Intel Wayside

I normally don’t talk about chip manufacturers, but today’s article in the New York Times, “Intel Plans to Shift Focus to Consumer Products,” is unfortunate in how it lacks context.

Because, in reading it, you’d never know that Intel has tried this before (at least once) and failed. Miserably.

A look back into the archive demonstrates efforts beginning in 1999 to have Intel be a brand for the “home.” In 1997, they were part of an exhibition called “Cyberhome 2000,” demonstrating a home of the future with Intel Inside.

I’ve never been a fan of Times’ technology reporter John Markoff, and stories such as this demonstrate why. He’s covered the industry long enough to know that Intel has tried and failed repeatedly, but for some reason doesn’t see fit to include any mention of this in his piece.

Which leads me to wonder, what makes Intel think they can succeed this time, when they haven’t been able to be a convincing consumer products brand in the past?

Eating away from below: what’s happening to enterprise software

Though definitely not as sexy to talk about as tagging, and mashups, and whom Yahoo acquired today, I think that the trends we’re witnessing in enterprise software will have a far greater impact than much of what’s being discussed.

And the most obvious trend is that the enterprise software market is being eaten away from below. My favorite case in point is Movable Type, the software which enables me to publish this blog. With a few modifications, it enabled Adaptive Path to publish it’s site. And then, as this post makes clear, with a fair bit of modification, it powers the site for SEED Magazine. What this demonstrates is what we’ve known all along — Movable Type isn’t a blog publishing tool — it’s a lightweight content management system. Blog publishing was essentially a trojan horse toward rethinking how to enable publishing on the Web.

In my world, content management systems (CMSes) have long been the enterprise software that has been the biggest pain in the ass to deal with. Typically modified from document management systems, these tools were big, bloated, unwieldy, expensive, and, most importantly, ill-suited to the task of publishing on the Web. What Movable Type did was start with the simple, and focus on supporting a true web-native genre, and then build up from there as need be.

Another enterprise hassle that I’ve been privy to are website analytics tools. These overblown metrics packages suffer all the same faults as CMSes. This was why I became so excited with the development of Measure Map — it’s site analytics “for the rest of us.” Which could evolve into site analytics for all of us. It, too, has humble blog beginnings, because that’s a well-bounded problem to solve. But it doesn’t take much imagination to see how it can evolve.

And while website development is what I’m most familiar with, I know that this eating from below is happening all over. Companies are realizing that the millions they’ve spent on “knowledge management” systems got them little more than confusing document repositories. So folks like Socialtext can package a compellingly light tool of blogs and wikis, and sell it cheaply enough that it doesn’t require budget approval from IT, and people can get their collaboration done without hassle.

And of course, has completely rewritten the game when it comes to customer relationship management, and sales support software.

Through various projects with Adaptive Path, I’ve talked to a lot of people tasked with purchasing enterprise software. And, universally, no one likes doing it. No one likes talking to enterprise software salesfolks, no one likes the 3 to 6 months that the sales process takes, no one likes the 6 to 12 months that deployment takes, no one likes the costs, and almost no one likes the results. Enterprise software succeeded, though, because there weren’t many other viable options.

That, of course, is changing. These smaller point solutions, systems that actually address the challenges that people face (instead of simply creating more problems of their own, problems that require hiring service staff from the software developers), these solutions are going to spread throughout organizations and supplant enterprise software the same way that PCs supplanted mainframes.

I sure wouldn’t want to be working in enterprise software right now. Sure, it’s a massive industry, and it will take a long time to die, but the progression is clear, and, frankly, inevitable.

The Man With Two Brains

Just watched this again. I hadn’t seen it since, I don’t know, high school. GodDAMN is it funny. If you haven’t seen it, you should. If you have, but it’s been a while, see it again. The number of good, deep, quality laughs is phenomenal. Steve Martin is phenomenal. Kathleen Turner is particularly phenomenal. And it has plenty of good ol’ David Warner, who needs to get more better parts these days.

