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.

The key, overarching insight from CREATIVITY, INC.

Creativity, Inc

Creativity, Inc., by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace, is an important work, not just as a business book, but as a piece of non-fiction. In it, Catmull shares his hard-won lessons on management from 40 years of work, the last 30 as President at Pixar.

Just given Pixar’s unparalleled success, Catmull would be worth listening to. However, he goes beyond expectations and shares his story with remarkable candor, humanity, wisdom, and humility.

In a book riddled with insights, the single most important is the overarching realization that any creative organization is a constantly evolving complex dynamic system. The book’s subtitle could have been Corralling Dynamism To Deliver Greatness.

This insight has a number of implications:

  • practices that aim for certainty will curb creativity, and are fruitless anyway, because dynamism
  • instead, embrace that dynamism, as it leads to unexpected awesomeness that couldn’t be predicted
  • as dynamism is messy, develop practices that encourage discovery and recovery
  • create feedback loops throughout the organization, so that this dynamism is continually tacking towards positive outcomes
  • these feedback loops require candid communication throughout the entire organization, which means everyone needs to be comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns, without fear of retribution
  • like tending a productive garden, management and leadership’s work is never done, and just because something worked in the past doesn’t mean it will continue to do so

These implications scare the crap out of most senior leadership, who are under the notion of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” and who require certainty in the desire to be predictable. Catmull addresses this in one of my favorite passages:

“You can’t manage what you can’t measure” is a maxim that is taught and believed by many in both the business and education sectors. But in fact, the phrase is ridiculous—something said by people who are unaware of how much is hidden.

This is but a sliver of what the book offers. To do it justice, I’d pretty much have to rewrite the whole damn thing, so just go read it already.

There is one thing that the book punts on that I find crucial in any creative enterprise, and I’d love to ask Catmull why he didn’t address it directly. And that’s the matter of taste, of judgment, of knowing when something is great. Catmull takes it as a given that all ideas start crappy, but through iteration, interrogation, research, and refinement, they become great. But he doesn’t share when his team (particularly the Braintrust) knows when to be satisfied that something is great enough and requires no further improvement.

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.

 

The Seduction of the Superficial in Digital Product Design

Digital product design discourse over the last few years has become literally superficial. Much (most?) of the attention has been on issues like ‘flat’ vs ‘skeuomorphic,’ the color scheme of iOS7, parallax scrolling, or underlining links. And not that these things aren’t important or worth discussing, but as someone who came up in design by way of usability and information architecture, I’ve been disappointed how the community has willfully neglected the deeper concerns of systems and structure in favor of the surface. I mean, how many pixels need to be spilled on iOS 7.1’s redesigned shift key?

I was talking with Jesse about this over lunch a bit back, specifically how his 5 planes are more important now than ever.

simpleplanes

 

There was a golden moment, in late 90s and early 2000s, where the deeper matters of strategy, scope, and structure seemed to get more play, with multiple books on information architecture, and online journals like Boxes and Arrows leading the design discussion.

Jesse, ever the wiser one, coached me to watch for my “Get off my lawn!” mindset, and through our discussion I realized something.

When digital design discourse emerged in the late 90s, our ability to interestingly design for “surface” was heavily compromised. We designed for 640 x 480 displays. Maybe 800 x 600. We worried about the Netscape Color Cube. We had laughable control over typography and layout.

Graphic designers often got frustrated with the Web, and did what they could to control the presentation, overly relying on images, and exploiting hacks with tables and invisible .GIFs. And schmucks like me, who had no real graphic design skill, would smugly tell them to “embrace the medium” and focus on the interesting hard problems of information architecture and interaction design.

We now live in a world where I have an 1136×640 display with 16 million colors in my pocket. And processor speeds that allow for startlingly smooth animations. The Surface now warrants critical examination and exploration. But the Surface isn’t merely superficial. The decades of insightful dialogue on matters of graphic and motion design can now be applied to digital products. The increased sophistication of the digital canvas has lead to limitless possibilities on the Surface, and a capable digital interface designer must understand not only color, composition, typography, and layout, but now must also be facile with motion and animation. That’s enough to keep anyone busy for their career.

It’s understandable that non-designers talking about design (as increasingly happens) focus on the superficial–it’s the easiest to discuss. However, we in the digital design community must not get so caught up in the seductive Surface that we neglect those lower layers. There are a number of reasons:

  • It is a disservice to younger designers, particularly the self-taught, as it encourages emphasis on style over substance
  • It plays into the still-prevailing attitude among business and technical types that designers don’t grok the deeper concerns in these complicated systems, and are best to bring in when it’s time to make something look good
  • As the services we design cross more devices and have more online and offline touch points, managing those deeper layers is increasingly important for success

I’ve realized I’m grateful for the passionate conversation around Surface–it means that people care and are engaged. Still, we must be vigilant in maintaining similar attention to those deeper layers, precisely because their abstraction makes them more challenging to discuss.

On the shortcomings of “Minimum Viable Product”

Christina Wodtke recently wrote “Getting the V Right”, addressing a common failing of Lean Startup practice — successfully establishing viability in your Minimum Viable Product (MVP). I commented there, but felt it worth expanding here.

The MVP Incantation

My frustration with MVP comes from its reckless use in product management. When launching a feature, I’d hear about “We just need to get our MVP out.” But never was there any attempt at determining viability. What product managers actually meant was, “next release,” but used “MVP” to suggest savvy and greater likelhood to succeed. Christina attempts to address this by coaching people on how to appropriately articulate viability, even resorting to the grade-school-essay canard of the dictionary definition. The problem is, most folks who are misusing MVP are already a lost cause — they’re cargo cultists hoping an incantation gets results, and no amount of guidance will change that core behavior.

