Ghost in the Pixel

Uday Gajendar's musings on interaction design

Empathizing with engineering

Empathy is an essential element for practicing good design which delivers value for an intended audience or market. To design effectively is to design with a committed sense of deep awareness and care for the that audience’s goals, needs, concerns…from awful frustrations to joyful delights, and everything in between.  

This point is also true, when it comes to designing with a cross-functional team, through the conduit of a shared, common purpose. Empathy is a necessary factor in building key relationships and understanding divergent perspectives that enable a kind of dynamic, creative tension for the whole team’s benefit, towards realization of that purpose. Ultimately it is a human quality that creates social adhesion for fostering trust, engagement, and camaraderie, particularly when arduously working through the most intractable or contentious problems along the way. It all comes down to respect and willingness to see “the other side”, so as to arrive at feasible compromise and viable alternatives that meet everyone’s goals.

This is not easy, in the slightest! Empathy takes hard work, patience and practice, especially when trying to gauge the emotional or philosophical tenor of an inscrutable colleague— or at least an agreeable colleague speaking obtusely ;-)

So how to foster empathy with engineering? Following are some articles that I’ve been reading up to grok engineering principles and practices. To help me truly deeply understand where they are coming from, what their issues and challenges are, what are those fundamental matters that keeps them up. My hope is that by doing this I can be a better designer and foster more team success going forward.


Principles of High Performance Programming:
Coding Principles Every Engineer Should Know:
How Doctors Learn:
User Centered IT:
Understanding DevOps:
Empathy allows ops engineers to appreciate the importance of being able push code quickly and frequently, without a fuss. It allows developers to appreciate the problems caused by writing code that’s fat, or slow, or insecure. Empathy allows software makers and operators to help each other deliver the best possible functionality+operability on behalf of their customers.

Operations cares about code and about the customer experience:

  • If the servers and network are all up, and the disks have plenty of free space, but the blog-platform commenting feature doesn’t work, then the site can’t be considered “available”
  • Ops engineers help designers and developers understand the operational implications of UX and application design decisions.
In the cloud, operational excellence is a fundamental part of what the software vendor is selling. Operational excellence implies more than just scalability, availability, and security. Part of the benefit of having vendor-operated software is immediate access to software updates. Operational excellence thus includes the rapidity, and quality, of the software release process.
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Yes, Google “gets” design!

As of this writing towards the end of June 2014, it’s become increasingly evident that Google is now no longer that odd, awkward techie maladroit at the party with funny copycat socks, but has significantly evolved into a savvy agent of design craft (see “Kennedy” and “Material”) and cultural value (see cars, shopping, weepy ads). Who woulda thunk it?? But it’s true and it’s real. It’s time to cast aside former assumptions and acknowledge that Google is now a true force for well-considered, beautifully articulated design in the world. And as a field, we are much better for it, through the ongoing contest of ideas and philosophies pushing & pulling at each other…enabling innovation as well as emergent vanguards for taste and quality.

More specifically, coming out of Google I/O, the new “Material” design language & system represents the latest shift towards a sophisticated, systematic statement of design grounded in a pervasive and integrated metaphor of “material”, across platforms and services. Whether “pixels” are indeed a bonafide “material” is discussion for another time ;-) Yet, the vision is literally and conceptually all coming together as a unified whole with a unifying aesthetic amplified by subtle motion and refined typography. For some designers in the field, this suggests a worthy competitive difference to Apple’s iOS design language, with even more defined clarity and focus. 

// More info here:

Google Material style guide:

Material Design Principles overview:

Professional designers’ reactions to Material:

And before Material there was Kennedy, which was Google’s initial big company-wide push for a well-defined aesthetic, thanks in part to Larry Page’s executive call:


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Current headspace: data viz tactics!

Having been at a Big Data analytics startup for over 3 months now, I’ve been deep diving into a whole range of tools that enable the clear, swift, vivid articulation of complex datasets in a meaningful manner, with craft and integrity. It’s an astoundingly broad, diverse field of opportunity, from pre-fab templates to custom data-driven graphics programming toolkits. While I still rely upon pen sketching and pixel editors to “flare out” diverse ideas for high fidelity interpretations, the new models of computational graphics and web prototyping tools lend an inspirational factor worth indulging quite a bit. 

Following are some relevant links worth perusing to augment one’s understanding of this area. Enjoy!

** Data-driven graphics: Involution Studios product designer Ben Salinas gave this fantastic talk about designing with real data to arrive at highly accurate visualizations that elicit exact user feedback, not just fake mockups.  