It is such a deliriously demented and silly film. And I think it’s been shamefully overlooked.

Heel-toe Histories

This morning I finished The Trouble with Tom, a necrologue of Thomas Paine’s bones (and the black lump that was once his brain). It is an excellent work — inquisitive, insightful, funny, pleasantly digressive. Paul follows Tom’s bones from New York to England (and all over England), and in doing so, uncovers a variety of 19th century revolutionary thought. Some of the book is laugh-out-loud funny (his excursions on EB Foote’s books for children, which he also wrote about for the Village Voice), other parts are delightfully illuminating (the excellent mini-biography of Moncure Conway, beginning with Paul’s poring over his effects in the Columbia Library, and ending with Conway living in Britain, too upset over the Civil War to call the United States his home), and the whole is continually thought-provoking.

What struck me, as I read the book, is how it reminded me of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (and I wasn’t the only one…) In both, the authors explicitly retrace the steps of their historic subjects, and aren’t afraid of using their personal modern-day experiences to shed light on what’s past. Another book in my queue, Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live, apparently follows a similar path.

In much the same way as the first years of this decade saw the rise of the “mundane studies,” typified by Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, and books with subjects from mirrors to mauve, it feels like we’re now entering an era of what I’ve decided to call Heel-toe Histories.

These nouveau historians aren’t satisfied with simply poring over documents, but instead crave some degree of authenticity that these places can provide. I suppose their insertion of themselves in the stories hearkens to the New Journalism movement of the 60s. Such works seem easier to produce, thanks to a world of cheap airfares and extensive online travel planning.

Some more links:
Paul Collins is the proprietor of the Collins Library for McSweeneys
He has a blog.
And there’s a good recent interview with him.

Old Salem

A highlight of our Carolinas trip was visiting Old Salem a couple days ago. The website really doesn’t do it justice. Old Salem is a remarkable history learning experience (and I use “experience” advisedly).

We began at the new visitor center, a modern building decked with “Old Salem” in massive type. I immediately wondered, “Who funded all this?” Because the new center, as well as the town, is in excellent condition, and not cheap.

Salem was the central town of a Wachovia, a tract of land owned by the Moravians. It’s hard to determine just how active the contemporary Moravian church is, and to what extent they pay for Old Salem… in the same way that Mormons clearly shell out a lot of dough to provide for the upkeep of Nauvoo.

Though I was a bit hesitant to pay the $21 entry fee, it was totally worth it. We spent about 5 hours walking around the historic town, visiting with costumed interpreters who helped us understand what life was like back then.

A few of the buildings provided a distinctly Moravian flavor — the African-American church (and its graveyard), the Single Brothers House (where men lived after the age of 14, until they were married), the Tavern… These were all influenced by the practice of the Church. Much of the town, though — the trades, the doctor/apothecary — were simply generic old timey.

One thing that didn’t come across as strongly as it should have is the degree to which the church *controlled* the town. Like Amana, Salem was managed by a set of church elders who pretty much determined everything. Competition was not allowed (so you didn’t have more than one shoemaker, or more than one silversmith). Decisions were made by the elders, and the decisions they couldn’t make were decided by lot, which supposedly provided God’s decision on the matter. The overbearing-ness of the church is alluded to, but not really directly addressed.

To Stacy’s delight, Salem is also the home of the original “small town big thing” — the Coffee Pot.

Don’t bother with sandwiches at the shop above the bakery. If we were to go back, we’d make time to eat at the tavern. And the gift shops were essentially filled with crap. But I guess that’s nothing new.

Sadly, I wasn’t the best photographic chronicler, so I didn’t end up with many pictures. There’s a good collection from various folks on Flickr.

More notes on the Carolinas

When last I wrote, we were heading to James Island, just south of Charleston. We began in Folly Beach, which was pretty much shut down for the Winter. We still got a nice beach walk in…

And we had happy hour drinks at a local watering hole. Which, in South Carolina, is amusing, because they can only pour hard alcohol out of those little bottles. Your manly sports bar bartender looks pretty wimpy trying to mix a drink with these.

