Designing Presence: Motorcycling and the GPS

My partner and I vacation by traversing the West on two wheels. Two years ago I bought a Garmin 76C handheld to improve my skills as the Navigator. The first time I used it while motorcycling, I was blown away. That little moving dot on the map screen was US on the ROAD. Wow! And hey, I can look up where the next gas station is. Cool! This device represents a particularly powerful form of technological presence that is mostly fabulous.

Say we’re riding over a curvacious mountain pass and we get caught behind a pack of slow moving Harley’s. (Sadly this happens all too often.) Well I can zoom into our location and discover that after two more curves is a long straight-away. Reporting this to the Captain allows her to relax her passing vigilance a bit, knowing the opportunity will come soon enough. (We passed 7 in one fell swoop last Friday. If only the Harley boys knew that two ladies were zooming by… )

Another great use is tracking mileage and distances for our rather weeny fuel tank capacity. Since the bike has no fuel gauge it’s up to us to keep track of when to fuel up again. It’s fabulous to be able to see that the next town is precisely 35.67 miles away.

But as anyone who has used a GPS long will tell you, don’t rely too heavily on the Garmin mapSource in data. This is true for both directions (turn left on Miller St. Ooops – it’s a one way!) and for looking up services like gas stations and Starbucks. (Ooops – that Starbucks was actually on Columbia DRIVE not Columbian WAY.) The weirdest part of the GPS’s inaccuracies is how it challenges you to override your human senses and believe the technology, putting faith into a machine over human intelligence and intuition. It took me about a year of using one to stop trusting the device when my perceptions were telling me otherwise.

What I do now is look up a lot of information on the web and program it into the GPS before leaving on a trip. Thus I discovered an incredible little coffee house in the tiny town of Harlowton, Montana and was able to guide us to it — as the GPS had no data what so ever about this part of the state. But since you can’t know in advance what all your needs will be in all locations at all times — one can text message Google (46645) and request a search. For example: “Missoula, MT Starbucks.” A few moments later a text message from Google provides the locations of two Starbucks and I had time to program one into the GPS in transit, guiding us to the correct spot. This technique, although cumbersome for using two devices, is much more trustworthy and accurate then Garmin’s MapSource. (Which didn’t show either Starbucks.)

That is — as long as your in cell range. 😉

Designing Presence: The many problems with Garmin’s GPS ecosystem

I’ve been using a Garmin 76CS handheld GPS for two years for motorcycle touring. For the kind of riding we do, which is a on lot smaller highways and roads, the interstate only mapping software pre-installed on the GPS is not sufficient. Garmin currently has a sweet business model in charging another $150 for a CD of comprehensive mapping data. They release a new CD every two years or so and — as far as I know — offer no upgrade discount to owners of the previous version. The moment the CD is released it’s out of date. Change is happening every day, but data on a disc is fixed in time the moment the CD is burned, packaged and distributed.

To plan a route using the City Select data, Garmin provides “MapSource” software. It is some of the most frustrating software I have ever used. My initial trip planning process is done online using Google or Yahoo maps and various web sites to determine travel distances, motels, highway construction, fuel stops, etc. These online mapping tools are easy and intuitive (and google maps just got easier because it now allows you to drag and relocate a travel path). They require no user instructions. They just work.

Contrast this to building a trip with MapSource. The software is an unintuitive frustrating mess. Something as simple as routing a day’s journey turns into a 20 minute time suck because I can’t figure out how to “end” the route. One would think clicking on “new route” and then clicking the motel’s address from the previous nights route would initiate a new route from that location. But several times I got to the end of the the “new route” only to see that somehow these miles were added to the previous days route. So instead of having two routes of 300 miles, I had one route of 600. Why? It just shouldn’t be hard for the user to define one route from another. This is one example of at least 10 simple flaws in the user interface of this software. Garmin, did you perform any usability testing before releasing this product? Or do you just expect me to use the owners manual each time? I read it last year and the year before, but I shouldn’t have to read it a third time. I don’t have to with Google. It just works. It’s easy.

