Email Footnoting (It’s more fun than it sounds)

Yesterday I helped a friend doing some user testing for the UI on an email application he is building for mobile. The colors and lay out are designed to help you sort through massive numbers of emails very quickly.

In the group testing this email option there were several different kinds of behaviors:

  • InBox Zero: the person who tries to answer and manage emails as quickly as possible and then tagging, archiving and moving on
  • Delete Nothing, Read 5%: the person who has 15,000 unread emails in their inbox. We all know someone…
  • Designated Email Time: this person sets aside a specific time block for reading and responding to emails. This means some days are rough and cannot possibly be interested in the time designated for the task.

I fall in the InBox Zero: read, reply, tag, archive. The only emails that stay in my inbox are either 1) Unread — these are either new or I have read them and need to set aside a time to respond to them or 2) Read, but in my inbox because I have responded to them and need to keep an eye on the project/idea/conversation for follow up, should the need for some prodding for a response arise.

I played with the app and its UI for a while. I don’t have enough emails for some of the primary functions on it (handling massive numbers of emails with tags and boomeranging them to a later date), but it was fun to talk through the UI architecture concept.

I was asked, what would you like to see in an email app?

I would LOVE it if I could add a notes section to my emails. Since the emails in my inbox have very specific reasons for being there… I’d love to be able to add a sticky or a comment bubble that reminds me:

  1. what I need to do before I respond to this email,
  2. what the next steps are with this email/project/train of thought,
  3. what we are waiting for,
  4. any other relevant notes to the project.

When someone makes this happen… can you let me know? Email footnotes would be extremely helpful!

Love of the Fact Check

People who know me well are not surprised when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

People who don’t know me very well look some combination of shocked, horrified, or judgmental when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

What they are missing is that fact checking is not about proving people wrong — I don’t like having to flag notes or facts and then follow up for a “can I see your data set” conversation. It’s not about making anyone look bad or asking them to do more work and more research… it’s about ensuring that what is produced is the best piece we can build together.

For me, the fact check is like being a sleuth. I need to figure out what kinds of questions the initial data collectors were asking and whether or not the data is being interpreted accurately when it’s allowed to roam free and be interpreted by other people outside the initial collection team. This is sort of like sniffing out the initial environment of the “scene of the crime” where the data was collected.

Then I get to check out the arguments the opponents or other groups are making and see where there are interpretation issues. Sometimes data sets are very consistent.. sometimes it’s an entirely different story.

I get to look up conversations between brilliant thinkers and try to track down the initial inception point of a thought or idea that became a major piece of intellectual capital.

I get to have really cool conversations about strengthening arguments and narratives with facts. I LOVE this part. I want to make my speakers be the best they can be, because the talk should be able to stand on its own at the point that it’s given… and years later or when its viewed online by people in other contexts.

I hope next time people wont be so horrified when I tell them that I love fact checking. I know I always appreciate the feedback on my own work.

The German in my head

Until Thursday evening, I was in Germany, half of that time sleeping on trains trying to negotiate my rail pass with the conductors and the other half of the time dropping my things in a room I had rented before wandering off into the cities I visited with a map, my wits, and my brain as it transitioned from a week of French to a week of German.

Germany_Berlin_Wall
At the East Side Gallery 2015

I like to think about language structures. There was a brief period in college when I considered studying linguistics, because I think that the structure of language, how we form sentences and arrange “units of concepts” [by this I mean, in normal human language: words], shapes so much of how we think about, see, and record the “data” we collect from the world around us.

French was an easy transition for me, because I grew up speaking Spanish. The sentence structures were familiar. Where the language places emphasis felt like visiting a cousin I hadn’t seen in a while but quickly enjoyed talking to…

German, was for many reasons, an adventure. My mother’s family is Germanic in its roots. In high school, I declared to my parents that I was going to be an exchange student in Germany… without speaking a word of German… and I did it. I started teaching myself through online programs, then I found a teacher in my high school who secretly spoke German, and finally… I appeared in a classroom in Ulm with my host sister and began the slow process of learning through immersion.

When I first arrived in Germany for my program... doing the Tourist thing
When I first arrived in Germany for my program… doing the Tourist thing

It was clunky at best for a long time. The sentence structures I had assumed were “universal” were turned upside down. Adjectives suddenly had to be conjugated… and sometimes entire sentences were shoved between the subject and its actions… it was difficult to flow when I had been trained to write and listen for just the opposite.

Tea_salon_berlin
At my new favorite hideout in Berlin: P & T in Charlottenberg is a tea and stationary store with a very well designed space.

