On Vulnerability

I have a complicated relationship with vulnerability. In my heart, I wish that we were all more willing to share our vulnerability. Vulnerability is authentic and real and when we express it, we connect with each other.

So when I write from a vulnerable place, I get a lot of interaction. And it’s not just me. The #metoo movement was evidence of how being vulnerable helps us connect. There’s something touching about it. But there’s also something troubling about it.

Because when I write about other topics like technology, something that I’m passionate and knowledgeable about, I don’t get nearly as much interaction as when I write about vulnerability. And when I look around for technology books by women, I don’t find many and I wonder why that is.

There’s career advice out there that says, “The work you chose should be at the intersection of what you love, what you are good at, and what customers will pay for.” And the customer is always right, right? Their decisions, and the values that inform them, shape markets. They get to say, “I’ll pay this person to express her vulnerability but I won’t pay her to talk about technology.”

Maybe the sweet spot is in a mix: writing about technology in a personal way.


related: My colleague Dr. Andrea Hickerson wrote this thoughtful piece a few weeks back. It asks the question, ‘Are women taken seriously when they speak out on topics other than the violation of their own bodies?’

The Rise of the Female Whistle Blowers


When I Find Myself Failing

At the beginning of the year I declared that I would make more art in 2018. I’ve always been a creative person. But I find that it’s easy for me put off my own work to do something else. That’s what it’s like with stuff I really care about: music, art. It’s hard to do because it’s so personal. But I knew I’d hit bottom yesterday when I found myself scrubbing the bathtub instead of drawing. Ouch!

So when I find myself failing, playing this hide and seek with myself, I sit with it for a while. I notice it. I tell myself not to beat myself up over it because I know, logically, that shame is a road to nowhere. And I also know, logically, that failure is a sign that I’m trying and trying is a good thing.

The next thing I do is set a small goal. Why small? Because part of why I hide from art is that I’m overwhelmed by my options. On the one hand, I’m so lucky in that I can work in a lot of different media. You’d think I’d have art pouring out of my fingertips and eyeballs. But it’s the opposite. All of those options feel overwhelming. I don’t know where to start. The trick here is to choose something small. This time, for me, it’s Ukrainian folk art.

I’m Ukranian on my father’s side. I’ve always appreciated the colors and patterns on Ukrainian eggs and textiles. So why not learn to make it myself? I started yesterday on a floral pattern. So far, so good. I don’t have to think too much about it. I just have to copy and analyze and play.

I discovered two illustrators to help me get started. One is Dina Mirlatipova. Her book “Imagine a Forest” provides tutorial after tutorial on nature-inspired folk patterns. It’s a beautiful book. The second illustrator is Peggy Dean who is a master hand letterer with dozens of lettering classes on skillshare. But the book of hers that I’m using isn’t on lettering. It’s called “Botanical Line Drawing.” Again, a beautiful book.

So the trick to pushing through failure:

  1. Sit with it for a bit
  2. Don’t beat yourself up over it
  3. Find a small way to start


Customer Complaints as Opportunities

If you are an early stage company or organization, you are coming up with a lot of ideas then building and rolling them out to your customers. It can feel nervewracking and vulnerable. So when your customers come back to you with complaints, it hurts. But you must resist the urge to defend your ideas. Rather, count to three and remind yourself that this is an opportunity to get useful feedback.

The hard part about opening up in this way is that customers will talk to you in “solution-speak.” They will offer you ideas (solutions) that don’t articulate the problems that they are really having with your product. And what you really need to understand are their problems.

Finding the right fit between your product and what works for your customers is an ongoing process. Organizations that succeed in this engage in a dance of listening to customers and innovating on what they discover about them.

To understand your customer’s problems and turn that understanding into insights and better versions of your product,  start with these three steps:

1. Gather data. Engage with your customer right there and then. Seize the moment and go deep. Make sure that you are listening more than you are talking. This has two benefits: You’ll get better data and you’ll make your customer feel heard. “Tell me more about that” is an excellent prompt. Or “How might you do it?” Again, they’ll be talking in solution-speak and that’s ok. It’s your job to decode all of that, not theirs.

2. Interpret data/articulate problems. Once your customer is gone, walk through the data that you gathered with your team. Look at the solutions that your customer offered and try to reverse engineer them back to the problems that you think they are responding to. It’s unlikely that the solutions they offered are the right ones. But the problems they are having are real and should definitely be acknowledged.

