Google UX Talk Thoughts, Once Removed

So, I didn’t see Marissa Meyer speak at BayCHI about Google’s approach to user interface design, but Rashmi and Luke did, and I found some of what they related to be quite interesting.

The thing that most grabbed me was this comment from Rashmi’s notes:

“Marissa also addressed whether User Experience is a sustainable competitive advantage. Although analysts such as Gartner believe that User Experience is not a sustainable competitive advantage (because it can be copied easily) Google has observed that their competitors have not been able to catch up. Marissa thinks that since Google started from such a different point (a very bare interface), other companies have had a difficult time reaching that point (since they started from such a busy interface, and have so much paring down to do).”

Luke echoed this statement in his notes, with a slightly different emphasis:

” Marissa began by questioning whether a particular user experience could be a sustainable advantage as it can essentially be copied. In practice, however, Google has found that competing sites have a hard time maintaining the level of feature restraint that Google adheres to. Mayer pointed out that it is quite difficult to remove something once you have added it. This is especially true in large organizations with pronounced vertical structures and vertically based incentive systems.

My first thought was, “Gartner said that? Are they that stupid?” It’s one of those things that’s plainly stupid in that there is a wealth of evidence that user experience helps sustain competitive advantage, with Google being on obvious example (and, things like the iPod and Tivo bearing this out as well). Obviously, it’s not the only element toward an advantage — if it were, the Mac OS would be far more popular than Windows. But, it’s worth nothing that, even at only 3% market share, even with all this talk about network effects and self-fulfilling monopolies, the Mac OS still exists, and, frankly, is thriving. It’s continued existence is due solely to its user experience — while it might not have been a competitive advantage against Windows, it’s what has let the Mac OS stick around when so many other OSes simply vanished over the last 20 years.

Luke’s comment said much the same thing, though it added, “This is especially true in large organizations with pronounced vertical structures and vertically based incentive systems,” and it made me wonder if this is something Marissa said, or if this is Luke’s interpretation. That statement is basically the thesis of my essay, “Organization in the way: how decentralization hobbles the user experience,” and is the primary reason WHY user experience provides a competitive advantage — because an emergent property of typical organizational structures is to needlessly complicate a user experience. This is the genius of Apple, Tivo, Google, and other contemporary design icons — that they *exhibit restraint*.

Restraint is phenomenally difficult to practice.

The Unbearable Sadness of Exquisite Eating

Last Sunday, I ate at the French Laundry with Stacy and Janice, thanks to the generosity of a dear friend who couldn’t utilize her reservations.

For those unfamiliar, The French Laundry is considered one of North America’s premiere dining establishments, and it’s chef, Thomas Keller, has developed something of a cult following.

The meal was remarkable. I won’t go into the details here–you can witness it, blow by blow, in the Flickr Photoset I created of the meal.

What’s not captured in the photos is the totality of the experience. Eating at The French Laundry isn’t just sitting down for a good meal. It begins with the drive up there — to Yountville, in Napa Valley. About an hour north of “the Bay Area,” this excursion serves to leave your day-to-day life behind and travel to another place — a jaw-droppingly beautiful countryside, nestled in hills, groomed with agriculture.

Upon arrival, we were seated in an alcove off the main dining room. This was by chance, but it was delightful. We had the building’s original stone masonry around us, connecting us with the site’s history in a very direct way.

The serving staff is a near theatrical operation. We had a main server (I believe her name was Marta), whose job was to take our primary orders, and to appear throughout the meal to make sure things were going well, to suggest appropriate wines, and generally to look after us. But over the 9 courses, we must have had at least 7 different people serving us food. Some had specific roles — the Truffle Bearer and the Truffle Shaver and the Sommelier. Others were just food servers. It was a remarkable feat of orchestration.

The food, of course, is exemplary. I won’t attempt to describe the flavors — that would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say it was mind-blowing, mouth-melting, and challenging. I marvelled at the “vision” (“taste”?) of the chefs to know that they could create such savory medleys.

The meal lasted about 3 hours. 3 hours of eating rich, decadent food, drinking complex surprising wines, and talking about various and sundry. We spent another 30-45 minutes in the garden afterward, relaxing, digesting, and getting our heads together to complete the trip home.

Almost from the moment we entered the garden, I felt a seeping sadness. Because the meal was over. Because those flavors — that exquisitely marbled beef, cooked rare, that chocolate mousse cake, so smooth and cream, that buttery buttery lobster, those candies, etc. etc. — were fleeting. I was already beginning to forget what things tasted like. Or I couldn’t trust my memory’s re-creation of those flavors. I had never had a meal so thoroughly satisfying from start to finish.

And when would I again?

I pretty much couldn’t eat for the next 24 hours. The idea of eating pedestrian day-to-day food has as much appeal as placing ashes in my mouth. I didn’t want my tongue to lose its connection with this bounty it had experienced.

But I know it must. Obviously, I need to eat. Obviously, I must move on.

And what surprised me is how sad this made me. How distraught I was. (I know this sounds… pathetic. Boo-hoo! You ate at the French Laundry! Oh how you’ve suffered!) But I have to admit I did face some existential despair. It almost called into question the value of the experience — because yes, it was so good, but it’s also, by nature, FLEETING, and you can’t help but feel like anything after that is a letdown.

