How Designers Can Help Bust Silos

When I talk with folks in large organizations, I often hear a familiar lament: “We’re very siloed here.” By this, they mean the organization is divided into​ groups that don’t play well with others. Each group functions like an isolated “silo” that acts independently from the rest. They each have their own internal goals, incentives, processes, etc. which make it difficult for them to collaborate.

Siloing impedes the organization’s ability to respond effectively (and in a timely manner) to changing contextual conditions. Because it involves organizational cultures and incentives, it can be a tough challenge to overcome. People in silos have an especially hard time seeing things from others’ perspectives — especially their colleagues.

A big part of the problem is that people in these situations​ tend to communicate in abstract terms. Often they’re unaware of using language that reinforces the distinctions between them. With our emphasis on making things tangible, designers can help them bust through these barriers.

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Progress Studies

Writing in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen call for the creation of a new academic discipline: “Progress Studies”:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study.

The idea that things can (and do) get better over time has been central to Western culture for a long time. However, perusing social media like Twitter often makes me feel like many people have given up on the idea of progress — despite evidence to the contrary.

That’s not to say everything’s rosy. Progress in one area (e.g., cheap energy) can be lead to other areas falling behind (e.g., international conflicts, a polluted environment.) Also, we often ignore second-order effects; what appear to be advances in the near term can lead to serious issues down the line. Things are more complex than they seem on the surface.

Still, it’s worth striving to make things better. Studying what progress is, how we measure it, how we can incentivize it, and what we can do to minimize the downsides, seems like a worthwhile way of going about it.

We Need a New Science of Progress

Designing the Right Things

At a high level, design teams in organizations face two challenges: Doing things right and doing the right things.

“Doing things right” is about efficiency: making the best use of time and resources. When seeking efficiency, leaders ask questions about their team’s production function:

  • Do we have the right roles?
  • Are relationships between roles organized optimally?
  • Do we have the right people in those roles?
  • Do we have enough people in the team? Do we have more people than we need?
  • How do we recruit the right people into our team?
  • How do we nurture leaders?
  • What tools, systems, and processes can help us do our jobs better?
  • What mental models can help us do our jobs better?
  • Is our team culture conducive to producing good work?

For the most part, leaders trying to answer these questions have peers in the organization they can partner with: HR, IT, and operations. As design matures within organizations, there’s also more professionalization of the discipline without; this manifests in the growing interest in design operations and the documentation and sharing of best practices.

In other words, when looking to do things right, today’s design leaders have several starting points. But what about doing the right thing?

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The Value of Design Consulting

I saw a news item a few weeks ago about an old Atari 2600 game called Extra Terrestrials, which just went on the market for $90,000.

Ninety thousand dollars.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Surely you mean E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, that godawful game that heralded the end of the Atari boom and which the company had to literally bury in a landfill. How can one cartridge of that turd be worth that much money?” (Well, that’s what you’re thinking if you’re a video game nerd.)

Well, that’s not the E.T. this story refers to. Towards the tail end of the Atari craze in the early 1980s, a family decided to self-produce a (derivative​ and by all appearances crappy) game called Extra Terrestrials. The market for video games tanked, but the family pushed through regardless, selling around 100 copies door-to-door. In other words, the game’s a rarity. (Here’s the full story.)

Is something like Extra Terrestrials worth $90,000? Well, it’s worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. The broader question is, how do we determine the value of things? That is, how do we arrive at the price people will be willing to pay? Economists have models for this. (Feel free to point me to some you know.) My intuitive model looks like this:

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The Informed Life With Jeff Sussna

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with IT consultant and author Jeff Sussna. The focus of our conversation was cybernetics, an important subject that was popular in the 1940s-60s and is on​ the cusp of a renaissance after a long hiatus.

In the course of our conversation, Jeff gives one of the clearest and most accessible introductions I’ve heard to the subject of cybernetics. He spells out why it’s relevant to the work of implementing digital technologies, and also calls out its relevance to design:

there’s an idea that as designers, you have a responsibility to design systems that don’t cause harm. The problem is that what you’re trying to design are very, very complex systems and on some level, while it’s important to think in terms of doing good and not doing harm, I think you also need to confront the inevitability that you will do harm on some level that there will be unintended consequences.

And what’s more interesting and to me where the cybernetic approach comes in is you could say that doing harm is is a very compelling version of there being a gap between actual and desired, right? We wanted to build a system that would help people collaborate better and instead we built a system that’s starting to help people dislike each other more.

