The Dawn of the Understanding Age

December 20, 2012

understandingage

Time to shift our priorities from making more information to making sense

I’m officially calling for an end to the Information Age.

For the past 60 years or so, we’ve made outstanding progress with information. Ever since we transformed the nature of information from something fixed and static to something fluid and dynamic, we’ve opened up whole new worlds of opportunity for its creation, transmission, storage and retrieval. We have become highly efficient at producing tools for generating content, establishing platforms for publishing, and designing systems for archiving, searching, and sharing information. The fact that we can now interact with so much information in so many ways using so many different devices (most of them portable) is a staggering achievement. In a sense, this is information’s Golden Age.

But we pay a steep price for all these advancements. We continue to struggle with the growing volume and complexity of what we create. Whole industries have formed for the sole purpose of managing information, from information technology to information science, but these efforts suffer from their own self-perpetuated complexity, like ever-changing standards, elaborate systems design, and cryptic jargon. We now suffer from information overload, information anxiety, infobesity, and other info-ailments. On the flip side, some of us welcome the deluge and become hooked on the steady stream of information available to us, giving rise to the infovore and information addiction. In the case of either too much or not enough information, our attention spans have shrunk, our concentration has become fractured, and our memory has been offloaded to a hard drive somewhere.

Along with these challenges, the quality of information design and delivery has fallen short of people’s real-world needs. We may possess better tools and techniques than ever for presenting data and packaging information, but the results still favor the form of information rather than the function, or as Richard Saul Wurman would put it, the performance of information. We’ve grown too accustomed to the idea of having designed information pieces and online experiences do all the heavy lifting of explaining something, but we overlook the shortcomings of the artifacts we create, placing the burden of figuring it out on an already overloaded audience.

We’ve been too deeply enamored with the technical and technological aspects of information, all the while neglecting to adequately bridge the gaps we’ve created in human understanding.

It’s time to usher in the Understanding Age.

Just like the resurgence of classical learning and ideals in the Renaissance and the triumph of scientific reasoning during the Enlightenment, the Understanding Age will bring about a renewed focus on human needs in communication and a deep appreciation for sensemaking and teaching skills. The key to the Understanding Age will be the adoption of information design thinking skill as an essential universal capability, like math, writing, and logic. Professional information designers won’t be the only ones expected to make sense of data or create organizing structures for content (although their expertise will remain vital to tackling complex problems). We all will need to become better explainers and start taking more responsibility for the way we communicate with each other, regardless of intent, discipline, or medium.

The implications of a widespread consciousness-raising for understanding could be significant. One of the biggest transformations I envision (and hope for) could happen where it’s been long overdue — in those difficult life situations where guidance is hardest to find:

  • Starting and raising a family
  • Dealing with serious illness
  • Coping with loss
  • Surviving and recovering from a natural disaster
  • Launching a new business

(Even without doing an exhaustive analysis, the most understanding-deficient areas of life turn out to be money, health/well-being, and law. Why that is will remain a topic for another post.)

Just imagine: instead of having to plow through scores of books, brochures, websites, and videos or make countless phone calls to family, friends, and “customer service” lines when you need help with, say, a healthcare issue, all the support you need could be available in one place or through one point of contact who would take the time to explain everything to you clearly. The information you’re looking for could be available precisely at the point of need, never too far out of reach. And none of it would seem unusual — it would just be the way things are done. Does this sound like an episode of the Twilight Zone?

I could list many more examples of what an Understanding Age could bring about for education, business, government, and society, and build a better case for such a movement, but the benefits are readily apparent. If information design thinking became widely embraced and practiced, we might solve for many of the social and economic challenges we face today.

The idea of an Understanding Age might be too aspirational, but some of the groundwork for this vision has already been laid. Information design, information architecture, and data visualization have grown in popularity and have slowly evolved into more recognized practices. The infographics wave, for better or worse, has raised awareness of information design by pushing it into the mainstream. Visual thinking as an enabler of understanding continues to gain traction. The continued popularity of design thinking and the growing formalization of user experience as a discipline have both helped to make user-centered design a priority for many businesses and organizations. Gradually, the importance of more mindful communication and the desire for skill-building to practice it effectively will catch on.

