Why Doesn’t the New York Times Have a Digital Design Critic?

In 2004 I attended an information architecture retreat at Asilomar. Towards the end of a very constructive and inspiring weekend, I issued a challenge to my colleagues in attendance: “We’ll know our discipline has arrived when the New York Times has a dedicated IA critic.”

Fourteen years later, my thinking has evolved; I no longer expect that the Times will have a critic dedicated solely to IA. But shouldn’t it have one for information environments in general? After all, these digital systems are incredibly important, as evidenced by the fact that they take much space in other parts of the paper these days.


The Times has sections devoted to reviewing fashion, technology, the arts, theater, movies, TV shows, books, food, technology, and cars. With the (possible) exception of food, none of these things are currently as important to our social well-being than information environments. That’s where we’re spending more of our time every day and where we are forming the opinions that shape the course of our societies. That the “paper of record” doesn’t have a critic devoted to the digital design space seems like a major oversight.

I pick on the Times because it’s arguably the world’s most prominent newspaper, but the point stands more generally. Today,​ we need more than mere recommendations to which email clients we should be using. We need people with depth and breadth on the subject to cast these incredibly important systems into broader historical perspectives and to help us understand what “good” means in this space.

You could argue that newspapers like the Times must devote space to things readers are interested in. But isn’t the role of writers to make important subjects interesting? You could also say that unlike cars, fashion, and movies, information environments are not consumer goods, and therefore cannot attract advertisers. But isn’t that also the case with architecture? There have been dedicated architecture critics for a long time.

Like buildings, websites and apps serve important social, economic, and cultural roles. Where are the people contextualizing these information environments for a mass audience? Where are our critics?

Responsibility

Responsibility. How does this word make you feel?

I suspect many of us find it heavy and burdensome. If something goes wrong and somebody says you’re responsible, you don’t feel very good. Suddenly a weight is on you; it’s “on your shoulders.” If you’re responsible, you’re expected to work towards resolving the situation. It may cost you — time, money, cognitive effort, reputation, etc.

On the other hand, responsibility can be liberating. If you’re responsible, that means you have agency over how things turn out. (By definition, you can’t be responsible if you can’t influence outcomes.) Choosing to act responsibly means acknowledging your power over a situation. It also means complying to wield that power within a series of constraints agreed with others. For example, we say people are “responsible citizens” when they choose to fulfill certain civic duties. When given a choice, they act in a way that may inconvenience them but ultimately benefit the community. (E.g. serving jury duty.) Responsibility requires clear choices.

When you design an information environment, you create an architecture of choices. You give the people who use your environment agency; response-ability. Do they understand the degree to which they’re responsible for their experience within the constraints you’ve established? How does this make them feel? Are you working to empower them or burden them?

Growing Your Area of Concern

Imagine you’re a designer in a team tasked with bringing a product to market. What’s your area of concern?

Perhaps you think of design as your area of concern. You may measure success by the quality of the experiences people have using the product; user testing may validate (or disprove) this. You could also take a wider lens and consider the product as a whole as your area of concern. In this scenario, your role as a designer may take a back seat to your role as a member of this particular product team. You may measure the success of the product (or lack thereof) based on business metrics such as customer engagement, net promoter scores, or sales.

There are wider lenses than these. For example, you may think of yourself as a member of a company of which your product team is but a small part. You may take pride in the company’s overall performance. Or you could go even wider, and think of yourself as a member of an industry. (This lens is especially compelling when dealing with emergent industries that are vying to establish themselves.) Measures with these broader lenses tend to be more abstract; you may celebrate if your company has gained market share, but it’ll be harder for you to tie that increase with your contributions as a designer.

Still, there are even wider lenses. Your company exists within a society. You have a vested interest in having that society become ever better and more resilient. If your society is your area of concern, you may be driven to civic engagement. That said, your role as a designer in a product team also has an impact at this level, even though it may be impossible for you to measure the direct effects of your work at this level. The broadest relevant area of concern — the planetary ecosystem — is so large, and so complex, that your direct contributions may seem very removed from the whole. Here, too, your work has consequences. However, the connection between your role and the ecosystem seems so insubstantial that it’s easy to become blasé.

We must resist this urge to become complacent at the higher levels of abstraction. Growing our area of concern may not seem immediately practical, but it helps create a frame of mind that leads to principled work. Strive to think globally while acting locally — even if the effects of doing so aren’t immediately obvious.

The Stream

Starting in the Sixteenth century, European aristocrats built Wunderkammern: collections of exotic objects such as antlers, paintings, weapons, mineral specimens, and mechanical knick-knacks. According to Umberto Eco’s memorable description, in a Wunderkammer “a unicorn’s horn would be found next to the copy of a Greek statue, and, later, among mechanical crèches and wondrous automata, cocks of precious metal that sang, clocks with a procession of little figures that paraded at noon.” These bricolage samplings of the wonders of reality were meant to impress: The more arcane the collection, the greater the power of the collector. The effect can be dizzying, even in our age of one-click ordering and overnight delivery.

