Adaptive Path 2001-2019

For a particular generation of designers, the name Adaptive Path holds special meaning. No matter where in the world you were practicing, if you were doing what we now call “user experience” design, you were likely to be paying attention to this most prominent of UX consultancies. Its founders included luminaries of the field, many of whom were (are) vocal in sharing what they learned both through blogs and in the conference circuit. Over the years, AP contributed much to our understanding of what it means to practice good UX design.

I’m using the past tense because now that name is no more. In a short Medium post published yesterday, the AP brand bade us farewell; it is henceforth to be fully integrated into Capital One, the financial services company that acquired Adaptive Path in 2014.

AP stopped taking on external clients at that time. For those of us who were consulting elsewhere, this meant they were effectively out of the playing field. With one exception: even after the acquisition, Adaptive Path kept putting on some of the best yearly design conferences in the world. I was fortunate to speak and/or lead workshops at the most prominent of these: UX Week.

I was confused by the way the Medium post described the future of AP’s events:

it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to our beloved Adaptive Path brand, and to all our events like UX Week, LX: Leading Experience, The Service Experience Conference, and design intensives.

Does this mean these events won’t happen anymore? Or merely that they won’t happen under those brands? In the ensuing discussion on Twitter, we got confirmation that the events are done, at least in the form we knew them:

As cliched as this sounds, this marks the end of an era. A small design consultancy has a very different character than a large financial services company; the types of events and “thought leadership” that come out of either will be (by necessity) very different. Even in its post-acquisition state, AP continued serving an important role in the UX design community through its events. Their withdrawal from the market leaves a large vacuum.

Thanks for everything, Adaptive Path. I learned a lot from you all over the years. It was a privilege to be associated with you, even if only in minor and tangential ways. To my former AP friends at Capital One: I wish you the best and look forward to seeing what you come up with next.

Desert Island Apps

I’m always looking for ways of optimizing my personal information ecosystem. By this, I mean focusing on the work rather than futzing with the environment where the work happens. Ideally, I’d log into my computer, do a bunch of work, and then log out without having to think too much about the tools I’m using or how I’m using them.

The challenge is that digital tools are constantly evolving. There may be a new app out there that eases a part of my workflow, or perhaps one of the tools I’m already using has a hidden feature I’m not using. Sometimes such innovations can lead to tremendous efficiency gains, so it’s important to step back and review the ecosystem every once in a while. It’s a tradeoff between spending time working on the work versus on the way we work. A subtle, but important distinction.

Earlier in my career, I devoted a higher percentage of my time to working on my ecosystem than I do now. My toolset has been relatively stable for a long time. In part, this is because I eventually realized that many “new and improved” digital tools are specialized adaptations of more general, deeper tools.

For example, when my family and I were preparing to move to the U.S., I bought an app that allowed me to catalog my book library. I spent quite a bit of time messing around with that app. Eventually, I realized it was actually a specialized spreadsheet — something that’s also true of many lightweight data management apps. Rather than spending time learning a new app that perhaps adds a couple of timesaving features (in the case of the library app, it was reading ISDN codes), I could devote the time instead to figuring out how to do what I needed with the tool I already had: Excel.

Excel is an example of what I call a “desert island” app. Like the concept of desert island books (i.e., the short list of books you’d like in your bag if you were to be stranded in a desert island), these are digital tools that I could use to get my work done even if I had access to nothing else. They tend to be deep and broad, have large and devoted communities of users, and have been around for a long time. Other tools that fall into that category for me are the Emacs text editor, the Unix shell (along with its suite of “small pieces loosely joined” mini-tools), OmniGraffle for diagramming, and Tinderbox for making sense of messes.

Editing my newsletter in Emacs.
Editing my newsletter in Emacs.

These are all tools I’ve used for over a decade. (In the case of Excel, Emacs, and the Unix shell, over two decades.) But even after all this time, I’m nowhere near mastering them. My relationship with these desert island apps is a lifelong journey in which I will continually become more proficient — which will, in turn, make me more efficient. I test drive new apps now and then, but I always return to these old standbys. The effort of learning to use them in new ways is often less than that required by integrating new tools into my workflow.

