Category Archives: Reviews

Noise Cancelling Microphone Rodeo

I’ve been telecommuting for nine months now. There have been a number of changes as I’ve physically separated from the great folks in my company’s office. But the hardest change has been trading out face-to-face conversations for video conferencing. Although it’s never been easier to schedule and join video calls with our existing browsers, phones, built-in cameras and teleconferencing equipment, it’s still no match for being there. There is so much to communicate and perceive that can only be done with the full fidelity of unimpeded senses: micro expressions, vocal timbre, outside-the-camera-frame body language, posture and gestures, knowing looks and eye contact or lack of eye contact, physical presence, proximity and touch and conversation timing and cadence. Even with the best systems so much of this is just lost! In addition, artificial constructs impede natural communication with so many meetings starting with technical difficulties, bad connections, video and sound checks, issues around muting (or not muting) background noises and then there’s latency! It really does requires intentional effort to make sure that remote meeting participants can hear and be heard during a fast-paced conversations, debates and brainstorming. Ugh. Now there are ways to mitigate these problems and I’ll focus on just two. After all, this is an equipment rodeo and I need room to talk about that!

Video Conference Manners

I’ll start with this because with just a few things you can dramatically increase the quality of video conferences. Good protocol applies to whoever is conducting the meeting, whether in the conference room with others, or remote. 

For starters, not every participant can always see all of the other participants. So take a moment at the beginning of a video conference to make sure you all know everyone on the call. Acknowledge and do introductions just like you would if you were in person. Video conferences can feel impersonal if not anonymous so do what you can to keep it personal. 

Second, take a beat every so often to make sure that remote participants understand what is being said and have an opportunity to pipe in. You may not be seeing the normal nonverbal communication that would clue you into their confusion or need to interject. Generally people are a little too polite on calls and we should give even the meekest a seat at the table, virtual as it may be.

Know who’s on the call, give them time to speak and remember that it all sounds much worse on the other end of the wire.

Lastly, think about audio throughout the call. Are there multiple conversations happening? How many microphones are there? Is anyone not able to speak for lack of being heard? Technology has come a long way, but the audio fidelity in video conferences is nowhere near what it is in real life! The human ears are remarkably adept at filtering noise and recognizing sounds. With just your own head’s stereo-on-a-swivel your audio quality will always be better than those on the other end of the wire. Conference microphones are designed to pick up sound efficiently and make everyone sound close, so if you can’t imagine what a room full of people sounds like coming through a single tinny speaker, take time to join a busy meeting and experience it yourself. It will change the way you feel about over-talking, side conversations and natural pauses in the conversation.

Noise-cancelling Microphones

Even with good meeting protocol, having a bad mic can be a meeting killer. Background noise can betray your location or peel back the illusion that your home can be an effective office. Much is said about noise cancelling headphones but it can be difficult to find a noise-cancelling microphone! Don’t assume that your laptop or your webcam’s mic will do a good job. Most mics have one job: pick up sound indiscriminately—they don’t know that a lawnmower or a crying baby is unintentional sound. Thus began my search, when I realized that people could really hear noises from outside my home office. I did take some time to look at sound attenuation solutions for my office, but ultimately you really can’t/won’t change your walls or your door and sound definitely comes through those. So for me the solution had to come from the microphone.

Having some experience with audio engineering and the physics of sound, I was pretty excited about finding a mic solution that could cancel out unwanted noise. And I found some pretty good ones that did not disappoint. They all use “beam forming technology” which uses an array of microphones to identify the loudest sound and cancel out the sounds coming in on the other mics. If you want to see this in action, check out how the Amazon Echo uses this in a noise room and will light up the direction it hears you from. 

There was a point in my research when I had the epiphany that this problem has already been solved for people who take their calls on-the-go and don’t want the background noise of cars, wind or other people. You know, those people who wear bluetooth earpieces all day and you don’t know if they’re talking to you or someone on a call? I realized that to maximize noise cancellation and also get the benefit of proximity effect, I needed limit my search to microphone headsets. All of the headsets that I found with active noise cancellation were also bluetooth. I’m a tough buyer so I had a few key criteria, mostly around what it shouldn’t be, like looking like a headset from Apollo 11.

