design, experiencing, friendship, humans, psychology, trust

What Product Design Can Teach Us About Designing Ourselves

Under My Umbrella Ella EllaWhen Rihanna released an award-winning song whose catchiest word was “umbrella,” I was perplexed. Not only is the word ugly, but it also refers to a boring utilitarian item that is associated with bad weather.

Living in Philadelphia at the time, I had a miserable relationship with umbrellas. They literally turned on me when I needed them most. During the wet seasons, I resolved myself to a monthly cycle of disposing and purchasing umbrellas. I never spent more than twenty dollars on an umbrella and never expected it to last longer than a few windy rainstorms.

I moved back to California five years ago, and given the drought, hadn’t quite needed to use an umbrella until this winter. In mid-December, my existing umbrella mysteriously disappeared from my doorstep. “Here we go again,” I told myself as I logged on to Amazon, “Back to the umbrella-buying loop.”

My complaints were quickly put to rest when I found that one of the highest rated umbrellas also met my twentyish dollar budget. But I was more surprised by the fact that it claimed to be “unbreakable” and came with a lifetime guarantee. Lifetime. I always thought that the entire umbrella industry relies on untamable weather.

Dubious, I purchased the Kolumbo on Amazon. The worst that would happen was that it would break and I would need to buy a new one. The worst case scenario was my status quo.

Four days after my purchase, I got a personal email from a customer service representative from Kolumbo. Though I’m by no means an Amazon power-user, I’ve never received a message from anyone other than Amazon regarding and Amazon purchase or shipment:

From Greg

This, from an umbrella manufacturer. My heart flooded with positive feelings. Already, I was a fan. A few days later, I received my umbrella and thankfully (both for the drought and for my eagerness to use the umbrella), it rained the day after. The only thing more magical than pressing the button for it to open was pressing the button for it to close.

This umbrella is phenomenal.

It quickly became a conversation topic for me and I even made one sale.

And while I’ve only had the umbrella for a few weeks, I’m almost confident that should this unbreakable umbrella break for, I can replace it through my trusty friend Greg.

After my umbrella purchase, I started thinking about all the long-term products in my life — That denim jacket I’ve had since I was in elementary school, the years-old hand-me-down espresso maker, a gifted journal  — and what makes them special.

What makes them special is that they are always there for me, no matter what, whether it’s while standing on the windy Golden Gate Bridge on my fifteenth birthday, after waking up feeling like I need another night’s sleep, or when in search of a silent listener. Our bond is unconditional. In some, anthropomorphic way, they are my trusted friends.

Which brings me to real humans.

In the hustle of our everyday responsibilities, it’s easy to take the people in our life for granted. Sometimes I feel that I don’t even have enough time for myself, let alone other people. Other times I’ve also been left out to dry when I’ve needed a friend the most. Life has a climate of its own and at times we find ourselves basking in sunlight with an umbrella to spare, while at others we’re caught in a storm with no umbrella at all.

While product design can take great inspiration from interpersonal relationships, the opposite is also true. We can learn from good products. There’s something comforting about knowing from Day 1 that you are interacting with a product you can trust. Something grounding about knowing from the get-go that a product will shield you through even the gustiest of winds. Something heartwarming about realizing that in its company, you are the priority.

We humans are nothing but products designed to share beautiful moments with one another.

Consider the version of yourself that’s out in the world right now. Are you the product you want to be? Are you the product you expect others to be? If so, shine on. If not, simply take some time to close up, flip around, and open up a different way. You, like my new umbrella, have impressive power instilled in you. And more importantly, you, like my new umbrella, have a lifetime guarantee.

humans, interactions, respect, strangers

Everybody is just a stranger

For someone who spent four years studying how and why people think and behave the way the do, I find myself being surprised by the humans around me rather often. Maybe too often. And though I realize I’m no psychology expert, I do believe that I’m probably above average (or, I’d like to believe that, given the years of loans I have begun to repay). It is scary for me to think about how others may experience this surprise more frequently than I.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve realized how easy it is for me to analyze and explain behaviors after the fact. He probably said this because…When she did this I knew…But in the moment, as personalities and actions are unraveling in front of you, it’s almost impossible to know for a fact why.

When it comes to interacting with the people who permeate my life, I operate under one very foundational principle: You don’t have to like every single person out there, you just have to respect them (let’s forget malicious criminals for a second). My tragic flaw, I’d say, is the distorted perception that everyone else is going through life with the same mindset. I think this is why I can’t easily write off being disrespected, even by people with whom I’m not especially close.