We then headed to Bowen’s Island for oysters. Bowen’s Island is something of a local legend, and had been written up that week in the local paper.

Bowen’s Island is definitely an eating experience. As you drive out on Bowen’s Island Road, a sign alerts you that you are heading beyond what the county maintains, so the last half mile or so is on gravel. You pull up by what looks like a shack, and find your way inside.

Though serving all manner of faire, what you’re coming for are oysters. There are two ways to order oysters — for $12 you can get a cafeteria tray covered with them, or for $19 you get all you can eat, literally shoveled pile after pile on your table, which happens to be covered in newspaper.

We weren’t sure if we wanted to gorge solely on oysters, so we settled for the $12 option, along with a plate of shrimp.

Sitting down, you are presented your shucking knives sitting on your towels (no napkins here!),

and your bucket for shells

(This is after we’ve had a few)

You look around, where every surface is covered with writing

and then you’re served your tray heaped with oysters. This is different than your typical served oyster — these are not pristine creatures served in their solitary shells. Shells are clumped together, and the majority of oysters are teeny little things.

And then you start eating…

Which you do until you’re done.

Out back, you can enjoy the funky aroma of the shell pile

After dinner, we headed to the James Island Holiday Festival of Lights. You pay your $10, and drive around see some very pretty electric light creations, and then get out and have yourself a marshmallow roast!

It was truly a lot of fun, and the kind of thing I wish we had in the Bay Area!

Our next day, we went on an architectural walking tour, that was pretty good. We then headed on, first to Columbia, South Carolina, where there was absolutely nothing to do, and so we continued to Charlotte, where we had a nice meal at Alexander Michaels, a loud drink at Therapy, and then settled in for the night.

That’s enough for now… next up, Old Salem!

Quick notes on the Carolinas

A couple days into our tour of the Carolinas. The flight(s) to Raleigh/Durham were a bit painful — we had a four hour wait at O’Hare, for reasons unknown.

We didn’t do much in Chapel Hill besides sleep, eat biscuits, and drink coffee.

Most importantly, we visited Theda Wilkens:

Oh, and her dad.

Then we drove to Charleston, SC. We tried “quaint country roads” at first, but that just lead to strip mall hell and traffic, so we made our way to the 95. We then cut over on the 52, and that proved good, until we got near Charleston. The 52 drives through North Charleston, and is dingy and unappealing. It was good to know that this exists just outside the quaintness of Historic Charleston, but I don’t need to do it again.

Last night we had a good meal at Poogan’s Porch. They had a special $40 dinner for two, where she got a whole Maine lobster and I got a Delmonico steak, and starter, and dessert, AND cava. Must have been a Tuesday special, trying to get people into the place. Can’t complain!

This morning we had breakfast at the Bookstore Cafe, which has no books. It does have wallpaper of books.

We got in the car and headed to the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site and poked around the grounds for 30-45 minutes. Not much to see, but it was pleasant.

Nature trail on the Pinckney Estate

That was followed by an excellent all-you-can-eat buffet lunch at Gullah Cuisine in Mt Pleasant. It’s a place you might miss if you’re not keeping your eye out for it — which is surprising, because when you get inside, it goes on forever. The fried chicken, succotash, bbq pork, and beans were all excellent.

Here’s Stacy after the meal:

I took that picture because I couldn’t figure out what was happening behind that door behind Stacy. People were heading in and out of there, as if they knew what was going on, but the door had no markings, and it wasn’t clear just what lurked behind.

And I’m writing this up from Kudu, an African-themed coffeehouse, that has *excellent* coffee. Excellent.

Tonight we’re heading to the Holiday Festival of Lights on James Island. More later!

