The Dollar Value of Metadata

As software eats more of the world, it becomes increasingly evident to people just how important it is to structure information correctly. It’s not just about finding and understanding stuff; in some cases lacking the right structure can be costly. One such case is that of music artists, which — according to an article on The Verge — are leaving billions of dollars on the table due to bad metadata:

Metadata sounds like one of the smallest, most boring things in music. But as it turns out, it’s one of the most important, complex, and broken, leaving many musicians unable to get paid for their work. “Every second that goes by and it’s not fixed, I’m dripping pennies,” said the musician, who asked to remain anonymous because of “the repercussions of even mentioning that this type of thing happens.”

Entering the correct information about a song sounds like it should be easy enough, but metadata problems have plagued the music industry for decades. Not only are there no standards for how music metadata is collected or displayed, there’s no need to verify the accuracy of a song’s metadata before it gets released, and there’s no one place where music metadata is stored. Instead, fractions of that data is kept in hundreds of different places across the world.

Although its description of what metadata is could be clearer (which I empathize with; this isn’t easy to describe to a general audience), the article does a pretty good job of highlighting some common issues that arise when organizations don’t deal with this stuff properly: a lack of standard frameworks, bad information, no clear mechanisms for collaboration, lack of agreement between the various parties involved, etc. It’s worth your attention:

Metadata is the Biggest Little Problem Plaguing the Music Industry

A Key to the Design Problem

One of my favorite presentations about design is an interview with Charles Eames, which inspired the exhibition “Qu’est ce que le design?” at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris:

Speaking for himself and his partner Ray, Eames answers questions from curator Mme. L’Amic on the nature of design. They cover lots of ground in the span of a few minutes. Eventually, they come around to the role of constraints in the design process:

L’Amic: Does the creation of design admit constraint?

Eames: Design depends largely on constraints.

L’Amic: What constraints?

Eames: The sum of all constraints. Here’s one of the few effective keys to the design problem: the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible; his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints — constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.

L’Amic: Does design obey laws?

Eames: Aren’t constraints enough?

Mme. L’Amic eventually asks Eames if he’s ever been forced to accept compromises. His reply is gold: “I don’t remember ever being forced to accept compromises, but I’ve willingly accepted constraints.”

The interview ends on an ellipsis. But before that, Eames delivers a great line:

L’Amic: What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of design and its propagation?

Eames: The recognition of need.

The whole thing is worth your attention:

Design Q & A: Charles and Ray Eames

The Bridge Model

In a 2008 paper in ACM’s Interactions, Hugh Dubberly, Shelley Evenson, and Rick Robinson presented the Analysis-Synthesis Bridge Model. This bridge model describes how designers move from the understanding of a problem domain to a proposed solution. It’s laid out along two dimensions:

Bridge model matrix

On the left half, you have the current state you’re addressing, while the right half represents the future (changed) state. (The authors refer to “the solution, preferred future, concept, proposed response, form.”) The bottom row corresponds to tangible conditions in the world that we can observe and interact with, while the top row refers to abstract models of those things. The design process goes from the lower left quadrant — a solid understanding of conditions in the “real” world through abstraction towards a tangible construct that represents a possible future:

Bridge model

While it seems to imply a clear linear progression (something I’ve seldom experienced in real projects), this model corresponds closely to how I design — especially when dealing with complex domains. I can’t sketch tangible structures (e.g., wireframes, sitemaps, etc.) without having 1) a solid understanding of the domain and 2) models that describe it. This requires spending time dealing with abstract models — and abstraction makes people uncomfortable. Clients want to get as quickly as possible to the lower right quadrant, where they can see and interact with things that look like the thing they’ve hired me to produce. (E.g., prototypes.)

But it’s important to acknowledge that when dealing with complex systems, you’re doing clients a disservice by jumping straight to screens. You really must figure out the structures that underlie the domain first, and that requires devising models — both of the current and future states. The bridge model is a useful tool to help explain how the process works and why abstraction is important to a successful outcome.

The Analysis-Synthesis Bridge Model

Karl Popper on Definitions

Although it’s less common today, in the past, my peer community has engaged in what we call DTDT — “Defining the Damned Thing.” The term describes a discussion that devolves into the ​definition of terms. For example, a discussion about user experience design may lead someone to ask, “What do you mean by ‘experience’?” whereafter the conversation can go down a semantic rabbit hole.

Some folks have a strong aversion to DTDT. However, it’s crucial to ensure that we’re aligned on meaning — especially when we’re using relatively new terms. Despite its popularity among designers and techie folks, “user experience” is still a new term; I’d bet that most people don’t have a clear grasp of what it means. So there’s value to ensuring that everybody’s on the same footing with the language we’re using.

As my friend Andrew Hinton has eloquently written, definitions play an important role in a maturing discipline — and that necessitates these conversations. That said, there’s a flipside to DTDT: it can give the illusion that intelligent discussion is happening when, in fact, no progress is being made. I suspect this is what upsets most people who protest against DTDT.

I was reminded of this issue when I saw this clip from an interview with the philosopher Karl Popper:

In my opinion, it’s a task in life to train oneself to speak as clearly as possible. This isn’t achieved by paying special attention to words, but by clearly formulating theses, so formulated as to be criticizable. People who speak too much about words or concepts or definitions don’t actually bring anything forward that makes a claim to truth. So you can’t do anything against it. A definition is a pure conventional matter.

He goes on to expand on why he thinks definitions aren’t helpful to philosophy:

They only lead to a pretentious, false precision, to the impression that one is particularly precise. But it’s a sham precision, it isn’t genuine clarity. For that reason, I’m against the discussion of terms and definitions. I’m rather for plain, clear speaking.

That’s the goal: alignment through plain, clear speaking.

Karl Popper on Definitions (1974)

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