The Informed Life

Jorge Arango

An interview-based show that explores how people organize and design information to get things done.

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Hans Krueger is co-founder of the international design consultancy MetaDesign. He also co-founded another design consultancy, FutureDraft, where we worked together for several years. In this conversation, we discuss Hans’s trajectory and how ancient teachings have helped him better understand his emotions. Show notes Hans Krueger (LinkedIn) Now Partners Erik Spiekermann Uli Mayer-Johanssen MetaDesign Arnaud Maitland Nyingma school of Buddhism FutureDraft Walter Link The Cycle of Emotions - A guide to influencing reality by Jessica Fan Longchenpa Kindly Bent to Ease Us – Part One: Mind by Longchenpa Kindly Bent to Ease Us - Part Two: Meditation by Longchenpa Kindly Bent to Ease Us - Part Three: Wonderment by Longchenpa Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Hans, welcome to the show. Hans: Thank you, Jorge! Jorge: I'll just say it, it's always a joy to see you. Hans: Pleasure is entirely mutual. Jorge: Well, folks, you might detect in the warm welcome that Hans and I have known each other for a while, and we've worked together. And I'm honored to say that I think of you as a good friend. But folks listening might not know who you are. So, for their benefit, would you please introduce yourself? About Hans Hans: Okay. I'll try to keep it brief. The problem at my age is the story is awfully long. So, obviously I'm from Germany, as you can hear with my accent. So, I think it's probably best to start... to take us to Berlin when the wall was falling, in the fall of 1989 and to a meeting where I met this guy, this funny typographer called Eric Spiekermann, and my friend Uli Mayer took me to meet him. And basically, out of that meeting came the creation of a company called MetaDesign. And for those who know the design scene in Europe, that's a fairly significant company and continues to be. I was the... basically I was running the company for the first 12 years of its existence. From, you know, building it from scratch to a few hundred people and multiple offices. And it was one hell of a ride! It coincided the emergence of a technical phenomenon called the internet. That happened simultaneously. We were in the middle of that, even though MetaDesign had its core competency... it came from typography and micro design, and therefore the term MetaDesign — design for design. But it quickly became like a multifaceted design firm, with a huge emphasis on the internet. So, it was fascinating and a long story, so I will not go too far into that, but basically just to add one more thing: we did things such as, just to give you an example, for VW built their first car configurator. It was one of the first online car configurators. In those days those were huge endeavors. All the code had to be created. And not only that, we managed to link that car configurator to the production database of VW so that the car configurator would automatically only show the options that were actually possible within a car, and the combinations that were possible. Because that's the huge complexity with these things. And these things change all the time. So, that was huge. Jorge: And this was in the 1990s? Hans: Yeah, absolutely — 1990s. So, it was awesome. And, those were like huge projects, you know? Like a year and a half and massive manpower and equivalent budgets. Very interesting. So, after 12 years, I was literally finished, because I had learned how to build a company in a way. Got fairly good at that. But I had not learned how to regenerate myself. When I left, I had... I don't know how many but like way more than a hundred unused vacation days. And I was absolutely depleted, you know? And so, I had not learned how to regenerate myself. I had always discounted that as a topic. That was a costly lesson and it led to a multi-year process of rebuilding that foundation, with the most important element of meeting the teacher that actually introduced me to the knowledge that I needed to do the rebuilding process. It was a dark time at times, I have to say. And his name is Arnaud Maitland, and he's now retired pretty much. But he is a Nyingma Buddhist. So, the interesting thing for me was less... you know, I was never a religious guy, so I did not... there was no interest on that level. But the knowledge of the human condition that these guys have, in these lineages, in these knowledge lineages, is just extraordinary. It's immeasurably deep. You know, in our life and the way we live, we can barely scratch the surface of that, even if we commit to a significant amount of study. So, that was important. After that, you and I started basically working together for a number of years in FutureDraft. It was a lot of fun, and from my perspective, really interesting in terms of the design process that we developed there, which was very much a collaborative design process. And from my perspective, and you might differ on that, but the extraordinary thing was that we started to design complex systems sort of from the inside out. So, that was a great chapter and then... it ran its course. The sort of work we were doing was increasingly hard to find, so we decided to go do something else and I had another big revelation. The second really big revelation in my life was when a mutual friend of ours introduced the notion and the clear distinction of extraction versus regeneration. And I started to think about that. That really hit home. So, it suddenly dawned on me the nature of our economic activity and what is going on there, and then sort of close the loop to to finding the mission for the second half of my life. And that's basically... it took me a little bit away from the design industry, but I'm now completely focused on bringing the logic of regeneration into companies and building an organization around that. So that's what I'm doing right now. And on a personal note, I've been married for a long time. I have one son. My son is already almost 30. And, I've also always been a musician, you know that about me. So I play drums in too many bands to mention. And, still love to do that. And, I also know fairly... I could still hit a fairly decent golf ball! That's another thing I know how to do fairly... fairly well. But, yeah! That's about it. Jorge: Oftentimes when I invite folks to be guests on the show, there's a topic that we agree on beforehand. And in your case, we're kind of going into this with many possible topics to explore, which is a challenge, right? And the thing that draws my attention, just in hearing you introduce yourself, is that there's this trajectory in your career where you helped build this organization, and helped grow it to a fairly large size, especially for the design world. Hans: Yeah. Coming out of the dark Jorge: And, as you said, you... I don't know if this is exactly what you said, but I got the sense that you kind of burned yourself out in the process of doing that? And the time when I met you, and when we worked together, it felt to me like you had overcome that and you had overcome it... I got the sense that you had overcome it in part through these teachings that you were talking about. And just in my knowing you and knowing your trajectory since then, it feels like those have been central to both the work that we were doing at FutureDraft and also the work that you're doing now in regeneration. And I was hoping that we could explore that a little bit here because it might be of value to folks listening in to hear more about how you came out of this kind of dark period of your life and how these ideas have influenced the trajectory since then. Hans: Oh, that's a loaded question, my goodness! How do you come out of a deep dark period? So... but, I can give you sort of a glimpse and it's very much an individual thing, you know? In the end, everybody has to find the path individually and it starts by becoming aware of what calls you. In my case, I had always felt, like, an affinity to the Tibetan Buddhists for some reason. I mean, that's also... and it started way earlier before it became fashionable, and the mountains and all of that. But what I experienced... so, the way I met my teacher, I was at a retreat in Brazil, invited by a very good friend of mine, Walter Link — who played a big role in my life and continues to — and he invited me. And part of that program in that retreat was a Buddhist teacher, teaching two days on the subject of time. And I thought, when I looked at the program, what is he going to talk about for two days on time? Time is a fairly straightforward topic. I went into this and after an hour, it dawned on me that I could study the subject of time for the rest of my life and would not even be able to scratch the surface. So, that was like a relief because at that moment, the realization was — and it's not... it wasn't as explicit as it is now when I look back on it — but this has happened in some shape or form was, the revelation was that there is knowledge that is so far greater than anything I have the idea off — that it exists. That I can actually take refuge in it. That I can rely on some basic things that others have really thought through carefully. And I have not found that before in my life. Certainly not in the church I grew up with in Germany. None of it. And I would describe it as knowledge of the human condition. And you could also say knowledge of our own operating system. And when you shine a light on what actually drives your patterns — your thought patterns — and they become visible, that's when the relief sets in. So what basically has power over you without you realizing it becomes visible. And that's in the end, the process. So, I know we've talked about the whole subject of emotions. Huge topic. What surprisingly few people realize is that there is like a real system behind this thing, this whole emotional complex. How they work, how they interact with each other, what leads to what, what you can do to actually cultivate your own emotional state. A state that allows you to perceive as clearly as possible what is real, versus what you imagine is real. Jorge: What do you mean by emotions? Like, what emotions are we talking about? Emotions Hans: Well, you can start anywhere but of course, classic emotion is fear, or anger, right? So these are very strong expressions. And if you talk about the system... if I shed like a little light on it, maybe? So each one of these, for example, fear or anger, they're connected to a whole complex of emotions. So, there's like a sequence. Fear is actually... and this might not be so intuitive, but I can tell you it's, for example, connected to apathy and aversion, right? And anger on the other hand, which surprisingly many people sort of think has a lot to do with fear, anger actually is connected to emotions such as attachment and desire, stuff like that. The interesting thing is that... so one of the core realizations is that each one of these emotions, for example, anger. Good example, anger. If your mind gets used to being angry, you will be angry all the time. So anger is actually something that... it's a pattern in the mind. And for example, if you are used to experiencing relief when you blow off steam, that's a pattern that when that happens, it's way more likely that it will happen again in the very near future. What that means is you can actually dry these things up. And why do you want to do that? You want to do that because when you're angry, for example, and you get to a real rage state... this is like when it becomes most obvious, you're completely disconnected from reality. You don't know anymore what's really happening in the world. And it goes as far as hurting yourself, you know? You might run with your head into the wall. Jorge: I'm hearing you describe this Hans, and thinking that that sounds like the business model for a lot of the social networks, right? Hans: Right! right. Well, I mean, they absolutely... they trigger these emotions and they play with it and it's actually like a drug. And what it does is it could completely disconnect you from reality. And the whole goal, as far as the Buddhists are and what they teach in terms of the human condition teachings, they say that your aspiration in life... a good, healthy aspiration in life is to be as clear in your perception of reality as possible, as often as possible. So, meaning that these emotions that basically take away that clarity or that connection to reality, are really detrimental and they lead to all sorts of actions that we might regret afterward, you know? And they also lead to actions where we destroy our own habitat. Greed, by the way, is one of these emotions, you know? So, if you're in the grasp of greed, you do damage and you don't realize because you're completely disconnected from reality. Jorge: Well, and I'm thinking another example might be when one gets angry at someone and you just let your mouth fly and say all sorts of hurtful things, right? Which you then regret. Hans: Of course. And you can go into physical altercations, you know? So absolutely. The structure of emotions Jorge: So, these ideas sound fairly intuitive. What is different or at least was different for me when I first heard it, was the way that they're structured. They're grouped in particular ways, right? And they relate to each other in particular ways, which I first heard of from you, and I was hoping that you would tell us a bit more about that because I think it's very intriguing. Hans: Happy to do that. So, I just basically try to describe how these emotions are grouped in clusters, right? That actually there's like a common core to them. There's like a common core. So the thing is, of course, there are also positive emotions. Emotions that actually help you to see the world as clearly as possible. Where you really like... you're breathing pure oxygen. Okay, that's not so healthy either. But you're like completely clear and connected to everything and you'll hear all the voices and you know exactly what's going on and what's needed at a particular moment, right? I'll give you an example of how this works together. So, when you love something, you care about it deeply, when you love something. This could be another human being, or it could be a beautiful flower, or the planet itself. Or it could be anything. There's like, there’s… Jorge: The Beatles? Hans: The... who's that? He's pulling my leg, you know? So, anyway, that's another huge topic, don't get me started on that! But basically what happens is that when that love is pure, for example, you love another human being, it does not infringe on that other human beings "being," if that makes sense. So, it's actually... love is an emotion of freedom. And when that turns, and there's a shadow side to it, and that shadow side is attachment. Because now suddenly something that you love, you want it to be in a certain way. You take away its freedom to develop as it needs to develop because you want it to be in a certain way. So, now you're attached, right? And now there is a progression from attachment to anger, to rage... it's just one progression, you know? It's just a question of time. So how this systemically works is... this means there's a shadow side actually to those emotions that are actually beneficial for you. And the little trick is you cannot, when you have become angry, you cannot go back. First of all, if you consider what happens to most people is they become angry that they're angry, right? So now you have anger times two. Anger, layered on top of anger. And then actually, that continues to the third and fourth and fifth dimension. And so the anger gets thicker and thicker. Jorge: It's a positive feedback cycle, right? Hans: Yes. I don't know if it's positive. Jorge: Positive in the sense that it grows, right? Hans: I know. So, the trick here is you can only get rid of it with an antidote. And the antidote is actually... in the case of attachment and anger, which is very much about yourself, you want something to be in a certain way, right? That's like the common root of this, and you get angry because it's not like that, is compassion -is the cultivation of compassion. So, compassion means you take somebody else's wellbeing, or the wellbeing of the planet, or whatever, you take it on the same level of importance as your own. So, when you do that, anger can't exist anymore because it's not about you anymore. So I hope the logic gets clear, is sort of visible in that description of one of the quadrants. And the thing is there's like a whole circle of these. It goes around in a 360-degree circle. One thing leads to another, it's the antidote of another, and you cultivate that and that can go wrong again, and so this goes all the way around, which is too much in our format here, but that's the little secret. And what was the breakthrough for me was that I actually have the freedom to cultivate what I want to cultivate. To realize that I'm not the victim of whatever I'm in the grip of. That I can cultivate it myself. Jorge: That sounds incredibly liberating. I just want to point out because you hinted at the fact that there's a cyclical structure to this, and we don't have enough time to get into it here, but Jessica Fan has written up the model based on a presentation that you did, and I'm going to include a link to that article in the show notes for folks to check out. It is worth checking out. Hans: She's lovely. Yes, she did a great job on it. Jorge: This idea that through greater awareness of your emotional state, you can liberate yourself from being kind of driven by these things is incredibly powerful. And yet from experience, I know that it's hard, right? Like when you're in a rage, you're not thinking straight. Hans: No, that’s right. Escaping emotional cycles Jorge: So, how do you overcome that? Like, how do you gain the ability to escape from these feedback cycles? Hans: Yeah. So a very good question, Jorge. So what I would say is... so the path — my path, and I always have to preface everything, that this is my path. So this is not... you cannot generalize it. But for me, the path was to... for a long period of time, and I do this still every day, I contemplate the system. Whenever I'm somewhere — and it runs like a background program — the first step is to really memorize the system, which takes surprisingly long, actually. That you have it completely in your mind; that it's ingrained in your mind. That it becomes part of your normal, interior structure. So, memorizing the system is the first step. The second thing is to actually start contemplating yourself, how these things interact. Because it's literally like you discover... I can tell you I've done this now for more than 15 years, I think? Every day, I discover new dimensions in this. How like little mechanisms, how they work. And then, the process is, in the end, is classic. So, usually what happens is you have like an episode during the day and you lie in your bed at night and you contemplate, "Geez! You know? There it was again.:" So, you become aware. So, the practice is, as it gets ingrained into your body, into your system, these intervals become shorter and shorter. So, you're... initially, you probably think about it at night in bed. Then you get closer and closer to the point where it actually occurs. And if you're a master, — I'm nowhere near — you actually catch it at the onset, when it's like the first tiny irritant in your body, you already got it. And you apply what I call the antidote. You immediately catch it. If there's like the tiniest amount of attachment, you already got it. That way, it never progresses. So, that's the path. It definitely starts by really memorizing the whole thing. You have to know it. That this leads to that, that leads to that, that leads to that. These are the different groups .... and you have to have it in your system. That took astonishingly long. I had like one that I was constantly missing. I could not remember it, you know? That, of course, points to other psychological phenomena; that you have a blind spot. Design and the cycle of emotions Jorge: Like you were saying, this stuff is so deep and vast. Like, there's a lot to explore here. Many of the folks listening to this show are probably interested in design. They have either a design background or are practicing designers. And I'm wondering if you can talk about the relationship between the framework — this cycle of emotions — and the design process… if there's any relationship there? Hans: Oh, there's a huge relationship! So, let's start by saying what happens to you on an individual level, happens to organizations on an organizational level. So, you can have angry organizations. You have arrogant organizations; organizations who think they know at all. You have all that, and if you know how this works, you can actually design according to what's needed. You can design for the antidote. And you can also completely miss it because you are not aware of it. So, if you apply the wrong antidote, there's not going to be any impact. So, that's like one huge thing. You can actually observe it. Do you know who really knows this stuff well? People who write movie scripts. Since I've been aware of this, I watch movies and I go like, "Ah, there it is." This is like a blueprint, how they operate with the system, you know? And I'm sure it's not, in many cases... I would be surprised if they actually explore it through Buddhist teachings, but these are all universal truths. This is not something that the Buddhist own or something. They just describe something that exists. So, it's inevitable that others come to the same conclusion because it's the truth. That's just how it works. And I see it in movie scripts all the time. But it definitely applies to organizations. It applies to teams, to design teams, you know? When you work in a team and you have a person who is in a particular state, if you have this knowledge, you can address it. The challenge is to actually apply this in an organizational context. And we even had that at FutureDraft because there's so much resistance. There's a lot of resistance to actually... which is really interesting, to making this stuff visible. Many people don't want this to become visible. They sense that there's sort of a complication for their life. They love their emotions, you know? Why would I start manipulating my emotions? Right? My anger is healthy. I hear those, but... yes, there is sometimes a place for anger, but from my perspective, the trap is to become caught up in it. Sometimes you just have to blow up. But how do you calibrate your own system afterward so that it does not linger in your system and block your ability to see clearly? Jorge: What I'm thinking in hearing you describe this is that in gaining greater awareness of the degree to which emotions are influencing your behavior, and gaining the ability to regulate that process, imparts upon you a certain degree of responsibility, right? Like, you can no longer point to your emotional state as the cause for these things. So, you were talking earlier about this victim mindset. It's like, well, you know, "I was angry, so that's the excuse!" Hans: Yep, exactly. Exactly. Very true. Yeah. The notion, in a way, is to take responsibility on that level. Take responsibility for the state you are in. That's actually, I think, one of the core requirements of a leader. You have to take responsibility for the state you're in. And we had some very clear examples of people who are completely oblivious to that in recent years. So, yeah, absolutely. Taking responsibility for the state you are in, also as an organization, by the way. This is really a big deal. Reading the emotional space Jorge: Right. And I don't know to what degree this is something that we are trained for. I think that as individuals, we have a sense for what it means to be angry, what it means to feel, I don't know, greed or what have you, but I would expect that it's harder to read the room when it comes to a group of people, whether it's your team or the organization, or what have you. Any pointers in that regard? Hans: Well, I mean, first of all, when you yourself are in a balanced state, you will be able to read the room. That what gets in the way is your own imbalance, right? If you had a fight at home in the morning and you walk into a meeting, that fight lingers in your system, if you don't know how to completely offset that emotion and you have a practice around it. You will bring this into the meeting. You will not see what's going on in the meeting and you will miss vital information. And information of course is communicated... only 5% or so is communicated verbally. The rest happens on completely different levels. You're missing all that because your system is blocked. It's clogged, literally, inside. Yeah, it's astonishing. I mean, I don't know if it comes across, but you really have it in your... when you become aware of that, of what it feels like to have a system that is clogged like that, and you know the difference between the two states, it's astonishing, you know? The level of information that you suddenly get because you're not clogged. Closing Jorge: Well, this all sounds really fascinating, and again, a lot of it is not new to me because we've talked about this in the past, but I'm very happy to be able to share it with folks here. I'm wondering where they might find out more about this particular framework. I mean, I've already mentioned, Jessica's post. Hans: Yeah. Jorge: But if there are any other resources? And then, where can folks follow up with you yourself, should they want to reach out? Hans: So, the second question is easy to answer. You find me on LinkedIn. I don't have... I'm not a big social networker, so, but on LinkedIn, you can find me. And if you put in Hans Krueger MetaDesign for example, that will lead you straight to me, I would imagine, because my name is fairly common, in Germany at least. So that's one thing. Also, if you're interested, take a look at a website called Now.Partners. That's actually the endeavor that I'm involved in currently, which is a decentralized global consultancy. We have not really talked about that — it's a fascinating topic — that, in service to regeneration of large multinational companies and family-owned businesses. So, Now.Partners, there's like 120 partners in there now. And you will find my portrait in there. I'm the CFO of that organization, so… Jorge: And you'll find me as well. Hans: Hey, you're also a partner? Fantastic. No, no, of course! Fantastic. Which is awesome. Yeah. So, you can also get in touch with me through that. So Yeah! The first part of your question, where to look for resources, that's not so easy to answer. So basically this thing, what I've just told you, you will find snippets of that in any Buddhist book. I'm not aware of a book that actually spells this out to the degree that it... how it would be applicable to our normal professional life. I'm not aware of that, really. There are various frameworks actually out there about, emotional frameworks, I should say, meaning frameworks that describe this whole system. I have to say, the knowledge that I've shared here a little bit comes out of a book that was written in the 15th century by a famous Buddhist teacher. 15th or 14th century. Incredible, when you read that. His name is Longchenpa. And the book has a beautiful title and I, say this slowly, Kindly Bent To Ease Us. What a title! Anyway, Kindly Bent To Ease Us. This is not the easiest thing to read, but it's all described in there. Fascinating! So, in the end, explore it where you can explore it if you're interested, and you will find the right place. Jorge: I am very grateful for you to come on the show and tell us about it, Hans. Hans: It was my pleasure, and, yeah! I hope it was interesting. Jorge: Thank you for being here. Hans: Thank you, Jorge. Thank you for having me.

21 nov

34 min 32 seg

Annie Murphy Paul is an acclaimed science writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Scientific American, Slate, Time magazine, The Best American Science Writing, and other publications. Our conversation focuses on the subject of her latest book, The Extended Mind, which is about how human cognition relies on our bodies, other people, and the material world. I loved this book and was thrilled to ask Annie about how this line of thinking plays out in the context of our heavily digitized lives. Show notes Annie Murphy Paul @anniemurphypaul on Twitter The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul The Cult of Personality Testing: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves by Annie Murphy Paul Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul Book Notes: “The Extended Mind” by Jorge Arango Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Andy Clark David Chalmers Carol Dweck Apple Watch Interoception Robert Caro The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro Miro Mural Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Annie, welcome to the show. Annie: Thank you, Jorge. It's really great to be here. Jorge: Well, it's a real pleasure and an honor to have you. I recently read your newest book and I... like I wrote on my blog, I loved it. So, it's great to have you here to talk about it. Some folks might not be familiar with you and your work. How do you go about introducing yourself and what you do? About Annie Annie: You know, I usually say that I'm a science writer, but even as I say that, I feel like a little bit of an imposter. Because to me, a science writer is someone who writes about the mission to Mars, or the COVID 19 virus, or something. And I really only write about one particular kind of science, and that is the science of human behavior. If it has something to do with people, and how they act, and how they think, then I'm a hundred percent interested. But I don't write about other kinds of entities or report on other kinds of science. I'm exclusively really devoted to thinking and writing about human behavior. And in particular, human cognition. Learning and cognition are really my... that's my wheelhouse. Jorge: These are hugely important subjects. The Extended Mind is your third book, yes? Annie: It is. Jorge: And, the other two deal with cognition.... and I have to be frank, I have not read the other two. But just from looking at them, it seems like they deal with cognition at early stages of human development. Is that right? Annie: Well, my first book was about personality testing. It's called The Cult Of Personality, and it was a scientific critique and cultural history of personality testing. And that was very interesting to me. I found that topic interesting because I'm interested in why we are the way we are, how we think about the way we are and how that interacts with what society tells us we are and who we should be. And personality testing seemed to me like a really interesting example of society creating these categories, which people often embrace, you know? And after writing this book that was critical of personality tests, I heard from many people who love the Myers-Briggs personality tests, for example, and who felt that it made everything... made the whole world makes sense to them, made themselves legible to themselves and others in ways that hadn't been possible for them before. But I do see myself not just as reporting science and the findings of science, but often acting as a kind of social critic. And I really wanted people to stop and think about whether the categories of personality psychology were really an adequate way to describe the fullness and the richness of their humanity, you know? And then my second book was different from that. It was called Origins, and it was about the science of prenatal influences. And there, I was interested in making an intervention in the long-running nurture-nature debate. It seemed to me like there was, this nine-month period that didn't get enough attention as a wellspring of who we are and how we turn out in life because there's so much focus on the moment of conception when this genetic blueprint gets laid down and the moment of birth when nurture by the parents begins, conventionally speaking. But there were nine months in between those two events that actually turn out to be really consequential in shaping our future health and perhaps things like our future personality and how we handle stress and things like that. So, to me, those two books as different as they seem on the surface were really investigations into the same question, which is: what makes us the way we are. And I would even say that this latest book, The Extended Mind, is just a continuation of that question or that search for an answer to that question. In this case, I was interested in how we understand the question of intelligence and how we understand the activity of thinking and, you know, conventionally... again, this is where the social criticism comes in. Conventionally, we think of thinking as happening inside the brain. And I was very intrigued by the concept originally introduced by two philosophers that actually thinking happens out in the world. It happens throughout our bodies, you know? Below the neck. It happens in our physical surroundings, it happens in our interactions with other people. And that to think of thinking as happening only inside our heads is really limiting and constraining and also just simply an inaccurate picture of how thinking happens. Jorge: I would expect that there are people listening in who hear that we have this perception that thinking happens inside the brain and they go, "Well, yes! That's where it happens!" Right? Annie: Right. Jorge: Many of us were brought up with that impression. And as you're suggesting here, the work of particularly Andy Clark and David Chalmers, the philosophers you were referring to, points to there being more to that, right? The way that I understood it is it happens in concert between the nervous system, the body, our senses, and the environment around us. And other actors in the environment, yes? Where we think Annie: Yes. And I want to be clear to those who would be skeptical of this concept that the brain is still central to thinking. It's not that the brain is not the locus of thinking; it's just that it's not... the process of thinking, the argument goes, is not limited to the brain. And in fact, the brain is really orchestrating resources from outside itself, from the body, from the physical surroundings, from other people. And that that is a broader and more expansive view of the thinking process than imagining that it all happens in the brain. So the brain is still central, but I think we can change our notion of what role the brain plays: less a kind of workhorse that's doing all of the work itself and more of like an orchestra conductor that's bringing in resources from outside itself and coordinating them and assembling them into this dynamic process of thinking. Jorge: Yeah. I love that. The notion that it's not that the brain is driving the show, perhaps, but like it's orchestrating things. I like that way of thinking about it. The old distinction, the old way of looking at the way the mind works, if we might call it brain-centric, has led to designs for the world that we live in, right? And you get into several of those in the book. I'm wondering if you could talk a bit more about how that kind of brain-centric way of thinking about the mind has led to the various structural aspects of the world that we work and learn and play and interact in. Metaphors: the brain as computer Annie: Yes. Yeah, I do see evidence of that brain-centric view all over the place. Once you start noticing it, it's hard not to see. But you know, I just a moment ago we were talking about various metaphors for the brain and we understand the brain and it's working through metaphor. And one of the most common metaphors, and I'm sure your listeners have encountered it, is the brain as a computer. And that notion got its start in the cognitive revolution of the 20th century, and it's been very fruitful as a kind of paradigm for exploring the brain and inventing all the applications and technology that are so useful to us these days. But it is very limiting in its capacity to explain to ourselves what the brain is, what it does. I always like to say we're more like animals than we are like machines. You know, the brain is a biological organ. I mean, I know this is obvious, but we really can get very entranced in a way by this metaphor of "brain as computer." The brain is a biological organ that evolved to carry out tasks that are often very different from the tasks that we expect it to execute today. And so, our misunderstanding of what the brain is leads us, as you were saying, Jorge, to create these structures in society — in education and in the workplace, in our everyday lives — that really don't suit the reality of what the brain is. I mean, I'm thinking about how, for example, we expect ourselves to be productive. Whether that's in the workplace, or what we expect our students to do in school. You know, we often expect ourselves to sit still, don't move around, don't change the space where you're in. Don't talk to other people. Just sit there and kind of work until it's done. And that's how we expect ourselves to get serious thinking done. And that makes sense if the brain is a computer, you know? You feed it information and it processes the information, then it spits out the answer in this very linear fashion. But that's not at all how the brain works. Because the brain is so exquisitely sensitive to context, and that context can be the way our bodies are feeling and how they're moving, that context can be literally where we are situated and what we see and what we experience around us, and that context can be the social context: whether we're with other people, whether we're talking to them, how those conversations are unfolding — all those things have an incredibly powerful impact on how we think. And so, when we expect the brain to function like a computer, whether that's in the office or in the classroom, we're really underselling its actual powers — its actual genius — and we're cutting ourselves off from the wellsprings of our own intelligence, which is the fact that we are embodied creatures embedded in an environment and set in this network of relationships. So, it really... we're really kind of leaving a lot of potential intelligence on the table when we limit our idea of what the brain is in that way. Metaphors: the brain as muscle Jorge: There's another metaphor that you also discuss in the book, this idea of the brain as a muscle. Annie: Yes. Jorge: Which is a... because the idea of the brain as a computer that processes has some kind of input and then generates an output, I think that we can all relate to. But what is this notion of the brain as muscle and why is it wrong? Annie: Yeah. This is an interesting one because although it's so common to think of the brain as a computer, it's not like people have... well, this is... that was wrong. I was going to say, it's not like people are passionately defending the metaphor of brain as computer. But in fact, there are a lot of people in artificial intelligence and other areas that are quite attached to that idea. But it is also the case that there are many people who seem very attached to the idea of the brain as muscle. And this, too has a pretty long history, longer than the brain as computer, obviously. You can find tracks from the 19th century by medical authorities telling people that your brain is like a muscle and just like a physical muscle when you exercise it more, it gets stronger. So, there's a very long history of that idea. But more recently, it was really brought into the public consciousness by the work of the psychologist, Carol Dweck, who introduced this idea of the growth mindset. And the growth mindset is very popular and very beloved for many good reasons. I mean, Carol Dweck is a very accomplished scientist and I very much admire her and her work. And what appeals to people about the growth mindset and its metaphor of the brain as muscle is that it's a very hopeful message to give to a student or to an adult. You know, that intelligence is not a fixed quantity. It's actually something that you can grow, you can cultivate through effort and through practice. And of course, there's a lot to that. And there's a lot that's positive about the growth mindset. I do have some issues with that metaphor because again, it's a very brain-centric kind of metaphor. It focuses all of its firepower on the brain on the idea that exercising the brain is how we make it stronger. And I think in a way it limits people who are very attached to the growth mindset because if simply exercising the brain harder and harder isn't getting you what you want, there aren't many other options. And what I so enjoy about the theory of The Extended Mind is that it offers so many choices and options and avenues, you know? It may be that if sitting and thinking harder and harder is not working for you, it may be that you need to stand up and move around and maybe act out the problem that you're wrestling with. Or you may need to go outside and spend some time in nature, restoring your attention. Or you may need to engage in a social activity with another person, like telling them a story about what you're struggling with or engaging in a debate with them. And so, there are so many ways that we can draw on our environment and on our own bodies and on our own relationships to think better. And so that to me is what the theory of The Extended Mind adds to the conversation. Jorge: Yeah. What I'm hearing there is that the notion that intelligence can be grown is not wrong per se, it's that we've been limiting intelligence to just the one organ up here, right? Annie: Yes. And I do notice there's a wonderful new paper by Carol Dweck and some other researchers that's really explicitly recognizing this and saying that growth mindset needs to be practiced within an environment, a context, that supports actual growth and development. So, I think the idea that context is so important to our thinking is really, you know, it's having its moment, I hope. And I actually think the pandemic has played a role in that, you know? Because so many of us have spent the past 18 months as almost like brains in front of screens, and we've been cut off from many of the mental extensions that normally pre-pandemic would, in normal life, would have helped us with our thinking, like being able to move around and even commuting or traveling in ways that are stimulating and being in new places and interacting with people in person. In a lot of cases, we've been missing those things and we've felt the impact on our thinking, you know? We're not thinking as well as we would like to, and it's not for lack of working our brains hard, because we have been doing that. But that's not enough. We really need the support of those external resources that have been harder to access during the pandemic. Interacting in information environments Jorge: I wanted to ask you about that. The tagline of this show is that it's about how people organize information to get things done, and the notion there is that we are living... even before the pandemic, we were living in a society where so many of our interactions are moving from — let's call them real-world contexts — to contexts that we instantiate in these small glass rectangles we carry around in our pockets, right? And the glass rectangle, when compared to real life, is a relatively limited channel. Annie: Yeah. Jorge: And I'm wondering how awareness of our embodied intelligence can help us think better, act more soundly. I'm wondering if there are any lessons from that that could help us become more effective users of these digital systems that are currently going through these very narrow channels. Annie: Yeah, well, I think we do need to think carefully about how we use these devices because they really... they can't be beat, in terms of convenience and ease. And I think we've all experienced that during the pandemic, that actually all those meetings that we were going into the office for, or traveling across the country to meet people, they can happen online and they probably will continue to happen online more than they did before. I do want to urge people to be aware of what the trade-off is. You know, it is easy, it is convenient. It's... from my reading of the research, I have a real bias in favor of in-person interactions because the signal, as you... I think you used the word "signals"... you know, the signals that we're exchanging with other people as we talk, as we spend time in each other's presence, they're so much richer than when we are communicating with each other across the screen digitally. This is part of our brain-centric culture that we are so focused on simply the words that people say, like the actual information being conveyed in this very explicit sense, that that's what we focus on. And we feel like, "okay, well, that got the job done." You know, that interactive virtual meeting, that got the job done because we exchanged the appropriate words. But there's so much more going on when two people relate to each other in person. And I wouldn't want us to think that the sort of pale simulacrum of human interaction that can happen online-- I wouldn't want us to think that that can ever substitute for being together in person. And not just two people, but in particular, the power of a group of people getting together-- that is very hard to simulate online. So, I think you had asked, Jorge, about not just about the compromises we make in terms of our social interactions when we're online, but also this embodied aspect. You know, it's very easy when we're using our devices to think of ourselves as just a brain in a vat, a brain looking at a screen. When, as I've been saying, so much of our intelligence emerges from the fact that we are embodied, you know? And that's easy to forget when we're so in this head space of using our computers and our devices. And so one other thing I would say is just to... first of all, to take time to make sure that you're not on your devices all the time and that you do remember that you have a body and use it and tune into it and all those things. But also if it's possible, look for technology and look for applications that involve your body. And that there are applications and technologies like that, that don't require you to just be sort of like a face or a head in the screen, but that do involve the body to a greater degree. And we can make choices about, you know, which technologies we use in that sense. Jorge: Is one aspect of that getting greater awareness of how our bodies function? And I'm thinking of things like the Apple Watch, which I'm wearing, and this notion that all of a sudden my movements get quantified as this exercise ring that I either close or not, depending on how much I move my body during the day. Does that serve to bring us closer to our awareness? Or does it somehow build a distance by abstracting it out into a number that we're aiming for? Annie: Yeah, that's a super interesting question. I am not sure, actually. I mean, I think I'd be in favor of any technology that makes us more conscious of our bodies and more conscious of our movements, but then again, as you say, is there a cost in terms of moving away from the actual embodied experience of being a body and turning that into a number or, and then turning the number into a goal, you know? That you're either meeting or not meeting. I think there's definitely potential there for a kind of detachment from the body instead of tuning into the body. That's a really interesting question. I think we're living in a moment where so many of these things are unknown and unsettled and it's really... it's going to be a process of learning how these technologies affect us and how they affect us long-term you know? Which no one can answer except for in the long-term. Jorge: Right. The question came to mind as I was reading the book. And, just for folks who may not have read it, the book is divided into three parts. The first part has to do with thinking with the body. So that includes things like gestures. I came away with a new understanding of what... like I'm moving my hands right now, right? And I came away with an understanding of why I do that. The second part deals with thinking with environments, and the third with thinking with other people. And in the first part of the book that deals with thinking with the body, you covered this concept of interoception which in my notes, I put down as kind of like learning to listen to your gut. Annie: But not just your gut! Jorge: Well, no — colloquially, right? Annie: Yes, colloquially. Jorge: It's like, check in with your body. Are you feeling anxious? You know, are you feeling... and as someone who designs digital environments for a living, it made me wonder. It's like, is my work making people somehow fall out of tune with being able to listen to their bodies? And how might we move to create digital experiences that make better use of the full experience of being human, which is not constrained to these small rectangles that we tap, tap, tap? Right? Designing (dis)embodied experiences Annie: Yes. Well, it's a very powerful cultural current — and a very old one — to separate mind and body and to elevate mind above body and to believe that mind is kind of pure and cerebral and the body is irrational and unruly and ungovernable and has nothing to contribute to intelligent thought. Whereas I think the more we learn, the more scientists research the connections between mind and body, the more we see that that is not at all the case. And I think, in our culture that is so achievement-oriented, that's so much about getting things done, it's so easy. And I fall into this trap myself, in the middle of a busy hectic day, to be focused so much on the external world and all this information flowing in for us to process, and to forget about the fact that we have this internal world as well from which there's a constant flow of internal sensations and cues and signals that's always there, but we're not tuning into it. We don't take the time. We don't take the quiet space that we need to tune into that internal world. And what that means is that we're missing out on all the information and the wisdom and the accumulated experience that can really only be communicated to us through those internal signals because so much of what we know is not really accessible consciously. And the way that we become aware of this vast repository of patterns and regularities and experience that we do possess, the way we become aware of it, is through the body kind of tapping us on the shoulder or tugging on our sleeve with these internal cues and saying, "Hey! Pay attention to this!" Or, "this is what happened last time, and this is how it turned out." You know, all this kind of information that we have access to, but we're so used to pushing that away, and to believing that the body is actually a kind of a barrier to intelligent thought rather than a conduit to intelligent thought, you know? We think we have to sort of power through and like push away those annoying or inconvenient bodily sensations when really tuning into them would enrich our thinking so much. Jorge: Yeah, sometimes it's time to go for a walk or to take a nap. Right? Annie: Oh, it's always time to take a nap! I'm a big fan of naps. Annie's thinking environment Jorge: I want to ask you about your own processes and how working on this subject has changed the way that you approach your own work. In the book you describe the writing process of Robert Caro, who has written some amazing biographies. I remember reading the one about Robert Moses and having my mind blown at just how rich and the big that book is, right? Annie: Yes. Jorge: And, the way that you describe it in the book, these books that Caro writes are just have so much stuff in them that it's not something that you can hold in your "meat computer." Annie: Right. Jorge: So he has this corkboard in his office, this four-by-ten corkboard, where he kind of outlines the book. And I got the sense that his office is part of his writing apparatus-- but not just because it gives him a place that shields him from the elements, right? And I'm wondering about your own thinking and writing environment and if it has changed at all as a result of doing this work. Annie: Yeah, I write in the book that I don't think that I could have written this book, which was a very ambitious project that involves so, so many journal articles and books and interviews and things. So much information to synthesize and put together. I don't think that I could have pulled it off if I had not applied the various strategies that I write about in the book. So, it was a really kind of meta experience. But you mentioned Robert Caro and his process of laying out the ideas and themes in his book on this really big wall-sized cork board. And I love that example because of how he uses it. You know, he's able to walk along this cork board move in and move out, and physically navigate through this three-dimensional landscape of ideas that he's pulling together for each of his books. And to me, that's such a beautiful example of how when we remember what the brain evolved to do. And when we think about how we adapt this stone-age organ to the kind of tasks that we require of it today, we can see that it's really powerful to harness our natural and evolved strengths, which include physical navigation and spatial memory. When we can harness those in the service of these very complex cognitive activities that we undertake today, it just gives our ability to think this enormous boost. You know, as we were saying earlier, the brain evolved to do different things from what we expect it to do today. And two things that it evolved to do really effortlessly and easily and powerfully is manipulate physical objects and navigate, as I was saying, through a three-dimensional landscape. These are things that we're just naturally good at as human beings. And so, the more we can turn abstract ideas and information into physical objects that we can manipulate. And I'm thinking here about like Post-It notes that you can move around and redistribute at will. And the more we can turn ideas — abstract ideas and information — into a physical landscape that's big enough for us to bodily interact with, then the more we're harnessing those embodied resources that are a part of our sort of heritage as human beings. We don't get any of the benefits of those embodied resources when we try to do it all in our heads, you know? So, I do have a giant Caro-inspired cork board in my office. I do make profligate use of Post-It notes because there was just too much here to wrap my head around. And I really needed to externalize my thought. Scientists call it offloading cognition — cognitive offloading. I needed to offload those ideas, put them out into physical space, move them around, and move myself around in relation to them, in order to pull off this very challenging mental task of writing this book. Jorge: And what I'm hearing there is that there is something about the physical nature of that experience and the fact that your body is in that room, that matters here. Because there is software — thinking of like Miro or Mural — that simulates a whiteboard with sticky notes. What I'm getting out of it is that it's simulating the kind of aesthetics of the thing, but it's still constraining it within the glass rectangle, right? Annie: Yeah, that's interesting. I do think that software and other technological applications can learn from what we know about how humans think in embodied and environmentally embedded ways. Certainly, there are lessons there for people who are designing software, but I think you're right that such a program might sort of emulate the look of using Post It notes on a big corkboard, but it does lose some of the functionality just simply because it's not going to be as big as the format that I'm talking about. And it's not gonna involve that material and tactical kind of experience of literally moving things around, which I think offers its own enhancement to the thinking process. Jorge: Yeah, and surely that's what the folks who are researching things like augmented reality are really after, overlaying the information onto our physical environments. Closing Jorge: Well, this has been super insightful and, as I said, I love the book and I recommend it to everyone, but especially to people who are designing software and interactive experiences. It covers a subject matter that I think everyone in this field should be aware of. So where can folks follow up with you? Annie: So, I have a website. It's I'm also really active on Twitter and I encourage people to find me there. My handle is @anniemurphypaul. Yeah, and I'd love to hear in particular from your listeners and from people who do this kind of work because I do think there are so many connections between designing — literally, designing the experience that someone has online — and The Extended Mind. I mean, I just think there's such an enormously potentially productive overlap between those two things, and I'd love to hear about their own thoughts. Jorge: Well, you've heard it, folks! Please reach out to Annie and let her know because this is important stuff. Thank you so much, Annie, for being on the show. Annie: Oh, thank you, Jorge. This has been fantastic. I've really enjoyed talking with you.

7 nov

33 min 33 seg

Patrick Tanguay is a self-described "generalist, synthesist, and curator of eclectic ideas." His weekly newsletter, Sentiers, surfaces deep posts about highly relevant topics and provides insightful commentary and ideas. In this conversation, we discuss the tools and methods that enable his curation and sharing process. Show notes @inervenu on Twitter About Patrick The Alpine Review Sentiers RSS Instapaper INFORMA(C)TION newsletter MailChimp Pinboard Delicious WordPress Eleventy Readwise Obsidian Pocket What is a static site generator? (Cloudflare) DuckDuckGo rsync cron Bear Markdown The Informed Life episode 54: Kourosh Dini on DEVONthink DEVONthink Keep It EagleFiler Grant for the Web GitHub Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Patrick. Welcome to the show. Patrick: Thanks! Glad to be here. Jorge: I'm very excited to have you on the show. I've been subscribed to your newsletter for a while and always find insightful links and information there. So I'm very excited to talk with you. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please, introducing yourself? About Patrick Patrick: Sure. Thats always a... it probably shouldn't be, but it's always a bit of a hard question to answer. I've started using "generalist" which I kind of resisted doing for awhile, but that's ... like my Twitter bio is "Generalist, Synthesist and Curator," and that's probably the best description. I've worked in a number of fields, and I realized a little while ago that the red thread connecting everything, was that I always ended up figuring stuff out and explaining it to others. Even when I was a front-end web developer, it was often the fact that I could explain to the client, and if I was working with others, explain across their disciplines. Like, of course the actual craft, if you will, of the front end was of course part of the contract, but kind of the selling point or that people would refer me to was the fact that I could explain it and kind of make sense of what we were going to build. And then that transferred into a print magazine, "The Alpine Review," and I liked doing that so much that even though we closed it down or put it in a deep freeze, I try to recreate that experience with my newsletter. Jorge: I love the three terms: generalist, synthesist and curator. It reminds me of a phrase that I believe was coined by Stewart Brand to describe Brian Eno. He said that Eno is a "drifting clarifier." Patrick: Whoa! That's nice. Jorge: And your trajectory here reminds me of that. Yeah, Sentiers is the newsletter I was referring to when we kicked off the conversation. Tell us a bit more about that. What's the newsletter about? Sentiers Patrick: There's kind of the... the official description and the real description. The real description would probably be, "anything that Patrick finds interesting." The kind of official description is, "exploring technology and society, signals of change, and prospective futures." Which... like, "technology and society." Technology permeates so much of the world in a growing number of areas that you end up being able to talk about anything if you look at technology very broadly. And "signals of change." There's so many things changing that that also brings you to many topics. And I try to — more and more — to make sense of it with an eye to where we're going or where each topic might be going. Each field. But Sentiers is French for "paths," and the path is taking more importance in the curation in the last year or so. Jorge: I don't know if this distinction is emphasized in the French: I see "path" as a distinction to something like a road, right? Like where a path is more emergent. Patrick: Absolutely. Jorge: Is that a part of this? Like when I say that you're detecting signals for change, that to me implies that you're not dictating the path, you're somehow seeing it emerge. Is that fair? Patrick: Yes, absolutely. And I use, for example, as many of the people I read and learn from, I use future in plural — "Futures" — because they're always guesses at where things might be going or sometimes guesses that you're wishing for that direction, sometimes because you're dreading a certain direction. But there's definitely always different potentials. And one thing that I should have paid more attention before, but I'm paying more attention to now, is also the diversity of voices. So, some futures that we look at are already someone's present. Like climate change. In the Western side, we're starting to feel it, but some other people have been feeling it for years. Some technologies... so there's also that, someone's utopia is always someone else's dystopia. So, to always try to listen to a greater diversity of voices — and necessarily, as you do so, you realize that there's multiple potential directions and futures and paths. Picking the signals Jorge: How do you pick up the signals that you write about? Like, what are you paying attention to that leads you to elucidate the path? Patrick: It's layers. Layers upon layers of people I've discovered through the years, or publications. It's usually more individuals than specific publications. I've used Twitter. I think I'm user 6,000- something of Twitter. So I've been there for a while and using RSS for even longer. So, it's, adding and replacing people as I go and feel, "okay, this person is... I realize now, was too naive about technology or too positive" or, on the contrary, "this person has evolved in their thinking and introduced me to this other person." And so I try to build this network, I guess, of people I'm listening to. And also using The Alpine Review before and Sentiers now to a lesser degree perhaps, but to introduce myself to those people and then to also pick up on their networks and be part of the discussions and get a better feeling for what's going on. And then, being... I was going to say "too curious" — but being very curious about a number of topics, and adding them to the number of things I follow. Jorge: That brings me to another question I had for you, which is this idea of spotting signals for change and another idea that I think is implicit in that, which is kind of spotting patterns, right? Like in order to detect change, we have to somehow be aware of the trajectory of something or the pattern of something, or having a sense for the context. You've hinted at the fact that you've been doing this for a while; like you said, you were an early Twitter user and you've been following things like RSS. And I would imagine that you have a way not just of detecting signals, but also of building a corpus of ideas somehow, that allows you to keep track of those patterns. That allow you to spot the signal from the noise. And first, I was wondering if that was the case and if so, if you could share with us what that looks like. Patrick: It's the case and it's been more purposeful in the last few years. It used to be, I guess, just piles of magazines when I was selling computers before starting the web. And then when I started doing web development, a series of bookmarks and bookmarks, and then quickly blogging, which then... it's only recently that I've been specifically taking notes to refer to later. Originally, the notes were more blogging publicly, and then as you write something, it sticks in your mind. And so for a while, the library was mostly in my mind and in the blog. And then as... I guess it's starting with The Alpine Review, as we needed to collaborate and to keep track of whom we wanted to include, it needed to be more documented. And then, yeah! Then Sentiers becomes a great... often even for some clients, I'll just first go through the archives of the newsletter and re-find everything I've found before and compile it in a different way or see new patterns. And now more recently with the new website, the goal is to integrate the website with my note taking and my reading in Instapaper often and kind of having the information flow more directly so that I can take more notes more easily. And I was going to say, "trust my brain a little less," but I guess it's more expand my — augment — my brain more purposefully. Personal knowledge management Jorge: I actually wanted to find out more about that because as someone who publishes a newsletter myself, I have found myself doing what you're talking about here, which is thinking, "oh, I remember writing about that in my newsletter. And where was that?" And I send out my newsletter through MailChimp, which creates a web version for each issue of the newsletter and that is published elsewhere, right? Like it's in a different place than my regular website, so I can't search for it using the same search engine and it's almost like suddenly I have this separate set of information that I need to refer to. And I have the sense that you've recently made changes specifically to the relationship between content on your newsletter and content on your website. Can you tell us more about that project specifically? Patrick: Sure. Well, one of my interests that isn't often in the newsletter, but that is an ongoing interest is with PKM or "personal knowledge management." And finding ways to find again. Because I think people trust search engines a lot, but it's hard to search Google for, "this guy I remember seeing on Twitter was talking about this thing." So, I try to make the haystack smaller, and the longest going tool I have is using Pinboard, the bookmarking service that Maciej Ceglowski started after Delicious started.... I'm going back — just a lot of people won't recognize those tools. But one of the interesting things of Pinboard is that if you're a paying member, it archives the pages. So, first of all, you don't lose something you've bookmarked that suddenly disappears. And also you can do a full text search of only what you've bookmarked. So, to me, that's a much smaller haystack to search and I'll often find things through there quicker than trying to find it again with a search engine. But that wasn't linked to my note taking. So, when I write the newsletter, I write it to the text file in Markdown, and then I convert it to HTML and put it in MailChimp. So, when I say that I searched the archives of the newsletter, it was always the text files that I have on my computer. So, often to look for something, I would look at the bookmarks and I would look at the newsletter. So, now I've tried to connect all of those things. The website used to be in WordPress, and now I've built it with Eleventy, which is a file based system. So it's not a database anymore, it's just, again, a bunch of text files. So without going into the details, or too much of the technical details, the interesting part is that the website now is a bunch of text files on my computer. And then when I want to publish a new version, it basically crunches that into an actual website and I just put it online. And it's... first of all, it's much, much quicker for readers. It's also much lighter. Because I'm trying be mindful of bandwidth and server usage because so many of those are using "dirty" electricity. So it's good if you can save on that side. But the first reason was that it's text files on my computer. now when I'm searching, everything is together. You tell me if I'm going too much in the weeds, but the other change is that now I'm using Readwise — And that allows you to connect the things you've highlighted in various places. And recently it started offering a sync with the text editor I'm using, which is Obsidian. So now... for years and years, I've been reading either in Pocket or Instapaper, two apps I think a lot of your listeners probably use. Now everything I highlight in there goes through with Readwise and straight into my notes, which don't necessarily make it on a website, but now it's... so there's more of a direct flow of everything I've read and the chunks I found interesting all end up in text files locally and can be oriented towards the website. Details about Patrick's setup Jorge: I'm hearing you say this and thinking, not only do I want to get into the weeds with you on this stuff, but, uh, I I'm afraid we're not going to have enough time to get as far into the weeds as I would like, because you've touched on several things that I've been exploring myself. I have been contemplating making this very same move that you're describing — going from WordPress to what is often called a static site generator. And for many of the same reasons you're pointing out here, I would love to have my site as text files — as Markdown specifically, which I use as well. And I recently posted about this on Twitter and a lot of folks came back to me recommending Eleventy, so it's one that is very much on my radar. I'm wondering about what you might lose by doing such a transition. And I can tell you two things that I'm aware of, that I would lose for my own instance. One is that WordPress provides a pretty good site search, which I don't believe static sites have. And the other is, WordPress provides the ability for me to preschedule posts. So, I can write something and say... say on a Monday morning and leave it so that it's published on a Tuesday afternoon, right? Are you dealing with those in any way? Is that an issue? Patrick: Yeah. Those are pretty much the two issues. You've hit the two issues directly. The search, of course people can be unhappy and not tell me, but I haven't had any people telling me that they miss the search engine. Although I did include one, but it's... it basically searches DuckDuckGo, by specifying my website. And so it gives a result only on the website. It's been working pretty good. There are a couple of solutions to do web searches on a static website. But it mostly ends up being work done on the client's side. So, in the reader's browser and so I haven't implemented that yet. The scheduling is more of an issue than I thought because like my newsletter goes out at 6:00 AM every Sunday. And I try to have it online exactly at the same time as the email goes out for people who want to read it online and share it. So that's... it connects to the biggest issue, which is... it's a lot more technical to run a site like that than it is to run WordPress. WordPress, you can just go on and create a blog and even have it on your own domain and you have nothing to do basically, other than use the interface, which is very broadly known already. A huge number of people have used it for themselves or at work or somewhere else. And so this is... it's harder. But I figured out the way. It's like, I'm actually... I'm getting back from vacation and there's one going out on Sunday, and it's going to be the first one using the new automation to put it online at 6:00 AM. It's basically, it's... it's going back to the command line. It's having rsync and a cronjob running on the server. That could probably be done some other ways, but I found that that's actually... because the way I've built the new version is that my newsletter is usually four or five featured articles that I have a summary and comment on. So each of those has been split, so each newsletter has become at least five chunks — five notes. And I might issue 184, so it can take a while to transfer the whole thing. So automating it that way is a timesaver. Jorge: That's very encouraging. And I'm kind of desperately trying to make more time to experiment more with these things because I do find very appealing the idea that at the other end of this, you end up with this more consolidated, personal knowledge management base that you use... you used that phrase, PKM, right? And, I find the idea of having it as a set of text files on my file system very compelling. You touched on Obsidian, which is another tool that I've been recently migrating to. I am using Readwise and I was not aware that they had enabled Obsidian sync, so I'm very excited. Now I'm like thinking... it's like the moment that we hang up here, I'm going to go experiment with that. Patrick: I think it's been active for like five days. So it's a really, really new feature. Obsidian Jorge: That's amazing. I was using it with Roam, to sync my highlights from Kindle and Instapaper and all these other things, sync them over to Roam. But, it's very exciting to hear that they've enabled Obsidian sync. How are you using Obsidian? I'm curious. How does it play into this workflow? Patrick: I'm hoping to transition completely to it. Right now, I 've used Bear for a few years, which is also in Markdown, but it's very visually polished, so it's fun to use and it syncs between phone and iPad and laptop. And it's Markdown that can be exported in Markdown, but when it's stored, it's not Markdown. It's in a proprietary database. So that was one of the things that kind of bugged me. Although I would have kept using Bear if not for Obsidian and the fact that it's pure text and you can actually open any folder with Markdown files. Open it in Obsidian and it becomes a bunch of notes and you can do back linking between the notes so that... because we often use links, but only in one direction. So, when you get to the destination, the destination doesn't display in any way where you came from, unless you're staying on the same website, then there's an indication. But if you're going from site to site, you don't know. And you don't know who else might have linked to that same page. And so with backlinks or bidirectional links would be another term, then you know at least within the corpus of your notes, which links to which -which has been in Wikis for forever, and which we even had on blogs 15 years ago with trackbacks which is coming back now with digital gardens which is kind of a personal Wiki. And Obsidian supports that. And I found a way to have them work in Obsidian and when their live on my website in the same way. And so, I'm still using Bear because it's kind of my reflex to go to those files and client notes and articles in the works are all in there, but I'm trying to switch more and more of them to Obsidian which is so far a great surprise because it's very modular. There's a hundreds of plugins, and so far I haven't seen it slow down. I've been wary of activating too many but so far it's super fast. So, I'm very encouraged, up to this point, and the advantage is of course, is that I have nothing to do if at some point they start... or they stop developing it. The app is local, the files are local... everything keeps working. Jorge: This idea of digital gardening is something that I am very interested in and we had earlier this year another guest on their show, Kourosh Dini, talking about the use of a tool called DEVONthink, which is designed for this type of personal knowledge management. And I mention it because DEVONthink too allows you to monitor folders on your computer and it indexes them and builds... it uses an artificial intelligence engine, and I don't know the details of how this works, but it uses AI to spot relationships between pieces of content in your computer. And I have been using Obsidian. My Obsidian folder with Markdown files, I'm indexing it with DevonThink. So building this bridge between the stuff that I have in Markdown there with things like PDFs and bookmarks and all this other stuff, and it just feels like... for me, it feels like my little personal knowledge management system, which has been scattered for a long time, is finally starting to come together with these more open tools. It's really exciting. Patrick: Yeah. It's... I was going to say the less exciting thing is the fact that we have to go back to old formats to get back that open function. Like Markdown files have been around forever and they're text files, which has literally been forever for computers and PDF is also a very old standard. But it's great to have that. I wasn't aware of that function by DEVONthink so I'm going to have to try it. I've actually... I've been doing some cleaning of stuff on my computer and I've been putting PDFs in Keep It and I've actually grabbed again, some old email archives that I'd archived to make the mail app snappier again. And I've put them in EagleFiler, which are both kind of... they both do the same thing you were explaining about DEVONthink, which is they do some search optimization and tagging and stuff, but the files remained in the finder and just on the Mac file system. So, but maybe I'm... after doing the cleanup, I'm just going to have to switch over to DEVONthink or add DEVONthink, because basically since it's indexing existing folders, that's the duty of it, you could have 10 applications doing different work on the same files. Jorge: Yeah, that's what I'm finding as well. I've stopped obsessing with the idea of trying to bring everything together into a single homogeneous system and more trying to find tools that are open about the data that they use so that you can get different perspectives on your information. And I can relate to this challenge you were talking about — the challenge of migrating stuff that you've had in more proprietary formats for awhile. We're coming close to the end of our time together — unfortunately, because there are so many more weedy areas of this that I would like to explore or with you. But I'm wondering what the future holds for what you're doing with Sentiers and how you see your system evolving. Evolving the system Patrick: Well, one of the main reason I was able to spend time doing that was that I used a grant by Grant for the Web, which is a project by the Interledger Foundation. We do web monetization. And a lot of the words they use sound like blockchain, but it's not actually. It can be related to the blockchain, but it's not. And they're basically developing a standard that they want to be accepted by the W3C, to be able to stream money to the website where you're spending time. And so the way I presented the project is that I'm already somewhat monetizing. I don't like that word that much, but that's... with memberships, paid memberships, but the archives and that's the case for most anyone doing those kinds of like... another word I dislike but the "creator economy." Often, their archives just fall by the wayside. So, that was a way of keeping the archives evolving and accessible and useful for readers and having the web monetization work underneath and possibly be a new revenue stream. And the other reason is that by making it text files, they can be on GitHub. And that's kind of... a lot of people have spoken about it with digital gardens, but not many have actually opened it. And I haven't found a way yet to do it — a way I'd be satisfied with. But potentially having people participate in the notes and appearing on the website would be something interesting that could be done with GitHub. And so the goal is to... it's kind of a forcing function for myself to note things beyond just highlighting in articles which then become notes that don't necessarily make it in the magazine because they're not necessarily interesting to read in themselves, but they can be super useful as you're browsing through different notes and adding context to something and adding to the topic. So, growing the notes, making it potentially a revenue source. The nice thing about this system is that if people are spending a lot of time, it means it's useful for them. So then it's a great way to transform it into a source of revenue because you're not forcing anything. They're just using it then. And then potentially bring in people on... I don't know if it would be specific contributors? If it would be a way of, for example, you and I joining some of our notes, or something else that's not... that's kind of on the roadmap, but not planned yet as to how it would happen. But that's another of the ways I hope to use it. Closing Jorge: That all sounds so fascinating. I would love to check in with you sometime in the future when this stuff has developed more just to see how that is going. But for now, where can folks find out more about you and follow your work? Patrick: The simplest is the newsletter, which is So Or @inevernu on Twitter. And on the Sentiers website you can subscribe, and you can also look at what we've been talking about. So, how the notes connect together and so far, it's a lot, the existing archive. It hasn't been digital garden-ized as much as I would've liked, but I'm adding to it constantly. So yeah, those are the two... and I write the articles about monthly. So there's the newsletter, but there's also some articles to read. Jorge: Fantastic. I will post links to all of those things in the show notes. I want to thank you for being here and thank you for your work because like I said, I learn a lot from the work that you're doing. So thank you for sharing it with us, Patrick. Patrick: Thanks! Thanks for saying that and thanks alot for inviting me! It's been fun. It's always fun to discuss what you've been working on. It's sometimes bring us a different perspective as you're answering. So, it's always useful. Jorge: I hope that we can do it again sometime. Patrick: Sure.

24 oct

29 min 15 seg

Nathan Shedroff is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and a colleague at the California College of the Arts, where we both teach in the graduate interaction design program. Nathan has worked for a long time on driving innovation and sustainability through design. This conversation focuses on his latest project: Foodicons, which is creating a shared, open-source, and royalty-free iconographic language of food. Show notes Nathan Shedroff @nathanshedroff on Twitter California College of the Arts MDES Design is the Problem: The Future of Design Must be Sustainable by Nathan Shedroff Foodicons Green Brown Blue The Lexicon The Noun Project Foodicons collection Evapotranspiration Information Architects by Richard Saul Wurman Multimedia Demystified Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Nathan, welcome to the show. Nathan: Hi! Thanks for having me, Jorge. Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind, please, introducing yourself? About Nathan Nathan: Sure. I'm Nathan Shedroff, and I've been a designer all my life in various forms. These days, I teach full-time at California College of the Arts, in the Masters of Dxesign and Interaction Design program. But I've been teaching there for 21 years now, I think, in a variety of capacities from starting out in Industrial Design, which my undergrad degree is in — I'm actually a car designer by training — in sustainable design and interaction design, and experience design. I've also started the design MBA program — the business program at CCA — I've been at that for ten years and then transferred to this program. So, I have a long-ranging design background in my career, as well as teaching. I consult a lot. I've had several companies. I've been part of several companies, and I've written a bunch of books and do a lot of speaking when conferences happen. Jorge: Several of those books have… well, I have pretty much all of them on my bookshelf, and several have been influential to me. One of them that I'm going to call out is called Design Is The Problem, which you alluded to: sustainable design. And that one is centered on that. I've been wanting to talk with you for a long time and wanted an excuse to get you on the show. I'm curious about a project that you've been working on recently about food icons, and I'm hoping you'll tell us about that. The Foodicons project Nathan: Sure. The Foodicons project sort of fell in my lap about two years ago. A friend that I knew brought it to me and said, "Hey, I see this need." He was running a bunch of food innovation accelerators, and one of the things that he found continuously in dealing with so many people throughout the food system globally is that they didn't really share a language. And I don't just mean that they didn't speak the same human language, but they had terms that they use that other people didn't. There was so much misunderstanding across the silos in the food system that he saw a need and an opportunity through these accelerators to build something that might bridge that. So this is Douglas Gayeton from the Green Brown Blue accelerators, and he has a website called The Lexicon. And he's been working in the food system, documenting them. And in fact, if you go to his website, there are these beautiful information art pieces that he does with photography, trying to explain important concepts in the food system. So he brought this to me, and I thought it was... It certainly looked really interesting. Little did I know it would take over my life, which is how a lot of these pet projects run! And so, we brought it into the food lab accelerators for six months, and I worked with a bunch of food experts across the spectrum of the food systems. And We started really configuring how we would build a global visual language for food if we had the opportunity to do this. So, it was always conceived as an iconographic language. And, of course, there was no budget for any of this. And if you were to go hire designers out in the world to build a language of, you know, 800 plus icons, that's a lot of money. And so, the only way that we could see that this was ever going to get done was to crowdsource it internationally. So after we graduated out of the accelerator and became our own 501c3, that's exactly what we did. We set up a series of challenges. We're now at the start or in the midst of the fourth challenge, where we ask designers all over the world if they want to volunteer and help design some of these icons. And they go through a design process with three rounds with a sketch round, and then they get a critique from both design experts as well as food experts, specifically in those categories of the food system, and then they respond to that hopefully and go through a design round and then get more critique, and then go through a refinement round. And what ends up is a set of icons for us to approve or choose between to go into the final category and into the final collection. And so, we've done this three times already. It's been really successful and really interesting and fun, and a lot of work as well. And, the results of those challenges are about 400 icons so far. And they're showing up on the website now, and there's a library there. And they're showing up on The Noun Project, which of course, many of your listeners know is like the biggest repository of icons in the world as well. They're completely free to use by anyone. The challenge here was how do we get so many independent people all over the world who have different backgrounds to design within a system so that what comes out of them looks like they're part of a family. And the major thanks to this goes to the designers at Adobe Systems in the Adobe design group, because they took it on as their yearly challenge this year to do this project with us. And so Nayane, Isabelle, and Sonja developed the design system for these icons in the beginning. They developed some of the original icons. We actually — funny enough — ran a prototype of this at CCA with one of the classes to sort of vet out what the issues were going to be. But then Adobe came in and designed a system for us that we've then made available to any other designers that want to participate. And there's an icon template in Illustrator and a little bit of an icon library with components. And some really, I think, fairly clear instructions. And we've watched designers all over the world respond to these and make these beautiful, clear, communicating icons. You know, it's probably one of the biggest design projects in the world, just because it's involved so many people and it's been distributed in this open-source kind of way. We've essentially... I'm sorry, crowdsource is a better word for this. Jorge: Yeah. I was reading a press release about the project, and I don't think you've mentioned AIGA but, is AIGA one of the partners as well? Nathan: They were initially, and this is one of the weirdnesses in... as you know, you're in the design industry. There are a lot of controversies in the design industry these days, and they had to bow out because of one of the controversies. Jorge: Oh, that's unfortunate. The reason I bring it up is that there was a quote from the executive director at AIGA, who said that this was the largest collaborative design project in history. Nathan: I think that might be right, yeah. The food system Jorge: That's astonishing. But to take a step back, when you say "the food system," what does that entail? Because I expect that food is a subject that we all... obviously we all have to deal with food, right? But where are the boundaries of this domain that this set of icons is looking to describe? Nathan: That's a great question. I'm not sure I can answer it fully, but it certainly encompasses everyone that has a hand in getting food from where it's grown and created to where it's consumed. And that is a lot of people. I believe it's probably the biggest industry globally in the world because, you know, we all eat every day, hopefully. We have a video on our website that one of our designers, Laurent in Belgium, I believe, says one of the things that he was so excited about being a part of this project is because it touches so many people. And everyone eats every day, hopefully, right? Those are his words. And they're true. So, it's something everyone can relate to. Many of us don't really know the intricacies of the global food system, but obviously, there are people who grow food on farms or raise animals for food. But there are also the people that focus on the soil and the water and the climate and the conditions that affect that growing. And then once that food is grown, there are so many things that happen to it before it gets to our mouths — even to our homes: there are distributors and retailers and wholesalers and preparers and manufacturers, there are restauranteurs and cooks and chefs and a million kinds of farmers and butchers, and you can imagine all the systems that are involved with just getting food from where it's grown, to us. And then there's ourselves — where we buy food in stores and packaging and eating and cooking. Cooking and recipes are a huge part of our experience with food, right? It really is something that touches everyone, and it is incredibly far-ranging. And so, we've tried to pick and prioritize the terms that will cover as much of that as possible with an understanding that there's a lot of new techniques and concepts coming around food that are going to be important. So we have specifically focused the challenges around things like regenerative agriculture, climate change, agrobiodiversity, food loss and waste, aquaculture, as well as some of the other issues that maybe aren't always top of mind in people's minds about food, but equity and governance... the money part of the food system, the social benefits, et cetera. We have curated these lists with the help of a bunch of food experts from all over the world, from all over these systems. We have a list of a little over 800 terms that we are halfway through, and hopefully, by the end of the year, we'll have the other half, and we'll have this set of icons that anyone can use to help describe what they're doing in their part of the food system and what's important to them. Jorge: Is that list of terms browsable? I would imagine that you all have made it public, for the purpose of the competition? Or... Nathan: Well, it certainly will be once this last challenge is over. As I said, we're slowly putting up all these icons. We can only work so quickly, even on our own site. But we have hundreds of icons sitting already submitted at the Noun Project, waiting for their approval. So, once they're up, then obviously, you can see what those terms are. We have not published the list of terms before the challenge. I think just because it never occurred to us to. Not to mention we... you know, like any design project at the last minute, you reshuffle things, and you change some of the details, and you modify things because of different opportunities or different decisions about priorities. So, I'm not sure that it would have helped anyone to have that list published beforehand, but the list will certainly be available once all the icons are up there. Jorge: The reason why I was asking is that this strikes me as such an enormous challenge, where you are opening up to literally anyone in the world to contribute to this visual vocabulary. I would imagine that there are... I'm going to describe them as rails in place to ensure that you don't get an overwhelming number of submissions for the same term and then very few submissions for something more obscure. Something like that, right? The structure of the challenge Nathan: Well, so the way that we've structured this challenge... first of all, the entire thing is built in Google Drive, using, for the most part, Google Slide decks. So when designers have signed up, they've automatically been given a set of anywhere from five to 10 terms — concepts — in their particular personal google Slide Deck, which is a workbook basically. And so, the work that they do gets transferred into corresponding judging workbooks so that our food experts and design experts can make commentary and critique on them. All that gets transferred back into each designer's personal deck, and we do that three times. So, as a designer signing up, you just get handed a set of terms, and you react to the ones that you think you have ideas for. And most of the designers have submitted ideas for all of the terms in their decks. Sometimes some of the more difficult ones, or the obscure ones, don't get coverage. And so, there are many designers in each category working on the same set of terms. So, we see different kinds of ideas coming from different people. And some of the critiques we do is if we absolutely see that, of these five designers working on the same terms, this icon by this designer is clearly going to be more successful than the rest, then part of the critique we give people is to either refocus them on other icons, on other terms that they're working on, because we don't want them to waste their time, of course. Or, focus them on other ideas for that same icon that seemed just as strong. We have had some instances with some of the words like spicy, frozen, hot, cold, et cetera, where you get a bunch of icons that look identical because everyone has the same idea. Fine. But we have other icons and terms where... you know, evapotranspiration, which is a process that plants go through to release oxygen. You know, maybe only of the five designers that are in that category — or the three, or the 15, or whatever — maybe really only one of them has a good... what we think is a good visualization of that, that we think it'll end up being successful because we have not just design experts looking at it and judging it from a design standpoint. But we have food experts judging it too, and are basically saying, "yeah, that's not really communicating that," and, "that's not really how that works," right? So we will... like I said, sort of refocus some of the designers elsewhere on the rest of the terms in their deck if their idea isn't going to be fruitful in the end. Jorge: What was the term again? I think that Zoom cut it out a little bit. Nathan: Oh, it's evapotranspiration. And in fact, there's this really good grouping. Having got 400 icons now, we see patterns that are really interesting and probably worth talking about. And we see examples that really talk about what happens when you create a global language. And so, photorespiration, evapotranspiration, and photosynthesis is this nice set of three icons that all sound similar, that all relate to how plants use carbon dioxide, create oxygen, use moisture in the air. And so, they become this really interesting case study in three icons about the differences between these processes when all three are essentially scientific terms. Jorge: What other patterns have become manifest as the language has developed? The emergence of a language Nathan: Yeah, one of the most interesting is that when I say language, we are absolutely creating a visual language here because what has emerged from the visual work and the designs are visual elements — design elements — that are clearly standing in for words, terms, and languages. So, we've seen a bunch of these things. We originally, in the library, had a hand that sort of... inside view of a hand sort of holding nothing in the middle of the icon, but just sort of a side view of a hand. And that has come to mean in this visual language either care, or management, or friendly, so that what has emerged is that if you put a flame over that hand, it becomes fire management, as in fire management procedures, in a park, or in a farm, or in an area. If you put a bird over that hand, it becomes a sign of bird-friendly, so farms that are doing what they can to make sure the birds can healthily co-exist in their farm. And so, all these things that come into play in front of that hand have had a similar meaning because they have a similar design element. Another one is two hands of appropriate size, next to each other... and of equal size, I should say. And so, if you put those in the icon and then put the same thing in each hand, that has come to mean equity. So, if you put something like an apple in each, that's about food equity. If you put money in each, that's about wage equity. And so we've found these visual signifiers of concepts that are being now used as a language would and recombined in different ways within the iconographic language. Jorge: What I hear there — and I just want to reflect it off to you — is that when we traditionally think of icons, we think of them for their semiotic value, right? I'm thinking of when you're driving down the road, and you see a sign that says that the road might be slippery. And that communicates like a single idea. But what you're hinting at here is that the vocabulary has evolved in such a way that you're able to express more complex ideas that are like composites. Some are like little sentences. Nathan: Yeah, just like you would imagine any language being, right? Jorge: Yeah. These are pictographs that are able to express more complex thoughts. Nathan: Well and the design system that Adobe created is really more edging towards what I would call symbols than maybe on the other side of the equation would be icons. They really look more like the kinds of symbols you would find in an industrial symbol system. But it's proven very facile in its ability to be applied to so many topics and so many elements and come out as an interesting language. And by all means, the designers worldwide who have produced these icons deserve the majority of the credit here in taking these simple elements and making what are sometimes incredibly complex concepts clear with just a few elements. Jorge: The first time that I became aware of your work was through Richard Saul Wurman's book_ Information Architects_, which is a book that was foundational to me, to my work. And you are one of the featured people in that book. That book is like a monograph of different folks who are doing work that Mr. Wurman, I guess, thought exemplified this field that he was trying to describe in this book. And I was revisiting that book yesterday in preparation for our conversation today. And one of your projects that is highlighted there was a book for Apple called Multimedia Demystified. And I noticed that that book had a kind of system of icons that were used to guide the reader or to help develop an understanding of what the reader was looking at. And, I just wanted to mention that because it felt to me like related to this work. And the reason I'm mentioning that is I'd love to know how you expect that these food icons can be used by folks to improve the way that they talk about and collaborate on food-related issues. Nathan: Yeah. So, it's funny you should bring up these books. You know, Demystified Multimedia, in fact, was this... you know, it was this great project that we did back in, you know, '93, maybe '94? And here we were talking about interactive media at kind of the dawn of interactive media. We were calling it "multi media" at the time. And we were wrestling with and learning about what was so different about these media, you know, to earn the title, "new media" from other media. And so, in figuring that out — and I still teach that to this day; in three weeks, I have a course at CCA starting up called foundations of essentially interactive media — so we're still wrestling with this idea of what the hell is interactivity anyway? And what is different between it and "old" media. And that book was a fun exploration of taking a lot of the ideas in interactive media and pulling them back into, in this case, print book publishing — because there are lots of things that you can do in a book to make them just a little bit interactive, not truly interactive, but to give them more varied uses for different kinds of purposes, so that different people could more easily navigate and find the things that were appropriate to them then they would in, you know, a book that was arranged and organized in a standard way. As far as the foodicons, we're talking about much rawer material, I think. These are icons that need to stand alone. They work as a collection, but there's no use for them all in one collection unless you're doing a library or a retrospective. You know, you would never see — God forbid — 800 of them together in one use. But we do expect them to be used together for different kinds of purposes, and one of the things that many people often miss about this project is that, you know, we all eat. We're all consumers of food at some point, so the first uses we think of are sort of consumer-uses, eater-uses. So, showing up on menus and indicating a special diet like vegan or Ayurveda, showing up on packaging to talk about ingredients, et cetera, which we all hope happens. And are part of this... the use of these icons, once people start using them. But really. The intent of this project has always really focused on the industry using it. Not consumers, but professionals throughout that huge food system that we described, using it to better communicate amongst themselves. And hopefully, that leads to better collaboration. So that's been a bunch of the focus of this. Lessons from the project Jorge: That's great. I have one final question for you. Given your trajectory in doing this type of work — and you've, you've hinted at the fact that you've been doing this type of work for a long time if your work was being published in the mid-nineties, right? — I'm wondering what, if anything, you feel like you've learned as a result of working on this foodicons project? Nathan: Wow, that's a great question. I don't think I... I probably don't have a great answer. I know that it's been personally gratifying to have my hands back in design in such a concrete way. You know, I deal a lot with consulting and strategy, and I don't do a lot of screen design these days. When I have to, I do, but I don't have my hands in the artifacts of design very often. And yet, for the last year, year and a half, my hands have been in the icon-making world in a really visceral way. So that's been incredibly satisfying. At a larger level, though, I think that one of the things that have been gratifying, or appears to me, is that there is so much capability out there that is probably somewhat unsung. And that these designers that have contributed their time and energy to this project have done such great work that it's not just a testament to each of them individually and their skills, but it's sort of a testament to design. Like, what can the industry of design do when they pull together on a large project? I think there were probably low expectations that you could even do something like this. That you could pull off an icon set of 800 different icons of really complex concepts, in some cases, by designers who have never worked on these before, never worked together, never talked to each other, right? And some of them had never been icon designers before. So, in some ways, I think maybe that's the biggest triumph. It shows that designers are dedicated enough and malleable enough, and gracious enough, and up for a good challenge, and when you put that thinking process and those skills, even to something you've never done before, there's still a clear path that leads to something successful. Jorge: It sounds like the biggest takeaway here is the ability for us to tap into the sort of collective intelligence that we usually read about the internet enabling, but from a design perspective, or using design practices. Nathan: It is not a surprise that you've figured out how to say what I said way more eloquently than me. Closing Jorge: Thank you. This all sounds so great, Nathan. Where can folks follow up to find out more about either the project or about yourself? Nathan: Yeah! So for Foodicons, you can go to, which is just spelled food icons dot org. And there's information about the challenges and what most people will probably be there for is the library as we keep posting these, which will hopefully be 800 icons by maybe the end of October. That's probably the most expedient place to go look for them. You'll also be able to find them at The Noun Project. And in both places, you can download them and freely use them for whatever you want. One thing I should probably say is that one of the controversies around this is whether it's okay for designers to volunteer their time. And one of the things that we made sure of to both honor the designers and the aim of the project is that every designer around the world that built these owns their work. They own the legal rights to their work, except that they have also granted — on the side of that — free use license in perpetuity for anyone in the world to use them for any use except commercial use. Meaning, selling the icon, right? So if someone down started downloading these and made hats and shirts out of them — that wasn't the designer and sold those — that's a no-no. Designers keep their rights for that. But there's no problem with anyone anywhere in the food system, including a restaurant, from going to the Noun Project or our site and downloading one of these icons for their use. And so, we are really happy about balancing the needs and rights of people in order to make this as viable a project as possible. I guess that's sort of the business-y, nitty-gritty background of many design projects is it's not just about the design. It's about the system that makes it possible. Jorge: That's great. Thank you for being here with us today and for sharing this fantastic project with us. Nathan: It's my pleasure. Thank you for even being interested in it, Jorge.

