2014 in Review

2013 in Review

PERSONAL

This past year was an incredible year with the dominant experience being my nomadic lifestyle. I thoroughly enjoyed the varied new experiences and friendships that pushed me to grow a lot and provided a wealth of great memories.

Travel

In the last decade I had often dreamed of a lifestyle that enabled me to travel extensively and this year well surpassed what I had dared to hope for. I lived for almost three months in Berlin and Croatia, as well as traveled to various other countries in Europe. I also managed to dodge the polar vortex that hit most of the United States this winter by enjoying myself in New Orleans and San Francisco while staying with friends.

While living abroad I was able to become friends with many locals and get a sense of their culture and way of approaching life. After having spent several months in two foreign cities that I knew no one upon arrival (nor the language to any solid degree), I feel much more confident about my ability to move to new places and integrate with the lifestyle there. However, I desire to see how the experience changes as I live in new cities, particularly when I am outside of Europe.

I was able to experience watching Germany win the World Cup while in Berlin and also participated in Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While these were fantastic to be part of, I equally enjoyed the occasions to experience another lifestyle in a personal manner, such as spending a weekend with my friend’s family in Slavonski Brod and having them show me their hometown.

Language

My interest in languages and the act of language learning has continued to grow through my travels. I routinely talk with people I meet about the difficulties they face learning languages and how they approach the task, as well as compare strategies with language instructors. Additionally, I keep exploring the academic literature on the subject and the less formal tips that polyglots give for learning, trying out these various methods in my own language learning. I detailed my experiences with various methods in my post on learning German and continue to evolve my strategies as I learn new languages.

Through spending more time in Berlin this summer and speaking it regularly, my German is at a highly conversant level that I am quite satisfied with. I reached my goal with German, which was to be able to talk with someone I just met across a variety of conversation topics with only minor difficulties. Currently I am seeking to maintain and slowly improve my proficiency with the language while I am away from Germany, exploring various tactics in this regard.

During my stay in Croatia I made a point to spend the initial month intensely learning the language to see what strategies worked best for a fresh language. This was a frustrating experience to be starting from scratch in a language that is substantially different from anything I had learned before. The initial frustration paid off, as by the end of the month I was able hold basic conversations on a range of common topics that people discussed, as well as understand the general highlights of a conversation, though I was not properly conversant. Unfortunately since people had such a high proficiency in English it further disincentivized learning Croatia, but my knowledge enabled me to have a more enjoyable trip and helped out greatly in navigating daily life with ease.

In the recent months I have been refreshing and furthering my Spanish knowledge in preparation for an upcoming trip to Spain. I have been able to make terrific progress by listening to podcasts and other online materials, having lessons with online tutors, and attending local meetups where Spanish speakers gather in a cafe, all without being in a Spanish speaking country or taking any formal course.

Health and Habits

My personal systems and daily habits are an area that I continue to experiment with regularly. Throughout the year I have iterated on some existing habits, such as having nearly continuous daily journaling and also implementing a system of tracking how I spend my days using a physical calendar.

Health and fitness are an important part of my life and this year was a struggle to ensure I maintained positive habits while traveling. While some exceptions were made to my diet (particularly in the meat-heavy culture of Croatia), I overall was able to adjust to a healthy diet wherever I went and keep exercising regularly. Walking continues to be an important part of my life as both a stress reliever and a way to experience a city. This year I expanded how much I walked while abroad, averaging between 5 and 8 miles a day depending on where I lived.

It has also been a pleasure to continue having time to read for personal growth and enjoyment. This year I averaged over a book a week on a plethora of subjects, as well as follow a few podcasts on my walks. After spending most of my PhD years with little free time to read for pleasure, this continues to be a tremendous joy that I can experience wherever I am living.

PROFESSIONAL

While living and exploring different places around the world, I continued working as a researcher for the University of Michigan on the Zydeco project. This past year my work involved furthering the design and development of Zydeco, helping educators use the publicly available app, and applying for additional grant funding, while also exploring new directions and side projects.

