Maintaining Focus

Before smartphones, people took photos using cameras. I bought my first “nice” camera — an entry-level Canon SLR — before my first daughter was born; I got it because I knew my point-and-shoot camera didn’t have a fast enough focusing system to keep track of a fast-moving toddler. Even today — with excellent cameras in our phones — higher-end cameras provide better focusing features.

You can analyze a camera’s focusing capabilities by breaking them down into two stages:

  1. how fast the camera can recognize the subject and how quickly it can focus on it, and
  2. how well it maintains that focus as the subject moves around.

So: acquiring and maintaining focus. Most higher-end cameras today can figure out what you’re trying to capture, focus on it, and adjust the lens’s focus automatically to keep that subject sharp — even if it’s zooming toward you in a soccer field or making pirouettes through the air. The nice ones do it so quickly that it feels instantaneous and effortless. But this isn’t easy to do! These autofocus systems are technological miracles.

I often think about camera focusing systems when thinking about my own life and work. So many things are competing for my attention! What comes first? What’s most important? What should I work on next? In other words, where do I place my focus?

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Working Towards Focus

Many people I know (myself included) have lots of things they’d like to do. Perhaps too many: Work projects, career arcs, family responsibilities, professional associations, hobbies, leisure activities, travel plans, shopping lists, and more, all tug on our attention. For some people, these needs and desires are aligned. When you ask them what they do, they reply with single-minded clarity. But most of us aren’t like that. Most of us respond with a muddle of conflicting interests. Whitman said we contain multitudes. Multitudes don’t speak with a clear, distinct voice; they murmur.

This lack of alignment is okay — unless you’re aiming for greatness. Becoming extraordinarily good at anything requires focus. It requires that we pass on many alluring things, even “just this once.” It’s hard. And it’s not the norm, so you’ll have to justify it — to yourself and others.

Do you feel like the various parts of your life are aligned, or are they in conflict with each other? Can you speak clearly about what you do? What are you working towards? What are you ultimately in service to?

You and I are fortunate in being able to contemplate these questions. For most of our forebears, there was a straightforward answer: survival. Hand-to-mouth. We’re beyond that. (I know so because you’re reading these words.) The question, then, is do you want to focus — knowing that you don’t have to. It’s possible to live a fulfilling life without it. For my part, I feel the responsibility to do something great with this “above baseline” lifetime I’ve been granted. But I can’t force focus; the sacrifices needed are too great for the fake-it-till-you-make-it mindset. Instead, I see working towards focus as a process of discovery, one to be engaged seriously, playfully, and (ideally) in the company of others.

Your Personal Information Ecosystem

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
— T.S. Eliot

Information arrives at your consciousness by various means. You choose to pay attention to certain things and not others. You also inform other people by multiple means. (Even if the “other” is your future self.) All these means form part of your personal information ecosystem. You have one; we all do.

For me, that ecosystem includes various email accounts, Slack channels, Twitter accounts, a Facebook account, the World Wide Web, etc. These are just the purely digital ones. I also have a personal library, access to a decent public library, a subscription to The Economist, and more. There are movies and TV shows, radio stations and podcasts, and so on. And of course, there’s also lots of information that comes to me via the people I interact with in person.

(I do not include here ambient information I get from my immediate surroundings. The turn signal at the intersection is undoubtedly informing me, but I don’t consider it part of my personal ecosystem. Although perhaps critical, its influence on me is highly localized and fleeting.)

While I have access to an enormous wealth of information through these means, I don’t (can’t) pay attention to it all. I curate the things I have access to. I own only some books and don’t aspire to own all of them. I follow over 700 accounts on Twitter and am always looking for ways of lowering that number. I intentionally cull the means through which I become informed.

Those are just the means by which I acquire information. I also put information out into the world. Some of the means I use to do so overlap with the means through which I become informed. Email, for example, is a two-way medium. But I also have some means to get information out which are mostly for publishing. (This blog, for example.) I put out a lot less information into the world than I take in. Hopefully, the stuff that comes out has value over what I took in. (At the very least, the value may come from new connections between previous pieces of information.)

My personal information ecosystem isn’t static. I’m continually re-evaluating things. Am I well-served by my Twitter account? The answer used to be an undeniable “yes.” These days, it’s less clear. I’ve long abandoned some means I used to become informed. There was a time in my life, for example, when ICQ was important to me. It’s been a long time since I’ve even thought about it.

The point is, I try to be intentional about what I let into and what I put out through my personal information ecosystem. Some means I’ve chosen, others have been selected for me. (For example, some roles require that I have and check specific email accounts.) I often think about the components of this ecosystem; how they work together (or not) to make my life better.

What about you? Have you designed your personal information ecosystem, or has it been designed for you? How much say do you have over what you let in and put out? Is your personal information ecosystem serving your goals and needs? How intentional are you about how you inform yourself?

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!