Category Archives: essays

Jumper

Originally posted on Medium.

Trigger warning: Suicide.

It was a beautiful Friday morning. I had gone to a Creative Mornings talk at Seattle Center and was headed to the University of Washington to do some grading and hold office hours. I had a clever idea: instead of walking a mile to downtown Seattle and catching an express bus to the University District, I would walk a few blocks and catch a 32 that would take a more scenic route via Queen Anne and Fremont. It was a risky move, because the 32 came much less frequently, but I had plenty of time and was feeling adventurous.

I started walking. Although I was on a major road, there was very little traffic. I could only see two other pedestrians, both about a block ahead of me on either side of the road.

A loud crack shattered the quiet. Suddenly, a block or so ahead of me, there was a man lying in the road, less than 10 feet from one of the other pedestrians. He wasn’t moving.

I couldn’t figure out where he’d come from. Had he been hit by a car? If so, where had he been before that? Why hadn’t I seen him? He wasn’t moving. Was he ok?

I started walking towards him, to figure out what had just happened and whether or not I could help. The man near him pulled out his phone and called 911. The other pedestrian ran across the street to the prone body. A car pulled over and three people rushed out. One of them started to perform CPR and the other two assisted her.

As I got closer, I could see from across the street that CPR wasn’t going to change anything. I was faintly impressed that she was trying anyway.

Other cars started to pull over and block off the lane that the man was lying in. By the time I made it over, there was a crowd of 10-15 people assessing the situation. I could only hear snippets of what people were saying.

From the woman doing CPR: “No pulse…”

From the man on the phone: “He almost hit me!” (Had the man fallen? Or jumped?)

An ambulance pulled up and the crew jumped out. It was clear that I wasn’t going to be of any use. I left.

I ran into an elderly Asian woman, headed to the grocery store. She reminded me a bit of my grandmother. I told her that she didn’t want to walk down that street. She’d heard the noise, wanted to know if someone had been shot. I didn’t know what to say, so I just reiterated that she should take a different route. “You don’t want to see that.”

As I walked up to the bus stop, I pulled out my phone and texted a close friend. I still wasn’t sure what had actually happened, but I was starting to suspect that the man had committed suicide by jumping off a nearby structure.

(I later confirmed this by checking publicly available dispatch reports and local news articles. I don’t know why knowing mattered so much to me, but it did.)

Unsurprisingly, I missed my bus. Dazed, I got on a different bus headed towards downtown. The people around me were going about their lives, business as usual. It occurred to me that they probably had no idea that someone had just died less than half a mile away. That they would probably never find out. I didn’t know how handle the fact that these people would never care about something that had sent me reeling.

I couldn’t get the sound he made hitting the ground out of my head.

As much as I wanted to talk to someone, I was wary of upsetting people or grossing them out. I discussed it with a few close friends, handwaving away the details. I didn’t tell them about how neatly he was dressed or the way his body flopped as the woman from the car performed chest compressions or how I knew that he’d hit his head.

To one of my housemates, I simply said that I’d “had a weird day” and that I didn’t want to ruin his day with the details. To the other two, I said nothing.


The man died. I don’t know who he was or why he did it, but I know that he wasn’t there by accident. And even then, although it was a lost cause, people stopped and tried to help.

It seems like a weird takeaway, but it was an unexpectedly reassuring experience. The street had been empty save for myself and two other pedestrians. In the time it took me to walk a block and cross a 4-lane road, there were enough people trying to help that there was nothing for me to do, and city emergency response vehicles were only a few minutes behind them. I can only assume that people would react the same way if something bad happened to me.

So you want to write design principles

Originally posted on Medium.

You want to write some design principles? Cool.

You’ve never done this before? That’s ok. Going from zero to principles can be a little daunting, but you’ll be fine. You’ve got this. I’ll help.

Start with why.

What are these design principles for?

Maybe you’re trying to establish a guiding vision. Maybe you’re trying to get your team aligned. Maybe you just need to bring clarity to a confusing space. Figure out the point you’re trying to make, and back it up in your principles.

Is your audience internal or external? Do they have an established point of view? How technical are they? How much design experience do they have? Tailor your language to your audience. If everyone is coming from the same background as you, build on top of that shared knowledge. If not, make sure to explain any fundamentals that won’t be obvious.

It’s not about you.

