Sunday, December 30, 2007

Southwest Gets Design

I just booked a flight on Southwest, and had a wonderful experience. Skipping past the booking part, I got a nice email receipt, which was easy to read. It's nice to get something that's easy to read. I especially liked their large friendly confirmation codes that are actually visible, colorful, short, and at the top!

On the receipt was also a very visible (above the fold) link: "Where Will I Sit?" I clicked on it, and got a popup window with a very cute hand-drawn progess bar, so cute that I had no problem waiting through it just to watch it drawing itself. And then this even cuter notebook appeared:

I actually read the whole thing, because it continued to be so cute and even funny, with hand-drawn pictures throughout: There was a sweet little animation of people getting on a plane, and a diploma for people who finish the notebook (I filled in my name, yes). At the end, I looked at the page source, hoping to find something suggesting who created it, and discovered that they had even tailored the error message for people with the wrong browser support:

I was thrilled, but also a bit sad. Apart from TiVo, I have never worked for a company that cared this much about the details; was willing to take such creative risks with how they differentiate themselves; who understand that even the error messages tell people something about them and need consideration. That's design and branding done right, together!

ETA: If you would like to play with the notebook, it lives at Southwest's BoardingSchool.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club

I find from Steve at tingilinde that the Journal of Improbable Research is now online!

I see they also sponsor a Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club of Scientists with Said Hair. I find this very interesting. Not because I am a scientist with hair of this type, but because I would like to meet scientists with hair that flows (and is luxurious). Perhaps I should found a Fans of Scientists with Luxurious Flowing Hair Club. Here are some sample locks, a kind of hair porn shot, if you ask me:

hair shot from jir site
Thoughtful of them to post their members' info!

Focusing for Self-Portraits

Consultants need to provide photos of themselves that look professional for speaking events and publications from time to time. Blogs and social networking sites also benefit from author photos; and if you're in the online dating game, you need to make your self-portrait a serious piece of work.

Here's a nice list of techniques for getting your portraits focused, if you're the one taking it on timer or otherwise: I'm Ready for My Closeup. I will admit that I hadn't thought of half of these!

As a bonus, if you aren't using your DSLR in manual or advanced modes yet and don't understand some of the terms above, you might read this article from Lifehacker: Master Your DSLR Camera, Manual Mode and More.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Designing Your Home Page

Kicking this one off, here's a good article by Joel Spolsky about the design of the product home page for FogBugz, which nicely spotlights the badness of committee decision-making in design. They tried to achieve too many things with too much input, the results frayed, and finally they [he] had to make the tough decision to start over and stick to a single unified vision with fewer "votes" on the matter. You can track this in the mockup screenshots.

Joel also makes a good point about the difference between the company page and the product page in terms of their goals. Nice willingness to go with entirely different styles, as a result. A brave decision!

I've been involved in a few home page design discussions the past year of consulting. They tend to be wicked problems (i.e., ill-defined, messy, and circular). Some of the reasons for this:

  • There may be a difference between who you are and what you do, which may be important and hard to describe. Or hard to recognize.
  • There may be a difference between who you WANT to be and who you are. This is hard to design for, because when you stray from what you are, you tend to confuse people.
  • Conveying who you WANT to be in a clear fashion can only happen if you have a clear idea of who you want to be, and test your methods of conveyance on people to see if it flies. This is different from usability testing as usually understood.
  • A bunch of company stakeholders who disagree on these things (who we are, who we want to be) can't communicate this to a designer very successfully. Design will then take a longer time, with more iterations, and may turn into a committee consensus nightmare.
  • Design directions can be contradictory -- sometimes you can't say two or more complicated things, and you can't do both well enough to succeed at either. Let alone 10!
  • If your business is confusing or going through a change of some kind, it's almost inevitable that the design reflects this, without a very strict control on it. No designer will succeed in clarifying confused input when the underlying problem is actual confusion. The designer may see this going on and be able to point it out, but that won't get it solved. The problems may be too high, too deep, and too wicked themselves. Solving them is much harder than the simple design problem at hand.

One client was working on a new project that was barely outlined in a development spec. He asked me "What do we do for our home page? We're really worried about that." It was premature for this, because most of the business plan didn't exist yet. The design input they REALLY needed was "Your business idea is a little too complicated right now. Can you simplify it first? Here are a bunch of others in your space with successful 3 bullet explanations on their home page. Can you meet that level of simplicity?"

Sadly, most designers aren't in a position to spur you to clean up your entire business plan. Or to make it clear that this might be needed because it's hard to make it sound simple when it's not. (At least, without lying.)

