Department of Design

Curated by Timoni West.

Primarily focused on product design, technology, cognitive psychology, and the brain. Also—pretty pictures, sometimes moving.


Posts about pw
March 27th, 2014

Better laws, better world.

The Past.

About four years go, a monthly event called Mission Street Food was incredibly popular in San Francisco. After a while, the organizers decided they wanted to open a permanent, charitable restaurant called Commonwealth, and get members of the community to invest in it.

I was a huge fan of the idea. One share was $500, you got .08% of the profit as an annual dividend, and you got some gift certificates to boot. I signed up right away.

A few weeks later, I got a follow up email from Anthony Myint—that’s right, of Mission Chinese fame:

Poor dude. Accreditation is a thing that any wealthy investor type knows about, but for the layperson, it’s news: the USA has banned middle-class Americans from investing in higher-risk investments since the Depression.

In the end, Commonwealth opened anyway and is a wonderful, thriving restaurant. But I never forgot about the enchanting idea that I could back local businesses in my area, and really be invested, literally, in my community.

The Future.

Almost exactly four years later, Nick Chirls tells me about a new company he’s starting over coffee. He told me about new legislation being passed, the JOBS act, which includes a crowd funding provision, Title III.

Title III effectively lets anyone, poor or rich, put a percentage of their salary into investing in businesses. In anticipation of the bill, Nick founded Alphaworks, a new kind of funding platform aimed directly to support newly empowered communities find businesses and make investments.

There’s an incredible amount of work to be done: education, support, financial guidance, and compliance work. But as Nick described his vision, I knew I had to be on board. So I’m happy to announce I’ve joined as VP of Design at Alphaworks, alongside an amazing crew: Kristian Kristensen, Nick Barr, Rachel Troy, and Jennifer Patrick.

Crowdfunding has been popular for years, but as the Oculus Rift acquisition yesterday indicates, we need a new way for people to champion and invest in amazing products. I’m thrilled to be part of the progress.

If you’re new to the JOBS Act, or Title III, here’s some great intro articles on the subject.

We’ve only just begun: follow along with Alphaworks on Twitter or our blog as we build out the product. And if you’re an engineer interested in joining the team, please get in touch.


March 20th, 2013

Don’t be afraid to teach interactions.

(The Twitter conversations that inspired this post can be found here and here (ish).)

A couple of weeks ago, I was using the latest version of the Rdio app and realized that I had no idea how to put a song into a playlist. After hopelessly tapping around, I got a bit annoyed and posted a tweet asking if anyone had figured it out, which is my standard reaction when things aren’t immediately obvious in apps.

But then I thought about an interaction that we’d recently put into place at Foursquare, the long tap checkin. So, curious, I held down my finger on the song title. Lo and behold, a whole set of song action options popped up, including Add to Playlist. Excellent! I added the song and went on my merry way.

Fast-forward a couple of weeks and my friend Keith is also complaining on Twitter about how he can’t find key features in Rdio. People mention the long tap, but it’s obvious there’s a problem; the menu is undiscoverable. The long tap is a graceful solution, but it’s a hidden solution: Rdio needs to teach us.

This illustrates an interesting tension in interaction design. On the one hand, designers want to make obvious interfaces—on some level, in fact, we’re looking to create the Holy Grail of interaction design: apps so fluid, so intuitive, that people naturally have an ‘a-ha’ moment, and there’s never a sense of frustration during onboarding. And that’s great; that’s an amazing goal, and I hope we achieve it.

But at this point in technology, especially with gestural-based stuff, we’re not only working out the kinks, we’re working with a lot of technological, physical disadvantages. For example, there’s no mass commercial computer interface as simple, light, and high-fidelity as pen and paper. The iPad is a solid start, and we can reasonably expect the technology to improve dramatically over the coming decades. But fine, delicate movements and gestures just aren’t supported by technology at this time.

And aside from the technology constraints, we simply do have to create a new set of interactions for new interfaces. Screens have things you can move around, unlike drawings on a sheet of paper, so you’ll be covering up content at some point. Screens can be positioned in a wide variety of spaces, sizes and contexts; if you’re presenting information, you’ll be using more than just your hands but your entire arms and perhaps entire body. So there’s a whole set of interactions, not only you interacting with elements on the screen, but you interacting with the screen, that simply haven’t been standardized yet.

But that’s okay! Here’s the important part: don’t feel like every single action you design right now, in this Wild West time of interaction design, has to be completely intuitive. There are things we think are intuitive now that we learned using tutorials decades ago. Andrei Herasimchuk pulled up a great old Apple tutorial on how to use a mouse. Do you remember those? Probably not, even if you’re above a certain age, and your kids or siblings (or maybe even you) have likely never seen them. They learned how to use a mouse by watching people instead. People don’t come out of the womb knowing how to use a mouse—they do learn it, at some point—but once the information is out there they can learn so seamlessly it doesn’t matter.

