Joel Spolsky on Twitter, Facebook & news feeds

I appreciated this post from long-time blogger Joel Spolsky on Twitter, Facebook and their ilk.

As software developers and designers, we have a responsibility to the world to think these things through carefully and design software that makes the world better, or, at least, no worse than it started out. And when our inventions spin out of control, we have a responsibility to understand why and to try to fix them.

What It Feels Like (Right Now)

Whack-A-Mole Game

I was talking to a friend at lunch today and lamenting how I still hadn’t written anything about Charlottesville, and the general tension that many Americans are feeling right now. Part of my desire to say very little in writing, was related more to feeling like the nuance necessary wasn’t possible via Twitter or perhaps without knowing where I’m coming from.

A tweet from a friend wondering aloud why so many people felt emboldened to share their political beliefs on social media during this time, is what convinced me to speak up. For days, I’ve come close to writing posts talking about growing up in a de facto segregated school district; being born and raised city that was affected (and still is) by the divestment of cities in the 1960s and 70s.

Part of my voracious appetite for American Studies relies on a need to contextualize how things got to this point. For me, the journey began with simple questions about migration, and trying to understand stories that didn’t get explained in depth during my school years.

The best way I can think to explain how I feel is something like this. America has always felt to me, much like a game of Whack-A-Mole. You just can’t be sure who is going to see you as an actual person, versus some kind of caricature, idea or something else entirely. The exhaustion of having to consistently justify your right to exist in certain spaces surely adds to the complexities of whatever thing I’m attempting.

Even with those constraints, I’ve (mostly) not allowed myself to be impeded by whatever barriers other people impose. I can deal with the present and future, knowing that incremental progress happens and perhaps, future generations will deal with these issues less than I’ve had to, much like I deal with totally different challenges than my forebears. Nonetheless, had I realized sooner that I needed to be more realistic about my options in the face of an industry that would not always see me as the ideal they sought, would have saved me a lot of grief.

I just wonder when will enough? At what point do we concede what’s happened in this country and accept that people deserve a fair opportunity to participate fully in our communities? I

A few weeks ago, I gave a talk in Vancouver at a design conference. One of the things I did, was admonish the attendees to go home and start asking better questions, to figure out what our ethical boundaries are and no longer spend our times creating systems that harm simply because someone else told us to do it. What does that mean? There are thousands of policies, projects and systems that get designed by regular people everyday based on faulty research, incomplete understanding of audiences, and aren’t always designed for the people forced to use them.

For every public utility company that charges people extra to pay on the phone versus on the internet, every city website that doesn’t work for ordinary people, and watching people fumble with UIs that weren’t designed for the wild, means that we’re costing people time and money. In private scenarios, not much can be done, but when we’re dealing directly with the public, there’s a responsibility for someone to ask the question — why? — and to track down a solution.

My frustrations aren’t about politics. It’s about policy. Politicians come and go, policies outlive them. I have no illusions that even successfully fixing policy will end the negativity we’ve seen from top to bottom, but it’ll enable a lot more people to get a fairer shake out of life.

The Cost of Timestamps

Growing up, I loved getting mail. I recall waiting for the mailman on days when I was home. How much mail does a pre-teen get anyway? Not a lot. Some postcards, a note from my aunt stationed in Germany. Eventually, college packets and other junk would arrive as I got older. Instant messaging had at least a modicum of friction because it existed in a world where most people at home weren’t always online. I recall putting up an away message or letting people know when I’d be back, so there wasn’t an expectation they were being ignored.

These days, it’s almost impossible to keep up with everyone wanting a second of your time in one form or another.

In her book, Alone Together, Shirley Turkle explores this modern conundrum.

“Texting offers just the right amount of access, just the right amount of control. She is a modern Goldilocks: for her, texting puts people not too close, not too far, but at just the right distance. The world is now full of modern Goldilockses, people who take comfort in being in touch with a lot of people whom they also keep at bay.”
― Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Nobody talks about the price of stamps as much as they used to, because we so rarely send personal letters. Postage matters when you care about Amazon sending you a flat rate package faster, but gone are the days of obsessing over the right amount of stamps for sending individual letters to your pen pal or friend across the pond who you haven’t called in weeks because it’s too expensive to do all of the time.