Zydeco

While we did not receive the follow-up Zydeco grant we submitted in 2013, the reviewers provided helpful feedback and we revised and expanded our plans before submitting a new grant in October. Steven McGee is the primary investigator through The Learning Partnership and we expanded to work with three museums (the Field Museum in Chicago, the Nature Museum in Chicago, and the Michigan State Planetarium) and will be working with Chris Quintana at the University of Michigan and myself through Elastic Focus.

With the future research directions for Zydeco in mind, we redesigned Zydeco and also reimplemented most of the underlying code base to remove a lot of technical debt. The app should be ready for a re-release in early 2015, leaving us well positioned if we are able to receive additional funding. While we have been redesigning the software, we continue to have new teachers and researchers begin using the existing version of Zydeco in their own classes and projects. It is great to see people continuing to use the software that we all spent so much effort on and I hope we are able to make the project live on after the grant ends.

This past year we presented a demo of Zydeco at the Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) conference working along with EvoRoom, an immersive, room-sized simulation of a rainforest that Michelle Lui designed. Michelle Lui presented a paper regarding a study we collaborated on that combined both of the systems. This was an interesting experience as we had to deal with the logistics of setting up the physical installation on site as well as attend it for most of the conference at certain intervals, akin to manning a conference booth. The presentations seemed to be well received and provided us with further helpful feedback to advance the research.

Side Ventures

I continued exploring several side projects and learning opportunities this year. Most notably was the release of Colibri, an iOS app designed to rapidly build vocabulary in German that I developed with Peter Lewis. Due to some legal holdups, we have not begun marketing the app and it remains relatively unnoticed in the App Store at this time. However, I was able to use the app myself during my stay in Berlin this summer and learned over a thousand new words with the app – a very satisfying feeling to get such great use out of my something I built.

During my travels I was also able to participate in the second LinguaCamp BarCamp for language learners in Hannover, Germany and the WebCamp conference in Zagreb, Croatia. At WebCamp I led a sold out workshop on an Introduction to Usability Testing that was well received. Leading this workshop and also giving a talk on Introduction to Visualization with D3.js has revived my interest to start teaching again and I will be seeking out further opportunities to do so in the future.

During my stay in Croatia I became friends with a senior supervisor at Toptal and was considering working for them as a lead technical editor to develop a whole range of technical resources for software developers. This was a bit of a lateral move that I had never considered before and while applying for the job I wrote an iOS Hiring Guide for Toptal, though in the process of doing so I decided the job was not a good fit for my interests at the time.

GOING FORWARD

I am looking forward to continue being a nomad and traveling further this next year. My immediate goal is to become conversant in Spanish while living in Spain, as well as finish implementing the Zydeco redesign and make that update available on the App Store.

Additionally, I want to try and write more in this coming year. I had hoped to get more blog posts finished this year, but due to various distractions many of my posts in progress became sidelined.

I am also excited to do some exploratory research with the remaining time on the current Zydeco grant. Though my path is not clear after my position ends this summer, I am looking forward to the various possibilities that the future holds.

Usability Testing Resources

I am conducting a workshop at the WebCamp Zagreb, giving an introduction to usability testing. In preparing for the workshop I compiled a list of books and articles that I felt could be helpful for anyone interested in learning more about user-centered design and usability testing. Hopefully these resources will help you out as you discover more about usability testing.

(Note: The books are affiliate links!)

Usability Testing

Articles

Books

Online Usability Testing

  • UserTesting.com – A website where you can hire users to do to remote usability testing on your website quickly. They record the user’s screen and the user answers some questions on what is happening. Can be a quick solution if you cannot recruit your own users.
  • loop11.com – Another website that provides remote usability testing.

General Design

Articles

Books

  • Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. Great book that details different usability issues found in common items in everyday life, as well as positive examples of how these items can be improved. Reading this can help you think about any sort of product design.
  • Don’t Make Me Think – A short book by Steve Krug that provides an introduction to usability principles.
  • Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction – This is a great textbook written by Shneiderman & Catherine Plaisant for getting an overview and introduction to the field of designing interfaces and human-computer interaction (HCI). This book is often required reading in many undergraduate and graduate HCI courses.

