Posts tagged “communication”

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Essayist Joseph Epstein Exposes Friendship – "Some aspects of friendship had changed, he averred. Women and men could now meet in non-sexual friendship in a way they could not in his father's generation. And through email, chat rooms, and technology, "techno friends" could be friendly without requiring personal presence."
  • Susan Roane – Small Talk – Keynote Speaker – Business Networking Techniques – Susan RoAne is the leading authority and original expert on how to work a room. Her best-selling books, popular interactive presentations and media interviews help companies and organizations successfully develop, build and manage client relationships that increase business growth.
  • Podcast: Susan RoAne, author of the book Face to Face: How to Reclaim the Personal Touch in a Digital World – RoAne is an author and speaker on communication but she's blissfully ignorant that the issues she's addressing (When do you email vs. make a phone call? Should you use your laptop in a meeting? Can you wear a bluetooth headset at the opera?) are social norms that are evolving rapidly as new interactive media take hold. What kind of expert proclaims "If you are twittering more than 5 times a day, you should get a life"? Especially in the same breath where she declares it as her new addiction. While she's a champion for the value of real personal connection and considers some of these technologies as excellent ways to enhance those relationships, she also has a top-down view of what's right and wrong without really addressing that sometimes our interpretations about new behaviors are arbitrary (i.e., the act of wearing a Bluetooth headset has no inherent moral value, it's only in the way our society at this time consents to interpret it).

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • The “Raiders” Story Conference – Sure, there's a 125 page document on the interwebs now that transcribes the meetings that Spielberg, Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan had to plan out Raiders of the Lost Ark, but even better is this post chock-full of analysis (with examples) of that document, finding principles of storytelling, screenwriting, and collaboration.

    "7) No idea is a bad idea when you’re brainstorming.

    These guys were all over the place with ideas and there’s nothing wrong with that. As I mentioned earlier, many of the ideas discussed, like the plane crash sequence and mine cart chase, were used in the second film. So what helped determine which sequence should be kept and thrown away? Redundancies in concept. You already had a chase scene here, so why have another one here? Let’s come up with something different. You know? That kind of thing."

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • The Computer Will See You Now – how the computer interferes with the doctor-patient interaction – Doctors struggle daily to figure out a way to keep the computer from interfering with what should be going on in the exam room — making that crucial connection between doctor and patient. I find myself apologizing often, as I stare at a series of questions and boxes to be clicked on the screen and try to adapt them to the patient sitting before me. I am forced to bring up questions in the order they appear, to ask the parents of a laughing 2-year-old if she is “in pain,” and to restrain my potty mouth when the computer malfunctions or the screen locks up.

    The computer depersonalizes medicine. It ignores nuances that we do not measure but clearly influence care. Room is provided for text, but in the computer’s font, important points often get lost.

    A box clicked unintentionally is as detrimental as an order written illegibly — maybe worse because it looks official. It takes more effort and thought to write a prescription than to pull up a menu of medications and click a box.

  • Tension between medical and colloquial language – an issue I explored in interactions column (Poets, Priests, and Politicians) – (via MeFi) Dr Ardill, in evidence, said he did not use the words alleged by Ms McQuade. He said he asked her was she “next or near a man’s willy bits” in the last six months and in relation to her sleeping he did suggest a drink, light exercise, a trashy novel or some “rumpy pumpy”. He said he used this kind of “childish” language with all patients to make them feel at ease. Nobody before had found it offensive. He said he would not use the term “willy bits” again.

“Very Loud Please Cover Ears!”

Here’s the Nine O’Clock Gun in Vancouver’s Stanley Park

The cannon, safe inside a cage, fires every night at 9:00. And there are warning signs, of course. One is fairly straightforward

And the other looks like a parody example of Bad Visual Design.

Although the entire sign is hideous, confusing, hilarious yet disturbing, the bad copy, perhaps to cross cultures, is my (for lack of a better word) favorite. I love the phrase “Very Loud Please Cover Ears!” — note that the unnecessary quotes are actually included in the copy. It trumps the bad colors, the confusing icons, and the abysmal visual flow. I picture some bureaucrat, for whom English is not a first language, shouting out the copy to the sign designer, who took it down verbatim. Although just a comma would help a lot, but it still just reads embarrassingly wrong.

See more of my Vancouver 2009 pictures here.

Don’t brand me, bro

IMing recently on Yahoo Chat, I noticed the other-party-status-report telling me the person I was chatting with was “hammering out a wicked comeback.”

Usually, this small gray line of text just says the other person “is typing.”


I wasn’t sure how what I had written would merit “a wicked comeback.” I mentioned it to my conversation partner and found out that one of our IM clients had inserted this snarky turn of phrase into our interaction all by itself.