At a small scale, some basic principles for everyday communication can help make a difference:

  • Challenging policies and practices that deliberately conceal and confuse (a big one!)
  • Thinking systemically about what you’re communicating and how it fits in an ecosystem of touchpoints
  • Distancing yourself from your content and assuming a beginner’s point of view
  • Weeding out ambiguities in your language, like acronyms and technical expressions
  • Diagnosing barriers to understanding through questions and feedback from your audience
  • Encouraging more direct person-to-person dialogue, instead of device-to-device exchanges over email and text
  • Being patient when someone needs more explanation

and, most important of all

  • Never assuming anything

If we can’t start the next chapter in history right away, we can at least try to make each other’s lives a litte easier.

 


After Hurricane Sandy

November 15, 2012

View from my front door the morning after Hurricane Sandy, October 30, 2012

It is seventeen days after Hurricane Sandy. I’m sitting in my small home office bundled in three layers of clothing, with power but still without heat or hot water. Outside, the sun is bright and the flood waters have long since receded. Only water lines four to five feet high remain on the sides of homes and across garage doors. Many cars have still been left untouched since the storm surge, all with one rear wheel curiously hoisted onto the curb and windows fogged over. (My own car was a total loss.) Trash still piles high on the curb, partly from the ongoing cleanup of basements and partly from renovations already underway. City sanitation workers have been on the job almost every day since the hurricane, switching from garbage trucks to construction equipment and dumpsters to manage the volume of refuse in the streets.

There has been constant activity in my neighborhood. Several days after the storm, the National Guard came to evacuate people and relocate them to shelters, although few chose to leave. For the past two weeks, Red Cross trucks served hot meals and gave out food regularly, as well as cleaning kits and blankets. City council people and others contributed to the relief effort by rationing out meals to each household. One day I even received a military MRE (meal ready to eat), complete with a self-heating packet and elaborate instructions.

Plumbers, electricians, and other contractors park their vans and pickup trucks all along my street. Out of misfortune comes opportunity and a sudden surge of business; for some, work will last months, even years. Scrap metal collectors make more frequent rounds here, snapping up waterlogged appliances, rust-covered furniture, and anything else that might translate to cash. In the days immediately after the storm, looters also roamed through my neighborhood in search of evacuated homes, valuables left outside to dry, and unsecured generators, but nighttime police patrols and curfews helped curb their activities.

My neighbors — homeowners, business owners, and tenants alike — are faced with a new reality now: vulnerable homes, altered lifestyles, mounting expenses, and the sheer complexity of navigating the insurance claims process, federal assistance programs, personal finances, and home repairs, not to mention continued challenges with transportation and utilities. While some help is available from FEMA volunteers on the ground and the local Disaster Recovery Center, getting one’s bearings in the aftermath of a sudden disaster is a self-driven process aided by family and friends. To my surprise, neighbors who historically never spoke to one another were suddenly coming together as a community to help each other through the prolonged power outage (6 days for my street), sharing generator power, cell phones, food, and stories of shared loss. Whether that sense of community will last remains to be seen.

I may have lost much in the flood, but I still have a home and consider myself extremely lucky. I had family nearby who were largely unaffected and with whom I could stay until heat is restored (I have never appreciated a hot shower and a warm bed more than I do now). I had friends who provided supplies and transportation when I couldn’t get around. And I had my health and well-being intact so I could be on my feet to handle the massive cleanup of my basement and garage, despite the cold, dampness, and mold.

It will take me some time to fully process what I have experienced since October 29. Luxuries, conveniences, and necessities in life have been forever redefined. What does it mean to be secure? What does a comfortable life look like? And how much stuff is really enough? When I was packing my bag in case I had to be evacuated, I was forced to draw a very sharp line between what was truly important to me — for my safety, security, and livelihood — and what wasn’t. Never before had I confronted that decision so seriously. After the storm, as I filled trash bag after trash bag with everything from old electronics and housewares to soaked books from my treasured art and design library, it dawned on me how few of those things I actually made use of but simply owned because I could. Part of me wanted to keep everything and just dry it out somewhere (there was no room), but the more sensible side of me knew to let go and move on. Even my knowledge of what to do in an emergency situation is embarrassingly and inexcusably low, regardless of where I live.

