Monthly Archives: November, 2012

Three Principles for Support

Support is an underrated contributor to the success of many organizations. Good news: small businesses and startups in particular are uniquely positioned to provide great support to their customers. The size, newness, and/or rapid evolution of these companies, as well as their penchant to hire young workers who do not know any other system, gives them opportunities to immediately install support as a priority, which in turn lets you mercifully avoid having to make a halfhearted latter-day toward saying that “our customers are what really matters” and the like.

If your customers are indeed what really matters, then you should take a keen interest in helping them at every stage, which in turn lets you also avoid instinctively commoditizing or outsourcing your support at the first opportunity. By making support an integral part of your organization, you keep your company focused on real things – how real users are using your app, how you are affecting them, and how they are affecting you.

As companies create a strong support apparatus and staff it with empathetic, creative and articulate persons, they build trust with their customers, receive unfiltered and often invaluable advice from them, and ultimately drive new development cycles, too. Support is a nexus of product ideas and marketing – it isn’t just trying to fix someone’s harddrive, or tell them that you’re deeply sorry for their “inconvenience.” Support is a conversation between actual persons about something that is dear to both of them – it is easy to forget this dynamic. You don’t have to commoditize your support staff (especially if you are a small organization), and you really should keep them front and center in your company so that you gain better insight into how your app is performing.

1. Pacing is key

Angry (or at least flustered) emails and phone calls are perhaps the most stereotypical aspect of support. But why are these customers angry? They’re contacting you because your product is important to them, not because they want to devour your attention and distract you – even if they did, the frequent 15 minute call-waiting times, automated replies, form letters and procedural jargon would make it a waste of their time, too. And that’s the problem.

Lengthy delays are a problem for support. If the user doesn’t just give up, then by the time she reaches you, she’ll likely already feel (on some level) that she isn’t important to you and that your approach to delaying support has aggravated (and far outstripped) whatever actual issue she had with the app.

That’s too bad, since in many cases, a swift and humane response can turn even the most difficult support cases into a positive and productive conversation. I have seen numerous annoyed users reply to an initial response with exuberant thanks for its speed and individualized nature, as if the issue itself had become secondary. And maybe it has! Once the user knows you care about him, then resolving the issue may become much easier, as your words are more meaningful and he may even try more actively to investigate on his end, too.  Fast support turns an impersonal waiting line into a one on one conversation.

2. Master your many voices

Every support case is different, although they do fall into some broadly applicable categories. For example:

-Friendly feature requests: these are users who love your app but want it to be even more richly featured or tweaked slightly. You can engage these users with a casual, attentive and enthusiastic voice – acknowledge their thoughts, say that you’ll think about it, but don’t make promises or overpromise. If done right, you can satisfy these users by acknowledging that their thoughts are important, even if you don’t end up implementing them. And you shouldn’t implement all of them, and probably not even most of them – being able to decide later that you’re going to say no to most feature requests, even as you acknowledge appreciation for all of them, is important.

-Concerned or frustrated queries: these users may have issues that, to a support specialist, seem like low-hanging fruit or imminently fixable issues. Even if they are, it’s important to maintain clarity and respect in your response. Spell out the steps needed to resolve the issue, and ask questions if necessary. Veteran support writers may even be able to read between the lines, and in turn sense that a user is actually experiencing a common issue but simply hasn’t expressed it in the most straightforward way. Being able to predict and make educated guesses can not only solve problems more quickly, but also earn users’ respect, since they’ll know inside that you really listened to what they said.

-Upset users: you will certainly encounter unhappy and upset users at some point. Whether they don’t like your new feature or can’t figure out why you made x or y choice, it’s important to keep an even keel and listen carefully. You can learn much from angry users, since they can be the best at spotting issues and pain-points. Like I noted earlier, good pacing/response time can in many cases take pressure off. Beyond that, careful attention to the discernible pieces of information within an angry email is key – once you can discern what the issue is, chances are you can solve it. The hard work is in being able to separate the specific info from the tone.

-Genuinely complex/technical issues: These users are likely the most challenging to give a good response to. They have succeeded in finding a deep, unusual error in your app, and may frame it in technical language or with anger/frustration,. In these cases, your skills and knowledge of your app will be genuinely tested. Get as much information from the user as possible, and ask for help from your QA team and your engineers.

With a good support staff, your organization is already well on its way to better understanding how your app works and how it is being used. Beyond that, support also builds credibility and creates an audience for your products – so the next time you make a big release, or announce a big sale or contest, the loyal users whom you listened to and supported will be onboard.

