Growing Up Digital: Raising Tech-Savvy Kids

My son first used an iPad about 2 years ago, when he was 2 1/2. He was fascinated by the thing but, more impressively, he figured out the interface within a matter of days. Soon he scaled that knowledge up to apps, calling people (via phone and FaceTime), sending texts, and playing Angry Birds. He enjoyed using the camera and timer apps almost more than anything else, though: these acted as a view into his world and understanding what was happening around him.

Last year I met Elysse Zarek via Twitter, and we finally had the chance to meet (and enjoy tacos together!) earlier this year at SXSW. Elysse is the project manager and producer at Bloom Digital, a Toronto-based startup that promotes healthy childhoods. Their first app, Long Story, is an episodic game targeted at teens. It explores dating, gender, bullying, and all of the incredibly complicated stuff of growing up. It is a great game.

I got to talking with Elysse and her coworkers about technology and kids and how different it is for us, as parents, than it was for our parents. Most importantly we yearned for something beyond the whole, "How much screen time is 'too much'?" debate. It was frustrating, because there are bigger issues to explore around how this aspect of parenting changes you, too. For example: if you set up your kid with a Twitter account, when do you hand it over to them? Can she delete all of your "cute" tweets about things she said at the age of 3, or 4, or 5? How do you introduce the positive aspects of tech? In essence, how do you design your life to support a healthy relationship with technology for you and your children?

Elysse and I are proud to share our SXSW proposal with you. Our talk, Growing Up Digital: Raising Tech-Savvy Kids, will explore these topics in depth. Here's our SlideShare about it.

You'll be hearing more about this talk during the SXSW 2015 voting period, which ends on September 6.

But most importantly, if you'd like to see us at SXSW 2015, then you should vote for this talk right now. We hope to see you in Austin!

Beats Control

This is a post in a series evaluating streaming music services. Have a peek at Me & Music, and cold Rdio.

I'll be honest with you: I had used Beats a bit prior to their acquisition by Apple. But once Apple bought them, I thought I'd give them another go. I was also simply interested in using different things day-to-day just to gain other perspectives.

Beats is better than I remember. It's excellent for music discovery - probably the best discovery experience I've had since Pandora 11 years ago -  but it is missing a couple of features I care about. It's delightful enough to use and has so much personality that I'm very tempted to use it anyway and just forgo the rdio features I really want.

The Sentence

Easy to love.

Easy to love.

By far, the best thing about Beats is The Sentence. It's a Mad Libs for your music, basically. I can choose a sentence like, "I'm in the car and feel like chilling out with myself to vintage soul & funk." This works way, way better than I expected.

I had come to rely on the simple love/hate ratings of rdio and Spotify, but felt they weren't really doing anything. Beats offers that too. But instead of a radio devoted to an artist or genre, The Sentence is the main way into a radio-like interface. (There are other ways, and they're pretty good too.) With this entry point and the love/hate, I feel like Beats actually kind of understands my musical tastes. This, despite having almost few items in my collection (never bothered) and going solely on ratings and an initial "tell us what genres and artists you like" with one of the most awkward UIs in the world.

The Sentence has introduced me to loads of deep cuts and songs I just haven't heard before. Whereas with rdio, it's gotten so good at predicting me that it just doesn't surprise me anymore on radio stations - even "Paul FM". Beats definitely tries more. Sometimes it misses, but sometimes it introduces me to artists I've never heard before - like Quadron. And then it's all worth it.

One nice touch to note: one rainy morning I started The Sentence, and each of the first five songs had "rain" in their title and/or in their choruses. I don't know how they did that or if it was just a coincidence, but damn, it was a nice touch. It at least gives the impression that there's a person out there on the other end.

Not everything is amazing with The Sentence. It's got a somewhat fidgety UI. The "blanks" for the Mad Libs are limited. And, I can't just save a Sentence for later use. Despite all this I love it anyway.

Silence in the Library

Well hey, at least the pause button is big.

Well hey, at least the pause button is big.

When it comes to using my library of music, Beats foists a good-but-not-great UI and listening experience on me. This is the area where Beats could do a lot better.

