What exactly ux professionals do?

11.06.2015 | Author: Ricardo Fleck
Last week I had a Skype conversation with some fellow UX professionals about the essence of User Experience Design. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a lot of the discussion focused on why so many practitioners and companies have a misconception of our activities. Their dilemma is simply this: What exactly UX Designers do?

The quick answer would be to add value to your product. But that, although correct, is a bit intangible and therefore difficult to understand. Let me try to simplify it.

Most projects, like designing a physical product, website or app, are attempts to solve problems. This is, of course, the essence of most design. And there are numerous ways to solve problems. So what makes UX designers unique? Quite simply, we look up for the least intrusive way possible to solve any given problem. A good solution not only solves the problem, it also lowers the burdens of external factors, letting people concentrate on their personal objectives.
However the techniques we use to get our results - user testing, customer-journey mapping, wireframes etc. – are not traditional design tools. And the confusion results because we are applying often unfamiliar tools to provide intangible value.

In my opinion UX design has three main phases: understanding, hypothesis, and testing.

In understanding, you grasp the essence of your problem. What exactly is the problem? Who are your users? How do they deal with the problem? There are many techniques for that like personas, document analysis, and others.

During the hypothesis phase, you develop your solution to the problem. This solution often functions as a metaphor of how users already solve the problem. Mockups, prototypes, and other visual tools can be used to express ideas.

The testing phase is when we take hypothesis out for a ride in the real world. We work with actual users to test our hypothesis. And we have many tools, such as A/B testing, to turn our qualitative work in to quantitative data. With that, we can finally turn our hypothesis into a real and tangible product.

UX designers, like all people, come in all kinds of flavors. And this is why we use different techniques throughout our design process. But remember, the techniques you use aren’t the objective of your project, the solution of the problem in the less intrusive way is.

The deliverables - hi fi prototypes, personas, and all those other cool stuff that makes you sound smart at a party - is the body of the UX project. They embody the meaning, expectations, and understanding of the user’s problem, which are the heart and sould of your design.

User experience designers are guardians of the user's needs and goals, they turn great ideas into reality, by tapping into that collective unconsciousness, turning the users into allies, and those allies can turn the tide of the raging battle that our world economy is right now.
Filed under:  User experience | Tags: | 109 comments

The Triforce of UX

23.06.2014 | Author: Ricardo Fleck

I love metaphors and analogies; they make complicated stuff seem simple. Here’s my take on what I believe are the core elements of user experience: the Triforce of UX – feel, perceive, convey.

User Experience happens whether it is intentionally designed or not. It surrounds us and binds our reality with the rest of the world. But because the ultimate effect of the experience is subjective, and therefore unique to every being, it is complex to understand and replicate. In short, people are different and experiences will be as well. And that’s the beauty of it!

Each new experience is forged in the fire of our minds, by content, perception, and action. These can be subdivided in many other ways, but to me, it’s simpler to understand this way. Content is why we are having that experience, our purpose and essence, our one true king. Perception is how we have that experience, the way we interact and our minds travel from A to B in our journey to mastery and discovery and action is the path we take to embrace the challenges and emerge with our quest reward. 

Eric wrote a great article about content last week, but I’d like to add a few things. While we love to divide things to conquer, we feel them as a whole, so the content is actually the essence of all things. And all the experiences we have and how we save and savor them in our minds, using Eric’s metaphor, I would add that we FEEL the content as all the king, queen, kingdom and jester powers combined. This takes me to my next point.

PERCEPTION is how we experience things, and while our content is magic, we don’t deal in absolutes. We are subject to many variables: we have bad days, become stressed, are in a hurry, etc. This may seem irrelevant, but every valuable experience is a journey to mastery, we learn to understand and embrace those experiences until they become a part of us. Brain research shows that having a good time impacts directly in authentic memory so taking in account the external variables to make it a better experience, or reducing the negative impacts of the environment, might just make the difference between “just another experience” and a really valuable one. 

Action (or the lack of) is what we do to CONVEY the experience. There are many different media and processes, all with their needs, methods, and results, so choosing the correct weapon and using it correctly is crucial. However. even more critically, we need to respect differences and design properly for each one. For example, a website and a printed manual might achieve the same results, but through very different paths in our brain - and that should be considered while designing.

