Monthly Archives: May 2007

What’s wrong with eCommerce tools?

Why don’t eCommerce platforms behave like blogging platforms?

  • Is it because the cool developers don’t want to work at ecommerce application developers?
  • Is it because all the big ecommerce platforms started life the best part of ten years ago and can’t flip architectures just like that?
  • Is it because the kind of fancy features you find at social networking sites are so much fluff that would only get in the way at an online shop?
  • Is it something to do with Microsoft?

So what do I actually want from an ecommerce platform? Well, there’s all the obvious stuff like good integration with fulfillment, stockholding and accounting; really flexible merchandising; easy addition of new SKUs and lines; outstanding usability and accessibility and so on…

Then, what I’d really like to see, beyond all that, is:

  • A really clever user model. Product pages ought to behave like photo pages at flickr: if you’re a logged-in admin user everything’s editable right there, in-line and if you’re a customer it’s a locked-down, read-only page with an ‘add to basket’ button.
  • Up-to-the-minute page creation and editing with inline editing and drag-and-drop. Product pages that behave like blog entries.
  • Really obvious, easy-to-grab widgets in one, simple platform-neutral format that users can ‘tear off’ and stick in their own sites with no fuss so they can sell my stuff via their blogs or MySpace pages.
  • An ultra-powerful, geek-friendly API with hooks for all the right systems and at least two levels of interaction (super easy HTTP plus gnarly REST and SOAP for the grown-ups, say).
  • Pages that love to be shared. Share this page, bookmark it, DIGG it, send it to a friend, save it to my desktop, send it to my mobile, print it nicely, widgetise it, send it by post to my Grandmother, roll it tight, bounce it off a satellite…
  • A clever way of mapping individual SKUs onto stable, predictable URLs. The SKU is retail’s fundamental unit but you don’t want to expose the raw data to customers so you need some kind of helpful translation layer between the database of SKUs and the web site.
  • Tools that make life easy (and fun) for merchandisers and marketers. Create a promotion, feature a promotion, delete a promotion. Run a survey, split the creative, throw a ten minute sale, add a ‘free with purchase’… Direct and flexible. No obstacles.
  • Reporting that’s as pretty (and helpful) as Google Analytics.

This is a work in progress, based on what I’m learning here at King of Shaves (mainly from customer care/IT/web site guru Nicky Springle). I guess I’ll add to it as I go along.

Turning Russian riot policemen into HOMOs

Tatchell_360.jpg
Meanwhile, I’m entertained (because I am a very simple man) to note that all you have to do to turn a nasty Russian riot policeman into a HOMO is to reverse his photograph in Photoshop. In fact, think you should DIGG this flickr set – really just because I like the idea of lots of people seeing homophobic Russian riot police wearing HOMO badges. Thanks to Reuters for the original photos, by the way (I’m sure they won’t mind).

The unwisdom of streets

A green wheelie bin like the ones we have round here in Hertsmere
The bin-men used to come on Thursdays. Simple. Since the council introduced ‘Alternate Week Collections‘ nobody knows when they’re coming. We’re all at sea. One day it’s plastic and tin cans, the next it’s green waste. Newspapers? Household waste? No idea.

Everybody’s moaning about the smell (and the rats) but I’m more interested in what the change reveals about group decision making. In our street what we all do is nip out in the evening to see what everybody else is doing. Since nobody really knows when they’re coming, it’s about 90% likely that somebody will have put their bins out.

So, just to be on the safe side, we all beetle off and bring our bins out. Consequently everybody’s bins are out almost all the time. It’s Bin Street out there, man. Wheelie Bin City. Bin Central.

The noise in Northants

Cars queuing behind the staging area at Santa Pod, 26 May 2007
We went to watch the drag racing at Santa Pod yesterday.

There are two sounds on this earth that can make me spontaneously cry. There’s the sound of a great operatic soprano mid-aria and there’s the sound of a top fuel dragster mid-quarter mile.

The thing is, they’re both big sounds and they both bypass the usual emotional circuitry to make people cry or laugh or stand and shout. They both work some kind of endocrinal magic and produce a physical reaction without going through all that boring build-up. Opera and drag racing both short-circuit the brain and go straight to the baser organs (the gut? The liver?): I suppose it’s fight or flight or something – certainly something hormonal.

