I have a new project!!!

Hello world!

I am excited to announce that I’ve figured out a thing that I would like to create! My last real project was the now-defunct time-capsule app that I launched in 2016, Sealed Messenger, and that was a lot of fun and also a failure. To be fair, just about every other time capsule app so far has also failed to gain much traction, which means that there may not be a market there or at least not as an independent service. The best feedback I ever got about Sealed was, ‘seems like a feature, not a product’.

Since then, I have been working in large enterprise UX/UI design consulting and having a great time traversing healthcare, finance, higher education, utilities, and manufacturing, designing connected dashboards, chatbots, task management systems, and other automated solutions — but these are projects that I don’t choose, that enable other people’s visions and create impact according to stakeholder groups and corporate strategies far external to my own desires.

It has been rewarding to be focused on craft – the ‘how’ and not the ‘what’ or ‘why’ – but I have truly missed having a project all of my own! I did some freelance work alongside my design job over the last few years, but I have reduced that as I have felt increasingly that I didn’t want to work on just anything. To start working on something new, I had to create space for that thing to grow into.

Towards the beginning of Covid I joined an author’s group led by Smiley which was a lot of fun, and the resources, good vibes, and accountability that came with that were an excellent jolt to the system. The writing buddy I got paired with has been the best part of the experience – it has been refreshing to make a new friend during the pandemic and I still look forward to our weekly check-in’s.

So I am excited to announce that I am writing a book which will be called 101 Ways to Use a Hanky. The rest of the working title is, “a practical, historical, and personal guide to get you hooked on using hankies“. I am imagining it to be sort of a family friendly coffee table / bathroom book that you could flip through and learn something fun, put it down, pick it up, and maybe be inspired to try something new.

Basically, I have allergies. I sneeze a lot. Most people who know me will attest. And I have a grandfather, who I call Pop, who always carried handkerchiefs. My dad was more of a bandana guy, but I did see him carry that hundreds of times as well.

After blowing through a prodigious amount of paper tissues, I decided to order a pack of hankies from amazon.

And they were great for blowing my nose and allergy maintenance.

But I also noticed that I started using them in other odd ways, like as a napkin during dinner, or as a cover for my hand to touch something dirty, or to get better grip, to provide some protection for a delicate object, dry things, collect crumbly items, and, well, almost a hundred other things!

Yes, I believe a hanky could be used for hundreds and maybe thousands of different, distinct use cases. And yes, I do define what constitutes a ‘use’: if people actually do it and there’s some distinct value to the method, it’s a use case. I get more technical than that – that’s the simplified definition.

And part of my punchline is — just like carrying a hammer makes everything look like a nail, carrying a hanky starts to shift how you see the world, and you can discover ways to save effort, be physically safer, and more effectively manipulate your surroundings to find easier paths through moments in your life.

Not to mention all of the money you will save from buying less paper products and the environmentally friendly nature of reusing a piece of fabric.

So that’s that! I’m taking the slow but steady approach. I have drafted over 100 uses for hankies and organized them into eight or nine categories or ‘chapters’, but there is still a lot of refinement left to be done. I’m currently working on learning how to illustrate the elusive, ghostlike shape that is a white square piece of cloth, and I’m setting some rough sights on getting a draft done in a year, and then probably another year to see it into print, or whatever its final form takes.

If you have some fun ideas for how to use hankies, please share them with me! I am especially looking to hear about anyone’s experience as a hanky user themselves and what your most common use cases are, as simple or extravagant as they may be. All perspectives are welcome! If you have an experience or idea to share, or if you would like to stay in the loop about this project, please feel free to fill out this form and / or contact me directly via email, Facebook messenger, or here in the comments!

Keep calm and hanky on! 😛

kugel jumps off of the ledge, landing not-so-gracefully

Murder and Snacks: Five Ways of Wise Rabbits

In September, my girlfriend Lexi and I got three rabbits together. We found them in New Jersey at Willy’s Wabbit Wescue and our trio consists of a biological mother, who we named Kugel, and her two baby buns Bialy and Halva.

I have been totally taken by rabbits. My heart has been taken by their distinct little personalities, our living room has been taken over by their cardboard fort and endless tiny bits of hay, and my brain has been steeped in very soft fur and binkies to the extent that most of my conversations involve drawing connections between life stuff and rabbit stuff. This post is my effort to get that out of my system! Let us wax philosophical about rabbits.

