The Art of Non-Conformity

I’ve been guzzling books lately, both fiction and non-fiction. It’s the non-fiction set that surprises me, as I’ve never really had an interest. That’s what Twitter and blogs are for. But The Art of Non-Conformity has been on my Amazon wishlist since the week it came out, and in a rash book-buying-extravaganza a couple of weeks ago, I received a copy. I just finished reading the last page. Here are my thoughts.

First, from a design perspective, the book is gorgeous. It feels good in your hands with its textured matte cover and raised print title. The branding evokes a sense of the 19th Century with its combination of serif and sans-serif, slab and the like. It just whispers, “I’m going to be a charming read. Take a chance. Pick me up.”

Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy. – Dale Carnegie

The book is peppered with inspiring quotes such as the one I pulled from page 60 of the paperback book. I’m a quote junkie, so point to Mr Guillebeau again. More importantly, this book highlights how a man who didn’t graduate high school managed to graduate with two bachelors degrees and a masters, travel the world (I believe he’s made it to over 100 countries), and start a revolution of people doing what they love and not allowing the naysayers to win.

I needed this book. I’m working full-time, and that’s great, because one of my goals once I graduated grad school was to build up my savings. I’ve almost reached my goal and I haven’t worked a full year yet. I wanted to replace my lemon of a car, Beeker, and I managed to do so without a car payment. I wanted to publish my historical fiction novel that I had put aside in order to do well in graduate school, and I did.

I needed this book to make it explicit to me that I’m already living a non-conforming life. Guillebeau gives the standard tips of not watching as much television, of not checking into social media as often, of getting out into the world and experiencing life. He emphasizes the importance of determining what it is you want out of life, because that is what will help you determine all the other decisions you have to make.

I still don’t know exactly what it is I want out of life. People tell me I have time to figure that out, but I disagree. The sooner I figure out what I want, the sooner I can start making decisions that will get me there. It’s not an end-all-be-all moment, for sure. And what I want out of life could certainly change. Which seems to be the point.

The subtitle of the book is “Set your own rules, live the life you want, and change the world.” It sounds ridiculously optimistic and naive, yet, Guillebeau’s doing it. And I, being a maker as well as a thinker, want to do the same. So thanks, Mr Guillebeau, for inspiring one more person to continue toward the long-tail goal of living the life she wants, whether it fits the norms of society or not.

Putting Yourself Out There

My sister convinced me to do it. Speed dating. It was over a series of texts one evening when I was, I will admit, feeling rather sorry for myself. We signed up a couple of weeks in advance, which gave me plenty of time to bounce between regret, amusement, horror, and curiosity.

Finally, I decided the only way I could reconcile my mind to the idea of speed dating, I would write a report about my experience. This is that report, a week or so after the event.

Social Stigma

There is a stigma against speed dating, much as there is against online dating. The latter’s stigma is losing steam simply because so many people spend a lot of time online in the first place; it’s how they interact with friends and family around the world. It is making more sense to people that they can find a significant other through this method.

Speed dating, I feel, continues to carry a rather heavy stigma because people are portrayed as desperate; the cattle-like shuffling as people switch from table to table, wondering if the next person will be interesting enough to carry a six minute conversation.

Why do it?

Honestly, why not? I am a young professional who keeps herself extremely busy. I’m a workaholic in most facets of my life and very accomplished because of it. The odds of me meeting someone while I’m doing one of my many activities, and them having the guts to speak to me, grows smaller all the time.

You have no idea how often people have told me, “You’re kind of intimidating.” I’ve been hearing this since the 10th grade. Rather annoying, that. So speed dating, I figured, is one way to level the playing field.

The Experience

My sister and I entered the restaurant and were led to a back area that had tables and booths lined up. We were given name tags with a number on it which designated where we should sit, and sheets of paper with numbered rows so we could take notes about the men we spoke to.

The coordinator instructed us to have fun, be open, and use the sheets of paper to remember who we spoke to. I sat down and smiled at my first interviewee.

Which really, when you think about it, that’s all speed dating is: speed interviewing. Within a minute of sitting there asking questions and answering them, I realized that I felt comfortable because this is what I do for a living. As a usability analyst, it is my job to establish a connection with my test participant as quickly as possible so that they feel comfortable critiquing the design I put before them. I’m not testing them, I’m testing the design.

Well, with speed dating, you are testing them, but in a subtle way. How are you doing today? Is this your first time doing this sort of thing? What do you like to do? What is your favorite color? What are your hobbies? What is your job? Your education?

These are factors that I ended up using to determine if this person was…

  1. Interesting
  2. Able to answer questions
  3. Socially awkward (allowing for the environment, of course)
  4. Educated
  5. Someone I would want to continue speaking with later.

I had worked a ten hour day interviewing five participants during 1.5hr sessions. I went straight from work to the event with no time for food. As such, I was still in interview mode. Which paid off quite nicely in that I wasn’t nervous at all. I was awkward, but no more than normal. I admitted this was my first time attending an event like this, and people gave me pointers.

Honestly, it was no more than a two hour extension of my work day. But I wasn’t getting paid for it. Unless you count the idea that I might have met The One that night. Not likely, but a possibility anyway.

