Doing Business

Traditionally the choices have been three.

  • The unregulated society: in which business acts after its own interests and meets with competition others who conflict with its interests
  • The regulated society: in which business is dominated so that necessarily choice of action is delimited and freedom to do business and competition are controlled.
  • The middle way of interventions: wherein a regulator (usually a Nation State Government) is intrusive into unregulated business, so as to ameliorate the harsher social consequences which arise out of an untrammelled free market

In practice, concerning Choice 1, (unregulated business): it has merely acted to shunt from pole position regulated controlled activity down the economic and social class ladder.

What I mean is that in societies where business is relatively unregulated employers have built up their large companies as closed-off organisations, within which employees to a greater or lesser extent are exposed to command and control.

Employers’ command and control is seldom much less oppressive inside their organisations than that carried on by Nation State Governments which choose as their model a regulated controlled economy

Freedom and choice and opportunity pertaining to unregulated business models are enjoyed chiefly by the persons who own and run businesses under this model

Necessarily it is argued, according to traditional thinking, these owners/operators are compelled to control and command their employees so that their companies are able to perform in the most effective efficient way against their competitors in the free marketplace.

Normally speaking there is inside any business organisation which is operating within an unregulated economy a hierarchy of control by which those high up enjoy lesser degrees of direct oppression and control whilst those low down bear greater degrees of these.

These degrees of direct oppression in the main correspond inversely to the extent that:

  • a) Any economic business or society is unregulated, and
  • b) Any business employee is presumed by his/her employer to hold a stake of some kind in the business. (This is why a senior manager will receive higher wages and obtain to a higher degree of status, often also having lower graded employees to control and direct. Such a higher grade employee will be presumed to have a greater stake in the organisation (and so also have more to lose from dismissal) than those whom he controls and directs.)

Logically then, inside this traditional model, the low graded employees are those most directly oppressed because they are those most controlled and directed, and are considered to hold least stake in the organisation.

(This critique of mine is not Marxist; it is in fact how business operators perceive the socio-economic reality, and their perception is justified by them, by their approving it as being a ‘natural order’ of things.  Such an conception has a utility to them not unlike the concept of Divine Right for kings in days before industrialisation)

Their argument is classically expressed as being in accord with ‘human nature’, and its leverage is normally brought in to play so as to justify hierarchical organisation based on privilege and dominion.

The simple psychology behind this ‘human nature’ argument proposes that men and women who carry no responsibilities will be those most likely to act irresponsibly. This inductive generalisation is based on premises that include preconceptions that:

  • Lowly graded employees need closer managing so as to function well
  • They will naturally evade their tasks otherwise
  • The general mass of them are not suited to taking on bigger roles
  • They have poor self-regulatory powers
  • They will do no more than they are made to do
  • They have little initiative and few and basic employable skills

These then are the employees seen as having least stake in a business, and they are considered to be those employees who are most liable to act irresponsibly.

The concept of ‘having or not having a stake’ in a venture is essential to the upholders of the ‘human nature’ argument. Having a stake, so the pitch runs, confers responsibility and energises ambition to improve oneself; which all engender that self-regulation and other ‘virtues’ prized by employers.

Having a stake then allows employees greater freedom; but only to opt for ambition, responsibility and self regulation, in favour of the employer.

Conversely, those employees of the least consequence in any business are thus those who will receive most control and direction.

(Normally-speaking and collaterally, lowly graded employees also obtain least wages. This is because their lowly status, without stake, is normally perceived to warrant lower levels of trust and to incur higher levels of risk for employers.  The class of lowly workers is also normally present in an organisation in far greater numbers than the number of higher-status employees who direct them

More later on how this factor of ‘greater numbers’ tends towards being another wage depressing factor)

On the other hand, an employer who is allowing privileged high-grade employees a modicum of stake in his company, intends them to accept his ‘gift’ as a stimulus that encourages them to act responsibly towards him and his company; and so nurture the interests of the business. The actual degree of anticipated loyalty/responsibility accepted and acted upon by an employee will be commensurate proportionately to the rank, status and reward that employer ‘gifts’ to employees.

These arguments so far are nothing more than standard thinking.

A sense of responsibility then, it is expected, can be awakened and reinforced in the minds of some select employees by reason of the bundle of rewards they obtain from the employer in exchange. Thus a deal is cut between higher-grade employees and the employer.

Employees of higher status normally obtain higher wages, but not only as a result of their acceptance of ‘the risks’ involved in, and ‘the burden’ of, their positions and responsibilities; indeed and  moreover, their very rewards (so it is understood) act to ‘tie them into’ their employment and business organisation. The arrangement has similarities with the methods used by early Victorian Industrialists who provided their workers with ‘Tommy Shops[i]’ and ‘tied-cottages[ii]’.

Thus arises a belief that an employee’s loyalty is conditional upon his persuasion to self-interest, and that this can be generated in him by the enlightened self-interest of his employer providing to him adequate inducements.  Although bearing upon the privileged employee also are those pressures arising out of forebodings and concerns at the thought of his losing such gifted indulgences.

And so even the favoured higher-grade employee remains straitened; controlled by his employer’s will and power. It is his sense of the risks involved in being dismissed which delineates for him the opportunity cost of him stepping out of line.

[i] A Tommy Shop was owned by the employer. The employer paid his employees wages in tokens which were accepted only at his Tommy Shops in exchange for foods and domestic goods.  An employee was thus tied-into buying at the Tommy Shop, which were not unknown to charge higher prices than free-marketplace shops.

[ii] A tied-cottage was a house owned by the employer; who was able to hire and fire at will. When an employee was fired he and his family lost also their tied-cottage and were thus destitute on the streets.


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Building a Trade Identity 2 – The Dream Factory

The epithet is customarily used as a descriptor for Hollywood and the US movie industry as a whole.  Hollywood is I guess the most apposite location and industry to be know by this label. However, inbetween the movie shows on TV and at the cinema are slotted the advertising shorts, which are money-spinners for the companies who broadcast or show movies.

The ads are little movies in miniature.  They can become narrative like movies are when a theme catches the public delight and the ad guys exploit it to the full. In the UK there have been narrative streams lasting over several years in Nescafe coffee ads, and another in Cadbury’s chocolate ads as well as several more to my memory.

Building a Trade Identity is a bit like building an advertising campaign, and as such, for it to be successful it has to carry the kernel of a dream inside it.  It has to be a dream which its target audiences buy into. It has to be a dream which has a nuance which no-one else in the industry sector has already been successful with.

For an ad campaign to take the public by storm with a narrative dream represents a campaign which perhaps the touchstone for success in the industry; likewise it takes a global superdream which becomes internalised emotionally by their consumers everywhere to carry an Apple or a Google corporation to colossal and continued hyper success.

The dream is always inseparable from the company and the company’s products.

A revealing way to look at this phenomenon is through the lense of one’s memories of being a child.  Of all stages of life, childhood is the most impressionable. In the first five years of life humans learn more than they do over the next seven or eight decades. We are like blotting paper absorbing learning almost magically at speeds which usually astonish first time parents.

One of the first tasks we seem to succeed in learning pretty well is that the world is our home and  our home is the house, the household, and the family. Almost like young geese we come very close to taking in psychological imprints that are so strong that they are almost indelibly set in our minds.  Nearly everyone is able to remember childhood, with some of its idyllic moments; almost like pagan Peter Pan and Wendy stuff.

The ad guys are aware of this near imprinting capacity on human young; and like the Jesuits they aim often to get the child early so as to be able to present to the world the adult person suitably adjusted. In this way household brands in particular, like those beef stock cubes mother always used to use; or the car manufacturer daddy favoured buying from, and so on, remain in the memory, one might say they form a part of the vestigial memory of a person.

Childhood then shows the powerful example of the potency of advertising on people; and Company Identity is able to work in many ways just like advertising works, and captivates one’s mind so as to build a nascent and almost irremovable impression of deep subliminal familial connectivity.

Such are the deepest strata of our unconscious tendencies; such is consumer loyalty. The message of the dream must be straightforward,not sophisticated; it must appeal to the child yet within us. Thus ads as well as the accompanying mythos of the Company Identity and its brands work together always to address consumers as if they were children. (Listen to the ads on TV next time you’re viewing; and note the tone of voice being used to speak to you; and the music used too is often another giveaway).

The dream’s appeal is to the self, is personal, and usually attempts to make you feel special – if you buy the product.  Likewise the accompanying Company Identity ambience will often appear to have a paternal aspect; it will provide for you, so it says, and has selected you out of all the possible persons it might have selected.  The products and services a company offers for sale are supported by carefully crafted claims which give the (often rather loose) impression that the company does not do second rate; (so you are second rate to ignore this fact), nor do its products disappoint.  It has no chinks in it armour; and is able to wheel out abundant accolades from thousands of super satisfied customers.

The specialness of the Company’s dream image will often be in the straplines and short catches it uses about itself. ‘Do no harm’ and ‘Making Motoring Magic’ and the like. There is a strong element of a childish ‘all in the garden is rosy’ which is showing the world through tinted glass, so that your life, one is inclined to believe, will go much more delightfully with this Company’s goods  and services: so buy.  This is the ‘feelgood’ factor promoting itself.

There are parodies on this approach to identifying your Company; a very old one from before World War 1 was:

‘I used your soap two years ago; and since then I have used no other’ (from a vagrant) – and

‘Nothing acts faster than Annadin’ (a headache remedy)

But nonetheless the amazing persuasive efficacy of the methodology, simple though it is, even obvious, remains; and effectively sways even the most smart and perspicacious among us. Like LIncoln’s adage:  ‘You can fool all of the people some of the time.’

The good news is that if it can work for others it can work for your company.  You will not have the huge resources which a large corporation has and pumps into its dream-image for consumers. You won’t have teams of employees seeking out and obviating negative feedback; or placing strategic good feedback; or else thinking up new ways to place and promote the basic message of the Company dream image.

Humans are an animals who like things simple. We like definitive solution answers.  Look at how most of us view our nations’ history.  Salem witch trials and McCarthy are clinically interesting items now distanced by time into objects of a cool curiosity.  Custer is almost a National Hero; as is John Wilkes Booth. The Spanish Armada was a great victory; Dunkirk was an almost Divine Providential rescue; King Charles I was a Royal Martyr. The truth is not so romantic, nor so easily categorised or communicable. So much easier is what we prefer to believe; we are myth making animals and that is what Company Identity is – a series of commercial urban mythology.

A great Anglo-American poet wrote, perhaps half-despondently, and half- pityingly;

‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’

A great Anglo-Irish poet wrote:

‘Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half-light;

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.’

BUILDING A TRADE IDENTITY: 1 – Trade Identity and Trade Dress Outlined

This is an area in which all us small guys can take an object lesson from the Corporations.  The Corporations take TRADE IDENTITY to levels of a fine art form. Any one of them taken at random – go to a website now – and you will not see one hair out of place. Down to the last comma and final question-mark; all will be hunkydory.  And if not, should you spot a blip or a smutch, let them know and heads will roll in their Web  Marketing Teams.

For the likes of us and for the Big Boys the game is the same; pay minute attention to the fine detail so that in the aggregate the monolithic whole is a homogenous but organic presentation of the Company image, (involving and including its logos, stated mission and corporate vision).

Danny Devito as Maras Wilson’s father in the movie of Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ (a movie by the way which surpasses the novel it is based on) sells secondhand cars and is an out and out crook.  But he makes good money at it – and he explains why he does:

I say appearance is 9/10 of the law. People don’t buy a car, they buy me – which is why personally I take such pride in my appearance. Well-oiled hair, clean shave, snappy suit.’

It is a commonplace in advertising circles to affirm that consumers often are not buying a product or a service so much as buying the ‘dream’ or the ‘lifestyle’ which the advertising of the product trades in and conjures in a typical buyer’s imagination.

Corporations carry this ‘dream factory’ image-making to the nth degree. They call it creating and nurturing a CORPORATE IDENTITY.  A CORPORATE IDENTITY done properly works inside the organisation every bit as effectively as it does outside it; on TVs and billboard hoardings and in showrooms.  The Company ‘line’ is sold to its employees as hard as it is promoted in the marketplace; although it may well be nuanced differently so as to incentivise and energise its workforce.

