Pulga Case Study


Pulga Case Study


The Town of Pulga

California Gold Country's Magical Mountain Miracle

Case Study 4 : A Town as a Brand

This project called for creating an end-to-end mobile app for Pulga, California, a miracle of a town tucked deep into Northern California’s Feather River Canyon. Much more than a town, Pulga needed an stand-alone app that was both useful to visitors (the town has no cell service), and also serve as a conduit for a greater brand and lifestyle.



Protected on all sides by canyon walls and fed by the river, Pulga naturally cultivates an ecosystem that is both visually beautiful and teeming with life. Pulga’s sustenance made it an ideal settlement for indigenous tribes for centuries. Then came American settlers during the Gold Rush. Soon a railroad was added and the town became a bustling stop that thrived Into the 1960’s. 

The vision of Pulga transcends simple weekend destination into that of an overall lifestyle brand.

As the town’s mainstream traffic slowed, it became known as a retreat town, hippie exile, and Pagan commune. Janis, Hendrix and the Dead were all known to pass through. The property changed hands a few times, aged, and fell into disrepair. By 2014 Pulga had become the quintessential ghost town, was famously placed for sale on Craigslist, and in March of 2015 the 62-acre town was purchased for $499k. 

The new owners have since put exhaustive work into restoring the place, and in the spring of 2017 formally reopened as a town that can be rented in its entirety. But it’s more than just an unplugging getaway. Pulga is tapping into an emerging culture of “glamping” experiences (glamorous camping), and becoming a year-round extension of the Burning Man / Coachella / #vanlife community. 

Though only a few months into operation, the town has bookings extending over 2 years, some entering six-figure billings.

The vision of Pulga transcends simple weekend destination into that of an overall lifestyle brand defined by art and music, clean bodies filled with clean food produced from a clean Earth, an almost neurological path of self-discovery, and strong community values. While it may be a physical town fixed in one location, it’s “residents” live throughout the world, and are bound more by a shared philosophy than geography.


The Process

Discovery: Why is Pulga Different?

Look, I don't identify as any kind of "Hipster." Or as a "Burner." Or as one of those "Techie Kids" or "EDM Kids" or any kind of grown-up "kid." In fact, I kinda get the howling fantods at any kind of categorical stereotype. 

That said...

I know those people. I live among those people. I am ensconced throughout the San Francisco Bay Area with those people. And I willingly adopt many of the aspects that inform such stereotypes (...while hopefully diluting what might otherwise have been a "redneck" or "frat boy" stereotype?).

I prefer well-built and lasting "throwback" products over disposable planned obsolescence. I like unprocessed real food (though the term "farm to table" now makes me gag). I'm completely behind The 10 Principles (though I think something is wrong with you if you have to be told to live them). I love music made by computers and art that is sometimes on fire and any excuse to dress in costume. 

I am the Pulga persona.

My research for this project includes over a generation of watching a lifestyle emerge, composed of a distinct set of customs, mentalities, activities, icons and symbols, attire, artifacts and even unique language elements. Modern business practices, products and designs, and even the UX craft itself owes itself to many of the philosophies that have spawned from this culture: Is it useful? Does it have value? Is it delightful? Does it inspire joy?


While Pulga is indeed a spot on a map, it is also a role-player in this community. Much like Caesar's Palace is not simply a hotel, Pulga is a brand that represents a mindset and is a destination for like-minded groups. Recently such groups -- from Burning Man theme camps to forward-thinking corporate team-building outings -- have sought getaway locations conducive to inspirational experiences. A would-be competitor -- nearby Belden, CA -- has hosted similar town-takeover events for a few seasons. Pulga is the first effort to specifically create this environment from the ground up. 

Defining: Reaching the Pulga Persona

In designing the app, I had two goals.

  1. Create something useful for guests without an internet connection, including trail maps, nature guides, art descriptions, venue details and schedules.
  2. Create a hub coalescing what was delightful about the culture, including music and art, organic food recipes, original literature, and unique stories...a year-round virtual destination extending beyond the momentary weekend destination. 

 I approached the project through the eyes of a variety of prospective users, all of whom share this common culture, but who have different motivations for passing through Pulga. Here below I've imagined four personas:

  1. The Big Life Event / Wedding Planner.
  2. The Corporate Retreat Leader.
  3. The Festival Promoter. 
  4. The Enthusiast -- the hunter, angler, hiker, photographer, writer, etc. 

While each may arrive at a Pulga stay for different reasons, they all choose such a destination over many other options due to a shared appreciation for the lifestyle brand Pulga is cultivating. My app needed to fulfill that culture in real time as each guest was on site, but then further establish an ongoing conduit to these values and to a community. 

