Can you cook an egg in a bowl of oats?

I ran an experiment to see if I could cook an egg in a bowl of cooked steel cut oats. The experiment was a failure.

I got everything as hot as I could. I warmed up the egg in hot water and even prepped the bowl by filling it with boiling water.

This is about a minute after cracking the egg into oats. As you can see, the egg did not cook.

After waiting a couple minutes and realizing the egg was not going to cook, I relented and stuck the whole thing in the microwave. Even then, the egg didn’t cook very evenly. In this picture, the bottom of the yolk is solid and top of the yolk (and the whites) are still quite runny.

Evaluating potential clients

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how to choose the best clients. I want to have a systematic approach that can be repeated for everyone with whom I might work.

I’d also like to be able to share this approach with others, so I’m working on an article to help freelancers evaluate potential clients. I started by putting together a list of questions I might use. Here it is:

  1. Do the client’s values align with mine?
  2. What is their ability to pay?
  3. Will I be able to publicize the work afterwards?
  4. What’s the likelihood that the work will go live?
  5. Is there proper executive support in place for the project?
  6. What “good” will this work do in the world?
  7. Does this work have strategic value for the client?
  8. Does this work have strategic value for me?
  9. Are they assholes?
  10. Will I be able to measure the impact of my work?
  11. Will I be able to use interesting metrics (such as stress created, confidence created, other perception-based metrics)?

Obviously, this is incomplete and brings up a bunch of things I’d need to decide upon before I could complete such an evaluation (these will be addressed in the article), but it’s a start.

My question for you: how do you evaluate potential clients? What questions to do you ask? What red flags do you look for?

If you post a comment, I’ll let you know when the article is published. Thanks!

Rob Spiro on Design at The Mechanical Zoo

Last week, I went to BayCHI to see Rob Spiro, one of the founders of The Mechanical Zoo, talk about their product,  Aardvark. Aardvark is a subjective search engine built on the idea that conversations are the best way to get answers to subjective questions.

A typical interaction with Aardvark goes something like this:

  1. You send Aardvark a question via instant message.
  2. Aardvark then finds people who are online and have the knowledge to answer your question.
  3. Those people answer your question and send it to Aardvark.
  4. Aardvark sends the answers to you.
  5. You ask a followup question or just say thanks.

Pretty simple, huh? You might think people would do this more often without Aardvark as the go-between, but as Rob described, there are several reasons why people don’t. The main is that it’s costly, both in terms of time and social capital. It takes a long time to find to right person to ask, and once you find that person you have a limited number of interactions with them before they get annoyed and start ignoring your requests.

Aardvark reduces the cost of these interactions.

It does the heavy lifting of getting the right questions to the right people and lowers the social capital cost by acting as the intermediary and setting expectations regarding asking and answering questions.

Ok, with that background out of the way, I want to highlight a couple interesting points from Rob’s talk.


Discoveries made while designing a conversational product

Rob and team learned pretty early on that they needed a controlled vocabulary. They also learned that no one wants to talk to a bot. They needed a vocabulary that didn’t make Aardvark feel like a phone tree or a command line.

They kept Aardvark friendly by using neutral language, in first person present-tense.

Also, through the use of some ingenious, Wizard of Oz-style testing, where they had interns respond to questions as if they were the Aardvark service, they learned that conversational systems work really well for:

  • When you’re new to a topic and don’t know the vocabulary of the topic
  • For social recommendations
  • “Someone must know the answer to this” questions
  • Homework help
  • Local recommendations


Research Driven Design Methods

The other really interesting part of Rob’s talk was about The Mechanical Zoo’s design process. It was refreshingly pragmatic and focused on results. Here are my notes:

Rob Spiro talks about TMZ's design process
Rob Spiro talks about TMZ's design process

Identifying user needs
1. Guided in-person interviews
2. Case studies of individual interactions
3. Push suggestion box

Sanity-Check Feature Ideas
4. Wizard-of-Oz simulations
5. Paper prototypes

Assess, Tweak and Polish Features
6. Heavy statistical analysis
7. Remote usability testing – finds it most useful for usability Q/A  (they use

Additional note: They use agile (see picture)

Congratulations, Humanized!

At this time last year, I was hard at work with a team of extremely talented developers, designing and building the humane computing environment that Jef Raskin described in his book, The Humane Interface.

That project basically fell apart after Jef passed away (for a number of reasons), but some of the developers went on to start a company founded on the principles of humane computing. That company is Humanized.

Today, Humanized released their first product, Enso, which comes in two flavors, Launcher and Words.

Launcher gives you lightening fast, mouse-free access to launching your programs by making use of a quasi-mode that you invoke by pressing the caps lock key. Finally, caps lock does something useful!

Words is invoked in the same way, but is adds a spellcheck that works exactly the same in every program – even programs that don’t have spellcheck built in. Brilliant!

Both of the products do other things as well. I recommend checking out the demos on the Humanized site. You can also download trial versions of both products. You might also want to check out Walt Mossberg’s review of the products.

I’m very proud of what the guys at Humanized have accomplished in less than a year. They’ve carried on Jef Raskin’s work in a practical, accessible way that I’m sure will lead to some exciting innovations in both user interfaces and ways of interacting with your computer.

Side note: Some of the work we did is still available at the Raskin Center for Humane Interfaces website.

Why Integral Design is Important

Before I get back to the questions I posed in my last entry, I’d like to tell you a little about why I think building a framework for Integral Design is important.

Recently I’ve been reading the writing of a theorist named Ken Wilber. Ken has developed a really nice framework for examining the ways in which we can approach a given practice, such as medicine or design[1]. Ken’s framework urges us to think explicitly about a given problem or idea from a variety of perspectives and viewpoints.

Wilber says that the best approach to carrying out a practice is to consider it through the lens of each of the four quadrants of his framework. By practicing design in a way that integrates considerations from all four quadrants, we’ll end up with a more holistic, or integral, way of doing design.[2]

So, if Wilber is right, then by adopting a more integral approach to design, our solutions will, in turn, be more holistic. He also contends that by using an integral approach, it’s more likely that our designs will be successful. This seems reasonable, since the more factors we consider regarding a design problem, the more likely it is that our solutions will be successful.

Sounds like a laudable goal, yes? Wasn’t this what we wanted to do with experience design before terms like “user experience” were co-opted by organizations that were focused more on PR campaigns than on delivering holistically designed solutions to peoples’ problems?

I think most of us can agree that a more integral approach to design would be a good thing – especially if we can realize a way to actually put it into practice.

Ever since I first became interested in design and began practicing user-centered design, I’ve wondered what was next. How do we improve the practice of design beyond the user-centered methods we use now?

The idea of considering the behaviors, motivations, and contexts of people during the design process is one idea that’s gaining more traction lately. This is important work as we begin to build a framework for Integral Design, but simply adding those concerns on top of the concerns of user-centered design will only cover two of Wilber’s four quadrants.

User-centered design, which I believe is fundamentally concerned with tasks, states and goals, seems to map to the upper-left quadrant of Wilber’s model. This quadrant is focused on the interior of the individual or, to put it another way, the subjective mind.

Design (we don’t have a name for it yet) that focuses more deeply on behaviors, motivations, and contexts seems to map quite nicely to the lower-left quadrant of Wilber’s model. This quadrant is focused on the interior of the collective or, to put it another way, it’s focused on intersubjective culture.

For now, we’re still a long way from being able to practice Integral Design, but I think building a framework and describing it is an important first step towards getting there.

I want my designs to help create a future that’s more sustainable, more caring and even more deeply-ethical. For now, Integral Design is the best way I can think of to get there.

[1] In his writing, Wilber describes many uses for the model, though he never directly discusses design. I’m just using design as an example of a practice that could be approached in an integral way.
[2] I’ll do a proper introduction of Wilber’s framework in a future entry, but in the meantime, you may want to take a look at the AQAL entry on Wikipedia. You could also Google it yourself, but I should warn you that the top Google result only covers Wilber up to 2001. I believe Wilber’s framework has been refined quite a bit since then.

Rethinking Designing for Experience

A few months ago, a friend of mine, Todd Wilkens, posted some provocative thoughts on the Adaptive Path blog. Essentially, Todd says:

  1. Instead of a framework focused on tasks, goals, and states, designers should use a framework focused on behaviors, motivations, and contexts.
  2. A new framework is needed because the framework based on tasks, goals, and states doesn’t explicitly account for behaviors, motivations and context. Because of this, it’s difficult to account for those concerns in our designs. That is, we fail to realize certain solutions because our framework for thinking about the problem actually prevents us from considering some solutions.

I agree with Todd. A better understanding of peoples’ behaviors related to, motivations with regard to and contexts of use concerning our designs will lead to better designs.

But why stop there? Why not move even further, toward an integral framework for design? The more considerations we can integrate into our framework for design, the better our resulting solutions should be, yes?

Why not consider an even higher calling? What if, for example, our designs could help people become better people?

Imagine the level of integration into someone’s life your design would need to have for someone to say, “That [service] has my back,” or “My [product] actually cares for me.”

Now, when I say caring, I’m not simply talking about displaying kindness and concern for others. I’m talking about something deeper than that. I’m talking about having a relationship that facilitates self-actualization.

