Monday, December 18, 2006

Flowers or DDT?

A good albeit apparently justifiably anonymous comment on a recent post, "What's a Website Worth?". I've edited out the bits I thought worth airing and commenting further on: Let's leave aside the design/navigation issues the site still has to overcome - it's a big task, and the site is making progress against a tough objective. But even if Direct.gov were a fantastic, robust, easy to use site - is it still right to turn off all the others? Isn't there something to be said for promoting competition in approaches to government on the web along the 'let a hundred flowers bloom' line of thinking? With a single CMS, a single set of editorial guidelines, a single design template - how will central government sites keep pace, innovate, and become better still? Sure, having more sites will cost more money, and the argument for smart cross-linking is undeniable. There's also definitely a case for culling the existing jungle of government sites, but why not cull the weakest 25% year-on-year, and support the brightest 5% to see what we can learn from them? In my quest to keep things simple, I've always gone for "one site" because it cuts the debate down. As soon as you say "ok, we can have more than one", then everyone wants their site included and we argue indefinitely about what the criteria for inclusion are (believe me, I've been there). I realise that "one" is not the right answer just as "thousands" isn't. The important thing is to recognise where you're going to invest and where you're not going to invest. Everyone who runs a website in government believes that they can have the one of the "brightest 5%" if not this year, then next year, with just a little more money. I absolutely buy the idea of seeding some sites with funding. Let's say we take the top 5% by market penetration. We'll keep that simple and say it's the number of customers they could have times the ratio who are online. So direct.gov would be 2.8 million out of 36 million (60 million times 0.6, where that's the ratio of the country online, give or take), or 7.77%. That sounds good, but, Hitwise figures for November 2006 show google.co.uk at 8.06% and ebay.co.uk at 2.98%. A year ago, the same source had direct.gov at 2.8%. With direct.gov's traffic roughly doubling over the last year (I'm being only a little generous) then somewhere around 5-6% probably isn't out of whack. That works for established sites. It also works for sites that have a chunk of marketing money. It's hard to imagine, say, www.salt.gov.uk (one of my favourite domain names) getting much marketing or much traffic, so it should rule out the obviously banal sites. But what about a sexy new site? How would it get launched? How would it make its case so that it could be one of the 5%? And who would it displace? Nobody objects to the rule of let's fund, say, the top 50 sites only, until you meet the guy who runs the site at #51 - you'd better be ready for some stiff criticism at that point, because he's going to question your maths as well as your parentage. Let me go a bit further and look at 4 models in industry and government. The first is Amazon.com. Amazon sells everything you could ever want (ok, most things). It's easy to navigate, has a great search engine and lets you put everything you want to buy in a single basket. But not all the items that you buy are sold by Amazon - there are thousands of third party suppliers and, indeed, millions of customers who are selling previously bought goods (whether bought on Amazon or not). As a customer, I'm largely oblivious to this. There is plainly all kinds of integration and face-painting going on, but it doesn't matter to me. This seems to be the ultimate business model for aggregation of services under a single brand. Would anyone say that Amazon doesn't innovate? I doubt it - free shipping, new products, recommendations, gift wrapping services, buy new or used, 1 click purchasing (don't rag on about that patent stuff please). Then let's take itunes. Great interface, oodles of tunes of all genres, not so great at classical music sorting (something about composer/orchestra/conductor/soloist being hard to map I guess), ties in perfectly to the ipod (shuffle/nano/video etc), does podcasts, videos, even games. All the time you're oblivious to it as a customer. Except when you try and put your bought and paid for itunes music somewhere else - whether that's another player or even a Sonos. Never mind that I'm not trying to copy it, I just want to play it. This has turned out to be a genius business model for Apple but isn't that great for the consumer. Anyone who remembers how hard it used to be to switch from a Nokia phone to an Ericsson phone, if you didn't have all your phone numbers on the SIM card will recognise story. Eventually it breaks and all kinds of things emerge that let you get round it until the companies sort it out properly. Lastly, there's google. It creates lots of beta services, bundles them under its own domain name but makes them pretty hard to find unless you're dedicated (how many people even know google suggest exists, let alone orkut or google directory); Google buys new things that it can't build, like picasa or youtube and doesn't even bring those into its own brand structure initially. Eventually all of these things will be harmonised and just like the reason we fell in love with Microsoft Office was that we never had to wonder