Designing : An iOS App for Now and Later

Designing for iOS, I envisioned a gallery of cards that intermingled the useful -- like the details of who in your party was staying where, with the delightful --  such as recipes using ingredients currently in season. Blending the two might be the summation of an art piece that a current guest may be standing in front of while a past guest is learning about from a distance or recalling how she saw the piece previously at a public plaza in San Jose. Together they create more than a place, but a state of mind, one that the user never really has to leave. 

Delivery : User Testing

I ran an InVision prototype past several people. Though all were likely users, they were also all friends who know Pulga, so I realized some bias would be present. Most of the errors seemed related to the Invision presentation. Users needed to be trained on the limitations, swipe gestures and the use of blue zones. But overall the Pulga app was well received. Design, layout, photos & color were all positive. Any errors were in navigation -- where to find the map, and identifying "My Events" page after login -- which led to some V2 design tweaks, but overall is seemed many errors would solve themselves upon a live app being built, with live navigation, photos and headers. 


One question heading into this project was about the need for it at all. Users rarely bother with "temporary" apps that are only relevant for brief moments. But when those moments become something bigger -- say three days at Coachella or a Vegas weekend -- users will embrace the app and continue to interact with it as a means of elongating the experience after the event is over. Some events -- like Burning Man, the Tour de France, the World Series of Poker or a UFC Fight -- evolve well past the event occurrence and into an ongoing lifestyle and culture. That's the essence of Pulga, California, and what is achieved in their iOS app.  

Quiet Lightning Case Study

Quiet Lightning Case Study

Case Study 2

Quiet Lightning: A Literary UX Makeover

Local writers reading original works live! 
(how is that supposed to compete when Hamilton is down the street?!?)


The Backstory

Quiet Lightning is a San Francisco Bay Area non-profit organization that produces a traveling monthly literary series with a no-frills twist. Authors submit their works anonymously, at no more than 1500 words (or 8 minutes, if you read allegro). Those selected commit to presenting their work live, also anonymously. 

Since 2009, Quiet Lightning has produced more than 100 shows across 70 venues, from dive bars and art galleries to state parks and national landmarks. It has presented 1,100 readings by 700 authors, and published 80 books. It also maintains the most comprehensive literary event calendar in the SF Bay Area. 

Quiet Lightning is primarily funded by a grant from the SF Arts Commission. 


The Challenge: 
You Get What You Pay For

Quiet Lightning is an entirely volunteer-run organization, and the bootstrapping shows in the website. It's virtually unnavigable. It isn't built for social or mobile. Visually, it's...unfortunate-looking. 

Literature in San Francisco defines cool. This is Kerouac and Ginsberg, Twain, Steinbeck, Jack London. COOL. Passionate deliveries in dark dive bars. COOL. Quiet Lightning is cool! 

But their website delivered zero cool. It wasn't pretty, and it actually diverted users away from prime content. In a town that averages 40+ significant events competing per night, Quiet Lightning needed help producing an experience that built Anticipation, maximized the Happening, and elongated the Reliving of their can't-miss events. 

DISCOVERY: Planning, Research & Get Smart Exercises

In general, I haven’t been attracted to them [literary events]. However, I attended one as part of a music festival and was really blown away by the poetry. I didn’t realize it could be so modern and relatable. So, perhaps I just needed the prompt somehow... because now I would be open.

I live in Quiet Lightning's community. I've worked for years in both the nightlife industry and in non-profit community organizing. I'm an avid reader and volunteer for an annual literary festival. So the challenge here wasn't learning the client, but holding biases and assumptions in check. I've had experiences with overthinking a project...now I had to make sure I thought enough.

User Surveys

However, as I moved through user research, I found that many of the my initial assumptions were reinforced. People had trouble navigating the site's information, they didn't receive the most important key messages, and they disliked the visual design. 

But maybe more importantly, I learned user perceptions toward literary events as a whole. 

The Persona

User insights showed that people wanted to do magical things with their time, and among the factors that made an event magical, the most critical was having your favorite people with you. Users crave connection and community: 

  • They are less likely to go to events on their own.
  • They are less likely to try new things alone. 
  • They are less likely to suggest unproven events to friends. 
  • They are more likely to attend an unknown event upon a friend's suggestion or invitation. 

DEFINING: Information Sorting, Mapping & Architecture

My solution was to reorganize the new Quiet Lightning site with the purpose of perpetuating an Endless Event life cycle


Users reach the site to find a total focus on what is about to happen. This is going to be a BIG DEAL. You should get REALLY EXCITED. You should TELL YOUR FRIENDS. 

This Anticipation feeds into the Happening of the event itself. This is the part that Quiet Lightning does well. The feedback from the past attendees describes the overall experience as magical, "not an event, a moment." 

