The Informed Life with Margot Bloomstein

Episode 56 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with brand and content strategist Margot Bloomstein. Margot is the author of Content Strategy at Work, and now she’s written a new book called Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap. Our conversation focused on the subject of the latter: building trust.

Specifically, the book deals with how organizations (businesses, governments, non-profits, etc.) can build trust with their customers and prospects in a time when trust in institutions, politicians, organizations, and even capitalism itself, is waning. As Margot diagnosed the situation,

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Worth Your Attention

  • Citibank lost $500 million due to a bad user interface. But the primary issue isn’t just aesthetics or usability; it’s the lack of a clear user conceptual model.
  • Scott Berkun compiled a list of the most difficult UX concepts to explain. I especially loved this one: “Even the best UX design can’t fix messed up organizational structure or people problems.” Preach!
  • Boon Chew’s resources for designers who are into systems thinking. I was sad to miss Interaction21, but I’m happy to see systems thinking was a running theme in this year’s conference.
  • If you’re concerned (as I am) about the effects of internet culture on our body politic, I recommend Martin Gurri’s The Revolt of the Public. This book reset my understanding of what’s happened to our societies over the last fifteen years or so. Amazon (affiliate link) and my book notes.
  • “So far, it appears that the American people have not yet developed the critical thinking skills to sort truth from nonsense online, plausible argument from baseless conspiracy theory, science from wishful thinking.” A long-view take on the digital publishing revolution. (H/t Cecily Sommers)
  • “People who can reach preposterous conclusions from a long chain of abstract reasoning, and feel confident in their truth, are the wrong people to be running a culture.” A hilarious reality check on the claims of AI superintelligence advocates. (H/t John Thackara)
  • Same Energy, an intriguing new visual search engine that uses deep learning to find images that ‘feel’ like other images. Useful for creating mood boards? (H/t Kevin Kelly)
  • A profile of graphic adventure pioneer Roberta Williams, who co-founded Sierra On-Line. Her work has been tremendously influential; it’s good to see her career celebrated by the Smithsonian. (Bonus: you can play Williams’s first graphic adventure, Mystery House, for free on the Internet Archive.)
  • I’m always thrilled to see other creative people’s thinking artifacts. If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan’s film INCEPTION, you’ll likely enjoy his hand-drawn map of the movie’s plot.
  • Enduring digital artifacts: on the origins of GPS triangle cursor, which – I was surprised to learn — comes from one of my favorite classic video games.

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Profiles in Curiosity

Today is World IA Day, the annual global celebration of all things information architecture. This year’s theme is ‘designing curiosity,’ and as part of the celebrations, Cassini Nazir asked me to share my thoughts for a series called profiles in curiosity.

Curiosity is one of those curious words we use in everyday speech without minding their precise meaning. Cassini’s invitation was an opportunity to reflect on what curiosity means to me and where and how I experience it.

So what do I mean by curiosity?

Curiosity is a playful, open-ended mode of inquiry. Something sparks an awareness of your ignorance, and it entices rather than shames you.

See more in my profile in curiosity and check out the whole series.

TAOI: Ten Years

The architecture of information:

A core principle of information architecture is that user interfaces change faster than their underlying structures. Given how quickly digital things change, this principle is easier to contemplate in the abstract than in practice.

“Bored coder” Neal Agarwal recently published a one-page website called Ten Years Ago, which showcases fourteen websites’ homepages as they looked in February 2011 (through the graces of the amazing Internet Archive, which deserves your support.) I took Neal’s page as a prompt to look at how websites have changed in a decade.

In Ten Years, I examine Apple, ESPN, Goodreads, Reddit, and IMDb. As expected, the sites look different than they did ten years ago. (Some more so than others.) However, their core navigation structures remain remarkably consistent.

As expected, the sites look different than they did ten years ago. (Some more so than others.) That said, their information architectures remain remarkably stable. As I’ve said many times before, structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel. These five sites offer compelling proof.

The Architecture of Information: Ten Years

Citibank’s $500m ‘UI’ Problem

Timothy B. Lee reporting for Ars Technica:

A federal judge has ruled that Citibank isn’t entitled to the return of $500 million it sent to various creditors last August. Kludgey software and a poorly designed user interface contributed to the massive screwup.

