How Designers Can Help Bust Silos

When I talk with folks in large organizations, I often hear a familiar lament: “We’re very siloed here.” By this, they mean the organization is divided into​ groups that don’t play well with others. Each group functions like an isolated “silo” that acts independently from the rest. They each have their own internal goals, incentives, processes, etc. which make it difficult for them to collaborate.

Siloing impedes the organization’s ability to respond effectively (and in a timely manner) to changing contextual conditions. Because it involves organizational cultures and incentives, it can be a tough challenge to overcome. People in silos have an especially hard time seeing things from others’ perspectives — especially their colleagues.

A big part of the problem is that people in these situations​ tend to communicate in abstract terms. Often they’re unaware of using language that reinforces the distinctions between them. With our emphasis on making things tangible, designers can help them bust through these barriers.

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Designing the Right Things

At a high level, design teams in organizations face two challenges: Doing things right and doing the right things.

“Doing things right” is about efficiency: making the best use of time and resources. When seeking efficiency, leaders ask questions about their team’s production function:

  • Do we have the right roles?
  • Are relationships between roles organized optimally?
  • Do we have the right people in those roles?
  • Do we have enough people in the team? Do we have more people than we need?
  • How do we recruit the right people into our team?
  • How do we nurture leaders?
  • What tools, systems, and processes can help us do our jobs better?
  • What mental models can help us do our jobs better?
  • Is our team culture conducive to producing good work?

For the most part, leaders trying to answer these questions have peers in the organization they can partner with: HR, IT, and operations. As design matures within organizations, there’s also more professionalization of the discipline without; this manifests in the growing interest in design operations and the documentation and sharing of best practices.

In other words, when looking to do things right, today’s design leaders have several starting points. But what about doing the right thing?

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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.

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.

😂

Drive-by Redesigns

My family and I recently went on vacation to a big city. On our second day there, we took one of those hop-on-off double-decker buses that show you the main sights of the city. These mass-market tours are useful for getting a sense of the overall shape of the place. At least its highlights — you get a sense for what the main areas are, where they sit relative to each other, distances between things, etc. What they’re not good at is giving you an understanding of the city: what makes it special, its history, why things are the way they are.

When you’re in one of these tours, everything about the city gets compressed into talking points that can fit into the cadence allowed by traffic. You whizz past neighborhoods and landmarks old and modern. Dates and people blur; context collapses. There’s no sense of cause-and-effect, only facts. “This is the statue of x. It was completed in y date to commemorate the battle of z.” That’s about it — no information about why the battle was fought or why it matters to the overall history of the place. Off to the next landmark.

“What” is easy to talk about; “why,” less so. Yet why is the more important of the two — especially if your aim is to change things. What is effect; why is cause. Designers ought to give precedence to why, but we’re drawn to what. This is because we can point to what. It’s the stuff we include in our portfolios; the stuff other designers fawn over.

A couple of days ago I saw a post on social media that epitomizes this problem. The post had two images: one of a regular airline boarding pass and another of a “redesigned” boarding pass. The redesign was all surface: typographic and layout changes with no signs of understanding of the reasons why the elements in airline boarding passes are laid out the way they are.

There are reasons why boarding passes are the way they are — warts and all. For example, humans aren’t the only audience for boarding passes; they must also be legible to various machines. There are constraints around the systems that generate boarding passes and the machines that print them. None of this was acknowledged in the “new and improved” version.

Redesigning a boarding pass isn’t a simple matter of changing the layout of elements in an Adobe Illustrator artboard. The current boarding pass is a manifestation of particular contextual conditions that have led to its current form. You can take a stab at the form without understanding these conditions, but the intervention won’t go beyond an exercise in aesthetics​.

That’s not to say the current state can’t be improved; in most cases, it can. The whys that led to the current what may have changed. New technologies supersede older ones, rendering them obsolete. Legal requirements change. Systems change. Improving things calls for understanding the reasons why things are the way they are. It calls for seeing beneath the surface. Alas, social media doesn’t lend itself to deeper probing. The boarding pass example isn’t unique; hang around designer circles in Medium and you’ll quickly run across unsolicited redesign “case studies.” Most are superficial and naïve.

As a medium, the tour bus establishes the pacing and structure that leads to a superficial overview of the city. Social media’s bite-sized, attention-driven structure also influences the presentation of design decisions. Unlike city tours, I don’t see much value in these drive-by redesigns. They manifest (and reinforce) a common misunderstanding of design as noun, one that ignores the process and complexity that goes into evolving form-context fit.

(Bonus points: replace “design” with “politics” in this post. The structural lack of nuance and substance in social media is a big part of why civic discourse has become so polarized.)

Design for Long-Term Relevance

Richard Saul Wurman in an interview for Interior Design magazine:

One of the reasons [my firm] went out of business was the ideal piece of architecture at that time was a Michael Graves building and he ruined architecture. I know he’s dead, but when he was alive he was smart and drew well and was a nice person, but he ruined architecture because all the critics made him the king architect doing these decorative buildings that won’t even be a footnote in 20 years. I’m putting this in context. Architects are as good as their clients and what they’re demanding. So, they are doing bling buildings. Look at what just got put up by thoughtful, bright architects—I’ve met every single one of them—in Hudson Yards. The idea of Hudson Yards is that it looks good from a helicopter and New Jersey. Walking around is the opposite of Piazza San Marco. It just isn’t interesting. It’s a fiction that all the architects during the Renaissance were great. What has held up is buildings that people want to occupy.

The Portland Building in August 1982. Photo by Steve Morgan.
Image by Steve Morgan CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

I was in architecture school at a time when Graves’ architecture was still hot. I remember poring over his beautiful drawings and thinking how much better they looked than photographs of the ensuing buildings. That was then; now, both look stale. Not the effect you want when designing something meant to be as durable as a building.

Relatively few things stand the test of time. Those that do — buildings, books, household objects, technologies, etc. — are worth paying attention to. If they remain relevant after taste and popular opinion have moved on, it’s because at some level they address universal needs.

Aspiration: design for long-term relevance. Hard to do for creatures dazzled by an endless array of new capabilities and embedded in cultures that place a premium on innovation.

10 Questions With… Richard Saul Wurman (h/t Dan Klyn)

Data in Conceptual Models

When designing interactive systems, it behooves you to define a conceptual model before you start thinking about the user interface. A great resource to learn to do this is Austin Henderson and Jeff Johnson’s Conceptual Models: Core to Good Design. In this book, they describe the system’s conceptual model in terms of “how the user would ideally think about the application and its use in supporting tasks.”

This requires you first understand the tasks (and “task domains”) the system is meant to accommodate. As you analyze the ways users understand tasks, you can define what (conceptual) objects the system must present to help users accomplish those tasks. These objects have certain attributes that are essential to their roles in the system, and they allow users to carry out particular operations that help them accomplish their tasks.

The book includes the following example, which defines a conceptual model for a simple office calendar application:

Objects Attributes Operations
Calendar owner, current focus examine, print, create, add event, delete event
Event name, description, date, time, duration, location, repeat, type (e.g., meeting) examine, print, edit (attributes)
To-Do item name, description, deadline, priority, status view, print, edit (attributes)
Person name, job-description, office, phone send email, view details

It’s obvious why it’s useful to define such a structure before you design a user interface: a conceptual model gives you a high-level picture of the system’s user-facing components. Rather than adding affordances for features piecemeal, here you have the opportunity to think about them as a whole. This allows you to think holistically about the system’s interaction mechanisms and language. Having such a conceptual model​ before working on the UI saves a lot of headaches and leads to a much more coherent experience.

However, there’s another good reason to start by defining a conceptual model: doing so allows you to better understand opportunities for leveraging data that may go unacknowledged when you begin by sketching out screen-level artifacts. Thinking about the conceptual objects in the system, their attributes, and the actions they accommodate helps surface opportunities inherent in the data these objects, attributes, and actions require and generate.

For example, when interacting the model above, the user will generate data points. Adding an event to a calendar is an action that will be captured by the system. We know events include a “type” attribute, so over time, this system will have data about various types of events. We can use this data to spot usage patterns and predict behavior, information we can use for the benefit of users and the business.

While conceptual models focus on user-facing concepts, defining them upfront also sheds light on these “invisible” aspects of the system. Doing so allows you to spot opportunities for improvement that may otherwise become apparent only further down the line (or not at all.)

The Optimism of Design

I’ve been accused of being optimistic. I say “accused” because the word is often uttered with disdain. It seems de rigeur for some folks to think of these as the worst of times. The environment is going to hell, political institutions and the rule of law are under attack, injustice and inequality seem to be on the rise, resources are dwindling, etc. How can one be optimistic under such circumstances?

It seems an unpopular and old-fashioned perspective, but I remain steadfast: things can get better — and designers have an important role to play in improving them.

Design is an inherently optimistic practice. It requires an open mind about the possibilities for creating a better future. I’ll say it again: design is about making the possible tangible. “Making the possible tangible” means testing alternate ways of being in the world. The point is making things better. If you don’t believe there’s room for improvement, why design? And if things can be improved, why despair?

This doesn’t mean designers must be naive about the state of the world. To the contrary: we can’t begin to design a better future if we don’t clearly understand the present. At least that’s what we’ve been telling clients; at this point, many have bought into the idea that a solid design process begins with understanding the problem domain through research.

What research informs your worldview? If your understanding comes primarily from sources incentivized to capture your attention (read: advertising-supported media), then be wary. Good news doesn’t sell; rage is an excellent way of keeping you tuned in. Misery loves company, and there are many lonely people out there looking for someone to friend. “A lie travels halfway around the world before truth puts on its boots.” (Churchill) — and with social media, we’ve built a teleporter.

The challenge our forebears faced in understanding the world was a lack of information. That’s not our problem; we have information to spare. Our challenges are deciding what is true and who to believe. We can be more selective today than ever before about the facts that inform our worldview; in seconds I can call up a counter-fact to every fact you can muster. As a result, our attitude towards the possibilities matters more than ever; it’s never been more important to cultivate a beginner’s mind.

Again, this doesn’t imply naiveté. It implies seeing reality for what it is and keeping an open mind towards the possibilities. I’m reminded of this exchange between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell:

CAMPBELL: There’s a wonderful formula that the Buddhists have for the Boddhisattva. The Bodhisattva, the one whose being — satra — is illumination — bodhi — who realizes his identity with eternity, and at the same time his participation in time. And the attitude is not to withdraw from the world when you realize how horrible it is, but to realize that this horror is simply the foreground of a wonder, and come back and participate in it. “All life is sorrowful,” is the first Buddhist saying, and it is. It wouldn’t be life if there were not temporality involved, which is sorrow, loss, loss, loss.

MOYERS: That’s a pessimistic note.

CAMPBELL: Well, I mean, you got to say, “yes” to it and say, “it’s great this way.” I mean, this is the way God intended it.

MOYERS: You don’t really believe that?

CAMPBELL: Well, this is the way it is, and I don’t believe anybody intended it, but this is the way it is. And Joyce’s wonderful line, you know, “History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.” And the way to awake from it is not to be afraid and to recognize, as I did in my conversation with that Hindu guru or teacher that I told you of, that all of this as it is, is as it has to be, and it is a manifestation of the eternal presence in the world. The end of things always is painful; pain is part of there being a world at all.

MOYERS: But if one accepted that, isn’t the ultimate conclusion to say, “well, I won’t try to reform any laws or fight any battles.”

CAMPBELL: I didn’t say that.

MOYERS: Isn’t that the logical conclusion one could draw, though, the philosophy of nihilism?

CAMPBELL: Well, that’s not the necessary thing to draw. You could say, “I will participate in this row, and I will join the army, and I will go to war.”

MOYERS: I’ll do the best I can on earth.

CAMPBELL: I will participate in the game. It’s a wonderful, wonderful opera, except that it hurts. And that wonderful Irish saying, you know, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody get into it?” This is the way life is, and the hero is the one who can participate in it decently, in the way of nature, not in the way of personal rancor, revenge or anything of the kind.

With our practice centered on making things better, designers are heroes in society. We can choose to be. Kvetching is unbecoming.

A Key to the Design Problem

One of my favorite presentations about design is an interview with Charles Eames, which inspired the exhibition “Qu’est ce que le design?” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris:

Speaking for himself and his partner Ray, Eames answers questions from curator Mme. L’Amic on the nature of design. They cover lots of ground in the span of a few minutes. Eventually, they come around to the role of constraints in the design process:

L’Amic: Does the creation of design admit constraint?

Eames: Design depends largely on constraints.

L’Amic: What constraints?

Eames: The sum of all constraints. Here’s one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints — constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.

L’Amic: Does design obey laws?

Eames: Aren’t constraints enough?

Mme. L’Amic eventually asks Eames if he’s ever been forced to accept compromises. His reply is gold: “I don’t remember ever being forced to accept compromises, but I’ve willingly accepted constraints.”

The interview ends on an ellipsis. But before that, Eames delivers a great line:

L’Amic: What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of design and its propagation?

Eames: The recognition of need.

The whole thing is worth your attention:

Design Q & A: Charles and Ray Eames