Unpublic spaces

[I]f you visit San Francisco … [y]ou’ll see people living in the streets, many of them mentally ill, yelling and cursing at imaginary foes. You’ll find every public space designed to make it difficult and uncomfortable to sit down or sleep, and that people sit down and sleep anyway. You’ll see human excrement on the sidewalks, and a homeless encampment across from the city hall. You’ll find you can walk for miles and not come across a public toilet or water fountain.

I finally got around to reading Maciej Cegłowski’s What Happens Next Will Amaze You, which has been much talked about recently. The topic of Cegłowski’s was the loss of privacy on the Internet and what can be done about it, but what struck me was the above passage describing design interventions in public spaces in San Francisco.

Dan Lockton has written about the these types of interventions as architectures of control. What strikes me about this type of design is that it often often solves the smaller problem. I was going to say “solving the wrong problem” but I think that’s not exactly right.

The larger problem here is obvious, but it is not an easy one to solve. The designers of these solutions (uncomfortable or nonexistent public seating, anti-homeless spikes, disappearing water fountains) seem to be asking one question: “How can we stop people from sleeping in public spaces?” A slightly different question—reframed by zooming out—might be, “How can we help the people sleeping in public spaces?”

Solving the smaller problem is usually easier. It also may also improve things or appear to improve things. There is, of course, the risk of hitting a local maximum that is inherent in all iterative design. In this case, though, solving the smaller problem appears to create another problem. By making a city progressively more hostile to the homeless, you make it hostile to everyone. In some sense, a “public space” starts to loose its meaning: can a space be said to be public if it aggressively discourages the public from using it?

I understand, though, how these smaller problems become the problem to solve. I understand how these solutions become reality. I’ve been in discussions where the smaller problem is being discussed, and someone else will try to bring up the bigger picture. The answer is often along the lines of “that’s not the problem we’re trying to solve here” or “that’s great, but we don’t have the time right now.” I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve been the one trying to open up the conversation and the one shutting it down.

I don’t have the answer to this right now. I do have more questions. How do we keep the big picture in mind when we’re working on the smaller problem? Can keeping the big picture in mind change our approach the smaller problems? How do we determine when the right time is to zoom out in order to focus on and discuss the big picture?

And of course, Cegłowski’s question is the hardest:

If at the height of boom times we can look around and not address the human crisis of our city, then when are we ever going to do it? And if we’re not going to contribute to our own neighborhoods, to making the places we live in and move through every day convenient and comfortable, then what are we going to do for the places we don’t ever see?

By focusing only on the smaller problems, we run the risk of inadvertently designing unpublic spaces, whether that be our town squares or the whole of the Internet. Keeping the bigger picture in mind is hard. It’s easy to get lost in the details.

Zooming out

Zooming out a little, we can see that an interaction generally forms a part of a much longer series of activities undertaken in pursuit of a goal. The web form represents one step in a purchasing process. The ATM machine is one of several channels through which deposits and withdrawals might be made. The ticketing booth opens the door to a convenient and energy-saving form of transport. From the perspective of the ‘user’ or ‘customer’ this series of interactions builds to create an experience in which each interaction is a ‘moment’. The quality of the experience is unique to the participant, and draws on a lifetime of experience and expectation.

I’ve often used the phrase “zooming out” on this blog as a sort of stand-in for think about the next larger context. My use of this phrase was probably inspired by a 2010 article by Steve Baty in which he describes why calls for interaction designers move beyond a narrow focus on interaction and start thinking about system design.

In rereading it, I’ve realised that the article had a huge impact on me, from my interest in transitions to my eventual focus on product management. It still informs the way I work. It’s one of those articles that I need to go back and reread periodically to remind me of why I do what I do and how I should be doing it.

Technology precedes needs

New conceptual breakthroughs are invariably driven by the development of new technologies. The new technologies, in turn, inspire technologists to invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them. In other words, grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible. Do people need them? That question is answered over the next several decades as the technology moves from technical demonstration, to product, to failure, or perhaps to slow acceptance in the commercial world where slowly, after considerable time, the products and applications are jointly evolve, and slowly the need develops.

Several years ago, Don Norman made a convincing argument that technology precedes our need for it. Rereading this article now, a few things strike me.

