In Praise of Humility — The Forgotten Story of Edward S. Harkness

The Residential Colleges were created 85 years ago. Though they have the names of many famous Yalies, the donor of these colleges is nowhere to be seen. Why?

What is a Yalie? When I think of the archetypical Yalie, I think of two things. First, a Yalie is someone who will do great things and change the world. Second, a Yalie has great human qualities of humility, philanthropy and caring for others.  While Yalies are always reminded of our great alumni plastered across campus, we rarely see the humbler and more human side. That’s why it’s important to remember Edward S. Harkness. Continue reading “In Praise of Humility — The Forgotten Story of Edward S. Harkness”

Design Challenge: Makeup Kits for Female Astronauts

It’s always hard to design products that you are never going to use yourself.  One of the most interesting design challenges in history was the equipment for the first astronauts. And once the women went up in space,  the problem for the (mostly) male engineers only got worse. Take the example of the makeup kit.

As you can see in the above tweet, Sally Ride and other female astronauts were offended that makeup kits would even be considered on the shuttle. Dr. Ride didn’t even wear makeup on earth — she was a hardcore physicist.

If you look at the responses to the Tweet the story is clear. “What stupid engineers. Don’t they understand that these are scientists, not women?” There’s even a Quartz article titled NASA Engineers Thought Female Astronauts Needed A Full Face Of Makeup.

But that’s not the real reason that makeup kits were put onboard. Astronauts had always had a set of personal hygiene products onboard like shampoo, nail clippers,  toothbrushes, dental floss and lotion. While Ride didn’t care about the makeup kit, other astronauts did. Rhea Seddon, was the one that spoke up. She writes in her blog:

After a little of the usual small talk, they came to the point. Did we want to have makeup in flight?

Some of the women Astronauts never wore makeup anyway, so they said adamantly “NO!” Some of us did. Was this to be a majority rule decision?

I spoke up for the minority. If there would be pictures taken of me from space, I didn’t want to fade into the background so I requested some basic items. All agreed that a small kit with items of our choosing would be a “preference item,” that is, stowed only if requested.

(It was interesting to me that that I wasn’t the sole space traveler whose in-flight pictures showed a bit of lipstick and blush.)

As it turns out, when you ask an astronaut, “Do you need makeup to do your job?” The answer is of course, “No.” But remember that astronauts aren’t just scientists, they’re public figures. If you ask the question differently, “Do you want makeup when pictured on newscasts around the world?” the answer is quite different. It reminded me of the Amy Schumer parody You Don’t Need Makeup.

In summary, as a designer, you need to do your best. Ask the questions you need to ask, even if it makes you look silly. And make sure that you’re taking into account the needs of all your users, not just the most vocal ones.


The Future of Payments

When I was working at Citi Cards, I was under the impression that people were spending a lot of time figuring out what credit cards they should have. Were they going to get points or miles? Weren’t they going to be so excited that they could redeem their points with Amazon? Of course, working in a credit card company I was thinking about this all day and I lost sight of the fact that my customers had far better things to do with their time.

That’s why the study on How We Will Pay caught my eye. The study highlighted a couple of key numbers I hadn’t thought about:

  • 61% of shoppers don’t enjoy the act of shopping
  • 66% of consumers would use a connected device to enable a seamless shopping experience

In short, most people don’t like shopping and find payments an even worse pain to deal with. The future of payments isn’t about making payments cooler (a la Venmo) it’s making them invisible. My friend Ashwin Shirvaikar described this as Internet of Things Payments in his section of Disruptive Innovations V.

But what does a future of transparent payments look like? Some examples are:

  • Uber already integrates payments seamlessly into its app. You don’t think about “paying” for an Uber. You think about booking a trip and the payment is part of that. It’s like express check out at a hotel.
  • Slice On-demand Insurance is an insurance platform for the “Gig Economy.” Slice provides insurance to Airbnb hosts and Uber drivers only when they are providing services. It integrates seamlessly into the buying transaction by providing insurance any time the host takes a reservation.
  • Parkmobile, a leader in mobile parking, has developed an integrated parking solution with BMW.  When parking at a Parkmobile enabled location, drivers will be able to begin a parking session directly from their dashboards without leaving their car to pay a meter. The parking session is terminated once the driver leaves the spot. 

