Amazon Giveth, and Taketh Away

Last month, in my love letter to Amazon, I mentioned that they had given me $1 back on a movie pre-order. They loved me up again a week later by giving me $2 back for a Wall-E pre-order.

And then, last week, they snatched one of those dollars right back.

That’s right. I accidentally ordered the I Can Has Cheezburger book (thinking it was a page-a-day calendar and would make a good stocking stuffer for a certain someone I know) and when I shipped it back, Amazon deducted the .99 shipping fee from my refund. Sure, it’s fair and all, but it got me thinking about how companies like Zappos have figured out that if they allow two-way free shipping (and actually let you talk to a person when you want to) they can inspire customer love and devotion. I’ve experienced the Zappos love myself; when I ordered a couple of pairs of shoes last May, they sent me an email to tell me that they upgraded my shipping. Just because.

Don’t worry, Amazon. I still love you. But, Zappos does have an incredible service model. They’ve managed to tap into the power of technology (Order shoes online, anytime. Read customer reviews and ratings. Follow their CEO on Twitter. Heck, follow any of their employees on Twitter.) AND the power of great customer service. Most web-based businesses have viewed the web as a way to do business without having to deal with actual people. My personal favorite: when a web site makes it damn near impossible to find a phone number, then when you call the number an automated voice condescendingly reminds you that you could be using the web site to get an answer to your question. Nice! Zappos smartly allows customers access to a real, live person when they need it. And sometimes, you do.

So, as we near the end of the year and start to think about goals for 2009, keep considering how you can leverage technology to help your business or your self. But also consider where a human touch, instead of technology, may be a more appropriate choice.

If I was with you right now, I’d hug you. Just for reading this.


Look It Up

The other evening, on a short diaper-buying trip to Target, I passed two young women in the electronics department (Yes, I get distracted in Target.  Who doesn’t?) asking the help of a young red-shirt wearing fellow.  The question I heard started like this – “We don’t know anything about computers.  We’re totally computer illiterate.”  One waif-like creature was speaking for both of them.  She went on to ask, “Is this a router?”  I didn’t wait around for the young man’s answer.  Instead I went on my way comparing Huggies to Pampers and trying to remember if I’ve ever had a bad experience with either.  But I got to thinking, as one is likely to do while tooling aimlessly around your neighborhood Target store, isn’t it funny that those two young women represent the generation we’re all convinced is technologically competent and well-versed?  The funny thing was, the young gentleman they were asking for help could not have been more than a year or two older than the ‘illiterate’ girls.  But they were comfortable looking to him for his expertise.  The whole scene struck me as unfortunate.

When I was a kid my parents purchased the Encyclopedia Brittanica from a tv ad.  Every month for 26 months (not counting the bonus books) we’d receive a giant, quite handsome, leather-bound volume to add to our collection.  Eventually the set took up an entire shelf in our family room book case.  In the evenings at dinner, or while attacking our homework assignments, every little question my sister and I would take to our parents got redirected to that shelf of leather bound books.  “Look it up,” my mother would say.  “Don’t ask me.  Find out for yourself.”  In the moment it was probably frustrating.  It would have been easier and maybe more efficient for me if my mother just had all the answers to everything.  But she didn’t and the closest thing we had was the books marked A-Z.  It changed our behavior, really.  We learned that if we needed to know something there were resources at our disposal, the encyclopedia was really just the tip of the iceberg. 

Fast forward about 25 years.  If my son has a fever.  If I can’t sleep.  If my car is leaking oil, or my grass isn’t green enough, if I need a map, or the names of constellations, or a recipe for creme brulee.  If I want to find the name of an obscure poem I thought I read.  Or the lyrics of a song.  If, say, hypothetically speaking, I want to know what a router is I have the same response, I go look it up.  I have, at my fingertips, this fast sea of interconnected resources.  I start with Google and I can surf my way through world history and pharmacology and urban legends and infant development and, well, you name it.  So why, with this kind of knowledge available, were these two young women so willing to let this pimply faced, red shirt wearing fella be a key influencer in the future of their LAN?  You didn’t ask me, but, here goes – I think its cultural and it has a lot to do with how we talk about empowerment and knowledge and the spirit of curiosity.  I think it has to do with having the permission to explore and to try and to fail.  And, at the risk of offending some of our readers, I think it is a particular concern in terms of how we talk to and encourage little girls. Add technology to that equation and we’ve (generally speaking) got a culture making a whole lot of assumptions about a generation of users without really empowering them to get the full benefit of the resources available to them. 

What can we do?  Well, as parents I think its our responsibility to have at least a basic understanding of how technology fits into our families, our homes, the classroom, our communities. Too many parents are intimidated by technology and they either believe all the hype and are terrified of strangers on MySpace, or they let their young son or daughter be the resident ‘expert’ without having any real sense of what systems they’re putting in place for the family.  This is really a whole other post, and I plan on writing it.  But for this one lets just say that in order to encourage exploration in knowledge, parents have to first model it.  If you’re concerned about MySpace or Facebook – get on them.  Find out what the buzz is about.  Get a sense of how they work.  And don’t let your kid be a member without ‘friending’ you. But more than anything, encourage their natural curiosity and their interest in creative problem solving.  If your teen daughter has the money to go to Target and shop for routers, she’s probably got a broadband connection available to her.  If she has that, why not talk to her about finding the answer for herself?  Perhaps take it a step further, suggest she compare routers on a hardware review website.  And, if you’re really cocky, maybe you can encourage her to map out her own plan for the home network.  Its not that complicated, I promise.  Sure there will be failure and frustration.  But what’s the fun in learning without figuring it out?  What’s better than accomplishing something?  Especially if its something that the general population thinks is complicated.

I do think we send different messages to girls over boys.  I think boys are encouraged to be adventurous in their thinking, where girls are encouraged to be careful.  Boys are encouraged to care little about being watched.  But girls are encouraged to consider who might be looking at all times.  Handling little girls with kid gloves teaches them to be tentative and it’s limiting.  We’ve come so far, and we’re defensive when these topics are broached because of all the progress we’ve made.  But come on, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit the crap our parents subjected us to still comes out sideways.  And there is just way too much opportunity out there to be tentative.  There’s too much to learn.  Too many connections to make.  To many conversations to take part in. Women have got to be part of those conversations.  They’ve got to be influential in how those conversations are shaped.  And they won’t be if they aren’t encouraged to jump in as children.  I’ll stop preaching now.  But the moral of this story is simple.  Look it up.  When in doubt — look it up.


Kill Your Television

Not like this is new news, but every day I’m reminded more and more that traditional television (and with it, traditional advertising) is dying.

For me, it started around 2002 with Netflix, which killed any need I had for cable TV. Why pay for HBO or Showtime when I could rent The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Sex and the City and gorge myself for hours in one sitting? The years since then have produced an avalanche of other factors. This past year, an EyeTV and an HD antenna on our roof meant that my husband and I could snag HD-quality shows off the airwaves, record them to a MacMini (hooked up to a projector) and watch them whenever we felt like it. Add ABC and NBC’s websites (and my discovery that the Firefox extension AdBlock Plus zapped ads inside the ABC episode player) and there was no reason at all to give a rip about stupid ol’ networks and their stupid ol’ commercials.

Hulu sealed the deal, allowing me instant access to shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (not to mention discovering oldies-but-goodies like The Bob Newhart Show and full-length films like Ice Age for my kid). While they have ads that are immune to the powers of AdBlock Plus, they are relatively unobtrusive and don’t require any “click to continue” nonsense. The frosting on the cake is the growing number of self-produced and online-distributed shows like 3Way and We Need Girlfriends, the latter of which has been picked up by CBS. (We can only hope it enjoys a better fate than the pile of suck called Quarterlife, which NBC picked up and then promptly dropped when it suffered worse ratings than the XFL.)

And how about the glorious day when I discovered Best Week Ever was a free podcast that I could sync to my iPhone along with TV shows I had purchased from iTunes? I haven’t experienced a boring airline flight since.

And yet, with all of that, the networks seem to be in utter denial about what’s happening. The CW made a huge gaffe this year when, in an attempt to “force” more viewers to watch Gossip Girl on the network, they decided not to make post-strike episodes available on their website. Presumably, this decision was made to get better ratings: the show was crazy popular on the CW site and iTunes, but not on the dusty old television. Surprise, surprise, pulling the full episodes from the site had almost no effect on ratings. After tasting the freedom of watching a show online whenever you felt like it, who the hell was going to sit down on the date and time the network decided and watch it on TV?!

Their decision was understandable in the sense that nobody seems to have figured out how to monetize online entertainment in the same way that they have on broadcast, and the CW presumably makes less when I buy the episode from iTunes than if I watch it on TV where they can sell ads. But how long can that last? Viewers aren’t flocking back to television; they are (like me) tossing their TVs and snuggling up to their computers.

So, my big question — and maybe some media buyer out there can answer this for me — is why? How can this not translate into better revenues for online advertising, or some new model for monetizing the distribution of online entertainment? Especially considering how damn trackable and relatively cheap it is compared to a TV commercial? At some point, won’t the old model crumble under its own weight? And can’t we come up with something better than just aping the existing broadcast model of interrupting the show with X-second spots?

