Jul
2010

Tweet With Care

I love Twitter, but the other day I forgot just how public my tweets are. Last week I was assigned a large amount of reading for my “User Centered Design” class. While I tried to plow through it, I just couldn’t. I had to finish it though, there was going to be a quiz.

As I kept pushing myself to read on, I would fall drowsy and drift away. The book I was reading was “Communicating Design,” by Daniel Brown. The book is geared towards people who design websites, in other words, not me. It is a very technical book, and one that I could only just understand.

I heard William Zinsser’s voice in my head as I read the book. In his book, “On Writing Well,” he devotes a chapter to writing about science and technology. He argues that some of the best writing has come from scientists and not English departments. He highlights a few rules that are key to writing about technology: “You can’t assume a reader knows what you assume everybody knows.” He goes on to say: “write like a person and not like a scientist.”

As I sat and read Daniel Brown’s book, I didn’t feel like he was writing like a person. I felt like he was writing as a web designer to another web designer. So in my frustration I tweeted: “Having a bad ‘user experience’ on communicating design by Daniel brown, bad writing for such technical matters.” I was angry and the required reading is all about the “user experience” and how to understand it and make it better.

Feeling justified, I went back to the reading. A day later I get this tweet back to me:

”Hoping to clean up much of the writing in the 2nd ed. anything bothering you in particular?”

I was a bit shocked. My original tweet was not directed to him, nor was it really meant for him. I am glad he saw it though. I tweeted back more about the writing.

It was a good reminder that Twitter is a public place and I need to choose my words carefully. Dan’s writing did put me to sleep. Since it is required reading, it should flow better and be more engaging. His information was very technical, but it only played to a crowd who “gets” it. If he is going to write a “how-to” anyone should be able to pick it up and run with it.

The same rule applies to how I produce my show. When someone tunes in to see my show, they should be able to pick up where we are. If they are too confused, they will change the channel. Same with the book, if its too confusing, someone else will come along and write it better.

Jun
2010

“On Writing Well”

"On Writing Well" by William Zinsser

My mind just couldn’t hone in on something to write about. I sat down to read William Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” I usually love reading Zinsser, but my eyes were feeling heavy. Just before I put the book down, I read his words “Get their voice and their taste in your ear.” He was referring to finding your voice. It made me think about the writers I love. Garrison Keillor is probably my favorite author, but his work is fiction. Does that count? Then I thought about author Eric Poole. His first book is called “Where’s my wand?” It’s about growing up believing the show “Bewitched” was real, that might do. Something was missing though, and my body was getting weaker. So I let the nap take over and I drifted away.

Outside I heard tires grab at the loose gravel in the unpaved driveway. The neighbor’s dog started shouting out the window at whoever was here.  I was awake. I have been out for two hours. I sat up from the couch and took stock of the living room, I saw Zinssers book still sitting on my coffee table. I grabbed it and dove in where I left off.

My mind was blank, when these words were processed:

“This was a generation reared on television, where the picture is valued more than the words, in fact, is devalued, used as mere chatter and often misused and mispronounced. It was also a generation reared on music-songs and rhythms meant primarily to be heard and felt. With so much noise in the air, was any American child being trained to listen? Was anyone calling attention to the majesty of a well-constructed sentence?”

A feeling of guilt washed over me as I realized just how right he was. I grew up in the world Zinsser describes. Pictures always meant more than words. At college I developed as a news photographer, I focused on how to frame a picture. I worked hard to perfect the “natural sound piece.” A story told through the lens of the camera without the voice of a reporter. One of the tricks to good reporting was writing to the picture. In TV news you can’t write to something you can’t show.

Then I thought about my distain for Lady Gaga. I don’t think she has any talent. She may have a nice voice, and I admit a great flair for showmanship, but she can’t write. Her lyrics are so heavily dampened by modern music no one hears the words. A few weeks ago I couldn’t avoid her. My favorite new show “Glee” was having a special Lady Gaga episode. While the performer herself was not featured, her music was. The show cemented my feelings. I saw a mother and daughter sing “Poker Face” as a duet. The song grew further lost on me. While I admit liking the songs more as performed by stronger singers, the words made less sense hearing them more clearly without the noise.  Here is a sample from the song “Poker Face”

I won’t tell you that I love you.

Kiss or hug you.

Cause I’m bluffin’ with my muffin.

I’m not lying I’m just stunnin’ with my love-glue-gunning.

Just like a chick in the casino.

Take your bank before I pay you out.

I promise this, promise this.

Check this hand cause I’m marvelous.”

I can’t see what inspired the makers of  “Glee” to use this as a mother-daughter duet. Hearing it sung with just a piano, and no other musical accompaniment, I found it to be funny. Something I would hear on “Saturday Night Live.”