3. Revise, but only a little. You don’t want to do a complete overhaul of your product, service or system based on feedback from one customer, right? But you do want to tweak your existing offerings, just a little so that you can put something out there that will help you get even richer feedback.  For example, if your customer told you that you need to host a 3-month long job training program (solution), start off with a small experiment–invite a guest speaker to your space who can speak to available resources in the area or set up a networking night. Then at that event, go back to step one of this process. Gather data. Lather, rinse, repeat.


A Hidden Dragon Walks into my Office

This is a piece I drafted three years ago when I was teaching in the communications school at Ithaca College. 

A Hidden Dragon walks into my office in the second to last week of class. “Hidden Dragon” is a term I came up with to describe a team member who is smart and talented but soft-spoken. An unfortunate consequence of being a smart, soft-spoken teammate is that their ideas rarely get implemented. It’s a pattern that I’ve seen year after year of teaching. That’s why I had to name it.

All semester long this Hidden Dragon has been working on a team with two other guys. Their work has been average. Yesterday I handed back grades for a big project and their team got a low score.

ME: Have a seat. I know why you’re here. It’s about your team’s last project. Here’s the thing that I’ve learned about group work and I know this may sound a little weird. Whether your teammates help out or not, it’s still your name on the work. So do good work even when you know you’ve got passengers riding on your coattails.

HD: Yeah. It’s been hard. I’ve had a hard time speaking up and being heard on this team. They don’t want to work together in class. And scheduling meetings outside of class with these guys is nearly impossible.

ME: I get it. So I encourage you to own the next project. Treat the project as your own. And be sure to keep me in the loop. If your teammates aren’t participating, find other ways for them to contribute. Ask them to buy the team dinner or get the team coffee. Anything that helps the team even if it’s not directly related to the creative work.

HD: Thank you. This makes me feel better. [pause] So, can I talk to you about our final project?

ME: Sure

HD: Well, the team chose “ginger ale” as the subject for our final campaign (she winces). But I’ve been thinking about what you said in class last week, “Choose something that you’re passionate about.” So I’m gonna do a campaign for “GIRLS WHO CODE.” She goes on to tell me that she applied and was accepted into the GWC program in NYC for the summer. Her family is in Jamaica, Queens so she’s all set!

Wow. I just witnessed a transformation right here in my office–a student who felt unheard and unseen by her team members to one who steps up and owns the project. All she needed was to be seen and heard by someone and then she was on her way!


Independence and Collectivism

If inventors are to move from designing objects to designing systems (see yesterday’s post), then we need to explore the spectrum of thinking between the individualist perspective and a collective perspective.

In the West, we are known for our rugged individualism. It’s a good thing in that it’s the drive that inspires us to fight for human rights. But it also leads to selfishness and inflated egos.

In the East, people are known for their collectivist mindset. This mindset is good in that it drives cooperation and holistic thinking. But it may be bad if it denies individual rights.

I’m not suggesting that we in the West make a shift from individual to collectivist thinking. I am suggesting that we explore and become more fluid in the spectrum of thinking between these two perspectives. There are benefits to be gained both in quality of life and in innovation. From a long piece in BBC Future:

People in more collectivist societies tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.

If we work on thinking about relationships and contexts and situations, then we can more easily understand problems from a systems perspective and design solutions that are more like infrastructure changes and less like band-aids.


The quote above comes from this article: How East and West Think in Profoundly Different Ways, BBC Future, Jan 2017

Yesterday’s post: From Objects to Systems




From Objects to Systems

One of the transitions that inventors are going through is a transition from designing the one-and-done, disposable, standalone objects of the 20th century to designing smart objects that communicate with complex systems in time and space.

The inventors and companies that will rise to the top of this new, competitive landscape will be the inventors who think beyond their product’s capability. These inventors will thoughtfully explore how their inventions fit into the big picture–an ecosystem of sensors and actuators and computation and data. They will strive to design objects, data sets, and communication protocols that play well with others.


for fun: Twin Objects ECAL/Elise Migraine from ECAL



You Didn’t Get There on Your Own


If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, “Well it must be because I was just so smart.” There are a lot of smart people out there. “It must be because I worked harder than everybody else.” Let me tell you something, there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there. If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.

