Note to self: Humane, not just human-centered

These are all the hoops I had to jump through to help my aunt get WhatsApp installed on her modern smartphone.

1) Sign up for a Microsoft Account. The password hint is unhelpfully verbose, making me think that she would need an uppercase, lowercase, number and a symbol. No f***ing way she would ever remember that. But Microsoft seemed to suggest I can use another email account. I hope that that might somehow allow an easier password pattern (yup, silly me).

2) Make an account on Gmail. The first Captcha is practically unreadable, refresh.

3) Go back to Microsoft, this time make an account from the web instead of her phone, turns out I only have to use 2 of those character types in the password. Great, almost done.

4) Wait, they need to send me an email (cheekily telling me, “call us overprotective, but we need to verify this email”). I open a separate browser tab to check email, I click on the link, it says “go back to whatever you were doing”, so now I have to go back to the original page where it still shows the email sent message. Anyhow, I imagine that her account now works.

5) Now try downloading Whatsapp on her phone, sign in using the brand new account and voila! No. Wait. They need to send another frikking code to the email address. But now I am between devices! This time I can’t just click on the link, I have to enter a code into the phone.

6) Finally download the app! (Well, it was stuck as pending – but that is another story).

Man, there is no way, she could have done any of this easily. What a waste of a phone! I know security is a big issue – but this isn’t just hard it’s plain cruel. Sure, one could blame this on Microsoft, but I have no doubt this is the case for every store (I wonder how many people ever figure out that you can download free apps on the Apple Store without entering a credit card).

Software needs to be not just human-centered but humane.

Need to remind myself of that everyday.

Like this man says. https://vimeo.com/115154289

The 4 comic books you must read

I sprained my knee jumping on a trampoline at House of Air earlier this month. I know. Sucks.

However, the flip side is that I got to read a bucketload of comic books, so excited to lean back into something I have always loved, from pratishod ki jwala days. Longer review of the four that I would recommend to anyone, with shorter review of the other books that I read. So excited to think about them once again!

MUST MUST READS

Saga

Chew

Locke & Key

Blacksad

THE OTHER BOOKS/SERIES I READ

Fables

Hawkeye

Apna Kaam Aasaan

Physical product designers exercise their skill as a folk art. My roommates, both product designers, made the dining table and the pantry in our house.

A while ago, I heard a talk by Sachit Jain, the Executive Director of the Vardhman group. One of his tenets for innovation at his company was what he called ‘Apna Kaam Aasaan’, that is, make your own work easier.

Something that I have to remind myself of a lot is to not turn everything into a magnum opus which I have a high tendency to do. The fact that I exercise design thinking in my work, inspite of the directive to share unfinished work, we create in a very consumer focused way: we design around a user. By its very nature this means we are designing for an external entity and requires that the final design be ‘finished’. But when you are doing it for yourself, especially with the intent to make your life easier, we cut ourselves a lot more slack. Consider eating a frozen meal and going to a restaurant. I’d be pretty pissed if I got served the GITS rajma at a restaurant, and yet when I can whip that up at home in 10 minutes, it tastes downright delicious. The keyword here is ‘easy’.

In his talk, Sachit also shared stories of how many of these things started off as jugaadu hacks, then went on to win innovation awards at regional events, bolstering the confidence of all those people who created them.

Somehow digital products disallow that kind of solutions, or perhaps they do, but I’ve always built up a thing in my head to be a consumer product and at that very moment the task becomes daunting. Instead now I am focusing on building some things to make my own life easy. It is the difference between the professional woodworker who creates a picnic bench for the backyard to one who does that for a living. My interaction design skills may get me professional gigs, but my coding skills are a hobbyist skills at best. So the moment I weigh myself with the daunting task of designing and building a consumer product, I in effect stop myself from building it. Making tools for yourself is incredibly empowering.

