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.

Evernote’s Customer Hostile Upgrade Scheme

Do you think Evernote would like me to upgrade? You have 2 choices here, upgrade or stop syncing. Stop syncing is framed as a negative and if selected won’t result in the user being able to continue to create notes. You are held hostage until you pay.

I wrote or meant to write about how I’ve let certain long term cloud accounts lapse because they no longer filled any pressing need. Evernote was one of them and up until this morning I experienced no real need to keep paying for either of the 2 premium tiers.

My understanding of the premium tiers was such:

  • It provided me with online storage thereby allowing my to access documents across devices, and have an alternative backup to my desktop backup scheme.
  • Text recognition
  • Downloadable notebooks which are useful for storing travel data

In the past if this wasn’t useful to you, you could just keep using the free account with no syncing to other devices. Well no longer.

This morning I was attempting to see pdf’s from a lecture I am watching, Kentaro Toyama’s excellent simplified introduction to affinity diagrams, when Evernote informed me I could no longer use the web clipper because I used up my online storage. No problem, I’ll just create a note manually and it can sync next month. Unfortunately Evernote would have none of that and refuses to let me add a note even if disconnected from the Internet.

I must have missed the email notifying that Evernote has gone completely subscription based. Even worse as you can see from the screenshot, they are absolutely hostile in their approach, ostensively blocking access to your notes until you pay the fee.

I’ll be sending them a complaint and will search for a more customer friendly provider.

Mini-guns are for noobs

Camren has been talking about Fortnite since the first day of school and sold the download of the game as a way to strike up a conversation with new friends. I suggested talking about the weather, and resisted until this past Christmas when we as a group bought him an Xbox, and the necessary upgrades to Fortnite, as a gift.

But being “a pain” and the “strictest father in the world” means that before he can waste away a few hours playing video games on this non-storm storm day at home, he first had to make his bed, clean his room, do his laundry, make his breakfast, and read for an hour. Fortnite is at least a good carrot.

A Stronger Alliance Between The Humanities and Math

Despite the fact that there always seems to be a moment of crisis for something, the strength of this article, other than providing an excellent viewpoint, is the reading list at the end.

If democracy depends on informed citizens, democracy is in trouble. This is a moment of crisis for many institutions, including higher education, especially in disciplines such as English, philosophy, and history, which promise to prepare students as citizens. To prepare students for a world where information is filtered by computers, we will need a stronger alliance between the humanities and math. This alliance has two reciprocal parts: cultural criticism of the mathematical models shaping our world, and mathematical inquiry about culture.

Traditional humanistic skills remain important, of course: we still need to scrutinize assumptions and evaluate arguments. But the challenges that confront 21st-century citizens are not always arguments that come one by one to be evaluated. Information is more likely to come in cascades, guided both by networks of friends and by statistical models that anticipate our preferences. Evaluating sources one by one won’t necessarily tell us whether these computational and social systems are giving us a biased picture. Instead, we need to think about samples and models—in other words, about math. Mathematics may once have seemed a specialized scientific tool. But in the 21st century, culture and politics are increasingly pervaded by the automated form of statistical inference called “machine learning.” Students who don’t understand it will struggle to understand everyday life.

Why An Age Of Machine Learning Needs The Humanities

Reading articles such often makes me wonder what life will be like for the children chronically absent from school (6600 in Newfoundland and Labrador) and those who suffer from PEI’s shocking literacy rates. It’s not even about participating in a global economy anymore, it’s about understanding the world around them.

NN/G: Children’s UX

What would we do without Normon Neilson Group’s broad strokes.

New research with users aged 3–12 shows that children have gained substantial proficiency in using websites and apps since our last studies, though many designs are still not optimized for younger users. Designing for children requires distinct usability approaches, including targeting content narrowly for children of different ages.

