Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Perils of Too Much Choice...

(Just a quickie post today - or: hit it & quit it!)

Why are some people so unable to make decisions? What is it about Home Depot and Costco that overwhelms us? Why does Trader Joe's do so well? Why are some cute guys eternally single, until they notice all the best women are already off the market?

It's something akin to an embarrassment of riches: when you have too much or too many of something to choose from (talents, women, types of peanut butter) - it gets tough to focus and decide at all; combine this with any tendency toward ADD, and you end up running in circles:

Vendors, dilettantes, and Casanovas beware!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Monday, February 01, 2010

Ah, January. Snow. Ice. Slush. Gray skies and grumpy legislators, jonesing for a junket to the Bahamas. No, wait. That's Back East.

Cut to Los Angeles, where Spring officially starts on January 2nd. It's true. The tulip magnolias and crab-apple trees are already blooming, while the pomegranates are still on the trees. Alas, no forsythia or hyacinths, save for the bunches for sale at Whole Foods and in the flower district, downtown.

Ah, downtown L.A. ... Locals know that's not an oxymoron. We have blocks of old movie palaces from the 1920's, a Chinatown that was shoved a half-mile North during the Depression (to make way for an Art Deco train station), and a burgeoning artist district that has almost been priced out of its original, formerly decayed, industrial zip code. Budget-conscious Latino families swarm Broadway looking for deals at the swap meets, and odd, huge, electrified signage from the 20's and 30's lights up the night sky from atop still more Deco skyscrapers.

When I first arrived, I shot on film. I need to find the director I gave those stills to - the former foundry we shot in, full of huge wooden casting forms and ankle deep in coal dust, is now just another clutch of trendy creative lofts. But the old, sometimes abandoned train tracks (where my co-workers unwittingly flipped their Volkswagen) are still there, as are the warren of turn-of-the-20th-century alleys and still-working, grand industrial shacks - urban barns for 19th century technologies.

I'm catching up on some long-overdue reading, John R. Stilgoe's "Outside Lies Magic," a companion tome and more-or-less Cliff Notes version of Stilgoes' Harvard classes on our collective visual environment. In it, Stilgoe extols the wonders of aimless outdoor wanderings, often leading to living clues on urban history, if not personal epiphany.

It's making me wish I took his class, but not just to contribute to the odd quote on his facebook appreciation page. I'm a geek, and Stilgoe's admonition to wallow in nonlinear wandering for free discovery's sake is, well, right up my alley.

Live in a dreary, sunset-technology town, deep in the grip of deadest winter? No problem, Stilgoe cheers - cold weather sends the weak indoors, and out of your way! Pack a thermos of hot cocoa in your pack, put on a decent hat and gloves, leave your iPod at home, and set out to get lost somewhere on purpose, preferably on foot.

I suspect Stilgoe may have a bit of the Tao of Pooh in him, since he is hell-bent on opening one's eyes, noticing, and having a sense of humor. Bring a notebook, or a tape recorder. You may find yourself having flashes of brilliance.

Photo credit:

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Friday, January 08, 2010

Kansei: the idea of designing with the client or customer's emotions in mind. Are you doing this?

What's that you say - you're not a designer? Excuse me, but yes you are. If nothing else, you design the interaction you have with others (and yourself) every moment of every day. You design your life and everything in it, whether actively, or passively.

Kansei is philosophic origami that neatly folds my own idea of high amplitude into so many paper Miatas. I drive Miata - I just think they're fun and cute - plus I bought mine used, and it's great on gas.

When I was a girl, and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I imagined myself at 25, driving a Mustang convertible alone, top down, hair flying, North on the Pacific Coast Highway. I was from Pennsylvania, and I'd never been to the West Coast, nor even heard of the PCH, but that was my idea of my future.

But why did legions of loyal Miata buyers choose them over other cars in the same range, or even pricier models? Kansei. Mazda designers depended on profiling their prospective buyers' emotions to create a product so appealing, that buyers would fall in love with the cars - and that's exactly what happened. Miatas tap into the romance of what driving a sportscar - and a dependable one at that - is all about. The car screams "I'm so Sexy" and it runs forever. It carries little baggage, so no packrats allowed. It's the ideal lover, as a car.

So what about you? Are you paying attention to the emotions of the people you interact with? What do they like? What do they want? What are their fears? Are they smart, or not? Are they powerful? Can they hurt you? Would they hurt you?

Is all that in sync with what you want? If it's not, what are you doing with them? How can you cope with them or steer them into a positive relationship with you?

