The Best Thing to do in Denver, Ever


Every year during the stock show the grand champion steer is exhibited in the lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel for one day. As befits such a fancy place, he drinks out of a silver bowl. While the steer is there, you can go get your picture taken with him. It’s free, it’s fun, and it’s a Denver tradition.

This year, my buddy Allen Hill and I went down to get our picture taken (his suggestion). I’m not sure who the guy on the right is, but I think he’s trying to make sure nobody gets killed. As you can see, this year brought in two champion steers (Spud and the reserve champion Titan). They’re good looking fellers, raised by kids in the Future Farmers of America. Spud was raised by Lance Unger of Carlisle, Indiana. Unfortunately for Spud, he’s well on his way to becoming someone’s dinner. Here’s what 9news has to say:

Weighing over 1,300 pounds, Spud sold for $80,000 during the auction. He was bought by the Emil-Lene’s Sirloin House.

The Trouble with Heuristics

In 1990, Jakob Nielsen and Rolf Molich adapted a psychological principle, called Heuristics, to user-interface design. Nielsen, in particular, has promoted his ten recommended heuristics as a part of heuristic evaluation. But what is heuristic evaluation? According to Nielsen, “Heuristic evaluation is a discount usability engineering method for quick, cheap, and easy evaluation of a user interface design.”

So, if heuristic evaluation is a method, then what is a heuristic? Nothing more (or less) than a rule of thumb. Essentially, heuristic evaluation utilizes a set of established principles to analyze the usability of an interactive system (a website, an application, a kiosk, etc.). Nielsen has published his ten usability heuristics on the useit.com website, and they remain generally appropriate; the system should keep the user informed of what is going on, language should be natural and based on real-world conventions,navigation systems should be consistent, the system should be flexible and efficient.

All good ideas, in a general sense. But in a specific context, they can be (and often are) misused and misapplied. Most often, heuristic evaluation is conducted by design “experts,” which means that the experts bring their personal bias, history, and preferences into the game. Yes, the idea of this type of analysis is to remove personal preference from the process, but in real life this is easier said than done. A design solution appropriately utilized in one situation can be wrong in another.

The potential for errors in heuristic evaluation was explored effectively in an article I read in The New Yorker last night; the article, entitled “What’s the Trouble? How Doctors Think” was written by Jerome Groopman, a Professor of Medicine at Harvard. To quote Dr. Groopman:

But research shows that most physicians already have in mind two or three possible diagnoses within minutes of meeting a patient, and that they tend to develop their hunches from very incomplete information. To make diagnoses, most doctors rely on shortcuts and rules of thumb—known in psychology as “heuristics.”

Heuristics are indispensable in medicine; physicians, particularly in emergency rooms, must often make quick judgments about how to treat a patient, on the basis of a few, potentially serious symptoms. A doctor is trained to assume, for example, that a patient suffering from a high fever and sharp pain in the lower right side of the abdomen could be suffering from appendicitis; he immediately sends the patient for X-rays and contacts the surgeon on call. But, just as heuristics can help doctors save lives, they can also lead them to make grave errors.

Dr. Groopman goes on to list several types of errors made in heuristic analysis, including “representativeness”, “availability”, and “affective” errors.

Representativeness errors are made by doctors when “their thinking is overly influenced by what is typically true; they fail to consider possibilities that contradict their mental templates”.

He describes availability errors in the following manner:

[...] the tendency to judge the likelihood of an event by the ease with which relevant examples come to mind. This tendency was first described in 1973, in a paper by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, psychologists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. For example, a businessman may estimate the likelihood that a given venture could fail by recalling difficulties that his associates had encountered in the marketplace, rather than by relying on all the data available to him about the venture; the experiences most familiar to him can bias his assessment of the chances for success. (Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002, for his research on decision-making under conditions of uncertainty.)

If representativeness and availability are intellectual errors, affective errors are those caused by an emotional connection. As described by Dr. Groopman, affective errors are “errors that doctor make because of their feelings for a patient.”

All of these errors can be associated with work in interaction design as well as in medicine. To use heuristic evaluation effectively, we all must understand the way our minds work. Consider the following quote, and replace the doctor with the interaction design expert, and the starting point for addressing the limitations of heuristic evaluation is clear:

This approach produces confident and able physicians. Yet the ideal it implies, of the doctor as a dispassionate and rational actor, is misguided. As Tversky and Kahneman and other cognitive psychologists have shown, when people are confronted with uncertainty—the situation of every doctor attempting to diagnose a patient—they are susceptible to unconscious emotions and personal biases, and are more likely to make cognitive error. [...]the first step toward incorporating an awareness of heuristics and their liabilities into medical practice is to recognize that how doctors think can affect their success as much as how much they know, or how much experience they have.

Six Weekends in a Row…

Damn you El Niño! It’s snowing again, and today is the RiNo Studio Tour, Iron Pour, and Party at Ironton. The show will go on…

Here’s a funny post from Adam Clayton-Holland in the Westword blog about getting a warning for not shoveling the walk in front of his house.

And here is a flickr search for Denver 1913, the last time we had this much snow this early in the season Most of our big storms usually come in March or April. Now that’s something to look forward too.

Alternatives For Building Awareness

It’s a challenge for all organizations, but socially engaged non-profit organizations are always looking for ways to build awareness and communicate with potential donors and volunteers. I’ve had the chance to work with Heifer International in the past, and they very effective in how they get the message out to the public.