However, in this initial article on TRADE IDENTITY I want to trace quickly and on the surface the concepts of BRANDING and TRADE DRESS. These concepts are related to TRADE IDENTITY – they are two of its key components.

BRANDING is the Company logo usually incorporating a TRADE MARK or MARKS, which are able to be registered at government offices in most nations and trading blocs, so as to allow it monopoly protection in law against theft and unfair duplications of it.  BRANDING is considered by many BigWigs in industry and commerce to comprise the Chief Capital Asset of a Company or a Corporation.

Here below are the TOP TWELVE Brands for 2014 with their estimated $US billions valuations:

Each of the twelve logos is instantly recognisable to us; as if we were indoctrinated in their habit. And this is where the money is made from – by them being kept repeatedly in our minds like an imprint.

The grey apple with the bite out of it does not stand alone – behind it is a whole composite universe. Likewise for the Google mark and the Coke mark, and the others.  A major part of this composite universe is that the apple and the golden arches and the four-coloured square each signify very precisely what is being marketed by their companies. They are each, in the terms Trademark people use to describe Brand logos, Badges of Origin. They stand for a consistency of quality, and of technical specification, of functionality and appearance; and as a guarantee of aftersales and other as standard service packages.

The monolithic Trade Identities of the Companies (Corporations) behind these logos, and supporting the products and services they head-up, act as context and background in the same way as, say, a novel’s main narrative and plot subsists upon a fully built-up-with-detail world-picture sufficient to present to us, when read, as if a ‘real life’ experience.

The essence of Branding, of Trade Identity, and of Trade Dress, is consistency, self-consistency, so that everything which is capable of being duplicated exactly when placing the advertising, the marketing, the website and the paper goods, leaflets, hoardings, in whichever and every place they appear on public display – does never deviate nor contradict itself and is utterly word-perfect and conforms with itself.

The overarching aim in all this is to give an impression of perfection to their publics; leading on to an implicit assumption in our minds being suggested that these organisations do not make mistakes.

One might scoff and knowingly say – ah! of course they mess up, who are they kidding – but the power that resides in this meticulous, gigantic and even tyrannical effort to maintain a squeaky clean Trade Identity is not lost on the guys who demand this image of pristine purity from their huge marketing teams. They know well how we humans work – that we are suggestible and able to be awed and wowed and dazzled by so much conscious and deliberate intricate care and attention to detail

Our unconscious minds respond almost against our conscious wills in the ways the Boardrooms of the Corporations want them to.  We are very often prostrate before such an outright and demonstrative expression of power.  It is akin to standing at the foot of the Flatiron Building or in London The Shard, and being unable to help ourselves feeling their statements of ‘We are the Champions!’

Just a word about Trade Dress before this first article comes to a close.  When one buys a well-known popular Branded product there comes with it packaging. Often the packaging is elaborate and it is obvious that much time and some considerable effort and money has gone into presenting the product for sale in this way. There will be a colour scheme, an arrangement of designs and fonts and logos, shapes and angles, and endorsements and quality markers and star ratings and so on; all consistently identical on the whole Brand product run – it is the monolith in little.   Much of the Trade Dress – for this is what this rigmarole is – will tap into the general Trade Identity of the Company and its Brand(s) and reverberate against these, sending reminders and prompts to our passive receptive neurons, for synapses of association to occur to us.

Thus the power of the whole organisational entity is fed into and able to be released by each individual item of product.  Thus the importance of self-consistency in Trade Dress.

Like The Shard and the Flatiron Building, Corporate Identity and its monolithic homogeneity right down to the very finest last detail; are emblems of tyranny. They state openly and brashly where the money is; who the powerful are; what the strong are capable of.  We are like straw before them and we acquiesce as if to a Dagon or a Baal when the thunders and lightnings shake the firmament and we run to our caves for shelter.

That is how it is. Well, it is half the story, and the lesser half.  There is hope elsewhere.

The Importance of Vision

Vision is a conceptual grasp of the whole. More, it has a visual element; or rather, an ‘in the mind’s eye’ visual element.

Aristotle, in his treatise De Anima, puts forward an idea which says that all human thought carries at least some vestigial image – he calls this phenomenon, the imago anime,  ‘the picture conjured in the soul’; and further , he claims that strong images thus visualised show as if the objects of thought were present to the senses.

Now this claim, that ‘strong images thus visualised show as if the object of thought was present to the senses’, is not necessarily hyperbole or exaggeration.  Many recorded instances, especially amongst artists (musicians, poets, painters,) of them, as it were, being able to ‘hallucinate at will’ are reliably documented.

Ben Jonson, a dramatist and a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, writes of how he fell asleep at nights watching and enjoying at his feet noblemen with swords duelling together in animated combat, because his imagination worked on his senses so powerfully.

So it is not uncommon for people to ‘see’ in a way that in some sense is analogous to literal and actual vision; see items of their thought when set before their imaginations.

Furthermore, from my experience working with persons whose employment has required them to put into practice certain complex and detailed procedures accurately and methodically, it has been my observation that there is always a select few amongst them who are able to read and digest amendments and revisions of procedure so as to understand them and act upon them, purely from the written documents.

The remaining majority of employees got by because of these select few, whose duty of care it fell out to be to ‘translate’ these written word instructions into verbal communications able to be digested aurally and applied in their work by the others.

Taking these two qualities together: the strong pictorial imagination and the high competence in comprehension and application of complex written instruction; one might observe from experience that there is always in most walks of life, just a minority of participants whose capabilities allow them to perform at such high levels.

The profession of web designer of course benefits exponentially from having attached to it persons of strong visual imagination – this much is more or less self evident.

That developers perhaps might benefit from owning these characteristic, is perhaps a little less obvious to us?

But indeed, the best developers are most likely to be those whose minds and experience have melded over time so as to enable them to grasp as a whole the conceptual range of a complex and intricate task. And to be able to grasp such a range from the written word only also.  They will also be likely to be able to visualise in some depth of foreknowledge and in the abstract and in the round, written specified requirements expected of them.

Matthew Arnold, a Victorian cultural critic and poet famously wrote:

But be his
My special thanks, whose even-balanced soul,
From first youth tested up to extreme old age,
Business could not make dull, nor passion wild;
Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole

these words about the Athenian tragic dramatist Sophocles.