As anecdotal evidence might dictate, kids with ever increasing times spent with screen based devices are becoming more proficient in their use and more particular in their preferred interaction models:

Little kids, big expectations. Because children spend more time with devices than 8 years ago, they have more opportunities to get a sense of how things can and should work online. Children expected to be able to tap on and interact with characters and pictures in interfaces, both on touchscreens and desktop displays. (Speaking of touchscreens, several kids tried tapping on nontouchscreen laptop displays and were disappointed when they got no response). Kids expected some sites to play sound or have animation. One pair of 8-year-old girls spent several minutes trying to get a page to play sound and animate, so they could enjoy a game more.

Despite these higher expectations around interactivity, children did not have the same degree of disappointment that adults did when an app or site didn’t work quite as they expected. Yes, children did get frustrated when designs weren’t as fast as they liked, but they also were used to a lot of games simply not working, so they shrugged it off as a bug or something beyond their control. Still, given the option, they’d choose to browse or play something else if a site wasn’t working well.

A willingness to work around difficulties. There’s a myth that children “just know” how to fix a problem or get a website or app to work correctly. That’s not generally true (except for a few especially tech-savvy users). However, as kids get experienced with devices, they do become comfortable trying a different approach before giving up entirely. They would refresh the page, close and reopen the browser or app, or use the Back button and try again. Though they weren’t skilled troubleshooters (they weren’t good at problem solving or understanding the root of the issue, and they struggled to interpret error messages), they were very willing to try a few quick solutions. This willingness to experiment is something that users who have grown up with digital devices are more likely to have than users who have entered the digital world later in life. If after a few tries kids still couldn’t get something to work, they’d just close the tab, the browser, or tap the device’s Home button and pick something else do to.

It’s a great report full of useful (and reusable) bits of data.

Children’s UX: Usability Issues in Designing for Young People

Whats wrong with being super anyway?

When I was in college in Toronto my then mentor and teacher would often preach about the difficulties of life as a musician. One of his key concepts at the time was to not rely on any one income stream – or pieces of the pie (as in chart) as he called it – and to be sure to diversify your investment in any one of these areas. The logic being that if performance fees dried up you could then focus on your teaching business, or sub in the classroom, or perhaps like me, work more hours selling product. It’s a philosophy that works well at the micro or macro level for most freelancers or “solopreneurs”, and especially so for the seasonal life on PEI. How many people do you know on PEI who have a seasonal side-hustle to make up for the low salaries that are found here?

My main focus these past 6 months outside of slowing down and trying to fit into the cogs of life here, has been trying to build out a company for my wife and I that at the very least would help smooth out the rough edges of the high cost of living. Of course, building something you like can at times be fun, though to be honest many parts of following the training-to-be-a-CEO-for-dummies routine are boring at best. Unfortunately, our schedule to launch and subsequent riches has been stretched to the point that it’s time to include something else to the mix.

The next piece of my pie is focusing some of my time and energy on another business that has been on hiatus for the past 6+ months. For the lack of a better descriptor, and I’m searching for a better one, it’s a consultancy, focusing on experience design. What that means in common terms is that I hope to help SME’s fill in the gaps in their product design strategy by providing guidance on how to built things that work for their customers – coaching, qualitative research and heuristic analysis being the focus at first. Obviously I have a way to go in describing what I hope to do in a way that the average non-tech industry folks can understand. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and particularly enjoy coaching, but I know nothing of the market here so I will be taking my time to build out a local portfolio and gain some insight into the local mindset. As such I hope to focus on Startups first. Ultimately, I hope to include my wife in this (if anyone can “motivate” a group of kids during a test session it’s her), and perhaps another, as we fill a niche by focusing only on children’s products.

But my dream of being the Mr. Dressup of usability has already hit a snag. The name that I have been using, Super Lucky Elephant, and that has already been registered etc., after some informal in-person polling has been universally dismissed as being a bad idea. The following are a selection of the responses:

  • “the colours of your brand make me feel hungry” (not for design I presume)
  • “it sounds like a sushi restaurant”
  • “it’s too Asian sounding”
  • “you might not be taken seriously”
  • “it might make a good name for a diaper brand”

For some reason taking the super, out of super lucky elephant changes peoples opinion towards the positive. Somehow not being “super” changes everything.

