Ethics yes, politics no

All voice assistants encourage only one relationship dynamic — the servile companion: Always there for you, empathetic, cheerful, like a friend. But equally ready at all times to take orders and carrying out tasks, like a servant. It is no accident that the personality of the servile companion is enacted by a female voice — society is intimately familiar with women as casual servants in the roles of secretaries, housewives and mothers. As Ben Parr of Octane AI puts it, “We’re basically training our kids that they can bark commands at a female and she will respond.”

This italicized line is absolute bullshit and contradicts the reasoning behind using female voices in Voice UI stated previously in the article. Mother and wife as casual servant? I’ll have to mention that to my wife, or any partner to any man I know, and see how far it flies. The author appears to lack an understanding of the current state of voice interfaces – we can’t have a conversation with Alexa or Siri, we can only give tasks. It has nothing to do with servitude, and everything to do with replacing what we do with our fingers or pointing device, with our voice. We are a long way off from proactive assistants.

But from a brand perspective, the quest for universal likeability is misplaced. In personality design as in brand design, pandering to users can be self-destructive. Good brands don’t merely follow. Good brands are like good people. They believe in something and they stand for it. Standing for something is polarizing, but it’s the difference between expected and inspiring. Why shouldn’t a voice assistant balk when a user shouts a slur? Why shouldn’t it promote diversity, just like most corporations do in their annual reports?

Generally an interesting article but with these bombs of stupidity thrown in. In the past we had to face a different politics in design, corporate back stabbing, fiefdoms and the like, now we have to deal with unsubstantiated drivel.

Why Our Voice Assistants Need Ethics

Setting workplace norms early

Camren’s 5th grade classroom

In Taiwan elementary schools they prepare them early for what life will be at the workplace. He ate more nutritious lunches then, as lunch in PEI schools is sandwiches or fast food, and they don’t have the facilities to maintain a safe temperature of a hot lunch. But this habit, seen throughout many if not most Taiwan companies is toxic, as it increases the likelihood that you are still available for calls, and after you hurriedly eat, likely stay at your desk to keep on working after the obligatory nap.

Wouldn’t it be better if self-checkout just died?

I’m pretty certain that self-checkouts at this Walmart in Fuzhou would have been absolute chaos. But on our workplace campus they were the norm and surprisingly well designed.

Self-checkouts have been around a while. Companies have been working on them since 1984, and they’ve been in stores around the US for nearly two decades. And as any interaction with the one at Walmart in Charlottetown will attest, the user experience still sucks.

It’s not as if “scanning items at a checkout” is an especially daunting task but it turns out that making an automated system that’s 95% as good as a human is relatively easy and one that’s 100% as good as a human is very hard.

“Wouldn’t the shopper be better served, customer service improved, if those (self check-outs) weren’t there?” he asks. I’m not arguing. “Why do I want to scan my own groceries?” he asks. I have no idea! “Why do I want to bag my own groceries?” he asks. An equally reasonable question with no reasonable answer. The simple solution, he points out, would be to hire enough cashiers to serve the number of customers that typically shop at the store. I agree, and this seems very obvious.

Wouldn’t it be better if self-checkout just died?

Creative entrepreneurs need community, not just customers

Several months ago, a friend I hadn’t seen in years handed me a check for $300. She used to accept Paypal payments on my behalf, back in 2003 when I made jewelry and listed regularly on eBay. (She had set up a separate account in another bank. Things happened. They found her after a decade. Isn’t that remarkable?)

I was a fledgling creative entrepreneur, pre-Paypal, pre-Facebook. It was a struggle, especially because I didn’t know too many people who were doing anything along the same lines.

I joined local bazaars. Inevitably, I would be one of only two or three tables with handmade creations. Everyone else had mass-manufactured goods. Buyers would bargain and tell me, “But over at the other booth, necklaces are less than a hundred pesos!”

