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
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.
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.
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.
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. 😅
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.
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.
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.
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!
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 theback 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.