Mar 11

HCI:20 and me

This post is a little bit random — some reflections on my own past triggered by an event at Stanford — might be of general interest, might be of interest just to me. That’s sort of why I blog. 🙂

Anyway, a few weeks back I was lucky to attend HCI:20 at Stanford, a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Human-Computer Interaction program at Stanford, started by Terry Winograd. There were a bunch of themes that I found noteworthy, and it was great to reflect on the origins and history of the program. And it was really fantastic to hear colleagues and friends of Professor Winograd talk about his contributions and impact over many years.

One of the first speakers talked about a paper Winograd published in January 1971 — coincidentally the month I was born. It was an AI paper on some work he was doing at the AI Lab at MIT — really focused on computers understanding human language. And that was Terry’s focus for quite a long while, doing work with Flores on computers and cognition. It’s amazing to think about that — that so much of the modern discipline of HCI and interaction design grew up from roots in getting computers to understand and communicate in natural language. It makes total sense, of course — that the same people who were trying to figure out how to get computers to understand how to interact with us are the people now trying to build more effective interfaces — the interfaces have just changed.

The line up of speakers was incredible — sort of a historical trip from then until now — here are a few:

  • Danny Bobrow & Stu Card (early NLP)
  • Fernando Flores (who Terry wrote Computers and Cognition with)
  • Eric Roberts (who worked early on CPSR and the ethical foundations of computing)
  • Reid Hoffman (trained in Symbolic Systems & philosophy)
  • Don Norman (trained as an EE and a psychologist)
  • Steve Cousins (robotics)
  • David Kelley (founder of IDEO, and the Stanford

So you see a journey from language/AI through philosophy & psychology and on to design thinking — in my view, that’s when things really started taking off. The foundations in linguistics and computation (not to mention ethics) were extremely important, but it was when iteration and design thinking got into the mix that the field really started gaining momentum and influence.

I started my own interest in HCI in about 1991, when the work was just starting to be oriented around design thinking (Bill Verplank from PARC, IDEO and Interval) and anthropology. The program had just started; I was probably a sophomore or junior at the time, and a senior friend of mine named Sean White kept telling me that I should look into it, that I would like it a lot. I kept brushing him off — I thought my path was going to be in (what I thought was the significantly more technical and higher impact world of) computer architecture design (RISC is the future!).

There were two events that were pivotal for me (beyond Sean’s good-natured prodding). [and a short aside here is in order — not only did Sean affect what my course of study would be, but about a decade later, having not been in touch for many years, out of the blue Sean sent an e-mail introducing me to someone named Reid Hoffman, then an exec at PayPal. No agenda, no motive, the note just said that he thought we might like knowing each other. That was the start for what’s turned into an exceptionally productive relationship — Sean profoundly affected my life a 2nd time!] But back to this story…

The first pivotal event was an internship I had at Sun Microsystems, working on graphics hardware. At the time it was obvious that Silicon Graphics was the important competitor and that hardware architecture was the important thing to work on. (Note to self: what seems completely, totally obvious today often seems pretty ridiculous in hindsight.) But fortunately that was a time when Scott McNealy was CEO and he really opened up the place to interns — he really encouraged us to poke around inside Sun, to talk with interesting people, and to generally make nuisances of ourselves. One of the guys I’m sure I annoyed was Bob Glass, a UI designer nicknamed “Dr. Bob” who had come to Sun from Apple to “drain the swamp or pave it over” — talking about the crappy UIs that Unix always had (especially) compared to Apple. Clearly, he didn’t really win that particular battle, but he framed an important problem for me as we talked in his office. He said this: “Who cares how fast the architecture is if nobody uses it?”

That single question, quite literally, changed my life.

I finally started to understand what Sean White had been saying all along, and started looking seriously into pursing HCI at Stanford. The second pivotal moment for me came shortly after, when I read an essay by Mitch Kapor making the case for software design as a profession.

After that series of events, I was pretty well hooked, and dove into learning everything I could about how to design systems that people actually wanted to use; software that made people’s lives better. I started working on my master’s degree at Stanford with Professor Winograd as my advisor.

