WHEN my daughter Ava was much younger—about seven—I took her to Toys R Us in Times Square one Saturday that was also Saint Patrick’s Day. You couldn’t ask for a more chaotic location and crowd. After stocking up on a sufficient number of Barbie accessories (Ava was in a girly phase at the time), we headed out of the store and toward home.
It was a hot March that year. Unseasonably sweltering. The streets were unwalkable—thickly thronged with drunks and tourists—and there were no cabs to be seen. So we ended up hiring a bike rickshaw to take us home. I’d recently done the same thing in Austin, where the ride cost $10. The sign on the New York rickshaw also said $10. Unfortunately, it meant $10 per city block—as I discovered to my cost, and horror, upon trying to exit when we finally reached our destination.
But the ludicrous overcharge was worth it, because the trip created a memory.
Ava is half Irish Catholic and Bohemian on her mother’s side, half Ukranian and Russian Jewish on my side. At the time, she identified Irishness with her mother’s qualities, such as intelligence, warmth, and elegance. She did not know that Saint Patrick’s Day in major U.S. cities is mainly an excuse for high school and college students from out of town to come fall down drunk in the street.
As our rickshaw driver pedaled his way to the bank, we passed wave after wave of staggering, shouting, woohooing greenclad coeds, accompanied by slightly less inebriated predator dates. The women shrilled “hey” at us. They stumbled into the crosswalk. They vomited between parked cars and then made out with their companions.
Hammering down 38th Street in the shuddering rickshaw, Ava got up on her hind legs. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!” she shouted.
A drunken collegiate, making eye contact with the child while not necessarily understanding her words, shouted, “Woo-hoo!” and belched.
I think of it every Saint Patrick’s Day in New York. The righteously indignant little girl, the sweating Asian immigrant bicyclist, and the sea of drunken adolescents out of Trenton and Staten.
Mainly I think whimsically of those words. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!”
Do Not Go Gentle into that iTunes Store
AT HOME, sick with a cold and bored, my daughter buys a single packet of “My School Dance” in a freemium iTunes game. The manufacturer charges her (well, charges me) for ten packets. This same “accidental” 10x overcharge happens across three different games by the same manufacturer in the span of about an hour.
American Express notifies me of the spurious charges, but won’t let me dispute them until they are “posted.” I spend half an hour on the phone with a very nice gentleman at Amex learning this. Why would Amex notify customers about a charge days before they can do anything to resolve it? I don’t know. And I don’t ask the gentleman on the phone. His job is hard enough.
A few days pass. Amex “posts” the false charges and emails me with a link to resolve the problem on Amex’s “dispute a charge” web service.
Amex’s “dispute a charge” web service “encounters an error” when I try to use it to resolve the problem.
This happens every time I try. I try for three days.
So I call Amex, but I can’t resolve the problem because I don’t have the card in my wallet.
So I head to iTunes, where I should have gone in the first place, and click through two or three generations of iTunes “Report a Problem” interfaces: visually different generations of iTunes software, with different user paths, all still being served by Apple. Generations of iTunes software that, when they fail, link to other generations of iTunes software, which also fail.
I click and click my way through five years of iTunes interfaces.
Finally I find an iTunes page where I can manually “Report a problem” for each of the 27 false charges. (Three of the charges, remember, were legitimate. I’m willing to pay for the three items my daughter intended to buy. But not 30.)
If one software product overcharges your kid by a multiple of 10, that could be a software bug. When three products from the same manufacturer all do it, that’s not a bug, it’s a deliberate attempt to defraud families, by overcharging on purpose and hiding behind the opacity of iTunes’s purchase reporting. Simply put, the manufacturer is dishonest, and figures iTunes’s support section is impenetrable enough that you’ll eventually give up trying to get a refund.
But they didn’t count on my tenacity. I’m the Indiana Jones of this motherfucker. I have studied maps and bribed natives and found my way to the hidden iTunes refund page that actually, sometimes, works.
On this page, I inform Apple of the fraud 27 times, in 27 different boxes. Each time, after reporting, I click a blue button, which generally returns an error message that iTunes was unable to process my request. So I enter the data and click the button again. It’s only 27 boxes of shit. I’ve got all the time in the world.
The page tells me that only two refunds went through. Every other request ends with an error message saying iTunes could not process my request, and encouraging me to try again later.
