Posted by An Xiao Mina
| 3 May 2013
Another day, another design, another multi-hour stretch to focus focus focus on your design work. If you're like me, you vacillate between needing the total silence of an empty studio and the busy-ness of working in a cafe. But what if you need to be in the studio? Perhaps all the cafes are closed, or perhaps you have a few hours before your next meeting, and it doesn't make sense to pop out for a quick cafe work session.
While some studies suggest that background noise can negatively affect concentration, most freelancers I know have found that working in a cafe provides just enough external stimuli to force them to concentrate. While office banter involves people we know, cafe banter is usually done by strangers, and so we're less likely to want to listen in.
Enter Coffitivity, my new favorite web site for those moments when the office is either too quiet or too loud. The site simply recreates the ambient sounds of working in a cafe, that slight murmur of voices and random clinking of glasses that makes a cafe a cafe. They point to a study from the Journal of Consumer Research that suggests the link between creativity and this sweet spot:
We argue that noise distracts people but that the degree of distraction induced by various noise levels will affect creativity differently. A high level of noise may cause a great deal of distraction, causing individuals to process information to a lesser extent and therefore to exhibit lower creativity. A moderate (vs. low) level of noise, however, is expected to distract people without significantly affecting the extent of processing. Further, we reason that such a moderate distraction, which induces processing difficulty, enhances creativity by prompting abstract thinking. We predict, in sum, that a moderate level of noise will enhance creativity relative to both high and low levels of noise.
Posted by An Xiao Mina
| 2 May 2013
Around California, I've been seeing more and more solar panels. Solar panels installed subtly on people's homes. Solar panels on wireless keyboards. Solar panels atop lights. In such a sunny state, these solar panels make perfect sense.
On my return to northern Uganda, I started looking more carefully at the different ways people use new technologies, such as mobile phones and computers. But with an emergent civic infrastructure, access to the electric grid in the region remains limited. So while I was focused on how people used technology, I had to wonder: how do they charge their devices at all?
I soon learned that enterprising citizens in rural northern Uganda often purchase solar panels. They then offer phone charging services at a range of what I observed to be around 400–500 shillings per charge. That's about 20 US cents. The panels themselves, often coming from India and China, can cost as much as 200 US dollars, so it obviously takes a while to pay back that investment. But as one person told me, there is always someone who needs to charge his or her phone. Any freelancer can appreciate the value of a steady gig.
What seemed new to me was a practice already many years old. As I poked around the web to understand the mechanics of solar panels, I came across a 2010 New York Times article talks about solar panels in Kenya:
As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.
Posted by An Xiao Mina
| 20 Feb 2013
Ivan Mworozi delivers the winning pitch for E-Ride, a new mobile rideshare program being developed at Mara LaunchPad. Image courtesy Mara.
It's a busy, buzzing weekend at Mara LaunchPad. Nigel Ball, the director of Mara, is circulating amongst the crowd, as are a half dozen mentors, including myself. It's a scene that would be familiar to any tech observer in New York or San Francisco... but this isn't either city. In fact, it's not even in North America: The first weekend-long Mara Business Hackathon has just begun in Kampala, Uganda.
Mara LaunchPad, operating under the social business Mara Foundation, is one of Kampala's premiere business incubators. Along with other tech-oriented spaces like Hive Colab and the Outbox Hub, Mara offers office space, mentorship and even venture capital to new startups in Uganda. Many of these businesses often focus on new technologies.
Mentors Evelyn Namara and Daniel Stern advise during the busy hackathon. Image by the author.
What made this hackathon different from many of the popular tech events in Kampala was its focus on building a business. Yes, a prototype and good design were key, but what was more important was that teams developed a solid business model and financials—not an easy feat at all, given the dire need for reliable data in the country.
"In 48 hours our idea matured in away that would [normally] have taken us weeks or months," noted Ivan Mworozi. "The access to experts from various fields was invaluable." Indeed, Mworozi cited the mentorship as key. He delivered the hackathon's winning pitch for E-ride, a new service he and four others will be developing to facilitate transportation in the traffic-clogged city.
Observing that an informal system of car sharing already exists, they wanted to streamline that method using mobile technologies: "Lot of cars and trucks were moving around practically empty because they had no way of know[ing] that we were looking for them."