 

Reflections on Berlin: A Non-Resident Resident Exploring the Tech Scene

Berlin has been my home for almost 6 months of the past year. I was drawn to Berlin because of my fascination with Berlin’s history and culture, its reputation as a startup hub in Europe, and the low cost of living. While I am sure I will return to Berlin, locals have told me that the city is constantly changing and neighborhoods can be rapidly different in just a few short years.

To this end I wanted to write down my thoughts over what I have experienced in the city, having lived with various people in three trending districts in the city: Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, and Neukölln.

General thoughts on the city:

  • Safe yet gritty: The city is quite safe even though a number of districts are neglected (some would say they look like a dump). You can find a lot of trash and dog poop on the streets as well as lots of graffiti (mainly tagging). This is particularly present in the up-and-coming areas.
  • Low cost of living for a capitol in Western Europe (but prices are rising): Food is particularly cheap. You can find a sandwich for 1-2 euros and lunch menus can be as low as 4-5 euros for a solid meal. Rent is quickly rising in the trending neighborhoods due to gentrification, though it is still quite cheap to live further out. Given the increase in prices and influx of immigrants, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next 5-10 years the cost of living in Berlin became comparable to most western European capitols.
  • Friendly, open, cosmopolitan residents: I have found most people to be very friendly and open, as well as coming from a diverse range of locales. It is easy to come in to the city knowing no one and develop a group of friends if you actively seek to meet people.
  • Plentiful and varied meet up events: Yoga? Take your pick of style. Beer tasting with a knowledgeable host? Got it. Language learning events? In droves.
  • German not required (but it definitely helps): Almost everyone who is under 40 speaks at least a basic level of English and many are quite fluent. There are also some areas where you’ll hear more English than German due to the large international presence.
  • Lots of green space: While Berlin is not as green as some other German cities such as Hamburg, you can find sizable and beautiful parks throughout the city, a massive park (Tiergarten), and the unique attraction of the abandoned Tempelhof airport that is available for public use. German laws allow alcohol in public, which makes it possible to have a picnic in and legally drink in a park.
  • Reliable, frequent, and affordable public transit: Driving and parking is a chaotic and best avoided in the trendy districts, but driving is not necessary for getting about the city.
  • German yet not German: Berlin is an interesting mix of stereotypical German culture with a counter-culture movement and foreign influences, similar to how Austin is to Texas. You still have German mentality on sustainability and local goods, as well as their hatred of credit cards (good luck finding a restaurant that accepts them), while there are a number of deviances from the German norm, such as people (sometimes) walking across an empty street without a walk sign.

Regarding the tech community:

  • Large and enthusiastic tech and startup community: There is a constant stream of tech meet ups and hackathons, neat co-working and hacker spaces, as well as workshops to learn various things. The city is full of startups but the community is quite young with no real presence of large tech companies and there is a lack of mentorship and senior personnel to be found here. Due to the city’s reputation, it attracts a number of well-known individuals in the tech community that visit or live in the city and will be present at events and conference.
  • Deflated tech salary: Due to the influx of tech workers from other regions, the average salary for tech workers is lower than other German cities (e.g. Munich, Hamburg) even when the cost of living is taken into account. However, I have met many people who have jobs in the city that are also working remotely, which is a terrific gig.
  • Startups lacking tech innovation: There are not many tech startups seeking to make new tech innovations. They have a number of interesting startups that are innovating through other means, but I have also noted a lot of startups with the goal of copying services provided by US companies to the US / English speaking market into the German / European market (some very successfully).
  • Healthier startup life: There is a healthier attitude towards startup life in Berlin as compared to Silicon Valley. Many startup employees are working hours more akin to a full-time job than a US startup life; they are willing to end their work-day in the evening and go out and enjoy the simpler things in life. On the other hand, I notice some startup founders seem to be less invested in their company and seem to be doing a startup only as a thing to do while they’re uncertain of what to do with their life, not because they believe in their idea.

Overall I find Berlin a wonderful place and am sad to be leaving this month. I would highly recommend it to anyone as a place to live or visit, particularly if you are a tech worker who can work remotely.