Sunday, December 12, 2010


A few months ago, a colleague sent an e-mail to several people discussing the problem of people tweeting during presentations.

First, the Incident
The issue is a timely one in light of a live interview with Steve Martin at New York’s 92nd Street Y.  The interview by New York Times writer Deborah Solomon focused on Martin’s new novel, and she picked up on a number of points in the book when asking him questions.

But the audience wanted a “star” interview, asking him about his career as a comedian, not his recent work as a novelist focusing on the art world.  The increasingly frustrated audience (located not only onsite, but also through simulcast in locations around the country) tweeted up a storm and one of the events’ producers eventually informed the interviewer that the audience was losing patience with her line of questions.

The Y eventually sent an apology and a $50 gift certificate to all who attended, claiming that the interview didn’t live up to its “standard of excellence.” (For those  who aren’t familiar with it, this series of lectures is one of the best known in New York City and, simulcasts started in response to people in other cities wishing to join the experience.)

The Arts Beat blog of the New York Times reports on the incident (  Some people agree with the gesture.

But others question it, pointing out that people who attend other disappointing lectures, movies, and similar performances rarely receive apologies, much less refunds.

More significantly, some people question whether the role of the audience in this situation, noting that the success of the Y lectures is that they do not pander to audience wishes.

The Bigger Picture
Edu-blogger Steve Wheeler puts this individual incident into a broader perspective in his blog entry, Weapon of Mass Detraction ( from December 2009.

Wheeler describes a few incidents in which impatient audiences tweet their frustration with a speaker.  In some instances, the speaker is admittedly off-the-mark in targeting the presentation.

But in other instances, the problems plaguing the speaker are beyond his or her control, such as non-functioning audio and restrictions placed on the speaker by the conference producer.

Wheeler labels this phenomenon as tweckling.

Wheeler focuses on the rudeness of the behavior. And it is.

But, more fundamentally, this seems to be a question of publicly vocalizing their conclusions before the speaker has reached his or hers.

That does not excuse speakers from the responsibility for engaging their audiences or conference producers from providing the pre-presentation guidance and on-site audiovisual support that speakers need to successfully do so.

But it would be nice if audiences were to meet speakers half way, and give them a bit of a benefit of the doubt before tweeting their dissatisfaction.

Realistically, though, as long as conference producers increasingly promote tweeting during their events, tweckling is an additional reality that all speakers need to face.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Reality Check on Giving

On the one hand, nonprofits succeed because kind volunteers donate time and kind patrons donate money.  But two recent news reports show how some organizations take advantage of the good intentions of kind people.

In “Frazzled Moms Push Back Against Volunteering” (, New York Times reporter Hilary Stout reports the stories of several mothers who burned themselves out as volunteers for their childrens’ schools.  One even continued volunteering at the school after her children transferred to another school.  Two common threads in these stories: mothers felt a heightened sense of responsibility for their volunteer jobs and schools often took advantage of their willingness to volunteer. 

In “When Donations Go Astray” (, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof warns that not all charities use kind donations for the purposes that donors intended, including some well-known charities like Feed the Children, which is embroiled in a number of lawsuits and investigations over inappropriate use of funds. 

As both Stout and Kristof advise, most organizations treat their volunteers well and use donations for the purposes for which they’re intended.  But even the best organizations can go off-course so volunteers and donors should always make sure their gifts are being used appropriately.  

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Career Challenges Faced by Highly Skilled Professionals

Here are some recent news about challenges that some highly skilled professionals face in maintaining their employability.

  • In Sondage AQIII 2010 : La formation continue negligee (Survey 2010—Training continues to be neglected) (, Direction Informatique editor Denis Lalonde reports that a recent survey by a professional association serving independent Information Technology (IT) professionals shows that, in this fast-changing field, 51 percent have had no training in the past year and another 5 percent have spent less than $500 on training (well below the Canadian average for all workers, much less the average of all those working in IT).  
The article attributes the drop in training to the Internet; people are learning on their own.  That may be true, but I’m a bit more skeptical given that IT professionals who are employed in full-time jobs continue to receive significant amounts of training, perhaps more than other categories of workers.  So I can hypothesize several explanations for the findings. One is that independent  professionals don’t value training.  Another is that many are un- or under-employed and cannot afford training. A third is that, without a regular employer to cover training costs, professionals are not investing in their long-term skill development.   
  • The Montreal Gazette editorial, Foreign-trained doctors get a taste of justice ( supports the finding of a recent report by the Quebec Human Rights Commission that medical schools in the province have unfairly prevented doctors trained outside of Canada from entering the residencies they must serve to earn their local medical licenses.  The editorial notes that although many of these foreign-trained doctors passed the qualifying exam, the medical schools found reasons to deny them placement in residency programs.  What’s worse, the editorial reported that these medical schools are rejecting these findings. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

Battle of the e-Book Readers

In the past few weeks, the Toronto Star ran a pair of articles on e-readers.

Consumer columnist Ellen Roseman sings the virtues of her iPad in  “An eReader is good, but an iPad is better” (

In response, Star editor Sarah Millar’s wrote “iPad vs. Kindle, which would you prefer?” ( Despite its non-commital title, Millar decidedly chooses the single-purpose e-book reader in general, and the Kindle in particular. 

For what it’s worth, in my opinion, Millar makes the stronger case.  She points out that the Kindle costs about one-third the price of an iPad, and is lighter and its battery lasts longer.  I’m not sure that the additional features that Roseman highlights are really worth all the extra money. 

That said, I own an iPad and love it.   

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Before Making that Donation

Before you make your holiday and year-end donations, make sure that the money you are sharing to strengthen the world is really going to do that--and not line someone's pockets.

In his November 21 column in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof warns about "When Donations Go Astray," identifies some poster children for charities that purport to help people but, in the end, might not be, and suggests sites donors can visit to check on charities of interst.

BTW--I was pleased that one of my favorite charities, the American Jewish World Service ( was lauded by Kristof for doing what it says it will do--and doing good work.

View Kristof's comments at

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Copyright Dos and Don'ts

Instructors: are you wondering whether you will be able to freely copy materials for your students under Canada's proposed new copyright law?

iPod, iPhone, and iPad users: are you wondering whether you'll be able to legally make backups of your media?

And copier-sharers: are you wondering what types of fines you might face if you get caught?

Then check out Separating copyright facts from fiction (, in the Toronto Star, in which Ottawa University professor Michael Geist, Canada's resident expert on copyright, explores answers to these and 3 other questions.

Monday, November 22, 2010

CSTD Thought Leader Presentation

Last winter, the planners of the 2010 CSTD Conference asked me to give a "Thought Leader" presentation.  Although my ego was boosted by the invitation, my mind was a bit flummoxed, as the conference planners let me choose the topic.   So someone considers me a thought leader, but about what  no one has any idea.

Of course, the planners wanted a topic soon after inviting me so I made up something broad and general--staying relevant--hoping that clarity would hit me as I actually prepared the presentation.

That was last spring, when I was finishing up my sabbatical and immersed in data from others' and my studies that paint a startlingly different view of the current state of training than is generally acknowledged.  That data points to a training system in which employers are increasingly less invested in developing their employees and in which workers assume the balance of the investment--that is, if they want to remain employed.

Although the situation scares me a bit, I also see a lot of opportunity for training professionals, although much of that opportunity will be outside of the employer-provided network of trainers.  I also think that this situation can empower workers to take more control of their own careers.  That, in turn, can lead to more satisfying careers.  But I think that we also need a system that provides that support and, as far as I can tell, no such system really exists.

At least, not yet.

The result was a presentation about whose technical content I feel quite secure.  But I had no idea how others would react to the presentation.

The e-Learning Guy posted the first reaction online and it's generally positive. 
I'm anxiously awaiting the official survey responses to get a sense of how the rest of the audience felt.

A copy of the visuals is provided here, though I'm not sure that, on their own, they fully deliver the message.

CSTD Research-to-Practice Day

I hosted the second CSTD Research-to-Practice Day this year.

Responses generally seem positive.

Check out this thorough review by the e-Learning Guy at:

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Professional Memberships--Fees Worth Paying

As part of its series, "Beat the Fees," Toronto Star reporter Chris Carter identifies 10 that are actually worth paying.

Among them:
10. Professional fees

Paying an annual fee to belong to a professional organization in your career field can provide valuable networking, educational or information-sharing opportunities. It also looks good as a résumé item.
See the entire list of fees worth paying at

Friday, October 22, 2010

Upcoming Presentations through the End of the Year

The Canadian Society for Training and Development's Second Research-to-Practice

Staying relevant. 2010 Canadian Society for Training and Development Conference. Toronto, ON. November 19, 2010.

Upcoming: Advanced Design for e-Learning Certificate Program. TRAINING 2011, San Diego, CA, February 5-6, 2011.