1. They keep a low center of gravity

Wild rabbits are famously agile. Think of a lynx or coyote chasing a fluffball at breakneck speed across frozen lands. The rabbit obviously doesn’t have the weapons to stand and fight, but it does have those great hind legs and a body plan that is set to maximize agility and torque.

If I startle the rabbits by standing up too quickly or barging into the room, oftentimes the buns’ first reaction is to sink into their haunches and freeze. It’s hardly a perceptible movement, but when surprised, the rabbits tend to quickly reorient themselves into their default ‘ready’ ‘rocketship’ position and then — wait.

We tend to characterize rabbits as timid creatures that are easily startled. That is basically true, they are quick to flee and slow to trust. However, when startled, rather than fleeing recklessly, there is a moment where bunnies sink into a coiled up, low to the ground, ready-to-run position.

Of course, I’m talking about dumb domestic bunnies who live in a safe world far removed from their natural environment, but even these dumb bunnies display an economy of movement that I admire. Their ‘rocketship’ stance involves tucking all four legs under their body and hugging the floor, ready to twist left or right at a moment’s notice.

What this says to me is — when a challenge comes your way, it is helpful to have a default response that is a neutral stance before taking potentially costly action. Like the rabbits that just lower their body slightly, sink into the patterns that work best for you, and then pause and keep assessing. Tracking your go-to strategies for handling obstacles may help you to stay agile, able to switch it up at the right moment to send your challenger drifting in the wrong direction.

Kugel demonstrating her agility and grace and startling the other two buns

2. They stretch often

Oh my god bunny stretches are the best.

Rabbits, like humans, sleep for a good portion of each day. They are crepuscular and are most active in the evening and at night, and so are usually laid or loafed out somewhere in our living room during the day to sleep.

Whenever a rabbit wakes up, it will stretch.

This alone is a great little lesson! The rabbit stretch routine is very short, maybe 10-15 seconds, and consists of starting with font paws alll the way forward (think downward dog) and then rocks forward to stretch the hind legs alll the way back (think superman) while yawning with their little mouth alll the way open.

I estimate that each rabbit stretches at least 10 times a day for 10 seconds. While they can physically jump directly from sleeping in a loaf position to a full on sprint in no time at all, they definitely prefer to stretch before moving.

Do you stretch ever? Do you only stretch when you feel like you need it in a specific area? Do you have a proactive stretching routine?

I’m not a doctor, but my rabbit is and she recommends stretching whenever you get up after being stationary for a while!

3. They are convinced that whatever the other rabbit has is most interesting

Rabbits love salads. At the end of each day, Lexi and I bring them a nightly salad of greens. The rabbits hear us tearing lettuce or cilantro or cabbage leaves and start circling and hopping around, generally getting very excited because they know what’s coming.

As soon as the food lands in the bowl, each rabbit grabs a piece and starts munching, sometimes hopping a few feet away to protect that piece from thieving neighbors. The first piece usually goes without incident.

With that second piece, the rabbits notice each other again. That piece of lettuce that Kugel just grabbed starts to look reallllly good to Halva, our boldest bun.

So she snags it directly from her mother’s mouth and starts munching.

Kugel steals it right back.

Halva takes it back and hops a few feet away.

Kugel searches around for her missing treasure for ten seconds and then runs back to the bowl for a new piece.

Bialy steals that piece from his mom’s mouth.


This behavior is absolutely hilarious. Watching the rabbits wrestle over a piece of lettuce is like two toddlers grabbing onto a toy truck. It is such familiar behavior that is odd to see, like look at these tiny little rabbit shaped humans arguing over who can have the lettuce next.

The takeaway here is whatever is relevant to you — don’t get distracted by what your neighbors have? Or maybe, steal from your neighbors! They have cool stuff!

4. They spend time both together and apart

Rabbits bond. Not all rabbits can live together harmoniously in the same group – there are social dynamics that dictate whether individuals will be accepted or if they will be met with aggression. Rabbits form hierarchies and reinforce those relationships through various behaviors such as grooming and humping. Our rabbits are a bonded trio, with mama Kugel being the most dominant, followed by our boy Bialy, followed by the girl Halva.