In reflecting on this whole ordeal, I recall the words of change management expert Darryl Conner: “It is not the surprises in life that are so debilitating. The truly crushing force is being surprised that you are surprised.” He sure wasn’t kidding. Sudden, debilitating change can happen anywhere and at any time, whether it’s caused by nature or by humans. We can’t avoid it, but we can do better to prepare our person, our property, and above all, our state of mind, to get through it safely.


Redefining Service

October 23, 2012

Service is a part of everyday life, but what is good service and why is it so hard to get?

As a designer, I view and practice design through the lens of service. I’m not referring to service design or any particular design specialty, but the concepts of providing a service, being of service, and delivering quality service. Lately, I’ve been thinking about what good service means, and doesn’t mean, in the context of career paths and human behavior.

One insight into the nature of service came from a very unlikely place. Back during the 1980’s New Age movement, I stumbled upon Dan Millman’s semi-autobiograpy, Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Perhaps it was the cover art that attracted me to it, but nevertheless, the story was compelling — a modern-day hero’s tale of self-realization spurred by a chance encounter with a mysterious mentor called Socrates. The application of Eastern wisdom to inherently Western problems of material attachment and perpetual unhappiness was nothing new, but the real-world context of this particular narrative struck a chord with me at the time.

Recently, I took a chance on the 2006 movie adaptation of the book, Peaceful Warrior. It’s a mildly entertaining remake with some peculiar casting (Nick Nolte plays a convincing Socrates), but it does home in on the more instructive moments in Dan’s story. Early in his journey as a cocky, overambitious college athlete, Dan criticizes Socrates for doing nothing better with his life than working at a gas station. Socrates, in his wisened, gravelly voice, corrects Dan: “This is a service station. We provide service.” Indeed, he does much more than pump gas — he attends to the needs of his customers, whether it’s an oil change, a windshield cleaning, a tire pressure check, a snack, etc. Service is not defined by the form of service. Rather, the capacity to serve is channeled in many different ways. Dan learns this lesson by briefly working at the service station himself, eventually breaking down his ego to the point where he can productively start down the warrior’s path.

For many of us in the service industry, our respective professional paths are matters of choice as well as of circumstance, and not always tied to a higher purpose. We may jump on a great opportunity, find an arrangement that suits our lifestyle, or simply take what we can get to make ends meet. Our employment decisions might only hinge on two factors: the work (what we’re skilled at and expected to do) and the reward (what we get for our effort).

What we often don’t stop to consider is the service — how well we meet both the unspoken and expressed needs of those we serve. We praise it when it’s great and raise hell when it’s not, but we don’t always articulate what exactly makes good service. In a way, defining good service and how to deliver it is like describing the soft, subtle traits that we admire in someone, like a reassuring tone of voice or a well-timed comment at an awkward moment; to dissect the idea is to somehow rob it of its magic. There are probably dozens of training regimens designed to teach people how to be more customer centered and provide top-notch service, but I think that developing a true service orientation involves a little more than that.

I’ve listed seven aspects of service that I think challenge the notion of what good is or should be. These are just some initial thoughts, with plenty of room for discussion:

1. “It’s not my job.” Who hasn’t heard or said this at some point? It’s easy to believe that doing a good job means meeting a framed expectation imposed by an employer. In some cases, perhaps it is sufficient. Occasionally, straying from a neat and tidy list of job responsibilities is necessary when a pre-defined solution isn’t handy or there’s no one else to hand the problem off to.

2. It means going the extra mile for someone. We have grown so accustomed to receiving the minimum level of attention from store clerks, utility companies, cable providers, and many others, that “exceptional” service actually surprises us. Such attentiveness might be considered a fluke. With the gradual shifts in business from higher efficiency to higher quality, and the impact of companies like Zappos in reshaping customer expectations of service, higher levels of service might someday become the norm.

3. You can fake good service. I really don’t think that’s possible. Good service requires authenticity to be successful, not to mention genuine satisfaction. Hints of insincerity or contempt for the customer always show through.

4. You have to pay more for good service. This view upholds the belief that money and social ranking should dictate how one gets treated in life. Five-star hotels and top-rated restaurants pride themselves on impeccable service, but only for special clientele. Service models tied to the sense of entitlement and exclusivity associated with wealth (ie, “white glove” service) will probably never go away, but they shouldn’t promote unfair or unequal service across the board.

