Creating shared understanding is part of your job as a designer

Making sense of things is effortful, which is why so few teams slow down to do it. So people are always asking me:

How do I sell this sensemaking technique/approach/tool to leadership?

The question takes a lot of forms. How do I get permission to interview stakeholders about the goals for their content? How do I prove the ROI of creating a map of all the sites and channels we maintain? What are the specific benefits of documenting the vision for our product?

To those questions and more, here’s the real answer that I want to give, but don’t, because it would make me sound like a snarky asshole:

You have to become the kind of designer who wouldn’t ask that question. (Or else you need to work somewhere you wouldn’t have to ask that question.)

If an activity will increase understanding — either your own, or that of the people you’re working with — you don’t need to sell it, you just need to do it.

If a process is so rigid that every sensemaking activity, every mark you make with a marker, every minute in front of a whiteboard, must be accounted for in a burndown chart, something has gone seriously wrong.

In most organizational cultures, no one has to ask permission to pull you into a one-hour meeting or bend your ear over the cubicle wall if they are stuck or confused or “just want to touch base” or “make sure we’ll all in sync”. Conversation alone can be a sensemaking activity, yes, but it’s a grossly inefficient one. Yet as soon as something more formal/visual (and therefore more efficient) starts taking place, many practitioners feel like they need to get a permission slip.

This can stem from leadership failings within an organization, but I also find that it’s often an artificial restriction practitioners place on themselves. The most successful designers (and writers, and developers, and product owners) that I know are focused on sensemaking from the get-go, and are constantly seeking greater clarity and alignment with the people they’re working with in ways formal and informal alike.

Consider asking forgiveness rather than permission the next time you’re feeling stuck on a project and want to try something new. Plan workshops. Draw pictures. Make maps. Write things down. Schedule interviews. Ask questions. Start making sense.

Seven things you can do

Today feels worse than election day. Same fight, yes, but new, bigger losses.

I originally wrote the following list for my newsletter project the week after Trump won. I’m reposting it here now to update a few links that have expired and because it still holds up. I’d also recommend checking out Crush the Midterms.

Be good to each other out there.

1) Move your money

If your money is sitting in a corporate bank, the oligarchs are using it to make even more money. Don’t let them. Put your money into locally owned credit unions and/or banks. Bonus points if they’re operated by people of color.

Changing banks is annoying. Sure, fine. You want to do something or not? It’s not all that hard, it’s terribly practical, it has a real impact, and isn’t any work at all once you’ve done it.

2) Go to your library

This is two-fold: 1. You can read and learn there. Always good. Keep reading and learning. 2. Libraries are often a refuge of sorts for disadvantaged populations. See and be seen. Hell, just go on a walk in your neighborhood. Smile and wave. Be partof this world, right now, with the people around you. Facebook is not the world.

3) Encrypt your shit

This article nicely sums up both how and why you should encrypt everything you can. If you only do one thing it recommends at least turn on two-factor auth for your email, k? Work accounts, too.

Why now? The bullies aren’t going to settle for drawing swastikas in bathroom stalls anymore. They want to draw them all over your life. They are going to try to crack your accounts and fuck up your shit as a method of intimidation, and for the lulz. Many women and people of color are already living in this hell. It’s going to get worse for them and spread to everyone who speaks out online against facism and injustice.

Locking your car isn’t paranoid, it’s practical. Same for encryption. Encrypt your shit now.

4) Donate your money

As much as you can. Lots of good groups who need it.

5) Inspect your wiring

What do you believe? What do you value? How do those beliefs and values differ from others in your group, your neighborhood, your city, your country?

The better you understand yourself, the better equipped you’ll be to understand others. I found the conversation on this recent episode of the You Are Not So Smart podcast worthy of reflection. I’ve also been trying some of the surveys they discuss at YourMorals.org.

6) Prepare to care for your neighbors

Boy Scouts don’t prepare out of fear, but wisdom.

Keep the pantry a little more stocked. Fill that space empty space in your freezer with water. Get that first aid kit and fire extinguisher you’ve been meaning to get ever since you moved. Start learning a practical skill like sewing or basic carpentry. Fix up your bike. Learn where your gas shut-off is. Be a person who carries a pocket-knife. Keep your phone charged while you’re at work.

