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Interface Design with a Homeless person (delian.io)
181 points by MIT_Hacker on July 2, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 103 comments

This rather confused me. Even more so because some of the details seem to being live edited.

A cycle courier for legal documents that gets to read the documents. He crewed on a sub (initially im sure it said commanded) yet doesn't get on with computers yet even though he is homeless he knows about the square product, and also having never worked in design knows about Dieter Rams, someone with almost no designers I've ever met have ever heard of.

Just a weird story over all.

> He crewed on a sub (initially im sure it said commanded) yet doesn't get on with computers...

This should be no more surprising than running across a CEO that doesn't get on with computers (if he actually commanded), or an electrician or car mechanic that doesn't get on with computers (if he was an enlisted crew member).

There are lots of jobs on Navy ships that have absolutely nothing to do with computers, and some of the things you might assume are run by computers are controlled with very old (and coincidentally reliable and/or fixable with common tools) technology like switches, relays, reach rods, and magamps. (Or at least this was the case on many ships that were in use during the Gulf war.)

About the wording, I actually had a friend in the Navy who reached out and told me to change the verb. I wouldn't have posted it if I didn't think it was a strange experience to have!

It is a very strange story. I'm also quite surprised you didn't know about the two bike valves on a pump! At least it led you meet this cool person.

Yeah, it sounds like I was out of the loop with these reversible hand pumps. Things you learn from homeless people!

I definitely appreciated the story, thanks! Now, having said that, I find the continued overuse of the "homeless people" label somewhat fraught. Not just you I mean, but in general I think it's a particularly lazy figure of speech that does less good than harm to our understanding of the problem.


Quite cultured and knowledgeable people can go off the rails a bit.

Homeless is not the same as a tramp or culture less... especially in San Francisco !

There's a saying for stories like this: Nothing has ever not happened as much as this didn't happen.

It's like this came out of Chicken Soup for the Soul.

I lived in Atlanta for about 10 years and had many encounters with homeless people. I've had them knock on my front door, approach me in the grocery store, come talk to me when my car broke down, etc. Most of the time, of course, they just approached me on the street.

The most successful homeless guys that were reasonably cognizant had a story. (Interesting note: the few female homeless people I encountered all had apparent mental problems.) Sometimes it was a story about their amazing life that took a turn for the worse through no fault of their own, sometimes it was about some tragedy that had recently befallen them or a family member, sometimes it was an "emergency" they needed help with, sometimes it was just a quick tale to build rapport...

This sounds a bit harsh but they are all con men. That's how you survive on the streets. I would not be surprised if literally every tale that I heard was completely fabricated.

That's not to say they are all liars or you shouldn't help the homeless, but the smart ones adapt to their situation quite well.

It said commandeered, which is even more hilarious. Pirates of the US Navy, stealing both of Iran's subs?

Well, I'm not an economist, never worked on anything related to it. But, I like "Pareto principle", I think it is brilliant. If I talk with some economist, I might bring that up in a conversation. What is so weird about it?

Also, being homeless and jobless (I have no experience with the earlier, and I don't recommend it) is great to improve ones intellect, because, the person has no stake in anything, and can come to unbiased conclusions on subject matters. Also he/she can dive in and learn anything, just out of curiosity.

Being homeless myself I can say most homeless people I have met do it on choice. Not sure about the USA, but here in Tokyo people become homeless after realizing they are wasting their lives working for goals and objectives that benefit nobody. Eventually you realize you don't need most of the "commodities" and "comfort" of modern life. Maybe it is my engineering background speaking, but you learn to maximize output and minimize input in all aspects of life. Sure, sometimes simple pleasures as sleeping can be hard sometimes (some hot nights, some cold ones). But on the other hand there is a feeling of freedom that comes from the lack of material possessions, nothing to take care of, nothing to protect, no attachments, no home to go back, no bills to pay, no future to worry about... just freedom, and it feels great :D


> Being homeless myself I can say most homeless people I have met do it on choice.

