Gorillas, Dinosaurs, and AI ... A Designer’s Journey
Speaker 1: Welcome to Unsupervised Learning, where we bring members of the Merlyn Mind team together to talk about artificial intelligence, technology, and education. We hope you enjoy these conversations and learn something with us. Let's learn.
Hélène, welcome to the podcast, to Unsupervised Learning. I'm so excited to talk to you.
Helene Alonso: I'm scared.
This is my favorite podcast we're doing because we get to talk to our own team and learn from each other and share the things that we think are important and that guide and inspire us. Today, we have the pleasure to learn from our chief design officer, Hélène Alonso, about her story, who she is, how she brings such beauty and inspiration into the company. Hélène, let me give it to you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit more about you and who you are.
Helene Alonso: I am a designer by accident. I studied communications actually, and design is communications through certain mediums. Most of my career, I've been looking on how to communicate with people about values, and I came to Merlyn Mind to try to do just that, to try to figure out how to use these tools to help people learn, to help people, to help teachers reach out to children, to students more fluently.
Okay. We're going to dig into that a lot in the story today about the work you're doing at Merlyn Mind. But before we do that, let's learn more about you. What's your story? What makes you who you are? You can talk about where you came from, where you live, the people that are important to you, but just give us a taste of who is Hélène.
Helene Alonso: Okay, so the first thing I have to say is that I'm Venezuelan. I'm a Venezuelan, the daughter of immigrants from Europe, who escaped the civil war in Spain and World War II in France. They were people that were part of the resistance and they were people who were trying to defend what we consider the good values, and eventually had to escape and cross the ocean and find a new life somewhere else. There is a part of me that is made out of explorers and adventurers and people who fight for what they believe in, and that, of course, translated into my parents. My mother is French. We are a family of immigrant. We all started somewhere and finished somewhere else, and that is a mindset that allows us to never stop looking for something better. It's like we're constantly looking towards the horizon. We never settle. That is combined with certain aspects about my family where, for one reason or another, each one of us have our own reasons, we are passionate about knowledge. There is a saying in our family. You have to learn everything about something and something about everything.
Levi: Oh, I love that.
Helene Alonso: We strive to be universal people and explore the world and understand. Mix that with our extreme passion for the idea of the Renaissance person, and how one person needs to learn how to become really good at many things and wear different hats. I think that I am defined by curiosity and creativity. That's really my two most characteristic qualities, if you say.
Levi: Yeah. I mean, I would say crosstalk.
Helene Alonso: I actually struggle-
Levi: I would say almost super powers. Like I've now known you for more than three years. I've had the privilege of working close with you. I think curiosity, creativity, those are words I would immediately say, yes, that's Helene, and that's so cool to hear the story of where that came from and the history of your family. Amazing. I love getting to know you, and I'm sure everyone else will love that too, and understand how that influences who Merlyn is. Anything else about where you're at now? Are you still in Venezuela? Where do you find yourself?
Helene Alonso: Oh, great question. I needed to complete that thought. So I grew up in a country that could be paradise on earth. It is full of resources. We have most oil than most countries in the world. We have gold, diamonds, all kind of metals, uranium, whatever you want, and the most beautiful landscapes in a tropical environment. We destroyed our country. When you see a country destroyed by lack of information, by lack of education, you see what that does to the jungle, to the Amazon, to all the animals that don't have an environment to live anymore than go extinct, to this beautiful home that you love and is no longer there anymore.
Helene Alonso: You care about education. Education matters. Right? So I decided eight years ago, I think I was eight years old when I decided that I was going to make every possible effort to just show the world how amazing this is, and how much we need to protect it and care for it. Right? That transformed into education. I wanted to be president of inaudible.
Levi: Oh, very good. Maybe, maybe they'll hire you someday.
