Not wanting the best

Four years ago, around the time I started thinking about design, one of my friends visiting Princeton remarked to me how much he liked the campus, because he could feel all the care that was put into its design. At the time, I (in my head) immediately disagreed with him, one of my dominant objections being: if the people who designed campus really cared about student life, they would make more direct routes (diagonals) between buildings.

I look back on that response now and find it really amusing. Not only have I cultivated a lot more appreciation for Princeton’s campus since then (funny how our experiences shape our perceptions of a place 😊), but my design sensibilities have also evolved. I used to think that good design was all about efficiency—how can I best enable the user to accomplish their goals?—but that’s engineering, not design!

It may be kind of weird to read that, because the logical consequence is not wanting or designing for “the best.” But I think that in design and in life, it’s more important to focus on enabling a range of experiences, rather than on optimality. For instance, it would certainly be more efficient if all of the grass at Princeton were replaced with cement, but what kind of experience would that be? Campus would certainly be less beautiful.

I’ve been reminding myself of this mindset recently while traveling. It’s really easy for me to get stuck into thought patterns like, “I want to eat at the best restaurants” or “I want to make sure I get the most out of this trip.” That’s one of the main reasons why traveling can be so stressful for me (usually in the days right after I arrive, before I remember that “the point of travel is to be flexible”1), because I feel this pressure to have the best experience. I don’t identify as a perfectionist, but this is definitely a perfectionist tendency. Aggressively checking TripAdvisor/Google reviews/Yelp, feeling like I have to check certain places/foods/experiences off a list, documenting everything to prove something to people afterwards… In so many crucial ways, overplanning shelters you from experience. And I’ve realized that having a life full of experiences, a range of experiences, feels so much more rich and desirable to me than a life filled with attempts at getting the best. It’s also really liberating.

I want to close with this quote from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist that has been on my mind recently. Spoiler alert! The context: after Santiago goes to the Egyptian Pyramids to search for his treasure, he gets beat up and robbed, and doesn’t actually find anything. But in the process, he learns from one of the thieves where his treasure actually is. This quote is from when he goes to that location and starts digging.

“You old sorcerer,” the boy shouted up to the sky. “You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so that I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me come back in tatters. Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”

“No,” he heard a voice on the wind say. “If I had told you, you would’t have seen the Pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”


1Ten Years a Nomad: A Traveler’s Journey Home by Matthew Kepnes

The importance of small things

I was reminded of how much of an impact small things can have on your life after I started using a new water bottle last week and saw my water consumption drastically increase.

This lesson was one of the first things that I internalized when I started studying design (and it probably goes without saying that it’s generalizable haha)—habits, physical objects, aspects of the environment, etc. can all have seemingly disproportionate effects, and not just in an emergent/gestalt sense.

For instance, there was a housing project in St. Louis known as Pruitt-Igoe that turned into a crime hotspot and was demolished around 20 years after completion, despite a ton of public enthusiasm and optimism for the plan. There were a bunch of factors that contributed to its decline, but one of the dominant ones was a design decision that had an unexpectedly large negative effect: to reduce elevator congestion, the elevators only stopped at certain floors, forcing residents to use the stairs in between certain floors. The number of residents sharing each stairway made it difficult to know which pedestrians were actually residents and which were intruders. And a lack of funding for building maintenance combined with the sheer amount of foot traffic also led to the stairways quickly falling into disrepair. Both of these factors contributed to the stairwells ultimately becoming sites of frequent muggings. In contrast, the Pruitt-Igoe apartments that “clustered around small, two-family landings with tenants working to maintain and clear their common areas were often relatively successful,” as were the adjacent Carr Village apartments.

This lesson is also embodied by the “For Want of a Nail” proverb.

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To go into more detail about my new water bottle, the story behind these three water bottles is that I realized in September that I’d been using the purple one for like 10 years(!!) and I wanted a new one, mostly because I really no longer liked its appearance. I ended up getting the pink BKR bottle as part of the Sunday Riley subscription box (which ended up not being a good purchase, btw), and used it for around 4 months before admitting to myself that I hated it. There were many annoying things about it: it was difficult to fully clean (because of the silicone ring in the lid), it got gross super fast (because you drink directly from the mouth), and it wasn’t super compatible with my water dispensing system (the opening is pretty small). All of those small inconveniences ultimately resulted in me drinking a lot less water, which I only realized after getting my new water bottle, which has been wonderful so far. It’s actually the most recent version as the purple water bottle (which yeah, if I used it for 10 years is probably pretty great/well-designed), and I totally recommend it if you’re looking for a new water bottle that is spill-proof, easy to clean, single-handedly operable, and see-through, and has a non-straw but still indirect method of drinking!

