Structure Changes More Slowly Than Look-and-feel

Jeremy Burge on Twitter:

This comparison offers a great illustration of a design principle we covered in the fourth edition of the polar bear book: structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel.

Visually, these two screenshots look quite different. But they express the same conceptual models: a file/folder metaphor (and object-container relationship), windows that set aside portions of the display, a menu across the top of the screen (with the same menu items, even), etc. These structural constructs have endured for decades.

However, their presentation has changed as technologies and public tastes evolved. The original Macintosh featured a 512 x 314 pixel black-and-white display, which imposed many constraints on the system’s visual style. As computer displays became more capable, designers had more leeway with the presentation layer. This is the system in the early 2000s:

Mac OS X Aqua user interface.
Screenshot from Wikipedia.

Again, very different visually — but the underlying structure is recognizable. A user from 1984 would have little trouble learning the newer version three decades later.

As I’ve mentioned before, digital products don’t change uniformly; they manifest pace layers. Changing visuals is cheap; changing the underlying structures is expensive. Users accept visual changes more readily than structural changes. As a result, designers and stakeholders must take greater care when changing the structure of digital products.

Do You See the Big Picture?

Seth Godin, writing in his blog:

If you experience lousy service or poor quality, it’s probably not solely the fault of the person who talked to you on the phone, dealt with you at the counter or assembled your product.

It’s the boss.

The boss didn’t design the system properly, didn’t align incentives, didn’t invest in training. The boss isn’t thinking hard about hiring the right people. And the boss isn’t listening.

I’m glad to see someone with Mr. Godin’s prominence highlighting the benefits of having a systemic perspective. Many people still think of the products and services they interact with (or worse, manage) as though they exist on their own, in a vacuum.

Of course, they don’t: All products and services are manifestations of systems that influence their performance. The front-line customer experience is the outcome of such a system. To improve the offering, improve the system. But you can’t improve the system if you don’t see or understand it. You must make it tangible to make it “real.”

Design can help: systems mapping and modeling are established practices. What’s needed is for “the boss” to understand that design doesn’t start with giving form to products/services. Instead, it’s a holistic practice that can bring coherence and alignment at a much deeper level – if it starts at a much earlier stage in the process.

Are you “the boss”? Do you understand the systems you’re participating in or creating? Do you know the degree to which your products/services are enabling such systems? If you lack visualizations that help you understand these systems, ask yourself: what do I need to do to see the big picture?

Systems design and the front line | Seth’s Blog

The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

A fantastic find (via The Long Now Foundation): the Internet Archive is hosting a MacOS System 7 emulator running a copy of The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog. The Catalog is a hypertext version of the venerable Whole Earth Catalog. It was published in 1988, several years before the invention of the World Wide Web.

Opening screen from The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog
A screenshot from The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

This find is interesting for several reasons. For one thing, the Whole Earth Catalog is culturally significant: many makers and geeks (myself included) cite it as an influence. Even though it first existed in print, the Catalog wasn’t meant to be read linearly: even in book format, you’d skip around to read granular content items organized by subject. (Here’s a PDF scan of the first edition from 1968.) The Catalog was a perfect application for a hypertext before hypertext technology was widely available.

And that’s where another interesting angle comes in: the Electronic Whole Earth Catalog was implemented in Hypercard, a hypertext authoring and navigation system that came bundled with early Macs. Hypercard gave many people (myself included) their first experience of using and creating hypertexts. I learned a lot from this fantastic software, and reference it often with students and clients. Most haven’t heard of Hypercard or seen it, which makes this emulation a treasure.

The Electronic Whole Earth Catalog

The Informed Life With Stephen P. Anderson

Episode 39 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Stephen P. Anderson. Stephen is a design leader focused on workforce learning and organizational development. He’s also the founder of The Mighty Minds Club, a new method-of-the-month club that aims “to help product teams work through difficult situations.” Stephen recently co-authored a book with Karl Fast called Figure It Out, which is about how we can transform information to increase understanding. Our conversation focused on this subject.

I’ve known Stephen for many years, mainly from our interactions in the design community, so I was intrigued to learn how he came to this topic:

I became bored with a lot of the tactical stuff and became interested more in strategy and business topics, became more interested in human behavior and psychology, and why won’t people do the things we want them to do? Why won’t people would click on the things that we want them to click? And so that led to my first book in around 2010 or so, which is called Seductive Interaction Design. And also around the same time I self-published the Mental Notes card deck, which a lot of people know me for as well.

So again, very much a focus on human behavior. So that was about 10 years ago. And over that time, one shift I’ve gone through was marked by probably a seminal talk for me, “From Paths to Sandboxes,” where I started shifting my thinking from shaping the path that I want people to follow to creating the sandbox or the conditions where people play and learn.

And so my mindset shifted from that of a transaction and getting something I want, to how do I create the conditions for us to learn and work together? And I think that ethos and that idea has affected everything I’ve done since. And in many ways, the new book, even though it’s about working with information as a resource, there’s that ethos or that idea behind it, which is how do we pause, slow down, and figure things out individually, but also collectively.

Organizing our information environments to increase understanding is central to my work. My desire to learn about how people do this is why I started the podcast, so I was thrilled to discuss the subject with Stephen. I wish our conversation could’ve been longer. I hope you get as much value from it as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 39: Stephen P. Anderson on Cognitive Environments

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.

Continue reading

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.