Capitalism – A Love Story and the Business of Life

With our collective public attention focused on the ongoing economic meltdown, it’s worth examining whether the reasons for this situation are the result of relatively short-term regulatory failure or more deeply embedded structures and institutions society has built over time. In that vein, Capitalism – A Love Story is Michael Moore’s latest effort to inspire large-scale political change.

In his signature style, evidence and reason take a back seat to copious gotcha scenes and stunts. The evidence to back up Moore’s case is there, but it’s obfuscated by his own film-making and, like usual, doesn’t tell the whole story. The film attacks President Bush, but ends without a much-needed analysis of how things have changed during the Obama presidency.

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Two Screens: T Magazine and Crucial Technologies

I take screenshots of good and bad user experiences all the time, so I’m trying out this new format for some posts. Every time I have two screenshots, I’ll post them. They don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, though a theme might be fun in a future post.

T Magazine
This is an all-Flash interface where one doesn’t seem to be needed. The result is choppiness, “loading” screens, and a loss in general readability.
T Magazine

Crucial Memory
I used to be a big fan of Crucial, but recently they’ve fallen down in two respects. One, their memory adviser tools told me to order the wrong memory for my Macbook. That’s the bigger problem, obviously. The smaller one is below, where all links on the page are split into US, UK, EU, and Asia – including the customer login.
crucial.png

User Experience and Building Trust: Amazon vs. Zappos

Great user experience is all about establishing trust, then continually strengthening it. In Susan’s case, Amazon broke her trust (literally):

I quickly found what I wanted and ordered with “one click”. Two days
later they arrive — each broken into little pieces.  Next I go online
to let them know and get a refund. You can’t talk to anyone when you
have a problem at Amazon, and the refund process is NOT easy. I have to
find the right form online (took several tries). I have to fill out the
form correctly (several more tries). I have to print labels (they want
the broken dishes back). I have to send the dishes back separately. One
has to go back via UPS and the other through the US mail (why is
this?!?).

This highlights the difference between the Amazon model and the Zappos model (even though they’re now technically one company): the former focuses on getting you the right product quickly, the latter focuses on building an extraordinarily satisfying experience with you.

And the difference is massive. Amazon is effectively the Wal-Mart of the web; it’s probably the cheapest place to find stuff, and they’re good at distribution. But their advantage is derived from scale, not service. Zappos is focused on building each customer’s lifetime value (LTV) through exceptional service; their advantage is from repeat transactions and customer evangelism.

Keeping the Trains Running. Or, How I Manage This Business

So today is my one month anniversary of becoming a full-time independent business owner! I’m loving every second of it and I’m constantly inspired by the supportiveness of my friends, family, and the NY small business community. Beyond my immediate circle, I’ve been so impressed with the quality of the tools available to entrepreneurs. Starting a business 10 years ago and starting one today are completely different prospects.

Here are some of the great tools I use to keep the trains running on time for me and my clients:

Freshbooks helps me balance the books at this place. I do a variety of work (user experience consulting, writing, etc), so having one place for all my business financial activity is incredibly important. I do all of my invoicing, expense reporting, etc. from Freshbooks. I can’t recommend them enough.

Mint is where I manage my personal finances. I’m a little worried now that Intuit bought them (not a fan of Intuit’s user experiences usually), but for now, Mint helps me budget and stay balanced each month.

Movable Type runs all of my websites. I know I’m in some sort of minority here because WordPress is a huge favorite among independent bloggers, but I find Movable Type’s templating system to be very elegant and usable. I’ve tried the competition, but the ease of modifying and customizing MT is unmatched.

Seesmic is my social media control panel. I used to use Tweetie, which I still recommend if you’re a casual Twitter user. But if you need something more robust, Seesmic is a great client that lets you post multiple accounts, access and comment on Facebook posts, and way more. It’s really the best social media dashboard I’ve found.

LaLa keeps me energized with great music mixes. It’s free to listen to a song once, and after that you pay 10 cents to add the song to your collection if you like it. You can also get MP3s, but who needs them? The cloud makes great mixes. Greg S. of Hapnin turned me on to this.

Java Girl Coffee is around the corner from my house, and she’s a much needed break during the day. Great blends and a fun (if sometimes lovably gruff) crew working behind the counter. Plus some simple but nice chairs outside on the shady side of quiet 66th St. 

The NYC Parks Department might be an odd choice, but I really take advantage of the City’s parks. I run on their East River path a few times a week and I’m just a few blocks from Central Park. Not every city has such great, accessible parks. New York rocks.  

Is The Kindle a Failure?

Kevin Maney’s analysis in the Atlantic points to yes:

A year ago–six months after the Kindle hit the market–I talked with Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, for a book I was writing. He told me sales of the Kindle were sizzling. But that’s not quite the
case if you really look at numbers
. While Amazon did sell out of
Kindles in 2008, it hadn’t actually made that many of them. In fact,
according to the market research firm In-Stat, the entire e-reader
market consisted of just 1 million units in all of 2008, and Amazon
nabbed only a slice of it. By contrast, Microsoft sold about 1 million Zune music players from mid-2007 to mid-2008, though the product was widely considered to be a failure.

It’s an interesting point of view, but one I don’t think should guide the discussion into what’s next for print. First, the comparison of the Kindle to the Zune isn’t a good one – the Zune launched in a very mature product sector with a clear market winner, the Kindle is attempting to effectively create a new market by fundamentally changing the dynamics of reading and publishing.