And it doesn't end when the night's over. It becomes The Reliving. The site presents archived media in easily skimmable and interactable formats. Users comment on the night. They share audio and video. They continue the experience as a community. 

User Flow

The map below shows how I aimed to magnify enthusiasm around the Quiet Lightning shows. Here's what's happening: 

  1. The user is driven directly to a bold event announcement. 
  2. She's guided to an RSVP. Even though the event is free and no ticket or response is necessary, the RSVP engages her, and gives her something to put on her calendar and share. 
  3. Third parties such as Eventbrite and Patreon enhance the engagement and viral power.
  4. She's enticed to engage deeper in the strong presence of the show's history. 
  5. She establishes a ongoing relationship through media subscriptions.
  6. Offline, she attends an event that feels like something she's already a part of.
  7. She returns to relive the show, feed into the energy, and before it fades, the next show is almost here. 

[ click image for full resolution ]

DESIGNING: Wireframes, Branding & Style

Maybe there was something literary and deco about the current logo, but it wasn't well received, and didn't translate to the web, mobile or social well. The logo needed a strong refresh that promised to take the whole visual design with it. The letter Q and lightning imagery design themselves, and it evolved from there. 


Big photos and big words. Here's what's happening and here's where it's happening. I framed the site out dead simple. I screamed it. I said it again softer with more detail. Then I kept saying it. Even when delivering secondary information, it was in terms of how it makes the next show matter. STAY ON MESSAGE.

DELIVERING: Prototypes & User Testing

InVision prototype testing went as expected. Users were not specifically asked to walk through the mapped user flow. Yet without prompts, all found their way through the RSVP path, to the About homepage, and to the archives. Feedback was mostly positive (many had seen the "before" site). Users were all active San Francisco residents, who expressed a real interest in attending the next Quiet Lightning show. 


I've written earlier about a hypothetical project that led to waaayyyy too much overthinking. Here I had a real project that I needed to force-think about, as my gut really wanted to just design around "obvious" assumptions. And yet, most of those assumptions proved valid, and the design went forward as imagined. 

The ultimate takeaway here is that almost any endeavor -- particularly a non-profit organization -- is driven by the labor of love and passions of those supporting it. As a UX designer, learning those people is exponentially more important that learning the project mechanically. If you can bottle their energy and enthusiasm into an experience, the design will win. 

Spotify Case Study

Spotify Case Study

SpotMix Logo.png

Case Study 3

Could Spotify Save the Mixtape?

Spotify wants to enhance music sharing among users.
Enter: The most passionately-shared music format in the history of ever.

 The "Guardians" franchise has brought back the mixtape to the tune of $1.64 billion.

The "Guardians" franchise has brought back the mixtape to the tune of $1.64 billion.

The Case

This project called for a new feature within Spotify's existing platform that would advance music sharing and social connection among users. Spotify is well-loved,  but it always falls short of building the kind of connectedness among users that is found in so many other modern platforms. 

What does music sharing make YOU think of?

Mixtapes. Right. So my answer was Spotify Mixtape, a feature that offers the benefits of modern music technology while injecting elements of the classic, physically-shared cassette mixtapes -- unmatched as an artifact of intimate, personal relationships between users.

An Ongoing Obsession with Mixtapes

Despite the virtual death of the cassette tape in 2003 with the rise of streaming, there remains a lore around mixtapes. To wit: 

  • Mixtapes command a focal point in films, from the timeless “High Fidelity” to serving as a central plot detail in the ultra-popular “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise.
  • Searches of mixtapes return an exhaustive list on Pinterest, from graphic design to home decor items. 
  • Kickstarter campaigns frequently attempt to reimagine the mixtape. 
  • Dozens of startups have attempted to recreate digital mixtapes.

The most validating evidence of the continuing marketability of mixtapes? Apple has a digital mixtape patent in queue. 

The question here is: What keeps the mixtape alive, while at the same time killing attempts to recreate it?

DISCOVERY: The Psychology of Music

What Keeps Mixtapes Alive

Look at the evolution: mixapes --> CDs --> Napster --> Spotify.

You can make some assumptions:

  • Music -- and music sharing -- is a profound emotional experience, far more significant than other shared assets like videos, status updates, photos, memes, or snaps. 
  • Certain aspects of the mixtape provided a unique emotional connection that is vacant in modern music sharing.
  • Our modern “sharing”-centric social media is ephemeral and fails to make real personal connections.
  • Having limitless choices can be as much a burden as it is a luxury.