It gets simple management right. There's the ability to download tracks for offline use. I can love and hate songs and tracks. I can follow artists (meh). I can add things to a playlist. The interface carries over the "voice" of The Sentence and discovery features. This is polarizing. On the one hand, it's nice to see a different approach to the Now Playing screen. On the other hand, you can't see the album art easily, so too bad. You can see that most of the controls are as expected and stylized. Even though I have grown quite accustomed to seeing album art and only album art on the play screen, this is surprisingly functional.

Overall library management in Beats is nothing to write home about. I prefer to sort by artist, and I can do that. Each album and song is readily available to play and shuffle. It's table stakes.

Not Present

Beats falls down on a number of little, annoying things and a couple of great big things. First, the little stuff:

  • The music isn't equalized across songs. Some tracks will be VERY VERY LOUD and others whisper quiet. I thought we solved this years ago?
  • There's no way to pivot from an artist or song to a radio filled with recommendations based on your selection. (I see this as a philosophical choice, but I still miss it.)

But here's what keeps me from just using Beats all the time: the lack of a play queue, the fact that almost no one I know uses it, and on everything but a phone the experience is pretty shitty.

Let's talk play queue: this is elementary stuff. I should easily be able to line up a few tracks together and then tell the thing to go. I shouldn't have to bring in a playlist construct for this. rdio does this perfectly: you press a song, a menu pops up, you choose "Play Later". Done. It's perfect. In lieu of having a play queue, I didn't bother making playlists or anything of the sort; I simply listened to more music via The Sentence, or album tracks sequentially.

I rarely use the social features of rdio or Spotify, but I missed having something like that here. "Following" people on Beats is a part of the social aspect but it seems half-baked. And when doing a search against the people I follow on Twitter, not very many came up as options to follow; this isn't the case on rdio. (Clearly, I run with an rdio crowd.)

Let's talk about something that rdio gets right that I feel is so, so important: its seamlessness.

I can start a song on my phone, pause it, and then hop over to my computer and finish it. Or, I can control the phone remotely from the computer. This is glorious and is exactly how a streaming service should work for me. It's about the music, not the device; it transcends the technology.

Beats doesn't offer this. Worse, its player options on non-phone platforms out and out suck. The laptop version is a Flash-based (!) web player (!) that doesn't allow you access to your library (wha?) And, the iPad version is straddled with the same limitations. It's almost the opposite of rdio: the seams are showing. Beats is a phone-only service.

To get around this, I'd usually just forego control of Beats on my Mac or iPad. Inconvenient.

Missing Persons

When August rolled around, I concluded my time without rdio and signed up for the service once again. And you know, I missed using Beats right away.

A few weeks prior I dipped into rdio just to check if something was there, and its interface stood in stark contrast to Beats. rdio is clean, simple, and beautiful (even with its flaws). Beats, by contrast, was more brash, helpful, and opinionated. The color choices, the language in the apps, the interactions... these all contribute to an app's personality. And frankly, Beats just makes me feel cooler. rdio feels more perfunctory by comparison: if I was going to build a streaming service and hire a good designer, I would expect to build rdio. Beats is what would happen if I hired a great designer who really understood her subject (music!) better than I did.

Beats is simply more interesting. Despite its missing features, despite its terrible non-phone clients, despite its bugs, Beats got me more excited about finding new music than rdio almost ever has. That's all worth something to me, and even though I'm back with rdio for August, I'm not sure if I'll still be with it come September.

Cold rdio

This summer I chose to use other streaming music services in lieu of rdio, my favorite forever and ever. I wanted to do this mostly to see how good the other options were, and if I was really getting the best service for me.

Writing comparisons like this is hard. I don't want to book into checkboxland, where I'm just comparing features. On the other hand I've been let down by other comparisons that throw their hands up at the end and say, "Well, that's it! You pick one!" With that in mind, here's where I'm coming from.

How I Listen to Music

I listen to music daily. I listen to a mixture of music and podcasts during my lengthy work commute. I listen to music during my runs. I listen to music when I'm folding laundry and doing chores. And lots of times I listen to music, of course, when working at a computer. So for me, being able to access music on multiple platforms (iPhone, iPad, Mac) is a requirement. 

I like to think that I have a collection of music available anywhere, anytime. In short, if I think of a song I'd love to be able to type it in and play it without delay. I'd also like to have a body of songs and artists as "mine", so a collection or library is a must.

