Look for the helpers

Some of you will change your profile photo, express solidarity, perhaps write something in French. Others might go somewhere French, light a candle. You might quietly blame policies, religions or individuals (rarely do we feel confident enough or sure enough to do it publicly). It’s your choice to do those things, it’s always heartfelt and I criticise none of it.

Those things don’t help me personally. This morning I’ve spent time looking at the photos and watching the footage as I have done time and time again in recent years after similar events to take comfort in the direct and immediate response of the helpers. The people rushing to assist, with scant consideration of the immediate perceived danger.

These people and my reflections of admiration for them are the only things that make me feel positive and hopeful. Even though I know I’ll never see an end to this carnage in my lifetime I do know that each time it happens I’ll always find more people helping.

The Experience Gap

Thoroughly enjoyed this Harvard Business Review post about something we call at Dare, ‘The Experience Gap’. That is the huge gulf that often exists between a company’s perception of its customer experience and the reality of it. [The article isn’t entirely about this topic but is hugely valuable to consider the difference listening to customers and understanding]

Of course, much of what we consider marketing is about pushing the aspirational or intended experience from a product or service and caring less about the reality of it (which is generally something controlled by operations or product development teams).

A nice articulation of this gap can be seen in these two videos for Les Mills Grit Strength gym class. I shall leave them both here for direct comparison.

What you think you’ll experience

… and what you will almost certainly experience

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UK Running events: Are the fees excessive?

I decided some time ago that I wouldn’t ever compete in my most local of races, the Garmin Kingston Run and the Lidl Kingston Breakfast Run. These events cover the route that I run most often and it just seemed silly to pay £28-34 to cover the same paths I cover each week for free. That was a rational decision and although I thought it was expensive, it was more in the context of it being local and familiar rather than a moral comment on the rising cost of races, after all, £34 was for a 20 mile course, so £1.70 per mile or 24p a minute [see below].

It planted a seed in my mind. That seed germinated last year when the cost of the Winter Run was announced. This is just a 10k run and the price soared to an eye-watering £40. Ok, Ok, I thought, it’s London passing some of the busiest and most secure environments in the country and it’s for charity and they’re putting on a fake snow machine and ‘free polar bear hugs’. So, perhaps, the £4.50 per km cost [£1.13 per minute at 6’26” mile (4’00” /km) pace] can be justified. I’m not going to enter obviously but somebody might.

Then last month the little seedling grew another few cm when I received an invite for the Vitality West London 10k. £40 plus a £2.40 booking fee. What on earth are they talking about? This time there was no snow being promised, no bears and the charity bit is optional (albeit reducing the cost if you do). It’s getting ridiculous.

Milton Keynes Marathon cost me £40, London in 2012 was about £35 from memory. At London you can understand the cost – this is a race having to pay high fees to attract the world’s very best runners. London Marathon provide security, medical and logistics support to hundreds of thousands of people across one of the most expensive and congested cities in Europe. With most people finishing in 4 hours or so it works out at a quite generous 15-20p per minute (less if you include the pre and post race support), that’s £1.50 per mile or thereabouts.

The marathon is over four times the length of the 10k; Now you’d assume some costs are fixed and others based on mileage and there are going to be economies of scale, with that in mind the fact that the Vitality West London 10k is the same cost as one of the World’s top Marathons just seems a little excessive doesn’t it?

Breakdown of event costs

I know I need more detail. I have to understand what proportion of the race fee goes on which elements of event support. I want to know for these pricey commercial events (even with their veneer of charity fundraising):

  • What proportion of the support is offered on a volunteer basis?
  • What fees do St John Ambulance charge and the various chip-timing systems?
  • When drinks are provided, is this at cost to the manufacturer or is it a wholesale buy?
  • What about ped barriers, gantries, baggage transport/storage, signage?
  • How about professional fees, local authorities and insurances?

Now, here’s the crux, how does the experience differ – in real terms – to the more spit-and-sawdust events? Admittedly some of these are not on closed roads, but to many runners the difference between a regional city/town marathon and club-organised event is predominantly a case of baggage handling, signage and goody-bags. The distance is the same.

Change in event prices over time

How has the cost of the UK’s top-tier closed-road events changed in the past 20 years (Great North Run, London Marathon, Edinburgh Great Winter Run). Do you know what you paid for one of these events in the distant past?

Are key event costs rising or falling? Of those items listed above, some of these must surely have benefitted from technology and efficiency savings?

