Which Watch to Wear to the Apocalypse

Imagine a catastrophic social breakdown, Mad Max-style. An asteroid hits; pervasive coastal flooding causes sudden mass migrations; a genetically modified virus goes rogue; a crazed ideologue with an itchy trigger finger starts World War III. Whatever the case, the systems you’ve relied on for your survival are no longer functioning; you must fend for yourself and your loved ones. As you prepare to head out into the wrecked world in search of food, which watch will you wear?

Humor me with this. There are good reasons to want a timepiece in such a scenario. For example, you may wish to orchestrate maneuvers with fellow marauders as you embark on a raid. Or maybe you’re trying to calculate the speed of a raging river before you jump into it. The fact that all else has gone to hell doesn’t mean time has stopped. Sure, time is an abstraction — but a useful one, even under these dire conditions.

So, which watch will you wear? More specifically, consider these two options: An old Omega Speedmaster and a series four Apple Watch. The Speedmaster — a mechanical watch — only allows you to do a few things: you can tell what time it is, you can precisely measure how long something takes, you can measure how fast something is moving (including yourself, if you’re moving at high speed.) The Apple Watch allows you to do much more. Besides offering the same basic functionality of the Speedmaster, it also allows you to communicate with other people, see what the weather will be like, listen to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony (to remind you why persevering is worthwhile), etc.

In short, the Apple Watch allows you to do many more things that would be very useful in a post-apocalyptic world. The catch, of course, is that many of these features wouldn’t work in this case. When you strap an Apple Watch on your wrist, you’re not just wearing a device; you’re wearing an ecosystem. For example, the usefulness of the weather app depends on myriad things that exist well beyond the object on your person: sensors distributed around the planet, communication networks, data centers, the electrical grid, and so on.

The Speedmaster, on the other hand, depends on none of these things. As long as you remember to wind it every day, it’ll continue performing its functions for a long time. Of course, the day will eventually come when it’ll need repair. At that point, you’re out of luck. (I’m assuming Omega service centers will no longer be open for business.) But mechanical breakdown will likely be years away, even in this scenario. In the apocalypse, the smartwatch’s advantages would vanish within a few hours or days at most, and its essential functions would cease altogether when electricity reserves ran out.

The point of this mental exercise isn’t to get you into prepper mode. Instead, I’d like you to consider the nature of the things you interact with day-to-day — especially if you’re a designer.

We’re used to thinking of things as independent, self-contained objects. A cup is a cup. You can grab it, lift it, turn it around, dip it into liquid, bring that liquid to your mouth. Not much to it! A chair is just a chair. A watch is a watch. Except when it’s digitally enabled. Then it’s something more. Yes, it’s still an object you can pick up and manipulate. But that’s not the point. What’s essential about a smartwatch is that it gives you access to a range of useful features that are only available as long as the systems that enable them are in good working order.

For much of the time that people have been designing things, we’ve created things that are more like cups and chairs — and even Speedmasters — than Apple Watches. As a result, we tend to think of the things we design as individual artifacts with clearly defined boundaries; the kinds of things you can photograph and present in a beautiful coffee table book. Digital things aren’t like that. An app isn’t an individual artifact; it’s a part of (and a host to) very complex systems. Sure, you can show a comprehensive series of screen comps to illustrate what the app will “look and feel” like, but that’s not where its boundaries lie. The screens you interact with when you open the weather app on your smartwatch are a tiny shard of ice on the tip of an enormous iceberg.

Before digital, designers needed some degree of systems thinking. You can’t design something like a Speedmaster from scratch; there are hundreds of years of know-how that precede it, a specialized industrial ecosystem that will produce it, established business models that will get it onto people’s hands, and so on. A designer must understand these things to make the right tradeoffs. Many take these systems for granted as the context within which they’re working, but they must be aware of them nevertheless. Still, I’d venture most folks who design these things don’t think of themselves primarily as intervening in systems.

One possible exception is architects. More than other artifacts, buildings and towns depend on (and enable) rich interactions with their contexts; they depend on complex systems (e.g., transportation, energy, etc.) not just for their design but also to continue serving their functions. As Stewart Brand has pointed out, buildings also change over time as the needs of their occupants and stewards evolve. Smart designers create the means to accommodate change without making too much of a mess. This requires that they understand how the things they design function as systems.

Digital designers must think more like architects than like the designers of cups, chairs, or even mechanical watches. More than any other artifacts we’ve designed in the past, digital things participate in and enable systems. They’re also dynamic and interactive in ways that even complex mechanical devices like a Speedmaster aren’t. Bottom line: You can’t do a good job of designing a digital thing if you don’t understand systems. (This is one of the reasons why I think “product” is the wrong framing for digital things.)