I can’t wait for GPS technology to become standard on cell phone. I can’t wait for the day that I can save the route I just built on Google maps on my desktop or laptop, then access the route through my cell phone using mobile Google maps and GPS. Want to know if there’s a Starbucks nearby? Yes, I can do that using my current Garmin 76CS and the $150 City Map data, but it’s out of date. Starbucks may have built 3 new stores since the CD was released. With my GPS enabled cell phone, I’ll be able to do a web search for Starbucks, click a map link and have the GPS lock in to the data point and guide me there — relevent information in an easy format for me to use literally on the fly. Ready for a motorcycle break and want to know if there’s a park nearby? Garmin breaks that kind of data into a category that seems to be mostly populated with churchs and schools. The day will come when I’ll be able to do a Google seach (or use some other cool mobile software) for a local park, get the location via Google maps and again, have my cell phone GPS guide me there. When that day comes — and my guess is we’re a couple of years away — Garmin’s business model is going to undergo a serious hit on several fronts. They won’t be able to hide behind badly designed software any longer, they won’t be able to charge ridiculous sums for aggregating data onto a CD, and come to think of it, they probably won’t be able to charge $400 for a hand held device that only accesses proprietary data either. Did I say I can’t wait?

Designing Presence: Mobile Weather and the N75

Yesterday I discovered just how useful having a solid connect to the “real web” can be. My partner and I were riding back to Seattle from the Methow Valley in north central Washington. We were about to head up the gorgeous North Cascades Highway (which summits at 5477 feet) and were wondering about rain gear. I went to Accuweather.com and shrieked with glee to see that I could access doppler radar images with my Nokia N75. With a couple of clicks, I could see visuals of the cloud activity in western and central Washington — and make an informed choice about the rain gear (unneeded until the other side of the pass.) Later I was able to discern quite accurately that the rain in Darrington, WA would end before we hit Lynnwood. This kind of real-time specificity is amazing when one is moving through the landscape, exposed to the elements.

The REAL mobile web is here.

Mindfulness Presence: Pamela Weiss on Mindfulness

I’ve listened to a podcast from AudioDharma of Pamela Weiss on Mindfulness several times in the past few days. Here are some quotes and paraphrases that stand out to me:

“…in the practice of mindfulness, it doesn’t matter WHAT you are mindful of. This is the amazing thing … you can be mindful of a murderous rage, a sharp pain, calm and bliss. The CONTENT isn’t as important as paying attention to attention. Meditative practice helps us in cultivating a quality of attention which we are able to then attend to our experience. This is the heart of mindfulness.”

“Why is mindfulness such a great thing? How might it benefit me throughout my life? Mindfulness helps us to shift from REACTING to our lives, to being able to RESPOND to our lives. As internal or external events, people, experiences arise in our lives (every moment, every day) we immediately react…and usually not so skillfully. The practice of mindfulness helps us to insert a little bit of space between the event and the reaction. So instead you get: the event –> NOTICING –> response. Instead of habitual reaction, you get the possibility of choice. You get to choose how to respond. You can begin to live a life that is less reactive and more intentional.”

…Remembering usually connotates the structure of the past. But the practice of mindfulness can lend a kind of radical interpretation of remembering — which is to remember the PRESENT, remember NOW. (Editor’s note: Which is really the only truth. Now is all we got.) How much time do we spend remembering the present? Most of our time we are lost in thought, thinking about the future or rehashing the past. The word remember: “Re” means “again”. The implication of remembering is returning, coming back to again … making whole again. Remembering the present brings us into wholeness. The kind of fragmentation that happens when we are lost in thought, when we are spinning between past and future, doesn’t allow for wholeness. Remembering the present brings us back to wholeness.

Sweet.