A related idea is rebuilding the things you’ve already built to learn new skills. Swaroop CH, a man who knows how to generate output, wrote this in one of  his post about learning Clojure – “To make my learning solid, I rewrote isbn.net.in for the third time in Clojure.” The third time!! One of my project partners in a past class had the same strategy, he was going to write the code for a class project in Python and then rewrite it in Node.js. When you are making something for yourself, you are only trying to learn, so why wouldn’t you write something a third or fourth time.

So make stuff for yourself, make your work easy. And who know what may become of your creations?

I also wanted to set out one design principle for this strategy: to make it immediately useful. As soon as you make it you should be able to use it.

Rediscovering Comics

The universe conspired recently to get me back into comic books. I have spent many years of my childhood reading Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv, Doga, Parmanu, Chacha Choudhry, Shikari Shambhu, even Fauladi Singh, which I remember to be pretty darned awesome. Oh, and Tausi! and all the different companies: Raj Comics, Manoj Comics, Diamond Comics, Amar Chitra Katha and more. And the Archie comics that my cousin used to own, and Phantom – so good! (Interestingly, I did not grow up with X-Men, Batman, Superman and the other usual suspects.)

I even distinctly remember that one of my childhood dreams was to be a comic book illustrator – I probably find a half-sketched Nagraj comic somewhere.

So here is the series of events that got me back.

1. I visited Portland last August, and spent an afternoon on Mississippi Street whence I sauntered into a comic book store (this one I think), and ended up adding a few comic books to my Amazon Wishlist (I am trying to do less showrooming, I promise).
2. In November, Amazon had its annual Thanksgiving 30% off sale, where I ended up buying two of the said books: Habibi, which I was drawn to because of incredible middle-eastern art and The Sex Criminals, which was very well reviewed on Amazon (and is on many best of lists this year).
3. My roommate brought home ‘The Wicked and the Divine’ (which I didn’t like – the characters don’t have much depth).
4. I visited one of my friends’ old teachers who used to own a comic book store (!). It was inspiring to see his collection of comic books and comic book art. He also is a drama teacher and it was amazing to see how he was fusing Shakespeare with his love of comic books (Classic case of bringing what you love to what you do as this man tells us to do). I was excited to tell him about Nagraj, Super Commando Dhruv and more.
5. I bought the Humble Image Comics Bundle.
6. I also discovered that SF has several great comic book stores, two of which I visited yesterday (Mission Comics and Isotope).

Which brings me to the real point of this post, is to share the list of comics I have read in the past few months and how excited I am to be rediscovering one of my favorite written mediums.

Habibi by Craig Thomson
657-cf7a20517b

This one is dark and disturbing, and has the most exquisite art. I liked it, even though I probably didn’t enjoy it (in the way I might enjoy a sci-fi comic).

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Screenshot 2015-02-08 23.36.27

The reviews don’t lie. Funny, irreverent, honest and clever, Sex Criminals is great. Chip and Matt are rockstars. Awesome artwork, especially the ‘cumworld’ panels. I also love how awesome both the characters look – they aren’t your usual “heroes”. Had to put in this quote “Ms. Jazmine St. Cocaine. Fire of my life, light of my loins.”
Saga by Brian and Fiona 

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This is an awesome awesome book, and what inspired me to write this post, filled with authentic writing, humor, with inspiring and real characters. A book that takes itself seriously and not seriously at the same time. The art is magnificent. I read the ePub version that I got on Humble Bundle, but just bought the Deluxe edition which is a steal at Amazon (though you may also choose to support local businesses and buy it at a comic book store) and Volume 4!

The Love Bunglers by Jamie Hernandez

Also amazing. Once you’ve read the book, you’ll realize how smart the book cover is. Also picked up Dicks and Deedies by Jamie Hernandez, which I didn’t finish.

The other books that I got and are on my list to read are: The Life After by Joshua Hale Falkov and Gabo and Mind Mgmt by Matt Kindt. Recommendations from James at Isotope Comics (must visit!) and both have exquisite (and different from the usual comic book art) artwork.

