Conformism ↔ Independent-mindedness

From an insightful essay by Paul Graham:

There are some kinds of work that you can’t do well without thinking differently from your peers. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be correct. Your ideas have to be both correct and novel. You can’t publish papers saying things other people already know. You need to say things no one else has realized yet.


There’s room for a little novelty in most kinds of work, but in practice there’s a fairly sharp distinction between the kinds of work where it’s essential to be independent-minded, and the kinds where it’s not.

The essay delineates the distinctions between conformism and independent-mindedness and spells out some things you can do to develop independent thinking. (Mr. Graham is a fine thinker and writer; his essays are well worth your attention.)

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TAOI: Mailchimp’s Product and Marketing Navigation Structures

My latest post for The Architecture of Information highlights the differences between Mailchimp’s product and marketing website navigation structures.

Apart from aesthetic considerations — i.e., color and font choices — Mailchimp’s marketing and product sites are very different from each other. They only share two navigation elements in common: the company logo, which in both cases leads to each system’s version of “home,” and search, which presents different interfaces on either site. Everything else — including, as I’ve pointed out, the navigation bar’s position and orientation on the screen — feels very different.

It’s not unusual for such structures to be different. After all, these sites serve very different needs and create very different contexts. However, Mailchimp’s product and marketing websites are very different, and worth studying.

I’m especially interested in the fact that Mailchimp’s primary product navigation relies on icons, some of which are rather obscure. Hovering over these icons reveals labels that clarify things a bit. But is it enough? Users must learn the system’s conceptual model to use it productively. I wonder, does hiding labels hinder their ability to learn the system?

Product and Marketing Navigation — The Architecture of Information

The Informed Life with Phillip Hunter

Episode 49 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with strategy and innovation consultant Phillip Hunter. Phillip’s focus is conversation-based systems, and among several previous roles in this space, he served as head of user experience for Amazon Alexa Skills.

We had a meta-conversation in that our conversation focused on conversation itself — what it is, and more to the point, how we can design systems that converse with their users. Phillip pointed out several tools and approaches designers can use to design conversational systems. But he also called out what such challenges have in common with other design projects:

one of the first big steps in designing — as with all other design — is really understanding what’s the context, what’s the goal, who’s participating, what knowledge might they have? What knowledge do we expect them not to have? What do they want? Why do they want it? All of these sorts of questions that are fundamental to any sort of true design activity that we’re doing are still important. The thing now though, is instead of saying, “Okay, well that means we’re going to have certain kinds of boxes or certain content on our screen,” we’re saying, “How do we translate all of that into words that we can exchange fairly easily?” And right now, I got to say, we’re mostly doing a really terrible job of it.

If you’re designing for voice, you must listen to this interview. But this episode should also prove valuable if (like many of us these days) you find yourself on the other side of a conversation with a digital system.

The Informed Life Episode 49: Phillip Hunter on Design for Conversation

Digital Dependency

I’m old enough to remember knowing people’s phone numbers. Here’s how it worked: if I wanted to call a friend or family member, I’d pick up the phone and dialed. Their numbers were among the many pieces of information rattling around in my memory. Of course, I didn’t know everybody’s number; some I had written down in a paper-based address book. If the person I wanted to call wasn’t in my address book, I could look them up in the (also paper-based) phone directory. I could also ask someone else for their number.

It’s been a long time since I’ve had to go through this process. Here’s how I call someone these days: I search for the person’s name in my iPhone and tap their phone number. The marvelous pocket supercomputer takes it from there, initiating the call without me having to type (much less remember) the number. I don’t talk much on the phone anymore. Still, this new way of calling saves me lots of time. It’s also liberated me from having to remember lots of “useless” information. Why memorize frequently called numbers if I can just tap away at the person’s entry on my phone?

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Thinking Contextually

Whenever I’m designing anything, I always keep in mind this quote from Eero Saarinen:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Whatever you’re working on isn’t an end in itself; it’s always part of something bigger. That bigger thing may be out of scope for the project, but it influences the project. When an architect designs a building, the street grid informs the structure and form of the building. Whenever I work on a navigation system for a company’s website, I must look at other websites in the industry (i.e., the company’s competitors, partners, customers, etc.)

In other words, context matters in design. Nothing ever exists in isolation, and you can’t do a proper job if you don’t consider the forces surrounding the project. This is all design 101; Saarinen’s admonition is printed on the wall in one of the IxD studios at CCA.

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The Informed Life with Caroline Crampton

Episode 48 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with writer and podcaster Caroline Crampton. Among other things, Caroline edits The Listener, a daily newsletter that curates the best podcasts:

part of the mission of The Listener is to recommend things that people wouldn’t be able to find otherwise… that wouldn’t stray across their path naturally either in their sort of recommendations or on the front page of the podcast listening app that they use. Things that take them outside of their media diet, essentially. So, I’m constantly myself battling against that, because the way that the internet works these days is you consume one of something and it says, “Hey, would you like three more of that?” I’m constantly trying to think beyond that and find ways around it myself.

In this interview, we find out how Caroline does it, and what she looks for in a podcast. If, like me, you have trouble keeping up with all of your podcast subscriptions, you may find value in this conversation.

The Informed Life Episode 48: Caroline Crampton on Curation

Worth Your Attention

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Expanding Our Practice

People in some parts of Latin America are prone to an unusual illness called susto. It’s triggered by a traumatic incident, such as a fall or a big scare. Victims believe that the experience causes their souls to detach from their bodies, resulting in physical and psychological distress. Those afflicted become listless, have trouble sleeping and eating, develop fevers and diarrhea, etc. In extreme cases, they may even die. The condition is serious enough to merit inclusion in the DSM.

Susto is an example of a culture-bound syndrome. Even though we all share the same biology, most of us can’t get it; it only afflicts people from particular cultures. There seems to be something about these people’s understanding of themselves and their relationship to the universe that leads them to react to trauma in a particular way. This understanding is what we call a mental model. The model of people prone to susto includes the body-soul dichotomy, for example. This dichotomy seems central to the condition.

You and I also have models of how reality works. For example, we believe the earth orbits the sun. We think of politics as ranging from left to right. We distinguish people by various characteristics, such as race, age, gender, education, cultural background, religious affiliation, nationality, etc. We exchange resources and services by using currency, which is increasingly intangible. We take all of this stuff for granted.

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Structural Antidotes for Misinformation

I missed this post by John Moore Williams when it was first published (March 2020):

It’s no secret that we’ve entered what many are calling the “post-truth” era, with myriad instances of deep fakes, misinformation campaigns, and outright lies popping up, gaining viral traction, and ultimately shaping the decision-making of millions-all too often driven by prominent individuals who will here go unnamed. One of the biggest web design trends of 2020 will be designing truth.

The post proposes a few structural antidotes for misinformation, including clearer labeling — especially of sources — and more mindful relationships between an article’s main body and its related content. It includes some specific directions for the latter:

  • Label content types clearly to help readers create a mental model of your content and better distinguish between organic and promotional materials
  • Contextualize and promote sources so readers know where content comes from and can better evaluate its credibility
  • Use related content to add context and promote nuanced understandings of topics

I found myself nodding to most of this. But to what degree are these business (rather than design) problems?

To wit: the post focuses on advertising-based media — i.e., an industry based on persuasion. Whenever I encounter a website rife with low-rent “content you may like” ads and/or ambiguously attributed content and/or confusing contexts, I don’t immediately wonder about the competency of its designers. Instead, I think about the organization’s misaligned business model.

Information should help people make better decisions. It’s unavoidable: making money by persuading people is in tension with giving them unbiased information.

The most important web design trend of 2020