Track (1) A Coexist Bumper Sticker for Dogmatic Designers
Sounds like a pretty great idea, right? I know of two kinds of people: (1) People who put Coexist bumper stickers on their cars and (2) People who tighten up when they see them. And those tight folk can be broken into two groups, too: (1) People who have non-negotiables that make coexistence — as the sticker portrays it, anyway — repugnant, impossible, or just kind of naive, and (2) People who would love to be that free and open but just aren’t at peace enough with themselves and the world yet to do so. But seeing that sticker stirs something within them.
So I’m not about to launch into anything about religion or politics. There are rules, dammit. But you know what? Sometimes the way we act as designers looks pretty darn religious. Especially when it comes to THE WAY things are done. It’s too easy to go from finding A way that works well to evangelizing it as the ONE WAY FOREVER AND EVER AMEN. We’ve all either been handed that tract or handed it out ourselves. Let’s stop that.
The other day, I stood in front of a whiteboard wall with one of our project leads as he took me through his plan to consolidate and streamline a sprawling and chaotic information architecture for a client in higher-ed. He’d mapped out the before and after, showing a clear and profound improvement and shift toward simplicity. He also sketched several options for menu interactions. All of this written by hand, with dry-erase marker, on a wall. When he finished his pitch, I replied, “well, you nailed it. So how are you going to show this to the client?” He wasn’t sure. Normally, his next move would be in code. But to prototype this set of information in our typical way would be a lot of work, and at this stage — where he’s proposing significant changes to the client’s status quo — things are probably a bit too in flux to warrant that outlay of time and effort. It has to be flexible, both for his sake and the client’s. Still thinking about THE tool, the usual next stop, he explained that he’d been considered prototyping several options. Even more work! Sure, that would help the client to not feel bound to anything, but to build several things expecting to knock most (or all) of them down just didn’t make sense. (And just so we’re clear here, prototyping is rapid, but it’s not as rapid as whiteboarding, and for us, every moment counts.) So I said, “What you’ve shown me here is already so simple and clear. This is what the client needs to see, not a prototype. Why not take a picture of the wall and use that to remake your diagram in Keynote?” After all, he already knew that it’d be best for the client to focus on the big-picture information architecture without getting hung up on interactions or page layout details.
He was surprised. And I know why. We get so quickly entrenched in method that we forget that sometimes there are other — better ways — of doing things. Who cares what THE WAY is? What if the thing you’re doing needs a new way? I’ve seen too many people shy away from bold and smart decisions because they’re not the “best practice” or make use of the preferred toolkit. We should be encouraging each other to break patterns, not — even unintentionally — making each other feel stupid for doing things differently. I say that last part because even the most earnest preaching for standards can make someone new to the party afraid to try things or speak their mind. Would a carpenter care what kind of hammer another carpenter used as long as it also drives nails? Probably not.
Track (2) Less Safe Sci-fi
While I’m ranting about entrenchment, let me say something about science fiction. Specifically, science fiction in Hollywood. The other day I read an article lamenting that Hollywood scifi had essentially been reduced down to either hyper-tech dystopia or post-collapse dystopia. Basically the Matrix or Zion. Mad Max or Minority Report. I’m not so sure that’s the core problem. I mean, it’s there, but I think the real problem is that these visions are all so safe. Even just purely on a technological level. Back in the 30s, when HG Wells’s Things to Come was released, the technology of the film’s future was indicative of a radical fast-forward. They had communications technology that, today, looks eerily prescient. They had new cities, new human patterns. Wells, of course, had a gift for aggressive and accurate futurism. Looking back, it doesn’t seem impressive that he dreamed up smart watches or small, desktop computers, because we have them now. But it is impressive! The design of these objects is fully formed and practically grounded, yet the underlying technology that makes this stuff useful today was pretty far off back then. How Wells thought they would work I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure he didn’t have Wifi and LTE in mind. The point is, today, we have such a denser, tighter grain of working technological knowledge — all of us do — which, I think, has stymied our imagination just a bit. It doesn’t really matter how far in the future we project, our shorthand for that is just a shinier screen. But we have those screens now. Thanks to Star Trek, we’ve been expecting cellphones since the 60s and tablets since the 90s. Thanks to Dick Tracy, we’ve been expecting smartwatches since the 30s!
Remember our favorite Clarkeism? That any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic? That means that if we can reverse engineer the tech we’re putting in the movies — which we mostly can — then we’re not going far enough. Mary Poppins’s carpet bag is better futurism than the bridge of the Enterprise. Why? Because what if it’s not magic? It’s ok if we don’t know exactly how it works. That’s the point. Handwavyness creates expectation for progress and that’s the responsibility of science fiction. It’s fiction that assumes science underneath its trappings, but doesn’t get caught up in explaining it all. Because it’s not a textbook. Did Asimov get bogged down explaining — in detail — the mechanics of his robots? How their materials worked, or their power supply. No. Did Clarke spend any time explaining the propulsion of his spaceships. No. Did Star Trek ever allude to an internet connecting those communicators, tricorders, and tablets? No. But without all of them, we wouldn’t have had eager geeks driven to fill in the gaps. So what’s next? Plenty of authors have gone there, but Hollywood is too scared to take their stuff to the screen. But I want to see our world completely reimagined. Not enough films do this anymore. It’s probably the one tiny nod I’d give Interstellar — that they gave us a spinning ship in a wormhole bubble. Sure, Kip Thorne theorizes such things, but does anyone know how it works exactly? Hardly. Is most of Interstellar’ technology handwavy. Yup. Is the story terrible? Is the scrip embarrassing? Yes, those things too. But, man, if they hadn’t been? That could have been the kind of film I’m talking about.
