The Informed Life With Tanya Rabourn

Episode 45 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with design strategist and researcher Tanya Rabourn. Tanya’s focus is on service innovation for social impact. She’s currently based in Dubai, but she’s also lived and worked in several other countries. In this conversation, we discuss the role of research in understanding the people and cultures served by design.

It was fascinating to hear Tanya discuss her work. I was intrigued by the opportunities and challenges inherent in doing research in cultures different than our own, especially when we don’t speak the language. Among other things, Tanya mentioned the importance of trust in effective collaboration:

it’s really important for a team to have a high level of trust, because collaboration is greatly facilitated by being very open about sharing what you’re working on. The faster that you can share, the better collaboration will be. And if there’s a high level of trust on the team, you don’t have to feel like, “Oh, I can’t share this with the rest of the team until it’s perfect.” So, the higher that level of trust and comfort with working in the open, the better collaboration is.

She also called out an intriguing tension when doing design research with people from different cultures:

Part of what I’ve been doing, as I’ve worked on these projects, is of course to provide any sort of coaching or instruction about how to do human-centered design or how to do user experience design. And at the same time that I’m doing this, on one hand, I’m giving them the tools to participate in creating this technology, not just using it, but also creating it. But at the same time, I’m imposing a certain set of practices that perhaps doesn’t need to be the only way to do things, right? And so, there’s always this tension between empowering people to participate in these design practices that will allow them to — at a larger scale — create the technologies they use. But at the same time, it can be just another way of imposing outside practices and silencing local ones.

In other words, design is itself a sort of culture, and in doing the work we’re inducting our collaborators into that culture. While this may ease communications, it also risks downplaying the insights and work styles of local collaborators. A thoughtful observation, and one I’ll be considering when conducting research work across cultural divides. I hope you get as much value from our conversation as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 45: Tanya Rabourn on Ethnography

The Informed Life With Alexis Lloyd

Episode 44 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Alexis Lloyd. Alexis is VP of Product Design at Medium and co-founder of Ethical Futures Lab. Previously, she led design and innovation work at The New York Times, Axios, and Automattic. Alexis has been thinking about the future of media for a long time, and in this conversation, we focused on the evolving ways we consume and produce media.

I was keen to discuss the granularity of media with Alexis. Specifically, the more granular content is, the easier it can be re-mixed and re-configured. However, I there’s a point where content becomes so granular that it loses the ability to convey a coherent story. Alexis has written compellingly on this subject, so I wanted to hear what she thought about the ideal balance.

Among other things, she mentioned the key distinction between the process of creating content versus building upon it by extracting, annotating, etc.:

I wouldn’t say that content should be more granular in the way [content is] created. But I think that in the way it is to be extracted, annotated, remixed, and built upon, that the structure should afford more granularity than the original output.

Towards the end of our conversation, I asked Alexis about what excites her about the future of media. She framed her answer by recapping the history of the web, from its early free-form days, which afforded great flexibility but placed high barriers for creators, to the present state with its mass-market cookie-cutter platforms like Facebook that make it easy for anyone to publish at the cost of more personal expression. Perhaps we’re working towards a new balance point between these two extremes?

the thing I’m optimistic about is that we could be heading for a space where we start to build the best of both worlds, where we have a lot of the affordances the platforms have brought us in terms of ease of use, and in terms of the kind of network effects — although there obviously have been some not so positive network effects as well — but the ability to connect and the ability to easily create, while recapturing some of the kind of individuality, the creativity, context that we’ve lost somewhat in the last several years. And so, that’s where I’m hopeful. I don’t know that that’s the world that will come to be, but that’s my thread of what I hope for is that we can start to bring back some of the web that we lost while retaining the affordances of the newer technologies and platforms that we’ve been building on.

I greatly enjoyed my conversation with Alexis. As with so many other interviews for The Informed Life, I wish we’d had more time. I hope you find as much value in our discussion as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 44: Alexis Lloyd on the Granularity of Media

The Informed Life With Rob Haisfield

Episode 43 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with behavioral product strategy and gamification consultant Rob Haisfield. Rob’s area of practice is fascinating; I’d like to have a deeper discussion with him about how to design for changing behavior. However, our discussion in this episode focused on his use of Roam, “a note-taking tool for networked thought.” Rob is an early adopter, and I wanted to hear about the role Roam plays in his work.

He, too, described it as a tool:

It’s a tool for thought. What do you do with tools? You work with them, right? My job is that I think about things for a living. So, I need to track and develop my thoughts over time. I need systematic processes for myself to bring about creative insight and to consolidate all of the information I get from papers, from meetings, from lectures, all of that needs to be in one place. I will say that Roam makes it so you don’t need to do quite as much work as you would do on other apps. In fact, way, way, way less work, because the data architecture, as I mentioned before, with just knowing how blocks relate to each other, it makes writing in Roam into an extremely expressive thing. If you’re just operating intuitively under an understanding of how the data architecture works as you’re writing, then that means later you’ll be able to use queries and do a lot of this work in hindsight, pretty easily.

