Software and Dematerialization

Over my lifetime, I’ve seen computers become cheaper, smaller, lighter, and ubiquitous. As they’ve become central to more products, those products gain new capabilities. But more than that, their makers gain access to new business models. Consider what is happening to cars. This is from a recent report on The Verge:

Cars are more full of computers and software than ever before, which has made it possible for automakers to add new features or patch problems on the fly with over-the-air software updates. This has also presented these automakers with new ways of making money. Take Tesla, which pioneered them and currently sells access to a variety of features after purchase. It even used to ship cars with battery packs that had their range limited by software, and owners could pay a fee unlock the full capacity.

BMW now wants to take this to a far more specific level. The German automaker announced on Wednesday that all cars equipped with its newest “Operating System 7” software will soon receive an update that makes it possible for the company to tinker with all sorts of functions in the car, like access to heated seats and driving assist features like automatic high beams or adaptive cruise control. And the company unsurprisingly plans to use this ability to make money

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Addressing Systemic Racial Injustice

Sober statements from two former U.S. presidents:

President George W. Bush:

It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country. It is a strength when protesters, protected by responsible law enforcement, march for a better future. This tragedy — in a long series of similar tragedies — raises a long overdue question: How do we end systemic racism in our society? The only way to see ourselves in a true light is to listen to the voices of so many who are hurting and grieving. Those who set out to silence those voices do not understand the meaning of America — or how it becomes a better place.

President Barack Obama:

I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.

This isn’t a left vs. right issue. Racism is deplorable, and systemic injustice, untenable. It’s encouraging to see leaders from both major U.S. political parties state unequivocal positions in support of systemic change.

As a fair-skinned immigrant, I haven’t suffered the type of pervasive brutal discrimination that leads to murders like George Floyd’s. This grants me a degree of privilege — and responsibility.

The events of the last two weeks have awakened me to the importance of helping bring about systemic change. I don’t yet know what this means for me — but I’m committed to listening and learning.

Design in the Post-pandemic World

Description:

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the world. Businesses are scrambling to serve their customers in a new reality. Many companies are looking for new ways to provide value over digital channels and having to do so in a context of great uncertainty.

We’re not returning to the pre-pandemic world. Many of the changes we’re making now will be with us for a long time. This moment is an inflection point, a unique opportunity to shift the ways we work and create value. As designers, we must ask: What is our role in bringing forth new realities? How might new solutions better serve human needs?

Five Lessons From the Pandemic

My family and I have been locked down for over two months now. At first, it felt like a temporary inconvenience. That feeling has passed. It’s clear now that the pandemic is a transformational event. Some changes are temporary, but many will be permanent. It can’t be otherwise, what with a major health crisis underway and unemployment at levels not seen in close to a century.

These facts have me in a reflective mood. I’ve been revisiting old books, looking for what still rings true in these very different times. I’ve been tweaking habits around essential functions like eating and sleeping. I’ve cut down on the attention I apportion to social media. I’ve also been thinking about what we can learn from this experience.

As with all crises, the pandemic can be a powerful teacher. Here are five lessons that the coronavirus has made tangible for me:

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Nostalgia for the Future

This week, NASA announced the return of its mid-1970s “worm” logo:

The retro, modern design of the agency’s logo will help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight on the side of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will ferry astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the Demo-2 flight, now scheduled for mid- to late May.

NASA logo
Image: NASA

NASA had retired the worm in 1992, when the agency returned to using its late-1950s “meatball” insignia:

NASA logo
Image: NASA

Most organizations change their identities in an effort to remain relevant to continually evolving popular tastes. People tend to be conservative about changing beloved products and institutions, and identity changes can seem jarring at first. (Consider the negative reactions to BMW’s recent logo redesign.) Still, I can’t think of many organizations that repeatedly restore their old identities.

When changing an organization’s identity, designers must balance familiarity with freshness. Abrupt changes risk alienating people, but modest variations won’t generate excitement. The right balance depends on how the organization wants to be perceived. The logo for a Silicon Valley startup can change abruptly. In contrast, the logo for a stalwart brand (think Coca-Cola) will likely change more subtly and slowly.

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Banning Targeted Advertising?

Gilad Edelman writing in Wired:

The task of regulating an increasingly out of control digital environment often looks like a multifront war against various enemies: privacy breaches, hate speech, disinformation, and more. What if we had a weapon that could bring all those armies to their knees?

The article highlights a “nascent movement” of people who believe the business model underlying these environments — targeted, personalized advertising — is the main problem. Rather than focusing on front-end efforts to legislate what happens in these places, a more impactful approach would be to make the business model itself illegal.

If you’ve read Living in Information, you won’t be surprised to know I agree with the assessment that business models are critical. That said, I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all approach to this issue. I can easily imagine targeted advertising would make some information environments more useful while also supporting user goals.

