Sunday, January 18, 2009

Big three retail web stores

First off, let me confess, I am employed by Sears Holdings Company, so my evaluation might have some bias. I have tried very hard to be as unbiased (for OR against) as possible. That having been said, one thing that really bothers me is how many large retailers with an online presence continuously fail to understand basic things like web design.

As a quick and unscientific measure, I thought I'd review a big box retail sites and give a quick once over. The selections are based on my personal preferences and have no real scientific backing. Let's use the following sites:
Sears (obviously)

To make it real, I'm actually going to try and buy some new socks. It's winter here in Chicago and my last pair of Smartwool socks now has a hole in it. Again, not scientific, pretty practical.

First off, the 800lb gorrilla of retail.

One thing that blows me away is the huge waste of real estate for anyone with a wide-screen monitor. If you look at this image, the yellow and black hatching shows how much wasted space there is. I've spoken with some folks working in online divisions of other retailers and all I ever hear is "but it's HARD to build a page that fills different monitor sizes". My Answer "Yep, that's why competent web designers and developers get paid lot's of money".

Beyond that, there are advertisements from third parties hawking car insurance (apparently from two different companies). It's pretty cluttered and seems to have no rhyme nor reason to how things are organized. Overall I'd say my impression is that it's design is on the borderline of professional and hobbyist.

Frankly, the site is cluttered, crowded, and otherwise a cacophony of sights and sounds reminiscent of the days before people started paying attention to basic design tenets.

In addition to the clunky design, the menus seem to pop underneath the advertisements when using Firefox. The Marketing guys at Wal-mart's online division would probably be a little upset if almost 1/2 of their potential customers will have a crappy experience. Why is this simple thing broken? I bet it 1/2 the people at a Wal-mart got hit in the head with a brick when the entered the store it would get fixed quickly.

Now I search for "wool socks" and get a good 20-30 pages of ever kind of sock EXCEPT wool. Cotton, nylon, aluminum (just kidding), but no wool. Only at the VERY bottom of the page do I get results for wool socks, but they're from a different retailer.

OK, Walmart, you get an 'A' for honesty, but an 'F' for usefulness. If I wanted general purpose search, I'd use google and never bother with your search tool.

Now for Sears.

Sears has the same wasted space problem as walmart. It's as if the online retailing giants all got together and decided to ignore wide screen monitors. Sears, on the other hand, looks nice and tidy and it seems they've spent a lot of time making thing work together. In addition, it doesn't have the apparently random advertisements that appear on Wal-mart's site. Sears works and looks nicely in Firefox.

Search blew me away, it displayed a sane number of results and they where ALL wool socks, exactly what I was looking for! Or so I thought. It turns out I assumed they where all wool, but nowhere on the page did it explicitly say that. If I had my way, I ask to have the search term displayed in context with the results.

Next, Target.

Huge waste of screen space again, all three so far all pretty have this same problem. Target also looks clean, uncluttered, and well organized. The bright red is a striking contrast to the cool blue for both Wal-mart and Sears. I suppose this could work for or against it. As far as Firefox, Target seems to work as well as Sears.

Search was wholly disappointing, Target returned only 1 result for my search which, instead of being socks, was a book!

For a company that uses a bullseye as their logo and a name like Target, they sure missed this one BIG.

Overall, I'd say the results are pretty surprising. For a company as large as Wal-mart with a veritable license the print money, it's web site is pretty clunky. It's search is antique and off-mark and the clutter of the extra unrelated advertisements just makes the site seem unfriendly and cluttered.

Target, on the other hand, looks very nice and clean and seems to function well. The inability to return ANY relevant results is a serious miss though. They probably need to go find a real search engine and properly index their site.

Sears, though, was a clear winner. The site was clean, functional, and it's search results where perfectly on the mark. My only improvement would be to make sure that the relevant search terms could be mixed into the list of results to make comparison shopping a little easier. Good job!

Like I said before, I happen to work for Sears Holdings (though not in in the division) but I've tried to be as unbiased as possible. I haven't been paid for this and frankly thought that Sears was not going to perform as well as it did.

If you think my findings are suspect, try for yourself and form your own opinion. I would love to hear your personal results!

Earn cash with google

I was reading slashdot this morning and saw an interesting ad pop up. It was for a site called It sure smelled funny, but thought it was an amusing approach. From what I can determine it's something like:

#1 Target advertising
#1 Ask a bunch of questions to "Qualify" the applicant (Optional?)
#2 ask for some cash up front to "ship" the "instructions" (Dubious)
#3 Profit!

First of I took [very quick] peek on google about this and found a couple of complaints: here . Then, I started thinking about it... What better way to make money than to charge people a very low amount of money for instructions on how to make money.

From what I can see, while this really seems like it could be a bit unethical, it is an interesting way to make money. If one keeps the number of people "in" the network widely distributed enough and keeps the costs low, this could continue this for quite some time. I'm not a lawyer, but this might even be legal in the US (Let the buyer beware). It hardly seems illegal to charge someone $2 for information about how you made money charging people $2 for information about how to make money.

Now, from what I can see, the proposed business plan is actually something about posting links on google. While this may be a legit way to make money, I'm still trying to figure it out. I can see how perhaps you could make money if your adsense account was well targeted, but this would require a pretty high clickthrough rate. The other thing that might be is to build a network of zombies to click on web sites that will change a pages SEO ranking. This is certainly ethically dubious and I would probably want to shy away from it.