10 oct

31 min

Sunni Brown is a social entrepreneur who uses visual literacy, design thinking, and visual facilitation to solve complex problems. She's the author of The Doodle Revolution and co-author of Gamestorming. In this conversation, we discuss Sunni's current area of focus, which uses Zen Buddhism and design thinking to help individuals craft a more fulfilling and engaged life. Show notes Sunni Brown Deep Self Design Sunni on Twitter Sunni on LinkedIn Sunni on Instagram Sunni on Facebook The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently by Sunni Brown Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo Dave Mastronardi (LinkedIn) What is a multipotentialite? The Nexialist approach: Van Vogt and the idea that ‘specialisation is for insects’ Sōtō Zen Zendō Reality distortion field _Liminal Thinking: Create the Change You Want by Changing the Way You Think_ by Dave Gray In defense of the visual alphabet by Dave Gray Design personas Kate Rutter (LinkedIn) Brené Brown Sesshin Double diamond diagram Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Sunni, welcome to the show. Sunni: Thank you. Jorge: It's a pleasure having you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind, please, introducing yourself? About Sunni Sunni: Oh, when you let me know that we were going to have to do that, I had this like moment of, oh God! How do you introduce oneself when you're a, like a... well, the new term is multipotentialite. Have you heard this obnoxious term? Jorge: No. Sunni: Well, it's like if you're a polymath, or if you just have multifaceted aspects of yourself. It's not easy to summarize who I am, what I do. So, I always dread the question. But there is a term floating around called multipotentialite, and it just means the person that has many skills and many things that they pursue and many things that they're interested in. There's a lot of neuro-diversity going on, so we're not easily put in a space. So, it's hard for me to summarize myself. But I would say what's useful for people to know for the purposes of this conversation is probably that... I'll just tell you my role. I am an author and a public speaker and a visual thinker, and a facilitator. Really, a sort of deep-dive facilitator. And a Zen student. And also what I call a Deep Self Designer. And a book coach. So as you can see, my friend, Dave Mastronardi, finally gave me language for this the other day. He goes, "you're just a creative with a capital C!" And I was like, "Cool, Dave, thank you! Because that kind of helps, you know?" It's like, I just am interested in a lot. Jorge: I don't like the word generalist because it implies like Jack of all trades, master of none. Sunni: Yeah, right! Jorge: I love this idea of multipotentialite. I recently heard the word "nexialist," which... Sunni: What is that? Like a person at the nexus of lots of things? Jorge: Doesn't quite roll off the tongue either. It comes from a sci-fi book, and I'll put a link in the show notes so that we don't have to go into it in too much depth here. But I think it's a similar idea, that you are driven by several different interests. Sunni: I love science fiction for that. They always give us language that we need, you know? Jorge: I feel like I want to explore several of the many... what's the plural of nexus? Is it nexuses? Or nexii? Sunni: Nexialisms! Jorge: Several of the different identities that you served us there. Or potentialities, maybe. You spoke of... well, let's, tackle two of them that I'm especially curious about. You mentioned that you're a Zen student and a Deep Self Designer. I don't know if you want to take those independently or if they somehow connect? Sunni: They do connect, actually. And it's cool that you alighted in on those two, because they're the... I think honestly, the most important ones that I do. And they have the most... they have the most liberating capacity of all the things that I do. And they do have intersections, absolutely. Zen Sunni: So, Zen is not something you can summarize really at all. It's such a deep and ancient lineage and an enormous body of practice. But what I find useful and what actually... it was sort of the groundwork for my pursuit of designing another method. And what it did for me was help me understand that the mind is a machine, and it has like projections onto reality all the time. And it has narratives and stories that it constantly creates and recreates and lives into. And they can be very confining, these perceptions of reality. And so when you run into some ideas about reality that are actually created by you, based on your history and your experience, if they cause friction for you, then there's a sort of place where you can redesign that intersection with reality to create a better reality for yourself. And I know that's like a lot to just unload in conversation, but Zen made just sitting, which is... I'm in what's called the Soto Zen lineage. So literally, you sit in meditation for hours. I mean, I probably sat for 10,000 hours easily, and - not easily, but difficult-ly. But we call it just getting on the cushion, right? So like you just take it there, and then you kind of watch what your mind is up to. And through that process, I learned how I trick myself, how I can have distortions in my belief systems. I think Steve Jobs used to call it a "reality distortion field." I think he was also a Zen practitioner. But that laid the groundwork for me to understand, "oh, I have a lot of agency and choice once I understand how my system works." And you know, like you're a systems thinker and a design thinker, so of course I was interested in that. And then I just went from that place and started to practice with different methods to support other people. Jorge: I'm reminded of our mutual friend Dave Gray's book, Liminal Thinking. Sunni: Oh, Yeah! It's so funny you said that. Because I have it, of course — I always will buy whatever Dave makes, but I haven't read it because I always have way too many books. But I understand kind of the vibe, and a lot of people, when I talk about this, they bring up his book, and I'm like, I should read that. Jorge: When I first read that, I remember asking Dave about it because I got the sense that there was a lot of Buddhism in... Sunni: Yeah, I don't know that Dave knows that he has a Buddhist aspect. I don't think he's a Buddhist practitioner. But I have found there are multiple people that actually arrive at some of these deep wisdoms because it's not... it's in reality. So, the Buddha was just describing reality. So, anyone can find their own path to that awareness. And so, yeah! It's funny to me when I work with people, and I go, "oh my God, that's like a very ancient principle that you stumbled upon," you know? So I think Dave must've done that too. Because he doesn't like go to the zendo, I'm pretty sure. Jorge: The path, it seems to me... and here I'm reflecting back to you what perhaps I layered through my own experience onto what you were saying, which is that we experience reality at various different levels. And if you step back far enough, you're able to contemplate the fact that much of what we experience is in some ways emerging from within us? Or at least the way that we're experiencing it is emerging from within us. Sunni: Well said! Beautifully said, yeah! Deep Self Design Jorge: I want to bring it back to this idea of Deep Self Design. What I'm projecting onto this or where I think that the two circles in the Venn diagram might overlap, is that, if you understand this - this fact that, much of what we are experiencing is emerging from within us - and you are someone who sees the world through the eyes of design, then perhaps you can do something about it, Sunni: You do a lot. Jorge: So what would you be able to do about it? Sunni: It's so funny, we're talking about this because last night I was having this conversation with my husband about workability. So everything... well, I won't make totalizing statements. I'll try to avoid them, but almost everything in your internal system is workable. Meaning that it all has plasticity and an adaptation capacity, or a significant amount of it. This is going to sound very hyperbolic, but the reason I have such confidence in the workability of the system is because I redesigned my own internal experience over the course of... it's been 15 years now. But the mind that I started with when I started investigating this practice and the mind I have now are entirely different planetary systems. And I have a complex trauma history, which is relevant because when you have a complex trauma history, you have a whole host of distorted ideas about reality, all of which are workable. And so, for me, it's like an actually hopeful message. It's like, "oh my God. Your backstory can be kind of f*cked up, you know?" And you can completely... as long as, to your point, it was a really important thing that you said Jorge, which was, "if you step back." So, you have to get some separation and observe, with compassion, your belief systems, and from that seat, it's like a gentle observation, then you have space with which to work. Often the traumatized brain is terrified of making that separation. It can be, for a variety of reasons. So, that's why it is a practice, and it's a patience game, often. But you can literally redesign your experience of yourself and of the world and of other people and of what's possible. And the energy that you liberate in that process is insane. It's absolutely insane how much energy you get when you untether yourself from a lot of distorted ideas about yourself in the world. And that's why I thought like, well, it's a design thinking challenge, you know? It's basically like internal system mapping and then giving people methodologies to support the spaces that they want to loosen up or soften. I'm very fortunate to have encountered great teachers, really extraordinary teachers, and I'm fortunate to have had the time and the passion to do a deep dive. But it's like that hero's journey where you go in, and you come out, and you're like, "well, I have something I could share." So, I'm still sorting out how to teach it, how to format it, how to design a methodology because it is not a small thing to try to do, but it's worth it. It's completely worth it to try. Jorge: It sounds empowering. Sunni: It's extremely empowering. Jorge: It sounds like a practice that restores perhaps a sense of agency where you're not buffeted by the contingencies of whatever happens in everyday life as much. Sunni: And it's so important! That message is so important because there are places you go that are scary. And there are fires you have to walk through. And you have to know that on the other side, not only will you be more free, but you'll be stronger. But you can't know that going in. Once you get your sea legs and you start to understand, "oh my God, this is like Jedi training!" then you can feel more confident about the outcome. But the early stages for most people is it can be absolutely terrifying. 100%. Absolutely true. I mean, that's why most people can't even sit in meditation, frankly because a lot of people do not want to sit with the content of their own mind. It's not something that we're encouraged to do, and it's not something that we're taught to do, and we don't know why we would do it. So we spend a lot of time avoiding that very thing. Understandably. I mean, I understand that instinct completely. It's... it's terrifying. But it's so freaking worth it. It's so worth it! There's no question about it. No question! And it improves your life, you know? It improves your relationships with yourself and other people. And really, your relationships are the most valuable thing you have. And your health, and maybe time, you know? So it's a significant process, but it's not necessarily for everyone. And probably you experienced this with your students. There's what I call a state of readiness, which means that they're willing to do the work. They're willing to be honest with themselves and others, and they're willing to address and hold space for really difficult content. And if I work with a person and it's very clear that they're not actually at that place, then they need to come back. They need to go and come back, you know? Because it's a thing. And then in Zen, the analogy is when you go to the zendo, and you knock on the door three times, and a monk opens the door, and they say, "go away!" You know? And they shut the door, and then you sleep out in the cold or whatever, and then you come again. You knock, and then the monk opens and says, "go away." So it's a way of saying, if you're not ready, don't bother! Don't come, you know? And that process is a person's individual journey, and you can't rush that for people. Starting the journey Jorge: You mentioned in your own journey having suffered complex trauma and without getting into it, just thinking that many of us - many folks listening - have... especially over the last year and a half... gone through some pretty traumatic experiences. And with the caveat that you just laid out that not everybody might be ready to undertake such a practice, but assuming that someone would be interested in at least trying to envision the path, where would they start? Sunni: So the chapter I was telling you I sent to Kate, there are writing exercises, and there are visual thinking exercises. And often, I will just say, you know, you're in a creation when your energy has become contracted, combative, tight — when you feel conflict, internally. Your body gives you all these signals that all is not well, and it can be a very subtle signal. Say you're in a restaurant, and a person walks in, and your stomach clenches. That's an indication. So, you start with noticing. Just pay attention to what is happening inside of your system because you have to understand that you are the reactor. And the stimulus is out there, but you are the reactor. And so, noticing it's a huge part of the practice — just to start there. It's like when I used to teach visual thinking — and I do occasionally sometimes, still — but the visual thinking alphabet that Dave created, Dave Gray. It's the basics. Just start with observing where these forms are and draw them on paper. Really, you've got to start at that place and notice if you judge it. Because a lot of people will be like, "oh, I should be more brave. Why did I get nervous when the boss came in?" Or whatever. We'll instantly have a reaction to our reaction. So just noticing that. So that's the start, right? And then once you have a relationship with your experience... so you're like, "man, every time my mom comes over, I want to argue! Like right away! I just want to argue with her," you know? So you're like, okay! And so, you notice that. So, you begin to take responsibility for what you're bringing, and that's why it's empowering. It's so fascinating how accountability is like not sexy, but I'm like, that's the greatest thing you can do because you're in charge of your life. You're driving your bus, you know? So, then there are exercises that I give people that are really simple. Like just notice that a part of you came online and wanted to argue with your mom. And then it's really like a design inquiry. It's like an investigation of, imagine that that's a persona. So, say that's a design persona. And I've taught it in this way in some keynotes and stuff. So, I depersonalize it, and I say, "just treat that like a persona or an avatar. And just like you would if you were anthropologically studying a user experience. But do it for your own self." Start to understand that persona and just give it some quality... I mean, it will name itself. That's what's so fascinating is that these personas, these internal personas — they give you information. They actually let you know because they're part of your brain. So, it's just about accessing that information that's in the brain. And I'm saying it trivially like it's just that. But it's all there, and so you just get curious. You just get curious and start finding out. And so, over time, I like to teach people to create like a constellation. Like a map of their internal system with all of these different personas so that they can relate to them differently. And when they do that, that's when it starts getting good. Jorge: All of a sudden, you start understanding the territory — I would imagine — when map-making. I wanted to clarify, you mentioned Kate, and you were talking about our mutual friend, Kate Rutter, who we were talking about before starting the recording. And you alluded to a chapter. Was that a chapter of a book that you're working on, or... Sunni's new book Sunni: Yeah, this book... So, as I mentioned earlier, I'm a book coach, and I'm obsessed with books. I could be wrong, but if I had nothing but time and money, I think books are all I would do. Just unpacking and looking at publishing, coaching writers, writing... That's all I would do. So, you know, I'm published twice, and we pitched this book, actually. It is the Deep Self Design book, and the title was called, The Only Way Out Is In. Like one of the original titles, The Only Way Out Is In. And then the... I can't remember the subtitle. I have like 4,000 subtitles. But, so we pitched it. So, it was actually in proposal form. When you want to pitch to a traditional publisher, you've got to get your book in a proposal that essentially describes the product for them. It's unfortunate, but for them, it's a product. And for you too, really. So, that... it was like 90 pages of just glory, you know, and it took me years. And so, anyway, the way it ended up, and I can tell that story — but at one point in the process, I said, "Kate, can I send you, like, chapter one? And you just see if it lands for you. Like, give me a reader reaction" And apparently, it turned some keys pretty quickly for her. Because she wrote me and was like... she'd had drawn a picture of one of her personas. And I didn't even ask her to do that. And it was called "The Aviator." And so, she learned about this part of her that like flies around and sort of conducts the situation and looks from a high level and is very functional, you know, high functioning part, persona. She just got it, you know? But she's really smart. So I was like, well... because you got to write to like an eighth-grader, right? That's the level of communication that you want in books, which is why Brene Brown's tone is so beloved. So, she just listed that chapter again, and I'm willing to share with anyone. I mean, people need to know how to do it. And so, the book was pitched to publishers, and there were 17 of them. And then like 12 of them wrote back, which is pretty good. And they all said the methodology was too complex for a typical reader. And I lost my mind because I had already simplified it so very much. That day, I was like standing in my neighbor's yard, and I was just like, "nooooooo!" Because it's hard to attract to the marketplace and to still deliver something really of high value. My God! It's exhausting. So, I have put it down for now. And I started working on another book about confidence because I was like, I can't. I can revisit this thing. I'm going to f*cking freak out. Yeah. But it'll emerge at some point. Taking your space Jorge: Well, I'm hoping that we'll be able to read the Deep Self Design book at some point. I'm wondering about something that you said, and again, trying to be kind of practical for the folks listening in and wondering about where we start. I would imagine that doing this sort of internal map that you're describing here is not something that we can do effectively amidst the hustle and bustle, right? And you spoke earlier about making space. And I just got back from a weekend of camping with my family, and we went pretty far out into the woods. And I was... yeah, it was nice, but I was still surrounded by devices, and I... Sunni: Oh! Jorge: I got into a little bit of a Twitter kerfuffle. Sunni: Oh no! Jorge: Right? And I'm bringing up the story to say: it's so hard for us these days to find this space to be with ourselves and to be introspective? And even if we are aware... Sunni: You have to take it. You have to take that space. Jorge: Well, how do we do it? Do you have any advice for folks wanting to take the space? Sunni: Well, yeah. When you do a Zen sesshin, you can't have books or paper or phones. And so, you've got to do like seven days of like 10 hours of meditation. So, that is sacred time — no question about it. But for a normal person, that's not going to be on their calendar. First, you have to understand that you probably have an addiction, right? If you can't remove yourself from an object for any chunk of time, that is actually an addictive relationship. So, that's serious shit, if you ask me. And I don't think it's a popular opinion. And I think that it's also true. So for me, just labeling it as an addictive relationship is step one. And then, you don't even want to go into, like, it could be an abusive relationship. We don't even have to talk about that, but that's in there too. So, you have to understand that. And you have to just understand what is in it for you to separate yourself from it and give yourself a path. So, can I separate from my phone for four hours? If you don't want to go cold turkey, just try for four hours and notice what happens in your system when you do that. And that's actually part of the practice for Deep Self Design anyway. So, you can be like, wow, I started having FOMO. Or, I start thinking that someone's going to be mad at me because I didn't respond to them. So, you get all kinds of information from just that short separation. And there's a lot of data around... Like it literally keys up your nervous system, being in a relationship with a digital object all the time. It keys up your nervous system. And so, actually to regulate your nervous system again, which is what camping is kind of for. Camping, when it's safe and beautiful... the point of it is to actually get you into a different state. To get your regulatory system in a different state so that you can enjoy your life and be present with your family and look at the sky and realize that you're part of... you are the sky, there's no difference between you and the sky, you just project that there is. And like, you know what I mean? So, you have to understand that that space is essential for your humanity and make it a priority. And you can tell people, I mean, there are ways to approach it that are gentle on other people. So you can let people know, "I'm going to go dark for 72 hours. You should know that." Or, "I'm going to go dark, and then I'm going to have one hour where I look at stuff," you know? You have to design it for your life and what's actually available for you. Sometimes people have sick parents at home or sick kids or whatever, but you have to start to understand the benefit of it. Because I think most people think it's just like something they would lose. Like, they wouldn't get... something taken away from them. And I'm like, "no! It's something you're giving yourself that is priceless." And you get amazing ideas. Like your productivity goes up. So, I call it going slow to go fast. Actually, I read this interesting Nietzsche quote, which I don't read Nietzsche a lot or anything, but as he said like great ideas are found when you're walking. And Steve Jobs was... Also, I'm not obsessed with Steve Jobs, but he did a lot of walking meetings. So, If you are a productivity junkie, going slow helps you go fast. And it actually frees up a lot of stuck tension in the body and stuck ideas that you can't get through, and it gives you solutions and ah-has and insights. So there are huge rewards in it anyway if you need it to be aligned with productivity. But it's like, dude, we're gonna die one day, Jorge. Like all of us! And the last thing I want to do is be like, "I spent my whole life on my iPhone!" That is like the worst thing that could happen. No! And it's like, if you mess it up, try it again. Just like don't give up, you know? Go camping again and have a new policy with your family. Get consensus around it, make an agreement, and just find other ways to occupy your time. But it's a practice, you know? Are you digging this? You're smiling. Putting it in action Jorge: I am. I'm smiling because I'm looking at the clock and thinking, oh man, we're running out of time, but I don't want to leave folks with, "we're going to die someday." So, I want to bring it back to... Well, you've mentioned two things. One is this idea of making space, which, as you were saying, in our modern world often entails not just space but also shielding ourselves from these potentially addictive devices. And then the technologies that they enable. And then there's this aspect of self-awareness through — you talked about map-making and using the lens of design to think of ourselves as personas. It sounds like those two are essential to getting kind of a read — it's almost like the first part of the double diamond diagram. But there comes this moment where we have to do the synthesis work in design, and we have to think through how we're going to move forward, what we're going to do about it. So, is there a step three here as well? Sunni: After synthesis? Jorge: No, after we've done the map and we have understood ourselves. Sunni: Yes. There's definitely a step three, which is what I would call the "befriending" step. So, you have your constellation of parts of you, like how many personas are in there, and there's an average, but it's kind of infinite when you go in too far. But the next step is basically finding your most active personas. Because, when you wake up, you... I have an active persona, which is like, "oh, I'm going to be really productive. I'm going to be very in touch with a lot of people. make sure that everyone is well-fed." You know, so I have like a kitchen/caretaker part. Like I have all these personas. So you can find the most dominant ones - the most operative ones. And then, and you start to learn about them. And then, but the ultimate goal is to make friends with them all. Even the parts of yourself that you do not like because what happens when you allow and support and befriend all of the aspects of yourself is that all of this internal tension that people experience... like people wake up with anxiety, you know, people wake up with self-criticism, et cetera. All of that energy stabilizes and is calm so that your experience relating to yourself is not fraught with tension anymore. So, you actually have to befriend them, like you would an external child or a person that you care about who lives outside. You do that work internally. And when you do, you spend a lot less time kicking your own ass. I mean, people kick their own asses constantly, you know? And it's like, I'm starting to understand why is that? And what's happening there, and how do you appreciate that you're doing that, but also let it know that you don't have to do that in order to be smart or in order to be productive, et cetera. So that is like the biggest step is to befriend all of your constellations on your map. And then from there, it's like flying, you know? It's like, there's nobody in the way. There's nobody in the way. I mean, there's life; there are institutions of life that are designed to oppress people. Those things are still there, but the way that we relate to them is very different, and that's why it feels so liberating. Closing Jorge: Well, that seems like a really good place to wrap it up. I'm sure that folks listening in are going to want to learn more. Where can they go? Sunni: Oh, they can go to And you're also helping me. Remember that I need to create these little tools that... I always create tools and methodologies. So, is definitely the home page. And also, has a lot of content on it. They can follow me all over social media too. Jorge: Just not while you're camping. Sunni: Yeah, no way. You'll never see me on that. Yeah, no, that's me and mother earth when that's going on, for sure. Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show. Sunni: Yeah, Thanks for having me. It's nice to see you. Jorge: Yeah, same here.

26 sept

31 min 16 seg

Karl Fast is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He's the co-author of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding. This is the second half of a two-part conversation about interaction and embodiment. If you haven't done so already, please listen to part 1 before listening to this episode. Show notes @karlfast on Twitter Karl Fast on LinkedIn Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding by Stephen P. Anderson and Karl Fast Bruce Alexander The Rat Park experiments Bill Verplank's diagram of interaction Epigenetics About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design, 4th Ed by Alan Cooper, Robert Reimann, avid Cronin, and Christopher Noessel Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought by Barbara Tversky The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values by Brian Christian (Bonus: Jorge's book notes) The paperclip maximizer problem Punctuated equilibrium Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Karl, welcome back to the show. Karl: Thanks for having me again! Jorge: Well, I could not help but want to talk with you again, since you mentioned wanting to discuss rats and heroin, and that just sounded too intriguing to me at the tail end of our last conversation. So, why don't we pick right back up there? What do you mean by rats on heroin? Rats and heroin Karl: So in the 1970s, there was a lot of concern about drug addiction in various parts of the society, especially in the US, and especially with the Vietnam War. And a lot of veterans — a lot of soldiers who were in Vietnam and who were exposed to heroin were… I think there was some estimate, something like 80 or 90% of all the soldiers who went over to Vietnam had used heroin at some point and had a serious… what we would now classify maybe as an addiction. I'm not sure if that number is correct. But there was this general widespread concern about this and what was going to happen when these people came back. I don't think that this particular study was motivated directly by that, but certainly this was in the air. And so, there was a Canadian psychologist named Bruce Alexander, and he was concerned about a lot of the studies that had been done around addiction and said, "well, these rats are stuck in like a small, cold cage, often socially isolated from all other rats. If I was in that kind of situation, maybe I'd like to take some heroin too!" So, he designed a study where he had a couple of different groups of rats. One group of rats, they were basically in the sort of normal lab cages that you would have. The other ones were in what are called "Rat Park." And you can actually look this up on Wikipedia. It's called, "The Rat Park Experiments." And they… they were like 200 times larger. There were about a dozen, 15 rats or so in there, both male and female. So, they had a completely different environment in which they were able to run around. They could play, there were all kinds of lovely things. There were things to keep them mentally stimulated. It was kind of like a rat heaven. And in both of these different groups, each of them, the rats were divided up into two different groups. There were rats that were given water to drink, and the other rats had a choice between water and water that was sweetened, but also laced with morphine. What they found basically was that when they were in rat park — in rat heaven — very few of them would consistently go and choose the morphine. But the ones that were in the cages almost always did the morphine. And there were several conclusions about this, but one interpretation was that social isolation was the major factor and that lack of socialization drove a lot of addiction. My understanding is that this is not… this has been criticized in a number of cases. But the broader one, the way that I've always interpreted this study, is that the role of the environment has a huge impact on stuff. And when it came to the veterans, when they came home, a surprisingly small percentage of veterans came back to the US after the war and continued with their heroin addiction. So, there are studies with rats, there are findings with the actual veterans. Embodiment and interaction Karl: And to me, this raises this question that relates to what we were talking about last week. We had this idea of embodiment. And the big idea with embodiment here is that the mind is not the same thing as the brain. Our bodies, our tools, the space around us — how we move and act in the world — this is all part of our cognitive system; that our brain might be in the head, but our mind is embodied. Our mind extends out into the world. So, the systems and the tools, the information we have… all the things that we design that are exterior to the body, those should also be understood as part of the mind. They're not just out there. And that brings us back to the other main thing we talked about last week was this question of interaction. How do we interact with the world? Why do we interact with the world? And we introduced that distinction between pragmatic and epistemic actions. And we gave that example of moving the bishop, where you pick up the bishop, and you move it and put your finger on it, but then you move it back. From a traditional perspective, we would say, "oh, you did two moves in the world. You've moved a piece, and then you pressed undo." But there's research, which says, "well, no, no, there's actually real reasons why you would want to do that." And the distinction is what they call pragmatic action and epistemic actions. And the idea of a pragmatic action is you're going to change the world in order to change the world. You want to bring about some change in the world. But an epistemic action is about changing the world to change your understanding of the world. To make thinking easier, or faster, or more reliable. So, we have these different ideas here. We have this idea that the environment plays a role in our mental wellbeing. The environment plays a role in our ability to think. The way we interact with the world is part of how we think, in many cases. And what we talked about was… we went through a number of different examples, but the big idea is this I think has major implications for the things that we design in a world where we have a lot of information. We have rich — increasingly rich — computational tools, powerful computational tools that don't just sit in a desk, that are being embedded into every part of our world. And that can sense and interact and respond back to us in more meaningful and interesting ways. Jorge: You mentioned in our previous conversation the opportunities inherent in the trajectories that we see in technology. Karl: Yeah. So, especially I think with AI, but that's an obvious one, right? Think about it this way: one of the things I argued last time is that we need to have a better conceptual toolkit when we're designing, when we're creating these different things. We need to think about how what we are making is not just out there, but is connected in a meaningful way to what our brains can do. So, we should think about certain definitions — certain words — and try to understand them and develop new concepts for how we talk about this. So, for example, let's start with some basic ones that I've already mentioned: action. I think of action is doing something. It's a thing, done, it's a gesture, it's a movement. And that is distinct from reaction — what happens in response to a situation, an event, to an action. But I use the word interaction to not mean action and then reaction. You can think about it that way in terms of the timeframe, but I tend to think of interaction as the action coupled with the reaction. So, you act in or on the world, that action combined with the response. Think about it as the difference between you can talk about, like, your coffee, and you can talk about the cream, but once you mix the two together, now they're bound together and that's different. So, we can think of them as separately, but we also need to learn to see them as connected together. Now, language can be a little slippery. And I know that in my writing and in my speaking here, I have probably used… I'm sure that I have used the word action when I really meant, by those definitions, interaction. I tend to use them synonymously. I talked about epistemic action. Really, I think it should be epistemic interaction, but it's a bit of a mouthful. But that's an example of definitions. Or another one would be "interactivity." This is a word that gets tossed around kind of loosely and casually, often as a synonym with interaction. I think it's best understood as a quality or attribute of an interaction. Some interactions are easy. Some are interactions are difficult. Sometimes easy is better. Not always, right? In learning, when interaction is too easy and quick — if learning is too easy — then the learning becomes shallow. You need a kind of certain friction. Or another example for interactivity: how difficult is it to articulate your intentions with a system? So, you can talk about a gap between what you intend to do and your ability to articulate it. And can we, through design, close that gap? When do we want to close that gap? So, you might have the same interaction. But the interactivity or certain dimensions of that interactivity could be very different. And there could be good and bad around that. Jorge: This brings to mind Bill Verplank diagram of interaction. I don't know if you're aware of that diagram. Karl: Refresh my memory. Jorge: Well, it's a feedback loop between the world and some actor. And the actor senses the world. Verplank labels it "feel." so, there's this sensing of the world. The actor, through sensing, knows and then does. So that's the other arrow. So, you sense, and you do. And this cycle of sensing and doing amounts to an interaction. And what I'm hearing you say is that… it's not a binary thing, but there's a gradient of interactions. So, some things are more interactive than others. Karl: Yes. And you know so that loop, that idea here… this is where I think embodiment is trying to say, "it's really complicated." It's a lot more complicated. It's a lot more nuanced than we have tended to describe it. You know, you take a class in cognitive psychology, you pick up a lot of different books around how the mind works, and you're going to see — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — a simple loop around perception, cognition, and action. Perception is input, right? Information from the world that is input into the brain. The brain takes that and does computation on that. And then from that, we act on the world. From the embodiment perspective, the simple and wrong way to think about that is that the cognition happens just in the head, right? Perception is input. Action is output. Cognition is what happens in the middle. And what embodiment is trying to say is, no. There is an element where that could be the case, and maybe often is the case. But it's certainly far from the entire story. We need to redraw that picture. Think of it as maybe a first order approximation of how the mind works. Now, we need to think about second and third order effects here. What are the other things that are going on here? And that's what things, like epistemic actions, point to. More broadly, it's very common in design for people to have taken a lot of classes and to have studied aspects of perception. All graphic and visual design, color theory, like layout… you know, all of this is about changing the perceptual inputs. Controlling the perceptual inputs. All the aestheticism that we have is about the perceptual inputs are largely about that. I'm much more interested in the other side of that, the interaction side of that loop. And how that is connected to the things that we create, and trying to unpack this in the light of what the science is telling us about embodiment. Jorge: Would it be fair to say that the emphasis then is on the touch-points between these artifacts that we perceive and the people who are perceiving them? Karl: Yes, and the way that those touch-points happen. And you know, the more I think about this… and I've been thinking about interaction for well over a decade. And you see this notion of interaction in so many different areas, in different fields. Like we just talked about it with the example of rats and heroin and this connection to the environment. Another one from biology is, we have that old idea of the debate between nature or nurture. And most of us today have gone, "oh, well, it's not about nature, it's not about nurture. It's nature and nurture, and some sort of balance between the two." But biologists don't believe that either. Not anymore. What a biologist would say is it's more about how the organism interacts with the environment. Evolution is an interactive process. An example related to that is genetics. In the mid-nineties, we had all this talk and this huge effort to decode the human genome, and the story that was told there was, "well, if we can just decode the human genome, then we'll be able to read the book of life," as though it was just information. And genes were presented to us as a deterministic thing. You have a gene, this tells you how tall you're going to be, this tells you what color your hair is going to be, it can determine intelligence, all of these things. But what we now know is that's really not what's going on. That is part of the story, but it's much more complex than that. And the big area in genetics is epigenetics. Epigenetics is how your behavior and your interaction with the environment shapes the way that the genes express themselves. So, maybe interaction will turn on a particular kind of gene, maybe it won't. It depends on how the environment that you're in really shapes this. This leads us actually back to rats. There are studies that go back to the 1950s about baby rats and how their mothers lick them. There are what are called "high licking mothers" and "low licking mothers." So, some rats get licked a lot when you're a baby, and some mothers will not lick their babies a lot. And they do this to calm the rat down. This changes the epigenetics: changes how the genes — especially around stress — and I believe it's cortisol, but other things — express themselves. So, a rat that gets licked a lot is going to be a much calmer rat. It will not get stressed as much. A rat that is not licked a lot, won't learn to do that. And so, it's genes will express themselves in a different way. And you might think, "well, it's great to be calm, not so great to be anxious." But then we come back to this problem of, well, what kind of environment is the rat in? If a rat is in a dangerous environment, it actually pays off, from an evolutionary perspective, to be anxious because you're going to be more alert to threats. So, you have this really much more complex, interesting trade-off. And interaction, to me, seems to drive all of this. The mother is licking the baby, that's interaction. The rat grows up to be in a particular environment — grows up in one environment, then maybe migrates to a different environment — that connection between the environment is interaction. All of this stuff again and again, we see interaction throughout everything. Think about another example, like programming. We talk about functions. And then we talk about objects. We talk about APIs… this, all the ways that programs interact with each other. We gave an example in our previous conversation about why people talk with their hands and the importance of gestures. It's not just a way of providing extra information to someone else. It also turns out that that physical movement has an inward-facing component that helps smooth our thoughts, or sort of like a cognitive grease. Epistemic actions. There's another example. We had the example of chess, which comes from a study about how people play Tetris. And the thing I'm trying to get at here is: I think interaction is fundamentally under-appreciated. We want to tell a story about the things. The things that we have. The objects, the artifacts, and the story that we want to tell might be about their perceptual qualities, their aesthetic properties, how beautiful something is, or the quality of which it is made. We might talk about its usability. We have various ways in which we talk about the objects. Or, from the cognitive side, we'll talk about what the brain is capable of. And I keep thinking from all the stuff that I see, this question of how we are interacting with those things: how we interact with things, how we interact with the environment, how we interact with other people. All of that seems to be really, really central. And my question has been, how do we come up with a better, richer — and from a design perspective — more useful way of talking about that? Interaction design Jorge: Most folks listening in will have heard of interaction design, and they probably associate it with things like the gestures and motions and… I've heard it described as though interaction deals with time. Whereas other disciplines deal with spatial relationships, interaction deals with time-based relationships. Karl: Well, and I know if you read, say_ About Face_, the interaction design book by Alan Cooper. He defines interaction design in terms of behavior. But for my reading of behavior, I think of it as the way you act or conduct yourself often, especially towards others, or towards things. And it tends to be more of a macro definition. It's a larger scale pattern. So, part of this is also a terminology question and looking at the things that we do at multiple levels. There's a nice paper by Cameron Seddick, who was my dissertation advisor actually many years ago, and he breaks interaction down roughly into, I think, four different levels. He talks about events. So, those are like the smallest-scale thing. This is something that actually changes and happens. An event would be like a click, a drag, pinch, scroll, tap, grab. Those types of things. An interaction is something more like filtering or rearranging or annotating. That is comprised of — depending on how things are designed — one or more different kinds of events. Then from there above that, we have different kinds of tasks. And above that, we have activities. And so at each stage, we get a level of behavior that is broader and more comprehensive, as opposed to being narrower. Activity theory, which is also another area which has strongly connected in many ways to embodiment, has a similar notion that interaction has multiple scales and dimensions. And also that things can move up and down, depending on our conscious level of control and experience. So, the classic example here would be learning to drive a car and especially learning how to drive say a manual transmission. When you first learn, you have to be very clear about, okay, I am pressing the clutch. I am moving the gear shift. But as you get more skilled and experienced with that, that goes from a low-level set of actions to something that's much broader. It's easier and it's more automatic. So, things can shift and change around. Again, we come back to this idea that… well, I'd say there are two reasons why I think interaction is not really as fully appreciated in design circles as it could be. Or maybe not appreciate is the right word… maybe a better phrase would be, talked about it in a way which allows us to fully leverage what interaction can do. And one reason I think for that is that it is complicated. It is nuanced. And I think the other major reason is that we have this idea from cognitive science that is baked in pretty deep about what is this relationship between the world, and perception, and the brain or the mind, and action. And we have tended to have a story from cognitive science, which is pretty simple: the one we talked about earlier, where perception provides information, the brain takes that and converts that information, which would then do mental computation. We call that thinking. And then action does the output. Perception, input. Action, output. And thinking happens in the brain. Embodiment is this big revolution in cognitive science, which is trying to really change that. But so much of the design world is based on traditional cognitive science from the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Jorge: What I'm hearing there is that it's not just a mind acting in the world. It's a mind acting on the world, so that the act of sensing and tweaking the thing that you sense, in interacting with the world, you gain an understanding of the world. And that is part of what cognition is. Is that a fair read on it? Karl: I think so. The reason I talk about it as action and reaction combined, is because things run both ways simultaneously. And that always makes it much harder to grapple with. Barbara Tversky is a longtime researcher at Stanford and wrote a book a couple of years ago, called Mind in Motion, which summarizes her lifetime of research in this area. And it's very much a book about embodiment, and she talks about several laws of cognition. I don't remember all of them, but the first two I think might be illuminative for this conversation. Her first law is that benefits always have costs. There is a cost to thinking just in the head. There is a cost to acting in the world. But when there's a cost, there's also benefits. And when we think about interaction in this richer way of being action and reaction together, how we have this notion of the extended mind, and we think with and through the body and the world around us, what we're talking about is how we're shifting those cost-benefit trade-offs. Where the thinking happens is really important. A classic example here would be when you're, say, multiplying two numbers. Most of us can multiply two times eight in our heads and get 16. But very few of us can multiply 28 times 342 in our heads and get a good answer. So, we have moved the computation out into the world. We could do it on pencil and paper. We could do it with a slide rule. We could do it with an abacus. We could do it with a calculator. We could ask a voice assistant to do it, right? And so, where do we think about that unit of analysis? Do we think that the thinking is happening in the brain? Do we think that we've offloaded it out into the world? Or do we see the two things — what we have in the world, and what we have in our head — as combined, and see that as the cognitive system? "Interactionism" Jorge: You brought up in our last conversation this word "interactionism," which I sense is a call for people who design interactions to be more conscious of what it is that we're doing. And I'm wondering if you could unpack that term for folks. Karl: So, I've been grappling for a word here which describes this notion that we would look at the world through this lens of interaction. We would not see interaction as, "well, I've pulled up whatever my favorite design tool is, and I've got a pallet of widgets on the left-hand side and I can drag and drop, and those are the interactions." How do we begin to start seeing this as much more important? So, interactionism in this sense here is a word, which I…. You know if you look up "ism," it's both a good word and a bad word, right? We all live in isms. We live in capitalism. Or liberalism. Or conservatism. We have lots of different ways around that. But what it really means is a doctrine, a perspective, a philosophy about how we look at things. What we see and the system in which operate. And right now, I think a lot of times in design, we have certain isms that exist. Certainly if you come out of graphic design and visual design, historically, has really been a strong influence for user experience and design more broadly. And there, aestheticism is very strong. Out of other kinds of design, we often have a very strong idea of the object of the thing. Usability engineering, and ergonomics, and human factors gave us a different kind of ism around the usability. UX itself, I think, is an ism, right? It is the experience that matters. And so, information architecture and other areas, have like sort of an information-ism, that we are focused on the information. Or maybe we could use the word structure. So, the structure-ism or structuralism. Each of these words has positives and negatives. Each of them is loaded in different ways and have certain histories. Even the word interactionism has this. If you do a search for interactionism, you'll find that it actually has at least two major meanings historically. One comes out of philosophy, and philosophy of mind, going back all the way to René Descartes, who famously created the idea of mind-body dualism and said that there is the body and then the mind is somewhere else. And we have this mental space, which is not physical space, and that thinking happens… there's this interaction between these two spaces, this mental space and the body and the world. And that is one way that people talk about interactionism. Another one is a perspective in sociology, or it was called micro-sociology, that wants to look at and think about sociology entirely in terms of the interaction between individuals. So, interactionism actually already is a word in at least two major areas. I'm interested in it simply as this perspective or this lens in which we really see this and begin to elevate it to a more prominent role, rather than thinking of it as, "Oh, well, I had an interaction here, and I sprinkled on some interaction there." Or, "This interaction is very usable." Is it just philosophy? Jorge: This is not something that you are going to encounter in a palette of components in a development environment. Karl: Right. Yes. Jorge: It's more of a philosophical take on what it is that we're doing here. Karl: It is a philosophical take, but it's also a philosophical take based on the way that the science of mind has been evolving and the new evidence that we have. So, it's not purely philosophical. Jorge: I say that with the caveat that I think that when a lot of folks hear the word "philosophy," they turn off, right? They think, "well, this is not actionable." But I think of a philosophy as a way of understanding what it is that you're doing in the world. Karl: Yes. And I think that anyone who has paid attention to robotics and artificial intelligence over the last five or six years, has realized that one of the major problems that the field has had has been ignoring philosophy. I mean, artificial intelligence and robotics has really revived philosophy in many ways. But I just don't think it's actually sort of revived it, but it's made like all the people who are doing this philosophy of ethics is super important. Philosophy of mind is super important. I recently read a book by Brian Christian called The Alignment Problem. And it's all about this question of what's known in AI as, how do we align human objectives with robotic objectives? How do we make sure that robots don't go out of control? The infamous paperclip optimizer problem, right? And you can read this book in a number of ways, but one of the most important ones is all of these people in computer science and robotics and AI going, "whoa, philosophy! Really important! Not a waste of time." Deep, deep questions here that have completely changed the way that they have gone thinking about the technology and the assumptions that they have underneath it. Jorge: And what I'm hearing here is that as designers of information systems or interactive systems — if we dare use that label now — we have to develop the awareness that what we're making is not just a collection of things to interact with. In some ways, it is extensions of people's minds. And much like the folks who are working on AI and robotics are taking the time out to think about what they're doing in a broader light, that we should be doing the same. Is that a fair summary of what you're saying here? Karl: Yes, I think so. I would draw an analogy to another idea from biology — actually paleontology — of punctuated equilibrium. There was a question for a long time about how evolution happens and issues and questions with the fossil record because there seemed to be gaps in the fossil record and long periods of basically not much happens. And so, in the late sixties and early seventies, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge proposed a theory… what they called, "punctuated equilibrium." You can think of it as a curve. Think of a chart where you've got an X and Y axis, where you have a rise in an uptick. Time is along the bottom. Rate of evolutionary changes on the Y axis. And you have a rise, and then it tapers off, and it plateaus, and then it goes up again for another period of time. And then we have a period of where it plateaus, and then you have another period of change, and then it plateaus. So, evolutionary change is not a linear line. It's not this sort of straight line up at a steady rate. You have periods of intense change, and then you have periods of relatively little change. And I think that this is one way to look at how design has evolved. We had a period, I would argue, of very intense change through the late 90s and early 2000s with the advent of the web. You know, information architecture comes into its own, usability engineering becomes much more recognized and interaction design becomes a more widely recognized term. And user experience comes up and becomes more or less sort of this much more dominant term. But the early stages really are there, we have this period. And then I would say that we had a long period where… long being relative, I guess, but we had a number of years where things were more stable. Then what happens is we get mobile, right? And especially by say 2010, along with this mobile, I feel like we had large organizations especially, went and said, "you know, all of this work that people in UX do, this is really important, and we're going to stop hiring outside agencies and different groups to come in and consult and do this on a contract basis. We're going to start building UX teams." And we've seen, over the last 10 years, this massive growth in UX as an industry. We have people who go get a degree in graphic design, computer science, or whatever, and then they do a 12-week bootcamp in UX, and now they're a UX designer. We've been growing like this massive number of people in the field, and all of these people have been moving in-house. And so, we have this period of rapid change where we have a growth of the field, and we are having to integrate it into organizations where it's now a really important part of it. And so, when I look at this, we see this period of change. We've seen changes like this through technology. We had the PC revolution, then we had the web. And then we have mobile. Everyone in Silicon Valley is thinking about, well, what's the next iteration of this because this tends to happen in periods of 12 to 15 years. What's the next new major platform? And we can see this coming. We're going to have another period of intense change. And when I look at the trend lines, as opposed to the headlines, you can see some of them that. They seem fairly obvious: more and more information, more embedded computation, not just sitting on a desk or even in your pocket. We have pervasive sensors. We have intelligent response to what human beings are doing. The capacity for a greater and tighter connection between people and the digital world. We have more complex pattern matching. We are having machines now that — with robots and AI — they can do things at a scale that humans cannot do. Or an accuracy or a speed that they cannot do. If we think about these as being separate, out there, aside from human abilities, I think we're going to wind up missing a huge opportunity. I think design is going to be caught flat-footed. The book that Steven and I wrote is an early attempt, from a design perspective, strongly influenced by information architecture, but also coming from distributed cognition, to explore some of these ideas and do it in a way which could be helpful to designers. And so, we break the book up into several sections. We talked about associations. We talk about visual representations. We talk about interaction, and we talk about something called coordination. And then we look towards the future. And in each of these, we explore some of the science. We give lots of examples. But we also try to provide frameworks for people, conceptual tools so that people can look at these different areas and begin this process of building it up. We would not in any way think that this is a be all and end all, but we were consciously trying to provide people with a way to think about the problems that they have now and provide a way to think about them that is going to be more helpful in the future, given these trend lines. Closing Jorge: I already mentioned in the previous episode that it was one of my favorite reads of last year, and I strongly encourage folks to check out the book. And other than that, Karl, where are the best places for folks to follow up with you? Karl: The best place to find me at the present is on Twitter. I'm @karlfast, and that's K-A-R-L-F-A-S-T. I am not super active on Twitter, but if people ping me, I will respond. You can also look me up on LinkedIn. And again, if you message me there, I will respond. Jorge: Thank you so much for being with us and being so generous with your time. Karl: Pleasure to be here. Always nice talking with you.

12 sept

36 min 9 seg

Karl Fast is an independent scholar, information architect, and futurist. He's the co-author of Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding alongside Stephen Anderson, who was featured in episode 39 of the show. In this conversation, Karl tells us about what interaction designers can learn from cognitive science. We had a lot to discuss, so this episode is the first of two on the subject. Show notes @karlfast on Twitter Karl Fast on LinkedIn Figure It Out: Getting From Information to Understanding by Stephen P. Anderson and Karl Fast Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman Stroop effect The Extended Mind by Andy Clark and David Chalmers Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark HCI Remixed: Essays on Works That Have Influenced the HCI Community, edited by Thomas Erickson and David W. McDonald On Distinguishing Epistemic From Pragmatic Action by David Kirsch and Paul Maglio (pdf) The Intelligent Use of Space by David Kirsch Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think by Susan Goldin-Meadow Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes In The Age Of The Machine by Don Norman The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition by Don Norman Hans Moravec Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Karl, welcome to the show. Karl: Thanks for having me. Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind, please, introducing yourself? About Karl Karl: Sure. So, my name is Karl Fast. I am a Canadian by birth and education and sentiment, and I have been working in information architecture and user experience design for about 25 years or so. I like to say now, I create systems for thinking in a world that is just jam-packed with information. And a lot of the questions I have, and the work that I do, are about how do we live well and how do we think well in a world where information is cheap and abundant and pervasive. But the same is also true for computation and the networks and all the different things that we use to bring these together. And we can see trend lines where we've got more technology, we're more dependent on it, it's everywhere. And the ways that we use that technology — the possibilities of it — are simply becoming richer and richer. And you can think back to the early days when we simply had a keyboard and a screen that was one color. And then we added a mouse. And then we had multiple colors. And then we get mobile and all of these types of things. I have worked as a practicing information architect. I have worked in startups, I have worked as a consultant. I have a Ph.D. in information science, and my work was on how to take digital libraries and how to design them so that they are more of a knowledge creation tool rather than just simply a document repository where you have to search and browse. How do we actually create knowledge from digital libraries, and how do we expand that potential? And then, I spent about seven years working as a professor of user experience design at Kent State University. And now I think of myself more as an independent scholar, and I do consulting work and writing. I also think of myself as practicing what I call "information futurism," of a sort — thinking about where information will go in terms of how we can use it as this resource. The last thing I would mention is that about a year ago, I co-published a book with Stephen Anderson. It's called Figure It Out: Getting From Information To Understanding. And some of the stuff I think we're going to talk about today is definitely part of that book. Jorge: Stephen was a guest on the show as well. Your book was one of my favorite reads from last year. It touches on many subjects that I believe more designers should know about. And you mentioned several of them during your introduction there. I'm very curious about the phrase "systems for thinking in a world"... I don't know if you use the word "flooded," but in a world that is inundated with information, right? Information Karl: Yeah, inundated, jam-packed. I think of information in a historical context. You know, in terms of civilization, really, that one way to look at civilization and information is that we have always tried to have more information. We have always developed new technologies for creating information, for recording it, for copying it, for distributing it, for organizing it, for sharing it, et cetera. And we have now — especially over the last 20, 30 years through digital technologies and through the internet — have just exploded the amount of information. And the other way to look at it, though, is we have lowered the cost, right? The cost of creating, publishing, distributing, searching, organizing. All of these types of things have been lowered. But just because we have information doesn't mean we also have understanding. And the cost of understanding still remains, I think in many cases, very high. One of the things that we're interested in in the book and my long-term interest here is: well, how do we change that cost structure around understanding? And I'm using that as a broad term to include things like planning, reasoning, thinking, sense-making, analyzing, decision-making — all of these more cognitively complex activities, which is, you know, more than say, "Oh, I'm just kind of skimming the headlines in the paper," or something like that. Systems for thinking Jorge: When you say systems for thinking, what does that mean? Like, what would a system for thinking be? Karl: Well, part of it is shifting language, as opposed to a formal definition of systems — or shifting our perspective. Many times, I think, if you work in design, you work in user experience, you make products. We tend to think about the application; we think about the device; we think about the website; we think about the content. We think about this thing — this artifact — out there, as opposed to all of the other things that could come into play. In that sense, I think we've often narrowed our views and sometimes often by necessity. But when we look at this long-term trajectory about where our technologies are going, we are going to see more and more opportunities to bleed these things out into the world, to connect to aspects of our physical environment, to connect to other people in richer ways. And we can also see this with augmented reality. We can see it with virtual reality. But we can also see it with artificial intelligence and robots. And what would it mean for a robot not to be just pursuing its own goals but to help pursue our goals as a true cognitive partner that has a physical presence? So these are big, big questions that I think that we need to be asking. And I think that a lot of the work that we do tends to be really focused on, well, I've got a rectangle with a lot of pixels. Jorge: What I hear implicit in what you're saying here is that for us to effectively design and create these systems that you're alluding to, like robots and AI, we have to somehow shift our understanding of the work we're doing beyond these rectangles composed of pixels. Karl: Yes, I think so. We need a broader toolkit. I like to talk about a broader conceptual toolkit. You know, we have a set of concepts that we use all the time when we are doing design when we are making things. But a lot of that language has been built up around a whole certain set of assumptions. So, let me give you an example of this. There's a paper that I was reading a couple of years ago about what researchers are calling mobile cognition. And they start with an observation that, in hindsight, is incredibly obvious. All these psychology studies we have — all these studies that are about how people think and how they work with information and make decisions. Think about all this stuff in, say, Thinking Fast And Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, right? Famous book. Well, basically pretty much every single one of those studies, the person is sitting down. But it turns out that there's a whole bunch of studies about, hey! When people stand up, when they walk around, things change. It actually activates different parts of our brains and opens things up. There's an example of this longstanding thing in psychology called the Stroop test. So this is where you're going to have a list of different names of colors, right? So red, yellow, blue. But sometimes the color is going to match the word, and sometimes it isn't. So, it's got to do two different things, and it's generally used as a measure of cognitive control. Can you focus your attention on the salient information, and can you come up with the correct answer? How many answers can you get correct, and can you do it quickly? Well, it turns out all the studies in the Stroop test, which is a standing thing in psychology, right? They were all done sitting down. So then somebody did a study where they said, "Okay, stand up." And they did better. So much of this, especially when we look at the research that we are building and the conceptual tools that we have, are all based on a set of assumptions that, when you see some of these things, you're like, "Oh, well, that's pretty obvious in hindsight!" But it's so obvious; we've kind of forgotten about it. Jorge: In the book, you talk about a distinction between the... I think you call it a brain-bound view of how the mind works versus a more expansive view. I think you call it the extended view. Is that what you're referring to here? Karl: Yeah. So, there's a famous paper by two philosophers, David Chalmers and Andy Clark. And in the mid-90s, I want to say 1996? They wrote a paper called The Extended Mind. And the idea of The Extended Mind is, well, where does the mind end? That's the question that they're really asking. And what they argue is that through cognitive science over the last 50 years and the rise of cognitive science starting in the late 1950s, come to equate the mind and the brain as the same thing. And they argue that they are not the same thing. That we shouldn't think of that, and to do that as very limiting. We can think the brain certainly ends inside the skull. But the mind, they argue, does not. We can think of the mind as extending out into the world. Now there are weak and strong forms of that argument. In the strong form of that argument, you would say that when you are holding your phone, it is literally part of your mind. In the weak form, you would think of it more as a way for offloading. And there's a lot of debate around this. The extended mind is one idea within this broader notion that I think many listeners have heard of to some extent, which is this embodied cognition or embodiment for short. In the book, we use the word "embodiment" as sort of this broad shorthand, kind of in the way that in design circles, we use UX often as a sort of umbrella term, rather than getting into the nitty-gritty details of the difference between interaction design and information architecture and usability and content strategy, right? Each of those is important, but as a broader catchall, that people who aren't doing the detailed work — it's a label for them. And so, we use embodiment in the book as this broad-encompassing thing because within it, if you dip into the academic literature, you're going to hear: extended mind, distributed cognition, situated action, activity theory, and activism. There's a whole pile of these different ideas. The distinction between the brain-bound model of cognition and the extended-mind model of cognition is terminology that Andy Clark comes up with. He doesn't use it in that paper, but he's explored it in several books. And I believe that actual phrasing comes from a wonderful book he wrote — although it's a heavy book for sure — called Supersizing The Mind. Interactionism Jorge: Circling back to the Stroop test that you were talking about and how the test participants' performance in the test varied depending on whether they were standing or sitting, what that implies for me at least, is a need for greater consciousness about what my body is doing whenever I'm performing any kind of activity — especially a cognitively taxing activity. Is that fair? Karl: I think that's absolutely fair. I would also say that this is important for people who are making things, who are building the tools that we have. We talked a bit earlier about the word "systems." You asked me about that, and I tend to use it in somewhat a loose way to mean that you're not seeing just the app, just the website, just the device; you're seeing the body. You're seeing the physical space in which they are. But more importantly, you're seeing how all of these things are connected together and what connects them together, right? So, you are changing the unit of analysis. In the book, we described this as the "locus of understanding." Where is the locus of understanding? Is it the app? Is it in the brain? Or is it more connected to all of these things? And what is it that connects these things? In the way that I've come to see it, I have come to see interaction as the fundamental thing that connects all of these together. And I've come to believe that we have a relatively weak way of talking about interaction or an understanding of all of the ways that it happens. I don't think this is great terminology, but my current working term for this is "interactionism." It's a bit of a problematic word, which I wouldn't mind getting into if you don't mind. Jorge: Let's do it. But first, to be clear on what you're saying here: Am I right to understand that what you're saying is that interaction in this view is where the locus of understanding resides? Karl: No, I don't think so. I wouldn't say that. That is one thing that one can focus on it, and I don't think we see it very well. And I can give you some examples of why I think interaction is really important. I think it's often a case where we want to change the locus. Sometimes you do want to zoom down and be able to focus just on what's happening on the screen or the app. Sometimes you do want to focus more on what the body is. I tend to think about changing the locus; we need to also go wide. To look at all of those things, which we would normally see as independent and discreet and interaction as kind of this glue that binds them and makes them all function together as a bigger system. Sometimes through things which are explicit, sometimes through things which are implicit or have to be inferred, and if we do that I think we get a new language for what do we see when we're, say, doing a usability study? Or what do we see when we're doing ethnographic work? And how do we interpret that? Jorge: So would a fair reading then be that whenever we are designing for interaction — when we're doing interaction design — we are... Well, first of all, this lays a big responsibility on folks, right? Because somehow you're designing part of the person's cognitive apparatus, so to speak. Pragmatic and epistemic actions Karl: Sure, sure. But I mean, interaction design already talks about designing behavior, right? And you know, that means that you are shaping the things that people do and the ways that they are in the world. But we can also talk about it in terms of just facilitating certain types of interactions. So let's step back a little bit and tell you about a paper that I read. I've got this lovely book called HCI Remixed. Learned about it 15 years ago. And they asked a number of famous people, important scholars and researchers in the world of human-computer interaction about what was the one paper that really changed your thinking. And they didn't print those papers; they just asked everyone to write an essay about that paper and why it changed their thinking. And every time I pick this book up, I think to myself, "well, what's the paper that changed my thinking?" And the answer is really easy. It's the paper called On Distinguishing Epistemic From Pragmatic Action by a guy named David Kirsch, who is a cognitive scientist at UC San Diego and his grad student at the time, Paul Maglio. And this is a study about how people play Tetris, but it's easiest to understand it by thinking about how people play chess. So when people play chess, imagine that you want to move the Bishop. You pick the Bishop up, and you move it into position, but you keep your finger on it. And as you've moved it, you realize, "Uh oh. That's a bad move." So you move it back. From an interaction design perspective, or from HCI, we would say, "Oh, well, you have done two actions on the world. You move the piece. And then you pressed undo." That was, therefore, an inefficient action. It was not worth doing. We would even probably classify it as a mistake. And what Kirsch and Maglio say is, we should not think of all action as being the same. Action gets done for different reasons. And through this study of how people learn to play Tetris, right? They're using chess to illustrate this. They argue for distinction between two different types of actions, at least. So this example, they would talk about what would we call pragmatic action. And a pragmatic action is one in which you are making a change in the world, the point of which is to change the world. Jorge: Moving the Bishop to a different square. Karl: You're moving the Bishop to a different square. So if that moving of the Bishop is pragmatic, then it's an error. But we all know from having learned to play chess that that's not an error, right? And so, they argue that what you're really doing is: you are moving it, in this case, and once you have it in that position, you're like, "it's easier to see." And it is easier to see than to imagine that in your head. So, it's what they call an epistemic action. Epistemic as in epistemology, as in of or relating to how we know. So, epistemic actions are things that we do, changes we bring about in the world that make our mental computation — that make our thinking — easier? That make it faster, or that make it more reliable, to reduce the chance of making a mistake. And once you begin to think about epistemic actions, when you see actions this way, there are so many different examples of it. You see it all over the place. Because if we only had pragmatic actions, what would happen is you would… This is how you would play chess. This is how the ideal person should play chess: they should sit their stock-still and never move. And then, they should make the most physically efficient move possible to pick up a piece and move it into position with as little extraneous movement of the body as possible. Because there's a whole bunch of different things that we do that really can't be accounted for unless we... if everything is a pragmatic action. There are so many things we would say are completely superfluous. For example, consider gesturing with our hands. Why do we talk with our hands? There are some people who have looked at this question. There's a woman named Susan Goldin-Meadow. She published a book about, oh, it was about 15 years ago. It's called Hearing Gesture. And for 25 years basically — or more by this point — she has been asking this question: why do people talk with their hands? And there's a pretty obvious answer to this, right? You're like, "Oh, well, I'm using these gestures because I am creating information for you, the listener." These are things that are helpful. It's extra information, just like talking faster or talking slower or speaking loudly or talking softly. That conveys different information. And that's a good answer. And the research says, "Yep, that is absolutely part of the story." So, why do you talk with your hands when you're on the phone? Or, say, on a podcast? Because people do this. You can't see the other person, but people still make these gestures. So, one answer there — and I think a pretty good one — is, "Oh, well, it's a learned behavior." You're used to being around other people, right? So obviously, these gestures would carry over. Fine. What about someone who is blind? Why do they talk with their hands? Because studies of people who are not sighted — and who are born without sight — show that they also talk with their hands. They will also talk with their hands when they are talking to someone else who is blind. So imagine, right? You've got two people, neither of whom has ever seen a hand. They are talking back and forth. They are using hand gestures, which they know cannot be seen. And when they analyze them and classify them, it turns out that they're using very similar gestures when talking about the same kinds of concepts. There are lots of studies around this, like, say, comparing kids who are sighted and kids who are blind and how they use gestures when they have a reasoning task, and then they have to explain their reasoning to somebody else. And they both use similar kinds of gestures. The conclusion from all of these studies, at a high level, is that, yes, there is a component in which that communication is meant for someone else. That gesture is for the listener. But there is also a component in which that is directed inward. We actually use these gestures to shape and facilitate and kind of grease our internal cognitive mechanism. And you can see this the next time you go to a meeting, and you're called on to speak. Try sitting on your hands and see how well you talk. Nobody likes to do it. And people actually find this to be a struggle. Or go to a conference, right? We're talking towards later on in the COVID pandemic where we're not really at conferences. But you'll go to say a panel discussion, and somebody asks a question, and somebody might fumble, but what's going to happen, I guarantee it. They're going to start moving their hands, and then the words will just tumble out, and it's because the gesture has an internal component to it. That's what the research is pointing to. Jorge: What I hear there is that somehow the gesture is part of our thinking system. Karl: Yes. Jorge: How so? Like how does that work? And I want to go back to the Bishop. It's clear to me what the pragmatic action does in that case, but what does the epistemic action buy me? Maybe I put my fingers on the Bishop, lift it, and hover it over the board. Am I building some kind of more tangible mental model of possible moves? Karl: You are because... Well, what you're doing is you're taking things out of a "brain" space and putting them into a perceptual space, right? You're shifting that board. So you no longer have to see.... well, without that as an epistemic action, with the Bishop, you have to — in your mind — imagine what the board would look like if you move the Bishop into that position. But when you do it in a space, now it becomes a perceptual problem, and you can actually see it. And that is easier for us to do, especially when you're a beginner. You could say here, "well, expert chess players, grandmasters, they don't do that." And this is true. But the reason they don't is that they have practiced really, really hard for many, many years to get really good at it. And studies of chess players have shown that the cultural idea we have of chess as being this indicator of intelligence are really incorrect. What are chess players really, really smart at? They're really smart at playing chess, but that doesn't make them really smart at, say, astrophysics. The point of that is that there is always a point in some domain — no matter how expert you are — there's always some other area where your brain-based cognitive abilities have limitations. We always reach a point... it is... our brain is just simply overwhelmed. Don Norman said it really well, many, many years ago at the lovely book design Things That Make Us Smart. "The power of the unaided human mind is greatly exaggerated." And so one way to look at what we do in design is, like, that statement. We are building things to overcome and extend, augment, and amplify the powers of the human mind. But what embodiment is telling us is that we need to incorporate more things into that picture. And I think that's especially going to be true as our technologies improve and allow us to use more and more of our physical abilities, our interactive abilities, our interactive powers, to amplify that. Learning about embodiment Jorge: Well, it sounds like an area that designers — particularly designers who are working on the sort of digital systems that we run so much of our lives on — need to be aware of. And unfortunately, we're running out of time here. I feel like we might need a second conversation to dig more deeply into this, but where could folks follow up with this subject? Like where can they find out more about it? Karl: If I was to recommend one thing for people to go back to that is very readable as a good starter on this, I actually would point to Don Norman's book Things That Make Us Smart. He talks about these kinds of ideas in that book, and that book is almost 30 years old now. I feel that book has been hugely overshadowed by The Design of Everyday Things. He gives many different examples. He introduces the concept of what's called distributed cognition, which is a subset... What I think of as embodiment. One of the principles of distributed cognition is that cognition is embodied. The Tetris paper is considered to be a major paper within the world of distributed cognition. I would recommend looking at that paper, On Distinguishing Epistemic From Pragmatic Action, by David Kirsch. I don't recommend reading all of it. We talked about just the one example he used in that paper of chess as an analogy for explaining their findings. The focus of the paper is actually on how people play Tetris, and they developed a robotic Tetris player — a program to play Tetris — and compared it to how human beings play Tetris and looked at the differences between those two. And the robotic player was based on a classical, cognitive science model, where it's all based on you perceive, and then you think, and you act. So I think that's a really interesting place to look as well. David Kirsch also has another paper that I think is just fantastic, very readable. It is called The Intelligent Use of Space. And you can easily find this one online as well. And this is a particularly fascinating one because it's published not in a journal of cognition or a journal of design; it is published in a journal of artificial intelligence. It is presented as, I think, a really damning critique of AI and robotics. Because what he points out is that all of this stuff, cognitive science, AI, and also human-computer interaction, and thus UX, has built on classical cognitive science. And classical cognitive science says, "Hey! We perceive information from the world. Then we've got our mind — our brain — which does all this thinking work, the cognitive part. And then action is simply output." And embodiment is like, no, no, no. It's much more complicated than that. Thinking and perception and action and the world are all intertwined in many, many different kinds of ways. It's very much more complicated than that. And so he says, "look, if robotics is based on this idea, like, it doesn't use the space around it as part of the thinking." The first driving robot, there's a guy named Hans Moravec. I think that's his name. And he did some of the early work on robotic vehicles as a paper that he did for his, I think, for his Ph.D. dissertation. The way that he designed the robot, it would look, it would sort of scan the environment and then it would think for like, I don't know, 10, 15 minutes? Okay, so it would scan the environment like, okay, where all the different objects? And then it would think and plan out its movements for 10 or 15 minutes, and then it would move like up to about three feet, and then it would stop, and then it would scan the world again, and then it would move. Well, we don't work that way. Babies don't work that way. Like, no animal works that way. you might think, "Oh, well — that's the early eighties." Like, that's the way that it used to be. But this is still the way it is in robotics. A big project in AI has been how can you get robot arms to assemble a chair, like a chair from Ikea. Can you do it? This is considered to be like the moon landing equivalent in robotics. And so, a paper came out about four years ago that made kind of a splash. It was even on the front page of The New York Times. They went and bought two off-the-shelf robotic arms and then programmed them so that they could assemble a basic Ikea chair. And when you read the paper, it's like, wow, it did it in 20 minutes. A chair! Like, people are going to be out of work. But then you read the paper, and you realize that does not assemble chairs anything like human beings assemble chairs. So, they broke the problem down into three phases. The first phase is scanning the environment. They randomly scatter all the pieces of the chair around onto the surface. And the robot spends three seconds scanning to identify all the different pieces. Then it goes and makes a plan for how it's going to assemble a chair. It sits stock still for about... I think it's like eight or nine minutes just thinking, not moving. And then the next 11 minutes is executing the plan. So it makes this plan. "I'm going to pick this piece up, and then I'm going to rotate this arm, and then I moved the other arm, and I'm going to rotate that, I'm going to grab it over here..." And that's how it works. It's this whole idea of perception, and then cognition is thinking really hard inside the head, and then action is simply the output. This idea is buried really deep. And if we're going to build a future where we have robots as true partners — software AI as true collaborators — and we can begin to see human beings in the full dimensions of our cognitive abilities, right? Until we can do that kind of thing, I think we're always going to be limited as designers. And we know that our technologies are changing quite a bit. We can see all these things on the horizon. So, my question around this idea of interaction is, are we really prepared for that? And I don't think we are. Jorge: Karl, it seems like a great place to wrap it up, even though it's kind of in a question mark. It's a prompt for us to have a second conversation about this. Karl: Yeah. Then we can talk about rats and heroin! Closing Jorge: I like that. That would be interesting. I'm very curious now as to what you mean by that. But in the meantime, where can folks follow up with you? Karl: So, I tend to hide a little bit. I've especially been hiding the last six or seven years. I'm hoping that that is going to change over the next year or so. The main way to follow me probably is on Twitter. You can find me on Twitter; I'm @karlfast. That's K-A-R-L-F-A-S-T. Technically, I have a website, but it's like seven years out of date. You can also find me on LinkedIn. You can look me up there and send me a message. I will tend to respond to those two places; it just might take me a couple of weeks because I tend to be very slow. I'm not active on Twitter, really at all. But I will be notified, and I will generally respond. Jorge: Well, fantastic. I'm going to include links to all of those ways of getting in touch with you in the show notes, and I'm also going to include links to the papers and the resources that you mentioned above. Thank you so much for being with us today, Karl! Karl: Thank you for having me.

