Comments on comments

Bare with me today. I’m going to quickly go from quantum mechanics to usability to web design.

Like many thinking people, I have an interest in the who’s and why’s of life. My questioning and reading has introduced me to quantum mechanics. I’ve discovered that I have a real interest in physics (seeing as I never took science or math past the tenth grade, this is a big deal). I’ve read a number of very interesting, approachable books on the topic, and can recommend them if anyone is interested.

One of the many fascinating things that I’ve learned is the way discoveries in all fields of science tend to work: a bunch of people spread around the globe, often in isolation from each other work on a problem. One will come up with a solution, and almost immediately afterwards, a number of the others will come to the same conclusion. It’s as though once the solution becomes known, it enters our collective knowledge, and is accessible to any one looking for it.

I’m redesigning a site that gets a *ton* of comments. Usually it gets 50 to 200 a day. So far, in the past 24 hours it’s received *1223* (the particularly adept of you ought to be able to figure out what sector this blog is in based on that info).

The less spiritual mumbo jumbo version says “well duh! They were all working on the same problem. Since there’s only one right solution, it’s just a matter of time before the researchers came to the same conclusion.” Personally, I prefer the one-collective-mind version. It’s a better story. And I’m a hopeless romantic and idealist, as you know…

h2. Why the interest in comments?

Perhaps its that same idealism that’s got me so hot and bothered about blogs (how’s that for a segue?). I’ve been thinking a fair bit about comments and comment systems lately. I’m not the only one. Look at what “Jonathan”:http://www.snook.ca/archives/000365.html has done (hint: scroll down), and check out the star system that “Weblogs Inc”:http://www.tuaw.com/2005/05/11/star-wars-attack-of-tuaws-new-comment-system/ is rolling out. And of course “Dunstan Orchard”:http://www.1976design.com sets the bar very high with his comment relationships.

My interest in comments is three fold: first, I’m interested in how comments on our personal sites can help us do our jobs. For example, I’m hoping that a few of you might comment on this post with feedback on a concept I’ll get to in a couple of paragraphs.

Second, I’m very interested to see how companies will use/abuse comments on their business blogs. Brave companies will embrace them and recognize their barrier busting potential. Scared companies will turn comments off (or not blog at all) for fear of hearing the truth. Of course the truth is floating around on other people’s blogs, only now the company has no control over it.

Third, I’m redesigning a site that gets a *ton* of comments. Usually it gets 50 to 200 a day. So far, in the past 24 hours it’s received 1223 (the particularly adept of you ought to be able to figure out what sector this blog is in based on that info). This massive volume offers some rather interesting challenges to me as a designer, and to the site owner.

h2. Bobbing for apples in a barrel of poo

As you can imagine, when you have a couple of hundred comments on a single post the conversation tends to wander a bit off topic. My overall goal is to help keep the comments relative, while avoiding stifling the interesting off-shoots a conversation can spark. I’m also trying to make the comments more useful. It’s hard to find the nuggets, or even to follow the bouncing ball through a morass of tangled threads.

“Dunstan’s”http://www.1976design.com/blog goes a long way towards offering a solution. Check out how his comments work. It is very, very cool. It’s also not quite there, at least in this situation. What it’s missing is a visual top-down view of the various conversations going on, and a way to navigate them. I’m working on a system that piggybacks on Dunstan’s idea and creates a map of the conversation like so:

The right column uses position:fixed like Jonathan’s site, so the map is always on screen. Clicking on a name will jump the left column to the respective comment. This allows the user to follow the thread of the conversation rather than scroll linearly through the whole mess. I’ll use “Adam’s”:http://www.axentric.com fade anything technique (again, like Jonathan’s done) to temporarily highlight the newly selected comment.

This makes pretty heavy duty use of javascript, but will degrade to a “normal” comment list if the user has js off.

By giving the site users the ability to conduct branching conversations in a navigable way, it’s my hope that the level of intelligent engagements increases.

The map also lets users jump directly to a favorite poster’s comment, again adding to the functionality of the site.

h2. Power to the People!

So we’ve made the morass a bit easier to navigate. But what about all the chaff? When you’re getting a thousand comments, you can bet they’re not all of the highest caliber or value. One option is to limit comments to invited “members”. This may work with a startup blog, but there are already hundreds of people who are accustomed to regularly posting on this site. Telling them they no longer can won’t go over well.

