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stop-sign-744192_960_720Let’s say you’re a new startup, a startup that shows some signs of possibility. Let’s say you’ve grown beyond the “I’m jobless, so I’m working on this little idea so I won’t have a gap on my resume” stage (you know what I’m talking about).  Well then, you know who has some great advice for you?  Absolutely everyone.

It’s a weird phenomenon experienced by every fledgeling startup, the unbelievable enthusiasm with which outsiders want to pass startups around from hand to hand hot-potato-style.  Not, allow me to qualify, to render any type of actual assistance in the monetary or manpower departments. That would be too close to some type of real help.  But advice?  Or yes oh yes oh yes.  Everyone in the world suddenly has an expert opinions on exactly what the startup is doing, how they are doing it, and, most importantly, who is the next person in line who you absolutely must talk to in order to get their opinion.

For a new startup this can seem amazing. They might even be a little star-struck. Look at all these experts who are taking the time out of their busy day to give us encouragement!  Look at all these great connections we’re making! Look at all this fantastic advice!  This networking is really going to come in handy if we ever get around to actually doing anything…

And of course, therein lies the problem. Meetings take time, which the advice-givers have lots of (if they didn’t, please believe they wouldn’t have taken the meeting). The startup does not have a lot of time. The first couple of months of any new company is a rush to overcome the event horizon that sucks most good ideas back to earth before they ever leave the atmosphere. Startups have a choice about how they use those precious few moments they spend wafting through the air before gravity kicks in. Don’t waste it.

There are no new ideas in the world.   Any thought passing through your head is already grubby from the thousands of other heads it’s visited first. Ideas are fun, but they’re absolutely worthless without the implementation to back them up. Which means that, beyond the initial planning phase, wasting time talking with a series of potential, hypothetical  mentors can be absolutely pointless. Talking can’t refine an idea, only trying out various implementations can do that.  Which is precisely what a startup isn’t doing if they’re spending all their time ooing and ahhing over their role model’s wonderful office furniture and complimenting them on their custom espresso machine.

Most experts don’t actively set out to drown young startups with  buckets of well-meaning advice.  It’s flattering to have your opinion asked.  It feels good.  And often the suppliants were referred by a well-meaning friend or colleague, someone for whom they want to do a favor. It would be rude to decline. And of course,  inhabiting the role of advice-giver puts the givee in their professional debt, something that they can call upon in the unlikely event the startup does in fact become a success.

How often do experts honestly have anything to say that will materially help a new company, an organization they know absolutely nothing about besides what they learn during a single, hour long meeting over tiny bottles of water? It’s difficult to say. The ties of “doing a favor for a colleague” are fulfilled no matter that gets said. Having an opinion is easy, and having a strong opinion is impressive. Ask enough people and it’s possible to get enough opinions to cover every possible contradictory course of action. Multiple opinions can just be paralyzing. And of course, that’s not even counting the most popular type of mentorship of all, just passing the supplicants off to someone else.

Here is a rule of thumb. Any meeting that ends with the phrase, “Do you know (person who does something only very tangentially related to you)? They’re in  (field that’s only vaguely related to your topic). I bet they have some great advice for you,” stop.  That should be your last meeting.

There is no perfect piece of advice.  There is no external compass that can point  you in the direction of certain success. Only getting out of the meeting rooms and back to your desk, or basement, or coffee shop, or temporary office space, or bar, or  wherever you’re doing the actual work of the startup, can do that.  Chasing after just one more piece of advice from just one more fascinating expert has been the death of many a project.

Break the chain of well-intentioned meetings! It’s a path that leads to another and another, and another, a series that can go on forever until you run out of gas with the window of opportunity left far behind you.  Have faith in your own  expertise – you might know less than the experts, but your real-world experimental findings are worth much more than their hypothetical guesses.  Get out of your mentors offices and back in the lab.  The next time you hear the phrase “you know, you should really speak to…” say, “No! No, I really shouldn’t!”