The life hack way of framing this lesson is that having the right tools/products/systems can be hugely enabling. Why make an aversive task more aversive by using the wrong tools/products/systems? Off the top of my head, here are some of the other ways I’ve made use of this in my life (aside from the small habits that I’ve already written about): having designated spaces for categories of things (e.g., organizational containers) to facilitate tidiness, purchasing a cushion for my desk chair so that my back can be upright while I work, having a meditation cushion and yoga mat readily accessible in my room (in general, associating physical locations with certain tasks/actions/ways of being) to encourage me to meditate/not be at my desk/stretch/exercise.

My first Amazon Books store experience

This past weekend, I visited the Amazon Books store on 34th Street in NYC. According to Wikipedia, it’s one of the 13 Amazon Books stores in existence!

First, let me show you some of the pictures I took of the store, and then I’ll tell you why I dislike the entire concept of the store (and why I’ll never go there to buy books). 🙂 Btw, hope the scroll-down gallery is fine! The slideshow view doesn’t seem to display long captions.

 

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A screenshot of a Yelp review for the Stumptown inside the store (which is definitely a plus for Stumptown lovers like Michael!). “Slightly dystopian vibes” is definitely a phrase I would use to describe the store!
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The storefront. I saw a bunch of people taking this picture as I drank my chai latte inside the street-facing window of Stumptown.
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A sign you see when you walk into the store. This was kind of confusing to me! I’ll get back to the pricing in a later picture.
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One of the ways the Amazon Books store is different from many other bookstores: it sells more non-bookstore-type merchandise. For instance, coffee and juicing machines, and blenders, to go along with books on the same topic…
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…and fitness accessories to go along with fitness books. One thing to notice though (and this continues in other ways throughout the store) is the weird specificity of the merchandise displays. I know other stores do New Year’s themed marketing in stores, but this felt weirdly more intrusive, probably largely in part due to the context of the rest of the store.
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Along with those non-book products, they also sell Amazon devices, including Amazon Fire TV and Echo Dot (next pic). From the Amazon Books site: “For customers who aren’t Prime members, Amazon devices are the same price as from Amazon.com; books and other items are sold at list price.” As a side note, I’ve heard that they’ve also begun selling e.g., the Amazon Echo at Whole Foods, but I didn’t see any when I last visited a Whole Foods in Charlotte last month.
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For some reason, this kind of stuff really bothers me. I get that you’re primarily an online retailer, but that doesn’t mean you have to bring web practices/jargon/etc. to the physical world! Let me know if this bothers you too and we can have a conversation shitting on it.
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A picture to help you get a sense of the store’s layout. To describe it in more detail, Stumptown is on the left when you first walk in, and takes up the entire left third-ish of the store. Random electronics (like the various drink makers) are directly in front of the entrance, other electronics are in the middle left of the store, checkout is on the middle right, and everything else is books.
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I guess this is one of the reasons someone might choose to go to the Amazon Books store instead of another one? If you primarily base your purchases off of online reviews (which, yeah, I do too), then this is probably supposed to be a differentiating feature. But I’ll go into detail after the photos about why this kind of thing actually has the opposite effect on me.
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More of the same.
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This is another example of the weird specificity. I’m guessing this is their attempt at physicalizing targeted marketing, but it really doesn’t do it for me. Like, maybe? But no. And it makes me feel weird.
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Using not-Amazon reviews, but still an “online”-type metric for one of the displays! (I notice myself getting saltier and saltier as I write these captions.)
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Similar to the last picture, but this shelf was curated just using Goodreads.
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A sad (in the context of everything else) attempt at humanizing the store. Cute, but still too little, too late.
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An attempt at physicalizing Amazon’s recommendation system. It kind of works (?) because I’m guessing the books on the left are widely read. But this still doesn’t make me want to come here.
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Similar to the last picture, an attempt at physicalizing the “sort by top sellers in this category” online feature.
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The pricing in this store was really strange. If you’ll notice in the previous images, the labels under all the books didn’t have prices. Maybe I’m missing something, but the only ways to check the prices were to either scan the barcode on the label in your Amazon app (quite tedious!), or to scan the book in this price scanner (also tedious, because there were only a few of these in the store). As you can see on the screen, if you’re a Prime member, you get a better deal on the books. This would be the same price you would pay if you were to buy the book on Amazon.com. One small confusion I have about this is: if you don’t have Amazon Prime, why would you get the book in stores (if it’s not urgent)? I get that Amazon’s probably trying to convince a different demographic to try out Amazon Prime with this scheme, but people who want to resist can still resist at a pretty low cost (for instance, they could just buy the book on Amazon.com without Prime shipping instead).
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You can checkout with your Amazon app. I feel like this is a novelty more than anything else – I can’t imagine actually repeatedly checking out this way and being happy about it. Probably (hopefully) a temporary solution…
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…but you can also pay with a credit card linked to your Prime account, so not sure why the troublesome QR code method is advertised/utilized at all. Maybe for the small number of people who don’t have all their credit cards with them, or share a joint Prime account, but even then, I don’t understand why the QR code method was advertised more prominently.
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This is an image of a small sign on the checkout counter of Stumptown. I wonder who fills out these surveys… Surprised that they didn’t include a QR code linking to the url! 😏
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Last photo: the arch separating the coffee shop from the bookstore. The design is still cohesive across the boundary. In general, the store gave me major airport bookstore (e.g., Hudson Booksellers) vibes, but with a bit less wood and more white. But still depersonalized af.

