Interface Design with a Homeless Person

published July 2nd, 2012

Earlier today I stopped by Square's office to pick up my bike. When came in I saw a book on the work of Dieter Rams laying next to the front desk. I sat down to skim through the pages and was reminded of the recent feature of Jack Dorsey by Wired. In the interview Jack speaks of the concept of wabi-sabi, the Japanese concept that beauty is found in age and imperfection.

I had always seen the couch in the Square lobby and had always wondered why an old-worn out piece of furniture had been so juxtaposed with the pure white ultra-modern entrance.


I took a quick picture and hopped on my bike to head home for the evening. About halfway into my ride, as I was stopped at a red light, I heard what sounded like a gunshot and immediately realized that my back tire had popped. I sat down to fix my first flat tire since I had moved to San Francisco and found that my hand-pump was made for a different valve than on my tire. I quickly gave up and hoisted my bike on my shoulder to complete the rest of the trip on foot.

I was walking through the Tenderloin, which is a neighborhood in San Francisco known for the large amount of homeless people and criminal activity it contains. On the second block of my walk, a homeless man came up to me, carrying a cup with some change and asked me "What's wrong with your bike"

I was so taken aback that I stuttered for a couple of seconds. I had been so used to beggars in this neighborhood that I was confused by the man's unconventional question. I told him that my tire had popped and that I had all the equipment that I needed to replace it, but that my pump was made for the wrong type of valve. He said, "Let me see the pump". I handed it over, half expecting him to run off with it. "Watch what I'm doing closely". He proceeded to disassemble the head of the pump. "See this piece, you can flip it around to the thin side so that it fits with your valve". I asked him how he knew to reconfigure bike pumps and he told me that he had been a bike messenger for fifteen years. He offered to help me replace my flat tire and show me some tips and tricks. 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.

As we sat next to each other in the middle of the sidewalk, I learned that his name was Larry. Larry had done three tours in the Persian Gulf War with the Navy, crewing submarines. After the war he became a bike messenger in New York for freight and then moved out to continue his career as a messenger in San Francisco where he carried legal documents. 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.

We got onto the topic of what I was doing in San Francisco and I told him I was an Android programmer at Square. He told me he loved the product and we started talking about how Square was making digital devices feel human and how he had always felt alienated from computers. Larry and I began speaking about interface design and I spoke to him about some the design philosophies behind Square. Larry asked me if I had ever heard of Dieter Rams and his ten design principles.

I disregarded his question and told Larry to walk with me for a bit since we had repaired my bicycle. I asked him why he was in the streets when he could easily get a job at a bike shop. Larry told me that the war had taught him to be his own man, he couldn't work under anyone else and had always wanted to start his own bike shop. I walked with Larry to the nearest ATM and withdrew $100 and handed it over to him. I made Larry promise me that he would open his bike shop one day. I shook his hand and thanked him for his kindness and sharing his knowledge about bicycles and design.

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