If These Walls Had Ears

In early 1896, the Lumière brothers exhibited one of the first motion pictures ever made: THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN AT LA CIOTAT. With a run time of less than a minute, THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN isn’t long. It also has a straightforward premise: the movie consists of a single stationary shot of a steam train pulling into a station, and the subsequent disembarkment of passengers. The shot is composed so the camera points down the track, with the locomotive coming towards it. You can see the film here:

THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN is famous not just because it was the first movie shown in public; it’s also famous because of the legend that’s grown around it. Supposedly, the first showings caused audiences to panic, with some people scrambling to the exits. Unaccustomed to moving pictures, these early movie-goers somehow thought there was a real train barreling towards them, and ran for their lives.

Whether this happened exactly as described is inconsequential. The story speaks to the power of the motion picture medium to conjure illusions and has therefore become enshrined as the founding myth of cinema. It also speaks to how information can alter our sense of place, especially when we’re interacting with it in novel ways. As such, it’s a good analog for some uncanny experiences we are encountering today.

Recently, a Portland woman named Danielle received a call from one of her husband’s employees. “Unplug your Alexa devices right now,” this person said. “You’re being hacked.” The employee then described in detail a conversation that had happened earlier inside Danielle’s home. Apparently, the family’s Amazon Echo device was recording their conversations and sharing them with others.

In the subsequent investigation of the incident, Amazon’s engineers concluded that somebody had uttered a particular set of phonemes during the conversation that the Echo interpreted as its activation command, followed by a command to send a message to the person who then received the recordings. In other words, it wasn’t a hack; it was an unintentional triggering of one of the Echo’s features. (You can read about this story on The Verge.)

I can’t help but wonder ​how this incident has altered this family’s relationship with the physical environment​ of their home. When people first experienced THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN at the end of the 19th Century, they had never seen anything like it — except in “real life.” The first audiences were inexperienced with the new information delivery medium, so it’s understandable that they felt confused or even panicky. Whatever their reaction was, undoubtedly their experience of being in a particular place was radically transformed by the experience.

Even now, over 120 years later, it still is. Think about the last time you went to a movie theater. The experience of sitting in a movie theater is very different before and after the movie is playing. How long does it take for you to stop being conscious of the physical environment of the theater as you become engrossed by the film? (This is one of the reasons why contemporary movies are preceded with reminders to turn off your electronic devices; you’re there to draw your attention away from our physical reality for a couple of hours, and you don’t want anything yanking it back.)

Always-on smart devices such as the Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod change the nature of our physical environments: They add an information interaction layer to the place that wasn’t there before you turned on the cylinder in the room. Unlike a movie, however, these devices aren’t designed to capture your attention. In fact, these devices are designed to be unobtrusive; you’re only meant to be aware of their presence when you summon them by issuing a verbal command.

One can only assume that the form of these things is a compromise with the constraints imposed by current technology and the laws of physics. The ideal form for this class of devices is completely invisibile; we want them to be perceived not as devices at all, but as a feature of the environment. But is this really the ideal? Is it desirable for our physical environments to be always listening to us in the background?

Partly due to their design, we’re responding to these smart cylinders in a way that stands in stark contrast to how we received THE ARRIVAL OF A TRAIN. Instead of panicking and running out of the room, we’re placidly deploying these instruments of contextual collapse into our most intimate environments. What does the possibility of inadvertent broadcast do to our ability to speak frankly with each other, to rage with anger, to say sweet, corny things to each other, to share with our kids the naughty delight of “pull-my-finger” jokes?

Those panicky Parisians of 1896 would run out of the theater to a perfectly ordinary street, no threatening locomotive in sight. I bet they initially felt like fools. Soon enough, the novelty would pass; eventually, they’d be able to sit through — and enjoy — much longer, more exciting film entertainments. What about us? Is panic merited when we discover our rooms have ears and that others can listen to anything we say? Will we be able to run out of these rooms? How will we know?

Information Architecture as MacGuffin

SALLAH: Indy, you have no time. If you still want the ark, it is being loaded onto a truck for Cairo.
INDIANA: Truck? What truck?

This exchange from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) leads to one of the most thrilling car chases in movie history, in which our hero, Indiana Jones, fights his way onto the vehicle mentioned above. Onboard the truck is the Ark of the Covenant, which Nazis are trying to smuggle out of Egypt so their boss — Adolf Hitler — can use it to take over the world.

Sounds like a pretty important thing, right? Well, it isn’t. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the movie, the crated ark is wheeled into a nondescript government warehouse packed with similar crates as far as the eye can see. The implication: this thing, which we’ve just spent a couple of hours obsessing about, will soon be forgotten — as it should be. You don’t want the audience to go home thinking about the implications of having something as powerful as the ark out and about in the world.

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Places Are Making You Stupid

There are great tacos in the San Francisco Bay Area. My family and I are lucky to live near a small restaurant that makes good ones. It’s run by a family who knows what they’re doing when it comes to tacos. They also know what they’re doing when it comes to pricing, hospitality, and ambiance, so the place is always packed. It’s one of our favorite restaurants. Alas, as good as the tacos are, I have a beef with the place: it makes us stupid.

You see, one of the things about this restaurant that makes it popular is its cornice lined with televisions, always tuned to soccer matches. This feature of the place makes it difficult for my family to do what we want to do when we hang out: focus on each other. I’m a middle-aged man, and I find it difficult to keep my gaze from wandering to the screens. For my young children, it’s almost impossible. As a result, our conversations in this place seldom get deep; they’re jagged and scattered. (Until the food arrives — then conversation stops altogether. They are good tacos.)

You could say it’s not a big deal. We’re not at the taco place to do anything “mission critical,” right? But what if we are? What if we miss an opportunity to do a small kindness for each other, or fail to mention something that matters a great deal? (Or worse — what if we do say it but the other person misses it because somebody just scored a goal?) These little moments are the stuff our relationships — our lives — are made of. And this place snatches them from us. Its unstated policy is that the tribal experience of organized sports matters more than the experience of an intimate conversation.

Still, we’ve made a conscious decision to be there. Sometimes we’re not given a choice. For example, a friend of mine always complains about having to work in an open office “cube farm” where her co-workers make constant noises that destroy her concentration. The quality of her work in that environment is different than it’d be in a place that allowed her greater control over her attention. She can’t help but work there, and her work suffers. I, on the other hand, can choose where to work. I’m writing these words in my local public library. I find it easier to work here; the arrangement of furniture, the levels of light, the silence — all are conducive to helping get into a state of flow with my writing. This place is the converse of the taco restaurant or the open plan office: it makes me smarter.

So places can either augment or degrade your cognitive abilities. Some physical environments — such as the taco place — don’t let you do much about it; a quality conversation requires you to go elsewhere. In a noisy cube farm, you can shield your attention by putting on noise-isolation earphones. (Suggestion: Philip Glass’s Music in Twelve Parts.) Other places, like the library, augment some abilities (thinking, reading, writing) but not others (conversing.)

You can improve your cognitive abilities by re-configuring your physical environment — or moving altogether. That said, it’s worth noting that if you’re like most of us you’re also subject to interruptions from your electronic devices. Often, the configuration of these information environments will have as much of an impact on your performance as the configuration of your physical environments. So for a quick cognitive boost when you need to get things done, switch your devices to “do not disturb” mode. It’ll make you smarter, wherever you are.

I Fight for the Balance

Hang around long enough with UX designers, and you’ll hear someone say it: “I’m an advocate for the users.” If the designer is especially nerdy, she’ll quote Tron: “I fight for the users.” She’ll go on to explain she’s the one who brings the users’ voice into “the room.” (A euphemism to describe the project team.)

This is an alluring stance for designers to take. (I know — I’ve said it myself earlier in my career.) For one thing, it sounds heroic. (Again, cue the image of Tron holding his disc over his head, ready to sacrifice himself for what is just and good and true.) For another, it clarifies designers’ position vis-a-vis the tough decisions ahead. Or so they think.

© Disney
© Disney

As compelling as it may be, “I fight for the user” is a misguided position for designers to adopt. Yes, it’s important to consider the needs and expectations of the people who use the organization’s products and services. But user needs aren’t the only forces that influence design.

The subtext to “I fight for the user” is that in this context (in “the room”) the user needs a feisty advocate — perhaps because others don’t care. This sets up a false duality: if I’m here for the user, you’re here for other reasons: making money, saving money, reducing call center volume, etc.

This framing isn’t healthy. Everyone should come to the room with the understanding that user needs will be important. It’s table stakes. If this attitude is not present from the start, then the designer should strive to bring it into the room — but as a way of building alignment with colleagues, not drawing distinctions between them.

So if designers aren’t in the room to “fight for the user,” what are they there for? Designers are there to move the project towards alignment between forces that could otherwise pull it apart. These forces include (but aren’t limited to):

  • Deadlines
  • Budgetary constraints
  • Regulatory/legal constraints
  • Production constraints
  • Business goals
  • Customer needs
  • User needs
  • Social needs

Striking the correct balance between these forces requires understanding their relative importance, which varies from project to project. (For example, healthcare projects have different regulatory constraints than those in entertainment.)

The team may get the initial balance wrong. That’s why we test prototypes in real-world conditions: We establish feedback loops that move the product or service towards ever-better fit with its context or market. Design’s role is in this process is making the possible tangible, progressively moving from abstraction to concreteness as the team iterates through increasingly better prototypes.

Eventually, the product or service will be in good enough shape to put into production. Design’s role then shifts to translating the intended direction into artifacts that guide the people who will build it. This requires understanding what developers need to do their work effectively. (It’s worth noting that this doesn’t need to​ happen in a strictly sequential “waterfall” manner.)

Shepherding this process calls for clarity and nuance. Good designers understand the relevance and directionality of all the forces shaping the project. User needs are an essential force, but not the only one. To pretend otherwise is to do a disservice to ourselves, our organizations, and design itself.

Designing for “Smart” Agents Among Us

Earlier this week, Google demonstrated Duplex, an astonishing advance in human-computer interaction. If you haven’t seen the relevant part of Sundar Pichai’s presentation, please watch it now:

If you understand how computers work, you’ll know how difficult it is for computers to do what Duplex is doing in this video. The system seems to be forming accurate models of the evolving contexts it’s participating in. It also shows nuance in communicating back to its human interlocutors, injecting “ums” and “ahs” at the right moments. Again, all of this is very difficult. (That’s why the audience laughs at several points in the presentation; they know how improbable this thing they’re hearing is.)

It’s worth noting this demonstration doesn’t suggest an artificial general intelligence like HAL 9000 or C-3PO; Duplex seems to be modeling a relatively narrow area of human interactions. (Namely, making an appointment.) Still, the system sounds convincingly human, and that raises deep questions. The (human) interlocutors seem not to be aware that they’re talking to an artificial entity. Are they being manipulated? (Google has said the system will be transparent to the people who interact with it, but this didn’t come across in the demonstration.) What would widespread availability such technology do to relations between human beings, to our ability to empathize with others? What would it do to social inequity?

We’re not far from the day when interactions with convincingly-sounding artificial agents are commonplace. We will both deploy agents to do our bidding, and interact with agents that have been deployed by others to do theirs. Both scenarios will play out in information environments. What affordances and signifiers are required? How will we balance transparency and seamlessness? (And how will this balance evolve as we become accustomed to engaging with these agents?) How will we structure the information environments where these human-agent encounters happen so they augment (rather than erode) human-human interactions? How will we know such erosion isn’t happening? Interesting challenges ahead.

Design at a Higher Level

What does it mean to have a systemic approach to design? It’s not just about striving for a comprehensive understanding of the key components and actors in the system and how they relate to each other. For the complex problems and environments we’re facing today, that’s table stakes. Beyond this, designers must also understand the conditions that brought the system about to begin with. What key forces precipitated the need for the design intervention? Often, the problem we’re being asked to work on is a symptom of a deeper issue.

For example, imagine somebody in your organization has discovered an inefficiency in the way service personnel interacts with customers. You’re being asked to design a system that allows service reps to get a more comprehensive picture of interactions with customers. It’s great if the system you design can resolve the problem, but if it’s even better if the process of doing so also helps resolve the underlying organizational issues that brought it about to begin with.

Often these issues emerge not from technical deficiencies, but from social/political/organizational/interpersonal ones. You won’t find this stuff spelled out in RFPs! Discovering the underlying issues requires you to ask difficult questions. (The five whys framework is useful for this.) It also requires keen observation. Designing in such projects often calls for working with multiple stakeholders, people from groups that may not interact with each other day-to-day. What have you noticed happening among them? Where are the disconnects? Are they using different names to describe the same things — or worse, using the same names to describe different things? Why have these disconnects come about? What contextual conditions led to the situation? Are these conditions still relevant?

On the surface, even a complex system will address a set of requirements. Resolving them will add value to the organization, and (ideally) to society in general. But addressing the issues that brought about those issues to begin with will create even more value — especially if they’re resolved with a generative perspective that accounts for their ongoing evolution.

What’s Your Story?

A few years ago, I was going through a rough patch. Things were not going the way I hoped at work, and I was feeling frustrated. As so often happens, I took it out on my wife, Jimena. We argued. Now, these situations can often end badly, with one or both parties feeling hurt and resentful, perhaps even shutting down. But Jimena said something during the argument that broke me out of my funk and immediately made me realize how much of a jackass I was being. She said, “You need to stop playing the victim.”

That’s exactly what was happening. I was playing the victim. In my mind, I’d spun up a scenario in which I was being victimized by an (unspecified) third party. Nothing in the facts substantiated this. If you strained, perhaps you could imagine an interpretation of the situation in which I was intentionally victimized, but the scenario didn’t survive Occam’s razor. There were many more plausible explanations for what was happening. I hadn’t even realized I was feeling victimized until Jimena called it out. I’d done it completely unconsciously.

Hearing the word “victim” made me stop in my tracks. What if I wasn’t a victim in this situation? What would it look like? How would I approach it differently? What avenues for action did the new perspective open up? I felt an immediate sense of relief. I apologized to Jimena, and we talked through possible solutions.

We’re constantly telling ourselves stories about what’s happening “out there” in the world. Some of these stories (like the one about me being victimized) are unhelpful; they make it difficult for us to accomplish our goals. Other stories help us predict outcomes more accurately and therefore help us act more skillfully. Whether they help or not, they’re still stories. Reality gets along quite well without our interpretations of what’s going on.

Design requires that we empathize with people who may be very different from ourselves. It’s inherent to how design works; if you must become a neurosurgeon before you can design a system to help patients suffering from brain trauma, there won’t be many such systems around. Having a powerful narrative underlying your understanding of reality can make it difficult for you to see things clearly from other perspectives.

So as designers, we must be especially conscious of the stories we overlay on the world, and whether those narratives are helping or hindering us. Often — as with my case above — we may not even know we’re doing it. We just take for granted that that’s how the world works. Except it doesn’t — and believing that it does keeps us from achieving our full potential.

The True Power of Design

At the beginning of every new endeavor, there is chaos: A jumble of disparate ideas, people, and things that only hint at possible directions; a mess pregnant with latent value. Manifesting that value calls for coherence. It calls for us to bring order to the chaos.

A new order establishes new distinctions between things and new relationships between them. What exactly are we dealing with? What is it? What is it not? How is it different from things that precede it? What are its constituent parts? How does part A affect part B? (Is part A subservient to part B? Its peer? A container?) How do the people who will be impacted understand them? And so on.

We use language to give names to things; to set them apart from other things. We describe how they act, how they influence each other. We cut some bonds and establish others. We create cognitive constructs that allow the new endeavor to manifest as a real, practical thing in the world. (Charles Eames: “The quality of the connections is the key to quality itself.”)

The new order brings coherence to a small part of the universe. It gives you a new understanding of your health, your job, your diet, your marriage, your relationship to society. Or maybe its something of less consequence. (A compelling new way to whittle away your remaining time, perhaps?)

Whatever it is, the new order changes how you understand a part of the world, and therefore your behavior. How do you know it works? It produces results: People adopt the new model and use it to decide and act. An effective model requires no coercion: the new framework itself is compelling and useful enough to drive change.

At least that’s the ideal. Most new orders are a messy combination of some things that work and others that don’t. Remember: this is all emerging from chaos. By definition, the first draft will be rough. Over time, you’ll iterate towards a more precise set of distinctions and connections; towards an progressively clearer direction. (By “precise” we mean distinctions and connections that are crisp enough to achieve the results you want without compromising the society that makes the whole thing possible to begin with.)

Steve Jobs famously said that “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” An important and useful distinction that has helped design move beyond the futility of mere aesthetics. Alas, a distinction that still presupposes the going concern is an it. The true power of design doesn’t manifest in ever-more compelling doohickeys; it manifests in the conceptual frameworks that make it possible for such things come into being — or whether it is even desirable for them to do so in the first place.

Designers and Makers

You may be familiar with this object:

Photo by Hiart, via Wikimedia

This is the Eames LCW chair, which Time magazine called “the chair of the century.”

If you’ve ever seen one in person, you’ll know how alluring this chair is: its shape, size, and materials entice you to sit down and chill out. Although it was designed in the 1940s, the LCW looks contemporary. (Or rather, timeless.) The LCW is also well-suited to the commercial interests of its manufacturer, Herman Miller: it can be fabricated and sold at a profit. In short, it’s a classic.

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