Helene Alonso: I'm not popular enough. So anyway, I turned into education. About 20 years ago, that tsunami of events in Venezuela was so much powerful than I was, that I decided I was going to jump somewhere else. I had this enormous passion for gorilla, at the time. I'm all about animals and environmental conservation. I decided, I decided that I was going to be working on an orphanage of gorillas in Congo. I was going to teach the gorillas how to be gorillas again. Right? So I started learning French and I started my conversations with the Congo institutes, institutions in Congo, and a civil war exploded there. After having almost getting there, I was rejected. So I had to get my option B. You know, I could be a gorilla mamma these days, but I ended up actually moving to New York and working at the Bronx zoo. It was the Bronx zoo because it's one of the best, if not the best, zoo, park in the world, and I always thought that they managed to convey and to inspire the passion that I was looking in people. I wanted to know how do they manage to convince people to care. Right?
Helene Alonso: And that is an enormous power for education, because if you don't care, you don't learn.
Helene Alonso: So in a way, it was how to spark that emotional core within people, so they care, and then they learn, and then they protect, right? So inspires action. So I came here 20 years ago. I had a visa as a tourist visa, and I was allowed to stay for six months. I didn't speak English. I didn't know anybody here. It was very inaudible, very lonely, but I was fascinated, not only by the messages of the Bronx zoo, but New York and how inspiring it is and how fast people walk here, and how fun they dress, and how interesting the conversations are. I felt, when I came here, that this was my place.
Helene Alonso: I was like, " Ha." It's kind of like-
Levi: That's beautiful.
Helene Alonso: I have never said that I was glad to not be in the gorilla orphanage, but I think that this was more sustainable in the long term.
Levi: Okay. So what an interesting backstory. Okay. So you come to New York, you work at the zoo, you get inspired by how the zoo's experiences and design and information and communication motivates and inspires people to care. Then fast forward, I don't know, all kinds of things probably happen in the interim. Eventually you end up at the Museum of Natural History, directing interactive learning experiences and how people get excited about the world. Can you tell us about, we don't need all the details in between there, but like what happened and then how'd you get there and what did you learn directing that work?
Helene Alonso: Well, what I found about zoos is that we are always talking about animals and that the conservation stories are always the same. I realized that my curiosity went beyond that. I was passionate not only about love and conservation of love of nature, but I was in love with knowledge, of with the stars, with the prehistoric times, with the molecular matter. I couldn't get enough. I decided to move towards science museums. I had some experience working on that in Venezuela too, but I decided to work into a more expanded set of knowledge, because knowledge, it's everything. You cannot just talk about one type of story. Right? Simultaneously, I've always been interested in technology, because there is a part of me that is hungry for the future that I'm never going to see. Right? It's like, I wish I could live 500 years. If I have a time machine, where would I go? Like 300 years, 500 years. Right? It's a kind of sadness existence. Just sadness. I'm not going to get to see any of that. Right? So I decided one of the things that motivates me is that to try to make the future I would otherwise not see, or not get to see. So if I bring the future sooner, maybe I will get to experience these science fiction, fantasies that we all have. Right? Teletransportation, I think I'm never going to get to, but overall, I think that the use of technology, combined with the fantastic nature of knowledge, combined with fun exploration and the spark of curiosity, gives you three ingredients that create a suspended mode of belief, is what I call the wow moment. One thing I became an expert at the museum was to master the wow moment. This moment where you look at something that normally involves a technology that you have never seen or used like that, where you can't explain it, and you are like, "Ah," where the content is so beautiful and attractive, that you cannot help it but open the wonder door and be inspired. Once you get there, be in this suspension, you absorb everything that crosstalk. Right?
Levi: You can't help but learn. Right.
Helene Alonso: You can't help but learn. Exactly. I learned how to do that very well at the museum. In the time that I spent there, it was 10 years, I did about 400 projects. Of them, most of them involved new technologies. We went... as time goes by you start working with apps, as if it's a new thing.
Helene Alonso: Multi touch tables, gesture recognition, AI. You evolve with the evolution of technology, and your stories evolve, and your way to captivate people evolve too. So I was working on a show about the ocean that was very, very beautiful, at the museum. Coincidentally, my colleagues learned about it, and discovered me. They had the vision, and I have to give them a lot of credit for this, they had the vision to think if she can do that, what can she do for Merlyn?
