My route to Lassen Volcanic National Park

Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 8.44.51 PMTomorrow morning early I will be starting out on my trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park, a southern approach to the national park I approached from the north 8 weeks ago. Here is my planned route (my car is at my brilliant friend‘s house in Mountain View).

When I was at Lassen earlier this summer, I fell in love a bit. If the Category dedicated to it was not enough of a hint, geology is a hobby. Lassen is one of the best places to nerd out over rocks that I have found. There are lava caves, huge boulders flung miles and miles from their original homes, and an entire area named the “chaos crags.”

Here are some of my favorite sights from my last, too short trip to Lassen:

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Devastated area, Lassen National Park

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Lake beside the North Summit camping ground


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Mouth of the subway tunnel cave

More and better photos this weekend!

Inspirational Quote:

“The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.” – Marge Piercy

Seattle to San Francisco

Eight weeks ago I started my drive from Seattle to Silicon Valley. On the way, I camped at Crater Lake National Park, leapt off an 18′ cliff into the deepest lake in the U.S. and drove to Lassen Volcanic National Park, walked a quarter mile underground in a cave carved by lava. I made it to San Francisco in time to have my fingerprints taken for my new job as a scheduler for California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

It was my first time doing a road trip alone and camping alone. I enjoyed the time I had on the open road, watching the sun come out and the land rise and fall around me. Keeping me company was an audiobook of An Unfinished Life about President Kennedy’s childhood, family, and policies.

The trip reminded me how much I love the radical concept of setting aside inspiring land for everyone to own and explore. The reminder wasn’t intellectual; it was visceral. My bones remembered that they are part of the earth as I plunged into azure waters and stubbed my toe on the doll-plinths lava left behind far from the sun.

Now I’m back in California, I am making a list of parks I want to learn to be human in. If you have a favorite, please share it and I’ll add it to my itinerary.

When I got my job in Olympia last December, I texted the only person I knew at the time with experience staffing an elected official. I told him I’d been looking for a book to let me know what excellence looked like in a staffing job, and that I hadn’t been able to find one. He said the best guide was reading Presidential biographies, and gave me a list. Since January I’ve read books on FDR, Lincoln, Kennedy, and Teddy Roosevelt, supplementing it with memoirs by Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren.

My friend was right–reading stories of great leaders told me what I have needed to know. If no one takes you seriously, be serious and make them Eleanor Roosevelt seemed to say. Fight the big, hard fights was the message from President Lincoln. Take what people hate about you and make it yours came through loud and clear from JFK.  Catholicity of interests is a strength, not a weakness was what I got from Teddy Roosevelt. Fight hard came from Senator Warren. Bring others with you sounded loud and clear from Hillary Clinton.

I’m going on another road trip tomorrow, driving to camp at Lassen Volcanic National Park for Labor Day weekend, this time approaching from the South. I’ll be listening to a biography of Thomas Jefferson and thinking about the leaders and the people who are the reason we have a Labor Day to celebrate and national parks in which to marvel. I’ll share updates and photos as I go.

Inspirational Quote:

“The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.”–Marge Piercy

Using User Personas to Improve Policy

I fell in love with user personas when I was helping Polaris re-think their website. I had written an RFP and one of the firms I dreamed of us being able to hire sent us two booklets from the A Book Apart series, and one of them included a long section on ethnographic research and user personas.

I had conducted formal research interviews in college, so the approach felt truthful to me. Then I got to part of the chapter on using user personas tactically. The A Book Apart books are great at talking to their audiences: web managers who are more-often-than-not matrix managed, the only technical person in their vertical or entire organization, and always, deeply in need of tactics for generating buy-in for industry best practices. That’s why the book provided scripts and tricks for getting people to follow best practices, people who don’t think about computers and websites and traffic all day. One of those tactics was user personas.

For those who don’t occasionally design websites for fun and profit, user personas look like this:

Image from Paul of Design Leary.

Image from Paul of Design Leary.

They are specific, representative overviews of 3 – 5 intended and actual audiences for a given product. From those simple bios, any number of uses can come. They can test the intended workflow of a product–the user story–and see how it impacts that user’s life. They can be used to hone tone of a given page to the needs of a specific but fractal persona. They can be hung in a content creator’s office, to remind everyone on the team who they are writing for.

I was having coffee with a friend who runs online content for a major American city and mentioned user personas as a possible tactic for her website redesign work. She said she hadn’t decorated her office yet, and those user personas might be useful. I love that idea–having meetings, with representative constituent personas overlooking and informing the decisions a city worker makes.

