Ode to “Old Devices”

“What is that?” The guy next to me on the plane exclaimed, staring at my iPod.

Yes, I still use my iPod classic when traveling, because it carries thousands of songs that I can listen to without having to drain battery or data from the more important devices. It essentially has one function, but it works really, really well. I had to explain all of this to my seat neighbor when he shook his head, vehemently disagreeing with me from the look on his face. The fact that I even carried an older device was clearly a crime to him.

Nevertheless, it occurred to me that I’ve had this reaction before when I see people carrying around flip phones. Don’t you want apps on your phone? At least for Maps or Weather?  The answer I often get it is “I can get around fine without it.”

The truth is, having a phone with limited functionality is still pretty functional. It allows you to constant people without aimlessly distracting you wherever you go. This has been discussed at length in other blogs and online magazines, but it really hit me in the face this past weekend.

I’m currently in Zurich, Switzerland on a business trip. On the way to the hotel, I found myself needing to check the reservation info. 5 minutes later, I was in another app browsing the news. The taxi stopped momentarily at a red stop during the trip, causing me to look up. Outside my window were charming bridges and canals. Pedestrians waited as the tram rolled by. The Swiss flag flew quietly in a number of stores. The city was in front of me.

I’m in Zurich, I thought to myself. Why am I looking at my phone instead of out my window?

Our mobile devices can do a lot for us, and for the most part, they help make information and tools more accessible. But they also cause us to seek out information when we don’t need to. When we have a 200 apps, we tend to spend time looking at the content inside them rather than outside in reality. It’s much too easy to keep scrolling, swiping and tapping.

In an age when we’re constantly connected through the web, having a single-function device sounds …like a relaxing time.

Month One


It was 7:30am. You could see the sun rays beaming through the palm trees and fun-colored lawn chairs. I was early, but there was already a line of about 30 people waiting to go inside Building 46. I walked over and chit chatted with a few of them. Around me were engineers, lawyers, teachers and a recruiter.

“How does a recruiter get hired?” Someone asked me out of earshot. I shrugged.

This was the start to a week-long orientation of a new job that comes with amenities that rival universities’ — a soccer field, tennis courts, free access to certain museums, massages, food all around and, most importantly, incredibly smart people.

My initial thoughts of being on campus were something akin to “This is a utopia. Everyone rides rainbow-colored bikes, there’s infinite free coffee and the weather is perfect every single day. This can’t be real.”

Then, it began — the funneling of information into my brain. Everyone spoke in acronyms and used words I didn’t know. The first two weeks were as much about gauging my whereabouts and expectations for work as they were about expanding my vocabulary. I tried to remember it all — the internal slang, people’s names, the different ongoing projects, the ways to install or receive x, y and z. I felt like I was being hurled through some version of the Large Hadron Collider.

It dawned on me that this experience would never truly end. Every day, there was more to learn and more things that I would be curious about. But it also became more manageable. I began to figure out where I was supposed to go and who I could talk to about various subjects. The panicked feeling of not knowing what was going on around me subsided and has been replaced with a steady hum of tasks and questions.

It’s been over a month now, since I’ve joined Google.

I’m working with a fantastic team of people who are thoughtful, friendly and open. They are also fiercely intelligent and push me to think with more focus about my work.

Unlike the small startups I had been a part of in the past, Google is teeming with people who I’ve never met before and some of whom I will never have the opportunity to meet. But it’s clear that people here want to create impact through their work.

It is ultimately about the work. The amenities are all you hear about when you’re looking in from the outside, but at the end of the day, the actual work I’m doing is most interesting to me. It’s my favorite part of being here and I can’t wait to see where it’ll go.

Simple and Practical Product Designs

As a former student of industrial design, it’s often fun to go back and study how other people are currently designing everyday objects around us to be easier to use. Below are a few good ones that I’ve stumbled upon recently.


The Bare Chair (Leano) by Nik Lorbeg – Design Boom | Ridiculously portable. Easy to make.

leano_portable_chair_2 leano_portable_chair_3 leano_portable_chair_5 leano_portable_chair_1leano_portable_chair_9

The Sticky Feet Flex Mount aka Gekkopod by Gal & Boaz Zucker | Works on any surface.

gekkopod_01 gekkopod_05

The 160 deg. Socket by Zhoucun Yu | Great for large plugs.


Red Line Shortcuts

These maps below are for my fellow Cambridge-Somerville residents who use the Red Line every day to travel south. It tells you exactly which train door to go through in order to reach the exit you’re looking for at your destination.

