What Van Gogh can teach us about persistence

I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam recently and, to my surprise, I left the exposition having learned something that matters beyond art.

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Story of a hack: Bring Your Own Music!

This post is a summary of the weekend we spent at the Kings of Code 2012 Hack Battle in Amsterdam. What started as an occasion to get to know smart people doing cool things in Amsterdam (something I look for since I moved here) turned out to be one of the funniest experiences I had in a while.

After a brief presentation of the services offered by the hackathon partners (Apigee, Esri, Spotify and Sendgrid) Diderik, Mattia, Mike and I teamed up to build the hack featured here. We started with the most obvious concept we could come up with: putting songs on a map and having people visualize them. We tried to elaborate the concept to include as many of the partners’ APIs as we could, but then we decided for something simpler, something we could build over the weekend.

Bring Your Own Music card reader
Bring Your Own Music!

It took us a couple of iterations to get to the final idea we developed: Bring Your Own Music, a toy application that allows users to control music playback through NFC-enabled objects by using an Arduino-powered NFC reader driving a Spotify app.

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What you should know before moving to Amsterdam

This post is a bit unusual for this blog: a few months ago I moved from Milan to Amsterdam (curiously, four years after my first visit to the city) and gathered some advice from friends and websites in the process. That information helped a great deal during my first weeks here and ensured that my move was a smooth one. I believe others in the same situation may benefit from the notes I gathered, so I decided to post them here.

As an EU citizen with a job offer from a company that has an office in the Netherlands, my transition was quite easy, but there were still some aspects that took me a while to figure out: I will try to cover most of them within this post. For everything else, you may find a lot of useful information in the links at the end of this article.

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How long will it take?

When talking about user experience, predictability is good. Some of the things we interact with in our daily life, though, are lacking from this perspective.

Consider traffic lights: they are among the most widely diffused devices and they can’t be simpler. Green: go. Red: don’t.

Yet, they are widely recognized as universal sources of frustration. Red lights, in particular, are able to annoy almost anyone.

And that’s not just because they are inevitably perceived as something meant to slow you down, but also because they leave you almost clueless about when they’ll eventually turn green. (Even if you can make a rough estimate, it will be basically due to the context, rather than to the device itself.)

This is why Sunday I got impressed when I first saw traffic lights like the one in the photo (in Amsterdam).

Traffic light in Amsterdam

With the addition of countdown displays, pedestrians (involuntary users) know exactly how long they’ll have to wait before they can cross the road. It won’t make the wait any shorter, but will certainly make it much less frustrating.

Similar considerations apply also to other activities/devices (think of queues, public transport, and many others), in particular, with activities which involve waiting. But in case of traffic lights, a simple display can really make a significant difference.

What is more striking, though, is that traffic lights themselves are already being built to be aware of time (how could it work otherwise?). Adding that display just means exposing some meaningful information which is already present inside of them. If you think about that, it sounds so obvious that it’s surprising all traffic lights aren’t built that way.