Everyday People

18 Apr

Back in 2012 I was lucky enough to go to China with one of my good friends. We set off on our adventure excited to uncover the nuances of Chinese culture the best we could. We saw many impressive sights, from landscaped gardens to decorated palaces to the vast, Great Wall. Still, some of the most salient, thought-provoking moments on our trip came from our experiences navigating China’s everyday world – not the tourist attractions.

Our Beijing neighborhood

Our Beijing neighborhood

One particular experience stands out to me. I had bought my brother a souvenir stamp in the markets of Zhujiajiao, a beautiful water town close to Shanghai. But what is a stamp without ink? So when we were in Beijing later that week, my friend and I set off for a stationary store I’d noticed near our hostel. Our hostel was located in a very residential neighborhood, removed from the “tourist core” of Beijing. It was a great choice: accessible enough by public transit that we could get to tourist sites without a hassle, but also nestled in among everyday people, places and sights. I’d noticed the stationary store as we strolled one day, and we decided to make an errand of it to find some ink one afternoon. The minute we entered, we got puzzled looks from the shopkeeper. It’s likely they don’t see many tourists – and frankly, probably not much diversity either. Our “conversation” was pretty comedic, a mix of gestures and pointing as the language barrier kept us from truly conversing. Eventually I walked out, victorious, ink pad in hand. It was just a normal ink pad-  I most certainly could have bought a nearly identical product once I got home to California. Still, that experience of buying an ink pad in a neighborhood shop in Beijing is something that I treasure. Sometimes it’s not about efficiency or doing things the most logical way, and shopping at that stationary store in Beijing meant more than the $1.50 I spent on ink.

There’s so much chatter these days about spending money on experiences and favoring moments over “stuff.” But when you’re looking for”experiences,” don’t forget about the everyday. Don’t just look for bucket list destinations and cross off the “most important sites.” Don’t think that every dollar you spend on “memories” needs to be spent on grand festivals or fancy wine-tasting extravaganzas. Don’t depend on the extraordinary to fuel your memories – sometimes the ordinary is even more meaningful.

Taste the Rainbow

8 Apr
From Jeni's Twitter feed

From Jeni’s Twitter feed

Last weekend, one of my favorite ice cream brands tweeted about a new color-driven line of ice cream. Jeni’s “COLORS Collection” includes 6 new flavors, each a different bold hue. The marketing campaign asks a provocative question: “When you see a color, what do you think it will taste like?”

Jeni’s question won my attention for a variety of reasons. There simply can’t be one answer to what any color tastes like. We may associate certain colors with the flavors they provide us most often, but colors don’t “taste” like anything. And in a world full of dyes and artificial ingredients, it’s hard to even know the true color of the things we eat. So I loved this idea of guessing the flavors, and then seeing how your expectations matched reality. Your guesses would come from your preconceptions of what foods are which colors, and which flavors you’re most accustomed to tasting. For example, if you based your guesses off of Skittles, the orange would be orange, yellow would be lemon, etc. But if you based your guesses off of produce, orange could become carrot and yellow could become squash.

I was really intrigued by this product line, and immediately started drafting a blog post about it. Then, to my great fortune, I happened to stumble upon a Jeni’s scoop shop the very next day! I took it upon myself to do some thorough “research” – for the sake of my dear readers, of course. I sampled several of the color flavors, and ordered a couple scoops to go, too.

The flavors were fantastic, as is expected from Jeni’s (they’re known for their top-notch quality and inventive flavors). However, I was a little bummed by how the color experience played out in the store. All of Jeni’s flavors are displayed with placards that list out their ingredients. This is a standard scoop shop practice, especially for inventive flavors. But given Jeni’s focus on expectations for each flavor, the placard layout didn’t really work. I didn’t really want to see the ingredients before I took a bite. While the sales guy was right that I couldn’t guess exactly how each flavor would taste before biting into it, knowing the ingredients did take some of the fun away from what I was calling The Color Game.

So before you go look the flavors up for yourself – let’s play a game! Step 1: Below is a picture of the colors Jeni’s is using. What would you expect each one to taste like?
The Collection "catalog"

The Collection “catalog”

Step 2: Then, go to Jeni’s site and look at the ingredients to see how close your guesses came. Or better yet, order some to try yourself. For research, of course.
Here are some more photos I took inside the Jeni’s LA store. I’ve been a big fan of Jeni’s for a few years now, but this was my first-ever scoop shop visit. Definitely won’t be my last!

