Revision Path

I got to geek out with Revision Path’s Maurice Cherry about UX, HCI, women in tech, design trends, travel, networking, a design-driven approach, and my experience speaking at PRO/Design. To say it was a great interview is an understatement. In line with most things in my life, this opportunity came about through a series of conversations, events, conferences, and happy hours, talking about the things which I’m most passionate. I have to send a huge thank you to Adekunle for putting Maurice and me in contact!

In their own words, “Revision Path is a weekly interview show that focuses on showcasing Black graphic designers, web designers, and web developers. Each week, we explore the stories, processes, experiences, insights, and creative inspirations of these awesome creators from all over the world.” In my words, Revision Path is a wonderfully curated podcast allowing the Black-tech community to voice their passions and show the continuous beauty of diversity (in tech and beyond). The work they’re doing is important and I’m honored for the opportunity to contribute!

This will also go down in history as the day my face appeared on the front page of a website in the tech section, thanks to EvolveUX!

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Listen to the podcast at:, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher Radio

Mobile Privacy

I think it’s interesting to base an entire body of research on the technological consumption of a population (teenagers) so heavily affected by authoritative figures (their parents). Teen tech consumption is based entirely on their parents’ involvement and support, usually in a financial sense (e.g., purchasing cellphone plans, buying a home computer, etc.). The authors also took some liberties in the study design, using data from privileged, early-adoption populations living in areas with high tech influences (e.g., Silicon Valley) and higher-than-average household incomes. I’d be curious to see a similar study play out with another, less skewed, population.

There is a brief comment in the beginning of the Grinter piece about early opinions about technology.

…in 1929, in their study of Middletown, the Lynds reported that the telephone and the depersonalized communications it offered were in part responsible for the increased sexual liberation of teenagers

At it’s core, this is not a unique or profound claim. This is an evolved version of the “Back in my day, children respected their elders” argument – everyone thinks their generation was more wholesome, respectful, and positive than later generations. However, there is something interesting that occurs with the introduction of technologies that can help parse one’s time and social opportunities; there are several implications here. I first thought about the possibility that these technologies increase teenage communication, which leads to more sexual liberation, assuming that more opportunities to communicate lead to more opportunities to establish relationships (romantic or otherwise).

Though, I think the bigger question is what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Before technology, when all relationships were established with good old face-to-face time, it was arguably easy to understand how social groups were constructed. Everyone knows your friends because you eat lunch together every day. With the introduction of landlines, I imagine it was simpler to maintain existing relationships and easier to establish new relationships in private. Talking on the phone with a new classmate each evening is a private way to establish a relationship. Of course, this action is visible to your immediate family and those sharing the landline which leads to, as Srivastava points out, parents “knowing” their children’s friends. Then came SMS and IM technologies. Now, people can maintain existing relationships, establish new relationships and talk to complete strangers with less outside visibility. Those in your immediate vicinity may identify that you’re communicating with someone (though Grinter mentions some stealth texting practices) without identifying the person outright.

Back to my original question: what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Does it lead to a more trusting society, because you can “meet” new people and develop strong bonds? Does it lead to a less trusting society, because you don’t have the benefit of the context that face-to-face communication offers? I think the answer is that it depends. Early-adopting teenagers forged a way for these technologies to leverage freedom, communicate social popularity, and control their availability; a fact that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Referencing recent class discussions, I think it is increasingly important for technology designers to consider these factors as they’re creating the next big things. I mean, did cellphone manufacturers intend to create an innately flakier society that will use SMS to bail on plans at the last minute? Probably not, but they may have intended to make it easier to tell someone when you’re running 15 minutes late.

Of course, I wonder how technology has changed or evolved since these times. Both of these papers were written in the mid-2000s (2005 and 2006), with the latter assessing mobile usage data collected in 2000. What would these authors say about the upcoming technologies teens are using today? How does Yik Yak’s anonymous communication change the social interactions of knowing the people you’re communicating with? How does Tinder evolve the concept of an extensive buddy list, when the people in your address book are less tied to shared experiences and may be one-off contacts?