The Oppression of ‘Good’ Design

At the Bold Italic SUM conference today, Zach Klein, in response to the question, what advice would he give to the audience to cultivate their creativity, he said, the death of MySpace was a travesty. The audience laughed, but he meant it seriously. It was a travesty because through making their own pages, a whole generation was learning how to make a web page – they might have been ugly, or dissonant or chaotic – but that is what creativity looks like and by taking that kind of freedom away, we have failed.

I felt like this was an especially potent observation. Perhaps the same thing happened when cubicles were designed. Instead of prescribing ‘good’ design – users should be empowered to design themselves – and go through a journey of doing bad work before finding their voice.

True Personalization

As Jon Kolko notes in Thoughts on Interaction Design, interactions between products and people are like relationships in real life. Relationships in real life are emergent and not prescriptive.

How can we create products that can be shaped by their user and also shape themselves. What’s a new version of the Preferences window? Maybe a counseling session?

Also, digital apps have the unfortunate side effect of being ‘always new’. How can the wear and tear of a car or a loved coffee mug exist for web apps? (Maybe it can’t until we get to a bridging of physical and digital things).

The power of metaphor

Needs a longer post, but wanted to take a moment to capture all sorts of things about the power of metaphor. As it turns out, it isn’t just a figure of speech, but one of the most powerful tools for understanding and creating the world.

Metaphors We Live By by Lakoff and Johnson
Evidently the seminal work on how we use metaphors to understand the world.

Synectics
A problem solving methodology that uses “‘metaphorical process’ to make the familiar strange and the strange familiar”.

Prototype Theory
I need to research this more, but seems related.

Using Metaphor for Needfinding
In this Stanford class, Michael Barry taught us how to use metaphor as a way to synthesize design research.

Steve Teig talks about using Metaphor
Steve Teig talks about how powerful metaphors can help solve problems, including examples like how by using the game Mastermind as a metaphor, he created a new drug discovery engine. Come to think of it, one the most influential start up entities today, Y Combinator, is also driven by a metaphor.

Design and ‘Riyaaz’

The other day I went with my brother and dad to my dad’s physiotherapist. I decided that I’d also consult her for some muscle pain I had been experiencing. She asked me if I did any exercise. I said, “I run 2-3 times a week.”. She said, “Running is not exercise. It’s like you sing, but that doesn’t mean you don’t do your riyaaz.”

An excerpt from the book Art School by MIT Press, gives the following definition of riyaaz.

In Hindustani music traditions, riyaaz, or the everyday cultivation of one’s musicality is a repertoire of exercises to keep the voice or fingers or one’s ability to play an instrument in good shape. But it is more than this. It is as much about the cultivation of a set of attitudes and sensibilities as it about the honing of a skill. Riyaaz is an attempt to explore the boundaries of what one can do on a regular basis and of pushing these boundaries again and on a regular basis so that the foundations of one’s practice undergo a daily renewal, so that one keeps becoming an adept. Riyaaz is a practitioner’s meditation on his or her practice.

This got me wondering, what would consitute riyaaz for a designer? A design thinker? Riyaaz is different from practice. Whenever I produce something, I am practicing my design skills, but what would be something that would have “the foundations of my practice undergo a daily renewal”?

An aside: The same book also asks,

What would constitute the riyaaz of the kinds of artists who busy themselves with the continuous generation of context for praxis?

Of course, I have idea what the phrase “contexts for praxis” means, and a google search reveals little, but googling praxis revealed a treasure trove of information

 

Gift Economies

Since I’ve been thinking about generosity recently, another idea that I appeals to me is what Sep Kamvar calls the gift economy (By the way, the entire Mastery and Mimicry essay is a great read).

This posts just catalogs some interesting things I’ve found on the interwebs that speak to that idea. Here’s an article about a company called Patreon, that let’s people be patrons to artists they like on YouTube. This phrase particularly stood out to me “the age of advertising was a hundred-year blip”.