Peanut, Peanut Butter (Recipe Roundup)

19 Mar

People in the U.S. sure love peanut butter. It’s consumed in 94% of U.S. households, and Americans consume enough peanut butter per year to make more than 10B peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Walk the aisles of your local grocery store and you’ll find an ever-expanding selection of varieties, from chunky to smooth to chocolate-swirled. We put peanut butter on our fruit, our bread, even on our celery. Of course, my favorite way to eat peanut butter is in my desserts. Here’s a list of some of my favorite peanut butter-y treats I’ve made in the past, along with what I want to make in the future.

These Peanut Butter and Jelly cookies come from the blog “Tastes Lovely” – I can’t wait to make them!

Nutella-Stuffed Oatmeal PB Cookies 

Salted Chocolate Chip PB Cookies

PB Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Buckeyes (peanut butter candy filling, dipped in chocolate)

Chocolate Chip PB Oatmeal Skillet Cookie

Fudgy PB Swirl Brownies

Chocolate PB Cheesecake Bars

Next on my list: 

PB Cookie Brownies 

PB and Jelly Cookies

Banana Brownies with PB Frosting

Chocolate-Covered Pretzel PB Brownies 

The Life of a Coffee Table

9 Mar

Think back to your dorm days when you were assigned a boring, basic room with boring, basic furniture. That standard-issue room slowly became yours as you added a favorite blanket, photos of friends, maybe a poster or two. And as time passed, even that boring, basic furniture gained significance. When I think back to college, I forget about the white walls and stiff chairs. Instead, I think back to late nights writing at my desk, smoothie parties in my neighbor’s room, conversations in the long, sterile hallways. Basic, boring spaces became meaningful over time, thanks to our experiences and memories.

The Lack Table

I love a Washington Post story about Ikea coffee tables for this very reason. In her article, Jessica Contrera describes the “life” of an Ikea Lack coffee table across a variety of homes and owners. Contrera uses Craigslist posts as her inspiration, imagining the circumstances around each table’s acquisition and subsequent re-sell. Her story is well-written, and her point well-made. In this day of mass-produced merchandise and chain retail, so many of us own the same things. But it’s how we experience and use those things that turns a “possession” into a “personal belonging.”

As I wrote in a recent post about antique fairs, I think objects gain their value from the realms of emotion, experience and memory. I do a good amount of in-home interviews for my job, and one of the most interesting portions is the home tour. Our respondents give us a brief tour of their home, explaining things that have particular significance. It’s not always the wedding photos or trophies or expensive clothing that makes the cut. It’s often the everyday objects, or the most-used furniture. I could see the same table in 6 homes, and I guarantee you I would hear 6 very different stories of how that table is used. I realize this may sound like marketing speak to some of you, but nothing is “just” an object. There are always more layers to be found.

You should read the entire Washington Post piece, but for now I’ll leave you with my favorite quote:

“Described as sparsely as it is designed, the Lack table is discarded on Craigslist for $10 to $20, as if its companionship during the disorienting time of 20-something-ness gave it no additional value. As if it hadn’t been such a reliable foot rest during sessions of scrolling on Facebook, silently comparing the new lives of college friends. As if it hadn’t been such an adequate plate holder for food that was a real, cooked meal, and thus, a victory.” – Jessica Contrera

Like Taking Candy From A Baby

22 Feb

Have you ever found yourself unexpectedly buying candy – just because you saw it at the checkout counter? You know the drill. The grocery store line is taking a while, so you start to eye the tabloid covers. Once you get sick of reading about the Kardashians your gaze shifts to the rows of candy and gum. And suddenly there are chocolate bars on the conveyor belt, mixed in with your “real” shopping list.

Checkout impulse buys have long been a staple merchandising strategy. So it stirred up quite the commotion when massive UK retailer Tesco announced it would no longer sell candy in any of its checkout lines. Tesco enacted this policy in most stores years ago, but now they’re extending it to every store they run. Tesco’s reps attributed their decision to a customer survey showing that 65% of its shoppers wanted the candy removed. That statistic doesn’t surprise me at all. When we can’t rely on ourselves to act in a “responsible” way we tend to favor mechanisms that “protect” us from undesirable behaviors. Removing the trigger is easier than learning to resist the trigger. It’s the same reason I don’t keep Nutella at home. I know I won’t be able to resist eating it from the jar with a spoon… so I don’t buy it at all.

