Adventures in Startupland: Watching Human Centered Design Win

[I like to use my startup as an excuse for my not blogging often. But anyone who knows me also knows I’m not especially good at blogging regularly — regardless of what else is going on in my life. I have lost track of how many new leaves I’ve turned over.] 

I went to a panel discussion on startups and healthcare the other day, and one of the panelists said: “Healthcare puts the ‘no’ in ‘innovation.'”


Shift Labs started about two years ago. Two years of rushing forward, pausing at the precipice of federal regulation, chasing our engineering tail, rushing even faster forward, and then BOOM! there it is. A path to revenue. All we had to do was change our customer base. 

When is a pivot a distraction? I wonder if it’s one of those things that only hindsight can tell.

But here’s our story: a veterinary distributor/equipment inventor got wind of the Shift Labs DripClip last year, and was interested in it. We weren’t ready for primetime, but we’ve kept in touch since then. Two weeks ago he went to a major veterinary conference, and, as close as we are to production, we went with him! And by “we” I mean me and a pelican case of prototypes.

It was the first time large numbers of potential users encountered the device, the first time we had target users outside of a testing situation handling it, pushing buttons, thinking about its utility in their care settings. 

I read a lot, and teach some, about ’emotional design.’ About getting people to respond to technologies in powerful ways. I’m not going to write too much now — for fear of jinxing things. But here’s the short version: not everyone thought they would buy the veterinary spinoff from the DripClip. But those that did, the elements of the device that made their eyes widen and sparkle, that made them smile, that made them reach out to touch it — those were the result of battleground decisions in our design process, and all from our arguments over what constitutes human centered design.

It was awesome. 



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Teaching innovation in two hours

Misleading title. I’m not really doing two-hour stints. But India was a start, and there’s a bit in previous posts about that workshop. I’ll write more when I recover my camera from its solo global adventures and can share some of the great pics of excited students diving in.

But I’m giving a talk at the Snohomish School District next week, and I’ve decided to start the lecture (part of their Vision Forward speaker series on the future of education) with one of my Hackademia hands-on activities. (ps — if anyone knows a good inexpensive source of 2032 batteries, let me know!) The 50 or so adults showing up for this will not be anticipating glue sticks and scissors, but hands on is a game-changer.

Their previous speaker was talking about online education, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to explore alternative models for innovative education.

A big chunk of the soul of Hackademia is acknowledging that acquiring technical skills is a complicated mix of learning. Actually picking up the material technical practice is actually the easiest part. It’s ushering in shifts in self identity, motivation, and acquiring social capital to continue learning that are the harder parts. I’ve got a paper that was published last summer at the Participatory Design conference on this, and the constellation of supporting skills that are essential for STEM success are what I’m going to emphasize in the talk next week.

The difficulty in getting this perspective represented in actual educational practice highlights one of the most frustrating aspects of how we craft disciplines in universities. Pretty much all employers report that the lack of soft skills is what inhibits employee growth. Yet we jam our technical curricula with so many courses that teach the crucial technical stuff that students have no time for the classes that could complete their education and help them make meaningful change in the world using those technical skills. That’s not especially a trend I see reversing.

Someday I’ll write about when I stopped being a professor in an English department and moved instead to being a professor in an Engineering department. It’s all part of the same story.

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Hackademia hits the road

I’m about to start the second day of a 2-day Hackademia workshop in Trivandrum, India. I met my host, Satish Babu, head of ICFOSS, the International Centre for Free and Open Source Software, at last year’s IEEE Global Heath Technology Conference. I gave a talk about Hackademia and Shift Labs, and we talked afterwards about hackers and makers and innovation, and now here I am, in beautiful Kovalam, staring at the sea, and about to head back to help a group of participants — ranging from embedded systems designers to undergraduate information systems students — build some open source hardware prototypes.

Yesterday we made some light-up cards and some e-textiles, and we had an introductory sewing workshop which was a delightful moment of cultural learning. I should probably wait for after the workshop is over to write about it, because I’m still not sure how it’s going to turn out. Day 1 seemed to be successful, but launching into a new cultural environment and trying to get a group of 35-40 folks with very diverse technical skillsets to work with construction paper and LEDs and bluetooth shields with a spirit of fearlessness and curiosity and collaboration is daunting.

But we’ve made claims about the Hackademia model, and this is pretty much its first public road test. I’ll let you know how it goes.


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Digital Amnesia

I’m in India to give a workshop based on my Hackademia project and a few lectures. (more on that later) My host requested one of my past lectures from the Berkman Center, a talk I gave in early 2008 called “User, Hacker, Builder, Thief: Creativity and Consumerism in a Digital Age.” You can download the video here.

