Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Communication methods

The table below outlines a way of categorising communication channels:

Fully shared (information visible to the full web and potentially to web crawlers, or in a public space)
Partially shared (information visible to wider group than just the defined recipient)
Private (information visible to only the defined recipient)
One-to-many (broadcast – the message has one sender but many recipients)
Twitter; Blogs; Comments on blogs; Content providers (News, Video, Podcasts, etc); Forum posts; Websites; Newspapers and Magazines; TV and Radio; out-of-home advertising
Private Twitter; Facebook status updates
Email; SMS; Facebook messages
One-to-one (one sender, one recipient)
Forum posts; Comments on blogs; Open letters; Twitter with @ tag
Facebook wall messages and “Likes”
Email; SMS; Facebook messages
Many-to-one (many senders, one recipient)
Online petition (Dear Mr. President...)
(as above where collaboration to prepared the communication)
(as above where collaboration to prepared the communication)
Many-to-many (many senders, many recipients)
(arguably all collaborative communication output)
(as above where collaboration to prepared the communication)
(as above where collaboration to prepared the communication)

There are two distinct concepts covered in the table above:
  • who information is to (intended for);
  • and who information is shared with.
In some cases, the recipient is only vaguely defined (e.g. a news publication), and the proportion of the population receiving the information (i.e. shared with) that is not the in intended for category is limited (e.g. reading a news article in a newspaper you've purchased that wasn't relevant to you).

In other cases, a message might ostensibly be for a particular recipient, but the communication with the wider group is more important to the communicator (e.g. trying to make an impression on the group via shared conversation with an individual).

There are three broad groups:
  • Defined recipient(s): where the recipient is clearly referred to in the communication or in the metadata of the communication. Defined recipients can be broken down into subgroups, for example email breaks defined recipients into “To:”, “CC:” and “BCC:”; Twitter breaks defined recipients into “@” recipient and followers.
  • Intended recipients: who the sender wants to pay attention to the information (may or may not align with the defined recipient)
  • Sharing group: who the sender wants to be able to access the information (information not presented to them, but is accessible to them)

Some key variables for describing communication tools
  • Public/Group/Private
  • One-to-one/One-to-Many/Many-to-one
  • Who intended for/who shared with
  • How access to groups is controlled (e.g. subscription, paywalls, friending/unfriending, following/unfollowing)
  • Aggregation (e.g. RSS)
  • Analogue/digital
  • Price paid to be a recipient or in the sharing group
  • Sensory medium (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, etc)

From many

There are some interesting aspects to the from many communication channels. It could be argued that any collaborative output is a from many, for example if the from is considered to be the journalist and the editor that worked on an article, rather than the newpaper that published it.

In many cases, we make use of one-to-many communication tools for many-to-many communication: one person sends/publishes the output of the collaboration.

The question

What combination of communication channel variables is left untapped by existing communication tools?

Audio equivalent of QR code

As mentioned in my post on coupons, there is a need for an auditary equivalent of a QR code: a pattern of sounds that can be interpreted via a computer with a microphone to provide digital information from an analogue audio source.

For example, during a radio show a presenter could tell the audience that he/she is about to play an audio code for a website. They turn on the microphone on the device they are using. The audio code is played, and the website pops up on the audience member's device.

Potentially, an always-on microphone could automatically pick up the audio codes.

Auto-coupons and coupon aggregation

As coupons move to the digital world, and our transactions move to being digitally linked to our digital identity, it should be possible (and desirable on the side of the consumer) to auto-apply the coupons to purchases, whether the transaction is online or in the physical domain. It should also be possible for consumers to easily see an inventory of their coupons, with retailer, expiry date, value, terms, etc, wherever they are.

The impact of these factors is likely to increase consumer coupon utilisation, to the detriment of retailers, who rely on high rates of consumers forgetting about (or physically forgetting to bring with them) the coupon when making a purchase (in addition to a high number of consumers not wanting to make the specific purchase).