The origin of the name comes from my favourite brand of Thai jasmine rice, which upon discovering that the .com name was available, I immediately registered. The name sounds nice in Chinese, and features 2 descriptors which is common in the Asian languages I am familiar with. At some point in time I knew I might have to change the name, but for now in Canada at least, I’m ok.

So for an hour yesterday I searched for a name with corresponding domain with no luck. I’ve thought of using the StartUp Name Generator but I would like something original.

Storm Chips

With the approach of yet another purported snow-apocalypse I keep hearing about the necessity of having storm chips on hand; there is even a beer and storm chips scale to rate the severity of the incoming storm. So in order to prepare, the kids and I went Asian Grocery to stock up. Obviously, I’m not quite yet in tune with the culture of my homeland, but the kids seem pleased.

Remembering San Mao

Taiwanese writer San Mao died 28 years ago this January. She was a role model for women of her time, casting off the social strictures of martial-law-era Taiwan, escaping abroad to travel, write, love and have the kind of exotic and tragic life that was the stuff of romance novels. I loved reading her short stories when I was learning Chinese and listened to an audio version of one of her short stories so often I had committed it to memory.

People’s Daily writes:

“She was born in Chongqing, moved to Taiwan, studied in Spain, and settled in the Sahara. All of her life she pursued freedom and touched the hearts of many with all of her words. Her love-story with Jose stirred people’s emotions. Her mother said that maybe her life was not perfect enough for her, but we now know that her life-long pursuit of her dreams has already become romantic legend. Today, in 1991, writer San Mao committed suicide.”

Remembering San Mao – the Bohemian Writer That Captured the Hearts of Millions of Chinese

To learn something new requires interviewing, not just chatting. Poor interviews produce inaccurate information that can take your business in the wrong direction. Interviewing is a skill that at times can be fundamentally different than what you do normally in conversation. Great interviewers leverage their natural style of interacting with people but make deliberate, specific choices about what to say, when to say it, how to say it, and when to say nothing. Doing this well is hard and takes years of practice.
Interviewing Users

The True Cost of 2 Day Shipping

One of the often cited key benefits of living in Taiwan is the convenience of many aspects of life there. Especially so when ordering anything online – 24hrs or less (more often less) shipping makes the hassle of fighting traffic pointless. Why bother driving to a box store when they will ship it to you at your home, or the nearest convenience store the very same day. The waste of such activity became more apparent when during the toilet paper crisis, large boxes full of nothing but rolls of toilet paper started clogging up the logistic infrastructure.

Moving to Charlottetown you get nothing near the same level of service, but habits die hard and I signed up for Amazon Prime and their free 2-day shipping. For PEI that generally translates to a week or more, depending on the mood of the Postal Union. I loath the likes of Walmart, and the arrangement of Charlottetown’s big box stores which are spaced far enough apart that you need to drive between each one. But when my house starts filling up with boxes, I’ve often wondered if sacrificing my sanity by listening to those poorly designed pay terminals might be better for us all in the long run. Apparently, not necessarily so:

Transportation experts are split over whether online shopping reduces or increases emissions. In theory, online shopping can be more environmentally friendly than a traditional brick-and-mortar store: Either way, a truck has to deliver the items, and in the case of online shopping, you don’t have to drive to the store as well.

“Our research shows that delivering a typical order to an Amazon customer is more environmentally friendly than that customer driving to a store,” said Melanie Janin, sustainability representative at Amazon, in an email.

But, and I don’t now if this applies to our experience since there seems to be little difference between shipping times, apparently the environmental cost of 2 Day shipping, which comes with Amazon Prime, is huge, when compared with other shipping methods, per this article on Grist.

Free two-day shipping — the hallmark of Amazon’s plan to squeeze out traditional retailers — burns through significantly more emissions than standard shipping or traditional in-store shopping.

