Ahead of the Game

My family and I like board games. A few have become favorites that we play time and time again. However, we especially love learning new games. I’m often the one who reads through the rules to explain them to the rest of the family. When I do, I inevitably think of my work.

Much like an information environment, a board game is a little world. You inhabit that world when you play. You’re asked to make decisions between choices that are only relevant in that context. You do so towards achieving particular objectives and following particular constraints.

When you read the rules, you’re inducted into that world. You learn about the game’s theme and goals, and distinctions that only make sense in that context.

Consider the introduction to the most recent game we learned, called Planet:

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Starting The Big Picture

I’ve designed digital experiences for over twenty-five years. In that time, I’ve worked with many different teams. Some have succeeded, while others haven’t. Often, success comes down to leaders who can articulate the vision and direction for the project to bring clarity and alignment. I call this “The Big Picture.”

The Big Picture doesn’t have to be an actual picture; it could also be a description, with words. (Such as the plaque above.) That said, a clear diagram can move mountains. For example, one such (simple!) diagram helped save Apple from near-death at the end of the 1990s.

Many design and product teams still work without seeing The Big Picture. More often than not, they’re beset by conflicts with other groups, duplicated effort, mis-prioritization, and more. Most of these folks are excellent professionals. But lacking clear direction, they end up working at odds with each other.

That said, The Big Picture doesn’t need to come from the top. Anyone can explain their understanding through drawing. They can then show the picture to others and ask clarifying questions:

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Startups and the Big Picture

The Daily podcast interviewed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and The New York Times published an article with highlights from the conversation. This caught my eye:

Twitter was founded without a plan, Mr. Dorsey said. “It wasn’t something we really invented, it was something we discovered. And we kept pulling the thread on it.”

The unraveling was “electric,” he said, as the small, localized platform he built for friends to share updates on their lives morphed into a global social network. In the process, though, Mr. Dorsey said he now believes that he made a critical mistake: not hiring experts to help him understand the potentially far-reaching importance of apparently small design choices.

“The disciplines that we were lacking in the company in the early days, that I wish we would have understood and hired for,” he said, were “a game theorist to just really understand the ramifications of tiny decisions that we make, such as what happens with retweet versus retweet with comment and what happens when you put a count next to a like button?”

Without this expertise, he said he thought that the company had built incentives into the app that encouraged users and media outlets to write tweets and headlines that appealed to sensationalism instead of accuracy. At the time, he noted, he struggled to envision the app’s potential social implications – and what those design decisions might mean for “how people interrelate with one another, how people converse with one another.”

This is an excellent example of what I mean by “not seeing the big picture.” But it’s unrealistic to expect small startups to think about second- and third-order effects; most are trying to survive. They’re focused on the immediate next step, and then the one after that. The “unraveling” is a stochastic process.

And yet, early decisions are hard to undo later. Structure changes more slowly than look-and-feel. So, teams must consider the structural implications of their work. It’s unrealistic to expect nascent Twitter to have hired a game theorist, but perhaps they could’ve consulted with an information architect? (But then, if they’d caught these problems early on, would they have ever become Twitter?)

On another note, I was encouraged by the mention of how Twitter’s incentive structures foster sensationalism. Alas, there’s no acknowledgment (at least in the highlights article; I haven’t heard the full interview) of the role Twitter’s business model — selling the attention of its users — plays in all this. That seems like the more challenging problem to solve.

Jack Dorsey on Twitter’s Mistakes – The New York Times

Seeing The Big Picture

San Francisco from the hills over the East Bay, where my family and I went hiking for a late-afternoon 4th of July picnic.

The most crucial measure of success for a design project is the degree to which it serves its intended goals.

Projects come about because an organization invests time and resources in changing something in the world; it could be migrating a key system to a new platform or launching a website to sell a new product. More often than not, designers are brought in to “spruce it up.” Alas, they often join the project too late, when major decisions have been made.

It’s a mistake — but understandable. Talking about look-and-feel is easy; talking about fitness-to-purpose is hard.

It’s hard for several reasons:

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