Self-Ethnography: Friends

Since moving back to Columbus, I have faced a number of frustrations: finding a job, getting a job, transitioning from the freedom of grad school to corporate life, getting my own place, and something I didn’t think would be an issue… making friends.

I have no idea how to make friends outside of the school environment. This has been pretty frustrating over the last eight months. I’m not the bar fly type, so that’s out. And the people who I would want to hang out with are probably already having the board game & crepe nights that I envisioned having with my new set of Columbus peeps.

My dad mentioned to me the other day that I might need to focus more in making friends in town. I have a number of friends spread across the nation, and thanks to Twitter, email, Facebook, Skype, and texting, I can stay connected with them. But I’m not investing in my current location; I’m missing the time I could be spending with them.

Last night, around two in the morning, I woke up and realized this is, in fact, a design problem. How does a young professional make friends in a “new” city? Is this problem facilitated or aggravated by technology?

So here I go, documenting my self-ethnography.


It wouldn’t be right without documenting my assumptions, right? I am assuming that in order to meet people, I need to…

  • Leave the computer.
  • Leave the apartment.
  • Introduce myself with a smile.

Initial Attempts

I’ll admit I haven’t been too keen on going out to meet people. I seem like a people person, but I get my energy from backing into a corner and reading a book. Being social is something I work at. So first, I am addressing my initial assumptions: that I need to leave my computer and  apartment.

I have, since moving to Columbus, joined:

  • as a way to find people with similar interests.
  • Swing Columbus so I know once a week, I am guaranteed to leave my apartment for an evening.
  • Lifestyle Family Fitness to deal with my increased seasonal affective disorder this year. It hasn’t been unbearable, but this winter has certainly affected my mood, which will have an affect on my ability to make (and keep) friends.

I am also spending more time with family. I’m very family-oriented, so I was surprised at how difficult it’s been for me to transition back from grad school. I try to spend at least one night a week with my parents. I find that if I don’t, I unhinge the same way I do if I don’t get my physical activity through lindy hopping or going to a gym.


As yet, none, really. I have my local BFF Adrienne to call on Friday nights for our dinner date, which is awesome. I met her through one of my students from grad school. So that has nothing to do with my current efforts. Still, it’s nice to have someone to call.

My frustration comes from not having a crew of friends like I did in grad school… yet. I assume because these are events that I go to… and not necessarily the type of thing where you invite people to hang out on some other day of the week.

Maybe this is an impossible task. Maybe this sort of gathering of friends doesn’t happen in the adult non-school world. I have no way of knowing because I’ve never had to transition to this non-academic life before. I’m also wondering if maybe I’m not investing in my current location because I don’t know how long I will be in this city. What if I leave in three years?

So now I put the question to you: those of you transitioning, or have transitioned, what are you doing to invest in your current location?

The Most Epic of Epic Technology Failure

Remember how I said I was going to do some artifact analysis? Well, it turns out that I have had major technical difficulties when it comes to recording my interview sessions. That is, my supposed future interview sessions. You see, I upgraded to Windows 7 on both my 32bit and 64bit machines. However, Skype doesn’t play nice with Win7 64bit, my primary computer. So after worrying that my interviewee wouldn’t want to wait for me to install Skype on my 32bit machine, I sent an email and got to work.

Not only did my interviewee not appear, and still hasn’t responded to me, but I also don’t have a way to record my Skype calls yet. I have done everything possible. I bought a microphone headset. That works. I bought an audio splitter because my computer didn’t have a stereo mix. That didn’t work, no matter the combination of settings or plugging hardware together. I updated the driver for my sound card, so I now have stereo mix. Only guess what? It’s recording the air waves, and nothing from my computer. That’s right, it’s recording radio. Actual, honest-to-God radio that I can’t hear with my puny human ears unless I turn a fricking radio on. My computer is picking up radio waves somehow and I don’t know how to stop it.

I just want to make a call through Skype, and record it. I want to have my voice and my caller’s voice on the file. Why is that such a difficult thing to ask for? I have spent three days trying to figure this out. Three days where I should have been working on ceramics, or doing artifact analysis, or working on my work-in-progress paper (which was accepted to CHI 2010, by the way), or anything else.

