Data Goes Up, Trust Goes Down

How to Face Your Fears and Saving Creativity

Photo by Kane Reinholdtsen on Unsplash

Imagine your worst fear, staring you straight in the face. The fear that makes your skin crawl. Tarantulas. Dying alone. Your Aunt Sally’s death-gripping hugs at Thanksgiving dinner. What I do know is this — you can either choose to run away from that fear your whole life, or a time comes when you trust yourself to face that fear.

For me it was public speaking. I might never have faced that fear either, if it hadn’t been for my Islamic Center. When I was 16, I volunteered (or to be exact, my mom volunteered me without my knowledge) to be a speaker during a human rights rally organized by our religious organization.

On the day of the rally, I walked up onto a wooden platform placed in the open air of Copley Place, one the busiest town squares in Boston, Massachusetts. Laying ahead of me was a crowd of five hundred strangers: shrouded in black as a sign of mourning for Hussain Ibn Ali. Their faces seemed to merge into a single monstrous blank stare, exaggerated by the gray clouds overhead.

And then, my mind blanked. I forgot the speech I had prepared in my notes…

I originally thought my area of interest was research and development, the intersection where new ideas become products that can shape our lives. Then I ask myself: how did I ever manage to get through that speech in Copley Square? Any look at modern life will show there is no shortage of great ideas. The real creativity begins when you have to make them a reality.

Trustworthy Systems

Just like teenagers, ideas need a platform to express themselves. Don’t take my word for it: consider this quote from Ed Catmull, the cofounder of Pixar, in his book Creativity, Inc. (2014) in which he reflects on his leadership of the iconic movie studio: “my job… [was] to create a fertile environment, keep it healthy, and watch for… the blocks that get in the way.” You may not be trying to build a movie studio — but we as people, all have something to create.

A healthy lifestyle.

A functioning family.

A future where you wake up everyday excited to work and live.

Some of us are called engineers. Some are called dreamers. There’s a problem though: what if the platform for researching and developing those ideas, so they can turn into creations, isn’t working?

The System is Slowing Down: PEST Analysis

How do you price innovation? The number depends on who you ask, but one thing is for sure — it’s getting more expensive. If you look at the above graph from the March/April 2019 issue of the MIT Technology Review, it becomes clear over the past decades the amount of innovation being deployed has plateaued. Ironically, over the same period more researchers have entered the field. As the article comments, “ in economic terms, we’re paying more for the same thing”, and precisely at a time when civilization is depending on creativity more than ever before.

The cause of this stagnation could be government regulation. As we have learned more about the risks associated with the materials we use such as plastics and asbestos for example, there have obviously come along more regulations by government, to ensure public safety. While a smart move, it comes at the price of requiring more hands to come on deck at research teams, which then slows down the process of creating new products.

This culture of compliance doesn’t just affect technology companies. This scene is more cliché than a super villian saying “I’ll BE BACK!” at the end of an action movie. We can find it being replayed all over again, albeit with different actors, in varying sectors of society which are highly regulated: warehouse management, gas station compliance, hospital management, and building permit issuers are all examples.

This article is not meant to be anti-government; it means to support the government. Our regulators are all too human: they mean well, however they’re not algorithms. They too can become overloaded with all the data (the documents, the forms, the audits, the noncompliance reports, etc.) which this system feeds in. All the same, if you’re an engineer trying to make your idea go through, what patience do you have for waiting around?

The result is, the engineers, the makers, those with the ideas and data, they begin to mistrust the system, their managers. The managers, who lose track the data, don’t know how to pivot because the communication’s broken down.

What’s the solution?

How will we speed up the research process? (Competitive Analysis)

Apps have become commonplace in daily living, and it is time for researchers to be brought up to speed. What I am proposing is an app, a Compliance Tracker, to do away with mindless, creativity-killing compliance work. Documents and forms only know how to convey the past; but people are creative. We have the ability to convey the future; and that is ultimately what innovation truly relies upon.

Technology can free us up from the grind of busywork, and upgrade our labor to more time spent iterating products. This app will use machine learning to manage the documents being submitted by engineers for their projects, and use that data to provide the best direction forward for the project. It will remove friction for research teams, who don’t have to waste time creating their own presentations and proposals for their project, and submitting them to government regulators who take forever to respond. Instead, this app allows them to simply fill out their information in an online application form, as if at a movie theater kiosk, or messaging a file to one another on Slack.

For the regulators, this product removes friction by letting the computer figure out which one needs to be followed for a proposal, just like they were using TurboTax. They can regain the trust of makers to handle how fast their products can safely enter the public eye.