where the "open" button was or where the recent files are or whether spell check was consistent or whatever, it will all just work. And then there's UK government which did a sort of google thing early on, i.e. as you said, it let one hundred flowers bloom. If you'll forgive me a digression: Originally said by Chairman Mao Zedong"Let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend", this slogan was used during the period of approximately six weeks in the summer of 1957 when the Chinese intelligentsia were invited to criticize the political system then obtaining in Communist China. It is sometimes suggested that the initiative was a deliberate attempt to flush out dissidents by encouraging them to show themselves as critical of the regime. Many of those who put forward views that were unwelcome to Mao were executed. So should we let them all bloom, or use a liberal dose of DDT, a la Mao? That isn't meant in poor taste. We need to encourage innovation - but we need to stifle the weeds. In the mess that is online government - and the UK is not alone in having this problem - we've grown a multi-headed monster that we can no longer control. Thousands of sites exist, new ones pop up most weeks with ever more bizarre names (I notice an increasing trend to use .com now to bypass government domain naming standards), they're rarely accessibly and probably rarely used. And, for the most part, we have no idea how much they cost - parliamentary answers provide the data that they have but most of the data is too difficult to get and, unless the question is very narrowly defined, the answers can be misleading and difficult to compare (I used to look at the data and try and draw comparisons; rarely did I get anywhere). Directing both new and existing sites towards direct.gov will help contain the problem - it won't solve it; no-one is going from 4,000+ sites to 1 or 2 anytime in the next 5 years. Figuring out the business case for which ones to let flourish independently will be difficult, but it is worth doing - perhaps using a venture capital style model (hence my interest in how much a site is worth, using the BSkyB link as a prompt) where money is provided for certain deliverables, perhaps market share, perhaps transaction count or whatever. At the same time, money is spent on direct.gov to bring it up to pace - we can agree or disagree about navigation and so on, but whatever the right things to spend on it, again subject to a good case (which need not be monetary), are spent on it so that it too is innovative. Believe me, when it was fired up, it was definitely innovative. All the work on accessibility, style sheets, single route to any device, search engines etc were all nowhere to be seen anywhere else (not claiming credit here, I was an interested watcher). Personally, I like the Amazon model. For the most part, I believe people want to come to one authoritative place - after all, it's unlikely that they "shop government", looking for differing views or better benefit assessments. The information there should be in a common voice with simple navigation that lets me get through the hierarchy quickly. The information that I have to provide, I want to give once and once only. I don't want to fill in 61 forms for government benefits - actually, I really don't want to fill in any forms, but that's a topic for another day. Certainly, the idea of a single central site would scare everyone else in the opposite direction at great speed. It would quickly be criticised as slow, unwieldy and lacking in innovation. And it would be all those - but, for the right aggregation of content and with the right adoption by the rest of government (the way the DVLA now routes you to it with every letter they send), it could be the new ebay, amazon or google. The place where everyone goes first - and where they branch away from only when it can't help, but using seeds placed in direct.gov to find where they need to go. So, I'm with you, almost. Kill the bottom 75% or relegate them to policy and position paper locations only; invest in the 5% of new business cases that you see every year, with a finite innovation budget; keep direct.gov in line with the best of the innovative ideas after they've been proven in the wild, again, on a finite budget.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Innovative Ideas Can Come From Everywhere

Just wanted to thank the North American company, who shall remain nameless at this point, who sent me a shiny new ipod Shuffle as part of their latest marketing campaign. They've thoughtfully pre-loaded it with some podcasts discussing innovation under the tagline "Innovative Ideas Can Come From Everywhere". I'm intrigued by the promotion and, of course, delighted to be sent a Shuffle (as a gadget fan it's important to have one of everything). Whilst I'm certainly completely in agreement with their chosen tagline (and it's not very different from the one at the very top of my blog right now), I was more than a little disappointed to have to pay customs duty on the shipment before I was allowed to take delivery - and, at that point, I didn't even know what was in the packet. £14.75 certainly isn't much to pay for a Shuffle but it's a funny way to get your customers endeared to your thinking. I've asked them to hold off before shipping me anything else - imagine the duty on a grand piano - as I think it would prove they had great wisdom.

What's a Website Worth?

