February 22, 2020

A temporary flâneur

For the last few days my bike has been in the shop getting fixed.

While I wait for her return, I’ve had to make do with my legs.

On Friday I walked from The Presidio to Hayes Valley. I trailed along Geary Boulevard for a few blocks (a man shopping for underwear on his laptop at a cafe) before cutting south past lone mountain (teenagers shouting and running off a bus), and weaving through NOPA (an old dog doesn’t want to walk down the stoop stairs). I stopped and bought a six-pack, and caught the sunset in Alamo Square park. About 40 minutes of walking all up.

On Saturday, I took a shorter stroll through the Fillmore to Japantown to get a zipcar and back again to Hayes Valley. My Apple Watch was delighted with all these steps.

I would pause before saying San Francisco is walkable, because that’s very subjective. I don’t know if it’s that fun to walk around SF, but it’s doable, compared to other American cities. Although it’s hilly, the key is the density and relatively small surface area. It’s crammed in the head of a peninsula and is surrounded by water, so it can’t sprawl. I can’t see myself strolling around Dallas.

Here are a few observations, mainly comparisons to cycling, my preferred form of transport.

  1. It’s pretty slow. Compared to cycling, or driving, it can feel a bit painful to plug in a destination into google maps and see 50 minutes’. In San Francisco, you can drive or ride across the entire city in under 30 minutes. Dogpatch to Marina, Richmond to the Mission etc.

  2. It made me realize cycling is much more like driving. I’m rarely looking around much when I ride through the city, I’m usually just focused on where I’m going.

  3. The footpath is more personal than the road. San Francisco is weirdly suburban. A lot of the city is just houses, and they are crammed together and very close to the street. So you find yourself walking past people washing their cars, cleaning out their garages, letting their dogs out to walk. I don’t notice that stuff cycling.

  4. I notice shops and retail more. I read chalkboard signs, peer inside window displays. I saw this great nail salon that was vividly painted in primary colors. A meditation center. A new brewery. A bike shop with amazing posters from the early 2000’s. That sort of thing.

  5. I find myself looking at the architecture. I have almost zero vocabulary to describe what I’m seeing, but my heart tells me it’s not good.

  6. You feel more exposed walking. If it was night, I would feel less safe than on two wheels. You also just feel more visible. There’s a quiet noticing’ of others passerby’s on the street, whereas on the bike you whizz by and are quite invisible, unless at the red light. In New York (sigh), this is such a vivid part of your life, and people have devoted careers documenting the people they see on the street in NYC.

Unfortunately, in San Francisco, it’s pretty mundane, and quiet – You can walk blocks in some neighborhoods without seeing anyone, but there’s always something to see.

February 9, 2020

cow Is this the right place for me?”

I’m always thinking about the future.

It’s something that feels urgent for me to know.

The fact that I can’t, and never will be able to, no matter what I do today, is a constant source of anxiety and frustration.

Sometimes I force the future, in a brute force way. I can quit a job. I can break up a relationship. I can say yes to a new opportunity.

I know not everyone thinks this way, thank god, but I’m constantly worrying about the future’. And that means, I’m never really present. Every decision I make is concerned with a trickle down effect.

But it’s too much pressure to worry about this stuff. Money, job growth, relationships.

Especially, the big questions like will I live here in 4 years time” - that one is like my arch nemesis. In scope, it is gigantic. These are mountains, and have little to do with your day to day, or hour to hour.

It’s like you’re sitting in a cafe with a good friend, laughing, drinking lovely coffee, but all the while squinting out the window, into the distance, at a storm cloud very far away.

Whether that mindset sets you up for a better future’ whatever that is, it totally ruins the present movement with pre-occupation. It’s actually a trade-off. But with basically no upside.

It’s important to stay focused on the present.

Another reason I find myself in this windless state, is because I’m not a strong planner. I have never made a 1 year, 5 year plan and stuck with it.

I think it’s fair to say:

  • It helps to have some basic idea of where you what you want to do.
  • It helps to be focus the majority of your time in the present.

The fact that these are radically different things, is what makes it hard. I’m not good at either, so my strategy is to focus on one at a time.

Here’s an example of just zeroing in on being present.

Imagine you love making bread. You love the smell. The method. The taste. The satisfaction of it coming out of the oven perfectly.

So that’s what you should focus on. At least for a while.

Yes there are still things to work on, but they should more or less be in the background.

There is not end goal to the bread. It’s just bread.

