Are We Arguing When We Should be Designing?

shirt slogan: I'm not going to waste my time debating with you. Does this look like the Internet?

Scanning the Internet-centered design mailing lists these days, I have to wonder if the inward-looking conversations aren’t doing more harm than good.

Earlier in my career, mailing lists and blogs were incredibly useful tools for learning my craft. The mass media hasn’t really covered the story of blogs as more than journals and citizen journalism. For those of us designing complex Internet systems there were (and are) tons of interesting problems to solve, and we wrote about them and shared invaluable information with each other, desperately trying to push the discipline fast enough to turn new ideas into functioning reality. It wasn’t just writing and reading, it was joint, remote problem solving among an entire community.

As I became more accomplished, I didn’t need quite as much of that communication to practice my discipline, the work become more about how to manage teams and help them ascend the learning curve. So these days I blog less frequently and mostly scan the mailing lists. And what I see concerns me. Some of our brightest minds are still having the defining the damn thing discussion, which we realized years ago was proving fruitless.

Perhaps just saying no to something seemingly pleasurable isn’t enough; we need compelling alternatives. So lately I’ve been thinking a lot about tools we use to do our work and tools we make to empower others. The difficulty of programming is a threshold that reduces designers to asking others for help, but we need to funnel our energy into creating tools to solve our problems and then move on to more interesting problems.

More on this in the coming months…


The first SmartEx class was taught this week and went off without a hitch. While it’s a real working course from the students’ point of view, behind the scenes I’m using it as a prototype to quickly learn better ways of doing everything schools do. I was even planning to take a hit financially in the interest of testing, but enough people signed up to make it profitable too.

Incidentally, I love the local retail stores that proudly display the first cash they made, posting bills on the walls. Here’s my digital equivalent of that, a screen shot after the first students signed up…

First smartex signups

Interview with Alex Kirtland at UsableMarkets

Alex Kirtland interviewed me for his blog UsableMarkets about my work on Smart Experience. Here’s a highlight of me in a young turk mood…

…Smart Experience students tend to be younger, technically-savvy, and willing to experiment, so we don’t have to adhere to tradition when we think another way is better. If we want to run a “class” about field research that meets in private homes watching how people use their home computers, we can do that. We don’t have a binder full of stifling policies to keep us from innovating.

Categorized as Teaching

Frog Design Groks SmartEx

Ian Curry, design analyst at Frog Design, pens an interesting look at the current state of design education in The Known Unknowns: Exploring the evolution of design education in response to the industry’s expanding role. We’re honored he includes SmartEx alongside the Institute of Design and Stanford’s, two schools for which we have great respect.

Curry writes…

Lombardi’s current project is designing a design school. Yes, a design school, but not as we know it. He hopes to close the gap between what schools teach and what the industry requires. As a web guy, Lombardi sees this gap as the result of a classic coordination cost problem. Traditional schools are beholden to administrative tasks, which lessen their agility when it comes to changes in the field. Lombardi’s answer is a new kind of school, coordinated over the web but with meetings in real classrooms around Manhattan. Launched recently, Smart Experience is essentially an experiment in bottom-up design education. Using a wiki-like format, students request topics they want to learn about and instructors pitch classes they want to teach.

Categorized as Teaching

Props from Lou Rosenfeld

Lou Rosenfeld, who helped create the field of information architecture with the “Polar Bear Book” blogged his reaction to Smart Experience

…Smart Experience is essentially a broker of dialogues between teachers and learners at different levels, starting with sharing thoughts on rough topics, and ending with an actual course (with students, a teacher, course materials, and a venue).

Victor, whether he realizes is or not, is now officially an infrastructuralist… Best wishes, Victor; I’m really looking forward to watching Smart Experience grow!

Thanks Lou!

Categorized as Teaching

Talking vs. Doing and My New Project

If there’s still anyone out there who follows this blog I’m sure you’re wondering why the post frequency has dropped off and why it consists mostly of quoting the New York Times. I’ve been busy slowly creating my latest passion, a school of continuing education called Smart Experience. I could write a lot about it, but hopefully the website explains what’s going on.

One fun part about building a business again is the opportunity to design a business as a deep dive, rather than on a project basis as a consultant. While I have a lot of new thoughts about how that happens (and doesn’t happen), mostly I’m trying to write less and do more, so I’ll skip that for now.

Need Help Providing Internet Education to the Disadvantaged

The skinny here is that I’d like to work on correcting the uneven access to Internet jobs (great jobs, btw) by providing education to the disadvantaged. By disadvantaged I mean — here in New York City — mainly blacks and Hispanics, but generally those with lower income. I’m not sure how organizations who provide such services identify customers in this segment. I’ve already got some plans in the works for an educational service, and a small but important component of it is figuring out how to make the education available more widely.

Lately this has become a hotter topic in the blogosphere — with Kottke sparking a thread and Zeldman, Nick, Mike, and Anil supporting this point of view.

Someone asked, Where are the barriers then? Here’s a few:

Ken Bain’s Research on College Teachers

Ken Bain came to Pratt last night to discuss his amazing research on teaching. Twenty years ago he and his colleagues worked to identify the best college teachers in America. They then examined how those teachers did research, planned courses, and taught classes. It’s all summed up in his excellent book, What the Best College Teachers Do.

They found that all of these teachers thought of their work as paradigm-building, breaking down old models inside students’ minds and building up new ones. The importance of this is illustrated by a story in the book about physics students who, after they had taken the introductory course, still held an Aristotelian and not a Newtonian understanding of the world, much to the teachers’ dismay.

Bain described three conditions for paradigm-building:

Categorized as Teaching

How To Talk to Your Kids

While this research says talking more and more encouragingly to your kids increases their IQ, this research says (I believe) when kids get to be about 5 years old then focused praise is better.

Categorized as Teaching

A New Internet Strategy Course

Though there is much punditry on the topic, I’ve found a paucity of books, classes, and other educational materials about Internet strategy. Guessing Internet practitioners would appreciate a formal review, I’ve created a course called Introduction to Internet Business Strategy and will be teaching it first at the Information Architecture Summit in Las Vegas this March.

If you can’t make it to Vegas, I’ll be teaching it again in New York soon thereafter. Stay tuned.

Successful small business units, schools

William G. Ouchi on decentralized management:

I had spent 35 years studying the management of very large companies, and one of the most consistent principles is decentralization. In a competitive world, you must make decisions in the smallest operating units possible, or you will go out of business…

…We have a research project under way now in which we’re interviewing 527 principals with local autonomy and visiting their schools. We’re focusing on inner-city high schools, which have proven in the past to be the hardest schools to improve. We’re finding that control over the budget gives principals control over three key school decisions: the staffing mixture, curriculum, and schedule.

Business models for designers

About every third or fourth design student I meet has a concept for helping the elderly call for help from their homes. I just saw another one last night at the Parsons show. One might wonder why such devices aren’t widespread by now.

I ran into my friend Bill recently who works as a CTO for a company that sells such a system. He says the challenge isn’t at the device level, it’s downstream of the device: having a widespread network of installers who understand the system and who have an incentive to sell the system, maintenance, infrastructure, and so on. The device is the easy part.

Reinventing this wheel isn’t all bad, it probably helps students learn a lot about device design. But solving this problem (which is what design is all about) won’t happen until one considers the whole system and also designs a business model within which the device operates.

To quote John Thackara, “…connectivity is at least as much about [the design of clever business models] as it is about the private ownership of technological devices. The Doors crowd learned this lesson ten years ago when the extraordinary Sam Pitroda spoke at Doors 4, in 1996. Pitroda enabled hundreds of millons of people to gain access to telephony in India by designing the Public Call Office (PCO) concept – a low-tech, high-smarts system based on the clever sharing of devices and infrastructure.

Categorized as Teaching

Design thinking at the Alberta College of Art & Design

Lance Carlson, president and CEO of the Alberta College of Art and Design, is — somewhat ironically — one of the only art and design colleges incorporating design thinking into the curriculum in a comprehensive way…

Our new Institute will explore and foster work in these areas, and provoke internal dialogue at the college as well. The reaction from the corporate community has been encouraging. We have been in discussions with several companies exploring pilot projects and the provincial government and community-based groups have been supportive. Who doesn’t want to nurture innovation and creative action?

2006 Pratt Show, May 9-11

Since I’ll be teaching Business+Design at the Pratt Institute here in New York this Fall, I plan to check out the graduate show to get inside the heads of these bright young designers. The show is open to the public May 9-11.

Inspired by graffiti, t1-12 by Victoria Haroian is a living room chair that integrates healthy postures and spinal stretching into home furniture.

MIG Seminar in Vancouver, March 23

We’ll be teaching a full-day seminar prior to the IA Summit called Enhancing Your Strategic Influence: Understanding and Responding to Complex Business Problems. I’ll be joined by John Zapolski and Scott Hirsch of MIG, Harry Max (formerly of Dreamworks), and Mark McCormick (Director of Design at Wells Fargo).

We’ve been designers. And we’ve partnered with companies to work through tricky business issues. Now we want to return to the design community and teach the many skills we’ve learned.

Here’s the official description:

While the skill level of the average information architect has increased dramatically over the last several years, many IAs still lack the tools necessary to understand and articulate the broader implications of their work within a complex and dynamic business environment. The most successful information architects are better at recognizing the roots of strategic change and opportunity, assessing the potential impacts on their organization, and determining what to do and who to involve in getting it done.

This workshop introduces participants to a new way of thinking about cause and effect in complex organizations—within functional groups, across departments, beyond business units, and across industries. Participants come away with a set of tools to identify social, cultural, economic, and technological change, match products to emerging and changing markets, develop strategies to capture market value, and change organizational capabilities to reflect changing market and technological dynamics. Special attention is given to learning how to create and maintain a workplace and culture that facilitate and sustain innovation and change.

Here are some of the basic questions that we will help participants answer, both in general and in the context of their companies:

  • What is a business model? A value proposition? A business strategy?
  • Given my role, what contribution am I making to my company’s success?
  • How does IA/UX deliver value in my company’s business model and value proposition?
  • How do I determine how to choose my battles wisely: which high-value projects to push and which can stay on the back burner?
  • How do I say “no” to bad projects? What language will be most convincing to my management and stakeholders?
  • How can I get more visibility for IA/UX in my company? How do I build alliances with like-minded stakeholders?
  • How do other functions typically understand business problems, and how does that compare to the IA perspective?

This session is designed specifically for managers and leaders who seek to use IA as a strategic tool to understand and influence organizational change. While a deep knowledge of advanced IA principles is not necessary for this session, participants should be willing to explore their roles as leaders and change agents within their organizations.

Types of attendees most likely to find this workshop compelling include:

  • Managers of IA/UX teams
  • Product Managers
  • Entrepreneurs seeking to build a culture that values IA/UX design
  • IA/UX practitioners who report to a non-designer manager
  • Anyone who aspires to enhance their role as an internal change agent