5. It costs more to deliver good service. On the flip side of #4, companies may make financial investments in hiring better qualified people, contracting the design of more effective processes and workflows, and incorporating newer technology with the intent of improving service. These measures can certainly help when done right, but investing time and energy in understanding people and their needs would probably yield more insights with less expense.

6. Service is about transaction. A plain old job is about transaction, but service is always about a relationship — a human connection over a shared concern. Good service creates a positive experience that a) makes you feel good about your decision to interact with a service provider, b) makes you want to go back again, and c) makes you want to tell everyone you know so they can have the same experience. The idea of “doing business” with someone fades away when value is tied to what you share, not to what you get from each other.

7. Service matters less when it’s not face-to-face. At some point in our history, it became acceptable to lower the standards of customer service when it shifted to call centers, interactive voice response systems, e-mail/online forms, live chat, and other faceless channels. Now social media are expected to fill a customer service void created by the proliferation of devices and constant connectedness, but the promise and the reality are miles apart. One recent case of poor customer service on social media drew attention from the press, but there are probably many similar cases where a social presence did less to serve customers than it did to satisfy a social strategy checklist. Social media are pervasive and ubiquitous, but I’m not sure they succeed at being personal and responsive where it really matters.

There is yet no replacement for direct human contact. We can’t reproduce the empathy, rapport, and basic feeling of being heard that the presence of another living human being in front of us can provide, nor can we convey the nuance of communication through our many growing channels. No surrogate technology can deal with our messy lives, unpack our clumsy ways of expressing ourselves, or guide us to an answer that solves our problem or just makes us feel better.

We have a lot more work to do to humanize our interactions, but it won’t take more incentives, training, and intermediary channels. Service is an inner motivation to do good for someone without being told to do so, and without seeking personal gain. Channeling that drive into one’s work is the key to good service because it is a natural extension of oneself. To conjure the Eastern philosophy of Socrates, good service isn’t something you create — it is who you are.


Putting Visual Thinking to Work

October 16, 2012

Much like other crossover sensations from the creative world such as design thinking and information design, the visual thinking phenomenon has sustained interest for some time now. From the most staid corporate institutions to the most enlightened young startups, visual thinking techniques are being sought after as part of a new business toolkit in the quest to create “cultures of innovation.” Post-its, whiteboards, and flipcharts are infiltrating once stodgy conference rooms and work spaces. Unbridled creativity — not industrial-era efficiency — is the key to better products, smarter services, and increased profit.

But behind the glowing promise of the vizthink movement, a challenge persists for many in the business world: how best to harness the power of visual thinking to achieve real results?

There are already countless answers to that question tied to specific practices. Some would argue that free-form “doodling” (now scientifically proven to aid attention and memory) is integral to more engaging meetings because it ensures participants are actively tracking along with the conversation. Others might champion visual facilitation methods such as graphic recording, the mural-style translation of words to pictures, as the key to making strategy sessions memorable. There’s also the smorgasbord of activities known as gamestorming, meant to enrich collaboration by incorporating elements of play into the workplace. But for the beginner unsure of where to get the most value out of visual thinking, the variety of options can be difficult to navigate, and the time and energy it takes to reach a conclusion on one’s own can be daunting.

A number of guiding lights provide practical instruction and systems for learning core visual thinking principles, yet there is still room to close the gap between the vision of vizthink and everyday workplace realities.

Thinking First, Visuals Second

It’s easy to think that beautifully penned sketchnotes or delightfully illustrated graphic recordings are the hallmark of good visual thinking: they demonstrate great technical skill and creativity, and they certainly appeal to the eye. In reality, they might only succeed at just the visual part while providing little insight or fuel for the thinking part. Quite often, the artistic production of these visual artifacts takes precedence over the process that they support and the outcomes they are meant to deliver. To be blunt, if a visual fails to convey an idea clearly, enhance understanding (for oneself and for a group), inform decisions, or drive toward a goal, then it benefits no one. Visual thinking is more than just drawing for the sake of drawing, capturing something for posterity, or aiding memory. It boosts our capacity to process information and create new knowledge by enabling specific cognitive tasks. In a business context, visual thinking facilitates knowledge work in teams by dissolving communication barriers and allowing many different minds to work together towards a common goal. It is the glue of human collaboration.

