My friend (and publisher) Lou Rosenfeld interviewed me for his Rosenfeld Media Podcast. We talked about information environments and how you can reframe your digital products to better align with your customer’s intents and those of society as a whole. You can listen here:
Orchestrating Experiences: Collaborative Design for Complexity
By Chris Risdon and Patrick Quattlebaum
Rosenfeld Media, 2018
Before I tell you about Orchestrating Experiences, a disclaimer: the authors and publisher are my friends. I won’t lie and tell you that doesn’t affect my perspective. Still, that shouldn’t keep you from knowing about this important book.
Yep, important. Why? Because it tackles one of the most challenging and impactful aspects of contemporary design practice: how to design coherent systems that span multiple touchpoints and interactions. Such systems typically have multiple stakeholders, many of whom work towards objectives that may not align neatly with other stakeholders’. These systems also require moving around lots of information and making it findable and understandable to people with varying degrees of competency.
Many design books focus on the tactical aspects of this work. For example, you need not search too long for good titles about producing usable interfaces or creating compelling content. There are also good books that deal with more strategic concerns. Where Orchestrating Experiences shines is in bridging the two: it’s a how-to guide for clarifying a strategic project vision and articulating it in terms that will inform tactical design artifacts. The result is a complex system that is nevertheless coherent and directed.
So how does one pull off this tricky challenge? The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is by collaborating with the people responsible for the system. Because of this, designers operating at this level will often be called to facilitate workshops. Orchestrating Experiences addresses this reality in its structure: most of the book’s chapters deal with a particular area of focus (e.g., how to define experience principles) from a conceptual perspective, which is then immediately followed by instructions on how to structure and facilitate a workshop to help the team produce the work that satisfies that particular area of focus.
When I say “conceptual point of view,” you may get the impression that these are abstract subjects. And that is indeed a risk when writing about design at this level. However, Orchestrating Experiences features plenty of real-world examples, including (clear and beautiful) deliverables and photos of in-process workshops. This makes the material very accessible. I left Orchestrating Experiences with a clearer understanding of the importance of working at this level and concrete tools to help me do it. I highly recommend it.
Last night we had a small book launch ceremony during the Enterprise UX conference opening reception. My friend and publisher (and EUX organizer) Lou Rosenfeld said a few words, as did I, and then I signed copies of the book. And with that, Living in Information is now out and about in the world.
During the party, quite a few folks asked me how I feel about being done with the book. “You must feel relieved,” many said. I’ve been thinking about this. “Relief” is not the right word. For one thing, it’s been a few months since I finished the bulk of the work for this project. For another, writing isn’t a chore I need relief from; it’s something I love doing.
More than anything, I feel curious right now… curious to hear how the book is received. (I’m visiting its Amazon page, anxiously awaiting the first review.) I would especially love to hear what you think about it. Please feel free to reach out after you’ve read it or leave a review in Amazon. I hope you enjoy and get value from Living in Information!
Over the past two years, I’ve led walking tours of the architecture of downtown San Francisco. The tour is offered as a conference activity, usually in the afternoon of a “workshop” day. I’ve led such tours at the O’Reilly Design conference (2017) and Enterprise UX (2017 and 2018.)
The tour gives user experience designers a firsthand understanding of how people form mental images of physical environments. We also examine the forces that gave the city its present form — social, commercial, political, regulatory, etc. — and how that form continues to evolve. As we move around the city, we discuss how these insights apply to the design of information environments.
Due to the constraints of moving and addressing a larger group in a busy urban setting, we cap participation at fifteen people. The activity takes around two and a half hours.
Besides being a great learning experience, the walking around looking at architecture is also a lot of fun. It’s a memorable way for participants to gain professional insights beyond the confines of usual conference settings.
You place a pack of chewing gum on the counter at a convenience store. The store attendant looks at the gum and says, “one ninety nine.” You place two dollar bills on the counter. The attendant takes the bills and hands you back a shiny one cent coin. You thank her and walk out, peeling the cellophane from the gum package as you head back to your car.
