The story of the BB-bird

07.08.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss

I don’t know when the BB-bird came into my life, but it was early – a bright, yellow canary with an incredibly friendly demeanour. His name, pronounced “bee-bee”, was related directly to my ability to say things around the age of 10 months. It entered my vocabulary about the same time as “mama”, “dada”, “bye-bye”, “night-night”, and “ford”.

BB-bird had a cage, but using the cage was at the bird’s discretion, not ours; the door was always open. BB sat on my crib, let me poke him with sticks, and even flew around outside during the summer months. But BB always returned and was an integral part of our family.

One day we returned from a short winter holiday and BB was suddenly very stand-offish. He wouldn’t sing, wouldn’t play with me, and was generally apathetic (I was about three at the time, but recognized apathy nonetheless). When spring came, I opened a window and the BB-bird flew away, never to be seen again.

A few years later, my mother confessed that the original BB-bird had died that winter weekend and she had discreetly replaced him with another bird without telling me. She said it was the only time she ever lied to me – and I believe her.

She learned a lesson and I learned a lesson – several, in fact. And now, 55 years later, the BB-bird still affects my decision-making process. Allow me to share some thoughts with you.

Lessons learned from the BB-bird

First, you can sugar-coat the truth, but you can never hide it. Truth always comes out. In my case, I was confused and upset that my friend the BB-bird no longer liked me. This was far more painful than learning the concept of death. I was genuinely relieved when my mom confessed the truth behind the BB-bird’s sudden personality change.

Today, when clients leave us unexpectedly or old friends “go off the radar” in a calculated manner, I want to know why. I want an explanation – and hopefully I shouldn’t have to ask.

This leads to my second epiphany…

There is a difference between “difficult” and “unpleasant” decisions. In truth, there are relatively few “difficult” decisions here in life – mostly, we procrastinate to avoid making the “unpleasant” decisions – or look for ways to avoid confrontation entirely (e.g. replacing a dead canary to avoid upsetting the baby).

Thanks to the BB-bird, I rarely hesitate when making unpleasant decisions. It’s not that I’m cold-hearted, I just don’t see the upside in prolonging pain. I also rip off band-aids really fast. And I always explain the reasons behind my decisions and subsequent actions.

Do you have a BB-bird in your life? You probably do. So, take a moment and see what lessons you learned.

Undercover Boss – service design bitch-slapping for clueless CEOs

15.06.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss

Are CEOs out of touch with reality? I’d say a lot of you are. Although you CEOs don’t have to go to extremes to improve things, most of you do need to do something, so listen up. If you don’t want the long backstory, skip ahead to the last subhead. 

About the title of this blogpost

Undercover Boss is the title of an American reality series. The premise is simple: an out-of-touch CEO puts on a disguise, takes a low-level job within his organization, and hears the truth about the company problems. After a week of play-acting, he goes back to his office and makes everything right again.

(By the way, I write “he” as I have yet to see a female CEO profiled. But I digress…)

There’s a great review of this episode by Ken Tucker at here:

Quick recap of the “Hooters” episode

For those of you who haven’t seen the episode or read Ken’s synopsis, the “star” of this particular show was CEO Coby Brooks of Hooters.

Hooters is a chain of restaurants featuring beer and chicken wings served by buxom young women in tight t-shirts and hot-pants. FYI: “Hooters” is a slang expression for breasts. In the United States, the cute Hooters owl-logo only misleads those who are certifiably clueless (you can see it on Coby’s shirt in the photo below).

Coby Brooks (at left - duh) with two typical Hooters employees.

During the show, Coby learned (among other things), that although men love Hooters, most women feel the concept is degrading. I would have thought this was kind of a WTF “no-brainer” observation, but it certainly surprised our friend Coby as he talked on camera to random folks on the streets of Dallas, TX. (Good we got him out of his posh office and cosy private jet).

Hey, the concept is demeaning. But let’s face it, Hooters knows tits, ass, and beer is a winning combination for roughly half the population. In the meantime, Coby is now promising to rethink the company’s image. “We’re gonna tell folks about all them Hooter gals who are now doctors and lawyers and rock stars and…”

Uh…and this proves what, Coby? Did you know that feminist Gloria Steinem was once a Playboy bunny?

Lesson #1

Coby’s advisors look more like his drinking buddies than business executives.

Dear CEO, don’t hire your buddies. Don’t hire ass-lickers. Hire folks who aren’t scared of you. Sycophants and spies will never tell you the truth. And don’t take personal offence when someone disagrees with you.

Lesson #2
Coby probably would have been a better CEO if his father hadn’t just plunked him down into his current position without either warning or training. Coby seems to have had a very strained relationship with his dad and it’s clearly been tough to fill daddy’s very large shoes.

Are you a CEO looking to turn over the reins of your business to the next generation? Think twice before giving the job to a family member. This has been the downfall of many a family-owned company. Put your idiot offspring in charge of a charitable fund or something else that’s fairly harmless, but keep him away from the executive suite.