But who should develop the future of payments? The Pymnts’ How Will We Pay survey asked this question to consumers. Interestingly enough, the top named company was Amazon.

The Pymnts’ How Will We Pay Survey. Note: Super Connected Consumers Have 6+ Devices That are Not Laptops, Smartphones or Tablets

So why does Amazon come up so high on this list? Because customers want an innovative shopping experience, not an innovative payments experience.

The best example of this is Amazon Go. Amazon Go is a prototype payments experience of the future. Customers go into an Amazon Go store, pick up their items and leave. Checkout is performed automatically when the customer leaves the store. While there are currently some issues around the price to create these stores (automation being more pricey than human labor) and theft due to shoplifting, this is a good view of the future of payments.

While those working in the payments industry think about payments all day, consumers see payments as an inconvenience. Some services like Parkmobile and Slice are already providing great payments integration. In the future, companies will be providing truly integrated services like Amazon Go.

Growing Up Alexa

A few months ago, I wrote about how Alexa and Google Home are used in our house. In my experience, these devices are a better way for kids to use the internet than a mobile phone. A phone becomes an extension of a person, isolating her from the group. Interacting with Alexa is more of a family activity with Alexa acting like another person in the room.

Some people think it’s odd to treat Alexa humanely. As a machine, she doesn’t have any feelings. But think about the way we refer to Alexa. It feels more natural to refer to Alexa as a “her” than an “it” because that’s the way we interface with her. And if we interface with her as a person, we should be polite and say please and thank you. Continue reading “Growing Up Alexa”

Almanac – Some Random Rules of Thumb I Like

In ancient times, people had wisdom, aphorisms and rules of thumb they would put into Almanacs. In the current lingo, they’re called mental models.  Here’s a list of some of my favorite bits of knowledge from around the web — some because they are useful, others because they are just fun.

  • Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon — The feeling that something you just learned about seems to appear everywhere
  • Bechdel Test — A method for evaluating the portrayal of women in fiction taken from a comic from Alison Bechdel from 1985. The test states that the movie has to have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man
  • Betteridge’s Law — Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no. There’s a great Betteridge’s Law Twitter feed
  • Dunning-Kruger Effect — The term comes from the article “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” It’s a scientific description of someone who is too dumb to know it. Here’s John Cleese with a video explanation
  • Godwin’s Law — As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1. Said differently, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler. The corollary is that the thread immediately ends and this person loses the argument
  • Goodhart’s Law — When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Anytime a metric becomes a target, people will try to game it
  • Hanlon’s Razor — Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity
  • Occam’s Razor — In short, Occam’s Razor says that the simplest solution is most likely correct. Formally it says, “When presented with competing hypotheses to solve a problem, one should select the solution with the fewest assumptions.” Though they’re historically unrelated, I tend to think of Occam’s Razor with the Gordian Knot. This was the story of Alexander the Great who untangled an impossible knot by cutting it with his sword. I always think of Occam’s razor as the act of cutting the Gordian Knot

How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class

This year Professor Laurie Santos created Yale’s most popular class of all time. The class is titled Psychology and the Good Life but it’s really a course on how to be happy both in the short and long term. I was excited to hear that Yale was offering the course but even more excited to see that the class is available online. While there’s little I hadn’t heard before, it did a great job of focusing me on what’s important and helped me get into the practice of being happier.

Continue reading “How to be Happy — Yale’s Most Popular Class”

As You Wish — Watching the Princess Bride With Kids

I keep trying to find great movies to watch with my 8 and 5-year-old sons that are fun for all of us. The Princess Bride is one of the best. It’s a great movie for adults and it even has Peter Falk as the narrator grandfather to keep the kids engaged.