So don’t be afraid. The interactions we have to teach now may be the new standards for the next generation, and they may be much better than what we had before, even if they’re slightly less intuitive to start. Don’t be too hard on yourself, and don’t stop from doing something interesting just because you have to show someone else how to use it. Don’t stifle innovation and interesting gestures. Explain them, and people will remember.


October 30th, 2012

I was just reading “True or False: These Tests Can Tell if You Are Right for This Job”, in the Wall Street Journal. They gave a sample question from a personality test:

1. On television, I usually prefer watching an action movie than a program about art.
A) Often
B) ?
C) Rarely

This question, from 16PF, the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire, addresses an applicant’s preference for logic versus feelings and intuition, says Ralph A. Mortensen, chief psychologist of the test’s publisher, the Institute for Personality and Ability Testing.

Interesting, I thought. Obviously the action movie fan prefers feelings—the adrenaline rush, no brain power needed to be happy watching action movies—and the art program fan is interested in facts, shows about real things, and educational programs.

Then I kept reading:

Someone opting for an action flick may be more fact-focused, an important trait for analytical jobs. Those who answer “rarely” may have more creative personalities. If they choose the question mark on B, it doesn’t tell you much: Perhaps they do both an equal amount or perhaps they simply aren’t sure.

I can think of literally no reason to assume someone who likes action movies would be more fact-focused—and especially more analytical—than someone who prefers programs about art.

Okay, that’s not true. I can think of one reason, but it has nothing to do with action movies or programs on art, just basic gender stereotypes. But I’m sure the writers of that questionnaire have thought about this much more than I have, and so have much better reasons for assuming that action film fans are more analytical. In other words, I’m guessing it’s not just casual sexism. Before I sink into cynicism, dear readers, please tell me what I missed.


September 23rd, 2012
An artist is truly in it for themselves – not just for reasons of wanting to get rich, or get famous, or find a path to comfort. The artist needs to understand the truth that lies at the bottom of an enigma. In Jobs’ case, he painstakingly pursued the question of what a digital ecosystem that transcends mere relevance and basic needs could mean for modern and future culture itself. We buy his products not just because they function, not just because they are well designed, but out of respect for the integrity of his work – because we buy into the vision of the future world he was trying to create and the values they represent for us. For this, we are happy to be tithed a little extra.

If Design’s No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is? | Wired Opinion |

This paragraph gave me pause; I do, indeed, not mind paying extra for Apple’s products, because they are better-designed than the alternatives. But it’s been quite a while since I thought of Apple’s hardware or software as visionary—since the OSX debut, in fact—nor do I think Job’s, or Apple’s, vision of the future and values necessarily match my own.

Here are things about Apple, at least, that I do think are remarkable and sometimes visionary: the App Store ecosystem. The marketing campaigns. The lack of apology and (often corresponding) self-aggrandizement. But I’d never want to start or run a company that was similar in those particular ways.

September 19th, 2012

I was reminded by my publishers some time ago that it is well over forty years since the first Bobbsey story was written and published. But what brought that fact forcibly to my mind was something that happened a few days ago. I was reading aloud to a little girl who lives next door and who often comes in to visit me and sample my ginger cookies, just as her grandmother used to come over when I was writing the early Bobbsey books and ask me to read the chapters as they were finished.

We were reading the last chapter of THE BOBBSEY TWINS—”Merry Days Indoors and Out,” as it used to be called. The twins were giving a party and one of Bert’s friends was showing magic lantern slides to the enraptured guests.

"What’s a magic lantern, Miss Hope?" asked my little neighbor. She never had heard of such a device which we used to think was so marvelous a half-century ago. And why should she? After all, this is the age of television. Magic lanterns belong to the dark ages when people got about by horse and carriage or horse and cutter and there were no such wonders as electric refrigerators or vacuum cleaners. Can you believe it?

I began to see what my publishers had been hinting at—that there is a great deal in the original edition of the book you are about to read that you never saw or perhaps even heard about.

Preface to the New Edition of “The Bobbsey Twins” (1950), by Laura Lee Hope.

I had the great fortune to grow up in a big old farmhouse in Nebraska filled with four generations of children’s books, including Trixie Belden, Donna Parker, and of course the Bobbsey Twins series. If you click on the links, you’ll see what version I grew up with; the Bobbsey Twins series was clothbound, and so looked a bit older than the rest.

Today I learned there was an even older version of the Bobbsey Twins stories that I’d never heard of, one with magic lanterns instead of televisions, first written in 1904. I had often thought that living in the first half of the twentieth century must have been an exciting time—visually, there’s suddenly an obvious break from hundreds of years prior: corsets to shorts! horses to cars! telegraphs to telephones!

But it had never occurred to me that the children of the fifties wouldn’t know about that kind of prior technology. Even though I’ve often joked about how my kids won’t believe me when I tell them about dial-up, or be able to conceive of a world without the internet, there’s a lot of basic technology that was around in the 1950s that’s still around today. Cars, shorts, television, and phones: they’re all still here, the stuff of daily life, and recognizable across various incarnations.

