, so Menlo came up with a neat solution. The volunteer corp works up to 3 mornings a week (according to their own schedules) on pro bono projects for non-profits. There are tons of benefits to the program:

Non-profits

  • Software that they need, but yet could never afford

Menlo

  • Giving back to the community while focusing their paid resources on revenue generating projects
  • Quick and easy access to a potential pool of employees who are pre-trained, know the company processes, and who’s skills are known completely before hiring
  • Spreading the word that software development doesn’t have to be bad
  • Those that don’t become employees likely still become evangelists and even possible customers

Volunteers

  • Free on-the-job training (no prerequisite knowledge or experience is required)
  • Work experience, resume enhancements, and recommendations (as appropriate)
  • Free access to all Menlo classes (often over $600 each)
  • Giving back to the community

The cost to Menlo are the resources (computers, desks, etc) and the training on their processes. All volunteers are expected to use and follow the quite unique Menlo processes and represent themselves professionally in front of the non-Profits as liaisons for the company.

What’s fun is that people are practicing real work in a safe environment. In some ways, this is one of the best simulations ever.


Restaurant Lines and Community

Recently I went to a restaurant for brunch on a Saturday morning, and as usual for this place during brunch, there was a line out the door. It’s quite a feat since they have a huge waiting area with benches and all. I hadn’t been there in a long time, but my friend new the place well. Turns out they have several “community” tables where we could be seated immediately. At this restaurant, they had 3 tables that sat 8 people each. Certainly, if a group of 8 came along they would be seated there when one cleared. However, rather than making us wait the 45-60 minutes that it was supposed to be for a separate table, they were seating various groups of strangers at those tables. So, we had brunch with 6 other people we had never met. The conversation was vibrant, interesting, and I think we all walked away knowing a little bit more than when we sat down. Plus, we didn’t have to wait in line and saved a bunch of time. What an efficient use of resources on the restaurant’s part!

Wouldn’t it be interesting if more restaurants had the same feature? Think of all of the great conversations and interesting people that could be met. Yes, it’s true that a bar at a restaurant offers some of the same things, but at most there are only 2 people (one on the left and one on the right) that can easily participate in a conversation. A round or rectangular table is much better suited to conversation. It’s also true that some restaurants offer game nights, trivia nights, and other such events, but even those encourage friends to come rather than conversations with strangers.

What if we expanded this concept for corporate cafeterias? Rather than sitting with the same lunch crew every day, one day a week (or maybe some tables everyday) would display a sign with their own topic. Here are a few table ideas:

  • Work-life balance
  • The new company strategy
  • Raising kids
  • Using Word
  • Handling difficult customers
  • Learning Ciruit’s monthly Big Question
  • Yesterday’s episode of Lost (or 24 or Heroes or whatever)

Yes, there are some approaches for this already including brown bag lunches and the ever famous watercooler, but these tend to bring people together who already hang out together or know each other. What if we were able to get more people in the organization to talk to each other? Even if the discussion is not related to their job at that moment, people have just made a relationship, expanded their network, and may know just the person to ask when a job related need does come up.

A little over 5 years ago, I was in a room with the top 120 executives at a Fortune 500 company. Most of the executives fit the standard profile including having worked at the company for 25-35 years. When they walked into the room, a good portion of them were introducing themselves to each other! None of them lived or worked more than 250 miles from headquarters and had been leaders at the company for decades in some cases. If these leaders had sat down for conversations over lunch with a few strangers earlier in their career, just think how many walls would have been broken down and how much more potential could have been gained.

I for one can’t wait to go back to the restaurant again to see who I meet this time.


User Documentation as a Bug

In a recent e-mail, a colleague noted that “we should view user documentation as a bug.” From an interface design standpoint he’s completely right. If it needs documentation, it probably wasn’t designed right. In the past, this documentation often was often printed out (or handed out at training) and quickly put on the shelf where it was never referenced again. More modern tools have moved that to online help and performance support. Now, I’m a big believer in performance support as a big part of learning. So, I’m by no means saying we shouldn’t have it. System designers often rely on the documentation and support tools to cover for bad design…just follow the 10 easy steps in the manual. If the steps were that easy the manual wouldn’t be needed in the first place.