Grinter, R.E., Palen, L., and Eldridge, M. Chatting with teenagers. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 13, 4 (2006), 423–447.

Srivastava, L. Mobile phones and the evolution of social behaviour. Behaviour & Information Technology 24, 2 (2005), 111.


Identity and identification is a function of power; the essence of any inclusive group is based on the exclusion of “the Other” group. I believe that some communities are created to include others and have nothing to do with excluding a specific population. As my friends and I say when the topic comes up (e.g., men complaining that all women colleges are sexist for excluding them): “It’s not about you. It’s all about us.” Hall challenges this, claiming that characteristically powerful groups (e.g., wealthy, heterosexual, male, etc.) were allowed (or obligated?) to define other groups. If this is the case, that groups of power are inclusive by excluding “the Other”, what does the “sexist all women’s college” claim mean? Technically, it is a matter of a historically disadvantaged group (as defined by a historically advantaged group) creating something for their benefit and then standing by the inclusion standards.

Hall also claims that identity is a fluid construction that depends entirely on the presence of other groups and situational context. Outside of things like ancestry, which is a pretty rigid attribute, your identity is a reflection of the situation. For example, I consider myself a creative person and in most scenarios this is true, until I am in a room with professional artists, writers, or designers. Then I am an admirer of creativity.

In an ongoing discussion about privacy, identity, and anonymity, it’s hard to distinguish the end of one concept and the beginning of another. Though, if there is one thing I continuously come back to it is the importance of context in every situation. According to Palen, privacy in new technologies should be assessed with respect to three major boundaries: Disclosure, Identity, and Temporality. What does it mean for someone to function as an individual and a representative of a larger institution or social group? How do past actions frame one’s future privacy? Even if we are able to answer these questions, there are unintentional seems that can lead to inferences and the reveal of private information. Palen uses the example of a calendar-sharing system showing HR conference bookings over an extended period of time. One can easily infer that they are planning a round of layoffs in those conference rooms.

I think this happens very frequently. On social media accounts, you can usually see a list of a user’s followed and following accounts. I have unconsciously made inferences about people (e.g., where they live, their political alliances, etc.) based on the other social media accounts they follow. It would not be hard to imagine a scenario where this could unintentionally expose highly personal information. According to Palen, the best way to manage this would be to understand the ways in which people are using certain information to address the seams. Is this a never-ending process? Is there a way to properly mask information to limit the possible inferences while maintaining an online presence? Or does maintaining an online presence mean that inferences (and privacy) will always be murky?

I rounded out my readings with Bylund, who found in a research of a professional social setting, that people don’t care all that much when their information is publicly displayed. They may even celebrate the information and feel offended when their information isn’t shared publicly. Though, I do recognize that in the Bylund study, the personal information was shared in a social, professional setting. The things you’re comfortable sharing with colleagues is likely different from the things you would feel comfortable sharing with family, friends, or strangers.

Basically, technologists are making conservative estimates about users’ opinions on privacy in some situations. In other situations, technology leaves room for inferences and exposure of private information. “So, what’s the middle ground? How can the pieces of identify be applied in a meaningful way?” The answer, of course: It depends.


Bylund, M., Höök, K., and Pommeranz, A. Pieces of identity. Proceedings of the 5th Nordic conference on Human-computer interaction: building bridges, (2008), 427–430.

Hall, S. Who needs ‘identity’? In Questions of Cultural Identity. Sage, London, 1996, 1–17.

Palen, L. and Dourish, P. Unpacking “privacy” for a networked world. CHI ’03: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM Request Permissions (2003), 129.

Designing for Democracy in Education

This reading critique was written by Monet Spells for Educational Technology (CS 6460, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech. I could not find a public copy of the article to link to online, so I linked to the authors’ respective websites.

