Prototyping life decisions

“So prototyping is a great way to go through your life because nobody knows the answer”

My first year on Prince Edward Island is coming to a close and it’s time to make some decisions as to what to do going forward – leaving has even been discussed. It’s spring and change is in the air.

I have come to loathe any kind of self-help advice and feel that for the most part change does not come from an online “guru” or in the pages of a book, but from deep within. I feel somewhat the same towards productivity methods, which used to be in vogue, and after studying most have come to realize that no tool or technique is going to remove the dissonance you feel from having to finish some aggravating task, so you can click a check button.

The best advice I have ever received has been deceptively simple, and likely means nothing to anyone but myself. My trumpet teacher would always advise to ignore the problem, in this case a consistently missed note, and focus on (a correct) process. My mother would simply say when I faced a problem, everything will work out in the end. She wisely kept the part as to whether the result would be positive or negative ambiguous, thereby assuring that she was indeed correct. I believe it was in an email conversation that John Maeda advised me that when facing two possible paths, choose both. I’ve since realized that doing everything is only possible for people like John Maeda.

Lately I have been faced with some hard choices. My technique to date would seem to be let the problem rest and the solution will emerge.

I have in part been doing the following:

Instead of long-term plans or goals for the future that can shut us off from what is happening right now, Tim Minchin advocates for the ‘passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals’.

‘Be micro-ambitious,’ he says. ‘Put your head down and work with pride on whatever is in front of you … you never know where you might end up. Just be aware that the next worthy pursuit will probably appear in your periphery. Which is why you should be careful of long-term dreams.’

When you don’t know which step to take, a small step can allow you to see what new opportunities appear.
How to figure out your next step

Which I found by accident when admiring the websites aesthetic, which is more or less similar to mine.

Essentially I have been trying different things over the past year to see what might work (prototyping). But the problem has still been festering, so I sought out help from a fellow advisor at the StartUp Zone, thinking that her expertise might be able to help. But recently after reviewing some material on design thinking, inspired in part by a recent design meetup, and my own need to introduce the techniques to others, I realized that I have the skills needed to solve all of these human wicked problems – design thinking. When I introduce an agile UX process to people, which is very similar to design thinking processes, I often tell people that this is how I live my life, short iterative bursts with time for reflection in between. But somehow I forgot about this when needing to make decisions about what’s next.

When big decisions arise, rather than leaping into the unknown on a gut feeling or a guess, you can apply design thinking: ask questions, seek feedback, prototype yourself by undergoing relevant experiences and exposing your assumptions to reality. … What you should do with your life is probably the most wicked problem there is, but design thinking and prototyping allow us to make the most refined choices we can.
How to Make Better Life Decisions through Design Thinking and Prototyping

Dave Evans overviews this idea in his video, To Make Big Life Decisions, Use Design Thinking and Prototyping.

I don’t have any one resource that I have relied upon for learning about Design Thinking, it wasn’t talked about much in my circles until a couple years ago, but I have read The Ten Faces of Innovation, Service Design: From Insight to Implementation, Sketching User Experiences, and Change by Design. Many colleagues liked The Human-Centered Design Toolkit but I have only given it a cursory glance.

Over the course of our 12th month here I’ll be using with more vigour the various design thinking techniques – sticky notes et al – to try to come to a thoughtful answer to what changes in direction I will be making for the next coming year.

Never cool

My son thinks I am a noob, or will gesture like above when given the chance. My daughter says I’m “a dad” with a certain inflection, which has positive and negative connotations I guess, and the last time we met, her English teacher told me I’m not cool. My Chinese teacher today said in our conversation that I am the strictest sounding father she has heard in some time. It’s tough.

The picture above was taken this past Saturday during a walk on the beach. It was brilliant seasonal weather.

Columbo interview technique

Kara Pernice introduces 3 techniques for facilitating user tests: Echo, Boomerang, and Columbo. Echo and Boomerang are fairly common and many would use these consciously or unconsciously, but the Columbo method is something I can’t remember consciously using in the past (silence is usually an effective technique to get people talking, as is talking about unrelated topics at the beginning of a session). It’s been an entertaining deep dive reading more about this method, it’s surprisingly used across a number of disciplines, but most enjoyable of all is watching old episodes of the TV series for which it is named after. You can learn a lot about interviewing people just by watching that show alone.