Individually blacklisting people isn’t a manageable situation either. This is not a full time endeavor for the site owner, and he simply doesn’t have time to manage all the loonies. Weblogs Inc offers an interesting option. Their star system allows users to assign positive or negative values to each other’s comments. Receive a certain number of negative scores, and you’re blacklisted for a period. Receive a high number of positive scores, and be rewarded with a mention on the home page, and all the referred traffic that goes with it.

Certain safeguards need to be put in place to avoid abusers, but dedicated assholes will always find a way around the system. That’s the cost of public discourse though.

I’ve been working on this for a bit, so it was a bit of a shock when Weblogs went live with their system last week. But we’re all moving through this process at the same time, so it’s only natural that a couple of us may have stumbled onto the same solution.

I expect that both of these measures will have an impact on the community feel of the site. Users should have a sense that the site is theirs. I believe this will result in more frequent visits, and more valuable discussions.

h2. Your turn

This is *way* too much information for one post. I’ve only skimmed the subject matter, and will get more into it as the project progresses. What I’d love to get from you though is a sense of where you think comments are going (if anywhere). Also, feel free to comment on the gee-whiz nature of all the javascript stuff going on at the moment. Could this be the result of a maturing standards community? I think so…

A Quiver of Quills

My oh my I’ve been a busy little beaver. I’ve just uploaded my latest creation “A Quiver of Quills”:http://www.aquiverofquills.com. “What? Another blog? Aren’t you the same guy who just a month ago was decrying multiple site boggers?” Yep, that’s me.

Blogging is dangerous my friends. Very dangerous. Like crack in fact. Proving my “97 monkey”: theory once again, just yesterday I was chatting with my wife about wanting to do what I called a _reporting_ site vs a _content_ site. I’d been looking at some successful sites, and had realized that they were all _reporting_ on existing content, as opposed to creating new content. Lo and behold, “Scrivs”:http://9rules.com/blog/2005/05/almost-cool/ launches the first volley in what was to become the conversation on the day here in bloggywood.


Whether its good or bad, it certainly is a popular form of blog. I thought I’d give it a try. But on what topic? I wanted a subject with good product sales potential; it had to be a relatively uncrowded topic; and it had to be something I’m passionate about. I just can’t see myself writing about Brittney. I don’t even like *typing* her name. I decided on *pens*. I’m totally analog when it comes to idea generation, and I’m becoming increasingly snobby when it comes to writing tools.

Sites like “43folders”:http://www.43folders.com” and “moleskinerie”:http://www.moleskinerie.com have done a wonderful job of fetishizing notebooks for us geeky types. I figure there’s a good chance some of you will be interested in tools to mark our books up with.

Like all the other design iconoclasts, I have a moleskine notebook or two in my bag at all times. No ballpoint pen has ever sullied their luscious pages, nor shall they. I don’t know a ton about pens compared to the pen nerds, but I look forward to one day joining their ranks. Just think what a pretensious bastard I’ll be! I can’t wait.

I’m reusing the template I initially designed for “dadlog”:http://www.dadlog.com (which is actually a derivation of this site) and have used for “bicilog”:http://www.bicilog.com and “The Blog Studio”:http://www.theblogstudio.com. I swapped the column positions around and make a couple of css tweaks. All in, the site went from concept to live in about 2 hours. I’ve really concentrated on making these recent sites as component driven as possible. I’ve made heavy use of Textpattern’s forms. These are basically php includes using txp’s nomenclature. Pretty cool to be able to roll a site so quickly…

There are no ads up there yet, as I have to actually do some client work now. I’ll be adding daily sidelinks and more content on a regular basis. The design is pretty rough, but it’s ok for a start. More as time allows!

Blog design: my fruitless attempt to stop fiddling

“CSS Reboot”:http://www.cssreboot.com/ sites unveiled their new faces today. There’s some really brilliant, inspiring stuff there. I highly suggest you check it out, if you haven’t already.

It got me thinking about my own inability to be happy with my site design. I’m tired of this already, and it’s only a couple of weeks old. This leads me to the following conclusion: I’m either a) fickle, b) easily distracted, c) love to fiddle or d) a crappy designer who can’t translate his vision.

The truth lies in some arcane equation where *loD = ((fk-(ta*fd))/cd)-ed* In this case, loD = _life of design_, fk = _fickle_, ta = _time available_ (which can be substituted for tits and ass, in which case its value must be increased a thousand fold), fd = _fiddle factor_, cd = _crappy designer_, and ed = _easily distracted_.

I blame rather a lot of this on the bloody brilliant “developer toolbar”:https://addons.update.mozilla.org/extensions/moreinfo.php?application=firefox&category=Developer%20Tools&numpg=10&id=60 I wrote about earlier. It makes fiddling unavoidably simple and sickeningly gratifying.