Lesson #3
Poor Coby inherits a billion-dollar business and finds out to his incredible surprise that the folks making chicken-wing sauces at his dad’s old factory in Atlanta loved his dad, but hate the current owners (er…that’s you, Coby). Why? Because Dad walked the floor and knew all his employees by name. Coby is an “absentee landlord”. The employees feel abandoned and uncared for. Which was a theme throughout this show – also when Coby visited his restaurants. Good TV. Naïve management.

Dear CEO, go “walkabout” – an Australian expression for going into the wilderness. Get your ass out of your chair and walk the floor, greet the guests, answer the phones. Honestly, you don’t need a reality TV show to get you moving.

Lesson #4
Clients come to FatDUX precisely because we can uncover problems for them without bias – which is what all agencies should provide. The amazing thing is, the work is not always particularly difficult – although it often appears impossible to those inside the organization. That’s because it’s not enough to solve a specific problem; you have to deal with the generic cause of the problem. In service-design language, this means fixing the problem both ways. We can see patterns that are often invisible from inside an organization – the more siloed the departments and functions, the more invisible the patterns are to senior management.

Dear CEO, ask questions. Ask tough questions. Demand answers. Don’t accept “it depends” as an answer from highly paid consultants. Hell, everything “depends” so there’s no need to dwell on the obvious.

Lesson #5
Dear CEO, you don’t want to be on Undercover Boss. If you’re good, you’ll never be on Undercover Boss. You’re supposed to know what’s going on in your organization. That’s why you get the big bucks.

Folks, it’s easy to get folks to tell you the truth. Just ask. If you’re honest, open, and fair, people will tell you things. But you do need to go out and talk to people. Talk to your customers (alas, far too many companies don’t ask because they are scared of what they may find out). If you want to align your business goals with user needs, you’d better understand what these needs are. The magic word is “listen”.

Coby didn’t learn a thing he couldn’t have learned in much simpler ways.

An open letter to John Hancock Insurance

13.04.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss
The following represents strictly my personal views, which may or may not represent the opinions of the owners and employees of The FatDUX Group. This represents the essence of an email sent earlier today to the John Hancock Insurance Company, in response to a promotional e-mail.

To Whom it May Concern:

Thank you for your “personalized” e-mail. Thanks, too, for the useless flash animation. Perhaps, as promised, my personal information could have been edited but I didn’t have the patience to wait through the advertising crap.

While I have your attention, I’d like to mention that my mother paid almost USD 9,000 a year for home health care. She did this for well over a decade. But when she turned 90 and really needed your help, John Hancock made us jump through all kinds of hoops.

My mother died before your policy finally “took effect”. You never paid out a cent. Good business model. Bad user experience. Your 100-day waiting period is quite effective. Alas, most needs for home health care arise quite unexpectedly. Ah, but you know this, of course :)

When you transferred her policy from one agent to another (the original agent retired many years ago – that’s how old the policy is), you kicked two numbers: the policy number and her social security number. Despite hours and hours on the phone (mostly listening to your Muzak), I don’t know that this situation was ever resolved – whenever I called, you were never able to find her policy. Yet you kept magnificent track of her bank account across at least two account changes.

During her memorial service (held at her home), I received a phone call from your organization (the fourth), requesting an appointment for one of your “professional advisors” to inspect the house to determine if my mother was really entitled to your help. Pardon me. I think I may have been rude to your representative – I was missing my mother’s eulogy.

I’m posting this on a user-experience blog because I think someone at John Hancock needs to sit up and take notice: you have a customer who paid over USD 100,000 to you and was kicked in the balls for the privilege. Imagine my joy to find I am still on your mailing list.

Eric L. Reiss
son of the late
Louise Z. Reiss
of Pinecrest, FL

Eric Reiss
The FatDUX Group
Copenhagen, Denmark
office: (+45) 39 29 67 77
mobile: (+45) 20 12 88 44
skype: ericreiss
twitter: @elreiss


If you received this in error, please let us know and delete the file. FatDUX advises all recipients to virus scan all emails, and to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables daily.

- Show quoted text -

On Wed, Apr 13, 2011 at 12:16 AM, John Hancock South Florida Group
<> wrote:
> Dear Eric,
> Every few months, I try to keep my clients and friends up-to-date with current financial issues or critical concerns. Here is the latest.
> Access Here for Your Information.
> If you want more information on this subject, just click-on the additional details box at the end.
> Feel free to send me a message. It’s always good hearing from clients and friends.
> Sincerely,
> John Hancock South Florida Group
> (305) 579-4026 (O)
> John Hancock Financial Network
> South Florida Group
> 1101 Brickell Ave. 16th Floor North Tower
> Miami, FL 33131
> If the link above does not open, try this link – or copy and paste this link into your browser.
> Registered Representative/Securities and Investment Advisory Services through Signator Investors, Inc. Member FINRA, SIPC, a Registered Investment Advisor
> This material does not constitute tax, legal, financial or accounting advice. It was not intended or written for use and cannot be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding any IRS penalty. It was written to support the marketing of the transactions or topics it addresses. Anyone interested in these transactions or topics should seek advice based on his or her particular circumstances from independent professional advisors.
> The information contained in this email is not an offer to sell or a solicitation of an offer to buy any products or services. It is for informational purposes only. Products and services mentioned in this email may not be available in all states and are only valid for distribution in the United States of America.
> If you feel you have received this message by mistake, or if you want to be deleted from further communications from me, please click below:

Should information architects be code-monkeys?

