An Open Letter to OTHER Link Prospectors

Dear Other Link Prospectors;

I run a major website at CJSHayward.com. It is a collection of my creative works and has increasingly been focused on Orthodox theology. Suggested starting points include Doxology and The Angelic Letters. Most of what I’ve written for reading (as opposed to e.g. open source software or artwork) is available collected in this seven volume set.

I’ve gotten the occasional fan (e)mail, but I have never had a fan or visitor be generically impressed with everything on my website. I’ve only had one visitor claim to have read everything for that matter. People who just like my work tend to give some specific compliment or thanks for some of the specific content on my site. Usually people who write fan mail are more than happy to explain what, specifically, makes them happy my site is available to them.

For that matter, I’ve gotten flames, and the flames in general are quite obviously written in response for some specific posting or element on my site. No one really seems to call me nasty things without some specific statement about how work on my site fully justifies the claim.

If you try to obtain a one-way backlink from my site without bothering to find out what my site is about and what some of my works are, you are failing to show me a courtesy readily shown by most haters. Please do not be offended if I regard your contact as spam and it is reported as spam.

A “Hall of Shame” example

I’ve gotten various link prospecting emails that in generic terms could be sent to the owners of almost any website. The most recent example of a particularly objectionable link prospecting emails is,

Subject: Thank you

Dear C.J.S. Hayward,

Although, it is generally not in my nature to “cold-contact” people I don’t know, nonetheless, I wanted to offer you my gratitude for the writings you have shared on your website. They have gotten me through some very hard days. As way of saying “thank-you”, and not being at this time to make any purchases of your products, following are three website links related to one of your current posts, that I thought you may find useful. They are:

http://arachnoid.com/
(Psychology – Located on the sidebar of homepage)

http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/
(Geared towards parents of gifted children, but may be useful as a general resource)

[URL deleted]
(Fr. [name deleted], of the Anglican Catholic Church – His perspective on similar psychological and theological topics)

I apologize in advance if these links are not useful to you. As I said, they are a humble offering in appreciation for what you have freely shared.

Thank you again,

Bryan W.

I believed what it said for a short while. I started to write a thank-you note, and then when I thought things through, I was horrified.

The first point, if a subtle one, is that like many sites on the website, my contact page contains a direct and explicit request of people contacting me: that they put “To the author” in their email subject so it gets fished out of my spam folder if need be. This is not meant as a hoop to jump through, but I ask it and the feedback form and email link on my site have a “To the author” baked right in. This provided a crystal-clear red flag that however much he may have wished for resharing, it didn’t translate into respecting simple instructions. (That much, by the way, offers a useful filter, and if you are working on triaging your own incoming link prospect requests, you might include some simple and very clearly stated request on your contact page.)

The second point is that the first paragraph does not reference anything specific. Now my website does have several works intended to offer strength and comfort to people in hard times; The Best Things in Life are Free comes readily to mind. However, while some of my work has been received respectfully, this is the first report I’ve heard that they’ve helped someone quite that much. They don’t deserve sole credit. I think they’re good and worth reading, but I think that anyone who really benefitted from them would be benefitting from several other supports too. But I may be being too picky here; it is common practice to exaggerate some compliments so I don’t want to be too legalistic.

The first psychology link left me mystified; I do not consider psychology to be a particularly active interest, and I follow my advisor in regarding psychology to be a sort of leftover that stayed around during and after a process of secularization in the West. Or maybe that’s a strong way of putting it, but one post about Theory of Alien Minds: A UX Copernican Shift does not make me a credentialed psychologist nor does it make psychology a primary interest.

The second link left me mystified as regards approaching giftedness; you don’t really tell gifted parents to go to Hoagie’s Gifted almost like how you don’t really tell web users to go to Google to find things out. Apart from my retaining the spammer’s mention of Hoagie’s Gifted in this posting, the only real reason I would see myself telling someone about that site would be if I got an “out of the blue” email from a parent whose child was identified as gifted and the parents want a roadmap.

The third link is the cultural equivalent of saying, “You’re from Japan? Say something in Chinese!” It made me profoundly uncomfortable, and there is a profound difference between Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglican “Catholics”, and I was much more uncomfortable with that contact than I usually am either with mainstream Romans or mainstream Anglicans. I wanted to send the spammer a link to my reply to those Greek Catholic T-shirts that say, “Orthodox Christian in Communion with Rome,” a T-shirt that says, “Roman Catholic in Communion with the Archdruid of Canterbury”. (I restrained myself.)

And by the way, that wasn’t really three links the sender equally wanted me to see. It was two links of window dressing and one link of payload. This was part of multiple aspects of guile in this post. It was made to give the impression of having received a great benefit, without mentioning anything in particular, and it presented the three links as a thank-you when they were, in fact, there to do the job of link acquisition. Upon reflection, I believe the email was sent in the optimistic hopes that I was born yesterday.

And the last thing I’ll mention is that it is admittedly current practice to avoid the word “link” in link prospecting emails and more generically speak of sharing and passing on even though what you want most is a link. That at least might be appropriate, but the goal of this email is to obtain a white-hat one-way backlink, and there was a lot of guile and feigned respect. Sorry, no.

I am, as a site owner, willing to give links, including white-hat one-way backlinks. However, if you want something that big from me, your due diligence is to communicate honestly, research my site enough that you have some idea of its marketing proposition and some examples of its content, and if your site is a religious site, read the sharply written An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism, and needless to repeat, respect the clear instructions on my contact page. Guile is one of several ways you can get reported for spam.

Owners of other high-quality sites might appreciate similar considerations.

Thanks,
C.J.S. Hayward

You might also like…

The Angelic Letters

The Best Things In Life Are Free

Doxology

An Open Letter to Catholics on Orthodoxy and Ecumenism

HINT: None of these works are works intended to offer additional advice or insight about link prospecting. All of the works are the sort of thing you should be exploring if you think I might want to give you a free, white-hat one-way backlink. And the same consideration applies to every single site you are approaching for a free, white-hat one-way backlink.

A Disruptive Take on (Un)-Branding

An opening “Heads up!”

This article is intended to do something that is usually best avoided, at least in the context of an article.

Some students of culture describe semiotic frames that define a society’s possibles et pensables: they shape what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable within a society. And it is usually preferable to handle communication so that you aren’t asking people to overhaul their mental frameworks: if you can think far enough outside the box that you find possibles et pensables the sort of thing that can be easily brought into question, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it is usually best kept under wraps, and usually best kept in a back pocket.

This piece is designed to delve into deeper work and not be as quickly digested as other fare. It’s harder to process than an article intended to persuade you between two options that we both already understand well enough. I tried to think about how to make my point while dodging working on what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable, and I don’t see how to eliminate that work from my point. I want to revise what is seen as possible and what is thinkable about branding today.

Where did branding come from anyway?

To the best of my knowledge, and to only present the beginning and end of a story, branding was once what happened when cattle owners would use a hot iron symbol to brand an identifying mark on cattle they owned, to be able to claim whose cattle they were if there were any question. There is a fairly close equivalent to this in the modern business world, but the equivalent isn’t really “how a company communicates itself and its offering to the outside world.” It’s really much more the unsexy practice of attaching metal tags to valuable company equipment that say, “This is property of XYZ corporation, serial number 12345.” And while there may be good reasons for engaging in this part of due diligence, it is hardly that interesting or deep.

Not so with real branding in today’s business world, not by any stretch. As I have prepared and thought about the question, I’m not sure I can think of an equally significant concept that I have met. To pick two examples from my own field in information technology, Agile development and open source software may be significant concepts, but I do not see the same niches and layers. There is some theory about open source software as such, and people may complain that a company that releases software under an open source license but “drops patches [external contributions] on the floor” isn’t really walking the walk, but in my experience the theory that most open source software developers are interested are the computer science and software engineering issues concerning their tools and pet projects, and you simply don’t have subspecialized high value consultants on the theory and ideology of open source. But branding is in fact a very big concept, and you do have high-value consultants actively engaged for their expertise in some specialization or subspecialization somewhere under the “branding” umbrella.

And with this significance comes something else, maybe something less attractive: however useful or prominent it may be, it is far from a worldwide universal, and I am not aware of any Great Teachers who have thought in terms of branding. Not only that, but Socrates might very well have lived to a ripe old age, instead of being condemned to death, if he had lived a brand that would have been socially acceptable to the citizens of his city. (The entire story of his gadfly’s teaching and life is an example of how to avoid branding yourself if you want to succeed and live.) Discussion of branding may be anachronous if applied to Socrates, but the principle justifies such an intrusion.

Two seismic shifts, one after another

In the popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that a shift had taken place in wisdom literature: that is, what people have written about how to succeed as a person; one definition offered for such wisdom is, “skill for living.” Whenever the text was written, the author had apparently read a great deal of wisdom literature over time and made a cardinally important distinction between a character ethic and a personality ethic. Up until about World War II, the basic framing assumption in wisdom literature in the U.S. is that success is success arising from character. One needs to be diligent, and humble, and merciful to others, and so on. In short, we need virtuous living to get ahead. These virtues may include practices: Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned” is an exhortation to the virtue of thrift. But success is acquired through growing as a person, by growing in virtue.

The subsequent sub-par personality ethic was much more superficial; it offered tips and tricks to get ahead, while avoiding anything calling for real internal transformation. And while there are definitely mere practices that we could do better (I could smile more), most of my problems aren’t on the level of personality, but where I need to do more inner work. The shift Covey documents is a seismic shift, and it is difficult to overstate its significance. Something like the character ethic and the personality ethic exist at least to some extent side-by-side in information technology: there are people who have been educated in computer science and software engineering, and who maintain a lifelong curiosity towards those areas as well as working their way through fads and individual tools, and there are educational programs that just teach buzzwords and individual tools with only incidental coverage of deeper issues in theory. A manager who has dealt with both kinds of programmers will know the difference well.

I would posit, or rather point out, that there has been a second shift after a shift from a character ethic to a personality ethic: a shift from a personality ethic to a (personal) brand ethic. There are books I’ve read that offer an induction into a brand ethic in ways that someone who’s not already an insider will understand: but I don’t remember anything I’ve read treating as a live question whether we need a brand ethic or a personality ethic, or whether we need a brand ethic or a character ethic. Personality has a place: it has a place because a personal brand on Twitter that incorporates some amount of what feels like personality is a stronger brand than one that is one-dimensional. The place for personality is neither more nor less than what the brand ethic calls for. And that’s odd.