Salinas highlights specific tools that you can easily (and freely) use to scrape real data, generate into a format that you can poke & prod via interactive prototyping:

** Data viz toolkits: A few others that I’ve been looking closely lately include the following:

** Web prototyping tools: Quite a few new tools have appeared on the scene, def worth checking out to empower your ability to create something interactive and “real” for user feedback:

** Responsive grid systems: As I get into building out the revised vision for our product, I want to ensure a scalable flexible layout for various device screens, to be modern and progressive. To help me I’ve been looking at the following:

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Oh, SillyCon Valley…

I’ve been a designer in this area dubbed “Silicon Valley” for over 12 years now, having worked at a variety of firms including corporate, agency, and now at a startup. I had arrived fresh out of grad school with the simple intent to gather just enough experience and then move on to other places of innovation and design goodness, to advance and round out my professional foundation. Indeed, even my graduate advisor Dick Buchanan gently admonished me, “Don’t stay there too long. I wonder if there’s enough soul.” Rather ominous, right? Hmm, looking back on those words and reflecting upon my own long career here, I admit starting to feel that general sentiment: a melange of disconnection, desolation, and despair even. Ugh. What’s happened? Is it simply boredom and burnout? Perhaps it’s something deeper…

Now of course, there’s no question SV is a fantastic place for “Design”: the incredible mix of companies, people, colleges, networking events, cosmopolitan vibe, diverse food and drinks galore, variety of non-work cultural activities and outdoor options, etc. Tons of places for creativity and productivity. Career & education options abound for any designer with aspirations. There’s no place like it anywhere. 

However, there’s something else afoot, an insidious aspect that undermines all that I (and we as designers, I might add) enjoy and partake. It’s hard to put any one word to it, but there’s multiple aspects to it, which I’ll try to itemize here:

— Echo-chamber of living in the self-created tech bubble: Yes we get these cool services piloted or launched here —and nowhere else— but there’s an over-emphasis on their importance and utility, in (dis) proportion to other regions, since nobody else has them. We doth rejoice in our own bounty a bit too much.

— Male-dominant tech geek culture: I’ve seen some pretty tasteless male-driven prezos at start-up events. We’ve all seen the overtly sexist apps and features. We need more women tech leaders (and inspire young women/girls to get involved in tech & science), and it’s happening for sure! Got to do better.

— Premium value placed on “silly” toy apps for extremely limited market samples (i.e., the white hipster crowd with no real problems): Yo? Yo. Yo! Oy.

— Greedy get rick quick culture of rapid serial returns, no matter how silly the “app” or “service”. Not being naive, I realize this is inherent to VC calculus and approach. Can we simply not be so hubristic and obvious about it? Stay classy.

— Billions upon billions upon billions: For what, a texting app? For a pair of headphones? For a thermostat? Let’s get real folks. Feels like a Banana Republic of Monopoly money, of which denizens like me see nothing despite working long hours on, ahem, solving real complex problems around virtual infrastructure, for instance ;-)

— Problems of extreme housing “value”, socio-economic distortions and displacements, busing the “techies”, etc. 

And I could go on, but there’s clearly something less-than-positive here. These next few articles hit upon related issues more capably than I can, and are worth several minutes of deep reading and thoughtful reflection. 

// More info here:

** Time for Silicon Valley to disrupt itself (i.e., culture):

** Doing better than “Yo”:
** Going beyond Silicon Valley, brief video feat Steve Case, AOL’s legendary founder:
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Notes from Tufte Advanced Course

I recently attended this all-day event led by Edward Tufte. However, unlike the usual seminar with Tufte sermonizing the scholastic principles of information design (with a free book set for attendees), this event featured three other speakers beyond Tufte, who simply spoke at the very end! Entitled “See, Think, Design, Produce”, this “advanced course” involved a veritable rockstar lineup: Jonathan Corum, Bret Victor, Mike Bostock. Tufte concluded with a short lecture on his new book “The Thinking Eye”. Below are my main notes, condensed from all four talks. Enjoy!

- Seeing is about pattern recognition and learning new patterns. It must be practiced over time to develop the sensitivity to see “what’s possible” and “find what’s more than what’s available.”

- Sketching is visual problem solving, a method of probing and finding a clear thought. Once you find it, then communicate that “aha” moment.

- When designing, you must consider someone else. Don’t be your audience, instead you must break from your inner echo-chamber or bubble. Beyond empathy, you must remember how not to understand something, then reverse explain something intelligibly.

- Anticipate confusion and help the reader/viewer navigate through your solution. Through the combined efforts of understanding and explanation you should respect the user.

- “Good design is clear thinking made visible.” — Edward Tufte (ET)

- Too much of publicly applauded design is really empty facades of communication without actual real meaning and value. (“Pretty” vs “Beauty”)

- When producing the designs, embrace the limitations to arrive at truly novel solutions (innovation). Keep honing and refining the idea by ruthlessly applying “common sense”.

- Understanding, elegance, and beauty are emergent qualities that result from clarity, empathy, and simplicity.

- Consider the amplifying power of dynamic displays and dynamic content: visual cues, transitions to show change, jolt the user with new expectations, animate to show orientation, preserving context while clarifying data, adjustable elements to understand consequence of change (this is all via Bret Victor’s demos)

- Shift your thinking about graphics from “nouns” (geometry) to “verbs” (physics): from data objects with edges and vertices to transformations and consequences for continual interaction. (shaping a dialogue between user and data via interaction)

- Design is fundamental a “search problem”: like a maze unfolding in real-time and you’re trying to find your way through that maze to the “right” exit. You’re searching for the solutions while simultaneously grasping the contours of the problem space and audience needs.

- As a designer you’re constantly in a state of creating and editing, thus compounding the challenge of what it means to design something elegant and understandable with value.

- “The Thinking Eye” has a taste for excellence and searches forever for knowledge. Serenity is the condition in which all brainpower is devoted to this “Thinking Eye”.

- “Design is now code. Code is design”— Edward Tufte


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