0.0 Context Setting
It has been Hot In Portland: a couple days ago the temperature peeked over 90f/32c, and much hotter inside our non-air-conditioned house, yesterday it was slightly cooler at just around 80f/26c.
This week has been spent on a couple things: getting Volume 1 of this newsletter, covering excerpts from the first 50 episodes, complete. There’s not that much more left to do for a complete first draft: one and a half introductions to excerpts left to write, introductions for each of the 5 chapters, and lastly the volume introduction. Then it’s off to take that full draft and talk to some editors, figure out cover art and all the other business involved in getting an ebook out there.
The ebook stuff is particularly fraught: I know there are some people who’d buy a collected version, but the point is to figure out and make it useful to people who don’t know about this newsletter. I’ve had enough feedback that what I’ve written about it useful/helpful/actually actionable, so questions like “what are the introductions to excerpts like” and “how should the topics be arranged” are piling up. Should it just be a chronological collection of excerpts? Should I have started at the beginning, with material from 2014? Does it make more sense to organize by topic and if not, why not? And then: how to then make the book useful, if part of the whole shtick of the newsletter is “messily cross-disciplinary”? But: I’ll have a draft.
Meanwhile I had a catchup with Emily and Cyd on our progress designing and teaching the Digital Fundamentals for Public Impact course at Beeck this summer.
Working on the design of the course has brought a lot of things together for me. I’m convinced there’s a need for what you might call procurement support for digital in government, which is just another exploration of summing up issues like “updating a social service program”, “buying some software” or “doing permitting”. Suffice it to say there’s a venn diagram on my desk with many circles and many intersections.
Oh, and it was Memorial Day Weekend this past weekend, which actually meant taking most of Tuesday off and messing about on a lake with my family. Which was great!
1.0 Some things that caught my attention
Short ones, a medium one, and then a longer one.
Short ones first:
1.1.1 Vintage technology as 3D engines
Remembering Source and the beautiful tension of an engine caught between eras by Natalie Clayton at PC Gamer was a beautiful read.
Caught my attention because: just another example of technical limitations->aesthetics and nostalgia. I mean, I don’t expect “Source Engine Aesthetic” to be a thing in the way that “8 Bit Aesthetic” is a thing or “Filters As If Photographed On Film”, but even still. Just a thing and behavior to note.
1.1.2 Rockets and war
Ithacus is a 1960s concept for an American SSTO VTOVL orbital launch vehicle, which is basically a way to have marines or whatever deployed by rockets to land anywhere on the planet within a short amount of time, nowadays most familiar to people of a certain age as something like orbital dropship shock troopers.
Caught my attention because: the U.S. military is talking to SpaceX about using Starship for logistics, WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW MORE?
The empty office: what we lose when we work from home had this about humming:
To cultivate “rough consensus”, IETF members devised a distinctive ritual: humming. When they needed to make a crucial decision, the group asked everyone to hum to indicate “yay” or “nay” – and proceeded on the basis of which was loudest. The engineers considered this less divisive than voting.
Caught my attention because: I am a sucker for anthropology and combined with humming at IETF groups, ding ding ding.
Simon Carless has a great breakdown of Sony’s PlayStation Strategy.
Caught my attention because: the framing of Sony as not Nintendo (a traditional Japanese public company, slow growth, don’t spend into deficit to make up with massive growth later, focus on first party games) and not Microsoft (billions and billions of dollars to throw at games and get it right the third/fourth/fifth time, and then tie into the rest of the sprawling software business, aim for stupendous growth), and as somewhere in the middle and how Sony might survive. All the usual attention-getting through videogames, strategy, digital distribution, hardware, services.
Oh, another quick games thing: Ikea Art Directing the Real World is a session at GDC this year, which is technically for people working in 3D production and art direction, but look at what the session description is:
IKEA Presents ‘Art Directing the Real World’, the end-to-end journey of one of our 3D room sets from conception to final image. We will share a look at our 3D processes today and a glimpse of how IKEA intends to use 3D communication in the future.
Caught my attention because: I MEAN COME ON: not-digital business, digital assets, pipeline/production workflow, creative direction, and it’s IKEA MARKETING speaking at a games conference.