But you, C.J.S. Hayward, have a brand!

In one sense, at least some people will say that I have a brand, and one that I have consciously contributed to. This blog’s background, for instance, is one touch out of many things that provide a sense of brand. Old-fashioned, exaggeratedly recognizable links could be called another.  None the less, I meet the concept of a personal brand with some degree of puzzlement. I’ve written dialogues before, but I’m drawing a blank at how to flesh out a dialogue with pretty much any of the world’s great teachers about marketing-style branding as a paradigm for how to relate to others. I do not find branding in the Sermon on the Mount, I have difficulty envisioning what Sun Tzu or other sages would say, and for that matter I do not think that Muhammad would have understood the concept, and if he had understood it, would find it to be extremely offensive: much as democracy’s foundational attitude that you have a say in things is profoundly un-Islamic (when George Bush was pushing to endow Iraq with democracy, my comment to friends was, “I wish that Bush would herald a goal that would be less offensive to Muslims, like a hambone in every pot.”).

It is possible for brands to be layered. It is possible for brands to have depth. It is possible for brands to present a tip of an iceberg with lots of room to dig. However, I would pick as a particularly bad piece on personal branding a book chapter which advised the reader to pick three positive adjectives on the list, and simply decide, “These will be my brand.” And this isn’t just one book. When a company has announced that XYZ represent its values, it gives the impression of something arbitrarily chosen and tacked on, something plastic, something that would really make Michael Polanyi squirm.

Our close contemporary Michael Polanyi (Wikipedia), to pick one of the achievements he is best known for, argued essentially that knowledge is not something separate from people. When people are initiated into a tradition of expert practice, there is knowledge tacitly held by those who are already insiders in the culture of expert practics, and this knowledge is tacitly transmitted to people who are being trained to become insiders, without ever being held or passing consciously to those in either role. He comments that swimming coaches and swimmers alike breathe differently from non-swimmers in that they expand their lungs to hold more air when they breathe in, and they keep more air in their lungs when they breathe out, using their lungs this way for added buoyancy. Other explanations may be available in this case, but, the broader picture is one that uses tacit knowledge, or to take the deliberately chosen title of his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge, and recognize that we have many layers beyond the surface. And I’m trying to imagine Polanyi reading a text telling him to pick three adjectives that should identify him as his personal brand. I see him squirming, much like the Far Side cartoon entitled, “Baryshnikov’s ultimate nightmare” that shows a square dance caller saying, “Swing your partner ’round and ’round, now promenade left and don’t fall down…

However, the concern I raise, which may or may not be terribly distinct from Polanyi, isn’t just that a personal brand is shallow, or at least has been shallow in every book I’ve read telling me I need a personal brand. It’s also designed as artificial and plastic, not real and alive. It may have an alive motif, like the handmade-looking lettering and art in cookie-cutter Starbucks locations. But it is what Neal Stevenson described in In the Beginning was the Command Line, in describing a mediated and vicarious experience waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland:

The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the  gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient  structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted on, of course, and protected from real rust by a  plastic clear-coat, but you can’t tell unless you get down on your knees.

And on this point I’d like to mention a point from The Cost of Discipleship. I don’t know now whether I’d agree with the suggestion Bonhoeffer makes, but he highlights that the Sermon on the Mount says both Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven, and also that we are to conceal our good deeds: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. Asking how these two incongruous commands fit together, Bonhoeffer says that we should do good deeds but hide them from ourselves, that we should reach a state of doing goodness that we do it without being aware of it. Now whether that should exactly be believed in reference to the Gospel, I don’t know. But something like that is true of some secular skill. I remember a conversation with a Unix professional who said that in a job interview he had claimed to be a Unix wizard because that was required in that social situation, but it would have been “an outright lie” for him to make that claim among his peers. I assure you he was very competent. But his competency had reached a level where (among other things) he knew how little he knew and how much more there was to know, and like almost any good Unix wizard, he found calling himself a Unix wizard to feel like an outright lie. When I was asked in high school as the school’s student Unix system administrator, I hesitated, and I was both surprised and delighted when a friend said “Yes” for me; I would have been making an outright lie (in my mind) to make that claim. Nor is this a specific local feature of Unix wizardry. That is just an example close to my experience, and it seems that nobody considers themselves what in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine terms would be called Morlocks. There is a kind of “reverse hypocrisy” here. A Morlock, to expert practitioners, is someone else at a higher level of skill. (Linus Torvalds has voiced confusion about why others consider him technical.)

The general rule is that the most confident in their performance are usually the most-overconfident, and the most competent are actually less confident; unlike the over-confident, they are guided by a sharply tuned inner self-criticism, the same self-criticism that in any competent practice of classical music means that musicians hear their performance mistakes more quickly than even the most discerning audience members. What is going on here is the same thing as was told to me as a child, which I’ll leave in politically incorrect terms:

An Indian and a white man were standing on a beach, and the white man drew a small circle and said, “This is what the Indian knows.” Then he drew a larger circle around it and said, “This is what the white man knows.” Then the Indian drew a huge circle encompassing both other circles and said, “This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.”

And this quality, of seeing a huge encompassing circle of things that none of us know, is foundational to being a genuine expert almost anywhere. Hence a high school biology text compares the discipline of biology to trying to discern the characters, plot, and themes of a long and intricately complex movie, when all you have is half a dozen stills in varying conditions. Hence one biology teacher I remember fondly saying very emphatically that we don’t know what’s going on: all that biologists know now is only a tiny slice of the truth.

So what does this all mean for branding? It means a couple of things, and perhaps it may be good to have three positive adjectives you seek to represent. But one thing it means is that people are often not aware of their good (and bad) properties, or at least not all of them. This might be true morally, but it is also true in terms of professional competence. I remember going to a presentation on getting a government job and the “stupid questionnaire” (the presenter’s preferred term) where you were asked to rate yourself from 1 up to 5 on different areas of competency. Now coming from a business background where I had been asked to rate myself 1 to 10 in competency and advised the higher self-rating I gave, the harder test questions would be asked of me, thought of rating myself mostly 3’s with a couple of 4’s on the ones I was strongest, the presenter made crystal-clear that that was not going to work. The only acceptable answer was a 5, or maybe you could get away with one or possibly two self-ratings of 4. And that’s not selecting for competency. It is selecting for overconfidence, and for gaming the system. For someone who is genuinely competent, and is not aware of how and why to game the system here, giving a sincere and well-thought-out self-evaluation is a recipe for elimination even if that employee’s past five supervisors would mark the person as a clear 5 across the board.

The title I’ve been mulling over, The Twitter Job Search Guide, is part of the cohort of books where branding is bedrock. It also suggests that Twitter competencies expand outside of Twitter, so that a cover letter is composed of a few tweets and a resume is composed of a few more tweets. Now that’s an idea I’d be cautious about dismissing; communicating value concisely is a valuable skill, and in some sense Twitter might be seen as a Toastmasters of written communication. Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator course trains people with five to seven minute speeches addressing core competencies in speaking (plus a couple of other details), and the thought is not exactly that participants will only need to give speeches of that length, but rather to lay a foundation that is explicitly intended to be adaptable to longer or shorter speeches. And Twitter is not always 140 characters of nothing; there are profound contributions made, and it is a valuable skill, and one quite often present among the most competent gifted, to make a significant point clearly and concisely. For a business world that just wants the time, not the whole process of a watch being built, it may be good discipline and skill to be able to write a six tweet cover letter and twelve tweet resume. But I am concerned when this all falls under the aegis of branding. And in The Twitter Job Search Guide, the tweets for a cover letter and resume all fall under the heading of communicating a brand. Though there is (for instance) discussion of what constitutes a good ratio between professional and personal tweets, I’ve read two thirds of the text and I haven’t yet seen advice to tweet or communicate something that does not fall under the aegis of your personal brand. The beginning, middle, and end of what you are advised to communicate is brand. There is no other way to relate to others, it seems, and this is a plastic form of life.

Now before going further, there is one point I would like to clarify about boundaries (a topic that I believe is ill-framed, but that is not my interest here). One professor, addressing graduate students who were or probably would be teaching assistants, talked about “being the same on the outside and on the inside.” She went on very directly to state that this did not mean “letting it all hang out”; that was precisely what it was not. Normal social interactions embody both what is anthropologically called “positive politeness” and “negative politeness”, and on this point I would recall another professor talking about appropriate communication in crossing cultures. He gave some examples of positive politeness, things like saying “Hello!” to a friend (the sort of examples of politeness that jump to mind). Then he said that when strangers approach each other and look down at the sidewalk when they’re a few meters apart, that’s politeness. It is a refusal to wantonly intrude; it says, “You have not invited me in and I will not presume where I am not invited and I do not belong.” And that is politeness. He mentioned, to drive the point a little bit further, that he had one good friend he visited, and though he did not do so at this visit, he would have thought nothing of opening his friend’s refrigerator and helping himself to anything inside. The principle of negative politeness is that you do not do things without invitation; one may surmise that some point along the way the professor’s friend gave one or several invitations to rummage through the fridge without asking specific permission, and I would be almost certain that the professor had not asked permission to arbitrarily rummage his friend’s fridge; he had presumably been given that permission as the friendship developed. And outside of a few exceptions like this, it is a significant violation of negative politeness to rummage through someone’s fridge without asking.

Socially appropriate relations, or boundaries, or negative politeness, or whatever you want to call it, applies; that can and should mediate our interactions, and brands that have any sense to them will stay within these boundaries. However, while I believe we need the mediation of negative (and positive) politeness, there is something plastic about the mediation of brands. It’s good not to give TMI, but a personal brand is neither the only nor the best way to communicate within positive and negative politeness that respects boundaries.

I’m not sure this addresses all of branding; I’d expect that someone who knew branding well could point to currents within branding that survive this critique. I’ve picked examples that struck me as silly; I haven’t discussed the silliness I see about corporations picking three identifying values, and in much more mainstream and professional venues than a book in a career center offering a list of positive adjectives and an invitation to pick three as defining your personal brand. But for what I’d like to see instead, I don’t have a big program to offer, just appropriate social interaction: social interaction that is appropriate to degree of relationships and the roles of the participants. Others have written The Clue Train Manifesto; I have not examined that manifesto in depth but its opening words about a human voice suggest I’m not the only person, nor the first person, concerned with human communication.

