— Nina Mehta

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HCId

Tucked under warm blankets in below freezing Chicago weather on my birthday, I got on a video chat with two HCId students from my alma matter, Indiana University. I really enjoyed hearing about what they care about and want to know. Getting your career started can be hard and scary but I’m excited about how thoughtful and hungry the future of our design community
Listen here:  http://www.connecthcid.com/#nina-mehta

In this episode of ConnectCast, with Stephanie Poppe and Jordan Hayes. Poppe and Jordan speak with designer and visual artist Nina Mehta. Nina graduated from Indiana University’s HCI/d program in 2011 and currently works as a product designer at Pivotal Labs in San Francisco. In this segment, Nina discusses her graduate school experience, the challenges she faced as a young designer, her liberating foray into experience design through projection live visual art installations, her passion for social activism and the importance of creating real products for real people.

 

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Airports are among the most magical places on earth. By design.

Some say we’re in an age of ignorance. And why? We have more information than ever before. It’s just too much.

I’d like to revisit some thought’s I’ve explored about reinventing the news. Let’s discuss how I expect to see news storytelling taken out of the traditional vacuum of websites or apps and integrated into our lives when its most useful.

Though my days as a traditional journalist are over, I still frequently think about this problem. Well, that and how my reporter friends can get paid to report.

Why don’t people read? Why don’t I read? Why don’t people care? Why is it so hard to know what’s happening in the world? Why isn’t there more time? In fact I spent a year of graduate school working on this problem.

Context in storytelling

I made Newskite which collected audio snippets from people around the world. Each caller answered a question what they were hearing about a certain global event like the Earthquake in Japan or the protests in Egypt. What this did was give a global and real context to a geographically centralized problem–truly showing the human impact on world events.

Personalized News

What I’d like to see is something similar to News.me, a personalized news concept I made that predated Newsite. It leveraged the power of social feeds and individual data to write news stories for you. It did not recommend news your friends liked–that does not work in an age if ignorance. It figured out how you, the reader, are linked to some news story that any one of us might otherwise ignore.

Steve Crisp/Reuters

Today on the New York Times Front page I see Kenyan Part Says Vote Count Should Stop. An article that seems unrelated to my daily going-ons. But if smart machines could scrape my data and see I once participated in earth hour, am potentially concerned about energy conservation, the elections in 2007 led to power outages and it’s a risk again, what impact that could have on other energy resources and how that influences what happens in my backyard. There are infinite ways to draw links between what’s happening somewhere far away in the world to what happens in my daily life. I then wanted to use natural language processing to rewrite stories, using the inverted pyramid, actually personalized for each reader. And beyond that, have editors, actual people, prioritizing news topics and stories about what to display on the ‘front page’.

But now is not a good time for that. For people uninterested in news, they just will not visit your app or website. No matter how incredible your site. If people don’t care, they don’t care. In this case, we’re not in the business of changing behavior. However, integrating news into people’s lives where it’s useful and welcome is a smart thought.

Let’s look at the travel industry

It’s still quite difficult to get around the world. Flight costs, hotel prices, cost of food, etc. It’s getting easier, and in a few years transportation technology will change how we geographically move around the world. We’ve already seen this happen in lodging and flight bookings. Services like Airbnb, Tripit, Hipmunk all have a vested interest in making

  1. Planning a trip easier
  2. Going to a place easier
  3. Having a wonderful time while you’re there

Because of this, I see an opportunity for travel services to have a vested interest in integrating global news stories with truly personalized smart content into their products.

Perhaps my upcoming trip to Costa Rica has potential to be seriously influenced by the recent news about Hugo Chavez. Or if I’m choosing which dates to go to Buenos Aires, it’s great if they can tell me the wine season has been wonderful. There are so many tasks that come with planning a trip, reading the news rarely is a priority and it’s nearly impossible to even know about what to start reading. Knowing what’s happening in the world can help me decide where, when and how to go there.

A service to do this doesn’t exist yet and I’m not interested in becoming a founder right now, so please by all means, take this idea and run with it. And as always, if this idea is hogwash, I want to hear your thoughts.

Let’s get out of the business of shaming people for not being informed, but of making relevant information available when they need to know it.

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Close your eyes, there’s so much more to see. Here are three spots in SF caught in your blindspot that you won’t want to miss. Oscillations

1. Oscillations – sound and lightscape
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the Room for Big Ideas, Th-Sa, 3 minutes, Free

Dip into the the YBCA for an immersive and sensual experience. The installation space, curtained off for one person, made with wood, electric fans, lights, speakers and custom technology takes you through a 3-minute intense 360 light and sound experience. I attended the live performance of the scape but actually much prefer the solitary experience off the YBCA lobby and have been three times with many more to come. The installation will be on display until 13 January 2013, so it’s not to be missed. Read more about artists Surabhi Saraf & Sebastian Alvarez’s but wait to watch the video until you’ve felt the warm heat on your face and cool fans on your arms, yourself. You have one more month to enjoy this city’s gem.