Although you’ve been tasked with writing design principles, you aren’t responsible for generating them by yourself. Your job is to record insights, not to author them.

Build a team.

Start with the people you’ve already got — the people you work with most closely in this area. Aim for a mix of perspectives and experience levels. Get PMs and designers in the room, and make sure to include both junior and senior people.

Keep the size of the group manageable. You need to be able to have real conversations with one another, so stick to single digits.

Include stakeholders in the conversation. If other groups are affected by your work (or you’d like them to be), make sure to keep an open communication channel. You shouldn’t invite all of them to your discussions, but you can’t expect to throw principles over the wall with no preamble and have them follow everything blindly.

You’re the moderator.

Your most important job is to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. You’ve got a group of people from all sorts of backgrounds. Some of them may report to other people in the room. They may come from entirely different teams, with all of the history that comes with that.

Your job is to create a space where those dynamics can be shelved, and everyone can speak up as an equal. Make it clear to any leads or managers in the room that they are there as individual contributors, not as leaders.

If someone isn’t speaking up, figure out why. Maybe they are just introverted. This isn’t a problem — being in the meeting is valuable for them, but they may not have much to say until hours or days later. Create a way that they can add their thoughts in their own time (for example, tell them explicitly that they can email you or talk to you one-on-one after meetings). Maybe they aren’t comfortable because of the other people in the room. This is a problem, one that you need to fix as quickly as possible. Some things that you can do to help:

  1. Be assertive. If your establish control over the flow of conversation, you can more effectively create space for other people to speak.
  2. Don’t let anyone interrupt or railroad other people. If you see someone failing to get their opinion in, pause the conversation and ask them to share their thoughts.
  3. Listen actively. When someone speaks, especially if they’ve been quiet, pay attention, and reiterate their points to them and the group. Put your opinions aside and focus on making sure you understand what they’re trying to communicate and not on whether or not you agree with them (other people will take care of that for you).
  4. Provide positive reinforcement. Figure out what’s useful about their comments, and call that out. For example, if someone says something controversial, it’s an interesting point that merits further discussion. If they say something obvious, it’s an important fundamental to keep in mind.
  5. Watch your body language. Make sure you’re redirecting your gaze periodically to look at everyone in the room, and be aware of your blind spots. Don’t just point your body at the most senior people in the room; show equal deference to the junior folks as well. If you’ve done a good job establishing yourself as moderator, everyone else will cue off of how you treat people. Use that wisely!

The first meeting lays the groundwork.

Your first meeting is crucial for setting the tone of the entire process. Luckily, everything that would normally make a meeting hard is valuable here!

Your job in this meeting is to figure out what all of the important topics are. This usually goes one of two ways: statements that everyone agrees with, and statements that cause a lot of tension.

Find what you disagree on.

An easy way to identify meaningful topics is to tell everyone to come to the first meeting with their 5 most important design principles written down. Be clear that they should work alone on this.

Once you’ve got everyone in the same room, have them write their principles on note cards or post-its. Take all of the cards from everyone, to separate ideas from people. You may need an individual to take ownership of a statement long enough to explain it, but focus on separating statements from the people who wrote them (and their relationships and reputations) as much as possible.

With the group steering, affinity diagram the principles that you’ve got. Statements that agree go together. Statements that disagree or have tension also go together. Let the room talk about each one, but keep it brief. If tensions aren’t resolved quickly, star that section of the map and table it for future discussion.

Reiterate to the room that these areas are valuable, because it means that this is a place where having a design principle is meaningful. Use neutral, nonjudgemental language (for example, I like to refer to things as “open questions”).

If any other interesting questions come up during discussion, write them down, ideally where everyone can see them.


A word about definitions.

Sometimes disagreements arise because everyone means something slightly different when they talk about the design space. If you notice this happening, or someone asks something like “what do we mean when we say ___?”, take some time to define confusing or controversial terms. I promise, it will make life easier.


Keep track of your disagreements.

Record all of the groups you ended up with in your affinity diagramming, and make sure that you know which areas had strong agreement (i.e. almost everyone wrote a principle about the area) and disagreement (two or more people had conflicting principles). This is your roadmap for all future discussions.

Answer your open questions.

Now all you have to do is get the group to resolve all of the disagreements you’ve highlighted. Piece of cake!

