2008 March : Ron Riesenbach's Blog

Boink, Boink, Boink, Boink ….

Filed Under Tech

Please be Patient As the monitors take a few moments to respond” said the stewardess with the French Canadian accent.

The instruction was buried in the usual bi-lingual set of pre-flight instructions as I sat on the tarmac in Toronto. I, like most passengers, was only semi-listening to the tiresome drill on airplane safety and etiquette. I would guess that few (if any) people really pay attention to the prattle, each of us anxious to get going. It was the new seat-back entertainment system she was talking about. The touch sensitive flat-screen, thin-client monitors that are to keep you mesmerized and passive for hours.

Video Entertainment for Imobile Technotards

I feel I can completely zone out on these customer-service speeches because of the frequency of my travel and the familiarity I have with the routine of air travel on a certain Canadian airline. But I really wish the guy sitting behind me should have paid attention. Shortly after the seat-belt light went out, he began poking vigorously at what felt like the back of my head. Boink, boink, boink, boink….. My entertainment system, and everyone around me worked fine. What was the guy’s problem?

Boink, boink, boink…. Then it occurred to me, he was pressing and re-pressing the virtual buttons on the screen faster than the server could feed him the next page. Boink, boink, boink faster and faster and with more force as he became more frustrated.While I was getting increasingly annoyed at the guy, I can’t completely fault him. These touch-screen monitors have an annoying characteristic of being slower than what most people would feel is reasonable. You push a button and nothing happens. The next page doesn’t load (or the movie doesn’t play) and there is no audio or tactile feedback. You have to wait a half-second to see the cursor change to a little hour-glass, but the guy behind me was big (fat fingers, I guess) and clearly not computer savvy enough to wait for the system to catch up with his performance expectations. Boink, boink, boink, boink, …. Grrrrrrr!


My fellow passenger’s impatience with his personal entertainment system must not have been unique as the air line took the decision to include the operating advice into every flight attendant’s pre-flight soliloquy. Now that is interesting. I started speculating on the series of events that must have happened to compel them to do this.

The airline, wanting to keep up with the times and fend off competitors puts out an RFP for an in-flight entertainment system. Vendors put forward their solutions, evaluation is done. A winner is chosen, money is negotiated, contracts are signed. Aircraft retrofitting schedules are built. Thousands of devices and servers are purchased and installed. Training, documentation, and maintenance programs are created for the numerous people that will have to keep these devices working for years. With much fanfare, the airline boasts of the expensive new feature in advertising campaigns. Then, the problem reports start creeping in. Management is getting more and more reports from their cabin crew of frustrated passengers and they want to know what to tell them. Consternation and finger pointing result. Vendors get blamed and they in turn deflect the blame to integrators, installers, the techno-tarded end-user, etc. Consultants are hired and render their opinion. It was either not possible to speed up the response of these particular devices or the cost is prohibitive.

Galling Inconvenience

My day-dream concludes with Management reluctantly having to accept the user-interface problem as unsolvable technically. They resort to having to deal with it by changing pre-flight processes to include the advice to passengers. Now, advice to be patient with the lethargic entertainment system must be repeated hundreds of times a day across Canada. Thousands of times a month. Tens of thousands of times a year. The inconvenience of this must be galling to the airlines Customer Service team.

The lesson? While this problem falls under the ‘nuisance’ category, it is indicative of problems that I have seen again and again. Technology without usability is crippled. There is no substitute for testing and evaluation of a system by the actual end-users to uncover faults. So, for the foreseeable future, passengers across Canadian airspace will be busy boinking and being boinked.

I Have Fallen And I Can’t Get Up

Filed Under Tech

One of a handful of memorable ideas that I picked up through my MBA is that consumers are driven by two key motivators: fear and greed. While a bit pessimistic about the human condition, I have found that this simple model explains a large percentage of the economic behavior of consumers in the western world.

I have fallen and I can’t get up

Click on image above for campy video clip

The latest example of the application of the fear/greed model came early this week, when I and a small number of folks from OTN had a half-day visit to firm that specialized in the emergency response for the elderly. Learning how to grow and professionalize OTN’s technical services is a priority for me and my managers. In the interest of learning how others have made this transition, this visit was organized by our Director of HR who use to work for this firm. I won’t mention the name of the firm (let’s call them CantGetUp), but the Canadian headquarters is located only a couple of kilometers from OTN’s shiny new Toronto office. It was an educational and thought-provoking meeting/tour and I left with my head spinning with ideas.