Instead, I sit here, fuming, wanting to slaughter something. I hate technology. I hate technology because it doesn’t work the way it should, even when you follow the instructions. Welcome to the reason why I’m a human-centered designer: technology-centered design makes us want to blow our brains out.

I’m meeting with my thesis adviser today. I don’t know what I’m going to say. Oh, yes, I said I’d try to have one observation and one interview, as well as… oh, I don’t know, analyze three artifacts? Well, I got one interview and a follow-up, my second interview disappeared, I can’t record future interviews, and I haven’t done any artifact analysis because I’m so frazzled I want to hurt something. I don’t like not meeting my goals. It’s aggravating. Even moreso when it’s because of a technology failure that, when you consider it logically, the technology should work.

Uh oh. Personal Identity?

It has just occurred to me that I never defined what I mean by personal identity. I am giving a status presentation on Tuesday at 7 PM, and it is Sunday at 7:45 PM. How many papers can I read about personal identity in order to form my own definition while also working on a presentation, attending class, and being an AI?

Hi. I’m Binaebi Akah, and I get sh!t done.* So don’t worry, I’ll figure it out. Just had to admit to the world that I kind of forgot to crystallize oh, I don’t know, a half of my project.


If you have any papers, names, etc, that could help, please send them along!

*I do this by going into homework-berserker-mode for a specified amount of time where I accomplish more than seems humanly possible and then pass out in bed for approximately the same amount of tme. You do not want to get in my way when I do this. You do, however, want to take video as I roar about town on my dirigible, my brass goggles glaring in the sunlight as my scarf whips behind me.

Light-bulb Moments

Things have been pretty hectic around here, but somehow I still manage to make progress on my capstone. I love having conversations with the people in my program because the most interesting points come up.

Creativity isn’t consistent

I had lunch with Chad Camara one day, and we got into this conversation about creativity. He mentioned that even though we are both creative, he sees our creativity as being very different. Mainly, that mine is extremely personal. I write stories that reflect some deep belief or question that I have. I paint, draw, dance, sing, sketchnote, and create objects from clay.

I write this because it seems that my intrinsically personal creativity is a huge part of my self-perception and identity. If I can’t be creative, I feel lost. In the same way, if I can’t appropriate something into my world so that it feels personal to me, I don’t care about it. So that’s food for thought.

Getting push-back

I had a design session with my roommate, Lynn, and she had the brilliant idea of looking at how people look at objects. She made the point that I see everything as a potential building material to make something else… which she simply doesn’t do.

Nov 5, 2009: Lynn Dombrowski suggests that I do a design exercise where I take people to Goodwill, etc, and ask people what they would do with the objects they find. Will they see built/”finished” materials as components of new projects?

It has since occurred to me that not only do I learn from what they choose, but also what they don’t choose. As in, what do I see as building materials, and why don’t they see them that way?

Nov 8, 2009: Rachel Bolton asks me questions that stump me, only because all my information is stuffed somewhere in an inaccessible part of my brain. Her questions, however, start a subtle thought-chain which eventually lead me to my light bulb moment.

  1. What makes the steampunk appropriation unique… what are the
    specific implications for HCI?
  2. What makes the creative/identity rewards of appropriation
    (specifically steampunk?) different from other identity-forming
    endeavors like sports?  Is it the process, the materials, the people
    that are attracted to it?

Because I find I have difficulty answering these questions, I begin to wonder if it’s so smart to be studying steampunk in the first place. I love the topic, I find it fascinating, but really, what does it mean for HCI? I asked for push-back from Rachel, and she gave it to me, and I had no answer. Sigh.

Class Exercise

On Tuesday, Nov 10, we were required to bring our sketches in for discussion in small groups. Because I’m doing a research capstone, I was a bit stumped. I’m not sketching, at least not in the visual sense. So I brought in my pseudo-affinity diagram, pictured below.

Poster of Themes and Questions

So I threw it up on the wall with all the other sketches.

Sketching Exercise

Sketching Exercise

During this exercise, we had groups of four-to-five students. We walked to our different sketches and discussed the purpose of them, etc. My group was awesome with feedback. CJ Page admitted that he doesn’t appropriate anything at all, which just boggles my mind. I appropriate almost everything that comes into my life, in some form or another. It’s my way of engaging with the world. Which struck me as a worrying point while CJ spoke.

