Creativity at Play #9

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more creative and one way I’m doing that is picking creativity exercises from the brilliant book Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 exercises to wake up your brain.

Here’s last month’s challenge:

How Big is a Bread Basket?

Recognising relative size or distance is an underrated skill. The late Chick Hearn, long-time play-by-play broadcaster for Los Angeles Lakers, was the king at being able to identify, from a country mile away, how far any shot attempt was from the basket. Your task today is to find he Chick Hearn in you. Grab a digital camera and take one picture of an object that satisfies specific size criteria:

1 is bigger than a coffee cup, but smaller than a dinner plate

I chose to think of this in terms of the diameter of the seed head – if you include the petals I think this would be bigger than most dinner plates!

2 is smaller than a cat but bigger than a kitten

An adult sized ceramic clog – in wonderful Delft blue

3 is bigger than a baseball but smaller than a football

A sculpture of a child’s head from the Allard Pearson Museum.
(Just how big is a football?)

4 is smaller than a car, but bigger than a bicycle

A boat! This image fools the eye because the perspective makes the bike look bigger than the boat and the boat look bigger than the car.

5 is bigger than a letter but smaller than a folio

A bar of Chocolate. It’s a slight cheat – it’s bigger than a letter, we’ll be taste-testing this today.

Did this exercise break out the creativity?

Sort of – I started out with specific things in mind to look for, and dipped into my image library for a couple of them. The last one was actually the first that I took. This could easily be adapted as a break out exercise for a longer workshop, and allowing the use of existing image libraries could make it work for a virtual audience. Maybe you could use your company’s products for the size limits. It was fun to do but not super creative for me.

The Danger of False Positives

The danger of false positives as text with positive and neutral symbols on left of text

The security IT teams where I work are intent on protecting the company from emails that might cause damage to the company, so they’ve been working on new Spam filters, and they’ve decided to put a notification at the top of each email that comes from outside the company. However we use a lot of third party online tools and now notifications from these tools – which I need to see – are flagged as being from outside the company.

Technically it’s true, these are emails from outside the company. However they’re from companies we partner with and I do need to see these emails. From a user perspective these are being flagged when they don’t need to be: it’s a false positive and it occurs because IT have defined the work environment as only what exists on the company’s own servers.

There is a limit to the accuracy of any test, and some of that limit is around false negatives and false positives, so what do those terms mean?
Think of a pregnancy test:
– A false positive would mean the test confirmed a pregnancy that does not exist.
– A false negative would mean the tested showed no pregnancy when one does exist.

One challenge of creating an algorithms that use some external data as input is evaluating the risk of false positives and false negatives. In law there’s an axiom that it’s better that ten guilty people go free rather than one innocent person be imprisoned. So the legal systems work to protect the innocent with rules of evidence and putting the burden of proof on the prosecution, knowing that in some cases guilty people will go free. In drawing the line far on side of false negatives (the guilty person is not convicted) the law acknowledges that it is, at least in theory, really important to avoid false positives (an innocent person is convicted).

In my email example above the line has been drawn, if it’s not a company email – easily identifiable by the email address – then it’s external and the notification is used. But our work environment online is no longer the walled garden we once had. Almost all of the systems I use are from external companies, companies that have gone through significant technical and risk assessment before being allowed to connect to the network. They are systems where I work, but from a strict IT perspective they are outside the company.

I understand the IT perspective on this, but the volume of notifications has taught me to ignore them. It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf – the ultimate false positive.

Just Stop It – Don’t talk to me in a funny language

Just Stop it

Last Month YouTube updated their terms of service, and users in the EU and Switzerland had to agree to new terms so I got this notification.


So I clicked on it, and got a document of more than 4,000 words in Dutch.

I can read Dutch, but it’s much slower for me than reading English. I know YouTube must have this document in English because Ireland and the UK are (at date of writing) part of the EU and YouTube is an American entity so it’s highly likely that they created the document in English. So I’m sure they have the right content – and a quick search revealed they do.

I use the internet in English at least 90% of the time, my language settings are all for UK English, my browser is in English, my YouTube account specifies UK English.

But it seems that YouTube have chosen to use my IP address to determine which language I get my terms and conditions in. This is a Bad Idea, it’s a very poor data point to predict language.

  • Internet access can be routed through another country, my work computer can go via UK, Netherlands, Singapore or the US depending on which data centre I route it through.
  • People travel, within a 2 hour flight I could be in a country where people speak French, English, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, German, Czech, or Polish.
  • In some countries there are multiple languages spoken, what did YouTube do to the Belgians?

Websites can pick up the language of the browser, that’s a better guess at which language to deliver content. And in this case I was logged in. I TOLD YouTube what language I wanted.

American companies are really bad at this, they need to hire more Europeans to their UX teams. Hire some Belgians, YouTube.