There were only 2 courses in the curriculum at the time: CS247A, something like fundamentals of HCI, taught by Bill Verplank, and CS247B, something like using anthropological techniques to do needfinding, taught by someone who I remembered liking a LOT, but who I can’t recall anymore.

At that point, I became the Annoying Junior Design Guy, quoting a (complaining) Don Norman all the time, asking everyone why the clocks on their VCRs and microwaves were always blinking “12:00” and generally just bitching about how badly designed the world was. I’m sure I was a real treat to be around. But then I got involved in a few more classes that I just really loved.

CS447, taught by Terry Winograd and David Kelley, was a design lab affiliated with the then-annual Apple Design Competition — I learned a lot about how hard it is to actually make things that don’t suck. (Which, happily for everyone, subsequently reduced the amount of complaining about bad design that I did.)

I remember taking a class on Filmcraft in User Interface Design that pretty much blew my mind. The instructors of that class were Chuck Clanton and Emilie Young from First Person, a Sun spinout building a set top box that would fail, but would ultimately be the foundations of the Java programming language. They were really pioneers in thinking about how to use animation in computer interfaces — very early forerunners of the physics in the UI of today’s iPhones.

Many foundational elements were put in place by Professor Winograd and friends in the early nineties — but I think that maybe the most important was getting the IDEO folks, and David Kelley in particular, involved. It brought a human-centeredness to the work that we did and that Stanford taught, and a religion around iteration that has served the program well since, and paved the way for a lot of what the Stanford d.School is today. Winograd did all this stuff at a time when, especially among “proper” computer scientists it wasn’t very fashionable — but he had conviction and passion around the work — and of course he was right to.

From the vantage point of 2011, it’s clear that the work done by Winograd and the rest of the growing HCI group there is important and has had a large impact on creating thoughtful designers.

It’s also very, very clear that our educational system hasn’t produced nearly enough good designers who are technical enough and talented enough to build all the great products and companies that Silicon Valley (and the world) are trying to build. That’s not particularly an indictment of the educational system — we’re in a golden age of technology development — a sort of New Cambrian Age of personal digital life. There are so many new things to build, so many new areas of communication to explore and create, so many new interactions to create from whole cloth — as a society and as an industry, we’re going to have an insatiable appetite for great designers certainly for the coming decades.

We’re in a time now when everything’s changing; everything is up for grabs. I’m just incredibly glad that Professor Winograd and his colleagues had the foresight to set the foundations that we’re building on so quickly today. And personally grateful for Sean White pushing me to notice the things that were happening right under my nose.

Mar 11

TED 2011 for me

I’m at the airport waiting for my flight home from TED 2011, my third trip to TED. TED is an amazing conference and community – every time I’ve been it’s been different but also a little bit the same.

I’ve watched the videos for several years, of course – they’re a monumental source of inspiration and erudition and passion and intellect – not to mention sort of a master’s class in presentation skills. So when I was able to attend for the first time in 2009, it was a little mind blowing. I was overwhelmed with everything. The content, the experience, the caliber of attendees, everything. Browsing the bookstore with Peter Gabriel. Sitting behind Paul Simon for one of the sessions. Using a urinal next to Bill Gates. (it seemed notable at the time. Now not so much.) Everything was overwhelming. I spent the week just soaking it all up, attending most every presentation and just loving it all.

My second time, in 2010, was really different. I had decided I was going to leave Mozilla, and so a lot of what I was starting to work on was figuring out how to make that happen in the best possible way. That meant I was working more – doing email, talking with people to brainstorm about potential candidates, etc. TED is structured physically in a really interesting way – there’s the main auditorium where many people watch the talks, but there are also many spaces around the auditorium and even in tents outside where the talks are simulcast and provide spaces to work without bothering other audience members. It’s a way to watch but with a little less investment; it’s also a way to be more social as you process the content. And of course it’s a way to watch with friends. So I didn’t connect with as much of the speaker content then as I had the previous year, but a couple of talks were revelatory, and I noted a bunch of them to watch later (which I did for the most part.)

