“We Will Meet Again”

Leaders move us to action through skillful speech acts. Their words are worth studying, which is why I’ve written before about extraordinary speeches by President John F. Kennedy and NASA flight controller Gene Kranz. Last Sunday, Queen Elizabeth II broadcast a rare televised speech about the COVID-19 situation. It’s the best message I’ve heard from a national leader about the pandemic. You can hear the entire message here:

What makes this speech so effective is its framing of the situation in context of the broader history of the UK. The Queen highlights the resilience of the British people by referencing her first broadcast to the nation, which she delivered with her sister during World War II:

We as children spoke from here at Windsor to children who had been evacuated from their homes and sent away for their own safety. Today, once again, many will feel a painful sense of separation from their loved ones, but now as then, we know deep down that it is the right thing to do.

She closes with a message of solidarity and hope:

While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavor. Using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal, we will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.

At 93 years old, the Queen is part of the segment of the population most threatened by the virus. As a result, the assurance of meeting again strikes the right tone of resolute yet straightforward optimism in the face of hardship. It’s another reminder of the British response to World War II.

Until now, I hadn’t fully understood the role of the monarchy in a modern democracy. According to The Royal Household, the Queen “acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride; gives a sense of stability and continuity; officially recognises success and excellence; and supports the ideal of voluntary service.” In other words, the Royal Family is an important part of the “institutional memory” of the nation.

This speech is a perfect articulation of how the monarchy can do this, by broadening our perspective in time. Electoral cycles are relatively short, but kings and queens have life-long roles. As the world’s longest-serving head of state, Queen Elizabeth has lived through a lot of history. No other world leader could evoke her people’s courageous and stalwart response to events that happened eighty years ago as credibly as Elizabeth II. She was there, after all.

Nostalgia for the Future

This week, NASA announced the return of its mid-1970s “worm” logo:

The retro, modern design of the agency’s logo will help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight on the side of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 flight, now scheduled for mid- to late May.

NASA logo
Image: NASA

NASA had retired the worm in 1992, when the agency returned to using its late-1950s “meatball” insignia:

NASA logo
Image: NASA

Most organizations change their identities in an effort to remain relevant to continually evolving popular tastes. People tend to be conservative about changing beloved products and institutions, and identity changes can seem jarring at first. (Consider the negative reactions to BMW’s recent logo redesign.) Still, I can’t think of many organizations that repeatedly restore their old identities.

When changing an organization’s identity, designers must balance familiarity with freshness. Abrupt changes risk alienating people, but modest variations won’t generate excitement. The right balance depends on how the organization wants to be perceived. The logo for a Silicon Valley startup can change abruptly. In contrast, the logo for a stalwart brand (think Coca-Cola) will likely change more subtly and slowly.

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A Tune For These Times

Art helps us understand and deal with reality — whatever challenges it throws at us. Here’s Paul Simon doing what artists do best:

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it’s all right, it’s all right
We’ve lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong

And I dreamed I was dying
And I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me
Smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying
And high up above my eyes could clearly see
The Statue of Liberty
Sailing away to sea
And I dreamed I was flying

Not a new song, but one that acquires new meanings in this intimate and vulnerable performance that’s both timeless and of the present. (A medieval bard would’ve understood the stringed instrument, but not the technology that allows Mr. Simon to sing to the world from his home.)

Reevaluating How We Use Social Networks

Home-bound for three weeks, I’ve come to rely on the internet for social interactions with anyone except my family. Now more than ever, I’m thinking about the role information environments play in my life. Some are helping make things better, and others, not so much.

Among the helpful ones, I count the information environments that are essential to my work: Zoom for synchronous communications and Slack for asynchronous ones. I’m a longtime user of Zoom, but the lockdown has nudged me to learn somewhat obscure features that make it more valuable to me. I have some concerns about Zoom’s privacy and security policies, but overall I’m satisfied with the system. Slack is something of a mess (I often have trouble finding older stuff or orienting myself within threads,) but the company is working to make it better. And in many ways, it’s an improvement over the most obvious alternative, email.