Audium 2. Audium – Sound theater
1616 Bush Street San Francisco, CA 94109, Fri, Sa at 8:30, 1 hour, $20

Enter this sound-sculpture space created in 1975 and seems to have barely changed since for a truly unique experience. Artist Stan Shaff hosts an hour-long expression of live and recorded audio pieces for those seeking something truly experimental to hear ranging from obtusely abstract to comfortably familiar sounds. It’s rumored that the 40-year old theater will be shutting down and the shows change from month-to-month, so there’s no better time than now.

 

Moon Dipperton3. Float Matrix – Sensory Depravation
Nob Hill Wellness Building, 815 Hyde St. Lower Level, Mo-Su by appointment, 1hr, $75+

Lay your mind and body down in a shallow pool of water and 1,000 pounds of salt. With earplugs in, the lights off and the scentless water the temperature of your body, this is as close to feeling nothing as you’ll ever get. Your mind, relieved of all the sensory input processing takes many into deep relaxation or significantly emotional and creative places. I’ve experienced all three and have been twice. The owner has changed into good hands since I’ve last attended but this has been one of the best and most rewarding San Francisco experiences I’ve had. I cannot recommend this enough. In simpler terms, it’s the best tool for meditation, focus on the present and self-awareness.

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The activity of process

Let’s talk more about our lives in media and discuss if its ubiquity has transformed us, people, into a platform for the media. Instead of the reverse. First, I need to debunk a few old theories.

Media participation is not linear
Two years ago I believed we moved back and forth between leader and participation roles in media, citing Harry Hochheiser and Ben Schniederman. I argue the egalitarian nature of social platforms allows anyone to lead a discussion, whereas formerly in hard media, that ownership belonged to the journalists. But now we can see how protests and movements have emerged in the last two years that identities between two binary points is too linear for how we live in media. Participation was distributed, networked and certainly not following a straight path.

When the year two-thousands rolled over, we found a better way to talk about remixing and reusing content as something new. Bolter and Grusin, in 2000, articulate this thing as remediation. Essentially, when we refashioning some kind of media to make a new piece of media. Which is ever present in our lives as more people than ever before are DJing tracks from producers, making animated gif memes from cinema and old-film filters on sharp, new photograms.

But, let’s use some bits from Mark Deuze’s new book Media Life which motivates this idea of life in media. So Lev Manovich, Russian media artists and professor suggest:

…this is a life of constant communication and conversation, part of a reality that is supposedly hackable and remixable by everyone, that is therefore always dynamic, unpredictable and permanently under construction. It forces each and every one of us to reconstruct our lifestyles to adapt to a world where the results of our actions are almost impossible to foresee  given that we live in a world that is inextriably networked, confronting everyone with an almost limitless supply of fragile forms of reality and truth – simply by switching on a radio or television, by consulting a website or opening an email. [Deuze, 3]

And our lives now, so fluid and changing faster than they ever have before, with multiple communication streams which directly effect not only our thoughts and emotions but how we make decisions and take action, impact our extremely networked communities.

We can no longer look at our lives as falling in and out of media phases. And many of us go to ‘unplug’ or be ‘off the grid’ in search of more organic or normal experiences. But we are announcing and declaring we are choosing a path of something temporary and unnatural, desperately taking our lives out of media, where even still we are reading books, hearing music, seeing photography if not creating any and all of those things. Which is my point here.

Media participation is high: writing, posting, sharing, etc. Nearly everyone online is a creator of some kind. But the rising echelon, the early adopters and the younger participants, are those whose lives have always been in media. Streams of information going in and coming out and without a flinch, see themselves and consumers and producers as the same thing, a lifestyle that also needs no title and certainly not a bi-lateral delineation.

And to Marshall McLuhan, the message is so much more than just the medium now.

But, what, indeed, is the case is that the ubiquitous media in our lives, becomes the influence, if not the content of who we are and who we will become. Now more than ever, we are what we eat, but also what we do, how we think and what we say and what we make. It is too pedestrian to say this is a remix generation.

What’s happening now in our world, is not combining two or three pieces of existing work to make something new. What’s happening now is what art and expression has always done: create work, music, photos, texts. We are creating statements about what is happening now and what’s happening now, always, in all these moments is in media, even if it is not immediately present.