I said sure, I’d be happy to talk about that — without actually checking which talk that was. In my mind it was the Hackademia talk I gave in January 2012, but it turns out 2012 is not 2008. So I went off to find the slide deck, and came up utterly empty-handed.

And when I say empty-handed, probably I should say empty-headed. There’s this bizarre period of about 2 to 3 months where I have no records. And I’m a bit of a digital packrat with my email accounts. Few memories, which isn’t uncommon for me. But, oddly, not even email records. I search and search through different email accounts, sent-mail folders, external hard drives, and I find no records for January-Febraury and into March 2008.

So if you knew me then, and knew what I was up to, let me know!

p.s. happily for me, Berkman records its lectures, so I’ve listened to my old talk, and reconstructed as much of the slide deck as I can by watching the screen over the shoulder of my talking head.



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I’ve always been a lousy academic in some key ways. Specifically, I’m really bad at keeping an updated webpage, listing my articles, making it easier for people to find, download (and cite) my research. Somehow, there always seemed to be more important things to do with my time.

But I just found my motivation to make my work public. Aaron Swartz. Like so many people, I was incredulous at the case against him, the virulence of the charges, the downright Orwellian nature of the sentencing threats — especially in light of the massive misdeeds of people who genuinely defrauded the nation and caused cascading economic collapse. Was it really only 4 and a half years ago that we all lived through that together?

As an academic, I found the case especially ridiculous, particularly in light of the academic publishing racket. We all need to place our articles, and somehow writers, editors and reviewers don’t get paid, and yet the journals themselves are absurdly expensive. University libraries play a constant game of how to pare back subscriptions and not paralyze the intellectual lives of their communities. And then there’s the ever-convenient online access to journals, which runs the risk of a protection racket as time goes on. Keep paying, Library X, or we’ll revoke your entire database. And since you stopped subscribing to the print versions years ago, it’s not like you’ll lose access only to future publications. You’ll lose everything that you ever payed for in the past! No, really, we need to raise our subscription rates another 20% this year. It’s the rising cost of fuel, surely you understand.

I didn’t know Aaron, but I’m a Berkman person, and our worlds overlapped enough that my inbox is full of tributes.

Here’s mine.

Twenty years after starting my career, I’ve found a reason to make my work public. Not because I think my research is so riveting. But to raise my voice with others.

Kolko, B., Hope, A., Sattler, B., Maccorkle, K., Sirjani, B. (2012). “Hackademia: Building Functional Rather Than Accredited Engineers” Participatory Design Conference ACM. 129-138.PDCHackademia2012

Walton, R., Yaaqoubi, J., & Kolko, B.E. (2012,). What’s it for? Expectations of Internet value and usefulness in Central Asia. Information Technologies and International Development: 8(3). ExpectationsofInternetValueinCentralAsiaITID

Cynthia Putnam, Beth Kolko. (2012) HCI Professions: Differences ad Definitions.” CHI Works in Progress paper. 6 pages May 2012.

Putnam, C., Kolko, B and Wood, S.(2012).Communicating about users in ICTD: leveraging HCI personas. In Proceedings of International Conference on Information and Commiunication Technologies and Development,ICTD 2012, Atlanta, GA, USA, March 12-15

A. Hope; W. Brunette; W. Gerard; J. Keh; L. Shlenke; R. Anderson; M. Kawooya; R. Nathan; B. Kolko. (2012). “The Midwife’s Assistant: Designing Integrated Learning Tools to Scaffold Ultrasound Practice.” Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICTD).March 2012. pp.ICTDUltrasound2012

B. Kolko; A. Hope; W. Brunette; K. Saville; W. Gerard; R.; M. Kawooya; R. Nathan.(2012). Adapting Collaborative Radiological Practice to Low-Resource Environments.” Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW). February 2012.pp.97-106.AdaptingCollaborativeRadiologicalPracticeCSCW2012

Kolko, B.E., Putnam, C., Rose, E. (2011) “Reflection on research methodologies for ubicomp in developing contexts”. Journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. OnlineFirst publication March 15, 2011  doi:10.1007/s00779-010-0338. 1-9. Print publication 15(6), 575-583.ResearchMethodsforDevelopingRegions

W. Brunette; M. Hicks; A. Hope; G. Ruddy; R. Anderson; B. Kolko. (2011). “Reducing Maternal Mortality: An Ultrasound System for Village Midwives.” IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (GHTC). Pp. 84-90.IEEEGHTCUltrasound2011

Rohit Chaudhri, Darivanh Vlachos, Jabili Kaza, Joy Palludan, Nathan Bilbao, Troy Martin, Gaetano Borriello, Beth Kolko, Kiersten Israel-Ballard  (2011) “A System for Safe Flash-Heat Pasteurization of Human Breast Milk.” NSDR.

