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April 27, 2006

Who owns good design?

Marshall Harrison, one of the guys behind gotspeech.net commented on my Good Speech - Bad Speech post last night.  In my post I described a particularly ugly prompt I'd seen in a speech recognition application and called on people to write better applications that keep the customer's needs in mind at all times.

Marshall has a similar soapbox as mine and one day we're going to drag them down to the Pearl Street Mall and preach together about the need to create applications that are easier to use and that, (dare I say it) People Will Love.  Marshall points out (correctly) that bad application design is often not the developer's fault.  The reason I'm doing a whole post on a comment is that a light bulb just went on for me.  The design of speech recognition telephony applications is often widely separated from the development of the application. 

By the time the developer is assigned to a project, the user interface design has often been fought over for months by people who don't have user interface design experience.  They know what they want (usually) but then they make the mistake of drawing out the design on the whiteboard, a napkin or in Visio.  Visio is the worst, because it makes the design look official and unchangeable.  People who wouldn't think of trying to tell you how to design a complex database application or desktop user interface, feel very comfortable specifying the voice user interface for you for some reason.

So what do we do?

  • I think that regardless of what role you play in speech application development, you have to realize that you are signing your name and staking your reputation on how well the application ultimately works.  If you see bad design, speak up and propose a a better alternative.
  • Try to get invited to the party earlier in the process.  What starts out as "we need to figure out what we want before we get the developers involved" doesn't work here so well.  The sooner we get involved the better the application will be.  Yes, it means you may have to attend some business meetings, but trust me, learning about business can be good for a techie's career.
  • Find some good examples that can be backed up with concrete numbers to help make your case for good design.  Business people respond to hard numbers about saving money and improving customer satisfaction.  We built an application a few years ago for a customer who had a goal of automating 10% of the calls.  The application ended up automating 51% of the calls and customer satisfaction and CSR satisfaction actually improved.  Do you think the people funding the project listened a little closer to our silly design recommendations once they realized the impact they were having?  You bet they did!

To sum it up, we're all responsible for good design, and if we can do a better job of it this industry will grow even faster. 

April 27, 2006 in Speech Recognition | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Hiring Salespeople comments

My post on Hiring Salespeople has generated a lot of great comments from people with a lot more experience than me.  If you are interested in this topic, go back and read the comments.  A friend of mine (who else would say such nice things???), Sandy Hamilton took my little post and created a great Top Ten List for hiring sales people.

A couple of people asked about applying these ideas to other management positions in small companies.  If you took Sandy's list and applied it to let's say your first Development Manager hire, it would still pretty much apply.  Maybe you'd change "SELL STUFF" to "BUILD STUFF", but now that I think about it, you've got to have both.  Even the Development Manager has to be able to "SELL STUFF".  They sell trust to the customer, ideas and processes to the developers, and the need for more budget to the CEO.

We're all in sales you know, especially in small companies.

April 27, 2006 in Entrepreneurship | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Good Speech - Bad Speech

In January I said that Speech Recognition was in the trough of disillusionment.  I predict that by mid next year though, we'll be viewing the technology very differently.  Moore's Law and clever programming are advancing the science of speech recognition very quickly I believe.  People are going to be surprised at how fast this technology is going to improve.

However - no amount of technology will make up for bad application design.  I saw what may be the ugliest prompt ever a few weeks ago.  "Press or say eleven . . ."  I assume there were ten other choices before this prompt and I'm not positive that this was the last prompt.

Please people - I know it is fun to create these applications, but take some time to think about the poor user.  They don't want more choices, they just want to get the information they need and then get off of the phone as quickly as possible.  And for goodness sake, give them the option to speak to a person if they can't figure out how to get what they need from your application.  They're going to find a way out eventually and there is no point in making them mad as they try to figure out the secret back door.

I've been on this soapbox before, but I'm not putting it away until the customer is treated like the important person they are instead of like some rat to be herded through a maze.

April 27, 2006 in Speech Recognition | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 16, 2006

FJ Cruiser Car Computer Project

I decided that at the beginning of the year that I would try to surround myself with Speech Recognition products.  I heard Bill Joy speak years ago and he talked about trying to understand future technology by figuring out ways to live with it today.  I'm not sure he said these words, but I think of it as "prototyping the future."