Different Modes for Different Goals

At a fundamental level, visual thinking operates in three modes, with corresponding tools and techniques:

GENERATING

Visual thinking is generative — that is, it relies on the output of ideas and content in tangible, visual form. It may sound simplistic, but without the externalization of thought in some representational form — text, drawing, symbol, etc. — visual thinking cannot happen past the mind’s eye.

Doodling is the most common generative activity since it channels stream of consciousness thoughts in an unstructured form. The lack of inhibition and freedom to put pen to paper that doodling affords, rather than the quality of visual output, is perhaps of greatest value when solving problems. Related activities such as graphic recording and sketch-noting are also generative in that they convert spoken and written thoughts into pictures, with the intent of making key ideas resonate in memory. Mind mapping and visual brainstorming also fit in this category since they allow many ideas to be generated rapidly.

ANALYZING

Visual thinking can also be analytic. It breaks down raw content to uncover patterns and define relationships. Tied to the generative function, analysis cannot occur without something to analyze, such as meeting notes, PowerPoint decks, and other documents.

Analysis seeks to create order and includes non-drawing-based methods that take advantage of spatial relationships. Pinning up, clustering, and color-coding materials are classic ways to organize content into categories for analysis. Visual frameworks such as axis plots, charts, and graphs help capture and distill the findings of analysis into a usable form.

SYNTHESIZING

Finally, visual thinking can be synthetic by combining previously disparate or disconnected ideas to create newer and clearer ones. Synthesis typically feeds off of the findings of an analysis and produces tighter pictures of a situation than previously known.

Synthesis can take the form of diagrams, concept sketches, and visual stories, among other methods. Multiple iterations strengthen synthesis: trial and error with different formats, configurations, and graphic approaches ensures that all essential elements of an explanation work together to communicate effectively.

All three modes of visual thinking are essential to problem solving, but I find that the real power of visual thinking lies in the second and third modes. This is where the thinking side of the equation really shines — where “aha” moments happen.

Finding the Right Mode for the Job

With a basic understanding of visual thinking’s distinct but related functions, it’s easier to diagnose common work situations and take action. Here are six common scenarios and some possible approaches:

Do you need to get a quick grip on a situation?

GENERATE: Draw a very simple picture of what you know and don’t know — who’s involved, what their roles are, where the situation is happening, etc. Add to the picture as you learn more, even if the picture gets messy. You can take a more considered approach once you know what you’re dealing with.

Do you need to dig deeper and learn more?

GENERATE: Ask probing questions to capture as much information as possible verbally, using visual frameworks as needed when words get cumbersome (eg, organizational structures, process flows, etc). Just stick to generating facts without making assumptions or drawing conclusions.

Do you need to sort through research or extract the most essential information from a pile of documents?

ANALYZE: Read through the content in several passes until you see a pattern emerge. Pin up, number, color, stack, label — use whatever means necessary to clearly distinguish one category from another. Track your findings along the way to synthesize later.

Do you need to put all the facts together and see the big picture?

SYNTHESIZE: Explore multiple different ways to put together the key findings from your analysis until the story or message comes through clearly. Aim for balance and visual harmony rather than superfluous detail to refine the picture.

Do you need to come up with ideas for something?

GENERATE: Try visual brainstorming. Take a stack of index cards (or post-its) and draw one idea per card, using only enough visual detail to get the idea across quickly. Go for quantity and pin them up or arrange on a table for analysis only when you’ve exhausted all possibilities.

Do you need to explain a concept to colleagues?

SYNTHESIZE: Sketch out the three to five important points you want to highlight in your story, then draw and redraw until your pictures are both complete and easy for your audience to understand. Rather than jump to PowerPoint, consider presenting in storyboard format or in a sequence of flipchart drawings. This format saves time and invites additional comments and feedback.

