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

The Informed Life With Audrey Crane

Episode 37 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Audrey Crane. Audrey is a partner in DesignMap, a UX strategy and product design consultancy based in San Francisco. She recently published a book, appropriately titled What CEOs Need to Know About Design, and in this conversation we discuss how the book came about and why it matters now:

I think we as designers – and maybe this is true of all professions, I’m not really sure – but we have conferences and we write blog posts, but a lot of it – and acknowledging the irony of me saying this as we’re in a podcast with that designer talking to a designer – like it’s a lot of like designers speaking to designers. And we’re talking about really good, important, PhD-level stuff, which is great for furthering our profession and making us better at what we do, but it’s not great for somebody who wants to know, honestly, what’s a wireframe? And we have had, specifically at DesignMap and other places where I’ve worked as a consultant, we’ve had clients say, why is it all black and white? Or, when are we going to get the design maps? Like thinking that, like, oh, there’s… there are maps. So many kinds of maps, but design maps are not one of them. And it’s great that they’re asking the question and I fret about how they feel when we answer it.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with DesignMap on several projects over the last two years. Audrey and her team are committed to excellence and adding value through design. I recommend both her book and our conversation on the subject.

The Informed Life Episode 37: Audrey Crane on Design in Organizations

The Informed Life With Louis Rosenfeld

Episode 36 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend and publisher, Lou Rosenfeld. This episode is Lou’s second appearance on the show; he was also my guest on the first episode.

I asked Lou to return as a guest because his company, Rosenfeld Media, recently put on their first-ever Advancing Research Conference. As with all such events these days, the conference was virtual. They had a relatively short turnaround time, but the conference was still a success, so I wanted to know how Lou and his team did it. I also wanted to hear about the effects of the move on the conference experience.

Among other things, the move to an entirely virtual event flattened hierarchies:

A lot of our attendees found that the interaction in Slack — this is where the discussion went on — was superior than the interaction they might have in person. The hierarchy was flattened in many cases, introverts were able to ask questions, even of speakers, and interact with each other… Ultimately, in many respects it was a better experience than people might ordinarily get. And the time zones are an issue, but we always make our recordings as well as our sketchnotes and our trip notes and other materials available to attendees after the event, and that was part of the exclusive deal. They got all that content. So, if they missed something, or slept in or didn’t want to stay up late, they could go back to it.

Rosenfeld Media is planning two more conferences this year. We discussed how those events would be different, given what the team learned from the virtual Advancing Research conference. I was excited to hear that there are some significant structural changes in store for the virtual events, and that these changes will also influence future in-person events.

Many of us are participating in virtual conferences these days. Some of us are tasked with organizing and managing them. In either case, this conversation with Lou offers insights that will likely inform your experience with such events. I hope you find our discussion valuable.

The Informed Life Episode 36: Louis Rosenfeld on Virtual Conferences

The Informed Life With Matt Nish-Lapidus

Episode 35 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with artists, musician, designer, and educator Matt Nish-Lapidus. After many years as an interaction designer, Matt has recently returned to his roots as a new media artist. In this conversation, we discuss the role of art in our evolving technological and cultural environments.

Inevitably, the subject of the coronavirus crisis came up. What does it mean to create and experience art in this situation? Matt provided an insightful answer:

In the fifties – it might have even been in the sixties, don’t quote me on the date – a German philosopher and media theoretician, Theodore Adorno, wrote an essay in which he asked, how do you make art after Auschwitz? Like, what is the role of art in a world where something as horrible as the Holocaust could happen? And how do you as an artist deal with that, and still see beauty and joy and the sublime and all these different things, when our understanding of what’s possible in the world is so fundamentally changed and so terrifying.

And I think there are a number of similar questions that we can be asking ourselves right now. Before this outbreak, the big question on a lot of people’s minds was a similar one, which is how do you make art in the Anthropocene? If we’re witnessing a period of massive global scale change and devastation like this slow train wreck, what is the role of art and how do you continue to make art in the face of such a massive and often depressing and serious thing? And I think like the pandemic that we’re currently trying to figure out raises a similar kind of question again, what is the point of art and how do you make it and what do you make it about when our understanding of what’s possible in the world has fundamentally changed?

