Environment-Centered Design

Dan Hill on the impact of technology on the urban experience:

the smartphone, as the most obvious manifestation of the broader tech sector, is shaping the way we live and interact with each other, and thus our cities and habitations. And it is becoming clear that this is not necessarily all good.

User-centered design is partly to blame:

Our design practice is not yet sufficiently advanced to handle what economists call the ‘externalities’ of tech (somewhat misleadingly, as if an iceberg’s tip is ‘external’ to the rest of the iceberg.) The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

The relentless focus on ‘the user’, which has driven so much product and process improvement over the last two decades, is also the blindspot of the digitally-oriented design practices. They can only look up from the homescreen blankly, through the narrowly focused lens of ‘the user’, when asked to assess the wider impact of such services when aggregated across the city.

So interaction design and service design produce insight and empathy for individual experiences, but produce little for collective impact or environmental empathy.

Mr. Hill argues that an effective approach to using technology effective in these domains requires looking beyond user-centered design towards an “equal and opposite” approach of environment-centered design:

The core ideas of strategic design – of integrative thinking and practice; of framing questions and challenges appropriately; of working at multiple scales, paces and vehicles; of taking on complexity and making it legible and malleable via synthesis; of addressing systemic change; of stewardship – means stretching design’s definition in this direction, perhaps just as design has stretched to drive tech forward.

As the world becomes increasingly urbanized, the way we use technology at urban scale will effect profound transformations on the day-to-day lives of the majority of people in the planet. “Tech” won’t be something they’ll be able to opt out of; it’ll be the infrastructure of their lives. It’s imperative that designers start to think beyond the effects of technology on individual users.

The city is my homescreen

Stephen Wolfram’s Personal Information Ecosystem

Some people manage to get more done than the rest of us. These folks are constrained by the same 24-hour days you and I are, but use them more effectively. How do they do it? What can we learn from them so we, too, can be more productive? I’m always excited when a super-productive person gives us a glimpse into their methods. (So much so that I’ve started a podcast to elicit stories about people’s setups.)

Recently, Stephen Wolfram published a lengthy article that explains how he’s configured his personal information ecosystem to help him be more productive. Mr. Wolfram is a world-renowned computer scientist. He’s the creator of Mathematica and the Wolfram Language — among other things — and the author of A New Kind of Science. Besides being a rigorous scientist and scholar, he’s also a successful entrepreneur: his company, Wolfram Research, has been going strong for the past 31 years. He’s a textbook example of a super-productive person, and someone I’ve looked up to for a long time.

Mr. Wolfram’s blog post is a real treat. It covers everything from his software and hardware choices to the ways he’s configured his physical environments to help him get things done. As the CEO of a software company, some of Mr. Wolfram’s software choices are particular to his job (i.e., he uses his company’s software for much of his work.) However, there are also many insights in the post that apply to anyone who needs to work with computers. The core insight is simple:

At an intellectual level, the key to building this infrastructure is to structure, streamline and automate everything as much as possible—while recognizing both what’s realistic with current technology, and what fits with me personally.

I’m particularly impressed (though not surprised) by Mr. Wolfram’s long-term approach to information processing. Some aspects of his ecosystem (including his approach to file storage — both physical and digital) have evolved over three decades. He also mentions some intriguing products, including a pair of glasses that have helped him conquer motion sickness when working in the back of cars. (A problem I deal with more often than I’d like.)

This is a long read, but an inspiring one. Well worth your time.

Seeking the Productive Life: Some Details of My Personal Infrastructure

The Cognition Crisis

Adam Gazzaley, co-author of The Distracted Mind (which I cited in Living in Information), argues that we are facing a cognition crisis:

A cognition crisis is not defined by a lack of information, knowledge or skills. We have done a fine job in accumulating those and passing them along across millennia. Rather, this a crisis at the core of what makes us human: the dynamic interplay between our brain and our environment — the ever-present cycle between how we perceive our surroundings, integrate this information, and act upon it.

What’s causing this crisis?

While the sources fracturing our cognition are many, we are faced with the realization that our brains simply have not kept pace with the rapid changes in our environment — specifically the introduction and ubiquity of information technology.

A lucid explanation of the dynamic between cognition and technology, and how evolving conditions are making things more challenging for us.

The Cognition Crisis

Twitter as a Public Square

Managing an information environment like Twitter must be very difficult. The people who run the system have great control — and responsibility — over what the place allows and encourages. In a conversation platform (which is what Twitter is at its core), the primary question is: How do you allow for freedom of expression while also steering people away from harmful speech? This isn’t an easy question to answer. What is “harmful”? For whom? How and where does the environment intervene?

Episode 148 of Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast features a conversation with Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, that addresses some of these questions head-on. I was very impressed by how much thought Mr. Dorsey has given to these issues. It’s clear that he understands the systemic nature of the challenge, and the need for systemic responses. He expressed Twitter’s approach with a medical analogy:

Your body has an indicator of health, which is your temperature. And your temperature indicates whether your system more or less is in balance; if it’s above 90.6 then something is wrong… As we develop solutions, we can see what effect they have on it.

So we’ve been thinking about this problem in terms of what we’re calling “conversational health.” And we’re at the phase right now where we’re trying to figure out the right indicators of conversational health. And we have four placeholders:

1. Shared attention: What percentage of the conversation is attentive to the same thing, versus disparate.
2. Shared reality: This is not determining what facts are facts, but what percentage of the conversation are sharing the same facts.
3. Receptivity: Where we measure toxicity and people’s desire to walk away from something .
4. Variety of perspective.