Changing minds has a simple introduction to the method.

Netflix Series Street Food

Taiwan’s unique culinary traditions are once again making tasty waves in the international media, this time thanks to a new Netflix series called Street Food. The series (which made its debut on the streaming service in May) dedicates each episode to the culinary traditions of one particular spot on the globe. Though hardly surprising that Taiwan made the first season, the show’s creators make a bold choice by skipping the usual Taiwanese culinary tropes of night markets, dumplings and beef noodle soup, choosing instead to focus on the culinary traditions of lesser-known (outside of Taipei) city of Chiayi.


Over the course of the 33-minute episode, viewers are treated to far more than just mouth-watering shots of food preparation. They’re also taken inside the homes, personal struggles and family dramas of the people behind the dishes.
Taiwan Scene

I watched the Chiayi episode last night, and started the Bangkok episode, Bangkok is my second favourite city to find good food. It’s a great episode and series overall, which makes me miss the region we lived in for so long, but I don’t think I will sit with the kids and watch, as the calls to return to Taiwan will be unrelenting for days. They love 豆花.

Unlike so many food programs I have seen, this gives some great insight into Taiwan culture; the family relationships and work culture are pretty evident when you listen to Grace Chia Hui Lin tell the story of smart fish.

Highly recommended.

Charlottetown short-term rental survey

But the city’s manager of planning Alex Forbes said the survey, written by city staff, isn’t trying to steer respondents to any particular conclusions.

“We attempted to write the survey in a manner that didn’t necessarily indicate that this was a preferred direction. It was to try to get all sides of the issue,” Forbes said.

As to the lack of an option to suggest the city limit short-term rentals to owner-occupied residences, Forbes said the goal wasn’t to spend “reams and reams of time” developing a “perfect” survey.

Alex Forbes gives the classic excuse when facing criticism over his departments research effort. The effort looks to be very weak and poorly written.

I would be the first to admit that I am not an expert in this particular form of research but I have prepared enough research plans to know when I see a weak effort. Personally, I have found the utility of surveys to be rather limited – you get so much more useful data from qualitative methods – and thus I can count the number of times I have written a survey on one hand.

I do know they have value, like other quantitive methods, in their ability to draw some general conclusions.

With an issue as important as this I would expect that the people who produced this survey, who may very well not have much research expertise, might do what many designers or engineers do when faced with a task for which they are unfamiliar, study and ask for help (hello stack overflow). We don’t all have the luxury of focusing on any one skill for an extended period of time, so the willingness to learn as you go, in order to best serve the goals of your project is essential. And as with any research effort, it’s also helpful to gain feedback from various stakeholders, and do a trial, to test the effectiveness of your research design.

Here are a few links which they could have started with, which took me all of 5 minutes to find on google:

How to create a quantitative research questionnaire correctly

28 Tips for Creating Great Qualitative Surveys

The Difference Between Quantitative vs. Qualitative Research

Good Practices in Survey Design Step-by-Step

Fundamentals of Survey Research Methodology

The Disgust for Hush: A Universal Pattern

The fact is, lack of back-and-forth chatter makes us uncomfortable. Research by Koudenburg, Postmes, and Gordijn has shown that, in the United States, it takes only four seconds before an extended period of silence becomes uncomfortable during conversation. Four seconds! Why the disgust for hush? Long story short, humans equate silence with rejection. We have an evolution-driven desire for conversation because it makes us feel connected and accepted. So why would we want to intentionally create periods of “awkward” silence with participants in workshops or research activities?
The power of intentional silence is well-known and utilized among many professional groups: Sales people pause after their pitches for dramatic effect. Counselors practice waiting five seconds after a patient stops speaking before responding. Nurses and physicians employ intentional silence in order to demonstrate compassion and respect. And negotiators adhere to the saying: “He who speaks first, loses.”
As UX professionals, we, too, can harness the power of intentional silence. If we can just become comfortable with that brief period of unsettling silence during our user interview sessions, usability tests, and workshops, we’ll get more out of our participants. Intentional silence, used strategically, can create space, invite response, and signal interest. And it is in periods of silence where participants often offer crucial and most-poignant information.

