Zen Rebirth

Along with the release of the newly designed Zen of Technology, I’ve decided to change things up (again).

Zen Digest:

  • One Zen per week, on Tuesdays.
  • Occasional additional zens about technology news & its relevance.
  • New format – Zen Digest (high-level, short, to the point) plus extended.

The Whole Picture:

Over this weekend I received a bit of disappointing news – my Zen of Technology book pitch was rejected by an amazing literary agent.  It has been nearly a year since I’ve started Zen of Tech and I’ve been working on the book/shopping it to publishers and agents for some time.  I’m lucky that this is a side project, so I can afford to get rejections until the end of time, but my whole goal has always been to spread a word of happiness, education, and to be honest, a little bit of fame for me.  I’ve had an agent that didn’t work out, a few publishing houses that showed early interest, then went silent on communications, and this latest bit of news was discouraging.

The silver lining for me, was the words used.  Completely concise, but the agent’s words were: “I wasn’t connecting wholeheartedly with your writing, despite its many charms, so I ought to step aside.”  If you remove all the sugar, the statement boils down to “I wasn’t connecting with your writing.”  Now, I can’t change this agent or how anyone feels when reading my writing, but I can change how and what I write.  I’ve been extremely lucky to have feedback from many of you, as well as others and I have taken all that feedback as suggestions to be a better writer, educator, friend, and mentor.

We learn from stories.  Oral tradition taught lessons using allegory and fables to teach morals, hunting techniques, and life lessons.  That was one thing lacking from my Zens.  I interjected a little bit here and there using “for example” but in attempts to make a boiled-down teaching moment, I took all the flavor out.  I realize some people just want the meat, and that is why I’ll be adding the “Zen Digest” which will appear at the top and summarize the lesson in no more than 3 sentences (or bullet points).  For those with little time to read, or want context before reading, that’s for you.

The rest of the part will be a personal story.  Most will be directly about me, and how I struggled and solved a problem – or should have.  Instead of creating hypothetical examples, I’ll use my real life as the guiding lesson.  In fact, the story above about rejection is a good example (although not very tech related).  I’ll be keeping the stories relatively short, but I will always tell a complete story.

As for the book, I believe the concept and meat is good, but I need to build a story around it.  For now, I’m going to take all the wonderful feedback I’ve received and work on building this list.  By lowering my updates, I should have more time for marketing and spreading the word.  A story format for these posts will make it much easier to compile the final content.  It will also make it easier for readers to submit their own personal adventures to share with the list.

So, I hope you like these changes, and as always would love to hear your feedback.  For those who have been reading for the past year, thank you!  For those who are newer, welcome and I hope you enjoy the ride.

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Make Someone Smile

The end result of nearly everything we do in life should be to make someone smile.  By setting a goal to make someone smile randomly, you will create a much better experience.

Making an application where there is a 10 second wait time?  Sure, you could have your basic hourglass or spinner, but what about a smiley face?

Ultimately it comes down to surprises.  Have you ever been to an office that has a silly poster up next to the copy machine or office printer?  You often have about a minute of downtime while your document prints, and you could pull out your phone and check messages, but you often look around and do nothing.  A simple poster gives you something to read – and a chance to smile.

Little things like this add up.  Back in college, I ran I website called CollegeBoredom.  My roommate, to help promote, printed up signs that said “Thanks to wifi, this stall brings you CollegeBoredom.com!” and it included a random funny image from the site.  He stuck them in bathroom stalls around campus.  Since smartphones weren’t a thing at the time, people read the posters, laughed, and I saw a pretty big spike in traffic.

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30 Seconds

Get your point across in 30 seconds.  You can reinforce it after, but say it quick, say it well, and respect your audience.

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Stupid Questions

When solving any problem, ask stupid questions and ask them first.  We’ve all heard “there are no stupid questions…” but what does that really mean, and what is a “stupid” question.  Many feel that a stupid question is one that you should know the answer to: “What year is it?” “What color is my hair?” and “What is Google?” may be classified as stupid questions.  Additionally, stupid questions may also be classified as ones for which the answer seems too obvious, “Why would you use an umbrella when it rains?”  “Why can’t cars drive themselves?”  “Why can’t it be sunny every day?”

These questions – without any context – are fairly meaningless, but a stupid question with the right context can actually be the most intelligent question.

To address the first type of “stupid” questions – if you need clarity on a term being used, chances are others do to.  Ask it early, it will help your understanding and ensure that everyone is on the same page.  Many people have correct, yet slightly off-target definitions of things.  When a speaker clarifies their definitions, it helps everyone.