  1. All that moderation stuff you were doing earlier? Keep doing it.
  2. Tackle one issue at a time. While it can be hard to keep the group on track, staying focused on one issue at a time helps prevent drawn out conflicts and epic arguments. Write down anything insightful that comes up in tangential conversations as a future discussion point, and then reset the group.
  3. Tease out the fundamental question before struggling with answers. It’s easy to pick one side or the other based on the opinions that highlighted the disagreement, but it’s not useful.Figure out what the root of the tension is and resolve that. For example, if the disagreement is on whether or not touching in the middle of a block of text should highlight a word or move the cursor there, the real question may be “Is touch forediting existing content or creating new content?”
  4. If someone is having an epiphany, give them space to think. Don’t rush forward without them, and encourage the room to listen quietly while they sort out their thoughts. It may feel inefficient, but disrupting their train of thought before they get to an answer is a far bigger waste of time than pausing for a minute or two.
  5. Write down insights. If you’re doing a good job getting at the heart of your open questions, answering them will lead to important insights about the design space. These insights are what you’re trying to find, so when they come out you should immediately record them.

Now you can write your principles.

Good job! You’re finally in a place where drafting a set of principles makes sense. This can be something that you do alone or with your group. Go with what makes sense to you.

Remember your roadmap? Go back to it, and find all of the areas you noted before. Meaningful design principles will most likely come from the two areas we talked about before: strong agreement, and tensions that led to open questions.

Areas with strong agreement are probably so fundamental to the area that they warrant a principle, but if they’re obvious to your intended audience you may be able to get away with skipping them (even so, they can be valuable to reiterate). Write down drafts of however many principles this leads you to.

Once you’ve finished those, go through your list of open questions. Which ones had interesting answers? What insights did you identify along the way? Pull out everything meaningful, especially things that weren’t obvious, from here and draft principles around them.

Now you’ve got a list of draft design principles. High five! Put them in a rough prioritization order (don’t spend more than 5 minutes here) and share them with your group.

Design is iterative, and principles are too.

You’re not quite done (sorry). Get your group together and go through all of your principles. Does everyone agree with them as they are written? Does anything seem off about them? Is anything important being left out? Make sure that you’re still creating an environment where everyone feels safe voicing their concerns.

Keep rewriting them until the whole group feels good about every principle.

Once you’ve got internal agreement, share your principles with close partners and stakeholders. See how they interpret the principles you’ve written and what concerns or disagreements they have. This will show where you can improve your wording to be clearer, and highlights any mistaken assumptions you may have made about your audience’s understanding of the space.

It’s also possible that a thoughtful and well-informed partner will bring up something that your team has overlooked. Don’t panic! You know how to handle this. Get your group back together and tackle this new area until you’ve gotten it sorted.

You’re finally done!

Congratulations, you have a set of design principles! Use them well.

Seven months of Microsoft

This is a response to the open letter to PM recruiters that Ellen Chisa wrote, which is in turn a response to a tweet by Jon Bell.

I’ve been a PM at Microsoft for about 7 months now. In that time, I’ve gotten solicited by quite a few recruiters aiming to poach me. The interesting thing is that they don’t seem to care about my current job as anything more than a sign that I am, in fact, hireable. I’ve gotten comments on my UX background, and my essays, and my Github profile, and my philanthropic work, but not a single recruiter has asked me “So, what do you do at Microsoft?”

It’s a shame, because my experience is that Microsoft PMs do a lot of great things that would be valuable anywhere.

Caveat: These observations are based on my personal experience working in the Windows Shell. They cannot, and should not, be extended verbatim to every organization in the company. However, I believe they’re still a good representation of organizational culture at Microsoft.

Networking

In my day-to-day I work closely with 5 designers, 1 user researcher (soon to be 2), and 2 other PMs. My team, which is part of the Windows Shell, also works closely with our sister team on the Windows Core, so we regularly meet with 2-3 PMs from that team.

I’m involved in a cross-group initiative, which includes meeting weekly with PMs from half a dozen teams.

We’re also trying to help app teams do great things with our features, so my teammates and I have been reaching out to people from various app teams. We’re actively talking to about half a dozen of those too.

I also own a feature that spans multiple areas in Windows, which means working closely with PMs from at least two other Shell teams.

Not to mention daily interactions with the rest of my team – even though we’re focused on different areas, we regularly chat in the hall, eat lunch together, and find time to bounce ideas off of one another.