I’ll conclude by saying that while I agree with some authors who tell us experience cannot be fully designed, taking these three forces into consideration, we can give experiences a strong push in the right direction regardless of our control on the situation. And this is what allows us to choreograph experiences that become valuable, memorable, and have meaning. Those are the powerful adjectives to be reckoned with in our business. And we achieve this through the triforce: feel, perceive, convey.

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Riffing on the “content is king” metaphor

10.06.2014 | Author: Eric Reiss

We’ve heard that “content is king” for years. Curiously, the metaphor stands up extremely well, even when stretched, prodded, and otherwise abused. Here’s my take.

Content is King
Content rules all things. Food ingredients are the content objects that allow us to cook recipes. And online, content is what communicates products, services, and ideas. Content strategy, in many ways, represents the rational, left-brain view of things. It ensures all the needed content elements are available and that the messaging is on target. It defines the responsibilities for keeping the content fresh, it appoints those who will govern the process. And it helps architect the placement of these content elements to make them easy to locate. Content is king.

Understanding is Queen
But then there’s also the right-brain, intuitive side of things. If people don’t understand the content because it is confusing or inappropriate, then the King’s work is all for naught. Intuition represents the brain’s quality assurance department. Whereas our rational brain dots the “I”s and crosses the “T”s, intuition provides the ultimate proof-of-concept for the rational strategy. Long live the Queen!

Context is the Kingdom
The way in which content elements relate to one another is what differentiates, for example,  information architecture from business strategy. Creating the links between related elements provides exceptional value. Contextually related elements, such as vacuum cleaners and the bags they use, and perhaps an extended service warranty for the machine, create a well-rounded, informative picture that keeps the King and Queen’s subjects (customers/consumers) happy.

Usability is the Jester
The Court Jester’s traditional task was to expose the King and Queen to inconvenient truths. Hopefully, this was done in a sufficiently neutral way so no heads rolled. Usability studies are very much like this, uncovering weaknesses in a product or system that had not been previously noted. Or weaknesses that everyone hoped would go unnoticed by the populace. Without pointing an accusatory finger, the Jester keeps it all real. And maybe does a magic trick or two along the way.

I’d be tempted to go on. But I wouldn’t want to beat “all the king’s horses” to death.

Filed under:  Blather , Content strategy , Other stuff | Tags: | 163 comments

In search of serendipity

05.05.2013 | Author: Eric Reiss
If reports from the recent South By Southwest Interactive Festival are to be believed,
“serendipity” – a fortunate accidental discovery – appears to be “Buzzword of the Month.” This is both good and bad.

Good, because we need more serendipity in our lives.
Bad, because the word has become synonymous with creativity, which it isn’t.

Invention vs. innovation
Let’s start with the bad. Invention can happen by accident (“Mr. Watson, come here! I need you!”). And yes, chance meetings between engineers and developers have often led to a beneficial combination of ideas. This is why coffee breaks and water coolers play key roles in breaking down departmental silos. In fact, MIT discovered that longer tables in company cafeterias contribute tremendously to enabling these serendipitous meetings. And smokers, gathering outside the building 10-15 times a day, often have the most effective cross-silo social networks in their companies.

But encouraging spontaneous meetings does not necessarily spawn creativity. Nor do they necessarily encourage innovation. As opposed to invention, innovation is always a planned activity. It solves a problem – and if it doesn’t, it will invariably create one. And every innovation will result in technological, social, and political consequences. Companies can’t afford to leave this to chance.

Google and serendipity
Google’s Eric Schmidt calls their product “a serendipity engine.” Yet Google’s entire philosophy rests on its ability to zero in on data and display it in an incredibly targeted manner. In truth, the less serendipitous the results, the better the sales results from AdWords, etc.

Google is giving serendipity lip service while encouraging conformity. I dislike this kind of hypocracy.

