Friday Photo Essay: The Photo That Got Away

Yesterday I was driving past Sarasota’s military academy just as school was letting out for the day. Swarms of teenagers in drab, unbecoming olive uniforms descended upon Orange Avenue, heading for the buses or for home as fast as they could. Amidst the chaos, a beautiful girl sat on the lawn, peacefully strumming her ukelele. There was bright sunlight and a light breeze and everything. It would have made the perfect photo.

—Wendy Joan

UX: Lessons from Real Life

When you work in the world of media, and take pride in your extracurricular reading on writing for the web, not being able to access information on a web site can be embarrassing, to say the least.

But that’s what happened yesterday when I signed up for an account at ETS.org (Educational Testing Service) to dig up the score for a standardized test I took nearly two years ago.

Here’s the sign-up screen:

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Easy enough to create an account, right? Here’s what happened:

After creating my account and logging in, I searched for my test results using an appointment number issued at the time I registered (thank you, Gmail). Error message. I entered and re-entered this code, along with my email address and test date. Nothing. According to the records, I never took this test.

I called up the automated line to order my score report by telephone. Knowing that the appointment number wasn’t working correctly, I searched for my test results by my social security number. Again, there wasn’t a record in my name. And, instead of being transferred to a customer service rep, the line automatically disconnected me.

I called back, and spoke to a customer service representative. Though she couldn’t actually provide me with the information I needed, she reluctantly clued me in on why I couldn’t locate my test scores. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t exist in the system, it was that my profile information did not match the information I submitted when registering:

  • I didn’t enter my full first name, which is Wendy Joan. But, because the first name field specified, “Do not include special characters or spaces,” I entered “Wendy.”
  • I entered my current mailing address, not the address I lived at when I registered for the test. Two years ago.

In Letting Go of the Words, Janice (Ginny) Redish offers seven steps to understanding your audience:

  1. List your major audiences
  2. Gather information about your audiences
  3. List major characters for each audience
  4. Gather your audiences’ questions, tasks and stories
  5. Use your information to create personas
  6. Include the person’s goals and tasks
  7. Use your information to write scenarios for your site

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Though there are quite a few things wrong with ETS’ account sign up—in part due to the “secure nature” of test results—the site’s creators could benefit from gathering more information about their audiences and creating personas.

“You can start to understand your audiences by thinking about them,” writes Redish. “But that’s not enough. To really understand who they are, why they come, what they need and how to write web content for them, you have to know them and their realities.”

ETS offers a range of academic assessment tests for high education. We can assume that the majority of ETS’ audience range from teenagers to young professionals just starting out in their career. They have no likely purchased a home. It is even more likely that their mailing address changes every one to two years. Surely I can’t be the only frustrated user out there?

—Wendy Joan

Tuesday Media Picks

Stories from the last week or so worth mentioning.

Happy reading,

—Wendy Joan

Journalist Lawrence Wright’s ‘Trip to Al-Qaeda,’ Fresh Air

“Journalism is a flawed profession, but it has a self-correcting mechanism. The rule of journalism is: talk to everybody. In the course of writing my book, I interviewed 600 people and I didn’t get everybody but I got a lot of people. Some of those sources I interviewed dozens of times and I find that the more people you talk to, you get a broader range of opinion and facts than you can possibly get from any small group—but then you can go back and check things that don’t square with what you heard before.”


Right to Remain Silent, This American Life

Act Two: “For 17 months, New York police officer Adrian Schoolcraft recorded himself and his fellow officers on the job, including their supervisors ordering them to do all sorts of things that police aren’t supposed to do. For example, downgrading real crimes into lesser ones, so they wouldn’t show up in the crime statistics and make their precinct look bad.”



The World’s Worst Textbooks, Foreign Policy Magazine

“The Texas Board of Education ignited an international firestorm last spring when members approved a controversial new social studies curriculum. The new standards skew hard to the rightchampioning American capitalism throughout and suggesting religious intentions on the part of the founding fathers.”


America is a Joke, New York Magazine

“It wasn’t exactly an innocent year, given the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Columbine and the two frames of a topless woman hidden in Disney’s The Rescuers. But since 1999, when Stewart took over as host, the context in which The Daily Show operates has been radically altered. Terrorist attacks, two wars, and a global economic meltdown have charged the political atmosphere. More important for Stewart and his show has been the media transformation. Print is crumbling. The mainstream TV networks have steadily shed seriousness and viewers. The Internet, a minor player at the turn of the century, has become overcrowded with opinion silos. As the new century began, Fox News Channel was finding its fair-and-balanced footing and Glenn Beck, an itinerant radio shock jock, was trying on a new persona, “Limbaugh Lite.” Today, Fox News is an evil empire and Beck just led a messianic Washington rally. America’s politicians, willingly or not, often seem like they’re actors in scripts created by cable producers.”



Indus River Outsider, New York Times Magazine

“Some weeks ago I flew from New York to Islamabad, Pakistan, to experience summer in the country where my parents were born and where I lived as a child. I love summer in Pakistan: the mangoes, the monsoon and, this year, Ramadan, the mystical month of the Islamic calendar, all came in August. A week after I landed, the monsoon clouds arrived, but this time the Indus River swelled and burst its banks: my vacation coincided with the largest natural disaster in Pakistan’s history.”


(Photos: Lawrence Wright with some of the people he interviewed for The Looming Tower, his history of al-Qaeda, Courtesy of Larwrence Wright; Schoolchildren with flag photo from Foreign Policy Magazine; Jon Stewart photo by Danielle Levitt; Tent image by Holly Wales.)

How ‘The Five Precepts’ Can Help You Conquer Another Day at the Office

Earlier this month, I started a four-week Introduction to Meditation course. My journey to becoming a beginner was a winding road, with good books and great talks, even a three-day silent retreat. And a lot of time sitting on the floor with a wandering mind.

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Our assignment for the first week wasn’t to meditate. Instead, we were told to spend a moment each morning thinking about the day before us, and the following tasks:

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  1. Refrain from destroying living creatures.
  2. Refrain from taking that which is not given.
  3. Refrain from misconduct due to sensual desires.
  4. Refrain from false speech.
  5. Refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs that lead to states of carelessness.

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Then, right before going to bed, we reviewed the day. Our teacher, Lennart, who spent years living as a monk in Sri Lanka, reminded us that these were training rules—not commandments—which would probably break (but should try not to), that build the determination, awareness and the concentration necessary for a strong meditation practice.

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Going into my week, I thought my only challenge would be red wine. But, when I took a few moments to slow down and think about the day before me, something wonderful happened. I became more alert and aware of my actions as I moved throughout my day. As you might imagine, I wasn’t contemplating killing anyone, but as I hardboiled my morning egg, I wondered if that counted.  Ants appeared out of nowhere, and I did my best to sweep them outside. I was house-sitting, so “taking that which is not given” was a particularly tough call. And the only night I forgot to reflect on my day was Friday, when I did have too much wine, but was mindful of every glass ordered.

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All this got me thinking about office life. In any monastery, Lennart told us, monks don’t sit down for hours at a time without doing something first. It can be as simple as lighting a candle or giving an offering, but the action clearly begins a long session of meditation.

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When we sit at our desks in the morning, how many of us think about the eight hours before us? If you’re like me, you dive into your inbox or create a to-do list. But, what if, we took a moment at the start of every day to think about five rules to try and follow?

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Here are mine:

  1. Don’t take what isn’t given. And be a good listener.
  2. No false speech.
  3. Be mindful of your time and everyone else’s.
  4. Tell one story a day. Look for lessons where you least expect them.
  5. Think about the big picture.

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What office rules do you live by?

—Wendy Joan

How Active Listening Can Make You a Better Interviewer

For me, the hardest part of an interview is listening back to the recording. I’ve had enough practice not to hate how strange my voice sounds, but no matter how great the content is, I’m always disappointed by the overlapping “mmhs” I always add in solidarity with my source. And the crinkling paper. And the pen drops that my handy-dandy Zoom never fails to record.

But, maybe there’s more to those “mmhs” and little interruptions than we all thought? I’ve been reading Storytelling for User Experience, and finding a lot of great parallels between storytelling and listening for UX that can be directly applied to interviewing.

“Good listening can be addictive,” writes Quesenbery and Brooks. “If you have ever been really listened to, then you know its power. We then want it, even crave it and seek it constantly.”

Even though listening to someone speak seems simple enough, we’re more used to not being listened to. We’ve developed “highly effective defense mechanisms”—like raising our voices or pausing at the threat of interruption—which detracts from really listening. Or really telling the story we want.

Those paper crinkles and pen drops, however subtle, are interruptions that prevent you from really listening, and might ultimately prevent the source from sharing her deeper thoughts.

Here’s a list of five tips on learning to be a good listener via Mind Tools and Storytelling for User Experience:

  1. Pay attention. Give the speaker your undivided attention and acknowledge the message.
  2. Show that you are listening. Use your own body language and gestures to convey your attention.
  3. Reflect back. Show that you understand what is being said by paraphrasing and summarizing periodically.
  4. Defer judgment. Allow the speaker to finish. Don’t interrupt.
  5. Respond appropriately. Be candid and open in your response.

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Sounds easy enough, right? But if your audio sounds like my audio, you’ve got a little bit of work to do. Your source—and your story—will thank you.

—Wendy Joan

(Photo by Melvin Gaal)

Friday Photo Essay: What’s the Best Photo You’ve Ever Taken?

“A few well-chosen stories might be just the thing to get everyone to put down their Blackberries and join the conversation.”
Storytelling for User Experience

Photo by: Britta

Where taken: Connecticut

Camera used: Sony Cybershot

It was the last summer before we all had babies. Eat Media was less than a year old, and we took the business “on the road” for the month of August. This was our first stop: our friends’ lake house in Connecticut. We would work until 4pm or so, go water skiing and then go back to work. This photo captures the freedom we felt that summer. The freedom to invent the business and the life we want.

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Photo by: Wendy Joan

Where taken: The Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), Amritsar, India

Camera used: Sony Cybershot

I spent most of 2007 living in Pondicherry, India, with eight rowdy American girls and one French guy. That May, three of us travelled more than 1,700 miles north to Amritsar. Shortly after arriving, I quickly snapped this photo outside the gates. The sun was shining straight in my eyes and I couldn’t see a thing. We spent the next few days exploring the temple and Punjabi countryside before heading for the Himalayas. I so close to Pakistan I could have touched it through a chain link fence, and would have done so if the border patrol didn’t have such big Kalashnikovs and so much ammunition.

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—Wendy Joan

Friday Photo Essay

I’m on a mission to keep August Fridays interesting. What better way than with a little story?

Share your own tales from the city.

—Wendy Joan

Walking through downtown Minneapolis
I’m wondering why we
are most ourselves
in the least amount of space.


My heels have healed
from an unfortunate new pair of shoes
and I’ve snuck
half an hour away.

I turn corners and
cross at red lights,
pretending to lose myself
even though I know where I am,

inventing personalities for avenues

and side streets

and fleeting glances
from people who interest me.


I am in love with the urban—


the hot dog cart apprentices

and saxophone players who persevere
through old reeds and pocket change.

Friday Afternoon Inspiration

Mustering up the motivation to create anything fruitful is tough on a Friday afternoon, especially with the long weekend to look forward to.

Here’s what inspired us over at Eat Media this week. Hope it gets your wheels turning.

Ian:

Web Analytics 2.0: The Art of Online Accountability & Science of Customer Centricity and the DIY ethos of Hip-Hop culture—lifting yourself up and making things happen. Not waiting for a handout. The Jay-Z story.


Wendy

Islamic dress. MTV did this great True Life documentary on kids in Saudi Arabia gracefully refusing to accept the societal norms of their parent’s generation.  I can’t stop thinking about Fatima, a 20-year-old from Jeddah who is making and selling her own brightly colored abaiyas. They’re beautiful and I want one.

And M.I.A.’s Agitprop Pop by Lynn Hirschberg. I still can’t decide if I like M.I.A. more or less after reading Hirschberg’s profile, if she’s smarter than all of us, or just feeding into her own idea of what a rebel should be. A good profile will keep you guessing even after you’re done reading.


Lindsay

This talk by Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Rick Bragg at a recent conference. The video is half comedy routine, but it’s a nice refresher on feature writing.

And 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, a site that offers insight into how to get started if you’re a first-time author.

—Wendy Joan

Eat Media Op-Ed: Sustainable Journalism and the Next Generation of Writers

After a long Tuesday, I hit the treadmill. The wall of television screens at the gym glare and glaze, each silently playing a different station, each beaming equally distracting content. In the midst of this digital dinner-hour chaos is Diane Sawyer, tranquil and statuesque—beautifully portrayed in an ABC News ad reminding viewers of the network’s commitment to seasoned professionals breaking world news stories.

