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Better Beginnings: how to start a presentation, book, article...


You are in a dimly lit room. You are alone on a stage before an audience of 1,000. 10 minutes into your presentation, your hands no longer shake or sweat. This is going well, you think. But just then you notice a vaguely familiar sound--tap, tap, clickety-clack--which in one horrifying moment you recognize--it's your audience. IMing, checking email, live blogging ("wifi sucks at this hotel and OMFG this is the most boring speaker ever")

What went wrong? How did you lose them in the first 10 minutes? How can you get their attention?

Nobody knows more about the importance of beginnings than novelists and screenwriters, but too often we think their advice doesn't apply to us. After all, we give technical presentations. Lectures. Sermons. We cover professional topics, not fiction. Not entertainment.

Oh really? Regardless of your topic, the only way they'll read or listen to it is if you get them hooked from the beginning. And like your mother always said, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." (Or as one writer put it, "You can't be in the room with the reader to say, 'trust me...it gets better.')

So, we took some tips on making a good beginning from those whose work depends on it.

1) Do NOT start at the beginning!

Advice for first-time novelists is often, "Take the first chapter and throw it away. Chances are, chapter 2 is where it just starts to get interesting, so start THERE." Start where the action begins! What happens if you remove the first 10 minutes of your presentations? What happens if you remove the first chapter? Or the first page, paragraph, whatever?

Yes, this means dropping the user straight in to the fray without all the necessary context, but if the start is compelling enough, they won't care, at least not yet. They'll stick with you long enough to let the context emerge, just in time, as the "story" goes along. One of my biggest mistakes in books and talks is overestimating the amount of context the listener/reader really needs in advance.

2) Show, Don't Tell

If you have to TELL your audience that they should care, you're screwed. The motivation for why they should care should be an inherent part of the story, scenarios, examples, graphics, etc.

3) For the love of god, DO NOT start with history!

If I read just ONE more book about the web that starts with a history of the internet, I will have to take hostages. Seriously. Do any of us really need to know about DARPA and CERN and...? Do most web designers and programmers really care? No, and No. And it's not just web design books that suffer from this worst-thing-to-put-in-chapter-one syndrome. WHY DO AUTHORS KEEP PUTTING THE HISTORICAL OVERVIEW AT THE BEGINNING OF THE BOOK?? If you feel driven or morally obligated to include the history of whatever, fine, but don't put it at the front. Stick it in an appendix or on a web page, where it'll do the least damage. (To be fair, there are plenty of topics where the history is interesting and useful, but rarely is the historical overview the grabby get-them-hooked thing you need up front.)

If you do have context that matters--including history (although I'd fight like a mother tiger to convince you it wasn't needed)--let it emerge during the talk or book, not before, when they're the least motivated to hear it. Think about all the things you've pursued where the history became interesting to you only AFTER you developed a strong interest in and knowledge of the subject.

4) DO NOT start with prereqs

Decide what is absolutely, positively, crucial and then... stick it in an appendix. If you write for an audience that you assume probably has those prereqs, then why ruin the first chapter for them? Why slow them down? Chances are, they won't just skip chapter 1 and start at chapter 2. Chances are, they'll just skip the whole book.

5) MYTH: you must establish credibility up front

How many talks do you see where the speaker has multiple bullet points and slides just on their background? I did it once because I thought it would help people understand the context of my talk, and it did NOT go over well because:

A) Nobody cares
B) Bullet points do not equal credibility
C) Nobody cares
D) You already HAVE credibility going in... you don't have to earn it, you just have to make sure you don't lose it.
E) Nobody cares

But I also see this in books, where it feels like the author is trying to prove to you how smart he is. A better approach might be to prove to the reader how smart HE is, by not dumbing it down. And by demonstrating to the reader/listener that he's capable of "getting" this really tough thing. I have no illusions about this--the reader/listener cares about himself waaaaaaay more than he cares about me.

Trying to establish credibility is backwards. Don't try to get the reader to respect YOU... the reader wants to know that you respect HIM!

Demonstrate that respect by caring about his time. By caring about the quality of time. Your audience should know right up front that you're grateful for the time they're giving you, and you show that by being entertaining, engaging, compelling, interesting, or at least useful. You demonstrate it by assuming they're smart. By recognizing what they already bring to the discussion. By not insulting their intelligence. By being prepared.

