What is a Healthy Society?

What is a healthy society? I was recently asked this question in an interview; I’m unsatisfied with the answer I gave, and the question has stuck with me. Here’s another try.

By society I mean the system created by the agreements we abide by when we decide to live in community; particular ways of being and organizing our activities that inform our behaviors as they affect other people. These agreements may be explicit or implicit. A trivial example: different societies manifest different attitudes towards how people wait to be served; a society with strict attitudes will frown upon the practice of cutting in line, whereas a more permissive society won’t. People’s shared attitude towards waiting is part of their social compact; they agree on what is acceptable behavior and how they will enforce it. Societies have many such agreements; they define a sort of operating system for community.

What about healthy? My starting point is Bucky Fuller’s aspiration to make the world work for 100% of humanity. It’s an acknowledgment that current ways of organizing our activities are not working equally well for everybody. Although we’ve made much progress, there’s still much injustice and unnecessary suffering. (Suffering is inevitable, but we should strive to reduce it as much as possible.) In short, we can and must do better. Now, making the world work for 100% of humanity doesn’t mean trying to make everybody the same; that’s impossible and undesirable. Instead, it means ensuring everyone has the same opportunities to live a full, rich life.

But that’s not all there’s to it. Health implies longevity. (A healthy body is one that can last a long time; it’s the opposite of a sick, dying body.) We want societies that can maintain desirable conditions in the long term; for generations, with no end in sight. In other words, we want societies that are sustainable. A society that achieves equitable conditions on one or more levels but then destroys itself is (by definition) not healthy. (See tragedy of the commons.) Working towards sustainability calls for systemic thinking.

When contemplating the idea of a healthy society, I often think of James Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games, which opens with this duality:

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.

The members of a healthy society understand they’re engaged in an infinite game with each other, with people from other societies, and the environments that host them. Having evolved beyond zero-sum approaches, they strive to continue the play ad infinitum.


“If you weren’t an optimist, it would be impossible to be an architect.”
― Norman Foster

Designing an environment is an act of optimism. Why go through the trouble and expense of changing things if you have no confidence in the future? Conversely, you can’t do a good job at it if you lack the conviction that things will get better. (Ideally, your intervention will help.)

Being optimistic doesn’t mean being naive. Things are hard. There are injustices in the world. There are confusions and obfuscations. Evil and stupidity can (and sometimes do) win the day.

Being optimistic doesn’t mean believing positive thinking is all you need in the face of hardships. That’s not optimism; it’s delusion. Instead, you must cultivate clear seeing and thinking, and be prepared to work. (One of the things you must work at is maintaining clarity of vision and understanding when stupidity and evil are on the rise and actively working against it.)

You have a choice on how to interpret what you perceive around you. Silver linings abound if you know where to look. The pain in your side could be a passing thing or a sign of a serious disease. If it’s the latter, wouldn’t you rather know sooner rather than later so you can do something about it? The pain can be your friend; it can be the first step towards healing.

Consider the Avocado

Information architects establish distinctions that make things easier to find and understand. We set things apart into groups that make sense to people. By definition, things in one group are different from things in another group — if for no other reason, by the fact that they are in different groups. When done well, the groupings are obvious; recognizable yet distinct. In many cases, groupings are not obvious. Arriving at the right grouping is often anything but.

Consider the avocado. Botanically, it’s a berry. Most folks probably don’t think of avocados as berries, which they associate with sweet dishes. People usually consume avocado with savory dishes: salads, guacamole, etc. If you were asked to group avocados with other items, where would you place them? It depends on many factors. Who is the audience for the grouping? What is the purpose of the grouping? What other items are being grouped?

Arriving at the right grouping requires understanding what avocados mean in a particular context to particular people. Avocados will be grouped differently in a grocery store than in a botanical lab. Grocery shoppers may think of avocados as vegetables, regardless of what botanists think. Botanists may think of avocados as berries, regardless of what grocery shoppers think.

One of the challenges of establishing effective information architectures is that we’re often tasked by botanists to establish groupings meant for grocery shoppers. While the botanists may understand that a different grouping is required for a different audience, the novel grouping may feel wrong to them. In their world, avocados will always be berries.

Existing incentive structures may make it difficult for the botanists to imagine alternative groupings. Remember, we’re talking about meaning. For these folks, having avocados show up in a group under anything other than the “berry” group can be interpreted as an existential threat, especially if these groupings are exposed to people outside the organization — and doubly so if revenues are being measured against the groupings. (“My team is responsible for berries. We ‘own’ avocados.”) As a result, information architects must often work within political environments that nudge towards particular groupings for reasons other than making things more findable and understandable.