Levi: Right. So you're saying your colleagues, meaning the founders of Merlyn Mind, and the chairman, our investors, they saw the work you were doing, and they said, "Wait a second. She could create magic over here for what we want to do in bringing AI to education." So that's how you got to Merlyn Mind. What an amazing kind of confluence of events, and your background experience, to bring you here and how wonderfully grateful we are, our team, and I'm sure all of the teachers and students who are using Merlyn because of how much-
Helene Alonso: And me.
Levi: And you. Tell us maybe now about-
Helene Alonso: So grateful.
Levi: You made it to Merlyn Mind. What have we been doing for the last ... I mean you've been here more than three years now. Almost four years. What has it been like?
Helene Alonso: Four years, almost.
Levi: Yeah. What's that journey been like for you?
Helene Alonso: Well, it's been fascinating because it was a long time ago when I was in school, and I was in a different country. Fortunately, things have gotten so much more engaging and fun and interesting at schools. When I came into this world of Merlyn, I knew about education, but I didn't know about classrooms. It was a great opportunity for me to discover all the efforts, and all the fun effective things that teachers these days are doing, and how hard they work to actually open the mind of their students. So it's been a combination of discovery and discovery of artificial intelligence as well, because of all the technologies that I had used, artificial intelligence was nascent. So I didn't, I hadn't learned enough about it to understand the immense potential that it has, especially in the hands of the right people.
Helene Alonso: I remember thinking the first time this project was mentioned to me, I was thinking, "Hmm, they're going to capture my kids' data." And I didn't like that. It was actually the kindness ambition of our founders saying, "No, no, no, we are protecting the kids. We're protecting the users. We are not here to take advantage of them. We are here to help them. We are here to facilitate, to augment them, to solve problems." Right. "To solve problems education is finding, and to smooth the path towards knowledge," that they got me. I was like, "Okay, okay. We are talking, we're talking now." When I joined, we had an idea of what we wanted to do, but we didn't know exactly what that was.
Helene Alonso: It took ... it's this fascinating thing about changing fields when you are in your career. I changed fields many times, like inaudible.
Levi: Yeah. Those are big changes.
Helene Alonso: crosstalk before. I working so many things. So it was a big learning curve for me to start learning about the business side of things, which I've never cared about. I still don't.
Helene Alonso: I care about education. I care about design, and what I want is to make the most useful, intuitive thing, that is beautiful, and bring pleasure, and that creates that wow moment-
Helene Alonso: ... so everyone can learn. That's what I want to do.
Okay. Hélène, you just talked about design and everything you've been doing over the last few years here at Merlyn Mind with design, we recently won a pretty exciting design award, thanks to you and others on our team and some of our partners. Could you tell us more about why it matters, what it is, what it means to you?
Helene Alonso: Well, there is a part that matters for our company because this recognition is a assurance that what we are doing has value for the people that we made it for, and that it's adding something good to the world, and that it has been well thought, thoroughly thought, and that it's not only beautiful, which design awards ... Design is normally understood as aesthetics, but design is about function as well. So when you win a design award, like this one, it's telling you that you are not only beautiful aesthetically and sophisticated, it's also telling you that you are useful, that you were well thought. Truth be told, the amount of thinking that goes in design, at all levels of the design involved here, like we designed what the features were going to be, how it was going to look like, what the engineering inside of it, what materials was going to be made of, the packaging was going to be to make it useful and recyclable. All these thinking gets validated when you win an award of that size.
Levi: Right. It's called the Red Dot Design award. Right? And is it a big deal? Have other people that matter won this thing?
Helene Alonso: It's a great deal. It is a biggest award in Europe. It has been won by our design church, like Apple.
Levi: Yeah. Apple, Ferrari, big, big companies with beautiful products.
