“You Take Control as a User Researcher” – My First Feedback Session with My Mentor

After two days of preparing materials, practicing the protocol, and setting up technologies, I finally am able to lead a one-hour pilot session. My mentor and peer teammate are observing behind my participant and me, offering support when I need.

After thanking our pilot participant after the pilot, my mentor closes the door.

I see. I am about to receive the first official “performance feedback” from the team. It’s big for me. It’s exciting. Until then, I have never received a sit-down feedback thing for moderating a user research test session. All I know about myself is that I love saying “I love receiving feedback from my mentors and improving myself based on that feedback.” I’ve said that so many times so that must be true.

“So, what do you think?” My mentor asks.

“When the file crashed, I was certainly nervous. Um, yeah.” I give a few details of the moments that I am not proud of. My mentor then provides a few alternatives to go around the challenges, which we might not have enough to finish in a day. My teammate who has run a similar study two months ago also offers me a few suggestions.

“Absolutely, I will get myself more familiar with the technologies and see what I can do,” I reply.

For a second I think that is all the feedback they have for me.

“As a user researcher, you need to take control,” my mentor continues. “You will be polite, but not apologetic. It helps the participant stay invested.”

My teammate also shares a few tips on how to be “a friendly robot” for this specific study.

“It could be a cultural thing too,” my mentor continues, that my habit of nodding or bowing could give the undesired impression.

In terms of collecting Likert scale data from participants, they suggest that I not use “thank you,” since it could be interpreted as an encouragement — we don’t want to thank our participants for giving us a “good score.” A gentle repetition or something similarly neutral, an “I see,” could be more appropriate in this case.

Flashback: I learned the “thank you” strategy from a workshop a few years ago, when the instructor was highlighting the importance of showing absolutely no judgment on a participant. For example, user researchers shall not defend themselves when the participants raise their concerns or dissatisfaction of a certain aspect of the product. How about saying “good” after the participant gives a rating in a survey? Still no. It could be leading and biased, encouraging the participant to “say good things to please the study moderator.”

I also learned about using “I see” from a discussion with the designer on my capstone team a few months ago. Like my mentor said, I’d agree that it could be an even more neutral expression than “thank you.” However, it is still challenging for me to use it without having it followed by a “thank you,” though.

Flash forward to this moment. How do I feel about my performance after our little sit-down? A little embarrassed, but based on the fact that I know I can do better. I will. Not that I could have done better but I tried and I will try harder. This whole conversation reminds me of the UX podcast, Mixed Methods, the episode “Don’t Leave Data on the Table,” on how researchers give each other feedback at a company. I find it truly speaking to me today.

Shall I Complain, They’re Already Wearing Headphones

Someday from five years ago, I was working on an assignment in a computer lab at UC San Diego. There was always a sign on the door reminding us not to talk or eat at any time in the lab. The lab was normally really quiet and clean.

Until it wasn’t quiet anymore. I heard music being played in the room. I turned my head around to see what happened.

Nothing in particular, I thought. Students scattered in the lab were either working on homework with serious looks on their faces or chilling with their headphones on. Where could that sound come from?

I listened in more closely to locate the source of the sound. I scoped down the target range to one guy, who was sitting a few seats to my left near the aisle. He obviously had his big headset on though.


The music started to get louder. Other students in the lab, like me, started to look around and exchange glances with others to show our acknowledgment of the existence of that despicable member of the herd.

At some point, someone just has to tell that guy to turn the music down, I thought. Based on my spotless record on being nosy (after learning about the diffusion of responsibility phenomenon, the one thing that defines who I am), I stood up and was ready to make a move.

I gently walked towards the guy’s desktop and realized that he himself wasn’t in the know of what happened either.

The headphone wasn’t fully plugged into the processor.

I tapped on his shoulder and broke the news to him.

He had an epiphany, apologized for what he missed, and pushed the plug into the processor. The lab was quiet again.