If you step into our living room, there is an equally good chance that all three rabbits will be lying down directly next to each other, that two of them will be next to each other and the other is on the other side of the pen, or that all three are equally spread out across the whole living room.

To me, this is the most beautiful metaphor from bunny land. Rabbits are intensely social creatures – it is not recommended to keep only one rabbit at a time because they will get depressed from being alone. However, they also need their space. It doesn’t seem like there is any conflict that prompts them to spread out. There’s no strict schedule, no territories that are claimed exclusively by one rabbit or another, no two buns that are more frequently together than the other two. It seems to happen naturally, or perhaps they are following intricate bunny rules that they discuss frequently beyond our earshot.

Just like the rabbits, we all need our space sometimes. We love to be together, but we also need some time apart. Each of us has a different balance in that equation, and we do not always do as good a job as the rabbits do at self-monitoring and providing the togetherness or aloneness that would be best for us as we need it. To be able to recognize which of those you need, in the moment, is a difficult skill that we all wrestle with at times. I am very sad; do I want connection, or do I need time to chill out? I am very happy; do I want to rejoice with someone, or am I enjoying the total wonder of the world all by myself?

Personally, I try to keep a ‘I judge not’ attitude towards myself. Some days I feel so much happier to be by myself all day, and I try to not question that. Let that part of the rabbit breathe. Other days I am calling friends and being social rabbit, and that also feels right. Bunny intuition (buntuition!) is a powerful thing to cultivate within oneself — ask yourself, where does this bunny want to be right now?

5. They only stay where they are fully safe and comfortable

This is a natural extension of number four. Rabbits do not stick around if they do not want to. Rabbits understand two things: murder and snacks — they would like to avoid murder and get snacks. Getting nice pets from their snack provider owners is a distant third concern. If you are petting a rabbit and it is not in the mood to be pet, it will hop away.

If only humans could live as honestly as this! We are constantly doing things we would prefer not to do. We have all kinds of extraneous ways to justify those actions, most of them related to the ‘snacks’ theme, but we have a much higher tolerance for BS than rabbits do.

Of course that is a very limited analysis and ignores that we live in societies with complex goals, and accepting dangerous work in a factory might be a rewarding path forward for someone who wants to provide for a family.

However, in an ideal world where harsh realities could be ignored for a minute, no one would put themselves in dangerous or uncomfortable positions in pursuit of snacks, because ideally the snacks would be laid out for everyone to have access.

We don’t live in bunny world where we are only and exactly where we would like to be at all times, but maybe there is an aspect of this mindset that we can employ to guide us through the many options we could each engage with through our lives. Do I prefer to work on teams with loud people or with quiet people? Do I enjoy the type of activities my work asks of me, or is there something missing from my repertoire that I would like to add? Is there anything in your life that you have assumed you need to bow down and accept, that maybe you don’t and could push back against, or exit the scenario?

One key to a rabbit feeling comfortable is that it always feels free to leave at any moment.

Are you a happy rabbit? What are the keys to your comfort?

Hoppy Monday!

Touch, play. Touch, kick.

I was so lucky to be provided piano lessons growing up. My first teacher started my first lesson by commanding me not to marry the wrong person! And then taught me how to listen and learn and express myself through music. I showed some talent, so I got the fancy kind of lessons, in Boston, every weekend from Junior High through High School. My mom, my dad, and my grandmother formed the almighty trio who shepherded me, guarded me and took me to Phó during break hours. They gifted me the piano, which is now my forever companion in the same way that a loved one joins you in the room without saying anything, but is always ready to talk deep if you’re feeling it.

My second teacher, the first at NEC, tore me down and built me up. Sarah Takagi is a martial arts wielding technician who zoomed WAY in on finger and wrist and arm mechanics, for years, before building back to the complexity of what I had previously been playing sloppily and joyously without even knowing how wrong I was doing it. Sarah would say, ‘Touch, play, — touch – and then play’, and have me tap out sections with my fingers never pressing the notes. Touching the note before you play allows precise countermovements with the arm and wrist as a sort of fulcrum. She could go on.

My third teacher played the piano so differently. Where Sarah had complex and detailed, hand-oriented technique, I remember Roberto would favor a direct, weighted movement, with the finger and hand and arm forming almost a single block dropping down to the very bottom of the note out of the heavens above. None of this touch, play, madness. Yes, I would keep my hands relaxed and close to the keys, but using the weight of your arm, not your fingers, we are not punching at the notes.

