The War Room

Most spaces serve as shelter; they keep us safe, warm, and dry. That’s the baseline. But some spaces go beyond that: They also help us think better. One such space is the war room.

A war room is a space that allows the team to focus on a project or initiative. It allows team members to see the latest developments in the project, but also trace its history; to see where critical decisions were made (and why.) The war room extends the cognitive abilities of its inhabitants. It creates a shared context that allows them to have intelligent discussions about the project.

Walking into such a room focuses your mind on that project. You and your teammates are (literally) surrounded by the information you need to make decisions about the direction of the project. The room functions as a substrate for working towards a shared goal. It’s an inhabitable shared notebook that allows for real-time collaboration.

You quickly take such an environment for granted. Effective collaboration “just happens.” You only rediscover the room’s power and usefulness when you must induct someone into the team. You walk the person through the space, pointing to the walls as you tell the story of the project. By the time you finish the tour, you’ve established a shared frame of reference. Your new collaborator has been granted access to a place that holds special meaning and power. He or she becomes part of the tribe.

An effective war room requires transparency; its content must be comprehensive, accurate, and timely. What kinds of content? War rooms can include:

  • Project plans: milestones, goals and objectives, schedules, etc.
  • Relevant context: research on competitors, the overall market, users, trends, etc.
  • The team’s creative output: design directions, conceptual models, mood boards, etc.
  • Explorations: “parking spots” for uncategorized ideas, room for impromptu brainstorming sessions, etc.

Thus, content plus metadata. Lots of it, and up-to-date. It’s best to think of the war room as a living space — one that needs constant tending. This calls for stewardship; one or more team members must be charged with organizing and refreshing the walls. Organizing how? By keeping distinctions clear. Is an artifact a sketch for a proposed feature, or is it something the team observed in a competitor’s website? Absent clear labeling, the sketch’s position in the room conveys meaning; someone needs to look after this meaning.

That said, anyone can (and should be able to) contribute. It’s useful to keep lots of sticky notes around for on-the-fly annotation. Color-coding these notes is essential to keeping the room from becoming an incoherent mess. Clarity calls for a balance between flexibility and discipline in the use of the space.

As useful as they are, war rooms also have downsides. Physical space is limited; walls get crowded after a while. Is a particular artifact no longer relevant? Then it must go. But before it does, it must be photographed. Maintaining order requires ongoing curation. This takes work.

But the war room’s biggest downside is related to its primary upside: because it’s a physical space, it doesn’t lend itself to remote collaboration. While there are remote tools that attempt to replicate the functionalities of a war room (Basecamp comes to mind), they usually suffer too much upfront structure.

As with many other contemporary information environments, these systems also don’t do accommodate multiple simultaneous inhabitants effectively; individual users peruse them on their own. A true online war room would allow for multiple people to collaborate on its content, meta-content, and structure, without devolving into chaos.

Whether it’s physical or in an information environment, a war room can be central to effective collaboration. As with all environments, setting one up is just the beginning: you must also enable structures and processes that change over time. A good war room supports — but doesn’t dictate — project activities and needs as they evolve; it enables shared exploration and emergence.

Tag Your Stuff

You’re probably familiar with hashtags from social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. By adding a hash mark (#) to the beginning of a word, you can then see what other people (who also tag their posts) are saying about a subject. For example, you can see discussions about the Big Design conference by searching for the tag #BigD18 on Twitter.

Hashtags are a low-friction, low-commitment tool for organizing information that doesn’t require you to mess around with metadata or complex folder structures. And they’re not just useful for shared information environments; they can also help you keep things organized in your own personal information ecosystem. Since you can use them in any app that accepts plain text, you can use them across many apps.

For example, during any given week I read lots of articles about technology and design. Whether I’m reading on my Mac, iPad, or iPhone, I clip many of these articles into OneNote for later reference. Some of these articles seem like things I’d like to share with subscribers of my newsletter, so I tag them by typing the string #informaction into the body of the note. Later, when I’m writing the next edition of the newsletter, I search my OneNote inbox for this tag and get back a list of candidate links for the newsletter. A time saver!

A Human Queue

We’ve all experienced systems that manage our place in a queue. Perhaps you’re exchanging a defective product and are asked to “take a number,” or call your bank and are told to “hold for our next representative,” or ask for help with an app and receive an email that says “your support request number is #1067239.”

Whatever the case, it’s evident you’re not the only one there. In order to apportion the attention of the small group of people providing support to the (invariably larger) group of people needing it, the folks in charge of the experience establish systems to allow for an orderly progression. Usually, it’s on a first come, first served basis — but not always. Some requests may require specialized knowledge and may be held longer or be routed to a different department.

As the person waiting in “line,” these backend machinations aren’t visible to you. All you know is you’ve got a number, so your request should eventually be attended to. How long do you have to wait? Some systems attempt to let you know, but many don’t. Knowing that yours is request number 1,067,239 doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you. Are they currently serving request number 1,067,238? Do requests progress in sequence, or are they parallel? How long does the average request take? You don’t know. You’re not told the number so you’ll know how long you’ve got to wait, but in case you need to interact with another agent of the system in the future.

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TAOI: Reverse-chronological Feed in Twitter

The architecture of information:

When Twitter launched, its concept was easy to understand: you’d “follow” accounts who could post short messages through the system. When you logged in, you could see a list of these messages in the order they were published, starting with the latest. (Of course, you could also post messages that the people who followed you could see in their message lists.)

