October 19, 2019

What (and who) smart locks leave behind

Earlier this year the property management for my apartment building gave us notice that all apartments would be upgraded with smart home technology by Smart Rent. We were given a brief notice via email and a meet and greet to ask a few questions. A few days later they replaced each apartment lock with a Yale smart lock and texted us our PIN.

Image result for yale smart lock

In general I’m a huge fan of our increasingly connected world. I’ve worked on home security cameras that help families find peace of mind and delivery robots that make hotel guests and staff feel safer by delivering to guest rooms late at night. Every day I ask Google to play music while my wife and I cook dinner or clean the apartment. When it comes to connected devices and the smart home I tend to be an early adopter and have been looking forward to a smart lock for years, ever since the beautiful August smart lock was announced.

Unfortunately the reality of living with a smart lock has been mostly disappointing with one major benefit. Let's start with the highlight and then dive into some of the challenges.

Dynamic codes and peace of mind

Hands down the best part of a smart lock is being able to share temporary codes. This mostly comes in handy for us when we're traveling so that we can have a friend stop by to water our plants. Our landlord limits the code window to 48 hours, but for our use case that's plenty of time.

Sending a code is relatively easy, but it does require providing Smart Rent with our friend's email or phone number. It's not clear why they can't just generate a code that I can share myself and this does raise some privacy concerns for me (more on that later).

In addition to the convenience of temporary codes, the lock also lets me check its status from wherever I am. If I ever think I've left the door unlocked it's just a few swipes and taps to make sure. I can even lock the door via Google Assistant for added convenience. The lock could definitely be smarter here by knowing when I come and go based on location or bluetooth proximity, but I'm ok trading some extra legwork for the added privacy here.

So if the lock adds convenience and peace of mind then what is that mostly disappointing part I was talking about? My concerns and frustrations boil down to two primary categories: usability and accessibility, and privacy and security. I'll be tackling each in a separate blog post.

Let’s start with usability and accessibility

Sometimes the old ways are best, however, and sometimes the best interface is centuries old. Let’s break down using a traditional key.

1. Remove key from pocket
2. Insert key into keyhole (this may require some fiddling)
3. Twist key
4. Turn handle and open door
5. Remove key
6. Twist knob to lock the door from inside

In theory, a digital smart lock can help reduce these steps. I no longer need to find or insert a key so steps 1-3 go away. Now all I have to do is:

1. Enter my pin
2. Turn handle and open door
3. Twist knob to lock the door from inside

We’ve cut the process in half! Not only does a digital lock save steps, but it also has those super useful temporary pins.

Unfortunately the physical / digital interface introduces more complexity and failure points than the traditional physical-only lock.

A touch screen

Gone is the physical affordance of a lock and key. Instead of a key we can insert and turn, we now have a blank sheet of glass. Remember the PIN code management emailed us? Let's use it to unlock the door.

1. Activate the touch screen by placing your palm over the screen.
2. Enter your four digit PIN.
3. Hit the check mark to confirm
4. Wait for the motor to finish moving the bolt
5. Enter your apartment
6. Manually turn the knob on the inside of the door to lock the door

Within each of the steps there are a number of possible failure points and complications.

Step 1: Activate the touch screen

For new users there's no guidance on how to activate the screen. The only way to activate it is by placing your palm over the whole screen - a simple touch isn't enough. I'm not sure someone would figure this out without reading the documentation other than a lengthy battle of trial and error. Even when you know what to do, getting your palm flush with the door can be tricky given the hip-height placement of the lock and the flush alignment against the door.

Yale could improve on this by waking the touch screen on a tap or an extended press. If the screen were angled up towards the user the angle would be easier to achieve, especially for someone with tight forearms from rock climbing like me.

Step 2: Enter your PIN

Now that we've activated the screen we need to enter our code. The screen is a typical touch screen but lacks additional forms of feedback like haptics or sound. The only feedback that you've hit a button is a brief flash. With the lack of physical buttons and the close proximity of each number it's pretty easy to hit a number accidentally. Unfortunately there's no backspace so if you make a mistake you have to hit the checkmark, wait for a wipe animation, and start again back at step 1.

For someone with impaired vision unlocking the door would be nearly impossible. Theoretically you might be able to use the voice assistant or accessible smart phone apps, but both still require significantly more interaction than finding a physical keyhole.

Just because you can see the buttons, however, doesn't mean you can press them. What happens if you have your hands full of groceries, children, or are someone living with a disability? Making the precise movements to enter your code without accidentally hitting the wrong number is going to be a challenge.

What kind of message does this send to renters? Oh you’re blind? Too bad you won’t be able to open your front door. Oh you’re frail or have Parkinson’s Disease? This isn’t the place for you. You’re a parent carrying a baby in one arm with two bags of groceries on the other? Good luck making precise movements to hit your PIN just right.

Adding physical buttons could help both avoid accidental touches and also help visually impaired users find the right keys. I understand these could become worn over time and reveal your pin, but touchscreens show fingerprints and a rotating PIN could help avoid wear and tear on a limited set of buttons.

Steps 3 and 4 aren't too bad, other than taking some extra time for the motor to open the lock.

Step 5: Enter your apartment

The next big problem point happens as you're entering your apartment. When the door is unlocked, placing your palm against the screen locks the door. It's easy and convenient when you're leaving, but can you see the problem when you're entering?

As you're holding the door open, it's easy to accidentally cover the lock with your arm, hip, or back, extending the lock and preventing the door from closing. Luckily you're inside now so you just have to rotate the knob to unlock and then re-lock the door. The lock is too difficult to activate when you're trying to unlock the door and too easy when you're entering your apartment.

A "smart" solution here could be to use a simple sensor to know whether the door is closed. With the door closed, placing your palm on the screen could lock the bolt, and when the door is open accidental touches could be ignored.

Accessibility and usability

So many of the usability challenges with the Yale smart lock become even greater barriers for people in "complex" situations like carrying groceries or for people living with disabilities. Designing for inclusivity would make this a more user friendly product for everyone. Just because it's a smart lock doesn't mean we need to lose the benefits of physical, tactile interfaces like a lock and key.

December 21, 2016

Disney Channel’s AI is Better Than Yours

One of my favorite movies growing up was Disney Channel’s Smart House. Pat, the Smart House AI, could play the best music, make you a better dancer, and even kick out the bully when he started causing trouble at the party she organized for the kids without them even asking!

Today’s voice activated "assistants" like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa have been on the market for years now, but still seem to fall short of capturing the imagination like the voice-activated assistants inhabiting cultural masterpieces like Smart House and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Serving more as voice-controlled UI translators, today’s assistants match trigger words and phrases to fairly specific actions. Sometimes machine learning helps make these queries more flexible, but in the end we’re still asking a device to complete an action.

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October 16, 2016

Daily UI #003

Over the past week I've started taking part in the Daily UI design challenge to showcase and improve on my design skills contained in the rest of my portfolio. Day 3 was a particularly fun challenge as it opened up the prompt to any landing page. I've never designed with video before, so I wanted to experiment with scenic imagery showcasing an elegant experience. I landed on the concept of creating a website for a helicopter tour company, mostly so I could use this beautiful footage.

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September 12, 2016

Moving to San Francisco

I've lived in Boston almost my entire life. I was born in the city, went to public school in my hometown and then studied at Tufts University in Medford/Somerville, only 15 miles from home (perfectly in line with data from the NYTimes).

I'd entertained the thought of moving away to live somewhere new, but it's never been a major priority. During college I struggled with this feeling of loving my home and my city, but also wondering if maybe I was missing out by not being somewhere new. Objectively Boston is a great place, a city where thousands of people come to study, many of whom stay after graduating. But there was always a question hanging in the air - is it really this great or is it just because it's what I know?

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August 16, 2012

Shoe Shining and the Lost Art of Maintenance

My shoe shining kit just arrived from Amazon. Until this afternoon I had never shined a pair of shoes in my life. I've worn plenty of shoes, but shining them never seemed like something that was worth the time or effort. Sure, shoes look nice when they're bright and shiny, but they just end up getting dirty again, so why bother. Besides getting dirty and scuffed up, shoes ultimately fall apart from use.

