Proudshamed

Paul Ford, writing for WIRED:

NERDS, WE DID it. We have graduated, along with oil, real estate, insurance, and finance, to the big T. Trillions of dollars. Trillions! Get to that number any way you like: Sum up the market cap of the major tech companies, or just take Apple’s valuation on a good day. Measure the number of dollars pumped into the economy by digital productivity, whatever that is. Imagine the possible future earnings of Amazon.

THE THINGS WE loved — the Commodore Amigas and AOL chat rooms, the Pac-Man machines and Tamagotchis, the Lisp machines and RFCs, the Ace paperback copies of Neuromancer in the pockets of our dusty jeans—these very specific things have come together into a postindustrial Voltron that keeps eating the world. We accelerated progress itself, at least the capitalist and dystopian parts. Sometimes I’m proud, although just as often I’m ashamed. I am proudshamed.

This piece captures a mood I’ve perceived among my cohort of techie designers: A radical swing from the unbridled optimism many of us felt in the 1990s — the sense that the internet was a transformational force comparable only to Gutenberg — to moroseness and guilt at the effects of these changes on society.

The transition from the Middle Ages to the modern era was anything but smooth. Gutenberg’s innovation wrought tremendous upheaval: Long-standing mental models collapsed; social and political systems were replaced. The technological changes of the last five decades — the wiring up of the planet into a real-time nervous system that democratizes access to the world’s information — are in some ways more radical than those of the 15th-16th Centuries. We’ve not just changed the ways we interact with each other and the world, we’ve changed change itself — scaling and speeding it up in ways that lead to unpredictable outcomes.

The article frames (digital) technology as an industry alongside others such as energy and finance. That’s a common underestimation spurred by the pervasive mental model of our time: that of the market economy. Yes, tech is an industry in that sense. But tech is also a meta-industry: it changes the character of the other industries thoroughly. The call to more responsible design is urgent not because tech requires it, but because we are re-building society atop tech.

Why should we expect such radical changes to be easy or comfortable? People of my vintage (I’m squarely Gen X) and younger in the developed world have thus far led lives of relative peace and stability. Cold War notwithstanding, we came of age inside a certainty bubble. When dealing with (deep) disruption, we fail to account both for the fragility of social institutions and the resilience of individuals under such conditions.

Mr. Ford concludes:

I was exceptionally lucky to be born into this moment. I got to see what happened, to live as a child of acceleration. The mysteries of software caught my eye when I was a boy, and I still see it with the same wonder, even though I’m now an adult. Proudshamed, yes, but I still love it, the mess of it, the code and toolkits, down to the pixels and the processors, and up to the buses and bridges. I love the whole made world. But I can’t deny that the miracle is over, and that there is an unbelievable amount of work left for us to do.

I, too, feel lucky. Yes, there is lots of work to do. But the miracle is far from over; it’s ongoing. Responding skillfully to the changes it bring requires being present; that we see clearly so we can use our (real!) abilities towards increasing agency and compassion.

WHY I (STILL) LOVE TECH: IN DEFENSE OF A DIFFICULT INDUSTRY

The Strategic Value of Design

Andrea Mignolo writing on Medium:

we will never be able to talk about the value of design using ROI because we’re not really talking about design, but the output of design. I’m interested in finding models that help us talk about the value of doing design, which is entirely possible given the mutable nature of business artifacts.

Ms. Mignolo goes on to highlight an important distinction: design as a way of making things (i.e., the way it’s been traditionally understood in the enterprise) versus design as a way of learning. While the former is obviously important, strategically the latter has more value. As Ms. Mignolo eloquently puts it, “By embracing ambiguity and exploring divergent futures, design activities can increase flexibility and decrease risk.”

The post is a good summation of this position, and worth your attention. (For a similar argument, see Nigel Cross’s book Designerly Ways of Knowing.)

Reflections on Business, Design, and Value

The Cynefin Framework

I’m keen on frameworks that help us deal with change in complex systems. The Cynefin framework is particularly illuminating. Here’s an excellent, succinct introduction by its originator, Dave Snowden:

The framework posits that causal differences in systems categorize them into four domains or “spaces”:

  • Simple: Cause and effect relationships between elements in the system can be determined in advance.
  • Complicated: Cause and effect relationships exist, but aren’t self-evident.
  • Complex: No causality; agents are able to modify the system.
  • Chaotic: Cause and effect relationships can’t be determined.

“Dependent on which space you’re in,” Mr. Snowden says, “you should think differently, you should analyze differently.” In other words, each of the domains calls for a different response. Therefore, knowing which domain you’re acting within is key to making effective decisions. That said, in some cases, you may not know which domain you’re acting within. The framework defines this fifth domain as “disorder,” a situation that lends itself to idiosyncratic responses that can be ineffective or worse.