I offer my sincere congratulations to the rebooters. I might just have my own reboot. It’ll be a monthly thing.

The B word.

_This is the first in a series of articles that looks at how recent discoveries in brain science may forever change the way we think about branding and design’s role in the branding process._

What a time to be alive! Did you know, that just the other day two scientists published separate articles where they described how they used fMRI machines to read the brains of volunteers? Its true. They showed each volunteer a series of images, and by looking at which areas of their brains fired, the scientists could determine what they’d been looking at. A further study showed that even when images were flashed up on a screen faster than the volunteer could see them, their brains recognized the images without their becoming consciously aware of it. Too cool.

Right now you’re thinking “and this has to do with branding how…?” In fact it has everything to do with branding, but you’re going to have to bear with me for a moment while I lay some groundwork.

On his blog A Clear Eye, author, speaker, and marketing guru Tom Asacker defines brand as

bq. …the expectation of someone or something delivering a certain feeling by way of an experience.

We could debate the ultimate definition of brand until we all grow old and cranky, but would be unlikely to settle on a single defintion. Nonetheless, I think we can agree that Asacker hits the nail on the head when he says that a brand is an *expectation*.

An expectation is the projection of emotions and thought into the future. This emotion and thought comes from our experiences in the past. I can’t have an expectation of something if I have no knowledge of it, right? Where is this knowledge stored? In my memory. This is important.

In their book On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee argue we are smart because we build models of events and experiences in our memory. Hawkins should know a thing or two about being smart. Besides inventing the Palm Pilot, he’s a trained neuro-biologist. After selling Palm, then founding and selling Handspring (back to Palm!), he set out to discover how we are smart, a topic that until recently had not been scientficaly researched as a whole.

Interested in boning up on neuroscience? It’s not nearly as dumbfounding as it sounds. There are a number of very approachable (even funny) books on the subject available. No math or science background is required. I guarantee you’ll learn something that will have an impact on you and the work you do. My suggestions to get you started are: Mind Wide Open, by Steven Johnson and On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee.

What he discovered is that memory models affect all our conscious actions. These models contain everything we know about an event or experience, including the steps we took to get there, the feeling we had once there, and the actions that came after it. We compare incoming stimuli from all our senses against the models. When we get a match, we follow or adapt the model’s instructions to suit the present situation. Next, the model is reinforced or updated with the new instructions. There’s a lot of hard science behind this, but we must note that this is a brand new theory. Even the authors admit that much of it may ultimately prove to be incorrect, but the parts that are relevant to our purposes are not in question.

My A Ha! moment came when I realized that a brand is a memory model for a thing. A brand then, is an internal construct. It exists in my head. It is subject to all the wet messy non rational goop that makes me, well, me. Certainly large parts of the model are taken up by the thing: its characteristics, its purpose, its perceived value – all the standard branding stuff. But a huge part of the model, maybe even the larger part, is made up of feelings and associations with other things.

This is huge. It’s especially huge if you happen to be a designer. After all, we’re good at the non-rational. That’s kind of what we do, isn’t it? We take cold hard fact and give it colour and meaning. We talk to the goop, if you will.

This brand-as-mental-model concept has a number of practical applications in our daily workflow. The first is as a means of communicating with your clients and your team. When we’re talking about a brand, we’re no longer talking about a concept. Instead we’re talking about a physical, concrete thing. These mental models are real. They’re made up of millions and millions of physical connections in your neo-cortex. These neo-cortical connections in turn connect down to the emotional areas of our brain, giving emotion a very real role in the branding model. In an upcoming article, I’ll describe how you can map out a brand’s model, so as to determine where you are, and where you’re going.

It also puts concepts like a brand’s Unique Selling Position into a new context. Sure, USP is important, but its only a component of a larger, messier whole. I giggle with glee whenever I think about this, because messy is what we do. This new concept thrusts emotion and intuition to the fore, and may allow us a way to quantify design’s role.

The ultimate benefit for us is that it makes a brand a completely designed experience. This concept is so easy to grasp. Teach it to your clients, and they’ll have a better understanding of how you can help shape their entire brand, not just parts of it. If you treat a brand as you would any other design project, and subject it to your regular process, you’ll find many ways of opening the doors to new business. For example, Bob has a new product: the Super Widget 9000. If we identify all the interactions Bob’s customers will have with the SW9k, we can design the general shape of the brand’s model. I’ll expand on this in detail in an upcoming article.