Some example race prices
(assuming my current race pace)

Provider Closed Roads Distance (km) Typical time (min) Cost (full) per km per minute
Winter Run (London) Human Race YES 10 40 £45.00 £4.50 £1.13
West London 10km Vitality YES 10 40 £42.40 £4.24 £1.06
Great British 10km Vitality YES 10 40 £50.00 £5.00 £1.25
Bath Half Vitality YES 21.08 90 £43.00 £2.04 £0.48
Reading Half Vitality YES 21.08 90 £38.00 £1.80 £0.42
Virgin London Marathon London Marathon YES 42.16 210  £35.00 £0.83 £0.17
Kingston Breakfast Run Human Race PARTIAL 13 52 £28.00 £2.15 £0.54
Kingston Breakfast Run Human Race PARTIAL 26 110 £31.00 £1.19 £0.28
Kingston Breakfast Run Human Race PARTIAL 32.3 140 £34.00 £1.05 £0.24
Great Winter Run (Edinburgh) Great Run YES 5 19 £21.00 £4.20 £1.11
Great North Run Great Run YES 21.08 90 £53.04 £2.52 £0.59
Bedford Half Bedford Harriers NO 21.08 90 £20.50 £0.97 £0.23
Halstead Marathon Halstead Road Runners PARTIAL 42.16 210 £33.50 £0.79 £0.16
Sittingbourne 10km Rotary Club NO 10 40 £14.00 £1.40 £0.35
Bullock Smithy Hazel Grove Scouts PARTIAL 56 660 £30 £0.54 £0.05

What do you think? Are race prices a fair reflection of the organiser’s effort? Is it fair to compare such ‘different’ events?

Bear in mind that the runners’ fees are not the only income source at several of these events. Sponsors contribute and charities are often charged significant fees to have spaces for runners and their own tents at the event (e.g. Great North Run).

Other perspectives

By contrast, here’s a BBC News piece about how obstacle events (ugh, don’t get me started on this particular craze) are increasing in popularity and how they leave organisers out of pocket at least initially.

A Guardian assessment on race prices from March 2015 – the comments on this piece are revealing. 

I’d love to have a race director’s view – can you give us a breakdown of costs in terms of a percentage of where race fees go? For a brief insight, Marathon Talk episode 300 had some details on the scale of logistics behind the Bournemouth Marathon Festival (multi-distance) event.

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Drawing Fire: How transparency in User Centred Design brings out the worst in our users.

There are certain roles in digital user-experience design that are coveted. Coveted for the opportunity they present to have your work seen and interacted with by a huge number of people, coveted because they represent Britain at its best, most accessible and world leading.

Jobs like the Government Digital Service and the British Broadcasting Corporation.

The new BBC.co.uk homepage across three screen sizes.

In that context, I’m a keen reader of the blogs both these organisations put out that explain and add authenticity to their work; the rigour and integrity of which is inspirational. [GDS & BBC]

Imagine then, having spent weeks and months developing user-centred solutions, using all the best thinking you can bear to the project. Deploying some of the brightest UX, Information Architecture and interaction design minds, commissioning (extensive) user testing and getting the buy-in and agreement of savvy and critical stakeholders. Imagine the end result being pushed to the expected audience and, in the spirit of transparency, sharing that journey online.

And then you read this response:

So another blog by another name showing all the hard work that has gone on the background, trying to justify the latest reason for the ‘responsive’ redesign. Just like the news app, just like the news page, you may have spent weeks shuffling you coloured bits of paper round on the wall and getting each other so excited that the toilets have never seen such use before, but the fact remains, you work has been pointless. The home page is crap, the news site is still crap and the news app still remains so crap, that those of us who still have access to version 2 now refuse to update.

And what will we see as a response to comments in this blog? Dismissal of those telling you that you have got the change wrong and continued insistence that this is the way forward. At least it’s something you can proudly tell you grandchildren in years to come, “I used to work for a Great British institution called the BBC and was involved in its downfall.”

Granted there is just a group of detractors and critics who are so full of hatred for a ‘biased’ BBC that one will never convince them, but even so, does this not make your heart sink? Sink at the ignorance, the stupidity at a group of people that cannot see how a truly incredible digital public service is designed entirely around the users. The undermining of the craft of the people that work on sites like this is deplorable. Patronisingly assuming that it’s just a self-congratulatory exercise involving coloured paper makes my blood boil.

When I read Hugh Gummett‘s original post I read about competitor analysis, stakeholder reviews, detailed requirements capture and interrogation of data. I can see there was more than cursory user testing, namely:

32 in-depth qualitative sessions and collecting quantitative feedback from around 400 people through surveys. Those recruited to provide feedback covered a wide range of demographics, had varied interests around areas such as news, sport, entertainment, lifestyle and learning..