What about you? Do you have “desert island apps”? Please do let me know — I’m interested in learning about what makes digital systems stand the test of time.

Informing and Persuading

As more things become digital, those of us who design digital things — apps, websites, software — increasingly define how people understand and interact with the world. It’s not uncommon for digital designers to make difficult choices on behalf of others. This requires an ethical commitment to doing the right thing.

For information architects, the critical decisions involve structuring information in particular ways. Choices include:

  • What information should be present
  • How information should be presented (i.e., in what format or sequence)
  • How information should be categorized

The objective is to make information easier to find and understand.

At least in theory. Often, the objective is to make some information easier to find than others. For example, it recently came to light that tax filing software makers such as Intuit and H&R Block set out to steer customers away from their free offerings. Intuit even tweaked its site, apparently to keep public search engines from indexing the product. The goal in this case seems to be not to make information more findable, but less so — while still technically complying with a commitment to “inform.”

The same is true for understandability. A few years ago, when the Affordable Care Act was being debated in the U.S., a diagram was put forth that purported to explain the implications of the new law:

Understanding Obamacare chart

This is not a neutral artifact. Its primary design objective isn’t to make the ACA more understandable, but to highlight its complexity. (It succeeds.) This diagram intentionally confuses the viewer. As such, it’s ethically compromised.

IA challenges fall on a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, you’re aiming to inform the people who interact with your artifact about a particular domain. On the other end, you’re trying to persuade them.

Inform - Persuade

By “inform,” I mean giving people the information they need so they can make reasonable decisions within a conceptual domain, and presenting this information to them in ways they can understand given their level of expertise. By “persuade,” I mean giving people the information they need so they can behave how we want them to, and presenting it to them in ways that nudge them in that direction.

Informing and persuading are different objectives. In one, you’re setting out to increase the person’s knowledge so they can make their own decisions. In the other, you’re setting out move them towards specific, predetermined outcomes. In both cases, you’re trying to alter behavior — but the motives are different. By informing, you make people smarter. By persuading, you make them acquiescent.

I’m not judging by observing this distinction. If someone is engaged in self-defeating or otherwise destructive courses of action (e.g., smoking, gambling, driving while intoxicated), setting out to change their behavior could be the compassionate, ethical thing to do. So persuasion isn’t bad per se. Also, few projects fall on either extreme in the continuum; most lie somewhere in the middle. (Is it ever possible to not persuade when structuring information? I.e., all taxonomies are political. Even this post is an exercise in persuasion.)

That said, if your goal is to make information more findable and understandable, you will sometimes be tested by the need to persuade. If the offering truly adds value to clients and to the world, and aligns with your own values, you’re unlikely to face a tough ethical call. Such offerings “sell themselves” — i.e., the more you know about them and their competitors, the more desirable they become. The problem comes when you’re asked to sell a lemon or to nudge people towards goals that are misaligned with their goals, your goals, or society’s goals. There’s no ethical way to bring balance to such situations; often the appropriate response is to take a “hard pass.” (I.e., not engage in the work at all.)

Trading Off Freedom for Convenience

Google Docs is notifying users of the new Microsoft Edge web browser that their browser is unsupported. It’s surprising, given that Edge uses the same rendering engine as Google’s own browser, Chrome. I don’t know if there’s anything nefarious going on (i.e., Google trying to stifle competition in the browser space), but I was reminded of all the trouble I’ve been having lately with my preferred browser (Safari).

To recap: Chrome’s dominance in the market is now large enough that many web app developers target it by default, often at the expense of less popular browsers like Safari. One side effect of this is that some apps don’t work — or don’t work as well — with Safari. The situation has gotten worse since I wrote my previous post on the matter a little over a month ago. More and more major apps are failing for me in Safari, while Chrome gives me no such trouble. This includes systems that are key to my business, such as Quickbooks, Webex, and one of my banks’ websites.