Doesn’t it make you wonder how often your virtual communication is being framed in a way of which you are unaware–and which may or may not have any real connection to

  • what you are communicating
  • your personality
  • the context of the interaction

Don’t get me wrong–I like that companies are shooting for a more authentic and playful voice. But in this case, the locus of the voice was inappropriate.

Bill Breen wrote in Fast Company:

“Our sense of what’s “real” in this post-postmodern world takes on all kinds of strangely distorted shapes and guises, as if it’s reflected back at us from a swirl of fun-house mirrors.”

When a distinctive voice gets thrown into the mix in a way that makes it seem like part of someone’s personal communication, it’s really that person that’s getting branded, not the company. I don’t want the personality of my software superimposed on my communication.

When tools start speaking for the user, rather than the user speaking through the tools, it just makes communication more difficult.

Related posts:
Meet the New Authenticity
Mundane is the New Fun

Get our latest article: Poets, Priests, and Politicians


My latest interactions column, Poets, Priests, and Politicians has just been published.

[W]e’re increasingly exposed to rhetoric in the arenas of marketing and politics. It’s easy to be cynical and dismissive of relabeling. “It’s a feature, not a bug,” has long been a cliche in software and technology development, and we are perhaps less likely to examine the possibilities that lie along that tension: the power of words in the process of understanding people and creating new things for them.

Get a PDF of the article here. To receive a copy of the article, send an email to steve AT portigal DOT com and (if you haven’t given us this info before) tell us your name, organization, and title. We’ll send you a PDF.

Other articles

The bear that saluted me

I thought this advertising bear in Shinjuku was cool, and so stopped to take a picture. The bear saw me and posed with the typical Asian two-fingered V-gesture. After I took the photo, I did my best gaijin attempt at a bow. The bear returned the bow, and then saluted me.

Without a common language (indeed without a common species) we had an interesting opportunity to share our knowledge of each other’s culture in gestures. And although I rarely salute my friends and family, I understood its intent as a gesture-of-Western-origin.

Japan is quite impenetrable to the outsider, and it’s easy to subsist on a parallel layer, free from the possibility or opportunity for everyday interactions. In our two weeks that moat was crossed less than a dozen times (i.e., the couple in a cafe who smiled and waved at me when I peered in the window and inadvertently triggered the sliding door, letting in some very cold air; the couple who saw us eating Taiyaki (cooked sweet batter filled with bean paste in the sahpe of a fish) and explained what it was, what is was called, and compared camera models) and each time was rewarding in its own small way.

But making this connection with a bear, in the land of kawaii, was briefly and intensely magical.

Talk to the 5th guy

The 5th guy is a public health awareness campaign from the Florida Department of Health. It

illustrates a simple point – most people respect certain hygienic norms. They stay home when they are sick. They cover their cough with their arm or a tissue. And they wash their hands, especially after using the restroom. There is observational data on that: The American Society for Microbiology sent researchers into public rest rooms to watch what people do. They found that four out of five people wash their hands after using the restroom. Thus was born the campaign’s central character: the “Fifth Guy.” In the ads, this fifth guy – played by a wonderful comic actor named Ben Spring – keeps making the wrong choices and suffering the social consequences as a result. The take-away message is: Unless you are staying home when sick, covering your cough with an arm or a tissue, and washing your hands often, you’re a fifth guy, an outlier. That’s the motivation. No one wants to be a fifth guy – to be that one person everyone whispers about.

It’s interesting to think about the line between playing on social norms and shame-based advertising. Advertising is often about encouraging you to take some action, telling you that you should take action, telling you that everyone else is doing it are basic forms of persuasion.

Florida is trying to encourage what they claim is a dominant behavior, as opposed to trying to create a new behavior, so pointing to the majority makes sense.

Many years ago I worked on a project for Unilever. They were considering the challenge of “on-the-go cleansing” — people away from the place (the bathroom at home) where they normally use Unilever products. I think the timing was just before “germophobia” went mainstream. The people we observed and interviewed were experiencing a serious tension between the need to protect themselves from germs and the need to behave normally.

You were expected to shake hands with someone in a social setting, but you were also made aware of the fact that that person’s hands were covered in germs. You were expected to share food with colleagues and friends, but you may not know if someone else put their hands in the candy bowl without washing them. And you weren’t allowed to pay too much attention to your own cleanliness, lest you be seen as having a mental illness (i.e., OCD).

We identified several strategies for Unilever to use. One of them, like the 5th guy campaign, involved making things normal by making them common. The box of office tissue that everyone takes from, or the skin lotion pump that is used by colleagues at work are both examples. Everyone uses them, therefore it’s normal, therefore it’s okay.

