Saturday, May 17, 2014

No, Mom: We Don't All Put on Pants the Same Way

You’ve heard the saying, “He puts his pants on one leg at a time, just like everybody else.” It’s meant as a reminder that, despite our differences, we all have some basic human similarities.

My husband used this saying yesterday in a family conversation.

“I don’t,” said my eight-year-old son abruptly.

“You don’t? You put on your pants two legs at a time?” my husband asked, amused.

The boy nodded confidently. “Uh-huh.”

“So, you sit down on a chair and put both legs in at the same time? That’s a good idea,” said my husband, turning to me to continue what he’d been saying.

“Nope,” my son said.

I arched an eyebrow. “Oh? Let’s see…you sit on the floor and pull on your pants.”

He crossed his arms, getting into this. “Nope.”

My husband tried again. “You hold them up and jump.”


My turn. “You lie down on your tummy and pull them on.” This must be it. “That sounds pretty complicated, honey.”


My husband and I exchanged glances and shrugged. “Okay,” I said. “How do you put your pants on two legs at a time?”

“It’s easy,” he explained. “I scrunch up the legs”—he gestured—and then put them down so I can see the floor through the legs. Then I step in and”—he mimed pulling up the pants—“pull them up. Both legs at the same time.”

We made him show us. Sure enough, he had developed an effective method of pants-putting-on that neither of us adults had ever considered.

There is always a way to do something that no one else has thought of. There’s always a way to be different and creative. My son probably hadn’t given much thought to the way other people do things; he just made up his own way. I’m taking a lesson from that.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Writing into a Headwind

Or: How Bike To Work Day gave meaning to what I learned from Seth Godin.

Holy bicycle commute, Batman! Nine miles to work feels more like 90 when the wind is blowing the tall grass into fingers, all pointing back the way I’ve come.

Last week, I had the privilege of attending the Authority Intensive content marketing conference, hosted by Copyblogger, and felt very lucky to have heard Seth Godin speak for the first time. Seth gave the opening keynote, and the audience was enraptured.

Pushing the pedals down, clicking into a lower gear, wondering if I should turn around and just get my car, I thought about Seth’s talk. One of the things he said was, “If resistance doesn’t show up, you’re not doing it right.”

And while I don’t think he was talking about whipping oneself into shape the hard way, or even about headwinds, specifically, I do think he was saying that anything worth doing isn’t easy, especially if it’s something you’re doing to improve yourself. Bicycling, and laying off the Haagen-Daz bars for awhile, is going to pay off. Finishing my novel, even if it only gathers “dust” on a hard drive for the rest of eternity, is also going to pay off. At least I’ll be a hardbody who can say she’s written a novel…and that means a lot to me.

Now, let’s see if I can make it those nine miles back home.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Emotional Reversal FTW: Advertising Wishes It Were This Good

Nouveau happiness. Unlike nouveau riche—because, damn if it doesn’t all spend the same—it’s just not as good.

A lot of brands want to make us happy, not only with their products, but also with their advertising. P&G honestly made me happy to be a mother with their Thank You, Mom campaign by Wieden + Kennedy. Volkswagen made me not only happy to drive a Jetta but also just happy to be watching their Smiles commercial. Mattel even made me happy to have entered an incorrect URL with their awesome error 404 page.

The poem “By the Front Door,” by W.S. Merwin, is three lines long. It takes less time to read it than to sneeze. Yet, it conveys a kind of deep, ancient happiness that none of this marketing—that no marketing I’ve ever seen—can begin to touch. The poem sets the context and the reason for this happiness so perfectly that, at the end of the last line, after only 16 words, the reader herself is extremely happy.

This emotional connection is made through contrast and empathy, and our own reaction is part of the delight.

The poem starts with a feeling of inertia and sadness: "Rain through the morning." In the second line, "long" brings to mind "longing." Toads, ugly, moist creatures with a (probably unfounded) reputation for spreading warts, are not known for generating warm-fuzzies. And who ever thinks of a toad as a singer?

