We do not tell stories about the subject

Caged animals in Chinese zoos

World Press Photo 2013 (Nature) – The Cage by Xiaoqun Zheng, 2nd prize

This photo centres around a single facial expression and builds a whole story around it. It is powerful because the emotion is very recognizable and captured succinctly.

The thing about facial expressions is that it mostly happens in a split second. And so we value the work of photographers like these to immortalize a single, precious moment of truth so that the story can be perpetrated to millions later.

So we take this picture with the lion in an obvious look of despair and imagine the before and after and the story of his situation.

Yet, expressions happen in progression and a single cross-section within that progression may tell a story very different from what it appears. For example, this could be the look of the lion in mid-sneeze as he sucks in a staccato of air. (I don’t know if lions sneeze but there’s a very famous video of a panda sneezing.)

In this way, a very legitimate expression that really happened could be far from the “truth” of the conclusion we draw.

When I first started doing street photography, I took this photo – an old man with his eyes closed, surrounded by a crowd of people who seemed to be very busy and noisy – with motion blurs and all.


What it looks like is the weariness of a person in the crowd, shutting the world out.

In fact, he just so happened to blink when my shutter clicked. And what happened before and after was that he was chatting energetically with his friend on the left.

I liked that story a fair bit – a weary person shutting the world out, right in the middle of a busy street – but I knew it wasn’t true. That is to say, maybe people do feel this way, the sentiment might be true, but in this context, that is not what happened.

It has troubled me since.

The idea that the photographer can hit upon a fluke moment and get a picture that tells the exact story he wants to tell. And it may be true, in a general sense, though not in the particular context of the photo. But is it still true?

The purist in me cannot abide that.

For that reason, I am very careful to think that stories are really about the subject. I think that they are about the storyteller (or photographer) more than they will ever be about the subject.

For example, nobody can say for sure the lion does not like being caged up. (This is really simplistic and most people will argue if being denied freedom can ever be a good thing but this exactly shows how we impose certain values on things we don’t really know about e.g. we all think it’s sweet that otters hold hands and they’re in love, but they really hold hands because of survival in a pack. But maybe they are in love, who can say?) But there are conclusions one can draw about the photographer who sees the lion’s “despair” at being caged up – that he/she believes in sentient things being free, for example. And this goes further than being able to think in your subject’s shoes etc., because that conclusion also draws from the fact that the photographer has chosen this to photograph out of everything else that can be photographed.

But let’s also run down that line of thought  – that the photographer sees certain things as a result of the sum total of his experiences, fears and conditioning. Two people with different sets of experiences, fears and conditioning are going to see very different things in a given scene. (I reference Dan Ariely’s concept “the effect of expectations” in Predictably Irrational without elaboration – just as a note to self.)

And also as a note to self, maybe for a future post:

Priority of who the story is about – storyteller/artist/photographer/writer/etc. > audience > subject

When an audience comes into contact with a story, the determination of how much he takes away from the story is the overlap of the storyteller and the audience. If the Venn overlaps, the more it does, the more personally moving he might find it. If the Venn does not overlap at all, he walks away thinking “meh”. So art is not about the story of the subject and the scene, it really is the artist’s story and its relevance in the audience.

Singapore, seldom seen


Somewhere in Hougang heartlands, rows and rows of nondescript high-rise flats house the working class of Singapore and a community of forgotten old people whiling away a morning and an afternoon. Everyday.

Nothing’s on.

Their lives are an antithesis of bustling business centres, teeming shopping malls, an overly bright cityscape and busy executives who walk too fast.

Outtakes of my project for Noise Apprenticeship 2013:






What backpacking can teach you about user research

Backpacking Turkey 2011 – hostels for sleeping, lokantas and street food for eating, dolmus and metro for getting around


A few months ago, I came across this article which is really an excerpt from Jan Chipchase’s book Hidden in Plain Sight.


He tells us by far the most fruitful way of conducting user research is extreme immersion. It is like backpacking, except you’re working. Instead of checking your research team into a corporate hotel, look for a rental in the middle of where people actually live, or even one with a host included. Instead of engaging a research agency, hit the streets, the barber shops, the coffee shops and talk to the man on the street. Instead of hiring a translator, look for students who are socially smart.

He says “wake up with the city” and in this rambling mess of sights, sounds, accidental conversations, longer conversations, you’ll have a higher chance of stumbling on your one unique idea (to change the world :D).


It’s really a concept that’s a no brainer once you see it but why do we in the corporate world persist in avoiding this sort of serendipitous discovery? After all, a lot of us now are closet intrepid travellers when we do catch a break from the 9-to-5 cycle.

It is a whole lot easier to do things the conventional way though. And if I’m honest with myself, there’s a real activation energy involved in connecting to people. Don’t get me wrong, I love photographing strangers and chatting them up. It fills me with a sense of how wide and wonderful the world is, and all sorts of warm fuzzy feelings. But on an average day, I’d much rather hide behind the camera and you just go ahead and do your thing; ignore me, thank you very much.

Part of that is me scoring high on introversion – it’s tiring to start engaging. Also, there’s a whole lot of commitment that comes after e.g. how do you just part ways after you share an intimate moment with a stranger?

But everything in the research I do for work (UX, the day job) points back to this. I find myself returning again and again to this article to remind myself that going out there and connecting is worth every ounce of me I put in.