This is challenging, but it can get even trickier: sometimes you want avocados to be found while also changing people’s perception of what avocados are. (Maybe the organization is trying to re-position them in the market.) These cases require walking a fine line. On the one hand, you want grocery shoppers to be able to find the avocados in the groups they expect them to be in. On the other, you also want these people to start thinking of the avocados as being part of a different group. On the other hand (yes — this is complex enough that it requires three hands) you have the botanists wanting to drive their preferred view of things.

How do you do it? There are various things you can try. For example, you can use one grouping for the mechanisms that allow people to find their way to the avocados and another for the context where the avocados sit in. You can also try to re-frame the avocado by establishing a marketing campaign. (“Avocados: The new miracle smoothie ingredient!“) You can establish thesauruses that map one term (“avocado”) to another (“berries”). In any case, you should carefully test the new organization scheme. When grouping things in novel ways, data is your friend.

IA work boils down to grouping things in ways that come across as “obvious,” even if they’re new. Where you place the avocado will depend on how people understand it to begin with; what it means to them. But where the avocado shows up will also affect how people understand it and what it means to them. Of course, what’s obvious to one set of people will be anything but to another set.

Ultimately, information architecture aims to change behavior through distinctions. IA has the power to do this. But grouping and labeling things to change behavior also entails great responsibility. The distinctions we layer on the world change how we understand it, the things in it, and ourselves. We must vie to establish distinctions that help nudge things towards positive outcomes at various levels. Yes, we’re helping sell more avocados, but we also want to know this will be good for those of us who eat them and for the societies who produce and consume them.

Working With Ambiguity

Design requires comfort with ambiguity; making progress even when requirements are unclear, uncertain, or unspecified. Good designers are unfazed by lack of clarity, without being foolhardy. They understand that their job is to make the possible tangible. If possibilities were already evident, there would be no need for their help; others would simply make the thing.

But possibilities are never definite. Nobody has perfect clairvoyance. Stakeholders discuss the new thing conceptually, but what will it actually be? They don’t know. Yes, it’ll be a user interface for a new medical imaging system. But that statement is an abstraction. There are hundreds — if not thousands — of decisions to be made before such a thing is concrete enough to be built. Making those decisions is the part of the designer’s remit.

Not that they’re ultimately the designer’s responsibility; stakeholders must ultimately decide whether or not the designer’s choices meet requirements. (The logo may indeed need to be bigger.) Articulating the concept with artifacts that help stakeholders understand what they’re actually talking about is, by definition, an act of reducing ambiguity.

Making sense of ambiguous situations requires having the right attitude. It calls for self-confidence, playfulness, and entrepreneurial drive. Although these traits can be improved, they come more naturally to some designers than others. Some folks are less willing than others to be made vulnerable.

That said, working successfully with ambiguity is not just about attitude; context also plays an important part. The problem with uncertainty is that you may get things wrong; the thing you produce may be partially (or wholly) inadequate. Time is lost. Money is lost. What then? What are the consequences?

Some project environments are more tolerant of mistakes than others. Because they’re the ones making things tangible and they often lack political power in their organizations, designers can easily become scapegoats for bad directions. Environments that punish mistakes will make exploration difficult.

Some problem domains also lend themselves more to making mistakes than others. The consequences for failing to capture the essence of a new brand are different than the consequences for failing to keep a bridge upright. It’s more challenging to deal with ambiguity when designing high-stakes systems, such as those that put lives are at risk.

Ultimately, design calls for working with ambiguity. This requires a combination of the right attitude within the right context. When considering your work, how easy is it for you to deal with unclear or uncertain directions? What are the consequences of getting things wrong? And more importantly, what can you do about these things?

The End of Engagement

Mobile operating system vendors are starting to give us the ability to become more aware of (and limit) the time we spend using our devices. For example, the Screen Time feature in Apple’s iOS 12 will make it possible for users of iPhones and iPads to define how long they want to spend using specific apps or entire app categories.

If adopted widely, these capabilities will impact the way many information environments are designed. Today, many apps and websites are structured to increase the engagement of their users. This is especially true of environments that are supported by advertising since the more time people spend in them translates directly to more exposure, and hence more money.

The novelty of always-connected supercomputers in our pockets at all times has fostered a cavalier attitude towards how we apportion our attention when in the presence of these things. The time we spend online has more than doubled over the past decade.

As digital designers, we have the responsibility to question the desirability of using engagement as the primary measure of success for our information environments. While it may be appropriate for some cases, engagement is overused today. This is because engagement is easy to measure, easy to design for, and in many cases (such as advertising,) it translates directly to higher revenues.

