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 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!

A Short Story

*caution: graphic, and entirely fictional; all resemblance purely coincidental.  

Max Suleman was an average sort. A mild strength for numbers, a mild weakness in history and writing, a very average body that provided very average results on tennis courts and rugby fields. He was generally friendly, though thoroughly boring once you got to know him. His parents were just the same: run of the mill, salt of the earth Americans with decent careers and decent interests. As an only child of working parents, Max grew up under the wing of no less than two-dozen nannies, most of whom took care of him for a few months and then moved on to find greener pastures. If this had any psychological effect on Max, he wasn’t aware of it, nor was he ever annoyed or frustrated by the revolving door of caretakers. Sure, he liked some of them more than others, but when his favorite babysitter from the second half of his ninth year left without saying so much as ‘goodbye’, he remembered shrugging, and shrugging again, and since then, he must have shrugged no less than ten thousand times.

Max turned twenty-two only a few months ago. He went to a four-year community college and majored in Applied Data Analysis. He was proud of his studies but would readily admit that he felt very little passion at all for data analytics. Very little passion, he would say. “Almost none. None, really. I just don’t care what triggers the uptick in user engagement, even if it’s for something cool like a healthcare app or.. or whatever. Why should I care so much about what everyone else does? I don’t want anyone caring that much about what I do.”

Max needed a job. He had been a grocery bag stuffer and a house-painter in his off-hours during his years in college. He wasn’t desperate — his parents made sure that he left college with no debt, a fact that he tried very hard not to take for granted every time he saw them. But he could do the basic math, and the math said that he needed a job.

He applied for a few jobs. A few weeks went by and his bank account was still looking fine. “Good thing I painted those houses” he would mutter to himself while he read through job listings. He felt that he should probably make use of his degree. Even though he didn’t care much for data analytics, he saw the salaries and weighed some pros and cons and decided that he should probably make use of his degree. He got a job doing marketing at a local furniture store. Seriously, a furniture store. He couldn’t have cared less.

Three months later, Max had mastered the art of furniture store social media marketing. Strangely enough, he found that he was quite good at furniture marketing, and the store owners were quite pleased that his activities had helped to boost sales almost 25%. If Max enjoyed the praise, he didn’t let it show, but that wasn’t very hard for him because in all honesty, he couldn’t have cared less. “Great! So another business has made a bit more money because I’ve spent most of my time doing things to make sure they would make more money. Revolutionary, totally radical.” Once in a while, he would consider a hypothetical: If I were to be really happy and doing things that I cared about, what would I be doing? After a few seconds of consternation, he would arrive at the same result. “Nothing. I would be doing nothing, and that would make me happy because then I have nothing to do, and then I could do… nothing.”

One morning, on minute six of the twelve-minute drive to his office, he heard a story on the radio about some crazy gunman who walked into a church and killed some people. He never listened to the news – he didn’t care – he had been flipping through channels when it snuck into his ears. It planted a seed.

“Prison!” He exclaimed to his windshield. He looked left and right, making sure no-one heard his bizarre outburst. And then he kept thinking. “Prison! Ok, so there’s a social structure and ringleaders and some dangerous folks, but… there are different sorts of prisons, right? Low, medium, high security… and really, what do people do in prison all day? What can they do? I suppose they can read, or write things, or do exercises in their cell, but really they must do not-very-much. They might even do nothing. Nothing at all.” A seed had been planted.

Max read about being in prison after work for the next three weeks. He looked at the crimes that people committed and what sorts of prisons they got sent to. He even picked his top 5 favorite prisons, which was a very odd thing for him to do because he had never had favorite anythings before, or at least not since that babysitter left. He felt strangely energized by the strange plan that was forming in his head. He even drove three hundred miles one Saturday morning into the next state where a chrome-buckled cowboy at the State Fair would be able to sell him a gun.

