Category Archives: San Francisco

<3 Adaptive Path

Ten years ago I asked my manager if we could go on a walk. I was working as a front-end developer for a tiny web development shop in Bend, Oregon. I was young, talented, and a bit of a shit.

My manager sensed something was up, so instead of a walk he recommended we go to the bar. Over a couple of pours of Deschutes’ finest I told him that in three months I was going to leave the company to go work as a wilderness guide in northern Minnesota.

I didn’t know how he would take it, but my manager, a dear friend and mentor to this day, slapped me on the back, said “Fuck yeah, man!” and bought us a second round. He spent his twenties gallivanting around and guiding rafting trips, you see, and he wanted the same for me.

I was angry and burned out on web development. It was the dawn of the standards-based web design movement, and I had spent the last year slicing and dicing visual design comps into HTML and CSS. Some of them were gorgeous templates produced by talented print designers, but after I painstakingly turned them into sites they would sit forlorn on the web for months, empty of content. Our team was hard at work building a content management system our clients never used, to power websites their customers never visited.

We had all-company meetings every Friday, where I would often drink a Sparks and yell at the founders that they were doing everything wrong. I had no answers to our problems, only strongly held beliefs, which is what you do when you’re in your twenties.

It was 2004. Blogging was the rage and I kept up with all the heavyweight web designers of the day, Jeffrey Zeldman, Jason Santa Maria, Dave Shea and Doug Bowman, to name a few. This was pre-Twitter, and most people had little link lists or sidebars or whatever on their blogs where they shared hyperlinks to interesting things going on in and around the interwebs. Micro-blogging, before that was a thing.

That fall, I noticed that people kept posting about an upcoming two-day design workshop hosted by a little design company in San Francisco. I kept it in my periphery, but in the days leading up to the workshop the mentions got more and more hysterical. The week before the workshop I crossed my fingers and emailed my manager, asking if I could skip out a few days next week and travel to San Francisco.

Screenshot of Adaptive Path's 2004 San Francisco Workshop

(Let’s be honest… the whole reason I did any of this was because of a picture of a trolley)

He didn’t owe me anything. I had told him weeks before that I would leave the company in January.

Miraculously and fatefully, he said yes.

He gave me the time off for the trip, but said I would have to foot the bill myself. Not a problem. I was ecstatic. It was more than a fair trade.

I plotted a route in MapQuest, filled up the Subaru, and after work on Friday aimed south and started my journey from Bend to San Francisco. I hit Weed in the spooky dark. Near Castle Crags I pulled off the road and slept in the back of my car.

Morning, Castle Crags

I awoke to low clouds settled in the pines, and oaks yellowing with the season. I wound down through the mountains back to the freeway, and inched closer to the Bay Area. Later, while crossing the Carquinez Bridge into East Bay, I remember keeping up with traffic at eighty miles per hour as sports cars weaved through us as though we were standing still. I spent the night at a Holiday Inn Express in San Pablo for $60.

The next day I set out to find the “Ashley” BART station (as I wrote it in my notes) but got lost instead and ended up in a six-lane traffic jam. I stumbled blindly through Berkeley until I found my quarry, and hopped BART into San Francisco. I transferred at MacArthur and our train broke down at Embarcadero. For a child of the Minneapolis suburbs the entire experience was like traveling in a foreign country, and if you had told me that in six years I would be living here I would have told you you were nuts. If you told me I would move here to work at Adaptive Path, I would have told you you were insane.


I found my way to Union Square and a kind homeless fellow named Benny helped me find my hotel, the Kensington Park. I checked into my room, gorgeous and a steal at $119 a night, and then met up with one of my freelance clients. We had lunch at the Cheesecake Factory. We ate out on the balcony. A pigeon shit all over him.

The two-day Adaptive Path workshop kicked off the next morning at the Hotel Monaco. It was November 8, 2004, exactly ten years ago today.


(If you’re into historical artifacts, you can download the slides from the Blogger redesign workshop or grab a zip file of all the materials they shared with us that day)

The entire Adaptive Path crew was super nice and welcoming. Doug Bowman and Jeff Veen shared the story of their Blogger redesign project, which promptly blew my mind. I had long suspected that there was a better way to design and build things for the web, but I had never heard of “user experience” before. In short order Jeff taught us about ethnographic research, personas, task flows, usage metrics and usability testing, among other things, and Doug revealed the magic behind the HTML and CSS that brought his designs to life.

I was elated. Here were my people. Matt Mullenweg was there in the audience, the author of a little tool called WordPress that some people used instead of Movable Type and Greymatter to author their blogs. We all walked down to Tad’s Steakhouse He had just moved to San Francisco. Like, that weekend.

It was a pivotal time for many of us.