A creative entrepreneur is a creator, maker, marketer and retailer, all in one. It takes a lot more bravery to market and sell the products of your personal creativity compared to doing it for other people, or for a salary. Your self-worth can fluctuate depending on what people are willing to pay for the work of your mind, heart, and hands.

Back then, there were no visual social networks that let creators express their vision and purpose, and allowed people who might like what they made to discover their work. There was an audience for handmade, but there was too much friction and not enough serendipity between the creator and the audience.

Back then, I had customers. They couldn’t tell other people, easily, that they liked my work. They couldn’t selfie with my necklace and tag me and 10 other friends, one of whom just might have been a fledgling creative entrepreneur, too.

Today, social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat are both serendipity engine and global marketplace. Never has it been easier to find and bond with the like-minded. And when that happens, we call that community. Community is a force multiplier for growth. Creators and audience can find one another faster, learn from a wider pool, and improve together.
Leigh Reyes on Creativity, Leadership and Limited FTG

Breakfasts in Fujian

My short time working in China presented some challenges for maintain my previous protein rich diet. The company cafeteria while providing great food by local standards, and I can confirm that it was largely justified, always skimped on the meat or fish. Often I would ask the cook if perhaps they mislabelled the curry chicken; I suggested they call it curry chicken bones but they didn’t implement my suggestion. Breakfasts were cheap, tasty, but again heavy on the carbs. Out of sheer boredom I started to document my breakfasts, even starting an instagram account solely for that purpose, but as would be expected stopped after about a month. Some of those are below:

Design Ephemera

Designers often love the artifacts of their work. Depending on the availability of whiteboards, displays like the above would often stay around the office for months. For the UX teams this is often the only output they can share with others as the design teams tasked with creating the interfaces and the engineers, who produce the final deliverables, more often get all all the glory.

This messy whiteboard was from a service design project for a restaurant in Fuzhou, Fujian.

The Dictatorship of Data

In 1977, two years after the last helicopter lifted off the rooftop of the U.S. embassy in Saigon, a retired Army general, Douglas Kinnard, published a landmark survey called The War Managers that revealed the quagmire of quantification. A mere 2 percent of America’s generals considered the body count a valid way to measure progress. “A fake—totally worthless,” wrote one general in his comments. “Often blatant lies,” wrote another. “They were grossly exaggerated by many units primarily because of the incredible interest shown by people like McNamara,” said a third.

The use, abuse, and misuse of data by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War is a troubling lesson about the limitations of information as the world hurls toward the big-data era. The underlying data can be of poor quality. It can be biased. It can be misanalyzed or used misleadingly. And even more damning, data can fail to capture what it purports to quantify.

The Dictatorship of Data

What we miss

Wether it’s in a supermarket like this or one of the many corner fruit markets I miss the abundance of high quality great tasting fruit that we could find in Taiwan.

Dinner time for us is a time to catch up with the days events, a time for me to pontificate on the importance of academic performance, and an opportunity to discuss whatever topics pop into the kids heads; lately it’s been a weird mix of cannabis use, Korean pop and my sons desire to attend Rice University (my daughter wants to escape to Europe). I have been trying to ensure that, in spite our active after school schedule, we keep this routine, which means we might be eating dinner at 4, 6 or after 7. Facilitating these conversations was a role my wife played in the past and a role that I am trying to temporarily fill in her absence. Luckily the kids have lots to talk about as I’ve never been in the habit of sharing the banality of my day over food.

One of our last conversations included all the things they miss since leaving Taiwan. They listed the usual things that Taiwanese would mention: the food, the convenience of everything and of course their friends. Friendships seem a bit harder to cultivate here than in Hsinchu; Camren was incredibly active these past few years but while having made friends here, there doesn’t appear to be any shared activities yet.

One curious revelation came from this conversation. My daughter now identifies herself as from Taiwan, and yet while in Taiwan she most recently would state she’s from Canada. Of course we all knew there would be an adjustment period, you can’t expect to land in any new place and expect to be connected in the same way someone who has lived here there whole lives. I, having grown up here, still feel more like an immigrant than anything else.