If Web 1.0 was about commerce, then Heifer was one of the best in building an effective presence (of course, they still send me the paper catalog too, which doesn’t warm the cockles of my environmentalist heart). In particular, their online catalog is very compelling; Hadley and I have bought virtual animals as gifts for our nieces in the past (we also worked together on animations for the thank you cards). By personalizing the story (the bees you bought help this girl) they’ve made it easy to feel you are making a difference. Of course, I’m not actually buying bees or chickens, but that’s not really the point; what I give goes to a good cause, and I can connect something specific to my donation.

But Web 2.0 is about community, and Heifer seems to have gotten the message. Today, they sent a note mentioning their myspace site (and you thought myspace was all about music), and also pushing another web initiative:

A group of Heifer “lenses” is growing on Squidoo.com, the search and community platform created by marketing and web guru Seth Godin, that works to benefit philanthropic organizations. Anyone can build a lens – lens is Squidoo speak for a web page. Build a lens and support Heifer.

It turns out that about half of all Squidoo “Lensmasters” send their royalties to charity. But Squidoo is not a charitable enterprise; it just sometimes works out that they help charities in the process of posting ‘lenses’ on a wide variety of topics. What’s a Lens? Nothing but a simple webpage on a topic you are interested in.

When I checked, Gnarls Barkley, Suitcases, and Golden Retrievers were popular (aren’t they always?). Squidoo is myspace+about+wikipedia (or something like that). I found one that amused me: Frank Roche posted best presentations ever. Nothing new there, but some links to good resources, including my personal favorite, Powerpoint is Evil, by Edward Tufte.

The Ruthless Pursuit of Affordability

Paul Polak of IDE talks about the ruthless pursuit of affordability in all of the design work that his organization takes on. Of course, the IDE $20 water pump is a great example of how we can bring the poorest of the agricultural poor up from $1/day to $2/day, thereby taking them out of destitute poverty.

But what about the stylish poor, the destitute who want to smell good? According to this article in The Onion, Chanel has finally taken this into account and developed a “cost-efficient fragrance for the Third World, one specifically designed for the rigors of dry, dusty, less glamorous environments in the Southern Hemisphere.” Called Chanel 3rd, “it can go from hut to field to fire circle without losing its potency or charm.”

About time, I say.

Mile High Stories Rides Again

Thanks to the efforts of the indefagitable Daniel Weinshenker, the Mile High Stories project is going to be starting up again this next month. Daniel, who works with the Center for Digital Storytelling, has hooked us up with the Colorado Historical Society. The CHS is doing an exhibition later in 2007 on the history of Italians in Denver and Colorado; a group of us (including our partner in this venture, Tim Roessler) will be working with some of the elder Italians in the Denver community to tell their stories.

The Center for Digital Storytelling has a great program, and has really defined the digital storytelling space. This is an opportunity for us to use these techniques to get some great personal histories about the Denver of yesteryear. As this moves forward I’ll be updated the Mile High Stories site (which is currently woefully out of date).

All is Grist for the Mill

Who says environmentalists can’t have a sense of humor? I actually look forward to getting my “weekly grist”, and not just to find out what horrors have been wrought on the world’s ecosystems. The writing hits a good tone, one that combines humor, insight, and activism.

Grist has some insightful columnists (this week’s Ask Umbra is worth a read), and they’ve done some excellent interviews in the past with people like Michael Pollan. Also, the Grist List is worth a quick view.

The site is probably best known for their punny headlines. Today’s sampling: “The Problem of the Root”, “If not Nau, when?”, “Capsize Does Matter”, and “Energizer Money”. Sure, Mr. Johnson, the pun may be the lowest form of humour, but Grist puts it together in a way that doesn’t hurt so bad; maybe a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down.

Check out their site at grist.org.

Cohousing hits RiNo


I met a guy at a RiNo meeting the other night named Ted Pearlman who is heading up a new ‘cohousing’ project in RiNo. The project, which is scheduled to kickoff this year and finish early in 2009, is called DUCCI, which stands for Denver Urban Core Cohousing Initiative. It’s going to be at the Taxi development on the west side of the Platte River. According to the website:

Cohousing is the name of a type of collaborative housing that attempts to overcome the alienation of modern subdivisions in which no-one knows their neighbors, and there is no sense of community. It is characterized by private dwellings with their own kitchen, living-dining room etc, but also extensive common facilities. The common house may include a large dining room, kitchen, lounges, meeting rooms, recreation facilities, library, workshops, and childrens’s space.

Usually, cohousing communities are designed and managed by the residents, and are intentional neighborhoods: the people are consciously committed to living as a community; the physical design itself encourages that and facilitates social contact. The typical cohousing community has 20 to 30 single family homes along a pedestrian street or clustered around a courtyard. Residents of cohousing communities often have several optional group meals in the common building each week.

They haven’t started working on the design of the buildings in great detail, but they have signed on an architect, David Baker, who is also working on the other Taxi projects. According to the site, they aren’t sure how ‘green’ the building will end up being. I guess that’s up to the residents to decide.

Turns out there is an article on worldchanging.com today on this very subject: Multi-Family, Affordable, Urban and Green, written by Sarah Rich.

RiNo Turns One Year Old!

On January 26th and 27th, the River North Art District turns one year old with two days of studio tours. On Friday (evening) and Saturday (day) over forty locations will be open. If you are interested in where art is made in Denver, this event is perfect for you.

Following the tour on Saturday (which will include 3 free shuttles and art celebrity tourguides Bill Amundson and Phil Bender) there is a birthday party, raffle, and iron pour at Ironton Studios. The raffle will include a “Wall of Wine” and an iPod Shuffle, so it’s worth your time to participate. And if you have never been to an iron pour, well, what could be better than hot steel on a cold night?

More information is available at rivernorthart.com.