If someone cares enough to dislike our work, the best response is, “thank you.”

Thank you for taking the time to consider it, thank you for caring enough to let me know…
Seth Godin

… go and sit in the lounges of luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses. Sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns. Sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesque. In short, go and get the seat of your pants dirty in real research. Robert Park

In an ideal world I could split my days between “making” and collecting qualitative research data from observation and interviews.

Serious leisure

The sociologist Robert Stebbins identifies “serious leisure” activities as the most fulfilling: pursuits that require regular refinement of skills learned in earnest. Hobbies are declining, but a hobby is exactly the kind of activity that adds value to the weekend. Stamp collectors and basement inventors may not be cool, but they know the benefits of becoming fully immersed in an activity and losing track of time – that rejuvenating “flow” state.

A hobby is an activity undertaken purely for its own sake, but technology attempts to monetise it. A friend used to make beautiful earrings occasionally. Almost ritualistically, she would buy the beads, and carefully craft the small, coloured jewels in a quiet workspace. Then came Etsy. Now she makes beautiful earrings and sells them, ships them and manages this business along with a full-time job and a family. What was leisure became labour. The side hustle is a weekend thief, but in a time of stagnant incomes, many must choose income over time.

Even though she is exhausted and a little miserable, my friend is praised for her hard work. The Protestant mindset has a firm grip in the culture: live to work, not work to live. We get competitive about our busyness (“I stayed until 9pm!” “I stayed until 10pm!”) because it makes us look wanted and worthy – supply and demand. It is hard to shake the ingrained value that time must be utilitarian and occupied, which is why taking two days off can seem suspect, or a bit like failure.

I was just about to sit down and do some really unimportant work but I think I’ll go hang out with my son instead.

From Who Killed the Weekend?

Poor affordance

A TV remote at the Prince Edward Home

Most would recognize this remotes usage, though how you hold it correctly is often not as clear (infrared remotes need to be pointed towards the receiver), but to the aged and/or those with poor eye site these buttons don’t clearly indicate their function, so a hack is required. I wonder how much time was wasted helping people turn on the TV before some thoughtful nurse increased the label size.

The February report

I’m going to be updating the “what I am up to now” section sometime over the weekend but first I thought I might note the challenges over the past month. Here are the top three.

  • Volunteering. This was one of my goals for moving back home, volunteering my time with organizations that might be a good fit for my experience and in return, other than the satisfaction of helping others, having a greater connection to the community. Generally this has not worked out. My impression thus far is that you need to be as aggressive in finding a volunteer opportunity as you might a job (perhaps this is my inexperience showing), many of my emails have gone unanswered and PEI Newcomers in particular seem disinterested. It could also be that there may be no need for volunteers in the organizations of which I am familiar. What I have done instead is to connect to people on a more personal level and offer to help them as I can. This has worked on a couple occasions thus far.
  • I started this month in a Product Specialist role at the StartUp Zone. I do genuinely like helping people and sharing the successes and failures I have seen after 20 odd years of working within and with product centred organizations. What has become clear to me is that I have little interest in selling myself or design research in general to people resistant to such topics. My current interest is not consulting and the amount of time that is required of each meeting not financially viable. So I suspect I’ll be changing the nature of this relationship going forward.
  • Instead of writing a new workshop this month on what would have amounted to covering part of a design thinking process, I hauled out an old talk on another topic. The rationale was to test the waters and see if there is an appetite for such things – when you ask new business owners what areas they would like covered invariably they bring up Facebook ads, boosting Instagram followers and some such. I didn’t want to spend a week on a 90 minute workshop only to have people show complete disinterest. What I asked of Startup Zone was a sample group of people, maybe 6 – 8, representing the community at large so that we could have a small intimate presentation and a talk about experience design. My mistake was not communicating this clearly, as it became something more than I planned. Despite some hiccups, my clicker battery was dead, I did manage to learn a great deal and the next one will be all the better for it.

One last challenge. I don’t know if it’s reverse culture shock, the terrible weather, or a lack of sleep but I’ve found that my conversations and writing have been taking on an increasingly negative tone of late. I always considered it a normal part of January, but that was when we lived in a region with little in the way of winter. I think the immediate fix to this is more exercise (I haven’t trained in months), more time talking with my wife, and less time stuck alone in my cubicle.

Punishment for laziness

Charlottetown is a small place and none of the 3 parkades more than a 7-10 minute walk from anything in the downtown. But a parking spot right outside the office is hard to pass up on these cold days, so when I saw one available this AM I grabbed it immediately. I had just enough change for the meter to allow me to run to the bank to get cash (resulting in paying their exorbitant fee), run to a couple businesses begging for change, and then top up the meter. Naturally, I lost track of time and missed the meter expired time by about 3 minutes. The guy in charge of writing tickets was much more punctual.

Happy 13th

This past Wednesday was my son Camren’s 13th birthday. As per tradition the day started with pancakes and ended with cake. Gone are the homemade special cakes with seemingly massive amounts of chocolate on top. That tradition has been temporarily replaced with an ice cream from DQ, but will likely return in the future.

I’m pretty proud of his ability to adapt to life in this foreign land, and looking forward to watching as he develops into the interesting man he is sure to become.

“User” is a catchall and ultimately a mean-nothing word. It reflects
a technology-centric, rather than a people-centric, view of the Web.
To call someone a user is largely meaningless…The phrase “user-friendly” should never have had to be invented. It implies that technology is inherently hostile and that a new discipline — usability — had to be invented to make it friendlier. After all, we don’t refer to cars as “driver-friendly.” We don’t refer to bicycles as “cyclist-friendly.”
We don’t refer to chairs as “bum-friendly.”
Gerry McGovern, gerrymcgovern.com

Lunch and learn

I’m hosting a “lunch and learn” this Thursday at the StartUp Zone. This is the first talk I’ve held in Canada, and I think the first time I’ve given a presentation in front of an English as a first language audience.

Design talks are generally poorly attended in Charlottetown, so this is a low key trial run, a “user test”, to see if abstract topics like this are of any interest to the StartUp Zone community.

As such I am only looking for a handful of people to attend, 6 – 8 being ideal, which sadly is usually the number of people who attend the design meetups I have been to. At the end of the talk I’ll ask for some open ended feedback and the participants will be compensated with lunch.

The talk description:

Experience is the new Product.

Goods and services are no longer enough. In a world saturated with largely undifferentiated goods and services, the greatest opportunity for value creation is in the staging of experiences.

This in-house Lunch & Learn is a condensed version of a workshop that I have given over the past 15 years. We will take a deep dive into having a more fundamental understanding of experience, impress the need to be sensitive to time (time is the currency of experience), and introduce a simple method for analyzing experiences in the hope that it can influence future and current product development, and deepen understanding of experience itself.

That first paragraph is a direct grab from one of Joseph Pines books, which along with Nathan Shedroff, Don Norman, and many more, form the basis of the ideas contained within.

The last time I gave this talk it lasted almost 3 hours, so I have thus far deleted about 2 thirds of the slides – mostly bits about emotional design, mental models and such – topics which I assume few really want to talk about.

There is a good chance it will bomb, but I’m enjoying spending the day revisiting an old topic and seeing it through older myopic eyes.

Why walking helps us think

What is it about walking, in particular, that makes it so amenable to thinking and writing? The answer begins with changes to our chemistry. When we go for a walk, the heart pumps faster, circulating more blood and oxygen not just to the muscles but to all the organs—including the brain. Many experiments have shown that after or during exercise, even very mild exertion, people perform better on tests of memory and attention. Walking on a regular basis also promotes new connections between brain cells, staves off the usual withering of brain tissue that comes with age, increases the volume of the hippocampus (a brain region crucial for memory), and elevates levels of molecules that both stimulate the growth of new neurons and transmit messages between them.

Any work that requires a problem solved or a touch of creativity is more often than not solved when I am on my feet. At one job, I used to slyly punch the clock, or in this case give a thumb print, and then go for a long one hour run where I would solve (or attempt to) the problems of the day. I tried to involve colleagues in this habit, under the guise of coming up with new product ideas, but for some reason running 10k first thing in the morning was not attractive to many. At another company, since were in the R&D department we had the luxury of a late start to our work day (9AM). This meant that I had a few hours to be mired in all kinds of problems, and the lunch hour to repeatedly walk around the block trying to solve them.

Sitting at a desk typing at a computer for an extended length of time is like death to me. It’s a place for production, more than anything else.

Why walking helps us think

Just make

From a book called Art and Fear, but I’m sure I have read it quoted in a number of other books and articles:

The ceramics teacher announced he was dividing his class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio would begraded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right graded solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an A, 40 pounds a B, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an A.

Well, come grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity!