When there’s a new thing, a new object exists that didn’t really exist before. There’s a school of philosophy called New Materialism and a kind of well-known New Materialist, Jane Bennett, talks about these things as what she calls assemblages. And an assemblage is like a network of heterogeneous actors that all have different kinds of agency. And, looking at the pandemic through the lens of Bennett’s idea of an assemblage, you can start to see the agency of the virus as a political actor, as an economic actor, as a social and cultural actor. And for me anyway, that’s where as an artist, my interest in it lies, and where I think I can kind of grapple with our current situation is not saying, “Okay, well what do we do when we’re all locked in our homes,” but saying, “What are the fundamental changes in the world that we can observe? What are the things we want to try to say or express about them or understand through making things?” And then, “What kinds of things can I make that help with that understanding or are cathartic or express an affect or give people something that I think they want or need given the kind of drastic changes that this is affecting on all of our systems?”

I greatly enjoyed our conversation. I hope you find value in it, too.

The Informed Life Episode 35: Matt Nish-Lapidus on Art

The Informed Life With Ren Pope

Episode 34 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Ren Pope. Ren is a Principal at Info-Do, which offers data, information, and knowledge architecture consulting. He’s worked in these domains for the last 25 years or so, and has also taught colleagues how to do these things through workshops and presentations. Our conversation focused on ontology — in Ren’s words, “the study of things and how they relate to other things” – and why organizations need to know about it:

if you have a very complex subject where your employees, your clients, your stakeholders, can’t wrap their heads around, then you might use ontological thinking. You may not need an entire formal ontology, but you may need to apply ontological thinking to that effort to be able to understand it.

Recent interviews at The Informed Life have veered far afield from information architecture. This conversation with Ren touches on subjects that are central to the discipline. I hope you find this episode valuable.

The Informed Life Episode 34: Ren Pope on Ontologies

The Informed Life With Abby Covert

Episode 33 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Abby Covert, aka Abby the IA. Abby is a senior information architect at Etsy. She wrote How to Make Sense of Any Mess, an excellent primer on information architecture, and co-founded World IA Day. She’s also taught graduate students and curated global conferences. She’s done many of these things remotely over the last ten years, which makes her a great guide to our new reality.

Unsurprisingly, our conversation focused on what it takes to collaborate effectively at a distance. We delved into particular styles, processes, and tools for remote work, teaching, and event management. One common thread: when you’re spending lots of your time online, it behooves you to create a physical environment that keeps your body healthy:

Herman Miller chairs with the best chairs. Ergonomic chairs, man! There are two things. There’s the ergonomic nature of your chair, but there’s also the, “how are you positioning your tools on your table?” So, the laptop riser is a really good example If you are sitting at a table and you are typing on a laptop keyboard, you are not ergonomically sound. And if you are doing that all, day every day, for the rest of your career, you will be very hunchy and not very comfortable in life.

So yeah, the laptop riser is a big part of it, the external keyboard is a big part of it. I also have this really puffy-like foot riser thing. I don’t know; it’s kind of like a pillow but it’s meant to sit on the floor for your feet to be slightly elevated. I’m also a short person so I think that has something to do with it. But, yeah, ergonomics! It’s a thing. I’m not an expert, but it’s a thing.

I also loved the idea that Abby’s physical workspace is separate from the rest of her living environment. Alas, setting up a separate office space in our homes isn’t something many of us can do. However, we discussed an intriguing alternative: establishing little routines (i.e., changing your shoes) that signify the shift from one mode to another.

We’re all trying to cope with the weirdness of the current situation. As of Saturday, it’s been a month since I’ve been working 100% from home. I can’t say it’s become my new normal — but some things are getting a bit easier. I hope this conversation with Abby helps you as you ease into this “no new normal.”

The Informed Life Episode 33: Abby Covert on Remote Work

The Informed Life With Aynne Valencia

Episode 32 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Aynne Valencia. Aynne is my colleague at the California College of the Arts, where she is the former Chair of the undergraduate interaction design program. She’s also the Director of Design at San Francisco Digital Services, which designs digital experiences for the citizens of San Francisco and the city employees that serve them.

