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I’m happy to announce I’m collaborating with my Macquarium colleague, Patrick Quattlebaum, and Happy Cog Philadelphia’s inimitable Kevin Hoffman on presenting an all-day pre-conference workshop for this year’s Information Architecture Summit, in Denver, CO. See more about it (and register to attend!) on the IA Summit site.

One of the things I’ve been fascinated with lately is how important it is to have an explicit understanding of the organizational and personal context not only of your users but of your own corporate environment, whether it’s your client’s or your own as an internal employee. When engaging over a project, having an understanding of motivations, power structures, systemic incentives and the rest of the mechanisms that make an organization run is immeasurably helpful to knowing how to go about planning and executing that engagement.

It turns out, we have excellent tools at our disposal for understanding the client: UX design methods like contextual inquiry, interviews, collaborative analysis interpretation, personas/scenarios, and the like; all these methods are just as useful for getting the context of the engagement as they are for getting the context of the user base.

Additionally, there are general rules of thumb that tend to be true in most organizations, such as how process starts out as a tool, but calcifies into unnecessary constraint, or how middle management tends to work in a reactive mode, afraid to clarify or question the often-vague direction of their superiors. Not to mention tips on how to introduce UX practice into traditional company hierarchies and workflows.

It’s also fascinating to me how understanding individuals is so interdependent with understanding the organization itself, and vice-versa. The ongoing explosion of new knowledge in social psychology and neuroscience  is giving us a lot of insight into what really motivates people, how and why they make their decisions, and the rest. These are among the topics Patrick & I will be covering during our portion of the workshop.

As the glue between the individual, the organization and the work, there are meetings. So half the workshop, led by Kevin Hoffman, will focus specifically on designing the meeting experience.  It’s in meetings, after all, where the all parties have to come to terms with their context in the organizational dynamics — so Kevin’s techniques for increasing not just the efficiency of meetings but the human & interpersonal growth that can happen in them, will be invaluable. Kevin’s been honing this material for a while now, to rave reviews, and it will be a treat.

I’m really looking forward to the workshop; partly because, as in the past, I’m sure to learn as much or more from the attendees as they learn from the workshop presenters.

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.”

I like this column by Nicholas Taleb. I haven’t read his book (The Black Swan) but now I think I might.

I’m more and more convinced that this ineffable activity called “innovation” is merely the story we user after the fact, to help ourselves feel like we understand what happened to bring that innovation about. But, much like the faces we think we see in the chaos of clouds, these explanations are merely comfortable fictions that allow us to feel we’re in control of the outcome. When, in fact, success so often comes from trying and failing, even playing, until the law of averages and random inspiration collide to create something new. The trick is making sure the conditions are ideal for people to fail over and over, until imagination stumbles upon insight.

You Can’t Predict Who Will Change The World –

It is high time to recognize that we humans are far better at doing than understanding, and better at tinkering than inventing. But we don’t know it. We truly live under the illusion of order, believing that planning and forecasting are possible. We are scared of the random, yet we live from its fruits. We are so scared of the random that we create disciplines that try to make sense of the past–but we ultimately fail to understand it, just as we fail to see the future. … We need more tinkering: uninhibited, aggressive, proud tinkering. We need to make our own luck. We can be scared and worried about the future, or we can look at it as a collection of happy surprises that lie outside the path of our imagination.

He rails against the wrong-headed approach factory-style standardization for learning and doing. He doesn’t name them outright, but I suspect No Child Left Behind and Six Sigma are targets.

Caveat: the column does tend to oversimplify a few things, such as describing whole cultures as non-inventive instruction-following drones, but that may just be part of the polemic. There’s more good stuff than ill, though.

Julian Dibbell has a marvelous post about how game realities are symptoms — sort of concentrated, more-obvious outcroppings — of a general shift in economic and cultural reality itself. The game’s the thing …

Online Games, Virtual Economies … Distinction between Play and Production

And I’m arguing, finally, that that relationship is one of convergence; that in the strange new world of immateriality toward which the engines of production have long been driving us, we can now at last make out the contours of a more familiar realm of the insubstantial—the realm of games and make-believe. In short, I’m saying that Marx had it almost right: Solidity is not melting into air. Production is melting into play.

Joi Ito, back in March, posted from the Game Developers Conference, where he is going to be doing a talk on the topic of “More than MMOs: Let Them Build It. How user-created content has transformed online games into a new web platform.” (Wish I could hear that talk! It’s one of my favorite things-to-obsess-upon, as evidenced in my article for ASIST Bulletin last year.)

Joi arrives at the conference assuming it’ll be attended by people like him — old-school hacker types who cut their teeth on early game code and the community of coding — and finds it’s mostly old-school entertainment-business types who simply don’t get it.