08.04.2011 | Author: Eris Reiss

At the recent IA Summit in Denver, CO, the inimitable Jared Spool suggested that information architects could do their jobs better if they knew how to code. This provocative statement did indeed provoke a lot of comment. So in answer to Jared, and as a little bit of Friday fun from the team here at FatDUX Copenhagen, let me offer my own bit of code (as opposed to cipher).

0041701        1071510        0391309        0791505        0050808        1120614

2021501        1901014        0890405        0881501        1712310        1071506

1600911        1040809        0670103        1600911        0042509        0450413

0041701        0820306        2021501        0570104        0040811        0391309

1140107        1890811        1162003        1591801        1050401        1962901

0920702        0680407        1151302        1901014        0671903        1081303

0670103        0990805        0750204        0031301        0572512        0052814

0671903        0960309        0391309        1762707

BTW, Jared, we love your most recent book, Web Anatomy. Cheers from the DUXlings.

A logical puzzle. A cash prize.

25.03.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss
The story

Wendy was nervous about attending the 2011 IA Summit in Denver, Colorado. It was her first time at a major conference and she didn’t know a soul. But as this is an informal, friendly conference, her fears were unfounded. In fact, lots of people came up to her during the opening cocktail hour on Thursday evening to chat. And Linda even brought her a drink. By the time she had talked with Dr. Sternberg and three other IA/UX professionals, she was feeling pretty confident.

The challenge

From the following clues, can you name the first four people Wendy spoke with, the order in which they arrived, and the subjects of the various conversations?

The clues

1. One person, who operates a small west-coast studio, came up to Wendy to talk about service design. This person stepped up just before Andy, but after Ms. Smith.

2. Another person was particularly interested in personas and had many ideas to share with Wendy. This was after Prof. Jones had congratulated her on winning a FatDUX student sponsorship to the event.

3. Someone had just finished reading a post on the FatDUX blog about “Writing for the Web” and was all excited about content strategy. This was just after Wendy had spoken with Hansen, who was the next person to approach her after Lynn.

4. “I’m so jealous of your work,” said Wendy to the person who came up to her and talked about wireframes. “Deliverables are simply SO exciting!” The wireframe expert was the person who showed up just before Jeff.

The prize

As a prize, FatDUX will be awarding a USD 50 gift certificate that can be redeemed at any participating…oh screw the formalities…Eric will give you fifty bucks cash to use any way you want. But you do have to show up in Denver to collect it!

So there you have it. Can you solve the puzzle? You’ve got all the information you need. Now show us that as an information professional you know how to handle information challenges!

Send your answers directly to Eric at er (at) fatdux (dot) com. First right anwer takes the prize.

Offer may be void in Southeastern Montana, parts of central Romania, and at 924 West End Avenue, NYC. Check local regulations before responding. Employees of FatDUX are not eligible for the cash prize, but if you show up at the Hyatt Regency bar in Denver, we won’t disappoint you.

Seven things I learned

21.03.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss
1. Listen and learn. In that order.
Wisdom may come from intuition, but understanding comes from knowledge. If your urge is to show off your knowledge, that’s generally the time to shut up.

2. A perception is always true to the perceiver
If someone thinks “green is ugly”, you will rarely convince them otherwise. It is very difficult to mirror your own unique vantage point.

3. The best ideas are the toughest to convey
I’ve found it helps to say that Seth Godin, Warren Buffet, or Benjamin Franklin thought of my ideas first.

4. Insightfulness is both a talent and a curse
Did you experience a true epiphany? Or are you just creating problems in a Munchausen-by-proxy fashion? It’s not easy to tell…and always frustrating.

5. Common sense is not a common quality
The mesencephalon (mid-brain), which controls emotions, tends to veto the rational stuff coming from the prosencephalon (new brain). Very frustrating when our prosencephalon gets into a fight with someone else’s mesencephalon.

6. Honesty provides the ultimate competitive edge
Folks can take my friends and my belongings, but they can never take my integrity. Cheaters never prosper. This I believe to be an absolute fact.

7. Never take yourself too seriously
The “high horse” is still a depressingly popular vehicle.

N.B. Thanks to Erik van den Berg from Zeist in the Netherlands, for encouraging this interesting philosophical exercise via Twitter and e-mail.

Dopamine and the mind – why good designs go wrong

14.02.2011 | Author: Eric Reiss

Over the years, I have noticed a strange pattern: when executives (site owners) are asked to comment on design layouts, they often say there is too much text and demand larger pictures/graphics – whether these are relevant or not. These executives are disappointed and frustrated with the design proposals they see. On the other hand, if you listen to users (during usability testing, for example), they complain that these same pictures/graphics are getting in their way. Like the executives, they also exhibit frustration, but in a diametrically different way – “Why are you making me scroll past this crap to get to the information I really need?” 