I think design is a strategic activity - requiring hard, brave, high level decisions in order to direct the minds and hearts of customers; and a creating a good business plan is therefore partly a design activity. To create a business that is clear and attractive to prospects, and therefore portrayable as such, requires high-level decision making inside a company. If more business leaders thought like designers, or more designers were in business roles, the execution of the home page would be a lot simpler.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Food for Brains

It's been a tough week - minor road accidents in snow, encounters with consultants that earn $2500 for a few hours of phone time [I don't earn this!] - so here's venty post on something that bugs me: People with bad memories. I don't mean bad in the sense of "I lost my keys again," more in the sense of "Weren't you going to schedule that meeting?" No, you were, you said you would! Why do I suddenly feel so defensive, when I did nothing wrong??

Any number of excellent books have been written about project management and scheduling, but few of them confront this phenomenon head on, and I've now seen it at a bunch of companies. Someone important, or even just useful, can cause a lot of damage by having a bad memory. If they're a manager, it might become their employee's second job to stockpile email in case they need to "prove" who's mistaken at review time. If it's a peer, they don't pull their share of the work because they conveniently forgot to do most of it and someone else has to, or some schedule slips. This might be passive aggressive (if they're not a psychopath or an asshole), but since it's the holidays, let's consider that it might be a medical problem. Maybe they're eating badly?

A few suggestions for coping: Start ordering in veggie platters. Take them out for sushi whether they like it or not. Leave them Secret Santa Ginkgo Biloba supplements by their monitor. And finally here's a list of some nice articles from Psychology Today on food for your brain, which I rather enjoyed:

Happy holidays, and eat better! [Edited to add: Consider hiring a chimp instead if your team mate or manager can't remember things after eating better.]

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fan Videos, Redux or Three

There's been a sudden spurt of press about fan video creators recently, specifically New York Magazine's profiling of Luminosity, in Online Videos 2007. Henry Jenkins has a short writeup here, suggesting he nominated her work. And here's a coincidentally timed article in the Japan Times on anime fan music video, pointed to by a vidder friend of mine.

While I'm at it, here's a link to my older post about a talk I gave at IBM on fan video creators. LiveJournal is one of the main places they are hanging out now, and in that post and talk I showed some network relations among "vidder" groups on LJ. The anime vid crowd is very distinct from the other TV show vidding crowds. They have an aesthetic and interests that evolved very independently. (As a former fan vidder myself, I don't love LiveJournal and what it's done for and to fandom's communication, but it has certainly been a nice central point for many folks to find each other and also avoid each other if wanted. LiveJournal's prominence in online media fandom is also mentioned frequently in Henry Jenkin's Gender and Fan Culture discussion.)

And speaking of gender and academic studies, I have a minor peeve about the discussion of vidding and Lum's work in that New York mag article, and in Henry's writeup. I suppose this is also one reason I got disillusioned by the academic studies of fandom while I was on their fringes as a fan vidder and grad student. There's a bit too much focus on stuff like "feminist critique" of TV shows and other big concepts that seem to "legitimize" something that to outsiders probably looks goofy and crazy. (Unless they're active in sports fandoms, and even then, that's okay in a way that TV fandom isn't!) The very vids that were picked of Lum's to host on NY mag's site in a postage-stamp-sized, stopmotion playback fashion are kind of off-topic, to me. They aren't the emotional ones about plot and story and character, they're commentary with gorgeous images and effects. I don't mean this in any way to criticize her work, which is excellent as always; but they aren't the ones of hers that are best-loved by the fan consumers. She herself says she goes for the emotional punch; so to me this makes these vids odd choices for the story, perhaps ones that were thought to hold up better to outsiders?

And a few comments on the online video THING that bugs most of the purist vidders. It may mean greater access and easier distrubition being on YouTube or Imeem, but the playback still sucks. Big screen quality of experience, caliber of edits, timing, etc. are all important to fan vidders. These online sites don't support it, and that means a lot of vidders just aren't happy with them as a means of distribution. If you watch vids on YouTube, you aren't seeing the real thing. I'm just saying. It started long before the Internet, and still lives in parallel, despite what people having conferences about online video might say. To illustrate, here is a long list of vids made about the Professionals (a UK tv show), with dates and authors. Look at the dates lower in the list. Those were made on VCRs, the way many of us started.

Relevant other links: DIY video conferenece, covering fan video in part, in February 2008. (They have reviewed submissions for the ones they think are best, by their criteria, not community criteria, again? I know a fan or two is involved, but still, their conference site worries me.) Some friends of mine whom I used to vid with posted a sampler of vids, including one of my co-authored ones, announced here. If you want to see all of Luminosity's fan works in non-postage-stamp jerky playback, her list is here.