I had been homeless, both by choice, and without choice. Its good to know that all you need fits into an army sidebag. Being homeless, travel around, playing revolutionary, is a necessary step in youth. imho. The next step after squatting was owning a trailer and tractor. I'm living in a flat now, close to water, and own a boat. ouch I'm getting old lol

We had several squatted houses, and an area called Weidedamm where about 300 people lived in trailers and garden huts. This changed 1995 when the green party became a member of our state government. We currently have 3 much smaller trailer parks in Bremen. One for the ecologic people, one for the punks and alcoholics, and one for trucks and electronic music. We don't have any political squatter scene anymore, no houses, so those who can not afford a trailer, are left on the street or to state help.

So most homeless people don't have a real choice between alcohol, drugs, and state help in our days. This destroys independence, and therefore the freedom you/we remember.


IMO homelessness doesn't really set you free, as you still need to provide for your body's needs (basic safety, food, protection from weather, hygiene, medicine). I can imagine it being a constant source of stress.

"Being homeless myself I can say most homeless people I have met do it on choice."

Not so much in the UK. Usually psychiatric illness or drug dependency coupled with a catastrophic loss of income. Perhaps the causes are different in different places. I understand your idea of freedom, but I'm sure you can stay free in a small room somewhere!

Where I am in the US, about a third of the homeless population are mentally ill refusing treatment.

I hope even in the UK, the gov't would pay your housing and basic needs?

State benefits are payable, but the statutory right to be housed is for families, not single people. There are not huge numbers of homeless people in most cities, London is the worst of course as might be imagined.

I think there is more of a safety net here than in US, but there are holes in it still.

That's an amazing insight. I've always loved going backpacking because of that same feeling. It's a complete disconnect from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life. The times when I've been completely free like that are when I've come up with my best ideas!

Off topic. But I am about to go to Tokyo within 1-2 months. I will stay in a hotel/whatever for maybe a week and then take the train to the outskirts and from there I will hike and camp. Would you have any tips of some sort? (I have my email in the profile)

What this guy didn't say is that he figured out an alternative occupation - wandering the streets of san francisco saying intelligent things to young middle class people in the hopes that they will give him disproportionate handouts.

I've encountered this more than a few times when I lived in Berkeley. I think its a technique thats somewhat endemic to the bay area homeless population.

The assumption I didn't appreciate, even more than "even MIT_hacker can learn something from the homeless", was that Larry "could easily get a job at a bike shop." The OP should read the recent article in Rolling Stone, The Sharp Sudden Decline of America's Middle Class.

But it does sound like there's a demand from the upper-class for urban guide-service through Tenderloin.

Exactly. In reality, guiding stranded bikers through the tenderloin might actually earn the guy more than working at a bike shop

It is far more likely that you simply are not as intelligent as you believe you are, or should be compared to the homeless population. Its [sic] endemic to the tech startup population.

Larry had actually been the messenger for the first documents in the Barry Bonds perjury case. Larry had been the first member of the public to know about the doping. He told me how reading those documents had ruined baseball for him.

I find this a bit unlikely. Then again, it might explain why he doesn't have a job as a bike messenger any more.

It's probably not a true story, but a good one. And he said it quite confidently!

He said he stopped being a bike messenger because the fax machine and policy changes around legal documents requiring original signatures

On the other hand, he could have just heard about the contents without reading them at the time, and later read them when they were publicized.

He wouldn't have been the first person to read them then (middle sentence).

It doesn't say the first person, it says "the first member of the public".

Am I the only one who found the whole thing extremely patronising? "A homeless man who could teach me something, who would've thought. I went to MIT!"

I think there's also a broader implication that "homeless people" are so different from "normal" people that their input is some sort of gem that this young man went out of his way to discover for the rest of us. There are a saddening number of stories hoisted to the front page of HN that exhibit such classist overtones that I wonder if it adds an out-of-touch quality to the site and really limits the discussion.

The post _does_ come from someone who felt they needed to refer to their school in their username here: MIT_Hacker.

