Finding Our Way Podcast, Ep. 24

My friends Peter Merholz and Jesse James Garrett invited me to be a guest on their podcast, Finding Our Way. Our conversation focused on architecture, design education, standards, and whether designers should be certified, much like architects are licensed.

As I mentioned in the show, I’m undecided about certification. On one hand, I understand why some folks want it: the systems we’re designing today have an oversized impact on people’s well-being. On the other hand, the basic technologies are still evolving too fast; we risk formalizing interaction mechanisms that would be quickly made irrelevant.

There’s much more in the show. I greatly enjoyed this conversation. I hope you find it valuable too.

Listen here:

Or visit the Finding Our Way podcast, which includes a transcript if you’d rather read the conversation.

The Informed Life with Grace Lau

Episode 52 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Grace Lau. Grace is an information architect and UX designer based in the Greater Los Angeles area. Since early in her career, Grace has been organizing local professional community events. Now she’s a leader in two important information architecture events: the IA Conference, where she’s one of the 2021 chairs, and World IA Day, which she co-presides.

Our conversation centered on these upcoming community events. Grace acknowledged that information architecture can be a difficult concept to grasp:

When people hear “user experience,” they’re like, yeah, I got it! You know? Because UX is good, right? But then when you say, “oh, IA…” Because if you’re seeing good IA, then it’s invisible. So, it’s not something that is top of mind for most people. But when there is bad IA on a site, on an app, on an experience, you hear all about it. But then people want to know that the reason behind it is that it’s because it’s a bad IA.

But participating in these communities can help — not just by shedding light on the subject, but by allowing you to find your community of practice. As Grace put it,

Being part of the IA community has been really grounding for me… It’s a great way to meet other people. It’s a great way to network. [Participating is] also a great way to feel a part of another larger community of people.

I enjoyed my conversation with Grace. I hope it encourages you to participate on either the IA Conference or World IA Day — or both!

An administrative note: this episode marks the show’s second anniversary. I’m thankful for all the guests who’ve carved time out of their busy schedules to share with us on the show over the last two years. I’m also thankful for your attention. I hope these conversations are valuable to you. Onward!

The Informed Life Episode 52: Grace Lau on Information Architecture Events

The Informed Life with Cheryl Platz

Episode 51 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Cheryl Platz. Cheryl is an accomplished interaction designer who has worked on multimodal systems like Alexa and Cortana. Our conversation focused on multimodality, which is the subject her new book, Designing Beyond Devices.

This is how Cheryl explained the concept of multimodality:

For the purposes of my book, the definition we’re working with for multimodality is [that] multimodality is an exchange between a device and a human where multiple input or output modalities can be used simultaneously or sequentially, depending on context and preference. So, if we think about the traditional desktop-to- human relationship or laptop-to-human relationship, you have your keyboard and mouse and your monitors. There was one output, for the most part, which was the dominant output is visual. And the dominant input is haptic, where you’re using your hands to manipulate physical input devices. It’s not really super multimodal. And it’s certainly not optimized for multimodality.

You could argue that occasionally there’s a secondary output in audio. And some designers are doing a little bit of kinetic input when they use like a Wacom tablet or something like that. But it’s not the default way of working. And there’s so much more potential there. And we think about what’s happened in the last few years with the arrival of smart speakers, with the arrival of voice search on Google, with the fact that most of our customers are deeply comfortable speaking to their devices now, with the arrival of Kinect back in like 2010-2011 timeframe, and the fact that some customers are even comfortable, like waving to their devices and gesturing at them now. There’s so much more potential than just moving a mouse and keyboard around.

We’re moving to a multimodal world, and Cheryl explains why even designers who are working primarily on screen-based systems would benefit from knowing about multimodality. The book offers a good overview of the concept and provides practical frameworks that can help us design more efficacious multimodal systems. Our conversation is a good introduction to the subject; it’s likely to be of value to designers of all sorts of digital systems — and their users.

By the way, there are two other few features this week on The Informed Life: the show is now available on Spotify and features an all-new website. I hope both help more people enjoy the show.

The Informed Life Episode 51: Cheryl Platz on Multimodality

The Informed Life with Brian Breslin

Episode 50 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Miami-based tech entrepreneur, educator, and community builder Brian Breslin. Brian is the director of The Launch Pad, the entrepreneurship center at the University of Miami, and founder of Refresh Miami, a non-profit organization dedicated to growing South Florida’s tech and startup ecosystem. In this conversation, we focus on community-building, especially during this time when geographic boundaries are becoming blurred.

Brian started Refresh Miami from scratch, and it’s now the largest tech and startup community nonprofit in the Southeast United States. I wanted to know how he did it. Among other things, we discussed the importance of focus. (For Refresh Miami, the focus is the intersection of the South Florida location with the topic of tech-centric entrepreneurship.) Towards the end of the conversation, Brian brought up the power of having a strong relationship network:

In cases of geographic communities like Miami, one of our underlying theses here with Refresh is that the more bonds and the more connections that people can make, the less likely they are to leave physically. And if they do leave physically, they’ll at least maintain connections with the local community. I guess it’s like Metcalfe’s law, right? The more nodes there are in the network, the stronger the network becomes. The more individual connections you can create amongst your customers or amongst your constituents, depending on what type of community it is, you know, the stronger the bond can be. You see this in small ethnic and religious and other communities where the communities are super tight because everybody knows each other, and everybody knows who knows each other and who’s the right person to introduce to if you need something, or to call. And so I think that’s becoming more and more relevant in whether it’s technology communities or design communities or different areas of focus, you know? These tribes, the more tight-knit the tribes can be, the higher likelihood they are to survive, and to thrive.

