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Release the Stars

Review: Release the StarsThe more I survive through life’s travails, the more I accept that the key to understanding women–straight and culturally appreciative women about my age–requires the careful and complete understanding of the movie Dirty Dancing, J. Jill mail-order catalogs, and the music of Rufus Wainwright.

Nevermind that this triad of cryptic combinations also happens to unlock the secrets to the 2007 Gay Agenda™. That’s not so much a paradox as it is a mere coincidence to be discussed at greater length perhaps some other time. On his latest album to date, Release the Stars, Rufus Wainwright shows up in full form, choosing not to throw any curve balls, and instead masters his signature sound. More specifically, he exploits to great affect his quiet piano and soft vocal drones, which inevitably lead to an emotionally charged orchestral build-up and eventual dissipation. He’s previously explored operatic territory like this before on songs like Go or Go Ahead on Want One, but this time around it inexplicably feels more polished and mature.

Songs like Tulsa could be the real sleepers in the mix because of their hidden insights. Married men in particular ought to pay particular attention to the tiny details, as something akin to a wife’s private thoughts may be revealed.

You taste of potato chips in the morning
Your face has the Marlon Brando club calling
And then the thought that I owe it all to Tulsa
And that fat guy with the Queen shirt that we both signed together

I think it’s the obvious psycho-sexual dynamics combined with a higher degree of testosterone and a deeper sense of not caring what anybody else in the world thinks, which may be making Mr. Wainwright a more empethetic songwriter to everyday women than, say, Paula Cole. That’s quite a feat in its own right, actually, but one which I promise hasn’t influenced my score.

True to form, there’s an evident somberness to much of the album, which brings about a mood of quiet reflection. On Going to a Town, it’s almost too easy to see the singer writing the song in his notebook, perhaps on some rain-filled day as he gazes out the Eurail window making his way into Rome or Barcelona.

I’m going to a town that has already been burnt down
I’m going to a place that is already been disgraced
I’m gonna see some folks who have already been let down
I’m so tired of America

Clearly, the openly out songwriter has had the shits with six years of George W. and the Wal-mart culture who elected him. But true to form again, tiny beams of light also abound. Particularly on songs like Between My Legs, a seemingly Elton John inspired guitar romp, Wainwright sounds more steady and comfortable than ever.

In fact, the standouts are too numerous to mention and the accomplishment seemingly too easy to pull off without giving due credit. And as for the complicated route of understanding the female species via a gay man’s intimate songwriting–it may not be that revealing, or even theoretically worth a damn in the end, but the music itself is anything but a wash.


journal, stinkyface

Comments Off on It’s Like Living With a 2-Year-Old

It’s Like Living With a 2-Year-Old

Duck sitting

Happy Birthday little man!

(Flickr commentary exceptionally maintained by mom, as usual.)


Self-Checkout at Wal-mart

Having worked as a design consultant on several point-of-sale systems for national retail, I find myself evaluating self-checkout stations as I come across them in my everyday routine–even when I don’t particularly want to.

It’s a sickness I can’t escape these days.

One system that I find particularly offensive–and I say that with my “user” hat on, not necessarily as a designer, although it should be fairly difficult to separate the two–is the implementation I’ve seen and used at Wal-mart.

As an entity representing nearly 90% of household shoppers across the U.S., Wal-mart owes its customers the best possible experience–not just the best possible prices. And as a corporate leader in the area of maximizing efficiencies, it’s somewhat surprising to see the ball dropped so closely to the end of an otherwise successful conversion funnel.

I should disclaim here that this evaluation may only apply to the Wal-mart in my area. I know it’s fairly common for a national store to pilot systems at different locations across the country, so if you’ve had a different experience, I only hope that yours has been better.

So, with that, here are my main areas of concern.

What’s That Throbbing Pain?
Large shiny sculpted buttons are practically a requirement for any touch-screen sale system, especially touch-screens that interface with the consumer during checkout. Why is this, you ask? Because, and forgive the umpteenth explanation of this word on this site, they need to have the right affordance. That is–in this context, anyway, they should ideally look like physical objects which exist in space and time. So much so, that they should visually seduce one into use.

In a word, tangibility.

Actually, in the past I’ve designed touch-screen systems with buttons so shiny and so full of color contrast, that I thought they might actually induce seizures. Well, maybe not so much, but you get the idea.

“Big shiny object. Must press.”

And in its original state, Wal-mart gets the button right. But they end up losing points on two counts for their buttons–one I’ll get to in a minute. The part I’d like to point out now is the unexplainable throbbing gradient animation which eventually takes over the entire area of the main button components. This cell phone picture was taken as the pulsating action reached its fullest point of gradient saturation.