The first is that he is talking specifically about design research and its outcomes. Much of the discussion of the article came from a much broader audience which reacted as if he was speaking of design as a whole. There are some designers that I’d argue fall into the category of “technologist” in the sense that Norman uses it: “The new technologies, in turn, inspire technologists to invent things, not sometimes because they themselves dream of having their capabilities, but many times simply because they can build them.” That sounds like a lot of “designers” I know. Perhaps we’d call them “makers” these days (and perhaps that’s a better word).

The second thing that struck me is how long it took me to get my head around the way he used the word “innovation”. Early in the article, makes a distinction between two types of innovation: “conceptual breakthroughs” and “incremental improvements.” He then goes on to speak of “revolutionary innovations” and “grand, breakthrough innovations” which I assumed was the same as a “conceptual breakthrough.” On rereading the article I’m not sure this is the case.

The grand, breakthrough innovation is what professors love to teach their students, love to write about, and to discuss. But not only is it rare, even the occasional brilliant concepts are difficult to pull off. Yes, it is exciting to contemplate some brand new concept that will change people’s lives, but the truth is that most fail. The failure rate has been estimated to be between 90 and 95%, and I have heard credible, data-based estimates as high as a 97% failure rate.

Here, it seems to me that it is the “conceptual breakthroughs” fail. What interests me is his mention of “changing people’s lives.” He mentions it again later in the article:

Major innovation comes from technologists who have little understanding of all this research stuff: they invent because they are inventors. They create for the same reason that people climb mountains: to demonstrate that they can do so. Most of these inventions fail, but the ones that succeed change our lives.

Once again, these seem to be the “conceptual breakthrough” innovations (“inventions”). Some fail and others succeed and “change our lives.” What I find interesting here, is that I don’t consider either the “incremental improvements” or the “conceptual breakthroughs” to be innovations. Innovations have an impact on people and the society the live in. I don’t think we’re actually talking about innovation until Norman starts talking about the major / grand / revolutionary innovations.

It might seem that I’m splitting hairs here, and maybe I am. But it took me several readings of the articles to unpick the difference between Norman’s three kinds of innovation (“incremental improvements”, “conceptual breakthroughs/inventions” and “change our lives innovation”). I’m currently reading Scott Berkun’s The Myths of Innovation, and I like his straight-forward best definition of innovation: “Innovation is significant positive change.” Even better, I like the fact that he encourages people not to use the word at all. So in that spirit, here’s my understanding of what Norman is saying:

A technology is created. Someone (a technologist/inventor) has a conceptual breakthrough and invents a use for that technology. It is into a product and released into the market. The product may fail. If it doesn’t, it just may end up changing our lives. We won’t know we needed the technology until well after it’s been invented. Once we recognize that we need the technology, design researchers come along and research those needs and help to incrementally improve the product. (Or to use Norman’s tidy summary: “technology first, invention second, needs last.”)

The final thing that struck me on rereading the article was the discussion of “incremental improvements.”

Revolutionary innovation is what design companies prefer, what design contests reinforce, and what most consultants love to preach. But if you examine the business impact of innovation, you will soon discover that the most frequent gains come from the small, incremental innovations, changes that lower costs, add some simple features, and smooth out the rough edges of a product. Most innovations are small, relatively simple, and fit comfortably into the established rhythm and competencies of the existing product delivery cycle.

It sounds to me as if Donald Norman is describing a local maximum problem. The proposed solution to a local maximum problem is getting out the building and talking to our customers, i.e. design research. Norman does not think this is going to have as much as an impact as we’d like to think:

But the real question is how much all this helps products? Very little. In fact, let me try to be even more provocative: although the deep and rich study of people’s lives is useful for incremental innovation, history shows that this is not how the brilliant, earth-shattering, revolutionary innovations come about.

I’m not writing this blog to convince myself (or anyone reading it) of anything, but to explore the assumptions that underpin the way I live and work. And so, I’d like to leave this as a dangling question for the moment. Can design research go beyond the incremental improvements that attain to the uninspiring heights of a local maximum? Can it lead to significant positive change? I’m not sure of the answer. I’m not even sure it’s the right question. I suspect the right question might have more to do with creating more value than you capture.

