Breathe & Listen


I was walking throug the library recently and happened to notice this post-it taped to someone’s laptop. That someone was a large, burly and athletic-looking undergraduate guy; not someone I would have expected to have such a new-agey sentiment so prominently displayed on his computer. I hesitated but was so curious I had to ask him about it.

He was happy to explain its’ origins. He is a representative on a student governance organization at UC Berkeley and said he found himself repeatedly getting worked up about insensitive comments  made by others during the meetings; so much so that he’d had a couple outbursts which he was embarassed about. He thought the message on the post-it might make him think twice before saying something he’d later regret. I asked him if it worked. Yeah, he said, it actually did cause him to pause and reconsider his anger during meetings. It had been on there about 3 weeks by the time we talked.

This is something which BJ Fogg would call this a “hot trigger”; an actionable reminder put in the path of someone who was motivated to modify their behavior. I also like that this is actually a 2-step process, implying that before you can get to get to the listening part you must first breathe. Words of wisdom for all!


How to Remember Yourself


I’ve been thinking about how we express our understanding of information and technology in our offline lives and found myself walking behind someone last week who had this barcode tattooed on the back of his neck. I was struck by the tattoo not only being in such a visible place but being highlighted by a piercing as well, so stopped him to ask if I could take a picture of it. 

 He graciously agreed (and yes, he gave me permission to post it), and told me that he got it for “when I get old and get Alzheimer’s and can’t remember my age. It’s my day, month and year of birth.”  

I asked him if his family had a history of Alzheimer’s and they don’t, so I found it an especially interesting way of framing the reason.

I have more to say about this but want to mull it over a bit first; meanwhile I wanted to at least post the picture. What do you think this says…about him, our culture or how we express ourselves? 

Hmmm; this looks familiar…


I passed by a vacuum cleaner store in my neighborhood a few weeks ago and was stopped cold by what initially appeared to be a 3-foot tall iPhone 4. However on second glance, I realized it was just an air purifier that was (apparently) designed to look like an iPhone. After snapping a photo I got curious about what the previous generation of Oreck air purifiers looked like. The black tower on the left (aka  “Oreck ProShield Air Purifier”) seems to have hit the market around January 2010, while the earliest mention I could find of the giant iPhone (aka “Oreck AirInstinct HEPA Air Purifier”) was January 2012. The iPhone 4 came out in the summer of 2010, which would have given Oreck 18 months to diligently apply the iPhone styling to their air filter. Indeed one of the blogger reviews I found of the giant iPhone–er, I mean Oreck AirInstinct HEPA Air Purifier–noted that if Apple made air purifiers, this is probably what it would look like, which I suspect is exactly the kind of comment Oreck was after.  

Plenty has been said about the myriad of companies that copy everything about Apple products except their quality, so I’ll spare you that diatribe. I was just amused to find such a direct mimicry of the iPhone styling in an industry so far removed from mobile technology. It certainly gives a new meaning to “scaling up”. 

User Experience: the Bathroom Edition

Over the summer I’ve had the good fortunte to work as a UX Research + Design Intern at an amazing bio tech company in Redwood Shores, Proteus Digital Health. I’ve been taking Caltrain down most days, so part of the adventure has been my 3-hr daily commute by bike and train (and bike again). I’d only taken Caltrain once or twice before, so it’s been fun getting to know the ins and outs of riding the train. 

One of the things I’ve found fascinating is the unusual methods they employ to allow a user to lock the bathroom doors; no small feat on a moving train. I realized I had a couple of other pictures of bathrooms in my archive of UX-related images, so I put them all together for this bathroom-themed post. 


I’m opening with a makeshift toilet paper holder I recently came across in a Caltrain bathroom. It’s actually one of the more user friendly dispensers I’ve found in a train; it was right next to the toilet, as opposed to the other side of the (admittedly small) bathrooms that most of them occupy. I imagine it to be fashioned by the conductor with the plastic bag his/her paper came in that morning. 


Next we have a wonderfully simple and well-illustrated directive: “SLIDE TO CLOSE”. While it is quite difficult to actually close (you have to lean your weight on the metal bar just right to get it slide in), at least you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to do. 


As opposed to the baffling “LOCK — UNLOCK”. You may wonder, as I initially did, what exactly are you supposed to be locking? The handle at the top suggests the possibility of movement, but that little piece of hardware under it is doesn’t. If not for the arrow pointing directly to it, one might not ever think to play with it. It could go up, down, left, right, or not move at all; there’s an absence of clues about what one could do with it. 



Then we have the most baffling instruction of all: the open and closed padlock, next to a vertical bar that looks nothing like a padlock. Not only does it not look anything like the icon representing it but it swings in a completely different way from a padlock, in that it pivots from the bottom up. Ironically, the mechanism in question is actually quite beautiful and elegant but the instructions for using it are anything but.


