Worth Your Attention

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On Rules and Barbarism

Students often want to know if they’re doing things the “right” way. They want to learn the “standard” way of making sitemaps, wireframes, storyboards, etc. Many are anxious about doing these things “wrong.” I tell them that although there are best practices, there are no strict rules for many of these things. The purpose of making any design artifact is to clarify and communicate intent. What’s “right” is what best articulates what they’re trying to do.

Recognizing what’s right requires practice, and that takes time. As professors, we aim to provide feedback so students can improve over time. Still, I suspect it’s no comfort to answer the question of how to do things “right” with “it depends.” Speaking with a student this week, I thought of a good analogy for what I’m trying to get across: Orwell’s six rules of writing.

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Don’t Make Me Think, Xbox Edition

I’m a fan of obvious labels. If you’re naming a product, category, navigation link, or any other item that people will need to pick from among alternatives, obvious trumps clever all the time. Earlier this year, I wrote about how the new Harley Quinn superhero movie underperformed due (at least in part) to its obscure title. Now we have an example of a label that doesn’t fail because it’s obscure, but because it’s not differentiated enough.

Microsoft just released its latest generation of Xbox gaming consoles. This product line has a history of non-obvious names. While the first device was simply called “Xbox,” its followup was called Xbox 360. Confusingly, the third generation of the product was called Xbox One. There’s still a version of that third-gen device on the market called Xbox One X. The new version, generation 4, is called Xbox Series X.

According to an article on The Verge, sales of the Xbox One X have surged following the newer device’s release. The article speculates that this may be due to confusion about the product name:

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Consider the Frame

A product may be redesigned for various reasons: competitive pressure, integrating an exciting new feature, a change in leadership, etc. Some of these reasons (such as the new feature) are integral to the product’s content. Others (such as the change in leadership) are part of the frame around the product. As a force in influencing the project’s direction, the frame can be as powerful as the challenge’s substance.

A metaphor for the frame’s power: Late last fall, I decided to lose weight. Coincidentally, my family needed to replace some broken bowls. I realized that IKEA sold bowls similar to the ones we use at home, but smaller. I bought some of the small bowls and started using them — along with a smaller spoon — for my breakfast. These subtle tweaks helped me trick my brain into eating smaller portions. With patience, exercise, and mindful eating, I eventually lost the weight.

Was it all thanks to the smaller bowl? No. But the bowl made it easier. My eyes measure the amount of food relative to the size of the bowl. Using a smaller bowl led me to see my “normal” portions differently. Food — the substance of the meal — is framed by the bowl. Smaller bowl = more food, even if the portions are actually smaller. The frame around a problem changes how we see the problem. When undertaking a design challenge, consider its frame along with its content.

TAOI: Browse by Color

In my latest post at The Architecture of Information, I unpack an intriguing non-verbal navigation system:

Most website navigation systems rely on words. Terms like Products, Industries, and About Us have become standard; many companies have such phrases or subtle variants on their websites. Other labels are more particular to each company or industry. But in general, website navigation systems are primarily verbal.

Some websites break that norm. Color Palettes is an interesting example.

As you may have surmised, this site’s navigation uses colored tiles instead of words. It also has two modes, one of which adds a useful bit of functionality.

I love examining unusual navigation systems. Have you seen a website or app that implements interesting ways for users to move around? Please let me know.

Browse by Color – The Architecture of Information

The Informed Life With Alexis Lloyd

Episode 44 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Alexis Lloyd. Alexis is VP of Product Design at Medium and co-founder of Ethical Futures Lab. Previously, she led design and innovation work at The New York Times, Axios, and Automattic. Alexis has been thinking about the future of media for a long time, and in this conversation, we focused on the evolving ways we consume and produce media.

I was keen to discuss the granularity of media with Alexis. Specifically, the more granular content is, the easier it can be re-mixed and re-configured. However, I there’s a point where content becomes so granular that it loses the ability to convey a coherent story. Alexis has written compellingly on this subject, so I wanted to hear what she thought about the ideal balance.

Among other things, she mentioned the key distinction between the process of creating content versus building upon it by extracting, annotating, etc.:

I wouldn’t say that content should be more granular in the way [content is] created. But I think that in the way it is to be extracted, annotated, remixed, and built upon, that the structure should afford more granularity than the original output.

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Alexis about what excites her about the future of media. She framed her answer by recapping the history of the web, from its early free-form days, which afforded great flexibility but placed high barriers for creators, to the present state with its mass-market cookie-cutter platforms like Facebook that make it easy for anyone to publish at the cost of more personal expression. Perhaps we’re working towards a new balance point between these two extremes?

the thing I’m optimistic about is that we could be heading for a space where we start to build the best of both worlds, where we have a lot of the affordances the platforms have brought us in terms of ease of use, and in terms of the kind of network effects — although there obviously have been some not so positive network effects as well — but the ability to connect and the ability to easily create, while recapturing some of the kind of individuality, the creativity, context that we’ve lost somewhat in the last several years. And so, that’s where I’m hopeful. I don’t know that that’s the world that will come to be, but that’s my thread of what I hope for is that we can start to bring back some of the web that we lost while retaining the affordances of the newer technologies and platforms that we’ve been building on.