Next, the medium one:
Via Nicolas Nova: Numérasse, “a French neologism that describes the annoying and massive amount of digital forms (online or pdf) that one has to fill for bureaucratic reasons”.
Caught my attention because: Look, this isn’t just a government thing. It’s an everything-thing. I think I’ve written before about what the administrative burden of existing is like in 2021, and numérasse strikes me as a great way to just have something to point at: the sheer mass of bureaucracy, of repetition, of bloody-mindedness, of why-isn’t-this-easier of providing information when at the same time, we’re more aware than ever before that there’s a bunch of our information out there already. (Of course, part of the reason why this breaks down is that you’ve got to be very specific about what information you mean). One example is the experience of getting healthcare in the U.S., where every single time I see a doctor there’s pretty much a chance I have to fill out an intake form again. And I get why this is, or at least I can intuit/guess at a policy reason why: it’s because of a need for confirmation, even if the confirmation is that nothing has changed. But god, this stuff is just so tedious.
And now, the long one:
1.3 Strategy UX
Jesse James Garrett wrote in Fast Company about, well, I’ll paraphrase, just imagine me waving my arms about: what UX is these days and why that’s disappointing.
Garrett’s overarching point, I think, is broadly this: UX has turned into a box-ticking exercise and it’s something that exists as part of a Process to be incorporated into Agile or DevOps (see: DesignOps).
UX was supposed to be freeing. It wasn’t quite human-centered design, and it wasn’t quite user-centered design, either. Here’s what Garrett said:
Instead of challenging teams to stretch their thinking to address deeper and subtler user needs, product design practices have become increasingly less insight-driven. UX processes in many organizations these days amount to little more than UX theater, creating the appearance of due diligence and a patina of legitimacy that’s just enough to look like a robust design process to uninformed business leaders and hopeful UX recruits alike.
Caught my attention because: Jesse calls the original vision of UX foundational UX, which is a good enough label to describe, well, more fundamental problems and opportunities. It strikes a chord because much of what it feels like I’m seeing in productized-assembly-line UX (which to be clear, is good at what it’s supposed to be doing), feels like it’s missing a big picture. Jesse talks about “a broad contextual understanding of the problem” going “beyond the line-item requirements of the individual components”, as well as losing “many of the more holistic and exploratory practices”.
This gets at what I think is one of the points people are grappling toward, which is that design (another general term that needs specifying when in conversation, otherwise it’s too easy to keep going around in circles) is embedded in
a) a business or other organization, which itself is embedded in;
b) our current economic environment and all of its systems, incentives, disincentives and costs;
c) which includes costs;
d) solving what Garrett calls line-level problems means that the opportunity to really get… strategic might not exist because UX is now a series of things that you practice once a foundational direction has been set.
I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad as Garrett is worried it might be, although I do very much sympathize with his concerns. From my point of view, it certainly looks like the vast majority of UX is that line-level work, but it’s really key to point out that there’s a difference between production UX and foundational UX, or if I want to throw my own hat into the ring, strategic UX.
Because I do think Garrett is also describing UX as a (incredibly important) part overall strategy, which is different from the production stuff. Your overall strategy is big! It’s goes right to the heart of the underlying goal, objective, mission, need, whatever. My assumption is that early 2000s UX had the advantage of being a new term that didn’t have any baggage, so could excitedly be brought in at the highest levels. A new way of looking at problems and coming up with new, holistic, integrated ways of addressing those problems. But that UX inherently feeds into the company’s strategy, which sets direction.
In my most recent work (okay, the last few years of government work), the equivalent to foundational UX here is a bit like the opportunity we talk about in terms of policy and technology. There’s production UX, which is like, I don’t know, “the procedure for verifying your identity for a particular benefit is a shitshow both qualitatively and quantifiably” and “the experience of perennial favorite renewing your drivers license is still inconsistent”.
But foundational UX or strategic UX (on second thought: perhaps ugh) needs leadership and ownership at the exec level, which means a fundamental posture change at the exec leadership level, and not seeing the entire exercise as, well, an exercise. Strategic UX (I’ll keep using the term until it feels less icky) is how I might describe the goal of “see this government program we’ve got? How should it work better? What problem is it trying to solve? How might we solve for that outcome, or improve effectiveness, or solve more fundamental problems that aren’t even addressed by legislation?”
