Showing posts from 2008

The Magical Number Seven, Tax Collectors and Cellphone Designers

Recently I was paying some taxes. In France this is not as terrible as it sounds because the tax people have a most excellent website where you can pay all your taxes online with just a few mouse clicks. The site is surprisingly effective and makes the chore of paying taxes if not exactly a pleasure then maybe less painful that it could be, though every mouse click still sucks away thousands of Euros. But there is one area where the site might be improved, and herein lies a very general lesson not only for website design but also for the design of mobile phones and other consumer products: the way they require you to enter long numbers without spaces. Fifty years have passed since George Miller wrote his landmark paper “The Magical Number Seven Plus or Minus Two” -- -- but the lessons have apparently not yet been learned. Following many experiments, Professor Miller discovered that the average human can process information in

The Sign of the Hotel: Why Naming the Whole After the Parts is Not Always a Good Idea

Earlier this year the Clarion hotel chain opened a new hotel in Stockholm, right next to the terminal of the Arlanda Express airport train. A curiously angular cheese-shaped building; it is described as Stockholm’s largest hotel, with hundreds of guest rooms plus all the usual big-hotel facilities. Since it is right next to the station it will probably be a popular conference venue. But what surprised me is the name. From the window of the Arlanda Express you can’t easily see the name, but from the other side of the Norra Bantorget square you can see on the roof the massive sign that says “Clarion Hotel Sign”. My first reaction was to laugh because this looks like a typical screwup. I imagined that the contractors made a note to order the sign for the Clarion Hotel (“don’t forget the Clarion Hotel Sign dummy”) which was then passed to the sign maker who interpreted it too literally. Perhaps also the sign was made offshore in Guangzhou by someone who doesn’t know the meaning of the word

The Third of Two: Why Billionaires Sue Small Folks, Why They Have to and Why There is a Better Way

Recently a federal judge threw out a lawsuit where the health products company Johnson & Johnson sued the American Red Cross Committee for using the classic Red Cross logo ( Red Cross Prevails in Lawsuit ). For most people it is no surprise that the suit was thrown out, but for many it is a mystery why a billion dollar company would sue a charity anyway, since at the very least it does not look very good. But there is a reason for this strange behavior though in my opinion there was another option, and in this story there is an important lesson. First of all, the Johnson and Johnson company is the legal owner of the Red Cross trademark since 1887, at least in the USA, but through an agreement between the two organizations Johnson & Johnson has the exclusive right to use the logo for commercial products while the Red Cross has the right to use it for humanitarian initiatives. This long standing agreement was challenged last year when the Red Cross started licensing the use of

Gordon Brown’s Cold Call Campaign: Clever, then Stupid, then Maybe Even More Clever

Last week UK media all covered the story that Prime Minister Gordon Brown personally calls a selection of people who have sent him letters or emails. You might think that this is a nice personal touch that would get a neutral to positive coverage, but in fact many publications focused on the funny side. The prime minister, they claim, might be well meaning in his attempt to be more human, but he stupidly calls voters at 6am, normal office hours perhaps for a head of government but not for taxpayers. There’s a fairly typical example in the Daily Express: “…but the famously early-rising Prime Minister’s cold-calling was said to have backfired completely when he rang a number at 6am”. (Read the whole article at ) You don’t need to know much about communications to be aware that stories like this do not get into the media on their own. Someone must be pushing them and in this case it is

Mindset Changing: Why Slave Ship Captain James Irving Couldn’t See The Irony of Being Enslaved and What We Can Learn from His Experience

One of the basic rules of planning communication goals is to make them achievable. Some things you can change and others you just have to live with. Maybe you can convince someone to buy your product, and maybe you can change their attitude about the environment, but some changes are just too big for one step, or perhaps even for one generation. A new book has just been published that contains a beautiful example of this. Eighteenth century slave ship captain James Irving wrote many letters to his family which were never intended for publication. He also wrote at a time before the abolitionist movement when no one questioned slavery so his accounts of his experiences are uncensored and, to modern eyes, astonishingly candid. You can read the whole story in the book: Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (Liverpool English Texts and Studies) by Suzanne Schwarz I won’t repeat here what he said about his human cargoes, since practically every word he wrote

Wikipedia Makes Me Clever: A Critique of Critical Critiques of the Online Encyclopedia

Hardly a day goes by without some educator protesting about the damage done to learning by Wikipedia. Students cut and paste text directly, they claim, or they repeat one-sided arguments and false stories planted by vandals and spin doctors. Actually I can well believe that students do these things and I am sure that had I grown up in the web 2.0 era I might have done the same, but this is no reflection on the quality of Wikipedia but rather a wasted opportunity to educate students about research techniques. Pretty much everyone knows that Wikipedia is not perfect, but still it is an immensely useful source for a first quick look and as a source of links to primary sources, but anyone who is using the Wikipedia itself as a primary source badly needs to learn the basics of research. Rather than banning the use of Wikipedia, educators can actually use it as a very convenient, popular and well known resource for learning some key concepts of researching. To begin with you learn never to t

The Newcastle of the Pope: Why CACC is not a Good Name for a Company and Yes, There Really is a Place Called Pukeberg

Some places have names that are romantic or glamorous: think Hollywood, Saint Tropez or Timbuktu. Others are not so fortunate: Dusseldorf in Germany, Pittsburgh in the USA and Pukeberg, Sweden come to mind. For the English the town of Newcastle is firmly in the second category. Not exactly England’s Beverly Hills, it was long famous as the place coal came from though these days it is perhaps more famous because of a brand of beer called Newcastle Brown Ale. That’s why to English people “The Newcastle of the Pope” is such an incongruous and faintly absurd expression, yet that is the literal meaning of a wine that’s made just a short way from here in the Avignon area – a wine called Chateauneuf du Pape. To the French guy who coined this name it probably had a very literal meaning in the sense of a castle that is new that was built by the Pope, but through use it acquires a value of its own – a process recognized in trademark law. So, for example, the Sharp brand for consumer electroni

