Observations and arguments.

Archive for October, 2006

No more waiting for a Prius?

When we finally put down our $500 deposit for a 2007 Toyota Prius, we were told we’d have to wait two to four months–especially as the color (silver pine mica, aka green) and options package (with bluetooth phone connectivity) were the most popular choices.

I received a call two days later telling me that we’d have the car within a two weeks.

Five days later I was driving it off the lot.

The official story I was given was that Toyota was ramping up production, and that the dealership was surprised with a shipment of eighty cars for the month, up from their typical shipment of thirty.

If this story is correct, then quoted wait times for the cars should begin to come down, and not just at Toyota Sunnyale.

I remain unconvinced, however, as our car was the only Prius I saw on the lot. For the narrative to sustain plausibility, there would have to be at least some small number of cars available for sale. Unless one were to believe that nearly all eighty of the cars were silver pine mica with the HK option set–otherwise, how would they have gotten so far down the “waiting list”?

The more likely scenario is that yes, Toyota has built up its production to better meet demand, but that the cars are held at an intermediate location and shipped to order promptly in response to customer deposits. Toyota would benefit by being able to artificially sustain demand, and give them some power over its dealers by tightly managing wait times. Dealers would benefit by maintaining their zero-day inventory on the cars and their sticker-price sales numbers–customers are not bargaining from strength when they have to “custom order” their vehicles. Sales representatives also get to play the good cop role when delivering the news to the customer that their vehicle has arrived well ahead of expectations. As dealers (and their better sales reps) are typically working not just to sell you today’s car but your return business, delivering good news can be a powerful emotional hook.

(In my earlier post regarding a bad experience at another dealership, our obnoxious rep attempted this as a last ditch maneuver as we were on our way out the door–promising to finagle a car “just for us” within two weeks. Curious how the end result matched this prediction.)

The trouble with this strategy, at least from our perspective, is that we were in a position to wait two to four months, so that we didn’t experience any real emotional relief at getting the car so quickly. Our advance planning allowed us to remain detached from the theatrics and drama, and as a result I’m much more critical of the manipulations involved.

I would encourage future Prius buyers to kick the tires of the quoted wait times. Share the fact that I got a car within a week, and that you’d be willing to walk off the lot and find a dealer who can match that.

See if you can get a car quickly, and for a fair amount under the quoted price.

There is a third possibility that I can envision, however, only because this dealership is located in Silicon Valley. It is conceivable that the dealership’s internet manager found my earlier blog post, which favorably compared our experience to that we had at a competitor. Hoping to milk some additional positive blogness, s/he may have influenced the speed at which we got our car. This seems unlikely to me, but if it’s true at all and you the dealership’s internet manager is reading this right now I hope you understand that it kinda backfired.

I’ll have positive things to write about my Prius in future posts. But getting the car so quickly has left a foul taste in this car buyer’s mouth.

Giving up consistency as an organizational objective

Marketing ethnographer and anthropologist Grant McCracken let fly a question this week that’s been gnawing at me for a while now:

What if we gave up consistency as an organizational objective? What if we stopped trying to integrate ventures and strategies? What if we just let the corporation rip as something essentially inconsistent and unintegrated?

I wonder this because as my organization has begun its latest initiative to improve our internal workflows (seriously enough to add headcount to help do it), there has been a directive from our management team to make workflows consistent across teams.

Which: from a management perspective is a perfectly reasonable request.
But which: from a workflow perspective can make little sense.

As a workflow or systems analyst, of course you are invested in satisfying the desires of management–the people you’re working for. But is your goal consistency? Or is it to improve the methodologies and ultimately the outcomes of the system/workflow?

Consistency should be a tactic, not an objective. Sometimes it helps the work itself improve, especially when there is a great deal of interaction between teams. In other cases it helps management track progress or profitability. Consistency in UI design can help the end user learn to make good guesses about where to look for a button or command. There is often a measurable value one can attach to the application of consistency.

But when consistency is itself the goal, you can wind up placing obstacles in the road to quality outcomes, by limiting the abilities of teams to make good (or great) decisions. All simply to help management not have to think quite so hard about the business.

