Udacity seeks to solve our greatest education and employment challenges

It’s no secret that higher education as we know it today is not sustainable.  The cost of going to college is only increasing, and the nation now has nearly a trillion dollars in college debt.  And yet, the unemployment rate in the US is around 8%.  People are paying sky high prices for college, only to not find a job.

At the same time, here in the SF Bay Area / Silicon Valley, the demand for talent has never been higher.  Employers like Google, Facebook, Twitter, and countless startups compete for engineering and design talent.  It seems the country’s system of higher education is failing employers and prospective employees.

It is because Udacity seeks to help address this problem that I am so excited to be working with them.  The CEO, Sebastian Thrun, who is perhaps best known for his involvement in directing the development of Google’s self driving cars and augmented reality glasses, gave up his tenured position at Stanford to found Udacity.  His vision and ideals are directly aligned with mine:  use the internet to democratize education and make it freely accessible to all; offer a teaching environment in which students can explore their passions and learn about the things they love, while taking responsibility for their own learning; and help connect employers with people who have the skills and passion needed for the job.  

There is much work to be done with the site. It wouldn’t be a fun endeavor if things were already figured out and perfect!  We’re looking to hire a designer to join the team.  If you’re passionate about working on these problems, have a great portfolio and would enjoy working in a scrappy startup environment, please contact me.  

Goodbye Google, Hello World!

I’ve been getting enough inquires about my current employment status that it seems a blog post is in order.  Yes, it’s true:  after 6 years at Google, I have decided to leave and move on.  I turned in my badge yesterday!  Reflecting on my time spent there, it has been an incredible journey. Google’s relationship with design has evolved in ways that seemed unimaginable six years ago. I’m extremely proud of the team I built there, and Google UX is in great hands with the next generation of leaders. I’m excited for its future and look forward to seeing what comes next!

One of my main intentions behind leaving Google was to pursue a different path from what I was doing before. Having run not just one but two of the largest, most prominent UX teams in the Internet industry and in Silicon Valley, the impact I was having was at a large scale, but in a very indirect way. Going through the yoga teacher training last year taught me a lot about myself. First, I loved being in the beginner’s seat again and learning something entirely new and different. Second, in contrast to the work I’ve done for the past sixteen years, the impact I’ve had in teaching yoga is very direct and hands-on, albeit at a small scale relative to what I did before. Reflecting on this, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

What’s next for me remains to be seen. For now, I am potting plants, literally and figuratively. (As it turns out, potting plants is another activity that puts me in the beginner’s seat, as my children have pointed out to me that I know nothing about gardening.) I’ll continue to teach yoga, but not too much, to give myself the time and headspace I need now. An avid advocate of Montessori education, I’ve joined the Board of Trustees for my children’s school. As I’ve already begun to advise and consult with startups, next month I will join Trinity Ventures as an EIR. I’m extremely excited to join a team comprised of genuinely good people in the venture community. I’ll save details on that for another post. In the meantime, Namaste!

Mindful Design in Japan

At the Wisdom 2.0 conference last February I spoke about Zen and Design and what it means to design mindfully.  While vacationing in Japan last week, I was delighted to see how public spaces there are full of examples of mindful design.  For example, consider something as mundane as manhole covers.  In the US we never give them much of a thought; they usually look like this:

In contrast, manhole covers in Japan are an opportunity to bring unexpected delight to pedestrians that pass:

Manhole covers aside, how often have you seen sidewalk railing that looks like a cage or bars in a jail?
In Tokyo and Kyoto, the railing along sidewalks and bridges are opportunities to bring delight to the public:

In yogic practice we try to cultivate mindfulness by bringing our awareness to the present moment, without judgment.  Mindful design is about bringing attention and awareness to the things we otherwise take for granted, and creating joyful experiences through our interactions with those objects or surroundings.  The manhole covers and railings illustrate how mindful design can be applied to the physical appearance of an ordinary object.  We also found examples of mindful design applied to the experience of public spaces.  For example, this time of year, cherry blossom trees are in full bloom, and pedestrian malls and major roads are lined with sakura:

