Platforms and Environments

Last week I had an interesting conversation with a product management researcher. I told him why I think “product” is the wrong framing for many digital things and we discussed the concept of information environments. He asked a good question: Why call them environments instead of platforms? After all, “platform” is a well-understood concept in the context of UX design.

While the two terms share a similar intent (getting designers and stakeholders to think more systemically about the work to be done), there is an important difference between them: “platform” implies a technology-centric view of the system while “environment” implies a people-centric view. A platform is something you build upon. An environment is where you have experiences. This is a key distinction as we move to make user-centered design more systemically aware.

I realize the word “environment” brings with it connotations that may court controversy. This is not unintentional. We exist within environments. They host our activities. Our long-term survival hinges on the viability of our environments. It behooves us to develop an attitude of responsible stewardship towards them — whether they are made of stuff or of information.

Your Attention, Please

Your attention is your most precious possession. Where you choose to spend it, and on what, will have a huge impact in the quality and content of your life.

I said “spend” above, but you do no such thing: Attention is not a currency you can borrow or take a loan on. You choose to focus your attention on something or other. It’s like a lens darting around a complex landscape, moving to this detail now, and this other detail next, allowing you to form a partial — but useful — mental model of the environment.

For our remote ancestors hunting in the savanna, focusing on the wrong thing at the wrong time could lead them to being on the wrong end of the fork. We live in very different environments now, and have developed sophisticated techniques to manipulate each others’ attention for our own goals.

We interrupt this program to bring you this message from our sponsors.

Who controls what you focus your attention on? Is it you? Or is your attention being manipulated by others for their own goals? Are you consciously spending your time and attention on worthwhile things? The few minutes you spent reading this post are never coming back to you. One day you will not have any more attention to give. Will you regret having spent it to read this?

Living in Information

Digital systems — such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and your bank’s website — are more than products or tools: They create contexts that change the way we interact, think, understand, and act. In many ways, they function like places. This presentation covers three perspectives from architecture that are essential if we are to create digital products and services that serve our needs. These perspectives are:

  1. The importance of having a solid conceptual structure
  2. Understanding these structures as part of a broader system
  3. Accommodating change by ensuring the system’s resilience

I first delivered a 20-minute version of this talk in September 2017 at the Design Gurus Summit in San Francisco. Here are the slides from that version of the talk:

The presentation is based on a book I’m writing — also titled Living in Information — which is scheduled to be published by Two Waves (a Rosenfeld Media imprint) in 2018.

Can We Build Community by Selling Our Attention?

Earlier this year, Facebook unveiled a new mission statement: “To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” A laudable goal! With two billion monthly users, Facebook has the potential to become the commons for the global village: a place where we meet people with shared interests from around the world, hang out with friends and family and re-connect with old acquaintances.

Your use of this place doesn’t come for free. To participate in the new commons, you must launch Facebook’s app on your phone, open its website in your browser — and stay there for as long as possible. This is because the funds for building and operating this place (an expensive undertaking!) comes from selling your attention to advertisers. The more of it there is to sell, the better off Facebook will be.

I don’t mind giving my attention to advertisers if I get something of value out of the transaction, and I understand what that is. If I visit looking for a new pair of running shoes, seeing ads for running shoes is a service, not an inconvenience. That said, I’m not convinced we can “build community” on top of an environment designed to monetize our attention, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about community. A civic commons cannot function effectively as such if it’s also a venue for arbitraging attention. (“Commons” and “community” both come from the Latin word communis.)

Facebook is in hot water at the moment because it apparently sold targeted political advertising to foreign nationals during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It’s obvious how this can be a problem for a democracy. But is the real issue that foreigners can influence our opinion by buying our attention, or that anyone — regardless of nationality — can?

Social networks such as Facebook can be a great force for good. But we must be clear that the experiences we have in these places influence our actions in the “real” world. As we move more of our attention to these information environments, it behooves us to explore business models that don’t rely on selling it to the highest bidder.

The Map, the Territory, and the Fitness Tracker

I recently concluded a year-long experiment with the Muse meditation headband. The Muse is a fascinating device that sits on your head (rather like eyeglasses, but resting on your forehead instead of your nose) and measures your brain activity during meditation practice. By connecting with your phone over Bluetooth, the headband gives you feedback in the form of an audio landscape: If your brain is hectic you hear the distant rumbling of storm clouds, and if it calms you hear birdsong. It’s lovely.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the experiment was that I got caught up in Muse’s “gamification” angle: the app encourages you to meditate every day by keeping track of how many days in a row you’ve been doing it. This is much like Snapchat’s “streaks” feature, which encourages you to build the habit of using the app by keeping a ​tally of how many days in a row you’ve engaged with it. After a few days of continuous engagement, the sunk cost fallacy takes over: You don’t want to have to start over, and therefore have an incentive to do it one more time.

For most of the last thirty years, my meditation practice has been sporadic. Sometimes (especially on vacation) I could go many weeks without sitting on the cushion. That changed over the last year as I started using the Muse headband. I now had a reason — however tenuous — to develop a strong habit, and I did.

The “Me” dashboard in the Muse app. Note the various gamification elements.

Last week I opened the Muse app to show it to a colleague ​and realized that my 139-day streak had ended. The app showed I had meditated zero days in a row in my current streak, even though I was pretty sure I’d done a session the day before. Was it an error in the system? I doubted myself. Had I really done the session or not? Was I really going to have to start over again after almost half a year of consistent use?