… while there are certain companies and individuals who are bridging the gap between the gaming industry and the Internet, the gaming industry is making the same mistakes that the content guys have been making since the beginning of networked computers. They ALWAYS over-estimate the importance of the content and vastly underestimate the desire of users/people to communicate with each other and share. … The professional content is important and will never go away, but it is becoming more of a platform or substrate on which the users build their own communities, interaction and play.

I wonder if it has something to do with the illusion of control, that as a producer of content one has the power to direct others’ attention, to provide meaning? It’s very hard to make the shift (or leap) from the image of oneself as central to peripheral. It makes the re-framing that everyone’s experiencing around “Web 2.0″ feel downright Copernican.

Via Jay Fienberg, via the IAI discussion list, I hear of this excellent post by professor David Silver about a talk Silver did recently on the Web 2.0 meme.

Silver starts out lauding the amazing, communal experience of blogs and mashups of blogs and RSS feeds and other Web 2.0 goodness, and then gets into giving some needed perspective:

then i stepped back and got critical. first, i identified web 2.0 as a marketing meme, one intended to increase hype of and investment in the web (and web consultants) and hinted at its largely consumer rather than communal directions and applications. second, i warned against the presentism implied in web 2.0. today’s web may indeed be more participatory but it is also an outgrowth of past developments like firefly, amazon’s user book reviews, craigslist, and ebay – not to mention older user generated content applications like usenet, listservs, and MUDs. third, i argued against the medium-centricness of the term web 2.0. user generated content can and does exist in other media, of course, including newspapers’ letters to the editor section, talk radio, and viewers voting on reality tv shows. and i ended with my all-time favorite example of user generated content, the suggestion box, which uses slips of paper, pencils, and a box.

I think this is very true, and good stuff to hear. (Even in the peculiar lower-case typing…fun!) Group participation has been growing steadily on the Internet in one form or another for years.

I do think, though, that some tipping point hit in the last few years. Tools for personal expression, simple syndication, a cultural shift in what people expect to be able to do online, and the rise of broadband and mobile web access — the sum has become somehow much greater than its parts.

Still, I think he’s right that the buzzword “Web 2.0″ is mainly an excellent vehicle for hype that gets people thinking they need consultants and new books. (Tim O’Reilly is a nice guy, I’m sure, but he’s also a business man and publisher who knows how to get conversations started.)

Silver mentions Feevy, a sort of ‘live blogroll’ tool for blogs — it has an excerpt of the latest post by each person on your blogroll. Neato tool. I may have to try it out!

I recently did a presentation at the very excellent DigitalNow conference, in Orlando. It’s a conference for leaders of professional associations, who have a vested interest in virtual community building and keeping their constituents engaged, even in the splintered information-saturated “Web 2.0″ world.

I combined a couple of previous years’ IASummit presentations and added a few new things to try and create an interesting picture that tries to re-frame the situation in several ways, hopefully adding some clarity and helping spark some new ideas for them.

Here’s a pdf of the deck: The Rise of Letting Go: How the Net Generation can teach us to lose control and like it. (Warning: it’s about a 20MB file!)

Second Life hype

I just posted another bit about Second Life a little while ago, and though to myself, “Why are you posting so much about it? You hardly even go there!”

It’s true. I really don’t actually use SL much. I love thinking about it, reading about it, and checking out the occasional amazing build there, but I haven’t found it consistently engaging enough to really spend a lot of time there.

There are several reasons for this, in my case:

1. I don’t especially like socializing there, because I don’t want to go into that sinkhole. I’ve had experiences in my past where a virtual community of one kind or another has drawn me in, and it keeps me disconnected from my present life. Some people are better at balancing this, but not me. And it’s even worse in some ways than an IRC channel or a MOO/MUD situation, because it’s so highly visual. There’s so much to keep track of visually that you can’t take your eyes from the screen, while on IRC or a MOO you can do other things online while ‘hanging’ out with your chat friends. But I don’t even do that anymore. I’ve tried hanging in some friendly spots like the Elbow Room in SL, but after a while it just gets to be so repetitive.

2. I honestly prefer *building* things in virtual places like this. When I messed around more in MUSH and MOO environments, the biggest draw for me was designing stuff, figuring out the kludgy but learnable code, and creating interactive objects, or even just lushly described environments. But even if you didn’t know the code, you could modify others’ objects or make really cool stuff mainly by just describing it in text. It was a collaborative storytelling tool, with real-time “third-place” community as the other killer ingredient. But in Second Life, you can’t just write up something cool and put a bit of code with it and make an enveloping, narrative experience. To do something that effective in SL, you have to understand 3D motion geometry, have a gift for 3D CAD work, and be willing to learn a full fledged programming language (LSL). It’s frustrating to not be able to just create great stuff without having to become a full-time craftsperson. Even the thrill of describing your character (writing your description in a MUSH) is ruined in SL, because you either have to know how to create your own clothes (using very advanced Photoshop techniques, hard to find textures, and 3D modeling skills) or you have to buy the stuff other people make. Which essentially makes it so much like real life, I figure, what’s the point? I learned just enough to make some tattoos and t-shirts, so that I could at least feel like I had a hand in my avatar’s sartorial expression, then I stopped, because it’s not like somebody’s paying me to do this stuff.

3. Which leads me to the last issue. Money. SL has been hyped like mad as all about the money. Which makes it very different from the Web, in many ways… because the Web is about openness, which it has in its DNA, to make a web page, you’ve always been able to just look at someone else’s source. Even now, with AJAX and other technologies making it more complex, the leaders in these techniques (Yahoo, Google) are publishing their source code openly, in the spirit of the Web. Second Life, however, encourages people to keep everything a secret, to lock their source code because they may be able to sell something for a few hundred Lindens. True, on MUDs and such people can lock their objects as well, trying to make some virtual cash in whatever MUD they’re on, and hide the source. But if they really want bragging rights, they know they should make something that works really well and share it with others, because that currency is actually worth more in the long run — social currency. With SL, however, the virtual money is *real* money — because it’s exchangeable with US dollars. Nothing wrong with capitalism, of course, but it’s caused hundreds of people to glom onto SL and turn it into a giant, ugly shopping mall — not a nice one, but one of those nearly-third-world bazaars where you think you’re driving by a giant junk pile but it’s actually stuff for sale. The worst part of this, to me, is that it makes so many people in SL protective and closed, and paranoid, about the stuff they made… and every little bauble someone comes up with is something they think they’re going to get rich by selling.

So… there you go. Does that mean I hate Second Life, like (otherwise very pleasant friend of the IA community) Matt “Blackbelt” Jones and cohorts at ? Well, no. I actually still think it’s fascinating. But only as a sort of initial foray or experiment. I don’t see that SL is the ‘future of the web’ — I believe the real future of the web is in simple, basic interfaces that connect us more easily and cheaply and ubiquitously wherever we happen to be. This is quite the opposite of having to be glued to my desk chair in front of a computer powerful enough to push the software and content streaming from Linden’s servers.

That said, I think SL is a fascinating *archetype* for what that future of ubiquitous, simple, cheap computing is going to be. (As I’ve said in “We Live Here” and other places.) I don’t think it’s taking over the web, but it could very well infect our imaginations. That’s really its key power… that it’s opening thoughts, conversations and possibilities about what else we could do with technology, how richly it can connect us, and what it might feel like to walk around in a world where every object has a unique id and talks to every other object, including us.

It’s also useful in more concentrated, planned ways, as a place where distantly connected people can meet “in the flesh” — there’s an interesting psychological effect that’s different in SL that you don’t get in text chat. The corporeal presence of the other person, even though they may be dressed like a fairy or a robot — it’s just a more exaggerated version of wearing a particular cologne or cool sunglasses, things we do all the time to express ourselves. I’ve been in meetings with people from organizations I’m part of, people whom I rarely or never meet in person, and there’s an intimacy to the conversation when looking around at their avatars and talking that you just don’t get in a text-only experience. Also there’s a sense of “place” that feels more substantial than a mere website — having a presence in Second Life, a company or organization can provide something that expresses “if we had a building you could come and visit to get to know us, this is what it’d be like” and that’s pretty powerful.

That’s why I think Clay Shirkey’s post is kind of missing the point. Shirkey will have plenty of people jumping in to agree or disagree with him, so I won’t go to great lengths.

I’ll just say I think he’s dead right about the hype: Linden is overplaying it. Philip Rosedale has gone on record saying SL is like the new Web, and that it’s like Burning Man… a utopia of which he is the visionary and lord. That’s fun for him, but not so much squared with reality. Linden Labs is a business, and SL is proprietary and limited to a giant warehouse of servers in California. Not quite the open Web of Tim Berners-Lee. And corporate America is having its field day for now, but it’ll wind down soon enough. At this point everyone feels obligated to have at least a kiosk there, just so they don’t look like squares.

But SL or something like it will continue to be there, and will grow, and will likely morph into something much less literal and (as Shirkey puts it) “conceptually simple” and much more a hybrid of walking around in real space + walking around in virtual space + using more efficient interfaces when appropriate for all the things that the virtual/real merged layers present us.