This image was taken in Golden Gate Park, in the bathrooms near the Children’s Playground and Carousel. I’ve mentioned Don Norman’s seminal book The Design of Everyday Things before (see my very first post), and he talks at length about poorly designed doors that don’t give us clues about how to open them. This is a great illustration of that; not only do you not know if the doors open in or out, but you don’t even know if they open to the left or the right. I knew there was something strange about these doors when I first walked into the bathroom, but it wasn’t until I tried to use one that I realized what the problems were. Nothing makes one feel quite as stupid as trying to open a door the wrong way.


I’ll close with a great hack from one of Proteus’ stalls. Apparently the gap between the metal dividers and tile wall in this stall are too far apart, because someone takes the trouble EVERY SINGLE DAY to put up these toilet paper curtains to cover it. If there’s any one place where we all deserve to feel like our privacy is ensured it’s the bathroom, so I kind of love that someone (or someones; I could imagine this being a team effort) feels strong enough about it to do it again…and again…and again. 

Learning and Teaching at InfoCamp Berkeley

Last Saturday was InfoCamp Berkeley, an unconference organized by myself and fellow students in my graduate program at UC Berkeley School of Information. What sets an unconference apart from a regular conference is that the content is primarily provided by attendees (we did have a great keynote to kick things off, the brilliant Dave Hogue, who I had the privilege of studying with a few years ago). When participants arrive they “stake their claim” on the schedule in one of the open rooms and time slots with topics they want to talk about (generally something they have some knowledge in). They present what they know about the subject and then open it up for discussion with the other attendees. It’s more about having a dialogue about a topic that everybody there is interested in than learning from an expert (so a refreshing change from grad school!). 

I did a presentation on designing for behavior change, BJ Fogg style. He’s the Stanford professor who (literally) wrote the book on persuasive technology, and his Capotology Lab continues to do ground-breaking research into what works in behavior change. I was lucky enough to attend his Mobile Health conference last year, where I heard some of the ways his research was being applied to inspire health-related behavior change. Many of his ideas have cross pollinated into the Quantified Self movement (people who track some aspect of their daily lives and analyze the data for the purpose of better understanding some aspect of themselves), which I’ve been active in as well, so I’ve heard about his work from numerous sources.  

What made me confident that I could explain BJ Fogg’s work is that it’s so simple and logical. In a nutshell, there are 3 things you need to consider when trying to inspire behavior change: triggers, ability and motivation. Triggers are things that get you to engage in a behavior right away (your phone rings, or you get a Facebook notification that a friend has tagged you in a photo). Ability is how easy it is for you to accomplish that task (your phone is in your pocket, not in a bag in the back seat of your car; you only have to click on a link to see the photo). Motivation is your desire to accomplish that behavior (it’s your best friend calling, so you answer it; you want to make sure it’s not an embarrassing photo, so you click on it). If you have high motivation and high ability, then you just need an effective trigger to inspire that behavior. Conversely if motivation and ability are low, an effective trigger isn’t going to make a difference. Obviously there’s much more than can be said about it, but in general it’s pretty straightforward, right? 

 I also talked about his newest project, Tiny Habits. He asserts that the most effective way to develop a new habit is to break it down into ridiculously small bite size pieces (something that takes less than 30 seconds a day), anchor that to an existing behavior, and don’t concern yourself with expanding that behavior until it’s a established habit (meaning you engage in that behavior automatically). The example he often uses is to floss ONE tooth, anchoring it to brushing your teeth. It does seem silly at first, but he is having incredible success with it (he offers a free online course at, and thousands of people have participated, so he’s collected a significant amount of data about it’s effectiveness) and people are reporting that once they do establish that tiny habit, they can expand it until it’s a significantly embedded behavior.

My favorite moment during the presentation was when one participant said “But that’s useless, there’s no health benefit in exercising just 30 seconds a day, you can’t even get your heart rate elevated!” to which I replied “EXACTLY! The duration of the initial behavior truly doesn’t matter, the point is to make it as easy as possible, develop it into a habit first, and then grow it into a more significant behavior.” We are so used to thinking of behavior change as only being accomplished through a single big leap that tiny changes seems pointless at first; at least, until we realize how often big leaps fail to endure and open ourselves to alternate ways of getting there. 

Another benefit of unconferences is that they give people an opportunity to practice public speaking which, I’m starting to see, takes practice, practice and more practice (I also did my first presentation at a QS meetup last month, so I’m getting plenty of it lately). One thing I learned yesterday is that you need to plan for various scenarios regarding what kind of audience you’ll be addressing. I’d envisioned this being in a small classroom where about 15-20 of us sat around a table and after I presented my slides, it would became an informal dialogue. However when over 80 people showed up we moved it to the larger room and that format wasn’t possible. In hindsight It would have been a good opportunity to break into smaller groups and present a problem to apply these methodologies to so people could have had more casual discussions about it, but standing in front of that many people looking expectantly at you isn’t a situation that inspires improvisation; at least it wasn’t for me. But I learned a lot, and was gratified when a number of people came up to me later and thanked me for introducing them to the work of BJ Fogg, so apparently I wasn’t the only one that learned something. 