It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

This story, for better or worse, encapsulates my approach to many different things. Making something (a prototype, a MVP, or a “1st version”) creates the opportunity for learning that sitting around a table debating does not. It won’t be perfect but it will teach you something and give you an artefact which you can use when you continue talking to users. You’ll also get some feedback, some insight on how building your product can be better and you’ll do a better job the second, third, and forth (etc.) time around.

Making is far more fun than planning.

Monster mash

I’m sure these came to me from weChat or Line, or perhaps something I saw at Eslite book store, but this is how I spent my morning today – at least that period sandwiched between getting the kids out the door and preparing for a noon time meeting. I created many others but I’m most partial to the color of these.

I think it’s always wise to take a break from the monotony of whatever you do, and create something new; especially if that something new utilizes a nascent skill. At the very least it’s more enjoyable way to procrastinate, than say cleaning the house.

Enabling Empathy

Through her talk, Indi Young explains how we must ask and listen more as a means to get past our assumptions. Absorbing eclectic ideas, understanding varied work patterns and incorporating different ways of thinking will help broader ideas sprout. She categorizes Empathy into Emotional and Cognitive Empathy, giving us examples of both.

I’m hoping to take Indi’s advanced training series but thus far the ~$800US cost is prohibitive; at least in the context that the skills may not be directly applicable to what I will do in this part of the world.

A blog is like exhaling

A somewhat meta discussion about blogs, back in 2006, which feels like a long time ago:

One of the most delicious things about the profoundly parasitical world of blogs is that you don’t have to have anything much to say. Or you just have to have a little tiny thing to say. You just might want to say hello. I’m here. And by the way. On the other hand. Nevertheless. Did you see this? Whatever. A blog is sort of like an exhale. What you hope is that whatever you’re saying is true for about as long as you’re saying it. Even if it’s not much.

I often don’t have much to say, or lack the ability to state what I would like to say, which might partially explain why I have kept this project alive for over 20 years; blogs exist for people like me.

What I am up to now

Following in the foot steps of Peter, and others, I’ve created a what I am up to now page which is linked to on the right (if you are on a PC) or on the about page.

I think Peter described it as “Think of what you’d tell a friend you hadn’t seen in a year”, but for me if that was the case I would limit it to a few sentences. So in addition, I think of it as an experiment to both keep myself honest by publicly declaring what I plan to do month by month, at least in a general big picture sense, and inspired by Hello Code’s business stats, being far more open about the activities I choose to do. Being open, or sharing what I do is something I’ve always had problems with – it reached a point that at one time my wife couldn’t even describe what I did all day (to be honest I had a hard time describing it too). Hopefully this page will over time help with this.

Camren and Barrack

This likely one of my favourite videos I have of Camren. His language skills developed later than what we might have expected which produced some pretty cute (and sometimes difficult) moments during the first couple of years.

Farmers market in winter

I find the Charlottetown Farmers Market far more enjoyable in winter, as the crowds are smaller, and the line up shorter. I still believe that it should be 3x the size it is now but perhaps that might in some way make it less personable.

My Saturdays used to be about a long run – an hour or more on my feet. Now I spend an equivalent amount of time at the market sitting, drinking cheap coffee, and eating delicious sweets. I need to learn to combine these 2 activities – what better way to end a long run than with blueberry sweets.

Smartphones need a warning label

“Like 99% of the value that people actually get out of Facebook, if you put distraction aside, probably requires 20 minutes on Sunday.”

Perhaps as a byproduct of my age and the realization that time is not infinite, I’ve often thought about what value I get from certain activities. I still waste too much time on task avoidance, but with the exception of checking Twitter for Island related news, I spend far less time than ever before one (anti-)social media. My guilty pleasure is looking at puppy videos on Instagram in the evening, which has the positive effect of ending the day with a smile or laugh.

There’s a rarefied number of activities to invest time in that are really important and return a lot of value—the amount of value [in these activities] is way higher than, say, the little bit of value you get by seeing a funny Tweet or writing a comment on a friend’s Facebook post. Spreading your time and attention over these low value things takes your time and attention away from the things that are disproportionately higher value.

If you want to maximize the amount of value you feel in your life, the mathematics are clear: You want to put as much of your time and effort as possible into the small number of things to give you these huge rewards. When you think about it that way, fear of missing out looks like, just mathematically speaking, a really bad strategy.

I’ve ordered his book Digital Minimalism to gain more insights into the techno-exhaustion that plagues our always-on, digitally caffeinated culture.