Having trouble deciding if you should totally steal someone else’s artwork and then be a complete butt about it? For those coming late to the story, frat-fave DJ Diplo last week totally ripped off the work of Brooklyn-based illustrator Rebecca Mock for one of his promotional videos. When she called him on it, he kept it classy by responding with creepy misogynistic taunts, which some might consider an interesting tactic with a person who now totally has the legit right to sue you.

Now, the usual defense in this kind of case is for the perpetrator to claim that their blatant theft of a hard-working artist’s sole means of support is actually NOT theft because it gives the artist free publicity.  It’s like stealing a pizza from a restaurant but claiming that other people will see you eating it and be so impressed that they’ll decide to go themselves. Of course, the “…but it’s free publicity” defense starts getting kind of funny when the publicity is obviously not the type the artist would ever have wanted. We all read a lot about privilege, but one good definition would be, ‘I’m so great, of course I can take anything I want because anyone would be proud to be associated with me.’

It’s funny to think that folks in the music industry, which spends a serious amount of time making a big-assed deal about their own copyright issues, should be such douches about other people’s, but them’s the crappy crappy breaks. In any case, on the off chance that there really is a big community out there who is struggling with understanding the basic, 5-year-old morality of this issue, read on!

artwork

mysteryThe patriarch of an ancient manor house is found stabbed, face-down in his turtle soup! Luckily, a detective is taking a holiday in the village! Was it the overprotective nurse? The shifty-looking scientist? The debt-ridden daughter with Communist tendencies?  No! It was the actress’s friend who is actually the illegitimate son and heir, and incidentally also the leader of a notorious band of jewel thieves!

Golden Age detective fiction (1920-1950) straddled a weird time in English society. Hemlines were up! The stock market was up! Minorities and women…existed! And the genre of the murder mystery was still trying to figure itself out. It was certainly a different flavor of fish from the Victorian detective thriller of 30 years earlier.  Read today, many Sherlock Holmes mysteries are actually adventure stories, or even straight-up novels, with solutions that rely on facts hidden from the reader until the big reveal. They are plot-driven, not problem-driven. I mean, the ghost is actually a dog painted in phosphorus? When phosphorus has never been mentioned before? Really? By modern standards it’s all very Scooby Doo.

So Golden Age fiction stories occupied a strange in-between time period. They weren’t quite adventure stories with daring rooftop chases and duels, but they weren’t just sentimental novels where lovers defied all odds for a chaste embrace. And they weren’t supernatural thrillers (although occasionally they became the opposite, morphing into dry mental puzzles with cryptography and word games). Authors like Christie, Sayers, and Allingham tried a mix of everything, and by the mid-20’s a genre had emerged.  It wasn’t Noir, it wasn’t Romance, it wasn’t Action Adventure, it wasn’t Horror – it was Mystery.

Golden Age mysteries have a specific, predictable template that allows readers to expect a specific predictable rhythm (this is pulp fiction after all – enjoyable, disposable, repeatable). A group of upper-class people come together.  A body is found.  The suspects react with horror.  One-by-one they’re all discovered to have motives and opportunity. Then the prime suspect is proved to be a red herring (usually when a second body is found).  Finally, the detective has a big reveal.

And then…the 50’s happened.  The rise of post-WW2 technological advancement and social change made the classic murder mystery impractical.  So many of the tropes it relied upon just didn’t make sense anymore – they required an audience steeped in turn-of-the century stereotypes for their ‘gotcha’ moment.  It was the end of an age.

Any mention of someone having been an actor in their past automatically means they’re not who they claim.

The Victorian stigma against entertainers made a convenient excuse why someone would keep their past ‘on the stage’ a secret, while still providing a hint that they might successfully impersonate another character. But by the 1950’s, Hollywood glamor had confused the occupation’s class sigma, and this one stopped making sense.

