User Experiences That Changed Where I Spend My Money

Lots of people think about Human-Computer Interaction as something that just adds a thin veil of “prettiness” on top of existing services — something that you worry about once you have the novel tech working, if there’s time. But, actually HCI is about conceiving and creating a user experience. HCI can help you decide what you should actually build, not just how it should look. And that’s not just a veneer, it really changes what people do. I wanted to share four user experiences that changed where I spend my money.

Tracking my pizza? That's a game-changer right there!

Tracking my pizza? That’s a game-changer right there!

Domino’s online ordering system:  While taste-wise, Domino’s pizza is basically the same as Papa John’s or other competitors, their ordering interface keeps me coming back again and again. I love being able to see the stage of my pizza’s creation, I love being able to see the name of the person working on my pie, and I LOVE being able to send an encouragement to the team like “You are my pizza heroes!” Honestly, I don’t even know if they see those, but just the experience of being able to think about my pizza-providers as real people with names and motivations changes my relationship to my pizza!

Dropbox helps me "cloudify"  other programs and removes the step of uploading the most recent copy of my CV.

Dropbox helps me “cloudify” other programs and removes the step of uploading the most recent copy of my CV.

Dropbox: Dropbox was the original cloud-storage service that worked right inside my file system. There are so many things I love about this approach. First of all, because I can now just put any program folder into the Dropbox hierarchy, I can easily “cloudify” all sorts of programs such as my Zotero library and my Eclipse workspace. Many of these now provide their own storage options, but it’s so much easier to just use one service for all of my storage needs! Also, I love the “public folder” that lets me have public links to certain documents. I keep my CV there so I get to skip the step of uploading it to this page every time something changes. Now, other services, like Google Drive provide similar applications and ways of interacting with my data, but Dropbox was the original, so they still have my loyalty and moneys.

amazonprime_hybrid._V164021527_ Amazon Prime: provides free 2-day shipping and online content for an annual fee. I’m usually very resistant to anything that has a recurring fee, but I gave in to Amazon Prime because I order enough stuff online for work alone to make it worthwhile. Now, I’m finding myself buying things online that I’ve never bought before. Tahini for my homemade hummus? Easier to find online than in the store. The latest season of Downton Abbey? Well, since I saw the last two seasons for free on Prime and I REALLY need to know what happens next… The combination of the UX idea of 1-Click shopping (okay, I agree that it’s not really a fair thing for them to patent, but it’s still a good idea) and the business idea of free online content / free shipping really changed how and what I buy online.

imagesDepositing checks through a mobile phone: The first bank to offer online check deposits was USAA, but many others soon followed. Today, it is simply a non-negotiable banking need for me. I will not bank with any bank that doesn’t let me do that. PayPal is particularly a leader in online handling of money, supporting easy transfer of money between individuals (say, to pay my share of the rent), depositing checks online, and paying for just about anything. Since I don’t actually pay them for these services, they don’t fit with the theme of this blog. But, I bank with Ally and ING specifically because both of them support online deposits and that IS a way that the experience of being able to deposit checks through my phone has changed where I put my money.

What all of these transformative user experiences share in common is that they’re not about “usability” or color of the buttons or layout of the page or anything else that can be A/B tested. They are about combining common technological capabilities (none of these are cutting-edge technology) and good business practices in a way that supports me in how I already do thing (Dropbox, Mobile Check Deposit) and how I don’t even know yet I want to be doing things (Amazon Prime, Domino’s Pizza). And that’s what HCI is actually all about, whether in your company it goes by the name of design, marketing, or UX.

Doing Less

On the same day, two similar friends shared two very different articles on Facebook. One talks about how you should embrace your inner workaholic by working more and the other one talks about how you should chill out more and rest more. Though at first these might appear contradictory, it’s interesting that both of these articles are trying to get me to do MORE of something.

Wait? So, if I do more work, I need to do more life to balance the scales?

Wait? So, if I do more work, I need to do more life to balance the scales?