If you’re intrigued, check out Rob’s tour of his setup. And of course, listen to our conversation.

The Informed Life Episode 43: Rob Haisfield on Roam

The Informed Life With Nataly Restrepo

Episode 42 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with food designer Nataly Restrepo. Nataly works as a food and beverage innovation consultant for restaurants and producers of consumer goods.

I asked Nataly on the show because I wanted to learn to learn more about food design. This is how she explained it:

food design actually is everything — like every designed action — that improves our relationship to food. So, it can be from a product and service, a business model, an object… everything that you can design that has an aim to improve our relationship to food.

In other words, it’s a holistic practice that strives to coordinate the work of various other professionals — chefs, architects, industrial designers, etc. — towards creating a coherent experience centered on eating.

As with many other such “big picture” design disciplines, I was curious about the degree to which clients understand the value that food design can bring to their business. She confirmed that this is a challenge:

It’s always very difficult to sell this approach because it’s something that can be very intangible sometimes, because you’re selling an experience, you’re selling that concept that obviously can be translated into tangible things, but it’s like a second part of the process. First you have to understand the vision and the superior meaning that you want to create, and it’s not always easy for the owner of a restaurant or the managers of a chef to recognize the value. But it’s starting to become easier.

I enjoyed this conversation with Nataly; I hope you get value from it too.

The Informed Life Episode 42: Nataly Restrepo on Food Design

Inside Outside Innovation, Ep. 211

Brian Ardinger interviewed me for his Inside Outside Innovation podcast. The focus of our conversation was my book, Living in Information. As part of our conversation, I gave an overview of the discipline of information architecture:

Information architecture is focused on helping make information easier to find and understand. So, think of something like an online store where you maybe are offering your customers a large catalog of goods. There are going to be ways for you to structure that information so that your customers can find what they’re looking for and so that they can do things like compare products to other products or find related products. And establishing those relationships, figuring out what distinctions to enable, is a big part of what information architects do.

A lot of people who are involved with the design of software-based experiences think of design as concerned with the way that things look and how they function. And that is certainly an important component of it. But information architects are concerned with the underlying structures that inform those things. That includes things like categories, navigation systems, the way that search engine search functionality, and such a system is structured and organized. Those are all within the area of concern for information architects.

Now that the pandemic has forced us to move so many of our activities online, the work of structuring information environments is more important than ever. I’m grateful to Brian for giving me an opportunity to share it with folks.

Listen to the episode or read the transcript.

The Informed Life With Arvind Venkataramani

Episode 41 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Arvind Venkataramani. Arvind is Director of Research at SonicRim, a consultancy that supports innovation through co-creation. Alongside Adam Menter, Arvind is developing a toolkit to help people design secular rituals. In this episode, we discussed rituals: what they are, and how being more intentional in their structure and use can improve our lives.

Early on in the conversation, I asked Arvind what he meant by “ritual,” and this is what he said:

a ritual is a nameable container for managing transformation and making meaning. And by container, we mean like a defined and bounded process, right? So that’s the key characteristic. It’s a thing you do that sort of changes you in some way, and it is meaningful in some way; you use it to either acquire meaning or apply meaning to some situation or you use it to uncover the meaning that exists in that situation, for you.

This concept of rituals as containers for meaningful experience echoed throughout our conversation. Towards the end of our time together, Arvind articulated it in a very compelling way:

You want to build on the lived world that you’re in, but the lived world that you’re in may not just be enough in and of itself to help you create meanings, sometimes. And that’s the idea of why the ritual toolkit helps you structure an experience to create that special-ness; the ability to step out of mundane-ness and into ritual time. And some people might know how to do that. And so, what we’re doing is, for the people who don’t know how to do that, provide scaffolding for them to be able to go into ritual time and bring the people into ritual time. But then the things you put into ritual time can come from all of these different sources. And one really important thing is a lot of the meaning that emerges in a ritual is not just from the fact that something is deeply meaningful. A huge portion of the meaning comes from the separation of ritual time from world time. Things become meaningful in the context of ritual, because you have wrapped it in this container. You have separated it, you put it in here. Its significance, its salience, its power, its focus becomes amplified by putting it into a ritual. Whereas if you were to just encounter it in an everyday context, that same thing in your own world would just not have that much power.

I love this idea of setting aside time and space to undergo some kind of meaningful transformation. It’s especially relevant in these days when so much is changing around us. Arvind and Adam’s work could help many people through these difficult times; check out their ritual design toolkit.

