The map in your head

I’ve written four articles now about content ecosystem mapping. I’ve coached clients through producing them, I’ve led workshops on them, and I’ve given many talks about them (and their big brother, concept models).

A point I stress over and over, but is hard to make stick, is that the activity of making the map is more important than the map itself. This article brought it to mind again for me recently:

In Inuit tradition, the act of making a map was frequently much more important than the finished map itself. The real map always exists in one’s head.

Being able to make a map means that you understand something well enough to map it. Much like writing, mapmaking reveals where you don’t understand things quite as well as you thought you did. I encourage organizations to map their content ecosystems because, very often, there are many different maps in many different heads.

Mapmaking is effortful, and requires a different set of skills than organizing information into lists and spreadsheets. So I run into many people who are dismissive, even rudely so, saying things like “I just don’t get how you would use this thing.”

“How to use the thing” is something I cover in detail, and is also something that the mapmaker needs to decide for themselves. But it’s also just kind of the wrong question. The point of a content audit is to understand your content better, not to make a giant spreadsheet. The point of content ecosystem mapping (and organizational modeling in general) is to better understand your current state, and to better align on the truth of that shared reality with others.

The Inuits of Greenland primarily used their maps as storytelling devices:

[They] used carvings in a certain way—to accompany stories and illustrate important information about people, places, and things. A wooden relief map would have functioned as a storytelling device, like a drawing in the sand or snow, that could be discarded after the story was told.

I love that so much. Imagine carving a whole damned map just to tell a story and then saying, “well anyway, enough about that” and throwing it on the fire. You can always make another; after all, the real map is in your head.

Scout rush

Screenshot of Ape Out gameplay.

I find that I have less interest in (and time for) video games as I get older, which is too bad in a way as they are a great source of inspiration for design patterns and UX writing.

Lately, I’ve been playing lots of Ape Out on Nintendo Switch. You control a great ape escaping from simple mazes while trying not to get shot. The only controls are move, grab, and shove. It’s hard, but in a fun way. It reminds me of playing the Scout role in Team Fortress 2. You’re fragile, but powerful, and the only way to survive is to just go for it. To ape out, if you will. (I see what they did there.)

Everyone is talking about the procedurally-generated music score, which is very cool, but I think my favorite thing is just the overall minimal approach to the design. For instance:

  • It keeps track of your time, and how many times you die (you’ll die a lot), but those numbers aren’t persistently visible on the interface while you’re playing.
  • Level names are are integrated into the scene itself.
  • New enemies and obstacles are introduced organically — no tutorials.
  • There’s nothing to configure or mess with. It’s the first console game I’ve played in a while where I didn’t feel like I had to go into the settings and change something.

In a way it reminds me of a well-designed presentation. There’s just one bold simple thing to focus on at any given time, with occasional moments to rest and reflect with a bit more detail and data on the screen. The simple (and creative) color palettes contribute to this feeling as well.

My design takeaways: you don’t have to show everything you know, and sometimes it’s more satisfying to let a user try something and fail on their way toward learning it rather than trying to explain it to them first.

Unambiguously mine

My book is in print now. Available in print, anyway. Print on demand. I have a printed copy. (I don’t want to get “you wrote a text”-ed about my book and its relationship to paper. But I digress.)

I did not know this was going to happen when I agreed to write for the Briefs series, so it’s been a delightful surprise. I’m glad it happened relatively soon after the original release of Writing for Designers, too.

I’ve been sharing my thoughts on writing and content and design with the broader UX world for almost a decade now. Long enough to see ideas from my talks and tweets and blog posts get … upcycled, let’s call it … into other people’s talks, tweets, even books. Not maliciously, often not even consciously, I imagine. But it happens. So it’s been nice to be able to look at a thing I’ve made and say: “Yes. This is unambiguously mine. I made it and it exists and it happened and here is the proof.”

A lot of things I’ve done are kind of…squishy. Spaces. Events. Programs. Campaigns. Concepts. All things I’ve enjoyed, but not things I can stick directly on a shelf. I’d collect trinkets; a DMMC lighter, a Gross Domestic Product poster, a Market Day button, “Speaker” badges from umpteen conferences. But trinkets get dusty, and untidy, and they aren’t the thing, just a reminder of it. My dad always talked about how satisfying it was to look back after a day of laying brick and be able to see your labor. (He also liked to take circuitous routes through Omaha so Mom and I could see his labor, too.)

So this is what I’m brainstorming now. How can I render and represent my labors? I’m getting more photos printed, for starters. Even hung a couple up in my apartment. Vain? Sure. Inspiring? Also yes.

I’m incredibly grateful to everyone that’s ordered a paper copy of the book, especially those who already bought the ebook back in October. If you’re one of them, please consider sharing a photo of it on your desk, bookshelf…hell, even on top of your toilet tank. It’s very motivating, and I can always use a bit more of that.

Interview: The Write Stuff

Corey Gwin is building a writing app called Blurt. To promote the app, he’s been writing about writing. To promote my book, I’ve been tweeting about writing. I tweeted out one of the things he wrote, which made him notice me, and then he asked me to do a video interview for a series he’s doing to promote his app, which I was happy to do to promote my book. Ah, the virtuous cycle of online self-promotion 🙂 

I did it at the office, as my kitchen at home has all the visual personality of a corporate break room. The headset I’d planned to use was not working well, so I was glad I had my trusty Apple earbuds handy. Probably one of the better products they’ve ever made, dollar-to-value wise.

The system is a lie

I’ve always been enamored with product ecosystems. It’s rare that I’ll buy anything without researching what kind of accessories I can get with it. Does it have an official case, pouch, or sleeve? Can you change the tip, the handle, the grip? What can I upgrade? What can I combine it with?

