Making Apple’s Ecosystem More Coherent

This post appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.

Last week, Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference (or WWDC.) At this annual event, the company announces significant changes coming to its software platforms (including iOS, the iPhone’s operating system.) As with many other such gatherings this year, WWDC 2020 was held online. But that’s not what interests me most about this year’s event. Instead, I was intrigued by the steps Apple is taking to bring coherence to its ecosystem.

Apple is in a unique position in this regard. The company makes operating systems for a variety of computing device form factors: phones (iOS), tablets (iPadOS), watches (watchOS), TVs (tvOS), and personal computers (macOS). Apple competes with other companies in each platform segment, but no other company has strong contenders in every platform segment.

All of these Apple platforms have “family resemblances.” A first-time Apple Watch user will find details and interactions that are reminiscent of what she’s experienced on her iPhone. This makes the system more learnable and pleasant.

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Gaining Clarity in Times of Uncertainty

Professors Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung writing in the Harvard Business Review:

Feeling uncertain is not a natural state of being for us — it signals to the brain that things are not right. The brain then seeks out information to resolve the uncertainty. This desire for resolution is why feelings of uncertainty lead us to process information more systematically and deeply in the hope of finding answers.

But the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in a quandary: Our natural instinct is to try to resolve our intense feelings of uncertainty, but there is so much uncertainty around the virus and its effects that a quest for complete resolution is futile. So what can we do?

They answer with cognitive and emotional tactics for coping with three types of uncertainty:

  • Probability
  • Ambiguity
  • Complexity

The tactics are presented in the context of how we can cope as individuals, but they also apply to teams. Faced with uncertain choices, and no obvious prospects for greater clarity, teams and organizations may become paralyzed.

This is an area where strategic design initiatives can help. Design research consolidates understanding; it generates information and insights that bring cognitive (in the form of data) and emotional (in the form of commitment) clarity to teams.

When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty

Design in the Post-pandemic World

Description:

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world. Businesses are scrambling to serve their customers in a new reality. Many companies are looking for new ways to provide value over digital channels and having to do so in a context of great uncertainty.

We’re not returning to the pre-pandemic world. Many of the changes we’re making now will be with us for a long time. This moment is an inflection point, a unique opportunity to shift the ways we work and create value. As designers, we must ask: What is our role in bringing forth new realities? How might new solutions better serve human needs?

The Blind Spot in Digital Initiatives

A few weeks ago, I saw a meme that resonated with me. It had the format of a survey question, and it went something like this:

Who initiated your company’s digital transformation?

A) CIO
B) CTO
C) COVID-19

Cue nervous laughter: all-too-real. Our response to the pandemic has wrought major changes. For one thing, everyone who can do so is now working from home. Businesses are scrambling to figure out how to best serve their customers in this new reality. There’s also a palpable sense that many of these changes will persist after the immediate crisis passes. As a result, many companies are looking for new ways to provide value over digital channels.

Most recognize that there are two aspects to digital initiatives. On the one hand, there are technical considerations: selecting and configuring infrastructure, developing applications on that infrastructure, and so on. We can think of these as the “how” of the initiative: How will we serve these customers? Should we host systems on our premises, in the cloud, or some kind of hybrid solution? Should we develop solutions internally, or should we buy an off-the-shelf product? Etc. These types of questions have traditionally been the domain of IT teams.

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Internal and External Language

One of the keys to designing an effective information system is defining the concepts people must understand to use the system. What are its key components? How do they relate to each other? How do they differ? What should we call them?

This last question is especially important. The words we use to label system elements affect how people understand them and the system as a whole. Terms people are familiar with can make the system more learnable. However, familiar terms may also raise undesirable expectations.

Proposing “good” language requires that we understand both the system and the people who need to use it. How do these people see the conceptual domain? Do they already have words or phrases to describe comparable features or functionality? Are any of these terms ambiguous or otherwise misleading?

Answering these questions is why we do research. Concept maps are useful artifacts in these early research stages of projects. Although these maps are abstract (and therefore potentially confusing), they can elicit feedback on whether we’re creating useful distinctions and labeling them with understandable terms.
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Making the Company’s Vision Tangible

An article in the Harvard Business Review offers a reminder of the importance of having a clear company vision. It also makes the point that you don’t have to be the CEO to contribute to that vision:

A simple, bold, inspirational vision can feel almost magical: it brings people throughout the company together around a common goal and provides a focal point for developing strategies to achieve a better future. Unfortunately, however, building a vision has become more associated with a company’s top-level leadership than the managers in the rest of the organization.