Today, I was reflecting on the difference between strangers and friends. What is fascinating is that every single person in our lives (except maybe, your family), was at one point a stranger. One of my closest friends and I often joke about how we wasted so many years being strangers, not being friends. I always find it uplifting to track the flowering of a friendship, from stranger to acquaintance to friend. It’s such a beautiful transformation.

If you ask me, the biggest pitfall of modern day social-networking sites is that we, perhaps unconsciously, assume that transformation from stranger happens with every single person that comes into our lives, when really, most deserve to remain in the stranger category, or to one day graduate into an acquaintance. This, in turn, means we expect from them the qualities of true friends — trustworthiness, care, honesty, love. So when strangers or acquaintances fail to deliver on the basic qualities of a good friend, we are taken aback, in the least.

Having recently moved to a new city, I have been exposed to many strangers. More than in quite a while. If I were to chart out the relationships (#nerdmoment) I’d say everyone started out at the same point (good person until it proves otherwise, right?). Noteworthy, though not surprising, is the data points of interactions, and connecting these points, the sheer number of different paths — roller coasters, hockey sticks, steep declines, plateaus, and beautiful inclines. All these people, were once, and almost at the same time, strangers.

I’m reminded today, how easy it is to be consumed by those steep declines. To wonder how they could have turned out differently. To wonder if you would have liked for them to turn out differently. To wonder why they turned out the way they did. To, in turn, forget how blessed you are for those uphill-ones. After all, the human condition is plagued by the power of negativity over positivity.

Before this post gets too “Zen,” I’ll share one recommendation: Focusing on anything other than the wonderful, positive interactions in life, would just be a waste of your time. Respect them all but pour love into the ones that are real. It’s not that you don’t deserve the others, it’s just that they don’t deserve you.

healing, humans, machines, technology

There Could be Computers Looking for Life on Earth

In this age of science and technology, everything has a formula. Our tasks are defined as specific procedures that we can break down and, to a certain extent, predict. Several months ago, I sat down at my computer and was greeted by a folder icon partially covered by a flashing question mark. A quick online search informed me that this was my computer’s artistic way of telling me that the hard drive had failed. Forums gave me precise step-by-step instructions as to how I could remedy the situation. I was given an exact timeline for the recovery process. When I upload files to the internet, install a printer, or upgrade my operating system, I am given up-to-second feedback on the status: 86% complete, 87% complete, 88% complete.

Almost everyday, when my mom came home from a long day at work, she went straight to the kitchen and started preparing what was always an involved meal. Immediately the aroma arrived at my nose and I arrived in the kitchen asking when dinner would be ready. Stimulus – reaction, if you will. Sometimes, though, she would stop in her room to rest before starting the process, a rare act that would throw my brother and me into a state of panic and confusion. “But when are we eating?” we would ask. To which my mom had a one-line statement, like any celebrity or PR manager who has been coached on the exact words that should be utilized when responding to certain questions. “I am not a machine.” Ironic, but irrelevant, that the statement was so robotic.

While academic and social pressures of my adolescence helped me to understand the general idea, it was a more recent occurrence that crystallized the sentiment. Weeks ago, I met with a minor sports injury of sorts. Never having experienced anything quite like it, I hung on every word of the doctor and asked enough questions to be at par with that kid in all your classes whose hand is still going up when it’s time to leave. My friends and I have an ongoing conversation about when mobile devices will replace computers. We randomly spew out numbers like, “8 years,” then continue with our regularly programmed discussion. In asking my doctor questions, I felt that he was playing this guessing game with me. Educated guessing, but guessing nonetheless. He explained the general course of recovery for situations like my own, but I simply wasn’t satisfied. “How many days until the swelling goes down?” “How many days until I can’t see it anymore?” “How many days…” The doctor had an answer for each question, but more to appease his interrogative patient.

None of the numbers he gave me were exact. And each landmark day that passed, I panicked. But somewhere along the way, I realized that it wasn’t because I wasn’t recovering or that he was a bad doctor. I am not a machine, I thought to myself. Each person’s body recovers (and functions) in different ways and on different timelines. Our unique daily activities influence the general course and there was no way anyone could tell me the exact number of days it would take for each minor step in the process. A doctor could tell me how to best recover, when I should worry, or what to look out for. Not much else.