Should one forgo the mountaintop if, in relation, other experiences fall short? Does one visit the mountaintop as much as possible (which is: until you have no more money)? Does one simply accept the marvelous bounty placed before you, live in THAT MOMENT, and just move the hell on? Part of the point of a French Laundry experience is the memory created — how do you move on from that? How do you retain the magic of that memory without it overshadowing what you feel today?

Once Again, with more Activity Theory

Professor Nancy Van House has posted her evolving syllabus for IS212, Information in Society. Lots of good stuff, many with direct links to the papers themselves.

From my experience auditing the course last semester, my favorites are:

Engeström,Yrjo. Expansive Visibilization of Work: An Activity-Theoretical Perspective. Computer Supported Cooperative Work 8: 63–93, 1999.

Nardi, B. (1996). Activity theory and human-computer interaction(pp. 7-16); and Kuutti, K. (1996).Activity theory as a potential framework for human-computer interaction (pp. 17-44). Both In B.Nardi (Ed.)

J. Johnson [Bruno Latour] (1995): “Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer” in Susan Leigh Star (ed.): Ecologies of Knowledge: Work and Politics in Science and Technology. pp. 257-277.

Hutchins, E & Klausen, T. (1996)Distributed cognition in an airline cockpit. In Y. Engeström and D. Middleton (Eds.) Cognition and communication at work. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Bijker, W. E. (1995). King of the road: the social construction of the safety bicycle. In Of bicycles, bakelites, and bulbs: Toward a theory of sociotechnical change (pp. 19-100). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

These two were probably the most mind-changing:
Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s hope : Essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Chapter 2: Circulation Reference: Sampling the Soil in the Amazon Forest.

Latour (1986) Bruno Latour, ‘Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with Eyes and Hands’, Knowledge and Society 6: 1-40.
(This one will be very hard to find, but damn is it good.)

Heading to Ol’ Blighty

From 9 Jan to 17 Jan, we will be visiting London. Staying in Barbican with a friend. Wondering what on earth to do. Not for a lack of things to do — frankly, there’s too much!

If you’re there (or will be) and want to hang out, email me. Would love to hook up with peterme readers.

Mob indexing? Folk categorization? Social tagging?

For folks interested in free tagging systems such as those seen on and Flickr, Adam Mathes’ essay, “Folksonomies – Cooperative Classification and Communication Through Shared Metadata” is required reading. It’s probably the single most thoughtful discussion of the issues at hand.

Among other things, Adam takes me to task for using “ethnoclassification,” because classification schemes require applying single, or mutually exclusive, classifications to an item. Citing Elin Jacobs’ “Classification and categorization: a difference that makes a difference” essay, he argues that what we’re seeing is categorization.

However, considering its presence in the title of his essay, Adam seems perfectly happy with the term “folksonomy” which, if anything, is even more wronger than classification. In Jacob’s article, taxonomy (from which “folksonomy” is coined) “is carried out within the arbitrary framework established by a set of universal principles,” and is listed as a subset of classification.

Yes, it annoys me that “folksonomy” is becoming accepted because, 1) it’s inaccurate and 2) it’s ugly. I’ll cop to “ethnoclassification” being insufficient. But where does that leave us? Other terms I’ve seen, like “distributed classification” are clunky and inaccurate, too.

Elin Jacobs’ essay suggests some possibilities. (I can’t recommend you read the essay — clarity and brevity is not the good professor’s strong suit. But if you want a crash course on this stuff, it’s a pretty complete work.) Jacobs discusses postcoordinate indexing, defined elsewhere as “A method of indexing materials that creates separate entries for each concept in an item, allowing the item to be retrieved using any combination of those concepts in any order.” This is exactly what we’re doing with free tagging.

Which lead to the title of this post. I somehow want to combine a synonym for “multiple of people”, such as “folk”, “mob,” or “social” with some accurate description of the activity, “indexing,” “categorization”, “tagging.”

(Though I recognize, sadly, that “folksonomy” will likely stick.)

Abbot Kinney – The best contemporary architecture walk in America?

Looking down Abbot Kinney

Yesterday we wandered along Abbot Kinney Blvd in Venice. A mix of shops, restaurants, businesses, bars, and residences, it is, for my money the premiere contemporary architecture stroll in the United States.

Bookstore at one end of Abbot Kinney

The photos shown here are from my Abbot Kinney photoset on Flickr. And I didn’t capture all that I really liked.

The old and the new

What works about Abbot Kinney? The maintenance of the older brick buildings lends character and history, something you don’t get a lot of in L.A. The contemporary architecture fits with the older work — taking on the same boxy shape.

(post-?)Modern architecture

Also, the contemporary architecture, on its own, just looks good. The buildings here are bright, clever, creative, without being over-the-top, gauche, or ugly.

A mix of color

And, the mix of small boutiques, restaurants, and architecture and design firms lends a fiercely independent air. No chain stores here!

Big and little

So, next time you’re in L.A., head down for a stroll along Abbot Kinney. It’s not that long — 4 or 5 blocks. It’ll take maybe an hour, and that includes shopping and, say, getting a cup of coffee. Enjoy the genius of this street, and wonder, like I do, if this has simply just happened, or somehow been planned.