A few tricks of the novelists, screenwriters, and world's best teachers. Use one or more of the following to open with an impact:

Begin with a question. A question the listener wants to have answered

It doesn't have to be a literal question, just something they want to find out. In a good movie or novel, you find yourself thinking, "Who is this guy? Why is he in this situation? Will he get out of it? What's this secret thing they keep referring to?" Make them curious. Curiosity is seduction. I'm astonished by how often we suck the life out of technical topics, when they could be fascinating. Find the passion. If YOU don't care about the answer, why should they?

Be provocative

Challenge a belief. Even if they instantly disagree, they'll stick with it long enough to find out where you got that crazy idea. Start with your most dramatic and/or unpopular assertion.

Evoke empathy

Start with a story about real people, or about a fictional character they can identify with.

Do something surprising... VERY surprising

They'll want to stick around to see what strange thing you do next.

Start with something funny

Forget the advice to "open with a joke", unless you happen to be one of those rare funny people. But you don't have to start with a joke to get them laughing early. Sometimes a picture, story, or just a quote can get them to stick around because you entertained them... at least for a moment.

Promise there will be conflict

We would rarely read a novel or see a movie if not for the promise of conflict. Tension and suspense are compelling. How will this turn out? How will you ever scale that thing? How can you build this system in this ridiculous amount of time using only duct tape and a tin of Altoids?

Start with a dramatic key event or turning point

Mystery, suspense, intrigue

How many bad books and movies have you stuck with just because you had to find out who did it? Look at your topic and find a way to set up a little mystery. ANYTHING worth talking or writing about has potential for mystery (which leads to curiosity).

Deliver an emotional experience

Your job is to touch their emotions in some way. Not a "I laughed I cried I was moved" thing, but remember: people pay attention to that which they feel. Look at your first set of slides and your first few pages and ask yourself, "what feeling does this evoke?" Raise your hand if you've been to way too many talks and read way too many books where nobody asked that question.

"Always grab the reader by the throat in the first paragraph, send your thumbs into his windpipe in the second, and hold him against the wall until the tagline." -- Paul O'Neil

That's the goal, but only the truly talented can actually do that. Me? I'll settle for getting the reader to give me just one more moment. Then another. Then another. And I value deeply (and feel lucky for) each moment y'all are willing to give me.

Posted by Kathy on October 22, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (58) | TrackBack

Dilbert and the zone of mediocrity


How brave are you? How far will you (or your employer) go to avoid the Zone of Mediocrity? Until or unless you're willing to risk passionate hate, you may never feel the love. Scott Adams agrees. In a recent post on the Dilbert blog, he said, "If everyone exposed to a product likes it, the product will not succeed... The reason that a product “everyone likes” will fail is because no one “loves” it. The only thing that predicts success is passion, even if only 10% of the consumers have it."

This is NOT about being remarkable-- it's about being loveable. And that almost always means being hated as well. Our Head First Java book, for example, has 139 Amazon reviews, and most are either five stars ("love it, best technical book ever, I learned a lot") or one star ("hated it, worst technical book ever, authors should be shot.") But crafting a book that people would either love or hate was not our intention. We set out to make a more brain-friendly learning book format, and we were just clueless and naive enough to not realize how many implicit "rules" we were violating. It wasn't until O'Reilly editors started a mini revolt against it that we knew we'd crossed a Line That Shall Not Be Crossed and created something potentially embarrasing.

Today, it is often far more risky to create something "safe" than to take a big frickin' chance on something deeply provocative, dangerously innovative, or just plain weird.

Think about all the things you love today that once seemed very, very weird. Things that someone took a huge frickin' chance on.

Today, the more you try to prevent failure, the more likely you are to fail.

That wasn't always true, but geez... how many more [whatevers] do we need today? There are way too many of all the things we already have and not enough introductions of things we don't have. We all know the reasons why companies play it safe, and why employees are often forced to play it safe, but this me-tooism isn't helping anyone.

What does it take to move out of the Zone of Mediocrity?

Normally at this point I'd talk about the usual things everyone talks about... how to come up with breakthrough ideas, where to look for opportunities, being innovative, blah blah blah. You know all that. I think it really comes down to this:

To avoid the Zone of Mediocrity, you must suspend disbelief.

You must be willing and able to turn off (temporarily) The Voice inside that says, "We'll never get away with this. People will hate it." That doesn't necessarily mean The Voice is wrong, but until you can shut if off, you're virtually guaranteed to stay with safer, incremental ideas. But remember--"safer" really isn't safer anymore, unless you're looking only to avoid criticism. Safe will keep you safely out of the spotlight. If that's what you want (and sometimes that's the best approach), then fine. But if not...

(side note: this is somewhat like The Inner Game approach or Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain or any of the other approaches to creativity that get your logical "talking" mind out of the way so all the more useful but non-speaking parts of your brain can get on with the important things you're trying to accomplish.)