This kind of made me think about an insight from the Michael Pollan book In Defense of Food. He made the point that government food guidelines always tell Americans to eat more of stuff rather than less of anything (e.g., instead of “eat less red meat,” it was “choose meats that will reduce your saturated fat intake”). As a result, we are the least healthy country, but one that worries about health the most. Work-life balance might be heading in this direction too: we are told to work MORE, relax MORE, exercise MORE, spend MORE time with family, cook MORE, etc. Even the most common metaphor used to convey work-life balance, the scale, suggests that if we do MORE of one thing, the way to become balanced is to do MORE of another thing. Are we going to become the most stressed country that worries the most about work-life balance? (Are we already?)

I think it might make more sense to think of work-life balance as a diversified portfolio or a balanced meal. Sure, work is good for you, like vegetables! If you’re not doing any at all, you’re probably in trouble. But if all you’re eating is asparagus, that’s probably some sort of a fad diet and it’s not gonna work out either. Bodies can thrive under different diets, but everybody also has to make trade offs — you can’t just eat MORE of everything. In that spirit, I will share the things that I will do less:

  • Sitting with my computer in my lap — it’s too comfy and somehow gets me to the weirdest corners of the Internet at the oddest hours of the night, which leads to the next thing…
  • Hitting snooze — not actually restful, just delays the inevitable
  • Thinking about email — I spend more time NOT answering email (you know, reading it, thinking about it, checking it while out and about) then I do answering it. I’m going to try to the “touch each email once” approach for a bit and see how it goes.

Maybe the old tradition of giving up something for Lent is more on the money than the new tradition of doing more of everything? If you did LESS of something in your life, what would it be?

Phoneman Sense

Recently, I got to spend a week learning how to be a phoneman (let’s just pretend that this is gender neutral). It’s a long story, but every member of research at AT&T Labs is expected to also pick up an essential trade within the company and get trained to be able to perform one of these core services. These training sessions are done by experienced AT&T employees who have been at the company for decades and can impart on us some of what they term as “phoneman sense.”

I section of the cable that runs under the ocean. For scale, imagine that I only come up to the second silver band.

A section of the cable that runs under the ocean.

My favorite part of the training was getting a much better idea of how data is actually transmitted around the world. I am now convinced that the communication network is the most ambitious endeavor attempted by humans: more reliable than the power grid, stretching across the world and even into the orbit, and maintained by hundreds of thousands (millions?) of individuals world-wide. The thing that really blew my mind was thinking about how much data can be transmitted over a single cable. In the beginning, there was just a pair of copper cables: your voice was sampled on one side, each sample converted to a number, and the number was sent as binary code over the wire by varying the voltage. Easy-peasy! This is known as a DS0 connection and it transmits 64 Kb/s. But it didn’t stop there, once the wires come out of your house, somehow data from all the phones in your neighborhood needs to be combined to be sent to the central office. This is done by taking a byte off each wire and multiplexing them.

In training, I got to get decked out in all the safety gear that I would wear for working with batteries and other hazards.

In training, I got to get decked out in all the safety gear that I would wear for working with batteries and other hazards.

Combining 24 DS0 connection in this way, makes your standard DS1 connection which transmits 1.5 Mb/s. At this point, the connection is frequently no longer transmitting over a wire but rather through an optical cable, by flashing a laser light for 1s and not flashing it for 0s. At this point, I was already pretty impressed — doing anything 1,500,000 times per second just seems like a big deal. But, it doesn’t stop there. Three DS3s (and some info bits wrapping the data) are combined into an OC-3 connection,12 DS3s are combined into an OC-12, and so on until you have the OC-192 which transmits 192 DS3s by flashing a laser 9,953,000,000 times a second! Over a single cable that’s thinner than a human hair! Maybe I’m too easy to impress, but this totally blew my mind! I can’t even wrap my head around that number, let alone imagine doing something purposeful that many times a second. And this is happening every single moment in your back yard!

It’s pretty cool to potentially be part of this, even as a tiny cog in the machine. I learned some good stuff like how to maintain the systems that do all of that multiplexing and maintain service in a power outage by hooking up generators and maintaining the batteries at remote terminals. It really makes me appreciate all of the stuff that goes on behind the scenes to make sure that I always have access to my lolcats.