It’s an interesting reminder that the world changed very, very quickly somewhere the last 200 years; the technological advances that had been building up in the scientific community another three hundred years prior finally boiled over, and suddenly there was large-scale production, and steam engines, and electricity, and children born in 1944 had no idea their parents were enchanted by magic lanterns twenty years earlier. Obvious in retrospect, but fun to think about, nonetheless: what centuries-old gadgets will be gone by the time my children are six?

July 27th, 2012

What about design and the Internet excites you?

Knowledge. Have you ever read Congo, the book by Michael Crichton? It’s a terrible book; don’t read it—I was just really into Michael Crichton in middle school. There’s this whole bit at the very beginning where Crichton sets up the background to the novel: knowledge as the new economy pre-internet Internet era, around 1978.

In the book, there was really cool new groundbreaking diamond-based technology, and they were going into the jungle to find these special diamonds so they could go build super computers. But before the narrative starts, Crichton spends a lot of time explaining why they’re bothering to find the diamonds: because knowledge is money. Knowledge is the new commerce. Whoever has access to information the most quickly wins the game. I think that idea was very influential to me.

The Internet is, as everyone knows, such a game changer. It allows anyone to get information at any time. It’s such an amazing equalizer—I know not everyone in the world has access to the Internet yet, but they will.

What we’re doing now is designing ways for people to access information, across the world, forever. Maybe the hardware will change and the software will change, but what we do now is going to reverberate, and we’ll see those patterns that last in the future. What we’re doing now is, unless a nuclear winter comes, going to profoundly change how people access information and think about accessing information forever. That’s what I find exciting. Even the smallest additions that we make now, we being the web designers of the world, is going to have profound implications later on.

And accessing information also shapes your brain. The way you think about your ability to access information shapes your brain, sort of like how using language shapes your brain. For example, if you think of a word as meaning a certain thing – for example, prescriptive versus descriptive – the way the word was defined in the dictionary affects how you use that word, and how other people use that word, and what that word ends up meaning.

Basically, the way we do the design and the information structure of the Internet, how people interact with information on the Internet, will profoundly affect how people think about information, and by extension, everything, in the future. It’s very exciting. We’re forming how people think.

Laura Helen Winn interviewed me for Form & Future! It’s a bit verbose and scattered, as I am a bit verbose and scattered, so I’ve taken my favorite question from the interview—What about design and the Internet excites you?—cleaned it up a bit, and reposted it here.


June 7th, 2012

Why I wear the same thing every day, and what I wear.

A couple of years ago, I decided to wear the same outfit all of the time. I realized that shopping, and then deciding what to wear every day, was taking up too much time and energy. It’s not that I dislike fashion: I love high couture, but I’m no Daphne Guinness; I enjoy fashion as an art form, but that’s about it. I am, on the other hand, a UX designer, and I like designing experience for a goal.

So, first, my goal: find an everyday no-thought-required outfit reusable for most any occasion (with minor modifications) that is cheap, easy to replace, made of a breathable, stretchable material, and doesn’t look particularly trendy or easily dated. Oh, and I need to be able to ride a bike in it. Oh, and I hate having extra stuff around that I don’t need or wear, and I hate spending money on clothes, so everything should affordable, minimalist, and as long-lasting as possible. And it should look cool. No big deal.


When I was deciding what my daily outfit would be, I realized there are two literary characters whose views on fashion I’d always admired. I decided to emulate them.

The first is Ian Malcom, aka Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurrassic Park, whose views on clothing struck me as sensible even in seventh grade:

"…In any case, I wear only two colors, black and gray."

Ellie was staring at him, her mouth open. “These colors are appropriate for any occasion,” Malcolm continued, and they go well together, should I mistakenly put on a pair of gray socks with my black trousers.”

"But don’t you find it boring to wear only two colors?"

"Not at all. I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing," Malcolm said. "I don’t want to think about what I will wear in the morning."

The second is Cayce Pollard, from William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition.

CPUs. Cayce Pollard Units. That’s what Damien calls the clothing she wears. CPUs are either black, white, or gray, and ideally seem to have come into this world without human intervention. What people take for relentless minimalism is a side effect of too much exposure to the reactor-cores of fashion. This has resulted in a remorseless paring-down of what she can and will wear. She is, literally, allergic to fashion. She can only tolerate things that could have been worn, to a general lack of comment, during any year between 1945 and 2000.


When I first thought about a daily outfit, I naturally started off thinking about jeans—but jeans are a huge pain in the ass to shop for, and cuts are heavily tied to trends & fashion periods. They don’t dress up, either, especially for women. So jeans: out.

Then I thought about daily dresses, rather like the Uniform Project, but with less accessorizing, since part of the goal was to think less about clothing. I ended up trying out some H&M t-shirt dresses with sweaters, which worked out okay, but definitely required tights—you can’t ride a track bike in a dress or skirt without tights. Preferably opaque, thick tights.