Furthermore, the testing included a BETA site (opt-in) and multivariant testing of the implementations for the homepage. To give the team credit one really has to acknowledge that this was not a design done in a sealed room and foisted on a gullible public. But they can’t even win there, other commenters assert that 400 users aren’t sufficient as the BBC has 8 million users – not understanding how representative sampling works at all. Design a site for each one of those 8 million users? How does that work then? Sigh.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have looked at the comments, perhaps the UX team doesn’t either, nothing good ever comes from comment threads after all but my goodness me, as a way to demotivate this afternoon’s reading takes some beating.

Of course, if your head is as far above the parapet as it is at the BBC this kind of attack is inevitable. In our industry, we do have to stay strong and continue to work with confidence that we’re going about user-centred design in the right way. I take comfort from the fact that as practitioners we have raised the bar and are getting some many things right now that it takes a bit of pedantry and comment flaming to stir us and increase our resolve to ensure each implementation gets better and better for those that care about what we do.

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Evoking the spirit of running, two short films.

Those of us in advertising and marketing know that communications often resonate strongest when there is an emotional connection. Something about a message or the way that it’s presented that evokes the primal or limbic response.

Only one of these films is really an advert, and even then you could argue it’s a brand film. Both, however, are absolutely brilliant at reminding me of what it feels like to run and why the bloody hell I do it. Autumn is a cracking season for running. A few weeks ago I ran in the early morning through Windsor Great Park. The sort of run that was so steeped in English history it was almost a parody of itself. I ran through Windsor, past the tremendous, perfect, castle and down through the mists and mellow fruitfulness to the Great Park. In utter silence and solitude I shared the empty dewy paths with only deer for km after km. It was one to hold in the memory banks for years to come.

It reminded me of the video Julia Bleasdale and her partner shot in Bushy Park last winter. A park still technically in Greater London and yet from the shots you could be forgiven for thinking it was in a great rural idyll. Julia’s latest effort is even grander and even more inspiring. It’s not as familiar to me as Bushy of course but what wouldn’t make someone aspire to run this free than this glorious two minutes of high definition drone footage?

By contrast, Tracksmith’s effort draws us back to the turning season. Stealing us for a season of cross-country, this vision of picturesque, smokey New England is about as far from the cross-country I remember as a boy as it’s possible to get. Photogenic, fit and breathless athletes grace the well-considered shots with muffled sounds and an thoughtful narrative. Nothing’s made me want to get up early and run as much as this film.

In a world of athletics dominated by conversations of unnatural performances and Instagram feeds drowning in thousands of lurid neon boys and girls in their active wear, it’s so great to find two bits of creativity that speak to me about why and how I run.

Julia Bleasdale, Switzerland, August 2015 videos.

Tracksmith, Ode to Cross Country, Fall campaign 2015

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What can VW USA tell us about drug cheats?

Another blog post I must caveat with ‘I don’t know a huge amount about this but’, I might have to invent an acronym that asserts this for all future posts. A sort of defensive skin to deflect the more obvious criticisms.

Well, let’s imagine a scenario. You build a product that can be used in an almost infinite number of ways by your customers. A car that can be driven fast or slow, in the city or on the open road for long journeys or short trips, for example. Now imagine that a well-meaning person decides that your car mustn’t be damaging to the world we live in and that it should be  low impact. They design a test that will prove if your car is low impact by picking one particular example of how it can be used and uses that as a benchmark. A set speed or sequence of speeds and a set duration. This protocol is widely publicised.

You know that your car has to undergo this test so you work night and day to make sure that when it’s being driven to those parameters it will pass the test. What this means is you focus in on your objective, my car must pass this test.

Which is not the same as ‘my car must be low impact on the environment’. Because the test is not representative of how the car would ever be used. It’s a formula designed to be repeatable and comparable with the cars your competitors make. It’s a scientific assessment, pure and simple.

Now, you’re no longer making cars, you’re making elite athletes. Once again you need to make sure your product is clean, that it compares favourable to the rest of the competition. You do this by submitting your athlete to tests. Scientific, repeatable tests performed under conditions you know will be consistent and repeatable. You focus your efforts on ensuring your athlete always passes those tests.

But your athlete doesn’t need to be clean all the time. When this test isn’t being performed the athlete can be as dirty as you like, you just need to ensure when it’s tested it avoids a positive test.

In both cases it’s easy to see that the burden has shifted. By making the test the thing you need to pass you dilute the purpose of the test in the first place, you lose sight of the desire that cars and athletes run clean. That regardless of when and how we assess them they will always be ethically sound.