And then it dawned on me: does it matter? After all, the benefits of meditation have nothing to do with accruing an arbitrary currency in an information environment. (In fact, some meditation traditions insist that if you’re struggling towards a goal you’re doing it wrong.) I decided to end the experiment and am now back to meditating on my own, with no devices other than a simple timer. There is one difference, though: the habit has stuck; I’ve been doing it every day since without the need for external validation. So I consider my time spent with Muse a worthwhile investment. However, it was enlightening to realize how even something as personal and introspective as meditation can be turned into an act of persuasion. (For positive ends, in this case.)

Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” Well, my Muse streak is not my meditation practice, my Apple Watch’s health rings are not the state of my health, my Sleep Cycle “sleep quality” measure is not the actual quality of my sleep, and the number on my bathroom scale’s LCD screen is not an inherent characteristic of my well-being. These things are signs on a map that is constantly being redrawn, expressing diverse aspects of a territory that is in a ​constant state of flux. They help me be a better steward of this domain, but they are not the domain itself. In information environments, this separation between the map and the territory can seem to dissolve, and we must work to bring the focus back to what matters: being here and now — much as one does in meditation.

“Product” is the Wrong Framing

In Silicon Valley and many large enterprises, the default framing for thinking about customer-facing digital things is that they are “products.” I often meet peers who describe themselves as product designers. It’s not unusual to hear of teams working towards a minimum viable product. These things have product features that are defined by a product manager. When they launch, they’re said to be in production.

This framing of the object of our work as a product is not surprising. We have roots in industrial design and graphic design, two disciplines in which the central object of concern is most definitely a product. (If you’re designing a mass-produced chair, you can say you’re working on a product.) Products are what companies have traditionally produced.

“Product” is an appropriate framing for some classes of digital things — but not all. Android is not a product. iTunes is not a product. Facebook is not a product. Slack is not a product. Salesforce is not a product. Weibo is not a product. They are information environments that host ecosystems. They create contexts that alter the ways people understand the world, think, and act. They are platforms where first-, second-, and third-parties can build and host products of their own. The list of stakeholders is long and extends well beyond the confines of the organizations that “manage” these ecosystems.

The word “product” has connotations that are unhelpful in these cases. A product can be centrally controlled and managed. A product can be replicated. Calculating the ROI of a product is straightforward. Products are expected to change often and quickly lest they are​ overtaken in the market. The boundaries of products are clearly defined. None of these things are true of ecosystems.

Digital products aspire to become ecosystems. It may be more useful to think of the people who “manage” them not as managers but as stewards. “Stewardship” implies a bias towards resilience, sustainability, and holistic value generation that these systems should aspire to — especially as we move more of our social functions into them.

Buckminster Fuller’s Mission Statement

If you’re of a certain vintage, you’ll remember how cheerful the early 1990s felt. The Berlin Wall was gone and we thought history was over. The new World Wide Web heralded a future where we’d all learn from each other, freed from eccentricities accrued through millennia of having to compete for material resources. Good times.

Now hydrogen bombs are back! And Nazis! And the climate is going nuts! And as for the Web… although most of it is quite good, it’s fallen short of our early optimistic outlook in some areas. As it’s become clear history was not over but merely taking a short nap, we should now ask ourselves: What can I do to make things better?

As a designer, I turn to one of my heroes — Buckminster Fuller — for inspiration. Bucky described the role of the designer (which he considered himself to be) as “an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist and evolutionary strategist.” While I love this description as a way of understanding how designers can change things systemically, for guidance on what to change towards I turn to his mission statement:

To make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest time possible through spontaneous cooperation without ecological damage or disadvantage to anyone.

Crazy idealistic — and spot-on. I’ve adopted this mission, replacing “without ecological damage” (which is somewhat removed from my direct purview as a designer of information environments) to “without damaging semantic environments.”

Making the world work for 100% of humanity.

In the shortest time possible.

Through spontaneous cooperation.

Without damaging semantic environments or disadvantaging anyone.

In troubled times, it’s important to have a clear sense of purpose. Bucky’s statement is something to aspire to and work towards.

Aligning Incentives

Incentive structures work. So you have to be very careful of what you incent people to do, because various incentive structures create all sorts of consequences that you can’t anticipate.

— Steve Jobs

What incentives drive your actions?

I don’t mean this in an aspirational, high-level, mission-statement sense. I mean: How is the value you add to the ​world remunerated? How do you put bread on the table? If you’re rewarded for a particular set of behaviors, you will most likely engage in those behaviors.

Some consultants charge by the hour. They get paid more the longer they focus on a problem. But the client doesn’t want the project to take longer (or cost more) than it needs to. In fact, the client wants a good job done as fast as possible. He or she is driven by different incentives than the consultant; time is usually a key factor. This is a case in which incentives are misaligned.

If you look around, you’ll find many such misaligned incentives. For example, as a citizen, ​you want to be well-informed so you can make better decisions. However, many mass news media are driven by engagement — how long they can keep you around so you can watch more advertisements. Engagement is a very different metric than elucidation; people will write and say outlandish things if they think it’ll make you pay more attention. (And if they get paid more when you do.)

We’ve never before been able to learn so much about what drives people, and instantaneously re-define their contexts based on what we learn about them. Incentive structures become reified in information environments. So when designing an information environment, we should work towards aligning the incentives that drive the environment with the incentives and goals of the people who will use it.

The Object of Experience Design

The object of music is a sequence of sound tones and pauses that stirs feelings in us.

The object of industrial design is a composition of materials that is useful and mass-reproducible.

The object of architecture is a relationship between spaces and forms that gives us shelter and the ability to perform certain functions.

The object of graphic design is a semiotic composition that moves us to action.

What is the object of experience design?