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Posts from the ‘Life’ Category

The Design of Everyday Things: Action Summary and Outline

I recently finished “The Design of Everyday Things”.  I found Norman’s perspective on inanimate objects eye-opening.  But, I did find the book dense and if I have one criticism- it’s that the book isn’t designed to guide you towards becoming a better designer.  “The Design of Everyday Things” is a psychological treatise that is loosely organized with lots of examples.  So what I have tried to do in this post is breakdown the key points and rearrange them a bit, so that it reads more like a manual for better design.  If you haven’t read the book, you can buy it here.

Design Basics

“Design must convey the essence of a device’s operation; the way it works; the possible actions that can be taken; and, through feedback, just what it is doing at any particular moment. Design is really an act of communication, which means having a deep understanding of the person with whom the designer is communicating.”

“Each time a new technology comes along, new designers make the same horrible mistakes as their predecessors. Technologists are not noted for learning from the errors of the past. They look forward, not behind, so they repeat the same problems over and over again. Today’s wireless devices are appalling.”

“Whenever the number of possible actions exceeds the number of controls, there is apt to be difficulty.”

How People Do Things – The 7 Steps

1)       Forming the goal

2)      Forming the intention

3)      Specifying an action

4)      Executing the action

5)      Perceiving the state of the world

6)      Interpreting the state of the world

7)      Evaluating the outcome

Repeat back to #1 based on what has happened as a result of actions

The point of understanding How People Do Things is to avoid the Gulfs of Execution and Evaluation when designing products.

A Gulf of Execution arises when there is a difference between the intentions and the allowable actions provided by a system.  For example, if you want to open the sunroof, but there are no buttons to be found that might allow you to open the sunroof.  Alternatively, a long sequence of actions may be required that are unintelligible to you, so you just don’t open the sunroof.

A Gulf of Evaluation arises when a great amount of effort is required to interpret the physical state of a system and/or determine how well expectations and intentions have been met.  A good example of this is a CD player where it is impossible to tell whether there is a CD in the player or not.  In addition, a system that provides no feedback – i.e. you click a button and nothing happens affirmative or negative – resulting in a Gulf of Evaluation.

Building on these concepts, you can ask yourself 7 questions to make sure your design is inline with How People Do Things:

1)  How easily can one determine the function of the device?

2)  How easily can one tell what actions are possible?

3)  How easily can one tell if the system is in the desired state?

4) How easily can one determine mapping from intention to physical movement?

5)  How easily can one determine mapping from system state to interpretation?

6)  How easily can one perform an action?

7)  How easily can one tell what state the system is in?

The 3 foundations to good design serve to answer these seven questions:

A good conceptual model. The designer provides a good conceptual model for the user, with consistency in the presentation of operations and results and a coherent, consistent system image.

Good mappings. It is possible to determine the relationships between actions and results, between the controls and their effects, and between the system state and what is visible.

Feedback. The user receives full and continuous feedback about the results of actions.

What Knowledge Does Your User Have?

Common and instinctive visual knowledge is easily retrievable and visible/audible.  There is no learning required and ease of use at first encounter is high.  Challenges are that the user may need to try to interpret the design since information is not communicated explicitly.  In addition, the design may not be aesthetically pleasing given a common need to maintain a lot of information.

Remembered or learned knowledge makes for efficient use and minimalist design.  However, it requires learning to use, particularly before initial use.

How Does the User Know What to Do?

Placing constraints makes it easier for the user to know what to do

Physical constraints

Semantic constraints

Cultural constraints

Logical constrains

Allowing the user too many different ways to use a device by not constraining the controls/functionality is a common cause of poor design.

Make the invisible, visible

                Have a good display

                Use sound to enhance visibility

How Do You Keep the User From Making Errors?

Errors come in two different flavors- 1) slips result from automatic behavior and 2) mistakes result from conscious deliberations

Common slip errors

  • Capture error – a frequently done activity is swapped with another frequently done activity
  • Description error – the intended action has much in common with others that are possible
  • Data-Driven error – data-driven activities can intrude into an ongoing action sequence causing unintended behavior
  • Associate Activation error – internal thought triggers incorrect action – Freudian slip
  • Loss-of-activation error – forgetting to do something
  • Mode error – when a device has different modes of operation, and the action appropriate for one mode has different meanings in other modes

You need feedback loops in place for the user to detect that there has been a slip!