Let’s assume that’s going to happen and let’s look for it and let’s design for it in a much more continuous way.

Our conversation took several interesting turns; at one point we explored the connection between cybernetic thinking and Eastern philosophy. (Especially Buddhism.) I loved talking with Jeff about these subjects — I hope you enjoy the results.

The Informed Life Episode 15: Jeff Sussna on Cybernetics

Chuck Jones and the Power of Discipline

Every Frame a Painting has a fantastic analysis of the work of master animator Chuck Jones:

As the video points out, Jones’s work has stood the test of time. Why? The video teases apart the elements that make Jones’s Looney Tunes cartoons work:

  • A two-part gag structure that 1) leads the viewer to make an assumption, and 2) proves that assumption wrong.
  • An emphasis on building character.
  • The discipline to abide by “the challenges and restrictions you set for yourself.”
  • Being open to inspiration from the real world.

The combination of these simple rules led to some most effective — and funniest — short films ever made. (Including my all-time favorite, One Froggy Evening.)

While all the rules are important for storytelling​, I consider discipline paramount since it transcends the medium. When creating a complex work (be it a book, a website, or an animated cartoon), you’re establishing a little universe with its own logic and rules. One of the central concerns of the creator is ensuring that this logic is internally coherent. While can sometimes be tempting to make exceptions for the sake of expediency, such exceptions often point to structural deficiencies, which left unresolved can ruin the work.

Having the discipline to abide by constraints (self-imposed and otherwise) is key to producing good work. Chuck Jones’s cartoons ultimately stand the test of time because of his insistence on abiding by the rules.

Chuck Jones – The Evolution of an Artist

Artificial Intransigence

Me: Ooh, X looks interesting. I wonder if I can find a short video about X. [Finds a video on X and watches to the end.]

Recommendation algorithm: Oh, s/he watched X! I know what s/he likes. X! Like? Nay! X is the bread on his/her table, the air s/he breathes, his/her raison d’être. S/he has a visible X tattoo on his/her body. His/her firstborn will be/is named after X. X in continuous rotation, 24 x 7! More X! More X! MORE X!

Me: Whoa, whoa! [Looks around for a way to say “no more X.” Finds a link to hide video about X. Clicks it. The video disappears from the recommendations feed.]

TIME PASSES

Me: [Idly visits video site.]

Recommendation algorithm: New X video! Oh, and here are three others you may have missed. And these two are kinda like X.

Me: Hmmm. I thought I said no more X. How does this thing work? [Clicks on hide links for three other videos about X. Reloads page.]

Recommendation algorithm: New X video! Oh, and here are three others you may have missed. And these two are kinda like X. Oh, and here are some about Y and Z, just in case.

Me: Really?! [Clicks on hide link for another X video. Reloads page.]

Recommendation algorithm: New X video! Oh, and here are three others you may have missed. And these two are kinda like X. Oh, and here are some Ys and Zs, just in case.

Me: Sigh. [Clicks on video about Z. Watches to the end.]

Recommendation algorithm: Oh, s/he watched Z! I know what s/he likes. Z! Like? Nay! Z is the bread on his/her table, the air s/he breathes, his/her raison d’être. S/he has a visible Z tattoo on his/her body. His/her firstborn will be/is named after Z. Z in continuous rotation, 24 x 7. More Z! More Z! MORE Z!

TAOI: Disneyland App

The architecture of information:

Digital experiences are changing our understanding of physical environments. Google Maps gives you the ability to walk around a new city as though you’d known it for a long time. And should you develop a sudden hankering for ice cream, Yelp allows you to locate the nearest gelateria. The most noticeable change comes from layering information on the environment. For example, when trying to decide between two neighboring restaurants you’re no longer constrained to judging them solely by their appearance; you can also peruse their reviews in Yelp. Restaurant A has four-and-a-half stars, whereas restaurant B has three — A it is!

The number of stars is information about the place. You won’t find it in the physical place itself, but in its representation in an information environment which you access through your magical pocket-sized slab of glass. We’ve grown used to these augmented interactions with physical space, and mostly take them for granted. But recently I had one such interaction with an app I hadn’t used before, and which stood out to me for 1) its clarity of purpose and 2) the degree to which that purpose changed the experience of the place. I’m referring to the Disneyland app.

