Synchronizing the Pace of Communications

I was once a director in a team responsible for the online presence of a large company. At one point, the VP who oversaw our department had us take Myers-Briggs profile tests. I wasn’t sold on the profiles (and still aren’t), but I did learn something which has proven useful throughout my life: that different people have different paces when communicating. Specifically, some people process what they hear very fast and respond immediately, while others take more time. (This doesn’t imply these people are smarter or better than the others — they’re just different.)

When the two types interact, the differences in their paces can cause all sorts of trouble. People with very short feedback cycles become impatient when interacting with people who take longer. Conversely, people who take longer can feel overwhelmed and ignored by people with fast paces. Being aware of these differences can go a long way to improving communications, since each party can adjust their interventions to improve the flow of ideas and ensure the other is being heard.

Teams, too, have communication paces. Let’s say you’re a member of a company’s design team. You and your fellow designers are focused on different aspects of a product or service. You come together periodically to “synch up” with each other (either remotely or in person); perhaps it’s a Monday morning meeting where everyone shares what they’ve done and learned, the challenges they’re facing, etc. Eventually, ​you establish a rhythm of work dictated by these weekly meetings; you expect to see and produce progress at this pace.

Now imagine you’re asked to work with a group of stakeholders in another department. The folks on this team don’t have weekly check-in meetings; they’re on a two-week cycle. As a result of this difference in schedules, your requests for feedback take longer than you expect — sometimes weeks longer. Eventually, you become frustrated and perhaps even start suspecting your counterparts’ motives and/or competence.

It’s easier to adjust your own pace than those of other people. Asking questions such as, “When do you need this by?” and “How soon can I hear back from you with an answer?” can seem trivial, but managing expectations around communications is essential. When working with folks on a long-term basis, be on the lookout for patterns. How soon do they respond with information that moves the project forward? How much leeway do they give when making requests?

Knowing your interlocutors’ pacing can help make you a more effective communicator. Determining the right pace calls for paying attention to how and when they’re responding and having the self-awareness to know different people — and teams — have different communication needs and expectations.

What’s the Purpose of Design Artifacts?

At a high level, the purpose of design artifacts is always the same: to communicate intent. However, audiences for artifacts vary widely, and they all want different things out of them. Hence, we have many different approaches to documenting design which vary in scope and degree of fidelity.

Audiences can include:

  • Stakeholders
  • The stakeholders’ bosses
  • Customers (who will be testing the system)
  • Developers
  • Other members of the design team
  • The designer herself

Purposes can include:

  • Understanding the general direction of the system
  • Exploring structural directions
  • Exploring possible interaction mechanisms
  • Exploring visual directions
  • Understanding decision-making
  • Providing construction guidance to developers
  • Testing with customers

Designers need to understand the needs of the audience(s) that will be using their design artifacts, and which artifacts work best for particular needs. Artifacts suited for communicating visual directions do little to communicate structural directions, and vice-versa, while those that provide construction guidance are not best for justifying decisions — or at least they don’t if they’re any good. A stakeholder may have little use for construction documents other than to know they exist and can be used to build the system. On the other hand, this same stakeholder may need documents that justify the reasoning behind design directions, something that would be of little use to users of the system.

It’s easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that artifacts are the design. I’ve seen situations where stakeholders specify upfront the types and quantity of “deliverables” for a design project, with no regard for what they will be used for. Designers willingly comply because they, too, tend to measure their progress based on the wireframes, sketches, prototypes or whatever else they’ve produced. This is a mistake. Artifacts are communication tools. They’re a sort of language we employ when communicating intent; a means to create ​a feedback loop between the design team and others in the world — which is to say, a means for bringing others into the design team. Using the wrong feedback loop with the wrong audience at the wrong time can do more harm than good.

Knowing which type of artifact is most appropriate to a particular audience for a specific purpose requires two-way agreement: both parties must negotiate the protocol. Ask people what they need, and know when you’re called to suggest alternatives. After you find out what works best for the people involved, you can communicate intent in ways that make it useful for the situation at hand.

We’ll See

I see so much outrage on social media these days. Everyone seems convinced they’re right and somehow have a perfect understanding of what the future holds. They rant and rage at the world, and — surrounded by other ranters and ragers — instigate an environment of outrage and hopelessness. All the while, they’re blind to second-order effects and in some cases even basic information about the situation they’re ranting about.

When I see such raging self-assuredness, I’m reminded of the old Taoist story of the farmer and his son. For ancient rural Chinese families, sons were extremely important; having one or more sons to help with the fields was the difference between starving and thriving. So this is a story with life-or-death consequences. It goes something like this:

There was once an old man who worked his fields with his son. One day, their horse ran away. “How unfortunate!,” his neighbors said, “You must be distraught!” “We’ll see,” the farmer replied.