VW, sports federations and coaches should clearly have the moral fortitude to see that the test is not ‘the thing’, the aspiration for a universally clean product is the objective, however, the testers and test setters have a far more significant role to play than many of us have so-far assumed.  Testers and regulators must design, facilitate and communicate assessment regimes that reflect a wider range of behaviours. A regime that communicates less about simple pass and fail but more about a universal, undeniable commitment to provable fairness, any time any where.

More cars and athletes will be shown to have done just enough to pass the test and we’ll admonish them for not being clean outside of those tests. We must at this time look hard on the people that let this scenario develop. Right now I don’t really think badly of VW for what they did, and by virtue of the fact that it did happen, neither did quite a lot of people at VW. The fact is they worked damn hard to build an engine algorithm that produced a fantastic efficient output under the laboratory test conditions. That the parameters didn’t represent real world usage was not their fight. So when a coach and an athlete conspire to beat a test, can we empathise and understand that it’s the test setters that have brought this situation about, albeit for very noble and ethically sound reasons?

I don’t have the answer, of course, but I hope the question itself is worth considering.

With thanks to Edward Borrini for inspiring the original thought.

Waitrose, don’t make me think. The illusion of choice in the myWaitrose offers programme.

We have to begin by making the assumption that Waitrose made the decision to ‘force’ their loyal customers to choose their own offers on the basis that it would engender those customers to the brand and this would benefit the business. That is to say that someone at Waitrose ran the numbers and built a business case that said “This will be good for our business”. Now, there’s also a complication (that I freely admit I don’t fully understand) that getting more people to convert on these offers presumably means they lose margin on the specific sale but there is a general uplift on the basket of goods. One estimate put the cost of the scheme at a potential £5m to Waitrose.

From The Guardian, this is how it works:

To use the scheme shoppers must have a myWaitrose card. They can then create an online account, log in, and view the full list of almost 1,000 products from which to select the 10 items they want. They will then get 20% off the cost of these goods, however many times they buy them.

Discounts last for a fixed period, […]. After that shoppers get the chance to choose from a new list. The discount is applied automatically at the checkout, and is on top of other promotions. For example, chickens are currently £10 for three, with the 20% off on top of this.

I’m not a retail analyst. I am merely musing on a set of behavioural biases. A lot of the articles about the scheme are rich with chat about whether it’s a good deal or not for the customer. These article presuppose that the customer has done the work and selected the most pertinent 10 offers for them.

And that, dear reader, is quite the presupposition. More on that in a minute.

Talking of suppositions, Waitrose themselves make one by assuming that customer choice in this sphere is a good thing. Now, they may have done research that told them ‘customers want to choose their offers’. We know, however, that customers – human beings – are not that good at making unbiased decisions. That’s what behavioural theory tells us. Unless the research was rigorously executed with absolutely no bias then I have little faith in the leap Mark Price makes in this BBC News article from June:

The boss of Waitrose, Mark Price, says it’s a ground-breaking move giving customers the power to choose the offers they want.

“Different forms of personalised marketing have been around since the 1990s, but we’re introducing mass customisation in grocery. Customers can choose what’s valuable to them when they shop for groceries. We really are giving power to the consumer,” he said.

Ground-breaking it might be. Doesn’t make it right though.

A host of paradox of choice experiments have been run which demonstrate we are confounded by choice; too much choice, particularly where there is considerable cognitive effort involved in the eventual decision, makes that choice harder to make. We know that increasing choice (often) results in:

  • Regret that we made an incorrect choice. We have no-one but ourselves to blame.
  • Loss of presence; effectively question why we’re doing this task in the first place.
  • Elevated expectation, we’ve been given this choice, we have to make the most of it.
  • Peer pressure, other people would make better choices.

With the possible exception of the last item, the myWaitrose scheme falls, in my opinion, into this trap. The illusion of control and freedom it presents, coupled with the possible cost savings is insufficient motivation for me to get over the hump of the effort required to actually do it. As a customer and myWaitrose member, I must have received 20+ emails and direct mails encouraging me to take up my offers, I have never done this beyond a cursory look online. The reason is plain and simple: I cannot be bothered. Even before I’d seen the summaries in the aforementioned articles that showed around a 10% saving on a basket of goods (vs. Tesco) and that the hyped 20% on offer isn’t really against staples but more high-value infrequent goods.

