New Keynote: “Designing Distinctions”

I’ve been invited to deliver the closing keynote at World Information Architecture Day Switzerland 2019, which will happen in Zurich in February. (You can sign up here.) The conference’s theme of “Design for Difference” prompted me to work on a new presentation, which I’m calling “Designing Distinctions.” This is the description:

Information architects design distinctions. We categorize things for a living—that is, we set off concepts against each other to make it easier for people to “find their personal paths to knowledge.”

As software “eats the world,” the distinctions we create in information environments grow ever more powerful. They come to frame how people understand themselves, their contexts, and the relationship between the two. As a result, information architects have greater responsibility today than ever before. We must vie to create systems that establish useful distinctions.

This presentation explores the tensions inherent in making distinctions. What are the responsibilities for professional distinction-makers in a world in which the effects of their work have greater impact than ever before? How might information architecture lead to healthier societies in the long-term?

I’ll be working on this talk over the next few weeks, and am curious about​ what you think about the subject. What thoughts does it spark? Any concerns/areas you think I should cover? Books or blogs I should be reading on the subject? Please send me a note to let me know.

Five Books I Enjoyed in 2018

I’ve previously posted lists of books I’ve liked during the year. I usually do this close to the New Year, since I’ll often get through a couple of additional books during the holidays. However, a recent “books I loved this year” post by Bill Gates made me realize that it may be better to share these lists before the holiday season—that way they can serve as gift ideas. (Either for yourself or others.)

In any case, here are five books I enjoyed this year, and that you and/or your friends may like. (They didn’t necessarily come out in 2018—that’s just when I got to them.)

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund. Like many people, I first heard about Hans Rosling via his popular TED talk, where he showed evidence the world is getting better by using animated bubble charts. Factfulness is like a paper-based version of that presentation: It does, indeed, use data to explain how things are getting better. But it does more than that: It also explains why we find that so hard to believe. Read my book notes or buy it on Amazon.com.

Architectural Intelligence, by Molly Wright Steenson. A masterful examination of how architectural thinking and doing have shaped our current information environments. The book focuses on the work of four influential architects: Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte. Read my book notes or buy it on Amazon.com.

Playing to Win, by A.G. Lafley and Roger R. Martin. Excellent book on corporate strategy, and one of the clearest and most compelling business books I’ve read. The authors are both experienced and respected business leaders with a proven track record. (Mr. Martin is dean of the Roman School of Management, and Mr. Lafley a former CEO of Procter & Gamble.) Read my book notes or buy it on Amazon.com.

Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. Even though I haven’t been anybody’s boss in a long time, I found this book very valuable. It’s about how to be more effective in team environments by being sincere and firm yet kind. Ms. Scott was a former manager at several high-profile Silicon Valley companies (e.g., Apple and Google), and the book is packed with real-world examples. Buy it on Amazon.com.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. I don’t read much fiction (not as much as I’d like, anyway), and when I do it’s usually as an audiobook. George Saunders’s debut novel is one you wouldn’t expect to work well in the medium (it features 166 narrators!), and is somewhat disorienting at first. But after a bit,​ I couldn’t stop listening. It still haunts me. Buy it on Amazon.com.

Wikipedia as Information Infrastructure

Wikipedia is more than a publication. As I point out in Living in Information, Wikipedia is also the place where this publication is created. At its scale, it couldn’t happen otherwise. But Wikipedia is more than that: increasingly, it’s also a key part of our society’s information infrastructure. Other systems increasingly rely on it for the “authoritative” versions of particular concepts.

This works well most of the time. But it’s not perfect, and can lead to weird, unexpected consequences. For example, a Wikipedia entry is part of the reason why Google says I’m dead. More recently, a Wikipedia hack led to Siri showing a photo of a penis whenever a user asked about Donald Trump. While the former example is probably due to bad algorithms on Google’s part, the latter seems to be a fault with Wikipedia’s security mechanisms.

The people who manage Wikipedia are in an interesting situation. Over time they’ve created a fantastic system that allows for the efficient creation of organized content from the bottom-up at tremendous scale. They’ve been incredibly successful. Alas, with success comes visibility and influence. The more systems there are that depend on Wikipedia content, the more of a target it becomes for malicious actors.

This will require that the team re-think some of the openness and flexibility of the system in favor of more top-down control. How will this scale? Who will have a say on content decisions? How will Wikipedia’s governance structures evolve? These discussions are playing out right now. Wikipedia is a harbinger of future large-scale generative information environments, so it behooves us all to follow along.