Currently ongoing: Technical Communication Manager Certificate Program. Society for Technical Communication. Presented online, October 14 through November 28, 2010.

Presentations to Professional Organizations

  • Certification for Training and Development Professionals.  Quebec chapter of the Canadian Society for Training and Development. December 7, 2010.
  • Informal learning: 10 issues to consider. Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Society for Training and Development. Date November 8, 2010.
  • Following form: Eleven real world insights into template-based writing. Monteal chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. Montreal, QC, November 4, 2010.
  • Lessons for information architecture from museum exhibits. San Fernando Valley chapter of the Society for Technical Communication. October 28, 2010.

Presentations at Conferences

  • With Ann-Louise Davidson. A proposed theoretical framework for researching and interpreting ubiquitous learning technologies. Ubiquitous Learning: An International Conference 10. Common Ground Publishing. Vancouver, BC, December 10-11, 2010.
  • With Ann-Louise Davidson. A proposed research methodology for researching ubiquitous learning technologies. Ubiquitous Learning: An International Conference 10. Common Ground Publishing. Vancouver, BC, December 10-11, 2010.
  • Lessons for structuring asynchronous tutorials from the design of museum exhibits. 2010 Association for Educational Communications and Technology Annual Conference. Anaheim, CA. October 27-30, 2010.
  • (with Ann-Louise Davidson.) Theory versus reality: Redesigning the introductory course on Instructional Design - Human Performance Technology to address student shortcomings. Association for Educational Communications and Technology Annual Conference. Anaheim, CA. October 27-30, 2010
  • So what do they think? Results of a qualitative study of the perceptions of training. Association for Educational Communications and Technology Annual Conference. Anaheim, CA. October 27-30, 2010.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Even Hotter off the Presses

The peer-reviewed version of the analysis of trends on spending in training was just published in Performance Improvement Quarterly.

As noted in the article, after adjusting for inflation, total spending has only grown 1.5 %, even though the US workforce grew by more than 30%.  

Here's the full citation, in case you want to track down the article:

Carliner, S. & Bakir, I. Trends in spending on training: An analysis of the 1982 through 2008 Training Annual Industry Reports. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 2 3 ( 3 ),  77–105.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Hot Off the Presses

The blog has been quiet the past month because I'm back from my sabbatical and spending most of my time preparing for classes (that I insisted on major revisions to one course and finishing the majority of my class preparations before the end of September only added to the workload), working on my research, and actually writing.  

Here's a couple of new publications:

  • Qualitative Research in Technical Communication, edited by my friends and colleagues, Jamie Conklin and George Hayhoe, was just published. The book contains a mix of methodology and actual studies. One of the studies featured is my study of the design of museum exhibits. To order a copy, visit
  • Developing the Business Case for a Major e-Learning Courseware or Infrastructure Project, was just published in the e-learning Guild's Learning Solutions magazine. It includes a template for creating a business case. To read the article, visit

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Enhancing the Ambiance of Montreal: Improving Retail in Montreal (Especially Retail Owned by HBC)

Earlier posts considered ways to improve highways and street- and metroscapes.

Another way to improve the ambience of Montreal is to improve the retail environment.  Montreal is the retailing mecca of Canada; many of the largest retailers in the country have their home offices here.

But what about nurturing the next generation of retailers and distinguishing the Montreal retail scene from those of other Canadian and international cities?  One way to do this is to provide incentives that encourage local designers of clothing, home accessories, and furniture to open shops and workshops on the key shopping streets of Ste-Catherine, St-Denis, St-Laurent, and de Maisonneuve, so that a uniquely Montreal character  is extended to the stores, further distinguishing these streets as retail destinations from regional malls in both character and retail mix.  To be honest, there’s a certain sameness from mall to mall and providing incentives to people to open stores that visitors cannot find elsewhere could make these areas more “exclusive.”  

But if we’re really going to improve the retail scene in Montreal, we need to start with one of the largest and most depressing retailers on the earth:  the HBC Company.  They may sell Olympic merchandise and Armani jeans, but more than an opportunity to buy them, a visit t most Bay stores inspires in me—and many other shoppers—a strong need for anti-depressants.

(In the Bay’s and Zeller’s defense, Sears Canada stores are, on the whole, even more depressing to visit, but they seem so far beyond repair that it’s not worth mentioning them.)

Although both the Bay and Zellers have made efforts to better distinguish themselves from one another in the past few years, and to refresh themselves with new brands and merchandise, the stores themselves have not been seriously refreshed and create a depressing, difficult shopping experience.

Reasonably busy Bay stores just plain look old.  For example, the upper levels of the downtown Bay stores in Montreal and Toronto have water-spotted ceiling tiles, difficult to read and non-distinctive signage, and aging escalators, among their other physical features.

(The store might have finally noticed these problems in Montreal.  The downtown store seems to be getting a small facelift.  For example, the fourth floor—housewares—seems to have discovered that it has some interesting lines and real windows and rearranged the floor to emphasize and highlight these assets. Now, if the store could replace the unsightly covering surrounding the first floor exterior of the building….)

But suburban and downtown stores out West make these stores look like thriving centers of activity in comparison.  The most depressing is the store in downtown Winnipeg, which looks as spacious as the Prairies and as deserted as many western farming towns. Suburban stores, of which the ones at Rockland Centre and Carrefour Laval are typical, are massive caverns with similarly difficult and non-distinctive signage and do little to visually divide the stores in to distinct departments.

Even if these stores could fix the problems of their non-descript, confusing, and cavernous structures, they’d still have to deal with their drab merchandise.  Regardless of season, the dominant colors on display seem to be various shades of navy blue, gray, tan, and similarly neutral colors.

No matter how drab the Bay, HBC shoppers can always count on Zellers to make the Bay look cheerful.  Its narrow aisles are crowded aisles with merchandise that looks like it was picked over by customers and never put back in place by staff.  The linoleum floors with waxy yellow buildup only enhance that feeling.  

The deep red and white color palette of the stores, which enlivens the attitude in American rival Target, is sufficiently different in shade from Target that it merely enhances the drabness of merchandise whose pallet sticks to funeral blacks and nondescript tans.

If the HBC is truly Canada’s store, Canadians either deserve an anti-depressant or brighter, more lively stores.  They need new concepts.

Visits to stores overseas provide inspiration.  The Bay, for example, might take merchandising lessons from de Bijenkorf in Amsterdam, Printemps and BHV in Paris, and KaDeWe in Berlin.  Given that Montreal prides itself on its European character, the Bay might remodel itself on European models.  Apparel would boast more color (more than just design) and home accessories and furniture would more  strongly emphasize design.  The stores might feature epicurean and magazine departments.  In-store cafes should be moved to highly visible, highly trafficked areas in the store, rather than relegated to low traffic areas tucked in the back of the store.  (Getting rid of the Coffee Depot on the bottom floor of the downtown Bay in Montreal went against this principle).  In fact, these eateries might have separate entries from the street—as well as entries to the store—to draw in traffic.  And the stores might feature specially commissioned artwork for sale, as did Galeria Kauthof in Berlin which, if nothing else, added visual variety to the space.

The physical space should not only be upgraded, but its appearance lightened up and made to appear spacious within departments, and with stronger physical distinctions between departments.  Signage should be improved a la Macy’s in the US so shoppers could more easily navigate the store on their own.

But these are general suggestions for improving the Bay.  Here are some specific ones for fixing the downtown Bay in downtown Montreal, which can be accessed through the McGill Metro Station, which—as was mentioned earlier--badly needs a renovation of its own.

  • Move the food, cards, and other fun stuff to the Metro level and, in the process, make it more upscale so it is both more pleasant to visit and visually distinct from the repetitious food courts elsewhere in the underground city.  The Bay on Queen Street in downtown Toronto does this toa a point, though the visual display could be significantly enhanced.  
  • Move electronics and sporting goods to share a floor with the Men’s department, as department stores in Peru seem to do.  What a smart move, too.  The street level floor has plenty of floor space for all of this—even if it must be stuffed with cosmetics.  
  • More prominently display the museum collection that’s hidden at the back of the fifth floor behind the children’s clothes.  Make it a destination worth visiting on its own and that (a)  proudly promotes the heritage of the store and (b) pushes the HBC “Signature” shop.  
  • Speaking of the Signature Shop: designers could take the merchandise further, but sales won’t improve unless the pricing does.  The HBC point blanket design may be distinctly Canadian, but Canadians and tourists would appreciate it more if it more of a Bay price point, rather than a Holt-Renfrew one.  
  • The Bay is launching a few stores-within-a-store, like the Emporio Armani.  Carry out the concept to the entire store, instead of one mass of open merchandise.  This would help further the distinction from Zellers.  
  • Before remodeling the housewares floor, the section needs a core concept, both for an overall look and merchandising, as well as the products within.  Think Crate & Barrel or Pottery Barn. Right now, the housewares department looks more like a Bed, Bath, and Beyond clone already used in Deco Decouverte, sans the “As sold on TV” section.  The Nespresso shops within shops are a start, but only work for one part.  And the idea needs to be extended to the nonbranded sections of the department.  
  • In addition, as a store-within-the-housewares-tore, the Bay might also consider adding an urban department to its downtown Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver stores that’s like the CB2 brand in the U.S.
  • Make the furniture store more dreamy—have mini-apartments in it instead of endless living rooms with bland selections of furniture.  
  • The outlet store on the top floor needs to stop taking its visual cues from Village des Valuers and Renaissance Fripe Prix.  Make it a fun place to shop—even if the merchandise is going to be put on a rack, “rack it” with style.  Each year, the staff transforms this area into a dreamy holiday store; they can do it the rest of the year, too, even if the merchandise is intended for fast removal.  
  • Replace the unsightly awning that covers the outside of the first floor of the Bay building.   It brings to the outside all of the visual merchandising limitations of the inside.  