A corpse with the face smashed in means someone is attempting to conceal the victim’s identity

Bad car accident, a fire, a fall where the body just happens to land on its face…An unrecognizable or missing head automatically means an attempt to disguise identity.  But with the rise of blood-typing, fingerprinting, and later DNA testing, this just stopped being a thing.

Dentists.  Any mention of a dentist means the victim’s identity isn’t what the reader thinks it is

Like ‘corpse with the face smashed in’,  it always means that dental records for two people have been switched to conceal the identity of a victim. So…this just is no longer relevant.

Stopped clocks always show an incorrect time of death

A smashed clock is a great way for the plodding local police to incorrectly establish time of death, clearing the way for the detective to point out that the time has been re-set to confuse authorities. The end of hand-wound clocks finished this trope fast enough. Also, as upper-level policing became more white-collar it became less acceptable to portray them as being so dumb.

Foreigners are always red herrings
Golden Age mysteries love to use the reader’s own racism against them. One common plot is to make a German or Chinese character the prime suspect, with exotic political or religious motivations, and then prove that they were actually set up by some blue-blood Englishman doing it for the sordid cash payout.  The rise of a more global community ended this one when people started realizing it was just as racist to believe that only the British were capable of crimes.

Cliche: Communists are silly

As characters, Golden Age Communists are usually spiteful, pimply young men, under-educated and eaten up with sour grapes, using their racy politics in an attempt to impress the daughter of the manor. Then the Cold War kicked in, and suddenly everyone started taking Communists a lot more seriously.

Fingerprints don’t exist

It’s not that Golden Age detectives don’t know about fingerprinting – by the 20’s it was a standard part of police procedure – it’s just that there never are any.  “It was wiped clean” is the refrain in every single novel ever.  Or the weapon was dropped in a pool.  Or the fingerprints were added afterwords to make it look like suicide.  Or the texture was wrong. Or…but you get the idea.  I suspect by the 1950’s the public may have realized it was unlikely that not a single useful fingerprint had ever been found, anywhere, ever, and gave this one up.

Moral murderers all have lethal diseases that will kill them in a matter of months

Was the murder a revenge for the horrible crime that the victim themselves committed twenty years earlier?  Was the murder done to stop the victim from ruining the life of an innocent young beauty through their dastardly blackmail? Well then, you can bet that the murderer just happens to have been given only a few months left to live in any case, thus relieving the detective of the responsibility of exposing them. But the simple morality of the 20’s didn’t last into the more complicated world of the 50’s and 60’s. Good and bad suddenly became less clear-cut.

Media of today could learn a valuable lesson from Golden Age detective fiction:  holding on to the tropes and stereotypes from an earlier age always hamstrings the story.  At the very least it makes the writers seem out of touch with their readership.  That doesn’t mean it’s necessary to turn every piece of literature into a whirlwind tour of the latest inventions and moral philosophy, but it does mean staying true to what the characters might actually be feeling and doing. Tropes are helpful building blocks for fitting a piece of media into a specific genre, but too often they turn into a lazy writer’s shorthand.   Might I suggest reconsidering the following common tropes in media.

Answering machines that record incoming messages out loud

Yes, it’s a great way for the wrong person to overhear a private message, but who actually owns an answering machine? Is it likely your hip young 20-something characters would? Really? The kind that records on tape, out loud to an empty house?  While it’s true that about half of US homes still have old-fashioned landlines, that number is very heavily skewed towards the elderly. Unless your screenplay is about geriatric patients whose kids set up their answering system in the late 80’s, ditch it.

No one has a cellphone.

They left it at home.  It’s out of battery.  It’s out of minutes.  It’s out of range. They refuse to buy one. They dropped it in a toilet.  Or in extreme cases, the monster just happens to emit a cellphone signal-dampening field (funny how that happens).  If you’re writing about characters who would probably have a working cellphone, give them a bloody working cellphone. If its existence messes up your modern-day plot, there’s something wrong with the plot.