  • Excellent noise cancellation
  • Doesn’t require a lot of desk space
  • Doesn’t look like I’m doing anything “weird” to get good call quality
  • Doesn’t break the bank

So here they are, in order of my preference. If you’d like to see more, consider something from one of these lists. All of three are good. I feel like I was picking from the best available.

Plantronics Voyager 5200

My overall favorite. Although initially I didn’t like the design because it seemed bulky, my wife and daughter thought that it was the best looking and head-on, the profile is pretty small. What won me over was that in the testing this mic did the best job out cancelling out unwanted noise. The packaging was really nice, maybe too nice with its pull tab and magnetically-closing flap. The earpiece’s build is solid, but flexible and comfortable to wear for long periods. My favorite part is the ear tip that sits loosely in your ear rather than being shoved inside it. $80 on Amazon.

Sennheiser Presence

I really like Sennheiser. I have their e835 microphone and studio headphones and I can’t say enough good about this brand. So I really wanted this bluetooth headset to win. But it didn’t. The noise cancellation was good, but not as good as the Plantronics. I liked that it was small and it has this clever open/closed switch to turn it on and off. It was pretty light too and could actually just hang from being pressed inside my ear but it also came with an over-the-ear hanger as well. The packaging was simple and understated, which I also liked. $92 on Amazon.

Jabra Steel

This one was a surprise for me. I didn’t think much of it when I ordered it—it seemed too simple but the rugged design and manly-man packaging made me feel like wearing this would make my life better! I gave it a shot but overall the audio quality and noise cancellation weren’t as good as the others. If I kept this, I would only wear it when working in my shop or if I was digging a hole or something. It seemed pretty indestructible and I wouldn’t worry about carrying it in my pocket or dropping it. $60 on Amazon.

Testing Method

As I was most concerned about the mic quality, I tested each one with semi-scripted scenarios that included different kinds of background noise so I could compare them side-by-side as much as possible. I also evaluated ease-of-use, fit, price and packaging. I had some success with attempting to record all of them at once, but I ultimately gave up on that approach in favor of time. The recordings are available here for reference if you’re interested.

JTBD Isn’t Complete, But It’s No Gimmick

I avoided reading this article for 19 days! It came to me via email and I skipped over it every day to read all the adjacent messages, but not this one. It’s not that I didn’t have time, or that I wasn’t interested. I was actually very interested to hear from Jared Spool on the subject of Jobs to Be Done. I just didn’t want to watch him tear it down! I really like Jared and I really like JTBD and I need these two things two agreeably exist in my universe. JTBD has been a catalyst for my company to successfully focus on the appropriate aspects of our customers. It’s a watchword and a sentinel that continues to guard us from wasting time on well-intentioned but ill-equipped initiatives. When is was introduced to our company we even formed a JTBD guild to justify the fervor and frequency of our acolyte-level adherence! Now, we’ve cooled since then, having found an equilibrium where JTBD is a component of our overall research and decision-making processes. But it remains a key part of what we do. And the idea of unseating it was, let’s say, “unappealing!”

But today I read it. And Spool’s article wasn’t bad. It turns out that Spool employed a good old-fashioned marketing trick to get a rise out of me before I read it, and it worked. While the article title is polemic and seemingly critical of JTBD, I don’t think he’s really against JTBD theory or what Clayton Christensen was positing. But he does make two key points (that I do agree with) that bear repeating:

  1. How people understand JTBD now has more to do with the diversity of application from niche thought leaders and consultants, and it’s getting messy.
  2. JTBD isn’t groundbreaking for those of us who’ve been in user design for a while.

I’ll point out that if you want to prop up JTBD as a be-all, end-all for your business, you’ll find it lacking. It was never meant to be comprehensive. Christensen admits that and doesn’t explore, in particular, appropriate methods of user research. There is already so much content being created to apply the theory to different kinds of businesses. There will be different schools of though because there is room in business for it. As a theory, and a principle in practice, it’s up to you to determine how JTBD should be applied in your company. But as a tool to help form proper processes across the disciplines of your company, I think that JTBD is essential. Competing Against Luck should be on the recommended reading list for anyone who has honest doubts about their ability to correctly read human-driven markets. The article from Spool is also a good read. In particular the links to other works on design research.