Pasta and serendipity

Some months back, I was having lunch with an Italian acquaintance. I was chided for my Scandinavian manners, having used my knife to cut my pasta. Apparently, the correct method is to use the sharp crust of the accompanying bread (which you are not required to actually eat). The knife itself is never touched.

This is typical of the kind of accidental discovery that we see less and less of. Our lives are becoming more focused. The people we follow on Twitter and Facebook are selected because they often share our viewpoints. Yes, we are exposed to cute photos and viral videos, but how much do we actually learn from these interactions? I’ll bet you cannot browse through a printed newspaper without reading at least one article that fell outside your “normal” profile. That’s serendipity.

Social media and serendipity
As the amount of information at our disposal explodes, our tendency is to focus on fewer and fewer subjects. Authors such as Eli Pariser talk of how enterprises want to keep customers encased in information cocoons. And the information architecture community, myself included, has worked hard to emphasize the importance of both relevant content and context.

Unfortunately, this attitude is as right as it is wrong. Right because it introduces some of the basics of feng shui – we eliminate the clutter. Wrong because we hinder those accidental discoveries that make our lives richer.

Sorry, I don’t have a solution. But this is something I think about constantly and I suspect social media is going to play an important role it has not yet discovered. At the dawn of the Web era, Microsoft had a great slogan, “Where do you want to go today?” Alas, most people now go to exactly the same places they went yesterday. I think we are losing something incredibly valuable. Not because people have become less curious, but because they are being robbed of the opportunity to exercise their curiosity.

Less is more

23.04.2013 | Author: Eric Reiss
Recently, I’ve started to wonder what really matters to me here in life. The answers have surprised me and I’d like to share one of them with you now.

Over time, I’ve acquired more personal property than most. I have many physical things that live in boxes, papers I’ve archived and will never read again, and the still-packed remnants of my late parent’s home filling my attic.

But here’s my epiphany: most of this stuff just doesn’t matter. Except maybe the good wine glasses ☺

Oh, I love my books. I love my piano. I have some paintings that mean a lot to me. But that’s all – just a tiny fraction of the physical stuff that clutters my life. Even family photos are somewhat irrelevant; what’s in my memory is far more meaningful than faded images in a tattered folder. When I say my head is in the clouds, think in terms of cloud computing, not naïveté.

Working too hard, achieving too little
Suddenly, I realized what I had long suspected: Good user experience, UX, is a question of less rather than more. Much much less than what most practitioners…practice.

We don’t need to analyze 150 touchpoints along the customer journey; instead we should focus our attention on finding those few essential moments that make a truly meaningful difference. We don’t need 1000 pages on our website, only the dozen or so that truly tell our story. Do we really need to clutter up our message with a QR code? Perhaps not. And we certainly shouldn’t be spending more to produce strategy documents than on creating the artifacts that contribute directly to UX. Or inventing new names for time-honored techniques.

How to do it
This is the seemingly tough part. Yet in truth it is remarkably easy.

Imagine you’re about to buy a house. You walk in. You take in the big view. When you leave, you have a selection of impressions imbedded in your brain. These are the key issues. It is only when you decide to buy the house that you make detailed measurements, consult an architect and an interior designer and other specialists.

So, in terms of UX, I beg you to roll things back a bit. Try and remember the big picture, before you get bogged down in site statistics, and all the specialties that characterize our industry.

The big picture is where the true UX story lies. Is “God in the details?” Where UX is concerned, it strikes me that the Devil is in the details.

As designers, we need to take off our eyeglasses. We need to spot the big fuzzy shapes. They will almost always define the elements of UX on which we should later focus.

We must not allow ourselves to be so blinded by our amazing opportunities to examine big data, that we can no longer see the forest for all the little digital trees. Alas, it appears user experience is rapidly becoming the stooge of big data. We bow before the alter of obscure statistics. Yet, these data will never move us beyond the “what.” Our talent as designers lies in discovering the “why” and communicating this effectively.  If we fail to do so, we will never convey the needed empathy toward either our users or our stakeholders.

Design angel

20.04.2013 | Author: Eric Reiss
Earlier this year, my dear friend, Hannah Koppel,  gave me a paper angel she had made. Here’s a photo:


Hannah is a talented designer and ceramacist. And as the daughter of renowned silversmith Henning Koppel, her gene pool leaves nothing to be desired.

Unfolded, the angel is a simple circle of paper. Nothing more.


I share this design with you because, for me, it represents the ultimate in what design should represent:

- spiritual and visual harmony
- simplicity
- freedom from unnecessary constraints.

This combination of elegance and simplicity is something all designers should all strive to attain. I’m grateful to know people like Hannah who can guide me along the path. And pleased to share this wonderful little gift with my friends in cyberspace.

Selling User Experience

15.04.2013 | Author: Eric Reiss
I grew up in an unusual household. As the son of politically aware scientists, by the time I was six, my greatest passions were music, baseball, antique cars, and nuclear isotopes.

What I learned at a very young age has served me well in promoting the benefits of user experience (UX) to my clients and community. Please bear with me through a long ramble. Hopefully, you’ll think it was worthwhile.

Where I’m coming from…
My parents were founding members of the St. Louis Citizen’s Committee for Nuclear Information, CNI. Back in the late 1950s, they realized that above-ground nuclear testing  was eventually going to kill people due to air-borne radioactive fallout entering the food chain. But how could they convince politicians that this was something that should be addressed? After all, increases in thyroid cancer wouldn’t appear for another 20-30 years. By that time, the powers-that-be would be retired or dead. Clearly emotional arguments were not going to work.

CNI’s tactic was one from which the user-experience professionals could learn: opinion-based projects generally fail. Fact-based projects generally succeed. In 1959, CNI started to collect deciduous teeth and measure the Strontium-90 that children had absorbed through the food chain. The results were published in 1961. No emotion. No hyperbole. Just solid scientific data.

The work of the CNI played a key role in bringing about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Linus Pauling ran off with the Nobel Peace Prize. But the grunt work was done in St. Louis. (I was always fascinated by Pauling’s missing incisor)

Sadly, the death projections made back in 1961 have proven to be true. The evidence from the St. Louis study is so powerful that it provided the baseline from which the Japanese government evaluated the Fukushima disaster.

For those of you who are scientifically and historically inclined here’s a link:


And what can the UX community learn from this?
Today, the user-experience community is still basing far too much of its work on opinion rather than facts. And to be frank, why should our opinion weigh more than that of a CEO who wants to put pictures of kittens on the home page? Or an eager brand manager who thinks an iPhone app will further his flagging career?

This is why books like Susan Weinschenk’s “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People” is important. And Dan Ariely’s “Predictably Irrational.” Or even my blogpost from 2011 about the limbic system and how dopamine production affects our ability to make rational design choices at different stages in the development process.

If our community is going to actively sell the concept of user experience, we need hard data. Yet at every conference I attend, I hear about new tools, new techniques, new processes –but almost never about unassailable scientific results that demonstrate replicability. Sadly, most of the case stories I hear are merely glorified advertising. Moreover, like touching the hot iron as a child, learning about what doesn’t work is also important.

Can we trust the source?
A few years ago, I was told by a professor at the University of Bergen (Norway) that red buttons demonstrated a 21% better conversion rate than green buttons. And if you google “submit button” and look at the images, the preponderance of red buttons suggests that there is some truth to this statement. Unfortunately, when I tried to trace this “fact” back to the source, it appears to have come from a blogpost, with virtually no supporting data whatsoever.

As was pointed out in one of the better sessions at the recent IA Summit in Baltimore, we need to show up at meetings and presentations armed with hard data. Printouts. Case stories. Anything to back up our point of view. Yet where are these reports and statistics? No, not just basic usability studies, but solid facts that establish a baseline and demonstrate concrete changes following the application of specific UX techniques.

Can we game the exceptions to the rule?
As a former smoker, I was immune to the scientific data. I knew cigarettes killed. In fact, my father died of lung cancer, yet even this wasn’t enough to keep me away from my beloved unfiltered Camels. Talk to a smoker, and you can present facts that prove that quitting will increase their longevity. But it won’t work. The trick is to show that smoking now projects a highly negative image. There’s no advantage for women to wear trendy Italian boots if their clothes stink of smoke.