The same concepts could be applied to suburban stores.  Consider the ones at Centre Rockland and Carrefour Laval.  They feel like a cross between a warehouse and a store that hasn’t been updated since 1986.   Worse, both are in upscale malls that have been remodeled in the past 5 years.  The could be improved by:

  • Adding a second and third set of escalators (or a glass elevator) to facilitate more movement among floors
  • Distinguish departments with completely different visual identities—including different ceiling and floor treatments, instead of a monotonous treatment throughout the store
  • Making designer departments even more distinctively stores-within-stores
  • Adapting the same suggestions for kitchen and linens made for the downtown store, by providing them separate and complete visual identities
  • Create a separate identity for the gift shop areas
  • Convert the cafeteria in the Laval store to a café and move it to the most prominent location in the store
  • Put electronics and sporting goods next to men’s clothing
  • Turn the service areas into a hubs of activity that can also generate interest in purchasing among waiting people

I’ve got a few more suggestions for the HBC Corporation.

As they should dramatically improve the Bay, Zellers is in desperate need of a similar upgrade.  Let’s start with the merchandise itself.   Like Target, Zellers could distinguish itself as cheap chic, but could use Canadian designers. The Alfred Sung collection is a step in the right direction, but it’s just one—and a baby step at that.  Zellers needs to do more.  And Zellers may need to distinguish the merchandise in its urban, suburban, and exurban stores if it feels that cheap chic is too much for some of its customers.

Zellers could also take a lead from Target by getting top name manufacturers to develop low end lines just for the store.

But none of this merchandise upgrade would help sales if Zellers doesn’t make the shopping experience more pleasant.  That Walmart offers a more pleasant shopping experience speaks volumes about the depressing nature of the Zellers stores.

The space needs a major makeover.  The chain needs to completely re-think its color palette.  While the red is reminiscent of the Canadian flag, in the excessive doses in which it’s used in Zellers stores, that becomes more of a liability than a patriotic asset; less red would be more.  And floors in all of Zeller’s stores need to be replaced.  Whatever the replacement surface, it can’t develop waxy yellow buildup.  Pergo simulated hardwood, as is used in Walmart, might make a good surface.

A remodel of the space could also result in a remodel of the attitude.  That  most Zellers stores—even the newest—look like workrooms in a funeral parlour, it’s not surprising that the staff exhibits a maudlin attitude.

I’ve primarily picked on the HBC stores for two reasons.  One is personal orientation; given a choice, I always prefer a department store.  One is historic; the Bay is Canada’s oldest corporation.  Unfortunately, its stores look historic, too, but not in a good way.  Perhaps an HBC staffer will read these suggestions and try some of them out.  
Next post:  Getting down to work. 

Friday, September 03, 2010

Enhancing the Ambiance of Montreal: Street- and Metro-scapes

The Gaudi-designed benches and lamp posts decorating the Passeij Gracia in Barcelona not only contributed to the character and beauty of a major and elegant street, but made we wish we had similar streetscapes in Montreal.  For all of my complaining, Montreal is actually one of the most unique and vibrant cities in North America, has a remarkably vibrant street life, and deserves to honor and enhance it with art-quality streetscapes like in Barcelona.

In this case, Montreal has a good record already.  The entryway to the city and the Quartier Interionationale make strong visual statements at street level.  The recently remodeled Squares Dorchester and Victoria offer similar statements.  Even streets that are further off from the heart of the city have been revitalized, like rue Fleury in Ahunsic and rue Chabenel (currently under re-construction).

But can be done, partly because a city needs to constantly rework itself to maintain the interest of its citizens and visitors and partly because some areas need strong attention .

The area needing the strongest attention is the McGill Metro Station: the most widely used station in the city and a congregating spot for tourists.  The most polite description of the station is that if it were me, my mother would be commenting on my poor appearance.

Let’s not even mention the water stains and panhandlers.  The station looks like it was half re-modeled and someone never finished the job.  That’s partly the result of the fact that most of the retail in the station was remodeled to reflect the current “look” of the Metro, with lots of light and chrome, but the rest of the station was not.

It’s  bad enough that the color schemes clash (and that they recently repainted some of the columns in the station to heighten the clash), but with some of the older walls in the station hallways are torn up.

Montreal fancies itself a design city (we were even designated as such) but this station looks like a candidate for the public works version of “What Not to Wear.”  At the least, it looks shabby and bad but, at the most, it makes a lousy impression on visitors and citizens alike.

Beyond fixing the problems at the McGill station, the Metro has broader issues to address:

  • The Metro has several visual identities, especially for the STM itself.  It needs to pick one and upgrade all of the signage to match.
  • If the Metro wants to raise funds, it might start by installing vending machines for food, drinks, newspapers, and even everyday supplies.  On the one hand, they might compete with the convenience stores, but most of them keep such limited hours that vending machines offer added convenience.  The Istanbul and Tokyo systems, among others, offer these vending machines.  
  • Although we have no idea when the new Metro cars will come into service, perhaps they will be able to report time and temperature, as well as information about the next stop.  The Istanbul and Hong Kong systems, among others, provide this enhanced level of information on  the trains.  

Beyond fixing this problem station, the city might consider taking a Quartier International  approach to the streetscapes of the three four most prominent streets:  rue St.-Denis between de Maisonneuve and St. Joseph, de Maisonneuve between Berri and Atwater, Ste-Catherine between de Lormier and Atwater, and Rene Levesque, between de Lormier and Atwater.

Each of these streets carries much pedestrian and, in the cases of St.-Denis and Rene Levesque, auto traffic.  Enhancing the streetscapes could add to the characters of these streets and, in the cases of the first three, contribute to improved retail business, especially along de Maisonneuve, whose role as a major retail street does not immediately come to mind.

Under ideal circumstances, the streets might be widened but that’s not realistic.  At the least, the sidewalks might be widened.

On those widened streets, the city might install unique benches and street lights, as well as clearly visible—though distinctively designed—street signs.  Hold competitions for emerging artists and designers; use the designs of the winners and display the designs of all the finalists.
Next set of suggestions: Improving Retail in Montreal (Especially Retail Owned by HBC)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Enhancing the Ambiance of Montreal: Highways

The next several posts explore specific ways of enhancing the ambience of Montreal, based on ideas generated by visiting other places.

  • Suggestions for highways
  • Suggestions for street- and metro-scapes
  • Suggestions for retail, especially HBC retail outlets
Montreal Suggestions 1:  Improving Highways 
Although most of the attention these days if focused on replacing the Turcot interchange (and a quick look at the bridges that look like they’ve got the highway equivalent of osteoporosis, that’s a good thing), the next set of intersections that demand attention are the intersections of Autoroutes 40 and 15, and 40 and 25.

The same core problem faces both—whoever designed these did not seem to think about the people who would actually have to drive through them.  In the designers’ defense, they might have been constrained by space.  But their solutions only managed to create a traffic nightmare.

The simpler to fix is the intersections of 40 and 25, which mixes highway access roads (where drivers go fast) with city streets (where speeds are constrained to 40 km/hour).  The two don’t mingle well.  The worst of this is the entrance to Autoroute 40 west from Galleries Anjou, where drivers must go through a couple of residential streets to get onto the highway.  That’s neither safe nor quiet for the residents, but it’s neither obvious nor well-marked for the driver.

A similar issue arises for drivers trying to merge from Autoroute 40 onto Autoroute 25; rather than exiting on a dedicated ramp, drivers merge on an active service road, with all sorts of incoming and outgoing traffic.  Yes, I know that speeds are reduced there, but the potential for an accident is still higher than it should be.

