A couple of stories from the Consumerist

Is Sylvester Stallone Taking Over Your TV?” – anecdotal suggestion that some digital video recorders may be attempting to ‘push’ certain movie franchises in the run-up to release by recording (unrequested) previous titles in a series, or with the same actors.

Well, this is totally impossible to confirm, but we just got a complaint from a reader saying that their DVR was recording Sylvester Stallone movies all on its own. They think this might be some sort of sly promotion tied into the new Rocky movie. Is this happening to anyone else, or do these people have a possessed DVR?

And from the comments:

I have Time Warner in NYC as well, and a month ago Bond movies started automatically queuing up. I thought it was a fluke, but that was right when Casino Royale was hitting wasn’t it? I’m the only person who touches my DVR, so it wasn’t a prank.


Also, in a similar vein to my earlier post on the price structures of ticketing systems, Consumerist reports on US Postal Service stamp vending machines, which require a minimum purchase of $1 (it’s suggested that this is in violation of Visa’s merchant agreements).

While minimum purchase amounts for credit card use are fairly common, (especially with smaller businesses, due to the transaction fees charged by the card company) when a minimum price is imposed on a system such as this stamp vending machine – and only made clear to the user after he or she has already selected the desired item – the practice seems somewhat sneaky. Many people who use a stamp vending machine will do so since they are in a rush, need to send that item of mail, and haven’t got time to wait in a queue. If you only wanted a 39 cent stamp, you’re forced to pay an additional 61 cents (more, in fact, since the stamp face values don’t add up to exactly $1) just to accomplish what you set out to do.

Still, you do get the extra stamp(s) you were ‘forced’ to buy, and at least they don’t go out of date or expire like a bus ticket or a parking ticket.

How much are bored eyeballs really worth?

Putfile system requires users to click-through 10 pages of ads

We’ve discussed deliberately splitting up articles to increase page views before – inspired by Jason Kottke – with some very insightful comments, but the technique used by the free file-hosting site Putfile goes way beyond simply inconveniencing the user.

Most free hosting sites require multiple clicks, or a minute’s wait before you can actually download the file you want, but Putfile requires you to click through 10 pages before actually reaching the link to the file (it’s not obvious how to hack it: the filenames change each time).

What makes it rather odd is that the adverts displayed on each of the 10 pages are identical – the same text ads for the same things, in the same order. Am I really more likely to click on one after having looked at multiple instances of it? How positive an incentive is being frustrated?

(It’s possible that the 10 page click-through might be intended to reduce bandwidth use somehow, as if a significant proportion of users will get bored and give up before actually downloading the file. But if users get that bored and antagonistic towards Putfile, they’ll be less likely to click on Putfile links in the future, which means less ad views.)

No sliding

Handrail spikes at Highbury & Islington station, London
Handrail spikes at Highbury & Islington station, London

These spikes are embedded every couple of feet in the hand-rails of a staircase at Highbury & Islington station in London, presumably to prevent kids (or adults) sliding down them. They’re not especially sharp, but would bruise someone pretty badly.

Note that there are also additional stainless steel hand-rails – this staircase may have replaced an escalator, and the rubberised rails may be the original escalator ones, with the spikes added much more recently.

The fight back: loyalty card subversion

J Sainsbury, Colliers Wood. This photo's been used before on the blog

It’s inevitable that for every attempt to cajole or impose control on users, there will be some people who seek to avoid or circumvent it. As Crosbie Fitch put it in a recent comment, “humans are designed to explore the parameters of their environment and to adapt to them”.

Supermarket loyalty cards are an interesting example of this. Whilst not a rigid method of control – more a method of persuasion – their ubiquity and fairly clear agenda make them common target for intentional avoidance, or subversion. For every person who hasn’t signed up out of just-not-being-bothered, there is probably at least one who doesn’t trust what will happen to his or her data, even if it’s only a vague feeling of unease. And there is a small segment of customers who will (admirably) attempt to manipulate the system, either for their own gain, or simply out of an inquisitive or rebellious spirit.

Image from Cockeyed.comImage from Cockeyed.com

Rob Cockerham’s ‘Ultimate Shopper’ is one of the most famous (and apparently successful) ‘white hat’ attempts to subvert a loyalty card system: Rob replicated the barcode (scanned by the cashier) from his Safeway Club card, and sent out dozens of copies of it to friends and readers of his website, with the aim of creating an ‘interesting’ customer profile on Safeway’s system: one who bought vast quantities of products each month, right across the country:

I want to take the credit for all of my shopping, and for your shopping too!

Anyone who does this will be lumping their shopping data together with mine. Together we might amass a profile of the single greatest shopper in the history of mankind.

