Neal Stephenson on Social Media

Speaking in an interview with Tyler Cowen, Neal Stephenson offers an excellent analysis of how social media has hurt civic discourse:

COWEN: You saw some of the downsides of social media earlier than most people did in Seveneves. It’s also in your new book, Fall. What’s the worst-case scenario for how social media evolved? And what’s the institutional failure? Why do many people think they’re screwing things up?

STEPHENSON: I think we’re actually living through the worst-case scenario right now, so look about you, and that’s what we’ve got. Our civil institutions were founded upon an assumption that people would be able to agree on what reality is, agree on facts, and that they would then make rational, good-faith decisions based on that. They might disagree as to how to interpret those facts or what their political philosophy was, but it was all founded on a shared understanding of reality.

And that’s now been dissolved out from under us, and we don’t have a mechanism to address that problem.

Mr. Stephenson’s observation corresponds to my experience of social media (especially Twitter): It’s not that folks are talking past each other, it’s that they’re not even interacting with people who don’t share their mental models. The mere hint of the possibility of an alternate take can lead to ostracism — or worse. Amplified through continuous validation and a complete lack of pushback, opinions replace facts as the basis for worldviews. To talk of filter bubbles is misleading: these aren’t tenuous membranes; they’re thick, hardened shells.

The interview continues:

COWEN: But what’s the fundamental problem there? Is it that decentralized communications media intrinsically fail because there are too many voices? Is there something about the particular structure of social media now?

STEPHENSON: The problem seems to be the fact that it’s algorithmically driven, and that there are not humans in the loop making decisions, making editorial, sort of curatorial decisions about what is going to be disseminated on those networks.

As such, it’s very easy for people who are acting in bad faith to game that system and produce whatever kind of depiction of reality best suits them. Sometimes that may be something that drives people in a particular direction politically, but there’s also just a completely nihilistic, let-it-all-burn kind of approach that some of these actors are taking, which is just to destroy people’s faith in any kind of information and create a kind of gridlock in which nobody can agree on anything.

In other words, it’s a structural problem. As such, it’s also systemic. Unmentioned in the interview is the driving force behind these algorithmic constructs: business models based on monetizing users’ attention. Incentivizing engagement leads to systems that produce fragmentation and conflict.

Neal Stephenson on Depictions of Reality (Ep. 71)

Are Your Navigation Structures Working?

One of the most important elements of a digital product is its navigation structures. By this, I mean the sets of links that allow users to move from one part of the environment to another. This includes global navigation bars, hamburger menus, contextual navigation blocks, etc. At its most basic, a well-designed navigation structure will help your users find the stuff they’re looking without fussing about. They’ll look at the choices before them, pick one, and find themselves faced with the information they’re looking for.

Achieving this best-case scenario is easier said than done; there are many ways to mess up navigation structures. I’ve experienced broken structures in major websites that leave me scratching my head. Often, the problem is that the structure reflects the organization’s conceptual model of its business without considering that the user may bring to the interaction a different mental model. Labels that may be clear to people in the organization can be ambiguous to outsiders.

Fortunately, it’s relatively easy to gauge​ the effectiveness of navigation structures. For example, studying site log files can reveal patterns of use that reveal navigational gaps. Observing users interacting with the environment (whether in production or using prototypes) is also a very effective way of revealing issues with navigation. Interviewing users is also valuable​ since it can help you understand​ how they see the domain. When examining the outcomes of such studies, you should ask questions such as:

  • Are we offering users the choices they expect?
  • Are choices labeled clearly? (By this I mean that they’re understandable to users.)
  • Are choices clearly distinct from one another? Or are some possibly ambiguous?
  • Are we offering users too much or too little choice?
  • Are choices presented at the right level of granularity for this part of the environment?
  • Is the set of choices helping bridge the user’s mental model of the business domain?

This last question is particularly important to me. Users bring to the interaction expectations of how the domain is organized. These expectations may or may not match reality. Situations in which users come to the experience with a clear, accurate understanding of the domain are relatively easy to deal with. But in some cases, users’ understanding may be off the mark. What then?

Navigation plays an important role not just in helping users move around, but also in educating them on the options available to them. Options in don’t exist in a void; people read them as sets. Users will understand the domain not through individual labels, but through the groups of choices they represent.

Defining these choices, the distinctions​ between them, and the labels that represent them​ is a design act that requires understanding the people who will be using them. In particular, understanding users’ mental models of the domain — and the degree to which those mental models differ from the organization’s conceptual models — is essential for designing navigation structures that work. This calls for research: understanding how folks think about your business’ domain, what they expect from you, and how they talk about those choices.