Homework: Ericksonian psychology

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Another cool thought-bubble to add to the mix:

Check it -- just a few examples of the kind of thinking I'm advocating:

Daniel Pink's site:

and one of his articles on


Wednesday, January 31, 2007

From the January 23, 2007 edition of the CS Monitor -

Why some ideas stick and others don't

The 'stickiest' ideas – regardless of merit – have a lot in common. This book explains what that is.

By Michael S. Hopkins

On April 29, 1999, an article appeared in the Indiana Daily Student headlined "Indiana U. Senior Gains New Perspective on Life." You'll recognize the story. It profiled a 425-pound college kid who cut his weight in half by eating fast food. His name was Jared.

Part of the reason you know the story is that Subway – the place Jared got his veggie and turkey subs every day – turned it into an ad campaign that transformed Jared into an unlikely celebrity. (Possibly you can still picture him in his "after" version, stretching the 60-inch waist of his "before" pants between two widespread hands.)

But the Subway campaign alone doesn't explain the nearly viral phenomenon it triggered. There have been countless other ad campaigns since Jared's debuted, and none of them imprinted an unknown college student on the nation's memory the way Subway's did. Nor did many of them so swiftly and lastingly get their message across. ("Our food, though fast, is actually so healthy it can help you lose weight.")

Why not? What was it about Jared's message that made it – and him – stick?

Now, thanks to Made to Stick, we know. Coauthors (and brothers) Chip and Dan Heath – a Stanford Business School professor and an education entrepreneur respectively – spent a decade disassembling and trying to understand the inner workings of memorable, persuasive ideas, no matter what kind of packages they came in.

They studied political speeches, urban legends, news reports, management directives, and marketing messages like Subway's – not to mention culture-crossing proverbs, the various fables of Aesop, and the many soups of chicken (for the soul).

It didn't matter whether the ideas themselves were good or bad, just that they'd "stuck." (Not only is the Great Wall of China not the sole man-made structure visible from space; it isn't visible from space at all. And still...)

What the Heaths discovered was that the stickiest ideas, regardless of intrinsic merit, had a lot in common. Or, more accurately, the ways they were presented had a lot in common.

How to spell success

Each of these ideas, as conveyed, could be described using one or more of just these six à la carte attributes: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and story-containing. Line up the first letters of those characteristics, add a lower-case "s" (poetic license), and you've got the handy acronym SUCCESs. (Well, whaddya know...)

If that sounds like typical pop-lecture hokum (and it does, as the authors admit), it's not. What the Heaths have produced, complete with mnemonic handle, is a powerfully useful checklist for understanding how connections can be wired between ideas and people – between your ideas and the people you hope will be struck by them.

Why expertise doesn't always appeal

In separate chapters for each of the six principal characteristics, "Made to Stick" explores in depth exactly how, say, concreteness provides more hooks for recall (the "Velcro theory of memory") and why abstraction is often what unintentionally results from expertise.

"This is the Curse of Knowledge," the Heaths write, describing what they consider the single biggest reason so many messages fail to stick. "Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. [It] becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind."

The expert "wants to talk about chess strategies, not about bishops moving diagonally."

It's the showing, not the telling

"Made to Stick" summons plenty of brain science, social history, and behavioral psychology to explain what makes an idea winning and memorable – and the Heaths do the telling with beautiful clarity.

But they've also learned their own most important lesson: They know that with ideas it's not the telling but the showing that counts, so they've filled their book with stories that illustrate their theories.

"Made to Stick" deconstructs President Kennedy's moon mission challenge, the act of a biologist who drank a jar of ulcer-causing bacteria so he could persuade skeptics of his cure, and the way that the profound simplicity of Southwest Airline's core purpose ("be the low-cost airline") helps "employees wring decisions out of ambiguous situations."

Much of what they say may seem obvious – and yet the simple principles they propound are routinely ignored even by many who consider themselves professional communicators.

The Heaths discuss, for instance, what they call "the gap theory" of curiosity. This is the notion that a gap in knowledge is painful – it's like having an itch that needs to be scratched. It's also the reason that murder mysteries, crossword puzzles, sport contests, and even Pokémon succeed in grabbing attention: An audience is challenged to predict an outcome and then left wondering, "What will happen?" and "Was I right?"

But to capitalize on this kind of natural situational interest, the Heaths point out, "we need to first open gaps before we close them. And yet, too often, the communicator's tendency is "to tell people the facts. First, though, they must realize that they need these facts."

Throughout "Made to Stick," the Heaths provide dozens of examples of sticky messages – and plenty of samples of ingloriously ineffective prose as well. They show how a badly articulated idea can be reexpressed.

An old-school self-help book?

That utility is what separates "Made to Stick" from the books it's indebted to – "The Tipping Point" and "Freakonomics" – books that proved the pop- crossover appeal of social psychology.