My personal unbrand

I wanted to give a bit on my personal brand, or rather unbrand, or, if you prefer, ersatz brand. You’re welcome to say, if you like, that it is in fact just a personal brand, only a personal brand that embodies at least one classic and cardinal mistake. Or at least two mistakes, apart from the easily digested simplicity of an effective brand, the bulk of my effort is growing in terms of both who I am as a person, and how I can achieve deeper competence. Some attention is given to appearance, but a brand works primarily on image management. Skills one acquires, for instance, are there because of their usefulness to a branded image. But let’s return to the other basic attribute in what makes sense in a brand.

One of the parameters that is desired in a brand is doing one thing well, simplicity. There may be contours to the brand’s landscape, but if you are a jack of all trades you are assumed to be a master of none. One part of a brand’s job description, personal or otherwise, is to present a simple core, perhaps one core feature that offers a value proposition with one core benefit. Or, perhaps, there are a few pieces working together, but if you can’t write it on the back of a business card, you have failed. And in fact this is not restricted to branding. Good to Great talks about good companies that became great companies having and/or discovering a core “hedgehog concept” that they keep returning to, and while such a general title on business has to assume marketing and with it branding as part of the picture, I do not recall the emphatic “hedgehog concept” discussion portraying it as a particular issue for marketing and branding. In Good to Great, the “hedgehog concept” defines a one-trick pony that fundamentally outperforms Renaissance man opponents.

In my own case, what I offer is a profoundly gifted portfolio of interconnected skills. Want to know what reading Latin and Greek has to do with the business world? At a competitive local exchange carrier, we were working with an upstream provider who did business with us because they were required to by law, even though they didn’t want to, because they saw us as cream-skimmers. Nobody else in my group could make sense of their opaque, bureaucratic communication. I could, and there wasn’t much of a hiccup when my boss, with my consent, added communication with that provider to my responsibilities. I don’t know if any of my bosses have cared that I enjoy writing, but several have cared that I could create and edit clear and high-value documents. I don’t know whether any of my bosses have particularly cared that I’ve received rankings as high as 7th in the nation in math contests, but they do care when I apply that to solo programming that hits the ball out of the park. In the positions I’m focusing on now in User Experience, I don’t really expect my prospective bosses to care that I have postgraduate coursework in essentially all major User Experience disciplines: anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, with a distinctive work addressing something at the core of User Experience competency. However, once I am hired and running usability tests, I expect they’ll care how much that background lets me draw out of a test.

And, to dig a bit deeper, the achievements I value are not because of intelligence, but communication. I’ve calmly spoken to a bawling four-year-old with an extremely painful blood blister under her thumbnail, until she she had stopped completely. I’ve been asked why I know how to relate to Ukrainians. I’ve been told, “You are like a white American and like a black African, and closer than an African brother.” I’ve communicated across large gaps with remarkable success.

And, to give one last detail, I’ve had many projects and there is a common thread running through virtually all the ones I’ve liked most: I’ve reduced user pain, or made something a joy to work with. To pick one example from when I had just started a new job, I was given a four-word spec before my boss left for his vacation: “Get [name of employee] off overtime.” The employee was a revenue assurance auditor who was trying to keep on top of a provider who was slipping us inappropriate charges, a responsibility that had him on heavy overtime in a company which normally stuck with a 40 hour workweek. And I winced when I saw what he was doing. I respected him and his actions as a team player, but he was cutting a steak with a screwdriver because that was the only game in town, and I wanted to give a razor-sharp knife, designed for him personally. When he said he was perfectly willing to do drudge work, my unspoken response was, “I appreciate and respect that you’re willing to do drudge work. I still want to get it off your plate.” And I drew on Edward Tufte’s principles and made a carefully chosen greyscale (instead of numbers) system that cut his involvement down to 40 hours a week, then further down so only part of his time was spent keeping on top of this responsibilities, and he was in a position to engage other responsibilities that were out of the question earlier. At a certain point into the process, I told him, “The only reason I ever want you to do us the old tools is because you want to,” and he very quickly answered, “I don’t want to!” In other words, the new tool completely superseded prior methods, which is a rarity. I don’t remember exactly how far along we were when my boss returned from vacation, but the employee told me he was raving to my boss, and in that whole position my boss never really showed much inclination to micro-manage me. (He described me as “nearly self-managing.”)

These and other things could be a basis for a number of personal brands that I could treat as my working contract with the professional world. However, it is my preference not to have my dealings mediated by a constructed personal brand. I’d like to give my friends and employers alike the real “me”, and while I will act differently with friends, family, church, and an employer, I don’t want people dealing with an artificially infused personal brand. I want them to deal with me. And while one friend explained that a fellow graduate student in psychology who dealt in measuring psychological traits answered a questionnaire for a job application, she understood exactly how the test worked, answered like the personality profile that the company wanted, and just made sure to act like the profile they wanted while she was at work. I don’t want to judge, but I find something very sad about the story. And it has everything to do with working with a personal brand.

This is not as crystalline as a normal brand. That’s intended.

Back to a character ethic…

Doxology

God the Game Changer

God the Spiritual Father

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

An Open Letter to Spam Patrons

CJSH.name/spam

Hayward's Unabridged Dictionary
Read it on Kindle for $3!

strong>Dear Valued Patron;

How would you like to associate your organization with false advertising, illegal marketing scams, snake oil diets, and offensive unsolicited porn? You can—it’s easier than you think. You can reach thousands of people for every penny you invest. The only real cost is to your reputation.

What? That doesn’t sound attractive to you? Too bad. You’re doing all that—and more—every single time you send unsolicited bulk e-mail. It’s also known as spam, and for good reason. Why?

In a classic Monty Python sketch, a customer in a restaurant asks what’s on the menu. The waitress tells him, “Well, there’s egg and bacon; egg, sausage, and bacon; egg and spam; egg, bacon, and spam; egg, bacon, sausage, spam; spam, bacon, sausage, and spam; spam, egg, spam, spam, bacon, and spam; spam, sausage, spam, spam, spam, bacon, spam, tomato, and spam; spam, spam, spam, egg, and spam” (and so on). Then a chorus of Vikings begins chanting, “Spam, spam, spam, spam; lovely spam, wonderful spam.” The waitress just doesn’t get it, even when the customer repeats that he doesn’t like spam.

You may be the victim of false advertising. Many spammers advertise “opt-in e-mail lists” with millions of targeted recipients—but please think for a moment. Would you choose to be on a mailing list that let advertisers fill your mailbox dirt-cheap? Are there millions of people who would choose to have a mailbox with advertisement, advertisement, personal letter, advertisement, family newsletter, and your advertisement? If someone has asked you to read this page, there’s a good chance you’ve patronized spam—and been advertised along with snake oil diets and illegal marketing scams. Don’t you think you’re in bad company?

You don’t have to be. If you want more information, you can read Stopping Spam: Stamping Out Unwanted E-mail and News Postings. It’s one of O’Reilly & Associates’ best-selling titles. But, most importantly, you can stop paying people to make you look bad. Think about it.

Sincerely,
C.J.S. Hayward

The Administrator Who Cried, “Important!”

Microsoft Offers Better “Truth in Advertising” for Windows XP Dialog Box

An Open Letter from a Customer: I Don’t WANT to Abuse Your Employees and Be Rewarded for Gaming the System

Technonomicon: Technology, Nature, Ascesis

Friendly, Win-Win Negotiation: Interest-Based Negotiation and “Getting to Yes”

CJSHayward.com/negotiation


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Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In

The negotiation classic Getting to Yes: How to Negotiate Agreement Without Giving In introduces something called “interest-based negotiation” and presents it as the ultimate power tool for adversarial negotiations where the other party has the upper hand. And it may well be that power tool, but some of the best mileage I’ve seen has been in friendly negotiations, and business world problem solving.

Getting to Yes opens by discussing two main styles of negotiation that occur to people: hard and soft negotiation. Hard negotiation is a matter of taking a position and insisting on it: playing hardball. Soft negotiation, more characteristic of friendly negotiations, still involves taking a position, but being very flexible.

Getting to Yes presents a third option, that of interest-based negotiation. Individual positions taken by either side of the table are ordinarily poorly suited to the interests of the other side; and interest-based negotiation involves uncovering what the basic interests of the two sides of the table are, and then problem solving to, as best as possible, satisfy the interests of both sides of the table. Getting to Yes speaks of being hard on interests, soft on positions.

Examples from the world of information technology

It’s obvious, in the context of a negotiation between bosses and stakeholders on the one hand, and information technology on the other, that a stakeholder or boss has interests involved in negotiating what information technology professionals will do for them. What is less obvious is that information technology professionals also have interests. These interests include interests that amount to good engineering concerns, including a realistic solution, avoiding technical ways of painting themselves into a corner, and solving the problem in a way that will work well for stakeholders. (If a cobbler makes a shoe that fits comfortably, the customer will make fewer requests for adjustments than if the shoe pinches.)

On this last point, it might be remarked that initial solutions (positions) proposed by stakeholders should be viewed with suspicion. When someone non-technical tries to design a technological solution, there is a real danger of a solution that looks good on paper, but amounts to a shoe that pinches. One time my brother, then a database administrator, commented that on his team there was a system administrator who, when he was asked something that amounted to, “Is there a way to—”, would rudely cut the person off and say, “Stop. Tell me what you want to have accomplished.” And he gave an excellent example of interest-based negotiation, even if it is a better way to avoid being curt.

The example he gave was, if there was concern about a disk filling up, someone asking, “Is there a way to run [the Unix command] ‘df’ every five minutes and send it to the system administrator’s pager?” And there are several things wrong with that position. First of all, this was a little while ago when there weren’t smartphones with high-resolution screens. The Unix ‘df’ command is designed around a full (text) screen, producing half a page or a page of text (probably more given their environment), and decidedly not optimized to quickly give useful information on a pager. It would require scrolling to see if the ‘df’ output represented a problem or not. And constant messages that require digging to see if they mean anything important amount to spam from the system administrator’s view: the fact that one more verbose message was sent to the pager means nothing particularly interesting to a system administrator. And that spam risks a real “boy who cried wolf” syndrome, with the system administrator having no clue when a real problem is occurring.

Not that there is any need for helplessness if disks fill up. There might even be a better solution that would use pagers. For example, there could be some monitoring tools that page a system administrator if a disk reaches some threshold of being too full, or if disk usage is growing too quickly. The basic issue is one that people can take steps to deal with. But the system administrator’s blunt “Stop. Just tell me what you want to do,” was almost kindness in disguise; it was meant to pursue the mutual interest of solving a problem as well as possible, as opposed to a solution that amounts to, “I’ve solved the problem badly; now you go implement it.”