Yeah i don't see what the story was here either. It sort of disgusts me to think anyone would read this and be enlightened or surprised. If you've never had to worry about being out on the streets yourself you've led a very privileged life.

And, that's the point. The poster in the story realizes the privilege of his life and gains insight into the life of others. You really expect him, at 19, to understand homeless people when there is so often a sensationalized stereotype.

About his username, it is absurd that you cannot admit to going to a good school without being pretentious. The classic example is how Harvard students say where they go to school, "in Boston". Hiding information about your successes because they might impress people is much more pretentious than making a username "MIT_Hacker".

Think before you attack people.

I lived in the Tenderloin for 3 months during the past summer, one block from the shelter on Polk st. I've had conversations with numerous homeless people (while waiting for a bus) and all of them had an interesting story to tell (whether it's true or not, that's another issue). What really struck me was that every homeless is homeless by his own choice. They have families (which could help them) and money and yet they choose to sleep on the street. I've never had an incident with any of them.

One thing I didn't noticed until I moved out is that Tenderloin really teaches you to be humble. I would recommend anyone considering to start the next (insert buzzword here) startup to spend a month living in Tenderloin. You'll learn a lot about real-life problems, not just 1st world problems.

I like this story.

But this part baffles me: he 'wants to be his own man', so he won't work for somebody else. Instead, he doesn't work at all and accepts money from strangers... and somehow that is better and more prideful than working for somebody else?

Getting employed and staying employed when you're homeless is a lot more difficult. Psychiatric and substance abuse problems don't help either; even if you're a homeless person and lucky enough not to be struggling with one of those, jobs available are often patronizing and demeaning (shit jobs).

Well he never really asked for money and I didn't give him a chance to refuse it :)

Too many times I've heard this as an excuse to do nothing at all, that I've a hard time believing this really means what we'd think it does. Nevertheless I enjoyed the story and would like to think this is something I would have done. Which I doubt. It is my shame that I can identify better with the homeless man than MIT_Hacker.

Why be surprised that a homeless person knows a lot of things. Many homeless people are not "losers" -- they're winners of sorts.

Not winners in the sense of being successful or in control of one's destiny, of course, but in the sense of being slave to no one and fooled by no ideology. They're real-life Diogenes.

I am surprised by this view. Most homeless people I've met who would not jump at the chance for a decent place to live are either mentally ill, addicted to something, or both. The other kind, the middle class kid having a time of exploration I don't really consider homeless. I think it's a wonderful thing to do, but is a very different situation.

A good anecdote re: the value in (not being afraid of) striking up conversations with strangers. I think a lot of people, myself included, have a tendency to shy away from such encounters - ask the right questions, and you can get really interesting stories.

On the other hand, the man's comment about "wanting to be his own man" got me thinking about doing startups for the sake of not working at a large company. While it's probably a nice touch, I think I'm getting more cautious about letting that be a determining factor.

This is exactly what I was thinking. I was angry for myself that for the first 30 seconds of the conversation I could feel adrenaline pumping and my heart racing.

In regards to your second point, I worried that I saw that same aspect in myself :)

I am glad you had a positive experience with The Tenderloin. I had quite the opposite experience: I was nearly attacked.

He was spouting off stuff like "Stupid Americans!" and saying he was not afraid to get sued and that he would just return to his home country. Needless to say, I was pretty terrified. This dude was scary, and my friend (SF local) warned me about The Tenderloin.

Anyhow, I think it's great that you met such a positive and interesting character in one of the most unlikely places.

I lived in the TL a couple times (crashed at New Hack City in 2002 for a few weeks, and subletted from some DJs on Taylor St in 2003).

I directly saw 2 fatal shootings (two right outside the house at night, while I was sitting by the window cleaning a handgun and on IRC at 2am; called the cops who came by the next day; drug dealers -- saw a bunch of fights, dead people carried out of SROs, etc too), and got assaulted once (guy tried to grab my bag, it remained attached to me thanks to wire in the strap, some violence ensued, I ran off).

