Software, hardware, purpose, and agency–first thoughts from Solid

Rodney Brooks gave the first presentation at Solid Conference, talking about the integration of software and hardware in robotics. For decades, industrial robots were programmatically simple, performing the same action over and over again–not all that distinct from the machines that preceded them.

Brooks, though, is interested in how software allows hardware to change it’s behavior, to become more effective, and, in a way, smarter. He showed the robot Baxter, demonstrating how it picks up items to pack them. On Baxter’s second pass, Brooks takes the object from Baxter midway in his movement. An older robot would continue to go through the packing motion. Baxter, however, realizes that the object is missing, and halts it’s motion to instead go get the next object.

Brooks commented how many of his customers find this disturbing–they expect the machine to behave like a machine. However, Baxter is now exerting something like agency.

This is challenging for people because we assume that anything reacting with agency is alive. Machines are things we use for a purpose, typically a singular purpose. However, if software allows that machine to appear smart, to behave in unpredictable but savvy ways, people no longer perceive it as just a machine. Even if it doesn’t look like a person or animal, we still treat them as alive (think about how people typically name their Roombas.)

The challenge for design is to appropriately set expectations. I wrote an earlier post about the role of purpose in product design–people use an app to fulfill a purpose, and if that app changes (usually to add purposes) people often reject that change. As we start designing for wearables (smart watches, glasses, clothes, etc) and robots, we have to recognize that people bring a preconception of purpose stability–I use a watch to track time; I wear glasses to improve eyesight. Making these things smart crosses a cognitive chasm, where the person no longer perceives it as an object, but now a living thing.

Why I’m Grateful to Massimo Vignelli

News spread over the past day that legendary graphic designer Massimo Vignelli is terminally ill at his home in New York City. There will be a lot said about his contributions to design, notably the New York City Subway Graphic Language, American Airlines’ long standing logo, even stackable dinnerware.

I first came to appreciate Vignelli through my own little discovery. Roadtripping with my wife (then girlfriend) across the American Southwest, we visited many National Parks. And for every park, we got a beautiful brochure. And I was struck these thoughtfully designed objects, as we don’t tend to think of the Feds and good design. So much so that I blogged about it and through my research found out that Vignelli developed the “Unigrid” system that kept all these different brochures feeling like they’re part of the same family, though with enough flexibility so that each was quite distinct.

We should cherish good design when we find it, and laud those who help bring it into being. So, thank you, Signor Vignelli.

 

Product strategy and design through the lens of purpose

Foursquare’s announcement that it’s “splitting” it’s app into two, one focused on local discovery, the other on social connections, resonates with thoughts I’ve been having on the role purpose plays in product design.
I first grappled with purpose almost ten years ago, when I interrogated the concept of document genres. Examples of document genres are textbooks, maps, guidebook, press release, menu, manual. People have a purpose in mind when consulting a map, reading a textbook, browsing a menu, referring to a manual, and these genres have evolved a set of physical traits (maps are big and fold up), information layout traits (textbooks have detailed tables of contents), and content traits in response to purpose.

Physical products have also evolved in similar ways. They have a job to perform, and their shape and ‘interface’ have evolved to serve that purpose. Just look in a toolbox or a kitchen drawer and that becomes evident.
Digital forms present a challenge, because these documents now reside within the same physical form. It requires writers and designers to be more explicit about the purpose to be served, because a keyboard and screen don’t provide the cues that physical documents do. And it’s those cues that our brain uses to predict utility — we’ve learned how to use maps, books, manuals through exposure, and we use new documents of the same genre, we can rely on our past experience. Digital documents require explicit visual cues and interfaces.
When I first explored this space, mobile was not a serious context. Most phones were feature phones, and ‘smart phones’ were Treos and Blackberrys.

In a post-IPhone world, where our devices are literally tabula rasas that are meant to wholly become the app that is launched, I find once again that purpose can be a helpful lens.

And that’s where Foursquare’s decision is interesting. I suspect that when people engage with an app, it is for a purpose. Emphasis on ‘a’. So folks would open Foursquare with that one purpose in mind, even though the app could deliver on two–local discovery and social connection. And given what we know about how people habituate to content genres and physical objects, they likely habituate to apps in a similar way–whatever was the purpose that was first served is the purpose people stick with. And as Foursquare developed an awesome local discovery capability, people who originally came in for the social aspect, or to learn about a place only after they checked in, didn’t realize that Foursquare could introduce them to new places. (We saw this at Groupon. Most folks continue to use the service in a lightweight browse and serendipity mode, though there are search and filtering capabilities that reward folks with something specific in mind.)

Foursquare’s bet to remake the app called ‘Foursquare’ into a direct competitor to Yelp, and to move the capabilities of ‘classic Foursquare’ to a new secondary app is a reflection of how a product design needs to be very clear about the purpose (SINGULAR) it serves.

And a potential takeaway is to recognize there are ‘app genres’ that are emerging to address users’ purposes. Local discovery would be a genre. Social connection would be a genre. News aggregator would be a genre. And if your trying to serve multiple purposes (Facebook Paper is both your social connection AND a news aggregator!) you introduce confusion, because people’s expectations, rooted in their genre experiences, are being confounded.

