Monday, March 31, 2008

Another of Jakob Nielsen's Prediction Coming True!: The Death Of Newspapers!

In Jakob Nielsen's latest eNewsletter, Alertbox, he follows up on a prediction he made in 1998: Newspapers will be dead in 5-10 years. He included other legacy media formats in his dire forecast such as magazines, books and TV Networks which are still alive and kicking, but his follow-up today focused on the demise of Newspapers.

As it's often the case, I was too aggressive in my prediction. Newspapers aren't dead yet, though they are sadly dying by the month. According to the New Yorker piece, American newspapers have lost 42% of their market value over the last 3 years alone...

...I hate to say this, since I am a big fan of newspapers, but I think that my prediction from 1998 is in the process of coming true, even though it's going to take more years than I originally said. Never confuse a clear view with a short distance, as the saying goes.

After reading Uncle Jacob's update, I noticed a story online about how two major newspaper operators may be on the verge of folding. The Journal Register's stock has gone from $12 to $0.55 in two years and MacClatchy (the third largest newspaper in the nation) is close to $10 from $50 two years ago.

It's interesting to me that he follows up on his predictions. His all too often "too aggressive" assertions are such a part of his persona at this point that he almost has to. I can just imagine the email I will get 10 years from now giving me an update on who else is obviously going out of business.

On a side note, if you do a search on Google for "unlcle jakob" his website comes up number 1. This is despite the term "uncle" not existing on the page. Google bomb?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gamer + Reality Mash-up: Super Mario Bros. & Booze

If you were a wee tike when you played any incarnation of 2-dimensional Super Mario Bros, you are now old enough to consume alcohol. So what could be better than to mash-up your childhood gaming experience with your booze-hounding adult life? Scrollbar in Denmark hosted a Mario-themed party sponsored by the IT University of Copenhagen. There were 10 Mario cocktails & shots, video projections of Mario clips and lots of decorations extruded into 3D for the occasion.

What kind of parties will be thrown when today’s pipsqueaks are all growed up? MySpace, Guitar Hero and YouTube may inspire some interesting imbibing events.

Friday, March 28, 2008

How Brand Aware Are You? Take a Quiz

Here are a couple quizzes testing our knowledge of corporate logos and the rationale behind their creation. It's interesting to see what we pay attention to and to see the thinking they put behind these creations:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

HBO Circa 1983: When Special Effects Were Comprised of Earthly Elements, Not Digital Ones

This is a behind-the-scenes clip of how the HBO Starship opening from the 80s was created. It's really incredible to see how much was done with real objects, not computer generated ones. Even the sky in the background was created with an airbrush on a huge canvas. The only computer shown in the video (above) has no mouse and the tiniest screen which displays all code. No 'desktop' metaphors here. How did the guy know he was programming the correct stuff? Everything done with video and film making today is real time with instant feedback. Computers are at the core of special effects, not something on the fringe assembling raw organic footage or stop motion effects. Thanks to whoever took the time to digitize this from VHS tape and post it to YouTube. Enjoy:

Sunday, March 23, 2008

New York Times Article: Managing Loud Customer Feedback

There is an interesting article by Dan Mitchell in the New York Times about bias and feedback titled, 'The Thin Skin of Apple Fans.' There are wide ranging examples from Apple to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cited. Apple fans just want pro-Apple news stories and reviews and how they react harshly when there is any "hint of negativity." Pro-palestinian and pro-Israel people react the same way when viewing news stories.

Managing customer feedback channels have this same problem. There is the "squeaky wheel syndrome" we face where the most opinionated customers of a product frequently are the ones that are catered to. This loud feedback can be fast-tracked into new product features before you realize what is being missed, if ever. Here is a great quote from the article:

"'s unfair that abusive people get better treatment and conditions than nice people."

So true. This speaks to companies that don't have a proper Listening Channel and let those Squeaky-wheelers define product strategy.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Another Example of Unintended Innovation: The Microplane

I've owned a couple Microplane graters for the last couple years. It's been such a great tool to have in the kitchen. The way it shaves paper thin slivers of Parmiggiano Reggiano over fresh tomato & basil sauce is the perfect finishing touch. You can hear the protein crystals crunching as they are being sliced. I just assumed this device came from the mind of some foodie who was fed up with scraping their knuckles on old skool graters. As with a lot of innovation, this of course didn't happen that way. Innovation from outside the domain strikes again (VectorMagic and Gagetek are two companies that have done this that I've blogged about in the past).