The system administrator’s blunt response when he sensed positional negotiation was, “Stop. I don’t even want to hear your position. Just tell me your interest and let me address that.”


For another, slightly more technical example, there was a system administrator at our company who had written an asset tracking program, and later on I was charged with writing a purchase order system. When the system was shaping up, he said he wished his asset tracking system could simply go away, superseded by the new purchase order system.

The general consensus was that the order tracking system was tolerable, and the CTO consulted with some people from other companies and said nobody had really done better than tolerable like our asset tracking. The system administrator wanted me to replace his asset tracking program, and my expectation was that I might be able to do a little better than him, but not a lot better. And I think he was modest about the solution he had pulled off given what he was dealing with. I told him, at a social meeting, “The reason my program is crisp and clear and your program is messy, is that the problem my program solves is crisp, clear, and simple, and the problem your program solves is messy and hard.” And I could see a smile and shining eyes on his wife’s face, but my remark was not intended as a merely polite statement. As we did business, the problem of purchase orders was cut and dry, and I didn’t have to make any especially hard judgment calls: mostly it was straightforward adaptation as requests came in. By contrast, the tracking system covered assets and components, venturing into territory the purchase order didn’t touch, and the territory of assets and components came with genuinely fuzzy and difficult border cases, where you had to draw lines about what was an asset and what was a component and deal with subjective factors that the purchase order system never touched.

Once the two systems were up and running, it looked like that meant duplicate data entry. It would have been an option for me to write a replacement asset tracking system, but I think my co-worker was being genuinely modest about a real achievement, and it did not seem obvious to me that my replacement for a working system would work better. We looked at publishing data from the asset tracking system to purchase orders, and then set things so that entries in the purchase order system were automatically carried over to the asset tracking system. That solution was one that was stuck with: it did not involve, as had originally been suggested, that the asset tracking system would be superseded by the purchase order system, but it did address the basic interest: no need for duplicate data entry. The asset tracking system was made aware of entries in the purchase order system, and the solution addressed the various interests. Including, one might like to add, that the company would lose none of the benefits of a respectable, solid existing system, which would now be working better than ever.

An example from private life

In one family I know, the parents decided that their son could own a pocketknife (he owns a couple), but not carry anything dangerous. That may be a sensible decision, but it was annoying to the son, and I understood his frustration: I know what a Swiss Army Knifemeant to me when I was younger, and still to some extent means to me now. Besides being practical, a Swiss Army Knife is a nifty device, dipped in coolness. And I could identify with his being frustrated that his parents would not let him carry either pocketknife: not because he specifically wanted something dangerous, but because he wanted coolness.

For Christmas I gave him a Leatherman multi-tool designed to be useful and cool while still being something you could carry through TSA-approved airport security. It only has a few features as far as multitools go, but it has enough, and he greatly appreciates the gift. It satisfied both his desire for something cool, and his parents’ concern that what he carry not be dangerous, and so he carries it now.

In a non-work interaction at work, my boss received a copy of Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners, a book that introduces the powerful language Python with pirates and ninjas, and I asked him if I could borrow the book for a few minutes to copy bibliographic information. His reply was “Let me send you an email,” and forwarded me a promotional email with a coupon code worth $20 off the book’s price if you ordered by such-and-such a date. In this friendly negotiation, I took a position and my boss responded in a way that would address my interests better than my initial position.

Step one: Identify the interests
Step two: Problem solving

All of these negotiations have an element of problem solving. The first step is to identify interests. If someone comes to you with a position, which happens 99.9% of the time, it is a position motivated by interests, and you need to appreciate those interests. Anthropology-style observation, if you know how to do it, helps. Being empathic and trying to see what benefit someone’s position will bring them helps. As much as possible, bring interests out into the open so they can be addressed.

A win-win solution may not always be possible; the pie may not be big enough for everyone even if they cooperate. (Getting to Yes may be of some help here.) But a win-win outcome will be more often found by trying to address interests than simply starting with positions, staying with positions, and only doling out who makes what concession to the opposite position. And creative problem solving can help address those interests once they have been identified: for my brother’s workplace, system administrators can be automatically notified, including by pager, when any of several identified red flags is tripped. Being dangerous is not intrinsic to being a cool multitool: therefore one can search for a safety-friendly multitool. Is there a hidden opportunity in interests that have been identified? Check and see.

Conclusion

Interest-based negotiation is not always easy; Getting to Yes provides few examples: one of these few has two sisters arguing about an orange, splitting it, and then one sister ate the inside of her half and the other sister used her half of the rind to bake a pie. And the introduction states that stories are hard to find. Part of my effort here has been to provide examples, taken out of my experience because that’s what I know, even if it would be best to have third person stories and avoid stories that present me as a hero. But the rewards for at least trying for interest-based negotiation are worthwhile. And, as stated at the top, Getting to Yes may present interest-based negotiation as the central power tool for a hostile negotiation where the other party is more powerful than you, some of the best mileage I’ve gotten out of it has been in friendly negotiations with other people who share some of the same goals. And this is true inside and outside of the business world.

It’s worth recognizing negotiation as negotiation: not all negotiations have a dollar amount. And once a friendly negotiation is recognized, identifying interests can be a powerful tool to obtain win-win results.

Is there a place where you could use friendly, win-win, interest-based negotiations more?

On Mentorship

An open letter from a customer: I don’t WANT to abuse your employees and be rewarded for gaming the ystem

Passwords Maker

The Spectacles

The Case for Uncreative Web Design

Hayward's Unabridged Dictionary
Read it on Kindle for $3!

When the Master governs, people are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

Lao Tze, Tao Te Ching, tr. Stephen Mitchell

In looking at various award review sites, I have seen people equating creative web design with good web design. This is not simply in acknowledgement that creativity is one of the gifts of the human mind and an indispensable part of the great triumphs of human culture. It goes further to take the perspective that “good web design” means design that impresses the viewer with its creativity. This perspective, which is almost never questioned among awards reviewers, is one which is eminently worthy of question.

Good acting does not leave people impressed with how good the acting is. The very best acting leads people to be so involved with the drama and tension that they forget they are watching actors at all. Not all acting reaches that standard — which is a very high standard — but acting has the quality that, at its best, it is transparent: people see through the acting to the important thing, the story.

What are the basic responses to my A Dream of Light? In order from best to worst:

  • Best: The reader is moved by the images and stimulated by the ideas, and leaves the reading a wiser person. Perhaps this involves being impressed by the thoughts, but the reader who is impressed is impressed as a side effect of the literature’s power. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the writing’s subject-matter.
  • Second best: The reader’s primary response is to think about how smart I am, or how eccentric, or something of that sort. The writing has not completely succeeded. The reader leaves the reading thinking about me.
  • Worst: The reader reads it and walks away thinking about the page’s design, even how clean and uncluttered it is. The reader leaves the reading thinking about the web design.

If a reader walks away from that piece of literature thinking about my web design, the design is a failure. The design is as bad as a photograph where the scene is blocked by the photographer’s thumb.

It is sometimes easy for webmasters to forget that readers spend most of their time viewing other pages — not figuring out mine. I intentionally employ a standard web design in nearly all of my pages: navigation bar to the left, and a body to the right with dark text on a light background, different colors for visited and unvisited links (with visited links looking washed-out compared to unvisited links), no frames, judicious use of emphasized text, a header at the top, and navigation links at the bottom. I do not use any technology just because it’s there — one page uses Java, and has content that would be almost meaningless if the applet were not there. The design on my home page is not creative, because it is intended not to be creative. I copied best practices from other sites and from friends’ suggestions, in order to make a design that gets out of the way so readers can see the content.

To adapt a classic proverb: Don’t bother to impress people with creative design when you can impress people with creative content. My web design is not evidence of any great creativity, but many readers have found the content in what I’ve written to show considerable creativity. I employ a very standardized web design for the same reason that I use standard spellings and grammar when I write: I want people to be able to see through them to whatever it is I’m writing about. Yf spelynge caulze uttinshun too ihtselv, itt yss mahch herdyr too thynque abaut whutt iz beeynge sayde. If, on the other hand, people employ standard spellings, readers can ignore the spelling and focus on the point the writer is trying to make. The spelling is transparent. Spelling is not where you want to demonstrate your creativity. And neither, usually, is web design.

Now, does that mean there is no place for creativity in design? No! In I learned it all from Jesus, I had each sentence a different color from the one before, andnone of it black — which I regard as a legitimate artistic liberty. The Quintessential Web Page is aiming at a quite different effect (humorous rather than artistic), and it does other things that are not ordinarily appropriate. In this page, I use the content to draw attention to the design — also not normally appropriate. These things are not a special privilege for me; I just mention my pages because they’re the ones I know best. There’s some really beautiful Flash art on the web. One human-computer interaction expert has created a usability resource that is one of the ugliest pages I have ever seen, and does almost every major no-no on the list. This is as it should be — he is making a point by demonstrating features of bad web design. In that regard, making a page that is singularly annoying makes the point far more forcefully than an exemplar of good web practices that says “Be careful that you don’t have text that’s indistinguishable from your background.” It is perfectly acceptable to stray from general rules if you have strong and specific reason to violate them. I learned it all from Jesus, in my opinion, is a unique and valuable addition to my web page — but if I made every page look like that, my PageRank would drop through the floor.

Picasso said, “Good artists copy. Great artists steal.” Great artists never believe they have to invent everything from scratch to make good art — instead, they draw on the best that has been done before, and use their own creativity to build on top of what others have already accomplished. In web design, this means making a site that is usable to viewers who have learned how to use other sites.

A careful reader will notice one element of design on this site that is not standard, but should be. Designers for major sites, who often have excellent vision, will put navigation links on the page, but make them as small as they can be and not be completely illegible. This is a truly bad idea, and I don’t understand why it is so common. (Maybe web designers forget that some of us only have 20/20 vision?) The navigation links are some of the most important links on most web pages, and I wish to say, “Yes! I consider these links important for you to be able to read and use, and I will proudly let you read them at whatever your preferred text size is, not the smallest size I can read!”

I will consider this to be a successful design feature if you weren’t aware of it until I pointed it out.

“Concept Demo” Awards Program

CJSH.name/demo

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

This is not a real awards program. This is an experiment into how an award program can presented in a way that both protects the award program’s interests and provides a more graceful experience to applicants. You cannot apply to this program and get an award, even though it looks like you can.