In a normal week, I’m working with upwards of 30 people. And we’re in planning right now, so I’m really only interacting with Design and PM. That number is only going to grow as we start working with Developers and Quality folks (formerly known as Testers).

Collaboration

I haven’t met a single person at Microsoft who isn’t willing to help others. Even when old conflicts resurface, individual people are willing to help individual people. Playing well together and teamwork are highly valued here, and it’s reflected in our new employee assessment format (which specifically calls out helping others get work done).

The most common sentiment expressed in our many cross-group collaborations is “Tell us what you need to be great, and we’ll see what we can do to help.”

Design

PMs aren’t designers, but we work closely with them and we all care about great design. Furthermore, every PM I’ve worked with feels a responsibility to champion end users and deliver great experiences. People come to the company because it’s opportunity to touch hundreds of millions of people. We have to make hard decisions along the way and things don’t always work out the way we expected, but don’t doubt for a second that Microsoft employees don’t want to build things that make the world a better place.

Just about any idea you can imagine to make a product better, someone at the company is thinking about. Hopefully they’ll get to build it! But if they can’t, it’s because shipping a product to a billion people is hard. Maybe the onscreen keyboard doesn’t have as many cool accelerators as you’d like because someone spent the last release making it support Buginese (and several other languages that previously didn’t work with computers).

Data

The engineering culture here is unquestionably data driven. User research, usability studies, flighting and telemetry, and competitive analysis are all part of day-to-day life. If you can’t back up what you’re saying, people aren’t going to take you seriously.

Product vision

It’s easy to assume that employees at such a massive company just show up and build what they’re told to build. I’m sure there are places where that is fairly accurate, but it’s far from true in my organization. We get direction from leadership, and we the areas we own are scoped, but PMs are given autonomy and expected to use it to think strategically.

At the end of the day, features have to add value. How will this feature appeal to people? How will it move product off the shelves? How does it affect our app ecosystem? Our device ecosystem?

The best PMs are the ones who pitch ideas with answers to those questions. Want to get a proposal through? Explain how what you’re working on helps grow the business.

Execution

At the end of the day, a PM’s job is to make things happen. It’s the primary thing that we’re assessed on. A good PM anywhere makes sure that the right thing ships, in the right condition, at the right time. Because so many people have to work in tandem, execution is rigorous. PMs have to deliver.

Welcome to the colorblind future

Originally posted on Medium.

A stranger stops my mother as she carries me across the UW campus.

“Did you get the baby from Korea?”

“No… I made it myself.”


When my mother picks me up from daycare, the other kids tell me that I’m adopted. I try to argue with them, but they won’t listen to me.


My sixth grade classmates switch to Chinese whenever I walk near them. I know that they speak English more fluently; this is just to drive the point home.

Although he was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, my father started school without knowing a word of English. Scarred by years of intense bullying, he never taught me Cantonese. 11 years old and desperate to fit in, I’m oblivious to the irony of resenting him for it.


“Mixed children are always the most beautiful.”

I’m not sure why my guidance counselor is telling me this, or what it has to do with approving my class schedule.


My mother and I are in line at the grocery store, stealing some time together while I’m home from college. The Asian woman behind us accosts my mother, offended that she is wearing Chinese jade. My mother explains that it was a gift from my grandmother, a family heirloom. The woman doesn’t seem to care.


I’m on vacation with my family, enjoying a brief respite from grad school. The clerk at the ice cream shop tries to take my father’s order with the Asian 20-somethings standing next us, skipping past me, my mother, and my brother.

Eventually she realizes her mistake and blushes.

She doesn’t apologize.

Talking about depression

Allie Brosh recently updated Hyperbole and a Half with the most poignant description of depression that I’ve ever read. If you’ve never dealt with depression, go read it.*

She highlights a lot of really important parts of depression that many people don’t really understand, putting words to an experience that’s incredibly difficult to describe (especially when you’re in the middle of it). Her post resonated with me because I’ve never had a good framework for describing my own experiences with depression.

I sank into a bout of depression at the end of my senior year of college**. I graduated without a job or a plan, surrounded by friends who had already lined up spots at companies like Microsoft and Google. I moved home and sat on the couch for a few months. Then I moved to Seattle and sat on a different couch. I mostly did nothing. Although I was bored, lonely, and frustrated, I couldn’t muster the energy needed to deal with other people.

