Challenges in Designing for Emerging Technologies

Elizabeth Lopato, reporting in The Verge:

Neuralink, Elon Musk’s company focused on developing brain-machine interfaces, has posted a video to YouTube that appears to show a monkey navigating an on-screen cursor using only its mind.

The video is amazing:

As the article notes, it’s unusual for scientists to release such materials unaccompanied by peer-reviewed evidence. I take this as a cue to be skeptical. Still, if true, it’s an impressive demonstration — especially considering the implications for paralyzed people.

This video sparked two thoughts.

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Overcoming Objections to Modeling

Recently, I asked on Twitter,

What’s the best objection you’ve heard to making conceptual models as part of the design process?

A lively discussion ensued. Some respondents were unclear on what I meant by “conceptual models,” which speaks to the lack of mainstream awareness of this crucial design artifact. (Here’s my latest stab at clarifying.) Others, clear on what conceptual models are, pointed out that the process matters more than ‘deliverables.’ Great point.

But I’m especially interested in the objections. Here are some that represent what I see as the main gist. Chris Avore pointed out that conceptual models are seen as “too hand-wavey or theater-like,” and that they “lead to a few head nods but the world/plan/goal doesn’t change at the end.” To put it bluntly, as Hà Phan did, some people see conceptual models as “bullshit.” (My take: true insofar as they know about modeling at all; I suspect most people don’t.)

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How to Keep a Long-term Focus

Point of view is worth eighty IQ points.

— Alan Kay

Sometimes we face situations that demand an immediate response. A few weeks ago, millions of Americans dealt with unexpected weather conditions that disrupted their ability to keep themselves and their families fed and warm. On February 20, the crew of United flight 328 had to deal with an engine that exploded in mid-air. (Fortunately — and through excellent piloting and engineering — the plane landed safely.) Such life-threatening situations call for skillful action now.

Most situations aren’t as urgent as landing a crippled plane or finding shelter in freezing temperatures. And yet, we often feel the stress of urgency in our day-to-day lives. Perhaps we’re on the hook for meeting this quarter’s KPIs, or we’re running late to take our child to her 10 am martial arts class, or we have a big presentation on Tuesday. Whatever the case, we’re under pressure to deliver now.

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Openness ↔ Control

It is common to hear that people in organizations resist change. In reality, people do not resist change; they resist having change imposed on them.

– Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life

Every design project is a change initiative. Some are overtly so, while others are more subtle. In the more overt ones, organizational change is a stated objective/driver of the project. In the subtle ones, the work is a manifestation of an organizational change.

Consider a project for a website redesign. The redesign is motivated by a desire to change something about what the organization does or how it works. Perhaps the company is reorganizing, launching a new product, or rebranding. All entail change.

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Thinking Contextually

Whenever I’m designing anything, I always keep in mind this quote from Eero Saarinen:

Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.

Whatever you’re working on isn’t an end in itself; it’s always part of something bigger. That bigger thing may be out of scope for the project, but it influences the project. When an architect designs a building, the street grid informs the structure and form of the building. Whenever I work on a navigation system for a company’s website, I must look at other websites in the industry (i.e., the company’s competitors, partners, customers, etc.)

In other words, context matters in design. Nothing ever exists in isolation, and you can’t do a proper job if you don’t consider the forces surrounding the project. This is all design 101; Saarinen’s admonition is printed on the wall in one of the IxD studios at CCA.

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Documenting the Early Stages of Creative Work

Paul Graham posted a compelling essay about the perceived quality of first efforts. (In case you haven’t seen them, Graham’s essays are consistently insightful.)

Whenever you make something new, the first draft will be of doubtful quality and/or utility. In some cases, it may not be apparent to others — or even to yourself — that the project is leading anywhere. This can be scary, especially if you’re devoting considerable time and resources (whether yours or other people’s) to the endeavor.

How do you cast these fears aside so you can make progress? Graham explains:

The thing you’re trying to trick yourself into believing is in fact the truth. A lame-looking early version of an ambitious project truly is more valuable than it seems. So the ultimate solution may be to teach yourself that.

One way to do it is to study the histories of people who’ve done great work. What were they thinking early on? What was the very first thing they did? It can sometimes be hard to get an accurate answer to this question, because people are often embarrassed by their earliest work and make little effort to publish it. (They too misjudge it.) But when you can get an accurate picture of the first steps someone made on the path to some great work, they’re often pretty feeble.[8]

Perhaps if you study enough such cases, you can teach yourself to be a better judge of early work. Then you’ll be immune both to other people’s skepticism and your own fear of making something lame. You’ll see early work for what it is.