And it's not just suspending disbelief about what users (or critics) will say... you must also suspend disbelief about what your company will let you do. I first experienced this at Sun, where it was almost impossible to creatively brainstorm about ways to improve things without someone jumping in with, "Yeah, but they'd never let us do that." End of discussion. End of chance to do something amazing. Every time I do an internal workshop, the partipants are far more negative than when some of those same people are in a public version of my passionate users workshop. By taking them outside their company and having them brainstorm or work on fictional or other people's projects, their minds are free to move about. I've nearly quit doing in-house workshops because the "they'll never let us do that" syndrome is so strong.

You can't help users kick ass until your employer lets YOU kick ass. Easy for the unemployed ME to say ; )

(Thanks to Karl Nieberding, Kyle Maxwell, and John Radke for telling me about the Dilbert post!)

And one more follow-up note: I heard from the guy who designed the Airstream 75th Anniversary Trailer (wow -- if ONLY I could afford that one, it would have been my first choice). His studio builds custom and restored vintage trailers, and even if you don't want one now, you should still check out his Vintage Trailering site just to see his work. There's nothing mediocre here!

Posted by Kathy on October 18, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack

How to make something amazing, right now


What if you needed to build a powerful web app, but you had only ten hours a week for programming? What if you wanted to write a novel, but you had to do it in 30 days? What if you wanted to create a computer game, but you had only 48 hours? What if you had to write, shoot, and edit a short film in 24 hours? Constraints can be your enemy, but when it comes to creative breakthroughs, they can be your best friend.

Shakespeare wrote sonnets in iambic pentameter. "Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May"

Some of the cleverest computer-themed poems are haikus:

The code was willing,
It considered your request,
But the chips were weak.

The Web site you seek
cannot be located but
endless others exist

Serious error.
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen. Mind. Both are blank.

(Sorry, I don't know the names of the haiku authors)

37Signals built their popular Basecamp app under extreme constraints, and a wildly successful framework, Ruby on Rails, was born in the process.

Big ass budgets and tons of time don't necessarily produce better products. Some of the most addictive games, for example, are extremely-constrained programs like Tetris. Contrast that with a full-motion video, 3D realtime graphics, surround sound console game. Yes, they're apples and oranges, but Tetris and some of other "old-school" (which meant old tech) games are often more fun than the movie-studio-budget games from the big companies. My secret hope is that developing games for mobile phones will put a huge constraint on developers--just like the old days--and bring back some of the creativity it took to make something fun without relying on all that media and processing power.

This blog and many others have talked about constraint-driven creativity a lot, but I wanted to emphasize again that it's not just about inspiring (or forcing) creativity, it's also about getting something done. How many of us keep planning to get around to writing that book... once we've got some free time? How many projects stay on the back burner forever because we just can't seem to make it happen? The creativity-on-speed format can change that, especially if you have support from a group of people doing the same thing.

I won't go into details about the ones I've mentioned before including:
Ad-lib Game Development Society
Laptop Deathmatch
Installation Art Battle
Comic Art Battle
Music and Video Art Invitational

But if you want to write that novel (or just have some fun and see if you can do it), warm up your keyboard because next month (November, 2006) is Write a Novel In a Month time, and the official website (National Novel Writing Month, or nanowrimo) defines the pure beauty (and genius) of an absurd deadline:

"Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down."

There's even a book to help: No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days (yes, that's actually the title) by Chris Baty. And you'll find plenty of support groups from the official website or searching for blogs talking about nanowrimo.

And if you find yourself in Boulder Colorado next week, don't miss The Shootout Boulder, a 24-hour film festival. No, not 24 hours of watching films; 24 hours in which to make a film. The finished movies, in fact, are shown the next day. The event is open to anyone--pro filmmakers shooting it out along with students, families, anyone with a camera and caffeine.

One of the best parts is how they prevent people from pre-shooting their footage--you don't know until just before the clock starts ticking what you must include somewhere in your film. At the last moment, participants get a list of 11 items within a 10-minute walk from where the event begins, and they must include five of them. And one of the five must appear within the first 30 seconds of the movie!

I'll leave you with a few quotes from others who've talked about this:

David HH on Ruby on Rails (born from the constraints on building Basecamp):
"We simply couldn’t go with the mainstream toolset and deliver under those constraints. So we were forced to try different ways, to slaughter the holy cows, to route around that which either takes too long or really didn’t matter in the end."

