September 2008

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Erin Malone points to an article on the challenges of managing the Flickr community in the SF Chronicle:

"People bring their human relationships to Flickr, and we end up having to police them," Champ says. …

Lest your inner libertarian objects to such interventions, Champ is quick to correct the idea that the community would ultimately find its own balance.

"The amount of time it would take for the community to self-regulate — I don't think it could sustain itself in the meantime," she says. "Anyway, I can't think of any successful online community where the nice, quiet, reasonable voices defeat the loud, angry ones on their own."

This struck me as uncannily relevant to what’s going on right now in the US economy.

Once social platforms like Flickr reach a certain size, they really do become a weird amalgam of City & Economy, and they require governance. Heather Champ (Flickr’s estimable community manager) points out that, even if you truly believe a collective crowd like this will self-regulate, much damage will be done on the way to finding that balance.

Isn’t that precisely the perennial tension we have in terms of free-market economics?

It seems to me that User Experience design is increasingly needing to learn from Economics and Political Science — and it may even have a thing or two to teach them, as well.

I have lots of thoughts on this, but too many to get down here … just wanted to bring it up because I think it’s so damned fascinating.

This excellent report came out a couple of weeks ago. It shows that the ubiquity and importance of video games, and game culture, is even bigger than many of us imagined. I explored some of this in a presentation a few years ago: Clues to the Future. I’m itching to keep running with some of those ideas, especially now that they’re being taken more seriously in business & technology circles (not by my doing, of course, but just from increased exposure in mainstream publications and the like).

Pew Internet: Teens, Video Games and Civics

The first national survey of its kind finds that virtually all American teens play computer, console, or cell phone games and that the gaming experience is rich and varied, with a significant amount of social interaction and potential for civic engagement….

The primary findings in the survey of 1,102 youth ages 12-17 include —

* Game playing is universal, with almost all teens playing games and at least half playing games on a given day.
* Game playing experiences are diverse, with the most popular games falling into the racing, puzzle, sports, action and adventure categories.
* Game playing is also social, with most teens playing games with others at least some of the time and can incorporate many aspects of civic and political life.

I’m especially interested in the universality of game playing. It reinforces more than ever the idea that the language of games is going to be an increasingly universal language. The design patterns, goal-based behaviors, playfulness — these are things that have to be considered over the next 5-10 years as software design accommodates these kids as they grow up.

The social aspect is also key: we have an upcoming generation that expects their online & software-based experiences to integrate into their larger lives; they don’t assume that various applications and contexts are separate, and feel pleasantly surprised (or disturbed) to discover they’re connected. They’ll have a different set of assumptions about connectedness.


Months ago, I posted the first part of something I’d been presenting on for over a year: a simple way of thinking about social design choices. I called it the “Cultivation Equation for Social Design.” I should’ve known better, but I said at the end of that post that I’d be posting the rest soon … then proceeded to put it off for a very long time. At any rate, here’s the second part, about Motivation. The third part (about Moderation) will be forthcoming, eventually, but I make no promises on timing.
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Detail from Halloween Pumpkins Map of Wood's Neighborhood

In my talk for IDEA Conference, I’ll be referencing the work of Denis Wood.

I’m so utterly intrigued by a particular long-term project he did back in the 80s, which ended up in an episode of This American Life.

In a blog post at the “Making Maps” blog, Wood goes into some detail about this project and how it managed to go from being a bunch of stuff in a box under his desk to one of the most popular episodes of TAL: Denis Wood: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights « Making Maps: DIY Cartography

There was a lot we wanted to do. Certainly we wanted to use the mapping to help us figure out what a neighborhood was, but we also wanted to use the mapping as a kind of organizational tool, as a way of bringing the neighborhood together and helping it to see itself. This meant we wanted to be able to get copies of the atlas into the hands of the residents and so we planned a black and white atlas that could be cheaply reproduced on a copy machine. At the same time we wanted to make something beautiful, almost a livre d’artiste. I in particular was impatient with distinctions between art and science – it was an important part of my teaching that these distinctions were arbitrary and obfuscatory – and I wanted the atlas to read almost like a novel.

One thing I love about this story is how it breaks assumptions about what maps are, and what they’re for. How a map of a neighborhood shapes the identity if the neighborhood. Wood uses the term “mask” for what a map can do — it creates a mask that the place wears on its own face, for anyone who looks at the map. It constructs & reveals at the same time, a neighborhood’s crime patterns, underground tunnels & cisterns, or the spirit of its residents through where the jack-o-lanterns are on Halloween.

The map is a narrative. So what does that mean, when we create virtual places that are their own maps? It means our assumptions of what the map shows actually shape the neighborhood itself. Not just in the “social construction” sense of printed maps and physical neighborhoods, but quite literally in the sense of architecture.

What does it mean to be a resident of a neighborhood mapped as X vs one mapped as Y? What if, with the flip of a switch, the neighborhood could change between X and Y? Isn’t that what we’re making with our virtual spaces?