But what sets apart society now from what’s been called a ‘remix culture’ is that because our lives are in media, even when we’re off the grid and disengaged, is a life and relationship with media.

Once, we used social media, personal websites and self-published books as a platform to share and post our ‘original’ works. While, though, others asked if there was ever an original piece of work. But now, we can barely even ask that question. Our lives are in media, as is our statements and our works, which are our lives, which too, are in the ubiquity of both being media and being in media.

But is it possible for media to be so ubiquitous that in fact, instead of people using media as a platform that we, the people are platforms for media?

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Jim Campbell
It sometimes seems feels like we can have anything we want, especially as it comes to information, shopping and now even tasks. Google it, get it on Amazon prime, send it to Taskrabbit. And there are mountains of ways to touch base with people we love (and also the people we just kinda like). I’m writing this to introduce an open topic and conversation.

We’re spending more time heads down than ever before. Hands to keyboard, finger to swipe, eyes to screen. It’s a remarkable tradeoff because we get to feel like we can have whatever we want, whenever we want at the cost of becoming screen zombies.

The New York Times posted an article today about the new slew of apps that help us find and discover people we know and people we could meet. Have we become so lonely that we need computers to help us do something as primal as sharing presence with other people? Why these apps now? Are the apps easier to build, are people needier for people, has it become more difficult to find people we love being with?

Finding friends online
Facebook, Twitter, Email and Instagram have specifically helped me stay tethered to people I care or want to care about. Sure. But they just as well create friction and false senses of closeness that do not replace natural interactions among people. I’m not sure we’ll ever create a technology that an replicate the experience of being physically near a person. But I do believe travel and city design will make it easier, faster and cheaper to be near people.

Finding love online
Online dating has become the second most common way to start a relationship, second to meeting through friends. I’m debating whether or not dating has become more difficult and how that’s related to technology because it also is inclusive of cultural and gender norms.  I’m in the throws of reading Marriage, a History that so far suggests in the last half decade our communities have put more pressure on our partners and marriage than ever before in history.

What next?
I’m not sure we’re lonelier than before? Studies have shown that people do retreat to their computers and social communities when they’re most sad (and I think lonely). So whether or not we’re net lonelier, looking back, it will sure seem like we were and we’ll say, what changed, what was the variable? More screens, less skin and bones.

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Today I join Twilio in San Francisco as their newest designer. Twilio makes powerful tools that empower people to build communication apps on voice and SMS. Joining Twilio’s outstanding team is humbling and massively exciting. I’m inspired to work with a group that helps people to realize great ideas, build a better society and of course, improve communication.

Improving how we share information has been a thread throughout my career. From my days in narrative as a news designer, to working on the chat app at RockMelt to disrupting the translation industry at myGengo to the core of my design thesis, I’ve been thinking about this space. I’ve nestled up with big questions to understand how humans share information and communicate. Plus, I just love developers. Twilio could not have been a more perfect next step.

I’ll be working closely with Andres Krogh, Rourke McNamara, Danielle Morrill and many more stellar Twilions blending my interaction design and marketing chops. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to teach. Please join me in celebrating this exciting new chapter on my path.

Where’s Nina?
This year took me through 12 cities in 4 continents. Between the time of someone asking “where are you?” and me being able to answer, I was somewhere new. So here’s how 2011 played out.

Combi StopI celebrated the commencement of the year Cape Town on a life-changing trip to Southern Africa with the perfect travel mate. I saw a dear childhood friend and did research to inform my graduate school thesis. In the flutter of a tweet, I earned my Master’s and started packing boxes to pick up nearly a decade of my life spent in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana.

En route to San Francisco, I worked in Tokyo with myGengo, like Twilio, in the 500 Startup powerhouse. I learned from their brilliant team and earned intense design empathy and mountains of personal growth. Call it Manifest Destiny if you will, but I started working my way West. I skipped through Detroit and Chicago and did projects for with SigFig, Milewise and Posterous while planting my feet in San Francisco.

Burning I spent a week under extreme conditions in the dessert that taught me important lessons about design and experience. It yanked everything human about me to the surface of my being and I truly went through a Rite of Passage.

I went to St. Louis to see old friends from my journalism world at the Society for News Design’s conference. I talked on a panel about careers as a 5 year reunion from SND’s first intern competition and got to thank so many mentors who raised me as a professional.

It’s taken me years of patience and an unreal amount of work to build the life I now have in San Francisco. I couldn’t have predicted most of what happened this year and I can’t say what the future holds. But 2011 is not over yet and I’m having the time of my life on this ride.