The article offers three ways in which managers and leaders can help form the organization’s vision:

  • By helping the CEO in his or her vision-building efforts
  • By translating the vision to make it relevant to individual teams
  • By catalyzing a vision from the bottom-up

It’s not mentioned in the article, but I’ll say it again: making the vision more tangible is one of the great (and often, unacknowledged) roles of design. Many companies see their design functions as tactical. They see designers as the people who make engineering’s work more engaging, appealing, or usable. This perspective misses an important part of the value of design.

At a more strategic level, design offers organizations the ability to make possibilities tangible. It’s not just about production work; it’s also about helping the organization test what can otherwise be abstract or ambiguous directions. It’s one thing to tell people about your vision for the future. It’s quite another to demonstrate what that vision will look and feel like with real artifacts you can put in front of people, to test new ways of being in the world.

The power to do so is latent in all design organizations. Actualizing it calls for a reframing of what designers do. Production work is a significant contribution, but helping make visions tangible (and testable!) is a more valuable strategic role for design.

You Don’t Have to Be CEO to Be a Visionary Leader

Label-less Buttons

From a report on The Verge:

Starting [February 27], Spotify is rolling out a new look to its iPhone app. The changes prioritize universal icons and visual indicators over written words, which Spotify says makes the app a more accessible experience for users all over the world.

In other words, the app is ditching labels in buttons, and going only with icons.

As noted above, the objective is to make the experience more accessible globally. I’m taking this to mean that interfaces with few or no words on them are easier to translate into different languages than those that include words. But that’s a gain for designers and developers, not necessarily for users.

This label-less approach to buttons works best when working in a domain that already has rich iconography. Spotify operates in such a domain — i.e., music players. If you had to design an interface with buttons to play, pause, go backwards or forwards, you’d have a clear starting point; we’ve had devices with buttons that accommodate these behaviors for a long time. My preferred music player (Apple Music) also has label-less buttons for those actions:

Apple Music

Modern music-playing apps must also accommodate other actions that may not have well-known icons. For example, the video above highlights the user downloading a track to their phone. In the new Spotify UI, the button for this action shows a downward-pointing arrow inside a circle. Downloading tracks from the internet to local devices hasn’t been around as long as play/pause/rewind has. I’d bet more folks would get tripped up by such a button in the absence of labels.

Note in the video that some buttons in the new Spotify interface don’t have icons at all; they consist solely of labels. For example, the “Follow” button simply consists of the word “Follow.” When pressed, the label changes to “Following” to indicate the object’s changed state. This is a rich interaction that would be difficult to communicate clearly using only icons.

Spotify is rolling out a new look for iOS that ditches word-based buttons

Designers as Team Players

A useful reminder by Enrique Allen in Designer Fund’s blog:

Often as designers, our natural tendency is to emphasize the importance of our craft, instead of focusing on the impact it has on the bottom line.

The post goes on to describe a high-level framework of twenty areas (“levers”) where design can impact the bottom line, including specific ways that the organization can make and save money.

For designers to be effective, we must be aware of the business’ needs and aspirations. We’ll only be taken seriously to the degree that we can help the organization succeed towards the dimensions it cares about.

Of course, that doesn’t mean these are the only dimensions worth pursuing. For example, the design process may uncover a situation in which a particular business decision may be at odds with the needs and aspirations of the organization’s customers. Designers can then help resolve the impasse.

But we can only do so if we’re taken seriously by our colleagues. And we’ll only be taken seriously to the extent we’ve shown commitment to helping the business grow. As I’ve written before, it’s misguided to think of design as “fighting for the users.” Instead, our aim should be to bring various forces – including the users’ needs — into balance.

Designers enjoy a unique vantage point in the organization. We are connectors. We’re tasked with understanding the needs and concerns of various stakeholders — including our users — and making things that meet those needs efficiently and effectively. We test and refine these things, over and over. Through this process, design can bring alignment and clarity to the organization.

There’s incredible power latent in modeling possibilities. The degree to which we can employ this power towards the common good will depend on the degree to which we act as team players.

The 20 Levers for Return on Design | Designer Fund

LEGO: An Appreciation

I took Christmas Day off: no client work, no podcast editing, no writing. Instead, I spent the day playing with my kids. Mostly, we built LEGO sets.

Although I am not an AFOL, LEGO is an important part of my life. I use it in my systems class and have written about some lessons it holds for systems thinkers. More importantly, I love playing with LEGO. It’s my favorite toy — and has been since I was a child.

Yesterday, as I helped my daughter build set #10260, I reflected on why I love the bricks so much. It boils down to the following:

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