The Web doesn’t dictate how we should organize information. As a result, all sorts of structural frameworks have been tried online. One, in particular, has come to dominate our attention over the past decade or so: the stream, an endless sequence of seemingly random curiosities in the form of posts, messages, tweets, memes, events, etc. These morsels are mostly non-sequiturs: One moment it’s a job posting, the next a photograph of a cat, a review of a fountain pen, a visit to an abandoned Soviet monument, a religious chain letter, a supplication to fund somebody’s medical procedure, a poem by Langston Hughes, an optical illusion. The only context they share is the place where you encounter them: Twitter, Facebook, Medium, YouTube, etc. These information environments have become immensely popular; as a result, streams are now central to many people’s experience of the Web. (It’s very likely these words came to your attention via one of them.)

From a formal perspective, streams are not new. (Email inboxes, for example, precede the Web.) However, in time they’ve changed both in character and pervasiveness. For one thing, our streams used to be more intentional; we would proactively curate them. (I still use — and prefer — an RSS reader to get my news.) For another, they used to be (mostly) chronological, the expectation being that whatever was demanding your attention was the latest on the subject. (Not the most important, mind you — only the latest.) This has changed. Streams are now increasingly curated and sequenced by algorithms: engines of titillation and outrage designed to keep us engaged (and buying); wondrous automata that assemble mechanical crèches on the fly — just for us — from fragments of our friends’ lives, the news of the day, the latest TV show, celebrity gossip, ephemera. Trifles accreting haphazardly in a cognitive cabinet of curiosities. Expressions of power — but not our own.

The Call

If you were a young man or woman in Europe in the late 1930s, your times were asking something of you. Idling wasn’t a choice for these people; they had to choose — and act.

What they chose, and how they acted, depended on their mental models of reality; models informed by their experiences within their societies and the information they could access. (It’s easy for us to judge in retrospect. In the midst of turmoil — with an ​imperfect understanding of what’s going on — the right course of action is often unclear.)

These men and women had skills and talents. Their careers — their lives — got derailed as their contexts collapsed. Suddenly their skills were more urgently needed elsewhere. These people also had dreams and ambitions. They had to put their personal goals on hold — indefinitely, in many cases — to answer the call of their times.

Today, many of us live relatively quiet lives. (Certainly compared to what people endured during World War II.) Still, our times call to us in various ways. For example, today it’s obvious some of the core systems that support our way of life are unsustainable in the long term. To mention one: even if you don’t believe carbon-based fuels damage the environment (again, mental models), you must still acknowledge these energy sources will run out at some point. What then?

Perhaps you don’t see this call as urgent as the one asked of people in the late 1930s. Maybe there’s something else calling to you. Much depends on your worldview, your perspectives on time and responsibility, and your understanding of systemic effects. Whatever the case, you’re not a spectator in this game. You’re in it.

What are our times asking of you? How do you know? What skills and talents can you contribute? What are you willing to sacrifice to answer the call?

A Call for a More Holistic Approach to Business

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Last week Larry Fink — the CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager — sent a letter to CEOs of the largest publicly traded companies. In it, he asked them to plan with the long-term in mind and to contribute more proactively to the well-being of society:

Society is demanding that companies, both public and private, serve a social purpose. To prosper over time, every company must not only deliver financial performance, but also show how it makes a positive contribution to society. Companies must benefit all of their stakeholders, including shareholders, employees, customers, and the communities in which they operate.

It’s refreshing to see an influential business leader calling for a change in the way we do business. Business is not separate from society, but a central part of it. For companies to have a sense of purpose — and especially purpose in service to the long-term survival of the context in which they operate — is not socialism; it’s smart business. After all, if society unravels, so will the company.

As designers, we have an essential role to play in helping organizations navigate the transition from short-term thinking to a healthier, more holistic relationship with society. Our remit is broader than many other traditional business functions, making us natural coherence generators. As such, we are well-positioned to help organizations align around a newly-rediscovered sense of purpose and long-term strategies. And as systems thinkers and visualizers, we can help them explore different ways of being in the world that allow them to achieve their financial objectives while also improving conditions for the societies they serve.

Mr. Fink and his company have great clout. I hope his clear statement heralds a transformation in the way we conduct business. As designers, we must be ready to help this transformation by deploying our unique roles, perspectives, and craft towards a more holistic approach to doing business.

Prescriptive and Descriptive Labels

Like many office buildings, the one where I work has a pair of similar — yet different — rooms on every floor. The doors to each room have signs on them:

These labels should look familiar; they’re common nomenclature in many cultures. They indicate that these two rooms serve similar functions, but are meant to be used differently.