My family and I visited Disneyland a few weeks ago. We hadn’t been in five years, and the Disneyland app was one of the novelties since our last visit. The app presents a map of the Disney theme parks. As such it mostly replaced the parks’ old (and sometimes beautiful) paper-based maps. Thanks to the phone’s sensors, the Disneyland app makes it easy to figure out where you are, where to go next, and how to get there. But the app adds an additional key piece of information to the experience that can’t be had with paper-based maps: attraction wait times. Over every representation of an attraction in the park, you see a little callout that indicates how long you’ll have to wait in line to experience that ride or show:

Disneyland app

This piece of information is always available at all levels of zoom in the map. It’s the definitive element of the experience: in these maps, attraction wait times have the highest visual priority. As a result, wait times become the defining factor in sequencing the exploration of the park. The apps preferred answer to the question “What should we do next?” is always “Whatever is closest that has the shortest lines.”

This is an interesting choice that recalls the park’s old ticket levels. A long time ago, each Disneyland attraction required a separate ticket. Not all attractions used the same tickets; there were several levels ranging from A to E. “E-tickets,” such as the Haunted Mansion, were the most popular and desirable. These were considered the park’s premium attractions; their tickets were worth more than the others. This economic scheme influenced how visitors experienced the park. Ticket “coupon books” only included a limited number of E-tickets as compared to the lower denominations. Guests could buy more tickets inside the park, but having a limited number of the various level tickets affected choices. (I remember visiting Walt Disney World when it had a similar scheme, and hearing things like, “let’s visit this ride next, we have to use up our C-tickets.”)

The Disneyland app creates a similar economy by making attraction wait times the key informational element of the experience. When you’re trying to decide between two rides, knowing you’ll have to wait 65 minutes in line in one versus 15 minutes in another could be the key factor in your choice. (It was for my wife and me. Children get very cranky after waiting in long lines all day!) Our choosing to go on the ride with the lower wait times would contribute to slightly increasing that ride’s wait times and lowering the wait times for the more popular rides. I don’t have data, but my expectation is that this would help even out wait times throughout the park.

That is, of course, if all other things are equal — which they aren’t. The Haunted Mansion is a much more elaborate and compelling experience than Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Also, some rides have higher throughput than others. So the choice of riding one rather than the other doesn’t come down solely to which has the shortest waits.

That said, for someone like myself, who knows Disneyland very well, having this extra bit of information made the experience of visiting the park much better. In our two days at Disneyland, my family and I experienced more of the park than we’d ever been able to before. We also had more fun, since we spent a lower percentage of our time there in queues. But I wonder about the effect on folks who are less familiar with the parks. Will the emphasis on wait times drive them to prioritize less popular attractions over the park’s highlights? Adding feedback mechanisms to a system influences the way the system works. In what unexpected ways does this app change the experience of visiting Disneyland?

Neal Stephenson on Social Media

Speaking in an interview with Tyler Cowen, Neal Stephenson offers an excellent analysis of how social media has hurt civic discourse:

COWEN: You saw some of the downsides of social media earlier than most people did in Seveneves. It’s also in your new book, Fall. What’s the worst-case scenario for how social media evolved? And what’s the institutional failure? Why do many people think they’re screwing things up?

STEPHENSON: I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now, so look about you, and that’s what we’ve got. Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality.

And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.

Mr. Stephenson’s observation corresponds to my experience of social media (especially Twitter): It’s not that folks are talking past each other, it’s that they’re not even interacting with people who don’t share their mental models. The mere hint of the possibility of an alternate take can lead to ostracism — or worse. Amplified through continuous validation and a complete lack of pushback, opinions replace facts as the basis for worldviews. To talk of filter bubbles is misleading: these aren’t tenuous membranes; they’re thick, hardened shells.

The interview continues:

COWEN: But what’s the fundamental problem there? Is it that decentralized communications media intrinsically fail because there are too many voices? Is there something about the particular structure of social media now?

STEPHENSON: The problem seems to be the fact that it’s algorithmically driven, and that there are not humans in the loop making decisions, making editorial, sort of curatorial decisions about what is going to be disseminated on those networks.

As such, it’s very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them. Sometimes that may be something that drives people in a particular direction politically, but there’s also just a completely nihilistic, let-it-all-burn kind of approach that some of these actors are taking, which is just to destroy people’s faith in any kind of information and create a kind of gridlock in which nobody can agree on anything.

In other words, it’s a structural problem. As such, it’s also systemic. Unmentioned in the interview is the driving force behind these algorithmic constructs: business models based on monetizing users’ attention. Incentivizing engagement leads to systems that produce fragmentation and conflict.

Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality (Ep. 71)