You can learn more about the Cynefin framework in the Harvard Business Review or in Cognitive Edge, Mr. Snowden’s consulting company.

Cynefin Framework Introduction

Daniel Kahneman on Framing and Incentives

Here’s a great podcast conversation between Daniel Kahneman and Sam Harris.

Mr. Kahneman on framing:

This is a question we should be asking ourselves when we think about a problem, a societal problem: How can it be framed? And somebody has​ the responsibility in those cases of choosing a framing — because it’s going to be framed one way or the other. So given that idea that there is no avoiding framing, that you can choose the better frame… that’s the central idea of behavioral economics and nudging. It’s really that: you should choose the frame that leads to the better decision and to the better outcome.

And on incentives:

The basic psychological rule, if you want people to behave in a particular way, is to make it easy for them. That, by the way, is very different from incentives… The social psychologist Kurt Lewin had, around the end of World War II, developed ideas of how you change behavior. And he distinguished two essential ways of changing behavior. That is, you can apply pressure in the direction where you want people to go or you can ask a very different question, which is: Why aren’t they going there by themselves? That is, what is preventing them from doing what you think they should do? And then remove obstacles; make it easier for people to do. I think that’s the best psychological idea I know, this distinction between applying pressure and making things easier, removing obstacles. And pressure… that’s important. Pressure is incentives, pressure is threats, and pressure is arguments.

(Both quotes lightly edited for clarity.)

These points had me thinking about my post from yesterday about how important it is for designers to understand incentives in organizations. Perhaps the role of designers shouldn’t be so much to proselytize user-centeredness and fret about incentives as it should be to reframe problems and create​ means for system actors to do the right thing.

Making Sense #150: The Map of Misunderstanding

Designers as Advocates of Respect

In a thought-provoking post on Medium, Cyd Harrell advocates for respect as the one value designers should adopt (if they had to adopt only one.) She concludes:

it doesn’t matter if our field holds values like respect dear, if we’re not able to get businesses and institutions to adopt those values and apply them to their work. That’s virtually impossible without being explicit about them, however simple they may seem, and following that explicitness with exploration, persuasion, backup from studies, and appropriate pressure.

I’ll add one more: developing a deep understanding of the incentives that drive the organization.

Values aren’t really values until they’re put to the test. Until then, they’re only aspirations. In commercial organizations (at least), that test often manifests as a choice between respecting the individual and some tactical (short-term) gain. What the organization chooses to do determines what its actual (as opposed to stated) values are. (A hypothesis: organizations with longer-term mindsets will have greater incentives to err on the side of the individual since they’ll be more willing to build lasting relationships.)

It’s important for designers to proselytize respect of users within their organizations, but it’s also important that designers understand the conditions under which organizations lapse in this regard. Often it’s not because anyone sets out to be intentionally disrespectful; it’s because their organization places a higher value on other things. How might designers influence that?

Respect is the one value – UX Collective

Introductions in the Age of Social Networks

Brad Feld, writing about how to best be introduced to people online:

[Double opt-in email intros are] the best and simplest way when you know the person asking for the intro and think the intro would be a good one.

What follows is a short and simple set of rules for the etiquette of introducing people online. The whole post resonated with me, but the following lines stand out:

how about the situations where you don’t really know the person. In that case, someone is asking you to do work and use some social credibility in a situation where you don’t really know how much to provide.

I’ve been in this situation before, and it’s something I’m not comfortable with.

One of the challenges of life online is that we often have the illusion of familiarity with people who are, in fact, strangers to us. We read a lot from the person and so come to think we know him or her when we actually don’t. More to the point, they don’t know us. A brief interaction in Twitter, Facebook, or over email isn’t enough to establish a solid relationship.

Whether it’s acknowledged or not, being asked to make an introduction to someone is a way of transferring credibility. If I know you and you know me, and I ask you to introduce me to a third party that you know, you are implicitly vouching for that person. I’m happy to do this when I know and trust the two people being introduced, but not at all comfortable with doing it for people I barely know.

My reticence manifests most obviously in my approach to managing connections on LinkedIn. I’m more open than others with the connections I accept on that social network, but I do have a bar. I often get requests to connect with people I’ve only ever met through a single interaction via email, Twitter, or some other channel. This is a problem because LinkedIn provides formal mechanisms for people to reach other people through their connections. This chain of credibility is only as strong as its weakest links, and if all we’ve got is a single interaction online, then the connection isn’t strong at all.

Bottom line: please don’t be offended if you’ve asked to connect with me on LinkedIn and haven’t heard back. I have a higher bar than most for these connections — and you should too. In this age of cheap, quick connections, credibility and trust are more important and valuable than ever.