I can’t help but think of this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine article, “Putting a Price on Words,”—Andrew Rice’s piece that chronicles the rise of entrepreneurial journalism and the increasingly blurred line between reporting and advertising—and realize Diane Sawyer might be one of the last journalists of her kind. Because, certainly there is no reporter willing to endure decades of $15 writing assignments, thinking that each piece submitted is one stepping stone closer to the top of investigative reporting. It’s not.

If you missed the article, here’s the skinny: the media market tanks. Journalists are out of work, and when start-ups emerge out of neighborhood coffee shops with free wireless, contributing writers submit stories for the flat rate of $15-20 a pop, with the promise of ad-sharing compensation down the road. If the site takes off (like True/Slant has), the writer reaps the monetary benefits of high traffic. If the site does not, then the writer just spent X amount of time working for the equivalent of a few subway rides and a latte.

This past Sunday’s magazine was devoted to the idea of worth—self and otherwise. For me, the elephant in the room wasn’t that sex and SEO sells (posts that cover “sex, scandal and Sarah Palin always score high”), but the fact this model of journalism cannot sustain itself. For newly out of work writers spreading themselves thin with freelance jobs, these jobs are a necessity—a means of survival while the industry adapts in the face of folding newspapers and free content. But according to Henry Blodget, the editor in chief of Business Insider, in order to “earn back” a $60,000 annual salary, “an online journalist needs to generate a whopping 1.8 million page views a month.” And, for the young, 20-something fresh out of journalism school, not only is the prospect less than financially appealing (if not entirely unreasonable), but unattainable. Even if the entry-level reporter can break into the industry, the chances of success are low, and the move to a more stable profession is probable.

Not long ago, I interviewed a doctoral student studying sustainability, and asked him to define “sustainability” as if I had never heard the term before. He told me “Being sustainable is living like you give a damn about the future.” But, to make sure good journalism survives, whose job is that? The established writer working for minimal pay, or the bright-eyed young writer who can’t wait to get her first scoop?

—Wendy Joan

Stories to Write Home About

Media moves really fast. And (apologies for the cliché), if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you could miss some really great pieces.

Below are my picks of the week. Enjoy!

—Wendy Joan

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Being and Frumpiness, New York Times Style Magazine

Last week, Knopf published a new translation of “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir’s feminist masterpiece . . . This latest translation got us thinking about de Beauvoir’s accidental style statements — about her whole amazing, intellectual frump thing. Digging into the New York Times photo morgue, we’ve come up with what must be the world’s first “Simone de Beauvoir Look-Book.” Which is nothing if not reductionist and superficial.

407: The Bridge, This American Life

I first met Patrick three years ago, sleeping in a cardboard box … Considering his circumstances, what was surprising wasn’t so much that he ended up living in a box under a bridge, but how he had come to be right there, precisely. His probation officer, he said, had ordered him to live there.

China’s Arranged Remarriages, New York Times Magazine

So staggering was the scale of destruction unleashed by the Sichuan earthquake that, much like the Haitian quake in January, its horror was often reduced to a series of statistics: more than 87,000 dead or missing, nearly 400,000 injured, upward of five million homeless …

Looming over the physical reconstruction, however, has been another question: How can society rebuild? In China, one answer has been to pair grieving men and women to create instant families that will help ensure social and economic stability.

Covering ‘Tainted Justice’ and Winning a Pulitzer, Fresh Air

GROSS: So after you broke this story, there were threats against you, a lot of nasty things said, press conferences, threats to sue you?

Ms. RUDERMAN: Oh, yeah.

Ms. LAKER: Yeah. We had that early on, one attorney told us if we ran the first story, he would sue us and close the paper.  I mean, we had a lot of threats like that, but Wendy and I really believed in this story.

Jenny Shimizu and Susi Kenna, Style Like U

The first time I saw myself as a model was when my friends woke me up at four in the morning and took me to Times Square. I saw the Banana Republic billboard that I shot with Bruce Weber. There was just a picture of my face, and underneath, it said ‘American Beauty.’ It still makes me have the chills. Never in my life did I think that I was beautiful.”

(Simone de Beauvoir photo by Charles Hewitt/Picture Post/Getty Images, China photo by Wang Gang for The New York Times, Style Like U photo by Stylelikeu.com)