On Notices of Privacy Policy Updates

Like you, these days I find my inbox flooded with GPRS compliance emails. Some come from services I use every day. Others are from services I signed up for a long time ago, and no longer use. Still others are from services I can’t recall signing up for. Did I open accounts with these companies unwittingly? Did someone open an account on my behalf? Did I open an account with another business that was then acquired by the company I’m getting the email from? I find myself at a loss, and quickly move on to the next email.

Compliance with the new rules is important to the companies sending the emails, but as a user the collective effect is a burden. I have little incentive to do anything other than archive the messages. Still, the (seemingly) endless stream of GPRS emails reminds me of how scattered my identity is in information environments.

Each of these companies has a digital representation of me somewhere in their systems. They aren’t centrally coordinated; each company’s dataset is an independent representation of my information. These snapshots of me vary in fidelity. For example, those that have my physical address as of five years ago are wrong. Others are newer, and therefore have better information. There is no one “true” representation they can sync to, and I have little incentive to keep them all up to date, since I don’t have plans to visit many of these places anymore.

As we move between physical places in the “real” world, our identity comes with us. When I visit my local grocery store, people know who I am. When I go next door to the local pharmacy, I’m the same person. In my pocket is a wallet with little plastic cards that identify me: a driver’s license, various credit cards, a transit card, etc. These identifiers travel with me as I go from place to place. I show them as needed, and they remain in my possession.

Moving through online places doesn’t work like this. When you first enter most information environments, you’re anonymous. As in the real world, you must identify yourself if you want to transact there. Once you do, your identity is somehow no longer in your possession; a new instance of “you” has been created in a database which you don’t own. This digital “you” starts life as (mostly) a blank slate and gets a history of its own as you interact with the company’s services.

When you’ve been online as long as I have, you have hundreds of such “yous” lying around. Some are dormant, others very active; all are scattered, out of your control in ways no government regulation can ultimately rein in. Occasionally you’ll read news about one of these “you’s” homestead being compromised, your personal information trickling out to — who knows where? — without much you can do about it other than changing your password, the damage long done. As the GPRS compliance emails remind us, we can’t speak of our online identity in the singular; each of us is a plurality that is only partially under our control.

If These Walls Had Ears

In early 1896, the Lumière brothers exhibited one of the first motion pictures ever made: THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT. With a run time of less than a minute, THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN isn’t long. It also has a straightforward premise: the movie consists of a single stationary shot of a steam train pulling into a station, and the subsequent disembarkment of passengers. The shot is composed so the camera points down the track, with the locomotive coming towards it. You can see the film here:

THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN is famous not just because it was the first movie shown in public; it’s also famous because of the legend that’s grown around it. Supposedly, the first showings caused audiences to panic, with some people scrambling to the exits. Unaccustomed to moving pictures, these early movie-goers somehow thought there was a real train barreling towards them, and ran for their lives.

Whether this happened exactly as described is inconsequential. The story speaks to the power of the motion picture medium to conjure illusions and has therefore become enshrined as the founding myth of cinema. It also speaks to how information can alter our sense of place, especially when we’re interacting with it in novel ways. As such, it’s a good analog for some uncanny experiences we are encountering today.

Recently, a Portland woman named Danielle received a call from one of her husband’s employees. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now,” this person said. “You’re being hacked.” The employee then described in detail a conversation that had happened earlier inside Danielle’s home. Apparently, the family’s Amazon Echo device was recording their conversations and sharing them with others.

In the subsequent investigation of the incident, Amazon’s engineers concluded that somebody had uttered a particular set of phonemes during the conversation that the Echo interpreted as its activation command, followed by a command to send a message to the person who then received the recordings. In other words, it wasn’t a hack; it was an unintentional triggering of one of the Echo’s features. (You can read about this story on The Verge.)

I can’t help but wonder ​how this incident has altered this family’s relationship with the physical environment​ of their home. When people first experienced THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN at the end of the 19th Century, they had never seen anything like it — except in “real life.” The first audiences were inexperienced with the new information delivery medium, so it’s understandable that they felt confused or even panicky. Whatever their reaction was, undoubtedly their experience of being in a particular place was radically transformed by the experience.

Even now, over 120 years later, it still is. Think about the last time you went to a movie theater. The experience of sitting in a movie theater is very different before and after the movie is playing. How long does it take for you to stop being conscious of the physical environment of the theater as you become engrossed by the film? (This is one of the reasons why contemporary movies are preceded with reminders to turn off your electronic devices; you’re there to draw your attention away from our physical reality for a couple of hours, and you don’t want anything yanking it back.)