Compare this scene with California Ave, the local business district for my neighborhood in Palo Alto, which sadly does not even have trees after the city decided to chop them all down:

California Ave, Palo Alto:  Before, with trees
California Ave, Palo Alto:  Without trees

Another example:  many creeks in the US are filled with concrete, motivated by cheaper maintenance costs and more efficient flow of water to its destination:

La Ballona Creek, Culver City, CA

… while all the creeks we encountered in Kyoto were beautiful pedestrian paths:

Mindful design is not just about aesthetics.  User experience practitioners advocate for understanding users’ latent, unmet needs.  Identifying these needs and creating an experience that goes beyond what is expected or required is also mindful design.  Consider the ticket counters at Tokyo subway stations:
That little blue strip of plastic is in front of almost every ticket counter and vending machine. It’s not pretty, but it serves as a resting spot for one’s umbrella or cane as owners purchase their tickets.  It’s unlikely the Japanese public requested this feature; whoever thought to offer this feature had a heightened awareness of users’ latent needs and, just as importantly, had the funding and support to provide this extra detail.  Great design does come with a cost, whether it is added expense or time.  Thus, mindful design has to come from not only the designer, but also those who enable or support the creation of experiences (e.g. sponsors, CEOs, supervisors).

How are you designing mindfully the products and experiences you create? 

Contemplating non-attachment

Book I, Sutra 15, “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”
Drstanusravika visaya vitrsnasya vasikara samjna vairagyam
The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about is non-attachment.

This sutra asserts that non-attachment is essential to the practice of yoga.  Attachment is derived from the things the mind is attracted to through the body’s senses (drishta = seen; anursravika = heard), a metaphorical way to describe worldly things that we perceive.  Rather than go for things the mind wants, one should be able to discriminate whether the things we perceive are actually good for the self or not.

When the mind is attached to worldly things, the practice of yoga cannot be fulfilled because the mind is distracted.  When the mind is distracted by desires, the mind cannot rest and be at peace.  Meditation is only possible when the mind is free from attachment.  

The absence of attachment is related to the lack of expectation of outcomes.  When one is free from expectation, one cannot experience disappointment no matter what the result.  When we remove attachment and expectation from any endeavor, the pursuit of that endeavor becomes intrinsically rewarding, as opposed to extrinsically rewarding.  Thus we are more able to enjoy the journey (e.g. the process), rather than be focused on the outcome itself (e.g. the product).  When the mind is free from personal interest, we do our work well and feel joyful, because we are enjoying the work for experience itself, not the outcome.

Attachment and lack thereof has considerable impact on creativity and innovation, beyond meditation and yogic practice.  Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo found that we are the most creative when we’re focused on the process and being in the present, and least when we’re focused on the product or outcome1.  “When we are concerned about the product, we worry about how it will be judged, evaluated, accepted, and rejected.  Our ego is put on the line.  Worries can then feed back and distort the process of creating new ideas, new visions, and new products.”  One who is process-oriented is intrinsically motivated, engaged in the creative endeavor for the joy of doing it, while a product-orientation is by definition extrinsically motivated.

Outside of creative and artistic endeavors, the absence of non-attachment in the business world has perhaps had dire consequences.  Behavioral economist Dan Ariely conducted experiments in which he looked at the performance of subjects in situations where their compensation was directly tied to how well they performed on a variety of cognitive skills and mechanical tasks.  By connecting compensation to performance, he created conditions in which subjects became extrinsically motivated instead of intrinsically motivated.  Higher bonuses successfully motivated subjects to perform better on mechanical tasks, but actually led to poorer performance on tasks that required even rudimentary cognitive skills. Ariely and his team found similar results from experiments conducted in the U.S., Britain, and India.  “If our tests mimic the real world, then massive bonuses clearly don’t work. They may not only cost employers more but also discourage executives from working to the best of their abilities. The financial crisis, perhaps, didn’t happen in spite of the bonuses, but because of them.”2