Writing the business case for a government website is a difficult job. I suspect few governments have made much of a science of it, preferring to go one of two routes: (1) it's common sense (everyone else is doing is so we have to do it) or (2) it's part of the government's strategy (so we have to do it). Does BSkyB's purchase of 365 Media on Friday provide a new benchmark? Purely transactional sites have a pretty easy job: cost of doing the transaction online/cost of doing it online*total number of transactions forecast is about as far as you go. There are (at least) two things that complicate this calculation: a) What is the true cost, i.e. do you include capital costs (depreciated over what period) and, if you're carrying multiple transactions, how do you separate out operational costs? and b) How do you figure out what your transaction count is going to be? Early on, many (includng me) thought that e-goverment would be a slamdunk - people hate dealing with government anyway, so give them an easy, automated way of doing it and it would attract folks in droves. Poor implementations, negative publicity (repeat until false) and too many me-too sites quickly laid waste to that view. Only now are volumes reaching levels that give a foundation for a business model. Top down business cases failed dismally, as Kawsaki advises. Pure content sites, however, are more difficult. BSkyB paid somewhere between £94 million and £103 million pounds for 365 Media's portfolio of sites (such as Teamtalk.com, PlanetF1.com, Golf365.com and Cricket365.com) which, together, attract some 2.2 million unique visitors per month. These sites are all advertising supported. The buyout suggests that one monthly visitor is worth around £45-50 which seems like quite a lot of ad dollars. Direct.gov's October viewing figures (page 23 of the eDt monthly report) show 2.75 million visitors, up 68% on the same time last year (a pretty good growth rate). Only 320,000 of visitors use the search function, either proving the original design point that good navigation and great content brought together from all over government was the main factor or that, over time, people have learned that the search (which doesn't cover all of government but is restricted to the site itself with occasional offsite recommended links) isn't very useful. So, if direct.gov were valued on the same basis, would BSkyB pay £124 million for it? It seems unlikely given that there's no advertising-supported model (eDt's 2004 efforts to syndicate advertising involved placing ads on a network of a dozen or so government sites, hoping to refer business between them. The most popular ad led to the "search government" page). Would it be possible to put commercial ads on a government site and so drive revenue? Would it be possible if government outsourced its sites to commercial entities? It seems unlikely that ad dollars are going to be attracted to government sites (can you imagine, "dealing with a death in the family, phone Stanleys, leading undertakers in the UK"? or "need somewhere to spend your benefits? try 888.com"). So if you're going to invest a few million in a content aggregation site - a "super-site" - you have just a few numbers to play with: - X number of other websites will be switched off at an average cost of £Y, meaning there'll be an absolute save of £X*Y, less wind-down costs and any write-offs. - £Z pounds of capital investment in existing sites will be avoided, some of which will be redirected to the new site (and then those sites will be switched off). Such capital spend might be required for routine upgrades, provision of accessible services (although this doesn't seem high up anyone's list with over 60% of sites not meeting the standards) Without hard numbers and cast iron commitments backing up these assumptions, the business case is unlikely to have much credibility. The business case for direct.gov included a line that noted that other government websites would wither and eventually die, because all the visitors would first go to direct.gov. It's hard to test that now, 2 and a 1/2 years after launch, but I suspect that it hasn't proved as true as many would have liked. One thing I am sure of though is that the myriad government websites that exist today lack a collective business case, so I am heartened to see the Varney report reiterate the need to consolidate down to two (one for individuals and one for businesses, leaving the self-employed with a slightly split web personality), even if there's nothing new in that. Disappointingly, Sir David didn't have a go at the business case for this recommendation. That would have shown some interesting numbers but instead we're still working on the "leap of faith" business model.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Learning from Marathons

Rejected. No London Marathon 2007 for me. A magazine says "sorry" and I get a zip-up top with "London Marathon" on the outside and a big "2007" label on the inside that no one but me need ever see. I've decided not to run any more races for charity so will only run when I'm granted a place through the ballot. The spirit of generosity towards Macmillan Cancer Support has been enormous over the last 18 months but I think I've pushed it enough. I'll carry on donating personal money to Macmillan as I have done for the last 10 years or so. This winter will be about running for fun rather than for a race although I'll slot in a couple of half marathons in March or April. I now have a half dozen marathons under my belt in four cities - London, Paris, Vienna and New York. I've learned a few lessons from those and I'm logging them here so that I'll remember