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3 posts from April 2012

A Hummingbird's Perspective

A Hummingbirds Perspective

Sitting on the cabin's deck was like having a front-row seat at a dragstrip. The birds would park themselves on the perches of a bird feeder, seesawing back and forth to take little sips of sugar water. Then, with a snap, their bodies would shift from sitting to hovering and zip into the treeline.

The lavender in the garden sparkled in the afternoon sun. A light wind played over Westcott Bay, rippling tiny flags on sailboats berthed far from shore. Mary and I had planned this week-long summer getaway so I could finish the manuscript for my second book. After lazy mornings tucked under electric blankets in the cabin, we would spend a few hours walking or drive to Friday Harbor, take in brunch, and then I'd settle down to write for the balance of the afternoon and evening.

This continuous display of nature made the writing hard. We had seen the red bird feeder outside the cabin on previous trips, but those had been in late fall or winter. We'd never had a chance to see the hummingbirds during their migration. I don't think I have ever seen so many hummingbirds in one place. For every sentence typed into the computer, it seemed like there was at least one hummingbird finding its way to the feeder or coursing its way around the yard.

We weren't only dazzled by the hummingbirds. We saw large woodpeckers digging into a rotted log, island cats stalking across the asphalt road looped behind a string of summer homes, a herd of deer pacing through the backyard at dusk. Ants thronged around the herb garden. At one point, two deer were fighting about twenty feet away over who would have first dibs on eating from a tasty bush. In another situation, a baby doe fed on grass up to her shoulder, causing me to arrest the clickety-clack of the computer keys to more clearly hear her chew. In all of these cases, our presence was noted with mild disinterest.

None of this would have been visible to me if I hadn't been sitting on a wooden chair in the backyard, every afternoon.


Within two days of our stay, the bird feeder was nearly depleted. Over dinner that night, Mary and I pondered: Do we refill it?

The cabin we were staying at had no Internet. This was intentional, so we could get away from Seattle and find some focus. So Mary had to use her iPhone for some Internet sleuthing, and figure out how to feed the hummingbirds. With additional information, things only became more confusing.

In sifting through the pantry, we found only raw sugar and powdered sugar. Powdered sugar may be the most crack-like delivery mechanism for sucrose imagined by man—just say the words "funnel cake" and you start salivating. But it isn't pure sugar. It has additional corn starch added to reduce caking. Same goes for raw sugar, which has extra iron in it. Hummingbirds can't process these additives. They prefer pure sucrose. Which made us wonder: What had the hummingbirds been eating up to that point? Who was refilling the feeder? Were they slowly killing the birds?

To be safe, we decided to drive to the grocery store before it closed to purchase white sugar. We also cleaned the feeder before refilling it, as anywhere sugar touches can mildew.


These birds didn't need our help. During this time of year, the high temperatures, light breeze, and blooming flowers and trees everywhere must make for an ideal stopover during their commute up the Pacific coast.

I couldn't help but catch the subtle irony of the situation. Here I was, a user experience designer that didn't let the feeder run out and see if the birds would return to the garden without any additional incentive beyond a flower garden. Instead, I didn't want to risk their absence during our final days of the trip. Or, to put it another way: For the first time in my life, I could see this beautiful bird when he was at rest, all day long. Even if his movements distracted me from what I was trying to do.

The substance of our world can be like sugar water in a sealed tube. Our thoughts and emotions circle, dart around it. We stop, reflect, sip through the provided straw. If we stay too long in one place, we often get stuck in thinking it's the only place to find sustenance.

From a hummingbird's perspective, this really isn't a problem. There's no clear reason why I would be there, watching him eat a fraction of the sugar he'll need for a day's flying… other than it's a lovely place to burn your knees on an overheated MacBook Pro.

I'm the one that isn't moving.

The Gift of Attention

Glass 1


The water glass tumbled to the floor and shattered. Glittering fragments, both small and large, covered almost every inch of the bathroom floor.

A minute passed. Still in shock, I surveyed the tiled landscape from my maroon bathmat island.

My wife called out from the bedroom: "Are you okay?"

"Yes," I said. "It's no big deal." I had been holding a water glass in my right hand, which was also opening the door. In my left hand I was shutting off the alarm on my phone, which I'd accidentally set to snooze. I hadn't wanted to wake my wife up, but it was too late for that.

As my breathing returned to normal, I felt a throbbing pain in my right foot: two splinters of glass poking straight out from the skin, like mile markers on a jogging trail. Kneeling down, I plucked them out. Blood oozed from the wound.

"Wet a pile of paper towels and use it to pick up the fragments," she said.

I put my left palm on the counter and stretched out to pop the bathroom door open. Then I jumped through the door from the bathmat, so I wouldn't risk piercing the soles of my feet.

Outside, a garbage truck honked over and over again, so loud that it set off a car alarm.