As marketers and product people, how often do we consider people’s time in our design? I’m not talking about page load times or the opaque “time on page” metric in Google Analytics. I once joked on Twitter that app designers should make their apps with the idea that people are driving 60 mph reading whatever it is on the screen. It’s a horrifying thought at first, but how much are we considering the stress cases that are a lot more unique than our ideal personas would have us believe. Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher explore this in “Design For Real Life”:

“As you write your personas and scenarios, don’t drain the life from them: be raw, bringing in snippets of users’ anecdotes, language, and emotion wherever you can. Whoever picks these personas up down the line should feel as compelled to help them as you do.”

Designers need to ask better questions about our complicity in a world that makes people more anxious through tools aimed at making our lives better. It’s not only an exercise in self-control, it’s recognizing the unwitting ways that our desires for connection leave us tethered when we should be more present. It might sell fewer widgets, perhaps fewer people will check into your app more. But what about thinking aloud about being human in the ways that we construct and design for real people? So much of our design is created for an aggregated populace; we traffick in habits and trends rather than real experiences. This construct makes it easier to detach ourselves from the impact and outcomes of design decisions made in an open-office somewhere far from where regular people are using what we make.

As apps proliferate, we have to ask ourselves whether every intrusion is warranted. Instead of thinking of our product as the one solving problems others leave behind, we need to confront each interaction as an intrusion. Every time we ask someone to track what they did, when they did it and assume they meant it as a result, we’re creating an imprint that might trigger a domino effect that transforms their life — not always for the better.

Season 2 of #24hrsofstrategy


Season 2 of my ongoing series #24hrsofstrategy started tonight.

It won’t be 24 articles, mostly because Medium doesn’t support that. Nonetheless, I’m going to be talking about web management, the way things are and how we neglect people who manage our sites and why we need better education for ordinary web people.

Not just at expensive conferences, but in ways that people can actually get the information they need. So much of the conversations about design thinking or strategy are always high minded. They’re aimed at people who don’t work in the trenches, but are good at passing the ball to someone else to figure out how to actually get the work done. Or setting battle plans that don’t bear any resemblance to reality & hope it’ll be good enough.

We can do a better job. I’ve known this my entire career, because I’ve been at very stage of this process from the entry level guy punching above his weight to the dude in charge of an entire department of web managers across a disconnected network trying to figure out how to implement bad policy being given to me by people who don’t know what we’re actually going through; while deciding what I can do to provide actual air cover while my people on the ground get real work done.

Maybe this will resonate. Perhaps it won’t. I don’t know that I care anymore, I just needed to record the background, the struggles & my solutions for fixing what I see are problems.

Sometimes has to.

(P.S. Here’s the link to Season 1 in case you missed it. Season 2 will be a lot better though.)

Show Your Work

You probably have a job like I did. Maybe you’re even an intern. Whatever. Anyway, you have some job and you’re doing whatever they’re asking of you. Some days, that’s writing some stuff. Other days, maybe it’s design and code. Regardless, you’re always doing something.

Here’s the problem. When you work at the intersection of tech and you’re doing work that nobody else around you understands, it becomes necessary to develop a shorthand for communicating with laymen.

At the risk of burying the lede, you need to start showing your work. Document what you’re doing, because nobody will ever tell you to do it at work. It’s easy to get really good at your job by simply knowing what you know, melding your processes with whatever your organization requires. It’s tempting when you’re a lone ranger to eschew with formal processes, because “people aren’t going to it anyway.”

The reason is easy. It’s the reason people laugh watching The IT Crowd or the stereotype of the cranky, know-it-all tech person exists. Having started my career as an IT guy, I knew the trope well. When I switched to the web, I was adamant about making the work accessible to people. Frankly, this applies whether your job is making artisanal french fries or doing UX. Most jobs have a language, but unlike working on your car or the plumbing getting stuck, there’s not a real need to engage in the language of the web everyday. It’s not until something breaks or needs to be fixed, that you need to start understanding what your “web person” is talking about.

Most of the people reading this on Medium somewhere probably don’t identify with this. If you’ve got some great job at some bleeding-edge startup in some semi-hip city off the continental shelf, you’re not dealing with the things ordinary people do everyday. The ones who are too busy to tweet; with bosses skeptical of social media and wondering why everything on the web takes so long to actually make.