3. Don’t get bogged down in technical jargon if possible.

Apple has become one of the most successful companies in history by realizing that users basically don’t care about technical specs and explanations – they care about experiences. The same holds true for basic app support. In light of that, saying that the app doesn’t work because of any of the following reasons can easily confuse and even aggravate your users:

-a certain feature is just too hard to implement, or a certain task too hard to complete properly and without crashing (there isn’t much that is impossible in software, for example, and most users seem to know this even on a naive level – they have high expectations, and developers always have more to do)

-your (the user’s) phone/tablet is slower than molasses and hence to blame for the issue (if they’re using your app, they’re using a technically supported device and you should do everything you can to help him/her – don’t blame the user)

-your QA team overlooked something (this can be confusing, as it reflects badly on company culture and because many users don’t even know what “QA” is)

Users are interested in solutions, not overly technical spiels (even the self-proclaimed savvy users are, in my experience, often not interested in this line of explanation). Have you ever called your telecom, heard that your pain is actually the result of latency issues or “experimental” cell towers, and then sighed in relief and said “well! now that you put it that way, it’s not so bad!”

Be empathetic. If you can’t solve the issue with a clearly worded response and instructions, try to appreciate the user’s situation, and make even a minor suggestion (another service that may suffice, for example) if you can. And hey, some cases will require that you get a little more technical in order to dig into the issue and find the problem. Support is ultimately about listening carefully and then responding with the right tone and voice on a case by case basis.

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Wii Mini: A Missed Opportunity

After being outed earlier by Best Buy, Nintendo’s Wii Mini (which I keep dyslexically wanting to call the Mii, naturally) has now been confirmed by the Big N itself. With a flashy red Wii Remote and Nunchuk to accompany a matte build quality that recalls the original NES, the Wii Mini is a funny marriage of old and new school – almost like one of those revamped Sega Geneses sold by Urban Outfitters.

No, it doesn’t play DVDs. No, it doesn’t play GameCube games. And no, it does not connect to the Internet. Welcome to 1994. To be fair, the Wii Mini is intended as a redesign of the original Wii, packaged for an affordable $99, starting Dec. 7, 2012 (at least in Canada – no word on a stateside release yet). Nintendo has consistently embraced casual gamers with moves like this one, which simplify the gaming experience while exploiting Nintendo’s unique retro legacy, rich IP library and distinctive approach to hardware.

But even a fanboy like me may have to scratch his head at this device. It’s less feature-rich than even the original Wii, much less the Wii U. Its only key advantages are price and simplicity – for $99, you can open the lid and start up Wii Sports right away with your stylish scarlet controller. I can only surmise that the target demographic here is children (or, more accurately, their cost-conscious parents), who may not care about the lack of connectivity, Nintendo TVii, Netflix, and the like. Although, iOS devices occupy an outsized space within young imaginations, so even that demographic may not be as solid as it seems on first glance. Also, you can get a lot for $99 – a Nexus 7 or a Nokia Lumia 920, for example (ok, the second one is a stretch, I admit – I wouldn’t buy it, either).

Still, Wii (non Wii U) sales were surprisingly strong over Black Friday week, indicating robust interest in the console’s signature remote-based input and non-HD graphics. Nintendo could have stood pat and just ridden the vitality of their older devices (the 8-year old DS line sold well last week, too), so why redesign and strip down the Wii into this “Mini” variant? One possibility is that Nintendo thought it needed to do more to combat the ongoing popularity of ancient platforms like the Xbox 360 and PS3, by refreshing its own legacy line. But Nintendo doesn’t seem like the type of company that does things defensively – the Wii Mini is no iPad Mini, in that it doesn’t respond to any major trends (legacy popularity of old consoles is the product of a lack of change or forward momentum on the parts of Sony and Microsoft more than anything) and it won’t usurp the Wii U or 3DS as the company’s flagship product.

A media player Wii Mini (i.e., a simple gaming device that could also playback DVDs and Netflix at the bare minimum) could have become something akin to Nintendo’s version of the iPod Touch (its product tag is “Big Fun,” not far off the iPod Touch’s “Engineered For Maximum Funness”). As it currently stands, however, the Wii Mini is a missed opportunity that may be an impulse gift buy, but won’t be at the heart of Nintendo’s finances or product vision moving forward.

-The ScreenGrab Team

Nintendo Wii U

A GamePad on holiday.

As we noted the day before yesterday, I now have a black 32gb Nintendo Wii U, the fruits of an ache-inducing trek thru a nippy Black Friday morning in Chicago. Now that I’v had some time to play both the bundled Nintendoland and the separately purchased Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition, as well as use the preinstalled Netflix, YouTube and Hulu Plus apps, I’ll attempt a more comprehensive review that builds upon my initial thoughts.

