Smartphone Overload & Engagement

Walking around the streets of my city, it’s almost a disease – the sickness of people being smartphone addicted.

Ghirardelli Square view in San Francisco.

The view on my walk by the bay in San Francisco.

I observe people everywhere, glued to their iPhones, whether walking down the street, sitting at a cafe, riding the bus, having drinks with friends, driving…

Leaving work from my office building in downtown San Francisco, I can look straight on the street and multiple times, it’s the same scene with different characters. I’ll look inside the car – in this instance, it’s a new silver Honda Civic with a thirty-something year old guy wearing a dark blueberry long sleeved button-up shirt, his face lit by the small screen. He smiles as he scrolls down his Facebook feed, pausing at a Buzzfeed article, then swiping upward to view the picture of a friend on a beach in Thailand, “liking” the status update of another friend who is happy that tomorrow is Friday.

The light turns green, they continue to stare at the tiny device until an annoyed driver behind them honks, prompting them to come back to reality.

We, as a nation, are progressively getting more addicted to our smartphones, feeling a rush when we pop in our inbox and find a new piece of email in it. We thrive on texts, vibrations and tweets. Besides the pleasure and validation we get when we receive message and mail (“yes, you are liked – someone retweeted the article you tweeted this morning!”), are we so afraid that we’ll miss out or become unproductive or fall behind?

Have we forgotten how to be still? Do we get bored too easily?

I had no choice but to put down my iPhone and engage with the world today when I decided to go grocery shopping in between work and going to the beginners’ improv class that I’m taking in a far corner of the city.

I had my hands full, struggling with two loaded bags in my arms plus a backpack on my shoulders, as I made my way to the class on foot. The walk was through North Beach, and night was falling. I made my way slowly through the 10 or so blocks that I needed to cover to arrive at my class, taking a stroll along the tourist attractions – the end of the line for the cable car, Ghirardelli Square, bikes to rent, inviting cafes and chain restaurants.

Nearing the end of my walk, the streets turned to a walk along the marina, giving me a generous view of the bay and Alcatraz.

The air was still, with the only noise an occasional fog horn and the panting of a handful of joggers making their ways down the street,  dressed in bright neon gear, looking professional and fit. The moderate, temperate winter of San Francisco meant that the evening was cool, around 60, with a fine layer of fog which still allowed for a view of the Golden Gate Bridge in the distance. Though near the water, San Francisco doesn’t have a strong salty smell, as we’re protected by the bay, but there the slight perfume of herb or plant, of which I couldn’t even tell you – hung in the air. It was an evening I can only describe as fresh, and I just felt… content to be experiencing the evening so vividly.

The whirling, rambunctious, tumbling thoughts in my mind slowed down as I took a moment to breathe the air, scan the distance and enjoy the journey I was taking.

Is this what we miss out on when we’re constantly occupied by our devices? Do we miss the subtleties of the world around us? How do you appreciate nature, or surroundings around you that you’re too distracted to notice?

Take a moment to reflect on your day, the interactions you’ve had. What would be different when you turn off your phone for a day? Harder said than done, but try it. Let me know what happens when you do.

Using A Cell Phone Doesn’t Mean You’re Communicating

Hearing someone scream in agony, running down the platform as the train pulled away, I couldn’t help but feel a deep sympathy. I could tell from the way he cried out that he wasn’t hurt, but some other minor disaster had occurred. Luggage had been put on the train while this guy wandered off the train and onto the platform, surely  certain that the 3 seconds he stepped off the train wouldn’t be the time that it took for the train to depart. But it was, and depart the train did.


I was coming home from the San Francisco airport, which connects to the local train affectionately known by its acronym, Bart. Exiting from the airport and down to the entrance to the train’s platform, I could see a train sitting at the platform across the turnstile which I had not yet passed. I jogged to try to catch it in time , knowing that I would need to wait 15 minutes for the next one if I didn’t jump on this one. My slight jog wasn’t fast enough, and the train pulled away with a slight whoosh as I reached the turnstile. I sighed in disappointment, but selfishly considered myself lucky when I experienced secondhand the agony of the man who left his luggage on the train car.

Riders on the Bay Area Rapid Transit, a commuter train in the San Francisco area.

Weary passengers on the commuter train.


It was one of those moments where I felt compelled to break through the awkwardness of initiating conversation with a stranger – I wanted to tell him I could help, that it would be okay, that station staff announced over the PA system that he could come to the teller’s booth at the front and they would try to work with him.