This year felt different yet again. It was my first time here that I felt, more than anything, like it was a gathering of my community, of my friends, and I felt like part of it, rather than attending a conference. I happened to know a few of the speakers and got to talk with them both before and after their talks. Instead of just being excited to be around folks, I got into really, really interesting conversations with them about areas of their expertise, of my expertise, and then a bunch of areas where none of us knew much of anything. (I felt particularly lucky to spend time with Mohamed Nanabhay head of Al Jazeera English online – and to hear him talk about what it was like in the Doha newsroom when Mubarak left. Inspiring.) Like last year, though, I worked quite a bit, whether it was talking with other technologists and investors or paying attention to my e-mail. As a result, I again felt a little distanced from the content unfortunately, except for a few of the sessions. That’s something I plan to change next year – I’ll still have plenty of work to do, but I’m going to work hard to make sure that when I’m around the presentations that I let myself engage, focus, and let the content surround me more.

Even so, TED has a way of sneaking up on you, and the last day was tremendously inspiring. Was great to hear Jack Horner talking about building dinosaurs out of chickens (and I’m excited to visit him in Montana this summer). Was amazing to hear General McChrystal talk about leadership, and Kathryn Schulz talk about being wrong. But the last two talks were the gems for me. John Hunter, a 4th grade teacher from Virginia got up to talk about his “Peace Game,” which he’s been using to teach for 30 years. (there’s a documentary about him called World Peace and other 4th Grade Accomplishments). Hard to summarize, but take my word for it: watch it when it’s released online. We need more teachers like John getting their voices heard by folks more often. It’s very very easy to be discouraged and cynical about the state of education today – I often am myself – but that glosses over the fact that there are thousands – tens of thousands – of minor miracles happening every day in our classrooms. There are thousands of incredible, inspirational, talented teachers who are helping our kids understand, and build, and become. The system is busted, sure. But there are teachers like John who are revelatory, and they should get more chances for their voices to be heard and inspire us all.

The conference finished up with a Roger Ebert, who talked quite literally, about losing his own voice and finding it again. As he noted himself, it’s a little tough to look at him – he lost his jaw to cancer several years ago, nearly died several times, and can no longer eat, drink or speak. But the guy has always been an incredible communicator, and still is. When they were setting up for his talk, they put 4 chairs on stage, which had me scratching my head. He came in and sat down and (of course) played a movie clip from 2001 of HAL being shut down. Then 3 people joined him: his wife, Dean Ornish, and John Hunter (who I mentioned above). And they brought out his MacBook for him. He used the voice synthesizer on his laptop to start his talk – and he provided a sort of narration on top by using his (very expressive) facial expressions as an accompaniment. Then, as he noted that synthesized voices tend to put people to sleep, he had his wife, Dean, and John each read parts of his talk for him, again, adding his own visual expressions as they went. The talk was about, in the main, his journey of losing his voice to using technology like voice synthesis and blogs and Twitter to find it again. It was a wonderful meditation on what it means to literally lose your voice, and to look disabled but not to think that way. The most emotional part of the week was experiencing his wife reading his words about how others see him now, disfigured, and the assumptions that he sees them make. She had to pause for part — it was the most amazing thing to watch. Because Roger had written very matter-of-fact words about how people perceive him present state – they assume he’s broken in other ways – and he seems to have come to peace with it. But watching the emotion from his wife as she tried to read those words – what was incredibly, incredibly clear is that she doesn’t seem him in that way at all, doesn’t think that others do, that she hurts that he feels this way about his relationship to the world, whether he’s at peace with it or not. And mostly that she just really loves him in a profound way. It was a beautiful, touching thing to experience – I was pretty much a wreck, and I’m sure that most everyone in attendance was.

So that’s the thing about TED. Every time I go, there are at least a couple of experiences that I have that change the way that I look at the world, the way that I want to be when I go home. TED makes you want to be better, smarter, more present, more thoughtful, more impactful, more human. To be a better citizen and a better professional and a better dad and a better husband and a better friend. That type of inspiration doesn’t happen all that much, and it’s worth the price of admission every time.