Related posts

Local maximum

The local maximum is a point in which you’ve hit the limit of the current design…it is as effective as its ever going to be in its current incarnation. Even if you make 100 tweaks you can only get so much improvement; it is as effective as its ever going to be on its current structural foundation.

Joshua Porter discusses the idea of the local maximum, which he traces to Andrew Chen’s article on becoming a metrics-driven business. Both write of how to move beyond the local maxima. Both see this as a result of concentrating on quantitative versus qualitative data (e.g. interviews, usability testing, ethnographic research, etc.).

There are two points I’d like to make about this. The first is that the qualitative research is about what I often refer to as “zooming out.” Of course, better minds than mine have referred to it as considering the next larger context. Talking to other people, the people that actually use or might use your product radically changes your perspective.

The other point is that this can be painful. Seth Godin wrote a number of years ago about the pain of getting to “Big Max”:

The problem is that to get to Big Max, you need to go through step C, which is a horrible and scary place to be.

Having your perspective radically altered can mean that you need to make radical alterations. That’s never a very comfortable place to be.

Related posts

The view from above

I’ve spent a bit of time in and around San Francisco. I lived in Berkeley and worked in San Francisco for a summer. I’d visited a couple of times before that. When I moved over here, my Mom and sister moved to Santa Rosa, so I’ve been back to San Francisco more times than I’ve been back to Austin. But I never really understood the Bay Area until I went to Angel Island and climbed Mount Caroline Livermore. Suddenly, everything made sense. San Francisco, Golden Gate Bridge, Marin, the Richmond Bridge, Berkeley, the Bay Bridge and back again. I’d been in all those places. I’d seen them all on a map, but suddenly they all just clicked into place.

I’m not the only one who’s had this type of experience. This month’s Radiolab on the subject of Cities had this extraordinary account by Sxip Shirey of a very similar—and breathtakingly narrated—encounter with New York City from atop a rooftop in Brooklyn Heights.

There’s this intense fog, and the Twin Towers: the bottom of them are covered in the fog, but not the top, so it’s like they’re floating. There was a little cuticle sliver of moon in the sky, and the fog horns are going, and the boats are slowly moving. And there’s this breeze. And I had this brass penny whistle that my father had given me and I was playing it. And suddenly something clicked. I was like “Oh! That must… Those are all the bridges. That’s the Williamsberg Bridge. That’s the Manhatten Bridge. There’s the Brooklyn Bridge. That’s New York. It’s small now.”

This reminded me of Roland Barthes’ essay on The Eiffel Tower.

Take some view of Paris taken from the Eiffel Tower; here you make out the hill sloping down from Chai!lot, there the Bois de Boulogne; but where is the Arc de Triomphe? You don’t see it, and this absence compels you to inspect the panorama once again, to look for this point which is missing in your structure; your knowledge (the knowledge you may have of Parisian topography) struggles with your perception, and in a sense, that is what intelligence is: to reconstitute, to make memory and sensation cooperate so as to produce in your mind a simulacrum of Paris, of which the elements are in front of you, real, ancestral, but nonetheless disoriented by the total space in which they are given to you, for this space was unknown to you.

The above experiences all have two things in common that I think are important.

The first is that this is not the same as looking at a map. The city is laid out below, but the vantage point from which it is viewed is grounded in a specific place. It is at a fixed point, and this is fundamental to the experience. There is a relationship with the panorama that is missing entirely from the bird’s-eye view of a map.

The second is that the viewer already has first-hand knowledge of the city. She has traveled the streets, crossed the bridges, visited the monuments and buildings. It is only because of this knowledge that these various places—previously thought of a separate—can form a whole when viewed from above.

This leads me to two conclusions.

The first is that it is important to zoom out, to look at the next larger context. Whatever you’re working on—a web form, a web site, a pamphlet, a house—take a moment to climb to the highest vantage point and look at what you’re working on in the context of its surroundings.

The second is that a map or a “ten-thousand foot view” (you have my permission to roll your eyes) is useful. It’s a place to start, but it’s something very different from having a knowledge of the territory and taking in a panoramic view. It’s all too easy to confuse a map for this kind of holistic view from above.

Related posts