Yet talk to a CEO, and you can present facts that prove that UX will improve their conversions. More importantly, if you can show that better results will improve his or her standing within the organization, you can hit two nails squarely on the head simultaneously.

The difference is one of timing (demonstrating short-term wins for a manager looking for a promotion). And killing off magical thinking (“This doesn’t apply to me,” proclaims the nicotine addict). And showing the before-and-after results based on an earlier baseline (“This is where we were. This is what we did. And look where we are now.”).

Case in point: I recently rewrote a couple of landing pages for a client (a traditional ad agency had provided the original content). My approach increased conversions dramatically. Despite my NDA, I need to find a way to document this case. Internally within the client organization, they are using the statistics to build a case for bigger budgets. And they are now giving my company thousands of dollars worth of work on almost a daily basis.

I know other companies are experiencing the same kinds of wins. But where is the data being collected? Isn’t it high time we stop talking about the tools of our trade and start demonstrating the value of our craft?

Can we circumvent the NDA?
There are lots of stories waiting to be told. Because I am discreet, many people confide in me. I mentor. I guide. And I know these data exist. But recalcitrant project managers, cagey legal departments, reluctant middle managers, and impotent brand managers team up to say: “Don’t you dare say a word about this. Our baseline is so shitty, we don’t dare admit how stupid we’ve been.” So the best stories remain behind the curtain.

Let me suggest a solution.

Let us work to create an organization that will verify the results of a project, without revealing the origin. Issuing the “trust” certificates we see on e-commerce sites. Hey, I really don’t care if Coca-Cola screwed up; what I want to know is what problem they identified and what they did to improve things. In strictly generic terms. Something I can learn and apply to my work.

There’s a business opportunity here. For the certifying organization, who will undoubtedly charge for their services. But more importantly, for all of us who are still bogged down in the Grimpin Mire where bean-counting hounds frothingly attack our methods, budgets, and raison d’etre.

TIMBUK2 And Social Customer Service

25.01.2013 | Author: Borislav Kiprin
On January 24, 2013 one of the clips on my TIMBUK2 Messendger D-Lux Bag broke due to harsh weather conditions. To be fair, it was the second time, cause low temperatures cause the plastic to wear off in general and become fragile. About 40 days ago another one broke, but I replaced it with a spare I had on the other strap that came with the bag...

I've had my TIMBUK2 bag for about two years. It is one of the things I carry around every day that I cannot live without. It is functional and I can put everything in there - my iPad, my Friday antipasti bought at the market, my umbrella and even my niece when she was a bit younger... So you can imagine how devastated I was when the clip broke...

Since I already knew before hand that TIMBUK2 does not have retail shops in Germany (I got my bag on Amazon.de), I decided to battle my own laziness and took a picture immediately attaching it to a tweet addressed to @timbook2:

Twitter timbuk2 borislavkiprin

And this is the chronology of events in their full length:

At 8:32 pm I reported the problem (photo included) and asked for help/guidance.
At 8:41 pm (only 9 minutes later) I got a reply with instructions on how to proceed.
At 8:49 pm I shot an email featuring the picture, a screenshot of my amazon order details (so they'd know the model of the bag) and my email copy.
At 9:15 pm I received a reply from "CustomerService At Timbuk2" filled with compassion and asking me from my address.
At 9:23 pm I sent a reply with my address.

To sum up, I had a shout out on Twitter @timbuk2, was transferred to email to deal with privacy sensitive information and none of my time was wasted by unnecessary questions. Throughout the communication I was being treated with genuine care, understanding, addressed by a first name in an informal, but yet polite tone and everything was kept short and to the point. My user experience was just great.

And since I am a digital marketing professional with a thing for User Experience, I can only treasure the approach TIMBUK2 is taking on service design. If one visits their website, they will see the same coherent approach there as well. Starting from shared reference on bag vs laptop sizes, going through well implemented personalisation functionality in their online shop and finishing up with support information from integrated social media channels. These guys have their digital marketing strategy on the right path.  