And that’s why June Cohen and Tom Rielly, on the TED team are two of my true heroes. They both have chosen to spend their lives working on building up TED outside of just the week of the conference every year. Tom has built the TED Fellows program, which started out pretty damn great and at this point is starting to move into basically ass-kicking-terrifyingly-awesome territory. And June, who put TED Talks online for everyone to see, including subtitling into 80+ languages.

That, my friends, is how you change the world.

That’s how you take this beautiful, wonderful experience for a few people in California each year and turn it into something that anyone — anyone! — can use to make themselves, their community, their world better themselves.

Feb 11

NY Times on Tweet/Life Balance

In today’s New York Times Business Section, there’s a piece on the current state of work life balance, in an age of iPhones and Twitter (more or less). I’m quoted in it a little bit, so figured I would write some about the conversation I had with the writer and some thoughts that didn’t make it into the piece.

I talked with Mickey (the author) while I was taking time off between Mozilla and Greylock, right after I had written this blog post on disconnecting. I got connected to her via Bob Sutton, who’s in the article as well, and who’s always thoughtful and very quotable. Before I took off for vacation, my partner David Sze suggested to me that I totally disconnect from everything, saying that I would find the silence precious. He was right, for sure — but I just couldn’t really figure out how to do it. Too much of my life now is tangled up in e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, others. I think of myself as essentially an introvert, but I get a lot out of having the social connectivity that I do online. It’s all just become a part of my life that is very, very hard to turn off — it’s a little bit like turning off “talking to the neighbors,” at least for me.

I can’t really tell you if this is good, bad or indifferent — it is what it is. It does feel different than even a couple of years ago. As I mentioned in the article, it’s become a sort of “peripheral vision” — I can generally keep track of how people I care about and work with are feeling by reading what they tweet about and share on Facebook. How much they’re sharing is pertinent, too — you can sort of see some of the ebbs and flows of peoples’ lives.

One of the things that didn’t make it into the article is that I found engaging on Twitter indispensable for managing effectively at Mozilla. Hewlett & Packard used to talk about “managing by walking around” — the idea that the best way to understand what’s happening in an organization is just to walk around and observe it yourself. To meet people where they work, to talk with them about whatever is on their mind, to ask lots of questions. I really, really believe in doing that — more than being useful, I just really enjoyed doing it.

With so many Mozillians distributed around the world, living in Twitter became a modern sort of walking around for me. I followed and interacted with dozens of folks this way over the last couple of years. Clearly, not everyone was there — and we have a couple of other online forums that are probably even more important (IRC & Bugzilla) — but many were. And it was a great way to understand what was top of mind for folks, to understand who was feeling discouraged, who was feeling ready for new things. And just to commune with each other, really. I learned a lot by thinking about it that way.

Mozilla is unusual in its openness, so it’s hard for me to completely generalize from that experience — because of the open product roadmap and the open community involvement, doing all this stuff on the public internet was pretty natural. Obviously many (most?) companies won’t be able to do it quite like this. Conversely, I don’t think the closed, enterprise-only systems like Jive, Yammer & others are as diverse and rich in information (although they’re very clearly useful and will be successful). But as organizations become more agile, more distributed, more mixed in with other organizations in their processes and workforces, I think we’ll start to see tools that enable this peripheral vision or managing by walking around across boundaries that used to be more distinct.

Anyway, as to the main point of the article, I obviously haven’t really done much disconnecting at all. It was nice to try for a few days, but also felt like a lot of life was missing. For good or bad, for better or worse — this is life and work in modern times. We’re all learning together how to make sense of ubiquitous connectivity, of persistent projections of ourselves online, and the tensions between our physical world and our increasingly meaningful virtual one.

Feb 11

Social Artifacts

One more post that’s (somewhat) related to books and that’s it for the morning.

I’ve written about the rise of eBooks and the disappearance of physical books from our home and other spaces before; as I’ve said, I’m worried that we’re losing some of the manifestations-in-the-real-world of our personalities — signals to ourselves and to others about who we are, what we care about, and what our values are. You might call the general category Social Artifacts or Cultural Artifacts.