No one was hostile toward him anymore.

A while after this little incident, I ran into many cases, where someone’s headphone is already fully plugged in, well-connected, and working as it’s supposed to be, but I still hear so many noises in the air. It is just too loud.


Let me ask you this: If this person sitting next to you is listening to music that’s super loud to the extent that you can clearly hear the genre and the lyrics — would you blame this person? Or their headphones? Would you ever ask this person to volume it down? Or shall we just block out the noises with our own headphones if possible?


I am not sure what the morale of my article is, which is why I have been reluctant to publish it in the past few weeks. I look forward to your feedback.

Interact with me (or clap for me!) on the original post on Medium: https://medium.com/@hirainforest/shall-i-complain-theyre-already-wearing-headphones-b95987200d15

Arguments in the Recent History of Emoji -- In honor of World Emoji Day 2018

The first emoji was created in 1999 on Japanese mobile phones. As of the time I (just) Googled, there were 2,666 existing emojis. For the sake of the flow of this article, please expect no funny pics of emoji in between sentences 😂.

Emoji: A step forward or back for our language?

During an event at which Apple announced new, upgraded emoji features (added icons, color effects, etc.), one of the company’s developers claimed that using emoji is in conflict with the development of understanding the English language: “The children tomorrow will have no understanding of the English language.”

Supporting this idea was a female blogger’s 24-hour experiment, in which she texted her friends and family using only emojis. After the experiment, she came to realize several challenges of [using] pure pictorial communication {with emojis}. First, emojis are not fixed in meaning and are highly open to interpretation across cultures or background knowledge. For instance, the use of an emoji of two hands palm-to-palm is not consistent across cultures. According to researcher Neil Cohn, “🙏” tend to be used by Asians to express appreciation (“thank you,” “please”), while Western cultures generally use it as a substitute for “praying.” In this case, if one emoji could stimulate various responses or sensations, it is beyond prediction how a complete sentence built by only emojis would trigger massive misinterpretation.

Second, emojis lack syntax to tie content together. For example, it is hard to express the idea of prepositions with the current choices on the emoji keyboard. This is important to consider because the lack of prepositions will limit one to discuss relationships between physical objects as well as more abstract relationships.

On the bright side, though, the use of emojis also fosters creativity by forcing the user to parse semantics without language. Susan Herring, a linguistics professor explained that emojis represented a sort of pictorial pidgin language — “the primitive tongue that emerges out of necessity between two populations with no common language.” Emojis could benefit communication in a similar way. With a red heart-shaped symbol, or a smiley/shy/cool face, the users’ emotions are accessible to the other interlocutor, even though their own working languages are not mutually intelligible. Also, in terms of sentence structure, what happens in Pidgin is that a sentence is usually comprised of nouns and verbs “strung together;” emojis, when used to express an intensified idea, also contain simple pictorial representations “strung together.” For example, in Pidgin language, “extremely quick” would be “quick quick;” in emoji, “a lot of love” would be represented by multiple hearts, and “a lot of work” might come out as multiple symbols of papers and pencils. In addition, emoji is also a favorable outlet to express visual metaphors that are sometimes too obtrusive to put in words, like the eggplant emoji that appears frequently in raunchy conversations.

Diversifying emoji.

In response to criticism, a new series of emojis was released by iOS to expand the representation of skin tones starting from iOS 8 in 2014, which received mixed comments. Paige Tutt, a black English female writer, acknowledged Apple’s good intent but thought it was a turn for the worse: she felt compelled to use the “appropriate” brown-skinned nail-painting emoji that was just one of the many emoji characters that were just white emoji wearing masks. She suggested that Apple remove the racialized emoji altogether.

Some people argue that it’s bad that we have so many food emoji characters and so few about women. An assistant professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, who labels the phenomenon “ridiculous” that there are more emojis for food than for women, asks: “How was there space for both a bento box and a single fried coconut shrimp, and yet women were restricted to a smattering of tired, beauty-centric roles?” This sharp comment facilitates readers to recognize some unsolved issues among emojis. It is downplaying the status of gender-unrelated emojis represented by “a bento box and a single fried coconut shrimp.”