I've also never made my bed (except for a three day stint in the second semester of my senior year of college). Sure I make it when I change my sheets and going to sleep tucked into a fresh, well-made bed is one of the best feelings in the world, but the purpose of every day bed-making always eluded me. Why take the time to tuck everything in sleeping Will was just going to pull it all out again?

Monday night, as I returned home to my awesome new apartment after a weekend away, I was greeted by an incredibly un-awesome sight - a virtual landfill of clothes, boxes, and assorted trinkets scattered throughout my bedroom. How had this happened? It couldn't have been that messy when I left.

It was.

The age old art of maintenance has seemed to disappear in today's fast-paced, always connected world. Who has the time to shine their shoes and make their bed when the whole wide world is beckoning us at every moment. I've noticed my attention span shrinking over the past few years and so far while writing this blog post I've opened Safari three times just to check that the Internet was still there.

Clearly I'm still figuring out the whole aspect of maintaining things in my life. While there are plenty of tools in place for maintaining relationships, finances, and blog posts (which I've also struggled with) these quantified tools have yet to make it to our physical world. We're forced to rely on ourselves to make our beds, shine our shoes, and clean up our rooms. Unfortunately, we hate the mundane and live for the dopamine packets provided by constant interaction.

So why open up the black hole that has been my attempt to blog? To remind myself of the importance of maintenance and the power of actual putting thoughts into permanent, actionable statements. The hardest part is facing the reality of an un-maintained life. It's easy to ignore the treadmill waiting for me and push it off until tomorrow. The longer we postpone something, the easier it becomes. Eventually the idea of maintaining said habit becomes much more frightening than the small, consistent commitment of going through with it.

Tomorrow at 5:45 am is the moment of truth. Do I wake up, stretch, exercise, and make my bed? Or snooze through the daily maintenance I should be performing?

February 8, 2012

Accidental Existentialism in Food Trucks

I always feel a little lost during the first few weeks back on campus after break. There's that thing called homework that I'd tried to forget about and the strange transformation in my schedule that fills up all my free time with poorly timed blocks of class. But while all this is par for the course, my usual adjustment period was recently complicated by the mysterious white truck lurking on Tufts grounds.

I first noticed this unmarked white vehicle parked on Packard while living off campus over break. As I walked passed it, I would try to determine it's purpose, but it would always stare silently back at me, taunting me in its unwillingness to reveal its secrets. Thoughts and questions about this white leviathan haunted my dreams for days, but as the semester began to approach, the elusive beast faded from my mind. Would it were so easy.

On the first Monday of classes, I left wind ensemble rehearsal with a spring in my step. Thrilled to be making music once more, I felt as if the world were at my fingertips and was more than ready to tackle the three hour night class looming before me. And then I saw it. The white truck was waiting for me across from Anderson as if it knew I would have to pass by on my way to class. It's side was open and two men were operating from within, a line of students forming along the back. What kind of seedy business were they up to? I had to know.

I approached at a brisk walk, not wanting the wily white truck to know I was onto it. I gazed within to see beautiful columns of meat being carved into what I could only assume were delicious sandwiches of some sort. I resisted temptation and walked on. This scenario would repeat itself again on Wednesday and once more I chose not to stop despite the call of the white food truck. My curiosity was too strong, however, so I ventured back during our ten minute break, only to find it silently sitting in the dark once more, waiting patiently for our paths to cross some point in the future.

For weeks this white truck has piqued my curiosity and recently tempted my taste buds, and still I've yet to try it. Always in a rush to class, I've passed it, looking longingly at the meats taunting me from behind the open window. How is it that I've been too busy to stop and try something I so desperately want?

Here I am, entering my last semester at Tufts and I'm too worried about getting to class a few minutes early to stop and treat my tastebuds to a new experience. This wasn't originally supposed to be existential or particularly meaningful, I was just asked to throw something together as filler for the opinions section and the food truck was suggested as a possible topic. I knew that my personal history with the food truck could possibly be a starting point, but now that I've double checked the definition of existentialism with Wikipedia, it seems I ended up writing an existential piece anyway.