Social artifacts are everywhere you look, of course. They’re the items we put on our desks, the pictures we put on our walls, the clothes we wear, the vehicles we ride in, etc etc. Lots of items we have in our lives show implicit values.

[aside: There is, for sure, a difference between what we imply by the choices we make and what others infer about us. I’m glossing over that distinction a bit, but maybe will come back to it.]

There’s a reason why books do such a good job of communicating values, though: there are a lot of choices, and they’re deep choices. While it’s likely that I might love a few books that are the same as the ones that you really love — but there’s just about no chance that in a collection of 20 or 30 that we’d have the same set. And so there’s a richness in the information you get from seeing what books someone has in their house, or that they’re carrying around to read on their lunch breaks over time. With books disappearing from our public and private spaces (we can argue about the pace that it’s happening at, I think, but not about whether it’s starting), we’re seeing different types of signals, but I think they’re more generic. What clothes you wear, what furniture you like, what smart phone you use. (Which, I have to say, is a bizarre social signal. We are not our computers.)

More and more of these social artifacts are virtual, absolutely, and there’s infinite richness there. But it’s pretty uneven. For some people, it’s pretty easy to see their collection of social artifacts because they’ve lived online for a long time and have often curated them. Joi Ito probably has the clearest set of signals, and he’s been working on that for years. Myself, I’m relatively knowable, between my blog, tweets, etc etc. I’ve been playing this week with my profile on Shelfari, too — it’s now got my 15 year media purchase history from Amazon on it — but it isn’t really right. It’s taking my old, physical artifacts and grafting them onto the virtual world.

But for people who aren’t wired a little funny like Joi or me, sometimes it can be hard to see their social artifacts spread around the web. Lots are in Facebook & Twitter. For some people, lots are in Flickr.

Anyway, no real conclusions here. Like every generation, the next generation will find their own ways to express themselves and to interpret others. I think while we’re in the midst of this transition towards more of our lives happening in the ether, we’ll see lots of weird juxtapositions like Shelfari showing collections on screens around the house, and they’ll always look a bit like misfits.

So I guess my takeaway here, in this post that’s a little all over the place, is that I’ll miss books as communicators of personality and values, but am on the lookout for emerging systems and am really, really interested in how we’ll all use them.

Jan 11

Drobo S

I’ve been meaning to pick up a Drobo for our house for quite some time — thanks to Aneel I finally got one last week — and, as I share below, I really, really like it. They’ve done a great job, and it should be a great storage and backup solution for us for a long time to come.

[quick disclosure: Greylock Partners, where I work, is an investor in Drobo.]

First off: Drobo is essentially a big box of hard disks that acts like a single disk. It uses a non-RAID technology called BeyondRAID to spread out data in a way that if 1 disk fails, you can still get to all your data. (There’s also a setting so that you can make it robust to 2 simultaneous drive failures, but that’s not the default, or what I’ve set mine on.)

It also has an extremely nice characteristic that you can always hot swap any drive for a replacement or a bigger drive if you run out of space. (Just another step towards robots being in control — when the Drobo needs more space, it blinks a yellow light at you, effectively saying, “Human, I require more disk — please run down to Fry’s and deposit the new disk beside my blinky light. That is all.” I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.)

Anyway, back to the Drobo. I chose the Drobo S, which is a 5 bay unit that’s direct attached to a machine via eSATA, Firewire 800 or USB3. I dithered back and forth on whether to choose that one or the Drobo FS, which runs everything over Gigabit Ethernet as a networked file server. I chose the direct attached because we have an iMac that’s pretty much always on, and the vast majority of the data we want to store on the Drobo is from the iMac — and I figured this would be a simpler configuration. I’m still on the fence — I think I would have been just as happy with the FS.

The out of box experience with the Drobo is exceptionally good. The packaging is more like a consumer device, with easy-to-follow 1-2-3 steps on top, clearly marked, and the Drobo itself wrapped in a protective cloth. Essentially, here’s the process:

  1. insert the disks into the Drobo (in my case, 5 1TB Quantums)
  2. install the Drobo software onto the host computer
  3. plug it in
  4. run the Drobo dashboard to specify how you want the partitioning scheme to work, etc

Altogether, took about 10 minutes, and the Drobo was happily running, showing to my iMac as a 16 TB volume (even though I’ve got 5 TB of physical space and more like 3.7 TB of logical space once you factor in the redundancy).

