Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Language of Experience

Just finished watching Wine for the Confused, an informational program written and hosted by John Cleese and produced by the Food Network.

[I watched it via Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature. But you can also view this show -- in its entirety -- on Hulu.]

Like an earlier post on tasting coffee, what was notable about this program -- apart from the Monty Python veteran's trademark quips -- was the focus on the language used to describe the tastes, smells, flavors, and related connections recalled by each wine. I appreciate Cleese making this a key point.

Acquiring and using a rich vocabulary of sensory descriptors -- is a necessary skill in fully understanding customer (or employee) experience through observation.

And all the better for discovering your favorite wines.

A Favorite Brand Lets Me Down

Has a favorite brand, product, or service ever left you feeling disappointed?

After years of waiting, one of my favorite brands just became more accessible -- a new Trader Joe's has just opened a mere 3.5 miles from my home in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

I've loved this brand since first discovering them in Southern California about two decades ago. Their selection of quality domestic and imported food, extremely competitive prices, and an engaging customer experience puts them near the very top of my personal loyalty list.

In anticipation of this opening, I've been reading the Len Lewis profile on this distinctive grocer, The Trader Joe's Adventure: Turning A Unique Approach to Business into a Retail and Cultural Phenomenon. [see Excerpts via Google Books]

It's a fascinating read that confirms much of what I've suspected/observed as a customer. The book reveals a very purposeful vision and strategy -- one that created a differentiated business model unrivaled for over four decades.

But I digress.

So, on opening day, we head out to the very newest Trader Joe's in the world. I'm excited -- about to take on a new Trader Joe's adventure...

The underground parking provides hints of the trademarked tropical experience to come

TJ orchid, localized to Saint Paul, Minnesota

Cool -- vintage suitcases just inside the entrance enhance and confirm the exotic adventure

More localization -- a mural of Saint Paul's Como Park; Hey! That's not exotic!! (though the conservatory pictured does house tropical plants...)

Now this is the kind of whimsy I expect

A mural featuring what are, recognizably, a variety of Saint Paul-style houses

Above the dairy section, a mural of the downtown Saint Paul skyline and Mississippi River; note the bicycle -- one of several displayed above refrigerated cases

For some reason, the longer I was in the store, the less connected I felt to the Trader Joe's mystique. It took a little while to figure out why...

This isn't the exotic adventure one expects from Trader Joe's. Surrounded with images of Minnesota -- not some far-off tropical island -- it feels like an ordinary grocery store. Sure, there are the unique products only Trader Joe's offers, all at great prices. This is, after all, my logical reason for coming back time and time again. But that isn't the reason thousands of fanatical customers like myself line up at grand openings, rave to friends, and have joined the cult.

I expect -- and am stimulated and excited by -- the breeze of the trade winds, not a Minnesota wind chill; surfboards and flip-flops, not a classic Schwinn bike; palm or coconut trees, not northern pines. The casual, beach-side cedar-planked walls -- while some exist -- have been largely replaced with light yellow-painted sheet rock and these all-too-familiar murals.

For that experience, I can go to a Twin Cities-based grocer (and I often do).

A number of years ago, I recall Boston Market taking on a similar localization strategy. They too had murals on their wall. I forget the exact details, but remember tomato crates with "St. Paul" labeled as a destination. For that brand, localization made sense -- "Boston" is in their name, and here they were, plopping down in a far different city. (Since then, Boston Market has considerably scaled back its operations in Minnesota.)

But Trader Joe's doesn't need to do this. They are not local -- that is clear -- and they should not be. They are exotic, equatorial, different.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Itty-Bitty, Unreadable Signage

Among my greatest pet peeves is, in fact, the term "pet peeve."

But another -- in retail and service settings -- is signage that is way too small.

Most often, it's the minuscule Visa and/or MasterCard store hours posted on too many retailers' doors. These stickers are barely visible from the curb, let alone standing an arm's length away.

But yesterday, it was restroom signage.