Best Quotes From The Steve Jobs Biography

The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.  -Apple’s “Think Different” Commercial, 1997

I always thought of myself as a humanities person as a kid, but I like electronics.  Then I read something that one of my heroes, Edwin Land of Polaroid, said about the importance of people who can stand at the intersection of humanities and sciences, and I decided that’s what I wanted to do.  -Steve Jobs

The juice goes out of Christianity when it becomes too based on faith rather than on living like Jesus or seeing the world as Jesus saw it.  I think different religions are different doors to the same house.  Sometimes I think the house exists, and sometimes I don’t.  It’s the great mystery.  -Steve Jobs

If it hadn’t been for the Blue Boxes, there wouldn’t have been an Apple.  I’m 100% sure of that.  Woz and I learned how to work together, and we gained the confidence that we could solve technical problems and actually put something into production.  You cannot believe how much confidence that gave us.  -Steve Jobs

I came of age at a magical time.  Our consciousness was raised by Zen, and also by LSD.  Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life.  LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, buy you know it.  It reinforced my sense of what was important- creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could. -Steve Jobs

This guy’s a goddamn hippie with b.o.  Why did you do this to me?  And he’s impossible to deal with.  -Don Lang, Steve Job’s first boss in tech

Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India.  The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world.  Intuition is a very powerful thing, more pwerful than intellect, in my opinion.  That’s had a big impact on my work.  -Steve Jobs

If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is.  If you try to calm it, it only makes it worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things – that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more.  Your mind just slows down, and you see a tremendous expanse in the moment.  You see so much more than you could see before.  It’s a discipline; you have to practice it…I learned the truth of the Zen saying that if you are willing to travel around the world to meet a teacher, one will appear next door.  -Steve Jobs

He had the attitude that he could do anything, and therefore so can you.  He put his life in my hands.  So that made me do something I didn’t think I could do.  -Former girlfriend of Steve Jobs

This was the most wonderful offer in my life, to actually design a game that people would use.  -Steve Wozniak

There is something indefinable in an entrepreneur, and I saw that in Steve.  He was interested not just in engineering, but also the busienss aspects.  I taught him that if you act like you can do something, then it will work.  I told him, “pretend to be completely in control and people will assume that you are.”  -Bushnell, former CEO of Atari

I typed a few keys on the keyboard and I was shocked!  The letters were displayed on the screen.  It was the first time in history, anyone had typed a character on a keyboard and seen it show up on their own computer’s screen right in front of them.  -Steve Jobs

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software.  Is this fair?…One thing you do is prevent good software from being written.  Who can afford to do professional work for nothing?…I would appreciate letters from anyone who wants to pay up.  -Bill Gates

I was on one of my fruitarian diets.  I had just come back from the apple farm.  It sounded fun, spirited, and not intimidating.  Apple took the edge off the word ‘computer’.  Plus it would get us ahead of Atari in the phone book.  -Steve Jobs

I never wanted to deal with people and step on toes, but Steve could call up people he didn’t know and make them do things.  He could be rough on people he didn’t think were smart, but he never treated me rudely, even in later years when maybe I couldn’t answer a question as well as he wanted.  -Steve Jobs

My vision was to create the first fully packaged computer.  We were no longer aiming for the handful of hobbyists who like to assemble their own computers, who know how to buy transformers and keyboards.  For every one of them there were a thousand people who would want the machine to be ready to run.  -Steve Jobs

Al turned me on to this brilliant guy named Rod Holt, who was a chain-smoking Marxist who had been through many marriages and was an expert on everything.  ‘I’m expensive’, Holt said.  [Holt’s] switching power supply was as revolutionary as the Apple II logic board was.  Rod doesn’t get a lot of credit for this in the history books, but he should.  Every computer now uses switching power supplies, and they all rip off Rod’s design.  -Steve Jobs

Mike [Markkula] really took me under his wing.  His values were much aligned with mine.  He emphasized that you should never start a company with the goal of getting rich.  Your goal should be making something you believe in and making a company that will last.  -Steve Jobs

We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.  In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities.  People DO judge a book by its cover.  We may have the best product, the highest quality, the most useful software, etc…; if we present them in a slipshod manner, they will be perceived as slipshod; if we present them in a creative, professional manner, we will impute the desired qualities.  -The Apple Marketing Philosophy

We are inventing the future.  Think about surfing on the front edge of a wave.  It’s really exhilarating.  Now think about dog-paddling at the tail end of that wave.  It wouldn’t be anywhere near as much fun.  Come down here and make a dent in the universe.  -Steve Jobs sales pitch to Bill Atkinson

The best way to predict the future is to invent it.  -Alan Kay

I will let you invest a million dollars in Apple if you will open the kimono at PARC.  -Steve Jobs

