Worth Your Attention

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

Tour of an F-15 Jet Fighter User Interface

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen P. Anderson for The Informed Life. (Episode coming soon!) Among many other things, we discussed a concept from his new book with Karl Fast, Figure it Out: a cockpit as a key component of a pilot’s cognitive apparatus. As Stephen and Karl put it in the book, “An airplane cockpit is an environment loaded with external representations that make flying easier and safer.”

I won’t spoil the fun of our conversation here. (If you’re curious, I recommend you read the book, which is great.) I only mention it now because yesterday I saw a video that explains in detail the user interface of an F-15 jet fighter:

Among many insights in the video: getting a sense for the highly tactile nature of the physical controls of the aircraft, such as the various buttons and knobs on the control stick — including the “castle” switch and the “pickle” switch. (Yes, pickle. The fighter pilot who takes us through the cockpit explains the name’s origin.) The cockpit seems like an environment designed to reduce as much as possible the distance between the pilot’s reflexes and the jet’s actuators.

I learned a lot from this video, and was left with high expectations — it’s labeled as the first of a series called Human Interface. Subscribed.

Human Interface: What (almost) every button in an F-15C fighter’s cockpit does

Making Apple’s Ecosystem More Coherent

This post appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Last week, Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference (or WWDC.) At this annual event, the company announces significant changes coming to its software platforms (including iOS, the iPhone’s operating system.) As with many other such gatherings this year, WWDC 2020 was held online. But that’s not what interests me most about this year’s event. Instead, I was intrigued by the steps Apple is taking to bring coherence to its ecosystem.

Apple is in a unique position in this regard. The company makes operating systems for a variety of computing device form factors: phones (iOS), tablets (iPadOS), watches (watchOS), TVs (tvOS), and personal computers (macOS). Apple competes with other companies in each platform segment, but no other company has strong contenders in every platform segment.

All of these Apple platforms have “family resemblances.” A first-time Apple Watch user will find details and interactions that are reminiscent of what she’s experienced on her iPhone. This makes the system more learnable and pleasant.

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The Informed Life With Andy Polaine

Episode 38 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with service design consultant, writer, and educator Andy Polaine. Andy is the co-author of the book Service Design: From Insight to Implementation and host of the Power of Ten podcast. In this conversation, we delved into service design: what it is, and how it can help organizations create more holistic experiences.

Among other things, a service design consultant can help organizations approach business challenges from different perspectives. As Andy put it,

In my head, I’ve got those different kinds of zoom levels and I’m trying to work out where people are at and where the project is at and try and bring everyone aligned on that or move them up and down as well, you know?

Shifting perspectives to understand a domain at different “zoom levels” is central to Charles and Ray Eames’s film Powers of Ten. A book version of this film inspired Andy early on, and this influence echoes in the name of his podcast.

Ours was a delightful conversation. I hope you get as much value from it as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 38: Andy Polaine on Service Design

Worth Your Attention

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

TAOI: Reimagining Email

The architecture of information:

The team at Basecamp has developed a new product, Hey. It seems like an interesting — and opinionated (I mean this in a good way) — reimagining of how email works. If you have some time, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried’s video introduction is worth your attention:

Hey was in the news yesterday because its mobile app is being pulled from Apple’s iOS App Store, and Basecamp’s management is vocally fighting the move. Much has been written about that situation already, and I won’t say more about it here. I say it “seems” interesting because I haven’t yet tried it firsthand; currently, access to the product is by-invitation. My thoughts below are based solely on the product’s website and the video above.

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The Shortcomings of Online Events

Benedict Evans, writing in his blog:

A physical event is a bundle of different kinds of interaction, but it’s also a bundle of people at a certain place at a certain date – as soon as you take these things online, that bundle has no meaning.

As Mr. Evans points out, there are still no good substitutes for physical gatherings. A conference or industry event isn’t just about the formal presentations. Much of the value in these events comes from information exchanged in hallways, relationships built over shared drinks, serendipitous encounters, etc.

Then there’s the value of switching contexts for a short while; of moving your body temporarily from the places where it’s beholden to its daily routines to a new place where a different set of rules apply. You think differently in different places, and traveling to physical events gives you the opportunity to think about new information in new ways.

Online events — at least the ones I’ve attended during the quarantine — just aren’t the same. While the transmission of information via structured presentations is a central part of these online conferences (in some ways, they’re more effective than their “real-world” counterparts), the other key aspects of physical gatherings are missing.

Solving online events — Benedict Evans

Book Notes: “High Output Management”

High Output Management
By Andrew S. Grove, with a new foreword by Ben Horowitz
Vintage Books, 2015

Management is a crucial business skill. Regardless of your line of work or seniority, at some point in your career, you’ll likely find your work being managed or having to manage the work of others. It behooves you — and your team-mates – to do it right. I know of no better introduction to the practice than High Output Management, written by Intel CEO Andy Grove almost four decades ago.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part covers the basics of how organizations produce value. It does this by introducing a hypothetical example that recurs throughout the book: scaling a small restaurant into a “breakfast factory.” Mr. Grove analyzes this business as an engineer, breaking it down into its constituent elements and how they combine to produce particular outcomes. He then discusses the role of management in making the factory operate successfully.

Part two covers a central function of management: making decisions, which includes planning for the future. Such decision-making requires information, which is mostly conveyed through meetings. Mr. Grove spent a lot of his time meeting with other team members. “Information-gathering is the basis of all other managerial work,” he says, “which is why I choose to spend so much of my day doing it.”

The purpose of such information-gathering is to increase the leverage of managers. That is, “the output of a manager is a result achieved by a group either under her supervision or under her influence.” Managers must focus on those activities that give their work the most leverage. This part of the book provides practical advice on what they might be. Intriguingly, this advice also applies to individual contributors: members of the organization who don’t directly manage others, but whose work influences the work of others.

Part three of the book is about growing beyond simple operations to large enterprises; it covers more complex management structures, including hybrid and matrix organizations. Part four is about working with individuals: teamwork, hiring, giving performance appraisals, establishing compensation, etc. Both parts provide useful pointers to managers facing tough decisions. Mr. Grove backs up his advice with examples from his tenure as a manager at Intel, which is widely seen as excellent.

The best books help you understand complex subjects in ways that change your actions towards better outcomes. High Output Management changed how I understand the work I do with other people. (That is, all of my work.) I include this book in my list of essential reading for anyone doing any productive work at scale.

Buy it on Amazon.com

Gaining Clarity in Times of Uncertainty

Professors Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung writing in the Harvard Business Review:

Feeling uncertain is not a natural state of being for us — it signals to the brain that things are not right. The brain then seeks out information to resolve the uncertainty. This desire for resolution is why feelings of uncertainty lead us to process information more systematically and deeply in the hope of finding answers.

But the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in a quandary: Our natural instinct is to try to resolve our intense feelings of uncertainty, but there is so much uncertainty around the virus and its effects that a quest for complete resolution is futile. So what can we do?

They answer with cognitive and emotional tactics for coping with three types of uncertainty:

  • Probability
  • Ambiguity
  • Complexity

The tactics are presented in the context of how we can cope as individuals, but they also apply to teams. Faced with uncertain choices, and no obvious prospects for greater clarity, teams and organizations may become paralyzed.

This is an area where strategic design initiatives can help. Design research consolidates understanding; it generates information and insights that bring cognitive (in the form of data) and emotional (in the form of commitment) clarity to teams.

When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty