Applying baby instincts in designing new technology

This article is a beginning of my idea on merging baby instincts with user experience design. The full article will be published this fall as a part of ITP's first online journal called Adjacent Possible.

Here is a fascinating thing about babies: as soon as they are born, infants use their basic instincts to navigate a new platform, their mother's body. They go out to find something that will cure their hunger. Even with their yet-developed sense of smell and vision, they will try to crawl towards objects that catch their eyes. For instance, most babies will notice their mother's breast. Once they have found it, they will latch on and immediately know how to get milk (*1). From then on, babies face new interfaces every day. The world is for them to test and learn without reading a manual. Watching an infant was a study in human interaction and prompted me to consider how to design digital experiences for adults.


Maternity leave, in a way, was taking a step back from working digitally to relearn the basic human skills. Often, watching my infant sparked thoughts and realizations of ‘Huh, so we did that when we were infants?' or ‘Wow, he is completely vulnerable and depends on us for survival.' A few months later, the thoughts became more like, ‘Wow, humans are such fast learners.' and ‘He understands gravity? Nobody taught him that!' My documentation of his milestones became a form of design research, if only specific to my own son. But, could I use this documentation as an artifact of human instinct for behavior and learning?  On Feb. 5th, he realized what a ball was. On Feb. 14th, two weeks later, he recognized the same object and tried to reach for it. On March 4th, for the very first time, he laughed out loud when I waved the same ball in front of him.

It was fascinating to see that smiles and laughter were one of the very first expressions for my son. I started reading about baby’s behaviors and learned that laughter and tears are human’s earliest forms of communication(*2), and an insight into how the brain works at a primitive stage.

Dr Caspar Addyman is a scientist inside the world's leading infant-research units, Babylab. He said, "If you are trying to understand the psychology of humans, it makes sense to start with babies. Adults are far too complex. They either tell you what you want to hear or try to second-guess you." But if a baby does something, he concludes, "it's bound to be a genuine response."(*2)

Humans, with our superior brains, understand a lot of things in this world naturally. When babies interact with touch screens, we are amazed at how they intuitively use the device. But, we forget that computer interfaces before touch screens were not intuitive, but rather, “interpretative.”(*3)


VR: Create an environment of YES!

The relationship between people and their communication methods has come a long way in expressing different modes and concepts. Communication technologies range from the Internet and mobile phones to personal digital assistants (PDAs)(*2). Also, the environments that are being created include "smart homes," as well as "information oases" and virtual settings, such as VR and AR. When interfaces change their outfits over the years, the subject matter inside our conversations remains the same. Phatic conversations such as, "How are you?" and "Did you have dinner?" or doing mundane things in life like buying fresh milk stayed the same as millions of years ago.

We are living in an exciting era where new communication technologies are being built with no history to reference. It’s amazing for designers since we are not conditioned with old paradigms that make you forget why things were made in the first place. Especially in VR, there are opportunities for us to start building a new world (and interaction) from scratch. When a user first put on the VR headset, the already-known physical laws might disappear. Your balance is off, and the sense of orientation is gone. How can we bring back our baby instincts to navigate a foreign territory?

Research has shown that infants and toddlers absorb information faster when they are in a familiar, nurturing environment. When switching babies to a new environment, it’s important to leave some of the familiarities with them, so they have a base ground to feel emotionally comfortable. According to Patricia K. Kuhl; a language acquisition specialist, babies repeat certain behaviors until they are confident that they’ve mastered them (*3). Babies are active learners. They do not sit passively and take in info. They probe and test their way into knowledge. Taking the beginning of the VR experience as an opportunity to design repeating behaviors can expedite the users' learning curve with the new platform. In January, Google published an article that covered the concept of how to create an engaging platform. In their article, the first point, “#1: Make the viewer the protagonist, not just a spectator, in the VR experience,” relates directly to the point I am making here; designing dynamic interaction is the key to helping users get used to new experiences.

While it might seem like we are creating experiences without boundaries, it's important for us to think about the effects and outcomes. I asked my pediatrician why my one-year-old trips so frequently. And the doctor said it is because, in his mind, he’s great at walking and capable of going fast. But his body doesn't follow as well as his brain. This was my realization moment. With VR, when it’s easy to make the experience as real as possible, how do we set the boundaries, making it intuitive but preventing users from making dangerous mistakes in the real world? Will people think it's okay to jump off the cliff or shoot a stranger after fictional, digital experiences? Would doctors become insensitive about an individual who's getting a heart operation?


Voice recognition AI: Building an open, universal minded conversation vs. single mind

When it comes to voice recognition AI, there is the concept of creating an open and global-minded conversation vs. a single-minded conversation. All people are born with phonetic sensibilities (*4). As infants, everyone has the ability to differentiate one language from another even before they understand either of the languages. When it comes to creating a new conversation with voice A.I, it is crucial to apply this open-minded nature of infants to embrace different variables.

When my team at R/GA were working on an A.I project, we found that the most frustrating pain point is when the A.I cannot understand a user’s accent. One interviewer from our research said, “It never really works for me (I guess I have Japanese Accent.) Also, they never say my name right. I tried to train Siri how to pronounce my name, but it doesn't get it. It only works with common English names.”

Recently, Backchannel published an article about this particular matter. The article talks about how collecting data is expensive and cumbersome, which is why certain key demographics take priority. In the end, it leads to “a voice devoid of an identity and accent.”

When it’s an innate expectation for the other person to understand your background, it’s hard for us to talk to A.I. like the other individual. The design-thinking needs to be ingrained in affecting the core program of these machines to adopt different accents and intonations. We need to start by giving computers the ability that infants have; not the ability that old scholars have.

When my family encountered Alexa for the very first time, I worried that she might confuse my 11-month-old son mainly because of where the sound comes from. However, Alexa can respond with a gentle light and sound that makes my son smile and agree with the response; such cues represent happy human/machine interaction moments. Even with this in mind, more work needs to be done in the field of A.I., especially about human cues and natural language.

Generally, as a user, a person will never think that a conversation was okay if the machine has to say that they don't know an answer to the question asked, then they accompany this with an immediate cutoff. Another issue that emerges is how a designer can create an engaging conversation loop instead of saying sorry. Incorporating Emotional Intelligence/ Emotional Quotient (EQ) in A.I. should be the next challenge in our “Intelligent Age.”

In my diary, I wrote down that my son gave a big kiss to "mong mong." "Mong mong" is a Korean phonetic barking sound of a dog. After fifteen months of living on this earth, he has identified a dog, is able to associate a Korean sound to it, and has built a relationship with an object that looks like a dog. Fifteen months can seem like dinosaur years in the age where three-second Instagram Stories can feel lengthy. I wonder if we just need to give everyone a break and understand that learning takes time for computers too. 

 Reference *1

Reference *2

Reference *3 A Companion to Digital Literary Studies edited by Ray Siemens, Susan Schreibman

Reference *4Machines That Become Us: The Social Context of Personal Communication Technology edited by James Everett Katz

Reference *5

Reference *6 Andrew Garner, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Early Brain and Child Development Leadership Workgroup


What would happen if my friends have 100% control over me?

This is an experimental project on social media.

For seven days, I will post binary questions on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to collect opinions from my friends.

Level of my questions will gradually become intense as it approaches the end. I will first start with light topics such as “What should I eat for breakfast?”. Then I will intensify level of my questions to socially, ethically challenging ones. 

What would happen to my life when I give up all the cards to my friends?

The result of seven day experiment

The result of seven day experiment

I'm in Heaven! via Foursq #socialglitch

This week’s #socialhacking mission: Create a social glitch involving technology.

September 12th, 2013 @9am

I created a location on Foursq as "Maldives" near by ITP and also linked pictures of Maldives via Instagram.

People are totally thinking that I am in Maldives! 

Especially on Instagram, people are convinced that I am on a honeymoon (I got hitched 3 weeks ago).  They hate me right now, as my Maldives pictures are insanely perfect. I feel bad but at the same time, this is HILARIOUS #sorrynotsorry.  My friends who see me everyday are not responding anything to this. They must think, what is she doing, my friend is so weird. 

Social glitch may be interpreted in different ways. My interpretation of social glitch is when there is an error in the society. It's when your reaction of someone’s behavior/action is 'huh?’. Glitch is something that you are not expecting. That is why is embarks a question, an idea or conversations.

I started to feel really guilty after 6hours.. I felt like a big fat liar. So the next day, I printed out the same picture I posted on Instagram, took a picture of the picture and checked in again. The response was not very energetic as my last posts. Taking a picture of a picture idea might have been too forced.

Beginning of my idea: 

Everything that happens on my phone is not my real world. So why not dream a little further?

What would happen if I create an imaginary place that I always wanted to go to like Maldives in New York City?

Foursquare location lets you to make a location spot anywhere. Just like Wikipedia, it is build upon trust of people. We all try to check-in at a right spot on the exact time you were at. Even though no body is monitoring to see if you were actually at the location.

Would people get confused by this or play along? Would I look like a liar or axed out of the community for giving a deceiving information? 


I explored a social experiment and documented down below: 

  • Create locations where you wish to be, on Foursq.
  • Post a beach picture of Maldives via Instagram and check-in on Foursq.

Things to watch out: 

  • Don't lie. Don't say that you are actually at Maldives.
  • Give cheeky hints to give an impression that this is a light humor.

How to push it further:

This experiment is causing a lot of confusion to my FourSquare & Instagram friends. It might take some time for the public to feel comfortable to play along with this game. I am encouraging people to do this experiment with me and have more people involved.

I created more spots (such as Seychelles and Maldives Villa) in the City . I want to create a lot more and hide these spots across NYC for people to find them like treasure hunts. 


Some of the feedback I got from my friends were interesting. 

One incidence, my friend and her boyfriend were in an argument about whether I was in a honeymoon or not. They were arguing for awhile and looked at my location again to find that I was in Manhattan. They laughed about it. I am glad I am not giving positive vibe to people :)

Making a Product for Extreme Users

TASK: Create an oven for the blind

Our team discussed the problem, sketched and prototyped using cardboards and post-its.

Experimenting with more than hands as "interaction devices" and how even with 2 hands, one was used for framing and the other for fine grained interactions.  We also discuss the possibility to keep some of these features for non-extreme users: how inclusive design can be become inspirations for designing for all.

Lesson from our amazing Professor Anne-Laure:

1. Don't forget empathy: Teams focused quickly on the task rather than imagining the whole life of the person (the empathy level was not very high when they started describing the context of their project; they barely remembered the name of their user). For a real project, that will imply doing research (observations, interviews, etc.) and trying to go beyond the obvious and learn about the life of the person beyond the specific problem. [Remember what we discussed for the wallet exercise. Remember also some of Chris (from whatif) tips for the interviews.]

2. Be concrete; think of the specifics: personas and scenarios (or similar tools) are useful to help you think of the situation...  Being concrete and empathic will allow you to focus on the experience of your user / customer (which you did not really seem to take into account at least when you presented your final solution).

3.  While doing (and prototyping) is important, don't jump to one solution too quickly and be ready to change. It is important to explore different opportunities / options before making a decision. [I did not feel there was a lot of explorations going on]

4.  Remember to brainstorm (with a set amount of time and a facilitator) and remember the rules of brainstorming:

1.Defer judgment

2.Build on the ideas of others

3.One conversation at a time

4.Stay focused on the topic

5.Encourage wild ideas

5. Where and how you ideate? We discussed and experimented several times how location (in a different room, in the street; standing around a board instead of sitting, each in front of computers, etc.) could have an impact on our ways of thinking. It is up to you to design your space so that it is optimum for collaborating and coming up with a lot of great ideas.

6. Collaboration and communication: this is team work and even though it's the end of the semester and everybody is tired, it is important to work together. Moreover, while working in sub-groups can be effective (remember the shopping cart video with various sub-teams working on some specific aspects of the design), it has to be a conscious decision and managed so that you can get a fruitful mix of ideas.

7. Prototype to think and not only to present

You did it to a certain extent, but you could have done it much more.

How might we gather information from hard-to-access areas to prevent mass violence against civilians?

In Design Thinking class, Nye Zhien and I came up with an idea of Satellite Kit for this OpenIDEO challenge. 

A title: Visualizing Data with Satellite Kit

We want to spread small signaling devices to hard to reach areas. Based on the existing portable TV kit in Tibet, China, a solar power based portable TV will be our device to receive local Satellite signal. Microscopic information will be transferred to NGOs that can receive local content knowledge. Then this data will be translated to the Global press, social media and international NGOs as macroscopic view. Globally, the information/data can be processed and will be able to view danger patterns around the world. This data visualization can be given back to local NGOs and to the locals in remote areas as a full loop. Mass violence will be then exposed to the public almost real-time.