But the more serious safety hazard and, more basically, guaranteed traffic jam, is the merge between Autoroutes 40 and 15.  Part of the problem is that 15 is split into two roads, separated by about 2 km.  So there’s a stretch of highway that has to serve a combined roadway.

Making it worse in both directions, drivers on Autoroute 15 always merge onto Autoroute 40 on the right, then have a short distance to get over to a left exit onto the other segment of Autoroute 15.  A drive on Autoroute 40 is thus blocked streams of vehicles merging left who are merely trying to continue their journey on Autoroute 15.  Not only is this a built-in slow-down, it’s an accident waiting to happen.

But most of all, this situation is completely avoidable.  (1) Even though the stretch of highway needs to accommodate 6 lanes of traffic (3 from Autoroute 40, 3 more from Autoroute 15), the road only widens for a brief half-kilometer stretch—and the, only by 1 lane.   Simply widening the road would address the capacity issue.  Moving all exits to the right side of the roadway in both directions would solve the merging problem.

Then there’s one last problem: the recently re-worked L’Acadie Circle, which was redesigned to accommodate some of this traffic.  When it works, it’s OK.  But it tends to flood easily.  It sounds like the problem results from the practical issue of inadequate drainage, made worse by a failure of city and provincial roadway officials coordinating their work.  Each blames the other.  From a driver’s perspective, the bottom line performance is that both parties look incompetent in their inability to design a roadway that stays reasonably dry and they look petty when they would rather expend energy blaming the other party than solving the problem for the taxpayers who pay both sets of salaries.  (But this isn’t new; the failure to communicate among units about  work on Boulevard St. Laurent highlights the organizational communication problems in governmental units.)

One last suggestion:  it would be great if the powers-that-be could get their act together and begin construction of the rail link from the airport to the heart of the city.  For a city that wants to present itself as forward thinking in terms of urban transit, this is a glaring hole in our traffic landscape.

Furthermore, given that the airport is relatively close to the city, that the tunnels for the train link are already available, and that a track already exists, the only problem is the same problem that plagues the Turcot, St. Laurent, L’Acadie, and nearly every other major transportation project facing this city.  As I understand these projects, they’re all technically feasible technically and economically; but parochial, self-centered communications steers each of these projects down a bum path.

If we want better communications, instead of hiring another engineering firm, perhaps we ought to hire an organizational communicator to plan a project communication strategy, and professional facilitator to ensure that the communications move in a positive direction.
Next set of suggestions: Enhancing the Montreal Street- and Metro-scapes

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Wish Lists for My Home Towns—Museums for Montreal (Hometown 4)

Museums are integral to Montreal in a way that they’re not integral to most other cities.  OK—most cities have museums and the museums may be related to the culture of the city.  But going to these museums does not necessarily seem to be a part of the city culture, and that’s what’s different from Montreal.  Going to the museum is  a part of the local culture in Montreal, and that’s what makes it unique.

And Montreal makes its museums worth visiting.  On the whole, they tend to be smaller, more specialized, and more intimate—“boutique museums” as I heard one travel magazine describe them.  The smaller size makes visiting the museums and experiencing the exhibitions seem like a more realistic goal.  Even our major art museum, the Musee des Beaux Arts, feels smaller than counterparts in other cities, though its storied history and strong collection makes it no less significant.  In contrast, just the thought of visiting the Louvre inspires museum fatigue.

Similarly, Montreal’s museums act as a community.  They don’t just collaborate to offer a museum pass to see all of the museums.  They collaborate on events—events that no other city in the US or Canada offers (at least, to the best of my knowledge). One is Nuit Blanche, a Saturday night at the end of the winter High Lights Festival during which many of the museums in the city core are open all night long.  The other is a free day to visit museums, in observance of the International Committee on Museum’s Annual Museum Day.  Not only are all museums open, but most hold special events to attract visitors.  The city supports both events by offering free or expanded public transportation.

The boutique-ness of the museums, along with the spirit of the community, are unique among communities in North America.  Rather than trying to duplicate the mega- and over-architected museums of other communities, this one should strengthen its uniqueness by adding to the collection of boutique museums, enhancing the boutique character of existing museums, and providing some unity and structure to the entire collection.

Suggested enhancements include:

  • The Montreal Story.  A rework and expansion of the Montreal History Centre, whose implicit purpose seems to be introducing the city of Montreal.  It also seems to implicitly link the stories of Pointe-a-Calliere (which, informally, seems to focus on francophone Montreal history and events until the mid-1800s) and the McCord Museum (which, informally, seems to focus on anglophone Montreal history and events from the 1800s through the 1900s).  A rework would make the implicit explicit.  The reworked Centre could have an audiovisual presentation that formally and emotionally introduces Montreal, a three-part permanent exhibit—one that introduces the neighborhoods of Montreal, one that introduces the history of Montreal, and a third that invites visitors to continue learning about Montreal at our other museums.  A temporary exhibition space could highlight the contributions of Montrealers and unique aspects of Montreal culture.   
  • Museum of Montreal Cultures, which would provide a single home to showcase the different cultures that comprise the population of Montreal.  This would provide a new take on the traditional identity museum because, rather than one group telling its story, this single museum would tell the stories of several groups. In the process of doing so, it could explore not only what’s unique in each of these stories—but also the universality of those experiences.  The museum could have three groups of galleries.  One would be a series of several small galleries that would provide several groups with an opportunity to tell their stories, with permanent galleries provided to the two founding communities of this province—the First Peoples and the French-Canadians.  Two benefits of rotating the groups presented in that set of galleries: to generate recurring visits and to ensure the continued freshness of those galleries.  The next group of galleries would explore what’s common in all experiences: the common social, economic, political, and religious marginalization that drive people to seek new lives; the challenges of immigration and integrating into the community, contributing to the new community, and the challenge of retaining identity when surrounded by pressures to assimilate.  A third set of galleries would explore specific issues associated with cultures, from the controversial—like the challenge of peoples who are at war elsewhere in the world living in peace in this part of the world—to the safe—like expressions and customs from particular cultures that have been co-opted as “Montrealaise.”  
  • Natural Science Collection, a complement to the Biodome, Jardin Botanique, Insectarium, and upcoming Planetarium in the Parc Maisonneuve area.  Already, this group of institutions is one of the most unique and complete natural science exhibitions in the world.  But the collection lacks is, a museum that not only explains the natural science underlying these living collections—but also the history of science underlying this.  As its title suggests, the Natural Science Collection would focus on those goals.  Telling this history through the objects of current and historical scientific instruments, gems, and preserved specimens already in the collections in this province, this museum would explain larger issues in biology, chemistry, and physics, such as the origins of life, the chemistry of life, and geological processes.  The collection would also focus on the “art” of science—both in terms of the artistic forms and images found in natural science, as well as the art in scientific instruments.  Last, this collection would serve as an introduction to the other museums in this group.   
  • Montreal Science Centre.  With all of the life science institutions based in Parc Maisonneuve (or soon to be) this one looks increasingly isolated where it is.  Furthermore, with its emphasis on hands-on science exhibits—all of which are purchased off-the-rack—this institution, frankly, offers little unique to the cultural scene, but has an amazing location.  Furthermore, given Montreal’s excellent natural science museums, we don’t really need another one that tries to cover the same territory.  To make the museum more relevant, it should scrap the current abstract approach and rework itself with a more concrete one--as a museum that focuses on technology—especially technology that’s core to the Montreal experience.  In fact, like the museum I proposed for Atlanta, a re-worked mission for this one would be explaining the science underlying current and past industry in the city.  The Centre might even rename itself the Centre de Sciences et d’Industrie de Montreal.  It can use the technology as a springboard for explaining the underlying science.  Some key technologies that would be of high interest to visitors would be medical, gaming, maritime, and fashion technology.  The museum might also have an area for technologies that have come and gone, like printing technology and heavy manufacturing. The museum might also have an area for changing exhibits about the technology of everyday life—from the dinner table to the school.  
  • Musee de Design du Quebec.  Building on the recent temporary exhibit at the Musee National des Beaux Arts in Quebec City, this museum would showcase Quebec design.  And it’s about time that Montreal had an institution that focuses on design other than architectural design (which is addressed by the Canadian Centre for Architecture). After all, the city has been declared a design city and has an annual design open house.  But we have nothing that preserves design artifacts, showcases it, and studies it.  The permanent exhibition could explore the major types of design: industrial, furniture, clothing, and even web and information design.  But the centerpiece of such a museum could be an exhibition on design thinking—the common thread that links the different types of design.  In addition, a few galleries would be set aside for changing exhibitions.
  • Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts, which would be presented as a series of museums, rather than a single one. Although it’s admittedly easier to control through a single entryway, on a practical level, it’s not working.  Visitors will enter on one side of the Sherbrooke merely to cross under the street to get to the other side, which often has a separate exterior entrance anyway.  Rather than approach this museum as a single department store—like the Bay—why not approach it as a series of stores-within-a-store—like the more engaging Ogilvy? 
  • One collection that deserves to be highlighted, and given its own special “museum within a museum” (which is more than a gallery—but a series of galleries with a permanent  collection on display and changing exhibitions) is the decorative arts collection. At one time, this was a separate museum collection that was merged with the Musee des Beaux Arts. Another set of collections that deserves greater attention through a “museum within a museum” are the collections on Asian and pre-Columbian art, displayed with special exhibitions of African art (such as the series of Sacred Africa exhibitions the museum has shown in the past few years), which get buried in the corners of the museum.

