What Google Classroom Says About Our Priorities

Khoi Vinh, writing in his blog:

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.

Google Classroom and How Spaces Value People + Subtraction.com

Internal and External Language

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.
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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?

Elemental, Or How Information Architecture Makes Us Smarter

A keynote presentation I delivered at World IA Day San Francisco 2020.

Slides:

Description:

Information architecture isn’t about nav bars and search engines and site maps; it’s about order in service to understanding. To effectively design order, we must look beneath the surface, to the elements that make IA distinct from other disciplines. These elements are language, distinctions, relationships, and rules. Information architects use them to create structures that help others understand.

In a world that is increasingly mediated through environments made of language, it’s essential that designers master these elements. This presentation illustrates how they work by examining a masterwork of information architecture, Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of the elements.

Climate Change and Company Prospects

Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock (the world’s largest fund manager) writing in his annual letter to CEOs:

Climate change has become a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects. Last September, when millions of people took to the streets to demand action on climate change, many of them emphasized the significant and lasting impact that it will have on economic growth and prosperity – a risk that markets to date have been slower to reflect. But awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance.

As reported in The Financial Times, BlackRock is backing up this position by changing its investment strategies towards more sustainable opportunities. The company will consider environmental, social, and governance factors along with financial factors when analyzing risk. (A report in Ars Technica explains in more detail the changes BlackRock is implementing.)

The long-term viability of our civilization rests on the sustainability of our ecosystems. For too long our organizations have operated using business models that don’t account for the full impact of their decisions. Finance underlies those decisions, so it gives me hope to see powerful financial actors adopting a more systemic accounting for their investments.

Larry Fink CEO Letter | BlackRock

The Pull of the Present

By this time twenty years ago, many of us were feeling relieved. We’d been hearing for months about the near-certain fallout from the “Y2K bug”: widespread computer system failures caused by the practice of shortening years to two digits instead of four (e.g., 99 rather than 1999.) But by mid-January, 2000, it was clear that all would be ok. Or so it seemed.

Some context, in case you weren’t around then. By the mid-1990s, computer systems were already essential parts of our infrastructure. Nobody knew how many of these computers had the bug or what would happen after 11:59 pm on December 31, 1999, when these systems would assume it was now January 1 of year zero. Would there be blackouts? Urban transport cancellations? Airplane collisions? The complexity of such infrastructure-level systems made the consequences impossible to predict. Governments and companies undertook massive and expensive projects to “fix” the problem. FORTRAN programmers suddenly found their skills in demand.

Then nothing happened. By the end of the first week of January 2000, it was clear that either the fixes had been successful or the potential downsides overblown. Those of us who’d been stressing out about the Y2K bug felt relieved and quickly forgot about it.

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LEGO: An Appreciation

I took Christmas Day off: no client work, no podcast editing, no writing. Instead, I spent the day playing with my kids. Mostly, we built LEGO sets.

Although I am not an AFOL, LEGO is an important part of my life. I use it in my systems class and have written about some lessons it holds for systems thinkers. More importantly, I love playing with LEGO. It’s my favorite toy — and has been since I was a child.

Yesterday, as I helped my daughter build set #10260, I reflected on why I love the bricks so much. It boils down to the following:

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Abstraction and Implementation

In his book Where the Action Is, Paul Dourish surfaces a key distinction in software: that of the user interface as an abstraction of the implementation details that underly it:

The essence of abstraction in software is that it hides implementation. The implementation is in some ways the opposite of the abstraction; where the abstraction is the gloss that describes how something can be used and what it will do, the implementation is the part under the covers that describes how it will work. If the gas pedal and the steering wheel are the abstraction, then the engine, power train, and steering assembly are the implementation.

Designers often focus on this abstraction of the system — the stuff users deal with. As a result, we spend a lot of cycles understanding users. But for the interface to be any good, designers must also understand the implementation — the system’s key elements, how they interact with each other, its processes, regulation mechanisms, etc.

Sometimes, as with a new (and perhaps unprecedented) system, this implementation itself is in flux, evolving subject to the system’s goals and the needs of the people who will interact with the system. That is, it’s not all front-end: the implementation is part of the design remit; both the implementation and its abstraction are the object of design.