The Informed Life with Cheryl Platz

Episode 51 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Cheryl Platz. Cheryl is an accomplished interaction designer who has worked on multimodal systems like Alexa and Cortana. Our conversation focused on multimodality, which is the subject her new book, Designing Beyond Devices.

This is how Cheryl explained the concept of multimodality:

For the purposes of my book, the definition we’re working with for multimodality is [that] multimodality is an exchange between a device and a human where multiple input or output modalities can be used simultaneously or sequentially, depending on context and preference. So, if we think about the traditional desktop-to- human relationship or laptop-to-human relationship, you have your keyboard and mouse and your monitors. There was one output, for the most part, which was the dominant output is visual. And the dominant input is haptic, where you’re using your hands to manipulate physical input devices. It’s not really super multimodal. And it’s certainly not optimized for multimodality.

You could argue that occasionally there’s a secondary output in audio. And some designers are doing a little bit of kinetic input when they use like a Wacom tablet or something like that. But it’s not the default way of working. And there’s so much more potential there. And we think about what’s happened in the last few years with the arrival of smart speakers, with the arrival of voice search on Google, with the fact that most of our customers are deeply comfortable speaking to their devices now, with the arrival of Kinect back in like 2010-2011 timeframe, and the fact that some customers are even comfortable, like waving to their devices and gesturing at them now. There’s so much more potential than just moving a mouse and keyboard around.

We’re moving to a multimodal world, and Cheryl explains why even designers who are working primarily on screen-based systems would benefit from knowing about multimodality. The book offers a good overview of the concept and provides practical frameworks that can help us design more efficacious multimodal systems. Our conversation is a good introduction to the subject; it’s likely to be of value to designers of all sorts of digital systems — and their users.

By the way, there are two other few features this week on The Informed Life: the show is now available on Spotify and features an all-new website. I hope both help more people enjoy the show.

The Informed Life Episode 51: Cheryl Platz on Multimodality

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Appreciating Device Upgrades

Yesterday I upgraded my laptop to the latest version of its operating system, macOS Big Sur. Big Sur was released a month ago, but I waited because Descript — an app central to my podcasting workflow — wasn’t yet compatible. Descript released a supported update yesterday, so I thought the time was right. As usual, I backed up my computer before updating its OS. But I didn’t need to: the update was utterly problem-free. (Still, it’s best to be cautious: backing up only takes about an hour and saves many hours were something to go wrong.)

I love Big Sur so far. The system’s user interface changes make it a more coherent sibling to iOS and iPadOS, the other operating systems where I spend much of my time. There aren’t many new features, but many existing features (such as notifications and various system controls) have been refined. This is subjective, but my computer also feels faster.

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Openness ↔ Control

It is common to hear that people in organizations resist change. In reality, people do not resist change; they resist having change imposed on them.

– Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life

Every design project is a change initiative. Some are overtly so, while others are more subtle. In the more overt ones, organizational change is a stated objective/driver of the project. In the subtle ones, the work is a manifestation of an organizational change.

Consider a project for a website redesign. The redesign is motivated by a desire to change something about what the organization does or how it works. Perhaps the company is reorganizing, launching a new product, or rebranding. All entail change.

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Making a Scene

Have you ever been part of a winning team? I don’t mean an aggressive, beat-them-at-any-cost team; I mean a team that could tackle any challenge while simultaneously bringing out the best of everyone involved. The kind of team that makes valuable contributions to the organization and/or society while also making you excited about going to work every morning. There’s something about such a team that’s hard to quantify. Perhaps not every member is a star, but when they come together, everyone shines. Whole > sum of parts.

From my experience, such teams are rare and fragile. I was once part of a winning team. Everyone was world-class at their jobs. We had a great manager who articulated a clear vision and set realistic (but challenging) goals. Our remit cast us as outliers, a select group tasked with disrupting “the mothership.” We worked out of scrappy quarters that, far from discouraging us, fostered esprit de corps.

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Possibilities for Greatness

I’m starting a new project. It’s exciting and a little scary. I’ve written before about the rush of energy I get from starting something new:

The beginning of every new undertaking has a particular type of energy. An open-ended sense of possibility. This energy allows us to step into an uncertain future. There’s a challenge ahead and we don’t know exactly how things will turn out — but we have wits, some knowledge, some structure, and tools.

The energy-of-beginning is important to getting things rolling, but we can’t linger in it. We need to get to work; to become productive. For me this means establishing near-term goals, work practices to achieve them, and habits that allow the work to become part of my daily routine. The quicker this happens, the easier it is to replace the energy-of-beginning with the energy-of-generating.

These paragraphs capture a key aspect of the beginning phase of projects, namely, the exciting release of energy. But they miss something just as important: how scary the beginning can be.

Where does the fear come from? I can name several aspects of the anxiety I feel right now. However, as I think about it, the fear comes down to a single word: insecurity.

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Book Notes: Mastery

Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment
By George Leonard
Plume, 1992

Yes, the title sounds like a tacky self-help book. And this is, in fact, a self-help book — but it’s not tacky. On the contrary: even though it’s short, it’s also profound. The author, who died in 2010, held a fifth-degree black belt in Aikido. (The book is suffused with lessons from martial arts and Zen.) He was also President Emeritus of the Esalen Institute, editor of Look Magazine, and a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot. In other words, an experienced leader.

Mastery matters. You can be intelligent, educated, proactive, responsible, etc. — but you still won’t realize your true potential if you don’t set yourself on a (lifelong) mastery journey. What is mastery? As Mr. Leonard points out, the term resists definition, but you can recognize it in the actions of athletes, artists, entrepreneurs, etc., who are committed to excellence. (The late Rush drummer Neil Peart comes to mind.)

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The Informed Life with Brian Breslin

Episode 50 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Miami-based tech entrepreneur, educator, and community builder Brian Breslin. Brian is the director of The Launch Pad, the entrepreneurship center at the University of Miami, and founder of Refresh Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to growing South Florida’s tech and startup ecosystem. In this conversation, we focus on community-building, especially during this time when geographic boundaries are becoming blurred.

Brian started Refresh Miami from scratch, and it’s now the largest tech and startup community nonprofit in the Southeast United States. I wanted to know how he did it. Among other things, we discussed the importance of focus. (For Refresh Miami, the focus is the intersection of the South Florida location with the topic of tech-centric entrepreneurship.) Towards the end of the conversation, Brian brought up the power of having a strong relationship network:

In cases of geographic communities like Miami, one of our underlying theses here with Refresh is that the more bonds and the more connections that people can make, the less likely they are to leave physically. And if they do leave physically, they’ll at least maintain connections with the local community. I guess it’s like Metcalfe’s law, right? The more nodes there are in the network, the stronger the network becomes. The more individual connections you can create amongst your customers or amongst your constituents, depending on what type of community it is, you know, the stronger the bond can be. You see this in small ethnic and religious and other communities where the communities are super tight because everybody knows each other, and everybody knows who knows each other and who’s the right person to introduce to if you need something, or to call. And so I think that’s becoming more and more relevant in whether it’s technology communities or design communities or different areas of focus, you know? These tribes, the more tight-knit the tribes can be, the higher likelihood they are to survive, and to thrive.

In these times of extreme political polarization, we run a high risk of fragmenting as a society. Our key interactions are happening in information environments, so the designers of these systems ought to learn from effective community builders. Brian is such a builder; I was glad to be able to learn from him on the show. I hope you, too, find our conversation valuable.

The Informed Life Episode 50: Brian Breslin on Building Community

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