So where does that leave us? While the mystery of the mysterious white truck has been nearly brought to a close (I plan to visit it for lunch tomorrow), there are still many more journeys out there to be taken and mysterious white trucks to investigate. Four years goes by incredibly fast and with May growing closer every day, that five minute early arrival to class seems less and less important, especially when compared to a warm, delicious gyro full of freshly carved meat from the existential food truck.


November 9, 2011

The Speech UI Revolution

With Apple’s launch of the iPhone 4S last month, the paradigm of human-computer interaction saw what will become the largest shift since the original iPhone brought capacitive touch screens to the masses. In a single decade we have gone from typing on a set of static keys on a phone, to interacting with an adaptive touch screen display, to now being able to have a conversation with our phone. This transition reflects the desire of people to interact with technology as we do with each other. Touch brought our gadgets and technology out of the realm of plastic devices into objects of desire with emotional value. We bring our smart phones everywhere, sleep with them in our beds at night, and caress their screens until they give us what we want.

The touch revolution helped make interactions with technology more intuitive, more responsive, and much more powerful. A single pane of glass with an adaptive user interface allows developers and designers to create a custom environment for each situation the user is in, so that content can become the focus of applications instead of menu placement and UI design. Users no longer have to worry about where the ‘copy and paste’ command is in the new MS Office ribbon, and instead can focus on making their creations look, read, and feel the way they want them to. This transformation also allows designers to create incredible experiences that replicate real-world instruments, allow the user to simply navigate to an address by tapping on a map, and rotate an image by manipulating as they would an actual photograph. So if touch is so great, why did I say that the introduction of Siri will change the way we interact with technology?

For as long as we’ve had computers, we’ve dreamed of interacting with them as we do with each other, through conversation. One needs only to look at science fiction classics like Star Wars and of course the infamous Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Conversation, whether verbal, textual, or ultimately through body language, is how we are able to communicate most effectively. While voice-to-text technology has existed in rudimentary forms since the 50′s, Siri is the first “digital assistant” to have an actual conversation with you. A conversational interaction is far more powerful than existing speech recognition command interfaces like those found in Google’s Android or Vlingo’s smartphone software. Instead of issuing a keyword, “navigate to”, and a search term, “Starbucks”, the user can now converse with the computer to narrow results, select the best option, and then act upon the information.

With computers, smartphones, and tablets now shipping with much more hardware processing power than the average user will need, designers and developers can focus on changing the interaction paradigm and desktop metaphor we’ve adjusted to over the last few decades. In a fantastic interview with The Verge, Android designer Matias Duarte talks about designing interfaces that reflect the uses and realities of technology, instead of building on archaic metaphors that no longer apply. Touch was the first milestone in enabling this UI revolution, but speech recognition will take us even further. With speech, our technology begins to have a “soul”, a spirit, an attitude even. Siri’s designers understood this and instead of simply building call and response into the engine, they gave Siri attitude, writing custom responses that created a personality for the machine. As computer synthesized voices become more natural and speech recognition algorithms get better at detecting the meaning behind natural language, the interactions we have with technology will continue to blend the lines between human-human interaction and human-computer interaction.

So where does this leave us? Children being born now will never know a world where speaking to your computer labeled you as a geek who didn’t get out enough. Interacting with computers will continue to become more and more natural as speech recognition matures and computers become better at reading facial expressions and body language. While Minority Report set what has become the gold standard for futuristic user interfaces, the reality is far simpler. Complex hand-waving and gestural cues will become obsolete as we talk to and interact with technology as we would with our friends. This may seem like a far-off vision of the future, but as Apple demonstrated with their “Knowledge Navigator” tablet concept in 1987, technology that seems as far out as flying cars can be attained in mere decades. Touch helped us connect with our devices and speech recognition will help us build relationships with them, bringing our science fiction dreams ever more close to reality.

