Falling In Love (Again) With Your Work

A career requires occasional renewal and refreshment. Re-engaging with the subject, perhaps at a different level; falling in love with it all over again. This is especially important if you aspire to have a long career, and doubly so if your chosen field involves technology.

Throughout my career, my primary professional identity has been as an information architect. The popularity of this term has waxed and waned over the years. In the late ‘90s, there was a lot of energy around the term. Then there was a time (about a decade later) when friends and colleagues started moving away. Some continued doing the work but not calling it “information architecture;” while others changed tracks entirely.

Although I’d like to say that external validation isn’t necessary, the truth is that a vibrant community matters. So these were challenging times. While I still loved what I did, I yearned for renewal. I revisited the book that introduced me to information architecture, Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Architects. The cover of the book defines terms:

In•for•ma•tion Ar•chi•tect [L infotectus] n. 1) the individual who organizes the patterns inherent in data, making the complex clear. 2) a person who creates the structure or map of information which allows others to find their personal paths to knowledge. 3) the emerging 21st century professional occupation addressing the needs of the age focused upon clarity, human understanding and the science of the organization of information. — In•for•ma•tion Ar•chi•tec•ture.

“There it is!,” I thought. “Regardless of what my peers decide to do with their own careers, this area of practice matters. People will need to find personal paths to knowledge, regardless of whether people are calling themselves information architects or not. It’s important to people and important to the world — and it’s what I do.” I re-engaged and re-committed to my practice — wherever that may lead.

Re-visiting the text that had introduced me to the field released a tremendous amount of energy. As an artifact, the book hadn’t changed. But I had changed, as had the context around me. I didn’t have as much to prove as I did earlier in my career. I could now see the book (and my work) through beginner’s eyes — but looking through the lens of experience. That’s a powerful combination!

I keep my copy of Information Architects close at hand. Every once in a while, I open it again. Some parts have aged more gracefully than others. Overall, it remains a powerful reminder of why I do the work I do; it inspires me to continue evolving. What about you? Do you have something that reminds you of why you do what you do, that helps you grow while moving towards the direction you initially set upon? How do you refresh your commitment to your work?

Optimism

“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.

Switching Modalities

Whenever I’m in the process of working on something, I find it useful to switch modalities. By this, I mean going from one way of working to another; seeing the work from a different perspective.

For example, this blog post started as a series of notes scribbled in a (paper) notebook. That was one modality. When my ideas were more definite, I switched to writing a draft in Ulysses. That’s another modality. I think differently when I’m working on paper than when I’m writing in Ulysses; writing words in a text editor happens at a higher level of granularity than thinking about concepts. Instead of thinking about what ideas I’ll get across, I’m thinking about how I’m getting them across.

There’s a point in the process where the draft is done, and I need to switch modalities again. I upload the post to WordPress, but I don’t publish it yet. I find that looking at it as it will appear on this blog reveals all sorts of things I missed; I’m now approaching the work as a reader and can spot gaps in the reasoning. In this editing phase, I also correct grammatical problems. For some odd reason, I don’t catch them when I was in the text editor. I need a new way of seeing the work (the preview in WordPress) to spot them, and switching from the text editor to the publishing system does the trick.

Sometimes — when I have a bit more time or a text requires particular attention — I also check the WordPress draft in a mobile web browser. Switching to the smaller screen size reveals all sorts of issues I hadn’t noticed before. This, too, is a modality switch; the mobile screen is a context that allows me to see the work in a different perspective. It prompts ideas and refinements I wouldn’t have spotted otherwise.

Modality switching is good for more than just writing; every creative endeavor can benefit from it. When I used to paint, I’d occasionally take a step back from the canvas and squint at the painting. Seeing it small and blurry would allow me to see the composition as a whole, without details. And whenever I’m working on a navigation structure for an information environment, I switch between text-based outlines and visual sketches of how menus will be laid out.

Switching modalities is also useful in group settings. I’ve been in many workshops that revolve around conversations prompted by presentation decks. This is one modality — one that gets old fast. There comes the point when the group must switch; for example, by sketching out ideas on paper rather than talking about them. Inevitably, the switch is a catalyst for new ideas to emerge.

Changing modes of thinking is a quick and easy way to quickly flesh out ideas, and to get unstuck. For much of my career, I did it unconsciously (and therefore, ineffectively.) Now that I understand it better, I pay attention to how I’m thinking. If ideas are flowing, I stick to the mode I’m in; when I get stuck, I know it’s time to switch modalities. I can now switch very quickly and effortlessly; sometimes, just getting up and walking around will do. Cognition can’t be pushed… but it can be nudged.

