Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A little honesty would go a long way

I just received another solicitation for prize donations from a popular email list in my field that runs a fund drive every year:

“In years past, many of our supporting publishers have contributed prizes or incentives that are given to the winners of our games and challenges. This has proven to be a great way to increase donations and provide publicity for publishers. All supporting publishers are recognized by name on all Fund Drive emails, and we provide a special acknowledgment to those publishers who contribute donations as well as prizes.”

They send out over 100 Fund Drive emails to more than 20,000 subscribers, so this sounds like it could be great exposure. They also have an extensive website where they list donors, which could be even more exposure.

Sadly, it’s just not true. We give them books every year to use as prizes. Last year we gave them over 30 free books, with a retail value of over $800. We were mentioned in just 2 emails late in the fund drive, after everyone has stopped reading the messages. They don’t mention publishers in the list of donors, and they no longer show a list of prizes donated anywhere on their website.

It certainly isn’t publicity for us if they fail to publicize the donations. And it’s offensive to once again be promised specific publicity that they have no intention of providing.

We’ve supported this email list for over 15 years. We used to process credit cards for their fund drives. We advertised their services to our customers before they had a website. We give them money every year so we can post a few book announcements, even though those announcements no longer result in any obvious sales boost for us.

In mid-December, they told us that they wanted us to pay them even more money to post book announcements in the future. When I pointed out that we were already paying far more per announcement than the large publishers, their only response was that some university press had stupidly paid them a huge amount of money for a single announcement. When I asked whether our prize donations were worth anything to them, in the hopes of reaching a mutually beneficial arrangement rather than one that only benefits them, they stopped responding.

Coming just after a long blog post from a close friend where he repeatedly referred to publishers as evil, I start to wonder some days why I engage in my chosen profession. I’m apparently losing a propaganda war that I have no interest in participating in.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ford recall policies

I’ve never really had a problem with car recalls before Ford. My 2000 Ford Focus, however, has had around a dozen different safety recalls. Each one is a scheduling hassle, plus time to take the car to the dealer and get a ride home, and then a ride and time to pick the car back up. It would be bad enough if that were all.

Two recalls ago, the Ford dealer’s mechanic drove my car into a light pole in their parking lot. And lied about it.

One recall ago, the Ford dealer’s mechanic forgot to put the fuel evap line back in place, rigged it temporarily with a couple of zip ties, and it’s now costing me hundreds of dollars to fix.

And on the current recall, the Ford dealer claims there is no recall. The NHTSA-ordered recall 02V288000 (Ford’s recall number is 02S42) is for a battery cable that short-circuits, melts the insulation of nearby wires, melts the plastic case around the battery, and then starts a fire in the engine compartment. My engine compartment. I haven’t had a fire yet, but I’ve had all the other problems. Hard starts, check engine lights, dead batteries, melted insulation, melted plastic. Yet Ford claims that the recall never happened. When pressed, Ford says that the recall happened, but my car’s VIN wasn’t included in the recall. And since my VIN wasn’t included in the recall, there’s nothing they can do. Oddly, I get the same exact response pattern from two separate Ford dealers (Sentry Ford and Stoneham Ford): first, the recall never happened; second, my VIN wasn’t included in the recall. And I get the same exact response pattern from Ford’s warranty center, and from Ford’s customer relationship center. Though one person in Ford’s warranty center also (falsely) tells me that the reason my VIN wasn’t included in the recall is that the recall only applied to cars made in a different factory than the one that made my car.

Until I point out that I have the letter from Ford about this recall specifically for my VIN. And then, like magic, the recall did happen and my car’s VIN was included. But a dealer (Otis Ford) told Ford that they did some repair to this car related to this recall back in 2003, so a supervisor in Ford’s customer relationship center says that Ford’s policy in those circumstances is to tell the customer that their VIN was not included in the recall.

In other words, Ford lies to their customers. By policy.

I think Ford shouldn’t lie to their customers. Especially not as a policy, and certainly not about safety recalls that involve potential engine compartment fires.

It does explain why a lot of Ford Focus owners have filed formal complaints with NHTSA about this recall. Some say that Ford attempted to repair their car, but that the repair didn’t solve the problem. Many say that Ford told them their VIN wasn’t included in the recall, even though they had the precise problems described in the recall notice. And a really disturbing number of those complaints involved engine compartment fires caused by Ford’s defective battery cable.

When I pointed this out to Ford’s customer relationship center, the first Ford representative told me to sue Ford Motor Company, and the supervisor told me to sue Otis Ford (the dealership). That sort of helpful advice must be why the second person got promoted to supervisor.

