Wondering, wandering, and making sense of the world.


Archive for February, 2010

Fairness is relative

I don’t believe in equality as fairness.

Imagine two brother who were just given hundred marbles from their grandfather. The fair thing to do would be to split them evenly amongst the two brothers right? What if the older brother already owned hundred marbles while the younger brother owned none? What if the older brother owned hundred marbles because he won them from the younger brother in a game? What if the game was rigged?

Every sentence you read in the above paragraph should have changed your sense of fairness slightly or drastically. The above example highlights several things:

– Everyone has their own definition of fairness, and they don’t always overlap.
– Your sense of fairness is closely tied to the context that you know of.

So if we don’t have all the information about a given context, how do we decide what’s fair?

This is where most of us fall back on some arbitrary notion of fairness such as equality, consistency, or randomness. In the absence of more logical measures of fairness, many of us believe in those principles being the most fair. It works, but it’s far from ideal, and we should stop considering them to be the absolute. I like to see the world in shades of fairness, some things are more agreeable to me than others.

If you think the world is unfair to you, it probably is to a certain degree, and it’s a lot easier to tweak your notion of fairness than trying to change the world.


Surprise and Delight: People Edition

Most people, the more time you spend with them, the more you know about them. Then there are those with whom the more time you spend time, the less you know about them. While the world is filled with the former, I’ve met some of the latter, and they are incredibly interesting to me. Have you met any recently?


What should I read?

I realize it’s very easy to have a very skewed reading list when you’re a professional in a specific field. Most of the blogs and magazines I read are based around design, design thinking, innovation, consumer electronics, web 2.0, and by extension a little bit of business and intellectual property law. I know there are more to the world than this, but I don’t know what I should read to get a good sense of the trending topics. I find newspapers to be generally too broad and sensationalistic, although I do scan the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, and to be too mindless.

So, my dear readers, what should I read to get a sense of the hot topics in your world? I prefer blog posts, magazine articles, or video clips instead of books since I don’t have too much time to commit.

Of course I’m not going to ask without sharing. My current field is a niche but rising field of design best defined by the term “Design Thinking.” While you may imagine sleek curves and nice graphics when I say design, my field is much more about the design of concepts and ideas. We focus on the processes and mindset to find new ideas that are grounded in user research and tested through rapid prototyping. The term “innovation” is often used concurrently.

Fast Company has a great article on IDEO and its foudner David Kelly who coined the term and pioneered the field. Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management, is one of the major proponents of Design Thinking. His explanation of and call for Design Thinking at the AIGA Design Conference is one of the better ones I’ve seen. The video is roughly 20 minutes.


How would you redesign the airline experience?

I like traveling but I have a distaste for flying. My complaints are probably the same as everyone else: long lines for both check-in and security, annoying regulations, long hours in small seats, airlines trying to nickel and dime me, etc. I realize most of my issues could be solved by paying more (i.e. for Business or First Class) but is that really the only way I can be treated like a human being again? I think we can do better… so, how could we redesign the airline experience?

First, we need a better way of selecting airlines beyond just price, schedule, and layovers. All the top flight booking sites online are basically the same, offering ways for people to choose the cheapest or fastest flight from point A to point B but not much beyond that. Compare that to or where people can choose not only by price and location but also by services, amenities, and user feedback. Once people can start making choices by something other than the lowest common denominator, airlines can start to differentiate themselves rather than race to the bottom and make profit on hidden costs.

Then we need to think of not just the airline experience but the airport experience. The inherent issue with airports is that they are basically local monopolies with no competition. Even if they treat you horribly, make you jump hoops to board your plane, you have to keep using them. It’s obviously unrealistic to create multiple airports in one Metropolitan area, but can we introduce some element of competition in airports? Instead of the draconian TSA, can the airlines handle security too? Obviously airlines have a motivation to prevent terrorists from boarding their planes and guidelines similar to building codes in the construction industry could be used to maintain a certain standard. Can you imagine what Virgin America or Jet Blue could do given more control of the airport experience?

Lastly, if we shift our thinking of airlines as part of a transportation service from point A to point B, what would become possible? What if you airline owned parking spots right outside of the check-in counters? What if they ran limo and shuttle services from your home so that you didn’t have to arrange all the different legs separately? What if you could go straight to the plane from the shuttle?

The possibilities are endless. How would you change the airline experience?


Whatever assumptions you may have, the opposite may also be true.

Great, short, interesting TED talk by Derek Sivers on the weird quirky things around the world including: addresses in Japan, Chinese medicine, West African music, and maps in Australia.

Some clarifications on addresses in Japan. Major streets in Japan do have names. The smaller streets that make up most of the streets in urban Japan don’t. Also, all streets in Kyoto City, or at least central Kyoto City have names. This is why I didn’t know that most streets in Japan did not have names until several years ago when I visited Tokyo.