As a user myself, I’m willing to give up some of my privacy if I get something tangible in return, and I clearly understand who’s using my information and for what purposes. For example, I don’t mind if the place where I do my shopping shows me ads that meet my needs. I’m there to buy stuff, after all, and the place knows who I am and my preferences and shopping patterns. Knowing those things, it can tell me about new products that will make my life better. That has value to me.

I don’t feel the same way about places where I meet with family and friends or have civic conversations with my neighbors. The general idea behind targeted advertising — that the system will learn my preferences so it can better persuade me — is profoundly at odds with my goals in those environments.

Why Don’t We Just Ban Targeted Advertising?

Come Together (in Information Environments)

Priya Parker writing in The New York Times:

It’s possible to make remote gathering a worthy competitor of traditional events. The bittersweet truth about all the gatherings and meetings and parties and conferences being canceled is that many of them would not have been particularly meaningful to begin with. And so if we are willing to bring to the time of Covid-19 a level of intention that we too rarely visit upon our regular gatherings, this heavy time could be leavened by the new rituals it created, the unlikely intimacies it fostered and the ways in which it revealed that convening people is a special privilege that ought never to be taken for granted.

This post beautifully articulates a feeling I’ve had over the past few days: that the current crisis is an inflection point in how we meet and collaborate. It’s not just that we’re working online; we’re experimenting with all types of social interactions. (This evening I’m planning to attend my first virtual happy hour.)

It’s still too soon to tell what the effects will be in the near-term. That said, some seem obvious. Digital communication platforms (Zoom, WebEx, Messages, WhatsApp, Skype, Slack, etc.) were already important before this crisis, but now they’re essential. How long would we stand the isolation if it weren’t for these systems? The companies that operate these systems are now central to our social infrastructure.

Also, we must be more mindful of what should be a meeting. Now that most communications are happening in information environments, the choice between synchronous and asynchronous communications seems less stark. It’s all happening on the same plane, after all. Why not just start an email thread, or reach out to folks on Slack, instead of scheduling a meeting?

That said, I expect a reaction when this is over; a resurgence of big festivals, fairs, concerts, etc. I sense that after weeks (and hopefully it’s only weeks) of meeting people exclusively through video chats, we’ll be longing to be in the physical presence of others. Digital is too narrow a medium to convey the richness of full interpersonal interaction. For now, we are truly living significant parts of our lives in information environments — not by choice.

(I found out about this op ed through my publisher’s newsletter; you should subscribe.)

How to Be Together Apart In the Time of Coronavirus

Efficiency and Redundancy

Yesterday, officials in the Bay Area issued an order for those of us who live here to “shelter in place.” Meaning, we’re to stay inside our homes and only go out for essential reasons, such as buying groceries. (Most businesses are closed anyway.) This order is in place for three weeks.

I went to Costco to buy some staples (coffee!) before the order took effect. I found shelves stocked with a mix of some goods (there was plenty of coffee) and not much of others (no toilet paper, very little bread.) Hoarding behavior + supply chain disruptions = empty shelves. As I perused the gaps in the store’s inventory, one word kept coming to mind: resiliency. We’re learning the degree to which our systems can keep us fed, clothed, connected, etc.

Markets are great mechanisms for reducing costs. But in times of crisis, cost is only one variable among many. There may come a time when people are willing to pay more for a roll of toilet paper. But if there are no machines turning out more rolls, or trucks to transport them, or fuel to power them, or raw materials to produce them, or stores to sell them, then cost won’t matter much. A month ago, this observation would’ve been hypothetical. Now, it feels very real.

A generative question for the world we create after this crisis: how might markets better balance efficiency and redundancy?

The Dynamics of Remote All-hands Meetings

Over the last few weeks, COVID-19 went from being a news item to being the news. And this past week, those of us in the United States started feeling the impact of the disease firsthand. Fortunately, for most people, the impact isn’t health-related. Currently, many of us are more affected by measures to curb the pandemic than by the disease itself. For a privileged few — including myself — the primary impact in the near-term is a shift to working from home.

For software designers like myself, working primarily from home isn’t as much of a burden as it would be for people in many other industries. The stuff we work on is the same stuff that we communicate with, so moving work online is feasible. However, it still requires adjustments. Team dynamics are different when working remotely. If you’re used to working with others in physical environments, you’ve internalized ways of working and hierarchies that have emerged in (and made possible by) the environments you share. As you shift to new environments, these hierarchies become visible.

This week I participated in a recurring all-hands meeting. I’d been in these meetings many times before, always in all in the same physical space. The atmosphere had always been casual, but the structure of the room, and the way we arranged ourselves in the space, implied and reinforced a hierarchy. There was always a sense that someone was leading the meeting at any given time; the rest of us were more of an audience. Our shared attention was on a vertical surface at the “front” of the room: a whiteboard. The meeting “leader” usually stood near this whiteboard, sometimes holding a marker. Those of us in the “audience” faced this whiteboard so we could see it and the speaker.

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