This minor episode reenacts a ritual members of our species have conducted for tens of thousands of years. We call it a transaction: two parties meet to exchange something of value. You want something; another person who has that thing establishes the conditions under which s/he would be willing to part with it; you reach consensus; you hand over something of value that satisfies those conditions; the other person gives you the thing you wanted; you both go on your ways. Ideally, both parties are better off after the transaction has concluded.
In some ways, history is the story of how we’ve perfected our ability to transact with each other. At an earlier stage, you and the store clerk would’ve had to negotiate over the relative value of the goods you were exchanging. (“A pack of gum? That’ll be a chicken thigh, thank you.”) Eventually we abstracted value into currencies we could all agree on, and then abstracted it even more. Eventually, it became pure information; today you can pay for the gum by waving your wristwatch over the counter — a magic trick that would’ve baffled our forebears.
The valuables we exchange musn’t be pecuniary. The penitent man confessing to a priest is transacting; he’s sharing intimate information about his life in exchange for peace of mind. Few such interactions stand on their own; more often they’re part of a sequence of interactions that follow one another, building trust one step at a time. The act of confession likely isn’t the penitent man’s first transaction with a priest; more likely he’s been in many prior interactions with other church functionaries that led up to this point in his life. Some of them served as gating factors that mark a significant transition in the person’s life. For example, the man had to become baptized at one point; i.e. he gained membership in a community in exchange for part of his identity and independence. That, too, was a transaction.
Architecture exists to support such transactions. The convenience store makes it possible for you to purchase gum much in the same way that the confessional makes it possible for the man to relieve his conscience. Buildings set aside parts of our physical environment for particular uses; the convenience store has all the necessary components to ease the exchange of gum for currency.
Information environments are also created to support transactions. I have a bag of rock salt sitting in my Amazon.com shopping cart at the moment. (My kids’ birthdays are coming up and I’m going to make ice cream for them.) I can’t buy it yet because this particular product is what Amazon calls an “add-on” item, which means I must buy other goods amounting to more than US$25 before I can purchase the rock salt. So now I’m wandering Amazon.com looking for other things I can buy. When I do find something, I will add it to my cart. Eventually, I will check out: I will click on a button that marks my consent, setting in motion a process wherein my credit card will be charged and a series of machines (and some humans) will gather the things I’ve requested and convey them to me.
I will undertake this transaction without overthinking it, much as you do when you pay for a pack of gum at the store. But this transaction is much more complicated than the exchange of money for a pack of gum. So much has had to happen beforehand for me to be able to do this. First finding out about Amazon.com, opening an account in the system (over a decade ago!), making my first purchase, eventually trying to purchase an “add-on” item and figuring out that it’s a different type of good… All transactions, all critical moments that led up to this most recent purchase. (And those are only the transactions that involved Amazon — I also had to transact with my bank in order to secure the necessary credit to pay for the rock salt.) Information environments supported all of these interactions successfully, to the point where I now take them for granted.
In the past, at least one other human would’ve been required for me to be able to buy rock salt, but all we need now is a place designed to enable the required sequence of transactions. In buying the rock salt, I’m not transacting with another person in the way the penitent man transacts with a priest or you transact with a store clerk when you buy gum. When I shop on Amazon.com, I transact with the environment itself. People are still involved, but indirectly; some who work in logistics will fulfill my request (although one suspects their involvement, too, will whittle away in time) and those who designed, built, and manage the place where the transaction is happening. Increasingly the responsibility for enabling the exchange of value in our societies falls on the designers, developers, and the managers of the environments where we transact.
Under pressure from the market, your organization is prompted to change. Perhaps the company hasn’t met its sales targets in the last couple of quarters, and something must be done to get customers excited about buying. Or maybe a new competitor is entering the space, or a new technology threatens our primary product. Whatever it is, the organization must respond — now!