During the course of the conversation they asked what I missed and I stated the expected, the fruit, the coffee and the language. I have regrets about my rapidly diminishing Chinese language ability. I didn’t mention how much I miss the work; which would be as much a surprise to them is it is to me (It was common for me to come home visibly stressed many nights).

Right now, I’m fairly certain if I returned to Taiwan or China to work at a tech company in some capacity I would regret the decision fairly quickly. At my age and experience I might not be a great fit for many organizations. But I do miss the pace, the variety and challenge of the work, being a designer, and the smart people who pushed me to keep up. It’s an exciting place with the expectation that almost anything can be done, a real emphasis on making vs marketing. And having an office full of colleagues with all the antics that often come with that can be a big bonus. Now when I come out of my cave here in Stratford, I sometimes forget how to talk.

It’s common to romanticize a memory, “in the old days” things were often better we say, but in reality the work culture in Taiwan was insane, with too many having no life outside the office. Living here is great and I’m sure the kids will adjust to ice cream over fruit, hamburgers instead of beef noodles, and enjoy the international feel that Charlottetown now provides.

Reading is a pleasure and a skill

“My grafted, spasmodic, online style, while appropriate for much of my day’s ordinary reading, had been transferred indiscriminately to all of my reading, rending my former immersion in more difficult texts less and less satisfying,” she writes. Wolf soon tried again, forcing herself to start with 20-minute intervals, and managed to recover her “former reading self.”

I’ve found that my appetite for reading as much information as quickly as possible, all of it screen based, has affected my ability to read more difficult texts as well. I consider it more a problem with patience – something that can be solved my taking a deep breathe, slowing down, and taking the time to wade through writing with more substance.

Wolf recommends that early-childhood education continue to focus on print materials, with digital devices and lessons added over time. That includes how to code — essential for learning “that sequence matters,” whether it’s in a piece of writing or a piece of software — and how to handle time and distractions. (Sign me up.) Wolf calls for teachers to be better trained to use technology effectively in classrooms. Handing out iPads does not teach children how to read well on those devices or manage time on them. That requires active guidance from adults in the classroom and at home. She also wants more (and is involved in) research on how best to support learners, including people with dyslexia, who are not served by traditional approaches to literacy. It’s one of the brightest prospects sparked by the digital leap.

Both of my kids are required to read from print materials everyday which is more of a challenge than it should be; my son is more enamoured with the sliding images under glass devices, and my daughter, who used to read multiple novels a day, but has since discovered the joy of online Chinese comics.

Book review of Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World by Maryanne Wolf

Leave Your Own Beliefs Behind

In Dan Saffer’s book, Designing for Interaction: Creating Smart Applications and Clever Devices, he interviews well-known researcher and speaker Brenda Laurel, PhD. He asked her what designers should look for when doing research. Her answer emphasizes the importance of shedding assumptions and precepts before asking research questions.

“The first step is to deliberately identify one’s own biases and beliefs about the subject of study and to ‘hang them at the door’ so as to avoid self-fulfilling prophecies. One must then frame the research question and carefully identify the audiences, contexts, and research methods that are most likely to yield actionable results. Those last two words are the most important: actionable results. Often, the success of a research program hangs upon how the question is framed: ‘why don’t girls play computer games?’ vs. ‘how does play vary by gender?’”
Indi Young

Apple Books Delete Category

I generally don’t spend much time managing my large collection of ebooks in Apple “Books” but today as I decided to create some semblance of order, I realized that you can delete category names without confirmation.

In my perhaps old school experience with usability all destructive actions should be accompanied by a confirmation dialog. If I had deleted the category in error, then all of my work categorizing would have been in vain, resulting in user frustration and a poor experience. Incidentally, the undo button doesn’t work either (though the menu will flash, indicating that they action was registered). This is not software design at it’s finest.

Update: This behaviour is only exhibited when their are no items in the category or you have checked the “Do not ask me again” item. So not as big a deal as I had previously imagined.