This is a difficult lesson in so many situations; something that I had to learn not just for holding customer interviews but for any kind of conflict resolution or negotiation. I have found it to be an essential skill in Taiwan.

The Science of Silence: Intentional Silence as a Moderation Technique

I decided to noise-cancel life

I own three pairs of noise-canceling headphones. Two go over my ears, enveloping them in cozy tombs of silence. One pair consists of earbuds, one of which I jam into my ear to block out the world while I use my other ear for phone interviews. Besides the noise-canceling kind, I have headphones for basically every activity I do. In fact, I recently came to the disturbing realization that there’s rarely a moment of my day when my ears are not filled with or covered by something.


I realize the dangers inherent in this overall trend—I might even go so far as to call it “socially alienating” and “destructive of relationships”—but I nevertheless feel it’s inexorable. At this point, everything is curated—except, of course, what we hear. And as long as unfamiliar sounds are going to be foisted on me all day, it feels good to draw a private, firm border. The buck stops at my cochlea.

This is a somewhat new habit for me. One of my goals for moving to PEI was to escape the constant din of noise that I experienced elsewhere and yet during the day I am either wearing noise cancelling headphones or Etymotic Research Earplugs, and non-vented earplugs to sleep. Wearing earplugs has some risks but so does a lack of sleep.

What Happens When You Always Wear Headphones

Keeping good records

I’m in the midst of rewriting my resume for use by “some government agency” as part of my involvement with the StartUp Zone as a product specialist. Though not yet confirmed, I may also be looking for work, so it’s a necessary exercise in an effort to communicate who I am to strangers.

Of course it’s not enough to say you did something, you also need to show some evidence to back up your claims of being “critically engaged in bringing in over $xxm in business in xx years time”. This leads to one of my greatest errors in all but the most recent years in Taiwan and China – poor records of the work I participated in or completed.

I’m not sure how important the projects I worked on 10, 15 or 20 years ago are in terms of explaining myself today, but if pressed I have scattered evidence to back-up my claims. Some screenshots, some early portfolio work, and in some cases the complete project files. What’s most important is not a pretty picture but a detailed accounting of the thinking behind each project. What I remember might be enough, but I’m not confident my memory is good enough to remember exhaustive details of a website redesign from 18 years ago.

The most forward thinking people I worked with kept a detailed account of each project of importance – above and beyond what is needed for reporting. Some wrote bullet point records, others wrote extensive case studies replete with progress shots. This is a good idea and something I learned much too late.

In an effort to protect myself, in one of my last engagements I would record every meeting, phone call and all the work I had done for any particular project. It was that kind of office, where you always had to prove you’re worth. But despite the stressful environment, the positive outcome was a fairly detailed accounting of what role I had, my thinking and what activities were performed. It’s also invaluable to be able to go back and see the research, and literature reviews that were recorded.

I’ve gotten lazy with my reporting this past year and haven’t really kept great records. This is something I hope to work on before the weather turns warm (judging by the current weather it may stay winter-like for some time) and I want to spend as little time stuck inside as possible.

Some perspective

I have a tendency to see things as they should be compared to how they could be or how they have improved. This comes up often when I express disappointment with Catriona’s academic performance, she the optimist states that she has improved, while I state that she still isn’t reaching her potential.

This frames my frequent grumblings about the local medical system and my anxiety with the possibility of growing old here on the Island. My mothers quality of life was greatly diminished by a lack of timely diagnosis and care, until the end, when she was in palliative care where she experienced what can only be described as the best attention that people can give to others; a shining example of what quality care should be.

But as the screenshot of Alberto Cairo’s tweet below shows, things could be much much worse:

I don’t know much about the US health care system, but I feel there is no way we could attempt to lead the life we want to live here, in the manner in which we are attempting, south of the border. In that context we seem very lucky.

Via DoctorbyDesigner

Theatre of innovation

Ideo breaks its silence on design thinking’s critics

I’ve been a leading actor in many a department or companies attempts at innovation – by my very nature I created conflict, as is bound to happen when you insert someone of a different culture, language, and values into an existing group of people. Conflict is a great thing until senior management see short term lapses in productivity, then they put initiatives on hold and say, “we aren’t yet ready”.