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In this conversation, we discuss Career Architecture, the focus of her current coaching work and subject of her upcoming book. Listen to the show Download episode 68 Show notes Mags Hanley on LinkedIn Seth Godin BBC Career Architecture by Mags Hanley (preorder) Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Mags, welcome to the show. Mags: Thanks, Jorge. Lovely to see you again. It's been so long. Jorge: It has been. It's fantastic to have you here in the show. As you're hinting at with that warm greeting, we've known each other for a long time. Mags: It's probably over 20 years now. Jorge: Folks who are listening in likely don't know you. So for their benefit, would you mind please introducing yourself? About Mags Mags: Sure. I'm Mags Hanley. I am a long-time information architect, and I've been a product manager and a user experience manager. I've done the gamut. So, a long-time digital person. And over the last couple of years, actually — it's been the last couple of years — I've actually moved into more of where I feel I can make the most impact, and that is into career architecture. So, using what I use as an information architect for people's careers. And it's really come from where have I been previously as a manager, and going, "actually, I want to use all of that to support and grow people within design." Career architecture Jorge: Well, I'm super intrigued by this phrase, "career architecture," and I'll just tell you what it speaks to, to me, before you describe it: it speaks to somehow applying some of the tools and techniques and frames that folks like ourselves bring to design projects, to the design of our careers. Is that a fair take? Mags: That's a fair take. It came from a time… so, I am a member of a business school to help me develop my practice. And I sat down with the leader of the business school, Lisa O'Neill, and she asked me to describe what I do and what I am. And I said, "well, I'm an information architect. I'm going to just tell you a little bit about that," which took a little longer than I expected. Once I made the library connection, that just… you know, the cataloging elements sort of hit her, but it can be quite abstract. And then I said, "but my passion is growing people. And my passion is coaching and growing people in design and in digital, and making sure that they find what they need to do. The right path for them right now." And she turned to me and went, "you're an architect. You architect people's careers, and you architect information!" And I went, "Sweet!" So, when I was talking to all of this — and I was talking more about what is now my passion project, which is about elders in design and grown, people who are grown up in design — she turned to me and said, "I think you need a foundational course." And a foundational course, which is the career architecture, and then you can build on top of it. So, as we were saying, career architecture is about how we can use the methods that we think about and we use as information architects or as UX professionals and apply that in a very systematic way into how we think about our careers. And it's come a lot from two places. One is, it came out of something that I applied for myself. So, I finished up a project — a piece of work working for a major retailer, an e-commerce retailer in Australia — and realized as I was doing this, this wasn't the place for me. And I talked to some friends who turned to me and said, "this is not the place for you. This is not the right place for you. It's the right place for others, not for you." And I sat down and tried to work out what it is that I wanted to move forward with. I used this process on myself. And over the last two years, I've been doing exactly the same with people that I am coaching. Jorge: When you say "growing people," are you talking about them growing as professionals exclusively, or is this more broad than that? Mags: As of this moment, it's very much the professionals themselves, but one of the things that I take into consideration — and we look at together — is about life circumstances. And I feel that's the part that most people, when they talk about their professional growth, don't take into consideration. I'm a woman of 50, and I'm sitting here going, "I don't have a family, but I have elderly parents." And that is a big life circumstance for me to sit there and say how… if I'm thinking about what my next direction is, how does that impact the care that I have to give to my parents? And that means I'd make a different decision about what my career and my direction would be because I have that life circumstance. So, I feel as if, even though we think about professional development and where we want to go, we have to think about it in the whole ecosystem of where we are and what we do. And then we will make decisions about our lives and where we want to go based on what those circumstances are. Jorge: Yeah, this distinction that we hear so often about work-life balance, I always feel like it's a bit of a false dichotomy in that work is life and life is work, and they're all intertwined, right? Mags: Absolutely. And I'm working a lot with women who are in their forties and fifties, and basically, they've got family and parents and health conditions, and they need health benefits. If you're in the US, you need to make sure that you have the money for benefits. We're lucky in Australia — and I've lived in the UK — that we don't have to worry about that, with socialized medicine. But we sit there and go, "actually, our lives are wrapped. Our work is only a part of our lives and therefore, how does the rest of it work in together?" The career architecture process Jorge: Why don't you walk us through it? Like, what does the process look like? Because I'll tell you, when folks hear the word "architecture," I suspect that they think about some kind of top-down structure being imposed on a situation. People can't see this on the show, but you're nodding your head. So… Mags: I'm nodding my head, going, "No! No, no, no. I'm a bottom up information architect!" I sit there and I understand the context. I understand all the bits, so I can build up. And I think that's the element for me, which is the current-state analysis. So basically, I think about it as in two parts. I think about the process as: let's do your current-state analysis. Let's understand all those parts that make up who you are and your life and your stakeholders. And then be able to say, "what does this strategy look from there?" I feel that we actually don't do that enough. So, my process is… we're looking at skills. I'm going really deep. What are your technical skills? What is skills when it comes to what Seth Godin says is "real skills." So, how do you influence? How do you work with others? We talk about the sorts of skills that you think about in a practice. Everything to do with design and research ops and how to do velocity and scoping. So, what do you actually know as a designer? How do you work with people? Do you do people management? So, it's that sort of skills audit. Then we start to have a look at what's your experience. So, how much experience do you have? What education do you have? And then go and have a look at what your aspirations are. So, I've been writing the book and I've been writing an aspect, and putting my own flavor as examples, and then I have some case studies as well. And I sat down and said, "my aspiration is to be a gigging jazz musician." And I know that actually I'm not good enough and I haven't put enough time into it if I really wanted to be a gigging jazz singer, that would be what I would need to do. But the aspects that came out of it was that I'm not creative enough, so I really need more creativity. I'm working alone at the moment. So, I work from my home office and so I sit there and go, actually, it's more about people. It's about teaching. It's about connection. And if I look at that as aspirations, that then sits there and says, "oh! That's what I want from career and life." "Life" means it's about connection. It's about creativity. So, we look at all of those bits and then I sit there and say, "let's do some stakeholder interviews." Your stakeholder interviews are two things: your family and your friends and your coworkers. And ex-bosses. Let's get the feedback of what's working and what's not, and what the impact is. So, I know in different places that I've been that when I've been in places that don't work for me, there is a large impact on my family and friends from my mood and what the talk is happening. And therefore understanding what they're seeing, where possibly you're in a place of going, "Ooh, I don't know what's happening. Where should I be going?" really gives you some more feedback into this. And at that point, we're starting to say, what sort of directions, what possible directions are there for me? What vision do I have of where I want to be? So, we move from understanding what we are, and as I said, "the bottom up." All of those little elements in the same ways if I was doing some e-commerce work. I'd be sitting there and having a look — as I sometimes do — at all the product data and I understand what's happening and what descriptions are there and where we are, and what's good and what's bad. And then I create a strategy for what that information architecture would look like for an e-commerce. And so, the strategy element has got a number of different bits to it. One is, we look at vision and this vision… it's more about how you want to think and feel and what you want to be able to do. So, I think it is: think, feel, value and do, as a way to be able to say, "this is who I want to be, and this is what I want my career to be. " And from that, there could be multiple directions. Because if I take my own example — and this is something that I was doing when I finished up at my last permanent work role — was I sat there and said, "There are three different directions I could go on." I've been a UX manager for many, many years. Do I want to go back to that? And I had that moment of going, I just don't want to do the evangelism again. I just don't want to put myself there. I've been doing that sort of evangelism for 20 years, and I don't want to put myself in that position again. I felt I could go into product management. I've done loads of product management, starting at the BBC. So, I've had that, done that, over the years as well. And I felt that I wasn't going to get what I wanted and it was relatively immature in Australia, and I didn't want to put the time into it. And then I looked at my coaching and mentoring and development practice and I went, "Oh! The stuff that I love to do, growing people." So, growing them, seeing that they can move off, whether it is teaching them a new skill or whether it is helping them work out what the next stage should be. Talking about — and we'll probably talk about growing a little later — talking about what happens and how we can make sure that people who are over 45 actually have a real career. And I'm going, "Ooh, that I could make an impact on." And then talking about women in leadership. I sat there and go, "I'm excited about this. It meets my vision of growing people and working with people and being creative." Doing research on yourself Jorge: I'm thinking as I'm hearing you describe this, that this maps fairly closely to the design process, as I understand it, where you start doing research and you try to get a read on the situation that you're dealing with. And then with that context, you then start formulating certain hypotheses, which you go off and test. So, I actually have two questions here, and maybe we can take them one at a time. One is, when we're doing this type of work for a client, say for a project, we're researching the subject domain and we might have some degree of knowledge in the domain or perhaps not, but we are… Maybe I'll speak for myself. I can be somewhat emotionally detached from the thing that I am examining. But, the stuff that we're talking about here is very personal, and our identities are invested into our work. And how do we get a clean read on the situation? Mags: The clean read has to come from having someone you can talk about this to. Now, whether this is someone like me, who's a coach, whether it is a trusted friend or a mentor within the industry, you need to be able to have someone who you can talk to and then reflect back to you. And when I think about the sort of people who've done that for me, I think about my friend Julie who… There were a number of times — and she's in Minnesota, so I'm ringing her up on a Saturday morning (it's a Friday night in her time) — and we're having this conversation and I realized that she's got such a clean read on what was happening to me and what I would need. I went to a coach who, she… we were sitting there and talking about where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do. And very, very, you know, strict school-teacher moment. Of which sometimes I have those moments myself, where I have to sit there and go, "really? Okay. Let's talk about this in much cleaner terms, but also in slightly less emotional." And I think that's where another person helps. Jorge: What I'm hearing there is that the way to research this part of the subject domain in a way where your emotional entanglements with the subject don't throw you off track, is to have other folks reflect it back at you and just keep you… bring some perspective, right? Mags: Correct. And the way that I describe it is that every time we're doing this is usually at an inflection point. There is something that has sat there and gone: you have to make this decision. Something has picked you up. Now, this doesn't mean that you need to leave work, for example. Leave a place. It just means there's an inflection point where something's not working, or there may be an opportunity and you're not really sure. Jorge: What's curious about that is when I think back to my own inflection points in my life, those have been moments of high anxiety… Mags: yeah. Jorge:…which again, that's an impediment to getting a clean read, right? Mags: It is. And that's why, in some ways, doing a process is an element of taking away the anxiety. Because a process is sitting there and saying, "I'm going to do one and two and three and four." And anxieties mean that you go into loops and you're in a very heightened, emotional state. And if you sat there and doing a process… and I'm talking as a process-girl; I'm very much a systematizer. You sit there and you're taking the time to write and to draw? That works really well for us, if we are designers, we write and we draw and we all got the sticky notes. I still see the sticky notes all around my monitor right now. And you're taking time out of that emotional state to do some analysis. Testing possible directions Jorge: That's a great segue to the second question that I had for you, which is kind of the next step in the process, right? Which is, if we have a pretty good read about our situation, our goals, what we want out of it… then I would imagine that the next step is defining the… like you were saying, the possible directions. And how I would approach this in a design process would be to find ways of testing those. And I wonder if there's like an analog here for your career, like how do you test possible directions? Mags: I think there's a couple of ways to do this. And one is… so one of the bits I didn't talk about was positioning. So one of the elements when you look at it, you need to understand where you are positioned yourself. And I was talking to someone else in the network last night and he said, "it's not PR, is it?" And I went, "no, no, no. I'm not talking about PR. I'm talking about positioning yourself and understanding how you are seen and known within the industry, or seen and known within your organization." And start to go, 'Okay, if this is where I'm positioned, what could I move forward to?" And that comes back into this testing element, which says, what does your network talk about? Is there the opportunities there? Do you see this on LinkedIn? When you go to your network and say, I'm interested in coaching, does someone turned to me and go, "oh, Mags! You are fantastic at that. Of course, I will help you find that solution. Or I can refer you to someone else." Are you starting to find that what you are looking at makes sense to the network and makes sense to where you can position yourself in an organization or in a profession? One of the other bits that I go through in the book is I actually talk about the different types of careers that are available to design. And the term I use is "practitioner," not individual contributor. And I don't know if that's because of the time I worked in the UK, but, I don't like "individual contributors" as a term. Practitioner to me seems softer. We have three major ones that we do. We're a practitioner. So, we're someone who's actually doing… practicing the design work. We are a manager. So, someone who's in a managerial position, actually managing people or moving up into managing design within the business. And then we have consultants, who are people who are providing their expertise into other organizations. So, going up from someone who may be a freelancer through to a thought leader. And then we have "other." Of which many of us move into whether we are a teacher or coach, or I think of Kara, who's a chief of staff. So, you sit there and say, we've got all of these different roles. And one of the bits then is to test out which ones of these types of paths make sense. You can go and talk to others within the industry. And the reason that the chief of staff came up was that Kara, who is in one of my Slack groups, basically had a Zoom meeting where she talked to a bunch of us about what a chief of staff is and how it relates to us being design leaders and how our skills of organizing and researching and coordinating and putting things together work very well as a chief of staff for a senior leader. And you sit there and go, "ah! I've done my research. Do I have those skills as well?" Gap analysis Jorge: Do I have those skills — and I would imagine that there's also the… identifying the gaps, right? Like, maybe if I find that I don't have the skill, then the question is how do I acquire that skill. Mags: Absolutely. And that's the sort of planning… that's my gap analysis planning moment where you sit there and go, "okay! I want to be here and I want to be there. What is that gap? And how do I fill that gap?" You know, do I do more education? Do I actually need a network that's going to help me get there? How do I build that network? Planning is a big one for me. And one of the bits that I work on when I do this with people is, we go through the whole process. And at the end of it, we have a planning session and then 30 days later, or six weeks later, we catch up and go through the plans and see where they've been and what's changed. Because you can put plans in place and then life happens and change happens. And I think that's one of the bits that I take from digital, which is, yeah! We can plan all we want. We've got to be agile, but we also know there is so much rapid change in both digital and in the way our careers are and in our family, that we need to be able to move with it. Jorge: Just for the sake of being comprehensive… it feels like we've talked about two steps. This first step of getting a read on our situation. The second step: determining possible directions and testing them. Is there something that happens after that in the process? Working on the positioning Mags: Well, where I've seen what happens with the process is that we actually go forward in that particular direction. So, we start working on our positioning to get us there. I have this model of done, seen, and known. And so, the aim for us is to sit there and go: I've got this vision. I've got possible directions. I've looked at the impact of where I feel I can make the most impact in each of these. I've chosen a direction that I want to go. I have a plan for what I need to do to take me to that next step. And then a lot of it is then positioning. So, it's sitting there and saying, "if I'm somewhere…" Let's just take an example of me working at the BBC. I was working as an IA lead and I finished up on a CMS project and I was sitting there going, "Okay. What's next?" And someone said to me, "We probably need you to help to do some work on program information. It's sort of a small skunkworks project…" And I turned to the leader and said, "I just don't want to be the UX person on this. I want to be the project lead." And that took him slightly aback. "Ooh! Okay." And that was that. And it was the first time I was positioning myself at the BBC as being more than the practitioner that I was. I was sitting there going, "no, no. I lead the project. I organize it. I coordinate it. I have all the people. I'm owning where this is going." I'm not necessarily coming up with the vision for it, but I'm owning where it is going. And it then took me to my next role, which was an executive producer who is running 12 products. But without actually putting that out there and then starting to position myself and getting known for that, I wouldn't have gotten to that next role. Jorge: Which again, to draw the analogy with the design process, especially for large-scale systems projects, you have research, some kind of synthesis process where you map out possible directions. You embark on one of the directions. And then there is a governance process that follows where you keep evolving, right? The thing is not finished somehow. An ongoing process Mags: And we are not finished. And I think that's the big thing of all of this is to realize that we are never going to be… we may have a vision for now. And we have a direction that we take, but there's no way that we sit there and go, "This is the only direction I'm ever going to go." I was writing this up and I said, I think about two different types of people. And I'm going to say in design, but to be honest, I don't think this is limited to design, when I think about their careers. There are the planners who go, "I am here as a mid-weight designer and I want to be a senior VP, and I'm going to go on that ladder to get there." Then you have people who are floaters, who sort of sit there and go: "oh, I'm okay. You know, everything's okay." And then something happens and they have to realize they have to make a decision. In each of these situations, there's either a mindset of: I'm going to follow the ladder, or I just don't know what's going to happen. And if we actually sat there and went, "No. Think about this as a two-year vision. Think of this as a direction for two years and each time, test it. Do your way-finding. Sit there and go, what's happening? At this point in time, where am I and what's happening? All right. Should I be continuing on in that direction? Is it the wrong one?" I've had people who've said to me, "I decided to experiment and see if I wanted to be a UX leader. And I went and became a manager, and it became very apparent that that wasn't where I wanted to be." And I went, "great! Don't know where I want to be, but that's not it. Fantastic. You've tried it. Come out, try something else. " Jorge: You've learned something, right? And shifting based on what you've learned. To start bringing this to a close, I'm wondering about the current state of this work for you. You've already hinted at the fact that you're working on a book, but what's the state of Career Architecture right now for you? Mags: So, Career Architecture as a book is going to be out at the end of August. And I am taking pre-sales for the electronic. I have to admit, living in Australia and postage is a struggle at the moment. Australia has closed borders at the moment, so we don't have as many planes coming and therefore postage is really hard. So, I'm selling that as an electronic at the moment. It is a process that I have been using with my clients for the last two years and has been evolving over the last two years. So, I work with clients both individually and in programs, and I help them through this process. And I'm that trusted person that they have the conversations with of, does this work, does this not work? I'm getting them to reflect. And what's interesting is when I go through that process, when we first did the first vision and direction, everyone's going, "yes! This is where I want to be! This is what I want to do!" And then, through the eight weeks, it starts to temper itself and/or starts to really modify. So, there'll be people who sit there going, "I'm going to do this! " And then they realize, "I've got to have health benefits. Okay. Maybe I can't do that." Or, "you know, I want to grow my organization." And after a couple of weeks, they've realized maybe there isn't room for growth in the organization. Closing Jorge: Well, great. Is there a website where folks can learn more about the book when it comes out? Mags: Of course! It's And I've already got some information there on the site about the book, and over the next couple of weeks, once we get close to printing, I will be putting more resources up. Because I feel as if you've got the book, and there'll be lots of templates in there. That's the lovely bit about the book, is that I really want to be a workbook. So, there are templates for people to fill in to actually get to the point of going, "oh, this is where I want to be!" But I'm also going to make those available electronically. Jorge: Well, fantastic. And is that website also where folks can reach out to you, should they be interested in working with you? Mags: Absolutely! So, you can contact me at, or always LinkedIn. So please, I'm there as Margaret (Mags) Hanley. Jorge: Well, I'll include links to all of those things in the show notes. Thank you, Mags, for being on the show. It's been a real pleasure catching up with you again. Mags: Absolutely! Thank you, Jorge. And hopefully in time — close in time — I will be able to see you again in person. Jorge: Let's hope so.

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No guest in this episode. Instead, I answer listener questions. If you have a question you'd like me to address on the show, please email me at or tweet to @informed_life. Listen to the show Download episode 67 Show notes The Informed Life episode 17: Rachel Price on Improvisation The Informed Life episode 65: Sarah Barrett on Architectural Scale A brief history of information architecture (pdf) by Peter Morville Information Architects by Richard Saul Wurman David Macaulay Alexander Tsiaras Why Software is Eating the World by Marc Andreessen (WSJ paywall) Dave Gray The Information Architecture Institute How to Make Sense of Any Mess by Abby Covert Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Jorge Arango The Information Architecture Conference World IA Day Information Architects Facebook group UX Design Information Architecture LinkedIn group Mags Hanley's Information Architecture Masterclasses Jorge Arango's Information Architecture Essentials workshop Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript A question from Vinish Garg The first question comes from Vinish Garg. And I apologize if I have mispronounced that. Vinish is based in Chandigarh, and he writes, "the design agencies with around a hundred plus headcount have big and experienced teams in user research, interaction, design, and UX design. But many of them don't have an information architect. How do they see the need of a specialist IA and make space for this role?" And he adds a postscript, he says "those who have an IA, I spoke to many of them, but they are doing wireframes or card sorting without really understanding anything of taxonomy or findability. This is misplaced IA." All right. So, let me take the question first. Information architecture in general has withered as a job title. In the last 20 years, we've seen fewer and fewer people signing up to become information architects in organizations, not just in internal design teams, but also in agencies. In fact, I don't know many organizations that still have internal information architects. One notable exception — and I'm just calling it out because we've had two of their folks in the show — is Microsoft. Rachel Price and Sarah Barrett, both former guests of The Informed Life, are information architects within Microsoft. So, that's an example of an organization that still has the role internally. But I think that the more common scenario is that there is someone with another job title. It might be a UX designer or interaction designer or something like that, is tasked with structuring the system somehow. Sadly. I think that the even more common scenario is that no one does this explicitly at all, and they're just basically painting screens. I suspect that is the more common scenario. And it's a shame, because information architecture is very important, especially if you're dealing with a large complex system that presents a lot of information to end users. I want to comment a bit on the postscript. I think that it may be the case that there are people who, as Vinish points out, are practicing what they call information architecture, but they're doing it very superficially. And I encounter this most often in the confusion that people have between site maps and information architecture. I've seen folks draw up an outline in the form of a site map and basically call it a day. A site map is a useful artifact for communicating structural intent, but there's much more to information architecture than making a site map. And for many interactive systems, a site map might not even be the most appropriate artifact to communicate intent. Site maps tend to be very hierarchical, which is something that is more appropriate for some systems than others. I expect that, given the waning of information architecture, as I was saying earlier, much of what is practiced today under the rubric of information architecture is kind of cargo cult IA, where folks go through the motions of doing something like putting together a site map without understanding the reasoning behind the decisions they're making or why they're even making the artifact at all. And this is not something that's unique to IA. There are a lot of other areas of practice, other disciplines, where folks adopt the superficial trappings of the practice without really understanding the foundations. And in the case of information architecture, the foundations have to do with making meaningful distinctions. So, setting things aside in categories that are recognizable to the users of the system, that allow them to relate to the information in the system in meaningful ways, with the goal of ultimately making the system easier to use by making information easier to find and understand. Now, Vinish asked specifically about the context of agencies. I don't know much about the Indian market, but here in the U.S., the role of agencies in the design process has also waned as compared to 20 years ago. A lot of the work is happening internally in organizations, and that might be part of the reason why the role has waned as well. Because I think that people think about information architecture — if they think about it at all — when there's a major system change, when there's a redesign or a new product is being built and not so much during the day-to-day operations of the system. Again, there are exceptions. I called out Rachel and Sarah, who are part of a team that has ongoing responsibilities, because it's such a large system where so much content is produced. But in many cases, folks only need to do this sort of thing when they're making a major change, when they're implementing a new system or redesigning a system, as I said before. Which would lead me to expect that it is a role that would be more appropriate for design agencies, if, for no other reason, because design agencies do deal with more projects at the beginning their life, as opposed to the operational phase of the project. But alas, as Vinish points out, the role has also been waning in agencies as well. I don't know how they see the need for IA specialists. I don't know that they'd see the need for IA specialists. I believe that more likely they are experiencing the pain of not having an information architect in the team. Peter Morville has written of the "pain with no name" in reference to information architecture, this idea that people in the team might know that there's a problem, but they don't know how to name it. And they don't know that I'm more careful distinction making our structuring of the information in the environment might be part of the solution. And the net result is that frankly, information architecture isn't as popular as it used to be. And that may be a failing on the part of us who practice IA. We simply haven't been very good at explaining why it's important, why it's needed and why teams should consider having folks look after this stuff. That said, I know that there are people doing it out there. They just don't have the job title information architect — or at least that's what I would like to be the case. A question from Jose Gutierrez The next question comes from Jose Gutierrez; I think Jose is writing from Costa Rica. He writes, "I'm curious about what subjects does IA impact, but people normally don't associate with." These days, most people who think about information architecture — at least the few that do — think of it in relation to user experience design or digital design. But when I first learned about information architecture, I did so through Richard's Saul Wurman's 1996 book Information Architects. The impression that I got from that book was that IA was much, much broader. The very cover of the book has three definitions of what information architects are, and the first one says, "the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear." There's nothing in there about digital anything. We encounter patterns inherent in data and complexity in many different parts of reality, not just in digital systems. In fact, while the book touches on digital design, it's remit as much broader. It profiles folks like author David Macaulay, who has produced a series of wonderful books that explain how things work, or Alexander Tsiaras who works in medical imaging. And there's also cartography and illustration and yep, also some digital design, like structuring websites and that sort of thing, which is what we today, mostly associate with information architecture. And this isn't surprising because as software has eaten more of the world — to use Marc Andreessen's memorable phrase — more and more of our information is digital, and we experience more of the information that we deal with in digital environments. But structuring information to ease findability and understandability is much older than computers. I remember seeing a presentation many years ago by Dave Gray on the history of the book as an artifact, which really opened my eyes to this. Before there were books, we would write down information in things like scrolls. And what we know of as books — the form of a book, what is called a codex — was an innovation. It allowed for greater portability and random access to the information in the book, because you didn't have to unroll the whole thing to get to a particular section. Those were all innovations, right? But the very first codexes didn't have things like page numbers or tables of contents or indices or any of those things, and those were all innovations that allowed readers to find information more easily in books. I think that those are examples of information architecture, and they are many centuries old. So, any time that you're trying to make things easier to find and understand — whether it be in a book or a built environment or a medical image, or an app — Information architecture can help. As I said, in response to Vinish's question, I consider the essence of information architecture to be about making more meaningful distinctions. And this is something that applies to all sorts of aspects of reality. In fact, part of the intent for launching this podcast was precisely because I think that information architecture manifests in so many different fields. And I'm very interested in hearing from folks about how structuring, categorizing, organizing information more mindfully helps them get things done. A question from Elijah Claude Finally, here's a question from Elijah Claude. And again, I hope that I am pronouncing your name properly. I believe that Elijah is writing from Atlanta. He writes, " what are some of the best ways to learn good information architecture outside of school and work. In other words, how do you do personal projects where you can practice real information architecture? Great resources for IA books, podcasts, videos, et cetera." This question has two parts. So, there's a part that has to do with learning IA. And there's another part that has to do with practicing IA in our everyday lives. I must note upfront that I personally don't like to draw hard lines between life, work, school and all these things. I think that you can practice information architecture at any time. Information architecture is as much a mindset as it is a practice. And it's a mindset that has to do with looking beneath the surface of things to the way that things are organized and structured, and the ways in which we create shared meaning in how we organize and structure things in our world. That sounds a little abstract, so I'll give you an example. When we moved into the house that we're currently living in, my wife and I had a conversation about where we were going to store the various objects in our kitchen. So, we had boxes with things like plates and cutlery and food items, spices, and such. There are many categories of food items. There are dry foods, and there are big bulky foods that take up a lot of space, things like sacks of flour, rice and stuff like that. And here we are in this new house with a different layout than the one that we're used to, and many places in which to put things. And we had to coordinate where we were going to store things. Because if not, we would make it very difficult for each other to find things when we need them. And that's something that happened somewhat organically. We had an informal conversation saying, "Hey, maybe the cutlery can go in this drawer. And maybe this cabinet close to the stove would be perfect for things like spices and so on." Some things were obvious where they should go, others less so — and the arrangement has evolved over time. Over the time that we've been living here, we've occasionally moved things and found better ways to organize our kitchen. So, it's an ongoing thing and we talk about it. I think that it would be different if either one of us was organizing the kitchen for ourselves as individuals. When you must consider that at least one other person is going to be sharing the place with you, then you must take into consideration how they are going to be able to navigate the environment to find the stuff that they need. And I consider that to be an information architecture challenge. I'll give you another example. And funny enough, this one also has to do with our kitchen. Recently, we discovered that we have a minor problem. This is something that has emerged in the pandemic. It used to be that before the pandemic, I would often work outside of the house. And of course, with the arrival of the pandemic, more of us have been working from home. And as I've started working from home — and I tend to wake up very early — I would find that some days I would feed Bumpkin, our dog. I would feed bumpkin. And then, later in the morning, my wife, who normally feeds Bumpkin, would come along and would feed him not knowing that that I had already fed him. Bumpkin can be very insistent if he's hungry. So, if he comes knocking on my home office door, I will feed him because that's what gets him to stop knocking. And my wife and I have been prototyping a system to let each other know if Bumpkin has eaten or not. I wrote two sticky notes, one that said, "Bumpkin has eaten breakfast" and the other one said, "Bumpkin has eaten dinner." And we put it up on the cabinet where we keep his food. And the idea was that every time that she or I fed him a meal, we would place the appropriate sticky on the outside of the cabinet door. And that kind of worked for a while. But the glue the sticky started wearing out after switching them around so many times. So, we tried something else. We tried another sticky, this one on the refrigerator door with a checkbox. And one checkbox says, "Bumpkin has eaten breakfast" and the other checkbox says, "Bumpkin has eaten dinner." And we have a little magnet that we move between them. And what we discovered with that new prototype is that the sticky is much more resilient, because we're not moving it around, but it's in the wrong part of the environment because we're normally not looking in the refrigerator when we're feeding Bumpkin. So, we often forget to move the magnet. And I'm now thinking about the third rev of this thing, which would combine the two. And this will probably involve putting some kind of magnetic board on the door where we keep the dog food. And I consider all of these to be information architecture problems. On the one hand, clarifying the distinction between what was the last meal that Bumpkin had eaten, that's information architecture. And another is the location of this marker in the environment. Like I said, we were having a lot more traction when we had the sticky on the door that had the dog food in it than when we put it on the refrigerator door. And the only reason why we did it, there was a completely technical reason, which is that the fridge is already magnetized. So, these are examples of information architecture or architectural thinking at play in real-world problems — admittedly a very simple one. But it's not unusual. It's not unusual for us to apply that kind of mindset to organizing the real world. It's how we make sense of things. It's how we structure our environments so that we can get things done. And it doesn't just happen in information environments, it happens in physical environments as well. So, that's with regards to the practice question. The learning question is a bit tougher, because as I have said in the previous questions in this episode, interest in information architecture has waned over the last 20 years. So, resources are less plentiful than they used to be. The Information Architecture Institute, which was the preeminent place that I would point people to who wanted to learn about IA has seized operations. It feels to me like the discipline is in something of a state of transition. I am sure that there is a robust future for information architecture, but it's hard for me right now to point to any one definitive resource and say, this is what you should check out. There are books. That is the first thing that I recommend that folks check out. And Elijah, given the fact that you asked about non-work or school related contexts, the number one book that I would recommend for you, if you haven't seen it already, is Abby Covert's How to Make Sense of Any Mess, which is a primer on information architecture. It's a beautiful book in that it really articulates the core issues that transcend digital in a very useful way. Another book — and this one is, alas, a bit self-serving — is the fourth edition of the polar bear book, Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond. And I say it's self-serving because I had the great privilege of having been invited to coauthor the fourth edition alongside the original authors, Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville. And that book is more specific to digital information environments, but I still think that it's one of the best places to learn about IA. There are also conferences. The two most prominent are the Information Architecture Conference and World IA Day. Both of those happen in the spring. The IA Conference is global. It usually happens in one city and folks fly from all over the world — or at least they did in the before times. The last two years, it's been virtual because of COVID. But it's more global, and it's a central gathering for IAS and the IA-curious. If you are interested in learning more about IA, I would recommend that you participate in the IA Conference. World IA Day is more of a localized initiative. It's a single day event and many cities participate around the world. It's driven by the communities in those cities. So again, super local. And it's a great way to meet people who are interested in information architecture in your own community. So, those are two events that I recommend: the IA Conference and World IA Day. There's also social media. There is at least one group on Facebook that is dedicated to information architecture. I know that there are also groups in LinkedIn. I haven't participated much in either of those, but I know that they exist. If that's what you prefer, you have those options. And then there are also courses. I know that Mags Hanley has a course on information architecture and by the way, a little bit of a spoiler: Mags is an upcoming guest of the show. We don't get in depth into her course, we talk about other subjects, but I know that Mags has a course that she does online and that may be worthwhile checking out. And then I have a workshop that I've done several times called Information Architecture Essentials, which is designed to introduce folks to the discipline. And I'm in the process of turning that into an online course as well. And by the way, if you are interested in that, I would love to hear from you, because I'm in the process of crafting that now. I'm also interested. If you have suggestions for folks like Elijah who want to find out more about information architecture. I would love to learn about other resources I might've missed, so please do get in touch. Closing So, there you have it, the first listener question episode of the show. I have other questions that folks sent in, but we didn't get a chance to get to them. So, I might do this again. Please do reach out if you enjoyed this episode, if you think I should do another one, and most especially, if you have a question yourself that you would like me to answer on the show. You can find contact information on the show's website at That's also where you can find show notes and a transcript for this episode. For now, I want to thank Vinish, Jose, and Elijah for their questions. And thank you for listening. As a reminder, please rate or review the show in the Apple Podcasts app or in the Apple podcast directory. This helps other folks find it. Thanks!

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Jim Kalbach is the chief evangelist at MURAL, a leading provider of online visual collaboration software. He's the author of Designing Web Navigation (O'Reilly, 2007), Mapping Experiences (O'Reilly, 2016), and his latest, The Jobs to Be Done Playbook (Rosenfeld, 2020). In this conversation, we dive into Jobs to Be Done, how it relates to design, and how jobs can create an “out of body experience” for organizations. Listen to the show Download episode 66 Show notes @JimKalbach on Twitter Jim Kalbach on LinkedIn MURAL The Jobs to Be Done Playbook by Jim Kalbach Mapping Experiences: A Complete Guide to Creating Value through Journeys, Blueprints, and Diagrams by Jim Kalbach Designing Web Navigation: Optimizing the User Experience by Jim Kalbach JTBD Toolkit Book Notes: “The Jobs To Be Done Playbook” by Jorge Arango Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done” by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan How We Align Product Development with Jobs To Be Done at MURAL by Agustin Soler The JTBD toolkit Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon, and David S. Duncan Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Jim, welcome to the show. Jim: Hey, great to be here. Thanks for having me, Jorge. Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you. Not only have you and I been friends for a long time, but you also wrote a book last year that I liked a lot, and I actually wrote about it in my blog. I'm excited to talk with you about the book and about what you're up to. So, for folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself? About Jim Jim: Yeah, sure! Hey everybody, Jim Kalbach here. Calling in from Jersey City, New Jersey, where I'm originally from, on the east coast. I moved to Germany for a long time. I lived in Germany for about 14 years and then came back to the U. S. But I have a background in information science and worked as an information architect for a long time, getting into topics around usability and UX. I have a very strong classic kind of design — product design — background. But I was always interested in research and strategic aspects of design and innovation. And then I got exposed to Jobs to Be Done around 2003, and always tried to incorporate aspects of that in my work here and there. Just kind of testing the waters. So, I've been looking at Jobs to Be Done for a while now, actually, in my design roles, but then also beyond that as well too. Jorge: You're currently at MURAL, right? Jim: Correct. Yeah, I'm the Chief Evangelist at MURAL. I've been with that company for six and a half years now. I was employee number 12 and through the pandemic, our business has expanded greatly. It's just… things have just exploded in a good way. Of course, we believe we have a tool — a virtual whiteboard — we have a tool that can help people. You know, through the pandemic, it was great to see our mission that we had been building up for five years before the pandemic then suddenly become hyper-relevant, and people reaching out and grabbing us by the collar and saying, "thank you for saving my project!" So that was just really fulfilling to see our mission, become hyper relevant. But again, at the same time, it was absolutely fantastic for our business. And now we're like 600 people in the company. It's crazy how much we've grown. I started and I built up the customer success team and the support team here at MURAL. So, it was a little bit of shift from my background in product design when I got to MURAL. But then as we scaled, I wasn't the right person to scale a global customer success team. So, I moved over into what we're calling "Chief Evangelist" and it's basically a lot of outreach, writing, speaking onstage, doing some research, building relationships with our biggest and best customers, but also just reaching out to the community in general. So, it's a really great role for me to be in here at MURAL. Jorge: You alluded to Jobs to Be Done, which is the subject of your latest book, the one that we were talking about earlier. I'm wondering about Jobs to Be Done at MURAL. And I remember when I first used MURAL, it seemed to me to be a tool that was looking to replicate the whiteboard. And with the pandemic we've been unable to access physical whiteboards, and MURAL has filled in the gap, right? So how would you describe the job that MURAL does for teams? JTBD at MURAL Jim: It's a really good question, and I've been chewing on that for a very long time. Before I answer that, I just want to mention that Jobs to Be Done at MURAL… haven't been very overt about it. It's not like we have a Jobs to Be Done round table and every week we do research and things like that. But it's there, and it's been in the background lurking behind… even our support team. Did a session with our support team, how Jobs to Be Done could help them in their work. Our head of product, there's a nice blog post out there where he talks about Jobs to Be Done in guiding the roadmap, and things like that. So, it's been around, but it's kind of like where we've been soaking in it rather than having a Jobs to Be Done research effort or explicit team around it. And in doing that kind of ongoing work, I've been really thinking about what are the Jobs to Be Done of MURAL. And it's a little tricky. Because it's a whiteboard, it's a blank canvas. It's… you know, Jorge, I think a MURAL almost as a platform. A lot of times you buy a piece of software and you expect the software to tell you what you can do, and what you can't do, right? There's a workflow involved. There are steps involved, and that kind of thing. But with MURAL, it's like you can do anything that your imagination can bring to a whiteboard with it. So, I really think it's almost like a platform that you can develop on. And what can you develop? And the answer is, "yes!" It's like, what can you visualize? Then you can do it on MURAL. So, it makes the answer to the question, "what's the job-to-be-done?" really slippery. But it also then puts out, the way that I've been approaching it, is looking at a constellation of jobs. And by the way, that's one of the first things that you need to do when you work with Jobs to Be Done is map out what I call your jobs landscape. Because it's not uncommon that organizations and businesses are targeted at a constellation of jobs, particularly in software. Software gets multiple jobs done. And one of the first things you have to do is map out your jobs. And that… it's not just one dimensional, it's actually hierarchical; that there are jobs and smaller jobs that roll up to higher jobs. So, you end up with this landscape of jobs. And in MURAL, it can just go on and on and on. Because we're basically an open-source development platform that is as limited as your own imagination. But I think where we started and the jobs that we're looking to target first are things around like running a collaboration session with your team at work, because we're all about collaboration and we want to be relevant in the workplace, although we have a lot of educational institutions as well, too. It's really about running a collaboration session with your team, is kind of a high-level job. You can go up from there and even say, solve problems together visually. Could be even a higher level… that's really abstract though. And if you were to research that using the Jobs to Be Done lens, which you could, you would come up with something more abstract. So, I usually try to break that down into things like running a collaboration session. But we also have people running projects. How do people run projects and where does MURAL fit into that job to be done? Teaching a course! People teach, as you know, MURAL is a platform to teach from as well, too. Teaching a course is another big use case that we tend to target as well too. So, I have about… right now, I have about four or five jobs at that level. The main one though, is really around collaboration. It's collaborating as a team at work, right? And what is the beginning, middle, and end of that? And I've found that if you map that out, you can take a lot of the situations that people come to MURAL with and you can fit it into that beginning, middle and end of collaborating at work. The jobs of JTBD Jorge: We're talking about this kind of in the abstract and I'm assuming that folks listening in know what we mean when we say Jobs to Be Done. Before we started recording, you were mentioning that you've done dozens of podcast interviews about this, so I'm not going to ask you the "what is Jobs to Be Done?" question. I'll leave that up to listeners. If they haven't heard about it, it's worth your while. But you just now mentioned that something that's been on my mind in using Jobs to Be Done in my own work. And it's a fact that some of the definitions of a job-to-be-done can get quite abstract. And at that point, their utility stops being evident to team members. So, I'm wondering the meta-question: what do you see the jobs of Jobs to Be Done? Like, what does Jobs to Be Done buy a team? Jim: Yeah! I think it's focus in innovation efforts. I really see Jobs to Be Done as an innovation framework. And innovation occurring at any level. You want to innovate your product or your solution, you want to innovate your go to market motions as well, too? But it could be, we want to expand our company. So, it works at different levels, right? The first question that I always teach people to answer in defining the jobs that they're going to be targeting is, "where do you want to innovate?" And once you're able to answer that question, what Jobs to Be Done brings is a lot of focus and clarity to that. Because then there's a structured language behind Jobs to Be Done. And that's what I try put out in the first couple of chapters in my book is, what's the language around Jobs to Be Done to describe our innovation target, but to describe it in human terms. In human terms, right? And notice I didn't say "user" or "customer" or "prospect" or "target market. " It's human terms. It's understanding within that space, once you define your innovation target, what do human beings want? And trying to find that out. It's different than ethnography though, because we're not going out and doing this very grounded, bottoms-up… there is some bottoms-up work to it, but you're not just trying to understand everything about their lives because you've defined your frame of innovation. It’s very specific in the human-based information that you're extracting from it. So, it's very focused and it's very lean in getting out human insight that then becomes opportunity for innovation. Jorge: When you say, "human terms", I hear that as human terms in distinction to the drivers of an impersonal system, such as the organization or the market or what have you, right? Jim: Or the product or the solution. Right! And one of the great benefits of the language of Jobs to Be Done is that it expunges all of that from your vernacular. That when you're talking and working with Jobs to Be Done, you're not allowed to refer to any technology, solutions, brands, or even methods. So, Agile is a method. Design thinking is a method. You wouldn't write that down when you're notating Jobs to Be Done. You wouldn't refer to any of those things. You're trying to describe human needs… a very specific description of human needs. Again, it's not this ethnographic type of thing. You just want to go in and get what you want and get out. It's very surgical in that sense. But you're describing it in a way that is independent of yourself, because organizations are really good at looking at human beings through the lens of their own brand and their solution. We looked down at the market and we say, "those are users. Those are customers. That's a buying behavior. That's a user behavior. We have a solution. Click the button! Optimize conversion rates!" That's about you. Let's be serious here. A customer journey map and a lot of that stuff, that's about you and your organization. That's not about human beings. Jobs to Be Done explicitly puts that to the side and then you're asking yourself, "well, how do I describe that then? How do I describe what people want and what they're trying to get done?" And Jobs to Be Done gives you way to do that. Once you put all that other stuff to the side, you can still — in a very structured, targeted and focused way — you can describe human behavior. Very specific types of human behavior. JTBD for the reluctant Jorge: When you say innovation… when anyone says innovation, one of the things that I hear is change. So, we have a current state in which we're doing things a certain way, and we want to change that to a different state in which we're doing things differently. Or our product looks different in the market. And innovation has kind of a positive tinge to it, whereas change is more ambiguous, right? And a lot of folks are resistant to change internally in organizations. I'm wondering about how you might explain the value of Jobs to Be Done to reluctant stakeholders or to folks who may not be fully on board with driving some kind of change? Jim: It's a really good point and in fact after we launched the book, I created an online resource called the Jobs to Be Done toolkit, And we were talking about exactly this. Like, who are we targeting? And we ultimately threw away roles and labels and ended up with changemakers. We're targeting changemakers in organizations because of the question that you just asked is that some stakeholders are resistant to change, you're right. But other people in organizations want change, right? They see their own brand or solution on the market. Or they see the way that they're working internally and they say, "we have to change. " And I think a lot of that is driven by the world we live in. And I don't want to say, '"now it's different than in the past!" But there are specific you know, things that are unique about today's world. Hyper-connected containerization and productization around the world, global economies and talent pools and things like that. There is the different, more complex business world that businesses face these days. And I would argue that it puts a lot more power in consumer hands than even just two or three decades ago. We're all on a burning platform because any consumer can rate you, and any consumer can go to a competitor with one click of a button. So, I think it changes the equation of business from the middle of the last century. I think that's the motivation for change, in general. And stakeholders that don't get it, well, you know what? They're going to be left behind, Jorge, first of all. Because there are lots of statistics like the list of customers of companies on the S&P 500 list is… their duration on that list is getting shorter and shorter and shorter. You know, IBM is IBM and it'll be IBM forever. It's like, "well, man, you know, maybe it won't right?" Because disruption is happening at a quicker rate as well too. So, I think the imperative is there from the way that things work in general to make change, and yeah — some people will be resistant to that, I agree. I think the thing that's different about Jobs to Be Done, is it's very no-nonsense and the focus and the clarity that it brings… and it also speaks a business language to businesspeople on their own terms. I think it's more appealing than other change mechanisms. Like Design Thinking. People have used Design Thinking to affect change to their organizations as well too, but a lot of people react to that: "I'm not a designer. Design is aesthetics. Why would I want to think like a designer?" You know, and things like that. So, there might be a lot of overlap of Jobs to Be Done with other fields, like Design Thinking. And there is. But it's the way that it does it that I think actually appeals to those stubborn people better than some of the other approaches. And I'm not saying throw away Design Thinking; I teach Design Thinking, you know? So, I'm not saying throw that away, but I think we need a new arsenal of conversation styles and languages because of the question that you asked that some people are stubborn, right? And I think Jobs to Be Done helps overcome that stubbornness. Exactly that. That's exactly my attraction to Jobs to Be Done, Jorge. Creating an out-of-body experience Jorge: One of the interesting things about what you're saying here is that it's all very self-consistent, in that at the root of the approach is reframing our offerings from the perspective of the people who are benefiting or who are getting value from our offerings, whether they be customers or end-users or what have you. And that requires that we as a team, as an organization, step outside of our own needs, right? Jim: Correct. Jorge: And what you're saying here is that this applies not only to the product or the initiative that we're undertaking, but to ourselves. Like, our own perception of who we are is up for questioning here. Jim: That is absolutely correct. And one way that I like to describe the reason and the benefit of Jobs to Be Done is to intentionally create what I call an out-of-body experience for yourself, right? Because you're so wrapped up in yourself as an organization. Like I said, organizations are really good about talking about their own brand and their own solutions and their own customer base, that we forget about other perspectives. And the other perspective is, there's a human being over there just trying to get something done in their daily lives, and they may not care about your brand or your price point or your conversion rates. What would happen if just momentarily — and it's only momentary suspense of belief — that we flip perspectives and we see things from their perspective, and look back at ourselves. And the answer is… or the benefit is, you can find opportunities that you don't see because you're your own blinders. So. It is a perspective shift and that's why I also describe Jobs to Be Done as a way of seeing. It's an alternative way of seeing because we see our organizations from a business standpoint, like I was saying. It's like, well, what would happen if we just shifted over and saw it from 180 degrees and looked back then pick out those opportunities, and — no question about it, Jorge — you always come back to those conversations about your own organization and your own product. Have no fear that you're not going to talk about your own brand. So, it's just a temporary shift outside, and then you come back in. And the idea is you can find opportunities that you wouldn't see from your own perspective. JTBD and design Jorge: And in that it shares a lot with the design process, right? Like you… Jim: Absolutely! Jorge: You mentioned Design Thinking here. In fact, when I read your book in preparation for reading that I read, Clay Christensen, et al's Competing Against Luck. And I revisited the notes that I took on that book before our interview this morning, and I wrote down that at the time, it struck me as user-centered design made palatable to stakeholders because it's being taught by Harvard Business professors, which is kind of what you're talking about here, about the language. Jim: I agree. And you know, I don't think that's unimportant though, Jorge. Like I said, I've been looking at ethnography and Design Thinking and UX and all of these other disciplines and human-centered design, and I've been steeped in those things, right? And as you know, the design community pounds its fist on the table and says, " we want a seat at the table!" Right? And rightfully so, as well too. And I think Jobs to Be Done helps that because it comes from the business community. There's no territory or ownership there that anybody can own… there's no one discipline that runs or owns Jobs to Be Done. It's really a language across your organization. And I'll tell you, since I wrote the book, I'm being contacted by marketing teams, by customer success people, obviously by people in product. Entrepreneurs are looking at Jobs to Be Done as well, too. So, I think there's a chance to have that same kind of human centeredness, whatever you want to call the center of gravity there, and to actually get further in our organizations because of its origins and because of how it's positioned as not any one discipline owning it. That said, I do think there are some important differences though. There are some really important differences between existing methods that are human centered design and Jobs to Be Done. Jorge: I would love to hear what those are. Jim: Well, the first one we kind of touched on already too, and that's the hyper, almost fanatical expunging of any reference to technology, solutions or products, right? I get a lot of people say, "tell me task analysis. This is just task analysis, right?" Jorge, I cannot find one example of task analysis that doesn't include a reference to the solution that the person who does task analysis has in front of them. In fact, some examples of task analysis are literally saying, "click the button on the second screen, then click the next button on the next screen. " That's product design. That's not how humans think about their own needs, right? I think that is… it's huge and it's important and it's not that easy, to be honest with you, Jorge. I teach a lot of classes now on Jobs to Be Done. And I get a lot of designers because a lot of people that follow me are in the design field. And then, and I'll say, "you can't use any technology. " And then I do a little exercise with them, and they use technology! In the sense, I say, "no, you can't say Design Thinking, you can't say screen. You can't say document. You can't say all these things. " So, to actually do it… and once you actually do it, you're like, "oh, I can't use any of these terms. And if I don't… " Here's the thing, if I do that, step-by-step through Jobs to Be Done, I don't use any technology, solutions, brand, any reference to any of those things, and then you look back at what you just built up, you get that freedom, you get that out of body experience that you often don't in those other fields, to be honest with you. Jorge: Circling back to the effectiveness of this language versus the language of design, in hearing you describe that, I was thinking that as information architects, our own job-to-be-done is to create effectual language structures, right? And we iterate on labels to find the ones that resonate the most with folks. So, if we are doing the work and we find language that makes it more understandable, more engaging to stakeholders, let's use that language, right? Jim: I agree. Yeah. And it's interesting, you mentioned that because… well, first of all, I said, "you have a landscape of jobs that's your first thing to do?" Guess what? That's a little mini information architecture right there. What's my innovation target is, there's a little architecture in there. But then when you're working with Jobs to Be Done, it is very, very much about language. And one of the first things that I try to show people and demonstrate is that you need at thesaurus. So, it starts with qualitative research, and people don't speak in regular normal terms. Jobs to Be Done is essentially a big categorization mechanism, that when you're listening to people talk, you say, "oh, that's a job performer. That's a job step. That's a job step. That's a job step. That's an outcome. That's an outcome. " And then you end up with piles of regular information that you gather from your qualitative research, which, you know, is very messy. And that normalization that you do to categorize things, often requires a thesaurus because you're saying like, " what's the best word to express that? What's the simplest, most compact word that I can use to express this?" You know, somebody just talked in two paragraphs, and I want to rewrite that in one phrase in one, three-word phrase, right? What's the best word in there? And some things are obvious. Some things are super obvious. But sometimes you get on these cases where you're like, "what's the best word for that?" And it really is about language. It's really about how you're expressing that. And the models that come out of Jobs to Be Done research… it's really a model of, language. Of rewriting qualitative input that you get using the Jobs to Be Done rules. And it's really about modeling that. And there is a lot of architecture involved. Making "jobs" more actionable Jorge: I'm thinking about what I think is a job-to-be-done and it's one of my favorite ones because it's actually, stated up front when you visit this place. And it's the bronze plaques at the entrance of Disneyland. There's two tunnels under a train track when you enter Disneyland. And there's these plaques that say, "here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy. " And it's almost like they're telling you what the intent is for that environment, right? Like they designed this thing that aims to accomplish that. And there's this story that Walt Disney used to give his designers, the people were designing the parks, one overarching direction: whoever comes in contact with this thing that you're making should leave the experience with a smile on their face. And those to me are descriptions of jobs, right? Of what the thing is supposed to do. But there's a very wide gap between, "here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy," and what it takes to actually design a theme park ride there's a lot of decisions in between. And I'm wondering about how you bridge that gap. There's this language, this three-word pithy phrase that you have defined that sets the vision. How do you make it actionable? Jim: Yeah. Well, I think, there are two things at play there from the example that you mentioned. One is a hierarchy, and a hierarchy of needs or intents. You used the word intent, so we can talk about that. And I would actually… the examples that you gave, I would actually categorize those as… the first one as aspirations, right? And then you said, "leave with a smile on your face. " I would call that an outcome as well, too. This is all detailed in my book. But to actually put it into practice, maybe this is a good example to help folks think about that. So, actually break things up into… well, there's multiple categories. But for this conversation right here with you, Jorge, I think there are three things going on. One is the aspiration. What's the ultimate aspiration? And Clayton Christensen, who you mentioned, and others, they tend to work at that level, which is fine. And I think that's super important. But I think if you come down a level, you can also say, "yeah, but what's the functional job that people are trying to get done?" I call that the objective. And in your example, it might just be visiting a theme park. So I think you can anchor that aspiration at a high level, but then come down and say, "you know what? We got to build solutions that get people from point A to point B. " Visiting a theme park, right? There's a beginning, middle, and end to that, and we better fulfill that functional job or that objective they have. And then on the other side is what are the outcomes that we want people to have? And that would be, leave with a smile on your face. So, the thing that you said on the plaque, I forget exactly what that was. I would categorize that as an aspiration, and then "leave with a smile" as an outcome. The thing that's missing though is what's the functional job? What's the getting from point A to point B, the plain vanilla… I just have an objective to get done because your solution better get that done, right? Independent of emotions and aspirations and all that kind of stuff. So, Jobs to Be Done is really no nonsense and very structured around taking that example that you just gave and puts things into different categories. Let's think about the aspirations. Fine! Let's think about the outcomes. I can do analysis on that. But what's the functional job that people are trying to get done? That's another piece that you also have to work with. I've done a lot of, let's say Design Thinking workshops where you walk into the room and you say, "we're going to solve world peace today," and that's your target for the group, right? And then you brainstorm on world peace, and you ended up in a room full of sticky notes. And you're like, this is a group of mid-level UX designers. What are they going to? There's too much distance between what we do as a business and what we just came up with. You're trying to innovate at too high of a level. And I've been guilty of doing that, in blue skying everything. "Let's blue sky! No constraints, blue sky!" It's like, no. Why can't we say, "we want to figure out a better way to drill a hole in the wall. " Why can't we innovate at that level? I think actually innovation has a better success when you don't just go in and write down pie in the sky. Let's brainstorm, but say, " how can we make a better hole in the wall? Let's innovate that, guys. " Because that's the level of our focus. And you can absolutely do that. In fact, I was drilling a hole in my wall a couple of weeks ago and I was like, "wow, there's a lot of problems here. There's dust all over the place. I got to set up my drill… " Like this, "oh, this is ripe for innovation, actually. Drilling a hole in a wall is absolutely a place where you can innovate!" But we overshoot. We tend to overshoot, I believe, a lot. Jorge: Definitely. And it's part of why I find the concept of Jobs to Be Done so attractive. And especially as you express it in your book — it's very pragmatic. It's not academic in the way that so many of these ideas tend to be. So, I heartily endorse the book and your work, and I am very grateful that you've made the time to share shared with us here today. Jim: Well, thanks for having me on and for your writeup as well, too. And again, I think I said it before too, but I think that's not unimportant: the pragmatism of Jobs to Be Done. And a lot of people criticize it. "But you're leaving out this," and "you're leaving out that!" Then it's like, yeah, you're leaving all that stuff out because sometimes that confuses those people or puts off those people who are reluctant to change. And you can just go in and say, "we're just going to do these three things. " There's a lot that gets left on the editing floor in Jobs to Be Done. And I like to scoop those up and put them into a separate pile, but you can just go in and just do this really focused thing, with Jobs to Be Done. And I think, again, you mentioned it at the beginning. It's the focus that Jobs to Be Done and the no nonsense focus and the practicality and the pragmatism of Jobs to Be Done that I find really attractive, but it doesn't exclude those other things. It doesn't exclude Design Thinking or ethnography or UX design as well too. And I think you can actually add those things together. So, one of the things that I'm working on, Jorge, is how does Jobs to Be Done fit in with those other pieces of the puzzle and even things like Agile and Lean. Closing Jorge: I think that a lot of folks listening in and I myself would be very interested in hearing what you have to say about this when you publish it. Where can folks follow up with you to keep up with what you're thinking about? Jim: Sure. On LinkedIn. Connect with me on LinkedIn. I make announcements and post some information there also. Also, Twitter. It's @jimkalbach at Twitter. But I think also at the Jobs to Be Done toolkit, the website, it's an online resource. There's some free downloads there - some free downloads. We also have an online course. It's a self-paced video course there. So, you can just sign up for that any time, but we also regularly… pretty much every other month. It's not a hundred percent regular yet, but we've been at a pace of about every other month we run a live course. And you can find out information about the next live course on Jobs to Be Done toolkit. Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you for being on the show. Jim: Thanks for having me, Jorge.

18 jul

31 min 37 seg

Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan is a Global Strategic Design Director at Designit, an international strategic design consultancy. He is based in Bangalore, and in this conversation we talk about challenges and opportunities inherent in designing information systems for the Indian market. Listen to the show Download episode 65 Show notes Udhaya Kumar Padmanabhan (LinkedIn) Designit Languages of India (Wikipedia) IndEA (India Enterprise Architecture) Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology Swiggy Zomato Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Udhaya, welcome to the show. UKP: Hey, Jorge! Thanks for having me here. Jorge: I'm excited to have you on the show with us. For folks who might not know you, can you please introduce yourself? About UKP UKP: Okay. So, my name is Udhaya Kumar Pamanabhan. A very long name, but friends and family called me UKP. I've been a practicing designer for 25 years. In that ballgame, I was part and parcel of many, many successful acquisitions. I built and sold a couple of my own companies. And design is the only thing I've been doing for a living. And I started way back, with very, very rudimentary stuff like visual design, graphic design, and all of that. And then went up the design ocean, got to dabble with not all of the things, but most of the things. So, picture information architecture also is primary. When I started with IA, I didn't know I was doing IA. So, over a period of time, I think, my canvas just went first, you know, breadthwise, and then it went deeper as needed and that's what's made me what I am today. And yeah! I make a living out of it, so I can't complain. Jorge: I suspect that you and I are of a similar vintage, and I can relate to this notion of doing IA without realizing that that's what it was. My impression is that you have worked most if not all, of your career in India, is that right? UKP: It's the other way around. Yeah. But now it's probably, yeah, it’s more of India, but yeah, I've been, you know, I started off, outside of India. I keep joking that, you know, probably I have not worked in the Poles, but yeah, I've worked across the globe. But India is home base, and now I'm back in India. Jorge: And, you've said that you've practiced design most of your career. Is that what you studied? What's your educational background? UKP: Yeah. You'd be surprised. I'm a quant. I did a triple major in math, stats, and computer science. 20 years… even 20 years actually to the clock before Time made it the Person of the Year. So, I keep kidding that, you know, I had the premonition that 20 years down the line, this is going to be hard! So much so that I actually specialized in that during my university days. So yeah, I am a quant by accounts. Jorge: How do you come from being a quant to being a designer? UKP: What I'm going to say might sound very stereotypical, but there are a lot of designers that I keep meeting who have the same story. Act one, scene one is basically they somehow figured out that they were very creative in their formative years. They spent a lot of time, had supportive parents. And of course, they had curiosity. I think that took the same spin as mine as well. I was good at painting, sketching, drawing, and all of that stuff. And then my parents always supported all my whims and fancies. Where I come from, getting access to computing or computers and all of that... Now that things have changed, but my generation, probably when I was a teen, that was like probably one in 10,000 or one and probably a hundred thousand households. But I was lucky to get exposed to all of this. Started dabbling with MS Paint and then started working on Adobe Photoshop LE - limited edition - on a monochrome monitor. And I think the rest is history. I figured out that if I'm going to do something, I'm going to do this and I'm not going to spend the rest of my life becoming yet another software engineer from India. I mean, that was very good at software engineering as well. But that's not... it never, came across as something fascinating. I just did it. I got good grades. India, you know how in India it is, right? Academics is very, very important. And parents and society... basically there's a lot of emphasis on that. So I think I kept that side of the bargain. No complaints! I did really well. But I didn't know that I would want to be a designer. All I knew was I wanted to do creative stuff. So, I think from a very early age, I think that was always... was like a brain tattoo and I think things just interlocked and clicked in place. Digital clay Jorge: The way that I think about the technical aspect of our work, particularly software, is that it is the material that we work with much like steel and wood and bricks are the materials that building architects work with. And my expectation would be that having a background in computer science would give you a particular take on the materials that we're working with in things like interaction design. Does that resonate in any way? UKP: Oh, absolutely. In fact, I actually have a label that I've been probably using for probably 20 years, if not more. I have a concept called digital clay. Because software to me is digital clay. I like clay as a medium. So, I always say that, think of software as exactly clay, but it's digital. You can shape and craft and construct products and services and ecosystems, and you can even build societies at scale. So yes! It helps. Computer science for me personally helped in terms of I wouldn't say empathizing, but, because I come from that world, I know the checks and balances and the guard rails, and the boundary conditions of what technology can do. And at the same time that has helped me actually not go overboard. From a very early age you know, I was told, "don't aim for perfection, but aim for optimization." I didn't know that there was a thing called systems thinking back then. But I was nurtured, I was mentored. So, I followed certain guiding principles in everything that I do. Computer science definitely helped. Numbers definitely helped. Stats definitely helped me in becoming the researcher that I have always been. I've been part and parcel of some fantabulous research practices. Sometimes people have offered me, with open arms, "why don't you just move to just research? You seem to be a natural!" And all of that. But I think my training actually helped me discern a lot of things and, yeah, apply that on my professional journey. So, yes. Interesting question. I think it helps. It definitely helps when you want the value chain and you're supposed to deliver products and services and experiences more so in today's day and age. My current job, I work with a top 10 strategic design firm and we are part of a eight and a half billion dollar behemoth. And we today go to the market, and we don't say we are a technology behemoth. The entire world knows it. We gently say, "we do anything at scale." And the difference between us and probably the rest of them is that everything that we do is design led. So, when you own delivery, when you do a lot of interesting stuff, you have to be very, very, cognizant to the viability, the feasibility and all of that, right? So, I think, it was a natural progression for me, and I developed those muscles and every single project, it helps me to assess scale, scope, what can we do now? What can we not do now? What can we park? And that skill in the room actually helps your colleagues, your partners, your prospective clients, and actually your clients, because you could sit with them and actually have a meaningful conversation and actually help them to make decisions, influence the decisions that are for the greater good. So, a mix and match of acquired knowledge basically most of them become tacit, though you learn things from academy. If you don't apply it for long, it becomes clustered. So, I think for me somehow, I developed this tacit knowledge, and it comes to help. Jorge: I want to dig into something you mentioned there. Two things: one is this distinction between optimization and perfection. What I'm reading by that is that, if you aim for perfection, that doesn't necessarily mean that you're hitting on the optimal approach. And the other thing is the idea that the work that you're doing now aims for scale. And the reason that those caught my attention is that you're working in a context that I understand to be... well, first of all, India is one of the world's most populous countries and it's also incredibly diverse. And I was hoping that we could talk about what it's like to do design work, and more particularly, information architecture work, for a market as diverse as the Indian market, and doing it at scale. The Indian market UKP: Awesome question. Let me spend the next one or two minutes to give India on a pitch. I hope I do justice, you know? Probably this would be the shortest definition of India that, once people hear about it, they'll have a fair understanding. And it'll basically deconstruct a lot of confusion that people might have had about India. I mean, India is known for software. India is known for brainpower. India is known as a, you know, country with a rich cultural history and heritage that transcends 5,000 years. And the anecdote is: it has been 5,000 years from the last century. The number doesn't seem to be moving to 5,001, 5,002 or 5,000... right? Just kidding! Like you said, we are the second most populous country on the planet, as we speak. And we are projected to become the most populous country on the planet, probably in a couple of decades or lesser. Coming to the information architecture side of things, we are a country with 1.3 billion people, and we speak about 19,500 dialects that are actually registered. That's too much to crunch, too much to handle. So, we have something called Scheduled Languages, which means they are kind of official languages if you will, for want of a better word. So those are 22 Scheduled Languages and there are officially 121 recognized mother tongues. So, for example, you go to Spain, more or less it's a given that Spanish is the mother tongue. Then if you go to France, it's French. That's the beauty of other countries. But the diversity and the exponential beauty in my country is basically we have 125 different mother tongues, that are officially recognized. Now, the next part. So, we have the second largest English-speaking population on the planet. That's about 125 million plus and counting. Apart from that, we have 615 million and counting speakers of Hindi, which is misconstrued as the official language of India, but it's the most widely spoken language in India and elsewhere. 615 million is like more than half of our population. But most of the services and products and platforms, more so in a digital world today, are English. So, we have a lot of languages, and we have a lot of people who are digitally equipped today. We have probably the second largest, or maybe the largest mobile phone population in the world as well. So, access to content, access to product and services is a check box that's already been picked. But is it disseminating and assimilating and enabling people to assimilate information and context and transact that's a big bummer. So, there's a significant thrust on that plane. Specifically, that, okay, the English world is taken care of, probably some other European languages' world is taken care of, but India, like I keep saying, it's like every 200 kilometers we had a mini country, in essence. People mistake localization to best user experiences. Technology helps you convert an English into a Hindi or a Hindi into something else, but a lot of context gets lost in that. I keep joking, it's like your subtitles on any of the Netflixes or Amazon Primes that you see. If you really observe, at least 50% of those translations are hilarious. So much so that sometimes you can just watch that and laugh. So, there is a lot of opportunity. You have simple math. You have about a billion prospective consumers, not necessarily customers for anything digital. Hungry! And English doesn't cut it out. So, the strategic design agency that we are, well, yes, we do a lot of projects. 99% of our projects are projects [that] are for profit. We do a lot of non-profit stuff, but we also do a lot of speculative activities across the 17 studios globally. So, amazingly in India, about a year back, we started working on some studio initiatives to figure out what are the areas of intervention from a speculative design standpoint. We came up with all of these numbers and said, "India is definitely shining you know, decade to decade comparison. This decade has been significantly better off than the last one. And the projections are, we will probably be the number one GDP in the world." And we basically stepped back and said, "Hey, this is as-is, right? We still have, probably 615 million people who speak Hindi. And probably not all of them know English. And amongst that crowd, you can do magic of math. Even if you take a 10% population, if these are small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. That is a tremendous amount of... It's like an ocean of opportunities, right?" And then we spoke about inclusion. India's good in banks. India is great in banks. You know, in fact, if you really look at the top 10 banks, probably there would be two or three Indian banks that will list there. But there is a deep divide. There is a divide between the haves and the have-nots, you know? People in metro cities and tier one cities like mine, we are all covered. Probably tier two cities are covered, but beyond that, tier two and tier three, things could be better. So, we basically started speculating on, what is it that we need to do? And we knew for a fact that the SMB, so it stands for Small and Mini businesses. There is a Micro also. Micro basically is, you're an entrepreneur, you're running some kind of business. It's probably three, four people tops. So, then we said, we can't boil the ocean. And we went ahead and conceptualized a mobile experience. A multimodal experience, but predominantly powered by voice interface. The hypothesis was, "can we actually bring in not only financial inclusion, but can we also empower these people, to basically not only conduct business, but thrive in ways that are simple, smart, and give them maximum reach." And financial inclusivity has been proven to actually not only give [inaudible] an uptick in the lifestyle, but also makes a country healthy, wealthy and happier and progressive, right? So, there are a lot of extended value additions. And we knew that this is a humongous one for a studio of 35, 30 people to sit and solve probably in a year or two. But yeah, we did it. We built a concept called Paisa Vasool. So, Paisa Vasool actually is Hindi, it means " bang for the buck." That's the closest English translation that I can think of. We basically prototyped an experience where a small to medium entrepreneur with about four people on his payroll. And payroll is just a label here. I mean, he has four people working for him. He's a textile merchant, you know? He has a lot of ambitious plans to scale and all of that, but because of the lack of inclusivity in digital properties, he's a Luddite. He still goes to the banks. He still talks to the manager. He, you know, tries for loans, extended loans and all of that. So, we re-casted that into a story, built a quick prototype. We actually participated in a lot of award submissions, and it was very well received. And currently, as we speak, we are at that point, now we are thinking, "how do we take this? How do we scale this? And probably test it on the ground?" All our hypothesis on "is there a market for this?" Absolutely yes. You know, our formative research, we spoke to real people. We spoke to representatives of small businesses and initially yes, they were like, "Okay, these guys are technology guys, maybe they are speaking something?" And to be sure, when we articulated a vision and mission and when we tested concepts, then we ask them like, " how might you use it, right? Should you have access to an application, a mobile application that speaks to you, and that gives you insights and information in a language, and a natural context that you are familiar with?" 11 out of 10 times they were like, "wow!" So much so that the thing is when is this thing coming up so that I can access it. So, the concept has been validated. But yeah, we want to scale it beyond one or two use cases. So, banking, definitely banking and inclusion is a big thing. Interestingly, that actually intersects with a couple of government initiatives. You know, we're just actually bound to support whatever we do, but the government policies are just that, right? It's like ideas are a dozen a dime. You need to go and execute it and actually see it come to life and bring it to fruition. So interestingly, between 2016 and 2018, there was this massive push on making India self-reliant in terms of manufacturing capabilities and everything... Basically economic and industrial growth. So, the government unveiled a program called "make it in India, but make it for the world types." We've been reasonably successful, early days, nobody to scale. So, you know, one of the most amazing things is, this time the government got very serious, brought in all the experts from a diverse populace. They had a committee, and they came up with something called INDEA. So, it's I-N-D-E-A. It's an India framework. So basically "IND." IND is basically for India. EA stands for "Enterprise Architecture." I think I can comfortably claim that I am one of those morons who read all the 211 pages of a PDF document. Very interesting. I can guarantee not many designers are even aware of such a thing that's been pushed by our central government. It's a fantastic document that sets the vision and mission for what we need to do to become a truly digital country and a digital government. Jorge: I'm wondering about the speculative design project that you all worked on. It sounds like just from the title, that it was primarily in Hindi. Is that right? UKP: Yes, primarily in Hindi. Yeah. Multi-language experiences Jorge: Not to downplay it because you said it's... what was it? 615 million speakers. So, it's a huge, market already just in Hindi. But I'm wondering if that experience that you all designed, was it accessible in more than just Hindi? Or was it only in that language? UKP: Okay. So, the hypothesis that we tested is can a predominantly voice-driven multimodal experience on a mobile device, actually bring in interventions that makes the life of certain target personas that we were looking at better? The hypothesis turned out to be absolutely true. We picked Hindi just for exactly the same reasons that you spoke. I just want to follow up that the 615 million Hindi speakers are not... not everybody are in India. A percentile of them are outside. You know, our ex-pat community outside. But a significant amount of people are in Hindi. And yeah — Hindi is a very common language in India. So, you know, every second person that you speak to... you know, meet up definitely is aware of Hindi. But the same things can be scaled across other languages that are non-Hindi as well. So, that would be one of the things that we want to test out as we move forward, that are like at the bare minimum, probably we'll look at the 22 Scheduled Languages that I spoke about, or maybe we will test it out with more. Because it's a replicable model. There's a scale imbibed in that. So, basically you build once and you'll basically go and run specific sub projects because it's just not a translator service, right? Content writing also is UX; you need to figure out information architecture, you need to figure out the ontologies, and like I said: India, the diversity that it brings, it's not like build once and translate it into 22 languages and Hindu. And that is where the opportunity for someone who can do this at scale and the opportunity for people who actually can consume the effects of this, and actually make a living on top of it. Jorge: Have you found any patterns that work particularly well? I mean, it sounds like 22 Scheduled Languages that's... Even though it's obviously a much smaller list than the 19,500 that you mentioned earlier, it's still quite a long list. Are there any patterns that work especially well for doing this work? I mean, it just sounds... to me, it sounds overwhelming. UKP: So yeah. One of the items... my top item for us was like, "are we just thinking and are we hallucinating that this kind of a thing is the right intervention or solution to be tested out?" And the answer turned out to be yes. The patterns are people... Okay. The other amazing, ironical, dichotomy is this: while I said that, we only have about 125 million people who can speak English, and three times that who speaks Hindi, and that most of our products and services today are actually in English, some of them do have some other Scheduled Languages being translated. The amazing thing is using mobile interactions or digital user experience if you will, has become an acquired behavior in India. Whether it is a literate 60-year-old, illiterate 30-year-old, or a 5-year-old, across the segment, people get it. People expect certain behaviors with their digital interactions. So, that basically told us that we don't need to go and figure out very unique UI, UX constructs, UI patterns, or user experience ideas. And that was very, very soothing for us because people knew how to scroll. People knew how to tap. People knew all of that, and people expect a certain response from the system. The only challenge for us then to solve and focus upon is, okay take Indian homegrown examples. I'll take an example of direct business to consumer kind of a model, ordering food delivery, right? It's called Swiggy. I mean, one of the largest... there are only two top players in India. One is Zomato and another one is Swiggy. So, people know that "Hey, I want to call in food, I tap, I select this findability, I choose, I place an order and voila! I get food delivered." Now, are they servicing... I think India has about 50,000 or six... I mean, I could be completely off, but I know it's a humongous number. I think we have 30-40,000 different zip codes, pin codes. So, are they serving all of these zip codes? Absolutely no. And these guys are... Swiggy as a company, is a unicorn. I mean, it's valued at $7, 8 billion. I have to step back and look at it. They are valued at that, and simply by a function of serving to probably 10% of an Indian market or 20% tops. If they actually spread their tentacles across the hinterlands of India, just imagine the scale and the opportunity that it brings to the table. So, the pattern... coming back to the pattern is, yes! People definitely would love to access something that they are very, very conversant with within their end result and language is very natural. The other thing that we figured out is, converting it to voice is an easy peasy one, but like I said, 22 Scheduled Languages, 121 officially recognized mother tongues. But those basically become a permutation and combination of 19,500 dialects. That is a big one. Like you said, it's an overwhelming one. But I think there are ways and means to figure it. The challenge that we might face is: can we actually have an app construct that actually can sense the dialect and start speaking to the person or the user in the dialect that he or she is? Theoretically, it's possible. But I think it maybe a few more years where your usual culprits — mission, language, and AI — needs to self-learn and come there. The other pattern is, people expect a lot of services, whether it be B2B, B2C, or citizens-to-governments or government-to-citizens and citizens-to-government also on the app. Gone are the days where everything was brick and mortar. People expect everything in their thumbs. So, yes, it has to be a mobile-first experience. Definitely because we have more mobile devices than computing devices like laptops or tablets and all of that. You know, these three were the top three patterns that I can recall. I mean, most of them were like some anecdotes because they are! Anecdotes don't become patterns, right? These three were some juicy propositions that we have actually identified and documented. But I'm sure as we get into... because we were just talking of one of the 22 Scheduled Languages, and I know for a fact, the minute we take a stab at the remaining 21, we will have other observations that might intersect with existing patterns or maybe add to the pattern or modify a pattern. This is the huge... Probably, this is one... we know? A project for a lifetime! But yeah, let's see how it pans out. Managing multi-lingual systems Jorge: when you talked about the initiative of the Indian government, the India Enterprise Architecture Initiative, you said that it had ease of use and multilingualism among its principles, right? And what I was wondering is how that manifests in the apps that people use. Because in my mind, when you say that there are 22 Scheduled Languages, I imagine these locale-switchers like we see in websites and apps. I imagine this long locale-switcher. 22 is quite a bit, right? And what that implies to me is that the content in those systems needs to be managed in parallel if the app is going to support all 22 of those scheduled languages. Is that what it means? UKP: Absolutely. You're spot on. And just so you know, I hear that 22 scheduled languages itself is a lot, but simply because we have 29 states and 17 territories. Each of these states has an official language. So just do the math! Actually, it's surprising that 29 states have only 22 Scheduled Languages simply because some of the states, simply have Hindi as their state language. Like where I come from, I come from a state called Karnataka and our state language is called Kannada, right? And it's a fascinating story, right? So yeah, I think, 29 states and 17 territories. Basically, there are 36 different, local governments, state governments. The United States is made up of 50 states, including Hawaii, right? India is made up of 29 such states and 17 unique territories... which basically, you know? The number is about 36. So that is the kind of diversity that we bring in. Jorge: How would an organization go about managing that? Are they just putting people on it? Like, is it a matter of actually getting all that content translated or produced in all the languages? And then how is it kept up to date? UKP: Yeah, brilliant question. So basically, the tenets of India Enterprise Architecture is... it's like a Nike tagline, just two types. They basically say, “one government of citizens and businesses.” All the absolute vision and visionists, right? And basically, the focus is on first, citizens. Government-to-citizen, you know? G-to-C is what is that they're looking at. Basically citizen-centric services. So that they want to ensure that the country is run by a government that is digital and is completely inclusive. And you know, it’s citizen-centric. Some of the smaller countries like Singapore and the digital native and digitally mature countries have actually done it. And there is no reason why large countries like India cannot do it. I think that is one of the key objectives of a very critical ministry called the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. It has written a portfolio in the central cabinet, right? So, what they're saying is, you know, this India architecture framework is available for all government bodies, civic bodies and businesses also. And basically, the three things that I called out basically intersects with, their core focus areas of, you know? Basically, I picked a half a dozen core areas of impact and delivery. They're saying ideas should enable India as a country and the business environment in India to actually come under the tenets of governance and regulation. It will absolutely drive economic development. It will give access to civic services, 24 x 7. It will also enable social justice to people because there are a lot of misrepresented, underrepresented classes of people in India, right? That's definitely a burning issue here. They also want environment and the natural resources to be managed from a digital infrastructure. That caught my ears simply because if you really look at it, what they're saying is, "let's build this construct of a digital twin." I mean, we are a country blessed with amazing natural resources and environmental resources. But yeah, it gets misused and used, as with the rest of the world. Can you actually build a digital mesh that actually helps you keep track of what's happening across probably your geography, right? Probably this will take about 30, 40 years, but, the seeds have been sown and they're very serious about it. And the kind of people that are involved are not just bureaucrats. These are people who come from the higher echelons for civil services. They are cabinet-level ministers and the who's-who of the industry. So, coming to the business side of things, that is where people like you and me most probably operate on. For profit businesses and academy at best. Not too many government projects come, and they are far and few. But I think sharing and reusability, ease of use and multilingualism for me, actually, are like synonymous. The challenge is now, there is a framework that they wanted to get. And they have gone to the extent of fleshing out some eight models that are available for people to consume and actually apply. They have created the boundary conditions and frameworks for the enterprise architecture, right? More often than not, an enterprise framework is thrown out like a thought paper or a white paper. And then people end up scratching their heads at what next. They've covered the "what next" also. So, they have like six, eight modules, which are like... it's called a performance reference model, business reference model, application reference model, data reference model, tech reference model, security, integration, and governance reference models. These clearly say what are government services. How do we disseminate these government services from the classic print and paper world to a digital world? And how do we build this and also enable people to access and retrieve on it and get the result that they want. That is where the challenge is, because each of these areas that I'm talking about comes with a lot of common sense and recognition of objects and processes and materials and actions and a lot of other things from their lens. It cannot be a spray and pray stuff. Maybe somebody in the Northeast of India wants to access some government services. You know, their mental model of what to do and how to go about it may not be exactly the same as someone from down south where I come from. I'm just giving a hypothetical example. That would be the challenge. And that is where I fundamentally believe that it's not just having an enterprise architecture, but I think the ontology and the taxonomy part has to be fleshed out. I am assuming or hoping that the government will definitely look at it because some of the guys who are sitting there are pretty smart people, because if you don't have that guiding principle of how you classify, reclassify, your taxonomies and ontologies, and actually have a framework, this will fail. Because my worry is it will simply mean that, "okay, let's build it in English. Let's use one of these pre-processors of smart things that are available and convert them into these 22 Scheduled Languages and actually deploy that as services that people can actually consume." So, funnily enough, a label that's probably one word and probably eight characters in English can turn out to be a label in the native language two words or three words and probably 30, 40 characters. These have to be first emulated, simulated, and then you need to do it. And in my mind, the only way to do this is: let's build the semantics. Let's build the taxonomy and ontologies first, otherwise this is at best… it will be hubris. Closing Jorge: That sounds like a fantastic information architecture challenge. And hearing you talk about the challenges of doing this sort of work in such a context frankly opens my eyes to both the possibilities and the great challenges involved. Thank you for sharing with us. Now, for folks who might want to follow up with you, what's the best place for them to look you up? UKP: They can look me up at LinkedIn, go through my profile and all of that and feel free to connect with me. LinkedIn is something that I check in very frequently. Yeah, so my handle is uxfirst. That's U for umbrella, X for Xerox, F-I-R-S-T. Look me up on LinkedIn and you'll find me. Jorge: Well, thank you UKP for sharing it with us. UKP: Hey, thanks Jorge, for having me here.

