Design Requires Trust

Last week I wrote about something I learned from Brad Stone’s The Anything Store, a history of Amazon.com. It’s enlightening to read about the genesis and evolution of one of the most important information environments in the world. Here I’ll share another insightful anecdote from the book, which has to do with the design of the first Kindle.

Kindle is much more than a product; it’s an ecosystem. The product wouldn’t have succeeded if enough of that ecosystem weren’t built out at launch. It wasn’t enough that the team delivered a beautiful, useful, usable reading device; many other pieces needed to be in place on day one. For example, there had to be e-books available for the device. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos set a target: 100,000 titles for launch. His team had to convince publishers to convert and offer their books to a new format.

Customers also needed a way to get those books onto their devices. The obvious precedent was the iPod/iTunes/iTunes Store ecosystem, which required that users connect their devices to a computer where they’d purchase and download music files. Because of that decision, the iPod could be simpler since it didn’t need a built-in communication stack.

However, this also made the process more complicated for users, since it required that they have access to a computer and know how to set the whole thing up. As always with design, it was a tradeoff. Mr. Bezos wanted Kindle users to bypass this complexity by buying and downloading books from the device itself.

Amazon hired Pentagram to design the device, and the designers were having trouble with these requirements. Having customers easily buy and download books from the device implied having a cellular radio inside each unit. This radio and its required wireless plan would affect the product’s financial viability. It was hard for the designers to see past the implications:

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JFK’s Apollo Vision Statement

Complex projects require coordinating and aligning the efforts of many people in different roles and groups. The job is possible only if everyone is clear on what they’re striving towards, and are compelled to do so. This calls for leaders to clearly articulate the project’s vision.

The importance of having a clear, compelling vision is one of the great lessons of the Apollo moon program. U.S. President John F. Kennedy laid out the vision in a speech delivered to Congress in 1961. This speech was meant to convince lawmakers of the worth of investing in space exploration. Essentially, the President was asking his stakeholders — Congress, and more broadly, the people of the U.S. who they represent — for funding for the project. This is something anyone working in a leadership position can relate to.

President Kennedy’s presentation is a model of how to clearly articulate and sell a vision, so it’s worth studying its highlights. The speech starts by framing the space program in the broader geopolitical context of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had by this point made several impressive technological advances, including launching Sputnik (the first artificial satellite) and sending the first man into space. U.S. efforts were seen as lagging behind the Soviets’, so the President started his remarks with the following statement:

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The Strategic Value of Design

Andrea Mignolo writing on Medium:

we will never be able to talk about the value of design using ROI because we’re not really talking about design, but the output of design. I’m interested in finding models that help us talk about the value of doing design, which is entirely possible given the mutable nature of business artifacts.

Ms. Mignolo goes on to highlight an important distinction: design as a way of making things (i.e., the way it’s been traditionally understood in the enterprise) versus design as a way of learning. While the former is obviously important, strategically the latter has more value. As Ms. Mignolo eloquently puts it, “By embracing ambiguity and exploring divergent futures, design activities can increase flexibility and decrease risk.”

The post is a good summation of this position, and worth your attention. (For a similar argument, see Nigel Cross’s book Designerly Ways of Knowing.)

Reflections on Business, Design, and Value

Two Approaches to Structure

There are at least two approaches to structuring a digital information environment: top-down or bottom-up.

In the top-down approach, a designer (or more likely, a team of designers) researches the context they’re addressing, the content that will be part of the environment, and the people who will be accessing it. Once they understand the domain, they sketch out possible organization schemes, usually in the form of conceptual models. Eventually, this results in sets of categories — distinctions — that manifest in the environment’s global navigation elements.

Top-down is by far the most common approach to structuring information environments. The team “designs the navigation,” which they often express in artifacts such as wireframes and sitemaps. This approach has stood the test of time; it’s what most people think of when they think about information architecture. However, it’s not the only way to go about the challenge of structuring an information environment.

The other possibility is to design the structure from the bottom-up. In this approach, the team also conducts extensive research to understand the domain. However, the designers’ aim here is not to create global navigation elements. Instead, they’re looking to define the rules that will allow users of the environment to create relationships between elements on their own. This approach allows the place’s structures to emerge organically over time.

Consider Wikipedia. Much of the usefulness and power of that environment come from the fact that its users define the place. Articles and the links between them aren’t predefined beforehand; what is predefined are the rules that will allow people to define elements and connections between them. Who will have access to change things? What exactly can they change? How will the environment address rogue actors? Etc.

