“UX is Not Separate from Business”: 20-ish Tweets About Don Norman’s Complaints About Apple


[T]he koan to explore here is: UX is not separate from business; business is not separate from UX.

What Corporate Donors Want

A recent non-profit client just a year old had taken on an aggressive campaign goal: raising $12 million in 2011 from corporate sponsors alone in its second year. I was tasked with conducting research to help the organization understand what corporate donors want.

My findings, below, were based on primary and secondary research and my experience with fundraising and development efforts. The factors listed make the greatest difference for corporate donors and are presented in an order of rough importance.


Small- and medium-sized businesses especially look for opportunities to give locally, as one might expect. For such businesses, which usually lack national profiles, donations that impact the immediate community go further in terms of raising profile and making an appreciable difference. The preference for local philanthropy may also be a matter of convenience, insofar as local groups have an advantage in terms of conducting meetings with and giving presentations targeting corporate giving officers. Finally, many businesses likely understand that improving their own communities will lead to happier employees (and customers), and to greater recruiting potential.

It may be a surprise that many large corporations with national profiles also choose to give locally, largely for the same reasons. What “locally” means, thought, is a complicated question. For example, PNC Bank is well-known for philanthropic efforts near its branches but especially near its corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, PA. (The name of the company’s philanthropic website bears out this community focus.) Another company in the top half of the Fortune 500, Dow Chemical, notes in its philanthropic guidelines, which are divided by state or region, that they target nonprofits that “address a social, economic, educational, or environmental need in a city/community in which The Dow Chemical Company has a presence.” That presence can be in manufacturing, corporate, distribution, or any other activity in which the company engages.


Corporate philanthropy can only meet the corporation’s goals—again, profile-raising and community improvement, among others—if the recipients make good use of donated funds. As such, corporate giving officers look for evidence of past effectiveness and, for younger nonprofits in particular, potential for future success. This evidence can be quantitative or qualitative, focusing either on efficient use of funds (e.g., helping a great number of people with minimal financial commitment) or on individual success stories (“human interest” case studies or testimonials). Nonprofits that can provide both kinds of evidence will find the greatest success in attracting corporate donations.


In a post-Enron, post-housing-bubble era, many businesses face an increasing demand for transparency. This is most true for public corporations, of course, but also holds for companies owned by groups of private investors or by venture capitalists. In order to preserve the integrity of their own books, most corporations look for philanthropic opportunities with nonprofits that can show how they have used funds they’ve received in the past, with nothing vague or irregular in the breakdown of expenditures.


In some cases, the “bragging rights” that accompany philanthropy drive giving officers at larger companies to seek out nonprofits with unique service offerings, unique positions within their fields, or otherwise unique perspectives on their causes. Also, since most corporations prize innovation internally, their philanthropic goals tend naturally to fall in line with that disposition.

Safety in Numbers

Another consequence of the increased demand for transparency is that corporate giving officers tend to take comfort in making donations to groups that have already attracted other corporate gifts. It may be an unfair prejudice, but donors perceive an organization as less likely to be fraudulent or otherwise troublesome if it has received many corporate gifts in the past. By donating to well-established recipients, officers protect their own reputations and those of their employers. Attracting many donors may also be seen—again unfairly—as likely to correlate with a nonprofit’s success.

On the Pride of Nittany Lions

So here we are: Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty and the Freeh report will surely yield further convictions. Punishing these monsters will bring a kind of closure for Sandusky’s victims, for their families, and maybe even for a society ill-at-ease with the child-rapes and the cover-up that we now know perpetuated them.

There may be a bigger question we need to address, however: whether the church of football—or even a narrower church of Penn State—helped Sandusky commit and cover up his crimes. We know that a pair of janitors were afraid to come forward because they feared for their jobs. We must also wonder to what pressures Sandusky’s accomplices—as we should now consider Paterno, Spanier, et al.—were subjected.

Among those living in regions well-populated with Penn State alumni, it has long been a staple of conversation that Penn Staters can be over-the-top in their displays of school pride. It was a matter of course that those of us who’d gone to other schools would roll our eyes at the exuberant pride of Nittany Lions—often, but not always, on gameday. What I want to suggest here is that we were onto something.

I used to work at a marketing company just a couple hours away from Penn State. It had four owners, three of whom were Penn State alumni. Alums also made up perhaps two-thirds of the firm’s workforce, nearly thirty people in all. At that place, the ongoing ribbing about the superiority of Penn State was pervasive and aggressive. To make a tenuous comparison, this aspect of the office’s culture closely mirrored the underlying structures of workplace sexual harassment.