I've decided it is time to build a car computer.  This is a personal project even though there might be some interesting business and technology lessons to be learned.  (In other words, I'm paying for this out of my pocket and I don't have to be limited by an ROI or a business case.)

Since I bought my last car ten years ago, I decided that a new car with a factory navigation system wasn't going to give me everything I wanted and it would certainly be obsolete well before my ten year trade-in target.  I've played with the navigation system in an Acura TL, and it's pretty good, especially the speech recognition, but in a couple of years it is going to as obsolete as my first Palm Pilot.

I looked at a lot of cars and settled on the new Toyota FJ Cruiser.

Fj1I've owned three jeeps, but I always wanted one of the old Toyota Land Cruisers.  Just this month Toyota released the FJ Cruiser and I was fortunate (with some help) to get the first one to arrive at  Longmont Toyota.  I'll write about my experience with the dealership another time - it's a good sales and service story and I was very happy with the experience.

This is not a fancy "leather and burled walnut" kind of vehicle.  It is a lot more complicated than my old jeeps, but the dash is metal, plastic and vinyl, so installation of the car computer will (I hope) be a lot easier.


In phase one of my project, I'm installing an aftermarket system from Pioneer, the AVIC-Z1.  It's also brand new and I'm already experiencing the joy of trying to put a complicated audio/navigation system that no one has ever seen, into a vehicle that no one has ever seen.  The Z1 is on order at Ultimate Electronics in Boulder who is going to do the installation for me, because while I've installed a few stereos before and I can solder fairly well, I don't have the confidence to be cutting wires under the dash of my new FJ.  (Yet - that will happen in Phase Two)  Update - Ultimate couldn't deliver so after waiting for weeks, I cancelled the order and now I'm scheduled to get it installed at Extreme Automotive.

The Z1 has speech recognition built in, gps navigation ("Go to Denver"), Bluetooth phone integration and a 30GB hard drive for ripping MP3s from CDs.  When I get it installed I'll do a full review, particularly about how well the speech recognition works.

Phase two of the project will be to add a real car computer.  The after market car computer market is just getting started but it is an exciting place - it reminds me of the early days of home computers where hackers would get together and figure out out to build their own computers.  If you want to follow along, there is a great community of developers at mp3car.com and I've found some good books that are (for the moment) very current.  Car PC Hacks - Tips & Tools for Geeking Your Ride is my favorite.  It's an O'Reilly book written by Damien Stolarz with a lot of help from other enthusiasts.  It has the most references to websites and sources for parts and I've already dog-eared many pages.  I also bought Geek My Ride - Build the Ultimate Tech Rod which has a lot of good photos and finally Build Your Own Car PC, a book from the UK which also has a lot of photos and specifics about hardware.

As car computers start to go mainstream, plenty of people are going to say "why would I want a car computer?"  Just remember, plenty of people said "why would I want a home computer" and "why would I want a cell phone" and those two markets have done just fine.  I believe that speech recognition will play an important roll in making it happen, which is why I'm going to devote a few weekends to understanding where it is going.

April 16, 2006 in Car Computer, Speech Recognition | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 14, 2006


There is a new Speech Recognition blog on the web - gotspeech.net.  As they say in their introduction:

This site has been designed as an information resource where speech developers can gather to exchange ideas, source code and just hang out with other speech developers. You will find informative blogs, current news and articles written by some of the best known names in the industry. So, go ahead and sign up. Check out the forums.  Read some of the articles and blogs. Come back often and above all participate in our community.

While it has been created by some Microsoft Speech Server developers, but I'll bet over time that it will be a place where anyone interested in speech recognition can go to learn about building applications.

April 14, 2006 in Speech Recognition | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 11, 2006

The root causes of stress

This weekend I was without an Internet connection, so I caught up on some blogs that I read when I can.  Tom Asacker comments on an article in Forbes about 10 things for a CEO to do to combat stress.  (Get a massage, sleep more, etc.)  Tom points out that the list treats the symptoms and then lists 10 CAUSES of stress and how to fix the root cause.  (Be passionate, be kind, take risks . . .)  Take a minute and have a look at it.  And if you want a laugh, click back to the previous post of a Mitch Hedberg quote.