You can’t blame Lady Gaga though. She was raised on the same pop culture I was. She was smart enough to understand it. We’re both guilty of the same thing though, not writing well. I can’t vouch for her, but William Zinsser is helping me.

I have been told for years that, writing for TV is very different then writing for other mediums. I don’t think so anymore. When I tried to write my very first news story a few months ago, I was terrified. One boss taught me to write in the folksy, breezy style, Zinsser warns against. Another boss just showed me how to strip it all away and keep it simple. I walked away thinking my script was too simple. I have been so intimidated by writing for news; I have avoided it for so long. I’m still apprehensive, but the picture is getting clearer. I still have clutter, but not as much as before. I can recognize where certain words aren’t needed. I am not where I need to be, but I’m more tuned in than I was.

Last weekend, my stepbrother got married. The bride’s aunt wanted to stand up and say a few words. She pulled out a speech she had crafted. Once she started to read, I thought; this must be the first time she is reading this out loud. It did not flow and there was too much clutter. It may have sounded loving in her mind, but it was coming through as insulting and rude. She read it in a sweet voice, but clearly this was the first time out loud. The wrong words left me distracted from the message she intended.

My writing isn’t where it should be yet, but Mr. Zinsser, I am listening. Tuned in to what I was missing before.

Jun
2010

The Pipe Dream

Tardis

My holiest of shows is “Doctor Who” and not far behind, its spin off “Torchwood.” My dream job is to work on “Doctor Who” and live in England. Last year, I gave it a shot.

“Doctor Who” is produced by BBC Wales. They make the show in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. In 2008, the Mrs. and I took our first big vacation there. We spent two weeks in England, but only three days in Cardiff. The city is a secret gem. The Brits often make fun of it for various reasons, but we fell in love with the place. We knew we needed to spend more time there.

When we returned from our big UK adventure, I signed up for the BBC employment emails. I started getting a lot of job listings for both “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Most of the postings I was not qualified for. Then in late November of 2008, “the holy grail” of jobs was announced, producer for “Doctor Who.”

Christmas came early. I was running around the house screaming and jumping for joy. All I could see was a life in Cardiff making the show of my dreams.

Once I calmed down, I needed a plan. Specifically, I needed to get going on the application. I thought long and hard about everything I had done in TV up to this point. I then considered that “Doctor Who” is the BBC’s most valuable show; naturally I was a perfect fit. It wasn’t an act of ego that convinced me to apply; it was my love of the show and the BBC. The “Doctor Who” is flawless; I just wanted to hitch my wagon to it.

The rejection letter came about two weeks after the position closed for inquires. I knew I would be turned down, so I didn’t tell a lot of people I was applying. Most of the people I told were very supportive. One friend thought it was a dumb idea to even try.

I don’t regret taking the chance, if you can call it that. Having investigated it further, the BBC (and England) are very strict about only hiring UK citizens. Unless I have a sponsor, family ties, or have been working towards getting my citizenship, they will not even consider me because I am an American.

I still get the BBC Wales job openings in my email. Many more have come through that I am qualified for. They have a show just like mine called “The One Show.” The shows hosts have just left for better jobs on a competing network. So here is the BBC’s chance to mix things up. Give the show over to an American who sees England with a fresh perspective.

I’ve been back to Cardiff since the rejection letter. We even snuck on the BBC campus to have lunch one day. I will continue to submit my resume. I like to think that someone in human resources is getting familiar with my name.

Jun
2010

Use of Personas

This summer I am also taking ICM 512de. This is paper was written for this week’s assignment in 512, but it serves both classes:

My mother just turned 60. Until this year, she never used a personal computer. She has never had a need to. She used to be a dog groomer and now works the deli counter in a grocery store. A neighbor of hers was in the process of moving out and he gave her his old computer. Through a few friends, she learned how to setup email and browse the web. It is a slow process. Whenever she calls me to ask questions, I instinctively talk to her as I would anyone who has always worked a computer. This is my mistake. I needed to go back in time to the point that I first learned how to work on a computer and see it through those eyes.

Due to her lack of technical experience, you could refer to my mother as the lowest common denominator, but she is just the person we should think of when making decisions for the mass audience. The government’s usability guidelines, chapter 1:11, states “Use Personas.” It comments “Personas are the hypothetical ‘stand-ins’ for actual users that drive the decision-making for interfaces.”