Bottom-up approaches are called for when dealing with environments that must grow and evolve organically, or when the domain isn’t fully known upfront. (Think Wikipedia.) Top-down approaches are called for when dealing with established fields, where both content and users’ expectations are thoroughly known. (Think your bank’s website.) Most bottom-up systems will also include some top-down structures in their midst. (Even Wikipedia has traditional navigation structures that were defined by its design team.)

So do you choose top-down or bottom-up? It depends on what problem you’re trying to solve. That said, I find bottom-up structures more interesting than top-down structures. For one thing, they accommodate change more elegantly — after all, they’re designed to change. This approach requires that the team think more carefully about governance issues upfront. Bottom-up structures are more challenging to design and implement. Designers need to take several leaps of faith. They and the organization they represent are ceding control over an essential part of the environment.

Most information environments today are designed to use top-down structures. Some have a mix of the two: predefined primary nav systems and secondary systems that are more bottom-up. (Think tagging schemes.) I expect more systems to employ more bottom-up approaches over time. Tapping the distributed knowledge of the users of a system is a powerful approach that can generate structures that better serve their evolving needs.

Twitter as a Public Square

Managing an information environment like Twitter must be very difficult. The people who run the system have great control — and responsibility — over what the place allows and encourages. In a conversation platform (which is what Twitter is at its core), the primary question is: How do you allow for freedom of expression while also steering people away from harmful speech? This isn’t an easy question to answer. What is “harmful”? For whom? How and where does the environment intervene?

Episode 148 of Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast features a conversation with Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, that addresses some of these questions head-on. I was very impressed by how much thought Mr. Dorsey has given to these issues. It’s clear that he understands the systemic nature of the challenge, and the need for systemic responses. He expressed Twitter’s approach with a medical analogy:

Your body has an indicator of health, which is your temperature. And your temperature indicates whether your system more or less is in balance; if it’s above 90.6 then something is wrong… As we develop solutions, we can see what effect they have on it.

So we’ve been thinking about this problem in terms of what we’re calling “conversational health.” And we’re at the phase right now where we’re trying to figure out the right indicators of conversational health. And we have four placeholders:

1. Shared attention: What percentage of the conversation is attentive to the same thing, versus disparate.
2. Shared reality: This is not determining what facts are facts, but what percentage of the conversation are sharing the same facts.
3. Receptivity: Where we measure toxicity and people’s desire to walk away from something .
4. Variety of perspective.

What we want to do is get readings on all of these things, and understand that we’re not going to optimize for one. We want to try to keep everything in balance.

I’d expect the idea to be to incentivize “healthy” conversations over “unhealthy” ones. This would be implemented in the design of the environment itself, rather than at the policy level:

Ultimately our success in solving these problems is not going to be a policy success. We’re not going to solve our issues by changing our policy. We’re going to solve our issues by looking at the product itself, and the incentives that the product ensures. And looking at our role not necessarily as a publisher, as a post of content, but how we’re recommending things, where we’re amplifying, where we’re downranking content.

Twitter has a great responsibility to get this right, because in some ways the system is becoming key public infrastructure. As Mr. Dorsey acknowledged,

Ultimately, I don’t think we can be this neutral, passive platform anymore because of the threats of violence, because of doxxing, because of troll armies intending to silence someone, especially more marginalized members of society. We have to take on an approach of impartiality. Meaning that we need very crisp and clear rules, we need case studies and case law for how we take action on those rules, and any evolutions of that we’re transparent and upfront about. We’re not in a great state right now, but that is our focus. I do believe that a lot of people come to Twitter with the expectation of a public square. And freedom of expression is certainly one of those expectations. But what we’re seeing is people weaponize that to shut others’ right to that down. And that is what we’re trying to protect, ultimately.

As a Twitter user, I was pleased to see the depth of the thinking and care that is going into these issues. I learned a lot from this podcast about the reasons for some of Twitter’s controversial design decisions. (E.g. I now know why Twitter doesn’t have an “edit” button.)

Unfortunately, the conversation didn’t address the elephant in the room: Twitter’s business model. Ultimately, Twitter makes money by showing ads to its users. A good public square shouldn’t attempt to sway our opinions; it should provide the venue for us to form them through engagement with others. How might “conversational health” might be used as a means for persuasion?

Making Sense Podcast #148 – Jack Dorsey

Book Notes: “Playing to Win”

Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works
By A.G. Lafley and Roger L. Martin
Harvard Business Review Press, 2013

You can’t successfully design something as complex as an information environment if you’re not clear on the strategic direction it seeks to support. Unfortunately, the subject of strategy can be hard for designers to grasp, perhaps because people often explain it only at very high levels.

That’s why Playing to Win is one of my favorite books on business strategy: it makes the subject concrete. The authors’ backgrounds have the right balance between theory and practice: A.G. Lafley is a former CEO of Procter & Gamble, and Roger L. Martin was dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Together they crafted strategies that helped P&G win in several markets, and the book is chock full of case studies.

