Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The iPod and the O.R. Designer

The web is full of business articles that extol the benefits of a great, overall user experience that has come to define the iPod product. These articles roughly state that we knowingly accepted a discrete approximation of continuous music and enjoyed the experience because it was delivered in a really convenient manner. Business commentators even go so far as to say that features don't matter any more. Not surprisingly, there are huge lessons to be learned for those us who make a living by building apps with 'O.R. inside' for business end-users.

If your OR program in school was part of the Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) department, then we would recognize that these are not novel ideas. We have seen this before in our ISE labs and it resembles 'Human Factors' engineering. It was always exciting to know what the HFE guys were up to - they were generally designing all this ergonomic stuff - keyboards, wheelchairs, etc. We O.R. grads were optimizing big-deal industrial problems with sophisticated math and did not pay enough attention to such "low-tech and qualitative" HFE ideas. Designing for an optimal business-user experience can be thought of as an area that combines OR with HFE. First a look at a partial checklist of design questions that we can relate to.

Does your O.R. app:
- require the user to have an O.R. PhD to operate?
- feel paranoid about the sophistication of the O.R. technology inside?
- obsess about run time with little regard for quality?
- have bewildering layers of menus filled with dials for 'costs', 'penalties', etc.?
- change answers wildly with small changes in input?
- come back with a blank stare if it encounters infeasibility somewhere inside?

You get the idea. An O.R. practitioner not only has to worry about the stuff that is inside - traditionally, we've been good analysts and trained for that, but it's about time we become equally good designers - few, if any, O.R. graduate programs teach that. Perhaps we should be teaming up with our next door HFE neighbors on this. As we continue to explore this theme, we will notice interesting connections between what's inside and outside the app.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

NRF-2010: Some thoughts

The annual convention for retailers ended this week. It was a jam-packed convention with all the big players making their presence felt. The first thing I noticed is that the retail industry is used to the notion of 'analytics', which for most part is tied to forecasting and making good use of Terra bytes of data. Nevertheless, as a retailer looks to maximize their revenue dollars and improve operational efficiency, O.R. has an increasingly large role to play. Retail O.R. problems are pretty challenging in both scale and complexity and given that retail margins are small, improved decision making for such complex planning and operational problems using 'decision science' can make a big difference. Textbook retail decision models provide a starting point for building innovative practical solutions, even if they cannot be directly deployed within products, and the retail world abounds with hidden, interesting O.R. problems if you start looking for them.

A good introductory (non-technical) book that retail analytic experts have suggested as part of recommended reading is "Retailing Management" by M. Levy and B. Weitz.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

99th National Retail Federation Expo, NYC, Jan 10-13, 2010

Every player in the retail arena will be at this flagship NRF event for the retain industry. I hope to catch the latest buzz in retail O.R. and fathom customers appetite for O.R. methods, and tab about it when I get back. Retail is still a relatively young field when it comes to O.R., but its like an iceberg. Most of the cool O.R. stuff is in products rather than journals. While journals provide valuable insight into the kind of problems faced by retailers, I haven't seen too many solutions presented in the literature as yet that consistently work well in practice, although I expect to see this trend reverse in the near future.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Murder Down Under - Where is the data?

The recent spate of attacks on Indian students in Australia has created serious diplomatic tension between the two countries. On one hand, we have the (apparently) hysterical English-language media of India that magnifies every such report. On the other hand, we have the Australian police and media apparently living in denial. Where does the truth lie?

A bit of history first. India and Australia have often had a love-hate relationship. Indian troops fought and died alongside ANZACs during WW2, yet Australia refused to admit Indian immigrants for decades after the conflict, even preferring those from 'white' Italy (against whom they had just fought against). In this context, their recent apology for the 'lost innocents and forgotten Australians' also comes to mind. In recent times, on a less serious note, the Australian and Indian cricket teams have been involved in a few, well-publicised, on-field verbal and legal clashes over the last 3 years. On the other hand, the biggest fans of Australian cricket are probably in India. Steve Waugh the former Australian cricket captain, runs a reputed charity organization in Kolkata, India and is much loved and admired. And of course, after 9/11 and the Patriot act, increasing numbers of Indian students who usually head for the U.S. instead choose to study down under.

Not much statistics is available on what's really going on. In the last year, an estimated 80-100, 000 Indian students studied at universities down under making it a really lucrative business for the Aussies. A total of 105 violent attacks have been documented (some fatal). Today, we had the Indian envoy say that "most of these attacks were opportunistic", even as the Indian government issued a travel warning to students there. At the current rate, slightly more than 1 in 1000 Indian students have been victims. It would be interesting to compare this rate to the overall violent-crime rate there, as well as the rate for a comparable ethnic population (China has a larger number of students there and may be a good candidate). In particular, overall crime rates have been on the increase in Melbourne. Per wikipedia " ... From July 2008 to July 2009 assaults reportedly increased 8.7% in the city of Melbourne, 4.3% in the city of Yarra, 12.5% in the city of Port Phillip 17% in the city of Stonington ... "

At this point, its not clear if these vicious thugs hate Indians (I'm sure that not all Indian students are like Chatur Ramalingam) or just hate everybody they meet. Hopefully, a comprehensive statistical analysis will succeed where denial and hysteria has failed.

Jan 10 update: To be sure, no student deserves to be assaulted, even if you are a Chatur.R.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Three Idiots and O.R

The three most enjoyable Hindi films of 2009 were released in December, with '3 idiots' from last week being the best of the lot. It's a great way to start the new year with a post on this movie. More so because it is about engineering, and about having a passion for building something new and better, something which we O.R' ers take a good deal of pride in.

It's an entertaining cry for a serious overhaul of education methods in India. As much as Obama wants the U.S. to match India and China in science and math, one hope it's done the right way. Many of the Indians and Chinese who have made their mark as technology and business leaders have done so despite the system. The pitfalls of rote learning (a trademark of Indian education) is brought out hilariously in the movie. The 'rote learning' pesky teacher's pet, aptly named Chatur (clever) Ram-alingam, does everything 'in memory', and is brilliantly essayed by native Californian Omi Vaidya (he plays 'Sadiq' in the TV sitcom 'the Office'). Chatur is from Uganda and completely memorizes his keynote eulogy of a tyrannical professor Dr. Viru.S at the annual university function, given that he is Hindi-illiterate. However, the three idiots manage to do a 'find and replace' in the draft of the English transliteration of the speech that substitutes "Chamat-kari" (miracle worker) with "Balaat-kari" (serial molester), and the resulting chaos sets up the rest of the movie.

On a more serious note, the movie reminds us of the high student-suicide rate in India, and argues that underemployment, even if it means a higher pay in a job totally unrelated to your field of expertise, is undesirable, and job satisfaction is far more important. It would be interesting to survey the level of job satisfaction for O.R practitioners. I personally feel that it will high. Why? Nobody can be forced to choose a career in "Operations Research". That's a plus point of having such a weird name. Secondly, an O.R graduate can work in a bank, in a social organization, or study ant colonies and apply his skills and feel at home. O.R. blesses you with the science of how to improve processes, almost independent of the context. Successful ideas in airlines and logistics are now being applied to retail analytics, medical science, and green technologies.

O.R. does and should continue to reward creativity and innovation, and hopefully in 2010, each of us ' O.R. idiots' who practice this field will build or improve one new, innovative product with 'O.R inside' (and progress beyond rote memorization of the KKT conditions).

The movie should be legally available on YouTube in a couple of months, and I hope the English subtitles will not be done by a rote-learner!