So, a good user interface (whether it be a computer system, learning management system, or an online course of any sort) must meet 3 requirements:

  1. Discoverability (i.e. How do I know that the function exists?) A key part of interface design is making sure people can find the various functions that they need. Often, these features are segmented by frequency of use and volume of users. A function that is frequently used by a majority of the people should be much more prominent than one that is used by an expert or administrative user. This means making these functions the most simple and most automated rather than programming for the exceptions which is often the case. By making frequently used functions easy-to-find, documentation becomes unnecessary.
  2. Functionality (i.e. How do I know how it works?) It’s not enough to be able to find the function in the interface. It must also be intuitive to know how to use it. Take adding a picture or a table to a Word document. Why can’t I just grab the picture, resize it, and drag it to the exact position I want it in. In stead I have to go through a dozen clicks to get the picture looking the way I want. More importantly, the reason I know it is because I’ve had to do it a lot. Try training somebody on page layout in Word…”Well, to get it where you want it, you really should use a table that’s invisible. Then you adjust the rows and columns so that the picture goes where you want it to go.” That’s intuitive.
  3. Outcomes (i.e. How do I know what it’s going to do?) Finally, one I know where to find it and how it works, the outcomes have to be predictable. Ever insert text into Word and all of a sudden the font is different than all of the surrounding text? At least in the old WordPerfect, reveal codes could help figure out what was going on. The outcome of typing text, the most basic function in Word, should be completely predictable. The same is true of any other software we design.

If the design is done well, each of these should be obvious. That doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be documentation of a sort. In these cases, I still don’t believe in a paper manual (or even an online manual). Instead, a well designed performance support system is what is needed especially for the less frequently used functions or the new learners. The performance support system should be optimized to deliver quick answers. In additions it should include functions for “show me how” and “let me practice”.

While we should do performance support systems, if we’ve done our design right, hopefully no one will ever use it.


LINGOs and Giving Back

I think it’s really important to give back whatever I can. Given the number of charities, nonprofits, and not-for-profits, it’s often hard for me to tell who the good ones are. How much of the money goes to the operations and mission versus administration? How much of an impact does the mission have (or can it have with the right resources)? I try to support local organizations more than global ones in the belief that if everybody worked to make their own communities better, the world as a whole would be a much more peaceful place. Working locally creates a sense of ownership and pride in the community that helps create a sustainable future for all involved.

However, every once and a while a global organization comes along that merits some attention due to their mission, operations, and overall impact. The American Diabetes Association and Salvation Army have long been part of that group for me for mostly personal and family reasons. Over the past couple years though another one has grown up with an interesting mission. In general, waste drives me crazy, especially wasted time (and time is, of course, money). I’m all about efficiency especially when it has no impact or even increases effectiveness.

The mission of Learning for International Non-Governmental Organizations (LINGOs for short)is exactly that…efficiency and effectiveness. Every aid organization out there has to do training whether it’s for new employees or new projects. Training includes things like language skills, local cultures, building, farming, medical, food preparation, finance, and sustainability among many, many others. Not even 10 years ago organizations like Save the Children and Habitat for Humanity each used parts of their budgets to create training to meet these needs. Given their limited budgets not all training needs were met and the ones that were didn’t have access to the best content at least initially limiting their capabilities in the field. Worse, each of the organizations were reinventing the wheel each time they needed training. For example, with the tsunami, many organizations were present to help with the relief and recovery. In the past, each organization would have to train people to get them into the field, so there might have been dozens of redundant courses created on language skills, local culture, and water purification. Today, LINGOs makes it possible for these organizations to pool portions of their training resources and share the content. One course can be create on the local language, one on culture, and one on water purification that can be shared by all of the agencies. This helps my donations to any one of the more than a dozen member organizations go that much farther to help their mission have real impact on people’s lives.

What’s best is that LINGOs doesn’t want money. Not that they don’t have use for it or don’t need donations. As with all organizations, they certainly have costs to cover. However, the biggest benefit for LINGOs has been the donation of time, knowledge, and products. Many in the vendor community have donated older versions of their software. One company had a pile of language training courses that had been outdated since the release of their new version. Since the language hasn’t changed that much, the old courses worked just fine. The company got a write off, cleared some space, and helped in a not so small way. Many individuals devote their time as trainers teaching a variety of classes. Other people consult with the organizations (individually or as a group) on their various needs such as competency design or e-learning strategy. It’s been a real benefit to me too. By sharing what I know, it helps me learn even more deeply especially when fielding their questions.