As soon as he stopped his futile chase of the train, however, he immediately called his friend on his cell phone,  barely stopping to breathe, ranting about his frustrating experience, instructing his friend – supposedly who he was soon to meet – that he had missed the train and accidentally abandoned his bag on it.


A tug of obligation and sympathy for this stranger made me want to try to interject, but I wasn’t given the choice. He continued on the phone for the next 15 minutes, pacing around the angrily around the platform, making him unapproachable, though I followed him from a distance, looking for an opportunity to inject myself.

Within a quick quarter of an hour, the next train pulled up to the station, and – with my own commitments and friends to meet. I got on it, with my things, and rode home.


Technology (the cell phone) served to connect with stranger with his friend, while also allowing him to disengage from his immediate situation, rendering him unaware and closed to any local help that could have been offered to him, such as a passerby like himself who wanted to offer advice.


Although we have wireless internet, fancy smartphones, GPS, social media and abundant technology that has delivered alluring yet incomplete promises of solving all of life’s problems, situations like these remind me that figuring out and using technology is half the battle. Knowing how to use a cell phone doesn’t mean that you can communicate – meaning that relationships and the importance of teaching rhetoric, critical thinking and relationship building is as relevant as it always has been.

Embracing Gattaca: Why I’ve Decided To Get My DNA Genotyped

Gattaca, the 1997 science fiction film based in the “not-too-distant future” featuring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman was one of my favorite films ever since I had seen it days before summer vacation in my high school biology class.


Movie poster for Gattaca, created to generate buzz about the movie.


The film shows viewers a fictional future in which babies’ genes can be chosen before birth for parents with the means to pay for it. Vincent Freeman is the protagonist of the story. He’s one of the unlucky ones to have had parents who didn’t want to consult their local geneticist to cherry pick his features and characters. Vincent is born into the world with suffering from myopia, potential heart troubles and other characteristics that classified him as a lower class human being in comparison to the privileged humans whose features were carefully selected and flaws removed.


“I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science,” explains Vincent.


When 23andme came out with its DNA genotyping services in 2007, I was wary and slightly critical. With the cautionary tale of dystopia as created in Gattaca still part of mind – plus a prohibitively hefty subscription-based fee of $299 per period, getting my DNA genotyped by 23andme, the privately owned biotechnology company owned in part by Google’s Sergey Brin’s wife didn’t seem like a great idea. December’s price drop to an apparently permanent level of $99 prompted me to reconsider and perform a bit of research.


After doing some research, I’m convinced that I can and should get my DNA genotyped with for the following reasons:


Privacy is maintained. 23andme has taken measures to make sure order information and genetic information are kept separate.


Legislation in place. 2008’s Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) of 2008 makes it illegal for Americans to discriminate based on genetic information within healthcare and employment – which will need to be further tested as time goes on, but the preventative legislation in place ensures that some kind of guardrails are in place against genetic discrimination.


Benefit the greater good. As this Forbes article mentions, the secrets of human genetic DNA will be based on the number of people who participate. More participants in 23andme’s system will allow for crowdsourced genetic information, meaning the more people participate, the more meaningful the rest of the individuals with DNA genotyped by 23andme will be.


With an easy sample collection procedure, the next step I will need to take is sending the company a test tube full of saliva.


Far from worrying about having my future spoiled for me or genetic discrimination, I see genotyping as an opportunity to strategize about what kind of life choices I can modify in order to maintain optimal health. Additionally, my view is that 23andme can provide insights that could arise from the DNA genotyping (as 23andme provides probabilities and likelihood metrics at the individual level for over 240 health conditions and traits). These insights would allow me to take precautions and be cognizant of future pitfalls that I might otherwise be unaware of as an individual who sometimes takes her health for granted given a relatively disease and accident-free past.


Getting my DNA genotyped is about being an empowered healthcare consumer, getting a step closer to better managing my own health and healthcare records.

Designing health apps & Health: Refactored

Health 2.0 had its inaugural Health: Refactored event in Mountain View, spanning May 13th – 14th, 2013. As a volunteer at the conference I had the opportunity to experience a few of sessions myself, a fascinating conference and a great opportunity to learn more about health care systems and major trends within health and wellness from a technology perspective.


My favorite session of day 1 of the conference was a session called UI, UX and U: Designing for Health. This designer focused session featured moderator Doug Solomon, Fellow and former CTO of IDEO. Individual designers gave a short talk promoting their viewpoint and then Doug moderated a panel of speakers.



