Stewardship is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care.”

A way to think about design is to consider design as stewardship of ideas.

“Management” of something, one might object, sounds awfully passive compared to design as more active creation. But, consider creation in the service (care) of an idea.

Ideas, in a business context, exist and propagate with and without design. They travel through conversations and as bullets in slides or as blurbs on websites.

In its ethereal form, an idea is easy to agree upon, since each person considering the idea concretizes it with their own private details and biases. In a business context, the consequences can be group think, bad requirements, and products missing the mark.

Design gives an idea a corporeal form, expressing a specific version of the idea. Design provides something of substance to agree or disagree with. For a business context this means discussion and alignment, raising quality of outcomes.

As we do design work, we shape an idea. The idea “experiences” a basic alignment with reality through the discovery and research we perform. Sometimes we join the stewards of an existing idea and give it more grounding.

Doing explorations, we evaluate different versions of the idea. By gathering feedback and performing testing, we strengthen the idea’s resilience and maximize its impact.

To support the “expression” of the idea as a product, designers “recruit” the people who do the actual product-building with us to be co-stewards of the idea. The idea still evolves, accommodating constraints.

From a start to a shipped product, everyone involved can maintain visibility of the idea in this idea-stewardship perspective of design. The idea matures along the way.

Sure, design thinking and design processes are not actually this simple. Yet, an idea stewardship perspective can inform choices about actual real-world process steps and artifacts, shaping project phases, meetings and deliverables for better outcomes.

This should be a good executive pitch too: taking an idea, training it to thrive, and releasing it as a product.

P.S. The term “meme” would technically be appropriate to describe the life of an idea, in its pre-internet meaning.. But with the term evoking cat pictures and hate frogs, I passed on it.

Not long ago I wrote about Designing at Tethr. That has come to an abrupt stop this week, as I was amongst a group of people who were laid off. The lay off was no fun, not for the former coworkers keeping their jobs either. I’m sure it was not done lightly. Startups rely on other people’s money, and they don’t come with guaranteed jobs. Time to look forward.

Here are some elements of what I consider when looking at an organization, moving forward. None of these elements provide a prescription for a perfect fit, but they help me with getting a handle on an organization’s promise, allowing me to judge if my contribution would be invested well, and if I could learn and grow.

Healthy Downstream Culture

Tethr had a great culture of execution – when we built something, we built it right, and the development team genuinely cared about the design – that’s a wishlist item.

“Building it right” does not mean being frivolous with resources and feature details – a ruthless focus on essential features of highest value, cutting nice-to-haves, should inform everything we build. But we follow through.

Some development teams out there still foster cultures of “back end is cool, UI is not.” Working in that type of setting would be fine from a consultant’s perspective, where we owe our customers to accept them the way they are. It would not be a great employment situation to chase. That’s the “downstream” side of design – following through in the right way.

…And Upstream

The equally important counterpart is the “upstream” side – the things we can do to frame up our work, the discovery and decision processes that lead us to the right design. I am looking at three upstream factors to get a picture of an organization:

User Pulse

The opportunities to work with actual users: gathering input & feedback, getting a sense of priorities, observing the product meeting the real world. A project may focus on getting something ready for users in the first place – “pre-user” work. A project may be re-packaging proven, known features and activities, making user input non-critical. Some projects are not actually meant to address users, but are mere political tools for stakeholders (ugh.) But, when we don’t see users involved, we better ask “why?”

A potential red flag situation is one where a product is out in the field, users are spending time with it, but internal stakeholders simply think that they know better than users, and that there is nothing to learn. A variation of this is that user input is seen as a source of change, and change is considered a threat to someone’s status. This situation does not bode well for design either.

User input can go from the formal (testing) to the informal (chats), from frequent to occasional, and it can provide critical direction for a project, from informing feature details to strategy.

Product Team Flexibility

The people who are tasked with identifying, tracking and prioritizing requirements and features can do their jobs in a variety of ways. Some of those ways shape a product to be a success, while others lead to wasted development effort. A successful product team is usually curious and considerate. Other product teams may merely be self-assured or instruments of vacillating executives.

As a designer, I like to collaborate with the product team (or be part of it), vs. receiving direction from it. Design insights can shape a product to be successful, but only if they are heard.

Executive Team “Altitude”

Our C-level people set direction, allocate resources and take the organization into the future. They have to maximize the realities of the product: what it does well, and what not, how it delivers customer value. They also have to look beyond the product and its current roadmap, projecting and pursuing the potential of opportunities.

