User Testing

I sat in my regular neighborhood bar, in my regular bar stool, on my regular night.  I sipped my regular drink, and listened to an irregular pair of women.  They were talking about boys, the Mets, thongs, times they were arrested, times they should’ve been arrested.  And I sat next to them, laughed to the point of including myself into the conversation.  Once it was established that I was a regular and knew the bartender, I was ok in their book and it was acceptable for me to laugh at them, not just with them.  When it came time for the “so what do you do” round of questions, I was ready.  I wasn’t ready for their response.

Usually when I tell people that I’m finishing a degree in a program that I made up there’s a bit of confusion and speculation, and I’ve figured out ways to distill it over the years.  Usually when I say I’m working on a text message based platform designed to connect local government and communities, I have to give examples.  This was the first time I was able to not need to do any of that, and just show them.  I said, here, text this number.  What do I text it?  Whatever you want.  They both texted “hi”.  Then they got their responses.  One went “wow!” the other went “love gov!  Do you see!  It says love gov!”  The one put her phone away and continued to focus on her drink.  The other read the prompt.

“Tell me your idea.  But what if I don’t have any ideas?” It can be any idea you have, I said.  But I don’t know anything, she said.  Sure you do, what’s important to you?  She paused and then said, “can I say I don’t like charter schools?”  She had no idea that charter schools is and has been the exact example that I used to say when talking about this.  She had no idea that I was given the advice by many people to use this as a platform specifically for education, or that schools came up over and over again in conversations I had about the prioritization of issues.  “If that’s what’s important to you,” I told her.

We talked a little more about the project, about the scope, about the idea, then went back to the Mets, thongs, boys, times I was in the back of a cop car.  The next morning when I checked the database, I saw a text: “please don’t open any more charter schools let’s support our public schools!”

So far so good on the testing front.


You Can Always Go

Music has a way of taking us back to certain places, certain times.  It has a way of hitting us when we don’t expect it, to pull at strings we didn’t know were still there.  It has a way of connecting thoughts and emotions, and digging up feelings we had trouble expressing.

Last week, I was walking around the Salt Lake City airport just after midnight, in the midst of finding out it was delayed because Delta forgot to book a co-pilot for the flight, and I had a sudden and strong feeling.  I wanted to, needed to, listen to “Downtown” the 1964 hit by Petula Clark.  I didn’t know why.  I didn’t know where it came from.  So I downloaded it and listened to it.  Delta said they found a pilot.  And listened again.  He was on his way.  And listened again.

Then it hit me.

I was in the airport on my way to catch a delayed red eye back to New York from an almost week long experience at the first ever Field Innovation Team Bootcamp.  FIT is a new organization dedicated to innovating around emergency relief in the disaster space, with a focus on the survivors.  How do we utilize technology to make survivors lives better?  How can we use technology to save people’s lives?  How can we rethink the ways we prepare for disasters?  These are some of the questions we asked.  But let me back up, before I even got to Utah.

After Superstorm Sandy hit, FEMA deployed the then-new Innovation Team, led by a woman named Desi.  I met Desi and the team in a class I was taking, and we brainstormed design solutions to emergency relief issues that were coming up in the recovery efforts.  The ideas weren’t just responding to problems, but thinking about how we approach the processes in disaster relief.  Thinking about how to make process smoother and easier for survivors.  Thinking about how to engage the community in volunteer efforts.  Not a new way of thinking about issues, a different way.  How to connect institutions to meet need.  How to think differently.

I kept an open dialogue with Desi about my Thesis project, about different ways of thinking, about the work she was doing with the Innovation Team.  We stayed in touch as my project progressed, and talked about the implications of establishing a culture of using SMS to connect to institutions so that in the event of an emergency, a system would already be in place to send and receive information.  As my project evolved, and Desi evolved the Innovation Team outside of FEMA and into its own entity, I became excited about the idea of working with a group that was built on the idea of rethinking ideas.  Rethinking connections.  All with the focus on making people’s lives better.

So when I was invited to attend the Field Innovation Team’s kick off Bootcamp, I was eager, excited, and a little nervous.  I was invited out to Bootcamp to present my Thesis, to run some video work, and to meet the rest of the team.  But what could I offer in the ways of adding to the conversation about disaster recovery?  Besides some volunteer experience after Sandy, I had never been in the thick of an emergency response.  My Thesis was a non-emergency specific project.  My background was in public service, television production, and bartending.  That concern was quickly quashed, almost immediately after stepping off the plane.

I was picked up in a van with 2 other FIT members after landing: one was an ex-astronaut, one was an ex-FEMA worker who now teaches improv exercises to those pre and post disaster in order to get them in an “always ready” mindset.  The first night I met designers, robotists, coders.  And we all immediately realized that we all needed to be there.  No one over the course of the week had an ego or any kind of doubt that everyone who was there didn’t need to be there.  The varied backgrounds and experiences all revolved around the common thread – how can we better help people.  How can we utilize the skillsets we each bring to the table to make people’s lives better in the disaster space.  The stunning lack of pompous attitude allows a space for everyone to share openly, and built fast-drying cemented bonds of trust between us.

Now I know why we were all assembled.  The humility to walk into a situation and say “I don’t know everything, I’m here to listen” is exactly the ethos we want to deploy if and when we deploy into a disaster.  It was the common thread through the week, it’s what ties together engineers and designers and artists and first responders.  We’re here to listen; we’re here to help.

That’s when it hit me.  In the airport just after midnight after a week of ideas and conversations and little to no sleep.  Where can you always go when life is making you lonely?  When you have worries, where can you turn?  Where are you always gonna be alright?  Where can you forget all your troubles, forget all your cares?

Downtown.  Or hopefully in the future, FIT.


Here’s me presenting my thesis ❤ Gov (



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