Easy example: there isn’t really direct legislation, I think, that says something like “hey, if you’re signing up for a social service benefit, turns out you’re probably also qualifying for some others, so how about we take that into account?” I mean, there probably is in an indirect way, like how funding works for systems that interoperate? But for the actual outcome, which is to reduce the effort and sheer bureaucracy of supplying minor variations on the same information multiple times in different ways, I do think foundational-or-strategic UX is a way to describe what needs to happen. And that does and has happened in government thanks to deep acceptance of user research that looks at wider circumstances. Actually taking the time with the highest sponsorship to put together the task flow or the user journey, a real end-to-end user journey, which might be terrifyingly large, process maps and so on and then really internalizing them and deciding: hey, do we want to (somewhat disparagingly) fiddle around the edges here, or is this an opportunity to do something, well, fundamental or foundational?
Adaptive Path (Jesse’s alma mater) had a pretty famous-amongst-certain-circles concept called Charmr (and there’s YouTube video), that came out in 2007 as a (sorry) reimagining of what compassionate, human diabetes care might look like. This was in 2007 when diabetes care and meters were significantly more shit than they were now, when the entrenched incumbents weren’t under any pressure, when the FDA therefore didn’t really have anything to compare against or policy didn’t really have something to push towards or incentivize. And Charmr was great and immediately hit some criticism from other quarters along the lines of “well, medical devices are super complicated and regulated and you’re just Bay Area people coming up with a demo”, but look at where we are now!
I think what Garrett might also be getting at here is that foundational/strategic UX is perhaps a one-shot occurrence? It happens at the inception of a startup or the (rare) introduction of a new product or service at an incumbent, but then invariably doesn’t happen again? And then production-UX comes in and–I think here’s the point again–will rapidly iterate you into a local maxima because there’s no way to pull out and look again to see if there are other, taller, mountains to scale.
Garrett also says that foundational UX work doesn’t scale and oh-my-gosh, yes, I do agree: “it can’t [scale] because by definition it deals with unknown, slippery, hard-to-define problems that characterize the leading edge of an organically evolving business.”
Look, here’s what’s going to sound like a really trite example, but I actually think it’s super insightful if you stop and give it a chance?
I have a story about the work I was doing with California’s Child Welfare Digital Service which on the one hand was barreling ahead (for complicated reasons) on building out case management systems for social workers and so on, and I was having this itchy, continued feeling that the opportunity was bigger than “the latest case management software”. Which would be a big improvement, to be clear!
But the strategy part, the really dumb part, was I think in the middle of a meeting when I said something like:
“Look, the actual name of the thing, the program, is child welfare. It’s not things social workers do. The sign on the building is Child Welfare Digital Services, not Managing Cases Digital Services or Making Social Workers’ Jobs Easier Digital Services. Now I know everyone agrees with this as a fundamental point, like of course we’re here because the whole point is to safeguard the wellbeing of children, but if we stopped and looked at what might be different if we were really took that to heart…?”
Right then, that was as much strategy as it was UX. That kind of framing, or that kind of direction–if adopted–would have pretty big implications for production. It was the difference between getting together in a room and producing a birth-to-death journey map for a child, centered on a child and the stuff they were living and dealing with and their wants/hopes/dreams/aspirations which to be clear are all written down in other strategy documents and policies and goals and reports instead of a purely social worker focussed set of workflows based on existing processes.
When people talk about design-being-the-business, this is pretty much that: it’s the whole point of why people are there in the first place and it can be stupendously painful and open up a managerial and emotional can of worms for people. Getting the buy in to even start having other people listen to that kind of foundational/strategic thinking is a shit-ton of work and it’s bluntly not worth doing unless you’ve got the production capability to start demonstrating relatively quickly. And there’s a conflict there, too, because like Garrett says, this stuff is… elastic. Messy. They are big ideas. They are not… timeboxed sprints.
More on this, I expect.
I also fully expect to get some VERY ANGRY–wait, strike that. Some politely informative emails from people gently telling me that I am A BABY, that I should go look up some history and correcting me about more or less all of the above.
OK, that’s it for today and this week. See you on the other side.
I’ve hugged, like, at least THREE PEOPLE in the past week, three people I don’t live with. It’s AMAZING and also QUITE WEIRD.
How are you?