My question was simple: was there a scientific reason for these dramatically different reactions to essentially the same designs? And I think the answer is “yes”.I’ve included a few salient footnotes for those of you who are scientifically inclined.

Thesis in brief (1)

Why do two groups of people seem to consistently disagree regarding the “attractiveness” of a website design? Could it be that there was a physiological reason for these reactions? In short, was our brain playing tricks on us or misleading us? Were our development and presentation techniques actually encouraging inappropriate client reactions?

Early research

I have known about the functions of neurophysiological “reward chemicals” since my pre-med studies at Washington University in St. Louis 1972-1976. In late 2007, having spotted the curious reaction pattern described above, I started to do some more serious research, focusing on the limbic system (2) and the nature of reward chemicals (3).

I made the assumption that if the pattern I had identified was universal, voluntary intake of recreational reward chemicals (e.g. nicotine, caffine, cocaine, etc.) was probably not at the heart of these reactions. So I looked for chemical rewards produced by the body itself. Soon, my inquiry zeroed in on dopamine, a chemical messenger similar to adrenaline. (4)

Dopamine – friend or foe?

Dopaminergic neurons appear to code environmental stimuli rather than specific movements. (5) This, in layman’s terms, means that pretty pictures stimulate dopamine release, which perhaps explains why executives favour graphics over blocks of text in dummy design layouts.

Although this reaction seems obvious (pictures are more attractive than text), it was reassuring to know that there was a scientific reason for this.

Task-solving activities

The second part of my question dealt with why test subjects so often reacted badly to eye-candy (i.e. gratuitous pictures/graphics).

There are various viewpoints as to the role of dopamine and the task-completion process. For example, Pennartz et al. (6) asked in 2009:

“Given the parallel organization of corticostriatal circuits, the question arises how coherent behavior, requiring integration of sensorimotor, cognitive, and motivational information, is achieved.”

Perhaps part of the answer to this critical question can be found in Taizo Nakazato’s research, published back in 2005 (7):

“During the task performance, dopamine concentration started to increase just after the cue, peaked near the time of the lever press, and returned to basal levels 1–2 s after the lever press.”

By way of background, this study deals with rats pressing a lever to receive a food reward. In internet terms, I equate this behavior with humans pushing a button/clicking a link to receive an informational reward. In other words, task accomplishment produces a reward – in this case chemical.

Actually, though, it appears that the anticipation of task-completion triggers dopamine release (8). And it could be that executives about to see a proposed design for the first time may be anticipating the presence of pretty pictures.

Yet the essence of the problem seems to be that if something delays/hinders task completion, dopamine release actually causes post-action frustration. Dr. J.G. Fleischer describes this phenomenon quite succinctly: (9, 10)

“If the [subject] does not receive the reward when it expects to receive it, then there is a depression of dopamine release, which is consistent with the negative preduction error that would occur in that situation.”

In other words, if something gets in the way of task completion, dopamine doesn’t get where it’s needed (“depression of dopamine release”). I suggest that perhaps the pretty pictures and eye-candy that were anticipated and appreciated during the presentation phase, are actually getting in the way of test subjects who expect a more relevant response to their query (i.e. clicking on a promising link). If we make people scroll to get to the stuff they want (and expect to receive), they experience dopamine depression.

That said, a more recent study by Wanat et al. (11), suggests that further research is needed:

“[The] enhancement of reward-evoked dopamine signaling was also observed in sessions in which the response requirement was fixed but the delay to reward delivery increased, yoked to corresponding trials in PR sessions. These findings suggest that delay, and not effort, was principally responsible for the increased reward-evoked dopamine release in PR sessions. Together, these data demonstrate that NAcc dopamine release to rewards and their predictors are dissociable and differentially regulated by the delays conferred under escalating costs.”

In other words, the tougher it is to achieve a result, the greater the dopamine reward. This somewhat contradicts my thesis – and yet these findings also indicate that the response is situational. Hence, I feel certain that Wanat & Co. are actually looking at a different side of the problem, unrelated to task-based frustration, but that related to task-completion in a triumphal ”I just made it to the summit of Mt. Everest” kind of manner.

Drawing on my network

In late 2009, my online research led me to my grade-school best-friend, Jon Kassel. (12) Jon is now Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois. Jon’s speciality is addiction. Naturally, the effect of drugs on emotions represents a key part of his own research.

Jon and I chatted informally about the problem with which I was wrestling. And without putting too many words in Jon’s mouth, it seems my thesis holds water – certainly from a cognitive point of view, and more and more from a clinical-psychology point of view, too. I hope that Jon and I can work on this in more detail sometime.

Please note: my conversations with Jon served merely as litmus tests and should not be construed as formal endorsement of my theories on the part of Dr. Kassel or the University of Illinois.

Community research

Of course, it could be that the pattern I thought I had detected was merely a fata morgana, Maybe my community wasn’t seeing the same things I was. So in January 2010, I published a simple survey on SurveyMonkey, which I broadcast to the interactive-design community via social media and list serves. (13) All of my questions could be answered with a simple yes/no. Here they are, along with the results of the 144 people who responded within the first week:

1. Have you ever been at a client meeting where you or your company have presented detailed page mockups for a proposed website (a “comp” complete with graphics and “greeked” text)?

