Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Let the Great World Spin Without Brand Names

I recently finished reading Let The Great World Spin. It’s a big, ambitious novel that is also pretty fantastic. (By way of comparison, Franzen writes big, ambitious novels that are exhausting as often they are fantastic.)

The novel is set in the early 1970s. But it wasn’t until the 100 or 150 page mark that I realized Colum McCann wasn’t mentioning (m)any brand names. The novel is clearly a product of exhaustive research, but McCann manages not to bludgeon or otherwise punish the reader with everything he knows. As Jonathan Lethem noted an interview with Hazlitt, “I also had to throw out a lot of what I learned—novels are quite intolerant of information; you actually can’t stick too much in or you’ve started to do something else.”

Now details aren’t the same as information, but I basically stopped reading The Ice Storm by Rick Moody after a half-dozen pages because of this passage:

He headed for the Williamses’ bathroom. One last look. A survey of the medicine cabinet. He wanted to see if there was a diaphragm in there at all, to see how deep the slight ran. He wanted evidence.
Where would Janey have gone? To the A & P to find something to go with turkey leftovers? To purchase beauty aids in preparation for the Halfords’ party that evening? Maybe she had gone to his house, to rifle his own medicine cabinet?
Hood set the bottle of vodka on the speckled, beige, faux-marbleized countertop and poured some more ambrosia. Then he began to peruse the remedies on the other side of that mirror: Cover Girl Thick Lash mascara, Revlon Ultima pancake, Max Factor lipstick (chocolate), Helena Rubinstein Brush-on Peel-off Mask, Kotex tampons, Bonne Bell Ten-0-Six lotion, Clairol Balsam Color (blond, although she frosted her hair). Summer’s Eve disposable douche, Spring Breeze. Valium, Seconal, tetracycline, the first of these in a renewable prescription.
No diaphragm case.
In a tiny space at one end of the top shelf, Jim Williams apparently kept a few things. The Dry Look, Old Spice deodorant, Noxzema Shave Cream, Water Pik teeth-cleaning system. Vicks VapoRub.
It was an L-shaped bathing suite. Hood drained his glass and ducked into the alcove where the toilet and shower were shrouded in darkness. On top of the toilet, Janey had piled Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo, Clairol conditioner, and Tegrin medicated shampoo.

It’s only 240 words, but that medicine cabinet suffocates the novel before it has a chance. Here are the brands mentioned above as a list:

- Cover Girl Thick Lash mascara
- Revlon Ultima pancake
- Max Factor lipstick (chocolate)
- Helena Rubinstein Brush-on Peel-off Mask
- Kotex tampons
- Bonne Bell Ten-0-Six lotion
- Clairol Balsam Color
- Summer’s Eve disposable douche, Spring Breeze
- The Dry Look
- Old Spice deodorant
- Noxzema Shave Cream
- Water Pik teeth-cleaning system
- Vicks VapoRub
- Clairol Herbal Essence shampoo
- Clairol conditioner
- Tegrin medicated shampoo

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The lie I tell myself finally came true

Almost every Sunday, starting around 4 or 5pm, a strong yearning for beer asserts itself. I’m lucky in that there are at least two decent bars nearby – Boo Radley’s and The Three Speed. I’m partial to Three Speed for a variety of reasons, including the fact that I can sit alone at the bar and not appear to be a sadsack extra in an Edward Hopper painting by virtue of the fact that I know a few of the bartenders.

But instead of simply going to the bar every Sunday like a normal person, I start a stupid little argument with myself about mixing pleasure with productivity. Followed by vague Protestant guilt and concerns about eating healthy.

Anyway, last Sunday I decided that I would go to Three Speed, regardless of the physical, spiritual and emotional consequences that would rain down upon me. As always, I brought a notebook and a pen.

The notebook and the pen are the main actors in the lie I tell myself. That being, I’ll sit at the bar and get some creative writing accomplished. Of course, about half the time I might as well be playing Tic-Tac-Toe against myself. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few ideas that are “Feed the tuna fish mayonnaise” caliber.

Every once in awhile, however, it actually works out, and the lie is not a lie at all. Let me tell you – last Sunday evening was a beautiful thing. Page after page of ideas, dialogue and description.

I’m pretty confident that the reason the ink flowed in magic patterns was due to the simple fact that I haven’t sat down and written for awhile. I also managed to not cram every last chore and to-do into the weekend. Often I want a beer on Sunday because I’m tired and I want to relax. The last thing I actually want to do is write. This time, it was the only thing I really wanted to do, and I happened to have a few beers while doing so.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The UX Detective Episode One: Westjet

A few weeks ago your humble sleuth received an email from Westjet with an exclusive code for Westjet Rewards members:

First I visited the main Westjet site and checked out some flight options:

Then, because I had some Westjet dollars in the bank, I went to the Westjet Rewards booking site:

Do you see my error? It took me at least two minutes to figure out the problem. I now realize I was relying on visual cues to guide me. 

The email provided a visual cue (short code first, long code second).

The main website follows the email format of short code first, long code second. (It also has sample codes to help guide people.)

The Westjet Rewards booking page uses a short and long box.