On this day of service, be grateful for your good fortune if you’ve had it. And pledge to use your position to help someone else. There are lots of smart people out there. There are lots of hardworking people out there. But they don’t all have the same advantages that you’ve had.

Encourage someone. Mentor someone. Fight for someone. Be brave. Be generous. Your community needs you to do that. The world needs you to.

related reading

Why Luck Matters More Than You Might Think

Innovative State

From Cynicism to Authenticity

In my twenties, I loved cynicism as an aesthetic choice and even as a personality trait: cynicism in art, film, jokes, comments from my peers. I thought it was clever.

But these days, at least for me, cynicism comes off as youthful ignorance, defensiveness, lack of self-awareness. And while I have empathy for the pain that those underlying states cause, decoding that tires me out. What I’m much more interested in is straightforwardness and authenticity. People and artists who are willing to be awkward, unpolished, unslick, and who they are. This is refreshing. This feels real. This feels like we can get somewhere.

Cynicism is easy. That’s probably why young people gravitate to it.

But what if authenticity were more popular? What if we were free to talk about our fears and dreams without being judged? What if we could talk about our scars and our visions rather than cover them up with bullshit? I think we’d be more connected and that’s what the world needs.

Related reading (from the archive): Beyond Out-of-Phase


Use Off-the-Shelf Parts for Early Prototypes

for inventors of smart devices and systems

Once you have an idea for a smart device or system and an understanding of the needs of your customers as well as the features and benefits that your competition provides, you need to do some prototyping. Your first prototypes are for internal use with your team. You want to build quick and dirty functional prototypes to figure out what you need to build to conduct your first tests with customers.

Warning: your team will probably want to build something from scratch because “it will be easier,” they’ll say. But for these early prototypes, you want to use off-the-shelf parts. Why? Because if you build something from scratch, the building might be easier, but pivoting from your initial idea will be harder because you’ll have an unhealthy attachment to your creation. So in these early days, it’s best to use off-the-shelf parts because your team needs to be nimble in these early stages of product development. Below are some ideas for off-the-shelf parts that you can use for prototyping.

For your hardware, there are dozens if not hundreds of off-the-shelf platforms to chose from: Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Flora, Particle, Bean, and many variations on size, power, communication protocols, and capability. Start with breadboarding, then solder it up for customer testing.

If you have an app component for your device, wireframing platforms abound: InVision, Balsamiq, Mockups, and on. All allow the quick design of app architecture which can then be tested and tweaked with your team before you test it with customers.

As for the form of your product, you could 3D model and print something right away. But in the early days, off-the-shelf materials allow you and your team to be more fluid than if you were to model and print original designs. You are better off using wood, cardboard, cardstock, fabric, thermo-plastic, or air curing foam or rubber.

Off-the-shelf parts and materials are natural extensions of your sketchbook and pencil and whiteboard. These parts will help you bring your ideas to life quickly so that you can test these ideas with your team and then test them with customers to see if you are on the right track. And if you aren’t on the right track, prototypes made from off-the-shelf parts make it easy–both technically and psychologically–for your team to go back to the studio and make the changes that need to be made.

10 Boards for IoT Prototyping

Design in Time and Space

I went to music school as an undergrad. Though I studied classical voice, I hung out mostly with jazzers and composers, folks that not only performed other people’s music but improvised and created new music. One of the things we did together was to listen to music. Constantly. If we already knew the record, we’d point out special parts as they were about to arrive, “Check this is out, check this out, listen…”  And if the record was new to us, we’d giggle with delight as special moments surprised us. Something I came to appreciate about music then was its temporal nature. Music happens in real time and so does our experience with it as a listener or a player.

Ten years later I found design. Design is often confused with the visual. Or if you’re talking to someone with a little more understanding of it, that description is extended to the tactile. Design is the “look and feel” of a product. And while the word “feel” gets closer to what design is, it still misses the mark. Design is spacial and temporal. Our experiences with designed objects happen in space and time. For example, the designed gadgets, furniture, and architectural elements in our homes live in specific spaces where we interact with them at specific times. Mobile devices like cars or smartphones live in a more fluid way in time and space but they are still time and space bound.

So when we design new products and systems or talk about existing ones, it’s important that we understand how these products and systems live in time and space. If we focus only on the visual, we design products that look great in a press release or a magazine but fail in real life. The human experience lives in time and space. And so must design.