Text that is part of the demo, part of the model of how to present an award so it protects reviewer interests while being kinder to applicants, has a standard white background. Commentary that is not meant to be included in a real program, has a khaki background. This text is an example of commentary.

But why streamline the awards process at all? Isn’t streamlining the awards process just awarding lazy applicants? I’d like to remind you that many applicants aren’t just applying to your program; your award program isn’t the only one out there. It’s important, yes, but I’d like to invite you to step into your applicant’s shoes. Your applicant doesn’t just see your program; your better applicants are probably applying to several programs. And seeing the same things again and again, often things which insult a good applicant’s intelligence, can frustrate applicants.

So what’s the point? Why is this needed?

I’m an award applicant. I have worked for years on my website, C.J.S. Hayward. It’s not perfect; there are still problems I’m trying to fix. But it offers something of genuine value.

An integral part of working on my website and making it the best I can is applying to awards programs. Awards programs are the #1 reason my website now receives over five thousand hits per day. I would not have anywhere near that traffic without awards programs. And I wouldn’t know as much about making a good website.

And I’ve applied to a lot of awards sites. I’m asking award reviewers to read what I wrote, so it’s perfectly fair for award reviewers to ask me to do some reading too. Especially as people who won’t read criteria submit terribly inappropriate sites and waste reviewers’ time.

So what am I asked to read? Some of it is distinctive. I’m asked to read about a program’s purpose, and that’s as it should be. Different programs have different purposes. Each site also wants me to read its criteria. Web awards criteria vary so much, or so I’m told.

Or so I’m told. I’ve read over a thousand awards criteria—yes, a thousand—and there are some things that aren’t unique. For example, the request not to submit porn. Or the request that I be kind to blind/text-only visitors and use ALT tags. And, well… I’ve lost count of how many sites seemed to think I didn’t know that an internal broken link is a faux pas, and I wouldn’t know unless they told me. There are real differences in criteria, but the difference is not between sites that don’t want racist material and sites that want racial slurs on every page. That’s not the kind of difference I encounter. There are differences, but not that kind. And another thing that happens a lot is that awards programs treat me as if I don’t know that if my website is excellent it won’t cause browser crashes. They treat me as if I don’t know a whole lot of basic things. If I’m going to apply to dozens of award programs, dozens of people want to sit me down and make me read that I shouldn’t submit porn, hate speech, coarse language and the like.

I don’t think I’m the kind of person awards reviewers had in mind. I think awards reviewers are frustrated by an unending stream of people who submit inappropriate sites. Very inappropriate sites. Porn. Browser crashes. Sites with no coherent theme. Exactly the kind of sites that the criteria are supposed to say, “Stop! I don’t want this! Don’t submit this to me until you’ve cleaned it up!” And it is this stream of people who are foremost on a reviewer’s mind.

But what about another stream of people? What about people who have read awards criteria carefully, and worked to polish their websites as much as they can? What about people who have taken advantage of the wisdom in awards criteria, and have squeaky clean websites with no porn, no JavaScript errors, no popups at all? Is it OK for them to apply to several different awards programs? And if they apply to twenty different awards program, do they need to read twenty different times not to submit porn, racism, pages that will cause browser crashes, and dozens of other items that I’m not going to ask you to take the time to read? What if they want to submit their awards to hundreds of awards programs? Do they really need to read hundreds of lists that tell them that porn is a no-no?

It seems that the awards criteria, as they are written, are designed to deal with people who shouldn’t be applying, but aren’t trying to be kind to the people they want. Most programs feel a need to bury a password somewhere… and there’s a reason for that. If you don’t see what that reason is, I’d encourage you to read The Administrator who Cried, “Important!”

The point of this “concept demo” program is to demonstrate something different, something better. The point of this “concept demo” is to demonstrate a way that a program can communicate clear expectations, and screen out people who shouldn’t be applying, while being much kinder to the kind of people you want to be applying—the people who build a site that’s fit to win awards… and the people your program exists to recognize. It can be done, and I invite you to read on and see just how it can be done.

To explore the first difference, let me repeat the navigation:

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

At the opening, which is just navigation, we see the first real difference. What is it?

First let me ask, is your time valuable? If I drone on and on without telling you anything new, will you keep on reading in the hope that it will get better? Or would you like to only read things that you find helpful?

If you’d rather only read things you find helpful, let’s extend that same courtesy to your applicants. Most good applicants are trying to do two things:

  • Find out whether their site matches the award program.
  • If it seems to match, apply.

There was one site that insisted that I needed to read their privacy policy before applying for their award. I still don’t understand why. It was an ordinary privacy policy, and I think that person was just thinking, “Well, I wrote it, so I expect people to read it.” But that’s not a common problem, right?

Well, I can only remember one program that expected me to read their privacy policy. But I’ve lost count of how many programs have expected me to read their ethics code—an ethics code which happens to be copied on hundreds of other sites.

In many programs, something is made required reading if it could be useful to the applicant. Here I’m following a different principle. The principle is this: Only make something required reading if it helps the applicants in the two steps above.

I’m not hiding anything. It’s still easy for the applicant to read the ethics, for instance. But I’m trying to treat my best applicants kindly. My best applicants will have read other awards program’s criteria and used them to build an excellent site, and they’ll be familiar with the boilerplate code of ethics. And I’ve used bold, italics, and plain text to underscore which is which. I’m showing respect for the applicants’ time by making the least justified claim on their time. The principle is that instead of saying, “If it might be relevant to some applicants, the applicant should read it,” I say, “My time is precious. So is my applicants. I won’t require them to read things they don’t need to read to know if their site should be submitted. Each thing I require applicants to read is a claim on their time, and it needs to be justified.”

Purpose

Program temporarily closed.

This program is closed until the end of January 2005 to deal with a personal emergency. If it is February 2005 or later, please contact us.

If a program is temporarily closed, it should say so on the front page, and it should be unmistakable. (If there were no khaki comments, “Program temporarily closed.” would be near the top of the page.) Most visitors don’t read webpages the way we were taught in school, and the notice above is optimized for how people read webpages.

Furthermore, this requests contact if the notice is still up after the program should be up and running.

In a nutshell, we’re looking to award sites that do two things:

  • Present great content.
  • Let people enjoy that great content with a minimum of distractions.

We believe that good web design is like good acting: instead of thinking about it, you’re drawn through it into something else. And so we want to award sites that have great content, and that employ user-friendliness (usability) to let people focus on the content without the site getting in the way. (Our disqualifications and criteria spell out exactly what we mean by that.)

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

About and Awards

Several remarks:

  • This section is optional because an applicant doesn’t need to know all this to submit a great site. On my own website, I have an “About” section, but I don’t require people to read it. What the applicant needs to know is what we’re looking for, and the history of this program may be interesting to the people who run the program, but it does not help them in that task.
  • I am not including a sample “About” section because most people do a good enough job that I don’t see how to sharpen it.
  • In this case, I am combining this with the sample awards, also not included. It’s nice to have that information available, and people who are curious about what the logos look like will find them easily enough.
  • If there is a process page, that section should be made optional. It’s good to make that information available, but it doesn’t help applicants tell if the program is right for their site. If an applicant wants to know how many times you’ll visit their site in evaluation, they don’t need to be forced to read your process page.
  • If there is a rules page, it should be broken into general and program-specific rules, just as I have done with the disqualifications and criteria.)

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

Ethics

I, C.J.S. Hayward, owner of all Awards Programs held at the Jonathan’s Corner web site, do hereby declare on behalf of myself and any other evaluator/s who may be contracted at any time by Jonathan’s Corner to evaluate for any Jonathan’s Corner sponsored Award Program, that we agree to advance and promote the website evaluator Code of Ethics in order to ensure fairness to all applicants and to maintain the honor and integrity of applicants, evaluators and awards.

We agree that all critiques given will be constructive in nature as positive comment is productive. We will refrain from criticism unless specifically requested by an applicant, and in such instances, will remain positive where possible in an effort to promote goodwill and advance the level of quality among Internet sites.

We agree to allow eligibility to all applicants who meet the posted online criteria of any particular award. We agree to be uniform in our eligibility requirements (criteria) and will fairly evaluate all sites/pages meeting our criteria which are submitted by any applicant. We further agree to clearly post these criteria.

We agree not to discriminate on grounds of race, gender, nation of origin, religion, profession, age, mental or physical handicap, or any other reason which is not globally viewed as an illegal trait or manner of conduct.

COPPA was written after websites targeted children with cartoon characters and the like, lured them into giving their email addresses, and sold the addresses to lists. So it made a very modest requirement: U.S. websites that:

  • Were geared towards children, or
  • Knowingly collected personal information from children under 13.

must obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from children under 13.

That’s it. That’s quite a modest claim. More specifically, it doesn’t require any age verification from 99% of awards programs I’ve seen. The awards programs I’ve seen aren’t geared towards children, nor (unless they ask age) are they knowingly collecting information from children under thirteen. But people have this vague idea of COPPA—linking to it without doing research on it, and something happens.

Some websites go above and beyond the call of duty and require parental consent for applicants under thirteen.

Others go further above and beyond the call of duty and require applicants to be over thirteen (if they don’t have parental consent).

Others go still further and jack up the age to fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, or eighteen.

Somewhere along the line, the parental consent gets dropped, and in the end, if you’re under eighteen, you can’t submit even if both your parents sign and fax a letter saying explicitly:

Dear Web Awards Program;

We hereby notify you that we give our full consent for our seventeen year old Pat to apply to your award program. If you have any questions, please call us at the above number.

Sincerely,

Oh, and one more thing. COPPA is not an international law. It’s a U.S. law affecting U.S. websites. COPPA has no jurisdiction over a Spanish site on a Spanish server. But just like parental consent drops out of the picture, any connection to the U.S. drops out of the picture. An overly sensitive reader could think that these awards programs assume that the U.S. is the center of the universe and the rest of the world is just the 51st state. (After all, they clearly assume that U.S. laws apply to everyone…)

COPPA is a fish story. Like “the one that got away,” it seems to get bigger and bigger. COPPA gets bigger and bigger the more I see people trying to go above and beyond the call of duty. I’m trying not to think about a scenario a couple of years down the road when I try to apply to an award program and am told, “We’re sorry, but some sociologists say that thirtysomethings are still basically like children, and in the interests of COPPA adherence, we can’t allow you to apply to our program.”

Perhaps you wouldn’t feel comfortable deleting all age discrimination. But it might be nice to stay close to the law (parental consent for applicants under 13) instead of telling brilliant teenagers, “We don’t care what the law allows! We’re discriminating against you because of your age!”