There are also some interesting possibilities for digital collection of coupons. Almost all communication channels from a retailer to a consumer become a potential coupon distribution mechanism: sms; email; social networks; out-of-home advertising (via a QR code); smart TV (or old-school TV with the help of a QR code); radio (with an audio equivalent of a QR code or manual code entry); post (if that still exists) (again with QR code or manual typing); from websites.

With such a diverse set of sources for coupons, there is a need and opportunity for a coupon aggregation service, across the web/mobile space, that allows consumers to collect coupons, to view their coupon inventory and automatically communicate the coupon details to retailers at the point of sale. Offers could also be collected - the service would interface with offer scraping tools that exist. The offer aggreagation service could be location-aware (via smartphone GPS) and push-notify consumers of scraped offers relevant to the shop they are in.

An example use for 3D printing: interfacing and extending tools and components

Until 3D printers can print multimaterial objects, and frankly until 3D printers can print electronic components (as most useful objects have (or will have in the future) electronics in them), it's range of uses is likely to be fairly narrow.

One of the most promising uses of 3D printers before we get to that multimaterial and electronics utopia, is connecting things, interfacing things in the physical world. The Free Universal Construction Kit (note the acronym) is a brilliant example of this, but the possibilities extend much beyond toys.

One example that springs to mind is allowing any camera to take photos down microscope, by creating a holder than can hold the camera in the right place. There are many further examples in the laboratory, construction industry (e.g. plumbing), DIY, home manufacturing, and related fields, where tools and components do not interface with each other, limiting functionality.

Another area is extending the functionality of tools via 3D printed add-ons - the physical world equivalent of browser plugins.

Updated knowledge worker value chain and skills of the insight professional

I've updated the knowledge worker value chain with a few more boxes. The notable additions are:
  • not just anticipating requests for information, but anticipating need
  • supporting skills (building and maintaining network of contacts, influencing the decisions of others, delegation)
  • unrequested receipt of information
It's difficult to draw arrows on the graph for supporting skills as they tend to support multiple nodes - the graph would get very busy. For example, maintaining a network principally supports making requests for information (knowing who to ask), and distribution of information (knowing who to give it to).

Graph made with yEd.

Insight professionals

The primary functions of an insight professional are to know information that few people know, to be able to find information that few people can find, and to provide management and leadership. I subscribe to the view that leaderships is about inspiring people, whilst management is about organising people (or other resources).

A couple of event pricing models

Here are a couple of thoughts for event pricing models. I'm guessing these must be used in some cases, but every event I've come across uses fixed price. For both these methods, the cash-flow is upfront via a deposit, allowing variability of price without risk to cash flow.

“What was it worth to you” method

The event attendees pay a deposit up front, up to a maximum price set per event (or per type of ticket). After the event the attendees log into the online service rate the experience. In one model the rating and amount paid would be coupled, i.e. the attendee would control their rating but not the price they pay. In another model, the rating and amount paid would be independent, with the attendee able to determine both. Under both models, the attendee would be required to leave feedback, which would be a valuable source of data. The attendee is then refunded the difference between the deposit and the amount they chose to pay.

One optional addition to this would be to publish what people were paying, perhaps linked to a social networking profile, which would guilt people into paying a fair amount.

It would be interesting to expand this model to "on-the-door" ticket sales. The attendee pays the deposit "on-the-door", but must log in with some kind of account, allowing them to recoup their deposit if the event wasn't up to scratch.

There is an opportunity for a start-up payment service to provide this payment method as a service to event organisers. It is particularly suited to up-and-coming artists, where attendees might not have seen or heard of the act before - the mechanism ensures attendees are at lower risk of wasting money on a poor-quality act, and ensures valuable feedback for the up-and-coming acts.

Auction method

An up-front ticket auction method is most suited to popular events where demand is high. Potential attendees bid the maximum they are willing to pay for a ticket. The top bidders are selected up and to the capacity of the event, and the price is equal to the maximum bid of the first bidder that missed out, plus a bidding increment.

To ensure the maximum price is obtained, and as tickets can be issued electronically, the bidding should be kept open until just before the event. To de-risk cash-flow, a deposit up to the maximum bid would be taken at the time of bid, then refunded after the event.