I started to see language different. What was so important to structure in English and Spanish and French… was different in German. Whereas I could begin speaking in the other three without the full concept of what I wanted/needed to say in my head, the option to edit as I continued was always present, German did not offer me the same luxury. Instead, I had to consider each word, each piece, in relation to the other concepts in my sentence. They had to negotiate their roles and placement relative to one another. Only then could I say what I was thinking.

It proved to be very difficult, until the day where suddenly the right neurons had connected and things start to make sense. I started remembering important phrases. I could negotiate prices. I could make small talk in the grocery store. I had made it!

Now, years later, my German is significantly better, but I was reminded of the importance of words and the selection of words by one of my visits in Germany.

We met when we both spoke about our respective projects at an event last year. I remembered our interactions over the course of the weekend very fondly — we were, by far, the youngest speakers, and had bonded over the excitement of the event. In American English terms, I thought of her as my “friend.” But when I called her that, she, with the straightforwardness that I admire both about German as a language and Germans more generally, told me, “I would not consider someone that I had met twice my friend… though I do feel very comfortable with you.”

After that, I thought a lot of about the weight I casually toss or take away from words in my own work in English. How often was I missing what I meant entirely, for the sake of creating a certain comfortableness for another person and strayed from the truth?

I’ve started sending my grandfather postcards, like time capsules, of the days where my adventures make me think of him. That evening I wrote a second postcard to my Grandfather and posted it before I left Berlin. He is now 85 years old and the age is becoming something that creeps into conversations with my parents, thoughts when I carefully save all of his emails with tags so I can find them again, and as a filter in my heart when memories of our adventures flick through my mind. Whereas my language choices could be casual before, my postcards are a commitment to being deliberate and savoring language. I’ve committed to this project of the curated profile for him. And part of that… means getting the language right.

How we remember & Leaving Tunisia

I wrote this on my last evening in Tunisia after a very eventful week.

I did my best to tweet about a lot of the activities and places I was able to see/explore this week… not to be THAT person who overshares on social media, but because I know my own experience of digging through media channels and twitter before coming to Tunisia was repeated scenes of violence and WARNING WARNING WARNINGS. It meant I came with my own fears and apprehensions about being here… even down to the last minute before I boarded my plane from Frankfurt, when an old friend who has been to Tunis several times told me to be very careful because he was worried.

I tweeted and posted and created content about the positive efforts and growth here, because I want there to be more discussion and dimension to the pictures we paint of Tunisia in English media right now.

Violence is terrible, I do not mean to belittle the experience of those who were shot in Tunis in March or in Sousse this past month. It is terrible. But this country, and so many others, are more than the sums of their violence.

Even yesterday as I sat outside waiting for someone, I received another traveling warning from the US Embassy about Tunisia and the Middle East, more generally. The email didn’t have any more news — it restated the recent shootings, but it caused my heart to race when I saw just the subject line from the embassy in my inbox.

The language we use to frame events and communities affects our perception and later the attitude we take when we interact with those communities.

I am still critical of the frequent shootings in the United States, where we still refuse to improve gun regulation and thus wind up with often preventable mass shootings. We don’t see a travel ban or repeated warnings from other embassies around the world about these events in the United States. Tunisia, I am told, strictly regulates guns, making it easy to identify who is playing with weapons traffickers or interested parties in the black market when the police find weapons outside “acceptable” places.

There is pain here, there is economic pressure that makes some feel like they are reaching a breaking point as they search endlessly for jobs they may never find… but where isn’t that true right now?

It took a while for me to let go of the fear, especially as a woman who often travels alone. For my entire life, I have been offered endless advice on ways to “stay safe” and narratives about all the people “who want to hurt” me. Yes, I could stay home and program and never see the world, but that’s not who I am.

Tunisia is so much more than the sum of the acts of violence these past few months. It is a country with an enormously rich history, a diverse ecosystem of entrepreneurs and thinkers and builders and artists, and a country that is tackling challenging issues in designing a government.

I always take precautions and try my best to stay safe. I respected the fact that Tunisians dress more conservatively than I normally would and planned accordingly, if for no other reason than to keep a lower profile and be able to explore without disturbing the ecosystem. I spent more time listening and asking questions than talking. I said “yes” to every adventure that came my way, while making sure I knew where I was, had access to a charged cell phone, and had enough cash on me to handle a variety of situations. But if something happened to me here or in New York… sometimes there isn’t a whole lot I can do. And I accept that. I accept that as the cost of living and the cost of actively learning about communities.

It’s hard to break out of popular narratives, but every little piece helps. I hope that instead of fixating on the violence, we can also see how people in countries struggling with violence survive in the background. How they continue to build and grow businesses or create art. Because that is the backbone of the countries like Tunisia…  and my beloved Mexico. Not the violence.