Architecture and Identity

LEGO House. Image: LEGO
LEGO House. Image: LEGO

At their most basic level, buildings — our homes, offices, shops, etc. — protect us from the elements. They give us ways to carry out our activities in environments that keep our bodies safe, warm, and dry. They make it possible for us to convene as groups to get things done ​while keeping us and our goods safe.

However, buildings do more than merely provide for these basic needs. They’re also physical manifestations of the political, social, and cultural environments that produced them. They tell stories about who we are as a people and inform our sense of group identity — whether the group is a nation or a company.

This year we’ve seen the opening of two major architectural projects that have been explicitly created to embody the identity of the organizations that produced them: Apple Park and LEGO House. Apple Park is a manifestation of Apple’s values in the form of a building complex: it uses innovative construction techniques and materials in service of sleek, practical, elegant tools. It is an act of design and technical bravado, without gaudiness — just like the products Apple fans love.

LEGO House also manifests the values of the company that created it in the form of a building:

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be inside a real LEGO® House? That’s why we built this world of creative experiences. Discover the magic behind the brand, and the endless possibilities for play and learning with the inspiring LEGO brick.

LEGO goes on to explain how the environment is structured:

When children play, they are having fun, experimenting, tinkering, messing around and making mistakes. In other words, they are learning.

The process of playing and learning while having fun is a holistic balance of five overlapping competences.

In LEGO® House, these core competences are laid out as physical spaces.

In Red Zone, we have made plenty of room for creativity. In Blue Zone, we stimulate your cognitive abilities. In Yellow Zone, emotions will take centre stage, and Green Zone is all about social play. The outdoor areas cater for physical play, spatial awareness – and letting off steam!

All activities in the LEGO House Experience Zones embody the LEGO Learning Through Play philosophy. 

In other words, here people can experience LEGO’s brand values by inhabiting a place structured explicitly to embody them. While Apple Park is designed primarily as an office building with a symbolic function, LEGO House was designed to be a destination for LEGO fans visiting the company’s birthplace and headquarters (Billund, Denmark.) It allows them to converge in a place where they can experience the brand’s values in physical space, therefore reinforcing their identity as “LEGO people.”

Like buildings, information environments also have symbolic functions. Your bank’s website is not just a means for you to carry out financial transactions; it also embodies the bank’s brand values and (in ideal cases) encourages you to feel like part of the tribe. A well-designed information environment can inform and foster group identity. Have you thought about the ways yours does it? Does the environment feel ordered? Is it aligned with the organization’s values? Does it feel secure? Is it clean? Friendly? Sober? How do people think differently about this place than others like it? (Do they?) Addressing these issues explicitly during the design process helps us create environments people not only use, but can also relate to and embrace as part of their identity.

Platforms and Ecosystems

I’ve written about how “product” is the wrong framing for many digital things. After I published that post, I’ve heard back from some people asking why not talk about platforms as the objects we’re designing, instead of ecosystems. After all, “platform” is a more common word in the world of software.

First, it’s important to clarify: “ecosystems” is not the right framing either. I’m not convinced we can design an ecosystem, and if we could we don’t have a history of doing so we can refer to. We can be stewards of an ecosystem, but not its designers. What we can design are information environments that support ecosystems. This is an important difference. We have a history of designing environments (architecture and urban design) to refer to as we create these new contexts that are serving host to so many of our activities.

Now, why use the word “environment” instead of “platform”? Well, “platform” connotes a technology-centric view of the situation while “environment” connotes an actor-centric view. We live in environments. They are the contexts in which we operate. Platforms, on the other hand, are what we build upon. Both terms refer to systemic contexts, it’s a question of what we’re focused on when designing them: people or technology.

These are not mere semantic quibbles. The language we use has a powerful impact on how we understand what we do and therefore how we do it. (This is a fundamental concept in the design of information environments, so it behooves us to be as precise as possible with language.)

Prescriptive and Emergent Structures

One of the dimensions in which I categorize information environments is the degree to which they are open to re-configuration by their users. Some environments have structures designed to enable prescribed experiences while others have structures that encourage emergent (read: unscripted) experiences to happen.

For example, if you are designing a website to support the marketing of a product, you probably want people to eventually purchase the product. But to get to the place where they do so, they must first learn about the product. There is a causal relationship between these activities: one must come before the other. (This is what is called a “sales funnel.”) In this case, the website’s structure must ​allow people to learn about the product at their own pace, but it must also make it easy for them to find the checkout page. This calls for a top-down structure that encourages this behavior and remains invariant through the interaction.

Compare this with an environment designed for people to collaborate on multiple projects. Users in such a place must be able to create new project spaces and arrange them in different ways suited to the needs of each project. Some projects may require more interpersonal collaboration while others may require a greater focus on documentation. These uses call for different structural arrangements, so the designer of the underlying information environment should create structures that encourage end users to re-configure it for their particular needs in each project. (This can be done using user-configured navigation bars, tags, and other UI widgets.)

