U for usability: understanding users

If you work in the tech industry, you might be familiar with the popular buzzword “usability.” Although designers and engineers use this term to evaluate how easy their tools or processes are to learn and use, the strategy for achieving usability can be an abstract mystery.

From the movie Temple Grandin

Here’s the most vivid way I can describe usability in action: in the movie Temple Grandin, the titular character crawls through a claustrophobic tunnel on a ranch where cows are prodded and dipped in pesticide to eradicate ticks. She experiences firsthand the ways in which the tunnel violates cows’ natural instincts, scaring them with glints of lights and unnatural direction changes. Later, Grandin redesigns a slaughterhouse to account for their natural sense of direction, and the cows are gently guided to their deaths. They get a dignified ending, and people can enjoy high-quality beef from relaxed cows.

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T for Teacher – tireless devotion to truth

I didn’t become a school teacher for a couple reasons: I lose my voice quickly when I talk a lot, and I’m drained by interacting with people all day. I discovered these weaknesses as I did peer tutoring throughout elementary, middle, and high school in reading, math, and music. Looking back, it’s remarkable that my school trusted me, a sixth grader, to help third graders with their education. But I was also learning how rewarding it was to share my knowledge with others, with empathy and patience.

I learned that just because you excel at a subject doesn’t mean you can teach it. Teaching is a communication challenge in many ways- I’ve had to yell over the sound of rambunctious children banging on percussion instruments and convince cynical teenagers why they should care about a book. I take the success and failures of other people personally, even though I don’t have total control over how they perform on tests or day-to-day tasks.

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S for Space: staying surprised by science

Outer space is like a childhood friend I rarely keep in touch with. We were first acquainted when I did a report in elementary school on Mae Jemison, the first African American woman in space. My family and I then visited John F. Kennedy Space Center in Florida and returned with a space obsession. We watched Apollo 13 and built a model rocket together. I sunk myself into research about space exploration and astronomy.

Years later, I barely read news about NASA or SpaceX beyond a cursory glance. I never dreamed of being an astronaut, so my career path didn’t take me near aerospace engineering or hard science fields. Yet society sends me reminders to stay curious space exploration. My company’s meeting rooms are named after space missions like “Hubble” and “Apollo.” The Tech Museum in San Jose features a fun space exhibit. Movies like Interstellar, The Martian, and Hidden Figures tell superb stories about astronauts and mathematicians.

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R for Roads: in recognition of roaming

One of my favorite routes in the Bay Area is the Pacific Highway west of San Francisco. The blinding ocean and wind-swept trees flash by your windows as you wind through rugged cliffs. The drive is the perfect reminder that a journey can be as enjoyable as the destination, and that roads really are the lifeblood of human civilization.

Many famous roads like the Silk Road or Oregon Trail changed the course of history by connecting people and places. Some roads are famous destinations themselves: Champs-Élysées in Paris, the Scottish Royal Mile in Edinburgh, and the curvy, flowery Lombard Street in San Francisco.

Our roads reflect the culture of the time period we live in. A popular running joke in movies and TV shows – from La La Land to SNL skits – makes fun of the way daily traffic jams have reduced urban Californian roads to rage-inducing battlefields. While the shared misfortune gives frustrated commuters something to bond over, it’s a sign that highway infrastructure in many areas hasn’t kept up with increasing population. We also have the uniquely modern problem of dodging fellow drivers who have their eyes glued to their phones.

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Q for queens: quintessential qualities of modern royalty

A crown you can buy on Amazon

“I was born to rule the Seven Kingdoms,” proclaimed Daenerys Targaryen in season 7 of Game of Thrones, “and I will.” Watching a petite young woman gain power, especially in a fantasy world full of traditional rules about European royalty, is a strange but exhilarating experience. Thankfully, the idea of women in positions of power has been increasingly popular in our modern media and culture.

Although traditional queens have mostly been replaced by presidents and prime ministers, our TV and media still reflect our fascination with old-fashioned royalty. The long-lived British queens Victoria and Elizabeth II have their stories told through shows like The Crown and Victoria. We also see stories about women scheming their way to power by winning the favor of the king, like The Other Boleyn Girl.

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P for Percussion: profession turned periphery passion

Graduating with a music major
Graduating with a music major

I started my music career by learning to play the piano like a perfect Asian child. Alas, my parents soon discovered that my first grade self didn’t have the patience to practice alone every day. They signed me up instead for U Music, a percussion ensemble program that promised to teach children life skills along with music skills.

I naturally gravitated towards mallet instruments like marimba, vibraphone, and xylophone that featured piano-like keyboards. I also learned how to play snare drum, bass drum, and concert toms, as well as small instruments like tambourine, shaker, and triangle. I learned how to be precise with my rhythms and musical with my melodies.

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O for Office: oppressive or optimistic?

Photo from the episode “New Slogan”

According to shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation, the office is where people stay for many years, fall in love, and find life-long friends. It’s not a silly idea, since most of us will spend much of our lives at our workplaces. They’re like homes, and for those who work remotely, literally home.

The stereotypical office is a corporate building with cubicle walls and an oppressive, grey atmosphere where people robotically tap at their computers. At least, I get that impression from watching Disney’s Pixar short Inner Workings. I also understand why people often feel trapped at work, since offices are confined spaces in which people must stay for a number of hours.Read More »

N for Nature: nurturing natural urban spaces

Picture by Karen Lin

When I attempt to meditate, I imagine myself standing in a sunny forest, my breath rising and falling like the nearby ocean tide. Nature is the forgotten friend that I turn to for comfort when I’m weary of suburban city life. In these moments, I think about how nature is missing from my daily life.

The best trip I ever took to the wild was a week-long backpacking trip in the New Mexican backcountry. With my crew, I woke at 6 am when the sun was rising, and slept at 10 pm when the sun went down. After returning home to suburbia, I returned to an unhealthy sleeping schedule. Despite having showers and sleeping in a clean bed, I felt depressed to be surrounded again by four walls after returning to civilization.

I wonder if the gap between the two lifestyles needs to be so different. What if we can make nature a daily part of our environment without withdrawing from human society?

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M for Movies: make-believe that matters

Image source

“I became an artist,” Viola Davis proclaimed during her award acceptance speech at the 2017 Oscars, “and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” And though I never took a single drama class, her words resonated with me.

I forgot that I once wanted to be an artist myself- either a creative writer or musician. But the thought of choosing the arts as a “career” conjured up pictures of low wages and endless rejections, like what Emma Stone’s character experienced in La La Land. After all, only a select few of us become celebrities, while the rest get day jobs.

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L for Languages: my love for learning linguistics

Gorgeous language family tree by Minna Sundberg

Knowing multiple languages is like a superpower. You can decode other people and smash through language barriers. Ideally, I would collect as many languages as possible.

Unfortunately, learning and retaining a new language is a time-consuming task. Even with all the tech tools we have at our disposal, including DuoLingo, YouTube, and Google Translate, fluency is easiest to obtain when we’re immersed in a place where the language is constantly used and contextualized. Multilingualism is our reward for traveling to unfamiliar places.

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