Keren Gu's Picazón

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SmartCart at Techfair

On Feb 4th, 2012, SmartCart was presented at Techfair (a student-run “career fair” fused with student project exhibitions). 60 companies showed up along with 30 student project. SmartCart was fortunate enough to be one of the 30 student projects, also funded by Techfair+/StartLabs. Showcasing SmartCart was a blast, and exhausting as it can be. Students, alums, and company recruiters stopped by and experienced the shopping experience of the future 😉 We got lots of positive and useful feedbacks and ways to improve in v2.0!

So, here is the story, from past, present, to future. 

The ideation occurred over the summer 2012, around when I started taking real-world problem-solving more seriously. Constantly trying to figure out ways to improve life, in general. Something I had to do in order to feed myself over the summer was go shopping, for food… Continue reading



How I Became a Spotify Premium User

It’s been 1.5 years since I started using Spotify. Over the past 18 months, what has Spotify, a brand, a software, a logo done to me to turn myself into a premium user? I was never like this before. I would never pay. This is a quest to examine “why I’m paying $9.99 a month”.

When it all started in August 2011, I was browsing the web like any other day. Found this new green music software and thought I’d try it out. Like many new things that we try, we try them with friends. I chatted a couple friends and made them download as well.

On my first day, I starred 2 songs that I was crazy about, both by Adele. Then looking back at my history, I was “favorite-ing” songs on almost every other day for the next week — normal behavior for new users. Then I was adding new songs every week, and probably listening daily as I worked on my problem sets. Still, I wasn’t paying a penny, and MIT’s super speedy internet was free. (Well, included in the tuition.)

At this point, a number of my friends has already left Spotify. Reasons included: Continue reading


Warmer – A Progress Update

(If you are new to Project SmartCart, get an intro here.)

As Techfair approaches each day, SmartCart needs to meet up to the expectation.

I have written many things I’ve learned about UI and UX, something I’ve never cared for before this project. Though the things I’ve learned and realized about UI are obvious to those with experience, this might be the same reason why I haven’t written about the backend of SmartCart, or about developing for Android.

So here is an overview of everything else about SmartCart.

Top Level Overview

As shown on the SmartCart Poster, SmartCart is comprised of 1) the cart, 2) interactive display, 3) barcode scanner, and 4) Square. The Square connects to the interactive display via the headphone jac; the barcode scanner (Motorola CS3070) communicates with the interactive display via blue tooth; the interactive display, in this prototype, is a Motorola Xoom tablet, running Android 4.1.2; and the interactive display will be mounted on the shopping cart.

The Android App

The work that I’ve been doing so far is developing the app that connects it all. ADT and Stack Overflow has made my life incredibly easy. In fact, I’ve been shamefully playing for most of this winter. The app consists of an Activity for each functionality, such as Find and Checkout. Then there is the SmarCart’s Model, which consists of User/Session model, and item model. Third, there is the database of items. Lastly, the UI, which is being handled in android’s /res. I wouldn’t call this MVC pattern exactly, but it’s about the same idea and it works.

Problems I’ve encountered

The main problems that stressed me are connecting the components of this project. There are a couple of connections: Tablet – Barcode Scanner, Tablet – Square, and Tablet – Cart.

Tablet – Barcode Scanner: Months ago, I purchased a cheap Barcode Scanner on Amazon that promised to work with computers. When I got it, it worked with Windows very quickly, but it would only work on OS X Lion and not Snow Leopard. Not a big deal. Then, one day, I realized… it can’t power itself. Tablets also don’t supply power externally. I didn’t have to try, I knew it wouldn’t connect to Xoom. While in China, I ordered CS3070, 10x the price of the previous Scanner. Will try it out next week, and it better work.

Tablet – Square: For some reason I thought integrating with Square would be trivial. Another thing that I left till (sort of) the end, and it turned out to fail me. With my limited connections, I was able to find a friend of a friend who works at Square. From that friend of a friend, I was able to get an advice from the expert, on prototyping. I found out that there is no integration available, at this time. Oh well. But by listening for mic-input, I will be able to detect card-swiping. I’m not going to write my own square register, but at the very least, I will be able to simulate the experience.

Tablet – Cart: I found a cart. I have the tablet. I imagine one will stay on top of the other.

At this point, most of the Mainland work has been done (implementing most of the features), and I’m excited to go back to the states next week to put things together. Failure at this point is not an option.

Dear readers of my terrible technical description, I’d love to hear your thoughts on my first real-world project, and how you would do things differently. Or if you would like to hear more.

(This post has not been proof read.)

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Where Has My Food Been?