My listening habits gravitate towards either entire albums, or a bunch of random songs. For the latter, I enjoy having radio options - particularly if they provide all the controls I expect (including jumping to a previous song). I also really love a queue, because I might think of a dozen or so songs I'll want to listen to in a row, and then play them all.

When I'm listening to radio stations, I really want a mixture of stuff I know and stuff that I will like. Thus, a service needs to start to learn and understand not just what I like but why I like it, too. Plus it has to surprise me! Throw in something left-of-field because I'm okay with that.

Social features aren't important to me, but seeing what my friends and colleagues are listening to (like rdio offers) is fine.

I expect everything reasonable except The Beatles to be available, and I also know some artists won't put their new stuff on streaming networks. For them, I prefer to buy MP3s direct so they get the most profit.

When I started this experiment, I decided to try Beats Music for two reasons: 1, a lower price than rdio when purchased annually - and discounted at Target; 2, I had used Spotify a few years back and hated it. However, I chose to add Spotify to the rotation as well and give it another go. Note that I used the paid subscriptions for each of these services and not the free, ad-driven ones when available.

While I didn't tell myself I'd never use rdio during this experiment, I essentially didn't.

Cutting to the chase

rdio is the best. Yes, it offers the features and library I want but most importantly, it's a pleasure to use.

In spite of its significant flaws, Beats is my second favorite and a very close contender. The Sentence is far and away the best music discovery tool I've seen on these services, and the whole thing has a distinct personality.

Spotify is, well, fine but it's not for me. It feels perfunctory. It's improved a lot since I last used it, but using it largely felt like using nothing to me - in a not-good way.

What you should get

Now the hard part. I know what I should get. Between these three services, what should you get?

If you care about social features or want the biggest service, just get Spotify. If you want the best all-around service, try rdio and Beats.

Next up

In future posts, I'll break down each of these services and talk about what worked and didn't work for me.

Me & Music

This summer I chose to try out Beats Music and Spotify in lieu of rdio, my streaming service of choice. I'm brewing up a massive, 495-page comparison post that you all will love to pour over. But in the interim, I thought it was worth noting how I feel about music without taking up 494 of those pages.

The first song I truly remember loving in my life was "Copacabana" by Barry Manilow, because my mom was a huge Fanilow. (Yep.) Another song from the far reaches of my memory that I really loved was "Steppin' Out" by Joe Jackson, and of course, its video. For most of my childhood, my music consumption was a steady stream of the oldies station from my mom's car radio. 

Once 6th grade rolled around, though, I started to shift over to contemporary pop music - and, simultaneously, really fell in love with The Monkees. My mainstay was Chicago's B96, and I taped songs off of the radio incessantly. Sometimes, as was the case with "Ice Ice Baby", I recorded the song multiple times on multiple tapes from the radio. (That song landed hard.)

The Door Opens

I drifted and stayed in the whole contemporary pop and classic rock world until I found R.E.M. in 1991. "Man on the Moon" was the hook. It surely wasn't the first R.E.M. song I had ever heard, but it was the one I played over and over until I wore out the CD. It was the first music I chose to really love: I was deep into R.E.M., and rec.music.rem was my online home at the time.

The important thing about my exposure to R.E.M. was that it got me really interested in music in general: I started to explore other artists, aided by the booming alternative music scene at the time. I went to my first concert: James, at the Vic. I broke bread with Tim Booth, the band's singer (really!) 

At this time my high school pals and I started playing music together. I picked up a guitar and taught myself how to play. I borrowed books from the library and studied them, but mostly grabbed tabs off of USENET and Gopher (YES) and started to learn chord formations. I distinctly remember trying to play "So. Central Rain" and being overwhelmed instantly. "Oh, he changes chords that quickly?"

I kept practicing, though, and became competent with open chords. I started writing my own songs, but rarely played them for anyone else. I kept them in a big Word file called "Original Songs and Lyrics". I hope I still have that file on a floppy somewhere, but there's one song - "Mistaken" - that I wrote 22 years ago and have memorized.

It's also worth noting that Loadstar, the fabled disk magazine, exposed me to lots of new genres of music I would have never have heard otherwise - like ragtime. Totally got into Sousa for a long time.

Back to the Mc

Over time, though, I started to rediscover the songs I had enjoyed in my childhood, or those that had seeped into my head through repeated listenings. Some of them I loved, some I hated, but the mix of oldies and early MTV and other random sources ended up being more influential than I had thought. It forms a basis for the stuff I like now.

I really like catchy songs, but my tolerance for mainstream pop is limited; power pop is a favorite genre of mine. I don't believe in guilty pleasures - everyone likes what they like. I will defend most of The Monkees' music as solid, well-constructed pop songs. I'm excited to find new music, and since I primarily use streaming services that's mostly where I look for new music. I generally don't like country music (but can appreciate it) and electronica wears thin on me. I find that I really, really love 70s funk. I can listen to "One Night in Bangkok" and "Simple Song" anytime.

Today, I still play guitar with my son, and I sing pretty regularly too. I listen to music every day. And I admit, I'm still blown away by the fact that I can pretty much think of a song, type it into my phone, and listen to it on demand. That's amazing.

The people in the header image, by the way, are the great Sara Watkins, Luke Bulla, and Glen Phillips from their 2007 Various & Sundry tour. Front row seats. Fucking amazing.

 

Found out

On Friday my friends Amy Silvers and Lori Widelitz-Cavallucci spoke at Madison+ UX on Imposter Syndrome. (This was also the talk they presented at IA Summit, and you can see the summary here.) Watching and listening to their talk over the web kicked up my own feelings on this matter.

In short, for years I waited for the other shoe to drop and to be found out as a fraud. Years. Even when I was a young, good programmer, a part of me held on to a fear that one day someone would basically shoot holes in whatever I was doing, and as a result I would feel incredibly humiliated and embarrassed.

During that time, there was a direct impact on the way I worked. It might not have been so noticeable in the darkroom or in the code, but the part of me that was a vocal critic and on alert for being called out was always present. It was always there. As a result of this, I rarely spoke about my work - and promoted it even less. That's because there were enough parts of me saying, "This isn't all that good." It might have truly been good stuff, and to be honest, probably was! But I had a hard time recognizing that and an even harder time taking a compliment. (I mean, people were complimenting me on my work? My internal barometer on that was just way off!) This is also part of the reason I preferred to work by myself for so very long.

But I've had to adjust

Good design work is people-focused, whether it's research or life design or aesthetic design. And that means it's far more open to criticism - but it's also far more open to connection and appreciation, as well. The risk is higher and the reward is higher too.

The biggest things that I've had to account for are my own self-confidence (which is only emerging due to intense work on the self) and my experience.

My experience is something I can now count on, and it appeals mostly to my brain and not so much to my heart. It's relatively easy for me to justify design decisions based on decades of work, including what works well and what doesn't. I say this not to brag (my ego will chime in momentarily!) but I say this as a point of fact: when you work in a field for a very long time, you simply start to see the broad patterns and gain that understanding. I considered it to be table stakes when it came to myself, instead of giving it the true honor it deserves. (It was hard work!)

But the self-confidence is the much, much harder piece. It has required sustained, intense focus on my self, identifying who I am, and being able to even get to a place where I see my work having value and being worthwhile - even to myself.

For instance, it is only within the past 6 months that I have been able to hear a compliment from someone about my work, take a moment, absorb it, and thank them instead of doing the knee-jerk "thanks!" response. I would do the latter because it was polite (brain-focused, other person-focused, society-focused) and not really do what I needed to do to truly hear the other person and take that in (me-focused).

In addition, working on Designing Yourself has given me ample opportunity to promote this great thing I'm doing. On the one hand, it may look easy to post a tweet saying that the show is great. On the other hand, it stirred up a lot of conflict in me. I was overly concerned about appearing too self-promotional, too selfish, too... lots of things that I saw as negative. That, in turn, would make me more vulnerable.

But as my work has continued to get closer and closer to me (less of an abstract), this vulnerability goes part and parcel with it. I can't hide behind code when I'm on stage talking about my experiences. It leaves me totally open. And that's where I want to be because that's where I need to be. Even if someone in the audience, or someone online, thinks I'm a total fraud.

More than Numbers

Technology has made tracking ourselves in numbers easier than ever. At a glance I can tell you how many miles I ran last month, last year, or in the last 3 years. I can tell you how many people follow me on Twitter. I can tell you how many songs I have in my music library, or how many photos I've taken with my phone. I can share a lot of numbers with you.

But numbers never, ever tell the whole story. Ever. They do not express value. They are not the story. They are not us, ultimately. We regularly try to assign value to numbers - in terms of stats, in terms of size and weight, in terms of those "good" and "bad" extremes.