So how do you connect with people you don’t know? I like Mr. Feld’s common-sense approach. When his acquaintances are asked by people they don’t know well to introduce them to him, he recommends:

simply say “I think Brad is pretty easy to reach – his email is public – just send him a note.”

Yes, this means you’ll be starting from scratch. That’s fair. What’s not fair is asking an acquaintance to vouch for your credibility. And by the way, my email is public too; here it is.

How To Deal With People Asking For Intros To Me

Marc Andreessen’s Guide to Personal Productivity

How we organize our personal information ecosystems impacts our productivity. Some patterns work better than others. (I’m always looking for ways of being more productive, which is why I started a podcast on this subject.) Although everyone does this a bit differently, not everyone gets the same results. I’m especially keen in finding out how very successful people organize themselves.

Few people have been as successful in the tech world as Marc Andreessen. He’s the co-founder of several influential companies, including Netscape — which helped usher the web revolution — and Andreessen Horowitz, one of the leading investment firms in Silicon Valley. Mr. Andreessen published a blog post twelve years ago that lays out his productivity principles. Given how successful he’s been, this post is worth studying.

Mr. Andreessen’s advice includes some counter-intuitive ideas. For example, he suggests not keeping a schedule. By this, he means not committing to appointments in advance. Instead, he proposes you focus your attention on whatever is most important or interesting at any given time. While he acknowledges that this may not work for everyone, it’s an intriguing notion. I live by my calendar, and this post has me wondering what it’d be like to just go with the flow. (My work doesn’t give me much leeway here. But it begs the question: what would I need to change to allow me to eschew my schedule?)

I also love the idea of managing just three to-do lists. (Mr. Andreessen suggests a Todo List, a Watch List, and a Later List.) I follow my own take on David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” approach, which means I have per-project lists; that’s too many at any given time. So I’m drawn to this idea of boiling it down to three. Also, he suggests writing down the 3-5 most important things you must do every day to keep your priorities straight. This is something I’ve been doing for a long time, to great results.

However, my favorite of Mr. Andreessen’s nuggets of advice is this: Only agree to new commitments when both your head and your heart say yes. I’ve been guilty of taking on too many things because I’m excited by the possibilities or interested in the subject (the heart saying “yes!”), only to find out later that I’m overcommitted and en route to disappointing myself and others. Giving the head a veto would’ve solved many difficulties for me.

It’s not a long post, and it’s aged well. (Just replace “iPod” with “iPhone”.) Well worth your attention.

Pmarca Guide to Personal Productivity

Design 3.0

My friend Stephen Anderson gave a talk at SXSW 2019 about the future of design. I’ve not seen the presentation itself, but he posted a transcript on Medium. The gist:

Design is in the midst of a shift. A shift that will make much of our present skills obsolete, and demand we learn new skills, or become… irrelevant.

He refers to this as Design 3.0, “a shift from Products to Experiences to Outcomes.” It calls for designers to develop new skills. What sorts of skills? Training machine learning algorithms, monitoring outcomes, modeling possibilities, and reframing the contexts of our work to see the bigger picture. In other words, systems thinking. Design at a higher level of abstraction: designing the thing that designs the thing.

While not a wholly new direction (Gordon Pask was writing about this stuff fifty years ago), technology has finally caught up with the possibilities. So these ideas are very much part of the current zeitgeist. (I’m reading Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown’s fabulous Design Unbound, which argues along similar lines. More on that soon.)

Even though the objects of focus for design are changing, the things that make us good designers aren’t. As Stephen rightly points out, designerly approaches such as problem reframing, human-centeredness, and the embracing ambiguity are perennial. They’re also key to doing a good job in this complex new environment.

I’m glad to see design at a higher level of abstraction becoming a thing in the world. I’ve seen few introductions as accessible and compelling as Stephen’s talk; it’s worth your attention.

The Future of Design: Computation & Complexity

From the Digital Town Square to the Living Room

Mark Zuckerberg, in a blog post on Facebook:

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

The post lays out a vision for the future of a privacy-focused Facebook platform built around the following principles:

  • Private interactions
  • Encryption
  • Reducing permanence
  • Interoperability
  • Secure data storage

Ultimately, these principles will enable “the digital equivalent of the living room,” in contrast to today’s “digital equivalent of a town square.”

Interesting and laudable. Alas, there’s no mention in the post of changes to Facebook’s business model. As long as the company’s revenues are tied to selling our attention, the goal of serving as our digital equivalents to physical meeting places — be they town squares or living rooms — remains suspect.

A Privacy-Focused Vision for Social Networking