Please let me know if something isn’t correct. (mchenstudio @ gmail.com) Also feel free to email me if you know which doors to use for destinations outbound or for any stations south of South Station.

If you re-post this, make sure you link back to this page.

How to use the map:

The maps to South Station show the train as it would appear when you’re standing at the inbound platform facing the train. The train is traveling south to the right if you’re at Alewife, Harvard, Central and Kendall, and it’s traveling south to the left if you’re at Davis and Porter.

The stations are in geographical (chronological?) order.

Everything else should be self-explanatory.

Alewife Inbound (hi-res link)


Davis Inbound (hi-res link)


Outbound to Alewife (hi-res link) – not reflective of which side of the station you’re standing on. Left: front of train.


Update 1: The inbound platform at Harvard is to the right of the station. (Thanks mtrem225 on reddit.)

Update 2: The exit off by itself at Park St. is an emergency exit. (Thanks harbinger via email.)

Update 3: The Pearl St. exit at Central and the Main St. exit at Kendall are at the 2nd door of the front car. (Thanks DaWolf85 on reddit.)

Update 4: Thanks to Ross Benson for sending over outbound info.

Tuesday Thoughts about Hardware & Software

Once upon a time, iPhones fit in the palm of our hands. Holding and tapping anywhere was easy. The hardware never impeded you from using the software.

Now phones are mini tablets, but the software has stayed more or less the same. As a product designer who studied ergonomics in school, I occasionally find it strange that the two don’t always evolve together.

It creates some issues when performing certain actions like:

1) Taking a photo. Have you ever tried taking a phone of the sky with one hand? Try it. It’s hard to keep the phone steady while your thumb reaches for the camera button. Whenever this happens, I generally use the volume down button to take the photo instead. It’s because my thumb wants to be near the center of the screen or to the edge of it to keep it stable. It would actually be easier if the “trigger” button were on the top left and top right of the screen for either your left or right thumb.

2) Using Touch ID. Your thumb reaches for the center of the screen more easily than the bottom of the device.

What if the next Touch ID works by touching the screen rather than the home button? It would involve a lot of changes to the hardware, but it kind of makes sense from an ergonomic standpoint.

(I mocked up the last screen)


My thumb has a much easier time with the option on the right.


3) Using navigation bars and menus.

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Navigation and main buttons have always been at the top and at the bottom of the screen. It’s generally a good idea since you want content to be in the middle of the screen. But it doesn’t always make sense when you can’t properly reach the extreme corners.

Given that Apple is most likely implementing Force Touch on their next iPhone/iPad, I would want to enable navigation with different types of presses. Next step in navigation will be less about taps and more about gestures. Swipe-to-go-back and horizontal scrolling are already widely used. Let’s keep pushing UI in that direction.

Normal things I didn’t realize you needed two hands to do

…until I got into an accident three weeks ago.


  1. Using zippers
  2. Hand-washing utensils
  3. Tying a ponytail
  4. Cutting fingernails on the healthy hand
  5. Tying shoelaces
  6. Tying trash bags
  7. Signing your signature on curly receipt paper.
  8. Using cling wrap effectively
  9. Rolling up sleeves for the healthy arm
  10. Chopping whole onions

The Solution:

When people leave the hospital with one working hand, they should hand them a weighted clamp in a bag.

Why? Because when you’re one-handed, the thing that really changes is you that no longer create strong opposing forces: you can’t pull or use one hand for the anchor while the other hand does something to an object.

A weighted clamp would allow people to do at least half the things on this list. It could hold a light object still while allowing the other hand to perform an action on that object. Boom.

Intentions & Execution of Design

“Look at this website,” my coworker said with his eyes rolled. I swivel my chair and peer at his screen. The website features a multi-colored word art title with a textured background that may have been popular twenty years ago. We both groan at the lack of professionalism the site shows.

We’ve all experienced the frustration of seeing bad design. Our gut reaction as designers is “someone ought to fix it.” Sometimes, we take it upon ourselves to fix it.

Several years ago, I saw a popular website that was promoting goods made in the US. The content was great, the navigation worked, but the styling of the website was appalling. There were boxes upon boxes, unnecessary drop shadows and weird illustrations that didn’t really make sense to me. I decided right there and then that I was going to redesign the site and then send the site owner my work.

I spent a weekend coming up with a new design for the site. “This is so much better,” I thought as I stepped back from it.  I emailed it to the owner, happy with the result.