It was the day of, and his plan was perfect. All he had to do was get arrested for something illegal enough to do a few years in the clink. Five, ten years… of sweet, sweet nothing. He woke up before his alarm went off, wide eyed and giddy, almost forgetting to bring ammunition on his way out the door. Fourteen minutes to the bank in town center, a few short strides with a duffel bag over his shoulder, and all of the pieces were in place. He stood in the center of the grand entrance and took a breath. Here goes.

He unzipped the duffel, grasped the gun, cocked it while still in the bag, and then hoisted it above his head like they do in the movies. For the first time in a dozen years, he yelled, screamed to the room, “THIS IS A ROBBERY! EVERYBODY DOWN”. He smiled to himself calmly, and, aiming blindly at the ceiling, pulled the trigger, one, two, three, four, five times.

And the great chandelier from the grand entrance came a-crashing down, right on top of the huddled mass before him. Hundreds of pounds, probably thousands, he thought to himself as he was tackled and shackled. “Some people just died”, he thought to himself while he was in the back of the police cruiser. “I just.. caused some people to die,” he said out loud while sitting in the police station, attracting angry glares from the officers around him. Still shocked, he looked at the nearest officer and said with more astonished bemusement than horror, “I didn’t mean for anybody to die. I didn’t need to kill anyone! I just wanted to go to prison for a while!”

It turned out that five people died under the weight of the great chandelier, and all five of those people were from the same family, which included three young children and their grandmother. Only the mother, who had asked her husband to take the kids with him to the bank that morning, survived, and it turned out that this poor mother, now childless, was a member of the state judiciary committee and was known for her dedication to family values and a fierce pragmatism focused on cost-effective capital punishment. Max was sentenced to death, and died one year and two months later, after spending one year and two months in prison doing — nothing.

AMC Amazing

I always get a little sentimental around times of change. I think most of us grow attached to routines and stability and comfort, but as a young person with a career in mind, comfort is the enemy of growth, and growth is the capitalist imperative that we’ve all internalized to determine our self worth, so I’m very excited to grow. But before I go about growing, I’d like to chew on these last months and consider how they’ve been.

I’ve spent the last 11 months working at an AMC dine-in theatre. I took the job for money. I chose a job that was outwardly unrelated to my desired career path so that I could focus on Sealed and maintain a separation of work and work. AMC never followed me home nor demanded unreasonable overtime, and it generally provided a steady income that was earned through tolerable work that ultimately proved to be generally worthwhile. I suppose I’m using a lot of qualifiers — “tolerable”, “ultimately”, “generally” — and that’s because it wasn’t a perfect solution and I did have frustrations. But that’s less interesting to talk about than what I gained from the experience, which ultimately proved to be quite a lot.

I think this will work best as a list. OK Buzzfeed, I’ll comply:

1. I learned how to talk about food.

Those of you who know me know that I am not a “foodie”. It’s not that I don’t enjoy eating, because I often do. And it’s not that I don’t respect the institution of eating, because it can be a fabulous art and is often an excellent facilitator of friendships and shared experience. But I tend to tire quickly of foodie conversation — I think it’s low on Maslow’s hierarchy of conversation — and I don’t have particularly acute senses of smell or taste. AMC, however, has shown me some light. Good food makes people happy, and happy people tip well. Hmm, is that the takeaway? Nah, it’s more than that. Food is simultaneously an intimate and personal preference and also a need that is shared by literally everyone. Presenting a food option, replete with colorful language and confidence in the product, and then witnessing the payoff as people leave happy, has actually provided a level of base satisfaction that I didn’t imagine I would value. There have been dozens of picky kids and finicky old folks that I have proudly schlepped orders of crispy brussels sprouts and oreo shakes that have left their consumers happier. I don’t sneer at happiness. That shit’s important.

