There seems to be growing momentum in the U.S. press about plastics, their risks to our health, and the lack of legislation around those risks. Within the past year, the NY Times has had a few really interesting articles. The first one was called The Unintended Consequences of Hyperhydration, and it was about the challenges facing law-makers around recycling bills for plastic water bottles. I knew we were experiencing a massive proliferation in the amount of bottled water Americans were drinking, but I had no idea how bad it had really gotten. More recently there was a CNN video called Garbage Island, which described a place in the Pacific where the currents have brought together an island of plastic that is two times the size of Texas. Small fish are eating the plastic as it melts together and then deteriorates, big fish eat smaller fish, and humans eat the big fish. Plastics have been linked to infertility, which is also running rampant in industrialized nations today. What a mess! What are we doing to ourselves?
All of this has formed the backdrop (for me) for some vague worries about different kinds of plastics and their impact on babies. For quite some time, I hadn’t found anything to substantiate my concerns. We bought Dr. Brown’s bottles because of their reputation for reducing baby gas. Because we knew there might be issues we were washing them by hand, but we also eventually realized that the bottles were still getting heated with the milk in them at daycare.
What finally put me over the edge was an interview with Michael Schapiro from NPR’s Fresh Air. My sister sent it to me, and I just couldn’t make the time to listen to it (it’s over 40 minutes long). When I finally got around to it, though, I was glad I did. Michael talks about all kinds of toxic chemicals that are permitted in a variety of products in the U.S.. He speaks about products like baby bottles and what health problems they have been linked to. It turns out that there are many toys, too, created with toxic plastics. The European Union has passed legislation banning those toys in the E.U., and laws ban the sale of them in China as well. But China still produces them for a large and ignorant consumer market – U.S. parents. I think the thing that really struck me is that the reason the E.U. has passed legislation is because their medicine is socialized, the state ultimately bears the costs of all the health woes that may result from plastics. Since the U.S. medical system is privatized (and corporations aren’t forced to indicate what type of plastic is being used in their products), we get all the discards from other markets. Unbelievable.
Michael also talked about the composition of polycarbonate (clear plastic) baby bottles, and specifically about Bisphenol A (BPA) that is found in them. A recent, U.S. commissioned study found that BPA has been linked to “neurologic and behavioral problems in fetuses, infants, and children”. You can read more about the study and which bottles to avoid on the Baby 411 website.
We have a bad water bottle habit that is going to be hard to kick, and apparently we can’t switch to Nalgene bottles because they are suspect too. But as a starting point, we’ve already gotten rid of all of our son’s plastic baby bottles. We’ve switched to a non-BPA brand called Newborn Free, and we’re doing everything we can to alert the other moms and moms-to-be that we know. The alternate bottle options aren’t cheap, but then the consequences of BPA aren’t worth the risk, either.
In the coming month or so, I will step down from the governing body of our intranet, the Portal Business Group (PBG). I helped formulate the concept of the group in 2003 and was one of its founding members. During my tenure I was responsible for representing the interests of a quarter of SAP’s employee base – ten thousand sales and marketing employees globally. From my point of view it has been one of the most successful virtual teams I’ve ever participated in, but after five years it is more than time for a change. Fortunately, one of the guys that worked for me had sat in for me during my maternity leave last year, and so I had a clear successor.
In May last year, I worked with my User Experience Manager to conceptualize and run an information architecture workshop for the PBG. Based on multiple user research studies and a lot of research on best practices, our work has led to a multi-year plan to redesign the corporate portal. It was great to bring our expertise to such a large scale effort! And then in January of this year, the Jakob Neilsen group announced that we had been recognized as a Top Ten Intranet based on our initial launch of the portal on the NetWeaver platform. With those two achievements, I feel that I have made a significant contribution to the organization, and I also feel that the value of my User Experience team is well understood across the multiple Board areas that are represented in the PBG. So I am definitely leaving on a high note, though with such a large, complex system, there is always more to be done.
There were a couple of people in IT who I have collaborated with since the launch of the corporate portal, and I felt it only right to let them know of my plans before announcing them more widely. So while Dirk was in the U.S. this week, I let him know that I would be stepping down in the coming weeks. He has been ready to make a change too, so we spent some time reminiscing, and then got to talking about what we hoped to do next.
Towards the end of our meeting, we got to talking about the Sonos music system that he wanted to buy and bring back to Germany. The Euro continues to gain against the dollar, so it seemed worth the trouble of getting it home on the plane. I had purchased a Sonos when they first came out, and couldn’t say enough good things about it. Prior to the Sonos I had been listening to my music through my home theater on two 400-CD jukeboxes. Although I was frustrated with the lag as the system switched CDs, I loved the shuffle feature by genre. I felt that my setup had transformed how I listened to music, and in fact enabled me to listen to a much more varied selection of music than I would have by selecting individual CDs.
But the jukeboxes were getting full, and I didn’t want to buy another one. We had moved from our small row house in the city to a larger house in the suburbs, and the home theater was not in the main room (family room / kitchen) where we spent most of our time. In addition, I was buying more and more of my music from iTunes, and I was having to burn one CD for the jukebox, and another for my car. It was time consuming, felt redundant, and I had a hard time keeping track of my new music. The Sonos has changed all that. I used the wireless network to position amplifiers and speakers on all three floors of the new house. I download music from iTunes to a network-attached storage device (NAS) and I can sync both my iPod and the Sonos system with the library. The playlist feature is easier and more powerful than the one in iTunes. And now I have an iPod jack in my car, so I don’t have to burn CDs at all. I can listen to new music in the house and in my car just as soon as it’s downloaded.
Dirk and I got to talking about user experience, then, and why it is so hard to bring that type of compelling, easy flowing experience into the enterprise. If we could launch a Project Delight, what would it accomplish, and how would it enable and entice our users? It’s a good question, and one that I continue to think about as my work at SAP grows and changes.