Note: This may or may not represent the culmination of a longer discovery/strategic/IA process, but exactly where this presentation occurs in the overall process is not particularly important in terms of this survey.

Yes: 97.9%
No: 2.1%

2. If you have been to a website design presentation meeting as described above, have you ever heard the client say, “Very pretty, but there’s too much text. We need more/better/prettier graphics.” (this is when clients start talking about including pictures of their pet cat.)

I see this mostly when senior officials have not participated in an earlier discovery/IA/wireframing process.

Yes: 70.5%
No: 29.5%

3. Having been present at the original design presentation, have you later observed (probably through a one-way mirror during a usability session) that respondents say “Don’t make me scroll through the damned eye-candy to get to the substance. Get rid of the picture of that dumb cat!”

Yes: 58%
No: 42%

4. So in short, do you see any correlation between requests for more eye-candy during the layout approvals, and irritation with the same eye-candy during task-based usability testing?

Yes: 59.9%
No: 41.1%

About 62% of the respondents were from North America, 30% were from Europe, 8% were from the rest of the world.

Even though this is a primitive survey, the statistical results are significant; the pattern I hypothesised is recognized by others by a factor approaching 2 to 1.

Today, “dopamine” seems to have become “flavor of the month”

I first mentioned this research en passant in blogpost I published in January, 2009. (14) I talked about it again briefly at the IA Summit in Phoenix, AZ in April, 2010. Today, the subject seems to be finally taking hold – most recently at the IxDA’s conference, Interactions 11, in Boulder, CO last week (February 2011). Here, Charles Hannon, presented the subject formally (e.g. as the main subject of a talk) for the first time in our community. (15) Although the subject has also been broached tangentially at EuroIA 2010 and elsewhere, I look forward to speaking with Prof. Hannon at some point; alas, I was not able to attend the Boulder conference.

A second empirical observation

When I first suspected that comprehensive design mock-ups might be creating problems, we tweaked the development/presentation process in my own company, FatDUX. Subsequently, we spent much more effort in guiding senior management through our decision-making process prior to showing actual color design mockups. Although we had always involved our clients in the earlier stages of the development process, we had never previously insisted on top-management participation.

My empirical observation is that if C-level administrators are made part of the comprehensive design process, there is less chance they will insist on bigger pictures or cuter kittens on the website. In situations where we have not been able to obtain face-time with senior officials, our designs are more often open to challenge. Only expensive rounds of usability testing have enabled us to reinstate the graphic-design best-practices we normally espouse.

Some background

Both of my parents were scientists and the value of the scientific method and controlled studies was something I learned in parallel with my ABCs. As a pre-med student at Washington University in St. Louis, I continued my scientific studies, although I did wind up in a so-called “unrelated field” (encouraged by my father, who helped me send my first e-mail back in 1982 (no typo) to his secretary at the University of Miami). I have since been involved in the creation and/or critique of over 1500 websites and online apps.

So in closing, I encourage you to do your own research to prove or disprove my contention. And if you’d like to share your own empirical observations and/or research, I hope you’ll leave a comment here or write me directly at

Here, I use “thesis” in the literal Greek fashion: as an “intellectual proposition” (θέσις), not a “dissertation” (dissertātiō).,+dopaminergic+neurons+are+fired&source=bl&ots=JMINA_81vP&sig=9fC8tPBQ6hGBzweK0B9y0Og3rIg&hl=da&ei=9_tYTeDyEozoOaTzsJIF&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CEkQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

Twitter, plus the SIGIA list maintained by the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and the discussion list of the Interaction Design Association. The survey was published on 10 January 2010.

Tech tips for conference presenters and organizers

30.11.2010 | Author: Eric Reiss
I attend a fair number of conferences each year. I speak at a number of these. I also help organize a conference, EuroIA. Here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years. Perhaps they will make your life easier and your presentations smoother. As an audience member, there’s nothing worse than watching novices fiddle about on stage.

Note: this is not so much about HOW to present, but how to handle the technical and practical aspects of public speaking. Presenters: I’m assuming you know that eye contact is a good thing. Organizers: I assume you understand the importance of keeping a conference running smoothly and providing free WiFi.

Note #2: I will be incorporating reader suggestions in order to keep this article up-to-date. So if you have a great tip, please let me know.

Tips for presenters

1. Take the time to check your presentation ahead of time on a real VGA projector. Under all circumstances, you need to know how to get your presentation up on both the projector AND your laptop screen (two clicks on F4 or F10 for most PC users). You’ll find that orange and yellow will become greenish. And light grey lines in graphs and other graphics may disappear entirely. Some videos may become way too dark. Adjust your colours and other elements accordingly so your audience actually gets to see the things you want to present.

