TAOI: Ten Years

The architecture of information:

A core principle of information architecture is that user interfaces change faster than their underlying structures. Given how quickly digital things change, this principle is easier to contemplate in the abstract than in practice.

“Bored coder” Neal Agarwal recently published a one-page website called Ten Years Ago, which showcases fourteen websites’ homepages as they looked in February 2011 (through the graces of the amazing Internet Archive, which deserves your support.) I took Neal’s page as a prompt to look at how websites have changed in a decade.

In Ten Years, I examine Apple, ESPN, Goodreads, Reddit, and IMDb. As expected, the sites look different than they did ten years ago. (Some more so than others.) However, their core navigation structures remain remarkably consistent.

As expected, the sites look different than they did ten years ago. (Some more so than others.) That said, their information architectures remain remarkably stable. As I’ve said many times before, structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel. These five sites offer compelling proof.

The Architecture of Information: Ten Years

Citibank’s $500m ‘UI’ Problem

Timothy B. Lee reporting for Ars Technica:

A federal judge has ruled that Citibank isn’t entitled to the return of $500 million it sent to various creditors last August. Kludgey software and a poorly designed user interface contributed to the massive screwup.

Citibank was acting as an agent for Revlon, which owed hundreds of millions of dollars to various creditors. On August 11, Citibank was supposed to send out interest payments totaling $7.8 million to these creditors.

However, Revlon was in the process of refinancing its debt—paying off a few creditors while rolling the rest of its debt into a new loan. And this, combined with the confusing interface of financial software called Flexcube, led the bank to accidentally pay back the principal on the entire loan—most of which wasn’t due until 2023.

My initial reaction on reading this was: wow, $500m is a lot of money — I wonder how bad the UI is? The article provides a screenshot, which it credits to Judge Jesse Furman:

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The Informed Life with Hà Phan

Episode 55 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Hà Phan, the Director of Discovery at Pluralsight. Hà came to this role from GoPro, where she was a principal UX designer. Our conversation focused on the transition from UX design to product leadership.

Among the differences between the two roles, Hà called out the fact that leaders must provide their teams with a path to clarity:

I think the difficulty was between the role I have now, or the delta between the role I have now versus being a UX designer is that, you know, it’s really a leadership role to basically provide the path to clarity. When you have a vision, even as a seasoned UX designer, you’re going to present forth this vision. And usually there’s a thousand questions and a thousand steps before you get there, right? And usually, you don’t get there entirely. You know, you don’t get to the vision entirely the way you had envisioned it. You’re going to take turns, right? And I think in this role, what I get to do is that I get to enable the team to find that path to clarity, and to provide the milestones or the mission for each of the goals along the way.

Finding and illuminating this path requires (among other things) asking the right questions and making things:

when you’re faced with a lot of unknowns, whether it’s feasibility or just the problem is vast, what I normally do is I try to get the engineering team to build something, anything.

Hà’s approach strikes me as a designerly way of leading; an inspirational example for designers tasked with taking on broader responsibilities. I hope you find as much value in our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 55: Hà Phan on Product Leadership

Worth Your Attention

  • When designing a system, we want to understand how its users think about the subject domain, what the system needs to show them, and how it will be implemented. That is why we must consider three separate models.
  • “… when software becomes part of society, all of society’s problems get expressed in software.” Benedict Evans on regulating tech.
  • Complex maladaptive systems. (h/t Tim O’Reilly)
  • Mark Hurst is losing faith in UX; Scott Berkun offers suggestions on how to restore it.
  • Browser maker Vivaldi introduced a new tab stacking feature. (Would you use this?)
  • “Microsoft Viva isn’t an app or even a service but more of a platform for improving remote work and helping businesses adjust to it.” Does Microsoft’s new work platform herald a revival of the intranet?
  • When I sit to watch something on one of the streaming video services, I often find myself unable to choose. There’s so much there! Later this year, Netflix will release a shuffle play feature that should help those of us paralyzed by choice. (Maybe this is also a way of restoring serendipity to television?)
  • Birdwatch, an intriguing initiative from Twitter to combat misinformation on the platform through community participation.
  • Interactive Principles: “a deck of learning science principles for designing educational games.” Applicable to other domains as well. (h/t Christina Wodtke, via Stephen P. Anderson)
  • A team of volunteers is building a virtual theme park featuring defunct real-world attractions. The first to be finished: Walt Disney World’s long-departed (and much missed) 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea Submarine Voyage. (This might be the nudge I needed to buy a VR headset.)