Not a place I'd suggest living if you have a choice. It may be gentrifying now, but the SROs are effectively permanent, so there's going to be a population of crazy and/or drug addicted people forever, and the criminals who cater to and prey on them.

I've been biking through the Tenderloin for the last couple of weeks since I started at Square. I've always been really scared as I bike through and have had a decent number of people yell at me. This was quite the opposite of that :)

I gathered it's mostly OK during the day. We were (stupidly) walking around at 2am after a night out.

Tourists. ;)

The TL is terrifying when there's no one else around except some ne'er-do-wells. Anything goes in that situation. Where it's busy it's usually just unpleasant, running the Tenderloin gauntlet of a million aromas (the more belligerent cousin of the Mission gauntlet of a thousand aromas).

During the day time I'd be more concerned about stepping in human excrement or rivers of piss. In fact, walking to the BART tonight from the Tenderloin I dodged 3 piles of human shit and near-missed another.

The Tenderloin and Twitterloin are blights on this fair city, and its toxic presence is oppressively pervasive if you spend any amount of time downtown (or even further out, like Hayes Valley and the Castro). It's a startling example of complete public policy failure at all levels of government.

  and found that my hand-pump was made for a different valve
  than on my tire.
With all handpumps I know, you can unscrew that top part and reverse it, so it fits the two most common kinds of valve (of which I don't know how you call them in English).

The skinny metal ones are Presta valves.

The black plastic/rubber ones that look like car tire valves are Schrader valves.

I didn't know about this! This is was my first-ever hand-pump

Don't feel stupid. The same thing happened to me in the middle of a planned 50 mile ride. I was sitting on the side of the road, bike upside down trying to watch a Youtube video from the pump maker on how to inflate my tires. Never once did they mention flipping it around ... they sort of assumed everyone knew that.

It is a great lesson to remember when designing software. Not everyone has the base knowledge we assume.

Interesting - if only he had square, you wouldn't have needed to go to the ATM

For a second I thought about signing him up on the spot. At one point during the conversation I did walk him through the entire payment flow of the Square app. That's what got us on the topic of humanizing computers!

This just gave me a thought that could potentially be great but also scary at the same time.

What if homeless people signed up for square? They will now be able to accept Credit Cards. As people don't carry cash anymore, the common thing people say is "I don't carry cash." because they don't, but then he whips out a device with square and says "No problem, I accept Credit Cards too!"

Though, getting an Android or iOS device plus be near Wifi or pay for cell service and have a bank account. Sounds a bit tough to set it all up for a homeless person.

Great story, btw. Sounds like you met a nice guy. Most of the Homeless I run into in SF are pretty nuts.

This was actually the first thing that occurred to me as we got talking. I then realized it wouldn't really work since he probably doesn't have an active bank account to receive the money.

I'd love the day when there are beggars using Square. It would mean that our designs are simple enough for a homeless person to use!

Dude, I really liked the story. I'm glad you wrote it and had this experience. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt while reading the comments, but your phrase "It would mean that our designs are simple enough for a homeless person to use!" really, really, REALLY rubs me the wrong way. Whether you notice it or not, whether you intend it or not, you are sounding incredibly patronizing to other human beings. It makes you sound sheltered and ignorant. Both in the way you phrase your story (Homeless people can be interesting?!?!) and in this concept that designs would need to be "simple" or someone who is homeless to use.

I suggest spending a LOT more time outside talking to strangers if you think you need to "simplify" things for homeless people. Talking to and helping a homeless person does not make for a blog post in my life, and many other people's lives.

Imagine replacing "homeless" for any other adjective. "It would mean our designs are simple enough an asian to use!" "It would mean our designs are simple enough an MIT student could use it!"

It's offensive.

As you yourself have showed, "homeless person" != "dumb person".

I'm fairly certain a not despreciable amount of homeless people are totally capable of using complex designs.