It still amazes me that in the age of social media being used virtually by everyone that is on the net (one way or another), there are still companies that neglect social media integration in their customer support services. To be able to do so, one has to have a well structured service design, otherwise it would be an even greater mess delivering bad user experience.

I've wrote today back to them, asking whether it would be possible to talk to their Digital Marketing Manager or the Marketing one, just to learn more about the social customer service integration at the back-end. Not sure, if they will have time for me. But if they do, I will try to make a case out of it and offer it to you on this blog, should TIMBUK2 give their explicit permission to do so, of course.

Kudos, TIMBUK2! You've got a customer for life.

Do you have any experience with social media integrated in customer service? Care to share it in the comments bellow?

On being "outdated"

06.11.2012 | Author: Eric Reiss

An acquaintance recently called my user-experience (UX) message “outdated.” As perceptions are always true in the eyes of the beholder, I did not contest this remark. But I’m surprised that this person doesn’t seem to understand either my mission or the industry we’re in. Let me explain.

I teach a subject called “UX 101.” It’s an entry-level course for CEOs and their ilk. I teach this “class” because every day, there are thousands of newcomers to interactive media. Someone has to help them understand what this brave new world is all about. And a lot of things remain constant across time and space. Kind of like Newtonian physics.  I’ve written a couple of books for this target group, too.

Naturally, if you’ve been in our industry for any length of time, you’ve probably heard my stories. Or been exposed to concepts I helped develop. Or adopted various best practices, without thought to their history.

And that is as it should be. As President Harry S. Truman once said, “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”

“Outdated”? I can’t help but smile. And I’m flattered that folks get something out of “UX 101.” Now it’s your turn to take things to the next level while I continue to work on those entry level CEOs :)

Emergency hurricane fanny pack

28.10.2012 | Author: Eric Reiss

Here's a list of about 20 things that you'll want to have with you when a hurricane strikes. Not just "around the house," but WITH YOU, preferably right there on your hip.

No, I’m not a paranoid prepper, but my family did live in South Florida for 40 years and I've seen first-hand what hurricanes can do. Having been caught up in several major storms, I now know what I want close at hand in a worst-case situation.

“Worst case” can be several things. Generally, it means you are without food, water, electricity, or shelter. You may be trapped and you may be injured. My fanny pack will help you through the first 24 hours and hopefully longer.

I’m no Bear Grylls or Ray Mears. I'm not trying to be overly dramatic. I’m just a middle-aged businessman who has learned some basic hurricane survival techniques and would like to share them.

Why a fanny pack and not a backpack?
Yes, a backpack is larger. But the fanny pack is something you can wear ALL THE TIME. I discovered how important this is when I went outside during a lull in Hurricane Wilma. We were between feeder bands, the wind was low and the sun was shining. I left our Florida house, walked 30 yards to the street to check out the situation, the weather blew up and I spent an eternity clinging to a ficus tree while the next feeder band passed through. Believe me, when things get serious, they get serious FAST.

So, even though a fanny pack doesn’t make much of a fashion statement, it is eminently practical.

Why didn’t you include a cellphone or water?
Yes. Your cellphone is important. But in a storm, you lose both power and cell towers. Don’t count on having service after a storm hits. More importantly, your phone should be in your pocket, not in a fanny pack. Finally, unless you really have an emergency, you shouldn’t be using your phone anyway – don’t tie up valuable bandwidth updating your Facebook page – except for perhaps a single short message to tell friends that you are OK.

Water is important, but again, not something for a fanny pack. Put a bottle in your pocket,

The contents
Here’s the unprioritized list. Feel free to modify depending on the size of your pack.

  • Cash
  • Extra keys
  • Eyeglasses
  • Twine
  • Whistle
  • Flashlight / batteries
  • Band-aids
  • Aspirin
  • Antiseptic cream
  • Toothbrush / toothpaste
  • Identification / bank cards
  • Pencil / paper
  • Snack
  • Cheap digital watch
  • Swiss army knife
  • Multi-purpose tool
  • Lighter / matches / candle

Emergency hurricane fanny pack contents

Let’s look at these, one by one.