November 6, 2011

Interview with Tufts Gordon Institute

This past summer the Gordon Institute at Tufts sponsored my internship with 1Minute40Seconds, a startup founded by alum Blade Kotelly and based in Cambridge. Three of the recipients were interviewed to highlight their experiences. For me, working at a startup, applying the skills I've acquired throughout my life, and embedding myself in the entrepreneurial scene in and around Boston was a fantastic, transformative experience. Below is a snippet from the interview.


William Vaughan currently interns for 1Minute40Seconds, a technology company founded by Blade Kotelly, E95. Vaughan applies his industrial psychology coursework to make Kotelly's product as user-friendly and intuitive as possible.
"I've really been able to incorporate all those things I've learned in class about how people think into an actual design," Vaughan said. "The biggest thing I've learned is how to put knowledge into the real word—actually working on a product instead of a project for class. I'm learning how to plan on a project, implement it, consult with my team, and create a presentation that shows where we are and how much farther we have to go."


See the rest of my interview and those of the other students here.

November 1, 2011


Most places won’t serve this to you for a few very good reasons,” Will said to me as he delicately placed a raw egg yolk into a small shooter glass on the bar before me, sliding it along a spoon into the awaiting layered liqueurs. As instructed, I sipped on the egg whites and bitters that adorned the top of the drink, drank the next layer of brandy to steel myself, and, with one swift motion, took the remaining Curaçao and egg yolk into my mouth. There was no going back. Time to drink.

Drink. So many connotations for such a small word. I drink orange juice in the morning, drink a glass of red wine at night, drink beer at frat parties, and drink shots at pregames, but the best Drink is the bar. With no sign outdoors, no marker on the entrance, and only a tiny black sign at the bottom of the staircase to remind the regulars, Drink is a bar that is just as elusive as the Knickebein I was about to consume. Winner of the 2010 Tales of the Cocktail, a national bar competition held annually in New Orleans, Drink has created a name for itself and is quickly becoming the go-to bar for industry professionals visiting Boston.

As a part of Barbara Lynch’s family of incredible Boston restaurants, Drink breaks some of the most standard rules in the traditional bar handbook. Located beneath another one of Lynch’s restaurants, Sportello, Drink hearkens back to the days of speakeasies and secret retreats from a chaotic world. You descend the stairs and proceed through a door into a world where every aspect of the bar is coordinated to create the perfect cocktail experience. Solid black counters line the brick walls and the three U-shaped bars extend outward beneath the windows looking up onto the sidewalk above. Behind the bar lie not rows upon rows of various alcohols, but glass bowls of lemons, limes, and oranges, and the necessary tools to turn separate ingredients into one amazing cocktail.

Entering Drink is like falling down the rabbit’s hole. Every turn and twist sends you into a new adventure of alcoholic exploration.  It’s almost like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books; you begin your evening’s experience by telling the bartender your favorite alcohols or flavors, and each of the knowledgeable bartenders is able to transform your unsure words into the perfect drink you never knew you loved. I’ve brought friends who have started by the night by requesting “something that tastes like rainbows and unicorns” and others who have simply asked for an Old Fashioned. After a few questions about whether you like things sweet or bitter, fruity or savory, stirred or shaken, Drink’s specialists are off to create a unique cocktail just for you.

This interaction between the bartender and the customer is truly what sets Drink apart from most bars and restaurants in Boston. Instead of fighting your way to the front of the bar only to yell out, “RUM AND COKE!” at the top of your lungs, you are treated like a friend who is stopping by to hang out for the evening. A simple folded white cloth and a glass of water mark your place at the bar while your bartender pulls the necessary ingredients from beneath the bar and begins to work his magic.

While I’ve been referring to the staff at Drink as bartenders, they would more aptly be described as mixologists. Creating drinks is as much an art form as it as a profession, and the mixologists at Drink demonstrate this well, perfecting the traditional cocktails such as Daiquiris or Manhattans with love, while experimenting at an individual level with each and every order. A well-made cocktail is delicious, but nothing beats the experience of sitting in a dimly lit underground Mecca of mixology, watching some of the best bartenders in the world create your personalized drink right before your very eyes.

