As someone who cares about the longevity of systems, I love Stewart Brand’s Pace Layer model. In case you’re unfamiliar with the idea, the Pace Layer model explains how complex systems change over time. Such systems don’t change uniformly; instead, they’re composed of elements that vary in scale and rates of change.
The model has roots in architecture, and that’s how I usually introduce it. Mr. Brand’s book How Building’s Learn presents the following version, which is based on the work of architect Frank Duffy:
Being a designer, what you really signed up for is caring. I did a lecture for the Cooper Hewitt about their collection. When I looked at the collection, I thought, What do all these disparate objects have in common? I realized the common denominator is caring. What makes a design product different from other things is that people care more about the user as an individual, not as a consumer, but as a citizen.
Once you care about a person, you can’t not care about their context, right? You can’t have a healthy, vibrant person in a toxic community. And by extension, you have to care about their environment. You can’t have a thriving community in a toxic ecology.
We shift the idea of what design is about from the object and the immediate outcome to life itself—life-centered design, which is an understanding that we are not the center of the universe.
That’s really is it, isn’t it? The quality of the work will be completely different if designers truly care about the people they’re designing for.
Note this isn’t about being “user-centered.” It’s about understanding that our “users” exist in societies and ecosystems. If the thing we design serves user and business needs, but compromises their contexts, then it’s no good. Alas, we focus too much on the design of the parts and not enough on the whole. We value craft over philosophy – even though we, too, live in the same societies and ecosystems.
This interview is in support of Mr. Mau’s new book, MC24. I’m finding much inspiration in its pages; it’s a good salve for these dark times.
As you can see, these aren’t cosmetic tweaks, but significant changes to Gmail’s structure. Where previously the app aspired to be a great email client, now its stated goal is to be “your new home for work.” This goal reflects three fundamental premises:
Much of what many of us do for “work” consists of coordinating with and informing each other
Most of these communications happen over digital channels (especially now that many of us are working “remotely”)
Email is no longer the only (or even primary) channel for these communications
If you experience lousy service or poor quality, it’s probably not solely the fault of the person who talked to you on the phone, dealt with you at the counter or assembled your product.
It’s the boss.
The boss didn’t design the system properly, didn’t align incentives, didn’t invest in training. The boss isn’t thinking hard about hiring the right people. And the boss isn’t listening.
I’m glad to see someone with Mr. Godin’s prominence highlighting the benefits of having a systemic perspective. Many people still think of the products and services they interact with (or worse, manage) as though they exist on their own, in a vacuum.
Of course, they don’t: All products and services are manifestations of systems that influence their performance. The front-line customer experience is the outcome of such a system. To improve the offering, improve the system. But you can’t improve the system if you don’t see or understand it. You must make it tangible to make it “real.”
Design can help: systems mapping and modeling are established practices. What’s needed is for “the boss” to understand that design doesn’t start with giving form to products/services. Instead, it’s a holistic practice that can bring coherence and alignment at a much deeper level – if it starts at a much earlier stage in the process.
Are you “the boss”? Do you understand the systems you’re participating in or creating? Do you know the degree to which your products/services are enabling such systems? If you lack visualizations that help you understand these systems, ask yourself: what do I need to do to see the big picture?
This post appeared previously in my newsletter, which comes out every other Sunday.
Last week, Apple held its Worldwide Developers Conference (or WWDC.) At this annual event, the company announces significant changes coming to its software platforms (including iOS, the iPhone’s operating system.) As with many other such gatherings this year, WWDC 2020 was held online. But that’s not what interests me most about this year’s event. Instead, I was intrigued by the steps Apple is taking to bring coherence to its ecosystem.
Apple is in a unique position in this regard. The company makes operating systems for a variety of computing device form factors: phones (iOS), tablets (iPadOS), watches (watchOS), TVs (tvOS), and personal computers (macOS). Apple competes with other companies in each platform segment, but no other company has strong contenders in every platform segment.
All of these Apple platforms have “family resemblances.” A first-time Apple Watch user will find details and interactions that are reminiscent of what she’s experienced on her iPhone. This makes the system more learnable and pleasant.
The team at Basecamp has developed a new product, Hey. It seems like an interesting — and opinionated (I mean this in a good way) — reimagining of how email works. If you have some time, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried’s video introduction is worth your attention:
Hey was in the news yesterday because its mobile app is being pulled from Apple’s iOS App Store, and Basecamp’s management is vocally fighting the move. Much has been written about that situation already, and I won’t say more about it here. I say it “seems” interesting because I haven’t yet tried it firsthand; currently, access to the product is by-invitation. My thoughts below are based solely on the product’s website and the video above.
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?
You can tell a lot about how we value spaces-and the people who use them-by how well we design them. Google Classroom, which I’ve come to use with my kids on a daily basis since remote schooling began back in March, is as good an example of this as I’ve seen. It’s a virtual space, of course, but in a quarantined world it’s become a vital space, one that millions of children and parents are entering daily, usually for hours at a time. And it sends an unmistakable message about how it values the students who use it.
What follows is a thoughtful critique of Google Classroom. But more broadly, the post highlights how our investments in online spaces reflect our priorities. If we take Google Classroom as an indicator, we don’t value the experience of learning as much as we do working.
I’ve used Google Classroom for teaching at CCA’s graduate interaction design program since 2018. Not only is Mr. Vinh’s critique spot-on; the system has serious issues not covered in the post. For example, Google Classroom’s feedback mechanisms are inconsistent: sometimes students aren’t notified of my comments, depending on where I leave them. And conversely, sometimes I’m notified of student comments, but when I log into the system, I can’t find them. What’s worse, I’ve seen little improvement over the last three years.
Google Classroom could be amazing. Its integration with the rest of Google’s products has great potential. However, in practice, the system has many rough edges and some structural issues. It could use a substantial information architecture overhaul. As it stands, Google Classroom feels like a minimal effort — and as Mr. Vinh points out, that says a lot about the priority we assign to the experience of education.
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. Continue reading →