What we want to do is get readings on all of these things, and understand that we’re not going to optimize for one. We want to try to keep everything in balance.

I’d expect the idea to be to incentivize “healthy” conversations over “unhealthy” ones. This would be implemented in the design of the environment itself, rather than at the policy level:

Ultimately our success in solving these problems is not going to be a policy success. We’re not going to solve our issues by changing our policy. We’re going to solve our issues by looking at the product itself, and the incentives that the product ensures. And looking at our role not necessarily as a publisher, as a post of content, but how we’re recommending things, where we’re amplifying, where we’re downranking content.

Twitter has a great responsibility to get this right, because in some ways the system is becoming key public infrastructure. As Mr. Dorsey acknowledged,

Ultimately, I don’t think we can be this neutral, passive platform anymore because of the threats of violence, because of doxxing, because of troll armies intending to silence someone, especially more marginalized members of society. We have to take on an approach of impartiality. Meaning that we need very crisp and clear rules, we need case studies and case law for how we take action on those rules, and any evolutions of that we’re transparent and upfront about. We’re not in a great state right now, but that is our focus. I do believe that a lot of people come to Twitter with the expectation of a public square. And freedom of expression is certainly one of those expectations. But what we’re seeing is people weaponize that to shut others’ right to that down. And that is what we’re trying to protect, ultimately.

As a Twitter user, I was pleased to see the depth of the thinking and care that is going into these issues. I learned a lot from this podcast about the reasons for some of Twitter’s controversial design decisions. (E.g. I now know why Twitter doesn’t have an “edit” button.)

Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t address the elephant in the room: Twitter’s business model. Ultimately, Twitter makes money by showing ads to its users. A good public square shouldn’t attempt to sway our opinions; it should provide the venue for us to form them through engagement with others. How might “conversational health” might be used as a means for persuasion?

Making Sense Podcast #148 – Jack Dorsey

The Way to Proficiency in Complex Environments

Esko Kilpi, writing in Medium:

In complex environments, the way to proficiency is to recombine successful elements to create new versions, some of which may thrive.

As a result, not just the user interfaces, but the operating system of work is starting to change in a radical way. The traditional industrial approach to work was to require each worker to assume a predetermined responsibility for a specific role. The new approach represents a different logic of organizing based on neither the traditional market nor a process.

I’m drawn to systems that favor emergent structures over predefined top-down structures, for the same reasons Mr. Kilpi highlights in his post. Alas, important parts of our societies are still organized around somewhat rigid top-down structures.

Top-down structures can work when domains are simple, contingencies minimal, significant changes infrequent, and one has some degree of agency over the context. That’s the opposite of many current environments. Emergence – how natural structures come about — offers us an alternative approach to designing systems that address complex, evolving environments more skillfully.

The key is clarity on the purpose(s) the system is working towards. How do you achieve clarity of purpose in situations where multiple stakeholders have conflicting interests? You need leadership with vision. Top-down in service to emergence.

Collaborative and Competitive Creativity

A Data Primer for Designers

My friend Tim Sheiner, writing for the Salesforce UX blog:

demand is high for designers who can create experiences that display data in useful and interesting ways. In my personal experience this became much, much easier to do once I’d learned to speak the crisp, precise and slightly odd language used by technical people for talking about data.

What follows is a phenomenal post that clearly explains much of what you need to know to understand and speak competently about data. A must-read for anybody involved in designing for digital information environments.

Designer’s Field Guide to Data

Brexit Explained

Are you confused by Brexit? I am. This short video from the folks at Information is Beautiful clarified for me the conundrum the UK finds itself in now:

Information is the lifeblood of democracy. People can’t effectively govern the system if they don’t understand the choices before them. I wonder how many people who voted in the Brexit referendum truly understood the implications of their decision.

Brexit Explained

Bertrand Russell’s Advice for Future Generations

Bertrand Russell, in a 1959 interview for the BBC:

Interviewer: Suppose, Lord Russell, this film would be looked at by our descendants, like a Dead Sea scroll in a thousand years’ time. What would you think it’s worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?

Russell: I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed, but look only — and solely — at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple: I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other; we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Although the interview is sixty years old, Russell’s advice is more relevant today than ever before. These instructions should be part of the onboarding process of all online social platforms:

  1. Look only at the facts and the truths they bear out.
  2. People will say things you don’t like; practice charity and tolerance.

Love is wise, hatred is foolish.

Bertrand Russell’s Advice for Future Generations

The Limits of the Ethical Designer

Curt Arledge writing in his company’s blog:

As our discourse about design ethics matures, we need better models for understanding this big, squishy subject so that we’re not talking about everything all at once. What does it really mean to be an ethical designer? What is most important, and what should we care about the most? What power do we really have to make a difference, and how should we use it?

Mr. Arledge offers a model that divides the areas of concerns in three layers:

  • Interface
  • Business
  • Infrastructure

The stack goes from specific and concrete at the top to systemic and abstract at the bottom. This seems like a useful way of understanding the domain — and especially the parts where designers have the ​most influence on the problem.

That said, design work is medium-agnostic. There’s no reason why designers should constrain themselves to only the layers that have to do with the ​interface. There are many problems at the business and infrastructure layers that would be well-served by strategic design.

This is one of the central points in Living in Information, where I present a similar model. It’s encouraging to see other designers thinking along these lines.

Design Ethics and the Limits of the Ethical Designer