July 29, 2005

I was in a car accident

At around 8:15 am Central Time, I was driving south down Industrial Rd in Dallas, Texas.

Industrial And Cole.
As I crossed the intersection of Cole, a big black truck heading north turned onto Cole, colliding with the front left end of the car.

Luckily, there was pretty much no one else on Industrial heading south, or there might have been quite a pile up.

My car, about where I left it. These guys are moving it so traffic can get through again.

Severely rattled and in a daze, I attempted to move the car to the curb. Getting out of my car, I saw the driver of the truck hobble away from the scene, clutching himself.

The truck, sans driver. You can see his airbag went off.

A woman who had seen the incident called 911. Another man who saw it stuck around as a witness. I have no idea what happened to the woman who called 911.

In short order, both firemen and police appeared at the scene. The firemen asked me how I was, how I felt, if I had any impact, etc. I hadn't -- apart from a bit of whiplash, and a very very light skinning on my left knee, I'm fine. There were no blackouts, no missing moments. The firemen said that I didn't need to go the hospital right away, but if the pain persisted and/or got worse, I should in a day or two.

The policemen got a statement from the witness, who described the driver who left the scene. He believed that the driver headed for a nearby furniture warehouse, but when the cops looked there, they found no one.

The police got my statement, and then we got the car on a tow truck to return to the Budget Rental Car at DFW.

The tow truck driver

Getting in and around DFW is remarkably difficult. The airport is massive. I've learned to loathe it.

We finally navigated our way to the Budget Rental Car service area, and I was taken to the Budget Rental counter. A very nice woman named Sherry (no picture, damn!) took care of my situation. I filled out an incident report, which ended like this:

As Judith pointed out in a comment on Flickr, I wrote "...a black turned turned..." Clearly, still rattled.

I submitted a claim to American Express (I have no auto insurance, as I own no car, and so the corporate American Express gold card is covering the damage).

When I told the American Express woman that I have no identifying information about the driver of the big black truck, because he fled the scene, she said, "Oh. It was probably stolen." Another hypothesis offered was that the driver was in the country illegally.

It turns out that gold cards, while they cover damage, do not cover "loss of revenue." This is loss of revenue to the rental car company. I had never heard of such a thing, but here's a page about it. Sherry also said that most auto insurance does NOT cover this, either. The only way to get covered for loss of revenue is to take the rental car company's lost damage waiver. Budget's LDW costs $21.99 a day.

Which, of course, is (metaphorically) highway robbery. You can't be covered *simply* for loss of revenue, it has to be tacked onto the collision damage waiver. Or you might be responsible for every day that your car is in their shop.

Does anyone know if any rental car companies have reasonable insurance coverage? I don't think I ever want to rent from Budget again. But I suspect they all gouge in this fashion.

Anyway, back to the main story:

I am okay (as of now). Stiff and sore in the neck and upper back. Adrenaline in my muscles leaves them still a wee bit frazzled. Looking forward to heading home.

Posted by peterme at 01:19 PM | Comments (12)

July 28, 2005

More from "The Don" Norman -- Activity-Based Design

The hottest thread on the SIGIA-L mailing list concerns Don Norman's recent essay, "Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful." In it, he advocates shifting away from human-centered design (what most of us call "user-centered design") towards activity-centered design.

His central point is not to focus on "the user," but on "the activity." User-centered design emphasizes understanding the user, their context, their circumstances, and what they're trying to get done. This is usually achieved through some form of field research, such as contextual inquiry. However, such field research only gives us a snapshot of a person at a particular point in time. If we were to come back a week later, the circumstances could be wildly different. Also, it only gives us a snapshot of *that* person... And users are nebulous, various, with a host of different strategies and approaches. Designing to serve "the user" often leads to lowest-common denominator design.

