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?

Relief in Philosophy

We are living in a period of VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. There is tremendous suffering in the world as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. People are ill, some terminally. Many of us have been working from home for over two weeks now, with all the stress that implies. Some haven’t been working at all, which is even more stressful. Nobody knows when the situation will change for the better.

I’m fortunate to be healthy and busy at the moment, but that doesn’t relieve my anxiety about the future. Spurred by my conversation with Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, I decided to revisit Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. As I’ve noted before, I give priority to sources that have stood the test of time. Few are as timely in our current crisis as Meditations, which was written almost two thousand years ago. Towards the end of the second book, Marcus Aurelius makes the following observation:

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Living In Information With the UX Bookclub Los Angeles

Meetup announcement

Since Living in Information came out, I’ve spoken (mostly virtually) with several UX book clubs about the book. Invariably, these conversations have been insightful and fun. (At least for me, YMMV.) Tomorrow (Mar 25, 2020), I’ll be addressing the UX Bookclub Los Angeles on the topic. (This conversation was always meant to be virtual, so I think it’ll be feasible for folks outside LA to join.)

When I wrote the book, I assumed moving our key interactions to information environments was a process we’d undertake gradually and deliberately. The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated it and made it mandatory. As a result, many of us are having to adjust to radically new ways of interacting with each other and remaining productive in information environments. (And it’s not just work!)

I’d love to find out how you are managing. What has/hasn’t worked for you and your team? What could be better? What tools and techniques have proven their worth? How are you keeping your body engaged now that you spend so much more time interacting with your colleagues and friends over screens? How has your current situation changed the way you think about physical and online spaces?

These are some of the questions I’m hoping we’ll discuss tomorrow. I hope you can join us.

Leading in Information

Chip Cutter and Jennifer Maloney writing in The Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

The new coronavirus’s spread in America has prompted corporations to close offices, factories and stores, sending tens of millions of people home, where a swath of the workforce—from customer-service representatives to chief executive officers—have had to figure out new ways to work.

The result is perhaps the most radical and swift change in U.S. business in living memory. That’s posing a monumental management challenge of leading employees—those lucky enough to have kept their jobs—to sustain operations from home while also keeping them calm and safe.

The article goes on to profile CEOs of companies of diverse sizes, and the challenges they and their employees are facing as their workforces move to work remotely. These challenges include the loss of camaraderie, feelings of insecurity, managing young children while trying to work, the loss of structured daily routines, and more.

Instilling a sense of direction and purpose is hard enough in normal times when regular communication channels are intact. But leading during difficult times, when conditions are changing fast, and normal channels break down, can be extraordinarily difficult.

Thinking about the issue of leading remotely, I’ve been reflecting on this tweet, which highlights New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s communication style during the current crisis:

This list strikes me as an excellent communications guideline for leaders. But not all digital channels will lend themselves equally well for each attribute. For example, I’d expect authenticity, tone, and empathy to work best over synchronous video calls, where people can hear and see each other. Conversely, asynchronous channels lend themselves to frequent, clear communications.

The times call for leaders with excellent communication skills, but also who can adapt those skills to this new world in which we all interact over digital channels all the time. We can learn communication skills, but adaptability is a harder attribute to learn. I expect people to give each other the benefit of the doubt in the early days of the crisis. We’re all trying to cope with the changes, and will be more patient with each other’s clumsiness. But as time passes, we’ll expect leaders to get their stuff together. The sooner, the better.

With Business Turned Upside Down, CEOs Face Monumental Leadership Challenge

Honing Our Remote Collaboration Abilities

Most of my career, I’ve worked in a blend of physical and digital environments. While most of my “productive” time has been in front of screens — initially desktop computers, then laptops, and increasingly mobile devices — with few exceptions, I’ve worked with teams and clients I’ve met regularly in “real” spaces like offices and conference rooms.

My collaborators and I would check in on each other in these physical spaces every once in a while, and then go back online. Often, our bodies sat in the same building — which we’d spend much time moving to and from — even though most of our attention while there was focused on our individual computer screens.

That changed two weeks ago. Like many of you, I’m now entirely online — for work, at least. My schedule is still packed, but all meetings are now happening in screens. I only see my collaborators in grids of small rectangles arranged haphazardly in an application window. In one sense, we’re pros at it; we’ve been doing this for years, after all. But now that we have no choice, we’re becoming even more adept at new ways of collaborating remotely.

For example, this week, I learned that Zoom — the software I’ve been using for years for most of my remote meetings — offers breakout “rooms.” This feature allows participants in a conference call to break off from the main meeting into groups to have a smaller discussion or work out a gnarly problem. It’s a boon for remote workshop facilitation. How long has this feature been there? I don’t know, but I never needed to look for it. Now that circumstances have called for it, I’ve gained a new ability.

I expect to learn many other techniques to improve how I collaborate remotely before this unique period of working from home is over. I aim to emerge from this experience as an expert in remote facilitation and teaching. At first, I’ll be clumsy at it — but so is everyone else. I expect we’ll all be more patient with each other at this time, given we’re all trying to get over the awkwardness of being fully remote. But we’ve been granted the opportunity to practice remote collaboration intensely over the next few weeks, and our new abilities will expand the scope of who we can serve, and when.

Come Together (in Information Environments)

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

This post beautifully articulates a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

That said, I expect a reaction when this is over; a resurgence of big festivals, fairs, concerts, etc. I sense that after weeks (and hopefully it’s only weeks) of meeting people exclusively through video chats, we’ll be longing to be in the physical presence of others. Digital is too narrow a medium to convey the richness of full interpersonal interaction. For now, we are truly living significant parts of our lives in information environments — not by choice.

(I found out about this op ed through my publisher’s newsletter; you should subscribe.)

How to Be Together Apart In the Time of Coronavirus

Efficiency and Redundancy

Yesterday, officials in the Bay Area issued an order for those of us who live here to “shelter in place.” Meaning, we’re to stay inside our homes and only go out for essential reasons, such as buying groceries. (Most businesses are closed anyway.) This order is in place for three weeks.

I went to Costco to buy some staples (coffee!) before the order took effect. I found shelves stocked with a mix of some goods (there was plenty of coffee) and not much of others (no toilet paper, very little bread.) Hoarding behavior + supply chain disruptions = empty shelves. As I perused the gaps in the store’s inventory, one word kept coming to mind: resiliency. We’re learning the degree to which our systems can keep us fed, clothed, connected, etc.

Markets are great mechanisms for reducing costs. But in times of crisis, cost is only one variable among many. There may come a time when people are willing to pay more for a roll of toilet paper. But if there are no machines turning out more rolls, or trucks to transport them, or fuel to power them, or raw materials to produce them, or stores to sell them, then cost won’t matter much. A month ago, this observation would’ve been hypothetical. Now, it feels very real.

A generative question for the world we create after this crisis: how might markets better balance efficiency and redundancy?