To find out more about BJ Fogg’s work, check out:, www.tinyhabits.comor www.captology.stanford.eduYou can find him on twitter at @bjfogg. To learn more about InfoCamp Berkeley, check



Usability Testing 101

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Interesting article from one of my favorite design/product development blogs: FastCo.Design. It’s about the simplest way to introduce usability testing to a company, which is asking customers “On a scale of 1 to 10, how confident do you feel using this system?” As general as it is, it gives them something to quantify and starts them down the path of getting user feedback. 

My First Flash Usability Test

I was honored to be able to help with a flash usability test of ranked choice voting in San Francisco recently, organized by the amazing Dana Chisnell (who’s not only co-author of the Handbook of Usability Testing, but one of the foremost experts on ballot usability in the country). I was working on a team with 2 others, and we were charged with finding and interviewing people willing to spend 15 minutes filling out two different ballot designs and telling us what they thought of them. 

While it was challenging to find registered voters willing to spare the time, we were delighted that our first willing participants were a couple dressed in matching Santa costumes (yes, it happened to be SantaCon that day! If you don’t know what SantaCon is, check this out)

Here’s a link to Dana’s initial observations about ranked choice voting and a gratuitous picture of SantaCon for good measure. 




Celebrating Users on Two Wheels


I’m posting this picture in honor of the start of my second semester in grad school, which means, among other things, getting back on my bike and riding to BART for the cross-bay leg of my journey to Berkeley. One of the things I love about riding my bike is that by the time I arrive at my destination I’m invariably in a better mood than when I left, so I missed that part of my commute.

The photo was taken for one of my favorite design projects: a t-shirt for the San Francisco Bike Coalition, one of the largest bicycle advocacy groups in the country. I wanted to celebrate the incredible diversity of cyclists in the city, so took pictures of about two dozen cyclists at a bicycle festival to use as silhouettes (see below for the final design). 

Looking back, I think it’s also appropriately symbolic of my current transformation from designer to researcher. This project was user research, starting with having to recruit the participants myself. While the end goal was taking a photo of them on their bike, the process of building trust with them turned into interviews. I found out about their cycling habits, why they ride, and documented a very personal moment when I photographed them on their bike. I also muddled my way through numerous unpredictable and awkward moments, such as realizing how difficult it was for many of them to stay upright and motionless on a bike without something to hold onto. Overall, however, it was an incredibly fun and inspiring day. 

Then I went home and started the next phase: reviewing, analyzing and organizing the data until I felt is was an appropriate representation. But I ended up with one of the most honest designs I’d ever made: a t-shirt that was literally of and for San Francisco cyclists. 


A Water Fountain for Bottles too

I drink about a gallon of water a day, so the first 2 things I learn out about most buildings I go in are where the bathrooms are and if there’s a water fountain. I was delighted to find this innovative water fountain in UC Berkeley’s Tang Student Health Center last month. It has an unobtrusive platform for a water bottle in the back; when a bottle is placed on it the sensor is triggered and water flows until the bottle is removed. It’s easy to figure out, fun to use, and even has a counter in the upper right which tracks the number of bottles it’s filled, reinforcing the idea that we’re contributing to a greater good while staying hydrated. Having carried around my own water bottle for years, I can usually manage to fill it at a spigot intended for a human mouth but it’s less than ideal. This solution not only solves that problem but is an open invitation for others to get in on the fun too. 


There is considerable evidence that even the smallest of reminders to recycle, reduce or or reuse can inspire people to take the extra bit of effort necessary to do the right thing, but my own experience is that many of the messages we get are redundant and trite. This fountain reminds me how much potential there is for fresh, playful and smart innovations that can inspire people to adopt better sustainability practices. No doubt there are plenty in the pipeline which just haven’t found commercial success yet, so kudos to the Tang Health Center for being an early adapter.




Laundry Usability Fail

I just came across this photo I took last summer after I started reading “The Design of Everyday Things,” which I discussed in my last post. One of the things I love about the book is how clearly it explains the ways in which a design fails when someone has difficulty using a product.

This image is from a multi-load washing machine at my local laundrymat. After I got over my confusion over where to put the detergent in this machine, I was delighted by what a perfect example of unnatural mapping it was. If there’s anything that lends itself to clear and simple mapping, this would be it. In particular, I find it interesting how the diagram on top suggests that the detergent and bleach go into separate bins, yet there is no divider in the actual device (or maybe I guessed wrong after all…).