Don has a tendency to "discover" things that are not new, and then proclaim, "Hey! Look what I found!" and talk about it as if it were the best thing ever. He recently did this with the subject of Emotional Design (where designers and researchers have been aware for a long time, possibly forever, that appreciating emotional concerns in design is crucial), and he's doing it with his refutation of user-centered design. 9 months ago I wrote a post, "Pity the Poor User," inspired by Clay Spinuzzi's book Tracing Genres Through Organizations, where Clay calls into question the user-as-victim trope, and the fact that UCD tends towards a one-size-fits-all approach.

Don posits activity-based design as a potentially superior approach -- focus less on the people (who are many, various, and changing) and focus on the activity (which is comparatively stable). Also, a focus on the activity requires taking greater care to understand the capabilities of the technology. Though members of SIGIA-L seem too dense to comprehend it, Don readily acknowledges that the methods in activity-centered design are pretty much the same as in UCD; the difference is in the mindset, the approach. Instead of putting The User at the center of discussion, you put The Activity. You then recognize that the user is simply a component of that.

I'm disappointed that Don mentions "activity theory" in only a throwaway sentence, with no citations -- "The hierarchical structure comes from my own brand of "activity theory," heavily motivated by early Russian and Scandinavian research." Interested parties have no clue as to where to turn. I can't claim a full understanding, but Activity Theory has emerged as perhaps the second most important theoretical platform in human-computer interaction research, after cognitive psychology. A couple years ago I read the work of Yrjö Engeström, who has done a lot to make activity theory actionable. Unfortunately, the best paper of his that I read is locked up behind a publisher's wall...

So, while Don isn't doing right by his colleagues, and has a bit of a habit of taking credit for ideas that have been around, he deserves credit for shedding light on an overlooked approach. And for continuing to cast doubt on what has become the rhetorical dogma of user-centered design.

I'm surprised Anne Galloway hasn't chimed in yet (maybe she hasn't seen the hub-bub.) A year ago we found ourselves in a large group discussion, where she about her dissatisfaction with designers being obsessed with "types" of users, because an individual can be many different things, and want many different things, depending on their particular contexts. She instead advocated a notion of designing for practice -- what people are doing, not who they are.

At the time, I considered this a radical shift in how designers approach people. Judging from the response to Don's article, it remains so.

Posted by peterme at 09:22 PM | Comments (8)

July 27, 2005

It's Like Summer Camp for User Experience Types!

Shameless plug:

Adaptive Path is going to Washington, D.C. next month, August 22 -25. This is our annual User Experience week - 4 days of talking about all manner of interesting issues (designing for Web 2.0, information architecture, content effectiveness, new user research methods), with interesting people (i.e., the other attendees.)

We recently announced a new guest speaker -- Eric Costello, developer for Flickr, will talk about the development of their innovative product.

That's in addition to such good guests as Jared Spool and Marc Rettig.

I've helped put together Day 2, which is all about IA and content effectiveness. I'm excited about speaking with Melanie Arens, a senior information architect from WellsFargo.com. We will be discussing content strategy and content effectiveness in depth. Planning and designing your content is an often overlooked step in web development. We hope to shed light on its importance, and approaches for doing it.

All of which takes place in Washington, D.C.'s Hotel Monaco, a massive boutique hotel (is "massive boutique" an oxymoron) in the heart of D.C. Often the greatest value of conferences is in the networking, and we make a point of getting attendees to meet one another, both in the sessions and afterwards.

You can sign up for any number of days, or all 4. When you do so, use promotional code FOPM and get an additional 15% off.

Posted by peterme at 08:37 PM | Comments (2)

Unbridled Venom, Airline Edition

Why does it seem that so many major American airlines are run by children? My last two trips have been plagued by bush-league inability to manage *their own* schedules.

On the trip to and from Minneapolis, I was plagued by Northworst. Arriving in the Twin Cities, we were 15 minutes early at our gate.... Yay! Except we had to wait an entire HOUR before we could deplane, because there were other planes at our gates. And because we were on the ground, we had to STAY SEATED. No getting up to go potty! We would have been better off circling above the tarmac.