Designing mobile presence: Customizing my Nokia N75

Since I last posted I’ve learned more about my Nokia N75. Like any new technology system, there’s a learning curve. I tend to take mine slowly, answering questions as they arise rather then, say, reading the owner’s manual from front to back. Today I was cursing that I had no control over access to my most favorite apps – that I had to do the same repetitive drilling every time I wanted to open gmail. Then I thought to check the owners manual and voila – turns out that there’s “an idle screen” mode, turned off by default (so you wouldn’t know it existed) and accessible only by drilling deep into the settings and configurations menu. This mode allows you to place 6 items in a little bar at the top of your idle (home) screen for one-click access. Cool! Later I also discovered I could change the default soft key shortcuts from “messagaging” and “MEdia Net” to my choice. OK – that’s cool too, but many users will never figure this stuff out because the settings are buried so deep.

Speaking of owner’s manuals, I discovered that the S60 web browser feature — the one that took me days to find — was also mentioned in the owner’s manual. Unfortunately, you had to stumble upon it, just as you have to on the actual device. There are two entries for “web” in the index and neither discusses the S60 browser. Likewise, the on screen help was useless. The key factor in both places was (somehow) understanding that the browser was located in a folder called “tools.” This is a seminal problem with hierarchical menu systems; functional pieces of technology are divided into applications, actions, settings, features, etc. and then lumped together into categories that are often not intuitive or even clearly descriptive. The current mobile UI is wedded to hierarchical menus due partly to screen limitations, but more to deeply rooted interaction paradigms. I think the iPhone will blow the paradigm to pieces. Bring it on.

Now that I’m understanding my phone multimedia computer better, it’s starting to become a pleasure to own. I love that I have one click access to my RSS feeds via google reader. Waiting in line for a latte becomes an opportunity to do a little reading. Checking the weather while motorcycling is now one click away as well, instead of a clumsy drilling process. (That would’ve been helpful two weeks ago when we were heading into severe wind in Central Washington.) I’ve yet to use the camera or video recorder much, nor listen to music, but I’ll probably venture into that territory soon. And I’m eager to try out nuTsie the new service that lets you “access your entire iTunes music library from your cell phone.” Glad I didn’t bother to download any of my own files into the device.

Designing mobile presence: The Nokia N75 and the web

I don’t use my cell phone for voice nearly as much as I use it for internet access. About a year ago I was ready to update my then two year old Samsung cell phone for many reasons; one was because it couldn’t run java applications. After working at Vulcan on the FlipStart for a year, I’d knew it was possible to access real time traffic and bus information, view rss feeds, gmail and and google maps, or run an app called Widsets (basically widgets for a mobile device), but you needed a phone capable of java. I also wanted a robust browser and was not impressed with what I’d demo’d on the Blackberry, the Trio and other cellular devices.

Sometime last year Nokia’s Symbian 60 (mobile OS) came out with a cool new browser that received rave reviews for it’s ability to display full size websites that could be selectively zoomed. I had fond memories of the Nokia UI from my first cell phone many moons ago and had read enough to believe they had the best UI currently available. I really hated the Samsung UI and hadn’t seen anything better on other brands of phones. Unfortunately, none of the US providers were offering S60 devices at that time and didn’t feel comfortable buying an unlocked phone that wasn’t supported through a carrier. So I waited. I’m good at that.

In January the iPhone buzz began. Apple was redefining the user interface for a mobile device. The product was stunning. So although I was still waiting for a US carrier to offer a S60 device, I briefly considered buying an iPhone six monthes hence. The thing is, I never buy the first generation of anything – especially something as revolutionary as the iPhone. I’d much rather let the early adaptors blow the big bucks on the first gen device while I wait for the bugs to get fixed and the price to come down.

Finally word came down in April that Cingular the new AT&T was offering the Nokia N75. This was precisely the phone I wanted. And since Cingular had a five year lock on the iPhone, I could rationalize the two year contract, as I can switch to the iPhone next year. So I bought the N75 for a sweet $150 from Wirefly.com

I’m now three weeks into my experience with the phone. And although I do think the UI is far superior to my three year old Samsung, I’m sadly not blown away. I’ll provide one example for this post with more observations to follow.

It took me DAYS to locate the S60 browser.

Cingular places MEdia Net, their internet portal, on the top level screen via a softkey. The UI for their service is – well – uninspired and clunky, with a design that looks straight out of 2002 (and that’s generous.) Their goal, one assumes, is to keep you in a walled garden of content — not really let you explore the wild world of the web where their chances of monetization are greatly reduced.