Gorman, T., Rose, E., Yaaqoubi, J., Azaabanye Bayor, A., Kolko, B.E. (2011). Adapting Usability Testing for Oral, Rural Users. ACM CHI Conference. Vancouver, Canada. May 2011. pp. 1437-1440.

Anderson, R., Kolko. B. (2011) “Designing Technology for Resource-Constrained Environments: a Multidisciplinary Capstone Sequence.” ASEE. Vancouver, Canada. June 2011

Gleave, E., Robbins, B., Kolko, B.E. (2011). “Trust in Uzbekistan.” International Political Science Review. OnlineFirst publication February 28, 2011.  10.1177/0192512110379491  1-21.

Best, M.B., Thakur, D., Kolko, B.E. (2010). “The Contribution of User-Based Subsidies to the Impact and Sustainabiltiy of Telecenters – the eCenter Project in Kyrgyzstan.” Special ICTD09 Issue of Information Technologies and International Development. 6:2. 75-89.UserBasedSubsidiesITID

Brunette, W, Gottlieb, AH, Gerard, W, Anderson, R, Hicks, M., Boriello, G., Kolko, B. (2010). “Portable Antenatal Ultrasound Platform for Village Midwives.” ACM Computing for Development Conference. December 2010. ISBN 978-1-4503-0473-3978-1-4503-0473-3. pp. 1-10.Ultrasound-Dev2010

Putnam, C. & Kolko, B. (2010). “What Exactly is ‘The Internet”?: The Social Meaning of  ICTs and Their Ability to Impact Development , .” Information and Communication Technologies and Development Conference. December 2010PutnamKolkoICTD2010SocialMeaningofICTs

Anderson, R.E., Poon, A., Lustig, C., Brunette, W., Salihbaeva, O., Johnson, E., Putnam, C., Boriello, G., & Kolko, B. E. (2010).  “Experiences with a Transportation Information System that Uses Only GPS and SMS.” Information and Communication Technologies and Development Conference. December 2010.StarBus-ICTD2010

Putnam, C. & Kolko B. (2009). Getting Online but still living offline: the complex relationship of technology adoption and in-person social networks. In Proceedings of Advances in Social Networks and Mining, ASONAM ’09. pp. 33-40.

Putnam, C., Kolko, B., Rose, E. & Walton, R. (2009). Mobile phone users in Kyrgyzstan: A case study of identifying user needs and requirements. In Proceedings of International Professional Communication Conference, IPCC ’09, Honolulu, Hawaii, July 20-22. np. (6267 words).

Driesbach, C., Walton R., Kolko, B., & Seidakmatova, A. (2009). Asking Internet Users to Explain Non-Use in Kyrgyzstan. In Proceedings of International Professional Communication Conference, IPCC ’09, Honolulu, Hawaii, July 20-22.  np. (4124 words).

Anderson, R.E., Poon, A., Lustig, C., Brunette, W., Boriello, G., & Kolko, B. E. (2009). “Building a Transportation Information System Using Only GPS and Basic SMS Infrastructure.” In Proceedings of ACM/IEEE International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, ICTD ’09, Doha.Qatar, April 17-19, 2009.  pp. 233-242.  StarBus-ICTD2009

Kolko, B. & Putnam,C. (2009). Computer Games in the Developing World: The Value of Non-Instrumental Engagement with ICTs, or Taking Play Seriously. In Proceedings of ACM/IEEE International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development, ICTD ’09, Doha.Qatar, April 17-19, 2009. pp. 46-55. Kolko_230_games_ICTD_cameraready_forConfProc

Kolko, B.E., Rose, E.J., & Johnson, E.J. (2007). Information Seeking as Communication: The Case for Mobile Social Software in Developing Regions.” Proceedings of the 16th Annual IW3C2/ACM International WWW Conference (WWW2007). pp. 863-872. Acceptance rate14.7%. Citations: 23www2007Kolkoetal

Kolko, B.E., Johnson, E.J., & Rose, E.J. (2007). Mobile Social Software for the Developing World. Proceedings of HCI International. Vol. 4564. Springer Berlin. pp. 385-394.