Here’s how the landscape looks for current compliance assistants:

Creativity stems from trusting the system, and systems arise at the intersection of convenience and intimacy.

Lastly, this product has scale; it can be applied to each area of research and development being pursued today, from biomedical devices to car manufacturers.

Let’s face it, everyone needs a process to follow when they’re creating something. From the engineer or designer (or the kid who forgets his notes while speaking in Copley Square). That process needs to be trustworthy all the way from the idea, to finally being presented before its audience.

Part 2: User Research

User Interviews: The Why

The idea for the Compliance Hub in no way began with me; and the reason I’m telling you that is because I don’t want this product, this future company, whatever it becomes — to end with me. If this is going to work, it needs to belong to my users. It needs to belong to you.

Here’s one of the most memorable pieces of advice I’ve heard on creativity — paraphrased from creator of the popular Naruto manga, Masashi Kishimoto: no ideas you come up with are really original. The good new is that the most creative ideas aren’t necessarily the most original; we all take inspiration from other sources when we are coming up with ideas. Creative ideas are like delicious recipes — you don’t need to create tomatoes to make a pizza, you just need to know how to use them. To be able to slice them up, to blend them with toppings, add seasonings, and cook them so they are best suited to your audience’s tastes. And software products are built similarly.

I believe listening to users is like cultivating a farm; where you can go in the vineyards and pick of the most juicy, ripe, and fresh ideas for how a product should be built.

Fear of User Interviews

Why do an interview interview? The real question is — why not?

Forgive my bluntness — if you disagree, I don’t blame you. I used to think the same way. My own mother advised me against trusting Mr. Adams, when I told her I had a partner on this project. Her sentiments: don’t turn out like the Winklevoss twins (perhaps she should have referred me to these founders, who also had the fate of their startups completely rocked by ambitious partners).

You’re right that your idea can be shared too much, or prematurely. However, I would rather have my idea stolen, than have it never become successful. What do I mean? Let’s confront the elephant in the room: what if you had that great idea, and someone did steal it?

Here’s what would happen: assuming they made the product successful, then you can take the credit for having the idea. It may not sound like much, but taking 10% of the credit fo a product that became succesful, affords a lot more resources than 100% of a failure or product that never was.

Use those experiences, those instances of being ripped off, to learn and do better on your next startup attempt. Not sure if you believe me? Let’s go back to the Winklevoss twins. Sure they got ripped off on Facebook. But life goes on. At least Facebook became successful under Mark Zuckerberg —possibly more successful than it could have under the Winklevoss twins. They settled with the company for millions of dollars, and never had to shoulder responsibility for managing the business; and Hollywood even turned them into household names in the film The Social Network (2010). Case in point, they were able to take all that money, as well as time saved making a name for themselves — and are now the founders of their own prominent cryptocurrency exchange company, Gemini.

Making The User Interview

In an attempt to avoid biased questions, I had to figure out my assumptions. For instance, when I tried interviewing people on the street (which you’ll more about in the section titled “Rejection Therapy”), I had to validate whether the person actually had a family, and was trying to raise them in the city of San Francisco. This was definitely a lot more disappointing (I was unprepared for just how many tourists come here), but the benefit was I got people to be much more genuine. My questions weren’t anything hypothetical. Instead of asking, “would you want a mobile app to get restaurant food faster?”, I had to ask people just how much they and their family went out to eat. Or how much mobile apps even affected their decision? Then I could dig deeper, to try and discover if a mobile app experience could even improve that process.

The Voices: Highlights from User Interviews

In this section I will chart the discoveries I’ve made from my user interviews thus far. I will mention who I interviewed, what we talked about, and some of my key takeaways from the conversation.

Note: some of the names here are changed, to respect the interviewee’s privacy.

Mr. Adams

Mr. Adams actually works on inspecting engineering project proposals in Rhode Island. He was sick of the pen and paper processes being used in even large engineering firms, and he couldn’t fathom why the process hadn’t been made simpler. The industry just hadn’t caught up to speed with modern web tools for engineers to submit their documents.

Mr. Adams believes in the Compliance Hub more than anyone, including me. He invented the idea after all, and he knows it can help engineers all over the world, because it’s exactly the type of app which he wishes could exist to help him in his work.

Thankfully, I wasn’t a complete novice to computer science when I ran into Mr. Adams. I had been coding in the Java programming language since 14, so he was able to explain the idea to me in terms of a popular paradigm known as object-orientated programming.