Be frugal, and stock more necessities. It’s easier to be generous in times of need when your own survival is not at risk.

The future is uncertain, but you can still prepare.

7) Buy yourself some art

Buy art. Actual art, made by humans. It’s good for the soul, and they’re going to need the money. The next four years might inspire some great punk and painting and comedy, but anger don’t pay the bills.

Going on field trips

I will go on just about any damn tour of anywhere. I tweeted to that effect recently, and my friend Jared remarked:

@jaredtm on Twitter responds: “How did I never realize that people could just go on middle School field trips as adults for no reason”
@jaredtm on Twitter responds: “How did I never realize that people could just go on middle School field trips as adults for no reason”

Field trips. Hell yes. I hadn’t been thinking about them that way but I’m using that from now on. And Jared is right: you can go on field trips as an adult for no reason. Or for simple, pure, middle school reasons, like curiosity or joy. Field trip day was the best, wasn’t it? The zoo. The post office. Hell, one day my daycare took a “field trip” to a pizza place. (We got to tour the kitchen – it counts!)

A good tour is like a book with walking. Except you can ask the book questions! I’m always the one who asks questions.

I’m mostly writing about this to crystallize it for myself. I know I enjoy tours and I should sign up for more of them.

Seeing how I started this blog fairly recently, I thought I’d share some cool field trips I’ve been on in the last few years:

St. Anthony Falls Laboratory

This is not the high-tech wind tunnel. This is a leaf blower.
This is not the high-tech wind tunnel. This is a leaf blower.

The tour I tweeted about. UMN maintains a fluids laboratory on the river, with everything from a natural wetlands area that studies river wildlife to a high-tech wind tunnel on the inside.

Taliesin West

Took a day trip up to Phoenix with my parents to visit the winter home and studio of Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s an absolutely beautiful facility. We had to be quiet in one of the rooms because architecture students were working. Highly recommended. I want to go back and spend more time there.

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Office

flw-fireplace-11.png

Less cool than Taliesin, but lovely nonetheless. I went by myself during a work trip. I daydreamed about buying it, closing it to the public, and making his studio my studio. Most impressive feature to me was a piano that had been installed in the play room such that the body extended over a back stairwell.

Titan II Missile Silo

From my journal on December 28, 2016:

Only guided tours are available, and we took one. The entire facility was smaller than I had imagined. When operational, it housed a 4-man crew on 24-hour shifts who sat guard over a 9-megaton hydrogen bomb deployed via intercontinental-ballistic missile. I very much enjoyed the tour. It was interesting to hear about all of the systems of verification and identification and target selection and such that were used. The crew took orders for Target 1, Target 2, or Target 3. Three buttons. They didn’t get to know what the targets were. Interesting that there are so many safeties on actually launching the missile, but seemingly only a single press required to select targets. If it were me I’d worry about forgetting to switch from 1 to 3 or 3 to 1 or what have you. It really does launch as soon as both keys are turned, just like in the movies.

Dive Bars of North Minneapolis Bike Tour

No pictures from this one. Bill Lindeke, a local urban historian of sorts, organizes themed tours on the regulary. This one had us biking around North Minneapolis visiting various notable dive bars, or places where they used to be, including one of the last 3.2 (pronounced “three two”) bars around, the T-Shoppe. They only sell “near beer” with a max of 3.2abv, but make up for it by serving them in enormous frosty mugs. I’ve been to most of the dives on his write-up for City Pages.

Soap Factory Islands Tour

I liked this view of the Gold Medal Flour sign looking down a quiet residential street on Nicollet Island.
I liked this view of the Gold Medal Flour sign looking down a quiet residential street on Nicollet Island.

The Soap Factory is an art building/collective thing that I don’t totally grok but they put on cool programming from time-to-time. I went on an “islands” themed art walking tour that explored literal geographic islands like Nicollet Island, and less traditional islands like a lovely little community garden that exists in an island of land between two roads intersecting at an angle.

