Posts tagged “toronto”

Out and About: Steve in Toronto

I was in my old hometown of Toronto last week for Interaction13. Of course, I did spend some time wandering and (shivering and) taking pictures. The Flickr set is taking shape here but meanwhile some faves for you are below.

Homeless memorial

What is dangerous?

Bash Back

Sushi Dry Cleaner

Evan Penny



Steam Whistle





Congrats to IxD13 Student Design Challenge winners

Congrats to the five winners of the first phase of the IxD13 Student Design Challenge who will be joining us in Toronto in January! Special thanks to our wonderful slate of judges who helped us get to this point.

James McIntyre, Malmo Hogskola

Mani Hariharan, National Institute of Design, India

Ari Zilnik, Carnegie Mellon University

Yongsoon Choi, Graduate School of Media Design in Keio University, Japan
video offline

Bethany Stolle, Austin Center for Design

ChittahChattah Quickies

Teaching the F.A.A. That Dogs Don’t Buckle Up [] – This is (part of) what it takes to do great work: patience and persistence. As much as we slap our foreheads about the corporate cultures we interact with, clearly the regulatory cultures are likely to be even worse.

In one scene, about a minute into the video, a man is shown sitting next to a large bull as he fumbles with his seat belt. A voice-over says, “For the 0.0001 percent of you who have never operated a seat belt before, it works like this.” Few people know that the bull was originally a dog. But when the Federal Aviation Administration reviewed the video, one of the many concerns it had was that passengers would think dogs, which are sometimes on flights, had to wear seat belts – I’m not kidding here – so it made Virgin America change the dog to a bull, as bulls are, thankfully, not allowed on planes. According to people who were involved in the making of the video, there were six months of meetings with the F.A.A. and changes to the video before it was finally approved.

Orangutans get iPads at Toronto Zoo [CBC] -I’m struck by the limited amount of adaptation the device required, in contrast to classic example where Koko the talking gorilla used a customized Mac II.

The zoo is working with a program, dubbed “Apps for Apes,” which was started by the conservation group Orangutan Outreach. The goal of the program is to improve the quality of life of primates in zoos by providing them with additional mental stimulation in the form of Apple’s tablet. Apps for Apes collects donated iPads and then provides them to zoos with orangutans. The staff who work with the orangutans had to teach them to touch the screen with their fingers – they were initially using their nails to manipulate the screen, and the tablet does not recognize that. In April, orangutans Puppe and Budi used Skype to interact with Orangutan Outreach director Richard Zimmerman. The next month they used Skype to view other orangutans at the Milwaukee County Zoo, although the video was blurry as the primates moved so much.

Unfinished Business lecture: Culture, User Research & Design

I was recently in Toronto to speak at OCAD (Yes, we were in this awesome building) as part of the Unfinished Business lecture series. My talk looked at the notion of culture and it’s importance for user research, and design.

Culture is everywhere we look, and (perhaps more importantly) everywhere we don’t look. It informs our work, our purchases, our usage, our expectations, our comfort, and our communications. In this presentation, Steve will explore the ways we can experience, observe, and understand diverse cultures to foster successful collaborations, usable products, and desirable experiences.



I’ve split out the presentation itself from the Q&A, which was fun, challenging, and filled with big-picture type questions.

Presentation (1 hour, including a quick intro by host Michael Dila):

Q&A (40 minutes):

To download the presentation audio Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac). For the Q&A audio, Right-Click and Save As… (Windows) or Ctrl-Click (Mac)