Not that we should aim to making designs complex, but we shouldn't use "simple enough for the homeless" as a motto either.

I was reading through your blog, assuming this was some faux-naivety mixed with socially uplifting product placement (look! hip young designer of the future actually LEARNS from has-been discard of the old materialism! wow!) and then you went and ruined it.

Are you seriously proclaiming to the world in general that you've absolutely no idea about the socio-economic impacts that a cashless society will have, and their potential for exclusion as well as inclusion within a social sphere?

Are you seriously so naive in reality that you cannot picture some very important men (you know, the kind who invite the Zuckerberg's of this world to behind-the-doors meetings, politely suggest some features that should be included, and then ensure that the resultant IPO is very much in his favour, markets be damned) looking at Square, and its ilk, and imagining a world where our "homeless hero" cannot be a part of society?

This is not to mention that "the homeless", are by their very definition, already excluded from a large part of society, and that the American model has seen a dramatic increase in social exclusion in the last thirty years, which trend-wise, seems to lead to the logical assumption that it will probably increase in the short term. (How short-term might depend on several issues, however that's a different thread)

Oh, to be young and such a waif! The blind optimism of a useful idiot!

“Technique has taken over the whole of civilization. Death, procreation, birth all submit to technical efficiency and systemization.”

"here I was being schooled by a homeless person". Get off your fucking high horse.

Nice story otherwise.

This experience is part of the process that will get him off his "fucking" high horse.

Why blame a person's ignorance on the person, rather than their upbringing? Ignorance has to be resolved somehow.

congrats, you helped a homeless guy buy drugs.

> I asked him how he knew to reconfigure bike pumps

This is the most interesting part of the story.

Why do smart people come to weird conclusions such as "I have the wrong pump" rather than "This pump has a simple tweak to work with both popular valve types"?

And then "This was not obvious to me, and thus it is an obscure piece of knowledge, so anyone who does know it must have some weird experience" when really anyone who's used a bike pump knows this, especially if they've read the box.

The most unbelievable part of your story: you didn't know how to use your own bike pump! From your description it sounds like a pretty common design.

It was the valve on the pump. Made for mountain bikes rather than my street bike and it was the first time I had to use it.

I am homeless and pretty open about that fact, as well as the expensive medical drama which led to my current situation. I am kind of offended. This piece sort of sounds like "wow, homeless people are actually human and once had a life off the street. Whoda thunk! (pat self on back for being so humane)"

Replace "homeless" with black, gay or similar words and see how you feel about announcing they are human and everything.

Is this satire?

For a moment I thought it was. "Look, here in SF even homeless people are hipper than you (they know this designer you've never heard of)!". But after reading the comments here, it's clear OP is legit and means it seriously.

Is this real life? Yes, yes it is.

Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality..

Open your eyes, look up to the skies and see...

This isn't reddit.

I really enjoyed the encounter.

It really makes one think about so many things. Who would have thought that a homeless guy would know about Square and even after that, you would be in a conversation with him about interface design.

If that guy has a good understanding of design by chance, I really think that he can actually do well in the industry :) [Just a thought]

I'll put him through the design loop @Square :P

I enjoyed this story, even though I'm unsure about the message I should take away, it does make me think.

This experience really made me step back and think about humanizing design.

It also got me thinking about stereotypes and the way I classify people as I walk down the street.

Is it really about humanising design? The man's expert knowledge came from very specific experience - despite the fact that you're a long time bike rider, he still had many tips and tricks to show you that you were unaware of.

Maybe the real lesson is that good design comes from experience more than theory?

Thank you for reminding us to be open to the unexpected. Life is a beautiful gift and so often I live in my "shell." I am sure I have missed many opportunities to meet the Larries of the world--thank you for the reminder to be present.

"I’ve been riding since I was 12 years old and have done several long-distance rides. Here I was getting schooled by a homeless person."

How is his being homeless related to his knowledge of bikes?

This reminds me of last year when I had a chat with a homeless professor in mountain view. He knew way more geography than the average person.