Lorraine Lee was making an Armenian orange cake. Her husband had just invented a new wood planning tool, so instead of reaching for her frustrating old grater she used his new invention. The zest from the orange "fell like snowflakes." That's how a woodworking tool from Microplane evolved into a fine kitchen accessory. Another Apple-on-Newton's-head type of story.

Microplane has evidently learned from their success in transcending their bailiwick. They have taken the same razor thin technology that was successful in the woodshop and kitchen and moved it to the spa. That's right, you can now have smooth soles thanks to Microplane. I'm not sure that the jump from zesting lemons to shaving down the bottoms of your feet is a tasteful tagline, but it makes me wonder what their next market will be.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Air Guitar + Real Guitar = Release Your Rock Star? Guitar Hero Evolves

There has been a lot of discussion and lampooning of Guitar Hero playing versus real guitar playing over the last year. The next phase in the evolution of faux-guitar playing is here in Release Your Rock Star. It's a competition for you to submit a video of yourself Guitar Hero-ing. The best Air-Guitar-Hero-ist will get their likeness digitized to become a virtual guitarist in an upcoming Guitar Hero game. Game player becomes game piece.

Again, fun is a big component to this next step in the Guitar Hero evolution. The Release Your Rock Star competition tosses in a bit of American Idol by having judges rate people who are plastic-rocking-out (view the above video clip). Roller Girl falling on her butt is funny, but the fall & scream at 1:15 by Tin Foil Man is priceless and gets my vote. More Farley-esque Tin Foil Man!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Starbucks Creates an Online Customer “Listening Channel”:

Starbucks unveiled a slew of changes today in order to reverse their stock slide from $32 to $17 in the past year. Outside of new espresso machines (why do so many people pronounce it EXpresso?), Starbucks unveiled their very own social networking website, The goal of the website is to capture customer ideas by creating a place for people to converse. One category on the website is "Other Experience Ideas" which resembles the comments section of a blog, sans-blog. I guess Starbucks is the overall blog topic and you are supposed to dump yours ideas there, and then others can comment on those ideas. Comments on comments?

I'd be very interested in seeing how Starbucks takes this initial milestone of the product lifecycle all the way through to the deployment of ideas they captured. How do they filter these ideas? Steve Jobs was recently interviewed by Fortune magazine (great article) and quoted Henry Ford:

"If I'd have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me 'A faster horse.'"

Let's see if Starbucks innovates with this tool or creates faster horses.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cramped Quarters: News Website Forgets That We Might Actually Want News

An angry radio listener crashed his car into a radio station. OK, I bought this main headline from's home page and clicked to read more. I mean, what would drive a person to want to crash their car into a building? I want to know! What I got after clicking was dreadful. Not only was I unable to find out much more about this story, it was really a bad experience reading it. I was there for one reason, which was to read about a bizarre incident.

Instead, I got almost everything but that news story. Only 7% of the web page was dedicated to the story itself. What makes this worse is that the story itself totaled a miniscule 200 words, but they still felt that they had to chop up the design by placing ads and toolboxes right in the middle of it. This makes your eyes have to snake around the page to read this puny article. It shouldn't be that hard to figure out that English speaking users like to read from left to right, straight down a page. That goal should be a very easy one to meet or exceed.

Sales must be designing the web pages at It would be nice if anyone running things over there put someone in charge that cared about the reader's experience. Of course FOX 12 News from Oregon is not alone in this. This link was from the main headlines section of, so they bear some responsibility even if it isn't their website. It's part of their experience.

By the way, here is a better designed article with better content courtesy of The Columbian.

Friday, March 14, 2008

More Access To The Creators Of A Product Means More Feedback

There is an article in the NY Times about chefs at high end restaurants spending time outside of the kitchen actually serving customers their food. They are even taking coats, answering phones and recommending wine pairings. This is happening for a lot of reasons such as breaking down traditions and sharing more of the tip money, but there is an interesting side effect to these experimental eateries. Here is a quote from the article:

"I would never have told a waiter to go back in the kitchen and tell the chef that," he said. "But when he's standing right next to you, you feel he's actually interested in your opinions. And even your criticisms."