Moving South

A bit of personal news …

It looks like it’s official: I’ll be moving to Charlotte, NC sometime around December. I’ll still be working for Vanguard’s User Experience Group, but from that location.

Why? Well, for one thing, it’s an opportunity for the company to have more UXG presence at that site, an opportunity that has recently started to make more sense. But my main reason for requesting the move is that my daughter lives with her mom in Winston-Salem, NC, which is pretty close to there. Plus, my aging parents are just south of there in GA. One might wonder why I didn’t do this sooner, but there are practical reasons why I haven’t until now (happy to explain off-line if anyone’s interested). I’m glad I can get closer to family, while still continuing to work with Vanguard’s UX group, which is honestly the best job I’ve ever had.

I hate to leave the Philly area — it’s been my home nearly 5 years now. While I’ll be coming back up for work reasons now and then, it won’t be the same as living there. And while living here, I’ve grown some very close ties that I hope to keep tied even from a distance.

It’d be great if any Philly locals can work me into their schedules for a meetup of some kind, before I ship out.

If anyone has recommendations on moving companies, places to live, etc, I’m all ears! Hit me at inkblurt via gmail.

From Adam Greenfield:

If, as so many have pointed out, the ongoing process of digital ephemeralization has taken previously place-bound functions like communication, banking and commerce, and exploded them – “smearing them across urban space,” in Bill Mitchell’s words – it’s without question also doing interesting and significant things to how we perceive the nexus of place and time.

Adam says he’s going to focus on these changes in his new book — I’m looking forward to it.

If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s movie “Paths of Glory,” it’s a brutal illustration of the distinction between “ideas” and “ideology.”

Kirk Douglas at the "Strategy Table"Kirk Douglas’s character (Colonel Dax) is coming to the “strategy table” after leading his men in the first-hand experience of the trenches. Based on his observations from open-minded, first-hand experience of his troops on the ground, he has ideas about what should and shouldn’t be done strategically. But the strategists, basing their decisions on ideology, force him to lead his soldiers to make a completely suicidal attack: an attack that makes no sense based on what one can plainly see “on the ground.” In this movie, the Strategy Table is ideologically driven; Dax is driven by ideas shaped, and changed, by first-hand experience.

In my last post, Austin Govella commented with some terrific questions that made me think a lot harder about what I was getting at. Austin asked: “Is ‘design doing’ the practice of all design practitioners? Can you be a design practitioner whose practice consists of ideology and abstractions?” And it made me realize I hadn’t fully thought through the distinction. But it’s a powerful distinction to make.

In design practice, ideas are the imaginative constructs we generate as we try to solve concrete problems. Ideas are fluid, malleable, and affected by dialectic. They’re raw material for making into newer, better ideas.

Ideology is nearly the opposite. Ideology already has the questions answered. Ideology is orthodoxy, dogma, received doctrine. It comes from “the gods” — and it’s generally a cop-out. We see it in business all the time, where people make decisions based on assumed doctrine, partly because doing so means that if something goes wrong, you can always say “but that’s what the doctrine said I should do.” It kills innovation, because it plays to our fears of risking failure. And it plays to our tendency to believe in hierarchies, and that the top dog knows what’s best just because he’s the top dog.

Let me be clear: I don’t want to paint designers as saints and business leaders as soulless ideologues. That would, ironically, be making the mistake I’m saying we have to avoid! We are all human, and we’ve all made decisions based on dogma and personal ambition at some point. So, we have to be careful of seeing ourselves as the “in the trenches hero” fighting “the man.” There are plenty of business leaders who strive to shake their ideologies, and plenty of designers who ignore what’s in front of them to charge ahead based on ideology and pure stubbornness.

I also realize that ideology and ideas overlap a good deal — that strategy isn’t always based in dogma, and ideas aren’t always grounded in immediate experience. So, when I say “Strategy Table” I only mean that there’s a strong tendency for people to think as ideologues at that level — it’s a cultural issue. But designers are far from immune to ideology. Very far.

In fact, designers have a track record of inventing ideologies and designing from them. But nearly every example of a terribly designed product can be traced to some ideology. Stewart Brand nicely eviscerates design ideology in “How Buildings Learn” — famous architecture based on aesthetic ideologies, but divorced from the grounded experience of the buildings’ inhabitants, results in edifices that people hate to use, living rooms where you can’t relax, atriums everyone avoids. Falling Water is beautiful, and helped architecture re-think a lot of assumptions about how buildings co-exist with landscapes. But Wright’s own assumptions undermined the building’s full potential: for example, it leaks like a sieve (falling water, indeed). Ideology is the enemy of successful design.

Paradoxically, the only thing close to an ideology that really helps design be better is one that forces us to question our ideological assumptions. But that’s not ideology, it’s method, which is more practical. Methods are ways to trick ourselves into getting to better answers than our assumptions would’ve led us to create. (Note, I’m not saying “methodology” — as soon as you put “ology” on something, you’re carving it in marble.)