T-shirt dresses actually worked for a while, but eventually got a bit awkward. They don’t mix particularly well, shrink oddly, and if you raise your arms it can be kinda dangerous. Jersey skirts, I found, were altogether better. They were more flexible pair with a shirt, and the waistline could be adjusted. And then I quickly learned to add a longer tank underneath: when you ride a bike every day, you need to make sure that your ass will be covered when you bend over.

Then I discovered leggings are almost always better than tights; they’re more flexible, come in a wider variety of fabrics and cuts, and there’s more movement leeway with footless leggings. Suddenly I had my outfits.

I’ve gone through and listed out what I wear every day below. My final outfit is really casual, but can easily be dressed up, and works in literally any situation: Yoga? Check. Funerals? Check. I rarely go to funerals, thankfully, but I’ve included a list of more dressy substitutions if my base outfit seems too casual. So without further ado, this is what I’ve been wearing for the last year and a half.


A hoodie.

Every San Franciscan, and probably every American between the ages of two and seventy, owns at least one hoodie. Right now I have three identical Gap Fit Zip Hoodies in black. Before I discovered the wonder that is Gap Fit, I generally switched up between American Apparel and H&M hoodies, but having gone through two different Gap Fit models now, I can confidently say they are the clear winners in the basic hoodie category:

  Gap AA H&M
Fit For ladies For dudes (torso too long) For ladies
Quality Soft cotton; keeps shape Shrinks & pills Major shrinkage
Colors Limited to basics Many Many
Pockets Deep Shallow Varies by cut, but usually shallow
Bonus Thumbholes   Varies by cut

I’ve often considered getting a higher-end hoodie, like Chrome or Outlier’s merino hoodies, but so far neither has come out with a hoodie that fits me well enough to justify the price increase. Gap hoodies are $40; I could buy four for the cost of one Chrome hoodie.

Pluses: Great in most weather. If it gets really cold, I just double up.
Minuses: I lose them a lot. And if I didn’t live in San Francisco, they might often be considered too casual for work.
Fancy sub: cardigans or bomber jackets.

A t-shirt.

Although I’m a sucker for beautiful designer t-shirts, I realized they cycle too quickly for the price; what’s popular one year is often dated the next. So although I’ve kept a few favorites, I mainly wear band t-shirts now. Band t-shirts are often also well-designed, and they have the significant advantage of being the one article of clothing that will for sure get cooler as it gets older.

The only downside is that most band t-shirts are printed on basic men’s-cut t-shirts, or American Apparel’s Women’s T, neither of which are particularly flattering to me. So I generally cut up every t-shirt I get, hacking off sleeves and scooping out the neckline. I highly recommend it as a great way to salvage an excellent t-shirt you’d otherwise never wear.

Pluses: Very cheap. And chopping up t-shirts gives you a sort of homemade punk vibe.
Minuses: Cheap t-shirts = probably slave labor.
Fancy sub: Any other dressy shirt, really.

A tank top.

I always wear a tank top underneath my t-shirts. There’s a few reasons for this:

  • I mainly wear Gap Pure Body’s really lovely, super-soft cotton tanks, which feel great.
  • I don’t wear belts, though I love the optical effect they produce. Having a white or colored strip of tank around your hips gives the same effect.
  • It’s nice to have an extra layer in case you get sweaty, or cold, both of which are likely to happen in San Francisco.

As I mentioned, I mainly wear Gap’s Pure Body line, but they have a very limited color selection, so I’ve got a few H&M tanks and random other brands in the mix, too.

Pluses: Color bisecting your middle = belly camouflage.
Minuses: You do sometimes have to think about coordinating tanks to t-shirts.
Fancy sub: Something silky.


I’ve gone through a lot of leggings trying to find the perfect pair. I haven’t quite found them yet. In the meantime, I’ve got leggings from the Gap, J. Crew, H&M, pricey boutiques, Modcloth and Uniqlo in my closet. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • Gap Body capri leggings: Soft milled cotton, excellent. I bought one pair and have been forever kicking myself for not buying more.
  • Modcloth’s Perfect Pairing Leggings: All synthetic, but hands-down the best fit. I have eight pairs; they’re my go-to leggings.
  • J. Crew: A pair of heavy, long cotton leggings bought in desperation in NYC in December.
  • Uniqlo’s Heattech leggings: Also bought out of desperation in the cold, cold NYC winter. Not really that warm, but light and soft, much like the Gap Body leggings. Another favorite
  • H&M: Don’t bother. They fit weird and don’t last.
  • Pricey boutiques: Generally never worth the price, though often have cool details or linings.

Pluses: Don’t have to worry about flashing anybody. Great if you feel, like me, there’s no reason anybody should ever see your legs.
Minuses: Finding leggings of the right length can be tricky.
Fancy sub: Fancy tights.

A skirt.

Like leggings, I still haven’t found the perfect skirt. What I want is a black cotton jersey a-line mini. What I usually get is a straight-fit mini. If you have recommendations, let me know.