Putnam, C., Rose, E., & Kolko, B. (2009). “Adapting User-Centered Design Methods to Design for Diverse Populations.” Information Technology and International Development 5:4. 49-71.AdaptingUserCenteredDesignMethodsforDiversePopulationsITID

Walton, R., Putnam, C., Johnson, E., & Kolko, B. (2009). “Skills are Not Binary: Exploring the Relationship between ICT Skills and Employment.” Information Technology and International Development 5:2. 1-18.SkillsAreNotBinaryITID

Johnson, E., Kolko, B., & Salikhbaeva, O. (2009). Boundaries and information: Sidestepping restrictions through Internet conversations.” First Monday 14:8 – 3. np. 9472 words.

Kim, S, Farber, S., Kolko, B.E., Kim, W., Ellsbury, K., & Greer, T. (2006).  “Patterns of Faculty and Student Participation in On-Line Case Discussions of Palliative Care Scenarios.” Family Medicine 38:7. 494-499.

Chen, V. H., Duh, H. B., Kolko, B., Whang, L. S., & Fu, M. C. (2006). Games in Asia project. In CHI ’06 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (Montréal, Québec, Canada, April 22 – 27, 2006). CHI ’06. ACM, New York, NY. pp. 291-294.

Wei, C. & Kolko, B.E. (2005). “Studying Mobile Phone Use in Context: Cultural, Political, and Economic Dimensions of Mobile phone use.” Proceedings from the Annual IEEE IPCC Conference. July 2005. (4690 words)

Wei, C., & Kolko, B.E. (2005). “Resistance to Globalization: Language and Internet Diffusion Patterns in Uzbekistan.” The New Review of Multimedia and Hypermedia 11:2. 205-220.ResistencetoGlobalization

Burgstahler, S., Jirikowic, T., Kolko, B.E., & Eliot, M. (2004). “Software Accessibility, Usability Testing and Individuals with Disabilities.” Information Technology and Disabilities 10:2. np. (5629 words).

Thayer, A., & Kolko, B.E. (2004). “Localization of Digital Games: The Process of Blending for the Global Games Market.” Technical Communication 51:4. 477-488.

Kolko, B.E., Wei, C., & J.H. Spyridakis. (2003). “Internet Use in Uzbekistan: Developing a Methodology for Tracking Information Technology Implementation Success.” Information Technologies and International Development 1:2. 1-19.InternetUseinUzbekistanITID

Taylor, T.L., & Kolko, B.E. (2003). “Boundary Spaces: Majestic and the Uncertain Status of Knowledge, Community and Self in a Digital Age.” Information, Communication & Society 6:4. 497-522.  BoundarySpaces

Haselkorn, M.P., Sauer, G., Turns, J., Illman, D.L., Tsutsui, M., Plumb, C., Williams, T., Kolko, B.E., & J.H. Spyridakis. (2003). “Expanding the Scope of Examples from the Department of Technical Communication at the University of Washington,” Technical Communication 50:2. 174-191.

Kim, S., Kolko, B.E., & Greer, T. (2002). “Problem-Solving in Web-based Problem-Based Learning: Third-Year Medical Students’ Participation in End-of-Life Care Virtual Clinic,” Computers in Human Behavior 18:6. 761-772.WebbasedProblemSolvingLearning

Kolko, B. E. (2001). “Discursive Citizenship: The Body Politic in Cyberspace.” The International Journal of Virtual Reality. 5:1. 1-8.

Kolko, B.E. (1999) “Representing Bodies in Virtual Space: The Rhetoric of Avatar Design.” The Information Society 15:3. 177-186.RepresentingBodiesinVirtualSpace

Kolko, B.E. (1998). “Intellectual Property in Synchronous and Collaborative Virtual Space.” Computers and Composition 15:2. 163-183.IntellectualPropertyinSynchronousandCollaborativeVirtualSpace

Kolko, B.E. (1995). “Building a World With Words: The Narrative Reality of Virtual Communities.” Works and Days 13:1-2. 105-126.


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Thoughts on in-country manufacturing, part 1

I will start again as if there hasn’t been a tremendous hiatus. Explanation: starting a startup. Enough said.

Said startup is making low cost technologies for low resource regions. And local manufacturing is a big part of conversations about such things. Our own goals over at Shift Labs are definitely focused on using micro-manufacturing techniques to facilitate production and make smaller production runs cost efficient, and also to use in-country manufacturing to change the value proposition of traditional manufacturing models.

But there’s a thread in the conversation about in-country manufacturing that elevates the importance of national boundaries in ways I ultimately don’t understand. I want to make awesome, beautifully designed products that make people’s lives better, regardless of where they live. And if the most cost effective way to do that is to centrally manufacture either components or the whole, then that’s what I’ll advocate.