Tesco says their decision is in customers’ best interests, and they’re right. But the reason it’s so popular to put candy at the checkout is because it increases customers’ “average basket ring.” Which begs the question: what does Tesco hope to gain? When basket ring goes down, what goes up?

Well, for one, they’ll get shoppers’ goodwill. We all want to make healthier choices, after all. They’ll get parents’ goodwill, because shopping is less of a hassle if kids aren’t begging for candy while you’re trying to pay. And they get a reputation for caring about their customers, too.

Personally I think the more interesting question is whether Tesco should be doing this at all. There are many studies showing that shopper behavior is profoundly affected by merchandising. We’re more likely to buy the brands at eye level, more likely to buy more if we’re using a basket, more likely to buy more if we have to walk all the way to the back of the store to find the milk. But when stores start use merchandising to affect our choices in a constructive way it gets more interesting. Do stores have a responsibility to help us make good choices? It is even responsible for them to try to do so?

I recently read a book called Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Nudge discusses subtle ways that changes in policies and process influence us to make better, healthier choices. But when is it right for organizations to do this? And when is it beyond the scope of what an organization should do? Do we really want companies and governments explicitly influencing how we live? Do you want your grocery store helping you make your eating decisions?

I highly recommend reading Nudge if you want to ponder other ways your choices aren’t solely yours. For a nice preview, check out this article from the WSJ.

Off The Charts

6 Feb

ffeeeAt first glance, the chart to the left looks like an analysis of the things people do in a coffee shop. According to the chart, people spend more time buying and photographing their coffee than drinking the actual coffee. “Wow!” you think. “How interesting!” You want to share this fun fact with friends, so you start posting the chart on social media. Your friends also find this incredibly interesting. Until a particularly critical pal takes a closer look… and emails you to tell you the chart is completely bogus.

The image above from a Bold Italic series called “Made Up Charts.” All the data is fabricated and the charts are meant to entertain, not educate. This is an extreme example, of course, where it’s clearly labeled as fake. But while charts and graphs can be useful to digest information, their format also has a profound impact on the way people interpret information. According to a Cornell University study, people are more likely to believe information if a chart is included in the explanation. Two sets of people were shown descriptions of the same cold medicine. One description had charts and the other did not. Among those who didn’t see charts: 68% believed the medicine worked. Among those who saw charts: 97% of people believed the medicine worked.

This jump is significant. It shows just how much presentation matters, sometimes even more than the information we hope to convey. A chart makes people think information is more legitimate. We shouldn’t need charts to help us make decisions about what and who to believe. But graphic representation provides a credibility nudge, nonetheless.

Researchers have found a similar effect when studies or products claim to be “backed by science.” Just the suggestion that something is backed by science is all it takes: the materials don’t even need to include complex formulas. Simply listing a product’s ingredients in scientific terms, not layman’s terms, can be all it takes to make that product sound more “effective.”

Charts and graphs can be helpful, but we certainly shouldn’t let them affect how we interpret what we read. Pay attention to your reading habits. Are you more likely to believe something if there’s an official-looking chart? Do graphs feel particularly credible to you? Is your opinion swayed by presentation?

If you’re interested in learning other subtle ways we’re influenced by information architecture, check out Nudge. It’s a behavioral economics book with really interesting case studies.

Even if they’re bogus, or rather because they’re bogus, made up charts can be a lot of fun. Here are two of my favorite sources for humorous graphs:

If These Streets Could Talk (Picture Prattle)

28 Jan

I’ve always found streetscapes alluring. There’s something about peering down a street that stirs my curiosity. I wonder about the place’s world, its people, its ways. I think about the things that happen there, both important and mundane. I stare down the road, anticipating what lays ahead.

I’m sure my love of streetscapes ties to my love of wandering, to that burst of adrenaline I get when I start to explore. Wandering feels like a choose-your-own-adventure storyline. Should I stick to this street, or turn off? If I do turn, should I go left or right? If I just keep going straight – where will I end up? How will the scenery change as I continue on?

Whenever I get back from a trip I realize that about 50% of my photos are streetscapes. I’ve framed many of them and put them up on my walls. Gazing at these photos provides a sense of serenity, but also a sense of possibility. They inspire me to let my creativity wander, to let my brain go down its own path. They remind me of the thrill of adventure, and the rush of discovery.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the last several years. Where will you wander next?

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