In the meantime, I have about eight pairs of Cotton On’s Annie skirt; though cheap, their materials are nice and thick and the cut is good. I used to get H&Ms classic jersey skirt, but they’re really only worth the $5 you pay; semi-transparent when they stretch, and they rip at the seams.

On a lark, I bought a pair of Patagonia’s black miniskirts, which have a nice cut, but use such thin fabric they don’t hold their shape.

Pluses: Dresses up outfits that would otherwise look like workout clothes. Miniskirts are essential if you have a track bike. Minuses: You do have to wear a pretty tight skirt all the time.
Fancy sub: A dressy skirt.


I only wear three kinds: Gold Toe Men’s Cotton Liners Athletic, Gold Toe Men’s Fluffie Midcalf, and American Apparel’s Calf-High Socks (which are surprisingly nice).

Pluses: Buying 30+ pairs of the exact same sock = life is really much easier.
Minuses: I never have interesting socks.
Fancy sub: I suppose…no socks?


The nice thing about wearing leggings and skirts is that you can pretty easily fancy up any outfit with heels if you like. But I don’t like, so here’s what I normally wear:

  • Converse low-tops
  • Dr Martens Triumph 1914 Black Mirage mid-calf boots
  • Ballet flats
  • Flip-flops
  • (very, very occasionally) basic black Tom’s

Pluses: I generally wear the first two pairs of shoes on the list 90% of the time, and they serve me well.
Minuses: Sometimes I do have to wear heels, so I keep a couple of pairs around. But I don’t like the wasted space.
Fancy sub: Fancy shoes!


When I first started looking for things like a ‘standard tank top’ or a ‘standard jersey skirt’, I thought they’d be easy to find. They’re really not. Most clothing is designed to be seasonal, and so each brand adds their own little touches: odd zippers, weird flaps, truly appalling patterns, and so on. This problem is actually compounded at local, ethical boutiques—designers are generally trying to make their name with interesting designs, not create basics. So when I find a product I like, I buy it in bulk.

Additionally, I’d much prefer buying my skirts and tanks from an low-waste, green company. Please let me know if you see an item on my list and know where I could find it. I’m aware of companies like Alternative Apparel, but unfortunately they often don’t have what I need, or the quality is so low I can’t justify spending the money even though I support them philosophically.


Incidentally, the outfit I ended up deciding on is similar to the one Pollard wears in her introductory scene:

'…a fresh Fruit T-shirt, her black Buzz Rickson's MA-1, anonymous black skirt from a Tulsa thrift, the black leggings she'd worn for Pilates, black Harajuku schoolgirl shoes.'

I’m sure a lot of you read this, thinking, “I basically do this anyway; this is no big deal.” That’s awesome. If you do find yourself stressed about clothes, just take a step back, look at your wardrobe, think about what you really like to wear—and what you think presents your favorite view of yourself—and then buy ten of ‘em.


April 17th, 2012

I love the internet.

It’s my fifth cakeday of coming out here, to the internet world capital, San Francisco. I wouldn’t be here if there was no internet; I have no particular inclination towards hippiedom or comp sci or biotech, but once I learned it was the place to be if you loved the internet, I was dead set on moving here. Cause I fucking. Love. The internet.

I love Wikipedia. I love Tumblr. I love Flickr. I love Quora and Reddit and Instagram, and I love how I know my friends are looking for a new job when I get their Linkedin request. I love going to iTunes and browsing new iPad apps by release date. I love how my Twitter feed gets overloaded at SXSW. I love that stupid red dot in the top bar on Facebook.

I love that there are online personas. I love that some people, in real life, are exactly what you expected, and others are completely different. I love that I have friends online that I wouldn’t hesitate to talk to online, but would feel shy introducing myself to in real life.

I love that my mom has a blog, and I love that my grandma blasts her politics over email so much I set up a separate filter just for her. I love that I met an ex on Craigslist who announced our engagement on Twitter and it’s all over now. I love that right now, a lot of you know exactly where I am, and a lot of you have no idea; not because the information isn’t out there, but because you don’t care.

If you’re reading this on April 16, I’m in Japan. I’ve been writing and polishing this post for a few weeks now because one night I realized that the internet really is the fucking love of my life. Pine, Telnet, BBSes, Gopher,, juno, WebPagesThatSuck and Geocities: you are how I learned to meet people online, and then how I learned to make websites. Thanks to all of you.

I’m writing this post because it’s my fifth Sanfraniversary—a nice round number by all counts—but I’m writing it about the internet because I’ve realized: it was never about San Francisco. I never moved out here for love of the trolleys or the fog. I moved out here because I love computers and networks and the way humans are able, in amazing ways, to abstract communication and contact to a level that typing buttons to input visuals on a screen makes us feel something.

Every day, I feel things because of the internet, and that’s amazing. Humans have been using abstracted communication for thousands of years, but it’s never been so instantaneous, never so capable of bringing folks of completely different backgrounds together in conversation. This is a huge step. Good job us.