April 11, 2006 in Entrepreneurship | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 06, 2006

Video Blog

A lot of people have asked how I did the video blog.  I'll do another one soon and talk more about it, but I used a piece of software from Serious Magic call Vlogit!  I used a webcam that I had already and a green sheet of plastic paper clipped to my window shades as my green screen - just like they do on TV.

Serious Magic has a partnership with Playstream to do the video hosting and I had a choice between putting it up as Flash or Media Player.  I used Flash this time and I'll try Media Player next.  It was not quite perfect but it was pretty easy for the price of $49.  I've just scratched the surface of what it can do - I think someone who knew something about video production could put together a great looking piece for very little money.

April 6, 2006 in Blogging | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 04, 2006

Hiring Salespeople

I've been asked by an entrepreneur friend to talk about hiring sales people. My friend, like a lot of high-tech entrepreneurs, is a technical person who also has the role of CEO and Sole Salesperson, and they feel it is time for them to "bring in a professional" to "take the company to the next level."

Here's where I think a lot of entrepreneurs, particularly those that are bootstrapping, make a big mistake. They hire a VP of Sales and Marketing, capable of growing a large sales force. Maybe. The New VP spends a lot of time thinking about Positioning. They talk about Executive Selling, Leadership Alignment and Developing Value Propositions. What they probably won't talk about during the interview or after being hired is how many phone calls they are going to make to new prospects every day. When the sales don't happen, it's a product or market problem. (They say)

If you are leading a Rocket-fueled, VC-Backed Start-Up, maybe it makes sense to go right for the leadership who will then build out a real sales force. But if you are just hoping to get some sales help so that you can focus on the job of building your business, then you need someone who can first and foremost, SELL STUFF.

I'm not an expert at hiring sales people, but I can tell you what doesn't work from experience and I can pass on some things I've observed about the people who can sell.

The best sales people jumped right in soon after they arrived.  My company sells a complicated product so new people do have a lot to learn, but the best people were on the phone and planning visits pretty quickly.  If they are too afraid to make the calls then they may not have what it takes.  The biggest failures obsessed over learning every last detail of the product and industry at the expense of just getting out there and working with customers.  The successful people were quick to admit that they weren't experts yet and they were good at getting other people (engineers, sales support, the CEO) to help them fill in the gaps.  And the successful sales people don't try to fake it with customers.  We sell to smart, technical people and they can smell a fake a mile away.

Great sales people know how to establish relationships, and it starts before they even walk in the door for the interview.  They try to get introductions from people we know and respect.  They research our company and even if they are from outside the industry, they walk in with a decent knowledge of what we do.  They try to connect with everyone that they meet here, starting with the person who greets them at the front door.  (As a sales person, you need to understand that EVERYONE you talk to at a company has the potential to kill your sale.  If you act like a jerk in the lobby, you'll never get to the board room.)

I have said that one of our best sales people walks the line between persistence and annoyance.  I've never had a complaint from a customer saying he was pushing too hard, but I know that he is not afraid to tell a customer that it is time to sign.

The hard part about hiring sales people is that if they are any good at all, they will generally interview well.  If they can't sell themselves well, how are they going to sell your product?  If they don't do a good job preparing for the interview, if they haven't researched your company and if they haven't cared enough to find an introduction (and this is their career they are pitching) then they probably aren't going to do a good job selling your product.

Someone said "Past performance is the best indicator of future success".  If a sales person is unemployed then they need to have a really good reason for it, like they made so much money in their last job that they quit to travel the world.  Companies don't usually fire or lay off great sales people so you have to be skeptical when a sales person is not employed I think.  I know, everyone experiences set backs and may find themselves in tough positions, I'm just saying you need to be very thoughtful about this.  (One of our best sales people was unemployed when we hired them, so there are exceptions to the rule.)

My entrepreneur friend is at a critical point and I see a lot of companies get stuck here.  It's easy to hire someone with a great resume who is more interested in managing than doing.  In a small company you just can't afford that.  The one nice thing about sales people is that there is an objective measure of their success.  They sell stuff.  It may take a while for them to get started, but at some point they have to sell.

I welcome any comments about hiring sales people.  Please share your thoughts if you have figured it out, or if you just want to share some of your mistakes. 

April 4, 2006 in Entrepreneurship | Permalink | Comments (24) | TrackBack