We never used the term design thinking, but we certainly used many of the methods contained within. To me it just seemed like a new way to frame what many had been doing all along.

“We get a lot of the materials that look like innovation, or look like they make us more creative,” Hendrix says. “That could be anything from getting a bunch of Sharpie markers and Post-its and putting them in rooms for brainstorms, to having new dress codes, to programming play into the week. They all could be good tools to serve up creativity or innovation, they all could be methods of design thinking, but without some kind of history or strategy to tie them together, and track their progress, track their impact, they end up being a theatrical thing that people can point to and say, ‘oh we did that.’”

I found myself in a corporate innovation workshop last week hosted at the Startup Zone and led by a very talented “workshopper” from Halifax. The first activity naturally involved sticky notes which led me to posit on twitter as to how did we innovate before the sticky note came along. Sticky notes have seemingly become a necessary magical artifact whose very use will cause creativity to appear out of thin air. In many design teams I have visited, the sticky notes are left on the walls for months as some kind of design happens here badge. Having said that, for some reason I still carry a pack with me whenever I carry my backpack – one never knows when you might have to break out the sharpies, which I also carry, and lead an ideation session.

So as with many things I’m a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to some design jargon, but not so much so that I would turn down an opportunity to hold a series of workshops this summer on this very topic. It’s not been finalized yet but they should be held sometime in July.

Another medical system misstep

In the past, for the most part, if one of the kids got sick we would immediately make an appointment with of the many children’s clinics that seem almost ubiquitous in Hsinchu. If late at night, a quick visit to emergency might also be in order. The only real hesitation we had was the time and stress required to fight traffic during the long rush hour(s).

Other than determining the seriousness of their affliction, and overprescribing medication, doctors in Hsinchu provided a great point of contact for understanding what illnesses were making their way through the city. That way we could be better prepared for the progression of their symptoms, and prepare ourselves if we were also to get afflicted.

That almost reflex to see a doctor is something that I fight against here, as everything is weighed against “is it worthy of a 5-7+ hour wait in emergency”. This is a rather risky equation, as I am no nurse, and some problems are hard to diagnose.

This week Camren had severe vomiting and diarrhea. I initially didn’t take him to a walk in clinic as it seemed like a serious but common gastro intestinal virus. We all eat the same food and he didn’t have an infection. As a result he had a day of rest, kept hydrated, and managed to go to school the following day.

Last night before Jujitsu he complained of stomach pain. He characterized it as being super hungry, so I fed him a banana, and he helped himself to some bread with peanut butter. I then dropped him off at class and ran some errands nearby. But when I arrived back at his class to watch him grapple, he was sitting at the side and the teacher, or professor as he likes to be addressed, told me his stomach was too sore to work out. He hobbled out the door of his dojo, hunched over like an old man might be characterized in a cartoon, and made his way to the car. I saw cold sweat on his forehead which indicated real pain.

When we got home I checked to see if there were any clinics open Island wide. It was 6:30 and they all seemed to be closed but for the one at the Murphys Pharmacy in Stratford, which was scheduled to remain open until 7:30pm. I called the clinic to check if they were still seeing patients and was presented with a recording stating they were open until 7:30.

I packed Camren into the car to go to the clinic and told him not to get his hopes up, as experience has taught me that last minute visits to walk in clinics here are often unsuccessful – they may not be able to see more patients. Enroute I asked him to rate his pain. I said if your broken arm was a 10, how would this rate? He said an 8.

We arrived at the clinic to find that they closed early. Lovely. With no other clinics open we really only have one other choice, the emergency room.

We drove home and I gave him a cursory exam – no fever, no blood in stool, stomach not distended or hard, and he wasn’t vomiting. I used the “is it worthy of a 5-7+ hour wait in emergency” equation and decided to let him rest until morning. He agreed.

Luckily this morning he was fine. But I regret having made this decision. And I don’t appreciate having to make this decision in the first place.