The product’s value and the value of the product’s potential are equally important. Some executives expertly navigate this tension, by combining vision and market understanding with technology intuition. (Some even listen to designers when we demonstrate a potential future.) Others, not so much: an executive may not be able to tell the hard from the easy and the true from the buzz. The executive team either amplifies or squanders a product’s potential, by navigating the tension between current and future.

Unrelated painting by John Marin

Design Culture

Lastly, as designers we have our own house to take care of. Is an organization’s design team a good partner to its upstream and downstream colleagues? Is the design team a steward of value, or a driver of an idiosyncratic agenda of beauty? The answer is not always what we’d like to think it is.

Anyways. These are some things I consider. Also a consideration: my mortgage.

It’s 2019 and time to check in here. I’m not a prolific blogger, and not planning on becoming one.

For two and a half years, I have been working at Tethr, leading design / UX for our product. Tethr finds business insights in transcripts from phone conversations in call centers.

Besides working at Tethr, I’ve also been making music and building synthesizers, benefitting from Austin’s unique Dadageek. That might be another blog post (or not.) The drones that are mentioned on other pages on this website have been staying on the ground, for the most part.

As a design challenge, Tethr is at the interesting intersection of algorithms and people. The algorithms do their thing, they are powerful, multi-layered and hard to explain on any level beyond a basic outline. The users want value: actionable business insights. A few users are sophisticated analysts or even data scientists, but most are just regular business people who want to get through their day and deliver results, without becoming an expert in an exotic tool.

We deliver a simple, scalable UX to address different user aptitudes and try to make the inner workings as transparent as needed to earn as much user trust as we can.

There are limits to user trust, as the “black box issue” of AI rears its head. Results provided by an algorithm that a person does not understand are not trusted as much as results provided by a person. People, after all, give us lots of social clues that we read to determine if we trust them. Software, one generally assumes, does not. Most algorithms are “naturally” not transparent, unless one reads the right (very interesting) books. This issue is one of the challenges holding back IBM Watson in the real world, and it prompts lawmakers in Europe to discuss mandatory explanations for algorithms.

In Tethr, the issue plays out when manual vs. automatic choices are offered. The automatic choice may deliver better accuracy, but the user may still want convincing.

To build this trust, we strive to embody the qualities of trustworthiness in the product. We deliver consistent results, and we make these results verifiable. All insights can be traced down to all the actual calls that they are derived from. We also make discovery of results dynamic and predictable – providing editors that show a strong, tangible representation of the terms and parameters of a given query, in a way that is easy to refine, so looking for insights is a matter of exploration and optimizations where doing things “wrong” is avoided.

Beyond those moments where a user makes choices about a trusted result, there is a larger role for design, in shaping the user’s overall experience with the product. When the product does what it claims to do, explains what it does in overall terms, and delivers successes that are relevant to the user, then there is a chance for trust. This positive stance of the product extends to the organization beyond the product too: the way we sell, deliver, communicate, address bugs, and handle customer data.

Forrester found Tethr to be the easiest-to-use speech analytics platform last year. While there are some points to discuss about that Forrester report, I’m proud to work with a team that delivers this kind of quality. This year, we just released conditional categories, an analytics differentiator with a low barrier of entry and deep power.  More is coming.

In 2016 we spent 10 days in Colorado, where we explored mountain trails in a Sportsmobile.

A Sportsmobile is an offroad-capable van, with kitchen, heater, bed, pop-up roof, solar power system and a full set of equipment. It could be called an RV, but we prefer the term “Expedition Vehicle.” Ours was the long version, at 20 foot. It was 8 foot tall, based on a Ford E350 van, with a v10 engine. The Sportsmobile has a tall suspension, locking front wheel hubs, an “Atlas Transfer Case”, for high- and low rate four wheel drive, and a “Tow/Haul’ setting that provides an additional 4x torque multiplier. In other words, this is a capable asset. Renting it involved a three hour briefing by John at Tonto Trails in Durango. The briefing was excellent, and we set out following the prime directive that is printed on the dashboard: “Protect the Asset.”

We spent the first two nights exploring Bolam Pass Trail, a trail that starts as a nice unpaved road leading to some creekside campsites and gradually turns into a gnarly offload trail over 20 miles. The gradual changes in condition provided a good training sequence for getting used to the Sportsmobile’s handling. The pass itself was still snowed in, and we made it all the way up to the snow bank.