Then a drove of wild horses came to the farmer’s land and the son domesticated the finest of them. “How lucky you are!” his neighbors said. “You now have a better horse than before.” “We’ll see,” the farmer replied.

Then the son fell off the horse and broke his leg. “How unlucky you are!” his neighbors said, “Now you won’t be able to till the fields!” “We’ll see,” the farmer replied.

Then the Emperor’s army came through to recruit young men for war. Because the farmer’s son had a broken leg, he couldn’t join them. “How fortunate for you!” the farmer’s neighbors said, “Your son’s life will be spared!” “We’ll see,” said the farmer.

And on it goes.

The moral of this story is not to be passive in the face of adversity or good fortune, but rather to not get carried away with sorrow or elation by what happens. Things are always changing, and you can’t accurately predict what the effects will be of one turn or another. You may have ideas about what could happen, but you have no certainty. How you feel about what happens will have a great impact on your ability to respond — and to the quality of your life. Acting skillfully calls for equanimity, and cultivating equanimity is hard to do — especially when your way of living seems threatened.

What does the future hold in store for us? We’ll see. In the meantime, we’ll do our best given what we know now.

Vision Before Refinement

All projects start with a vision — even if it’s just a hunch — about a future state of the world that’s different from the current state. As a designer, one of your responsibilities is to help clarify and express this vision as something tangible.

I often read about teams starting by creating a first version of the product meant to test assumptions, which they then iterate on it as they get feedback from users. But how does the team know which are the truly important assumptions to test if they don’t know what they’re ultimately working towards?

I sense every project starts with these hunches of what it’ll be — but the people driving them often skip the step of clarifying and articulating what the vision is. Visioning can be fuzzy stuff — hard to do for teams who what tangible results as soon as possible.

Clarifying the vision upfront will lead them to ask hard questions, such as “why does the world need another x”? Peruse any of the major app stores: While there are a few excellent products out there, the majority of stuff is either not very good or redundant. Articulating the vision can help you see your product more clearly vis-a-vis the market, and focus the team on the key features that will differentiate it. What’s the point of refining something that’s not worth building in the first place?

Listening to Women

I want to be better at listening to women. I don’t mean having conversations with women, hearing what they’re saying so I can offer a thought, a book suggestion, a new possibility. I mean truly listening — looking to learn — with an open mind and no agenda.

I should listen better to everyone, men and women. But I need to put in extra effort with women. I come from a culture that doesn’t value women’s intellectual contributions. It’s not that they aren’t acknowledged at all, but that they’re treated as exceptions to the norm. Whether I like it or not, this alters my perceptions of what women say. This is detrimental to my female interlocutors, and to me too. It needs to change.

Women and men have much in common. We share the experience of being human. In theory, it shouldn’t matter who ideas come from. But in practice it does. We have important biological and social differences that influence how we see the world. As a man, I’m insular in ways I can’t perceive. I can only grow in my humanity by understanding perspectives different than mine.

This is not to say I will grade the merit of ideas on a curve. Again, that would be a disservice to the other person and to me. Instead, it means I need to:

  1. proactively seek out more women’s voices in books, online, and in person,
  2. make an extra effort to suspend my inner monologue and truly listen to what they’re saying, and
  3. use my position of privilege as a man in our society to amplify their voices.

I start today. If you’ve ever felt unacknowledged or under-appreciated by me — felt not listened to — I offer deep apologies. I will do better.

Less

Less fussiness.
Less documenting.
Less asking for permission.
Less politics.
Less arguing.
Less persuading.
Less boasting.
Less coasting.
Less assuming.
Less judging.
Less “concepting.”
Less ego.
Less words.

The Illusion of Precision

“We are searching for some kind of harmony between two intangibles: a form which we have not yet designed and a context which we cannot properly describe.”

— Christopher Alexander

For me, the hardest part of any project is the beginning, when I have nothing yet but good intentions. When writing a post such as this one, I usually start in front of a (mostly) blank screen with a blinking cursor that taunts me: “Go — Go — Go — Go — …” Go! But what? No, that’s stupid. What about this? No, that’s not grammatically correct. “Go — Go — Go — Go –…” Sigh. Eventually, something clicks: I start typing, and words start flowing. Relief! Invariably, the result is what is technically known as a “shitty first draft.”

Shitty first drafts are very important to a project, whether it be a blog post or the information architecture of a website. It’s much easier to improve something that exists than to conjure it up in the first place. The simple act of attempting to articulate a form reveals insights into the context you’re trying to address. The first draft may be completely off the mark, but at least now you’ve got something to react to. You can get a sense of how the form measures up to the context so the next form will get a little closer as your understanding grows. It’s a virtuous cycle, and it takes time.