Stupid Irrational Customers

“Pursuing the Scarcer Moviegoers,” an article on why folks are staying away from movie theaters, demonstrates the unconscious witlessness of theater owners. To whit:

Mr. Fithian insisted that going to the movies is not too expensive, compared to other out-of-the-home leisure activities. “If consumers seriously analyzed their options, they’d realize that the cinema is the best value for a buck,” he said.

Stupid consumers. If they only behaved rationally!

And it seems theater owners primary mode of response is to harass…. their customers! “‘”We have to attack rude behavior – fighting, bickering, talking too loud,’ Mr. Fithian said.”

In my experience, it’s not other people that have made me by-and-large give up on movie attendance. My reasons are echoed by statements from actual consumers made in the article:

  • bad advertising subjected on a captive audience (that also makes viewing times 20 minutes longer than stated)
  • overpriced concessions (yes, I know I don’t need to eat in the theater, but I like popcorn snacking)
  • Oh, right, there’s very little worth seeing

But instead, the theater owners seem to think the solution involves blocking mobile phone transmissions. While, yes, mobile phones are an irritant, they are a minor, minor aggravant compared to the misery that the theater owners themselves foist upon their customers.

It fascinates me how openly hostile businesses can be toward their customers, and then act SHOCKED! when customers start leaving them in droves. People have so many choices, so many options now, but theater owners act as if they’re the only game in town when it comes to movies, and so have a captive audience that must succumb to their whims.

Some day, some smart company (probably a movie studio, maybe a distributor, probably a savvier player like 2929 Entertainment) is going to engage in a customer research study of film consumption. Get all ethnographic, quantitative, and simply go deep in understanding how films fit in people’s lives, and all the opportunities there are for satisfying customer’s with this material. And this company is going to realize all sorts of benefits by giving people what they actually want in this time-shifted, home-theater, dvd-player-in-the-car, bittorrent-movies-on-my-laptop-on-the-plane world.

Heading to North and South Carolina

From December 18 to the 25th, Stacy and I will be in North and South Carolina. We’re starting and ending in Chapel Hill (well, Carrboro), to visit friends and their new daughter! We’re planning on seeing Charleston, Columbia, and Winston-Salem as well (got to go to Old Salem).

Suggestions for points of interest along this route are welcome. Historic or food-oriented a plus!

Notes from User Interfaces for Physical Spaces

Yesterday I attended User Interfaces for Physical Spaces, a one-day workshop and field trip co-produced by MAYA Design and the IA Institute. The day was essentially an extended case study of the work MAYA did with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (the public library system, CLP), applying methods of user-centered design and information architecture to the design of physical spaces.

The story of how the project landed at MAYA was illuminating. The CLP planned for major architectural renovations to their main library and branches. They sent out an RFP to a number of architecture firms. They awarded the project to EDGE design, because their proposal included their stories of trying to *use* the library (and struggling). EDGE developed a vision for a modern library, including information displays and kiosks. MAYA was originally brought in to help with the interactive portions of the system, but when they asked EDGE and the CLP what went on the kiosks, no one had a good answer. MAYA realized they needed to step back and truly appreciate the space.

In MAYA’s Office

The bulk of the workshop took place in MAYA’s offices, where we walked through the development of their designs.

MAYA’s first project was a 6-week-long intervention, with discussions with key CLP staff, guerrilla on-site research, development of key personas of library users, scenarios of use, and the development of a framework for understanding the entire system of use.

With their scenarios, they identified four components in this process: Users (1) go through Organizers (2) to get Materials/Activities (3) in order to Use/Participate (4).

This is a pretty standard process for smart user-centered design, but there was a key point of differentiation from screen-based work. It comes with what MAYA calls Organizers. MAYA identified three classes of organizers — Library Staff, the Physical Space, and the Categorizations in the catalog system.

MAYA developed scenarios of use for their four key personas, and through that identified breakpoints — moments where a person’s attempt at getting something done is stopped by some problem they run into.

Initial attempts at diagramming the scenarios linearly went nowhere, but thinking through the problem, they realized the breakpoints mapped to the organizers — things broke down when switching from people to categorizations, or from the categorizations to the space.