Screens, Screens Everywhere

Yesterday I got back from UXPA 2018, which was held in a beach resort near San Juan, Puerto Rico. It’s a long way from the Bay Area, so the trip required me to spend some time waiting in airports for connections. At Newark International Airport, I was surprised by the proliferation of screens everywhere. Finding a place to enjoy an undistracted meal proved futile; after much walking around, I resigned myself to the fact that every restaurant seat in this terminal would come equipped with a screen. This, after a three-and-a-half-hour redeye flight in which I couldn’t sleep, my insomnia due in no small part to the passenger next to me not knowing how to turn off the screen in front of her. (As with many other airlines, United now conveniently provides a “personal” screen to every passenger in their airplanes.)

I’m not particularly fond of air travel. But one aspect of flying I’ve long enjoyed is that it affords me the ability to “turn off” for a while — to not focus on what’s happening in my mailbox, or Twitter, or what have you. Instead, I use the time to read or listen to music or audiobooks. Yes, I’ve traveled with an iPad for years. That’s where I do most of my reading. Sometimes I’ll also watch a movie or TV show on it, or even play a casual game. So I’m not new to having a screen in front of my while I travel. But it used to be my choice as to when and where it comes out. Now these things are everywhere during the travel experience. They’re in front of you when you’re in your seat in the airplane. They’re in front of you when you’re eating a sandwich at the terminal. They’re even in front of you when you’re paying for the sandwich. (Most shops in the terminal I was in at Newark have replaced convenience store attendants with self-checkout stations, all featuring iPads as the primary user interface.)

I’m guessing the proliferation of screens during the air travel experience is the result of airlines and airport operators discovering the value of your attention. In the “bad old days,” you’d buy your food and then sit there doing “nothing” (other than eating) for thirty minutes to an hour. If you’re like most other passengers, you’d be flying alone, with no-one else to talk to. Yes, you probably had at least one other screen on you (such as an iPhone) to keep you entertained, but the airline/airport operator couldn’t easily monetize your attention on that screen. So now they provide you with devices where you can access an information environment of their own devising: one in which you can continue to order more food or products or what have you. As a nice side benefit, this probably also reduces the costs of each transaction, since they don’t need as many people working in these restaurants and shops if every seat comes equipped with its own self-service checkout register.

Win-win-win, right? I’m not sure. I felt exhausted just looking at that sea of screens. When arriving for a connection such as the one in Newark, I’m usually tired and a little dazed after sitting for hours in a confined, uncomfortable space. I’m also trying to get a read on the physical environment of the terminal: I need to know how to get to the gate for my next flight, how much time I have until it starts boarding, and (not infrequently) where the nearest restroom is. As a result, my attention is often already compromised in these places. The proliferation of screens trying to “engage” me doesn’t offer respite in this environment; it does the opposite. I found myself pining for a quiet corner where I could have a cup of coffee without stuff flashing in my face.

Changing Your Personal Information Environment

Some people who do most of their work with computers also have some control over how that work is done. For example, as an independent information architect, I am my own IT department; I choose what tools I use. At this stage in my career, I’m proficient with most of them. Still, it’s important to occasionally​ look around for more efficient/effective ways of doing things.

Changing key components of your personal information environment is not something to undertake lightly. There are costs to doing so. The least onerous is the cost of the software itself; the big investment is in time spent learning new workflows and migrating to the new tool.

The various components of your personal information environment sit on a stack. At the bottom of the stack — the foundational layer — is your OS platform of choice. In my case, this is macOS. I’ve been using Macs for almost thirty years, changing to another platform (Windows, for example) would be tremendously costly.

Switching components higher up in the stack would be less onerous. For example, although I use Gmail for my email needs, I access it using Apple’s Mail.app. I could change mail clients fairly painlessly; I’d just need to point the new application to my Gmail accounts. Yes, I’d lose some functionality in the process (e.g., links to individual Mail.app messages from OmniFocus), but there’s not much work I’d need to do other than learn the new application. So if a new mail client comes along that is radically better than Mail.app, I’d be willing to give it a spin.

I’m currently testing an application that would replace one of the foundational layers of my information environment: OneNote. I’ve used OneNote as my note-taking and information-gathering system for many years. I have many dozens of notebooks in OneNote, and have internalized various workflows around this app. Changing this layer of my stack would come at a considerable cost.

Are big changes such as this one worth it? That depends on whether the new tool allows you to do important things that the old tool won’t, or allows you to do similar things significantly better/faster. To be worth it for me to switch from OneNote, I’d need to see orders-of-magnitude improvements. Alas, it’s difficult to evaluate worthiness without extensive testing, and that in itself is a big time sink. That said, there are also significant opportunity costs to continuing to use a tool that may be less efficient/effective.

Making time to experiment with new components in your personal information environment can open up new possibilities; it can make you more efficient, and even give you new superpowers. But undertaking such changes is not something to be taken lightly, as it can come with significant costs. Sometimes, leaving well-enough alone is the wiser choice.

“Living in Information” Now Shipping

My book, Living in Information, is now shipping. You can order it from Rosenfeld Media, Amazon, and other fine purveyors of the written word.

Last night we had a small book launch ceremony during the Enterprise UX conference opening reception. My friend and publisher (and EUX organizer) Lou Rosenfeld said a few words, as did I, and then I signed copies of the book. And with that, Living in Information is now out and about in the world.

