Design with Strategic Intent

Many designers can’t effectively speak to the value they create. Instead, they mostly focus on the beautiful, elegant, user-centered, screen-level artifacts they make.

As a result, many stakeholders don’t see designers as strategic partners but as implementors whose role is designing products right (more engaging, usable, attractive, etc.) rather than designing the right products. Ironically, it’s in the latter where design can make a real difference.

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The Informed Life with Ben Mosior

Episode 57 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with consultant Ben Mosior. Ben teaches clients how to visualize strategic intent using Wardley Maps, which are the focus of this episode.

What are Wardley Maps? As Ben described it,

Wardley mapping is a visual way of representing systems: its users, its needs, its capabilities, its relationships between all those three things. And then it’s also positioning those things in a way that helps their qualities become more apparent.

So, a type of systems diagram that is particularly effective at capturing context and intent. But more than an artifact; the mapmaking process itself brings clarity and alignment to teams:

By making visual artifacts — by talking about our systems visually — we can come together, look at a specific part of it, appreciate its qualities, and then together determine what our collective intent is about that part of the system.

This allows teams and organizations to act with greater focus, an ability many are missing. As Ben put it,

the most common mistakes that organizations make is they spread [their investment in time, attention, and resources] too wide. [They’re not] intentional about what they’re doing, and the result is they don’t make progress quickly. They don’t actually achieve what they set out to achieve. And you have an organization full of individuals just showing up to work every day, not really connecting to that bigger purpose, not really making a difference in the world. And it’s a system that actively trains you, that what you do doesn’t matter.

One way to overcome this lack of strategic intent and alignment is through what Ben described as “ontological map-making” — a phrase that resonated with me given my focus on helping teams ‘see the big picture.’ Wardley mapping offers a structured approach to creating such shared ontological maps.

I’m grateful to Ben for sharing his knowledge with us; I hope our conversation proves as valuable to you as it did to me.

The Informed Life episode 57: Ben Mosior on Wardley Maps

On the IA-Chess Analogy

Jessi Shakarian, writing in Medium:

When I picked up Information Architecture for the Web and Beyond, the so-called “polar bear” book, I didn’t expect to find a passion around chess. However, chess has become my lens of looking at information architecture in the real world.

In the book, the authors use chess is an analogy for information architecture — it’s a system of rules that doesn’t change based on where you play (on a wooden board in your living room, online against a friend across the country, or on an app on your phone).

The chess analogy is one of my favorite ways of explaining information architecture. As Jessi points out, the game has been around for a long time. Many people know about chess and — more importantly — are aware that it and its physical instantiation aren’t the same thing. As Jessi explains,

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A Year of This

It’s been a year since my family and I started ‘sheltering in-place’ — i.e., staying home to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. I’m still finding ways to adapt to this ‘new’ way of working.

A post I published on March 14, 2020 covered changes I observed in my first post-lockdown all-hands meeting. In particular, I noted our physical office had offered implicit structures that now had to be made explicit. Among other things, the new medium flattened hierarchies and didn’t provide a focus point in lieu of a whiteboard.

A year on, we’ve mostly normalized this way of working. After an awkward initial period (day-long Zoom marathons!), many of us have found ways to be productive. I was about to write ‘productive and engaged,’ but in my case, that wouldn’t be entirely true.

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Don’t Subscribe; Follow

Per a report in Podnews (via The Loop), starting with iOS 14.5, Apple will remove the word ‘subscribe’ from its market-leading Podcasts app. In its stead, users will be invited to ‘follow’ podcasts. With this change, Apple joins Spotify, Audible, Stitcher, and Amazon Music, which already give users the option to ‘follow’.

Why the change? A researcher claims 47% of people who don’t listen to podcasts think ‘subscribing’ will cost money.

This is a great example of the sort of counter-intuitive insights one can glean from research. I’ve never been confused by the word ‘subscribe’ in this context. Given the choice between ‘subscribe’ and ‘follow’, I’d argue that ‘subscribe’ is a clearer description of what is happening.

But I understand how podcasts work. Many people don’t, and I can see how they’d understand subscriptions — an action they likely associate with newspapers and magazines — as something they must pay for. While less precise, ‘follow’ is a familiar enough term (especially online), and one that may be less intimidating.

‘Follow our podcast’: Apple Podcasts to stop using ‘subscribe’

Models Before Screens

Tanner Christensen asked a good question on Twitter:

Peter tagged me on his reply, leading me to respond with a few thoughts. I’m restating (and expanding) them here to keep them from disappearing in Twitter’s fast-moving stream.

Whenever I work on a new navigation system, I start by establishing its ideal user conceptual model. This model must be informed by research. (So, research is the place to start. But that should be self-evident.)

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How to Keep a Long-term Focus

Point of view is worth eighty IQ points.

— Alan Kay

Sometimes we face situations that demand an immediate response. A few weeks ago, millions of Americans dealt with unexpected weather conditions that disrupted their ability to keep themselves and their families fed and warm. On February 20, the crew of United flight 328 had to deal with an engine that exploded in mid-air. (Fortunately — and through excellent piloting and engineering — the plane landed safely.) Such life-threatening situations call for skillful action now.

Most situations aren’t as urgent as landing a crippled plane or finding shelter in freezing temperatures. And yet, we often feel the stress of urgency in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps we’re on the hook for meeting this quarter’s KPIs, or we’re running late to take our child to her 10 am martial arts class, or we have a big presentation on Tuesday. Whatever the case, we’re under pressure to deliver now.

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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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