You do not need to know what your life looks like in the future in order to make bread.

January 18, 2020

The Hourglass

Have you ever felt like a major shift in time?

We often think about holidays or certain time periods that feel a long time ago” or went by so quick”, but recently I’ve been noticing this happen in the present moment too.

The best way to describe it is a sense that I have lost the ability to accurately predict the time of tasks. I give myself 10 minutes’ to do something, and all of a sudden 15 minutes has gone by. It’s not a huge difference, but it adds up.

For me, the hourglass feels like it’s been smashed and is leaking sand out in numerous directions.

Am I becoming slower? Is everything around me speeding up? Am I more focused on tasks, so that I don’t notice it?

My number one feature request for life right now is a pause button. Let me pause everything, just for 30 minutes.

January 4, 2020

The Courage To Be Disliked

You notice only your shortcomings because you’ve resolved to not start liking yourself.”

At the end of 2019, I shaved off most of my hair. It sounds like a straightforward thing to do, and for many men, something no more important than shaving their chin, or taking out the rubbish. But for me, it was a bit more complicated than that.

For most of my life, I didn’t notice my hair, until someday I did. As a baby it was ginger and wispy, as a kid brown and mousy and once puberty kicked in it got curly.

But I became fixated with it, and most of all, worried what other people thought of it. I spent too long brushing it, staring at it in mirrors, adding product to it, washing it, not washing it. There was never any real end goal, just fleeting moments where it didn’t look ugly and bad. Why I cared about looking ugly and bad’ was something I never thought about, just something to avoid – or to become preoccupied and fearful about.

My hair always caused me more stress than happiness, yet as I hit my mid 20’s, a new fear crept into the mix. Losing my hair altogether. Baldness was the ultimate thing to worry about. There would not be a bad’ hair day, or bad’ shampoo that left my follicles limp and lifeless, but every day would be a recurring nightmare. A bald head staring back at me.

It happens gradually, and with my panic levels through the roof, a few extra hairs in a comb were enough for me to cover my scalp with hats and beanies. Searching for a new look that I would need to stick to for the rest of my life. Maybe I could shower and sleep with a beanie on, and no one would ever think or ask about what was going on beneath the surface. Not long after, I read an article that hats SPEED UP baldness, due to stifling the oxygen, so I was left with my back to the wall. Again, not a lot of long term thought goes into these bizarre anxieties.

My hairline was the next frontier of worry. I was constantly patrolling it, with covert brushes with my hand and with especial caution when it was wet, and the hideous truth would become apparent to all.

When I did need a haircut, I felt a sickening dread – I believed only my barber knew my dark truth, that I was going to be bald. And maybe this time, he would finally throw down his scissors and say I can’t do this anymore!”. Like a confidential informant who couldn’t take the pressure, or a scientist asked to solve an impossible problem in 30 minutes. But, as he brought out the hot towel, there was always enough’ hair left on my head. With my ego intact, I would shake his hand (this time I’m thinking of Vlad, a Russian barber in Manhattan), and pretend like there was never any doubt about my hair. I had a healthy head, I was in great shape, and I’ll be back in a month! I practically skip out, searching around on the street for admirers of my new cut.

I never really stopped to think a few years ahead, to the actually reckoning. I pretended like it wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I’d still be spraying some sort of sea salt and weaving in some high tech pomade in 2040.

Of course, you see this sort of delusion all the time. Combovers that resemble modern art. Blonde spiderwebs stretching over a red raw desert of a scalp. But those guys were never me, I was different.

Once in a while, with people I felt comfortable around, I might say something like, yeah, I’ll probably just shave it off.” I didn’t mean it, but it felt like the right thing to say. Casual, cool, calm. Like I’d never had any anxiety, or never felt self conscious. Like my hair wasn’t part of my identity, and I wouldn’t spiral into homelessness and ruin without it.

But one day, I did actually mean it. And the next minute, I was sitting in the chair, quite confident, and asking for a… How do you put it? I start explaining the way my hair works, the intricate details. The part line, the curls, how it looks today, how it usually looks. The expression on the hairdresser tells me a more important truth, she’s only looked at my hair for 20 seconds and it’s entirely unremarkable. She doesn’t feel my pain, she doesn’t know the journey leading up to this point. I sigh, and just ask for the clippers. How anticlimactic.