Mayaclp Breakpoints-1
Click to enlarge

The A-ha! moment for them came in this distinguishing these organizers, because it led to the development of a framework that allowed them to get their head around the problem. The realized that the primary problems people had in using the library occurred when people switched from organizer to organizer — from using the online catalog to engaging with the space, or from talking to a librarian to using the catalog.

This also served as an A-ha! For the CLP. Up to this point, MAYA was essentially telling them what they already knew — there was a myriad of problems people face when using the libraries. The framework allowed the CLP to better understand the problem space.

So, unlike screen-based work, where we tend to get caught up in breakpoints with a single “organizer” — the software — MAYA had to grapple with three potential points of failure. This is orders of magnitude more complex.

Mayaclp Triangle
Click to make bigger

This triangle shows what needs to be considered when handing off from organizer to organizer before the breakpoints occur — and to smooth those handoffs by being aware of the issues that arise when making those leaps.

The 6 week project ended with “Tiger Teams” of 4 or 5 folks — designers and CLP staff — rapidly prototyping solutions to accommodate this new understanding. These blue sky propositions were meant to encapsulate the research in an explicit fashion — not just giving the CLP a bunch of documents with models on them, but ideas for the implications of these findings on design.

After the 6 week project ended, the CLP asked MAYA to help develop an actual solution for the library. This involved, essentially, in developing an information architecture that tied together the three organizers. They overlaid this information architecture on the physical architecture, by annotating actual building blueprints. They spent a lot of time refining nomenclature for wayfinding (thus arriving at “Ask A Librarian” instead of “Reference Desk” or “Customer Services” instead of “Circulation Desk”), and they worked closely with Landesberg Design to develop a signage system that communicated this information architecture clearly.

Field Trip!

After walking through MAYA’s process, we then boarded a chartered school bus (really! yellow on the outside! green canvas seats!), and headed to some renovated libraries. The first library was the Squirrel Hill branch.

This library demonstrated just how well the system worked. Clear, simple signage illuminated what you could do. Signposts guided you as to where to go. What was amazing was how well it all just worked — if we hadn’t spent the last 6 hours being prepped for this experience, I don’t know how many of us would have realized what had gone into the design of this space, because it just felt right.

Mayaclp Signs

Squirrel Hill residents, though, know just how difficult the old library was, and dearly love their new space. It’s clearly become a true community center — people hanging out, reading, surfing the internet (free wi-fi!), and connecting with one another.

Photo by James Melzer

The second library we visited was the Main Library. This library has a host of complications, the biggest of which is that it’s in an 1895 building on the register of historic places. This meant that it’s boxy, room-to-room-to-room layout couldn’t be changed.

Still, the Main library had some important successes. The Cafe is extremely popular, and its yellow floor has become a point of reference for wayfinding.

They’ve also been able to incorporate much of the signage and language that worked so well in Squirrel Hill.

The Main Library also demonstrates what happens when there is too much architect-intervention. Each library is modified by a different architect. At Squirrel Hill, the architect was content to pretty much follow the plan, and create an inviting, open space that just worked. At the Main, the architect did very well to open up and brighten the space, but often missed the point when it came to wayfinding.

Whereas the wayfinding system designed for the libraries involved white type on black, at the Main, they used the more traditional black type on white. Unfortunately, white is everywhere (all walls were wisely painted white to improve the lighting), and that means the signs get lost in the sea of white.

Also, the architects seemed to have a fetish for glass panels. Glass walls are everywhere in the new library, whether it makes sense or not. Perhaps the most egregious case is above the librarian desk near the entrance. While you can see the “ask a librarian” sign if you’re staring at it straight on:

…when you shift your angle, it pretty much disappears:

It’s fascinating to me the way that designers simply won’t leave well enough alone. Actually, well make well enough worse by fiddling with it.

Well, this was a great event, and a huge thanks to MAYA for opening their doors, and the work, up to others.