4 jul

33 min 56 seg

Sarah Barrett is a principal IA Manager at Microsoft. She's been writing compellingly about information architecture in Medium, and in this conversation, we focus on her most recent posts, which deal with how architectural scale affects our perception of information environments. Download episode 64 Show notes Sarah R. Barrett @documentalope (Sarah Barrett) on Twitter Known Item (Medium publication) Microsoft Learn MSDN World IA Day Breadcrumb navigation Rachel Price Websites are not living rooms and other lessons for information architecture by Sarah Barrett Understanding Architectural Scale: Tabletops and landscapes by Sarah Barrett Microsoft Bob The Informed Life episode 17: Rachel Price on Improvisation Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Sarah, welcome to the show. Sarah: Thank you for having me. This is so exciting. Jorge: Well, I'm excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself? About Sarah Sarah: Sure. My name is Sarah Barrett and I lead the information architecture team for Microsoft's Developer Relations organization. So, in addition to the kind of stuff that you might think of as standard developer relations, like advocates going out and doing talks about Microsoft technologies and that kind of thing, we also have a huge web presence. So, we publish Microsoft Docs, Learn, which is a training and kind of like micro-learning platform. All of the information about Microsoft certifications, a Q & A site, a whole bunch of other stuff. So, it's really everywhere where we're not trying to sell you stuff; we're just trying to teach you how to use all of Microsoft technical products. It's a really fun, huge problem. And we've got a good-sized information architecture team for information architecture teams, which tend to be small. So that's really exciting. Before that, I was a consultant and I worked with a lot of different companies looking into how they solve their information architecture problems. But I wanted to go in-house somewhere, so I could actually sit with a problem and work with people in order to make it happen rather than just creating some shelfware, which everybody does, no matter how good your work is because organizations just aren't ready for it. So, I've been in house there for about three and a half years. It's been a really fun challenge. Jorge: That's great. I think I'm going to be revealing my age here by saying that at one point, I had an MSDN subscription where I would get these big boxes full of CDs, basically. And I'm guessing that with the advent of the internet, those things are no longer distributed on CDs and your team looks after the organization of all that content. Is that right? Sarah: Yeah. So, I mean, the funny thing about information is that it did not arise with the internet, as you know. This stuff has been around for a really long time. And even you know, a tech company like Microsoft is newer than many others, but like all of that information about MSDN did not go away. And MSDN TechNet, which was kind of IT pro side... originally, they would mail you physical CDs, and that was kind of the gold standard. Then all that stuff got put on websites. There was And we just finished migrating all of over onto Docs - A lot of that information is still stuff that we're half-heartedly organizing and trying to find a place for because that history is so long. Jorge: From my brief experience with it, I get the sense that it is a massive amount of content. And it's also content that is undergoing constant revisions, because it deals with the documentation that developers need in order to use Microsoft's products and platforms, correct? Sarah: Yeah. So, it's a funny thing, because I sort of feel like if you were to go to, which is the main thing we publish, you'd look at it and go, "somebody does the IA for this?" Like, it doesn't look like there's a lot of IA there — which, I promise you, we do! And we're even good at it. It's just a huge... it's a huge problem. It's a huge space. It's an enormous ecosystem of things. And a lot of the work we do is really around strategy and policy and winning hearts and minds and that kind of thing. It's been a long process. And yeah, because it is so big, so many different teams at the company publish to it, it's really more of a platform than a product. The way you talk about websites as places and emergent places rather than products or services or something like that, is extremely true for us, because it is something that lots of people are creating in an ongoing way all together, in perpetuity. And it changes constantly. So, a lot of what we do is try to adjust rules, try to incentivize different behaviors, create standards and structures around what people do rather than just architecting a site and saying, "cool, it's architected. There's your IA! It's done." There's no room for that in our work. Jorge: What I'm hearing there is that you are more the stewards of the place than the people who are structuring the nitty gritty content. Is that fair? Sarah: Absolutely. You know, we create guidelines for how you structure a table of contents or the kinds of things you put in navigation. We don't actually do any of it for you if you're a publisher on our platform. How websites are not living rooms Jorge: Well, that sounds super interesting, exciting, and necessary, I would imagine, especially in such a large distributed system. I've been wanting to have you on the show for a while, but what prompted me to reach out to you was a post you published to Medium called, "Websites are Not Living Rooms and Other Lessons for Information Architecture." I was hoping that you would tell us a bit about this. What do you mean by "websites are not living rooms?" Sarah: This article that you're talking about came out of a workshop I put together for World IA Day, when you and I last met in Switzerland. And the idea of the workshop really arose out of this work I was doing at Microsoft, which is so different from the consulting I was doing before. I often found, as a consultant, people are very ready to treat you as an expert. And oftentimes when you come in as part of a consultancy or an agency, some project sponsor or kind of some champion for there even being an information architecture problem that needs to be solved by a consultant, has done so much legwork for you in convincing everybody that this is a problem, in convincing everybody that information architecture is a thing. You know, somebody has done so much of that work. And so, everybody's very primed to treat you like an expert and accept the basics of what you're telling them when you come in in that context. When I started at Microsoft, I was the only information architect. There are more of us now, but at the time it was only me. And in retrospect, like I still can't figure out why they hired me, because I spent the first, probably 18 months I was there going to meetings with extraordinarily nice and talented people who I adore... but going to meetings with them and then being like, "I don't see why you have to have breadcrumbs. I don't see why things in the navigation all have to go to the same website. Why?" And it was... it wasn't hostile, but it was a challenge to explain the first principles of everything that tend to be true about information architecture. Like, "yes, you ought to have breadcrumbs on every page." Like, "yes, the steps in the breadcrumbs should go to pages where you can get to the subsequent breadcrumbs!" Very nitty gritty details like that, where I had never had to explain how breadcrumbs worked before because usually we all just have such a shared mental model about them. And one of the things that comes out of this so frequently, and the example I use in the article actually comes from my colleague Rachel Price, from her consulting days where people often come with a very simple idea of how they feel like it should just work. And those ways, like, "why can't we just..." so frequently comes from an experience in the real world, where I think the example that Rachel has is she was working on a product that was for college students. And the product manager was like, "why can't it just be a dorm room? And my backpack is on the floor and my wallet is in my backpack. And if I need to change something about my payment, I go in the backpack and I get my wallet. Why can't it just work that way?" And as an information architect, like I know in my bones that the answer is, "it can't. That will not work!" But it's really actually very hard to explain why, other than like, "that's weird and we tried it in the nineties! But it won't work." And so, a lot of this article is about like, okay, why does that idea of structuring something like physical space — why does it feel so appealing? Why does it seem so easy? And then why is won't it work? Why is it a red herring? Jorge: And what you're talking about here, I want to unpack it for the folks who are listening, is the idea that you can structure a digital system in ways that mimic the ways that we structure our physical environments, where we do things because, hey, we're used to operating in a living room or an office or what have you, why can't we just have the same affordances and signifiers, but presented in a two dimensional screen somehow. Is that right? Sarah: Yeah. And it seems like it ought to work, but it really doesn't. And it's because... and the point I'm making in the article is that there are implicit rules to how physical spaces work and I'm actually working on the next article in this series to unpack some of those more. I'm trying to get it published this week as we record it. But I have a two-year-old, so we'll see how that works. There are implicit rules to how these spaces work in the real world. And it's easy to mimic the look and feel of a physical space without actually following those implicit rules. So, we need to unpack what the implicit rules are. Jorge: The example that you bring up in the article is one that... again, I'm going to reveal my age by saying this, I remember being on the market, which is Microsoft Bob. And there might be a lot of folks in the audience who are not familiar with Microsoft Bob. How will you describe It for someone who hasn't seen it? Sarah: It wasn't the only one of these kinds of products. I think there were a lot of them in the early days of software and the internet. We didn't have this one, but I remember the very first computer I used that accessed the internet... it had other things that were like this. But it was basically that Microsoft was trying to sell the idea of an operating system and a personal computer to a home market. And in order to make it more accessible and appealing, they tried to structure the desktop, or like the operating system, as if it were a house. And so, the idea was that your accounting would be in a checkbook that was on a little drawing of a desk, which was in a study. And if you wanted to look at your contacts, that was in a Rolodex on the desk. If you wanted to do something that wasn't in a study or an office context, you would go to a different room, and that would be there instead. And it has some weird rooms. I've never actually used it, so I've only been able to kind of piece it together from stuff on the internet. But there's like a barn or something — it gets very strange! There are obviously parts of it that are just silly, where, you know... why do you need that room? But there are also parts of it that just, again, they don't follow the rules of how architectures are going to work, so it's not going to work. And it provides a kind of fun counterpoint to realistic requests and objections that you do get doing this kind of work. Metaphors Jorge: We use the desktop and file folder metaphor in interacting with our… let's call them personal computers as opposed to mobile devices. And that is a metaphor; it's not inherent to the underlying technology. Why would you say that the desktop and file folder metaphor works whereas the architectural metaphor doesn't work as well? Sarah: Yeah. I think there are a couple of things going on. This is very much like the subject of the next article that I'm working on. Which is that I would argue that our brains understand space at different scales. And we understand what I call tabletops, but you could also call a desktop or something like that in a very different way than we understand larger scale physical space, like a room, a house, a city, and then you even get into a nation and understanding that scale of space, which is huge. We understand those things in very different ways, and a lot of the ways that the personal computer and like the notion of the desktop have evolved to work mirror the ways our brains expect tabletop-like spaces to function. Tabletop-like spaces, I think in general... you can see them all at once or at least see how you would get to all of their pieces at once. And they consist of small moving parts. In a very similar way to how, if you're working at an analog desk, you can just have your stuff around you and you see it in your peripheral vision and you can affect most of the things around you. This is very different to how larger scale spaces work, where you can't see them all at one time and you have to construct a mental model of that space by moving around it and stitching those pieces together over time. There's a whole neuro-biological component to this where we have certain kinds of cells called place cells that fire in certain kinds of circumstances that tell you, “Ah, this is a new place." And that doesn't happen when a small object moves around you on a tabletop. It does happen when you move from room to room. And so when we're in more operating system-like experiences or more app-like experiences, you know? You and I are talking to each other on Zoom right now. That really functions like a tabletop. Everything's right there. I could open stuff up, but it works more like drawers or something like that. It's not at all like something like Microsoft Docs or the BBC's website or any other kind of like large, content-based website, which is really much more like a landscape where you have to kind of move around from place to place and reconstruct a picture of it. And so, the big argument there — and this is something that I work with my designers on a lot — the big argument there is you have to be really clear about what you're building so you know what kinds of rules to use, because those things are actually really different. And most of the time we just kind of go, "eh, it's sort of like an app, right?" Like, "what is this app like?" And it’s like, "Oh, its website-like." We know that Zoom and the Wall Street Journal don't and shouldn't work the same way, but we have a hard time articulating why. And for me, it's that difference in architectural scale and how our brains understand it. Agency Jorge: I find that idea super intriguing. I'm wondering if you could elaborate or give us examples of how something like the Wall Street Journal would differ from something that is more... I don't know, a communication tool like Zoom. Sarah: Yeah. So gosh, I wish I'd opened the article up, because I haven't thought about this a couple of days, but they vary in some kind of predictable ways. One is the scale of the things around you. Something like Zoom tends to have a lot of little pieces or I use Keynote as an example too. The reference, in the real world that you're using as metaphors, tend to be smaller and the actual elements in the interface tend to consist of a lot of little things. Whereas in a more landscape-like environment, you're dealing with a few big things. In a real-world landscape, those are buildings. Those are landmarks. They are mountains that are far away, as opposed to like objects that you have on a table around you. And we have a similar scale with the tabletop kind of apps versus landscape-y websites. You also get different degrees of agency. I have a lot of say over exactly what Zoom does. Perhaps not as much as one might like, but I can customize something about it, and I would expect that customization to persist. I can rearrange things. There's not a lot of expectation that I can do anything to, other than maybe put my information in a form. I'm not going to do a lot of customization. It's not going to remember a lot of details from time to time. We also talk about kind of how you interact with the thing. The best way to learn something like Zoom, even if they put an overlay on it, is just to kind of poke at stuff. You know, turn that on and off and see what it does. You move things around you, open up settings. It really rewards interaction. Whereas with a large content-based landscape-like website, you have to move around. You're walking around and looking at stuff. You're moving from page to page and forming that mental model rather than poking at stuff to see what it does. There are a few different things like that. And then they come with different expectations too. There's a real expectation of intimacy with tabletops or with app-like experiences, even if they are a web apps. You kind of expect that it's yours in some way, and you don't expect that kind of of more websites that seem more like public goods. And we run into funny situations with that, like with things like Twitter, which I would argue functions like a tabletop, even though it's kind of a web app. You can experience it as an actual app too, but it's mine. I don't go anywhere. I just push buttons and do things on it and my stuff is there. And there all kinds of stories about people getting wildly upset about a new line showing up or a design change happening. I remember how much everybody freaked out when they went from 140 to 280 characters. You tend not to get such a feeling of ownership and people being so concerned about changes in websites that feel like public accommodations. You know, people have lived their lives in docs. They spend tons of time there. They don't tend to care very much about the exact details of the design or something like that. Because it doesn't feel like theirs. Jorge: If I might reflect that back to you, this principle of understanding the scale at which we're working seems to have something to do with the degree of agency that you have over the thing that you're interacting with. And the more granular the level of control that you have with the thing that you're interacting with, the more... I'll use the word intimate, maybe the more like personalized... it's something that you use as opposed to something you inhabit, in some ways. Is that right? Sarah: Very much so, yeah. And I think it's really like, "does your brain think that this is a place or not?" We don't expect places for the most part to be only for us that no one else could ever get into. It's an easy jump to be like, "ah, yes. Other people are here too. This is not just only for me." Whereas something at a much smaller scale... like, I don't expect other people to be messing around with my nightstand. Or my desk at work. Even though theoretically they could, but it's my stuff and I left it there. And there's that greater expectation of control and of intimacy. Naive geography Jorge: Great. So, I don't know if to call these principles or just things to be mindful of when doing this kind of work. You've mentioned scale as one of them, and you've already said that there's another post coming out specifically on that. In the post that is currently published, you mentioned three other principles, if we might call them that. And I was wondering if you could, recap them for our listeners. So, scale is one. A second here you say, "leverage the principles of naive geography." What does that mean? Sarah: I came across a really interesting article a few years ago that is by geographers for geographers, which is like not a field I'd thought about at all. And I was looking into the idea of cognitive maps and cognitive mapping with the idea of like, "oh, do people have like complex maps in their heads that they navigate and are those things the same in the real world and the digital world?" And the answer is, for the most part, no, we don't have maps that have any integrity to them. There are a couple of exceptions, but this was the theory for a while, and it's been pretty disproven. It's not a thing we have. We do, however, have representations of ways to get places in our head. I distinguished between the kind of tabletop more small-scale and the landscape more large-scale because we don't need these representations and we don't form them for small scale experiences. If you can rely on everything you need being in your peripheral vision, your brain doesn't bother remembering where everything is. Because it can get that kind of continuous sensory input. But for these larger-scale experiences where you have to construct a representation over time, and you have to reason against that to figure out where you're going. We construct those representations. And the interesting thing about it is that we're very good at it. I talk about that a little bit in this article with all kinds of cultural traditions that rely on remembering things by relying on how good humans are at remembering places and how to get between places. We're very good at it. But like more interestingly to me, we also make a lot of mistakes while we do it and we make those mistakes in predictable ways. So, one of the principles of naive geography that I think is just fascinating is that for the most part, when we remember things, we remember the earth as flat and square. We're very bad at remembering or estimating depths and heights in comparison to lengths and widths and distances and that kind of thing. Our brains really smoosh everything down. We also, for instance, think about distance in terms of time, not absolute distance. And so, they have eight of these or something like that. And the idea was that naive geography is how everybody understands geography and makes geographic calculations, even if they are not geographers. And they compare it to the idea of naive physics, which is that you can tell what's going to happen when you throw a ball without being a physicist. Like we can figure that out. The same way as we can give directions, we can make judgments and we can reason based on distances without being a geographer. And we're good at it, but we're also bad at it in these kinds of known ways. And I found that almost all of those ways are relevant for digital spaces as well as physical spaces. So, we go into exactly how those work and how you can apply them to your designer information architecture work. Wayfinding Jorge: Another principle here says, "check your wayfinding." That sounds like it's related to this concept of naive geography. What's the distinction here between wayfinding and what we've been talking about so far? Sarah: Yeah. I think of it as, naive geography is what humans do. And developing wayfinding principles or instantiating those way-finding principles in our designs, is what we as information architects do. Basically, it's great to know that people's brains mislead them in this standard way that we can predict, but you have to turn that into something that we can use because nobody I work with cares as much about neuroscience as I do, you know! Or geography, or cognitive mapping, or any of these things. We have to change it into guidelines and principles that I can give to product designers and developers and that kind of thing. And so, for wayfinding, it's really bringing it out of the more esoteric and theoretical space of like landscapes and tabletops and whatever is happening with cognitive geography and this kind of thing into like, "okay, what does that mean?" It's very simple stuff that I largely adapted from museum exhibit design, where it's like, "hey, you need to make sure people have landmarks. You need to pave paths so they know where to go." And we tie that back to the principles of naive geography to figure out why. I tend to illustrate this with grocery stores because I find that they have great wayfinding and it is way more accessible than a lot of the other examples people use like airports, especially with none of us have been in an airport for a year. And grocery stores make a lot of complex things very findable. I often have conversations with stakeholders where they're like, "well, no wonder nobody can find anything. We have 200 products!" And like the average grocery store has something like 800,000 SKUs, and you never are surprised that you can find your brand of maple syrup or be sure it's not there. Which is like the gold standard of wayfinding as far as I'm concerned. So, you can use the structure well enough to be sure that something doesn't exist. "Oh, that's so findable, it's great!" So, we talk about the specific things that you need to check that you're doing in your experience to make sure people can use those naive geographic skills they have. Jorge: And that's a learned skill, right? Knowing to expect something to be there and realizing that it isn't because of its absence is something that you have to pick up. This weekend, I took my kids to Barnes and Noble. They were wanting to buy some books and as convenient as it is to do it online, it's still quite pleasurable to browse through the shelves. And I was explaining to them how the books are organized alphabetically by the author's last name on the shelves. And that came up in the context of looking for a specific book and realizing that it wasn't there because the author's name wasn't on there. That's kind of what we're talking about here. Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. Jorge: This example of the grocery stores is also useful in that perhaps we understand these organization schemes at different levels of granularity. Once we understand how a grocery store is organized, we can find our way from the very highest level of the organization scheme all the way down to a specific product. And, at the highest level, the distinction that sticks in my mind is this phrase that I've heard used for people looking to eat healthier. They say, "shop the perimeter." Shop the edges of the grocery store, because that's where the fresh foods are kept. Whereas all of this stuff in the middle is processed foods. And that's a very high-level distinction that once you understand it, you can navigate that environment differently. Sarah: Yeah, that's also a great example of being able to reason based on a structure, rather than on content. Which is another gold standard of doing information architecture, I think. If somebody can understand the structure and your wayfinding and experience well enough that they can go, "hmm, I'm going to go around the edges!" Rather than saying, "I'm going to go to the lettuce and then I will go to the chard!" You know, that's what we dream of creating for our users. Standard elements Jorge: I want to move on to the last of the principles that you present in the article. It says, "use standard elements intentionally." What do you mean by 'standard elements'? Sarah: Occasionally, I get comments or people worrying that our information architecture isn't innovative enough that we're not doing anything surprising or introducing anything brand new. And I feel very strongly that your architecture is not the place to surprise people. Like, there are actual architects out there building very innovative homes that no one wants to live in. And I have no interest in doing that. I really want us to use the oldest, most standard, most expected way of doing things. I think the example of the grocery store is another great way here. There's a lot of benefit to not innovating in the layout of a grocery store. There probably is some benefit in innovating a little bit around the edges or in some details, but you gain a lot from making it legible and making it expected for people. And so, that one is really about... okay, given these things that we expect to have: we expect to have global navigation, we expect to have metadata on content, we expect to have titles and breadcrumbs... how do we unpack what each of those things is doing for us and make sure that between the suite of those elements we are using? Because you never use just one, you use lots of them together. Between all of those elements, we are presenting a coherent, complete view of the wayfinding people need. And this comes up a lot for us in things like design reviews, where the group will decide that we really don't need a content-type label on that card. And I'll say, "okay, the thing that that is doing for us is this thing!" Like, it is fulfilling this wayfinding need. How else are we going to do that? Because if you want to take this label off, I have to pick up the slack somewhere else. Whereas if somebody says, "oh, hey, I think we don't actually need..." I don't know, "we don't use breadcrumbs on this page or something." I can say, "okay, cool." Because actually that same need for being able to zoom out or being able to orient yourself relative to a landmark is actually being taken care of in these three other ways on the page already. So, if we lose that one, it's okay. It can help you make decisions about those trade-offs with design elements. It can also help you check the things that you absolutely need to be coherent with each other, that you need to be consistent because they're trying to do the same thing. And if they give people two different sets of information, that's worse than not having it at all. Jorge: It's an exhortation to be mindful about not just the elements you're using, but why they're there, right? Sarah: Yes, and all of this is really because, again, I had ideas about what I was doing as an information architect and I didn't have great answers for the little granular-wise. And so this is a result of my exploration of, okay, well, why? Why do we need them to work that way? And so, I'm sharing it with everybody else. Jorge: I'm wondering how thinking this way has affected your own work? Sarah: So much of information architecture is in the people and not the models. And so, my work has been about gaining allies and building relationships and getting people on board, and a good explanation that you can be confident about that doesn't rely on, "just trust me!" goes a really long way. Being able to break it down and decide where I make trade-offs and where I can accept more dissent, where I can encourage that and really learn from it versus where I really need to double down and say, " no, we need this." That's made a huge difference in my ability to get things done and to just build better experiences. Closing Jorge: Well, that's great. I'm very excited to see the upcoming posts in the series. It sounds like you're well ahead with the one about scale. Where can folks follow up with you to keep up to date with what you're writing and sharing. Sarah: Yeah, you can find me on Twitter @documentalope, or you can find everything I and my colleague Rachel Price write at a Medium publication called "Known Item." Jorge: Fantastic. And I have to call out that Rachel is a previous guest in the show as well. And I'll link to the conversation we had in the show notes. It's been so great having you on the show, Sarah. Sarah: Thank you so much. It's been fun. Jorge: Thank you.

20 jun

31 min 58 seg

Sophia Prater is a UX design consultant and chief evangelist of object oriented UX, a methodology that helps teams tackle complex design challenges. In this conversation, we discuss OOUX and how it differs from other methodologies. Download episode 63 Show notes @sophiaux on Twitter Rewired (Sophia's consultancy) The Object Oriented UX Podcast Object-Oriented UX, by Sophia Prater (A List Apart article) Double Diamond Object Oriented UX Podcast, episode 10: Information Archaeology with Ren Pope Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD) The Elements of User Experience, by Jesse James Garrett (pdf) Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design, by Austin Henderson and Jeff Johnson Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Sophia, welcome to the show. Sophia: Well, thank you for having me. I'm excited to be here! Jorge: Well, I'm excited that you're joining us as well. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please introducing yourself? About Sophia Sophia: Yeah, sure. I'm a user experience designer. I was based out of Atlanta, Georgia, but I recently did a COVID move up to the north Georgia mountains. I am here in the beautiful... the bottom of the Appalachian Mountains. Kind of where the Appalachian trail starts. I'm very close to that. I got into UX in 2009, which was a great time to be entering the field and really kind of what I'm known for is Object-Oriented UX. I wrote an article back in 2015 in "A List Apart." I had about, I guess, 15 minutes of fame on the internet where that article was one of the top articles for "A List Apart" for the year. It got retweeted and tweeted thousands of times. I was very nervous to publish that article, because I did feel like I was turning the UX process — at least, what I considered the traditional UX process — I was sort of turning it on its head or turning it inside out. And I was really worried that people were going to throw tomatoes at me. But it really resonated with people, which was very encouraging to me. I continued, pounding on this process that I had just started to use in my work and slowly over the years, it came to be that people would come to me as a consultant. I started my own... I finally left the corporate world. I had been at as a UX designer. That was my only internal role, but I've been at a whole lot of agencies. And I started my own consultancy in 2014 and within a few years, that became what I was known for. So, companies would come to me to specifically get this type of UX design, Object-Oriented UX. And then I started teaching it, and I started teaching it at workshops. First at conferences, and then I started teaching workshops within companies. So, companies would bring me in. I recently had Facebook bring me in. I've had MasterCard, Credit Karma... a lot of big, exciting companies bring me in to train their team on Object-Oriented UX. So, really that's 100% of my world now, is Object-Oriented UX. It is teaching it, delivering it to my clients, teaching it within the context of teams. Coming into a company... doing that online now. Used to do that in person; doing that all online. Spending a lot of time in Mural, moving sticky notes around there. And now I also teach individuals through a certification program that I was just getting off the ground right before COVID hit in March of last year. So now we're about a little over a year and we're in the middle of the fourth cohort of the OOUX certification program. Object-Oriented UX Jorge: Well, that's great. And we'll get into what Object-Oriented UX is in a moment, but I'm wondering why you think that the idea resonated so much with folks. Sophia: Well, I think it resonated so much, the same reason it still resonates today. Is because this is a way to break down complexity. And I think traditionally, we break down complexity by verb, traditionally. By the actions we think about. What are all the things that a user needs to do in the system? And we can get into more of the why around this, but it's a much cleaner way to break down complexity by the noun as opposed to the verb. And I think a lot of user experience designers are thrown in — especially new user experience designers — are thrown into incredibly complex situations, domains. My first project is a user experience designer, I still remember. It was with Blue Cross Blue Shield. And I was going to be designing a system for people that would design insurance packages. It was within insurance. It was a business tool within insurance, and I knew nothing about insurance. And I came on and I was expected to have wireframes by Friday. And I think that that is such a common struggle for user experience designers: they come in and wireframes are immediately expected of them. If they're working in an Agile environment, they're kind of like a wireframe factory or a feature factory. Just churn out those wireframes without a whole lot of time to gain understanding of the structure of the system. Really get an idea of the business rules and get into those business rules in a way that is collaborative and visual. I think that that's what resonated so hard for people is they saw a way out of that. They saw a way out of that rat race or that struggle of constantly having to deliver wireframes and then having these conversations around the structure. You have stakeholders and engineers. You have the engineer reverse engineering, the wireframe to get the data model out of it, and then you have your stakeholders reverse engineering, the wireframe to try to get the business rules out of it. And then what you end up with is you end up with a whole lot of re-work because the wireframe is usually going to be wrong. And so, then you do the, what I call the "Bring me a rock game," where you're like, "Oh, okay, that rock is too big or too bumpy." Like, "Let me go get you a smaller, smoother rock!" And you go and say like, "Oh, is this the type of rock you're looking for?" So, a lot of times information architecture, which is so important, but as you know, often in our industry and the user experience design industry, we don't do enough of that information architecture. And I think that this is a way to do information architecture in a visual way and in a collaborative way. So, you can bring your engineers and you can bring your stakeholders in and you can all sort of explore the complexity together and break down the complexity together and get out of that surface-level design work, where you're just moving wireframes around. And if you don't have that deep understanding of the system, you're just going to be moving the deck chairs around. You're going to be moving UI around. You're not going to be making systemic change. And at the end of the day, UX designers are incredibly idealistic people. We want to make big change. We want to solve big problems, but if we can't figure out how to get out of that moving the deck chairs around on the sinking Titanic, then work isn't very much fun and we don't have a lot of meaning from it either; you can't draw a lot of meaning from it. Jorge: I'm going to try and articulate it back to you to see if I'm getting it correctly, but the idea that there is a way for designers to work at a higher level of abstraction than how these things manifest in more tangible ways. How then does Object-Oriented UX fill that gap? Or asked another way, how do you introduce folks to what Object-Oriented UX is? Sophia: Yeah, okay. So, what Object-Oriented UX is — And I want to differentiate Object-Oriented UX versus what I call the ORCA process — so, Object-Oriented UX is a philosophy; a philosophy that is based in the fact that people think in objects. And there is a lot of interesting research on that, that we can get into, if you want to ask about that, on cognition and how people think and how people understand the world. And a lot of that is based in objects. So, for the philosophy part of it for Object-Oriented UX, if we say, "this is a philosophy that respects and acknowledges the fact that people think in objects. And to gain an understanding of an environment, you really need to understand what that environment is made up of. What are the objects that make up that environment? And thus, we need to make that clear in our digital environments, just like they're clear in our physical environments." So, Object-Oriented UX is all about defining what your objects are, figuring out what those are, what are the objects in the user's mental model, in the business model, those really valuable things. Objects And I need to kind of take a step back, I think, and define what is an object. I'm very specific when I talk about what an object is. An object is a thing that has value to the user. So, when I say objects, I'm not talking about your navbar or your calendar picker or your dropdown. All those things are valuable, but they are a means to an end. And I often say no user is coming to your site for your calendar picker. It could be the best calendar picker in the whole world, but that's not what they're coming for. They're coming for the event, or they're coming for the people that they can invite to the event. So, an object is going to have... I use the acronym SIP. It's going to have structure, it's going to have instances, and it's going to have purpose. So OOUX is all about saying, "okay. If we know that our users think in objects and just human beings think in objects — not just our developers — human beings think in objects, and to be able to gain understanding, you need to understand what the objects are in that system. And to understand what the objects are we need a certain level of consistency and recognizability to our objects." As the designers of these environments, if we don't get super clear on what our objects are, there's no way — there's just absolutely no way in hell that we're going to be able to translate that to our end users. We're just not! If we can't get it straight on our team and we can't get it straight among ourselves, then that's going to create a lot of communication problems internally, which is a problem that I hear all the time. We've got everybody on the team coming together. And some people, depending on what department you're in or what your role is, you've got the same object, the same thing being called two or three different things and different objects being called the same thing. And you're trying to design complex software. So just getting on the same page internally is going to be absolutely intrinsic to making sure that it's clear to your end users. So, one kind of, I guess... not metaphor, but like journey that I could take you on, Jorge, and the listeners, is: imagine going into a coffee shop. And it's a coffee shop you've never been to. You walk into this coffee shop, but this is like, this is a funky coffee shop. Maybe it's a coffee shop in Amsterdam or something. And you walk into this coffee shop, and you can't tell the difference between the tables and the chairs, and the people. Like you know that there are tables and chairs and people there, you can see the things, but you can't tell the difference between them. And you can't actually tell the relationships between them either. You can maybe like, with intense concentration, you identify a chair, but you can't tell what table goes with what chair, right? Or you can identify a chair, but you can't understand the status of that chair. Is that chair occupied or unoccupied? That would be a very difficult environment to navigate and to function in, yet we create digital environments like that all the time where it's difficult for users to understand, what are the valuable things to me here? What can I do to these things? How do these things relate? What are these things in context of this place? And what is the structure of these things? What is the status of these things? What are the attributes of these things? And that kind of gets into the ORCA process, which stands for: objects, relationships, CTA's, which is calls-to-action, and attributes. And that's the process that I use in my work, and I teach to design really awesome object-oriented user experiences. Jorge: This analogy of the coffee shop is an interesting one, because I can contemplate it in the abstract, but in my real world experience, I've never been in a coffee shop where I can't tell the chairs from the tables or what have you. So, it does feel like a discussion that can get abstract quickly. And I'm wondering how do you draw the bounds around an object? Like how do you determine that something is a table in your systems so to speak. Sophia: Right. and that is actually, I mean, saying, "Oh, we need to figure out what the things are." That's so much easier said than done. And that is a huge part of the ORCA process. We actually iterate on it, to say, "all right, how do we figure out what these things are?" And that is all going to come from research. So, the ORCA process is definitely a "garbage in, garbage out" process. You've got to have good research coming into it. I often say that this is a good process for synthesizing your research before you get into design. If you think about the double diamond, you can literally see the weak link between the double diamond, right? Like, what happens after you get through research and then you just start sketching stuff — you just start designing. There needs to be something that happens between research and design, where you are synthesizing that research into structure and into information architecture. And the ORCA process is just this really kind of like... it's like a meat grinder. Like you just throw the research in and... so when I was interviewing Ren Pope, he used the term "information archeology." And I love that. I feel like that's a lot of what this process helps you do is that information archeology, where you're taking all that research and you're analyzing that research to figure out what are your objects, what are the relationships between the objects, what can users do to the objects, and what are their attributes? And specifically with objects, like knowing, is a table a thing in this particular system that we're designing and in this environment that we're designing? One of the first activities that we do is called "noun foraging." It's really fun. You take all that research, user interviews, interviews with your stakeholders, competitive analysis, analytics as well, of course current site audit, content audit as well is great to have if you have access to that. So, you're taking in all this research and you're looking for the nouns, and you're looking for the nouns that get used over and over and over again. And you're looking for synonyms like, "Oh! Are these the same thing or are these not the same things?" And then that turns into conversations to have with your stakeholders. For example, I was working with a company called Blood Relay and basically what they do is they take blood samples... they're software, but they help facilitate blood samples being taken from the hospital to the lab and then getting the analysis back to the hospital. So, it's pretty complex business software with all the complexity that you get in healthcare and the healthcare industry. And when I was doing my noun foraging, I kept hearing the words "sample" and "product." Sample and product. Sample — product. And they were being used interchangeably. They were being used interchangeably by the business. They were being used interchangeably on the marketing site. They were being used interchangeably on the actual software in places. And one of my big jobs in the beginning was to figure out, are these actually the same thing or are these two different things? Is there actually a relationship between these things and that came with conversations with the experts, right? So how do you define a product? How do you define a sample? Are these... and it turns out they are two separate things, and many products can be taken from a sample. So, you have that one-to-many relationship there. And that's so important to define. If I'm going to be designing software for this, I need to understand the difference between those and reinforce the truth of the world through that user interface. Visualizing systems Jorge: What I'm getting from your description of Object-Oriented UX is that it's not just articulating the domain as a series of nouns and relationships between them, but also expressing it in a sort of visual way, right? That allows people to get a shared understanding of that domain. Is that right? Sophia: Right. Yeah, and that gets into some of the artifacts that we produce in the ORCA process. So, you know, Object-Oriented UX, you could use any methodology to say that eah, we need to define what the objects are, and we need to make them super clear within the interface. So, we don't get into that coffee shop scenario." Where, you know, if I'm designing software for a teacher, which, I did a lot of work in EdTech. If I'm designing software for a teacher and the important things for that particular problem domain that we're trying to solve for, are students' lessons, standards and parents, let's say. I want that teacher to open up that application and to immediately recognize those things. To immediately recognize the relationships and say like, "oh, okay. Yeah, this is just... this is how my world is." And then be able to do really amazing things. Have x-ray vision into those things. Have connections in a way that's super meaningful, and then to be able to do things to those objects that are more difficult in the real world without that tool, or that you know, it's just absolutely impossible to do without that tool. Jorge: That step of articulating the understanding of the domain visually is not to be underestimated. It's a huge part of it. I'm certainly always on the lookout for new ways of doing it because it's so hard to do. I find that a lot of folks have a hard time thinking at that more abstract level. Sophia: Yeah. And when you get into something like a system model or domain model, conceptual model. Basically, when you have lots of bubbles and arrows going? Entity relationship diagram, right? Which we do that work. That's part of the process. We build... I call it a system model, but it's basically an ERD. It often turns into a bowl of spaghetti, and it gets a little bit difficult to track, especially when there's multiple types of relationships between two objects. Then what do you do? Do you have multiple arrows, or do you have multiple labels on the same arrow? I mean, God forbid your system has 17 objects in it, which if you're working in electronic healthcare records, if you're working in insurance... I have worked with tools before, or these, you know, these digital systems that we've had double digits of objects and that entity relationship diagram kind of breaks down. What also breaks down is if you try to start putting attributes in there. Which I've seen done before, where you actually blow out that ERD so it's not just your objects. You actually put your operations and your attributes into that document. That gets really crazy. If you have an object that has 60 attributes, again, just the visualization of being able to show: what are the things, what are the relationships, what are the things made of. I don't necessarily think that diagram is the best way to visualize that and to do it in a collaborative way where everybody can be involved, your engineers can be involved, and especially your business folks. Getting those people involved early is gold. It's magic. Because that's when they're going to be the most useful. So, I hear this all the time: One of my main problems... this is just a recurring theme when I've asked people, like, "What is the most annoying thing about practicing UX design?" Managing stakeholders. I hear that over and over again, and even that word, "managing" stakeholders. We should be leveraging our stakeholders. Our stakeholders and our subject matter experts... usually our stakeholders hopefully are some sort of breed of subject matter expert, at least from the business side. We want to be extracting all that knowledge from their minds, and we need to be doing that early on. But what happens is we try to show them wireframes, or we present diagrams to them instead of getting them to co-create diagrams with us and to really feel heard early on in the process. And the thing is, is, your stakeholders are not trained and they're not good at giving you feedback on your wireframe. And it's very easy. You're conflating presentation and content basically, which we know not to do. We've known that for a long time, not to do that. And yet we still do that, and we still expect quality feedback from our stakeholders when they're looking at structure and design all at once. Design collaborations Jorge: I'm glad you dropped the word co-create in there because as you were talking, I was thinking that the way that I approach the relationship with stakeholders is — or I try to at least — is as a collaboration, right? Where you engage their mind, expertise, their drivers, in the process of designing the thing. And to your point, for a complex system, that needs to start way before you're ready to put things down at the screen level. But there's this dilemma that it's hard to understand the implications of decisions until you see them reflected in something more tangible. Sophia: Yeah, and I think that it's an uphill battle. Let's just say, I mean, they want, often, "they," stakeholders, business folks... they want to see the pictures. They want to see what does it actually going to look like? And I think we've trained them to want to see that. Just because we haven't figured out a really good way to involve stakeholders early doesn't mean it's not possible. I've seen success across so many of my students in bringing stakeholders in early by using the object mapping methodology and going through this process of figuring out... it's just it's color-coded sticky notes! That's really all it is. So, in really nicely organized columns. And it's scalable too. If you have 20 objects, that's okay. If you have 60 attributes on an object, that's okay, too. It really does scale nicely and gives you that sort of bird's eye view of the system. I mean, the other thing that's just so important and not just for feedback, but it's so important to get your stakeholders involved early and your product owners — whoever those people, those decision makers are — on determining scope and timeline and budget. Because when you have a subject matter expert/stakeholder — I'll use those terms interchangeably, even though they're not always — I know they're not always, but if they're this close, if they've been working in the industry for 15 years or something and they say, "Oh, we're gonna create this new feature, we're gonna redesign this part of the product," it's difficult for them to really see the complexity and to understand the complexity. And if we can bring them on board with the complexity and also help elucidate assumptions, help them realize where are we making assumptions about our users… So, I was mentioning before that the input of this process is research, right? And we start with the noun foraging and going through all that research, figuring out the nouns, and we're also looking for attributes at the same time. The ORCA process is a really great gauntlet too, to realize, you need to get kicked back to research. You're not ready to start designing yet because you're designing on too many assumptions. It pulls all those questions from the future where you might be figuring them out when you're in high-fidelity wireframes or something like that. Or God forbid, you're in production where you're figuring out some of these really sticky pieces of business rules. So, this is a tool to help bring all those questions from the future, and make sure that your stakeholders potentially are coming up with those questions too through the process. They're right there with you. They're in the weeds, hands dirty, figuring out some of those questions, and this is going to be able to help you sell more research. Because selling research by saying, "We need to find out more about the user" — that is a really hard sell right there. That's super vague. "Oh, we need to get to know our user." "Great. Okay. Can we just design this product?" But if your stakeholder herself or himself says, "Oh, we don't really understand if... does a doctor work at multiple locations or does a doctor only work at one location? What's the relationship between a doctor and a location? We're assuming that the doctor only has one location, but we're actually not sure how much our doctors are moving around from location to location. Put that in a parking lot." That goes in your user interview transcript, okay? And so, it's the actual stakeholder or the businessperson that has gotten invested in those questions. This is how you sell additional research by getting really specific about what are those questions that need to be asked. OOUX and information architecture Jorge: What you're describing seems very familiar to me, as an information architect, and I'm wondering... I revisited the A List Apart article in preparation for our conversation today, and I got the sense from that article that one of the distinctions between this methodology and something like information architecture is perhaps that... I'm going to use air quotes now, like "traditional information architecture" is more oriented towards content-heavy systems. And I'm thinking of like Jesse James Garrett's elements diagram, right? That is split into what he called information-oriented systems versus task-oriented systems. Would it be fair to say that this is more applicable to the task-oriented systems in that duality? Sophia: So, yeah. I see where you're coming from. The naming around this is coming from… my background is in industrial design. I actually started as a product designer, designing refrigerators for Electrolux. Didn't last long in that career, but that's my background. And then I, again, like going back to the timing, so my very first job as a UX designer was in 2009. This is where Jesse James Garrett would have been like, "We're all UX designers." Right? So, that had already happened. I didn't find out about information architecture until years later. Okay, because just thinking about the timing of when I'm coming into this, I'm coming into it from a user experience perspective and also working on, yes, task-heavy products. So, if you think about, you could even — and I often tell people — you can think about an object... The way I define an object, you can think about it as a content type. Now, I don't like the word "content type." I know this is going to be like controversial, but I prefer the term object, because if I'm working on a system — let's say for used car salesmen to manage their sales and their inventory — a vehicle is not a content type. A vehicle is a thing in a parking lot that is connected to customers, that is connected to sales events, that is potentially connected to other salespeople. Which salesperson sold this car? A salesperson isn't a content type. These are all actual things manifested in the real world and that we are using metaphor to reflect in our user interface. That said, I have used Object-Oriented UX for 100% content sites. So, if we think back to the elections in 2012, when... that's how this all started, I was doing my very first responsive design for CNN election results. That was a lot of data viz, but that was all content. There was no user interaction there; it was all content. And that is actually... I guess the crucible for how I started thinking this way. OOUX and conceptual models Jorge: I'm familiar with another approach to this that I think is similar in at least in intent not in the form it takes, which is the one that I often refer to folks when talking about this stuff and it comes from Jeff Johnson and Austin Henderson's book, Conceptual Models. There you go; you've got it! Not fit for radio, but you're holding up the book cover to the camera. And I'm just wondering if you could speak to the differences between those approaches. Sophia: Yeah, I think they kind of feed each other. I looked back over my notes on Conceptual Models, and most of it I'm underlining and I'm happy faces and check marks in the margins here. There were a couple of places where I like vehemently scribbled question marks. And like, "No, no, no!" But it's little things. I mean, if you think about a concept, the difference between a concept and an object. So, a concept can be... it just feels too... I don't know, the work that we do can often feel very ephemeral, very like it's… You just don't have something good and solid to hold onto. And the objects are these like anchors of understanding and getting super clear on what those objects are and making sure that you have really good lines around them. And actually, like one of the best things that we do in the process is make a glossary, like actually define these things. Concepts though can like be a little squishy. Like financial literacy could be a concept, not an object though, right? The object might be like financial literacy quiz or something like that, you know? Or privacy can be a concept. Also, how Johnson and Henderson described building a conceptual model and what a conceptual model is versus the information that is captured in an object map. The conceptual model they describe it... it's kind of this chicken and egg thing. So, they look at task analysis first and build a conceptual model from the task analysis. I'm kind of the opposite: I tend to like to figure out what are the objects in this environment, in this domain, and hone in on the problem domain, sure. Get those big picture goals on what we are actually trying to do here. But then figure out, "Okay, what are the things in this environment?" And then think about the tasks. What is it? What does a user need to do to those things? And we that's the "C" of ORCA: the calls-to-action. So, what actions — what are the affordances? — what actions does that object offer users? And that's how you get into the task. It's splitting hairs a little bit, but Johnson and Henderson do start off with that task analysis. Sometimes from research, if there's already user stories, we are analyzing user stories coming in. But if those aren't there, there's actually a point in the process that you can get user stories out of the ORCA process. So really just how concept is defined. Also, do you start with a task and then get the objects? I prefer to get the objects and then get the tasks. Start with the nouns. Start with those things and get really solid and clear on those and then figure out what the users want to do with them. Jorge: I'm hearing two things there. One is that the idea of an object is easier to relate to then the idea of a concept, because concepts can be much more vague and more abstract. And the other, which — and by the way, I find both of these ideas really intriguing — the other is that, in some ways, starting with the objects might be a bit more open-ended than starting with the tasks. Because with a collection of objects, you're not necessarily enabling any one particular task; you could enable a myriad tasks, right? There's a collection of objects, and people can do things when they have several objects at their disposal — as opposed to thinking, "What do people want to do?" and then, "What objects do we need, or concepts do we need to enable that?" Sophia: There's just so many fewer assumptions on figuring out what the objects are. Because you can go... I mean, if you can do ethnographic research, great. But going and doing your research again, going back to the teacher example, it doesn't matter what software I'm designing. Like, a teacher's world is made up of students, lessons, classes, standards, parents, other teachers — that's just the truth. And that's another thing Johnson and Henderson talk about the conceptual model being how the user thinks about the system and the task. And I am kind of a broken record when I'm talking about... I'm trying to find the truth of the system. I am trying to find — no pun intended — but like, the objective truth. If I go back to the CNN elections example, if I'm going to build a conceptual model of how people think about elections that's going to be very different than what I would call a system model, which is going to be just the truth of the system. I went in in 2012, I built a system model and I use the exact same system model in 2016 because our electoral college had not changed. We still had candidates. We had states. We had races. And we had results. And we had ballot measures. Those things did not change. And the relationships between those things actually wasn't even up to the user. That's just the truth of the world. It's just our job to communicate what are these things and how do these things relate — versus, I think that the conceptual model is a valid thing to do, and that it would've behooved us to make a conceptual model of how people think about elections. But that's going to be different than what I would call the system model. Jorge: I'm hating the fact that we're running out of time here, because this conversation is getting really meaty. When you brought up the phrase "objective truth," again, you can see this on the podcast, but I think my eyebrows shot up. Well, what you're describing there as a conceptual model is what I usually understand as a mental model. And we might have mental models that map to greater or lesser degree to what I understand of as the conceptual model, which is this set of relationships that you're describing, that I understand as standing together — regardless of what different people might think of them or how different people might understand them. Sophia: In some systems... I mean, there's not just that objective truth, you have to go and figure out, like, what are the users actually want. So, if I had to think about a doctor, is a doctor related to one location in this particular context, or is a doctor related to zero to many locations. Maybe some doctors don't have a location at all associated with them. Some doctors are going to have three locations associated with them. So that's going to come from the users and like, what is the truth of the user? You know, again, it comes back to that objective truth and sort of balancing the objective truth of the business and the objective truth of what is happening with those users and what those users actually want and need. And then there's also the back and forth of like how much do we need to create an idea in the user's head? If this is a completely new thing, how do we reinforce that business model and how the business works so it's very, very clear to the users how these things work together. And then do we kind of go back the other way and really understand then the user's mental model of these things and reflecting it back in the system. So it is that kind of... it's a balancing act, for sure. Closing Jorge: Well, thank you. That helps clarify it quite a bit. And I still feel like we have more to talk about and I'm hoping that we'll be able to do so again at some point. For now, where can folks follow up with you? Sophia: Probably the best, easiest place is So, if you go to, and there's a green button, says something like, "Join the fam," or "Get involved," or something like that. I forgot what it says. All the good stuff is there. There's an Object-Oriented UX happy hour, so that would be a meetup — an online meetup. There is a podcast, the Object-Oriented UX podcast, newsletter, and of course the certification course as well. But just go to and you'll find it. Also, @sophiavux is my Twitter. Jorge: Well, fantastic. I'll link all those from the show notes. Thank you so much, Sophia, for being on the show. Sophia: Thank you so much for having me.

6 jun

37 min 15 seg

Alla Weinberg helps teams and organizations improve the quality of relationships at work. She has a background in design, but now calls herself a ‘work relationship expert.’ In this conversation, we discuss her new book, A Culture of Safety, and how teams can create environments that allow people to do their best work together. Listen to the show Download episode 62 Show notes @IamAllaW on Twitter Alla Weinberg on LinkedIn Spoke & Wheel (Alla's consulting company) A Culture of Safety: Building a work environment where people can think, collaborate and innovate by Alla Weinberg Scientific Management (Taylorism) Frederick Winslow Taylor Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Alla, welcome to the show. Alla: Thank you so much for having me. Jorge: Well, I'm excited to have you on the show. For folks who might not know you. Can you please introduce yourself? About Alla Alla: Hi everyone! My name is Alla Weinberg. I consider myself a work relationship expert, and I work with team leaders to create trusting teams and cultures of safety. Jorge: I think that you are the first work relationship expert I've met. What does that entail? Alla: That entails looking at and mapping — actually creating visual maps — of how people relate to each other at work. And when I say relate, I mean think, feel, and behave, towards each other. And I do that for a team, and I create visual maps so the team can visualize their own dynamics and see what's working relationally on a team and what's not working, with the thought that seeing something, making the invisible visible, you can improve it. Even if it's not... it doesn't necessarily have to be anything's going wrong. It can be just how can we even be better at working together at relating to each other so that we can, as a team, use our collective intelligence, you know, to serve the work that we're doing to serve the company in the greater purpose that we have as a team. Jorge: Are you brought into organizations by people in the human resources department? Alla: I'm usually brought in by team leaders. So, a leader of a business org, or even a smaller team. And because of my design background, I generally have been brought in by design leaders to talk to, and to work with design teams specifically. Relationships Jorge: Okay How did you come from design to this field of human relationships? Alla: Yeah. I was a designer and a researcher for about 10 years, and I got to a place in my career where I didn't feel satisfied and happy. It wasn't quite a fit for what I wanted to do. And I hired a coach for myself — a life coach — to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and my career. And through that I learned, "Oh, I actually want to do this thing — this coaching thing! I want to do that for designers." And so, I went and I got trained to do it. I got certified to do our… took a lot of courses in it. And through actually a lot of trial and error, I sort of designed my way into this career. Because at first, I just did, you know, career coaching for designers. And then I did leadership coaching for design leaders, and I still do some of that. And eventually I got to the place where I noticed what is the thing that really matters to me? What are the conversations that I keep having over and over again with people and it always has to do with relationships? You know, I'm having trouble with somebody that's reporting to me. Or I'm having trouble with my leader. We're not getting along. They don't understand me. They don't hear me. You know, oftentimes in the design field people are like how do we get a seat at the table? Well, a lot of that has to do with relationships. What kind of relationships do people have with senior leadership? And, you know, also design having relationships, often tense relationships, with other cross-functional teams, right? Development, product management, et cetera. And I noticed that that's just what I deeply care about, and I want to change in the world. But also reflecting on my own career as a designer, that's where I felt like that was missing for me. That was a lot of where I felt unsatisfied in my career. I wanted better relationships at work. I wanted deeper relationships at work. And now I want to help others do the same so that we can do great work together. It's not just for touchy, feely reasons. It's so people can have access to their full intelligence and do great work together. And relationships are a big part of that. So I kind of got there through a lot of trying different things and being like "no, not quite it!" And landing here finally. And this is... honestly, last year in 2020, because of COVID and having a lot of time to reflect, I finally landed in this place where like... yeah, like I'm a full, yes! This is definitely what I want to be doing. And this is what I want to be focusing on. Jorge: Well, congratulations. I'm sure that's a very satisfying feeling. It sounds like you've found your thing. What I heard there is that you're usually brought in by team leaders. Are they bringing you in because they have spotted some kind of dysfunction in their team or that things could be going better? Alla: That's usually the case. What usually happens is a team leader will see some kind of engagement results, like an engagement survey within an organization, that's showing that the design team specifically, or just their team if it's not that design team, is... the engagement scores are low and also that maybe trust is low and psychological safety is low, on the team. There may also be times when I'm brought in because the team isn't quite... there is a lot of tension or there's a lot of things that aren't being said to the leader themselves. So like the leader isn't seeing the work. People are afraid to show work to them and they're seeing it too late. Or they're in a meeting like, you know, a staff meeting, and nobody's talking. There's crickets. I was recently brought in to work with a design ops team, where not... I mean, the team is actually great and they get along well with each other. They have great relationships with each other, but when they come together as a group: crickets! Like, there's no contributions. Nothing! They're not talking, they're not having the conversations that need to be had. People aren't questioning things. People aren't pushing on things. How can things be better? There's just nothing. And so the leader brought me in to say, "okay, well what's going on here? I don't even understand! What's going on here?" And so this is where visualizing the team dynamics and also doing exercises that help build team trust and safety come into play so that people start to feel okay to speak up, but it'll even have an invitation about what do we speak up about specifically. So, even knowing that is important. A Culture of Safety Jorge: You spoke of psychological safety and trust as two of the goals — if I might call them goals — of the work. One of the reasons why you're on the show now is that you've just published a book on this subject, and I was hoping that you would tell us a bit about the book. Alla: The book is really about, again, as a team leader, how you can create safety on your team. And in the book, I go beyond just psychological safety. I talk about three different types of safety, which is physical safety, emotional safety, and then psychological safety. And those three different types of safety map neurologically to how we, as human beings, are wired. So first, as a human being, I need to know... and this is more of like, my nervous system needs to know, that I'm physically safe. My physical body and my life is not in danger and feel relaxed around that. And before I can even have psychological safety, I need to know my body safe. So, my body is safe and then next I need to know I'm emotionally safe. It's okay to have all my feelings. It's okay to express my feelings. It's safe to connect emotionally to another human being. That I won't be hurt or that the relationship won't end. And then when I feel relaxed and safe there, then and only then can I achieve psychological safety, which is, "I feel okay and relaxed to share ideas, to contradict somebody to disagree, to take a risk," in that sense. And so, in the book, I talk about very practical ways how a team leader can start to create first physical safety, then emotional safety, then psychological safety. Jorge: That distinction is central to the book. It does come across. And I had a question about physical safety, because the way that you've explained it now is very clear to me. I'm almost picturing like Maslow's Pyramid... Alla: Heirarchy, right. Jorge: Yeah, where there's a baseline, and the baseline in this case is physical safety. This idea that I am not in fear for life and limb, right? At a minimum, I'm going to come to work and feel like, I'm going to be able to leave intact by the — physically intact — by the end of the day. I highlighted a passage in the book where you say that you define physical safety as the shared belief that everybody is valued, respected, and included. And that... I was having a hard time distinguishing between that and psychological safety. So, first of all, I'm wondering if I'm reading it right? Alla: Right. So, there's a little difference here. It's like where every body — meaning physical body. I think there's a little typo actually in the book, from the publisher. But it meant to be two words. 'Every body' meaning physical body is valued, respected, and included. Jorge: That makes a lot of sense, and this is an incredible example of how one small punctuation issue changes the meaning of a phrase. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense because then it does speak to this idea that we are talking about this, you know, my physical matter at work here. Alla: And then the important thing about this — about physical safety specifically — it's not a conscious process for us in the way that our brain works. It's not that people are sitting there often consciously being afraid of their physical selves. Although sometimes if they're feeling microaggressions or really, you know, underrepresented in the workforce, that may be even a conscious feeling. But a lot of times it's unconscious and our nervous system, especially our autonomic nervous system, which is in charge of rest and digestion and heart rate and all of that. So, all of those unconscious functions that we have, it's taking in information from all our five senses, all of the time. That's called neuroception. So, our nervous system is taking in this information and it's constantly... all it's doing is constantly checking. "Am I safe? Is my body physically safe?" And it cannot tell the difference between a lion out there or an angry boss. It cannot tell the difference. To the body, the signal is, "oh no, my physical body is in danger." But if we even take it one step further, if let's say your job is at stake because you look different or you have different abilities, or there's something physically different about you, then the majority of the people in your workforce and your job is at stake as a result of that, and you have fear around losing your job as a result of that, that still impacts physical safety, because your ability to financially provide for yourself and take care of your physical needs, right? Shelter, food, clothing, et cetera, is impacted by your body. And so that's all still part of ensuring physical safety. Jorge: My expectation would be that... and I have to say it like this because I don't feel I've ever personally felt this way in work environment and can only imagine how detrimental it would be to feel threatened. But I would imagine that it creates a vicious cycle where if you don't feel like you can trust the environment that would lead you to — I'm going to use the word underperform — in various ways, which would perpetuate the perception that somehow you're not contributing as much, right? Alla: Exactly. And what I found in my research when writing the book, and I think this was one of my biggest aha's, but also my personal experience as well, is that, when I have not felt safe in an environment, and that can be in any of the three levels of safety? So physically, emotionally, or psychologically, I found in research that our operating IQ — so our ability to think, to analyze, to be creative, to form, you know, rational thoughts — drops by half. So, if my normal operating IQ is, let's say, at a hundred points, when I don't feel safe in an environment, it drops to 50. And this is again, a very human biological thing because our body and our brain will take resources away from our frontal cortex, which is where we think, and it will redistribute it to other parts to keep us alive, to keep us safe. And so, we can't perform at our best, because we can't think at our best when we don't have that level of safety. And so, this is why to me, this is absolutely foundational to any team. Before you can talk about high-performance, before you can talk about velocity of a team, before you can talk about creativity or innovation, first the safety has to exist so that people have access to their intelligence. And then collectively as a team have access to their collective intelligence and be able to, you know, complete the purpose or perform in the way that the company or the team is looking to do. Evaluating safety Jorge: How do you evaluate the degree of safety in an environment? Alla: I usually do it in a qualitative way where I will interview team members. And I look at two specific dimensions. I look at the dimension that I call power. Which is, are there practices, rituals, meetings, places and spaces for people to relate in a way that drives action forward? So, are there times where we as a team talk about direction, purpose, leadership, strategy... those kinds of things. Are we having those conversations? When are those conversations happening? How often are they happening and how do they go? How do those conversations go? And then the second dimension I look at is love. So, do we have conversations about just our own struggles? Our own humanity? The pain that we're going through as human beings. Do we talk about diversity? Do we talk about how we communicate with each other and what can be improved? So, I look at the types of conversations that people are having and how those conversations are going. How well are they happening? Because those are the meeting points where people relate to each other. That's how people relate to each other. And so, if there's a deficiency in either dimension, it's going to create a specific dynamic within a group. Jorge: These are two words that when I consider them in the context of the work environment: raise... the listeners to the show can't see my eyebrows shooting up when you say 'power' and 'love.' How is that received inside organizations using this terminology? Alla: I use it very intentionally to be provocative. So, it usually elicits some kind of emotional reaction from people, but it also creates an opening to discuss about what's really going on. And I feel like those are two dimensions of relationship — of relating. And so, yeah, I don't think it's an easy pill to swallow — for anyone. But I also think this is where we as organizations need to go. Like, we need to start having these conversations and start talking about love, at work, and start talking about power, at work. All of those exist or don't exist at work anyway. I'm just being very direct and naming it. And maybe that's my Russian coming through, but I'm just being direct about it and naming, "hey, like these things are in play. Let's look at them directly and talk about them directly." Jorge: I can imagine someone whose mindset about work is all about performance and all about optimization of resources, whether they be financial resources, people's time, that sort of thing. And I would imagine that for somebody like that, this idea that we need to have spaces dedicated to love in the work context might feel... I was going to use the word in tension with... let's say that, in tension with, the M.O. of, "this is business and we're just going to go for it and go for it at max speed." I mean, I don't know if you've encountered that type of situation, but how do you deal with that kind of environment? Alla: I guess in that environment, it just shows me the maturity level of people's understanding of basically how people work together and that it's still in an early stage of maturing. And those kinds of beliefs are held over beliefs from the industrial era, especially Taylorism. I was trying to remember the word. Especially Taylorism! Taylorism... basically Frederick Taylor came up with this model in the industrial era, that managers are the ones that come up with the ideas, and workers are the ones that execute on those ideas. They don't have to think they just execute on the ideas. And that may have worked to some degree on an assembly line, but no longer holds true. But with it comes this belief that strips people — that strips workers, employees — of their humanity. There are no longer humans. They're resources. that need to perform like machines, right? So, there's a specific worldview and the work that we're trying to do, and the work in the companies I often consult with, you know, tech companies, fintech companies, those kinds of spaces... even healthcare! Workers now have to think! We have to solve problems. There is so much complexity that's no longer a manager can tell employees, “Just do this thing," and they just go execute and do it. They have to think and be able to problem solve. So, if a team leader or manager wants their team to move fast, wants their team to be able to solve complex problems, wants their team to have access to their intelligence... all the things that they're wanting, all the outcomes that they're wanting, this performance outcome that they're wanting, to get there, the team needs to feel safe in working together. So, they need to know how to work together well. We can no longer assume people are working by themselves on an assembly line, just doing their one task and then passing it onto the next person. We have to collaborate with each other. We all work in teams and cross-functional teams, right? And so, in order for that to be effective, we have to build trust as human beings for that to happen. And again, as I mentioned, biologically, having that safety allows people to be able to have access to their full operating IQ. And it's no longer wasted on anxiety, worrying about what should I say/not say, feeling scared if I'm going to get fired if I don't do something or I do something, working around somebody... like, I've had many times in my career relationships at work that were very distressing to me. That weren't working, kept me up at night, you know, I didn't sleep well. I was anxious. I often cried because of it. I didn't know how to fix it. But then what I did was avoid the person. I worked around them. Tried to not meet with them. That creates so many blockages, to getting the work done, to getting the outcomes, that let's say a rational person is wanting. This is why I feel so passionate about relationships and focusing on relationships. Because when that is working, everything else works. Like the work actually happens and you get all the things that leaders want. You get the speed, you get the quality, you get the innovation, you get the creativity. All of it. So, I guess to me, it's like, that's the how. Like, if you want that, this is the, how. It is what I'm proposing. Jorge: There's a quote that you cite towards the end of the book from John Augustus Shedd. It says, "a ship is safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are made for." Alla: I love that one. Creating a culture of safety Jorge: I loved it too. I wrote that down because that was great. And in the spirit of encouraging our listeners to be seaworthy vessels some sort, what can folks do to be more effective at helping create a culture of safety in their teams and their organizations. Alla: I love this question because it will touch on two things. One is if we look at it from an information architecture standpoint, what folks can do to create a culture of safety is to see what categories, what types of conversations to evaluate, that are happening on their team. And that are not happening on their team. Oftentimes, people will have many types of conversations and meetings about the work, very tactical conversations. Are you having conversations about humanity, about your struggles, about getting to know each other as human beings at a deeper level? Are you having conversations where you do bring up tensions? Where do you bring up conflict? Very intentionally, you have space to process tensions, process conflict, and have space for those conversations. Are you having conversations where people can — and especially leaders — can express mistakes and admit mistakes? And apologize for them and learn from them together. So, from a categorization perspective, what are the conversations you're having and not having as a team? So, you just evaluate that. What's the balance of that? Maybe you have some conversations about tactics, about strategy and some about humanity and struggles and who we are as people. And maybe you're having more of one or the other. And the goal here isn't that you have to have all the conversations all the time, but that there's a balance. That you're balancing doing the work with talking about who we are as people and how we do the work. And in the book, I recommend several types of meetings — structures — that people can then start to have those different types of conversations: talking about how folks are feeling, talking about what our boundaries are — our physical boundaries are — with each other, as a team. You know, talking about mistakes, talking about what our hopes and fears are for a project that we're about to kick off. What kind of conversations are you having? So, really, really start to think about that and take a sort of self-evaluation even, of that. And then there's that question of, you know, how do I know what to say? What's okay to say? How do I not offend anyone? When you have that level of safety with people, like you will know you'll have safety because you as an individual and wholly, as a team will feel relaxed that you're not worried about offending somebody because you know, you have a strong enough relationship with this person that they can say to you, "that really offended me." And you can say, "wow, you know? I did hurt you. I feel that. I'm sorry." And that can be the conversation you have. Or somebody can say, "wow, I really disagree with you here. I think we're going in the completely wrong direction!" And you can feel safe enough to engage in a... and I even suggested in the book, to have a little sparring meeting, you know? Where you have that creative tension, where you say, "okay, let's try to really deeply understand each other and where we're coming from and how we got to our stance so that we can find a third way — a creative way — to solve this problem. That's not my way. And it's not your way. It's the third way." And so, safety actually creates and allows for space, for tension, for correction, for repair. In every relationship, there's a cycle of connection, disconnection, reconnection. And what we are completely missing in the workplace right now are spaces for connecting to each other, speaking about times we are disconnected with each other and having opportunities to repair and reconnect with each other, as individuals and as a team as well. Closing Jorge: Well Alla, thank you so much for making the space for us to have this conversation and connect. Where can folks follow up with you? Alla: They can find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. My Twitter handle is @IamAllaW and then my website, (dot. co) Jorge: And where can folks find the book? Alla: It's on Amazon. So, just search Culture Of Safety on Amazon. Jorge: Well, fantastic. Thank you so much for being with us, Alla: Thank you!

23 may

29 min 39 seg

Jeff Sussna is a consultant and author specialized in helping organizations deliver software more effectively. This is Jeff’s second appearance on the show. In this conversation, he tells us about Customer Value Charting, a visual tool that helps teams balance strategy and agility. Listen to the show Download episode 61 Show notes Sussna Associates Designing Delivery: Rethinking IT in the Digital Service Economy by Jeff Sussna The Informed Life episode 15: Jeff Sussna on Cybernetics Customer Value Charting: A Visual Tool for Customer-Centered Discovery & Delivery by Jeff Sussna Software as a service Salesforce Slack’s new DM feature can be used to send abuse and harassment with just an invite (The Verge) Promise theory Mark Burgess Wardley map Impact mapping User Story mapping ServiceNow JIRA Read the transcript Jorge: Jeff welcome to the show. Jeff: Thanks for having me. It's great to be on and great to talk to you again. Jorge: Yeah, I should have said welcome again to the show, because this is not your first time here. So, thank you for joining us again. Now, some folks might not have listened to our first conversation, so for their benefit, would you mind, please, reintroducing yourself? About Jeff Jeff: I'm Jeff Sussna. I live in Minneapolis and I run a software delivery consulting firm there. And our clients are companies that typically are doing some form of Agile and/or DevOps, and they're struggling with it. And what we typically find is that they face a conflict between agility and autonomy on the one hand, and strategy and alignment on the other. And Agile and DevOps by themselves... they're very much about breaking things down into smaller pieces. Smaller teams, smaller systems, smaller units of work, as a way of making change and adaptation easier. But they don't really have much to say about how you put the pieces back together. I like to say that customers don't want to buy microservices, they want to buy service. And so, there's this kind of big missing piece in the discourse around where are we trying to go and what are we trying to do? And so, our focus is partly on helping organizations do Agile and DevOps more effectively, but what that really ends up being is helping them overcome this conflict between, "this is what I'm doing today," and "this is where we're trying to go this year." What customers want Jorge: And this is the reason why I wanted to speak with you again, because this idea of striking a balance.... I'm going to frame it as striking a balance between agility and strategy — or you called that a strategy/alignment — is something that I think plays out in many fields, not just DevOps. This notion that the best way for us to make progress, let's say, is by working step by step and making small adjustments. But those small adjustments need to be in service to something, right? And... anyways, you shared a link to a post on your website about a tool called Customer Value Charting, which seems to get at this idea of striking a balance between agility and strategy, and I was hoping you would tell us about it. Jeff: Sure. But we need to start by taking a little bit of a step back. One of the things that we've learned working with our clients who typically are making the transition from software products to software services and cloud delivery, is that the cloud completely transforms the relationship between the customer and the software provider. I had an epiphany a number of years ago. I was looking at a marketing website for an early software as a service company; might even have been Salesforce. And right on their homepage, they were talking about things like multiple data centers, and offsite backup, and advanced security practices. And I realized that they were spending marketing dollars on IT operations. And then I read a sentence that really opened my eyes. It said, "we update the software so you don't have to." And the epiphany was the recognition that the cloud transfers the cost of change from the customer to the software provider. So, it used to be when software was a product that the feedback from the customer was things like, "well, we have to go through a three-month change management process before we can install the new version." Or "the new version requires an OS upgrade, and we're not scheduled to do that until next year." And with the cloud, the conversation is completely different. It's, "why is it taking you so long to deliver this feature upgrade, or this bug fix, or this stability improvement?" So, customers start to expect this continuous increase in value. And on the one hand, they become impatient with delay. No matter how good your feature is, if it takes too long to deliver, you start to lose customers. But at the same time, what they want is not just this continuous spray of random features. What they want is improved value. And what value is... I think of it in terms of three dimensions. The first is usefulness. Does it help me accomplish something that I'm trying to do? The second is usability in its largest meaning. Can I understand it? Can I adopt and onboard it? Can I administer it? Can I get help with it? Can I integrate it? And finally, dependability, which is everything from scalability to performance, to resilience, to security, to compliance, to trust. If you look at what happened with Slack this week, when they released this new global DM feature and then pulled it because it turned out to be this opportunity for a huge abuse. They violated people's trust. And so, they had to pull a feature. The missing piece in Agile and DevOps Jorge: I see dependability and usability as perhaps table stakes. And when you speak of creating value, that is where the usefulness dimension comes in. Is that a fair reading of that? Jeff: I think we could have a lengthy debate about whether dependability is table stakes. I mean, yes. Ultimately, what you're after is usefulness, right? The reason I need a dry cleaner is because it isn't feasible for me to clean my tuxedo at home. So, I need someone to do it for me and you're right, that ultimately, that's what I want: is to get my tuxedo clean. But I also need to get my tuxedo clean in time for tonight's formal event. So, things like speed may be important. I need to be able to easily get to and from the dry cleaner, so usability in terms of access to roads and shopping malls and whatever, may be important. The reason that I put these three together is... again, the shift from product to service involves this inclusion of operations. And that's something that often falls short. Product management tends to think of itself as being in the feature business. I do a lot of work with what I call cloud native product management, which is working with organizations and helping them understand that product managers need to be accountable for these usability and dependability metrics, as much as they are accountable for number of features delivered, or customer growth, or revenue, or anything like that. In any case, what customers are expecting is a continual evolution. So, across these dimensions that the service is getting continually better, not just sort of a random spray of things. And so, the challenge is how do you become more continuous and how do you have some strategic direction? And again, this is kind of a missing piece in the Agile and DevOps discourse, and I think that's why there's this kind of impedance mismatch intention and a certain frustration between Agile teams and designers or Agile teams and product managers or Agile teams and executives. And in thinking about how to resolve it, it occurred to me that the answer is simply to approach your work, both at the strategic and the tactical level, in terms of the outcomes as opposed to outputs. And what I mean by outcomes is customer outcomes. Customer benefit is maybe a better word. You know, the benefit of the dry cleaner is that I can get my tuxedo cleaned in time to go to the formal event. It's not fundamentally about a cash register or a counter or even cleaning chemicals. And I mention that because a lot of the conversation I see around outcomes over outputs tends to actually talk about business outcomes. You know, revenue growth and customer retention, and time on site and business outcomes are great. I don't have any problem with them, but people tend to skip this step. We have a hypothesis that this feature will cause this change in customer behavior, which will lead to this business outcome or business impact. But it leaves open the question of, well, why is the customer changing their behavior? What is the benefit to them? So, I started thinking about both strategy and direction and context, and also tactical work in terms of customer outcomes. We have an epic, or we have a roadmap, or we have a strategy, or we have a user story. Why are we doing that? Who cares? How does it help? And I started working with teams in helping them figure out, well, how do we start to put those two together? And a couple of things happened. One is that for a long time, I've been using some work in something called Promise Theory, which was developed by Mark Burgess, which is a way of thinking about how large-scale complex distributed systems can work well. Where a distributed system could be anything from a large-scale software system to a company, to a city, to an economy. And it's based on the idea that parts of the system make promises to each other. Where a promise is simply an intention to do something of benefit. So, we can think about Slack as promising the ability to get work done together across boundaries, right? Why do you need Slack? If everybody's in the same office, at the same time and they work for the same manager, you don't need Slack. You just talk to each other. It's when you're separated by space and time, and you're working across an organization, or across multiple organizations that you need help in order to get that done. And you can think about all of the features that Slack contains as working in service to that promise. And you can think of those features also as making promises of their own. You know, in order to work together across boundaries, you need to be able to have real-time and non-real-time conversations. You need to be able to find and start conversations and dip into them and out of them. None of that says anything in particular about a feature. We haven't said anything yet about a channel, or a thread, or an emoji. We're talking about what it is that Slack helps a user do and what the user can accomplish by doing that. So, I started working with teams in terms of thinking about what promises we would make. And these could be promises to end users, or they could be promises to other parts of the organization. I do a lot of work with platform teams and their customers are internal development teams. And what happens if you look at particularly traditional IT, there tends to be this approach of: if you want us to do something, file a ticket and we'll do it. It's very requirements-driven. It's very outside-in. We try and do what we're told to do and often we fail, for various reasons, most of which aren't our fault. They have to do with the way that the organization is structured and the way the work is structured. And this is really about turning it inside-out out and thinking about a platform or whatever the team is in the organization, as a service provider that is making and hopefully fulfilling promises to its internal customers. So, I work with them to understand, well, what promises are you making? How well do you fulfill them? And how can you both do a better job of fulfilling your promises and also think about more useful ones to make, which is where innovation really starts to happen. Promises The other interesting thing about a promise — and I should probably talk about this a little more — why this word promise? Why not contract or guarantee or requirement? A promise represents an intention that may or may not actually come to pass. I might promise to take out the trash, and then I might forget. So sometimes we break our promises. And counterintuitively, that's actually a really good thing. I had a conversation with a very thoughtful person once; we were talking about promises and then she sent me this email and she said, "I really don't understand why you would ever make a promise that you don't intend to actually fulfill." And I said, "well, you never would, but you can't guarantee things." So, the word "promise" forces you to think about the possibility of failure, which on the one hand helps you do a better job of not failing, but it also gives you an opportunity to think about improvement and repair. You could think of a promise as a bundle that brings together this idea of service, and customer jobs, and commitments to actually deliver service and continuous improvement. We can create this process where we think about our work at every level, from the tactical all the way to the strategic, in terms of how are we promising to help? How effectively are we fulfilling our promises? And how can we improve our ability to make and fulfill promises that are useful? The next step was to start developing a visual way of representing this. And in particular, a visual way of connecting tactical to strategic outcomes or promises. Customer Value Charting For a while I was working with something called Wardley Maps, which is a very powerful visual mechanism for identifying value chains all the way from the strategic, down to the very, very tactical and devolving that value. And the only problem I found is that when I was working with people who weren't sort of math or graphing nerds, if you will, they tended to find Wardley Maps kind of hard to look at. They're very much built around kind of graph theory and cartesian coordinates and that kind of thing. And people seem to get somewhat confused just by the visual representation. So, I was casting around for another way to present it. I started looking at Impact Maps and User Story Maps, which were very appealing, but what I found in practice was that they tended to kind of fall back into representing features, right? Here's this big feature we want to build and we'll make a User Story Map to represent the parts, and then we'll create slices and say, "we're going to create this set of sub features first." And I really wanted something that focused on this idea of outcomes and promises. And that's what led to Customer Value Charting. You could think of it as a riff on Promise Theory meets Wardley Maps meets User Story Maps. And it's a very simple visual representation, which is basically a grid of three rows and four columns. When you look at it from the top down, the top row is, "why is your help needed?" What is it that your customer or a potential customer is trying to do that they can't do on their own? So, if we continue with our Slack example, it's getting work done together across boundaries. If you look at the middle row, this is, "how do you help?" What promises do you make in support of that higher need? So, again, Slack promises things like the ability to have structured conversations that are both real time and non-real time so you and I can just chat and then one of us can go off to lunch and come back and continue the conversation. The ability to dip into and out of conversation. So, if I join a new team, I can find out what conversations have been happening. I can see what happened last night or yesterday. The ability to dynamically create and find conversation. And the bottom row is, "what help do you need in order to fulfill your own promises?" If you're on the Slack application team and you're building an application, you need things like elastic infrastructure, because it's a very dynamic system and users come and go. It needs to be able to scale up and down very easily. You also need help from the customer support organization, because you need visibility into how are customers using the application and how are they struggling with it so we understand where it needs to be improved. Once you do that, you have a nice visual representation of your value proposition all the way from the top to the bottom of what business are we in and how do we help and who do we help. Then, if you look at it from the left to the right, you basically lay out your promises in terms of how effectively do we fulfill them. So, at the left, you have promises that you don't make. This isn't part of our business. If you want to manage some very structured workflow like procurement or ITIL or something like that, you don't do that in Slack and do that in something like ServiceNow. Now, that's helpful because it bounds your scope. It allows you to say things like, "nope! We shouldn't be working on this because we don't do it. It's not our business. We don't make any promises about that." But it's also a great place to find opportunities for innovation by identifying underserved customer needs. This is a promise we don't make, but maybe we should. The second column is, "things that you're exploring." You're just dipping your toe in the water, you know? Maybe you're not sure if there's a market or a real need for it yet. You only did it in order to win a customer deal. For whatever reason you haven't fully invested. The third column is your bread and butter. This is the heart of our product. It more or less works the way it's supposed to and more or less does what people need. And the furthest column to the right is this is where our competitive advantage is. This is where customer delight happens. This is where we know people won't switch to a competitor because they really love or are hooked on this one particular feature. So now you have in one place, your value proposition and your operational reality of this is how we actually execute on our value proposition. And then the exercise becomes a matter of identifying areas where you want to move something from the left to the right. Where you want to become more effective at. This is an iterative process. You don't start with something that you don't do at all and try and make it highly effective or compelling in one shot. You start by exploring it. Let's dip our toes in the water and find out. And the final step is you start attaching actual work to it in terms of what is the next step we're going to take. An example of CVC Let's take the example of Slack where Slack doesn't do structured workflow. But a lot of times what happens is people are debugging together in a Slack channel and they find some infrastructure problem and they have to go over to ServiceNow in order to file a ticket. Wouldn't it be nice if you actually had the ability to integrate ITIL directly into Slack because there's a use for it. So, that's an area we want to invest in. We want to explore. And the first thing we're going to do is we're just going to build a very simple connector that allows you to create a simplistic incident ticket directly from a Slack chat. What you have now done is you have identified a simple small piece of work that you were going to use to validate and explore a larger, more strategic direction. And you use this as an iterative management and conversation technique so that you do some work and then you come back and you ask yourself, "well, how far did that get us along the path that we're trying to get?" maybe it was harder than we thought, and there's not really as much market need as we thought, and we should just stop. Or maybe we learn something from it, and we discover that the next thing we should do along that path is to build Y instead of X. And again, this entire process is happening in terms of promises of outcomes, not really in terms of locking down features. So, it gives you this ability to explore in an agile fashion, but to give everybody a sense of what direction we're moving in. What is it that we're trying to make better? You know, so often when I work with Agile teams, they do stand-ups and they drew retros and they define their sprint goals and things like that in terms of work and quantity and velocity. Our sprint goal is to finish these 24 stories, and we finished 23 so we're going to declare our sprint a success. Well, what did you actually deliver? What got better as a result, you know? Or what we need to do in this iteration is we need to add three database indexes. Well, what is the promise that we're delivering on? The promise is to make search 15% faster. And whether you do three database indexes or seven or one, isn't the essential point. The essential point is to make search 15% faster. So, if you connect your work to that promise, you give yourself the flexibility of how to actually go about doing it. But you have a goal that everybody understands and everybody can communicate to each other, to management, to your customers. And so, it brings together this idea of flexibility and agility with having some kind of direction that you're trying to go in that has value in everyone. A better roadmap Jorge: It sounds to me like a tool to help visualize in a more tangible way, the question, "what is this in service to and where might we be missing something?" And, in that way, it strikes me as a kind of more useful version of a roadmap, perhaps? Is that a fair read? Jeff: That is an excellent read. Yes! It is all about identifying value and evolving value. And it's funny, I'm glad you mentioned the word roadmap. If you think about a map, right? Like a real roadmap. And remember... you and I are probably both old enough to remember the days when you actually had one of those foldout paper maps. A map showed you how you could get from point A to point B. It doesn't tell you how to get there, right? You get to make decisions about, well, we're going to take highway or we're not going to take the highway, or we're going to go this way so we can stop here for lunch. It presents opportunities. And the problem I have with traditional product roadmaps is they cause, I think, unnecessary pain and frustration. You know, the underlying insight that Agile had is that when you're building something large and complex and novel — something that's a little different from what you've built before — it is extremely hard to perfectly predict exactly how you should build it, or even exactly what it should be. And if you look at a roadmap... and it's funny, I keep coming back to this idea of AgileFall, where people use Agile to do Waterfall. And there's a lot of grief and a lot of condescension... "Well, if you're doing AgileFall, you're doing it wrong. You're bad. You're bad at Agile." I think what that misses is that AgileFall represents this tension that hasn't been resolved around, "well, we need something more than just what we're going to accomplish in the next two weeks." And so, what happens is people trying to lock down the big picture. There's a presentation where somebody stood up and they presented this completely Waterfall 12-month roadmap that said, "this is what we're going to do in Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4." And then they said, "but because we're Agile, we might change the dates." In other words, this roadmap is a work of fiction. And its primary purpose is to frustrate you because we are explicitly telling you that we're making promises, right? We promise to deliver this feature on this date. And we're going to break those promises. And I think that people do that because again, we all need a sense of direction and a sense of context. We need it for ourselves, our stakeholders need it, our executives need it, our customers need it. Where are we going? And we don't know how to communicate that other than in terms of work. But if we can communicate it in terms of value, right? So, if you think about Slack, the ability to find conversations is actually somewhat crude. You kind of have to know what you're looking for, right? You're looking for a particular name, which could be somewhat arcane. So, you couldn't actually really say that the ability to find conversations in Slack is as effective as it should be. If you tell your customers, "we are going to make the ability to find conversations more effective and more powerful and more flexible." — "Oh! That sounds good, because yeah, it really needs to be better. We're really excited about that!" You haven't locked yourself into a particular date or a particular implementation. You can explore and discover that as you go and you can tell your customers, "well, here's this thing that we're delivering this week that will make conversation-finding a little bit better in this particular way." And then, "oh! We can do that again. Well, next week, here's this thing that we're delivering that will make it even a little bit better." So, it allows you to plan, and it allows you to communicate without kind of forcing yourself into a model that doesn't actually work when you're building complex software systems. Jorge: It strikes me that the traditional roadmap is a forecast of what's going to happen that is, by definition, made at a time when your knowledge of the entire situation is imperfect. And the actual process is more like... it's stochastic, right? Every step that you take changes what happens next. If that's a fair read, then this artifact that you're describing is organic in the sense that it needs to be a living document that is revisited often. And a) I'm wondering if that's a fair read and, b) if that's the case, then who is responsible for being the steward of this chart? Jeff: It is a fair read. And I'm going to struggle with the answer to who is responsible. I think there are two answers. One is the product owner and the product manager. But two is the team. Because... you're absolutely right. Its intention is as a conversation and planning tool, not actually as a document. I don't care what it looked like last month. The point is to continuously have a conversation around, "are we getting where we want to go? What's the next step to go there? And do we still even want to go in that direction?" And so, it's simply a tool for that kind of conversation. The reason I hesitate is about who owns it or who shepherds it, is the team needs to be having the conversation. And it's less important to me who runs the session or who... you know, in the good old days, many, many moons ago, before pandemic, I would say: "create a three by four grid on a whiteboard and get stickies and put them up on the wall and move the stickies around." It's funny, because a couple of years ago I worked with a team and they were part of an organization that was very, very JIRA driven. And for whatever reason, they decided to just put stuff up on a whiteboard. And it worked perfectly.So, the mechanism is less important than the process. A high functioning team ought to be able to just have this conversation. Now, I think where it becomes interesting to think about product owners and product managers is the connection with the larger business context, right? Of why are we going in this particular direction? And how do we provide feedback to the rest of the organization about the success of going in that direction? That's really where I think that sort of... I think what you're talking about in terms of stewardship comes in is: this isn't just for teams, it's a way for teams to communicate with other parts of the organization. Or "well, you want to know what we're doing? Well, what we're doing is we're making conversation-finding better, and here's why, and here's how. Here's what we're doing next to move in that direction." And we can have conversations at a higher management level of, "is conversation-finding something that we want to be investing in?" The nice thing about that is that you stop having conversations about, "well, why didn't you deliver the feature that you said you were going to deliver on this date? Your team is not performing." Right? It makes your stakeholder and management-level conversation much richer and more productive, in my opinion. Closing Jorge: Well, this sounds like a tool that is much needed. And I'm grateful that you are writing and speaking about it. Where can folks go to find out more? Jeff: Well, they can go to the website, is the best place. There's various information about it there. This is something that I have primarily been using in working with actual clients, so I'm just starting the process of exposing it more generally and starting to talk and write about it more generally. So, I wrote a book, that was really about some of the theoretical underpinnings behind this several years ago. I've been toying with the idea of writing another one, much more practical, down to earth about how to use promises and how to use Customer Value Charts in order to run an Agile organization. So, it's very much of a work in progress. And thanks to you for helping me start to talk about this in a broader context. Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to see where it goes, and, looking forward to having you again in the show sometime, Jeff! I always enjoy our conversations a great deal. Jeff: As do I! Thanks for having me, and hopefully it'll be sooner than another 18 months when we do it again.

9 may

37 min 4 seg

Kat Vellos on Friendship Kat Vellos uses her background in experience design to empower people to learn, grow, and thrive. She’s written two books on adult friendship, We Should Get Together and Connected from Afar. In this conversation, we discuss the importance and challenges of making friends, especially during this time of ‘social distancing.’ Listen to the show Download episode 60 Show notes Kat Vellos We Should Get Together (website) We Should Get Together: The Secret to Cultivating Better Friendships by Kat Vellos Connected from Afar: A Guide for Staying Close When You’re Far Away by Kat Vellos Hydroponics Connection Club Read the transcript Jorge: Kat, welcome to the show. Kat: Hi, Jorge! Thanks for having me on the show. Jorge: I'm very excited to have you here with us. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please, introducing yourself? About Kat Kat: Yes. So, hello everyone! I'm Kat. In my current day-to-day life nowadays, I am an experience designer, author and speaker, as well as a facilitator, but my background involves two paths that have blended quite seamlessly into one. The first path is my path as a designer: I got my degree in graphic design and worked in a variety of design roles, ranging from editorial, news journalism, all the way up to tech and digital devices and UX design and product design. And then the other path was the part of my career that involved working directly in communities as a facilitator, community builder, and program director of empowerment programs, particularly for marginalized youth and marginalized communities. Both of those paths blended together in a way when I found user experience design. This was back in about 2014 or so, and I've been doing a variety of experience design projects and roles at different companies. And now I work for myself and the focus of my work right now is really blending those two paths and sets of skills together around helping people cultivate more meaningful connection in their lives. Why friendship? Jorge: You've written two books, We Should Get Together and Connected from Afar, which are about friendship. And I'm wondering what brought you to the subject? Kat: Yeah, so for starters, a little bit about me is I am an introvert. I also moved quite a bit as a kid. So, I had the experience of sometimes belonging, but most of the time not quite belonging wherever I was, because I was always from someplace else. And I think that really imprinted me with a real understanding of what it feels like to not have the connection that you want. And then later on, when I found it in high school and college and got my friend groups and got that sense of belonging, I was just like, "Oh, this is beautiful. I never want to let this go." And throughout my adult life I never really had a hard time making friends. I loved being in a community. But when I moved to the Bay area, it was the first time in my life — despite multiple states, a couple different cities moving — I had a hard time forming ongoing, lasting friendships. And just dozens upon dozens upon dozens of people I met said that they had the same problem. And I got really curious about that as a user experience designer. I know there may be some UX designers listening right now; I don't know about you, but when I see that a lot of people are having a certain problem, like completing a certain task, or getting success at something, I get really curious about why that is, and I can't help but think about how we can improve a process to make it easier and more enjoyable for people. And so, just quite naturally, I got fascinated with the subject of connection in adulthood. Particularly around forming and maintaining friendships as life goes on. And I did a variety of... I can go further into depth, but I did a whole variety of experiments and explorations into that and ultimately ended up writing this book about it. I did not know at the beginning, when I started investigating the topic, that I was going to write a book. But it became quite clear that a book was urging to get out of me. Jorge: People have been making friends for a long time. And I'm wondering, why now? Why do we need a book on this subject? It's almost like an instruction manual, right? Why do we need one for friend-making now? Kat: Right. So, it's not that people, like, aren't making friends right now, or that they haven't been doing that for a long time. But one of the things that has also been happening concurrently in our society is that there is a loneliness epidemic. The first instance of that phrase that I could find in U.S. journalism at least, was around the 1980s. And since that time, it has slowly been getting worse. Or not even slowly, but kind of quickly! Around the time of my original research into this, around 2018, approximately half of people in the United States were reporting that they felt lonely on a somewhat to regular basis. And by 2020, when my book came out, that number had already climbed to around 61%. So, it's not that people don't want friends or that they don't want to make friends or that there's nobody making friends, but it's that loneliness is climbing. And my hypothesis is that the cure for that is healthy friendships and healthy communities. And for some reason there is a need for more support and more resources that will help people do that within the demands of our modern world. Types of friendships Jorge: You mentioned healthy friendships and the book offers what I think of as a taxonomy of different types of friendships. You speak of meaningful friendships as one type. And I'm just wondering if you could tell us a bit about different types of friendships. Kat: Yeah. So, part of the qualitative research that I did in researching the book was spending a lot of time interviewing people about their experiences of connection in both friendship and community, which are a bit different. And also doing a survey and asking people to define in their own words, you know, what is friendship to you? And out of that, a few different categories of friendship emerged. And so, I'll give you a few examples, and this is directly from interviewee quotes and survey respondents that I think really, really hit the nail on the head here. So, the first is our category of acquaintances. And acquaintances might be someone that you know some basic details about, you can have small talk with them, you maybe have met them in person a couple of times, but you wouldn't go out of your way to reach out to them. And there's no real deep, emotional connection. And then next would be like, a friend category, like a casual friend. And this is someone that you feel happy around. You don't have to try too hard to have a conversation with them. You probably know a bit about each other's life circumstances, but maybe you don't see each other as often as you'd like, or it just doesn't go super deep when you connect. It's just casual and friendly and li ght, but not on the deep, deep heart level. And then there's that close friend level or best friend level. And this would be someone whose wellbeing I care deeply about and who I feel confident I can depend on. Someone else said, "someone who accepts me completely for who I am, and I can tell my problems to, without feeling ashamed." It can also be someone who, let's see... someone said, "someone who knows my secrets, fears, and who tells me what I need to hear, even if I don't like it." And then last is my favorite, which is someone who is integrated into my life. That's really when they start to get into the... almost the category of chosen family, at that point. Hydroponic friendships Jorge: There's a metaphor in the book, a gardening metaphor. You speak of cultivating friendship. And I was drawn to the phrase, "hydroponic friendships." What's that about? Kat: Right. So, I am a plant person. I have been studying plants for a while. I really love spending time in the garden, and anytime I'm in nature is where I'm also sourcing a lot of metaphors about life. And as I looked at what were the challenges people were having with friendship, as well as what were the opportunities and how could we create more closeness, I was drawn to the metaphor of hydroponics and gardening because — for those who may be unfamiliar with it, although I think maybe a lot of people have heard of it — it's where you grow plants in highly nutritious water instead of soil. And at the time when, you know, the grandfather of hydroponics proposed this idea, he was laughed at by his community. They were like, "you're crazy. You can't grow plants without soil. This will never work!" But he did prove that by adding the nutrients plants need to grow to the water, they could thrive. And in fact, sometimes do better than they do in the soil. And this metaphor came to mind because one of the trends I was hearing a lot in the challenges people were having with friendship is that they felt like they didn't have enough time. They were like, "Oh, I'm so busy. Everybody's so busy." And busy-ness is one of the four main blockers or barriers to close friendship that I talk about it in the book. And as a facilitator, one thing that I've seen over and over again when I've hosted camps and retreats and workshops, and all kinds of events is that when people have the opportunity to come together in a shared intention and a space that is designed to allow them to develop closeness and to share vulnerably and to build trust, they can bond much, much more quickly than they can just out in the wild world. And so hydroponic friendship is my hypothesis that in the absence of abundant time, your friendships can grow much more quickly if they are immersed in quality connection that involves vulnerability, self-disclosure, empathetic listening, and you experience these things in some kind of concentrated form. So that is the theory of hydroponic friendship. Jorge: So, if I might reflect that back to you, it sounds like it has to do with creating the — I'm going to use the word environmental — the environmental conditions to allow friendships to blossom. Is that fair? Kat: Yes. That's a really beautiful paraphrase, reframing of it. Yeah! I like that too. Jorge: I'm wondering, as someone who... I don't think of myself as someone who has trouble making new friends, but I can relate to the framing you spoke of earlier of the challenge of moving, for example, to a new city where you don't know anyone, and everyone is so busy. I'm assuming that hydroponic friendship starts... by necessity, must start in the kind of lower rungs of the taxonomy we were talking about earlier. My expectation is that you would first start as acquaintances, and then move to... you ascend to a higher level, right? Kat: Yes, generally. Although there are some cases where people meet and there's like an instant friendship attraction. It's almost like friendship at first sight! Or like, love at first sight, but for platonic friendship. Where two people really can be quite magnetized to each other very quickly. And in that case, it's almost like they've leaped from acquaintances straight into like, "Oh my gosh, I want to be friends with you!" and then the other person's like, "I really want to be friends with you too!" And it's like right there, they've got a great spark to like really initiate a friendship that may grow into a deeper close connection as time goes, because they've got this like huge burst of momentum and mutual enthusiasm right at the get-go. Or, as you mentioned, this may also grow at a little bit of a slower pace from someone who just starts as acquaintances that you feel fond about, but maybe not quite at that friendship-at-first-sight feeling. Making friends online Jorge: When you say friendship at first sight, I can think of friendships in my life where that has happened, where I've met the other person and I thought, "this is somebody who, I feel some kind of simpatico with, and would like to get to know better." And whenever that's happened, it's been in a physical environment where I am with that person. We might be sharing a meal with other people or we might be in a social situation, or it might be a work situation, for example. But it's always been in physical environments. And I'm wondering, given that we've just celebrated a year of lockdown here due to the pandemic, the degree to which our socially distant way of being affects our ability to spark at these potential friendships as we would in physical spaces. Kat: It certainly does affect it, but it's not a complete impediment because humans are incredibly adaptable creatures. And we've seen this in the ways that people have... you know, after an initial moment at the beginning of lockdowns of like, "Oh my gosh, what are we going to do? The world is ending! The sky is falling!" Very quickly, we adapted. Because that's what we do! You know, with substitution for what we could do before we find ways to create some semblance of that in the current moment. And one of the things that has been really gratifying and exciting to see is that even though we are generally meeting virtually to do our meetings and our events and our get-togethers and everything right now, I have absolutely seen people have that sense of spark. Even in some of the workshops and talks I've given where... a direct quote from the chat one time I saw that just warmed my heart. Someone wrote in the chat, "Oh my gosh. I already want to be friends with some of the people who just shared in the main room!" Like on the big group screen, where people were obviously sharing something personal about their life, and we're all talking about friendship together and how people feel and right away, as people get a sense of who this other person is, what they value, what their personality is. There can be that same sense of spark and that same sense of not just curiosity, but a desire to get to know that person and to build something in friendship with them. Jorge: And do you know what happened? Did they follow up on that? Kat: I don't know. I usually... at that moment, I'm like, "Hey, if there is someone you want to talk to like trade contact information, don't just let the call end and let it slip away!" A lot of people hold themselves back from creating the friendships they want, because they're scared to initiate. And so, I often say if you are open to friendship, don't be ashamed to say, like, "I really loved getting to meet you all. I would love to connect again. Here's my email!" Do that because most people don't do it. And the ones who do are likely to have greater success. Because again, they, don't just... it's not ephemeral. The call doesn't just end and then everyone's back to just being alone in their apartments. They have some way to reconnect again. Jorge: I've been part of a few virtual cocktail hours during pandemic time. And the way they usually manifest is as Zoom meetings primarily, where you get this all-up view where you see everyone's thumbnails of everyone's video feed on the screen at the same time. And the quality of the conversation is very different than in a physical cocktail party or environment, right? Like, you're not able to as easily break off into little groups and catch up with folks. And it sounds to me from what you're describing here that the times you've seen it happen, this kind of serendipitous meeting of someone else, it's happening in an environment that has been consciously structured to enable that. Is that true? Kat: Absolutely. Environments for friendship Jorge: Could you describe to us what that looks like? Kat: It all comes down to intention. It all comes down to envisioning before you even begin, what is the outcome that you want for people to have and similar to what we talked about earlier, what are the environmental conditions that you can create that will allow that outcome to emerge most naturally and seamlessly. So, certainly everybody's getting tired of Zoom but there's other tools that are available and there's other ways to use these tools. One of the things I've done when I've had some small groups get together over Zoom is I simply tell people like in real life, we were in a room together, if you were in my living room, you would not be on mute. You would have the freedom to speak at will, and you don't need my permission to ask to unmute. And I understand that in say an all-hands meeting at a company with a thousand people, do you need people to be on mute, because there's going to be a lot of background noise. But if you're getting like a social gathering together or something to connect with other people? Everybody go off mute! Talk when you feel like talking! It's fine if you bump into each other and someone interrupts somebody else, because guess what? That happens in real life too! It's okay. It doesn't have to be awkward because that's what natural conversation looks like in person as well sometimes. So, I challenge people to really think about the way that you use the tool and make sure that you're defining how the tool is used and the tool is not defining how you show up. And with that, as I mentioned before, bring intention to how you want people to connect. One of the things that I do in a community that I run called Connection Club, is providing opportunities for the members to get to build more closeness with each other. And sometimes that needs to happen in a one-on-one conversation. So, I'll split people off into one-on-ones. Also, in sometimes a small group of three or four. But really keeping in mind, what does it look like when you have a set amount of time, a set prompt, or guiding conversation or guiding question and giving people the amount of space as well as the actual space in a breakout or whatnot, that will allow them to have enough time to go meaningfully into that subject and hear each other and share stories before they then rejoin the rest of the circle. Jorge: That's interesting, finding a way of adapting the tools so that it more closely mirrors the way that we're used to interacting in these social situations. One thing that I was wondering as I was reading the book — and it has to do with this issue that we're talking about here — this idea that we can be more intentional about how we make friends. And you spoke of the loneliness epidemic that is happening, and your case in particular, when you moved to the Bay area. And when one does a move like that, especially in the stage of life when one is working a lot of the time, and one's peers are also in that situation, it becomes harder to find the time, space, et cetera, for these kinds of serendipitous encounters to happen. A more intentional approach to friend-making And I'm just going to try to summarize the way that I understood it from the book, is that our transactional... kind of highly transactional way of being has somehow impaired our ability to make and maintain meaningful friendships, especially in adulthood. And the thing that I was struggling with, and which I wanted to get your perspective on, is how we might regain this ability without turning friend-making into yet another thing to check off our to-do lists, you know? It's almost like we're... it might feel like we're trying to do to friendship what we're doing to these other aspects of our lives. And I'm just wondering if that's a thing or how we might do it so that it feels more integrated with who we are as people. Kat: Yeah. I mean, the first thing I would say there is, don't treat it like a to-do list item, you know? Because if it feels like a checkbox to you, it's likely going to feel like a checkbox to the other person and nobody likes to feel like that. So, I would suggest checking in with one's intention and really clarifying for yourself, is your intention just to say like, "all right, I did my like one hour of friendship time this week, I'm done." Or is your intention to actually listen and connect and commune with another person? How do you want the other person to feel when that time is done? How can you show up as who you really are, in the open-endedness of getting together in a conversation or an activity or whatever may happen... because there is a certain open-endedness to this? You spoke to serendipity and spontaneity, and this is actually quite beneficial for friendship. One of the interesting pieces of research I include the book came from a report in the Washington Post that found that people were happier when they didn't assign their free time activities to a specific time slot in their calendar, and instead opted to do some of them spontaneously or in a non-specific window of time. One of the things they had people do was get ice cream with a friend. And some people were assigned to an exact day and time in advance. And they had that in their calendar like a lot of busy adults do. And other people didn't. They had it in this window and it was going to just happen spontaneously within that frame. And the people who had a more spontaneous ice cream with their friend reported enjoying it more and having more fun with their friend. So, things tend to feel less fun when they're scheduled. And so, adopting rough scheduling as opposed to strict scheduling is something that can lead to greater happiness in your own life and can also lead to greater feelings of spontaneity and play and enjoyment in your friendships as well. Jorge: I'm hearing two things and I love both of them. One is that there might be an inverse relation between the degree to which you structure these activities and the degree to which they add value to your life. And the other is that when you approach it, the intention matters, and it's not just about you somehow eradicating your own feelings of loneliness, but also providing the same for the other, right? So that you keep the other person's benefit front and center. Kat: And the more you immerse yourself in what is actually happening in that time that you're connecting with the other person, the more likely you are to feel the benefit. You know, when you're spending time sharing stories with a friend say, focus on their story, focus on them. Get curious. Ask follow-up questions and have that be the focus of your attention, rather than halfway listening and halfway being in your own head. Like, "do I feel less lonely right now? Do I feel less awkward right now?" Get out of that mental evaluation mode and get really immersed and real curious and interested in the other person. And that's actually when somebody feels heard. That's actually when somebody feels more connected is when you're really present and holding space with each other. Jorge: That's wonderful. Thank you for stating it like that. Kat: And two really, really small follow-up tips I want to give on that is that it's okay to tell a friend at the beginning of a conversation, like, "Ooh, I'm feeling really scrambled right now. I've had a really frazzled day, but I'm going to try to get present with you. I just want to acknowledge them feeling off right now." And let the other person know. Because if they pick up on it, they'll probably wonder why. And the other thing around scheduling too, is it doesn't require both people to agree to do something in a spontaneous way. I was going to have a phone call with a friend, and she was like, "what day and time should we do?" And I said, "I'm trying to schedule fewer things in my life, but here's some windows. And if you want to schedule it in your calendar, it's fine with me, but you can call me spontaneously within any of those windows. That's fine for me." So, I get to get the benefit I want, which is, "Hey, a spontaneous call from my friend!" And they get to get the benefits they want, which is like, "Oh, I have to put it at this time at this day." Jorge: That's great, and again, that makes me think back to your work as an experience designer in that it's trying to give the other person the experience that is ideal to them while allowing you to also get the one that is ideal to you. Kat: Yes! Closing Jorge: So that's great Kat, and that strikes me as a good place for us to wrap up the conversation. Where can folks follow up with you? Because I feel like there are the books, but there's more to it than that, no? Kat: Oh, yeah, for sure. So, the books are there. We Should Get Together obviously is about creating better friendships. Connected from Afar gives you 25 weeks of activities to do with a friend from a distance. And if people want to get more from me, I have so much more to give. So, one is subscribe to my newsletter; that's at Every week I send out tips and guidance around how to show up as a better friend and a better community member in your immediate area or in our larger world. And so, advice and resources are always going out about that. I also have an ongoing events list at my website where I always have something coming up. They can join Connection Club, or they can hop into an upcoming workshop or talk that I'm doing. And I also am available if people want me to come and give a talk at their conference or their company or their community organization. That's also an option as well. Jorge: And I would advise that folks should not pass up that opportunity, because this is an important subject and one that people need to know more about, especially in these days when folks are spending so much time apart from others. Thank you so much Kat, for being with us on the show and sharing it with us. Kat: Thank you so much for having me here, Jorge, and this was really quite lovely. It was great to share this with you.

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Matt LeMay is a product management consultant and author. He’s a co-founder and partner at Sudden Compass, which helps companies reconnect with their customers and helps teams focus on addressing human needs. He’s the author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice. In this conversation, Matt shares with us One Page / One Hour, his pledge to make project collaboration more agile. Listen to the show Download episode 59 Show notes Matt LeMay Sudden Compass One Page / One Hour Tricia Wang The Anatomy of an Amazon 6-pager Designstaq Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Matt, welcome to the show. Matt: Jorge, thank you so much for having me. Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you please introduce yourself? About Matt Matt: Sure! So, my name is Matt LeMay. I'm a partner at a collective consultancy called Sudden Compass. My career has been kind of all over the place. I was a professional musician in my early twenties and a music writer. I worked in marketing for nonprofits. I accidentally became a product manager and made so many mistakes, mistakes that keep giving in the sense that I am still learning and sharing lessons from the many mistakes I made as a product manager. And now I'm mostly helping teams manage the way they work together to solve problems, which is really, I think, the thread that's run through everything I've done from being a musician and working with my band, to being a product manager and working with developers and designers, to being a coach and consultant and working with cross-functional teams that span marketing and sales and everything else. Jorge: Well, that makes me super intrigued. What are the connections between managing the work of creating music and product management? Matt: Yeah, that's a great question. And it's kind of the question that got me into product management in the first place. When I was in a band and kind of informally managing the band, a lot of the work I did was managing specialized skills. You know, our bass player was a really good bass player. I didn't know how to play bass like that, but I knew where we needed to go. When we worked with mastering engineers and mixing engineers, I didn't know how to do that work, but I knew what we needed to deliver. It was a lot of managing complex specialized work to achieve some outcome, which spanned both emotional outcomes, creative outcomes — and though they were hardly in the super exciting range — business outcomes as well. We needed to be able to at least break even when we were going on tour in order to have any plausible defensibility to continue going on tour, which was something we really wanted to do. So, a lot of what I learned was about how to motivate and communicate and coordinate specialized work in the service of creating something that nobody could create on their own. And really that's a lot of what I was able to bring... when I was doing well as a product manager, what I was able to bring to that experience was... you know, I've told people that when I was a musician, convincing four tired people to wake up at six in the morning to drive from Columbus, Ohio to Dayton, Ohio, and play a concert for 10 people and lose money on it, it was a great team motivation challenge. You have to really learn why people are doing what they're doing. What they're excited about, how to get people through difficult times, how to get people excited about the work that they're doing, even when that work isn't really giving them the kind of external validation that I think we all want. So, in a lot of senses, I think software product management is much easier than being a musician. And in other ways, it's more challenging. Jorge: I'm not a musician myself, but I would imagine that musicians also have like their own expression that they want to bring to the project. And somehow balancing the personal needs of the individual with the overall needs of the group must also be a factor, no? Matt: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, It's kind of a joke among mixing engineers. But when you've got a band in a room and they're finishing a record, everybody just wants their own instrument to be louder. And at a certain point, if you make all the instruments louder then everything sounds quieter. If you're not willing to be subtractive, then everything you add actually makes the finished product weaker and less focused and less compelling. Which I think is very true in product development as well. If everybody has their feature that they want to build, if everybody wants to highlight their own individual contributions, you very quickly get to a point where the thing you're building no longer makes any sense. Where if you can't prioritize, if you can't think systematically and then think structurally about how everybody's contributions come together to create something new and meaningful, then you wind up with something which is just a collection of features, or a collection of ideas that really don't coalesce into something interesting or powerful, or that solves a problem. So, I've been on both sides of that one. I've been the person saying, "make my instrument louder in the mix!" I've been the person doing the mix and trying to manage a band full of of people saying, "make my instrument louder in the mix." I think both in music creation and in software product management, you really learn to recognize the power of subtraction. That the most meaningful work you can do is often subtractive work, not additive work. That constraints and subtractions and blank spaces are really what define the work that you're doing more so than features and additions and things that you add in. One Page / One Hour Jorge: That is a perfect segue to the reason why I wanted to talk with you, which is that I saw something that you built called, "One Page / One Hour." And I was hoping you could tell us about that. Matt: Sure. So, One Page / One Hour... I'll give you the kind of brief backstory. In my coaching work, I spend a lot of time talking to product managers who are torn between two things. Between on the one hand, the work that they believe is going to deliver outcomes for their team, their customers, and their business. And on the other hand, the work that they believe is going to bring them recognition and praise as individuals. And these two things are almost always in some degree of tension with each other. Because in a lot of cases, for product managers, the most meaningful work you can do leaves no trace. That leaves no deliverable. There's nothing you can point to and say, "I did this." Instead, your team's success is your success. Your team's work is your work. And for product managers who... many of us tend to be overachievers. Tend to be, you know, people who are very accomplishment and recognition-driven. This creates a real tension. As if you'd make, for example, a beautiful 20 slide deck and present it to company leadership, then you are likely to get praise and recognition. However, all that time and effort you spent on that beautiful 20 slide deck is likely not going up in the product. It's not resulting in any value for your customers. And I've seen product managers who will, for example, pull visual designers off of product design and have them help them design the deck, and walk out of that presentation, feeling validated and accomplished, even though they've just spent tens, if not hundreds of hours on something which doesn't actually deliver any value to the customer and only marginally delivers value to the business. So, in my coaching work, I found myself advising a lot of product managers to start really small, make something that is incomplete and messy, bring it to your team and then work together to co-create from there. I brought this experience to Trisha [Wang] and Sonny Bates, our other partner, and they both kind of smirked at me. And I said, "why are you smirking at me? What's that look?" And they said, "Matt, you are worse about this than anyone we know! You are always showing up — just in our internal meetings -with these beautiful, like 20 page, 'look at this incredible workshop plan I put together!' You are the thirstiest person we have ever worked with in terms of wanting feedback and wanting that validation! And it's funny, but good that you are realizing in your coaching work that that is not the most productive pattern." So, I thought about that for a second, and I said, "you are absolutely right. I need to shift this." Because Trisha is a genius and a powerhouse and I want her to be impressed by the work I'm doing. I want her to be like, "Matt, you're smart. I feel good about working with you." So, I realized that if we wanted to change that behavior, we needed to change the incentives. In other words, we needed to create a situation where if I showed up with something too finished and polished and impressive, I would actually get negative feedback, not positive feedback. So, I wrote up this pledge to my business partners saying I'm willing to forego the sense of individual accomplishment that comes from presenting finished and polished deliverables to my colleagues. I promise that I will spend no more than one page and one hour working on any deliverable — any document — before I bring it to the team. In other words, if I show up with five beautifully formatted pages or a one-page that took me 10 hours to create, I want you to hold me accountable to that. I want you to say, "man, why did you do this? We made a deal. We made a commitment to each other! We all know that if we actually want to deliver value, if we want to do valuable work, we need to collaborate earlier on. You can't go off onto your own and create this big thing, and then just want us to tell you how great it is!" So, I did this and massive credit to Tricia who said, "publish this!" Who said, "put this out there. This is not just for you. This is really gonna make a difference." So, we put together a One Page / One Hour website and we've been putting it out there and it's been just incredible to see folks from so many different organizations, people who I have never spoken to, who so far as I know, have never attended a talk I've given, just find this and share it with each other and take this pledge, which now has over a hundred people from over 75 organizations all over the world committed to spending no more than One Page / One Hour on anything before sharing it with their colleagues. Jorge: That's really awesome. And it's... well, proof that it works: it's how I came to you, right? Matt: I hope so. Jorge: I feel totally identified with the problem as you described it. I too am very thirsty for that kind of adulation that comes from making something beautiful — and perhaps overwrought — if I am hearing correctly, the spirit of it. And you're describing it as a tool to collaborate with your colleagues. I'm wondering, as a consultant, if the boundary for collaboration stops with your team, or if you also extend this to your customers as well? Your clients. Because I'll just say, like, in my case, I feel most compelled to share the beautiful thing when I'm presenting to the customer, right? Matt: You know, it's funny. I used to do a lot of training work in ad agencies. And I would talk to them a lot about how to do paper prototyping in particular, how to do really low fidelity prototyping. And they would all say the same thing, which is, "yeah, this is great, but we could never show this to a client. We can never sketch something on the back of a napkin and show it to a client." They would say, "why isn't this finished? Why isn't this beautiful?" And I kept thinking to myself, I'm also training and coaching a lot of the companies that are your clients... people are pretty capable of understanding if you show them a sketch on the back of a napkin that it's not intended to be something finished and polished. People are actually much more open to seeing unfinished and to participating in the co-creation of unfinished things than I think we think they're going to be. And one thing I've found really helpful about One Page / One Hour is especially since it's one of our calling cards as a consultancy now, it gives us a way to present unfinished, unpolished deliverables to clients that feels purposeful. Where rather than just showing them something and saying, "yeah, here's what we did. Whatever." We're letting them in on this little operational secret of ours. We're saying, "we have this guiding principle called One Page / One Hour, and we're going to agree to this with you. So, you're always going to be in on the ground floor with us. We're never going to bring something to you, which you're going to have to feel even remotely guilty about ripping apart." We did a One Page / One Hour exercise with a client once where they were 75 pages into an organizational transformation plan. And they had brought us on to help them with this plan. And we said, "tell you what, what if we do a One Page / One Hour pass, just synthesizing this down. You put together all ... this big thing. We're going to just spend One Page / One Hour reading your 75-slide deck, distilling it down and reflecting it back to you." And they said, "sure, why not?" So, first of all, it's very hard to read a 75-slide deck in one hour, which already helped them understand that asking everybody in their company to read a 75 slide deck means that you're asking people for a lot of their time. But we did our best to distill this down, and we presented it back to this leadership group. And they got furious. They said, "this is not what we intended at all. We don't want people to take this away. We don't want people to take that away. You captured this idea, which is totally the opposite of what we wanted." And we said, "Great. Hey, if this is the best we can come up within one hour, then there's probably some contradictions in this document you put together. What may have happened is that you have a leadership team, which can't actually agree on some of these things. So, each person just puts 10 slides in there. Those 10 slides are totally in conflict with each other, but because you can always add more, you haven't actually identified that conflict. You've just worked around it." And they said, "huh. You're right. This is really... this is really helpful!" but then something really interesting happened. They started saying, "well, but you know, don't worry. We don't have to throw out the work you did. It's great. We realized...." I said, "I don't care! I literally spent an hour on this. You know, how long I spent on this!" How many times have you done an hour of something? If the takeaway from this one hour is that you need to align as a group and work within constraints to actually resolve these conflicts? Then it's a success, even if we throw it out. So, it's been really helpful, not just to work in this One Page / One Hour way with clients, but to share with them why and how we're doing this. To let them in — into this world of One Page / One Hour, so when they receive an unfinished, unpolished deliverable, there's no chance that they'll think, "why is this unfinished and unpolished?" They understand that they've been inducted into this world of One Page / One Hour and they feel really awesome because they're seeing this work better for them too, and they're like, "wow, I get to participate in this in a different way!" So, there's that meta layer on top of the One Page / One Hour pledge where it's not just the way of working, but it's the conversation and the agreement to the way of working that also clears and creates a different kind of space for collaboration, including with clients and customers. Modes of communication Jorge: Sounds like a little bit of a jiujitsu move, where you take what is potentially a liability and turn it into an asset, right? And it speaks to this shifting of incentives that you spoke of earlier. I'm wondering what that does to the intensity of communications. Because obviously if you're spending less time working on the artifact and sharing it more quickly, that speaks to a higher volume of messaging. And is that an issue? How does that get managed here? Matt: I'm so glad you asked that question because part of the point of One Page / One Hour is to force us out of our comfort zone a little bit. Is to get us having those conversations with other people before we're sure about the path that we're taking. Before we're confident in the deliverable we're creating. And that is emotionally difficult. It forces people into a very challenging mode of communication. And as I coach more teams through this, I'm just appreciating that much more. That in a sense, One Page / One Hour also forces you to level up your communication skills. It forces you to get more comfortable communicating when you don't have control. This has been a big theme in so many of the conversations I've been having with teams in the last couple of weeks is: what does it mean to be willing to give up control? When are we truly willing to give up control? When are we willing to let someone else see something we're working on before we feel confident enough in it that we would do that necessarily of our own accord, if we hadn't made this commitment to each other? I think that's really one of the biggest challenges around this, and one of the reasons why it's so hard to keep up with it is that we do have to be forced into... I think you're right: a more intense form of communication, a more vulnerable form of communication, a form of communication where we don't know what the outcome is going to be going into a conversation nor are we trying to convince or persuade or sell people into an outcome. We are genuinely open to things going in an unexpected direction. And the value of that is pretty clear and straightforward. But the challenge of that is something that I think people often underestimate until they find themselves having to do it themselves. Jorge: One method that I was reminded of when I read about One Page / One Hour is Amazon's 6-page memo idea. And the main similarity there is that it feels like they both impose constraints on the format in which things are going to be. It time boxes the activity, and also constrains the format in which it's going to be presented. As I understand the 6-page memo, the idea there is that it'd be shared prior to meeting so that people have an opportunity to review that. And I'm wondering if there are any communication best practices around One Page / One Hour that would be analogous to that. Matt: That is another great question. It's funny. To me, the big differentiator between the narrative memo per Amazon and One Page / One Hour? Well, two things. Number one: One Page / One Hour includes that explicit time box. You cannot spend more than an hour. The trap I've fallen into with narrative memos as a writer is that I can spend forever writing a page. It's funny, the program I was in in college had a one-page maximum on all papers. It was sort of a critical theory, very like, post-modern studies kind of program. And a lot of people would take it because all the papers were a maximum of one page. So how hard could it be? It turns out it is really hard, especially when you're working with really complex ideas. So, for me personally, if I just have a format constraint, I'll spend way too long trying to make it perfect. So, it's the duality of the format and the time constraint that I've found really helpful for me to not let myself negotiate out of the constraint. The other thing is that One Page doesn't need to be one page of text. One page can be one page that you've sketched out. It can be one drawing with some text around it. You know, I work with people who are very visual. I'm not a very visual person. But One Page / One Hour can be one page of visuals. It can be one slide. You can use visuals within that format to communicate between people who are more words-oriented and people who are more visuals-oriented. As to the question of how to share it, the timing of this is perfect. I've been using this technique a lot, which I'm planning to write up later today called the "Synchronous Sandwich." The synchronous sandwich is how I've been structuring almost every meeting and activity that I do remotely in particular. And a synchronous sandwich is: an asynchronous pre-read, a synchronous meeting, and an asynchronous follow-up. In other words, you send something through as a pre-read, using a lot of these same concepts. So, you time box how long you expect somebody to take to send the pre-read and how long it will take them to read the pre-read. Then you work through the document or do something synchronously together, and then you send through a follow-up or a revised copy of that deliverable or whatever it is afterwards. I've been really lucky because in a lot of my coaching work, I've worked with people who are not afraid to raise questions and challenges. And when I started doing more of this synchronous working through things, some of the people I coached said, "you know, for me personally, I need a little time to think about it before we go into a meeting. I don't like being on the spot. I don't like showing up and you're asking me something I haven't had a chance to think about until we're in the meeting together." So, I found that that synchronous sandwich format gives people who need a little bit of time to process offline, a chance to do so. You're really structuring and using that synchronous time well, and then you have a chance to follow up afterwards. A lot of the day-long whiteboard-y type sessions I used to do in person are now three, one and a half hour synchronous sandwiches. We have a chance to pre-read work together, regroup, pre-read, work together, regroup, and... it works really well with One Page / One Hour-style documents so that we can actually work through the document, edit the document together synchronously, and still have a chance to do some of that preparation and pre-reading asynchronously. Granularity of problems Jorge: That makes a lot of sense, and this sounds like a really good approach. I love this idea of the synchronous sandwich. It sounds like something that can be applied even to other ways of working, you know, beyond the One Page / One Hour. I'm wondering if there are some types of... I don't like using the word "problems?" But some types of issues that you're working around that lend themselves better to the One Page / One Hour approach than others? And I'm wondering specifically about granularity. If there are some... I'll use the word problems, why not? That are small enough to be dealt with in a One Page / One Hour format versus others that are so huge that maybe you need to pull back too far for it to be useful. Matt: It's so it's so funny because that was how I approached this work at first as well. I was thinking of it for more granular issues One Page / One Hour would be a more accessible and more valuable approach. A year into this, I actually feel the exact opposite way. That the bigger and more strategic and more high-level something is, the more important it is that you take this One Page / One Hour approach and involve more people earlier on. I've been finding myself in a lot of coaching conversations with product managers, hearing people say to me, “we've got to put together a strategy for my team. So, I need two weeks to come up with a strategy.” Which is dangerous when you think about it, because if one person goes off for two weeks and crafts this impeccable-seeming team strategy, the team might not feel invested in it. But that person who came up with it is going to feel really invested in it. So, I've been finding for some of these high level, really big picture challenges, One Page / One Hour is actually the best possible approach. I've had some coaching conversations where I'll say to our product manager, "all right, we've got a half hour left on the call. Let's draft our strategy now. Who are we solving for? What problems are we trying to solve? How will we know if we've solved them? Great. Bring that to the team and see what they think!" So, the kind of paradox of One Page / One Hour is that the bigger and more difficult to granular-ize a problem seems? The more transformative a One Page / One Hour approach can be, which has genuinely surprised me. Closing Jorge: That is so exciting to hear that and intriguing. And I also think that it is a good place for us to wrap the conversation. I definitely want to learn more and I'm expecting that folks listening in want to as well. Where can folks follow up with you? Matt: Yeah. So is the website. We just worked with the fantastic team at Design Stack to revamp the site. So, we now have some templates and resources, some kind of "One Page / One Hour — Getting Started" if you are somebody who is terrified of a blank page, as many of us are. You can see a list of all the people who've taken the pledge. You can take the pledge yourself and add your name to the website. I am still — manually, I receive an email every time somebody takes the pledge and I go into our website and add their name and go into MailChimp and add their email address, if they've requested so. You can join the mailing list where we communicate with each other and share our own experiences and tips and tricks. So, is definitely the place to start. Jorge: Fantastic. Matt, thank you so much for being with us. Matt: Thank you so much. This was such a great conversation. I appreciated the questions very much.

11 abr

26 min 4 seg

Jesse James Garret is a renowned leader in the user experience design field. He’s a co-founder of the influential UX consultancy Adaptive Path and author of The Elements of User Experience. These days, Jesse coaches UX design leaders. In this conversation, we discuss the relationship between leadership and information architecture. Listen to the show Download episode 58 Show notes Jesse James Garrett’s website @jjg on Twitter Jesse James Garrett on LinkedIn The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web and Beyond, 2nd Edition by Jesse James Garrett Peter Merholz Finding Our Way podcast MacGuffin Concept map Mind maps Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Jesse, welcome to the show. Jesse: It's good to be here. Thank you. Jorge: Well, it's my pleasure and honor to have you on the show as a guest. I don't imagine that there are too many folks in the audience who don't know you, but for those who don't, would you please tell us about yourself? About Jesse Jesse: Sure! I'm Jesse James Garrett. I have been working as a professional in the user experience field for, 20 years or so now. If I am known to you at all, I am probably known to you, dear listener, from my book, The Elements of User Experience, which was published in 2002, or the work of my company Adaptive Path, which I co-founded in 2001 and was a part of through its acquisition by Capital One in 2014. I now work as an independent leadership coach working with leaders of UX design teams. Jorge: And as we're recording this, I believe that the founding of Adaptive Path happened 20 years ago. Jesse: Yeah! Yeah, yesterday was the 20th anniversary of the launch, a fun milestone to reflect on. Jorge: Well, the influence that the work has had both in Adaptive Path and The Elements of User Experience is palpable in the field. I occasionally still run into people who bring that diagram — "The Elements of UX" — bring it up so many years later, and it's an artifact that has proven long-lived. And I'm wondering if you have any thoughts on why that might be. On the longevity of The Elements of UX Jesse: It's a little bit of a mystery because Elements seems to have an enduring appeal to people that other similar models don't seem to have that kind of traction. I think that part of it is that I tried with the model to capture — as much as possible — to capture the things that I thought were less likely to change. Although I put the date really prominently at the top of the document when I first published it, in part because I was expecting to update it. I was thoroughly expecting there to be multiple versions and each one would have a date stamp and there would be iterations and evolutions of the model. But then when people started using it and getting really attached to it, I changed my mind about it and felt like I should really leave well enough alone and not tinker with it too much. I've made some little adjustments to the language that I use in the model over time, but the model itself has stayed the same. And I think the fact that people keep picking it up and putting it into practice is surprising to me as it is to anybody, I think. Jorge: Apart from minor tweaks to the language, do you feel like the model stands up overall? Even today? Jesse: Well, I do really think that if it didn't people wouldn't be using it if it didn't produce some sort of positive result... It may not be the positive result I intended. Yeah, I mean, there's a lot more to be said than what is encapsulated in that model. It is intended to provide a basic level framework and obviously there's a lot more complexity to what it takes to actually get those things done. And there is a lot of nuance to how these issues play out. So yeah, in some ways it's not my call as to whether or not the model is still relevant. It's like, it's up to other people as far as I can see. Jorge: Well, that's as good enough as any test for relevance, right? Whether people are using it or not. And for any listeners who might not know what we're talking about, this is a model that describes the work of user experience as happening in... would it be fair to call it five distinct layers? Jesse: Yeah. I call them 'planes' in the book, but it's a visualization. It's this sort of layer cake, sort of visualization of all of the considerations that go into UX work. Jorge: And they range from strategy at the lowest plane, scope, structure, skeleton and surface, which is the stuff that we see when we interact with a product that has been designed. Information architecture and leadership Now, I asked you to come on the show, not to talk about The Elements of User Experience, but because you and your fellow Adaptive Path co-founder and our mutual friend, Peter Merholz recently wrapped up what I'm describing as the first season of your podcast, Finding Our Way, and you and Peter had a conversation in that final episode where you synthesized the things you'd learned in the course of that first season. And you made a statement, you said, and I'm going to quote you back to you now, which is always nerve wracking! You said, "I think leaders are of necessity, orchestrators of systems. And systems instantiate knowledge as information architecture within them. So, the IA that gets embedded and coded, baked into your systems, becomes the way that the organization understands the world. And so, it is on the leader to imbue, infuse, enrich that IA with as complex and nuanced and understanding as they possibly can." There's a lot there... Jesse: I believe that statement. So, so that's a good test. Jorge: That's great. But I feel like there's a lot there to unpack and I wanted to talk about it with you. The context of the podcast, Finding Our Way, is about design leadership, but this strikes me as a statement that might apply to leaders in any field. Jesse: I believe that's true. I believe that any leader, anyone who gives direction to people in an organization, is on some level a steward of the organization's understanding of the problems that the team is trying to solve. And that understanding — when that gets systematized -information architecture is systematized understanding; it takes the associations between ideas that give meaning to human endeavor, human behavior, the world, and makes that concrete in ways that systems can then use. So that knowledge, that insight, can be scaled. And a lot of organizations run into trouble when their information architectures internally don't match the nuances and the complexities of the problems that they're trying to solve. Either problems that they're trying to solve for users or problems that they're trying to solve as a business. Businesses are often getting caught flat footed by market trends that they didn't see coming because they weren't paying attention to the right signals. Because those signals weren't part of the fabric of their understanding of the problem that they were facing. So yes, absolutely. We were talking about the context of design leadership specifically because that's what the mission of that show is. But yeah, I completely agree with you. It is something that I think is a part of what leaders do for organizations is give shape to the ways that organizations, hold onto the ephemeral meaning that otherwise just lives in the heads of the people in the organization. Jorge: Now, this is something that has been happening for way longer than we've had the phrase 'information architecture' and I'm wondering if there are any practices, tools perhaps, that have been around for a while that might point to this function of leadership, as a going concern for leaders. Jesse: It's an interesting question because honestly, a lot of the sensitivity to this stuff, when you're talking about what data does an organization collect, what systems does an organization put in place to make sense of the data that it has collected — this kind of stuff often ends up being the domain of like IT and business analytics and people who do some serious number crunching, which is fine and great. And, in the case of a lot of organizations... I've done a lot of work with financial services organizations. Insurance companies are fascinating in this respect because the actuarial tables rule all, in that business. And the keepers of the actuarial tables really are, expressing a point of view about what constitutes risk in the world. Jorge: And that is a formal structure of information that is stewarded by someone in the org, right? Jesse: Yeah. It's the foundation of the business. If your actuarial tables, as an insurance company, don't reflect the reality of things, then you're a bad insurance company, because you're likely to take on risks that you shouldn't. Jorge: What this implies for folks who are either in positions of leadership or aspiring to be in such positions, is that A) they need to embrace systems thinking, right? A systemic perspective of the work. And the other is that it would behoove them to look for the structures that best articulate the core of the business somehow. And there are formal information structures in a lot of organizations. You've pointed out that in the case of insurance, they're very manifest, but what you're saying there resonates for me in other fields as well. Jesse: Yeah. It's definitely something that I saw in my consulting career across, a lot of different kinds of organizations. I feel like every organization has its own sort of arbiter of truth, internally. I think one thing that we've been doing for a long time as UX practitioners, or at least, one thing that we often did as UX consultants was encourage the leaders that we were working with to step into storytelling as a tool to be able to make their case for what they wanted to do from a design perspective. Storytelling is a sense-making activity. It's a way of giving people an understanding of the world. It's very similar to information architecture in that way. So, for leaders of any stripe, whether you're leading a design team or whether you're leading any other kind of team, to take a step back and ask myself, "Where am I the sense-maker for the organization? Where am I the one who is interpreting and giving meaning to information?" And sometimes that is happening largely in Slack or emails to the team or other kinds of communications, and sometimes that's happening in the context of more formal data structures like you and I have been talking about. So, if the leader is noticing and attending to sense-making as a core part of the value that they bring to the organization as a leader, then they can look across their communications and the various pools of data that they may be responsible for tending and to interpret what they're doing in terms of creating more robust and more nuanced and more accurate information structures. Jorge: I'm hearing two things there. One is that leaders need to have the wherewithal to understand the organization, its context, its goals, its way of being in the world — understand it in some kind of systematic way. And the other thing I'm hearing is that they also need to be able to reflect that understanding back to the organization — through things like stories — in ways that affect how the team understands what they're doing, basically. Jesse: Yes. It gives meaning to the team's activities by placing those activities in a larger frame — a larger context. IA as MacGuffin Jorge: In my experience in interacting with teams and organizations and their leadership, I get the sense that these two functions — the "let's first structure the environment for ourselves, and then, let's think about how we share that structure with others" — they're happening, to greater or lesser degrees, in different organizations. But they're happening somewhat informally. Like, I haven't seen too many processes to say, "let's now draw up the information architecture for what we're doing here." Usually, when people talk about information architecture, it happens in the context of redesigning the website or making changes to the navigation structure of our apps or what have you. And in some ways, those projects end up being kind of MacGuffin for these deeper conversations that need to happen. And I'm wondering if there's a way to overcome that gap where we do information architecture more explicitly in service of having the organization understand itself better, or the team understand itself better and its role. Jesse: Yes. I have done work like that in the guise of process work, that engaging with a team, trying to understand what the different elements of the team are, what each element of the team is intended to accomplish, how those pieces are supposed to work together. In order to engineer any kind of a process like that, that has to be rooted in an understanding at a conceptual level of what are the factors that go into play in producing whatever the team is there to produce. Or achieving whatever the team is attempting to achieve. And how are you making sure that all those factors are accounted for? And how are you setting priorities among those things? These are all decisions that inform the process work, but that's not the process work. That's the IA work that underlies the process work. Jorge: Is this more of a top-down or a bottom-up effort? Jesse: I think of it as being more of a top-down effort, just because I am... I've been thinking a lot about stewardship as one of the elements of leadership that we don't really talk about. Which is that you have a group of people and a set of resources in your care as a leader. And that creates certain obligations from my perspective, on you as a leader, to ensure that you pass those things along to the next leader in the healthiest possible state that you can. And that means looking out for your team. It also means looking out for your processes. It also means looking out for your systems. And it also means looking out for that deep, underlying understanding that drives all of those things. I mean, where are leaders doing that information architecture work right now? I'd say they're doing it every time they structure a document that presents to their executive leadership what they want to try to accomplish with their work. Jorge: What that hints at — to me at least — is the fact that this storytelling function that you were talking about earlier — the part that has to do with sharing with the rest of the organization, the understanding that we have of our own understanding — that act of telling the story influences the understanding. It's like the two are related, right? Jesse: Yeah. Jorge: There's a feedback cycle happening, where you put it out there, you say, "well, this is how we see things." And maybe your peers and other groups might say, "no, it's not like that at all. From our perspective, it looks like this!" And that tweaks your own architecture, no? Jesse: Yeah, I mean when we talk about cross-functional collaboration, what we're often talking about is the process of aligning the differing information architectures. The differing models understanding of the problem that these cross-functional teams have. That the design team has one understanding of a problem, technology team has a different understanding of the problem, business folks have a third different understanding of the problem. These things need to be reconciled in order for those teams to move toward a common goal together. So, we don't end up with the design team is designing a car, but the engineering team is building a submarine while the business folks have sold to the senior leadership that we're building an airplane! Jorge: This is such important work, and it strikes me — just in hearing you describe it — that it's something that happens often as a side effect of other initiatives. It's not like you set out to explicitly build that understanding and compare the delta with the understanding of that other org. It's more that both of you are tasked with collaborating on something and the process of collaboration is what surfaces these distinctions. Jesse: It forces it! Yeah. You're not really doing it as a separate explicit step because it's part of everything you have to do as a leader, in a lot of ways. Leadership as a design problem Jorge: It feels to me like we're talking kind of in the abstract when we talk about these understandings. And when we say that somebody is presenting to their colleagues, what might come to mind is something like a slide deck, right? And folks tend to gravitate towards things that they can see and understand. And the slide deck might be the manifestation of this understanding, but it's not... it might not be its purest expression. And I'm thinking of things like concept maps, where we map out our understanding of a domain, just not even for sharing with others, but to understand it ourselves. And I'm wondering if in the process of stewarding this understanding of who we are, what we do, what our role is, how we're structured, what our processes are... I'm wondering if there are artifacts that could embody that kind of abstract understanding? Jesse: I think so much of it depends on the leader. And I feel like what you're reaching for, or suggesting, is a mode of leadership that is really kind of an IA-centered or an IA-driven leader. And that's a very interesting idea to me. I haven't met one. You know, I would say I have met some leaders who, because of their experience with collaborative ideation processes, are used to getting their ideas out in a way that is still abstract. You talked about concept maps. That's a great example. Mind mapping is a tool that I've seen business leaders use. That is definitely an information architecture tool. You're doing an IA process when you're engaging with mind mapping. But they wouldn't necessarily think of that as IA work. And they don't necessarily make it central to how they analyze problems or make decisions. The people that I've worked with who have been those kinds of leadership roles tend to be a little bit more constrained and not have formal tools for getting their ideas out. They just communicate. And they do it in the context of structuring and organizing their communications. And a lot of times, that is what is foisted upon them by the communications culture of the organization. I have worked with organizations where there were such strong cultural... Taboos around what you could and could not do in the context of a slide deck. Where, you know, like I had worked with an organization, for example, where if you had anything that was going to the board of directors, the Deck had to follow a very specific structure and format. And if your idea needed more than three to five basic sections to express that idea, your idea was not ready for the board of directors. Because they were consuming so much content from across a very large organization, they needed everything encapsulated and summarized and standardized so that they could make the decisions that they had to make. But what that forced on the entire organization was a communication style that drove out nuance. Drove out conversation. Drove out a lot of what you're talking about, which is that moment to moment flexibility in the decision-making process that you know, for a lot of decisions is utterly necessary. Jorge: Yeah, it comes back to this notion of top-down versus bottom-up, right? Because the implication there is that there is a level of nuance that is inappropriate for folks at this level. And that's a questionable stance, I think. Jesse: Yeah. Jorge: So, you advise leaders, you advise folks who are stepping into leadership. How would someone who is either in a leadership position or looking to get into leadership, how could they develop these particular muscles? Jesse: The way that I talk to folks about design leadership, who have come from a design background -that is to say they've been doing design work — is that leadership is just another design problem. And you're working with different materials and you're working toward different outcomes and you're having to follow different principles, but the task is the same task. It is a creative problem-solving task. It is a systems-thinking task, as a leader. So, looking at the ways that you're already doing that systems-thinking, the ways in which you already doing that architecture for yourself in the work that you're already doing, and those will be your strengths. And those will be the pillars that you can lean on that are going to support your work as a leader going forward. They will evolve and they will not look like what they looked like when you were doing content inventories or task flows or whatever other artifacts you might've been working on as a designer. But the skill set that you're building is the same skill set. Jorge: So, it's in you, you just have to recognize it as such, and build into it. Which is kind of what we've been talking about, right? Getting the sensitivity to read the environment and articulate it in a structured way. Jesse: And also, to remain true to your own perspective. You know, I see a lot of people who step into leadership for the first time, and they start trying to emulate what they've seen of other leaders. Which is a totally natural thing to do. It makes total sense. However, every effective leader leads from their own strengths and recognizes that those strengths are going to be different from the strengths of the people around them, and leverages that difference. And leaders who try to emulate modes of leadership that don't suit their natural abilities, they struggle. And they create a lot of hardship for themselves that they don't need to have if they could just believe that they already had the power. Because I believe they do. Closing Jorge: Well, that strikes me as a fabulous place for us to wrap this conversation. It's an empowering exhortation to folks to be themselves and develop their own powers. Thank you so much for that, Jesse. Where can folks follow up with you? Jesse: You can find me on Twitter. I'm @jjg. I'm also on LinkedIn from time to time these days. You can find our podcast, Finding Our Way, at, and you can find out more about my coaching practice at Jorge: Well, thank you so much, Jesse. It's been a real treat having you on the show. Jesse: Thanks, Jorge! It's been fun.

28 mar

29 min 14 seg

In his consulting practice, Ben Mosior teaches Wardley Mapping, a tool for visualizing strategic intent. In this conversation, we dive into Wardley Maps: what they are and how they can help us make better strategic decisions.   Listen to the show   Download episode 57   Show notes   Learn Wardley Mapping @HiredThought on Twitter The Phoenix Project by Kevin Behr Leading Edge Forum Wardley maps: Topographical intelligence in business by Simon Wardley The Art of War by Sun Tzu How to Read a Wardley Map video   Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links.   Read the transcript   Jorge: Ben, welcome to the show.   Ben: Thank you for having me, Jorge.   Jorge: I'm excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you mind please telling us about yourself?   About Ben   Ben: So, I started out my career in systems administration, which I'll very lovingly describe as telling computers how to do things. And I actually worked for the state of Pennsylvania for a while. I worked in higher education to basically learn how to deploy lots of systems and actually we ran a whole library network for the entire state. We also did some local things for the school that we were based at. And, I was learning about all sorts of technical concepts, like configuration management and all this kind of stuff. And eventually I wandered my way into the world of DevOps.   Which, DevOps is like a word that it's a portmanteau: development operations. And there are a lot of different meanings that people load it up with. The one that I tend to see as being most foundational for me is 'viewing the divide between development and operations and what it takes to get two groups of people to work together.' So, I had this experience where I started to realize that, oh! Turns out if you are just managing the computers, that's not enough to create value at the end of the day for the people that you're here to serve.   So, I went to a DevOps days conference in Pittsburgh. I met Kevin Behr who wrote The Phoenix Project. Long story short, I find myself like thrust into this world of like, hey! Systems thinking! Global thinking! Like let's actually not just focus on our local part. Let's see how the local part fits into the whole thing. And gradually what that ended up doing is it actually took me out of the world of computers and into the world of humans. Like the human side of it. It turns out you can't just have one or the other; you have to have both. And long story short, I've just had a lot of weird experiences working on the social and the technical. So, the socio-technical aspects of these organizations that we all work in.   I left the state. I started working for a corporation. I gradually found myself running my own startup, my own little kind of software development company with a couple of friends. Eventually I ended up in consulting and I really don't know how I ended up there from the beginning to getting to that point. It doesn't really make a lot of sense. But I found myself running into weirder and weirder ideas about how to make sense of things inside socio-technical systems. So that led me to a network of people on Twitter who just kept feeding me all these weird ideas and eventually, I ended up learning about Wardley mapping, which is a thing that I care a lot about because I spend a lot of time teaching people about it.   But roughly I think it's very aligned with what The Informed Life is all about. It's about making sense of things. It's about sharing that experience with others and collectively creating coherence so that you all can act meaningfully together. So that's kind of the arc of my career. That's why I'm here. That's why I'm doing what I do, and I wouldn't trade it for anything else.   Wardley Maps   Jorge: I love this phrase, "collectively creating coherence," and you mentioned Wardley maps as a way of achieving that. What are Wardley maps?   Ben: So Wardley maps are an invention of Simon Wardley. And Simon Wardley is a kind person who works currently for The Leading Edge Forum. He's a researcher. He basically wanted to design a tool that would rid the world of parasitic consultants. And so, he sat down and that was his purpose for designing this tool. It came from his interest in trying to basically do a good job as a CEO. He has a journey, like there's actually a book that he's written, which you can find on Medium, where he basically talks through his whole career arc about, you know, he was an "imposter CEO." He thought that maybe he was missing the all-important lessons of how to do strategy, that kind of stuff.   And what he ended up discovering is that not many people actually have this figured out, and there are no real secrets. And so, he felt like he had to go out and find his own. That led him to studying military history, led him to understanding, in particular, Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and integrating that into Eastern philosophies of strategy and long story short, what he brought back to the world was a way of making individuals more capable of making sense of their environment and thinking through what to do about it. And based on his intent to rid the world of parasitic consultants. His whole idea is that if you equip executive leaders with the capability of making sense of the world for themselves, then they won't need consultants as much. Consultants won't be a crutch anymore. Maybe you'll bring them in to help you challenge and refine ideas, but you don't need a consultant in order to come up with a strategy.   So, concretely, Wardley mapping is a visual way of representing systems: its users, its needs, its capabilities, its relationships between all those three things. And then it's also positioning those things in a way that helps their qualities become more apparent. So, there's this thing that Simon Research called "Evolution." It's basically how do things evolve and get better or die under the pressures of supply demand competition, and what you get is like things start out new, uncertain, high risk, high failure, but with a high potential for future value. But then as they evolve, they get better. You know, someone's always like looking at these weird ideas and trying to make them better because capitalism basically suggest there's money to be made. So, someone out there is going to try to make it better. And over time, if the idea is worth investing in, it will continue to get better, more known, more boring, more predictable, and the value of it will be more concrete. And eventually, if it evolves to a certain extent, it becomes an invisible part of our everyday lives.   And so, Simon says, look, you want to represent the systems that we're a part of both in terms of their parts and relationships, but also in terms of how evolved each of those parts are. Because what that does is it sets you up to understand the implications of those qualities. New stuff is going to be high failure, old stuff that everybody understands, that's just part of everyday reality like power in the wall. It is going to be less surprising; it's going to be less failure. And so that means that depending on the context, depending on the part of the system we're looking at, we need to have a different way of approaching it. And I think that's the entire point. By making visual artifacts — by talking about our systems visually — we can come together, look at a specific part of it, appreciate its qualities, and then together determine what our collective intent is about that part of the system. And I don't think that's just for executives. I think that's for anyone who is making decisions at any level of the organization.   Jorge: If I were someone who's listening in, I'd be desperately wanting to look at one of these things. You've described it as a visual artifact. And I'm wondering if we could give a shot at trying to describe one for folks who are listening.   Ben: Absolutely. And what I'd suggest is if you are in a situation where you are listening and you can pull something up in a new browser tab or something like that, go to and scroll down until you see a funny looking diagram. You'll see a video down there called "How to Read a Wardley Map," or depending on when you're listening to this episode, maybe you'll have to search a little bit harder. Maybe look into the reference section of the site a little bit.   But you'll find an artifact with an X and a Y axis. So, the Y axis will be labeled the "Value Chain" and the X axis will be labeled "Evolution." and the X axis will have four segments. Four sections within it. And these correspond to those four stages of evolution. We have different labels for these stages. It can just be one, two, three, or four. Simon likes to say Genesis, Custom-Built, Product, and Commodity. But you can also look at it through like a knowledge lens or a practice lens. There are these different lenses that you can look at that same evolution and use different words to describe it. There's an evolutionary characteristics cheat sheet that you can use to get a deeper appreciation for evolution.   Thinking about this visual, it's about what goes on this Y axis and X axis space. And what you have at the very top is who's being served by the system. Who benefits, who is getting value from it. Underneath that is usually a set of needs. So, what the user needs from the system, and these are connected by relationships. Needs relationships. So, X depends on Y. Citizens depend on pandemic safety, for example, or users depend on the dashboard in your SASS application or whatever it ends up being, right? And then underneath that is yet more components. Yet more parts of the map. And these are the capabilities that the system has within it that all add up to produce this set of benefits for the user. And all of them have those relationships. X depends on Y, Y depends on Z, and so on and so forth.   And so, by making an artifact like this together, what you really quickly start to see is that inside your organization, or even inside your own head, there are things you ought to know that you don't know. And it's really a kind of a mechanical, "how does this work?" kind of question. And by discussing it together, and instead of talking at each other, talking past each other, you talk through an artifact that you're constructing together? That specifically describes these dimensions. You'll be able to more carefully and articulately describe what the system is and therefore more carefully and articulately described what your intent is with respect to that system.   Wardley Maps vs other systems diagrams   Jorge: There are many different types of systems diagrams. How is a Wardley map different from other ways of visualizing systems?   Ben: That's a really good question. And it's one that I get a lot of the time and the blunt answer is, it's not all that different with respect to the benefits that working in any visual methods will get you. I mean, when you're in a meeting and you're not actually looking at something together? It can be very, very hard to make sure you're talking about the same thing. can be very, very hard to make sure that you're understood. But when you're using a visual thing, any sort of visual thinking tool, that gets a lot easier.   What Wardley mapping brings to the table, however, is two additional things to the visual side of it. One is this evolution concept that we've been talking about, which has its own implications for, hey! If something is high failure, we should approach it in a way that makes that failure safe. Versus something is boring, totally known, hey! Maybe we should approach this with an expectation that we should reduce the deviation. We should make it as knowable and portable as possible. So, like the approach that we take towards that thing is different. So, appreciating those qualities is really important because otherwise you end up doing things like building stuff that you don't need to build. You might outsource things that you shouldn't outsource. And roughly it's just a way of bringing capitalism and the implications that capitalism has to the forefront of your decision-making.   Now that's one thing. The second thing is the strategic thinking process. Simon Wardley describes a process for sitting with your understanding of the system that breaks that, that sort of understanding down into five steps, only one of which is making the map.   The first is Purpose. It's why we all do what we do. It's the reason we're getting out of bed, showing up to do the work. It's the purpose of the entire system. It's the moral imperative... it's the view of aesthetic truth and beauty that we are trying to imagine for the future through the work that we do every day. that's Purpose.   The second thing is Landscape, and that's making maps. That's making these visual artifacts of the competitive landscape to understand the circumstances that we're playing in, that we're dealing with right now. Who else is there? It's not just us, right? It's the wider market.   And then the third thing is Climate. These are the patterns that more or less dictate the rules of the game. It's things like everything will evolve from stage one of evolution to stage four, over time. And so, what does that imply is a worthy question. But Simon has a whole table of like, I don't know, 30 or 40 of these different rules of the game that one by one you can learn to appreciate over time.   The fourth thing is Doctrine. And these are the universal principles that we choose to apply inside our organization. Things like always focus on user needs. So, it's about how you equip your organization to be the best that it can be to actually be able to participate strategically in the wider market. In the wider competitive landscape.   And then finally, it's the question of what you would do given what you know. It's the integration of everything that we've already discussed — the purpose, the specific landscape that you're in, the rules of the game, those climatic patterns, and the training of your organization. The doctrinal principles that you always apply. It's the synthesis of all those things that enables you to start thinking about what moves to make. Should we do this, or should we do that? And that is entirely about how to spend the precious, limited time, attention, all of scarce resources that you have at your disposal? Where do you put that? How do you decide how to invest all that in a way that makes sense?   I think the most common mistakes that organizations make is they spread that investment too wide. They don't be intentional about what they're doing, and the result is they don't make progress quickly. They don't actually achieve what they set out to achieve. And you have an organization full of individuals just showing up to work every day, not really connecting to that bigger purpose, not really making a difference in the world. And it's a system that actively trains you, that what you do doesn't matter.   So, those are the five factors of Simon's strategy cycle. That's what Wardley mapping brings in addition to being just a visual method. It brings this idea of how to pay attention and appreciate and understand the implications of capitalism, and that's evolution. And then the second thing is it brings the strategic thinking process to apply to the visual artifact with others.   Example of a Wardley Map   Jorge: Can you give us an example of a Wardley map being used to make strategic decisions?   Ben: Yeah, absolutely. I often use Wardley mapping for myself, although a lot of the times, the map never leaves my head, just because if you do this so many times, you start building up an intuition for it. But the one that I often like to share because it certainly deeply impacted me especially because it involved my family, is COVID-19 pandemic related health and safety.   And so, I made a map a little while ago, and it was broadly about citizens... sort of citizens of various countries, right? I'm in the United States. That's what I'm focused on. Citizens need health. And so, at the top of my map, those are the first things that are shared. And then I framed it this way: I said there are two ways, two different capabilities that the system has that produces health. And one is prevention, and one is treatment. So, sometimes there's shorthand in these maps. Part of the fun is like trying to find words that very concretely and concisely describe a very vast phenomenological experience. So just roll with me — prevention and treatment is about: either you prevent yourself from getting COVID-19, or you treat the issue once you have it.   Looking at these two different sides of the Wardley map, underneath prevention you have a lot more novelty. So, this chain seems to be way more towards the left side of the map, the stage one and two side of evolution. They're uncertain, they're more unknown, they're more risky, and yet the payoff could be really huge if we get it right. So, prevention, I wrote, needs things like mask wearing and things like social distancing. And what I noticed here is that these are things that feel like they should be much more evolved. They really ought to be more ubiquitous. Like the way I would hope things to be is that the obvious effective thing, like wearing a mask, is something that you would do as a citizen, in a country to prevent the spread of the virus. And I think it would be really interesting to dig into why these things are less evolved. But for whatever reason, they're less evolved. Mask-wearing, social distancing... these are things that are really, really hard for people to do, and I think it has something to do with the entanglement of like the social side of it. Like people need to see other people.   The problematic and contradictory messaging that they're getting, the emergent nature of conspiracy theories and anti-vaccination and why those things have come about. And it's a really, really kind of deep rabbit hole that you'd go into and dig into if you wanted to explore that more deeply. But for me, I just wanted to emphasize these two things in my situation. That, in our house, we will be wearing masks and we will be social distancing. And because those things are less evolved, we may actually have to do some of our own research to figure out how to effectively do that. And so that led us to things like, The New England Institute of Complex Systems. I think I'm getting that wrong. There was a really fabulous paper that basically described how to do the New Zealand pod system, but for family units. And so, the social distancing part of that, we could actually like do some research and find some new cutting-edge things that we could try and apply. For a while, we were actually able to form a household unit with our upstairs neighbors. We all had collective rules that we were following based on this cutting-edge research. That was our experiments that we had to run because this thing was so less evolved.   Now, so that's the prevention side of it. The treatment side of it is a little bit more straightforward because it's all about what to do within the context of the existing medical system. Treatment is more towards the right of the map because generally treatment disease and is something that's, largely more evolved. And underneath treatment, you have things like diagnosis, care, triage. These kinds of activities that you would expect to happen in a hospital, for example. And so, diagnosis depends on testing. Treatment depends on care, and care depends on personal protective equipment and medical knowledge. And so, you start to appreciate all these different parts of the system that add up to treatment. Then you can have a conversation about how, when PPE isn't available, the part of the system that provides care, enables treatment, and that therefore enables health for the citizens, starts to fall apart. When testing isn't available, the same thing happens. And so, you have this like question when you have the full system, "okay. We've got prevention kind of questions that are more towards the left of the map. You have the treatment side, which is more towards the right of the map. Where do you put your time and attention?" And as an individual? One person with a family?   I felt like the best thing we could do is invest our time and attention in the prevention side of it. On the mask wearing and the social distancing. It's really, really hard for us to do something with testing and PPE and things like that. So, it just wasn't an option for us. So very practically, just by having the whole system in front of us, we were able to make more informed decisions. And frankly, I share this with other people and saw what they thought. And that made it better. Because then we could refine and expand our awareness of what was and wasn't actually happening out in the wider world. So, any biases we had about how things worked, could get checked at the door. And we could actually work together on designing something better together.   Collaborative map-making   Jorge: The way that sounds to me is like, the artifacts that we see — these charismatic maps that you were referring to earlier — are the outcome of a process and the real value lies in the process. And it also sounds to me like the value of the process is dependent on the collaborative way in which it comes about, right? Because in the process of making this thing together, you build alignment. You tap into people's diverse knowledge, etc. Is that fair?   Ben: That's absolutely fair. And there's always the problem with any methodology that you have to somehow convince other people to do it with you. I never want to underestimate the value of one person paying attention using this method, just to get themselves figured out, to understand why they interact in the way that they do with the system. But yes, like it is enormously valuable to do with another person, or if you're on a team to do it together.   And my general advice with any methodology is kind of get past the, "everybody has to learn how to do it." Like, ignore that! And instead, just get started. Just take half an hour, try to understand one simple part of the whole thing. Just get a little bit better every day. And so, I don't think you need to be an expert Wardley mapper. You can start out by making lists. Like one of the first steps of Wardley mapping is who is being served by the system? And so, what you can do right now, today, is in the next meeting that you attend, you can sit there and you can make a list of who is being served by this system. And then you can ask other people what they think. Does this list make sense to you? Is this what you think? What am I missing? Who do you disagree with my inclusion of, on this list? Right? So, it doesn't have to be this like whole thing, this whole like methodology, it's like little parts of it, a little bit by bit every day.   Jorge: You said that Simon Wardley's goal with this was to rid the world of parasitic consultants. You're a consultant.   Ben: Yes.   Jorge: Given that it sounds like the true value in this resides in teams doing it for themselves to get their bearings and figure out where they're going next, what role do you play in that process?   Ben: That's a really good question. Because as a consultant, it seems like I am convinced that I have no value by saying that it's an anti-consulting framework. And that's not quite true. There are a lot of different ways we could explore this, but I think I'll start by saying the first thing is consultants are not useless. It's the dependence on consultants in a way that takes away an organization's own agency that I think is problematic. Simon in particular is looking at the example of, maybe one of the big consulting firms coming into an organization, talking with an executive and basically executive delegates the act of creating strategy to that consulting organization. That's probably the exact scenario that Simon is designing against by providing Wardley mapping.   I'm playing a little bit of a different game, personally. And whenever I work with other consultants, this is the question, a set of questions that I have for them. It's like, which game are you playing inside this organization? Are you playing the game where you just make money and you go home, like, it's just your job? Are you playing the game where you're trying to reduce harm? And so, your being in the organization is not about creating dependence on you, but it's about you reducing harm inside the organization. And that kind of has this implication, that you're just... you're there in order to watch for those moments where you can do one small thing that helps someone make one huge step forward and kicks off this snowball that turns into an avalanche of ideas and thoughts for them. Or are you actually doing a long-term and extended intervention?   And a lot of those games, I have a hard time with, just generally speaking. And so, I tend to focus on: how do I build people up? How do I help them increase their own capability? So that, I'm never building a dependence. It's never a situation where they're going to ask me to come back over and over and over and over and over again about the same thing, because they've delegated something to me. Instead, I want it to be something where if they invite me back, it's because we're going to have a new experience that genuinely stretches them, genuinely helps them grow about new things that we haven't already covered.   So, when I come in to teach mapping, it's about enabling the individuals of the organization, which is why I'm not focused just on executives, it's leaders at all levels. How do I help every person that I interact with have a little bit more agency in the decisions that they make every day? And 1) that's just helping them notice the system that they're in, but 2) knowing how to make sense of that system, and then also be able to take action to change it, to shape it. And so, a lot of times my "consulting" ends up looking more like one-on-one sparring or coaching, things along those lines. Sure, I do a lot of Wardley maps too and maybe I'm teaching you how to do that. That's why you brought me in, right? But there are these little opportunities to, on a one-on-one basis, build people up so that they individually have more power in the system that they're in.   Jorge: When I was thinking about this role of helping people map the systems they find themselves in and consulting, I was thinking that maybe the role was like a cartographer. But it sounds to me like there is a little bit of cartography involved, but it's cartography in service of learning to do cartography.   Ben: I think the worst thing you could do is delegate the cartography to someone else. Because unlike a specialized field like literal map-making — so mapping the physical world — this is different. This is like ontological map-making; this is about understanding what exists inside an organization. And it's not just like what furniture is in the rooms. It's about what ideas are in people's heads. What ontology has the organization created that is not understood in an appropriate way across the organization? And this is one of the things that we often get into where it's like, "well, are you trying to help everyone understand every part of the organization?" No, absolutely not. What we're trying to do is help individuals understand their parts of the organization, but also understand how their parts connect to other parts of the organization and where the shared understandings need to exist. It's really about understanding the boundaries of where different areas of autonomy in an organization overlap, so that collectively they can negotiate along those boundaries.   And I think it's just about knowing where to invest your attention in the organization, because if you're doing work heads down 80% of the time, and you're not paying attention to how the overall system is functioning, you're going to immediately run into the problem — that initial career-arc mind-blowing moment that I had — which was, "Oh my gosh, I'm just trying to make the local thing better. And it's actually making it worse for everyone around me!" Trying to see how you and your individual part of the organization fit into a larger whole is what this is all about. It's really about making the organization more intentional at all levels and within all parts.   Closing   Jorge: That sounds like a great way to summarize this. I love the phrase "ontological map-making." It sounds like a beautiful encapsulation of what this is about. I'm sure that folks are going to be wondering about where they can follow up with you. Where can we point them to?   Ben: I am really accessible on Twitter. And so, if you'd like to follow me @hiredthought, you are always welcome to direct message me or reach out. I can also be emailed if you want to go that way: And of course, if you want to learn more about Wardley mapping, you can go to There's a free book that Simon's written. We've made it available in multiple formats. There's a short introduction video on the homepage that you can just play with and see if you'd like the concepts that you're hearing about. You can decide for yourself whether to dip your toes further. And then I would encourage you to reach out and say hello if you need any help or have any questions. I'm always happy to hear from you.   Jorge: That's fantastic. Thank you so much for being on the show.   Ben: Thank you so much for having me.