When you wait three to five days for shipment, Jaller explains, Amazon has time to find the most efficient (and cheapest) way to deliver goods. Aviation is by far the most carbon-intensive transit option, and with more time the company can route your package by land, instead of by air…and group your package with other, similar deliveries.
“The concept of Amazon Prime pushes us towards more emissions…and makes the marginal cost of purchases very small, so you have motivation to buy more. And of course, that’s what Amazon wants.”

So seeing there is very little difference in the speeds of shipping methods to PEI, perhaps giving Amazon extra time might be a suitable alternative. Especially when you consider they are sending me a small bottle of brass cleaner across the country (the inspiration for this post) because it wasn’t ready as fast as the other items I ordered.

A few changes

I’ve removed the commenting from the website and deactivated the Disqus plug-in. If any discussion or commenting happens with regards to what I share here, it always happens off-site; either via email, twitter, or the best of all, real life. For an already glacial website the performance penalty isn’t really worth it. To compensate I’ll create a more findable contact method (it’s hidden now so I’m not forced to reply to but the most dedicated communicators).

And speaking of performance, while I don’t have the time at present, I think I’ll be looking into other methods of content management. I don’t imagine I’ll go back to using Movabletype but I’ve been inspired each time I hear the engineers from Forestry.io talk about flat file websites and their performance benefits. Since my templates are decidedly simple, importing all the posts intact might be the greatest challenge, especially since I seem to muck it up each time I have tried to migrate data from one system to another.

My usage of WordPress here is very vanilla and doesn’t require much thought on my part. But a recent experience with a wonderful freelancer who I hired to create another website for me has renewed my hatred for such heavy handed approaches to publishing. She used a theme that would make an excellent case study of all the things you can do wrong in user interface design. It’s attempts at hiding the WordPress UI and code obfuscated the whole process, making it slow and painful. But apparently clients like it.

The bathroom fan

From Seth’s Blog:

In our office, the kitchen exhaust fan blows the smoke from the cooktop–back into the kitchen.

It’s a closed loop, a palliative, a noisy device that doesn’t do much except make you feel like at least you’re trying.

Most of the exhaust fans in our lives are actually part of a closed system. The detritus, pain or actions we share don’t go very far away before they turn around and head back toward us.

The fan in the master bathroom in our apartment in Hsinchu was making an awful noise one day and eventually quit working. Upon installing a replacement we realized that the fan didn’t actually lead to anywhere – it simply circulated the humid air to the space above our false ceiling. I thought it was hilarious and synonymous with much of the problems I experienced in local culture – a face saving measure to cover for the inability to meet a requirements spec. Of course this resulted in more black mold and a rusty fan prone to failure.

Alexa and Siri sitting in a tree

I’ve had an interest in voice user interfaces for some time but living in Taiwan kept my experiences limited to Siri, due to I suppose limited support for local languages and I’m sure a host of legal/licensing issues. I’ve in the past been underwhelmed with Siri’s natural language processing, perhaps do to my dreams of interactions more akin to science fiction, like in the film Her.

Siri does often surprise, as she did by suggesting on my iPhone lock screen that I call my wife on her birthday.

When Amazon had the Echo Dot’s for sale at half price, I bought four, which is excessive, but I justified the expense since they can function as a decent bluetooth speaker for each of the kids room. The sound that comes out of them is about what you would expect from a speaker of this size, and better balanced than most of the bluetooth speakers we have purchased in the past. Pairing two together makes a for a pleasant enough bedroom listening experience. I haven’t spent a great deal of time with the devices but here are some insights thus far:

  • Siri is interesting in that after a short training period it will only respond to your voice, which is great when you consider the hilarity that would ensue with the potential number of iPhones in one room. Alexa out of the box has no such limitations. So unless you speak quietly, one person activates all the echo dots at similar times. You can set-up a voice profile but it’s buried within the iPhone app. and not readily that you can do so.
  • It’s much more enjoyable interacting with a device with decent sound output but I don’t find Alexa’s responses to be as smooth as Siri’s.
  • Apple Music skill is US only. A big disappointment to my kids.
  • My kids love music, but Alexa won’t play anything on their accounts. Alexa won’t play podcasts either. I have prime so I get a subset of music, but the catalog and experience pales in comparison to Apple Music.
  • I paired 2 Echo Dots together for stereo separation but this only works for music and not for anything else. When playing a sleep sounds skill it plays through 1 speaker only. This seems like an incredibly glaring oversight on their part which I hope they fix in the near future.
  • When you pair 2 speakers, the volume increases when you play anything other than music. It’s like the Echo is compensating for the loss of the other.
  • Alexa skills have discoverability problems, and
  • Skills are only interesting in theory as it requires the user to remember a long set of commands. UI should not add to the users cognitive load – I feel like I am back to having to write down common commands for Unix because I don’t use the system enough to commit them to memory. While I understand you are supposed to be able to ask Alexa what skills are available, I’ve never been able to get it to work. There is no equivalent to typing “help” in Alexa.
  • Skills seem very similar to traditional interactive voice-response systems, very unnatural.
  • I’ve yet been able to get it to play a podcast. This is likely due to not linking one of the music sources that contains podcasts, but Alexa describes it as an unknown error.
  • All the common requests (weather, etc.) seem to be handled with aplomb.
  • You need to think very clearly before you ask Alexa (or Siri) to perform a request. I suspect most don’t. There is no mid sentence error correction.
  • There is no way to get Alexa to repeat a response – no please repeat that again. Often times a response to a request is too long and it’s difficult to fit all the information into working memory.
  • Most surprising to me was when I asked a more advanced query, “Alexa, I would like to buy toothpaste”, it responds with an error message stating that I would have to change the primary language of my account. I thought Amazon would have this part nailed down tight. At least I can be assured that my kids won’t be buying their favourite treats via the Echo in my bedroom.
  • The most fun usage (for me) thus far is the Rooster skill. I walked into my sons bedroom early this AM and asked Alexa to play Rooster and it proceeded to loudly play a variety of Rooster crowing sounds. He hates me now.

Other than hardware that many people can afford, I as of yet see no major advances with Alexa over my experiences with Siri. It’s a pity that Apple hasn’t developed a similar smart speaker “for the rest of us”, $450 for each HomePod is not money well spent I think. Despite their limitations, I do look forward to digging deeper into skills and routines – in our effort to keep kids eyes away from screens, I hope to develop my own.

Winter on Prince and Richmond

We made our weekly sojourn unscathed to Trinity on Sunday despite streets that were heavy with slush and drivers driving like it was still summer. Downtown Charlottetown in winter is quite beautiful – I only wish I wasn’t in such a race to get home and could have gone for a long walk taking pictures as I went. But looking after 2 kids alone has made me far more cautious than I have ever been in the past, so my irrational fear of a snow-apocalypse sent us scrambling back to the relative safety of Stratford.

6 months on Prince Edward Island

The end of the year is often a time for introspection and establishing goals for the new year. In terms of goals, I don’t have any broad resolutions for the coming year, its’ not something I find useful (though Julia Rothman’s More Less list might serve as a good reminder), but since we just crossed the 6 month mark in our move “back” to PEI, sharing the highlights of what we have accomplished might keep me honest.

So in the spirit of the weekly/monthly reports I hated writing in the past, the following is a 6 month report*:

  • The kids, especially Catriona, enjoy school far more than in recent memory. This can be partly attributed to having little to no homework, few tests, and a whopping 12+ days off due to teacher PD days, holidays and storm days. Their days are much shorter too. Credit should be given to the teachers who have created a far more relaxed and open environment for learning than what you will find in the Taiwan school system.
  • Catriona has completed 3 months of CrossFit training and Camren has received his first bar in Gracie JuJitsu.
  • Camren has competed in 3 separate swim meets with the Bluefins, winning some, and placing in others. Catriona’s participation with the Harmonia Choir culminated in a series of wonderful concerts. Looking forward to hearing more from them this year.
  • Despite living here for 6 months, I would be lying if I said I didn’t still suffer from culture shock on a daily basis. All of us do to some extent. I expect this will diminish overtime, but I imagine I will always retain much of what I was affected by in Taiwan.
  • We were accepted as a resident company in the Start Up Zone in mid to late September, the benefits of which weren’t immediately discernible. Unfortunately, working out of the fishbowl, as I call the place, hasn’t really worked out. Open offices are nice if you like interruptions and noise, but not so great if you need quiet and space to focus. Also, I can’t really seem to align my schedule with the limited availability of buses in Stratford, making trips to the downtown (via car) expensive.
  • We started our company Minzoo in October, but the roots have been in place since July of 2017. The products we have in our pipeline are the easiest I’ve ever worked on, and yet it’s the most difficult and slowest to launch.
  • The past 6 months has brought about a sea change in terms of the amount of networking, workshops, meet-ups, coffee chats, and meet & greets I’ve attended. I’ve had far more opportunity to attend events such as these in the past 6 months, than the past 6 years in Taiwan and China. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I moved here. All in all I have been averaging 3–4 events a week, making this one of my primary activities.
  • From all these workshops and get togethers, and the reading done, I’ve received the equivalent of the Coles Notes version of an entrepreneurial MBA. Or so if feels, but I still know nothing about finance and marketing.
  • The longest event I participated in was StartUp Weekend. There was a lot to unpack from that weekend long event, not the least of which was that an army marches on it’s stomach – great food helps make any event a success. This was the first time I took non-design savvy folks through a customer journey map and got buy in for the importance of experience design. It went well.
  • We launched a podcast called Sleep Tight Stories, the quality of which is improving over time. It’s not wildly popular as of yet but its audience continues to grow.
  • I’ve largely dropped out of social media but still enjoy looking at puppy pictures on Instagram. It helps me end the day on a positive note. I still have the @hsinchunews twitter account, but I expect I my interest in following what is happening in Taiwan and the Hsinchu Science Park will diminish over time.
  • I’ve written 175 diary entries and 101 blog posts.
  • We launched 3 new or refreshed websites, 1 I contracted out to a young designer. Playing the role of client, gave me some new insight to the client and contractor relationship.
  • We carried out 4 different users tests since October, the results of which, like most user research, was enlightening and interesting. Individuals are always interesting and have stories to tell, performing user research is as good an excuse as any to hear them.
  • Apple doesn’t offer commutative data but app downloads are, but for one exception, all up – some over 1000%. The most popular efforts are stickers I created with my son – I’m not sure what that means. A respectable number of downloads does not equal revenue unfortunately, and I don’t see us breaking even anytime soon.
  • Our business is at risk of being a cliché. Most businesses fail and our venture is struggling. As such, I’ve started looking for job opportunities. It’s early days and I have no idea what form employment might take; remote, freelance, consultant, or something I’ve never considered before. I have no answers as of yet as to how I could do the work I have been doing these past few years while living in Charlottetown.
  • This year is a bit of an experiment. Could we have a similar lifestyle in Charlottetown to what we had in Hsinchu. I’ve been keeping fairly accurate data, not complete enough to publish, and thus far it has proven to be very difficult. We’ve never been able to stay within budget, part of this is start-up costs, but the rest is simply due to a higher cost of living. The greatest dollar increases are found in kids activities, which can cost 2x what we might pay in Taiwan. As an example, the price I pay for my son to be a part of Bluefins is the same price we payed for both kids in Taiwan, except in Taiwan they had almost double the amount of time in the pool and it included dry land training. But in terms of a percentage increase, nothing beats the cost of connectivity on PEI. The kids mobile plan costs increased 1433%, mine has increased 184% – with a drastic reduction in service, and our home internet has increased 225%. Food costs have increased, with boneless chicken, a key ingredient to my kids comfort food curry chicken, twice as expensive as what we paid before.
  • I ran my 2nd marathon this year in October and despite some problems during the race I am happy with the results. To prepare I was running an average of 75km a week. Unfortunately I have been rather inactive since which is being reflected by my ever growing waistline – when you are training you get used to eating a lot of food. A fun habit which is hard to break.
  • I’ve put 6000kms on our car. I’ve no idea if this is a modest amount of milage. Driving my kids to various activities is where my late afternoons and evenings are spent. I do realize that a car is a burden I wish I didn’t need to bear, but public transit in Charlottetown is only effective along certain corridors and not really useful for our needs. I’ll wait until Uber arrives before I rely upon the overpriced taxi companies here.
  • We launched Sleep Tight Relax. It’s loaded with bugs, some of which are an easy fix, but a weird Xcode bug has delayed any update.
  • I’ve made some progress these past 6 months in being able to survive the inevitable “introduce yourself” section of any get together. I still have some work to do with removing jargon and speaking like a normal person.
  • Somewhat related to self-introductions, was the need to refine our business pitch. I took three separate workshops on how to pitch effectively and managed a polished 1 minute delivery, only to later realize how fake it all sounds. The people who like these pitches seem to prefer the fake.
  • We travel far less than in the past. We’ve managed a couple trips to Summerside, 2 trips to Truro, 2 to Moncton (Costco), 1 to Halifax and 1 to Sackville for coffee. We explored a bit of the Island in the summer but seem to be at a loss for winter activities – I guess we could try snow shoeing, but other activities like skiing are out due to their high cost.
  • We invested in too much tech gear, including TV, game console, sound bar, smart speakers, laptop, keyboards, headphones and sound recording equipment. With the exception of a new iPhone, none of these products came from Apple, because either Apple doesn’t produce them or they are too expensive if they do. In some cases Apple’s product is actually inferior. If this was a trend, it may help explain their drop in profits.
  • One disappointment was my inability to find time to volunteer or socialize. Outside of working with stray dogs, I didn’t have much opportunity to contribute in a more direct way to our community in Taiwan (volunteering is actually illegal for foreigners), so I was hoping to be able to find opportunities to contribute here. I’m going to make volunteering one of my priorities for this year.