A couple years ago I ran into an academic who did research on sustainability, and who used mathematical models to determine which processes actually led to the most sustainable output. I need to figure out who that was, and come back with part 2.

Forgive the slow start. I’m excited to be back.

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Hackademia: Creating functional engineers one blinky LED at a time

Saturday night my ever-helpful boyfriend and I went shopping for some furniture to help make the hackademia lab space a little more usable. We’ve been lacking a good workbench — not to mention chairs. After couple stops at some chain stores and our local Goodwill, we headed to campus to unload our finds.

He took one look at the small office that functions as the lab and cleared his throat. “Um….”

I looked over at him.

“Maybe we could clean this place up a bit?”

I looked around. I’d been hoping some inspired student would get excited about organizing, but it hadn’t yet happened. To be honest, it was a bleak, jumbled mess.

So our evening plans took a turn and we set about moving furniture, cataloguing electronics components, and labeling drawers. We also puzzled at the four (4!) staplers and three tape dispensers that I’d inherited when the office passed to me a few months ago. I’d already managed to get rid of two of the three floor fans. Some Windows NT add-ons went to software heaven.

By the time we left, it started looking like a usable hackerspace, though we really, really need a multimeter. And a dremel.

And I also now know what the students and I will do for our next meeting, which is the first real meeting of the term. We’ll do a real inventory, and I figure the process of cataloguing stuff together will also be a way to show the students with less technical backgrounds some basics like what a capacitor looks like.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m hoping some of the students will either recognize or be able to track down some of the more obscure components we uncovered.

We were pretty inspired after that, so after a delayed dinner, we decided it was time for the lab to have a proper sign — courtesy of his amazing laser cutter.

Behold the awesome:

I’m genuinely looking forward to the next few months of hackademia.

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Disincentives and Disruptive Technology

I’ve been in academia for over two decades, and it’s become increasingly obvious that the structure of the workplace and the rewards structure can act as genuine disincentives to producing disruptive technology.

Particularly in the global health area in which I’m increasingly working — sometimes we can’t pursue solutions that have the potential to really make a change because they’re not “research” in the sense of something a grad student can use to get a PhD or something that is likely to be grant fundable. Sometimes innovations happen by repurposing or remixing old technologies — but those kind of game-changers violate the academic definitions of research.

One one level it’s an argument for academic-industry partnerships. But when you’re talking low-cost solutions, the industrial incentive structure can act as a similar obstacle for innovation. After all, no one wants to undercut their own market.

My book on hackers and makers as sources of innovation is starting to take a closer look at this dynamic, comparing those communities to established institutional structures like universities and large corporations, and contrasting the reward structures to better understand how to cultivate genuinely disruptive solutions.

—more soon


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Accidental lessons

This quarter I taught a graduate class on computer-mediated communication/social computing/virtual environments. It was an evening class, four hours a night once a week.

By the last class everyone was pretty tired. But as we tried to wrap up and not run past our allotted time, I asked the students (as I almost always do, both after individual class sessions and at the end of a term): “What did you learn?”

So this time I asked the question. And one of the students offered a caveat: “In 140 characters or less!”

Yes, Twitter was one of our topics during the term.

Here are some of the lessons my students apparently learned (with attribution when granted):

“Fight the future,” lesson learned by Allen Bathurst. Personally, I think this is just from taking a class with me, and it’s not actually related to the class material.

“Social networking is nothing new.” We spent a lot of time this quarter talking about history. And, in fact, I spent the first class session hauling in some of the early years of my Wired magazine collection to get a sense of how much, and how little, things have changed in 15+ years.

“I feel like we’re all angsty teenagers saying ‘no one understands my problems’ but in reality lots of academic articles have been written about all my problems already.” Nadine Tabing. Is it better or worse to know there is an army of academics researching your anxieties and frustrations with technology?

“Bad solutions to invented problems. How can we do it better?” Allen Bathurst (again). What more can I say?


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This Wednesday I’m giving a talk at Seattle Ignite about those questions of innovation and expertise that I talked about in my last post. I’ve been slowly building momentum for this project — both with the interview-based book, but also the under-the-radar project on my university campus that has been infecting students with a hacker/maker mentality.

After two years in the shadows, we’re slowly coming out and admitting to the larger community what we’ve been up to — building and using 3d printers, making wearable technology, creating how-to videos for the n00biest of n00bs.

I’ve given two smaller talks this fall in semi-public forums, but I’m thinking of this week as Hackademia’s debut. It’s going to be awesome.

The expertise-innovation conflict is something that deserves some attention. I’m not claiming that all invention comes from non-experts; however, there’s something to be said for the creativity of the clueless.

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