"Made to Stick," too, wants to unveil how people behave. Specifically, it wants to explicate what makes people care about the ideas they encounter. But then, unlike its forebears, it goes old-school. It emerges as a how-to book – very nearly a self-help book, whether for organizations or individuals – just like thousands before it, only far better. By mapping what makes others listen, it shows you how to make yourself heard.

I'm betting "Made to Stick" won't find as many readers as have its now-glamorous predecessors. But I'd also bet that the readers it does find will end up more profoundly changed by it.

• Michael S. Hopkins is a contributing editor of Inc. magazine.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

A home on the web to encourage thoughtful, rich, and well-orchestrated execution in all things. "High amplitude" denotes a heady mix of (possibly disparate) ingredients, skillfully and admirably orchestrated into a new and amazing entity. Try your hand, or learn of others' examples here.

Maybe you've never heard about amplitude before. Maybe you think it has something to do with sound, or music.

It can, but it doesn't have to. It can apply to anything, in the sense that I'm about to explain to you.

One night, I was home alone, and reading the New Yorker online while I was eating. I started reading a Malcolm Gladwell article that he called, "The Ketchup Conundrum." (You can read the article here: You may also know Gladwell from his books "The Tipping Point" and "Blink."

Well in his ketchup article, Gladwell went on at some length about why ketchup was such an amazing invention. Ketchup, you see, cleverly (and perhaps inadvertantly) covered all the taste bases at once (sweet, sour, salt, etc.), even including "umami": a sense of protein, texture, or just a sense of higher complication. For example, babies, once they taste sugar-water, will ever after prefer sugar-water over plain water. You get the picture.

Along with Coca-cola, ketchup, it seems, has earned a famously high standing in the food industry for being "high amplitude": its creators struck a home run by skillfully orchestrating a panoply of elements into a peach of a product. Its owners now had a product that was so innately appealing, it would virtually sell itself.

All right. Well enough. And it was at least an appropriate article to read while I was eating, another of the New Yorker's "ain't-they-colorful?" pieces about a handful of quirky characters, bobbling about.

I wondered if I had any ketchup. (I didn't.) But I also started to wonder if I were frittering away yet more mind-space on a magazine article. Why bother to read a chattering piece about ketchup? And why did the article bother me so much?

Then I realized it: Gladwell hadn't followed the real gem in the piece. It was the umami, and the amplitude. He'd missed the most interesting angle completely, the thing that transcended the piece itself, what made it really relevant, even potentially life-changing for the reader.

The concepts of umami and amplitude could be applied to anything. Even people.

This, to me, was that rarest of things: a genuine epiphany. This was something really useful, even elegant. Mired as I was in a series of personal ruts at the time, I looked for ways to apply this new set of priciples.

I was doing a bit of sewing as a pastime, and decided to start with that. I needed a warm hat to wear to a camp-out. Aha, I thought, now I know what to do with that amazing, complicated, fuzzy, (and expensive!) fabric I saw downtown. The fabric already had umami and amplitude, I thought. I plunked down $30 for a yard of the stuff, and decided the best strategy would be to let the fabric do the bulk of the work for the piece. In riding, sometimes you need to get out the horse's way, and this was my hunch for this work.

Taking such a small task so seriously, and in such a multi-disciplinary way, seemed to work magic. When I wore the hat, people came out of the woodwork to talk to me about it. Strangers everywhere complimented it, asked to touch it, and wanted to try it on. They asked to buy one just like it. I took their names and ended up designing and sewing over two hundred more, making a bit of pocket money for the holidays, not to mention burning man.

Not only that, but the apparent high amplitude of the hats seemed verified by the fact that I received streams of unbidden stories back from buyers, about how strangers accosted them too, asking about the hat, wanting to touch it, wear it, buy it... from European ski slopes, to Washington DC, Japan and and Rio de Janiero, their stories were all the same: craziness over a bit of fluff.

But it was the idea itself that kept cycling through my mind, refreshing and inspiring me like a micro-portable insta-muse.

I normally work as a video editor and writer; I applied it to my online reel and got work. I applied it to my writing and helped improve the producer's video quality to a level that attracted much higher-bidding buyers, and moved tens of thousands of DVD's.

I applied it to choosing people, and became a more astute judge of character: potential employers, roommates, friends, and lovers - which among them had higher amplitude? And how could I improve mine?

And all without a guru.

I saw the principle nowhere else. I explained it to people, and they liked the idea, but that was taking a long time. Plus, I wanted to lay claim to its discovery, and maybe capitalize on it: doing well by doing good, as they say. (We can't all be Craigslist - I have to pay the bills!)

So as Mulholland might say, when he famously released water into Los Angeles, there it is, take it.

More on the concept as the blog evolves.

Have fun with it - and tell me how it works for you.