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

Book Notes: “The Revolt of the Public”

The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority
By Martin Gurri
Stripe Press, 2018

As someone who cares deeply about society’s long-term well-being, I was disturbed by the ransacking of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. The attack on the nation’s symbolic (and actual) center of political power was the latest manifestation of an illness that has afflicted our body politic. It’s a complex situation, and the causes are hard to diagnose. In my search to understand what’s going on, I came across The Revolt of the Public by Martin Gurri, a former CIA analyst.

The book argues that the internet ushered a “fifth wave” in how we relate to information and each other. (The fourth wave was broadcast media, which were a product of the industrial era.) Societies washed over by this fifth wave show symptoms of a “uncertainty and impermanence.” These symptoms, in turn, manifest a breakdown in information hierarchies. (I.e., how authorities have traditionally kept the public informed.)

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My friends Jesse James Garrett and Peter Merholz recently wrapped up the first season (my phrase) of their podcast Finding Our Way. The show is about “navigating the opportunities and challenges of design leadership,” and it takes form as an ongoing conversation between the co-hosts. (And occasional guests, including yours truly.)

Peter and Jesse are rendering a tremendous service to the design community by having these conversations in public. They’re experienced practitioners reflecting on what they’ve learned both in their own journeys to design leadership and through advising other design leaders. If you haven’t heard Finding Our Way, I encourage you to listen.

Episode 25 (“The Reckoning”) is especially worth your attention. In it, Peter and Jesse reflect on emerging themes in their conversation. An exchange early in that episode resonated strongly with me. Peter observed that “the crafts of (design) leadership are communication and information architecture.” He elaborated:

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The Informed Life with Kourosh Dini

Episode 54 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and productivity expert Kourosh Dini. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been using DEVONthink as a knowledge management repository. DEVONthink is a powerful and complex tool, and I only really started to see real productivity gains in using it after I read Kourosh’s book, Taking Smart Notes with DEVONthink, so I wanted to know how Kourosh uses the tool.

We started by discussing the idea of ‘smart notes’:

You have a single note that has maybe a single idea to it, and then you connect that to other notes. And what makes it smart, I think, is where you start to reflect on those notes. How you start to develop them over time, how they start to argue with each other in time because what you’ve written now is different than what you’ve written in the past, and you start discovering things. It’s not so much the notes themselves, so much as the effect they have on you, I suppose.

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Worth Your Attention

  • “While we hope to work with you on a wide range of policies that affect digital rights in the coming years, we focus here on the ones that need your immediate attention and ask that you change course on the previous policies and practices discussed below.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s transition memo to the incoming Biden administration. (Via Cory Doctorow)
  • In my last newsletter, I held back on including my thoughts on the attack on the U.S. Capitol. If you’re interested in reading them anyways, I’ve shared them on my blog.
  • As someone who cares about the longevity of systems, I love Stewart Brand’s Pace Layer model. I often hear confusion about the model’s ‘Culture’ layer, so I wrote a post explaining my understanding of how it works.
  • More on structuring systems for efficiency and resiliency: The parable of the two watchmakers. (h/t Mickey McManus)
  • “You can bounce back from hardship with just one or two of these qualities, but you will only be truly resilient with all three.” HBR on how resilience works.
  • Being and context — “It is what it is.” (h/t Bob Kasenchak)
  • An exciting picture of where tech is headed. (via Patrick Collison)
  • What if the right metaphor for interacting with AIs is as creative assistants?
  • Developing principles for creating better digital places.
  • Unpacking the innovation at the heart of Pac-Man’s ongoing appeal.

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

Three Models

The men who are cursed with the gift of the literal mind are the unfortunate ones who are always busy with their nets and neglect the fishing.

– Rabindranath Tagore, Sadhana

Modeling is the most critical underused design skill. The ability to examine a domain abstractly — to consider its components, how they relate to each other, and how they allow people to achieve their goals — is essential to designing complex systems that balance the needs of users with the organization’s strategic goals and, more broadly, social well-being.

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