Citibank was acting as an agent for Revlon, which owed hundreds of millions of dollars to various creditors. On August 11, Citibank was supposed to send out interest payments totaling $7.8 million to these creditors.

However, Revlon was in the process of refinancing its debt—paying off a few creditors while rolling the rest of its debt into a new loan. And this, combined with the confusing interface of financial software called Flexcube, led the bank to accidentally pay back the principal on the entire loan—most of which wasn’t due until 2023.

My initial reaction on reading this was: wow, $500m is a lot of money — I wonder how bad the UI is? The article provides a screenshot, which it credits to Judge Jesse Furman:

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The Informed Life with Hà Phan

Episode 55 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Hà Phan, the Director of Discovery at Pluralsight. Hà came to this role from GoPro, where she was a principal UX designer. Our conversation focused on the transition from UX design to product leadership.

Among the differences between the two roles, Hà called out the fact that leaders must provide their teams with a path to clarity:

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.

Finding and illuminating this path requires (among other things) asking the right questions and making things:

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.

Hà’s approach strikes me as a designerly way of leading; an inspirational example for designers tasked with taking on broader responsibilities. I hope you find as much value in our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 55: Hà Phan on Product Leadership

Worth Your Attention

  • When designing a system, we want to understand how its users think about the subject domain, what the system needs to show them, and how it will be implemented. That is why we must consider three separate models.
  • “… when software becomes part of society, all of society’s problems get expressed in software.” Benedict Evans on regulating tech.
  • Complex maladaptive systems. (h/t Tim O’Reilly)
  • Mark Hurst is losing faith in UX; Scott Berkun offers suggestions on how to restore it.
  • Browser maker Vivaldi introduced a new tab stacking feature. (Would you use this?)
  • “Microsoft Viva isn’t an app or even a service but more of a platform for improving remote work and helping businesses adjust to it.” Does Microsoft’s new work platform herald a revival of the intranet?
  • When I sit to watch something on one of the streaming video services, I often find myself unable to choose. There’s so much there! Later this year, Netflix will release a shuffle play feature that should help those of us paralyzed by choice. (Maybe this is also a way of restoring serendipity to television?)
  • Birdwatch, an intriguing initiative from Twitter to combat misinformation on the platform through community participation.
  • Interactive Principles: “a deck of learning science principles for designing educational games.” Applicable to other domains as well. (h/t Christina Wodtke, via Stephen P. Anderson)
  • A team of volunteers is building a virtual theme park featuring defunct real-world attractions. The first to be finished: Walt Disney World’s long-departed (and much missed) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage. (This might be the nudge I needed to buy a VR headset.)

These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday. Sign up here.

Book Notes: “The Revolt of the Public”

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority
By Martin Gurri
Stripe Press, 2018

As someone who cares deeply about society’s long-term well-being, I was disturbed by the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The attack on the nation’s symbolic (and actual) center of political power was the latest manifestation of an illness that has afflicted our body politic. It’s a complex situation, and the causes are hard to diagnose. In my search to understand what’s going on, I came across The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst.

The book argues that the internet ushered a “fifth wave” in how we relate to information and each other. (The fourth wave was broadcast media, which were a product of the industrial era.) Societies washed over by this fifth wave show symptoms of a “uncertainty and impermanence.” These symptoms, in turn, manifest a breakdown in information hierarchies. (I.e., how authorities have traditionally kept the public informed.)

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My friends Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz recently wrapped up the first season (my phrase) of their podcast Finding Our Way. The show is about “navigating the opportunities and challenges of design leadership,” and it takes form as an ongoing conversation between the co-hosts. (And occasional guests, including yours truly.)

Peter and Jesse are rendering a tremendous service to the design community by having these conversations in public. They’re experienced practitioners reflecting on what they’ve learned both in their own journeys to design leadership and through advising other design leaders. If you haven’t heard Finding Our Way, I encourage you to listen.

Episode 25 (“The Reckoning”) is especially worth your attention. In it, Peter and Jesse reflect on emerging themes in their conversation. An exchange early in that episode resonated strongly with me. Peter observed that “the crafts of (design) leadership are communication and information architecture.” He elaborated:

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