Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Bill Buxton on design sketching

This blog post is based on a speech by Bill Buxton at BostonCHI last year, and on Matt Ritter's notes from the event. He spoke on design sketching.

You don't have to sketch with pencils, by the way. You can sketch with words and find yourself unconstrained by visual space; it's a different sort of freedom.

These are somewhat disjointed notes that happen to be grouped into sections. They are not meant to be coherent in the least.

Sketching as communication

Sketching is extremely important and fundamental to ideation. They communicate the emotion, feeling, and intent of a design, not necessarily its specific geometry. If other people look at your drawing and come up with different words to describe it than you thought they would, redraw the sketch.

If you don't sketch, how do you communicate?

If you don't sketch, how do you get to know your design space?

Be honest about your level of polish.

If your idea is rough, draw your sketches roughly; never use a higher resolution than required. The way you render your sketches telegraphs to others how finished your idea is and what order of critique they should be making; "move that 2 pixels to the left" versus "I don't think you need the entire back half of that car." This is one of the advantages to paper prototyping - not only is it fast and cheap, it looks fast and cheap and people give high-level, low-detail critiques of the overall idea instead of nitpicking on the shade of a button.

Everything is n+1

In an ironic self-referential twist, many old sayings are nearly identical when you look at them. "Everything old is new again." "There are no new stories." The design equivalent is that there are no companies that regularly do something from scratch. "All other products are n+1," Buxton said. Doing a project from scratch is exceedingly dangerous because they're inherently unpredictable.

It's easy to fake a wizard.

"If Dorothy doesn't see the wizard, it doesn't matter that he's there." There's no reason to make things more complicated than they need to be. Sometimes, extremely low-tech solutions can be cost-effective. Extremely low-tech solutions, with some cleverly placed people to fill in the gaps, can create a rich interaction - think about the classic example of "speech recognition software" usability testing where the software is really a person typing in the back room.

There's a difference between having a rich interaction and a rich data model. The MVC framework is particularly good at illustrating this. You can have a glorious AJAX-y front end with buttons and whirling things and funky graphs running entirely off the output of a single CO2 meter. Or thousands of tables, thousands of student data points, grades, comments, classes - all funneling out to a single green light on your screen that says "diploma" or "no diploma."

Less than five and you're fired

Come with multiple designs. "If a designer comes in with less than 5 viable designs, they will be fired on the spot." This reveals the obvious answers and lets you push for more, emphasizes that there's often no one right solution, and makes the tradeoffs of the problem space clearer. More importantly, it allows you to step back and take critiques more objectively. If you associate one design with one person, it's hard to separate critique of the design with critique of the person; defensiveness results despite everyone's best efforts. If you've got more than one design, you can mix and match tradeoffs, and it's about the ideas, not the person who's bringing them in.

The designer-engineer relationship

If you're running a business, Buxton says you should let your designers shine - to which I would add "but make sure your technical underpinnings stay in place." Never lose sight of the reason you're making something; to help others. It won't help them much if it's not created to fit their needs, their price tag, their usage habits - but it also won't help them much if it isn't made, isn't functionally prototyped.

Sketching and prototyping take different people to do. Prototyping should be done in parallel. I'm not sure what this means yet - is sketching the exploration of an idea, and prototyping the exploration of the implementations of that idea? I have the nagging feeling that designers and engineers speak fundamentally different languages that happen to use many of the same words; I want to run around in both worlds and see how they compare.

The need for dialogue between engineers and designers was made very clear to me in Osaka after spending many hours talking with product designers - they giving us advice on how to improve our artwork and presentations, we looking at their designs and giving them suggestions for manufacturability, materials and devices they might consider in order to actually get them to functional prototype stage. Engineers don't have to learn Maya and designers don't need to learn structural mechanics, but they need to be able to talk to one another, and they need to do it.

Let your creative people be creative. Engineers don't thrive under the supervision of pointy-haired bosses. Similarly, let your designers lead themselves. Designers and engineers should help each other, not be fettered by each other; don't make the engineers build unreasonable things, but don't constrain designers to only "make pretty" what the engineers toss them.

Learn from the masters

Reproduce the work of the masters. "Without the experience of the past, we've got no shot at designing the future." (Hands-on learning without innovation, Matt noted. "You've got to couple it with a healthy dose of reflection in order to make the work really yours," I added.)

Monday, February 26, 2007

In the moments before I come clawing back up for air

Alison and I were supposed to go visit a school today, but we got snowed in, so I've got unexpected free time that really shouldn't be free (there's too much waiting in the wings to fill it) but I'm going to take it anyhow and sit down and write; I need to write. This is going to be me just sitting in my purple chair and typing until my laptop battery dies. (It will die soon. I need a new one.)

I will type, and then I will decide whether to post this, or whether to delete, but that will be after. Right now I'm just going to type.

I am behind. I am overwhelmed. I am drowning - not the frantic thrashings of the first panic when you realize you're going under but are still swallowing air, but the slow, sweet sinking when you lie back and realize that the fingers of sun reaching down through the dark water are still beautiful, welcoming the embrace even as the pressure hugs you, crushes you slowly.

I haven't yet inhaled water. But I'm not ready to burn my lungs and muscles kicking to the surface just yet; I'm tired. I want to rest, think, watch the kelp waving on the bottom with the steady pounding of my pulse (not dead yet) and a low swishing of the tide the only sound in my ears, because I know when I pop up there'll be all manner and sort of shouting and babble again, and I'm not ready for that.

I'm happy. I'm always happy.

But I'm so tired.

I'm starting to feel it - not in my mind or my body any more, I've learned how to take care of those (finally) so they don't spaz, I can keep myself running. But a tired that's in my bones. Past my bones. Starting to get to the inside of me; the chaotic high-frequency oscillations that characterized my youth (why am I speaking of it as if it were past? I know it isn't) are damping down, I'm growing old, growing steadier. Still lithe and limber, and fast when needed, but no longer spasming random joy everywhere, spattering the walls and halls with it, wasting it because I had too much to give. I feel massive - not heavy, but worn, with frayed edges and a kind of gravity that takes a nonzero amount of energy to shift.

I feel like curling up in my little superhero cape and going to sleep. I want to make a nest somewhere so nobody will see me and just sleep; and as I sleep cities will crumble around me, bombs will fall, people will be calling for help, calls I could answer, but I won't listen. I'll give up the arrogance of thinking that I can save the world. Why did I ever think I could put the cape on in the first place? I'm just a person. Just one person. Just one very small, scared, very, very tired person. Who hasn't even started doing anything, and already she's tired of doing it.

When I thrash my way back up for air, possibilities will explode around me. And I know I'll be so hungry for them, I'll need oxygen in my lungs, that I'll gasp and gulp and swallow (with some seawater, and I'll cough and spit and vomit but I'll breathe) and I'll flail again, and find my strong steady stroke, and float awhile until the acid muscle sting stops cramping, and then I'll start dragging people back to shore, pulling them up, dragging them out of their own dark crushing kelp forest quiet drowning time back into the clamor of the world we're meant to breathe in.

I'm sorry I'm ruining your slow and peaceful sink. I need you to breathe, and scream at me, and live; we can't all stop and swallow water and sink down into the night alone. Slow shadows sinking into the black, down by themselves. No tiredness, but no fire either. No triumph and no fighting, no freezing wind or blowing whistles or the rasp of hot dry sand sticking to your wet body when you haul yourself ashore.

I can think of no greater honor, no greater joy, than to wear myself out in the service of something greater. (Than what? Than me? That's how people usually say it.) I want to skid into Heaven (I still believe in heaven, or at least I want to) on my knees, eyes wild, jeans torn - and when my heart stops leaping through my ribs, when I can breathe, I'll say between gasps "What a ride! Can I do it again?"

And God will grin and tell me to take a nap first. So I'll lie down and close my eyes (maybe shower first, and change into cool white robes, and crawl into a soft cloud-bed) and breathe quiet so it looks like I'm sleeping, and drift off into sleep even as I'm pretending... and then yawn slowly, wake up and stretch, enjoying the soreness of my muscles and the hot oatmeal and the cold orange juice and strawberries. Delicious, that moment of rest. And a slow wandering with old friends, floating feathered through the skies. But not too long. There's a world to save. And I'll fling off my halo like a frisbee, and scrub off the stumps where my wings were, and gently fold my robe for when I come back in 20, 70, 150 years (and put on my jeans - oh, pants!) and punch my card and tip my hat and jump.

And I'll plunge back down.

I'll never stop this, I'll never fix this. I'll always be tired. I'll always be this close to exhaustion, pushing the limits of collapse. (I'll learn how to manage it better as time goes on; I'll calm the spasms, be more focused, more responsible, follow through, be a steadying hand when folks need it).

I need to learn how to take a hand to do more than steady myself for more running. I need to learn how to keep hold of a hand when I'm the one who needs the hanging-on; I need to learn how to take a hug, stay in a hug, maybe someday even take a kiss. I need to learn how to be saved, but I don't want saving. Don't want dependence, ever. Folks assume I need a hand; I'm young, I'm a girl, I'm disabled, I'm naive, I'm ripping my hand away and running across the street to the honking of horns because I don't need you. I don't need you; I'm special; I'm fine. Don't worry. I'm fine. Stop fussing. I can do it. I don't need help. Let me help you.

Step into the limelight even if I don't want it. Or at least I say I don't. Being special but rejecting specialness so I don't feel too bad for having it because I don't want it. Not letting other people step up in their turn. No, you can keep sleeping. Stay there. I'll take a double shift. I can take it. It's not that you can't, just that I can. And I don't want to waste it, this ability to do things.

I don't want to be a grown-up any more, but I am, and I want to be what I am.

And my battery is about to die, and I'm a stupid idiot who doesn't care what she shares with the world (because she wants to share every damn thing she has) and I'm going to run with that sentiment and post this, no editing. Ha.

(Er... maybe some editing to put in the linebreaks. Apparently I need a double \n\n.)

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Gender and negotiations

Small unconscious things like gender reactions make a difference. My mind's been pushed - just a little - to think differently about this topic, but that small push was what finally sent it careening over the edge from self-imposed indifference into... what? I'm not sure. Not radical feminism, not blazing anger, paralyzing sadness, resignation, indignance, nothing that clear-cut. It will take a while for me to be able to digest and explain my thoughts on the subject now, but all I know is that they are no longer "well, gender doesn't matter for me." (Some of you may know what triggered this shift; I'm not going to talk about it here because I'm planning to carry it a little further, but I'm happy to talk about it via email.)

I look around the dinners at the Foundry where we're starting a nonprofit, my electrical engineering classrooms and teams, my cocurriculars in web development, the companies and labs I've worked for. I look around and I usually don't think at all about being female because... I don't see any other females. But what does that do? What does that mean? Does it affect anything?

If it did, would I even notice?

That was on my mind today as I walked through the first of three career fairs on Olin's campus. Plenty of great companies around today, most of them heavier on the software side of things, which suited me just fine. So job fairs, gender, and unconscious performance-affecting habits have all been swimming around in my brain.

This led me once again to a book called Women Don't Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. I highly recommend it to anyone who is earning or hopes to earn a salary someday, regardless of gender or job; it points out subtle habits that people may fall into that could either advantage or disadvantage them, tells you how to become aware of them, and then shows you how to change it. If you want to. I'm reading it for the fifth time since last year. Among other things, it talks about finding out how much you're worth, and then getting it (or, if you're a stupid idealist like me who'll work for pennies for the right cause, at least understand fully the financial consequences of your actions).

Yeah, researching salary ranges isn't my idea of a jolly fun time either. But it's an investment; if you can spend a few days now while you're 18, or 20, or 22, and become aware of the tiny things that influence your impact (and - okay, your salary, although I try very hard not to care about that), compound interest will kick in. Influence, opportunities, and finances all grow exponentially. A tiny difference right now can make you much, much better off years down the road; this is something folks who want to change the world need to be acutely aware of.

Val Henson, who originally introduced me to Women Don't Ask, is the author of this howto negotiate your salary and benefits article which is excellent (and geared towards women) as well as shorter and more to-the-point than the book. A shorter, non-gender specific article about negotiations for geeks also has some tidbits in it if you really don't have time.

It'll be interesting to see whether I actually pull up the guts to do this during my own job interviews. Knowing you should do something and doing it are very different things, and we've already established that I continuously deliberately screw myself over because I'm trying to please or be "nice." Perhaps I should make a pact with some friends - if they do it, I'll do it, and we'll hold each other to it.

More about that last point later. I'm interested in hearing about people's experiences with negotiations, though. How did you figure things out when you got your first job? If you've been on the flip side of hiring someone, what's the conversation like from that vantage point?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Buddhism == Brian Bingham

Prof. Brian Bingham during the MetaOlin Systems Engineering module: "All models are broken."

Then later that night, Eric Munsing lent me a copy of Thich Nhat Hanh's book Being Peace, and I read the following (from the precepts of the Buddhist order Nhat Hanh belongs to):

First: Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. All systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

Made me smile.

Sign through your cell phone

If you've got a cell phone but communicate through sign language (or rather, communicate through sign language and wish you had a mobile communications device that worked for you), you're no longer out of luck. Researchers at the Univ. of Washington are working on a project called MobileASL that uses a nifty blend of image recognition and compression to enable recognizable signs to be transmitted through normal cell phones (...with cameras and video capabilities, that is).

The reason you can't do this outright is that the bandwidth is way too low to allow the high-res, high-speed data you need to pick out facial expressions and subtle finger movements. It's like reading a book from 10 feet away with blurry glasses. You might be able to squint some things out, but can't really get a handle on the information, and there's all this visual data (the things around the book that fall within your field of vision) that isn't useful at all, but is just sitting there taking up space on your retina.

What MobileASL does is very smart; it recognizes the important parts of the video (your hands) and prioritizes encoding and transmission so that just those parts come through faster, with better quality. Selective focusing. Bandwidth goes way down. Comprehensibility goes up (presumably). No fancy algorithms to recognize individual signs is needed (that's really hard - think speech recognition, only you're using pictures instead of sound), just enough edge detection to tell you where the hands are.

I wonder if they could do the same for lipreading, with a slight twist. One of the reasons videoconferencing is so tough for me is that the frame rate and resolution (due to bandwidth limitations) aren't high enough for me to read lips, but if you did selective image/facial recognition and compression so that just the lips came through at higher speeds with more fidelity (and the rest of the video came through, but was very low-res)... Hmm.

It bothers me slightly that I'm becoming more interested in technologies for the deaf and hard-of-hearing (I know some people take offense at the latter term, but it's the most common usage as well as what I call myself, so until such time as I find a better one, I'll use it). But the stuff they're doing with technology there is just so darn cool, I'm letting myself track it down anyway.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Trying too hard to be something?

When you start thinking, you start doing. Or so one route of conventional thinking goes. When you take the time to plan out how you should appear, you're more likely to appear that way - plan before you say something, do something, try to be something. Even "fake it 'till you make it."

Not always.

Joshua Glenn wrote this article on fake authenticity that describes the phenomenon of people trying too hard to "be something" and how this actually makes it less likely for them to make it.

Whenever "authenticity" is evoked, we are actually in the world of fake authenticity. Although Italians do open restaurants, there is no such thing as an authentic Italian restaurant. Although history, nature, race, and class are very real and very much with us, there is no such thing as an authentic past, an authentic outdoors, nor an authentic non-white/middle-class style of life... "Authenticity" is a reality-label from the art world, and as such it cannot be fixed to anything living and vital.

This describes the wannabe phenomena: as soon as a field or a group becomes defined enough to be recognizable by people outside that group, wannabe members of that field appear. I need to do this to act like a hacker. I need to wear these clothes to be in the "cool group" in high school. Mathematicians have these habits, so I'll pick them up. Engineers are geeky, so I'll make jokes about bathtubs and hysteresis. Sometimes these are reflections of who you really are and who you actually want to be. Sometimes you just want to look like you belong - have the benefits of being in a group without really "being in it." To be genuinely something takes a lot of work - work to the point where it becomes unconscious.