To summarize then, a brand is a memory model of a thing. We think by comparing incoming stimuli to our memory models, and following or adapting a model’s instructions for the current situation. In turn the model is reinforced or updated with a new set of instructions. These models are made up of all the experiences we’ve had with the thing. Thinking about branding this way shows just how important memory and emotion are to a brand. And that’s good news for designers.

_____

Further thoughts on branding as a mental model

Since I had my eureka moment a few days ago, I’ve had a few days to let the impact of it set in. I keep coming back to feeling that I’ve stumbled onto something big. Let me bring you back up to speed.

A few days ago Tom Asacker at “A Clear Eye”:http://www.acleareye.com/ defined _brand_ as

bq. …the expectation of someone or something delivering a certain feeling by way of an experience.

The key word here is *expectation*. An expectation is the projection of emotion and thought into the future. This emotion and thought comes from our experiences in the past. I can’t have an expectation of something if I have no knowledge of it, right? Where is this knowledge stored? In my memory. This is important.

According to Jeff Hawkins and Sandra Blakeslee in their book “On Intelligence”:http://www.onintelligence.org/, we are smart because we build models of events and experiences in our memory. These models contain everything we know about the event/experience, including the steps we took to get there, the feeling we had once there, and the actions that came after it. We compare incoming stimuli from all our senses against the models, and when we get a match, we follow or mold the model’s instructions to suit the present situation. There’s a lot of science behind this that I may get into later.

The *A Ha!* came when I realized that a brand is a memory model for a _thing_.

This has a huge impact, at least for me. It allows me to easily grasp what can be a very slippery topic. It gives me something physical that I can picture and describe. It gives me a specific target to aim for in the work I do for my client. It gives me a tool to visually communicate a fuzzy concept to a team and to my clients. What’s more, it shows my client how I can be of greater service to him by helping to design the entire memory model.

This takes me out of my traditional narrow designer’s role and puts me in a place where I can have a wider impact on his business practice. This is a very good thing. The skills I’ve learned as a designer apply to designing the whole memory model. I’ll get into that in more detail in upcoming articles.

I’m going to be exploring this in a fair bit of detail in the next couple of days. I’m going to work through the process of building and visualizing a brand’s mental model. The goal here is to come up with something useful that we can all use in our day to day working lives. If you have something to contribute, please use the comments, or send me an email to peter at flashlightdesign dot com

What is a brand?

_Edited and updated April 21 2005. Originally posted yesterday._

I’ve just read the most concise definition of *brand* over at “A Clear Eye”:http://www.acleareye.com/sandbox_wisdom/2005/04/okay_here_it_is.html. To quote:

bq. A brand is the expectation of someone or something delivering a certain feeling by way of an experience.

– end of original post.

Well, 24 hours have passed, and I’ve had a chance to digest this. I had one of those *a ha!* moments in the shower, and nearly cut myself shaving. Two separate ideas suddenly clicked, and my understanding of each deepened as a result.

I’m in the process of reading a book called On Intelligence by Jeff Hawkins (the fellow who invented the Palm Pilot, amongst many other things). In it, he proposes a new model for understanding _how_ we are smart. In essence, he states that we hold models of experiences in our memory, and that we compare incoming stimuli against those models to determine, well, everything. In turn, each incoming stimulus affects the shape and content of the memory model – it’s a dynamic relationship.

His proposal is fascinating, and based on years of research. It’s not without controversy, as it flies in the face of conventional neuroscience. I certainly _seems_ to make sense. We’ll have to wait a few years for confirmation to be certain. Never the less, his model and the definition of brand above mesh together perfectly, and are applicable today.


Think of a brand as the collection of all experiences one associates with a given thing. As a business owner or marketer, one would want to ensure that *all* the experiences delivered were appropriate to one’s goals. In this way, the model built in the customer’s memory would match your intentions, and a positive brand model would be built. Ongoing interactions should reinforce that model, ensuring a positive brand experience.

*This is really fascinating.* It turns the branding model on its head. Instead of looking at a product or service (for simplicity, I’ll refer only to product, but I mean “product or service”) and determining its branding characteristics, we look at the end user (or customer) and ask ourselves what is the model we’d like this person to hold in their memory. We then go about identifying the interactions the customer will have with our product (i.e. advertising, packaging, store environment, web site, sales reps, etc). With these distinct interactions, or experiences, in mind, we can make decisions that will help shape the *entire* model in our customers brains.

This is incredibly good news for designers, because it reinforces the need to present *consistent* experiences. It also clearly shows that a brand extends *way* beyond a mark or logo to touch every aspect of a customer’s interaction with our product. This reinforces the need for good design decisions to be made at every stage of the experience.