Science agrees: 

  • “The choice of a particular musical genre is driven mostly by our social identity...The major function of music is emotional.” (Psychology Today)
  • “Three independent studies converged...and reflect primarily emotional/affective responses to music.” (ncbi.nlm.nih)
  • “This line of research highlights how music is a mirror of the self. Music is an expression of who we are emotionally, socially, and cognitively,” (Medical Daily)
  • “People do actually define themselves through music and relate to other people through it but [until now] we haven’t known in detail how music is connected to identity...We have always suspected a link between music taste and personality. (Psych Central)

And to another point, limitless Spotify song options are not always a benefit:

  • “...having ‘choice’ does not necessarily make people happy...having ‘too many’ options may add to the burden of stress that people feel owing to the fear of making the ‘wrong choice’ or not the ‘best choice’." (Inst. of Economic Affairs)

And we all know social media is anti-social:

  • “People today are more connected to one another than ever before in human history. But they’re also more lonely and distant from one another in their unplugged lives." (American Psychological Association)

User Research Concurs

Surveys and live interviews showed the same intimate connection to music, and identified an emotional effect in the modern change in music delivery.

  • 90% of respondents consider music to be an "important part of their life" and acknowledge music's effect on their emotional state. 
  • 70% recall a value in mixtapes that is missing in music sharing today. 
  • 80% identify a noticeable difference between mixtapes and modern playlists. 


And perhaps most importantly, of a mixtape's defining factors, only sound quality was seen as wholly negative. Most of the "limitations" of the format are actually recalled as positives. 

So What Keeps Killing the Mixtape?

People continue longing for something essential within the mixtape, and it isn't the plastic casing or hissing sound. It's something else. And there have been many failed efforts to find that missing piece. They've failed for three reasons: 

Failing 1: Retro for Retro’s Sake
A Kickstarter campaign created an MP3 playlist in a cassette tape form factor. It was all nostalgia, with no encapsulation of the passion of music sharing. 

Retro rises in several forms.

  • There’s the pretentious, showy, unnecessary reissue of an idea that evaporated (e.g. the waxed handlebar mustache?).
  • There’s retro out of stubbornness or habit: refusing to upgrade that flip-phone. 
  • There’s retro out of legacy, the old that died-but-didn’t-die. Or, the technology died, but the importance of its idea or role didn’t, like our digital icons using floppy disks or phone handsets. 
  • And there’s retro that realizes the new version isn’t better. We prefer the original. Printed books. Handwritten notes. 

Failing 2: Content
Copyright laws continue to make online streaming and sharing a quagmire. Many attempts to reinitiate playlist sharing hit a roadblock on the copyright front, and/or required a plug-in to a service like Spotify anyway. 

As one blogger reviewed: “Mixtaping.fm is let down by its need to plug in to Spotify and Rdio, which means you may as well just go directly to one of those two services and cut out the middleman.”

Failing 3: Solving the Wrong Pain Points
The fact is, pain begets pleasure. 

The effort that goes into a task often gives it value. The limitations put on a user lead to inspiration in other aspects. Consider games, sports, hackathons, or Iron Chef cookoffs. Obstructions are intentionally placed to prompt performance. 

Further, there are pain points a user is aware of, and those not yet known. In the 80’s, users were aware of cassettes hissing sound quality, the snagging of tape in players, or the warping of the cases in hot cars. They could not at that time conceive of skipping songs, or of infinite playlists. 

Streaming music solved all those problems, but the latter were the charm of the mixtape. 

Bugs That Were Features of Mixtapes:

  • Finite, digestible session lengths.
  • An un-skip-able, composite flow; the gestalt of a singular product, versus disconnected, individual parts. 
  • The intimate, intentional crafting of the creator.
  • The unalterable permanence of it; a lasting artifact. 

The Solution

A new digital feature for Spotify that reincorporates the positive features of mixtapes, while minimizing the kitschy retro retread of an old idea, including: 

  • Cassette-tape iconography used for sharing through text/messaging/social streams and playback.
  • Continuous playback, radio-style, with crossover fade, no song skipping. 
  • 45, 60, or 90-minute limitations on total play length, divided into two “sides”/sessions
  • A "tangible" packaging -- an audio “story.” Imagine the Facebook-like “memory” prompted in a user’s feed in 5 years. 
  • Utilizing Spotify’s current mood/suggestion algorithms to assist mixtape making (“I want to hint that I like her without really exposing myself”).
  • Financing options:
    • Ad-free versions for Premium-to-Premium shares. 
    • Creators can purchase an ad-free tape to send as a gift to non-Premium recipient.
    • Visual ads display on the tape/player to compensate free Spotify accounts.
    • User-selected audio ads. Advertisers get creative with 5/10/15-second clips (funny/creative/retro) that users want to use. Users create an affinity with brands and actually share advertising with peer-to-peer endorsement.