Before you point out how ridiculous it is to name blocks and not streets, take a look at the map below comparing a random district in Tokyo, New York, and Madrid (I wanted to pick Paris but when a city is in a very different latitude, the scales vary significantly). The scales are roughly the same, and you’ll quickly notice that blocks in Tokyo are much smaller than those in New York and Madrid. Further more, the streets are not very straight, and some only last for tens of meters. Naming all these streets in Tokyo would be simply impractical, as many won’t be able to remember most of them. Kyoto is much more grid based city, which is probably why all streets have names.

Navigating the streets in urban Japan can be difficult, and that is why you will often see maps like the one below on the street side. In a country where vandalism is rare, it works fairly well (if you can read Japanese).

I do love the notion of paying doctors when you are healthy. Can you imagine what American healthcare would look like if insurance companies were responsible for keeping you healthy and not just treating you when you are sick? They would be doing their damnedest to send you to the gym, change your eating habits, and get you to stop smoking instead of trying to treat your symptoms in the cheapest possible way. I have no clue how the details of such a healthcare system would look like in the US, but it’s definitely worth a thought.


What I’ve learned in the first 10,000 days of my life

I turned 10,000 days old today. Almost three years ago when I discovered that I have been a blogger for 1000 days and alive for 8951 days, I decided that I would live at least until I was 20,000 days old, then take it day by day from there. 20,000 days is approximately 55 years, which may seem short for many of you.

My father passed away at age 52 or when he was 19,234 days old. My grandfather on my father’s side lived until his early 60s, and he was the longest living amongst his three brothers. On the mother’s side, my grandfather lived until he was 93, so I can’t say for sure that my heritage is against me. I’m not planning my life with an exact date of death in mind, and the fact that I may be at the halfway point of my life does not change my thoughts on what i will do tomorrow, next week, or next year. Nevertheless, I’m using this as a point of reflection, like how many people use round numbers.

With that, here is what I’ve learned in the first 10,000 days of my life:

No one has full control over their lives

I believe that everyone has at least one event in their life that both significantly affects them and changes their beliefs. A car accident victim who loses his or her legs may be embittered for the rest of his or her life, wondering what he or she did wrong to deserve this. Another person in a similar accident could instead become enlightened and travel the world fighting for disability laws. My event was an US work visa rejection because of a misplaced checkmark by an immigration firm hired by my employer. For those that know me well, you probably know what I’m talking about. For those that don’t, the full detail is in this post.

I once wrote a paper (in the format of a book) on the design of the AK-47 and how designers do not have control over their own designs. The AK-47, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov was an engineering and design marvel in the world of small arms. Easy to use, easy to maintain, and easy to manufacture, more than 70 million have been created around the world. The assault rifle has become a household name for terrorist weapons and has elevated Kalashnikov to a cult status never reached by any other weapons designer. The AK-47 was originally created to defend the Soviet Union and designed to be used by ill-trained soldiers in harsh environmental conditions that surrounded the USSR. However, the ease of use and durability made it popular around the world, and in the Soviet war in Afghanistan, the AK-47  was used by the mujahideen to kill Soviet soldiers, clearly beyond the original design intent of the weapon. Even Kalashnikov himself quibbled, “I’m proud of my invention, but I’m sad that it is used by terrorists, I would prefer to have invented a machine that people could use and that would help farmers with their work — for example a lawnmower.”

We all try to design our lives (and to a certain extent, that of others) with the best intent, but things don’t always turn out as we hoped. Having realized this, my goal is not to over-design my life but to harness the resulting unintended consequences. I’m not swimming with the current, but I don’t intend to swim against it either.

Little binds me

I once stated that I believe in morals and ethics but not religion and principles. My friend told me that didn’t make sense. She was probably right since I didn’t think too deeply when I said it, but it felt right. Now that I’ve thought more about this, it occurred to me that religions and principles are generally defined by other people while morals and ethics are generally defined by yourself (you may disagree with this). My sense of right and wrong are not defined by any established social structures and is always morphing. As a designer, I try to see how other people see the world in terms of right and wrong. While I don’t want to seem totally conscienceless, I’ve found myself to be much less bound than most people I’ve come across. For now, I’m taking this as a strength. Could it come back to haunt me in the future? Possibly.

People are difficult

I used to believe that by understanding the physical world, we can create technologies to better our lives and solve many of the world’s problems. Now I’ve realized that what we need is not a better understanding of the physical world but a better understanding of ourselves. People are the most irrational entities in this world and our framework of understanding them is still very limited. The 20th century was about understanding and harnessing the physical world, and I think the 21st century will be about understanding and harnessing ourselves.