At the end of six minutes, the coordinator rang a bell. The gentlemen picked up their coats, drinks, and clipboards and shuffled to the next table. Us women scribbled notes on our sheets of paper, marking down whether we found anyone interesting. There were nine couples there, and by Person 7, I was flagging hardcore. I pushed through, forcing myself to stay smiley and enthusiastic.

By the end, I circled two men who were interesting enough to continue the conversation. I figured I might as well… I had paid to sit there talking to people when, a year ago, I did that sort of thing for free because I was in school and exposed to new people every day. The grad student in me resented the expense even though I could afford it.

Conclusions

Speed dating is not as bad as people make it out to be. I may be thinking this because it’s my job to interview people and make connections. Or because one of my strengths is conversation. Or because I knew I’d get a story out of it, and I’m always looking for new fiction ideas.

Or maybe because my heart wasn’t really in it, but my curious nature couldn’t help but try it out. I didn’t put pressure on myself because I didn’t believe I would meet anyone super interesting. Do you know how difficult it is to be interesting in under six minutes?

And that, I believe, is why people end up distrusting speed dating… six minutes is enough time to determine if you don’t want to continue talking with someone. It’s not necessarily enough time to determine if you do. At best, after six minutes, if you’ve decided this person you’re speaking with isn’t a complete mismatch, bore, etc, all you know is just that. Nothing else.

If you’re interested in meeting people or practicing your conversation skills, try speed dating. At $30 a pop, it doesn’t hurt. But if you go in there expecting to find The One, you are putting unnecessary pressure on yourself that will ruin the experience.

In the end, the event was worth it because I was reminded that I am good at making people feel comfortable enough that they can open up to me. That I can hold a conversation with anyone. The trick, now, is to find someone I actually want to have a conversation with.

Interactions vs CHI, Oh My!

I’m in the process of absorbing everything I learned at Interactions 11 this past week, but the topic of this post is to address the surprising backlash against ACM’s SigCHI. I’m writing this post because I attended both conferences in the last year,  and feel like chatting about them.

For full disclaimer, I have a masters degree in human computer interaction design from a program that emphasizes the philosophical discourse of experience design, churning out graduates who choose to be user researchers, user experience designers, interaction designers, information architects, the list goes on. I submitted to CHI 2010 and was accepted as a work-in-progress for my masters thesis, an honor for me because I was a master’s candidate only. So I have ties with the CHI community both because of recent achievements and my background in computer engineering.

The first keynote speaker was Bill Verplank at Interactions 11, the man who caused the hoopla that set the tone for the remainder of the conference until Bruce Sterling gave his closing remarks. Verplank’s keynote was a rehash of what he usually talks about…he sketches his understanding of the system that we as designers need to understand: the relationships between people and what they think, feel, and do in the world. Search Verplank and you’ll see a youtube video that is basically the keynote he gave, but with one small difference.

In his keynote, Verplank said that he hadn’t been to CHI in years and wouldn’t recommend anyone go there anymore because the conference was rigid and outdated. Caught up in the moment, I’ll admit I laughed and maybe even cheered a little with the crowd. It wasn’t until later, where I was joking with someone, did his words sink in. He was saying CHI was the hairy old uncle that no one wanted to listen to anymore, because it had history and rules and the like.

Seems to me that an organization who has Genevieve Bell as its opening plenary, one that accepts a paper about empowering personal identity which discusses Steampunk, isn’t quite so old or hairy. I want to be Bell when I grow up. My sketchnotes on her plenary are filled with Bell-loving because she is pushing the CHI community to think about more than just computers. Cue fangirling now.

What is the point of this post? I’m trying to understand why Interactions has such a backlash against CHI. At its heart, I suspect it’s because Interactions is trying very hard not to be CHI. The whole “we’re better because we aren’t you” type thing that defined the relationship between America and the UK, historically-speaking. Interactions needs to assert its place in the conference world and unfortunately, Verplank took it in a negative direction that fed into latent culture clashes.

Here’s the thing: CHI probably isn’t a good venue for most of the people who attend Interactions, but not because CHI sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal education in interaction design. It all depends on your intent.

For most IxDA practitioners, CHI isn’t going to work. Not because it sucks, but because most IxDA practitioners don’t have a formal, academic education in interaction design. They are primarily DIY and learn-as-you-go.

This is why I feel Interactions attendees won’t enjoy CHI. They aren’t used to academic presentations, which are, admittedly, often very dry. CHI presentations are content heavy; focused on methodologies, rigor, grounding their claims in user research. I think more than a couple of lightning talks at Interactions would have benefited from an academic asking the simple question of, “And why do you say that?” There were a number of claims made that had little support, except that the speaker had been chosen by the Interactions committee to speak.

The great thing about the closing remarks from Bruce Sterling was that he attended the entire conference, and had comments about all the major points made, giving tough love to everyone. He reminded everyone in the room that whether they liked it or not, they came from CHI. They would never escape CHI. Heck, in less than 20 years, they were going to be CHI. No one likes to be reminded that someday, they are going to be that hairy old uncle no one wants to listen to. People went nuts over his statements like interaction design was suffering from “user-Stockholm syndrome.” What does that mean? What can he mean?

I’m not sure either. The fact is, CHI and Interactions both bring beneficial thoughts to the world. It just depends whether you prefer a more academic- or industry-minded approach.

/end Reflection