A few days later, I got an email back. It went something like this: “Your designs are lovely, and I really like the ideas you came up with. But I’m really proud of the little drawings I did for this site, and I want to keep them.” I was exasperated. The drawings on the current site were, in my opinion, terrible.

It was then that I realized something. Even though my execution of the website was more modern and professional, the site owner clearly wanted her personal mark on it. I realized that maybe she wanted the website to be funky and unpolished. I was the arrogant designer, coming in and telling her to change something that she clearly did not want to change.

Jared Spool, keynote speaker at the User Experience Professionals’ Association Conference (held yesterday), spoke about this exact topic. In his presentation, a designer named Tyler Thompson saw the boarding pass for Delta Airlines, which can be difficult to comprehend at first glance, and decided to redesign it so that it could be “better.”

unnamed w

Tyler’s design is beautiful. It uses modern fonts and rich colors. The flight, gate, seat and zone are clear to the customer. But Jared pointed out a few things about this design: the colors bleed out to the edge, it uses white stock, and it uses high-definition fonts that require printing at 300dpi. Delta’s low-resolution, thermal printers can’t do these things.

If Delta were to actually use Tyler’s design, it would have to replace 10,000+ boarding pass printers, change paper size and add cutting for bleeds on top of creating a new supply chain for colored inks.

Which design is better now? It’s easy to create designs without understanding the real constraints, but the best design is the end is one that satisfies real world needs. As Jared said, “to improve design, we must work on both the intention and the skills of rendering.” We can’t only improve the rendering.

Both my own website redesign from years ago and Jared’s talk have taught me that we, designers, need to have a little bit of humility. We can’t just tell someone how to do something “right” if we don’t know the context around which the original design was created. It’s easy to be nit-picky, and there are circumstances where better design is absolutely called for. But it’s time we stop to understand what situation we’re in so that we can do things with the right intention and execution.

3 Quotes from The Purpose Economy


Below I’ve highlighted in bold what I believe are the essentials to employment engagement. A lot of it may seem like common sense, but it’s surprising difficult for many people to actually feel that they’re achieving all of these things.

“Purpose is not a noun, it is a verb. It is about how we work. We experience purpose when we do something that’s greater than ourselves. We experience purpose when we push ourselves and grow. We experience purpose as part of a community.”

“When it comes to purpose at work, there are three core drivers that will determine whether we feel fulfilled in what we’re doing: who we serve, how we serve them, and why we serve them.”

“But, there are times when job crafting and meaning-making don’t cut it. There are times when it is important to make a bigger change to a new profession or a new employer. The cliche, backed by research, is that most people take a job for the organization and leave because of their manager. No manager is perfect, but there are managers who are simply not a good fit for someone, or worse yet, are incompetent and undermining the teamwork of those around them. Sadly, most managers are clueless about what motivates their team. When asked to identify what their employees want, the top three things cited are good wages, job security, and promotion opportunities. When employees are actually asked, they report the top three as appreciation, feeling ‘in’ on things, and an understanding attitude. Not only did managers fail to identify these as the top drivers, they put them at the bottom of the list.”

Reasoning & Physics

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 7.47.23 PM

My roommate has recently being watching a lot of Elon Musk interviews. She sent me a section of transcript from the Q&A that followed his TED talk. I’d like to share it, because it’s not often that I find ideas about thinking itself to be so crystal clear.

Watch the TED talk

Question to Elon Musk:

18:46 CA: My theory is that you have an ability to think at a system level of design that pulls together design, technology and business, so if TED was TBD, design, technology and business, into one package, synthesize it in a way that very few people can and — and this is the critical thing — feel so damn confident in that clicked-together package that you take crazy risks. You bet your fortune on it, and you seem to have done that multiple times. I mean, almost no one can do that. Is that — could we have some of that secret sauce? Can we put it into our education system? Can someone learn from you? It is truly amazing what you’ve done.

Musk’s Answer:

19:30 EM: Well, thanks. Thank you. Well, I do think there’s a good framework for thinking. It is physics. You know, the sort of first principles reasoning. Generally I think there are — what I mean by that is, boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy. Through most of our life, we get through life by reasoning by analogy, which essentially means copying what other people do with slight variations. And you have to do that. Otherwise, mentally, you wouldn’t be able to get through the day. But when you want to do something new, you have to apply the physics approach. Physics is really figuring out how to discover new things that are counterintuitive, like quantum mechanics. It’s really counterintuitive. So I think that’s an important thing to do, and then also to really pay attention to negative feedback, and solicit it, particularly from friends. This may sound like simple advice, but hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful.