July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Discovery & Microinteractions: Improving The Product Toolbox

Written by Discovery & Microinteractions: Improving The Product Toolbox

August 28, 2017


Thanks, nerds. Appreciate it. Not you all. I didn't mean that like you all, and I meant that in a loving way. First off, it's really great to be back in Vancouver. As a Blue Jays fan, I see a lot of Blue Jays hats in this city, and I'm really enjoying that as well, which makes no sense 'cause I grew up in New Jersey. But at any rate, so today we're gonna talk about some stuff that will either make your stomach hurt or not.

A little bit about me. I like baseball. I like Finnish baseball, which we can discuss after this, and other things that you can read about on the Internet, 'cause they're there. I also sent out before I talked, normally when I do this, I send out a bunch of tweets that go out during the entire talk with all these links, but this time, because of this talk, I had like 70, so I didn't do that. So and that's where you should laugh and go, "Oh Ron, you silly guy." So what I did was instead is I just linked out, a whole page full of them. So feel free to read them on your plane ride, because there's lots of stuff to look at.

So, this topic here, we're gonna talk about, first off, I guess before we get to that, I do work at the City of Bloomington, Indiana, which I did not do last year. Government work is funny because, ha, government, taxes. But government work is funny, especially when you work at local government, the local government level. In the States, you know, layers like 18F, of course in the UK, you have Gov.uk, it's like federal government work is sexy now, like really sexy to go work for really sexy federal government. Or like in California where there's digital service teams that are forming, or in Austin. When you're in a local government in the Midwest, not quite as sexy necessarily, but that being said, it's really important work. And so the team I work on is really fantastic. They do really, really cool stuff. We have apps that do all kinds of things. Look at our GitHub, 'cause there's some really great stuff.

I won't get into too much of it right this second, but I do implore you to look at it, contribute, pull stuff down, get in touch with us, because it's an entirely open source shop. Everything we do is open source. So even if you're not working for your city, although I know some city folks out here, shoutout to the city folks, do share with your city folks, because it's really important stuff and we like that kind of communication.

So the gist of this talk is really building on what I talked about here last year, which is this idea of myopia and blinders and the kinds of blinders that we all have as designers. And when I say designers, I mean designers at large, content designers, crayon designers, interface designers, designers of your bathroom, your children, I don't care. So, with that being said, I saw this tweet, this shit came out recently, but it sort of really encapsulated what I was thinking about when I worked through this talk. There were things that happened. I was doing some reading. Obviously a lot of the talks here have been very political, sort of tangentially political. And it was hard for me to think solely about that space between when you come out with ideation and launch, which was originally what I was aiming for, but with all the things happening in the world, it was hard for me to just focus on that.

And before you think you know where this talk is going, I read another article from the founder of Nest talking about his own creations. And he says his wife asked him once, "Do you know what you did? "Do you know what you created with all these things?" And he says, "Yes, I think about it all the time." But do you think about it ever? I don't need you to raise your hand. But do you think about what you've wrought through your actions, through your work?

There was a group of folks in Helsinki, it's more Finnish stuff, called Helsinki Design Lab, and they spent about 40 years off and on talking, thinking about design as a practice. And their whole philosophy of strategic design is this idea that every problem is a design problem. And thinking about design that way changed my life, because, if you know me well, the seven of you here who do, you know that I like to complain about things related to design problems when I'm in public. So if I'm traveling to a conference, which I do quite Often in random parts of the world, I will often get on Twitter and complain about things like mass transit user flows or things like, "Why is it when I come into this transit place I need to tap out to leave? That's bad, and here's why that's stupid," or things like that.

But these are all design problems, and we're gonna get deeper and darker in a second. There's a book by a great guy, by Victor Papanek. Anybody read this book, which is the most fantastic thing in the world? It's called Design for the Real World. It came out in 1979, so a few weeks ago. And it is still very, very relevant today, and he's really ambitious and says some interesting things that you're kinda like, "Whoa, you're kind of a crackpot." But, it's really, really, really useful, and the most useful, fantastic thing, and I've used this in slides before, if you've seen it, act like you haven't, is this diagram. It's called the designer's share of the problem.

We all think that our problem is really a thing down here, like we are the one solving, if we could just, everyone would just listen to us, everything would work better. You don't think that way, but you do. But the reality is probably that our problem is up there and the real issue, the real thing, is there. So I was thinking about this today, and again, if you know me, the six of you who do, 'cause one of you left, I tend to take my slides literally walk up here, and I did not do this today, but I was thinking about, I did add this this morning, and I was like, "We think of ourselves like this. "Designers, artisanal, creative thinkers." The reality is, we're more like miners.

And so I'm coining a new term today. I don't like this idea of design is this pretty, wonderful thing because design is clean, content is refined. Mining? That's dirty. It's dangerous and it's necessary. And I don't know that we think about our work in that way, and I think it affects and impacts of that trickles down everything that we create, the tools you make, especially you folks at big companies. And I know, it's not you. You just work there. You just got a mortgage and you like brunch. I get it. But nonetheless, the entire genesis of this talk is really about the idea that every single person in here is making a decision every single day, that everything you do, from the minute you wake up to the minute you go home, including the work that you do, you're making deliberate decisions, and if you don't understand the impact of those choices 50, 60 years from now, your grandkids are gonna look back and go, "What the fuck were they thinking?" I've never used the F bomb in a talk before. New things.

So this idea about companies talking about their humble beginnings and all of the things they used to do, I think that somewhere along the way in those humble beginnings we forget, when you scale up, 'cause we all wanna scale, scale, scale, scale, once we do that, we start to forget those humble beginnings. We forget the problems we were trying to solve early on in the process. This guy named Ariel Verber wrote an article a few days ago. It said, "Send me problems, not wireframes." And I thought, Man, that's good. Good thing you said it before I started talking." You can read his article. It's really short, and it's very, very, very, very important. And so really, if I was renaming this talk at this point, which I'm not, but we're gonna do it for the purposes of this conversation, we're gonna talk about invisible systems and structural maladies. And you're like, "Man, this nerd is gonna go places." We are. We're going on a trip. And so the genesis of this talk, I've been saying the genesis of this talk, but this talk shifted when I read a book by a guy of the name Richard Rothstein.

And I know we are in Canada, but this talk is gonna obviously tilt more US-ey, just because one, we've got a really fucked up history, oops, two F bombs, and also, it's just really relevant to I think, us think, I gave this talk and it makes sense, so just roll with me for a second here. So I know most of you I would assume have at least a cursory history of segregation in the US. I will not rehash that in the 30 minutes I have, so don't worry about that. But I will say this. This book covers this idea how the federal government, so in the United States, the 1930s, post Depression, folks needed to buy houses, but they couldn't, 'cause it was post Depression. So the federal government in those days said, "You know what? We need to create a scheme to do that," which became the Federal Housing Administration.

But it was also the 1930s, so they didn't want blacks and whites and everybody else living together. Interracial couples, Chinese folks, Mexicans, Jews, didn't matter. So, the federal government, I did not, I knew a lot about this, and until I read this book, I did not realize how entrenched the federal government was in picking winners and losers. It gets to you in a second, I promise. The federal government authorized whenever their public housing projects are built in any city in the country, it didn't matter if it was California, it didn't matter if it was the South, it didn't matter if it was New Jersey, the federal government mandated that those housing projects had to be segregated.

And it didn't mean like blacks could live in one building and whites could live in another, 'cause you could say, "Okay, well, that's lame, "but all right, everybody gets access to the same thing." No. Whites had to live somewhere completely different than blacks did. And what they would do is they'd create these maps, redlining maps, based on colors. The colors were based on priority of the quality of the neighborhood, for instance, obviously red being the least desirable neighborhoods. Why does this matter to you? Adding insult to injury, over the last 35 years or so, after divesting in cities that were red lined where folks could not buy houses, so in the 1930s, 1940s, you have World War II, folks come back, a lot of Americans have largesse. They've served in the war. My grandfather served in the war. They come back.

And these folks were not given the same kind of access to be able to buy houses, to be able to invest in things, to use the equity that folks are now using to capitalize and do all kinds of things. And so in the 1970s, folks are leaving the cities to go to suburbs, built by the government in many cases, built by highways built by the government. And so the point of all of this is to say that picking winners and losers, this was the government doing this. And okay, 1970s come, the '80s come, now the government is less inclined to pick winners and losers. We can get into why they probably are, but I'm not gonna do that. Argument's sake, they're not doing that anymore. Who's picking the winners and losers now? You are. Damn, this got dark. I warned you, though, I warned you. You could've left. I warned you.

In a world where we believe ourselves to be fair minded, independent, eclectic, egalitarian folks who believe in the justice and value of good things, the reality is, we're complicit. And I don't mean you. I mean all of us are complicit in our own ways in picking winners and picking losers. And we do so like this. We do so through the tools we choose to prioritize, through the things that we choose to build, through ignoring certain audiences. Constantly last year, I gave the example of Pokemon Go and how Pokemon Go didn't work in certain neighborhoods because it just didn't occur to anybody to go outside and walk 10 blocks. And that's a stupid example, but it extends to other things.

I won't get into these articles too much, but just this is an article that is on the list, talking about how a neighborhood in New Orleans that had a public housing project built in the 1940s in a black neighborhood was displaced for a golf course for folks who did not, obviously, live in that neighborhood, shockingly. And it didn't occur to anybody that these decisions were made 50, 60, 70 years ago. We're making these decisions now by siloing out our neighbors, by choosing to live in certain places versus other places, by using certain tools to make certain decisions because it's easier for us, without any impact or any idea, or maybe some cursory impact, but still convincing ourselves that it's okay because you gave charity once or you went to Nicaragua and helped out orphans or something.

I've read a million articles about this, and there's this fallacy of unconscious bias, this idea that we don't really, I read an article, I can't re-find it or I would've put the quote in here, it was this professor from the University of Minnesota who said about VR and how, if you've heard the story about VR and how VR makes women sick because most of the people who tested VR were dudes. And the guy said, "I'm sure they didn't mean to do it." How many times have you heard this? "We didn't mean to. "We're gonna make a patch. "We're gonna release a new version." At what point do we decide that collateral damage, and I'm not saying there's not always going to be some of that, but at what point do we decide that collateral damage is not okay, that it's not alright to just ignore a certain swath of the population 'cause they're not our neighbors? Which is a whole 'nother conversation, right?

But, for the purposes of this conversation, they're not your neighbors, or maybe they are, but we still don't built with those folks in mind. But there is a presumption of innocence that goes into our design culture that says, "We didn't mean to, so it's okay if we apologize." And I'm not saying don't apologize. And again, I'm not even accusing anyone in this room. You're here. That's the first step, I feel like. But, again, we're all complicit, so just throughout this entire talk. These are just a few examples. I won't read them. You're very good at reading. But these are just examples. And the reason I put these examples here is because these are impactful things. So what happens is you screw somebody over by accident and now they've gotta deal with the fallout of our screw ups.

And working in city government, this is an issue every single day, that we don't put something online the right way, if the tool isn't set up the way it needs to be set up, that can impact someone's life in a direct way. And yeah, you patching it tomorrow is great, but in the meantime, they've gotta deal with the fallout and the side effects of all these things that happen because the tool didn't work. And it's not because they wanna use the tool all the time but because things have evolved to a place where we often say, "Go to the website. "Go to the app. "Download our app. "Come to our store. "Download our app. "Did you download our app? "Did you like us? Rate us. "Download our app." Because we do this, people who often may not wanna do that and they wanna come talk to you face to face aren't afforded that. And again, I realize these situations and issues are structural. It starts up here. These are management decisions.

But we still should be cognizant of how these things are happening to us. Let's just dispense of this idea that designers are inherently anything other than human and flawed. Damn, this really got dark. We can't keep paying lip service to this idea that change is possible through a series of interconnected technocrat solutions. And I'm not saying that, they're like riddles. It's like if you ever think of any kind of nursery rhyme in a children's book where people just think about you have to say a certain thing to get through certain hoops or whatever else. We often think of our programs and our tools this way.

62 million urban Americans and 16 million rural Americans do not have access to broadband Internet. Leave it at that. They can't afford it. They don't have access to it in some cases. Having lived in lots of rural places, more than even urban places, can vouch for the fact that it's very, very difficult for folks to get access to these things. So you know, I won't even say this story. I had a story. I won't do it. Nevermind. We're building infrastructure and things that don't work for people. I won't rehash this. But these are our maps. These are our redlining maps. When you can't have something that everybody else seems to have, we're isolating people. And it's incumbent upon us to be in these meetings. It's incumbent upon us to be on these design teams. It's incumbent upon us in these product teams.

It's incumbent upon us to build products that don't just isolate people because we forgot. It's not good enough anymore. And I've read so many articles about this that I'm thinking, how are there 80 articles that I've linked to you about this and no one has actually done anything decisively to fix it in ways that are demonstrable and in ways that are impactful when there are resources and tools and clearly the talent to do this? It's on us.