Stopping to think about the customer touchpoints and the interface here might help illustrate. It’s right out of the mantra of Don’t Make Me Think, perhaps that’s idealistic in this day and age, some things are inherently complicated, but saving money at a supermarket shouldn’t be difficult (as pointed out in this fantastic work by Lidl).

myWaitrose try and make things easier by pulling in the favourites from your recent in-store, online and Ocado shops, using these to guide you toward things you’re likely to want offers on. Aside from a couple of high-frequency items like baby wipes, I found myself getting stuck as the task of completing the 10 slots (actually a good, persuasive interaction pattern) became tricky. The value of these slots is such that you want to make the most of them, you don’t want to waste the 10 scarce slots with bad choices. So the decision gets harder.

You, the customer has to do some tricky things. Workout how best to ‘spend’ your ten offer slots. You’re effectively making 10 assessments on whether the offers are for items you’re likely to actually buy (wants vs. needs), taking a view on when you might buy them, and, of course, establishing whether the saving is considerable (accounting for multipacks, alternative places you might get them from etc.). The ‘when’ assessment here matters quite considerably; it’s not made particularly clear when these offers expire and the customer has to predict their own behaviour: “Am I likely to buy this in my next shop?”. They are highly unlikely to be making a prediction based on the likelihood to need an item in 2 month’s time, much of this will be based on the availability heuristic, meaning that they will be thinking about their most recent purchase of that item.

Waitrose offers

In short, it ain’t easy.

Time and data will tell Waitrose whether the process works for them. Whether the small % of their customers who have a loyalty card (and note, loyalty schemes tend to reward the already loyal, not magically create new loyalists) go through the process and buy more of the stuff they were already buying (one little-promoted benefit is that the offers are repeatable within the period so you can keep saving). My hunch is that the number of engaged and active myWaitrose offers is not the point. This is a brand exercise, encouraging people to think that Waitrose are all customer-focussed and that maybe having one of their free loyalty cards is a good thing. The important thing to Waitrose is knowing which customers spend on what products. I just wonder how long it will be before customers figure out the scheme just isn’t for them and that data mine ceases to be profitable.

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British Gas one-off kitchen appliance repairs is a clunky broken service

It’s always a risk when I rant discuss customer service issues, more than once in the past I have anxiety that a brand I’ve lambasted has been in the building to ask us to pitch or that we’ve been wooing. In this case, I’ve already spent some time in front of this brand, way back in 2008 (maybe 2009). One day it might come back on my plate but here’s the thing, I speak as I find, as an end user, the point is today was just another example of an ostensibly straightforward request being idiotically laborious to change.

Our dishwasher’s broken. It’s not that old, it’s showing an error code. I decided to use British Gas to fix it because their Channel 4 idents and suchlike make it look so easy. Cheerful engineers wielding spanners can repair anything.

I phoned up a couple of weeks ago, had a bit of a crap call-centre experience with shouty voices (I think they were trying to make themselves heard amongst the din) repetition of script after script, hand-offs and I think I had to tell them at least three times it was a one-off booking, not a sign up to a monthly repair plan. Eventually an appointment was booked.

I couldn’t make the appointment tomorrow, I wanted to cancel.

No obvious route back to cancel, had to tweet to get a phone number, eventually @BritishGasHelp (Jamie-Lee) did call me back.

Then, to move an appointment two weeks ahead took three hand-offs to different people, 23+ minutes of time (90% of which on hold) and involved full diaries “Nothing available until mid November” [It’s early September] and lots of tapping around on screens presumably.

How is it, in 2015, that something as logistically straightforward as this, results in a terrible process? Frustration, irritation, time-wasting for them and me. It’s insane.

Eventually an appointment was found. It’s an all day appointment, I’ll get about ten minutes warning before the engineer arrives but I’ll have to be at home from 8am to 6pm.

British Gas’ own website states “Technology and Innovation is key to the ethos of British Gas”, anecdotally at least there is much work to be done.


Opt-in uniform, or wardrobe minimalism? A simpler me.

It’s a bit odd to be writing this post as it’s a pre-emptive strike, or rather defence. I’m expecting commentary and criticism at some point but it’s yet to come and will, at first, come in-person I suspect. But it will be necessary as i’ve embarked on a behaviour which, although I see it as perfectly rational, is definitely going to be seen as a little eccentric.

I’ve switched to a uniform. Loosely based on ideas like the capsule wardrobe, wardrobe minimalism and the well-publicised strategic approach taken by Jobs, Zuckerberg, Einstein and (albeit rather more inconsistently) Obama, I have decided that I’ll pretty much be seen in the same thing every single day at work.

I’ll get to the why later (although I’m sure you’re already ahead of me), but first, let me take you through exactly what I mean by ‘the same thing’.

