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Sept. 13, 2021, 6 a.m.
How Parham Doustdar Uses OmniFocus

In this episode of The Omni Show, Parham Doustdar shares how he's using OmniFocus as the Engineering Manager for product accessibility at Booking.com. As a completely blind user, his system setup allows for a customized implementation and navigation that is uniquely his.

Show Notes:

Parham and Andrew chat through the current challenges of accessible software design, using OmniFocus for networking, and alternate methods for computer navigation.

Some other people, places, and things mentioned in this episode:

  • Booking.com
  • Getting Things Done Book
  • OmniFocus
  • Screen Readers
  • ORG Mode
  • ParhamDoustdar.com
  • twitter.com/PD90
  • Transcript:

    Andrew J. Mason: You're listening to the Omni Show, get to know the people and stories behind the Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and today we talk to Parham Doustdar, Engineering Manager for Product Accessibility at Booking.com, on how he uses OmniFocus.

    Andrew J. Mason: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of the Omni Show. My name's Andrew J. Mason, and can I just say, I love getting to do this show. There's always so many interesting people doing really, really cool things in their life, and today's no different. Today we have Parham Doustdar, he's the Engineering Manager for Product Accessibility at Booking.com. And Parham, tell us a little bit more about yourself, where you're from and what you're currently up to.

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah, sure. So I'm actually originally from Iran, I moved to the Netherlands five years ago, I got relocated here by Booking.com. So basically I've been getting acquainted with Europe system. So yeah, liking it so far.

    Andrew J. Mason: And what about your role at Booking.com? What does that entail?

    Parham Doustdar: Yes, I originally joined as a developer and then I became a team lead. And now I'm an engineering manager of the accessibility team, which basically makes sure that our products are usable by people with different disabilities.

    Andrew J. Mason: That's some really cool work. And how did you end up crossing paths with the Omni Group?

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah, so basically I've read David Allen's GTD book and I never actually got to implement that. I was a software developer since, let's say around 2011, 2010, and I never really had enough projects because I was working in smaller companies. And when I moved to the Netherlands, I had to switch the software that I was using because I'm completely blind, and the way that I need to work with a computer is with a software category called a screen reader. And what that software does is it connects to the operating system that you're using and it pulls out information and turns that into text. So, when I moved to the Netherlands, I had to switch to a Mac, and I was a Windows user before. And I was using EMACS to edit code because it has an add-on that can actually read the code to you, it's a lot of information.

    Parham Doustdar: And as I was using EMACS, I got to know something that's called org-mode, which apparently OmniFocus was originally inspired by. And later on when my system became really big, I started looking for a user interface that is kind of across multiple devices, because most of the time I have ideas that I want to jot down on my iPhone and EMACS is only available on my Mac. And so, that's how I got to try out OmniFocus. I had tried it a few times before in 2017 and 18', it wasn't accessible, which basically means it didn't work with a screen reader that's available on Mac. But then apparently something changed, so when I gave it a try during COVID, I think in 2020 or so, it was working. And then I started getting to know it and use it in my daily job, and my personal life as well.

    Andrew J. Mason: It's really cool. And you mentioned your daily job and personal life. Do you manage all of your life with OmniFocus? So, what are the different roles or areas that you kind of break down into?

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah, so that's an interesting question because it makes me feel how all over the place my life is right now. So I have, I would say, three areas of focus right now in general. There's the stuff at work, which is around projects that I have to do, projects that my team should deliver on, and projects that I do for my manager and for my team members. So, if someone comes to me with a problem, that goes into the inbox and so on. I guess I'll go deeper into my system later. So, that's one big area. The other big area is the life stuff, like, "We need to fix the shed door." And we just moved into a new house, so all the tasks around moving from one house to the next house and following up on the locks [inaudible 00:05:01], that still needs to be changed in the last two months and so on, because I need to basically call them every Monday. So stuff like that, where I need to follow up with people on things that need to be done in my personal life.