During the party, quite a few folks asked me how I feel about being done with the book. “You must feel relieved,” many said. I’ve been thinking about this. “Relief” is not the right word. For one thing, it’s been a few months since I finished the bulk of the work for this project. For another, writing isn’t a chore I need relief from; it’s something I love doing.

More than anything, I feel curious right now… curious to hear how the book is received. (I’m visiting its Amazon page, anxiously awaiting the first review.) I would especially love to hear what you think about it. Please feel free to reach out after you’ve read it or leave a review in Amazon. I hope you enjoy and get value from Living in Information!

Living in Information Now Available to Pre-order!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted news about my new book, Living in Information. I’m excited to announce that you can now pre-order the book from Rosenfeld Media. (It should be shipping by mid-June.)

The book’s page on the Rosenfeld Media website has been updated to include testimonials from early reviewers. I’m thrilled by the positive responses we’ve been getting. Here’s a sampler:

“We spend more time in information environments every day— this book is a great place to spend some time to understand how we can design digital places that benefit us in the long term.”
– Dan Ramsden, Creative Director for UX Architecture and Design Research, BBC

“Jorge Arango proves to be an insightful tour guide to information spaces, explaining how we interact with this new architecture.”
– Karen McGrane, author of Going Responsive

“A must-read for anyone who wants to understand why the digital spaces that drive our lives are deeply frustrating, and how we can make them better by learning from the way architects design buildings. It immediately and profoundly impacted the way I think about the systems I design and use.”
– Jeff Sussna, digital transformation consultant and author of Designing Delivery

Read more testimonials.

I’m also excited to share with you Hugh Dubberly’s foreword for the book. Hugh is a legend for his thoughtful and rigorous application of systems thinking to interaction design. I’m honored to have been able to share a byline with someone who’s influenced my thinking and career.

I’m excited that Living in Information is almost here, and wanted to share it with you. Again, you can pre-order the book now from Rosenfeld Media. I look forward to hearing what you think about it.

Exploring the Possible

My friend Dave Gray has started something new; he calls it the School of the Possible. I describe it as a self-organizing framework for fostering and scaling emergent, long-term, value-generating group activities. Huh? Yeah, I know; not very concrete. Still, enticing — it hints at an opening for new ways to engage with others to add value to the world.

Intriguingly, it starts with re-discovering your purpose as an individual — what you’re here for. (After all, how can you add value if you’re unsure of what you’re here to do?) You manifest this purpose by setting up a “lab page” on Medium that clearly states your what you’re setting out to do, your progress so far, how you can help others, and how others can help you.

This is my lab page. The mere process of writing it has been useful; it’s helped me clarify ideas I’ve long had rattling around in my skull. I expect to continue to modify this page as these ideas evolve. Your feedback is welcome; please leave comments on the Medium page. And if you’d like to start a lab page of your own, this post explains the concept and basic structure.

What’s Your Story?

A few years ago, I was going through a rough patch. Things were not going the way I hoped at work, and I was feeling frustrated. As so often happens, I took it out on my wife, Jimena. We argued. Now, these situations can often end badly, with one or both parties feeling hurt and resentful, perhaps even shutting down. But Jimena said something during the argument that broke me out of my funk and immediately made me realize how much of a jackass I was being. She said, “You need to stop playing the victim.”

That’s exactly what was happening. I was playing the victim. In my mind, I’d spun up a scenario in which I was being victimized by an (unspecified) third party. Nothing in the facts substantiated this. If you strained, perhaps you could imagine an interpretation of the situation in which I was intentionally victimized, but the scenario didn’t survive Occam’s razor. There were many more plausible explanations for what was happening. I hadn’t even realized I was feeling victimized until Jimena called it out. I’d done it completely unconsciously.

Hearing the word “victim” made me stop in my tracks. What if I wasn’t a victim in this situation? What would it look like? How would I approach it differently? What avenues for action did the new perspective open up? I felt an immediate sense of relief. I apologized to Jimena, and we talked through possible solutions.

We’re constantly telling ourselves stories about what’s happening “out there” in the world. Some of these stories (like the one about me being victimized) are unhelpful; they make it difficult for us to accomplish our goals. Other stories help us predict outcomes more accurately and therefore help us act more skillfully. Whether they help or not, they’re still stories. Reality gets along quite well without our interpretations of what’s going on.

Design requires that we empathize with people who may be very different from ourselves. It’s inherent to how design works; if you must become a neurosurgeon before you can design a system to help patients suffering from brain trauma, there won’t be many such systems around. Having a powerful narrative underlying your understanding of reality can make it difficult for you to see things clearly from other perspectives.

So as designers, we must be especially conscious of the stories we overlay on the world, and whether those narratives are helping or hindering us. Often — as with my case above — we may not even know we’re doing it. We just take for granted that that’s how the world works. Except it doesn’t — and believing that it does keeps us from achieving our full potential.