Light-bulb moment

That night after capstone, I climbed into bed with a frown. Something was off, I realized, in how I was approaching this entire research project. It wasn’t until about eleven at night that I had my epiphany.

You see, I had a dream about capstone. Specifically, a dream in which I realized my case study group (steampunks) don’t have to be my target user group. At first, I stayed in bed, repeating that mantra to myself: “Case study doesn’t equal target user.” I quickly became paranoid that I would forget the epiphany by morning’s light. So I grabbed my whiteboard markers and attacked my unsuspecting whiteboard for about two hours.

Sketching Exercise

I’m feeling pretty good about this direction. I feel like I have an idea of how I can apply the literature and my own experiences, compare them to the experiences of people who don’t do such things, and see what we can learn. Now if I could only find the time… and get some sleep!

Mint Making a Mint by Selling Out

So I’m not happy about the news that is selling out to Intuit, the big bad of financial applications. See below for the email I wrote to Mint expressing my unhappiness.

We interaction designers here at Indiana University are not amused by the idea of selling out to Intuit.

As one of those interaction designers, I understand the matter from a business perspective, but as far as I’m concerned, your product is far superior and will surely suffer in Inuit’s hands.

I hope you will make it an option to NOT ALLOW Intuit to data mine my information. Personal finances are risky business; this is why I went with a smaller, free application that I felt we could trust.

The idea that a large corporation will now have access to the “data-mining opportunities present in the recorded info on 1.4 million users–a data set that’s got intrinsic value in its own right” that you,, has not investigated, is horrifying.

I’m going to stick it out for another couple of weeks to see how this plays out. But I don’t see our relationship going much further than that.

That said, I’ve heard is a good alternative.

Single Steps

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
– Lao Tzu

Oftentimes I am frustrated with how much time tasks inevitably take, especially in terms of self-improvement. I am forever trying to be a better person, better designer, better student, employee, friend, daughter, writer, etc. Only this past summer have I realized how exhausted I am trying to keep up the idea that I am “Super Binaebi.” That I can get it done, whatever it is, with time to spare and a certain flair.

The only problem with this is that usually I can, and do, complete the task at hand with time to spare and a certain flair… but at the sacrifice of something else. Such as sleep. Or sanity.

Meeting the new first year HCId students this week and personally mentoring one of them has reminded me that I need to take things slower. Details are everything to me. Yet,  I’ve lost the ability to notice the small things that used to bring joy to my life.

I don’t want the first years to lose sight of the larger picture as they face the challenges of graduate school.

This isn’t to say that I know what the larger picture is, or that I’m doing a good job of keeping it in mind myself. But maybe by being the Jiminy Cricket (as it were) to the new first years… I’ll remind myself along the way that it is in the trying that we succeed.

And that failure is sometimes the best sort of success.

Whistle While You Work

It seems to me that once you get into the thick of design philosophy, you can never escape designing.  However, I’m beginning to realize that while this graduate program certainly encourages and incites the designer in me to be a bit more active, Interaction-Designer!Binaebi was by no means silent in the first place.

In the Kitchen

Whenever my roommate leaves town she returns with the expectation that I’ve moved something. This is a semi-nervous tick of mine, completely intentional, but not malicious. I don’t like clutter, especially on kitchen counter tops. So when I open the kitchen cabinets and find empty spaces, I move the items from the counter top to the cabinet so the kitchen looks cleaner.

The thing is, I don’t remember to tell my roommate I’ve done this… and half the time it’s with her food in the first place. Thank goodness it’s something of a game to her. “Hmm… I wonder where Binaebi put the [fill in the blank] this time?” is a question she utters frequently, she admitted just the other day.

Now, this information concerned me. Was my shifting redesign of the kitchen’s organizational structure making her interaction with the kitchen frustrating due to my need for bare counter tops? Worse yet, was it hurting our interactions as roommates?

No, actually, because it turns out my shifting redesign has a pattern to it. I place all the baking items together on one shelf, the chips on another. All the Tupperware is in that bottom drawer. Unopened juice is placed in the fridge so the first glass will be cold. In the long run, it seems to work out for us, because my reorganization has an intuitive bent to it.

Which is good. The act of me rearranging items may not be time-efficient, but it is intuitively-efficient for when we need to find said items later.