In these times of extreme political polarization, we run a high risk of fragmenting as a society. Our key interactions are happening in information environments, so the designers of these systems ought to learn from effective community builders. Brian is such a builder; I was glad to be able to learn from him on the show. I hope you, too, find our conversation valuable.

The Informed Life Episode 50: Brian Breslin on Building Community

The Informed Life with Phillip Hunter

Episode 49 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with strategy and innovation consultant Phillip Hunter. Phillip’s focus is conversation-based systems, and among several previous roles in this space, he served as head of user experience for Amazon Alexa Skills.

We had a meta-conversation in that our conversation focused on conversation itself — what it is, and more to the point, how we can design systems that converse with their users. Phillip pointed out several tools and approaches designers can use to design conversational systems. But he also called out what such challenges have in common with other design projects:

one of the first big steps in designing — as with all other design — is really understanding what’s the context, what’s the goal, who’s participating, what knowledge might they have? What knowledge do we expect them not to have? What do they want? Why do they want it? All of these sorts of questions that are fundamental to any sort of true design activity that we’re doing are still important. The thing now though, is instead of saying, “Okay, well that means we’re going to have certain kinds of boxes or certain content on our screen,” we’re saying, “How do we translate all of that into words that we can exchange fairly easily?” And right now, I got to say, we’re mostly doing a really terrible job of it.

If you’re designing for voice, you must listen to this interview. But this episode should also prove valuable if (like many of us these days) you find yourself on the other side of a conversation with a digital system.

The Informed Life Episode 49: Phillip Hunter on Design for Conversation

The Informed Life with Caroline Crampton

Episode 48 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with writer and podcaster Caroline Crampton. Among other things, Caroline edits The Listener, a daily newsletter that curates the best podcasts:

part of the mission of The Listener is to recommend things that people wouldn’t be able to find otherwise… that wouldn’t stray across their path naturally either in their sort of recommendations or on the front page of the podcast listening app that they use. Things that take them outside of their media diet, essentially. So, I’m constantly myself battling against that, because the way that the internet works these days is you consume one of something and it says, “Hey, would you like three more of that?” I’m constantly trying to think beyond that and find ways around it myself.

In this interview, we find out how Caroline does it, and what she looks for in a podcast. If, like me, you have trouble keeping up with all of your podcast subscriptions, you may find value in this conversation.

The Informed Life Episode 48: Caroline Crampton on Curation

The Informed Life with Peter Morville

Episode 47 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Peter Morville. Peter is a pioneer in the discipline of information architecture. Among many other distinctions, he co-authored with Lou Rosenfeld Information Architecture for the World-Wide Web, the classic O’Reilly “polar bear” book on the subject.

This is Peter’s second appearance on the show. (He was also my guest on episode 10.) I asked him back because I wanted to learn more about his recent blog post calling for practitioners to emancipate information architecture.

“Emancipate” is a strong term, and I wanted to know what Peter meant by it. He called out the fact that for much of its early history, IA has been mostly in service of business. But the discipline’s remit can be broader:

It’s not that information architecture isn’t doing good in the business world and can’t do more good. So, it’s not an abandonment of business at all. But I think that there’s so much potential for the ways that we think, the ways that we practice information architecture, particularly In the areas of language and classification — how we use language, how we define or design labels, how we structure and organize conceptual spaces — those skills are so useful beyond business, whether we talk about social or political or environmental areas, I think that part of what is holding us back as people are archaic words and structures: language and classification systems that we have inherited from the past that we’re having a hard time getting beyond.

Through our work, information architects formalize language and distinctions that change how people understand themselves, each other, and their relationship to the world. Peter is calling on us to adopt a more mindful approach to distinction-making. It’s a powerful and timely message, and one we got to discuss on the show. I hope you find value in our conversation.

The Informed Life Episode 47: Peter Morville on Emancipating Information Architecture

The Informed Life With Jeff Johnson

Episode 46 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Jeff Johnson. Jeff has been applying his background in psychology towards designing better human-computer interfaces for over forty years. He teaches computer science at The University of San Francisco, and has written several influential books on UI design. Among these, he co-authored with Kate Finn Desiging User Interfaces for an Aging Population, which was the focus of our conversation.

Jeff called out the irony that while older adults often have trouble using technology, they’re in a sense the segment of the population that is in most need of technological assistance. He also explained that this trouble comes primarily from two issues:

  • Our physical capacities diminish as we age
  • Our mental models about technologies become fixed around those that were current when we were between 10-30 years old

There are ways for designers to empathize for the former challenge. The latter, however, is harder to overcome.

As an example of becoming fixed in our mental models of how technology works, Jeff cited navigating between screens to find product functions:

When I was 15 years old, all the user interfaces I used were right there in front of me. They didn’t require any kind of a concept of navigation. I did not have to navigate to the function that I wanted to do. Whereas now, starting with, personal computers, but continuing through the web, continuing through social networking and continuing through the use of cell phones, navigation through a user interface became an important concept. It’s part of the design, right? There’s no way a cell phone with its small screen can provide all the functionality right there on the screen that you need at any given time. But the old telephones, there was no need to navigate from one function to another. You just pick up the phone and start dialing the number.

As challenging as it may be, it behooves designers to find ways to empathize with aging users. Jeff called out several ways to do this, including techniques for designers to hobble their sensory and motor capabilities and including older designers in the team.

This conversation reminded me that we all stand to benefit when we design for aging users. I hope you get as much value from our discussion as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 46: Jeff Johnson on Design for Aging