Monthly Archives: October 2010

Mental Models

Jakob Nielsen is a leader in the usability profession. His website, useit.com is generally considered as a bible for people in usability, like me. However, to me he doesn’t  have it all in one of his new posts on mental models. A mental model (yes, I’m going to get mental on you) is what and how a user expects a website to work in their mind. Cognitive dissonances between how a user expects a website to work and how it actually works result from these mental models. They can’t find what they’re looking for, so they leave. In a complicated website, the user’s mental model is usually significantly different than the designer’s mental model that was used to design the site. As my father used to say, other people are strange. Here’s a quote from Nielsen’s latest post on mental models.

For example, the word “Google” is usually the top query at other search engines, and words like “Yahoo” and “Bing” score high on Google. Why, oh why, do people searchfor a website if they already know its name? Why not just type, say, www.bing.com into the URL field?

The reason is that many users have never formed an accurate model of how the “type-in boxes” on their screen function. When they type stuff into a box, they sometimes get where they want to go. What to type where and exactly how each type-in box functions, however, are often beyond their keen.

That’s a reasonable expectation and a reasonable conclusion to make from the data he talks about. And I think it’s wrong because I’ve done that and that’s not why I did what I did nor why what happened happened. There are several ways to search for something on Google. One is to go there and search. The other is to install the Google tool bar in your browser and search from that. That’s how my browser is set up. The problem I have with Nielsen’s “they don’t know how the type in boxes function” isn’t a matter of what to type and where. It’s a function of how the browser environment itself works. If you have the toolbar installed even if you have clicked your cursor in the address bar instead of the Google search box, accidental mouse movements or keyboard actions can transfer your cursor’s focus from the address box into the Google search box.

This happens to me frequently. At the time it happens, I’m busy typing away on the keyboard and somehow, despite having clicked in the address bar, the next thing I know I’m at Google with search results instead of going to the site I was typing in. Looking at research that says “google” is a significant frequent search on Bing or Yahoo means that there is something going on which is odd, but it doesn’t necessarily mean people intend to type google into a search box. It may mean they expected it would be typed in an entirely different box. I know I never make mistakes.

Yes, the Economy Still Sucks

And it will for quite a while I think. There’s not much the Federal Reserve can do to improve it, really. If Alan Greenspan had raised interest rates back in 2004 or 5 or 6 above nearly nothing, there wouldn’t have been the kinds of lending in the home mortgage market that’s led to the current foreclosure crisis — and no corresponding junk securities would have been created , at least not to the extent they were, either. That would have tightened the economy and our boom wouldn’t have been as high either, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch, you have to pay for it somehow. With Fed interest rates effectively at zero, there’s not a lot they can do. (Newsweek’s Robert J. Samuelson has a good commentary on this.)

And the President can’t do much about it either. That job is thankless – people expect the president can fix everything and they really can’t fix anything. Passing TARP and the stimulus, as disagreeable as they were to most people, actually helped. I’m sure nobody believed in bailing out Wall Street except people who were there, but as repugnant as it was, it, in my humble opinion, saved us from a second great depression. AIG, among others for example, was called “too big to fail” and people in finance didn’t do a lot of detailing why. Basically, they do a great deal more than insurance. AIG and the investment banks frequently lend money to big businesses as well.

There are lots of companies out there whose businesses and profits are cyclical. They make a large portion of their money in a short period of time. As a result, they borrow money short-term to pay the bills during the months when there isn’t enough income. And they make a significant enough profit in the months that the income flows in that paying the interest on borrowing millions of dollars is no big deal. They borrow from the investment banks and from companies like AIG because they give better rates than regular banks.

If AIG had gone under, so would a large network of other companies who’s stability depended on the services and the money that AIG and those investment banks and other TARP funds recipients provided to the economy. My estimate is that the majority of the stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange would have become very shaky and many would have gone under, but I base that on insider information of a sort and you’ll just have to trust me there.

The last Great Depression (it deserves capitalization) started in October, 1929, and despite the efforts of President Roosevelt and the New Deal (which as any good Tea Partier will tell you is Socialism), it didn’t end until we went to war against Japan and Germany in December, 1941. The New Deal did put many thousands of people back to work and it gave them and their families money they used to buy things, but it took pulling all the able-bodied men out of industrial jobs and filling their vacancies with anyone else who could do the work to end the depression. The entire economy shifted to war production. That won’t work now for several reasons.