When the electricity fails, so do the ATMs. You may not even be able to get to a cash machine. So, keep cash on hand. The photo illustrates 20s, but make sure to have 10s and 5s, too. People don’t make change during emergencies. If all you have is a 20, you’re going to pay 20 for whatever it is you need.

Extra keys
To your house, car, office. Trust me, if you really get hit, keys tend to get lost.

If you need reading glasses, put an extra pair in your kit. This is really an optional thing, but eyeglasses, like keys, get lost during emergencies.

Keep about 4-6 feet. I prefer jute to nylon as I can break the individual strands by hand or with my teeth if things really go wrong. You’ll want this to make a tourniquet or to hold a door open or for simply securing stuff that broke. As to tourniquets, if you’re really in trouble and need to protect an arm or a leg, you can also use the belt off the fanny pack itself.

For attracting attention if you are trapped. Let’s hope you’ll never need it. Did you know there's also a whistle attached to every life vest you’ve ever seen demonstrated when you board an airplane? C’mon folks, nobody makes this stuff up just for their own amusement.

Flashlight / extra batteries
If you’re sitting in a shuttered house when the electricity is out, a flashlight is extremely useful. Almost two million Floridians sat through several weeks without electricity during Hurricane Francis - and that storm never really hit Florida! Get a flashlight with a flat base so you can set it on its end, for example during a meal. The reflected light from a white ceiling can be very practical when several people need to navigate a space or accomplish a task simultaneously.

But be sensible: batteries in the average flashlight only last a couple of hours, so be conservative in your use. For example, big old D-cells in a flashlight with a traditional incandescent bulb will only last three to four hours.

Band-aids, aspirin, antiseptics
These are for small cuts and such. Water is often contaminated when sewage systems and water supplies become mixed. The idea here is to prevent infections from minor wounds, not provide full first-aid treatment for major injuries. Hence, no gauze or larger bandages. Tear your shirt if you need to make a pressure pad to stop major bleeding.

Toothbrush / toothpaste
Nice to have. Brushing your teeth makes you feel somewhat civilized when you’re stuck in a hurricane shelter with 1000 other stinky people who have been evacuated.

Identification / bank cards
Most guys carry a wallet in their pocket, so this may not be so important to them. But, women, assume your purse is going to get lost. Keep the most important things with you at all times!

Pencil / paper / post-its
Forget Sharpies and other writing tools. Get yourself a big, fat, carpenter’s pencil that won’t break. Carry a pad of paper and even some post-its so you can leave messages for friends and family.

A granola bar, a candy bar, whatever. As long as it will provide you with a little energy and relieve the hunger pains if you are waiting to be rescued. Make sure it’s something that can be unwrapped with one hand and eaten without utensils.

Cheap digital watch
Mine came from K-Mart for 10 bucks. It’s waterproof and has a lighted dial. And in a hurricane, it beats the hell out of my expensive Rolex Submariner in terms of practicality. The lighted dial is an important feature as hurricane aftermaths are characterized by lack of electricity/lighting. And yes, this is better off on your wrist than in the fanny pack.

Multi-purpose tools / Swiss Army knife
I have both a cheap, knock-off Leatherman and a Swiss Army knife in my kit. Of all the many features, the knife blade is perhaps the most important of all. The can opener can easily become the second-most important feature. By the way, if you're stocking up on food, get cans of stuff that can be eaten cold. Van Camps pork and beans are good and nutritious. Canned tuna is good. Spaghetti-Os and other stuff from Chef Boyardee are at least relatively tasty, when eaten with your fingers out of a cold can.

Lighter / matches / candle
The American Red Cross says to use flashlights, not candles. Well, flashlights have a much shorter useful lifetime than candles, and if you are sitting in the dark, a little light provides a lot of comfort. I carry a tea candle and a simple gas lighter. The gas lighter will dry out faster than matches if it gets wet, and although the flame is not as hot as a match, it’s still hot enough to sterilize a knife blade if the need arises.

A real candle will burn at about 1 inch per hour; if you have room in your fanny pack, put one in.

I guess that’s about it. Stay safe. And do take all this seriously. I know it’s all a huge laugh afterwards when the storm has passed and nothing really happened. But sometimes these storms DO hit…

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