The Watch I’d Wear

I’ve had a love hate relationship with watches for my entire life. I remember saving up money to buy a cheap Walmart brand as a nine-year-old. The watch was everything I could want. It told the time and looked cool. The problem, though, came with the destructibility. The connection to my strap broke, and I scuffed the screen within a few weeks of use. I was not a gentle kid; I was clumsy, and unaware of the strength or length of my arms and legs. Attaching a watch to my body seemed to throw off my balance, even though that sounds impossible. I went through several cheap watches, and have memories of changing batteries, fixing broken straps, and repairing pins.

Fast forward to my teen years, and I wore an expensive (by my standards) digital watch with water resistance, alarms, and a few other fun features. It was sturdy and held up to the damage I inflicted. The features were hard to figure out though, and I spent far too much time trying to take down tiny notes, or set the three different alarms.
Then there were the straps. I was a tall, skinny kid, with an even skinnier arm. The strap wrapped around my wrist, and then slipped out at the end, far from the two loops meant to hold it. No matter how much I adjusted, the straps always felt off; bumping up against things, or looking unseemly. Even as a teenager I had some sense of style, though my wife would disagree on my clothing choices. Having that strap hang out made my wrist look like a stapler with the bottom hinge floating loose. I didn’t like it. I also didn’t like the strangeness of an object attached far down on my arm, swinging around with my long limbs, at risk of bumping into something.

And so for various reasons I stopped wearing a watch by the time I’d turned 20. In my twenties I avoided watches, and resorted to pulling a cellphone out of my pant’s pocket to check the time. I tried, a few times, to pick up a watch, but never liked the bands; let alone the watch face.
Then there was the Fitbit. I bought a few different devices: the Charge HR, Fitbit Versa 2, and maybe another one somewhere in the mix. I tried them, synced them up with my phone, tracked my steps, and attempted to bring each into my lifestyle. They never stuck. It just wasn’t useful enough to put back on after recharging. And there was that ever-present problem with my long arms, I’m still not 100% in control of bumping them around, and sometimes my wrist swipes a hard countertop a little too hard.

Now, in 2021, I’m looking around and trying to decide what a watch would mean for me. My friends own Apple Watches, Garmin, Nike, and a host of other interesting devices. I’ve thought about this for far longer than seems necessary, imagined the uses, the value, and what I’d do with the device. I’ve never worn an Apple Watch for more than a few minutes, and I haven’t been sure if the use case was there for me.
What I’m looking for with a watch seems simple enough. I’d like a device that allows me to leave my phone at home. Watch and AirPods, and I’m gone. I head out, can make calls as needed, review my list of to-dos, check my calendar and email, and in a pinch take down notes. Those are all doable on the Apple Watch, and it seems the device would match perfectly for those use cases. But that’s not all. I’m also looking for an extension of my audio habit. If I’m not actively talking to someone, I’m probably listening to music, podcasts, or a book. From what I can tell the Apple Watch and Audible do not play well together; syncing has been a problem since its inception.

I like to listen to Spotify, Audible, and podcasts. And, until recently, each of those were better suited to the iPhone. Based on my research – but not firsthand knowledge – getting audio through the watch is challenging, and requires syncing to your iPhone.

Apple Watch is my most likely go to moving forward; but I’d love to see some more of a disconnect from the phone, where it fits in my device lineup as an equal partner, and not subservient to another computer. I wonder if Apple will separate the watch from the phone, and if the limitations are technical or more related to keeping users within the ecosystem. Given the power of WatchOS, and the yearly leaps in silicon technology, I’m guessing that we’re fast approaching a world where the watch can live on its own. I hope that’s the case.

I’m pretty sure Apple solved the problem with bad wrist bands. I should probably just bite the bullet and try one for a while. It’s hard to justify that much money on something I might like, so I’ve held off. This has been a pattern of mine throughout my life. I think like an early adopter, but don’t buy most products until years later. Even though I’m an Apple enthusiast, I only got the iPhone with the 4th model, and my first iPad was the Pro model. My first MacBook came in 2010, years after working professionally on Windows devices.

I am excited to see how watches continue to evolve. As a gadget enthusiast from a young age, I dreamt of something on my wrist that captured notes, told time, and acted as a bit of a second brain. We’re in that era now, I’m just not on board yet. I might end up with a tech watch and an analog watch, both with beautiful materials and an aesthetic that’s elegant but not bold. That’s part of the reason I like GORUCK backpacks. They are useful, sturdy, and simple, without being gaudy or annoying.

