Book Notes: “Seeing What Others Don’t”

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights
By Gary Klein
Public Affairs, 2013

I’m often called on to facilitate workshops with executives, managers, individual contributors, and third-party partners. These are costly engagements — not because of my fees, but because getting groups of busy people to focus their attention on a single thing for two or three days comes at the expense of many other things they have to do. The upside: good workshops can generate incredibly valuable insights. So I’m always looking for ways of becoming better at creating the conditions that allow insights to emerge. Seeing What Others Don’t is a guide for doing so, and one of the most useful books I’ve read on the subject.

It starts with a valuable insight: performance improvements usually result from decreasing errors and increasing insights. However, most organizations focus on the former (Klein cites Six Sigma as a notable example), but not enough on the latter. (“When we put too much energy into eliminating mistakes, we’re less likely to gain insights. Having insights is a different matter from preventing mistakes.”)

The book seeks to answer three fundamental questions:

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Book Notes: “Architectural Intelligence”

Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape
By Molly Wright Steenson
The MIT Press, 2017

We are now far enough into the information revolution that we can examine critical influences with perspective. Architectural Intelligence surfaces key contributions of architectural thinking and doing towards the shaping of current information environments. It does so by examining the work of four influential architects: Christopher Alexander, Richard Saul Wurman, Cedric Price, and Nicholas Negroponte.

During the early years of digital computing, many architects saw computing as a better way to manage complex problem-solving in traditional architectural practice. However, some architects recognized they were dealing with a different type of architecture, one where information played a more significant role than merely augmenting design practice. The architects profiled in this book were the first — and most influential — to do so:

  • Christopher Alexander, perhaps the best known of the four, originated (and then transcended) the idea of pattern languages. Looking to systematize architectural design, he was mostly shunned by the architectural profession. His work resonated more with software engineers, so Alexandrian thinking has influenced modern software development practices.
  • Richard Saul Wurman vies with Alexander as the best-known of the bunch, although his fame comes from an achievement only tangentially related to the subject of the book: he founded the TED conference. But Wurman’s multi-faceted career is important for other reasons, not the least of which is recognizing information as an architectural material that, when structured correctly, can foster understanding.
  • Cedric Price was unknown to me before reading this book. (Which intrigues me, given that my background is in architecture.) The object of most of Price’s projects was a built environment, albeit always peculiar ones that aimed to exploit the systemic capabilities of new information technologies.
  • Nicholas Negroponte, is the founder of the MIT Media Lab (and its predecessor, the MIT Architecture Machine Group, which is the focus of this chapter.) Negroponte and his collaborators at the AMG laid the foundations for modern conceptions of what it means to inhabit information and how we can effectively collaborate with artificially intelligent systems.

Were these people “architects” in the sense most people think of? Of the four, only Price and Alexander focused on designing built environments during their careers. (And the latter’s buildings have had little impact in the domain of architecture. While in architecture school, I recall being advised to read A Pattern Language but avoid Alexander’s buildings.) While definitely architectural, the work of all four pushed boundaries for which we (still) lack adequate terms. Wright Steenson captures the issue succinctly:

As Alexander, Wurman, Price, and Negroponte began to conceive of their work in terms of informational processing and computational practices, they found themselves in a liminal space between the two fields, which caused them to question whether what they were doing was architectural at all, or something in opposition to it, or something altogether different.

Those of us who design information environments still inhabit this liminal space. Alas, many among us are not aware of it. By examining the pioneering work of these four architects, Architectural Intelligence offers insights into what it means to architect information environments today — and in the future.

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Book Notes: “The Organized Mind”

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload
By Daniel J. Levitin
Dutton, 2014

If you’re like me (and many other people), you have at least one “junk” drawer in your home. You know what I mean: a place where you store assorted batteries, screws, cables, pens (functional and otherwise), and so on — usually somewhere out of sight.

Far from something to be embarrassed by, junk drawers represent an innate human skill. They’re the result of how we make sense of the world: by categorizing things, establishing distinctions between them. The lightbulbs over here, cleaning products over there, office supplies in that other place. And the rest? The stuff that doesn’t fit neatly into a category? The junk drawer.

The fact junk drawers are common doesn’t result from them being the best way to organize stuff. If you’ve ever been at a loss trying to find something in your home, only to find it later among the many knick-knacks stuffed out of sight, you’ve experienced this firsthand.

The Organized Mind is a deep — yet accessible — dive into the neuroscience of how we make sense of the world. It explains how we (our bodies, including the all-important nervous system) establish distinctions between things (and people) so we can remember where they are, what they are, how to best interact with them, etc.

While the science behind all of this is fascinating, the book doesn’t stop at science. The author makes the subject practical by translating scientific insights into actionable heuristics. For example, he offers three organization rules to help you minimize the junk drawer problem:

  • Organization rule 1: A mislabeled item or location is worse than an unlabeled item.
  • Organization rule 2: If there is an existing standard, use it.
  • Organization rule 3: Don’t keep what you can’t use.

Some of this may seem obvious, but it’s good to understand the reasons why it works. For people like myself, who categorize things for a living, it’s especially useful to grok our nervous systems’ organizational abilities at a low level.

That said, the book covers a lot of ground. So much so, that in parts I found it difficult to follow how specific subjects connected to the greater whole. Ironically, I found The Organized Mind to be something of an intellectual junk drawer. That said, junk drawers are not without their uses — and pleasures.

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Book Notes: “Factfulness”

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think
By Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling, and Anna Rosling Rönnlund
Flatiron Books, 2018

Like many people, I first heard about Hans Rosling via his popular TED talk, where he showed evidence the world is getting better by using animated bubble charts. Factfulness — which Bill Gates called one of the most important books he’s ever read — is like a paper-based version of that presentation: It does, indeed, use data to explain how things are getting better. But it does more than that: It also explains why we find that so hard to believe.

The book divided into ten chapters corresponding to biases or “instincts” that delude us:

  1. The Gap Instinct: Our tendency towards polarizing what we see.
  2. The Negativity Instinct: Our tendency to spread bad news over good news. (I.e., “Good news is not news.”)
  3. The Straight Line Instinct: Our tendency to project future trends based on current trends.
  4. The Fear Instinct: Our (deeply hard-wired) tendency to pay more attention to frightening things.
  5. The Size Instinct: Out tendency to gravitate towards impressively large or small numbers, losing our sense of proportion.
  6. The Generalization Instinct: Our tendency to generalize and categorize data.
  7. The Destiny Instinct: Our tendency to not perceive change when it happens slowly and gradually.
  8. The Single Perspective Instinct: Our tendency to see things only from our angle.
  9. The Blame Instinct: Our tendency to find scapegoats to blame for the way things are.
  10. The Urgency Instinct: Our tendency to react to changing conditions by intervening immediately.

Looking at data objectively, it’s hard not to see how humanity has made enormous progress. But you wouldn’t know this if you look at the news or interact with others in social media. This is in part because most people argue from a perspective that is distorted by these “instincts.” This book shows you how to overcome these biases so you can understand things more objectively. It’s not a dose of optimism, but a dose of possibilism, a word Rosling coined (and which I’ve written about before.)

Hans Rosling died of pancreatic cancer before finishing the Factfulness. His collaborators — his son Ola and daughter-in-law Anna — conclude the book with a note regarding the impact he hoped it would have: to help us work towards a fact-based worldview. Given the power and outreach of our technologies, we need it more than ever. This book is an important contribution in that direction.

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Book Notes: “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now”

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
By Jaron Lanier
Henry Holt and Company, 2018

Jaron Lanier is not just a VR pioneer. He’s also one of the earliest critics of the technological and economic conditions that have led to our current social media-instigated malaise. His book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (2010) was more than prescient: it diagnosed the broken fundamentals of the advertising business model years before most of us understood the pernicious effects of moving important social interactions to environments that are financed by attention-mongering.

Lanier’s latest book doesn’t pull punches. True to its title, it consists of ten short arguments for quitting social media cold turkey. Quoting the back cover, these arguments are:

  1. You are losing your free will.
  2. Quitting social media is the most finely targeted way to resist the insanity of our times.
  3. Social media is making you into an asshole.
  4. Social media is undermining truth.
  5. Social media is making what you say meaningless.
  6. Social media is destroying your capacity for empathy.
  7. Social media is making you unhappy.
  8. Social media doesn’t want you to have economic dignity.
  9. Social media is making politics impossible.
  10. Social media hates your soul.

Some of these are more effective than others. (For me, at least — Lanier offers several YMMV disclaimers.) While the overall impression is that we do have a problem with social media, I’m put off by the book’s overly confrontational approach. For example, early on, Lanier proposes an acronym to describe advertising-supported internet companies: BUMMER. From then on, he refers to companies such as Facebook and Google as BUMMER companies.

This is a short book and something of a rant, so I didn’t expect nuance. That said, the argument could’ve been stronger if it acknowledged more of the genuine value people get from some of these information environments. One of the book’s underlying premises is that we become addicted to these environments by design. That’s truer of some than others. For example, WhatsApp is where my family and I catch up with each other. I’m not compulsively drawn to that environment in the same way that I am to Twitter and Facebook. Yes, there are other reasons why WhatsApp may not be good for me, but I do find some value there. The book doesn’t delve enough into these types of distinctions.

The combined effect of the confrontational stance and ranty nature of the work detract from the seriousness of its subject. That said, it’s a short read, and well worth your while: It will make you think about the way you approach your online interactions, and where.

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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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