To the dear friends who watched me squirrel away into working on my TED talk and do my “homework” for a mysterious class… here is my confession.
I am working on something really cool. Something really cool, that I hope will change the way we do data collection for especially complicated fields like… informal economies.
One reason I decided to come work in New York City instead of going back to Mexico or Colombia for more research is that I wanted to learn more about smart design and business models. I started taking the General Assembly User Experience design course this fall to address my interest in design… and smart research. I like the way designers think and problem solve, sketch, test and produce work that is meant to appeal and engage with you. UX goes a step beyond that and designs based on input and existing behaviors observed in their customers. US designers notice how people interact with technology and images on small iphone screens or larger web based programs. I like how carefully it combines new design features with existing behavior patterns.
UX designers create products with specific goals for their users in mind… their job in general is to advocate for users! The types of questions we discuss in the course are about aesthetics, mechanisms that can be learned by playing with the program, and using existing behavioral cues to help people navigate software. Maybe the best line of the introduction class was:
“The best art makes your head spin with questions. Perhaps this is the fundamental distinction between pure art and pure design. While great art makes you wonder, great design makes things clear.” – John Maeda
I am spending a few hours a week sketching and thinking through the details of survey design, from the point of view of the individual administering the survey and the person receiving the survey. For especially complicated data sets, I think this will really make a difference.
In my time in the field, I have tried a variety of different information gathering techniques. I canvassed for several of the past election cycles while I was a student in New Haven, I ran surveys on the informal economy and urban development in a dense Mexican city and again in a rural town of 350 people. I ran a second series of surveys on the undocumented population in Boston and New Haven to understand public opinion on the Dream Act as it was going up for a vote. These are just a few examples, but each of these events had different goals and audiences in mind.
I learned a few things early into each process that I think are important to keep in mind throughout this redesign process:
1) Surveys CANNOT be too long. Short and sweet, figure out in advance what information you need and what holes are missing from the data set you are trying to build. For some of these longer conversations, explain that it will be a longer conversation and not a standing-in-someone’s-door-way-this-will-be-really-quick-I-promise conversation
2) If you have to explain the question beyond basic clarification questions, this piece of the survey has failed and will probably not yield great results from this particular question
3) the advice I received (if you are quiet and wait long enough, people will keep talking and providing more info. Sometimes information that is more useful or relevant than you would have thought to ask for) is particularly relevant for Americans, who really do tend to fill silence when they are uncomfortable, and not applicable across the board.
4) Just like business negotiations, the best case scenario for surveys is when both parties have time to make small talk and get comfortable with one another. The answers tend to be more authentic and it is possible to explore beyond the initial questions the survey listed going into the conversation. This is also a difficult piece to navigate.
For these next few weeks, I am thinking through technology and design opportunities for survey design. It’s been a fun process — much more zoomed in to specific locations for buttons, gestures, design features, information storage and organization, and a number of other things that I took for granted before this course. But so far, the results seem promising.
On Tuesday, I presented my talk at TEDGlobal 2014 to close out the TEDUniversity session. Here is a recap of the full event.
It was a really great experience. I rewrote and edited this talk frequently to get it right and try to fit my 7 minute mark. I had a lot of help and feedback from a number of mentors and the TED content team, which really helped me think through the content, sequence and strategy of the talk. It was, in essence, a very basic intro to why informal communities are interesting. I hope I will get to dig into more of the reasoning slowly as I keep moving forward with research.
I think I ran over in the end, but I was really in the zone during delivery… so I never looked at the clock beyond the 2.30 mark, where I was still making great time. After nervous run throughs all week and early early that morning in the hallway of the Copacabana Hotel… it felt good to walk on stage. Take a deep breathe and grin before delivering the best run through of my talk I had done yet.
It felt so good.
I received a lot of wonderful feedback and had really wonderful conversations about informal economies for hours (and now days….) afterwards. Which is essentially my ideal place to be.
It’s also helping me find ways to explain the ideas floating around in my head. The larger reasons why informal economies are interesting and worth noting. Especially for governments that want to understand fuller profiles of their cities.
To end, I’ll share one particular victory moment. A personal hero is a really talented researcher who works on black market/criminal activity and has spoken at TED before. I have asked him to advise my work before and he has been very supportive of me/my research. He was at TEDUniversity and saw my talk on Tuesday. And then found me Tuesday evening to tell me that I had done a great job. The feeling was comparable to what it would be like if Neil Armstrong told a young Astronaut that they had done a good job on a NASA mission. Not to say that my work is anywhere near as complicated and/or delicate as a NASA mission. But this was… well. I am very pleased with how this all turned out!
Thank you to everyone who sat through edits, run throughs, exhausted and frustrated phone calls/drafts/discussions with me. You are all so wonderful 🙂
I am working on a few interesting projects right now, but I wanted to get through a sort of raw profile/information dump of my first day time hike/fact finding trip for a project I’m on in Queens. We spent a few days planning out what we hoped to do here and searching for books on the history of the area. Besides food books and “Eat Your Way Through Queens: The Guidebook,” the Strand carries very little on the history of Queens. We ordered a book from their warehouse on Jackson Heights (our subject for today) and found a book capturing Queens through photographs and narratives from the 1930s. We have an interesting narrative to build from here… This first piece is my raw impression of the area we explored and what stayed with me. I want to allow you to see how this evolves over time, because its a fascinating place and project.