Bluey

Bluey is the most delightful children’s show I’ve watched, by far. Over the past few months my wife and I caught up on nearly every episode, including Season 2 on Disney+. I must caveat this by adding that I have two small children. I don’t generally sit around and watch kid’s shows on my own. With that said, I’ve watched a lot of shows and movies intended for a younger audience. Sometimes I like the shows, and sometimes they leave me confounded. Bluey is in a special category. It’s a show that I enjoy, and my kids also love. In fact, judging by my random outbursts of laughter, I might like it more. 

The writing is perfect. The show creators have a great sense of humor and they add a realistic element to what it’s like to be a parent. Each episode is just 7-8 minutes long, and most of the stories revolve around time together as a family. In that short time the audience can connect with the parents and children, and understand their unique struggles. It’s pretty special because it helps me remember children are just smaller versions of adults, they’re not a separate species – even if it feels that way sometimes. 

We’re not all fully patient or checked in, or completely wanting to do what our kids ask at every moment. That doesn’t mean we don’t care though, we try, and we want to be there for our kids. Bluey presents that in a realistic way, and encourages parents they’re not alone. It also reminds us of the value of play. My wife and I have taken lessons from the show and tried to apply them in our own lives.

Puffin Rock is another great show that we’ve enjoyed. It’s written in a way that kids will like, but also adds the odd reference that only a parent will pick up on. This isn’t subliminal messaging, or even anything inappropriate, it’s just slight bits of context that you learn with age. 

There a host of shows out there that are nowhere close to this mark. Several kid’s favorite shows feel like time fillers, with no extra effort placed on making them special. 

Great shows offer inspiration in how great content can bridge the gap between generations. Pixar is a master at this. I loved their movies as a young child, and have a deeper appreciation for them as a parent. In recent years almost all of their movies will bring me to tears by the end. Stories like this are special, and it inspires me to create things that offer that inspiration and education for others.

Zoom Fatigue

I’ve used video conference calls a lot. In fact, on some days I’ll spend up to six hours on back-to-back calls. In 2015, I joined a remote team that made use of Zoom and Google Hangouts (later Meet) for communication. Since my work has been 100% remote in the last six years, I’ve had a lot of hours on video calls. The previous year in the pandemic was little different from the years before, with one notable exception. I’m used to flying out and seeing my teammates throughout the year at conferences, client onsite, or company meetups. 

Having that face-to-face time together helped to bridge the gap between long periods of online only communication. There’s something special about eating dinner, having fun, and sitting in a room in physical space. I’m hoping that things can change soon, and that I’ll soon be able to connect with my colleagues on location. However, other than that one, albeit major factor, my life has changed little. 

Zoom fatigue is real, and I feel it. Staring at a screen for hours on end, and seeing the faces of others staring back at you is not a natural feeling. When I go to hangout with friends in real life, I don’t look into their eyes for an hour at a time, making direct contact. That’d be creepy, and I’m pretty sure I’d lose all my friends. And yet, this is exactly how video calls work. You look at a screen, stare straight into it, and your colleagues stare straight back at you. It gets tiring and drains energy as time goes on. 

I’ve found a few ways to resolve it, and while everyone is different, these little methods help me throughout the week.

First, I turn off my camera. I disable it and join the call with audio only. As an introvert, this helps to lower the temperature of the call, and allows me to pace, look down from the screen, or even go on a walk in nature for an hour. Video calls aren’t natural to the human conscious, so trying to re-enact a meeting in a 1-1 ratio doesn’t really work, at least with current technology. Besides turning off the camera, I also try to minimize whatever screen I’m on; I don’t need to always see the faces of my colleagues, I can hear them just fine. 

In situations where it’s not practical to disable the camera, I try a second technique. At work I have a 28 inch monitor. It’s huge, and having a browser up with a dozen faces staring back at me can feel intimidating. Or a single person can loom larger than real life. Often I’ll shrink the window to make the size of others on the call more realistic. I wouldn’t sit in a room with my face two feet away from someone else. Again, that’s creepy. Making the screen smaller tricks my brain a bit, and it feels like they are further away. If I had to guess, having someone’s face right up against yours triggers the fight-or-flight mechanisms in the brain.

Remote work is here to stay, perhaps not in the same way as we’ve seen it in the last year, but it will continue to iterate and become part of our society. It’s important that we adjust and reduce the strain that technology can bring. Video calls, screen sharing, audio calls, and all the other communication tools that come with it are amazing. I couldn’t do my work without them. I enjoy being able to get on calls and see my teammates and friends; it makes a vast difference. However, limiting the artificial tension that arises from a video call can help us all to feel a little less tired at the end of the day. 

