Does Documentation Matter for a Product?

How important is the documentation (manual, user guide, instruction booklet) for the actual quality and perceived quality of a product? Does it materially affect the user?  I was recently confronted by this question is a very direct way.  It turned out that the manual for our new car was not quite what you would expect…

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This is just the first page, and as you can see if you know Swedish or German or both, it is a strange interleaving of sentences in the two languages.

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Off-Topic: Cruising Holiday

The family and I spent last week on a cruise in the Mediterranean with Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCC). It was a wonderful vacation, and very family friendly. We did a number of shore excursions and got to see historical landmarks like the stadium at Olympia where the original Olympic games were held. Lounging by the pool on the ship was nice on our sea days, if a bit crowded. Service was fantastic, and you really do not need to think much at all about practical things while onboard. It just happens. Very relaxing. If I compare it to a typical all-inclusive hotel vacation, it is definitely higher quality with the added benefit of moving around and seeing multiple places in a week.

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Electric Bikes – Useful Alternative

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Electric bikes have started to become common,in Sweden in recent years. It’s been a big thing in other countries for a while, so I guess they have finally matured to the point that they can stand our climate. To be honest, I never quite saw the point of such a vehicle, until my wife took a job that perfectly fit their sweet spot, and I got to try hers. It was quite a revelation. I am usually rather hesitant to believe hype, but in this case, I think we do have the making of a really useful type of vehicle that offers a useful alternative for a particular niche in the transportation continuum.

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Segway – Fun but not Mandatory

Segway_logo.svgRecently, I finally got to ride (if that is the right word) a Segway two-wheeler. Quite fun, actually. But when thinking hard about it, it really seems like a pretty pointless invention. Cool technology, fantastic control system design and programming – but still, it does not solve any real problem. As a product manager, my mind tends to view new things with an eye toward “what is the problem they are trying to solve” rather than how fun, attractive, or well-designed they are. Sometimes, good design is the point, of course. However, in this case, we are talking about a transportation device, and as such, the question is where it fits.

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A Few Electrons too Many

Adding electronics to systems that used to be mechanical has been the great wave of innovation for a quite a while now. Modern transportation just would not work without all the electronics and computers inside (someone once quipped that a modern fighter is just a plastic airplane full of software), and so much convenience has been provided by automation and smarts driven by electronics. However, this also introduces brand new ways that things can break, and sometimes I wonder if we really are not setting ourselves up for major problems when the electrons stop flowing.

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Product Holes: Tesla Roadster & iPhone 4

Continuing on the thread from my previous post about the testing of products that fail to find problems that become obvious to (some) users after a very short time, I just read an article (in Swedish) about how the famed Tesla roadster cars behaved when they were confronted with Scandinavian winters.

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Eyjafjallajökull is Showing us Something

Wow. The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland and the resulting ashcloud has had an effect that I would never ever have expected. A near-total closing down of the European airspace is such a drastic thing to happen to nobody seems to have expected. It has certainly not been included in the list of worst-case scenarios to plan for in company and government contingency plans. Where does this leave us? In a very interesting situation indeed. Worst-case, we will have to do without air travel for months.

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Off-Topic: Another Troubled Train

sj-logo_largeAlmost exactly a year ago, I wrote a blog post about an adventure with delayed trains getting from Uppsala to Stockholm. As I said then, I am a train fanboy, preferring trains to most alternatives for most travel. Trains do have one big disadvantage though: when something goes wrong, you are unusually powerless and stuck. That happened to me last Friday. I spent some five ours in a dark train in a dark winter evening in the middle of the forest south of Laxå. Here is the story of that journey, and an observation about the impact of technology on our lives.

It was on a Friday the 13th, by the way. Not that I believe in that bad luck happens more on certain days, this certainly was an unlucky Friday (and very early Saturday).

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A Weekend in the Netherlands

We spent the past weekend in the Hague and Delft in the Netherlands. A short weekend trip, certainly, but still quite interesting. The obvious place to go visit in the Netherlands is Amsterdam, but these other places are well worth visiting too. Here are some observations on what I found interesting.

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Off-Topic: The First Snow is Here

The first real snow reached Uppsala this weekend, lots of nice fluffy slippery cold snow on the ground and on the roads and everywhere else. It really is nice to have snow again, it lessens the effect of our dark winters and kind of puts you in a Christmas-like mood, especially now that the Christmas decorations are going up in town and shopping centers.

I also had to bring out the car for some errands and transports yesterday, and that new snow was probably the slipperiest I have ever driven on. It also provided an unsought opportunity for the electronic systems in our car to show themselves… both the stability and traction control and the anti-lock brakes were activated several times despite my pretty careful driving. For some reason, I never really believe that they would apply to me. I know that ESP and ABS are really good for safety, but for some reason I am a diehard skeptic that never quite believe these things work as they should. I guess this is another example of an embedded system that works as it should. Which really should not be a surprise.

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Off-Topic: Triple Train Trouble


I am a big fan of trains, I admit as much. I take the train almost every day to Stockholm, and I find that far superior to the stress and misery of driving a car or the poor comfort of a bus. I have always defended the railroad when people complain that trains are often late and unreliable.

But recently there have been a few cases of really bad delays hitting me… a couple of weeks ago, I missed a meeting at KTH by about 45 minutes after the train’s brakes broke. And today, we had an absolutely monumental delay — I arrived at my office some two-and-a-half hours late, which is pretty amazing (or abysmal) for a 40 minute train ride.