But not all responses can take effect now. Some take more time than others. For example, launching a new family of products takes longer than tweaking the website that describes existing products. The appropriate response may be to start down both paths now, with the understanding that (parts of) the website redesign will be public before the new products come online.
The launch of a new range of products changes how customers understand the existing catalog, so the structure of the website must accommodate these future-facing developments. As a result, the website’s designers need to be aware of the company’s product roadmap so they can produce a new information architecture. Through new language and grouping, designers will create distinctions that will allow prospects and customers to find their way within the new range of products.
So far, this is a fairly standard scenario. However, it’s worth considering approaching things from the opposite perspective: what if the act of describing the distinctions of a range of products helps inform the product roadmap? In other words, what if we treated information architecture not as a tool for representing a strategic direction, but as an exercise in distinction-making that helps define what the direction should be?
Here’s an example. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, the company was in deep trouble. It was months away from bankruptcy. Among its many problems, Apple’s product catalog had grown bloated and undifferentiated; the company lacked clear direction. Jobs drew a simple diagram that set things back on track:
This model whittled the company’s extensive range of products down to just four categories: professional desktop computers, consumer desktop computers, professional portable computers, and consumer portable computers. Gone were all the other things Apple was making — including the Newton, a product that was considered one of Apple’s most innovative at the time. This was a tough call that was reinforced by a simple, coherent, understandable set of distinctions.
What’s interesting about this diagram is not just that it allowed the company to understand how existing products fit — or didn’t fit — into an understandable structure, but that it also revealed gaps in the product family. There were no clear products that fit into the consumer portable quadrant, for example; Apple developed the iBook to meet this part of the market.
Creating this diagram was an act of information architecture. Jobs established a new set of distinctions using a simple, coherent model that informed strategic decisions about what products needed to be developed.
Conceptual modeling of this sort is a key part of the design process when re-designing an information environment’s navigation systems. The upside: the skills designers bring to bear when establishing new distinctions can also be used to inform what products will be required to serve market needs. Rather than reacting to existing strategic product decisions, IA can help strategic decision-makers understand the space they’re acting in more clearly so they can make more informed, confident decisions about where to go next.
Mobile operating system vendors are starting to give us the ability to become more aware of (and limit) the time we spend using our devices. For example, the Screen Time feature in Apple’s iOS 12 will make it possible for users of iPhones and iPads to define how long they want to spend using specific apps or entire app categories.
If adopted widely, these capabilities will impact the way many information environments are designed. Today, many apps and websites are structured to increase the engagement of their users. This is especially true of environments that are supported by advertising since the more time people spend in them translates directly to more exposure, and hence more money.
The novelty of always-connected supercomputers in our pockets at all times has fostered a cavalier attitude towards how we apportion our attention when in the presence of these things. The time we spend online has more than doubled over the past decade.
As digital designers, we have the responsibility to question the desirability of using engagement as the primary measure of success for our information environments. While it may be appropriate for some cases, engagement is overused today. This is because engagement is easy to measure, easy to design for, and in many cases (such as advertising,) it translates directly to higher revenues.
But the drive towards user engagement is a losing proposition. It’s a zero-sum game; you have a limited amount of time in the day — and ultimately, in your life as a whole. Whatever time you spend in one app will come at the expense of time spent engaging with other apps — or worse, spent engaging with other people in your life. Google and Apple’s “digital wellbeing” and “digital health” initiatives are an admission that this has become an issue for many people. With time, we will become more sophisticated about the tradeoffs we’re making when we enter these environments.
So if not engagement, what should we be designing for? My drive is towards designing for alignment between the goals of the user, the organization, and society. When your goals are aligned with the goals your environment is designed to support, you will be more willing to devote your precious time to it. You will enter the environment consciously, do what you need to do there, and then move on to something else. You’ll aim for “quality time” in the environment, rather than the information benders that are the norm today.
