Friday, February 26, 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 that are fatal – sometimes quite literally – for simple errors that are very likely to occur. There was a fascinating example of this process in Vancouver this week when Dutch speed skater Sven Kramer was disqualified after winning his second gold medal because of an error in the crossover from one lane to another.

This is poor design because if it is so critical to make a lane change after an exact number of laps then there should be better mechanisms for avoiding errors, like having special signs warning when a change is needed or an official pointing the right lane. Alternatively they can leave the same lane confusion but soften the consequences, adding a time penalty instead of disqualifying the athlete. In this case Kramer was so far ahead that a time penalty would not have changed the result and the consensus would have been that the medal was awarded fairly.

A more tragic example of this kind of designed in error is the 2008 case of a doctor in the UK who administered a lethal dose of diamorphine painkiller to a patient on what was his first -- and obviously also last -- day on the job. He was fired for incompetence but in reality you could argue that it was not entirely his fault, an aspect of the story that only emerged into the recent inquest. In the standard issue doctors bag in the area there was a 100mg ampoule of diamorphine, the inquest was told, while the normal therapeutic doses range from 5 to 10mg. There had been several near misses in the past so a warning was issued to doctors about giving large doses, but giving doctors a handily injectable lethal overdose is the medical equivalent of the “wings fall off” button and should never have happened. This death could have been avoided very simply by giving doctors a box of 5mg ampoules so that lethal overdoses would require a conscious decision to inject an unusual number of ampoules.

Communicating important safety messages is clearly something that must be done carefully, but even more effective is the design of robust systems and processes that work even when people have not read the warning labels. For this reason sometimes the best communication is no communication -- not to tell the user what to do, but to ensure that the system designer understands that the best form of warning is one that is not needed.

* I would like to include a copy of this cartoon or link to a copy on an official site but Gary Larson does not allow his work to be used in electronics form. You can find the cartoon -- and thousands more -- in the excellent but expensive book set "The Complete Far Side 1980-1994".

Monday, February 1, 2010

“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 words as trademarks?

It’s not that you are not allowed to, I explained, but usually you don’t want to.

Later I did check with the trademark database and the first word I typed was “snot”, which returned a surprising 52 entries, including trademark number 3380136 for “Pig Snot®” brand motorcycle wax. There are plenty of others, too, including snot, snot rags, gorilla snot and even snake snot. This page inspired me to coin the generic name of “snotmarks” for all of these trademarks.

Perhaps occasionally someone whose command of English is flawed might register a snotmark by mistake, but it is evident that many people are aware of what they are doing and do it deliberately, In the case of Pig Snot I can imagine that this name will actually resonate with bikers who will see the funny side of it and remember it much better than a blander brand. They will also mention it to their friends. On the other hand a snotmark would not work at all for cosmetics – I can’t imagine any woman buying a skin care product called “cat snot”.

Snot is only the beginning. Searching for ”shit” returns 74 entries, including “Blow Up Shit Safely” brand explosives training , somewhat predictably “Biker Shit” and my favorite: “ShitBeGone” brand toilet paper. Things get even more interesting when you search for “asshole”. There are only 16 entries today but they deserve awards for creativity if not sense. Trademark application 73552389, is for the mark “Fish Assholes”, described in the application as “Circular noodles in tomato sauce” – neither the name nor the dish sound appetizing. Even more bizarre is trademark application 76231954, filed in 2001 for a product in the “Adult toys, adult games, adult devices and novelties” category to be called “We Sell Dick without the Asshole Attached”. They don’t say exactly what it is but you can probably work it out for yourself. The concept is quite clever and will appeal to the men-are-slime demographic but the execution needs more work.

I am not going to list here all the words you can find at the USPTO and its European counterpart, the Community Trademark database, but believe me it is all there, including the stuff that respectable papers wouldn’t print in the old days.

You might be wondering what if anything has not been registered, and this is an important lesson for marketers: every real word or name you can think of has been registered by someone, somewhere, sometime. In fact it is extremely difficult today to find a trademark that is available unless you invent a new word like Kodak or Exxon. Look at the difficulties Apple now has with iPad, already registered in the US alone22 times for products from abrasive pads to medical devices. This is another reason why it is unrealistic to think up one name and expect to be able to use it. When you need to choose a name for a brand or a company it is essential to brainstorm a list of candidate names that are acceptable to you. You need much more than one candidate because your first choice may be registered already by someone else, or maybe it means something unspeakable in Japanese. Or maybe that’s what you want…

This posting is based on the lecture titled “Snotmarks: The Curious Practice of Registering Offensive Trademarks.“ If you’d like to hear the whole lecture contact the author at

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