One night, after starting with a delicious St. Germaine cocktail followed by a cucumber-infused gin drink, my friend and I were itching to try something a bit more adventurous. Before us, Will, the bartender, had just placed half an eggshell into a glass and was carefully sliding the yolk into it, saving it to add to the drink he was making. He added a few liqueurs to a shooter and then slid the egg in, placing it before the man sitting to our right. Amazed, we looked on in disbelief as he sipped the drink and contemplated the yellow yolk staring back at him. The yolk won, and the man refused the rest of the drink.

My friend and I looked at each other, and, without a single word, we accepted the challenge. We would conquer the egg yolk drink and live with whatever consequences we would have to face. So there we were, eyes wide with a combination of fear and exhilaration, as we took the raw yolk into our mouths, broke it with our tongues, and drank.

As published in the Tufts Observer

October 3, 2011

All About the Pitch

This week I'm starting a new category called "Lesson Learned" to catalogue some of the important and probably obvious lessons I've learned recently and throughout my life. While I hope that some people might benefit from these posts, their true intent is to create a mental backup for me in case I forget them!

Back in January I was taking a class called Entrepreneurship and Business Planning, where we worked in teams to create a business idea and build out the supporting documentation and research, from market analysis to presenting a fully developed business plan in front of successful entrepreneurs and investors. Once our teams had formed, we each had to come up with some business ideas, share them with the group, and pitch the best two to the class to decide which business we would develop throughout the semester. Having come up with a few ideas over the past few years, some ridiculous, others only slightly crazy, I was excited to pitch these ideas and hopefully build them out into something I could eventually turn into a business. I shared a few of my ideas with a group and one was chosen to be presented in class.

And then I messed up.

While the idea was clear to me, I didn't spend enough time thinking it over and making it simple for everyone else to understand. When I stood up in front of the class I blundered through a short, awkward presentation trying to unsuccessfully distill the business idea into a short pitch everyone would understand. I babbled something about a foursquare for living a green life, but most of the class had no idea what foursquare was and if they did they really weren't any better off. I think I received one, maybe two votes, with the professor initially forgetting to add mine to the list of possible ventures when polling the students.

My fatal flaw was assuming that it's easy to explain something you're familiar with in a short amount of time to people who have no idea what you're talking about. It seems obvious, but somehow I'd missed it until that day. Giving presentations and improvising talks have always been things I'm pretty good at, but when your time to talk is reduced to 60 seconds, every single word counts and should be chosen wisely. You cannot be over prepared for a presentation, particularly when you have under a minute to convince the audience that your idea is the best.


So what was my idea and how should I have approached the pitch? My basic idea was to create a social game around making environmentally friendly choices in the real world. Google Power-Meter and Microsoft Hohm had just launched and I felt that the general consumer was beginning to become more environmentally conscious. These tools for measuring power usage, combined with the inclusion of MPG measurements in current hybrids, could create a large amount of data around a user's energy consumption. I felt that this could create an opportunity where a social platform could tie in this data and create a game around being efficient. Beating the average Prius mileage could gain you points or badges to be used in purchasing sponsored green products for example. While the idea isn't horrible (at least in my mind) it wasn't necessarily complete nor was it the right time for something like this. As we've seen, foursquare usage has plateaued and both Google and Microsoft have shut down their energy monitoring products. In a world where social networks are a dime a dozen and systems that monitor energy use are still not well-integrated and expensive (business opportunity?), my idea may not have been the best one.

But I should've been able to convince the class anyway.

When preparing for the pitch, I should have detailed all the aspects of the idea on paper and sorted them into categories such as revenue opportunities, market needs they addressed, and features that would draw users. By breaking down the idea, I would have been able to understand what was and was not compelling about it. The non-compelling aspects could be pushed aside and left to deal with later, while the best aspects of the business would be featured in my one minute pitch. Presenting the problem (concern for the environment without direct positive reinforcement) and then the solution (a social game that rewards you for being green) would have been a great way to pitch to the class in just 30 seconds, well below the one minute marker.

Think carefully about your idea, reduce it until every single word has importance, rehearse your delivery, and you will amaze the audience. Every. Single. Time.

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