So by the time we're two-thirds of the way through the poem, a melancholy feeling has seeped in. But in the last line, where "singing" connects to "happiness," there's a reversal. As soon as we understand that the toad is singing because of the rain, because he's in the long pool, we understand. The reader can actually empathize with that toad, can be happy for him. The toad’s delighted to be in this environment, and in its delight it is singing an ancient happiness. Not only are we happy for the toad, but we’re surprised that we’re happy, and that the poem turned out happy. This sense of relief adds to what we ourselves feel.

In three lines, “By the Front Door” puts the reader through a small but real about-face of emotions and leaves us with a smile.

In an ad that could never be aired in the U.S. because we are a culture of whiners, Subaru attempts this same kind of reversal, hoping to leave us relieved and happy. It does work, but it’s heavy-handed. In its heart, this ad wishes it had even half the deep, elegant resonance of Merwin’s poem.

Can any ad? If you can think of one, let me know.

With thanks to The Writer's Almanac, @writersalmanac, for making "By the Front Door" today's poem and to Creative Market, @creativemarket, for The Best 404 Pages on the Internet.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

That's Not What I Ordered: UX at a Restaurant

User experience (UX) isn't hard to understand. Like a lot of web specialties with fancy names, it's mostly just common sense. People can specialize in it because a) not everyone has common sense and b) not everyone takes the time to think through all the details.*

Also like a lot of web specialties with fancy names, UX is not something that's limited to the web. When you call the gas company to ask about your bill and their recording tells you that you'll be on hold for approximately three minutes, and you're actually on hold for three minutes, that's good UX. But if you're told three minutes and you're on hold for a half hour, or you're not told an approximate hold time at all, that's bad UX.

Looking at something through a different lens allows us to understand that thing better. (This is why poetry is so cool: it nearly always gives us a new perspective.) That's why analogies are so awesome—even if I did get smacked for exclaiming over this one:

My husband and I went out to lunch today and experienced UX through a restaurant lens.

He ordered a Reuben sandwich. You know what a Reuben sandwich is, right? Of course you do. Everybody does. It's this:

And this will tell you that, although there's a bit of variation here and there, the Reuben sandwich is pretty standardized.

Except today. My husband ordered the Reuben and he got this:

It looks like a flower, right?

Now don't get me wrong. It was probably delicious. But an open-faced Reuben with fresh cole slaw and shaved beets on top was not what my poor husband was expecting, and therefore he did not have a good experience.

That's the first truism: People want what they are expecting. If they don't get it, they're not happy. You can give me an all-expenses paid trip to Hawai'i, but if I was expecting an Alaska cruise, I'd be disappointed. No matter how good the Reuben was, it wasn't what my husband expected.** Quality of experience is based in expectation.

"Did you read the description?" I asked. "Did they say it was open-faced?"

He gave me a look. "Of course I didn't read the menu. I didn't read past the word 'Reuben,' anyway."

That's the second truism: People don't read. As content creators, as writers, this might make us sad. (It makes me sad, anyway.) It might make us worry about the future of humanity, decency, and culture. Et cetera. But it's a truth, and as content creators and writers, we must acknowledge it. TL;DR. People don't read.

On the web, user experience design relies on the same truisms. Label a button with the phrase "Show Me My Credit Score"*** and give them an opt-in page after the click—or, hell, give them an adorable kitten after the click—and they'll be disappointed, because experience is based on expectation. Put small print under the button saying something to the effect of "Registration is required to get your free credit score" and they'll still be disappointed, because people don't read.

Are you offering an open-faced "Reuben" sandwich with fresh cole slaw instead of sauerkraut and some locally-sourced, tender beets shaved on top, that will be a pleasure to the eye as well as to the palate? Great. Tell me so. Say "The XYZ Restaurant's 'Reuben'" instead of just "Reuben." Say "Our Take on the Reuben." Say something (briefly, ever so briefly) in the heading that will make me understand that what I'm getting isn't a thick, greasy, cheesy hot mess like the one pictured above.

