Monthly Archives: May 2008

Frankfurt: The Photos

(My brief, post-Erlangen trip to Frankfurt, Germany. Requires Adobe Acrobat/Reader)


Erlangen: The Photos

(trying this out as a PDF slide show. You’ll need Adobe Reader (a.k.a. Acrobat) to view it)


Heading for Home

I’m writing this from the departure lounge of British Airways in Frankfurt International. Like Heathrow’s infamous Terminal 5, there seems to have been a bit of…err… remodelling going on in this lounge. This caused the trip to the gate to involve a long and circuitous set of detours which led up and down multiple staircases, past janitor’s closets, through construction zones, and not a few empty corridors the sort which one envisions oneself being mugged in. Nevertheless, I made it, got our trade show display checked in (it’s going through Terminal 5, so I don’t need to see it for a couple of months), and am currently wondering whether to go for the “Coffee and water or softdrink.. only €4.70!” ($8). I think not.

Unfortunately, this little outpost of the airport doesn’t seem to have a newsstand, so my plan of blowing all my remaining Euros on German kids comics won’t be happening this trip. I may still luck out at Heathrow, however, and at least pick up a ton of Postman Pat and Fireman Sam comics. Or at least a bottle of water for less than $4.00…I hope.

That’s the boarding call… I’m off!

A Brief American Comic Fan’s Guide to Weird Stuff in Germany

I personally hate travelogues, so I’ll stick to the weird or funny stuff. Standard disclaimers apply about all this being just one guy’s experience, which may or not apply to other people, or in fact, the rest of Germany.

Germans Conserve Like Crazy. Their gas is something like $10/gallon at the current exchange rate, so it’s no surprise that they drive small cars and take the train a lot. They’re also really serious about recycling bottles, adding on a deposit (Pfand) of what amounts to 40 cents per bottle to something as small as the Diet Coke (a.k.a Cola Light) you buy at the train station. They’re also hugely proud of new (and very impressive) skyscraper projects they’ve got which boast solar power, 98% recycling, and more.

Cold drinks cost a ton. Go to a supermarket and you can pick up liters and liters of beverages for a couple of euros. Buy a beer at a liquor store and it can cost as little as 80 Euro-cents/bottle. But want that Coke or beer cold? Prepare for a hurting like you’ve rarely seen outside of a comic convention. Think: $3.50 for a typical bottle of Coke. Oh, and there’s that 40 cent deposit thing as well. Since the beverages themselves are cheap, I can only conclude that the expensive thing is the coldness itself. Maybe it goes on sale in winter…

Beer costs the same as Coke. The news is not all bad on the beverage front.

They don’t “bag and board”. Maybe it’s the variety of comic sizes they deal with in the German market. Maybe bags and boards also have a 40 cent deposit on them. But for whatever reason, it seems like almost every comic on display at the comic convention came either not bagged at all, or bagged in a makeshift, 20-year old open-top bag. Boarding was near-nonexistent. It really was like going back in time to the 1970s when kids like me who’d never seen a comic shop would use any bag we could find to try to preserve our comics. Still, despite some price tags that ranged over a hundred dollars for some comics, few seemed to think that bagging and boarding was important–and it certainly wasn’t standard. Anyone know why?

Comic-Salon Komplett… On to Frankfurt

At 12:20 in the morning, having indicated to British Airways baggage handling that, “Why yes, getting our trade show display in time for the trade show was… important”. A tired-looking delivery guy in a Deutsche Post van (!) showed up outside my hotel with the missing trade show display. The show would indeed go on.

Rudi Brandl, a customer of ours, had agreed to help us out at the show, and as the one really good German-speaker (he’s German, after all!), he was a lifesaver. Thanks *very* much for all your help!

When he’s not being Shanghaied into comic software-selling duties, Rudi runs a sign shop, and had actually made up a sign for us to post at our booth. In German, it said, “Our German is catastrophic. Our English is not so good. We speak pretty good American. But our software is terrific.” It was a very cool sign, and it got more than a few laughs (and knowing looks). Murphy’s law being fully in effect, My colleague Joe and I would inevitably wind up in long, stumbling discussions with folks at the show who spoke only German; as soon as we’d tag off booth duties with Rudi, he’d get corralled into a discussion with folks who spoke only English. It was a struggle at times, but we somehow muddled through. For what it’s worth, my German on the last day of the convention was considerably improved from the first day.