And from a constraint-driven cooking perspective, the Tastingmenu blog has this to say:
"Unlimited freedom in fact negates creativity and creates laziness. The lack of  rules or constraints make it easy to be random... So why is it that the first thing many chefs do when they get their own restaurant is take a meandering and undisciplined tour of every favorite dish, ingredient, and technique they'v ever encountered? Freedom often kills focus."

And from Marissa Ann Mayer's BusinessWeek article Creativity Loves Constraints:
"Constraints shape and focus problems and provide clear challenges to overcome. Creativity thrives best when constrained."

But... she also cautions with too many constraints, you might just say it's impossible and give up. Her advice:

"But constraints must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. Too many curbs can lead to pessimism and despair. Disregarding the bounds of what we know or accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible is fueled by passion and leads to revolutionary change."

I encourage everyone to take on some kind of constraint challenge... just for the fun or to experience the feeling of finishing something (without worrying about that pesky quality thing). The Ad-lib Game Development Society's motto (borrowed from the movie Glengarry Glen Ross)
Always Be Closing

So, if you could get out of your own way by being forced to do something fast, what would it be? Write a game? Short film? Book? Anyone considering (or have experience with) nanowrimo?

Posted by Kathy on October 15, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (40) | TrackBack

Reducing fear is the killer app


The high-pitched screech of the drill. The sickly smell of antiseptic and fear. The long nervous wait for the attendant to call your name and take you... back there. We assume that people are afraid of the dentist, but we don't usually think of software as scary. Maybe we should rethink that. Our users might be more afraid of us and our products than we think. And those who can reduce or eliminate that fear have a huge advantage. Not to mention a passionately loyal following.

Something extraordinary happened to me yesterday, but before I tell that story I want you to look at these pictures:

One, a drab but typical medical office. The other, a warm, inviting, spa-like environment. The spa-like place is actually my dentist's office. And I would drive 100 miles to go there, because the people there work their a** off to reduce my fear. And the pictures don't do it justice because you're missing the smell (freshly ground coffee beans and warm cookies) and the sounds (jazz, not drills).

Here's another picture, of the Boulder Community Foothills Hospital, the first hospital in the US to earn the LEED certification for being "green."


It doesn't look like a hospital. It doesn't feel like a hospital. And it doesn't smell like a hospital. I'm not sure how they do it, but no matter when you go, it smells like fresh popped popcorn. Think about that... almost nobody has a bad association with the smell of popcorn. I instantly think movies and theme parks. (And the live piano music reminds me of shopping in Nordstrom's.)

In a medical scenario, reducing fear means a lot. But think about all the ways our users (or potential users) might be afraid. Not in mortal terror, but afraid nonetheless. The fear of not being smart enough to learn a new product, programming language, or procedure. The fear of being taken advantage of by an unscrupulous company and/or sales person. The fear of making the wrong purchasing decision. The fear of looking stupid or slow in front of our co-workers.

I've often said that reducing guilt is the killer app, but now I'd put reducing fear way up there too. He who reduces fear better than the competition can, potentially, stop competing on price, convenience, or just about anything else. Reduce my fear, and I'll be grateful forever.

So here's my story:

Y'all have probably seen a lot of pink lately, inspired by the fight against breast cancer. Yesterday, I went to the Boulder Foothills Hospital (in the picture) where I was scheduled for a mammogram. I was terrified. I'm not exaggerating. As many of you know, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age, younger than I am now. She did not survive. The most tragic part was that she probably would have, if it had been detected earlier. But she was too afraid to have the exam... afraid of hearing the results she ultimately got.

Cancer has been on my mind a lot this year. Less than a year ago both myself and my daughter were diagnosed with a form of cancer that had not yet become invasive, but that could have killed both of us had we not been tested.

But worst of all, I have--quite irrationally--not had a mammogram in 10 years. A monumentally stupid choice, given that I'm at very high risk for breast cancer. But... I am more terrified of that test than anything I've ever done, and I've spent the last few years convinced that it was already too late. Thinking about it sends me straight to the childhood moment when I learned the results of my mother's mammogram (and the awful period that followed). It was selfish of me, as a mother myself, to not do everything I can to stay healthy and alive, but fear does bizarre, irrational things to the brain. Finally, though, all the pink-awareness and a visit to this extraordinary hospital convinced me.

When I arrived, I told the technician my story, and literally begged her to rush the results. "7-10 days is how long it takes for the doctor to review it and get the results to your doctor," she said. "There's nothing I can do to speed that up." I could barely breathe or walk, but I managed to get through the exam. But now the worst part begins... The Wait. The first wait is for the ten minutes it takes for the tech to review the film to make sure the pictures aren't too dark, light, or blurred. Once they've checked the film, they either walk you back to repeat the test, or send you home to start The Wait. So there I sat, waiting for the tech.