The seeing of discrete tasks and their corollaries and implications ‘steadily and as a whole’ is also what is best required in a developer one would choose. For a developer to have come so far in the course of her life experience so as to be so proficient will have been the fruit of her having employed and practiced her gift for imaginative vision and visualisation; and having joined it to the nurture and improvement of her reading and writing skills (her vocabulary, sentence structure, syntax, grammar, clarity and precision) in both natural language and in her software scripting.

These qualities when embodied together in her will make her a formidable developer; one who is a rare find and a treasure to be cultivated.

The signs that any developer one has in mind for doing a task has such gifts and accomplishments ought to be looked for right from the time one begins preliminary negotiations and discussion with her (or him).

The $64K question remains: what are these telltale signs?

Well, we have some written up here already – like command of natural language. A person whose head is clear and whose mind considers sequentially, a step at a time (and this is not incompatible with imaginative vision – indeed it enables, enhances it) will express herself eloquently in natural language as well as in script.  She will have a care to syntax and vocabulary, punctuation and grammar, so as to be understood rather than to be strictly observant of artificially imposed rules.

There is also temperament. Matthew Arnold compliments Sophocles on being an ‘even-balanced soul’ (see above). The dramatist Ben Jonson (also mentioned above) held a maxim about people generally. He said:

‘Words make a man: speak let me see thee.’

And it is true that a person’s disposition, whether wild or staid, or rash or impulsive, considered and measured; is all illuminated and can be seen because it is revealed, given away, in the way they use speech and handle language.  And so one should study the way in which a developer you are considering speaks, writes, negotiates; is she polite; is she considerate, does she appear to have some ‘depth’; does she interrupt you a lot; is she overbearing; is she confident yet not pushy; is she sensitive to others; does she broach tricky matters with tact?

Has she discretion, integrity, common sense, aptitude, does she talk well about her subject disciplines; does she try to baffle you with science; does she dismiss you because you know little about technical things; is she patient?

This long list of character traits may seem to have little bearing on her developer skills and experience; but you would be much mistaken to believe so. Good qualities in a person carry over into their works and into what they make and produce. Likewise bad qualities act in the exact same way.  Attention to detail for instance: can anyone doubt that attention to detail is an important thing for any developer you’d want to hire?  A general negligent, idle air – would anyone hire a developer who seemed to be wholly uninterested in the project of yours in hand?

Just think about how many mistakes and errors are made in development work by developers whose hearts and minds and selves are not in their works?   The Romans had a saying:

Laborare est orare’ (‘Work is prayer’)

The mediaeval masons working on the great Gothic cathedrals carving beautiful intricate stone-works and statuary wholly in the service of God; with stupendous skill – their names are unknown to us and they were not considered in their time to be celebrities – crafted exquisite traceries and ornament even in the roof arches of their buildings; in those places which never saw the light of day and are hidden absolutely from human view.

The first human eyes since the masons’ own to look upon their hidden works have been the modern day church roof restorers; yet the masons made as much effort, took every bit as much care, in these as they had taken in crafting the parts sculpted for human eyes and approbation.  Thus: ‘work is prayer’

The good developer works likewise. Those parts of her task which will never be inspected by her client; the backend, the coding, the scripts, will be tasks carried out in due honour to his profession and in the service, at the very least, to excellence; and as such they will possess a holiness of sorts about them also, for as long as they remain extant.

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The Project Takeover Blues 6 – Buying and Selling

‘I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul’ – Bob Dylan

In the field of Classical Economics whenever mechanisms which bear naturally upon an open market are being discussed there is more or less always a presumption foregoing that ‘scarcity’ is a vitally essential concept.

The laws of Supply and Demand are largely governed by scarcity and by scarcity value in this field.  There are two expressions – i. A Buyer’s Market, and; ii. A Seller’s Market; which arise out of discussions about scarcity in such a marketplace.

All goods and services, and all the different kinds of goods and services, which a Political Economy is able to supply to its marketplace, will carry levels of scarcity.

For instance it is more or less self-evident to us that Gold Bullion is far more scarce than Bread or Rice in most parts of the world.  It is self-evident also that because of this relative scarcity Gold is of a greater value than Bread or Rice generally speaking.

Economists say: Gold has greater scarcity value than that of Bread or Rice.

This reasoning leads us on to looking at supply and demand. It makes sense that a scarce commodity like Gold is in short supply when its supply levels are compared to those of Bread or Rice.  And because of this there are generally more buyers looking to buy it than there are there is Gold available for sale. Otherwise the high scarcity value of Gold could not be sustained and its price consequently would fall. This Gold market place then is a Seller’s Market simply because it is the Sellers who are able to call the shots on Gold transactions being made.

(Please bear in mind that this is theory economics I am talking about, and that  in practice there and many, many variables and factors which are able to intervene and make their effect on this ‘pure’ marketplace and so on the scarcity value of Gold or of Bread or Rice)

In those parts of the world where Bread and Rice are plentiful, when compared to Gold, then their scarcity value is much lower than that of Gold and so the prices at which they are offered for sale are also much lower than Gold is being offered for.  Thus a Buyer’s Market is created wherein a surplus Bread and Rice supply means lower prices and the Buyers are thus calling the shots on transaction details. Sellers will settle more readily for what they can make

Now when one applies this reasoning to a typical relationship between a Developer and a Client; perhaps nine times out of every ten Projects, maybe more, the Client assumes (for some reason?) that the marketplace he is in is a Buyer’s Market.  And so likewise he assumes that he is able to call the shots; to set the price; to lay out the technical requirement; to nominate the tools; to direct the operations; to manage the Developer and his team or company.  In short, the most oppressive of Clients believe that they have bought the complete attention and the complete resource, and the complete management at the Developer’s place of business – at the least for the duration of the building and handover of the project to him.

It’s about control. It’s about risk. It’s about fear. It’s about a Client psychologically having to manage these bogies in his mind; and these lead him on in his bid for hegemony over his Developer until he is satisfied that his project is AOK and in place working and making him money.  The pressures are large for him, and often he is not technical enough to be able to be sure of the Developer and place a technologically reasoned confidence in him. If he were; if he could; he would not have needed to engage a Developer but probably could/would have done the development work himself.

