The Usability of Handbags

What do handbags have to do with technology?

Technology seems exotic, but it’s actually just another new object in our everyday lives. How handbags become part of our “everyday carry” is similar to how technology becomes part of our daily lives. In this series, I’ll examine first the “rational” part of handbags: how well they perform the job of “carrying my stuff.” In later posts, I’ll look at the “irrational” (some might say more human) aspects of choosing things that are really just a pain in the butt to use.

I have always loved luggage and leather goods of all sorts. My favorite gift of my entire childhood was a rattan-and-wood briefcase my aunt gave me when I was 10. I carried that thing to school every day for a year, after which it disintegrated. By the time I was in my 20s, I began an endless search for the “perfect bag.” This was challenging, mostly because I’m cheap but with expensive taste.

My pursuit got a lot easier when my husband began work at Bag, Borrow, or Steal, the handbag rental company (full disclosure: he no longer works there, but many of the links in this post are to BBOS). I was finally able to use as many handbags as I liked, of all sizes, shapes, and even prices. This post is based primarily on that unusual experience of having access to, and regular usage of, a wide variety of handbags. (edit: my second post is about the desirability of handbags).

The Usability of Handbags

Handbags are not just pretty but also workhorses of your “everyday carry.” They can be very expensive, so when you invest in a quality handbag, you want them to “just work.” I have high standards for valuable but good quality accessories, and how they work is one element I consider deeply.

I work as a user experience researcher, which means I help design and evaluate software and hardware products. Usability is a core tenet of quality technology products, and while I’m not a usability lab specialist, I have done my fair share of usability tests for desktop and mobile software, as well as hardware devices and voice-enabled agents like Alexa and Cortana.

I take this experience and apply to handbags, and boy, do you get a different kind of “handbag review.” Handbag reviews online are generally how pretty this thing is, how it looks upon first unboxing, or how rare or expensive the bag is. Rarely – if ever – do reviewers use the bag over a period of time, and evaluate its ease of use. I’ve broken down the key dimensions for what makes a “usable” handbag: Open-ability, Grab-ability, Search-ability, and Carry-ability. I debated including “security” but found its lack only applied to a few bags (I might revisit that).

Qualifying usability

In tech industry circles, usability can be measured in a lot of ways. I myself have used the System Usability Score (SUS) to systematically measure things like system complexity, intelligibility, and ease of use. But that doesn’t work for handbags because “complexity” is not really a problem for handbags. Worse, the SUS is a quantitative measure, which really just saps the beauty, experience, and all the bloody fun out of handbags.

So instead, I describe my Handbag Usability Themes (HUT) which you can use to qualitatively analyze any handbag you’re thinking of buying (or renting!). I can (and very well might) translate this into a Handbag Usability Scale (HUS) at some later date.

Open-ability

How easy is the bag to open? Some bags have complex screws or zippers, while others have no closure at all.  Hobos and totes are two examples of extremely easy to open; many simply have an open top, like this Mansur Gavriel tote. It is as simple as they come – just pull apart the handles.

But the open-ability of this Celine Trapeze bag is terrible. First, it has a clip that you have to turn, carefully¸ in order to open the bag. Then, in order to get the bag full open, you have to flip the cover off. This means that if you’re holding the handle, you will probably drop the bag. In this video of the Trapeze bag, you’ll see that it has to sit on a table to be fully opened. Avoid this like the plague!

 

Even the classics have Open-ability challenges. Opening this Hermes Kelly bag on the go is all but impossible. And what a shame. Just look at that beautiful bag!

I guess we should all “settle” for a Hermes Birkin instead, because of its dual handle design. Notice how the Birkin hangs on one handle when it’s open (incidentally, this a mouth-watering unboxing video of a new Birkin in the signature Hermes orange) .

 

Grab-ability

How easily can you pick up the bag? Grab-ability is the ease with which you can pick up the bag with one hand. Hard-to-grab bags have a combination of large size and long handles. An example of a hard to grab bag is my Jack Georges Alexis briefcase. Its long handles and large size make it quite challenging to pick up quickly. Note that I can easily grab my BCBG clutch with one hand.

This clutch from Alexander McQueen looks like it’s great for grabbing, but it actually has better Carry-ability. The signature bejeweled brass-knuckle handle is gorgeous, but gets in the way of a quick pick up (don’t get me wrong: this particular bag has been on my radar for a very, very long time; I love the look of this bag).

Carry-ability

Carry-ability refers to the comfort and ease with which you can carry the bag, particularly when it’s full. Carry-ability isn’t something you can fully evaluate until you use the bag for an extended period of time. But you should consider the length of the handles (short and long) and the weight of the bag.

Hobos and some totes are generally great for carrying because they are easy to slip over the shoulder. But be careful! Large bags can be filled with everything (like the notorious Louis Vuitton Never Full). Sometimes, you need to carry on your wrist, and here’s where hobos fall a bit short, like with this Balenciaga Sloane Hobo, which will probably break your wrist if you try this when it’s fully filled with your stuff.