The Informed Life Episode 41: Arvind Venkataramani on Rituals

The Informed Life With Heather Hedden

Episode 40 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Heather Hedden, an information management consultant specialized in taxonomies, controlled vocabularies, metadata, and indexing. Heather wrote The Accidental Taxonomist, a guide to the discipline of taxonomy creation and management. In this conversation, we discuss what taxonomies are and why they’re important for organizations.

So what is a taxonomy? As Heather succinctly put it, it’s “a set of terms, words, or phrases that describe concepts that are used to tag or index documents or content.” These sets can be organized in various ways. Creating such structures is a specialized field, but one that few people train for specifically. (Hence the “accidental” part of the book’s title.)

Heather is one of these people; her background is in journalism. I asked her what drew her to taxonomy work, and this was her reply:

Well, it’s analytical and it’s a little bit creative too. I mean, how are you going to describe a concept? What words will you use? What synonyms should you use? What else will you need to relate that concept to? Should we include it or should we not? And then at the same time, we learn about all different kinds of subject areas.

Among the things we learn when doing taxonomy work is the difference between concepts and the labels that describe them. In the interview, we delved into how to deal with this key distinction:

Yeah, well, the concept is an idea, and you first have to agree what… and you can give it a temporary name, and decide, “yeah, we need this in the taxonomy. There’s content about it. And people want to look it up.” And then, once you’ve done that, you go a little further with it and you were suddenly realize, “Oh, there two different names,” or, “we could call it this, or you could call it that…” Well, especially since we’re talking about terms that are usually not one word, there is a noun and an adjective or maybe two adjectives. I mean, there’s more that can be rearranged. And sometimes you can take up a little bit of time to look into that. I’ve even just gone searching on the web and seeing by usage counts, which is more common. And then of course talking… if you have access to the users or stakeholders, those involved seeing what they think, or looking up in the content itself, the content that will be tagged or indexed, what’s more prevalent. I would say those are, those are the kind of three methods that I most often use to try to decide how something’s going to be worded. And then what makes sense to be kind of consistent in style with the rest of the taxonomy.

I learned a lot from reading The Accidental Taxonomist, and from talking about it with Heather. I hope you get as much value from the conversation as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 40: Heather Hedden on Taxonomies

The Informed Life With Stephen P. Anderson

Episode 39 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Stephen P. Anderson. Stephen is a design leader focused on workforce learning and organizational development. He’s also the founder of The Mighty Minds Club, a new method-of-the-month club that aims “to help product teams work through difficult situations.” Stephen recently co-authored a book with Karl Fast called Figure It Out, which is about how we can transform information to increase understanding. Our conversation focused on this subject.

I’ve known Stephen for many years, mainly from our interactions in the design community, so I was intrigued to learn how he came to this topic:

I became bored with a lot of the tactical stuff and became interested more in strategy and business topics, became more interested in human behavior and psychology, and why won’t people do the things we want them to do? Why won’t people would click on the things that we want them to click? And so that led to my first book in around 2010 or so, which is called Seductive Interaction Design. And also around the same time I self-published the Mental Notes card deck, which a lot of people know me for as well.

So again, very much a focus on human behavior. So that was about 10 years ago. And over that time, one shift I’ve gone through was marked by probably a seminal talk for me, “From Paths to Sandboxes,” where I started shifting my thinking from shaping the path that I want people to follow to creating the sandbox or the conditions where people play and learn.

And so my mindset shifted from that of a transaction and getting something I want, to how do I create the conditions for us to learn and work together? And I think that ethos and that idea has affected everything I’ve done since. And in many ways, the new book, even though it’s about working with information as a resource, there’s that ethos or that idea behind it, which is how do we pause, slow down, and figure things out individually, but also collectively.

Organizing our information environments to increase understanding is central to my work. My desire to learn about how people do this is why I started the podcast, so I was thrilled to discuss the subject with Stephen. I wish our conversation could’ve been longer. I hope you get as much value from it as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 39: Stephen P. Anderson on Cognitive Environments

The Informed Life With Andy Polaine

Episode 38 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with service design consultant, writer, and educator Andy Polaine. Andy is the co-author of the book Service Design: From Insight to Implementation and host of the Power of Ten podcast. In this conversation, we delved into service design: what it is, and how it can help organizations create more holistic experiences.

Among other things, a service design consultant can help organizations approach business challenges from different perspectives. As Andy put it,

In my head, I’ve got those different kinds of zoom levels and I’m trying to work out where people are at and where the project is at and try and bring everyone aligned on that or move them up and down as well, you know?

Shifting perspectives to understand a domain at different “zoom levels” is central to Charles and Ray Eames’s film Powers of Ten. A book version of this film inspired Andy early on, and this influence echoes in the name of his podcast.

Ours was a delightful conversation. I hope you get as much value from it as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 38: Andy Polaine on Service Design