Friends encouraged me to look for a job, not realizing that looking at job postings triggered massive panic attacks. I was too inexperienced, I was terrible at interviewing, nobody would want to work with me, I had no explanation for my unemployment – these all seemed like insurmountable problems to me. While I never completely lost hope that the future would be better, I had no idea how to get there. All I wanted was to fast-forward through my life and skip to the part where all my problems were solved. Thoughts of suicide never came up, but I frequently wished that I would get hit by a car so that I could just stay in the hospital and wait for things to get better. In a way, I think I wanted the state of my body to reflect the state of my mind so that all of me could heal at the same speed.

Nobody really knew what was wrong with me. My friends knew that there was something wrong, but couldn’t figure out what to do to fix it. My parents worried from afar, but didn’t know the extent of my problems. I certainly had no idea what was going on, attributing my unhappiness to my unemployment and lack of direction (it wasn’t until much later that I figured out that these were symptoms, not causes).

After about 10 months, the fog started to lift. It just took was some waiting; my depression was more like a broken bone than a chronic illness. I was incredibly lucky that all I needed was time, and that I could afford it, supported by friends and family who stuck with me and helped me keep going (no matter how difficult I was to be around***). Re-energized, I got my life back on track. In less than a year I was doing quite well: I helped start the Seattle Awesome Foundation, entered graduate school, got a job as a TA, and joined the Global Shapers in quick succession. More importantly, I rediscovered my drive, ambition, and ability to really care about things.

I recently told a new friend this story and she responded that she never would have guessed, that I seemed so happy and successful that she never would have imagined that I had been so low only two years ago. You can’t look at me and see my history. I don’t have any scars from my depression. That’s why it’s so important to me to talk about it: knowing this story will change your perception of me, and I hope it will change your perception of depression as well.

I’m not ashamed of my experiences with depression, and I don’t think that anyone else should be ashamed of theirs either. I mostly wish that someone had talked to me while I was going through it. My biggest fear was that there was no way out and I was going to be trapped in that state forever. Seeing that this was a temporary obstacle, and being shown that I could get through it and still live the kind of life I wanted to have, would have done so much for me. While I’m positive that I would have outwardly rejected it and explained that this was a nice story that couldn’t possibly apply to me, I think that deep down it would have planted a few seeds of hope.

I can only hope that telling my story will make it easier for someone else – maybe by giving them a way to talk about their own experiences, or getting them to ask for help, or encouraging them to stick with a friend who’s struggling, or helping them keep up the search for the light at the end of their own tunnel.

* If you have experienced depression, do what you want. You may find it comforting to read or it may be triggering (primarily the description of suicidal ideation) or it may be neither here nor there for you. I found it incredibly relatable, but we all have unique experiences and perspectives.

** For those of you dying of curiosity: The short story is that I got in over my head trying to help a friend and ran myself into the ground. The long story involves other peoples’ personal information, which means I’m not about to broadcast it to the world.

*** And I was quite difficult to be around, oscillating between clingy, emotionally unresponsive, and relatively normal. I’m incredibly grateful to have these people in my life.

A case study in team presenting

Ellen and I are beginning to really enjoy presenting together. We’re consistently well-received, and we get a lot of comments about how seamlessly we transition and how entertaining we are. Our most recent endeavor was a 20-minute talk about the Awesome Foundation at Creative Mornings Seattle. I thought it would be interesting to talk a bit about how we put these kinds of talks together, given how few role models there are for this kind of talk.

Communication

We started talking as soon as we confirmed that we were going to present together. Long before we made any slides, we mulled over the general content of our talk together. What did we want our take-home message to be? What stories did we want to tell? Working together to narrow down what we were trying to say helped keep us on the same page and led to better ideas than either of us would have come up with alone.

Figuring out the flow

Once we had a general idea for the theme of our talk, we moved on to figuring out the flow of our talk. We started a shared Google Docs slideshow and put together a “prep deck”. We treated the slides from this as an outline for what we were going to talk about, not the first edition of our slides. As we added slides, we also chatted continuously with one another, bouncing ideas back and forth until they worked. Since we already agreed about where we trying to go with the talk, and had gone over key discussion points, it was pretty painless to figure out a path from A to B.

rough_deck

When I say we didn’t treat this as a first version of our slides, I mean it! This prep deck is all about pacing the talk.

Making the slides

Since I had slightly more time than Ellen, and a working copy of PowerPoint, I took responsibility for making our slide deck. I spent about 5 hours (across several editing sessions) putting a first draft of our deck together, using our prep deck as a reference. A significant portion of this time was spent tracking down good images and ironing out animations.