DEFINING: Personas & Information Architecture

Music casts a wide net. It is "a cross-cultural universal, a ubiquitous activity found in every known human culture," as described in converging studies identifying a five-factor structure behind musical personas. In this case, there was another layer...not just music, but how one acquires his/her music. Given these nuances, I sought to define a spectrum of personas. 

This range allowed me to design around the duality of: 

  • Both givers and receivers
  • Both power users and novices
  • Both those who go find new music, and those who let radio play familiar favorites
  • Both Gen Xers who experienced real mixtapes, and Millenials who didn't

These personas also account for Spotify's existing complexity. The platform has to negotiate a ton of information into very limited space. There are dozens of features on the full laptop/PC version that are omitted from the mobile app. There are dozens of features that are more-or-less "Easter Eggs" in that you have to be experienced to know where to find them. 

By considering multiple personas, I designed with the Spotify power user in mind as the Mixtape maker. This advocate-evangelist will go the extra mile to figure out tasks that might not be immediately intuitive. He/she is trained in Spotify patterns, and will find that Spotify's mixtape feature performs identically to many of its other elements. 

I could simultaneously imagine the novice Spotify user as the mixtape receiver. This person gets a simple, familiar interface guiding them into their gift, while acting as a gateway task that will expand their comfort with Spotify's deeper offerings and lead them to become makers themselves. 


The App Map

And because so much of Spotify is already complicated, adding a mixtape feature into the existing structure is relatively "easy." I didn't feel a need to overdo usability in the design, given that I could assume a power user who was already trained to figure things out on his/her own. 

DESIGNING: The Spotify Mixtape Prototype

Staying within the confines of Spotify's platform, it was relatively seamless blending a mixtape option into the existing design and architecture and still creating the sense of a "Mixtape" as something distinctive and special rather than an alternative packaging of a playlist. However, that didn't preclude me from considering what we could do if allowed to venture a little outside of Spotify's standard protocol, like, say, going to landscape mode. 

DELIVERY: User Testing

The prototype presented well on InVision's mobile app. Testers did not immediately realize they were not on Spotify.

I began with an open-ended ask -- "How would you make a mixtape?" This immediately established my power-user vs. novice theory. The respondent who primarily listens to Pandora radio had no idea where to begin. To the Spotify addict, it made sense. 

There was a consensus that Spotify is a complicated platform in general. The users I tested expressed that they rarely knew how to perform more than the most basic actions on Spotify -- until they put in the effort to figure it out -- then it becomes habit and works for them well. 

Note: Another challenge my tests revealed was the disconnect between Spotify Premium users and the Spotify free service. Premium users mentioned times they've sent Spotify content to a friend, but who didn't receive the full experience. Confused conversations ensue:

Premium: "You click the three dots and it's in that menu..."
Free: "I did that but it's not there!"

My ad model attempts to rectify that issue. 

But overall, the challenges of mastering Spotify (and the mixtape feature) were countered by joy for the mixtape concept. Users loved the idea of it, and were almost giddy at imagining being able to make a tape with these aspects incorporated. They also loved the visual tape playback UI. 


The Mixtape continues to live on, and for a reason that transcends mere nostalgia. It was a form of meaningful, personal communication, recalled now in a world of trivial communication. Resurrecting the mixtape in the way shown here fits Spotify's platform well. People love it. It brings something back while creating something new. It helps people "share" in a meaningful, not ephemeral way, It could even be a unique revenue stream.

DesignLab Case Study

DesignLab Case Study

A DESIGNLAB UX Academy Case Study

The Ultimate UX: Time Travel

Where would you go, if you could go anywhere? Ahem. Excuse me. Where would you go, if you could go anywhen
This was the question posed by Zeit Time Travel, a mythical client presented by DESIGNLAB's UX Academy.

Slice 1.png

The Backstory

After decades of research and international debate, time travel tourism is a reality. Brought to us by none other than Richard Branson and the Virgin Group, Zeit Time Travel will soon offer 289 destinations throughout the most compelling moments in history.

My job: "to create their new brand, and set up an ecommerce responsive website in which they can sell travel packages to different times."

Slice 2.png

The Problem With That

Time Travel doesn't actually exist. All the answers one unveils in a typical UX process morphed into a web of hypotheticals, assumptions and let's-pretends that proved to be one bottomless rabbit hole. Users can't wrap their brain around the reality of time travel, can't have truly informed opinions. No market research adequately forecasts it. From the beginning, the project was at constant risk of becoming a Frankenstein's monster of mismatched parts. Thus, this is a case study of a project gone sideways, and how a project can become unmoored if you don't find the real, right answer each step of the way.