Prior to working in government and education, Aynne had a long trajectory in the private sector. In this conversation, we discuss the differences and similarities between business, government, and education. As you’ll hear, I was especially keen to learn if projects in these domains follow different cadences. That line of questioning inevitably led to the benefits of long-term thinking. As Aynne put it,

I think we’ve seen the consequences of moving fast and breaking things. We’re dealing with the consequences of a lot of social media, for example, really influencing things that I’m sure and certain that the people who designed them, the people that created them never intended to have happen. At least I hope they didn’t intend to have these things happen.

I often wonder if there had been a point where they were able to really stop and consider all of the ways that something could go wrong, to really be in a situation where you really have to do a proper risk assessment. I’m wondering if those products would have been very, very different because of it. And I think a lot about design as being something that definitely changes the world for better or for worse. And right now, it’s been worse as of late.

I think that it’s really incumbent upon all of us as designers to step up and take responsibility for those things. So I’m really glad that I’m in a place right now where I get a chance to practice one of the tenets of my beliefs, which is to have a good livelihood, where the things that I’m doing I like to think are directly related to making somebody’s life better.

This seems to be a common thread in many of my recent conversations. It’s not a coincidence; the effects of not thinking systemically and long-term are manifesting all around us. (Although it’s worth noting, as I do in the show, that Aynne and I recorded our conversation prior to the current crisis.) I hope you find this interview valuable.

The Informed Life Episode 32: Aynne Valencia on Work Cycles

The Informed Life With Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz

Episode 31 of The Informed Life podcast features Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz, the director of development of the Long Now Foundation. The Foundation was created to foster long-term thinking, and in this conversation Nick and I talk about how a broader time perspective can help us understand difficult times and lay the groundwork for a better future.

Much of our conversation centered on the coronavirus situation, which had emerged as an important and urgent topic in early March of 2020, when we recorded our conversation. In particular, I wanted to understand the long-term take on urgent issues. Nick’s position — which I agree with — was that even as we’re dealing with the near-term effects of the situation, we should be looking for ways of strengthening our infrastructure and institutions so we can better meet such challenges in the future:

And so, the question is, sure, we can go and clean the local bodega out of hand sanitizer and that might solve the problem today. But that’s addressing a certain symptom of a larger issue, which is, do we have the institutions, the infrastructure, that will allow us to weather these kinds of things as they come along? Which they will, you know. Again, this isn’t going to be the last epidemic that we face. Probably not the last epidemic we face even in my lifetime, right? So, are there ways that we can pick our heads up from this one situation and look at the more general, more open space around, when this is going to happen again, and can we do things to attend to that?

As I mentioned above, we recorded this interview a couple of weeks before the coronavirus had been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization and a national emergency by the U.S. government. I’m certain our tone would’ve been more somber if we were discuss this subject closer to the date of publication. In particular, medical experts are now recommending that we avoid crowded social spaces. Please don’t heed the invitation to visit The Interval — the Foundation’s cocktail bar — at this time.

Still, even under the current conditions, I thought it worthwhile to share our conversation. I find that adopting a broader perspective helps me make more level-headed decisions, especially in difficult times. I hope you find this interview valuable, and that you stay safe during this extraordinary period of disruption.

The Informed Life Episode 31: Nicholas Paul Brysiewicz on the Long-term View

The Informed Life With Christian Crumlish

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with my friend Christian Crumlish. Christian is a writer, product, and UX leadership consultant. I met him through the information architecture community, but his focus these days is on product management. So I thought our conversation would be an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about product management.

I was particularly keen to discuss bottom-up vs. top-down product development processes. My expectation is that the former result in products that are more responsive to market needs, that is, which better serve the needs of their customers. The tradeoff? Organizations that manage complex ecosystems of products may have a harder time achieving coherence between them, leading to a diminished customer experience.

The conversation with Christian made me realize that part of the answer lies with strong leadership. As he put it,

If you have a healthy team and you’re reporting up and down the line, and there’s somebody with authority who is watching the biggest goals, I think there already are methods that can work.

As with so many of my recent interviews, I wish we could’ve talked longer. For example, I’d love to learn more about methods that can lead to greater product ecosystem coherence, or the characteristics that set aside some leaders as great product managers. Perhaps these would be good subjects for a second interview with Christian?

In any case, I greatly enjoyed our conversation. I hope you get as much value from it as I did.

The Informed Life Episode 30: Christian Crumlish on Product Management