I'm particularly struggling with this because I'm fascinated by the world of advertising and branding - the craft and presentation of an identity, a psychology. I know I'm using green for some logo because it has positive "earth-friendly" and "growth" connotations. I use certain words, type in certain fonts, etc. because I'm trying to convey professionalism, down-to-earth-ness, seriousness, carefree-ness... project an image. Discovering who you are is good, and being able to be and convey who you are is great - but if you pay too much attention to the discovering and conveying, you might end up not actually having time to be. The advertising is great, but it's touting a product that was never developed. Or was developed in a completely different direction. Then it becomes false and you start trying to fool people.

Try too hard to be smart, caring, real... and you have less time to learn, to care, and to be yourself. Sometimes we need to just stop worrying about who we are and just be who we are, and trust that that will be conveyed somehow.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Herbert Hoover on engineering

President Hoover was an engineer once. I enjoy this speech of his, particularly the following sentence, which I wholeheartedly agree with (were Hoover my friend today, I'd probably take him up on some of his other points):

To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort, and hope.

Engineers don't just build bridges; they are bridges.

Immersion in the anthro world

I attended my first graduate school class today. It's a qualitative field research methods course in the anthropology department at MIT that I'm auditing (doing all the work and such, but technically being enrolled in an independent study at Olin so I can get those last 4 AHS credits). Big culture shock (the school, the discipline, and being a baby-faced 20-year-old in a room filled with grad students and postdocs) and I am totally going to get my butt kicked by the workload, but I'm loving it. This afternoon was three straight hours of my brain going "whoa! whoa! paradigm shift!"

As an engineer, I'm used to being a monkey with a hammer trying to affect my universe instead of a fly on the wall trying to understand it. I am trying to kick myself into thinking like a scientist (preferably of the social type), thinking about observing the world and trying to figure out why things happen, rather than being of the "Find Tools Fix Problem" ENGR mindset. I keep on going "where is my toolbelt and how can I fix this?" but I'm doing my best to not scratch that itch and instead immerse myself in this new field without shoehorning it into my usual one (...anthropologizing anthropology, sort of - ironically, I'm also simultaneously trying to engineer engineering in my other projects, or at least to engineer engineering education. Mm, meta.)

It's also interesting to hear the (mixed) views of the social science students on engineers (especially since it's an MIT class and a bunch of them were formally engineers and some of the other students are doing some sort of technical work as well). Do we really look down on the humanities that much? Do we really have that much arrogance in thinking we can fix the world by objectifying it and treating components numerically? Do we really, at our worst, ignore the world around us that we're supposed to be learning to serve with our technical skills?

I've been soaked in a "rah rah engineering is awesome" environment so much at Olin that the notion that it could be otherwise (to educated, rational, smart people with valid points looking at decent data) came as a surprise. I am not quite sure what to do about this yet.

It's going to be quite a ride.

So am I an engineer... or what?

The answer is "or what, but." I am an engineer, or at least I'm capable of wearing that hat. I am also a thousand other things. (Mark Penner introduced me to that TV show by saying "You know, you're basically Jarod.") Simultaneously and contradictorily able to wear many hats and be many things without really being any of them.

And that's okay. I'll fit into many classifications but never really stand in any. (Maybe the closest right now is "engineering education," but that's leaving out a lot - the dozens of disciplines that feed formally into that, and the thousands of random snippets that do.)

Brian Bingham was right: all models are broken, including our models of trying to classify people as certain things. It works better for some people than others; some folks can collage the existing models to make a simulacrum of something close to them, but to quote Brad Minch: "The best model for a cat is a cat. Preferably the same cat." /s/cat/Mel. This is likely true for all people.

I'm still struggling with my need to feel that my life is "valid" - not just valid, but "respected." The culture of engineering seems very centered around the notion that technical superiority (or the technical and nontechnical abilities you need to execute technical things, rather) is the basis on which a meritocracy ought to be based. Other things are good inasmuch as they honor, understand, and support this - it's a form of imperialism, like when Western cultures become fascinated by Aboriginal tribes because of "what their primitive ways can teach us." (Grossly exaggerating and oversimplifying here, but I feel at least a slight undercurrent of this sentiment.)

I love engineering and technical things. I also love the pure mathematics and sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, but while it's perfectly all right for engineers to have those "as hobbies," I still feel a stigma at the thought that I might like them just as much, or even more - that engineering may be my "hobby" and something else my passion. (Engineering education, again; I never feel so alive as I do when I'm working on engineering education - at least right now.)