Instead, I leave the page open, and, about ten minutes later, I manually reload it. When I do so, the display updates—I guess this generation of iTunes software preceded “Ajax”—and I learn that most of my refunds have gone through.
So the software actually works about 33% of the time, even though it indicates that it only works 5% of the time. Remember that wait-ten-minutes-then-randomly-reload-to-see-if-anything-changed trick. It’s the sign of excellently designed consumer software.
I’ve put over two hours of my time into this. Going on billable hours, I’ve probably lost money, even if I get all my overcharges refunded. But there’s a principle here. Several principles, actually. Tricking kids is wrong. Stealing is wrong. Building a beautiful front-end but neglecting customer service is wrong. Mainly, I’ve just had enough of 2016’s bullshit.
I SPENT yesterday with my Swedish friend Pär (“Peyo”) Almqvist, who returned from LA Sunday morning and headed home to Sweden Sunday night. We met in Stockholm in 1999, when Peyo was 19, and have been close ever since. In 2000, Peyo wrote “Fragments of Time” for A List Apart. Reading it, you can see how thoughtful he is as a creative person.
National Geographic TV covered OMC’s work just this week in their special, “Years of Living Dangerously;” in the video clip on their site, you can watch David Letterman interview one of Peyo’s co-founders about what they’ve accomplished so far, and why it matters.
Letterman went to India to cover the threat of climate change and what’s being done to fight it. OMC Power is providing clean energy and a model for India to electrify itself without adding to the pollution that contributes to climate change. OMC started in India because folks in India needed the power and therefore welcomed them; and also because, by working with small rural villages, they encountered less violent opposition from the oil companies than they would have if they had attempted the experiment in Europe or North America. When the power grid fails in the west, folks in India will still have power—an irony of developed nations’ dependence on dirty fossil fuels.
In a time when so many of us feel helpless about climate change, and others, at the behest of corporate masters, cynically deny that it exists, it is good to know people who are making a difference and earning a living in doing so.
While Peyo remains an advisor to OMC Power, he has since co-founded a music startup, which I can’t talk about yet, but which I believe will meet real a need in music and may even change how some music gets made. (Like me, Peyo has a musical background, although, unlike me, as a producer and composer he has had hits in Sweden.)
It was his new music start-up music business that brought Peyo to New York and LA during the past week. I missed the chance to spend the week with him as I was in San Francisco doing the final AEA conference of 2016. It was great to spend a day together in New York, talking about our families, our businesses, and the world.
OUR UBER DRIVER must be hard of hearing, because he plays his right-wing talk radio morning show LOUD. It’s not your erudite, intellectual morning show. It’s hosted by Morning Zoo-type personalities: braying, hyper-testicular fellows, as subtle as a Cuban tie.
To illustrate some local New York story about a Hassidic synagogue, they play a nerve-shattering recording of an air raid siren. They talk over each other, like men do when they’re excited, and segue seamlessly into sponsor messages about homes for the aged, and medical recovery facilities for seniors. Then right back to the entertainment portion of the program: the two men, cross-talking in stereophonic sound, sharing revealing fragments of the public and personal between sound effect blasts and explosions of machine-gun laughter.
If you had just one minute to live, you’d want to hear this, because it would make your final earthly moments last longer. Okay, to be fair, I’d toss a coin to decide between this and root canal. My fellow passenger farts silently, which I consider a reasonable response. Soon. Soon I will get out of this car.
We learn that both show hosts live in Long Island. The super-aggressive one tells a story about taking his daughter to soccer practice and then taking his son to soccer practice while his wife borrows the car, but we never hear the denouement, because the dominant guy, who is even more aggressive, keeps interrupting.
The news continues. An unfinished story about taking the subway to eat at a famous pizza parlor in Brooklyn. Something about the Muslim call to prayer. It seems the secret service doesn’t want to protect Hillary Clinton because she is such a nasty woman. The polls are looking up for Donald Trump.
Ten Years Ago on the Web
2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.
I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.
Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)
Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.
Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.
In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.
As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts one, two, three, or four, have a look back.
Sometimes a cigar is a penis
MANY NIGHTS I have these dreams where I lose my daughter while traveling. We’re about to board a flight, and suddenly she has vanished. In other parts of these same dreams, still traveling, I’m doing something amazing—like hiking the Alps—when I realize I’ve forgotten to check in on my app. Although the two distresses are in no way equivalent in life, in the dream sudden heart-stopping panic attends them both. It’s as if my unconscious is warning me I place too high a value on my illusory digital life.