Note: In the talk (and the Q&A) I refer to my interactions article, Persona Non Grata. You can find that article here.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • [from steve_portigal] Armies of Expensive Lawyers, Replaced by Cheaper Software [] – [Spin in this article is that using computers to manage super-human levels of complex data will have employment consequences.] When five television studios became entangled in a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit against CBS, the cost was immense. As part of the obscure task of “discovery” ­ providing documents relevant to a lawsuit ­ the studios examined six million documents at a cost of more than $2.2 million, much of it to pay for lawyers and paralegals who worked for months. But that was in 1978. Now, thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, “e-discovery” software can analyze documents in a fraction of the time and cost. In January, Blackstone Discovery of Palo Alto, CA., helped analyze 1.5 million documents for less than $100,000. Some programs can extract relevant concepts ­ like documents relevant to social protest in the Middle East ­ even in the absence of specific terms, and deduce patterns of behavior that would have eluded lawyers examining millions of documents.
  • [from steve_portigal] PG&E launches huge paper chase for pipeline data [SF Chronicle] – [You think you have a lot of data to process? Obviously their record-keeping incompetence is just now being surfaced and they have taken on a data task that is beyond human scale. We can create systems that we can't manage!] For the past couple of days, forklifts have been carting pallets loaded with 30 boxes each into 3 warehouses outside the 70-year-old Cow Palace arena in Daly City. Friday afternoon, there were still more than 100 pallets stacked outside the warehouses waiting to go in. "There are 100,000 boxes in there, and you can't believe the papers spread everywhere," one PG&E employee said …"There are records in there going back to the 1920s. "We're looking at all kinds of parameters, and our data validation efforts are going on throughout the service area,…We're doing a 24-7 records search involving at least 300 employees and contractors, and we're working to confirm the quality of our data through collecting and validating our gas transmission pipeline records."
  • [from steve_portigal] Hong Kong, 2011 [Flickr] – [My pictures from our recent trip to Hong Kong for the UXHK Conference]
  • [from steve_portigal] Understanding Culture, User Research and Design with Steve Portigal – [Reserve your tickets now for either Toronto event: a lecture on March 8 and a workshop on March 9. The lecture will focus on culture, insights, and design while the workshop will be a hands-on opportunity to practice synthesizing user research data into opportunities and concepts. Hope to see you there!]

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Seen Reading – a "literary voyeruism blog" set mostly (I believe) in Toronto – What is Seen Reading?

    1. I see you reading.
    2. I remember what page you’re on in the book.
    3. I head to the bookstore, and make a note of the text.
    4. I let my imagination rip.
    5. Readers become celebrities.
    6. People get giddy and buy more books.

    Why do you do this?
    Readers are cool. Authors work hard. Publishers take chances. And you all deserve to be seen!

    (Thanks Suzanne Long!)

  • Choose What You Read NY – Choose What You Read NY is a non profit organization that offers free books to New Yorkers, encouraging its residents to read more, giving them an alternative to the free papers that get tossed out and even the digi-trash that crowds our time. In doing so, we help to recycle used books that would have unfortunately been thrown away.

    You will find us near major subway stations on the first Tuesday of each month.The idea is that once someone is finished with a book, they either drop it off in one of our conveniently located drop boxes or back to us at a station. Unlike a library, there will be no due dates, penalties, fees or registrations. We only ask that you return it once you are done so that the same book can be enjoyed by another commuter.

  • What was the last book, magazine and newspaper you read on the subway? – 6000 people respond and the New York Times posts the results
  • How and what people read on the New York City subways – Plenty of detailed examples of people, their books, and their travels: "Reading on the subway is a New York ritual, for the masters of the intricately folded newspaper, as well as for teenage girls thumbing through magazines, aspiring actors memorizing lines, office workers devouring self-help inspiration, immigrants newly minted — or not — taking comfort in paragraphs in a familiar tongue. These days, among the tattered covers may be the occasional Kindle, but since most trains are still devoid of Internet access and cellphone reception, the subway ride remains a rare low-tech interlude in a city of inveterate multitasking workaholics. And so, we read.

    There are those whose commutes are carefully timed to the length of a Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker, those who methodically page their way through the classics, and those who always carry a second trash novel in case they unexpectedly make it to the end of the first on a glacial F train."

