Architectural Skeuomorphism

Sarah Barrett, writing in Medium:

While there is a lot that IA can learn from actual architecture or city planning, websites aren’t buildings or cities, and they don’t have to work like them. Instead, they should be designed according to the same principles that people’s brains expect from physical experiences.

We have innate skills that allow us to navigate and understand the ‘real’ world. Like physical places, information environments (i.e., websites and apps) are contexts where we can do and learn things.

As a result, it’s natural to want to layer real-world affordances onto digital places. But it’s a naive mistake. Digital can do things physical can’t and vice-versa. Thoughtlessly mimicking real-world affordances in information environments can lead to what Sarah calls “architectural skeuomorphism” — a plague of early web and app UIs.

Conversely, digital’s flexibility makes it easy to inadvertently confound our expectations of things when we experience them in more than one ‘place.’ Sarah offers a great example: a Google Doc document object offers different capabilities depending on where you’re interacting with it within Google’s app ecosystem.

To design more usable systems, we must understand how humans make sense of being in and operating within environments. Sarah offers four specific areas for exploration, and promises a longer-form treatment of each. If you’ve read Living in Information, you’ll know why I’m so excited to see where she’s taking this.

Websites are not living rooms and other lessons for information architecture

The Informed Life with Matt LeMay

Episode 59 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with consultant and author Matt LeMay. Matt is a co-founder and partner at Sudden Compass and author of Agile for Everybody and Product Management in Practice, both for O’Reilly. In this conversation, Matt shares with us One Page / One Hour, his pledge to make project collaboration more agile.

The interview kicked off with a discussion of Matt’s background in music, and how it relates to product management. Musicians in a band must think beyond their individual desires (“make my instrument louder in the mix!”) to what benefits the band as a whole. This ethos also applies to product development:

If everybody has their feature that they want to build, if everybody wants to highlight their own individual contributions, you very quickly get to a point where the thing you’re building no longer makes any sense. Where if you can’t prioritize, if you can’t think systematically and then think structurally about how everybody’s contributions come together to create something new and meaningful, then you wind up with something which is just a collection of features, or a collection of ideas that really don’t coalesce into something interesting or powerful, or that solves a problem.

Knowing what to keep out is as important as knowing what to include:

both in music creation and in software product management, you really learn to recognize the power of subtraction. That the most meaningful work you can do is often subtractive work, not additive work. That constraints and subtractions and blank spaces are really what define the work that you’re doing more so than features and additions and things that you add in.

This discussion served as the perfect introduction to One Page / One Hour, Matt’s subtractive technique for more effective collaboration. In his work, Matt recognized a tendency to overproduced deliverables. In response, he

wrote up this pledge to my business partners saying I’m willing to forego the sense of individual accomplishment that comes from presenting finished and polished deliverables to my colleagues. I promise that I will spend no more than one page and one hour working on any deliverable — any document — before I bring it to the team. In other words, if I show up with five beautifully formatted pages or a one-page that took me 10 hours to create, I want you to hold me accountable to that.

The result is a more agile approach to collaboration. I also asked Matt about communication practices suited to this approach, and he brought up the “synchronous sandwich,”

an asynchronous pre-read, a synchronous meeting, and an asynchronous follow-up. In other words, you send something through as a pre-read, using a lot of these same concepts. So, you time box how long you expect somebody to take to send the pre-read and how long it will take them to read the pre-read. Then you work through the document or do something synchronously together, and then you send through a follow-up or a revised copy of that deliverable or whatever it is afterwards.

I was inspired by talking with Matt to think of ways to make my work more agile. I hope you get as much value from our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life episode 59: Matt LeMay on One Page / One Hour

Challenges in Designing for Emerging Technologies

Elizabeth Lopato, reporting in The Verge:

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s company focused on developing brain-machine interfaces, has posted a video to YouTube that appears to show a monkey navigating an on-screen cursor using only its mind.

The video is amazing:

As the article notes, it’s unusual for scientists to release such materials unaccompanied by peer-reviewed evidence. I take this as a cue to be skeptical. Still, if true, it’s an impressive demonstration — especially considering the implications for paralyzed people.

This video sparked two thoughts.

Continue reading

How I Manage ‘Thinking’ Time

Earlier this year, I asked what you’d like to know about how I get things done. I received many interesting requests, more than fit in a single post. So, I’m covering aspects of my setup in separate entries. This is the first of the series.

Rather than start with a tool or method, I’ll address a question asked by Andrea Tanzi:

Why start here? Tools come and go, but time is a constant. It underlies everything else. ‘Thinking time,’ as Andrea put it, is an especially limited resource. There are so many demands on our attention!

By ‘thinking time’ I mean focused time — i.e., moments when I can advance my work, learn, and write without distraction. The aspiration: to move things along by entering a state of flow. (A good book on this is Cal Newport’s Deep Work.)

Continue reading

Overcoming Objections to Modeling

Recently, I asked on Twitter,

What’s the best objection you’ve heard to making conceptual models as part of the design process?

