Command & Control: Human Knots

C. Todd and other students in the Product Design class attempt to unravel their human knot.

This summer I’m studying Product Design in a program called Boston Startup School, a 6-week training program run by Techstars Boston. I’ve fallen way behind on blogging, but hopefully this is the first of many reflections on the amazing lectures and projects we’ve been doing at the Harvard iLabs!

Today Rob Rubin, previously VP of Engineering at Carbonite, now VP of Education at edX, got Boston Startup School up and moving for a few awesome exercises. For a Monday morning, yoga, dancing and untying human knots was daunting, but now I know the coffee’s working!

Our first exercise had pairs of people attempting to ‘manage’ their partners step by step to make 60 steps in 2 minutes. We then changed roles and had the ‘manager’ simply time the exercise, leaving their partner to instruct themselves. The lesson was immediately clear: micromanaging slows things down enormously, and managing for autonomous productivity gets things done way faster and way easier.

That lesson was illuminated in each activity we did — when groups of 5-7 people created ‘human knots,’ leaving one person out of the knot to manage the unraveling process may have made things more streamlined, but it didn’t make things happen any faster, and people felt less proud of the results than they did when the whole team managed the process together. In this exercise, one of the coolest discoveries was that no person in the knot could really understand the full complexity of the issue. We each saw the knot of the person in front of us, and had to trust each other to call out the solutions we saw, and respect that they would be accurate. As Rubin said, “not one singe person at Apple knows how the whole MacBook works.” They each understand one part of the problem, and together, form the solution.

Here are a few other lessons learned this morning:

1. Never underestimate the power of the visual cortex. Visualizing processes and metrics is key to conveying their meaning.

2. You can expect what you can inspect. Metrics are essential to continuous learning, improvement and discovery. Know what you’re going to measure, and keep track of that data. Dig for data points everywhere.

3. Competitive environments do not breed productivity. Instead, being open, honest and direct facilitates a much more productive workplace. You should work with people you like, trust and respect, and support each other’s successes.

4. The power of the Note-taker is enormous. Like a historian, the person taking notes (ie. during a usability test) is in control of what information survives the moment and influences future decisions. The note-taker chooses what is remembered, and therefore ultimately decides what is changed about a product later down the road.


Richard Feynman: Actively Irresponsible

This Christmas my mother bought my brother a graphic novel called ‘Feynman’ in an effort to nudge him along on his interest in science. In the days following Christmas my brother very actively ignored the book, but I devoured it — I love graphic novels, and this one was particularly awesome.

Richard Feynman was predominantly a physicist, who lived until 1988, and managed, in his lifetime, to be both a world-renowned scientist and a teacher, raconteur,  musician, goofball and overall creative. He made huge leaps in quantum electrodynamics, was a part of the Manhattan project, and was on the team that solved the Challenger disaster.

What’s most fascinating, however, is the way the guy thinks. The graphic novel was so interesting because Feynman was no ordinary man — I always wish I could see the world through his eyes, and I aspire to do so. I had no idea when I started researching him that he had long ago breached the gap between science and the creative world as a great inspiration to many designers, marketers and artists.

Feynman graphic novel

Feynman, a graphic novel biography by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Which is why I was so excited to see that Tim Ferris, on his blog on Lifestyle Design Experiments, posted this great video about Feynman titled “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

The introduction captures well the lesson of the video: that the more you know, the more you can imagine. Feynman describes a moment when an artist friend held up a flower and said ‘look how beautiful this is.’ Feynman agrees, but his friend goes on to say ‘I can appreciate it, as an artist, but you as a scientist – you just take it apart, analyze it, make it dull.’ Feynman disagrees. Feynman sees much more about the flower than the artist sees – as he says “there’s beauty at a much smaller dimension,” things the artist doesn’t know to imagine. Feynman asks why, how, what’s happening in the flower — the science only adds to the beauty of it.

At 6:12 Feynman tells a great story about his father telling him how to look at a bird. His father taught him that you could know the name of a specific kind of bird in 18 different languages and still know nothing about the bird — you then only know about humanity, about cultures and places. Feynman, throughout his life, always said his father taught him to look at things. Feynman was much more intelligent than his father, but he owes much of his creative intelligence to his father’s ability to question everything.

After 40:00, Feynman starts talking about his philosophy on learning and teaching. He is an avid practitioner of ‘active irresponsibility.’ He’s selfish, he says — he rejects roles in leadership and responsibility because if he’s on a committee, or in a position, he can’t run around and learn. He can’t run around and experiment then, and that’s not productive for him. I enjoy leadership positions, but his mentality is an amazing way to stay young, creative and inventive.

Feynman is as attentive and particular as he is chaotic and irresponsible; it’s an incredible mix of child’s play and brilliant attention to detail, but in the right order: he questions everything, opens his imagination to the whole world, experiments wildly, then pursues a theory until he’s come at it from every angle humanly possible and made it so fool proof that only he could question it. The best part is that Feynman is always prepared to be wrong, and at the end of the day, he has only one true passion: to just find out about the world.