Now mind you, I'm not sure exactly what the "instructions" really are as I am hesitant to give out my personal information, but it certainly sounds shady. If, in fact, it is one of the things outlined above it's probably on pretty shaky ground. Probably, if I really where interested, I could get a PO box and see what they're promoting.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Information Technology Genie

A quick question, how is Information Technology like the proverbial genie in bottle? I don't know if you're familiar with the story, here's how it goes:

A man finds a genie's bottle, opens it, and in a cloud of smoke, out comes a genie. The genie states "Your wish is my command, what would you like me to do for you?". The man immediately responds with "Make me a million dollars!".

Can you guess comes next?

Well, in the story, there is a large poof of smoke, and where the man was previously standing, a lifeless pile of money has now appeared. The genie as literally transformed the man from a living breathing human into a pile of money.

Now for the Philosophical part: Did the Genie do the right thing? Obviously he did what the man said to do, but is that likely what the man really wanted?

Probably not.

When a business client starts asking for things, many organizations begin scrambling around doing EXACTLY what they heard was desired... "Build me a new (fill in the blank) solution!" Poof! An important difference from story is: instead of a pile of money appearing, usually a pile of money disappears.

The lesson.

Business Clients: Be careful about what you ask for from your technology organizations. They can be a very powerful force and do wondrous magic. However, you need to make sure you carefully what you really desire otherwise you may end up with strange and unintended results.

IT Professionals: Be careful about implementing business requirements too literally. You need to do careful analysis about the source of the requirement, ask questions, and challenge things that seem like they might have unintended side effects. It is part of your job to protect the business from itself in these situations, not simply literally execute what you believe you have been told to do.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Technological Decision Making

I'm amazed at how flawless some people think they are. Judging by the responses I often get to questions, I happen to work at an organization with a handful of people who NEVER make mistakes and know the answer to EVERYTHING. Oddly enough, though, these people seem to always have to work with a bunch of morons who never understand the genius in their presence.
It seems like my job has become that of gradually bringing a lot of these folks down off their high and enlightening people to problems with their reasoning. There seems to be an abundance of overconfidence in IT that "I know what I'm talking about" without and abundance of careful thought about all the options available to us or the inevitable consequences (everything has a down side). The troubling thing is, while there are obviously solutions to make this determination (documentation...), there are really no economical ways to determine if someone has done the careful thought or not in the time scales our projects typically run.
My job now is finding people who have actually thought about the problem (and making this determination is HARD) and exposing their ideas and insights to people who are making arbitrary decisions based on little, flawed, or no information. Put another way, it's all about educating everyone in my sphere of influence so that the entire team builds off of each others knowledge and experience.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Creating great teams

As someone who is ushering in a new customer focused software development process at a very large corporation. I'm certainly validating a many tried and true axioms that we all know and love. I thought I'd share a few of what I feel are the most important:

A team of great players doesn't necessarily make a great team

A team is a group of people who have interconnected things to do that will bring an organization closer to it's goals. If the organization can reach it's goals with only 1 member of the team contributing, then it's not a team, it's just a bunch of people in the same organization.

One problem is that there are people who are legitimately superstars. In the time it takes the rest of us mere mortals to print off initial copy of the requirements, they have: comprehended the requirements, acquired some dev infrastructure, built a prototype, and are asking questions about problems that have occurred.

The problem is, with a whole team of people like this they must all work together else, anyone trying to coordinate these activities and build off a coordinated effort is going to rapidly degenerate into a drooling gibbering idiot.

If you are so lucky as to have one of these high powered teams, your job becomes making sure these folks fully appreciate how they need to work together and how the different things they're working on should interoperate.

Great teams are grown

There is a notion that 10 people in the same room working on a project are a team. Or, worse yet, team people mentioned in a project kickoff meeting or some org chart are a team.

I often see 10 people get together for a kickoff, then disburse for 3 weeks and regroup to see what's going on. This is not a team, this is multiple individuals working on the same thing independently.

A team is a group of individuals working on the same thing TOGETHER. This means I cannot do my part properly without everyone else doing their part. Obviously there are things that can happen individually, but that does not require teamwork, that requires individual effort. Team oriented work must inherently require more than one person to complete the task.

great teams don't need great leaders (but it helps)

A great team will often function without the notion of a traditional "leader". The leader is simply the person who has identified the problem they are supposed to solve and then helps remove and/or minimize obstacles.

Too often, folks in a leadership or management role feel the need to be really "hands on". They want to make adjustments the the plan, make technical recommendations, have final approval on every decision, and otherwise micromanage their team.

This should not really be necessary on a great team, they should all understand what the goals are, discover how they fit into attaining those goals, and understand the reason they are on the team. If the team's decisions are constantly overruled by the leader, then they will stop making decisions. This means instead of 5-10 brains working to solve problems, it turns into 1 brain trying to solve problems and 10 brains implementing these decisions.

This CAN work, but it will often lead to (no pun intended) leaders that are overworked, making bad decisions (because they don't have time to properly think about it), and mindless zombie teams.

Google App Engine Part II

After a brief (okay, six month) hiatus, I'm continuing to work on my app engine app. One thing I'm noticing is that it appears that data access is considered pretty CPU intensive. I'm not sure if this is because they're abstracted IO and CPU to a higher level and just labeled EVERYTHING as CPU or if their method of getting to data actually uses more CPU than one would expect. I tend to think it's the former because there is no apparent measurement for IO.

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In any event, check out my progress at
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