Future Thinking: Recording Data for Playback Media Yet to Be Invented

Recently researchers discovered what was billed as the earliest sound recording ever – a brief clip of a French folk song recorded by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville in Paris on April 9, 1860. Actually de Martinville never intended to record sound to be played back. He was simply interested in capturing on paper a visual representation of sound for analysis, but with modern technology this paper can now be scanned and converted into sound by means that he could never have anticipated. (See the New York Times for details, ) This reminded me that very often there is a means to capture inputs suitable for some future playback mechanism long before this mechanism exists. For example, decades before color photography became a mainstream product some photographers were capturing color separated black and white negatives for display using colored light projectors. Later these negatives could be used to m

Stony Ground: Lessons from Aborted Walk to India

At the beginning of the month “peace pilgrim” Mark Bishop’s planned two year walk from Bristol England to the birthplace of Ghandi in India came to an early end. His plan was to carry no money and rely on the kindness of strangers to get free food, lodging and transport. This worked well from Bristol to the south coast of the UK and across the English channel, but it failed when he reached Calais on the other side where he could not explain his project to the local people. The problem is that the French speak French. There are many lessons that you can draw from this episode. First of all it shows the value of language learning -- last year I already blogged the point that you cannot rely on English alone. It also shows the value of research; the fact that the French speak French is noted in many reference sources, including Wikipedia. Research would also have told Bishop that he landed in the worst possible part of the country. If you talk to friends in the north of France

Beware. Be Very Ware: Neither West Nor East Monolithic

There’s an interesting piece by Chinese born graphic designer Yang Liu (sometimes spelled Liu Young) now appearing in emails and blogs everywhere. You can find the whole message by googling Liu Young and it is on many blogs including but it is not on her own website I give just one example here. Apparently the images in this message are taken from an exhibition called Ost Trifft West (“East Meets West”) she made at the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs in May-June 2007 and express visually the differences between east and west. At first sight it looks very interesting and very clever, but if you have not yet mastered intercultural differences then I recommend that you beware. Be very ware! Yang lives in Germany and this clearly colors her perception of European culture. In the visual reproduced here you see that punctuality in China is not so precise, while in Europe,

First Catch Your Problem -- A Good Solution to the Wrong Problem is Not a Solution

In 2006 newspapers reported* on the results of a study to determine the best way to load passengers onto an airplane. In the study they tested various strategies: a free for all; boarding the back rows first and so on. Their conclusion was that the fastest way of boarding passengers was to board first window seats, then middle seats, then aisle seats. Not surprisingly they chose not to adopt this ruthless technique. All of this is very interesting but the problem is not how to get the passengers onto the plane faster but how to get more time for the boarding. Perhaps you could speed up boarding by using a slide instead of a walkway and by hiring ex-marine instructors to shout encouraging words. But commonsense – actually a very rare commodity – should tell you that passengers will never board much faster, whatever you do. But why do they need to get on faster anyway? Between the last passengers of one flight disembarking and the first passenger of the next boarding there is alwa

The Og Fat Mystery; Using Abbreviations Sensibly

Browsing in a supermarket today I saw a packet of crackers I had never seen before. Checking the labeling I saw a reassuring “baked in a nut free facility” (you definitely don’t want nuts baking your crackers) but I saw a worryingly long list of ingredients. The list didn’t seem to include anything obviously dangerous, but on the front of the box there was a note that it contained trans fat. Worse, reading more carefully I saw that it contained “og trans fat”. I had no idea what “og” meant but og fat doesn’t sound like something you want inside you. But then I suddenly realized that what the anonymous cracker box copy writer intended to say was that it contained zero grams of trans fat. Aaaaaah! If the copy writer intended to mean “contains no trans fat”, then I would respectfully suggest writing exactly that: “contains no trans fat”. Reasonable alternatives might include “trans fat free” or “contains zero trans fat”. If you wanted to put a more positive spin you could try “contains on

Never Mind the Videocamera: Advice for Presenters

I’m not going to name any names (see ”Name the sin...” at ) but from time to time I see books and articles about presentation skills that recommend you practice with a video camera. Sounds like a sensible idea but in my experience it frequently causes more problems than it solves. The problem is that there are roughly two categories of people who need help with their presentation or speaking skills. The first group includes the competent, confident speakers who are good but want to get better. Typically these people have no issues with self confidence but they need technical advice and maybe some objective critiques. These are the people who can safely video their own practice sessions. But many people I meet who are looking for help with their presentation skills are far from reaching that level. They are the people who have very little experience of speaking and even less self confidence. In this case the

The Adventure of Scotland Yard in Pakistan, and Why it is not Hopeless

A team of investigators from Britain’s “Scotland Yard” was invited by the Pakistan government last week to help investigate the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Media reports suggest that their role will be to provide technical expertise not available locally. Mazhra Zaidi of the BBC Urdu language service also added “... a major question to be answered is how much co-operation the British detectives will get from the various police and intelligence organizations in Pakistan, some of whose members may be far from inclined to want to work with foreign police”, according to the transcript “Scotland Yard's Pakistan casebook “ at Of course they will be “far from inclined”, and rightly so. You don’t need to be an expert in communications or team dynamics to know that any team will resent the intrusion of a group of foreign “experts” sent in to tell the poor natives how to do things properly. Added to that are the complications caus