Side note: This is an interesting concept I recently thought of… “time-efficient” vs “intuitively-efficient.” I should come back to this, see if it’s worth pursuing.

In the Arts

When I have any sort of emotional upheaval, I turn to my artistic roots and let the muses fly. I have, in the last month, upcycled two chairs that my roommate and I found by our dumpster. Solid wooden chairs with a screw or two missing, left for me to play with in the evenings after work.

The process is what makes these chairs amazing, not the end result. Though, I will admit, the chairs turned out pretty sweet. I sanded the chairs by hand, getting to know their shape, their feel, their character.

Argyle Chair: Finis!

“Argyle,” the first one screamed at me, “you must reupholster me in argyle.” When I bought the fabric, it was the end of the bolt, so I got three yards instead of one. Which was perfect, because the next day we found the second chair, and it was just as eager to have an argyle redressing.

I have also sculpted a little android, a paranoid little android who, despite his best intentions and careful planning, lost his heart and is absolutely befuddled by the realization. This project was a true design experiment, as I had no plans when I began to work the Sculpey clay. I simply rolled the clay into a ball, broke off a piece here and there while watching the movie Dogma, and by the end of the movie, I had a mini-Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Marvin the Paranoid Android loses his heart

But I’m never one to simply mimic. My Marvin needed something special, something which made him especially down. So I poked out his heart. For artistic purposes, of course.

Side note: I don’t know why Marvin lost his heart. He’s much too sad to go into the details with me.

I have turned to my music, listening to new and old favorites constantly, while psyching myself up to play the violin again after a three-month absence.

I have, for the first time in ten years, painted my toe nails. This may not be a big deal to you, but to me, every little bit of artistic expression counts. Like my Hot Topic earrings, which are currently little gray skulls. It’s the little things that make me laugh.

In Me

What am I trying to get at here? The fact is that all these little things…

  • Rearranging the kitchen
  • Reflecting on the interactions between my roommate and me
  • Upcycling a couple of discarded chairs
  • Sculpting a hilariously depressed robot
  • Preparing to practice violin again
  • Painting my toe nails
  • Buying and wearing goofy earrings

…these are things that point to me redesigning myself. Everything we do affects us positively, negatively, neutrally. When I began these projects, my motivation was lackluster at best. But as with anything, the more time I invested into the project, the more I cared about it. The more I cared, the more motivated I became. The higher my motivation, the more I poured my creativity into the project, the more I pushed myself to try something new.

The Moral of the Story

Interaction Design isn’t always just about man vs technology. Sometimes it’s about man vs man, or man vs self .*

How do we design and redesign ourselves? What goes into that decision-making process? And what can we learn from that process to help inform our design process, professionally?

I don’t know yet. It’s a work-in-progress.

*Borrowed from creative writing theory


Cross-posted to the IDP08 Blue Blog.

I’m going to go ahead and “nerd-alert” myself on this post.

My fellow programmers:

Do you remember the first time you tried to learn recursion? And how you thought your professor, while teaching you “the magic of recursion,” was secretly laughing at you behind doors because you weren’t getting how recursion worked? The professor could tell you the results, the structure, and even why it worked, but you still didn’t get it.

How many times did you ask your professor to explain recursion just one more time, hoping it would “click”?

But you had an assignment, and it was due soon, so you started coding. It wasn’t like you had any idea what was going on, or that you thought it would work. You just did it. And eventually, through trial and error (most likely), it worked. But it still didn’t make sense.

And the saddest part was that recursion could make complete sense, but that didn’t mean you knew how to code the solution to the problem. Yet, the first time you wrote recursive code that validated and worked, you felt like a true programmer.

So this is where I am right now. I am back in my undergrad, trying to understand recursion for the first time. I’m frustrated, determined, and annoyed. I’m supposed to be “smarter” than this, but this isn’t a case of being smart, is it?

This is a case of trusting those who are wiser than us. It’s a case of trusting that they aren’t laughing at us behind doors, because once upon a time, they had the exact same problem. And if they do laugh, they aren’t laughing at us, but at the memory of their own frustration and panic. Well, some of them might be laughing at us, you never know, really.

Once upon a time, I trusted my professors, I did what they said, I got a recursive function to work, and I (eventually) understood recursion.

Recursion, my friends. Once you’ve experienced it, you can never go back. I suspect it might be the same for design.