Basically, the template app was the class, or an abstract design of something that has both state and behavior. We needed to develop that, as well as an engine for instantiating objects — business specific apps for each industry we worked in — by inputting data about that business into our class. Then how to automate it using machine learning, store the data we captured securely in a database, and style the experience separately for each type of user — the inspectors and the engineers.

Samuel Folledo, Aspiring iOS Developer

At one point, I almost changed my entire approach for Compliance Hub. I considered marketing Compliance Hub to small businesses, as a smart-app builder they can use to provide a mobile experience to their customers, based off a template-UI I would build for them.

Samuel is one of my classmates at Make School, we’ve been friends ever since I met him at Preview Weekend. He’s only 23; but that still makes him 5 years my elder, and on top of that he’s married. Samuel’s the rare type of friend I can just talk about topics like manhood in general, and I feel like he’s imparting wisdom to me. For that, I am truly grateful I have Samuel as a friend.

One day Samuel and I talked about the Compliance Hub over lunch in the Great Hall, one of the main classrooms at Make School. Well, I was talking to Samuel about the Compliance Hub — I imagine at the time he must’ve just thought I was just asking him about his life, since those were the types of questions I explictly asked. What got you into iOS development? Why do you like it? What have you built? Those types of questions, because what I was really trying to do was validate Steve’s idea about marketing Compliance Hub to small businesses. Samuel talked about his experiences learning Swift for mobile development; he was originally from New Jersey, and after marrying his college sweetheart, he had learned computer programming by cloning apps in online courses.

Samuel helped me validate just how difficult building that app would be. For one thing, Samuel let me in on the absolute horror that configuring layouts are for mobile developers. As well, he helped me appreciate just how rare it would be for me to make the Compliance Hub a reality on my own. Generally it’s teams of engineers that work on machine learning, which I am considering using in order to automate certain processes (like building multiple compliance-tracking apps across industries with different regulations).

Most importantly, Samuel helped me validate one thing for sure: it takes a lot of time and effort invested upfront to learn how to make an app. Samuel himself had spent years to learn his craft on his own, and he still had never launched a real product for iOS. Did this mean a small business owner would pay for an app-builder website to make their mobile-first experiences?

I pitched a question similar to this to Samuel, and I told him it was related to a product idea. His response: “oh, so you mean you want to build one of those drag-and-drop website makers?”

The moment Samuel mentioned the words “drag and drop” my heart stopped. I realized my competitive analysis (from the previous section) had been done all wrong. I had overlooked one major competitor, and competing with them would be a David vs. Goliath struggle for our future: Wix.com.

Wix.com, the self-proclaimed “Leader of Website Creation.”

To the uninitiated, Wix.com is a drag and drop website-builder. It’s in the same vein of products such as SquareSpace, Weebly, and GoDaddy, which are marketed mainly as a way for small businesses to start branding themselves online and conduct ecommerce. I actually became very familiar with Wix back in high school, designing websites as a freelancer for a sign language teacher, a local small business owner. I was especially impressed with the Wix ADI, or “Artificial Design Intelligence” editor. Most drag and drop builders I had used before were rote and dull; when I used them I felt overwhelmed, and that I could never get a website looking as good as the ones presenting in the company’s marketing. Yet the Wix ADI editor was different: you filled out your preferences in a survey, and poof! the site practically sprung into existence looking beautiful. It was intuitive. It is an algorithm which just knows what styles, formatting, and colors get people’s attention when they’re navigating through otherwise intricate pathways of information; and then actually knows how to implement those user flows automatically.

Wix is actually the type of product I need to build off of for Compliance Hub, if I do choose to start marketing to small businesses, as I was inclined to after my conversation with Steve. Then again, Steve also mentioned he could not name another company implementing the idea I pitched to him. Again, this just reiterates the importance of user interviews, in plural; because as Zac from Liffft says, “N of 1 is not proof.” Any one user interview is not enough to confirm or invalidate the assumptions behind Compliance Hub. Had I only gone on Steve’s word, there would have been a major blindspot in my beliefs around starting the Compliance Hub.

There were tons of insights on my mind after this conversation, but one of the largest was: how do we differentiate ourselves from Wix?

“Rejection Therapy”

It was Monday morning in San Francisco, and the sun was just starting to come out after a rainstorm. I wondered, “is anyone really gonna want to talk to me about this?”

Braus took our SPD 1.1 class out to the streets, to see if we could find people to conduct user interviews with. I did all my interviews in and around Union Square. I presumed I would run mostly into tourists, so I decided to use the opportunity to investigate my assumptions about marketing Compliance Hub as a drag-and-drop mobile app builder. I asked people about where they live, if they had family, how they balanced family life with running errands, and tried to understand how mobile apps affected their relationships with the businesses around them.

