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July 2006

A jogging reminder on the importance of simplicity

If I asked you to define simplicity in the context of design, your definition would likely include at least a general principle of using fewer parts/elements rather than more. MIT's John Maeda touches on this in his blog, Simplicity:

"Simple parts are most simple when there are few (versus many) parts. When there are fewer parts, there is an opportunity to distribute one's precious time in fewer directions which results in a higher quality per part."

                                                 — John Maeda, MIT

Steve Wozniak, of course, was famous for slaving over his early designs in the'70s and getting them to work with fewer and fewer parts. The fewer the parts, in general, the cheaper a design (a product, a system, an event, etc.) will be. But another real advantage is that the chance of something going wrong, of failing, is reduced.

Few versus many parts. I was reminded of this aspect of simplicity of design when I was out running the other day. Thirty minutes into my run, and 5-6 kilometers away from my home in central Osaka, part of the heel of my right shoe suddenly went bouncing past me while I was jogging easily on a smooth surface. Weird. I never had part of my shoe just fall off like that before. Now minus the right side of the 2cm heel, continuing to run was not only uncomfortable but also dangerous. Frustratingly, I had no choice but to walk (limp) home. The shoe had only about 50K of wear.


Above: Here are my shoes placed on my desk at home moments after I returned  (of course I cleaned the outsole first; we don't allow shoes even on the floor indoors here, as you know). As you can imagine, running on that heel was out of the question.

I was wearing Nikes with the "Shox" technology, the TL3 Shox. "Shox" are little rubber columns on the outsole of the shoe that actually work extremely well as shock absorbers. The particular shoe that I was using, however, has one especially hard piece of rubber attached to the column on the outside heel. Nike calls this BRS 1000 Carbon Rubber for the "key wear areas" of the shoe. This is good for people like me who have a slight supination in their form. It is interesting that the failure of a small rubber part can make this pair of $150 shoes completely useless as a running shoe in just a blink of an eye. This little rubber part is ironically the "Achilles heel" of the shoe. And since I have already severed my right Achilles tendon twice (years ago while playing American football), a strong, elevated heel is very important.

Did the designers of this running shoe stop to consider that runners run on trails and beaches or roads, etc. far away from home or their cars, often miles away from anyone at all. The possibility of the shoe failing is usually the furthest thing from a runner's mind. The shoe was a least they used to be. This important part on the Nike shoe was held together with only a bit of glue over a small surface area (since the "shox" is a hollow piece of rubber the area where glue can bond is limited to the rim). I didn't know it at the time of purchase, but only the integrity of the glue for this piece of rubber stood between me and a possible running injury.

In the "old days" of running shoes (such as the '70s era Oregon Waffle above) the outside tread was usually a single bonded piece of rubber. If the glue ever failed it would do so gradually, noticeable first along the edges. The failure of the bond would not lead to a "catastrophic failure" of the shoe during the middle of a run. Today the sole of a running shoe may have 2-3 (or more) pieces of rubber attached in some way, but usually these pieces are not so small that they could be easily knocked off, nor are they in such a crucial area as the outer heel. The BRS 1000 heel is 2cm in height; a loss of the heel makes running unwise at best. I will glue the heel back on, but I will never trust this particular shoe again for anything but walking. I bought the shoes in Hawaii; I doubt Nike here in Japan will take them back.

Jackson I am thankful for the advancement in running-shoe technology since the days of running track as a high school student. But I would hope that the advanced designs they create would not lead to an increase probability of failure as well. Is this an inevitable consequence of complexity? Maybe Nike needs to ask how they can leverage their technology and cutting-edge design to produce a running shoe that is supportive, good-looking, and will absolutely not fall apart in the middle of a run. Maybe they can take a tip from the folks who designed the Jackson manual typewriter over 100 years ago. I love these lines from the people who brought you the Jackson:

On Simplicity:

"As every one knows, the greater the complexity of a machine the greater the liability to derangement, and the greater the outlay for repairs."

On Durability:

"Mechanical simplicity is naturally followed by mechanical durability."

Not every problem lends itself to simple solutions, of course. Still, as "simple as possible" and "with as few fill-in-the-blanks as possible" is a good general principle worth aiming for. I'm not suggesting we go back in time and use typewriters and run in Oregon Waffles, etc. But whether we're talking about hardware, software, user interface, presentation graphics, or running shoes, simplicity is not only aesthetically pleasing, it often leads to better performance, greater reliability, and overall better results.