The Eponymous Laws of Tech

Dave Rupert has a great compendium of “Laws” we frequently encounter when working in tech. This includes well-known concepts like Moore’s Law, Godwin’s Law, and Dunbar’s Number alongside some I hadn’t heard before, such as Tessler’s Law:

"Every application must have an inherent amount of irreducible complexity. The only question is who will have to deal with it."
Tessler’s Law or the “Law of Conservation of Complexity” explains that not every piece of complexity can be hidden or removed. Complexity doesn’t always disappear, it’s often just passed around. Businesses need to fix these complex designs or that complexity is passed on to the user. Complex things are hard for users. 1 minute wasted by 1 million users is a lot of time where as it probably would have only taken a fraction of those minutes to fix the complexity. It cringe thinking about the parts of my products that waste users’ time by either being brokenly complex or by having unclear interactions.

Good to know!

The Eponymous Laws of Tech

Making Changes at the End of the Year?

As we head towards the end of the year, you may be considering making a list of New Year’s resolutions. They may include changes to your information ecosystem. For example, you may be contemplating leaving Facebook, starting a blog, setting up a new folder structure for your email. I want to encourage you to reconsider this approach.

For my part, I stopped making New Year’s resolutions a long time ago. (My last resolution was to never again make New Year’s resolutions. I’ve kept that one.) Why did I stop? Because they didn’t work. I was mostly setting myself up to feel guilty for not keeping my commitments.

Most New Years resolutions are habits we aspire to either take on or give up: Eating healthier, starting a yoga practice, tweeting more (or less), etc. I’m all for these changes. Being intentional about your habits can have significant positive impacts on your life. But there are several problems with attempting to do them all in one go during the holidays.

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Hugh Dubberly’s Approach to Understanding Problems

I’m a fan of Hugh Dubberly and the work of Dubberly Design Office. Not only have I learned much from Mr. Dubberly throughout my career, I’ve also had the honor of having him write the foreword for Living in Information and the privilege of teaching alongside him at CCA. A post on the Design Practices & Paradigm’s blog summarizes his career and approach to design, and includes this amazing list:

Dubberly’s approach to understanding problems is heavily influenced by Horst Rittel’s definition of simple and wicked problems. They key traits are listen here:

  • Simple problems (problems which are already defined) are easy to solve, because defining a problem inherently defines a solution.
  • The definition of a problem is subjective; it comes from a point of view. Thus, when defining problems, all stake-holders, experts, and designers are equally knowledgeable (or unknowledgeable).
  • Some problems cannot be solved, because stake-holders cannot agree on the definition. These problems are called wicked, but sometimes they can be tamed.
  • Solving simple problems may lead to improvement—but not innovation. For innovation, we need to re-frame wicked problems.
  • Because one person cannot possibly remember or keep track of all the variables (of both existing and desired states) in a wicked problem, taming wicked problems requires many people.
  • These people have to talk to each other; they have to deliberate; they have to argue.
  • To tame a wicked problem, they have to agree on goals and actions for reaching them. This requires knowledge about actions, not just facts.
  • Science is concerned with factual knowledge (what-is); design is concerned with instrumental knowledge (how what-is relates to what-ought-to-be), how actions can meet goals.
  • The process of argumentation is the key and perhaps the only method of taming wicked problems.
  • This process is political.
  • Design is political.

The whole post is worth your attention.

The “Magic” Behind the Curtain: Understanding the Design Process of Hugh Dubberly

A Model for Teaching (and Learning)

Even if you’re not a professional educator, sometimes you must teach others. Perhaps someone has joined your team and needs inducting into your project, or a child asks you about the meaning of some obscure term, or you’re called on to tell an audience about your company. Whatever the case, many of us often find ourselves having to introduce others to ideas that are new to them.

Over time, I’ve found a pattern for teaching that works well for me. It consists of four steps:

  1. Contextualize
  2. Draw out distinctions
  3. Explore implications
  4. Make it actionable

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TAOI: Facebook Watch Party

The architecture of information:

I’ve written before about how social networks are fostering human interactions in what have traditionally been solitary environments. Earlier this year, Facebook launched a new feature called Watch Party that exemplifies this trend. It allows a group of people to simultaneously watch a video and discuss it in real time.

Watch Party has been around for a while, but it hasn’t been broadly available. That changed a couple of days ago; now it’s possible for anyone to share a video for communal viewing in his or her newsfeed, timeline, group, or page. (Here are instructions on how to set up a Watch Party.)

This feature isn’t entirely new; for example, YouTube Live offers similar functionality. However, Facebook’s greater reach makes it an appealing alternative. I’m fascinated with how people interact with each other online. Watch Party is a great example of a feature explicitly designed to get people to interact in real time around a shared experience in an information environment.