It’s been an extremely busy 6 months. There are some key upcoming events which just come in outside the 6 month mark, including: the kids write their first exams, and I have some important work related deadlines to hit. I’m looking forward to what the next 6 months might bring.

*I’d love to incorporate more data, with presentations akin to Nicholas Felton, but one of my many weaknesses has been good record keeping and I time box all my blogposts (which means I don’t give myself the time required to create something similar).

Design for Non-Designers

This presentation will go over design for non-designers, skipping the university-level concepts and jumping right to shortcuts and easy-to-remember principles. Recommended for those who want to learn just enough design to be dangerous (or for designers who’d like to better teach their coworkers and colleagues); featuring quick hits, easy to understand and utilize principles that anyone can use to improve their design skills

Why you don’t need a representative sample in your user research

Engaging a representative sample of participants in user research sounds like a good idea but it is flawed. It requires lots of participants, does not work in an agile development environment, stifles innovation and reduces your chances of finding problems in small sample usability tests. When combined with iterative design, theoretical sampling (where theory and data collection move hand in hand) provides a more practical alternative.
Why you don’t need a representative sample in your user research

People coming from a marketing or advertising background often have trouble believing the effectiveness of small sample sizes.

Short Visit

At the airport

Sheryl’s journey back to Taipei started with an all-too-early 5am flight out of Charlottetown yesterday. Luckily her return was uneventful – unlike her flight from Taipei which was marred by an Air Canada aircraft having technical problems in Shanghai. While a short visit, we did enjoy a wonderful Christmas as a family and were lucky to see family from afar while visiting Sheryl’s homestead in Truro.

It’s going to be a long 7 months until she returns in late July – especially for the kids. The kids get worn by my strict parenting style and lack of patience. If I believed in resolutions, developing more patience would be at the top of the list.