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.

 

Welcome!

Who is Robert Schlaff?

I’m a devoted husband and father to an awesome family who works at AIG as Head of Commercial Digital Product. For more information about what I do at work, please visit my LinkedIn profile.

What is a Digital Raconteur?

Throughout the 1920s, some friends would meet daily for lunch at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. They included the founding editor of the New Yorker Harold Ross, the playwright George S. Kaufmann and the writer Dorothy Parker. This group, called The Algonquin Round Table,  would meet to tell stories and share quips in a bustling city that was finding its place on the world stage. They were the original raconteurs of New York, getting together to share stories that would enlighten and entertain. In an age when we no longer have two martini lunches, I wanted humbly bring that sensibility online.

Highlights

Product

Technical

Data

Human Behavior

Design

Math and Logic

The Secret to Google’s Self Driving Cars — Google Street View

For decades the US military was trying to create self-driving cars with little success. Once the private sector got into the game, these cars improved at a breakneck speed. In 2004, when the first DARPA Grand Challenge took place, no car in the world was able to complete the 150 mile course through the Mojave desert.  By 2016, self driving cars had driven over a million miles in regular traffic. The secret was not better computers or better cameras. The secret was better maps.

Peter Norvig, Google’s head of research, told the New York Times that Google Street View is the secret sauce behind Google’s self driving cars. He said:

It’s a hard problem for computer vision and artificial intelligence to pick a traffic light out of a scene and determine if it is red, yellow or green. But it is trivially easy to recognize the color of a traffic light that you already know is there.

I remember hearing that and thinking how convenient it was that Google happened to have Street View and that they could apply it to self driving cars. This would have been a classic case of “unlocking the power of data.” But then I learned the rest of the story.

Sebastian Thrun is the creator of Google’s self driving car and the founder of Google’s “X” lab. Google didn’t just “happen” to have Street View data lying around. Street View was created by Thrun after he met Larry Page at the DARPA Grand Challenge — the self driving car race. Thrun tells the story on CNBC’s The Brave Ones:

Larry came to the race itself and … came disguised with, like, a hat and sunglasses so he wouldn’t be bothered by everybody. But … he had a keen interest in this. Larry has been a believer in this technology for much longer than I even knew. And so was Sergey (Brin). And they really want to understand what’s going on,” Thrun said.

A later iteration of the car had cameras attached to its roof, so the team could review its progress each day, leading almost by accident to the development of Google Street View.

“We realized the video’s actually amazing. And we went to Google and said ‘we’d love to help you build Street View.’ And we kind of ended up – felt like an acquisition of a little start-up company, kind of Stanford transitioning into Google where me and four of my grad students then became Street View enthusiasts.”

“And we built up Street View and with a singular vision to photograph every street in the world.”

Street View became the first project within the secret Google X. “We had a separate building that no one knew about. At least for a year and a half, no one in Google had a clue we existed,” Thrun said.

So what did we learn? Data was the secret sauce for getting self driving cars to progress as well as they have. But it wasn’t a matter of finding a data set and applying it. It was about creating the data set for that specific purpose. Street View wasn’t a useful data set that was applied to self driving cars. It was the output of the mapping exercise that made self driving cars work so well.

One final addendum: When talking about Google Street View I have to add a link to an early version of Street View from 1979 that was created at MIT. The Aspen Movie Map (movie) used laserdiscs to simulate driving through the town of Aspen.

Game Theory for Parents

When I was in business school I had a wonderful teacher Adam Brandenberger who wrote a book called Co-Opetition. The book is chock full of lessons on how to apply mathematical game theory to business.

In the book, I learned how to fairly divide things between two companies. But it also works for dividing things between my two kids without them getting upset (formally called Envy Free division). If you have kids, you know that this is a non-trivial problem. Let’s use the example of a cupcake. The most obvious thing is to split the cupcake in half and distribute the two equal pieces to the children. Of course, because you can never cut the cake directly in half, one of the kids is going to complain of unfairness.

The book explains a better way called I cut, you choose . One child (normally the older one who’s better with a knife) makes the cut and the other child gets to choose the one he prefers. This forces the cutter to create two pieces that are as close to as equal as possible because he knows that he’s going to get the piece that’s second best.

This worked well and inspired me to try other systemic solutions to child problems. Here’s the way I solve the problem of two kids sharing an iPhone (or iPad) when watching a movie. Normally the child who’s holding the iPhone will slowly and unconsciously move the phone closer to him, ignoring his sibling. Eventually, the phone gets so far away that I hear, “Hey, I can’t see the phone!”

I’ve been able to solve this problem by having each child have one hand on the phone. Instead of one child controlling the phone, they are sharing control of the phone. This imperceptible pulling between the two children tends to leave the phone nicely spaced between them. You’d think you’d have constant fighting between the two kids — and you do! But the fights are so small that neither kid noticies.

Stories of Great Product Managers

Marty Cagan is one of the great Product Management Gurus. His book Inspired is the bible of product managers. Product Management is a field with lots of advice and best practices but light on practical examples. In this talk, Behind Every Great Product (summary here), Marty shows what how great product managers deliver great products. He gives 6 examples of product managers who embody the art and science of Product Management.

Product Management is really about two things: defining what you want the product to be and then executing against it. Jeff Bezos says it’s about being “stubborn on vision and flexible on the details.”