I love that someday, this blog post might seem strange. My children might stumble across it, and they’ll ask me questions, and I’ll tell them how bad dialup was. They’ll ask me about MySpace and I’ll say “Oh, honeychild, you have no idea.” And they won’t, but I will, because I was there. Even better, I get to help design it, right now.


November 29th, 2011

Handy list of empathy blockers, or, never say this to a sad person

This morning I heard a hilarious story about Friend A trying to cheer up Friend B by calculating the number of hours Friend B could rightfully claim to be upset. It reminded me that not everybody knows about empathy blockers, the emotional equivalent of logical fallacies. Here’s a handy list from Robin Grille’s Heart to Heart Parenting. While the full article is geared towards parents and child-rearing, this list is really useful for anybody:

Oh, don’t cry. I’m sure it’s not that bad! It’s not the end of the world.

There is nothing wrong; nothing for you to be upset about. Everything is OK.

Don’t cry. Can’t you see that the other child didn’t mean to hurt you?

The positive spin
Look on the bright side. Can’t you see, this probably happened for a good reason?

Cheering up
Don’t worry. Here, let me tell you something funny I heard the other day. Here, have an ice cream. That’ll cheer you up.

Advising/giving options
Why don’t you try doing this, or that? I think you should just ignore that so-and-so.

The expectation
You should have known better. Get over it. Don’t let it get to you.

Put down
Don’t be silly. Don’t be ridiculous.

You are being over-sensitive.

Hey, have a look at the pretty puppet.

Stealing the thunder
Now you know how I felt when the same thing happened to me.

It’s natural to respond to a friend who’s hurting with an empathy blocker:

Sometimes we use empathy blockers inadvertently because we are anxiously trying to save our children from emotional pain. Ironically, the greatest salve for our children comes from being heard, not from us trying to change how they feel. For all of these reasons, we all use empathy blockers from time to time, quite automatically and unconsciously. You could say we are all quite skilled at blocking.

But it’s likely you won’t help your friend feel better. (Honestly if you go too far with some of these blockers, they’ll probably just want to punch you.) Instead, check out the rest of the article for tips on how to deal with painful—or even just annoying—situations.


July 11th, 2011

I get it now. Poor people are annoyed by their more poor relatives.

The central tension for the Tea Party grass roots isn’t between the Big Brother state and the freedom-loving individual, or between inefficient government spending and effective free markets. Instead, Ms. Skocpol and her fellow investigators argue that “Tea Partiers judge entitlement programs not in terms of abstract free-market orthodoxy, but according to the perceived deservingness of recipients.” The fundamental distinction for them is not state vs. individual, it is the division of the United States into “workers” vs. “people who don’t work.”

…This is a revolt of the grandparents’ generation — at least the conservative grandparents — and they are worried the feckless youth are taking over the country and emptying the state’s coffers. These young “freeloaders” include the Tea Partiers’ own relatives. “Charles” told the researchers, “My grandson, he’s 14 and he asked, ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money?”’ “Nancy” complained about a nephew who had “been on welfare his whole life.”

— “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Theda Skocpol, Vanessa Williamson and John Coggin

Reading this article has shed some light on one of the great mysteries of my life: why are my poor farm country Midwestern relatives Republican?

The study's conclusions makes sense. My grandparents are Republican, and rarely took government aid for any length of time, aside from Medicare/Medicaid (which, it's mentioned, is looked at by Tea Partiers as 'earned benefits that belong to hard-working Americans as surely as do their homes and private savings').

But my parents and their siblings, while inheriting their parents’ political views, often went on welfare, and received food stamps, commodities and farm subsidies for years at a time. It wasn’t quite a lifestyle, but government aid was definitely considered a reliable choice.

My generation of cousins and siblings is is even worse: some have routinely been on welfare for years. I have at least four cousins and a sister who have never, in their twenty-something lives, held down regular jobs. Almost all have two children or more. They all have no idea why they’re Republicans; they don’t think about it much, but when pressed, will usually cite gun rights, abortion, or Big Government—nothing to do with economics.

They’re incredibly poor, and I don’t envy them; welfare doesn’t give you a cushy life. But it does stave off desperation, and both the grandparents and I can’t help but wonder if desperation wouldn’t be an excellent motivation from time to time.



June 9th, 2011

my dream setup

Daniel Bogan runs The Setup, a series of interviews about what hardware and software people use to get their jobs done. I answered his questions for the Flickr code blog a while back. Here’s my answer to the question ‘What is your dream setup?’

What would be your dream setup?

We’re at a really fascinating point in hardware development right now, which makes it difficult to answer this question. My knee-jerk answer is that I want the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer combined with an iPad combined with the Cintiq combined with, you know, a Cray supercomputer or something else equally powerful.

The problem is, really, handwriting recognition; if you’ve ever tried to use the iPad with an external keyboard, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Switching from typing to writing or drawing and back is a pain. Regular notebooks allow you to draw and write without changing your hand position, which doesn’t seem like a luxury until you try actually working on a tablet and then find you need to input text.