Stomach pain is one of the symptoms that is usually worthy of a trip to an emergency room if other options don’t exist, and so I wasn’t overly concerned about adding stress to the system from an unwarranted visit. My concern was the real possibility that sitting in a chair all night in order to see a medical professional, might make matters worse for him, and to a lesser extent me (I’ve come down with yet another wicked chest cold).

Perhaps this limited access is the norm in most countries but it certainly adds unneeded anxiety to our lives here.

*Peter helpfully points out that there is a service that will help you decide whether your symptoms are worthy of a trip to the hospital. Just dial 811.

Reframing the conversation on patient experience: Three considerations

In experience, every voice matters, and each of those individual voices are contributing to an ocean of ripples that are positively impacting countless lives. In experience, no one organization owns, nor should claim to own all the answers, but many contribute to the possibilities found in elevating the human experience in healthcare. In experience, when we ensure this is a true strategic focus at the heart of healthcare we will find our way to achieving all the outcomes we aspire to achieve and know are possible in healthcare. This issue helps frame that reality though contributions from around the world touching on a broad range of topics, but yet in their distinction, find a powerful commonality, a commitment to the humanity of healthcare. If we reframe the conversation on patient experience to one that is about all we aspire to achieve, about how every role matters, every voice contributes, every perspective brings value and seasoning to an ever expanding mix of possibility, than what we can do in healthcare is boundless. A conversation on experience is not tangential to this opportunity we face, rather it rest squarely at its core and it is incumbent on each and every one of us to contribute. That may be our greatest opportunity in a global healthcare system where access and equity, quality and safety, empathy and compassion and health and well-being are not just what we do as work, but the fundamental reality of all do as human beings caring for human beings.

“Far too many healthcare conversations still identify the concept of experience as separate from other points of focus, such as quality or safety. This perpetuates that idea that experience is simply the service provided and minimizes the perspective that those receiving care bring to healthcare themselves”.

Jason Wolf ~ Patient Experience Journal (Volume 6 Issue 1) *You have about 3-4 clicks before you can read the journal article, but you can read for free.

The Value of Ritual in Your Workday

His acrobatics were impressive, but they were merely a demonstration of his strength. The source was this tea ritual and many other rituals like it. His power as a warrior came from his patience, precision, attention to subtlety, concentration, and his reverence for the moment.

Both of my children had the benefit of attending a private elementary school in Taiwan which eschewed the current trend for using tech for tech’s sake in schools, and instead focused on more giving children more time to slow down and think. They took classes in Chinese calligraphy, Farming, Kendo, Art, and Tea Making. All required otherwise hyper kids to slow down and focus on what they were doing at the moment, and importantly, all were physical to some degree. Tea making not only taught them the importance of ritual, but also taught them how to make a proper cup of tea (a not to be dismissed skill).

The power of ritual is profound and under-appreciated. Mostly, I think, it’s because we live in a time-starved culture, and ritual is time-indulgent. Who can afford the luxury of doing one thing at a time? Who has the patience to pause and honor an activity before and after we do it?


Here’s what makes it easy to get started with this: no one needs to know.

Start with just yourself. Sit at your desk in the morning, pause before booting up your computer, and mark the moment. Do this by taking a deep breath. Or by arranging your pens. Whatever it is, do it with the intention of creating respect for what you’re about to begin. Do the same before you make a phone call. Or receive one. Or before you meet with a colleague or customer.

Though I find computers to be lifeless things, preparing yourself for a work sprint seems like a good idea to me.

From The Value of Ritual in Your Workday

A smooth sea never made a skillful sailor

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with “Naga”, my Chinese teacher, around a number of very simple topics like foods, our past life in Hsinchu, and some of the differences we have discovered between Canada and Taiwan. With the exception of a brief foray into low carb diets, this is about the level of conversation I can handle these days.

We talked briefly about challenges, or the comparative lack their of in my day to day life here.

Some long term residents of Taiwan might chuckle, but just walking outside your door in Hsinchu presents some challenge; you never know when a scooter or a car might come screaming down the side walk. Crossing the street safely introduces a whole other level of difficulty. Add learning a complex language, a culture which beneath the surface is radically different from my own, and high stress work environments, and it might be easy to see how life here is far more sane.