Everyone has some kind of process. Documenting what you’re doing, even if it’s just for you, is a good way to signpost throughout your process. If you’re about to embark on an effort you’ve never performed before — a web redesign, user research, content audit — take the time to do some research about what other people have done before you get started. Do a search for other people’s frameworks, adapt them and move on. It’s tempting when you’re a lone wolf in an organization to feel like you need to know everything. There’s no one around to tell you otherwise. In fact, it probably feels like people actually do expect you to know everything because in their minds “that’s what we hired you for.”

Part of being a subject matter expert is understanding how to learn. Having a documented process, more than anything, gives you a chance to look back years later at what you did and helps you improve your methods. It took me years to realize how critical it was to document mental models and other tools that I used consistently on projects both large and small throughout my career thus far. I have some tools I used a lot, but the process of actually keeping track of my own progress came fairly late for me.

You can start today.

Content Governance for the rest of us

During my #ConfabMN talk last week, we discussed among other things the various ways that enterprise content governance happens.

The first message I tried to impart is how within most organizations there’s not a culture of appreciating the challenges of managing large websites. It’s just low on the priority list. Often times, the people managing website who aren’t aware of the history of how we arrived at this place.

User roles are a fallacy based on the idea that people who manage web content have the time, talent or expertise to do it. When we first started managing websites, webmasters received content from everywhere and put it online. It eventually became too much for one person, so distributing the content management responsibilities across the company made sense. Often times, the people we gave permissions to manage aspects of the website were versed in some level of HTML or were easily trainable. Nobody wants extra work and the notion that you’re going force people to manage their content by putting it in their job descriptions. Yet, we hear of clients often whose leadership propose this very strategy of governing content.

Fast forward to 2015 and none of these things are necessarily true. Getting people to manage content is often like pulling teeth. This leaves websites with old or outdated content and leaves those of us responsible for bringing these disparate silos together on the web in a tough position to bring it all together.

Do your people know how to get content from their desks to the website?

There is no perfect model of governing content.

Stop! Drop! Roll! is is a helpful thing we tell kids in elementary school (here in the US anyway) if they find they find their clothes on fire. I have no idea how much this happens anymore, but the bottom line is, it sticks with you.

I propose a simple way of helping your end users understand how to get content to you in the same fashion. The high-level conversations of strategy are too alienating and don’t focus well enough on business goals in an environment where senior leaders are shifting priorties elsewhere. Only when you make digital properties relate directly to the bottom line, do I find that you’re able to resonate across silos.

During my Confab talk, I asked the audience what percentage of them believed that if you asked any random person in their companies how to get a piece of content from their desk published to the website, whether that person would be able to answer the question. Barely anyone raised their hands.

We’re spending an increased amount of time talking about the tactics surrounding content publishing and investing lots of resources into the tools of content management without focusing on the processes.

The trick is: there isn’t one.

It’s dependent largely on the way your company is setup, the structure and organization of your web content infrastructure.

Here are some models we’ve devised after seeing lots of different governance structures inside diverse companies and organizations:

Single-Payer Model

  • Every user has some skin in the game related to the CMS. Whether they are trained to edit content or approve content, the single-payer model gives everyone in the organization a relationship with the content management platform.
  • The problem? Hard to enforce. Also, once people have put their content in the CMS, many of them never want to deal with it again and would appreciate if you’d never, ever speak with them about it.

Most people responsible for managing websites are not empowered to implement widespread strategy or affect massive organizational change.

Policy-Based Model

  • Assemble a committee of stakeholders, preferably with at least one senior member. Work together to establish or revise existing policies that give you a baseline to manage content.
  • Policies can envelope responsibilities for governing content across departments, content on platforms outside of the CMS, approved tools and more. The key is to ensure policies are fluid enough to be workable in most scenarios rather than constraining the people in charge of managing your sites.
  • Problem: The policy-based model often requires a unique amount of consensus coupled with a leadership willing to delegate core responsibilities to subordinates. While we’ve seen the policy-based model work — and it’s the most common setup — it can be fraught with other challenges like outdated policies that once codified are hard to revise and a lack of senior stakeholder engagement that leads to stagnation once you’ve assembled a committee.

Centralized Model

  • Content is managed & approved centrally by a team. This can be done departmentally or company-wide. This ensures that areas like legal, marketing and product teams are part of the content development process. Provides support to web managers and takes the burden off one person or a small team to chase down folks to get content.
  • Bad news is having all of the power rest in one area, department or person is great when things are going well. It’s less good when things aren’t working as well. Having policies in tandem with a centralized model seem to work best for the people we’ve talked to.

Head Person In Charge Model

  • The closest thing to the old “webmaster” model where one person has control of pretty much the entire digital presence. A lot of people think this model no longer exists, but there are still lots of smaller institutions that leave the website in control of a centralized web person embedded in marketing or some related office.
  • There are lots of issues with this model, but the most challenging is what happens when the smart person you’ve entrusted with everything decides to leave. The vacuum of knowledge often leaves with that person and unless there’s 1) a lot of documentation and 2) a period of transition, you risk going backwards in your digital operations as a result. Ways that end users are used to interacting with one person might dissipate and leave you starting from scratch.
  • The other thing about the HPIC model is often that someone has responsibility for management of the website, but someone else has authority over the presence. This leader is often divorced from the day-to-day process of managing content which can cause many problems depending on the challenges faced by the team executing content from communication to funding breakdowns.

Bumper Car Model

  • I explained the bumper car model as “a bunch of people running into reach other, not communicating and trying to do a lot of the same things at the same time at varying speeds.”

Governance is not a topic that will move the need in most organizations. It’s our job to bring it down to Earth in measurable ways that help people understand how it can help us do our jobs better, save resources and improve communication.

Never stop practicing: Why I started making Vine videos

The problem with moving up the ranks is you do less and less of the hands on work. In my most recent role, this really bothered me more than it had in the past. In previous jobs, I’d always had a hand (or more than that) of doing things regardless of what my title was. But all of a sudden, my new job was to go to a lot of meetings and drone on about policy and strategy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m really good at that. I haven’t met a meeting I couldn’t cut in half and even when you can’t do that, I am perfectly fine in situations where we have to handle the business of tactics. It’s where I thrive.

I still like being connected to the work. I encourage my staff to come to me and talk about the things they’re building. I’ll often peer around in code and see how things are built. I want them to be excited about the things that are happening on the dev side and I made use of administrator rights to understand how the system worked because if everyone leaves, I felt like it was important for me to know how to keep operations managed.

That brings me to Vine.

One of the other issues with leading a digital media operation is how little time you get to actually play with the tools that we’re using. We didn’t use Vine much at my last spot, so this wasn’t the specific tool. It’s been around a while and I hadn’t had a real use for it. I don’t watch many despite friends who will often try to get me to watch them.

Sports fixed this problem for me.

As I spend my time on other things, my love of sports doesn’t abate. I just spend less time keeping up with the day-to-day of things. So that’s where a tool like Vine is really helpful. Whether it’s remembering a highlight, meme or something, I really liked how it was a way to stay connected to the action.

As a baseball fan, this was particularly frustrating because MLB teams aren’t the best at staying connected to Vine in-game as opposed to other sports (like the NBA) where you can get in-game Vines easily. It wasn’t a major league baseball game that drew me to Vine, it was this bat flip from a Korean game.

No one had made a Vine. As with many baseball highlights, I didn’t expect it would ever get made. Baseball has the 2nd oldest fanbase after golf, so the people who make Vines probably aren’t watching. Therein lies our conundrum.

Since that maiden Vine I made myself (which has looped 12k times since I posted it) I’ve dove back in a few times and have apps on my phone that make cutting Vines a lot easier. None of this is groundbreaking for those who spend their days doing this, but for someone who is social media savvy otherwise, being able to play with a tool that I didn’t use for work — just for myself — was the best way for me to get a handle on how to use it and developing tactics around it.

As more and more digital leaders elevate to the C-suite, executive boards and leadership teams, it’s critical for us not to lose sight of what got us here in the first place. Whether it was tinkering, developing, building and being brainy at 3am, maintaining your love for the tools and being willing to immerse yourself without a bottom line is the key to staying sharp.