Gaining direct access to the chef afforded feedback that wouldn't have been captured in the normal restaurant array, with lines drawn between the kitchen and diners.

What feedback are you losing by having that feedback form on your website? It might be time to get out from behind that desk and talk to your customers instead of getting it by proxy.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What Happens When You Design Only For Happy-Case Scenarios? You Lose A Fleet Of Hybrid Buses In San Francisco

The newly deployed hybrid buses driven in San Francisco had to be taken offline recently. This is because kids have been assaulting the buses and drivers. That's not the reason they had to all be taken out of service. It was because the vandals were able to do this by turning off the power to the buses. They easily did this because of the very clearly labeled door on the side of the bus that says, "MAIN POWER DISCONNECT SWITCH." That's right, all caps and in very bold, black letters. Once opened, they were able to find the big, red knob next to a well-placed label showing them which way to turn it to cut the power.

To make matters worse, when the power is cut, the driver can't call for help. As one bus driver says in a TV interview:

"You can't call for help because you don't have no power."

Great feedback! Maybe the designers at Daimler-Chrysler will find this quote useful. Maybe during design of next year's model they might think of doing some field study work and interview some more bus drivers.

The designers of this bus had "happy-case scenario syndrome." How could they not anticipate the bus being driven through neighborhoods where people would actually try to do it harm? This reminds me of the designers of customer-friendly banks that have led to easy bank robberies by idiots in flip flops.

The city will be installing locks on these side doors, but I wonder if they will also be removing the visual cues leading the future hooligans to the power switch that may have bolt cutters on them.

So is this a UI design success or failure? Getting users to achieve a task easily would be viewed as success by Quality Assurance and Certification departments. Now you can aslo include the official seal of success from the punks terrorizing these poor bus drivers.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Windows Vista Incapable: User Experience Stories From Within

The NY Times has a wonderful article on the perils of upgrading to Microsoft Vista. We've all heard negative Vista-upgrading stories, but what makes the article so scrumptious is that the users in the article are Microsoft senior executives. We get all this info because angry customers that bought "Windows Vista Capable" machines are suing the software giant for not being so, well, capable. These sublime internal tidbits are now unsealed for us to enjoy because of the litigation.

The article also shows how Microsoft poorly managed user experience feedback. To this day, Microsoft officially declares "price" as the barrier to rapid customer adoption. Do you know anyone that has a story about why they haven't upgraded to Vista because of price?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

I think It Works Better, Therefore It Works Better

There is a letter in the Journal of the American Medial Association written by Dan Ariely. It covers a study of how people perceive the value of medicine based on price. The results are amazing. All subjects were given placebos. The only difference was that some were told that the price for each dose was $2.50, while others were told that it was medicine "marked down" to ten cents. Then the people were given small electric shocks. Even though all the pills were sugar pills, 24% of the patients thinking they were taking the more expensive drug said they experienced a reduction in pain.

We all know perceptions are strong, but to impact the actual experience of pain is an incredible example of just how powerful they can be. I've experienced this having small children. Last year there were a lot of stories on how cough medicine does nothing for young children. Prior to the stories, I remember how many times I bought the most expensive cough remedies I could find when they were sick. Even though I now know they don't help, at the time I had the perception that the kids coughed less and I felt better immediately after giving it to them.

Dan Ariely is also the author of Predictably Irrational. It explores how powerful our perceptions are when it comes to making decisions, and how that causes us to act irrationally while we think we are being quite rational.

I've seen this in the financial industry. Chief Dealers on trading floors work hard to make sure their traders don't ‘chase their losses,' meaning when they start to lose money don't trading keep on the same path. Clearly these traders are taking ownership of the bank's money they lost on bad trades and want it back. Chief Dealers know better, but imparting that is difficult because it goes against the irrational instincts of the trader.

This is really interesting stuff and can have an impact on designing user experiences. It's not often that we embrace that our customers are irrational. We tend to think logically when putting forms together and how people will interact with them. This puts the spotlight on a new dimension we should consider more when designing. This is of course a major component of marketing, but I think there is something more here than just the slime-factor associated with leveraging people's irrational thoughts.