Questioning assumptions in a world with no pants

I just finished Scott Berkun’s The Year Without Pants, combination memoir and situational analysis of his year-plus working at Automattic, the company behind WordPress. It triggered a series of thoughts that I plan to write. This is the first.

Groupon, where I recently worked, has been labelled the fastest-growing company in history. In less than four years, it had 12,000 employees in 48 countries world wide. To manage that hyperinflation, the company adopted an hierarchical bureaucratic organizational model. For many, if not most, companies, such a model is seen as the default, as just how companies work.

However, corporate bureaucratic hierarchies were developed with specific purposes in mind, mostly around the development of railroads and mass manufacture. As such, they are products of 19th century Industrial Age contexts.

From my vantage point, the most important thing Matt Mullenweg and his team have done is question assumptions about not only how we work, but how we organize to do that work. And that begins with the recognition that the 21st century Connected Age is a much different context.

Automattic was born out of an open source project (WordPress) that had contributors worldwide. This lead to the company being a wholly remote/distributed organization. Most people work from home, and people work from all over the world.

However, remote work isn’t interesting in and of itself. You could be sitting in your pajamas, working from home, but still operate in a bureaucratic hierarchy with explicit guidelines about how to do your work.

At Automattic, remote work is the outcome of something even more revolutionary, which is the remarkable degree of autonomy granted team members. They choose not only where, but when and how they work. They figure out what they should work on. They set their own timelines.

Now, it’s not wholly emergent — Matt is still In Charge, and has authority to make certain things happen. But he seems to operate more as a benevolent dictator than a hard-charging CEO. And as the company grew, so did the realization they needed some organizational structure, so employees were grouped into a series of teams, each with a team leader.

It’s important to recognize, though, that even this structure emerged. It was not a top-down mandate, but a group realization. Most organizations don’t think hard their structure — they default to what has become a conventional assumption. What’s so liberating about Automattic is that, at every step of it’s evolution, it has been thoughtfully intentional about how the organization operates, recognizing that the company warrants the same type of design that their products do.

What’s also liberating is that such autonomy demonstrates a remarkable degree of trust in employees to do the right thing. Because, as I’ve recently learned, companies wield bureaucracy expressly because they do not trust their employees. Bureaucracy is seen as a safeguard to ensure nothing bad happens. But too often it simply leads to nothing happening at all.

(As I was drafting this, Scott made freely available Chapter 4, “Culture Always Wins”, which I believe to be the single most important chapter in the book. So go read it!)

Information architecture reborn

The IA Summit has just finished. What I’m about to write might be ironic given my previous post. But what I’m walking away feeling is that information architecture is reborn.

7 years ago, I wrote how IA was not dead, but sleeping. There was a period in the field’s history that felt stagnant and disappointing. And I think it’s related to that last post, because IA allowed itself to fall under the “user experience” umbrella, and the Summit started to feel like any UX conference warmed over.

But starting last year, and coming on strong this year, there has been a new energy, born of an exchange of ideas that really only can be called “information architecture”. In particular, Track B this year was what I’ve been looking for from this event – deep, penetrating, talks that didn’t talk down to the audience, that interrogated the role, the practice, the meaning, and the relevance of information architecture. What the community is recognizing is there’s no need to make excuses, and in fact, the practice of information architecture is increasingly crucial and essential in addressing challenges we face as people, community, and society.

I look forward to seeing you in Minneapolis next year.

User experience has stunted information architecture

I came up through UX practice as an information architect and interaction designer. I was an avid reader of Peter and Lou’s “Web Architect” column, spoke at the first IA Summit, and was an early proponent of facets and tags in the broader UX community.

The UX community was essential for casting light on the importance of information architecture. It made clear how the organization, structure, relationships, and semantics around and in our information are key to delivering a successful user experience. There was a period, around 1999-2005 or so, where information architecture was a vibrant, dynamic, evolving field.

But there are only so many talks to give on facets, tags, and the like. And, over time, it feels like IA has been swallowed by UX (and seen in strange competition with interaction design).

IA had become less and less of my practice as Adaptive Path shifted towards strategic design consulting. And so I didn’t think about it too much.

Then I went in house. In particular, I joined Groupon. A month or so into the job, I became part of discussions to change evolve our site navigation. This excited me — I would get to flex some of those old analytical muscles that had atrophied over time.

As I dug into it, though, I felt a little like I was peeling an onion. Every layer presented new layers beneath. And I quickly left the realm of site navigation, and found myself engaging in conversations that went deep to the core of Groupon’s operations. Because, it turned out, our taxonomy influences everything we do — the deals we strive to get, the operations of our sales force, the presentation of our offers across devices and channels, heck, it even determines where some people sit.

And I realized this was bigger than I could tackle at the time, because I had (and still have) a design department to run.