Fabricio Teixeira wrote an article that I also shared about hiring designers. And he talked about, doing a mock interview with somebody, and at the end of the mock interview, he goes, the person he's talking to is like, "Yeah, it's a bummer that the implementation looks different than what we designed," as if the designer is saying, "Hey, we designed it one way, but the developers didn't do it right." None of you would ever say this, so I'm not worried about, you've never been on a team that's done this. I know that, so don't worry. I'm not talking about anyone in this room. But, hypothetically, say you were in a situation where this happens, how do you deal with this? And so instead of just causing problems, I've been thinking about an experimental framework for improving discovery.

And one of the things that I've been thinking about, this idea about finding the real constraints or what the problems you're supposed to be solving are. So many things get created under the guise of that you're automatically right. Like when you do research, how many times have you been on a team where you're doing research just to confirm the bias you've already started with? And I'm not saying that you're even wrong. Maybe you really know this market and you're killing it. But what if you approach the problem with, "No, we're not right," or, every time, five times out of 10, when you're launching something with one premise you come out with a totally different outcome? Canvas people who are not just your typical users. Everybody envisions their user to be a 35 year old white dude who drives a Tesla who lives in the Tenderloin somewhere. But reality would show that that's probably not the case. And ultimately, this is my favorite thing to talk about, is this idea that we're so committed to asking users what they want but we don't wanna pay anybody to tell us what they think. And I know. Everybody is bootstrapping. Even when you've got billions of dollars, still bootstrapping, still raising capital. My favorite thing in the world to use until it died was Rdio. Anybody ever use Rdio?

[Audience] Yeah.

Woo! It's great. You could share music. It was a good time. This is my hot take. This is the only hot take I have this entire talk. My hot talk is that if tools like Rdio used their power users better, they wouldn't have to always sell themselves off for parts, because you have power users who are engaged, who are active, who will tell you, spell out for you, often spend their time for free telling you exactly what the hell is wrong. And what do we do? Ignore them. Or we incorporate them and hire them and then bring them into our borg and make them do what we do. Construct our teams to fit the problem space. Often, we build these teams that are constructed based on whatever idea that we have. And again, this is when you have the power to build a team. If you don't, roll with it. Speak up when you can. Don't get fired. I know you've got a mortgage and you like brunch. I get it. You like your dog, likes nice things. I understand. I see your Instagrams.

But, what if instead of, this is really, this is, again, this is towards that conversation around team capacity and inclusion and so forth, this idea that we can't have, we want people that are older, for instance, or from other places or from underserved markets or whatever else. But we can't hire them because they don't fit X, Y, or Z, or they're not willing to move or blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. What is it that we can do to either reflect, have our teams reflect that in a different way, to adapt our capacity to fit that, to have teams that are based on projects rather than in these larger sort of, everyone has gotta swim down the same path? We get to fix these things. We can control this. But we're not doing that often, because of whatever rigid things we've put in place that we feel like we need to do. Two tools you might have heard of, I'm gonna share them anyway 'cause they were my slides first, is Benjamin Evans created something a couple years ago now, it's a while back, called Perspective Cards. And it's what it sounds like. Based on oblique strategies, which is this old thing that it's just these cards you would use to help work through creative blocks. This is more focused on personas. Really, really useful. Really, really neat.

I'm probably sure you've seen this one, 'cause Ethan Marcotte tweeted it out the other day, but I had it in my deck first. Love you, Ethan. Was this thing by Eric Bailey called Empathy Prompts, which have several different kinds of bookmarklets. And folks responded after and said, "Hey, this isn't really how it works. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah." But Eric responded and said, "Oh, that's really great. We can work together to make this better." It's a starting point, and these are important things to have. So, to summarize, the question really here is, what are your core values? This isn't about your company. This isn't about your job. It's not about your boss. It's not about your puppy, although shoutout to your puppies and your cats.

This is about what motivates you and inspires you to do the things that you do, and ultimately what your path is going to be. Because just like we look back on the '50s and '60s and '40s and 30s, and I know Canada has got its own history with indigenous folks and First Nations folks and the things that we've done to people through policy. Again, this has nothing to do with even hating somebody. There are plenty of well meaning folks in the States who certainly did not ever think they hated anybody and probably were really good to whoever they knew. But they still went to segregated churches, They still lived in segregated neighborhoods. They still shopped at segregated stores. Lived in limit towns that didn't allow anybody else to be there and divested from cities when it became convenient to do so and now move back to those cities and continue to divest in other ways.