At any point in time during the bidding the bidders would be able to see whether they were on for getting ticket, and what the price was. They would be able to update their bid (increases only), with further deposit taken.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Consumer cloud computing

There are several reasons that I think will prevent the consumer market moving to a pure cloud computing (software as a service) model for all their computing needs:
  • Hardware is cheap enough that consumers can rely on local storage, memory and processing power for most applications
  • Security/privacy concerns about the cloud
  • To deal with occasions where not networked (which happen more often than cloud computing advocates would like to admit)
The extent of local/cloud is likely to vary per consumers. For example, some will be happy to use Google Docs for word processing, whilst others might want an install of LibreOffice on their local machine. The combination of local/cloud per application will probably be unique to every user.

We will need seamless parallel running of locally-run and cloud-based applications, and also of cloud-based operating systems and local-device-based operating systems. The ultimate goal of this would be that all available applications, all running applications, and all files would be available to the users via the same set of menus, with a small icon indicating that the application is running on, or the file is stored on, the cloud or local device.

For example, across the taskbar cloud-based applications would sit side-by-side with locally-run applications. Users could jump between cloud-based applications and local applications with alt-tab. Users could start cloud-based applications and local applications from the start menu (or equivalent). Users could browse local and cloud-based files in the same file manager (this already works with Dropbox). And users could manage their applications with a single package manager (install this application on local machine vs register this application for your cloud OS).

The ideal is that data is only shared to the cloud as necessary, and fully at the consent of the user.

Friday, 22 June 2012

How long to do X

A fundamental aspect of our society and lives is doing tasks (activities, assignments, chores, etc). It is what most people are employed to do, and what we spend a fair amount of our non-work time engaged in. Data on how long it takes to do a task is hence of significant value. I sugggest there is an opportunity to create a web service to open up and crowd-source this data.

Individual contributors would input a task or search-and-select from tasks already input by others. They would enter the relevant input variables (e.g. tools used, sizes, etc), and the time it took to complete the task. If there were complications that resulted in a longer-than-expected time-to-complete, then these could also be entered. Contributors could support these submissions with video evidence, and provide step-by-step instructions.

Ideally, the input data should be reduced to the simplest discrete elements of the task, so that it can be recomposed by the users of the data.

Users of the data would be able to access the fastest, slowest and average time to do a particular task. They could review the common complications reported. And it should be possible to have a tool to create a fully time-costed workflow by lining up a series of tasks.

With the right kind of description and categorisation, it should be possible to capture data on almost all human activity, but here are some examples to provide food for thought:

Home tasks
How long does it take to change a bike tyre?
How long does it take to hang out washing?
How long does it take to read a newspaper?

Work tasks
How long does it take to load a truck?
How long does it take to put together a piece of furniture?
How long does it take to register a sale on a cash register?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Computer fan/temperature diagnostic

Having just been thinking about sound-based diagnostics, with my computer noisily whirring away, it seems like there's an obvious built-in diagnostic for computers: fan speed vs cpu temperature vs cpu usage vs ambient temperature. This would give an indication of heat sink cleaning being required. It seems to me that this should be a default feature of operating systems.

The sounds houses make

Houses make some strange sounds. When you're a kid they're the sinister sounds from a horror movie; when you're an adult they're the even-more-sinister sounds of a potentially failing boiler (or are they?). Perhaps it's just curiosity, but I'd quite like to know what's causing the noises and why.

How? Sensitive microphones spread around the house, potentially coupled with infrasound and ultrasound sensors. Multiple microphones allows for triangulation and pinpointing of the source. Recordings could be uploaded and matched against an online library, for interpretation.

I suspect a lot of useful diagnostic information could be gleaned from some good sound analysis software and database, identifying when mechanical devices need maintenance. The concept could be applied to cars, household appliances, etc.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Learning tree for product learning

Product learning resources have a lot to learn from the Khan Academy, which provides a learning tree that starts with the basics and the top level, and then drills down into subtopics.