LEGO was both spark and fuel for this interest in my life. Heck, it used to say “system” right there on the boxes! In a time when so many toys required costly batteries that barely lasted a day, or were part of some computer or video game console with exacting hardware specifications, there were always two things you could trust about LEGO:

  • Whatever came in the box was complete unto itself — no add-ons required.
  • Anything that said LEGO would work with anything else that said LEGO.

Sadly, LEGO were the exception, not the rule. Nearly every other consumer brand seems to quickly abandon their systems. They stop making the filters. They stop making the refills. The new bags don’t fit the old vacuums. The old bags don’t fit the new vacuums. And where am I supposed to plug in these headphones I just bought?

Thrift stores — which I have spent a LOT of time in, for what it’s worth — are full of consumer product system garbage. Shrink-wrapped square pegs abandoned forever because now all the holes are round. Printers that will never print again, vacuums that will never vacuum again. Refill pages for planners no one makes anymore, planners you can’t refill because they don’t make the paper anymore. This isn’t limited to electronics, though that’s often the most visible — huge bins full of cables and connectors and docks that came to this country on big ships just a few years ago and will go back on big ships a few years from now to be melted and scrapped, or just dumped in the nearest landfill.

Planned obsolescence is part of it, though I suspect Apple’s billions in cash has little to do with how many lightning cables they’ve sold. Rather, I have two notions on what contributes to this phenomenon — one sinister, one benign (though depressing).

“Refillable” stainless steel Sharpies they no longer make refills for.

Notion one: the vultures in marketing know that the idea of a product system (reusable, refillable, recyclable!) appeals to tree huggers like me, and they deploy this idea without any intention of supporting the “system” beyond the initial launch. They know they can trick people into paying a premium price for the core product, especially if it’s typically a disposable commodity (like my markers, above), if they market it as part of a system.

Notion two: the product team earnestly intended for their system to be a success, but lack the political power within their organization to sustain it. Someone new decides it’s not making enough money, or that they want people to buy some new thing instead.

Whatever the case, the frustrating outcome is that so many things that get marketed as renewable and “green” actually end up being the opposite — more materials are consumed in making the core item, and all of the various add-ons and accessories become insta-garbage as soon as the system collapses.

Lorem Ipsum is fine (but you might be using it wrong)

I used this video of a deflating Pikachu as a placeholder while building out the landing page for my book, as I had not yet uploaded the video I’d recorded. (I might switch it back, this video is way better.)

Writerly sorts are frustrated when content takes a backseat to the visuals in a design. And for good reason: Most sites and apps may well as not exist without the words. I fear, though, that in an effort to champion “content first” design processes, many are sending the wrong message about the role Lorem Ipsum and other placeholders can play in a designer’s personal workflow.

Consider these headlines:

  • Death to Lorem Ipsum
  • Lorem Ipsum is killing your designs
  • Why designers should never use fake text
  • Lorem Ipsum is a crime

It’s easy, but wrong, to decry a given design tool as universilly good or bad. Tools can be useful in one context and harmful in another. While the broad sentiment of these and similar articles is good, an important nuance is being lost.

I would put it this way: A designer should never pretend that fake text – squiggles, boxes, Lorem Ipsum, Hipster Ipsum, or otherwise – is real text. A designer should never pretend that fake data is real data. And a design team should never engage in the shared delusion that designs with fake text are done and ready for review. The reason, as I shared in Writing for Designers, is this:

Everything left unwritten is a mystery box of incomplete design.

Which is to say: if you haven’t done the writing the design isn’t done. If you didn’t use real, user-generated data in your design, you didn’t really test your design. But placeholders aren’t the problem – lying to ourselves is the problem.

How I use Lorem Ipsum

Form is the shape of content. – Ben Shahn

Form and content both contribute meaning. The shape of a thing is critical to understanding the thing. Invoices tend to look like invoices, sign-in screens tend to look like sign-in screens, newsletters tend to look like newsletters. Square green stop signs aren’t especially effective, and texting someone “I Love You” isn’t the same as writing it in the sky.

Using fake text like Lorem Ipsum helps me get a feeling for the impression the form of my content will give to my reader. It’s the pencil sketch before I lay down ink, the hummed melody before I write the score.

Importantly, I have to have a rough idea of what I’m going to say for this to work. That’s where the “death to Lorem Ipsum” people get hung up. Placeholders are not the place to start, true, but they’re a perfectly reasonable intermediary step as you iterate through the words and visuals in your design work.

I also use Lorem Ipsum in tandem with protocopy. Protocopy is lo-fidelity writing — quick dashes of text to capture your intent without worrying about making it perfect (or even good). You might find something like this in my comps:

explain when user will get first bill after subscribing and monthly rate ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Etiam consectetur mollis urna sed lobortis!

Or I might rough out the text of a wireframe with Lorem Ipsum and put quotes and bullets and inputs alongside it that I know I want to reference to do that particular bit of writing, using the placeholders as a to-do list of sorts for any given comp.

Lorem Ipsum is also helpful when I’m exploring constraints. If an area has a 500-character limit, for instance, I can drop in 500 characters of Lorem Ipsum to see what’s possible. Is that a paragraph? Two short paragraphs? Can I make a bulleted list work in 500 characters? And so on.

No approvals on placeholders!

If you do use Lorem Ipsum, caution is warranted. A good rule of thumb for a team would be that no design no design is done until you’ve done the writing. No words = no approvals. Having a rule like that in place gives individual designers and writers more flexibility in how they approach their work on the way toward done — including, if they like, using Lorem Ipsum.

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.