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 collapsed 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 for 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 informed its 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

The Bridge Model

In a 2008 paper in ACM’s Interactions, Hugh Dubberly, Shelley Evenson, and Rick Robinson presented the Analysis-Synthesis Bridge Model. This bridge model describes how designers move from the understanding of a problem domain to a proposed solution. It’s laid out along two dimensions:

Bridge model matrix

On the left half, you have the current state you’re addressing, while the right half represents the future (changed) state. (The authors refer to “the solution, preferred future, concept, proposed response, form.”) The bottom row corresponds to tangible conditions in the world that we can observe and interact with, while the top row refers to abstract models of those things. The design process goes from the lower left quadrant — a solid understanding of conditions in the “real” world through abstraction towards a tangible construct that represents a possible future:

Bridge model

While it seems to imply a clear linear progression (something I’ve seldom experienced in real projects), this model corresponds closely to how I design — especially when dealing with complex domains. I can’t sketch tangible structures (e.g., wireframes, sitemaps, etc.) without having 1) a solid understanding of the domain and 2) models that describe it. This requires spending time dealing with abstract models — and abstraction makes people uncomfortable. Clients want to get as quickly as possible to the lower right quadrant, where they can see and interact with things that look like the thing they’ve hired me to produce. (E.g., prototypes.)

But it’s important to acknowledge that when dealing with complex systems, you’re doing clients a disservice by jumping straight to screens. You really must figure out the structures that underlie the domain first, and that requires devising models — both of the current and future states. The bridge model is a useful tool to help explain how the process works and why abstraction is important to a successful outcome.

The Analysis-Synthesis Bridge Model

Book Notes: “Design Unbound”

Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World
By Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown
The MIT Press, 2018

Most people think design is about making better things: a more engaging website, a more usable gadget, a more satisfying experience, a bigger logo, etc. More enlightened folks will quote Steve Jobs, saying that design isn’t how something looks but how it works. While that sentiment is indeed a deeper take on design, it still misses an important point: design is not just about making things, it’s also a way of knowing and intervening in the world. And it’s a special way, since it allows us to tackle what Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber dubbed wicked problems.

Most designers (or the general public, for that matter) don’t see design in this light. This book aims to change that. The preface to the first volume spells out the works’ goal:

Design Unbound set out to define a new tool set for the world we find ourselves in — a world that is rapidly changing, increasingly interconnected, and where, because of this increasing interconnectivity, everything is more contingent on everything else happening around it — much more so than ever before.

The authors use the analogy of white water kayaking to describe complex decision-making under such dynamic conditions. Navigating a turbulent river calls for a completely different approach than doing so in a calm lake. “The interesting thing about white water rivers is that they are navigable,” they state, “but under new terms.”

What new terms? Design Unbound offers a set of design practices and mental models – “an offspring of complexity science, married to architectural design” — to help us navigate complex challenges. These “tools” include a reframing of design briefs, critique, ambiguity, skills, emergence, world-building, networks, and “intervals of possibility.” The book also features several meta-tools, which reframe design practice itself for work at a higher level of abstraction.

These concepts are presented in five books over two volumes. The authors suggest that the work doesn’t need to be read linearly, and offer a useful (and beautiful) guide to its content:

A map to the content in Design Unbound

This is a map for pragmatic design-doing — not for making widgets better (or even better widgets), but operating at a much higher, systemic level: that of social, economic, ecologic transformation. Design enables us to engage these domains through abductive reasoning, a different way of knowing (and acting in) the world than the better-known modalities of deductive and inductive reasoning. I first encountered this powerful idea in Nigel Cross’s Designerly Ways of Knowing, where it’s presented in the abstract. Design Unbound offers concrete practices that allow us to put it in action.

The two volumes of this work comprise a rich and valuable framework for tackling some of our most pressing and complex challenges. I’ll be returning to its pages often, both in my practice and teaching.

Buy it on Amazon:

Design Unbound, Vol. 1

Design Unbound, Vol. 2

The Logic of Conjecture

I once worked with a stakeholder who was into numbers. We were redesigning the company’s primary navigation system. We’d planned some quantitative tests on the new structures, but they weren’t enough. Our stakeholder wanted decisions based on hard data. I sensed that this was a call for certainty; a way to dispel criticism of the work, to provide cover in a tough political environment.