    (thanks Avi and Anne)

  • Lego grabs ahold of customers with both hands – From 2006, great Wired piece about Lego's approach to involving ardent fans/customers in developing future products.
  • Noting:books – the simple yet dynamic way to track your reading, from the dates you start and finish a book, to your thoughts along the way.
  • CourseSmart brings textbooks to the iPhone in PDF; major readability challenges ensue – “It’s not the first place to go to read your textbook,” Mr. Lyman said of the iPhone app. But he said that it could be helpful if “you’re standing outside of the classroom, the quiz is in 10 minutes, and you want to go back to that end-of-chapter summary that helped you understand the material.”
  • Nice profile of Lego’s business culture and the tension between growth and losing track of their legacy – But the story of Lego’s renaissance — and its current expansion into new segments like virtual reality and video games — isn’t just a toy story. It’s also a reminder of how even the best brands can lose their luster but bounce back with a change in strategy and occasionally painful adaptation.

What I Read On My Vacation

Where Were You by Rob Walker
Walker collects a year’s worth of reactions to various obituaries. While I admire his lo-fi approach to turning a habit into a publication, and acknowledge that he promised very little except “here it is” I mostly found this unsatisfying. Walker is a good storyteller, journalist, writer, etc. He gets his facts in line and then tells us what it means. He (by design) doesn’t do that here. And so you get a lot of “I didn’t really know this…” or “I don’t really care about that” which mostly generates a squawk reaction in me. What?! How could you not know….how could you think that…etc. etc. And that isn’t pleasant. It was a quick experiment as a reader, so no regrets.

How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer by Debbie Millman
This is the sort of book I’d imagined writing someday – sitting down with a bunch of folks in a similar field and interviewing them. I ran an impromptu panel discussion at a regional IDSA event in 2004 where I did just that. And I’ve done a few podcasts for Core77 (including one with Debbie Millman). For the most part, this book was fascinating. It’s a powerful demonstration of how crucial rapport is to a good interview. In many cases, Debbie is interviewing people with whom she has a historical relationship, and so that rapport comes from friendship/colleagueship. In other cases, she’s encountering them for the first time in their (in-person or email) interview. I’m not sure, but I think I can tell the difference; certainly the in-person interviews range wider and allow for more following up and clarification, and that’s often where the good stuff comes out.

The subjects are all prominent in the graphic design field (although many of them were names I did not know) and many of the questions are exactly the same; this reveals itself more in the email interviews where the lack of opportunity to follow-up creates a disappointing sameness. By the end of the book, I was pretty bored in the same questions over and over again. I could see cutting out some of the interviews and letting the remaining ones go a little longer.

The book is mostly fascinating, however. Some themes and characteristics emerge: relevance, ego, humility and insecurity, thoughts on creativity and collaboration, and what I found to be the biggest personal a-ha – the relationship of other professional-level endeavors to support the primary one. These folks all identify as designers, but most of them also express themselves as painters or writers, and tell a coherent story as to how that activity is a critical complementary pillar to their design process/identity. Maybe that’s true for many of us; do we talk about it enough or is there a concern that this will dilute our perceived quality in our primary professional identity. Certainly for me, writing and photography feed into the work I do with our clients. I’ve advocated for others to develop these secondary pieces in order to support their main work. Still, it was gratifying to see that emerge strongly and consistently across these thought leaders.

Rochdale: The Runaway College by David Sharpe
My time at University of Toronto was blocks away from this rather drab senior center; one day I heard from one of my residence pals that said building had once been a den of hippiedom, an out-of-control social experiment. I picked up bits and pieces over the years, but this was my first chance to read an in-depth history of the Rochdale experiment. It’s a perfect artifact of the 60s idealism/naivete giving way to abuse, crime, drugs, financial ruin, and every other form of entropy.

Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
I know we’re supposed to love Vonnegut for his sadly wry commentary about the nature of man, but this is my third Vonnegut in a short time and I have been left wanting each time.

Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr
I just started this book in advance of our trip to Japan in just a couple of weeks!

Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs by Dave Bidini
What is it about the Canadian book publishing industry that they can’t afford copy editors? Bidini tells a story about how in the early days of his band (the Rheostatics) they blew off a record exec who got the name of an XTC album wrong. But Bidini makes a couple of errors himself when referring to the titles of popular rock songs (while he’s being dismissive of those songs, even); his publisher should make sure he doesn’t look like a hypocrite! Anyway, it’s another round-the-world book from Bidini. In 2002 he went across the globe to play hockey in strange places, here he’s playing rock-n-roll in strange places. His adventures are great, his writing is improving (editing notwithstanding), and he’s fairly fearless in engaging with strangers across the barriers of culture, politics, alcohol, and hunger.

Woken Furies by Richard K. Morgan
All the books in this series are complex, mysterious, hardboiled, techy, and filled with action. I love ’em.

JPod by Douglas Coupland
I’m already on record objecting to this book, since Coupland figures as a character. I finally read the book (rather than criticizing it without having read it) and it was…okay. The parts with Coupland were extremely distracting, taking you out of the narrative to wonder why the author put himself in the book, why the author had the narrator despise Coupland so. Is that clever irony, oh, Coupland wrote the book but he’s using someone else to talk crap about him? It’s really him that’s saying that? See…distracting. Otherwise, it was a satisfactory Coupland romp, without the soul-cutting brilliance that a third of his books reaches. Oh, and J-pod has nothing to do with Japan or iPods. Phew.

Pictures from our trip to Toronto

You can see all of my Toronto pics here, with a few selected below. They’re all kinda shrunk down to fit on this page, so click on any of them to see them larger.

Trompe l’oiel
Famous building in downtown Toronto that makes appearances in movies every now and again.

The city awakens
Coming downtown, via the 427 from the airport at 6:45 am. I think the monochrome image with the red flag is pretty damn cool. No Photoshop effect – it just came out like that.

Yung Sing Pastry Shop
This little place in the Baldwin Village is right near U of T as well as the (former) Northern Telecom office on University Ave. I used to go to this place and get Chinese buns – with a million different fillings – fried rice, coconut-bean-something, barbecue pork or beef, chicken, etc. It was the first place I had ever experienced this particular type of Chinese food and I really loved it. I decided to take a quick walk up there the other day while in town and see if it was still around. It was fun to go back – the food was pretty good, but not stunning. Has it changed, or have I?

Several Canadian soldiers were killed the other week in Afghanistan, and the Prime Minister is going through some Bush-esque steps – barring photographers from the arriving bodies, and not ordering flags at half-mast to honor them. (I may have the story only partially correct?).
I suspected this business had their flag at half-mast as a deliberate note of honor despite the government’s lack of action in that direction.

When I see large Canadian flags, especially ones waving politically, I can’t help but wonder about evolving Canadian nationalism. When I lived in Toronto during the first Gulf War, I would often drive to New York State and would be very struck upon crossing the border to see many many huge huge flags proclaiming support. I felt that was in contrast to the under-patriotic tone in Canada. It seems like Canada has moved up a notch after decades of self-deprecation – I like to believe it came from the I Am Canadian rants of the late 90s, but I don’t know if anyone else would support that notion.

Smart Car
We saw quite a few Smart Cars driving around Burlington/Oakville. Here’s a working Smart Car, all made up to be a messenger vehicle.

Dessert Faves
clockwise, Nanaimo Bars, Vanilla Slice, Butter Tart.
I’ve only ever seen Nanaimo Bars and Butter Tarts in Canada, so I try to make sure to get some every time I’m home. They are just damn good.

Many days on the way home from high school we’d stop in and get one of those Vanilla Slices- very very good – seems like they are traditionally from Australia. The same bakery from high school is still there and still sells ’em.

Falun Gong protest march
We were in the Spadina Garden restaurant (now located on Dundas) when this parade of Falun Gong protesters came by. When the owner came to take our order we made a comment about it and he went into a serious (if somewhat unintelligible) rant about these crooks and how we shouldn’t look at the parade. It was a bit of a bummer moment – I don’t understand the politics or other aspects of the issue and no doubt its highly contentious, but I didn’t really want his opinion when I was trying to eat his food and look at his window.