Twelve years on, many details of how Twitter works have evolved, but the basic principle remains the same. That is, except for the message list; that has changed in a significant way. A chronological list of messages doesn’t scale very well you’re following hundreds of active accounts. So a couple of years ago, Twitter changed the way it presents messages in its “feed”: instead of showing you the latest stuff in the chronological order the messages were posted, the feed changed to show messages that Twitter deemed most relevant to you.

This algorithmic feed arguably made it easier for newer users to see valuable content, but it made it more difficult for experienced users to keep track of conversation threads that depended on the order in which messages were posted. Twitter is now enabling a setting to allow users to determine whether they prefer to see the algorithmic feed or the simpler chronological one by default.

This is a major structural change to the environment that will benefit the people who need it. I’m one of those people: Seeing tweets in this simple reverse-chronological order is one of the reasons why I prefer using third-party Twitter clients. I’m glad to see the return of the simple reverse-chronological feed. (Although I wish Twitter would work with third-party developers to get their apps back to full functionality — I so much prefer using the Tweetbot app in my Mac over the Twitter web interface!)

Via The Verge

“Send Us the IA”

I’m sometimes faced with an awkward situation. Picture this: I’m sitting in a conference room table across from a client, and somebody will say something along the lines of “send us the IA.” That’s expectable: As an information architecture “expert,” customers reckon I will produce an IA for them. Often, that’s what they’re paying me for. Alas, IA means different things to different people. Some expect an artifact that looks like a sitemap. Others are thinking of something more abstract, like a conceptual model. Others expect something more concrete; a spreadsheet representing a taxonomy, navigation system comps, wireframes, etc.

Whatever the case, the awkwardness comes when I reply with a question along the lines of, “What do you mean by ‘IA’”? This often elicits a look of surprise. “You’re the expert!” the person’s probably thinking. “Why don’t you tell us what we need?” Indeed, this is often what I must do — figure out what the project needs, and then work to provide that as thoroughly as possible within the project’s constraints. However, there are always expectations that must be met. Knowing what those are upfront helps.

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Maintaining Focus

Before smartphones, people took photos using cameras. I bought my first “nice” camera — an entry-level Canon SLR — before my first daughter was born; I got it because I knew my point-and-shoot camera didn’t have a fast enough focusing system to keep track of a fast-moving toddler. Even today — with excellent cameras in our phones — higher-end cameras provide better focusing features.

You can analyze a camera’s focusing capabilities by breaking them down into two stages:

  1. how fast the camera can recognize the subject and how quickly it can focus on it, and
  2. how well it maintains that focus as the subject moves around.

So: acquiring and maintaining focus. Most higher-end cameras today can figure out what you’re trying to capture, focus on it, and adjust the lens’s focus automatically to keep that subject sharp — even if it’s zooming toward you in a soccer field or making pirouettes through the air. The nice ones do it so quickly that it feels instantaneous and effortless. But this isn’t easy to do! These autofocus systems are technological miracles.

I often think about camera focusing systems when thinking about my own life and work. So many things are competing for my attention! What comes first? What’s most important? What should I work on next? In other words, where do I place my focus?

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The Tricorder on Your Wrist

I bought the first generation Apple Watch (colloquially known as the “Series 0”) when it came out. Doing so was a measured leap of faith; it wasn’t entirely clear to me at the time what the Watch was for. Most of its features were things I could already do with my iPhone, albeit a bit less conveniently. Track my runs? Check. Show notifications? Check. Play music? Check. Tell the time? Check. Then there was the inconvenience of having another device to charge and the expense of periodic hardware upgrades.

Still, as a digital designer and strategist, it’s important for me to be up to date on form factors and technologies. I also trust Apple. So I bought the watch and went all in, using it daily to track my activity. Although I’ve grown to really like the Apple Watch, I haven’t seen it as an essential part of my everyday carry kit like the iPhone is. I can easily make it through a day without my watch, which is not something I can readily say about my phone.

To Apple’s credit, they’ve improved the product tremendously over the past three years. (Sometimes by making major changes to fundamental interactions in its operating system, which was somewhat awkward at launch.) Even though it’s rather slow now, and its battery doesn’t last as long as it used to, my Watch is better today than when I bought it. (A notable example: I use it dozens of times every day to automatically log into my Mac, a time saver.) Apple has also released subsequent iterations of the hardware that have added significant improvements such as GPS tracking and a cell radio. Still, I’ve resisted the impulse to upgrade. The Watch is not an inexpensive purchase (I prefer the stainless steel models), and as said above, I haven’t thought of it as indispensable.

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Pivot Like Lincoln

There’s a wonderful scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie LINCOLN. President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) asks influential representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) for his support in an upcoming vote. Stevens, a radical abolitionist, is having none of it. He questions the people’s appetite for emancipation. Because of slavery, he says, “the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women.” Lincoln’s reply is brilliant:

A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing true north?

These two men share a vision: they both want to see an end to slavery. They have significant differences of opinion about happens after they achieve it, but for now,​ they must help each other. More importantly, though, they also have different opinions about how to go about achieving their vision. While Stevens wants to charge full speed ahead, Lincoln prefers a more measured approach. He understands the second-order effects that would likely result from tackling the issue head-on.

In this scene, Lincoln articulates the spirit of cybernetics. In order to get somewhere, you must know where you’re going: You must have a vision of your desired goal and how the world will be different once you’ve reached it. But having a vision isn’t enough; you must also have a strategy and be open to adjusting​ as conditions evolve. You must take continuous readings of your surroundings: Where are you in relation to where you want to be? Are you still on track? Do you need to correct course? If so, you make a change; take another reading; correct course. Step by step, you find your way around the swamps, deserts, and chasms — always keeping true north in mind.