Certainty is a tricky aspiration. Design is, by definition, uncertain: You’re trying to give tangible form to a possible future so that you can test it. You go into this knowing that early iterations will be wrong. (Hopefully, they’ll be usefully wrong.) The whole point is to start a feedback loop that leads to something good.

How do you know it’s good? Because it’s evolved through interactions with the real world. You’ve put it (or something that looks and feels and works like it) in front of real people, you’ve seen them use it, you’ve changed it based on their reactions. At some point in the process, you start to develop confidence in the direction. (Only confidence; never certainty.) The early stages are fuzzy. Yes, data can help — mostly, to give you a read on the current context. But data can’t dictate design directions. That requires design intelligence, experience, and craft. (Perhaps the day will come when algorithms can do part of this work, but they’re not here today.) This is what designers call abductive reasoning.

In his book Designerly Ways of Knowing, Nigel Cross introduces the concept by contrasting it with inductive and deductive reasoning:

[Philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce] suggested that ‘Deduction proves that something must be; induction shows that something actually is operative; abduction merely suggests that something may be.’ It is therefore the logic of conjecture…

Design ability is therefore founded on the resolution of ill-defined problems by adopting a solution-focussing strategy and productive or appositional styles of thinking.

I love this image of design as a solution-focussing strategy. It suggests that while the goal is clarity, getting there requires dealing with fuzziness. Ideally, the process moves from an ambiguous state to one that is sharp and detailed. In the course of the project, you get a better sense of what the solution is.

Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown’s Design Unbound describes abductive reasoning thus:

[it] is often understood as a “best guess” hypothetical reasoning — a form of logical inference in which an observation leads to a hypothesis which might explain the observation. The hypothesis can then be tested. In abduction, one is seeking the simplest and most likely explanation, without enough facts for a foothold on certainty.

Designers need to acknowledge that working like this can be scary, especially in projects undertaken under challenging conditions and/or where there’s a lot at stake. It’s scary because there’s a lot of uncertainty in the process, especially early on, and people whose jobs are on the line will want to reduce uncertainty as much as possible. It’s also scary because this requires trusting the people shepherding the process; there’s no cover in numbers. The upside: abductive reasoning can help teams deal skillfully with complex, ill-defined problems. It can lead to a good solution faster than any other approach I know. (Note I didn’t say it’ll lead to the perfect solution — for complex problems, there’s no such thing.)

Adaptive Path 2001-2019

For a particular generation of designers, the name Adaptive Path holds special meaning. No matter where in the world you were practicing, if you were doing what we now call “user experience” design, you were likely to be paying attention to this most prominent of UX consultancies. Its founders included luminaries of the field, many of whom were (are) vocal in sharing what they learned both through blogs and in the conference circuit. Over the years, AP contributed much to our understanding of what it means to practice good UX design.

I’m using the past tense because now that name is no more. In a short Medium post published yesterday, the AP brand bade us farewell; it is henceforth to be fully integrated into Capital One, the financial services company that acquired Adaptive Path in 2014.

AP stopped taking on external clients at that time. For those of us who were consulting elsewhere, this meant they were effectively out of the playing field. With one exception: even after the acquisition, Adaptive Path kept putting on some of the best yearly design conferences in the world. I was fortunate to speak and/or lead workshops at the most prominent of these: UX Week.

I was confused by the way the Medium post described the future of AP’s events:

it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to our beloved Adaptive Path brand, and to all our events like UX Week, LX: Leading Experience, The Service Experience Conference, and design intensives.

Does this mean these events won’t happen anymore? Or merely that they won’t happen under those brands? In the ensuing discussion on Twitter, we got confirmation that the events are done, at least in the form we knew them:

As cliched as this sounds, this marks the end of an era. A small design consultancy has a very different character than a large financial services company; the types of events and “thought leadership” that come out of either will be (by necessity) very different. Even in its post-acquisition state, AP continued serving an important role in the UX design community through its events. Their withdrawal from the market leaves a large vacuum.

Thanks for everything, Adaptive Path. I learned a lot from you all over the years. It was a privilege to be associated with you, even if only in minor and tangential ways. To my former AP friends at Capital One: I wish you the best and look forward to seeing what you come up with next.