Cliche: Teenagers watching a TV news broadcast

In days gone by this was a great method of exposition – the TV in the background would just happen to run a piece about the escaped criminal who would attack our hero in the next scene.  A majority of Americans do still get some news from the TV, but who are they? Probably not anyone under 35. In fact, do they even watch broadcast TV?  If they have a Netflix account, chances are no. If your hero is a teenager, reconsider.

Finding an incriminating scrapbook of newspaper articles related to a crime

First of all, did anyone ever do this?  Save every scrap of information about something horrible they’re trying desperately to forget?  Probably not, but at least up until the year 2000 it was technically conceivable as a plot device. This isn’t a thing anymore.  Someone stumbling across an incriminating Google News search history, maybe.  Paper news, nope.

Scientists must be punished for their hubris

In the 80’s, science or technology was shorthand for the soulless progress that would soon destroy our souls. In fact, ‘spirituality beats science’ was a real favorite for a solid decade there. In this trope, a scientist  tries to attempt something new and cool, then is is immediately killed by their creation.  Usually in an ironic way, after saying something like “I have become an invincible god!!!11!”.  It’s true that anti-intellectualism is still a thing, but in today’s STEM-desperate academia, it’s hard to imagine those poor scientists with any power at all.  Between the politics of tenure and bloody battles for a dwindling funding supply, there just isn’t time to take over the world.  Our stereotype of a power-mad megalomaniac would be much better embodied through a mad banker or crazy start-up dude.

When a genre times out, there’s nothing to do but update it and move on. In time the more thrilling Golden Age mystery works turned into spy fiction, and the more cerebral became police procedurals. Both are totally legit forms of literature, and both will probably give way in turn as their own tropes become irrelevant.

Already we can see some of it happening. It would be great to think that the police give 200% like the Detectives of CSI, sacrificing their personal lives, challenging their superiors and putting their reputations on the line against an uncaring bureaucracy for what they know is right every time…but that’s just not the way the system is set up.  Nor would it really be realistic for them to do so. The medical procedural, a literary offshoot of the police procedural, suffers from the same problem: Modern medical law and insurance policy just can’t realistically reward, or often even allow, the type of above-and-beyond compassion and medical largess we see on shows like House.

These tropes haven’t timed out just yet, but they will given time. And when they do, we have to be willing to leave them and move on.  The murderer can’t always be the debonaire heir to the family fortune.  We must admit, at least to ourselves, that sometimes the guilty party really is a Communist German sympathizer with an accidentally smashed watch. And a working cellphone.

New-Logo-Vertical-DarkDamn it Uber, I like you so much as a service. You’re everything I look for in a disruptive business concept: grass roots, reliable, demonstrably better than the status quo. So why do you keep doing such terrible, terrible things as a company? You’re coming perilously close to my Chicken McNugget line.

Everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. It works like this. The average American attempt at dieting lasts a day and a half – it gets broken at about 3pm the second afternoon. That’s the point at which the brain says, “Listen – I respect that you’re dieting, really! But here’s this doughnut. Isn’t it possible that this is an unusual exception? I mean, you’ve had a really rough day/ you’re unusually hungry right now/ you deserve a reward/ not eating it is wasteful/ you promised yourself treats now and then/ whatever other excuse will fit in here to SHORT CIRCUIT YOUR LOGIC AND EAT THIS DOUGHNUT.” A serious dieter will take a step back and say waaaaaitaminit, this is exactly the type of situation where I said I wasn’t going to eat a doughnut. But most of us won’t.

When a person doesn’t want to diet, there will always be a completely logical reason why they can’t diet today. When a student doesn’t want to do their work there will always be a completely valid reason why they couldn’t possibly have done it. And they will believe, truly believe that they were totally, powerless over the situation, no matter how ridiculous the excuse. Studies show that the same is true of many folks convicted of violent felonies – they have completely plausible and valid reasons why it was everyone else’s fault that they were forced to track down and stab that one dude.

But everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. That’s the point at which the junk food you crave is so godawful disgusting that your brain just can’t find an excuse ridiculous enough to eat it. Chicken McNuggets are an unholy mix of cartilage, nerves, and skin, mixed with grain-based fillers, and held together with silicone. They qualify as food only under the definition “items that fit in my mouth”. I pass a McDonalds every day on the way to work, and sometimes the smell tempts me. My brain steps in with its siren song: I know you don’t eat crap like this, but isn’t it possible this is a totally different situation where you should reward yourself with an arg arg arg they’re just so so nasty, for the love of god don’t do it…

Car service Uber is getting perilously close to my McNugget line. Their app has resulted in at least one death, a whole bunch of rape cases, generalized attacks (with a hammer?) and one “slapping in response to a burp“, all of which they’ve denied any responsibility for. They’re accused of everything from failing to enforce the background checks they claim protect their customers, to engaging in aggressive campaigns shaming and discrediting the victims who have been assaulted by their drivers. They use startlingly icky sabotage tactics against competitors, which, if not illegal, are at least creepy as hell. And not that it makes a lick of difference, but their misleading pricing has given them and F rating from the Better Business Bureau, which isn’t easy. Hell, even some Ikea locations have a A+, so it can’t be that hard.

But today’s snafu is particularly ‘eek’-inducing – at a recent dinner, Uber’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, explained his plan to spend a million dollars on a smear campaign against journalists who dare report on Uber’s failings. The focus for his ire was PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, who’s been key in exposing some of Uber’s scarier infractions, particularly against women. Michael suggested that researchers could be hired to “dig up the dirt” on journalists and their families, and use what they found as a threat to keep them silent. In his own words, it would give the media “a taste of its own medicine”. When it was pointed out how this might backfire, he responded, “Nobody would know it was us”.

Now, besides the basic first amendment issues at work here, this is about as bad PR as a company can manufacture. Using threats of violence and intimidation against a plucky underdog who dares to stand up to a powerful business is a classic Hollywood trope.

At the same time, it’s easy to understand the allure. Terror is an extremely effective weapon in silencing critics, particularly when the victims are women with families to protect. For all that movies are full of square-jawed fathers trying to save their wife and kids from kidnappers/burglers/ terrorists/dinosaurs, in reality these soft targets are much more likely to be used against a mom. Few dudes consider sending their family into hiding or requesting FBI protection before publishing an exposé, whereas their female counterparts are often forced to do just that. Just ask any of the brave lady journalists recently targeted by Gamer-Gaters. But while it’s easy to silence critics, it’s much harder to silence the fact that they’ve been silenced.

When asked for comment, Michael gave a carefully worded response that said, in summation “LOL/JK, I was just a little annoyed”. It’s still better than an earlier response where he said Lacy should be held responsible for any woman who got themselves raped by a taxi driver after deciding not to use Uber. I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up.

So, it begs the question, why the hell is this guy still talking? Or more importantly, why is Uber still letting him talk? In public? Don’t they have any sense of self-preservation at all? I don’t know enough about the financial ins-and-outs to say if he should fired or not (I mean, obviously, but he hasn’t been yet, so…?). But Uber, at the very least, for your own good, lock him in a basement somewhere with a gag on so he can’t keep making these outrageous PR blunders every time he opens his mouth. While you’re at it, lock up most of your senior staff – very few of them are passing the basic “pretend to be human” test right now.

I want to use Uber. I want to use them so badly. And I can always find an excuse why this time is the exception. The local drivers aren’t to blame for corporate error/ yellow cab drivers are often so much worse/ it’s cold out/ I’ve got my puppy Oyster with me/ I’m wearing these awesome heels. And as of yet, my willing suspension of disbelief is still gamely chugging away, defending what I really want to do from what I really know is right. Especially if I can’t get a ‘Go Green Ride‘ car. Hey Go Green, do some usability testing already – you’re fantastic, but your app sucks.