How do we assign value to what we do, and what we say? How do we understand not the quantified self, but the qualified self?

 

Redesign

I redesigned my website last month. Did you notice it? I'm hoping you did, because I tweeted about it and made a big deal about it. That's great!

What about the redesign I did a week ago? That's the one I didn't write about. Was that one noticeable?

The poorly-kept secret is that we're always redesigning. We make changes along the way, try things out, and if they don't work we may go back to the way we used to be. Or, those changes may stick and bring forth new changes.

Change is always happening. Redesigns are always happening. Do we want to call attention to that change, or not?

 

My inbox isn't a to do list

Let's make something clear: I love email. I have always enjoyed getting stuff in the (regular) mail, and when I first started sending and receiving emails on BBSes in the 90s, it was truly magical.

For a very long time I treated my inbox as a to do list. It's easy to see why: most mail apps are very similar to task management apps. There's a list of stuff. It can be labeled and organized and flagged and tagged. It has a bunch of things attached to it. But there's one important component  missing for me: context.

As an example, I have an email in my inbox right now with the subject "Worksheet". It's something I forwarded to myself from my Gmail account, so it appears to be from... me. Given that, what do you think it is? Yeah, yeah, a worksheet. But about what? When is it due? Is it due, ever? Who is it truly from? What do I need to do? What's the first action I need to take on it?

If I don't get that out somewhere else, preferably in Things, then all of that is weighing down my cognitive load. I look at "From: Paul, Subject: Worksheet" and see about 8 different tasks I actually need to do. And in that moment it overwhelms me and feels like a block, a thing I need to take care of instead of something I may want to do.

In addition, the flow of what comes into and out of my inbox isn't controlled by me, not directly. I get junk mail (requires processing), links to stuff to read (goes to Instapaper), email newsletters (sits in the inbox... for now), and various messages. All of it requires some action, usually much more than "just" replying, and my email client says none of that. None.

Because of those hidden tasks, my inbox is a terrible to do list for me.

PS: about those tools

Obligatory: I could certainly find tools that aid in this. Back when I was at a company using Jira (shudder) I wrote a little AppleScript to process incoming bug emails and convert them to tasks in my Inbox in The Hit List (an abandoned to do list app). And yes, there are apps and plugins and things that will just go ahead and make your inbox a to do list. But for my workflow, I strongly prefer to treat my to do list as a separate item from the flow of email.

Bigger and better than ever

Since the web became popular I've scooped up domain names here and there, thinking something would come of them someday. In the early days of my own domain, I considered splitting phonezilla.net (my personal site) into two sites. I wanted to test out my creativity and see if it made sense to separate my journal and personal information from my art and work. It didn't.

I wasn't quite sure where that second site would go. I experimented. But there wasn't a real goal in mind.

Sometime after that, web stats packages became available and popular. The parts of me that love numbers started to love these things and realized, "Ah! This is one of the reasons I'm doing websites! Because visitors." Note that - not people. Visitors. Hits. Page views. Referrers. All of that became increasingly important to me to the point that reviewing my site's stats became a daily ritual.

It grew from there. How can I get more people to read my stuff, or view my web projects? Getting listed on Yahoo!, sure. Trying to get on Cool Site of the Day, sure. Just getting out to more people. Not necessarily the right people - just people.

Over time, traffic to my site picked up a lot. Many, many more people were visiting my site in the early 2000s than now. But because of where I was at the time, I let one particularly nasty and relentless troll get to me, and I took all of it down. All of it. I found a risk to putting one's self on the web: getting hurt. And I got hurt, bad. My ideas of numbers and connecting with people and all of that was blown away by one person whose goal was to make my life miserable.

So I didn't have a website for a very long time. Here's the problem: I missed it. A lot. It ultimately took me about 7 1/2 years to figure out what my website could do, and should do, for me at this point in my life.

However, numbers

I mention all of this because of numbers. That part of me that still loves to obsess over numbers hasn't gone anywhere, so I check the stats for my site regularly.

But there's a twist now: if someone I respect favorites or retweets something I post (and especially if it's a link to something I wrote), that feels very good. It has at least as much meaning as a big day in the stats tab, if not much more.

More importantly, I interpret that as a connection with someone.

And that right there is why I do this.