A Human Queue

We’ve all experienced systems that manage our place in a queue. Perhaps you’re exchanging a defective product and are asked to “take a number,” or call your bank and are told to “hold for our next representative,” or ask for help with an app and receive an email that says “your support request number is #1067239.”

Whatever the case, it’s evident you’re not the only one there. In order to apportion the attention of the small group of people providing support to the (invariably larger) group of people needing it, the folks in charge of the experience establish systems to allow for an orderly progression. Usually, it’s on a first come, first served basis — but not always. Some requests may require specialized knowledge and may be held longer or be routed to a different department.

As the person waiting in “line,” these backend machinations aren’t visible to you. All you know is you’ve got a number, so your request should eventually be attended to. How long do you have to wait? Some systems attempt to let you know, but many don’t. Knowing that yours is request number 1,067,239 doesn’t necessarily mean anything to you. Are they currently serving request number 1,067,238? Do requests progress in sequence, or are they parallel? How long does the average request take? You don’t know. You’re not told the number so you’ll know how long you’ve got to wait, but in case you need to interact with another agent of the system in the future.

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Pivot Like Lincoln

There’s a wonderful scene in Steven Spielberg’s movie LINCOLN. President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) asks influential representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) for his support in an upcoming vote. Stevens, a radical abolitionist, is having none of it. He questions the people’s appetite for emancipation. Because of slavery, he says, “the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women.” Lincoln’s reply is brilliant:

A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps, deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… what’s the use of knowing true north?

These two men share a vision: they both want to see an end to slavery. They have significant differences of opinion about happens after they achieve it, but for now,​ they must help each other. More importantly, though, they also have different opinions about how to go about achieving their vision. While Stevens wants to charge full speed ahead, Lincoln prefers a more measured approach. He understands the second-order effects that would likely result from tackling the issue head-on.

In this scene, Lincoln articulates the spirit of cybernetics. In order to get somewhere, you must know where you’re going: You must have a vision of your desired goal and how the world will be different once you’ve reached it. But having a vision isn’t enough; you must also have a strategy and be open to adjusting​ as conditions evolve. You must take continuous readings of your surroundings: Where are you in relation to where you want to be? Are you still on track? Do you need to correct course? If so, you make a change; take another reading; correct course. Step by step, you find your way around the swamps, deserts, and chasms — always keeping true north in mind.

Making the Place Your Own

Think about the place where you live. Is it a house? An apartment? A room in a dormitory? Wherever it is, the odds are high that you live inside a structure designed by someone for that purpose. By “that purpose,” I mean being inhabited by people — generic people, not just you as an individual. (While some individuals can afford to have their living places designed just for them, from the ground up, this is not the norm. Most of us live in buildings that were designed for somebody else or nobody at all; for “people,” in general.)

These structures include distinct spaces. Some, like the toilets and kitchen, are prescriptive: they’re designed to accommodate specific uses. We may do other things in these spaces, but they were designed with a primary use in mind; they satisfy broad needs you shared with other people in your culture. Other spaces in the house are more generic. For example, a garage can serve as storage for a car, a space for writing, or the birthplace of the world’s most valuable company.

When you move into a house or apartment, you begin a gradual process of making this generic environment your own. At first, the place is still unfamiliar. You may wonder, “Where was it that I put the cutlery?” You open several drawers… “Ah yes, there it is!” Little by little, you find places to store your stuff, bring in furniture and arrange it in ways that suit you, hang art on the walls, etc. You customize the environment, adapting its structures to your needs. Eventually, you don’t need to look for the cutlery — you just know where it is. The place becomes familiar, expectable, usable, perhaps even a little boring.

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Twitter and Third-party Apps

Yesterday, Twitter implemented significant changes to its APIs. As a result, accessing Twitter through third-party apps like Twitterrific and (my favorite) Tweetbot is now much worse. For example, one of my favorite Tweetbot features was its “Activity” tab, which gave me information about how people were interacting with me in Twitter. Now, it’s gone.

For me, this is not a trivial change. Twitter is my primary social network; I spend lots of time there. Or rather, I should say I spent time there. The change is making me rethink how much of my attention I apportion to this place. You see, it turns out I don’t like being in Twitter as much as I like being in Tweetbot. There are several reasons why.

To begin with, Tweetbot has native apps for both operating systems I use day-to-day (macOS and iOS.) These apps are coherent (if not 100% consistent) between both platforms: I can easily move between one and the other. Twitter, on the other hand, has an iOS app but discontinued its first-party macOS app earlier this year. So accessing Twitter on the Mac means either using the twitter.com website or through a third-party app like Tweetbot.

The timeline — the main component of the Twitter experience — is also significantly different between Tweetbot and Twitter. Whereas the former presents a simple chronological list of items, the latter scrambles the order of tweets based on what it deems to be interesting to me. Parsing out what I’m looking at (and why) is more work than I want to put into it.

Another major difference between the two is that Tweetbot doesn’t show “promoted” tweets. (Read: ads.) That means that the posts I see are the ones I signed up for by following particular accounts, not ones that paid for the privilege of being brought to my attention. (I suspect that herein lies the primary driver behind the change to Twitter’s API; ads is how the company makes money.)

The bottom line: Twitter is a lot less compelling to me today than it was two days ago. I will probably be spending less time there. But where was it that I was spending my time? Am I a Twitter user or a Tweetbot user? While the two share a lot in common, they’re different information environments. While the underlying information is the same, the experience of the environments is very different. I like being in Tweetbot, less so being in Twitter.

And let’s look at this from Twitter’s perspective: the company will probably notice that I’m spending less time there, but will this affect their revenue? After all, I didn’t see many ads while accessing their system through a third-party client. So I understand why they’d want alternate-reality versions of Twitter — like the one Tweetbot offered — to go away in the near-term. But what does this mean for them in the long term, if it costs them loyal users like me?

Not an Optimist

I’ve written earlier about the importance of being optimistic. I still think it’s important to have an optimistic outlook. However, I recently came across a description that better captures the position I aspire to. It’s in Hans Rosling’s great book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World — and Why Things Are Better Than You Think:

“I’m not an optimist. That makes me sound naïve. I’m a very serious ‘possibilist.’ That’s something I made up. It means someone who neither hopes without reason, nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview. As a possibilist, I see all this progress, and it fills me with conviction and hope that further progress is possible. This is not optimistic. It is having a clear and reasonable idea about how things are. It is having a worldview that is constructive and useful.”

I like the distinction Rosling draws between optimism and “possibilism.” For many people, optimism implies keeping a sunny disposition in spite of (or in ignorance of) the facts. That’s not healthy. What we want is a “clear and reasonable idea of how things are.” Seeing clearly, free from distortions.

The progress Rosling is alluding to is the subject of the book: factual data that shows how, overall, things have been getting better for humanity and for the world over time. If this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s because of several cognitive biases that affect how we understand reality (and which Rosling skillfully dismantles.)

Our effectiveness as designers (or citizens, or co-workers, or parents, or…) requires that we understand these biases and how they influence how we perceive things (and therefore, how we act.) How can you propose any kind of intervention into a system or situation when you don’t yet have a “clear and reasonable” understanding of it?

That’s why research is so important to design. But research is not enough. If you’re trying to see clearly something that is very small or very large or very distant, you must have the right instruments, and have them in proper working order. But much also depends on whether you know which instruments are called for to begin with, how to configure them, how to point them in the right direction, and what the “right” direction is. This requires that you be in proper working order — among other things, free from an “overdramatic worldview.”

Ad Hoc

Systems emerge, sometimes unwittingly. Unplanned, unstructured, intended only to address current needs, they evolve in fits and starts; a bit of duct tape here, a script there. Before you know it, you’re dealing with critical — and often, unmanageable — infrastructure.

I start a new Sketch file, meaning to illustrate ideas for a website’s navigation system. “I should turn this button into a symbol,” I say to myself, “so I can re-use it.” And so it begins. How much flexibility should I build into the symbol? How many variations will I be dealing with? I don’t yet know. Start simple, with just enough complexity to get the current job done. Grow from there; adjust as required. The system evolves. Edge cases are accommodated; complexity creeps in. “I’ll make a new symbol for this.” Problem solved — for now. And so, exceptions accumulate.

That said, I know the tradeoffs involved in allowing such anomalies. The time I save now will come with a price later. So I’m a mindful steward of the system. Before long, I have a file with many dozens of Sketch symbols, some quite elaborate. I’m fussy about the structure and naming of layers, but even so, I’m amazed at the complexity that ensues. Still, I now have a modular system that can illustrate a variety of situations very quickly.

In the best cases, these little ad hoc systems serve our immediate needs and then retire to a backup drive somewhere in our archives. But what if the system must continue serving future (still unspecified) needs? Then it must become more formal. Exceptions must be ironed out, or at least documented; patterns must be normalized; implicit structures concretized. (But not too much — the system must still be flexible.)

It all takes time, energy, and resources. At some point, managing the system becomes more onerous than working without one. So a careful balance must be struck and continuously re-adjusted. Constant vigilance is required: knowing how much to work on the work versus how much to work on the work that produces the work.

Resilience

I get knocked down, but I get up again
You’re never gonna keep me down
— Chumbawamba, Tubthumping

In my hierarchy of values, resilience looms large. Societies, systems, and individuals that aspire to longevity must be able to roll with the punches. Not just to get up over and over again like a dummy, as the Chumbawamba lyric implies, but to learn and evolve; to exploit challenges as opportunities to become better.

“Old school” systems thinking — cybernetics (from the Greek word kubernetes, or helmsman) — is the study of how to correct course towards a goal. This requires that the goal be understood; you can’t really steer towards a destination if you don’t know what the destination is. It also requires that you accurately read your present position and direction relative to that destination.

Your body aspires to maintain a core temperature of around 98° F (37° C.) If the environment around you is too hot, you sweat; too cold, and you shiver. At one level, this happens automatically, without your intervention. But you can also consciously intervene to change the situation; you throw on a parka or have a cup of hot cocoa. Over time you learn which actions improve your condition towards your goal relative to particular environmental conditions.

Of course, there’s an implicit pre-requisite: Your senses must be in proper working order for you to accurately “read” the environment. If the outside air is sweltering, and your body somehow perceives it as being very cold, you won’t last long — regardless of how much you “know.”

The ultimate goal is to keep your system from breaking down; to stay alive. If you’re wise, you don’t take sides in this struggle. You’re not aiming for either “hot” or “cold” to win; there’s no “win” at all if the body dies. Longevity is the only game in town as far as your body is concerned.

You know this about your body, but what about the body politic? When it comes to society at large, are you clear on what the goal is? Do you have a good read on the environment? (How do you know?) What actions can you take to correct course when things threaten to go the wrong way? Do you have the agency to enact those changes? What can you do to ensure society functions well in the long term? (And what does “function well” mean to you?)

Tread Mindfully

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
— W. Edward Demming

Every system serves at least one purpose. That’s what a system is: a set of elements that work in interrelated ways towards a purpose. Your body is a system; its primary purpose is to keep you alive. Your body’s constituent elements compose various subsystems that support this purpose. For example, your stomach is part of your digestive (sub)system, whose purpose it is to bring energy into the body.

Systems that have evolved into their current configuration (such as your body) are well-fitted to serving their purpose within the environment they exist in. (Those that weren’t well-fitted aren’t around to read blog posts.) The particular elements that compose your body — and the ways they relate to each other — are the result of hundreds of thousands of years of small experiments that lead towards ever tighter form-context-purpose fit.

Design is, in a sense, an attempt to accelerate this process. Your business doesn’t have six hundred thousand years to launch a new product; it has six months. So you assemble novel configurations of elements and test them. Not all possibilities, mind you: a tiny set. “Intelligent design” is a redundant phrase; design is intelligent by definition. The alternative is an undirected process. In either case, the goal is good fit.

The flip side is that a currently existing system that’s producing “bad” results is working as intended. If it hasn’t destroyed itself (or its environment) yet, then it’s functioning “well” towards its purpose — or at least have the ability to adapt further. Now, you may look at what the system is doing and be horrified. You may deem its purpose to be undesirable. You can then do something about it: either tweak its configuration or shut it down altogether. (That said, there aren’t many systems that are under your exclusive control, so you’ll have to build consensus to intervene.)

But effective interventions call for clarity; for understanding what’s really going on with the system. Are you sure you know how it works and towards what ends? How do you know? Complex systems often serve more than one purpose. How do you know that an intervention meant to tweak one outcome won’t inadvertently affect another? (Possibly with catastrophic results.) Complex systems that have achieved good fit have done so for reasons, some of which won’t be obvious on superficial examination. Tread mindfully, with humility and genuine curiosity.