I am nomadic

Paris is the fourth country and seventh city I have lived in. I have not lived in the same city for over five years and same room for over 15 months since I was 10 years old. Part of that is a result of being in boarding schools and college where room assignments changed every year, but I seem incapable of settling in one area for too long. I do wonder when it will end, but I am not actively looking to settle down. For now, I’m thriving in the adventure, and the question is not if next, but where next. Luckily for my generation, the now highly globalized world makes it easy for the restless like me.

We’re all bound by context

We all like to believe that we have the freedom of thought and choice, but the context we are in dictates what we believe, do, and think as much as who we are. I’m not saying that we don’t have free will, but I think we often neglect how much context dictates our actions. If you want to understand how someone is, understand his or her context and things should make more sense. If you want to change who you are, try to change the context you are in.

Perception is more important than reality

“If you’ve got a problem with the world, change yourself.” I’ve found myself giving out this advice multiple times in the last year, and I do believe in it. The world is rarely something you can change to your own liking, and how you see that world can adapt much faster than the world can to you. I’m not suggestion people to change themselves and beliefs at a drop of a pin, but to question if long term depression is worth something they can’t change.

I can change

When I first arrived in the US, I was a socially awkward kid with funny English and a funny name. I still have the funny name, but I’ve developed in every other respect. I am now capable of holding down a cocktail party conversation, making people laugh, and understanding sarcasm.

I used to hate writing because I was bad at it. Now I actively blog and have done so for the last five and a half years. Even what I blog about and how I write has changed drastically. It still pains me to see that I once refused to use capital letters in my blog posts.

I of five years ago would never have thought that I would actually enjoy running long distances, much less marathons (half and ultra).

I don’t know who I will be in the next 10,000 days, but it’s definitely not going to be the same person writing this blog post. Hope I will like him, or at least he likes himself.

The world is beautiful

Sometimes I wonder why I was born in such a bizarre world.
Sometimes I’m saddened by this cruel world.
Sometimes I think about the future of me and everyone and everything I care about and become scared.

Then I am surprised and delighted again, only to be reminded that “the world is not beautiful, therefore it is.”


Building Complexity, Designing for Simplicity

Complexity is terrible, unless it’s necessary. Complexity requires people to learn, to spend time, to get “used to it.” There are very few reasons to introduce complexity if something can be accomplished with simplicity. So why do we keep designing these complex systems, products, and services?

Because we don’t think we’re designing complexity.

Complexity is introduced piece by piece. It’s the one extra feature on a cell phone that you think people need, it’s the one extra form at the government office to make sure procedures are being followed, it’s the one extra product line to cater to the niche market segment. When we look at the one small feature, one new form, or the shiny new product line, we don’t see the complexity we’re building. It takes a global view of the entire system to identify the complexity, and we often forget to look from a different perspective.

There are ways of combating this creeping complexity.

Keep it simple. Much easier said than done. The German car companies, in particular BMW and Mercedes are good at keeping their product lines simple enough that each kind of  vehicle they sell has a certain identity to it. Every product line they have is noticeably different, and they cater to different kinds of people. Compare that to the situation at Chevy; what’s the difference between the Aveo, Cobalt, and Malibu?

Be a platform for complexity, not complexity itself.
Can you imagine how complicated Firefox would be if every single extension came preinstalled? What if the iPhone was sold preloaded with 325 apps? Let the users choose the complexity they want to introduce in their lives. They will be much more inclined to spend the time to learn and they can’t blame you for building overly complex systems.

Make someone responsible for simplicity. As a designer creating new products, features, services, it’s difficult to see the bigger picture. Make sure someone is responsible for maintaining the overall point-of-view and design intent. SAP, once known for creating gargantuan enterprise software created the Design Services Team to simplify their product and reduce the number of individual screens by a factor of ten.

Help navigate the complexity. If you have to make it complicated, at least make it easy to learn. Don’t unleash all the complexity at once or leave everything up to a bible-sized user manual. Many video games are particularly good at slowly introducing advanced features so players aren’t overwhelmed from the beginning.

Greenfield. In the extreme case, you just have to start over. This is difficult, it takes guts, and more often than not, the greenfield is incomplete, resembling too close to what came before (see Microsoft DRM). Nintendo declared greenfield in the video game industry when it changed the paradigm with the Wii. They no longer played the more complicated, better graphics, more powerful hardware game that Sony and Microsoft was playing. Instead they decided to widen the gaming market by creating a simple easily playable console. I can’t imagine the amount of sleep the Nintendo Executives, Engineers, and Designers lost in creating the Wii. If you remember, after the announcement of the Wii, the media reception was luke warm and the gamer feedback was negative on the concept and downright hostile on the name “Wii.” As it turns out, the people who weren’t commenting on the console were the people who weren’t playing games, and many of them now own the Wii.

Sometimes the simplest solution is to create a very basic policy: “Every time you add a feature, remove another one.”


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