A Book Apart

Get to know Preston So

Jul 17, 2021

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Preston So smiling, wearing glasses and a black shirt.

Up next in our Meet the Author series, we’re getting to know Preston So—author of Voice Content and Usability. He talks about drawing inspiration from maps, listening music to get out of a creative rut, and getting an extra early start to start his day on the right foot. 

ABA: What is your favorite thing about your workspace?

Preston So: I live in a shoebox apartment in New York City, so space comes at a high premium. One of the things I do with my workspace is to expand the reach of what I look at day to day through maps, whose sole purpose is to communicate massive amounts of information in limited space—like voice interfaces do with limited time. Those who know me know I love everything to do with maps, whether they depict transit systems or fantasy worlds, whether they represent cities faithfully or artistically. Staring into a map during the doldrums of the day can be a deep source of inspiration for me, because our work as designers is about how we can spirit a person to their destination fastest while taking into account the ways in which our lived experiences modulate and distort how we see the world.

Ever since I came across it by accident in high-school Spanish class, the map–territory relation has always enthralled me, because it encapsulates so much of the challenge of reducing user journeys to the most efficient possible cartograph, especially within the confines of a strictly auditory medium like voice, as I share in Chapter 4 of my book. It’s vividly illustrated by Jorge Luis Borges’ parable describing a highly advanced empire that achieves such high-fidelity mapmaking that cartographers are expected to produce maps at the same scale as the real world. Maps serve as a window into worlds both seen and unseen, and both real and imagined—just like the mental and visual maps the users we serve must navigate.

Among my most treasured wall art is a stylized map of São Paulo, where I once lived and worked. It depicts all of its ninety-six neighborhoods using giant red bubble letters for their names that stretch like cartoonish globules to fill the borders of each area they represent. It’s a marvelous metaphor for the ways in which maps are both adequate and inadequate at the same time. The piece was part of the project Entrelinhas Urbanas (roughly translated “Urban Between-the-Lines,” as in between-the-lines comments or its more literal sense of being between lines) from Sê-lo, which featured ninety-six artists from all ninety-six neighborhoods with artwork bringing them to roaring life. My dear friends Thiago Limón and Flávio Grão were a part of it, and Thiago’s subject was Consolação, while Flávio’s was Vila Mariana.

ABA: What’s the first thing you do every morning to start your day on the right foot?

PS: At heart, I’ve always been a morning person and an early riser, though it’s taken me most of my life so far to realize it. Though over the last few years I’ve adhered to a routine that has me starting my workday at six or seven a.m., I’ve found a new normal over the course of the pandemic by kicking off my day at three or four a.m. Rather than jump in the deep end with attempts at flow and productive work straight away, I start with a long, contemplative walk, a bit of golden-hour photography (my newfound pandemic hobby), and silent meditation before I open my laptop or launch into a project.

Though it means I often have a routine and schedule that are diametrically opposed to the habits of my fellow New Yorkers, I’ve come to find it’s the only way I can sustain the writing and thinking that yields my best work. Plus, it means I get ahead of the jackhammering of construction familiar to every citydweller’s soundscape.

ABA: Is there anyone you’re following the work of right now, who you’d recommend others pay attention to?

PS: There are far too many names to rattle off to answer this question, but I’m paying attention to the work of several thinkers and craftspeople lately. Reginé Gilbert’s work at the nexus of inclusive design, immersive experiences, and accessibility is insightful and intersectional, and her book Inclusive Design for a Digital World is an important read and an inspiration for Immersive Content and Usability, the upcoming sequel to my voice book. As voice and immersive experiences become more commonplace but also increasingly driven by the hands of the privileged few and the power structures of rarefied corporations, we cannot let up efforts to address the inequities that plague design today.

Eunji “Jinny” Seo is a conversation designer whose work I’ve followed for some time now, especially her writing in Chatbots Magazine about effective design for conversational interfaces. Her prescriptions for problems we all face when crafting user experiences for this messy thing called human conversation are applicable to a variety of situations, not just the realm of conversation design.