An environment such as this that was structured too rigidly would be stifling, just as an environment that allowed users to do whatever they wanted would not accommodate the sales funnel very well. Designers must understand the uses the environment is meant to accommodate so they can decide how flexible it should be.

It’s worth noting that in both cases designers are defining structure; determining the contents and location of a global navigation bar is as much a structural decision as deciding that the contents and location of the navigation bar will be defined by its users later. So is implementing a user-facing tagging system. The only difference is that the latter encourages the emergence of structural constructs the designers of the underlying environment can’t foresee. As with so many things, this can be an asset in some cases and a liability in others.

Breaking News

In a year filled with bad news, October 1 and 2, 2017 were particularly bad. First came state violence in the referendum for Catalan independence. This was followed by the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, which left 59 people dead and more than 520 injured. Then the rock musician Tom Petty suffered a heart attack which eventually killed him. All three incidents unfolded — as all incidents do — as a sequence of events in time.

Seeing news items in chronological order is key to understanding what happened. But you wouldn’t necessarily be able to follow along if you were reading about them in social media like Facebook and Twitter. This is because these information environments present posts in a sequence determined by algorithms (ostensibly) designed to keep you engaged. Under normal conditions, you may not care about reading the latest posts in the order they were published. For example, you may have a very chatty aunt who incessantly posts photos of her grandchildren; in a strictly chronological news feed, your aunt’s posts would often dominate your feed, turning you off from the platform. Changing the sequence of posts to an “interest”-based order (where interest is somehow determined by algorithms based on your profile, preferences, and behavior) allows other voices to break through her posts.

This non-chronological approach fails spectacularly when you want to learn the latest information about a story. For example, on the evening of October 1 — when the massacre was unfolding in Las Vegas — a friend of mine posted on Facebook asking what was going on there and whether or not it was a mass shooting. This was a reasonable thing to ask as the event was happening. However, it didn’t seem reasonable the day after the incident had played itself out and everyone knew that yes, in fact, it was a mass shooting. Alas, this (Oct 2) is when Facebook showed me my friend’s post as though it was “news.” (I use the word “news” in quotes, but Facebook itself calls the place where you see your friends’ posts the “news feed.” To me, “news” implies that you’re going to be seeing the latest, which isn’t the case on​ Facebook.)

Twitter also fails the breaking news test, but for different reasons. Although it also messes around with the sequence of posts (by starting their news feed with an “in case you missed it” section that is algorithmically determined), the main issue with Twitter is that the “freshness” of posts in the timeline can be affected by whether or not they are retweeted. So if I follow you, and you retweet post from two days ago, it will appear at the top of my timeline as the newest thing. This was the case with Petty’s death: The earliest reports said the singer had suffered cardiac arrest, then CBS (a credible source) reported he’d died, then they retracted the story. All the while, the earlier reports of the singer dying were being retweeted, along with condolences from other celebrities. This led to a situation of uncertainty and confusion. (Alas, Mr. Petty succumbed later in the day.)

Twitter bills itself as “what’s happening in the world,” but in an emerging urgent situation neither it or Facebook works​ very well to keep us informed. An algorithmically determined feed can be more engaging under normal circumstances, but simple chronological order — showing the most recent items first — would serve us much better at times we need to learn the latest. This may call for something like a “breaking news” mode that switches the UI in these environments​ from the algorithmically-determined order to something simpler. In times such as these, this may even be the more engaging approach.

Living in Information

Digital systems — such as Facebook, Wikipedia, and your bank’s website — are more than products or tools: They create contexts that change the way we interact, think, understand, and act. In many ways, they function like places. This presentation covers three perspectives from architecture that are essential if we are to create digital products and services that serve our needs. These perspectives are:

  1. The importance of having a solid conceptual structure
  2. Understanding these structures as part of a broader system
  3. Accommodating change by ensuring the system’s resilience

I first delivered a 20-minute version of this talk in September 2017 at the Design Gurus Summit in San Francisco. Here are the slides from that version of the talk:

The presentation is based on a book I’m writing — also tentatively titled Living in Information — which is scheduled to be published by Two Waves (a Rosenfeld Media imprint) in 2018.

The Map, the Territory, and the Fitness Tracker

I recently concluded a year-long experiment with the Muse meditation headband. The Muse is a fascinating device that sits on your head (rather like eyeglasses, but resting on your forehead instead of your nose) and measures your brain activity during meditation practice. By connecting with your phone over Bluetooth, the headband gives you feedback in the form of an audio landscape: If your brain is hectic you hear the distant rumbling of storm clouds, and if it calms you hear birdsong. It’s lovely.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the experiment was that I got caught up in Muse’s “gamification” angle: the app encourages you to meditate every day by keeping track of how many days in a row you’ve been doing it. This is much like Snapchat’s “streaks” feature, which encourages you to build the habit of using the app by keeping a ​tally of how many days in a row you’ve engaged with it. After a few days of continuous engagement, the sunk cost fallacy takes over: You don’t want to have to start over, and therefore have an incentive to do it one more time.

For most of the last thirty years, my meditation practice has been sporadic. Sometimes (especially on vacation) I could go many weeks without sitting on the cushion. That changed over the last year as I started using the Muse headband. I now had a reason — however tenuous — to develop a strong habit, and I did.