Maple syrup and dark patterns

We’ve all run across them, and in more recent years a word is used to cover things in our life that just feel – wrong. I’m speaking about dark patterns. Things that force us, as humans interacting with the design, to use it in a way that feels unnatural and goes against the grain. You know it when you see it, it just feels wrong somehow, even if you can’t quite place words on it.

Whether it’s a used car salesperson trying to force me to pay more at the last minute with an upsell that I neither want nor need, or something less obvious, these patterns sit all around us and are pervasive in our everyday life. 

Software is all too guilty of this, and I run across it in my everyday work. The biggest offender is canceling a subscription. If you’ve signed up for a newsletter, news subscription, monthly shipped product, or even the New York Times, you’ve come across this. It drives me nuts. I will raise hell to get out of anything that obfuscates my ability to leave. The moment I feel stuck with something, I want out, even if it was a wonderful service. 

Earlier this year I had a bit of a scare where I thought I was losing my hair. I developed a bald spot at the back of my head. Completely bald, no hair, nothing. At 33 years old, it was the time for these sorts of things to happen. Instead of accepting my fate, I ordered a hair product online from an ad. The design of the website, the box, the subscription service; everything seemed perfect and good to go. I tried the product for a month and saw results. And only time will tell if I’m right. I realized that the hair loss was not a result of balding, but a case of alopecia; likely brought on by stress. Alright, glorious news.

I went to cancel the service and found that I couldn’t. Whether through malice or ineptitude, there was no way to use the website to cancel; the software ran me through a series of loops leading from one part to another, with no way out. I tried, the software would not allow me to cancel. Then, in a twist of irony, I didn’t feel comfortable complaining on their social media account. Would I want to admit hair loss? That’s embarrassing. Hopelessness washed over me, and I got mad; furious, in fact. Several months later I can still feel the emotions running through me at feeling misused.

I emailed customer service, got a standard reply that I was “holding it wrong”, I needed to go to the website. After another response or two, they agreed to cancel my service. I shouldn’t have had to do that though, there should have been a mechanism to do that from the site. It felt intentional; especially at a scary time that caused a lot of stress in my life. 

This pattern exists in software the world over. It’s not just software, it’s everywhere. It doesn’t have to be this way. I find delight in things that let me escape, and come back if I want; that’s freedom, and I love an easy exit path. This hair care product could have been that; there’s a chance that my hoped for alopecia is wrong, and I’ll go bald again; would I care to try the product after that previous experience? Doubtful. 

And so we come to maple syrup. I remember a time, back in the nineties, when the big syrup bottle my mom served our family for months at a time. We’d buy syrup and pull it out for pancakes and such. I’m guessing – and here I go into speculation territory, but again, the results are the same for the end customer – that a marketing executive somewhere, or a product designer, decided that the company could move more inventory if they made the opening to the lid wider. It pours out; fast. And so, we come to a situation where – when I go to the store and buy a big thick maple syrup bottle – I dread bringing it home. It’s frustrating.

I have two little children, and they like maple syrup waffles; an entirely reasonable activity. In their eagerness to enjoy the food, they often tip the bottle back; it’s heavy after all, and syrup flows out, flooding their waffles. My children don’t like this. They don’t want that much syrup; waffles shouldn’t float in liquid. And so, again, we run into a situation where they feel helplessness; they can’t serve themselves as a result, I have to help. 

I try to remedy the situation by cutting a tiny hole in the seal, instead of pulling it off; that doesn’t work well though. The hole should just be smaller. My kids feel bad for wasting the syrup, and the vast majority of it goes into the trash; they don’t like to consume straight sugar. I’ve fielded apologies from them, when it was not their fault. The moment an alternative comes available, I’ll switch. 

Dark patterns are a short-term fix; they don’t bring happiness and don’t bring love from the humans that experience them. I’ll push back and fight against any perceivable manipulation by products I use, and will go out of my way to pick something better. This is an opportunity for those who create things, the designers out there, to stand out with honest products that improve our lives. 

Perhaps someone has designed a product to solve this. A lid that screws on, with a smaller opening, would earn its money back in a few months. I’d be down for buying one, even if it cost $5. We easily spend that much on wasted syrup every year. Keep an eye out for dark patterns and call them out when you see them; together we have a chance to make the world a better place. 

Chairs

I’ve written a bit about chairs on this site, their comfort level, ergonomics, positioning, and how I want to use them for work and life arrangements. In the past month I changed things up again, and want to process how that’s affected my time at work.