There’s also baggage in these dreams. Literal baggage. As in, before boarding the flight with my daughter, I need to pack all our household possessions, so they can fly with us to a new home. In reality, we live in a two-bedroom apartment. In the dreams, the possessions fill a huge, rambling house. They are mostly dirty and broken: a cracked hobbyhorse, a single-octave air-powered toy organ with chord buttons. Halfway through wrapping these smashed globes, armless dolls, and hand-me-down suitcases that cannot be closed, I wonder why I must drag all this baggage with us.
In my 20s, I had a different recurring dream. In that one, I was at the beach with my father the moment before an immense tidal wave came crashing down, annihilating all life. I would see us from an overhead omniscient point of view—all of us beachgoers gazing up wordlessly at the power that was about to smash us out of the universe. Then, from my own point of view, I would gaze for an endless moment at the peaking wave, which seemed to hang suspended for a miniature eternity. Unable to bear my terror, I would turn to my father and bury my face in his chest. The last thing I experienced in the dream was my father’s hand cradling the back of my head.
I had that dream over and over. At the time, it seemed to me an omen of imminent tragedy. Now I think it was simply the disguised expression of a wish to know my father’s love and feel close to him.
My father is of that generation that doesn’t hug and doesn’t easily share its feelings. Today he is finally old enough, and sentimental enough, to say, “Ditto, kid,” when I tell him I love him at the end of our phone calls. We speak more now than we did all the years I was growing up. Night school, and two jobs, and other things kept him away far more than he was home.
Now in life I am a father, living alone with my daughter, two cats, and four hamsters, in an apartment that, on good days, looks like a dozen children must live there. On bad days, it looks like the Gestapo came through. Come to think of it, at age twelve I had recurring dreams about hiding from the Gestapo.
There’s the surface world, where we worry about work and bills and if our kid is getting enough nutrition. And why some people we like don’t like us. And why some people we were kind to hurt us. And whether we are kind enough. But mainly about work and bills and food.
And then there is the dream world, where our true fears stand naked, telling us who we are, and what we value.
THE FILTHIEST men’s room in New York is on the 8th floor of 291 Broadway. You would think the men’s room at Penn Station or the bus terminal would beat any other for filth and stench but you’d be wrong. 291 Broadway’s is worse. There are five years of crushed insects on the walls. They never get scraped or cleaned away. There is stranger’s urine in every porcelain receptacle in the place. Weeks of it. It never gets flushed. You can try flushing it, sure, but it never goes down. Men urinate fresh streams atop gallons of other men’s stale urine in perpetuity ad infinitum. It sickens the soul. Chills the blood. Is enough to make the pope doubt God’s existence.
This bathroom is not in a slum. It is not in a poor third world favela. This bathroom is in a fancy NYC skyscraper, a stone’s throw from the historic Woolworth Building. I visit this bathroom once a week from the waiting room of a fancy office where, this being New York, I drop $250 per session. This is a court appointed specialist so I can’t choose another—say, one in a building with a clean and functioning restroom. This specialist deals with serious human misery. The kind that comes when families are torn apart. She does a good job of helping people. I doubt she has visited the men’s room here. If she had been to it, even once, even just for a moment, I doubt she could find the will to carry on in her good works. There are many filthy places in New York. Places that breed addiction, crime, and despair. Places no sane person would willingly go. Cesspools of the human spirit. Places where hope dies and light is extinguished. They are all better than the men’s room on the eighth floor at 291 Broadway.
Pinterest giveth, and Pinterest taketh away
AS MY design career has taken on more and more strategic and managerial freight, I’ve done less and less hands-on design. This year, I decided to change that. As part of my reimmersion, I found myself reading less, and absorbing visual information more. Enter Pinterest.
I’d played with the app when it first came out—who didn’t?—but it didn’t stick with me the way a handful of apps do. It didn’t become an obsession, and so I gradually forgot about it. That’s just how apps work for me. They’re heroin, or they’re nothing.
But the moment my days began filling with sketching, and coding, and Photoshop comping, the genius of Pinterest, and the addictive high it provides when used obsessively and compulsively, was revealed to me.
In borderline religious ecstasy, I became a Pinterest junkie, compelled to collect and catalog every artist I’ve ever loved—every type designer, illustrator, filmmaker, social absurdity, comic book character, and book designer; every half-forgotten cartoonist; every city or nation I’ve visited.