Practicality and basic hygiene mean this isn’t the exact same item, of course. At the moment London is in the midst of a typical temperate summer, so the first consideration is environment. My office environment is casual (with the occasional client contact) and the expectation isn’t much higher than looking presentable. Beyond that, I’m surrounded in the city and the company by people that both know fashion and have the disposable income to indulge in it. So, for now, I’m going for:

Grey V-neck T-shirt. Quality decent weight cotton, sized to fit neatly and slim but not skinny. I’ve got 5 of them. A mix of Abercrombie & Fitch and J Crew. Absolutely no pockets or detailing beyond a logo.

Denim. Again, decent quality, slim but not skinny. Swedish brand Nudie because I love their approach to sustainability and repairs as well as the attention to detail in the fit and washes. A simple, classic leather belt.

Shoes, a work in progress, but I’ll need to switch between in-office Nike and the occasional more formal shoes. I’m probably going down the line of a brown boot to tie-in with the denim. Dune, Timberland, Bertie even Clarks. These will last beyond the immediate season of course, and I walk a lot to-and-from the office.

As the weather deteriorates I know I’ll not get away with the T-shirt, this isn’t Cupertino after all, so I’m going to choose something that will go equally well with the denim and boots. Probably merino long-sleeve, quality from somewhere like Icebreaker.

There will be things I occasionally need to add. I’m expecting I might need a simple V-neck sweater to pair with a decent, tailored white shirt for more formal client meetings. At the most formal I still have my suit of course. When the weather really closes in I’ll be buying British and getting a down jacket from Rab, standing on platforms is about the most miserable part of winter in the UK for the provincial commuter and as much as I love my Buffalo, that’s more for active movement.

Quality & provenance
I wanted to really focus on fewer items, but in doing so, invest in quality clothes. Checking the fit and cut really suits me, I want it to make it seem like I at least made the effort in choosing the products; even if I made it once about 6 months ago. It makes sense to spend £25 on a T-shirt and to buy 5 of them rather than go to a discount place getting 10 for £6.99 that look like dishcloths. Ditto a good investment in the denim and the shoes. I do like the idea of buying British and Swedish where possible. I love brands that think about their products and process, like Nudie and Icebreaker. Organic cotton is good of course but I do accept I won’t hit the moral high-ground with every supplier.

I don’t think I’ll be in the uniform at the weekends. This doesn’t mean that the approach is put aside, I’m still keeping my options pretty limited. I’ve had a huge clear-out at home and sent a load of stuff to charity. I want less choice, less sentimentality, more quality and fit. I want to be ruthless and specific about what suits me. There are certain styles and approaches that are pretty much timeless and that seems ideal, classic colours and cuts.

Running & training
I’m an Adidas-dressed runner. Their kit suits me and I want it all to work together. I want to go out for a run knowing it functions and looks right, I know the specification, ranges, weights, seasons, colours and fit of Adidas. It’s an investment in my running gear that I’ve made over several years and I’ll continue to run as an Adidas runner for the foreseeable future.

So, why?
I really haven’t been fashionable for a while. In fact I’ve looked pretty bad for a number of years. I’ve been wearing things that in some cases are ancient and date back far too long. My wardrobe got so out of date that I felt the only way to get fashionable again was to spend a fortune on personal shopping and get a large number of new outfits. To do that I thought I’d need to look for some cheap stuff and have the odd expensive brand here and there. I signed up to Thread and had some poor stylist send me batches of outfit suggestions I ignored constantly.

I didn’t like the sound of the changes I needed to make whichever way you cut it. Equally, I just wanted less to think about, I absolutely suffer from decision fatigue. I wanted to stop struggling to dig through clothes in my drawers and wardrobe, to think about what I’d worn this week and what I needed to wear to look different. I was, I do crave simplicity.

Obama himself put it thus [Vanity Fair, 2012] “managing your life as a president requires that you cut away the mundane, frustrating decisions like deciding what to wear — which people around the world fret over. You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

I’m hardly Obama and my decisions are nothing of the magnitude of his, but the cognitive effort is relatable. I see it as analogous to having my Oyster card with me everyday and just rolling up the top-up automatically. I never have to think about getting a train ticket again to work. This feels just as sensible, just as good.

This simplicity extended to looks as well. I felt the things I did wear were trying too hard. Logos, slogans, prints. It’s not really me. One thing, done right. It seemed to match the sort of parsimonious rigour I like in my job. I knew I’d enjoy the cathartic discarding of the old stuff and it really does feel good to know I don’t have to think about it at all. The economics of it made sense to me too. I had reached a point where I knew I’d have to spend money. This way I can shop simply for each season, buy multiples and benefit from reorders and discounts online when I see items that match on offer. A 20% sale at A&F means I can simply re-stock and won’t entail me hunting around for items in the sale I might like. Sales now will help me get a better price on items I need, not encourage me to buy Items I don’t need and never really wanted.