And when I told Ford that I was having the car repaired by an independent repair shop that was willing to do the work that Ford’s dealers wouldn’t do to reduce the risk of an engine compartment fire, Ford told me in the strongest possible terms that they wouldn’t stand behind the work of the independent repair shop. Which I found odd, since they had just finished telling me that they wouldn’t stand behind the work of their own dealers, or their own recall notice, or their own parts.

By the way, does anyone want to buy a Ford Focus? It smells like marshmallows. And cynicism.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oh, dear!

Friday, February 10, 2012


Some thief paid for an Xbox using my credit card and thinks that they are going to pick it up at a Walmart in Illinois. That person is presumably going to walk into the store today or tomorrow, go to the customer service counter, present their order information for their fraudulent order, and wait for the Xbox to be retrieved from the back room.

In a sane world, the Walmart staff would keep track of the fact that this order is fraudulent, and when the thief walks into their store they would smile, walk into the back, and call the police. They would also keep the security footage, and make that available to the police. If they want to avoid trouble in the store, they could call the police, give the thief an excuse about the order being delayed a day, and have the police arrest the thief outside the store. Or the police could follow the thief and see if they learn anything more.

Instead, Walmart has given my name, email address, phone number, home address, and credit card details to the thief. And since they cancelled the order, they feel they are done. American Express will replace my card, but won’t collect any information to give to law enforcement about the attempted theft.

I called the Walmart store, told them that I was calling about a thief who was going to try to steal something from their store, and asked to speak to their store manager or head of security. They kept me on hold for a while and then disconnected me.

I called and told them that my account had a security breach. They refused to delete my credit card information, remove or change any of my personal information, or shut down my account. They refused to contact their own internal tech support or security department. And when I asked for a supervisor, they hung up on me.

I’m not sure that I like Walmart any better than the thief.

Inspiration #74

Wade Davis Writing Studio

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Content, structure, and design

A simple website has content, structure, and design. Those elements relate to each other, but you’ll have a much easier time managing a website if you treat those elements separately.

The content is the words and images on your website. The content is why people come to a particular page. It’s what Google indexes, and it’s what people search for. Good content (interesting, funny, current, informative, accurate) satisfies users. Without good content, there’s no reason to have a website.

The structure is the way the content is organized on your website. The structure is how you organize content onto individual pages and how you link those pages together. Good structure allows users who are already on your website to find more information on your website without resorting to a search. Without good structure, your website is at best an arbitrary bunch of pages and at worst a confusing or infuriating morass.

The design is how the content and structure looks. The design includes the page layout, font choices, color scheme, and navigation elements. Good design allows users to focus on the content and structure. Without good design, your website may prevent users from finding or using the content that is actually there.

The most common reasons that people want to update a simple website are because the content is stale or because the design is stale. It’s vitally important to figure out which is the primary problem that you are trying to solve. Updating the content is usually easy, no matter what the design looks like. Just find the old content and replace it with the new content (or add new content). Updating the design can be easy or hard, depending on how the site was created. CSS is useful because it allows you to have one file—a style sheet—that contains the design for many pages, so you can update the design across all of those pages just by changing the single style sheet.

Even though updating the content is easy as an isolated task, it is infinitely more difficult to do on an ongoing basis. You have to have a true continuing commitment to updating the content, with an identified person who is responsible for doing so. If the person with the technical knowledge to update your website is not the person with the content knowledge, both people have to work well together to make sure that the content is updated. A terrible and common mistake is to put the designer in charge of updating the content, which cannot succeed unless the designer has the appropriate content knowledge.

A second common mistake is to think that updating the design will somehow update the content. If your content is stale, putting resources into a new design is a distraction. A new design may be entertaining, and it may initially fool users into thinking that the content is fresh, but it cannot solve a content problem.

You can avoid both of these mistakes by clearly separating the work of updating the content from the work of updating the design. When your resources are limited, this clear separation of work becomes even more important so you can prioritize appropriately.

The content on your website can be divided into two categories: durable content and time-sensitive content. Durable content, such as your contact information or your core mission and services, does not need to be updated regularly. If you don’t have the time, resources, inclination, or commitment to update your content regularly, then limit your website to durable content.

Right now I’m watching an organization ignore all of this advice. They realized that they no longer have anyone who is willing to update any of the time-sensitive content on their website or associated blogs (or even to send a list of updates to someone with the technical knowledge to make the updates). The correct solution is a combination of: (1) finding someone who is willing to update the content, and (2) removing or archiving time-sensitive content that will not be updated. Instead, they are investing scarce resources into redesigning the website (badly, as it happens), removing much of the durable content in the process and leaving primarily time-sensitive content. At the end of this process, they will still have no plan for updating the time-sensitive content, and they will have lost most of the embedded value in the established website. It’s painful to see, but it’s very hard to look away.