We agree to set forth awards criteria and to adhere to same. Proposed time frames for changes will be posted for one (1) week prior to the final publishing of same with notices posted on site so all potential applicants can view and understand the proposed changes.

We agree to evaluate web sites under the criteria which were in place at the time of any and/or all application/s. If changes are made to criteria after application/s is/are received, the submitted site/s will be evaluated using the criteria that were in effect when applicant/s initially submitted the site/s.

We agree to immediately inform any criteria compliant applicant in writing, of a ‘Refrain to Evaluate’ if it is found that a conflict of interest would occur in evaluating their web site – e.g. Such may occur upon being requested to evaluate the web site of a good friend. We will offer such applicant a choice of evaluator taken from CEM/CEMA membership listing.

We agree to maintain a professional, friendly and positive manner in any and/or all correspondence and/or communication held with any applicant/s.

We agree to evaluate all submitted sites within ninety (90) days of receipt of submission. If this deadline cannot be met, we agree to suspend submissions until we can again work within this timeframe.

We agree not to divulge any information about any applicant to persons, groups, or agencies not directly connected to our Awards Programs, and only then for the purpose of evaluating submissions and notifying winners. All information received from applicants via e-mail submissions or submission forms will be deemed private.

We agree to encourage and promote the use of original material for Awards Programs criteria and evaluation processes. We agree to assist any person requesting advice concerning ethical evaluation for and disbursement of awards. Please note: The awards evaluation processes in use at CPSnet Web Awards are copyrighted material and written authorization is required for their use.

We agree to maintain any owned individual web site/s that includes Awards Program/s to a standard that meets the criteria of the Award/s given. In the case of any Award/s offered that is/are outside the main subject of our web site/s, any and/or all such web site/s will be maintained to a high standard of integrity in all its/their main areas.

We agree to maximum dimensions of awards given in courtesy of web sites that will use them. If the maximum dimensions cannot be adhered to then a text only link will be permitted for graphics larger than maximum size; maximum size dimensions offered from this web site are: no more than 80 pixels height and 100 pixels width.

We agree that there will be only one obligation for winning awards from this web site beyond meeting the criteria. It is not, and never will be, mandatory at this web site to sign a guestbook or to join a mailing list. It is a requirement that any awards granted from this web site must be linked back to our web site in a method that will be outlined in award notification e-mails.

We agree that we will not grant awards to, or in any other manner endorse or promote, any web site that endorses, promotes or contains content which is considered globally to be illegal or discriminatory against humans.

Another minor change. I’ve changed the ending, “…discriminatory whether same be against humans or wildlife.” to “…discriminatory against humans.” That means that I don’t have to discriminate against Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, a good many atheists and agnostics, etc. who discriminate between humans and wildlife. (Even most strict vegans recognize that there is an important moral difference between killing a human and killing an insect. That’s because they discriminate between humans and wildlife.)

I am slightly puzzled why “…whether same be against humans and wildlife.” appears unaltered in so many awards criteria. Sometimes it’s left me wondering if the awards program actually have actually read and thought about the ethics code, or just copied it and required me to read it. If you’ll think a bit, this doesn’t present the best image to applicants.

(But I’m nitpicking. I’ll stop.)

We agree that we will not accept favors of any sort in exchange for preferential treatment of submissions. We will at all times maintain a high standard of honesty and integrity.

We agree that we will take all measures necessary to maintain the honor and integrity of our Award Program.

We agree that we will use an application process that respects the applicants’ time.

This last item is new. And it adds something that I, as an award applicant, value.

Submitted on this day, 16 February 2005

C.J.S. Hayward

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

Disqualifications

The disqualifications and criteria are each broken into two parts, with an important difference between the two parts. The first part has rules, such as no porn and no browser crashes, that are important, but they’re things you probably expect if you have read the criteria for several of the top Award Sites! programs. If you know your website meets all of those requirements, you can safely skim them, or skip to the program specific disqualifications. If you don’t know what I’m referring through, I ask you to read through all the disqualifiers. One disqualifier, on either list, will bring the evaluation to a screeching halt.

Common Disqualifications

  • There may be no rude, offensive, or dangerous content, or content that incites dangerous, offensive, or illegal activity.
  • There may be no pirated software (warez) or links to sites with warez.
  • There may be no cracking (breaking into people’s computers) or materials that encourage or help cracking.
  • No occult (Wicca, Satanism, New Age, etc.)
  • Your site may not cause a browser crashe at any point in the evaluation.
  • Your site may not contain any internal broken links. (I will check it with Xenu Link Checker.)
  • Your site may not contain porn or nudity.
  • Your site may not defame or promote discrimination against any people or group of people.
  • Your site may not contain plaigarism, copyright infringement, or bandwidth stealing.
  • Your site may not contain or promote malware, including requiring Comet Cursor, which is spyware.
  • Your site must have a clearly visible, child-save privacy policy.
  • Your site must be rated with ICRA/PICS, and must give a child-safe green light on validation.
  • Your site must contain at least 10 pages of actual content, excluding guestbooks, collections of links, awards sections, and administrative pages like privacy policies, copyright, and terms of use.
  • Any page that fails to load in under 30 seconds on my broadband connection, after three attempts on my part, will disqualify your site.
  • If you have a Flash introduction, there must be a “Skip Intro” link.
  • No spam.
  • No scams, multi-layer marketing/pyramid schemes, etc.
  • Your site must be in English or French, or have a complete English or French version available.
  • I will visit your site at or above 800×600 navigation. If I see a horizontal scrollbar, your site will be disqualified.
  • I will visit your site at or above 800×600 navigation. If I see a scrollbar after 7 clicks, your site will be disqualified.
  • Your site must make use of alt and noframes tags (if appropriate).
  • Your site must not have popup windows. This includes i.e. GeoCities popups; popups are annoying, and if your web host uses popups, you should consider moving to a host that doesn’t make your website seem offensive.
  • Your site must not contain copyright violations.
  • I must be able to reach you and your site with the information you provide, exactly as you type it.
  • I must not need a password to access your site. It is not enough to give me the password because you’re still excluding almost everyone else.
  • If you run an awards program, your website must meet the standards of your highest award.

Program-Specific Disqualifications

Both the program-specific disqualifications and program-specific criteria draw on knowledge that many awards programs do not incorporate. Especially in the area of usability (user-friendliness), there is a lot of good knowledge that awards programs do not yet incorporate. If one of my disqualifications surprises you, please read the stated reason. You may learn something new.

What do I know about usability? Well, I have two master’s degrees, and both of them involve heavy lifting in issues related to usability (making software user-friendly). And I know who to pay attention to. If there is one usability author I wish web awards people (and webmasters) would read, it is Jakob Nielsen. And I’m not the only person who respects him. Even if I have two master’s degrees, he knows a lot more about usability than I do. The New York Times calls him “the guru of web page usability.” U.S. News & World Report calls him “the world’s leading expert on web usability.” Stuttgarter Zeitung calls him “the world’s leading expert on web usability.” And the Chicago Tribune says he “knows more about what makes web sites work than anyone else on the planet.”

Note that I am visually separating the criteria from each other and from the reasons. An applicant who doesn’t want the rationale, but just wants to see if their site qualifies, can scan through and skip the reasons. This is a minor feature intended to save applicant time.

  • Every link, including external links, must open in the same window.Reason: It’s common to require that external links open in a new window. And also wrong for a couple of reasons. First, it’s handicap inaccessible. Opening a link in a new window is much worse than a missing alt tag. Because of the limitations of nonvisual browsers, opening a link in a new window often causes blind people so much trouble that they can’t get back to your site if you want. Second, it’s confusing to inexperienced visitors. It causes problems on lower-end computers, and some people may wonder why their back button is greyed out and they can’t get back to your lovely site. This is why Jakob Nielsen not only says not to do it; he ranks it as one of the top ten mistakes in web design.
  • Most text, including all navigation links, must be the default font size or larger. On all pages, the user must be able to control the size of the text by normal browser mechanisms.Reason: Most web designers have excellent vision. That is a good thing, because it means that graphics are crisp and clear. But it’s not so good when web designers forget that their vision is above average and design as if everybody can see as well as the designer can. What is meant as a good way to save space and makes the pages smaller means that, for many visitors, the entire page is hard to read. (This happens on many awards sites.) Before linking to more of Jakob Nielsen’s articles, I would point out that his site uses the default font size. This is not an accident, nor is it an accident that my site uses the default font size.
  • Do not destroy the browser feature of making visited and unvisited links different colors.Reason: As others have said, making visited and unvisited links the same color to achieve an aesthetic effect is like painting a stop sign green so it will match the color of a nearby building. Making visited and unvisited links the same color is one of the easiest ways to mess up visitors’ navigation abilities by confusing them about where they’ve been and where they haven’t been.
  • Your URL must not contain a tilde (~).Reason: Large numbers of users do not know how to type a tilde.
  • Your website must work under any browser I try to visit it with and must not tell me that I should use a particular browser/version/resolution to see it. Furthermore, all navigation must work with Flash, Java, and JavaScript turned off.Reason: My site is not so good that people are going to download another browser so they can see it, nor are they going to buy a larger monitor. Neither is yours. Flash, Java, and some JavaScript navigation has been called “mystery meat navigation” because if you don’t have the technology installed—for instance, if you’re blind and your browser doesn’t show cool-looking Flash menus—then you can’t tell what you’re selecting, if you can use it at all. Add to this many people in the first, second, and third world who do not have state of the art computers and who do not feel comfortable enough with technology to upgrade their browser and install plugins, and what you have is navigation that includes people. Standard HTML navigation is inclusive. Mystery meat navigation is inappropriate because it excludes people. (An exception is made if there is alternate navigation so visitors can move about the site even if their browsers won’t let them use the mystery meat navigation.)
  • Your design must be similar to that of some other sites I’ve seen, including major sites.Reason: Why am I reccommending this when most programs want a distinctive design? The answer to that can be seen in my own article, The Case for Uncreative Web Design. A new design is one that users will have to figure out. An old, or in other words, familiar, design is one that users already know how to use. Besides bluntly saying, “Zero learning time or die,” Nielsen observes, “It has long been true that websites do more business the more standardized their design is. Think Yahoo and Amazon.” He’s talking about commercial websites, but for the same reason personal pages work better if new visitors already know how to use them. Instead of trying to invent a navigation system that no one has thought of before, it adds value to a website to learn to make effective use of things that are proven to work well, things that your visitors will already know how to use.