Ted Stevens and the art of the ramble

Donotspeak We can't be an expert on everything. All of us are supremely ignorant about some things. One thing that makes an individual wise, though, is the knowledge that we all know actually very little in the whole scheme of things. Of course, advertising our own ignorance is still something we'd like to avoid doing, especially when speaking publicly. Yet still worse than not knowing is thinking (or posing) that we know or understand something but demonstrate, through our explanation or presentation, that we do not. Is it not unforgivable to pretend to know what we are talking about when we do not? Is it not professional suicide to try to fake it, digging a hole so deep and filling it with so much redundant, contradictory nonsense that we lose all credibility to speak on the issue again?

DonottalkmuchWe always talk about how to become a better speaker, but the first step to becoming a better speaker is becoming a better listener. And to do that requires us to slow down and to remain silent so that we may hear. Remaining silent is quite hard for many of us, yet we learn very little while speaking; we learn when we listen. By listening more and speaking less we can be better performers when it is our chance to openly articulate our message.

Do not speak unless it improves on silence
No matter how good of a speaker we may think we are, there are times — many times in fact — when it's wise to keep quiet. Perhaps you've heard this line before:

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

Many people have uttered this phrase, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, high school football coach. It's an ideal that is good for us to remember, verbose Americans in particular. Lao Tsu said, "He who knows does not speak. He who speaks, does not know." I want to thank US senator, Ted Stevens, for reminding me of this passage, one that I first read as a Philosophy student so many years ago. We all appreciate the well-spoken man or woman, yet we also remain politely skeptical of those who appear too smooth, too slick, or who, on the other hand, ramble on and on (and on...) with a kind of faux confidence. In today's insanely busy world, the "rambling man" is the most intolerable of all.


Worst attempt ever at extemporaneity?
Tedstevens US Senator, Ted Stevens (Alaska), has generated a lot of buzz this month due to his "interesting" remarks in opposition to net neutrality made at a committee meeting at the end of last month. The senator was speaking in opposition to the amendment that would have inserted strong network neutrality mandates into a bill. Many people feel that Stevens' "rant" indicates that the man has formed a very strong opinion about a topic he seems to know very little about. Quite worrisome for most people when you consider the senior position of the senator. The rambling 11-minute "speech" looks like it will be part of the senator's legacy. You can now get t-shirts with his "tubes" quote and the "series of tubes" riff has now become a kind of meme. Again, sometimes our parents really did have good advice for us: "Remain silent and be thought a fool, or speak up and remove all doubt."

Hear Ted speak

DailyshowListen to the 11-minute speech by Ted Stevens. After you listen, you may want to listen again if you are still confused about the net neutrality issue. But if you really want to get to the essence of the matter — the heart of the net neutrality debate — then you really need to ask a ninja. Stevens needed 11 minutes, a ninja can sum up the issue in far less time (and then disappear into the night).

Listen here on to Ted Stevens' "lecture." You can download the mp3 file here as well.

Listen to the same 11-minute talk unedited but with laidback music and soothing visuals added (kind of eases the pain if you know what I mean).
Hear the entire talk in context along with rebuttal the Committee website
Hear John Stewart breakdown the senator's talk.
John Hodgman (comedian), appearing as an expert with Jon Stewart also summaries the issue pretty well.
Still confused? Then let a ninja cut right to the heart of the matter in a little over a minute.
DJ Ted Stevens Techno Remix: "A Series of Tubes"
Original Ted's Techno Tubes (audio only)
Another remix, this time with voices from Looney Tunes (Bugs, Elmer, etc.)
Here's a short excerpt (just over two minutes) from the middle of talk with photo.
Proof that this "tubes" thing has hit a nerve with "the kids." (Watch this at your own risk; I do not recommend viewing while eating or drinking...or at any other time).
Jon Stewart gives you a little background on the senator in a bit called "Who the F**k is Ted Stevens."

It's not easy
Speaking extemporaneously is hard, much harder than delivering a well thought out, rehearsed presentation with slideware or a speech at the podium. But the ability to give solid impromptu talks or engage thoughtfully in debate is a skill that will carry you far in this world. We would hope law-makers too would be skilled at this. Stevens has passion and energy, but as he demonstrated so well for us, you've got to really know what you're talking about as well. And if we truly do not know the issue well enough to debate it without making ourselves look foolish, it is a far better thing to remain silent. In Japan for example, it is usually the younger staff who deliver presentations at an important meeting with clients. Middle managers (the 40-somethings) will do most of the talking. The older, senior staff sit mostly in silence. The senior staff have the power, however, and they make the final decisions. But they have learned long ago not to speak unless doing so improves on their silence.

