Inside the Amazon

December 21, 2011
What do smoked-salmon gift baskets, toy dump trunks, toilet paper, and cigars all have in common?  They all make great holiday gifts that you can buy online. That’s right.
the real amazon

Not this Amazon, the other one.

If you’re like most other adult humans, you’re shopping via the web this holiday season, part of a steady trend over the last decade. And chances are, you’ve spent some money with the big boys of eCommerce. The marketplace. The empire. The leaders of the online shopping channel. The Amazon.

From both a business and technology perspective, Amazon’s story is a compelling one. Once known for peddling books over an emerging medium, retail is now only part of what they do (though a big part). A recent interview with Jeff Bezos in is a must-read, revealing the extent of the company’s reach, their role as one of technologies biggest players, and their vision of the future. Check it out – then go wrap up your holiday shopping in a new browser window.

We’ll wait.

For kicks, below is a short essay I wrote a while back on the company a when asked to describe a ‘company I admire’. Sort of an elementary-school exercise that was oddly refreshing. How I miss school sometimes…

Amazon is an admirable company. Not just because they are the class of online retail or because I occasionally find great deals on boots there. But because of where they came from, what they’ve done, and where they’re going. It started as a great American business story: an entrepreneur headed West in his car into the unknown, armed with a vision of selling books over an emerging channel known as the internet. It has since evolved into a true empire, growing steadily and remaining on the cusp of high-tech innovation. And all while having a direct and meaningful impact on so many customers’ lives, as well as the successes and fortunes of new businesses along the way.

Amazon’s business model has pushed the limits of capitalism and how we thought about an open marketplace could work. But as a company, it has become far more than a commerce hub of ‘anything you need.’ It has continually introduced new patterns of technology into our lives. It created a custom recommendation engine based on user data, delivering recommendations – sometimes quirky, often helpful, but never overwhelming – to returning customers that many others have since tried to emulate. It evolved into a discussion platform for products of all types, bringing a democratic element to shopping. In this sense it single-handedly brought “social” shopping into the digital age, pairing conversations and reviews from the masses with products themselves. This bottom-up approach to evaluating a marketplace, its participants, and its content, changed how merchants thought about key factors such as pricing and quality. And as a website, has evolved, adapted, and remained usable — an impressive feat for an interface with such a complex ecosystem supporting it. As they grew, they iterated quickly, making interface changes often, and ignoring many web and usability experts who criticized the site for being too busy, too big, too confusing, or simply not sustainable.

Most notably, Amazon had the foresight to expand on its successful business model and dive into hardware by designing and releasing the Kindle. Beyond being an innovative product — a novel design and medium that consumers gobbled up (e-ink, anyone?) — it was a move that challenged the way we consume literature and the written word, threatening to make books obsolete. And that Amazon itself had its roots in books speaks to the vision and fearlessness of their company and leadership. To challenge their own heritage with the Kindle and adapt to the changing times was both a bold and poetic move. They saw a consumer need and went after it, regardless of how their company was positioned at the time. That they continue to expand their businesses is a testament to their successes and a great example of the power of what bold innovation can do for business in today’s world. And it’s admirable. Very admirable. (Profitable too.)


A Mildly Magnificent Modern Map

October 19, 2011

Not shown: Iceland. Chicago. Canada.

Since our humble days as hunter-gatherers, humans have created and shared maps to make sense of the world around us. To serve as models. To simplify. To point to food. And to navigate environments too big to otherwise comprehend.

Like many of us discovered in our youth*,  there’s something inherently fulfilling about maps. A good one will serve as a powerful link between our brains and the real world. By giving us a sense of context and scale while leaving out every detail, a great map will teach us as much as it will tempt us — tapping into our intrinsic nature to explore and chart new paths.

Here’s a nice map of our sprawling digital landscape and the growing influences of the ‘Internet Economy’. Far from the elaborate parchment creations of early cartographers, this map represents an emerging pattern of charting the intangible online spaces we increasingly inhabit. And different from other data-driven visualizations, it injects a subjective element while playing with relationships and space. It’s the little touches that make it work. The quirky plays on words (The Ocean of Spam, Blogger Isles. pfft.). The multiple layers. The ability to scroll side to side endlessly, like spinning a globe.

Kind of makes you want to go sailing, doesn’t it.

*My 4th-grade Orientation unit was glorious… a stretch of structured learning rivaled only by the Star Trek unit the following spring. What a year.

Lounging at One of the Web’s Best

March 3, 2011

Not your typical landing page. is a fine site. Dark. Real. Interactive. Full of great imagery. Provocative and memorable. Bold. And just scattered enough to be offensive to some passersby. In this case, that’s not a bad thing. It adds flavor, character, stickiness.

Note the number scratched into the bar. The subtle integration of the logo. The soiled tissue. Yes, the soiled tissue.

It goes beyond a website. Beyond information. It’s an experience — an almost sensory experience. The texture of the wood, the flickering of the candle, the taste of those damn peanuts, just out of reach. You’re at the bar, hunched over an adult beverage, staring at coasters, kept company by candlelight and a frosty mug. A miniature world you’ve found yourself in, if only for a few moments. It’s experience design at its best.

See for yourself.

Nice job, lounge lizard.  Nice job.

New Song, Same Ol’ Dance

April 29, 2010

Yeah, I went there.  Timeless and wildly prophetic, the graphic tree sequence vividly illustrates an all-too-common pattern in today’s high tech development world. This version also demonstrates the power of enlisting an extra sense (that auditory one) to drive a point home. For the full effect of this diddly, play from your cube with the sound up, base up. Loud. Oh yes.

The State of Internet Usage

March 21, 2010

Where does your website fall into the mix?

It’s huge.  It’s popular.  It’s in style .  It’s the current global catalyst of communication and information.  It’s the Internet.  And there’s a lot of people using it.  But what for, you ask?

In January the BBC charted the use of internet by measuring unique visitors and created treemaps charting the top 100 most visited websites as well as breakdowns by site categories. The result is a series of interesting and digestible visualizations of the madness that is the online world — at least from a traffic perspective. You’ll find some surprises, and some things you might expect. See for yourself, and keep on surfing.

Colors of eCommerce

October 19, 2009


Remember the first time you noticed that the biggest fast food chain restaurants all had red and yellow in their logos? If you’re at all like me (which you may not be..) the excitement of this discovery was quickly overcome by the realization that originality often comes at a premium in this world. And that sometimes successful business meant borrowing, and borrowing some more.

Well another similar color pattern has emerged in our consumption-driven economy. Blue and orange have seemed to end up wherever mass business transactions appear on the mighty internets, with  eCommerce giants Amazon, eBay, Walmart, Sears, and Zappos all incorporating the colors into their pallets. There’s no doubt color can have a strong impact in design, but while physiological studies claim to tie the colors red to appetite, it’s not so clear that blue and orange equate to “buy” as much as this is just another game of follow the leader.

The implications of the new blue and orange internet take-over aren’t so clear. Much like restaurants and fast food, many reputable eCommerce sites don’t use these colors – but the largest ones all seem to. It would interesting to take a look at how the color coordination of fast food affected the greater restaurant and food-consumption market. (Volunteers?)

Here’s one prediction though: wearing blue and orange clothing together will become less fashionable by the day …making you look more and more like a website. Kind of like wearing red and yellow tends to make you look like a giant hotdog. Speaking of food..

Dilbert on User Interface Issues

April 26, 2009

A longtime favorite comic of mine (even before I ever stepped foot in an office) recently tackled common management stances on usability and user experience funding. Funny stuff.


[NOTE: The views expressed in this comic do not necessarily represent those from… :)]