You will still get club card savings, but you will miss out on the odd promotions they have from time to time. Actually, some promotions are awarded at the register, so you may continue to benefit from those, although the rewards will be utterly unpredictable.

Actually cloning the data on the magnetic strip, to create a more foolproof (and less detectable) set of cloned cards, would be another step. Depending on the structure of the supermarket’s loyalty scheme, there may well be thresholds above which the ‘rewards’ for customers increase substantially, and assuming the participants in the cloning scheme can work out a fair or acceptable way to share their rewards, this could mean greater benefits for all of them than actually using their cards individually.

An alternative scheme is Rob Carlson’s ‘Giant BonusCard Swap Meet‘ where card-holders from Giant (“a large supermarket chain in the Baltimore/DC area”) swap details with other card-holders in order to give themselves more privacy – from a 2003 article:

Carlson’s site works like this: You enter your Giant card number on a form. It puts this number into a pool of numbers gathered from participants. Drawing from this pool, it displays for each visitor a bar-code replica of someone else’s number, allowing the visitor to print it out and tape onto his or her own card. Should you actually take the time to do this and then visit the local Giant to use this card, you are, to Giant, someone else. If enough people do this, the argument goes, Giant’s shopper profiles are rendered muddied and ultimately useless.

A Wired article from 2003 on Rob Cockerham and Rob Carlson’s projects.

Are there other similar examples?

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Creating false memories

Interactive camera demo from Corporate Communications, Inc
An interactive camera demo from Corporate Communications, Inc.

Clive Thompson writes about some interesting research [PDF] by Ann Schlosser at the University of Washington into how the use of interactive product demonstrations on websites can produce “false memories” of product capabilities, compared with more conventional static presentation of features (the example is a camera):

Later, she tested them on their ability to recall details about the camera. She intentionally included details that were false, but sufficiently plausible that they might have been true. The result? The people who viewed the interactive demo of the camera were much more likely than the folks who’d only viewed static images to “remember” the false details as being present. Or another way of putting it: The interactive demo was more likely to produce false memories of the product — potential buyers who thought the camera could do things it can’t.

Why? Schlosser theorises that it’s partly because interactivity encourages more “certainty” in our memories, and thus increases the likelihood that we’ll believe suggestively false details to be true.

As Clive goes on to mention, it’s worth considering how much this kind of effect could be to companies’ benefit if customers make purchasing decisions as a result of believing a product is better or has more features than it really does. Is it possible to use the tactic deliberately? Is this done? Can it be called unethical? Is the possible “experience overload” of an interactive demo similar to, say, an over-enthusiastic salesperson talking nine-to-the-dozen and concatenating feature lists into a stream of impressive-sounding non-sequiturs?

Will consumers, in fact, ever let on that they’ve noticed the product they bought doesn’t necessarily have all the features they assumed it did? Or will they assume (correctly, in fact) that they must have made a mistake?

We all know, I’m sure, that most people blame themselves for mistakes made when using (or choosing) technology*. Mark at Another Useful Blog tackles this very well in relation to the design of armrests on the Metro-North and Long Island trains in New York, which consistently damage passengers’ clothes by getting caught in pockets, etc:

“You feel more like an idiot than anything … But then you realize, they could have designed it better.”

The first part of that statement hints at another reason why users may not complain about badly designed interfaces: they simply do not perceive a problem as being caused by bad design. Instead, they attribute the error to their own assumed incompetence. This behaviour can also be witnessed during some empirical usability tests… users think that the problem lies within themselves…

In particular, this whole area reminds me of a quote from Lee Iacocca:

Remember this: Anybody who ever buys anything – a house, a car, or stocks and bonds – will rationalise his purchase for a few weeks, even if he made a mistake.

*Sticking briefly with the camera example – if users remember the word “Zoom” from the demo, and remember seeing an image zooming in, and becoming more detailed, they might perhaps misremember that as an “optical zoom” even if in reality it is only a low-quality “digital zoom”. If you’re interested in cameras, you’d probably be checking whether it had an optical zoom in the first place, but otherwise, what you will remember is that the camera has “Zoom”.

BBC report on Gowers Report reads like a press release

They’ve got quotes from the BPI, AIM, FACT and the Alliance Against IP Theft, but nothing from the Open Rights Group or anyone else offering any counter-view. I wonder why, and I wonder if the BBC will update or alter the article at any point. Newssniffer’s Revisionista will let us know.

Still, I can rest easy in my bed tonight knowing that those vicious pirates will be facing a tough legal crackdown to stop them copying data. Apparently, it’s also possible to legislate that pi=3.