Modern minimalist handbag maker Chiyome has two bags that are both high on Carry-ability: a tote and a shoulder bag. The one on the left can be slipped over the shoulder but also has good Grab-ability because of the short handle drop of the shoulder strap. The one of the right has good Carry-ability, but the straps are too long for grabbing. Both have hand holes (is that a word? It’s a strange design), but in practice they are not as “grabby” as handles).

German leathergoods company PB0110 has a shoulder bag that has both good Grab-ability and Carry-ability. The two handles help you grab the bag quickly and carry it for an extended period.

The weight of the bag is another aspect to Carry-ability. Notorious for this is the beautiful, amazing, God-I-have-always-loved-this bag, the small Sac du Jour by Saint Laurent. This bag has such gorgeous architecture (which helps with Search-ability, see below), and its classic design will never go out of style.

BUT, and this is a big but, the bag is heavy AF (2.6 lbs, totally empty). That weight, plus the lack of the a useful shoulder strap all but guarantees that you will find this bag low on Carry-ability.

Search-ability

This is probably the most annoying part of an unusable bag: never being able to find anything. Generally speaking, the larger the bag, the worse the search-ability.

Hobos are terrible for Search-ability because of their slouchy style and lack of architecture. The Mansur Graviel tote was so easy to carry, but it was basically a big empty sac, which made finding anything impossible.

Some handbag designers attempt to solve this by including built-in card slots, pen holders, and the like. Purses with built-in wallets are over-kill, however, because every time you change your bag, you must manually remove your cards and other items. A Search-able handbag allows for some organization, but not too much.

Pochettes are a good solution for a large-empty bag, like the one that came with my Celine Lefebure Alice bag.

 

In part two of the this series, I’ll review some of the bags I’ve had, and how usable they were, including Celine, Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton. I’ll also talk about why none of this usability seems to matter (emphasis on the “seems”) when people talk about the It Bag of the Season or the Bag That Got Away.

Why Machine Learning isn’t about machines

How will machine learning change us as a society? It’s now time to ask this question — before we start building products and services that have unintended consequences.

I wanted to start this blog post by referencing “the turn of the the last century.” I realized that would put me smack dab in the middle of the Y2K hysteria, and not in the birth of bureaucracy (whence such hysteria came).

No, we only know what the “turn of the century” means, many years in retrospect. Now, we can look back on the year 1900 and see quite clearly that its significance was the shift from idiosyncratic, family-run, and sometimes chaotic organizations toward professional management, and of course, bureaucracy.

It was hard to see while it was happening, but Max Weber saw it (perhaps that’s why he had a nervous breakdown). Weber saw that we had begun to run our businesses and governments with standardized rules, and standardized hierarchies. No longer could the boss’s son waltz in and tell everyone what to do, unless he had an actual job title. (Well, that was the idea anyway; we apparently still let the boss’s kids take jobs they’re not qualified for).

This was radically new and had huge implications for how we purchase, exchange, work, and live. Bureaucracy became the irrationally rational norm; rules were to be followed even if they made no sense.

Which brings me to machine learning. Machines can learn if we give them the tools to learn, and the data to help them practice. But they cannot see what Max Weber saw. Machines cannot know they are creating an irrational bureaucratic hellscape — and nor would they care. They are very good at things humans are bad at, namely, vigilance and repetitive tasks. We should let them do those things.

But we should not let machines make decisions about rules, about whether the boss’s son is qualified, or other culturally and socially important questions. At the turn of this century, we are making machines that can do all of those things, but we are not pausing to evaluate whether we should.

Historians like to say that the 19th century did not really end on the arbitrary date of December 31, 1899, but instead on the more auspicious and socially meaningful date of November 11, 1918. It was only then that humanity realized what its changes had wrought, what horrors we had invented, and that humans themselves must take responsibility for those changes. I would argue we need to do the same now, before an equally socially meaningful date in the future.

Why Cortana doesn’t work at work

Microsoft is betting that Cortana will bring AI to the workplace. Here’s why that won’t happen.

Cortana is an intelligent agent  that is supposed to act as a personal assistant. You can interact with her (notice I said “her”? More on that in a minute) via voice or text, on mobile devices or on desktop computers. Given that Microsoft’s mobile market share has fallen below 1%, it’s pretty much a certainty that most people would interact with Cortana in their offices.

We know that most Windows 10 computers are in workplaces, so there’s a very strong likelihood that people will talk to Cortana in an office. This is very different place than where people might interact with Siri on their phones, or Alexa in their homes. Siri and Alexa t are called upon in private, controlled places (in fact, just 3% of iOS users report using Siri in public).

Let’s walk through that interaction of Cortana as a member of a workplace.