Another strategy involved creating hidden usage opportunities, where new cleaning behaviors could take surreptitiously, in a pocket, or in the pages of a book.

And a strategy that lived between those two was to mask new behaviors as existing normal activities. For example, makers of insulin pens have begun to make their devices to look more like pens than syringes.

I hope there’s good data with this Florida initiative, but I suspect some of the biggest change has already taken place, within the organization itself. I remember that our clients at Unilever worked hard to grasp the depth of the struggles we shared with them; indeed, they kept referring to the “people with OCD” as we reiterated that most people had these very concerns over germs but did not want to be assumed to have OCD. Our clients were participants in the culture they were seeking to understand and getting to that new perspective took a lot of work on both sides. The (what I presume to be) new thinking exhibited by the Floridians is encouraging.

Semiotics of subcultures

Recent political scandals have much to teach us.

…Officers wrote that they knew from their training and work experience that the foot-tapping was a signal used by people looking for sex.

After a man in the adjacent stall left, Craig entered it and put his luggage against the front of the stall door, “which Sgt. Karsnia’s experience has indicated is used to attempt to conceal sexual conduct by blocking the view from the front of the stall,” said the complaint.

The complaint said Craig then tapped his right foot several times and moved it closer to Karsnia’s stall and then moved it to where it touched Karsnia’s foot. Karsnia recognized that “as a signal often used by persons communicating a desire to engage in sexual conduct,” the complaint said.

Assuming this is true (and recalling humorous-in-retrospect documents that we’ve all seen about law enforcement deconstructing hippies, punks, heavy metal, gangs, etc., it very way may not be), it’s cool to consider a signal that can only be interpreted by those that know what it means. To everyone else, it may not even penetrate your awareness. Until the communication is decoded, it’s almost perfect, especially for messages that may be risky.

I’m fascinated to consider that (maybe, just maybe) someone may have at some point tapped at me, and I wouldn’t have necessarily noticed and certainly not interpreted it as it’s presumably intended.

Digusted By Nokia


I saw this Nokia ad in Wired: A man and an attractive woman are seemingly out on a date together. A connection can happen anywhere, Nokia reminds us. How nice for these two people, enjoying each other’s company. Oops, what’s that? The man is holding a portable electronic device just below the table edge, where’s looking at a baseball game. The connection the man is experiencing isn’t with another person, but with media.

Nokia is encouraging us to use their technology to emulate this cad? To surreptitiously play with their digital appendages while half-faking an interaction with another person? If this technology has merit, why doesn’t he put it on the table so they can look at it together?

We often hear that technology has no inherent good or bad attributes, and it’s the way it ends up being used that determines that. But what about design, based on use scenarios? Or advertising, putting those stories out there in order to drive interest and adoption? It’s one thing when advertising plays “naughty” and we’re in on the joke, but that’s not the tone I get from this; I just see a guy being a jerk and Nokia encouraging the rest of us to follow suit.


Today must be solicitation day. We received a curious phone call earlier in the day from a firm that – as far as I can tell – helps strategically market creative service businesses. A very large designerly such business (former client) was name-checked several times. I was buttered up with references to someone in the media who said great things about me, while the second time this came up I was told that they can’t tell me who it is because they never reveal their sources (I hadn’t asked). Sources?! When I explained to them that we were probably too small for them (going by the size of firms they had worked for) they told me that their fees were “up there.”

Later our HR alias got an email from a recruiting firm wanting to help out. The first line of the email reads
Hello Prtugal Consulting
and then of course goes on to talk about excellent and commitment and all that! But they managed to get TWO spelling errors in my name! So much for attention to detail. And they are contacting me to solicit my business? So much for good communication.

I’ve received any number of calls over the last few months from large Indian operations wanting to see if I can outsource some of my work to them. Hmm. Not yet, anyway.

Business development is hard, and very hard to do well. That’s clear from either side of the conversation!

Communication Arts props

Communication Arts offers up 50 Essential Bookmarks. Of course, they’ve got Core77 (where I sometimes blog and write) as well as a nice sidebar about Design Observer, that quotes me

Design Observer has reached beyond the world of design. Fast Company counts this blog as one of seven must-reads for design. “Though academic at times, this smart blog hosts a thriving community.” Marketing consultant Steve Portigal (a repeat visitor and author of his own blog All This ChittahChattah) posted this note after a heated online debate: “Thanks… for a great piece. This is what blogs excel at-a personal story, not too confessional…a relevant one, of course, mixed in with perspective, and analysis. Add in an articulate critique of colleagues whom are liked and respected (but not unequivocally supported in every single decision) and you’ve got real leadership.”

Marketing consultant? Not quite. And how’s about linking to this blog, not just mentioning it?
Well, anyway, all is not lost. Debbie Millman, in a separate sidebar (or popup; whatever) lists All This ChittahChattah as one of the “sites they consider to be vital to their work.” Thanks, Debbie!