So what is strategy, according to the authors?

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Information Architecture for Strategic Decision-making

Under pressure from the market, your organization is prompted to change. Perhaps the company hasn’t met its sales targets in the last couple of quarters, and something must be done to get customers excited about buying. Or maybe a new competitor is entering the space, or a new technology threatens our primary product. Whatever it is, the organization must respond — now!

But not all responses can take effect now. Some take more time than others. For example, launching a new family of products takes longer than tweaking the website that describes existing products. The appropriate response may be to start down both paths now, with the understanding that (parts of) the website redesign will be public before the new products come online.

The launch of a new range of products changes how customers understand the existing catalog, so the structure of the website must accommodate these future-facing developments. As a result, the website’s designers need to be aware of the company’s product roadmap so they can produce a new information architecture. Through new language and grouping, designers will create distinctions that will allow prospects and customers to find their way within the new range of products.

So far, this is a fairly standard scenario. However, it’s worth considering approaching things from the opposite perspective: what if the act of describing the distinctions of a range of products helps inform the product roadmap? In other words, what if we treated information architecture not as a tool for representing a strategic direction, but as an exercise in distinction-making that helps define what the direction should be?

Here’s an example. When Steve Jobs came back to Apple in 1997, the company was in deep trouble. It was months away from bankruptcy. Among its many problems, Apple’s product catalog had grown bloated and undifferentiated; the company lacked clear direction. Jobs drew a simple diagram that set things back on track:

Steve Jobs's product matrix

This model whittled the company’s extensive range of products down to just four categories: professional desktop computers, consumer desktop computers, professional portable computers, and consumer portable computers. Gone were all the other things Apple was making — including the Newton, a product that was considered one of Apple’s most innovative at the time. This was a tough call that was reinforced by a simple, coherent, understandable set of distinctions​.

What’s interesting about this diagram is not just that it allowed the company to understand how existing products fit — or didn’t fit — into an understandable structure, but that it also revealed gaps in the product family. There were no clear products that fit into the consumer portable quadrant, for example; Apple developed the iBook to meet this part of the market.

Creating this diagram was an act of information architecture. Jobs established a new set of distinctions using a simple, coherent model that informed strategic decisions about what products needed to be developed.

Conceptual modeling of this sort is a key part of the design process when re-designing an information environment’s navigation systems. The upside: the skills designers bring to bear when establishing new distinctions can also be used to inform what products will be required to serve market needs. Rather than reacting to existing strategic product decisions, IA can help strategic decision-makers understand the space they’re acting in more clearly so they can make more informed, confident decisions about where to go next.

Are We Really “Consuming” Digital Media?

Mary Meeker’s annual internet trends report is out. As always, it’s essential reading for anyone involved in technology.

One trend highlighted in this year’s report caught my eye: We’re spending more time than ever online. In 2008, U.S. adults spent an average of 2.7 hours online every day. In 2017, it was 5.9 hours per day — more than twice as much. To put this into perspective, this means we’re spending on average close to a third of our waking hours online. That’s a lot of time.

What are we doing with our time online? I’ve seen the press describe it as “digital media consumption.” But is “media consumption” what’s really going on here? I doubt it. My sense is the phrase is a carryover from the world of television, where viewers were indeed passive.

Except for watching video (which admittedly is an important online activity for many), the things we do online are active: we work, shop, learn, gossip, and play there. To frame our online activity as “media consumption” is to do violence to the role information environments play in our lives.

Approaching the design of most online experiences with the expectation that they will be “consumed” borders on malpractice. We’re making places with information. We don’t consume places; we inhabit them. It’s time we start designing them for inhabitation, not consumption.

Information Architecture as MacGuffin

SALLAH: Indy, you have no time. If you still want the ark, it is being loaded onto a truck for Cairo.
INDIANA: Truck? What truck?

This exchange from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981) leads to one of the most thrilling car chases in movie history, in which our hero, Indiana Jones, fights his way onto the vehicle mentioned above. Onboard the truck is the Ark of the Covenant, which Nazis are trying to smuggle out of Egypt so their boss — Adolf Hitler — can use it to take over the world.

Sounds like a pretty important thing, right? Well, it isn’t. (Spoiler alert!) By the end of the movie, the crated ark is wheeled into a nondescript government warehouse packed with similar crates as far as the eye can see. The implication: this thing, which we’ve just spent a couple of hours obsessing about, will soon be forgotten — as it should be. You don’t want the audience to go home thinking about the implications of having something as powerful as the ark out and about in the world.

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