DISCOVERY: Planning, Research & Get Smart Exercises

I began overthinking this project at the beginning. With a Method-actor approach to research, I delved into the historical, cultural and literary fascination with time travel. I dug into the "reality" of it, into quantum physics. I did "market research," only to confirm there was no market, and finding space travel as the closest analog. I realized that this doesn't compare to travel at all -- not in cost or experience. You don't even need vacation time from work -- the traveler isn't gone from real-time for even a second. 

I concluded that the target user could only be Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs), while at the same time, all the world would be fascinated and aspiring lurker-non-customers. The closest thing to that UX? Museums and auction houses. SFMOMA and Sotheby's will engage 20% of their audience in $1M transactions, while entertaining 80% of its audience with free cultural history lessons. This is the approach I took. 

Everyone else, it seems, built a travel site. "Priceline Past"...

User Surveys

The most fascinating (and successful?) step in the Zeit project was conducting the live interviews with real people.

It was probably also the first appearance of completely irrelevant data and faulty logic, because A) only one of those interviewed was an UHNWI, the rest were Regular Joes and Janes and not likely users; and B) time travel is one of those impossible life-altering decisions that no one can envision realistically unless they were actually in that moment.

But. It was still fascinating to see how people contemplated it, and what their priorities were. Click the image for high resolution results. 

The Personae

Everyone should have a rich uncle. Fortunately I do, and had one person who fit my actual user demographic and could provide insights. My persona is an amalgam of his responses and various online high profile figures. In my storyboard then, I aim to merge our actual user -- the high net worth individual -- and our highly engaged but priced-out general public, who also happen to be these average people I was realistically able to survey. My empathy map then reflects their thoughts and feelings.

I'm moving deeper into the rabbit hole here, where the easy fix would have been to ask my regular-people respondents their opinions about a regular travel website. Quantum Entanglement suggest that in another location in time and space, I did just that.

DEFINING: Information Sorting, Mapping & Architecture

When it came to building the information flow for the Zeit hypothetical, the complication of two audiences expanded. To make matters more convoluted, my research showed that a vast subset of UHNWIs wouldn't even use the Internet for a such a high-dollar decisions, and/or would never engage personally, but rather have an assistant or other third party execute the transaction. So I invented an offline Concierge to be at users' beck and call 24/7. (When customers are paying $500,000 for a ticket, you can assume a VIP budget.) So now we've got an offering without competitors, desired by every single human, divided between bourgeoisie and proletariat, part museum and part Star Trek, online and offline. 

All that mapped out like this...

DESIGNING: Wireframes, Branding & Style 

As the project moved toward the design phase, I could see how early small errors expand over every iteration. The frustrating part is these weren't so much errors in process, but rather in the hypothetical itself. Making Zeit a clean, modern travel site for everyday customers would have been easy. Making it a high end ultra-exclusive take-time-travel-seriously venture grew complicated. 


I patterned the site on SFMOMA, The Louvre, or Sotheby's, which balance an approach to both everyday viewers who appreciate the collections, as well as UHNW donors or art collectors who are the actual paying customer making $MM purchases. By assuming "realistic" time travel as both ultra expensive and universally desired, this combination made sense. 


Another overthought, too-realistic consideration was how hard choosing a destination would be. A real travel site offers thousands of destinations, but your choice is easily reasoned and rather effortless. Spending $500k on a once-in-a-lifetime, mind-altering experience showed in research to be a huge, heavy, impossible decision. So it became critical to my design to have a dynamic search function that acted almost like a Briggs-Myers test in its effort to guide users to an soul-matching destination. 


Would you believe there was a purple in here at one point? "Tyrian Purple" was an ancient dye and one of civilization's first colors. Paired with gold and pewter, it represented the past, and wealth. Say it with me: "overthinking." 

And the logo...I like it. I don't love it. I would have liked to spend two weeks iterating 100 ideas. This logo is the product of maybe a 6 hour window allowed for it. The Z represents a path, entering on one end, swirling around, and emerging on the other side. 

DELIVERING: Prototypes & User Testing

The final steps were to finalize a prototype and test it. The perfectionist in me was unsatisfied. I want a budget! And time! I want to design unique fonts and iconography! I want to choreograph photo shoots! I want to go back in time and experience the product!

I think this might have worked in real life. But again, with Sketch as my primary tool, simpler was the better solution (isn't it always?).

The prototype did test well. Users liked the layout, were drawn into the photos, and understood how to navigate with few errors. My users, like myself, were hung up mostly just on accepting the concept of time travel at the onset, and making those unrealistic assumptions prior to making real-time decisions. 