    Parham Doustdar: And then there's the stuff that I do in my side hustle, which is my life coaching business. And that's something that I've started since last year. And this stuff goes from the stuff that I need to do around getting certified, and the stuff that I need to do before coaching sessions, after coaching sessions and follow-ups, that I need to do for clients or people that I used to know, and stuff like that. So all of that right now goes into my OmniFocus

    Andrew J. Mason: Parham, talk to me about your review cadence. Do you have a structured review frequency, or is it a little bit more organic than that?

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah. So reviewing is one of the things that I've never been able to do on the go, because it just is so draining and it requires so much focus from me especially because... So the way a screen reader works is it reads one item at a time. So there's no skimming, no scanning, you're just dealing one item at a time, which is how GTD should be incidentally. In a lot of areas, this is a disadvantage, in GTD this is an advantage. But the problem of that is that my reviews end up taking longer, like one hour or so, and that's why I feel like I've been putting them off more than usual. I had time scheduled on my calendar for Fridays, but I haven't really followed that regimen yet. What I've been able to do though, is one of the things that would usually happen was I would do my reviews in a certain day, at the end of the day, and I would not be feeling creative enough.

    Parham Doustdar: And I would hit this project, which was empty, with no action items. And I would be so out of context that I would do, "I don't know what action items to put here. My brain is not working anymore." So I stopped doing that, but then as a side effect of that, I have moments at work where I'm, "I bet this would be a great project to work on. Ooo, there are no action items here. What should I do now?" So this is one of the problems that I'm struggling with, my system doesn't really go out of date that much, but what I'm missing from the review is the coming up with next action for projects that don't really have one. And that's something that I think I need to do a few passes to get perfect.

    Andrew J. Mason: Even that conversation though, is showing that your awareness is probably at a higher level than 95% of humanity, so.

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah, thanks. So yeah, I think because of the fact that I'm slower than the usual sighted population, tiny stuff like this makes a big difference. So that's why I feel like something like OmniFocus, that allows me to create projects and tasks and folders and pull out the right stuff at the right time and so on, even though it has its own accessibility quirks. And it's not totally, I wouldn't call it 100% accessible, even with that, it's giving me a lot of productivity boosts in different ways. And when I don't use it, I can totally notice it because the difference is so big. And then coming from a place where I didn't have any of this kind of software to begin with, so I can totally notice a difference where OmniFocus is helping and where either I'm not able to use it because of an accessibility issue, or I'm not able to use it because I just don't use it properly.

    Andrew J. Mason: What advice do you have for somebody that is maybe just starting out in project management or task management? It can be OmniFocus or in general, but they're taking on more than they have ever before, they're growing, expanding in their capacity. And it's one of those, "Oh no," moments where I just realized I've been trying to keep all of this in my head, and now I'm not sure exactly how to approach this.

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah, I would say that the thing that helps me the most is this habit of capturing stuff. I mean, I do pay the price if I'm not clarifying, if I'm not organizing, if I'm not engaging property, if I'm not reflecting or reviewing. If I don't do all the other steps, I do pay for them. But none of them is as bad as if I don't capture. And I think, for me especially, that's the most important thing because I do pay for it by that nagging feeling at the back of your mind, that goes, "I know I'm missing something. I'm forgetting something here. And I don't really remember what." And that's, what I would say, is the biggest productivity drainer. Because, imagine there's this thing in the back of your mind saying, "You're forgetting something. You're forgetting something," every five seconds.

    Parham Doustdar: And so for me, the biggest quest has been to make that voice shut up. And I think I've been able to do that by sticking really rigidly to a... I just press command, control, shift, A, which is the hot key for adding something to my OmniFocus inbox. It doesn't matter if I'm in a meeting, it doesn't matter if I'm in a conversation, which is a virtual coffee or something like that, whatever it is I just have that key on hand. So iPhone and the accessibility features, if you go to settings and accessibility, it has a feature to do back taps. And you can assign a shortcut to run if you tap on the back of your device two times or three times.