I hope to post pictures from the show later when I return (I didn’t bring a USB cable or card reader for my camera, unfortunately). In the meantime, I’m now typing this from a hotel room in Frankfurt. Joe went home today, but I’ve got a couple of days before my flight home. I’m hoping to see the city a little, visit a few comic stores, and maybe even take in a play while I’m here.

Comic-Salon Sighted. Booth Paid for. Bags Still Lost.

After an amazing breakfast (German cuisine seems at times to consist primarily of fresh bread, fantastic meats and cheeses, milk, beer, and chocolate–it’s like they invented a whole country just for me!) — I set out to (a) Charge up my “burner” cell phone (“Handy”) so that people could reach me, (b) Find out where the heck the Comic-Salon actually was, (c) Change a couple thousand dollars I was forced to bring with me to pay for our booth, and (d) Find out where my missing trade show display went.

The progress report went something like this:

Quest A: Charge up Phone

Asked hotel clerk if he knew how to accomplish this. He suggested I go downtown (bis Zentrum) to find a place with Vodafone stuff. Walked around Erlangen in strange concentric circles buying first (a) A Cola Light (German for “Diet Coke”), (b) A Skype headset I saw at a computer store I walked into, (c) Another Cola light. and (d) A strange variation on a Kit Kat bar (with peanut butter!) that I was curious about next to the register. Without having said a word to the cashier, I apparently got clocked as an American as he said “THANK YOU!” to me he handed me the change.

Potentially overbroad insight: I’ve noticed that I can struggle my way through long conversations in German with government-types, bankers, and travel agents all day long, and they won’t say a word about it, and seem happy to nod, smile, and apparently never notice that I’m missing every fifth word they’re saying in rapid-fire German. Shopkeepers, on the other hand, are near-psychic when it comes to guessing your nationality (and you know you’ve been “made” when they try switching part of a conversation or greeting to you in English. If I were ever playing the male, German, version Eliza Doolittle, it wouldn’t be the embassy ball where I’d fear not being able to “pass” — it’d be the corner Fleischer (butcher).

Eventually, I stumbled across a huge shopping center, which led me to a Vodafone store, where a stylishly dressed clerk topped up my phone for me. QUEST COMPLETE!

Quest B: Find out where the convention actually is:
Asked stylishly dressed cashier where the Comic-Salon was. Mumbled too much. “Comicland?” he asked out loud. “Nein! Comic-Salon!” corrected a bystander. Bystander pointed me out the door and down a block from where I was standing. There, huge banners, a line of cars carrying comic books, and… Beer trucks(!)… announced that I’d found the right place. QUEST COMPLETE!

Quest C: Change money, pay for show
(Background: The Erlangen Comic-Salon is put on by, or at least in conjunction with the city of Erlangen. Which means that–unlike any comic show I’ve ever been to–it’s a government thing. And governments don’t believe in Visa. Or PayPal. Or, as it turns out, any form of currency transfer I could use from the States. This left bank wire transfer–or at least it would have, had the Erlangen bank code not been done in such a way that left my bank unable to wire money to it. So I brought cash. Lots of it.)

Double-checked that the show needed Euros, not Dollars, and was pointed to a street with a lot of banks on it. The third of these was able to accommodate the conversion of Dollars, albeit with a 5-Euro fee, and a conversion rate that would make Steve Forbes cry (.62 Euros/Dollar). Still, it was a darn sight better than the .57 Euros/Dollar and 5% fee they wanted at the Airport). Discovered that Germans do not say “Wire transfer” — they say “Bank Transfer”. Wondered why Americans don’t say “Bank Transfer”. Got money. Walked three blocks back to Comic-Salon without being mugged. Paid for show. QUEST COMPLETE!

Quest D: Find Missing Bags

Here, I discovered that in life, like so many adventure games, it matters which order you do your quests in. For, having promised me that my bags were no doubt delayed only by an hour or so, and would undoubtedly arrive the previous night by courier, I got the following update from the airline: They didn’t really know where the bags were, but they were probably at the airport. In Customs. Or perhaps at lost baggage. But probably in Customs. The British Airways web site was more blunt: “No information available.”

Pressing the matter through repeated phone calls (I got a chance to work out both my cell phone minutes and that new Skype headset!), I learned the terribly interesting cultural fact that Thursday (tomorrow) is not just the start of Comic-Salon, but also a German national holiday: Fronleichnam, or the Feast of Corpus Christi. Unfortunately, according to the grumpy-sounding German lady on the phone at the British Airways lost baggage call center, this also meant that my bags wouldn’t be delivered until Friday morning, “or perhaps evening.” “But the show, which I’ve just paid for, starts tomorrow. I’ll be out thousands of dollars if I don’t get those bags tonight!” I protested. Grumpy German Lady (GGL) suggested that they might have more information in 90 minutes or so, and the call ended on a defeatist note.