All told, this was an educational and valuable exercise. I learned that I am going to be excessively thorough and think about everything. I'm going to want to take 5X more time than I have. I'm going to want to meticulously deliberate every option. I need to reign it in some, though at times, I don't mind wanting more than a short window of time allows. They say that "perfect is the enemy of the good." But in the end, when "good" leaves you cringing and aching for perfect, maybe it's better to be OCD. 

Reflection: HP Palm

Reflection: HP Palm

The Final Days of the Palm Pre

A stream-of-consciousness UX reflection “on the assumptions behind a failure”



Captain’s Log, Startdate 12/29/2009: I win the interview and am hired by the San Francisco office of the global digital agency Isobar, on a contract basis, My role will be as a “Community Manager” for a newly launching campaign for a mobile device that promises to be groundbreaking on all levels.

I had passed through a few SF tech roles since the Dot-Com Boom, but for most of the ‘00’s I’d been working in local politics. This tech/community-organizing role was perfect for me. And after the Dot-Com Bust, followed by years as a highly-job-insecure political hack, busting a foot through the door of a major agency was huge.

I am so stoked right now.

January ‘10: The ink is formally dried on a $650,000 contract with Palm, the genius pioneer of smartphones. The Palm Pilot is like the Orson Welles of tech gadgets. The First. The Greatest. A Legend.

The Palm Treo? Amazing. Game changer.

And now they’re launching the Palm Pre Plus, to great fanfare, mostly due to the much ballyhooed webOS guts (and a fanatical fanboy cult of support).

February ‘10: At Isobar we’re a pretty lean 6-ish person team. Account Director, Account Supervisor, Account Coordinator. Myself in this community specialist role. One Art Director (with art dept help), one Lead Developer (with team help), one project manager (working across several accounts)...hence the “ish.”

Together we conceptualize, craft, and begin bringing to life the “Palm Connections” campaign. The idea is this:

  • We give away 500 Palm Pre Plus devices to good causes.

  • Coupled with $300 in Verizon credit to make the phones go.

  • We build an interactive Facebook app that showcases the efforts of these causes.

  • They use the phones to both create and tell their stories. These cash-strapped, limited- budget charitable orgs now have this powerful tool. They do better work. They take and post photos and status updates of this work upload it for all the world to see.

  • We coach and mentor their efforts and promote their cause to a massive audience.

What could possibly go wrong?!?!

The Palm Connections User Flow

Being the “specialist” here, and since this was my only job (the rest of the team were FTE’s with other accounts), I became sort of a central, logistical hub. My primary role was to recruit the “good causes,” do the necessary relationship building, acquire all the assets (photos, stories, etc.), and onboard them.

Work with client re: participants, their stories -- (Is Palm progressive enough for a LGBT rights org?) -- determine markets. Client wants to do LIVE launches, so we can’t recruit groups from just anywhere. I have to find participants ONLY in SPECIFIC markets, and determine what those markets are.

Portland, Denver, Raleigh-Durham, Austin, San Francisco.

Work with art re: content and layout. “We need higher resolution photos!” But those are the photos OUR PRODUCT took!?!

Work with development re: app build, functionality, performance. But...but...we’re building this in a Facebook app that you can’t access via the Palm interface!?!?

March ‘10: We have a $650,000 campaign, 500 phones in inventory committed to it, and a $150,000 contract with Verizon to provide the service. And the phones won’t work on Verizon.

I’m thrust into the insane complications of device vs. service tech and marketing that most people only know when they try to “unlock” their iPhone so they can switch carriers.

Technologically, the phones work on Verizon’s service. But Verizon would require 2-year contracts on all of them. YES. EVEN IN THIS SITUATION.

You didn’t know the whole phone contract thing went deep into ancient Illuminatic secret societies and coded alien transmissions, did you?

April ‘10: Hewlett Packard buys Palm for $1.2 Billion. With a B. Here we go.

April - August ‘10:  Mostly havoc.

I’m going round and round with Verizon trying navigate a way through the contract glitch, moving farther and farther up the chain of command, as a major national campaign involving two huge Fortune 50 companies might warrant.

But one thing I’ve always known, is it isn’t the generals who make things happen. It’s the foot soldiers. Don’t talk to the CEO, talk to the assistant. Don’t complain to the manager, ask nicely of the server.

So I walked into my local Verizon store, off the street, bought $150,000 worth of Verizon gift cards, made “Vince” a HUGE commission, launched his career in the company, and solved the problem. Solved A problem.

. . .

When HP bought Palm, our contact people on the client side began to disappear. New staff at HP had no idea what to make of our campaign, didn’t want to have anything to do with it, didn’t care it was already paid for.

HP bought Palm for webOS. They didn’t care about the Palm Pre Plus or its fate.