Isn’t that a great energy to drive you every day?

He’s dissuaded from many of life’s mysteries because people have already clouded his mind with theories. Of those great mysteries, he says, “those are mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them.”

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be too simple, too connected, too local, too provincial! …Look at what’s out there, it isn’t in proportion!

Once you start doubting, just like you’re supposed to doubt… when you doubt and ask, it gets a little harder to believe. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing, but to have some answers which might be wrong. I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things of which I don’t know anything about.

He says not knowing doesn’t frighten him — but it must be a little lonely, to know just how much you’ll never know, and to be consumed every day by massive questions that you’re smart enough to know you’ll never answer. What do you question in the world around you?

The Power of Boredom

Listening to your wandering mind is far more important than you might think — in a world that constantly gives us something to do, the art of boredom is fast disappearing, and with it we may be losing a window of creative brilliance that we can’t access any other way.

In an article in Wired magazine titled “The Importance of Mind-Wandering,” Jonah Lehrer collects some fascinating research on the cognitive implications of the wandering mind. The two most fascinating points come from Dr. Jonathan Schooler’s lab at UCSB. Their studies discern between ‘default’ and ‘executive’ network regions in the brain, so that our ‘default’ state is our wandering mind, and our ‘executive’ network region is the part of your brain that is cognitively aware. Schooler’s lab found that surprisingly, the two could work together when distracted:

The observed parallel recruitment of executive and default network regions—two brain systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition—suggests that mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that may allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.

As Lehrer puts it, mind-wandering might not be as mindless as we previously thought. What’s really fascinating, though, is what the lab discovered concerning a subject’s meta-awareness of their own day-dreaming. Neural activity in both regions was much higher when the subject was unaware of their own mind-wandering, however, people who didn’t catch themselves day-dreaming scored much lower on creativity tests. In other words, tapping into your wandering mind on purpose is key to creativity, but there may be a whole world of creative energy buried in our subconscious.

In a lecture on media’s impact on society, Dr. Michael Rich, The Director of the Center on Media and Child Health at The Children’s Hospital Boston, told a story of how Einstein discovered the equation that made him famous. Einstein’s first job was as a patent officer in Bern, Switzerland, and he was so bored with his job that he spent his daily commute through the city contemplating his boredom. It was on one of these walks that he discovered the theory of relativity. As the Health Resource Network puts it, “He did have a curious mind… and he wasn’t afraid to think differently than other people around him believed.” Dr. Rich lamented in his lecture the rapidly deteriorating time that a child spends being bored as they grow up. With so many media-rich distractions at their disposal, children spend much less time enduring the boredom that defined the cognitive growth of previous generations.

Ultimately, there’s a strong case for getting distracted every once in a while. In an article in Vogue a few years back, an artist whose name I can’t recall made a powerful suggestion: “Always leave time to do nothing.”

The Tragic Loss of The Journey

There is no such thing as a “sense of direction” – at least not one that can be proven by science. As Peter Morville points out in his defining book “Ambient Findability” we have only our 5 senses to point us in the right direction; how well each individual uses them varies, but what looks like impressive directional instincts is actually proof of keener use of the original 5 senses.

Much like ants, we use Geocentric (landmarks and visual cues) and Egocentric (path integration, the retracing of steps) to determine where we are, where we’re going, and how to get there. At least we used to – but I know if I take a moment to assess my own navigational habits, I’ll come to the conclusive realization that it’s been a while since I used my head to really get anywhere.

I don’t know about you, but I use my iPhone, and that’s kind of a shame.

Necessity births invention, which results in a cycle of invention and innovation. Wayfinding used to be an issue of human survival; while navigation is certainly a daily issue, it’s becoming less of a necessity to human survival, and more an issue of practicality and transportation. For prehistoric humans, embarking on a trek was always a risk, and getting lost could mean the end. Today, however, the act of “finding” holds no allure; efficiency is everything, from shopping to traveling. In other words, it isn’t about the chase anymore.

That said… have you ever gone online to look up a movie trailer and found yourself 2 hours later, still browsing YouTube? Of course you have. I’m sure you’ve experienced this or something close to it, which brings me to the question: how are sites so effectively designing their navigation to DISTRACT when we live in world that doesn’t understand how to wander? The same goes for Facebook – these networks aren’t oriented to a user’s end goal. They aren’t designed to help you navigate from point A to point B. They’re built to trap you in their maze of info-tainment for as long as you’ll allow yourself to be led from page to page.

Does that count as a modern variation of ‘the journey?’

When Function Turns to Art

The Valentine Typewriter

Ettore Sottsass’s Valentine Typewriter for Olivetti, 1969

I was reading this interview with Sottsass by a student doing research about his connection to the Beat Generation writers, but from a design perspective this was his most interesting point: he tells the story of a typewriter he designed for Olivetti, who wanted to make a very cheap typewriter that was stylish enough to compete with all the Japanese home appliances that were ruining their market. The goal was to create a stylish appliance for the everyman. But when Sottsass finished the design, they said “this is art!” and they made it in expensive materials and now… it’s in an art museum.