Directed Discovery + Jobs to Be Done + Minimum Viable Product + Agile = Your business has a chance

If you aren’t 100% sure that you understand JTBD, you should read up. It’s well worth your time. But don’t start with derivative work or consultant websites. Read it directly from Clay. …… You’ll quickly understand what it’s about, and what it isn’t about. And then it’s up to you to determine how it fits in your company and processes. For me, JTBD plugs in after Directed Discovery and before MVP. Take that, Spool! 😀

Vehicles for the Tall

If you’ve met me then you’ll understand why shopping for a vehicle takes on an extra level of effort. At 6’7″ I don’t get all the headroom that I’m constitutionally entitled to which is an outrage! No seriously, tall guys get left out of a lot of great cars. For a positive spin, there’s a lot of horrible cars that I didn’t even have to consider, so I guess that’s nice too. So when I set out to get a new car, I knew that it would take some effort to find something that would work. I’ve driven a Prius, the Ford Expedition and several Honda Accords in the past, but it’s high time I got something that was made for a big boy. Here are some key takeaways from my research worth calling out:

  1. Of all the trucks, only the F-150 was tall enough
  2. SUVs don’t really offer more space than cars
  3. Man, there are a heck of a lot of SUVs that are basically the same!
  4. There aren’t enough Subarus in Utah

As I am want to do, I created a spreadsheet to help me refine down the list of cars, trucks and SUVs that I’d have to sit in to know if they’d fit. Dealing with dealerships and salesmen isn’t my favorite pastime so I wanted to keep the in-person stuff to a minimum, although it is SUPER important to make sure that you’re comfortable with AND in your new car before you buy. Here are the factors that I looked at:

  • Headroom and its cousin vision line height (VLH)*
  • Price and resell value
  • Consumer reports
  • Gas mileage (this is a commuter car for me)
  • Garage-fit

Weeding out the expensive, gas guzzlers and lemons, there were really just a few cars to seriously consider, although I did try on at least 20 vehicles from at least seven different dealerships. It was amusing to me to watch the reactions from the sales guys on the floor when I told them frankly but courteously that all I wanted to do was “try on a few cars.” They wanted to sell. I wanted to sit. Most of them were pretty cool about helping me out. The key piece of trying on each car was checking out my eye-line, sitting up straight and not leaned back to far, could I see out and up above (like stoplights) without slouching or bending? For some weird reason, in addition to low headroom, a lot of cars curve down from their peak over the driver’s head before the top of the windshield. Wasted space for tall people!

Here’s the spreadsheet I used: Vehicles for the Tall. Feel free to make a copy for your own needs and let me know if I missed anything. 

So in the end it was the Chevy Impala and its little sister the Malibu, and the Subaru Legacy. Of the three the Impala had the best visibility and legroom but I acted on a great deal I found on a Legacy because, in the end, I guess I really am a tightwad. But I’m happy with the purchase. I have the spreadsheet to remind me it was a good buy.

*Thanks to the folks over at Tall.Life for providing the initial research into tall-friendly vehicles. The reason that VLH is so important is because while a car may be tall (height top of roof to the ground), that doesn’t mean there’s a lot of headroom, and just because a car has a lot of headroom, that doesn’t mean that tall people will be able to see well out of the front windshield. VLH tries to give a metric for actual, usable vertical cabin room.

Ownership

Screen Shot 2013-12-23 at 10.32.56 AM

I’m learning Python and needed a decent IDE to get my work done – I’m so spoiled! I installed PyCharm and have found it sufficient. Today, after several days of using it, I finally noticed that the tip of the day is blank! This is fine, I unchecked the box, but what I wanted to point out was the missed opportunity: the tip of the day is your chance to educate the user on helpful functionality, to increase product retention through brand loyalty. And what is done with this opportunity?

