The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Cyd Harrell, a product, service design, and user research leader focused on the civic/government space.
Cyd brings a very thoughtful approach to designing institutional systems, which must serve their purposes over the long term. Producing long-lived systems requires that designers delve beneath the surface (e.g. screen-level design) to deeper strata such as the values that inform them. Cyd highlighted one such value during our conversation, respect:
Respect is for me a really important value in almost every design, but also in particular for government, where whatever the government agency is, it’s interacting with someone who is perhaps an owner because they’re part of a democracy, or who certainly is someone whose dignity is protected in foundational documents like the Constitution and so forth.
If we start to imagine, the easy one for most people is, what if you went to the DMV and it was a respectful experience? What would it be like if I’m getting a business permit or even something simple like signing your kid up for a class at the library? What if that respected your time and your dignity and your abilities in full?
You can start to get even more speculative. What if we came up with a way to make arrests as respectful as possible of the person experiencing them? Why don’t we do that? What would that imply about every feature of a design?
Let’s do something a little bit less critical, say applying for public benefits. What if we took the processes and made sure that they were respectful of the time and the needs and the abilities of our fellow citizens who are experiencing difficulty and need our collective help? These things don’t fit very title and to an AB test, and they don’t necessarily fit very tightly into a sprint.
In 2019 I had the opportunity to collaborate with Cyd and her team on a project, and saw firsthand how she modeled and infused respect and mindfulness in the work. The world would be better if more designers adopted these values as part of their work — whether it be in the civic or commercial realms. Our conversation is a good primer; I encourage you to listen.
The Informed Life Episode 27: Cyd Harrell on Design for the Long-term
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Andrew Hinton. Over the last two decades, Andrew has brought great depth to the information architecture community. He’s one of the founders of the (late, alas) Information Architecture Institute and author of Understanding Context, an essential text for anyone who wants to understand how people make sense of the environments they operate in. (It’s a must-read for designers.)
Our conversation delved into the foundations of information architecture and how language and environment relate to each other. I was especially taken by how Andrew makes these (potentially) complex subjects engaging and actionable to his students and colleagues:
If I get people to get out of abstract-head and out of information-head, the way that we typically think of information and start with, how do we understand our physical environment and interact with it in the same way lizards and spiders interact with their environment. The principles are basically the same. And then build from there. That’s how I can teach this.
Now, if I’m working with just colleagues on the fly in the middle of a project, or I’m talking to my colleagues here at work, I don’t go into all that. I mean, I’ve been here six months and I have yet to go into all that. But what I do is try to slip in this grounding and kind of draw on the whiteboard. Here’s a person. Here’s some things that they’re interacting with. Here’s how that might change over time. I’m always trying to locate it into like, you’ve got a human in an environment doing stuff.
Because ultimately that’s what user experience brings to the table. There’s a human being, and we have to make all this other stuff we’re making compatible with that human being. So we’re creating new parts of their environment that we want them to use and understand.
Andrew’s work has greatly influenced my thinking about the role of information architecture. If you enjoy my blog, you’ll likely find this conversation inspiring. (If it does, then do yourself a favor and read Understanding Context — it will change how you think about your work and your world.)
The Informed Life Episode 26: Andrew Hinton on Language and Environments
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with linguist Mary Parks. For almost twenty years, Mary has worked as a voice user interface designer for several digital technology companies, including some of the field’s leaders. Our conversation focused on what it takes for digital systems to parse, understand, and generate speech.
One fascinating aspect of voice recognition systems is how they separate the audio signal of an utterance from the content it carries — it’s “text.” For example, as Mary put it, the system doesn’t know if you’re yelling at it, only what you’re saying. But this audio signal carries with it a lot of important information as well:
The moment we open our mouths, a massive amount of identifying information is in the speech utterance, in the first two seconds of the utterance. Whenever we talk, there’s a ton of information there. You hear things in the in the sound of the voice that tell you who the person is, elements of their identity, including perhaps the region they’re from. You know, there’s just all kinds of things that come up. And if you know the person, then your brain goes, “Oh, I know this voice.” Like you can hear only just to the two seconds of a voice, and if it’s somebody you really know, you’ll know who it is right away with pretty high confidence as a person. And so just identity and language are deeply tied.
I wish Mary and I had talked longer — there was much in our conversation I wanted to follow up on. I hope you get as much value from this episode as I did.
(By the way, in case you missed it: the show is now available on Google Play Music. This should make it easier for folks who use Android devices to listen.)
The Informed Life Episode 25: Mary Parks on Voice User Interfaces
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Michael J. Metts. Alongside co-author Andy Welfle, Michael has written a new book, called Writing is Designing: Words and the User Experience, and in this show we discussed their thesis:
if you think about any sort of experience that you interact with, like a mobile app, that’s the one we use as an example right in the beginning of the book. Your mobile app, if you open it up and you start tapping through it, you start looking at it, you start to see words everywhere. You’re interacting with language just as much as you’re interacting with visual elements like menu items and buttons and all those other things.
So, our thesis really is just that you should treat those words as part of the design and that you should apply design techniques and practices to those words and how you get there, and not treat them as something that’s inconsequential or after the fact. So, we’ve done that in our own careers, and we’ve seen how vital it is to building a good experience, and we just want to share that with others.
If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know why I wanted to have Michael on the show. We discussed the relationship between writing and design, how to manage language, and what everybody — designer or not — can do to be a better writer. Hope you enjoy our conversation.
The Informed Life Episode 24: Michael J. Metts on Writing as Design
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Carol Smith. Carol is a user experience researcher at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Her focus is artificial intelligence, and prior to joining Carnegie Mellon, she worked for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group and IBM Watson.
Our conversation focused on the benefits and limitations of AI technologies:
I do take many precautions with making sure that my information as protected as possible, but at the same time, I love using a lot of the tools out there. So I love using chatbot that I have in my home. I really love being able to just ask it to play NPR, or asking it to turn on some lights, or whatever it is. I really enjoy these types of tools, and I really like the idea that my email can add something to my calendar. That’s really helpful. It doesn’t always add it the way I want it to, and I’d like more control in that sense. But I find these tools to be so helpful in my day to day life. I’ve got kids, and I teach a class, and I work and got soccer games and a million things going on on any given day. I can’t imagine having this busy of a life without these tools helping me day-to-day.
That being said, I’m very cognizant of all of the danger that is potential with these systems and how much of my personal information is out there. I’m very protective of my kids’ information and trying to keep them off of these systems for as long as possible. So it’s a balance. It’s a constant balance where I’m constantly trying to determine, is this still the system I want to be using? Should I be perhaps moving to a different system? Should I be not using the system that I believe to be more harmful? Trying to determine how to manage all that is a constant decision-making and evaluation process, and for people who are less familiar with these tools, I’m sure it’s much more frightening and difficult.
Our discussion is a good primer on the current state of AI and its implications for our day-to-day information management. I also share one of my AI “tales of woe.”
Unfortunately there were some audio glitches on my side of the line, which I couldn’t fix in post. They go away halfway through the show, but may be a bit annoying early on. Apologies for that. I’m still trying to figure out podcasting; there are so many things to track!
In any case, I enjoyed my conversation with Carol. I hope you find it valuable.
The Informed Life Episode 23: Carol Smith on Artificial Intelligence
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with design leader and coach Andrea Mignolo. Andrea is VP of Product and Design at Movable Ink, a marketing technology company based in New York. She’s also been posting insightful articles on Medium about the value of design. I referenced these two in particular in the show:
These articles are what prompted me to schedule a conversation with her. The thesis is that design is useful for more than just making product and services; it’s also a particular way of being for organizations, one which emphasizes learning through making:
I think a lot of people talk about wanting design-driven companies, but I think that that’s maybe a little too much hubris. I think it’s really design helping facilitate and spread these activities ways of thinking ways of exploring into other departments as well or just creating a culture where this is part of the approach.
The first part of our conversation centered on this idea of “designerly ways of being.” I was especially keen to learn about the Experiential Learning Cycle; a model Andrea has been using to implement these ideas.
The second half of the interview took a fascinating turn: Andrea discussed her experience as a practitioner of integral coaching, which helps individuals and organizations find new ways of being in the world. I’m intrigued by these practices and left wanting to know more.
I hope you get as much value from this conversation as I did.
The Informed Life Episode 22: Andrea Mignolo on Designerly Ways of Being
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Vanessa Foss. Vanessa has been planning and managing conferences for twenty-five years. She’s the founder and president of Kunverj, an event planning and managing company. Vanessa and her team run one of my favorite events of the year, the Information Architecture Conference. In our conversation, we discussed what it takes to organize and manage such an event.
The bottom line? Event planning is a relationship business, one that requires tuning in to the needs and capabilities of the people you’re working with — especially the conference chairs, who are ultimately responsible for the success of the event. Vanessa used a powerful analogy to describe her role in the process:
It’s like having a dinner party, but it’s just bigger. These people, they’re coming to your home, and you want to make sure that they have… You know, that everything is just right for them.
And so with all of the conferences — and it’s not just the IA Conference — all the conferences, that’s the type of participation that I like to have, where I feel like this is my home, and I’m trying to prepare the best meal and the best experience for everyone coming into my home. And you know, with the IA Conference, the Euro IA Conference, and the RDAP conference that I do, these are all people that I’ve been working with for a long time. And so there’s a sense of family there. There’s a sense of… I’m not an IA, but I have learned so much from this community, the IA community, especially from the IA Conference. I see people that are so great, and they show so much empathy towards each other, and you know, the want to mentor and to help is always there. It’s hard work, but it’s very rewarding when you get to see the better side of human beings.
The IA Conference is my “home” conference — the one I go to every year, drawn both by professional interests and long friendships. Vanessa and her team are a core part of the Conference. Every time I see them, they’re working hard to make sure things are going well for everyone involved. It was a pleasure to have her on the show and to be able to highlight her work.
The Informed Life Episode 21: Vanessa Foss on Event Planning
Episode 20 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with my friend Chris Chandler. Chris is a partner at strategic software design and development studio Philosophie, and a self-described agilista. Our conversation centered on how designers — especially those working in agile environments — can embrace an ethical approach to their work:
Sometimes I say that theory without practice is useless, but sometimes I’ll say that practice without theory is expensive.
So, if we don’t know why we’re doing something then it’s awfully hard to make improvements and understand why something didn’t go the way that it wanted to go. And you know, that’s from a practical point. But I think when we talk about “expensive,” the expense of breaking things is more — and this is why it’s become such a such a watchword, right? The Facebook motto — it’s not just breaking software, right? Like we’re talking now about maybe breaking democracy. So that can have really big consequences.
Chris makes the point that it’s difficult to have conversations about ethics when we don’t share the same underlying ethical frameworks. How do we deal with this? Chris has found an answer in the philosophy of existentialism, especially the work of Simone de Beauvoir:
what she says is that as an existentialist in the existentialism philosophy, your highest value should be to work towards your own personal freedom — what you might say, to self-actualization, to own the fact that you are making these choices and to own the consequences of those choices and to be deliberate about those choices — and to work towards freedom.
This conversation is worth your while — especially if you design software.
The Informed Life Episode 20: Chris Chandler on Design Ethics
The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with designer and engineer Eduardo Ortiz. Eduardo is a Marine Corps veteran and Director of the U.S. Digital Service. He’s also co-founder of &Partners, a social impact studio that works with organizations to help improve their communities. In this episode, we discuss how they manage their information to drive change.
Eduardo spoke of their first project, which was set up to address the difficulties faced by immigrants in the Southwest U.S. border:
My partners and I, we started doing research to try to figure out what exactly what’s going on, which really meant making a lot of calls and starting to read the news to truly understand what was happening at the Southwest border. And when we kind of came up to an idea of what we could do or what the challenges were, I started talking to my wife who was a public defender, and she helped me kind of create this understanding, this framework for how children and families could be helped from a position of a legal expert, if you will. And once I had that I made a call out to pretty much anyone and everyone who had cycles to spare to join me. And about 40 people ended up volunteering to to join us and we ended up creating pretty much a relationship management system that we then partnered with New America and the Vera Justice Network, to provide a system that the legal providers at the Southwest border could use to reunify families.
We live in amazing times in which small groups of committed people can spin up systems to help solve complex social needs. Eduardo and his team could go from seeing something playing out in the news which they didn’t like, to asking themselves the question “what can I do about it?,” to actually doing something about it, relatively quickly.
One reason why we can spin up such solutions so quickly and inexpensively is that many digital systems are designed for collaboration and integration with other systems. During the interview, Eduardo also discussed how &Partners created a relationship management system using such a mash-up of tools.
Check out our conversation. And if you’re enjoying the show, please rate or review it in Apple’s podcast directory — this helps other folks find it.