A lively discussion ensued. Some respondents were unclear on what I meant by “conceptual models,” which speaks to the lack of mainstream awareness of this crucial design artifact. (Here’s my latest stab at clarifying.) Others, clear on what conceptual models are, pointed out that the process matters more than ‘deliverables.’ Great point.

But I’m especially interested in the objections. Here are some that represent what I see as the main gist. Chris Avore pointed out that conceptual models are seen as “too hand-wavey or theater-like,” and that they “lead to a few head nods but the world/plan/goal doesn’t change at the end.” To put it bluntly, as Hà Phan did, some people see conceptual models as “bullshit.” (My take: true insofar as they know about modeling at all; I suspect most people don’t.)

Continue reading

Internal Design Teams and Thought Leadership

There’s a sense of disillusionment among some designers about UX’s ‘lost potential’ — that it’s been co-opted for purely commercial (and in some cases, unscrupulous) ends. It’s articulated in this post by Mark Hurst, and I’m reading it into this tweet by Jesse James Garrett:

I haven’t experienced this malaise myself. (But I’ve seen lots of it on Twitter, a platform that rewards kvetching.) Most designers I know are engaged with their work, and my students seem excited for the future. So, I suspect Jesse’s ‘more than a decade’ qualifier matters.

That said, I believe he’s onto something. Designers should be ecstatic about our field’s increased visibility and impact, but we don’t seem to be. What’s going on? I responded to Jesse’s tweet with one possibility:

Continue reading

The Informed Life with Jesse James Garrett

Episode 58 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Jesse James Garett. Jesse is author of The Elements of User Experience and co-founder of Adaptive Path. Now, he coaches design leaders, and in this podcast we explore the relationship between IA and leadership.

Why does this matter? As Jesse put it,

any leader, anyone who gives direction to people in an organization, is on some level a steward of the organization’s understanding of the problems that the team is trying to solve.

Leaders do this through storytelling, which Jesse described as a “sense-making activity” that “gives people an understanding of the world.”

So, if the leader is noticing and attending to sense-making as a core part of the value that they bring to the organization as a leader, then they can look across their communications and the various pools of data that they may be responsible for tending and to interpret what they’re doing in terms of creating more robust and more nuanced and more accurate information structures.

Such sense-making is the responsibility of leaders in all fields. When I asked Jesse how leaders might develop these skills, he suggested that those in design approach it as a design problem:

It is a creative problem-solving task. It is a systems-thinking task, as a leader. So, looking at the ways that you’re already doing that systems-thinking, the ways in which you already doing that architecture for yourself in the work that you’re already doing, and those will be your strengths.

I was excited to hear Jesse touch on this subject on episode 25 of the Finding Our Way podcast, and I was thrilled to have him say more about it on my show. I hope you find our conversation valuable.

The Informed Life episode 58: Jesse James Garrett on Leadership and Information Architecture

My Personal Information Ecosystem

I love learning about how other people get things done. (It’s one of the motivations for my podcast.) In that spirit, I’ve decided to share how I work. It may come across as self-indulgent, but perhaps it can also give you ideas.

In February, I mentioned on Twitter that I was working on a post about my ‘production function.’ (Tyler Cowen’s wonderful phrase.) I asked what you’d like to know about my setup, and several folks replied with angles I hadn’t considered.

As I outlined what I wanted to cover, I realized there’s too much for a single entry. So, I’m breaking it down into several shorter posts, which I’m also planning to post as tweetstorms.

This is the first of these posts, which will serve as an index. As I write more, I’ll add them here, calling out emerging patterns. (And integrating your feedback, so please let me know what you’d like to learn about.)

Here’s what I plan to cover:

  • Tools and techniques for personal information management
  • Software and hardware for better thinking
  • Frameworks and approaches for better time management
  • Whatever you’d like me to explore (let me know!)

My personal information ecosystem is constantly evolving, so I expect this to be a ‘living’ post. I’ll edit it to reflect how things change. For now, stay tuned.

Cover image: Detail from one of Benjamin Franklin’s virtue charts. Credit: Franklin’s Way.

Not Just a New Feature; a New Compact

David Pierce, writing in Protocol yesterday morning:

Starting on Wednesday, any Slack user will be able to direct message any other Slack user. The new system is called Connect DMs, and works a bit like the messaging apps and buddy lists old: Users send an invite to anyone via their work email address, and if the recipient accepts (everything is opt-in), their new contact is added to their Slack sidebar. The conversations are tied to the users’ organizations, but exist in a separate section of the Slack app itself.

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, writing in Vice a few hours later:

On Wednesday, Slack launched a new feature that allows users to message anyone else via direct messages, even if the receiver is outside of the sender’s organization. In other words, the feature allows anyone to connect with you privately on Slack. Critically, even if the feature is turned off on your Slack, you’ll still get an email notification and message from anyone trying to connect with you—including people who don’t work with you and can use this feature to sneak harassment into your inbox.

After experts in content moderation, and several other people, complained about this risk, Slack is already backtracking and limiting the feature, admitting it “made a mistake.”

Continue reading