Next on the wishlist: Enhancing the ambience of Montreal.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wish Lists for My Home Towns—Museums for Atlanta (Hometown 3)

Although I literally moved there on two days notice in 1986 and did not intend to spend much time there, I developed a strong attachment to—and fondness for—it and spent ten years in the city, and followed the transformation of the city wrought by the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Part of that transformation was the development of nearly every major museum in the city. Except for its art museum (which opened in its Richard Meier-designed building a few years a few years before the city began campaigning for the Olympics), several major institutions opened between the time Atlanta won the right to host the Olympics and the start of the Olympics, including the Atlanta History Center (which had the land, but lacked an appropriate museum building), Fernbank Museum of Natural History (a school-based science center existed, but not a full museum), ZooAtlanta—a complete reworking of the local zoo, SciTrek, a science and technology museum (which has since closed), and the World of Coke (dedicated to the world famous cola, whose manufacturer has its world headquarters in Atlanta).

The growth has continued since, with the conversion of the former SciTrek space into an open exhibition space, the expansion of the High Museum, the renovation of APEX (African American Panoramic Experience), a new World of Coke, and the Georgia Aquarium.

To further cement Atlanta’s place as the New York of the south, and a world-class destination, city leaders might consider the following:

  • Fill the void left by SciTrek with another science museum. At its opening, SciTrek claimed to be one of the top 10 science centers in the US. But that’s only because SciTrek bought its exhibits from the other 9. Furthermore, when the museum was failing, it brought in another off-the-rack exhibit, Mathematica, a duplicate of the original in Massachusetts. What SciTrek lacked was original exhibits—and it’s that originality that makes a museum worth visiting.
  • To make such a museum both unique and relevant to the people of Atlanta and its environs, it would need to scrap the abstract, off-the-shelf approach of SciTrek and present, instead, exhibits focused on concrete and relevant topics, probably tied to local industry and everyday life. In fact, its mission should be explaining the science underlying current and past daily activity. It could then link the economic and daily activities to the underlying science. A prototype exists in the Hong Kong Seicne Museum. Some key technologies that would be of high interest to visitors and are relevant to the local economy, include transportation, finance, retailing, agriculture and food processing, and mass communication. The museum might also have an area for changing exhibits about the technology of everyday life—from the living room to the mall.
  • A “terrarium.” On the one hand, I understand that, when someone gives $200 million for an aquarium, you build it. But why Atlanta would want an aquarium is beyond me. There’s a terrific one two hours away in Chattanooga, so there’s no immediate need. But more significantly, Atlanta’s defining characteristic is its land, not its water. (The Chattanooga isn’t even a major river in Atlanta.) So how is an aquarium representative of Atlanta.

    I always thought a terrarium—or an exhibition that’s based on showing indigenous land animals in replicas of their local habitats—would be more relevant to the Atlanta context. It would not need to compete with the Zoo, which focuses on exotic animals from other parts of the world, rather than local animals and plants. Models exist, including Wildlife World –a companion to Sydney, Australia’s aquarium, and Montreal’s Biodome.
Next hometown: Montreal, Quebec.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Wish Lists for My Home Towns—Museums for Rochester, Minnesota (Hometown 2)

 Rochester,  Minnesota is a small town located 40 miles (about 65 kilometers) west of the Mississippi River, and about 90 minutes south of the Twin Cities.

It’s also the place where I began my adult life.  I figured if Minnesota was good for the fictional Rhoda Morgenstern on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, it would be good for real me.  And it was.  As someone said, Rochester is a perfect place for a young adult who has no idea where they’re going in life.  It provides a space to figure it out.

During my time in Rochester, my primary cultural focus was local theater, which is surprisingly active.  The museum scene is a bit lighter; most people drive to Minneapolis and St. Paul to take advantage of their excellent museums.

But why?  People in southern Minnesota have a culture and heritage that’s worthy of collecting and studying.  So I propose two museums that could strengthen the cultural life in this small community.

  • Museum of Wildlife Art.  Although the Rochester Art Center focuses on symbolic, modern art, a more typical indigenous form of art is the more representational wildlife art.  Indeed, many of the winners of Federal and state duck stamp print competitions—highly competitive annual events among the best artists in the discipline—come from the Southern Minnesota region of which   Rochester is the largest city.  Many galleries in the region specialize in wildlife art, and a museum that collects, studies, and provides education related to it would be representative of the local art.  One set of galleries could present winners of various wildlife stamp competitions, another could present original paintings, a third could present applied arts (furniture, jewelry, and related arts) inspired by wildlife arts, and a fourth gallery could present changing exhibits on special topics in wildlife art.  
  • CMA—a museum of the regional economy in southern Minnesota. Although some might think it refers to the Country Music Association, it would really be a museum about the work of computers, medicine, and agriculture—three major industries of Southern Minnesota.  
  • A philosophy guiding this museum might be a systems approach—showing both systems at work in individual industries as well as how a core organization provides the basis for an economic “hub.”  

    Consider the medical part of the museum, which could be boosted with contributions from the collection of the Mayo Museum (which tells the story of the work of the Mayo Clinic).  In this museum, the exhibition would explore (a) how the Mayo Clinic forms a hub of activity that contributes to health, and (b) the contributions of Southern Minnesotans to the human health.  

    A second segment of the museum would focus on the hub of computer-related activity centered on IBM.  More than merely detailing the history of IBM in Rochester, such an exhibition might take a current computer and show how IBM and other companies in Southern Minnesota have contributed to technology that has become commonplace.  

    A third segment of the museum would explore the agricultural industry in the region, perhaps starting with a dinner table and then showing how farmers and businesses in southern Minnesota contribute to the food that people eat. 

    A fourth segment would feature changing exhibitions, exploring themes that cut across the different industries, such as the changing nature of work, the changing nature of worker expertise, the impact of global competition, and similar types of topics.

Next hometown:  Atlanta, Georgia.   

Wish List for Hometown 1: Baltimore

Wish List of Resources for My Home Towns—Museums 
Visiting museums in so many different places and seeing how they preserve and strengthen the local cultures and enhance the spirits of their communities has encouraged me to think about museums that could be established in my various home towns—and that could preserve and strengthen their cultures, and enhance the spirits of these communities.

And yes, I use home towns in the plural.  For those of you who know anything about my life story, you know that I’ve moved around a bit.  The home towns I’ll address here include:

  • Baltimore, Maryland
  • Rochester, Minnesota
  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Montreal, Quebec

(Although I’ve also lived in Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Hong Kong, I don’t have suggestions for them.)

Hometown 1: Baltimore
Although less than an hour from the US capital, Washington, DC, Baltimore—the town where I was born and raised—is not only a physically separate city, it’s culturally separate, too.  Where Washington has primarily served as a government town and now has industry (nearly all service and defense-related) that emerges from government, Baltimore was a port town with heavy industry, though both have diminished in importance in recent decades and, as the civil service outgrows Washington, has attracted some agencies, such as Social Security.

That industrial wealth initially funded Baltimore’s cultural institutions, which include two world-class art museums, a public library system, and a history museum, as well as the more recent  National Aquarium, Museum of Science, Museum of Visionary Art, and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History.

Baltimore also has had a series of smaller museums that preserve pieces of Baltimore’s working class and everyday heritage, including its Museum of Industry, and closed City Life Museums and Museum of Public Works (closed in the past year due to a city budget crisis).

What’s special about these museums is that, although they’re world class, they emerge from the community that hosts them.  For example, Baltimore has a large African American population, so a museum of African American history is organic to the community.  Baltimore has a working class history, and a museum of industry honors that history.  And Baltimore is not just a port town; the harbor, river, and the Chesapeake Bay into which it flows are all integral parts of the area. The Aquarium honors the role of the maritime in the life of the region.

For Baltimore, the ideal is bringing the museums lost to bankruptcy and budget cuts back to life, while remaining true to their spirit and the stories they tried to tell.  In addition, such a museum must be located in a place where it is likely to attract many visitors—and contributors.