So what can end the recession? If you listen to the campaign commercials, every one of them is suggesting cutting government spending and lowering taxes. Unfortunately, the economy is a complex system so there are times when it’s hard to know what will work and what won’t. The talking heads always seem to have a convincing argument for why their idea works. What you hear these days is that the way to improve the economy is to lower taxes since they’re evil anyway and cut spending by governments. That’s the way to boost the economy, at least according to the current push towards conservative political thought. If that happens, watch out. THe problem with that idea is that it just doesn’t work in practice. The state of Connecticut put into place corporate tax cuts and incentives. They went from $3 million to $350 million in cuts and breaks between 1990 and now. That’s a huge chunk of change. What happened? No meaningful impact on jobs. What did help? Spending on infrastructure did make a difference in employment. Twelve new jobs for every $1 million spent.

And that’s the secret on how to end the recession. Like it or not, we have a capitalism-based economic model. When we buy things, the companies make more of those things to replace what we bought on the store shelves. It’s called spending. And it doesn’t  matter if it’s the people or the government doing the spending. Spending creates jobs, period. If the tendency of government is to reduce spending, the economy isn’t going to get any better.

So What Is the Proper Function of Government?

And how do we pay for it?
By now, you’ve probably heard of the Obion County fire department that let a home burn to the ground because the fire department works on a subscription basis and the homeowner didn’t subscribe. And there are several different points of view on it that I’ve heard expressed. Bottom line, though, that fire department buys all its equipment and pays all its expenses using the money that the subscribers contribute. If you don’t contribute, they don’t help. That’s a hard and cold way to operate, but honestly, most people would decide to skip the payments if they were optional. Even if you could pick up the service only at the point you needed it, people would still not pay and hope help would come anyway.

We lived in a rural county that worked the same way. “Our” fire department was located up near Ashland City, around 8 or 10 miles away. And there was another group about a mile away. We subscribed to both because we figured that if the closest one got their first and started fighting the fre while the second group was still heading our way, we’d be that much better off before they all started dealing with the territorial arguments. “Our” FD was in our county and the other one was in a different jurisdiction. They were pretty simple. You paid, they came. Period.

But as a governmental service plan, that has the potential to really suck big time. What if all government worked like that? Say you got a bill and it was a big spreadsheet-like list of services and annual costs. Water is $X a year, then sewer, garbage, police, schools, parks, recreation, road maintenance , sidewalks, all listed down the spreadsheet. You select the ones you want to pay for and those are the services you get. You don’t pick one and you don’t get it.

Well, since I don’t have kids, my county has a convenience center where I can take my trash, and I’ve got a septic tank, I don’t check sewer services or garbage or schools, or parks (Hey, I work – who’s got time for a park), or recreation or sidewalks. At the old house I had a personal well, too, so I would have skipped water. So I pick cops and roadwork and fire protection. Besides, would you pick things like janitorial services or record-keeping? Or property tax collection? Probably not. After all, if everybody decides they aren’t paying the annual fee for property tax collection, then they can’t pay anyone to keep track of the taxes and they can’t even pay someone to send out the annual bills. If they can’t bill for it, we don’t have to pay for it, right? I call that a win, don’t you? That’s why subscription-based government fails to meet the real needs of the public.

What subscription services also means, though, is that my county will never offer the things I don’t select in my area. They won’t offer city water on my road unless I’m willing to pay a huge connection fee that covers the cost of running pipes to my house. They’ll never have sewer services expand to meet me. In fact, there’s no guarantee they’ll even fix that pothole on my street even though I “bought” road maintenance if enough other people don’t also pick it.

The result is that we pay for services we’ll never use directly. The catch is that we can also derive indirect benefits from the services. Good schools mean a better chance for good jobs. More good jobs mean there are fewer people trying to steal for a living and fewer people selling drugs or themselves. If our city has decent sidewalks, fewer children and old people get run over walking down the street. That affects my health insurance, life insurance and car insurance as well as my quality of life. It’s all connected together.