I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Stephen P. Anderson for The Informed Life. (Episode coming soon!) Among many other things, we discussed a concept from his new book with Karl Fast, Figure it Out: a cockpit as a key component of a pilot’s cognitive apparatus. As Stephen and Karl put it in the book, “An airplane cockpit is an environment loaded with external representations that make flying easier and safer.”
I won’t spoil the fun of our conversation here. (If you’re curious, I recommend you read the book, which is great.) I only mention it now because yesterday I saw a video that explains in detail the user interface of an F-15 jet fighter:
Among many insights in the video: getting a sense for the highly tactile nature of the physical controls of the aircraft, such as the various buttons and knobs on the control stick — including the “castle” switch and the “pickle” switch. (Yes, pickle. The fighter pilot who takes us through the cockpit explains the name’s origin.) The cockpit seems like an environment designed to reduce as much as possible the distance between the pilot’s reflexes and the jet’s actuators.
I learned a lot from this video, and was left with high expectations — it’s labeled as the first of a series called Human Interface. Subscribed.
A physical event is a bundle of different kinds of interaction, but it’s also a bundle of people at a certain place at a certain date – as soon as you take these things online, that bundle has no meaning.
As Mr. Evans points out, there are still no good substitutes for physical gatherings. A conference or industry event isn’t just about the formal presentations. Much of the value in these events comes from information exchanged in hallways, relationships built over shared drinks, serendipitous encounters, etc.
Then there’s the value of switching contexts for a short while; of moving your body temporarily from the places where it’s beholden to its daily routines to a new place where a different set of rules apply. You think differently in different places, and traveling to physical events gives you the opportunity to think about new information in new ways.
Online events — at least the ones I’ve attended during the quarantine — just aren’t the same. While the transmission of information via structured presentations is a central part of these online conferences (in some ways, they’re more effective than their “real-world” counterparts), the other key aspects of physical gatherings are missing.
Feeling uncertain is not a natural state of being for us — it signals to the brain that things are not right. The brain then seeks out information to resolve the uncertainty. This desire for resolution is why feelings of uncertainty lead us to process information more systematically and deeply in the hope of finding answers.
But the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in a quandary: Our natural instinct is to try to resolve our intense feelings of uncertainty, but there is so much uncertainty around the virus and its effects that a quest for complete resolution is futile. So what can we do?
They answer with cognitive and emotional tactics for coping with three types of uncertainty:
The tactics are presented in the context of how we can cope as individuals, but they also apply to teams. Faced with uncertain choices, and no obvious prospects for greater clarity, teams and organizations may become paralyzed.
This is an area where strategic design initiatives can help. Design research consolidates understanding; it generates information and insights that bring cognitive (in the form of data) and emotional (in the form of commitment) clarity to teams.
It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country. It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future. This tragedy — in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society? The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.
I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.
This isn’t a left vs. right issue. Racism is deplorable, and systemic injustice, untenable. It’s encouraging to see leaders from both major U.S. political parties state unequivocal positions in support of systemic change.
As a fair-skinned immigrant, I haven’t suffered the type of pervasive brutal discrimination that leads to murders like George Floyd’s. This grants me a degree of privilege — and responsibility.
The events of the last two weeks have awakened me to the importance of helping bring about systemic change. I don’t yet know what this means for me — but I’m committed to listening and learning.
These links appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.
“Our old website, which was designed for the old stuff that you would do on Facebook.com, didn’t really fit the new patterns that people were using their desktop for.” Why Facebook redesigned Facebook.com.
“We expect better, we deserve better, we demand better… it’s no longer optional to have good design.” Andreesen Horowitz’s Peter Levine on their investment in Figma.
You can tell a lot about how we value spaces-and the people who use them-by how well we design them. Google Classroom, which I’ve come to use with my kids on a daily basis since remote schooling began back in March, is as good an example of this as I’ve seen. It’s a virtual space, of course, but in a quarantined world it’s become a vital space, one that millions of children and parents are entering daily, usually for hours at a time. And it sends an unmistakable message about how it values the students who use it.
What follows is a thoughtful critique of Google Classroom. But more broadly, the post highlights how our investments in online spaces reflect our priorities. If we take Google Classroom as an indicator, we don’t value the experience of learning as much as we do working.
I’ve used Google Classroom for teaching at CCA’s graduate interaction design program since 2018. Not only is Mr. Vinh’s critique spot-on; the system has serious issues not covered in the post. For example, Google Classroom’s feedback mechanisms are inconsistent: sometimes students aren’t notified of my comments, depending on where I leave them. And conversely, sometimes I’m notified of student comments, but when I log into the system, I can’t find them. What’s worse, I’ve seen little improvement over the last three years.
Google Classroom could be amazing. Its integration with the rest of Google’s products has great potential. However, in practice, the system has many rough edges and some structural issues. It could use a substantial information architecture overhaul. As it stands, Google Classroom feels like a minimal effort — and as Mr. Vinh points out, that says a lot about the priority we assign to the experience of education.
The New York Times has a highly informative article about how coronavirus mutates and spreads. (I’m sharing it here because of how clearly it explains a complex subject through mindful use of structure, text, and visuals.)