Of course I am almost entirely misrepresenting what Sarah and Roberto actually taught me, but whatever that was, these two lines of thinking have morphed and been useful to me for years beyond actually playing piano. Alex, how are you tackling the situation in front of you? Are you all in, all clear to go, right down to the bottom of this thing, or are we tapping, touching first, sensing and using our tools and techniques to gain leverage and precision?

I applied this most recently in my second (ever) Muay Thai class, during which I am learning the basics of how to punch, kick, and move. An advanced member of the class I was working with instructed me to lift my leg and kick him in the upper chest, but touch his chest with my foot, and then push off, using that momentum to arrive back where I started. Touch, kick. Touch — and then kick.

I further apply this regularly as I work in an office and internally and externally, there can be a funny interplay between directness and a coy, feeling-you-out kind of vibe. These subtle cues, which may even have important upsides like promotions or bonuses, are always difficult for everyone to sort out, and I am grateful for every tool I have in my bag!

This is just the very tip of what Mary, Sarah, Roberto, and Andrew, in addition to the shepherding trio mentioned above, brought to my life by nurturing my young love for music. My eternal gratitude goes to those people. Now this business of passing it on!

The New Great American Experiment: UBI

We have all heard America referred to as “The Great Experiment”. We remember how Europe chided, doubted that regular citizens could govern themselves without a ruling or privileged class. Determined to prove them wrong, we set up checks, balances, and a bill of rights. We debated for a century and even went to war to find an answer to that question. We debated for another century, and while our country has persisted and made gains, we continue to suffer from dramatic inequality and worse health and success outcomes than many of those old elites we would so like to defy.

The Great American Experiment set the stage for a country where individuals had the liberty to live freely, if they sold their labor and worked hard. Money attained through “hard work” was positioned as our golden ticket to real freedom. This seemed to work well enough through industrialization as we truly did need every hand on deck to staff the plentiful low to medium-skill, decent-paying jobs.

However, times have changed. We are living in an era of great surplus of wealth due to three giant (10X) leaps in technological efficiency. We can see that labor efficiency will continue to increase as the digital revolution spreads to each warehouse and factory floor. We also recognize that poverty is a cash shortage, not a moral failing. We believe that the fastest way to ‘cure’ poverty is to give those people money directly.

And so, I propose we arrange a NEW “Great American Experiment”.

The New Great American Experiment separates an American citizen’s right to live from their ability to contribute to the market, by providing each citizen with enough money to cover their most basic needs.

This type of program is called a Guaranteed Basic Income (GBI). GBI is a no-strings-attached floor of income from the government to its citizens, paid in monthly installments of roughly $1000 a month, which allows each person to, at minimum, be neither involuntarily hungry nor homeless. However, on this very meager budget, a person may not be able to afford that yearly iPhone upgrade, so our free market should stay as free as ever and that person can get a job if she or he so chooses. GBI FAQ’s here.

Why should we do this?

Because it’s possible. Challenging, yes. But for the first time in history, logistically, all of the basic pieces have developed enough that we have a shot at re-engineering the carrots and sticks that propel our decisions and drive our economy. Here are three major factors that make GBI more likely to be, at last, possible:

1. 3X, 10X technological efficiency

The first 10X efficiency multiplier was agriculture which allowed humans to specialize and form complex non-nomadic society. The second 10X was industrialization which prompted further specialization, utilized human labor extensively, and created outputs at incredible scale.

The third 10X has happened recently and is the digital revolution. With automation and robotics as wind under our sails, mature economies are likely to end up utilizing about 10X LESS units of human labor than developing or industrial economies. A few dozen people in a garage can create billions of dollars of ‘value’ that has no direct relationship to the amount of ‘labor’ that went into creating the product. Giant manufacturing plants employ relative handfuls of people to oversee increasingly automated processes. Digital solutions that are a whole order of magnitude cheaper than using human labor will continue to proliferate. And for the most part, we shouldn’t fight it. At least to start, most jobs that robots can do, humans don’t do very well or dislike doing, and for saving people from the trudge and drear of those daily realities, I am grateful to have robots to lend a hand. I would rather a person have no job than a bullshit job.