So if that doesn’t work out, I may still use an Uber. We haven’t crossed my Chicken McNugget line…yet. But it’s not going to take much more – this camel is already carrying a whole lot of straw. Just try me, Uber, just one more revelation, one more horrible remark, one more incident. I’m using you today, maybe, but tomorrow, who knows.

controllerI’m not a gamer. I tried Candy Crush a couple times but I couldn’t really figure it out. I once roomed with a guy addicted to Final Fantasy, but it only lasted a couple weeks. I do tend to mention IKEA a lot in my writing – IKEA is kinda like a game, right? It’s sort of a cross between Pinball and Tetris.

Angry teenage hackers can go through all my devices and all they’ll find are complaints to Burts Bees and a couple pictures of my little dog, Oyster. I was born too early for nude pictures, I don’t have any serious financial assets, and I can’t be fired from my job. I live in an apartment building, so there isn’t even a front lawn on which to burn a cross.

Which means that, when it comes to Gamer Gate (the male-supremacist movement focused on driving women from the gaming community) I really don’t have much of a stake. I don’t have an opinion on anything that impacts them, and in return, 4chan hasn’t declared one of their fatwas on Oyster. Do it at your own risk, guys, that puppy is the size of a chicken but he’s a nasty biter, and I haven’t given him his yearly rabies shot yet.

Begun as a revenge campaign by a (male) gamer against his journalist ex-girlfriend, Gamer Gate has spiraled into a bigotry-fest of downright weirdness (they drew themselves a female mascot to prove they weren’t misogynistic, then held discussions about fucking her). Speaking as an outsider, it’s… well, it’s just plain strange. My immediate reaction is to shake my head and thank goodness I have no wish to try any game more complicated than “World of Goo”. It’s like learning about horrific atrocities in Iraq – yes, it’s terrible stuff going on over there, but I had no interest in ever visiting Iraq anyway, and this just reminds me why.

Even in the academic field of fandom, where the tools of the trade are privilege vs. stigma, us non-gamers are used to shrugging over the confusing gyrations of the gaming community. All that vocabulary I don’t understand, the technology that seems so specialized, the members who often represent my worst memories of 7th grade… Incidentally, the same is also true for Sports fandom scandals. Lots of us just want to shake our heads and say, “Honestly, what’s up with that?”

It’s a question much of the non-gaming world may be asking right now. What’s up with that. Does this impact anything real at all, or is it just the usual creeps being creeps?

Well, here’s the thing: bigotry is really bad for business. Appeals to our better nature may or may not have any effect, but as proud Americans, surely we can appreciate a solid appeal to our wallets. The same way the auto industry sure as hell better care about ISIS atrocities lest they impact the flow of oil to American gas stations. The same way the flower and catering industries should be on the front lines of gay marriage advocacy.

It’s a lot easier to take civil rights personally when they might directly affect our paychecks. And the gaming industry is big about passing out paychecks to pretty much every other industry I can think of, from manufacturing to movies. Globally they’re valued at more than $65 billion, the fastest growing segment of the US economy.

What we’re dealing with here is called the taxi driver’s dilemma. A taxi driver sets a threshold for the amount of money they need to make in a day, promising to go home only once they’ve got enough. If fares are scarce, they’ll have to stay out all day and night to reach the quota, but on good days they can go home early! It seems to make sense until you do the math – in actuality, setting a threshold like this makes you less money, for more work. It would be a much better strategy to leave early on days with no fares, and stay out late on days with good ones. Twice the cash, less driving.

Females like gaming, or at least, young females express about the same rate of interest as young males. Unlike football, or trains, or a pathological love of dinosaurs, there doesn’t seem to be any particular gender bias built into the thrill of pushing buttons, (or whatever those young whippersnappers are doing these days, oh my aching back, etc).