The needs are many. It’s likely that they could use your skill set. It could be as little as an hour or two a month. Whether it’s LINGOs or some other deserving group, I challenge each of you (especially my fellow bloggers) to jump out there and give back even a little bit.


Still Time to Register

You still have time to register for my Adobe – eLearning Luminaries session on Friday and join over 220 of your colleagues in an interesting session on video games, movies, and simulations. We’re going to cover lots of ground on machinima and one of the tools to create it (The Movies). Best of all? It’s free! Here’s the information:

Title: Machinima: When Video isn’t Video
Date/Time: Friday, February 16, 2007 at 1:00pm US/Eastern Time
Registration Info: Click here
Cost: Free!!

Description: Machinima is a technique that co-opts video games or other sources to produce animated videos for entertainment. Join me as I explain and demonstrate this technique. Learn how clever instructional designers and developers are using engines from resource allocation/simulation and other video games to create instructional videos and animations. Learn how you can leverages off-the-shelf software to make quick, easy, effective training animations and video vignettes for a fraction of the cost of traditional corporate video production.


Are Sims Better?

In Mark’s recent blog, he mentions Clark Aldrich’s blog entry on whether it’s possible to talk about Simulations in general and compare them as a group to traditional learning. Just like any level of abstraction, generalizations can be made. However, at each level of higher altitude less and less can be said. The lower the level of discussion, the fewer comparisons can be made.

However, I think the whole question misses the point by making a couple incorrect assumptions. First, it assumes that all simulations are online and therefore can be compared or contrasted with the classroom. In my view (post 1, post 2), role plays are a form of simulation that almost always happen in the classroom. Second, companies like Breakaway and Enspire are continuously creating online simulations that are designed to run in the classroom.

The better question (liberally leveraging from Clark’s book) is “Can real learning be accomplished without doing?” Alternately, “Will a standard lecture (regardless of online or classroom delivery method) ever be as effective as a hands-on or simulation experience (again regardless of online or offline)?”

Those are just my thoughts.


3D Visualization

On the biggest snow day of the year here in southern Michigan, it helps sometimes to think of summer while I’m warming up by the fireplace with a nice warm drink after shoveling lots of snow. One summertime tradition for those in this part of the country is a theme park called Cedar Point. Set on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie about 45 miles from both Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio. It’s an easy day or weekend trip from most of the Great Lakes and Midatlantic. Growing up in southeast Michigan it was at least an annual trip during summer vacation. Every kids group imaginable had a trip to the park, so there was no lack of opportunity. Some Physics classes would even take the students there for a field trip as a “learning” experience. OK, so they did have measurements and calculations to do, but certainly fun was part of the focus too. Who says they have to be separate? One year when I was still small I had to be pulled back into the car by my cousin while on one of the oldest coasters in the park, the Blue Streak (pictured above) . It only had lap belts at the time. Things certainly have changed, but they’re still fun. I’ve been at least once a year since I was in a stroller with the exception of the last two years, and I can’t wait to go again this year.

Cedar Point is not an average theme park. It’s been named the best theme park in the world for the last 9 years running by the readers of Amusement Today. At a little over a mile long, the park contains the most roller coasters (17) of any park in the world. Of those, here are some of the records it currently holds in just the steel roller coast category:

  • Top Thrill Dragster (#2 largest drop at 400 feet, #2 fastest at 120 mph, and #4 angle of descent at 90 degrees)
  • Millennium Force (#4 largest drop at 300 feet, #5 longest at 6,595 feet, and #5 fastest at 95 mph)
  • Maverick (#3 angle of descent at 95 degrees!)

The Gemini (a twin roller coaster) and Magnum XL200 both were record holders in their day too. On top of that, there are another 17 thrill rides for adults, 11 family friendly rides, a bunch of kids rides, plus a large array of stage shows, and even a water park.