So where was the GOOD browser – the one that would burst me free of mobile web constraints? Nokia has about 12 categories in their top level menu. One is called “Games and Apps”, and that’s where Gmail landed when I downloaded it so you might think it would live in there. Nope. I finally stumbled across a link called “Web” in a folder called “Tools” There’s nothing to suggest this web link is any different from the Cingular MEdia Net link as the icon is exactly the same, so imagine my surprise when it indeed launched a new browser with the S60 zoom capabilities. Days after desiring and searching for this well touted feature, I’d finally FOUND it.

What’s wrong with this picture? The primary driver for my purchase took my hours to find. And I WANTED to find it. The user guide didn’t tell me where to find it. An hour’s worth of research online didn’t tell me where to find it. Cingular’s website didn’t tell me where to find it. I had to stumble across it and take a stab after having already taken many other stumbling stabs that hadn’t found a target. This experience did nothing to enamour me to either the new AT&T (there, I said it) or Nokia. While I would love to build some brand loyalty to a manufactor and/or a carrier, it hasn’t happened yet.

More observations to come.

Future Presence: Planning a motorcycle trip

My partner and I “vacation” by touring the west on our motorcycle.

The art of riding

Our trips generally cover 9 days/8 nights and 6-7 states or provinces and are intensively planned.We depart with an itinerary that covers daily mileage, motel reservations, highway construction reports, and where we’ll gas up (only relevant if we’re traveling through a remote stretch that could suck our 3.5 gallon tank dry.)

The trip planning is my job and I love it. When I was a kid I used to plan imaginary trips for my family and our trailer using a road atlas and a KOA or Good Sam directory — so clearly planning is in my DNA. The tools I use now are far more sophisticated thanks to the internets, but the process can still easily take 8 – 12 hours spread out over several days or weeks.

My planning begins with paper maps, Google and/or Yahoo maps, Kayak.com, TripAdvisor.com and the websites of the chain motels. Google and Yahoo have made great strides in the past year, incorporating features that link together a string of routes. What they both still seem to be lacking is an easy way to save these routes. Kayak is awesome for providing a list of available hotels with real time data about room availability and price. TripAdvisor is invaluable due to it’s user reviews; many times I’ve chosen say the local Comfort Inn over the local Best Western because of customers (like myself) taking the time to encapsulate their experience.

I’ll have an idea of one or two places we want to visit, but the trajectory of the trip is wide open at the start. Our main variable is seat time, which varies dramatically depending on road type. We can cover 450 miles on the freeway or 300 miles on smaller highways in the same 7 or 8 hour period. The second variable is a destination with a motel that provides high speed internet access, a flexible cancellation policy and a paved parking lot. The interplay between these two variables is the creative element of trip planning.

The first iteration of the trip takes 4-6 hours. There are only so many ways to leave Seattle, but once you get a day or two away the 360 degree arc opens up endless choices. Sometimes I’ll have two possible legs going simultaniously, waiting to see which will have the more interesting resolution as we begin to head towards home.

Once the trip circle is complete, I’ll sit down with my partner to get her thoughts. She invariably brings up gas and construction questions that I haven’t thought about in the excitement of planning. These are not sexy questions, but of course crucial to real time enjoyment once we’re on the road. Gas is usually pretty easy to ID; I’ll type in a location + gas into google and get a pretty clear answer either through a business listing or a recreational site.

Construction is trickier due to the variety of approaches state highway departments use for imparting this information on their websites. Montana for instance, provides one long scrolling page with highway numbers in one column and a description involving mileposts or towns in another. This is a cumbersome format to scan and interpret — especially if you aren’t from Montana. Wyoming on the other hand, starts with a map that drills into regions where helpful icons display construction spots. Even with Wyoming’s easier UI, getting a clear description of the actual road conditions can be impossible without a phone call. I dream of the day where a cadre motorcycle riders will snap photos or real time construction conditions and geo tag them to a common flickr map along with a quick statement.