These are systems I interact with on a daily basis. As a result, I now keep Chrome open all the time alongside Safari. I don’t like this situation, for the practical reasons I documented in the previous post. But more philosophically, I don’t like it because it’s a constraint on my freedom to determine the components of my information ecosystem.

The foundational components of my ecosystem are:

  • its operating systems (macOS and iOS),
  • file managers (Finder.app and terminal shell),
  • web browsers,
  • text editors.

I could get much of my work done with just these components. There are other specialized apps in the ecosystem (spreadsheets, diagramming software) that are very important to me, but not to the degree a text editor or a web browser are. (I can access spreadsheet applications using a web browser.) Being forced to replace one of my preferred options for these central components rubs me the wrong way.

Software organizations like Google want us to be all-in on their information ecosystems. I see this goal as being in tension with my wish to define and control my personal information ecosystem. Google’s ecosystem has a lot of neat features — especially if you must collaborate with other folks. (Something I do a lot.) One easy way out for me would be to acknowledge the reality of my current needs and switch over to Chrome. This would certainly be more convenient for me. But convenience often comes at the expense of freedom.

There was a time in my life when I used a lot of open source software: My PC ran on Linux; Firefox was my browser of choice; I worked mostly using Emacs and a host of *nix command-line tools. I had a great deal of freedom. I could even tweak the kernel of my operating system! But I also spent a lot of time maintaining this ecosystem. Every (seemingly) minor tweak required hours of Googling. And all of these tools were “behind the curve” technologically; the more commercial ecosystems had more and better features. I spent almost as much time trying to find workarounds as I did trying to work.

Eventually, I gave up on the whole open source thing and moved back to the Mac (this was at the beginning of the OS X era.) Mac OS was much more convenient than Linux, but it was also more limiting. That was part of its appeal. I also held on to some aspects of it (Firefox, Emacs) which were also present on the Mac. I was excited to switch from Linux to Mac OS, and undertook it with full awareness of the tradeoffs it required.

I’m reminded of this transition as I contemplate how to approach my web browser woes. I’m not excited about having to switch over to the monoculture du jour for the sake of convenience. This time, I’m also aware of the tradeoffs required this time around — and I’m not happy about it.

The Informed Life With Trip O’Dell

Episode 8 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with product designer Trip O’Dell. Before his career in tech, where he’s worked leading technology companies such as Adobe, Microsoft, and Amazon, Trip was a teacher, introducing new technologies to students so they could tell stories in new ways. When he was a student himself, Trip was diagnosed with dyslexia, and in this episode we discuss how this allows him to think differently. We also talked about the ways he leverages technology to help him, including this nugget:

[I use] systems that separate but then I also have systems that bring together and synchronize. For instance, it’s really easy for me to lose things. That’s sort of the the dyslexic characteristic like where are we think in matrices we kind of also need to have everything out in front of us to be able to make those connections and a lot of software is built to just have you do one thing at a time. It’s built modally, right?

This idea that some systems are better for “separating” — concepts, ideas, etc. — while others are better for “bringing together” — is important. I, too, tend to jump between systems depending on whether I’m trying to analyze or synthesize something, but I hadn’t thought of it consciously like Trip has.

The Informed Life Episode 8: Trip O’Dell

The Strategic Value of Design

Andrea Mignolo writing on Medium:

we will never be able to talk about the value of design using ROI because we’re not really talking about design, but the output of design. I’m interested in finding models that help us talk about the value of doing design, which is entirely possible given the mutable nature of business artifacts.

Ms. Mignolo goes on to highlight an important distinction: design as a way of making things (i.e., the way it’s been traditionally understood in the enterprise) versus design as a way of learning. While the former is obviously important, strategically the latter has more value. As Ms. Mignolo eloquently puts it, “By embracing ambiguity and exploring divergent futures, design activities can increase flexibility and decrease risk.”

The post is a good summation of this position, and worth your attention. (For a similar argument, see Nigel Cross’s book Designerly Ways of Knowing.)