Race experience

Post race

I ran the PEI marathon yesterday and my fears of it being this years worst decision were exaggerated and unfounded. It went well, with the usual couple of incidents that always happen in any event I participate in that requires so much preparation.

My official time and pace are quite bit off from my watch due to what must have been the longest in the woods pit stop I’ve ever had – thank you middle age. Since I started the race under hydrated I have no idea how it happened but it did. Also, I developed some problems with my left hamstring. A huge cramp mid stride can send you to the pavement but luckily I caught it in time.

PEI is a lovely place to run. The North Shore, the fall foliage, and the guy who kept appearing on the side of the road fulfilling our desire for “more cowbell’ made for a great experience. It was very cold and I was very reluctant to get off the heated bus to run but I’ll take the cold over extreme heat any day.

I stuck to my plan and surprisingly accomplished my event goal. The lack of a more complete training regime means I’m pretty sore today and have been forced me to sit and rest. But I believe I have even longer and faster races ahead of me, my heart and lungs are never pushed to capacity. It’s a matter of getting stronger and somehow remaining active through the coming winter months.

As Donald Norman said in 1990, “The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.”

It’s time for us to move beyond screen-based thinking. Because when we think in screens, we design based upon a model that is inherently unnatural, inhumane, and has diminishing returns. It requires a great deal of talent, money and time to make these systems somewhat usable, and after all that effort, the software can sadly, only truly improve with a major overhaul.
The best interface is no interface

twitter in mouth

This past week or so I’ve come to realize why I have over the years developed the habit of listening more, talking less. It’s sounds like a good rule, as many could stand to stop talking so much, but I developed this primarily to avoid feelings of regret due to saying (or writing) dumb or misconstrued crap. Afterwards I would also suffer from an over-analysis of the things I should have said but didn’t.

That’s what happened recently on twitter. First was my expression of amazement that people still read magazines enough to actually subscribe; part of my exasperation that my son taking part in a magazine subscription donation drive to raise money ostensively for his school. I wasn’t interested in buying and from my experience selling subscriptions over 25 years ago, it’s an extremely hard sell. Anyway, my tone was off and I received a quick rebuke from a parent who was likely a supporter of the initiative.

The other incident was a short commentary on my experience at various gatherings throughout the city – again a question of tone. The reaction in this case was far more conciliatory, which made me regret my post more. There needs to be an edit button.

Perhaps the fact that when I sit down to write, it’s still early in the AM, when the effects of caffeine are at their strongest has some influence. I’ve turned off auto-complete, which should force me to take the time to think, but that hasn’t had any meaningful effect.

We all should take the time to think before we write, some like me should perhaps stay away from the immediacy of twitter et al., lest I come across as the cranky old curmudgeon I may one day become.

Pictures under glass is not the future

What did you feel? Did it feel glassy? Did it have no connection whatsoever with the task you were performing?

I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.

Is that so bad, to dump the tactile for the visual? Try this: close your eyes and tie your shoelaces. No problem at all, right? Now, how well do you think you could tie your shoes if your arm was asleep? Or even if your fingers were numb? When working with our hands, touch does the driving, and vision helps out from the back seat.

Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it’s the star player in every Vision Of The Future.

To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It’s obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.
A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design

I’ve likely linked to this before (it’s from 7 years ago), but I’ve always liked this description of the current obsession with pictures under glass UI paradigm. I love the tactile, the information provided by it far more than what is afforded on by sliding onscreen.

Giving thanks and feigned apology

We have a lot to be thankful for. A life thus far filled with rich experiences, food to eat, a warm place to live, and healthy family and friends.

This past long weekend was spent at friends and relatives dinner tables eating wonderfully prepared food and enjoying some non-work related conversation. It was a welcome respite, especially since I have found myself recently a bit out of sorts, a combination of reverse-culture shock and the stresses of being alone in the house with two warring teenage kids.

Eating copious amounts of good food that others have prepared does wonders for your temperament.