The story seems to be untrue.. though there were no details of any design principles they talked about..

Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. And I think the experience and re-thinking interactions is more important than the specific design principles they talked about. In addition it shows how interface design is universal and how one can gain insight from even the most unlikely sources.

$100 for some TL crackhead giving $5 worth of service? Homeless guy clearly had you figured out.

This is great, I just bought a hand pump and found it didn't work on my bike!

Ask a homeless guy how to fix it! Turns out most handpumps are reversible :)

I had a similar experience with someone in Palo Alto last summer. Good stuff

OP's nick is "MIT Hacker" and he never disassembled his bike pump?

Revoke that handle, STAT!

The site is ybombinator'd, is there a mirror?

I think I got it back up? Scaled instantly on heroku :)

You needed to "scale" a static page?

It's actually loading dynamically from tumblr. I should probably implement some caching onto the site

I know OP in real life. Class of '15!

You must be new here.

I'm sure he was a really smart guy with an interesting story but you sound a bit naive in believing everything he said i.e. about the Bonds papers and his tours and all of that. Likely a lot of exaggeration, some straight bullshit and a little bit of truth.

Great story though. And kudos to dropping a c-note on him. Giving a lot to them rarely is far better than $2 here and there, which will likely just go to beer or a small meal. $100 they can actually do something important with.

You know, I thought about this throughout the entire encounter. I wasn't sure if I could believe any of his stories. He seemed so genuine and so excited throughout the conversation that I gave him the benefit of the doubt.

In terms of how much money I gave him, I decided that $100 was probably the minimum amount that could actually help him pursue the idea and as a college intern, I'm not sure I could have spared much more!

What are the odds that such guy would be given a chance to share a piece of himself like he did ? I really don't think the OP was naive. I think there should be more people like him.

Y Combinator gave a chance to people who would never have a chance at seed investors or Angle investors. It appeared that YC found few very valuable gems though. Surprised ? You shouldn't because seed investors and Angel investors have strong bias to what a high potential candidate or project would look like.

I assume we have a similar strong bias regarding homeless, close to consider them as hopeless. Though I believe that there are gems in this group of people as well, that need only to be given a little push and help to shine out.

And as for Y Combinator, people would consider it all normal and obvious afterward if someone does it for them too.

My impression is that it was a kind of surprise for the OP to discover that he had a bias regarding such kind of homeless guy.

BTW a bike shop looks like a good long term investment considering the energy crisis. In Greece, a business that is very flourishing in this strong crisis period is selling wool ! In Italy they raised gasoline tax so that a litter cost 2€ (because of debt)! We'll all reach that point soon or later. Beside, real lean startup founders ride bikes !

> Y Combinator gave a chance to people who would never have a chance at seed investors or Angle investors.

Do you really believe this? I think most, if not all, YC founders are capable of raising a seed round and making connections in the Valley with or without YC. YC just expedites this process.

By far my favorite comment so far. Thanks for that chmike!

"What are the odds that such guy would be given a chance to share a piece of himself like he did ? I really don't think the OP was naive. I think there should be more people like him."

I didn't mean he was naive for what he did or for wanting the guy to succeed, even thinking he could. I simply thought he was naive to believe all of the stories the guy told about his great past.

Lots of homeless people tell fantasy stories about what they once were. A huge % of it is BS, though often based in enough reality to be believable.

> "He seemed so genuine and so excited throughout the conversation that I gave him the benefit of the doubt."

The bulk of the homeless population is there in large part due to mental health issues. He can very well be genuine but completely off his rocker simultaneously.

A thing is worth what another gives for it. He gave you $100 worth of advice and entertainment.

Giving a lot to them rarely is far better than $2 here and there, which will likely just go to beer

I beleive it was the late, great, Greg Giraldo who said that beer and drugs are exactly what I would spend my money on so who am I to judge.

Anyone who has spent time in San Francisco, worked in the industry or ever spoken to a person who writes like that knows the story to be a fabrication.

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