On Rules and Barbarism

Students often want to know if they’re doing things the “right” way. They want to learn the “standard” way of making sitemaps, wireframes, storyboards, etc. Many are anxious about doing these things “wrong.” I tell them that although there are best practices, there are no strict rules for many of these things. The purpose of making any design artifact is to clarify and communicate intent. What’s “right” is what best articulates what they’re trying to do.

Recognizing what’s right requires practice, and that takes time. As professors, we aim to provide feedback so students can improve over time. Still, I suspect it’s no comfort to answer the question of how to do things “right” with “it depends.” Speaking with a student this week, I thought of a good analogy for what I’m trying to get across: Orwell’s six rules of writing.

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Beginner’s Mind

As you progress in your career, you’ll get better at what you do. At first, you’ll bumble around. After a while, you’ll become (merely) competent. Eventually, you’ll be an expert in a few things. Finally — if you persist — you’ll develop mastery. You’ll face different challenges at each stage. (Of course, there’s no guarantee for any of this. Among other things, you’ll need ability, focus, persistence, and luck.)

Early on, a lack of real-world experience is a problem. This inexperience may be aggravated by a head full of ideas you’ve picked up from books or professors (such as myself.) Inexperience + certitude = bad decisions. When you’ve achieved some level of competence, distractions become a challenge. You may grow disenchanted with your original path or enticed to switch tracks for extraneous reasons. You start to long for a change. Perhaps a management track seems the most viable way to advance. And you may be right — but then you’ll have to develop different skills.

Let’s say you stay on track and become an expert. Then you’ll face a different challenge: experience + certitude. In some ways, this is more dangerous than not knowing what you’re doing. Now other people listen to you, and it’s harder to admit you’re wrong. You have a reputation, which you feel compelled to defend. You stop paying attention to particulars. You find it harder to empathize with less knowledgeable people. What’s worse, new projects start to look like “another one of those” — so you’re tempted by shortcuts. Work becomes repetitive; practice becomes mindless or a chore. Quality suffers.

What to do?

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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

A (Very) Brief Message to the Class of 2020

Last week, a colleague at CCA asked me to record a short video for the graduates of our 2020 cohort. The format of the final presentation — a collage of messages from several people — constrained the length of my video to around twenty seconds. That’s not much time. After much editing, I came up with something that fit within the prescribed length. But I have no such time constraints in this blog, so I thought I’d share the more extended version of what I wrote here:

Dear graduates: Congratulations! I won’t pretend it’s not weird to greet you over a prerecorded video on this important occasion.

You’re graduating under extraordinary circumstances. Your ability to persevere and move forward in these challenging times is a sign of your strength and character. These attributes will serve you well in your careers and your lives.

You have my best wishes as you embark on new adventures. And again, congratulations on your achievement.

I have great respect for students who are graduating during this time of uncertainty. They’ve faced significant disruptions in their studies and are about to enter the job market at a tough time. It’s easy to become dispirited under these conditions, and anyone would understand if they chose to put things on hold for a while. As I’ve reminded my students this year, we’ll remember their cohort as one that found ways of overcoming tremendous obstacles to achieve their goals. The pandemic offers many tests of character; there’s much credit to those who pull through.

Progress Studies

Writing in The Atlantic, Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen call for the creation of a new academic discipline: “Progress Studies”:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study.

The idea that things can (and do) get better over time has been central to Western culture for a long time. However, perusing social media like Twitter often makes me feel like many people have given up on the idea of progress — despite evidence to the contrary.

That’s not to say everything’s rosy. Progress in one area (e.g., cheap energy) can be lead to other areas falling behind (e.g., international conflicts, a polluted environment.) Also, we often ignore second-order effects; what appear to be advances in the near term can lead to serious issues down the line. Things are more complex than they seem on the surface.

Still, it’s worth striving to make things better. Studying what progress is, how we measure it, how we can incentivize it, and what we can do to minimize the downsides, seems like a worthwhile way of going about it.

We Need a New Science of Progress

Systemic Design Beyond the Screen

Last evening I introduced students in my systems studio class to their final project for the semester. The project has them designing an intervention to help individuals with their financial health. I must call it an “intervention” because I’ve been trying to steer the students away from thinking about the things they’re making as manifesting exclusively through screens.

