The Informed Life With Cyd Harrell

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Cyd Harrell, a product, service design, and user research leader focused on the civic/government space.

Cyd brings a very thoughtful approach to designing institutional systems, which must serve their purposes over the long term. Producing long-lived systems requires that designers delve beneath the surface (e.g. screen-level design) to deeper strata such as the values that inform them. Cyd highlighted one such value during our conversation, respect:

Respect is for me a really important value in almost every design, but also in particular for government, where whatever the government agency is, it’s interacting with someone who is perhaps an owner because they’re part of a democracy, or who certainly is someone whose dignity is protected in foundational documents like the Constitution and so forth.

If we start to imagine, the easy one for most people is, what if you went to the DMV and it was a respectful experience? What would it be like if I’m getting a business permit or even something simple like signing your kid up for a class at the library? What if that respected your time and your dignity and your abilities in full?

You can start to get even more speculative. What if we came up with a way to make arrests as respectful as possible of the person experiencing them? Why don’t we do that? What would that imply about every feature of a design?

Let’s do something a little bit less critical, say applying for public benefits. What if we took the processes and made sure that they were respectful of the time and the needs and the abilities of our fellow citizens who are experiencing difficulty and need our collective help? These things don’t fit very title and to an AB test, and they don’t necessarily fit very tightly into a sprint.

In 2019 I had the opportunity to collaborate with Cyd and her team on a project, and saw firsthand how she modeled and infused respect and mindfulness in the work. The world would be better if more designers adopted these values as part of their work — whether it be in the civic or commercial realms. Our conversation is a good primer; I encourage you to listen.

The Informed Life Episode 27: Cyd Harrell on Design for the Long-term

Worth Your Attention

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

  • “Madison’s design has proved durable. But what would happen to American democracy if, one day in the early 21st century, a technology appeared that—over the course of a decade—changed several fundamental parameters of social and political life?” Jonathan Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell argue that social media is such a technology.
  • “Concerned, confused and feeling lack of control over their personal information.” The Pew Research Center’s report on Americans and Privacy.
  • “We’ve seen, at scale, what happens when digital products and services are developed with no accountability to a strategy and to local and global policies.” Former The Informed Life guest Lisa Welchman on what digital workers can do about it.
  • Another good new thing from a former The Informed Life guest: Ariel Waldman’s Life Under The Ice, an interactive peek into the Antarctic expedition that was the subject of our conversation.
  • “You are playing atonal, ice-like sheets of sound which hang limpid in the air, making a shifting background tint behind the music.” Brian Eno’s games for musicians, used to produce David Bowie’s 1995 album 1. Outside.
  • The urgent needs of the present take precedence over the needs of the future. However, ….
  • Video of a machine learning-driven LEGO sorting machine built (of course) with LEGO.
  • During the holidays, I picked up a new skill. (We live in a Golden Age for learning such things.)
  • An astonishing interactive visualization of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from 1515-1864.
  • My appreciation of Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart, who died on January 7.

Reid Hoffman on Language, Big Tech, and Society

Tyler Cowen posted a great podcast of an interview with Reid Hoffman. Mr. Hoffman studied philosophy, and at one point in the conversation they discussed the influence of Wittgenstein on LinkedIn:

COWEN: How did your interest in the late Wittgenstein influence the construction and design of LinkedIn? I’m sure they ask you this all the time in interviews.

HOFFMAN: [laughs] All the time. The question I’ve always been expecting. I would say that the notion of thinking about — a central part of later Wittgenstein is to think that we play language games, that the way that we form identity and community, both of ourselves and as individuals, is the way that we discourse and the way that we see each other and the way that we elaborate language.

That pattern of which ways we communicate with each other, what’s the channel we do, and what’s the environment that we’re in comes from insights from — including later Wittgenstein, who I think was one of the best modern philosophers in thinking about how language is core to the people that we are and that we become.

Later, Mr. Hoffman addresses the relationship between large tech companies and society as a whole:

I agree that the technological companies are a very important Archimedean lever. What I disagree with is that, as those levers become more important to society, I think that we can’t actually, in fact, say, “We should not be in discourse with society about what we’re doing.” Because actually, in fact, once you begin to have society-level impact, not just a, “Oh, look, here’s a new social game or something else, here is a new Zynga game that’s fun to play.”

Okay, who cares? I mean, it’s fun. Maybe hundreds of millions of people do it, but that doesn’t actually impact the way that society operates.

The fact is, as we get to the way that society operates, we need to add in interaction with society, accountability on the design principles and the philosophy by which we are affecting society. We have to integrate in ways by which society can give us feedback. That doesn’t necessarily always mean direction. Maybe sometimes there’s regulation or other things, but an ability to be in conversation with them.

If you look at it, my view would be that, as you have more successful tech companies that have an impact on society as a whole, part of what you should start doing is deliberately engaging in discourse with the various institutions of society in a public way, to say, “Here is the kinds of things that not only are we doing now, but what we’re trying to create in the future.”

He doesn’t explicitly connect the two ideas in the interview, but I will: these places made of language increasingly impact the ways societies work. As a result, the organizations that operate them must engage in active dialog with other social institutions, including governments.

(Mr. Cowen’s podcast, Conversations With Tyler, features insightful interviews with people who are shaping our world. It’s worth your attention.)

Reid Hoffman | Conversations With Tyler

Climate Change and Company Prospects

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock (the world’s largest fund manager) writing in his annual letter to CEOs:

Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. Last September, when millions of people took to the streets to demand action on climate change, many of them emphasized the significant and lasting impact that it will have on economic growth and prosperity – a risk that markets to date have been slower to reflect. But awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.