Why on earth is it that there aren't spare gates that airlines can use in such circumstances. Is every gate really spoken for at every moment?

Then on the trip back, I got to be seated in the distant back of the plane. I know, boo-hoo. But the reason I got the distant back of the plane is that when I bought my ticket, I was unable to select seats for that leg. So I get punished for buying a ticket so far in advance that they don't know what kind of plane will be flying.


And then today, I am on an America Worst flight from Oakland to Dallas, by way of Las Vegas. A colleague of mine is on an earlier flight... which is so delayed that he is told he would not be able to make his connecting flight. So they get him a seat on a direct flight on American, the lucky bastard.

Me, I'm not so lucky. My plane departs from the gate on time... But then waits inexplicably to take off. It turns out that before a plane takes off, some information needs to be sent to the pilot, which is done wirelessly... Except that his computer wasn't receiving the information. So we had to return to the gate, so he could be given this information BY HAND. Oh, 19th century, look out! Then, about 40 minutes late, we take off... Which wouldn't be so, bad, except I have 45 minutes between flights at Las Vegas.

So when we land, I get off the plane, only to be found that my connecting flight is at the farthest possible gate (from A3 to B25). So I'm hauling ass past slow fat people, and make it to the plane.... Only to be told that my carry-on luggage must be checked. Because I was so late on the plane. Because, clearly, it was my fault.

Airlines have NO CAPACITY for dealing when things go wrong. You'd think that, this late into the airline business game, they'd have figured out issues of redundancy, planning, etc. But no.

Suffice it to say, I will never fly either airline again. Even when I return to Minneapolis (which Northworst pretty much has locked up), I will choose a carrier with a connecting flight if need be.

I mean, these experiences are making United Airlines *look good*.

Posted by peterme at 08:37 PM | Comments (5)

July 26, 2005

Assassination Vacation - What's Your Avocation?

It's book week on peterme.com. Today: Assassination Vacation, by Sarah Vowell. Hipsters know Sarah Vowell from one or more of the following things: rock critic for Salon.com, contributor to radio show This American Life, voice of Violet in The Incredibles.

Sarah, it turns out, has a thing for American history, and, in particular, presidential assassinations. The book chronicles her experience covering the ground of America's three pre-Kennedy murders - Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. She visits historic sites, follows historic paths, and reads a lot of books, and talks to a lot of people. Being Sarah Vowell, she has a wry sense of humor, good at demonstrating the absurdity of situations, or their ironies. A keen appreciator of history, she also often draws connections between the goings-on back then with the goings-on of today, particularly in her discussion of McKinley, who lead America into an unnecessary interventionist war that turned into a bit of a quagmire.

Sarah has written the kind of book I would write if I wrote books. As a teenager, I often wrote up travelogues, typically at my dad's request, where I would attempt to be funny while discussing trip details. It was a kind of writing I enjoy, and I even made some halfhearted attempts to do so on this site (Las Vegas | Burning Man | Austin | occasional blog posts), but such writing, well, any good writing takes time, and travelogues are not where I have chosen to spend that time. So, instead, you get pictures.

Which, after reading Sarah's book, ends up upsetting me. Sarah's combination of history, present-day stories, humor, insight, and irony works, and is, in its way, inspiring. Stacy and I take a lot of road trips, often seeking out historic sites (we prefer intentional communities to assassination places -- utopia is more uplifting, though, inevitably, saddening), and after reading Sarah's book, we're kicking ourselves for not doing more to share our experiences. Maybe this public self-flagellation will get us started.

With that: read the book. I don't know if it's worth the hardcover cost, but it'll definitely be a good paperback read. I've also heard great things about the audiobook, which I see, has a special promotional price of $10 (for first time Audible-through-Amazon buyers), and features guest appearances by Conan O'Brien, Jon Stewart, and Stephen King, among others.

Oh, and it's clear that Sarah Vowell hates the Current Administration. If that bugs you, you might want to skip the book.

