Book Notes: “Orchestrating Experiences”

Orchestrating Experiences: Collaborative Design for Complexity
By Chris Risdon and Patrick Quattlebaum
Rosenfeld Media, 2018

Before I tell you about Orchestrating Experiences, a disclaimer: the authors and publisher are my friends. I won’t lie and tell you that doesn’t affect my perspective. Still, that shouldn’t keep you from knowing about this important book.

Yep, important. Why? Because it tackles one of the most challenging and impactful aspects of contemporary design practice: how to design coherent systems that span multiple touchpoints and interactions. Such systems typically have multiple stakeholders, many of whom work towards objectives that may not align neatly with other stakeholders’. These systems also require moving around lots of information and making it findable and understandable to people with varying degrees of competency.

Many design books focus on the tactical aspects of this work. For example, you need not search too long for good titles about producing usable interfaces or creating compelling content. There are also good books that deal with more strategic concerns. Where Orchestrating Experiences shines is in bridging the two: it’s a how-to guide for clarifying a strategic project vision and articulating it in terms that will inform tactical design artifacts. The result is a complex system that is nevertheless coherent and directed.

So how does one pull off this tricky challenge? The answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is by collaborating with the people responsible for the system. Because of this, designers operating at this level will often be called to facilitate workshops. Orchestrating Experiences addresses this reality in its structure: most of the book’s chapters deal with a particular area of focus (e.g., how to define experience principles) from a conceptual perspective, which is then immediately followed by instructions on how to structure and facilitate a workshop to help the team produce the work that satisfies that particular area of focus.

When I say “conceptual point of view,” you may get the impression that these are abstract subjects. And that is indeed a risk when writing about design at this level. However, Orchestrating Experiences features plenty of real-world examples, including (clear and beautiful) deliverables and photos of in-process workshops. This makes the material very accessible. I left Orchestrating Experiences with a clearer understanding of the importance of working at this level and concrete tools to help me do it. I highly recommend it.

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Book Notes: “Dark Matter and Trojan Horses”

Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary
By Dan Hill
Strelka Press, 2012

Podcaster Tim Ferriss asks the people he interviews a useful (and revealing) question: What book have you gifted most often? My answer to this question is Dan Hill’s Dark Matter and Trojan Horses, an essay about strategic design. I’ve probably cited, recommended, and gifted this short book more than any other, mostly to other designers.

The main point of the essay is that design is useful for more than just creating great products and services. (Essentially, solutions to pre-defined — and often ill-defined — problems.) Instead, design can help us tackle a wide range of wicked problems at the social and organizational levels:

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Book Notes: “Conceptual Models”

Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design
By Jeff Johnson and Austin Henderson
Morgan & Claypool, 2012

I don’t like defacing my books by writing in them. Instead, I annotate them with sticky notes. One side-effect of this approach is that you can tell which books I’ve gotten the most value from by just looking at how many sticky notes protrude from them. This slender volume on conceptual modeling is bulging with sticky notes.

The authors are Xerox alumni from “the rough and tumble days of inventing the future.” There, they discovered the importance of modeling systems before you start designing their user interfaces. This book argues that designers of digital systems must “begin by designing what to design” — figuring out what the system does and what concepts it will expose to its users before they start drawing wireframes.

Sounds obvious, right? In practice, it isn’t. As with other models, conceptual models are abstractions, and abstractions make stakeholders nervous. I’ve experienced it first-hand: resistance to “tooling around” with boxes-and-arrows diagrams when wireframes and comps are “obviously” the way to make progress on a project. Except, of course, that they aren’t: screen-level design that isn’t underpinned by a coherent conceptual structure is mediocre at best and often disastrously ill-suited to addressing user expectations and goals.

As I said, it’s a slender book: only 96 pages. It’s also written as an easy-to-follow outline that explains the principles of successful conceptual modeling, with no fluff. In 2018, there is no excuse for digital designers to start work by designing at the screen level. (For complex challenges, it’s a form of malpractice.) This book offers the most accessible introduction to a key step in the digital design process — one that unfortunately is still often overlooked.

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Book Notes: “Enlightenment Now”

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Humanism, and Progress
By Steven Pinker
Viking, 2018

This book will piss you off. It’ll piss you off if you’re a person of faith. It’ll piss you off if you are on the right of the political spectrum and it’ll piss you off if you’re on the left. It’ll piss you off if you think nuclear power and genetically modified crops are abominations. It’ll piss you off if you consider yourself a Marxist, and it’ll piss you off if you have Nietzschean proclivities. You should still read it.