There are many more techniques (and entire systems) available to accomplish the above tasks depending on the situation, time/location constraints, and whether you are working solo or in a group. As a general rule, I find that simpler is always better when it comes to doing visual thinking in a business setting. Setup should be easy, tools and materials should be readily available, and visual methods should maximize inclusion and understanding — always keep everyone engaged and the process flowing. With experience, one comes to realize that almost any challenge can be made manageable with a keen situational awareness, a few workhorse pictographs and frameworks, and a bare-bones toolkit.

 

Technical note: I’ve started using Bamboo Paper on my iPad more frequently these days. It’s tremendously helpful in creating natural-looking drawings and outputting them digitally. The visuals in this post and the last were created with this method.


Explaining Myself

October 10, 2012

I talk a lot about information design and the confusion surrounding it, but I realize I’ve done very little to demystify what exactly it is that I do. Since my work is a hybrid of disciplines, it’s difficult to map my expertise to an existing, well-defined role or title that anyone might readily recognize. My present high-altitude explanation — helping people make sense of their world in order to solve problems, uncover opportunities, and achieve their goals — conveys the benefit of what I do conceptually. Following up by listing my three skill areas (creative problem solving, visual thinking, and information design) and introducing a new umbrella term (strategic information design) adds more detail but might potentially result in less clarity, as each realm of practice suffers from its own lack of definition and poor widespread understanding. (Besides, who isn’t “strategic” these days?) A perfectly concise and direct elevator pitch still remains elusive; I often find that it takes me more words and some key visual examples to get to “aha” when meeting new people and answering the perennial question “so, what do you do?”

It’s time for me to explain myself a little better. To start, let me unpack what each skill area entails in simple terms:

1. Creative Problem Solving

This is the foundation of what I do. It combines process knowledge, individual problem solving preference knowledge, and group facilitation skill. This can also be described as helping people define and achieve a goal. Not having deep subject matter expertise is an advantage in problem solving facilitation, as it frees me to ask basic questions that often lead to insights hiding “in plain sight.” Tangible results are:

  • A clear roadmap to results
  • Focused meetings and group activities
  • Clear action items along the way to drive momentum

2. Visual Thinking

This skill is focused on modeling ideas visually to speed understanding. It reduces ambiguity in conversation by translating words and concepts into pictures. It also allows real and imagined states to be visualized, such as a problem in the present and solution in the future. Tangible results are:

  • Rapid knowledge capture and synthesis
  • More productive and inclusive meetings
  • Useful takeaways (in the form of clear meeting sketches) to preserve insights from conversation

3. Information Design

This is the logic that governs effective communication. Closely linked to visual thinking, it involves the creation of systems to organize ideas and other content to make them useful to the widest audience. I apply information design in the broadest sense, beyond pre-defined data. I work with people to uncover facts and organize them using visual frameworks, then iterate to produce the clearest, most compelling picture. Tangible results are:

  • Architectures to manage complex content
  • Crisp visualizations of refined thinking
  • Visual stories and communication tools

This blend of skills allows me to walk into any situation, quickly diagnose the problem(s), and help a client reach a new understanding of their challenges even before any actual work is done. Examples of typical interventions:

When a problem isn’t well defined or a situation has many moving parts, I can work with teams to draw out key facts and assemble a picture of the present that allows deeper investigation.

When a new strategy, initiative, or business idea is further along and needs explanation to different audiences, I can construct compelling visualizations that paint the big picture as well as provide detail where it matters.

When a new way of working is needed to address organizational change, I can help design stories and learning experiences that include workshops, training materials, and effectiveness evaluations.

Getting to where I am now wasn’t a linear path. I didn’t learn how to do this type of work at college, even though my journey as an information designer began there. Years of working on traditional design projects allowed me to build my design chops, but it left me wanting to do more with design than just create artifacts. My breakthrough came at Humantific, where I gained exposure to large, ambiguous challenges that pushed my limits as a designer. I realized that, while my skills as a craftsperson and form giver were still essential, my roles as sensemaker and thought partner were of much greater value to the clients I worked with.

Today, as I think about my role in the world, a peculiar challenge exists. There has never been a greater urgency for understanding and clarity across all dimensions of business and society, but awareness that help is available along a whole continuum of needs, especially upstream, is still lacking. Those who can truly deliver that support need to stand out better and communicate the value they bring in a more accessible way. This post, and more to follow, aim to solve that problem.


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