Posted by peterme at 04:55 PM | Comments (1)

July 25, 2005

Belated Review: Emotional Design, by Don Norman

This review is not belated relative to my reading of the book -- I only finished it this past weekend. But it is belated relative to the book's initial release -- which is getting on a couple of years now.

To its credit, Emotional Design is the best recent book on design I've read for the last couple of years. It's success is due, in large part, to its simplicity. Don puts forth a theory on how design "works" -- how people develop relationships with things in their life.

Designed objects (well, most everything, but we'll focus on designed objects here) trigger three levels of responses -- visceral, behavioral, and reflective. Visceral is the immediate, the unthinking, typically brought on by appearances, the initial experience. Behavioral has to do with use -- utility and usability. And reflective has to do with higher-order concerns, how the objects integrate with our senses of identity and culture, how they get us to consciously consider them and us. The interaction of these three levels leads to what Don calls "emotional design" -- a holistic appreciation of designed objects (and why we love or hate them).

This book is definitely worth reading. Its thesis is straightforward, and Don provides many examples. His discussion of the visceral and behavioral levels is rock solid. He starts to get... fuzzy when discussing the "reflective" level, if only because the subject is so necessarily fuzzy. It covers everything from identity (how does this object reflect on me) to culture (how is this reflection guided by my cultural circumstances) to memory (how do I think back on using that product, what stories do I tell about it?).

Don's presentation falls down when he shifts from explanation (as the book's subtitle says, "Why we love (or hate) everyday things") to extrapolation. When Don imagines the could-be future based on his principles, it's often ludicrous. His discussion on how video games, in order to break out of the young men's market, need to project different kinds of appeal, and use the three levels of design to do so, is a bizarre stretch.

"...the physical appearances of the consoles and controllers need to be changed. Different markets should have different designs. Some designs should reflect a warmer, more feminine approach. Some should look more serious, more professional. Some should have a more reflective appeal, especially for the educational marketplace..."
This kind of prognosis continues for a couple of pages... I would argue that anyone writing about design should be wary of overuse of the word "should." (And yes, I recognize the irony in that sentence).

For the bulk of the book, he talks about how devices trigger emotions in us, a valuable thesis that hasn't been appropriately explored. But then he jumps the shark when he starts discussing emotional machines -- how our objects will need to have emotions to appropriately interact with us. This set of discussions, with too-frequent references to C3PO, comes out of nowhere, and doesn't blend with the rest of the text. I don't know if this is Don's quixotic pursuit that he insisted on including, or if he needed to pad the book to make it more sellable, but the two chapters covering this topic are the weakest in the book.

He is able to finish strong with an epilogue titled "We are all designers" -- something so often forgotten by the professional design community. In it, he makes clear that our experiences with designed things are personal ones -- that the professional designer can only contribute so much, and that each of us takes the important steps of making these things our own.

Posted by peterme at 08:31 AM

July 23, 2005

One to Watch: History Detectives

Not sure what to watch during summer rerun doldrums? May I suggest PBS's History Detectives?

I got turned onto the show by Stacy, who, being an historical archaeologist, is a sucker for such things. The detectives are real live historians and such, with strong credentials. Each show is comprised of three "cases," typically instigated by someone finding something historic in their home, and wondering about its history.

Cases in prior seasons proved quite uneven, but now in its third installment, they seem to have hit their stride. The stories are told well, with the detective work gradually revealing the circumstances under question.

And what really excites me about the show is that they are not shy about controversial subject matter, and bridging gaps between historical incidents and current events. A recent episode dealt with Marcus Garvey's Black Star Line, and a WWII German POW Camp in Texas. The former case lead to a discussion on forcible repatriation (definitely a black mark on American history), and the latter on the Geneva Convention and the treatment of detainees, with direct reference to contemporary treatment at Guantanamo.

This show's populist, social history orientation makes clear the value of PBS in comparison to advertising-supported alternatives.