Using Pinterest not only revived long-dead visual design brain cells, it created new ones. Work-related layouts and color schemes came easier as I spent more and more “downtime” collecting and cataloging half-forgotten styles, genres, and artists—and discovering new ones.
I ♥ Pinterest
As part of this work—for work it is; call it “research” if you prefer—I spent hours rearranging Boards on my profile for maximum aesthetic effect and rhythm. And more hours choosing and replacing the cover illustration for each Board. (If you don’t use Pinterest, here’s a summary: it lets you pin any image you find on the web, or on your own computer desktop or mobile device, to a virtual whiteboard. Pinterest calls each whiteboard you create a “Board,” and each image you affix to it a “Pin.” Part of the fun comes from sequencing Boards on your profile for aesthetic or educational reasons; choosing the featured image for each Board is likewise important and fun.)
Until a few days ago, you could edit and re-edit the featured image for each Board whether you were using Pinterest on the web (that is, via desktop computer), your phone, or your tablet. Doing these things worked differently on the different devices—choosing the featured image was actually faster and less tedious on iPhone and iPad than it was on the web—but the functionality was available in all three places, because Pinterest recognized that brands exist between devices, and that folks interact with your service on different devices at different times, as they choose.
Likewise, until a few days ago, you could change the order of Boards on your profile via drag and drop whether you were using Pinterest on the web or your tablet. (Likely because of screen space constraints, this functionality was not available on iPhone, where the display of Board content necessarily differs from the more desktop-design-focused method used on the web and on iPad.) Users like me changed the order of Boards to create visual interest, set up ironic contrasts, create visual rhythms up and down the screen, and so on. I’m a designer. I have my ways. These details are important to me—and, I imagine, to many other users, since Pinterest is a drug for visual obsessives.
An unexpected change
Then, a few days ago, Pinterest released an update that removed this functionality from the iPhone and iPad (and, I’m assuming, from Android as well). There was no blog post announcing the change. And no rationale offered for taking away features that mattered a lot to users like me. Pinterest knows these features matter, because Pinterest has our data. That’s the difference between making a digital product folks interact with via the internet, and making, say, a toilet plunger. If I manufacture toilet plungers, I can make assumptions about how folks use my product, but I probably don’t have much real data. If I make an application people use via http, I know everything.
Now, it’s not like people were complaining about the ability to edit their Boards: “We have too much freedom! This software provides too many delightful functions. Please remove two of them. But only from my mobile device.”
No. The features are still there on the website. So Pinterest knows people like these features.
And it’s not like the features are too difficult to put into mobile devices, since they already existed in those mobile devices.
A failure to communicate
You may ask why I’m telling you all this instead of telling it to Pinterest. Good question. The answer is, I tried telling Pinterest, but they don’t provide a forum for it. And that is the biggest problem. A company that makes products people love should have a way to communicate with those people. Not grudgingly offer them a few character-limited form fields on a “survey” page that isn’t even referenced in the site’s navigation.
When the features stopped working on my iPhone and iPad, I assumed something had gone wrong with my apps, so I deleted and reinstalled them. (Remember, there was no announcement; but then why would any company announce that it was taking away loved features for no apparent reason?)
When deleting and reinstalling didn’t help, I sought help and contact pages on Pinterest (and was only able to find them via third-party search engine).
In trying to file a bug report, I ended up in a pleasant (but confusing) conversation with a very nice Pinterest employee who explained that I wasn’t experiencing a bug: the software engineers had made a conscious decision to remove the functions I use every day … and had no intention of restoring them. She wasn’t able to tell me why, or point me to a URL that would offer a rationale, but she did tell me I could use Pinterest’s “Recommend a feature” form to “recommend” that the software engineers put those features back.
Since “Recommend a feature” is hidden from site navigation, the kindly person with whom I was in dialog provided a link where I could type in a few characters requesting that Pinterest restore the “drag Board order” functionality. There wasn’t room in the form fields to explain why I thought the feature should be restored, but at least I was able to make the request. The form asked if I was a Business account user, which I am. I don’t remember when or why I bought the Business tier of service. Maybe for the analytics. Maybe just because, as someone who makes stuff myself, I choose to pay for software so I can support the good people who make it, and do what I can to help their product stick around.
