Designing the Engagement – About our Workshop for IA Summit

I’m happy to announce I’m collaborating with my Macquarium colleague, Patrick Quattlebaum, and Happy Cog Philadelphia’s inimitable Kevin Hoffman on presenting an all-day pre-conference workshop for this year’s Information Architecture Summit, in Denver, CO. See more about it (and register to attend!) on the IA Summit site.

One of the things I’ve been fascinated with lately is how important it is to have an explicit understanding of the organizational and personal context not only of your users but of your own corporate environment, whether it’s your client’s or your own as an internal employee. When engaging over a project, having an understanding of motivations, power structures, systemic incentives and the rest of the mechanisms that make an organization run is immeasurably helpful to knowing how to go about planning and executing that engagement.

It turns out, we have excellent tools at our disposal for understanding the client: UX design methods like contextual inquiry, interviews, collaborative analysis interpretation, personas/scenarios, and the like; all these methods are just as useful for getting the context of the engagement as they are for getting the context of the user base.

Additionally, there are general rules of thumb that tend to be true in most organizations, such as how process starts out as a tool, but calcifies into unnecessary constraint, or how middle management tends to work in a reactive mode, afraid to clarify or question the often-vague direction of their superiors. Not to mention tips on how to introduce UX practice into traditional company hierarchies and workflows.

It’s also fascinating to me how understanding individuals is so interdependent with understanding the organization itself, and vice-versa. The ongoing explosion of new knowledge in social psychology and neuroscience  is giving us a lot of insight into what really motivates people, how and why they make their decisions, and the rest. These are among the topics Patrick & I will be covering during our portion of the workshop.

As the glue between the individual, the organization and the work, there are meetings. So half the workshop, led by Kevin Hoffman, will focus specifically on designing the meeting experience.  It’s in meetings, after all, where the all parties have to come to terms with their context in the organizational dynamics — so Kevin’s techniques for increasing not just the efficiency of meetings but the human & interpersonal growth that can happen in them, will be invaluable. Kevin’s been honing this material for a while now, to rave reviews, and it will be a treat.

I’m really looking forward to the workshop; partly because, as in the past, I’m sure to learn as much or more from the attendees as they learn from the workshop presenters.

Sitting at the Strategy Table

Catching up on the AP blog, I saw Kate Rutter’s excellent post: Build your very own seat at the strategy table, complete with a papercraft “table” with helpful reminders! It’s about designers gaining a place at the “strategy table” — where the people who run things tend to dwell.

I had written something about this a while back, about Strategy & Innovation being “Strange Bedfellows.” But Kate’s post brought up something I hadn’t really focused on yet.

So I commented there, and now I’m repeating here: practitioners’ best work is at the level of practice.

They make things, and they make things better, based on the concrete experience of the things themselves. The strategy table, however, has traditionally been populated by those who are pretty far removed from the street-level effects of their decisions, working from the level of ideology. (Not that it’s a bad thing — most ideology is the result of learned wisdom over time, it just gets too calcified and/or used in the wrong context at times.) This is one reason why so many strategists love data rather than first-hand experience: they can (too often) see the data however they need to, based on whatever ideological glasses they’re wearing.

When designers leave the context of hands-on, concrete problem solving and try to mix it up with the abstraction/ideology crowd, they’re no longer in their element. So they have to *bring* their element along with them.

Take that concrete, messy, human design problem, and drop it on the table with a *thud* — just be ready to have some “data” and business speak ready to translate for the audience. And then dive in and get to work on the thing itself, right in front of them. That’s bringing “design thinking” into the strategy room — because “design thinking” is “design doing.”

Innovation: tinkering, failing & imagining

I like this column by Nicholas Taleb. I haven’t read his book (The Black Swan) but now I think I might.

I’m more and more convinced that this ineffable activity called “innovation” is merely the story we user after the fact, to help ourselves feel like we understand what happened to bring that innovation about. But, much like the faces we think we see in the chaos of clouds, these explanations are merely comfortable fictions that allow us to feel we’re in control of the outcome. When, in fact, success so often comes from trying and failing, even playing, until the law of averages and random inspiration collide to create something new. The trick is making sure the conditions are ideal for people to fail over and over, until imagination stumbles upon insight.

You Can’t Predict Who Will Change The World – Forbes.com

It is high time to recognize that we humans are far better at doing than understanding, and better at tinkering than inventing. But we don’t know it. We truly live under the illusion of order, believing that planning and forecasting are possible. We are scared of the random, yet we live from its fruits. We are so scared of the random that we create disciplines that try to make sense of the past–but we ultimately fail to understand it, just as we fail to see the future. … We need more tinkering: uninhibited, aggressive, proud tinkering. We need to make our own luck. We can be scared and worried about the future, or we can look at it as a collection of happy surprises that lie outside the path of our imagination.