13 mar

33 min 47 seg

Margot Bloomstein is the principal of Appropriate, Inc., a brand and content strategy consultancy. Over a twenty year career, she has consulted in a wide range of industries. Margot is the author of Content Strategy at Work and of a new book, Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap, which is the subject of our conversation today. Show notes Appropriate, Inc. @mbloomstein on Twitter Timberland Publicis Sapient Trustworthy: How The Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge The Trust Gap by Margot Bloomstein Mistrust: Why Losing Faith in Institutions Provides the Tools to Transform Them by Ethan Zuckerman Gartner Edelman Crutchfield Mailchimp Black Lives Matter Banana Republic Indiebound Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Margot, welcome to the show. Margot: Thank you so much. I'm excited to be here. Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you please tell us about yourself? About Margot Margot: Sure. I was born at a very young age. I've been working in content strategy for about 20 years. My background before that, I have my BFA in design and I still consider myself a designer. I focus on brands-driven content strategy. So that means I work with organizations to help them clarify their communication goals and then figure out how to sort of solve for X. Knowing who they are and knowing who their target audience is and what they're trying to achieve, how do we kind of span that unknown space between what they're trying to accomplish, what their audience needs and then the right content types and tools and affordances that will help them get there. And I guess I still think of myself as a designer in that context because even though I'm solving problems, not through typography and the density of information on the page and color, but more through editorial style and tone and content types and that sort of thing. It's still around problem solving to facilitate communication and manifest those ideas. Jorge: And you practice as a consultant, is that right? Margot: Yes. Yeah. I've been an independent under the umbrella of Appropriate, Inc. since 2010. And before that I was in a couple of different mid-sized agencies that had hired me to develop their content strategy departments. Kind of around like 2003, 2004, up through 2010, as that was becoming something that their clients were requesting more by name or were interested in seeing how it would complement visual design and information architecture, and that three-legged stool of user experience design. And prior to that, I spent a year in house at Timberland. And then really, I think my graduate school was a couple of years at Sapient in kind of the height of the .com boom and bust. Trustworthy Jorge: I've been aware of you and your work in content strategy for a long time. The reason I wanted to speak with you now is that you have a new book out called Trustworthy. And I'm wondering if you could give us a high-level overview of the book, what it's about. Margot: Sure. So, Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap. I think that subtitle is... It's optimistic and hopeful, because I see that there are problems around us in our communication and in our society and how we interact in our society. And I think there's a real opportunity for brands to approach that problem with a fresh mindset and with new perspectives that we're not able to find from government or large institutions anymore. And this is something that Ethan Zuckerman writes about in Mistrust that recently came out. He looks at how we've lost trust in institutions and what people can do to respond to that. How we can kind of do our own bit of saving, as it were. And I look at how, within this context of the rise of cynicism, as we've lost trust in government, in politicians, in media, if we ever had a lot of trust there to begin with... We've seen how the effects of gaslighting in those realms have affected people. How people have turned away from those large institutions and maybe media outlets that they used to trust. Big organizations that they used to trust. How instead, we've kind of turned to our filter bubbles to people that are quote unquote, just like us, to say, "Well, what should I know? What's everyone else's experience with this? What should I be reading? What should I be eating? Where should I be going out to eat when I can do that again?" And in that context, we've kind of become more aware of our filter bubbles, and certainly how some brands end up gaining those filter bubbles. How ratings and reviews are skewed. And I think as people have become more aware of that reality, they've pulled back even further to kind of go with their own gut instincts to say, "well, if it feels right to me, that's going to be my test of reality and veracity. If it feels right, it must be right." The only problem with that is that over the past few years, as more of us have been affected by gaslighting from politicians, from the media, from news organizations saying, "don't look anywhere else. We're the only source of truth." That affects our gut instincts. We've lost our gut instincts and our ability to evaluate information from multiple sources and to feel good about our information analysis and our understanding of the world. And with that kind of outlook, people are shaky and susceptible to bad information. We've grown, sort of immobilized in our ability to make decisions. And that's why we see how sales cycles take longer and so much marketing falls flat. And that's why I think that even though those problems maybe started in the realm of politics and the media, those issues around indecision and cynicism undermine any kind of organization or industry that engages in marketing. If you're trying to sell something, if you're trying to offer a service, even if you are a government entity that is offering things for the public good, people now approach it with more cynicism and doubt. And that's a problem because our work suffers. Our work falls flat. And I think if this is the mindset of so many consumers, so many citizens, and readers and shoppers and voters. We need to meet them where they are and help them move forward. Help them kind of break out of that. And that's really the message of Trustworthy. So, I look at that problem, analyze the why and the how behind it, and then propose a new framework for designers, copywriters, content strategists, creative directors, marketers in general, to move forward and help their businesses move forward. Because I do believe that business can be a force for good, beyond merely corporate-social responsibility efforts and corporate philanthropy. Those things are certainly important. And those are oftentimes activities and areas of focus that are relegated maybe to an HR department. But I think there are things though that everyone can do that works in design or copywriting or content strategy or marketing. We can make changes to how we do work and the things that we prioritize in our work to help business be a force for good. To move things forward and ultimately better serve our users. Jorge: I'm glad you mentioned this idea of business as a source for good. Because it is a question that I had in thinking about two of the words in the subtitle of the book, "brands" and "cynicism," in that I see a lot of... this loss of trust extends to companies, right? And it extends to entire capitalist framework. In some cases, I see a lot of people ranting against that online. And yet the book does come across as being very much an optimistic take on trying to overcome that kind of cynicism through what — if I might characterize it, you talked about the framework — it came across to me as a framework for communicating more trustworthy-ily? I don't know if that's a word. Margot: Hmm. With a greater degree of trust? Measuring trust Jorge: Yes! With a greater degree of trust, that's a better way of putting it. I'm wondering, is there a way to measure degrees of trust? I mean, there's so much about this that is quantified. By "this," I mean, communications through digital media. Are there ways for organizations to know the degree to which they are trusted by the public? Margot: Yes. And I mean, we definitely see different surveys, kind of public opinion research. Gartner publishes on this. Edelman publishes on this. Edelman publishes their annual trust survey and most trusted brands. But I think that businesses can look for other markers - other indicators of trust - as well. And this issue, it kind of parallels the discussion that has... I don't want to say plagued content strategy as a practice for so long, but very often we wonder, and we hear clients wonder too, right? "If I make these changes, how do we measure if our content strategy is working? What are our metrics of success?" and I think that that's a valid question, but I think that we don't always ask it appropriately. I think we need to ask that question with a bigger, a wider-angle lens, I think, looking at the context. Because you cannot measure the success of content strategy by looking at a single element of content and saying, did it work? Did it not work? However, we can measure the results the same way that we can measure the effect and impact of trust by looking at other metrics from around the organization. So, for example, one of the brands that I profiled in Trustworthy is Crutchfield, the electronics company. They publish a tremendous amount of content in a wonderful, rich level of detail using a lot of different content types. They've got a lot of really long, long pages on their site and what they've discovered in looking at user research, in testing, and even just looking at onsite analytics: when people get to the end of those really long pages, they click to keep going. They want to read more and that's because their audience gains greater confidence in their ability to make decisions around maybe it's a really high-ticket purchase, a new home audio system or something for their car, or even maybe just a high-end camera lens. Their audience gains confidence in their own knowledge and in their ability to make good decisions by taking in more content. They spend a lot of time with it. And then they know that that audience is feeling more confident about it because when those people then are able to move forward with the purchase to put an item in the shopping cart, go ahead and check out, and then eventually get that purchase on their doorstep? They don't see a high rate of returns. There's not a lot of buyer's remorse there. So, I think when we look at asking, "are these brands trusted?", we're not asking the question in a way that is sufficiently broad enough because we should also be asking, "do our users, do our audiences act in a way that indicates that they trust themselves? That they're confident in their own knowledge?" And that's a lot of what I get at in Trustworthy. So much about brands earning trust and gaining the confidence of their audiences really is about how we enable those people to feel more confident in themselves; how we enable them to feel like they can make good decisions and then feel good about the decisions that they make. And we can measure that in the rate of product returns, time spent onsite. If they're going back and forth a lot between putting something in a shopping cart, as well as then in doing research in focus groups and talking with our users. One of the other examples that I include is, when they went through a big effort to kind of reign in their content. So, in contrast to the example from Crutchfield, they realized that they published so much content. I think, information about government services in Britain was available across some nine different websites, 75,000 pages. And you could bet they weren't all consistent in message. Like it was a maintenance nightmare! It wasn't good for internal users, and internal content creators and designers, and it certainly was not good for British citizens. And they realized in going through a process of scaling back their content, adopting this mantra that government should only publish content on the topics on which only government can publish content. They pulled back. They said we don't need 75,000 pages of content. They went through a big audit process and reigned it back to about 3000 pages, then brought people in and asked them to accomplish certain tasks on the site. And again, and again, they were hearing from people, "oh, Oh, is that it? I guess I'm done! Great!" that kind of response, because they were giving them cues that said, "you can feel confident that this is all the information you need to access a certain type of tax paperwork," or to file for certain benefits. By giving them those cues that said, what you have received is everything that we have to say, and you can rest assured that you don't need to keep poking around the rest of the greater internet to find more information? That's what their audience needed to feel confident in their own knowledge. Jorge: I loved the example in the book. It was used to illustrate, as you mentioned, the volume of content in the site. I also loved the discussion of the tone of voice that adopted and how they made changes to – I’m going to paraphrase here – but to translate kind of ‘government speak’ into language that was more understandable to a broader portion of the population. The question in my mind about both of these examples, Crutchfield and — and by the way, the book is filled with examples from a wide range of organizations, which is really great because it really does a good job of illustrating these principles at work Margot: and something for everyone! Jorge: There's something for everyone, yeah! One thing that stood out to me is that many of these organizations have been around for a while. Like of course the government of the UK had a relationship with the public that preceded their website. And Crutchfield has also been around for a while. I remember one of the examples in the book is MailChimp, which is more of a startup, I think, but still it's been around. It's not a new startup. Margot: Right. Yeah, they've been around a long time. When they first started out, they were a small business, serving other small businesses with email marketing needs and now they support something like 60% of the world's email marketing messages go through MailChimp. No more small business there. Building trust Jorge: Right. I use them myself for my newsletter. The reason I'm bringing up the longevity of a lot of these organizations is that trust strikes me as one of those things that takes a while to build. It's not something that you can develop overnight. Is that fair? Margot: Ooh, that's a good question. I think more often, what we talk about is that trust can be destroyed overnight, and it takes a long time to regain. That's not to say though that even startups can't start from a position of trust because nothing exists in kind of a void. And if you're a startup, or if you're supporting and working for a startup that's in an established industry, there's that halo effect of the industry. And that may be good or bad. I think if you're a startup in an industry where there's a history of trust problems, where people do approach more transactions and more relationships with cynicism than excitement or connection or engagement or faith, then there's a real opportunity there. Is yours the startup that says, "we're doing everything differently, so expect better from us"? Because that's a bold statement. And then I think if you can back it up with tools and interactions and messaging that enables people to feel more confident in you and feel more confident in their own interactions with you? I think there's no reason to believe that you can't build trust fairly quickly there. At the same time, I think if you're a startup in an industry where there already is a strong sense of trust and accountability and empowered audiences that expect to retain that kind of strength. I think you can build on that as well. So, I think both ways there are opportunities for kind of new players to come into a space and make it their own and make things better for their audiences as well as their employees and everyone that is helping to kind of support the brand. Jorge: The distinction between building trust and regaining trust, I think is an important one. And I agree with you; that expression also came to my mind, that it takes a while to build trust and you can destroy trust in a moment. I'm wondering about the ability for organizations to put in place trust-building initiatives when incentives tend to be short term. So, a lot of organizations are measured quarterly, right? And they want indicators to make sure they're making progress against their goals. I'm very interested in initiatives that are more long-lived, and this strikes me as one area where building an authentic relationship with your audience should be a long-term aspiration and I'm wondering if there's a tension there between the fact that building and maintaining trust is this long-term goal, and the drive that so many organizations have for frequent updates or results. Margot: Yeah, I think you're right. It's a long-term goal, but I think it comprises a lot of short-term steps Short-term steps that are the responsibility of everyone in the organization. Like we always say in design that God is in the details. And I think it's in those details that organizations build an example of consistency and sustainable trust. So, for example, I think that now looking at short-term goals in many organizations, they might be thinking about like, "well, what's the next big campaign?" Or with all the kind of upheaval in our society, around the pandemic and a variety of different social issues, we need to jump into that conversation too. What's our position? You used the term " authenticity." And I think that that's a term that we throw around a lot; that's a term that marketers love to throw around. Who wouldn't want to be authentic? And I always wonder, authentic to what? Do you know who you are? Know thyself first, and then you can determine, "well, how do we align our actions with our values?" Because that's how we measure authenticity: it's the distance between our actions and our words, all of that external stuff and our values. And I think for many organizations, they can jump into kind of the national conversation, into the international conversation, around many of those social issues and say, "here's what we're doing. Here's why we support this. Here's what we're doing internally. And here's what we're doing externally to make this better for everyone." To put a stake in the ground. And they can do it building on that long-term, authentic investment in their values. If they've built those values over time, if they've invested in like... maybe their big cause is around diversity and inclusion, maybe in the context of Black Lives Matter, and they say, "yes, we believe this too." Okay, well, what are they doing and what have they been doing historically, to make sure that they're recruiting candidates that represent diverse viewpoints? That they are promoting from within and ensuring that they're bringing about a dialogue that benefits from diverse representation. What are they already doing there? I think that there's an opportunity though for organizations that jump into that fray that want to be a part of that conversation and then realize, wait a second. We don't walk this walk internally yet ourselves. There's still an opportunity for them to build trust by leaning into, like you mentioned, volume, before. One of the other parts of the framework is vulnerability. By having that vulnerable, open and transparent conversation with their audience that says, we believe this is important, but we realized we don't do that so well here ourselves. Doctor, heal thyself. So, here's what we're going to do to take steps to act on those goals. And I think it's by sort of prototyping in public. Making their values known so they can act as a beacon for others and then saying, "here's what we're going to do so that we improve in this regard as well. And here's how you can hold us accountable." That kind of transparency builds trust too. And that can be something that is a long-term growth opportunity over time. Where they are bringing people into their evolution, bringing people into that discussion, so that their audience is not just consumers, but also champions of their work. So, they feel like, yeah, they've seen the growth and they want to continue to support that kind of growth. And I think that works both long-term as well as short-term figuring out what those initiatives are and how they are making good on them over the next quarter. Leadership Jorge: I would imagine that core to that is having a clear set of organizational values where we know what we stand for. And my expectation would be that that needs to come from the top. Is that fair? Margot: Yeah, I think the goals come from the top. The execution comes from the bottom and we meet in the middle and hope that the railroad meets up and aligns. Jorge: Well, I'm thinking specifically of one of the examples in the book, the pre-Gap era Banana Republic. I thought that that was a particularly apt illustration of this idea where it seemed like they were very clear on who they were and their communications and the way that they, for example, structured their physical stores, their physical environments, were all manifestations of a pretty clear understanding from the founders of what was right for Banana Republic and what wasn't right. Margot: Right! Yeah. Mel and Patricia Ziegler, an illustrator and a journalist. They envisioned this place that felt like a Safari outfitter. That brought the idea of adventure home. And they scorned the idea of thinking of themselves as tourists. They didn't want to just dip into other cultures and then bring back the evidence of their travels. They wanted to, in some ways, bring the world a little bit closer for their target audience. And the passages that you're referring to there, talking about what they did with the store design to bring this kind of color to their audience and in their descriptions of the products, in how they were sourcing and creating some of the clothing and attire and whatnot, they sold... even their investments eventually in creating a travel desk to help people prepare for whatever sort of journeys they wanted to take through the world. That was all in alignment around this very consistent, cohesive brand. And then eventually when they were acquired by Gap Inc., they saw a lot of financial benefits to it around production and distribution and sales, but ultimately it scuttled that original idea of the store. The original idea of Banana Republic. That, yes, now we look back with some mix of... of maybe admiration as well as cringing? Because there are certainly aspects of their story that don't play today. That are an increasingly white Western worldview. That certainly wasn't their goal at the time. But as we talk about in vulnerability and evolution, you live and learn and then do better. However, what they did, after they were acquired by the Gap, wasn't necessarily better. It was in many ways more expected, homogenous, and milquetoast. They lost what made the brand distinct. Getting to your point around the values, I think organizations need to know what they stand for so that they can put that stake in the ground and manifest their values visually and verbally. In the first section on voice, we talk about that a lot. Like first, knowing who you are and a lot of the work that I've done with organizations over - certainly over the past 20 years in content strategy - nearly all of my engagements with clients start out with first figuring out their communication goals. Helping them wrap their arms around a message architecture or a hierarchy of communication goals. So, they know, "is it more important for us to project this idea of adventure and inspiration and innovation? Or do we really want to be more the brand that projects a sense of reliability and tradition and maybe responsiveness or warmth, and what's most important in that equation?" it's only after we figure out those things after we've established that message architecture that then we can move forward with that idea of brand driven content strategy and brand driven design. To know that if it's most important for us to project maybe a sense of innovation or of being really, really reliable, let's say. Okay. That's why we embrace longer sentence structures. Maybe more paragraphs in our copy rather than just bulleted lists. Maybe more, more Latinate rather than Germanic verbs. And also, that's why we adopted a typeface as our standard typeface with Serifs and that has this sort of bold kind of feeling to it. All of those kinds of decisions, those tactics, manifest the communication goals and manifest their values. Closing Jorge: So, that was very well put. And as you mentioned earlier in our conversation, it's something that strikes me as being much needed in this world where folks are losing a sense of trust in institutions, politicians, companies. And this idea that in being in touch with your organizational values and then finding ways to authentically convey those values to the world can help regain trust and build better relationships between organizations and their customers. At least that's what I got from the book. I think it's a valuable contribution to this conversation and to the field, and I encourage folks to read it. It should be out by the time that you listen to this, or if you listen very quickly, it might be on pre-order. But folks can get it in Amazon and all the usual places, right? Margot: Yes! Yeah. Support your favorite small local bookstore as well! You can always order through them through IndieBound or and, yeah! Or go to your favorite big, giant bookseller as well. Jorge: Well, fantastic. It's interesting, that clarification there, because it speaks to these issues of trust, right? We have a different relationship with the local bookseller than we do with a larger, more impersonal organization. Margot: Right. And oftentimes because at your local bookstore, you might know some of the booksellers there, or you might know them through their recommendations. And I think it's that... that kind of personal connection that it effectively curates your reading experience. To bring different ideas and titles in front of you to say, "Oh, if you're looking at that right now, you may want to also consider this!" Better than any sidebar recommendations or algorithm can necessarily offer. And I love that right now there's been such a rise in ways to connect with independent bookstores and independent booksellers. Certainly through the tour that I'm doing around Trustworthy, I'm trying to work with a lot of them in cities where I know I've spoken over the past 10 years and where there is a big design and content strategy community. To have them come out - even if it is over Zoom - to come out to an event where we're looking at the book in conversation and talking about the themes in it and how they relate in that city to small businesses and big businesses and everyone in between. Jorge: Well folks, you heard it here. Get Trustworthy at your local bookshop and join Margot on her tour. And where can folks follow up with you to find out about the tour? Margot: You can find me online at If you go to, that's where you can sign up for my newsletter. And I always kind of put all the info there first, but yeah! Or find me on Twitter @mbloomstein, hashtag right now is #trustworthybook. And you'll see a lot of chatter on that as well. Jorge: Fantastic. I will include those in the show notes. Thank you so much, Margot, for being with us. Margot: Thank you. This was so much fun.

28 feb

31 min 58 seg

Hà Phan is the Director of Discovery for Pluralsight, an e-learning platform. Before becoming a product leader, she was a principal UX designer at GoPro. In this conversation, we discuss Hà’s journey from UX design to product leadership. Show notes @hpdailyrant on Twitter Pluralsight GoPro The Double Diamond Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Hà, welcome to the show. Hà: Thanks Jorge, for having me. I'm glad to virtually meet you at the last. Jorge: Oh, I'm very excited to meet you as well. For folks who might not know you, can you please tell us about yourself? About Hà Hà: Yeah. So, professionally, I work for Pluralsight. I am the Director of Discovery, for our Discovery Products. I view that as a platform and we basically solve problems like search, browse, recommendations, and wayfinding. And the reason why I say it's a platform is because, we build capabilities and infrastructure to enable teams to do other things. And on our team, we have a real mix of machine learning engineers, data scientists, software engineers, product managers, and designers. At one point I managed all those people. In the past, at my previous job — the previous job that had before I came to Pluralsight — I was a principal UX designer at GoPro. Also, everything we build is on top of what I call a data structure. And that's why I joined Pluralsight. That's why I picked search as the first problem to solve, because I view it as the ultimate information architecture problem. Actually, when they interviewed me at Pluralsight, they asked me, "you came from GoPro, you worked at all these cool machine learning, computer vision problems... Why do you want to come work for us? You know, we're just building this website." And I said, "I see the main problem being information architecture problems." And I didn't know at that time how true that was until I worked on search. Anyway, that's a little bit about what I do professionally. Personally, I'm quite a boring person. I don't do much. I live in a beach town in Southern California, and right now we're in a pandemic, so daily I take walks to the beach and I walk on the trail and I do a lot of thinking, on my walks. So, yeah. So that's a little bit about me. Back to Pluralsight quickly... just so people don't know what Pluralsight is. Pluralsight is an e-learning platform for technologists. When I first joined Pluralsight, the pervasive product story is that we enable anyone to be able to reinvent themselves through learning and technology. There are always these stories around, you know, people who re-skill to get a better job in tech. That was a story I heard very often when I joined Pluralsight. But as we scale as a business and as a platform, we moved more into the B2B space. Right now, I think the pervasive product story is that we help enterprises upscale their workforce and enable them to meet their business goals through that. That's a very broad stroke about what Pluralsight is. A broader remit Jorge: I'm going to try to reflect back to you the journey as I see it: you went from a UX design role at GoPro to this role at Pluralsight, which sounds to me like it has a broader mandate than just UX design. I mean, just from the roles: you said that you have machine learning folks and data scientists alongside with designers. And I'm wondering if you can share with us insights as to the differences between UX design roles and roles that require a broader perspective. Hà: I think as a UX designer, we tend to think broad already, right? When you start to think about new innovation or new problems to solve, UX is the practice of building these visions and then bringing them to life. UX is a way of providing clarity for the rest of the organization to find their mission and their vision. So, as UX designers, we already have that in our DNA. I think the difficulty was between the role I have now, or the delta between the role I have now versus being a UX designer is that, you know, it's really a leadership role to basically provide the path to clarity. When you have a vision, even as a seasoned UX designer, you're going to present forth this vision. And usually there's a thousand questions and a thousand steps before you get there, right? And usually, you don't get there entirely. You know, you don't get to the vision entirely the way you had envisioned it. You’re going to take turns, right? And I think in this role, what I get to do is that I get to enable the team to find that path to clarity, and to provide the milestones or the mission for each of the goals along the way. It's really hard to explain, but I think I didn't come into Pluralsight thinking I was going to do that. I came into Pluralsight thinking that "Oh, there's this really hard problem and nobody's solving it. So, I think I need to be the person to do that." When I was hired in, I was hired in as a PM for the AI team. But, in the process of conducting research for AI, I started doing research on search just because it was this obvious platform where many of the user journeys start with search. And then I recognized that, "wait a minute, how come we're not focusing on search?" And I just... I didn't think I was qualified to lead that team because I've done enough research and I've done enough work in my life to know that usually the leader who leads search needs to be an engineer. I just felt underqualified the entire time. But in addition to that, the other challenge I actually had was that the team is in Boston and I'm in San Diego. So, I'm remote, right? So how do I lead a team remotely? This is before the pandemic. Imagine that most of the company is co-located, I'm this leader working on a brand new product. Well, I'm trying to replace the existing search because I recognize it wasn't just... it's not scalable and data excellence is not there. I recognize all these problems, and I recognize that I have to lead this team remotely. One of the decisions I made upfront was that, I'm not going to tell the team what to do. I'm just going to give them space, right? And I'm going to do whatever it takes for them to run independently. And that's the bet I made, because I'd worked enough with engineers at GoPro who are just working on new technology that they know nothing about. And you know, when you give them space, engineers can do great things. So, that's all I did. It was me and four engineers. And they're working in Boston while I'm in San Diego. And I try to just let them, do whatever they need to do. I just ask questions. That's pretty much all I did. And then I managed up where I presented vision. And then at that time, they were like, you know, every company there's always sexy projects that leadership tells product people to do, and everybody has FOMO because they wish they were working on that product. I never had that FOMO. I was like, that's great. Just go look at that stuff over there. Don't pay attention to us; we're just working on this really boring project over here. That was something I learned: that sometimes, it's really beneficial to build your own island so that you have the space to experiment and to do the right thing. If you talk to people on my team, they will call us an "Island of Greatness." Actually, I have to attribute this phrase to my, previous product manager at GoPro. He always said, "build an Island of greatness and trust that the rest will follow." Because a lot of times when we build things, we're like, "well, what if this happens over here? What if this team doesn't adapt what we do? You know, what about inconsistency?" So, you have a thousand questions. And I used to do that, and he said, "Hà, don't worry about that. Just build your own Island of greatness and then the rest will follow." So, my team used that phrase a lot, and now we're at the point where, you know, my boss has said, "forget about your Island of Greatness. There's tourists now! Everybody wants a piece of your Island!" So yeah. So that was sort of my journey. And I recognize that giving people space, trusting them to do the right thing, just laying down the guiding principles really, really works. And protect your team from noise, so that they can do great things. And these are things I picked up from working with other people, but I never really got to practice it and build it on my own until each time I had a thought like that, I would be like, let's try this out! Let's see if this works. And so, I got to give kudos to the team because I think I was also really lucky because the humans on my team are just amazing. They just... they believe in the mission, they practice the right values, and they care about each other. There's a value at Pluralsight called, "Create with possibility." and I always say that we hire very strongly against that value. Asking questions Jorge: If I might reflect this back to you, what you're describing sounds to me like the journey from someone who is perhaps in more of an individual contributor role, moving to a role of leadership. And I suspect that a lot of designers can empathize with this notion that, I am stepping into this role of leadership in an environment where I don't have the same qualifications as some of the people that I'm leading. You said that search was a very engineer-driven position. We haven't talked about your own background, but I'm assuming from that, that you're not an engineer by training, and I'm wondering how does one overcome the... I don't know if to call it insecurities or the sense that, like, "who am I to go in and lead this group of engineers, when I, myself, am not an engineer?" Hà: Yeah. I think that the experience I had at GoPro really provided me with... I'm not sure if it's a practice because people always ask me to teach or train them on my practice, but I don't know if I have one. I think it comes down to asking good questions and figuring out like a way to answer their questions. So, for example, if you think about what design does is that we ask questions about the problem so that we could define the right problem to solve, and then we might do design explorations or prototyping, so on and so forth to test those hypotheses. However, the design toolbox leaves a lot of holes you know, like, on the technical side, maybe our prototype doesn't include real data or can't include real data just because the toolbox we have. On the engineering side, they can build things, but they lack the human centered side. Or at least that's not the question that engineers tend to ask. When I was working at GoPro, we were trying to build experiences, for example, for 360º video storytelling. So, when you think about a camera that captures 360º, it's a mental model that humans don't have, right? So, all of us who were asking questions, "well, what does storytelling for 360º look like?" Any assumptions we make is incorrect. So, what the process of trying to validate or to research what the engagement model might be like, it's just a lot of asking questions. Design might come up with some prototypes, engineers might come up with their own prototypes, but it's that process of working together where everything is an assumption and you're standing on each other's shoulders, one question at a time. That's really the secret sauce. And so, in order for you to have that you have to build a culture, where the team trusts each other, and the team is grounded in the question they're asking. When I came to search, I didn't have any experience with search, nor do I have an engineering background. I just knew to ask questions and I understood the kinds of discovery behaviors and motivation that our learners have on our platform. That was what I had. I understood like, there's another piece of experience I have, I think most people don't have is, I really asked the questions about motivation and behavior. About 20 years ago, when I started in my career, I worked on an edutainment type of product. And there were some game mechanics in the product that we were building. And so, I understood this triggered response you know, that's ingrained in every interaction. I understood that if you feed the user something, you shift the framing. And that basically pushed them to react a certain way. You can see this in search auto-suggest, right? If you just type in a query and nothing happened, you're going to type in your query because it's what you can recall. But if you suggest something, then you can shift the user's behavior because the query they put in might not be something that they are looking for, but it's only what they can recall in their own knowledge. But if you suggest something tangential, then suddenly you've shifted the user's behavior, right? So, I felt like the questions I was asking engineers helped them to kind of set like the milestone for the next thing. And the advantage was that I had this team who had never worked in search either, so they didn't assume they knew anything. And I think sometimes like when we reflect back on our journey, I used to tell the engineer that it was great because you didn't know any better. So, we didn't have any assumptions that we knew more than the other person. We were all on this journey together, and that was really great. It was just us asking questions, one on top of the other. One of the first question the team asked was — we were replacing the previous search engine — and one of the engineers asked, "what is the success metric? How do we know that we've achieved our goal?" We said, "well, of course it has to be relevant." And then one asked, "well, what does relevance mean?" Right? And that's really, really hard. So, I said, "well, what if relevance only means that it doesn't suck any worse than the previous search?" Right? So, then one of our engineers, what he did was he created the script that you compared the top 10 results of our search, the previous one, that was the first — kind of the first, very, very early versions we did, right? — but I just brought up the example that when you're building a product and you're building a team that works really well together, you're really building the practice of asking questions and your questions gradually get better and better and better. So, that whole experience, I felt taught me so much about building good products and building good teams. Exploring the domain Jorge: I'm very excited about this parallel trajectory between building products and building teams. I have a sense that there is a strong correlation between the two: great teams make great products. And I would expect that the converse is also true? Without a great team, it would be difficult to make a great product. And I also love the idea of asking good questions being at the core of making progress with both. Have you discovered any practices for developing better question-making abilities? Hà: Yeah, so, I'm really old, so I've lived through a lot of failures. But I noticed when you start a new product or when somebody has a great idea or like sales comes up with something they want to sell, things like that. A lot of times when people think of new ideas, they think it's like this moment of Eureka where it's so clear what we have to do. But it's really muddy. There's a lot of word salads being thrown around, right? People have meetings, they each provide their perspective, but there's a thousand assumptions between the starting point and that end goal. Or when you're building something like search... I keep going back to search because there were so many unknowns. And when you're building something with technology that you know nothing about, where do you start? I have to qualify this by saying that before the team joined, I had done a ton of qualitative research. I had a point of view around our learner's motivation and their context. So, I felt like I had a good grounding on the problem that we're trying to solve, right? The problems continue to change because we get the problem of scaling all the time, but generally I felt like I understood our users. So, that guided me a lot. But when you're faced with a lot of unknowns, whether it's feasibility or just the problem is vast, what I normally do is I try to get the engineering team to build something, anything. And I also learned this again, from my experience at GoPro, because you're working in emerging tech and you know, nothing. So, what engineers usually do is they will try out things. Sometimes when you work in a sprint, sometimes you see engineering doing these spikes, right? They're like, "oh, I'm going to go do these spikes so they could research something." A lot of times when people are just brainstorming or whiteboarding, they're making assumptions about what they think they know, but actually it's not true reality. And then, when we design, we all have this experience, right? We have an idea, we sketch it on a piece of paper and then we go "Oh, this is a great idea! I'm going to go and I'm going to explore it." And then we go into our design tools and we flush it out. Sometimes when you flush it out, you realize, man, that was a stupid idea or here's why it doesn't work, right? Or what often happens also is that in the process of you doing that, you come up with other ideas that are better. The problem with the process that we have today in many software companies is that designers are this, but engineers just look at the implementation or the feasibility. Engineers don't get involved at the beginning to push the boundaries or to just play. And you know, engineers also have a problem with ambiguity because sometimes when I push teams to do this, they're "like, what do we do? We don't know what to do. Like, there's too much ambiguity. We can't handle that much ambiguity." I did this with our team previously, where I got them to prototype the structure of the browse fly-out menu. And I didn't make it a requirement. I just said, "we have this constraint to build this menu." And I said, "let's take two hack weeks. Like, you have two weeks and just go and play. Like, just... prototype. Ugly prototype." And one of the engineers told me this story. He said that he was having a conversation with the rest of the engineers and I didn't require everyone to do this. I just kept it open. Anyone who wants to do it, can do it. And the other engineers said, well, I don't get it, what does Hà want us to do? And this one engineer said, "she just wants us to have fun." But that exercise actually got us the solution we needed. Other teams had tried to solve it, and they keep hitting this constraint. So, what we did was we actually provided a hack that was a creative solution in the interim. And that also... those prototypes enable the rest of the team to ask additional questions, like how do we surface these topics in the menu? And data science took over and data science did their own prototypes. So, it was prototype, prototype, prototype. So, I really believe in getting engineers involved at the onset of big problems. But usually, I try to boil it down to like some core constraint that I want them to explore. And even if the prototype doesn't work out, it answers additional questions that we didn't realize, like what you want to do if you want to identify the unknown unknowns as fast as possible. And sometimes the unknown unknowns provide you with additional questions about the possibilities about where you might go. And sometimes it just surfaces the risk immediately, where you're like, okay, that's not going to go anywhere. Let’s eliminate that, right? Versus design doing all this stuff, and then you hit the constraint and you have to do all these work arounds and then you have a compromised experience. So, that's been my practice and I always think that if you get engineers involved early, you will unlock their technical imagination. And so that's the battle that I fight all the time at any company, is I try to push back on deadlines and arbitrary constraints, so that I can give my team space to play. Because I know that if they did that, they would build a better product. The bounds of identity Jorge: What I'm hearing there is that we are somehow bound by our self-identities, whether it be as an engineer or as a designer. And when you were talking about engineers gravitating towards trying to solve a problem versus this more designerly approach of tackling the uncertainty that comes in that first part of the double diamond, right? It sounded to me like what you're doing is you're helping jog these people who self-identify as problem solvers to reframe their own role as one that maybe is not so much about problem solving but can be also about playing and about tinkering with different directions. Is that a fair a fair reflection? Hà: Yeah. I also think that in every problem there is time for divergent explorations and there's time for convergent explorations. And some people are good at one and some people are good at others. So, I want to make sure that I provide the space for any practitioner to contribute wherever they feel that secret sauce will be applied. And a lot of times we just peg designers as the ones who were always working on the divergent ones. But really data scientists are amazing at doing that. And some engineers also. They ask questions that we would never ask. And I think that's the valuable part about innovation. Closing Jorge: That sounds to me like great advice for everyone, to just give yourself opportunities for both types of thinking, both divergent and convergent thinking. Thank you for sharing that with us and for sharing your time. Where can folks follow up with you? Hà: I'm on Twitter. I try to limit myself to one social media network because it's too much work. But yeah, I'm on Twitter, @hpdailyrant. People ask me where that handle comes from — the @hpdailyrant, or sometimes people call it "the rant" — began when I worked at a startup and was ranting about every single problem that came up every single day at the start up. But it's evolved. Yeah, so follow up with me on Twitter. I answer most questions I get on DM also. Jorge: Fantastic. Thank you so much for being with us, Hà. Hà: Thanks Jorge! Thanks for having me on.

14 feb

27 min 10 seg

Kourosh Dini is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and productivity expert. He is the author of an excellent book on how to take smart notes using DEVONthink, a personal information management tool. In this conversation, we discuss smart note-taking and how DEVONthink can help us work more effectively. Show notes Kourosh Dini Being Productive Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink by Kourosh Dini How to Take Smart Notes by Sonke Ahrens DEVONthink Zettelkasten Niklas Luhmann Evernote Notion Roam Research macOS Finder Craft Markdown BBEdit iA Writer Typora Scrivener Keynote Ulysses OmniFocus Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Kourosh, welcome to the show. Kourosh: Thanks so much for having me, Jorge. Jorge: Well, I'm so glad that you are able to join us. For folks who might not know you, can you please tell us about yourself? About Kourosh Kourosh: Sure. Most of my work is I'm a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. And I work with clients, I see patients and do some medication, but also do a lot of talk therapy type work. I've also developed into a writer: I write about task management, I write about taking notes — basically things that involve trying to do things that feel meaningful, trying to do good work. And, throughout my life I've also been a piano player, musician; I like to tinker around with sounds. It's a lot of fun and I've yet to stop. And I can add one more: I enjoy video games. So all of that together is whatever I am. I guess that's how I introduce myself. Jorge: Well, that's great. I reached out to you because of the productivity side of that formula. I have been using a tool called DEVONthink for a couple of years. And it wasn't until I read one of your books called Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink, that the tool really clicked for me. And I'm hoping that we will get into productivity and more particularly note-taking. The book, like I said, it's called Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink. What are "smart notes"? Note-taking systems Kourosh: What are smart notes? You know, I take the title from, Sonke Ahrens's book, which was How to Take Smart Notes. And he had based it on the Zettelkasten approach; this idea of having individual notes that really captured a single idea that would then link to other notes. Which in turn would link back and based on this approach that the sociologist — Luhmann was it? — that put together this analog system of note cards. And then Sonke Ahrens had translated that into these digital versions. So, smart notes, I think encapsulates a lot of different ideas that come from that very simple process. Again, the simple process is: You have a single note that has maybe a single idea to it, and then you connect that to other notes. And what makes it smart, I think, is where you start to reflect on those notes. How you start to develop them over time, how they start to argue with each other in time, because what you've written now is different than what you've written in the past, and you start discovering things. It's not so much the notes themselves, so much as the effect they have on you, I suppose. Jorge: I remember when I was in school, I would take copious notes of what the teacher was saying. And I would try to transcribe things verbatim, you know, and I would always be behind the words that were coming out of the teacher's mouth. And later on, when I was in professional context — in meetings — I would also try to take notes of what was being said in a meeting, right? And I was not trying to be verbatim at that point but trying to summarize on the fly. And I'm saying that because I think that for many people, the idea of notes evokes this notion of just writing down the things that you're hearing or seeing in the environment. But what I'm hearing from you in this concept of smart notes is slightly different, no? Kourosh: Absolutely. I mean, I came from the same sort of process of taking notes that, maybe I wouldn't write it down verbatim, but I would just try to write down whatever I could when I was in class, similar to what you're describing. But then the issue is that — at least when I was doing it — I wouldn't have a destination for it beyond maybe an exam or the thing that I was assigned to. Maybe do homework with or something like that. Because it wasn't embedded in the system that I was developing for myself — just this idea of having my own thoughts and connecting them — it didn't really prompt me to clarify my thoughts and so in that sense, the relationship that one has with their writing, or the relationship I had with my writing, changed significantly once I started to develop a system that was my own. Jorge: When you say 'system,' I'm thinking it's not just a repository of things. It's also composed of processes and ways of making the ideas actionable somehow. Kourosh: Absolutely. You want the ideas to be able to come to you when and where they are useful to you and you want them to stay out of the way otherwise. And to do that isn't that hard from using a system where you just... you link to things that are meaningful and to any particular note. But then as you develop that, the hard part is where you start looking at what these notes are saying and how they might be different. The perspectives that these notes have on the same object, whatever it is you're exploring, you might start thinking, "one of these has got to be wrong." Or "maybe these are both pointing at the same thing and there are different ways of looking at it, and how do I reconcile that?" Whether it's my own thoughts from the past or some other authors ideas. So, when you try to achieve the sort of coherency between your ideas, that's I think what I'm referring to when I say 'system' — that when you do that, you're trying to achieve a coherency of meaningful ideas within yourself because you're trying to understand it and build on it at the same time. Jorge: And this coherency is something that before using tools like DEVONthink I would do inside of my head, right? Again, by writing on a sketchbook, but I was limited to what was on my mind. And the system that you're describing, at least as I've built my own, based on the things that I read in your book, is a system that augments my mind in that it takes these ideas out of my head, puts them in what is really a database, ultimately, that allows me to easily find relationships, that would not be as discoverable otherwise. Is that a fair description of it? Kourosh: Absolutely. Yeah. Once you put it down — once you've written it in a way that's easily accessible — then the work of having to hold it in your head is relieved. So, you can actually do the other work of thinking on top of that. You can build on top of those ideas much more easily. Why DEVONthink? Jorge: So there are several systems... several tools let's say so that we don't confuse folks by over using the word 'system.' There are several tools that can be used to implement such a thing. I was in a discussion a couple of weeks ago with friends who were talking about migrating from Evernote and they were considering Notion. Or another one that we hear about a lot these days is Roam Research. And I'm wondering, why DEVONthink? Kourosh: You're right. There are quite a number of note-taking apps and new ones coming up all the time. DEVONthink... so I've been using it for several years already. Now it's been probably at least a decade that I've been using it. When I first approached it, I was kind of using it as a Finder equivalent, just throwing things in there. And there were little bits that had some benefits to it. Like, I could link to anything in it and-it was a strong, good, robust link. It wouldn't break down like some of the Finder ones and the alias function, which in DEVONthink is called 'replicant' also was more reliable. It was good. But I didn't use it too much beyond that. And then once I started to do notes, certain functions in DEVONthink became much more apparent and powerful. So probably the biggest example is the AI. One of the things that distinguished DEVONthink I think head and shoulders above just about any other a note-taking app is this AI. And at first, I thought of it more as a gimmick. I didn't think of it as very useful. You know, you throw a bunch of PDFs in there and maybe one of them it would say, "Hey, what about these other PDFs? Are they useful to you?" And, I said, "Okay, yeah, that's nice." But when I started to take these notes, and when I started to organize it myself, that's where the AI started to, I guess, rest on my own organizing process. So, now when I write something down, let's say in some particular niche of psychoanalytic thought, or maybe I'm writing about, you know, I've been interested in; structure of stories, I write some small nuance of that. Suddenly in the sidebar it shows me a handful of ideas that I've already written that could be related. And it's not that it's just taking the same words or something. It's not just saying, "Oh, I've mentioned the title of this somewhere else." It seems to go through this process of thinking about the relationships of the words together in such a way that it feels meaningful. It feels like... like if I start writing about character, then I discover ideas from stories and how characters are built on story, but I can also have it present things about defense mechanisms that might be more relevant than psychoanalysis. And suddenly I can think about these two very different approaches to the idea of character and see where they overlap, how they go together. And, you know, oftentimes I might think of these sorts of associations myself, but it's very nice to have the system say, "Hey, these are other things you've written that may not seem directly relevant — you may not think of them immediately — but hey, you might think that they're relevant." And very often they are. And it's just so lovely to have that. So, that's one — I'd say impressive to me — reason to stick with it, but there's others. I mean, I can throw any file in there. I can have audio files. I can have image files. And there are tools that work with these within DEVONthink, as well as the files are directly accessible by anything else. It's not just, I can export them. You know, I can do that. But I can also open a particular file at any point with any app that would work with it. So, a text file... I have half a dozen note editors that whichever one I feel like working with because one's better than the other at something... I can do that. Save it and jump to another one very quickly. And they're all sitting happily in DEVONthink where I may have tagged it, I may have linked it to who knows what else as well as multiple databases. So, anyway, I can talk about that too. Point is, there's a good number of reasons why, to me it just reigns supreme in terms of these note-taking apps. I will say that there are some of these other apps do things that DEVONthink doesn't. Such as, you mentioned, Roam. Another one that's come out recently is Craft, where you have these, blocks, these block references. And DEVONthink does not do that. I've tried them out, and I continually stumble on myself, trying to make them work. So maybe that's part of my issue. But in the end, I've found that I very much value a simple text file. There's something about it that feels more paper-like, that feels more direct. And I don't mind rewriting if I need to, though I don't actually find myself doing that very often. So, in the end, DEVONthink really is the powerful tool for me. Jorge: I haven't played with Craft, but I did play a bit around with Roam. And when I hear you talk about blocks, I think that what you're referring to — and I just want to be clear on it for myself — is the ability to treat elements of a note or a document that are more granular than the note or the document itself... treat them as individual entities that you can point to and manipulate somehow, right? Kourosh: Exactly. Yeah. That each line can be changed, adjusted, can be referred to — some of them in quite powerful ways. And you can have combines and you can have images placed there and you can drag and drop them around. And yes, refer to one particular line in a particular note, from any other note. Jorge: And the trade-off there to your point when you're talking about the paper-like experience and also DEVONthink's ability to host files that are openable in other applications. I think that one of the trade-offs there is portability, right? In that if you have a system that lets you deal with elements more granular than the document, all of a sudden you develop a dependency on that system. Kourosh: Absolutely. Yeah, no, once you do that, you're somewhat fenced in. Even if you can export it. Even just psychologically, you get connected to that system. I would rather have a tool that lets me manage the things I work on external to that tool. You know, if I have a bunch of nails, I don't want to have a certain brand of hammer that only works with those nails. Jorge: Right. And to illustrate for folks listening in one of the things that I learned from reading your book, was how to deal with the notes that I'm taking in DEVONthink as markdown files, right? Markdown being this markup language that works on plain text files. And I can use BBEdit, which is my text editor of choice, when working with DEVONthink think files and there's this portability that happens not just... not just portability of the entire set of notes, but even when working day to day with the thing. It encourages you to somehow use other elements that you're more comfortable with, or that may do a better job than DEVONthink itself for whatever task you're trying to do, right? Kourosh: Yeah, absolutely. I think that's exactly it. Like if you like BBEdit, it's fantastic. You know, I like iA Writer, is one. I like type Typora is another. I can jump between a number of them and just, they all work. Kourosh's workflow Jorge: I'm wondering about your workflow when taking notes. When you were describing it, you were talking about discovering DEVONthink's AI, surfacing links to notes that you had taken previously. You also talked about PDFs. Are those PDFs of things that you yourself have written or PDFs from third parties, journals, stuff like that? Kourosh: Both. Whenever I find a journal article, for example, that I want to add to the system, I'll add it to a folder titled 'Reference.' And I might even put that into sub folders that it relates to. Or anytime I complete some major project that I'm writing, even if it's based on stuff that I've done within DEVONthink — the notes that I've written there — then that complete article that I've written is now a reference that I can use. And I'll add that to DEVONthink. I think actually now that you mention it, I think that's the other part of DEVONthink that I didn't mention that I really liked a lot is moving from notes to completion, to a complete something. I know it's a little tangential to what you just asked, but I was able to take, you know, about 30,000 words of notes — over 300 notes — about... you know, as I was writing about, ADHD and the psychodynamics of it. And I read a bunch of papers. I imported them, about six papers to start. Followed their references, went to about a dozen, had maybe 20-30 sitting there that maybe I didn't read deeply, but at least a dozen that I did. And I was able to take those 30,000 words, 300 notes, drag them into Scrivener. In Scrivener I could, play with the corkboard there and arrange them nicely, you know, in the sort of bottom-up organization, where I discover, "Oh, this kind of goes here, this kind of goes there," and, figure out a good flow of where the words would go. And how I could... how can I lead the audience? And, in the end, I edited it down to about 18,000 words, which turned into a four-session lecture. And it wasn't hard. It was enjoyable to go through that process. You know, to discover along the way as I created this final piece. Which then I took as a PDF, and actually as a Scrivener document, and put it into my references so I could connect to it and link to it again, further, in DEVONthink. Jorge: The way that I'm hearing that workflow works is that DEVONthink is the system where the knowledge is stored in a way that allows you to easily surface connections with other pieces of knowledge that might have fallen off the table or been something that you collected a while back. But then the actual process of creating a new work based on those connections happens in another tool. Is that right? Kourosh: If I'm creating like a final piece of something? Yes. Like if I'm aiming for whatever the medium is, it's going to be outside of DEVONthink. So, if I'm thinking of a Keynote presentation, I'll use that. If I'm thinking of a long form text, probably I'll be using Scrivener, but absolutely the consumption, digestion, working-through of knowledge and the accessibility of my ideas, all happen in DEVONthink. Jorge: Yeah, I'm asking because that's something that I'm struggling with myself. I'm always facing the question, should I keep writing this note in DEVONthink or do I need to move it to Ulysses? Which is the... it's what I use instead of Scrivener, it's the more, kind of long form thing. Or should I do this one in BBEdit? And it, it feels like part of the deal that comes with a powerful complex tool like DEVONthink is that by opening up so much choice, it does become a little complex in that you have to make choices about what you're going to do and where. Kourosh: I would divide it as... like, I have a sense or a feeling of what I want my DEVONthink database then notes to do... like it's a search of knowledge. It's a development of knowledge. It's a growth. And, if I feel like the words have a destination, let's say a post or something like that, I might... I like the idea of a singular idea as being a note, you know? Trying to get each note to have a single idea. And as long as I have the single ideas represented in my database, DEVONthink, then I can take any of them and weave them together into something longer form elsewhere. So, if I start writing something and I'm wondering, "should I start writing this elsewhere?" The only thing I have in mind is, "well, are the ideas represented in my database?" And if they are already well then, that's great, then I don't need to edit for some flow between the ideas necessarily, that might be more aligned with whatever its destination is. And that's when I might take it out. And if I discover new things as I write that, then, you know, I'll throw them into the inbox and DEVONthink can work on them later. Tagging Jorge: One issue that I wanted to discuss with you, and it's just because it's something that I'm using right now, an aspect of DEVONthink that I'm using right now, and I wanted to touch on it because I'm finding it incredibly powerful and feel like it's something that folks would appreciate hearing about. Like you're saying, I'm working on something right now where I have a final destination in mind, in this case, it's a set of Keynote presentations. And what I'm using DEVONthink for is making these connections between ideas and discovering connections that I might not have been aware of before. And I, like you were describing, I've collected a lot of my own notes, a lot of PDFs, bookmarks to websites and I've been tagging those things as I import them or create them in DEVONthink. And then I have set up smart... I don't remember the right terminology, but it's like the equivalent of 'smart agents' in DEVONthink that surface the items in the database that have that particular tag. And what that's allowed me to do is to very quickly discover these relationships that I have been slowly accumulating over time and — there's a question here, I promise! — The question here has to do with tagging as an activity that you do at the moment of capture versus tagging as something that you do at the moment of reflection. Because my ability to surface those items is going to be dependent or greatly improved by having good tags. But sometimes when I'm in a hurry, in the moment, I might tag something with one or two tags, but that might not be rich enough to describe the full utility of this idea, right? And I'm wondering if you have suggestions or thoughts about this relationship between bottom-up tagging in the moment versus the more reflective structure that happens when you circle back to add meaning to things. Kourosh: Yeah. So, most of the way you described it, I think it's similar to way I might do it, which was: If I have a particular project or something that I'm working on, and there are notes, ideas, that are related to it, I might give it that particular tag. The second way you described it is I might tag something with multiple tags and those multiple tags may not fully describe everything about it. That second way I avoid. Any tag that I have, I've made it a principle for myself to have a very clear purpose. I think it's often approached... and I don't know if I'm misinterpreting, please let me know. But I think it's often that tags can be approached as like, "Well, I'm going to add everything that comes to mind about it." Like, it's used associationally, and then hopefully you'll be able to discover that later on in some association with whatever. But I've very rarely found that to be helpful to me. So, instead — and that's maybe partially because I've come to rely on the AI in DEVONthink — that I would much rather just have... Let's say I'm working on the ADHD idea. I have a tag just for that — in the psychodynamics of ADHD, that was one tag. And everything that related to it, got that tag. And then later on, I realized there were certain ones that I thought would be important to have and I'd forgotten to tag them. So, I created a smart rule that said, "search for everything that has the phrase either 'ADHD' or maybe the phrase 'concentration', or whatever it was, and also does not have that tag." And I was able to search through and then, "Okay, these are the ones that need to be tagged." Okay. So, then I go ahead and tag them. And then once I have them all tagged, now I have all those notes. And that's where I can grab them all, drag them into Scrivener and do whatever I want with them. Anyway, the one question you'd said was, "Do I tag it before or after, as it enters, or later on?" I'm not sure it matters. I think, whatever... when you realize that it's a part of your project, that's a good time. You know, I work to have it so that everything's within the notes and not in, PDFs or scraps or webpages. Once I've fleshed out all my thoughts and now, they're all notes that are interlinked, that's a great time to move it on. But yeah, I would avoid the kind of associational tagging. At least that's the way I've done it. Being deliberate Jorge: If I might reflect that back to you, and just as a way of starting to wind down the conversation, it feels to me just from hearing you describe it, and from my own experience, that systems like DEVONthink are most useful when they're used purposefully, where it's not like an arbitrary dump. We used to have this term: a junk drawer app, right? Like, where you just dump stuff. And it doesn't feel like that's what this is. This is really a purposeful thinking tool. And if you bring purpose to it, you're going to get a lot out of it. Kourosh: Absolutely. I will embarrassingly say, though, I do have a database in DEVONthink that functions as a junk drawer. So, I'm not immune to it. But the database of my notes? That is very deliberate. There's another database, which is a bunch of websites of "I found something funny," or "there was a nice joke," or "there's some social-something happening." And that just... I have an organization in there, but I have yet to figure out what I'll do with that organization. So, it's a junk drawer. But I don't get much out of it unless I'm doing it like I do my notes. The notes? That's where it becomes powerful. Jorge: My dream is for the junk drawer aspect of this system to serve up serendipity somehow. Kourosh: Sure! You could make that happen, now that I think of it. What you could do is you can have your notes database open, and then you have also the junk drawer database open, and then as you're working, consider also — see also — all that... brings anything to mind from in DEVONthink. It'd be an interesting experiment. Jorge: Well, I'm going to try that out. I frankly didn't even know that that was a thing. I thought that databases were separate. Kourosh: Yeah, you can do it. I'm pretty sure you can. Now that your question and I'm like now 95% instead of a hundred percent certain! I have to go double-check now. But I'm pretty sure you can do that. Closing Jorge: Well, fantastic. This has been such a pleasure talking with you about this, and I feel like we could keep geeking out on this. Where can folks follow up with you? Kourosh: Sure. I have a couple of sites. One is and that's where you'd find the things that I write about in terms of productivity, in terms of note-taking. I write about the use of the task manager OmniFocus and I also write about just being productive in general, without any tools. What does that mean? And then if you're interested in more of my you know, other interests like music and games and psychiatric type things, that's at my... just my name, which is: Which is a And that links to basically everything that I do. Jorge: Well, great. I'm going to include links to all of those in the show notes. Thank you so much for being with us today. Kourosh: Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed our talk here.