Camping was a matter of picking a nice spot, leveling the asset by positioning leveling blocks under the wheels, and popping up the roof. In Colorado, back country camping, also known as “Boondocking” is legal and common. A few miles in from the trailhead, privacy is easily found. Most campers tow huge trailers, by means of which they confine themselves to well-maintained trail sections near the trailheads, and all trail traffic is daytime traffic.

Trail traffic consists primarily of Jeeps. In general, the Jeep is to Colorado what the Ford F-150 is to central Texas. Besides Jeeps, there are “Utility Terrain Vehicles”,  which are single-, two- and four seater offload vehicles by brands like Can-Am or Polaris. Some of these look like bare roll cages with an engine, and others are full of yellow plastic fenders with cartoon-aggressive headlight configurations. Some of their open-air drivers and passengers wear helmets and cover their face in cloth, while others seem to happily eat the dust. UTVs go much faster than Jeeps or our giant. Most drivers behave considerately, but now and then one will find a group of a few of them who think they are on the Dakar rally. After half a day of peacefully exploring a mountain valley in solitude, encountering such a moron squad made me want to call in a drone strike once.

During most of the trip, the actual amount of traffic on the trails was quite limited, with an encounter every half hour or so. The Sportsmobile is usually the biggest thing any offroader has ever seen on a trail, so in the Sportsmobile we didn’t have to back up much for passing spots. Not a single time, actually.

After Bolam Pass Trail, we headed over to Silverton, and on to the southern part of the Alpine Loop, crossing the 12000-foot Cinnamon Pass, to camp at remote and beautiful American Basin. In the middle of the night, we woke up to the sound of something chewing or scraping on the van. We dissuaded the fellow by turning on our expedition floodlights and by revving the v-10. Later in the night, during an (outdoor-) bathroom trip, I met a suspect: a marmot, its eyes glowing in the flashlight beam.

On the way to the Basin from the pass, we had driven by numerous marmots, and by a doe with two fawns, nesting, near the trail. At the campsite in the Basin, Honoria spotted a moose with two young calves, about twenty meters across the creek from us.

We continued the southern Alpine Loop to Lake City, where we experienced the comforts that rented showers provide. Here, we also experienced rain, which stayed with us to Gunnison, prompting us to continue on to Crested Butte. This was a navigation snafu: my understanding, based on insufficient research, had led me to believe that from Gunnison it would be hard to reach the nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison national park. In reality, we had passed not far from the park entrance when driving from Lake City to Gunnison. Note to self: study your maps, and not just your sometimes-lacking Google maps.

So we sat in Crested Butte after a rainy afternoon, and decided to spend the night in a hotel. Crested Butte is a quaint ski town: it’s small, and it’s all nice, well-maintained “cute” houses, with tourist trap offerings. It achieves its quaintness by offloading most of the actual tourists at night, to Crested Butte Mountain Resort, a collection of large concrete hotel fortresses, half a mile away on the hill.

From Crested Butte, we considered pursuing trails to Aspen, but the trails in question were all a degree of difficulty or two higher than advisable to us. I looked for evidence to the contrary, but in absence of such evidence, we headed south again instead.

Foregoing Gunnison Canyon, we headed through the Uncompahgre National Forest, taking Owl Creek Pass, and thus at least finding some semantic proximity to the colorado-local Hunter S. Thompson, while not making it to the Woody Creek area. Up on Owl Creek Pass, we decided to take a explore a muddy side trail and for rewarded with another wonderful mountain valley. This was also the only time we (slightly!) scraped the back of the asset while negotiating an obstacle, in a rougher then typical off-camber-diagonally-cross-a-ditch-on-a-shelfroad-over-a-big-rock type situation.

After Owl Creek pass, we boondocked on a trail overlooking the mountain town of Ouray. From here, we drove the very pretty Yankee Boy basin Trail, which connects to the tempting, but still-snowed-in Imogene Pass Trail over to Telluride. The Yankee Boy basin trail has a section where the shelf road is actually carved from a straight rock face, with the effect that the road has a rock overhang roof. We stopped a hundred meters before this section to photograph it. It was raining lightly. As I was taking pictures, hail started falling. We jumped back into the asset and hurried under the overhang.