But the drive towards user engagement is a losing proposition. It’s a zero-sum game; you have a limited amount of time in the day — and ultimately, in your life as a whole. Whatever time you spend in one app will come at the expense of time spent engaging with other apps — or worse, spent engaging with other people in your life. Google and Apple’s “digital wellbeing” and “digital health” initiatives are an admission that this has become an issue for many people. With time, we will become more sophisticated about the tradeoffs we’re making when we enter these environments.

So if not engagement, what should we be designing for? My drive is towards designing for alignment between the goals of the user, the organization, and society. When your goals are aligned with the goals your environment is designed to support, you will be more willing to devote your precious time to it. You will enter the environment consciously, do what you need to do there, and then move on to something else. You’ll aim for “quality time” in the environment, rather than the information benders that are the norm today.

Designing for alignment is both subtler and more difficult than designing for engagement. It’s not as easy to measure progress or ROI on alignment. It also requires a deeper understanding of people’s motivations and having a clear perspective on how our business can contribute to social well-being. It’s a challenge that requires that we take design to another level at a time when design is just beginning to hit its stride within organizations. But we must do it. Only through alignment can we create the conditions that produce sustainable value for everyone in the long term.

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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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.

Bringing Others Into the New

Imagine you’re working on something new. I don’t mean new to you; I mean something truly new, as in, not done before. In the initial project stages you have an vague mess of ideas, some clearer than others. Incrementally, you make sense of these ideas; give them form.

Eventually, you’ll need to scale your efforts. If the project is come to life and grow, eventually you’ll need to recruit others. To do this, you must describe what you’re doing in terms they can understand. But how can they understand something that is new and messy? You must describe it in terms they already understand.

One way to go about it is by developing a high-level concept: a pithy statement that describes your idea by leveraging other ideas. For example:

  • ALIEN: “JAWS in a spaceship.”
  • HOOK: “What if Peter Pan grew up?”
  • LinkedIn: “Facebook for business”
  • YouTube: “Flickr for video”

None of these statements do full justice to these movies and platforms. But they’re remarkably easy to grasp and remember. In the parlance of the Heath brothers (whose book, Made to Stick includes a section on high-level concepts), these statements are sticky.

As long as the interlocutor knows what JAWS, Peter Pan, Facebook, and Flickr are, he or she will now have a way to dive into the subject. Once in, they can begin making the necessary distinctions that really set the idea apart. They will also be able to describe it to others, helping the idea spread.

Although high-level concepts are short, writing them isn’t easy. Doing so calls for tough decisions. What is this project really about? How does it compare to what’s gone before? Is this something people will get excited about? Boiling things down to such a statement can be hard, but it’s important that it happen. Doing so brings clarity and alignment. It also informs structural decisions at a point where projects are vague and ambiguous. Articulating a clear and compelling concept goes a long way to clarifying a project vision so others can bring it to life.

The Courage of Despair

Leadership calls for making tough choices. They’re often unpalatable; this is part of what makes them tough. People dislike change, especially when it requires trading predictable (even if less than ideal) outcomes for the unknown. But sometimes progress calls for a bold leap forward, regardless of how terrifying it seems. What to do?

In The Art of War (5th century B.C.), Sun Tzu wrote:

When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. This does not mean that the enemy is to be allowed to escape. The object is to make him believe that there is a road to safety, and thus prevent his fighting with the courage of despair.

The courage of despair. Archetypical image: Cortés’s ships burning off the coast of Veracruz; his men’s choices reduced to pushing into the unfamiliar or dying alone, marooned. A powerful situation that instigates coherent action; not a hectic, desperate flailing, but a single-minded drive towards a particular direction.

A tricky move to pull off. Cortés’s men probably hated him after he eliminated their path back to “safety.” How do you get people to continue following you after such a gesture? You craft a new identity. No longer a group of rag-tag mercenaries with disparate aims; we’re now a tribe hell-bent on survival. (Again, Sun Tzu: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”) For this to work, everyone must be committed to the new path — the leader included. After his order was carried out, Cortés, too, was stranded.

I’ve most often experienced the courage of despair in its opposite: the irresoluteness of confidence. A formerly successful team continues operating as before, even when their context has changed radically. Instead of facing the facts and starting in a bold new direction, the leader hedges his or her bets. Unable to grasp — and act on — the urgency of the situation, the team continues in “business-as-usual” mode; their options gradually whittle away; their former cash cows become emaciated. When the moment of reckoning arrives, they’re unprepared. Catastrophe ensues. (I’m ashamed to admit: I’ve been the waffling leader.)

There’s no fighting “as if” your life depended on it. It either does, or it doesn’t. In today’s world, most leaders will not be called on to turn choices into literal life-or-death scenarios. But fostering courage and action will sometimes call for closing off comfortable choices in favor of moving towards new, unfamiliar directions.