California Conversations | Jason Hsin from Josh.ai
Jason Hsin is the head of Design for Josh.ai, an intuitive AI for the home, founded in 2015 by Tim Gill and Alex Capecelatro. Hsin studied at Art Center College of Design, whose alumnae include director Michael Bay (“Transformers”), Clement Mok (former Creative Director, Apple), Frank Nuovo (Chief of Design, Nokia) and Tarsem Singh (commercials director, Pepsi). Hsin is now based in Los Angeles, but was born in Northern California, to parents who emigrated from Taiwan.
It’s a great project to work on — with some unique UX/UI design challenges.
We’ll get to the design process in moment, but first, in contrast to others in the competitive set, Josh.ai isn’t embodied — can you explain that?
Right. Josh.ai is an omnipresent digital assistant that can be activated via voice from multiple devices, including, but not limited to, smart phones, tablets and standalone microphones like the Amazon Echo or Google Home. We’ve seen many other companies attempt to create literal, physical, manifestations of an artificially intelligent robot, with mechanical bodies, and a screen for a face. They have the best of intentions but it’s a misguided approach. Any attempt to anthropomorphize machines is going to fall short of expectations. As humans we’re finely tuned to recognize faces and voices — there’s an uncanny valley that even the best CGI cannot cross. There’s no playbook for designing an A.I. agent. We wanted to create an A.I. that could be accessed from devices people already use the most, without forcing them to interact with an awkward machine.
How did you start designing the concept?
As with any design project, you have to do your user research, identify the market, define objectives, understand how people react to tech in the home. We can’t simply project our fantasies which have been influenced by sci-fi movies.
Good point — but — just out of interest — what did you watch, in terms of Sci-Fi growing up?
Let’s see — I watched all the Alien movies when I was 5.
And didn’t sleep until you were 13, then.
(laughs) Something like that.
What else? Star Trek v Star Wars?
Both. I watched all the Star Wars movies and my favorite, before you ask, from the original trilogy, is still Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back. But my dad was into Star Trek so I also watched that with him, growing up.
Are you a big gamer too — which consoles are your go-to devices?
Actually I built my own PCs when I was a kid, so I mostly play PC-based titles: a lot of first person shooters, the Battlefield franchise, and an equal amount of strategy games, mostly the Total War franchise.
Excellent, now back to your role at Josh.ai, what influences do you bring to bear in the conceptual design stage?
I’m very influenced by Dieter Rams, particularly his principles about design making a product useful, with function and purpose — making it understandable, in an unobtrusive and honest way, with as little “design” as possible. That’s the reason why we went with a sort of “ambient omnipresence” for Josh.ai. That said, we do have hardware products in our development pipeline.
You also had to design the functional controls for not only voice but multiple screen sizes and locations.
For the mobile designs we did a lot of effective user research, interviewing potential users, finding out what they needed Josh.ai to do on a day to day basis. Everyone has a mobile phone so an app was an easy starting point. But in these huge 10,000+, up to 50,000 sq ft homes that many of our early beta testers own, there’s also a touch panel display in each room that can control any connected device in that specific room, or any device elsewhere in the house. The overall design of the user experience needed to take that into consideration.
Let’s take another segway — you attended Art Center College of Design, a place famous for turning out both industrial designers, as well as feeding the VFX talent pool at Disney Imagineering. Did you attend art school because you grew up in a design-orientated house?
Not really, neither of my parents are designers. My father has a PhD in Physics from Berkeley and my mother studied English while attending university at Tennessee before becoming a schoolteacher. Because of my Chinese ancestry, I grew up surrounded by Chinese brush paintings. In fact, one of my aunts, 辛鵬九 (Angela Meng Hsin) who is still alive, is considered one of the finest exponents of the form.
What an incredible heritage.
But it wasn’t until I got to Art Center that I realized the influence Chinese brush paintings had on me. That’s when I went back to my parents’ house and started to realize, “Wow, this is a landscape composed almost entirely of just two or three brushstrokes.” Although my father is an engineer, he understands that these paintings represent the pinnacle of art with their ability to express so much with so little, and that realization carries over to me now and how I approach my design work.
Can you draw a line to your own work at Josh.ai here?
Definitely. My goal, in designing the overall user experience for Josh.ai itself, is to eliminate clutter surrounding everyday tasks, revealing the minimum number of steps between the user and their goals. I’m always asking: “How can we simplify this further?”, just like with the brush paintings.
So how did you come to work at Jstar.ai?
Tim Gill (founder of Quark) was wiring up his house with an early prototype and had convinced Alex (Capecelatro) to come on board as CEO to make it into a real business. I knew Alex, way back, via the Internet, because he used to run a very popular BMX blog, which I followed obsessively. But I didn’t meet him in person until his going-away party, after he graduated from UCLA when he invited everyone that he knew lived in L.A. Jstar.ai is actually the 4th startup I’ve worked with Alex on. The others were Hyphos, At The Pool and Yeti — all social recommendation engines, all with the goal of helping users discover new people nearby to go out and do activities with.
Final question — did you ever feel tempted to work at one of the massive Silicon Valley giants?
Two years ago I did the whole round; interviewed at Google, Facebook, and Snapchat. I was attracted to their “moonshot” projects, however I quickly realized they were only interviewing for positions focused on menial design within their core product lines.
Not as thrilling.
(laughs) No. I much prefer what I’m doing now.
_______sophia stuart is an award-winning digital strategist and technology commentator, based in Los Angeles, covering artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, cyborgs and robots at Caltech, DARPA, NASA and US Army Cyber Command. She also reports from Hollywood on science fiction films, has interviewed directors Drake Doremus, Spike Jonze and Ridley Scott, former FBI agents, military, space and espionage experts.