That’s why I assumed the Westjet Rewards page followed the same format as the email and the main website. But if you look carefully, you can see that they’ve reversed the code order. Which was very confusing to me, especially given the visual cues of the short and long boxes.

In the end I got my flight. But the lesson is: if you’re going to train your customers to use your site, make your UX consistent. Otherwise they’ll think your site was designed by Moriarty himself.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

ReD Associates prefer meaningful over useful or convenient

“Companies, other consultants, they’re often trying to figure out what’s useful or convenient for people,” says Rasmussen. “I’m not interested in what’s useful or convenient. I’m interested in what’s meaningful.” The last decade has seen a profusion of firms that offer similar services—qualitative research is one term for it; corporate anthropology or consumer-centric strategy are others—and companies such as Procter & Gamble (PG)Microsoft (MSFT), and Intel today have in-house anthropologists and sociologists. The best-known of the innovation consultancies is Ideo, legendary for its work with Apple. 

-- Via Bloomberg Businessweek 

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Bermuda Triangle of Craigslist

I have been very fortunate with Craigslist over the years. I once sold a significant amount of musical equipment (guitars and amps) in less than 48 hours during a visit to my parents.

More recently (two years ago) I sold a bunch of furniture over a three week period, including two bookshelves and a small couch. I received a lot of emails and the buyers arrived prepared to cart the stuff away. One guy thanked me five times for the metal Ikea wall shelf I had sold him. One person almost forgot to pay me, and ended up having to give me pennies and dimes, but otherwise a pretty good experience.

But for whatever reason, selling my red desk has been an ordeal. The first time I tried to sell it, I asked too much. My bad.


Now that it’s priced to sell, I’m getting a decent number of emails. But these are not motivated buyers. I’ve had three different emails in a row go like this:

Buyer: Is the desk still available?
Me: Yes it is. When might you be able to pick it up?
Followed By: Complete and utter silence.

One is a fluke. Three is a pattern. What am I doing wrong? Should I be playing hard to get?

Me: The desk is about to be sold. But if you get here within the next 10 minutes, I might be able to give it to you instead, if you give me $25 more than asking price.

Two days ago (Saturday) I received an email from someone who asked the measurements of the desk. The measurements for the desk are in the ad. I said as much in my reply. My guess is that someone unable to correctly parse my ad is also someone unable to correctly find my place and pick up the desk.

Also on Saturday I received an email from someone who sounded very serious about buying the desk. Kinda. They asked where I was located, even though the major intersection is listed in the ad. In another email, they asked if the desk would fit in a car. I told them the measurements of the desktop, and encouraged them to measure the car they plan to use to pick up the desk.

Followed By: Complete and utter silence.

I really don’t feel like hand holding these people, but at this point I just want the damn thing out of the living room.

-- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- -- ---- -- -- -- -- -- ---- -- -- -- -- -- --
DATELINE: Monday, March 10, 2014 at 6:34pm

BREAKING: Desk sold to someone who emailed me Sunday afternoon asking if it was still available.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Fancy Videogame Party favourites

Fancy Videogame Party at the AGO was one of the best events I’ve attended in quite awhile. And I’m by no means a video game fanatic. My only regret is ignoring the word “Fancy.” I have a decent suit jacket from Zara I could have worn on Friday. Instead I wandered around like a schmuck in a sweater and jeans. I promise to stop skim-reading event descriptions from now on.

I would have been happy to “play” Panoramical all evening. It’s less game and more interactive art exhibit. I now dream of installing a permanent version of it in my living room.

I didn’t play The YAWHG but it was beautiful to watch and read.

Johann Sebastian Joust deserves a nod for the name alone. As a bonus, it’s a great idea, well executed.

Nidhogg offered a very smart twist on the typical “two guys try to kill each other” duel (dual) player game.

Tenya Wanya Teens was whimsical stupidity. This usually annoys me. Instead it was delightful.

My final favourite thing was not a game, but the highly effective and intelligent use of space. That might sound like a nerdish thing to say, but it was pretty crucial to the success of the evening. The Family Learning Centre spans two floors and a bunch of rooms. Instead of cramming too much into the lower floor main space, the organizers gave each game plenty of room. The arcade cabinets had their own zone upstairs. Panoramical had its own room, as did JS Joust. Nidhogg was projected on a massive screen that was visible from both upper and lower floors. The layout and thought put into display was more typical of video or interactive art exhibition.

This space planning was not a coincidence. I ran into my friend Paola Poletto at the party, who works at the AGO. She mentioned that in the original configuration, they were going to sell alcohol on the lower floor. That would have been a disaster, as the lower floor has an occupancy limit. By putting the alcohol upstairs, along with a good number of games, it ensured that people circulated throughout the evening.

Compare that with The Great Hall at Queen and Dovercourt, which also has multiple rooms. But because they’re only licensed to sell alcohol in the main room, people are forced to wait in huge lines to try and get in. (As a bonus, if you need to use the bathroom, you must exit the main room and then go back in line.) I nearly didn’t get into the main room for the Spacing launch, and ended up on the balcony during Shezeer’s set at the recent Long Winter event.

In summary: Indie video games are fun. Space planning is the final frontier.