These two things: risk, and fear, urge on his desire for control; all three things together are exacerbated by him, as it were, going into the venture ‘blind’; that is; him being without technical knowledge.  It’s a little like being under the knife of a surgeon and unconscious; you have to weigh up the quality of the surgeon beforehand and you will know nothing about surgery.  You are left with hope, trust and a prayer as you lose consciousness counting backwards.

You might look up on the net beforehand your ailment and run through a lot of time and pages reading about similar conditions and the surgery that is recommended for them. Like a hypochondriac you might delve quite deeply trying to match your apprehensions with an adequate garner of reassurance to be had, one hopes, from one’s reading. Like hypochondriacs, when the operation is serious, maybe life and death, you are likely to get drawn in and begin to grow neuroses and anxieties which do not help you at all to manage and are counterproductive.  You don’t want a surgeon who is anxious and neurotic do you?  Your reading has the opposite effects you want it to have on you.

‘A little learning is a dangerous thing;

Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

Likewise your Client, by him assuming control over his Developer, he is likely to do more harm than good to himself.  Like when having a risky operation, one having zero knowledge of surgery is a far better resource for peace of mind than going delving and frantically gleaning off the web a host of half-digested partial-truths about it at the last minute.  The Client who is like this is usually the one who ‘cannot let go’; of his worries, of his apprehensions; and his fears; his urge in response is to call the shots and lay down the law; and generally to harass his Developer and ultimately make his and his own life truly miserable.

This type of Client is strictly-speaking assuming control. He is like a chimpanzee let loose in the Space Shuttle coming in to land.  He has no real idea what is required technically; whether it is feasible; or possible, or impossible or impracticable or easily added or doable or not.  His efforts show in a fit visual image:

‘Like a madman shakes a dead geranium’

Clients like these are those most liable to run through Developers one by one like diarrhea.  They appear never to learn the basic lessons of their business and of their business transactions.  We have all gone up to our wives and husbands who have been struggling so irritatingly to us with a screwdriver and a faulty appliance and at last we have let rip with; ‘Give it here! Let me do that!’  And soon thereafter with a humble, perhaps grovelling apology admitting defeat similarly to one’s spouse.

In this then we can all feel sympathy for the nervous edgy guy who just cannot help but want to control his baby, his project, who cannot help himself, who cannot control even his own desperate urges to dominate; there is so much at stake for him – he envisages.

But is it not all ego? Is it not all the blind inherent assurance in the self that everything will be alright if only I can take over and control and manage the tasks and the issues at stake.  Not many, not even among the worst of egoists, will be likely to feel or believe that they can do better than that surgeon they are entrusting, are having to entrust, their body and innards to for a few hours. And that will be that.  No argument. Besides, they will be unconscious and could not do it if they even thought they might be able to!

But the Developer is fair game – thus the presumption of there being a Buyer’s Market is ever the case with many Clients, anxious about their development project, its negotiation and delivery. Such a Client will nearly always do his best to ‘lean on’ and so ‘steer’ his Developers as much as he is able to usurp.

To finish up; consider this: What do you look for when choosing a good surgeon? Short answer: Character. Longer answer: clean tidy shoes and apparel, suitable to a man or woman of eminence and distinction in his/her profession.  He or she exudes a confidence which is not idle, proprietary or overweening; and seems to be fluent on her/his specialist knowledge; observant, patient, engaged personally and considerate; a good bedside manner; polite and with a lively mind: someone who has the look and feel of a person to whom you could just about trust your health.

Bottom line: isn’t it pretty much the same when choosing a Developer? A less desperately critical issue than choosing a surgeon maybe, but even so, doesn’t this very lesser level of concern in fact mean that one should be more at ease and not jack oneself to be over pressured – after all, few Developers have messed up so badly that they have put their Client in a wheelchair or dug them an early grave.

Designing for Function

We took a fleeting survey of Designing for Content in Part 2 and now we go on to look at how functionality might affect how one might design a website

Firstly there are some important Considerations:

Get to the Root of the Purpose of each Function to be Designed for (i.e. what does it do?)

Many websites, whether commercially driven by sales as well as those that are not intended for profit-making, will want to classify their items of data. Take a typical physical local general store at the corner of the street: it has perhaps ten thousand product types in stock – from garden hoes to boxes of matches, handkerchiefs to penetrating oil.  Easy even for an old timer sales assistant to lose his way around, when the item he wants has been misplaced and is not in its proper place. When you have a map for finding the needle in the haystack, when the map is accurate: no problem; when it is even just a few centimeters out: big problem.

So classification; i.e. a stock map or a data map – for doing online organisation is usually an essential. And there are millions of permutations of cataloguing which might make up viable classification systems; and this is the nub.

Designing for your classification pages is a vital part of making your chosen mode of cataloguing data easy to use for clients and site visitors. Design can make all the difference between a good experience and a nightmare. But the capabilities of a good design are not a universal panacea for taking the pains out of searching and finding. You must choose a cataloguing system that is fit for the purposes you require of it; and it should be one also that is amenable to good design work being possible to be applied to it.

(There will be articles on Classification per se coming in this series the future)

Here are some tips:

  • Build a storefront that carries some ‘in-your-face’ product/data ‘specials’ advertised as it were at the front door where the punters enter and browse with an eye to assessing who you are and what you are like.
  • Like in the general store, have your products/data organized on ‘shelves’, that is, make groupings your items of product or data into appropriate classes, sub-sections etc
  • A general store will  have salespeople situated at strategic points; and so you might have signposts carrying relevant information posted neatly without diverting browsers too far from the main matter on the page,
  • And of course a checkout counter where items can be paid for; or else a holding page wherein a client saves the data he wants and marshals it.

