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Posts Tagged ‘rant’

Before client meetings, an early design guru of mine always insisted our team stand in the hallway and chant the phrase “All designers are arrogant bastards” until he felt we were in the proper frame of mind for the upcoming stand-off. From the vantage point of a decade I’d love to ask him about this little ritual; the project was a website redesign for the space industry, not the most cut-throat of opponents to begin with. There’s only so much satisfaction to be gained from dominating a bunch of kindly old astronomers. But for whatever reason, we never failed to ram our design suggestions through.

That website is still in use today, and it gives me the deepest pangs of shame to browse over its now-venerable pixels.  Not ’cause the design is so  ancient – for all I know its longevity could be a sign of really timeless thinking and not, as is more probable, budget cuts.  The shame comes from this:  My goodness were we a fantastic design team.  But what were we absolutely lousy at?  Astronomy.

It takes a lot of cash to hire a consultant who’s sure enough of herself to be a bully, and there’s a temptation to believe that throwing your weight around is part of the floor show.  This is the same line of thought that leads to rude service in a fancy restaurant: only a restaurant completely confident in its food could afford to be so disdainful of a customer. But does anyone actually enjoy eating at those restaurants?  No! Oh neophyte consultant, of course you know more than your client, but only, and this is important, only in one very small, specific area. What does your client know more about than you do?  Everything else.

A dude was recently ranting to me about a troublesome coding team.  The whole project idea, so terrible!  I’d offered them SO many better alternatives! And they wanted it in purple!  Agh!  Well dude of mine, let me take this opportunity to apologize for the angry lecture I gave you (not for the angry part, but I really shouldn’t have cursed so much.)

It can be tough to explain why it’s so important to never say no to a client.   I myself have asked prospective employees “So give me an example of how you handled a difficult client” and chortled at their tales of supremacy.  But why do we offer alternatives and trade offs, and when all else fails, beg and plead, but never ever ever ever outright say no?  It’s not, as the poor beleaguered dude guessed, that we need the money, although there are worse incentives for diplomacy.  It’s because more often than we’re comfortable admitting, the client is completely right.  After all, they do know a hell of a lot more than we do.

Imagine if any of the big innovators had let themselves be intimidated by their design team: Alright, let me get this straight – you want a big screen with extremely limited functionality, but you’re going to charge three times the amount of a fully functional computer. But having no content won’t matter because you expect thousands of programmers to teach themselves one of the more sophisticated coding languages  in order to create entirely new custom apps for it. And you’re going to make it white and rectangular, and name it the “ipad”, a combination sure to make schoolchildren everywhere snicker.  Mmmhmmm.

Well if that were you, wouldn’t you feel silly now (not to mention totally poor).  Every once in a while, the client isn’t being stupid or stubborn or disdainful or dense, they’re being gosh darn brilliant and you’d better listen up.  And the kicker is, you’ll never know which one it is until afterwords.

So, dude of mine, just for a moment,what about entertaining the possibility of a completely purple website?  Who knows what fantastic new ‘all-purple’ trend your clients may actually be onto?  Being an arrogant bastard is a great way to bulldoze over a couple of sweet old astronomers, but a really crappy way to build a website about astronomy.  It’s an awesome way to get things done your way, and a terrible way to innovate.  When it comes to assuming idiocy over invention, consider giving your client the benefit of the doubt. After all, they were smart enough to hire you, eh?

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Ignorance is Romantic

Not everyone is a computer person.  There’s nothing wrong with that – not everyone is literate, not everyone can walk, or do basic addition and subtraction. There’s certainly no shortage of groups that offer rehab, classes and therapy to help those who want to overcome these basic disabilities and access a better quality of life.

But what do you do about this person: “Haha, I guess I’m just not a computer person”.  Every time these words pass someone’s lips there’s a kindergarten teacher somewhere that cries. It’s the “haha” that does it.  Imagine the scene: the harried tech bending over the keyboard to fix a problem for the nth time, while the bemused end user insists they just don’t know what happened.  Asking for help if a wonderful, important thing, but asking for help without the intention of preventing the situation next time is a bizarrity in this age where we claim to count our seconds.

In no other sphere could this happen: You might be a great lawyer but if you can’t read then Davis Polk & Wardwell probably isn’t hiring you.   If “Haha, I can’t use basic tools” has somehow become an acceptable phrase in polite company, and not, say, a grave embarassment for which you should seek help immediately,  what’s the point of even living in a first world country?

I blame the history of nerdiness in the U.S. for this one: Up until the arrival of smartphones knowledge of technology was considered a little taboo.  It was fine for awkward boys with nothing better to do on a Saturday night, but heaven help you if it came up over a martinis (or worse, if you let it come up while under the influence of being  femaleEgads!).

Technical ignorance is ‘Proper’ with a capitol P – the dangerous kind of ‘Proper’ that applies to white weddings and burkas.   There’s a feeling that there’s something cute,  delightful even, about being helpless in the face of the most predominant appliance in the world besides the wheel.   While the arrival of the iphone has lifted some of the stigma, if you’re good-looking it’s still considered safest to ask someone else to  change the settings rather than attempt it yourself.

So beware the “Haha” –  it signifies a person proud of their hangup who isn’t planning to do anything about it any time soon. You know who I’m talking about.

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“Find the narrative in the numbers.” It’s this year’s mantra of data visualization, and some variation thereof is the watchword for all modern journalism: Find the story. Let the facts speak for themselves to tell what happened.

It’s a beguiling idea, the concept that a narration is hidden like a sculpture in every misshapen lump of data if only it could be liberated from the clay of unrelated information. And it’s true that in a world of infinite resources where every bit of existing data could be considered holistically, this would definitely be the case. After all, everything influences something. But perhaps it’s time to read a little closer into this much-abused buzzphrase: when we say “Find the narrative”, don’t we really mean, “Attribute some causality?”

Data vis is cool fun exciting stuff, and yes everyone and their aunt has a right, nay, a duty to give it a try. But in the last couple of months we’ve watched this well-meaning catchphrase morph from a description of data-cleaning processes to an injunction to project all kinds of causality on any given collection of numbers. Just three years shy of its 50th anniversary, the prime directive of  How to Lie with Statistics (“Don’t!”) is getting brushed aside in our excitement to plot the hell out of any data set we can get our hands on.

It’s a difficult thing to explain to a client: sometimes things just happen. An upward trend in sales numbers may not be related to advertising campaigns, and a downward trend may not be the fault of the economy.  This is basic basic stuff, people, and it’s just as true now that we can instantly make a groovy looking visualization in Fusion Charts as it was when we needed some graph paper and a sliderule. Being two steps removed from reality means that every visualization has an element of editorialization, but it doesn’t follow that we can suddenly make wild claims about the real-world events they very very abstractly represent.

How would we feel if we treated past representational art forms this way? We all know that the square-looking blob that is a Picasso nude says more about Picasso’s mental tools than what his model actually looked like. Certainly no company would decide to re-tailor their fall clothing line based on his “findings” about the female body. The graph is not the phenomenon.

But there’s something so finite about numbers that when faced with a visualization all of this logic suddenly goes out the window. Correlation is easy to show and impossible to prove. Truly impossible. Short of that infinite holistic data set I mentioned we’re going to have to accept that causality is networked: All a data set can show is is how a data set changed over time. Impart causality – I’m sorry, “narrative” – into it at your own peril.

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