31 ene

30 min 49 seg

Jason Ulaszek is an experience designer, activist, entrepreneur, and educator. He is the founder of Inzovu, a design collective, and UX for Good, a nonprofit that aims to provide elegant solutions to messy problems. In this conversation, we discuss Jason's work on just such a problem: helping Rwandans heal after their 1994 genocide. Show notes Jason Ulaszek on LinkedIn @webbit on Twitter Inzovu UX for Good DePaul University Aegis Trust The Kigali Genocide Memorial The Inzovu Curve Tania Singer Ubumuntu Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Jason, welcome to the show. Jason: Thank you very much. Jorge: I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who don't know you, can you please tell us about yourself? About Jason Jason: Sure! My name is Jason Ulaszek and I'm an experience designer. I say that broadly, but I enjoy, creative problem solving. The hairier and more complex the challenge, the further that it stretches your anxiety and vulnerability and desire to learn from others that you work with or the subject matter of who you're working with, to tackle a challenge, all the better. So, I don't know what role that really makes me outside of experience designer that pulls on a variety of different disciplines. That's me. I have an independent design collective called Inzovu, for the last several years, and I have a nonprofit called UX for Good and I teach and speak. I teach as an adjunct faculty at DePaul University in their master's design program and I look for all sorts of other ways to get into trouble sometimes! Jorge: You talked about the sorts of problems that you tackle as being "hairy and complex," and the reason why I wanted to speak with you on the show is because I saw you speak at a conference a few years ago, and you presented a project that stuck with me for a situation that I think fits the description of hairy and complex. It had to do with the Rwandan genocide. And I was hoping that you would tell us about that project. The Rwandan genocide Jason: Sure. Yeah, that's, you know, near and dear to hairy and complex problems and I'll say it's both impacted me personally and professionally in ways that I still think about today and still process and reflect upon on a regular basis. I have a nonprofit organization called UX for Good that we started years ago, at the center of what it was really about at that particular point in time for this story. We had really looked at social challenges in the world and nonprofits, NGOs looking at ways to address their response to their challenges in a different way. And, at the center of UX for Good was standing up design challenges with these types of nonprofit organizations and getting some of the best and brightest creative thinkers together to go through a design and innovation effort, if you will. So, we stumbled upon and had a rare opportunity come to light with meeting somebody, from an organization called Aegis Trust, who happened to also be a genocide survivor, share his testimony and a bit about their organization, Aegis Trust, several years ago, and developed a relationship with them. And one thing led to another and we wound up taking a team of international designers to work with Aegis Trust that had created and manages the Kigali Genocide Memorial in Rwanda to look at the visitor experience associated with that Memorial and Museum of which it is both... because connecting it to the story of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi, there are more than a quarter million people who are laid to rest in mass graves along the hillside there, which is the Memorial part. And there is a museum that tells the story: the history of Rwanda, but in particular, the story of the '94 genocide. And we were very fortunate to partner with Aegis Trust and their challenge really around not wanting to create more memorials or museums necessarily, but to really harness this... what we both kind of felt was this excess capacity to help people to become perhaps better human beings. Jorge: Some folks listening might not be familiar with the Rwandan Genocide. What happened? Jason: Yeah, the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi took place between... the start of it was really kind of April 7th, 1994, and it ended in July that year. So, over the course of a few months’ time, and of which took the lives of nearly a million individuals. And it was a mass atrocity, very similar to other mass atrocities we've probably heard stories about and was pretty raw. My exposure and experience to it, having not been to Rwanda or even Africa before, and hearing the story and listening to survivors, listening to others tell their testimony, hearing the story of the history and what transpired, was pretty profound. Nearly a million people lost their lives and, in many cases, extremely brutally. And in a country that [had] I think, maybe 14 million [people]? Something like that. You know, to have a million people no longer part of that country, that'd be almost like wiping out a good generation here in the United States, right? Jorge: Wow, that's really distressing to hear of something of that scale. The victims of the genocide, you said were the Tutsi. Who were the perpetrators? Jason: Yeah, over the history of Rwanda, classes developed in Rwanda. And, over that course of time, I'll just say that a lot of those things were kind of weaponized against their own community in some form or another. And so, that was the Hutus, and there was, a power struggle between those two predominate classes. And, over the course of time, a number of different, significant events continuing to ignite action by many Hutu. And I mean, there's so many stories about the '94 genocide against the Tutsi, but I mean, that's kind of at the highest level, I'd say. Jorge: It sounds to me like these were not — correct me if I'm wrong — that these were not racial distinctions, religious distinctions. It sounds like they had to do with... is it socio-economic class that you're talking about? Jason: Yeah. Power struggle, perspective — a variety of kind of just elements that existed within that. But the Tutsi and kind of moderate Hutu were in power and so there were a number of different acts that took place... pretty violent acts that took place, cascading into a significant mass atrocity and a supporting campaign to enable it. And these were significant acts. You know, we tend to think about maybe in this day and age, guns, right? And that was certainly part of it, but these were militant gangs going from town to town, village to village, home to home with things like machetes and rifles. This was extremely savage and brutal. Healing the rift Jorge: Wow. That is really distressing to hear of this... the depths to which divisions can lead to disaster. How does a society move on from something like that? Because it's... like you said the genocide lasted for a few months, and Rwanda still exists as a country. I'm assuming that the descendants of these people, and maybe some of these people as well, are still around. How does a society recover from something like that? Jason: Strong leadership, a strong sense of cultural values. Putting others first. There's an African proverb that I think... from an outsider's perspective, "I am because you are, you are because I am." You may have, heard that? It's pretty popular, but that's a really great way to describe, I think, the sense of it? You know, strong leadership, strong community organizers and people really who were influential in obviously stopping the genocide, but also leading the way and rebuilding. In 2014 when we worked with the Kigali Genocide Memorial and Aegis Trust, our mission was not about helping them to resolve conflict of genocide, but look at the visitor experience, around the Memorial and Museum, which is... when I say that, it is very broad and has led to a number of different things since that time, including work with helping them think about it how to distribute and scale their Peace and Values Education Program. And so, that Memorial and Museum is used as kind of a centerpiece to be able to drive an understanding of the story, to pull and push the connection with dignitaries and state leaders across all over the places around the world. There are a number of different types of people that come and visit, and the story is empowering and impactful in a variety of different ways. The director of tourism for Rwanda at that time said individuals come -tourists- to Rwanda for the two G's, somewhat jokingly, genocide and gorillas. To learn about that. And that's a big push, those two things, from a completely outsider's point. But what has to happen inside of visiting places like the Kigali Genocide Memorial is an understanding and connection to the stories so that people are so moved to not allow, to always condemn and stand up... condemn the wrong behavior and stand up for what's right after having learned that so that there are hopefully less challenges out into the world. What's really important is: it's an opportunity to help influence social change perspective. That's a big lofty, hairy goal, and doesn't happen just because you visited the Museum and the Memorial and took a tour. It's by how the information is distributed and how you connect with it and the stories that are told and who, and how, and what you interact with. And for some people that is something that transforms you there on the spot. Something that could transform you months and infect your, perspective or point of view months later. Depending upon who you are and how you have a tendency to... I'll say, 'reflect on that,' it can infect you in different ways and in different timelines. So, our work was to look at like how we might have a greater chance to influence the perspective of others, through the visitor experience. Our work, you know, research work there — all your typical forms of kind of design research — looking at the experience, not just digitally, but overall, the visitor experience, was pretty broad and also included going offsite, and looking at what kind of things that they were doing to support their mission, like these Peace and Values education workshops that they were doing in local villages for youth. We probably know elementary and middle school aged individuals that were having profound impact on the success of the country for the next generation as well. It was looking at all these different things that were occurring or not occurring and thinking about that. The design of that experience; what happens before, during and after, to help influence change. And we landed on a model, something called "The Inzovu Curve." The Inzovu Curve is, if you're a service designer, you're thinking about an experience map or a service blueprint of sorts. Let’s abstract it far enough if it's the basis of it. But it looks at the distinction between all those interactions over the course of a journey... this distinction between empathy and compassion. And picks up, from some of the research at that time, we were learning about, from a neuroscientist named Tania Singer and her studies about empathy and compassion, and that too much empathy can actually lead to — potentially — a couple of different outcomes: 1) a burnout or 2) a shutdown. That was actually a really interesting moment for us as we were doing this work and doing our synthesis from all the research and study of the experience, because it was like a light bulb effect went on. I was like, "Whoa, wait a second!" Because we were able to use that to describe what the visitor experience was like. And in many cases, instances of where in amongst that experience, were likely so heavy handed in terms of developing empathy, that people were burning out and shutting down. Because people would exit the experience, have no means to process it, have no means to unpack it, not know what to do with it, sit on the bench in the hot sun, and just literally melt. Right? Literally, and physically melt, or just not know how to process. And so that's because there weren’t enough moments to pause and collect yourself and reflect, or somebody there to help guide you through that process, or even show you ways that you yourself can act. Helping them to re-think and recalibrate that experience and what other things might be helpful to include in the experience because of some of these gaps, was where the work was at that point in time for us. They made, since that time, significant, different types of changes, both physically, architecturally, structurally... even now, in the last couple of years with some of the work that we've done, have launched some new programs and new ways of reaching people that I think is actually pretty interesting to the conversations we've been having about how to structure information environments and provide greater accessibility to some of this kind of insight and understanding. Jorge: This idea of giving people space to pause and collect themselves... and space might also be time, right? Am I understanding correctly that the Memorial and Museum project came 20 years after the genocide? Jason: Our project came 20 years after. The museum itself was created in 2004. Jorge: So, about a decade after. Jason: So, about 10 years after the genocide against the Tutsi. And that's when Aegis got involved. Two really wonderful human beings were so moved with their involvement there in Rwanda, actually from the UK. Two brothers, the Smith brothers, who do a lot of different things inside the space of helping to prevent crimes against humanity and telling their stories, started Aegis Trust and partnered with the Rwandan government to develop the museum and the memorial as well. And they have turned that into — over those years — a place that tries to balance both history, reflection, unity, reconciliation, celebration of arts and humanity. Because there's a number of different kinds of spaces there on the grounds. It's a multi-dimensional, multi-faceted thing. When I say, "experience," that's hard for a non-profit organization that's dependent upon international funds and aid and those sorts of things to do. To continue to evolve, in that nature. Many of us as designers are used to working with heavily funded corporate organizations. There was some startup that's got some venture capital and you're focused on cranking out iterations of digital products and services with as much velocity as you can, right? That's... this is slow change. And it's not just a digital thing. It's like, "okay, this connects to this and this person who tells this story." I'll give an example. One of the things that we found was challenging was there really wasn't a great starting place at that point in time. When we first visited, you would get out of your car, you would go down into a plaza, and was like, where do I start? You start in museum building... there was a little lobby there, but that really wasn't as great of an opportunity to orient you about what you're about to see. Over time we've worked with them now to develop some design principles about the Memorial and the Museum itself, the overall experience. And that's led to them building a new... I'll call it a visitor center. And I mean that from the broadest sense. It's just the place to start. It's a place where you're welcomed, where they now have before you go through the Museum and the grounds and Memorial — as a visitor, not as a family member or necessarily a Rwandan, who's just coming to pay respects, maybe more so if you're coming from like a school group, a school tour, or just the general visitor — that you're oriented by sitting and watching and being welcomed to the experience by some genocide survivors. That's important because first and foremost, the Kigali Genocide Memorial is home for more than a quarter million people who lost their lives and all their loved ones that come and pay respect. If you didn't have something like that to set the tone, it can come off much more as a... like, "we go to the museum!" Let's go to the cultural arts center or the whatever. Which is a different vibe. Over time, it's got to continually shift and change to set those expectations that you were an invited guest into this world and start to prepare you, much like when you organize information. There's a big reveal to get into the depths of information. In order to do that, you've got to start by setting kind of the framework a bit. So, that was a big change that they made. And also including some other parts of the experience to showcase and talk about the work that had been done and continues to be done out in the field around the Peace and Values education, which has now become a really big piece because through our work, what we believe is that Rwanda has really tapped into kind of the secret code, if you will, around unity and reconciliation. They are experts in it, from my point of view. Learning from the Rwandan experience Jorge: I know you're not from Rwanda, but I'm very curious, given that the United States, where we're both living, is living through a period of great polarization, where half the population has a set of values and perspectives, and the other half of the population has a different set of values and perspectives. And I'm wondering if, as someone who knows both cultures and who has been exposed to these principles of peace and reconciliation, if there's anything that we can take from that experience that would help start healing the rifts between us, maybe? Jason: Yeah. We talk about a word... I think it's so overplayed and over pronounced so much time, the word 'empathy.' That's an important part of what you can take away from this story. What was part of the Rwandans cultural value system well before the genocide against the Tutsi and is now swung fully back — and they're working hard to ensure that that's the case — is a really strong sense of cultural values. What they've really tapped into — and I think this is where it gets into design a bit — is that they've tapped into ways to embody these cultural values inside of the experiences people have within education. And there are lots of different ways that they have work to focus on unity and reconciliation inside of the country, amongst its people. I'm speaking on just one element, right? There's lots! But in this particular one, the Peace and Values education that Aegis Trust has been working on with the community and with the government, is now part of the national education system. It wasn't before, because there was still not finalization of agreement around the history and the facts that occurred and did not occur. As you can imagine, recounting and putting down on paper and getting agreement on what happened over the course of a mass atrocity event is not a small feat and took years and years to get to that point. So much so that they weren't even teaching that inside of the school system. These Peace and Values education programs were like mobile workshops that would go out in different villages and teachers would take their kids to these seminars, these workshops, or they would take them to the Genocide Memorial for these workshops for the day where they would learn about these cultural values. And now since that time, since the success and the positive impact that these things have had, now they're teaching them inside of the classroom. It's a cross-disciplinary way of embodying things like critical thinking in science class, empathy in science class. Rather than having a class on empathy, it's woven through the education that you receive as a youth. I think that's a huge piece to this. Think about the disparity around education in the United States for just a small moment. I can't even begin to describe that, but it is... you can find wide variances, not necessarily by the subject matter, like third grade math, but by how things are infused throughout that, right? Throughout the country, I would bet. And so, that's a challenge. There isn't a... I'd say in the United States, as strong of a connected effort around some of these things. Around empathy and critical thinking and personal responsibility, as much as maybe there should be in our education system. But they're focusing heavily on that for the next generation. And they're putting tools in the hands of teachers and school leaders and community leaders and religious leaders and moms and dads. In fact, some of the work that we've done in the last couple of years was to help craft a bit of a brand around that and a bit of a story and a digital platform to support that. Because it was like locked up in CD rom drives, and flash drives. And just up until several years ago, not everybody in the country had access to electricity or running water. I mean, it's still an ongoing thing. And think about access to broadband, to the internet, to dial up? I mean, how do you get- these materials? So, they're making a lot of investments in the country and in local communities in those sorts of things, but distributing the Peace and Values education was one of them. We helped them craft this brand called "Ubumuntu." And it's translated in Kinyarwanda to mean "greatness of heart." And that is a symbol that embodies these Peace and Values, and they're using it to help further a connection. It's a storytelling device, in many different ways, not just for delivering Peace and Values education in this digital platform, but also connecting people when they visit the Memorial Museum near and far, both in person and virtually. Making values tangible Jorge: It sounds to me like the Memorial and museum serves this role of making the shared values tangible. Like giving people a thing to point to much like the Statue of Liberty is an icon of something. right. But, to your point, it sounds like coming up with an icon to help align our values is only something that can happen when enough time has passed, where the wounds are not still raw, right? Jason: Yeah. I mean, I think so. I've had the opportunity and privilege to sit and talk with genocide survivors. To be in reconciliation villages, where you have survivor and perpetrators sitting next to each other and listen and watch and interview them and talk with them. And I think the biggest thing that I take away is this is not... it's not done, over. It's not like, "Hey, it's, you know... X number of years passed, and we came up with a symbol that, you know, and we're doing all these things. Like it's an ongoing, like thing, like... you know, there are people who are coming out of prison and rejoining community and being integrated back into society and they have to you know, go through a process that's mandated by the government based upon their crime, and work on reconciliation. And it's a pretty serious deal, as it should be. Those are other elements, as I mentioned, like the Peace and Values education is a thing. But the unity and reconciliation stuff is yet another thing. And so, I've had an opportunity to sit in on some of those conversations and I will say, it's not... I think people think about these things and they think, "oh, that generation you know forgives the other person." And I think the biggest thing to me is it's... while there may be cases of that — people forgiving — so many times people have said, you know, "use that word loosely." And what they really mean is that I'm forgiving you for the next generation and I'm putting others ahead of myself and knowing that the only way to improve our chances of unity as a country, as a people, is to focus on the next generation. And that I'll... I may never forgive you. I don't forgive you. You're doing your time and we're constantly working on it. Forgiveness is an act. It's not a finality, right? You know, that people put others before themselves. They have used the word and they — I don't want to stereotype — I have heard in the interviews that I've sat in on has been more about personal sacrifice for survivors, in many cases, and the desire to ensure that that never happens again to the next generation. There are so many people who are involved working at so many different levels inside that country, inside that people, to help ensure that it doesn't happen ever again. It's unbelievable how progressive the country is in terms of its thinking and being. Are things perfect in it? No. Are things perfect in the United States? No. But to see that from an outsider's perspective and be connected to people that are actively working in the throes of it all is really remarkable. I mean, the amount of female leadership in the Rwandan ministry and cabinet, is I think it's 60% or more or something. I mean, that's wow! Right? As it should be, right? A well-balanced progressive society to get it out of where it was once. Closing Jorge: It sounds to me like it would benefit us to learn from the Rwandan experience, to find a way to develop our own greatness of heart. And it sounds like it requires perspective, which comes over time and alignment in values, which come over time. And it sounds like there are small steps that we as designers can take to help move things in that direction. I want to thank you for coming on the show and telling us about these things. I am sure that folks are going to want to learn more about you and your work. Where can they go? Jason: Sure. The best way is probably to just connect with me on LinkedIn. You can visit me on LinkedIn. Sometimes on... I'm on and off again on social media, like Twitter and Facebook, but LinkedIn is generally the best place. Otherwise, you can visit in, or And I look forward to connecting with you there. Jorge: And I will include links to all of those in the show notes. Thank you so much, Jason, for being with us today Jason: Absolutely. My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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Grace Lau is an information architect and user experience designer based in the Greater Los Angeles area. She’s the co-president of World IA Day and one of the program chairs of the 2021 IA Conference. In this conversation, we discuss those professional community events, and why you should participate. Listen to the show Download episode 52 Show notes Grace Lau @lauggh on Twitter Grace G. Lau on LinkedIn My Disney Experience UCLA ASIS&T ALA SLA The Los Angeles User Experience Meetup World IA Day San Gabriel Valley UX Meetup The Information Architecture Conference Vito Discord Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Grace, welcome to the show. Grace: Thank you very much for having me. It's an honor. Jorge: No, it's an honor to have you here. For folks who might not know about you, can you please tell us about yourself? About Grace Grace: My name is Grace Lau. I'm a designer and information architect and a product designer and community organizer based outside of Los Angeles. I'm originally from Boston, though I've been in LA for about 20 years now. I started my past in library information studies. I was an IA at Disney where my claim to fame is having worked on the top-secret project for My Disney Experience, in the early days. And most recently I was a product designer at a healthcare startup in Santa Monica. Jorge: Wow. I did not know that you were at Disney behind that product and I'm a big fan and I would love to talk to you about that, but that's not what we're going to be talking about today. You described yourself as a designer, an IA and a community organizer. And I'm especially interested in the overlap between IA and community organizations. Can you tell us a little bit about your career as a community organizer? Grace: I have to say that it really started in my grad school, at the library school. At UCLA, there's a library school program and it is heavily in the archives and library studies. And there's a small number of people who were into the informatics track. During that time period, when I was there — we were just before the boom in 2007 or 2008 — and we were all scrambling to learn, like, "how do we design websites? How did we get database? And what does all that stuff?" So, I started doing a lot of event organizing as part of the student clubs, the student groups there. I was part of the student chapter for ASIS&T, ALA, and SLA. And so, we did a lot of organizing there. So, it really started from there as just hearing what people are learning, or are anxious about, and it's trying to find ways to pull people together and move resources together to help each other learn the skills needed to get into the job force. And once I left... once I graduated from there, it wasn't until the last, I'd say five or six years, that I really got back into trying to build a community. Meaning, like actually hearing what other people are worried about. Because, at Disney, that was kind of, when we first started the IA Meetup group — the older people in the LA area would know this as IA-55, and so now it’s the LA UX Meetup group now that has over 6,000 people — but in the early days, it was like trying to get people together to learn about: what is IA, what is UX, what is design? And it was a great community! But over time, it got really large and it was hard to feel that sense of closeness to learn together because once events get really large, it's really hard to find that sense of... that safe space that you can go, meet people, and learn about things together. It turns into events where you have lots of people who are talking, but you're not really learning that much. And so I kind of found that space where I want to do more of that. And I did that through being involved with World IA Day in Los Angeles. And then most recently I had started a smaller UX meetup in Los Angeles called the San Gabriel Valley UX Meetup and we had much more smaller events. And we had speakers who are either very new at speaking, or still learning about products or learning about design and it was more of a learning cohort or a place where we can learn together and speak together and be able to have a platform for us to do that. Jorge: It sounds to me like you were part of organizing a meetup in LA and then you organized another meetup. Is that right? Grace: So, I was part of the World IA Day in Los Angeles. I did some of that event organizing and then I also started another one where it is a small local meetup. So as part of the LA Meetup — it's the large one where I'm a member of, which I didn't organize. Scale and scope Jorge: Oh, I see. What I'm hearing there, Grace, is that there is something about scale that changes the character of communities. Is that right? Grace: Yes, definitely. Because the bigger the platform, the bigger the audience, it's harder for new people to break in, right? So, if you go to a large space and you're hearing all these people are using jargon or terms that you don't understand, it's harder for the introverts or the wallflowers To really jump in there and be part of it and engage in more active ways. And so, having smaller events makes it easier to learn, because then you're free to ask questions and you're free to be closer to the topic at hand. Jorge: So, what I'm hearing there is that the aspect of scale that you're focusing on here has to do with how easy it is for newcomers. It also sounded to me like the communities that you're talking about have at least two factors that define them. One is kind of an area of interest, right? Like you talked about IA, UX, which is I would guess like a career or discipline area of focus. And the other one that you spoke of was geography, where the larger meetup that you talked about, seemed to me to be like LA as the geographic region, which is a huge area, right? It's a very large population. And then the second one that you spoke of sounded to me like it has a smaller geographic scope, is that right? Grace: Yeah. We call it the San Gabriel Valley UX Meetup, because we're located right outside of LA. We're a little bit East of LA. It’s a very, minority-majority populated area where there's lots of Latinos and Asians in that area. And so, whenever we need to say, "want to go to a UX meetup?" It usually tends to be in the main LA area where you have to drive through the LA traffic and deal with parking, you know back before normal times. We had to deal with an hour, an hour and a half just to get to a meetup, right? It wasn't very convenient for people who are living in the 626 area, which is the San Gabriel Valley. So, my thought was like, "well, we can start a new meetup, it's closer to home, it's closer to the food that we love to eat." So, we have easy access to good food, free parking, good Boba... All these things that are important for a good meetup. And then we could be free to talk about it, we can spend hours socializing and talking about things. It's not as, I guess, as...I don't know... well, put together maybe as some of the more official UX meetups out on the West side of LA. Jorge: these things that you're talking about — food, parking, Boba, "all the things that make for a good meetup" — those all sound like they're characteristics that were applicable in the "before times," right? Grace: The before times, yeah. Jorge: So, how are you all dealing with that now? Are you still doing meetups? Meetups in the age of Covid Grace: We're taking a sabbatical, a hiatus — because of the holidays and because we're all getting ready for World IA Day. Some of the meet up organizers and also part of World IA Day as well. So, that's why we are taking a sabbatical. But we've been doing lots of happy hours. And then in the early times when we were in lockdown, we were doing lots of co-working sessions. So, lots of co-working having Discord or Zoom open, and we'll be like working and chatting at the same time, reminiscing about the good old days when we could go out and get woven together, all that stuff. Jorge: I'm asking you, because I've spoken with other folks who also run events and especially regional events... a great part of the motivation for folks coming together is like, "these are my neighbors." You know, these are the people that are part of my... not just my community of practice, but my community, right? And one of the effects of the pandemic has been the... I’m not going to use the word "erasure," but these geographic distinctions have become less relevant. I've been invited to speak at meetups in far-flung places around the world that I would not have been able to be invited to if I had had to fly there, for example. And so, it's something that is changing. And part of the reason why I wanted to speak with you on the show is because you are a community organizer, like you said, driving this local event in the San Gabriel Valley, but you've also alluded to World IA Day and you're also one of the program chairs for the 2021 Information Architecture Conference. So, I think that you're quite active in community building and in trying to bring folks together, especially in the information architecture community of practice... bring them together during this time when we cannot meet in person. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about these more global events... World IA Day, Information Architecture Conference. Why don't we start with what's your role in each of those? Information architecture events Grace: So, with the IA Conference, my role is as one of the program chairs. I'm one of four. So, there's myself, Cassini and Teresa and Claire. And I am specifically working on the marketing and communications part of the conference. So that means getting people together to understand like what's going on. I [also] do the volunteer updates. Whenever we get emails about like, "oh, I want to volunteer!" I try to get them to coordinate with the people who are leading those particular circles. It's really more around like the attendee and volunteer experience before the actual conference starts. Right now, at least in this phase of the planning. At the same time, I'm also inserting myself with understanding what are the good platforms that we might be using to run the conference. What are different ways that we might want to include as many people as possible, to attend a block. And so also working with the diversity, inclusion, and equity chair as well on creating more diversity at the conference as well. So, there's a lot that I'm doing there, but I guess it's not something that I can summarize in a short way. Jorge: It's worth noting for folks who might not be familiar with the IA Conference, that this is a volunteer-driven event, right? Grace: Yes, it's all volunteers. I spend at least 20 hours a week trying to get things together, trying to, get the website up or working with other volunteers to work on these things. As IAs, we tend to question a lot of what's going on and the words that we're using. So this particular year, we're focusing a lot on clean language and making sure that we're not using jargon and things that might alienate people from understanding what this conference and event is about. And of course, you know, having the name "Information Architecture" can be a little bit of a hard hurdle to run over. Jorge: Why would that be? Grace: I think it's because information architecture can be a very hard term to understand. When people hear "user experience," they're like, yeah, I got it! You know? Because UX is good, right? But then when you say, "oh, IA," because if you're seeing good IA then it's invisible. So, it's not something that is top of mind for most people. But when there is bad IA on a site, on an app, on an experience, you hear all about it. But then people want to know that the reason behind it is that it's because it's a bad IA. Jorge: All right. That's the role you're playing in the IA Conference. What about World IA Day? Grace: World IA Day, for people who don't know what it is, it's like a global awareness day. It's one day where we have local events all over the world, having talks and discussions about what IA is, what IA means. And we have a global theme every year, a new theme. This particular year, for World IA 2021, it's about curiosity. So what does curiosity have to do with information architecture? And so, this might be another way for people to understand what IA means, through the plain language way of understanding what IA is. Like what is this, what is that? How do you structure? How do you understand something? And that in itself is IA. With World IA Day, it's more globally focused. You have local events everywhere. In the past with World IA Day, it's been heavily North American and European. We have lots of events in Europe, like 20 or so in the United States, 20 events or something in Europe. But this past year, or this past summer, we've been focused on growing areas in Latin America, growing more locations in Arabic speaking countries and locations. We've been developing I guess... growing the global board of directors. So, not having just people in North America who happened to be leading the leadership, but also people from Italy and Colombia and Egypt to be part of a team as well, to understand what are the different needs of people in those countries and regions. Jorge: Great! And what is your role in helping them come about? Grace: My official title is "co-president." And my role right now is like... well, we want to do more! So, we trying to nail down sponsorships so that we can support the local organizers in hosting their local events. So right now, we just secured a sponsorship with Vito, the Vito community. They're able to provide a good platform where we can set up and help put up virtual events in a more professional way. It's really more about building community as well. We're happy to partner with Vito because they're also very community focused. They want to build community around topics of interest. We want to build a space where people can get together and learn more about IA, and how we can support that, and how can we like help with transcription and understanding the information and content that is normally just available in English or Spanish, but also in other languages too. So, we're also doing more around translation, transcription, trying to figure out what kind of platforms are out there that we can help I guess coordinate these types of efforts. Again, World IA Day is also all volunteer, all not for profit. So, it's difficult because lots of the local organizers also have full-time jobs. As someone on a global leadership team, you have to figure out how can we best support them without overwhelming them with lots of event planning logistics. So, we're trying, on the global team... we try to make it easier for them to manage their day as well. Jorge: It's worth noting the dates for these things. World IA Day, I think, is in February? Grace: Yeah! World IA Day is February 27th. We're also trying to organize regional roundtables for World IA Day. Just so we can help, you know, build more exposure to what IA is, and also to build communities in those regions. And then the IA Conference is in late April. The difference between World IA Day and the IA Conference Jorge: I've participated in both World IA Day and IA Conference for a long time. And the distinction between them has been fairly clear in my mind. The IA Conference — previously IA Summit — was a yearly gathering of folks from many parts of the world, mostly North America, but many parts of the world, who would come together for a week or so to discuss the discipline, right? And try to move the discipline forward. World IA Day was one day a year and it was more local. The intent was to have it be more regional and encourage folks to develop the community of practice in their own geography. And I'm curious now in the times that we're living in where everything is happening virtually, what happens to the distinction between these two events? Grace: That's been a very tricky question because the IA Conference has always been where people can continue their education. It is one week a year that people get together. But at the same time, it's also one of the cheaper professional conferences that are out there. So, I think before the pandemic, it's been, I don't know, at least $900, $800, to attend a conference in North America, and you usually have to pay airfare and lodging, and you actually go to a place, right? For World IA Day, it has always been either free or low cost depending on where you are. And all the local organizers have the burden of trying to find local sponsors. It's more about elevating the local community as well. So, finding local sponsors to sponsor the event and then being able to be more affordable to people who live in that area. Right now, in these times, you still have the benefit of being regional because it's in your time zone. So, I mean, ideally... yeah, you could wake up really early in the morning, like, five in the morning for me to attend events in Europe. But at the same time, that's one great advantage of it being in these times, that you can attend any of the events. But you still want to be able to maybe... you know, on some faraway date when people can meet up in person again, you can say, "Hey buddy who lives across the street, can you be my mentor? And we could talk about job hunting around here." I think still having a local community still counts a lot, because we're still navigating in our current spaces — even though having a wider global mindset is important. There's still a lot of attachment that people feel comfortable and familiarity around, like, what's around us. So for me, being able to connect with the world's IA community, is very important. At the same time, it's also important for me to build a community around me locally because it's more of a grounding effect. Jorge: What I'm hearing there is that World IA Day still has very much a local focus, where it's about building this local community of practice. I'm wondering, given your experience with doing that in the San Gabriel Valley... and also, I think that you're a local World IA Day organizer, right? Grace: Yes, I work with that, yeah. Remote regional events Jorge: So, given the times that we're in, where so much of this kind of stuff is happening remotely... Like, I have in my mind a clearer picture of how a more traditional conference, like IA Conference, how that can play out remotely, but how does a remote regional event infrastructure work? Grace: With the local events, we're still trying to promote local speakers, right? So, it's still providing more opportunities and platforms for our new speakers to get into the speaking circuit, learn about how to speak in online events. It's still a launching point for people to learn, to get used to and then before they start speaking at larger regional conferences or international conferences, even though, anyone from anywhere can speak. If people say from Atlanta want to speak at an event in Singapore, that's still very possible. It's more about time zone, right? I think the local impact is still about... it's providing an audience. People still find affinity towards, "Oh yeah, I'm going to go to the one in LA because that's still my family. That's still my community of people that I want to be touch with." Whereas when you have like a global IA day, and you have like a IA event where it's including people from all over the world, it might be intimidating for some people to reach out and to talk to people. Jorge: Does World IA Day provide frameworks or infrastructure or advice on... like I'm thinking like very tactically. It's like, what do we do? Do we set up a new Discord site to have these discussions? Like, how do folks... and I'm thinking now, like I'm putting myself in the situation of a listener who might be hearing us talk and thinking, "you know, I might want to organize something like a World IA Day Meetup in my community." What would the experience be like for those folks? Grace: So, the call for locations still open because our success criteria for organizing an event is very low. I mean, if you can get a group of people just talking about IA, then that's an event already. We have a call for location open on the website board at You can apply, we'll go through it and see you know if you need any additional support, you get set up with a location page. We'll set you up with an event page. You get access to our Discord. If you are an organizer, then you'll get access to the secret organizing channels. But if you just want to learn about what IA is, you can also get access to the same Discord server as well. We have lots of channels and topics talking about like accessibility and language and how do we want to organize a content repository to help support the events next year? Jorge: And you said it's still open. And just for folks listening in, we are recording in early December. When would that window close? Grace: Hopefully, maybe in January. Jorge: Okay, so there might still be a little bit of time left then for folks to do that. Grace: Yeah! We're not really closing it per se... I mean it depends on how much energy people have to put together a call for speakers and things like that. Why you should participate Jorge: In the last few minutes we have left, I'm hoping that you could tell folks why they would want to participate in either or both of these events. Grace: Being part of the IA community has been really grounding for me. And I think it's really easy to find a family outside of family. For me it's been... so, even if I don't see them in person we've been meeting irregularly, it's been a really great way to get motivated and be mentored and guided through, working with a group of other volunteers. A lot of the volunteers are also veterans in the IA field and in the UX field so there's a lot of researchers, a lot of designers as well, who participate and volunteer their time as part of World IA Day and the IA Conference. So, just being a volunteer just brings you that much closer to the great names of Jorge Arango, Peter Morville and Lou Rosenfeld. So, it's a really, really great networking opportunity as well too to just be a volunteer. Jorge: Well, I'm flattered. Thank you for including me in that august group! That's as far as volunteers goes, but what about folks who might just want to tune in? Grace: It's also just really great to hear like, "Oh yeah. So that's what IA means. And there's a name for something that you've always been doing." Whether or not you are actually practicing IA or its just you learning or being productive... those are all IA things. I think just learning on its own — whether you're listening to podcast or reading from a book — that's also IA work that you're doing. So, I would say, "Come! Come learn with us. Come participate and contribute." It's a great way to meet other people. It's a great way to network. It's also a great way to feel a part of another larger community of people. Closing Jorge: Well, fantastic, Grace. Thank you so much for the work that you're doing to help make all of this happen. Where can folks follow up with you? Grace: You can find me on Twitter; @lauggh it's laugh, with two g's. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Grace G. Lau and you can also find me on my website, Jorge: Thank you so much. I'm going to include those and also links to both World IA Day and the IA Conference in the show notes, so if folks want to follow up with the conferences and meetups, you can go there as well. Thank you so much, Grace. Grace: Thank you.

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Cheryl Platz is an accomplished interaction designer who has designed multimodal experiences for Amazon, Microsoft, the Walt Disney Company and more. The focus of our conversation is her new book on the subject, Design Beyond Devices. Listen to the show Download episode 51 Show notes Cheryl Platz Ideaplatz Cheryl on Twitter Ideaplatz on Twitter The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Kinect Xbox Design Beyond Devices: Creating Multimodal, Cross-Device Experiences by Cheryl Platz Nintendo DS Wacom tablets Siri Cortana Amazon Echo Echo Show Improvisational theater Unexpected Productions The Gum Wall Interaction 21 conference Wizard of Oz research HomePod Apple Music Amazon Fire TV Star Trek Walt Disney Imagineering Epic Systems Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commissions for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Cheryl, welcome to the show. Cheryl: Thank you so much for having me, Jorge. It's great to be here. Jorge: Well, I'm very excited to have you here. For folks who might not know you, would you please mind introducing yourself? About Cheryl Cheryl: No problem. My name is Cheryl Platz, and I am a designer that is inspired by complexity, natural user interfaces and I've had a rather interesting career, or you might say a couple of careers: from video game production to enterprise software to consumer grade, natural user interfaces like Alexa and Cortana. Currently I work at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a principal user experience designer. And I also own my own design education company called Ideaplatz through which I... well, I used to travel the world, giving workshops and talks about the work I did. Particularly about natural user interfaces, teaching people how to do voice interaction and soon to be multimodal interaction design work, to help people level up their own work and move a step into the future of design. Natural user interfaces Jorge: What is a natural user interface? Cheryl: Well, it's not a keyboard. The term was sort of an umbrella term given to things you didn't need a peripheral for. So, a mouse or a keyboard they're not inherently natural, because you needed a manmade object to mediate the interaction and manipulate the interaction. Whereas a gesture is... at least you could argue "natural," right? Like, we could have a semantic debate about like whether waving at your Kinect on the X-Box is actually natural. But, at the time when it was created, it was called a natural user interface because it was more natural than a mouse. Same with speaking to your device. It's considered more of a natural user interface than clicking on a mouse, for example. It's interesting to think about whether a category of interactions that I call "ambient interactions" are natural, where you express your intent upfront and devices interact with you based on sensors and their interpretation of the environment. Like, you walk into the house and the lights come on. Is that a natural user interaction? I think that's interesting to think about moving forward, too. Jorge: What I'm hearing there is that the interaction happens as a result of you using your body, somehow — the capabilities of your body — without the assist of some kind of peripheral... you mentioned a keyboard, a mouse, right? Cheryl: Yes. You can use sensors, obviously, because the computer needs a way to interpret it somehow, but you don't have to manipulate something. You can just move in space freely. Multimodality Jorge: Which brings us squarely to the subject of our conversation today. You've just published a book called Design Beyond Devices. And the subject of the book, going to try to summarize it into one word: it's multimodality. Cheryl: Yes! And when I was starting to work on the book and describe the book to others, you know, the subtitle of the book is Creating Multimodal Cross-Device Experiences and everybody's on board for cross-device experiences. So, like, "Oh yeah! We got a lot of devices. That's a definite problem! I understand you there." but when I would say a multimodality, a lot of people would be like, "ahhh, what is that?" And it made sense to me at the time, because I had been working on multimodal experiences for a long while, since working on video games and working on the Nintendo DS, which was a multimodal game system. But it was really interesting to go out in the world and see what — even in the design world — that the word multimodality is multimodal. It has multiple definitions. For the purposes of my book, the definition we're working with for multimodality is that multimodality is an exchange between a device and a human where multiple input or output modalities can be used simultaneously or sequentially, depending on context and preference. So, if we think about the traditional desktop-to- human relationship or laptop-to-human relationship, you have your keyboard and mouse and your monitors. There was one output, for the most part, which was the dominant output is visual. And the dominant input is haptic, where you're using your hands to manipulate physical input devices. It's not really super multimodal. And it's certainly not optimized for multimodality. You could argue that occasionally there's a secondary output in audio. And some designers are doing a little bit of kinetic input when they use like a Wacom tablet or something like that. But it's not the default way of working. And there's so much more potential there. And we think about what's happened in the last few years with the arrival of smart speakers, with the arrival of voice search on Google, with the fact that most of our customers are deeply comfortable speaking to their devices now, with the arrival of Kinect back in like 2010-2011 timeframe, and the fact that some customers are even comfortable, like waving to their devices and gesturing at them now. There's so much more potential than just moving a mouse and keyboard around. But I can say from experience, that if you're trying to do more than just move a keyboard or mouse, it definitely drastically increases the complexity of the design experience. And that's why I brought this book into being. There are a lot of considerations, there are greater burdens on your customer research to understand your customer's context and views. And to understand what form of multimodal manifestation makes sense for your customers. Because just because you have a ton of outputs and inputs doesn't mean that you should lean on all of them all the time. You know, if your customer is in their living room and they're always going to be near a remote control, maybe you don't want to lean on voice as much as you do the remote because it's just faster to press the channel button versus the kitchen where... the kitchen is a dynamic environment where the hands are often full, and voice becomes far more compelling. You know, those are two environments we're very familiar with, but your customers may have other contextual limitations we're not aware of hence the additional requirements on your research. It's just so much to dig into, which is why the book. And, just to make things even more interesting, when we start dealing with more potential to express ourselves on a natural human level, the ethical considerations become more complex too. Particularly with speech, because speech is directly wired to the emotional centers of our brain, and there's really nothing we can do about that. In our current technological state. Our brain is just going to interpret spoken signals as people and evaluate them based on our social contract. So, there's an additional burden on designers to consider a multimodal design, a multimodal experience's impact within a greater system and impact on the human being. All of those things are explored in the book, the how to take a multimodal experience — an idea you have — how to deepen your customer research to get better context, how to build a systems design framework to represent your customer's context within the system so the system can adapt to them as opposed to the other way around, how to evaluate the ethical validity of — for lack of a better term — your work. And perhaps suss out potential problems and deal with them at an earlier stage. And if there's also a deep exploration of all of the potential current technologies you could be working with and where they fall on a spectrum of multimodality. Jorge: There's a lot there to take in, right? And I think that many designers working today in — gosh, I'm not happy with the phrase "digital design," but designing for things that will manifest in digital systems — are working in problems that will manifest as screen-based work. And it feels like even within... like, if we were to stick to that mode, there's so much to learn. Are there many designers working on these multimodal problems as opposed to like screen-based problems? Cheryl: Well, it's interesting because I think a lot of designers are actually working in multimodal context and don't realize that they're already doing so. Especially on mobile phones because they're designing for touch but also potentially gesture. So, we're working with emotion-based input and touch-based input. They may be also supporting voice. Siri, for example, is inherently multimodal: You speak to it, then it shows you output in addition to speaks to you and you may can continue your interaction on the phone. And then on the desktop, sometimes your experiences are multimodal, but you're just not paying any attention to them, the multimodal side of things. For screen readers, you have customers that need a multimodal way to interact with your system or need your system to allow choice and there's just not attention being paid to that choice. So, it's a subpar experience for your customers. If your customer is visually dominant, and your output is primarily screens, your customers who have visual disabilities are not getting a great experience. And so, they're interacting with your system with a screen reader. And you may or may not — depending on your commitment to accessibility — be giving them a good experience with a connection to a screen reader, and attention to that sort of part of your service design. But by incorporating voice design or acoustic design, even just the speech output part of things, into your work and becoming a little bit more intentionally multimodal, you can differentiate your work, potentially expand your market, and become more inclusive all at the same time. Those customers are there. They've always been there. And your work in many cases, especially if you're working with government clients, you have to deal with those customers. It's just, are you being intentional about it? And the thing is, especially with desktops and laptops, the sensors, like the capability to expand and be more creative and be more dynamic and more intentionally multimodal that's all there. 10 years ago, that was not there, to add the ability to be more acoustically dominant, to process speech or things like that, that was not there. But now we have cameras, we have far-field microphones built into devices. That's all there for the taking, if we want to be a bit more intentional about those relationships with our customers. Jorge: If I might reflect that back to you, what I'm hearing there is that, if we perceive ourselves as being screen-based designers primarily, that's for legacy reasons. And we're doing ourselves a disservice by not acknowledging the fact that we are working with a much richer palette now that allows us to do things like create systems that are more accessible, even if we're not explicitly aiming to design for something like Siri or Cortana. Cheryl: That's very well said. Now to the root of your original question: designers who are working like, deeply in both with voice and screen all at the same time, that's a... right now that's a smaller subset to be sure. And when I was working at Amazon, when we were working on the launch of the Echo Show, it was us for the most part and a couple of automotive designers at various automotive manufacturers around the world, maybe. So that, that was a daunting challenge. Part of the reason this book exists, is to take some of that complexity that we dealt with away from you, so that it's possible that you can add that level. Because at the time, like you needed Amazon's resources to have that level of experience because it was a very complicated problem: "okay, take the smart speaker and add screens to it and rationalize all of your choices again with the screen." Hopefully, this can take a little bit of that burden away. But the other point I want to make, coming back to all of us are kind of multimodal designers, whether we recognize it or not, I certainly don't mean to imply that we're all going to become that designer, working on the Echo Show, trying to pull voice and screen and everything together. We, as an industry, we have specialties. Some of us are visually focused, some of us are interaction focused. And there are going to be designers that really lean into this kind of work. The people who are really living at the intersection of screens and visuals and haptics and there will be folks who, for whom that's like a career passion, they love it, it's great. But there is still going to be a need for folks who are visually specialized. Adding that multimodal layer to your experience does not remove the need for a polished visual experience. It does not remove the need for a well thought out voice experience. It just adds complexity. If it were easy, everybody would be multimodal already. But I also contend that even if you're one of those folks in those verticals, if you're just in voice or visuals, it's really helpful to understand the big picture and to understand some of the concepts of this book, like how you expand your understanding of your customer's context, because that is changing, how you expand your understanding of the different technologies that it may be in use in your devices, because that is changing, and for any designer, how you understand the implications and ethics of the use of your devices in this new world order, because that is changing. All of those things are really important when we start expanding the capabilities of these experiences. CROW Jorge: When I saw the title of the book, Design Beyond Devices, where my mind went was, " well, if I'm 'designing beyond devices,' I have to think maybe deeper or more abstractly than user interface." And my apprehension going into it was, "boy, that can get pretty abstract pretty quickly!" And I was very gratified to see that there are very practical frameworks throughout the book to help you tackle different aspects of design work with this complex and potentially abstract problem space. I was hoping that you would tell us a little bit more about one of these, which I felt was central to the book, and it's CROW, which is an acronym. Cheryl: Yes, I'd be happy to. And first of all, thank you, because I'm just so glad to hear that the frameworks resonated because I am a pragmatist. I love design theory, but it's important to me that people have something to apply. Even in my talks, I want people to be able to walk away with something. And the CROW framework is particularly close to my heart because it's inspired by my time in improvisational theater. Outside of design, I am a professional improviser and yes, that is something you can do professionally. It doesn't really pay a living wage. That's another subject; you should pay artists. But I work with a theater called Unexpected Productions in Seattle. And they're in the Pike Place Market when there's not a pandemic. Fun fact: they're the reason the gum wall exists; that's also another story. But at our theater, for almost as long as the theater has existed, when improvisers step on stage, and there's an audience there waiting for them, they have expectations that a scene is going to be compelling. And so, we as performers need a framework for making a scene compelling quickly for bringing audience members into an invisible context. And so, we have a framework that we teach our students — and I do teach improv with Unexpected Productions — and that framework we use is called CROW. It's a shorthand for four elements of a compelling scene in our vernacular. And so "C" stands for character, "R" for relationship, "O" for objective, and "W" for where. And our goal in improv is to define a little bit of each of these elements as quickly as possible. If we can establish where we are, if we can establish our relationship to the other people in a scene, if we can establish what our characters objective is in the scene, and we can establish something about our character, whether it's an affectation or their occupation — like something about them — it's much more compelling for the audience than just two people having a conversation with no context. Now, obviously designers are not trying to create an improv scene, but they are trying to reverse-engineer what's compelling about a customer's world. And so, I've taken the CROW framework and done that reverse engineering for you and turn it into a series of questions and prompts to help you pull out all of the interesting context out of a customer's environment. And this is important because when you're working on multimodal or cross-device experiences, what your customer's doing is deeply important because that's... like what your customer's objective is in the moment is going to tell you why they switched devices or why they chose a particular modality. You know, what defines your customer's character — how they define themselves in their identity — is going to tell you how your experience affects them. If they're transgender and you've chosen a specific gender, a voice, but it's expressing itself in a specific way, it may have a particular emotional impact on them that you didn't expect. So, what is your customer's relationship to the other people in the room? Do they trust the other people in the room? If you've got a spoken interface and they don't trust the other people in the room, they're certainly not going to do banking. That's a problem we've had with Cortana from the beginning, right? They wanted not necessarily banking, but it was built for people doing productivity stuff and then open workplaces, and you feel embarrassed around those coworkers because your relationship with them is you want to impress them and be professional around them. And then the "where," we've been able to assume so much about our customer's context for so long. Like, they are in an office, in an open workspace, and they have a desktop and a keyboard and... or they're at home and they're in front of a desktop and keyboard. But now that our devices are smaller and more capable and they're smart speakers everywhere and phones, those assumptions are just all out the window. And that was true when I started writing this book, and then a pandemic happened. And wow, all the assumptions are super, like, they're out the window and they're like six miles away, completely invisible now. And you can see that, if you look at LinkedIn listings because — you know, it's tragic how many jobs have been lost in this market — but I've seen a lot of movement on UX researchers. There's a lot of new listings for UX researchers because the companies that are really with it understand that wow, we just... we don't understand anything anymore! And it's particularly important when you're trying to build a system where it's going to allow customers to switch back and forth between voice and touch and gesture and all that stuff. You need to understand: are they moving between rooms? What devices are in arm's reach? Who else is around them? What are the ambient conditions? All of that stuff. So, CROW: character, relationship, objective and where. In the book, I walk through that and I give you specific questions for each of those prompts so that you can with your team explore which of those things you think you know already, and which of those things you think you need to build into your customer research that you might not have already. And I've also put together a set of four worksheets that you can use to kind of power up a small workshop at your own firm. And those are on my website, and those are free, anybody can download them, because I've given a couple talks on this concept of capturing customer context — chapter two of my book. And just a quick plug: I'm giving a workshop on this concept at Interaction 21 in February. So, there's spots available for that at the time of this recording. So, feel free to join me if you're passionate about this subject. Designing the underlying structures Jorge: A lot of design work is done towards making a tangible artifact, something that you can put in front of people and test. And certainly, many of the chapters in the book deal with the manifestations of some of these design decisions. But they are informed by an underlying set of concepts, like a conceptual model that underlies the whole thing, which is informed by things like CROW. And I'm wondering about the design work at that level. So, I understand the design work towards making a screen-based artifact that you can test with people or a voice-based system that you can simulate through Wizard of Oz-type research sessions. But what about the modeling of the underlying concepts that inform all of these things? I feel like I'm asking the question and I sounds to my own ears a little abstract. So, I'll try to make it concrete with an example. So, if I'm interacting with the smart cylinder in my living room — we have a HomePod here at home — I'm making requests of that thing that require my understanding a certain vocabulary and a certain conception of conceptual objects. Right? Like, I need to understand that it conceives of music as being contained in a structure of albums, artists, songs, right? And I can learn this grammar over time. And that conceptual structure, I experience not just by talking to the cylinder, I also experience it by opening the Apple Music app on my computer. And I'm wondering about the design work that happens on the conceptual structures, as opposed to the manifestation in the cylinder. You know what I mean? Cheryl: Yeah. It was an interesting journey. When I joined the Alexa team, my main assignment was design Alexa notifications, like the Alexa notification system. And it's not just like writing the notifications, it was designing the system you can build everything upon it. Before you could build the notifications, you needed to figure out like how you could interrupt the activities on all of these devices. And that manifested in a couple of different ways. And it felt like one of the reasons I was — I wouldn't call it comfortable, because this was definitely outside of a normal comfort zone because it was a really big task — but coming from a computer science background, you do describe algorithms and you do describe conceptual frameworks on a somewhat regular basis, tech specs and things like that. So I just fell back to that to start, using flow diagrams and falling back to my old game design days. And game design too, like you're using prose to describe conceptual frameworks that will turn into gameplay upfront because you can't necessarily just go straight to prototype, you need your developers to be on your side. And always... My documentation usually takes a pyramid-shaped structure; I'll start with prose and then just keep boiling it down into simpler concepts until I get to something I think everybody can grok, and that's usually the core. And with notifications, it was like finding those patterns and figuring out that... In chapter four, we talk about the patterns of the interruption matrix. An interruption matrix as I manifested it for the first time on Alexa notifications is, on one axis, you have all of the different activities your customer might be engaged in, and on the other axis, you have all of the different ways that customer might be interrupted. And then each cell is a pattern, like a way UI might manifest. But all the rows and columns have to be patterns, because if you think about all of the different things you can do on a system like Alexa, there's just hundreds and hundreds. You would not want a table like that, trust me, because they had one for Echo and it was a lot. So, we had to boil that down. And so those conceptual was all about boiling things down, looking for patterns, sifting, squishing, something that I'm sure that feels very much at home for you and the kind of work that you do. And just continuing to push towards the top of that pyramid and finding something common that we can all talk about. The same is true of the spectrum of multimodality that manifests in chapter seven, which is a two-by-two grid with two axes. One of them is how close your customer is to the device, and one of them is, how much information your customer needs. Whether it's just a little bit or whether it's really rich information? If you have those two pieces of information, we can start to have a really rich conversation about what types of multimodal design choices you should be making or can be making for your customer. And again, that was the way to get to the top of the pyramid from a lot of complicated conversations we were having. Talking about the Echo Show versus the Echo, do we want to be as verbose versus the Fire TV? Like the Fire TV, we don't want it to talk to you as much because you have the remote and it just seems talky. But the Echo Show, we wanted it to say as much as the Echo did because we didn't know you were going to be looking at it. And so, how do you turn that into something we can all just quickly talk about? So, it's always pushing towards the top of that pyramid. The multimodal future Jorge: In the book, there are several, I'm going to say interests, but maybe they're even passions of yours that come across. Things like Star Trek as a precedent for some of this stuff, right? And another one is the work of the Walt Disney Imagineers, the people who design theme parks. And I'm wondering, as more and more of these ideas become mainstream through things like the Echo and Cortana and Siri, what are you most excited about our multimodal future? Cheryl: Honestly, inclusive design — in particular, manifestations in healthcare. I mentioned in chapter one that I now identify as disabled, and that's been a journey for me. I knew I had bad medical luck, been in and out of doctor's offices, like a German car, for a very long time. And I am German so that I can make that joke. But this year, I found out that it's a genetic condition that I've had my whole life. And so, I spent a lot of time in doctor's offices. I spent a lot of time watching doctors struggle with mass-based systems and like the EPIC record system. And also talking to Ana Bogdan, who was one of the 10 experts I interviewed, who was working at 3M on multimodal systems that help doctors with dictation and AI augmentation of the dictation experience. There's just so much there! Like just in that one example. I spent a ton of time at physical therapists and there's so much there. You know, I want an Alexa app that talks to me through my physical therapy stuff. Because, looking at my phone while doing physical therapy doesn't make a lot of sense. There's just so much potential particularly in the medical space and there are so many disabled folks using technology that just are continually left behind. And even on things we think we've gotten right. You know, there's still entertainment apps, like TikTok, that don't have automatic captions. And we need to think about that. But there's so much more potential than even that baseline. And I'm looking forward to seeing how that expands. Like when I was working at Microsoft and working on power apps, we never got around to it, but I was like, well, you know, it would be really arduous to create an initial app via a screen reader and connect all the backend stuff and do the initial layout. Why couldn't you just use a conversational app to express what you wanted? I want a list view over here and I want a preview over here and I want it connected to this database and get your initial app set up. If you do something like that, you could do that with voice. If you're mobility impaired, you could start building an app. And those improvements help everybody. So, they seem strange at first and they seem quirky and it's easy to get stuff wrong, like conversational design, so I don't mean to imply that chatbots or anything like that are the solution to everything because they are not, and they can be easily done wrong. But there's just... particularly healthcare, but inclusive design in general, there's just so much there. Jorge: And it's so much that applies to designers working on all sorts of design challenges, not just design challenges that are explicitly about multimodality. Cheryl: Absolutely. And a point I made a couple of days ago at a talk, someone asked, like, "how do you want this book to affect people?" And one point I made, going back to the change the pandemic has caused and the changes to our assumptions... I used to design for the Gates Foundation, the experiences in conference rooms, and making sure that when we bring everybody into a room for a very important meeting, that everything would go smoothly. Whiteboards aren't really a thing, right? Are people going to touch whiteboard markers anymore? Are people going to touch the in-room consoles that we spent so much time working on? What do we do now? Like, how do we get around that problem? And when we talk about inclusivity, it's horrible, but COVID is a disability factory, you know? Long COVID and the impact it is having to people's mobility, the problems are getting bigger and they're getting more urgent. And so there's a lot of potential here and there's a lot of need. Closing Jorge: Well, it seems like it's the right book for the right time. So, thank you so much for sharing it with us, Cheryl. Where can folks follow up with you? Cheryl: Well, the good news is lots of places, because I'm addicted to social media. So, I have two accounts to choose from on Twitter. If you want everything — all of the tweets — I am @FunnyGodmother, and that's a mix of my, design work, but also just random musings, some stuff on improv, everything. But if you just want design-focused content, you can follow me at @IdeaPlatz, my company account. I'm also on TikToK as @FunnyGodmother, which is a mix of design content, also talking about my time in video games. There's a series — very popular — talking about stories from that time. And @FunnyGodmother on Instagram. My company website, Ideaplatz, you can go there to see those worksheets I described, if you want to see a taste of what the CROW workshop worksheets might look like for you and see examples of some of my past talks, there's a lot of links to past videos from some of my past talks about voice design, et cetera. And of course, if you're curious about my career or other trivia bits like that or want to see embarrassing videos of me doing past acting stuff. So, that's all there too. Jorge: Fantastic. Thank you so much for being with us Cheryl. Cheryl: Thank you. This is a really fun conversation. It was great to be here, Jorge.

dic 2020

33 min 56 seg

My guest today is Brian Breslin. Brian is a tech entrepreneur, educator, and community builder based in Miami. He’s the director of The Launch Pad, the entrepreneurship center at the University of Miami, and founder of Refresh Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to growing South Florida’s tech and startup ecosystem. In this conversation, we focus on community-building, especially during this time when geographic boundaries are becoming blurred. Listen to the show Download episode 50   Show notes Brian Breslin @BrianBreslin on Twitter Refresh Miami Google Groups LISTSERV Meetup Mailchimp Constant Contact Miami Herald Magic Leap REEF Technology Airtable Zapier Tony Hsieh Wealthfront Venmo Metcalfe’s law Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commissions for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Episode 50: Brian Breslin Jorge: So, Brian, welcome to the show. Brian: Thanks for having me. Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you here. For folks who might not know who you are, could you please introduce yourself? About Brian Brian: Sure. My name is Brian Breslin, I’m a Miami-native tech-entrepreneur and community builder and educator. I’ve been working on the internet since 1995 — since I was a teenager — and I’ve been building different products and companies and helping other people with their stuff for the last 20-plus years. Jorge: I’ve been aware of your work, I think from fairly early on, and I’ve seen you create what seems to me like a pretty thriving community in Miami. Can you tell us a bit more about that? Brian: Sure. About almost 15 years ago, coming up in the spring, I started an organization called Refresh Miami. Refresh Miami is one of my sort of proudest achievements at this point in my career. It’s the largest tech and startup community nonprofit in the Southeast United States. It’s got a little over 11,000 members, who come together to share ideas and to network and to learn about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and how to start a startup, how to bring their ideas to life, how to grow their businesses and their professional careers and all that. And, pre-pandemic, the format was a monthly meetup where we’d have speakers and guests talk about different topics related to building their businesses and things like that. And we had around two to three hundred people every month from the greater Miami metropolitan area coming to sort of break bread and have a drink and meet someone new. The origins of Refresh Miami Jorge: When you started it, it just started from scratch? Brian: I was inspired by Refresh Dallas and Refresh Phoenix, which both had popped up a few months earlier. I had heard about them actually through the web accessibility community, which was more prominent back then in 2005, 2006. And there were sort of ad hoc , no central organization. But the idea was, how do we advance the local tech communities? And a lot of it was just people searching for their own tribes, you know, and trying to find like-minded individuals. And that was what inspired me. I was a solo entrepreneur in Miami having returned from University just a year and a half earlier, and I was looking for people who I could talk to about tech, and learn from, and collaborate with. That community didn’t exist in Miami at the time. There had been some during the first dot com boom, but then that all fizzled out in the early 2000s. And this was a lull in the market and a lull in the community where there wasn’t anywhere for people who wanted to learn about emerging technologies and where they could meet other people. And so this was as much me wanting to make friends as it was me hoping to coalesce a tribe. Jorge: So, it sounds like there were precedents, but there wasn’t a community already in place in Miami. What did you do to get things kicked off there? Brian: I think all I did in the beginning was I had set up a basic website and I put a little newsletter signup form where people could sign up for our Google group, which was like a LISTSERV-type tool that existed back in the early- to-mid 2000s. I posted a message saying, “who wants to go grab coffee and talk about tech?” And we had like twenty five people respond, randomly find me through the internet. And then the first meetup we had was five or six people at a Starbucks on South Beach, and we talked about everything from like MySpace to Friendster to HTML, CSS… JavaScript was starting to take off back then, and it was sort of a very nerdy meetup. But that was the first one. And then everyone had fun and they were like, “let’s do this next month!” And the next month, everyone brought a friend, and it went from five to eight or nine and then to twelve to twenty. And soon it became this sort of regular thing where we quickly outgrew the Starbuckses and had to find people’s offices to hang out in. And people would bring their own beer, their own pizzas, you know, and the idea was very, very ad hoc and everyone was there to share, you know? So, you brought enough beer for you and other people that have some. You brought enough wine for you and other people that have some. And same for food and things like that. Eventually I just started buying pizzas for everybody. I looked at it like this was my contribution-slash-marketing budget that I otherwise would have spent on my business. And, you know, it worked out. It became this sort of, regularly scheduled meeting point for people to find their underground community. And we continued that for years and years. And I think now we’ve done well over 150 events at this point. Jorge: As someone who has been posting stuff to the internet for a long time, I have experienced the frustration that comes from putting something out there and not having anyone respond or look at it. And it seems to me that your first message that you posted got traction. And I’m wondering what about it drew people’s attention? Brian: I think there’s a couple of factors. One was, there was no real expectation of people, so the risk level was super low. Like, what’s the worst that can happen? If you buy a cup of coffee, you don’t get along with everyone, you just leave. And there was no financial commitment, there was no expectation of you showing off your expertise or anything like that. And on top of that, you have to think about the context of the time. So back in 2005-6, there wasn’t as much stuff going on online and there wasn’t as much content being created on such a rapid clip as there is now. Now you’re competing with Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines and all these things that everything is almost ephemeral. And so, if you don’t get the right person in the right location at the right time, it’s like hitting a target from very far away, you know? If you don’t hit that right target, then you miss them forever. And so, I think we benefited from that luck. And I like to think that we succeeded despite ourselves, because we didn’t really have an intention of saying, “we need to make this bigger.” It was just, we need to make this enjoyable for the people who are coming and make this something they can depend on and count on and make it welcoming. Because a lot of this was also in response to… I had experienced the local chamber of commerce at the time. And as a young 22-year-old entrepreneur trying to get his business off the ground and being basically told, “well, you’re not working at Microsoft? Why am I talking to you?” You know, type of attitude over and over from people. And feeling dismissed, right? And basically, made to feel like I wasn’t part of that community. And so, this was the flavor that worked for me and I was solving my own itch and it just so happened there were other people who had that same itch to scratch. Focus, topics, and geography Jorge: And it sounds like the itch has to do with the intersection between technology and entrepreneurship and location, right? One of the things that I’m hearing implicit in what you’re saying is that having focus is important to attract the people who are going to be interested in the same things that you’re interested in, is that fair? Brian: I think so. I think a lot of it has to do with consistency, with carving out your niche in the broader sense. Miami’s got three, four million people in it, and so at the time you could have said, “we’re a community for business owners,” and that starts with too broad of a net, you’re casting too wide of a net in order to bring in too many people, and it doesn’t have the high enough signal-to-noise ratio than if you start with saying, “we’re really only catering to other techies or other nerds.” And that I think helped us, because we were self-selecting down to a smaller community of people that are geographically bound and are, career-bound in the sense that like they have the same interests and the same locations. And so, basically saying those are the two variables that we’re playing off of makes a lot of sense. I’ve studied a lot of community-building patterns and trends over the years, and most of it’s been after the fact, not preemptively, as we grow our business or as we grow our organization, because it’s a nonprofit organization. But there’s so much more information out there now versus 15 years ago, as far as how to do this correctly versus what are the steps that one could make? And so, on many fronts, we lucked out along the way, and then in many senses we also could have done better if we’d had more mentorship, if we’d had more guidance as far as what’s the right way to do this. It could have been that Refresh Miami, would be at 25,000 or 45,000 people by now. But I’m happy with the levels of growth and the sustainability of it all. The fact that we’re going to be on our year 15 in this organization, which is remarkable as far as how long these things usually last, because we’ve seen so many organizations come and go and attempts at community building in other communities, and even in our own, over the years. Online community infrastructure Jorge: You mentioned the events, these monthly gatherings. I’m wondering if there is an online component to the community as well, where people come together. How does that aspect of it work? Brian: So, over the years, we’ve played around with different sort of types of online engagement for people. Our main tool for broadcasting and outreach has been email the whole time, because that’s been surprisingly effective giving us the control we need in order to keep in touch with our community and also not being platform dependent. Because imagine if we had started off with being a MySpace page, right? That wouldn’t have lasted very long. Or if we had focused only on the Facebook group or things like that. So, we do have a Facebook group, and that has about 4,000 people in it. And then we also have a Slack community, which has another three or 4,000 people. And I don’t know what the overlap is between the two, as far as who’s in which one, if it’s a hundred percent overlap or not. And then we engage with people a lot on Twitter as well. But one of the things that we’re working on actively right now is actually building out better tools in order to support peer-to-peer direct connections and also to give people the tools in order to allow them to communicate around their own interests. We used Meetup for a long time and we still do, but we use it mostly as casting another net because they have their own audience and their own ability to attract potential new members that we don’t necessarily have. Because people who search for “Miami tech meetup,” they will find us on there. But we use that as a funnel to bring people to our other channels. But as a tool has gone through its own ups and downs, as far as, the software being maintained properly and then their ownership by WeWork, and then, later spun out by WeWork. And so, we’re building our own technology in order to effectively replace that function for our community so that people can start their own micro-communities and have our audience to feed from. That’ll allow people with very obscure interests, like, “The Font Designers of Miami,” you know, there might be 10 of them, right? But it’d be impossible for them to find each other without our preexisting community to feed from. And so, that’s one of our next things that we’re working on and helping to launch in Q1 of 2021, to make that something that makes it easier for these types of groups to form and for them to sustain as well. Jorge: And that would manifest as a web-based tool? Brian: Yeah. So that would be a web and mobile based tool that lives on inside the domain. Jorge: You talked about using email as the primary means of communication. How are you managing that? Are you using a mass emailing platform? Brian: We use MailChimp as our email service provider, and we’ve been using them for probably about 10 years. And we jumped around from different platforms before that. We used Constant Contact for a while. We used a handful of others and the honest answer as far as why we shifted from one to another was cost. It wasn’t a matter of, was one a better tool than the other? There was some learning curve at each sort of change, but it was really like, this was the right balance of cost-to-features that we liked. And they also gave us the ability to have portability in that we could take our list, export it, and then import it into the next provider. And so, we weren’t locked in and we weren’t at the sort of beck and call or at the will of say like Facebook, right? So, Facebook doesn’t give us the ability to outreach to all of our members of our Facebook fan page or a group directly. We’d have to pay every single time to run ads at those people because it’s such a small percentage that get engaged with otherwise. Whereas on our email platforms, we’re regularly averaging… 30 to 35% of our list is opening every single email that we send out. And so that ends up being a much more cost-effective and effective platform and sort of channel for us. Jorge: Are these emails mostly announcing upcoming events? What type of content goes out? Brian: For the last two years, we’ve been doing news coverage. We hired a reporter from The Miami Herald to spearhead this, and we’ve been basically the sole source of news coverage in the local startup ecosystem. We felt that it was important to have these stories be told because The Miami Herald was the main news source in Miami, but it was basically scaling back on how much coverage it would give to entrepreneurial endeavors and startups and the tech ecosystem. So, if it wasn’t for our coverage, no one locally would be talking about the billions of dollars that Magic Leap raised, or the $1.2 billion that REEF, formerly known as ParkJockey, raised to build cloud kitchens and things like that. We felt it was important for those stories to be told because one of the big challenges when you’re building a community is people aren’t necessarily aware that there’s other people like them around. We want the people who are building interesting stuff to know that there’s other people that are building interesting stuff near them in the broader geographic area as well. That helps on several fronts, one being inspirational to people to see that people are trying big things, and the other on making it easier for job creation and job placement. Because a lot of the talent that comes to our community comes from outside of our community or would otherwise leave our community because they don’t know that there’s second or third options in case of the one job that they come to Miami for fails, they don’t have to leave. And so, the fact that you can come get a job at REEF and know that if that company were to fail, there’s a half a dozen other well-funded startups that are doing interesting sort of global scale projects that you could go work on. You don’t immediately have to leave to go to San Francisco or New York or Austin or Seattle to get another tech job. Jorge: Hearing you describe this just makes me think how complex such an ecosystem can be. You said you have over 11,000 members. Are you using any kind of system to keep track of those relationships? Like a CRM or something like that? Brian: So, we haven’t used a CRM. What we’ve been doing though on some fronts… I’m a huge advocate of Airtable. And so, I’ve been diving heavily into Airtable over the last six to nine months. COVID has given me an extra time to work from home and dabble on these things. So, we do a lot of Airtable and Zapier. Zapier, I’m also another power user of. I have so many zaps built to automate things and stuff like that, that, if it wasn’t for their like pretty interface, I’d have a hard time keeping track of them. But yeah. So, we use Airtable to track all the companies, all the investors, and then a subset of the members that are doing interesting things that we know about. because the idea is that if we can keep somewhat tabs on what these people are doing, we can suggest those people to others or invite them to give talks or speak or share their stories. And having that in an organized fashion has helped us immensely in being able to manage this stuff because Refresh is run by an all-volunteer community. There’s no full-time staff for it at the moment. We have a few interns here and there and we have one person who’s the executive director who splits her time between her actual full-time job and Refresh. The impact of COVID on regional communities Jorge: You mentioned COVID, and one of the effects of the current situation is that, like you said, those of us who can work from home or working from home. And I’ve experienced local groups who have meetups and who have regular events for their members, recruit speakers from further afield. Over the last year, I’ve been invited to speak for a group, for example, in Argentina. I spoke with folks in Peru. Tomorrow I’m speaking at a conference in Amsterdam. And I’m doing it all from the very place where I’m sitting now. And I’m wondering, how has the pandemic changed the geographic nature of Refresh? Brian: So, that’s an interesting thread that you bring up. On one hand, one of the things that we were known for before the pandemic was, we were the only group that flew in speakers from around the country to come and give talks and workshops in Miami. And occasionally, we would do a live stream back then to an in-person audience here. And we haven’t replaced those events with just purely virtual events. Other groups here in Miami have been doing virtual events with local speakers. But one of our thoughts on this was: there are so many people doing online webinars and Zoom-style video conferences. And they know that model and they know how to monetize that model and make it sustainable. So, we decided we’re going to defer for six to eight months or however long, to other groups, because you’re no longer competing with your other local geographic groups for online content. You’re competing with the whole world, right? And so, if we didn’t have a way to enable the peer-to-peer networking that was the icing on top of the cake from our local communities, it didn’t make sense for us to go to all the effort to coordinate and organize an online event where it was no more engaging than watching a YouTube video. And so, as a result, we scaled back and it hurt us from a financial standpoint because our revenue came from event sponsorships beforehand, and that went towards covering the cost of flying people in and renting space and catering and things like that. We haven’t found a tool that makes it easy to replicate the social aspect of the events. We’re still figuring that out. We think that maybe on our new platform, once that goes live, we’ll be able to replicate that in that you are watching with your peers, and you’re able to interact with them and discover who they are and hopefully get to that sort of serendipitous collision factor that Tony Hsieh from Zappos loves to focus on. Getting that right is more important than having a continuous stream of content, because we could just as easily say, “well, we’re going to run whatever New York tech meetup is broadcasting,” and make that our content for the month. Unless we have the social aspect, all our members could find that on their own, you know? They don’t need us to curate that, or to produce that for them. Because low quality, unedited and unpolished video conferences and stuff like that are painfully hard to watch for extended periods of time compared to high quality, production-level stuff that’s been edited and polished and has all the onscreen effects and things like that. On top of the fact that you’re competing with other things geographically, you’re also competing with other things on the person’s computer. So, people will shift their attention to their emails that come in or back to their work that they were working on and things like that. So it’s not a one-to-one substitute to what existed before. Jorge: You talked about the peer-to-peer connections as the icing, but it almost sounds to me like that’s the cake and the content is there to give the community a reason to come together. Brian: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. And you know, the other… I guess you could say it’s sort of the sprinkles were the fact that you could meet the person who came in as the expert before, right? You know, and the 30 seconds of email or business card exchanges with that person or asking them a question specific to your business. You know, like so-and-so grew Wealthfront, so how does his experience relate to my business doing something else — the new Venmo or whatever it is. That’s often more valuable than hearing the person’s biography, or their pre-cooked-up slides or whatever it is. And so, I think that’s a big challenge that’s still yet to be solved though for most of these in-person meetups and stuff like that. Networks Jorge: When I reached out to you about being on the show, I mentioned that I believe that we’re heading into a period where community building is going to be very important. I feel like we need to find ways of coming together as a society and we are having to do so online especially now, because of the pandemic, and I’m wondering if you have any advice for folks who might be inspired by our conversation and wanting to bring their local community closer together. Brian: So, I think there’s a number of layers to this conversation, and it depends on whether it’s a macro-level or a micro-level that you’re focused on and also whether it’s a commercial versus non-commercial. My thesis is that companies that are trying to build brands, all of these D2C companies, the ones that are going to be really successful long-term are the ones that build communities around their products. Because for many products and services, there isn’t much of a moat that defends your business from the next competitor that’s slightly shinier or slightly cheaper or has better manufacturing or whatever the case may be. And so, community is such a great way to build loyalty in your product and your consumers. And that’s also I think important for physical communities too. I think the analog is like you see companies that build strong bonds between their employees end up having higher retention rates, lower churn, and things like that because people feel like the company is connected to them. In cases of geographic communities like Miami, one of our underlying theses here with Refresh is that the more bonds and the more connections that people can make, the less likely they are to leave physically. And if they do leave physically, they’ll at least maintain connections with the local community. I guess it’s like Metcalfe’s law, right? The more nodes there are in the network, the stronger the network becomes. The more individual connections you can create amongst your customers or amongst your constituents, depending on what type of community it is, you know, the stronger the bond can be. You see this in small ethnic and religious and other communities where the communities are super tight because everybody knows each other, and everybody knows who knows each other and who’s the right person to introduce to if you need something, or to call. And so I think that’s becoming more and more relevant in whether it’s technology communities or design communities or different areas of focus, you know? These tribes, the more tight-knit the tribes can be, the higher likelihood they are to survive, and to thrive. Closing Jorge: I’m glad you brought up Metcalfe’s law. I think this sounds like a good place to wrap the conversation, this notion of stronger bonds. Thank you for bringing it up. Where can folks find you, Brian? Brian: I usually point people to my Twitter, which is Brian Breslin, @BrianBreslin on Twitter. Or you can find my website,, which has links to my Twitter and all these other things, and my occasional blog posts whenever I feel like it. Jorge: Well, thank you very much. I’m going to include the links to both in our show notes. Brian: Perfect. Jorge, thank you so much for having me. Jorge: Oh, thank you for being here. Brian: My pleasure.