them next time. Maybe they'll help some others too. 1. Don't take the training plans published in books and magazines as gospel. Most of the plans will have you running 40 miles+ a week at peak. Art Lieberman's plan has you doing 36 miles a week for 12 weeks, with a 16 mile run every Sunday, and this for those looking for a 5 hour finish. Hal Higdon's Intermediate plan sets you off at 24 miles in week 1 and has you at 43 miles 15 weeks later. Now these guys have, of course, trained hundreds of people and run dozens (hundreds in Hal's case) of marathons themselves. They know stuff that I don't know. But I do know that I've run sub-4 hours on a total of 231 miles training (70% of which was in the last 2 months) and I've run sub-4 on 453 miles (those are figures for the 6 months before a marathon). You've got to find something that works for you and that fits in with what else you've got going on, recognising that some other things are going to have to take a backseat if you want to finish safely and not spend the next few days walking around like a 90 year old. If you can stick to a plan, go for it, but know when to back off and don't feel bad about it (except for Rule 5). 2. Don't believe the pace tables in the books. I can run a 10k in about 47 mins. The books tell me that should put me on track for a 3h 20m marathon. Likewise, I can crack a half marathon in 1h 41m, which marks up to 3h 23m. Yet the fastest I've done is 3h 45m. There are perhaps a couple of reasons for this (1) I don't follow the training plans (see above) and do enough long runs that would improve my stamina or (2) I'm not a natural long distance runner (no surprise there). But few people who are running marathons are naturals and fewer still have the time to do the long runs necessary. So plan for a slower second half than the books say and set your target time based on that. If you're running a half in 1h 41, you're going to come in between 3h 40m and 3h 50m for a full, if you're like me that is. Plan also to run your first half a good 8-10 minutes slower than you can run a half marathon. So a 1h 41m half becomes a 1h 50m first half followed by a 2 hour second half. 3. Do wear a pace strap, but use it wisely. Pace straps assume you'll run your race at an even pace. You might in which case, I think you're rare. I've so far not managed to run an even pace, let alone get close to the famed "negative splits" (where you run the second half faster than the first). In NY the second half was 8 mins slower than the first, in London earlier in the year it was 20 mins slower. A smart pace strap will force you to run the first couple of miles more slowly than plan - but the ones I've seen don't think that way. I picked up a Nike strap in NY which had the first mile (on a target of 3h 50m) at 9:39, before moving to 8:14 in mile 2 and then drifting back to 8:45. Times varied, per mile, by plus or minues 5 seconds from that pace until the end. Perhaps this argues for a personalised pace strap (conveniently, unlike the Lucozade ones you see at UK races, the Nike one is a velcro strap that lets you replace the pace chart inside a plastic strip)? If I was starting at the front, mine would have the first three miles pretty fast and then slow me down; it would recognise that the second half will be perhaps 7-12 mins slower than the first and it would also know that I'd speed up in the last 2 miles. You have to know how you run to build a pace strap like this, but I think I'm there now. The strap would also have a big font. 4. Run in the right units. Marathons in the UK and North America run miles, in Europe they run km. I do all my training runs and pace analysis in km which means that in every UK/NA race I have to do the maths in my head for how I'm doing. That's fine at the "round" numbers, 5, 10, 20 etc but you try figuring out 17 miles in km when you're just coming to the wall and you're trying to figure out how you're doing against your plan. 5. The bulk of the preparation is in your head. When you're out running and it's cold or wet or dark or all three, you want to quit. You want to take a shortcut. That slightly nagging pain in your knee or your foot soon becomes a focus and you think you'd better cut it short in case it develops. The moment you do that is the moment you're selling yourself short. You will get many of those moments during the course of 26 miles on race day and conquering them during training is the best way of handling them so that they won't matter when it really matters. 6. Don't run a race in November. If you're like me and you shift to a healthy diet for the 6 weeks or so before a race - lots of pasta, no drinking - you'll really suffer in December. All of the people you didn't see in October and early November will book to see you in late November and early December. The Christmas season then comes and you'll be booked every night. At the best of times the siren call of Great Bordeaux is hard to refuse and, after weeks without, your shields are down, phasers are set to stun and you'll know about it every morning for a month. I imagine running a race in January would be even worse. 