This specific critique seems to ignore that food is a cultural marker, and a variety of emoji food is actually its own form of diversity. Can’t we have food and more women at the same time?

But in this quote, the broader principle that emoji needs to be more diverse is well taken. For example, Google initiated a movement that added thirteen emojis to represent women in professional roles in business and healthcare.

Adding emojis isn’t so easy.

The popularity of emoji has caused pressure from vendors and international markets to add additional designs into the Unicode standard to meet the demands of different cultures.

As a matter of fact, to have an emoji character be added to the keyboard, it has to go through the process of being proposed to, voted on and approved by the Unicode Consortium, which is a lengthy process coordinated by the Consortium. Why do we need such consortium to coordinate the process? Think about the following scenario:

Now on the iOS emoji keyboard, there are woman & woman & love, male & male & love, family with two sons, family with two girls, and family with a boy and a girl, etc. What about families with three sons? Having a (customized) emoji might give their user experience a more directly accessible sense of identification, but it takes forever to search and find certain emojis. How can we balance efficiency and degree of customization on the keyboard?

Where is emoji going next?

How are companies working together on this? How are software solving that problem? How is the role of emoji changing? Is it made more standardized or divided? What are your questions about emoji and how might you approach answering them?

View (or clap!) for my original post on Medium: https://medium.com/@hirainforest/arguments-in-the-recent-history-of-emoji-e7a25d1cdf43


The Perfect Ambiguity

I met a sweet, outgoing, and stylish Chinese classmate around my age, Yi at the summer improv course at the university. To be more specific, Carnegie Mellon University, where the best School of Computer Science and School of Drama coexists. Shortly after we got to know each other, she invited me to grab dinner with her husband at a Turkish place near campus.

That night, we talked about our experiences in the US as non native speakers of English. The couple shared their concerns about their lack of mastery of the English language, especially in getting their points across in group conversations.

I also expressed my appreciation to Yi, mostly on how brave I thought she was in the improv class we took together, where she absolutely put herself out there, jumping into actives and just, having fun with us the whole time.

Her husband, Lao Yang, a reserved while witty one, decided to share with me something they odd they encountered in Boston a few weeks ago, where he claimed that “my wife thought my response to the English native speaker was a little rude.”

“Tell me tell me tell me.” I urged.


“Okay, so we were hanging out near the Harvard campus,” Lao Yang said. “My wife had this CMU sweatshirt on. A middle-aged Caucasian man approached us, asking us if we went to CMU. I said yes.

“The guy asked, ‘At the School of Computer Science?’

“I said yes again.

“He was really excited, saying all the best things about how great CMU was in the field of Computer Science.

“I felt really flattered.

“Then, out of nowhere, he pointed to the young college girl next to him and went like: ‘She goes to Harvard, at the CS program too, which is better.’

“I stumbled. ‘Maybe.’ That was all I was able to respond. And the man never continued the conversation.” Lao Yang paused.


“Isn’t my husband rude?” Yi jumped in, “He should probably try harder to at least agree with that guy…”

“WAIT. Didn’t he ask you a question?” I interrupted them abruptly.

There was a pause.

“What?” Lao Yang was super curious.

I repeated: “The guy was trying to be funny by asking you a question, no? Which is better, CMU or Harvard, in Computer Science?”

“Oh my. That makes so much more sense!” They said.

There, a moment of revelation, where the three of us laughed so hard and gladly realized that the man wasn’t just an antisocial narcissist.

“Um, I am pretty sure he wasn’t asking a question. He didn’t raise his pitch at the end of the sentence,” Yi followed up with this piece of evidence.

“Only the yes/no questions will end in a rising tone. The which/what/how questions won’t,” I responded and gave a few examples.

