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

The Informed Life With Maria Giudice

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with Maria Giudice, the founder of design agency Hot Studio. After selling Hot Studio to Facebook in 2013, Maria spent a couple of years as Director of Product Design at the social network. Then she moved to Autodesk, where she served as VP of Experience Design. Which is to say, she’s had lots of experience working in various design management roles, from startups to large corporations.

In this show, Maria reflects on her career, and — most importantly — how she found her purpose early on. Now she’s entered an exciting new phase of her career: helping others connect with their own values and purposes. This observation, which I found insightful, gives you a feel for the discussion:

There’s these two phases in life. David Brooks wrote a book called The Second Mountain, and he talks about this. And the first mountain is the mountain that you climb to establish your identity, build your career, generate wealth, create status, raise a family. You know, that’s the mountain. That’s the trajectory that we’re all climbing.

And then something happens to people in their 40s and 50s, when they start really questioning what’s next for them. They’re at the peak, and then they’re going to go down the mountain. Some of them retire, some of them get depressed, and some of them go into different careers. But what I’m finding is people in their 40s and 50s are staying in… are not retiring. They’re reinventing. And they’re reinventing through the context of purpose and meaning.

They’re starting to ask questions about what is worth doing in life? Why am I here on this earth? What can I do to support people, help people? You know, create a legacy that isn’t about wealth and title. And that’s the space that I’m sitting in right now. And it’s like going from the outer world to the inner world, and that’s been really satisfying.

I was inspired by this conversation with Maria, and enjoyed every minute of it. You’ll notice several chuckles throughout the interview — the joy should come through despite bad audio quality on my end. (My bad — I messed up a microphone setting. Apologies!) Don’t let that stop you — this conversation is worth your attention, regardless of where you are in your career.

The Informed Life Episode 29: Maria Giudice on Purpose

The Informed Life With Peter Merholz

The latest episode of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Peter Merholz. Peter is one of the co-founders of Adaptive Path, an influential user experience design consultancy that was acquired by Capital One in 2014. After leaving Adaptive Path, he has served in design leadership positions in several organizations. He also co-authored Org Design for Design Orgs, which is the book on how to structure and scale design teams in organizations.

Now Peter has started a consultancy called Humanism At Scale, which helps design organizations reach their potential. Why the name? As he explains,

I see design as the Trojan horse for humanistic thinking within companies. Design is an obvious contributor of value, particularly in digital contexts and software contexts, and so companies are building design organizations in order to create these digital experiences. What they don’t know they’re getting with it is that design, when practiced fully, is situated within a humanistic frame that also includes social science and subjects like user research, it includes writing, rhetoric, composition, with things like content strategy…

And so I see design as this lead… It’s the tip of the spear, but what’s behind it is a full kind of humanistic understanding that design can help bring into these companies. And the importance of that is companies have been so mechanistic, so analytical with their either kind of business orientations, MBA orientations, spreadsheet focuses, or engineering orientations. They’ve been so mechanistic that design has this opportunity to bring a humanistic balance into that conversation.

Our conversation flowed into the impact that the structure of organizations has on what they produce and how their customers experience them. In this context, Peter brought up Conway’s law, which he explains as the idea that “whatever [an organization] delivers will be a reflection of how it is organized.” This law, he explains, implies that

if you want to deliver a meaningful experience — a sensible experience to your customers — you have to reorganize your company in a way that makes sense to your customers.

If you’re in a leadership position in an organization — and especially if you’re a design leader — you will likely find our conversation insightful.

The Informed Life Episode 28: Peter Merholz on the Structure of Organizations

The Informed Life With Cyd Harrell

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 Informed Life With Andrew Hinton

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 Informed Life With Mary Parks

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