Enlightenment Now makes the case that the Enlightenment has been a good thing. “But!,” you may protest, “What about all the pollution? What about global warming? What about all the racism and misogyny? What about the excesses of capitalism and science? What about the violence? What about terrorism? The world is shit!” Yes, that. The book makes the case that our understanding of these and other important issues is affected by cognitive biases that make things appear worse than they really are. Of course, you can’t make this argument if you don’t have data to back it up, and the book delivers data in abundance.

This is not to say the tone is celebratory. The ideals of the Enlightenment – the same ideals that led to a world in which I can type these words into a pocket-sized Internet-connected supercomputer, for you to read them, and for both of us to enjoy the health and prosperity that give us the wherewithal to have this interaction – are under attack. Various forces threaten to undermine progress: tribalism, religious fundamentalism, fascism, and more. The book serves as an urgent call to resist and counteract these forces that threaten to pull us back to the bad old days.

If you find yourself nodding in agreement, or mildly curious, you should read the book. But if merely reading these notes upsets you, then you need to read it. It’ll piss you off, but ultimately that may be a good thing.

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Book Notes: “Planning for Everything”

Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals
By Peter Morville
Semantic Studios, 2018

Planning is essential, and many of us don’t do it very well. Fear, uncertainty, and powerlessness hold us back. Our lives are messy, and the challenges we face are multi-faceted and complex. Who better than one of the world’s most prominent information architects to help make sense of the mess?

On the surface, Peter Morville’s new book, Planning for Everything, seems like a hands-on guide to making better plans. And it is; it includes practical frameworks that can help with your planning. But there’s much below the surface that makes this book special. It goes deep into the subject, examining how we envision future possibilities, set goals, decide among various compelling options, strategize, act, and reflect. Throughout it weaves examples and stories both from the author’s personal experience — running marathons, leading a consultancy, parenting — and from literary sources that range from the Bhagavad Gita to Yuval Noah Harari. The result is not only practical, but also entertaining and inspiring.

This short book is long on wisdom; I left it feeling as though I’d just spent a calm afternoon with an insightful mentor. If you’re facing a major life decision (or even a minor one), it behooves you to read it.

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Book Notes: “Textos Cautivos”

Textos cautivos (2da edición)
By Jorge Luis Borges
Alizanza Editorial, 1998

Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite writers. His short stories The Garden of Forking Paths and The Library of Babel are required reading for information architects, and are as effective in their (excellent) English translations as in the original Spanish. (These and other key short works have been collected in a volume titled Labyrinths, which I highly recommend.) While I’ve long been familiar with Borges’s stories, I’ve had less exposure to his less famous works. Looking to correct this oversight, I recently read a book titled Textos cautivos (English: Captive Texts), a collection of writings published in the Argentinian magazine El Hogar between 1936 and 1939.

During this time, Borges was responsible for a page in the magazine that highlighted contemporary (and especially foreign) works of literature and their authors. Recurring sections included essays, book reviews, and short biographies. Textos cautivos presents this material with an interesting structure: Instead of preserving the original context, the book breaks out the essays, reviews, biographies, and short takes on “the literary life” into separate sections. Individual entries within each category are presented in chronological order.

The selection of material — authors, books, etc. — reflects Borges’s interests (crime novels, fantasy, poetry, etc.) and contemporary events (the struggle between fascism and communism, the rise of anti-semitism, etc.) This, coupled with the format/chronological structure of the book, gives the reader the impression of reading a blog written in the years leading up to World War II. As with a good blog, one comes away with a new perspective of the times, as filtered through the lens of an individual’s obsessions. (In this case, the times were a prelude to global catastrophe, and the individual a man who lived life through books.)

I detected curiosity and dread towards the currents of history swirling around Borges, something I believe many of us can relate to. (But perhaps this reveals more about me than it does about the author?) Of course, Borges’s writing is witty and erudite as always. If you like Borges and can read Spanish (sorry, I don’t know of an English translation), this collection brings him to life in a way that feels strangely contemporary.

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Book Notes: “Dawn of the New Everything”

Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality
By Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt and Co., 2017

Lanier is a pioneer in the field of virtual reality. He founded and led VPL Research, one of the first VR companies, in the 1980s. This book is in parts a history of VR, a (very) personal memoir, and a philosophy manual for thinking about the application of digital technology towards human goals. “This book conveys my personal perspective,” Lanier states early on. “It doesn’t attempt a comprehensive history or survey of ideas.” But the history-survey it does attempt is both enticing and profound.