2. Check your timing. Audiences feel cheated if you have to rush through or skip large portions of your presentation. And you look pretty foolish, too. If you want to take questions afterwards, make sure to leave time for this. For this reason, I ALWAYS take a small, easy-to-read analogue clock with me that I put somewhere I can see it. It is easier to glance at a clock with big hands than at your wristwatch or presentation tool. If all else fails, I sometimes start the stopwatch on my phone and put the phone on the floor in front of where I will be standing. Whatever you do, NEVER run over your allotted time. If your organiser is going to provide time signals, make sure you understand them and VISIBLY ACKNOWLEDGE them when you see them during the final minutes of your presentation.

3. Check your equipment ahead of time. Use a break prior to your presentation to set up your computer and make sure everything works properly – particularly video and sound. You can then disconnect it, knowing that when it’s your turn to present, the changeover should be a simple matter of plug-and-play.

4. If you are presenting from someone else’s computer, make sure to check your animations. (Powerpoint does not convert one-to-one when moving from a Mac to a PC and vice versa.) Also, not all Powerpoint and Keynote functionality is backward compatible. If your presentation was created using the latest product release and relies on sophisticated features, check these thoroughly after you transfer your presentation to the host computer. Personally, I still use PowerPoint 2003 because it works with pretty much everything (except a Mac, of course).

5. If you are using a remote presentation tool (I love my Logitech 2.4 GHz cordless presenter), make sure to check that it has batteries and is in good working order. If you are using a smartphone and Bluetooth (Android, iPhone, etc.) to advance your slides, make sure it is also charged and ready for action (Warning to new presenters: because smartphones use touch-screen buttons, you’ll have to look at your phone each time you need to click, which can seriously hinder your presentation style. Far better to buy or borrow a dedicated clicker with physical buttons. And practice using it and the laser pointer!)

6. Always make sure your computer has a VGA port or an adaptor to this format. If you are presenting from a Mac, make sure to bring your own MiniDVI to VGA adaptor. As an audience member, it’s irritating to wait while a presenter asks the audience if anyone has an adaptor. Organizers have a schedule to keep; the time you waste is often your own. Note: the adapter for older Macs will not fit a newer machine and vice versa.

7. Bring with you all the proper power cables and outlet adaptors you will need. Simple electrical plug compatibility can be a real hassle sometimes, so make sure you can actually plug in your laptop. 120V and 220V conversion is rarely an issue; the problem is always with the physical plug connection. Remember to take your adaptor with you when you’re finished (most of the adaptors I own have been left behind by others in hotels and at conferences).

8. Fully charge your laptop or iPad before your presentation. If someone kicks out the plug, you don’t want your presentation to crash.

9. If you need sound (typically a 3.5mm jack to plug into your headphone output), tell the organizers well ahead of time. Don’t automatically assume that sound will be available.

10. Optimize your screen resolution. PC users seem to do best at 1024 x 768. That said, older projectors will sometimes insist on 800 x 600 resolution. Mac users should probably start with 800 x 600 and work their way up to something higher. The wide-screen projectors now coming into use will probably require you to fiddle with your settings for optimum results. I have no rule of thumb at this point.

11. Older Mac operating systems require a restart to properly connect to the projector. Remember this if the computer is not connecting properly.

12. If your laptop is connected properly, but the projector gives you a “No Signal” message, try switching the source input on the projector (for example from PC 1 to PC 2).

13. If you are going to upload your presentation to Slideshare, do so ahead of time, but mark it as “Private”. The morning of the conference, you can easily switch this restriction to “Public” from a smartphone or some other low-bandwidth device so your presentation immediately becomes available.

14. If you want to read more about generic presentation tips, check out this excellent 2007 article from Lifehack:

Or this one from BZ Media:

Or this great advice from Donna Spencer:

And if you will be speaking through an interpreter, check out this excellent advice from AZ World:

Tips for conference organizers

1. Make sure you have a range of suitable electrical adaptors, plus both of the Mac VGA adaptors in your emergency kit. Ensure that there are unused power outlets available at the speaker’s podium – at least two.

2. Arrange hand-signals with your speakers so they know how long they have left before their time runs out. I generally stand at the back of the room and hold up two hands with fingers outstretched to signal “10-minute warning”. A single hand is the “5-minute warning” Making a “T” using both hands means “Time up”. Put a clock on stage if one is not already hanging at the back of the room. And don’t be afraid to drop a Q&A session or simply break off a presentation if the speaker is unable to finish at the proper time.

3. If a session starts late (but not because the presenter is unprepared), don’t cut the presenter off early just to make up time. You owe them the chance to deliver their session properly. Better to incorporate longer breaks and to shave some time off of these to get back on schedule.

4. Don’t force your guests to use a standard presentation design template. This cramps their visual style. Even a simple header/footer will invariably take up valuable on-screen space. It’s better to do without.

5. Although you may need contributions for your printed proceedings well in advance of the conference, give your speakers as long as possible to edit and improve their presentations - preferably up until the night before the conference (when their own creativity and adrenalin levels are at their highest). Insisting on a “final” presentation weeks ahead of time will invariably lead to poorer performance levels during the conference itself. Note: the best presenters practice and fine-tune their stuff up until the very last minute – not because they are unprepared, but because they are gearing up for the performance they will be giving.

6. If you want your conference logo or Twitter details on the opening screen of the presentation, let your presenters know in good time. Do them the favour of sending them an optimized logo that is easy to paste into their presentation (eps, jpg, gif). Don’t assume presenters are going to bother to download something from your conference website and then Photoshop it to the right format – or that they even have the skills needed to do this.

7. Although tempting, avoid uploading presentations to your on-stage conference computer. This can easily screw up videos and animations. If swap time is critical (e.g. moving from one presentation to the next), arrange to have a VGA switch available so you can move from one computer to the other at the flick of a button.

8. If you have a cover slide to open your conference, or even a simple presentation of sponsors etc. to kick off the proceedings, consider giving this to your keynote speaker so he or she can incorporate it at the beginning of his or her own slide deck. This avoids the first presentation hand-off and starts the conference in a smoother manner. If you have a standard title slide you want to use as a transition to other presentations, give this to your presenters ahead of time.

9. If you plan on starting your conference by thanking all your volunteers, consider putting together a PowerPoint that runs automatically and loops endlessly while people are finding their seats. Seth Godin has a good article about how to do this. As opposed to a simple cover presentation, you’ll probably need to keep this on your conference laptop and not give it to your opening keynote speaker.

10. If you absolutely need a presentation delivered to you on a USB stick (to coordinate with a video recording, for example), make sure to let the presenter know exactly what is needed and how it will be used in advance of the conference.

11. If you have a screen behind the speaker, beware of using big plasma displays (LCD). These will not appear properly in photographs taken at the event. The colours always change and the effect can be very disconcerting.

12. Keep in mind that projections on a wall will be dimmer than projections on a real movie screen. Back projections will not be as bright or photograph as well as front projections.

13. Make sure projector and sound cables (VGA and 3.5mm jack) are available at the same physical location (the podium for example). Curiously, many technicians have VGA at the podium and sound somewhere else entirely. Conversely, make sure the cables can be separated; many laptops have VGA and jack inputs on opposite sides so bundled cables can create problems.

14. If you need to give your presenters a microphone, make sure they are cordless. Handheld is OK, but lavalieres are much, much better. Be sure you know how they work and where the mute button is located – don’t rely on a local technician. Ensure that the batteries are fresh in the morning – and swap them during the lunch hour. That said, if you can afford it, keep your technicians in the room at all times.

15. If you expect questions from the audience, make sure a hand-held cordless mike is available, plus a runner who can bring the mike to audience members. If you have two aisles, two mikes/runners are better than one.

16. If you want to read more about how to run a conference, check out this article:

The user experience of user manuals

18.11.2010 | Author: Eric Reiss
My wife and I recently received a wonderful gift: an electric juicer. Normally, I fight to keep contraptions like this off our kitchen counters, which I view as workspace, not storage or display. But the juicer is a really neat machine (albeit a bitch to clean). Here it is: 


Great piece of kitchen kit!

Our friends brought along a whole shopping basket full of berries, apples, oranges, limes, red beets, ginger, celery, and other goodies to stuff down its plastic gullet. But what was the best way to combine them? I needed some advice.

Alas, the user manual looked like a thousand other user manuals:

- exploded diagram showing all the parts
- lots of warnings to unplug the unit before doing anything (except using it)
- "Make sure unit is plugged in"


So much for creating a good experience...

What's wrong with this picture?"
Having created a great product, why didn't the manufacturer, OBH Nordica, try to inspire me? Why didn't they include a couple of simple recipes to get me started? Why didn't they tell me about how this monster conserves vitamins and gets them from their mechanism to my metabolism? Why didn't they follow through and help me complete the experience they were helping to create?

"That's what our advertisements are for," explained the myopic marketing maven I spoke with. 

The sale is NEVER closed!
It's a big mistake to assume that once the sale is made, everyone will be happy. In fact, several software producers have asked us to help their customers get better results from their products. Lousy implementation will kill any product, no matter how well-designed it is. Right now, my twisted mind is wondering what would happen if I stuffed oysters into our shiny new juicer... 

"Nobody ever reads the user manual"
Wrong! We might ignore a user manual if you also give us a well-written "Quick start" guide. But most people glance through the real user manual at some point - particularly for devices that feature:

- moving parts that need maintenance (cars, lawnmowers, sewing machines, etc.)
- disposable/replaceable bits and pieces (vacuum cleaners, coffee machines)
- bizarre behaviour when you push a particular button

And folks will always read the manual if your product's user-UN-friendly interface is particularly antisocial. My Danfoss ECL Comfort 200 home heating controller, for example.

So, if folks are perhaps going to look at this documentation, why not make an attempt to produce something as appealing as the physical product itself? In terms of user experience, I think most manufacturers are really missing a great opportunity. 

The exception is Sandberg
I recently bought a USB hub. Naturally, it came with a user manual. Here's the EU-friendly cover - featuring all the flags of all the languages in which the manual was printed: 


Cover of the Sandberg USB-hub instructions

Now, as this is basically supposed to be a plug-and-play device, I was sorry to see that Sandberg thought a user manual was necessary. So imagine my delight when I opened it up: 


What a delightful surprise! Very cute, indeed.

The Sandberg people apparently felt that a user manual was as unnecessary as I did. So they turned the whole thing into a joke - boring cover, but with useful suggestions inside. Great. I'm a fan. Sandberg is a brand I will look for in the future. 

And that makes user manuals part of the business model (wink, wink) 

What is YOUR product?
Nokia's "PC Suite" software is arguably the most distributed in the world. But it crashes many computers. Apple's iPad and iPod are slick physical objects and the user interfaces are pretty good as these things go. Yet  iTunes (the software key needed to get anything into these devices) ranks as one of the worst programs I've ever used. Sears Kenmore vacuum cleaners are great, but the bags are pretty much only available from Sears, which usually means driving quite a distance (I couldn't find the "replacement part number" I needed on their website - or even at the outlet store to which I was sent). 

In short, don't think that you can get by with a great product. Your documentation and support mechanisms are key parts of the entire use-experience scenario.

Content strategy for dummies

14.11.2010 | Author: Eric Reiss
Have you heard about “content strategy”? If you work in website development, the chances are you have. But what is it exactly?

What is content?
In the online world, “content” means stuff you put on a screen – words, pictures, videos, animations, sounds. Of course, there is also offline content. For example, when Tommy Hilfiger stations cute little pippins in tight dresses around your local department store to hand out white paper strips that stink of some expensive smell he’s created, well, that’s content, too. The sexual allure is content. The fragrant strips of paper are content. The Tommy Hilfiger logo is content. In my world view, “content” affects all five of our senses.

But for the most part, “content” means words and pictures on a website or application. OK?

What is “strategy”?
In the military, there is talk of “strategy” and “tactics”. Mostly, strategy relates to goals whereas tactics relate to the methods needed to achieve these goals.

Strategy (as expressed by the Lieutenant): “We need to take that hill, men.”

Tactics (as expressed by the Sergeant): Fat guys behind rocks. Skinny guys behind trees.”

What is “content strategy”?
“Content strategy” means giving visitors – to a website or department store – whatever “content” they need to make a decision or carry out a task. The strategy part lies in how we present this content to influence these decisions and tasks. If we’re doing a sitemap for a website, we call this “information architecture”. If we station a girl in a department store, we call it “service design”. But it’s all closely related.

Here’s an article that shows how many content strategists view themselves:

Please note: I take exception to a couple of the things said in this article. I include it mainly to provide equal time to the hard-core proponents. I’m not out to declare war on anybody – but I do have a low tolerance for bullshit.

Birth of a buzzword
How did the web survive for so many years before “content strategy” came along? Surprisingly well - because “content strategy” has always been part of the picture. It just got a new name and has since become a buzzword. I’ve had it on my business card for years simply because my clients didn’t understand the term “information architecture”. Incidentally, when I googled “content strategist” back in 2004 (when I first put the title on my card), there wasn’t a single hit.

My story isn’t unique. Many folks came to information architecture from a writing background. Think of “content strategists” as librarians who read and write. Since we understood the content and were often providing it, too, we were the ones who got to create the sitemap.

Just for the record, my very basic description of information architecture is this:

- We gather stuff into convenient categories
- We call stuff by names people will recognize
- We put stuff where people can easily find it.

Remember, this is IA on a high, strategic level. Naturally, when you get down to the tactical nitty-gritty of information architecture, you’d better understand taxonomy development and the other cool stuff they teach at library school. This is also why there are no easily defined borders between the worlds of IA and CS. And if you ask me, who really cares as long as the job gets done properly – and in a way that provides measurable benefits.

Content becomes valuable by virtue of context
Here’s a piece of content:

“Strandøre 15. A ten minute walk north from Svanemøllen Station”.

For 99.99% of the readers of this blogpost, this snippet of content is irrelevant and therefore worthless. But if you were taking public transportation to the FatDUX office in Copenhagen, the content becomes useful and therefore acquires value. If content is king, then context represents the kingdom.

Information architects need to understand content. Content strategists need to understand context. In terms of traditional sitemaps, the boxes have no value without the interconnecting arrows. And the arrows have no meaning if there are no boxes to which to point. And that’s why there is so much gray area in the definition – and why the pedants will spend years fighting over definitions in the years to come.

Form cannot exist without content
There’s a video on YouTube that has achieved cult status. It is of the Russian singer, Eduard Kihl, featured in a 1966 video where he “sings” his hit song, “I Am Glad I'm Finally Going Home”. Actually, in the repressive Soviet Union of 1966, the lyricist apparently was unable to write a suitable poem that would meet with Party approval. So Kihl simply trololo’ed his way through the melody and today we giggle at the results.

My point in mentioning the "Trololo Video" here is that form without content becomes absurd. And now that I've provided some historical context for the video, perhaps you'll see that it is actually more tragic than comic.

The most attractive website cannot survive without meaningful and useful content – content that is arranged in a meaningful and useful way. And somebody needs to do the work - no matter what their official title.