Yesterday was my turn to prepare dinner, as I invited “the old folks” over for some turkey and the traditional fixings that they might enjoy. No one starved but I lack the patience or skill to prepare these types of meals.

Unfortunately the weekend didn’t have a happy ending. In the early afternoon, my son and I were butting heads and he decided to walk to the Stratford library, where he might use a computer without my restrictions. I knew the library was closed but thought him taking a short walk might be good for both of us. On his way home he walked by a house just when the owner of a large German Shepherd opened the door to let their dog outside. The dog charged and attacked Camren, breaking the skin, and leaving a large painful bruise (and torn pants). The owner feigned an apology and my son hobbled home.

Later we drove back to the scene, and I realized that this was the same dog that when outside on lease, would threaten me every time I ran past the same house.

I contacted the RCMP and we are going through the process that the Island provides for such instances. It’s sad, a dog like this is a threat, and I’m hoping that the dog can be properly cared for either by it’s current or future owner.


The Japanese have a word, Tsundoku, for the act of acquiring books but letting them pile up in one’s home without reading them.

The word “doku” can be used as a verb to mean “reading”. According to Prof Gerstle, the “tsun” in “tsundoku” originates in “tsumu” – a word meaning “to pile up”. So when put together, “tsundoku” has the meaning of buying reading material and piling it up.

I also have had this habit. Our home in Taiwan was wall to ceiling with books, and while most of them belonged to our kids, it was my wife and I who got it all started. As time went on I would continue to buy books of interest, but lack the time to read them. Here on PEI I have a number of boxes in storage, containing an older collection, that are waiting for us to have a more permanent home. Most of my reading these days is digital, which I think is a shame, as there is lasting value in the worn pages of a paper bound book, value which isn’t so apparent when your collection is all stored digitally.

A marathon in the making

A photo taken at the Xiamen Marathon expo in 2017. I had plans to run my way across China but life got in the way.

I just registered to run the PEI marathon on the 14th. This may go down as one the worst decisions I have made this year, as my running has been off, training pretty much non-existent, and my diet still on it’s summer on PEI mode.

Last year I was overcoming a couple injuries and so was motivated to workout 3-5 hours a day. I went to physio, yoga, lifted weights, did body weight training, stretched, and ran a training program. For an amateur I was somewhat obsessed and work was admittedly not my focus. Since I ran the race last February, their have been far too many more important distractions – moving your family around the world can have that effect and I haven’t been nearly as dedicated. I’ve put in the miles, somewhat following a 16 week program, but it’s been a struggle to lace up my shoes. My heart just hasn’t been in it. Luckily I have thus far remained injury free.

My last marathon was a complete success, I was slow by design, experienced none of the “bonk” that runners experience, and except for the last 5K, it felt easy.

This time I expect a great deal of discomfort and am participating to experience the great Island views, to feel tested, and to experience my twice yearly challenge. I’ll leave the PB’s and hopes for a Boston qualifying time for another race.

User test session surprises

I am gearing up for a series of user interviews/test sessions slated tentatively for the end of this month. It’s been awhile since I’ve done one, over a year, and while it exists in muscle memory, the actual design of the sessions requires some review. Especially since the sessions will be facilitated by someone other than myself, someone with no background in running such sessions. Indi Young’s book Mental Models has a couple good short chapters on interviewing users which I often refer back to time and time again.

As I was sharing my plan prior to a stand-up meeting yesterday, I recounted how illustrative these sessions can be. You can craft what you consider to be the most elegant interface you have ever created, perfectly suited to the target customer, only to have a participant tell you bluntly that it sucks. Of course they don’t come out and say so, such cut and dry responses are not so useful, but the sessions are such a great way to learn what works and what doesn’t. And they keep you focused on what design is really about, creating “things” for someone other than yourself.