But at some point, I came to terms with this fact. If every single aspect of life came equipped with a progress bar or Mac forum, life would be lived before we personally experienced it. Elbert Hubbard put it best: One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.

If a little curiosity and confusion is all it takes to be extraordinary, I’m willing to scrap the metal. Well, at least once in a while.

childhood, fireworks, humans, technology

Questions Of Science and Progress

From where I was sitting, the big, bright, loud fireworks were rivaled by a thoroughly panicked eight-year-old voice. This is the longest grand finale EVER. Video tape it Dad! VIDEO TAPE IT!

As we were walking over, I joked that if I wanted to, I could watch the fireworks on my phone. I won’t, but there’s something about having the option. I didn’t include the phrase “of course not” because the reasoning may not be so obvious. Why not just sit at home and watch the fireworks off a phone? Is it not comparable to watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s? Well, not for me. To be in New York would a) cost a significant amount of money b) mean that I wouldn’t be spending the holiday with all my friends and family back home. But with the fireworks, save the cities plagued by budget cuts, just about anyone can go outside and enjoy with close ones.

I am a strong proponent of technology when it is necessary or convenient. Yes, when. So (I hope you’re sitting down), technology is not always necessary.

With the Independence Day fireworks, there is comfort in being in the moment. July 4th, a light summer breeze, the air filled with patriotic songs as performed by a local band. Swatting the occasional insect, watching toddlers mistake glow sticks for straws, reminiscing about previous fourths. A television or a phone is just incapable of capturing such sentiment.

Even if I could identify and locate the infamous eight-year-old from yesterday, I don’t think he would have nearly as much to say about the moment. Not because he wouldn’t be capable of articulating his thoughts, but because he was so concerned about saving the moment that he could not savor it. Today, or even next year, when he is thinking back to this July 4th, he will only be disappointed that he could not capture the “longest grand finale ever.” For what purpose, nobody knows. He will have no recollection of the moment itself. A perfectly enjoyable evening tainted by unnecessary regret.

I may be missing something, but where is the fun in watching a video of the July 4th fireworks three weeks later? By the same token, I do recognize the value in watching a home video of your family spending time together at the July 4th fireworks fourteen years ago.

I strongly believe that there is a certain level of intelligence required where technology is involved. Maybe not necessarily how to use it but when to use it. And it’s in making this decision that the human mind will always have an advantage over computers.

competition, dogs, humans

It’s A Dog Eat Dog World Out There

It’s one of those axioms whose literal meaning I rarely stop and think about. Recent events, however, have planted me right in the middle of one of those rare times. Last Wednesday, my dad and dog were going on their daily walk when a dog came bounding at them out of nowhere. While I’m sure my dog was expecting a casual meet and greet (the classic nose-in-butt routine), things didn’t exactly pan out according to plan. The dog instead took a bite out of my dog’s neck. As someone who refuses to listen to her friend talk about a blister, I should apologize for the unwarranted graphic description. My dog was rushed to emergency the next morning after small pools of blood were discovered in her favorite spots — under the piano, by the window, and on the couch (only when nobody’s home, of course). Long story short and trauma overlooked, my dog has been stitched up, is sporting the cone around her neck which she absolutely hates, and is to make a full recovery.

The thought of this cannibalistic dog is utterly repulsive. But I’m not having a puppy crazy over it — humans are the exact same way (in a more metaphorical sense)!

While it’s not just an expression, the fact that it is an expression is equally disturbing. For some reason, we humans feel it necessary to bring people down as we go up. During an intense season of search for careers and sisterhood, it’s clearer than ever that people are willing to go to the edges of the universe to come out ahead. And yes, to come out ahead, someone has to be behind.

To clarify the seeming juxtaposition from my previous entry — Of course an individual should receive recognition for his work. Of course we should pat him on the back for his successes. But to bring someone else down in that struggle for power and fame is where I draw the line. After all, we’re all in this together. (I realize that quoting from High School Musical puts the credibility of my blog at stake.)

Considering, that in the grand scheme of things, an individual is your competition for just a split second, it seems completely futile to bite his or her neck off. Consider that one kid you were always competing with in high school. Smart kid, huh? Must’ve been, if he was your competition. The one with whom you always secretly wanted to work. Probably shouldn’t have shut him out…My game theory instinct is telling me that cooperation leads to the greatest social gains, so why are we wasting time trying to better only ourselves?

I might be missing something, but whatever it is, it’s not worth it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there…but why bite when a growl will do?