There falls a shadow between the conception and the creation.  -TS Eliot

Everything you’ve ever done in your life is shit, so why don’t you come work for me?  -Steve Jobs pitching Bob Belleville

Steve wasn’t much of an engineer himself, but he was very good at assessing people’s answers.  He could tell whether the engineers were defensive or unsure of themselves.  -Bill Atkinson

Steve is the opposite of loyal.  He’s anti-loyal.  He has to abandon the people he is close to.  -Andy Hertz-feld

We have to do something for your buddy Daniel.  Whatever [options] you give him, I will match it.   -Holt  OK, I will give him zero.  -Steve Jobs

I never worried about money.  I grew up in a middle-class family, so I never thought I would starve.  And I learned at Atari that I could be an okay engineer, so I always knew I could get by.  I was voluntarily poor when I was in college and India, and I lived a pretty simple life even when I was working.  So I went from fairly poor, which was wonderful, because I didn’t have to worry about money, to being incredibly rich, when I also didn’t have to worry about money.  -Steve Jobs

I think that he likes people to jump when he says jump.  I felt that he was untrustworthy, and that he does not take kindly to being found wanting.  He doesn’t seem to like people who see him without a halo.  -Jef Raskin

Jobs seems to introduce tension, politics, and hassles rather than enjoying a buffer from those distractions.  I thoroughly enjoy talking with him, and I admire his ideas, practical perspective, and energy.  But I just don’t feel that he provides the trusting, supportive, relaxed environment that I need.  -Apple engineer

[Jobs] is a dreadful manager…I have always liked Steve, but I have found it impossible to work for him…Jobs regularly misses appointments.  This is so well-known as to be almost a running joke…He acts without thinking and with bad judgment…He does not give credit where due…Very often, when told of a new idea, he will immediately attack it and say that it is worthless or even stupid, and tell you that it was a waste of time to work on it.  This alone is bad management, but if the idea is a good one he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own.  -Apple internal memo

Each one thought he was smarter than the other one, but Steve generally treated Bill as someone who was slightly inferior, especially in matters of taste and style.  Bill looked down on Steve because he couldn’t actually program.  –Andy Hertzfeld

[Bill Gates would] be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.  –Jobs

[Bill Gates] really never knew much about technology, but he had an amazing instinct for what works.  Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology.  He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.  –Jobs

Well Steve, I think there’s more than one way of looking at it.  I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it. –Bill Gates

The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste, they have absolutely no taste.  I don’t mean that in a small way.  I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product.    –Jobs

It’s too easy, as a team grows, to put up with a few B players, and they then attract a few more B players, and soon you will even have some C players.  The Microsoft experience taught me that A players like to work only with other A players, which means you can’t indulge B players.  –Jobs

Sculley was so eager for Steve’s approval that he was unable to stand up to him –Arthur Rock

If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much.  You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.  The more the outside world tries to reinforce an image of you, the harder it is to continue to be an artist, which is why a lot of times, artists have to say ‘Bye.  I have to go.  I’m going crazy and I’m getting out of here.’  And they go and hibernate somewhere.  Maybe later they re-emerge a little differently.  –Jobs

I guess I know where things stand –Jobs

We should expose him for the fraud that he is so that people here stop regarding him as a messiah.  –Bill Campbell

He took some top executives he had secretly lined up before he left.  That’s not the way you do things.  It was ungentlemanly.  –Markkula

I look forward to a great product and I wish him success, but his integrity I cannot trust.  –Steve Wozniak

The best thing ever to happen to Steve is when we fired him, told him to get lost  -Arthur Rock

Human relationships were not his strong suit.  –Mitch Kapor

Oh, wow!  I really get this, I get what it’s all about.  Our film was the only one that had art to it, not just good technology.  Pixar was about making that combination, just as Macintosh had been.  –Jobs

I stuck by my employee.  Steve doesn’t like to be treated like a supplier.  –Andy Grove

How to Set up the P90X Pull-Up Bar

P90X worked for some of my friends so I thought I would give it a try.  So far so good.  Except for the pull-up bar that is recommended with the program.  There are a bunch of complaints online about how to set it up and it isn’t easy.  The most important tidbit I’d like to share from my experience is that the pull-up bar doesn’t work in most door frames.

What do I mean by this?  If the frame around your door is more than 3.5′ wide, then you can’t use the bar at all.  So if you live on the East Coast or in a not new home or in a luxury home, you probably can’t install the bar – so measure the door frame before you order.