I was hanging out with colleagues yesterday afternoon on the dock of a great eating & drinking establishment right on beautiful Lake Minnetonka, on the western end of the Twin Cities of Minnesota. Just about everything about this place is wonderful -- with the exception of the bathrooms off the dockside dining area.

These restrooms have recessed entrances. On the approach (pictured above), there's no indication that these are even restrooms, let alone which is the men's or women's. (The sign you see between the entrances says "Shoes Required / Glass on Wharf Deck".)

Round the corner, and one is greeted with the itty-bitty "men" or "women" sign found at a typical office supply store. The text is done in perhaps 90 point -- maybe 110 point -- san serif type.

The scale of this type and accompanying man or woman graphic would be ideal in a child's playhouse, but certainly not in a public place designed for grown-ups.

Can't even image this navigation after a drink or two in subdued evening light... this must cause some interesting, potentially embarrassing encounters.

My recommendation would be larger signage outside/above each entrance with another replacing the existing sign.

What "itty-bitty", unreadable signage have you seen?

Clever Application of Laser Technology

Via, here is a brilliant use of laser technology -- LightLane.

Emitted from a bicycle taillight, lasers project a glowing "bike lane" on the surface of the street beside and behind the cyclist. What's especially cool about this technology is how it helps claim/define space on a night time road.

This makes one wonder... What other applications could there be for this -- perhaps defining indoor or outdoor space in and around homes and buildings.

Other ideas?

Learn more about LightLane at

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Placemaking - Just Add a Piano

Found via London Daily Photo blog, check out the wonderful "Street Piano" program:

Play Me I'm Yours

Starting in Birmingham, England in 2008, the idea has spread internationally as far as Sydney and Sao Paulo.

The notion is quite simple -- place pianos throughout the city, labeled with the phrase, "Play me, I'm yours", and let the rest just happen.

This YouTube video demonstrates the fun that can ensue:


Monday, June 22, 2009

"Les Bonbons" - The Allure of a Candy Shop

Who doesn't love a candy store?

From the Paris Breakfasts blog comes this posting on candy and its presentation in Parisian stores and elsewhere:

This blog by artist/connoisseur/observer of life, Carol Gillott, features watercolor paintings, photos, and commentary of the retail and street life of Paris.

Her watercolors (and photos) capture the beauty of everyday life in Paris. In that city, aesthetics are an important and natural element -- from window displays to the construction of a lemon tart.

This craftsmanship, passion, and attention to detail is missing from much of the retail here in the U.S.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Proven Technique for Repelling Customers

The other day, I blogged about a disappointing visit to a local Super Target.

Today, a follow-up with an even more disappointing disgusting experience at a Borders, just across the street from the Target.

Just yesterday, on a visit this Borders bookstore, I encountered an astounding sight -- filthy, worn carpet on the stairway between their first and second floors. It is hard to come up with just the right words... This was beyond just tired or well-used. It was battered, threadbare, with ground-in dirt and grime.

But it didn't end with the appearance... more impactful was how it feels. One expects the gentle cushiness of carpet. Instead, customers feel a hard gritty crunch on the soles of their shoes.

Most people would be embarrassed to invite guests into a home in similar condition. A major retailer should know better.

What makes this especially appalling -- these stairs are the path customers take to reach food and drink in Borders' second floor cafe.

I, personally, don't want to go back -- ever.

Monday, June 15, 2009

A Twitter Rant

Maybe it's because I'm an aging fuddy-duddy, but I don't get Twitter.

There, I said it.

This mockumentary from Slate, expresses what I feel is the absurdity of Twitter, by imagining an even more streamlined blogging tool, "Flutter", or the next next generation, "Shutter":

But perhaps an even more biting critique of Twitter comes via Current TV:

So, what's my beef?

Actually, there are two.

First, while I understand (and believe me, empathize with) the convenience of blog entries with 140 characters or less, who wants to follow dozens of entries like: "I'm eating lunch right now." Who's got time?!

[And don't even get me started on "celebrity Tweets"...]