That museum might be a Museum of the Baltimore Spirit, which—like its name suggests—celebrate the spirit of the city.  Taking a lead from the approach taken by the Minnesota Historical Society, but focusing on a city rather than a state—this museum would have two permanent exhibits.  And as the Minnesota Historical Society has two permanent exhibits, so would this museum.  One would introduce local culture, but rather than taking the A to Z approach that the Minnesota center takes, this one might take a neighborhood-by-neighborhood approach and, in the process, celebrate the histories of the many ethnic groups that comprise the local culture.  The second permanent exhibition would present a chronological history of the city.  But rather than a large board of dates and events, perhaps this one would provide a walk through the history of the city.  A third gallery would present temporary exhibitions that would explore themes in the life of the city.  Some could be upbeat, such as the role of sports teams in civic pride. Some would be critical, exploring social changes and their effect on the landscape of the city.

Location would be an essential part of this story.  One possibility is housing this museum in the Inner harbor, which hosts many of the other museums and attractions in the citywould take a chronological approach.  Indeed, it could be used to revive the sagging Gallery and Harborplace malls.

But another possibility is to locate this elsewhere, near another cultural institution like the Museum of Art or the Baltimore Zoo, to create a new cultural hub and bring visitors and the related economic impact to other parts of town.  Should such an approach be taken, quick access to the city’s Metro system would be essential to the success of the institution.
Next hometown:  Rochester, Minnesota.   

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Travel Experience on Subways

Rail basically lives up to its reputation as a “more civilized” way of travel—and so does its “cousin,” subways (also known as metros and mass transit).  Perfect? No.  Travel by mass transit posed some interesting challenges, like these.

My first experience on the Madrid Metro was an experience in getting lost. Totally lost.  Admittedly, it was partly my fault; I didn’t call the hotel in advance to find out which Metro stop to take, much less write down its address and telephone number.  But the hotel shares some of the blame; it did not list the actual name of the Metro stop on its website, much less the name of the specific exit to take.

My first indication of a problem was at the train station.  I went to the information desk to get information about the Metro system.  The guy at the desk said he worked for the rail system, not the metro.

We made it to the presumed subway station and discovered it had 5 exits.  We didn’t know which one to take, and couldn’t find an area guide on the walls that might suggest which of the five was most appropriate for us.  I chose one; I quickly learned that wasn’t the right one.   I learned two valuable lessons from that experience; useful, tourist-oriented signage is an essential component of a great Metro.  In the meantime, make sure you have thorough directions.

Déjà vu all over again in Berlin.   I had traveled on the Berlin subway system before, so I felt comfortable using it this time.  It’s extensive, it goes nearly everywhere we wanted to go (except directly to Museum Island) and runs on an honor system (there are no turnstiles to go through).

So I wasn’t prepared for a bizarre situation that happened my first time using the subway on this trip.  After the fifth station, the sixth stop on the line was the same as the fourth stop.  And the seventh station was the same as the third stop.  According to the map on the train, that wasn’t the plan.

Apparently, part of the line on which I was traveling was closed for renovations.  There was an announcement on the train but, because it was in German, I couldn’t understand it.  I learned a valuable lesson from this experience: when lines are interrupted or stations closed for renovations, place a temporary marker on the subway map over the area to provide a visual cue to passengers. Also update the website with similar information.

That said, I found the subway maps for the Berlin metro to be unusually complicated and difficult to follow in contrast to systems of similar size and complexity.  This system has many routes, but the small type on the route maps made identifying route and station names all the more challenging.  Directional signage within stations was similarly confusing.  For example, no direct link exists between the S-bahn and U-bahn trains though directional   signage in the station suggests otherwise.  .

The City Tour in Istanbul:  Istanbul has both traditional subway and light rail systems.  We found both systems to be incredibly easy to use.

Travelers buy tokens (called jetons) from a vendor near the station, then enter the station.  The system was reasonably bi-lingual; visitors who do not speak or read Turkish could easily navigate the system.

Although cities primarily build mass transit systems to ferry locals through the city, we figured out quickly that an above-ground system, like the Light Rail system in Istanbul, could also provide tourists a great tour of the city, too.  So we rode the line end-to-end, traveling from the downtown of the city to a suburb near the airport, and back to the historic section where we were staying.  We took the ride at sunset and traveled over the river--certainly adding to the charm of the experience.  

In general, we found travel by mass transit in all of the cities we visited to be exceptionally convenient and cost-effective when walking was either not practical or not reflective of our moods.  Admittedly, signage and directions posed challenges in some cities.  But in each case, we quickly overcame the challenges, adjusted to the systems, and became regular users. We purchased unlimited travel passes on the Paris and Berlin systems.  We did not need the passes in other cities but used the systems when walking or city tour buses could not take us where we wanted to go.  
Next post:  Wish lists of cultural resources for my home towns. 

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Traveler Experience of Trains and Train Stations

As a result of the frustrations that travelers experience or anticipate with air travel, when feasible, many are turning to trains.  For the most part, train travel offers an easier travel experience but some issues could make it an even smoother, more seamless user experience.

In this post, I explore some of the strengths of the rail travel experience and opportunities for improvement, both from the perspective of the station and the train itself.

The Traveler Experience with Central Train Stations
Train stations address many of the issues that arose in my critique of airports.

  • Reasonably priced food and trinkets.  In Canada and Europe, prices for food at airports seems far more reasonable than it did at airports.  At Montreal’s train station, for example, many people working in nearby offices eat lunch at the train station’s food court.  (That a significant investment in the ambience of the food court was made probably persuades lunchers; it’s the nicest food court in the area (in my humble opinion)). 
  • Reasonable distances from arrival to taxis and car rental stations.
  • Clear directional signage.
  • Excellent shopping in several train stations, offering practical items like groceries, office supplies, magazines and newspapers, and personal care and pharmacy items.  
  • In Europe, transfers among trains are a snap.  Some only provide 2 to 3 minutes between trains, and the connections are so easy that passengers can make the transfers with time to spare.  (Not that I trusted these short changes, but they are surprisingly smooth.)

Where train stations fall short is in the link to certain ground transportation options.  Links to  buses seem to be inconvenient; it seems that, in many train stations, they’re located in the most distant corner of the station.  (That said, bus links with the central train station in Enschede, The Netherlands is seamless.)

More significantly, links to metro systems seem to be clunky. In Toronto, Paris, and Montreal, the link between corresponding subway stations and train stations do not seem to be designed for travelers with luggage.  All involve winding pathways, and walks up stairs (with no options for escalators or elevators).  Most of the turnstiles in subway stations are not designed for people traveling with even small suitcases, much less large ones.  The problem is especially serious in Paris, where the make shift solution doesn’t always work.  

The Traveler Experience on Trains
With stress free boarding procedures (even those trains requiring security checks seem to handle them more quickly than airports), wide seats—even in coach  class, leg room, electrical outlets at most seats (once again, even in coach), and spacious on-board wash rooms, trains are, as Canada’s VIA Rail advertises, a “civilized alternative.”

In first class, passengers even receive a meal—with complimentary wine.

And, as train stations offer a less stressful, more pleasant experience, so trains themselves offer a less stressful, more pleasant experience, for the most part.

But, as train stations have room for improvement, so do trains themselves, little things that affect the user experience.  Consider these.

Clarify the value proposition of a a Eurail pass. When I first traveled on a Eurail pass, in the 1980s, it provided unlimited travel within a period of time, few requirements to make reservations, and rarely a reservation fee.  In 2010, a Eurail pass basically seems like a discount voucher.  Reservations were required for all rides, all reservations involved additional fees (sometimes as high as 100 euros) and we were limited in the amount we could travel.  In the end, even with ground transportation fees, traveling on Air Berlin would have been a more cost- and time-effective solution.  (Admittedly, this is a Europe-only issue.)

Eurail passes used to have a reputation as a good deal, but the reality seems at odds with the reputation.  That could catch up to the European national railways.

Provide room for luggage on European inter-city trains.  Although checking luggage isn’t an option on most European trains, they also do not provide room to store luggage.   The overhead bins aren’t good for much more than a handbag or computer case.

Canada’s VIA Rail might have older trains (and, in many cases, used ones from other countries), but they have plenty of room for luggage.

Watch the timetable:  On the one hand, Northern European trains run so closely to the time table that travelers can set their watch to them, and VIA Rail usually follows its schedule closely, even in bad weather, Amtrak in the U.S. is a different story.  Except on well-traveled routes (like the Boston-Washington corridor), schedules are merely a suggestion and actual arrival and departure times can occur hours after published schedules.

Additional thoughts: The review of train stations focused on central stations.  Suburban and rural stations offer a significantly different experience.  Because I rarely use them, I could not comment on them.

Compared with the number and scope of issues with the user experience that airlines and airports need to address, those the challenges facing airlines and airports, the traveler experience of trains and train stations is significantly smoother and more pleasant.  That may result, in part, from the differences in the number of passengers airlines and airports must process, as well as the significant difference in travel conditions and challenges.