Not to say that everything is of social import. That same episode featured an investigation into a 1920s toy mouse named "Micky," and its relationship to Disney's famous mouse. An engaging story, much of the music that underscores the case comes from a personal favorite, the Bonzo Dog Band.

Posted by peterme at 08:49 AM

July 22, 2005

Brief Book Review: Freakonomics

A lot of time on airplanes and in hotel rooms allowed me to plow through Freakonomics, a book that you've probably already heard of by now. Maybe you're still wondering, "Should I read it?" I would answer, "Yes."

For starters, it's brief. You can probably get through it in 2 hours, 3 hours tops. Nice big type and easy language.

Also, it addresses a fundamental theme -- conventional wisdom is often unwise. Levitt (the economist) applies smart analysis of data to uncover how things really work. Perhaps the starkest example concerns violent crime. In the 90s, violent crime rates plummeted (contrary to many doomsaying predictions in the early 90s). "Experts" cited a whole range of reasons, from a healthy economy, to innovative policing strategies. However, when you probed the data, there was little to no substance to those reasons. There was an extremely powerful reason, one that was never cited -- the Supreme Court decision, in Roe v. Wade, that legalized abortion in all 50 states. Easier access to abortions means fewer unwanted children which means fewer violent criminals.

Utilizing a rigorous analytical framework to uncover what lies behind everyday things is important, and, if nothing else, the book makes a strong case for it.

Something else I *reallllly* like about the book -- no attempt at tying together the stories into a grand unified theme. In recent tomes, both Gladwell and Surowiecki annoyed me with their hamfisted attempts at seeming smarter than they are, by presenting grand theories that don't really hold water. Levitt, to his credit, is an academic, one who understands that theories should not be taken lightly.

The only thing I really didn't like about the book is its stupid stupid title. Perhaps it's helping move copies, but it's SO ugly.

Posted by peterme at 03:51 PM | Comments (1)

My Dad and Bruce Lee

In commemoration of the 32nd anniversary of Bruce Lee's death, my dad writes about the time he met Bruce, a story which has always been one of my favorites to hear him tell.

Posted by peterme at 08:19 AM

July 16, 2005

I interview Jared Spool

In the latest Adaptive Path newsletter, you can find snippets of an interview I conducted with Jared Spool. Our original discussion lasted almost two hours -- the thousand-some words here can be considered the "highlight reel."

Topics discussed: Probing business issues, setting up user research, hiring theater people, and common mistakes!

Jared is joining us in Washington, D.C. for our User Experience Week.

Posted by peterme at 10:00 AM | Comments (3)

July 15, 2005

Designing for the Sandbox - Slides

In 100 minutes I'm giving a talk at WebVisions 2005 titled "Designing for the Sandbox." If you'd like to follow along remotely, I've uploaded my slides. (2.5 MB PDF) The slides have notes and everything, so it shouldn't be just an incomprehensible set of images.

If you read my control essay, and my posts on "Designing for the Sandbox" and "Create Value while Relinquishing Control", you know the basic gist.

Posted by peterme at 06:53 AM | Comments (4)

July 09, 2005

A Book I Would Read

I would love to read a book on the forces that have lead/are leading the United States to become a foodie nation. In my travels, I've eaten very well in places not considered particularly culinary. There seems to be a convergence of factors -- the rise of organic, the appeal of The Food Network, the Fedexification of fresh food delivery, etc. -- leading to where I can get "cuisine" all over.

Posted by peterme at 09:19 AM | Comments (4)


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Recent Entries
I was in a car accident
More from "The Don" Norman -- Activity-Based Design
It's Like Summer Camp for User Experience Types!
Unbridled Venom, Airline Edition
Assassination Vacation - What's Your Avocation?
Belated Review: Emotional Design, by Don Norman
One to Watch: History Detectives
Brief Book Review: Freakonomics
My Dad and Bruce Lee
I interview Jared Spool
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