The Rise and Fall of Social Media Platforms

Turn the sound off and drop the speed, and watch as the companies bounce up and then disappear.

In 2003 everyone was on Friendster, and back then “everyone” meant 3,5 million people. Their membership peaked at around 50 million, but by then Facebook had 120 million members. The company is “on a break“, and has been since 2005.

By 2005 everyone was on MySpace, but they were overtaken by YouTube in 2007 and had a peak user number of about 73 million in 2008 by which time Facebook had also overtaken them. MySpace still exists, and has tried to position itself as a platform for artists, it still has 50 million monthly active users.

By 2011 Facebook had overtaken and has remained in the top position ever since.

It’s interesting to see how the companies go up and down the charts, but I’m not sure exactly what it tells us – I think a social media platform can be financially successful serving a smaller audience. Linkedin no longer ranks in the tables, and it was purchased by Microsoft in 2016, but it’s a revenue generator for them because of it’s bespoke business tools, and the high level of influence the members have in the business world. The biggest option might not always suit your purpose. Making a profitable business out of a social media channel needs to be about more than ad revenue.

This was compiled by TNV, and they’ve sort of explained how they did it in an article, nowhere on the graphic or the article does it say what the measure is, it seems to be monthly active users (I compared published data from Weibo and Facebook), but I suspect that the Google Buzz figure is not accurate – it plateaus at 170 million, and then is overtaken by other platforms.

Their conclusion was

One thing’s for certain, judging by how many times the top spot changed hands over the past 16 years, none of the social media giants should be resting on their laurels. Really, anything can happen.

Not really. Only three companies held the top spot in the first 8 years; Friendster, MySpace and YouTube. In the last 8 years the top spot has been held by Facebook, and I expect it will take the top spot again this year. Given that “everybody” is now on Facebook it enjoys a position of being an entrenched network, the more people are on it the less likely people are to leave – even if some of us are reluctant users.

If a challenger comes for the top spot I suspect it will be from China, Sina Weibo sits in 7th spot on the 2018 data. They started out as a Chinese only, but now produce a site in both traditional and simplified Chinese to capture much of the Chinese diaspora, and have started to support other languages. Tencent has a billion users already, but is China only so was not included in the data.

Meanwhile I suspect that groups disillusioned with Facebook’s privacy and data practices will start smaller interest-based sites. I’m curious to see where this goes.

Creativity at Play #6

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more creative and one way I’m doing that is picking creativity exercises from the brilliant book Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 exercises to wake up your brain.

Here’s this month’s challenge

Coca Cowpie

Some of the most powerful brands on the planet right now are soft drinks. The graphic qualities of the packaging are recognisable for just about every person alive. It makes you wonder what soft drink packaging would have been like in historical times. OK, maybe you don’t wonder that, but you’re going to start today. Your challenge is to create the soft drink can of choice for any of the following historical eras.

  • Old West
  • Impressionist Painters
  • Prehistoric Times
  • Medieval Times
  • Futuristic

Create the name of the soft drink, its flavour, and what the front of the can would look like.

This question amused me so much I had to choose it. Imagine what soft drink Monet drank, or Fred Flintstone, or Chaucer’s pilgrims. Ah, the luxury of choice!

I chose medieval times, and imagined some of Chaucer’s pilgrims might have wanted to refresh themselves on a journey. I came up with the name “Holy Soda”, and the tagline “the pilgrim’s favourite pop” before I remembered that there had been a product with that name on the Dutch market, and featuring a Dutch TV presenter walking on water. Oh well.

The flavours would be herbal, and sweetened with honey – since sugar cane hadn’t been invented in Europe yet. And fermenting the drink with a little yeast starter yields a slight fizz.

I had fun drawing a number of version of pilgrims on very shaky looking horses for the label before I realised that there weren’t canned drinks back then and the pilgrims would have stored drink in earthenware or glass. So Holy Soda is in a pure green glass bottle, and has a tied label on it, with the name and the tagline, and an image of Chaucer implying his endorsement.

In my mind the pilgrims can return the bottle and get a refilled one along their journey. So not only did I invent the world’s first soda, I also invented recycling. You’re welcome.

This was the best exercise yet in terms of how creative I felt. Partly because when I first started sketching it was with pencil and paper and I didn’t impose any of the historical accuracy restrictions. But even once I imposed those (and I know I haven’t been very strict), that made it more interesting to think about what would have been possible while retaining the concept of a refreshing non-alcoholic drink.

I’d do this again and use other time periods, and I’d even use it as a brainstorm starting exercise in a training course.

The new way of working is broken

The “new way of working” where we are all interconnected and all available all of the time doesn’t work.

Companies are adding tools to their ecosystem every year to solve specific problems, and each tool seems to have its own notification and chat system.  Most of these tools are driving towards “real time communication” and this idea has been sold as a great feature, driving faster innovation and greater collaboration.