We’ve internalized the “men” and “women” labels in this context to mean there are toilet facilities in these rooms. That’s their functional role, which both have in common. The difference dictated by this labeling system is in who should be using each room for this function: one room is set aside for women and another for men. In other words, these are prescriptive labels; they’re nudging us towards a particular behavior in the environment.

On the ground floor of this same building, there is a coffee shop. It too has a pair of restrooms. The labeling system used to describe these restrooms is very different from the one used on the upper floors:

These labels are not attempting to prescribe who should be using the rooms; they merely describe their contents. Not all of their contents, of course; the labels’ designer has chosen to highlight one particular feature of one of the toilets. One of these rooms has a urinal, which is impractical for women. Still, men or women can use either room; one of the rooms just has an additional feature that probably won’t be used by one set of users. Because they’re merely describing the contents of the room, I think of these as descriptive labels.

The traditional way of labeling restrooms has been to divide them using the men/women dichotomy. But culture is evolving, and in some places gender distinctions are becoming less rigid. This raises issues with this prescriptive labeling scheme; some people may be uncomfortable using one or the other room based on expectations of traditional gender roles. The descriptive labeling scheme overcomes the issue by giving agency to the user: the individual gets to decide which room to enter not based on roles suggested by the environment, but by the functional features of each room.

Sounds ideal, right? However, I must note there’s a crucial difference between these restrooms that is important to our discussion: The rooms in the upper floors are communal (meant to be used by more than one person at a time) while the ones in the coffee shop are individual (meant to be used by only one person at a time.) This complicates matters significantly since the issue is then not just about personal choice. Many people in our culture would feel uncomfortable sharing a small restroom with members of other genders, making the descriptive labeling scheme challenging to implement in that case.

When we define a taxonomy, we’re creating distinctions. It’s been said that all taxonomies are political, and few are more so than those that suggest identities to people. With complex issues such a gender, all approaches come with trade-offs. Conscientious design requires we consider whether we’re being descriptive or prescriptive, and the implications of either approach.

Corporations and the Golden Lotus World

In recent conversations, I’ve spotted a trend that makes me uncomfortable: a knee-jerk suspicion of corporate motives and (in some cases) outright dismissal of the value of corporate products just because they’re products of corporations.

No doubt there are corporations that have acted in bad faith, and done a lot of damage in the process. (The tobacco industry is the foremost example, but there are others.) But if you look around, you’ll also notice many things that have made your life better that were made by corporations. Also, lots of people you know — and many more you don’t know — make their living from corporations. The majority of these people have good intentions. (I don’t think many go to work in the morning thinking about how they’re going to screw the world today.)

For better or worse, corporations are an important part of our lives. They’re a key social construct; the best way we’ve found to organize ourselves to produce goods and services at scale. I find the impulse to dismiss them misguided. It reminds me of a Buddhist aphorism quoted by Joseph Campbell in his book Myths to Live By:

This very world, with all its imperfection, is the Golden Lotus World of perfection.

You gain nothing from rejecting the world. Instead, you must strive to see it clearly for what it is so that you can act more skillfully within it. Corporations have a huge impact on the world, and will likely continue doing so in the foreseeable future. Instead of dismissing them and their products, we should strive to help the people in them to become more conscious of the importance of their role in (and responsibilities towards) society. (I’m happy to note signs in this direction.)

Invisible Technologies

In his most recent book, virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier ponders the question of whether VR headsets should become less awkward. He argues that their clunkiness is one of their best assets:

The worst thing about big, classic VR goggles is also the best thing. VR headsets are the least fashionable fashion accessory. But I like that.

The obvious awkwardness is precisely what counters the potential for creepiness. There’s no pretending you’re not in VR when you know that from the outside you look like a psychedelic hockey player from a 1950s pulp science fiction illustration of sports on Mars. That’s how VR should be.

Lanier’s point is that putting on a headset is an explicit act that signals to ourselves and to others that we’ve moved to a different context. Both the act of donning the device and the semiotics of wearing one serve to indicate a shift in our consciousness.

If you work in an open office, you know the importance of owning a good pair of headphones. In that environment, headphones serve a practical purpose: they allow you to create a personal sonic landscape so you can focus. But they also play an important symbolic purpose: they’re the equivalent of hanging a “do not disturb” sign on your head. Ponder for a moment a fantastic new “invisible” headset that sits inside your ear channel. Such a device could accomplish the first purpose, but would not be useful for the second; your co-workers would have no visible way of knowing you’re not available or otherwise engaged.

When we move to make our technologies more “invisible” — to integrate them into our bodies and physical environments to the point where they “disappear” into them — we should consider the impact this has on our relationships. Are the technologies augmenting the experience of interacting with others, or somehow subverting it? Are they enabling understanding between people, or separating them? Do participants in the interaction understand that the context is being augmented, or are they oblivious to the alteration? What degree of agency do they have over the modified context? Do they understand the incentives that drive the owners of the technologies?