The aim is to hit that delicate balance of convenience and comprehensiveness without making it feel like coercion and cajoling. Leading people by the hand rather than forcing them heavily through to the checkout

Beneficent Mission Creep

  • Design can have unintended consequences, some of which will be beneficent and some might be adverse, and these arise generally as a result of a website’s client-base ‘hijacking’ and extending the functionality planned for in the initial build.
  • Unintended uses that are created by a user base, depending on the nature, are often taken advantage of by site admins as ‘windfalls’ which can be developed and made into discrete features and sometimes novel attractions.
  • One has seen historically that popular social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc.) have continuously, quickly, latched onto and developed such ‘discovered’ features especially those elected for use by, say, businesses (like sponsored posts, payment channels, etc.)
  • Businesses in particular, because of their increasing use of the web to trade in, and so because of their increasing dependency on creating a big, well-esteemed online presence, so as to succeed and grow; have moved-in on a host of extraneous web entities, enabling them to reach out to larger and/or more focussed audiences/potential customers/clients.

The website User base (who are the people going to use it?)

  • Classification of goods/data is paramount here.  Your clientele will want their data/goods arranged on display and for use in ways suited to their best convenience, and not to your own. In this respect: The customer is always right. So it’s worth consulting your client base and finding out how they like things being done, even when what they tell you  seems counter-intuitive or counter-productive.  Keep them sweet.
  • You will benefit from market research so as to find who are your target markets, and you can build into your design the knowledge you acquire in this way.  If you have an overarching concept which dominates your website it is important you make it as appealing as it can be to your known target audience.
  • Important gauges of target audiences include: age, gender, social strata, levels of specialised knowledge expected, spending power/disposable incomes, ethnic and cultural expressions, predilections, hobbies, interests, occupations and so on.
  • Knowing about all these descriptors of your typical client enables you to pitch your store or database services at that optimum level where Mr and Mrs Average are comfortable and at home. Your knowledge about them will serve you to be tailored to their cloth
  • Tech-savvy audiences/clients can handle features or interfaces which are more advanced and sophisticated than average. Technologically-challenged users will conversely need more hand-holding by way of use of easy wizards and step-by-step procedures. Your expository texts likewise will need to sit well within the range of audience/client skill and awareness

Getting the User-interaction bits right (How do your users use the site?)

  • All in all a good website will feel intuitive and natural to its users.
  • As technology progresses it appears that user interface trends are beginning to converge, coming  from different virtual spaces (e.g. mobiles, desktops, web, etc.). You could do worse than merely to take your cue as to what are the newest up and coming trends, from the popular commercial operating systems, and from the flourishing, fashionable websites. Use what they can show and tell you for your own inspirations.
  • “Intuitive” can be a difficult word. It means different things to different user bases. For example, the majority of your users are, say, Apple Mac fans, so you’ll want to look into and research Human Interface Guidelines for OS X and/or Mac. Such research will pay off with help and recommendations for your interface patterns, such as button placement, standard glyphs and symbols, and so on.  At least some of these items are going to be variant from those found on Windows or Android.
  • Finally, you don’t have to slavishly follow fashion and the popular vote –  there is always room for new opportunities; in a rapidly-evolving arena like the Internet there is always going to be space for new guys like you to create new trends and employ new user interfaces, design techniques, and goals.

So follow your instinct, and if you believe you can cut the mustard; then go for it.

Project Takeover Blues 5: Conflicts of Interests, Pressures, Priorities

The absurdist drama of the later 20th century, plays like Samuel Beckett’s famous ‘Waiting for Godot’ and Harold Pinter’s ‘The Caretaker’ usually carry rambling storylines which by design largely go nowhere.  At least when judged by the sequential and structured trajectories of traditional European storytelling.

For these absurdist dramatists it is not so much the destination, but rather what happens along the way in their plots that makes them interesting and successful. I was going to add ‘innovative’ also, but it struck me that the Jewish tradition of storytelling, stretching back some 3,000 years and more, has aspects in common with this absurdist drama.

For a basic understanding of what a Jew would want to obtain from her reading of a traditional Hebrew story you only need to go to The Bible, The Old Testament, with its fabulary stories like the events in the Garden with Adam and the Serpent, or else to the magic realism of The Book of Jonah.

Like an audience needs to do when it is watching a drama of Beckett’s or Pinter’s, Jews find in their stories not a naturalistic narrative with close verisimilitude to actual life and events,  but instead a figurative approach to learning about their religion and life in general. They ask themselves: ‘What is this story trying to convey to me; what is it offering; what is it aiming to teach me?’

Beckett and Pinter and their school above all share with the Biblical story makers an ability for deep close insight into human’s psychological states and the human condition in general.  It is this insight which allows their works to retain their value and to add value to the lives of those who experience them.

A foundational strand of human psychology which is developed in many of these stories might be loosely termed as the portrayal of ‘human characters talking across one another’, and ‘talking at crossed purposes’. The two facets of human interaction are rather different but are quite nearly related to one another.

‘Talking across one another’ entails an amount of self-absorption or even self-obsession, in two or more persons who appear prima facie to be in conversation; but who are in fact missing what the other is saying, and hearing only their own voice.

Usually this means that several different topics are being talked about at the same time; one by each person involved.  Their individual self –absorption often denies them the power to observe this is happening; or that no-one else is listening to them.  These abortive conversations are capable of going on for quite some time and their participants are able to come away from them being even yet oblivious of the absurd situation they have just played out.

In the drama of course this oddity is often built-up into a comic feature and at the same time carries a considerable amount of pathos leading to audiences sensing the tragedy inherent in such situations. The human existential aloneness of each of us; the impossibility of full human connectedness with one another

‘Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,

Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,

Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.’

The paradox in all this is the realisation of a liberation of the spirit which one is able to receive by way of one’s working to nurture and grow a self-awareness of one’s inevitable existential aloneness.  Such liberation is incomplete always, since one can never wholly know oneself or come to terms totally with whom one might be.  But the very fact of acknowledging one’s utter aloneness in the final instance, oddly enough begins to free oneself up from the oppressive spiritual weight of the loneliness of it all.

One result of obtaining some such self-awareness is that one is enabled to observe rather more clearly cases when conversations in fact become only occurrences of ‘ships passing in the night’, instances of ‘wholly missing one another’s point’.

However, how might any of this rarefied meditation apply to project takeovers?

Simply said: Many of the communications between developers and their clients fall into this category of being ‘talking at crossed purposes’

Trying to be a good communicator, like humility, is endless. The philosopher Karl Popper once said: ‘There is nothing I can say that cannot be misunderstood.’  But first and foremost a person must listen, and be listening, in order to have the slightest chance of understanding at least in part another person’s communication. One cannot listen whilst one is self-absorbed. An when one has one’s own agendas uppermost in one’s mind all the time one is conversing one becomes hamstrung for listening.