We already know that multitasking doesn’t work, it may even cause permanent brain damage. But we don’t need to neuroscientists to know that it’s hard to concentrate and deliver quality work when we are interrupted, and most of the tools supposedly delivering the “new way of working” are highly interruptive.

The default setting for our email system includes an icon notification, a pop up and a sound as the default notification. It’s easy enough to change but every so often a reboot will reset it to default. Imagine anyone thinking that a sound notification would be a good idea in an open plan office.

But is “real-time communication” a good idea? In a crisis it might be necessary, but most of the time we’re not working in crisis mode. In a recent Recode Decode interview Jason Fried said

…as a primary method of communication, real-time communication is a bad idea in most workplaces most of the time…People cannot get their work done at work anymore because they’re being constantly interrupted by all these real-time tools.

The constant interruptions break our focus, and it can take more than 20 minutes to recover our concentration. This cannot be good for productivity, every person I know has developed strategies to reduce the interruptions, including;

  • no sound or vibration notifications
  • removing apps with high notification rates from the desktop/homescreen
  • turn off notifications on apps (weirdly this isn’t always possible – even temporarily)
  • close email and any social media tools to allow focus
  • use airplane mode to appear unavailable
  • book appointments in outlook to do focused work – which triggers a “busy status” on skype

But could we also call on tool designers to rethink their notification systems from “push” to “pull”, perhaps they could allow us to schedule mini-breaks from notifications. Could system designers set up notification hubs where we collect the notifications for new work? Or could notifications get really smart and only appear when we’re working on the relevant project?

Imagine how much we would get done in a day without interruptions.

image via pixabay 

Green Washing

Ever seen a product marketed as being good for the environment – in a plastic bottle?

Consumers are looking for sustainable options in their purchasing, and companies follow that trend. Sometimes the change is has an environmental impact, sometimes not. It can be hard to tell. When a company markets their products as sustainable but spends more on marketing than sustainable sources, or produces misleading marketing or packaging, or promotes their product as simply better than alternatives – that’s greenwashing.

Definition

Greenwashing is the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice. Greenwashing can make a company appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is.

Some Examples

Starbucks announced last year that they would ban straws and instead introduce a “sippy cup” lid. Turns out that the lids use more plastic than the straws and are unlikely to be better for the environment. But they got good press at the time of the announcement.

TIP: If you’re worried about straws then skip the straw/plastic beaker all together, and opt for a reusable cup. Starbucks and many cafés will make coffee in your reusable cup and may even offer a discount.

Walmart joined the sustainability trend, launching a “go green” sustainability campaign. Given that Walmart customers are price sensitive this was always going to be a challenge, and the report card is mixed. They’ve reduced foodwaste, and increased recycling of plastic. Their efforts to shift to 100% sustainable energy have so far (in more than 10 years) only got to 4% according to the EPA.

TIP: if you’re trying to assess claims look for agency reporting on data, and beware of percentage improvement, a move from 1% sustainable energy to 4% is a 400% improvement.

Coca cola – and other beverage companies – are working on “plant-based” plastics, that will be biodegradable. In some countries these bottles are already on the market, in some cases they’re still as much as 70% plastic, and about 80% of beverage containers still end up in landfill.

TIP: If you’re worried about this source of plastic stop buying drinks in single use plastic. Ask for tap water in restaurants, carry a water bottle from home (assuming you live somewhere with safe water).

In these cases the companies are trying to do something genuine, it’s just not easy to change people’s behaviour or build new resource infrastructure. These are not the worst examples of greenwashing.

Airbus took the skies in 2008 using the slogan “A better environment inside and out” for the Airbus A380, even putting on the planes’ tail. But air transport is a highly polluting industry, putting millions of tons of CO2 into the environment every year. Their argument seems to be that because of the scale of the plane less pollution occurs per kilo transported – true, but in the interests of honesty in marketing perhaps the slogan should be “not quite as bad for the environment as our old planes (which are still flying)”. Hmmm, not so snappy, needs work.

Volkswagen’s emission scandal which came to light in 2015 was possibly the most extreme example of greenwashing to date. Volkswagen not only made false claims about the emissions from their cars, the emissions devices in half a million cars themselves were modified to pass emission tests over a period of forty years. One good outcome, I suspect this scandal led to countries adding legal requirements for ecological claims to companies’ marketing.

Legal?

Probably not, most countries have advertising standards requiring that statements in an ad are verifiable. Some countries  -Australia, Canada, Norway, the US – have including requirements for companies to back their environmental claims with data the advertising standards.

Even so, as a consumer it’s worth keeping a cynical eye on claims of “greener”, “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, and “sustainable”.

 

Image via pixabay