The Verge has always had an excellent, nicely segmented format for their hardware reviews, so I’ll attempt something similar in this space.

Console

The Wii U is heavy. After picking it up at Target, I carried it around in an extra large shopping bag before having to switch it to a cloth Urban Outfitters bag, after it began to puncture the first bag. The package includes the glossy console box, the GamePad, AC adapters for each of them, and an HDMI cable – Nintendo has finally crossed-over into HD support. The “deluxe” edition comes in black and includes an additional cradle for the GamePad, two tripods for the console, and the great Nintendoland disc. The “basic” edition, which I have not tried, is white and does not include those items.

The console was easy to set up and fit comfortably next to my TV. Although heavy, it is highly portable. After buying Arkham City at GameStop, they gave me a free Batman-branded carrying case that’ll come in handy for trips. A possible drawback, however, is the system’s absolutely massive charger – it’s a big, gray brick that I had to confine to one of the cubby holes in the Ikea cabinet beneath my TV (finally, that thing came in handy).

The console box itself is no-frills. It has a slot for both proprietary Wii and Wii U discs, a power button, a sync button and a conveniently front-loaded set of USB ports and an SD card slot. The back has the adapter for the Wii Sensor, AV out, two more USB ports and an HDMI port.

In terms of specs, the console has 2GB of RAM, with half of that reserved for the OS. It has an AMD Radeon GPU which projects the beautiful graphics that have become standard in the high-end games industry. Some may say “it’s about time,” but remember: Nintendo has never been about specs. It waited until 2001 to release a console that didn’t run on ROM cartridges, and the original Game Boy maintained its superb battery life by using a low-res, limited palette display. It also forewent HD the last time around in favor of the incredible intuition and simplicity provided by the Wii Remote. In these respects, Nintendo is a lot like Apple – it only adopts industry “standards” when it thinks they enhance the user experience, and are perfectly willing to be obtuse along the way.

GamePad

On the hardware side, what really separates the Wii U from the competition is the GamePad, which is much more than just a controller. It is also a TV remote, a standalone media viewing device and a bold foray into multiscreen gaming. For the past eight years, Nintendo has basically printed yen via its line of DS handhelds (the DS, DS Lite, DSi, DS XL, 3DS and 3DS XL), which exploited a novel dual screen setup with stylus input. In addition to presaging the advent of touchscreen gaming, the DS is clearly the predecessor to the Wii U, too – the GamePad even has an integrated stylus, and its quirky OS (more below) is more or less the same as the 3DS’s.

Upon picking up the GamePad for the first time, I was surprised at how light it was. It’s lighter than an iPad, and it fits comfortably into either a two-handed (horizontal) or one-handed (vertical) grip. It has the same Home button as the 3DS, but its multiple analog sticks, trigger buttons and shoulder buttons actually remind me of the PlayStation Vita (maybe the black color did it). Everything is responsive and ergonomic. For users used to the iPad or the Nexus 7, the GamePad’s build quality will seem cheaper and chintzier by comparison, which it is. But it gets its various (and sometimes ill-defined) jobs done.

The GamePad opens up a number of gameplay possibilities. In Nintendoland, it allows you to draw routes for your Yoshi-bot to follow (which it will then do, on your TV) or map out your routes in the Captain Falcon racing game. In Arkham City, it serves as your sonar display, or a mini-reader on which to check out the bios of various villains or as a radio of sorts – the various frequencies that you get to spy on are played through the GamePad’s tinny speakers, lending a nicely real-world feel to your explorations.

The GamePad can also serve as a standalone gaming device – sort of. You can confine most games to a GamePad-only display while your TV plays Netflix or cable for example, but Nintendo does not yet seem to have given the GamePad free reign to a giant Vita or a geekier iPad.

There have been some gripes with the GamePad, many of which I can understand. It has multiscreen disorder, making you sometimes “look” only at one designated screen at a time. It’s a power hog. And maybe it just doesn’t know what it wants to be yet. In particular, I think that in a living room that is increasingly populated with screens (looking up hints on your laptop, Tweeting from your phone), the Wii U’s insistence on having dominion over two screens at once (in most cases) could cut either way – it could either be a brilliant distillation of our appetite for ever-more screen real estate, or an exhausting exercise in multitasking, which is really bad for you, by the way.

While its execution isn’t perfect (see the nauseating requirement that you “align” the GamePad with your TV in Arkham City to scan the evidence at the scene), the GamePad is something that, like the first iPhone, should get much better as developers tap into its potential (hell, it even suports haptic feedback!). Everyone (even while firing executives) pays lip service to multiscreen, cross-device interaction, but this is it, in the flesh pixels. Something is being born here, but it’s not perfect, not yet.