As for the second, asking silly questions can ultimately yield to a more creative and better solution than traditional thinking will get you to.  Sometimes push your question to an extreme.  “What if I ate the same thing for breakfast every morning?”  “What if we get customers to answer their own questions?”  “What if we reward customers for helping other customers?”  “What if we get the art department to design awards for other departments during their downtime?”  “What if we pull out all the food about to expire and make a meal with it…”  The possibilities are endless and can lead to some very positive results.

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The Laws of Nature

From the day we are born to the day we pass, the laws of nature have set our expectations for the world around us.  What comes up, must go down, plants need sun and water to grow, and hit most things hard enough and they break.  The rules of the physical world are immutable.

There are no rules for how the digital world presented behind a screen must act.  You can make a box appear out of nowhere and disappear just as fast.  Items can float up, down, left, and right for no reason at all.  But, you must be mindful that our roots in the physical world will have a feeling of awkwardness as their brains say “that’s not how the world works.”  With prolonged use, our brains can be retrained that the digital world is different from the real world, but is that the sort of training you want a user to go through?

 

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Hashtags

Hashtags (#) – some people love them, some people hate them, and Jimmy Fallon satires them.  Some see hashtags as slang, and over time they have developed a secondary function on certain networks such as Twitter, but their main purpose universally across all social networks is to provide context and categories.

The hashtag symbol is a way to denote metadata.  It is a way to describe the text you have provided.  Originally proposed as a means to easily parse/search through tweets, the concept caught on due to it’s immense purpose.  Hashtags are used to denote events, for example #earthquake was used in the 2011 east-coast earthquake, they are also to denote moods #happy or even to mark reference to a thing #iPhone5.  Hashtags provide a very easy way for both computers and humans to search for content that is of interest.  Since the # symbol is not common in every day language, it’s use as a demarcation makes sense.

Whether you use them or not, understanding what they mean is useful as it can provide additional context.  Take “I love Product X #sarcasm” and “I love Product X #biggestfan.”  While tone-of-voice can help determine sarcasm in person-to-person communication, text loses all that tone.  A hashtag can provide context.  Hashtags have made their way into blogs, news networks, and seem to pop up in every new social network – so for the time being they are here to stay.

As a programmer, knowledge of hashtags and the value they provide can really help you extract value out of social data.

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Equilibrium

Energy is always constant.  We think of energy being used – the gas in a car, a device using batteries, your coffee maker consuming electricity, but that is only energy being transformed from one type to another.  Your coffee maker is turning electrical energy into heat, your car is turning chemical potential energy into explosive pressure turning pistons and ultimately making the wheels move.

There is never loss in energy, although conversions are rarely perfect.  For example, when your phone battery converts chemical potential energy into electrical energy, and the parts in your phone turn that electrical energy into light (your screen) or being consumed via processing, inefficiencies result in a small amount of energy being turned into heat.  This is why your phone gets hot if you are on a long call, or use it alot.

Why is this important?  Because our actions also follow these rules.  Putting in only a little bit of effort cannot be expected to have extreme results.  At least not without borrowing energy from somewhere else.

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UI vs UX

UI (user interface) and UX (user experience) are common design terms and are sometimes used interchangeably.  The reality is – they are two very different concepts with two very different purposes.

The UI is the way a user interfaces with a computer.  UI can include a mouse and buttons that get clicked, text inputs where information is entered via a keyboard, or a microphone where the user speaks and the commands are parsed from voice.  When you view a website and things fly in from all directions, and ask to be clicked, that is all user interface.

UX is one step beyond all that.  If done correctly, the UI is born of the UX.  The UX is about mapping the user’s experience and desires.  When a user signs in to Facebook, what do they really want to see?  How do they want to see it?  What information is most important, and how should it be displayed.  Once those questions have been answered, only then can a truly effective UI be created.

This doesn’t just apply to the digital world.  Lets say you are in charge of your office’s “What’s going on” board.  You could simply put up a cork board and let people put up fliers wherever, or you could give guidance and put up some dates, so that things get posted in chronological order.  Or, have things geared towards kids at the bottom (so kids can read them) and adults at the top.  By giving visual prompts or proper signage, you greatly increase the value of the function as well as reduce the time spent figuring out what may be of interest.

Whenever there is an interaction, there is an experience.  In our personal and professional lives we should all strive to create the best experiences possible for those around us.  Life is too short not to.

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