In the scheme of things, these are minor issues.  But the value and luggage issues in Europe, and schedule issues in the US, still have the ability to annoy passengers.
Next post:  The Travel Experience on Subways.  

Friday, August 27, 2010

Germany seems poised to limit use of primarily social networking sites, like Facebook, for employment purposes. Although news reports suggest that Facebook believes its privacy settings are sufficient, it seems that the legislators feel otherwise.  

This is not the same thing as a school district in Florida, in which the superintendent unilaterally banned teachers from using Facebook.

That pronouncement only exacerbates confusion over social networking, rather than clarifying confusing points and moving the conversation forward.  In the case of Florida, the issue that seems to have prompted the pronouncement is inappropriate communication between teachers and students.  Banning use of Facebook won't stop inappropriate communication--rather, it avoids the discussion about what is appropriate communication.

The German situation seems different.  It's motivated by a broader concern about what rights employers have when monitoring employees and potential employees, and is part of a bill that has much broader implications than just Facebook.  In addition to social networking, the proposed legislation apparently addresses issues like video monitoring and how employers handle suspected criminal activity.

The proposed legislation distinguishes between social networking sites primarily intended for work-related purposes, like LinkedIn, and those intended primarily for purely social purposes, like Facebook.  Although the news reports I've read do not comment on this, my guess is that the ultimate goal is to avoid situations like those in which bright, 22-year-old university graduates lose good job offers because an employer checked out the candidate's Facebook site, saw a party photo (which is what Facebook was intended for) that ruffled his or her feathers, and rescinded the offer.

Most discussions about the use of Facebook in workplace learning and communication have focused on ways to exploit Facebook for our purposes, without acknowledging the fundamental issue that Facebook was primarily intended for social purposes.

Certainly Facebook hasn't encouraged that acknowledgment, with privacy settings that are only easy to use in theory and, as a result, many users are sharing all of their data whether or not that's their intention.

But it behooves us workplace learning and communication professionals, who are supposed to be sensitive to issues of work-life balance, to recognize that a distinction exists between business and personal social networking sites, and we have a responsibility to launch that discussion.

Although I have a feeling that some social media enthusiasts will not respond enthusiastically to the proposed German legislation, as the lines between work and home life continue to blur, I have a feeling that the discussions of this issue will continue.

For more information about the German legislation, visit

The real issue with

Experience and Usability--and--Airlines and Airports

The Usability of the Travel Experience

At the end of my last post of travel pet peeves, I made the observation that many of the snafus happen because different aspects of travel are coordinated by different organizations, and no one has responsibility for the “big picture,” that is, the end-to-end travel experience.

As a result, the interfaces among these experiences are often clunky—between air travel and ground transport, subway and train station.  Rummler and Brache noticed that, when organizations fall down, the cracks are the interfaces between different groups within the organization—the kitchen and the wait staff in a restaurant, manufacturing and distribution in a plant, sales and set-up in a marketing organization.

This type of problem seems especially true in the travel experience—air, train, and metro.  It’s as if the people who work in them are especially oblivious to the experiences of the travelling public.  Furthermore, no one seems to have responsibility for the end-to-end experiences in each of these modes of travel.  Traveling as much as I did during the sabbatical last year provided plenty of opportunity to reflect on these interface issues—and in the next several posts, I share some of the issues that arose:

  • Experience, usability, airlines, and airports
  • Usability of train stations and trains
  • Usability of metro (subway) systems

Experience and Usability--and--Airlines and Airports
My dad used to say that half of the fun of travel was the experience of getting there.

He died in 1965, and never lived to see the state of travel to day.  Its primary role seems to be selling prescriptions for Xanex and other tranquilizers.

In theory, airports serve as centers of welcome and fond farewell for their communities and airplanes are the means of building up to these experiences.  But I wonder what words travellers would use if asked to describe the nature of the welcome and farewell they received.

More specifically, designers of the air travel experience seem to overlook the welcoming role played by planes and airports because they tend to overlook or, worse, callously ignore, key specific aspects of the travel experience.  In this post, I’ll look at some of the issues that seem most visible to me.  In the Comments section, you might add to the list.

The Airline Experience
The concerns with the end-to-end design of the air experience of airline travel begins with the process of making reservations.

More specifically, the issues start with ticket prices. Although a la carte pricing seems to have rankled most air travelers, since I compared an a la carte price on Air Canada that was loaded with extras (seat selection coming and going, pre-paid meal, and the admittedly rip-off “On Your Way” service) and still cheaper than the prices on Expedia and Travelocity, I have no issue with it.

My concerns, instead, focus on issues that clearly suggest that airlines are, at best, indifferent to the experiences of their customers.  Here are some specific issues, from the beginning to the end of the experience:

Grossly misleading advertised prices.  This is primarily a problem in Canada, where airport taxes are admittedly exceptionally high.  But it’s also a problem elsewhere.

But airlines don’t make the problem any better by advertising one-way ticket prices sans taxes.  They know that most travellers make round-trips, and that want to make these decisions based on total price, not the pre-tax price on a one-way fare.  (And the fine print always says that the fare is only applicable to a round trip anyway.)

Airlines in Canada claim that consumers want to know how much they’re paying in taxes.

Perhaps—but only after they know what the entire ticket price is.  And when a trip whose teaser price is $79 actually balloons to something like $369 (I’m not exaggerating), these practices seem all the more deceitful.

Furthermore, there’s evidence that consumers don’t really read this type of information so carefully so they’re not likely to process the details anyway.

If airlines really want to raise consumer awareness of taxes, more effective—and less deceitful—practices exist.  They could print them on receipts (as they already do) as well as boarding passes and other check-in documentation.

Furthermore, the documentation of taxes could be visual—a pie chart (taking a lead from gas stations, which already do this).

Consumer groups have raised awareness of the problem, but the Canadian government seems listless in addressing the problem.  They said they’re working on it, but that’s a euphemism for hoping the issue is going to go away.

But on a more practical level, if the initial conversation with consumers is based on misleading information, how can the trust that builds true consumer loyalty ever develop?

Charges for making reservations by telephone.  On the one hand, I recognize that, when customers make their reservations online, they save staff and airlines want to pass the savings along to customers.  On the other hand, there are times when this seems to be a self-defeating proposition.  Some people have exceptional difficulty making reservations online—like those who don’t have, or are uncomfortable using, computers.  Two of the groups  can ill afford unnecessary additional charges.  Elderly people—many of whom are good airline customers—are one group.  Low-income flyers, some of whom do not have home internet service or computers, are another.

A third group is people who have tried to make reservations online but, for reasons that usually have to do with glitches in the airline’s own computer system, can’t.  In such instances, airlines should pay customers for their diligence rather than penalizing them.

Dis-loyalty programs: While airlines have ratcheted up opportunities to earn frequent flyer points through credit cards, dining partners, shopping on their website, they’ve decreased opportunities to earn them the traditional way—by flying.  For example, Air Canada only awards full credit for flying when paying full fare.  Otherwise, customers receive about half the points.  To be honest, the points aren’t worth the differential in price.  But at least, Air Canada is up-front about its reduced mileage.

In contrast, Delta hides some of its new practices.  A tradition among “partner” airlines like Delta’s SkyTeam is that miles flown on one airline earn mileage in a partner’s frequent flyer program, even if the original airline issued the ticket.  Apparently, no more.  I bought a ticket on Air France through Expedia and tried to receive credit on Delta.  They wouldn’t offer it, identifying the flight as “free.”  (At $1,000 a ticket, it most definitely was not free.)  When I inquired, they the fare wasn’t eligible for the transfer.

Naturally, Expedia did not inform me of this either.

Grumpy service.  Years ago, I heard an executive from Southwest Airlines explain their personnel philosophy:  “Treat your employees like you want them to treat your customers.”

A lightbulb went off; I understood why Northwest was so horrible to its customers.  During that particular year, the pilots had gone on strike, the machinists were taking work actions, and the flight attendants were threatening to strike.

Unhappiness is more contagious than the Avian flu.

Admittedly, remaining enthusiastic in the flying environment isn’t easy.  But that’s the service that airlines are paid to provide all the same; their management has a responsibility to inspire their workers, not only to ensure safety but to ensure a pleasant flying experience.

Mis-communication about flight status:  Although airlines resisted it, frequent flyers  applauded U.S. government intervention when airlines showed continued indifference to excessive wait times on tarmacs when flights were delayed. Even in the face of exceptionally poor publicity that bordered on communicating incompetence, airlines refused to improve their practices.

But those are merely extreme situations.  Mis-communication and unrealistic expectations about flight operations seem endemic to airline operations.  When airlines delay flights, they are almost never forthcoming with information.  At the least, if they know nothing, airlines could communicate that to waiting passengers and tell them they’ll give an update in 30 minutes.  If they still know nothing, they can communicate that.  Instead, gate staff rarely communicate anything, and the not knowing only enrages passengers—and unnecessarily so.

This flies in the face of crisis communications strategy.

But airlines must be willing to endure this for a reason: if the flight delay is caused by the airline, they’re responsible for assisting passengers, including giving them a hotel room if needed.  If passengers don’t know what’s going on, they can’t ask for the services that consumer laws provide.

Or perhaps airlines are simply so deaf that they can’t hear how foolish they sound.  Something I overheard in Baltimore’s airport sheds light on this.  Two Northwest flights at adjacent gates were both delayed: one for weather, one for mechanical reasons.  A Northwest gate agent made an announcement, telling passengers on the flight delayed by mechanical failure that they would be given some sort of meal voucher and those on the weather-delayed flight that they would receive nothing.

Mis-handling their own ground operations.  Although this level of mis-communication would be embarrassing to any other type of organization, mis-communication seems to be de rigeaur for most airlines.  Consider the situation when a flight from Hong Kong to Chicago arrives early, and the plane waits at the gate for 15 minutes because there’s no one to open the gangplank.

Seriously, how can the arrival of a 747 that’s been flying for 15 hours and in constant communication with air traffic control be such a surprise that no one is ready for its arrival?

And given that these planes fly the highest profit routes, wouldn’t they be of such a high priority that the company would redirect resources their way? Although it’s against the rules, one can easily understand how passengers who have been cooped up on the plane are anxious to depart and might even work on it.

These are just four examples of mis-communication in the airline experience that creates mis-trust, anxiety, and frustration. This persistent, institutionalized, and systemic mis-communication elevates these activities from a simple communication problem to a user experience issue, and affects the ways that passengers feel about—and respond to—the wait for flights.

But have no fear; most airlines are matched by their closest partners, the airports, for creating an unnecessarily frustrating customer experience.

The Airport Experience
As I mentioned, the airport is supposed to be the welcome and departure point for visitors.  But many offer something short of a warm welcome or a heartfelt farewell.  Here are some specific areas where the experience can be improved.

In Winter, Provide Heat at Charles de Gaulle Airport:  We had a 3-hour layover at the airport in February. Even with hot coffees in our systems, we had to wear our coats in the terminal to try to stay warm, and that really didn’t do the best job.  I’ve been told that the temperatures in August are sweltering.

Stop the Price Gouging at European Airports:   $5.00 for a can of coke?  That’s the price at Charles de Gaulle.  Coke wasn’t much cheaper at Schipol airport.  Although some of the more durable merchandise was sold at prices competitive with those in local stores, food at European airports (and train stations) seemed a bit on the high side—as if the operators know that they have a captive audience and want to take advantage of it.

These airports could learn from Pittsburgh and Minneapolis, which have had “best price guarantees” to prevent airport businesses from over-charging.

Better link airports with subways.  In some instances, link between an airport and a subway or intra-city train is nearly seamless, like the links the airport and subways in Atlanta, Schipol and Reagan National airports.  Atlanta’s subway and the entire railroad system of the Netherlands literally come into their respective airports, and Reagan’s comes up right along side the airport, with central access to it.

But linking to subways and trains at other airports is a separate journey of its own, with the link itself often eating up an extra 15 to 30 minutes of travel time between the baggage claim and the train.  Boston’s airport stop actually is about a mile away from the airport, requiring a special shuttle bus.  The Amtrak station at Newark’s airport is even further away.  Technically, there’s an O’Hare stop on the Chicago subway system, but it’s quite a hike from any of the terminals—and directions to the and from the terminals aren’t particularly well marked along the way.  It suffers, like the similar odyssey from the baggage claim to the Light Rail station at Minneapolis-St. Paul airport—from the creation of a transportation hub (which will be discussed later).  And the Amtrak link from downtown Ft. Worth and Dallas to the DFW airport runs so rarely and is far enough from the terminal that,  as a ground transportation option, it has little practical value.  (It’s not even on the intra-airport train system; reaching it requires a special shuttle that does not leave from every terminal.)

A number of reasons exist for the poor links between subways and airports, but they often come down to a core issue:  different groups need to work together in the best interests of the passengers and, in the end, the passengers’ experience rates lower than other considerations—sometimes within the control of all parties, sometimes not.

Although the stated goals of linking airports and high-speed rail is to encourage travelers to take public transit, the “link” must be easy to traverse for people to actually use it.

As long as  I’m complaining: If you need to transfer lines when taking the subway to the airport, many travelers quickly find that the transfer is a challenge in its own right. Subway systems built before the 1970s typically do not have escalators at exchange lines, and almost always require going up a staircase—which not only builds weight lifting muscles, but also slows the passenger down and, at times, infuriates other travelers behind them who are also slowed down in their climb up the stairs, as no escalators or elevators are available.
This issue is admittedly not an airport issue, but it’s just one other minor frustration in travel.   Except where court-mandated to improve accessibility for persons with disabilities, the costly renovations to these stations to simplify the interchange is unlikely to occur.

The next time they remodel, many airports should seriously explore ways to shorten distances.  Admittedly, larger airports need to accommodate an ever-larger number of gates and have limited space to grow or, even just remodel.  Moreover, some of these airports are working with designs that little flexibility to grow.  For example, Montreal’s airport is space constrained as are Chicago, Newark, Minneapolis-St-Paul’s, and Los Angeles’ (just to name a few).

When they do expand, many of these airports simply extend their jetties further out—and further away from terminal services, like immigration, baggage claim, and ground transportation.  That’s great for those interested in a workout, but most arriving passengers aren’t really interested in that.  Lugging suitcases, laptops, handbags—often with diminished energy from an overnight or overseas flight—an extra-long walk isn’t what they’re interested in.  The walks in some airports is especially lengthy, such as those in Minneapolis St-Paul’s Terminals A and B, and Newark’s Terminal C.

Some airports have installed walkways, but these walkways are often outside of arrivals areas.

Others have installed trains to ferry passengers from the gates to baggage claim, but unless those trains were part of the original design, the distance between the gate and the train is so far, that the train nearly loses its value.  Some particularly questionable intra-airport trains are the  ones at the Newark, Dallas-Fort-Worth, and San Francisco airports.

The intra-airport train in San Francisco is especially bothersome for arriving passengers.  It is not well-connected to the terminals (and its stops are particularly inconvenient for some airlines that do not have hubs at the airport). And, in some instances, requires that travelers walk up stairs—sometimes with hefty loads of luggage—to get to the train.

In contrast, to these retrofits, the Atlanta airport was designed to handle large volumes of passengers, and to grow easily as volumes increased.  Denver adopted the same design as is Dulles airport (though it’s the longest renovation I’ve ever seen).

Provide a Ground Transportation Solution to Reaching Ground Transportation Hubs: Designed and implemented to free up some airport space for other purposes and accommodate growth in demand for ground transportation, ground transportation hubs have created new inconveniences for arriving passengers.

On paper, the hubs at the Chicago O’Hare and Minneapolis-St-Paul airports both probably looked good.  Ground transportation hubs would be located in a central facility that’s accessible to all of the terminals in the airport.  In reality, both resulted in hikes guaranteed to help arriving passengers lose 5 pounds (OK, I might exaggerate but…)  In the case of O’Hare, the pathway to the hub to the terminals isn’t particularly well marked.  The hub is well marked in Minneapolis-St.Paul, it’s just plain far and adds unnecessary steps.  For example, to get a rental car, arriving passengers must hike to the transportation hub, then pick up an intra-airport shuttle, then take an elevator up to the rental car area.

Atlanta and Baltimore-Washington have tried to eliminate those unnecessary steps—but do so by literally shipping  passengers miles way to not just off-site, but way-off-site car rental facilities.  Atlanta’s is connected by a high-speed train, Baltimore-Washington’s by a shuttle bus.  Although the spacious facilities are touted as a benefit to customers, getting to and from these car rental facilities adds 15 to 30 minutes to a trip that weren’t there before.  

One Last Problem that Needs Addressing:  When arriving in Los Angeles on certain airlines, passengers need to literally leave the airport terminal to catch a stair or escalator downstairs to the baggage claim.  That seems like poorly thought-out traffic design.

Some Additional Thoughts: Individually, expanding airport capacity, linking airports and cities by subway or intra-city train, providing transportation hubs, and similar measures were meant to accommodate increasing numbers of passengers and demands for services.  But rather than adding convenience, these measures have made some airports more complicated and time consuming to traverse, and added to an already frustrating experience.

Experience designers—airports offer plenty of opportunity.  

But more opportunity exists.
Next post:  The Traveler Experience of Trains and Train Stations.