Five minutes passed. Ten minutes. 20 minutes I sat in that little room. Finally she walked in and said, "The film is fine, you're free to go." And then something happened that I'll remember for the rest of my life. She sat down next to me and said, "Oh, so how would you like to enjoy your weekend?" I was confused. "I convinced the doctor to break protocol. He said everything's perfect and we'll see you in a year." We both cried.


Reducing fear doesn't have to be about life or death or pain to be meaningful and powerful. If you can help your users feel more confident and less stressed, you've given them a wonderful gift. Whether it's a policy change, better documentation and support, or more user-friendly design, anything you do to genuinely reduce my fear improves my life. Why not ask customers about their needs before you agree to sell them something? (And be willing to "downsell" rather than trying to convince them to buy something more expensive than they need.) Why not keep Consumer Report magazines in your dealership, or give potential customers a quote from your competitors, even if it means you lose that sale? Why not work harder to make sure new users (or students) realize that they really ARE going to be able to "get" this, and that you'll be there every step of the way?

Reduce my fear and I'll love you forever. : )

Posted by Kathy on October 14, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (37) | TrackBack

The book I wish people would read...

October is National Book Month, and I know want to know the book that you wish people would read. It doesn't have to be your favorite book, or what you think is the best book... just one you've found yourself wishing more people would read. The rules for this open post:

* One non-fiction and one fiction book
* If that's too tough, you can have one runner-up in each category
* A sentence or two (no more than three) about WHY you wish people would read it
* There will be no judgements about the reasons you give. It's just as valid to say, "Because it'll make people laugh" as it is to say, "Because it might help make the world a better place."
* At the bottom of your comment, you can give a +1 vote on anyone's previously suggested book that you want to say, "I agree" or a -1 to a book you don't like. (Just say the name of the title the other commenter listed followed by +1 or -1. No commentary ; )

I'll go first...


The Fifth Discipline
I DO think the world would be a better place if more people understood/appreciated systems thinking. Don't be fooled into thinking this book is only for business... anyone who wants a better grasp of systems thinking can start here.

Runner up:
Amusing Ourselves to Death
I've probably done enough lecturing here on why I wish people would kill their television. Imagine a world where people (at least in the US) did not get ANY of their news from television, and where kids weren't exposed to television ads. (Cancelling cable and getting shows only from iTunes or DVD will change a life)

A wonderful Neil Gaiman book about following your own heart regardless of what everyone else (society, family, etc.) expects and wants you to do. In some ways, this is a much tamer, less edgier version of Gaimans first "regular" novel (and one of my very favorites), Neverhwere

Your turn!

Posted by Kathy on October 8, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (162) | TrackBack

Knocking the exuberance out of employees


In an earlier post I said, "If you asked the head of a company which employee they'd prefer: the perfect team player who doesn't rock the boat or the one who is brave enough to stand up and fight for something rather than accept the watered-down group think that maintains the status quo (or makes things worse), who would they SAY they'd choose? Who would they REALLY choose?

In his book Re-imagine", Tom Peters says, "We will win this battle... and the larger war... only when our talent pool is both deep and broad. Only when our organizations are chock-a-block with obstreperous people who are determined to bend the rules at every turn..."

So yes, I'm thinking Mr. CEO of Very Large Company would say that their company should take the upstart whatever-it-takes person over the ever-compromising team player. "If that person shakes us up, gets us to rethink, creates a little tension, well that's a Good Thing", the CEO says. riiiiiiiiiight. While I believe most CEOs do think this way, wow, that attitude reverses itself quite dramatically the futher you reach down the org chart. There's a canyon-sized gap between what company heads say they want (brave, bold, innovative) and what their own middle management seems to prefer (yes-men, worker bees, team players). "

I'm not done with my horse-training-as-universal-metaphor phase, so here's another thing I learned from the Parelli Natural Horsemanship conference:

"Too many people fall into the my robot is better than your robot trap... and knock the exuberance out of their horse. What you're left with is a well-trained robot, not a curious, playful, mentally and emotionally balanced living creature."