Always-on smart devices such as the Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod change the nature of our physical environments: They add an information interaction layer to the place that wasn’t there before you turned on the cylinder in the room. Unlike a movie, however, these devices aren’t designed to capture your attention. In fact, these devices are designed to be unobtrusive; you’re only meant to be aware of their presence when you summon them by issuing a verbal command.

One can only assume that the form of these things is a compromise with the constraints imposed by current technology and the laws of physics. The ideal form for this class of devices is completely invisibile; we want them to be perceived not as devices at all, but as a feature of the environment. But is this really the ideal? Is it desirable for our physical environments to be always listening to us in the background?

Partly due to their design, we’re responding to these smart cylinders in a way that stands in stark contrast to how we received THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN. Instead of panicking and running out of the room, we’re placidly deploying these instruments of contextual collapse into our most intimate environments. What does the possibility of inadvertent broadcast do to our ability to speak frankly with each other, to rage with anger, to say sweet, corny things to each other, to share with our kids the naughty delight of “pull-my-finger” jokes?

Those panicky Parisians of 1896 would run out of the theater to a perfectly ordinary street, no threatening locomotive in sight. I bet they initially felt like fools. Soon enough, the novelty would pass; eventually, they’d be able to sit through — and enjoy — much longer, more exciting film entertainments. What about us? Is panic merited when we discover our rooms have ears and that others can listen to anything we say? Will we be able to run out of these rooms? How will we know?

Information Architecture as MacGuffin

SALLAH: Indy, you have no time. If you still want the ark, it is being loaded onto a truck for Cairo.
INDIANA: Truck? What truck?

This exchange from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) leads to one of the most thrilling car chases in movie history, in which our hero, Indiana Jones, fights his way onto the vehicle mentioned above. Onboard the truck is the Ark of the Covenant, which Nazis are trying to smuggle out of Egypt so their boss — Adolf Hitler — can use it to take over the world.

Sounds like a pretty important thing, right? Well, it isn’t. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the movie, the crated ark is wheeled into a nondescript government warehouse packed with similar crates as far as the eye can see. The implication: this thing, which we’ve just spent a couple of hours obsessing about, will soon be forgotten — as it should be. You don’t want the audience to go home thinking about the implications of having something as powerful as the ark out and about in the world.

Continue reading

Living in Information Now Available to Pre-order!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted news about my new book, Living in Information. I’m excited to announce that you can now pre-order the book from Rosenfeld Media. (It should be shipping by mid-June.)

The book’s page on the Rosenfeld Media website has been updated to include testimonials from early reviewers. I’m thrilled by the positive responses we’ve been getting. Here’s a sampler:

“We spend more time in information environments every day— this book is a great place to spend some time to understand how we can design digital places that benefit us in the long term.”
– Dan Ramsden, Creative Director for UX Architecture and Design Research, BBC

“Jorge Arango proves to be an insightful tour guide to information spaces, explaining how we interact with this new architecture.”
– Karen McGrane, author of Going Responsive

“A must-read for anyone who wants to understand why the digital spaces that drive our lives are deeply frustrating, and how we can make them better by learning from the way architects design buildings. It immediately and profoundly impacted the way I think about the systems I design and use.”
– Jeff Sussna, digital transformation consultant and author of Designing Delivery

Read more testimonials.

I’m also excited to share with you Hugh Dubberly’s foreword for the book. Hugh is a legend for his thoughtful and rigorous application of systems thinking to interaction design. I’m honored to have been able to share a byline with someone who’s influenced my thinking and career.

I’m excited that Living in Information is almost here, and wanted to share it with you. Again, you can pre-order the book now from Rosenfeld Media. I look forward to hearing what you think about it.

Places Are Making You Stupid

There are great tacos in the San Francisco Bay Area. My family and I are lucky to live near a small restaurant that makes good ones. It’s run by a family who knows what they’re doing when it comes to tacos. They also know what they’re doing when it comes to pricing, hospitality, and ambiance, so the place is always packed. It’s one of our favorite restaurants. Alas, as good as the tacos are, I have a beef with the place: it makes us stupid.

You see, one of the things about this restaurant that makes it popular is its cornice lined with televisions, always tuned to soccer matches. This feature of the place makes it difficult for my family to do what we want to do when we hang out: focus on each other. I’m a middle-aged man, and I find it difficult to keep my gaze from wandering to the screens. For my young children, it’s almost impossible. As a result, our conversations in this place seldom get deep; they’re jagged and scattered. (Until the food arrives — then conversation stops altogether. They are good tacos.)

You could say it’s not a big deal. We’re not at the taco place to do anything “mission critical,” right? But what if we are? What if we miss an opportunity to do a small kindness for each other, or fail to mention something that matters a great deal? (Or worse — what if we do say it but the other person misses it because somebody just scored a goal?) These little moments are the stuff our relationships — our lives — are made of. And this place snatches them from us. Its unstated policy is that the tribal experience of organized sports matters more than the experience of an intimate conversation.