As reported in The Financial Times, BlackRock is backing up this position by changing its investment strategies towards more sustainable opportunities. The company will consider environmental, social, and governance factors along with financial factors when analyzing risk. (A report in Ars Technica explains in more detail the changes BlackRock is implementing.)

The long-term viability of our civilization rests on the sustainability of our ecosystems. For too long our organizations have operated using business models that don’t account for the full impact of their decisions. Finance underlies those decisions, so it gives me hope to see powerful financial actors adopting a more systemic accounting for their investments.

Larry Fink CEO Letter | BlackRock

Please Support World IA Day

Eight years ago, a group of committed folks — led by Abby Covert — addressed a need in the world. The discipline of information architecture had an annual conference — The IA Summit (now renamed IA Conference) — that served as a “gathering of the tribe.” Those of us committed to the discipline (and the tribe) made the yearly pilgrimage to the Summit. Doing so invariably has required traveling to somewhere in the U.S. or Canada. But what about the rest of the world? How might IA communities grow everywhere in a more distributed, bottom-up way?

The response to this need was World IA Day, an annual celebration that happens on the same(ish) day in dozens of cities around the world. The first WIAD, held in 2012, featured events in 14 cities across the globe. This year’s edition — which will take place on February 22 — will feature around 60. (The call for locations is still open.) Which is to say, the event has grown over the past years.

I served as global Thematic Chair of that first WIAD and organized the local event in Panama City, Panama, where I was living at the time. I also produced one of three video keynotes to be shown in local events around the world. Since then, I’ve also delivered keynotes, presentations, and workshops at events in San Francisco, Tampa, and Zurich, and attended several others. I’ve found WIAD events to be enriching and insightful. They’re a fantastic way to meet like-minded colleagues and to help grow your local community of practice.

Organizing and executing such a wide-ranging initiative takes time and resources. Volunteers do most of the work, but there are still bills to pay. Financing for previous WIADs came from the IA Institute. Alas, that organization dissolved last year. A new 501(c)(3) public charity, World IA Day, Inc., has been formed to carry WIAD’s mission forward. (More on this from Peter Morville.) This organization needs funds to achieve stability. If you’ve enjoyed WIAD, or are considering doing so, please join me in donating to World IA Day, Inc. today. Thanks!

Real Mastery

Yesterday, as I was winding down from a busy week, I learned of the death of someone who influenced me greatly: Rush drummer and lyricist Neil Peart. As with so many other nerds of my vintage, Rush’s songs — and especially their lyrics, most of which were written by Mr. Peart — are key to the soundscape of my formative years. I never met Mr. Peart, although I did have the privilege of seeing him play live. Nevertheless, I consider him a model of integrity and mastery, someone to emulate.

It’s clichéd to highlight the geeky teen appeal of Rush’s (early) sci-fi themes. Instead, what drew me to their songs was their advocacy of self-agency. For someone brought up as Catholic, this stance — exemplified by the song Freewill — was shocking and refreshing:

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The Pull of the Present

By this time twenty years ago, many of us were feeling relieved. We’d been hearing for months about the near-certain fallout from the “Y2K bug”: widespread computer system failures caused by the practice of shortening years to two digits instead of four (e.g., 99 rather than 1999.) But by mid-January, 2000, it was clear that all would be ok. Or so it seemed.

Some context, in case you weren’t around then. By the mid-1990s, computer systems were already essential parts of our infrastructure. Nobody knew how many of these computers had the bug or what would happen after 11:59 pm on December 31, 1999, when these systems would assume it was now January 1 of year zero. Would there be blackouts? Urban transport cancellations? Airplane collisions? The complexity of such infrastructure-level systems made the consequences impossible to predict. Governments and companies undertook massive and expensive projects to “fix” the problem. FORTRAN programmers suddenly found their skills in demand.

Then nothing happened. By the end of the first week of January 2000, it was clear that either the fixes had been successful or the potential downsides overblown. Those of us who’d been stressing out about the Y2K bug felt relieved and quickly forgot about it.

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The Informed Life With Andrew Hinton

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Andrew Hinton. Over the last two decades, Andrew has brought great depth to the information architecture community. He’s one of the founders of the (late, alas) Information Architecture Institute and author of Understanding Context, an essential text for anyone who wants to understand how people make sense of the environments they operate in. (It’s a must-read for designers.)

Our conversation delved into the foundations of information architecture and how language and environment relate to each other. I was especially taken by how Andrew makes these (potentially) complex subjects engaging and actionable to his students and colleagues:

If I get people to get out of abstract-head and out of information-head, the way that we typically think of information and start with, how do we understand our physical environment and interact with it in the same way lizards and spiders interact with their environment. The principles are basically the same. And then build from there. That’s how I can teach this.

Now, if I’m working with just colleagues on the fly in the middle of a project, or I’m talking to my colleagues here at work, I don’t go into all that. I mean, I’ve been here six months and I have yet to go into all that. But what I do is try to slip in this grounding and kind of draw on the whiteboard. Here’s a person. Here’s some things that they’re interacting with. Here’s how that might change over time. I’m always trying to locate it into like, you’ve got a human in an environment doing stuff.

Because ultimately that’s what user experience brings to the table. There’s a human being, and we have to make all this other stuff we’re making compatible with that human being. So we’re creating new parts of their environment that we want them to use and understand.

Andrew’s work has greatly influenced my thinking about the role of information architecture. If you enjoy my blog, you’ll likely find this conversation inspiring. (If it does, then do yourself a favor and read Understanding Context — it will change how you think about your work and your world.)

The Informed Life Episode 26: Andrew Hinton on Language and Environments

Worth Your Attention

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