Don’t Make Me Think

Don’t Make Me Think is the landmark book on website usability, written by Steve Krug. He was in town last week giving a usability workshop. I missed it, but Josh Freeman, who writes Internet Marketing Blog, heard him speak and posted a great introduction to Krug’s work on web design.

"Don’t try to be original…

…just try to be good.”

That’s a quote — and a great piece of advice to creatives — from the groundbreaking graphic designer and educator Paul Rand.

Here’s more of Rand on the critical interplay between form and content. (Thanks to David for pointing this out.)

New, improved links at Writer Way

You’ll note a few updates and additions to the They Have a Way With Words listings (at left).

Freelance Writing Jobs is a fresh link to Deborah Ng’s renowned lists of gigs. Her site’s nav bar includes a link to lists of new blogging jobs as well.

A new site in the Writer Way listings is Story Ideas Virtuoso. In recent posts, blogger Deb Gallardo muses about story ideas inspired by autumn…and notes the achievement of an Italian author who wrote his first novel on his Nokia phone during his daily commute to work.

David Levine, a science fiction author who recently retired from his job in technology, has changed the name of his writing blog to “The Days Are Just Packed.” (And I’ve renamed the link to it accordingly.) Check out Monday’s post to see a (very) formal headshot of Mr. Levine and a list of his upcoming conference appearances. Yes, David is a highly entertaining speaker.

Seattle Weblogger Meetup

It was a small gathering of veteran webloggers Wednesday night at Ralph’s: Clark Humphrey of, Hamburger Lad of the Hamburgerland blog, and me. (Anita and Jack, we missed you.) We saw some familiar faces across the room; they turned out to be a small group of tech types meeting to discuss something called “actual programming.”

One of the topics the bloggers talked about was using Blurb to archive a blog and print it out as a book.

No fancy new gadgetry at this meeting…Clark and I both had older laptops with us and discussed strategies for upgrading.

Just realized that we missed the chance to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Seattle Weblogger Meetup Group, which was founded in October 2002. Perhaps at the next meeting? That’ll be Wednesday, Nov. 21. Come join us at Ralph’s.

Blog Action Day: Environmentalism, then and now

Today, bloggers worldwide have been asked to focus on a single issue: The environment.
As I have no special expertise on the topic, I’m going to using this opportunity to document the experience of growing up along with the environmental movement.

Silent Summer

I grew up during the McCarthy era, the child of a liberal father who read Silent Spring and then stopped using DDT on the anthills at our summer cottage. I suspect all the neighbors thought we were nuts. But an awareness of the impact of all the new chemicals that had been introduced into the environment was slowly emerging. I remember people sitting on the beach and speculating about the gradual disappearance of the little sandpipers that used to scamper along the water’s edge.

Earth Day

In high school in Northern Virginia I was one of those “hippie-types” who naively set about beautifying the school property on the first Earth Day in 1970. A group of us were called on the carpet by the high school principal, a fellow quite open about his Ku Klux Klan membership, and counseled that unattractive and unsanitary conditions in the school were the result of…racial integration.

Economics and Oil

Yes, it often felt silly trying to use fewer paper towels while American industry was wasting natural resources by the ton. Bumperstickers didn’t do much to drive change, but the Arab oil cartels did. The 1972 gas shortage, not any pangs of conscience, led to the development of energy-efficient cars — or, rather, to the importation of energy-efficient cars developed by the Japanese.


Organic food had been the province of eccentrics like Adelle Davis, but the “back to the land” commune movement and urban food co-ops re-vitalized the idea of healthy cooking and eating. (Laurel’s Kitchen, published in 1976, was as much a nutritional encyclopedia as a cookbook, and is worth studying for an insight into the minds of people making the shift from eating highly prepared foods to whole grains and natural ingredients.)

There was very little interest at that time in the idea of “natural” or “organic” meat. Meat was bad, bad, bad, and the alternative was vegetarian soups and curries, paired with whole grain breads heavy enough to be used as cannon fodder. Though, if you’d eaten some of the brownies, you probably didn’t care. (And somehow chocolate got replaced by carob during The Great Organic Kitchen Purge; I’ve never figured that one out.) Concerns about nutrition and concerns about additives were mixed in with environmental concerns about agricultural pesticides, baked in heated arguments, and served up with a garnish of sanctimony. If you added in the contemporaneous issues about women and men and who does the cooking, the 1970s kitchen really heated up.


Yes, once upon a time we used to dump everything in the garbage. Unless, of course, you lived in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, where glass soda pop bottles could be turned in for a few pennies. Or you had milk delivery (we did, in Virginia) and glass milk bottles were recycled. But mostly, everything went to the dump.