Marty tells the story of 6 great product leaders who are stubborn on vision and flexible on details. They all see a huge opportunity, run into unexpected challenges and manage to come out of it with flying colors.

Take, for example, the story of Kate Arnold. In 1999, Kate was a Product Manager at Netflix. At the time, Netflix was renting DVDs by mail. They were being pummeled by Blockbuster, the industry’s 800 pound gorilla. Kate worked to move Netflix to its first subscription model. While the model worked great, it created a problem because now everyone wanted to borrow the newest (and expensive to Netflix) movies, putting Netflix in the red. So Kate needed to convince people to watch some older movies. She created classic features like recommendations and queuing that got people to watch a mix of both old and new movies they loved, making them happy and allowing Netflix to stay profitable.

How to Avoid Losing Things at the Airport

I was travelling today, having a quick breakfast in Charlotte, NC, before heading into to work. When I left the hotel room, I had a roller bag with me. I finished breakfast and started heading to work. A minute later my phone rang.

“You forgot your bag at breakfast,” said the super nice Charlotte woman. I went back the 50 feet and picked up my bag.

This reminded me of the most useful travel tip that I know:

  1. Always make sure that your luggage tag has your cell phone on it.
  2. Stick a business card onto your laptop (with your cell phone on it). This is mainly for security at the airport. It’s easy to forget that you’ve taken your laptop out of your bag when you’re in a rush to catch a flight. And if you do remember, it’s easy to accidentally pick up someone else’s laptop.

Bonus trivia of the day! On an airplane, I always hear them talking about “Putting your rollerboard bags in the overhead compartment.” I just learned that the pilot is saying “roll aboard” not “rollerboard.” Now that makes much more sense.

Technology Through the Generations OR What Do You Mean by “Film?”

Alan Kay said, “Technology is anything invented after you were born.” While that makes sense intuitively, it’s hard to see in real life. To make this more tangible let me take you back 8 years.

It was early 2010 and we were in Key West for Jeff and Debbie Katersky‘s wedding. Debbie’s niece Carly was about 8 at the time and was given a single use film camera to take pictures at the wedding. This was her first experience with a film camera.

“How do I know what I’m taking a picture of?” Carly asked, pointing to the back of the screen.

“You look through this viewfinder right here,” I said.

“OK…” said Carly, squinting to look through the viewfinder. “But how do I see the pictures once I’ve taken them?”

“You won’t be able to see the pictures. They’re stored inside the camera,” I said.

“Oh, so they get emailed automatically?” she says, excited that she’s starting to understand things.

“No. They don’t get emailed. They stay on the film in the camera. Then between each picture, you have to turn the knob at the top to wind the film.”

“Why do you have to do that?” she asked, thoroughly puzzled.

“Because all the pictures are stored on film, which then needs to be developed. Because of the film you need to be very careful not to open up the back or all the pictures will be destroyed,” I said.

“So that means they get deleted?” she says as she starts opening the camera.

“No! Don’t do that!” I yelled, running to stop her. “They won’t get deleted. If you open up the back all the pictures will be ruined!”

Carly made it through the wedding taking her pictures. And like all photographers with film cameras, she got 1 or 2 good shots on her roll of 24.

You Can’t Do Everything Online OR I Have a Great PowerPoint on How to Swim

I was looking online and saw an ad for Master Class, an online site that has celebrities like Steve Martin teaching you comedy and Annie Leibovitz teaching you photography. It seemed interesting. And then I saw:

And I lost all hope that this was a good idea. Here’s why.

A few years ago I had this guy working for me, let’s call him Jim. Jim was a wonderful worker and would always present the most important information at our meetings. His one problem was that he wasn’t a dynamic speaker. This wasn’t a big problem.  I’m at a big company and we have public speaking classes. I myself had learned how to be a better speaker at this company. So I called HR.

“I want to get some public speaking training for Jim. Maybe he could take a public speaking class? I took one last year,” I asked.

“We don’t offer that anymore,” she said.

“You don’t offer the class anymore? What do you have instead?” I asked.

“We have decided to move to more online training. The world is moving to much more of a ‘training-on-demand’ culture — like YouTube. We have a number of online classes that teach you how to speak in public from the basic to the advanced level.”

“You realize that public speaking is something you need to practice,” I said. “It’s not something you can learn from a book.”

Crickets.

I learned that there was a Toastmasters group at work that met informally and told Jim to join that instead.

When I told a co-worker this story, he said that it’s like saying “You don’t know how to swim? I have this fantastic PowerPoint deck on swimming. Once you read it just jump into the deep end of the pool. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”

Pictures at Weddings OR Experience the Moment Don’t Capture It

I just left a wedding and I saw the most amazing thing. The bride and groom made sure that people were not going to take pictures during the wedding. It’s mixing enormous amount of sense because:

  1.  They will be taking the world’s worst pictures of the bride and groom.
  2.  It’s also distracting to everyone who sits there.
  3. They aren’t really even experiencing the wedding there just spending a lot of time figuring out how to take the best picture.
  4. The bride and groom have hired a professional photographer


This also reminds me of a picture of how people change in the way that they experience life due to mobile phones. When the pope was chosen in 2005 everybody was there actively awaiting the decision. Also it must have been pretty a pretty wonderful experience. Everyone was probably talking to other and being in the moment and just having this wonderful communal excitement. In 2013 when the pope is chosen everybody had their mobile phones out my does it take a picture to post on Facebook. It feels like that moment was memorialized better but at what cost?