Self-Checkout at Wal-Mart 1

As you can see, the light color of the gradient practically makes the white text contained within it disappear. At this state, the buttons are no longer readable. And considering that the timing of the animation is slow and lumbering, the resultant affect is that the primary means of interaction effectively becomes usable only half of the time. This is really unacceptable, as the device should have been designed to be legible by users with vision impairments. As a highly segmented culture with demographics all across the board, why isn’t Wal-mart thinking about their users with disabilities?

But even as a user with normal vision, I found myself standing in line, possibly holding up other shoppers, waiting for the gradient to come back into a readable state. This drawback creates obvious inefficiencies for a checkout system that’s supposed to be fast and easy and begs the world’s largest company to re-evaluate the design. Why does this animation need to take place at all?

In the absence of any real reason, one only wishes that the buttons were simply given enough visual contrast to carry through the task at hand–that is, reading the labels to understand the possible actions and moving on with the rest of the checkout.

Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah!
Unfortunately, the buttons aren’t only limited by their visual appearance. Perhaps my biggest pet peeve of all is the fact that the buttons do not return any feedback once they’re pushed. I don’t know if I’ve hit a button on the screen because other than the screen changing eventually, nothing indicates that I’ve operated on a button successfully. This seemingly small point is so important to the design of a touch-screen point of sale system, that it cannot be stressed it enough.

Self-Checkout at Wal-Mart 2

Because touch-screen displays rely on a very specific type of spatial interaction, the overhead for stimulus-response is inordinately more necessary then if one were simply using a keyboard. Some ideas to repair the response path, which I do consider imperative to any good touch-screen design, are actually quite simple:

  1. Give the interface an audible sound once a button is clicked. Any simple sound, even a chicken squawk, is better than no sound at all. It should be brief and immediate and leave no question that the screen was actually touched.
  2. Create a “pressed” state for the button after it is clicked. Render it so it looks like it’s been pushed it into the interface. This hasn’t actually happened, of course, but the perception that it’s happened will certainly reinforce that an action’s taken place.

These suggestions together create an optimal feedback return for the user. Unfortunately, both are missing from Wal-mart’s implementation. Audibly and visually, the interface should demonstrate that it’s actively responding to the user’s activity. Failing to do so creates an impression that things may not be working, or not working in the way that I, the user, want it to happen.

The Devil’s In the Details
Slightly less offensive but no less a wonder is the attention to detail the system’s designers have put into 3D animation. This kind of unsolicited help appears to be a unique feature to Wal-mart’s self-checkout and one that appears to have its own pitfalls too. While I’m certain this on-the-fly training was started with the best of intentions, I have to wonder if it’s actually more of a hindrance to the user than anything else.

Self-Checkout at Wal-Mart 3

It seems to be trying to communicate spatial relationships. After I was done checking out my items, I decided to pay using my debit card, which requires me to use the credit card terminal located at the far right end of the checkout station (not ideal in itself, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). While the animation appears to be telling me to swipe my card, it’s implicitly also trying to orient me into where to perform this step on the station.

The problem is twofold:

  1. Showing me how to swipe my card is putting the cart before the horse. Those instructions are already displayed on the credit card station as a separate subtask. By focusing on the how, and only indirectly instructing the where, the sequence of events becomes out of sorts and doesn’t necessarily match up to my goal. I, as a user, now have to deduce the next step from an illustration with layered meaning. That can be time-consuming and frustrating for a user.
  2. There’s another problem in that the 3D images on the screen don’t necessarily match up to the station I’m using. There are similarities, yes, but the rendered station and the actual station appear different enough that a one-to-one comparison of the machines seems a necessary adjunct to understanding the message of the 3D animation. It isn’t. All that’s needed is a directional cue towards the credit card terminal, perhaps a color-coded sign on the screen that could be repeated on the physical display itself.

Self-Checkout at Wal-Mart 4

Actually there’s another problem, the 3D simulation uses a slow panning effect to suggest areas of focus. This invariably increases the cognitive burden on the user, as the picture moves around suggesting different locations at each turn, while it simultaneously increases the wait time for the overall process. So not only do the 3D animations fail to do what they’ve more than likely been designed to do, they increase the frustration level for both the user and for everyone else waiting at the checkout counter.

I can’t say that this is the worst self service experience I’ve ever encountered, or ever will encounter as a customer, but I do see it as having the most jaw-dropping impact. Wal-mart, both as America’s #1 retailer and as an international model for business, should be setting the bar much, much higher. Self check-out could be made so much more efficient and less burdensome to the user, which would ultimately streamline the process as a whole and increase ease-of-use, among other benefits, for the consumer.