Still, we’ve made a conscious decision to be there. Sometimes we’re not given a choice. For example, a friend of mine always complains about having to work in an open office “cube farm” where her co-workers make constant noises that destroy her concentration. The quality of her work in that environment is different than it’d be in a place that allowed her greater control over her attention. She can’t help but work there, and her work suffers. I, on the other hand, can choose where to work. I’m writing these words in my local public library. I find it easier to work here; the arrangement of furniture, the levels of light, the silence — all are conducive to helping get into a state of flow with my writing. This place is the converse of the taco restaurant or the open plan office: it makes me smarter.

So places can either augment or degrade your cognitive abilities. Some physical environments — such as the taco place — don’t let you do much about it; a quality conversation requires you to go elsewhere. In a noisy cube farm, you can shield your attention by putting on noise-isolation earphones. (Suggestion: Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts.) Other places, like the library, augment some abilities (thinking, reading, writing) but not others (conversing.)

You can improve your cognitive abilities by re-configuring your physical environment — or moving altogether. That said, it’s worth noting that if you’re like most of us you’re also subject to interruptions from your electronic devices. Often, the configuration of these information environments will have as much of an impact on your performance as the configuration of your physical environments. So for a quick cognitive boost when you need to get things done, switch your devices to “do not disturb” mode. It’ll make you smarter, wherever you are.

I Fight for the Balance

Hang around long enough with UX designers, and you’ll hear someone say it: “I’m an advocate for the users.” If the designer is especially nerdy, she’ll quote Tron: “I fight for the users.” She’ll go on to explain she’s the one who brings the users’ voice into “the room.” (A euphemism to describe the project team.)

This is an alluring stance for designers to take. (I know — I’ve said it myself earlier in my career.) For one thing, it sounds heroic. (Again, cue the image of Tron holding his disc over his head, ready to sacrifice himself for what is just and good and true.) For another, it clarifies designers’ position vis-a-vis the tough decisions ahead. Or so they think.

© Disney
© Disney

As compelling as it may be, “I fight for the user” is a misguided position for designers to adopt. Yes, it’s important to consider the needs and expectations of the people who use the organization’s products and services. But user needs aren’t the only forces that influence design.

The subtext to “I fight for the user” is that in this context (in “the room”) the user needs a feisty advocate — perhaps because others don’t care. This sets up a false duality: if I’m here for the user, you’re here for other reasons: making money, saving money, reducing call center volume, etc.

This framing isn’t healthy. Everyone should come to the room with the understanding that user needs will be important. It’s table stakes. If this attitude is not present from the start, then the designer should strive to bring it into the room — but as a way of building alignment with colleagues, not drawing distinctions between them.

So if designers aren’t in the room to “fight for the user,” what are they there for? Designers are there to move the project towards alignment between forces that could otherwise pull it apart. These forces include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Deadlines
  • Budgetary constraints
  • Regulatory/legal constraints
  • Production constraints
  • Business goals
  • Customer needs
  • User needs
  • Social needs

Striking the correct balance between these forces requires understanding their relative importance, which varies from project to project. (For example, healthcare projects have different regulatory constraints than those in entertainment.)

The team may get the initial balance wrong. That’s why we test prototypes in real-world conditions: We establish feedback loops that move the product or service towards ever-better fit with its context or market. Design’s role is in this process is making the possible tangible, progressively moving from abstraction to concreteness as the team iterates through increasingly better prototypes.

Eventually, the product or service will be in good enough shape to put into production. Design’s role then shifts to translating the intended direction into artifacts that guide the people who will build it. This requires understanding what developers need to do their work effectively. (It’s worth noting that this doesn’t need to​ happen in a strictly sequential “waterfall” manner.)

Shepherding this process calls for clarity and nuance. Good designers understand the relevance and directionality of all the forces shaping the project. User needs are an essential force, but not the only one. To pretend otherwise is to do a disservice to ourselves, our organizations, and design itself.

There’s No Such Thing as Too Much Information

I often hear people complain that they’re swamped with too much information. They’re wrong. Nobody wants to go back to a world in which we had access to less information. We’re fortunate to live in a world where we can access massive amounts of information, anywhere.

The problem isn’t too much information. The problem is that we experience much of it out of context. We feel overwhelmed because we’re exposed to too much stuff we either don’t understand or can do anything about — at the moment.

Information is only useful to the degree that it allows us to make better decisions. (That is, decisions that support skillful actions.) This requires that information be meaningful and actionable. Much information we come across is neither, but not because these things are somehow missing from information. Meaning and actionability aren’t inherent to information. Instead, they emerge from the interaction between particular people with particular information elements at particular moments.