"Hmmmm", I thought, "that sounds an awful lot like some of the companies I've worked for." Not that you'd ever in a million years get them to admit that. Possibly not even to themselves. But the proof is in their practices. Of course some argue that exuberance on the job is not necessarily a good thing. That too much passion leads to problems. I say BS on that one. Real passion means you love the profession, the craft, the domain you're in. And that may or may not happen to coincide with a passion for your current employer. When some folks talk about too much passion for a job, they're usually referring to something a little less healthy... the thing that lets your employer take advantage of you, having you work round the clock because of their bad scheduling, or because they refuse to say "no" to clients, or because you have a manager that wants to look good to his manager... and you're the lucky one chosen to be the "hero."

If you knock out exuberance, you knock out curiosity, and curiosity is the single most important attribute in a world that requires continuous learning and unlearning just to keep up. If we knock out their exuberance, we've also killed their desire to learn, grow, adapt, innovate, and care. So why do we do it?

Why Robots Are the Best Employees

1) They don't challenge the status quo

2) They don't ask those uncomfortable questions

3) They're 100% obedient

4) They don't need "personal" days.

5)... because they don't have a personal life

6) They never make the boss look bad (e.g. stupid, incompetent, clueless, etc.)

7) They dress and talk the way you want them to

8) They have no strongly-held opinions

9) They have no passion, so they have nothing to "fight" for

10) They are always willing to do whatever it takes (insane hours, etc.)

11) They are the ultimate team players

12) They don't complain when you micromanage (tip: micromanaging is in fact one of the best ways to create a robot)

13) They don't care what their workspace is like, and don't complain if they don't have the equipment they need

14) They'll never threaten your job

15) They make perfect scapegoats

16) They get on well with zombies

And while I'm here... parents do this as well. Admit it. We have all wished that our children (for whom we worked so hard to instill a fierce independence) would be strong-willed, exuberant, questioning--everywhere but at home. I've never really wanted Skyler to be a robot, but oh how I've wished for a robot mode... ; )

Posted by Kathy on October 6, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

More cool workspaces...


My humble little vintage trailer office just showed up in a list of WAY more creative and inspiring work places. Check out this amazing article on seeeeeeriously cool workplaces. (Note: if that link is not loading, try this mirror version).

And I guess one man's (trailer) trash is another man's SoHo loft... in the current issue of Fast Company, designer Steve McCallion names the 2007 Airstream 75th Anniversary 19' trailer as one of his favorite things.
"It's like a SoHo loft, but mobile. Park this on the beach, catch a fish a day, and you're set."
(I recommend you pick up the print version of this issue if you can)

Since people have been asking for more info about the trailer/office idea, here are some suggestions and thoughts:

1) If you can afford it, consider a new (or slightly used) Airstream CCD (these are the Christopher Deam-designed interiors--the small one is in the picture at the top of this post). They are priiiiicey -- $40,000 US for a new one (or more), but they last forever (fabulous engineering), and the financing is more like a house (15 or 20 year loans) than a vehicle, so the payments can be very reasonable. The CCDs haven't been out too long, but you can occasionally find one that's a couple of years old for a lower price.

2) Regardless of whether you want a new, used, or vintage... go to an Airstream dealer and spend time in one to get a feel for sizes. Note that the newer ones have a more squared design than the more tube-shaped design of the older ones, so the new ones will feel a little wider inside.

3) Vintage Airstreams (including Silver Streaks, like mine) can be purchased quite cheaply--I've seen them as low as $3000, but that's for one that has not been restored.

4) Decide whether you want one that is road/travel-worthy. I want to be able to live in mine, at least for a while, if I decide to work from, say, the Alaskan highway : )

If you don't need the trailer for anything besides an office, than you don't have to restore things like plumbing, etc. (obviously the electrical system will matter).

5) If you buy a vintage trailer (and they're fairly easy to find in the US--and there are some WONDERFUL ones in New Zealand (not Airstream, but very very cool)), you have several options:

* Buy an old one, for cheap, and restore it yourself.
This could take months or even years, depending on the amount of time you spend.

* Buy an old one and have a restoration company restore it for you.
(Coincidentally, one of the best is here in Colorado where I am Timeless Travel Trailers.)
This usually takes about 3 months, and then you get exactly what you want. I would have done this if I hadn't been in a hurry to have my "office". The price of buying an old one and having it restored is usually considerably less than buying a new one, even though the restored trailer can end up virtually as good as a brand new one. (often, the restoration companies will have several old ones for sale, so you don't always have to find the trailer yourself).

* Buy a vintage trailer that has already been restored.
These are VERY hard to find, because the people who have restored them (or paid to have one restored) want them to keep. And very few restoration companies do this on spec, since they figure it's better if you get to pick out exactly what you want.

Be careful about ones advertised as "fully restored", because way too many people just "upgraded" them with hideous 70's or 80's furniture. NOT COOL. The vintage trailer restorers refer to that as "molesting the trailer." A true vintage restoration either keeps the original interior, or replaces things with pieces that reflect the retro period.