I returned with the towels and thick-soled shoes. Leaning over from my waist, I did my best to pick up what pieces of glass I could see, piling them in a paper bag we'd saved from our last trip to the grocery. One of the larger fragments displayed a smiling cow, with a single word below it in handwritten script: "Moo."

Now, the work would begin. Since the glass was cheap, thousands of dust-sized glass pieces glinted from the tile. I wet the towels in the sink, squatted, and began to pat at the floor.

I knew that I had to reach every square inch, to make sure all of the fragments were gone. So I got on my hands and knees to finish the job.

It was only that moment that I realized the floor was filthy—even after having been professionally cleaned before we moved in. This went beyond the usual hair and dirt you might sweep up on a weekly basis.

With the 30 minutes I had before I needed to commute for work, I couldn't clean it to my satisfaction. It would take two hours. At the same time, I didn't know how I'd missed how dirty the floor was when we'd moved in.


Having lived with people who sleepwalk, I sometimes imagine what it would be like if I sleepwalked too: Staring into the mirror in the bathroom, brushing your teeth with shaving cream. Standing in the kitchen after having cooked and eaten half a stack of buttermilk pancakes. Gardening in the moonlight, watering a patch of blooming spaghetti squash. Walking down the center of a city street wearing only flannel pajama bottoms, plush squirrel slippers, and a coffee mug that reads "My Pomeranian Is Smarter then Your Honor Student"—then being woken with bewilderment by a honking Cutlass Supreme.

These moments, whether deliberate or unplanned, break our patterns of attention, much in the same way a Zen master may strike a disciple that has fallen asleep while in seated meditation. The master takes no joy in the act. It is not punishment. He bows to the sleeping discipline in apology for what he is about to do, to make sure the student can return to being present.

Such are these moments, where your actions provide you with such a gift. Did you already receive it?


After I cleaned up the glass and inhaled breakfast, I was standing at the corner of Grand and Lenox Avenue, waiting for the light to change. The clarity of the morning had dissolved into a swarm of thoughts. I was thinking about what I needed to do that day at work. About meeting my wife in Sausalito for a reading by writers that we admired. Dozens of thoughts, in the time it takes for a light at the intersection of Grand and Lenox to change.

A bicyclist shouted as he passed by me and another woman, "Wake up, you're beautiful!" He then whooped with joy and shot both of his fists in the air, balancing his bike between two fast-pumping legs.

The woman and I exchanged glances as if he was crazy.

But he was right. I wasn't there.


Above photo by Andrew Magill, reprinted via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license via Flickr.

The Cult of Awesome

Some Awe

One morning, I had a dream that I was eating a red-hued apple. With each bite, the fruit would yield to my teeth with a pleasant snap—but over time, it began to dawn on me that I wasn't making any headway in consuming the entire flesh of the fruit. As I kept eating, the fruit seemed to grow larger and larger, and the task of consuming the entire fruit was impossible.

The dream seemed prophetic, as I'd been meditating on the notion of quality for a long time. Or, in particular, our desire to be part of the Cult of Awesome.

The idea behind this religion* is simple: Devote yourself to manifesting ideas that are awesome. There are plenty of other people trying to clarify what awesome means just in the context of life itself, but specifically I'm referring to Umair Haque describing the concept behind this belief system in 2009 on his Harvard Business Review blog:

"I'd like to advance a hypothesis: awesomeness is the new innovation… "Innovation" feels like a relic of the industrial era. And it just might be the case that instead of chasing innovation, we should be innovating innovation — that innovation needs innovation."

Umair goes on to describe the four attributes of awesomeness (with regard to one-upping innovation) as:

  1. Ethical production
  2. Insanely great stuff
  3. Love
  4. Thick value (i.e. sustainable value over time)

When his post came out in September 2009, thousands of people online started to buzz about what it would take to get from great to awesome. Umair is working to create a larger, more powerful description of what makes the pursuit of awesome, well, awesome.

Umair's punchlist seems handy when talking with CEOs about how to foster sustainability practices and calibrate their engines to churn out awesome products, services, and so forth. What his list doesn't provide is exactly how the people that give ideas their form can aim for manifesting ideas that are awesome. He's aiming at influencing the top 5% of the executive pyramid, whose newfound and fervent beliefs in awesome will then trickle down to the other 95%: those who are busy churning out what will quickly be categorized as "not insanely great stuff."

I'm being a little flip here because this is nice for CEOs to digest while on their next transatlantic flight, but what does it mean for designers? Is it really so easy to say to design teams, “Go make insanely great stuff?"

I feel like there's a huge missing piece in his pursuit of awesome: the methods and efforts that everyday makers put into manifesting awesomeness while keeping your sanity intact. I'm confident there is no one true path to awesome, but perhaps there is a mind set or tools we can use when straining against the gravity of mediocrity. This is more than just a baseline design process. It's what we learn from the School of Shipping Awesome.