I greatly enjoyed my conversation with Alexis. As with so many other interviews for The Informed Life, I wish we’d had more time. I hope you find as much value in our discussion as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 44: Alexis Lloyd on the Granularity of Media

Worth Your Attention

  • “All architecture is design, but not all design is architecture.” A great Twitter thread by Grady Booch about the architecture of software systems. (Many of his points also apply to the architecture of UX.)
  • “Understanding the key properties of complex systems can help us clarify and deal with many new and existing global challenges, from pandemics to poverty and ecological collapse.” How understanding complex systems can help us manage complexity.
  • “Seams aren’t just connection points, they are the space where the connections are made. Not every connection needs a seam, but, where seams exist, meaning, memory, and ‘what matters’ can as well.” Brian Dell explores our world’s vanishing seams.
  • “The taste for this kind of mood — slow, quiet, meditative — used to be marginal but now, I’m happy to say, there are quite a lot of people at that margin. To me that signifies the emergence of a new type of mind, a type of mind we need in this new type of world.” Brian Eno in an interview about Mixing Colours, his new(ish) album with his brother Roger. (This music has been a salve for me in this stressful year.)
  • “How to enable not users but adaptors? How can people move from using a product, to understanding how it hangs together and making their own changes? How do you design products with, metaphorically, screws not nails?” Matt Webb revisits Dan Hill’s work on Adaptive Design.
  • From my blog: One of the hardest things about critiquing a product is putting aside our “expert” understanding of how it works.
  • A16Z on the opportunities inherent in unbundling the verticals latent in platforms.
  • I’m not thrilled about some recent changes to WordPress, the CMS that hosts my websites. A recent post by Ev Williams has me considering a possible change.
  • How do you choose the right note-taking app? It depends on whether you’re an architect, a gardener, or a librarian. (h/t Benjamin Schneider)
  • Ask Nature, a repository of natural strategies for solving complex problems — “it’s time to begin asking the rest of our complex planetary family how to build a more resilient, regenerative, and beautiful world.” (Via Recomendo, a great weekly newsletter from the folks at Cool Tools.)

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

Beginner’s Mind

As you progress in your career, you’ll get better at what you do. At first, you’ll bumble around. After a while, you’ll become (merely) competent. Eventually, you’ll be an expert in a few things. Finally — if you persist — you’ll develop mastery. You’ll face different challenges at each stage. (Of course, there’s no guarantee for any of this. Among other things, you’ll need ability, focus, persistence, and luck.)

Early on, a lack of real-world experience is a problem. This inexperience may be aggravated by a head full of ideas you’ve picked up from books or professors (such as myself.) Inexperience + certitude = bad decisions. When you’ve achieved some level of competence, distractions become a challenge. You may grow disenchanted with your original path or enticed to switch tracks for extraneous reasons. You start to long for a change. Perhaps a management track seems the most viable way to advance. And you may be right — but then you’ll have to develop different skills.

Let’s say you stay on track and become an expert. Then you’ll face a different challenge: experience + certitude. In some ways, this is more dangerous than not knowing what you’re doing. Now other people listen to you, and it’s harder to admit you’re wrong. You have a reputation, which you feel compelled to defend. You stop paying attention to particulars. You find it harder to empathize with less knowledgeable people. What’s worse, new projects start to look like “another one of those” — so you’re tempted by shortcuts. Work becomes repetitive; practice becomes mindless or a chore. Quality suffers.

What to do?

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Medium is Bringing Back Custom Domains

Ev Williams, writing in Medium:

Speaking of portability, it’s always been possible to get an export of all your posts and other data in Medium. And by default, all Medium publications and profiles have RSS feeds (e.g., blog.medium.com/feed) – full text, except for metered/paywall stories.

We are now bringing back another option for portability – and brandability – namely, custom domains. Not that they ever went away entirely. Medium hosts tens of thousands of publications under their own domains. However, we paused setting up new ones a couple of years ago. Among other reasons, we needed to fix some cross-domain bugs and revamp our system for registering SSL certificates. We have now prioritized that work so that we can scalably offer custom domains again.

So soon you’ll be able to take advantage of Medium’s new publishing tools and tap into the Medium network – assuring deliver of your content to your followers – while showing up under your own brand/domain and confident in the knowledge that if you ever want to move off Medium, that’s fully in your control.

The web removes many of the barriers that keep us from becoming publishers. If you have something to share with the world, it’s easier than ever to publish your writing. It’s also easier than ever to own your own platform. If you take publishing seriously (as you should,) you should aim to have some degree of control over where your content shows up. This doesn’t mean that you need to hand-craft web pages from scratch or manage your own web server. But at a minimum, you should aim to publish in a domain name you control.

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