After re-checking Google Earth and confirming that yes, Erlangen was halfway across Germany from Frankfurt, I still felt that if my choice was either to spend several hours and $150 or so on trains today in order to get my bags and set up for the show, or miss out on 2 days’ exhibiting time at this increasingly expensive show, that the Smart, Resourceful Guy I hope to be most days would be getting on a train to Frankfurt. (Defeatist Weasel Guy (DWG) appeared briefly and encouraged me to go back to Comic-Salon, beg for my money back, then catch the first plane back home). But SRG decided to call the airline again.

“OK, I understand that the bags are in Frankfurt, in Customs (or maybe Lost Baggage). Can you tell me: If I go halfway across Germany by train to pick them up, are they definitely going to be there? And when does Lost Baggage close up for the day?” Happy Italian Lady (HIL) on the phone was very sad that my bags had been lost, and wasn’t Terminal Five at Heathrow just the worst, and that she would check for me if I would just hold for a while. After which, Happy Italian Lady was less happy. “So very sorry, ” she said, “but I don’t know the hours of the lost baggage…err…and the baggage may not be there right now. But we’ll definitely have it there for you by Friday night.”

Words expressing my great concern and displeasure were said. Promises to call me back were made. But two hours later, my phone had not yet rung.

Finally, I called once more. “Look,” I said, “I’m getting ready to head down to the train station, and I’m going to be super-unhappy if i travel all that way and don’t get my bags. Are they definitely–no fooling around, definitely in Lost Luggage?” “Oh absolutely!” was the reply. Followed by a “Let me check on that” to my question to when Lost Luggage closed. The phone went silent for a very long time. “Oh!” said German Lady to Whom I Could No Longer Ascribe a Particular Temperament (GLTWICNLAPT), “It seems the bags aren’t there anymore. They’re with the courier. But he won’t be delivering them until Friday because tomorrow is a holiday…”

“So I can’t even pick them up myself?” I asked, incredulous.

“That’s right.”

“But the courier won’t deliver them until two days into the trade show?” I asked.

“Yes that’s right.”

“This is a disaster!” I groaned, wondering whether DWG had it right all along.

“If it’s important, perhaps I could arrange to have the courier call you to see if they can be dropped off on an urgent basis?”

“Yes.” I chirped. “That would be really good if you could make that happen…”

To be continued…

Episode 1: Arrival*

(* Points for the first person to get the reference. Clue: old British TV)

I woke up this morning, blinked several times to clear my vision, and saw that that there were antlers hanging from the chandelier in the middle of my room. “Oh right!” I thought. “I must be in Germany.”

Twenty four hours earlier, I was saying goodbye to my wife and kids at San Francisco International. The following is a count-off my day:

– Number of times spent passing through airport security: 3

– Number of movies watched on plane: 3-1/2 (Sorry… fell asleep halfway through “Dan in real life.”

– Number of times I visibly annoyed my seatmate by laughing loudly at “Enchanted”: 5

– Number of flights: 2

– Train trips afterward: 2

– Meals served on plane: 3

– Edible meals on plane: 2

– Amount of luggage misplaced by airline at Heathrow’s infamous Terminal Five: 2

– Number of free mini-Mars bars eaten from bowl at British Airways lost baggage counter: 4 (see “Edible meals” count, above)

– Number of checked bags, now lost, containing our entire trade show display: 2

That last item threatens to be something of a damper on the whole trade show experience, unless British Airways manages to somehow locate the bags and get them to Erlangen today. If not, our fantastic foray into the world of European comic shows threatens to become somewhat less impressive… perhaps just Joe and me, along with a suitcase of software, standing outside shouting, “Tollisches Comic-Datenbank! Spezial Preis!” Yeah… that would not be good…

Off to scout out the show setup and load up my German cell phone with minute so that the nice folks at BA have a chance of reaching me…

Off to Erlangen!

In about nine hours, I’ll be sitting in an airport getting ready to head out to Erlangen, Germany for the International Comic Salon. Even now, the whole thing is pretty surreal to me–with the move, Atlas, and everything else going on, I’ve really not had time to do more than try to make sure we had all the right power cords packed and that our bags came in under the maximum shipping weight.