Let me give you an example. Whenever my car has a problem, I take it to a repair shop. There, a mechanic will examine the car to see what’s wrong with it. After a day or so I get a call to explain what’s wrong. Invariably the caller will rattle off a list of the parts that are giving trouble.

Now, I only have a cursory understanding of how cars work. I’m also busy. For somebody like me, this list of parts is not useful information; it’s cruft. I patiently wait on the line for the service agent to tell me in plain English what’s wrong with the car, what they propose to do about it, and — most importantly — how much it’s going to cost me. (Usually, the longer the list of bad parts, the more anxious I get, since I know it’s likely to cost more. I suspect that’s why many repair shops do this.)

I must take this person’s assessment of the situation on faith because I don’t have expertise in car repair. (In fact, this difference in expertise is why I took the car to them instead of fixing it myself.) I don’t want the list of parts; I can’t do anything with it. What I want is 1) an expert’s evaluation, 2) what he or she suggests we do about it, and 3) how much it’s going to cost. That’s meaningful and actionable to me.

But that’s me. I also have a friend who’s restored and re-built many cars in his life. To him, the list of bad parts would be meaningful and actionable. (But then again, he’d be quite capable of diagnosing what’s wrong with the car.) Same information; completely different circumstances.

In other words, what’s “too much information” for one person is just right for another. It’s all about context. You don’t want to dumb things down; you want to get the right information to the right person at the right time, so he or she can make good decisions. Identifying and optimizing that sweet spot is one area where information architecture creates enormous value.

Bringing Others Into the New

Imagine you’re working on something new. I don’t mean new to you; I mean something truly new, as in, not done before. In the initial project stages you have an vague mess of ideas, some clearer than others. Incrementally, you make sense of these ideas; give them form.

Eventually, you’ll need to scale your efforts. If the project is come to life and grow, eventually you’ll need to recruit others. To do this, you must describe what you’re doing in terms they can understand. But how can they understand something that is new and messy? You must describe it in terms they already understand.

One way to go about it is by developing a high-level concept: a pithy statement that describes your idea by leveraging other ideas. For example:

  • ALIEN: “JAWS in a spaceship.”
  • HOOK: “What if Peter Pan grew up?”
  • LinkedIn: “Facebook for business”
  • YouTube: “Flickr for video”

None of these statements do full justice to these movies and platforms. But they’re remarkably easy to grasp and remember. In the parlance of the Heath brothers (whose book, Made to Stick includes a section on high-level concepts), these statements are sticky.

As long as the interlocutor knows what JAWS, Peter Pan, Facebook, and Flickr are, he or she will now have a way to dive into the subject. Once in, they can begin making the necessary distinctions that really set the idea apart. They will also be able to describe it to others, helping the idea spread.

Although high-level concepts are short, writing them isn’t easy. Doing so calls for tough decisions. What is this project really about? How does it compare to what’s gone before? Is this something people will get excited about? Boiling things down to such a statement can be hard, but it’s important that it happen. Doing so brings clarity and alignment. It also informs structural decisions at a point where projects are vague and ambiguous. Articulating a clear and compelling concept goes a long way to clarifying a project vision so others can bring it to life.

Designing for “Smart” Agents Among Us

Earlier this week, Google demonstrated Duplex, an astonishing advance in human-computer interaction. If you haven’t seen the relevant part of Sundar Pichai’s presentation, please watch it now:

If you understand how computers work, you’ll know how difficult it is for computers to do what Duplex is doing in this video. The system seems to be forming accurate models of the evolving contexts it’s participating in. It also shows nuance in communicating back to its human interlocutors, injecting “ums” and “ahs” at the right moments. Again, all of this is very difficult. (That’s why the audience laughs at several points in the presentation; they know how improbable this thing they’re hearing is.)

It’s worth noting this demonstration doesn’t suggest an artificial general intelligence like HAL 9000 or C-3PO; Duplex seems to be modeling a relatively narrow area of human interactions. (Namely, making an appointment.) Still, the system sounds convincingly human, and that raises deep questions. The (human) interlocutors seem not to be aware that they’re talking to an artificial entity. Are they being manipulated? (Google has said the system will be transparent to the people who interact with it, but this didn’t come across in the demonstration.) What would widespread availability such technology do to relations between human beings, to our ability to empathize with others? What would it do to social inequity?

We’re not far from the day when interactions with convincingly-sounding artificial agents are commonplace. We will both deploy agents to do our bidding, and interact with agents that have been deployed by others to do theirs. Both scenarios will play out in information environments. What affordances and signifiers are required? How will we balance transparency and seamlessness? (And how will this balance evolve as we become accustomed to engaging with these agents?) How will we structure the information environments where these human-agent encounters happen so they augment (rather than erode) human-human interactions? How will we know such erosion isn’t happening? Interesting challenges ahead.