*What is an experience?*

As it relates to branding, an experience is any action that brings a customer into contact with the *concept* of our product. This includes the examples above (ads, product design, etc), but extends well beyond that. As designers, I think we would do very well to learn to think beyond the screen, and to think about how we can help design the entire branding experience.

As designers, our jobs are to shape reality. We are used to designing experiences, although we may not think of them that way. By slightly shifting the paradigm of our jobs, we open a world of new opportunities.

As a graphic designer, I no longer think of myself as a layout artist or web guy. Instead, effective immediately, I’m thinking of myself as a designer of experiences.

*How does this affect our jobs?*

What strikes me most about this is how simple it is to explain:

# we think by forming models of experiences in our memories, then comparing incoming stimuli to those models.
# every incoming stimulus in turn updates a model.
# a brand is the model one holds for a specific product or service.
# by determining the interactions a customer has with our product, we can take steps to shape that model.

If I can explain the above to my clients, and I can demonstrate that I have the ability to help them through this re-thinking, I’ve just opened up a whole new category of work.

I could, and undoubtedly will, go on and on. I’d like to take a bit of time to think of some specific examples to show how this thinking can benefit us. I would very much love to hear what you think. Am I on to something, or full of crap?

Perfect geek syncronicity

I can think of nothing more perfect than these moleskine icons, available free from “Moleskine Art”:http://www.moleskineart.com/index.html (beware -very slow site). Enjoy.

Design vs Usability – a cage match to the death!

This is my second attempt to write this article. I have been thinking about this for bit, and haven’t had the block of time I need to actually get the whole thought down. Bare with me if it comes out in fits and starts.

There is this debate raging over usability in design. In one corner we have the usability evangelists like “Joe Clark”:http://joeclark.org/ and “Jacob Nielsen”:http://www.useit.com/. In the other, we have designers like “Shaun Inman”:http://www.shauninman.com/ and everyone else who even thinks about using small type.

There seems to be a real hate on between these groups. The usability crowd can be particulary antagonistic, attacking the very thing we designers do. I’ll admit my bias right here and say that I think the web needs a good dose of usability. We’ve come a long way in a short time – witness the popularity of sites like “37signals”:http://37signals.com/ – and the web is all the better for it.

There is one key component to this argument that I haven’t seen, and it baffles me that it hasn’t been brought up: *branding and the brand experience.* Usability’s main tenet is _make it easy_. Sure. Ok. But what about the site’s goals? What if it not in the site’s interest to follow the usability guidelines?

I can think of about a hundred and one examples where this may be the case. I’m working on a project where the purpose of the site is to create a mood and an expectation. This site is *all* about the designer’s creativity and vision. I imagine a site like “Doom3”:http://www.doom3.com/ would have Clark and Nielsen shaking in the boots (in more ways that one). Yet it appears to perfectly suit its purpose.

So where, I ask you, where are the voices of reason? Where are the people willing to stand up and say in their loudest voices *It Depends!*? Extreme usability (witness “Neilsen’s site”:http://www.useit.com) serves the purpose of swinging the pendulum to one end of the web design arc [I can hear you screaming at me: _never use the word designer again when referring to useit.com!_]. It’s up to us, wise sensitive souls that we are, to interpret usability’s message and apply it *as appropriate*.

This rather unruly and clunky bit of writing is subject to being edited at a later date.

My Precious Apple Stickers

I’m one of those guys who has an intensely bizarre relationship with stickers. I assign them way more value then they could ever possibly hold. I save them, waiting for the perfect opportunity to place them delicately just so…

I just unpacked my new G5, and was pleasantly surprised to find two sparkling white apple stickers. “Hmmm” thought I, “where oh where shall these go?” On the bookshelf was the answer, with the rest of the computer books, to wait until the perfect sufrace presents itself.

To my embarassement, when putting the stuff away, I found the identical stickers I got when I bought my powerbook. “Hmmm” thought I to myself again, “what am I going to do with 4 apple stickers?”

Give them away, of course. I’ve successfully proven to myself that I have an inability to sticker (is that a verb? It is now). So I’m going to give 3 of these symbols of utter geek superiority to the first three people who leave comments below. Leave a note, and send me your address in an email to peter at flashlightdesign dot com.

What are you worth?

Join in the conversation at “The Prepared Mind”:http://www.thepreparedmind.com/pm/index.php/2005/04/11/re-branding-our-industry/ to discuss the state of the _profession_ of graphic design. I’ve cast the first stone.