Reflections on Business, Design, and Value

The Cynefin Framework

I’m keen on frameworks that help us deal with change in complex systems. The Cynefin framework is particularly illuminating. Here’s an excellent, succinct introduction by its originator, Dave Snowden:

The framework posits that causal differences in systems categorize them into four domains or “spaces”:

  • Simple: Cause and effect relationships between elements in the system can be determined in advance.
  • Complicated: Cause and effect relationships exist, but aren’t self-evident.
  • Complex: No causality; agents are able to modify the system.
  • Chaotic: Cause and effect relationships can’t be determined.

“Dependent on which space you’re in,” Mr. Snowden says, “you should think differently, you should analyze differently.” In other words, each of the domains calls for a different response. Therefore, knowing which domain you’re acting within is key to making effective decisions. That said, in some cases, you may not know which domain you’re acting within. The framework defines this fifth domain as “disorder,” a situation that lends itself to idiosyncratic responses that can be ineffective or worse.

You can learn more about the Cynefin framework in the Harvard Business Review or in Cognitive Edge, Mr. Snowden’s consulting company.

Cynefin Framework Introduction

How I Go Offline

In response to my earlier post about work-life balance, Daniel Souza asks:

This is an important question. I’ll answer it here rather than on Twitter, where my responses will get lost among all the other chatter.

It’s important for me to have “offline” time every day. There are certain practices that allow me to do so, and I will cover them below. That said, I don’t think of these practices as something exceptional I do to regain my sanity or anything like that. They’re just part of my day, like going through my email is part of my day.

I think one of the main reasons why people crave “offline” time is that they haven’t yet learned to manage their use of information environments effectively. For example, many people leave notifications on by default. Many of the digital systems we interact with are designed to capture our attention so it can be sold to the highest bidder. The constant stream of interruptions is exhausting and counter-productive. As important as it is to take time to be “offline,” it’s as important to develop healthy use patterns for online environments.

On to Daniel’s question. Here are some practices that allow me “offline” time:

  • Reading. I read a lot, mostly in physical books or in a Kindle device, neither of which can send notifications or allow me to open another app.
  • Meditating. I set aside time (usually 15-20 minutes per day) for mindfulness meditation. This does for my mind what flossing and brushing does for my mouth.
  • Naps. Not something I can do every day, but a practice I take advantage of as frequently as I can. 30-45 minutes is enough to reset my entire system and keep me going for several hours.
  • Hiking. One of the upsides of living in Northern California is nearby access to wonderful hiking trails. My family and I frequently take advantage of this privilege.
  • Long baths. This may be TMI territory, but I love taking long baths. We had a wet winter this year (after a long drought) so I can now indulge more frequently with less guilt. (I often read in the bath.)

There isn’t anything exceptional about these practices. They don’t take a long time. They’re not things I do because they take me offline; I enjoy doing them and being offline is a side benefit. Again, while being offline (daily!) matters, having a healthy relationship with online environments is as important. If you’re in a position to do so, take back control of your attention. At a minimum, turn off unnecessary notifications.

Direction and Action

Invariably, the most popular posts on this site are the ones that deal with tools and practices. Whether I’m railing against wireframes or showing you a way to make language visible, if it features a concrete tool or technique, the post is likely to have traction. This doesn’t surprise me.

My tool-centric writings fall on the craft end of the craft ↔ philosophy continuum. Philosophy is a harder “sell” than craft. Most people would rather know what to do rather than how to think; they want things they can put in practice on the proverbial “next Monday morning.” The more actionable something is, the better.

Except that action can be undirected. And effecting action towards the opposite of “Good” (perhaps unintentionally) makes things worse. Direction without action frustrates; action without direction muddles.

I don’t aspire to give direction in my more “philosophical” writings. Instead, I’d like you to entertain the possibility that direction matters, and that you ought to discover one for yourself. The world provides ample evidence of things that are going well and things that could be better; it’s up to you to determine what those are and what you can do about them.