Related links
"A Series of Tubes" on Wikipedia
Boing Boing on Ted's tubes
New York Times piece on the Stevens buzz
This Week in Tech discusses a bit on this issue
Get your Ted Stevens Net Neutrality t-shirts
John Dvorak - PC Magazine
Your own personal internet (Wired)
Jello Biafra breaks it down
Save the Internet dot com

Thanks to my buddy, Nathan Bryan, who turned me on to Ask A Ninja (weird stuff). Nathan sits perched ninja-like high above Kobe at the tope of Mount Rokko. Checkout his Rokko House site and say hello.

I am Canadian

TvCan we learn anything about multimedia and presentations from (gasp) TV commercials? The creators of TV ads have similar challenges to the typical conference presenter. And that is, how to connect with the audience and get the message across in a short amount of time? Yes, conference presenters have more important, complicated subjects than soap or beer or auto insurance, and they have a little more time (though 20-30 minutes is not much more time). But the goals in many ways are similar: Get noticed. Be understood. Be memorable. Get people to take action.

Often, the best commercials appeal to humor; many of the best presentations too use a bit (or a lot) of humor. Let's face it, humor is visceral, it connects with people. The other thing that good TV ads have in common with many of the best conference presentations or keynotes is that they are highly visual. Given the high quality of multimedia support at most conference venues (corporate and university auditoriums, etc.) there's no reason why our conference presentations can not be highly compelling visually as well.

Present like Joe: Simple, visual, memorable
Ozgur at Marketallica in Istanbul
sent me a link to an older Canadian beer commercial which, although clearly tongue-in-cheek, is actually a pretty good example of how one could present on stage for a larger audience. If there is a "Garr Reynolds method" I'd have to say that this is pretty close. The "presenter's" large screen in this ad incorporates the use of photography, large text, animation, and video. This is my preferred style as well. The man ("Joe") and his message are front and center, but the visuals bring it all together in a big way.

Joe_text   Joe_zed
Joe goes all "Takahashi Method" by keeping the text large.

Joe_pic   Joe_boot
Using high-quality photos, large sizes and full bleeds.

Joe_beaver    Joe_video
Videos start in-sync with his talk.

Peace   Gun  
Simple animation (in fact, this is video too, but you get the idea).

Conventional wisdom
When a guy in a beer commercial makes better use of on-stage multimedia than most CEOs and executives, it's time to rethink conventional wisdom on what is truly a kick-butt presentation with multimedia support.

The "conventional" approach. Safe, easy and expected. But is it effective? Is it remarkable or memorable?

Unconventional approach. Takes a little — sometimes a lot — more time and thought to construct, but the ROI can be huge on presentation day and beyond.

OK, I know what some of you are saying. It's unfair to compare a Bill Gates technology-related PowerPoint presentation to a guy in a beer commercial, right? They are different. I get that. All I'm suggesting is that in this era, your presentations should be utterly unique visually and your media support should look more like Joe's than Bill's. It's just a commercial, but it is a creative piece of work. Here are the takeaways that we can apply to our real-life presentations.

Tips for making killer presentations with impact (Canadian style?)
Make it visual.

Make it large.
Make it high-rez.
Mix in photography, text, video, perhaps a small bit of animation.
Synchronize visuals with the spoken word.
Make it vocal. Your voice is a powerful tool. Your presentation is not a "slideshow with narration." It is you telling your story with compelling visual support.
Be different. Not different for the sake of being different, but honestly different. Get in touch with your "inner presenter" — everyone has it inside them somewhere, and it's different in each of us.
Stand front and center, don't look back. 
Be proud of your topic. Don't be arrogant (duh), but be confident and show it. 
No one should have a clue how many slides were used. If they are counting, you've already lost.
No one cares about your software. At the end of the day, no one should really know or care what software you used. No PowerPoint clichés, tired templates, etc.
Never, ever go over your allotted time. Period.

All of this assumes, of course, that you have compelling, well-organized content with the appropriate depth and scope for the occasion. If you don't, even nailing every one of the items above will not insure success. But if you do have great content, then presenting "different," big and visual like "I-am-Canadian" Joe just may make your presentation unforgettable.

