Gaining Clarity in Times of Uncertainty

Professors Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung writing in the Harvard Business Review:

Feeling uncertain is not a natural state of being for us — it signals to the brain that things are not right. The brain then seeks out information to resolve the uncertainty. This desire for resolution is why feelings of uncertainty lead us to process information more systematically and deeply in the hope of finding answers.

But the coronavirus pandemic leaves us in a quandary: Our natural instinct is to try to resolve our intense feelings of uncertainty, but there is so much uncertainty around the virus and its effects that a quest for complete resolution is futile. So what can we do?

They answer with cognitive and emotional tactics for coping with three types of uncertainty:

  • Probability
  • Ambiguity
  • Complexity

The tactics are presented in the context of how we can cope as individuals, but they also apply to teams. Faced with uncertain choices, and no obvious prospects for greater clarity, teams and organizations may become paralyzed.

This is an area where strategic design initiatives can help. Design research consolidates understanding; it generates information and insights that bring cognitive (in the form of data) and emotional (in the form of commitment) clarity to teams.

When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty

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?

The Blind Spot in Digital Initiatives

A few weeks ago, I saw a meme that resonated with me. It had the format of a survey question, and it went something like this:

Who initiated your company’s digital transformation?

A) CIO
B) CTO
C) COVID-19

Cue nervous laughter: all-too-real. Our response to the pandemic has wrought major changes. For one thing, everyone who can do so is now working from home. Businesses are scrambling to figure out how to best serve their customers in this new reality. There’s also a palpable sense that many of these changes will persist after the immediate crisis passes. As a result, many companies are looking for new ways to provide value over digital channels.

Most recognize that there are two aspects to digital initiatives. On the one hand, there are technical considerations: selecting and configuring infrastructure, developing applications on that infrastructure, and so on. We can think of these as the “how” of the initiative: How will we serve these customers? Should we host systems on our premises, in the cloud, or some kind of hybrid solution? Should we develop solutions internally, or should we buy an off-the-shelf product? Etc. These types of questions have traditionally been the domain of IT teams.

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Making the Company’s Vision Tangible

An article in the Harvard Business Review offers a reminder of the importance of having a clear company vision. It also makes the point that you don’t have to be the CEO to contribute to that vision:

A simple, bold, inspirational vision can feel almost magical: it brings people throughout the company together around a common goal and provides a focal point for developing strategies to achieve a better future. Unfortunately, however, building a vision has become more associated with a company’s top-level leadership than the managers in the rest of the organization.

The article offers three ways in which managers and leaders can help form the organization’s vision:

  • By helping the CEO in his or her vision-building efforts
  • By translating the vision to make it relevant to individual teams
  • By catalyzing a vision from the bottom-up

It’s not mentioned in the article, but I’ll say it again: making the vision more tangible is one of the great (and often, unacknowledged) roles of design. Many companies see their design functions as tactical. They see designers as the people who make engineering’s work more engaging, appealing, or usable. This perspective misses an important part of the value of design.

At a more strategic level, design offers organizations the ability to make possibilities tangible. It’s not just about production work; it’s also about helping the organization test what can otherwise be abstract or ambiguous directions. It’s one thing to tell people about your vision for the future. It’s quite another to demonstrate what that vision will look and feel like with real artifacts you can put in front of people, to test new ways of being in the world.

The power to do so is latent in all design organizations. Actualizing it calls for a reframing of what designers do. Production work is a significant contribution, but helping make visions tangible (and testable!) is a more valuable strategic role for design.

You Don’t Have to Be CEO to Be a Visionary Leader

Remaining Relevant When Markets Disappear

This morning I got an email from United Airlines. Under a headline that says “Explore the world from home,” the message offers a reminder:

We know you may not be traveling soon, but our award-winning inflight magazine, Hemispheres, is still here to share incredible destinations with you.

From the dunes of New Mexico to the Scottish Highlands, we hope this month’s Hemispheres provides a bit of inspiration for when you’re ready for your next adventure.

Our collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has radically changed many aspects of “ordinary” life. For one, self-isolation means little or no travel. Airlines and hospitality companies are suffering as a result. As noted in National Geographic, the World Travel and Tourism Council projects that the pandemic will cost the industry 75 million jobs and $2.1 trillion in revenue.

Companies like United, and their employees, are suffering. But people and organizations are resilient. We look for ways of continuing to provide value even when facing such tremendous disruption. Reading about visiting the dunes of New Mexico or the Scottish Highlands isn’t the same as actually being there. But can I imagine a meeting that went something like this:

Manager A: How can we remain top-of-mind when nobody’s traveling?

Manager B: Let’s think… What assets do we have that can remind folks of what they loved about travel?

Manager A: Well, our in-flight magazine has stories about exotic destinations…

It’d be foolish to think United will pivot to become a publisher of travel stories. I don’t expect Hemispheres is a big business under normal circumstances, and it’s probably much less so now that companies are pulling back on advertising. However, I appreciate the airline’s effort to remind me of the role they usually play in my life. The connection helps sustain loyalty.

Like United, Airbnb also sees its business impacted by the reductions in travel. They, too, are trying something different. This week, the company announced a new service called Online Experiences, “a new way for people to connect, travel virtually and earn income during the COVID-19 crisis.” These “experiences” — which you do through your computer — include baking with a family in San Francisco, meditating with a Buddhist monk in Japan, and taking dance lessons in Ireland.

I don’t think anyone at Airbnb believes this new service will replace the revenue they’ve lost from the decline of travel. But as with the United email, it’s a gesture that reminds us of the company’s spirit. Both cases are examples of companies looking to remain relevant when their primary markets have disappeared. I expect we’ll see many more over the coming weeks.

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.