Jawbone’s Vice President: Aza Raskin – @aza

Healthagen’s Managing Director: Aaron Sklar – @aaronsklar

Frog Design’s Senior Interaction Designer: Alex Tam@AlexTam

IDEO’s Lead, Active Health: Gretchen Wustrack – @geewu


Doug kicked off the session by telling us his real nickname for the session: “Why Health Apps Suck.” Why do health apps suck, if supposedly health is so important, and there already is a growing industry around healthcare apps? Healthcare costs continue to rise, a ton of money is poured into health care apps, yet they suck.


Aza offered an answer to this question, mentioning that answering the wrong question or framing the question in the wrong way within the context of health care part of the problem. Additionally, he used the idea of collapse of civilizations as a comparison from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse to paint this picture: civilizations collapsed when they don’t feel the ramifications of their decisions, and health care apps often are designed by people who don’t feel the impact of the design decisions made within an app.


Gretchen’s main argument pressed on the point that we need to lead with love and integrate apps into people’s lives: an app shouldn’t feel like an additional step or a burden in someone’s life. The ultimate goal of the app, as mentioned in her closing statement, should facilitate conversation and communication between a caregiver and her patient.


Why do health care apps exist? Alex brought up this question, mentioning that health is something that people who aren’t sick take for granted and don’t notice until they have an issue. I personally agree strongly with this one; as someone who has been lucky enough to have an extremely healthy family, I hardly ever think about allergies, medications or health complications getting in the way of my own activities. Only when I’m forced home with the flu or get food poisoning while traveling do I start to think about tracking my own health. General health apps suck because healthy people don’t have a specific problem or reason to spend time on a health app, but people with chronic illnesses do.


Aaron’s answer to why health apps suck? Developing apps for the lowest common denominator results in sucky outcomes for technology. He advocates that, when at the beginning stages of developing an application, it’s important to understand what is important for a specific population.


Panelists did well in providing experiences and sometimes conflicting opinions – making for a dynamic talk. Final healthcare app tips included:


  • Understand the problem you’re trying to solve. Iterate on your product [Aaron]
  • The app should be used to facilitate conversations between caregiver and patient [Gretchen]
  • [As a designer or app developer] it’s important to show people you’re unfinished work. Invite people to add to what you are working on [Alex]
  • Empathy is so important. Talk to people. Talk to doctors – listen to their problems but ignore their [technology] solutions [Aza]


The question of “will Big Data massively alter health care?” is a given; the real challenge for designers remains in how to ensure that the technology connects patients and caregivers in a way that is meaningful, effective and personal.

4 Top Take-aways From “Leveraging Social Networking to Advance Your Career”

On Thursday, I attended an event hosted by SV Forum (an organization in the Bay Area which fosters innovation through events), focusing on women in technology, on the topic of “Leveraging Social Networking to Advance Your Career.”


The event featured a panel of successful women who are social media savvy and included:


The moderator was Janet Fouts, a social media strategist, and provided a great conversation about using social media to advance one’s personal brand, juggling different social media channels as well as the line between personal and work life.

There was a ton of great information shared at this event. Between the conversation and questions, I jotted a few notes. Here are the top 4 take-aways:

(4) Regular blogging really helps you to become an expert. LaSandra did this for about 2 years consistently – posting 3 times per week –  looking at B2C social media marketing case studies and how these could be used in the context of B2B. Blogging opened doors for her as well as allowed her to learn so much about the topic of social media (LaSandra Brill).

(3) Twitter is a great way to connect with customers when you don’t want to give them your phone number but still want to have a closer connection (Marilyn Lin).

(2) Social media like Twitter or Vine [the 6 second video social media networking site] is so great because putting a constraint [on a platform] allows people to be incredibly creative (Jana Messerschmidt).

(1) To make yourself successful on LinkedIn, start by filling out your profile completely. Connect with people who are in the places where you want to be [in your career]. Continuously ask for recommendations, so it becomes part of your regular career, and is not just used when you’re switching roles (Erica Lockheimer).

In addition to learning a lot, I was inspired to take action – largely related my own social media and blog presence. I created a list of action items (yes, that’s the project manager within me), some of which include:

– Create a Twitter handle for my fish, Tobias – @TobiasBlueth

– Start following Marc Benioff and Sheryl Sandberg on Twitter

– Ask for a LinkedIn recommendation


Great session, hosted by SV Forum and sponsored by Salesforce. Keep up the good work, people!

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