Tips not found. Make sure you installed PyCharm Community Edition correctly.

Nope I won’t. If you can’t take ownership of this problem (first take: don’t show the tip by default if it isn’t working) at least in the tone of the presentation, then I know enough able you to move forward.  Disable the feature and wait for the functionality to be proven in the future.  This is a very matter-of-fact approach that could be softened by different messaging:

Woah.  I can’t find any tips!  Click _here_ if you have some time to help diagnose what happened with your install.  In the meantime we’ve disabled this feature, you can get to it again from the Help menu.

See, I already want to buy whatever software would give me this kind of lip service!

How Geography Dictates Fates

I just watched a documentary on Netflix that was based on Jared Diamond’s book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and I’ve been moved. Jared lays out the major factors for why some societies are wealthy and others are in poverty, and they all boil down to one thing: geography. It’s not this simple, but the idea is that temperate climates, combined with high-yield crops like wheat which allow for farm animal domestication, allow people to spend time developing new technologies to fulfill and build wealth. Where these things have not existed, we find poverty and the conquered.

Well worth my time to watch, and I’ve added the book to my list to learn more. It’s quite sad, but also encouraging.

Using Game Theory for Positive Outcomes

Game theory investigates the motives and dilemmas of social interactions relative to selfishness and cooperation. As we understand game theory we can increase our chances of finding satisfying resolutions by adopting new strategies or even by just having a clearer view of social dilemmas and their underlying causes. In his book on the subject, Rock Paper Scissors, Len Fisher gives the following ten tips:

  1. Keep the same strategy if you’re winning, shift strategies if you lose.
  2. Bring a third player in. They can be a known negotiator or a known cheater – either way it helps.
  3. Set up reciprocity. Knowing that you’ll deal with people after a conflict can increase the incentive to cooperate.
  4. Limit future options or provide incentives. This shows that you are committed to the best possible outcomes.
  5. Offer trust. It’s simple, but it can be effective.
  6. Create a situation from which neither party can escape from without loss.
  7. Use side-payments to maintain cooperation.
  8. Know the seven deadly dilemmas and avoid the worst outcomes:
    1. The Prisoner’s Dilemma – all must cooperate or all fail.
    2. The Tragedy of the Commons (a series of Prisoner’s Dilemmas) –self-interest prevents cooperation despite impending long-term failure.
    3. The Free Rider problem – people taking advantage of a community resource without contributing to it.
    4. Chicken/Brinkmanship – each side tries to push the other as close to the edge as they can, with each hoping that the other will back down first.
    5. The Volunteer’s Dilemma – someone must make a sacrifice on behalf of the group, but if no one does, then everyone loses out.
    6. The Battle of the Sexes – two people have different preferences, but each would rather share the other’s company than pursue their own preference alone.
    7. Stag Hunt – cooperation between members of a group gives them a good chance of success in a risky, high-return venture, but an individual can win a guaranteed but lower reward by breaking the cooperation and going it alone.
  9. Work to create transparent processes that are inherently fair.
  10. Favor smaller groups, it’s easier to foster trust and cooperation

Redesigning the Weather

Weather.com has, at least in my mind, always been the go-to place for weather forecasts. I don’t know why I made the association… oh wait! It’s because its probably one of the best domain names on the Internet.  Nice job.  Anyway, my only complaint has been that there is so much clutter in between me typing in my ZIP code and getting the actual forecast.  Wait no longer, the site had a redesign this last week!

Weather.com Redesigned

Weather.com did an excellent job branding the redesign as an overwhelming improvement, stating that the changes were based on the following customer feedback:

  • the site is too cluttered
  • I can’t find what I’m looking for
  • The site is too slow
  • The site is too hard to navigate

You’ll probably see that same kind of feedback on a lot of ad-supported sites!  In the redesign, Weather.com added new features like saved locations, weather apps and user contributed pictures and video, as well as a large slide show that highlights top stories and regional coverage.  The redesign added a more comfortable layout, better top-level navigation and menus and did an excellent job of blurring site content with ads – check the right column.

Overall, I give it a B+ and a better commendation of continuing to use the site.