Check out checking out


I was thinking about how to describe this mess of a Safeway receipt when I read a post on Niblettes that mentioned “brand diarrhea.”

[as I’ve said, I won’t call the person Niblettes, I’ll call him John, but I will call the blog Niblettes. This is my brand aphasia. Or silliness threshold]

They’ve jammed every form of bonus/status/ad/info at the end. For this purchase, the checkout dude even stopped afterwards and recited a lengthy speech referring me to the information located on the bottom of the receipt that I should check out if I had time. His tone suggested there was maybe something special there that I hadn’t noticed, something specific they would want me to find. But what?

He then called me Mr. Portugal and also gave me $100 cash-back, even though I had only paid for $80. I returned the other $20.

I was pretty intrigued by the discounted gas purchase available. But there’s no info on where to get that! Or any info about how to find out where to get that! Nothing on the back, either. Which makes it basically a useless offer if we can’t redeem it!

I await that heavenly day when I earn my free deli sandwich!

You talkin’ to me?

“To our valued customers:
In cooperation with the
recent FDA warning we
have pulled all fresh

This is a terrible sign. The grocer in this AP photo has simply attempted to cover their ass for not stocking the produce we might be searching for. There’s no helpful information about the FDA warning – we’re supposed to know about it. There’s an opportunity here to help people and remind them not to each spinach for the duration of this situation.

And what the hell does it mean to “have pulled” spinach? This is not how people communicate, this is how merchandisers talk.

I realize this is a reactive sign and not a lot of time was spent in composing it (although it’s not hand-written, it’s somewhat professional looking, so there was some measure of care), but the jargon and self-referential tone is disappointing.

I experienced something similar in a recent email

Mr. Portigal,

Sorry, you are having problems with your Salter Electronic Scale Model 929. The people of Taylor Precision Products take great pride in producing quality products. Salter Model 929 has a ten years warranty. Please return the scale to Taylor. Taylor does not require a receipt or the original box. Please enclose a brief note with your name, return address, explanation of problem. Kindly put the note inside a box with
the scale, return to the following:


Once your scale is received it will be replaced with a new Salter Model 929. Taylor than will mail the new scale back to the consumer. Turn around time of two to three weeks. I do hope this information proves to
be helpful to you.

How, in the course of a couple of short paragraphs, did “Mr. Portigal” morph into “the consumer”? Suddenly they are talking about me, not to me. What?

Not to grossly oversimply, but could it be that organizations spend too much time thinking about themselves, and not the people that they serve? The colloquial term is “drinking the Kool-Aid” and many companies, small and large, turn that into an asset that attracts and retains employees (“a strong culture”) but also presumably excites customers. But there’s a heavy black line on an org chart somewhere that splits the internal dialogs from the external ones, and the strong culture builds in shorthands and buzzwords that alienate and exclude the people on the outside – the ones that those companies are in business to serve.

The business press (and even worse, the blogosphere) is filled with enthusiastic writing about infectious passionate customer/marketing/blah but things are far far messier than any of those authors would want you to believe.

Conversational Layers

I have been running some in-home discussion groups for a design project recently. The ebb and flow of context is just so interesting to me and highlights the challenges of getting “all” the information.

[none of this is verbatim]

Q: If you and your wife own one iPod, how do you determine who is going to use it?
A: Well, for commuting, it’s either the iPod, or the New Yorker.

Two scenarios are likely:
1. She takes the iPod on the train and he drives their lovely car, a New Yorker.
2. Whoever takes the iPod gets music, and the spouse gets to read the most recent issue of the New Yorker magazine.

There’s always the clarification question: “When you say ‘New Yorker’ are you referring to the car or the magazine?” but in this case, we didn’t get to ask that, and I was confused at the time. It’s clearer looking at the video that they are talking about the magazine.

Later on, the same guy (still talking about iPods) tells us “Well, when you do that, it looks more Zen. It actually looks like the competition.” and moments later another participant adds “Yes, it’s like he says, very Zen, very Japanese, very spiritual.”

But that’s not at all what he meant. He meant another type of MP3 player, the Creative Zen.
I understood what he meant, at the moment, but the other person, didn’t. And it wasn’t possible in the flow of things to clarify (and maybe not even necessary).

I have powerful memories of being in Mr. Collison’s grade 6 class, and seeing him do this sort of thing all the time – missing a word or a piece of context of what someone said and riffing on it, in entirely the wrong direction. It really made me squirm in my seat to see all this miscommunication around me and have to keep quiet, or at best, wait to offer my insight. I wonder if other people notice this stuff and are as stimulated/aggravated/curious as I am?


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