The above video is a short excerpt from one such session in many years ago. As I related yesterday, this test came as a total surprise. At the time I was creating a number of hardware based prototypes – embedding pressure sensors into everyday objects, in this case pillows, in order to control software. I created a version for Adults which use a complex sensor to control the creation of music, and a basic on/off sensor fashioned from a keyboard logic board, to control a children’s musical game. The game was extremely simple – the kids just had to reorder the elements of a song by sitting on pillows. It was a musical memory game but played on a larger scale. The software ran on an iMac but I envisioned it running on a console or PC.

My expectation was that the kids would be bored and that my concept was flawed. But within the scope of this test, the opposite proved to be true (later it was abandoned as my intuition proved accurate).

This is what I like most about user research, discovering these insights and surprises when watching people use a product. It’s a great way to learn about people, and of course, whether its a formal or informal session, an essential part of creating a usable product.

Data is not information

Before Evernote, which I am now weaning myself off of, I used to keep copious amounts of notes as plain text files, usually loosely organized by project. Unfortunately being a poor excuse of a student or academic I often forgot to include any valuable meta-data as to it’s origin. I’m assuming that the text fragment below is from a textbook of some sort, likely written by Richard Saul Wurman or Edward Tufte, as I read most of their books at that time.

This is paramount to realize. Though we use the two terms interchangeably in our culture-mostly to glorify data that has no right to be ennobled-they mean distinctly different things.

Data is raw an often overabundant. While it may have meaning to experts, it is, for the most part, only the building blocks on which relevance is built. It also should never be produced for delivery in raw form to an audience-because it has no inherent value. Until it is transformed into information (with context), it’s meaning is of little value and only contributes to the anxiety we feel dealing with so much information in our lives.

An unfortunate fallacy we live under is that this is an “Age of Information.”

Never before has so much data been produced. Yet our lives are not enhanced by any of it. Worse, this situation will only become more pervasive.
What we tend to measure is only data and while this has increased in our society, it has not-and cannot-improve productivity or anything else because it lacks the value to do so, or the value to make meaningful change. Once we re-educate ourselves as to what information really is, then we may be able to find the opportunities for increased understanding and productivity.

Data is so uninforming that we can liken it to heavy-winter clothing, enshrouding us as we interact with each other, It doesn’t completely stop us from communicating, but it makes it much more difficult, and it surely makes any complex interactions more laborious.

I haven’t thought too deeply about this in what feels like a hundred years, but somehow the DIKW pyramid reared it’s head when talking to the kids about Youtube and all the fake crap on social media.

The real problem isn’t the DIKW’s hijacking of the word “knowledge” but its implication that knowledge derives from filtering information. It doesn’t. We can learn some facts by combing through databases. We can see some true correlations by running sophisticated algorithms over massive amounts of information. All that’s good.

But knowledge is not a result merely of filtering or algorithms. It results from a far more complex process that is social, goal-driven, contextual, and culturally-bound. We get to knowledge — especially “actionable” knowledge — by having desires and curiosity, through plotting and play, by being wrong more often than right, by talking with others and forming social bonds, by applying methods and then backing away from them, by calculation and serendipity, by rationality and intuition, by institutional processes and social roles. Most important in this regard, where the decisions are tough and knowledge is hard to come by, knowledge is not determined by information, for it is the knowing process that first decides which information is relevant, and how it is to be used.

Problems with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy

Physical product noises

The noises made by physical products are not just part of their charm and emotional engagement. These noises provide clues to help us understand how the product works. We’ve often used these sounds in digital products but as time goes by they lose their significance to the listener – does a spinning dial in an app. need to map to an analog dial to reinforce it’s function?

Conserve the sound« is an online museum for vanishing and endangered sounds. The sound of a dial telephone, a walkman, a analog typewriter, a pay phone, a 56k modem, a nuclear power plant or even a cell phone keypad are partially already gone or are about to disappear from our daily life.

Accompanying the archive people are interviewed and give an insight in to the world of disappearing sounds.

Great project. I can guarantee my kids would not be able to recognize the majority of these products by sound alone.

Conserve the sound