My small home office has three chairs right now. The first, and primary chair, is my Capisco Hag. It’s weird, and somewhat uncomfortable, but as I’ve written before, it serves a purpose and I’m happy with it. 

The second sitting implement is an old IKEA office chair. It’s fine, not bad, but not great either. I picked it up as a Wirecutter recommendation years ago; and for $200 it served me well. This chair sits in front of a small desk, and acts as a second creative space, where I can do my writing each day. Of note, while I recently extolled the virtues of said sacred space, I’ve used it but once or twice a week for a half hour each. It’s not getting the full value that I hoped for. I suspect this is due to the stage I’m at with my writing; where I’m doing a bit more read through than actual writing. Or, I just like writing on an iPad in a relaxed position more; not great, but comfy.

My third chair is a recliner. It’s something small we got for rocking our daughter to sleep when she was smaller, and through the shuffling of kid’s sleeping arrangements, I managed to sneak it away into my office. 

There’s a fourth position I use, which is standing at my desk; but since that’s not a chair, it only half way counts.

The challenge I’m dealing with now, through all the arrangement of these seating spaces, is how to account for comfort and creativity. Ergonomics have become more important to me as I age. I want to find situations where I’m comfortable, and not straining muscles and tendons. That’s good, and I’ll keep working at it. The Capisco chair, along with my standing desk, is a pretty ideal arrangement. I can situate myself so that shoulders, neck, wrists, back, and arms, are all at relatively healthy angles. It is not the most cushy situation though. After a few hours I get restless.

Now, as I ponder that previous sentence, I realize that’s not a bad thing. Being in a healthy working position, albeit not the most comfortable, reduces my body’s chance of suffering injury. When I start to feel discomfort, it’s another way of telling myself that I should get up, stretch, and move around. My eye doctor said the same thing, I need to find times in the day to get away from the screen and relax my eyes. Apparently I blink 1/3rd as often when staring at a screen, that’s not great.

The third chair has come in use more often of late. When I’m feeling antsy from sitting at the Capisco, instead of going for a break, or shifting to standing, I pull my laptop over to the recliner and kick my feet up. It’s comfortable, and gets me out of a situation where I don’t have to use so many active muscles. The downside of this, and really the downside of all sitting these days, is the stress I feel on my back. I haven’t investigated with a doctor or chiropractor yet, so I’m just going on a hunch, but there may be muscle misalignment in my core. That means any chair that’s not providing strong back support is likely to bring lower strain. 

Standing, or laying on a decent mattress, are the only positions that I can handle for hours on end without discomfort. So, with all that going on, I’m rethinking my seating situation and trying to figure out what will work best for the long haul. More standing seems to be better, and has the added benefit of putting me in a pretty good ergonomic position. That, however, took a long time to work up to, and still tends to tire me out a bit. Standing is just hard, for me at least. 

It’s hard to work through design challenges, or spend hours writing up technical requirements, all while standing and feeling the day wear on. On the other hand, sitting at the computer, even on the Capisco chair, brings on strain over time. So I have the trade off of fatigue versus strain. The reclining chair, while comfortable, brings that same strain to my lower back. It also restricts my computer use to a laptop-like-device with a trackpad and keyboard. No ergonomics related to a mouse and screen. This limits me to specific types of work. I need to be at a desk for much of my creative work; whether that’s using iPad, larger monitor, or a Wacom tablet. 

Incidentally, and I may write more on this; I’ve been experimenting with the world of manual input for design. I’ve been testing out iPad Pro with Apple Pencil, in contrast to a large Wacom tablet and a smaller one. My goal with each is to find a good ergonomic balance where my shoulders, eyes, and wrist are in alignment. Nothing has been perfect yet, but the desk and standing seems to be the best of any situation thus far. During the day, when I need such an input device, sitting in a reclining chair won’t cut it.

It’s good to think over these things, and try to improve and adjust. I don’t expect that I need a perfectly comfortable situation. That’d be laying down with a couch and propping an iPad up on a pillow; not great for productivity. I do, however, want to find something that keeps me healthy, feels generally good, and allows for a range of motion to use a number of devices for work. I’ll think on this more. My default baseline has been the Capisco being a good device for office space. To date I’ve not used a high quality chair, such as Steelcase or Aeron. I don’t know if they are just hyped up, or make a difference. I also have a friend who swears by a different type of chair altogether. The limiting factor for me is wanting to testing changes to my work environment for at least a week, perhaps longer. I’ll report back if anything changes.