So where is the gaming industry’s capitalism-fueled indignation? Where is the accountant in some cubical, staring at a spreadsheet, counting out the numbers again and again, until they finally come to the conclusion: “Shit, maybe if half our potential audience wasn’t worried about getting raped and murdered every time they play, we could double our income?”

It would be like if a bunch of Swedish people decided only Swedes deserve to eat IKEA meatballs. And then dispatched teams of angry, violent Scandinavians to all the international IKEA’s of the world to beat up locals when they tried to order lunch. I’m pretty sure Corporate HQ would notice that drop in sales pretty fast. I shudder to think what a company like IKEA does to folks who impact their bottom line. All those tiny tools…

Anyway, it’s a classic Taxi Driver’s Dilemma. The gaming industry can indeed pander to the creepy vocal minority by staying silent about the treatment of their female audience. And doing so does indeed help them fulfill their quota of skeezy dudes who want to buy their stuff. But there really are only so many skeezy dudes in the world, no matter how loud all the shrieks of offense.

Instead of trying to reach 100% skeez saturation, gaming companies could be working less hard for twice the money if they would just lend a little support to the other half of the world’s population who also wants to buy their stuff. You know, the ones who, right now, have been driven away from their product by creepy dudes. More than half the world’s population, actually, I’m sure there are plenty of guys who are just as creeped out by this kind of awfulness.

So come on, accountant with a spreadsheet, stand up for a lady’s right to give you lots of money! If I was the gaming industry right now, I’d be desperately donating to every women’s rights charity I could find, launching outreach campaigns, and hiring women like mad. I hear there are lady gamers with lots of cash, and maybe, just maybe, if they weren’t constantly afraid for their lives, they would like to give some of it to you. Hell, maybe I’ll even give it a go.

urbanThe physical experience of shopping at an Urban Outfitters is different than shopping at a Zara or Gap.  Unlike other stores’ carefully organized layouts, at Urban, clothing is strewn in piles dozens high and wedged into wall units. Multiple styles are crowded onto the same rack. Some styles are hidden in nooks and crannies, under pieces of furniture where only the most dedicated spelunker will find them.  And everywhere, carefully-folded piles of shirts, shorts, and jeans, dozens high, require the shopper to shred the entire tower to find a specific size.

This is a setup meant to encourage browsing. It’s not a setup meant for quick item location.  Finding a specific type of shirt is a daunting task.  Sometimes jean are in the same place, but then again, sometimes they’re not. But Urban still makes it work with a secret weapon: manpower.  They flood their stores with, by my count, twice the number of staff other stores employ on the sales floor at any given time.  Yes, finding a specific tank top often requires dismantling an entire 6×6 display, but I suspect Urban has run the numbers, and discovered it’s cheaper to pay a college student to immediately re-fold everything than it is to buy classier fixtures.

In the physical world, retail outlets can afford to use the “acceptable anger strategy” of customer service, assuming that their customer’s frustration can be overcome through other, more human means.  At Urban, the jumbled “garage-sale” feel stays just this side of impossible by the constant ministrations of staff. It’s almost fun, in a way. Like playing hide-and-seek, with the bonus that someone else has to clean up after you.

Discount furniture store IKEA  overcomes the built-in frustration of walking around a maze of a store, long lines, and carrying your own packages, by imbuing their store with a quirky cheekiness. Yes, this is horrible, hah ha, but we’re all in this together saving cash!  Have some meatballs and lingonberries! It’s almost fun! They have almost certainly run the numbers and decided more money can be made by exposing users to a vast number of products than can be made by improving the customer experience. Like Urban Outfitters, a certain number of people will swear to never return, but many will shrug and say, “well, I guess it wasn’t that bad – and hey, look at this great shirt/necklace/dresser/bag of meatballs.”