Once I had a first draft put together I sent it to Ellen and we scheduled a Skype meeting to walk through it. We spent this time double-checking the flow of our presentation and making sure that our slides made sense. Having a higher fidelity deck helped us focus on the details of our presentation. We moved a few slides, but we didn’t dramatically restructure the talk. This is when we started to focus on who was going to say what, and how we would hand off lines.

draft_deck

The actual first draft of our slide deck. Most of these slides got rearranged later in the process as we practiced out loud and revised our flow.

Practice, practice, practice

Ellen flew to Seattle the day before our talk, and we managed to get a marathon 4-hour practice session in (we took a much-needed break in the middle to walk to a coffee shop). We spent at least an hour of this time workshopping what we were going to say on each slide, and we changed our script multiple times. We also refined our slide deck as we practiced, tweaking details until everything was just right. We kept polishing things up until the end; we only did 2 (maybe 3) runthroughs of the final script before calling it a day. Of course, at this point we knew our content better than the backs of our hands, so forgetting things wasn’t a big concern. If that hadn’t been the case, we definitely would have kept practicing.

One of the things that we focus on when presenting together is making sure we have a natural, conversational interaction between presenters. We have almost no slides where only one of us speaks, and we only stop trading off when one or the other of us is telling an involved story. Following the flow of an actual conversation makes the presentation less artificial and is easy for audiences to follow. It also gives us a good way to inject humor, show multiple perspectives on an issue, and provide meta-commentary without being confusing or cliché. This is a lot of work to put together, but it also has a clear payoff.

Go time

After a good night’s rest and final, slightly rushed, runthrough we were ready to hit the stage. This is where team presenting really shines. With another person on stage, both of us were more relaxed – we knew that if anything went wrong and we forgot what we were supposed to be talking about the other person could step in. It gave us the confidence to ad lib a bit and add to the stories we rehearsed, adjusting to how our audience was reacting to the content. We also built off of one another and were able to ramp up into a more energetic presentation more quickly. I can’t speak for Ellen, but I definitely got in flow while we were talking. Besides helping us, it’s also more interesting for audiences.

Check out the results here:

The Awesome Foundation – February 2013 from CreativeMornings/Seattle on Vimeo.

Snapshot: college, being a transitioner, and doing things that matter

I originally wrote this in November of 2010, about 6 months after I graduated from college. This is probably the most clearly I’ve ever been able to articulate what college meant to me. It’s also interesting to me to see how much I cared about doing “things that matter” at the time. I forget all too easily that my desire to make a difference didn’t start when I joined the Global Shapers or the Awesome Foundation. Although I haven’t found a singular driving passion that compares to Olin, I like to think that I’m doing pretty well so far.

Ellen and I talked about personal changes that she’s noticed post-Olin. The biggest one that stood out to both of us was that even though she likes her job, she’s not excited. It isn’t that she’s not jazzed about what she’s working on (most of the time, anyway), but that she isn’t passionate about it in quite the right way. After all, there is a whole grown up world concept of liking your job and finding your passion and such, but it’s still very different from what we experienced in college.

So we talked about how we feel now, and how we felt in college. Namely, we were obsessed with Olin. I don’t think it was in a bad way at all, because I believe that what we did at Olin was both meaningful and life changing. However, the fact of the matter is that we really were obsessed. We may not have talked about it constantly, but it came up very frequently. We thought about it all the time. And more importantly, we prioritized it above other things. I was a little more balanced, in that I never really had to think about whether or not I would prioritize Olin above classes. I went through school with a “everything gets done” mentality, and I actually was able to get everything done. However, for people like Jeff and Ellen there was no question about it at all: Olin was their priority. If it came down to doing something for class or doing something for Olin they would choose Olin. That’s just the way it was for them.

We were all extremely dedicated. And it wasn’t because we felt some external obligation, like we owed the school for our free tuition (at least not directly). We genuinely cared. No matter how tired, stressed out, frustrated, happy, or anything else we felt, we could be engaged in a discussion about Olin. We could switch from “I’m exhausted and going to bed right now” mode to “it’s 3:00am already and we’ve barely gotten started on this” mode in the space of a few minutes. For us it was a powerful emotional reaction, because we cared deeply about the issues we were discussing. Most of all we felt frustrated about the (many) parts of Olin that weren’t working the way we felt they should and excited whenever any of the parts did work the way we felt they should.

