Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for March, 2010

The culture of lying

There is a saying in Japan that goes 「ウソも方言」 which  loosely translates to “lying is another dialect.” My uncle once commented that Americans feel guilty for the smallest lies. Having traversed both cultures, I tend to agree with his statement.

In Japan, when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the doctor will often inform the family first and let them decide if they want the patient to know if he or she has only so many months or years to live. If the family wants the patient to pass peacefully without the knowledge of impending death, the doctor will create a fake diagnosis with a more benevolent illness. This is done most often with cancer, and the Akira Kurosawa classic “Ikiru” is about a man who realizes that his doctor is lying to him.

One of my most memorable episodes of Astro Boy, a classic Japanese anime, is the one where a “rogue” robot speaks only the opposite of the truth. As the story unravels, it is revealed that the designer of the robot programmed him so that he wouldn’t tell it’s owner, the creator’s mother, that she is slowly dying from an incurable disease. You can imagine the effect this episode would have on children who have been told to always speak the truth and never lie.

I’m not the type that is brutally honesty or believes in absolute truths. I think there are certain situations which are better served by carefully crafted lies and everything comes in different shades of trueness.

The Moroccans take lying to a whole new level. It seems like every street vendor I met knows someone in Japan (may it be relatives, acquaintances, or business partners), everything and anything comes at a “good price,” and all the tour guides have done work for the American embassy. One carpet vendor tried to convince us that a student in Japan returns every year to buy the legal limit of carpets for personal use (five or six) and auctions them in Japan to pay for his education.

While I realize that much of my experience is based around the context of me being a tourist for eight days, I sense that to a certain extent, this is the way of life in Morocco. When this is being written in English and being read by a Western audience, it must sound terrible. However, is it really that different from what happens in the developed world?

Drinking Gatorade won’t make you run faster, wearing Nikes won’t make you play like Lebron James, and eating Subway won’t make you any skinnier. If marketing is about selling stories with the product, then lying is the Moroccan way of making you feel better about your purchases. Like how western customers are savvy with advertisement, I’m sure the Moroccans are equally savvy with the shop keeper tales.

It may sound contradictory, but I’ve also found the Moroccans to be very honest. Once you shake hands, the price is set, and they won’t try to do anything sneaky like keep the change or swap out the products. One day we wanted to buy a pair of sandals which weren’t quite finished. We bargained the price, payed half the money upfront (they asked us to), and came back the next day to find the deal fully intact and sandals ready. I think there are fine boundaries to what the Moroccans will do and say, and I only have a fuzzy idea of where that line is.

I wonder what a Moroccan guide book to Western countries look like. Do they include advices like the following?

Prices in France are almost always displayed and fixed. Even if the prices are not displayed, they are fixed and any attempts at bargaining will invite the odd looks of the store keeper who will not take you seriously. Don’t bother trying, even if you are buying more than one.


Getting creative about making a point

People in Paris are desensitized to all the strikes in the public transportation system. It happens more often than snow and people have come to cope with it. If the goal of striking is to create the most amount of noticeable disturbance to deliver a point, then it has lost its appeal because of its excessive usage.

Here is an alternate idea.

Decrease the frequency of the trains by half and operate them at half speed. Now people are on a train that is twice as crowded AND takes twice as long to get to the destination. People will notice this.

I am in no way advocating the use of this. I would much more suggest one of the ideas we came up with on our “Improving the public transportation in Paris” brainstorm.


Delivering unexpected surprise and delight

I stayed last night in a hotel in Algeciras, Spain where all the drinks in the minibar were free. I couldn’t believe it when I read:

To make your stay in the room even more pleasant, AC Hotels puts a complete minibar service at your disposal so that you can serve yourself completely without charge.

The minibar contained four soft drinks, three bottles of water, one bottle of alcohol-free beer, and one beer. It’s not extensive, but it’s hard to complain when it’s free.

Hotel minibars are a rip-off, a way for hotels to make incremental revenue off of lazy guests. With that point of view, the minibar here has been a wonderful surprise. If I ever come back to Spain, I would definitely consider an AC chain hotel again.

Bottles of drinks are cheap. The entire minibar probably cost less than 4 euros to stock, and that’s a small price to pay for customer attention and loyalty.

Now if only they didn’t charge 10.5 euros for 24 hours of internet access…


The Saint Patrick’s Day Conundrum

Saint Patrick’s Day presents an interesting opportunity for Irish bar owners around the world where customers flock to their establishment for one special day. What do you do when you are blessed with such an irrational spike in demand for your product?

The knee jerk reaction would be to raise your prices, charge cover at the door, and milk the situation as much as possible. It’s a perfectly sensible business decision to maximize the income for one special night. People will still come to your bar to celebrate one of the few internationally celebrated drinking events and pay the premium to get drunk in a semi-cultured way. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

Saint Patrick’s day is not only an interesting opportunity to make a lot of money but also to serve many new customers. There is a disproportionately large number of first time customers coming to your establishment, what do you do to them? Charging cover and overcharging for drinks rarely last in long term patronage. Instead, I suggest dropping the prices (or have amazing specials) and try to design the best possible experience for your customers. With the current bar culture, people are already expecting to overpay for their Saint Patrick’s day experience and breaking that expectation can be very powerful in leaving a lasting impression.