(It’s the same reason I remained a Flickr Pro user even after Yahoo gave the whole world 2GB of photo storage space for free. If everything is free, and nobody pays, services you love tend to go away. Half of web history is great services disappearing in the night after investors were dissatisfied with only reasonable profits.)
I don’t know why my paid status mattered to Pinterest, but I couldn’t help feeling there would be a prejudice in favor of my comment if I checked the box letting them know I was a paying customer. Even though it was information they requested, checking the box made me feel dirty. I also wondered why they were asking me. I mean, don’t they know? I gave them the email address they use for my login. I was logged in. They know my status. Are they just checking to see if I know it, too?
There can only be one (feature request)
But I digress. Because here is the main point. The moment I submitted the tiny, inadequate form requesting the restoration of a recently removed feature, the site set a cookie and sent me a message thanking me for completing the “survey.” It wasn’t a survey, but I guess one task completion message is as good as another.
Then I tried to use the inadequate form to report my second concern—the one about the removal of the ability to choose a featured image for my Board. The way this had always worked on the tablet was far superior to the tedious, painstaking way it works on my desktop. On the tablet, you could scroll through all your images with the flick of a finger, select the image you wanted, and complete the task in a few seconds. On the desktop, you had to click your way through every image on your Board in reverse chronological order. It’s the difference between flicking through a calendar, and clicking backwards from today, to yesterday, to the day before yesterday, and so on. The tablet version was fast, easy, intuitive—you interact directly with your content; you can see all relevant content at a glance. The desktop version is cumbersome and 1999-ish. If I had to pick which platform must lose the functionality I relied on, I would not have chosen the tablet. No customer who used the feature in both places would.
But I wasn’t able to share even a few characters of this thought with Pinterest, because once you submit a “survey” requesting a feature, a steel wall in the guise of a cookie slams down, and you cannot make a second feature suggestion.
Not even the next day. (Which is today. Which I just tried.)
This is a love letter
And that is why, as a hardcore fan and user of Pinterest, a service I love and use compulsively, I am using the public web rather than Pinterest’s somewhat unhelpful help center, to share my request with the brilliant software engineers who create this fabulous product.
And with designers, because these are the mistakes we all make when we create products and content sites. We think we are all about the people who use what we create. But we are probably frustrating the pants off them with our arbitrary design decisions and inadequate customer feedback mechanisms.
I NEVER take my daughter to pet stores, because she always wants to save all the animals. But our babysitter didn’t get the memo. Last week at a filthy pet store near school, Ava fell in love with a neglected hamster. Once the internet had assured me our cats wouldn’t kill the hamsters, I gave Ava permission to bring home the hamster, and gave the babysitter money to take care of the purchase.
Ava came home with two hamsters: a lady and a gentleman.
In less than a week, the lady gave birth to seven naked pink babies. It looked like mama hamster was going to eat her babies—distressing my daughter no end—but, days later, they are still alive, and their fur is beginning to grow in.
It’s a school day, but Ava has another virus—her second in two weeks—and is home from school for the second day in a row; I’m home watching her and attempting to do my work.
This morning while I was having coffee on the couch, Ava put the daddy hamster on my tummy. He slipped around behind me, and somehow disappeared.
We spent an hour on hands and knees amid Ava’s used Kleenexes, spilled hamster food, cedar chips, and other detritus, searching for the missing hamster. The cats could not find him either. (Giovannia, our vigilant tuxedo cat, actually looked for the missing hamster; gimlet-eyed Snow White licked her paws, oblivious.)
It soon became obvious that the hamster had somehow crawled into the family couch.
When little incisions under the cushions failed to reveal the missing rodent, I painstakingly destroyed the entire seating area in hopes of finding him. Insider tip: when destroying a couch from ABC Carpet & Warehouse, a scissor works better than a kitchen knife.
It was a beautiful couch before our sick dog Emile (RIP) had his way with it, and before Giovannia and Snow White converted it to a cat manicure device, and before Ava and I gave up and had all our meals on it, and before Ava decided that her favorite meal was soup.
Before I destroyed it, it looked like the Gestapo had held sex parties on it, but at least it was a couch.
Destroying the couch did not produce the hamster. We’ve left a trail of hamster food outside the ripped-apart couch. Probably he will come out at night, hamsters being nocturnal.
Anyone more experienced in this area, please share tips.
We Remember Mama
It’s the 15th anniversary of our mother’s death from Alzheimer’s.