Just bad

The truth about trip planning though, is that one key element can never be planned in advance: Weather.

“Isolated thunderstorm” in utah

For all my intricate planning, we have so far only successfully completed 1 of 4 itineraries. (The successful trip was the first trip of course, leading us to believe it could always be so easy!) So far all my hours spent crafting the perfect trip, usually the moment arrives where I’m in holed up in the hotel room re-routing the remainder of the trip to avoid wind or rainstorms (although we seem to get caught in both anyways!) This is why broadband is essential for our travel. Wifi is getting easier to find on the road (even McDonalds offers it) and is essential for making daily and sometimes hourly choices about our next move.

Presence Outdoors: Sitting and Walking

As the weather has turned lovely here in Seattle, my daily practices have changed in two ways. I am meditating outside in the early-ish morning and I am choosing to exercise by walking outside instead of treading inside. Both changes are inspired by the desire to be a little more present with nature and the world I live in.

Morning meditation allows me to sit with the sounds of my neighborhood creatures. I notice the different types of songs being sung by the birds, from short and sweet rhythms to the sharp twang of the crows. I notice the swish of wings taking flight nearby. I hear the scuttling sound of squirrels clattering up a tree. I feel the breeze as it initiates out of one place and rests in another. On a chillier morning I open my eyes 30 minutes later and notice the slight steam of my breath. These are sweet, sublime moments that I look forward and that connect me to the world outside my home, bus or office.

Walking offers visual details of nature, from a brisk perspective. I plug in custom molded earphones which shut out the less pleasant sounds of the outdoors – mainly traffic. I select a either a podcast (design, technology or a Buddhist talk), an audio book (say Freakonomics, or Blink), or music — and start my pace. It takes 15 – 20 minutes to walk to a bus stop a mile or so away. When I disembark in the city, I get off a mile or so away. On the evening ride, I might get off 2-3 miles from my house which takes 45 minutes or so to cover. While walking and listening, I’m noticing the world around me through sight and smell. I’m noticing my neighborhood, what’s flowering, whose about to have a yard sale, what house is going to be replaced by the latest clump of townhouses.

Right now the walking form of exercise is far more compelling then treading in the basement. Yes, it takes 2-3 times longer, but I enjoy the time so much more. Exercise doesn’t feel like a chore I have to complete; rather it’s a bit of an adventure and a way to increase my awareness of the world I inhabit. Our lives – and the weather – are in constant flux. I know that both of these practices are working for now, but at some point will transition back indoors. And even this is a good reminder of staying present.

Beginning

My friend Cass quietly started a blog last year. She informed me of this several weeks ago and I began to follow her posts. I’ve been reading many blogs on many topics since 2002 or so, but have never blogged myself because I didn’t believe I had anything worthwhile to add to the public forum. Yet, I am a diligent digital consumer and a firm believer in the power of the web to connect. So whether my words are “public” — or more of a method to organize and synthesize my ideas and thoughts — the moment has come to extend my persona to the web.

I’ve named this blog “Designing Presence” because the words describe two practices I’m engaged in: meditation and design. I’ve been a designer for quite awhile; a meditator for just over a year. As my meditation practice has grown deeper and taken root, I’m beginning to see how it impacts the whole of my life, including my profession. Through the conscious act of blogging I want to share how meditation is touching my design practice. How deepening my awareness of the moment helps me to develop deeper empathy for my user experience work — for instance — or helps to still my mind so that a solution to a problem has the space to spring forth.

I also want to notice how meditation is designing presence in my daily life. I recently attended my first (five day) silent meditation retreat taught by Heather Martin. One idea she discussed is this: We get “better” at what we practice, and each day, each moment we are practicing our lives. So what am I practicing today? Compassion? Curiousity? Judgement? Impatience? I find this to be a powerful way to conceptualize how thoughts and emotions shape experience each day.

Meditation grounds me in the awareness of the moment; Over time the practice is translating to the rest of my life that unfolds “off the cushion.” How? Well that’s one thing I want to blog about.