She must have seen the fear in my eyes, because before the blades are plunged past the point of no return, she says absentmindedly, here we go” and grimaces (well, I think she grimaced a little). I see my face go white and my mind races forward a few days. All the hairdressers and customers have stopped to gawk. They are laughing and pointing. One older woman has gone green and is about to throw up at the sight of my head. At work, I’ve been fired, since no one can sit across a table from me, and my own family won’t answer my phone calls. The hairdresser is crying and apologizing, I’ll get a refund she assures me, just please leave and don’t come back.

Alright, all done.” Her voice brings me back to reality, and my new head. I pay, walk out, and go back to my life.

I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting. Maybe I would be escorted into a room filled with other newly shaved, balding men and given a powerpoint presentation on the history and road ahead. Would I need to wear sunscreen on my scalp, will people treat me differently. What new celebrity role models will I need? Do I need to change how I dress too? Should I use a different dating app? Do I need to update all my old hairy internet avatars? So many questions left unanswered.

Since there’s only a few tiny 2’ on the clipper lengthed hairs on my head, I can’t do anything. Shampoo does nothing, it looks the same when it’s dry and wet. There’s no hair peeking out of a beanie. It doesn’t fly in the wind, or look different after a day on the beach. The comb is useless. And forget gels, pomades, waxes and all the other stuff. After my haircut I skipped the sales presentation entirely.

But most of all, the most confronting thing is the fact that other people, will see it. They might like it or dislike it, and that was true of having hair, and a maddening thing to worry about, but with no hair, it is completely out of my control. I have to accept it and be ok with it.

Because the truth, that I’ve never really faced directly or connected with, is this, it doesn’t matter – it has no substantive impact on any real important metric of your life, and should not take up your energy. It took too long for me to hear that, or really understand it.

But do other people really look at you so much? Are they really watching you around the clock and lying in wait for the perfect moment to attack? It seems rather unlikely. A young friend of mine, used to spend a lot of time in front of the mirror arranging his hair. And once, when he was doing that, his grandmother said,”You’re the only one who’s worried how you look.”

He says that it got a bit easier for him to deal with life after that.”

December 21, 2019

A text from Bodley 764 (c.1225-50) neatly describes the cat: This creature is called mouser because he kills mice. The common word is cat because he captures [captat] them … Catus is the Greek word for cunning.’ - London review of books

December 12, 2019

User Overboard

For actual tips, go to User Onboard

Have you considered showcasing MY feature?

Onboarding is a chance to teach new users about the whole product. If it’s unfocused, nearly every product team will want to showcase their feature, action, value etc.

Wait! You’re recreating functionality

It’s a common pattern to recreate functionality so that you can teach a user how to use the product. For example, maybe with Grammarly, they get you to write a sentence so that they can give you suggestions. What do those suggestions look like? Are they illustrations, or are they literally the product. Some argue that if you get too detailed, you might as well drop them into the app already… Which takes me to the next thing.

We should just make the actual product more simple, and designed better.

At this point, onboarding is forgotten about, and the product team starts talking about all their hopes, dreams and aspirations for the core functionality. If only search did this.. If only the home page could do that.

Did you see what Netflix did?

Digital products are always copying each other, that’s how we get better right? Well, if you have a good idea that’s er, not defensible, well you’ll see that quickly spread around. For some reason onboarding seems particularly prone to just doing what X is doing.” Again, without a tight strategy, you are really spinning around with a blindfold on at this point.

Where’s the skip button?

A savage remark, but speaks to a core user need how do I get past this modal?” In many cases, onboarding walkthroughs are so tired, badly written and designed, that it becomes a game of find the next arrow’ and tap as quickly as possible. We see a similar effect on every media website circa 2019. SHOW ME THE RECIPE FOR BAKED SALMON!!

Have you considered the other type of user.

Onboarding struggles to support all user types. Too simplistic, smarter users get no value. Too complex, and the average user never makes it past step 5… Speaking of steps.

The Step Paradigm

In a similar way to just doing what you saw another well designed app’ do, onboarding seems fixated on steps’. I get it, you’re telling a story, you don’t want to overwhelm, but by fixating on steps, and the number and order of them, may be missing the point.

Leaking into the product.

Since onboarding inevitably drops you off somewhere into the app, usually a home page, the two things become very linked. Maybe onboarding never dies’ and lives on as educational tips littered around. There’s no simple way to separate onboarding from the rest of the product. In fact, the more useful onboarding becomes, the more users might say how do I get back to that nice thing at the start?”

The Aha moment

There isn’t one.