This list is just where these disqualifiers are written down. It is common practice to have an awards program meet the criteria of its top award; this site is meant to do far more than tell about the criteria. This site is meant to put the pieces together and show what they look like in action. Are you wondering why this site employs a standard design? Couldn’t I think of something more creative? The last disqualifier explains why, and I try to practice what I preach. And to show what it means to practice what I preach.

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

Criteria

The disqualifications and criteria are each broken into two parts, with an important difference between the two parts. The first part has rules about content, design, and the like that are important, but they’re things you probably expect if you have read the criteria for several of the top Award Sites! programs. If you know your website meets all of those requirements, you can safely skip to the program specific criteria. If you don’t know what I’m referring through, I ask you to read through all the criteria. If you pass the disqualifications, you will be scored from 0-100 points as listed below.

These criteria are quite concise. In a full-fledged, functioning award program, the criteria would be much more extensive, and the difference in applicant frustration due to reading the same thing over again would be significant.

Common Criteria (50 points)

  • The HTML should be hand-coded and should validate. Any JavaScript should be free of errors (5 points).
  • There should be a balance between text/images and whitespace (5 points).
  • There should be no music unless I specifically request it (5 points).
  • Your content should be at least 90% original, with explicit attribution of non-original content (5 points).
  • No disabled right click, including photography and fine arts pages, no full screen mode, and no unethical use of JavaScript to keep me on your site (5 points).
  • You have a separate awards page, even if it is empty at the moment (5 points).
  • You have no blinking text and no more than 2 animated GIFs per page. (Both of these can cause problems for viewers with epilepsy.) (5 points)
  • I will visit your site at or above 800×600 navigation. If I see a horizontal scrollbar, or I have to click down more than 7 times, you will lose points. Long pages (or, if you prefer, all pages) should have a “Top” link at the bottom (5 points).
  • Correct grammar, spelling, and nO teXt liKE ThIS or 133+ (“leet” speak). You may find ordering The Elements of Style to be well worth the price in knowing how exactly to do this (10 points).

Program-Specific Criteria (50 points)

Usability Criteria

  • Your site should have an intuitive overall information architecture (5 points).Remark: This is a fundamental issue in making a website that people will use and come back to. If you’re not sure how to do this, you might order Information Architecture for the World Wide Web.
  • We should be able to easily navigate each page without stopping to search for navigation elements, without guessing, and without using the browser back button (5 points).Remark: If we have trouble navigating your site, the average user may have trouble as well.
  • Not only should the text contrast with the background (2 points), it is preferable to have dark text on a light background (3 points).Reason: As the eye ages, seniors lose photoreceptors and everything seems to darken. This means that light text on a dark background is much harder for an older adult to read than it is for someone younger.
  • Does your web design draw attention to itself, or does it smoothly draw our attention to focus on the content? Do we leave your site thinking about web design or thinking about what you said?

Content Criteria

The secret phrase, which will be requested on the application, is “I respect your time.”

Some of these appear subjective, in that they’re hard to quantify. I believe they’re important enough to include even if you can’t measure them with a ruler.

  • Your website is about at least one major subject. (5 points).
  • Your website shows deep thought about that subject(s) and tells me something I didn’t know (5 points).
  • You communicate difficult concepts in an understandable way (5 points).
  • Your content is a joy to read (5 points).

At my option, I may award up to 5 extra points for something special when a website goes above and beyond the call of duty in a way that my criteria do not anticipate.

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

Winners

I have no suggestions for improvement here, because people already do a good job. I haven’t include a sample Winners section.

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

Self-Test

I have three basic comments to offer.

First, if an applicant reads the criteria and still needs the self-test to know if they’re eligible, the criteria have failed. Self-tests don’t tell anything new; they just mean that the candidates you want have more work—after they have read the criteria and confirmed they have one of the websites you want to honor. What about the people who ignore the criteria and want to submit porn? That’s simple. They’ll ignore the self-test too. A mandatory self-test is one more thing that adds to the time taken but doesn’t add any value from an award applicant’s perspective. And doesn’t stop people you wish wouldn’t apply.

Second, this is an HTML self-test instead of a Flash self-test. There is a reason for this. HTML loads quickly and most people can read it quickly. Not to mention that it’s handicap-accessible. Cool-looking special effects make a Flash self-test slow. Flash is cool the first time, but most serious applicants have seen a Flash self-test before—and the impression it makes is not, “Cool!” The impression it makes is, “Slow! I want to take the test without being slowed down.”

Third, I have used radio buttons () rather than checkboxes () for “Yes” and “No”. It is very common for awards criteria to have two checkboxes, one for yes, and one for no. It is also wrong. (You don’t need to let your applicants answer “yes” and “no” to the same question.)

You want to be able to answer as many of these questions “Yes” as you can.

Question Yes No
Is your site child-friendly?
Is your site free of illegal and offensive material?
Is your HTML hand-coded and well enough done to pass validation?
Is your site free from browser crashes, JavaScript errors, popups, etc?
Is your site handicap accessible, including use of alt tags and opening links to the same window?
Do you try to use a standard design well instead of reinventing the wheel?
Do you try to have design that is like good acting? Does the design draw people into your content instead of drawing attention to itself?
Is your site intuitive to navigate?
Does your content reflect expertise and serious thought?
Does your site express that thought well?

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

Application

Thank you for reading this far. This is the last “real” page; the privacy policy doesn’t have any further comments. I would like to close by addressing an objection.

I’m being a bit hypocritical, aren’t I? I mean in what I say about time. I’m asking reviewers to look at websites, and a good review is a very involved process—much more than applying for an award. Isn’t it hypocritical of me to say all this?

A fair enough question. Let me answer by giving you another question: Would you rather read ten pages of an interesting story or one page of the phone book?

I know how I’d answer. I’d rather read ten pages of an interesting story than one page of the phone book. For that matter, I’d probably prefer to read a hundred pages of an interesting story than one page of the phone book.

There’s a difference here, a difference between taking time and wasting time. An award applicant that submits a site with major HTML errors is wasting the reviewer’s time. Period. An award applicant who submits a polished and fascinating site will probably end up taking much more of the reviewer’s time (instantly disqualifying a site is a much faster process than reviewing and granting an award)—but reviewers don’t resent those applicants for wasting their time. Those applicants are asking them to read ten pages of story, not one page of phone book. And the same thing is true for applicants.

I’m not sure if you noticed, but the program described here would have more reading that is requested of an experienced applicant. It takes more time. It doesn’t ask the experienced applicant to reread that browser crashes, porn, and internal broken links are disqualifiers, but it does say several things about user-friendliness. These are things that the applicant may not have learned from any other program, and they’re something new for the applicant to learn. It’s OK to ask the applicant to read things. It’s even OK to ask for a password or secret phrase to confirm that the applicant has read what good applicants should read. I’ve done that too. But please, pretty please with sugar on top, only ask me to read things that will tell me something new. Please, pretty please, if I’ve done my homework, don’t treat me like I need to do it over again. Telling me something I don’t already know is using my time appropriately. Telling me things I’ve read hundreds of times over (literally), and treating me as if I don’t understand those ground rules is wasting my time. There is a difference, and it is important.

It could make a world of difference in how you present yourselves to those webmasters you want to meet.

Name:
Email:
Website Title:
URL:
Age: I have my parent’s permission
(If you are under 13, you must get your parent’s permission to apply because of how we interpret COPPA.)
Secret Phrase:
Brief Description:
(Submit button here.)

There is no real submit button because this is not a real award program.

If you are unable to use this form, please e-mail the requested information (your name, email address, website title, URL, age and your parent’s permission if you’re under 13, the secret phrase, and a brief description of your website) tochristos.jonathan.hayward@gmail.com with “Award application” in the subject.

Two basic comments:

  • I have intentionally not added a “clear form” button. Many web awards programs seem to take this easy step so they can provide a nice extra. To an applicant, a “clear form” button doesn’t say “Here’s a nice extra we’ve provided.” A “clear form” button says: “This looks like the submit button you want to press, but if you press it, you’ll lose all your typing and have to start over again.” However well-meaning the intent may be, it functions as a nasty decoy. Applicants don’t need this kind of decoy to fill out your application.
  • Because most awards programs feel they’re not doing their job unless they add “something extra” to comply with COPPA, I’ve requested the name and parental consent. But please, if someone is 13 or has parental consent, there is no additional COPPA compliance if you add additional discriminatory measures. You’re not being more legal if you refuse applications from any applicant under 18. You’re just being more discriminatory.

Purpose (Required) – About and Awards (Optional) – Ethics (Optional) – Disqualifications (Required) – Criteria (Required) – Winners (Suggested) – Self-Test (Suggested) – Application (Required) – Privacy Policy (Optional)

Privacy Policy

This is a sample privacy policy and may not be the current privacy policy for Jonathan’s Corner. The real privacy policy for Jonathan’s Corner is available here.

I hate spam as much as you do. I respect your privacy, and will not give out your name, e-mail, or any other information to anyone without obtaining your permission first. I will use personal information provided only to respond to feedback and perform log analysis.

If you are under 13, you must get your parents’ permission before giving any personal information.

The Facebook fan community linked to from The Jonathan’s Corner Community is governed by Facebook’s privacy policy and practices.

Jonathan’s Corner does not use cookies.

Email Jonathan Hayward.

The administrator who cried, “important!”

The case for uncreative web design

If you want to link to Jonathan’s Corner

The quintessential webpage

An Open Letter from a Customer: I Don’t WANT to Abuse Your Employees and Be Rewarded for Gaming the System

CJSHayward.com/customer

Dear Customer Service;

I don’t WANT to abuse your employees and be rewarded for gaming the system.

As a customer and as a member of the public, I like being treated with courtesy and respect, and it is nice if customer service employees can be gracious to me whether I am right or wrong. And if “The customer is always right!” is about being gracious and representing the company well whether the customer is right or wrong, then I’m all for that version of, “The customer is always right!”

However, if you say “The customer is always right!” as a policy that invites customers to be deliberately abusive, and treat your employees as punching bags because they know you will treat them better than customers who act like mature adults, I will take my business to places like Starbuck’s (for one example) where employees give the excellent customer service that only employees supported by their management can give.