Designing for alignment is both subtler and more difficult than designing for engagement. It’s not as easy to measure progress or ROI on alignment. It also requires a deeper understanding of people’s motivations and having a clear perspective on how our business can contribute to social well-being. It’s a challenge that requires that we take design to another level at a time when design is just beginning to hit its stride within organizations. But we must do it. Only through alignment can we create the conditions that produce sustainable value for everyone in the long term.
Yesterday Apple presented in public the 2018 updates of its operating systems. As happens every year, we got a glimpse of many new software features coming to the Mac, iPads, Apple Watches, Apple TVs, and iPhones. One feature coming to iOS — the system that runs iPhones and iPads — stands out not because of things it allows us to do with our devices, but because of what it doesn’t allow: to consume our time mindlessly with them.
The new feature, called Screen Time, allows users to examine the time they’ve spent using apps and websites, and set constraints on that time. For example, somebody could decide she only wanted to spend a maximum of thirty minutes every day using the Instagram app on her phone. The phone would keep track of the time she spends on the app, notify her when she was approaching her limit, and ultimately turn off access to the app altogether when she exceeded her allotted time. She could do this not just for herself, but also for her kids.
Apple is not the first to do this; Google has announced similar features for Android as part of its Digital Wellbeing program, and there are also third-party apps that accomplish similar goals. That said, Apple’s announcement is significant because of the company’s cultural pull and the prominence they’re giving this feature in their flagship OS.
Three thoughts come to mind right away. The first is that the existence of this feature is an acknowledgment that something is not right with the way we’re currently using our devices. The time you spend engaged with information environments comes at the expense of the time you spend engaged in your physical environment. When companies compete with each other for your attention, and you have a device with you that gives you instant access to all of them at any time, a race ensues in which you and your loved ones lose. By establishing “digital wellbeing” and “digital health” (Apple’s phrase) programs, the operating system vendors are admitting that this has become a problem.
The second thought is that as platform vendors, neither Google or Apple can directly control the form of the information environments their systems host; what they can control is the amount of time users can spend in those environments. You can think of the OS vendors as managing cities. Formerly, the city’s spaces — parks, buildings — were open 24×7, but now they can have operating hours. This is especially useful when some of the buildings contain casinos; some folks need a nudge to go home and sleep once in a while.
The third thought is that the OS vendors are giving users the tools to examine their behavior in these environments and the power to define their operating hours for themselves. This gives us as individuals the ability to engage more consciously with the information environments where we spend our time. I hope the push towards providing us more control over our attention will help steer companies away from business models that drive us towards continuous engagement.
I see the development of the platform vendors’ digital wellbeing initiatives as an encouraging sign. That said, it doesn’t relieve the organizations that design and produce websites and apps from the responsibility of ensuring those environments support the needs and aspirations of their users and society at large. Ideally the most addictive of these digital places will now look for ways to better align their business goals with the goals of their users.
Do you like getting email newsletters? A few years ago, my answer to this question would’ve been a silent stare that belied seething rage. I was receiving so much email that the thought of getting more non-work related messages filled me with dread.
Recently, this has changed; I find myself signing up for — and getting value from — email newsletters again. What’s different? Two things. For one, more of my work communication is happening to pseudo-synchronous environments like Slack and Messages.app, so my email inbox isn’t as crowded as before. For another, fewer people I want to hear from publish blogs of their own anymore. Where I formerly used to get updates from them through my RSS reader, these days the ones that still write longer posts do it through either social media or environments such as Medium, where their voices become buried among others selected “just for me” by algorithms that still leave a lot to be desired.
Fortunately, a few of these folks have set up email newsletters to aggregate their writing. Here are a few I’m currently enjoying:
Given how much value I’m getting from email newsletters, and the fact that I have a book coming out, I’ve set up a newsletter of my own. I’ve called it Informa(c)tion, and you can sign up here. Informa(c)tion is a low-volume, high signal-to-noise way for you to get a dose of information architecture goodness, and stay up to date on what’s happening with Living in Information. I hope you check it out, and look forward to hearing what you think about it.