Cal Newport on Why We’ll Look Back at Our Smartphones Like Cigarettes. See also Cal Newport: Why you should quit social media

Somehow, we must find again our sense of individual values, lost in this century of enormous technological advance. This very freedom that mechanical aids are giving us has welded us into unmanageable megalopolises, where people are anonymous numbers and where communication with our fellow man seems a minus quantity. We must restore the warmth and spirit we had in the smaller community. I hope that in our leisure time we will once again know our neighbor — and, if everyone knows his neighbor and learns to live with him, the entire world will be at peace.
Henry Dreyfuss, Designing for People [Dreyfuss 1955, p. 261]

Preventing the iPhone screen from dimming

I’ve rewritten the audio player for the iPhone app that I developed 4 times before settling on the current implementation. Playing audio with Swift has many working examples to choose from and at the most basic level is easy even for me to implement. But streaming and caching audio was a bit outside of my range of capabilities at the time, so I used an open source library to fill the requirements.

Unfortunately, the framework I am relying upon does not allow for repeating audio if the screen of the device goes to sleep. A rather serious limitation as far as the user is concerned.

I’ve been sitting on this bug for over a month and today I, after doing all the possible household chores imaginable, decided to sit down and once again to try and attempt a fix. Unfortunately no easy fix was forthcoming, except this rather inelegant hack:

UIApplication.shared.isIdleTimerDisabled = true

This essentially prevents the screen from dimming and going to sleep. That solves the problem, and would be fine if this was an alarm clock app., but not fine when you are trying the escape the glow of a device in the bedroom.

This method also breaks down if the app for some reason is placed in the background, which will require a whole other set of digging for answers.

Office Ergonomics in 2019

Carrie Jones has written a well thought out article on her hopes for a shift from reactive to proactive ergonomic strategies in the workspace.

How many who work in an office environment, receive training on the hazards of prolonged sitting or on the optimal placement of the monitor when they start at a new job? How many are shown the features of the chair they were provided with and how to adjust it and why? My guess is not many. If any. More typically, one has to wait until they are experiencing symptoms (i.e. until after they’re injured) and even then it can be somewhat like pulling teeth. Some companies will require that an employee provide a ‘doctor’s note’ before they can obtain an ergonomic consult. Do companies require a doctor’s note in order to be fit for their fall arrest equipment or be trained on how to safely use a forklift?

I think we all experience the side effects from poorly thought out workspaces – in the spirit of fairness and efficiency we are all stuck with the same height desks, cheep chairs, and etc. Outside of smaller start-ups, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a company give much thought to office ergonomics. This is something we all should focus more of our attention on, especially more aged workers such as myself, who require more time to heal from long or short term stresses to the body.

Looking forward to Office Ergonomics in 2019

Web Complexity

Every time I attend a developers meetup in Charlottetown I am inspired by their efforts to manipulate machines and wrought by headaches at how complex creating simple websites seems to have become; at least compared to the days when I got started. These meetups often give you the opportunity to view source, the key means by which most of us used to use to learn. It reminds me again of the essay by Frank Chimero, Everything Easy Is Hard Again:

Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.

I’m not insinuating that the developers at these events write inelegant code, but that all the complexity they are knee deep in used to be the purview of people writing code to manipulate data, not display mark-up.

This blog, thanks to WordPress gobbly-gook, and my own laziness suffers from code complexity, as do far too many local websites I’ve seen created by the multitude of marketing agencies here on PEI. You would have to have an almost religious conviction to abandon the ease of WordPress, all its repugnant plugins and themes, to create simple lightweight websites.

My good friend Chientai and I used to be believers, but I left the faith to focus completely on user experience. He now has a mountain farm and promotes permaculture.

I have a number of web projects on the horizon and I hope I have the time and patience to develop it with code readability in mind – it shouldn’t be that difficult to create a simple, responsive layout with nicely set text.

Escaping Evernote: Managing Bills

One of my use cases for Evernote is the capturing of bill paid receipts, most of which consist of a simple on screen confirmation without a paper trail, digital or otherwise. It’s only purpose is to safeguard against the possibility of error on the bill collector’s side – I still get payment due notices from my daughters CrossFit classes long after the bill has been paid. Credit card records don’t include the bill paid confirmation number.

Peter Rukavina details how he emancipated himself from using Evernote to manage his household and office bills. It’s a bit technical in nature, but if your workflow is anything like his it might be a good way to help you escape from the sinking ship that Evernote has become.