Operating System

Simply said, the OS isn’t good, and I hope that updates can make it run more smoothly. 15-30 second load times are the norm, and some thing are buried deep within various settings menus, making me pine for the unified settings centers of Android or iOS. Right out of the box, the system needs to perform a massive OS update that took me nearly half an hour to download and install. The eShop is an exception to this general sluggishness and counter-intuitiveness, however: AAA and indie games are easy to find and download, and the shop interface is noticeably zippier than the home screen and its apps. Be careful, however, if you’re using the white console, as the limited harddrive space (actually only 4GB) won’t last long in the face of scores of downloadable games and apps.

YouTube, Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video are available on the Wii Menu (home screen) right away, and all work as expected. Nintendo did well in getting media compatibility to work out of the box (well, with that update) this time – the 3DS only belatedly got Netflix functionality, and the Wii, too, wasn’t exactly a media powerhouse out of the back. I felt comfortable navigating YouTube and Netflix in particular using the stylus.

Wii Mode will restart your Wii U as an original Wii, so that you can play any backward-compatible Wii games. You’ll need a Wii Remote for this mode, however, as the GamePad will be turned off and is incompatible with original Wii titles.

Games

The Wii U has a varied launch lineup that should appeal to seasoned and curious gamers alike. Recent AAA standards like Assassin’s Creed III, Arkham City and Mass Effect 3 are all available in faithful HD ports, sometimes with extra Wii U exclusive content, such as in the case of Arkham City and its GamePad tweaks. The Wii U exclusive ZombiU is an intriguing survival horror-FPS hybrid. As mentioned above, Nintendoland is absolutely recommended – like Super Mario World, Super Mario 64 or Wii Sports before it, it’s a reliable first-party title that really gives you a feel for everything that your new system can do, from basic maneuvers to more eccentric nuances.

Conclusion

The Wii U represents one of the boldest – and at times, awkwardest – forays into integrating the multiscreen living room. It has respectable hardware, buggy software and an excellent launch game library, headed by the game that comes bundled with the black model. Don’t settle for the white model unless you absolutely can’t find or wait for an available black one – you’ll want the extra harddrive space for the eShop.

If you like the original Wii or the (3)DS even a little bit, then this is a must-buy. It has the same novelty as the Wii, being something that both appeals to the casual gamer and delights the veteran gamer with its trailblazing approach. It takes the multiscreen format of the (3)DS in an exciting new direction, in which it sometimes feel that you have two different yet interacting games going on at once.

However, it needs something else (other than Nintendoland) to show off the possibilities of its split-personality, just like Kirby: Canvas Curse did for the original DS back in 2005. Right now, it feels like many of the third-party developers (and even Nintendo itself, in some spots) approached the GamePad’s self-contained possibilities as an afterthought – it still spends a lot of time simply mirroring the TV display, which could be good (less multitasking) or bad (not novel/bold enough), depending on your perspective. I tend to be of the latter perspective, and I hope for more risk-tasking software down the line.

For the time being, the Wii U is an extraordinary concept sometimes hampered by its v1.0 hardware and OS, as well as its inconsistent yet thrilling game library. There’s nothing else like it out there right now, and for that reason, I think it’s worth at least a long look from anyone remotely interested in console gaming.

Final Rating: 77%

-The ScreenGrab Team

Wii U on Holiday Weekend

Holiday Turkey, deluxe edition.

Just obtained a Wii U! First impression is that it’s an odd mix of new (tablet controller, Apple TV interface) and old (optical discs, sensor bar…although Nintendo pioneered that not long ago).

We trekked all over Chicago to find the black (deluxe) edition. It comes with Nintendoland, an assortment of minigames that hone your chops at manipulating the new GamePad. I hope to obtain a third-party title before writing a full review, which will be posted here shortly.

I basically skipped the entire last two generations or gaming consoles, during which time the notions of gaming devices has evolved and expanded to encompass non-dedicated devices. The durable success of the XBox 360 and the great leap forward of the Wii’s original interface (whose appeal even to nongamers presaged the vast casual market that Apple and its developers would tap into with iOS) proves that consoles still have plenty of life left in them, however.

One thing I have noticed in my limited time so far with the Wii U is its almost unbearable load times while you aren’t playing. Migrating for the zippy worlds of iOS and latter-day Android to Nintendo’s little Web island is jarring, which is too bad since the console is off to a solid start with some TV apps and what generally constitutes Nintendo’s first genuine attempt to bring its systems online, literally. Its molasses-like OS reminiscent of the similarly nascent 3DS (speaking of which, I really wish that all of Nintendo’s hardware worked together like Macs and iOS do – I haven’t been able to do anything but send a Mii from 3DS to computer so far).