What are we gonna tell our grandkids in 30, 40, 50 years? If you already have grandkids, shoutout to your grandkids. What are you going to tell them? Why did you do this? Because they're gonna ask you, "How did you let this happen? Didn't you know that creating a permanent class of people who only drive cars for you in their cars, who serve you on their bicycles for food, who don't have health insurance?" And again, in America. Shoutout to Canada. That's a hell of an insurance plug. This has gotten really socialist. I'm sorry. It's not intentional, honestly, but it happened. We're gonna roll with it. What are you gonna say to them? What are your core values and what do you believe in? Where is the proof in the pudding?

We gotta stop writing articles and stop giving talks like this and get to work. Your local government, everyone in this country, your local governments, this is across the board, your local governments, even if you don't work for them, can use your help. Create a civic hacking group. Create a civic design group. Figure out where you can get in and be involved. If you had a homeless problem, I know you got one here, my little town of 85,000, we've got one, too. How do we start solving these issues? Through the work that we do, 'cause I know we can. But until we start doing it, it's not gonna happen. We can't just think that by paying taxes or by contributing to nonprofits that that's gonna solve the issue. We need to be involved. We need to be part of these conversations. We need to be directing these things, because ultimately, here's what happens, as someone who consults with several nonprofits for free as a volunteer.

Folks are overwhelmed. They can't do everything. They can't do it all by themselves. And so they need folks who have done great things for great companies, who've built design systems, to come in at the ground level where it's not fancy, where it's not sexy, where nobody is really gonna give you a star for it and kill it, and then share your work. Going back to the thing I said about discovery earlier, I didn't actually put, I added a deck in here, a slide about this and I forgot about it, but there's this idea of a discovery policy. Help me understand how you got to the place you got to with your tool. Put it at the bottom where you have a privacy policy but nobody reads it. I don't care. But it would be really interesting to find out how we arrive at a place where we can forget an entire population.

And if you think about sharing that, you think about documenting that process in a way that's public, not just internally, and again, I know that the bigger the company the more complicated and the more legal gets involved, but at a team level, even if you're not sharing that broadly, at a team level, being able to come back to that, and I've done this on projects so it's definitely doable to do at scale and even in small situations, how do we arrive at these conclusions? We just launched a website at Bloomington that took 10 years, not 10 years to actually do it, but the last time they launched a new website was 10 years ago. I came in last year and it is out now, and we're happy about this.

But one of the things that we were able to do, even in that last year of really sprinting this thing out, was, six months in, before we launched, sitting down and saying, "Okay, here are our assumptions. "Here is the wireframes. Here is the mockups we have. Go team. This is great. But are we really doing what we said we were gonna do? Are we really targeting our audience the way we think we are? Let's go out and find out."

And so I like calling it OTG, on the ground, getting outside and talking to people, getting outside and interviewing folks, getting outside and having, and you doing it, not just paying a research firm to do it, not just doing your meta UX research things, which are really great to do, but actually having folks get outside and investigate, hearing these things, because then you'll be crazy like me. You'll start tweeting about everything you hear all the time, because design is everything, is everywhere, but every one of these experiences, thinking about experience design, every one of these experiences is designed in a particular kind of way. And often, the games are rigged, and we're complicit.

And not only should it just us be us doing it, should it be our organizations doing it. We need to work with organizations, professional organizations, to implore them to make this a priority, because it is. And if they don't, don't be part of it. Start new ones. That's how these groups get started in the first place. I'll sign up. Stephanie Lawrence wrote an article that summarizes everything that I'm saying really well. And it says, "Design ethics and practice should be baked in trying to be as inclusive as possible in spreading the benefits of design solutions that are created." This should be a feature, not a bug. But right now we treat it like, "Oh, sorry." And we can do better than that.

The future is ours to capitalize on, and I feel like really the genesis of this whole talk is really about you educating ourselves better on the history of how we got here. And you can do that in your own way based on the passion and the path that you care about. And the best part of that is that if you study one thing, your friend studies something else, you can discuss what you've learned. But by understanding how we got, especially in the era of Trump, in the era of Le Pen, in the era of fascism. Oh, things got really dark. In this era, in this time, it's not just being pissed off. It's not just tweeting about it. It's actually figuring out, how the hell did we get to this point? And how do we start to unravel the machinery that's brought us to this place? And I know that each one of us only has a small sliver of influence, only a small sliver of ability to really push that forward. Again, I get it. Your cat likes Instagram. But we have to do better, and the only way to do that is to start today. I appreciate you for being here.

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