I would argue, use real people. Instead of designing fake people, find a real person who fits the persona you have in mind. Product testing that takes place down the line with a group of people, but why not start with real people who you are designing the persona around. Would this not save time in the long term? Steve Krug says in Chapter 2 of “Don’t Make Me Think,” It’s only natural to assume that everyone uses the web the same way we do, and –like everyone else- we tend to think that our own behavior is much more orderly and sensible than it really is.” If you design a persona, it’s designed off of what a group of technical minds are thinking this person would do. If you had a real life person to begin with, it would save time trying to decide what path the fake person would take and simply ask what the real person would do.

Krug mentions early on in chapter 2 “the thing that has struck me most is the difference between how we think people will use the web sites and how they actually use them.” Krug backs this up with an example of regular people opening Yahoo! and typing in the web address they are looking for, rather than typing the address in the web browser. Yes, this can be frustrating to some, but if it works for the user then what’s the problem? The anchor of my show is the type of man who could easily be created as a “persona.” He is very well educated, makes a good salary, and is easily considered to be the every-man. Yet he is among those who open up Google to type an address rather than typing it in his web browser. Would a group of engineers, or designers, see that action coming had they created him on paper?

We use the same idea in television. My show, “207” casts a wide net. We have every type of music, cooking or story on our show. Recently, a rapper named Spose was starting to make a big name for himself. We listened to his music and thought; it was not for our audience. A week later, my anchor’s 90-year-old father said, “Have you heard of this Spose kid?” To his amazement, his dad has been reading about him in the newspaper and thought he should be on our show. A week later, Spose was on our show. It has been the most popular segment of the year. His album went gold just last week. At the time of the broadcast, we got one or two complaints, but overall people found this rapper to be interesting.

While creating the idea of personas, Kim Goodwin of Cooper says In her research notes on personas, :

“Sometimes it’s easy to focus too much on a persona’s biography. Personal details can be the fun part, but if there are too many of them they just get in the way. To avoid this problem, focus first on the workflow and behavior patterns, goals, environment, and attitudes of the persona—the information that’s critical for design—without adding any personality.”

In our minds, we couldn’t conceive of our audience liking Spose, and yet they loved him. The personas that we used to base our decisions on let us down. Had we asked around and talked to a few real people, we would have made the right decision earlier.

As an editor, there is nothing more frustrating then crafting a masterpiece and having someone look at it and say “I don’t get it.” If that’s the answer you get, then it’s back to the drawing board. If I am working on something that I really care about, and have put a lot of work into, I grab a handful of various folks in the newsroom to look at it. The last thing I want to do is air something that will make people turn the channel. So it’s best that I get a range of feedback. A lot of times I will do this as I am tackling bits of the story. I will show off chunks to see if I am heading in the right direction. Here again, I don’t want to get too far in the work to find that I had it wrong from the start.

Personas are a great concept, but the human mind can be unpredictable. When my mother calls me on a Sunday afternoon with her latest computer crisis, I can’t begin to fathom the steps, or decisions, she made to get her to the issue she is now faced with. It takes a lot of detective work to trace back to where she made her initial mistake and how we can now set it right. Had an engineer or designer had someone like my mother in the room as they made their plans, perhaps it would have saved a lot of time and frustration.

Jun
2010

“Our Television Heritage”

I am a media professional, but that’s not why I think I am qualified to critique television. Most people sit down and are just entertained by TV. When I sit down to watch, I am studying it. I look for what works and what doesn’t. I watch for patterns or certain styles of editing and shooting. I look at how a show is made and figure out how it was done and how it can be re-created. I have been doing this ever since I realized, “I Dream of Jeannie” wasn’t real.

You always know when you’re watching a bad TV show. Often you don’t think twice when you’re watching a good show. I do hate seeing a good show turn bad. “The West Wing” was a great show in the first two seasons, then the third season was just terrible. You could tell the writers lost their voice and direction. Their show wasn’t going anywhere or doing anything. They eventually recovered, but they lost something special after the second season.

My show and “The West Wing” are obviously different worlds. “207” is a local newsmagazine show complete with cooking, comedians, and live music. “The West Wing” or even “Doctor Who” for that matter are fictional worlds with storylines. What I compare are the techniques used in telling the stories. From the shots to the edits and even the writing, I have ripped off many production elements over the years. Many of my show opens have been influenced by classic TV.

I have respect for the history of TV. Nick at Nite used to have an ad campaign for “Our Television Heritage.” It was a joke, but in there were lots of good tidbits of information. I grew up on great TV. I would watch a lot of Cheers, The Cosby Show, and dive into reruns of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” “Mary Tyler Moore,” “Get Smart,” “The Avengers,” “Bewitched,” “Barney Miller,” and anything else Nick at Nite served up.

Having a degree in television studies and being the producer of content gives me the right to weigh in general TV topics, but being a viewer and a consumer solidifies that right.