What I Unlearned From Architecture

I got an interesting question via Twitter:

“What were some of the mindsets, habits of thinking you had to unlearn transitioning from [architecture] to [information architecture]?”

The answer that comes immediately to mind is: “not that many!” I consider architecture a perfect training ground for information architecture. There are many more architectural mindsets that apply to information architecture than mindsets that require unlearning. That said, as I’ve thought about it I’ve realized there is, in fact,​ a mindset I picked up from architecture that I’ve had to unlearn over time: the idea of the architect as the central element of the design process.

Architecture is rife with what are referred to as starchitects — practitioners whose work and style is known around the world, and whose fame influences the work. Clients seek out Frank Gehry because they want a Frank Gehry building. Gehry’s office is bound to produce buildings in the Gehry style regardless of what contextual conditions call for.

When I was a student, most of the works we looked at were produced by starchitects. The implication was that that’s what we ought to aspire to. The first few years of my career, I labored under the delusion that I was at the center of the work. Over time, I came to realize that effective designers (in any field!) primarily serve not themselves or their architectural ideologies, but the work. I came to suspect the idea of having a “house style” — something I longed for at first.

To put it bluntly, I left architecture school with an inflated ego. The main mindset I had to unlearn as I transitioned to information architecture was the centrality of my own ideas, desires, and “style” in the design process. Instead, the core of what I aspire to now is form-context fit. This calls for understanding through collaboration; it calls for research and open-mindedness. Experience is primarily in service to the process, not the other way around. Getting my ego out of the way — embracing beginner’s mind — took many years of practice.

The Informed Life With Lis Hubert

Episode 14 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with information architecture/digital strategy/customer experience consultant Lis Hubert. Over the past year, Lis has been living around the world as what some folks refer to as a “digital nomad.” She’s using this time to “architect [her] best life:”

I want to be the best person I can be and I want to take the and I’m one of the best life I can have and I’m going to take all of the knowledge that I acquire along the way and create a life that gives me the most purpose.

In this show, we discuss what this means for Lis. It’s an inspiring conversation for anyone who’s ever thought about structuring their lives more intentionally.

An ask: if you’re enjoying these conversations, please rate or review the show in Apple’s podcast directory. This helps other folks find it. Thanks!

The Informed Life Episode 14: Lis Hubert on Living Intentionally

Apollo 11 at Fifty

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most important achievements in human history: the Apollo 11 moon landing. I find the project incredibly inspiring. I tear up every time I think of the words inscribed in the base of the Eagle lander, which was left behind on the lunar surface:

Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.

Some people speak dismissively of Apollo, saying we ought to spend money on problems here on Earth rather than going to space. I wasn’t alive when Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, but from what I gather it was a momentous event that brought the whole world together. I’ve only experienced that degree of global cohesion in my lifetime due to tragic events (E.g., 9/11, the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, etc.) Apollo stands out as a positive achievement that united the world. We need more challenges like it — especially in our polarized times.

There are lots of lessons in the moon program for anyone tasked with aligning and motivating people towards wickedly complex goals. (That’s why we refer to particularly gnarly challenges as “moonshots.”) Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading books, watching documentaries, and listening to podcasts about Apollo. If you’d like to look into it, here are a few resources that are worth your while:

  • APOLLO 11 (2019) – A breathtaking new documentary assembled from contemporary (yet astonishingly clear) footage and audio sources. I also loved the synthesized soundtrack; like the film, it manages to sound both modern and of its time.
  • 13 Minutes to the Moon – A podcast from the BBC World Service that features interviews with surviving members of the Apollo program, including astronauts, mission controllers, and more.
  • Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys – A memoir by Apollo astronaut Michael Collins. I’m still working through this one, but can already recommend it due to the quality of the writing and the level of detail it provides. (I’ve also posted a few things I learned from it already.)

What Did I Learn?

Like many other people, I have a morning routine. Journaling is an important part of this routine. Every morning, at the start of my day, I set aside a few minutes to reflect on the previous day and what today holds.

I’ve written before about the structure of this journal. Recently, I’ve added a new section: What did I learn? Specifically, what did I learn the day before? (And by implication: How do I need to change my behavior?) I sit with it for a little while, replaying the previous day. These are some other questions that help with this exploration:

  • What did I try that didn’t play out as I expected?
  • What expectations did I have that weren’t met?
  • What expectations were exceeded?
  • What information would help reduce the gap between these expectations and actual outcomes in the future?
  • How can I procure this information?
  • What patterns have I noticed?
  • What happened unexpectedly/serendipitously?
  • What resonances/synchronicities did I notice?