DG Looking at your output I think there’s one piece in particular that seems a tribute to that “lost” generation of writers, not so much because of its function, which suggests writing, but for the content and forms it evokes. It’s the “Valentine” travelling typewriter, which I see as a tribute to the Beat Generation and your experiences at that time.

ES The design, yes, but unfortunately it turned out to be too expensive. You’re right, though, the idea was to design a machine as if it were a biro, a tool for everyday life, not a symbol of elegance and power. The story is that Olivetti had realised that Europe had been invaded by portable machines made in Japan or China that cost half the price of theirs. Before the “Valentine” there was Olivetti’s “Lettera 22”, designed by Nizzoli. Nizzoli was an artist and sculptor in the traditional meaning of the terms, because he tried to shape everything, he was a creator. At Olivetti they were scared stiff. They wanted a low-cost portable typewriter. They thought: “Let’s get rid of lower case and leave just upper case like in telegrams,” and “Let’s get rid of the end-of-line bell and simplify everything”. Mechanically speaking there wasn’t much to simplify, it had already been cut to the bone. So I was really pleased. I said: “Fine, let’s make a machine to sell in the markets in the suburbs. Let’s pile them high.” Everyone was happy with that. Then I did this very popular design, and the advertising for it proved very popular, too. I made Olivetti spend tons of money because I sent photographers all over the world to take photos, even at the North Pole, though Olivetti didn’t want to stoop so low. So although the original idea was to make it from Moplen plastic, the kind they used for buckets, we made it from ABS, which cost five times more. Moplen was fine, because it was already a “coarse” material. It was also slightly elastic so it could get knocked about without breaking. “Absolutely not!” they said, “Lets make it from ABS and put the lower case back!” The result was a machine whose design was silly in way because it had been conceived with a certain purpose in mind, to be popular and affordable by everyone, but it ended up being dear. This still happens to me now. The more things I do, the more they end up in art galleries. Research costs a lot and in the end there’s this dichotomy between what you do and where it fits into society.

Pranav Mistry’s Sixth Sense

Pranav Mistry, MIT Grad student and verified genius, asks a simple question: How can knowledge of everyday objects influence our interaction with the digital world?

Answer: a lot.

Pranav Mistry wants to connect the physical and digital worlds seamlessly — not by bringing the physical world into computers, but by bringing the digital world into our daily existence. He’s turning the physical world into computers. Technically, it’s incredibly complex, but the beauty of the idea is it’s simplicity. Why would you switch from paper to monitor when your paper could become a monitor? Why would you bring a laptop with you when you have perfectly good table beneath your fingers?

Mistry has invented a small device, like a tiny projector, that acts as the user’s ‘third eye.’ As it hangs around your neck, the device recognizes  multitouch, freehand and iconic gestures that the user makes in the air, reacting to them by projecting your email on the wall in front of you, or a keyboard and screen on the table before you, or even by projecting a pinball game onto the floor of the subway. To see just how incredible it is, watch the TED Talk in which Mistry demos the device for a speechless audience:

Imagine picking up a book in the bookstore, and tapping the cover — within seconds, the book’s Amazon rating is projected on it’s cover. Imagine clipping the device to a piece of paper, and dragging the text off the page directly onto the table, where you start to type.

Imagine is the key word: Pranav Mistry let his imagination run wild as he looked around him and saw that the devices we were using created a 4th wall where one wasn’t needed. His goal is to create an completely intuitive workflow that actually helps us stay human — technology that keeps us in the physical world.

The best part? The device is incredibly accessible — the potential it has to impact developing countries and low-income areas is incredible, because the device cost Mistry $350 to build alone in a lab. When mass produced, the price will plummet.

Read his TED interview here >>

Coca Cola masters what we already knew: It’s all about Content

After long discussions about creative methods and the importance of creativity as the last resource last night, these lessons by Jonathan Mildenhall, Vice-President, Global Advertising Strategy and Creative Excellence at The Coca-Cola Company, ring even more true than they did the first time I watched them. The graphics are done by Cognitive Media, a small UK Animation studio.

Essentially Coca Cola is spearheading a shift in mentality from ‘Creative Excellence’ to ‘Content Excellence.’ Instead of one-way storytelling, they’re moving into dynamic storytelling, which is really a survival move in a world where constant engagement is imperative. The strategy is all about storytelling, in a way that is Serial, Mutli-Faceted, Spreadable, and based on Discovery, but the most important point is that it goes both ways; it’s based on Engagement with consumers.

The five main principles of their marketing strategy are:

1. Inspire the best to participate.

2. Connect creative minds.

3. Share the results.

4. Continue development.

5. Measure success.

My favorite quote is the idea that the brand must “be a catalyst for play.” That’s a beautiful idea, and I can’t wait to see it executed. That very sentiment — my eagerness to see the results — means that Coca Cola has achieved something most brands haven’t.