It means the focus is on me, not my clothes, me and what I do every day, having said that, I don’t mind at all if it becomes something that defines me and something I’m known for.

I’m not announcing it, beyond directing people here if they notice and a link in my social media bio. So, if you noticed, now you know.

Other uniformists
Matilda Kahl, Art Director at Saatchi & Saatchi NY: “Why I wear the exact same thing to work every day
Mashable piece on ‘insanely successful men‘ who wear the same thing.
Capsule wardrobe piece on Mens Health … bizarrely still features 24 items and no underwear.
A famous Gawker article on Steve Jobs’ approach.

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It’s really easy to make stuff persuasive: A story of linguistics, prototypes and Dare.

Picture from Fine Country Lifestyle – Devon Farm Shop

I’ve done the same presentation about psychology, seduction and persuasion several times. It changes a bit here and there depending on the audience. I include a few more contemporary examples, add a few gags and throw in the odd bit of data to back things up.

At one part of the presentation I talk about how adding largely meaningless adjectives to products makes them more appealing – so pepper becomes hand-cracked pepper or we add a provenance like Suffolk honey. I’d always think of these off the top of my head during the presentation and, for the sake of a little humour, would try and invent outlandish examples to make the point (an in so-doing probably dilute it). Then last year I was watching the inestimable Stewart Lee when he amusingly parodied the craft-beer industry with some ludicrous names: Gandalf’s Memory Stick, Hogwarts Bukkake and it inspired me to keep doing the same gag.

I must have been holding on to this idea for a while and I got chatting to Dare’s technical director, Charlie, in a cab. Charlie’s got an academic background in English and a similar sense of humour so we naturally came round to the idea that this generation of novel food labels could be done in a random fashion. It seemed so simple to concoct the recipe: take a foodstuff, add a method and a provenance and the result takes an ordinary staple and turns it into a farm shop or artisan product that can be sold with a healthy mark-up.

Persuasive marketing nomenclature, automated with a tinge of comedy.

So we (well he) started building it. A simple JavaScript took items from three arrays (lists of data) and combined them at random in the order: Provenance, Method, Foodstuff. It worked quite well. But, thinking about the old adage of garbage-in, garbage-out, we noticed that some of the combinations didn’t work.

Does it feel right?
At this point we should stop and consider what we mean by work. It’s quite subjective, but you have to think about it a bit. The comedy is about the combinations appearing almost right but a bit outlandish. If you go too far toward the outlandish then it just feels wrong. In some cases this is obvious – the pairing of methods with foods that don’t make sense hand-reared houmous, pulled briochegrass-fed asparagus. So we started to think about what it was about these pairings that made them wrong and how we could eliminate them. Do you, for example, identify a matrix where methods applicable to foods are deemed ok/wrong? So hand-reared is relevant to all animal products? line-caught is relevant to seafood only? Or do you simply manually edit the list to exclude methods that are too niche? The trouble with doing that is that you reduce the serendipitous moments that make this work. Trying to avoid creating a behemoth that relies on learning or crowd-sourcing inappropriate pairings I set about building an Excel sheet with a series of lookup tables that allowed me to fettle with the source lists and try out combinations without relying on a very busy Charlie to repopulate his script.

Syntax is important
Creating the spreadsheet opened up even more questions. Taking a leap from an unconnected musing I had on Twitter last week, it occurred to me that order – syntax – is an important part of the output. Food will always come at the end but does changing the position of provenance affect the humour or the apparent luxury of the item? To use an example, is Newlyn fried corn a different product to fried Newlyn corn? So the method seems more artisan and niche if it’s Newlyn fried (presumably only a handful of people know how to fry the Newlyn way) as opposed to the corn being from Newlyn and then simply fried? It’s almost the difference between an item being at the bottom of the prestige retail hierarchy and the top.

Aside: Could you put the following retailers in hierarchy of perceived prestige? Tesco Finest, Waitrose Seriously, Marks & Spencer, Whole Foods, Borough Market, Artisan Farm Shop, Selfridges …

Provenance and terroir
Looking at the list we’d made for provenance it was clear there were two things going on. Once was about the association a place had with the growing or raising of food and the other was about what this meant by association. So the concept of terroir is that the geography, geology and climate of a place affects a foodstuff. It’s hugely important in wine and coffee to know the place it’s come from, but also in items like meats or vegetables (Hereford beef, Norfolk turkey). It gets more complicated when you add in the method of preparation or the regional significance of a recipe (A Bakewell tart, a Cornish pasty) or get super-niche and choose a specific producer Blacker Hall quiche. Consequently, the list we compiled is composed of places that have strong associations with food – largely agricultural counties, coastal locations and regional recipes. I then scoured a list of Britain’s top 50 farm shops and delicatessens for examples of artisan-sounding producers

What’s a method, what’s a foodstuff?
Related to our thinking about ordering and the awkwardness of pairings it became apparent that the foodstuff could be the array that includes a variety of methods specific to that food. So, instead of simply putting pork we could add pulled pork to the list. We could have scallops and hand-dived scallops. This would mean that we wouldn’t need to worry about hand-dived pork coming up but we could keep the fancy-pants descriptor of hand-dived to make the scallops seem more interesting. It’s fair to say it had stepped away a little from the original plan to have a simple 1+1+1 = 3 pattern (but that was about to have another twist anyway). We started to think a bit more about what constitutes a food and that complicated dishes don’t work so well as items that are atomic or simple but this wasn’t clear cut. Bakewell vanilla-infused cupcakes works but Jersey broiled yoghurt doesn’t. For every decent example involving brioche, sourdough, quiche, pasties there were far more decent examples involving single ingredients – asparagus, quinoa, lentils, beans, chicken. Once again, order plays a part here and having categories might help solve this. Hold that thought.

Something extra
Finally, after about two days fiddling about in Excel and chatting to Charlie we decided to throw in another part to the concatenated string, a garnish perhaps. We had a randomly-appearing descriptor that affected the overall product. It could be vegan or gluten-free or giant. So, not so-much a method or a provenance but in the spirit of the type of thing that gets added to nomenclature to change the perception Clearly the taxonomic importance of vegan/gluten-free over micro/giant is worth bearing in mind. It many cases it works wonderfully: Giant sugared Herefordshire pudding in others not so well Salt-Baked Pommery Vegan Steak Pies, so it’s fair to say that becomes a matter of user preference. Which leads us neatly on…

Getting it out there
After a while you realise there’s loads more you can do and several of these things made great sense. I always loved the Urban Spoon app that helped you find a restaurant matching a series of criteria at random, the trick was that you could lock down the most important part of your criteria – for example price, and then leave the random bit to choose the genre, location or both. It strikes me that this might be a nice add-on to our generator. You might lock-down the foodstuff and just play around with random combinations of qualifiers – the most fancy chicken product you can find for example. Then there was the consideration that this could have a crowd-sourced element; users could work in volume to rate the best combinations or highlight ones that don’t work. Clearly this would mean a lot more coding effort than we could afford to spend. What about supporting unique URLs for each combination so they could be shared or copied straight into a tweet link. And finally, what about categorisation? would this be better if you could focus-in on drinks, ingredients or prepared products like quiche, cakes, pastas.

Everything’s a remix
Back to reality and I realised fairly early on that this wasn’t that new. There are about ten thousand ‘generator’ sites that compose sitcom and film character names, craft beers and, perhaps channelling a little of the Bill Bryson observation on British place names, a village name generator. What I rather like about all this is that it seems to be most effective with our wonderful language here in Britain. I hastily trimmed out provenances that weren’t British and have tried to keep the foodstuffs a little native, scattering a bit of brioche or salami here and there does work but one must be parsimonious. when the strings get a bit long and they pick up quite specific methods like -infused or cold-pressed it can definitely feel a bit Heston Bloodyhell (sic)

To what end?
So, where does this leave us? Perhaps one day Charlie and I will get a public facing version up, designed hopefully around a style that befits the point-of-sale references we see in hipster marketplaces. A tool that uses some of the functionality we’ve mused about and ultimately becomes a playful little twitter stream. I like the idea that you could run this for 6 months with a voting mechanic, gather the data and establish a shop somewhere in a quaint Cotswold market town (Greater Drowsisle?) that sells products derived entirely from this output.

In the meantime it has given me a great chance to revisit ontological thinking, nomenclature and linguistics and logic. Any opportunity to play around in those fields can’t help but contribute to my understanding and enjoyment of the job I do on a daily basis.

A selection of how it works (or doesn’t).

  • Irish air-dried kale
  • Ballymaloe thin-sliced mackrel
  • Hand cut Suffolk micro couscous
  • Fermented Worcestershire buffalo
  • Pressed Derbyshire giant pheasant
  • Castleford dried rye bread

UPDATE: Now showing on Twitter@shinyplums
A Daily Mail headline generator and a direction to consider the writings of Brian Wansink concerning food psychology , thanks to Juliet Hodges.

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