This last question may seem weird; it requires unpacking. Sometimes I’ll be thinking about something and the next day (or sometimes, the same day), I’ll come across the same idea in a podcast, book, article, etc. An echo of sorts. Sometimes these resonances are very peculiar ideas, to the point where I’m startled by the coincidence.

I don’t think there’s anything supernatural at work. The fact that the concept stood out merely suggests that I’m paying attention to it on some deep level. It’s like when you’re thinking of buying a particular model of car and suddenly you see the same model everywhere. Those cars were always out there, but now your mind is primed to pay attention. These could be important signals.

Note these are questions about things that are under my control: my attitudes, expectations, plans, etc. I don’t bother to document things I learned due to events happening in the outside world, out of my control. (E.g., stuff in the news.) Rather, I’m trying to establish a feedback loop that allows me to become more effective over time. Growth calls for introspection; What did I learn? is a useful trigger.

JFK’s Apollo Vision Statement

Complex projects require coordinating and aligning the efforts of many people in different roles and groups. The job is possible only if everyone is clear on what they’re striving towards, and are compelled to do so. This calls for leaders to clearly articulate the project’s vision.

The importance of having a clear, compelling vision is one of the great lessons of the Apollo moon program. U.S. President John F. Kennedy laid out the vision in a speech delivered to Congress in 1961. This speech was meant to convince lawmakers of the worth of investing in space exploration. Essentially, the President was asking his stakeholders — Congress, and more broadly, the people of the U.S. who they represent — for funding for the project. This is something anyone working in a leadership position can relate to.

President Kennedy’s presentation is a model of how to clearly articulate and sell a vision, so it’s worth studying its highlights. The speech starts by framing the space program in the broader geopolitical context of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had by this point made several impressive technological advances, including launching Sputnik (the first artificial satellite) and sending the first man into space. U.S. efforts were seen as lagging behind the Soviets’, so the President started his remarks with the following statement:

Continue reading

Designing for Density and Sequence

In observance of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, I’m reading Mike Collins’s memoir, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys. I’m loving it. Collins is an engaging writer, and the book is packed with lots of details about the Apollo program and the process of becoming a NASA astronaut in the early 1960s.

When discussing the challenges inherent in the design of Apollo’s cockpits and controls, Collins calls out one I’ve faced when designing complex systems UIs: In Apollo, “more information is available that can possibly be presented to the pilot at any one time, so each subsystem must be analyzed to determine what its essential measurements are.” The point is to give users the information they need to make decisions quickly without overloading them in an already stressful environment.

This challenge applies to many design problems here on Earth. When working on information-heavy, highly specialized systems (neurosurgery, energy management, etc.), nailing these critical choices and getting the density right calls for subject domain knowledge — and ideally, subject domain experience. Co-creation is useful for this. (In any case, research, research, research!)

The discussion includes this gem about the importance of getting the sequence of interactions right:

A classic case of poor cockpit design is the ejection procedure which used to be in one Air Force trainer. It was a placard listing half a dozen important steps, printed boldly on the canopy rail where the pilot couldn’t miss seeing it. The only flaw was that step 1 was “jettison the canopy.”

Don’t do that.


TAOI: The “Agony” of Browsing Amazon

The architecture of information:

As I’ve noted before, as software eats more of the world we’re likely to see more stories about how poor information architecture is hurting businesses. Along these lines, a recent opinion piece in Bloomberg claims browsing for products in Amazon is “agonizing”:

Try clicking through Amazon’s beauty products section to the pages for foundation, one of the (ahem) foundations of any makeup line. It’s a notoriously tricky item to buy online or in stores because people must match the shade to their skin tone. I found hunting for foundation on Amazon comically impossible.

There are 200 pages of products grouped seemingly with little reason. It’s not possible to narrow the product listings by liquid or powder foundation — equivalent to not giving people the choice between boxers or briefs.

Today is the second of two “Amazon Prime Days,” when the retailer presents many products at a deep discount. I’m in search of a new pair of sunglasses, so I’ve perused the site’s offers a couple of times since yesterday. The findings in the Bloomberg piece correspond with my experience: Amazon is relatively easy to use if you know what you’re looking for, less so if you’re browsing.

As the piece notes, it’s hard to state precisely how much (if any) this is hurting Amazon’s business. Speaking from my own experience, I find myself using other information environments as my first resort for browsing for products more often than not. (It’s not just bad IA; lately I also find Amazon’s UI slow to load and clumsy to operate.)

Amazon Shopping Is Easy. Browsing Is Agonizing.