Thinking with paper

When I’m trying to figure out what I think, to unravel something new, I use paper.

Email makes you think like email. Pick some people and tell them something. But maybe I don’t need to tell anyone anything. Maybe I need to make a to-do list, or write up a list of questions and add them to a meeting agenda.

Word makes you think like Word. Make a document, 8.5 x 11. It probably needs a title, a heading, paragraphs laid out one after the other. Fine, maybe. But what if drawing a picture would do me better?

Neither let you start in the middle of the page. Or work upside down. Or backwards. They don’t easily accommodate doodles, sketches, a scratchpad for the thinking that’s not fully baked yet.

I’m using paper as a metaphor here. It could be a whiteboard. A sandy beach and a stick. The iOS app Drafts is like paper, in a way: it lets you capture words before you have to decide what they’re for or where they’re going. It’s where I started this post.

Sometimes I’m intentional about how I use the paper, other times it’s just a scribbly mess. But it’s always a good place to start when I don’t know what I think. Hooray for paper.

Links of late | 2018-06-01

  • New version of Ulysses is out. Lucky 13. Nothing I’ll make immediate use of but I see the appeal of the colored keywords, especially for a larger project like a book.
  • A recent episode of 99% Invisible about Curb Cuts jumped right into their top ten for me. Design, usability, political activism, shitting on Jerry Lewis. All the good stuff. (Excellent article at that link, too, if you’re not much of a podcast listener.)
  • NE Minneapolis flags for sale. I didn’t buy one because I don’t know where I’d display it, but I did buy something related. More later.
  • I’ve been admiring Apple’s approach to editorial curation in the App Store for a while now, but I hadn’t fully noticed how much custom illustration work they’re using until I came across this article.
  • Walking or biking to wherever probably takes less time than you think. “About 90 percent of their estimates were too long by at least 10 minutes.”
  • Put some more diverse faces into your next set of wireframes or design personas.

stopit, Golden Principles, and the Golden Bridge

One my favorite talks I give is about making Dale Carnegie’s 9 Golden Principles for Being a Friendlier Person an accessible idea for UX designers. The first principle is often one of the hardest to adhere to, both IRL and on the web:

Never criticize, condemn, or complain.

When a user does something we perceive to be “wrong” — either in the moral sense, or in the sense of how we want them to use our software — our first instinct is often to tell them, directly, that they are wrong. You clicked the wrong button. You typed your password wrong. That’s not enough digits for a phone number. You sent horrible racist memes to a female journalist. And while it might feel good in the moment to tell someone they are wrong, especially when we are experiencing moral outrage, it’s often not very helpful. Nobody likes to be criticized, even if it’s well-deserved.

You can be right or you can be effective, but you can rarely be both. Being “right” implies that someone else is “wrong”, which creates an adversarial relationship, which tends to discourage people from doing what you want them to do.

I’m thinking about all this again because of some great nuggets I found about the stopit policies developed at MIT in the early days of managing their online community. There‘s good stuff in the original UseNet post from 1994, and this 2012 paper about building successful online communities.

The stopit mechanisms, as they came to be known, were based on a simple proposition: Most offenders, given the opportunity to stop uncivil behavior without having to admit guilt, will do so. The stopit mechanisms thus were designed to do two things: to discover computer misbehavior rapidly, and to communicate effectively with its perpetrators.

In one of the best examples, users who posted harassing material were shown that material and asked to check if their account had been compromised and if they were aware it was being used in this way. In many cases, users who definitely posted the bad stuff themselves went in and changed their passwords anyway, and stopped their bad behavior. Amazing.

When we let them save face by pretending (if only to themselves) that they did not do what they did, they tend to become more responsible citizens with their pride intact. We lose the satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished, but we reduce misbehavior and gain educational effectiveness.

In my observations of social media culture, that “satisfaction of seeing perpetrators punished” gets a lot of people up in the morning and drives a tremendous amount of activity. Lots of folks being “right”, but not necessarily effective. Community policing of bad actors can only go so far.

It’s an idea you can trace back further than ol’ Dale Carnegie, even. As Sun Tzu encouraged: Build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.