I’ve never attempted to do a trade show in a foreign language (unless you count British English). I have no idea how the show’s going to go, but I do know that it’s bound to be interesting. Also, being Germany–one of the big “good food” countries of the world, I won’t lack for great eats. I just hope everything (including me) gets to the show in one piece, that things more or less function.

…and Away We Go!

Interface Band-Aids

A good human interface designer can usually work out a workable solution to an interface problem in short order once the problem becomes visible. The problem is usually spotting the problem in the first place.

User testing’s real benefit is spotting problems that the designers overlooked. Another way to get feedback on how well your human interface is working is to be the one who answers the tech support email. In this sort of small-shop scenario, an interface designer who wants to stay sane has a powerful motive to fix badly designed features–fast!

Every once in a while, however, a problem comes along which defies any sort of elegant solution. The underlying cause is usually conflicting design goals, or even a split in the way different groups of users view or use the system. More rarely, there’s a very lovely and elegant solution that’s possible, but for technical reasons, it can’t be implemented. Rare on desktop applications, I’ve come across this latter problem all too often in web design.

Take the following, very simple dialog as an example (and for now, I’ll break the cardinal rule of Interface Guru-dom and actually criticize a real product that I had a hand in designing: in this case, the web-based ComicBase registration screen):

On one hand, I quite like the sheer minimalism here, and if you can momentarily forgive that the “Save” button would be better labelled “Register”, at first it seems like a nice little screen.

The fatal quirk comes as a result the peculiarities of the registration system. ComicBase FREE doesn’t require (or have) a serial number; other versions of ComicBase do. The system figures out which product you’re registering using the serial # you’ve entered. In some cases, the user will have to select between a few related versions of ComicBase using the drop-down, but usually the drop-down’s list can be populated with the one or two choices that apply. As such, the user’s path through this screen is:

1. Enter a serial # (or select ComicBase FREE)

2. If a serial # was entered, click the “Check” button to validate the number (and populate the product drop-down with the list of possible products).

3. Choose which of the possible products you are registering

4. Click Save

It sounds reasonably simple, but you may have noticed that there’s a rather interesting set of dependencies and modalities implicit in all this—none of which are communicated to the user.

If the product being registered is the FREE version, the user is meant to ignore the Serial # field altogether and just click Save. While that’s a bit inelegant, the real problem that users reported on the tech support lines was that, “I can’t register my program, because I have ComicBase <x> and the only option is the FREE version!”

The culprit is the “Check” button (indeed the very need for it). The Check button is there to cut down a very long list of possible products—many of which have very similar-sounding names—to just the list of valid products for that serial number. At the same time, it ensures that the user isn’t entering invalid or garbage data. While it’s performing a very important function, however, many users never think to press it, so the drop-down list is left showing just ComicBase FREE.

And they call tech support (bad) or just give up and don’t register (worse).

What’s the solution? It’s hard to say. There are any number of possible redesigns that solve all the process problems by making the dialog much larger, breaking the process into multiple steps, and so on—all of which can be worse than the original problem.

What breaks my heart as a designer is that there’s a fairly effective and reasonably elegant solution that gets used all the time on the desktop, but which is hard to implement in a multiple browser-supported way on the web: simply get rid of the Check button and do all your checking in real time as the user types (or when they exit the field).

If we could do this, then—like magic—the list would always have valid data in it. If we could further control the Save (err… I mean “Register”) button to be dimmed once the user started typing a serial number, but enabled it again once they finished typing a valid one, we’d have the whole thing worked out. As a bonus, we’d have lost an interface element in the process, adding to the overall flow of the already minimalistic design.

Perhaps at some point, I’ll get clever enough to work out an implementable solution like that. In the meanwhile, however, I’ve been forced to use the Mark of Shame for interface designers: Help Text:

(As a nod to interactivity, the help text disappears when the user enters a valid serial number and clicks Check (an “OK” appears next to the Check button to indicate that the serial # is valid and the product list visibly changes).

The redesign hasn’t been user-tested yet, but I’d be willing to wager that it largely—if inelegantly—solves this particular problem. Even so, this particular interface bug won’t really drop itself from my mental “to do” list. Guideline to all interface designers: whenever you solve an interface problem by adding instructions, you haven’t really solved the problem.

Using help text to paper over an interface problem like this is like the folks who tape red cellophane over their tail lights after a fender bender so that their brake lights once again appear red. Yes, this sort of Band-Aid approach handles the most urgent problem and prevents disaster, but you’re not really fooling anyone. Unless you’re planning on ditching the car (or program) soon, you’re going to have to eventually scrape enough resources together to solve the problem properly.