The story’s arc goes through four stages:

  1. Lanier’s childhood experiences in New Mexico (which had a very important influence on his outlook on technology and life in general),
  2. his unorthodox education (“trying to be normal is a fool’s game”),
  3. the founding and running of VPL, and finally,
  4. the post-VPL years.

A thread of VR philosophy is weaved into the autobiographical sections. Often founders of schools of thought, fields, technologies, etc. will offer a handful of definitions of the thing they’re famous for. Lanier emphasizes VR’s multi-faceted nature by offering multiple definitions throughout the book. Many of these don’t deal at all with the technology, but with their effect on people — especially VR’s ability to augment our humanity:

19th VR definition: instrumentation to explore motor-cortex intelligence.

And that is the core of this book: technology in service to human ends. Lanier contrasts VR with artificial intelligence: where AI seeks to replace human capacities, VR seeks to allow us to explore our consciousness, to become more human. I don’t buy this idea completely (there are other ways to do this that don’t require technological intermediation), but it’s refreshing to have a strongly (and deeply) argued case for a more conscious and ethical approach to tech:

I love recalling the first passes of computer science because then you can see how the whole of computation is an act of invention. Nothing about computers is inevitable. But we’ve put such a massive number of bits into place that it’s often too much work to remember how each brick of the edifice we live in is but a peculiar obsession somebody else put into place once upon a time.

This massive edifice of bits has inertia, but it’s ultimately within our power to determine what technology is in service to. Tracing the history of significant parts of the edifice can help us understand that they aren’t inevitable. We can and should explore other ways of being with technology, and this book makes a compelling case for doing so.

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Book Notes: “Finite and Infinite Games”

Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
By James P. Carse
Free Press, 1986

Some of the best books are hard to categorize. You could say Finite Games and Infinite Games is a philosophy book, but it’s unlike any other philosophy book I’ve read. Parts of it sound like a manifesto; an urgent (yet level-headed and even poetic) call for us to shed our delusions.

The book opens with a duality:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

Carse explores the implications of this idea as it applies to various social constructs: religion, patriotism, culture, sexuality, politics, etc. Examining the world through this lens allows us to see it differently, and to think differently about the degree of agency we have in changing the way things are. Achieving positive impact requires that we think of ourselves as infinite players: people who aim to keep the game going.

This way of being affects all aspects of our lives. Here’s a passage that spoke to me from a professional perspective:

An infinite player does not begin working for the purpose of filling up a period of time with work, but for the purpose of filling work with time. Work is not an infinite player’s way of passing time, but of engendering possibility. Work is not a way of arriving at a desired present and securing it against an unpredictable future, but of moving toward a future which itself has a future.

This paragraph sums up much of the book’s power for me: it’s an appeal to stop with the stupid fears already and take action, joyfully. We’re at play in a field of possibilities! An empowering message in times of uncertainty.

I first read Finite Games and Infinite Games about fifteen years ago. It impressed me then, and returning to it now makes me realize time has not diminished its power. Everyone is engaged in the sort of gameplay Carse talks about; it behooves us to know which types of games we’re playing so we can go about it more conscientiously.

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Book Notes: “A Mind at Play”

A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age
By Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman
Simon and Schuster, 2017

It’s not an exaggeration to say Claude Shannon invented our modern concept of information. As an information architect, I’ve long been aware of the importance of his work to the field, but have found his papers difficult to grok.

In situations such as this, I turn to histories of the ideas or biographies of their originators. These books tend to include layman’s explanations of the main ideas in the context that led to their formulation, and this often proves to be my ticket to understanding them. With the context of the person and his/her times, I find source materials much easier to tackle.

A Mind at Play is a fine biography of Shannon and his ideas that helps you understand them better and appreciate their importance. Many concepts we take for granted — such as the bit and the idea that meaning and information are separate — originated with Shannon. The book does a good job of explaining how these and other key concepts came along and how they changed things.

Of course, being a biography, it also gives insights into Shannon himself — and he was a hoot! A natural genius who wrote mathematical papers on juggling, rode around the Bell Labs campus on a unicycle, and towards the end of his life devoted himself to intellectual diversions ranging from hacking roulette to making money in the stock market.

While some other geniuses of his caliber have had troubled personal lives, Shannon seems to have been relatively well-adjusted. His wife and collaborator Betty is a prominent character in his story, as are two other pioneers of the Information Age: Vannevar Bush and Norbert Wiener. Shannon’s relationship with these and other mentors, collaborators, and competitors adds human interest to a story that could otherwise be rather academic.

If you work in or with information technologies, it behooves you to understand Claude Shannon’s contributions to our world. A Mind at Play is a good place to start.

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