Google now has spreadsheets and documents (from Writely) combined… and awesome Discussion and Collaboration capabilities baked right in.

Google Docs & Spreadsheets

A combined list of documents and spreadsheets
You can see, create, and share all of your web-based documents and spreadsheets in one place. As your collection grows, you can manage and find them using tags, stars, and searches.

SL old-timers are already getting antsy about all this branding happening in-world. But it’s part of the deal, really.
What I’d like to see? Advertising from big brands and corporations supplementing the more or less free activity of others — allowing regular people to be able to have more objects on their land, for example. Watch me not hold my breath.

Adweek Magazine In Print – Advertising News – Advertising Information

Last week, Bartle Bogle Hegarty’s virtual office, created by the agency’s London headquarters and London production company Rivers Run Red, was officially up and running. And Leo Burnett Worldwide and its marketing-services partner Arc Worldwide are developing an “ideas hub” in Second Life that is expected to be operational by next month. Both agencies expect their virtual offices to offer both private and public spaces, and see the possibilities for client and agency involvement as “limitless.”

Thanks E, for the link!

The Science Of Desire

The beauty of ethnography, say its proponents, is that it provides a richer understanding of consumers than does traditional research. Yes, companies are still using focus groups, surveys, and demographic data to glean insights into the consumer’s mind. But closely observing people where they live and work, say executives, allows companies to zero in on their customers’ unarticulated desires. “It used be that design features were tacked on to the end of a marketing strategy,” says Timothy deWaal Malefyt, an anthropologist who runs “cultural discovery” at ad firm BBDO Worldwide. “Now what differentiates products has to be baked in from the beginning. This makes anthropology far more valuable.”

There’s a lot of buzz about the BBC’s recent announcement: | Media | BBC unveils radical revamp of website

The BBC today unveiled radical plans to rebuild its website around user-generated content, including blogs and home videos, with the aim of creating a public service version of

I’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about the difficulties newspapers and traditional broadcast news and information outlets are facing due to the explosion of the Web. And by explosion, I mean not the ecommerce fixation of 6-7 years ago, but the sort of afterboom of the social web. How Craigslist is eating the lunch of local newspapers, because (according to Craig, and I’m paraphrasing him here, from the very excellent interview I heard via podcast) newspapers are supposed to be a community service, and that’s how they work best and how a community values them most.

The authority they derive in their news coverage is an after effect of how well they make themselves into an essential social organ.

The BBC sees this clearly and is doing something about it … rather than whining about the changing world and trying to sandbag against it, they’re adopting the new paradigm.

And that new paradigm is the peer-to-peer world. A relatively new book, “The Wealth of Networks,” takes Metcalfe’s law seriously, and explains the point that many others have been making for a while. From an interview at Open Business:

By “commons-based peer production” I mean any one of a wide range of collaborative efforts we are seeing emerging on the Net in which a group of people engages in a cooperative production enterprise that effectively produces information goods without price signals or managerial commands.

The interview goes on to cover the non-monetary incentives for this kind of co-production. Any enlightened HR person will tell you, though, that similar non-monetary incentives have always been primary drivers for workers; it’s what makes people care about what they’re doing. Getting paid is necessary, but it’s not the immediate incentive every minute of the work day. (If it *is* the main incentive of most workers in an organization, the organization is doomed.)

But enabling people to work this way is something most organizations aren’t used to doing. Which is why there’s an exponential increase in interest about “social software” and how to use it for business. I’m a big fan of the stuff, but it’s only as good as the organization using it: like any other software, it doesn’t fix anything on its own, it only gives people more opportunities to fix things together.

Maybe this is why CFO magazine has an article just a few days old about “Office Collaboration, the Wiki Way.” Maybe it’s why Kleiner Perkins is backing Visible Path’s vision to take social software to the serious corporate world? And maybe it’s why Forrester has an online session happening tomorrow called “Social Computing: How Networks Erode Institutional Power, And What to Do About It” with a blurb like this:

Easy connections brought about by cheap devices, modular content, and shared computing resources are having a profound impact on our global economy and social structure. Individuals increasingly take cues from one another rather than from institutional sources like corporations, media outlets, religions, and political bodies. To thrive in an era of Social Computing, companies must abandon top-down management and communication tactics, weave communities into their products and services, use employees and partners as marketers, and become part of a living fabric of brand loyalists.

(The report from February is for sale here.)

A lot of this might be a little far-fetched. People and institutions don’t change overnight, and certain pockets of corporate culture have more inertia than others. Still, it’s one thing to talk about it like it’s the sci-fi future: then it’s just theoretical and not especially pressing. But it’s another to see it happening all around you. That’s when it’s time to at least have a strategy.

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