In the digital world, it’s a little more complicated.

In 2011 my company shared an office with one of those cool online cosmetics services.  They specialized in sending out boxes of samples to subscribes each month. Not Ipsy, the other one. As a workspace it was great – perfume samples everywhere, free coffee in the kitchen, but there was one significant downside.  Our pod was placed right next to the customer service team.  Every phone call, every single phone call, with almost no exceptions, started this way:”Hi, this is E___ at B____, how can I hep you?  Oh I’m so sorry!”. By week two we came to realize that the apology was, in fact, probably encoded into their script.

Now, the customer service team at this company was absolutely gorgeous. For almost all of them this was their first job directly out of college, where many had belonged to the same sororities.  The uniform was stilettos, professionally blown-out hair, and full evening makeup no matter the weather or time of year.  Lunchtime meant doing each other’s nails and nibbling on celery.  A couple times a day a bell would ring. The entire team would lay down their headsets, take off their heels, and do yoga together.  Then they would spend 8 hours apologizing. Constantly apologizing. Shipping issues, technical issues, packaging issues,  “Oh I’m so sorry, let me see what happened” over and over and over

I can only assume this company had run the numbers and decided it made more sense to employ a huge and very specialized customer service team  – at the time significantly bigger than their tech team – to apologize, than it did to solve the institutional problems their customers were complaining about.

In the real world, this is a brilliant compensatory strategy.  Walk into a physical store with a complaint about your perfume and meet the sheer perkiness, the earnest enthusiasm of these gorgeous mayflies, and few shoppers with would find themselves able to stay angry for long.

But charm doesn’t work at a distance. There’s a certain charm to being annoyed and confused by the IKEA store. People boast about it.  There’s a 30 Rock episode about it. There’s no charm to being confused by the IKEA website.  Virtual services can’t afford to compensate for organizational failings with quirkiness the way a store in the real world can, because they require a level of trust that isn’t needed at a physical location where someone can simply walk away.  Few disgruntled shoppers at Urban Outfitters ever approach the level of panic and outrage evinced by those cosmetics customers. You could hear it through the speakers 10 feet away.

Perhaps all of us could take a page from the Evil Overlord list. This was a viral email from back in the mid-90’s listing all the classic blunders an evil ruler might make in their quest for domination. It includes common sense suggestions such as “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” and “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps”.  One of the best ideas here was this: “All naive, busty tavern wenches in my realm will be replaced with surly, world-weary waitresses who will provide no unexpected reinforcement and/or romantic subplot for the hero or his sidekick.”

As more and more services arise to mimic interactions that previously required physical proximity (I’m looking at you, Google Shopping, Instacart, PostMates…), we’d do well to remember this.  Charm, romance, playfulness, all of these are important tools in allowing customers to overlook issues with the real-world shopping experience.  But when it comes to a virtual storefront, there’s no substitute for actually solving the problems people raise as quickly as possible on an institutional level.

In an app or a website, the “world weary waitress” of proper user interaction beats out the “busty tavern wench” of fun customer service every time.  In a way, by the time the complaint makes it to customer service, it’s already too late.

This is a piece I did recently for Source, a great learning in journalism side.  Interaction design for Journalists, the saga continues. 


5e4684711209c218b535a6c75098886cCopy editors, bless ‘em, they make our writing makes sense to people who are not us. Are there awkward phrases? Is it logical? Has anything been left out? Copy editors fix it. It’s a system that works because the editor can act as a stand-in for the end user, the reader, assuming that they mimic the intended reader’s literacy level. Digital journalism projects like data visualizations have no equivalent “digital” copy editor. We can never assume that the creator and the end user have the same technological literacy level, just for starters. Once a data team has created an interactive map or chart, their own familiarity with it nearly invalidates any self-critique of the end product. And by the time the piece gets in front of the end user it’s usually too late to adapt. Read the whole piece at Source>