There are many critical differences, again. Most importantly and most obviously, applying to Penn State is a choice; those of us who didn’t apply (or didn’t go) to PSU weren’t born that way.

There are also illuminating similarities, though. More than once, behind closed conference room doors, I heard non-Staters acknowledging a feeling that Penn State alumni got better jobs, promotions, and raises. (I always felt I had been treated fairly, but I had a non-standard trajectory at the company to begin with.)

It was almost always the case that returning fire had undesirable consequences: intensifying the aggression of the conversation, marking you as a hater, and in one case even leading to a public questioning of whether a non-alum could understand the culture well enough to work on a web project for the Penn State football program. The answer, it was determined, was “no.”

To be clear, no similar question had or would ever come up for another client. When one is hired to do work in the agency world, the presumption is that one can understand any client well enough to do the job. That flexibility underwrites the very existence of the marketing and advertising industries, where although a firm might have certain areas of specialization, rich experience in one vertical (say, non-profit marketing) is thought to be a sufficient platform for expansion into another.

The dynamic at my former company never escalated far enough to be addressed even informally, but that, too, is a trademark of the kind of talk that sexual harassment laws were put in place to eliminate. The idea wasn’t just to protect women (and men, gays, etc.) from the Clarence Thomases of the world, but to protect women in particular from the subtle and insidious effects of gender bias. I quote now from the website of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission:

Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. […] Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).

Once again, I don’t mean to suggest that any laws were broken at my former place of employment, nor that what happened there was in any way as grave as sexual harassment, which is tied to broader and much more deeply troubling issues than school pride.

What I do mean to suggest is that the discourse of Penn State fervor could, in the years before the Sandusky scandal, closely reflect that of sexual harassment. If you replace “a person’s sex” and “a woman” in the paragraph above with “a person’s alma mater” and “somebody who didn’t go to Penn State,” then suddenly the power dynamics in place at my former company become painfully clear.

One pressing problem, in the wake of the scandal at PSU, is that it would be irresponsible not to wonder whether a culture of such zealotry had to exist in order for the cover-up to take place, to spread as deep and to last as long as it did.

To wonder that, though, is terrifying. For me at least, it means asking whether a great many close friends, colleagues, and family members are implicated, however indirectly, in what seems like it may become the most morally dissonant scandal the United States has ever seen on its own ground. It means asking whether the way “the rest of us” bristled at Penn State pride was more than just a general discomfort with what felt like an immature emotional display. It means asking whether we found the members of the Penn State brogeoisie who walked among us irritating not just because we weren’t a part of it, but because there was something inherently dangerous about their attitude.

I don’t mean to claim that Penn State is worse than the other schools with maximally feverish fans. Ohio State comes to mind as a close second—perhaps because of a regional bias I’m subject to—and I once knew a ‘Bama fan who was beaten into a coma after shouting “Roll Tide” in Auburn gameday traffic.

If Penn State is not the only school with its own parish in the church of football, though, then our problem is bigger than the crimes of one man, as atrocious as they were. It’s bigger, even, than the reprehensible lack of action on the part of revered figures like Sandusky’s late and former boss, Joe Paterno. In short, if what happened at Penn State could have happened elsewhere, then the kind of closure we will feel, those of us not directly affected by Sandusky and his accomplices, comes to seem like little more than an excuse once again to close our eyes.

Go with the Flo: What Good Customer Service Looks Like

Scooter, awash.
Scooter, interrupted.

I just submitted the long, happy note below as part of a survey in response to my having filed an insurance claim on my scooter, ruined in a flash flood. I’ve spent enough time whining about lousy service on Facebook that I thought it would be worth posting my praise for Progressive just for the sake of balance.

As I reread my response to the survey, though, I noticed that it reveals quite a bit about how good customer service looks. In particular, Progressive seems to have anticipated several my likely pain points as a customer and, like Icy Hot, applied (figurative) ointments to relax them away.

In what follows, I discuss a few of these tactics in terms of how I imagine it would be to deal with Flo, the famously helpful character in Progressive’s advertising of the last few years.

Flo wouldn’t act like she was selling used cars.

I mention below that I expected the kind of service relationship one has with a used car salesman, antagonistic just below the surface and fraught with mutual suspicion. Conversations with friends about having to file a claim revealed they had the same expectations, some based on past experiences. Instead, though, each of the handful of people I spoke with took careful steps to disarm what cynicism I came to them with.