The lack of methods for formal approval of the kind of life I want to live (...which is a life free from the constraints of formal approval, so yeah) means that I'm often ridiculously underconfident and often think I'm doing something terribly wrong because I don't fit into any of the million predefined slots.

This metafilter post ("I landed my dream job but don't think I'm cut out for it") perfectly encapsulates the way this underconfidence coupled with my desire to please makes me absolutely terrified when I'm working. That's a dead ringer for most of the projects and internships I've had - and they've been great, but I've never been able to shake that fear when I'm working. Thankfully, the MeFi community has some great suggestions on how to cope with it as well (the kinds of things you sort of knew already, but that people still need to tell you to do sometimes).

There is a fine line between being brave and visionary and being stubborn and narrowminded. I never want to blindly charge into a lost cause because I'm too thickheaded to ignore the cries of wisdom around me. But I don't want to be swayed into doing something that's not my calling because of what other people say. I'm sure that 60 years from now I'll look back on this and laugh, but hindsight is always 20/20 and all the meandering paths you take culminate in coolness in the end somehow - you just don't know what that will be when you're stumbling around in the myopia of youth. (I always found it ironic that as the vision of your eyes degrades, the vision in your mind that counts is sharpened.)

But I'm me. And that's okay. And I can be the best Mel I can be, so I will. And that sounds very stupid when I say it out loud, but it needs to be stuffed into my head.

This is a continuing struggle. It has been for years. It will be for years to come. I need to keep reminding myself of these tiny glimmers of epiphany.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Back in the U.S. of A

Someday I'll have to rewrite the lyrics to that Beatles song so the rest of it makes sense.

We're back from Japan. There were too many adventures to fit into one blog post (and besides, I need to sleep) but they'll leak out of my head unless I make a note to write them, so here's the list:

  • Design != design
  • How Not To Go To An International Design Competition
  • So are you an engineer, or what? (Answer: "Or What.")
I believe this brings my post backlog up to 6. (Two on the future of the internet on education, one replying to Miks.) Will be chewing through this in the next few days while catching up on the backlog of work. And before you ask, yes, it was worth it.

In three days, my views of engineering, design, and art have been completely warped. I used to consider myself an artist. Then I tried really hard to be an engineer, but fell back into the category "technically skilled designer." Then I allowed myself to be a teacher and went back to "engineer," but with an understanding of design. That was nicely refuted by the last week's events. Now I don't know what I am at all. It's a pretty cool place to be in.

I learned a lot of hard lessons (there's no better way to burn something into your memory than to make a complete and utter fool of yourself doing it). I'm gratefully for my luxuriously large single dorm room and the fact that I live in an environment where old jeans and a t-shirt is socially acceptable attire. I'm thankful that my friends and I can be direct, blunt, and downright amiably contradictory to each other as a way of getting things done, and that people will call me out on BSing if I start yakking crazy things, but let me get away with anything so long as I explain the point of what I'm running towards.

I found out that my shoes need better arch supports, that takoyaki (octopus balls) are excellent when it's made hot off the street, and that tiny Japanese businessmen can consume large bowls of udon (noodles) faster than two not-so-tiny American college students. (The bowl of noodles was the size of our sink, and that might be an underestimate.) I found that the dusty remnants of high school Japanese classes, a phrasebook, and a lot of nodding and smiling can get you quite far when talking to people. I learned that I didn't need to check my email incessantly, and was actually happier when I didn't.

The world has once again exploded with possibilities, and I'm desperately trying to prune them. How do you choose which doors to leave open behind you? They might as well be closed, because you'll likely never have the time to come back to them again.

I have also reverted to a schedule of very little sleep. I am going for about 3 hours tonight to catch up on rest and allow my muscles a chance to relax, and then we'll see where things go from there. The fire in my bones is burning in a way it hasn't burned since my first two years of college where I was driven by something (fear, habit, and a sense of duty just as much as passion) enough to force my way bleary-eyed through the days. It's somewhat more tempered now by my first brush with burnout and a little more rationality, but it feels really good to care, and to care so much that I'll balance my life out so that I can do the things I ought.