“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.

Give Priority to Old Sources

Acquire the habit of attending carefully to what is being said by another, and of entering, so far as possible, into the mind of the speaker.

Advice from the latest designer advocating empathy? The newest self-help sales craze? No, a snippet from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, written in the first century​​​ B.C.E. Old books can be useful. Sometimes, more useful than the “latest greatest.”

According to Forbes, there are between 600,000 to 1,000,000 new books published every year in the U.S. alone. There are also other media competing for your attention: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, news websites, blogs, TV, etc. That’s a lot of content, and you have limited time. How do you know what to prioritize?

Whenever I’m faced with multiple choices for a particular subject, I gravitate towards older sources. Recently I’ve been reading about strategy and consulting. There are lots of books in these categories. Some have been around longer than others. Those are the ones I start with.

Why? Because the market weeds out the less useful ones over time. Among the countless books being published this year, only a few will still be in print fifty years from now. That’s because the ideas in those books have proven useful to people from multiple generations. They’re probably useful to you too. When given a choice, prioritize these older sources. If you can see beyond their sometimes stale examples and illustrations, you’ll find much that is timeless and valuable.

(I write this with conflicted feelings since I have a book coming out soon. But I’ve aimed for it to be useful in the long run. I’m also honored to have contributed to another book that has been in through four editions over twenty years of continuous publication.)

Craft and Philosophy

I’ve attended design conferences for many years, and have seen many colleagues present their ideas onstage. I rank these presentations on a continuum: some lean more towards craft while others lean towards philosophy.

craft-and-philosophy-1

I often hear people complain about the presentations that lean towards philosophy. They’ll say things like “that wasn’t very useful” or “that was very academic” or “what am I supposed to do with this stuff?” They’d rather see only presentations that teach them skills they can use at the office on the proverbial “next Monday morning.” But we need to attend to both craft and philosophy if we are to have fulfilling careers.

How does the word philosophy make you feel? Does it feel light or heavy? Does it energize you or bring you down? Many people don’t find philosophy energizing. They think of it as esoteric; they associate it with abstraction, deep thinking, theory — hard work without a tangible payoff. I think this is because they associate the word philosophy with the academic discipline called philosophy, which can be dense. But that’s not how I mean philosophy here. I mean it in the sense of the phrase having a life philosophy. That is, a set of principles that help guide your actions; a theory or attitude towards what you do that informs how you behave.

A more common way to frame this is using another continuum; one ranging from practice to theory. I dislike this framing. Practice doesn’t capture the dignity of craft, and theory doesn’t capture the purposefulness of philosophy. Philosophy and craft express values in a way that theory and practice don’t. Craft addresses how we do things, philosophy addresses why we do them.

Perhaps this is why we’re unsettled by the word philosophy; questioning why we do what we do may lead us down paths we’d rather not explore. It may even lead us to question what we’re doing altogether, and hey, we have bills to pay! But by the time your life is coming to its end, you’ll probably want to be sure you’ve spent it doing something worthwhile. How will you know?

Teaching IA in Chicago

I’ll be in Chicago over the next few days for the 18th annual Information Architecture Summit. This year I’ll be leading a few sessions:

  • Tomorrow (3/21) I’ll be teaching a full-day workshop on the essentials you need to know to get started with information architecture. This workshop has a lot of content, but also includes hands-on exercises to give participants a taste of what it’s like to do this stuff.
  • On Thursday (3/22) I’ll be repeating the IA essentials material as a half-day workshop for the first cohort of IA Summit Scholars. I’m excited about this program and looking forward to meeting the students!
  • On Saturday (3/24) morning I’ll be hosting the first of two (yes two — by popular demand!) Polar Bear Yoga sessions. (Later that evening I’ll be embarrassing myself — as I do every year — at karaoke night. That is if my voice holds up; I’m currently getting over a cold.)
  • On Sunday (2/25) I’ll be hosting the second Polar Bear Yoga session.

I hope to see you there. This will be my ​12th Summit; it’s hard to believe I’ve been going to this conference for over a decade. The Summit is my favorite conference every year, and this year promises to be a good one! If you haven’t signed up already, I encourage you to register now.

Two Phase Transitions

It’s been a little over four years since my family and I moved to the SF Bay Area. Before the move, I reached out to my friends here to let them know I was coming and to explore collaborations. Chris Baum was one of the first to respond. I’d known Chris had started a design consultancy with two other partners; now he was inviting me to meet them. Long story short: we hit it off; I started consulting for them, and before long they invited me to join Futuredraft, their company.

In the past four years we all grew together in various ways and produced world-class work, adding great value to our clients. We also cemented life-long friendships. Alas, Futuredraft is now transitioning to a different phase, and my time with the company has come to an end. I’m grateful to Chris, Hans Krueger, and Brian O’Kelley for welcoming me to their little tribe. We remain good friends and may work together again at some point.

But now I’ve transitioned to a different phase myself: I’m consulting independently. Now that I’ve finished the manuscript for my new book (yay!), I’m exploring new opportunities to improve the information environments of our world. If your organization is looking to take design leadership to the next level, please take a look at how I can help and do get in touch. I’m excited to talk about what’s next!

Extraordinary Evidence

Photo: independent.co.uk
Photo: independent.co.uk

If you say you’ve just been to the doctor, my default stance will be to believe you. But if you say you’ve been in an extraterrestrial vehicle where little gray beings ran medical tests on you, I’ll need more than your word. The claim you’re making (aliens!) is so far outside the bounds of what our everyday experience offers, that I’ll need additional proof. Grainy photographs won’t be enough.

Carl Sagan used to say that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. This skeptical stance is healthy. You’re not saying “I’ll never believe this!”; you’re saying “I’m open to hearing you out — but this’d better be good!” Good decision-making calls for clarity; seeing things as they really are. This may be different from how we’re told they are. And not just by others: we can easily fool ourselves, crafting fantastic stories about the way things are.

As designers, we’re charged with conceiving different ways of doing things; different ways of being in the world. Our sketches and prototypes create simulations of what things would be like under different circumstances. The better we are at this, the more we are at risk of believing our alternate realities. This is one of the reasons why testing is so important: it helps provide validation for our hypothesis. The more outlandish they are, the more validation is needed. (The ultimate validation: a product or service that succeeds in the market.)