 

Now…onto why I don’t like the store and could never see myself choosing it over any (reasonably) normal bookstore – barring fundamental changes.

Let’s think about buying books and visiting bookstores. For me, those two are actually very different things. If I’m buying a physical book (not an e-book), there are only a few different scenarios. Either a) it’s a textbook I need for school, in which case I would go to my university bookstore which is conveniently located and gives us a 30% discount on textbooks, b) it’s a book that I want a physical copy of (like if I want to gift a book, or if I want a book for reference or to add to my physical collection that I can lend to people), in which case I would just order it online, or c) I’ve received a gift card to a local bookstore (very rare). For the last point, I should also mention that it looks like there is no Amazon Books-specific gift card, you could just use your Amazon account, which could be loaded with an Amazon.com gift card, to pay, or use a physical Amazon.com gift card. (I could be mistaken about this.)

I don’t think there’s ever been a case where I’ve urgently needed to buy a physical book other than for school, but if I did, their feature that allows you to search product availability in your local store would certainly be helpful (and I’ll admit, is more convenient than calling in to ask the same thing from a smaller bookstore). Otherwise, I would just buy the e-book, go without it for a few days, or read the summary online. 😅

The Amazon Books website describes itself:

As a physical extension of Amazon.com, Amazon Books integrates the benefits of offline and online shopping to help you find books and devices you’ll love. We select books based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. We place books face-out on the shelves, so each can communicate its own essence. Under each book is a review card with the Amazon.com customer rating and a review. Most have been rated 4 stars or above and many are award winners.

They say all of that as if they’re good things. What I appreciate about other bookstores is the curation, the ambience, the spontaneity! I want to have the experience of discovering a new read, or to just be able to sit down and take in the bookstore environment (similar to what I look for in a coffee shop). When I lived in the Mission in San Francisco, I loved (and cherished!) passing by Adobe Books and Alley Cat and checking out the discounted selection of used books in front of the store.

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Even though you couldn’t replicate that kind of experience with a store selling new books, there overall is a sense of wonder and calmness that I look for in a bookstore that just cannot be replaced by Amazon Books’s curation by the online masses and attempts at translating their targeted marketing strategies into the physical world. Furthermore, the aspects that are supposed to be selling points of the store make me feel uncomfortable. The store is “personalized,” yet very depersonalized at the same time, and seems to be quite explicitly focused on getting me to buy buy buy, which is annoying enough to resist online, and almost antithetical to what I look for in other bookstores.

PSA: stores/corporations/etc. do not act in your best interests – they act in theirs! Sometimes the two are aligned – in which case, great! But that is very much not true for me and this Amazon Books store.