Yi continued, “Right after that odd conversation with the guy, I told my husband that we could’ve said something nicer like ‘Oh although Harvard is better in its arts sectors, CMU is quite strong in Computer Science.’”

“Don’t worry. The guy might be confused too. I guess he was trying to make a joke that nobody understood,” I said.

“He must have thought we were such weird foreigners!” Lao Yang still felt guilty.

“Nah,” I said, “I am pretty sure he’d have told this same story to his English-speaking friends, and they’d probably have challenged him and told him that he was being rude too, saying that ‘my niece goes to Harvard, which is better.’”


After my invigorating conversation at the dinner with Yi and Lao Yang, I couldn’t stop thinking about their choice to say “maybe” at the moment. What I see is that there actually isn’t a right or wrong in cases like this. What if, as an English-as-second-language speaker, he didn’t feel awkward to ask the guy to repeat? Same for the guy as a native speaker too — he could have explained himself after hearing Lao Yang’s near-choking “maybe” — instead of offering mere silence and awkwardness in return. Right?

A lot of times, interpretation is based in part on our own lack of confidence, or overconfidence. I urge that we not be discouraged to continue the conversation.

P.S., Special thanks to Alex at the CMU writing center, who taught me the “multi-paragraph rule” about quotation marks. Alex said that it was an invigorating experience chatting with me, being able to talk about something they never had the chance to. There, I learned how to use the word “invigorating.”

If enjoyed this article, how about clapping it on my original post on Medium?

When Happiness Is So Overrated

I have been on Flickr for a while, especially as a big fan for its "Organizr" function that allows a single photo to be included in multiple galleries. With Flickr acquired by SmugMug, I decided to explore what SmugMug has to offer. 

I transferred some old photos and uploaded a few more. Then I received the following message on the screen: 

"Hooray! That's 1 happier photo.:)"


I was confused. My photo wasn't even close to a happy photo. It was neutral, it was mellow, it was just...not happy. And there I saw the emoticon at the end of the message: colon & close parenthesis. 

SmugMug, a paid service with some powerful customization functions and a not-so-bad organizer itself, is giving me a hard time to get over its logo: A HAPPY FACE. 

I used to think that if there was anyone who wouldn't be irked by the overloaded happy faces, it'd be me. The thought lasted until I read an article (on a Chinese literature exam!) by Guoping Zhou, a critique on the mere pursuit of "simple happiness" 10 years ago on a Chinese literature exam.

At that time (in 2007), a college professor in Chinese culture studies, Dan Yu, became a popular TV figure after starting to tell Confucius' stories in Analects 《论语》in simple language. Yu concluded that what Analects proposed, was "to follow one's heart and be happy." For the Chinese society then that was more of a money-oriented society (I guess it's still the same now?), it was a powerful message for a lot of hardworking and direction-seeking Chinese people. As a teenager, I was intrigued too. Learning about how the dry tomes were sending such lightweight messages made me believe that "I should be one of those happy people too." 

Meanwhile, many academics were criticizing Yu's oversimplifying of the classics too. Among those voices, Zhou's critique of Yu, however, stayed more relevant to me. In his critique, he claimed that Yu's lectures were able to send some needed messages for the stressful Chinese society, and that her choice to interpret the classics in her own way was well justified. What was not cool, Zhou continued, was her hasty interpretation of the life of the mind (心灵生活) to be "the happiness of heart," which in many cases of her storytelling, called for the compliance of roadblocks that "makes you unhappy." 

The core of either Analects, Plato, or the Bible, Zhou suggested, were world views, which all communicated unique and profound intensions. "To be happy," in contrast, was merely a mental state, or at the most a certain mental state that some world views would agree with at times. Profound world views, Zhou concluded, were not just about embracing happiness, but being involved with the greatest sympathy of mankind. And in response to societal realities, the solution should never be self-detaching, but steadfast criticism. 

Then, I thought about Russel's three passions.

The longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind.


How depressing am I? Quite I guess. Let me think about SmugMug’s “That’s one happier photo” this way: the photo is uploaded, and it is why it is happier. The pursuit of sharing and to be seen is a nice world view, I guess.

acne studios_face.png

(If you'd like to) Clap for my post on Medium:  

A link to Zhou's original article in Chinese: 


Mind If I Practice the Piano Privately?

My best friend called me on FaceTime, insisting that he play me a song he had been practicing recently on his electric piano.

Something Richard Clayderman for sure, I knew it. His piano pieces were always so familiar on the ears, so soft, and sometimes like an infinite loop that seems to have no end.

“OK! You are starting to loop the song!” I attempted to stop him at a seemingly appropriate place in the music sheet.


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What does Educational Technology Mean to Me When I Approach Educational Content Design?

I’m passionate about designing an experience for students to tell their stories, enhance their confidence, and see the value of what they’re learning. Because I’m passionate about letting the students feel like experts, I’m conscious of a problem in using educational technology wherein students do not feel confident or expert in certain tools. I solve this problem by focusing on the learning goals of the project beyond the technology.

I have been trying to understand the relationship between education and technology. On Wikipedia, I see that educational technology is "the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources". What does it mean to me when I approach educational content design?

In the case of a recent photography workshop, I was able to inhabit both roles, subject matter expert and a content designer. I learned a few things about how these two roles could interact and benefit from each other.


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Two things happened lately. 

As someone with the minimum sense of direction that you could ever imagine in a person, I follow the same path from one classroom to another. On my Tuesdays and Thursdays of this semester at 10:20 am, after my Application of Cognitive Science class, I'd go downstairs to the ground floor of Baker Hall, exit the building, walk to the fifth floor (ground floor) of Wean hall, take the stairway to go down to its fourth floor, and take the bridge to Newell-Simon Hall.

The stairway from fifth to the fourth floor has been good, where I find interesting posters about plays and events that I found intriguing. Until last week, that it has become fantastic

The photos I grabbed with my phones were not able to do the experience justice. So here is a link to a documentation of the installation.

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From One-Button Simplicity to Infinite Doubts

Last semester, I was working with several classmates on a design project that aimed to foster the documentation process for a group of high school students. These students were working in teams designing games or apps while did not have an existing documentation process. 

When we were researching on the scope and context of the high school students' projects to better understand their needs, we got the chance to interview their mentor, John. In our discussion, he discussed some current practices of students documenting and the challenges that came along with it. For example, how can students document moments, such as taking photos or videos, without "breaking the creative flow?" 

Sometimes certain technologies sound easy. Like a simple one-button that takes a photo of the room when anyone presses on it. However, John proposed a question:

Then who is supposed to be in control of it? 

I couldn't forget about the discussion on this button for the longest time.

   "Will you press the buttons?" 

"Will you press the buttons?" 

As a photography fanatic, I realized that I have this same one-button on my camera too: the shutter that takes one click to take one more photo. Being so effortless to take a photo, it also brings complexities: for one, by having more photos taken, it brings the challenge of managing a larger photo storage, spending longer time to saving photos (and potentially deleting some), and a lot more file management work. The questions, in this case, has become

How should I control the power of controling it? 

Let's Talk about Rejection Letters Like We Talk about...

Seven years ago before I came to the US, as an ambitious high schooler in Southern China, I applied for 12+ undergraduate college programs in the United States. Rejected by most of them, I was surprised to have spent some good amount of time studying the language of rejection letters. I quickly drafted a piece where I quote statements in the rejection letters and interpreted each statement in the form of a relationship rejection. It then went rogue in the college application BBS. Seven years later, I wonder if it is still relevant to me. Absolutely. I am applying for jobs, no? 

I hope you find some joy & peace in my writing below. 


The admissions selection committee has reviewed your application for admission for the fall of 2011.

I received your love letters the other day.



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