The wrong question: How can we make things more consistent?
The right question: Where (and how) can consistency help us?

What if by giving up consistency we could create better products?

iTunes 7 shows no love for (Video) Podcasts

A post this morning over on The Unofficial Apple Weblog gripes about a change to the iTunes UI that moves access to enhanced podcast chapters out of the application window and up into the menubar. It posits two possibilities for the change: 1) that different UI designers were assigned to the project, and simply made a bad decision; or 2) that Apple no longer cares about UI design.

Ok, option 2 is crazy talk. Apple may make some mystifying UI design choices, but it’s not because it doesn’t care about the choices.

No, I think you have to look at a third alternative: that as TV shows and now movies gain ascendancy in the iTunes universe, podcasts are being moved further and further down the functional spec sheet.

My own greatest annoyance with iTunes 7 (and why I haven’t upgraded on my main PowerBook) is that the shiny new album and Coverflow views aren’t available in the Podcast library. Currently in iTunes 6, video podcasts appear in the “Videos” library, with nice thumbnails that my two-and-a-half year old can point to when he wants to see the video of Magic Monkey Bob, or of himself running around with one of his pals.

In iTunes 7, these thumbnails are gone; because video podcasts don’t show up under “Movies” or “TV Shows”. I tried to create a workaround by creating a smart playlist of video podcasts–surely I could use Coverflow then. Except that all the podcasts from a particular source are treated as being from one “album”, so they all share the same artwork–a still frame from a random single video. I haven’t tried deleting the videos from iTunes and then re-importing them as random videos, but even if that were to work what a pain it’s going to be.

Of course, I will have to upgrade at some point. I can’t listen to shared music from my other machines in the house that are now on iTunes 7. And if I ever decide to download a TV show I’ll have to upgrade to even watch them.

And when I do upgrade, my boy is going to shout at me. Repeatedly. And at a loud volume. Because he’s going to want to know where his favorite movies went. And I’m not going to get very far with my conjectures and ramblings about UI and product road maps.

So thank you, iTunes, for that. So very much.

Learning through speech

Amid the raging river of content known as my Bloglines feeds are the writings of Seth Godin, a bit of a rockstar iconoclast in the marketing world. A big idea guy, or as he might posit, a small idea guy.

In a post from Sunday Godin asks: “What’s the point of talking to a group?

He suggests that giving a speech to a group of people–oration–might work to incite emotion or to sell (he sidesteps religion in posing his question), but that it falls short as a teaching tool, particularly in a culture comfortable with the remote control, YouTube, and Bloglines.

I can’t help but think Godin has extrapolated from his own boredom at a recent class or training session and concluded that his own learning pace and style is shared by everyone.

Yes, instructor-led training is often poorly conceived and executed (in the example he cites, the teacher read unwaveringly from a prepared text), constrained by politics and resources, and is often inappropriate for the material. But of course that’s why there’s been such a massive shift in the past fifteen years towards self-paced interactive learning systems–first CD-ROM “Multimedia”, then web-based–in corporations and universities. (This of course comes with its own problems, e.g. the assessment of skill acquisition using multiple choice questions.)

Sometimes when looking at the challenge of guiding a population of learners towards knowledge, having a teacher stand up in front of a group of people (even if some of those people are watching on screens from far away) is the best medium for the task. Because as Godin himself admits, sometimes engagement and human emotion are important parts of the learning equation.

Ask anyone who’s learned from remarkable teachers–there’s no technological substitute.

A month between posts?

It’s been a struggle to maintain a work-life balance–amidst busyness at work and busyness in life. I’ve been able to fill in as the single parent at times, and carve out time to mark our tenth wedding anniversary. I’ve married two friends, cheered on my mother at her ballroom dance showcase, and brought the family along on a surprise trip to my father’s 70th birthday.

What I’ve not been doing includes writing, something I consider a bit of work and a bit of life but which more often is attached to the idea of play–a category of activity that is set aside first at times of busyness. The lack of writing (and the paucity of videos) is the result of a function of time and emptying out.

To whatever extent I hope to make a transition in what I get paid to do–I need to work better to balance work AND life AND play.