One advantage to restoring it yourself or having one restored to your specification is that you can have it customized to work more as an office. I wanted mine to still be a real travel trailer which could still work as an office, but some are made JUST as offices (although they are still mobile). I've seen film companies that make mobile editing suites, a micro-brewery that has turned an Airstream into a full bar that they take to festivals, etc., and several artists studio/galleries.

6) Length matters a LOT if it's going to be mobile... there are definite points where you have to move up to a bigger/stronger tow vehicle. Mine (23 feet) could be pulled with an average SUV or medium pick-up truck or van, but once you get into the longer lengths, you need a more substantial towing capacity. Also, the really long ones have fewer options for places you can take them. Many camping sites have length restrictions.

7) If you're in a snowy, cold area -- they can be fully winterized. A lot of people spend the winter at a ski resort living in a trailer.

8) One of the best places to find out information about Airstreams (vintage and new) is the Airstream forums site. These are some SERIOUSLY helpful people... a great community. Also, one of the things I did was attend a couple of vintage trailer "rallys" where people gather with their trailers in some camping location. These folks will do just about anything to help you get into it... as passionate users, they're powerful evangelists : )

Posted by Kathy on October 5, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

"Oops... we forgot about the users."

If I attend one more tech company meeting where NOBODY talks about the users/customers (or at least not a positive one), I'm throwing myself out the window of this trailer. Think long and hard right now about some of the company meetings you've attended where the entire effen meeting is about everything but what's good for the users. We talk about deliverables and budgets and TPS reports and why we all need to help keep the refridgerator clean and how "upper management" has a new policy and why filling out those timesheets really helps the company and how we didn't make our numbers last quarter and how somebody is taking more than their share on Bagel Morning Wednesdays and, oh yeah, don't forget the team-building workshop next Tuesday.

Gag me with a motivational poster.

Until talking about the users/customers/members/clients becomes the most important thing, we're going nowhere good. And no matter how many companies pay it lip service, the meetings tell the real story. It's staggering how many meetings I've been to where nobody is advocating for the users. Nobody. Yet everybody is advocating for ways to do what "upper management" wants or ways to save money or ways to... you know, many of you probably work in the companies I'm thinking of.

That doesn't mean that most of you don't think and care about the customer, it's just that you don't always get the opportunity to talk about it. It's hard being the first one to stand up in a meeting and say, "Um, excuse me, but we just made a decision that hurts the customers a lot, and... EVERYONE'S OK WITH THAT?" And who wants to be the one who stands up and asks, "And this helps the customers... how?" or the one who says, "Do you think we could all take a look at the customer feedback reports?" or the one who says, "Has anyone actually TALKED to a real user lately?"

Caring what the users think is something that just about any company claims to do, but even when they say it, what they really mean is, "Of COURSE we care what the customers think of us" when they should care about what the customer thinks of himself in relation to the product. It's the biggest companies that usually are the worst, since there are so many layers upon layers of mid-to-upper managers who are so far removed from the real users that they've got a distorted, naive, unrealistic, or just plain wrong idea of who their users are and what their users need and want.

But I hear it outside the big companies as well. It's the author who is writing the book to help his resume or gain visibility, so he focuses on what readers will think... of the author. It's the blogger who complains about not having the readers they deserve, but not once acknowledges that what the readers actually value (and decide is worth their time to look at) is what matters (assuming more readers is the goal--for most bloggers, it isn't). We make excuses. We blame everyone and everything but ourselves when it's so often not about the things we point to (ad budget is too small, marketing sucks, not enough funding, the A-list won't link to us, we're the wrong gender/race/age, etc.), but rather the simple fact that we just don't have enough respect for the people who are our users/readers/customers/members...

So, to help reinforce the message, I've made a couple of take-offs on the Buzzword/BS Bingo game (here's a marketing bingo card), where you go to a meeting and check off each BS/buzzword as it comes up. But since that's only reinforcing what's wrong with many of these meetings, I thought I'd make one that reinforces what's right... talking about the users. In this game, you check off a box when someone says something loosely related.

Better yet, randomly pick one of the boxes on the card and just say it, every 5 minutes ; )



And here's another bingo game, although like Buzzword Bingo, it is focused on what's wrong (but I still like it). It's a card that brings up a variety of ways we deflect responsibility for a product-that-does-not-respect-the-users by blaming everything but the fact that we just didn't take the users seriously enough. That we just didn't value their time, money, energy enough. There are, of course, scenarios in which things on the blame card are valid, and not simply excuses, but you can usually tell when someone (or some company) is either in denial or looking for a scapegoat.