I found this charming old man resting on a tomb in one of Singapore’s few remaining cemeteries. (Most Singaporeans are cremated because in a country where living people are already walking over one another, you don’t get horizontal space when you stop breathing.) He’s the oldest in a group of tombkeepers who continue this forgotten, almost thankless profession of keeping people’s final resting place decent and respectable.

He’s done this since he was 12 and in his 80s, this old man puts most of us to shame. 5 out of 12 months, he cycles to work from Braddell – a good 45 minute ride now that age is catching up. Off season, he collects cardboards to sell for recycling. Thankfully, he does it only to keep boredom at bay.

He’s such a sweet old man to entertain my troublesome photo requests.

“What’s so nice about photographing this old face?” he asks.


“I used to be a real hunk when I was younger” he says. I believe you.

Other things I saw at Bukit Brown:
The grand entrance.

An impossibly stuffed van.

And this patch of grass wants his paper back.

Photos taken with Canon 550D, 50mm f1.8, and the dizzy ones, Lensbaby Spark with super wide angle adaptor.

Can you design an experience?

Companies can only control their products. The really consumer-centric companies also have gained knowledge about and empathy for their users (their personality, dispositions, moods, needs, and and so on). It is only when you develop products and services based on such knowledge and when you constantly track consumer feedback and adjust accordingly, can you HOPE to affect the consumer experience positively.

Alex Genov

Just the other day, I learnt about Charles Sanders Pierce and his Theory of Signs. When I was reading this TED debate, I got a “connect the dots” moment.


A little background

Pierce’s Theory was a valuable contribution to the understanding of meaning because it considers the role of the interpretor in the relationship, unlike the other models which only explains meaning in a two-part model: the signifier and the signified.


E.g. the word “apple”, and the juicy red apple on my kitchen table

Here is Pierce’s model:


His model is so much truer to life because when I say “apple” and think of that juicy red apple on my kitchen table, you could be thinking a) Apple the producer of iPhones, b) someone called “Apple” (I really know someone’s sister who is Apple), or c) whatever apple is in your mind. There are variables in your context and imagination that are not the same as mine and that I cannot fully control.


Theory of Signs as applied in UX

When we think about user experiences that can be “created”, we think in terms of the two-part model where we create the product, that brings the experience. But there are factors in the user’s environment and context that we can’t even begin to predict, let alone control.

Therefore, it is more accurate to think in terms of, and strive towards the goal in Pierce’s three-part model that, in UX, might look like:


Since our creation of “experience” happens in the user, he has to be our utmost consideration (user-centred design and all). His whimsicality in this equation is troublesome but also the very reason UX is a compelling blend of behaviourism, affordances and experimentation.

So yes, I think you can design an experience, insofar as your user assimilates it. You do everything you can to persuade a recommended experience but the end experience could surprise you. Like art.


I owe Josh and Prof Ingrid this mini epiphany. Josh, my very clever friend who knows almost everything and makes digression such a very exciting occurrence, randomly told me about the tragic Charles Sanders Pierce over dinner the other day and Prof Ingrid Hoofd taught me what I remember about Saussure and semiotics.

UX is the alchemy of feelings

I like to think of UX as (literally) creating a feeling. And I envision it in 3 tiers like that:

3. Bad UX
Physical: ineffective; barely or does not accomplish advertised function in a way the user expects it to
Emotional: leaves user feeling frustrated
2. Good UX
Physical: effective; elegantly accomplishes advertised function exactly the way user expects it to
Emotional: zero point, invisible to user
1. Awesome UX
Physical: delightful features that surprise while accomplishing function
Emotional: magical

There’s a sliding door to a hotel near my office that I can think of as an example of bad UX. For one, it’s made to look like an average automatic door so my first encounter with it would be confusion as to why it is not sensing my presence in front of it. Then, I notice the 2 long rectangular plastic buttons that say “Push” and realize I have to push one of the buttons. So I tap the button at the “Push” word a few times to no avail. Finally, I slam the whole button with my palm and now it opens. I realize the button sensor is in the middle of the long rectangular piece even though the word “Push” is printed at the top corners. I’ve seen many people fumble with this door this way.

Good UX – a whole range of things fall into this category and it’s difficult to single them out because they disappear so well. They remind me of Bette Midler’s Wind beneath my wings. So for example, Whatsapp. I use this everyday to communicate, send pictures, group conference and I never really have to think about it. Most of it is pretty intuitive.

Awesome UX is something else. When my friend first held the iPad, he claimed he experienced nirvana and these were his words, “It’s like I am IN the webpage.”

Just the other day, as an example of great UX, another friend told me about his experience at Robuchon, Hong Kong – how he watched his food from being little raw bits to the cooked perfection under his nose, how the beef was sliced under a heater so that when it entered his mouth, it was the intended temperature, everything from the height of the chair, to the temperature of the room, to the lighting was faultless. And when he left the place, a tear formed in his eye.

I can’t decide how much of it is hyperbole, but that’s kind of what I’m getting at. When UX is done right, a geek might weep over its pure genius.

The Randomness of Success

I believe in hard work, but up to the point you’ve put in the maximum you have, I also believe in not being hard on yourself and others. And for the times I forget that,

I think it’s merely the randomness of the winning and losing process that I want to stress, because the emphasis nowadays is so much on the justice of everything and politicians always talk about justice – now I’m a firmly believer in justice; I just think that it’s impossible. We should do everything we can to pursue but at the end of the day, we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard.

Alain de Botton for TED