Designing for Democracy in Education: Participatory Design and the Learning Sciences
by Betsy DiSalvo and Carl DiSalvo

This paper establishes the importance of participatory design in the learning sciences by outlining the challenges, current uses, and potential impact. Participatory design creates opportunities to uncover self-motivations, identities, and interests in the participating parties. It constructs meaningful engagements by encouraging participants to co-create learning environments that meet the needs for the whole community engaged in the learning practice. This concept is fundamentally different from traditional classroom environments, in which teachers develop a curriculum without learning their students’ interests and self-motivations.

The concept of democratic participatory design research is interesting in it’s divergence from standard research methods. The traditional learning sciences approach is to formulate research and learning goals around the researcher’s passions, interests, and directives. Participatory design challenges that idea and instead tasks the community with establishing a dialogue and setting the agenda. As the authors confirm, participatory design is beneficial to researchers, though I’d be interested to understand how the learning sciences community welcomes research of this method. For example, if another researcher conducted the same participatory design study, their results would be fundamentally different depending on the community and contributors involved in their study. Is participatory design too nebulous a research process or is it identifying the need for new research methodologies?

The authors claim that in order for community based research to be successful there must be a long-term commitment. During this commitment period, there must be goal setting and co-designing opportunities with the community to establish a trusting relationship. I am curious how the authors are defining long term in this scenario. Is it implied that in order to do effective participatory design work, there must be a substantial relationship between the educators and the students that is developed over a long period of time? Is the definition of “long-term” arbitrary and solely dependent on the nature of the relationship (e.g., test-prep tutors, mentors, teachers)? How does this claim include programs such as Teach For America where adults commit to a few years of service in a community? Do systems like Teach For America provide an effective structure for beneficial education and opportunities for participatory design?

Business Case for UX

This writing assignment supporting the business case for user experience, written by Monet Spells for Professional Preparation & Practice seminar (CS 6753, Fall 2014) at Georgia Tech. This writing is based on an article published on First Round, Review.

How Design Thinking Transformed AirBnB from a
Failing Startup to a Billion Dollar Business

Early stage start-ups grow small metric numbers into bigger numbers and, by definition, developing and “start up” a product to be successful. This is a fascinating concept and allows for seemingly small decisions and changes to directly correlate to metric changes without the complex factors of large corporation success. The story of AirBnB, a community marketplace facilitating home rentals, is an example of small strokes creating big waves, as the company utilized user experience concepts to double their weekly revenue and increase customer engagement by over 30%.

AirBnB, founded in 2008 by Brian Chesky, Nathan Blecharchzy, and Joe Gebbia, was generating a mere $200 per week in revenue in their early stages. In 2009, on the brink of potential failure, the founders assessed the AirBnB listings in New York. Looking at their product objectively, they noticed that listing photos were of poor quality – there was a problem with the way hosts were “selling” their homes and the AirBnB product. Their solution: fly to New York and take professional grade photos of the listings to increase aesthetic appeal, thereby increasing the perceived value for customers. AirBnB addressed head-on that the perceived value of the product influences, potentially positively or negatively, customers’ buying practices. The solution was working; the weekly revenue doubled to $400 per week, “the first financial improvement that the company had seen in over eight months”.

Years later, AirBnB established a rule that new developers ship changes to production on their first day. This keeps ideas flowing and proves that good decisions come from anywhere. A first-day employee recognized that favorite-stars were “the kind of things you see in utility driven experiences” and suggests a heart icon instead. The result: increased customer engagement by over 30%. In this instance, the employee recognized the way customers would perceive the icon and by putting users at the forefront, recognized a heart was more appropriate.

In order to make substantial success, products need to be user-centered, reflecting user needs, satisfying user wants, and addressing user insecurities. AirBnB continues to engage and understand their customers to fully grasp their problems and present solutions customers will appreciate. This ideology permeates throughout the company, as a user-centered approach to computing, marketing, and product development. New employees travel and stay in an AirBnB rental to understand the customer experience. Team members hypothesize the success of features to encourage “measure[d], productive risks on behalf of the company that can lead to the development of major new features”. While the article drew no clear connection between these instances of user experience concepts and business or revenue benefits, AirBnB is currently a billion dollar company. Let’s just say they’re doing something right.