For example, the claims adjuster explained why he was asking me certain questions that might otherwise have seemed odd, like whether there was any damage to the scooter before the flood. He told me he was asking not in order to reduce any potential coverage amount but to help determine an initial likelihood that the scooter would be written off as a total loss, which he and I both suspected based on the circumstances. The result of his explanation was to set me at ease—and frankly, given his patient demeanor and proficiency as a speaker, he might have seen the same result even if he had been telling me my coverage might be reduced.

The point was that the explanation and the professionalism made me feel like I was in an honest service relationship with somebody who wanted a fair outcome on both sides, like I did. And that’s as it should be: Given a well-run insurance company, there should be no need to inflate margins using scare tactics and little lies the way used car dealers so often do.

Flo would be flexible, not a stickler.

According to the rules, the adjuster should’ve had me call the shop and release my scooter to Progressive, and then had the bike transported to their own casualty center for inspection. But in this case, my adjuster saw the situation for what it was:

"Fishbowl Bike"
At the shop, they called it “Fishbowl Bike.”
  1. My scooter had been fully submerged for perhaps 30 minutes. (See photo at right, from about three weeks after the fact.)
  2. You can’t submerge a scooter for perhaps 30 minutes and expect to fix it for less than the resale value of the bike.
  3. I had sent my scooter to a shop that the claims adjuster had dealt with before.

Given these facts, you might think a reasonable course of action would be to just send a rep—any rep—to the shop next time he or she was in the neighborhood. And that’s exactly what my adjuster did.

Sticking to the rules would’ve meant not only extra hassle for me and the shop, but also laying out extra cash for towing and inspection (because the inspector would be starting from scratch, instead of having a mechanic already familiar with the problem walk him or her through it).

At a worse company, I’m sure, my adjuster would’ve had to stick to the rules. But Progressive, it seems, trusted him to make the judgement call. I’m glad they did.

Flo would know everything.

The single word “knowledgable” in my note below actually carries more weight than I let on. I’d expected having to go over the details of what happened again and again, each time answering the same lame questions. (“So wait: There was a flood on a hill?” “Dammit, no. There was a flood in Squirrel Hill.”) I remember once having to explain the precise manner in which my Internet connection would periodically drop to five separate Comcast employees in three days. And it’s almost always like that, right?

Not with Progressive, of course. Once I had told the claims rep the story, it was as though that information had spread, as with The Borg, to every corner of the organization. I spoke with three more people about the situation and each of them knew everything about what had happened to the bike, what I had done about it, when, and why. Even better, they all knew that I had comprehensive coverage (somewhat non-standard for scooters, as I understand it), a $100 deductible, and every other relevant detail of my policy and situation.

I don’t know enough about the industry or the logistics of customer service to determine what exactly Progressive does to enable this kind of pervasive knowledge-sharing. I suspect that the process involves unusually ample time to review a case before making customer contact, training on how to suss out the most salient facts, and a positive work environment that encourages communication across departments and functions.

Then again, maybe I just got lucky, ended up by chance with a posse of top-notch service reps. But I doubt it.

I’ve never had to file an insurance claim before (other than for health care), and I expected it would be one of those things that everybody hates, like buying a used car or calling your ISP for technical support.

Instead, it was one of the best interactions I’ve ever had as a customer: First, everybody I spoke with was professional, courteous, and knowledgable to degrees well beyond anything I’ve experienced in the past. Also, the settlement—which was available to me within just a few days—was more or less exactly what I expected after I did some research on the value of my vehicle.

I was especially surprised to see the adjuster streamlining the process in ways that I wouldn’t have thought he had the power to do. For example, it was pretty much a sure thing that the scooter was going to be a total loss; it had been underwater in a flood for like half an hour. So instead of having to tow the thing to your casualty center, he just sent someone on a quick trip to the service center that had the bike. (They also reported they loved working with Progressive, by the way.)

You’ve really won me over with this experience. I can’t imagine switching to another insurance company. Thanks a million.

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Showing Students the Money: A Pragmatic Defense of the Humanities Education

Buried in Lauren Russell’s article for CNN on the increasingly “career-driven” college student lies a glimmer of hope for the humanities education: Although “[b]usiness and technical majors fared better in the job market this year,” a university career advisor notes, “‘[c]hoosing liberal arts doesn’t necessarily mean joblessness’” (emphasis added).1 Time for English majors to break out the champagne, I guess.

David Brooks, meanwhile, begins an op-ed piece in The New York Times with a common defense of the value of the humanities education against Russell’s familiar and painful set of job-market statistics. Brooks notes that “[s]tudying the humanities improves your ability to read and write.” Such work also makes you familiar with “the language of emotion,” to which he credits the enormous success of the iPod, by way of a focus on the device’s branding.

Sounds great, right? It’s undeniable that doing a lot of reading and writing—minimum requirements for any humanities course at any institution, I hope—makes you better at reading and writing, valued skills at most jobs. It also makes sense to think that understanding why people have been painting and telling stories for so long—and, to a lesser extent, what they have been painting and telling stories about—will earn you some kind of knowledge about the human animal, which might prove useful to you in creating successful products or brands, as Brooks claims.

But there is something wrong here. Industry may value good readers and writers already on the payroll, but it’s relatively rare for most companies to know ahead of time that they ought to seek out such capable humanists in the first place. (Russell’s story aims primarily to support this point with hard numbers.) Understanding human emotion and the language that accompanies it may have helped Steve Jobs brand the iPod, but, as he’s fond of noting, he dropped out of Reed College after one semester. However useful the humanities education may prove once you’re on the job, not even Brooks argues that it gives you a leg up as a job seeker. I don’t know of anybody who has.

So it makes sense that Rebecca Mead’s defense of the humanities education in The New Yorker attempts to sidestep the question of what kinds of jobs a graduate might or might not land. She writes:

[O]ne needn’t necessarily be a liberal-arts graduate to regard as distinctly and speciously utilitarian the idea that higher education is, above all, a route to economic advancement. Unaddressed in that calculus is any question of what else an education might be for: to nurture critical thought; to expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind; to develop in them an ability not just to listen actively but to respond intelligently.

On the one hand, it’s valiant of Mead to try to make the case for a sui gratia approach to the humanities. On the other, she might as well have typed her argument in ink made from the ashes of hundred dollar bills.

That is, if we want to sell the humanities within current labor and economic conditions, we need an argument that appeals to people making tough, smart choices about whether to go to college, and, if so, what to study. We need an argument that works within that utilitarian calculus, specious or not, because it’s the one many parents and students use—and they do so for good, fiscally responsible reasons. To push the humanities on those it won’t benefit financially, as Mead would and Brooks might, is a little like a real estate agent pushing inflatable mortgages: Sure, your client gets the house, but at what cost?

I want to offer here a defense of the humanities education that is career-oriented (unlike Mead’s) and that focuses on job seeking rather than personal or even professional betterment (unlike Brooks’s). It begins with my own experience. Since I graduated in 2002, I’ve found success in a field that, like most, doesn’t reward anybody for being able to quote Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror from memory, which at any rate I can do no longer. Yet I feel almost certain that I could not have secured the jobs I have—let alone succeeded in them, a point we can again concede to Brooks—without my liberal-arts education. (Emphasis on “liberal”; I went to Hampshire College.)

I learned how to package and sell myself—my skills and my potential value to a company—just by learning how to package the ideas in my Division III, a kind of intensive senior thesis. In doing the work of the project, I learned how to research anything, whether previous scholarship on early cinema or techniques for the job search. I learned how to talk to people, how to make arguments out loud, how to respond to skepticism off-the-cuff, as one must so often do in interviews. These skills have won me many job offers.

I’m presenting anecdotal evidence here, and I also learned at Hampshire the limitations of argumentation based on such things. But we can acknowledge that my story would not be everybody’s and suppose that the value of the humanities education might be much more individual than blanket defenses (or attacks, for that matter) can tolerate. For some, an education in the humanities may well be the path to the jobs they want, while for others career-focused degrees might be the better choice.

The task for humanities programs and liberal-arts institutions is to preserve those aspects of themselves essential in allowing the right students to find the humanities and learn from them. At Hampshire, this means preserving a flexible but rigorous program operated, in a sense, by capable faculty working as teachers and advisors. Yet liberal-arts schools must also be honest about the fact that selling one’s degree in the humanities on the job market requires a special set of strategies. My point here is just that it’s not impossible to make the argument that getting a degree like mine can, in fact, be a pragmatic decision.

1: I think there’s some slippage in this whole conversation between the terms “humanities” and “liberal arts.” I’m content for now to blame it on the writers I quote, some of whom mistake the focus of one’s education (which may lie within the humanities, depending on your major) with the curriculum in which it takes place (which may be in the liberal arts, depending on your school). [Back to article]