A better comparison would be between the Kindle and an old RCA Lyra MP3 player. RCA was out of the gate before the iPod and never had a blockbuster success, but helped define the market itself by recognizing the need for digital audio players. That’s where Amazon is at, though I’ll bet they stick with it longer.

Maney’s main point, though, is that the Kindle attempts to create superior experience and convenience, but in the process succeeds at neither. And this is true – the Kindle is not the last (or for most people, even the first) e-reader you’ll ever own. But the idea that sparked the Kindle remains true: paper is a medium ill-equipped for the requirements of information flow in the 21st century.

Personally, I like to hold a book in my hand, and the Kindle’s product team recognizes that the physicality of books is part of their value.

Bezos and his core team devoted months, beginning in 2004, to analyzing
the appeal of the book and to understanding why books have dominated
the delivery of long-form narratives, stories, and information for 550
years. “We even got into how books smell,” Bezos told me. “We did
research, and found that the smell is mostly glue – glue and maybe
mildew. We joked that maybe we should have a spritzer on the [Kindle]
that would send out that smell.” All in all, Bezos said, the team found
that trying to improve on the book “was one of the most absurd
challenges.”

But what’s not being talked about is something I see as obvious: the Kindle *is* an ideal replacement for newspapers and magazines. The generation of people who rarely pick up a physical paper rarely cite cost as their reason – they talk about inconvenience, lack of time, etc. For this, the Kindle is an ideal replacement. The day’s (or hour’s) news and opinion pre-loaded into your e-reader effortlessly. What could be more convenient and elegant?

Despite its flaws, the Kindle has solved some key technological and market challenges, teaching lessons for the next (and presumably better) generation of e-readers. Wireless, seamless delivery is one of the biggest. That should be driving sales of newspapers, weeklies, and magazines. From there, the market will only grow.

Update: Check out Paul Graham’s Post-Medium Publishing, the best essay I’ve read related to this.

Don’t Show Your Users Your Backside

I recently signed up for a library card. It’s a really easy process with NY Public Library – you just sign on the website, fill out a short form, and they send you your new card. But along the way, they show you their backside.

What do I mean? As you type in your name, the NYPL system automagically capitalizes every letter you type. Presumably this isn’t for the user’s benefit, but for their backend systems. This is the type of tiny detail that makes a difference. If you need to convert data like that, do it when the user won’t see it. It’s the polite thing to do, right?

New York Public Library

Beating All Odds: Living 101 Years, 81 Married

The statistics on this are *amazing*. (via New York)

But in dwelling on their 81-year marriage, the papers were obscuring
the other–and far more remarkable–statistical fact: That a man born in
1908 lived to be over 101, and that the woman he asked to be his wife
did the same. According to British census figures, his life expectancy
was 49; hers was 53…

The chance of a man born in 1910 surviving
to 101 years old is .133 percent, and the chance of a woman doing the
same is .801 percent. If you multiply these two figures, you get the
probability of a marriage between two such people: roughly
one-thousandth of a percent (.00106533, to be precise)
.

Firefox Update Screen Gets Useful

I was pleasantly surprised yesterday when I updated Firefox and saw this screen after the requisite restart. Like most, I’m used to the “you’re now updated” screen, but today it was even more useful by alerting me of the importance of updating Flash. Nice work, Mozilla.

Firefox Updated

Where’s the Debate, David? MTP Guests Obscure Health Care Debate

How
can we have a real health care debate with half the country
unrepresented? Ask David Gregory, because he certainly thinks nothing
of it. Yesterday on Meet the Press, Gregory devoted the top half of the
show to health care. Strangely, or not so strangely, not a single guest
agreed with the roughly 50 percent of Americans who agree with the
President’s plan for reform. Here’s a rundown.

First, David Axelrod. He’s become a regular, but only because the
White House makes him available for David Gregory to use as the
headliner. Axelrod’s a smart guy, but he’s really not adding to the
debate. He’ll never say anything that gives away President Obama’s
position or causes harm to the Administration and its goals. Hardly a
neutral commentator, but also one who says little of substance.

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The Self and Contributing to the Ecosystem of Knowledge

Jeff Jarvis’s column in the Guardian is fascinating. Will there come a day when not sharing information publicly will be seen as a selfish act? Jarvis predicts yes, and chose to share details of his prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment.

By revealing my cancer, I realise benefits, and so can society: if
one man’s story motivates just one more who has the disease to get
tested and discover it, then it is worth the price of embarrassment
. If
many people who have a condition can now share information about their
lifestyles and experience, then perhaps the sum of their data can add
up to new medical knowledge. I predict a day when to keep such
information private will be seen by society as being selfish.

Collectively, we will use the internet’s ability to gather, share
and analyse what we know to build greater value than we could on our
own. That is the principle of transparency that I want companies and
governments to heed: that openness in their information and actions
must become their default, that holding secrets only breeds mistrust
and robs them and us of the value that comes from sharing.

This makes a lot of sense. If we believe that the sharing of information and openness creates a net benefit for society (and I do believe that), than it’s incumbent upon each of us to be judicious in what we hold back and keep private. That’s a change in default behavior – usually we choose what to share and what to release to the world; rather, we should be choosing what *not* to share.

(I think there’s also a link to Douglas Rushkoff’s thoughts on separating our idea of self from the corporation, but I’m not exactly sure how it fits yet and I think it’s a bit tangential. If we share information and ideas about ourselves, there is an enormous potential for that to be co-opted by corporate interests, but there’s also the opportunity to rebuild community connections outside of that sphere.)