With the exception of possibly being malled by a scooter, I do miss the challenges I faced there – the insanity. Living in a foreign land, even for the length of time I did, keeps you on your toes, forces you to constantly learn new things, and in the case of Hsinchu force feeds you a steady diet of stress. Perhaps it’s telling that I miss the workplace most of all – the hard problems, ridiculous timelines, and the difficulties in communication (I do recognize that my family doesn’t miss the amount of time I needed to normalize after work).

She brought up a salient conclusion that being in the place where you grew up can make you too comfortable, and that I need to create the conditions here that allow for the same amount growth that I experienced there (but for the sake of those around me, without the stress). Achieving that kind of growth alone might be the biggest challenge of all.

Writing … provides students with powerful opportunities to learn about themselves and their connections to the world. Through writing, students organize their thoughts, remember important information, solve problems, reflect on a widening range of perspectives, and learn how to communicate effectively for specific purposes and audiences. They find their voice and have opportunities to explore other voices. By putting their thoughts into words and supporting the words with visual images in a range of media, students acquire knowledge and deepen their understanding of the content in all school subjects. Writing also helps students to better understand their own thoughts and feelings and the events in their lives.
Literacy for Learning: The Report of the Expert Panel on Literacy in Grades 4 to 6 in Ontario, 2004, p. 79


After coming from asking my young downstairs neighbour to not play her boom boom music so loud in her bedroom after 10pm*, I just procrastinated for 30 minutes trying to write a sentence in Chinese.

I’m looking for a new Chinese tutor and a good teacher always asks what your goals are. In the past I would reply by saying I would like to speak like a native speaker or sound just like you. I liked impossible goals. Now I simply state that I hope it will slow down or reverse cognitive decline. Perhaps, also an impossible goal.

Cognitive decline could be either 認知能力的衰退過程 or 認知力下降. I’m not sure which is best and my learn Chinese network is all asleep.

* I think I need to take Kirstin Lunds Conflict Resolution course because my well established methods don’t work here.

Negative communication

Someone was angry when they created the messaging for this sign.

In a recent post, Peter gives an excellent example of how we can use language to frame a reality – in this case a street sign which sends a negative message in what should be expressed as a positive. That area is pretty much the lifeblood of the city in summer.

The picture above taken at an old exit inside the Confederation Court Mall, takes this to a needlessly hostile level. In this case you need to find a way to balance the requirement for an exit/entrance with peoples tendencies to make mistakes without treating everyone like a criminal. What message does this sign give to visitors to the space?

Giving it away is more profitable

The day before yesterday, despite the protestations of my son, I sold a Samsung 40” TV that has been sitting under my desk for the 10 months I have been here on the Island. It sat there mostly due to laziness and some vague idea that I might “use it for something”.

I listed it on Facebook for $50, which I thought was reasonable, and would guarantee a quick sale. Later I learned that that might have been a tad low, as it wasn’t 5 minutes after posting, that a flurry of messages starting dinging on my phone from interested parties. And the messages kept coming.

I initially tried to respond to each and every message that came my way. Eventually it was becoming too laborious, so I created a template in Drafts to help automate replies. This too was taking too much time so I set up a who-looks-like-they-deserve-this-old-TV filter to help me decide who to interact with.

I fell into the same trap I criticize companies of; poor communication (it’s only an ad on FB but I felt bad about how I interacted with people).

Eventually the buying customer came all the way from Kensington just before I had to go pick up my daughter from choir. All in all, it took over an hour of my time to sell that old TV.

I should have given it away.

Early home office

Circa ~ 2003 home office. Coffee culture didn’t exist in Hsinchu at that time so I killed myself with Diet Coke. No wifi either.

My copy of “Metaphors We Live By” by George Lakoff was pretty fresh then. A valuable text for anyone employed as a writer or in UX, or simply trying to understand the text we read. Wikipedia describes it as:

“Conceptual metaphors are seen in language in our everyday lives. Conceptual metaphors shape not just our communication, but also shape the way we think and act. In George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s work, Metaphors We Live By (1980), we see how everyday language is filled with metaphors we may not always notice. An example of one of the commonly used conceptual metaphors is “argument is war”.