Back to Clarke’s point, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic… Or biology, maybe. Prometheus kind of hinted at that, but, like Interstellar squandered it on a terrible script that quickly lost sight of what made the whole concept interesting. Where are the living technologies? The diseases that make things? The spores that eat trash (come on a kid invented that for a science fair… what happened to him?). Or maybe any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from mind? What if the universe is actually powered by consciousness? Where are the remote viewers? The thought-powered travel? The psychic-creation? The interdimensional looting? It’s all been written, but somehow the screen doesn’t want it unless it looks like…more screen. Why don’t they turn that China Mieville novel into a movie? Because nobody wants to figure out how to visualize it, spend huge money doing that, and then risk nobody getting it later. Will they make that Vernor Vinge book into a movie? Probably not, but they’ll probably take the screeniest bit of it (they already have) and stuff it into some other, safe YA novel adaptation. Amirite?
Track (3) Progress, At What Cost?
Speaking of progress, here’s something close to home. The sign says, “OWN DOWNTOWN,” and everyone I know hates it. It stands right next to the big, open area where the Durham Farmer’s Market happens downtown every Wednesday and Saturday, and across the street from an even bigger slope of dirt and gravel where the Liberty Warehouse used to be. For years, this old tobacco warehouse had occupied a square block of downtown Durham, though it sat vacant. You could walk past it and smell the tobacco in the summer — a scent probably emanating from the walls and floors that had soaked it up for the 45 years of activity before it shut down in the mid-eighties. So yeah, it didn’t smell great. And, honestly, it was ugly. It was empty, rotting, and falling in on itself. But two of its brick facades stood firm, with painted signage that’s only become appreciated again in recent years. We love that stuff now. But we knew this building’s days were numbered. Lots of people have a problem with it. They don’t like what’s going to be put in Liberty Warehouse’s place. And I get that. It’s not really of the Durham sensibility. Personally, I don’t love it either. But I can’t honestly say that I’d rather this square block of space remain abandoned, history or not. Things change. Buildings come and go. That’s how civilization works. It doesn’t mean that preservation isn’t a worthy cause. Of course it is, but not everything can be preserved, can it? The sentiment of the sign is unfortunate, that’s for sure, but many of us who aren’t thrilled by the condos to come have to admit that we’re not really interested in preserving Durham. Most of the people who object to losing the Liberty Warehouse are only here because of a turnover in what Durham is. A formerly thriving place laid to waste once tobacco moved on. Then, years of decay and struggle. Then, some revitalization thanks to all sorts of cultural forces, and, of course, good-old gentrification. That last bit the source of many of the loudest voices in opposition to the new Liberty Warehouse, the irony lost on them, I guess. This is what progress looks like. It has to be defined — in some way — and each time it is, someone is going to think it should be done some other way. There’s no perfect consensus. There’s always some compromise, brokered by the shared preference for moving forward, somehow, rather than sitting still.
Track (4) What works for a bottle shop should work for Amazon.
A quick thought. If I go to Amazon.com and log in, their entire ecosystem is catered to me. Based upon every purchase I’ve made in the past, Amazon creates a unique store, filled with the things I want, and the things they think I’ll probably want someday. They’re remarkably good at that. But they never email me about any of that stuff. I have to go there to see it. With the data they have, they — in theory — should be able to send me the best “hey, you might want to buy this” emails I could imagine. But they don’t. I started asking around of people I know who work in marketing automation why Amazon would be doing automated email programs more aggressively. Nobody had a theory, and most people said something like, “yeah, that is weird that they don’t.” Amazon’s marketing automation system is based upon the guts of Responsys, which was bought by Oracle, which then freed up the founders to go and start a new marketing automation company called Act-On. Act-On is all about the email side of marketing automation, so I know that sort of thing is and has been on Amazon’s radar for a long time. Well, it turns out I can turn on some email marketing about three levels down in my account settings. They’re turned off by default. But out of the 46 types — forty-six! — of marketing e-mail Amazon could send me, none is explicitly of the “Deals on Items in Your Wishlist” variety. Or the “That Thing You Want is Cheaper Now.” Etc. A buddy of mine owns a bottle shop in town. He’s got this smart little program running called the Varsity Club. For $40, I get my own locker at the store. When they get an interesting beer in, they email me about it and give me the chance to buy that beer online. If I buy it, it’s waiting in my locker for me. Usually, these beers are in limited quantity, so one way or another, they’re going to get sold. But the thing is, my buddy tells me that these emails have a 20% success rate. Meaning, 20% of the Varsity Club buys something every time they send an email out. That’s pretty great. Sure, those special beers will sell if he puts them out on the floor, but the point is, all of us Varsity folk won’t buy from some other store once we’ve bought from him, and he’s giving us a way to do that without having to go anywhere. The other benefit is that he’s learning the taste of the club, and intentionally choosing beers that he knows we’ll like. So this is basically the manual, one-guy version of what Amazon could do. If you have a “duh, Chris, this is why” explanation for why they’re not, please reply and let me know.
Heavy Rotation: Well, not exactly heavy rotation in the on-repeat sense, but perhaps heavy in the parlance of Marty McFly. I’ve been listening to a BBC Radio 4 series on Codes that Changed the World and it’s great. Java, Basic, Cobol, Fortran. They’re covering them in these lovely little 15-minute vignettes. Check them out!
Recent Tabs: “Consider how you would solve your immediate problem without adding anything new.” - that, and other good, boring, technology advice. Why follower count doesn’t matter. Someone transcribed the music written on the rear end of a figure Hieronymus Bosch painted in the Hell panel of his triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights. They’re calling it, appropriately, the Butt Song from Hell. This is the first YouTube video, uploaded just over ten years ago. How to print a wall-sized world map (which is harder than you’d think). NYTimes.cat. I want to believe. Speaking of which, make of this what you will.