Whenever we encountered a nice place in the middle of nowhere and had some time, I unpacked my drone, a 3DR Solo, to shoot a video or two, quickly programming a flight path and then capturing the footage. This was a new-to-me drone, and setting up an expansive, wide-ranging, high-altitude flight, as demanded by the scenery, was always competing in my mind with wanting to keep the drone close by, in case something went wrong with the system – a system in which I did not have a particularly great amount of trust yet, at least at the start of our trip. We also encountered strong winds, and flying at high altitude comes with aerodynamic performance concerns. I had had a fly-away on the second day, from which the drone returned on it’s own, barely avoiding trees. Cause for the fly-away had likely been operator error on my part, taking the impact of rocks on the fresnel zone lightly. At Yankee Boy Basin, I got some nice footage.

Ouray is a mellow town. It’s tourism-based, but does not have the wretchedness of trying too hard. We stayed another night, and decided to camp in an actual Campground for a change. There are two main difference between boondocking by the side of a trail, and camping in a camp site in camp ground. The view was almost the same, since our boondocking site was just as nice, and close to the campground. The first difference was that at the campground, the site was level. It’s nice to sleep in a level bed. The second difference is that at the campsite, we were visited by a bear in the middle of the night. We woke up when something rocked the van. Honoria jumped up and looked outside, seeing the Bear moving from the van to the fire pit, and then on to other campsites. Bears like campgrounds.

From Ouray, we headed south on the highway to find the Corkscrew Gulch trailhead, to go up to red mountain. Corkscrew Gulch trail was a muddy climb in the forest. “At least it’s not raining,” I thought, just before it started raining. Some jeeps and UTVs passed us, but the Sportsmobile held up fine. At the top, above the treeline, we found great views. High wind fought the drone, but the drone persevered. A number of jeep couples pulled up next to us. One of the jeep guys asked about the Sportsmobile, and I told him about it. “It has an Atlas and a V-10. “Ah, so you got plenty of power.” Later the jeep guy was talking to another jeep guy, and I overheard, “It has an Atlas.”

A lot of jeeps were driven by older couples. In mountain trail demographics, compared to UTV drivers, we are one as well. Several jeep guys we met reminded me of Dr. Feld, my dentist when I grew up in Germany: a no-nonsense but kind older man. I was scared of him, of course, but I also coveted his model airplanes. (He did not have a jeep.)

From red mountain, we drove the short distance to Hurricane Pass, which offered serious alpine tundra. Just beyond the pass we reached lake Como, which is deep turquoise – at least the few bits not still covered in ice were. We camped next to an old mineshaft overlooking the lake. I programmed some video flights, and the drone, at 12000 foot altitude and very low temperatures, finished one of the flights by smacking into the ground with considerable velocity. Luckily, the ground was a snow bank, which acted as a cushion. The drone rebounded, and flipped over, and only broke a set of props. The drone was flying a “cable camera”, where one records some points in the air, and then it flies a smooth line between them. The last leg of the cable included a descent, and it appears that the system just did not have enough power to slow the descent to the planned stop. This is the aforementioned high altitude flying risk.

From Lake Como, we crossed the adjacent California Pass to head down to Animas Fork Ghost Town, via California Valley. It was Sunday morning. This turned out to be a crowded drive, and Animas Fork turned out to be a buzzing weekend warrior basecamp that day. We took a break and watched a couple of dozen off-road vehicles come through. The plan was to ascend to Engineer Pass, to catch the coveted northern part of the Alpine loop, but I was not up for dealing with lots of traffic on the unforgiving ascent. So we headed south, to Silverton again, where we looked for a restaurant. What we found was some sort of Saloon. When we entered, three bikers were leaving, in jeans and leathers, accompanied by matching “biker chick” women. The saloon had a western/mountain interior with giant taxidermy trophies and knick-knacks covering the spaces between them, including hundreds of police department patches and a sign reading “Have You Flogged Your Crew Today ?” The food and service were fine – no complaints. The scenery, and patrons did put us in a Hunter S. Thompson state of mind.

We headed up Clear Lake trail near Silverton to camp, neglecting to check if the trail was open. Arriving at a snowbank above the treeline, we found it wasn’t. But the place was beautiful and there was no traffic, so we decided to make camp right there. A marmot on a rock greeted us, we thought, calling out into the valley. I pursued the marmot for some photos and admired its ability to walk up and down what appeared to be straight rock faces.