Helene Alonso: Any of those brands are equally, do equally balance functionality and usability with beauty and sophistication. To be given an award of this reputation is very meaningful to all of us. This was a big team. It wasn't just me, and everybody gave so much. It's interesting because we defined this part of the product, our product continues growing, and we've done a lot since, but this part of the product that won this award was produced during the heat of the pandemic. We had to change our work to remote. We had to like have fabrics all ... like have all these books of fabrics flying from China to select like which texture, and which color, and which, what plastic under which light. We had these conversations, it's so much work, so much detail, and so many discussions. Sometimes we have very different forces within the design team where the hardware team needs to make sure they fit, what they need fits inside the machine. I have the usability, so it's like the ergonomics of everything had to be like, perfect. And then it comes the aesthetics that we have our industrial designers, and they have to make sure that it's balanced, that everything fits, that it has the right compendium of lines. Right? And this balancing all of these needs and forces, it is a lot of work. It's a lot of collaboration. It's beautiful, I have to say, and this is a very beautiful team where we have fun designing together. It was delightful, and I'm very grateful to the entire team, because it was an experience for all of us.
Levi: It's very exciting, and so thrilling to see that what we're trying to create, the future that you talked about, making a better future today, it's real, it's happening. Teachers are loving what we're doing and the product fits so beautifully into their lives, into their workflows, into the way that they teach. So maybe let's now shift to talking about that. You talked a lot about design, how most people misunderstand design, they think it's just what you see. It's not just what you see. It's much, much more than that. Can you just tell us what is design to you? And then we'll get into, how do you do good design, and why does it matter to do good design.
Helene Alonso: Design is normally perceived as the final product. When you see something beautiful in design, it's like, "Oh right. How beautiful." But the truth is that just the idea of having that with cables, having the idea of having Merlyn serving the features that we needed to serve, that on itself is design. Understanding the user and the problems that we are trying to solve, that's design, because you are designing, not products, but solutions. You see a problem and you are trying to figure out how to solve that problem. That comes with a detail of like, why is it going to be, how is it going to work? How is it going to look? Where is it going to be put? How much is it going to cost? All of that is teamwork within the discipline, but it's mainly designed because it's about understanding, understanding a person or a group of people, understanding what their life is about, the problems they have, and how to solve them. So when you think about design, you are not putting lines on a paper. Most of my design has nothing to do, cannot be sketchable. The design is about understanding the other person, which are with research, understanding the problem, and try to understand the parts of the problem and how you could solve it to smooth it out. That is called intuitive design, right, when you try to solve a problem in a way that goes with the automatically thought of one line. Intuitive design is something very difficult to achieve because you have to understand people.
Helene Alonso: Understanding people is very complex because talk about an endless set of valuables, right, but there are some aspects of human nature that are universal. If you understand people, and if you can read people, you can achieve that level of design. It takes many iterations. We're not going to say that we get it on the first one, but eventually, when you get to a product, that product is a reflection on that conversation we're using. So that is design.
Levi: Yeah. I feel like I've learned so much from you about design and what design is and how it penetrates all aspects of the work we do. And that actually all of us who are problem solvers at times, are finding ourselves as designers, whether we realize it or not.
Helene Alonso: Yeah.
Levi: This idea of design isn't what you see, but what you feel, how it helps you, how like that you felt understood, that it almost feels like someone is showing you empathy when something has been designed well. That has struck me powerfully in my work with you and the work we're doing at Merlyn Mind. So talk about why does it matter? Why does it matter to do design that way and produce products and solutions that have that kind of impact on people?
Helene Alonso: The goal of design is to improve your quality of life. No matter what you design, it is, from a couch to a spaceship. Right? It's like you want to create something that makes your life better, and some of those problems that you're trying to solve are very simple, but there are others, in particular within education, where there are a lot of problems to solve, starting with the overwhelming nature of the profession, the overwhelming need for a result, the incredibly, incredibly important presence, or need of education in the life of all of us throughout all our lives. So when you think of designing something to solve a problem, you don't want your design to be another problem. You want your design to be a solution. If it's not a solution, there is a problem.