In our technological age, the majority of products (both B2C and B2B) have reached a stage where learning their use through trial and error is inadequate (and inefficient). I suspect that a significant proportion of the end-users of products do not know how to use the product properly, or to its full potential.

Repeat purchase, customer loyalty and maximisation of customer lifetime value will only be achieved if the customer is maximising their benefit from the product. But this does not happen if the customer does not have the requisite knowledge to use the product to its full extent.

Product manuals are dry and unattractive as a learning medium, but a video tutorial learning pathway, that does not assume any previous knowledge, and is short and punchy, will result in real connection with the customer. It might also be possible for a customer to enter their existing knowledge, and be jumped to the right node on the pathway.

Such resources should of course be free and not behind a login-wall (although an optional login will help users track their progress). They are an excellent promotional tool - a propective customer can learn about the product in depth before buying, and will buy with confidence that its the right choice for them. Learning resources are likely to be something users share will each other, increasing the extent of word-of-mouth communication about the product.

Companies that make money on training

Although many companies (particularly in the software industry) make money on training, opening up introductory training resources will probably increase sales and may cost-in long term. The learning pathway could actually lead users towards the true value-add paid-for modules.

Data and feedback

Online training provides an excellent source of data and feedback: what training modules are working, which need to be improved; what product features are really in demand; what product features are users not using; how the product should be improved; what training videos are being recommended between people; etc.

All of this information greatly enhances the customer relationship, which increases customer lifetime value, and hence profitability, etc.

Non-product-specific learning

Another angle to this is the opportunity for companies to include non-product-specific information as part of their training material. In fact, it would probably be difficult to prepare product-specific training without some non-product-specific training included, which helps to increase the general level of education of the workforce. Companies may want to extend and highlight this aspect as part of their corporate social responsibility programme.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Micro market research

Head-mounted displays (HMD) such as Google Glass will enable micro market research due to access to consumers' situation and an easy way to provide responses.

The camera on the HMD sees what the consumer sees, and with the use of object recognition technologies can identify what products the consumer is seeing, and what activity they are engaged in. It will also know their location via GPS, and possibly know who they're with (e.g. with facial recognition of people or communication between devices).

The HMD can then ask the consumer questions about the product via the HMD, e.g. "What made you pick product X over product Y" (when the consumer picks from two products on the shelf). The consumer can give a verbal reply (which would be automatically transcribed) or selects (touching a virtual button in mid-air) from a range of options.

The cost to the consumer is intrusion, but the actual time taken to answer a question would be measured in seconds. Such research should of course be opt-in, and could be paid-for (micro-payments for micro-research). The consumer could have a "not-now" button to stop the micro-market research if they were finding it annoying.

The key advantage is context: the device knows where the consumer is and what they're looking at, so the questions it asks are relevant. This relevance makes the question less intrusive to the consumer, and more useful to the researcher.

This methodology would be impractical with existing mobile technology, as the consumer would need to point their smartphone at the products they're looking at, and answer questions on screen. This would take 10s of seconds, rather than the low numbers of seconds with a HMD, and would probably be too intrusive.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Suggestion for T-shirt slogan

If I'd died young, I'd've had a bright future ahead of me.

Fluid switch

An idea for a digital switch that has an organic and natural-feeling experience.

The switch contains liquid in an upper chamber, separated from a lower chamber by a value. When sufficient pressure is applied by the user, the value opens, allowing the liquid to flow into the lower chamber. The stretch in the wall of the lower chamber causes a circuit to be made (via a stretch sensor). As the lower chamber is elasticated and the valve one-way, the fluid returns to the upper chamber ready for another switch event.

The diagram below illustrates:

Traffic light visor

Every now and then traffic lights stop working. When this happens it is customary to deploy signs to warn road users, and covers for the traffic lights. However, if these signs could be built into the traffic light it could save time and inconvenience.

The diagram below illustrates a set of drop-down visors which could be deployed for non-functioning traffic lights. On the face of the visor could be an out-of-order message or a warning for drivers to drive carefully.