2. A trend towards a socially accepting climate

In our society, our greatest obstacle is this:

I work, and therefore, so should you.

This is a moralistic judgment that we have cradled lovingly in our bootstrap-pulling, self-reliant American arms ever since the protestant work ethic hopped the pond.

And it is no longer helpful or welcome in our society.

At its deepest idealogical root, America stands for liberty and freedom — the ability to live a good life in the way that each person chooses. As long as they are not causing any damage to others, what anyone uses their resources (including and especially time) for should be generally irrelevant to everyone.

Instead, I propose an alternate moral imperative:

If it is logistically possible, then we SHOULD aim to engineer an empowered and happy society with the best of the tools modernity has to offer.

In order for the USA to accept UBI, we need leaders to show us a way to make sense of a society that doesn’t use our capacity to contribute labor as the universal yardstick for all value.

3. A good leader / evangelist / champion

We depend on leaders to represent our views and evangelize systemic change. Leaders can bring ideas to life and inspire the public’s imagination, which is exactly what I hope is happening here with Andrew Yang.

Andrew Yang is an American businessman who is running for president in 2020: see Yang2020.com. I learned about Andrew Yang before ever having heard of UBI — I applied to Venture for America my senior year of college and was rejected. I was disappointed, but I have always admired the initiative: Bring top talent to startups in underperforming cities. Andrew struck me then as a thought leader in the tech-meets-social enterprise space, taking business principles and using powerful new techniques from ‘lean’ startup theory and design thinking in actual settings with actual people. He strikes me now (as a UX designer) as an absurdly great candidate that might somehow make perfect sense in the context of our wild-card Trumpian world.

The world is gone crazy. We see and say it all the time these days, in our offices and uber rides and over dinner tables. Trump, Brexit, and Brazil, oh my. Perhaps this ‘radical’ trend, or whatever it is, could be turned on its head. Maybe all it really signifies is that people are hungry for change, frustrated by modern wage slavery, looking for a better way in all the wrong places. Maybe the visible threat of backwards, regressive social trends in our country and in the world can cause a strong and opposite reaction for us, the American public, so that our minds open to solutions that are not just an iteration better, but an order of magnitude better.

The first of two notes of caution:

As a specie, we are obsessed with the concept of the ‘silver bullet’. The magic panacea, the snake-oil cure all for blemishes, ails, and worries. We must be measured with our expectations for UBI, methodical in our approach, and non-sensational in our claims. I do not know if UBI in America will inherently lead to better solutions to trash collection worldwide, and I don’t know if anyone can really know that. This word of caution is a derivative of Evgeny Morozov’s ‘technological solutionism‘ critique, which I usually find very compelling. In this case, I don’t think the ‘tail is wagging the dog’ or a solution is being created where there is no problem. We are using the technologies of government and money to rise the tide and float many boats at once. A thousand dollars a month means I might spend an extra month job-searching instead of settling for the first offer to come my way. However, as with any ecosystem, changing an input in a major way WILL have unexpected consequences, many of which we will deem ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I think of the White Horse Story in those moments, which I also recognize is naive. But it is important to not trivialize the enormity of such a shift as GBI represents, as it heralds an era where most people who work are highly skilled. Andrew Yang can’t have all of the answers, and we shouldn’t expect them. If we can steel ourselves to handle a phase of elevated ambiguity in the course of this great experiment, then I think there is a lot of reward to be received in short time.

Note of caution #2

This is important now in our current moment of Facebook and Instagram alienation and will continue to be important in coming periods of increased automation:

No matter if or how we choose to work, we all MUST stay engaged. This is a matter of individual and public health.

Disengaged people end up lonely. Lonely people end up dead.

We still need things to do and reasons to feel important, even in a society where automation has produced enough surplus that relatively few humans are needed to keep the gears spinning.

However, we should NOT shy away from these great advancements just because we are afraid of being bored. We are so much more creative and full of ingenuity than that. We shall not be complacent while mothers and fathers remain enslaved to multiple shitty jobs just to pay for daycare so they can keep working multiple jobs, just because we are afraid of not knowing what to do with ourselves in our free time. That is cowardly and is shooting for the coconut in a tree instead of the moon, let alone the stars.