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Biking topic 1: I should have a commission on these!

Last year, we got ourselves one of the best child-related products we have ever seen: a Chariot Carriers Corsaire XL bike carriers. This might sound like marketing hype from their marketing department, but it really is a brilliantly designed product (mostly). At core, it is a carrier with two wheels, seating two children, and which can be quickly turned from a bike carrier into a regular city stroller. For us, this really means freedom! In particular, the freedom to quickly pop down town using the bike, and then not have to carry our son but rather have a decent stroller to push him around in (and to load up with shopped stuff).

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Off-topic: The Train to Furuvik

This is a short travel tip for the Uppsala-Stockholm area. Yesterday, I used the UL train to get to the Furuvik zoo/amusement park close to Gävle. Compared to the visit we did last year using a car, taking the train was generally a superior experience. And cheap. For 200 SEK, you get two adults + three children, with all rides included. Much cheaper than going there by car and then buying the rides. Not having to spend an hour driving with children is also a clear advantage in my mind, rather you can relax on the train and have fun with the kids. Being tired at the end of the day, I was very happy not to have to drive home.

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Off-Topic: Tallink Customer Service to Pärnu

I just had a nice vacation in the Estonian town of Pärnu. Pärnu is a really nice little town full of summer visitors and still with lots of local character.

Getting there, however, was less pleasant than it could have been, thanks to Tallink where we booked the trip and the hotel nights in Pärnu.

When we booked the trip, they told us that there were convenient buses from Tallinn to Pärnu, and that we did not need to bring a car. They also booked us on a nice brand-new integrated hotel containing a “water land” and spa services, and being located very close to the beach. Sounded perfect.

As it turned out, some of these things fell through:

  • The buses to Pärnu left from the central bus station in Tallinn, which is not close to the docks where the ferries arrive, but rather some kilometers away. It would have been nice if this had been clear from the start. Instead, Tallink representatives and information made sound as if the buses left directly from the docks, or at least in some place very close by.
  • The staff on the ferry to Tallinn did not know about the direct local buses from the docks to the central bus station (a tip: it is bus number 2, which stops right outside of terminal D. Or walk some more and take tram number 2). They gave us confused and incorrect information as how to get to the bus station. At least they told us where the bus station was…
  • At the last minute (one day before departure) it turned out that our main hotel was overbooked and that we would be given a different hotel. After some discussions they also promised us entrance tickets to the water land in our booked hotel. However, it was not clear how this was to work out in practice. Or if our new hotel was any better or worse than the one we were booked on initially. Customer service gave the impression that all would be handled at check-in in their terminal in Stockholm.
  • When we checked in in Stockholm, we did get hotel vouchers for the replacement hotel. But for a double room, not the suite that was what they had said initially. And the check-in personell had no idea about the entrance tickets to the water land. “there is no note of that in the computer system”. We got to talk to a supervisor who told us that things should work out, wrote a note to the hotel on a copy of our booking, and had the good sense to give us a name and phone number to call would they not.
  • Once we arrive in Pärnu, the hotel that we were staying at did provide an envelope containing the tickets to the water land that we needed. The hotel was also recently renovated and very fresh (it was the St. Petersburg hotel, in a carefully renovated 16th-17th-century building in downtown Pärnu). The location was more convenient for eating out and shopping, if a bit more removed from the beach (20 minutes walk rather than five).

Thus, in the end, things worked out and we got decent value for our money. Even so, it is still annoying how Tallink handled things, especially since the fixes are mostly in precision of communication and should actually be cheaper for them to do right.

So how could Tallink have done better in our case (and quite probably in general):

  • Run their own bus shuttle from Tallink to Pärnu and other interesting destinations. They do that in Sweden, so why not in Estonia? We would have been happy to pay some extra for a bus conveniently arriving at the docks to take us straight to the destination.
  • Present correct and complete facts about each destination on the phone and on their homepage. If they refer people to the bus service to Pärnu, do provide a time-table, a map on how to get to the main bus station, and a map of the end location to help you find your hotel. After all, Tallink have local staff in Tallinn that can easily find out for you.
  • Have their customer service staff be precise and clear. In the end, things did work out and we were not cheated of our vacation. But the details like the standard of our replacement hotel, how the water land tickets would work, and similar simple things could have been clearly communicated from the start. That would have saved them lots of phone service time, and us a bunch of unnecessary annoyment and anxiety.

Finally, the main drawback of a trip of this type where you spend a night on the ferry each way is that the ferry trip takes a lot of time from the vacation. This would not be so bad if it was enjoyable time, and they are trying to give off the impression that it is kind of a luxurious experience to travel on their modern ferries to Tallinn. And mostly it is nice. Going on a ship where you can walk around and have lots of space is vastly superior to inhuman modes of transport like long-distance air travel or car trips. For the kids, having a dedicated playroom is great.

But since the length of the trip makes it necessary to eat dinner and breakfast onboard, the food is quite a important component. And here Tallink and most other Baltic ferries I have tried fall down by simply providing fairly taste-less and disappointing fare. The tradition of a grand buffet is great in principle, but something makes it so that each course is cheapened down to its simplest least tasty version. Creating a rather disappointing experience overall. And there is no indication that the a la carte restaurants are any better. So for now, you eat because you have to and not as much because you enjoy it.

Why this is the case, I don’t know. Either they think their customers do not care or cannot tell a good meal from a poor one, or they lack pride in the kitchen, or they are saving money by using the cheapest stuff they can get away with, or something else.