Though I’ve known my dear friend Manu Brueggerman for many years, I’ve only recently had the opportunity to dive into his work with human-computer interaction and the ways in which societies must come to terms with how intersectionality and marginalization demand that we decolonize our design thinking and design education, especially in technology. His recent paper on “lickable interfaces and cities” with Vanessa Thomas and Ding Wang is at once uproarious and thought-provoking.

Finally, as someone with strong connections to the technology industry in Brazil, I recommend everyone interested in inclusive computing follow the work of Nina da Hora, who calls herself an “antiracist hacker” and always has compelling thoughts on ethics and justice in artificial intelligence and technology writ large. If you speak Portuguese, her podcast Ogunhê features both the work and lived experiences of Black scientists and technologists in Africa and Brazil, and she writes for MIT Tech Review and Gizmodo Brasil.

ABA: What does the tech industry need more of? Less of?

PS: Over all, the tech industry needs more self-reflection about and concern for those who are multiply marginalized and vulnerable—and made even more so—by the ways in which technology twists and threatens our humanity, whether that means environmental and social justice, economic inequality, or the brutalizing tactics regimes and institutions worldwide continue to use against people of color, women, disabled and neurodivergent folx, immigrants and refugees, and Black and Indigenous communities. We need less focus on money and more focus on the least privileged among us—yes, at the complete expense of the status quo. I’ve always been a revolutionary at heart, and you can often find me at the front lines of protests and rallies at home and abroad.

ABA: What is your go-to source of inspiration when you’re trying to get out of a creative rut?

PS: Certain music can do just the trick. When I’m stuck, I lean back and close my eyes to a favorite tune or piece. My go-to albums include Antiphon and Structuralism by Alfa Mist, Fleet Foxes’ entire discography, Black Radio by Robert Glasper Experiment, Veckatimest by Grizzly Bear, and Superclean by The Marías. As a music theory minor in college, erstwhile multi-instrumentalist, and washed-up composer, I’m also a big fan of both minimal and modern classical music. Lately, I’ve been fortunate to discover the “environmental music“ (環境音楽; kankyō ongaku) of Hiroshi Yoshimura and the “organic music” of Julius Eastman.

Sometimes, though, I need to venture outside or do things outside the norm, like satiating my foodie leanings by visiting a new restaurant in Jackson Heights or Sunset Park. I’m also very fortunate to live in a museum-rich and park-studded place like New York City, where I can find inspiration in both the most mundane and mechanical of things. You can often find me at the Met or the New York Transit Museum, but you’ll just as often find me strolling around some of the industrial zones of Brooklyn and Queens in search of new street art.

ABA: Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night? What is it?

Having had the privilege of living in many different countries and cities over my life so far, the challenge that keeps me up at night is how to best serve those who don’t have the advantage of speaking English as a first language, let alone the systems of oppression that countless people face globally: racism and ableism, misogyny and misogynoir, and queer- and transphobia. Among the things I would change if I had the opportunity to write Voice Content and Usability over again is to focus less on English-speaking audiences with Anglophone privilege and examine the ways in which voice interfaces need to better cater not only to global languages but also those that are endangered and underserved.

My undergraduate research focused on language policy and the work of governments worldwide to revitalize and sustain endangered languages, particularly Welsh, which I'm lucky to speak fluently. By ignoring the ways in which languages that differ from English handle communication—like , which isn't very pronounced in English—many conversation designers are inadvertently cultivating a monoculture of conversational interfaces, washing away many of our richest vernaculars for good. We need more space for African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Indian English, for bilingual immigrant communities that code-switch between English and other languages, and for queer and trans communities that toggle between straight-passing and queer modes of speech.

The promulgation of English in commerce and technology has already led to a mass extinction of minority languages all over the world, linguicide on a grand scale that mirrors the genocides of centuries past and the democides of the present. Technology is only hastening this slow-moving imperialism in ways that we can’t always immediately perceive, as we continue to impose American or Canadian English on places where Native and Indigenous languages are dying out or where rich literary traditions are fossilizing in favor of the capitalist machine. I’m buoyed by the efforts of dear friends and colleagues who advocate tirelessly for endangered and minority languages.

Learn more about all our authors—check out the rest of our Meet the Author series!


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