It’s a challenge. Designing at a systemic level calls for thinking abstractly, and looking at the entire ecosystem one is designing for. However, systemic change happens as a result of concrete interventions: Something must serve as the catalyst for change, and that something must be made tangible somehow. Given how much time we spend interacting with and through screens, it’s natural to immediately gravitate towards solutions that involve software experienced through (especially) mobile app screens.

While software can be incredibly powerful, to think exclusively about the objects of interaction design as screen-based experiences is to limit ourselves unnecessarily. Our bodies and the world they inhabit are incredibly rich; screen-based experiences collapse that richness into relatively small windows that concentrate everything into what you can experience through a small glass rectangle.

We have so many more possibilities to choose from! What if the object of design were a new ritual? Or how about language? (“Create a new way of talking about the domain that opens up new possibilities.”) And of course, service design offers a broad range of possible interventions well beyond what can happen through screens.

Of course, I’m not opposed to screen-based interventions. The problem is that we’re so used to them that students run the risk of 1) immediately gravitating towards cliched solutions, and/or 2) not thinking about the problem as a systemic design challenge, thinking instead that they’re working on an “app” (something they’re more familiar — and therefore, more comfortable with.) I’m hoping that nudging them to think beyond the screens can help them think more systemically and propose more interesting (and fresh) solutions.

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.

The “Right” Way

Interacting with students is one of the privileges of teaching design at the graduate level. These budding designers are open-minded yet seriously focused on their chosen area of practice, a mindset that offers many opportunities for teaching and learning.

Many of the questions students ask are about the “right” way to do particular things. What’s the right way to diagram a system? What’s the right way to design an interaction? What’s the right way to present this? Is this how a conceptual map is supposed to look? Etc. My reply is often disappointing: There isn’t a “right” way to do it; it depends.

This answer seldom satisfies. But what’s the alternative? There aren’t right/wrong answers in design, only incremental approximations to improved conditions, some of which are preferable to others. Ambiguity comes with the territory, especially at the graduate level. (It certainly does when dealing with clients in “real-world” conditions.)

One of my aims is to help students realize that I’m not there to judge what’s wrong or right; they must develop this sense in themselves. What I can offer is a set of tools and practices that allow them to develop a particular skill: thinking-through-making.

Thinking-through-making is how a diverse group of smart people can come together to solve complex systems problems. These aren’t problems you can solve in your head or by talking with others; you must build models that allow you to externalize your understanding. The act of making the model prompts insights that won’t emerge otherwise. Doing so with others allows the entire group to tap into — and build — their pooled cognitive capacities in an incredibly powerful way.

Thinking-through-making is independent of any particular discipline; it’s evident in architecture, graphic design, interaction design, etc. The feedback loop at the center of the design process is a characteristic shared by all design disciplines. The designer facilitates this feedback loop.

Given the increasingly complex and multi-disciplinary challenges we face, it behooves us to think about design independently of our particular areas of practice. We can leverage our individual expertise in service to bringing diversity to the team; of proposing alternative approaches that may otherwise been missed. But at the core is design, a way of solving problems that doesn’t offer on-the-spot “right” answers but evolves incrementally towards better.

How to Understand a Complex Subject

Sometimes you need to understand a complex subject. When first getting into it, you’re faced lots of new concepts and ideas, unfamiliar language, unexpected connections between terms, etc. There’s lots of information to digest. Where do you start? How do you make sense of it all?

Understanding complex subjects is a meta-skill: a skill that helps you become better at acquiring other skills. When you hone your ability to understand, learning new things becomes easier. Improving your sense-making skills is a powerful boost for your effectiveness.

Concept mapping is the best practice I’ve found for making sense of complex subjects. A concept map is a visual representation of the relationships between concepts that affect a particular problem or domain. In contrast to a linear exposition of the subject, a concept map lets you pick the starting point for your investigation and allows you to see details in the context of the big picture. A well-crafted map achieves the goal Richard Saul Wurman laid out for information architects: to help others find their own paths to knowledge.

The best conceptual mapper I know is Hugh Dubberly. The Dubberly Design Office website has an entire section dedicated to showcasing their beautiful and insightful maps. These maps are inspiring — and also a bit intimidating. But concept maps mustn’t be elaborate or polished to be valuable.

A post on the DDO blog shows you how to create your own concept maps. I use this approach with my students and in my professional work; it’s the best way I’ve found to understand complex subjects.