Both Slack and Zoom are environments that enable private social networks. They make it possible for people to collaborate remotely in (relatively) small groups. These days, most of my interpersonal interactions happen in either of the two. But not all; I’m also spending more time on three big, public social networks: Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. I’ve been using these places for a long time, but the lockdown is leading me to reevaluate how I use them.

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The Informed Life With Aynne Valencia

Episode 32 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Aynne Valencia. Aynne is my colleague at the California College of the Arts, where she is the former Chair of the undergraduate interaction design program. She’s also the Director of Design at San Francisco Digital Services, which designs digital experiences for the citizens of San Francisco and the city employees that serve them.

Prior to working in government and education, Aynne had a long trajectory in the private sector. In this conversation, we discuss the differences and similarities between business, government, and education. As you’ll hear, I was especially keen to learn if projects in these domains follow different cadences. That line of questioning inevitably led to the benefits of long-term thinking. As Aynne put it,

I think we’ve seen the consequences of moving fast and breaking things. We’re dealing with the consequences of a lot of social media, for example, really influencing things that I’m sure and certain that the people who designed them, the people that created them never intended to have happen. At least I hope they didn’t intend to have these things happen.

I often wonder if there had been a point where they were able to really stop and consider all of the ways that something could go wrong, to really be in a situation where you really have to do a proper risk assessment. I’m wondering if those products would have been very, very different because of it. And I think a lot about design as being something that definitely changes the world for better or for worse. And right now, it’s been worse as of late.

I think that it’s really incumbent upon all of us as designers to step up and take responsibility for those things. So I’m really glad that I’m in a place right now where I get a chance to practice one of the tenets of my beliefs, which is to have a good livelihood, where the things that I’m doing I like to think are directly related to making somebody’s life better.

This seems to be a common thread in many of my recent conversations. It’s not a coincidence; the effects of not thinking systemically and long-term are manifesting all around us. (Although it’s worth noting, as I do in the show, that Aynne and I recorded our conversation prior to the current crisis.) I hope you find this interview valuable.

The Informed Life Episode 32: Aynne Valencia on Work Cycles

Worth Your Attention

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

Slack’s Information Architecture Redesign

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely. The crisis has made digital collaboration environments more critical than they’ve been before. Many of us are spending significant portions of our days conversing with colleagues in places like Slack and Microsoft Teams. The latter’s usage has more than doubled during the crisis. And in a Twitter thread, Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, noted a surge in demand due to the pandemic:

When you have that many people working in an information environment, the structure of the place matters. Clunky navigation systems can lead to confusion, wasted time, misunderstandings, increased need for support, and more. The pain is especially acute for new users, who may be unfamiliar with how to find their way around such environments.

Last week, Slack announced a redesign that aims to clarify the environment’s navigation systems:

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Banning Targeted Advertising?

Gilad Edelman writing in Wired:

The task of regulating an increasingly out of control digital environment often looks like a multifront war against various enemies: privacy breaches, hate speech, disinformation, and more. What if we had a weapon that could bring all those armies to their knees?

The article highlights a “nascent movement” of people who believe the business model underlying these environments — targeted, personalized advertising — is the main problem. Rather than focusing on front-end efforts to legislate what happens in these places, a more impactful approach would be to make the business model itself illegal.

If you’ve read Living in Information, you won’t be surprised to know I agree with the assessment that business models are critical. That said, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue. I can easily imagine targeted advertising would make some information environments more useful while also supporting user goals.

As a user myself, I’m willing to give up some of my privacy if I get something tangible in return, and I clearly understand who’s using my information and for what purposes. For example, I don’t mind if the place where I do my shopping shows me ads that meet my needs. I’m there to buy stuff, after all, and the place knows who I am and my preferences and shopping patterns. Knowing those things, it can tell me about new products that will make my life better. That has value to me.

I don’t feel the same way about places where I meet with family and friends or have civic conversations with my neighbors. The general idea behind targeted advertising — that the system will learn my preferences so it can better persuade me — is profoundly at odds with my goals in those environments.

Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?