I cared. I cared about these organizations I’d been recruiting. I cared about what they were doing and how some of them had even changed their strategies to incorporate us. They were counting on us. I kept pushing on.

Meanwhile HP was all like, “whatevah.”

August ‘10: HP’s CEO resigns. Are you kidding me?!?

September ‘10: HP now, literally, doesn’t even know we exist. Most of their staff left with the CEO, and there isn’t even a person filling the marketing role (or that person’s boss, or that person’s boss) -- there aren’t people filling the marketing department that would liaise with our agency on this campaign. We are flying solo, doing this only because we’re this far committed and bound to the work of our contract.

(not me...I’m doing this because I love it, because I’m emotionally invested in the community I’ve built, because I’m about to get to travel on a road show to awesome cities, and because I’m a contractor still trying to earn a real job.)

Needless to say we had ZERO marketing or PR support on HP’s end. And yet, this campaign needed some publicity. I, personally, was going to look like an idiot failure if we didn’t get some buzz. This was tricky. Because though HP didn’t want to help us, they also wanted total control over their PR message.

A lot of times in political work, “Things fall off a truck.” Some benefit surfaces, and you don’t know where it came from, because its origins are probably not kosher.

In layman’s terms: “It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission.”

So maybe I have a past life as a PR guy, and maybe I have access to media lists and maybe I know the tricks of pitching the press and maybe I accidentally led an underground PR campaign that got 2700 media mentions. OOPS. Sorry I’m not sorry.

That part get’s more interesting. Let’s go back to that “bound to the work of our contract” part…

I get called into a meeting with important Isobar executives I’ve never met. Turns out Nokia is an Isobar client, our Palm campaign is a conflict of interest, and it never should have happened. We’re now in corporate limbo. If we do too well on the Palm campaign and word gets out, Nokia will sue us. If we bail on the Palm campaign, HP could sue us for breach of contract -- even if they aren’t supporting the campaign and don’t care about it.

So my job now is to basically, adequately, unremarkably go through the motions of the campaign through its completion.

Things get weird at Isobar. The GM leaves (was fired?). Interim GM.

Aaaaaand now my Account Director is leaving to go to Yahoo. That’s how bad this is...You’d rather be at YAHOO!

File Nov 14, 11 09 48 AM.jpeg

October ‘10: THE SHOW MUST GO ON. Contractually.

My Account Supervisor and I go on the road show. I have a great time. I love to travel. These are cool cities. I like expense account-paid dinners. I like cool hotels.

The campaign? Meh. Hardly anyone showed up anywhere. Of the 500 phones, I managed to get about half into the hands of worthy causes. Most of the users couldn’t figure the things out. They were before their time (the phones, not the users).

The real highlight of the trip? Finding myself in Austin, Texas, at the same time the mighty San Francisco Giants were winning the world series against the Texas Rangers, and seeing the victory with my own eyes. Fact.

November ‘10: My Account Supervisor gets laid off. I am, literally, the only person on this campaign. HP is gone. Isobar is gone. The “good causes” involved got their phones and now it’s the holidays and they could really care less. I am coming into the office daily, half-daily, quarter-daily, to no one’s awareness, like George Costanza, because we are contractually obligated to service this account.

February ‘11: It’s finally over. Contract expired. I ship about 200 phones back for HP to destroy. They would kill Palm completely by August. I got to keep a box of Verizon gift cards and didn’t pay for service for 5 years.  

Meanwhile Isobar’s SF office continued to ghost, and it completely shuttered a year later.


I was not the captain. But I was the last man standing on deck. I was the one who’d go down with the ship. Or maybe the better metaphor is...I was Jack, the vagabond tramp who never should have been there in the first place, clinging to the floating debris. The Palm Pre was Rose, drifting.

What does one learn from such a colossal failure? What can one learn?!? You learn about people, that’s what. You learn that among the “brands,” the “companies,” the “corporations,” or whatever constructed entity you want to call it, these monoliths are made of people, and no matter how well they frame their own personal “brand,” their professional image, their acumen...those people are going to do some dysfunctional things.  

The “assumptions” here? We assumed functionality. There was none. The product was fine. The hardware sucked, but that was an iteration away from fixing. The software -- webOS -- was cutting edge, and now exists all over Android and iPhone after bits and pieces were scavenged. The product could have been. It was the people behind it. It always is.


Further reading:

The iPhone X reveals why Tim Cook was so mad about Palm

The Verge: Pre to postmortem: the inside story of the death of Palm and webOS

Mashable: Palm Gives 500 Pre Plus Phones to Good Causes

Techcrunch: Palm gives away 500 Pre Plus phones and $150,000 of service to "good causes"


AgencySpy: Isobar to Shutter San Francisco Ops

Wikipedia: Palm History

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