Steve Jobs may think that styli are inelegant, but the fact is, using a pen to write or draw on paper is both comfortable and easy; it’s just not as fast as typing. Most people are content with inputting data via a keyboard, and this makes sense for a lot of jobs: marketing, business development, finance, and programming, for example. But for the designers, there’s a big gap between starting the creative process and executing the product design *because* it’s much easier to sketch out your ideas on paper, with a pen, than a computer. And this is unfortunate; in the future, we should have computers that allow us to keep contexts for different stages of product development. The iPad and ThinkPads are steps in the right direction, but they’re still awfully clumsy, which is why, in part, people criticize the iPad as a product for mere consumption.

I want a Moleskine that is a blindingly superfast computer. That’s my dream setup.


February 16th, 2010

hooray for neighborhood pride

I just nominated my neighborhood, Mission Dolores, for Google’s Fiber Optic Trial. I knew my neighborhood was awesome, but now I’m even more excited about it. Here’s what I wrote after just a few minutes of research:
Alongside the obvious park and amazing religious architure (Catholic cathedral, Mennonite tabernacle and Lutheran church), we’ve got eight schools (including two high schools), two libraries, a large subsized housing complex, a police station, and good mix of awesome old townhouses, apartment buildings, and earthquake houses. I personally live right next to halfway house right down the street from Notre Dame plaza (a senior center facility).

Everything I’ve just described is located within a four-block radius.

I deliberately tried to avoid mentioning all the things that Mission Dolores is really well-known for (the foodie stuff, the gentrification, the young crowds). Those are things I also like about the neighborhood, but focusing on them alone ignores at least half the neighborhood. For example, so far as I can tell, the average resident age in my apartment building is much closer to fifty, and the average income closer to $50k, than the stereotype would suggest.


February 11th, 2010

read write where

Yesterday ReadWriteWeb’s post on Facebook Connect was, for a while, a top google hit for “facebook login” and as a result of this—combined with RWW’s Facebook Connect button—the site got a lot of negative comments* from confused Facebook users who thought they were looking at the new Facebook redesign.

There’s been a lot of discussion about the whys and whats and wherewithals, and ReadWriteWeb wrote a summary of things they had taken away from the experience. It’s unfortunately easy to extrapolate beyond what actually happened (“Users don’t read your copy or look at your branding”, for example), but we can take away some really fascinating truths from this debacle**:

  1. Facebook did a great job annoucing their redesign. Almost every confused commenter knew that Facebook was redesigning and had clearly been expecting it.
  2. These users don’t trust Facebook to maintain any UI consistency. This is the part that I find truly mind-boggling: aside from ignoring the ReadWriteWeb logo in the corner, aside from commenting on how much they didn’t like the red, most confused commenters genuinely thought that the changes they saw were the result of the redesign. Their expectations for brand consistency were so low that they didn’t realize they were on a completely different site even though quite a few of them had clearly clicked around in a fruitless attempt to ‘log in’.
  3. Perhaps less surprising to those who have come across this user mistake before: URLs mean nothing to certain types of users—specifically, any user that mistakenly commented on ReadWriteWeb today. It’s impossible to tell how they all came to RWW, but Google seems to be the most common path—which means they didn’t use desktop shortcuts, browser bookmarks, or address bar autocompletes.
    One of my coworkers anecdotally mentioned that his mother had accidentally removed the address bar from Safari, and had been happily (and obliviously) using the search box for everything for the better part of a year. This is not entirely surprising, since address bars and search box often look alike and can be used exactly the same way in a lot of browsers.

Beyond that, there’s not a lot of points we can glean that aren’t speculative or specious. Here’s an excellent point from filthylightthief:

Even at work, around people who use computers every day for their jobs, get beyond the basic functions and it’s a foreign language. Follow the steps you normally take, and you’ll get to the end. The path doesn’t matter. But I think the same can be said about anything that is sufficiently complex: if you can make it work for your normal tasks, most people will be content with getting from A to B, even if it takes you past Q and Z. Computers just have a lot more options for detours.

*Example: “Can we log into face book? This is crazy I want to get all my info off and be done with this. I recently moved from MN to SC Myrtle Beach and facebook was a great way to keep in touch with family and friends but this is getting to be to difficult.”
**This hilarious, hilarious debacle.


January 5th, 2010

A completely different use case for the redesigned boarding pass

This is an addendum to the boarding pass redesign I posted earlier today.

My friend Andy pointed out a completely different use case than the one I’d designed for, which was, essentially, me: a single adult traveler who confirms my reservation and checks baggage at the ticket counter or a nearby self-serve kiosk.

Andy’s primary use case is a family traveling together with small children, with pre-printed boarding passes and self-checked luggage. As a result, certain things that aren’t important in my use case become extremely important:

  • The traveler’s name. A single adult traveler will likely never need to double-check their own name on their ticket. The TSA will double-check it against a government ID, and a gate attendant may glance at it briefly.
    In contrast, a traveling parent will likely need to check ticket names and seats several times to make sure everyone boards at the right time.
  • Bar code positions. Bar code positions only matter to travelers that are self-checking baggage. According to Andy, my design wouldn’t work well on the rather temperamental scanning machines, which even now require awkward paper folding and fiddling. To be honest, I’m not sure if any letter-paper sized self-printed ticket barcode would be easy to scan. The much better solution is to let the user enter a simple five-digit ID code or use a credit card for identification, like self-checkin kiosks.
    (Gate attendants will also scan bar codes as travelers board flights, but my original design is serviceable for that use case.)
  • Airport city names. This is primarily a problem on flights with multiple stops, and one that I addressed—minimally—in my design. As Andy pointed out, the passengers you’re in charge of, the more important a clear ticket sequence is.
    Rather than emphasize city names, I favor a simple numerical approach (labeling tickets flight one, two, three, and so on). Color-coded numbers would be even better, of course, though likely not practical.
  • I’m sure there’s other use cases I haven’t thought of yet. Justin also mentioned that the information hierarchy on my ticket still doesn’t make it immediately clear what the traveler should be looking at at any given time. Unfortunately this is because the traveler’s needs change as they progress through the airport; in this comment, I talk about my grand vision to have every stage color-coded.


A practical boarding pass redesign

Improving the air travel experience is something of a passion of mine, so when I saw Tyler Thompson’s boarding pass redesign, I was intrigued. His article is well-thought-out and provoking, but unfortunately his redesigns don’t address a lot of the practical issues that airline travelers and airlines have to deal with.

Tim Morgan discussed some of the obvious shortcomings in his summary here, and after talking with both him and James Yu I’ve taken a first pass at a practical boarding pass redesign. (Edit: I’ve also discussed another use case here.)

Going over practicalities and priorities.

I had a few design constraints. First, no interesting typefaces or graphics: although they could vastly improve user experience, practically speaking, the machines that print boarding passes won’t be replaced soon. For this redesign, I stuck with one-weight Monaco. Likewise small gate maps of each airport would be ideal, but aren’t practical—so, that idea was scrapped, too.

Second, I constantly kept in mind that the ticket has at least two users, and usually three: both the traveler, who uses it as a reference, and also any TSA agent or airline employee that might need to inspect it.

For this example, I researched multiple airlines’ boarding passes to see what information needed to be included for all interested parties. I chose United Airlines as the airline here, mainly because I used them to travel home for the holidays this Christmas. With a lot of help from James, I’ve outlined checked-in, boarding-pass carrying airline traveler priorities as follows:

  1. Gate number
  2. Board time
  3. Boarding zone
  4. Seat number
  5. Departure time

And so:

The redesign itself.

You’ll see that the ticket reflects the priorities I just listed for passengers. For the TSA officials scanning this boarding pass, they’ll see the information they’re looking for up top, where the untrained quickly learn to find it: airline, flight number, and passenger name (in the same order as the passenger’s ID).

For airline officials, most of their internal indexing numbers are inside the grey box—it’s grey so that it’s easy for the other parties to ignore. So far as I can tell, airline-only information is usually a bunch of ID numbers. In this mockup, I’ve also included a lot of abbreviations that were present on several boarding pass examples, though in every example I found online, they were left blank. Maybe someone in the airline industry can explain their purpose.

Because I’m a sucker for plain English instructions, I’ve included the text “First leg to [airport code] | transfer at [airport code]” above the grey airline-only box. I’m not sure whether or not it’s feasible to put leg numbers on boarding passes, but if one could easily put one’s transfer tickets in order, it would make travel that much more pleasant.

So let’s walk through some details.

The passenger gets their ticket at the check-in counter or self-check-in kiosk. If they’re printing out tickets at home the night before, or received them in the mail prior to flight, they won’t get a gate, in which case the gate number will have tiny instructions to check with an airline employee. In any case, once travelers know their gate and are going through security, they’ll focus on this:

TSA agents, on the other hand, will be focused on this, especially the top row:

And of course, should there be any problems at the gate, the agent will be focused on this, particularly the information in and above the grey box:

When the passenger is ready to board, they will care about this:

And when they are in the walkway, almost on the plane, they only have the right-hand ticket stub—which is fine, because they just care about this:

Though this redesign isn’t sexy, the important information will be obvious to whoever’s looking for it. TSA agents and airline agents are look at hundreds, if not thousands, of boarding passes a day, so despite the smaller type size, with this redesign they’ll be able to find what they’re looking for because the information they really need is grouped in a small and readable area.

For travelers, the benefits to this design are obvious. A lot of the changes I’ve made are similar to Thompsons’, but with a clearer information hierarchy and a more legible typeface.

A typographic addendum.

Speaking of legible typefaces, this design is typographically sound and if printing machine support it, should look good in a wide variety of typefaces. Here’s the same redesign set in Helvetica Neue (normal and bold).