dic 2020

28 min 30 seg

My guest today is Phillip Hunter. Phillip is a strategy and innovation consultant focused on conversational systems. He has a long trajectory working on such systems; among other roles, he was head of user experience for Amazon Alexa Skills. In this conversation, we focus on conversation itself, and how to design systems that converse. Listen to the show Download episode 49   Show notes Phillip Hunter on LinkedIn Phillip Hunter on Twitter Conversational Collaborative AI Services (Phillip’s consultancy) Brenda Laurel Don Norman Google Assistant Amazon Alexa HomePod Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCullough Wizard-of-Oz testing Adobe XD Voiceflow Botmock Google Dialogflow CX Alexa Skills Kit How We Talk: The Inner Workings of Conversation by N.J. Enfield Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commissions for purchases made through these links. Read the transcript Jorge: Phillip, welcome to the show. Phillip: Oh, thank you. So great to be here. So great to be with you. Jorge: I’m excited to have you. For folks who might not know you, can you please tell us about yourself? About Phillip Phillip: Sure. So, I’ve been doing many sorts of design activities and jobs and things over the course of about 25 years. I actually started my career as a developer, but quickly learned the difference between building computer programs as a hobby versus work. I enjoy one of them! So, I ended up getting into design interestingly, just because I complained so much about the applications that we were building at the company I was with, and how they just didn’t make sense to me. And all of a sudden, someone hands me a book from Brenda Laurel and says, you need to read this. And that literally changed my life. I got to meet her one day and tell her that. But that was about the same time the company I was with, which was building interactive voice response started as those touchtone systems that everybody hates for your bank or airlines insurance companies. We started adopting speech recognition as part of the platform. And to me, that opened up so many new possibilities. I learned some really interesting things from the get-go about how designing for that was so different from the things I had been used to before. Now, this was around when Don Norman coined the term “user experience design,” and so it wasn’t well-known. But while everyone was also getting used to designing for the web and designing then later for mobile, I was in that, but I was also getting used to designing for conversation: what does it mean to exchange things by voice that’s different from how we think about information being presented on screens. So, to speed things up a little bit, I’ve done that sort of work in startups and then in big companies like Microsoft and Amazon. I was around for the early days of Cortana, before it was public. And I’ve worked on Alexa as part of their developer third-party focused team. But along the way, I’ve always also been fascinated by large systems. So I worked at Amazon Web Services for a while where, at the time I started, there were about 35 different offerings that they had, and now it’s somewhere around 150. It’s just amazing growth over the past 10 years for them. And this idea of how these — all of these — services would come together in different permutations based on who was using it and what they were using it for just really fascinated me as, you know, beyond the Lego-block metaphor into each of these things are by themselves an advanced technology, and then, how do you use all these things to run a business or create a product or serve customers or all the things that we normally do in business, nut now we’re doing them with these really amazing technologies. And so, conversation itself is also a system. And so, it was interesting to me to get into the systems thinking from a pure technology standpoint. I’ve read other things about human systems and economies and healthcare and physiology and things like that. But I’m in tech and I soon began seeing in a different way some of the systemic elements of conversation. And so, for me, the past four, five years has really been amazing in terms of my own personal growth around what it means to interact with machines, including by voice and text, as well as just starting to see the power of systems in our lives. And you know, with technologies like Google Assistant and Alexa, now infrastructure — technology infrastructure — along with our mobile phones, along with our laptops and ways we interact with the worldwide web, all of these things are now very much in our homes every day for many of us. So, they’ve started to cross some interesting boundaries, that make everything that I’ve talked about way more interesting and way more pervasive. So, today I’m consulting in that, I’ve got some product ideas that I’m working on as well to explore where things go now that machine learning is really a big component, and artificial intelligence, whatever phrase you want to put on it, is now a real factor in the mix. 10 years ago, it was still sort of, you know, science fiction more than a daily practice. But now we have… well, for a number of reasons, we have these things, and we have to say, “okay, what’s the impact here? What does this mean for our lives too?” So, That’s the kind of thing I’m working on and, it’s really exciting. Conversation as a system Jorge: You said, “conversation is a system.” What do you mean by that? Phillip: So, most of us who speak, no matter what age, we started learning how to speak and interpret speech very early on. Certainly, before we started reading, some of us start reading, two to three years later after we learned how to interact by voice. And by then, interestingly, we are ready experts at conversation, which raises the question of what are we experts at? Well, so it turns out through the study of things like conversational analysis or through practices like that and linguistics and psycholinguistics… it turns out that language is not just a bunch of sounds that we make spontaneously. In our minds and between each other, we are actually doing some really intricate dancing and processing of emotions, information, contextual settings, history, all of these things that you know are part of our daily lives, and to process those effectively with each other and, some would say for ourselves even, we have developed this system of how conversation works. And the way I think about it in my current work — and this is not a re-statement of anything that I’ve read necessarily — but there are essentially three levels of where a system is operative. One is types of conversations we have. So, you and I are having a sort of conversation, call it an interview, or a structured discussion, things like that. There are casual, “how are you doing?” You mentioned teaching earlier, lecture as a type of conversation, usually followed by questions and answers. And so, there are types of conversations and at the opposite end of that, there are the linguistic structures that help us understand: this is a noun, this is a verb, this is a modifier. Most of us probably hated studying those sorts of things in school, but we learned them, and we understand the basics there. And we know how to use them. We’re experts in them, even if we don’t necessarily like to study how it works. In the middle, there’s something we don’t typically think about, which is how conversations have a structure on an individual level. And so… I’ll just use, what you and I did. We joined this Zoom call and we started exchanging words that we both probably could have predicted we were going to exchange: ‘how are you, how is life? What are you doing these days?’ All of these things are, some would call it chit chat, some would call it small talk, some people would call it, social niceties but it’s also giving us time to understand where each other is currently in our lives. Like I can… you know, especially if you’re meeting a friend, let’s say you can see, is this person in the usual mood? You know, are they presenting to me how they usually come across? Is something different? Why is it different? How is it different? So maybe think about a loved one. You come home from – back in the day when we came home from work – you come home from work and you see a concerned look on your partner’s face and right away you start to pick up something is going on. But maybe you start with a greeting, “hey, how are you?” But at some point, you’re going to probably say something like, “what’s going on? Is there something…” So, there’s these elements of conversation where we connect, we survey, we assess, then we get into things like, a section called negotiation. What are we going to talk about? How do we know what each other means? Do we need to clarify something? So, for us, for you and I today, you know, at some point you said, “hey, here’s how this is going to work.” Which is a statement again that I expected but it doesn’t mean I know the answer. So, you gave me an outline of how we would use our time today, and now we’re doing it, right? Now you’re asking me questions, I’m giving you thoughts and answers, and at some point, we’ll move — and you said it yourself — we’ll move to close out the interview. And almost all conversations have a closure. One of the things I like to point out to people is how often do you…. again, when we would run into someone in the hall at work and we’d say, “hey! Oh, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this.” And now you raised a topic, maybe you talk about a few specific items and you say, “okay, great. You know what? Let’s catch up on that next week.” “Sure. I’ll put some time on your calendar.” “Oh! Hey, by the way, how did that thing go?” And so, you have this other… you have this transition. You’re talking about another subject. Then you both start to feel like, okay, we spend enough time doing this. And what do you do? You returned to the first topic and you say, “it’ll be great to talk to you next week when we meet about such and such.” And you’re like, “sure, looking forward to it.” And that’s your signal that it’s over. So, all of these are well-documented, and for people who study this, fairly well-understood components of conversations. They’re not the types of conversations because they occur across many different types of conversations. They’re not the linguistic elements of what sounds and what are the individual meanings of those sounds and how they work together. It’s somewhere in the middle around how does a conversation work and these systems are actually incredibly important, for reasons that I can go into in a minute, but that’s what I mean about conversation: conversation is a system or more accurately, as is the case with many systems, a collection of systems that’s at work. And part of our skill at being able to converse well is a tacit understanding that there are those systems and that we can and should use them to be effective in our day-to-day lives with other people. Protocols Jorge: The word that came to my mind when you were describing this middle between those two extremes is the word “protocol.” It’s like, well, we’re establishing a protocol, right? Phillip: Yes! Jorge: And the image that came to my mind, I think that you and I are both of the vintage where we remember these modems where you would connect to the phone line and you would hear this awful screeching noise as the modems were trying to figure out if they were compatible. Phillip: Right, right, right. Yes! It’s a connection in negotiation which is for nearly every conversation we have, a crucial step, even when it’s someone who we talk to on a frequent basis. Now, it will adapt based on who you are talking to. And certainly, for meeting someone new for the first time, it’s a very different feel to it; it has a very different feel to it than if it’s somebody you talk to multiple times a day. But yeah, it’s really important. And I’m really glad you said the word protocol too, because we can breach it. And it causes something else to happen. It may not be a problem. But it almost always is a signal that you have to adapt. The direction you thought it was going to go is not how it’s going to go, and you need to figure out what is happening. And that’s again, where negotiation becomes a key part of the conversational ability that we have. Jorge: When you breach the subject of conversation in the context of user experience design, I think of two things. One, I think of the “assistant in a cylinder” that you’ve touched on earlier, right? We have a HomePod here at home, so, we have the Apple variant of that. And I also think of chatbots, which are not oral, but they’re text based. Phillip: Yes! Jorge: And I’m getting the sense from hearing you that the type of protocol that you’re talking about is mostly the verbal one, the one when we speak to each other. Phillip: Right. Channels Jorge: Do we have different protocols for chatting via text versus talking? Phillip: We do, we do. And I’ll mention several books as we go along. And the first one I mention is Because Internet, the author is Gretchen McCulloch and she has studied the evolution of language on the internet, going back to the sixties and seventies, when some of the first chat systems, text-chat systems, were being created and all the way up through modern texting and messaging platforms. So, the difference between how we converse verbally and how we converse via text is a long-standing thing…. And so, like even if you go back to like, when we wrote letters and things like that, conversational protocols were different then, but written was still very clearly different from verbal. So, there are some different protocols and some of them are different because the establishment of context is clearer from the get-go. Meaning that, if I go to someone’s website and then I look for this chatbot thing, and I open it. Well, I’ve already sort of taken a step into a context, right? I’ve visited a website. I know it’s a company. I don’t want to do any of the other stuff. I’m making this implicit statement of, “I don’t want that stuff,” by choosing this other thing explicitly. But with many chatbots, you still see a greeting, “hi, this is Jojo-bot. I’m here to help you with your questions about X, Y, Z company.” So, the idea is there’s still some semblance of this because it’s about acknowledgement, a statement of presence; here I am. You can even say things to me. And then the added protocol differences. We have no emotional context, right? And now emojis are a valid expression of emotion and conversational meaning, but we can’t appreciate them with the nuance and the subtlety that we can by viewing another human’s face and hearing their tone of voice. So, as we all know, when you go to text, like… first of all, when we go from visibility to invisibility. So, if you and I weren’t looking at each other during this podcast, we would be having a channel, a signal, that is no longer available to us, right? And then in texts, it’s the same thing. But now we also don’t have some of the audio signals that we can get from somebody’s voice. So, we replace some of these by emojis in some cases, but we also tend to read a lot into certain ways of phrasing. One of the fascinating things that’s going on right now in the world of text messaging is periods or full stops, indicate to teenagers — or maybe even into the 20- and maybe 30-year-olds — they indicate a different emotional tone than the lack of periods or full stops. And, you know this becomes just… for me, somebody like me, extremely fascinating to think about that the incredible subtlety that that brings. Part of the problem is like… I mean, one of my kids said this to me. I typed a period in a text message and the question was, “are you upset?” I was like, “No! I just typed a period!” He was like, “oh, well, periods usually mean that somebody is upset.” Like, oh! Okay. Not upset! Also, ignorant! So please, excuse me! So, it’s not so much that we… well, yeah, I think you said it: we had different protocols. And we do adjust our protocols based on the channel and what signals are available to us, because at some point, there may be some information we need that might’ve come in through… as a signal through a different channel of visual tone of voice, and now we’re just a text, so we might need to be more explicit. This becomes a problem because — and we all know this, those of us who’ve been working in tech for a long time — we’ve known how we can misread emails, right? You see an email and you think, “Oh man, there is something wrong here.” And you go talk to the person and they’re like, “no, everything’s great.” “Well, your email just made it sound like…” and we use those phrases “made it sound like.” There was no sound involved in this. So, we have some understanding intuitively that the different channels mean different things for us, and if we are missing some, then we have to adapt. But we aren’t necessarily good at that. We don’t necessarily think — and this is one of the downfalls of conversational technology right now — we think that it’s the words alone that matter the most. And I won’t quote the stats about like how much of meaning comes across in other channels but suffice it to say that when we have sort of full bandwidth conversations, we are actively using all of the channels available to us. But it doesn’t mean that we understand that we’re using them or that we are necessarily capable of adapting well to the channel loss or the signal loss. So long-winded answer, sorry about that! But yeah, it’s quite different. Jorge: One of the things that I’m hearing there is that there are at least two dimensions that you can use to think about a channel. One dimension has to do with the bandwidth that is available to communicate these nuances that we’re talking about. And what I’m getting from what you’re saying there is that text — something like a chatbot — is a fairly low bandwidth channel, right? Phillip: Yes. Jorge: Like, we lose a lot of nuance. And another dimension has to do with context, with the amount of context that you have when engaging in that channel. And I’m saying this because, the way I envisioned it when you were talking about it, was that the mere fact that the chatbot is popping up in this website already sets boundaries for what you’re expected to deal with, right? Like you don’t come to it expecting that it will play your favorite song. Phillip: Right. That’s right. Jorge: It’s going to be a conversation related to that thing, right? Phillip: Right. And nor do we — for those of us who’ve used or worked in customer service over the telephone — sometimes where we have these little conversations about, “Oh, where are you? How’s the weather, how are you?” So, we incorporate some of these things. You don’t see that as much in text-only chatbots. And the other thing, that’s a challenge there is the fact that we communicate at very different rates of speed verbally than we do typing and reading. We’re much faster verbally. And the other thing is we are much more tolerant verbally of rambling and sort of things that would show up as incoherence if it were typed out. We repeat words, we pause in funny places, we gather our thoughts in the middle of a sentence and take a turn on a dime. And we keep up with that, verbally. Like we’re really, really, really good at it! We don’t understand how good we are, but we are really good at it. And translating that into text sometimes is just a trainwreck, even if we’re doing almost the exact same behaviors. Jorge: Yeah, I can relate to that, having to go through the transcripts for this show and make them legible. It’s like, “Wow! There’s a lot of repetition happening here.” Phillip: Yeah! And I can almost guarantee you that I’m going to be a tough one for you, even though I do this for a living. Sorry about that! Jorge: No, it’s fascinating. And it’s inherent in the… I suspect that it’s inherent in the channel, right? Like you’re, it’s almost like you’re down sampling to a different channel. Phillip: Yeah! That’s an excellent way to think about it. Exactly. And to get techie for a second, when I first dealt with speech recognition, over the telephone… the telephone because of economics is a tremendously downsampled version of audio. You can ask anybody who works in music or who’s an audiophile. It’s just the telephone bandwidth is terrible when it comes to the higher and lower frequencies. So, it’s just a squished down to this middle. And yeah, it’s very similar to that. And so, in speech recognition technology, we just lost all of the signal that was available for processing. If you recorded something into a microphone, we had that nice 44K bandwidth, it’s so much richer than something that comes out of the telephone. And so, yeah. It’s very similar, just that signal compression, the signal loss. And our brains are, again, just really, really expert at doing things with it that we don’t understand that it’s doing. And so, because we don’t understand it, we don’t necessarily notice the loss of it, but part of our brain does. And it’s like, “but I don’t know what to do now because I’m so used to that being there.” Designing for conversation Jorge: We’ve been talking about protocols and we’ve been talking about the signal and there’s all these different aspects to this, and it also sounds like the channels are quite different. I’m wondering how one goes about designing for conversation. How do you prototype this stuff? How do you model it? Phillip: Yeah! Right, right. Well, this is great. To start this, I’ll touch on something, that I think you asked, and I’m not sure I addressed earlier. But when we think about these systems, conversational systems, whether it’s the cylindrical devices that we have, or whatever shape they are, how those are different from what we have available to us in human-to-human conversation. Well, a lot of it is that we focused on sort of the nugget of action. So, that’s why a lot of these systems, what are they used mostly for? For playing music, getting weather, news, maybe opening an audiobook or listening to a podcast, or turning on lights. You know, all these sorts of things. To do that, the command sequence is all fairly straightforward, right? It’s, “whatever-the-name-is, turn on this light” or “play this station or artists” or “start reading my book”. And then whatever audiobook it was last reading will open up. And so, what we’re not designing currently, and what is not designed into any of these systems is really anything about that middle structure of conversation. We have different types of conversation. You can play a game. You can do this command kind of interaction. You know, there are ways to simulate interviews and things like that. And certainly, there’s this undergirding of linguistic information, right? You have to know what the words are and what roles they usually play in a conversation. This is an interesting experiment: If you take the words in a sentence that makes sense in the normal order, standard order, and then you mix them around, it’s interesting to see what these assistants understand and don’t. I’ll tell you that most of them don’t pay a lot of attention to the order of words, but the order does also matter somewhat. But what they don’t have is this like clear establishment of contexts and negotiation ability, where you can clarify or correct. The interactions really just sort of jump right to what we consider the meat of a conversation. And then we don’t really… closure isn’t really part of this either. You can see a little bit more of it in customer service type applications where someone dials a phone number and there’s a greeting like, “hi, you’ve reached such as such, what can I do for you?’ There’s a… like you said, a minute ago, chatbots have a limited range of things that are expected or understood. Mental model mismatch is a thing, but for the sake of this, we’ll just keep it narrow. So, there’s just a little bit of this sort of… we’re giving some lip service to the greeting — pun intended. We’re giving some negotiation, you know, of what’s available and what’s desired. And then it moves very quickly into action. And then at the end of the action, it might… the closure might be, “is there anything else I could do for you? If not, you know, have a great day.” But with our virtual assistants, that shows up very rarely. It is there in some cases, but it’s very rare. So, I say all that to say, one of the first big steps in designing is — like with all other design — is really understanding what’s the context, what’s the goal, who’s participating, what knowledge might they have? What knowledge do we expect them not to have? What do they want? Why do they want it? All of these sorts of questions that are fundamental to any sort of true design activity that we’re doing, are still important. The thing now though, is instead of saying, “Okay, well that means we’re going to have certain kinds of boxes or certain content on our screen,” we’re saying, “How do we translate all of that into words that we can exchange fairly easily?” And right now, I’ve got to say, we’re mostly doing a really terrible job of it. But your question was about prototyping. So, first of all, fundamentally we can prototype very simply. I’m a big, big fan of doing basically the equivalent of conversational sketching, which looks like a screenplay. And it doesn’t matter if you write this out by hand — and there’s some benefits to that — or for speed, you can write it out. You could type it up. But it basically looks like a back and forth of a screenplay and then you go try it with someone — ideally several someones. Someone who might know the technology and help give you some pointers from that angle, but also people who don’t care or don’t know about the technology. What you’re looking for is how quickly can you come to that establishment of sort of clarity of context and purpose and meaning, so that you can proceed into the conversation. That’s what those upfront sections are about. The early prototyping is just simulating this conversation with another human. You can expand that into running that in a way, we call “Wizard of Oz” testing, which is where I’m pretending to be the system, and people are going to interact with me, but they don’t know it’s me and they can’t see me. So, whether it’s picking up a telephone that’s connected to a different phone in the next room and, you know, pretending to talk to the phone or whether it’s, you know, pretending to talk to the cylinder and I can pipe something back into the room… the idea is now you’re simulating more of the end context, which is a person and a machine or a device. And there’s a couple of different ways we can do that. We used to do that in some ways involving Keynote and PowerPoint and recordings and things like that. But today, there are also some tools that we can use that are prototyping tools for voice. Adobe XD has some of that built-in or tools like Voiceflow and Botmock, that are available to do some of this as well. And they… they’re a little bit more system centric in the idea of that they’re representing capabilities of the end of the system where you might deploy this. So, they have some built-in constraints. And then like all tools, they have, philosophies and other things built into the tool that when you’re an experienced designer, you have to learn how to see, or how to work around, those things. So, around those limitations, the tool designer doesn’t necessarily understand all the situations you’re going to use the tool for. But those tools are available and some of them can be ported directly to one of these devices, in a private setting, so you can test them yourself. You can interact with them. They use text-to-speech technology to give the audio although you can do human recordings with some of them as well. And really that’s sort of the… that’s where prototyping ends. There are other tools out there. Google has Dialogue Flow and there’s the Alexa skills kit tools, which I helped create. All of those are much more system-centric because you’re starting to access the assets of those technologies and platforms. But they also have some level of simulation. They have beta modes where you can release it to a certain number of people to interact with it and get feedback on it, so you can make some changes before it goes live. And then they also have some amount of automated testing available too, where you can start to see holes in the application because you didn’t specify some sort of action or maybe you didn’t take care of a certain condition that might arise, but, you know, that’s getting further into the end stage of development, away from prototyping. Closing Jorge: Well, this is all so fascinating. It feels like there’s material here for us to go on, but unfortunately, we need to wrap things up. Phillip: Right, right! Sure! Jorge: Where can folks follow up with you, Phillip? Phillip: Well, my consultancy is called Conversational Collaborative AI Services. Clearly, I am focused on some of the underlying artificial intelligence machine learning things, and that’s at and I am Phillip with two L’s, at And I’m also on Twitter as designoutloud, no hyphens or anything, just all one word, and I’m always happy to connect and discuss things on LinkedIn. So pretty easy to find there. I think I was lucky enough to get Phillip Hunter as my LinkedIn URL so you can find me there, and I love to talk about this stuff! Also, my, site has… I’ve got a fair amount of content out there about these topics, where I go much deeper on… okay, once you understand these principles, how do you really start to apply them and how do you, have an iterative and thoughtful design approach to writing for voice and text interaction. So yeah, so any of those ways be great. Jorge: Well, this is fantastic. Thank you so much for this conversation about conversation! Phillip: Well, it’s my pleasure. And obviously I have a lot to say! And yes, we could go on for quite a while. In fact, I might even forget you’re there and just keep talking while you’re, while you’re sleeping or, you know, petting your cat or whatever I saw…. Jorge: Maybe we need to do a part two. Phillip: Well, maybe so! Let’s see what kind of response we get, but I’d be happy to, and you know, it is a fascinating thing to think about and analyze. And if anyone wants to dive in, I have some great resources. There’s a book called How We Talk by N.J. Enfield, that is also just really, really fascinating. And I’m currently reading another book, that so far, it’s very promising, but I’d want to finish it before I recommend it. But I guess the other thing is, I want to say here to people is, don’t just study the tools and the technology. You need to study people and conversation to really be good at this, if you want to get into it. It’s way more sophisticated than anything we have done for standard web and mobile design. As important, and as difficult as that work is, conversation has some really special and deep challenges. So, don’t limit yourself to just understanding the technology and how to apply it. Jorge: That seems like a great admonition and a good place to end it. Thank you so much! Phillip: Oh, you’re very welcome.

nov 2020

34 min 16 seg

My guest today is Caroline Crampton. Caroline is a freelance writer and podcaster. Among other things, she edits The Listener, a daily newsletter that curates the best podcasts. In this conversation, we focus on Caroline’s curation workflow. Listen to the full conversation Download episode 48   Show notes Caroline Crampton The Way to the Sea: The Forgotten Histories of the Thames Estuary by Caroline Crampton Shedunnit (Caroline’s podcast) Hot Pod newsletter Serial podcast The Listener newsletter The Browser Lindelani Mbatha Listen Notes RSS NewsBlur Apple Podcasts Pocket Casts Overcast Radio Atlas Google Keep Google Pixel Google Recorder Google Drive The Joe Rogan Experience Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commissions for purchases made through these links. Read the full transcript Jorge: Caroline, welcome to the show. Caroline: Thank you very much for having me. It’s great to be here. Jorge: Well, it’s great to have you. For folks who don’t know you, can you please tell us about yourself? About Caroline Caroline: So, I’m a writer and a podcaster based in the UK. I started out my career in print journalism, but obviously things have changed a lot in that industry, and my career has changed a lot with it. So, I now work completely for myself and I’d say I don’t have so much a beat as such I have a lot of curiosity. So, I’ve written a book that’s about the Thames estuary that is kind of a nature book. I make a podcast that’s about detective fiction from the 1920s. I’ve done reporting work about all manner of politics and social affairs. And increasingly in the last few years, my work has been in newsletters and recommending and reporting on very niche aspects of the podcast industry. Jorge: That’s super intriguing. As someone who hosts a podcast and the newsletter myself, I’m very keen to unpack what that means for you. Newsletters and podcasts Caroline: Yeah, so there are two main email newsletters that I contribute to. The first one is called Hot Pod and it’s…. well, we call it “the trade publication for the podcast industry.” That’s what it’s grown into. It was founded by my colleague Nick Quah, back in 2014, the summer of the Serial podcast, which I’m sure many of your listeners will be familiar with. And he was writing it himself for several years. And then sort of towards the end of 2018, he brought me on as the second writer. And obviously I’m contributing from the UK; he’s based in the US. That’s enabled us to broaden our coverage and bring more people in and generally expand things really. So yeah, we act like a trade publication would in any other industry, I suppose, but because podcasting is so new and so distributed, there are people doing it all around the world and people doing it for all different reasons as well. You know, people coming from professional backgrounds in radio, people coming from no experience in media whatsoever and just jumping in as a hobby and everything in between. And all the different subjects and topics as well that, it can be quite… it’s both a great challenge to cover something like that, but also a source of endless excitement, because you never know who you might get to speak to you next week. Jorge: You mentioned two publications. So Hot Pod is one, right? Caroline: Hot Pod is one, and The Listener is the second, which is a daily podcast recommendation newsletter. I both source the episodes to recommend and write the whole email and everything that we feature in it. And that grew out of a company called The Browser, which has been going for a long time now and its main email newsletter is written by a guy called Robert Cotrell, who just has the most incredible background in journalism and media and everything that’s interesting on the internet basically. The Browser has existed for I think over 10 years at this point, recommending articles; five articles a day that you won’t find anywhere else and that you won’t be able to stop reading once you’ve clicked on them. A couple of years ago now, I started working with them on adding audio picks for that community. Out of that work has grown an entirely separate newsletter called The Listener, in which we recommend podcast episodes in the same way that The Browser recommends articles. Jorge: So, that makes me think that you must listen to a lot of podcasts. Caroline: Yeah, I really do. I don’t tend to keep an active tracker or anything like that, but I definitely less than for a couple of hours a day, I’d say. Jorge: I’d love to find out more about that. But before we started recording, you also told me that you host a podcast yourself. Caroline: I do. Yeah, it’s called Shedunnit, and it’s about the very niche topic of 1920s and 30s British detective fiction. So, we’re talking Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Poirot, all that kind of stuff. Jorge: So, given your experience sorting through all of these podcasts, I’m wondering if you developed criteria that you can share with us as to what constitutes a good podcast. Caroline: I think the biggest thing is, I like to be surprised. And I can be surprised in any way. It doesn’t necessarily mean information that’s new to me. It can be surprising in the style that something’s told or surprised in the tone of something. An example, just recently I recommended a podcast that was aimed at people who play amateur chess tournaments. Not something that I do. Not something I’m involved in. Not a world that I know very much about, but I found the enthusiasm and the specificity of the two people on the podcast in the way they were reviewing different pieces of software that you can use to help you organize your tournament, especially online. I just found that so surprising and charming, that I wanted to recommend it. So it doesn’t necessarily mean a big budget or a huge revelations or anything like that. But just something that for me is out of the ordinary. Caroline’s curation process Jorge: I’m super curious to jump into the newsletters — the curation process that goes into that — because it sounds to me like your work entails listening to a lot of stuff and then somehow finding the gems that you want to share with your readers/listeners. And I have just a lot of questions about that as someone who can barely keep up with media myself. How do you do it? Caroline: Well, you’re right. That is exactly what it’s about is filtering out the gems, and particularly, part of the mission of The Listener is to recommend things that people wouldn’t be able to find otherwise… that wouldn’t stray across their path naturally either in their sort of recommendations or on the front page of the podcast listening app that they use. Things that take them outside of their media diet, essentially. So, I’m constantly myself battling against that, because the way that the internet works these days is you consume one of something and it says, “Hey, would you like three more of that?” I’m constantly trying to think beyond that and find ways around it myself. So, the process starts actually not in my headphones, as it were. It starts on my screen where I just try and capture as many different feeds as I possibly can. And at this point I’m just looking for, anything and everything. And I have an RSS reader where I organize everything and I put things in folders by topic and category and so on, so that I can find things again, basically. And then before I start actually listening, I’m filtering by how many episodes does the show have? Does it have a particular series that I’m interested in? Is this something where the audio quality is just so poor that I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending it? So, I’m doing a sort of initial filter at that stage. And then, I move on to adding episodes that I want to consider for recommendation into a giant never-ending listening queue. And then that’s what I’m listening to whenever I have time. And it’s from that, that I’m drawing the episodes of the eventually make it into the newsletter. Jorge: So, the way that I’m hearing this is you find out about the shows through an RSS reader and/or your web browser. And are you collating those in any way? Do you have a queue of shows that you want to listen to? How does that part of it work? Caroline: Yes. So I have a lot of different sources that I’m drawing on to add things into that RSS reader, other email newsletters, the things that the makers of apps are putting on their front pages, stuff that people are recommending to me word of mouth, things that my friends and family like and enjoy, things that I see people talking about on Twitter, things that are getting written up in publications. Also, I have a very long running and overflowing Google form where… it just says, “Do you want to recommend a podcast to me? Put it in here?” I quite often sift through that because there’s lots of things that end up in there that I would never have found otherwise. I also have a colleague helping me, Lindelani Mbatha is our international editor and he also is just feeding me anything good that he finds from where he’s consuming media in South Africa. So that gives me a completely different perspective from another place. He’s seeing the world differently to me and all of that then ends up in my RSS reader. Then I use a website called Listen Notes. I absolutely love this site — I think it’s brilliant — which is a podcast catalog, I suppose, in its simplest form. But crucially for me, it has the ability to create custom RSS feeds. It calls them your “Listen Later” feed by default. So, I have “Caroline Crampton’s Listen Later,” and to that, I can add any episode of any podcast and it generates for me an RSS feed for that queue, which I can then add to my app. So anytime I add a new episode to that Listen Notes feed, it pops straight into my app without the need for me to go and search for a show and subscribe or anything. I’ve just got one organized linear feed, essentially, of everything I want to try out for the newsletter. RSS Jorge: That sounds fantastic. I wasn’t aware of Listen Notes. It might be worth recapping for folks what RSS feeds are, because so far, you’ve mentioned both the newsreader and podcast itself, right? Can you give us a brief overview of that? Caroline: Yeah. So, RSS is actually very old internet technology. It’s sort of one of the building blocks of the internet. And RSS just stands for “Really Simple Syndication.” And it’s a very straightforward collection of code that creates an instance that updates every time you add a new article or MP3 file. You can add basically anything to an RSS feed. And people have over the years built different apps to capture the product of that syndication. So, what I use in my web browser, I use an RSS reader called NewsBlur, but there are lots of different ones, just essentially an interface that organizes all of those updates that are being sent by all those different feeds. A podcatcher of any kind, whether it’s Apple podcasts or Pocket Casts or Overcast or whatever is essentially the same thing. It’s an interface through which you’ve told it that you want to run all of these RSS feeds and it’s alerting you every time an update arrives. Jorge: And in the case of this very podcast, The Informed Life, if you go to the website, we provide a link to the podcast’s RSS feed, which you should be able to plug into any of those apps to actually listen to the shows. One aspect of RSS as a technology for getting information to people, is that — as you hinted at in your description — it prioritizes chronology over other organization means. For example, if you’re subscribed in a podcatcher, you will care about the latest episode, right? And you will be notified when there’s a new episode of the show. In my experience, the interfaces of these tools don’t tend to be as useful for looking for older content. And I’m wondering in your curation process, how do you balance the discovery of new shows… You were talking earlier about things that might be surprising; I don’t know if to call it serendipitous. But if you’re using RSS, I would expect that that would increase the likelihood that you would be listening to shows from the same… two episodes from the same shows? I’m describing what happens to me, when I subscribe to RSS feeds, it’s like I ended up reading the things that person X is writing in their blog, or I end up listening to episodes of the same podcast, even while some might be more interesting to me than others. It’s always favoring the recency. I’m wondering in the act of curation, are there ways to overcome that or is that an issue for you at all? Caroline: Its definitely something that I’m aware of. And it’s one of the reasons why I use a web-based RSS reader to store all of the podcast feeds that I’m currently filtering and considering rather than just subscribing to them in a podcast app, for instance, because podcast apps are built exactly as you say: to show you the latest releases because that’s the behavior that they expect from their users. Whereas I want to be able to easily scroll down everything or flip it the other way up and look at it as something from the beginning or one reason why I like NewsBlur as my RSS reader over some others that I’ve tried is it has quite a good advanced search and filtering system, so I can say, “I only want to see posts or episodes from 2017 or from after 2018.” It allows me to put in search queries that help combat that issue of everything being in chronological order. I also organize feeds into folders. So, like I have a folder that’s just for podcasts that are about food. So, when I’m looking at the upcoming recommendations for the newsletter, I like to try and keep it as varied as possible on a few different factors, chronology being one of them, or age of publication, but also, where in the world was the podcast made? What style? Is it a conversational show or a narrative documentary type or something in between? Who’s making it? How long is it? All these different things and I’m trying to make sure that there’s a mixture at all times. So, you’ll never get a newsletter that just has three, hour-long conversational podcasts featuring only Americans, you know? It will always be varied and different. So, I might think, “Oh, well, you know, for next week, I really want a food podcast that’s maybe from South America. That would be here a really great addition to what we’ve already got.” I’ll go and look in my food folder and scan back through what’s there. I might do some searching for some key words of country names or cuisines or something, and that will help me focus in on some episodes that I then want to listen to in order to make the final selection. Jorge: When you said podcast from South America, I’m assuming that all the podcasts are in English. Is that a fair assumption? Caroline: Almost always, yeah. Just because that’s the language that I speak best. I have recommended a few podcasts that exist for language learning. So, they’re in other languages, but they are people speaking slowly or explaining or that kind of thing. And I’ve also recommended a great podcast called Radio Atlas, which is a project that subtitles podcasts in other languages. It’s a video podcast but it doesn’t have any visuals if you know what I mean, it just has the subtitles. So, it means that, someone like me for whom English is my main and only language, it means I can listen to any podcasts that they’ve recommended with the subtitles. Frequency and volume Jorge: Well, that’s fascinating. I’m going to have to check that out. What’s the frequency with which The Listener comes out? Caroline: There’s an addition every weekday. Jorge: That makes me think that you have to sort through a lot of different podcasts. And when you were describing the process, I got the sense that there’s a part of the process where you’re looking at, like you said, stuff on a screen, right? So, I would imagine like the description, the length of episodes… you talked about how many episodes the show had released. I would expect that those are all things that you can see on the screen without having to listen to the shows. But there are other aspects that you were talking about that made me think that when the shows have made it past an initial set of filters, you have to actually listen to the shows. I’m wondering how much time do you spend listening to podcasts and how do you make the time, basically, to be able to keep up that volume? Caroline: Well, this was one of the things I was apprehensive about when first discussing whether we wanted to launch this newsletter, because I was concerned that in order to do it well, yes, I would need to listen to so many podcasts and would there physically even be time in the day, let alone with life and work and everything else. So, we did a couple of trial weeks where I tried it not for publication, just sending to one of my colleagues every day, just to see if it was possible. I was actually really surprised at how much time in the day could have podcasts in it that didn’t currently. I don’t set aside two hours a day where I just sit there with headphones. I don’t have that luxury, but I listen while I’m walking my dog. I listen while I’m cooking. I listen while I’m exercising. Pretty much any time that anyone might be listening to podcasts, I’m always listening to podcasts. And yeah, there is enough time, I was happy to discover. But it does mean I need to be very systematic and very organized to make sure that I’m getting through enough and that I’m listening to a wide enough variety. Also, I keep notes as I go. I write notes in my phone. So, when I finished an episode, either straight away, or as soon after as I can, I will just make some notes about it. Because otherwise, if I know I want to recommend it, I might not have time to actually write it up for the newsletter for a few days or a few weeks. And I don’t want to forget those initial impressions I had upon listening to it. Making notes Jorge: You’ve just touched on a subject that I wanted to ask you about, which was exactly that this: how do you keep track… especially, the image of walking the dog is one that I can relate to. I do that as well. And I actually love walking and listening to either podcasts or audio books. And one of the challenges that I always run into is that I will listen to something that I want to keep track of because it either sparked an idea or it’s something that I want to blog about later. And I find that I have to take the phone out of my pocket, open up the note taking app or the “to do” app, you know, write a note to self and in the process of doing that, I’ve lost track of what I’m listening to. So, what I’ve resorted to doing is speaking into the air, like a mad person, because the smart assistant in my phone will interpret the trigger phrase, which I will not mention here, and I will say, “take a note” or “remind me to,” or what have you. But it’s a very imperfect system for me. And it seems that that is central to your work. I’m wondering how you do it and if there are recommendations for how to do that better? Caroline: I’m in the same situation as you. I have to say it has got easier now that my dog is older. When I first got him and he was just pulling me all over the place, there was just no opportunity to pause and take my phone out and make a note or set anything going or anything like that, because I was just being yanked about all over the place. He’s now three years old and is calmed down enough that he’s quite happy to have a sit down on a street corner while I make a note or whatever. So, that’s easier. I do a combination of: I use Google Keep to write little notes to myself if there are any particular moments that I want to revisit. When I write up the eventual recommendation, I’ll try and just notice where the play head is in the app and go, “at 25 minutes in that podcast, this person said that,” that sort of thing, so that if I want to jump back to it, to remind myself, I can, without having to listen to the whole thing again. I have a Google Pixel phone and I really like the — it’s quite recent edition actually, it came with an OS update, I think — I like the voice recorder app, because it now has inbuilt transcription and uploading to Google Drive. So, if I’m in a situation where for whatever reason, I don’t want to type into my phone or I’m not able to, I do the same, I just start talking to it. And I can, just in the same app, I can scroll through what I’ve said as text or upload it to Google Drive so I can access it on another device. And that can be really helpful to talk through some thoughts or talk to myself about it, but then be able to locate what I was saying and paste it straight into a newsletter, if I think it’s good enough. The influence of curation on creation Jorge: One of the advantages that I see in curated collections of items — like the ones that you are creating — is something that you touched on earlier, which is that you are getting recommendations from a person, as opposed to some kind of algorithm. You talked about, like the stuff that is surfaced in the stores, right? Which I think at this point, we all realize that those are driven by algorithms, and usually they will try to create some kind of profile of you and your tastes and will try to serve you up similar things. And the advantages that I see in what you’re doing is that rather than depend on these algorithms that are tailored to serve you more of the same, in the curation process, what you’re doing is you’re reflecting a particular taste or worldview. I’m wondering, as someone who is not just a curator of podcasts, but a podcaster yourself, if and how the curation process has influenced your own approach to podcasting and how you select the subjects that you will podcast about, or that you will write about, if that is a thing? Caroline: Yeah, I think it is a thing. It’s mostly influenced me in a practical sense in that now being somebody who does curate podcasts for a living and listen to them, I have come to an appreciation of quite how many press releases and alerts and so on people who do this do so, you know, someone who reviews podcasts for a publication or something. I get dozens a week, messages and emails from people saying, “Hey, check out my podcast!” I’ve really come to appreciate the value of a very pithy and well-written approach. I in no way begrudge people sending me those emails, because often I find interesting things to listen to. We all just want to share our contact with more people. That’s perfectly fine! But the emails I get that are very easy to read and to the point and have a very clear… “and if you’re interested in checking it out, here’s where you can do that…” element to them, I’m just so much more likely to click on those links or remember those shows. At the beginning, it was astonishing to me what a small proportion those well-written and short emails are. I get so many where it’s actually quite hard to dig out what the name of the podcast is; it comes in like the fifth or sixth paragraph or something and I just don’t have time for that. So, I’ve given talks at conferences before about ideas for growing your podcast and that kind of thing. And one of the things I always like to include in the deck is, a friend of mine who actually became my friend because he initially sent me a really good email about his podcast before we even knew each other, and that’s how we first got in contact. With his permission, I share that email and just say, “You know, this email was so good. Not only did I listen to his podcast, but now I’m friends with this person. Send emails like this! Don’t send confusing or rude ones. Or long ones.” Jorge: Oh, that’s great. And you’ve posted that? Is it public? Caroline: I think it’s on my website. Yes, I can make sure it’s visible. Curating your listening Jorge: I’ve noticed, as a result of the — I’m attributing this as a result of the pandemic — that my listening habits have changed. When I was working in offices and I had a commute to offices, I would devote a lot of my commute time to listening to podcasts. As commutes have gone away, my podcast listening has diminished significantly and I’m starting to feel guilty at how many un-listened episodes there are in my podcatcher. I’m wondering if you have any tips for folks, other than subscribing to The Listener for how they might find podcasts that they might find interesting, or that might add value to their lives. Caroline: I think that is something that a lot of people are facing. You’re definitely not alone in that. The data over the last six months has shown that people were listening less initially. And then once listening did start to creep back up again, it had a different profile. People were no longer listening in the mornings and evenings for their commutes, but far more people were listening at lunchtime, for instance. Lunchtime has become actually a really big time for podcasts to drop, rather than very early in the morning, so you catch people on their way to work. I find that quite delightful in a way. I like to think of people all over the world, sitting down to their sandwiches with a podcast. But I do think that it’s okay for your tastes to change. I very much recognize that guilt, that the episodes are piling up, you haven’t listened to them and you feel bad. So, first thing I tend to encourage people to do is just be really honest and unsubscribe to the ones that don’t work for you anymore. And that doesn’t mean that you are saying that they’re bad, or that they’re not as good as they used to be, just that they’re not for you right now. Maybe you’ll come back to them another time. There’s a very famous and popular podcast, the Joe Rogan Experience, which I do not understand how people keep up with that podcast. He puts out a two-hour episode every other day! Even I, with my very high podcast listening, if I was trying to keep up with that one, I would not be able to do my job. So, I do think that you might decide that it’s not all for you. And then the other thing I recommend doing, is thinking about the kinds of topics that you want to engage with. Start from the other end. I think often we start from like, “What is a good podcast?” And then you try it out to see if you like, which is just totally fair. But you might also like to think, “Well, I’m trying to feel a bit more escapist right now. Like I’m not so interested in focusing on the news. What audio drama is there that I could try or I’m into spooky stories right now, what is that I could try?” So be very focused in your searching and look in particular genres because they can get a bit overwhelming to just scroll and scroll and go, “Well, there are all these podcasts, how do I know if any of them are any good or that I will like them?” So I like to sort of narrow things a bit like that, if that makes sense? Jorge: Yes, it does. That’s a really valuable advice. And I think after our call, I’m going to delete a bunch of podcasts from my podcatcher or unsubscribe from them. Caroline: I definitely have experienced that guilt feeling. But I had a very fortuitous thing happen — I didn’t feel like it was fortuitous at the time — where I used to use a different podcast app, and I don’t know why maybe there was a bug? Maybe there’s something wrong with my phone? But just one day I opened it and it had wiped everything! All of the shows I’d subscribed to and my whole listening history, everything was just gone. And I was a bit taken aback and upset about that. But in the process of rebuilding my subscriptions list, it meant that I shed a lot of shows that I wasn’t really that interested in anymore more. And it meant, I felt therefore, like there was space to add some new things that I did want to try. And I’m not saying you should delete everything, but I do think that people get into a rut or a habit with their apps and their podcasts and so on. And sometimes it can be quite good to just force yourself to reevaluate it. Closing Jorge: Well, that sounds like an invitation for folks to curate their own feeds and the information that they let in. And I think that that is a very good place for us to wrap up the conversation. So where can folks follow up with you? Caroline: I have a website, which is, where there are links out to the various different things that I do. And you can find my social media and so on, if that’s interesting to you. Also The Listener has a landing page, and you can see some sample additions, you can see some testimonials from people, you can try it for free and you can subscribe if it seems like the kind of thing you’d be into. Jorge: Fantastic! I’m going to include links in the show notes to all of those. Thank you so much for being with us and for sharing your knowledge and insights. Caroline: Thank you very much for having me. It’s been great.

nov 2020

32 min 2 seg

My guest today is Peter Morville. Peter is a pioneer in the discipline of information architecture. Among many other distinctions, he co-authored with Lou Rosenfeld Information Architecture for the World-Wide Web, the classic O’Reilly “polar bear” book on the subject. This is Peter’s second appearance on The Informed Life podcast. I asked him back because I wanted to learn more about his recent call for practitioners to emancipate information architecture. Listen to the full conversation Download episode 47   Show notes Peter Morville on Twitter Semantic Studios Information Architecture: for the Web and Beyond, by Louis Rosenfeld, Peter Morville, and Jorge Arango The Informed Life episode 10: Peter Morville on Seductive Information Emancipating Information Architecture by Peter Morville Don’t Think of an Elephant! by George Lakoff Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences by Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star Pema Chödrön Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commissions for purchases made through these links. Read the full transcript Jorge: Peter, welcome to the show. Peter: Hello, there. I’m very happy to be back. Jorge: Yeah. I usually start shows by asking guests to tell us about themselves, but you have the distinction of being the second repeat guest to The Informed Life podcast. The first was our friend Lou Rosenfeld, and I think it’s appropriate that as the two co-authors of the polar bear book, you are two of the folks I most want to hear from. And part of the reason that I wanted to talk with you again is, when you were last on the show, you talked about what was next for you. I actually have the transcript up here and I’m going to quote back to you what you said. You said that… well, I’m going to paraphrase first, but you said that you had this not completely formed plan to buy some property and start an animal sanctuary to create a place that can be helpful to people and animals. And now I’m quoting, “and that comes from that deep questioning of what do I want to do with my remaining time here on planet earth. And while I get a lot of intellectual satisfaction from consulting with big organizations, I’m not sure as I look forward to the next 25 years or so, that that’s going to fulfill my need for a real sense of purpose and meaning.” Peter: That sounds like me. Jorge: Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? And now you’ve written a blog post where you update us on how that is going. And I’m looking forward to talking with you about that here on the show. Peter’s blog post Peter: Yeah, the blog post was called “Emancipating Information Architecture.” Freeing information architecture from the shackles I helped to forge, so that we can use information architecture to free minds. That’s the general gist. And on the personal side, since we last talked, we have moved from Michigan to Virginia, which is the place that we’re planning to buy property. But we’re currently renting, so hopefully 2021 will be the year that we buy the property and get some goats and chickens to get started. Jorge: So, I want to find out more about both of those, but why don’t we start with this idea of emancipating information architecture. That’s some pretty powerful language. What is keeping information architecture bound? Peter: So, in the article I take some credit or blame for that state of information architecture. And I think back on those early years in the 1990s, when Lou and I were working together to build our company, Argus Associates, and to evangelize this new practice of information architecture, and I was driven by fear. I had spent a year unemployed — sort of — and not really knowing what I wanted to do and feeling lost in the world. And then, ambition, because I had now gotten a taste of entrepreneurship and felt strongly that there was something here with information architecture that I can grow into a career. But you know, it was very dicey. We were paying the bills month-to-month early on. And so, there was a values-based side to my passion for information architecture. I was incredibly excited about the potential of the internet and then the worldwide web to enable us humans to share information all around the world and to become smarter and better. And so there was a techno-utopian side to my passion. But ultimately, I was trying to figure out, how am I going to be able to live in this world? How am I going to be able to pay the bills? So, there was a very strong orientation towards situating information architecture in the business context. How do we make money doing information architecture? How do we turn it into a job, into a field or discipline? And really, the community that grew up around information architecture was predominantly people who were figuring out how do I do this as part of my work in a business context. There were people from nonprofits and education, and there were folks who were more academic and were interested in the intellectual ideas. But 80% plus were folks who were figuring out, how do we do this as part of our work? That really is, I think, where information architecture has been centered. If you look at most writing, most conferences, it’s been centered in business. Jorge: What I’m hearing here is that what you’re looking to emancipate information architecture from is being bound to these business contexts. Is that right? Peter: Yeah, and I make the point in the article. It’s not that information architecture isn’t doing good in the business world and can’t do more good. So, it’s not an abandonment of business at all. But I think that there’s so much potential for the ways that we think, the ways that we practice information architecture, particularly In the areas of language and classification — how we use language, how we define or design labels, how we structure and organize conceptual spaces — those skills are so useful beyond business, whether we talk about social or political or environmental areas, I think that part of what is holding us back as people are archaic words and structures: language and classification systems that we have inherited from the past that we’re having a hard time getting beyond. What is different about Information Architecture? Jorge: There are other fields that think about this stuff as well. I’m thinking of George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! — I think that’s the name of it — where he dives into this subject of labeling and distinctions in the realm of politics, specifically. What is special about information architecture? What is different about information architecture that would make it a good agent for change in this realm? Peter: Yeah. So, as I was working on the article, George Lakoff came to mind. He’s one of the few people out there that I know has engaged in these issues in really interesting ways. There are also other books that come from outside of our discipline; Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences comes to mind as a fascinating exploration of the impact of language and classification in all sorts of contexts, for instance, in the kind of the hospital and nursing context. So, as I was writing this article, I was not under the impression or trying to portray the notion that we have a monopoly on these ways of thinking. In fact, in the article, the examples that I provide, one is focused on topics in and around LGBTQ+, gender and sexuality and all of the labels and classification systems around them that. And that work is being done by people who would never identify as information architects or don’t even know our field exists. There’s so much that we can learn from the work that people are doing out in the world. But I think that the folks who have spent the last 10-20 years thinking about information architecture, learning about information architecture, have a skillset and a talent that could be used beyond business. And I’m really trying to get our community to just at least question, “am I practicing in the contexts where I can make the greatest impact, given where I want to see the world go in the future?” For some people, the answer might be, “yes! I am super passionate about helping to grow this business, and this is what I want to do.” For other folks, they may say, “I need to do this work in order to pay the bills in a business context, but maybe I could volunteer some time and evenings or weekends to help folks work through issues around, how do we present ourselves? How do we label and organize our information so that we might be better understood, or so that we can make a bigger impact?” Jorge: When I hear you talk about the particular skills and talents of practicing information architects, what came to my mind is that information architects put these ideas of classification and distinction-making through language into action, right? It’s one thing to think about it in the abstract, in theory, but we are very much practitioners making things in the world, right? Peter: Yes. Jorge: And as such, we are in a position to make these distinctions more palpable, perhaps or more tangible? Peter: Yeah. There’s an interesting dance between the abstract and the tangible that we do. Very often, whether it’s as in-house practitioners or consultants, we’re hired more for the tangible stuff that we do. Most people are able to understand the tangible side of what we do. So, it’s very often almost their own secret that the most important work that we do is pretty abstract and hard to explain. It’s like, as a consultant, I go into an organization and I immerse myself in their world, in their language and classification system, in their domain, their area of expertise, their content, as well as all their challenges and goals and so forth. And I always go through this journey of initial excitement then feeling completely overwhelmed. Like, “oh my goodness, there’s so much here. It’s such a mess. How can I ever make a difference?” And with experience, I’ve built up the confidence to know I will get to the other side and I will start to come up with some models, hopefully some elegant models of how we can move forward. And the highest level, those models are sufficiently abstract that very few people appreciate them. It’s when you take them to the next level and they start to become tangible and you can sort of see them, you’ve got a diagram or a wire frame or sketch, and people get it, and you start to get people behind this shared vision. So, I think you’re right in the sense that we have that experience of grappling with the abstract stuff that’s really hard to even talk about and then moving it into some tangible artifacts which then eventually move it into the world and it becomes the digital place. It’s a website, it’s a software application. Or in the physical world, right? It’s how the grocery store is organized; it’s how the airport is organized and the signage. Whether you talk about digital or physical places, then those end results start to shape how people think. So, that’s the part that’s interesting. We create environments that then shape people’s perceptions, right? I mean, you go back to the Winston Churchill quote, if it was really him, “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.” That’s very true, whether you’re talking about buildings or digital places or classification systems, and once people get used to a certain structure, it’s hard to shift; it’s hard to get people to think differently. And that’s the challenge I think is interesting. But it’s different in every domain. Is a website going to help make this shift or a book or do people need to be teaching this in elementary school? Where are the levers for effecting change in people’s minds? Top-down vs. bottom-up structure Jorge: There’s a distinction between molding information structures, structuring them, giving them shape, and spotting patterns in the ways people use these systems, that result in emergent structure. And I realize that sounds a little abstract, so I’ll give you an example. The hashtag emerged in the use of Twitter. It’s not something that was designed into Twitter from the get-go. And I am noticing in the world such structures coming into being, and I’ll give you an example — and this one is related to what you wrote about in the article, and I’m hoping that we will get into this — but I’ve started seeing more and more people appending to their name, on social networks, a description of the pronouns that they want to be described with. You will usually see the name and then parentheses, “he/him,” right? And there’s no space in that information system for you to describe your preferred pronouns. So, the users have kind of hacked the system by appending it to their last name field, or what have you. And that came to mind as I was reading your article, because you did get into the — I think you called it the “architecture of identity” — that we do seem to be living in a time where that is becoming more and more of an issue for folks. And I’m wondering what our role is as information architects, with regards to this top-down versus bottom-up spotting of these patterns and enabling their use in our systems. Peter: Yeah, I love that example. And I think, yeah, there’s a couple of different directions to go there. One, I think that that notion of identifying patterns and then deciding whether or not to try to spread them, to embed them in infrastructure or to squash them, that is something that I think we should be more aware of our potential to play a role there. When we talk about information architecture, it’s easy to think that we are the creators of structure, that it has to come out of our heads. But, as the Twitter hashtag idea suggests, many of the best innovations come from a user, one person who has an idea and tries it out and then other people see it and copy it and it starts to spread. And then, there’s an interesting point there where in that case, the team at Twitter had to decide, “do we embrace this and embed it in infrastructure? Does the hashtag become part of Twitter?” And they decided, yes, right? And, the issues around pronouns are so tricky. They’re difficult. I guess I’ll make a confession that there have been times where I’ve been irritated by this kind of injecting pronouns into various contexts. Like, I was at a meeting a couple of years ago. The purpose of the meeting was really to focus on helping undocumented immigrants in Michigan. It was hosted at the University of Michigan. And at a certain point, we were all asked to introduce ourselves and to introduce our pronouns. And at an introductory meeting where we didn’t even know if we were ever going to see any of these people again, it seemed like that was kind of forced into the conversation. And when I experienced that irritation, number one, I tried to moderate it, like, “hey, there’s a plus here. We’re really trying to make sure that as we’re talking to one another and referring to one another, we’re using the right words, right? We’re using the words that people are comfortable with, as their identification.” But I also try to grow a little compassion for the people who are on the other side, right? The folks who have very little tolerance for the LGBTQ+ folks, because, the thing that’s really interesting in here is I think that there’s this little part of our brains that — I’m sure there’s a spectrum in terms of like how active this is across the population — but there’s a little part of our brains that just gets annoyed at added complexity, right? Like, “oh, now I’ve got to worry about whether I say you know, ‘he or she,’ or ‘they or theirs’? My life’s hard enough already. I’m just keeping my head above water. That just annoys me.” Right? And I think that little irritation may be the source of so much conflict, and unnecessary suffering in our society. And the flip side is — which for the most part, is how I feel — is, I love difference. I am so bored by the sameness. Living in a world where there’s people of all different sort of races and sexes and genders and people who have different customs and do things differently. I love that. But I have a brain that loves learning, and I also have the privilege of a certain level of stability in my life and a certain amount of confidence that I’m sort of ready for the next thing. “Hey, I want to learn something new! Tell me more about what it means to be trans, right?” That’s a new wrinkle; tell me about that, I’m interested. But I think that little kind of irritation is something that probably would be good for us all to be mindful of. We all probably feel that at different points about different issues. The need for progress and leadership Jorge: I can relate to that, Peter. And I’m also thinking again, in the spirit of — you used the word “compassion” — to try to empathize, perhaps with folks who might be irritated by this. You used the word “archaic” to refer to the traditional words and structures. And again, that’s a very strong word. It might be read as “obsolete,” you know? And I imagine, and that there might be people for whom there’s a counter argument there, which is, these distinctions that you label “archaic” have served us for a long time. What would you say to those folks? Peter: Yeah, that’s a great point and I agree. It’s a provocative word. So, to explain my perception… why I use a word like that. I am somebody who kind of lives in the future. Like, too much maybe, for my own good. I’m always thinking about what’s next, where are things going? Which is helpful for being an information architect and planning ahead. But [it] has its costs. It takes me effort to live in the present a little more, right? To be aware of what’s going on today. How am I feeling? To take time, to enjoy just being alive. And I don’t spend much time reflecting on the past. And I think to a certain degree, I’ve missed out a lot on, positive emotions, like nostalgia; looking back at how things were. I think I miss out a little there. But my current mental models — my sense of trajectories and where things are going — is that human civilization is really approaching a very dangerous moment. We are in a very dangerous moment, where we are not only causing incredible destruction to other species and to the environment, but we’re doing it to the extent that we’re on the verge of destroying ourselves. And so, at a time where I see this crisis, like we’re in it and it’s getting worse, I feel that we need to be more progressive. We need to move faster. The structures that have served us well, served us well in a different world — in a past world that’s not coming back. And so, I think that we need to be more open to change, to embrace change. And I say that knowing, especially just based on how you phrased that question, that that’s really scary to a lot of people and very difficult for a lot of people. And I’m not sure what the answer is to that other than, to me, in order to deal with change — especially rapid or dramatic change — what’s needed is great leadership. It’s times like these, where we need great leaders. And at the moment, at least in this country, we don’t have that. And so, we’re all feeling lost. We’re struggling. We’re seeing parts of this crisis unfolding. We probably all see it differently, but, what’s needed from great leadership is the ability to say, “hey, we have to move from A to B.” Whether that’s physically moving from an island to a mainland location, whether it’s moving from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy. A great leader can get people to think in a more positive way about the challenges ahead to recognize, oh, this is going to be hard, but we can actually do something valuable and meaningful with our lives. We can be the generation that made this change, that sacrificed for future generations. And to view it less with fear and more with a sense of adventure and curiosity. I’m hopeful that at some point in the fairly near future, we will get that kind of leadership because I think that we can make tremendous progress. You and I in our careers, we have been part of the internet revolution and we know that one thing humans are good at is technology, at like being incredibly innovative and moving really fast and doing things that were previously viewed as impossible. We just need great leadership to harness that in the right direction. Jorge: For context, we are recording this before the US election. I’m saying that because we don’t know what’s going to happen, and people might be tuning in after the fact. But I want to call out that this brings us back full circle to where we started the conversation. You mentioned the fear you had when you were starting out at Argus and we’ve come full circle back to fear. And I wanted to bring things to a close by asking you about what’s making you hopeful today. You are now in a different modality from the last time that we spoke. You have started your sanctuary or in the process of starting your sanctuary. And, I’m wondering, how you are, vis-a-vis how you were at the time of the founding of Argus? Peter: Yeah. I think that one difference is that, I’m sort of on the other side of my career. With Argus, I had no real savings, so, I was living month to month. You know, paying my rent with my paycheck. And so, my fear was very focused on job and career and how I made money. I didn’t really have time or emotional space to think about all the other things that could go wrong. I wasn’t worried about getting sick. I just… that couldn’t happen! I couldn’t get sick. Now that I have a little more financial security, and I’m older, I’m more aware of a much wider array of things that can go wrong. I’ve had had an extra 25 years of having things go wrong. And that’s where for me, learning about Buddhist philosophy, listening to tapes from Pema Chödrön, really trying to be more at peace in a world and in a body where so much can go wrong — and will go wrong. Things get better and then they get worse and then they get better and then they get worse and that’s life. We can’t control those ups and downs all that much. So, with Sentient Sanctuary, with this vision that I have to create an animal sanctuary, it’s exciting for me and fun for me to imagine it and to begin to work towards it. But I’m not attached in a kind of negative way to its fruition. I’m not…. you know, if I die tomorrow, it’s okay. I’ve had a great life. I’ve been really fortunate. And, I think that there’s a danger with visions, with plans, with hope, that we cling to an outcome. You know, 25 years ago, that was much more me. “I’ve got to make this work. It has to work!” And now I’m more comfortable with saying, “you know, I can put in my best effort.” When I trained for the Detroit marathon, that was very humbling in the sense that, you spend six months working as hard as you’ve ever worked for something. And every day, you know one wrong step and you twist your ankle and your dream is done. And you’ve got to have a bit of sense of humor about that. Otherwise it’ll destroy you. And so, that’s where I am today. I wouldn’t say I’m incredibly hopeful for the future of human civilization. I just don’t know where we’re headed. I feel really fortunate, given the life that I’ve lived so far and where I am right now. And I have some fun, exciting things to work on for the future. I’m starting a new consulting project next week that I’m excited about and I’m actively learning about how to raise chickens and goats. So that’s great stuff. Closing Jorge: Words of wisdom, Peter, thank you for sharing them with us. Where can folks follow up with you? Peter: So, my websites are and And I am Morville on Twitter. Jorge: Well, thank you so much. We look forward to hearing more from you as Sentient Sanctuary evolves, and best wishes with all that you have going on. Peter: Thank you. And thanks for having me.

oct 2020

30 min 56 seg

My guest today is Dr. Jeff Johnson. Jeff has been applying his background in psychology towards designing better human-computer interfaces for over forty years. He teaches computer science at The University of San Francisco, and has written several influential books on UI design. Among these, he co-authored with Kate Finn Desiging User Interfaces for an Aging Population, which is the focus of this conversation. Listen to the full conversation Download episode 46   Show notes Jeff Johnson UI Wizards Cognitive Psychology Cromemco Xerox GUI Bloopers 2.0: Common User Interface Design Dont’s and Dos by Jeff Johnson Designing With the Mind in Mind: Simple Guide to Understanding User Interface Guidelines by Jeff Johnson Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design by Austin Henderson and Jeff Johnson (My notes on Conceptual Models) Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population: Towards Universal Design by Jeff Johnson and Kate Finn Tesla Model S Interior Google Maps Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the full transcript Jorge: All right, Jeff. Welcome to the show. Jeff: Thank you! I’m glad to be here. About Jeff Jorge: I’m very excited to have you with us. For folks who don’t know you, can you please tell us about yourself? Jeff: Okay. Well, I have a degree in psychology — not computer science — from Yale University and then I went on to Stanford in graduate school in psychology. So, it was Cognitive Psychology and my research at the time focused on understanding human problem-solving and human memory. But I found that after graduate school, I could either become a professor of psychology somewhere or I could go into the computer industry and help companies make their products easier to use, easier to learn. And that’s what I decided to do. I worked for a small company in Silicon Valley named Cromemco and then I moved from there to Xerox, where I was working on document preparation systems. And then I worked for a series of companies in Silicon Valley and around the country, essentially doing human-computer interaction. While I was doing that, it became fairly clear to me that companies keep making the same mistakes over and over and over. And they were design mistakes that were causing their products to be not usable. And so, I eventually quit working for companies and became a consultant. I started working for myself, as a consultant, but my clients were companies. And so, I’d go from one company to another. And I continued to find that they were making the same mistakes over and over again. And it got to the point where I could start to categorize the mistakes. You know, this is mistake number 47, this is mistake number 19, et cetera. And so then eventually, in the late nineties, I wrote a book called GUI Bloopers, which was basically a catalog of all of the common mistakes that companies make in their design that cause their products to be less than usable. And that book was very popular. It basically made me well known in the field as the guy who wrote GUI Bloopers. People started calling me “Dr. Bloopers,” which I at first thought, “well, that’s great.” But then I started thinking, “well, I don’t want to be stereotyped as ‘Dr. Bloopers’.” So, I wrote another book, which came out in 2010, called Designing With the Mind In Mind, which was the psychological basis for user interface design principles. You know, where do user interface design principles come from? And that book was fairly popular. And so now, that book is in its third edition. The second edition came out in 2014 and the third edition has just come out now, in 2020. Since 2016, I’ve worked as a professor of computer science at the University of San Francisco, teaching introductory computer science, introductory programming, and also human-computer interaction. In particular, I focus my human- computer interaction course on user experience design. And, so that’s… that kind of brings us up to the current day. Jorge: I want to call out that you’ve also authored a few other books. Among them there’s one that’s been particularly influential to me called Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design. Jeff: Right! Yeah, I neglected to mention that book. So, when I was working at Xerox, they had an approach to design that involved understanding the conceptual model underlying a user interface design before starting to draw screens and figure out what the appearance of the application on a screen or on a device would look like. And I very much agreed with that approach… their approach. And so, I, and Austin also — Austin Henderson, my coauthor — also worked at Xerox, and so, later the two of us started pushing that approach — the conceptual models approach — throughout the rest of the industry. We would give talks here and there, we wrote articles for magazines and at one point, a publisher approached us and said, would you be interested in writing a book on this topic? So, we did. And so, in 2011, the book Conceptual Models came out, as a result of that work. Then, also around that same time, I became interested in how do you design for older adults? That is, the technology doesn’t seem to work as well for older adults. And there are a number of reasons for that. And so, I started doing some research on that and reading and understanding, and then a colleague and I formed a consulting firm that was called Wiser Usability, as in older, but wiser. And we would help companies make their products more friendly for older adults. And then we eventually wrote a book about that, that is called Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population. And that book came out in 2017. Designing for an Aging Population Jorge: That book is part of the reason why we’re talking today. Tell me about designing for an aging population; what is different about folks who are aging and other folks in the groups of people that we design for? Jeff: Okay. Well, number of things that make designing for older adults challenging. But first let me mention the irony in this situation, which is that older adults are in a sense the population that is most in need of technological assistance, because they could benefit greatly because of limited mobility, because of limited eyesight, because of limited other things, from technological assistance of various sorts. You know, the ability to shop online, the ability to do their government businesses online, getting a driver’s license, and things like that. But the irony of course, is that the technology doesn’t support them very well, and they struggle with using the technology — I should not say “they,” because I am myself over 60, and therefore I should say “we” older adults — but, that’s the irony: they’re the population that would benefit from it the most, but it actually is least usable for them. The question is why and how can we fix that? And there are a number of reasons for that. One of them is a whole collection of things that have to do with the fact that as we age, we experience certain disabilities of various types like failing eyesight, failing hearing, failing hand-eye control and other things like that, and therefore products and services that don’t take that into account can become difficult for us to use. Now, the interesting thing about that is that, of course there are people of all ages who have difficulty with vision, difficulty with hearing, and difficulty with hand-eye control. And so, really making things and products more accessible to older adults actually helps them for all of us. One of the examples I like to give is that when you’re on a bus and you’re riding from someplace to another place, or in a car and you’re riding from someplace to another place, and you are trying to use your phone to either get the weather report or to text somebody or something like that — and I’m not assuming that you’re the driver, let’s say you’re a passenger in a car or even a bus — and you’re trying to do that while the bus is shaking, now suddenly you are like a person who has hand tremors. If you’ve ever tried to text someone while you’re in a car, then the is driving over a bumpy road, you know what I’m talking about. Those kinds of things are one of the family of reasons why older adults have trouble with technology. We just don’t take them into account. But there’s another set of reasons that are perhaps in my view almost more important than that category of issues that I would call accessibility issues that I’ve just discussed. And that is, issues that are more about how do they think? How do older adults think about the world and how do they think about doing things and accomplishing tasks? What are their models of how the world works and how the technology should work? And that is something that’s quite interesting because that problem is not going to go away. The first set of problems isn’t going to go away either because people are going to continue to age and experience age-related disabilities. But the second category of problems is going to remain with us too, and for a different reason. But let me back up for a second and say something: there is an argument floating in the computer and technology industry that the problems of designing for older adults are going to go away and that we don’t have to worry about them forever because, they argue, that today’s older adults are “digital immigrants” rather than “digital natives,” right? So, digital natives are kids of today who’ve grown up with technology all their lives and they know this technology and they’re comfortable with it, and, it’s not a problem for them. But the digital immigrants who are the current generation of what you would call “boomers,” and people who are older than that, are going to have trouble because they weren’t used to this technology. The argument goes that once all the digital immigrants die, everything will be fine, and we won’t have to worry about designing technology for older adults because everyone will be digital immigrants. So, that argument is false. That argument is wrong. Because technology does not stand still and people tend to get… they grow up in whatever the dominant technology is, as people are, let’s say between ages 10 and 30, is the one that they become used to, and then they got stuck in that way of thinking about the world. But the world moves on. The technology moves on, okay? One way you can think of it is that the current generation of baby boomers, they grew up when the technology was analog electronic and mechanical. There were mechanical objects, and they were analog-electronic objects. Now, these boomers were born from between 1945 and let’s say 1965. That means that they were 10 through 30 in the time between the sixties and the late seventies and early eighties. And so, the technology that was prevalent then was mostly analog electronic, and some mechanical technology, not so much anymore. And that’s what they got used to. And that’s where they got stuck. And so, the technology that came along afterwards, which was personal computers and the rise of the internet and digital electronics, was new to them. And so, they were not natives of the digital technology world. And so, today’s kids… people who are born after that, the children of the boomers… I don’t remember what the name of that generation is… Jorge: Maybe Gen X? Jeff: Gen X, yes. They grew up in a world where there were personal computers and the internet was just getting born. And there were online discussion groups, and AOL had become a thing and it was popular, and the web started during their maturation years. And so, they were natives of that. But the Generation X is not natives of social networking and Google and all of that. And so, basically everyone is natives of some technology and immigrants of the next wave of technology. That affects what you know, and that’s going to keep going on. You know, my students at USF don’t believe that they’re going to get stuck in any particular digital age, but I keep telling them they’re wrong. That their kids are going to be saying to them, things like this: “Mom, why do you keep Instagramming me? Nobody uses Instagram anymore. I use Brain Link. What are you talking about? Instagram?” And then the mom is going to be saying, “Oh, this Brain Link thing. I just can’t get used to it.” And my students don’t believe that’s going to be them in 20 years. They don’t believe it, but it is. They are digital natives and they’re social networking natives and they’re digital music natives, but they are not quantum computing natives. They are not neural-network-driven computing natives. Those are coming along, and they will be immigrants to that technology. Empathizing with Aging Users Jorge: I want to reflect back on what you’ve been saying here, because there’s a lot of really interesting and important ideas that I want to follow up on. One is this distinction between a set of challenges that has to do with the usability of these artifacts that we’re dealing with — I use the word accessibility — and the other set of challenges has to do with trying to bring a mental model that no longer fits the reality of the ecosystem that you’re dealing with or the products that you’re interacting with. And the thing that strikes me about those two is that the challenges for designers in both cases have to do with an ability to empathize with the people who are unlike them, who have a different set of physical or… I don’t know if to say their motor skills are different and their perceptual skills are different. And also, what I’m hearing you say there at the end with the Instagram example, is the younger folks, who predominantly I see as representing the demographic that is actually designing these products, is unable to conceive of themselves operating in a world where their mental models aren’t dominant. How do you overcome that? Jeff: Well, first of all, you have to teach methods, right? Methods for design that involve building empathy into the process. The methods for design should include having older adults on your team, or at least within easy access of your team. Your design team should be able to talk to a lot of older adults and run focus groups with them and show them examples of products, in fact, even before the products are designed. You know, storyboards and things like that. Or even just have discussions about what the older adults are having challenges with. That’s one way to bring empathy into the design process. Another way is kind of interesting, and some companies have used this method — and in fact, this method I’m about to mention is actually called “empathic design.” What you do is you give prosthesis to the young designers that impair their perception or their movement in various ways. Some car companies have actually done this: When they’re trying to design a car that will be bought by aging boomers of today, they actually will give the young car designers clothing to wear that impairs their movement. So here put on this jumpsuit that’s got straps built into it that make it hard for you to turn and twist your legs and turn your head and get in and out of this car five times in 10 minutes. Please do that. And then the designer goes, “Oh yeah! These seats are too low.” Or, “This door doesn’t open wide enough.” You know, things like that. So, you can do that in the physical realm relatively easy. Perceptual realm, what you can do is you can give designers glasses that blur their vision or that darken the world. One of the interesting things about older adults is that our eyes become less capable of taking in light over our lifetimes. There are a number of reasons for that. One of them is that your cornea and your lens become yellowed over time with exposure to ultraviolet light, and therefore let through less light to your retina. Now, the retina also loses light sensitive cells over the course of your lifetime and therefore becomes less sensitive to light. And so, the upshot is that the average 80-year-old needs light to be three times as bright in order to perceive the same brightness as a 20-year-old. I may not have those exact ages right because I haven’t memorized them, but they’re in the book. So, in the perceptual realm, you can give your designers prosthesis, or artificial impairments that will affect their hearing or their vision or their touch. For example, the example I gave earlier, right? You put someone and tell them, “Okay, you got this phone and the buttons… we think the buttons are too small, but you think they’re fine. Okay, here. Get into this car and we’re going to drive over a bumpy road and you try to text somebody.” You know? So, you can make people situationally impaired, and that can bring empathy. Put somebody on a camel and tell them to use their iPad. Jorge: On a camel? I love that. I’m going to try to find out where we can procure a camel for a usability study. These all seem like good methods to use for the accessibility part of the equation. I’m wondering if there are similar methods we can employ for the mental model part of this. Where these folks like you said, they might have grown up in a world where the technologies were very different, and now they’re being asked to somehow operate in this world where a lot is taken for granted that just isn’t available to these folks. Aligning Mental Models Jeff: Right. Well, think of it this way: When I was 15 years old, all the user interfaces I used were right there in front of me. They didn’t require any kind of a concept of navigation. I did not have to navigate to the function that I wanted to do. Whereas now, starting with, personal computers, but continuing through the web, continuing through social networking and continuing through the use of cell phones, navigation through a user interface became an important concept. It’s part of the design, right? There’s no way a cell phone with its small screen can provide all the functionality right there on the screen that you need at any given time. But the old telephones, there was no need to navigate from one function to another. You just pick up the phone and start dialing the number. Interestingly, the concept of dialing a number… we still use that word, even though nobody has dialed a phone for 30 years. But anyway, so I guess what I should say is that our terminology often gets stuck even though the technology moves on from that, right? I keep hearing people on the news say, we have film of this politician committing bad stuff. We have it on tape. We have it on film. We captured footage. Those are all words that apply to actual physical film. Some of my students have no idea where does this term “footage” comes from and why do we apply it to movies. But anyway, that’s just a little aside. So, the concept of navigation is a new thing for many older adults. It’s something that happened after their maturation period, after they got stuck in their technology. And so, when I’m driving in my Tesla and I want to use the radio, I actually have to navigate from the map screen, which is showing me where I am right now in my neighborhood to the radio screen, right? And in the old days — when I say the old days, I mean, the days that baby boomers were used to, they grew up in — I didn’t have to do that. There was no map on the screen. I had a map maybe on the passenger seat next to me, unfolded, that I got from a AAA. But the radio was right there on the control panel — the dashboard — all the time, and so was the ignition, and so was the air conditioner, and so were all the other functions. They were right there. I didn’t have to navigate from one function to another. So that’s a confusing concept for many older adults. And yes, eventually, those older adults will eventually die, and tomorrow’s older adults won’t be confused by that, but they will be confused by other things that will change. Jorge: I was really intrigued by these methods that you called out like the bus example earlier for the physical challenges involved… what I think of as the UI challenges. And I’m wondering if there are equivalent methods for us to use for this more conceptual challenge. Are there like the dark glasses that I can wear, but for the conceptual models that have become part of my world? Jeff: Yes and no. It’s easier to impair someone’s vision and hearing and physical movement than it is to impair their brain function. I mean, you can impair the brain function by giving them a bunch of whiskey to drink, but that’s not the right kind of impairment, right? What you need to do is to be able to make it so that certain concepts don’t make sense to them. So, that is difficult. But there are some design techniques that one could use. For example, suppose I want to make a map app and I want to make it easier to use for a wider range of people, including people who don’t have the mental model that involves a lot of navigation. Well then, I just build what’s called a one-screen app — and those are actually becoming fairly popular, right? So, there are lots of companies that are going with this idea of everything should be on a screen, and I shouldn’t have to keep moving around in the app from one place to another. Google maps is a good example of a one-screen app, right? And there are some others that are coming along. I’m having trouble remembering them right now. But the concept of one screen apps is actually becoming more of a thing and it actually is quite useful for mobile apps on phones. Now, the problem with a mobile app on a phone is that your screen is really small. So, a one-screen app is really challenging design-wise. But what you’re trying for is to eliminate the notion that people have to find their way to the function that they want, right? When I buy an airline ticket on an airline’s website, there’s a whole series of pages I have to go through to get that ticket. And some older adults find that quite challenging, because just when they think they’re close to getting their ticket, they see a link that says, “bargain prices here” and they click on it and suddenly they’re nowhere near their goal. And they go, “Oh! This is crazy. I thought I was going to get a bargain price on that flight I was just about to buy!” There’s an interesting design pattern that was invented actually maybe 15 years ago, by some colleagues of mine, I’m trying to remember their names. But the design pattern is called Process Funnel. And what Process Funnel is, is the idea is that once your app knows — once your website knows — what a user is trying to achieve, guide them strictly toward that goal, do not distract them. Don’t put up ads. Don’t put upside links. Don’t put up little bargain links that take them away from that path. Once you know what they want, guide them to their goal. Because you make money when they get to their goal, and they are satisfied when they get to their goal. And if you distract them from their goal, you’ve lost them. You don’t make money. So, process funnel is a very useful design pattern. Try to figure out… Yeah, offer a lot of different choices for them at the start, but once you know what they want, take them there. Make sure they don’t get off-path. Benefits for the Young and Old Jorge: I love what you’re saying here, and I have so much that I would like to follow up with you about this topic. Unfortunately, we’re running out of time. But I just want to say that the things that you’re describing — the methods, the processes, and just the mindset of empathizing with folks who have different abilities than your own — sounds like something that might be valuable not just for making your products sell better, for example, among older adults, but also would bring benefits to everyone. If you do what you’re describing there of optimizing the path to completion of a goal, other people — younger people — are going to also derive benefit from that, no? Jeff: Yes. One of the things I have to say since I teach introductory computer science at a university, is that I don’t think it’s the case that all younger adults are tech-savvy. I have lots of students in my classes who don’t know the difference between WiFi and cell service. “My cell phone’s not working. Why not? I have WiFi!” “Well, people can’t call you on your WiFi. Don’t you know the difference between WiFi and cell service?” Okay? So, there are lots of young people who are not technologically savvy. But what we’re trying to do as designers is to build essentially the equivalent of curb cuts. You know, curb cuts were put in for a specific purpose: to comply with laws that people with wheelchairs needed to be able to get around in cities. But actually, more than 90% of the users of curb cuts are not people in wheelchairs. The people who actually benefit from curb cuts are… the overwhelming majority of them are people with skateboards, and pushing shopping carts, and pulling roller bags, and pushing strollers, right? So, the curb cuts actually helped everyone, even though they were mandated for people in wheelchairs. And that’s what we need to do in technology, is design not strictly for older adults — because that makes no sense — we need to design so that older adults and everyone else can use the technology. Closing Jorge: That strikes me as a great summary of the topic and a fantastic place to wrap up the conversation. Where can folks follow up with you, Jeff? Jeff: Well, I have a consulting firm called So, they can look me up there. I have these books, Designing With The Mind in Mind, GUI Bloopers, Conceptual Models, and Designing for An Aging Population. They can check out those books and, you know, get in touch with me that way. I teach at the University of San Francisco. You can get in touch with me that way. Jorge: Well, fantastic. It has been such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for making the time. Jeff: Thank you for having me.

oct 2020

33 min 1 seg

My guest today is Tanya Rabourn. Tanya is a design strategist and researcher based in Dubai. Her focus is on service innovation for social impact. In this conversation, we discuss the role of ethnographic research in understanding the people and cultures served by design. Listen to the full conversation Download episode 45   Show notes Tanya Rabourn on LinkedIn United Arab Emirates (UAE) United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) The University of Texas Mercy Corps Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) Service Design One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on power, technology, and domination by John Law Some show notes may include Amazon affiliate links. I get a small commission for purchases made through these links. Read the full transcript Jorge: So, Tanya, welcome to the show. Tanya: Thank you. About Tanya Jorge: For folks who don’t know you, can you please tell us about yourself? Tanya: Sure. I’m a design strategist and a researcher and I’m currently based in the UAE in Dubai. And I started out as a web designer back in the nineties, after I got my Masters in Information Science. I’ve been an information architect and I’ve been a user experience designer, and my focus right now is on research that takes an ethnographic approach to understanding user’s needs and aspirations. Jorge: I know that you have relatively recently moved to the UAE, right? Tanya: Yes, actually, I think I’ve been here for two years now, though, it’s really flown by. Jorge: You are one of the people who I follow on various social networks and feel like I traveled the world vicariously through your feed. Before the UAE, you’ve been in several other different parts of the world, right? Tanya: Yes. Well, let’s see. I think it was around 2012 when I first moved to East Africa, to work with a US-based NGO in Uganda, who needed a UX designer. And I was there, I think for about two and a half years. And I continue to consult, working with another company, in Myanmar, where I was doing roughly the same thing, which was design strategy and research for social impact projects. And after Myanmar, I was based in Thailand, but I did work in a number of different countries often for UNCDF, the United Nations Capital Development Fund, sponsored by them, in conjunction with various other organizations. And that took me to a number of different countries, short term, such as the Solomon Islands, Tanzania. And I also did some research in Thailand, and a lot of those projects involved looking at financial inclusion. And so, my projects there would be to provide design strategy and research with the end users. Jorge: Is my understanding correct that your background is in ethnography? Tanya: So, I did some graduate work in anthropology when I was at the University of Texas, and there I was able to get some formal training in qualitative research and I was really able to hone my skills in that area. But I’ve always really been interested in what ethnography can do for design and the rigor that it can provide in our research. Jorge: When we bandy these terms about like ethnography, anthropology… I think that some folks listening in might not be up to speed on the differences between those. How do you define ethnography? Tanya: So, ethnography would be the study of practices and how different cultures engage in those practices. There was a period of time when, of course, people who originally did ethnography thought of it as studying people in developing countries. In countries very different from their own. But eventually people realized these tools that we have, we can use to study our own culture and practices within our own culture. And we can do what they called “studying up,” which meant that we could do things like we could go into companies and understand how they function as an organization. How people become members of that organization and engage in those practices. And it gives us a lens onto power relationships and all sorts of different ways to look at how people work together. Applying ethnography to design Jorge: Can you give us an example of how ethnographic insights could influence a design project? Tanya: Sure. So, often a design project begins when we want to find opportunities for creating something. And the perfect inspiration is to find a particular group of people who you are designing for and understand what their needs are, what their pain points are, but also what their aspirations are and what they find delightful, and that can become inspiration for new ideas. And so, in order to understand that, we can use a lot of different tools that we have. Observation, work practice analysis, interviewing. And through using these methods, we can come up with some insights that are actionable in terms of coming up with new services or designs. Jorge: I’m assuming that because of your background in web design and UX design, a lot of these insights get applied towards design projects that result in digital systems. Is that right? Tanya: Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. I’ve actually been able to work on a number of different projects that we’re designing for people and what they were designing for them were services that did not have a digital component. In fact, one of the most recent projects I worked on… I was with Mercy Corps in Uganda, and this was at the end of last year, the beginning of this year and what they were creating in the refugee settlements in Western Uganda was these places that they were calling “innovation centers,” which were places that the refugees could go to and they could learn different skills. They could use it as a gathering place but of course, when I first went there, they weren’t quite sure what it was that they wanted to do with this. They just knew that there was this need, but they needed to understand better what the refugees themselves wanted to do within these places. It’s very common to do what’s called a needs assessment in the NGO world. And they have been adopting human centered design practices to supplement that because then that can take these needs assessments and make a lot of these insights actionable in the design process. Jorge: Can you share the outcome of that project? What was the result of the needs assessment of what the refugees wanted? Tanya: Sure. Some of the things that came about in that project involved the sort of skills that they would like to learn. Because, what happens in an environment like that is, of course, there’s someone who’s looking at the markets themselves to find out what skills would be useful in terms of, earning income and creating an economy in that area. But also, there are certain intrinsic aspirations that the refugees themselves have as to what they would like to learn how to do. My focus was a lot on how they preferred to make money. The sort of professions that they had back at… most of them were from the DRC. So, the sort of professions that they engaged in before they came to Uganda, understanding that. And also thinking about when they’re not working, how do they like to spend their time? What did they do for fun? What do they like to do that’s creative and makes them feel inspired? A lot of what we learned had to do with them wanting access to computers for particular purposes, for creating things, for creating websites, for creating movies. For doing all sorts of things… board games were super popular too. One of the things that seemed to have a lot of potential was this idea of the innovation center as a place where people could come, even when there weren’t courses or anything formal being held, but it was a place where they could come and socialize and play board games and do that sort of thing too. All of these insights and ideas, they were able to take and put them together with what they had learned that might have potential in terms of the economy in the area. And they were able to come up with services and courses and things like that to hold within these centers. Jorge: That sounds great. It sounds like a service design project, right? Tanya: Yes, very much. A lot of the projects I’ve worked on digital and otherwise, service design has been very important. And that is great, because that means that there’s quite a lot of research that happens with not just the end users, but with everyone involved in the process. And to me, that is core to human centered design: that you’re looking at all humans within that system. The role of language Jorge: When we were talking about ethnography and what it is, you spoke of looking at different power relationships between folks. I’m curious about the role of language in all of this. Tanya: Oh, yes. Well, unfortunately, I only sp