While I love to pick on the ad industry (and bite the hand that fed me: I was raised by a copywriter and a print project manager), I don’t argue that there has to be a way to pay for this entertainment. I’m willing to watch ads if I’m getting a show for free (except during Lost. Sorry, ABC.), and I’m willing to pay iTunes to have Mad Men at my fingertips. I’m not the kind of girl that has illicit late-night encounters with BitTorrent. But — all that being said — advertisers need to find a way to reach us without assaulting us (I’m looking at YOU, movie theaters! I paid for my damn seat, don’t make me watch a car commercial before the show. Or how about TBS and their ridiculous “pausing the show for an ad” trick? See, that’s what drives us into the arms of AdBlock Plus whenever we have the option!) and consumers need to be realistic about their expectations around what is free.

But, I know that it’s unlikely any of this will change. The genie is out of the bottle: I have to read ads in bathroom stalls and my neighbors are all trading pirated files on Limewire. But, it sure would be nice if we could call a truce and allow more on-demand access to entertainment while also fairly compensating the businesses and people that create it. In the meantime, I’ll just enjoy insane Nissan product placements while watching Heroes on NBC.com and wait for this all to shake out.

UPDATE: Well, well, well. I was listening to MPR over the weekend and On The Media had a story about this very topic!

“…the most ambitious aspect of NBC’s Olympic plan might be its push to change the way advertisers pay TV networks for ads. NBC will use the Olympics to attempt to show the world that, despite gloomy reports for the future of the networks, their audience hasn’t abandoned them at all. They’ve just migrated to other platforms.

So, says, Grant Robertson, media reporter for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, NBC will be keeping meticulous track of the numbers of people watching the Olympics across all platforms, online, DVR, cell phones – and both people who still sit in front of the TV. And they’ll combine those numbers in a brand new way.”

It will be fascinating to watch this develop and see if and how it affects the future of advertising [cue futuristic music].

UPDATE #2: According to New York magazine’s Daily Intel, Gossip Girl is returning to the interwebs.

My favorite quote from their article? “As it turned out, illegal access to GG episodes increased by 45 percent when the CW stopped streaming it.”


The Web Is Not Cheap

I should say right away that this post is in danger of turning into a rant.  That is not my intention.  I am not here to whine.  I am here, though, to put out into the universe a concept that needs to be discussed.  So, here goes. 

The web is not cheap. 

There.  I said it.

Before diving too deep into that argument, let’s review what the web IS. 

–The web is fluid. Every document that exists on the web, in order to be really useful, must be a living document.  Because the web is, by its very nature, a living, ever-evolving, content repository. 

–The web is accessible.  Anyone with a small amount of knowledge can publish to the web.  I always say the web is the great equalizer, suddenly we all have a voice and the vehicle through which we can be heard.

–The web is immediate.  Case in point – I was reminded about how much this issue bugs me about five minutes ago, and here I am saying something and publishing it to a (potentially) global audience five minutes later.

Let’s face it, everyone knows someone who does ‘web stuff’.  That’s what makes having high standards in this business really hard, and really necessary – the fact that everyone has a cousin or son or nephew or babysitter or neighbor girl who can make a website on a Saturday afternoon while goofing around in their garage/office.  Because the spectrum of talent engaging in this kind of work is so broad, and the perception of value associated with the work is equally as broad, it is really hard to truly understand the value of the necessary skillset and expertise that play into a well-defined web strategy and execution.  Heck my mother recently said she’d mastered ‘copying and pasting’ and maybe she could ‘help me out’ since we’re so busy.  She was joking, of course, but the irony is in the fact that she’s a trained professional — a physician.  I suggested that we just swap jobs for a day.  I’ll deliver babies, and she can build web stuff.  No problem.

The fact of the matter is, the web is an investment.  A real strategic approach is necessary to doing business on the web.  You can’t just expect to slap up a site and have it work miracles.  And once you do launch a site, you are not done, you’ve only just begun.  I think most people’s perception of their website is informed by an old school traditional marketing approach to print work.  You jump into drawing pictures and coming up with catchy, brand appropriate copy, you execute in line with the creative, you launch, you’re done.  That is entirely the wrong way to think about your website.  Yes, good creative is essential.  But creative is not strategy.  You have to define the why before you consider the how.  Creative is a ‘how’ not a ‘why’. 

The web is transactional.  You are engaging in some kind of business interaction on the web.  Hopefully in the process you’ve managed to learn more about your audience that allows you to interact with them on a more on-to-one level.  A microsite has its place. But microsites aren’t appropriate as often as they happen, trust me.  So you’re not getting off cheap by building half a site.  You might end up paying more in the long run by not considering how micro-content fits into your overarching strategy. And any interaction with your target should have some kind of integrated component with your primary brand presence on the web.  Even if its just data.  Data is really the key.  But that’s another post entirely.