In the early 1980s, I worked as a reporter and my specialty was landfills. I learned about landfills for nuclear waste, landfills for construction waste, landfills for medical waste, and landfills for plain old household garbage. And about how private hauling firms, charging large sums to haul particularly hazardous waste long distances to specially certified landfills, often pocketed the fees and dumped the waste at less expensive landfills certified to take innocuous construction waste or plain garbage instead. (And about how the private hauling firms, owned by interlocking families, rigged bidding on municipal garbage contracts. But that is another story.)

Much of my investigative work was in Connecticut, where landfills tend to be sited next to rivers — usually at the downstream border of a particular township. One landfill I was investigating — after multiple incidents of illegal dumping — spontaneously combusted. As a matter of fact, the river next to it caught fire as well. When I left the newspaper, 22 years ago, the FBI had seized the landfill and was investigating.

Out of curiosity, I Googled this landfill last week. Incredibly, the state has yet to do anything about it, or its owner (a former state legislator), though they are still “trying.”

The factor that dismayed me the most about the whole dumping investigation was not the authorities’ inability to get to the powerful politicians and business people who backed the hauling and landfill operations. It was the reaction — or lack of it — from the people who lived near these hazardous waste sites. They didn’t want to make waves because the companies doing the dumping, hauling, and maintaining the sites were employers and provided jobs for the community.

Big-Systems Thinking

There is no question that the environment has finally made its way to the grownups’ table for official discussion. Some 60 years after Silent Spring, global warming is demonstrating how a closed system works, and political and economic forces are beginning to drive significant change. It’s a fascinating process, and I hope some other planet is documenting it.

Speaking of the big picture…whenever I see one of the big science fiction films about asteroids or aliens threatening the earth, I have to roll my eyes. As Walt Kelly said in Pogo (another one of my dad’s favorites from the 1950s), “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Tell me a story

I’m a believer in the power of stories. I try to get at least the sense of a story being told into every piece I write.

Have you ever noticed how if you stop generalizing, and tell a story, people tend to respond with stories of their own?

The post I made yesterday about script-free telephone support elictited a comment that I thought linked to some routine “yeah, Zappos rocks” post. And I accidentally rejected the comment (tapped in the wrong place on my iPhone screen). But when I got to my full-size computer later on in the morning, I manually added the comment, copying and pasting the text that had been emailed to me from Blogger for comment moderation.

The comment linked to a blog post from Writing – Cooking – Life that was downright astonishing.

I encourage you to click through. Then send flowers to someone. And buy your next pair of shoes from Zappos.

Press Z for genuine communication

Once or twice a week I find myself plodding through the layers of a “Press 1 for this, press 2 for that” automated phone system: Oh, the joy of hearing about the dozens of options I don’t want just in case they mention the one I do want in terminology I might understand.

Today I called the phone support for shoe etailer and had a very different experience.

Instead of the usual droning or unctuous voice, recorded three years ago and still blathering on, Zappos’ recording was fresh. On it, two employees introduced themselves by name, mentioned the lovely fall weather, took turns offering the “Press x for y” options and included in the list of options Zappos “joke of the day.” It was like listening to two cheerful people doing a podcast. Not rocket science — but you sure don’t find their competitors doing it.

(And it didn’t hurt that the live person I got when I selected the “product info” option was energetic and well informed.)

According to this post from Silicon Valley Musings, Zappos has a policy that everyone in the company starts work by spending four weeks answering customer calls. And, according to this post from Get Satisfaction, the call center doesn’t use scripts. Each employee has to know the products and engage with the customer.

As it happens, Zappos doesn’t have the color of boots I want to order. Their rival (where I talked with a very rude, bored-sounding customer service rep) does.

You know, I’ll think I’ll just wait for that color to come in at Zappos.

Getting outside my box

A writer at a keyboard is like a car motoring down the road. At some point, you need to stop for fuel.

For the car, it’s gas. For the writer, it’s ideas.

In web and marketing writing, the ideas come pretty much pre-defined:

“Write an email that makes people want to click through to check out our products.”
“Describe the conference highlights in a newsletter article.”
“Use a basic website template and present our company’s information.”

To complete assignments, I get to know a company’s products; I attend a conference and interview key participants; I study a company’s existing materials and interview the CEO or marketing director to fill in the gaps.

But for other types of writing — blogging, freelance magazine articles, and fiction — the writer starts from scratch. This requires a much higher grade of fuel.

Sure, there are books and articles full of suggestions for sure-fire story ideas, and there’s always past experience. But I find there’s nothing better than a good, strong jolt of the unknown to power fresh thinking. Last year at a technology conference I met a man whose work had very little to do with technology. What was he doing there? He told us he kept himself inspired by regularly attending conferences — in other fields.

So, for those of you who heard that I recently received my state private investigator certification, you can stop wondering if I’m in the car behind you practicing my surveillance skills. It’s all about exposure new ideas. And the only concealed weapon I’m carrying is my iPhone.

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