He rails against the wrong-headed approach factory-style standardization for learning and doing. He doesn’t name them outright, but I suspect No Child Left Behind and Six Sigma are targets.

Caveat: the column does tend to oversimplify a few things, such as describing whole cultures as non-inventive instruction-following drones, but that may just be part of the polemic. There’s more good stuff than ill, though.

Dibbell on the game-reality shift

Julian Dibbell has a marvelous post about how game realities are symptoms — sort of concentrated, more-obvious outcroppings — of a general shift in economic and cultural reality itself. The game’s the thing …

Online Games, Virtual Economies … Distinction between Play and Production

And I’m arguing, finally, that that relationship is one of convergence; that in the strange new world of immateriality toward which the engines of production have long been driving us, we can now at last make out the contours of a more familiar realm of the insubstantial—the realm of games and make-believe. In short, I’m saying that Marx had it almost right: Solidity is not melting into air. Production is melting into play.

Joi Ito on Content vs. Conversation

Joi Ito, back in March, posted from the Game Developers Conference, where he is going to be doing a talk on the topic of “More than MMOs: Let Them Build It. How user-created content has transformed online games into a new web platform.” (Wish I could hear that talk! It’s one of my favorite things-to-obsess-upon, as evidenced in my article for ASIST Bulletin last year.)

Joi arrives at the conference assuming it’ll be attended by people like him — old-school hacker types who cut their teeth on early game code and the community of coding — and finds it’s mostly old-school entertainment-business types who simply don’t get it.

… while there are certain companies and individuals who are bridging the gap between the gaming industry and the Internet, the gaming industry is making the same mistakes that the content guys have been making since the beginning of networked computers. They ALWAYS over-estimate the importance of the content and vastly underestimate the desire of users/people to communicate with each other and share. … The professional content is important and will never go away, but it is becoming more of a platform or substrate on which the users build their own communities, interaction and play.

I wonder if it has something to do with the illusion of control, that as a producer of content one has the power to direct others’ attention, to provide meaning? It’s very hard to make the shift (or leap) from the image of oneself as central to peripheral. It makes the re-framing that everyone’s experiencing around “Web 2.0” feel downright Copernican.

Excellent Web 2.0 hype deflation talk

Via Jay Fienberg, via the IAI discussion list, I hear of this excellent post by professor David Silver about a talk Silver did recently on the Web 2.0 meme.

Silver starts out lauding the amazing, communal experience of blogs and mashups of blogs and RSS feeds and other Web 2.0 goodness, and then gets into giving some needed perspective:

then i stepped back and got critical. first, i identified web 2.0 as a marketing meme, one intended to increase hype of and investment in the web (and web consultants) and hinted at its largely consumer rather than communal directions and applications. second, i warned against the presentism implied in web 2.0. today’s web may indeed be more participatory but it is also an outgrowth of past developments like firefly, amazon’s user book reviews, craigslist, and ebay – not to mention older user generated content applications like usenet, listservs, and MUDs. third, i argued against the medium-centricness of the term web 2.0. user generated content can and does exist in other media, of course, including newspapers’ letters to the editor section, talk radio, and viewers voting on reality tv shows. and i ended with my all-time favorite example of user generated content, the suggestion box, which uses slips of paper, pencils, and a box.

I think this is very true, and good stuff to hear. (Even in the peculiar lower-case typing…fun!) Group participation has been growing steadily on the Internet in one form or another for years.

I do think, though, that some tipping point hit in the last few years. Tools for personal expression, simple syndication, a cultural shift in what people expect to be able to do online, and the rise of broadband and mobile web access — the sum has become somehow much greater than its parts.

Still, I think he’s right that the buzzword “Web 2.0” is mainly an excellent vehicle for hype that gets people thinking they need consultants and new books. (Tim O’Reilly is a nice guy, I’m sure, but he’s also a business man and publisher who knows how to get conversations started.)

Silver mentions Feevy, a sort of ‘live blogroll’ tool for blogs — it has an excerpt of the latest post by each person on your blogroll. Neato tool. I may have to try it out!

The Rise of Letting Go

I recently did a presentation at the very excellent DigitalNow conference, in Orlando. It’s a conference for leaders of professional associations, who have a vested interest in virtual community building and keeping their constituents engaged, even in the splintered information-saturated “Web 2.0” world.

I combined a couple of previous years’ IASummit presentations and added a few new things to try and create an interesting picture that tries to re-frame the situation in several ways, hopefully adding some clarity and helping spark some new ideas for them.

Here’s a pdf of the deck: The Rise of Letting Go: How the Net Generation can teach us to lose control and like it. (Warning: it’s about a 20MB file!)