Before Renee came to the Spark Technology Center, she studied architecture and art history at Berkeley and industrial design at Art Center College of Design, and designed for Vans. She tells us about working with Apache Spark, getting lost in a project on purpose, and how cool it would be to design an AI being that won’t turn on you and kill you.
Q. You’re designing an analytics product running on Spark right now. You’re really building the future of analytics—changing the way people interact with data, with technology that’s changing as you design. What did you get out of it, and what did you put into it?
I didn’t understand Spark before I came here. But having worked with it, building user experience from the inside out, I understand how important it is. As a designer, the challenge is getting into the shoes of the data scientist—a relatively new field. It was daunting at the beginning, because there aren’t a lot of references yet. The space is very limited.
At the same time, that means whatever we make is actually going to make a dent in the data science community. It’s placing a lot of hope in one person, the data scientist, but then, they’re placing a lot of hope in us to make the experience happen for them.
Q. You studied architecture so you know the recent Pritzker Prize winner, Alejandro Aravena, has been in the news articulating his philosophy of architecture. For him, it’s about making the chaotic, piecemeal process of public works projects part of the aesthetic. Do you have a philosophy of design, and is it informed by your background as an architecture student?
I do. It’s about designing something that provokes people into doing something. It’s not about inspiring them because it looks pretty. I’m handing the baton to the person using what I design—they’re going to run the race themselves. At the end of every design, I think, “This is what I have, now do something with it.” And it’s my job to make it easy for them to do something amazing with it.
When I say all that it doesn’t sound as glamorous as “empower people into action!”
Q. It sounds real. So what’s the process, what do you actually do as a designer to turn a project into a spur to action for other people?
After doing a lot of investigation, I define the problem as how do you turn play into something other than play? I made a Lego greenhouse, for example. was compostable, stackable, and modular. The whole point is that you’re supposed to throw it away, but because it’s a greenhouse you’re planting seeds out in the world with something you throw away after you’re done with it. There’s cause and effect, and you hope the effect is greater than what you’ve done.
This is the way with open source as well. You put something out there and other people will be inspired by that and make something great.
Q. Right, you don’t control the outcome, and the opportunity is exactly that, to have something you couldn’t have imagined develop out of that.
Yes, and you’re investing in your peers and your community too.
Q. Do you have a dream project?
Yes! My project would involve Watson. Imagine if you could transfer your ideas to this AI being and not have it turn against you and kill you like all those sci fi films! It would be great if we could make Jarvis, from Iron Man—a smart home system that would anticipate everything about you. I’m too sensitive to things, I go through too many highs and lows, so I would like a stabilizer—a Jarvis that, if you’re unhappy, Jarvis would know to turn on Parks and Rec, or a Pharell song.
There’s a psychological technique you can use—you can be in three states, child, adult, or parent. We cycle through those states all day. So if a co-worker barges in in a yelling, "Can you believe what Marge did???!!!" —that's a child state, and you can adjust them back to an adult state, by saying, "Hey, do you want to go to lunch?" —triggering a logical answer. You can get her to calm down. I want to build Jarvis to adjust your environment to put you in that calm, adult state, so you’re making the best decisions in your life.
Q. How did you find your way to design?
Ever since I was a kid, one of my pastimes with my dad was breaking things down, radios and things. I was very hands on. I knew how conductors worked, when I was six.
I studied architecture and art history at Berkeley—because I loved breaking conceptual things down, too: culture, and the process of designing a building. I worked for an engineering firm for a long time, overseeing HVAC design. I had to propose design, go to the building and safety department and get it approved—I learned how to take responsibility for every part of the design process.
Q. What was the transition to digital design like?
All design is about the ability to plan how to solve a problem. How efficient do you want to be? Or do I want to get lost purposefully, so I can find my way out of that area and learn more about that area? Of course it depends on the deadline!
And it’s also math, calculus—balancing stuff in my head. That’s what I love.
Q. Our mandate at the Spark Technology Center is to contribute to Apache Spark and other open source projects. For a designer, that means building user experiences that make the particular beauties of Spark available to the end user—and possibly revealing new ideas to the people writing Apache Spark. What do you see is the opportunity for a designer here?
My thesis project was building off of open source code—I tweaked a lot of it. I would never have been able to actualize the idea I had without open source. I understand how important it is, to have code that can make new ideas real, freely available. My opportunity is to see what other people do with my design.