Blame Bingo


Whoa... guess I have a little 'tude about this, but it's frustrating trying to help companies who want passionate users when their culture keeps users as a low-priority background thread. But things are changing quickly--the days of "he who has the biggest marketing campaign wins" are just about over, and it's shifting to "he who cares enough to deliver what users really want wins." And that means the little one-person-start-up might have just as much chance to win customer hearts as the Big Guys.

Posted by Kathy on October 3, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack

Aerons and Air Hockey... dot com excess or essential tools?

The Aeron chair. Air hockey. Espresso machines. Hip, urban design with a touch of MOMA. In the pre-bubble dot coms, aesthetics mattered. Having a fun workspace mattered. Having the best toys (including workstations, ginormous monitors, etc.) mattered. But when the dot coms went south they took the chairs and the toys and the stimulating workspace with them. We want them back. We need them back. You can keep the lame (and by "lame" I mean "WTF were they thinking?") business models, thank-you, but bring back our Aerons!

The thing is, we all expect and understand why designers have--and need--creative work spaces, yet we somehow think programmers (or just about any other role that's not considered one of the "creatives") don't. We act as if programmers don't care about their environment. But you don't need to know an Eames from an Eero to appreciate the impact your environment has on your energy, creativity, productivity, and happiness.

Way before the dot com days, I spent several years in Los Angeles working at design/creative shops, often as the sole programmer in a sea of artists. The first thing I noticed when I started working at these places was how good it felt to be in a place where the aesthetics were taken very seriously. Lighting, walls, materials, colors, floors, layouts, offices-with-doors (you can't be creative without some alone time!). I swear I wrote better code in those environments.

Then I started working at game companies, where it was expected that everyone's workspace would be knee-deep in toys--light sabers, life-size Capt. Kirk standees, Lego masterpieces, vintage robots and other sci-fi kitsch, and of course--Nerf weapons. Once I learned to duck at the right moment, I swear I wrote better code in those environments.

Then I went to work at Sun. Not the engineering part, in California, but the huge new Colorado campus. And while you were certainly free to dress up your cube any way you liked, and the coffee was pretty good, this was NOT the Sun that I'd heard about. No weird MIT-style pranks where someone's car is reassembled in their office over lunch. No, it was more like Office Space out here. Not that it wasn't light years better than a lot of--or most--tech companies, but the Colorado campus just didn't have the geek/festive mojo I'd expected.

But then it got worse... I started working from home. It took me a long time to realize that it wasn't so much the other people that were missing, it was the stimulating work environment. I tried coffee shops and considered shared office spaces where other self-employed or work-from-home people can have some of the benefits of an office, but I actually prefer to work alone. It's not the people I miss... it's being in an environment that makes me feel creative and energetic. I want a space that matches my enthusiasm.

All that changed when I learned that Dori Smith had rented a 1957 Airstream office. I'd lusted after Airstreams for years, and when I went to visit her, I knew it was exactly what I'd been looking for.

Finally, after two years of looking (and saving), I found and bought a vintage 1966 (recently restored) 23-foot Silver Streak trailer. (Silver Streak is a "fork" of the original Airstream.) This is my new baby, with my dog Clover in the doorway:


And it's perfect. It's parked exactly two feet away from the side of the house (a house I share with my horse trainer and his wife), and the wifi from the house works beautifully. I haven't felt this good working in years. During my search I found a variety of people who use vintage trailers as their work studios, all equally thrilled. But I also discovered an incredibly passionate vintage travel-trailer community, especially over on Tincantourists.

I don't have an Aeron, but I do get to work at a retro dinette with the original formica ; )

Don't underestimate the importance of your work environment, and don't be quick to consider things like Aerons and office aesthetics and toys wasteful. It's just the opposite. Apparently Joel Spolsky agrees.

A few other relevant links on the importance of a playful environment:

Nial Kennedy on incentives.

Joel's Field Guide To Developers

Metropolis article

37signals on the importance of not being interrupted (I'll say more on the danger of distractions--and the need for plenty of 'alone time'-- in another post)

And my earlier post on the science of how dull environments hurt your brain.

Don't for a moment think that the aesthetics and stimulation of your work environment don't matter! So, what have been some of your most stimulating work environments? And if you work from home, what are you doing to make it inspirational?

And here are a few more pictures of my new office than you really want to see:







Posted by Kathy on October 2, 2006 | Permalink | Comments (41) | TrackBack