Nina Mehta is a designer and writer living in San Francisco, working at Twilio.

Photo courtesy Jeff Lawson.

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Burning Man

Upon departure to a week of dancing, meditating, bike riding, art project exploring and big dreaming in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, I wrote a cheeky little e-mail to my office.

Email to my colleagues about Burning Man

They all knew I was taking my first trip to the Playa, but still, I sent out this courtesy note. “Team, I’ll be out of the office next week without access to the internet,” I wrote. I gave myself the permission to divorce from communication mediated by technology. I spent the week having collocated interactions with people. I had human-to-human conversations that over flowed with emergent ideas and were loaded with implications from body language.

“I’ll be in Black Rock City, Nevada” I said, which for a week is actually Nevada’s 4th largest city and otherwise non-existent. For 7 days, 50,000 people gave gifts of music, food, teachings, photos and so much more.

I was given so much in Black Rock City. My bike pedal broke twice while on the Playa. The city is too big and the weather is too extreme to commute by foot. I found a bike-expert in our village of 170 people. He found a piece of wood and told me to search neighboring camps for a saw. I kid you not, he prototyped a peg-leg wooden bike pedal for me. And within and hour, my new friend, with his big heart, gave me the city back.

Burning Man

I’m “doing participatory, ethnographic research” I continued to my teammates. I immersed myself in an environment that was beyond foreign to me. I was living in a sci-fi novel. Yet, people repeatedly said, “wow, you’re really in your element here.” Socially, geographically, culturally, economically, I had a new lifestyle. As someone who studies people, their desires, their wants, the emotions, their motivations, there was so much to learn here. In my life of international travel, I have consistently found humans to be relatively the same all over the world, in the most beautiful way. Stripped down we share our qualities that make us human, our desires, our challenges, our drives. So here, at Burning Man, were people any different? What do we do when the societal rules change?

Other Worldly Take away money, take away time, take away digital devices, are we the same? Pretty much.

I cooked for my camp each night. I started cooking dinner when the sun was a few inches from the peaks of the mountains. The camp knew when the sun goes down, dinner is ready. There was no 15 minutes late, time was about light.

We had some friends who camped about a mile away. In the afternoon we asked if they wanted to hang out at night.

‘Sure. just come by later. I don’t know what we’ll be up to.’ So sure enough we suited up with headlamps and coats. It was like an after-dinner ritual. We tricked out our bikes with El-wire trimmed wheels and loops of glowsticks on our handlebars. There are no streetlamps in the dessert, so we, ourselves need to be illuminated. There are thousands of commuters and yet not many bike crashes. People take care. Culturally, it’s understood to keep yourself lit as a method of identity and expression but also as a way to be visible and safe.

Burning Man

So, we rode over to our friends’ camp and, after all that, they weren’t there. We kept riding, it was no big deal. It was like the 90s. There was no follow up game of sms ping-pong or trying form a tweet-up. We just kept riding. We found something new to do and you know what? It was so fine.

So I told my colleagues, I’m doing research on “urban development.” Before campers arrive and after they leave, Black Rock City it’s an empty desert. Everything there is intentional, something that is there is because someone has brought there, it’s designed. Nothing remains from last year except the dust.

How would people build a functioning city in a week? What does a new city look like? It has bike repair pros, spas and brunch spots and a census. I worked in the post office and our neighborhood bar. If we could build a city and roads and culture and economy, just for a week, what’s a better way to do it than the way it is where we live? And every year Burning Man must be different because every year, the people change.

Burning Man

“User experience,” is something I listed I was researching. I thought a lot about what I read in grad school by Plato, by Dewey, by McCarthy & Wright, by Russon and their philosophies of experience. Burning Man helped me meditate on the Sensual, Emotional, Compositional and Spatio-Temporal 4 threads of experience. These are the same threads that weave into our every day lives but are center but at Burning Man are imposed front and centered. We’re faced with manufactured, designed art projects juxtaposed against the backdrop of the sun as our clock and the desert as the canvas. We have only one objective measure of time, then sun, and half way through the daily cycle, the sinks behind the mountains and without our anchor, the night is infinite.

If you were so lucky to dance all night in the dark, cold desert, you might have heard Lee Burridge play a siren songs to beckon the sun. And with the last drags of our tired feet, we turn our backs to the DJ, gaze to the horizon and see the edges of light peak above the Earth and the next day begins. There is no alarm clock.

Burning Man

“and human-computer interaction design.” was the last point I said I’d be researching. There we are, 50,000 people, doing whatever we love to do most, for a week, with our friends, some new, divorced from communication technology. And yet, in this natural, beautiful place we  are still immersed in a space with impressive light design, massive sound systems and volts of power thumping through generators to power the art and music projects.