I’m not actively advocating forgoing making money on Saint Patrick’s day either. I think there are plenty of opportunities to make money without the customers feeling spited. One option would be to increase the flow rate at the bar. Hire some temporary bar tenders and set up a temporary bar so you can serve drinks faster. Designate a section of the bar as the cash only section so payment is not slowed down by credit cards. Set the drinks prices at $4 so most people will pay with a $5 and leave the change as tip. You could also sell other products besides drinks. CD from the live band playing on stage? Saint Patrick’s day commemorative pint glasses? Irish potato chips? The possibilities are endless.

It’s easy to measure the revenue on Saint Patrick’s day and feel the need to maximize it by doing what bars normally do, sell drinks and charge cover. It’s much more difficult to measure the effect Saint Patrick’s day has on your customers. It’s entirely possible that the increased patronage resulting from superior partying experience on Saint Patrick’s day could lead to 1% increase in revenue for the rest of the year, trumping any marginal gain for any one day.

Some readers may point out that I wrote something similar three years ago in one of my now defunct other blogs. I decided to update the post as I keep hearing about abusive Irish bars every year for Saint Patrick’s day.










Idea is only the beginning


What am I doing?

I live in Paris. There are days when I don’t quite believe it myself either.

Two years ago, I returned to Stanford University as a Ph.D. student after leaving my job a Daimler because of the visa fiasco. I’ve always contemplated returning for a Ph.D., but the real reason I returned was that ME310, the course that changed my life, was looking for someone to coordinate the course. The previous executive director was finishing his degree and the pieces fit in place for me to return.

ME310 is a full year course where students from Stanford University collaborate with students from schools around the world on corporate defined projects. I took the course in 2004-05 and worked with students from the Technical University of Munich on a project for BMW and was a teaching assistant a year later. While it’s only one course, it’s unlike any other I’ve seen in my life. The experience is incredibly intense in both content and time spent, and because of the awesome loft space dedicated to the teams, an amazing community forms between the students. I still keep in touch with my teammates, and in the past, marriages have happened from people in the course (not to mention the usual hookups and breakups).

As the executive director of the course, I was responsible for bringing the pieces together to make the course happen. With the legacy of the course at Stanford, recruiting students was nearly effortless. While coordinating between all the different schools abroad was time consuming, all the professors, instructors, and assistants share the same values and are wonderful to work with. By far the most difficult aspect of my job was finding and recruiting the corporate partners to support the student projects. The fee for one project is $125,000, and you can imagine how raising that kind of money during the Great Recession could be challenging. Nevertheless, we raised more than 1.6 million dollars in two years and managed to keep the course going.

Of course as a Ph.D. student, I was also taking classes and doing research, and I managed to pass my quals and have a paper published at ICED before leaving for Paris.

While I was at Stanford, a professor from France who was interested in ME310 was visiting for six months, and we talked about what was required to make such a class happen. In the end, she recruited me to start the program with her in Paris, and that’s how I ended up here.

I am currently coordinating and teaching the ME310 course at École des Ponts ParisTech which is running one project with Stanford and two with Finland who has been in the ME310 network since 2005. The goal is to expand the ME310 network beyond Stanford, and this is the first year where two schools that are not Stanford are running projects together. Hopefully we’ll keep expanding next year to add more projects and schools into the mix.

The greater goal of my being here is to start a new program in design thinking in Paris. There are no consensus definition of design thinking and if you want to learn more about it, I suggest the HBR article on Design Thinking by Tim Brown, Fast Company article on David Kelley and the Stanford, or Roger Martin’s presentation at the AIGA design conference. In short, design thinking is a niche but buzzing discipline that focuses on the creation and innovation of new products, services, and systems that are more closely aligned with human values.

There are a lot of new design programs being created around the world focusing on design thinking and the Stanford where I took several classes over the last few years was probably the first one really dedicated to multidisciplinary design thinking. We are the first ones to bring design thinking to Paris and it’s exciting to be bringing a movement to a new city. In a somewhat narcissistic statement, I told my colleagues at Stanford when I left that I was being an ambassador of design from Stanford.

My initial contract in France is for one year which ends in June, but if the program continues, they will probably extend it for another year. I like this city enough to stay for another year, although I can’t imagine myself living in France for the rest of my life.

I am technically on a leave of absence from the Ph.D. program at Stanford which can last as long as two years. I’m not 100% sure if I would return to Stanford to actually complete my Ph.D. as I’ve found social science research to be very solitary. I enjoy working with people much more, and ME310 is truly a global collaboration between students, professors, and corporate representatives around the world.

With my current job, my career path is very hazy. The most obvious path would be to complete my Ph.D. and climb the academic ladder of professorship. However, knowing my aversion towards complacency, I don’t think I would enjoy that. Furthermore, I believe design is a field best taught by people who weave in and out of practice and instruction. The industry is changing too fast to be purely academic.

Design is also a field that unleashes its true value in conjunction with other disciplines. The word “Design” is often paired with words, e.g. Engineering Design, Product Design, Industrial Design, Graphic Design, Service Design, etc. I am currently in the unique field of Design Education Design. I can imagine myself moving onto an entirely different industry to utilize all that I have learned about design so far.

I don’t know where next, but I’m enjoying being part of this movement in Paris.


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