Eventually, I’m certain Wal-mart and the other stores will get it right. But until then, a lot of design analysis, observation, and empirical research needs to be collected for self-checkout systems to make their way down the express lane.


Meet Mr. Usability

The scene opens as Mr. Usability sits and watches TV on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Enter Wife holding a red and white envelope strewn with the familiar Netflix logo. The paper appears tattered and worn, with a tear that almost splits the envelope in half.

Wife: You really did a number on this envelope. That’s not how you’re supposed to open it. We have to mail this movie back, you know.

Mr. Usability: Oh, yeah. I did that without even thinking. I don’t think I read it correctly.

Wife: Read it correctly? It doesn’t look like you read it at all. Otherwise you’d know how to open it.

Mr. Usability: Well, by read I meant interpret. I interpreted the affordance of the envelope to have a certain kind of use. Studies show that people don’t read instructions. That package design definitely has some usability issues. I should write those people a letter.

Wife: Yeah, well, you’re head has usability issues. I’m going to write you letter.

End scene.


culture, design, usability, user experience

Comments Off on Jean Baudrillard and the Forward March of Customer Experience Design

Jean Baudrillard and the Forward March of Customer Experience Design

Last week, Jean Baudrillard, the French thinker who will most certainly be remembered in the states as having provided a convenient prop for Neo to hide his illegal software in the Matrix series died of cancer.

Throughout his academic career, he consistently maintained that the best representation of his thesis on Simulacra and Simulation was Disneyland.

Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulation. To begin with it is a play of illusions and phantasms: pirates, the frontier, future world, etc. This imaginary world is supposed to be what makes the operation successful. But, what draws the crowds is undoubtedly much more the social microcosm, the miniaturized and religious revelling in real America, in its delights and drawbacks. You park outside, queue up inside, and are totally abandoned at the exit. In this imaginary world the only phantasmagoria is in the inherent warmth and affection of the crowd, and in that aufficiently excessive number of gadgets used there to specifically maintain the multitudinous affect. […] By an extraordinary coincidence (one that undoubtedly belongs to the peculiar enchantment of this universe), this deep-frozen infantile world happens to have been conceived and realized by a man who is himself now cryogenized; Walt Disney, who awaits his resurrection at minus 180 degrees centigrade.

Now, I’ll take it a step into the present and say that the last time I was at Universal Studios, the hyperreality Baudrillard helped to coin was simply off the hook. Everything about the place, from the restaurants to the bathrooms, was an exercise in some other virtual experience.

Waiting in line for the Spider-man ride, itself a masterpiece of cutting edge simulation technology, was not just the experience of waiting in line. Instead, the entrance to the ride was transformed into the Daily Bugle — complete with desk cubicles, ringing phones, and pictures of J. Jonah Jameson and news clips of the villains who would soon appear in 3-D to scare the socks off of my mother-in-law. Every sight and every sound was manufactured to shepherd the masses into a pre-conceived psychological experience.

And the ride hadn’t even started yet.

Clearly, since every ride at Universal Studios, and in fact, every surrounding place of business in Orlando, utilizes the same techniques to transform cognitive awareness into heightened sensation, the park designers are hip to what Baudrillard spent much of his life arguing, albeit to a lesser degree of pessimism.

Indeed, his life’s consternation has become, what I would argue, is simply good Customer Experience Design. Since perception is so much a part of measuring success in that discipline, it only makes sense that postmodern concepts such as hyperreality and simulation make up a few of its parts.

In fact, what caused me to make this connection was hearing the news of Baudrillard’s death while I was working out a design-related issue in my head. I had been discussing a screen I designed with some software engineers. Without getting into the details too much, I was arguing that there needed to be a “transitional” page between one screen and next. Since the two layouts were so similar, I wanted to reinforce to the user that a separate event was about to happen. The solution I proposed was to use a sub-modal dialogue usually reserved for communicating system updates. The developers didn’t see the point of this. They argued vehemently that “slowing down” the application for a static screen which updated nothing didn’t make any sense.

Well, of course, as a Customer Experience Designer, I’m not always interested in making programmable sense. I sometimes have to go beyond logic and even reality to fashion a good design. We are talking about an experience after all.

And so I realized, as I thought and listened to the news on my car radio, that those same observations had already been articulated, more or less, by Jean Baudrillard. In a way, I believe his heavy-handed scrutiny and social criticism ironically paved a clearer way for people like me to do our jobs more effectively.

That is, if we can resist the urge to harvest the human population into our own source of energy.

And down the rabbit hole we all go hopping.

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