I get tremendous value from my Apple Watch. However, I understand that that value is entirely dependent on complex systems that go well beyond the object on my wrist. When I design a digital thing, I frame it as a systemic design challenge: I look to understand the components and interdependencies that make the thing possible, and how they might change over time. I keep reminding myself that the boundaries for the thing I’m designing don’t lie with the organization that’s commissioned the work or even the operating system within which users will experience it, even if — especially if — stakeholders can’t easily see this. I must think of the thing I’m designing an intervention in one or more systems, and consider the second- and even third-order effects it implies.

And as much as I love my Apple Watch, if all goes to hell, I want a Speedmaster on my wrist.

Daniel Kahneman on Framing and Incentives

Here’s a great podcast conversation between Daniel Kahneman and Sam Harris.

Mr. Kahneman on framing:

This is a question we should be asking ourselves when we think about a problem, a societal problem: How can it be framed? And somebody has​ the responsibility in those cases of choosing a framing — because it’s going to be framed one way or the other. So given that idea that there is no avoiding framing, that you can choose the better frame… that’s the central idea of behavioral economics and nudging. It’s really that: you should choose the frame that leads to the better decision and to the better outcome.

And on incentives:

The basic psychological rule, if you want people to behave in a particular way, is to make it easy for them. That, by the way, is very different from incentives… The social psychologist Kurt Lewin had, around the end of World War II, developed ideas of how you change behavior. And he distinguished two essential ways of changing behavior. That is, you can apply pressure in the direction where you want people to go or you can ask a very different question, which is: Why aren’t they going there by themselves? That is, what is preventing them from doing what you think they should do? And then remove obstacles; make it easier for people to do. I think that’s the best psychological idea I know, this distinction between applying pressure and making things easier, removing obstacles. And pressure… that’s important. Pressure is incentives, pressure is threats, and pressure is arguments.

(Both quotes lightly edited for clarity.)

These points had me thinking about my post from yesterday about how important it is for designers to understand incentives in organizations. Perhaps the role of designers shouldn’t be so much to proselytize user-centeredness and fret about incentives as it should be to reframe problems and create​ means for system actors to do the right thing.

Making Sense #150: The Map of Misunderstanding

Designers as Advocates of Respect

In a thought-provoking post on Medium, Cyd Harrell advocates for respect as the one value designers should adopt (if they had to adopt only one.) She concludes:

it doesn’t matter if our field holds values like respect dear, if we’re not able to get businesses and institutions to adopt those values and apply them to their work. That’s virtually impossible without being explicit about them, however simple they may seem, and following that explicitness with exploration, persuasion, backup from studies, and appropriate pressure.

I’ll add one more: developing a deep understanding of the incentives that drive the organization.

Values aren’t really values until they’re put to the test. Until then, they’re only aspirations. In commercial organizations (at least), that test often manifests as a choice between respecting the individual and some tactical (short-term) gain. What the organization chooses to do determines what its actual (as opposed to stated) values are. (A hypothesis: organizations with longer-term mindsets will have greater incentives to err on the side of the individual since they’ll be more willing to build lasting relationships.)

It’s important for designers to proselytize respect of users within their organizations, but it’s also important that designers understand the conditions under which organizations lapse in this regard. Often it’s not because anyone sets out to be intentionally disrespectful; it’s because their organization places a higher value on other things. How might designers influence that?

Respect is the one value – UX Collective


It wasn’t supposed to be a theme park. What Walt Disney had in mind when he bought 27,400 acres of land in central Florida in the mid-1960s was a city. He wanted to build an “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow.” A real-world lab for experimenting with city forms and processes. You can see him pitch the idea to potential partners and Florida legislators in this film:

Pretty crazy, right? Walt Disney was a visionary. He achieved many things during his life that seemed nuts to the people around him. I don’t know if EPCOT would’ve succeeded as a city, but I’m sure that something like what we see in that film would’ve been built if he’d only lived a little longer. Alas, he died a few weeks after it was shot.

Walt’s team was left with the challenge of building an EPCOT without him. No one had never made one of these before, and now the man with the vision was gone. The state of Florida had granted Disney regulatory and fiscal exceptions on the premise that it’d build something more than a theme park and some hotels on the property. The state expected an EPCOT, so after a few false starts (and the energy crisis of the 1970s) something called “EPCOT Center” opened in Disney’s Florida property in 1982.

I didn’t know this backstory when I first visited EPCOT Center. I thought EPCOT was an interesting — if mildly boring — theme park that looked like a World’s Fair. When I learned about Walt’s original plan for EPCOT, it made me sad. A permanent World’s Fair was OK, but Walt’s original idea was fascinating: A city run by a major U.S. corporation could be a laboratory for all sorts of useful explorations. We wouldn’t want to mess around with certain systems or processes in a “real” city; some would be deemed too controversial or politically impractical. But in a “toy” city controlled by a single entity,​ you could do all sorts of interesting things.

For a long time, the missed opportunity of EPCOT was on my mind every time I’d visit Walt Disney World. However, I was there a couple of weeks ago, and another thought came to mind: perhaps Walt’s dream is coming true after all. While I didn’t visit the theme parks this time around, I did go to Disney Springs, a highly themed shopping district. There were a lot of people there. While many shopping malls are closing around the country, victims of the rise of e-commerce, this place was thriving. Why?

For many in our society, shopping is a form of entertainment. In Disney Springs we experience an environment that is explicitly designed to foster both (much as the theme parks are.) Visitors to Walt Disney World aren’t operating within their everyday mindset; most are there on vacation. They come prepared to be catered to and entertained; to suspend their disbelief; to open their wallets – hundreds of thousands of them every day. (Walt Disney World is the most popular vacation spot on the planet.)

So even though the Disney company didn’t build Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, it did end up managing an environment that faces many of the same challenges as a small city. Transportation, safety, logistics, sustainability, energy efficiency, and climate change are all issues that WDW must deal with. As a private entity accountable only to the market (and the law), Disney can move faster​ than democratically elected city governments in responding to these issues. (Especially so in our time of political polarization and gridlock.) This combination of factors — control of an urban-sized environment, large volumes of people willing to suspend their disbelief (and their usual spending constraints), plus the deep pockets of the world’s largest entertainment company — make Walt Disney World the perfect laboratory to experiment with complex new systems at scale.

The original elements of the WDW plan were very forward-thinking: It featured (among others) new construction techniques for the resort hotels, innovative water recycling and waste management systems, and a monorail transportation​ system. The experimentation is ongoing. A few years ago, Disney deployed a new system for guest identification called MagicBands: RFID-enabled wristbands that identify individual visitors as they move around the WDW property. The ability to track individual users throughout the environment allows Disney to customize their experience and to predict population needs better, affecting staffing, logistics, transportation, etc. (Can you imagine a city doing such a thing?)

Another example is currently being built: the Skyliner, a new transportation system consisting of gondolas that stretch over various resorts in the WDW property. The Skyliner is the company’s most recent transportation experiment: along with those photogenic monorails, the WDW property also features ferries, buses, and — more recently — a fleet of ride-hailing vehicles known as Minnie Vans. (I expect that WDW will feature among the first functional self-driving car fleets in the world, since conditions in the property are so closely controlled.)

Transit patterns in WDW must be similar to those found in cities, with folks moving from resort hotels to theme parks at peak hours in much the same way they move from home to work and back. I can’t imagine it’d be easy for a city to build an entirely new transportation system “from scratch.” In many cases, political and economic pressures would make such a project a decade-long undertaking (at least.) Disney filed construction plans for the SkyLiner in early 2017 and has already started testing passenger gondolas. The system is expected to open later this year. That is astonishingly fast.

Sure, Walt Disney World is much simpler than a real city. For one thing, Disney doesn’t have to deal with property rights when deploying a transportation system like the SkyLiner. But that’s in part what makes this place so perfect for testing complex systems: it leaves out of the equation many of the non-technical factors that make deploying them so difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.

That’s just transportation. But this combination of factors is also in play for safety (e.g., especially against terrorism and violence), environmental sustainability, responding to the effects of climate change, and so much more. These are all challenges that require that cities and towns try new approaches fast. Current political structures aren’t set up for fast experimentation at scale — but Walt Disney World is. So in that sense, Walt’s vision for Florida is coming true after all.

The question is: Will Disney share what it learns from the operation of its Florida property? As a private entity, I understand the company not wanting to share this information with other commercial entities. But I wonder if there’d be a way for city officials and planners to study WDW as a model. Disney has run educational programs in the past aimed at teaching its customer service skills more broadly. Would it be possible for the company to do something similar with its Florida urban experiments?

Design 3.0

My friend Stephen Anderson gave a talk at SXSW 2019 about the future of design. I’ve not seen the presentation itself, but he posted a transcript on Medium. The gist:

Design is in the midst of a shift. A shift that will make much of our present skills obsolete, and demand we learn new skills, or become… irrelevant.

He refers to this as Design 3.0, “a shift from Products to Experiences to Outcomes.” It calls for designers to develop new skills. What sorts of skills? Training machine learning algorithms, monitoring outcomes, modeling possibilities, and reframing the contexts of our work to see the bigger picture. In other words, systems thinking. Design at a higher level of abstraction: designing the thing that designs the thing.

While not a wholly new direction (Gordon Pask was writing about this stuff fifty years ago), technology has finally caught up with the possibilities. So these ideas are very much part of the current zeitgeist. (I’m reading Ann M. Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown’s fabulous Design Unbound, which argues along similar lines. More on that soon.)

Even though the objects of focus for design are changing, the things that make us good designers aren’t. As Stephen rightly points out, designerly approaches such as problem reframing, human-centeredness, and the embracing ambiguity are perennial. They’re also key to doing a good job in this complex new environment.

I’m glad to see design at a higher level of abstraction becoming a thing in the world. I’ve seen few introductions as accessible and compelling as Stephen’s talk; it’s worth your attention.

The Future of Design: Computation & Complexity

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.

An Architecture + Systems Thinking Reading List

A friend asked me for a syllabus on architecture and cybernetics. I don’t have a comprehensive syllabus on the subject, but I did send him a short list of readings that have informed my thinking about architecting from a systemic perspective. I thought you may get value from this list as well, so I’m sharing it here. The resources are in no particular order.

What major resources have I missed? Please let me know.

Getting More Done With Information

My recent conversation with Fabricio Teixeira (Ep 3, The Informed Life podcast) focused on how Fabricio and his partner Caio Braga manage UX Collective, one of the most popular UX design publications in the world. Fabricio and Caio leveraging a chain of tools that allows just the two of them to produce work that would’ve required a larger team in the past.

Much has been written about how social media and other information environments impair our cognitive abilities. (I touched on this myself in Living in Information.) But information environments can also augment our abilities. There are ​myriad easy-to-use information systems that allow us to get stuff done more efficiently.

As a small business owner, there’s much I can do online that would’ve required outsourcing or hiring other people in the past. There are online systems available to automate everything from bookkeeping to marketing. It’s not that they do it all for you; automation isn’t quite that advanced yet. That said, these systems allow you to better leverage your time.

Take Buffer, one of the systems that came up in the conversation with Fabricio. Buffer allows you to pre-schedule social media posts; you can determine when you’d like specific messages to be published through Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. In essence, it allows you to create a personal marketing system. This means you can allocate your time more wisely: rather than having to post messages in real-time (with the potential distractions that entails), you can set time aside to plan out your messages in a batch.

APIs make the system work. Buffer wouldn’t be of much use if it couldn’t leverage social networks. It’s not a free-standing tool, but rather a way to bring together several other systems that provide particular functionality. Centralizing posting to several social networks creates great efficiencies. I’ve been using Buffer for years, and have found it useful. It allows my messages to have greater reach than they would’ve if I had to post individually to each social platform in real-time.

Buffer is one of many such systems. I’m sure there are many others I’m not aware of that could automate or augment my other workflows, or help me do things that I simply wouldn’t have been able to before. One of the reasons why I started The Informed Life is that I want to learn about such systems — and share what I learn with you. What’s working for folks? What isn’t? How might we configure our personal information ecosystems so we can thrive?

Seeing What’s Actually There

One of the most important things I learned at university was how to see. Architects communicate through drawing, so it’s important for them to learn to draw. Drawing well requires observing carefully; capturing what’s actually there as opposed to what you think is there. This is harder than it sounds. The mind keeps breaking in with shortcuts. “I know what this is. It’s the roof of a house. We know what the roof of a house looks like, don’t we? Just draw that.” The result is often an abstraction that has little to do with what’s actually there.

Knowing that your mind meditates between the world and what you’re trying to capture is an important lesson. If it isn’t pointed out to you, you may not know you’re doing it. You go along merrily introducing theories and abstractions that influence your perception of reality.

I’m teaching my students to observe systems in action. Systems are comprised of various elements that relate to each other in particular ways. When these elements interact, the system exhibits particular behaviors. Understanding how the system works and what it does requires observing these elements and their behavior over time. What are the elements? How do they influence each other? What happens when they do?

When I ask the students to explain what they’re seeing, they invariably respond with a mix of observations and theories. Often, the theories have little to do with what’s actually happening. Interestingly, the observations they report are clearly influenced by their theories. The students make assumptions about what they’re seeing based on what they believe is happening.

We all do this. Observing with equanimity is difficult. Our chattering mind constantly breaks in with explanations. We pine for coherence; we want reality to correspond to our mental models, rather than the other way ‘round. We must practice seeing clearly and impartially in order to get better at it, much as we practice to get better at sport. It’s an essential meta-skill that improves our ability to acquire other skills.