7. Set yourself a target then leave it behind. Despite my very best efforts, once I've started a marathon, the pace is the pace. In NY I tracked the 3h 50m pace guy all the way to the half way mark and then gradually fell behind - he was running a steady pace, I was slowing down in the second half. Eight minutes behind over the second 13 miles may not sound much, but it's an enormous amount to make up when you're already tired. Likewise, if I'd been heading to finish NY just outside of 4 hours instead of just inside, I doubt that there would have been much I could have done about it after mile 20. So, push yourself by all means, but don't burn up. Faster runners than me tell me that they've been physically sick at the end of every marathon. That's never happened to me and maybe it's because I haven't pushed myself to the very end of my limits, or maybe it's because that doesn't sound like a fun way to finish a race. 8. If you're running NY or Paris, practice drinking out of cups. London's drink stations are the best I've seen - bottles of water with the tops removed and squeezy lucozade cartons, also with the tops off. NY and Paris (I can't remember Vienna) are not quite to easy - cups filled with liquid. I defy you to drink anything like enough without slowing to walking pace, and a slow walk at that. Paula Radcliffe has written that you can practice it. Well, in 26 miles I couldn't figure it out, so take her advice and practice before you go, if only to stop yourself from being covered in sticky juice. NY did have one thing over London, PowerBar Gel at mile 18/19 - and not in just the horrible flavours either (although you wouldn't want to touch the stuff if you weren't running 26 miles). 9. It will hurt. Running 26 miles will hurt, hurt and hurt some more. Get used to it. Be consoled during the race by the fact that the pain during the race is unlikely to be as bad as when you try and walk down some stairs the following day. I haven't yet found the amount of training that stops that pain, although I have reduced it from 5 days of feeling 90 years old to just one.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Snow Alone In The Desert

With a quick trip to Chamonix only a couple of weeks away I've been studying the resort snow reports looking for signs of hope. Over the next 7 days the forecast say there could be as little as 21cm of snow. Even the local reporters are sounding somewhat downcast.
Dubai may now be the destination ski resort, with the best snow east of Aspen. Their SkiDubai resort may be the only place you'll be able to ski inside a decade. Imagine the queues as all of Europe's ski fans descend on Dubai, mixing a few days in the snow with a sun tan, a splash at Wild Wadi and the purchase of a few luxury watches. Even if the dollar falls to three to the pound, Dubai will still look attractive with its currency pegged to the dollar. There won't be enough hotel rooms or airline seats, despite all the expansion, to handle the influx of tourists. Better build some more palm islands. Apparently in 2008, they'll be opening a new resort so as to cement their lock on the European ski market: A second Dubai indoor ski slope is the Dubai Sunny Mountain Ski Dome in Dubailand which is due to open in 2008. It will provide a great attraction, featuring a revolving ski slope, an artificial mountain range, an ice bridge, a cable lift, a snow maze, an ice slide, polar bears cold water-aquaria and special sound and light effects. I'm surprised they felt the need for a revolving ski slope - I've found that most slopes do that as I tumble down them, head over heels. Jokes about the Dubai Sheikhs being responsible for the very global warming phenomonen that will make their resort the only place in the world that you can ski will not be welcome.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Voicemail Hell

What seems like years ago - in fact it was 2 years ago - I heard about a service called SpinVox that promised to translate voicemails into text messages. The idea of never having to listen to a voicemail again fired me up considerably. I hate the things, especially the long, rambling ones that people leave as they're driving somewhere; the poor souls have nothing to do but catch up on their calls so you end up with a baffling, unstructured message that seems (and often is) never-ending. Well, no more. SpinVox is available to all those who want it, right now. You can sign up for a free trial - one week or 50 messages - at their site. After that you'll pay upwards from £5 to have all of your messages sent to you either as text (hmmm, get enough of those already) or email (better still, you can forward the message back to the person who left it for you and give them the answer they need in the context of the message). Tests over the last week show that SpinVox does pretty well, even with difficult voices. It stumbles over surnames and seems very confused by the word "hospital" (don't ask), but I'd say it's 95% accurate, even with Wayne, my Brummie friend. FOr instance, here's the kind of mail you get (I've changed the names to protect the guilty): Alan, hi it's Joe. Alan just wanted to see if ya had availability on Fri, for us to get a few folks together to talk with Bob about what needs doing on the commercials & how that fits into the wider architecture with you, also want to pick your brains about how you wanted ___ to play into that. Might be worth talking about the ___ sorting ___ & focus on the required outputs You can see it's not quite perfect - and it's mostly smart enough to know when it doesn't get a word at all. Neatly, if you want to listen to the vm, it gives you a short code to hop straight to this specific message to save you having to sort through old ones. This is just such a good thing. I used to dread the end of the day, dialling up my voicemail and hearing that dreaded dis-embodied voice intone "you have more than 20 messages". Now I get them as they come, complete with the number they originate from (no more scribbling down numbers when I'm between places) and I can choose to respond by phone, email or text. You can bet that it will mostly be email or text though, so get used to not hearing my voice. Genius.