Most people walk into a web shop and expect the vendor to define their budget.  They send RFPs out to a number of vendors that fall in a variety of spots along the pricing spectrum, and generally they award business based on price.  The lowest price, then, becomes their budget.  By selecting a vendor that way they miss the opportunities to think comprehensively about how to address their business objectives on the web, and how to appropriately evolve on the web.  Meghan always tell clients they should come to us with a problem, not a solution.  This is great advice when thinking about how to extend your brand, and do business, on the web.  Don’t walk in saying I want these 44 things and I want them all for under 10 bucks.  Instead, prioritize your objectives and look for a real strategic development partner to help you think about how best to implement your priorities.  This might require iterative development, or incremental roll-outs of features.  But that’s ok.  By moving some or all of your business to the web, you’re making promises to your audience.  If you are smart about how you move, and you choose quality and ease of use over cheap and fast, you’ll keep those promises and your audience will stick with you.  They will wait for a good experience to get better.  And they will be key influencers in how you improve on your feature-set. 

Money is an issue.  Don’t get me wrong.  You have every reason to want to control costs.  And you should.  But control them in a way that makes sense and doesn’t compromise the deliverable.  Control costs by working closely with your vendor/partner to identify your priorities and the time it will take to address them.  Then have checkpoints or deliverables on the path to getting there.  Budgets are generally eaten up by the intangibles — vapor.  Don’t let that happen.  Insist on helpful documentation, in language that makes good business sense, to help guide the project.  Then follow those roadmaps closely.  Be collaborative and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  No one knows your business better than you.  Ask for what you want and be clear about what you’re asking for before anyone starts coding.

The web is not cheap.  But it does make good financial sense if you approach it prudently.  It is an investment.  You can start small and work up to your ideal solution.  But don’t compromise good sense looking for a deal.  You end up paying for the work twice in the long run.  Once trying to be cheap.  And you pay the second time when you decide to do it right.  Get it right the first time.

Beauty and the Brain

Part of what I hope comes out of this Geek Girls project is getting more women and girls interested in technology, whatever that might look like. For some, maybe it’s as simple as learning what RSS is. For others, maybe it means being encouraged to go get a degree in Computer Science. The point is, I hope that it lessens the intimidation factor for a group of people that can sometimes fall victim to a “Math is hard, let’s go shopping” mentality. Keep in mind, this is coming from a girl who, in 4th grade, told her mother she hated math and wished it would die. So, despite the fact that I have ended up being a person who embraces technology at work and at home, I sure wish I would have gotten into it earlier and a lot more deeply.

So, when my husband sent me the link to the Geek Girls: Revenge of the Nerdettes story on Newsweek.com, I began reading it with great interest. Yes! More geek girls! But, I found myself conflicted over the fact that the real reason these women are getting attention seems to be that they are smart and hot. If they were simply smart, that really wouldn’t be enough. They are smart and hot. They tell you that right away, in the subhead of the story, “Meet the Nerd Girls: they’re smart, they’re techie and they’re hot.”

On the one hand, I have no problem with this. Heck, I enjoy high heels and lip gloss as much as the next girl —assuming the next girl is not my co-Geek Nancy, who enjoys neither. AND THAT IS MY POINT. Whether or not you wear high heels or lip gloss should have no bearing on the attention you garner for your brainpower. So, shout out to Danica McKellar for writing “Math Doesn’t Suck,” (because I sure wish I would have read that in the 4th grade), but did you really have to pose for Stuff magazine right after that?

I guess I find it simultaneously encouraging (yay, women going into math, science and engineering!) and depressing (boo, we still have to look good in a swimsuit to get attention!). So, the attention garnered is both serious and salacious. Which doesn’t seem to happen to our male geek counterparts (aside from all the freaks I know who worship Steve Jobs).

You tell me: am I taking this all too seriously?

Update 1/14/10: Yet another “hot girls who use technology” article is causing some waves. Vanity Fair’s article on America’s Tweethearts. Too bad they couldn’t afford to give those poor women pants for the photo shoot!


Why I Love Interactive Designers

No offense to my print designer friends (and really, some of my best
friends are print designers, I swear!), I’ve lately been thinking about
how much I love Interactive designers. And production folks. And
developers. Maybe it’s because many people seem to think that a
designer is a designer is a designer and the result of this way of
thinking is working with clients who, for whatever reason, want the
person who designs their offline materials to also create their web
site. “You guys can work with so-and-so, right? He’ll do the design and
you guys can produce it.”