For the Adults

It has great writing from William Goldman and a superb cast including Wallace Shawn, Mandy Patinkin, Robin Wright, and Andre the Giant. You also might remember some great lines like:

  • VIZZINI: Inconceivable!
    INIGO MONTOYA: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  • INIGO MONTOYA: My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!
  • PRINCE HUMPERDINCK:  Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.
  • MIRACLE MAX AND VALERIE: Have fun stormin’ da castle.

Explanations for the Kids

Most of the time when watching a movie with kids you have to answer questions like “Is this going to be a BORING MOVIE” from your kids. However, in The Princess Bride, the movie has included the characters Grandfather (Peter Falk) and Kid (Fred Savage) to step in for you and your kid and answer any questions, like…

Starting the Movie

GRANDFATHER: I brought you a special present.
KID: A book?
GRANDFATHER: That’s right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today, I’m gonna read it to you.
KID: Does it got any sports in it?
GRANDFATHER: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…

When Kissing Appears

KID:  — Hold it, hold it— What is this? Are you trying to
trick me? —  Where’s the sports? — Is this a kissing book?
GRANDFATHER: — Wait, just wait —
KID:  Well, when does it get good?
GRANDFATHER: Keep your shirt on. Let me read.

At the Scary Part when the Giant Eel Attacks

GRANDFATHER: She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.
KID: What?
GRANDFATHER: The eel doesn’t get her. Now, I’m explaining to you because you look nervous.
KID: I wasn’t nervous. Well, maybe I was a little bit concerned, but that’s not the same thing.

As You Wish

And if you’re looking for more, Wesley (Cary Elwes) wrote a wonderful behind the scenes tribute to the movie called As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride (with audio that he narrates). This is literally a love letter to the movie. In the movie, “As You Wish” means “I Love You.” It’s a special movie as Cary writes in the introduction:

Over the past three decades, I’ve appeared in nearly a hundred movies and television shows. I’ve been a leading man and a supporting actor and worked in almost every genre. But whatever else I’ve done or whatever else I might do, The Princess Bride will always be the work with which I am most closely associated; and Wesley, with his wisp of a mustache and ponytail, the character with whom I will be forever linked.


These are a Few of My Favorite Words

To start with I found an amazing etymological podcast called The Allusionist by Helen Zaltzman. She has some great episodes on cursing [NSFW], Mountweazels (fictional words used in dictionaries for copyright purposes), portmanteaus (combination words like “brunch”) and eponyms (words named after people). She also had a great TED talk on how the letter i got a dot on top of it. Continue reading “These are a Few of My Favorite Words”

Why Do People Think That Wearing a Hoodie to Work is a Status Symbol?

I spotted a technology executive walking down the street. He used to wear expensive tailored suits. Now he’s coming to work in high-end jeans and a polo shirt. Then it hit me. Jeans and a turtleneck or jeans and a polo shirt (or really jeans and anything) is the new innovation wardrobe. On one level, it makes sense because everyone wants to dress like Steve Jobs. But when you dig a little bit deeper, using Silicon Valley clothes as a status symbol doesn’t make any sense at all.  Continue reading “Why Do People Think That Wearing a Hoodie to Work is a Status Symbol?”

How Strawberry Ice Cream Got the Short End of the Stick

In the class The Science of Well-Being, Professor Santos focuses on how we often look at our happiness not in an absolute way but by comparing ourselves to those around us. These thoughts about absolute vs. relative comparisons got me thinking about strawberry ice cream.

Whenever I eat strawberry ice cream, I think is pretty wonderful. It’s light, sweet, and just a little bit tangy. If I like strawberry ice cream so much, why am I surprised at this fact every time I eat it. I feel like I’m carrying some sort of bias against strawberry ice cream — but why?

Continue reading “How Strawberry Ice Cream Got the Short End of the Stick”