The “Me” dashboard in the Muse app. Note the various gamification elements.

Last week I opened the Muse app to show it to a colleague ​and realized that my 139-day streak had ended. The app showed I had meditated zero days in a row in my current streak, even though I was pretty sure I’d done a session the day before. Was it an error in the system? I doubted myself. Had I really done the session or not? Was I really going to have to start over again after almost half a year of consistent use?

And then it dawned on me: does it matter? After all, the benefits of meditation have nothing to do with accruing an arbitrary currency in an information environment. (In fact, some meditation traditions insist that if you’re struggling towards a goal you’re doing it wrong.) I decided to end the experiment and am now back to meditating on my own, with no devices other than a simple timer. There is one difference, though: the habit has stuck; I’ve been doing it every day since without the need for external validation. So I consider my time spent with Muse a worthwhile investment. However, it was enlightening to realize how even something as personal and introspective as meditation can be turned into an act of persuasion. (For positive ends, in this case.)

Alfred Korzybski said, “The map is not the territory.” Well, my Muse streak is not my meditation practice, my Apple Watch’s health rings are not the state of my health, my Sleep Cycle “sleep quality” measure is not the actual quality of my sleep, and the number on my bathroom scale’s LCD screen is not an inherent characteristic of my well-being. These things are signs on a map that is constantly being redrawn, expressing diverse aspects of a territory that is in a ​constant state of flux. They help me be a better steward of this domain, but they are not the domain itself. In information environments, this separation between the map and the territory can seem to dissolve, and we must work to bring the focus back to what matters: being here and now — much as one does in meditation.

TAOI: Android Oreo Notifications

The architecture of information:

The way notifications work is one of the most important design features of smartphones. Your phone is always with you and always connected to the internet, so you want it to alert you when something important comes up. However, many apps want to capture your attention for reasons that aren’t aligned with yours. If you don’t want to fiddle with settings, you can easily become overwhelmed with trivial notifications that bury the important stuff.

Smartphone operating systems have traditionally presented notifications in a chronological list. Oreo — latest version of Android — is trying something different. Dieter Bohns explains in a review of Oreo for The Verge:

my favorite new feature in Oreo is the more readable notification shade, which orders your alerts by priority. The “Major Ongoing” alerts for things like playing songs or navigation will be pinned to the top slot, so they don’t get lost. Below that is a section Google calls “People to People,” for messaging alerts. Then, there’s “General” for everything else, and a new section called “BTW” that’s shoved down to the bottom.

I’m curious to see how well this works for people with lots of notifications. Who determines what should be in the “Major Ongoing” category? The “BTW” label is also curious — I wonder how many non-geeky people know that stands for “by the way.” (And also, what determines that something belongs in the BTW category?) In any case, this seems like an interesting approach to improving the notifications experience on the phone.

TAOI: Hoodmaps

The architecture of information:

Hoodmaps is “a crowdsourced map to divide cities up into hipsters, tourists, rich, normies, suits, and uni areas.” It allows you to mark up cities using a set of peculiar categories:


Hipsters, Rich, Tourists, Suits, Uni, Normies. All taxonomies express a point of view; this one is particularly opinionated.

Architectural Bravado

The most astonishing innovation introduced at this week’s Apple event is the entrance to the Steve Jobs Theater in the company’s new campus.

Entrance of the Steve Jobs Theater. This image is from a great photo series taken during the iPhone X introduction and published by Re/code.

This design raises so many questions. How does this roof resist the force of gravity? (It’s made of carbon fiber, so it must be incredibly light. It has to be since there are no columns; the roof is supported by the building’s glass walls.) How do the lamps get electricity? (I’m guessing there are thin wires between the panes of glass.) How do you drain water from the roof? How do you insulate this space? How does heating/air conditioning work? I have no idea and would love to find out. This looks like a structure that should not be physically possible. And yet, there it is. Achieving this “floating roof” effect required rethinking many architectural precepts.

That buildings like this exist says something about the maturity of architecture as a design discipline. “We’ve figured out the basic problem of safely sheltering people from the elements,” the Steve Jobs Theater seems to say, “now let’s go for the gusto.” Clients have the sophistication to assign considerable resources to realizing the implications of this statement, and architects have enough self-confidence to go through with it. Both parties are willing to explore the possibilities offered by new materials and take expensive risks.

Contrast this with another event that has been in the news recently: the breach of Equifax’s security systems, which led to the confidential information of 143 million people being compromised, and the company’s botched response. Following the disclosure of the breach, Equifax put up a website so incompetently designed that it led people to question whether it was actually a phishing site. Equifax’s information environment hasn’t mastered the basics yet; it’s not even effectively keeping us from getting soaked in the rain, so to speak. And yet, given the scope of the breach and the importance of the information that was leaked, it’s clear this information environment has a larger impact on our society than any building. We are willing to assign resources to playful bravado in one type of environment, while in the other we seemingly haven’t mastered the basics — even though the stakes are much higher. Why is this?