I’ve never experienced as much joy in the workplace as I did in 2016.
I’ve thought about this a lot since Mozilla announced it would lay off my Connected Devices team. Although I’m disappointed to be leaving Mozilla, I’m proud of the work my team did. I’m also grateful beyond words for a crazy, free-wheeling year of laughter and joy.
In late 2015, we all met in Orlando, Florida, for an All-hands meeting. The Orlando All-hands was notable for two reasons. First, Mozilla gave us all a t-shirt that said “The Internet is what we make it,” which I thought was a spot-on way to encapsulate the Mozilla mission. Bonus: the women’s version was a scoopneck actually cut for a woman’s body.
Second, Mozilla announced that we would shift our focus from Firefox OS to the emerging Internet of Things (IoT). At first blush, this sounded terribly exciting.
Then I remembered the t-shirt. And I thought: “Oh shit, I hope we don’t make the same mistakes with the Internet of Things that we did with the Internet.”
That thought became a personal touchstone for me throughout our yearlong Connected Devices experiment. Most of the Connected Devices team didn’t know much about IoT, so we learned as we went along. After years of being “experts” in mobile/internet technology, it was sometimes unsettling to realize you were a neophyte in this new tech space. On the other hand, this was a rare opportunity to create a product without the boundaries normally put in place by clients, company leadership, or investors.
So I made the most of it. That meant pitching a product idea to the leadership team. In retrospect, my pitch wasn’t really about a product at all. Instead my pitch was a story about the possibility of IoT itself. I wanted IoT to embrace the singular (rather the aggregate or the corporate). I wanted it to delight in the individualized quirkiness of people. I wanted the purpose of IoT to be sheer joy.
My pitch was approved, and several teammates began working with me on what would become Project Haiku. Our year together as the Haiku team wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. It was well and truly exhausting. It was also exhilarating, challenging, and sometimes contentious. Most of all, I remember working with a sense of joy, which is a very rare privilege in the workplace.
“Joy” is a word we used a lot on the Haiku team. We meant it as our approach to doing our work. If we weren’t having fun, we were doing it wrong. We laughed much of the time, especially about the fact that we did not know where the project was going or what the end point might look like.
In that not-knowing, we freed ourselves from assumptions about what innovation should look like, what an IoT product should do and, most important, who it should serve. And that made all the difference in where we ended up.
“Joy” was also the Haiku team’s touchstone for the product we wanted to design and build. Our team’s fundamental principle was that our product “must make you smile.” Ultimately we landed on a product concept that gives kids age 6 to 10 and their grandparents an easy, one-touch way to share moments using audio or emoji.
Even though our prototypes were awkward and clunky, we saw them create magical experiences between kids and their grandparents. As my teammate Sam Foster writes:
“Kids were able to carry out “conversations” without any assistance from their parents; they could own their relationship with distant loved ones. This was the real value proposition. Project Haiku wasn’t presenting a technical breakthrough as such, but [it took] existing technology and fostered joy, confidence, and agency.”
Hearing people talk about their experiences with our awkward prototypes made me teary-eyed more than once. It is a such a rare gift in the technology world to realize that your work has touched people in the only way that truly matters — through their hearts.
Our Haiku product concept is a simple secure device with a single purpose. It requires no user accounts. It’s not controlled by an app and has no annoying notifications. It’s explicitly designed to support the love that binds people to one another. In a world increasingly digitally focused, its physical presence is a reminder, a totem, of that human connection.
For me, this concept stands as a love letter to the uses of technology that the Haiku team came to believe in. It’s everything I began 2016 hoping that IoT could be.
And yet…this product is not meant to be. At least not at Mozilla. I’m disappointed that our work was not considered a success from a business perspective. But, like any truly great journey, our story lies not in where we ended up. Rather our story lies in our internal monologue, our emerging pattern of understanding, about present and future technology. And that will remain with us long after we’ve forgotten everything else.
As I look back at our Connected Devices journey, I suspect that I am not alone in having come to a reckoning with my role as a creator of technology.
Early in the year Sam reminded us that “it is people who solve problems, not code.” That statement stuck with me, even haunted me, throughout the year.
It’s a potentially dangerous line of thinking in the technology world. It forces you to rethink the industry’s assumed relationship between people and technology. To uncover, and then rethink, your unarticulated notions about what technology should do and how we should interact with it. To rethink your role as a creator of things used by real people in a fundamentally messy and unpredictable world.
In short, it forces you to measure your impact on the world. As I leave Mozilla, there is joy in recognizing what I want my impact to be.
With sincere thanks to…
- The Project Haiku team — Katie Caldwell, Sam Foster, Punam Dahiya, Maria Oteo, Mahe Potharaju, Kian Solomon, Kate Glazko, Manel Rhaiem, Joe Cheng, Peter Dolanjski, and Elliott Koehler — for the inspiration and laughter! It was an honor to work with you. May we meet again.
- My other comrades in Connected Devices UX — Tiffanie Shakespeare, Francis Djabri, and the digitally mysterious Jacqueline Savory. You were the wind beneath our sails.
- The entire Connected Devices team.
As with all Mozilla projects, the Haiku team’s work is open source. Check it out on Github, or see our research and design materials. Let us know if you have any questions, or if you decide to use any of it!