Eating in China is a big problem.

I know many Americans who love asian food. I used to understand why, but I was a food-rookie then. That was when I’ve never had anything but Chinese food. Don’t get me wrong, I still think the good Chinese food is reasonably delicious, but it’s also disturbing at the same time. I’m not talking about disturbing like how a plate of smashed tofu looks like puke, or how southern China has dishes like snake, or snails, or live monkeys brains (WTF). No, that’s not what i’m talking about.

I’m talking about the cancerous part of baby milk powder, about where cooking-oil come from in china. You never really know what you are eating, unless you do the shopping at farmer’s market and imported cooking ingredients. Even then, you don’t know what went into growing your carrots and potatoes. But that’s a global problem. A Chinese problem is how almost anything and everything might give you cancer. And nothing is fresh.

Like any major city in the world, there are well defined class separations in Beijing. You can tell by where you eat and how much you spend on food. (I’m generalizing here…) Higher price doesn’t mean your food is fresher and cleaner. You could only hope so. Cheap food on the other hand, I personally am skeptical of it’s origin. My apartment is surrounded by dozens of mini-restaurants, ones that are around 500-sqft each. They all have red-stickers on their window, with the one kind of food they serve. They use disposable utensils with no table cloth or any kind of serve. And they stand too close to the emission of beijing vehicles,  in 1-story collapsing buildings. I could only imagine how their kitchen looks like and how my food was process.

I usually don’t express my dissatisfaction with society, especially with China. I just thought of all these while having pudding, made in China. Puddings are weird — they look and taste like chemical.

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SmartCart Poster

If you are new to Project SmarCart, go here.

I find my updates for Project SmartCart always lag by a week. So the past week, I’ve been on “vacation”. But I did take one step closer to Techfair — I finally learnd Photoshop and made the SmartCart Poster. Woot! This is also the result of massive procrastination.

Did I learn anything from making this poster? I learned that I love it. For some reason, I never considered design to be a career option, but I’ve always believed that I have an eye for design, and at the very least, an appreciation. I love seeing things beautifully made, which is why, when I have my own product, it will be beautiful, sleek, and classy. But on the other hand, Designers and Developers aren’t that different. “Both cultures immerse themselves in technical professions, sometimes carrying a certain amount of elitism, but always with a passion for craft, self-betterment, and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”

This is a 24x36'' poster. The font size is in fact 35+

This is a 24×36” poster. The font size is in fact 35+

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Lessons on UI

After my previous post, Bad UI is Bad UX, I spent some time studying the UI of apps and websites around me. I wish I could show you how bad my old UI actually was. (At some point, I’ll revert back to the old UI, and write a post with comparisons.) But for now, I want to share some very simple lessons that I learned.

Lesson 1, “sharp corners” doesn’t mean shitty, and “round corners” aren’t necessarily classy. Default android buttons and TextViews are rectangles, with sharp corners, where as iOS present you with round corners by default (so I heard). So I took a look at the apps that came with Android, the settings, Gmail, etc., they looked just fine and elegant with sharp edges. Better yet, the sharp and straight lines looked cleaner.

Lesson 2, Margins. Have margins, and that is all.

Lesson 3, color “families”? Colors have 3 components, and a 4th component for transparency. (Transparencies are nice.) When choosing colors on a color chart, there are 3 axis of movements: 2 on the shades, and 1 for picking the color. An easy practice that I found useful was selecting 1 shade, and then choose all app colors in that shade. It the UI will naturally look harmonious. I will never use @color/blue with @color/green again.

If you’ve got any UI tips, please share. Still learning.

OH! And for background, a friend suggested SubtlePatterns — it’s addictive!

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Bad UI is Bad UX

Over the past 3 weeks, I have been working on Project SmartCart. The section that I’m working on is creating an Android App that assists the every need of the shopper. The app is the torso of the project. Then comes the shopping cart, the barcode scanner (disaster), and the square (difficulty).

By the end of week 2, most functionalities are done. This includes implementing the backend database, adding items, recommendations, finding items, coupons. I was feeling good, but not really. When I used the app, it felt like shit. More descriptively, it felt like an app from the 90’s. It mainly looked bad.

The perfectionists/professionals of UX said that UX is not UI. But when you have terrible UI, you have terrible UX. When testing my app, I didn’t mind the hassel of typing in pseudo barcodes like “111111”. (That will be fixed when I get the barcode scanner, I believe.) But the solid color edges, the sharp corners, the lack of transition, and fades, the solid background.

I know nothing about UI. This is my first app, but I can’t allow it to look like the remains of some previous century.