Helene Alonso: To be a good design, something that is well designed, speaks for itself, you know how to use it, it's intuitive, is smooth. You can... you roll with it. It offers no friction. I'm not going to lie to you, we're still not there.
Levi: I assume that's a lifelong pursuit. You're never done designing it's ... Yeah.
Helene Alonso: It's forever. It's forever. And the more you know, the more you realize that there are little fixes to do, but you start with big strokes, and then you start perfecting and perfecting, perfecting, perfecting, to a point where you know every single detail of every single part of the product that you make, and it's important.
Levi: Yeah. So it's important, because if I understood you correctly, you're trying to help someone have a better life, live a better life, experience a better life, accomplish something in their life, and that your product, your solutions, are going to help them do that better, not make it more complicated for them to achieve their goals. So knowing that, let's look at maybe just a few examples to bring this to life for people. For those who are listening, if they don't know what we do at Merlyn Mind, we're creating artificial intelligence to help teachers teach, make it easier to teach, more natural to teach, to use technology as they teach. You can now ask Merlyn for assistance. Pull up my presentation, start the video, switch to my laptop. Really letting them untether and walk freely through the class while controlling technology. All of this has so many points of design in how they interact with the device, how they interact with their laptop, how the laptop interacts with the front of room display so they can see what they want to see. You've been through countless rounds of iterations on all of this to bring this cohesive product together. Can you give us maybe one or two examples of where design has really mattered, and where you either before you built, or after you built, saw those opportunities to take out friction, to make it easier, to improve the way our teachers interact with Merlyn?
Helene Alonso: So Merlyn is helping you go through information and avoid the typing and the mouse and the cabling and all of these things that actually keep you tied to your computer, instead of being with the kids, with the students that you need to be. We found, for example, that every time a teacher wants to tell a story, that most of the teachers' content these days lives in the browser, right, it's online. So she has a lot of these websites where she has the presentation in one website. And then she has a video open YouTube into another tab. And maybe she has a definition or a picture, these activities from other educational technologies in different tabs. Right? And this is a simple example. Every time she wants to tell a different part of the story, she has to go back to her computer and change the tab. And then she goes back and then she has to go back to the computer, and change the tab. Now in a matter of seconds, she's like inaudible with the remote that we do, it takes like, like there's no more thinking. It's like automatic. There is no back and forth. If she remembers, if she doesn't want to do it like this, she can say, "Go to a YouTube tab to get the video, go to my Google slide tab." If you have more than one, it tell you which one. It's incredible the amount of time that we're saving. That is one single one. The other one, is like you can make searches. If you are having a conversation with the students, often comes up... questions come up. Sometimes you want to give examples. You can just ask Merlyn, "Show me a gorilla?" So that's a gorilla. Now, "Show me a chimpanzee. You see the difference? It's not the same." Right? So it allows you to continue the flow. We are removing those frictions where it's like, "Ah, just give me a second. Let me search for a picture. Okay. This is okay. Now let me..." no, no, no. It's part of the conversation, the flow is never lost. So you don't lose the kids.
Levi: Love that. What about today? What are you working on today? What's an interesting design problem? Like you mentioned, we're not done, right? This is just the beginning. There's still so much, we still need to design better to make this work for teachers. Can you give me an example of something that people could grasp, like to understand where there's still friction and why design can help remove that?
Helene Alonso: The main problem that we have is that we have so many ideas that we have not enough time to make them all happen. Right. Because one day we wanted to be like, "Hey Merlyn, start the lesson." And already Merlyn know which lesson, which with kids like. "Hey Merlyn, do the attendance." A lot of teachers would love that.
Helene Alonso: It's like, "Yes, please get that out of my hands." Right. So we have so many ideas, and we have to be patient. It's so hard to be patient. So right now, what are the most pressing solutions that we are trying to figure out? For example, we are trying to get people to connect to the Merlyn without friction.
Helene Alonso: It's like, "I'm here. inaudible. You recognize my computer, inaudible." happens.
Levi: So this means instead of having to walk in and seeing a code on the screen and typing it in and going back, you're trying to make that all automated with AI and with beautiful design.
Helene Alonso: Exactly. With beautiful design. So we are trying to have conversations with Merlyn, and this is one of the parts that I enjoy the most, where I like it so much that actually we have a whole team and everything, but I write myself the personality questions. Right. So you can have a conversation with Merlyn, and make it part of the, make it be part of the community within the classroom. So the kids can ask questions and things like that. We have, we are, for example, recognizing the extreme importance of integrating with multiple platforms so we are able to create PowerPoints from Google slides and from pod. I mean to play PowerPoint presentations, slides. Now we're including PowerPoint in it from Microsoft, right? So we are expanding little by little toward all of these areas simultaneously, that have an impact on the quality of the teacher's performance. It's all about removing friction. We decided, and you were a key part of this Levi. We decided a few years ago that we were going to start where the teacher is, and the teacher is living with her laptop and she is managing her content online, and they use multiple platforms, so compatibility with all types of laptops and desktops is important. There is an enormous amount of thought put into these kinds of experiences to remove any friction, whatever laptop you have in whatever configuration you have with any screen you have, if you have a smart screen, if you have a Promethium board, if you have a standard TV or a projector, like that configuration and that friction is going away. So we look into everything, from removing the friction towards knowledge, that we are all very passionate about, to easing the life of the teachers and the administration, the idea administrators that have to put together all of these systems. So it's a very deep problem. Yeah. Very deep idea with a lot of space ahead of us for evolution improvement.
Levi: I always, I often think of the culture of a company as its people, right? It's us, like we are the company. If you think about Merlyn Mind, what's so beautiful about this company is it is filled with curious learners who want to make the world better. That really comes from our founders. You look at Satya and Ravi and Sharad, and what they brought to this company. It was really about like, " We just want to learn and we want to experiment and we want to make the world better." Then I almost look, and I see like, there's this heart and soul and love and beauty in our culture, in our company. I feel like that's you Helene, like you brought it into this company. It's so much in our ethos, our DNA. I hope that the teachers who use Merlyn can feel that right, because it really is a special company, special product. So I just want to, anything else you want to say about your kind of vision and hopes and why you want to be working on this? Why you're spending your life doing this?There are many ways to affect education. I always thought that the school, the family and the school are the keys to it. The work that we are doing here is a seed for a big forest that we hope it will grow one day, right? Merlyn is just starting as this seed that will help the teachers, but eventually will help also the students, and eventually will include the parents. We'll be, it will be a more supportive community to help these kids evolve towards what we need in this world. You know, people, good people. If anything, If anything deserves our time in this very short life that we have, is education. You say, conservation, sciences, anything that helps the world be better. Right? I have a strong belief that this team of really wonderful people, because honestly, this team is delightful, kind, amazing, this team can do it. This team has the priorities in the right place. There is no compromise of values on what we do. We all believe in education. That's why we are here and we are taking it seriously.
Levi: Well, Helene, thank you for joining us today and sharing your story with us, your experience, your vision. I'm sure we'll have you on this show more to talk about the things you're running into and the things that we want to solve with design. We appreciate everything you do for the company. And if people have other questions for you, I'm sure they can contact you. We'd love to hear from our users. So if anybody has ideas, we're always doing research.
Helene Alonso: Yes, please.
Helene Alonso: Yes. We need them.
Levi: Okay. Very good.
Helene Alonso: That's the most fun. Thank you Levi for having me. It was super fun.
Speaker 1: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Unsupervised Learning. Until next time, keep learning.
Who is Chief Design Officer Hélène Alonso, and how does she bring such beauty and inspiration to Merlyn Mind? Learn about her family's escape from civil war, and how her love for gorillas transpired into a blooming career in EdTech. Hear what she does to ensure design is at the heart of solving problems with AI solutions in classrooms and how she envisions the future.