And it also made me realize that IA had been stunted by its relationship with user experience. Because information architecture, when approached with the depth and rigor that is warranted, is a deeply seated operational and organizational function. The UX component of information architecture, how information is represented to end users, is important, but truly a tip of the iceberg. (And not just Peter Morville’s iceberg.) But in order to IA to have the impact it could (and should), IA needs to free itself from being seen under the umbrella of UX, and instead pursued as a distinct, and difficult, practice that’s not just about taxonomies and semantics, but the organizational, operational, and technological change to realize that.

Programming Conferences

This morning on Twitter, a conversation flared up around IA Summit 2014, because they received over 400 submissions for 50 spots, which means many many people, even those whose sessions were reviewed highly, were rejected. (I was rejected as well, but I half-assed my proposal.)

FOR STARTERS, let me say nothing but praise and thanks to Aaron Irizarry, Johanna Kollmann, and Abby Covert, the IA Summit chairs. They are friends and colleagues, and I know they are working tirelessly to do the best for the IA and UX communities.

OK, back to the conversation at hand. Jared Spool raised his concerns that with so many submissions for so few spots, there’s a lot of “wasted effort.” I share that concern (though I recognize my lackadaisical effort was not wasted), because a lot of people, and thus good people, likely feel burned by the work they put into a submission, and would be less inclined to submit in later years. So while this year’s summit benefits from being able to draw from such contribution, how will later summits fare?

Professional associations have it kind of tough. When I was at Adaptive Path, I programmed MX and UX Week events, all based on what I wanted to see (and suggestions from colleagues). Professional associations have a responsibility to their membership, and tend towards the “call for papers/proposals” process. The benefit of this is that you can get interesting new voices and ideas, and you give the membership a voice it might not otherwise have. The drawback is that your beholden to submissions, and it can make it hard to craft a compelling event.

Which events are better, invited/curated or submitted? They both can work, though, given that I’ve curated, I lean towards that style. I like it when there’s an editorial point of view that connects the presentations.

However, I’ve had transformative experiences at the IA Summit, and as a conference organizer, always sought out rising stars there. There’s a randomness/unexpectedness that often delivers crap, but can yield amazing stuff.

The IA Summit faces a challenge in terms of not discouraging great submissions because potential contributors feel the effort isn’t worth the likely rejection. One solution is to raise the bar on what it takes to submit, to weed out those (like me, this time around) who are half-assing it, and cluttering things up. Another might be to more aggressively ‘track’ submissions into categories, to make sure there’s a good spread of topics (and make clear to folks that we don’t need yet another submission on agile/lean UX).

Separately, I heard complaints about panels. There are always complaints about panels. Done wrong, panels are a lazy way to fill a conference slot. And many panels suck, because it’s simply 4-5 short presentations. However, I still have vivid memories of one of the IA Summit’s best sessions, a panel in 2003 on “Wayfinding and Navigation in digital spaces” which was legitimately mind-expanding. So, don’t count panels out. Just structure them so they’re stimulating.

Best Book I Read Last Year: COOL GRAY CITY OF LOVE

I don’t read nearly as many books as I used to. I chalk that up to parenthood, laziness (Google Reader Feedly is just so easy to browse through), and an Instapaper account overflowing with longreads.

Still, I try, and I was truly impressed with one book: Gary Kamiya’s Cool Gray City of Love , an idiosyncratic history of San Francisco.

coolcitycrop.jpg

The author has done his research, and this could have been presented as a straightforward telling of facts and stories. Instead, he always finds a personal connection which provides a distinct lens through which to understand the city. Gary clearly loves San Francisco, warts and all, and his passion for the city is infectious.

As an easily distracted internet-addicted type, I also appreciate the book’s 49 chapters (either for the ’49ers’, or the 49 square miles of our 7×7 grid), some of which are as short as a couple pages, which allows for easy dipping into.

I don’t buy many books (I prefer the library), but this is one I gladly own.

Movies worth watching on Netflix streaming

There have been some articles recently whinging about how Netflix doesn’t have the movies you want to watch. While this is true, it’s clear that, because of rights issues and costs, we’re a LONG way from Spotify from movies, so it also means that the point is moot. Also, there are plenty  of movies worth watching on Netflix streaming, many of which I’m guessing you haven’t seen. Some suggestions to add to your queue (All pointers to InstantWatcher, a great service for browsing Netflix):

Spool’s “Design is the Rendering of Intent” and the Double Diamond

Jared Spool’s most recent post, “Design is the Rendering of Intent” reframes the activity and outcome of design in a way that makes it more organizational, and less “the thing that designers do.”

Towards the end, Jared writes:

With this definition of design, the process shifts its focus to two distinct activities: Having the team arrive at the same intentions and ensuring we render our intention the way we desire.

These “two distinct activities” are pretty much exactly the two diamonds in the Double Diamond diagram I wrote about a while back (and which I’m re-embedding here:)

What Jared and I both are stressing is the importance of intentionality in that first activity. Too often that activity is simply assumed by a team, who then move to the rendering (execution) phase. However, if we have come upon a shared product definition (or, in Jared’s words, arrived at the same intentions), we’re setting up our rendering for failure.