In a matter of hours, I had gone from wanting to move to the woods and give up on the web entirely to being one of the most passionate UX converts ever. I learned that it wasn’t just me who was dissatisfied with the status quo of development-focused product design, followed by a thin film of superficial visual design. In fact, there was a whole practice dedicated to the belief that the best way to build great websites and software for people was to empathize with them, deeply understand their needs, and craft a product that addresses them at a fundamental level. I can’t emphasize enough how much this discovery revolutionized my worldview.

Doug and Jeff’s workshop was a truly life-changing experience for me, and it happened all again the following day, when the guys from 37signals got up and talked about building Basecamp. DHH demoed Ruby on Rails, building a to-do list application right there before our eyes. I was positively drunk on inspiration, on the infinite abilities of humankind to do smart things and build kind experiences for each other.

This, this is what I knew I wanted to do with myself, and I owed it all to two days with Adaptive Path.


(So young. So obviously in love with 20th Street)

The workshop wrapped. I took the Muni to Dolores Park, and caught up with a music friend who was living in San Francisco. Her friend was wearing a backpack with a seatbelt, which seemed kind of weird at the time. I hauled my ass back to East Bay, grabbed my Subaru from “Ashley” BART, and aimed north.

I slept in my car again at Castle Crags.

And arrived home in Bend the following day.

Everything was still the same, but somehow, different.

So thank you, Adaptive Path, for all of that.

“Here, I made you a better poster.”


God dammit, I miss San Francisco more than I thought I would.

After a lovely summer…

Tomorrow is my last day at Adaptive Path.

Tomorrow is the last day I ride Spry through San Francisco.

I’m gonna try real hard not to cry.

“Talking to Yourself” Selected as San Francisco’s Favorite Pastime

It narrowly beat out “driving a Prius”, “pissing on the sidewalk”, and “being a huge dick every time you get behind the wheel and pulling U-turns in the middle of the fucking block”.

Did I mention I love my job?

Andrew suggests an explosion.


Home Sweet Home

Maybe you’ve already heard, but I recently helped launch Adaptive Path’s new home page. A few of the other kind folks at the office designed it, and I cut it up into its hot-and-buttery front-end code. I used for the pixel-perfect CSS grid system, and cooked up some slick back-end code for streaming our recent essays and blog posts into their proper sections.

What’s more, I wrote some tight little scripts to hit up our Twitter feed and pull down our most recent tweets. Javascript implementations are nice for low-volume sites, but when you get as much traffic as AP you need something a bit more robust. I developed a lightweight caching module that wraps around our call to the Twitter API, keeping our tweets fresh without hitting Twitter on every single (insanely frequent) page load.

Meanwhile, I’ve pretty much been living at Musée Mécanique the last two weekends, digesting their incredible collection of antique coin-operated arcade machines. While these pictures certainly won’t leave that familiarly cold smell of metal on your hands after you’re done handling them, I’ve nevertheless been dropping my observations into a set on Flickr.

Drop Coin Here

The Cail-O-Scope

Love Tester


Musée Mécanique

Musée Mécanique

Baseball Score-Board

Analog Interactions

Life has been wonderful and busy. As a hobby I’ve recently gotten into physical computing, and now properly armed with an Arduino board and a pile of spare parts from Sparkfun and Radio Shack alike I’ve started kinda hacking electronics and building junk. So far I’ve got nothing impressive to show for my efforts, but I’ve been learning a lot about circuits and resistors and transistors and I find myself uttering things that I never in my life thought I would say. Like, “These 1/6 watt 330 ohm resistors are absolute pussies when it comes to waterboarding. I mean breadboarding.”

But see, here’s the thing. Recently I’ve taken an interest into analog interactions, those things in the physical world that you interact with every day. You know, switches and knobs and dials and levers and the like. Or at least, that you used to interact with everyday, until someone got it in their head that everything needs to be a touch-sensitive computer screen interactive kiosk management database-backed networked system utility Ronald Reagan.

Now, I like touch screens as much as the next guy, but as humans, as physical beings that live in a physical, tangible world, I feel that touch screens are pedantic and insulting to the sophisticated sense of touch that we have developed over millennia. Thus, I’ve grown interested in 19th and early 20th century interactions, from slot machines to cash registers to antique cameras, in order to develop a interaction vocabulary that is more rich, nuanced and tactile than the ones we are currently using.

Yes, I’m looking backward to help us see forward. As the wise James Lileks recently said, “You might want to take a look into that big storehouse we call THE PAST, because it’s full of interesting, useful items.” Indeed, I’m curious about ways to take these old “analog” interactions and apply them to modern digital systems in such a way that the digital experience all but evaporates. All that remains on your interface, your beautiful hardwood interface, is levers, knobs, switches, perhaps a rotary dial. Indeed, the user would be “interacting” with a database-backed networked system, but all they would “experience” would be the physical controls and physical readouts. Like the Wooden Mirror for instance, which is backed by a digital computing mechanism, even though the computer does not constitute the experiential qualities of the interaction.