2. I met a crew of generally wonderful people.

Of course there’s a qualifier there, as saying ‘most people are wonderful’ is infinitely easier to defend than ‘everyone is wonderful’. But part of the reason I chose to work in Framingham was to meet different people. I grew up in Whitebread, MA, and went to college in Privilegeton, CT, and frankly never had much of a chance to get to know people with different ethnic and class backgrounds. To my AMC friends reading this, that’s not why I value you, because now I know you, but it was at least part of why I chose not to work in my hometown.

I like to pride myself in my ability to empathize and listen. I have a persistent curiosity for life stories, and I have visceral respect for people who are true to themselves. I felt lucky hundreds of times through my time at AMC to share small conversations with my coworkers who I saw achieve, struggle, rally, succeed, laugh, cry, recover, and continue. The array of life circumstances among the 30+ coworkers I’ve had the pleasure of knowing is vast. My admiration for many of them grew consistently as I learned more about their situations. Many of them display outstanding characteristics that I have absolutely learned from. I wish I felt comfortable naming names, because the sensitivity, charisma, resilience, and competence I witnessed from this random group of humans impressed me regularly and I did not always share how it affected me. I am grateful for many micro-lessons in humanity and respect, and I take comfort in the idea that ‘life is long’ and perhaps we’ll know each other again.

3. I grew my non-dominant outgoing side.

I served according to a simple mantra. I’d walk into a theatre and think, “Time to be friendly!” It’s so simple that it reliably cut through any noise or anxiety or frustration that I might have felt. To be outwardly friendly is to prescribe to a well-defined set of norms that put people at ease, keep conversations light and playful, and keep my own mindset calm and focused. Perhaps it’s a symptom of youth, but I think that so often, we’re focused on appearing smart or competent or profound that the comfort of the people we’re talking to goes entirely unconsidered. Friendliness is potent. For me, it requires effort — an elevated but restrained energy, a dedication to clear communication and eye contact — and it results in, again, happiness. My guests see the effort I put into making them feel comfortable and they smile and sit back, relaxing in pamperedness and ease of situation. And then, for me, anyways, the reptile-human in me mirrors their emotion and suddenly I’m happy too, smiling at their happiness and basking in the simplicity of the exchange. Customer service is rewarding on a micro-scale like few other activities, up there with board games and beer pong and sex. I get a thrill out of it, and refining those careful cues has been reliably rewarding for me.

4. I gained an intimate understanding of a carefully engineered guest experience.

I am a designer, which means that I enjoy considering the design decisions that lead people to a desired outcome. In my opinion, AMC does a really, really good job. Most every aspect of the AMC experience is carefully engineered, from the box office to the recliner seats to the managerial hierarchy.

Every decision is aimed at giving the guests power over their experience. They reserve their seats, which are then theirs. They have a button attached to their seat, which gives them the power to summon (me) whenever they choose. They have a menu at each seat that is broad enough to satisfy whatever categorical urge they feel: concession, appetizer, full meal, dessert, full bar. They get free refills and prompt service. Managers swoop in and fix problems as efficiently as possible. Ordering and payment is accomplished with a handheld device that gets the details squared away before the show even begins. I never had the privilege of sitting in on a high level AMC corporate strategy session, but my hypothesis is that people who feel like they are in control will worry less, relax more, and therefore enjoy the moviegoing experience that much more. Noticing the details of how AMC strives to empower its guests helped me to understand why I took the actions I took, why I followed the guidelines set by corporate, and gave me renewed respect for the importance of institutional design.

I loved many aspects of working at AMC. I’ve de facto memorized a hundred ads and previews that are often incredibly artful. I’ve eaten my body weight in free popcorn and seen more than my share of free movies. Serving Deadpool and Zootopia and The Revenant was an absolute blast, and I have more respect for Bad Moms and its overworked Chardonnay-swigging clientele than I ever thought I would. So for all of the benefits I’ve derived, thanks AMC, it’s been real.

I’m not quite ready to announce my next step, but I’m thrilled to announce that a next-step does in fact exist and will be beginning in the next few weeks.