Jared Spool’s keynote at the IA Summit this year made this very point: ideology leads to things like a TSA employee insisting that you put a single 3oz bottle of shampoo in a plastic bag, because that’s the rule, even though it makes no practical sense.

But the methods and techniques we use when we design for users should never rise to that level of rules & orthodoxy. They’re tools we use when we need them. They’re techniques & tricks we use to shake ourselves out of our assumptions, and see the design problem at hand more objectively. They live at the level of “patterns” rather than “standards.” As Jared illustrated with his stone soup analogy: putting the stone in the soup doesn’t make the soup — it’s a trick to get people to re-frame what they’re doing and get the soup made with real ingredients.

That distinction is at the heart of this “design thinking” stuff people are talking about. But design thinking can’t be codified and made into dogma — then it’s not design thinking anymore. It has to be grounded in *doing* design, which is itself grounded in the messy, trench-level experience of those who use the stuff we make.

Coming to the “Strategy Table,” a big part of our job is to re-frame the problem for the Lords of the Table, and provoke them to see it from a different point of view. And that is a major challenge.

In Paths of Glory, one of the members of the Strategy Table, Paul Mireau, actually comes to the trenches himself. One of the real dramatic tensions of the film is this moment when we can see the situation through Dax’s eyes, but we can tell from Mireau’s whole bearing that he simply does not see the same thing we do. He’s wearing Strategy Goggles (with personal-ambition-tinted lenses!), and ignores what’s in front of his face.

At the “Strategy Table” one of our biggest challenges is somehow getting underneath the assumptions of the strategy-minded, and help them re-think their strategy based on ideas grounded in the real, messy experience of our users. If we try to be strategists who think and work exclusively at a strategic level, we stop being practitioners with our hands in the soil of our work.

But what if we approach this challenge as a design problem? Then we can see the people at the strategy table as “users,” and our message to them as our design. We can observe them, understand their behaviors and mental models, and design a way of collaborating with them that meets their expectations but undoes their assumptions. At the same time, it will help us understand them as well as we try to understand our users, which will allow us to communicate and collaborate better at the table.

Catching up on the AP blog, I saw Kate Rutter’s excellent post: Build your very own seat at the strategy table, complete with a papercraft “table” with helpful reminders! It’s about designers gaining a place at the “strategy table” — where the people who run things tend to dwell.

I had written something about this a while back, about Strategy & Innovation being “Strange Bedfellows.” But Kate’s post brought up something I hadn’t really focused on yet.

So I commented there, and now I’m repeating here: practitioners’ best work is at the level of practice.

They make things, and they make things better, based on the concrete experience of the things themselves. The strategy table, however, has traditionally been populated by those who are pretty far removed from the street-level effects of their decisions, working from the level of ideology. (Not that it’s a bad thing — most ideology is the result of learned wisdom over time, it just gets too calcified and/or used in the wrong context at times.) This is one reason why so many strategists love data rather than first-hand experience: they can (too often) see the data however they need to, based on whatever ideological glasses they’re wearing.

When designers leave the context of hands-on, concrete problem solving and try to mix it up with the abstraction/ideology crowd, they’re no longer in their element. So they have to *bring* their element along with them.

Take that concrete, messy, human design problem, and drop it on the table with a *thud* — just be ready to have some “data” and business speak ready to translate for the audience. And then dive in and get to work on the thing itself, right in front of them. That’s bringing “design thinking” into the strategy room — because “design thinking” is “design doing.”

In the midst of all the other things keeping me busy and away from blogging, some very nice people nominated me to serve on the Board of Advisors for the IA Institute. I’m flattered and honored, and a bit intimidated. But if elected, I’ll give it my best shot.

They asked for a bio and position statement. Here’s the position bit I sent them:

This [Information Architecture] community has excelled at creating a “shared history of learning” over the last 10 years. We’ve seen it bring essential elements to the emergence of User Experience Design, in the form of methods, tools, knowledge, and especially people. I think the IAI has been essential to how the community has developed, thanks to the hard work of its volunteers and staff creating excellent initiatives for mentorship, careers and other important needs.

The next big challenge is for the IAI to become more than a sum of its parts. How can it become a more influential, vital presence in the UX community? How can it serve as an amplifier for the amazing knowledge and insight we have among our members and colleagues? How can it evolve understanding of IA among business and design peers? And how can we better coexist and collaborate with those peers and practices?

From the beginning, IA has grappled with one of the most important challenges designers now face: how to define and link contexts usefully, usably and ethically in a digital hyper-linked world. I don’t see that challenge becoming any easier in the years ahead. In fact, the digital world is only becoming more pervasive, strange and exciting.

As a board member, my focus will be to help the IA Institute grow as a valued, authoritative resource for that future.


Already, I feel the urge to further explain.

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