Second, do companies and brands really need yet another digital channel with which to reach their groupies?

There are Web sites, enewsletters, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and many, many more. Who's got time?!

I do realize that Twitter's the newest thing, dominating headlines, magazine covers, blog discussion, etc.

But my feeling is that it is definitely a trend. In fact, I predict that Twitter will be largely forgotten in 18 months.

Okay -- now my prediction's digitally etched onto the Web. Check back with me in a year or two. I'll either be gloating or eating crow.


UPDATE: The FlowingData blog has a cool entry from March 2008:

17 Ways to Visualize the Twitter Universe | Link

The First Thing You See

The view as I arrived at my local Super Target on Saturday, early afternoon...

While they do an excellent job managing the experience inside their stores, missing these parking lot details lowers the level of the entire Target experience.

As I arrived, there was an employee nearby collecting shopping carts from the corrals. Leaving the store 1/2 hour later, this main path down the middle of the parking lot was still littered with carts.

Very disappointing.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Who Says You Can't Reinvent the Wheel (or Cup)?!

Thumbing through a magazine this morning, I came across an ad from Solo Cup. It was promoting their new Squared™ cups:

"Solo Squared fits squarely in your hand, and into your life."

An age-old design of a rounded cup -- improved upon.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Terms of Service"... Uh, Sure, I Read Them...

American Public Media's Future Tense program ran an interesting piece the other day on this topic and a tool from the Electronic Frontier Foundation called TOSBack:

New service tracks changes to sites' policies
June 5, 2009 | Link

Very clever. But my question is this: Do these terms of service really need to be this complex?

For an example of a more palatable TOS, visit Instructables' terrific "human readable terms of service."

Why can't more terms of service be like this?!

UPDATE (June 11, 2009): Since this post, I've been giving more thought to notion of Terms of Service...

They are obviously written for the benefit of the Web site owner (or software developer). I understand that. They have their intellectual property to protect, and possibly guard against liability. And I am sure lawyers salivate over the language used -- 100% pure legalese. All in the voice of the site or developer.

But what's missing in most of these?

They are completely one-sided with little or nothing from user/customer's perspective. No wonder no one reads them. Ever.

A parting idea. Here's an example I used a number of years ago with several books I authored:

COPYRIGHT STATEMENT: You have permission to use this book in digital or printed format for instructional purposes only. Any commercial use is strictly prohibited without written consent from the author.

PLAIN LANGUAGE VERSION: Use it, enjoy it, even share it. (Just not for money)

I'd love to see more of that simplicity.

The Tension Between Art and Commerce

A topic that's fascinated me for a long time...

Check out this very interesting working paper via Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge by Robert D. Austin and Lee Devin:

It Is Okay for Artists to Make Money…No, Really, It's Okay
June 3, 2009 | Link

"In this paper, we examine the apparent conflict between artistic and commercial objectives within creative companies..."

In this paper, the authors discuss the notion of design and aesthetics providing unique value to customers (a key differentiator, for example, of Target in the retail wars against Walmart).

The killer quote from this paper comes from designer Karim Rashid about the inclusion of Vipp products (think $200 toilet brushes) in fine art venues:

"Certain forms, lines, colours, textures, functions, all touch and communicate to our senses and our daily experiences. I believe that objects and spaces need to touch our sensual side, touch our emotions, they need to elevate a certain experience, and they need to be human. Love and desire are part of my interests in 'sensualizing' our physical material world."

The paper continues with an engrossing philosophical discussion on the merits of great design -- its benefit to society, its costs and trade-offs, and, as the authors argue, its fallacies:

Fallacy #1: Art is a luxury, an indulgence
Fallacy #2: Yeah, but that’s not art; it’s not any good
Fallacy #3: Commerce Dominates and Corrupts Art, and Subverts its Purpose

Well worth the read.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Human/Computer Interface, 1 of 3

This is a first in a set of three posts that takes a peek into the future of computer/gaming interfaces.

