Showing posts from February, 2010

When No Communication is Best: Speed Skating, Morphine Overdoses and the Wings Fall Off Button

Very often I advise people how to communicate their messages more effectively, but there are some cases where the best idea is not to communicate anything at all but to design a product, process or system so that the message is not necessary. Intuitive user interfaces, for example, mean that you don’t need a user’s manual, and safety interlocks eliminate the need for warnings.

Occasionally, though, people go to the other extreme and design their solution so that without very robust communication some errors are very likely. I call these design flaws “wings fall off” errors in honor of the classic Gary Larson cartoon showing someone sitting in an airplane fumbling for the recline button and touching instead the “wings fall off” button, unwittingly causing a disaster. We laugh because no airplane designer would even have a “wings fall off” button and it certainly wouldn’t be next to the recline button*.

But in many real life cases people do exactly the same thing, designing consequences t…

“Snotmarks”: The Curious Practice of Registering Offensive Trademarks

You might think that the trademark database search page of the United States Patent and Trademark Office might be a bit dull -- it certainly looks so – but if you try typing in certain words that you think cannot possibly be trademarks then you make an interesting discovery. Not only are words like snot, piss and asshole all registered trademarks, they have all been registered dozens of times and clearly with deliberate intent.

I discovered the USPTOs little secret a few years back when a customer called to ask how he could register a product name he had thought of. First, I explained, we google it just to make sure that there are no obvious conflicts, then I ask my network of contacts around the world to make sure it doesn’t sound offensive anywhere. After that it goes to the trademark lawyers for a formal search. I asked what name he was thinking of.


For the benefit of non English speakers this is not a nice word and I explained this.

“Are you not allowed to register not nice…