The diverse agendas of developers as set against their clients’ agendas are usually radically, perhaps irreconcilably, different.  The client is focused on delivery dates, on meeting deadlines and hitting milestones, so as to furnish monetisation and sales and marketing of his awaited products.  His money he has invested in his developer to make his project he considers to be dead money until the products are built tested signed off launched and making income for him.  Time then is of utmost importance. Speed even. He will be fussy so as to chivvy along as much as he can as much as possible. He may even out of anxiety be going over his developmental plans and refining them as he goes, thus doing what his developer will call ‘tinkering’ with the original specification and so on. Money and time being absolute priorities to the client he will be most reluctant to accept a later delivery date or to pay more so as to cover any such refinements he adds.

The developer is focussed on getting the project right. He will have a head full of code and future planning. He will be pressed for time; developers are always pressed for time. He will be managing any crew he has and catering to their needs so as to keep them sweet. He will want invoices paid promptly, in the form of the client’s understood to be dead money. The developer is also probably involved in researching and sourcing of raw material for use in building custom apps and themes; not just looking for customisable pre-built open source apps, but usually also for know-how and clear and useful tutorials to help him and his team do clean jobs. The role of developer is naturally expansive and amorphous being an unknown quantity in respect of how much time and work will actually be required on a project on any given day. He has to juggle time, and roles, and sequences, and configurations; he is not easily pinned down and cannot easily say definitely when, or sometimes what or how, right up front.

These two guys then, the developer and the client, coming together to speak and communicate with one another: is it any wonder that so many times they miss one another’s drift, their points, and points of view?

‘The voice returns like the insistent out-of-tune   

Of a broken violin on an August afternoon:         

“I am always sure that you understand               

My feelings, always sure that you feel,               

Sure that across the gulf you reach your hand.’

The Project Takeover Blues 4 – Concatenations

When there’s train crash, at speed the railcars which follow the engine bogey crash and crush up into one another as like a concertina.  Sometimes, especially when one has been in one of these accidents, time seems to slow down to a crawl for you; and this is a subjective state which however seems for all the world to be very real when it is taking place. And so you get the impression that you are watching a movie in slowmo, that somehow you are outside of yourself like a person watching in a cinema, and things are crystal clear and going on somewhat surreally all around you.

So the railcars crash and crush up into one another as it were very clearly and slowly, and the sound might not be even noted by you, even though the noise is going to be terrific.

The crashing and crushing up into one another of the railcars is a concatenation; a series of interconnected events, a sequence which, once set in motion, is more or less thereafter inevitable in its continuance and in the case of a train crash, linear in its consequences.

Now imagine a more complex situation; an exponential concatenation; and add several concurrent strands to it, say fifteen or twenty; and further let each strand be capable of interacting and interfering with the outcomes of the other sequences of concatenation, so that the overall consequence of the event is as near as one can imagine envisaging what an atomic fission chain reaction might be like to experience when occurring at a level of magnitude fitted to daily human life.

What needs to be done now is to psychologise this imagined physical event. Because such events do occur like this between humans in relationships; they are of the kind whereby say a couple fall in love and wed, and yet five years down the line they are fighting tooth and nail in public, in an acrimonious courtroom war of attrition with an aim to do as much hurt to the other as either can dream up.

The wedding day is the rail network running fine and everything is on time. Five years later the divorce is the catastrophe that happens when all the signalmen on the network have oddly gone loco (!) and switched points and lights so that our chain reaction of series of concatenations becomes a terrible bizarre reality.

Of course trains can’t all pile up in this way in fact; it’s just not in the nature of track layouts, so you have to excuse the illustration as being unfitted in this respect. Nonetheless relationships do deteriorate and once they reach a momentum to break free of convention and restraint, and these fissile explosions boil up and over, they behave as if they could be governed by the laws of physics

You might be able now to get a bead on what we mean when we say that some Project Takeovers are dangerous because analogous to you being handed a ticking bomb to fix back into being a fluffy toy.  The chances of you being able to do this are really not good.  Because when gaps open between developers and their clients which allow tensions to brew and fester, and respect to wither and fail; and expectation to switch to a negative value; and communications to begin to hide from parties as much as they reveal to them; when this and other strands of dysfunction kick in and begin messing with a developer/client relationship, then the Project is on course to be a train wreck.

One cannot hear a symphony during an earthquake. One cannot grow crops during an eruption. In the same way one cannot  complete a Project well when relations between you and your client are seriously falling apart. Inevitably the friction, frustrations and simmering resentments will poison not just the well from which you and he drink in common, but will mar the understanding of what technically is required  in the project and how by design this requirement might be implemented.  You may have heard the joke that a rhinoceros (sometimes it is a giraffe) is an animal designed by a committee; well take this joke a step further and one might say that nothing of any pleasing or functional shape and purpose was successfully made by mutual enemies.

The story is well picked out by William Blake:

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

Some things cannot be said between business associates. They are likely to be discussed by the several friends of each of the parties about the other party, and there is no satisfaction in that to either party.  Thus wrath grows insidiously.  It is these situations which lead, in a good many cases to, so as to become parcelled up as, explosive charges, resulting in Projects that are to be handed over to subsequent developers as Project Takeovers.

Now certain heavy elements are by the course of their nature highly unstable at NTP.  In the natural  order they will deplete into stable but more or less inert substances.  And on the way to stability they emit, sometimes for aeons and aeons, emmanences fatal to life of nearly every known kind.  In the same way there are persons who like these heavy elements are volatile and unreliable, dangerous; and, unfortunately too often, they also destroy themselves because of their adverse natures. They too often also end up ostracised from normal and amiable society, living lives on the streets or in closed wards.  Whether or not they might be held responsible for any consequences of their nature is not in question here.  The observation to be made from this figure is that many, maybe most of these unfortunates are so fragmented as personalities because they are so deeply and intractably conflicted within themselves.

‘If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand’

This then is another figure for that relationship which ought to be one of communing and mutually assisting parties with prima facie goodwill and generous good faith; but which in the course of events over time deteriorates so that neither party knows where they are and trust has utterly failed.