Which leads me to ask this not-so-simple question: How do we make things that we create awesome?** What principles define the process of making things awesome, for teams that include designers, on a practical day-to-day basis?

I sent the above text around, in an earlier draft, to people that I respected in the design community.*** I also had a ton of conversations with designers about this subject. The responses clumped into three areas of insight:

1. There are working processes that teams use, aligned around: craft, persistent effort, multidisciplinary teams, and regular gut checks with market fit and user need. To paraphrase their points:

  • Awesome products and services are intensely crafted.
  • Awesome design requires persistent effort over time for a team to realize. It doesn't emerge automatically from a great idea. It's the push towards realization that can define the idea's merit. (This is covered pretty well in Scott Belsky's Making Ideas Happen.)
  • Reaching awesome requires continuing to check your perspective, from overall business strategy to the production details, multiple times over the life of a project. Throughout each perspective check, you shouldn't be afraid to walk a dozen steps backward to make a singular gain. Most organizations don't have the stomach to throw everything away, declare failure, and start anew with a clearer point of view.
  • Awesome products and services comes from a fusion of multiple disciplines in how the thing is realized, all of those POVs informing each other. Ownership from everyone that's involved in that process is critical.

2. Creating awesomeness isn't something that can be systematically analyzed and realized. Or, in plain English: people called bullshit on the idea of an Awesomeness process. To paraphrase those conversations:

  • There is no silver bullet, process-wise, for creating awesome stuff. You should resist the notion of choosing some off-the-shelf process, which can then be plunked into your workflow and utilized with little to no extra effort.
  • You need to design each project around what it will take to achieve awesomeness.
  • If there was a consistent method of creating awesome products and services, we'd all be doing it.
  • You just have to try and keep trying. (Though one interesting follow-on observation was that awesome design can comes from having previously produced awesome design. Repetition and persistence through failure increases the likelihood of the best outcomes.)
  • Awesome products and services often comes from (initially) ignoring working process and speculating a solution—a "hail mary pass." This doesn't happen by following a checklist.

3. Awesome only becomes a factor once you see how your product or service is performing in people's hands. Until then, you can only aspire towards creating something great. Some interesting points:

  • Awesome design is a factor of constant iteration, both in the mind of the designer and the hands of the customer. There's a dialogue between the two.
  • You know when thing is awesome within 2 milliseconds of starting to use it. (This is the first litmus test of critique.) It continues to be awesome when it works like it should. In the past, it may not have ever met a person's expectations.
  • These awesome products and services then tell their own story over time, which people echo and expand upon. It rarely requires an external marketing story, which is redundant.
  • Awesome products and services force people designing the products and using the products to acknowledge their shared dislikes.
  • Awesome products and services manifest themselves via a feeling of intimacy (which leads to love). Without this, why would you be emotionally invested in them as part of your life?


After gathering the above responses over two years ago, and feeling a bit disheartened by the divergence of perspectives on the subject, I put the results of those conversations in a drawer (digitally) and just tried to focus on creating great work, hoping that I'd have greater clarity on which of the above perspectives held water after giving some of these perspectives a whirl.

After pulling this material back out of the drawer and looking at it again, I'm of the feeling that everything above has some merit.

There are working processes that teams use to try to create awesome products. Sometimes those processes get in the way of making great stuff, which requires teams to lean more heavily on their intuition to speculate about things that haven't been used (yet). And you don't know it's awesome until people let you know it's awesome, which is the most important feedback loop you can build into how the product or service operates.

That said, do you have your own POV that helps you aim for awesomeness? Is there a middle path that designers can follow in how they work with teams to let them balance the demands of shipping stuff with the ideals of making it insanely great? Or is aspiring towards awesomeness a ruse, a Sisyphean task?

If you have thoughts on this, feel free to voice them in the comments below.

That would be awesome.



* I'm calling this "Cult of Awesome" a religion because subscribing to any ideal like the above can tend towards dogma. Might as well give it a name that makes the risk clear.

** I'm sidestepping the word "design" (for now) and using the word "making," because I think that the role of design is an implicit factor in the creation of awesome products and services, whether we're talking about design, engineering, manufacturing, et cetera. While the businessmen at the top are busy trying to wrap their brains around what awesomeness means for their business, I think there's much greater value in empowering everyday workers—and designers are first and foremost among them, oft transmitting their skills to their teammates—in translating the desire for awesomeness (the shared vision) into tangible, real results.

*** Thanks to Jon Bell, Hans Gerwitz, Justin Maguire, and Raj Thiagaraian for sharing their perspectives on this subject with me, among dozens of others in casual conversation who have enriched this piece over the past two years. But those four people were most awesome in grappling with the subject at the inception of this blog post.