The two that follow are current visions, just demoed over the past few days at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). But the one I really admire -- even now, 22 years later -- is this video from Apple Computer, circa 1987:

For a full overview of the Knowledge Navigator concept, visit this Wikipedia entry.

This idea emerged while John Sculley was head of Apple Computer. Unfortunately, those were dark days for the technology product and usabilty innovator, until Steve Jobs returned to the company in 1997. But Sculley can be credited with this bold vision of what a computer can should be.

In this video, we see the Knowledge Navigator as a true Personal Digital Assistant (PDA). It has a touch and voice interface, can intelligently intercept calls, anticipate needs, make intellectual connections, and more. On top of all that, I love that the avatar (or "software agent") looks a bit like Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

Also check out this video from the same period: Future Shock.

Why, over twenty years later, have we made such little progress?

In the next two entries, I look at two recent innovations/visions. Still far from Apple's original vision, but progress nevertheless.

Human/Computer Interface, 2 of 3

The second peek into the future of computing -- and gaming -- comes from the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) going on right now in Los Angeles.

Sony unveiled a prototype of their response to the Nintendo Wii:

E3: Sony Confirms PSP Go, Final Fantasy XIV, Motion-Control Wand
PC World, June 2, 2009 | Link
(Scroll down to header: "The Second Shoe Drops: PlayStation Motion Control")

Cool. My one concern with this interface is the lack of resistance one gets when wielding a sword, etc.

I can envision a future version with gyroscopes that not only provide the real-time movement, but also the feel of the tool, weapon, or item you're "holding".

Human/Computer Interface, 3 of 3

The final venture into the future of computing -- and, of course, gaming -- is a direct interface. Rather than a controller, the human body is the interface.

Another demo from the E3 show was Microsoft's Xbox 360 "Project Natal."

E3: Microsoft's No-Controller "Natal" Steals the Show
PC World, June 1, 2009 | Link

It will be fascinating to see when this is ready for release. (Note the disclaimer at the bottom of the YouTube video above: "Product vision: actual features and functionality may vary". That's a bit of a legal notice downer, eh?)

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"Emotionally Intelligent Signage" from Dan Pink

Trash cans at the California Academy of Sciences;
Photo by Jennifer Caleshu via the Dan Pink blog

On his blog, Daniel Pink has been running an excellent series of entries on "Emotionally Intelligent Signage." Category Link

These are signs that take into account the perspective of the reader rather than, in many cases, the enforcers. Signage with empathy, if you will.

This example above shows a set of trash cans, from the California Academy of Sciences, that presents people not just with choices, but the result of their choices. Brilliant!

What are examples of signs/messages which annoy or inspire?

A common one in my neighborhood is the "No Soliciting" sign found on front doors of homes and businesses. I'd prefer something like:

Friends & Neighbors are Welcome.
Solicitors are not.

Other ideas?

Two Quotations for the New Economy

Two relevant quotations for today's economy...

The first is one I clipped about four years ago from an in-flight magazine -- this comes from Whole Foods founder, John Mackey:

"Business is simple. Management's job is to take care of employees. The employees' job is to take care of the customers. Happy customers take care of the shareholders. It's a virtuous circle."

The second (via Dan Pink) is from Matthew B. Crawford in a recent New York Times Magazine article, The Case for Working With Your Hands:

“An economy that is more entrepreneurial, less managerial, would be less subject to the kind of distortions that occur when corporate managers’ compensation is tied to the short-term profit of distant shareholders. For most entrepreneurs, profit is at once a more capacious and a more concrete thing than this. It is a calculation in which the intrinsic satisfactions of work count.”

Nothing more need be said.

Quick Reminder: 37 Data-ish Blogs You Should Know About

Just a quick revisit to an earlier blog post about a posting on the Flowing Data blog by Nathan Yau: 37 Data-ish Blogs You Should Know About. Link

Since my post, the initial 37 has morphed into many, many more through reader contributions.

Check out the Comment section for the updated collection.

Image: Ring Roads of the World from Rice School of Architecture via Strange Maps