These signs are quite common in Toronto – you call the number on the sign, punch in the code (even though this one was worn away) and hear some details about where you are standing.

If we didn’t have to pay international roaming charges on our cell, we would have tried it to see what they had to say. Kind of a drag, then. You can hear the info online as well at

Spadina Station
Waiting on the platform for the Bloor trains at Spadina Station. The famous (from the Shuffle Demons) Spadina bus (either 77A or 77B) are long gone, replaced by the LRT that now emanates from a gaping maw in Spadina Road, just south of Bloor.

There are other TTC stations that have attached bus/streetcar stations, but do others have the icons next to the station name? I didn’t think so.

Dining Lounge – Dancing
A shuttered restaurant (The Blue Moon Saloon?) on Bloor St. in the Annex.

The Tap – DJ, Moe Berg
TPOH frontman Moe Berg is the DJ at the Tap on Bloor St., Saturday nights. He was there when we went in, too. Kinda noisy to hear anything, but always fun to drop into the Tap anyway.

Parking Lot Fruit Stand
When this place opened, it seemed like it was in the parking lot attendant booth, with a tray out in front. It didn’t even seem like a legal business; more like someone was squatting with fresh fruit in a highly commercial area.

But more than 15 years later it’s still there; it’s grown into a little building but it still looks pretty damn haphazard.

Senator David A. Croll Apts.
Location of the infamous Rochdale experiment.

Liebeskind with new glasses
“I believe there is no longer an argument as the role and importance of museums in shaping civic, regional and national identity, giving scale to aspirations and opening new horizons.”

Daniel Liebeskind has designed “The Crystal” as part of the expansion of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and the whole thing is called the ROM Renaissance. Yet another of a super-modern building laying on top of a very traditional building. I’m not so sure I like it, but it will certainly be dramatic when completed.

We Kill
I guess it’s some sort of public art guerilla collaborative. This location is was up on their site along with many others.

Eat Fish…Live Longer!
Sign in the window at Buster’s Sea Cove in St. Lawrence Market

Bloor Cinema
The Bloor Cinema, where I first saw indie films such as Roadkill. Or various bizarre animation festivals (early Bill Pympton stuff). We were walking by there during this last trip, and the HotDocs film festival was going on, and they were inviting people in at 11:30 pm for a free screening, so we went in.

This was free, remember.

They introduce the movie and thank the sponsor for the film and talk to the director and then roll it. We get the usual film festival promo trailer, and acknowledgments screens, and then an ad for Cadillac.

And the audience begins to boo.

I don’t normally do this but I shouted out against the booing “You’re seeing a FREE MOVIE so shut the f*** up!” It was a big flashback to my days living in the Annex with all the hipster posing that went on. I remember people laughing too hard at strange indie films and feeling like that was how they felt they were supposed to react, rather than anything sincere or heartfelt (or backed up by actual thoughts). I almost had forgotten that feeling from my time in Toronto and having this strong reaction to the anti-advertising booing (at a FREE MOVIE) brought it all back, and I realized that in many ways, I was very glad not to be living in Toronto any more.

Site of the former J.J. Muggs
Remember when restaurants had clever names like J.J. Muggs? This place was so 80s, green marble everywhere, waiters that would crouch down and call you buddy with a slap on the shoulder. This was where I first learned to drink (and I was never that much into it) – Long Island Iced Tea, and something that was like a fake root beer made of many different alcohols. Good stuff. Pitchers!

They had an incredible all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch buffet that featured half-lobsters (a whole lobster, cut lengthwise). I remember going and staying so long, eating lobster (and King Crab and everything else) that I just waited out being full until I was hungry again.

Hockey on Yonge St.
They closed down Yonge St. and there were a million teams of kids playing road hockey (aka street hockey). Only in Canada!