Overall, the only reasons I see for me returning to this store would be to either get some Stumptown (most likely), or maybe to try out one of the Amazon electronics (very unlikely). I think it’s worth checking the store out once if you’re interested in this kind of thing, but mainly, writing this blog post really made me realize that I really should support my local bookstores, lest Amazon Books stores become the new norm.

My first Reformation experience

I visited the Reformation store in SF (on Valencia) before my trip to Europe to buy some 80/90 degree-weather appropriate clothing. It was Reformation’s 4th brick-and-mortar store, out of the 6 stores now in existence.

I was really confused when I walked into the store; I had walked past it multiple times but this was my first time actually entering. There were several other customers in the store, and their behavior was abnormal in a way that I couldn’t pinpoint. I am terrible at asking for help from customer service reps that aren’t in-your-face friendly, so I just started browsing the racks and pulled a dress off to try on.

A sales associate quickly came over and semi-explained the system to me: she’d create a virtual dressing room, and I should notify her to add anything to the room. She asked for my name and added that dress to the room after verifying what size I wanted, and then put the dress back on the rack and walked away. I was a bit confused at this point, and thought, “I have to get her every time I see something I like?!” so I continued browsing without adding anything else to my virtual dressing room.

At this point I was feeling pretty deflated, but decided to see what the touch screen monitors (I think there are two in the sales room) were about, since the people occupying them had left. As I played around with one, I became excited because it (for the most part) integrated the conveniences of online shopping, like filtering by in-store size availability, seeing the items on sale, and viewing all the colors of a particular item, with the convenience of being able to try things on in stores (and not having to do the returns switcheroo). From there, I added several things to my virtual fitting room, clicked a button saying I was ready to try them on, and walked towards the dressing rooms.

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It was pretty magical when I went to get a fitting room, until I thought about it and figured out the source of the magic. Here’s what went down: a sales associate asked for my name and then went away somewhere, and then told me that my room was ready shortly after. I was confused because I didn’t see her go into the dressing room at all! But when I went in, everything I had requested was in a little closet inside. Magic!

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I felt like a kid in a candy store – they even had several different lighting options and a plug you could use to play music from your phone. I started trying things on, still mesmerized by how it all happened, when someone opened and (rapidly) closed the  back of the closet while I was changing. Notice the seam at the back of the closet. The source of the magic – a back room and a back door – had been revealed, and real life was more disappointing than whatever my imagination had conjured.

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There’s a touch screen in the dressing room, similar to the one in the sales room but smaller, where you can also add new items and get new sizes, which is handy!

The checkout procedure is pretty typical of stores trying to imitate the Apple experience, where an associate just rings you up on their phone and can email you the receipt. I also chuckled internally when I noticed that they offer Boxed Water to customers.

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Overall, I liked the experience after I started using the touch screen, and I see where Reformation is trying to go with the store. I do have several ideas about how the UX could be improved, but I was mainly only interested in talking about my experience in this post.

Why I’m restarting my blog

The reason is actually pretty simple, but I wanted to have a public explanation in writing.

I visited the Bauhaus-Archiv in Berlin, and they had a wonderful special exhibition on the works of Jasper Morrison. There were two parts to the exhibit: one was Thingness, a retrospective that showed various works of furniture and other everyday objects that Morrison had created or collaborated on over the last 35 years; and the other was The Good Life, a selection of photo essays from his book of the same name. I really enjoyed reading about the Morrison’s design/thought processes in Thingness, but I was truly ~inspired~ by The Good Life.

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In each of the photo essays in The Good Life, Morrison writes about something that he noticed and photographed – he reflects on why that thing piqued his interest and imagines what sorts of conditions caused it to come in existence. I’m doing an awful job describing them – you’d probably get a better sense by reading a couple.

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I was fascinated by these seemingly simple photo essays, and they made me want to write content that evokes similar feelings.

In many aspects of my life, I’ve been appreciating the truth of clichés more. And in this case, I’m reminded of the advice of successful content creators: “Create the content that you want to see.” I don’t know when my attitude towards blogging became so formal and rigorous and constrained, but now I know I want to do less of that and instead write in a way that’s actually enjoyable to me, about content that I actually enjoy.