But early faults in mind, I think Nintendo has hit upon something by moving a substantial portion of its full console gaming experience down to a mobile device (the GamePad). In an age in which I can compose most of my blog from my phone, bringing substantial creative and expressive capacity to ever smaller devices is the real race, and the GamePad feels like a new way forward so far.

With some more playing time under my belt, I’ll write a fuller review and also try to comment on what I perceive as the current arc of dedicated gaming.

-The ScreenGrab Team.

iCloud and Metaphors

Web services are one of the only competencies in which Apple clearly lags its fellow superpowers (Amazon, Google, Microsoft). MobileMe was overpriced and under-featured to the point that it drove Steve Jobs insane. Ping was DOA. Siri is an even rarer bird: an explicitly “beta” Apple product. But those failures have been inconsequential, as all of them occurred in the context of Apple having to ramp-up and evolve rapidly in light of explosive growth in sales. Siri’s clumsiness in comparison to latecomer Google Now, for example, didn’t matter since it still helped differentiate the mostly iterative iPhone 4S from a sea of specced-out Android devices.

iCloud is a different matter. What is OS X Mountain Lion if not one giant iCloud client?Apple is betting the farm North Carolina on iCloud’s centrality to the Apple ecosystem, such that its shiny silver logo is emblazoned on every iPhone and iPad box. About that logo: isn’t it, well, odd? It looks like the neatly trimmed, rounded-off icon that we’ve come to associate with iOS (or OS X, increasingly) apps, which are discrete, sandboxed creations that are supposed to excel at specific tasks. iCloud is the total opposite of that – it isn’t an “app” at all, really, but a largely clandestine service that runs behind the scenes and allegedly ties all of your compliant apps together. Still, it’s cute that OS X superapp Alfred thinks that iCloud is actually something targetable and discrete on my Mac:

As much flak as Apple has gotten for its attachment to skeuomorphs, sandboxes and app-centric desktop metaphors, I’m wondering if they made a mistake in making iCloud so intangible. Certainly, some corners of Twitter have had difficulties grasping Cupertino’s cumulonimbus. Myself, I don’t find myself thinking much about iCloud, which is what I suspect Apple intended, that is, for iCloud to be unobtrusive yet something that “just worked.” Its unobtrusiveness, however, begins to be a drawback when it doesn’t just work.

iCloud is a relatively tough concept to explain to a normal person, especially when compared to Dropbox or Google Drive. It helps that the latter two have been presented as a submission box and a hard drive in the sky. Users can accordingly feel that they are actually controlling their data and putting it in a knowable place. This is invaluable mental peace of mind when it comes to common tasks like making backups or putting your class notes in a place in which you can reliably access them (the latter was the original inspiration behind Dropbox). Google’s fusion of Google Docs into the new Google Drive brand helped to reinforce this notion that its cloud service in particular was a place in which you let all of your work breathe and reside. Furthermore, Dropbox and Google Drive, although complex services on the backend, can still exist as simple standalone apps on some mobile devices. They’ve mastered the art of the metaphor, and they make sense on multiple levels to the savvy and unsavvy alike.

So what can be done to make iCloud better? On mobile, it likely needs its own configuration space, not unlike the iOS Settings app, which is a good example of how Apple transformed one of the worst nightmares of PC users (control panels, settings, configurations) into a simple one-stop, intuitive interface. It might not hurt to have this iCloud center on the Mac, too.

Also, iCloud email accounts need to be messaged better. When I answered user support tickets for a startup, I would sometimes suggest that users who were having problems sending out messages from their Yahoo or GMail accounts instead try to send one from their likely unused iCloud (icloud.com) email accounts. Bad move: they would then ask if iCloud were required to use the app at all, and why they couldn’t find any of the app’s data in iCloud (at the time, it didn’t support iCloud integration, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference for them). In general, these same users also almost never requested more iCloud-compliant features or compatability, and they certainly did not take an interest in its refinement like they did with any of our compatible cloud services (even SkyDrive and Box!).

I expect that Apple wanted to have it two ways with iCloud – a major, easily metaphorical selling point for iOS and cross-device functionality (hence the logo on every box), yet also an invisible hand allegedly guiding us through that very same attempt at establishing a working ecosystem. This aim might have worked if iCloud were truly a supercompetent invisible steward, but it isn’t, at least not yet.