The second thing I wish I had known before setting it up is that the part that goes over the door needs to slide over the part that you pull up.  THIS MEANS THAT EVERY SCREW YOU SCREW IN HAS A SPECIFIC ORIENTATION.  The drawings make it seem like you can just screw everything together willy-nilly because they are not very detailed.  So lay it all out first and slide everything together before working with the screws.

The reason getting the set up right is important is that the tools included in the box are inadequate for really putting the bar together.  If you have a strong set of pliers and a flat head screw driver, just use those.

Three Little Leaves: Avoiding and Treating Poison Ivy

Summer is here!  Which means I’ve got another poison oak rash on my arms and legs from a hiking trip to Big Sur.  I am not the only one – the three CVS pharmacies around me are all sold out of Tecnu – the most common treatment for poison ivy and poison oak.  What is a brother to do?  Here’s what my doctor told me:

Well, the first thing I should have done is done a better job avoiding it.   Poison ivy/oak/sumac all have an active ingredient called urushiol that causes an allergic reaction.  Urushiol is an oily compound, so it isn’t going to wash off or rub off easily.  And the tiniest sample of the oil could cause an allergic reaction in hundreds of people.  So if you are going on a hike or summer stroll: the most effective thing you can do to avoid poison ivy is to cover up when going into the woods and wash your clothes thoroughly before you wear them again, as in twice with the washer set on “hot”.  It isn’t really realistic for you to try to spot all of the poison ivy/oak/sumac around you while you are walking around.  While avoiding every plant with three leaves is a good start, the vines, trunks and sprouts of these plants can also cause the rash.  Oh, and one more thing, poison sumac has 3, 5 or 7 leaves.  Best of luck trying to avoid that one.

Once you’ve been exposed.  All that you can hope to do is damage control.  There is a lot of mythology about treating poison ivy, but let me lay out the facts to try to illustrate how hopeless “treating” it can be.  The tell-tale rash is going to come out between 1-14 days after exposure, or for a first exposure – up to 21 days after.  So you might have rashes developing all over your body because you think you are “spreading it”, but it is probably just a result of a delayed outbreak.  Spreading poison ivy is actually hard to do, only if you actively scratch the rash and get the oil under your finger nails can you realistically spread the urushiol.  With this in mind, if you think you have been exposed to poison ivy, do the following:

1)  Buy Tecnu and follow the instructions to cleanse your skin

2) Give your clothing a 2x run through the washer on hot

3)  Take antihistamines (Allegra, Claritin, Benadryl) to releve the itching (assuming you have no adverse reactions to antihistamines)

4)  Use calamine lotion or steroid creams (hydrocortisone) to relieve the itching in the first few days after an outbreak

5)  If all else fails and you are getting rashes on the bottoms of your feet, hands and everywhere, go to the doctor.  They will prescribe you steroid pills (prednisone) that will make your itching and rash abate almost immediately.

Happy summer.

(Photo credit:

Adult-Proof Your Internet

A lot is made of child-proofing the internet, but it could use some adult-proofing as well.  What does this mean?  Blocking the sites that adults waste time on.  I just figured this out recently (I am not the fastest) – that you can just block certain websites without buying an expensive “child-proofing” software package.  It was amazing – it added, like, 30% to my day.  Not only because I am spending less time wasting time on websites, but I am also spending more time getting work done in continuous blocks.  Working in longer continuous blocks, also means getting better work done.  Why websites did I block for myself at work?

How about that, I am blocking the Web 2.0.  Who would have thought?  Leave me a note in the comments about which websites you block.

The way to go about adult-proofing your browsers is to download a simple plug-in that lets you block websites.  The software won’t permanently block a particular website; it will just make it inconvenient for you to visit the website in the future.  And if your obsession with is so overwhelming, you can always delete the plug-in and have unfettered access.

Where can you find these plug-ins?  I would recommend the following:

Firefox:  Give BlockSite a try.  It is very easy to use.

Chrome:  I use Website Blocker at home.

Internet Explorer:  If you are really using Internet Explorer, get yourself on over to the Firefox and Chrome websites- you are missing out on the internet.

(Photo credit:

Google Suggest: I laughed. I cried.

You know what Google Suggest is.  It is that thing that happens when you start typing in Google and suggestions for possible searches appear as you type.  The way it works is that Google’s algorithms predict the search you most likely want to see using “data about the overall popularity of various searches”  (direct quote from Google).  If you think about it, there is something important here.  Google Suggest can tell us what Americans are searching for, what they are seeking.  Every once in a while something comes along that reminds you that you know nothing about what other people are thinking.  Google Suggest is just that thing.

