Challenges in Designing for Emerging Technologies

Elizabeth Lopato, reporting in The Verge:

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s company focused on developing brain-machine interfaces, has posted a video to YouTube that appears to show a monkey navigating an on-screen cursor using only its mind.

The video is amazing:

As the article notes, it’s unusual for scientists to release such materials unaccompanied by peer-reviewed evidence. I take this as a cue to be skeptical. Still, if true, it’s an impressive demonstration — especially considering the implications for paralyzed people.

This video sparked two thoughts.

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Overcoming Objections to Modeling

Recently, I asked on Twitter,

What’s the best objection you’ve heard to making conceptual models as part of the design process?

A lively discussion ensued. Some respondents were unclear on what I meant by “conceptual models,” which speaks to the lack of mainstream awareness of this crucial design artifact. (Here’s my latest stab at clarifying.) Others, clear on what conceptual models are, pointed out that the process matters more than ‘deliverables.’ Great point.

But I’m especially interested in the objections. Here are some that represent what I see as the main gist. Chris Avore pointed out that conceptual models are seen as “too hand-wavey or theater-like,” and that they “lead to a few head nods but the world/plan/goal doesn’t change at the end.” To put it bluntly, as Hà Phan did, some people see conceptual models as “bullshit.” (My take: true insofar as they know about modeling at all; I suspect most people don’t.)

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Internal Design Teams and Thought Leadership

There’s a sense of disillusionment among some designers about UX’s ‘lost potential’ — that it’s been co-opted for purely commercial (and in some cases, unscrupulous) ends. It’s articulated in this post by Mark Hurst, and I’m reading it into this tweet by Jesse James Garrett:

I haven’t experienced this malaise myself. (But I’ve seen lots of it on Twitter, a platform that rewards kvetching.) Most designers I know are engaged with their work, and my students seem excited for the future. So, I suspect Jesse’s ‘more than a decade’ qualifier matters.

That said, I believe he’s onto something. Designers should be ecstatic about our field’s increased visibility and impact, but we don’t seem to be. What’s going on? I responded to Jesse’s tweet with one possibility:

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Not Just a New Feature; a New Compact

David Pierce, writing in Protocol yesterday morning:

Starting on Wednesday, any Slack user will be able to direct message any other Slack user. The new system is called Connect DMs, and works a bit like the messaging apps and buddy lists old: Users send an invite to anyone via their work email address, and if the recipient accepts (everything is opt-in), their new contact is added to their Slack sidebar. The conversations are tied to the users’ organizations, but exist in a separate section of the Slack app itself.

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, writing in Vice a few hours later:

On Wednesday, Slack launched a new feature that allows users to message anyone else via direct messages, even if the receiver is outside of the sender’s organization. In other words, the feature allows anyone to connect with you privately on Slack. Critically, even if the feature is turned off on your Slack, you’ll still get an email notification and message from anyone trying to connect with you—including people who don’t work with you and can use this feature to sneak harassment into your inbox.

After experts in content moderation, and several other people, complained about this risk, Slack is already backtracking and limiting the feature, admitting it “made a mistake.”

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Design with Strategic Intent

Many designers can’t effectively speak to the value they create. Instead, they mostly focus on the beautiful, elegant, user-centered, screen-level artifacts they make.

As a result, many stakeholders don’t see designers as strategic partners but as implementors whose role is designing products right (more engaging, usable, attractive, etc.) rather than designing the right products. Ironically, it’s in the latter where design can make a real difference.

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Profiles in Curiosity

Today is World IA Day, the annual global celebration of all things information architecture. This year’s theme is ‘designing curiosity,’ and as part of the celebrations, Cassini Nazir asked me to share my thoughts for a series called profiles in curiosity.

Curiosity is one of those curious words we use in everyday speech without minding their precise meaning. Cassini’s invitation was an opportunity to reflect on what curiosity means to me and where and how I experience it.

So what do I mean by curiosity?

Curiosity is a playful, open-ended mode of inquiry. Something sparks an awareness of your ignorance, and it entices rather than shames you.

See more in my profile in curiosity and check out the whole series.

Citibank’s $500m ‘UI’ Problem

Timothy B. Lee reporting for Ars Technica:

A federal judge has ruled that Citibank isn’t entitled to the return of $500 million it sent to various creditors last August. Kludgey software and a poorly designed user interface contributed to the massive screwup.

Citibank was acting as an agent for Revlon, which owed hundreds of millions of dollars to various creditors. On August 11, Citibank was supposed to send out interest payments totaling $7.8 million to these creditors.

However, Revlon was in the process of refinancing its debt—paying off a few creditors while rolling the rest of its debt into a new loan. And this, combined with the confusing interface of financial software called Flexcube, led the bank to accidentally pay back the principal on the entire loan—most of which wasn’t due until 2023.

My initial reaction on reading this was: wow, $500m is a lot of money — I wonder how bad the UI is? The article provides a screenshot, which it credits to Judge Jesse Furman:

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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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Thinking Contextually

Whenever I’m designing anything, I always keep in mind this quote from Eero Saarinen:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Whatever you’re working on isn’t an end in itself; it’s always part of something bigger. That bigger thing may be out of scope for the project, but it influences the project. When an architect designs a building, the street grid informs the structure and form of the building. Whenever I work on a navigation system for a company’s website, I must look at other websites in the industry (i.e., the company’s competitors, partners, customers, etc.)

In other words, context matters in design. Nothing ever exists in isolation, and you can’t do a proper job if you don’t consider the forces surrounding the project. This is all design 101; Saarinen’s admonition is printed on the wall in one of the IxD studios at CCA.

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