Now we find ourselves on set in… three, two, one:
In what looks like it will be a long term project, I spent this morning walking through Jackson Heights getting to know the area. This wasn’t my first time visiting, but it was my first time seeing it during the day. My first trip was as a member of a midnight tour group — we walked up Roosevelt avenue taking in the busy scene of the street, the 7 train roaring overhead and the community gathering and passing time together on the sidewalk.
I am writing about informal economic communities, and this was the beginning of a very interesting trip. It felt totally different — far few consumer directed informal businesses on the sidewalks and off the side streets. Instead, it was a lot of people commuting to and from work, passing through with their children or grandchildren, older people gathering for lunch and enjoying the beautiful summer weather… all of this.
Walk with me:
The layout of this particular part of the city was fun. We started on the edges of Jackson Heights, on the part of Roosevelt where there is still a strong Indian population. The area is very orderly and full of wonderful bright colors, sari stores, grocery stores with specialty spices, Ghee and Naan, costume golden jewelry and other odds and ends. Scattered between some of these stores, we saw the occasional Chinese owning, advertising legal services and medical services, among other things.
We had the repair-all tech stores, offering to “unlock” your cellphones [this is a service directed, typically, at phones that are either stolen and resold and therefore need to have the previous user’s information wiped off them or it allows you to remove the factory settings on iphones to use them in ways the initial software would not let you. It made me smile because it reminded me of some of the underground economic activities of college campuses — I definitely knew people who would “jailbreak” iphones for other students and get paid for the service. Usually it was for more of the techy crowd that wanted to write code for their phones and build apps. Some of them were the variety of hackers who enjoy breaking everything into little pieces to examine all of it while they put it back together. Sort of like design thinking… but through someone else’s preexisting model.
The series of streets after the low 80s is predominantly Colombia and Ecuadorian. Slightly further up, we found a lot of Mexicans. They helped us navigate this transition and understand where we were through the particular branding mechanisms that they offered. The stores owned by Ecuadorians had the country’s flag somewhere in the images on the front or inside of their stores. Colombian stores followed similar branding schemes — both groups sometimes included some version of word play about the products this business offered and country of origin of its owners.
Perhaps my favorite moment of “I really am in Queens and this is the coolest immigrant community in New York” happened when I was wandering around the Indian mega-grocery store (Patel Brothers) and found Northern and Southern Indians working there next to a Mexican man who was rearranging different types of amazing curry powders in 3lb bags, a Puerto Rican family was going through the MASSIVE bags of rice deciding what they wanted to purchase, and a few other Latin Americans scattered between enormous glass jars of Ghee, an aisle of Goya offerings and the frozen Indian dinners section. I found the aisle with Naan and Paratha, which, of course, smelled wonderful. And… it was quiet. There was space between aisles for me to walk comfortably without being afraid I might bump into someone coming around a corner or end up juggling and dropping things I was carrying. What a special place to find in this city!
We did spot a few cool examples of informal business.
I found a group that sells “herbal remedies” made in-house for everything ranging from immediately good luck, love potions, potions to help exercise spirits and hexes, to connect with the dead… you name it! They managed to create their own products, sell products that were clearly manufactured somewhere (aerosol cans… of love or retirement potions????) and they offered “spiritual consulting services.” We did not exactly figure out what the last one was from this particular trip.
We saw computer classes, offering basic computer skills at $2/hour. We also noted a number of other medical offerings, many of which offered services like dentistry, massages, and basic medical care within their own homes. I found a “freelance” tow truck operator who also offered general maintenance/repair services. We spotted a few “cars for sale by owner,” and independent video/production design for people who “had something to say and wanted help shaping it.”
There were also a number of people advertising with sandwich boards for recruiters. This photo is one of the offerings with full transparency in the rates they were offering to potential workers. The list includes help in kitchens, cleaners, Deli men and Pizza men. The highest paying offer was for a pizza guy at $700. They also hire for “factory” though we did not end up getting an answer on which factory/where and that position offered the lowest pay of the group of offerings. We noted one woman had at least 2 offices on Roosevelt Avenue not too far apart down the same street. I was given a card for her office by someone handing them out on the street.
The neighborhood is a different creature during this “shift.” People were working in the stores and advertising their services in the streets. There was only one particular street that was walked down where the hawkers shouted about their wares offering us passage into their stores. This seems to happen less than I would expect in Jackson Heights, given the number of businesses competing very closely together.
It feels totally different after 8pm, when many more vendors come back to the neighborhood and sell food along Roosevelt Avenue. The vendors are completely unfazed while the trains roar overhead, rattling everything nearby. The streets are full of families and workers sitting down along window ledges eating their take out. It’s beautiful and smells completely divine. But that is a story that will have to wait for another day!