I managed to conduct seven interviews successfully. Each person gave me at least one major insight, and here are some of the highlights:

  1. “Living Outside” — I wasn't able to find anyone who actually lived in San Francisco, or an urban center like it. This could be due to my sample size being mostly tourists, yet I noticed most people wouldn’t even approach the idea.
    I met one person who looked to be a full-grown man, who told me he had no kids and lived with his parents outside San Francisco. Him and his friend told me they could never imagine raising a family within the city.
  2. “Apps Don’t Raise Engagment” — I didn’t seem to sense any particular fondness for mobile apps among the people I interviewed. Despite my initial hypothesis that mobile apps raise customer engagement for the brick and mortar businesses who implement them, most of the people I talked to expressed no particular liking for them. One person mentioned he would go to a business more if often if their mobile app helped him to “save time, save money” — yet on the whole, I realized it was more of a question of brand awareness.
    To elaborate, when asked about choosing between options, my interviewees alluded to valuing familiarity when making a decision. For instance, one woman who lives in Atlanta, Georgia told me she usually goes to Longhorn Steak House when eating out, because she already knows what’s on the menu and what the prices are. In other words, she had become so familiar to the restaurant by going there regularly that adding a mobile experience wouldn’t really add any value.
  3. “Aversion to Apps” — there was also a segment of my interviewees who expressed an outright distaste for mobile applications. While this may attributed to age (most of the people I interviewed were Baby Boomers on vacation), as I said before even the younger interviewees I talked to didn't appear to like using apps if they didn’t need to.
    For instance, one middle-aged British couple I interviewed talked to me point-blank about the “negative changes” being wrought on kids today thanks to their attachment to screens. I have a hunch the British couple weren’t just reminiscing about the “good-ol’-days” either; because I interviewed another man who couldn’t have been older than 40 from Utah, and he echoed the same sentiment. Him and his wife just didn’t use apps to find businesses in their local area, if they felt there was an option they already knew and trusted.

In a nutshell, the lesson I’ve learned today is that no business tactic, whether in sales or marketing, raises customer engagement like word-of-mouth relationships.

Therefore to make a long story short, I feel now Compliance Hub won’t be marketed towards small businesses anymore, as a mobile app drag-and-drop builder. The mobile app just doesn’t guarantee revenue for the business that implements it like it used to, unless the business itself already has strong brand awareness with its customers. In turn, we wouldn’t be able to charge enough for it to carry our business. It’s not a big enough problem; and it’s not worth building a new platform for it. We could choose to market to big businesses instead, but they tend to already have mobile engineers building apps for them.

Instead, I think it’s best if I stick with Mr. Adams’ initial hunch.The market that Compliance Hub is best suited for is — well, the compliance market. Apps have yet to disrupt that market; because as the Competitive Analysis graph above shows, pen and paper is still used broadly. Therefore, just as Tesla disrupted the automotive industry when it was saturated gas-guzzlers, we could use Compliance Hub to be the “electric vehicle” for engineering inspectors.

Section 3: Product Design

Product Idea

I aspire to help engineers get their projects approved through a web app that enables inspectors to track their requirements online. I want to design Compliance Hub to be the ultimate project companion.

The easiest decisions are the ones that simplify. Engineers already spend so much time on the computer, from designing a product to communicating with collaborators. As opposed to using pen and paper, isn’t it faster to use the computer to submit their compliance forms as well?

The other benefit is of complexity. Companies like TurboTax have already proven that there are ways to teach computers to comprehend complex topics, like the enormous U.S. tax code, and condense them for the common man to use. How did they figure it out? How can we build even beyond that?

Currently, decision-making in government compliance is solely handled by humans. It’s a process with decisions many times more complex than taxes, without any sign of becoming faster. If we want computers to streamline this process, then the Compliance Hub will provide it with machine learning. Instead of a programmer needing to develop all the if-statements, the machine learning algorithm will consume all the data, find a way to comprehend it, and work backwards to design the logic flows itself.

Photo by Jan Kolar / VUI Designer on Unsplash

It might not be Hal from 2001, but this type of A.I. is downright fascinating to me. These programs are able to become our helpful virtual assistants, guiding us humans through the abstractions of ideas we once thought were our own, and that we once had control over. That’s the type of app we were trying to build for government compliance — and the difference is we’re building an app that also automates the process of building another copy of itself. This kind of app is highly reliant upon having industry knowledge, and we’re going another step further: through transfer learning, we’ll make Compliance Hub capable of learning the knowledge surrounding another industry, and subsequently be converted to an app for that specific market. In other words, not just another TurboTax clone — but an app-builder which could automatically build a TurboTax competitor for gas station compliance, for car manufacturer compliance, biomedical compliance, and countless other. As long as it’s supplied the necessary data, the Compliance Hub spans any space where engineers need to level up over time, until they fulfill the innovation process required for their projects.

