Archive for June, 2010

Tiny Differences in Usability: The Salary Database

June 23, 2010 2 comments

One reason I started this blog is to write down stories I enjoy telling in class. Here’s a favorite.  Moral: Small differences in usability and accessibility can make a big difference in user behavior.

I am an employee of the State of Georgia. Consequently, my salary is a matter of public record. About 15 years ago, if you wanted to know someone’s salary, you needed to identify the correct government office, and arrive there during business hours. Then you would need to find the right clerk, and request to borrow a thick volume with the salaries of all state employees.  Who did this? People with an axe to grind. People with an issue. You don’t go to all that trouble just as an amusement on your lunch hour.

Some time in the late 1990s, this information was put online. I first heard about it because a kind young woman in one of my first classes told me about it. She seemed worried–did I know about the database? Was I sure I was getting paid enough?  I followed the link she sent me, and laughed–the database is typically a year out of date, and the entry at the time showed my salary as what I earned in my first half year. Next time I saw the student, I explained, and thanked her for her concern. (The state of Georgia treats me pretty well, over all. You can check if you like.)

By making the information so easily and anonymous accessible, it became something people browse through just for fun. The threshold for folks having a look is much, much lower. The information has long been accessible–but how easy it is to access dramatically changes how it is actually used.

Would it change your behavior if I added a link to the database to this post? Are you going to go have a look?

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Everything is Cheaper on Amazon–Is This Good News?

June 21, 2010 1 comment

I used to shop on lots of different websites, looking for good deals on specialty products. Hypoallergenic sunscreen? Coolibar and dermadoctor were cheaper than anywhere else. Dairy-free baby formula? Save about 100% at bulkforcheap compared to buying it in the store. It’s fun to search around the web and find a small company that will give you a great deal. Or it was.

I was just putting in my summer sunscreen order, and decided to check Amazon before using my usual vendor. And what do ya know? Amazon is cheaper. So for fun I went and looked at a bunch of other things I used to buy on various sites, and… wow. Amazon has them all. And cheaper. And usually with free shipping.  Even the baby formula. I keep checking new items and thinking, “surely for the Jellycat stuffed animals, Puffins will still be better?” Nope, Amazon has them and is cheaper. And the next item, and the next…. The interesting change is that products from third-party stores on Amazon are now sometimes eligible for free shipping.

Speaking as a stock holder, this is good news. As a fan of independent, small businesses… I think this is good news, but I’m not totally sure. It looks like the Jellycat animals are delivered by EcoTime Toys. And EcoTime Toys appears to be an independent, small business. I wonder if EcoTime Toys feels like Amazon is helping them. Are they getting bigger volume? Are they being squeezed for profit margins? And what’s going to happen to Puffins, and all the other vendors who don’t make a deal with big brother AMZN? Will Amazon partner with multiple Jellycat vendors? I’m going to investigate. Stay tuned….

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Wiping Up After Online Universities

June 8, 2010 5 comments

Newly potty trained children need help wiping. As they get older and more coordinated, they can do this for themselves. But they’ll let Mom and Dad do it for them for a shocking length of time. Until one day you take a deep breath and say, “You’re perfectly capable of doing this yourself. Call me if you have problems, but please try yourself first.”

Lately I feel like I’ve been cleaning up after not only my children, but also other people’s children. Or rather, students. They’re students at online universities, and they seem to think I’m here to spend my time taking care of them.

Case one: a student at the for-profit school University of Phoenix emails me that she’d like to interview me about an article I wrote. I tell her I can’t chat on the phone, but can answer a couple questions by email. She emails me questions like “how do you evaluate an online reference?” I politely send her back the name of a book that discusses this in detail. She replies:

“This will help for future projects and I will pass it on but our presentation is due 8 June, we were only given a few days to prepare. I will attempt to find it, if not we will go with what we have from your article. Thanks again.”

No time to go to the library and actually read a book–I want you to answer my questions!

Case two, same day: PhD student at not-for-profit online university asks to meet with me to discuss her dissertation research. She comes to my office, and tells me that she has a little over a year to finish her dissertation.  She doesn’t have a topic yet, but wants to do something about human-computer interaction. Maybe for the elderly? She really doesn’t know. She knows little about my research, and her areas of interest don’t relate to what I do. I ask if maybe she could discuss this with her, um, advisor in her program? She says, “Oh, well that’s not how it works. I have to come up with a topic and write it up. Then they send it to faculty in the area, and they decide whether they’re willing to supervise the thesis.”