Another pieces of news was the open access policy to research that University of California recently instituted.

Kickstarter is also a gifting platform, even though it has found more fame as the platform to “pre-sell” technology projects.

I like the word “gift” instead of “free” because there is still a currency involved, one of gratitude.

Generosity

I recently took a trip to Maui. While we were there, we took a ferry ride to Molokini to do some snorkeling, and as we were getting off, we came across the all familiar tip jar. And I was faced with one of those classic tipping dilemmas: You can only tip in cash, but the denominations you have are more than the amount you want to tip. To tip more? Or not to tip at all? Or to awkwardly ask for change?

Tipping is one of those social customs that I find deeply fascinating. Especially when someone from one tipping culture is dropped into a different tipping culture. It is a moment when who-you-are, is laid a little bit bare. Do you tip the minimum considered appropriate, or do you tip more? You tip only when you’ve received excellent service or tip the same no matter what? Do you do complicated math to make sure it is a multiple of ten? How do you tip when you are on a date? How do you tip when no one’s watching? Why do you tip the way you tip? To show off? To feel good? To be ‘fair’?

I also think tipping is a measure of how generous you are. And generosity applies to things beyond money. I was talking to one of my friends whose boss is apparently stingy with praise. The boss would say (and I am paraphrasing), “Why do people always want a pat on their back?”. I think the subtext there was that “No one is giving me a pat on my back, why should I pat someone else?”.

I think the that is the way I, and I’d imagine many others, approach giving: Once I have enough myself, I will give some away. When I have enough money, I’ll be more philanthropic. When I have more money I’ll get nice gifts for my friends and family. When I have enough success, I’ll be appreciative of others success instead of being jealous.

And yet, I am coming around to the thought that the way to have more, is to give more. So the order of business is to give first and get later instead of the other way round. One context in which I have learnt that to be true is business. One of my best business lessons was with one of my worst clients. We set the wrong expectations, I severely undersold myself and then when the work turned out to be more than I had budgeted, we were unable to renegotiate the relationship (until much later). There were two lessons there, one was to not undersell yourself, but another was also to give some without any expectation of getting anything. My client did not know what she wanted, could I have helped her think through that when we started our conversation? Could I leave her asking the right questions? Even if she would have chosen someone else, would she be better off having interacted with me?

A lot of businesses have the concept of “free consultation”. And yet most time that feels like a long advertisement, but there are some where the person solves your problem, and you are left wondering, ‘You sure? This is for free?’. I’ve had both experiences recently. A free fitness consultation at the gym where every question was answered with, ‘I can tell you that when you sign up for the full class’ and not one, but two visits to a bike shop where a guy solved my problem and didn’t ask for any money (even when I was willing to pay them). Next thing I knew I went and bought something from that bike shop, just because they had been generous. (Or maybe it was just reciprocity at play).

The big challenge is to figure out where to place yourself on the continuum, (of course everything is a continuum to a design thinking student). To not be so generous as to undersell yourself, and not to be so thrifty that you turn into a miser. My favorite analog is Subway stores. There are Subway stores where some servers put generous helpings of lettuce on your sandwich, and then there are others who act like every strand of onion is costing them a rupee. And then there will always be those who will abuse your generosity. But don’t let some of those change you. Here’s a useful talk by Mike Monteiro (and a book) on not underselling yourself.

So I am making a new rule for myself: “Be generous today”. Not on some future date when you have more, but right now. Tip generously, help generously, give generously. Without expecting. Leave people feeling better off having interacted with you.

Just as a note to myself, I am also writing down some of my other rules, to be perhaps blogged upon another time, “survive the grimace”, “if recognize, say hello”, “maximize karma, not profit”.

So what did I do in Maui? I tipped the larger amount. It felt a little weird, usually I would not have tipped at all. It will take some time to get used to.

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