Sure. Sure, we can. But, the thing is, the web is a unique medium.
Compared to print, we have far less control over things like fonts, or
colors, or even alignment. I can’t tell you how many times in the past
couple of years (or even months) I’ve had to explain to a print
designer that the pretty, perfectly-sized boxes they laid out are going
to get jacked all to hell as soon as the client starts putting content
of different lengths in each one. Or how many times I’ve gotten a web
site design where everything is Flash and/or images because the
designer wants to make sure that they control every aspect of the

The reason why Interactive people are MY people, why I love them
with a burning passion matched only by my love of IKEA meatballs and Gossip Girl,
is that they are supremely flexible. They understand that what they
lovingly create in Photoshop will vary slightly when it’s produced, and
when it’s viewed by me on my Mac or their mom on a PC. They create
designs that can handle those variations. They are accustomed to
constantly reviewing and revisiting their design in production and
tweaking it to optimize both the display, and the end user experience.

Print designers*, on the other hand, tense up at the thought that
the headlines and body copy can’t all be [insert obscure font name
here], or that my Grandma
could increase the size of the body copy WITHOUT THEIR PERMISSION. So,
when they are directing the creation of a web site, tension is created
between the well-controlled viewpoint of a print designer (who is used
to having the ability to tightly control font, layout, color and
overall presentation) and the chaos-theory viewpoint of a web
production team, who knows that they must plan for a variety of viewing
situations that range from cinema screens to Blackberries, PCs to Macs,
and browsers, browsers, everywhere!

But while it may make a print designer feel good to control the user
experience, and while that may be a perfectly reasonable way to think
about a print (or even television) experience — that level of
attempted control makes for a very poor user experience online. It can
make the site harder to find on search engines. It makes it impossible
for someone to resize the font for readability. It can make access by
disabled users difficult or impossible. In short, it can succeed at
looking good and fail at being usable. A controlled experience is great
in print, but it doesn’t translate well to the online world.

As I said, no disrespect to my print designer friends. But please, let my people go.

*I’m generalizing here, and I know it. I know there are a few
designers out there savvy enough to design well for both print and
online media. But, they are few and far between. So for the same reason
you wouldn’t ask your kickass web designer to create a billboard for
you, stop asking your kickass print designer to create your web site. A
good print designer and a good web designer can — and should — work
together under an overall creative direction and produce the best
representation of that creative direction in their respective medium.

[cross-posted on the MIMA blog

I’ve Been Had

Today I spammed everyone on my AIM contact list with an invitation to join Facebook.
I was searching for co-workers on the social network, trying to
understand the more useful apps and plugins available to the average
user, when I inadvertently clicked yes and authorized Facebook to
contact everyone on my buddy list. I was distracted. I was
multitasking. I was not as careful as I should have been. And, with one
click, I was totally humiliated. My heart stopped for what seemed like
an entire minute while I prayed for a confirmation screen that never
came. I had misread a question, given my permission, and there was no
going back. I just sat there and wondered how I’d explain to my
colleagues, friends, peers, and, of course, the random total strangers
I’d added to my list along the way, that I was a complete idiot who’d
let Facebook hijack my buddy list to solicit memberships. I was one
more unsuspecting pawn in the Facebook battle for world domination.

There is value in centralizing data. So many of us are out
devouring and contributing to content-rich websites and social
networks, connecting with long-lost friends, classmates, colleagues.
We’re finally in a position to leverage ‘who we know’. Because, what
have we always heard? It’s not what you know, but who. And the who has
never been more accessible. We’re separated by miles and years and
jobs, but we’re just a click away thanks to networks like Facebook and MySpace and LinkedIn.
There are new social and professional network sites trying to get in on
the action every day. Today alone I had two colleagues try to get me to
join Plaxo Pulse.
I couldn’t help but wonder if they even knew they’d asked me to join.
Recently a friend’s contact list had been hijacked by Spock (I refuse
to link to this evil entity) to invite 2500 of his closest friends to
join him there. I felt better about my 125 AIM
messages when I compared it to 2500. But the sting was still there.As
more and more of these networks fight for our information, who’s going
to prove the front runner? Clearly he (or she) who owns the most data
wins. And Facebook’s shift from social network to ‘platform’ seems to
suggest they believe they can connect all of this decentralized data
floating around on the web and make it accessible via their single,
simple, interface. So while the data might be scattered amongst iTunes, flickr, Amazon,
AIM and other lesser known entities, a series of simple web
applications can integrate all of it into the Facebook platform. What’s
more, Facebook turns it around and provides an aggregate snapshot of
your contacts’ data. It’s really a win-win. Or is it? Recently Facebook has taken some heat
for invasive marketing tactics via it’s Beacon system. Beacon takes
data from external websites and makes it available to your contact list
with the intention of promoting product through passive endorsements.
If you bought something on Amazon, and you’re my friend, the thinking
is I might be interested in that product as well. Because you, my
friend, are just so darn influential in my life. The problem with this
theory is you might be my friend, but I might not want you to know I
just bought zit cream from my favorite zit cream website. Its an
invasion of privacy and Facebook is still working that one out. Beyond
that though, Facebook is starting to look like the Borg. Resistance is
clearly futile. If you want to be in touch with anyone in this 21st
century the easiest and most practical way to do it is through the
web/Facebook, and peer pressure is unavoidable. Come on, everybody’s
doing it. There’s a suggestion of youthful trendiness that we all fall
victim to. Once you make the leap, though, you’ve sold your soul to the
internet’s equivalent of the devil. Because once you create that
profile, there’s (allegedly) no getting that data back. You can’t quit
Facebook. Not really, anyway.