Let’s start with “should I”…

…if you are asking Google, the answer is “probably not”.  “Should I worry” gives the opposite result…

…if you are asking Google, the answer is “definitely”.

The common searches for why things are the way they are…

Mail on Columbus Day.  Honestly, hadn’t crossed my mind.

What are Americans thinking of buying?  Not what I would have expected…

Same goes for a query about where is…

…the GEICO gecko – seriously?  C’mon, pull it together.

Things get interesting for searches on famous figures such as the President…

…other famous people with interesting results include God.

People are invoking God all the time in their searches.  In America, God has wives covered, but apparently not husbands, so we turn to the next best thing – Google…

What do American’s like?  All sorts of things.

I like turtles too.  I had a pet turtle growing up, but it probably would not have been at the top of my list.

What are Americans afraid of?

…Chinese people and pre-pubescent women.  Not my first guesses.

What do people think about ethnic groups in America?

I have to wrap it up, but I thought I would finish up with what Americans are wondering about fat people.

Isn’t that God’s truth?

Selecting and Selected

My brief effort at internet dating ended in a whimper last month when my promotional subscription ran out.  Perhaps it was my lack of desire to post 80 pictures of myself on the internet along with a 1,000 word description of each thing that I have ever done, or perhaps I am not that desireable after all.  For my official excuse, I think I’ll go with a scientific study that I read recently, which elaborates on the idea that people are bad at thinking about each other in abstractions.  What this means is that the shopping lists that people set out for a desireable mate having nothing to do with what people actually want in a desireable mate.  Women tend to include in their shopping lists the desire for earnings potential and status in a mate (men tend to write down the desire for a good-looking mate, no surprises there).  It turns out women actually just want good-looking mates.

I figured as much.  What was new to me was a nuance in how men and women select their mates.  In most settings, women are reported to be more selective than men.  A group of researchers found this to be true in the common speed-dating setting where men rotate and women stay seated in one place.  When the roles were reversed and the men stayed seated in one place – the men became more selective.  The implications in daily life are intense; I’ll test out a few and see if I learn anything new.

P.S.  The study is by Finkel and Eastwick – well worth the read.

My Brain Doesn’t Work The Way I Thought It Did

You kill brain cells, they don’t grow back.  That is what I learned growing up.  Having taken my last biology class in the late 1990’s, I assumed that after enough hard nights of drinking and time spent in parking garages, my brain would just slow down like those of most old people.  To make up for this, I would gray a little, acquire gravitas and weigh in on discussions strictly at a “high level”. 

If you looked in my “Book Queue” last week, you may have noticed that I had a book at the top of the list titled “The Brain That Changes Itself”.  This book will change the way you think about your mind, the way “The China Study” will change the way you think about what you eat.  Through a series of case studies and personal experiences, Norman Doidge (a pyschiatrist), makes a very compelling argument for neuroplasticity – the idea that the brain (and its cells) can change dramatically in function, speed and growth throughout a person’s life.  The story is told in a very accessible way and it is a quick read.  The information in the book may be old hat for brain surgeons, but it was completely new to me. 

I won’t do a book report here, since you should read this book and I don’t want to bore you.  I will just focus on what I learned.   I was under the impression that the brain always processes certain functions in the same place.  This is not true.  The processing location changes every day and it can change with age.  While certain parts of your brain are better suited for certain types of processes than others, it ends there.  Other than that loose constraint, your brain is totally malleable.  The implications of this on how you think are tremendous.  Through understanding the rules by which the brain changes itself, people who have had strokes and haven’t walked in decades can be brought to walk again – or even perform surgery.  Amputees who have phantom limb syndrome not only can change their brain function to eliminate the sensation, but can also scratch itches on their phantom limb.   On a less positive note, the brain’s dramatic ability to structurally orient itself to a task also leads to destructive obsessions and compulsions.

The section that most piqued my interest was the part about rejuvenating the brain (since I walk through a parking garage every morning).  I would have thought that if you could gain new brain cells, it would happen when you learn a new language or meet new people or something along those lines.   Living in an environment that stimulates your brain is extremely important for maintaining your existing brain cells alive.  However, new cell generation occurs only when you exercise – or better said when you move through space, which requires your brain to constantly anticipate what new places will be like.  On top of that, exercise also releases a neuronal growth factor – BDNF, which is the exact same chemical that is released in your brain in the first two years of your life.  The chemical makes your brain more plastic, more able to pay attention and more able to store new information in an integrated, long-term sustainable way.  What I can’t explain is that knowing all of this, I still can’t bring myself to do exercise in 2008.  It’s getting late, so maybe tomorrow.