Microsoft encourages you to command Cortana by saying, “Hey Cortana…” and then giving her a command. A typical office scenario might be, “I wonder if I should book a vacation for the first week of August. Hmm. I’ll ask Cortana.”

This is how Cortana is supposed to work:

User: Hey Cortana, should I book a vacation for the first week of August?

Cortana: Let me check your calendar. Looks like you have a meeting on Monday, August 1st. Should I move it for you?

User: Yes, that’d be great.

Cortana: Okay, I’ve moved that meeting to Monday August 8th. Would you like to see some vacation suggestions?

User: Yes, please!

This is exactly how it plays out on a demo video one Microsoft’s site.

But let’s face it: there are a lot of contextually dependent reasons why this is completely unrealistic. Leaving aside Cortana’s technical limitations for the moment (and there are many), let’s take a look at what a real office and real user might look like.

Most offices are either open concept without even the suggestion of walls. As many as 70% of us work in open concept offices. As anyone who’s worked in such an office can tell you, hearing a neighbor on the phone can be excruciatingly annoying or excruciatingly awkward, depending on your neighbor’s TMI quotient.

cortana

So there’s a good chance that everyone in the user’s office will hear this idealized scenario.  There are two clear disincentives against this happening. First, Cortana will make more “boundary work” for office workers. The mere act of trying to keep your private life private at work is turns out to be, well, work. Recent research  has found that keeping work and life private actually causes cognitive overload. If people use Cortana as intended, she is poised to make that much worse.

Second, Cortana demands office workers treat their workplaces as if they were kings and queens, instead of pawns and rooks. Voice interactions require workers to own their workspace, something that we know they do not do. Typical workers share their workspaces with others, and because we are apt social animals, we tend to comply with unwritten rules of workplace etiquette. Bosses’ calendars take precedence over workers’ calendars. Bosses talk more than workers. Men talk more than women. In other words, people with power talk out loud more than people with less power.

Which brings me to the fact that Cortana is a woman. Is it any coincidence that most intelligent agents today are anthropomorphized as women? One of the most striking changes in the twentieth century workplace was the almost total elimination of support staff, which were typically women. Only the most senior executives have assistants nowadays, and other mid-level white collar workers are on their own for scheduling  and administrative work.

cortana 02

Let’s not forget that Cortana is actually based on a supportive AI character in a video game. Cortana provides these workers with a sense that they can indeed recoup the times of Mad Men and have a compliant, supportive, and self-abnegating assistant who has no needs of her own. Practically, this promises white-collar workers with a huge productivity boost, but the symbolic nature of this is even more interesting. When white-collar workers have a virtual assistant, they have re-claimed a sense of hierarchy, of control, and power (even if it is completely imaginary).

And this is why Cortana will not work in the workplace. Today’s typical office worker does not have power enough to command the space around her, and bark orders to anyone out loud, even if just to an intelligent agent. This office worker has been stripped of her ability to occupy a rung on the ladder higher than admin or support staff, because there is no admin or support staff. This typical office worker is embedded in a physical space that reflects this lack of hierarchical position — she has no command over it.

Scholars of gender and technology have described some ill-advised approaches to gender equality as “add women and stir.” The same applies to Cortana and other intelligent agents. You cannot “add Cortana and stir” and expect to see productivity improvements that somehow negate the existing organizational and physical structures of contemporary workplaces.

 

Making hard choices

Over the holidays, I had a chance to reflect and consider my future. I found myself unsatisfied with my daily work. Somewhat serendipitously, I stumbled across a TED Talk from philosopher Ruth Chang. Chang helped me decide to leave Microsoft and take a job at Amazon. I start on Monday, January 25.

Dr. Chang’s research focuses on the nature of hard choices. She argues that hard choices are hard because we tend to try to resolve them by using quantitative techniques. For example, adding up all the pros and cons of each choice theoretically should indicate the superior choice. But it doesn’t, in practice, because human experience is not quantitative.

Instead, Chang tells us, we should see competing choices as “on par” or “in the same neighborhood” as each other. From there, how do you decide? Chang urges us, in all existentialist glory, to embrace a choice for what it represents. Choose a job that declares who you are, she says. Move to the country because you declare you are “for the country.” Make a decision that symbolizes the self you want to be. And embrace that hard choice!

So I have done exactly that. I am choosing to be urban (Amazon is a 40-minute walk from my home). I’m choosing to be a little bit chaotic. I’m choosing crazy unknowns (I have no idea what I’ll be working on). I’m choosing to jump with both feet.

I was not unhappy at Microsoft; I just wasn’t growing. So above all, I am declaring myself in favor of growth. I am choosing new.

DO you have a hard choice? Chang tells us to welcome it:

“Let us not resolve to work harder at being the selves we already are. Instead, let’s resolve to make ourselves into the selves we can commit to being.”