What does it all mean? To those of us working in technology? And
those of us consuming it? These are tough questions to answer. But it
seems clear that one of the most valuable assets of our time is our
data. Our information. Yet, in spite of that reality, our data is
clouded by a mix of fear (identity theft) and ignorance (my dog’s name
is my password!). What’s our responsibility as creators of content, and
websites and systems and as participants of networks? What is our
contribution? How can we influence how all of this unfolds? I believe
that how we interact with, and collect data from users, needs to
reflect truth and authenticity. Sure, we publish privacy statements and
terms of use policies. We won’t store data or we won’t sell it or give
it away or use it without permission. But it’s more than that. We need
to help users understand what it is they’re providing and how easy it
is to exploit. We need to give them an opportunity to change their
minds, or confirm their understanding of an interaction. In my case for
instance, a simple ‘confirmation’ page would have saved me the
embarrassment of having to apologize to 125 friends and colleagues for
that unwanted IM spam. Facebook knew exactly what it was doing when it
required only a single click to access my list. I think it’s a cheap
tactic in the race for the most data. The downside is, I’m no longer as
enthusiastic about the value of Facebook as a networking tool. I see it
as suspect now. The upside is I’ll be more careful when I use little
web apps like that. But our standards for collecting this data aren’t
set in stone. We’ve only just begun, so what more can we do to extend
real value for the user, and tap into the thing that’s most valuable to
our clients? We can consider a user’s understanding of their valuable
points of data as part of our commitment to simple, usable web
experiences. We should see how we collect data as part of usability. We
should only collect what is absolutely critical to the experience and
we should make certain the user understands the cost of sharing their
data and the return on their investment of trust. Finally, we need to
keep our promises. Sharing data should have some reward for the user,
in terms of access to content, or connections or something of value. We
should treat our user’s data as sacred. If we expect to foster a
long-term customer relationship, we need to respect what we know about
a user and what we continue to discover. It’s common sense, really.

of us, even presumed ‘experts’ can fall victim to guerilla data
collection tactics. It’s embarrassing. It’s painful. It’s avoidable.
The difference, though, is we have the ability to influence change. We
have the option of applying some code of conduct to how websites
interact with users. We’re not done. We’ve only just begun. Facebook
doesn’t get to decide. We do.

[cross-posted at the MIMA blog]

Web = Magic?

As consumers of digital media, do we have a responsibility to understand the technology, even a little bit?  I guess I’m not really talking about myself here.  But I am talking about those average consumers.  People like my mom or my in-laws.  People who still don’t understand what a web browser is, or that AOL is not the internet.  My intention is not to put them down, or diminish their importance as we continue to evolve user experiences.  Instead, I’d like to encourage them to, quite simply, figure it out.  I want my mother-in-law to stop calling me whenever she can’t get on the internet because she forgot to plug the phone cord into her dial up modem.  Not because I’m not happy to help, but because the more you get about how it all works, the more you can take advantage of the advantages and efficiencies technology, or more specifically, the internet, can add to your life. We should be afraid of crossing the street against the light, or riding a motorcycle without a helmet, or eating puffer fish.  But we should not be afraid of technology.  If we use common sense, and we’re careful about the information we share, we can dive right in without fear.  You cannot break a website.  Those are words to live by.  As a user, you cannot break a site.  Fearless exploration is encouraged. 

Remember too, its called interactive technology because, in order for it to work the way it was intended, it requires your participation.  That doesn’t mean its ok to just mindlessly click random buttons.  Part of the interactive experience comes from contextual queues.  Paying attention to button text, instructional copy, visual imagery meant to guide your eye, all of this is your responsibility in the interaction.  One of the hardest messages to communicate to the fearful is really so simple.  Read.  Read what the buttons say.  Look for those helpful messages that will guide you and make your experience easier to navigate or more intuitive.  They should be there.  If they are not, well, that’s a whole other blog post.  But generally speaking, a web experience is structured around a fairly standard framework.  You should be able to get to the information you need within a click or two.  And those clicks should be clearly marked in some way or another.  Take responsibility for your experience and pay attention.  Read the page. 