John West Salmon TV ad. (This is a bit off-topic, but I love this commercial and always thought of fishing up in B.C. when I saw this ad. In fact, I think John West is an Australian company with English roots. The short ad gets the point across in a memorable way, to be sure.)

The presentation of signage

Surfer_1Aloha. I've just returned from a two-week trip to the west coast of the US mainland, stopping by the Big Island of Hawaii for several days of laidback fun, none of which involved using a computer. It's wonderful for the creative soul actually to get away completely from technology for a while. The short time away from Japan too has inspired me and given me greater appreciation for many aspects of Japanese life, not the least of which is the absolutely amazing customer service you'll find here.

As you know, I believe strongly that we can learn many things about presentation design by casting a wide net and examining not only great speakers and presentations, but by opening our eyes to studying all aspects of visual communication. With that in mind, below are a few pics I shot while in the US last week.

This was shot above at a corndog stand near the beach in Seaside, Oregon. While standing in line, someone came up to ask the staff if they had any bathrooms. What? Didn't he read the sign?! I too didn't notice the sign (above). It made me smile; a great example of a decorative script typeface that serves to be ugly and unreadable (and even unnoticeable apparently). Well, at least the sign says "sorry." Still, a better idea would have been a small yet readable sign that not only matched the look and feel of the business, but that also informed customers that public restrooms were indeed available just 100 meters up the street.

While in Hilo, Hawaii I found this sign (above) placed at eye-level in the small toy section of a store called "The Most Irresistible Shop in Hilo." The sign is ironic, given the name of the shop, but the message is so off-putting and out of place it's amusing. I can almost hear my dad yelling at me as I read the sign, "This Is Not a Play Room, Damn It!" I don't like doing business with people who yell at me. I'm sympathetic to the shop. I grew up in a seaside tourist town, I know tourists can be a pain. Some people often seem to lose all common sense once they assume the role of tourist. But that's life. Your in-store signage says something about you. Crappy handwritten sings on faded paper say something about the brand. But signs written with an indignant tone say even more...and it ain't good. The shop was actually quite nice, making the sign all the more out of place. Come on, I say let the people play with the toys. They're "irresistible," right?

If you suffer from both arachnophobia (fear of spiders) and aviophobia (fear
of flying) you would have hated my seat on my Aloha Airlines flight from Kona to Honolulu a few days ago. I was seated in the window seat of the first row. I'm a bit paranoid myself of flying and I'm always looking for something to worry about it seems while waiting for takeoff. So I was a little distressed when I noticed a live spider crawling around, trapped between the exterior and interior windows of the 737. "What's a spider doing in there and what does its existence say about the maintenance of these planes?!" As a matter of fact, though, Aloha is an excellent airline with tremendous staff at all levels. And my short-lived bout of anxiety disappeared immediately when I noticed the sign below the window written on some masking tape: "CLEO the Spider". Funny. I learned that the spider had been stuck between the two pains of glass for several days; a flight attendant named the spider on an earlier flight. The sign said two things to me: (1) Don't worry about the spider. We are aware of it, but it's no big deal. And (2) Aloha Airlines has friendly staff with a sense of humor. We take our jobs seriously, but we can have fun too. I like that. (See my blogging buddy in Australia, psychologist Les Posen, for info on coping with the fear of flying here.)

Finally, I had a nice chuckle when we were served our second meal on the flight from Honolulu to Osaka yesterday. Sure, everyone hates airline food, but perhaps passengers will like their meal better if you remind them to "enjoy" it. Actually, it's a nice simple package with a clean narrow sans-serif typeface that says "light" as in light snack (though the cheese and ham sandwich must have been about eight million calories!).

Snap_beach If you ever get a chance to visit Hawaii, be sure to spend some time on the Big Island. The Big Island is the youngest and largest (obviously) of the Hawaiian Islands -- the recent lava flows are amazing. There are something like eleven different climates on the island — we went through most of them as we drove around the entire island in one (long) day. At Punalu'u Black Sand Beach I took a few photos of the sand, thinking that the sand would make an interesting texture for my images library. In the slide below, I used one of the photos as a background. You can download the photo (1024x768) I used for the background here.

The slide above uses a (background) photo of the sand at Punalu'u Black Sand Beach I shot a few days ago on the island of Hawaii.

Oh yes, I did something else pretty cool while in Hawaii. Here's a hint (I'm the one on the left).