An alert button can be added on it to send out alert signals. People can also visualize alerts that are happening microscopic and macroscopic scale via this Satellite TV. What’s more, the solar power in the kit can be used as an emergency power supply in places where electronic access is hard to reach.

With open access to images, everyone, NGOs, governmental agencies and citizens, may analyze data and mix with other sources to verify them.

The medium (it can of course includes multiple media):

Our Satellite Kit is a portable solar energy device. It receives Satellite signal that can be even used in the amazon forest.

Low cost satellite platforms are available by many commercial companies in Europe or elsewhere. Even major universities have launched mini satellites in recent years. We use satellite monitoring to improve safety on the ground. Satellite monitoring also improves the quality of the instantly  information with its images.

idea sketch

idea sketch

[UX design] Creating an on-line tutoring platform

[On-line education] 

There is a big movement in MOOC and it is a huge trend in educational technology. There are massive amount of students enrolling in on-line courses and meet ups are created around local areas. MOOC works as a big community creator and organization which creates a society.MOOCs are not very personalized and it's hard for students to focus on web.

[Real-life education]

It's a big waste of time for tutors to commute to student's place or vice versa.

Do background Research:

  1. A lot of students still seek for tutoring (a link to a survey will be attached soon).
  2. Many people sign up for MOOC and don't participate (a link to a survey will be attached soon).
  3. It's much harder for students to focus when there is no teacher nor deadline around (a link to various interviews will be attached soon).

Develop a hypothesis:

One on one interaction between tutor and a student that has helped so many students to perfect their study. This on-line tutoring system that simulates real life tutoring experience that caters for an individual who prefers personal and detailed attention. This platform will also save them a lot of commuting time and increase efficiency. 











Design a wallet for a friend

An ideal wallet that I would like to have: Money well organized. side pocket where you can just dump receipts.

My NEW Mission: Design something useful and meaningful for your partner. start by gaining empathy.

From an interview with Ken, he wanted a thin wallet that he can put inside his pocket. His current wallet gets bulky easily so he wishes to keep it thin. He usually keeps credit card, metro card and some cash. He wishes there was some space for coins. Also, a special place his keys only if he can keep it slim. 

Digging deeper, we did a second round of interview to know his life style better.

He is used to using cash more than credit card in China where he grew up. However, here in New York, he keeps it to $20-40 but never more. He never lost a wallet before but he worries if he might loose it at some point. His pattern of keeping his wallet tidy is to create a mess first and cleaning it up regularly.


Goals and wishes for Ken:

He wants to keep his wallet tidy and slim. He still wants a lot of function in his wallet so it can be his all-in-one object.


Maybe having a wallet that is slightly bigger than his current one might work for him. Strong material that can keep all of his money, cards, coins and keys compact and in order is needed.

Take a stand with a poin-of-view:

Key needs a way to keey his wallet clean because he likes orderly, clean lifestyle although it's easy for him to get messy.

Ideate: Generate alternatives to test

  • A wallet that can shrink to a super compact mode
  • More organized and clean structure
  • Find a different folding method to put his keys and different shape of things.
  • Make a secret pocket where he can put his international "lucky" coin.

Feedback I got from Ken:

He is excited about pockets in his wallet! Strong wallet is needed.


Ideation with WhatIf: Brainswarm

We practiced the innovation methods (in particular insights gathering) they introduced us to.

Some of the values and behaviors central to the WhatIf way:

- being playful

- greenhousing

- developing habits of deliberate freshness

developing hunches: if we only stay with the obvious, then we won't get nothing new.


WhatIf's principle emphasizes the importance of practice and creating ways and environments to support creative behaviors and approaches.

Knowledge sharing and Lego building

In NYU Poly's Design Thinking class, we discussed different types of imaginations (descriptive, creative and challenging) that were involved in the creative process and supported by Legos. Interestingly, we saw these different imaginations enacted in the individual and group activities we did with Legos: some using Legos to describe a possibility while others imagining other forms of possible and even challenging it.


At the core of the Legos experience is its playful character which facilitates bonding and storytelling. The materiality of Legos (it was interesting to see people putting all the blocks on the table, moving them around) is also key in allowing to go from abstract to concrete as well as to support collaboration.