Once you’ve committed to your part in the experience, its important to remember that technology is fallible.  I know. I know.  Everyone is always talking about the internet like its the cheeze whiz of the new millennium.  But please remember, it is not without it’s flaws, and it’s dependencies.  Your experience depends on a variety of things, the speed of your connection to the internet, the speed at which your pc processes information, the kind of information you are attempting to access.  Clicking into a page of text is very different than clicking into a streaming video.  Sometimes, and I know this is a terrifying consideration, you might just have to *gasp* WAIT.  Nothing boggles my mind more than watching someone click into a page and then witnessing an immediate melt-down while waiting for the page to load.  The incessant clicking that ensues is enough to make my head spin. What you might be interested in knowing is that in addition to your connection speed, your computer speed and the type of data you’re accessing, your browser may be processing many many lines of code with each of those clicks.  It could take a little while. Patience is a virtue.

I know.  I know.  I said the big bad word ‘CODE’.  Sometimes the word  ‘code’ causes people’s eyes to bleed, or roll into the back of their heads.  I am always amused by this.  You don’t have to write code to be ok with the fact that code exists.  What is code?  Simple.  It’s the thousands of lines of a foreign language, that live behind the pretty pictures, that make the pictures work.  It’s that simple.  If you’re uncomfortable with the concept of ‘programming languages’ or ‘code’ you need to get over it.  You don’t need to care any more than you do.  But don’t be intimidated by the fact that it exists.  Get this – there is a computer in your car (more than likely) and elements of how your car functions are managed by coded commands.  You never know they are there and you probably never think about them.  But they exist.  Your cell phone.  Holy smokes!  There’s code involved in how you make phone calls.  I’ve actually had clients say to me ‘. . .don’t mention code please.  Whats-her-name gets upset.’  Are you kidding me?  Don’t get upset.  Just nod knowingly in meetings where code is discussed and you’re already ahead of the competition.

I guess my point in all of this is, there is no magic here.  And whatever actually *happens* on the web is due in large part to your interaction with it.  Here’s your take-away:

Be patient.

Be fearless.

Be informed.

Be smart.

Wait.  Read. Try.


Working Women

It’s hard to talk to women about technology without also getting into a discussion about being a working woman. It’s certainly not necessary to both work and embrace technology (I was shocked—in a good way—at the number of active online communities of moms that I discovered on maternity leave), but considering that women now make up over 50% of the workforce (at, sadly, somewhere around 50% of the cost of our male counterparts) it’s a relevant topic.

I’m lucky to work for a family-friendly employer. So family-friendly, in fact, that Working Mother magazine named us one of the Top 25 Women-Owned Businesses in the nation. Holler!

Around the time of that award, they asked the women in our office to submit an application to be a Working Mother cover mom. I didn’t win, but it did get me to think about why I work instead of staying at home.

Why do I work?
Because being a working mom makes me a better mom.  Working feels right to me in the same way that staying home feels right to other moms. There was a time when I worried that liking my job—that looking forward to going to work at the end of my maternity leave—meant I was a bad mother. But, when I was fussing over the decision of staying home vs. working, a friend told me this, “In the first week or two, you’ll know. Your gut will either tell you that you need to stay home, or that it’s okay to stay at work.”

She was right. While the transition of the first week was hard emotionally (does anyone enjoy dropping their kid off at daycare the first time?!), I could feel in my gut that working was what I wanted to do. My friend’s gut told her the opposite, and she has since reduced her work schedule to 2 days a week. But, isn’t that’s really what it’s all about: being able to make the choice that feels best for you, and for your family?

I enjoy the time I have with my daughter before and after work, and she gets my full attention. There are certainly days when I come home tired and worn out, but most days I come home and can’t wait to hear everything that she did at “baby school” and tell her all about my day, and sit on the floor and read some books and eat dinner together. I certainly have less time with her than I would if I stayed home with her all day, but the time that we do have is so enjoyable and so focused. I feel like being able to have my own space at work means that I look forward to hanging out with my family at night.

What makes my job meaningful?

Doing work that I love, and working for—and with—people that I respect. I enjoy what I do for a living. I know and respect the owners of my company. I don’t feel like an anonymous cog in a machine; I can see the results of the efforts I put forward, and it feels really good. I love the feeling of looking at a completed project and knowing that I helped make it happen.

How do I handle work/life balance?
First, I’m extremely lucky to have a workplace that is supportive of working parents, and a husband that shares equally in the parenting and housework load. He is self-employed and saves my butt on most days by doing daycare dropoff and pickup. And we divvy up the other tasks too—like, if he cooks, I do dishes. If I give Trixie a bath, he does stories and bed time.

Second, I make conscious decisions about how to spend my time. When I am with my family, I make an effort to be 100% with them, and when I am working I try to be 100% in work mode. In a world where I can work from home, where anyone can contact me almost anywhere, anytime via phone, text message, IM or email, it’s easy to be “sort of” working all the time. Alternately, it’s just as easy to use part of your workday getting a bit of online shopping done, or sending an email to your friends or relatives.  The result of all this flexibility can be that your family—and your work—get half your effort and attention all the time.

