Posts tagged “london”

Know it when you see it

Rhino art at the Centre Pompidou. Better pictures here and here

Cattle advertisement in the Bankside area of London.

Take the form of some large animal and paint it Ferrari red. Then cover it with layers of gloss. Is the result art or advertising? The context in which we experience it seems to make all the difference. A museum or outside a restaurant?

Note: a more detailed, and impassioned exploration is in I Know It When I See It. But they start with the big red rhino, too.

Compare and contrast (Paris and London, September 07)

Trash receptacles such as this are very common in Paris. The words on the bag translate as Vigilance and Cleanliness. The bag is transparent so anything discarded is still visible. London, presumably because they have more recently experienced terrorist bombings, has no (or almost no) rubbish containers.

Paris uses painted metal barricades…

…while London uses these open-structured plastic segments to block off areas for construction. Other than path dependence (that’s just how they’ve always done it), why?

Food as symbol of belongingness

A couple of months ago I spent a couple of weeks in London on-site with a client, meeting with different players and learning about how they did things, and how they were using the products they were developing.

This company is in the finance industry which has a pretty specific culture: high energy, male dominated, very social, very competitive. I was there as an outsider and I was obviously an outsider…strangely dressed, from “Silicon Valley” (one person I met with revealed that they had been anticipating my arrival by referring to me as Silicone Man, because, in part, they didn’t know my name), and of course asking a lot of ridiculous questions.

The trading floor (essentially rooms with rows of desks that have 3-6 monitors each) has a very hierarchical culture. For example, the young guys run out every day and bring back food for the other guys. One day I was working on the floor during lunch; the team I was with asked me if I wanted lunch, so I placed an order with two young traders from France, as they went out to Wagamama (or as they called it, Wags).

When the food arrived, one of the brokers noticed me with my bucket of noodles and announced to everyone “Hey, Steve is having lunch on the desk! Now he’s really and truly one of us!”

Being overtly included is always touching; I was struck by the power of the shared dining ritual (which in this case was simply the ordering, then we all sat at our desks with our computers and ate and worked) to delineate that inclusion.

I responded by announcing that one of the tools I use in my work is participant observation. “Oh…” he said, “We learn something new every day!”

Learned Behavio(u)r

One of the fun yet challenging aspects of spending two weeks in another country was stumbling over all the little things that I know how to do back home but didn’t work. I paid for a snack using pocket change, and eventually had to hold the pile of coins out to the counter dude so he could take the right amount. The coins say their value, in English, but in order to complete a transaction in the normal amount of time, you have to be familiar. It was an interesting feeling, to be such a foreigner.

At another point, I was riding the DLR (train) with my Oyster (smart card). A conductor comes along to swipe the card and there’s a small interaction where the passenger holds out the card and the conductor holds out the wand (yes, it was a wand, not the usual credit-card-swipey-slot thing). I wanted to put my card on top of his wand, but he wanted to put his wand on top of my card. I was just supposed to know the gesture. Sounds like a bit of a dominance issues, actually.

In using the self-check at Tesco (a grocery store), I realized the software was the same as what I’ve seen here at Home Depot, etc. but when it came time to pay, the voice prompt told me to insert my card into the chippenpin device. Turns out this was Chip-and-PIN, where credit cards and/or ATM cards have extra security via an embedded chip, and an associated PIN. These readers use a different swipe gesture, with the card going in the bottom of the keypad. Anyway, I stood there with my non-chipped credit card, putting it in and out of this bottom slot, to no avail. After I surrendered and paid cash, I realized there was the familiar vertical swipe slot along the bezel of the monitor, a different piece of hardware than the chippenpin.

And this one was subtle but confounding:
This is the TV remote from my Paris hotel room but the London hotel had a similar issue. In my experience, the red power button turns the TV on and turns the TV off. But in both these hotel rooms (and maybe this was a hotel issue more than a Euro issue) the way to turn it was to press the channel buttons. Enter a channel and the TV would go on and display that channel. The power button was actually on “off” button. You can imagine me sitting in front of the TV with a remote and trying to turn it on, in vain, until frustrated random button press gave me the result I wanted.

I often look around at local transit and marvel at how much the cues and other information in those systems are designed for people who already know how to use them; but I was able to plan for and learn about transit enough to be come a fairly comfortable user. It was these small interactions without cues, and under time pressure, where I found myself bemusedly incompetent.

On the Bankside

I strolled through an interesting area south of the Thames, near the Borough Market. All the pubs had basically spilled into the streets, and people were hanging out any place they could, quite comfortable sitting amongst pylons, palettes, and rubbish, socializing in small groups with a pint of beer. It was almost shocking to see beer consumption going on “in public” as if this was somehow immoral, but that was just my outsider’s eyes.

The vibe was so positive and enthusiastic. And as I came upon the sign (see the last image) that marks the end of the area, I realized that it was a sanctioned behavior in a specific region.

London Calling

Looks like I’ll be in London for the first half of September; my first trip there in 17 years. I’ll be mostly focused on the work I’m doing but do hope to meet up with readers of this blog/folks I know. Drop me a line and let’s see if we can set it up.

Steve in London, 1990 (I still have that shirt!)


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