The thing is, since graduating neither of us (Ellen and myself, that is) has found something like that. Not even close. And Ellen came to grips with this today while trying to figure out exactly why she was feeling frustrated. She realized that what she’s working on, while cool, isn’t going to Change The World. This is a big demotivator because we’re the kind of people who want to have real impact. We don’t act very alike, but we share the same desire to matter. Working on issues at Olin made us feel like we mattered, because we could directly affect how things ran and what happened and who heard about our school and what their impressions of us were. Even better, we felt deeply connected to a mission that we thought was important and meaningful. To be able to say that we have done something to affect engineering education in the US, let alone the world, is a big deal. It feels like we’ve been able to contribute something of value to humanity, even if our part in it was comparably small (give us time; we’re only 22).

The problem is, once you leave Olin you have to let it belong to the people who are still there. It isn’t ours anymore because we’ve graduated, and we have to take our hands off it and let the new freshmen fill that space. It’s only what’s fair and right, since we’re not on campus any longer and don’t have a good handle on what’s happening there. But it does leave us with a gaping hole to fill, and a sort of cliche search for meaning.

To address this problem, we’ve decided to find our own meaning. We’re moving on to something else, because the choice is to find a new passion or to stop having one altogether. And while being part of Olin felt like having an impact, it’s pretty small compared to what we will be capable of. So we’re going to figure out exactly what we want to focus on, and we’re going to do something about it. We’ll pick a big ticket issue, something that really matters in the world, and we’ll educate ourselves on it, and then we’ll devise a plan for being part of the solution. It will take a long time. It will be hard. But if our experience transitioning from the always-on culture at Olin to the so-called real world is any indication, it will be entirely worth it.

On doing

I was never one of those kids who tinkered. I didn’t take things apart or rebuild them or concoct mad experiments. When my parents bought me Lego sets, I followed the instructions. It wasn’t that I wasn’t creative – I built entire worlds with my younger brother, played out elaborate stories with my toys, and drew constantly. In my mind, the world was segregated into very clear categories of “do” and “do not” change. Art was in the do category, because the point of art was to make a drawing or a painting or a clay sculpture from an idea in your head. Most other things were in the don’t category.

It wasn’t until college that I realized there was any other way to think about it. Maybe getting thrown into building circuits or writing Matlab simulations should have done the trick, but Nerf guns are what ended up changing my life.

Nerf guns were all the rage on campus my freshman year, so the first time I made it out to Target with some classmates I made sure to pick up some foam armament. Just having the Nerf gun wasn’t enough though – you had to modify it. I wasn’t so sure about this, but it was what everyone was doing. The implicit rules of my social sphere said that I ought to take my gun apart and shove some pennies behind the spring, so I did*. I grabbed a screwdriver and a handful of change, and set to work on my desk. I probably looked up a few tutorials online. A short while later, with almost no blood, sweat, or tears, I had a functional gun that shot twice as far as it had.

This blew my mind. In following the implicit rules of my friends (“mod your gun!”), I had broken the explicit rules of the manufacturer. I had changed something that was not to be touched. And it had worked better afterwards.

This prompted a spree of experimentation, a “CHANGE ALL THE THINGS!” phase, if you will. Part of this process involved failure, but I learned how to work around that. I crippled my Nerf gun trying to create a more directed airflow. I had to get my computer reimaged multiple times. I wrote all kinds of hacky HTML. But that didn’t matter, because I had finally realized that the rest of life wasn’t actually that different from art. My life became a blank canvas. I could see the rules and structures that governed everything around me, just as I had before, but now I had the power to change them.

Conclusion

I’ve been struggling to write this for quite a while. I know the story, but it’s hard for me to figure out where I’m going with it. It wasn’t until I saw a talk by UW Professor Beth Kolko about her research on creating functional, not accredited, engineers that everything clicked into place: I want to tell this story, because I want people to read it and understand that they can also be makers and doers. All too often the story of being a maker gets told by the tinkerers and hackers – the people who were making robots out of the toaster and building their own websites by the age of 8. And that’s great. That’s fantastic. But we aren’t all those people, and furthermore, those aren’t the people who need to be told that they too can change the world. This is for the rest of us.