I do, sometimes, come in with a complaint that I want help with. But even then, I’m not looking for “free hits” on a punching bag. I’m not even looking for a shoulder to cry on, although it might be nice if customer service can offer a sympathetic ear when a customer has had a rough day. What I really am looking for is help fixing a problem, and the bigger the problem is, the more an emplowered employee is my best ally. An unsupported employee who has been put out as a punching bag, and is trying to hide resentment from being put out as a punching bag by management, is not nearly so big a help to me as an empowered employee. I’ve heard that bad internal customer service never gives good external customer service, and when I need help, I want an empowered employee acting with management support, not someone management pushes forward as a doormat.

Like a lot of other people, and like a lot of other customers, I don’t like to watch someone be abused, and then treated better than those of us who try to respect your employees as humans. The message is very clear, whether or not it is one you would want associated with your organization. The message? You are willing to let us see others who are obviously acting abusive to your employees to get ahead of us when they are “just” being abusive to game the system, while people who treat your burning-out employees with respect are effectively second-class customers. Why? Because we are not gaming the system by abusing your employees.

I’ve heard of stores where the management treats employees with enough respect to call the police if a customer will not stop treating employees abusively. This happens perhaps once or twice a year; most of the time the employees are trying to make any reasonable effort to please customers. But when it does happen, the spontaneous response from the other customers is to clap and cheer. Most customers do not enjoy seeing someone be abused, even if the abuser isn’t getting rewarded for gaming the system.

I spent a bit of time in England, and one thing that really struck me there was that customer service settings seemed to quite often have a poster that said something like, “I am here to help customers. Please let me do my job. If you treat me in an abusive manner, my supervisors will put their foot down and call the police if they need to.” I was, for a very, very short while put off the first time I saw one of those posters, and then very, very impressed. And I realized that those posters went hand-in-hand with excellent customer service: not just the routine details, but deftly smoothing some very ruffled feathers when a customer was wrong and upset at not getting what he wanted.

And perhaps it stands to reason. I know the English place an emphasis on politeness, but customer service people who are treated as punching bags will probably be working hard to hide resentment. I may be missing something, but these customer service people didn’t seem to have much resentment to hide. (If any.)

I miss that customer service, and for that matter I miss the posters. Now I often get the inferior customer service that comes from employees who know that management doesn’t support them (and knowingly expects them to take abuse), not the top-notch customer support of employees who are supported by management, are not expected to take frequent abuse, and act empowered and free to help me as the customer. It’s quite a difference.

It’s a shame when “The Customer Is Always Right” gets in the way of treating employees well enough that they can deliver good customer service.

As a customer and as a member of the general public, and as a man and a human being, I would appreciate if you treat your employees as human beings who you will no more allow to be abused on your premises than a customer.

Sincerely,
Christos C.J.S. Hayward
CJSHayward.com

The Sign of the Grail

The Spectacles

Stephanos

Within the Steel Orb

The Administrator Who Cried, “Important!”

Revisited after some time

Someone said that a memo is written, not to inform the reader, but to protect the sender.

There is something wrong when employees receive so much allegedly mandatory reading material that if they were actually to sit down and read it as told, they wouldn’t get other work done. And it is entirely inappropriate to demand that people without significant legal acumen claim to have read and understood a contract. Really, contracts are rightly understood only if you understand the tradition surrounding how they are interpreted. That means that unless (or possibly even if) you are a lawyer (or else a hobbyist who may not legally be licensed to practice but who is fascinated at learning how law works), you don’t understand the contract. This is, incidentally, why there’s the website tosdr.org (“Terms of Service – Didn’t Read“).

That much I still believe. However, I believe there was some nasty pride in expecting the business world to meet what I consider reasonable. The normal way of dealing with things is to not read, or to read just enough. And that is why in my first job with over a quarter inch of daily allegedly mandatory reading, I should just have listened to a colleague gently tell me that I didn’t have to read that.

I’ve worked on humility a little bit since then.

Read it on Kindle for $3!

Once upon a time, there was a new employee, hired fresh out of college by a big company. The first day on the job, he attended a pep rally, filled out paperwork concerning taxes and insurance, and received a two page document that said at the top, “Sexual Harassment Policy: Important. Read Very Carefully!”

So our employee read the sexual harassment policy with utmost care, and signed at the bottom indicating that he had read it. The policy was a remedial course in common sense, although parts of it showed a decided lack of common sense. It was an insult to both his intelligence and his social maturity.

Our employee was slightly puzzled as to why he was expected to read such a document that carefully, but soon pushed doubts out of his mind. He trotted over to his new cubicle, sat down, and began to read the two inch thick manual on core essentials that every employee needs to know. He was still reading core essentials two hours later when his boss came by and said, “Could you take a break from that? I want to introduce you to your new co-workers, and show you around.”

So our employee talked with his boss — a knowledgeable, competent, and understanding woman — and enjoyed meeting his co-workers, trying to learn their names. He didn’t have very much other work yet, so he dutifully read everything that the administrators sent him — even the ones that didn’t say “Important — please read” at the top. He read about ISO 9001 certification, continual changes and updates to company policy, new technologies that the company was adopting, employee discounts, customer success stories, and other oddments totalling to at least a quarter inch of paper each day, not counting e-mails.

His boss saw that he worked well, and began to assign more difficult tasks appropriate to his talent. He took on this new workload while continuing to read everything the administration told him to read, and worked longer and longer days.

One day, a veteran came and put a hand on his shoulder, saying, “Kid, just between the two of us, you don’t have to read every piece of paper that says ‘Important’ at the top. None of us read all that.”

And so our friend began to glance at the first pages of long memos, to see if they said anything helpful for him to know, and found that most of them did not. Some time after that, he realized that his boss or one of his co-workers would explicitly tell him if there was a memo that said something he needed to know. The employee found his workload reduced to slightly less than fifty hours per week. He was productive and happy.

One day, a memo came. It said at the top, “Important: Please Read.” A little more than halfway through, on page twenty-seven, there was a description of a new law that had been passed, and how it required several jobs (including his own) to be done in a slightly different manner. Unfortunately, our friend’s boss was in bed with a bad stomach flu, and so she wasn’t able to tell him he needed to read the memo. So he continued doing his job as usual.

A year later, the company found itself the defendant in a forty million dollar lawsuit, and traced the negligence to the action of one single employee — our friend. He was fired, and made the central villain in the storm of bad publicity.

But he definitely was in the wrong, and deserved what was coming to him. The administration very clearly explained the liability and his responsibility, in a memo very clearly labelled “Important”. And he didn’t even read the memo. It’s his fault, right?

No.

Every communication that is sent to a person constitutes an implicit claim of, “This concerns you and is worth your attention.” If experience tells other people that we lie again and again when we say this, then what right do we have to be believed when we really do have something important to say?

I retold the story of the boy who cried wolf as the story of the administrator who cried important, because administrators are among the worst offenders, along with lawyers, spammers, and perhaps people who pass along e-mail forwards. Among the stack of paper I was expected to sign when I moved in to my apartment was a statement that I had tested my smoke detector. The apartment staff was surprised that I wanted to test my smoke detector before signing my name to that statement. When an authority figure is surprised when a person reads a statement carefully and doesn’t want to sign a claim that all involved know to be false, it’s a bad sign.

There is communication that concerns the person it’s directed to, but says too much — for example, most of the legal contracts I’ve seen. The tiny print used to print many of those contracts constitutes an implicit acknowledment that the signer is not expected to read it: they don’t even use the additional sheets of paper necessary to print text at a size that a person who only has 20/20 vision can easily read. There is also communication that is broadcast to many people who have no interest in it. To that communication, I would propose the following rule: Do not, without exceptionally good reason, broadcast a communication that concerns only a minority of its recipients. It’s OK every now and then to announce that the blue Toyota with license place ABC 123 has its lights on. It’s not OK to have a regular announcement that broadcasts anything that is approved as having interest to some of the recipients.

My church, which I am in general very happy with, has succumbed to vice by adding a section to the worship liturgy called “Announcements”, where someone reads a list of events and such just before the end of the service, and completely dispels the moment that has been filling the sanctuary up until the announcements start. They don’t do this with other things — the offering is announced by music (usually good music) that contributes to the reverent atmosphere of the service. But when the service is drawing to a close, the worshipful atmosphere is disrupted by announcements which I at least almost never find useful. If the same list were printed on a sheet of paper, I could read it after the service, in less time, with greater comprehension, with zero disruption to the moment that every other part of the service tries so carefully to build — and I could skip over any announcements that begin “For Married Couples:” or “Attention Junior High and High Schoolers!” The only advantage I can see to the present practice, from the church leadership’s perspective, is that many people will not read the announcements at all if they have a choice about it — and maybe, just maybe, there’s a lesson in that.

As well as pointing out examples of a rampant problem in communication, where an administrator cries “Important!” over many things that are not worth reading, and then wonders why people don’t believe him when he cries “Important!” about something which isimportant, I would like to suggest an alternative for communities that have access to the internet. A web server could use a form to let people select areas of concern and interest, and announcements submitted would be categorized, optionally cleared with a moderator, and sent only to those people who are interested in them. Another desirable feature might let end receivers select how much announcement information they can receive in a day — providing a discernible incentive to the senders to minimize trivial communication. In a sense, this is what happens already — intercom litanies of announcements ignored by school students in a classroom, employees carrying memos straight from their mailboxes to the recycle bins — but in this case, administrators receive clear incentive and choice to conserve bandwidth and only send stuff that is genuinely important.

While I’m giving my Utopian dreams, I’d like to comment that at least some of this functionality is already supported by the infrastructure developed by UseNet. Probably there are refinements that can be implemented in a web interface — all announcements for one topic shown from a single web page, since they shouldn’t be nearly as long as a normal UseNet post arguing some obscure detail in an ongoing discussion. Perhaps other and better can be done — I am suggesting “Here’s something better than the status quo,” not “Here’s something so perfect that there’s no room for improvement.”

In one UseNet newsgroup, an exchange occurred that broadcasters of announcements would be well-advised to keep in mind. One person said, “I’m trying to decide whether to give the UseNet Bore of the Year Award to [name] or [name]. The winner will receive, as his prize, a copy of all of their postings, minutely inscribed, and rolled up inside a two foot poster tube.”

Someone else posted a reply asking, “Length or diameter?”

To those of you who broadcast to people whom you are able to address because of your position and not because they have chosen to receive your broadcasts, I have the following to say: In each communication you send, you are deciding the basis by which people will decide if future communications are worth paying attention to, or just unwanted noise. If your noise deafens their ears, you have no right to complain that the few truly important things you have to tell them fall on deaf ears. Only you can prevent spam!