The visors could be remotely electronically deployed, allowing rapid response to traffic light failure. Ideally the visor mechanism would be on a separate circuit to avoid both the traffic lights and the visors being out of action simultaneously. Alternatively the visors could be mechanically deployed.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Turning the sides of buildings into advertising space

I'm sure in the future the sides of every building are supposed to have been turned into advertising space, with every street turned into Times Square. But the occupants still want natural light, so how can both needs be accommodated? Using fine strips of advert on the windowed sides of buildings.

The gaps between the fine strips would be sufficient to allow natural light in, whist the strips (in combination) would be sufficient to provide a discernible image when viewed from a suitable distance. The strips themselves could be light emitting (a string of LEDs for example) or merely reflective (which would only work during the day). An eInk reflective coating would allow the advert to be regularly changed. A combination of both light emitting and reflective techniques might be optimum to allow the adverts to be seen clearly no matter the level of sunlight.

Another advantage of this is that the strips would prevent excessive sunlight, which heats the building and causes increased air conditioning costs.

Bare Minimum News

I would make use of a news/current affairs service that feeds you only what you need to know in order to be able to hold a 5 minute conversation (enough time for you to diplomatically steer the conversation elsewhere). Useful for topics that you're not interested in (and therefore do not want to invest time finding out about), but which come up in conversation and about which you don't want to be caught out. Delivered via RSS, SMS, email, etc

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The power of individuals

What is the highest individual power relative to the total power in the world? And how has this varied over time?

Whilst the disparity in power between the most and least powerful is gargantuan, and whilst the media obsess about the power and influence of a few, I suspect that even the most powerful people are still small cogs in a big machine.

By contrast, during earlier periods of history I would suggest that power was more concentrated.

I think the same kind of trend would hold true for metrics such as fame, status, creativity and intellectual output, but not for wealth.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Mapping the problem/need space

What do humans do? We solve problems. We're good at that. But we can't solve problems if we don't know what they are. We need better tools to map out the problem/need space, to properly document those problems, to link them to each other, to rank them and the make that information public.

By making this information easily accessible we lower the barriers to people to find a problem to solve, giving them a rewarding challenge, and most importantly, getting problems solved.

How to create and structure this dataset? The is an obvious one for input from the crowd. Probably the closest example would be Wikipedia, with a vast number of content creators, and a smaller number of content curators. Each problem entry would have: a title; a description; an estimate of the number of people affected; an estimate of the social/environment/economic (triple-bottom-line) cost; an estimate of the extent that the problem/need is being addressed by current technologies, techniques, policies, etc (this is important as problems/needs that we consider 90% solved should still be on the database as that 10% is important); links to other problems; links to parent/daughter problems (a interlinked hierarchical dataset is appropriate); solution discussion (potentially a forum per problem).

Users of the tool can add content, suggest solutions, vote on what problems are most pressing, etc.

Startup companies can reference the problem/need tool, explaining what problem they're solving, or what need they're addressing, providing evidence to the would-be investors of the necessity for (and indicative benefit of) their investment.

Pure science researchers can more easily find applications of their blue skies research.

A couple of applications of superhydrophobic coatings

There have been several examples of superhydrophobic coatings in the news over the past year: LiquiGlide; Liquipel; and NeverWet. I think we are at the tip of the iceberg on how far-reaching this technology will be. My guess for the future is that 95% of products will use this technology in some form. And the main reason why is that we live in a word dominated by water: we are over half water, as are most organisms; we both input and output water; the food we eat is also dependent on water to be grown; water is one of the few things piped into the average home (in the economically developed world); water is a component of the air (including rain); 71% of the surface of the Earth is covered by water; water is a commonly used heat exchanger; etc.

An interesting aspect of LiquiGlide is that it can be injested by humans without adverse effects (as it's made from food materials). It would be interesting to see if a coating of LiquiGlide could be applied to teeth, perhaps at the dentist or a home treatment. Making teeth superhydrophobic could potentially reduce tooth decay, plaque, etc.

Another potential application would be to apply this coating to tableware, which could make washing up much easier, saving time, cost and potentially allowing greater automation.