User Journey

The number one edge the Compliance Hub has over competitors is its user-centric mission. This makes it important early on to define a user journey, because as I go along it will help me to define which user stories (aka features) are the most important to build into the product for its first iteration. For one thing, the user journey will prevent me from simply building a clone of another app’s UI — by staying focused on how a user would use an app like this, I can make a design that defines how the domain specific language (such as defining how terms like “document”, and “dashboard” are implemented) for this product specifically. Not only will this help in differentiation, it helps make the design agile: for example, I originally expected the screen for inspectors to view the projects under their management to appear as a large, unending list. However, by designing my wireframe upfront (seen below), I could empathize with the user. This led me to design the page to look more like a social media site, where all the projects appear like your connections on LinkedIn.

Here’s a sample user journey I created for the Compliance Hub. It’s written from the perspective of a mayor, because at this stage I’m most concerned with attracting the attention of government officials who will be signing up their inspectors to use this app. In turn, that will make the engineers have to come onto the platform as well.

Hey I’m Bob the Mayor, and my inspectors asked me if I could find a way for them to check new engineering project proposals online. I met with a representative from Compliance Hub, and at the end I signed up for the service. Now each of my inspectors can log in to an online dashboard in the morning, and right away they can tell which of the projects they’re overseeing is compliant with all codes and regulations, or which ones are missing requirements. From there, they can send messages and schedule further actions to take, such as checking documents submitted for a project against the requirements, sending a notice to the engineering manager, all within the app.

From here, I will expand upon the user journey into separate user stories, or actual features I will work to implement when designing the application. For example, I as an inspector using this app will definitely need to see a dashboard with all the projects I oversee; and from there, I will need clear options displayed with what to do next, whether it be sending a notice, scheduling a meeting with the manager, or double checking documents against requirements on one specific project.

Wireframe

The Compliance Hub is my piece of art. Before I bring it into the world, I created a wireframe, which is meant to be a medium for expressing the idea before it is ready to be fully fledged. This helps because I’ve made the mistake before of trying to build apps using a waterfall approach, which is when you try and implement entire app from scratch, going off nothing but your idea.

I actually tried building a prototype for one Compliance Tracker for car washes, during the summer before I came to Make School. When Mr. Adams first explained the project to me, (it’s now called the Car Service Manager on my GitHub repositories) we thought the project was right up my alley: as Mr. Adams said, “it’s just a bunch of if-statements and while — loops. However when it came to building the app, I was overwhelmed by just how much “a bunch” meant — it was only a short time before I was lost in a Byzantine web of control flows, and logic of which I couldn’t keep track.

I fell into the worst failure a software engineer can make: I gave up on the project. It’s still not completed. All the hours I spent are on it are a waste, because there’s nothing to show for it as of the time of this writing (October 1st, 2019).

Wireframing decreases the chance of me falling into this mistake on future iterations of Compliance Hub, as well as all software projects I do in the future, because as opposed to building an entire product (the waterfall methid of engineering), I can choose to take a more agile approach. I can design one screen of the app, build it, test it for edge cases and gather user feedback, and figure out from there with confidence how to improve, and which features to build next. Although more painstaking for my creative self, because I’m anxious to create this product to its fullest potential quickly, this process will be better because it forces me to be humble. My ego needs to take back seat here. By listening to the market on each iteration of the product, I will have the best chances of ensuring Compliance Hub benefits the greatest number of engineers (the users whom its actually intended for).

In that spirit, I will leave you with a few pictures of paper wireframes I have drawn for the Compliance Hub. As we say in the Muslim community, inshallah (“God willing”) this app and company will be successful as I continue to work on it, bring in more talented coworkers to the business, and functionality to the app.

Let’s help make sure engineers keep innovating, and keep providing society with the creativity it needs to prosper for generations to come!

Inspector View: the top left is a dashboard of all projects labeled with an id number. Top right is a “Create New” page, for adding a new regulation. Mobile responsive versions for both screens shown along the bottom.
Engineer View: boxes along the top show desktop versions, and mobile versions shown along the bottom. Left hand side shows the requirements your project has fulfilled on one project, center is submitting the forms, and right hand side shows screens for viewing which of your projects have been approved.

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