Although getting to the first draft is always intimidating, at least I’m aware of the process; I expect this step and know the first thing I make won’t be definitive. This helps me relax so I can get the ideas out of my head and onto a tangible form I can test.

Doing this by myself is not necessarily easy, but doing with other people is much more difficult. For one thing, we all tend to be protective of our self-identity. What if they think this is stupid? Will I lose credibility? Will my reputation suffer? For another, the tools we use — especially in digital design — can encourage us to jump to higher levels of fidelity sooner than necessary in the process. I have no problems understanding my quick Sharpie sketches, but stakeholders often want to see hard-lined documents. Also, much of the work in information architecture revolves around lists of words. These are easier to produce and iterate using computers than pen and paper, but putting them in an Excel spreadsheet or an OmniGraffle diagram anoints them with a level of firmness that can be misleading.

The result is a cognitive bias I call the illusion of precision. This is when something looks so polished that it leads you to believe it’s been thought through, when it actually hasn’t. It’s not a final proposal, only a first stab at the form that will address the context. Unfortunately, the way it’s communicated leads people to misinterpret it as more stable than it actually is. The illusion of precision is dangerous because it can lead people to treat shitty first drafts as though they’re something more than that. An example of this is when a stakeholder reacts to a wireframe by commenting on the font selection. The artifact is so rich it causes them miss the point entirely.

Still, you must start somewhere. First drafts will be rough, but they must still convey meaning. The right level of fidelity will depend on what the thing being designed is and the needs of the teams involved. As a design leader, it’s important that you set expectations clearly, so people don’t assume they’re looking at something more polished than it’s supposed to be.

What Are You Reading?

A pace layer model for readers (and writers):

By social media I mean Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, et al. Content is fast, abundant, easy. Ephemeral.

By blogs I mean recurrent long(er) form writing published under an individual’s fixed identity so you can get a sense of their commitment to (and understanding of) the ideas. Lots of people do this on Medium these days, although independent blogs (such as this one) still exist.

By periodicals I mean magazines, journals, and other venues for recurrent publishing under a branded (group) identity. They have more skin in the game than bloggers, and this gives them more credibility. Think of The New Yorker, The Economist, and Slate.

You know what books are. I’m partial to the ones still in active circulation 20+ years after they were first published; that’s the market’s way of filtering out the chaff.

As with Stewart Brand’s “healthy societies” model:

  • the layers move (and change) slower as you go down the stack;
  • the top layers are where we experiment with new ideas;
  • the bottom layers are where the worthwhile ones are reified;
  • worthwhile ideas make their way down to the the lower layers.

As you go down the stack, the signal-to-noise ratio improves.

If you’re looking to build your character, the best texts are the ones at the very bottom. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, written between 161 and 180 AD, is still in active circulation. Why? Because it’s proven to be universally useful to many generations of people living in very different times. It’s likely to be useful to you, too.

Much of the stuff in the top layers is only good for raising your heart rate, and there are more effective (and fun) ways of doing that. Still, you can sometimes find gold there — mostly in the form of pointers to information published in the lower layers.

Caveat lector.

The Problem Is Not Social Media per Se

I’ve been writing and speaking about the downsides of social media for a while and am working on a book that deals with this subject. Still, even I was taken aback by the cover of this week’s The Economist:

This image is representative of a narrative currently playing out in the media that suggests social networks — especially Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube — are to blame for allowing foreign actors to influence the 2016 U.S. election, and — more generally — eroding our ability to hold civic discussions.

That these networks have enabled these things is undeniable. However, I sense too much focus is being placed on these particular companies and not enough on the underlying cause of the problem: the fact we’ve moved considerable parts of our social and civic interactions to environments run for profit by companies whose business models monetize our attention. The problem is not social media: it’s advertising.

Advertising exists to influence people’s opinions. This incontrovertible statement makes no claims about the directions they’re being influenced towards; the same mechanisms used to push Old Spice can also be used to push conspiracy theories and misinformation. The model has no moral imperatives and no incentives other than profit. Attention — and public opinion — will go to the highest bidder.

I know people who work at Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To a fault, they are decent folks, not malicious actors out to destroy society. Mark Zuckerberg (who I don’t know) appears to have good intentions and seems contrite about his company’s role in what’s happened. That said, these problems will not go away as long as these companies remain beholden to a business model that values engagement over elucidation. The markets demand they continue generating profits, and as long as their money comes from advertising, they will be pushed in directions that are at odds with the needs of an informed populace.

Social media can serve as incredibly powerful venues for understanding and growth. Facebook allows us to stay in touch with remote family members, rekindle old friendships, and discover new ones. Twitter serves as a virtual water cooler, an intimate conduit to the powerful and famous, and venue for public kvetching. YouTube videos entertain, enrich, and open up new possibilities. These environments can be great enablers for good. However, their potential will remain hobbled as long as they’re reliant on selling our attention.