    Parham Doustdar: And because I noticed that I get really lazy and I don't open the OmniFocus and stuff like that, I just set up a shortcut that whenever I tap on the back of my device two times it brings up a text box that I can type in something and it would get added to my OmniFocus inbox. I initially started with Siri, but they realized I couldn't dictate some things out in front of everyone sometimes. So like, "Discuss this person's salary with that other person," so.

    Andrew J. Mason: Yes.

    Parham Doustdar: So that's why I use the back tap, which is basically as fast as dictating something to Siri, I feel. And so, that's been my biggest productivity gain. And the other thing is tagging, so I did mention that screen readers read one item at a time. So for me, querying and pulling up information is really, really important because if I have the items that I need then things move on really fast. And if I'm having to pull out an item out of a hundred, it's going to take me a long time. And that's why tagging is really important.

    Parham Doustdar: So for example, two ways that I use this is, I have a waiting tag that I check every day next to my forecast about things that I need to follow up on. I have an Andrew tag, which is about stuff that I need to talk to Andrew about. And there's stuff that I need to follow up with team members with, and there are things that I need to tell my friends, so I tag that with friends. This is friend agnostic, any of the friends would do, and so on. So when I'm out at a friend's house, then I can just pull that up really quickly on my phone and be, "Ah, okay. By the way, could you tell me the color of this compared to that," and so on, which it's like all of these tiny things that I have to follow up on unless they fall over into the crack.

    Andrew J. Mason: I know OmniFocus has a pretty passionate community around automation, do you find yourself doing any routines or automation in the app? I know you just mentioned this back tap shortcut, which is brilliant, but does anything else you do land in that space for you?

    Parham Doustdar: Yes. So, because of the fact that OmniFocus, like developers and designers, are not really using the software with a disability, some of this stuff ends up being a bit clunky. So that's why I use OmniFocus automation sometimes to fill in the gap. So for example, I use command and plus, to defer something to tomorrow, and this is something that I thought I would do today and turns out I'm not going to be able to do today. Or for me, sometimes it's really hard to find the next date that I have a deadline on, so like the next day has a due date in it. I imagine that for someone who's sighted, it's really easy to scan the calendar and pull out that day. What I've done is I've written an automation that finds the next day with a task that has a due date in it, and takes the focus there so that I can quickly say, "Oh, okay. What kind of timelines do I need to be aware of as I'm creating this mini roadmap of my life as I go along."

    Andrew J. Mason: Parham, what would you say is something unique about your system? A lot of folks have projects, a lot of folks have tags, is there something that you do that you don't see a lot of other people doing with your system?

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah. I think the one that I would say is the most unique is the use of automations to boost my productivity. Whenever I see that a feature is not really working well, I get to write a plug-in that does something similar, but in a way that is easier to use for me. And for someone with specific accessibility needs, this has been the lifesaver for me in filling up some of the gaps. And as it gets stronger and stronger, the whole feature set of automation, I get happier because then it opens up possibilities for me to create systems that I usually wouldn't think about. For example, networking for me is really hard because I forget to check in with people. And what I've done is I've just created an automation that I've assigned to a key where I have people that I need to reach out to showing up in my forecast.

    Parham Doustdar: And when I do catch up with them, I just press a key, and now it's 1, 2, 3 months in the future. And it will show up again and I don't have to worry about, "Hey, did I check in with Andrew today or not really, do I need to do that now?" And it really puts that fear of, "What should I tell Andrew next time we talk," or something like that, because I used the notes on Andrew to say, "Hey, here are the things that we talked about with Andrew today." And one month later, or three months later, when this task shows up in my forecast again, I have a history of stuff.

    Parham Doustdar: I'm not really sure if anyone uses OmniFocus for networking, I couldn't find anyone online that did that. And that sounds a little bit weird, but using automation plus the fact that I can have an infinite amount of notes on people is basically how I get my networking in order, which is something that's really important, both as I grow into my role and go a little bit higher up the corporate ladder, and also as I get started more and more with my business.