The form these cases take varies depending on the field you’re examining. We know a lot about the early phases and evolution of some paintings. For example, Dora Maar photographed Guernica throughout its various stages.

Photos of Guernica's late stages. Source: Journal of Art in Society
Photos of Guernica’s late stages. Source: Journal of Art in Society

Other fields are less documented, perhaps because people are already busy enough making the thing. Also, if you’re unsure the endeavor will be worth it, what’s the worth of documenting its evolution?

Maar photographed Guernica when Picasso was already an established artist. Documenting the process would be valuable even if the painting went nowhere. It’s harder to make the case for documenting the process of a “crazy” project by an “unknown” creator.

Still, documenting creative endeavors seems like an underserved area of literature. It would be wonderful to explore the (honest!) evolution of all sorts of things, from their first tottering steps to their current state. As suggested in the essay’s footnotes, doing so for even “trivial” projects seems more feasible now that we have pervasive means for capturing information.

Early Work

More Effective Remote Brainstorming

Art Markman writing in the Harvard Business Review blog:

In the age of Covid–19, many of us are no longer working together in the same rooms — but we still need to generate ideas collaboratively. Fortunately, even in a remote environment there are several approaches that can help you solve complex problems effectively.

I’ve tried to facilitate remote brainstorming sessions during the pandemic, and have found them to be less effective than in-person sessions. The article provides suggestions worth checking out. Some, such as getting specific beforehand about the issue to be considered and thinking carefully about who should be in the session, are applicable to non-remote brainstorms as well. I’m most intrigued by the suggestion that initial rounds happen asynchronously, since it matches how I’ve been approaching recent remote brainstorming sessions.

Why are remote brainstorming sessions less effective? For one thing, the interpersonal dynamics of collaborating remotely are different, as is the environment where the collaboration happens. People’s attention is more scattered when meeting over apps like Zoom. And as impressive as they are, visual collaboration tools like Miro and Mural are no replacement for meeting in a room with a large whiteboard; there’s still too much friction in manipulating digital representations of sticky notes. (I’ve had better success with collaborative text-editing tools like Google Docs, but the linear text format doesn’t encourage exploring rich relationships between concepts.)

What to do? I’ve been gravitating to the solution Mr. Markman proposes: having participants do an initial round of thinking on the virtual whiteboard before joining the shared session. This reduces the time it takes to capture their thinking and “primes” the board; the other participants can more easily riff on what is already there.

One possible downside is that this requires that participants read what is on the board, which takes time. A way to resolve this is by assigning pre-meeting work in rounds: you set a deadline for everyone to put their thoughts up on the board and a subsequent deadline for everyone to review the rest of the team’s work, noting any questions they may have. With this approach, you can start the synchronous part of the work by reviewing these open questions.

I’ve not yet facilitated remote brainstorming sessions that are as effective as the in-person variety, but I’m getting better. And as the article points out, there may even be advantages to these new ways of working. The pandemic is forcing us to discover more effective ways of collaborating remotely; these are valuable skills that will pay dividends long after lockdown measures have eased.

How to Brainstorm — Remotely

Internal and External Language

One of the keys to designing an effective information system is defining the concepts people must understand to use the system. What are its key components? How do they relate to each other? How do they differ? What should we call them?

This last question is especially important. The words we use to label system elements affect how people understand them and the system as a whole. Terms people are familiar with can make the system more learnable. However, familiar terms may also raise undesirable expectations.

Proposing “good” language requires that we understand both the system and the people who need to use it. How do these people see the conceptual domain? Do they already have words or phrases to describe comparable features or functionality? Are any of these terms ambiguous or otherwise misleading?

Answering these questions is why we do research. Concept maps are useful artifacts in these early research stages of projects. Although these maps are abstract (and therefore potentially confusing), they can elicit feedback on whether we’re creating useful distinctions and labeling them with understandable terms.
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Slack’s Information Architecture Redesign

The coronavirus pandemic has forced many of us to work remotely. The crisis has made digital collaboration environments more critical than they’ve been before. Many of us are spending significant portions of our days conversing with colleagues in places like Slack and Microsoft Teams. The latter’s usage has more than doubled during the crisis. And in a Twitter thread, Slack’s CEO, Stewart Butterfield, noted a surge in demand due to the pandemic:

When you have that many people working in an information environment, the structure of the place matters. Clunky navigation systems can lead to confusion, wasted time, misunderstandings, increased need for support, and more. The pain is especially acute for new users, who may be unfamiliar with how to find their way around such environments.

Last week, Slack announced a redesign that aims to clarify the environment’s navigation systems:

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