Andrew Yang has put forth the idea of Modern Time Banking which is relatively underdeveloped and easy to criticize, but this is the spirit folks. Pick up where he left off. This will be a long, gradual transition over decades or centuries where at first, most people will be busy with work-lives and engaged in communities just as we are today. However, as less people are formally employed, we will need new institutions to structure our identities and keep our hands busy. The roots of those institutions already exist and it is up to us to plant the seeds for our descendants who may live without the same tooth-and-claw struggle that still exists today.

No, capitalism is blind to inequality and rewards only the strongest, which is not okay in societies where we care about each person. Privatization should not apply to prisons, schools, and healthcare.

A Few Scenarios for Practicing UX

I’ve had some friends ask how they might go about getting a UX design job. The short answer is make things & develop a portfolio. The longer answer involves culturing a mentality and mastering process. But sometimes it’s hard just to think of things to make. Design is not art – it can’t just exist for the sake of existing. It must solve a problem. Let’s imagine up some problems to solve.

1. A library wants to engage with kids as they first walk into the children’s book department. They plan to install a series of large touch screens. What would the goals of the engagement be? How can the library experience be enhanced for kids aged 5-10 through using technology? Make assumptions, develop personas, interview questions, user story map, wireframes, comps, prototype.

2. An insurance startup is developing a mobile app that allows users to quickly log incident details, take photos, and capture all relevant details. Assume ‘green pastures’ for all technology needs and fabricate incidents to illustrate usage. What factors will be considered in establishing a user flow and interface? How can visual identity not only serve to make a brand impression but to facilitate user actions? Develop personas, interview questions, user story map, wireframes, comps, prototype.

3. A pet store / museum / aquarium is developing a tablet experience for kids / adults / customers to buy / learn about the live creatures on display. Choose a set of parameters and make reasonable assumptions. What are the viewer’s goals as they are using the tablet? What are they trying to achieve, and what does the store / museum want them to care about? How does the content (live animals) change the way you present information? Personas, wireframes, you know the drill.

4. Happy John’s Burgers is a revolutionary, human-less food experience. Each table is a 6-10 person food preparation center and users wield a custom joystick to select their preferences. HJB needs a menu experience that should incorporate gestures, facial / voice recognition, and brings custom precision to the ordering and paying experience. How does the software inform users what options are available? How does the human-less environment change the way the software is designed? What frustrations would users be likely to experience, and how might you provide solutions in advance? How can look and feel impact the customer experience?

5. You are in the year 2350 in a crowded, heavily polluted city, and most people sleep in sleek glass climate-controlled bed-pods. When lying down, a screen appears above you. How can these futuristic bed-pods-screens provide a useful, comforting experience that users will spend many hours in at a time? Using voice and gesture controls, users can control their environments. How else can these pods provide utility to users? Perhaps they also serve as an entertainment center, or as an external screen for the user’s personal devices. Wireframe this experience, low fidelity. Find billionaire, pitch, repeat.

Other useful activities for developing a UX mindset:

  • Organize the hell out of your grocery list. How are products dispersed through the store, what items are grouped together, and why?
  • Walk into the entrances of 10 stores in a mall, pause, and inspect. What user actions are visible from your standpoint? How much of the user journey is evident from that point – is at least the next step indicated, or some directionality given? How is this achieved? Apply this to supermarkets, amusement parks, hospitals.
  • Screenshot and tag examples of design precedent everywhere you see it. Icon styles, dropdown/flyout styles, interesting bits of layout or typography, compelling uses of color. While UI design often requires a good amount of originality, it’s unwise to reinvent wheels needlessly – rather, it’s critical to use existing norms and conventions enough so that users can immediately recognize elements and understand what’s going on.
  • For all of the scenarios presented above, revisit them through the lens of accommodating users with disabilities. Decent article about that here.
  • Each of these projects should take you two weeks or more. Rushing a process won’t make you learn faster. If you need more work, work on two projects. Separate your work into phases, and keep yourself constrained. Get a Gantt chart going if it helps. If you run out of work to do in a phase, start a new sketch document and try to wireframe Wikipedia’s home page without looking at it. What do you think the designers at Wikipedia chose for the home page to present? What do they want people to use it for, and what would users want to use it for? What assets does Wikipedia have to display? What does Wikipedia want from its users, and how do they obtain it?

Hope this helps someone!