As one of the only successful (i.e. profitable) theme park companies in the world, they work hard at innovation. Each year that means something new, often a new record-setting ride…and this year is no exception. The newest roller coaster is Maverick. While growing up, the most insight available into the new rides was through word-of-mouth and unsubstantiated rumors. With the advent of the web, things got a little better with accessible press releases. Then came sketches, renderings, in process photos and even web cams. All of them required some amount of imagination to understand the twists and turns. This year though, no imagination is required.

With the advent of 3D technology, web visitors can experience the ride from 3 different angles including aerial, action, and of course point-of-view. Notice the subtitles explaining the turns too. The point-of-view movie is so well done, I know at least one person who will probably get sick just from watching it. I know it’s nothing fancy from a technology perspective anymore, but it certainly got me hyped on summer time. It’s nice to see companies using the technologies to give a first hand view of a new product to the consumers.

I can’t wait for the park to open…in the meantime, I better get back to shoveling snow.


Individual Tools vs. Integration

I just got back from Microsoft’s “Ready for a New Day” launch of Vista, Office ’07, and Exchange ’07. It struck me as I was sitting there, the shear volume of integration of the various software and systems. It’s certainly easy to slam on Microsoft for their slow development cycles, less-than-fault-tolerant operating systems, and heavy-handed near-monopoly. Yet, one of the things a monopolist can (and should) do better than anybody else is integration.

As much as I work with and try all sorts of “Web 2.0” or “e-Learning 2.0” software, none if it is able to accomplish the same things yet and that may be inherent with the process. Given it’s intimate knowledge of the entire platform, Microsoft should able to make all of the pieces and parts play together nicely. I remember back in 1987 (my first year as an official IT person), Microsoft released Windows 2.0 and Dynamic Data Exchange (which evolved into OLE, COM, and ActiveX) which became the basis for the now standard functions of drag-and-drop and cut-and-paste between applications. Before that time, Word and Excel wouldn’t talk to each other at all. Today, not only do Word and Excel talk to each other, but they talk to every other program including e-mail, blogs, wikis, web services, and on and on and on.

There’s a lot of work going on in both open source and competitors to Microsoft, and frankly, they are some of the most innovative work…often much more innovative than Microsoft. Yet, in the business environment, we need to balance both innovation and integration. The more our systems talk seamlessly to each other, the lower our costs and the faster we can move. In a corporation, we don’t need someone to design yet another wiki or blog. What we need is someone to make the wikis or blogs we’ve got play well with everything else. (Enter Microsoft’s new version of SharePoint).

So far, the “smaller” players have yet to work together to create integrated solutions. Certainly Google has developed a lot of very cool tools that I use on a daily basis (this blog included). Yet, their blog, calendar, search, word processor, and spreadsheet don’t talk to each other…at least not that much, and Google is the biggest in this space right now. Imagine how difficult it is for the smaller developers.

Yes, moving to web services is a step in this direction and Microsoft has a lot to do to move even further this way. However, web services, Web 2.0, XML, and all the rest don’t do any good if everything is built as a stand alone application. I don’t need another portal page with 1,000 different unrelated objects on it. I need a page that is integrated. Tell me how the weather is going to impact my sales forecast. Tell me how the stock price or news announcements of my competitors correlates with my business results. I hate to say it, but maybe standards are the answer. Standards can help disparate developers create things that work well together without having to know anything about each other. On the other hand, most standards that I’ve observed take a long time to reach consensus and in some ways serve to stifle innovation since the truly innovative project often won’t comply with the standard.

Anyway, whether we want it to or not, Microsoft is going to continue to have a major impact on Information Technology and Learning for the foreseeable future. It’s probably best that we all get to know it as well as we can in order to leverage what it can do for our organizations. If you want to sign up for one of these sessions, there are still a couple dozen sessions left around the country before the end of the year. The Detroit one sold out. I don’t know the status of the others. The big draw is a free copy of Office 2007 Professional (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, Outlook, and Publisher) and a free T-Shirt. Whether a Microsoft or open source fan, it’s likely that the Office suite will still be the dominant tool set for quite a while, especially in corporations. So, why not pick up a free copy? For those open source fans, think of it this way, at least Microsoft won’t get an extra US$499 retail (or US$329 upgrade).


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