* If you can’t tell by now, I’ve always been good with rules. My mother jokes that I was born on my due date because I didn’t want to start off out of line.

The Leon’s Flat design manifesto

(a collaboration with Ellen Chisa)

We believe that design is so firmly rooted in process that it’s impossible to write a manifesto just about the results. It needs to be about everything that goes into the product, not just the end result.

Design comes from everywhere.

Great design concepts can come from a software engineer who writes C++ all day or an elementary school student, as well as user studies and brainstorming sessions.

Start with ideas and problems.

Ideas are snippets of inspiration that come from your personal toolbox – projects you’ve done before, papers you’ve read, people you’ve met – as though you’ve been scrapbooking in your mind. Don’t be afraid to transcend boundaries. Add problems to this mix: things that clients have asked you to figure out, difficulties you have personally run into, and big picture problems that you want to solve for the world.

Let these ideas and problems float around in your head together, drawing connections between them. If you have an idea, what problem is it solving? If you have a problem, what ideas does it inspire? Switching between these questions will crystallize the What and Why of your design.

Find your Hedgehog Concept.

At some point, you’ll reach a core principle, which we like to call the Hedgehog Concept*. You need the one problem you want to solve, and the one way you want to solve it. This will help you decide which details are necessary and relevant later. Solving too many problems, too many ways, never works out.

Bring your Hedgehog to life.

This is the How of your interaction. What is the simplest way to bring the Hedgehog Concept to life? Make your work flows and make sure it’s easy for users. Once you’ve got this key concept down and working, there are two things you must to do it:

  1. Make it a game. It doesn’t need to literally be a game, but you need to treat it like it is one. Make sure it’s fun and has some type of addictive hook to it.
  2. Make it look good. Design isn’t just aesthetics (a beautiful exterior won’t fix a flawed interaction), but it does require aesthetics. Figure out your visual design language and stick to it.

Tell a story.

Being able to tell the story around your product – from the beginning problem it solves to why it helps the users and why it’s the best version of the product – is crucial. Communicating your idea so that it can and will be used is just as important as the product you’ve actually designed.

* From Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great

Becoming a digital native

Well, ok, maybe I’m not all the way gone. But who knows?

I recently got a smartphone, and it has fundamentally changed the way I interact with the world. At this point, it is still a magic box, but from this point on it’s going to become normal. So, I’ve decided to document this transition on the basis that this will never happen to me again.

Observations

It’s a magic box – I have the internet in my pocket. I wake up in the morning and check my email while my brain wakes up; then I get out of bed. Sitting in class, I can Wikipedia a concept that the professor is talking about without having to get out my computer, boot it up, and be noticeably not paying attention. In fact, booting up my computer takes so much longer that I haven’t bothered to log into email on my computer more than a handful of times in the last half-week (I usually check email online every 2-3 hours at minimum). This really helps with dealing with all of the small I-don’t-need-to-read-this emails, but I’m slower at responding to “real” email because of the small screen and less efficient keyboard.

Having an Android phone has allowed me to install Google Voice on my phone, which has in turn led to free, infinite text messaging, and my willingness to text people has skyrocketed. SMS conversations no longer end with “I have limited texting” and “Oh, sorry”. I also have a hardware GPS chip and unlimited data – Google Maps on my phone, in my pocket. I found this particularly helpful last night, while trying to locate the Awesome Foundation party that I was going to. Alone, having never been to Microsoft NERD before, I was able to not only navigate there with phone-based GPS, but also double-check the specific building address once I arrived by navigating to the event’s Facebook page on the fly. This worked a lot better than trying to call my friend, who was already there but failed to answer his phone.

At the same time, it becomes an irresistible distraction. Pulling out the phone in a group of people is a guaranteed timesuck – I’m going to end up checking my email and Twitter updates, not just looking up X thing I got asked about. I may have to make personal table etiquette rules forbidding taking the phone out at the table unless calling someone. The notifications on email arrival are also a huge distraction. I don’t really need to know every time an email hits my inbox, but what if it’s an important one? (it never is)

Overall, this is a very strange experience. It’s completely changed the way I interact with the internet, and is starting to bleed over into my real life. It’s like I’ve stepped into the future – a device that used to call and maybe text people has become a 24/7 uplink that tells me where to go, what my friends are doing, whether or not anyone is trying to talk to me (in 3-4 different formats!), and knows where I am. The really crazy part is that this is becoming normal.