That got me thinking about how to make user personas work for policy formulation. I think many legislators hold in their heads generalized user personas for policy-making: the single mom on TANF, the man who’s just left prison, the 4th grader ESL student. There is danger in these kinds of generalities, because they abstract lawmaking from the daily specifics of living in the world.

The single mom on TANF can be called a “welfare queen” or a “working mom” by elected officials, depending on their experiences and goals. The user persona is not specific enough, because I would like to believe if a lawmaker had to talk about Tiffany Jones (who gets TANF and volunteers at her son’s 4th grade classroom during field trips, wants to go back to college but can’t get into a community college class) then only one of those phrases could be honestly be used to describe her.

In the land of web design, outcomes are less dramatic than someone having her access to food restricted. There are other kinds of drama: two executives walk into a room, one website leaves. But whether the customer served by that website is white man in his mid-20s in San Francisco with an iPhone 6 or a 35-year-old Latina in rural Texas with an Android depends on the executives’ goals and experiences, just like laws depend on lawmakers. It may end up that the website designed for the guy in his 20s works just as well for the woman in her 30s–or it may not. The value of being specific with user personas is those executives or lawmakers have to agree before a single word is written, a single wireframe concocted, a single policy proposal typed. They have to agree on who they intend to work for and talk to.

I enjoy imagining that kind of specificity in lawmaking. To paraphrase a friend who’s a programmer for a mid-sized company in the Bay Area: good product design solves the hardest problem first. She says that solving that problem will solve most of the easier problems down the line. That approach is why so many Masters projects for those in Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon focusing on serving people with disabilities. A website that works for someone with motor control issues will also work for someone on a shaking bus downtown.

Consider a writing a proposal for a school breakfast program. Imagine designing a policy to serve the user persona of Ameena, a child of a family who recently immigrated as refugees from Afghanistan and who is learning English while catching up in school. That same policy will also help Jimmy, the working class kid living with his aunt while his Mom handles some of her own issues and who’s a bit behind in his reading skills. The school breakfast program would include signs with a mix of words and symbols to describe the food, a system to get feedback from parents on kids’ allergies and religious restrictions, and before it started, communication from the school district to the parents/guardians/whoever the child is staying with in a variety of forms to make sure they know what the kids in their care are eating. It makes sure Ameena’s parents with limited English know what’s happening, and the robust communication system makes sure it’s Jimmy’s aunt, not his Mom who’s out of the picture, that gets the heads-up that she needs to tell them about his peanut allergy. What works for Ameena works for Jimmy in this case.

The fractility of experiences is what allows us to make user personas specific, to leave some identity combinations out when building user personas. This might be hard for lawmakers, since they tend to want to include everyone imaginable in their ideas. 3 to 5 user personas is more than enough for the work. Every faith does not need to be assigned to a specific user case-study, every country does not need a citizen to be included because, in all probability, a Presbyterian will use the website in the same way as an Episcopal and a child of refugees from Afghanistan will probably be as hungry as a child of refugees from Syria.

They might not, which is why testing and feedback and iteration are vital. That is another blog post, though I think I should keep my fantasy of agile lawmaking to myself. Testing happens with laws through user interviews just like it does with good products. If I walked into a meeting with a refugee agency to get their feedback on my proposal for a school breakfast program and heard there were differences in how a child from Afghanistan and a child from Syria need to be served, then I would modify my user persona and then the policy. If it turned out in my user testing that Episcopals really did have different needs from Presbyterians, perhaps for my e-hymnal site, then I would need to re-write my user personas. That is alright, because from lawmaking to website creation, any effort involving serving humans will have to change with time.

Imagine a campaign office with a row of framed user personas behind the candidate’s desk. She sees them during call-time, and when she’s cutting turf.The backs of the frames would have to be easy to pop open, so the stories could be modified when their future constituents’ needs change. She sees them when she’s doing interviews and tweaking her platform. There they would sit, a constant, guiding presence, informed by the lived reality of the people who she seeks to represent.

Inspirational Quote:

“My people are few. They resemble the scattering trees of a storm-swept plain…There was a time when our people covered the land as the waves of a wind-ruffled sea cover its shell-paved floor, but that time long since passed away with the greatness of tribes that are now but a mournful memory.” ― Chief Seattle, The Chief Seattle’s Speech