I work in an office that is extremely permissive and flexible—we are all trusted as adults to do our job and manage our time appropriately. The key is to use the flexibility in a way that makes you more efficient, not less so.

Growing up, my parents never let us watch TV while we did our homework. I find that I follow a similar rule for myself in trying to keep myself focused and efficient in my work/life balance. If I work at home at night, I do it only after my daughter is in bed, and I don’t watch TV or do anything else at the same time (if I do, I find it makes me about half as productive, and who wants to work twice as long?). I could check my email before breakfast, but I don’t—because I want my family to get my full attention before we all head off to start our day. At the dinner table, there’s no TV, no books, no cell phones. Just our family, talking to each other and catching up. Conversely, when I’m in work mode (whether I’m at the office or working from home) I make an effort to focus on that.

One of the greatest challenges of my life?
Slowly coming to the realization that I can’t have it all. By that I mean learning that I can’t have a clean house, a harmonious marriage, a super-successful career, a perfect body and be an ideal mother at all times. So, I can either frustrate myself trying to achieve perfection, or I can stop amidst the imperfections and enjoy the beauty in the small moments. Because they go by fast. So, when I get home from a long day at work, I have a choice: I can either stress out about the million things on my to-do list, or I can stop worrying about how dirty the kitchen floor is for a few minutes and enjoy a tea party with my daughter. I’ve learned that the kitchen floor can get cleaned up later.

The Importance of Audience

One of the most disturbing things about the Web 2.0 Summit
in San Francisco last October (aside from the small number of women in
attendance) was a panel discussion by what one might call “average
users.” The theme of this year’s Summit was “Discovering the Web’s
Edge.” The organizers took that theme and explored the edges of gaming,
technology, social networking, and–in this case–the edge of the Web’s
users. Namely, older users (at the mid-to-high end of the baby boomer

The panel consisted of three men and two women and began as good, clean fun. One of the couples already had a YouTube presence,
which was discovered partway through the panel and then broadcast on
the big screen to the delight of the audience. The facilitator asked
questions about how they used the Internet which, not surprisingly,
consisted mostly of emailing, personal ads, and Craigslist–which one
user had recently discovered and was extremely excited about. Her
excitement was amusing to everyone. (In fact, she seemed to think
Craigslist was the Internet.)

But, what started out as a few giggles from the audience over one
user’s Craigslist enthusiasm soon grew into uproarious laughter over
just about everything that came out of the panelists’ mouths. At that
point, we looked at each other in horror and realized that the audience
was no longer laughing with this panel, but at them.
Everything at the Summit up until then had been a lot of preaching to
the choir: designers and developers talking to each other, about each
other and for each other. At that moment, the Summit audience should
have been listening more closely than ever. Sure, some of the
panelists’ statements sounded naive or silly or uniformed. But, like it
or not, these “technically impaired” users represent a far greater
portion of our audience than those that are more “like us.”

It’s easy to insulate ourselves from the real world and ignore the
needs of the average user. But, we’re not building experiences for each
other, we’re building them for a particular target. And we would
venture to guess that 9 times out of 10 a target audience is made up of
those “average” users. As developers, we run the risk of contributing
to the lack of usability on the web by building for ourselves in spite
of the research or user information we uncover in the process. Admit
it. We’re all guilty of it. You want your clients to “think outside of
the box” or grasp your brilliant “creative.” We’ve heard more than one
irritated Creative Director suggest, at one time or another, that the
client just doesn’t “get” the big idea or can’t possibly embrace this
cutting edge technology? We know they are out there. We’ve worked with

Yes, we have a responsibility to push our clients to think about
their business and the Internet in ways that may seem new and
unexplored. But, at the end of the day its not really about them, or
us; its about the user. The user that thinks that Craig’s List is the
internet. We don’t work with the average user. We’re barely aware of
them any more. We gorge ourselves on the latest trends as dictated by
our favorite blogs and news sources and summits and conferences and we
get farther and farther away from that user. But who says we’re really
the experts and we get to decide what’s bleeding edge? We’re just as
guilty of insulating ourselves by reading the same blogs, the same
feeds, using the same technology and not exploring anything outside of
our technological comfort zone. This leads to an unhealthy sense of
what’s happening in the world around us and what our mission as
creators of Interactive experiences is really about.

So, does every site need to be created with your mom (or grandma) in
mind? No. But we need to make real efforts to define and understand our
site audiences — even when their technology skills may not be as good
as ours. There are generations of people that aren’t “here” yet. But
that doesn’t make them stupid. If we don’t reach them, we’re missing
out on a significant faction of our commercial targets. And we’re doing
our clients a disservice by not reaching their intended audience.

[cross-posted at the MIMA blog