Personal Help Button

Some background… CantGetUp was originally a North American firm but it was recently bought by a European healthcare giant. Their business model is refreshingly simple. CantGetUp provides subscribers (typically seniors living at home or in retirement residences) an easy-to-use personal response service that lets them summon help any time of the day or night. There are a number of devices they deploy in the home, but the showcase one is a call-button designed to look like a piece of jewelry. The “Personal Help Button” is worn on a wristband or pendant. When pressed, the call button communicates wirelessly to a base-station that is connected to the subscriber’s home phone. A message goes out the phone-lines to one of two Response Centres (Toronto and Montreal). The answering agent then responds in a number of ways including calling the subscriber, calling a neighbor/relative or even dispatching an ambulance.The US organization has over half a million subscribers and the Canadian one about 10% of that number. CantGetUp has 200 employees across Canada with about 90 of them working for the Response Centre.The value proposition to the consumer is stunningly simple and the service model straightforward enough to have earned CantGetUp something like 80% of the market for this service. As for profitability, the global healthcare giant doesn’t publish the details, but the 2005 SEC filing of the US branch of the company (prior to acquisition) reported $150M in revenue and $18M in annual profit.

Millions of Alarms

One of the eye-openers was how they staffed, organized and operate their 7/24 Response Centre. These 90 folks handle 1.4 million alarms a year (!). Many day-time alarms are not emergencies (low battery, lost pendant, etc.). However, most night-time alarms are indeed emergencies. Unlike OTN’s high staff retention for technical staff, CantGetUp has something like a 40% turnover rate of Response Centre agents. Thus, they had to develop systems where all their technical and service knowledge is codified and written in formal procedures and is delivered to their agents via a comprehensive training program. They have a dedicated trainers and training centres at each facility where agents systematically go through a program of learning and mentorship to ensure they have the skills necessary for various roles. Over time, agents advance from qualification to qualification and are thus able to take on different skills-based roles.

Service Optimization

Another notable operational structure they have put in place is a Service Optimization department. This group of about 10 people focuses on process design, implementation, monitoring and mentoring. Motivated by six-sigma approaches to quality, their holistic approach to service optimization was inspirational.

Since OTN’s service offering is far more complex (technically and operationally) than that of CantGetUp, our service design will necessarily be different than theirs. However, there are many similarities between our firms where their approaches could help us. Setting aside base motivations such as fear and greed, I was glad to have an opportunity to study a firm that has made the transition from small to big and to have done it so well. This visit underlined the importance of taking the time to learn from the experiences of others as OTN grows.

It Probably Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Filed Under Tech

One of my guilty pleasures is the leisurely breakfast. The best ones include fresh ground coffee (grinding the beans just before you brew), a breakfast pastry and a fat stack of daily newspapers to read. The newspaper part is key. We are voracious readers, my wife and I. We subscribe to two daily newspapers and get a few weeklies as well. Saturdays’ are the best – there is no rush to get out the door and the papers are especially thick, testing the breaking strength of the elastic bands that keep them from exploding on my front porch.

With this morning’s stack of papers at my elbow, and a steaming java in my fist, my eyes drifted from article to article forgetting the fluffy stuff seconds after reading them. I was leafing through the careers section of the Globe when my eye fell on a small ad on the bottom of one of the back pages. It was an ad for a firm looking for COBOL programmers.

Ad for COBOL Programmers


Now for those readers who are too young to know, COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language) was developed in 1959 and is one of the earliest high-level programming languages. Wikipedia says that it was designed to run administrative and business applications and the key developers were the US government and big military contractors. Ironically, it was originally proposed by a group that called itself The Short Range Committee which was formed to recommend a quick approach to a common business language.

Even when I was in university in the 80’s, COBOL was the butt of jokes and much derision. COBOL programming was a domain of the aged, linear-thinking programmers who typically came to their profession from the faculties of Math, Physics, etc. — without the benefit of modern computer science education. It was a programming back-water, using ancient technology and methodologies, always presenting barriers to integration.

Core Dump

The ad made me think. Here we are nearly 50-years later and the marketplace is still looking for people that have the ability to “analyze computer core dumps” and are “proficient in JCL” (Job Control Language). This must be a very small, expensive and dwindling pool of people that the recruiter is trying to attract. It reads more like a desperate plea than a job ad.

Reflecting on this with leasure that only Saturday morning can bring, I thought of the systems we are building at OTN (both software and hardware). What will our systems be like to support in 10-years — never mind 50? While true that technology can have a very short life-cycle, the opposite is also often true. Are we building systems that are supportable in the long-run or, encouraged to “just get ‘er done”, are we pushing a major headache to the next generation of computer professional? There is no question that we must be quick to satisfy the clinical and operational need of our customers (internal and external). Responsiveness and innovation are highly valued. But in the light of this advertisement for computer professionals knowledgeable in technology developed by a Short Range Committee, I think we must also look to the long-term. The solutions we develop today will be the legacy systems of tomorrow. For everyone’s sake, we have to be sure to create solutions which will stand the test of time.
More information at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobol