The human scale and experience design

Jacob Pernell, one of my UX Academy students on Designlab, invited me to give a talk at a small meetup in Santa Clara for the UX Wizards of the South Bay on Friday, October 19, 2019. This was part of my presentation. Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash: Twin Peaks, San Francisco, United States

This is going to be the weirdest talk you have ever heard about user experience design.

I attended the JAMstack conference this week, and I was impressed by the community that is building around the concept of decoupling the presentation layer from the data layer.

What I have discovered about designers and developers as we use the design thinking process to solve problems is that innovative thinking tends to be much more difficult than incremental thinking.

We are concerned with the minutiae, especially as our roles within the process become much more specialized as technologies scale and become more complex and organizations become larger and more complex.

My question has often been, who is thinking about the big picture?

My Airbnb hosts in San Francisco are also employees at the Airbnb HQ. Yesterday, they took me for breakfast at the Airbnb HQ and gave me a tour of the building. The idea of creating neighbourhoods for the communities that make up the organization is a way of directly connecting the people creating experiences to the hosts and guests that they are serving. The people who have become part of the Airbnb community have come to see the world in a whole new way by discovering neighbours in different places than the places they call home. In that way, the world has become smaller as we realize that we are all neighbours in a small world. At the same time, the world of opportunities is as vast as the universe. That can be overwhelming for individuals as we consider the limits on our time, energy, and resources.

What is the big picture?

I have been trying to propose another way of looking at the world that we have designed as part of a much larger system that we barely understand and that we are only beginning to acknowledge has been profoundly impacted by our actions on this earth.

Design Systems

Nicole Sullivan, Frameworks Product Manager, Google Chrome, gave a talk at the JAMstack Conference about how designers and developers hate how difficult it can be to constantly redesign forms. In a survey, the select field was singled out as the worst form element to deal with.

The goal is to work together on Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome to create new standards for the user experience of working with form fields. React and Next have been selected as the standards for the framework and metaframework that the Google Chrome team will be working with to create that new standard of user experience.

Design systems and frameworks have come to dominate the design and development of digital tools.

It seems that we enjoy focusing on the minutiae of what we do, because these small things have such a great impact, especially when considered at scale.

Human Scale

We like to think about things at a more human scale. When we try to think about the world as a whole, it is far too overwhelming for the human mind to comprehend such vast scales.

However, this moment in time is bringing us to question many things beyond the smaller pieces of the problems that we face as a species.

In design thinking, we find manageable problems that we can change and engage in a process of making innovative and incremental changes.

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

What we have discovered is a process that works to help solve manageable problems.

Other problems we tend to ignore, because we have been trained to ignore them. We have been conditioned to believe that these larger problems are beyond our ability to solve, so we leave them to the experts to figure out.

Larger Problems

  • Society
  • Economics
  • Politics

The Experts

These problems, we believe are for experts to solve.

  • Social Scientists
  • Economists
  • Politicians

The Results

  • Democracies are dying
  • Economies are failing
  • Politicians are corrupt

Disrupting the Status Quo

There is a theory about how to keep organizations from dying when faced with an environment of constant technological change. The mantra is to adapt or die.

The problem is that there is a familiar pattern to the way large social organizations tend to grow. At the beginning, individuals form small groups. These groups find ways to work together that are much more beneficial for the group as a whole. By specializing, each person can contribute to the work of the group.

  • Belonging and identity
  • Food and shelter
  • Safety and security

In the beginning, individuals form networks of people that work together to create and innovate. By working together, they discover advantages in creative collaboration that would otherwise be impossible to accomplish as individuals.

Over time, there is a tendency for organizations to become hierarchies. The group becomes larger and more complex. People become managers of groups and managers of managers.

John P. Kotter wrote a book called XLR8: Accelerate. The basic idea is that networks are the creators and innovators who create value for the organization. The hierarchies serve the purpose of maintaining the organization and structure that have been found to support the work of the group.

At scale, there is a tendency for the hierarchy to develop a predatory relationship to the network. Monarchs, prime ministers, presidents, and CEOs will often abuse their position to hoard influence, wealth, and power.

When the leaders of the organization are more concerned about their position at the top of the hierarchy than the well-being of the networks of people that they are intended to serve, they tend to dictate the identity, capacity, and agency of the network to serve the needs of the hierarchy.

We can see this pattern at the scale of companies, cities, states, nations, and multi-national corporations.

Biophysics

Can we all agree that we are biological organisms living in a finite physical world?

A basic understanding of reality will include the concept that there are limits on our time, energy, and resources, both biologically and physically.

San Francisco

It has been a long time since I travelled. In my 51 years, I have been to Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Beijing, Los Angeles, Hawaii, Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, Ottawa, Miami, Cozumel, St. Martin, St. Thomas, Jamaica, Seoul, Yanji, Anchorage, London, Cologne, Berlin, Dessau, Weimar, Munich, New York, and Shanghai.

In the past seven years, I haven’t travelled farther than Nanaimo or Victoria on Vancouver Island.

This is my first time to San Francisco. It is the top of hierarchy, where the largest corporations in the world call home in the most powerful nation in the world.

I have noticed that it is also facing the same problems that we are facing in Vancouver. We are one of the wealthiest cities in the world, but there are still people who can’t find a place to call home.

Personal Property

We have this notion of personal property. Our identities are formed by a common story about our position and status in the social, economic, and political order.

Access to money and capital define our identity, capacity, and agency. Simply put, according to this story, those with the most money win. The one percent are accumulating for themselves most of the wealth of the world.

The systems that we have designed are working exactly as we designed them, as Mike Monteiro says in his book, Ruined by Design.

The world is working exactly as we designed it.

Perspective

What would the city of San Francisco have looked like 500 years ago? It was probably a forest of redwood trees rather than a forest of steel, glass, and concrete skyscrapers.

The Doctrine of Discovery

So, how did we come to design the world this way?

The Doctrine of Discovery established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. It has been invoked since Pope Alexander VI issued the Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” in 1493. The Papal decree aimed to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on land and waterways they allegedly discovered, and promote Christian domination and superiority, and has been applied in Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas. If an explorer proclaims to have discovered the land in the name of a Christian European monarch, plants a flag in its soil, and reports his “discovery” to the European rulers and returns to occupy it, the land is now his, even if someone else was there first. Should the original occupants insist on claiming that the land is theirs, the “discoverer” can label the occupants’ way of being on the land inadequate according to European standards. This ideology supported the dehumanization of those living on the land and their dispossession, murder, and forced assimilation. The Doctrine fueled white supremacy insofar as white European settlers claimed they were instruments of divine design and possessed cultural superiority.

We Built This City on Rock and Roll

In other words, this city was built on the music of the slaves. As the 1619 Project by the New York Times tells the story, the economy of the United States of America was built on the cotton plantations with the free labour of slaves.

The United States of America was built on the genocide, colonization, and enslavement of human beings for the appropriation of land, for the extraction of resources, and for the profit of land speculation and capital accumulation. Similarly, the Confederation of the British colonies as the Dominion of Canada was a political system designed to manage the economy of an area that was once claimed as the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

The Crystal Symbol of A New Faith

One hundred years ago, in April 1919, the Bauhaus was formed to rebuild society out of the disaster of the Great War. World War I, as we call it now, led to the defeat of the nation and the collapse of the German monarchy, and Weimar became the centre of the nation’s first experiment in democracy.

The Bauhaus was also an experiment in uniting the arts and crafts into a single school to teach the next generation how to remake society. Architects and artists gathered to create and innovate the modern world.

Together let us desire, conceive, and create the new structure of the future, which will embrace architecture and sculpture and painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward Heaven from the hands of a million workers like the crystal symbol of a new faith.

The influence of the Bauhaus can be seen in the steel, glass, and concrete skyscrapers and buildings that define our city skylines, in the work of Dieter Rams at Braun, and in the leadership of Jony Ive in his role as Chief Design Officer of Apple. The sans serif typography, the minimalist aesthetic, the choice of materials, and the focus on the features and user experience are all based on the fundamental principles of design that were originally formulated into a design curriculum.

For those who are familiar with Designlab, the Bauhaus was the original laboratory of modern design.

Our aluminum, glass, and silicon devices are the most recent manifestation of the Bauhaus influence.

Industrial Design

I worked in a web agency for about seven years. When I left, it had become a sort of digital factory for Drupal and WordPress sites. I was dissatisfied by the direction of growth from a creative, innovative network of designers and developers to an industrial pipeline for marketing and production managers. Since I have left, Domain7 has reinvented itself as a design thinking organization focused on digital transformation.

Disillusionment in Modernity

However, at this moment, we are experiencing a sort of apocalypse in our understanding of the modern world.

We are experiencing a crisis in our faith in the institutions that are the foundation of our cities and societies.

  • Social: identity
  • Economic: capacity
  • Political: agency

It is a crisis in meaning, purpose, and belonging.

  • Who are we?
  • Why are we here?
  • What should we do?
  • How can we contribute?
  • When will we be transformed?

Information Architecture

Part of our own digital transformation is in our understanding about how design is evolving. From the physical artifact to living systems.

I was having a discussion about design thinking with Johanna Desbordes, Program Manager, Global Host Community at Airbnb. We shared the same concerns about our obsession with design sprints for small manageable problems that we feel empowered to address. However, in the process, we lose sight of the big picture and the much larger problems that we need to solve.

It seems, more and more, that the big picture is coming into better focus. The younger generation is much more aware and vocal about the problems that they are beginning to recognize. The old, rich hierarchy is exploiting the young, poor network, and they are organizing to protest, declaring that change is coming whether we like it or not.

I, for one, welcome our new overlords.

I am making myself useful by articulating a different story about the value of design and how we can repurpose our role as designers, reinventing ourselves to be part of the movement toward deconstructing our social, economic, and political lives by decentralization of our digital infrastructure, decoupling our data from monolithic application ecosystems, and giving power back to the people by creating apps that can’t be evil.

Digital Transformation

As designers, we are evolving from thinking about information architecture for apps and websites to thinking about our social architecture as we realize that the infrastructure that we have built for Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Netflix may not necessarily serve the network as much as they serve the hierarchy.

In the age of the surveillance economy, while our democracies devolve into fascist, totalitarian corporations and nation states, we need to reimagine our social architecture.

The adults in the room are still not talking about it, so the children are making their voices heard, and we need to help them by taking what we are learning about UX design and starting by deconstructing the term.

A Union Meeting

For the past couple of decades, the tech companies of Silicon Valley (and beyond) have run unchecked, causing havoc, destroying civil discourse, democracy, ruining personal relationships, running marketplaces of harassment and abuse, all to line their pockets. The very worst part is that they did it with our labor. This isn’t a talk, this is a union meeting.

— Mike Monteiro

Social Architecture

But beyond the digital space, there are larger social, economic, and political problems that we need everyone to be involved in addressing, because we are facing a climate emergency.

What is the builders collective?

The builders collective is what I would call the Bauhaus, if I was to translate it into English. I go by the name bauhouse on most online platforms. But I keep on having to spell it out for people. So, I wanted to find something that might work a little easier.

For me, the builders collective is the creative, collaborative network of people who are creating and innovating a future based on sustainability and symbiosis with the ecological ecosystem that humans inhabit.

Put simply, in a short acronym, BLDRS, we are building leaders to design a resilient society.

It is a union of sorts. I am looking for people are who are engaged in the process of reimagining our social architecture. The design challenge is to explore how we can imagine, design, and build the future together.

References