Tech-scene and the city

Six months ago I moved across the country from San Francisco, CA to Pittsburgh, PA. The move was largely due to family reasons — I have a two year-old son and I wanted him to spend more time with his extended family. But I’ve found the move to offer new and exciting professional experiences. I’ve have had an opportunity to reflect on how the tech bubble of San Francisco influenced my work, for good and for bad.

In San Francisco you can regularly overhear people talking about make-shift hack-a-thons they are hosting at their apartment over the weekend, or gushing about the new app that lets you get a fresh baked cookie delivered to wherever you‘re standing at the moment. Asking someone if they’d like to take Uber or Lyft can inspire serious debate, and everyone has mixed feelings about Yelp!. It feels like 97% of San Franciscans are working at a start-up, have just been laid off from a start-up, or are considering starting a start-up themselves. (And if you are not part of that group then you at least have 426 friends involved with a start-up in one way or another.) And everyone has a brother, sister, or cousin working for Google, Facebook, or Yahoo!.

On the one-hand, its energizing to be part of that crowd. It gives you the feeling that technology is everywhere and technology can do anything. It’s exciting and liberating and makes the possibilities seem endless. It also, unfortunately, leads you to forget the concerns of the rest of the world.

It makes you forget that there are people who don’t own smart-phones and still manage to lead productive and satisfactory lives. There are people who are not motivated to share, tweet, or like and can have interesting experiences without taking pictures to post on Instagram. There are people for whom some current technologies hinder their experience of the world more than it helps.

Please don’t get me wrong, dear San Franciscans. You live in a beautiful and energizing city where being bold, creating new things, and the pursuit of good-times are attributes to be valued. But you have to admit the device-to-person ratio is astoundingly high, and that leaves a certain imprint on the local culture. And if you are at all interested in design, you know that the experiences you surround yourself with influence your work.

As a designer and researcher I found the tech climate of San Francisco a little hard to design around. (Or perhaps, you could say it is *too easy* to design technology for San Franciscans.) Every time I tried to recruit participants for usability studies I found it impossible to find anyone with a passive to normal relationship with technology. San Franciscans either love technology or think it is the devil that ruined their beautiful city. That kind of atmosphere pushes you to extremes.

In Pittsburgh I have found the skeptical, the hesitant, and the people who have used IE 6 for a decade and don’t understand why they should be forced to adopt anything new. I recently had an opportunity to conduct some “guerilla” style usability testing in a coffee shop near my home. I was testing an app designed to help users keep track of behaviors they would like to do less of, like smoking cigarettes or eating sweets. Multiple participants in my study challenged the premise of the app entirely, asking questions like “what does this have over my trusty notebook and calendar?” It was the first time in a long time that I had to consider paper and pencil as a competitor to a smart-phone app. It was humbling.

In Pittsburgh I have found the users that still need to be convinced, and that has pushed me to fight harder in my work. I believe my designs have gotten better.