Second place for the hackathon went to MyProperty, a new service being built by Daniel Olel and team. Just as E-Ride addressed an existing problem and practice and streamlined it, MyProperty aims to connect buyers and sellers of properties around Uganda. As Olel, noted, many middle class Ugandans rely on brokers. Anyone looking for an apartment in New York knows how pricey middlemen can be, and Olel's goal is to use MyProperty to cut out the middleman and build trust among buyers and sellers (quite similar to RentHackr, which I reviewed last year).
Posted by An Xiao Mina
| 30 Jan 2013
Core77 Design Awards 2012 Student Notable for Educational Initiatives Retail: Retell. Recycle. Rethink.
In the world of design, the portfolio is paramount, often more central than one's credentials or awards. As a designer myself, I'm more concerned with the work someone has done and is capable of. Some designers I know have found great success without a master's degree, and others with master's degrees still struggle. The reverse is true as well, of course.
I recently stumbled on a blog post from Annie Murphy Paul asking if apprenticeships might be an alternative to college. Here's what Robert Lerman, a professor at American University, had to say:
An apprenticeship is a structured program of work-based learning and classroom-based instruction that leads to certification in an occupation, and it involves a high level of skill demands and it covers many occupations, depending on the country. In our country, we focus more on the skilled trades in construction and in manufacturing, but it can work in many other fields.
Could that include design? With rising tuition rates, the idea of going to college can be daunting. Some professions, like medicine and law, require strong credentials. But others, like design, are more about the portfolio. Are there other ways to develop that portfolio?
The tech world might reveal some examples. A recent New York Times piece looked at one young man, Benjamin Goering, who joined a company without a college degree:
So in the spring of 2010, Mr. Goering took the same leap as Mr. Zuckerberg: he dropped out of college and moved to San Francisco to make his mark. He got a job as a software engineer at a social-software company, Livefyre, run by a college dropout, where the chief technology officer at the time and a lead engineer were also dropouts. None were sheepish about their lack of a diploma. Rather, they were proud of their real-life lessons on the job.
But not everyone is able to just take the leap. We all need training, especially when it comes to the complex ins and outs of design. Should we be seeing more apprenticeships? Should design studios consider offering them? I can imagine they'd be distinct from internships; the connotation of an apprenticeship suggests learning on the job, and not just serving coffee between college classes.
Lerman might agree. Here's what he said in the above-mentioned blog post: "Shouldn't we have space for people who like to learn by doing, who like to combine classroom activity with real employability at the workplace and skill development at the workplace? I think we need both."
Posted by An Xiao Mina
| 28 Jan 2013
In the world of tech design, bigger seems to be better. The more people you can reach, the more you can broadcast, the more successful your app. And yet the root of the mobile phone—or the phone more generally—has always been about one-on-one conversation. It was relatively recently that we could send a blast to more than a few people at a time through apps like Twitter and Foursquare.
Which is why I was intrigued by a recent piece from Jenna Wortham in the New York Times noting what's happened now that our mobile experiences have scaled:
As these media have matured and more of our colleagues, former flings, in-laws and friends have migrated to them, our use of them has changed. We've become better at choreographing ourselves and showing our best sides to the screen, capturing the most flattering angle of our faces, our homes, our evenings out, our loved ones and our trips.
Dubbing this experience "success theater," she goes on to note apps that are designed for more intimacy, like Snapchat or Facebook Poke. After years of being encouraged to gather as many followers and friends as possible, many users are swinging in the opposite direction.
Which got me thinking about two apps that have picked up steam as of late. Both of them—WhatsApp and WeChat—focus on simple sharing for small groups or individuals. You could call them, reductively, complex SMS systems, but what they allow is much broader. From sharing videos and pics to even voice memos, they make facilitate one-on-one exchanges between friends, rather than blasts and curated photos designed for public consumption. The ability to create small groups means that circles of friends can easily chat and share ideas, with all the multimedia features of a Twitter or Facebook and none of the pressure to perform.
WhatsApp seems to be more popular with my American, European and African friends, whereas WeChat, developed by China's Tencent, is clearly dominant in China, and perhaps other parts of Asia. It's not a surprise to me that they've caught on, and I suspect more and more apps like them will start popping up. If the latter decade was focused on scaling up social media and watching sites like Facebook enter the mainstream, maybe this decade is about designing for intimacy, designing for the social experiences we want to share just with a handful of friends.