With Project Takeovers very often this is the damage that has been done already – to the client and to his Project – to his former developer and to this developer’s own trust and good faith – and one is taking it on, if one decides to take it on, as a balled tangle of threads constituted of knots of thwarted emotions and frustrated wills, which, as you being the new developer, very likely will be yours to try to unravel in addition to having to complete the Project. This is often the case even concerning the actual development work previously done by any former developer; one too often will have to reverse engineer and re-engineer virtually from scratch any development work already accomplished.

‘He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.’

[This article was originally published at “The Project Takeover Blues 4 – Concatenations“]

Project Takeover Blues Part 3: Psychological Attrition

Much of this article is applicable in a wider, more general sense than just to the mind-messing which can go on when a part-completed Project is taken over by a new developer. Although in these instances they manifest most acutely and are the frequent, maybe invariable, accompaniment to these occasions.

They manifest most acutely for the most part because of the back-story, the history of the development so far carried out by the former (now sacked) developer, and the aftermaths of his/her now failed relationship with a dissatisfied client commissioner of the works.

Many times, especially when the client is not technically-minded and holds in his head an idea of the finished product he wants, but with no understanding of the means and works required to obtain it; this kind of client is a type who most likely to come to grief with his developers.  It is the difference between knowing how to use the controls of a TV or PC, but yet having zero knowledge of how they work or how they are manufactured, which generally opens up a gap in these relationships which is very hard to bridge or practicably proves unmanageable to work with.

(A further exacerbation frequently arises which can be exampled by reference to a commonplace experience of parents in this new and technological age. Their children frequently have grown up accustomed to and acclimatised to an unrestricted availability of plenty in a consumption-driven economy, wherein many consumables are of easy access, but of whose scientific history, development, composition and operation these children know and care nothing. It is felt back story is not to be needed – and because of a spoon-fed dispensation provided by specialized technocrats who stand a universe away in apprehension from the worlds of these children – these children place very little if any value on or feel gratefulness for being able to possess immensely complex and refined technological (and other) products which have issued so freely and abundantly in availability to them.  They have come too easily.)

And so likewise, too often the lay guy who is commissioning works from a developer shows he has a belief that he holds an inalienable right to ask for the moon if he desires it, and feels that to have it is his unconsidered entitlement and the developer’s summary duty is to provide it.

The customer then believes he is always right, even though he has no qualifications, has shown no aptitude or ability in, or even felt moved to be curious about, how the works he expects provided ‘on a plate’ are in fact done and achieved.

As adjunct to this state of complacent ignorance too often an assumption of unquestioned, unquestionable seniority over a developer accompanies this outlook.  Again because of a lack of a sense of any value and weight to the expertise a developer uses and which goes into the sophisticated products he is able to create; and because the client customer considers himself to call all the shots because his pocket is going to finance the works he wants done; these considerations he feels, in a confidence of blind ignorance, place him in an unassailable position of master directing his servant.

The developer must be solicitous and show obsequiousness to his, the client’s, assumed standing, desires, requirements, and sometimes whimsy.  The client like some minor feudal official feels able to lord it over those whom he feels have no status and so no power to oppose or object to him.  So the story goes.

This scenario might seem unjustly coloured – and it has been presented in high-definition so that the essence of the stereotypical bad client is distilled for to be seen in a concentrated form.  And further, developers are not alone in being slighted and dismissed in their worths by the consumerist tinpot would-be dictators being produced by our blasé over consuming, over-producing instant and easy access to everything head in the sand societies. But they are in the front line of vulnerability.

It is developers who are too often subject to uninformed anger and disdain, to non payment for services supplied, to abuse and incomprehension when the moon the client is informed is not available this side of Paradise.  They suffer from such clients attempts to tell them what to do and how to do it; that claim that the impossible is available and just get it from off the shelf.  They are hard pressed to contain the burgeoning of late additions and alterations flooding in and claimed as being in the original requirement by a client, having to tread a fine line between politeness and refusal, and explanation without apology.

As for the client who has sacked or else lost his initial developer – the upshot is the same – there has been reached an impasse – either the initial relationship has failed or else the developer has been unable to deliver – and the client having to seek out another developer in order to complete entails inherently in its history a decisive breach in relations having occurred previously. Thus the prognosis for a happy ending for the newly-hired subsequent developer is not the best.

Indeed there is nothing so difficult to defend oneself against, let alone to try to break down, as entrenched ignorance coupled with an assured self-confident complacency. These are qualities of character being nurtured and encouraged far too much, far too widely. Their owners can sustain their character because such people are able to survive and by doing so send harmful concatenations of reverberations around in their societies.

They are able to survive and to continue because of the great and ponderous gulf in our societies set between consumers and their consumption, and manufacture and development, whereupon the consumer thinks he is king because he holds the purse strings’; but in fact the technocrat holds the aces because he has the knowledge and therefore the power to withhold or supply the gadgets and gewgaws our lives have become crucially dependent upon.

The consumer has been or has allowed himself to have been removed, separated, from the wellsprings of his existential essences.  (For instance, many city children in developed societies have not experienced seeing the commonplace farm animals in the flesh.  Food is commonly shrink wrapped and packaged up, offered without blemishes, irradiated in inert atmospheres, pre-peeled, maybe with added chemical adulteration, all being presented as pristine, untouched by  human hand, almost as if ‘official, rubberstamped-good’ food, and as far away from a slurry tank or a muckspreader as human imagination is able to conjure)

The result is loss: the loss of an awareness of authenticity, and so of good judgement.

The consequence is belief that the technocrat is able to/will be able to supply the moon and anything more that the consumer stipulates; and that he is obliged to, will be coerced to do so by consumer demand.  The disbelief, anger and fear aroused when this closed bubble of fantasy occasionally bursts, and reliant antibiotics fail to cure, or when systems go down and crash, are usually directed at the technocrats and are accompanied by a widespread and genuine sense of staggering helplessness in which consumers understand themselves to be ‘victims’.

Like the typical client with his project on its second or third developer, they are indeed victims, but for the most part in consequence of their own renunciation of commitment, engagement, curiosity, generosity, and humility, in the face of an easy and comfortable, listless superabundance requiring seemingly no accountability.