I try to be nice to random requests. I answer almost every email I receive, if only with a form letter. And sometimes I’ll meet someone at a conference and they’ll greet me warmly. I’ll politely say, “Hi!  Nice to meet you. Do I know you?” They reply, “Oh, sorry, I’m sure you don’t remember me… six years ago I was working on a project, and you were really helpful and sent me some references. I really appreciated it. It’s great to finally meet you in person!” All that for a form letter. Well, if I can spend 30 seconds and make some random student that happy, I’m happy to do it. But lately, these requests are getting out of hand.

What frustrated me about the two encounters I had yesterday was that both students seemed to leave the experience with a sense that I had let them down–had not really helped them the way they were hoping for. So now I invested time in helping a random student from a third or fourth-tier university I have no affiliation with, and am left feeling guilty that I didn’t do more for them?  Good grief.

I don’t blame the students at all. They are clearly not getting the kind of support they need from their online degree programs. Do I blame their instructors? Partially. They need to better support their own students, and also educate them on what kind of ‘research methods’ are appropriate and expected. But the real problem lies with their universities.  PBS Frontline did a wonderful documentary “College, Inc.” on the abusive practices of  for-profit universities. They charge twice the amount as a not-for-profit school, and leave students drowning in debt. And often give them useless degrees that can’t get them the jobs they need to pay off that debt (like a nursing degree with no clinical experience, for example). For-profit schools typically spend 25% of their revenue on advertising, and 10% on paying faculty. Those under-paid faculty are not too eager to provide lots of one-on-one time with students, and I honestly can’t blame them.

I’m going to do my darndest to keep being nice–keep replying to mail I receive from random students in at least some minimal way. Being a professor puts constant pressure on you to be less nice, and I don’t want to give in. But at some point I may  need to start writing back to students from online schools (and their instructors), “You’re perfectly capable of doing this yourself. Call me if you have problems, but please try yourself first.”

Categories: social computing, teaching

A Tiny Slice of Media-Free Time

June 7, 2010 5 comments

When I ride the exercise bike, I watch TV shows saved up on my TiVo.  You will not be surprised to learn that I typically ride for 45 minutes, the length of a one-hour drama while fast-forwarding through commercials. When I drive, I listen to satellite radio–unless I’m talking with other people in the car. When I wait on line at a store,  I look up stuff on my phone–stock news, the weather, my Twitter feed. Sometimes I’ll play with my phone while walking across campus, if I’m walking alone.   In my office, I use my computer all day–except when I talk with students. All day every day, I am engaged with either people or media. I am never alone with my thoughts.

Or I wasn’t, until I started swimming laps again last week. I used to swim regularly many years ago, but was inspired this summer to start again. And was immediately struck by the re-introduction of quiet time. Time with no media, and no other people. Time to let your mind wander.

Today while I was swimming, I planned what we’ll do when my Dad comes to visit from California this weekend. I thought a bit about what he likes and what he hates, and what would make his visit fun for everyone. No, I did not solve an open problem in computer science. Yes, I do think we’ll have a nicer time this weekend because I swam today.

The big slayer of quiet time is my iPhone. I’ve had it now for just about two years. Before that, I had crummy smart phones that I hardly used, except to check the time of my next meeting or actually make calls.  But the blasted iPhone actually works. And it’s always with me. One moment of quiet, and my hand slips to my pocket. I suppose I could choose not to do that. But the lady in front of me is–egads–writing a check! Why not see what funny thing someone posted on Facebook?

Is it romantic of me to think we need some slices of quiet time in our lives? Am I succumbing to Luddite tendencies? How does it change who we are as individuals and as a culture if quiet time becomes scarce? Could we design an experiment to show one way or the other? What outcome would we be looking for? Happiness? Clarity of thought? Stress? I’m not sure.  I’ll need to think about it. Maybe if I have a quiet moment….

Categories: balance, social computing

The Professor’s Manual

Since we’re talking about how to be a professor, here it is: The Professor’s Manual Wiki.

I have no idea if this will work… but it does seem like the kind of topic where sharing our collective wisdom might be helpful. Please jump in!

Categories: teaching
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