Here is a link to Dan's website with excerpts from his book you can download or listen to:

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Our Customers Really Love to _ _ _ _

What happens when you are missing customer data points? Not only can you build something that doesn’t fit with your actual users, but you are probably going to miss things you didn’t know you didn’t know (see the infamous "unknown-unknowns" speech by Donald Rumsfeld). Here is a video of one of our beloved Sesame Street characters singing about what he loves to do. Watch what happens when you miss some of what he is saying and how that changes his persona.

If you can't see the video above, here's a direct link to the video.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Innovating From An Outer Space: Vector Magic

It seems that more often than not these days we have stories like the one I am about to tell you. It is a story where the innovation originates from outside of its domain. James Diebel and Jacob Norda are not graphic designers. James is a computer science PhD student at Stanford University and Jacob is a software engineer. Together they have teamed up to create an experience in a year that a multi-billion dollar company couldn't do for over a decade. They have created an amazing tool that converts pixel-based images into vector graphics. To put it better, they have created something that does this almost flawlessly in a space where traditional graphic design players like Adobe have done it with sub-par results. Oh yeah...and they do it in a web app developed in Flex, an Adobe product. Sweet.

I spoke with James to learn a bit more about the product lifecycle they employed and find out what was the impetus behind the creation. The inspiration came from the need for using vector graphic in papers for figures. It was purely academic. Instead of a designer's approach, it took a mathematician's fresh set of eyes to get this problem solved. There are advantages that he feels that they had driving innovation that a larger corporation wouldn't have:

  • The ability to throw out the past
  • Having a personal stake in the outcome
  • The smaller the team, the more agile they could be

Another thing James thinks was helpful was having a beta online. They were able to get a more realistic set of images that real users would be converting, not just "mathy" ones. Of course, the public beta had its downside. "Once we were Dugg, the usage patterns and server got screwed up. We went from 200 images a day to 20,000. It was a complete meltdown."

Having a vector version of an image has always had tremendous value. The file size is dramatically smaller and you can do really cool things with it in Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash. Adobe used to charge in the neighborhood of $200 for a product called Streamline, that always got you about 70% of the way there. You never got the results you wanted and you had to spend a lot of time tweaking the output. I mean a lot of time that you really did not enjoy. Since they discontinued Streamline, Adobe has offered a "Live Trace" tool in Illustrator which basically gives you the same humdrum results.

With Vector Magic, fantastic output is only part of the glee you get from using the product. I was able to enjoy the overall experience. The goal here is simple, so the mechanism should be as well. The software is smart and walks me through the process, asking me questions along the way. "This looks like a graphic, not an image...This looks like it uses few colors...Are you happy with the results or do you want to modify the settings?" It was great that the software was one step ahead of me the entire time, holding my hand.

Here are some side-by-side examples of Vector Magic that are really amazing, especially because I didn't have to edit them at all:

Graphic (logo) conversion:

Photo conversion:

You can download these files to see the results up close:

You can test out Vector Magic for yourself here:

Please send them feedback:

Monday, March 3, 2008

The Mental Models We Create vs. Reality: Bach's Face

I received my Bachelor of Science in Jazz in 1989. I play piano and electric bass. I've enjoyed and performed my fair share of music composed by Bach. Up until today, my mental model of Bach were built upon those notes on the music page. The feelings evoked when playing certain passages that were obviously, well, Bach. Here, listen to this:

It was kind of strange to read a story today about how anthropologist Caroline Wilkinson has created a 3D model of Bach's head. More precisely, it was weird to see his face. I know that MTV forever changed how we connect music with imagery (not to mention affording the fame of Jessica Simpson, which I could have done without thank you very much), but I still wasn't prepared to see a Playstation-esque bust of Bach. Maybe I'm just becoming a curmudgeon, but it's hard for me to connect a cello suite to that...face (no offense, Johann).

It's so interesting to me how we create models or feelings of experiences in our heads. As a user experience designer it's easy to forget that most of the people we design software upgrades for have a strong connection to the previous experience in ways we probably we can't measure in pixels or clicks.

To anyone interested, here is some of my music (John Macaluso on drums, Rich Kern on Guitar and me on bass):