In the context of education, the emphasis on grades and testing introduces unhealthy attachment and creates an environment that is antithetical to the point of education:  learning for the pursuit of understanding and knowledge and then wisdom.  The consequences of our test-oriented education system is devastating for our children:  less interest in learning for learning’s sake, less interest in taking on challenging tasks (since they are motivated to get good results, not to take intellectual risks), and more superficial thinking.  Research by Eric Anderman and his colleagues have found in a 1998 study of middle school students, those who “perceived that their schools emphasized performance [as opposed to learning] goals were more likely to report engaging in cheating behaviors.”3

Zimbardo, Ariely, and Anderman’s research are evidence that non-attachment is essential for creativity, performance, happiness, and intellectual well being.  Interpreted broadly, Sutra 15 Book I has significant implications for every aspect of our lives.


1 Zimbardo, P. and Boyd, J.  The Time Paradox (Free Press, 2008), p. 122.

2 “Dan Ariely:  Bonuses boost activity, not quality”, Wired.co.uk (1 Feb 2010), http://www.wired.co.uk/magazine/archive/2010/03/start/dan-ariely-bonuses-boost-activity-but-not-quality

3 Eric M. Anderman, Tripp Griesinger, and Gloria Westerfield, “Motivation and Cheating During Early Adolescence,” Journal of Educational Psychology 90 (1998): 84-93; and Eric M. Anderman and Carol Midgley, “Changes in Self-Reported Academic Cheating Across the Transition from Middle School to High School,” Contemporary Educational Psychology 29 (2004): 499-517.

Who is the inventor?

The other day, Sophie brought home stencils and coloring pages about inventors including George Stephenson and Leonardo da Vinci. It prompted an interesting discussion with Charlotte as the two of them argued as passionately as I’ve ever seen them.

Sophie: “Leonardo da Vinci invented the airplane.”
Charlotte: “No, he didn’t! The Wright brothers invented the airplane.”
Sophie: “YES! It was Leonardo da Vinci. We learned that in school.”
Charlotte: “No, Leonardo da Vinci only drew designs for airplanes but he didn’t make it up into the air. The Wright brothers built the first airplane that made it into the sky.”

In fact, Leonardo da Vinci made the first real studies of flight in the 1480’s. He made hundreds of drawings that illustrated his theories on flight. One of his ideas, the Ornithopter flying machine, was a design that da Vinci created to show how people could fly, and was the basis for the modern day helicopter.

Who is the inventor, the designer or the builder?

"Yes, AND…"

I just started taking an improv class at Stanford–the decision to take this class was spontaneous and I hadn’t given much thought to what I wanted to get out of it; it just looked like fun. Having had the first class this week, I had some interesting takeaways that will stay with me as a parent, a manager, a designer:

Dan, the instructor, had everyone break up into groups of four and pretend we were on a planning committee to work on a task (e.g. redesign a city park, plan a vacation, etc). The first round, we were instructed to respond to every suggestion with “No…”. In the second round, we were told to respond with “Yes, but…”. In the third round, we responded with “Yes, and…”

The effects of these various responses were profound. Even though we were only in a mock situation and following orders, the impact of having someone say “No” to every suggestion was a real downer, limited the flow of ideas, and even affected people’s body language and physical interactions. Feelings of resentment surfaced toward people who rejected well-formed ideas, even though they were acting on orders.

In the “Yes, but…” condition, people were more animated, but this passive-aggressive way of saying “no” still killed creativity and people’s willingness to advocate for their ideas. Watching this scene unfold, “Yes, but…” mirrored countless business meetings we’ve all had.

In contrast, “Yes, and…” generated the wackiest and most innovative ideas, and was certainly the most fun to participate in and watch. “Yes, and…” created implicit ground rules that people were not to judge others ideas but to accept them all, and to build on top of them. People started to lean in closer to each other and make physical connections with a touch of the shoulder or brush of the arm in affirmation. They were smiling and jumping up and down. Everyone felt like a winner coming out of the conversation.