Burning Man I got to see how else humans and computers can interact with each other. That being, humans and humans, computers and computers and humans with computers. We do it all with dust in boots and sweat on our brow. We have a lot left to learn about what we as people want and need and how we’re going to get it, if we ever do.

But having dropped myself in some places that are beyond other-worldly, I’ve learned how delicate our fleshy, vulnerable, skin and bones and hearts are. If we’re going to design chairs and phones and streets and clocks and code whatever else it is that we design, let’s give our work voice and human touch. Someone, some person, will be using it.

The Financial Times wrote an articulate piece about the village in which I stayed at Burning Man, The Chillage. You may enjoy April Dembosky’s article Turn off your phones, techies, welcome to Burning Man.

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During the second and final year of graduate school I worked on a research and design project related to news, design and storytelling. I created a platform and UI called Newskite, to engage people around the world about major global current affairs. This project helps understand what people are hearing in our connected but disjointed world. What are people in Peru hearing about the earthquake in Japan? How is did the Arab Spring affect how people in China thought about policy? Newskite brings those answers.

Presentation Video

Scrub to 01:02:00 for my 15 minute talk. You can follow along with the slide deck below.

Slidedeck

Audio Stories
Below are the audio stories from actual people in other countries making calls and telling stories about what they’re hearing in the news about our global events.

Full stories

Poster
Newskite Poster 2.0

Gratitude
Thank you to very many many people but especially to professor Hans Ibold who pushed me hardest and mentored me more than anyone else at Indiana University.

Thank you to my trusted colleagues

Feedback
I also received constructive feedback written commentary.
Presentation Feedback

Tweets during and soon after the presentation
Newskite Tweetstream

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Carl Alviani

Carl Alviani, writer and editor at Ziba took some special time to talk over Skype with a small group of Human-Computer Interaction Design Master’s students at Indiana University in Bloomington. He a talk similar to that from Interaction’s 11 Conference in Boulder.

Wesley Michaels and I tracked him down in Boulder and asked if he would share his insights with our peers who couldn’t make it to the conference. His invitation was part of our semester long research and design project to improve the professional development resources for HCI Master’s students in the School of Informatics and Computing at IU.

Much of our community is struggling to communicate what we do and why it is important. Carl emphasized how important it is for us to tell stories that have characters and tangible examples. Otherwise, people will continue thinking we do magic, or do nothing. The best thing we can do is open a dialogue with people who don’t understand what we do and above all–thank them for being interested in the first place.

Major Points

  1. An example would be useful about now. Got a GPS device in front of you? Talk about it.
  2. Tell an “IxD at work” story that people can see.
  3. Don’t sweat the edge case. It’s ok to start by saying we make website or phone apps. Something like that is tangible and can open a dialogue.
  4. It is your job to shield the world from IxD’s internal debates.
  5. Start where the listener is. Think of your listeners as users. Then have a user-centered designed conversation. You know how to do that!

Q&A with students

  • Is UX and IxD a buzzword? Not necessarily. A buzz word is when usage exceeds comprehension and maybe more people are using the word but don’t know what it means.
  • The best work comes from identifying part of a project where you can have an impact.
  • The industry will benefit as a whole from students coming from young programs. From schools will come more agreements on terminology and practice in the profession.
  • It’s common and expected for interaction designers to inherit and learn new tools fast.
  • There is a difference between user research and market research just as there is a difference between users and consumers. When designers engage in research they come out of their research transformed and empathetic.
  • Getting excited about work is essential. You can begin to think, “do you have any idea of what this will mean to people!?” When you have a person in mind you can really talk about solutions and begin to solve them.
  • Play well with others.
  • People can be very creative. Even or especially non-designers. Let them know you realize that and draw on it. Be interested in them and make sure they know.

Carl, thank you so much!

 

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It looks like Instagram outside

What is it called when our minds see something in nature that looks and feels like a remediation of technology? Deremediation? Probably not, because I made up that word.

For example, Instagr.am is an service that lets people saturate and filter their photos. They are what researchers Bolter and Grusin would call a remediation of old film cameras. Months ago I was driving on highway 280 near Half-Moon Bay between San Francisco and Mountain View. I thought the rocks I was seeing looked a lot like the fake rocks I saw at the Universal Studio’s movie set. The movie set rocks were of course meant to look like real, natural rocks.

What is it then? What is it called when our mind begins processing things in the natural world as if they are produced by technology? Maybe it’s not anything except you thinking I’ve gone absolutely mad.

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