I spent an hour observing the Glossier flagship store as an information space.

I’ll be honest, for a long time I thought the millennial-favorite cosmetic brand Glossier’s flagship in NYC was invite-only. I’d seen the NYC showroom’s pale pink, the enticingly instagramable interior on the feeds of Instagram influencers. It was so lavish in comparison to a Sephora or Ulta; I didn’t think they’d let the public pour in. This changed once I saw the now ubiquitous plastic pink bag and bubble-wrapped pouches in the hands of the masses on the 4 train. My manufactured mystique around the showroom’s accessibility made Glossier a perfect information environment subject to observe.

Putting an ecommerce gloss on retail

Glossier’s part of a new class of neoliberal disruptors in the retail space for women. They use a social-conscious capitalist model: A body-positive, female empowerment brand that turns buying cosmetics into an act of resisting the patriarchy. Glossier’s picture-perfect showroom is an information environment similar to other retail brands that started as direct-to-consumer companies with NYC flagships, like Casper or Away. Their idea is to bring their recreate their beloved e-commerce experience in person.

An empty flagship via WWD.com

Once the doorman swings open the door on Lafayette street, you’re confronted with a pink-velvet cavernous staircase (I had to inquire about wheelchair accessibility, as an alternative to the stairs was not easily discoverable) that leads to a large, open-concept space with mirror-lined walls and more shades of pink decor. The crowd was large and surprisingly young. Mobs of girls no older than 14 painting their faces in such a plush setting; like a child trying on lipstick in mom’s bathroom.

Mascara as information

At Glossier, the information, or products, are extremely inviting. Unlike Sephora where the products are in high display cases at an angle, Glossier’s information lays flat on low-lying tables. The many tables have ridges that signify they can be picked up, and where to place them after. Also on the table are testing materials that make the products try-able for the masses. Cups filled with bite-size mascara wands, eyeshadow brushes, and eyeliner sticks are key signifiers that green-light trying the information. The products on the tables themselves are missing their application tools so the users must use a sample-size wand or brush to access the product. In other makeup stores like Sephora, or even the counter at Saks, I’ve never seen a testing product manipulated it such a way. Wouldn’t the users want to see the product in its entirety before using? Isn’t setting out the disposable application tools clear enough? Apparently, it’s not clear and can be a real hygienic concern. Glossier’s limited product testing design method is more user-centric than I thought.

Get in the groove: Try the products at Glossier

In the “wet room”, users can test the products with one of the many sinks that line the walls. When I took a peek, no one was full-on washing their face. A couple of giggling girls were taking a picture of the moisturizer. I asked an employee, Glossier’s information intermediaries, and she said people are a little tentative to lather up in-store. However, once someone takes the plunge, others follow. I’m familiar with this herding mentality from the behavioral economics book Nudge. This was a clear indication that within information environments, social norms can often serve as a barrier to access.

Cosmetic tech

Glossier information intermediary with iPad

Once you find a product you like, purchasing requires face-to-face contact with one of the intermediaries. Glossier is set-up like Apple’s genius bar, except the geniuses holding iPads specialize in makeup and skincare and adorn baby pink jumpsuits. The pink intermediaries are extremely friendly, but don’t overstep; I observed most of them smiling along the outer rim of the floor. Users went to them only when needed, dissimilar to the constant “can I help you find anything” at other retail spaces.

Glossier’s checkout system reminds me of a gas station in New Jersey; You can really do it yourself, but they won’t let you. A Glossier employee will scan your products with the iPad and then have you enter in all your information. On the interface, it has a place to enter a promo code, but I heard an employee tell the users they had to purchase the items online if they wanted to use the promo code. They could still pick up their products today, but downstairs where the other online pick-up orders are sent. I’m sure there’s a technological back-end reason for this promo process, but why include the promo line in the in-person checkout, to begin with?

Conveyor belt via Yelp

An info show

Once you’ve purchased your products with Apple technology in the hands of an intermediary, the pick-up process becomes kind of clunky. You’re told to wait in the waiting room, where there are more jumpsuit-fitted employees behind a counter with a vertical conveyor belt on the wall. A horde of people is anxiously awaiting one of the pink jumpsuits to grab their pink bag from the conveyor belt and call out their name. After witnessing the iPad and conveyor belt, it seemed so odd their process of delivery was to scream a name out, instead of implementing an arrival screen, like at an Airport. The employee had to continual repeat names, and to be completely honest, did not seem thrilled about it. The conveyor belt was a slow process and visually interesting. However, I wasn’t able to capture my own video as one of the intermediaries shouted “no photos.” I had to wonder if employee agency conflicts with the designed space; I just don’t see another reason for the expensive conveyor belt display but for social media fodder.

While there are some design hiccups, I think Glossier did a fair job of turning their seamless ecommence interface into a IRL retail space. I didn’t originally view the information environment as accessible, so upon entry, I was pleasantly surprised by the user-centric design.


Buckland, M. (1991). Information as Thing. Journal of the American Society for Information Science. Jun1991, Vol. 42 Issue 5, p351-360. 10p.

Norman, D. A. (1990). The design of everyday things. New York: Doubleday. 

Thaler, Richard H.,Sunstein, Cass R. (2008) Nudge :improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness New Haven : Yale University Press,

Event NYC Data School: Can open contracting hold smart cities accountable?

The panelists (from left): Greg Jordan-Detamore (Sunlight Foundation), Katya Abazajian, (Sunlight Foundation), Paul Rothman, (NYC Mayor’s Office), Zack Brisson (Reboot)

On a Saturday in March during NYC’s Open Data Week, NYC School of Data hosted their annual community conference to “demystify the policies and practices around civic data, technology, and service design.” With my BA in Geography, experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA, and current status as a Pratt IXD student, it’s not surprising I found myself drawn to a session entitled, “Can open contracting hold smart-cities accountable?”

On the 7th anniversary of NYC passing the Open Data Law, the hour-long discussion brought together 4 panelists: Zack Brisson, Principal at Reboot; Katya Abazajian, Open Cities Director at Sunlight Foundation;  Paul Rothman, Senior Product Manager at NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer and Greg Jordan-Detamore at the Sunlight Foundation.

I’ll reflect on the event in hopes to continue the conversation on transparency and accountability in government tech, particularly smart-city technologies, amidst the rising tide of surveillance capitalism.

via Vecteezy

Who builds smart cities?

Upon opening the panel, Mr. Jordan-Detamore of Sunlight Foundation explained regulating, or even discussing the regulation of, smart-cities is difficult because the term is a broad buzzword with no real definition. For the purpose of the discussion, the panelists clarified their meaning of smart-cities as “urban centers being used to collect data and then things being done with that data for some purpose.” Admittedly still pretty broad, but somewhere to start!

The panel really focused on the relationship between those who make the actual technology, and the governments who purchase them. Smart city technologies are built by private technology corporations, or vendors, like Google, but once the city begins using them, it’s often unclear who owns the resulting data. The speakers explained the reason cities purchase technology from private corporations is pretty obvious: Governments often lack the organizational infrastructure and internal expertise to build on their own (remember Seattle’s failed independent bike-share). One panelist asked, “I mean, how great would it be if your city’s government was as efficient as Amazon?”

The government-vendor relationship

Early on, the panelists underscored the imbalanced relationship between the government and corporate entities who enter into smart city technology contracts. Governments looking to procure a product “never really have the upper hand,” explained Abazajian from the Sunlight Foundation, as they don’t have the same technological expertise. The Sunlight Foundation’s Jordan-Detamore stressed that governments, especially smaller municipalities without the infrastructure of, say a Boston, are especially vulnerable of being swindled by the shininess of Silicon Valley.

While watching an episode of VICE News Tonight a week after the panel, I saw the disastrous potential of manipulative contracting in the town of Jackson, Mississippi. The manufacturing conglomerate Siemens sold 65,000 water “smart meters” to the city for $90 million dollars in 2013. Fast forward to 2019: the water meters don’t actually work and started a billing crisis that has grown into the city’s $25 million debt. About the dynamic between the city and Siemens, Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba told VICE News, “It’s akin to someone selling you the most expensive car that they have on the lot, and understanding at the time that they’re selling it to you that you can’t afford to buy it; you don’t understand how to operate it, but if they can get you to purchase it, they will.”

Via piktochart

Behind closed contracts

There’s a lot of cloudiness around the ethics of smart city technologies because their contracts are, more often than not, closed. Closed contracts that limit the details to the public are the norm, and tech companies want to keep it that way. Before this panel, I (slightly embarrassingly) had no idea there was even an option of opening them.

Abazajian explains, “vendors make the argument their proprietary technologies warrant a closed contract, but in reality, they don’t need to be.” There’s a broad range of contract data that’s not sensitive, not private, and not proprietary. Lack of transparency in contracts was unanimously cited as a major issue in protecting civil liberties by the panelists.

Would an open contract have saved Jackson, Mississippi? Via CC.

Advocating for open contracts

The panelists from the Sunlight Foundation explained their new open contract initiative, which helps city governments open the process of procuring smart city technologies. On a functional level, opening a contract means giving the public access to smart-city contract data in a standardized way, so advocates and other community members can see how public money is spent.

Sunlight Foundation operates under the notion that the public should be involved in the rollout of smart city technologies from the start because they are the major stakeholders. A vendor should not be able to come in and “trample the public’s right to information,” one panelist quickly quipped. “Open contracting creates feedback loops”, explains Brisson, which “helps infuse community input into the plan.”

While watching the segment on Jackson’s water bill crisis, I couldn’t stop wondering what would have happened if the contract was public to begin with. Public outcry could have halted the overly ambitious and exploitative plan that sunk the small town into massive debt.


A $90 million “smart” system has totally screwed up these residents’ water bills – VICE News. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://news.vice.com/en_us/article/vbw8qy/a-dollar90-million-smart-system-has-totally-screwed-up-these-residents-water-bills

Naughton, J. (2019, January 20). “The goal is to automate us”: welcome to the age of surveillance capitalism. The Observer. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2019/jan/20/shoshana-zuboff-age-of-surveillance-capitalism-google-facebook

There Is No Such Thing as a Smart City – The Atlantic. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/02/stupid-cities/553052/

Why good policies go wrong: Seattle’s botched bikeshare model | Apolitical. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2019, from https://apolitical.co/solution_article/good-policies-go-wrong-seattles-botched-bikeshare-model/