My first observational research project

One summer in my undergrad days I took a course (still offered) called Marketing Geography. Our text was Location, location, location written by the folks (or so I recall) that coined that phrase (the three most important factors in a business success are….”). I hated the class, but one assignment was to pick a business and hang out there and observe the area and the foot traffic and merchandise and everything.

This is the hardware store I chose. I had no idea what I was doing, and I don’t think I learned very much, but the idea of such a study has obviously stuck with me much later in my career than I would have expected!


During last week’s seminar, I had that awkward moment between presenters, where the laptops are being swapped out and the lav mic belt packs are being detached and re-attached, and so I decided to fill. I told the attendees that I was happy to be speaking to them, and especially glad to be back in Toronto, because that’s where I grew up. I offered them some advice for fitting in (especially since they would be doing an observational research exercise later) by not calling the city TOE-RON-TOE as many Americans do. Instead, I told them, we call it Trawna, and I even spelled it out – T-R-A-W-N-A. This is an old semi-truthful joke about the name of the city.

Turned out this was the meme-of-the-day. People came up to me at the break and asked again how they should spell it. Every time someone else said Toronto they stopped and said Trawna. It was just a funny thing that spread more than I had expected.

The next morning we had a followup session to the observational research people had done (briefly – walking through some different neighborhoods in Toronto with some different lenses through which to observe. As people settled in, they were asked to share a key story with a partner. One woman at one table announced to those within earshot that she does not write stories; she hasn’t done it since high school and she doesn’t do it now. O-kay. The rest of the group went about their business and were actively talking. This same woman summons me:

“Excuse me?! Excuse me!”

I look at her.

“Where is this Trawna thing coming from? Because…uh, we’re FROM HERE and we don’t say that.”

I replied that I was from here as well, and sure we do. This didn’t satisfy her and she seemed very annoyed. I thought it was strange that she had never heard of this phenomenon. It’s widespread. is a website about Toronto. It’s everywhere. My friends told the joke three days later over brunch. And not only doesn’t she know it, but she’s pretty damn angry with me for starting everyone else saying it. I guess it’s a version of the native effect where we reject observations about our own culture, because we don’t see it that way. Meanwhile, the rest of the morning must have been torture because we got into a lot of detail about what people learned and synthesized about the city from their observations, and I’m sure some of it would have bugged the hell out of her, accurate or not.

In another example of that (without the venom, mind) I was looking at Nicolas Nova’s photos from his trip to California, and being intrigued by the things he noticed that I take for granted. They reminded me of my pictures from when I travel – stuff you see on the street and so on, but it was things that I don’t think to photograph because I see them all the time. The familiar through someone else’s eyes.

Brush with greatness?

Two years ago I blogged about a strange ad for Ball Park Franks

The Ball Park Franks ads running now feature a guy with a pretty serious gut, working on his backyard BBQ, talking in goofily intense tones about meaty, juicy, and….girthy. I guess since no English speaker has ever heard or used the word before, he says “girthy” like 8 times, each time with a silly-but-frighteningly intense growl, drawing it out….Giiiirrthy! he exclaims, with manly satisfaction. Is he talking about the food, or himself? Or what the food does to him? Either way, it’s clearly okay with him. And so it should be with us, no doubt.

I often talk about that ad in my presentations to illustrate the shifting boundaries of normal in our culture, including the different vectors for men and women in terms of health and body image.

Last week I was speaking to sensory scientists at a seminar in Toronto, and afterward, two different women who had been involved in that product came up to me – one had been involved in the user research (I only got the quick story – but it involved a shift from the product as a mom-for-kids to a Grilling Experience), and one had worked on the campaign. The actor, it seems, came up with Girrrthy himself, and the team looked at each other, wondering if they could actually use that. They did, and like it or not, the ad got a lot of attention. Seems like there’s new folks behind the product and the campaign nowadays and they’ve reverted back to their previous family-friendly positioning.

I was quite excited to meet these folks! How often do you get to give an example in a meeting and have someone tell you that they were behind that very example?


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