So that’s what I’m investigating, and that’s why I’m suddenly so interested in Arduino. It’s by far the easiest system available for getting started in physical computing. I can plug in a series of LEDs and push buttons, and in no time at all write a tiny script that tells a microcontroller how to interact with these input and output mechanisms. It’s cool stuff, and it gets me thinking of interactive systems beyond the conventional screen, keyboard and mouse paradigm.

Over the weekend I took a long jaunt through Noe Valley, up Twin Peaks and then down into Dolores. I ducked into an antique store to help jog my inspiration, and soon discovered that nothing in the store cost less than $3,000. There was a painting on the wall priced at $80,000. I took shallow breaths, lest my foul proletariat breath peel the varnishes from the $7,000 end tables.

On my way out I struck up a conversation with Isak Lindenauer, the curator of this fine antique store, and we proceeded to have an hour-long conversation about unconventional turn-of-the-century lamp controls that he has encountered in his profession. He mentioned a lamp switch, put out by the Wirt company in 1906, that featured not one, but two pull-chains, that one could use to adjust the brightness of the bulb. A hundred-year-old dimmer switch. Brilliant.

On Sunday I went on a 20-mile bike ride, headed south and then west past Stern Grove and Lake Merced, and taking the Ocean Highway north back to more familiar territory. I stopped at a coffee shop and struck up a conversation with an old-timer, on account of my “I’ve Been To Duluth” shirt. He was fascinated by the incredible innovation of mechanical engineers during the 19th century, and so our conversation covered the wide expanse of steam engines and books of pressure calculations. Once again the topic of interactivity came up, and we discussed railroad circuitry and analog computing machines and other technologies that seemed to come before their time.

I’m no expert on these matters, but I believe that when two random encounters in rapid succession both lead to invigorating conversations about a subject that you were already jamming on, that this is indicative that you are, dare we say, onto something.

Why Today Was Awesome (a list)

Drove across the Golden Gate Bridge with Chris and John.

Saw houseboats.

Saw redwoods.

Ate a tasty smoked turkey and pesto sandwich.

Hiked around Point Reyes.

“Hipsters in the woods.”

Ran down a hill leaping off jumps, pretending I was on a dirt bike.

Photographed tiny flowers.

Saw a quail.

Climbed an enormous eucalyptus tree.

Played in the sand.

Dug tunnels in the sand.

Saw a whale.

Saw another whale.

Watched a crow try to steal away with a small child.

Smelled kelp.

Played with kelp.

Popped kelp.

Broke open kelp.

Dragged around heavy piles of kelp.

Bullwhip Kelp: nature’s beer bong.

Had a little too much fun playing with kelp.

Poked a jellyfish.

Got attacked by the ocean.

Took pictures of a snake, getting all up in his grill.

Inhaled a tasty Slushee from Seven’el.

Didn’t get eaten by bears (as we promised Peter).

Drove across the Golden Gate Bridge.

“The Other Chris”

Huzzah! This morning I published my first post to the Adaptive Path weblog, and people have been stoked on it all day. I’ve been working on designing the iPhone application to go along with the learning website, and a large part of my contribution to the project so far has been sketching. Sketching, sketching, sketching.

I talk about it all in the post, but I can summarize it here as well. has a series of awesome learning games, based on heavy research into human psychology, that are designed to help you learn and retain facts. They have totally hit a sweet spot with people trying to learn other languages, and with the iPhone app we wanted to help people continue their learning, any place, any time. Their existing web-based games feature a sort of “flash cards on steroids” rhythm, which turns out to be a great functional description, but a poor metaphor for their actual gamelike feel. Thus, our goal with the iPhone app is to design something that perhaps resembles index cards at its most basic level, but from an experiential standpoint is a hell of a lot more fun.

Interaction Metaphor Explorations

And so, we began exploring metaphors. What makes something fun? What makes something gamelike? Alexa and Dan turned me loose with my sketchbook, and I began brainstorming enormous lists around such concepts as the materiality of the gamespace, the movements people perform to interact with the artifacts in the game, and how to best represent time and progress. I generated dozens and dozens of ideas, drawing inspiration from dollar store games to radio dials to Wooly Willy. Throughout my thought process I roughed these guys out on paper, giving ourselves a constant stream of tangible artifacts to look at, reflect on, believe in, or challenge. I talk about this process a bit more in this video, where I walk through my sketchbook with Chris and John, my fellow summer associates.

From these explorations I brought a few ideas up into a bit more coherence, which I talk about here:

"Your World" Concept

We shared all this work with the client, who is absolutely stoked with it. In their blog post regarding this project they speak of a “super-talented summer associate” who produced some pretty cool visual explorations, but when they say that I wonder if they have me confused with Dave Pederson (a.k.a. “The Other Chris”, a.k.a. “The Mysterious Fourth Intern”).

Again, the thread at the Adaptive Path blog can fill you in on all the details. Needless to day, it is an absolute delight working with the fine folks at Cerego, and it is all thanks to them that we can be so open about our process in designing their iPhone app.

Origami Frogs


Not to mention knitting graffiti.

Cool stuff.