Viability is unpredictable

MVP rests on an assumption that you can pre-assess something’s viability with reasonable confidence. However, viability can only be understood in retrospect — you can try to predict it, but really you won’t know until it’s out there. I suspect this is why so many people punt on defining it, in favor of “just get something out and see how people react.” But then this just turns into a resource-wasting exercise in throwing spaghetti, hoping that something sticks.

“MVP” doesn’t galvanize and inspire

However, even if we believe that MVP is an appropriate tool, the confusion in its use suggests a different issue — that while it’s proven catchy enough to spread, it’s nebulousness and abstractness limit its utility. Nebulousness leads to too much variance in how it can be interpreted, and abstractness means it doesn’t galvanize a product team. No one gets excited about launching an MVP. It lacks punch. I much prefer models such as Brandon Schauer’s Cake Model of Product Strategy or Spotify’s vehicular one:

These models communicate what’s most important — that at every stage, even the very first, you must deliver something that feels complete, and delivers useful functionality and/or delight. I’ve personally seen teams shift from MVP to “cupcake,” and, in doing so, shift focus on delivering some bare minimum to something that they can get enthused about.

Maybe we’ve been using the wrong kind of viable?

I teased about the dictionary definition, but there’s actually something in there that’s valuable that I’ve never heard discussed in the context of MVP:

(of a seed or spore) Able to germinate.

We’ve been so focused on economic viability, that we overlooked the origin of the word “viable”, rooted in the word “life.” The common thinking for MVP is “what is the least I can do to deliver a product that doesn’t fail”, but wouldn’t it be more interesting, and inspirational, if we thought, “what can I deliver that could take on a life of its own?”

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!)

The Challenge of Hiring Senior Design Leadership

Over the past few years, I’ve talked to a number of companies about design roles at director and executive levels. And maybe because such leadership is relatively new, I find most of them have been quite naive about such roles. Here’s how I put it in an email to a company I was engaging with (this was to lead a design team of about 25-30 folks):

Bringing on this kind of senior design role is hard, because there are a host of things to balance. You want someone who is:

  • a brilliant design visionary
  • a solid design practitioner (can role up sleeves and execute)
  • a strategic thinker (can help set direction for product/brand)
  • an inspiring leader (can keep the team engaged and hopeful)
  • a detail-oriented critic (can suggest ways to improve the team’s work)
  • a considerate manager (mindful of the professional needs of the team members)
  • a teacher of design methods and practices, and when to use them
  • a diplomat (can collaborate and communicate with product, engineering, brand marketing)
  • dogged recruiter with a nose for talent
  • an operator (working the organization and unblocking paths to success)

That’s a lot to ask for!

Of course, companies don’t want to have to choose — they want it all! But the reality is, even if someone can do all of these things, they aren’t going to, at least not with any regularity. There’s simply not enough time.

So, what most companies incline to hire in a senior design role is a Creative Director — someone who can deliver on vision, practice, and critique. Basically, a senior-er version of a great designer.

However, if what you want is someone to lead a design team, then such an approach would be a classic Peter Principle move. Because while it’s crucial that this person come from a design practice background (in order to understand the ins and outs of design work), the qualities that matter most — leader, manager, recruiter, and operator — are those that have nothing to do with design execution. Those other qualities, while definitely nice to have, are gravy, and will not be the core of this person’s role.

Something that seems to work well is to split ultimate design leadership across two roles, one more creative, the other more operational. Engineering orgs will have a CTO (super senior systems architect type) and VP of Engineering (responsible for engineering teams and their operation). Newspapers have an Editor-in-Chief and a Managing Editor. Design orgs could, and when they reach a certain size (greater than 30 or so), definitely should, have a VP of Design (the team leader I’ve described) and a Creative Director (or Chief Design Officer).

I’d love to hear of other leadership models for design that you’ve seen work well.

I’m about to be self-unemployed

I have given notice, and my last day at Groupon is April 18.

For the past year and a half, I’ve been leading the Design Union (what we call the global design team). When people ask me what I’m most proud of, it’s not the obvious things (like a sitewide redesign that immediately performed better than its predecessor, and was actually aesthetically pleasing), or our continued success with a leading commerce mobile app.

It’s that I took a group of 30 team members, who were a bit bedraggled and often underappreciated, and was able to grow it (to 60) and evolve it so that design is seen as an essential partner and collaborator throughout the company. And probably the most important thing I did was bring on a cadre of amazing design leaders, folks who have proven themselves through thick and thin in terms of delivering high quality design, coaching their teams to deliver beyond expectations, and do so with charm, grace, and good humor. Yes, I’m happy with the great stuff we’ve shipped; but I’m even happier to have shaped an organization that will continue to deliver great things, regardless of my presence. (And I’m bummed I won’t be working with these folks any more.)

As the title of this post suggests, I don’t know what’s next. And that’s a little scary — I haven’t not known what my next job is since before I joined Epinions in 1999. I’m sure it will be fine, and I’m looking forward to some opportunity for reflection and writing, for connection with people I haven’t seen or talked to in too long, and ultimately, for figuring out what’s next and best for me. (Oh, and maybe spiffing up this blog a bit.) If you have any ideas, don’t hesitate to reach out!

 

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.