“Yes, and…” captures the essence of what is needed for a successful brainstorm: divergent thinking, nonjudgmental acceptance of ideas, ideas built off of others. Children naturally have this gift for “Yes, and…”, but we lose this over time. “Yes, and…” is an excellent mnemonic to help stimulate creativity and be more positive. When is the last time you said “Yes, and…”?

Hello Kitty

When I was a child my most treasured belongings were my Hello Kitty accessories: combs, mirrors, address book, wallets, pencils. I loved the compactness of the designs, the attention to detail, the use of high quality materials. Back in those days, you couldn’t find Sanrio toys in the United States; everything I owned came from Hong Kong. As a sign of how much I loved these items, I stored all my Hello Kitty paraphernalia in a special box my grandmother gave me. Now still in excellent condition, I have passed them on to my kids and know they treasure these things they way I did.

So I was especially interested when Hello Kitty stuff started to become more accessible in the US. You can now find Hello Kitty just about anywhere, especially at Target, where there are items created exclusively for the store under their licensing deal. My five year old daughter is just as into Hello Kitty as I was, citing “Hello Kitty stuff” as the only toys/accessories she really wants.

But what made Hello Kitty stuff so appealing when I was a child was not the image of her character, but the design and quality her character represented. With the licensing of her character, Hello Kitty is slapped on the same bags, shoes, clothes that you’ll find next to similarly made items with Barbie, Disney princesses, or Dora the Explorer on them. Even when I want to buy Hello Kitty “stuff” for my daughter, I find nothing worth buying unless I go directly to the Sanrio store. Hello Kitty has lost its cachet with me, and not because it is no longer an exclusive brand. The brand doesn’t represent the same things it meant to me 20 years ago: thoughtful, well-made, well-designed accessories for children (and even some adults).

1931: A restaurant that delights

One of the best meals we had while in China was at a small restaurant called 1931 in Shanghai, in the French Concession area. The food could easily stand on its own merit, but there were many non-culinary details of our evening there that made it a delightful experience. Reflecting on that meal, these are some of the key ingredients to creating excellent customer experiences:

(1) Consistency of experience
The decor of 1931 was recently remodeled to a more sino-Western 1930’s look, complete with colored glass votives and lamps, flowery wallpaper, a painting of four 1930’s Shanghai women playing mah-jong in the parlor, and old jazz playing in the background (they even claim to have a Victrola!). The restaurant itself is very small, with only 8-9 tables cozily packed in a small space. The experience felt as if we had wandered into someone’s house in the Concession for dinner. (Unfortunately there was a sign prominently displayed in the restaurant that said no cameras allowed!)

(2) Needs anticipated
Although the restaurant is small and cannot accommodate many diners at once, there was no shortage of wait staff tending to our needs when we were there. Dressed in traditional qipao, the waitresses were attentive and responsive without being too intrusive.

(3) Quality beyond expectations
We had the pleasure of experiencing many wonderful meals in China at some of the nicest restaurants, and this meal tasted as good as the best of them. What made this one stand out was how finely prepared all the ingredients were: potatoes, scallions, and cucumber julienned into the thinnest slivers; vegetables minced so well that almost no chewing was necessary, the food just melted in the mouth. The chef at 1931 clearly recognizes that texture is as important as taste when it comes to creating a delightful meal.

(4) A surprise that brings delight
Shortly after we ordered, we were served three small appetizers served on a glass-blown caddy: roasted seasoned peanuts, tofu with cabbage, and soybeans with vegetables. The finely prepared appetizers did more than put us in a good mood over having bonus food before our meal; they gave us a preview into what was to come. As Brian Wansink has shown, our perception of the quality of a meal is greatly influenced by external factors beyond the food itself, down to the smallest details like where the wine comes from.

The surprise appetizers, attentive wait staff, and consistently 1930’s, cozy atmosphere set such a positive impression and warmed our perceptions toward the restaurant so that the food tasted even better than if the same dishes had been served to us at any other restaurant. We got a great meal and a nice lesson on creating an excellent customer experience.