Look around you at an opera audience or at a drag strip crowd and you’ll see the same thing: involuntary facial expressions, tears, smiles, something like ecstasy. At the end of a five second quarter mile you’ll hear spontaneous laughter, swearing, clapping, whooping and shouting.

Like I said, at the drag strip it’s all about the noise. Trust me: this is the biggest, deepest, most physical noise you will ever hear: a wild, crackling, grunting, noise that sounds more animal than mechanical. You have to hear it to believe it. Hear it once and you’ll understand what brings all those other people out to the retired military airfields of the world to listen to it. It’s an auditory drug.

Quite mad. Quite decadent and backward (outsized internal combustion engines? Nitro-methane? Deep-fried food?) but also some kind of cultural apogee: standing on the grass bank watching it all go off, you feel you’re watching the final days of the blue collar gasoline cult. This is where the (big, dumb) car will come to die.

We were up at Santa Pod in sunny Northants yesterday for the qualifying rounds of what they call The Main Event. We heard the noise (and I made a pathetic attempt to record it). I took some photos, obviously. You should get up there this season if you get a chance: they make a big effort to welcome everyone: kids get in for nothing, you can get right in among the cars and their drivers (almost all of whom are amateurs), there are monster trucks and air displays and a Wall of Death and the people are unbelievably nice (and you’ll meet a lot of sunburnt Finns).

I found a lot of old photos of dragsters, some videos and some most amazing sound files that you ought to run through your home cinema for best effect. Also a predictably superb definition of the sport from Wikipedia.

Random stuff…

The Skoda Fabia cake adJohn Sweeney loses it with the Scientologists

…because the football’s so boring. Isn’t the Skoda ad lovely? The ‘making-of’ video is a reminder of how good and appropriate old-fashioned, above-the-line investment can be. Don’t cancel your TV campaigns yet you big brands!

Don’t forget to check how your MP voted on the utterly shameful amendment to the Freedom of Information Act. You’ll have to wait until Monday for the voting record to be updated, I think. You might want to drop them a note if they voted in favour. Ask them this question: “if a bill were brought forward amending the new law to guarantee continued access to detailed MPs’ expenses, would you support it?”

The thing about the Scientologists is that we – those of us who don’t like them – really don’t have a leg to stand on. Ultimately, a religion is a religion. If you had sat down to design a religion during the second half of the Twentieth Century it would probably have looked a lot like Scientology.

It would have no deity (very difficult to sell a supreme being in the post-nuclear era). It would probably emphasise ‘personal growth’, worldly success and learning. There would be some secret knowledge and probably a very up-to-date emphasis on using the law the defend it. Rubbishing the Scientologists while tolerating – for instance – the Catholics, with their child abuse and their transubstantiation and the bloody Pope, is not a defensible strategy. I think we might just have to get used to them.

Is there something annoying, something really po-faced and sanctimonious about the so-called free speech spats animating the social networks lately? Was there really any need for the tens of thousands of words wasted on this week’s inconsequential flickr take-down? And was the flickr founder’s equally self-important response much of a remedy? Not really. I think we need to get over ourselves a bit (having said that, I did like Kevin Rose’s dry response to the HD-DVD decryption code thing, especially the version he gave on Diggnation).

How does he do it?

Tony Blair

How did Tony Blair turn what ought to have been an ignominious retreat – a defeated backward step from power – into a noble and affecting curtain call? I am, again, in awe. The man is the most remarkable political figure of the post-war era. A fascinating, hypnotising, utterly political animal, somehow managing to exist outside or above history, or at least events.

Blair is the first British leader of the 21st Century but also, perhaps, the first truly 21st Century leader anywhere in the world (will Sarkozy be the second?). I know I sound like a fanboy. He’s a story-teller, a weaver of powerful, condensed narratives that motivate and win round. And these stories are subtle and economical – a lot like the compressed narratives of advertising.

They’re all about Britain, about its people, about its place in the world. Rarely about anything else. Even when he’s talking about Sierra Leone or Iraq or Trident or debt relief, he’s painting a picture of Britain – robust, honest, fair-minded, forward-thinking – that’s as powerful and as influential as any prime minister’s before him. Like him or not, his version of Britain is catchy, contemporary – one that will form the template for Brown’s (or Cameron’s) Britain and for those who follow.

I admire Tony Blair enormously, while I hate the mess that Iraq has become and the damage that it’s done to Britain and to Labour and to Blair himself. I think his courage, which is unarguable and instinctive, sets a difficult example for his successors too. Prevarication, absenteeism and avoidance will all be more difficult choices in the post-Blair era. Blair’s Britain will, whether we like it or not, outlive his period in office by many years.

Looking for freelancers

I’m looking for some freelance help with a couple of tasks. A reasonable day rate is available and the project is likely to be fun and to lead to lots more work if things go well:

Site map/visualisation/wireframe jockey. I need a visually cool and useful site map of shave.com. Useful infoporn. Something that’ll look good on the wall and also help in planning for the revised site. I’d like it in a useful, preferably editable format too. Basically, I want knobs on it.

Google SketchUp wizard and Second Life architect/builder (not necessarily the same person). I want prototype models for use in planning, online and in print, possibly, in SL too.

An IA with ecommerce experience: someone who can help me to craft a replacement for that shave.com web site, working with current and new tech suppliers. Write to me directly\ if you feel like it!

The fate of the innovator

Not a Segway, a Dareway

Remember Segway? Always doomed. Always ridiculous. A case study in entrepreneurial hubris. It somehow never occurred to anyone at Segway – not designers, not investors, not breathless celebrity boosters – that looking ridiculous might be a disincentive to buy (look at Jeff ‘Mr Bean’ Bezos here. Imagine trying to have a conversation with someone hovering serenely a foot above you on a miraculous gyroscopic scooter.

Segway is a tribute to the unassailable (and quite cute) lack of self-awareness of the nerdy inventor type – autistic transport for autistic commuters. It’s somehow appropriate that the concept lives on in a toy. The Dareway is a plastic approximation to a Segway (without, presumably, the wizzy space-age gyro-stabiliser). It costs £130 and looks right in place alongside the other toughened plastic garden toys (although, according to this great Amazon review the thing could actually be life-threatening!).

Brands are our cathedrals

Old St Paul's Cathedral

Can you imagine a world without brands? Does social media (social networking, social content, social shopping, social this and that…) threaten the very idea of a brand (as it does, for some, the very idea of authority in media)? We’re divided, as usual, on this matter. Some – the euphorics (the geek ‘ultras’) reckon that big, slow moving industrial era entities like brands can’t possibly survive. They’ll be swept aside by ‘bottom-up value creation’. Networks – for the ultras – are what come after brands. Others – me included – think that brands will survive because they’re useful and because they embody an economy’s deepest needs and because – sometimes – we fall in love with them.

The thing about brands is that they’re not superficial expressions of a company’s or an economy’s needs. They may look fluffy or insubstantial (they were probably designed to do so) but they are, in almost every case, a company’s primary device for concentrating resources to produce a return on investment. A brand is a storehouse for talent, ideas, competence and, above all, capital: an entity with known inputs and measurable outputs. A brand is a bloody big, complicated economic institution – like a university or a small town or a professional football team: a machine for the production of social, cultural and economic value.

There is (go on, tell me I’m wrong) no realistic candidate for a replacement for the brand as the number one vehicle for value creation in a business. Nothing else can (or will, for the time being) marshal resources, talent, creativity and capital to produce the return that investors need. Visit any supermarket and you’ll meet ten thousand or more brands, every one of which has a measurable value, makes a known contribution to the bottom line of its owner, carries the hopes and dreams of the people who make it. The big brands are our cathedrals: elaborate, slowly built over tens (or hundreds) of years, eccentric, contingent and expensive to maintain. Like those cathedrals, important brands are anchor institutions for economy and community. They will persist.

Mike Butcher, of this parish, captured on video a fat bloke speaking my words on this topic at last week’s Internet World conference.