    Andrew J. Mason: I have one more question. Honestly, this wasn't in our script so feel free to hit it whatever way it hits you. In preparation for this interview, not that I'm Twitter stalking you or anything, but I'm just looking through and seeing how you're emerging as this voice of advocacy for software to have more accessibility. And I hear a lot of like-minded individuals saying, "Oh yeah, me too." Really resonating with that. If you had a soapbox or one thing to share for developers or people that make software out there, what's the one thing that, "Man, if I could share this with you guys and have you understand it, it would really lower the barrier of entry for a lot of people."

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah. Yeah, that's a really great question because I feel like most people discount the degree to which people with different access needs actually would be able to benefit from different kinds of software, and this is especially true in the land of software. And usually you see people kind of completely separating their product from people with access needs to, "Here, we're leaving out cars," and someone with a wheelchair doesn't really need a car. "So, I guess our website doesn't really need to be accessible, so we'll just chill." But then this person shows up with a wheelchair who needs to really get somewhere and they are actually able to get in a car. And so, one thing that is really becoming more and more clear to me over time is that software can really, really help make people's lives better. And this is especially true for people who have access needs that are more special, I would say, because this is harder to do in a physical world. But in software you actually get to make these people's lives better with very minimum amount of time and investment.

    Parham Doustdar: So, the most important thing I would say is, don't discount people with access needs just because you don't really foresee them using your software, and always try and include those people in these discussions. People usually just get involved for free, they do testing for you, they provide feedback. They basically put in their time because they actually see the value that your software brings to them. So the fact that you get to use that willingness is a really quick and easy way to get started without much of a time investment and without much worrying about it and making it more difficult.

    Andrew J. Mason: Well let me just say thank you, because this is valuable. Being able to have conversations about this, because it's not always cut and dry. Sometimes it's messy, sometimes people aren't sure "Where, how far, or in what direction, or in what way, do I design this software or this experience for the user?" And your willingness to kind of wade through these conversations and communicate that value and that education is so valuable.

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah. For me, it's easier to do because it really affects me in my everyday life. As I said, there was a pre-OmniFocus era in my life and there was a post-OmniFocus era. And for me, the difference is so big that I don't think anyone was able to imagine before. And so, what I'm dreaming about, for example in OmniFocus, is imagine bringing that productivity to whole sets of people that weren't able to do this before. And just extrapolate that to all sorts of software, like banking and so on. So, this raises people's quality of life a lot with very minimum investment. And I'm really happy that software is being picked up more and more, which means it's becoming easier and easier for companies to actually have social impact without much of a redesign or re-implementing something weird.

    Andrew J. Mason: And it's such great news that, that barrier to entry for implementing accessibility and software is getting lower and lower. Parham, how can people find out more about you and what you're up to, or if they want to connect with you? How can they do that?

    Parham Doustdar: Yeah. So there is my website, which is my full name .com. That's Parham, P-A-R-H-A-M, and Doustdar, D-O-U-S-T-D-A-R .com. You can also find me on Twitter at PD90, so that's P-D 9 and 0. And that's pretty much it, I'm not really a social media person, but I do respond to all the emails, so any form of contact that actually works people I'm really open to.

    Andrew J. Mason: That's awesome. And thank you so much for honoring us with your time and sharing a slice of what your system looks like and how it's implemented in your life.

    Parham Doustdar: Thanks a lot. And as I said before the call, thanks a lot for doing the podcast. It gives me ideas every day on thought processes, entire thought processes, that I could adopt. So thanks a lot for giving me ideas.

    Andrew J. Mason: Of course. Thank you. And on behalf of the whole Omni Group team, thank you as well.

    Andrew J. Mason: Hey, and thank all of you for listening today too. As always, you can drop us a line at The Omni Show on Twitter, we'd love to hear from you there. You can also find out everything that's happening with the Omni Group at omnigroup.com/blog.