Then, half a dozen other marmots appeared: walking down the green slope, walking up the trail, and poking their heads out of holes. Marmots approached the van. The chief marmot jumped on a wheel and started chewing on something. We chased him away. We encircled the van with a line of fresh-ground pepper, but the marmots ignored it. One at a time, they would sneak up, inspect the van and look at us pleadingly. One of them marked a wheel. Facing the prospect of dealing with this all night long, and the danger of serious damage to hoses and cables on the asset, we broke camp and went downhill again after an hour in marmotland. We pulled into a lovely pull-off, much lower on the mountain, where the only visible wildlife was a peaceful snowshoed hare. The fire pit was stocked with wood from previous boondocks.

With Engineer’s Pass aborted, we re-routed ourselves to Mesa Verde National Park, west of Durango. Mesa Verde did not fit the original mountain theme of the trip, but is an impressive place. We camped in the park campground for two nights and took two tours of cliff dwellings. The first tour was led by a ranger who was a archaeologist from Berkeley. He told us the story of peaceful corn farmers moving into cliff dwellings, to be near their water sources during a drought. The cliff dwelling served as storage, offered ceremonial spaces, and hosted civic gatherings. The second tour was led by ranger who was more of an A&M type. His story included the great famine of 40,000 people in the plains nearby, leading to unspeakable violence, and the cliff dwellings serving as bug-out places of last resort, with desperate shamans doing double time rain ceremonies.

The second tour included climbing a 10-meter ladder (“of doom”), and crawling through a tight tunnel. A great amount of severe warnings were given about these obstacles and the impossibility of turning around when encountering them, but everyone in our 50 person group made it through. Tours are back to back, with a thousand visitors going through a site a day. I hung back for photos of the empty site, moments before the next group rushed in. Another guy did the same thing, with lots of comments from his daughters. “Where’s dad ? He’s taking pictures again.”

We took the asset to a car wash, returning it without the deep layer of mud that it had collected. At Tonto Trails in Durango, I did one last drone flight. This flight was cut short as a storm was coming in, and we suddenly found ourselves in strong boundary outflow winds.

The last night was spent in a hotel in Durango, which appears to be a stoner town, a mountain-Santa Cruz. American Airlines had a “weight restriction” on their plane and put us on standby without telling us, but we got home as planned.

Tethr is an enterprise listening platform. Tethr provides users with analytics of phone conversations in call centers, and analytics of chat conversations. I provided forward-looking designs for roadmap decisions, designed the product UX and built a small product design team.

The core design challenge is to create a set of features that equip both sophisticated users and inexperienced users with trusted powerful analytics capabilities, to make insights-driven business decisions. With the user’s success as the central concern, designs also have to be lean, to constantly optimize the output of the development pipeline.

Tethr’s workflows integrate into customers existing environments and cultures. At some customers, users collaborate and share, while other customers use centralized, hierarchical distribution structures. Respecting those distinctions raises user acceptance for a product that encourages personal initiative and fosters insights-based decision making.

Note: Tethr the insights platform is not to be confused with Tether, the crypto-thing.

I explored turning my drone hobby into a business, going part-time at Dell for a while.

I built a drone that could autonomously map several hundred acres of crops per flight, capturing near-infrared images for NVDI plant vigor imaging. I performed a number of test flights at farms near Austin and set up a software workflow for image processing.

The resulting images help a farmer spot areas of a field that require attention, optimizing use of resources to increase yield.

I designed Normalizer NDVI, a simple software that allows non-experts to do the image processing, and hired a team in Ukraine to build a beta, taking on some coding myself. My friends at design agency Carbon 12 (now part of McKinsey) contributed additional design work. With the beta completed, I designed a concept for a scalable online solution to provide a practical workflow for agribusinesses.

Ultimately I was missing some key ingredients to take this further – the drone market was still under-regulated, and I lacked partners. Please ask for details, if interested. I leaned a lot along the way.

This project was a change of pace from software UX. Drawing on my personal experience with drone building, industrial design and 3d printing, I came across an opportunity in 2017 to help a pre-seed stage startup put together a vision for an indoor drone for a commercial application. I advised the new team on technology options, and I created a set of drone prototypes, choosing components and designing airframes that were 3d printed and assembled for iterative flight testing.

The design challenge was to create a small flying object, carrying sensors to do its job, that would be perceived as friendly and non-threatening when encountered by people in a semi-public setting. I incorporated organic shapes and an abstracted gopher face into the drone body.