That was really it — it couldn’t have been simpler. No complicated decisions, no significant forward looking capacity planning, no nothing. When the yellow blinky light comes on, I’ll feed it more disk.

To my mind, this is really the only solution there is that’s simple, performant, stable, expandable, redundant, and not incredibly industrial and expensive. It’s quiet (much quieter than I expected for 5 drives running) and doesn’t get hot, and so far has been pretty good about spinning down after disuse. (It could be more aggressive there, but might be pilot error on my part — need to look into it.)

Anyway, I like it a bunch.

Using it for backup with Time Machine

It’s worth talking about my use case here, since there is a minor wrinkle. The reason that I’m so excited & interested in home storage is that our family’s data needs are growing, quickly. We’ve got about 40k digital photos that are getting increasingly large per picture. We’re taking more and more HD video with our Canon 7D. Most everything we watch for SPL that isn’t streamed is ripped from other sources and stored. In fact, in the year or so since we got our iMac with what I thought was a pretty reasonably sized 2 TB disk, we’ve gone from about 600 GB of stuff to 1.3 TB.

It’s harder than you might think to regularly and reliably back up 1.3 TB in your house.

We had a 2 TB external drive that was doing it for a while, but that’s not really big enough once your main data set is over a terabyte, especially with Apple’s Time Machine, since it’s pretty aggressive about making deltas every hour, day, week, etc. So we needed something bigger than that, but the 3 TB drives aren’t too available yet, and I wasn’t really all that keen on replacing that one again in a year or so as our data grew.

Which is why the Drobo is perfect. Just add disks as I want backup to scale.

There is a small problem though, in the interaction between the design of the Drobo and the design of Time Machine. The Drobo just wants to be the biggest disk it can be — up to (at least) 16 TB, so it tells the iMac to just keep giving it data, letting it (and you, human with a car and a credit card) take care of the physical details.

Time Machine is designed to find an external disk (that you select), start putting files on it and then putting new (or changed) files on it again and again and again until it fills up the disk. So that’s a virtue if you’ve got a dedicated disk that’s backing your data up, to a point.

But since the Drobo advertises to the iMac that it’s a 16 TB disk, and Time Machine hasn’t really learned limits yet, Time Machine will happily fill up your physical space, which will cause your yellow Drobo light to come on, which will cause you to install a new disk (and repeat, and repeat), all the way up to the 16 TB that’s the maximum.

So that’s not great. What you really want to be able to do is to tell Time Machine to just use a certain amount of space and then start rewriting over older copies. There’s no way to do that at present in the Time Machine settings (which I feel is silly — with big disks like Drobo, it’s an easy thing to add), so you have to instead make Time Machine think it’s got a smaller disk than it does.

2 ways to do that: (1) partition the Drobo into a logical Time Machine volume, or (2) use sparse bundles. I didn’t want to do the first one, because in the future I might want to expand the Time Machine volume, which would mean repartitioning the Drobo, and losing my data in the process.

But sparse bundles (or, more precisely, sparse images), which I also use to encrypt my work and personal directories on my laptop, do the trick perfectly. With a sparse image, you can set up something that looks like a disk to your Mac, with an optional maximum size that you set, but that only takes up the space that it’s actually using.

So I set up a 3.5 TB sparse image that Time Machine backs up to — as it gets to full, it’ll do the right thing, keep the total backup space used under 3.5 TB, no problem. And I can resize the sparse image at any time in the future from the Terminal.

And that’s working perfectly at this point.

I used an Automator script called Time Tamer to do things pretty automatically for me. And there’s a good discussion of some of this stuff on a couple of blogs — this one was most helpful to me.

Bottom line: the Drobo S is going to be perfect for us, and I couldn’t be happier to have it. I know it’s decidedly nerdy to get excited about a storage solution, but there you have it. 🙂