Fulfill the expectations you set up...without making people read too much. That's good user experience, no matter what your business.

*In fairness, c) it also requires a solid understanding of the research that's been done in the field, but applying this research requires common sense.

**Now, it's a fact of life that expectation breeds disappointment, but we don't seem to be able to keep ourselves from setting up expectations. Personally, I'm trying. Not expecting makes me happier. But that's not really something we can rely on from a UX point of view.

***"Show me" rather than "Get my" courtesy of Joanna Wiebe, @copyhackers, whose great talk about buttons at Authority Intensive 2014 was just steeped in great UX.

With thanks to @NewYorker for the great analogy and to @SellingEating for the reminder.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

It doesn't always have to make sense.

Sometimes words just sound right together. Good copy doesn't always have to make sense; sometimes it just has to evoke emotion.

Let's have a ball and a biscuit, sugar.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Ideas are like grounders.

The other day, throwing grounders to my son in the back yard, I found myself saying again and again, "Get in front of the ball." He would stick his glove out without moving his body, and if he missed, the ball would go right past him.

"Move your body so that if you miss the ball, your body will stop it," I told him.

"But, Mom, that will hurt."

"Then catch it."

Ever notice how your mind will record a moment and play it back on repeat the rest of the day? Standing there in the spring breeze--the green of the grass and newly-leafed apple tree was so fresh it almost hurt my eyes--repeating "Get in front of it. Get in front of it. Get in front of it," I thought about catching ideas.

Ideas often come to me out of the blue. Like my son on the baseball field, I may see them coming, but I haven't been doing a good job of making sure I catch them by getting in front of them. I'm not capturing theses flashes of creativity.

How to fix this?

1. Identify and Acknowledge. 

My son needs to do this, too. I wish I could make him say, "The ball is now coming rapidly toward me; I should get ready to catch it." He has a little trouble with focus, and I think this would help.

It'd help me, too. "My mind is like a steel sieve" is one of my favorite phrases (people never get it, though). Ideas pass through like water through a leaky roof, never to be remembered: a rhyming couplet, a great headline, a pun, a collage I'd like to make, or even the perfect thing to get my husband for his birthday. If I'm not ready to capture those ideas with pencil and paper, they flit away.

But if I were to identify them, just say to myself "Self: this is An Idea," they'd stick out more. Almost as if my son, by saying to himself, "The ball is coming toward me," could, by so saying, cause the ball to slow down until he got his glove down, ready to catch it. This is possible: the mind truly focusing on the task at hand can cause the body to do exactly what is needed.

2. Evaluate and Decide. 

If, in the shower, or behind the wheel of my car, I were to say "Whoa, Self: this is An Idea," I could then make a conscious decision about what to do. Maybe I need to step out of the shower, or pull over, right at that moment to write it down. Maybe I need to just latch onto it and think more carefully about it for awhile. Maybe it's not such a great idea, and, like an ugly butterfly that wandered into my net, I can let it go.

"I'm going to move to the left three feet, kneel, and put my glove down." It's as easy as that. "When I get to the grocery store, before I get out of the car, I'm going to write this idea down."

3. Act...and keep acting.

"Get in front of it." Do the thing you decided to do. Write down the idea, sketch out the collage, just go on Amazon and order the damn birthday present right then.

Keep asking yourself whether you're in front of it.

I'm notorious for leaving things places, so now, when I leave a restaurant or a movie theatre, I always ask myself, "Do you have your purse?" I need to get in the habit of asking myself, "Do you have any ideas you need to write down?"

Catching the ball isn't the end.

My son caught a ball during the game the other day. Then he stood there. (Maybe he was just so surprised at making the catch that his mind blanked.)

Capturing an idea isn't the end, either. Random couplets jotted on the back of a receipt while illegally parked on the side of the road do not a poem make. We have to go back to where we put the idea and then do something with it. Get in front of it, make the catch, and then throw that idea back out into the world in its finished form.

Stephen Nakatani. "Baseball & Mitt."
Creative Commons License. Via Wikimedia Commons.