The ‘Culture’ Layer

As someone who cares about the longevity of systems, I love Stewart Brand’s Pace Layer model. In case you’re unfamiliar with the idea, the Pace Layer model explains how complex systems change over time. Such systems don’t change uniformly; instead, they’re composed of elements that vary in scale and rates of change.

The model has roots in architecture, and that’s how I usually introduce it. Mr. Brand’s book How Building’s Learn presents the following version, which is based on the work of architect Frank Duffy:

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The Assault on U.S. Democracy

Last week’s events in the U.S. — the deadly ransacking of our Capitol by a mob seeking to overturn the election — shocked and distressed me. I’ve felt emotionally drained since the attack.

I am an immigrant. My family made the U.S. our home in great part because I love this country and the principles it was founded on. Naturalized citizens like me must pass a higher bar than native-born citizens; we’re not here by accident, but by choice. (This isn’t rhetorical flourish: In completing the naturalization process, I had to overcome a series of tests — including a civics exam — that I suspect few of the people who desecrated the Capitol would’ve passed.)

From my perspective, the violent attempt to overturn the election stands in direct opposition to the U.S.’s core principles. I’m sure the insurgents would disagree. From the language I hear in the news, these people see themselves as patriots who are trying to save the country. How can you reconcile such differences in fundamental principles?

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Finding Our Way Podcast, Ep. 24

My friends Peter Merholz and Jesse James Garrett invited me to be a guest on their podcast, Finding Our Way. Our conversation focused on architecture, design education, standards, and whether designers should be certified, much like architects are licensed.

As I mentioned in the show, I’m undecided about certification. On one hand, I understand why some folks want it: the systems we’re designing today have an oversized impact on people’s well-being. On the other hand, the basic technologies are still evolving too fast; we risk formalizing interaction mechanisms that would be quickly made irrelevant.

There’s much more in the show. I greatly enjoyed this conversation. I hope you find it valuable too.

Listen here:

Or visit the Finding Our Way podcast, which includes a transcript if you’d rather read the conversation.

The Informed Life with Grace Lau

Episode 52 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Grace Lau. Grace is an information architect and UX designer based in the Greater Los Angeles area. Since early in her career, Grace has been organizing local professional community events. Now she’s a leader in two important information architecture events: the IA Conference, where she’s one of the 2021 chairs, and World IA Day, which she co-presides.

Our conversation centered on these upcoming community events. Grace acknowledged that information architecture can be a difficult concept to grasp:

When people hear “user experience,” they’re like, yeah, I got it! You know? Because UX is good, right? But then when you say, “oh, IA…” Because if you’re seeing good IA, then it’s invisible. So, it’s not something that is top of mind for most people. But when there is bad IA on a site, on an app, on an experience, you hear all about it. But then people want to know that the reason behind it is that it’s because it’s a bad IA.

But participating in these communities can help — not just by shedding light on the subject, but by allowing you to find your community of practice. As Grace put it,

Being part of the IA community has been really grounding for me… It’s a great way to meet other people. It’s a great way to network. [Participating is] also a great way to feel a part of another larger community of people.

I enjoyed my conversation with Grace. I hope it encourages you to participate on either the IA Conference or World IA Day — or both!

An administrative note: this episode marks the show’s second anniversary. I’m thankful for all the guests who’ve carved time out of their busy schedules to share with us on the show over the last two years. I’m also thankful for your attention. I hope these conversations are valuable to you. Onward!

The Informed Life Episode 52: Grace Lau on Information Architecture Events

Worth Your Attention

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Ways of Thinking

Drawing might best be thought of as manual thinking. It is as much tactile as cerebral, as dependent on the hand as on the brain. The act of sketching appears to be a means of unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge, a mysterious process crucial to any act of artistic creation and difficult if not impossible to accomplish through conscious deliberation alone.

— Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage

Something special happens when I put pen to paper. I almost wrote “magical,” but that would oversell it. Still, the experience of “unlocking the mind’s hidden stores of tacit knowledge” is special. Special yet cheap and easy. Science fiction posits machines that reveal the contents of the mind or capture the elusive imagery of dreams. But no elaborate technology is required. Pen + paper + time = profit.

Because most of my work happens in the digital realm, I’ve tried sketching with computers for many years. (I’ve documented my evolving setup here, here, and here.) The latest iteration of this setup — the Concepts app on the iPad Pro with second-generation Apple Pencil — is terrific in its own right. But it’s not pen and paper. I can’t get the same flow when sketching on a screen as with a simple notebook. The screen-based setup is excellent at polishing ideas for sharing, but paper is better for the type of “manual thinking” described in the quote above.

I’ve also become adept at thinking with words — that is, through writing. It’s a different modality altogether, which I find easier to do with an outlining or mapping tool. (My favorite, which does both, is Tinderbox.) This type of thinking is best for making sense of a conceptual domain with known ideas, such as research results. As with digital sketching, it comes downstream from sketching on paper.

Bottom line: there are different ways of thinking. The mind is a crucial component in the process but not the only element in play. You can’t swap out your nervous system, but you can change other aspects of your thinking setup. Knowing which tools and environments to think with (and in) – and when to switch between them – can unlock tremendous cognitive powers.

The Informed Life with Cheryl Platz

Episode 51 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Cheryl Platz. Cheryl is an accomplished interaction designer who has worked on multimodal systems like Alexa and Cortana. Our conversation focused on multimodality, which is the subject her new book, Designing Beyond Devices.

This is how Cheryl explained the concept of multimodality:

For the purposes of my book, the definition we’re working with for multimodality is [that] multimodality is an exchange between a device and a human where multiple input or output modalities can be used simultaneously or sequentially, depending on context and preference. So, if we think about the traditional desktop-to- human relationship or laptop-to-human relationship, you have your keyboard and mouse and your monitors. There was one output, for the most part, which was the dominant output is visual. And the dominant input is haptic, where you’re using your hands to manipulate physical input devices. It’s not really super multimodal. And it’s certainly not optimized for multimodality.

You could argue that occasionally there’s a secondary output in audio. And some designers are doing a little bit of kinetic input when they use like a Wacom tablet or something like that. But it’s not the default way of working. And there’s so much more potential there. And we think about what’s happened in the last few years with the arrival of smart speakers, with the arrival of voice search on Google, with the fact that most of our customers are deeply comfortable speaking to their devices now, with the arrival of Kinect back in like 2010-2011 timeframe, and the fact that some customers are even comfortable, like waving to their devices and gesturing at them now. There’s so much more potential than just moving a mouse and keyboard around.

We’re moving to a multimodal world, and Cheryl explains why even designers who are working primarily on screen-based systems would benefit from knowing about multimodality. The book offers a good overview of the concept and provides practical frameworks that can help us design more efficacious multimodal systems. Our conversation is a good introduction to the subject; it’s likely to be of value to designers of all sorts of digital systems — and their users.

By the way, there are two other few features this week on The Informed Life: the show is now available on Spotify and features an all-new website. I hope both help more people enjoy the show.

The Informed Life Episode 51: Cheryl Platz on Multimodality