Self-actualization is probably not a word you use every day, but the concept is simple. Self-actualization is the fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities. Self-actualization is about becoming the best “you” that you can be.

What I’m talking about are designs that are deeply ethical, not only in terms of environmental sustainability and social responsibility, but also in terms of caring.

I think few will argue that this is a bad idea, but all we have so far is an interesting thought experiment. In my mind, there are several important questions that remain:

  1. Can a system be designed such that it can actually have a relationship with a person?
  2. Are the concerns that go into designing such a system really that different from the concerns that go into user-centered design as we practice it today?
  3. In practice, how do we go about understanding these concerns?
  4. What would an integral framework for design look like?

What are your thoughts? Are there other questions I should be answering?

NeuroEthics: Science, Ethics, and Law

Hi there.

I just attended the weekly Symbolic Systems Forum at Stanford. This week’s talk, NeuroEthics: Science, Ethics, and Law, was given by Hank Greely of the Stanford Law School. Here’s the abstract:

“Neuroscience is in the midst of a revolution that is transforming our knowledge of the human brain and how it works. Our ability to predict future mental illness, neurological disease, or personality characteristics is expanding dramatically. We seem likely to be able to use devices to “read minds,” by directly detecting brain activity that is correlated with various mental states. And drugs and devices, developed to help the injured or ill, hold out the possibility of “enhancing” human brains with unprecedented powers. This talk will describe those advances and the legal, ethical, and social issues they pose.”

The ethical issues related to this technology are very interesting to me, mainly because they are so deeply intertwined with design. This technology, in as little as a few years, will begin to force the entire design community to consider the ethics of situations that simply haven’t existed before.

What happens when we as designers have the ability to know things about the users of our services that they don’t know about themselves?

At the beginning of his talk, Hank outlined the 3 major areas of neuro-ethics:

  1. Research ethics, or what is the ethical thing to do with the information you gain about the subjects of, say, a study employing Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) technology?
  2. Neuro-economics, or what happens in the brain when we make decisions?
  3. Social implications, which is the most interesting area for both Professor Greely and myself. This area deals with topcis like prediction of behavior, mind reading and body enhancement.

A particularly interesting subtopic in the area of mind reading is that of reading emotions. How exciting! Imagine the accuracy with which you could design a service to elicit a certain emotion if we could read the users’ emotions directly from their brain?

Of course, this is currently completely impractical, but only because of the rapidly vanishing constraints of, for example, getting people into an FMRI machine and forcing them to work on tasks they’d probably never do otherwise. During his talk, Hank outlined several new technologies that could be used for the purpose of lie detection – some of them could even be administered without the knowledge of the subject!

As a group of people who pride ourselves on believing that we are a force for contributing positive change to the world, I have to think that there are others out there who care about the ethics of our profession. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone doing much talking about it.

Anyone have any pointers for me?

Serendipity: As I sat here outside a cafe on University Avenue in Palo Alto, Brian Knutson walked past me and into a restaurant a few doors down. If you’re unfamiliar, Brian’s primary research interest is in the neural basis of emotion.

The Best Thing I Read This Week

From Paul Graham’s essay, How to Do What You Love:

“Prestige is especially dangerous to the ambitious. If you want to make ambitious people waste their time on errands, the way to do it is to bait the hook with prestige. That’s the recipe for getting people to give talks, write forewords, serve on committees, be department heads, and so on. It might be a good rule simply to avoid any prestigious task. If it didn’t suck, they wouldn’t have had to make it prestigious.”

My Signature StrengthsFinder Themes

The Gallup Organization’s Clifton StrengthsFinder is a 180 question, web-based survey designed to identify your top five themes. The themes and the research upon which they are based are discussed in Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton’s book, “Now, Discover Your Strengths.

The book’s basic theme is that you can accomplish more in life by doing activities that engage your strengths, rather than trying to improve the areas in which you’re simply not talented.

I found the results far more interesting and useful than the results of the personality tests I’ve taken. The results of the StrengthsFinder test aren’t about your personality, rather, they describe your areas of talent. Ultimately, this maps to the fundamental types of activities that get you engaged and excited. It’s a nice tool for thinking about the careers in which you can be truly exceptional.

In case you’re interested, these were my top five themes:

Competition — People strong in the Competition theme measure their progress against the performance of others. They strive to win first place and revel in contests.

Futuristic — People strong in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future.

Command — People strong in the Command theme have presence. They can take control of a situation and make decisions.

Individualization — People strong in the Individualization theme are intrigued with the unique qualities of each person. They have a gift for figuring out how people who are different can work together productively.

Activator — People strong in the Activator theme can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. They are often impatient.

More information is available at Gallup’s StrengthsFinder Center.