Bifurcated modalities

There is a youngish man who sits at the bus stop several days a week staring at his phone and watching something for what amounts to an 8-hour work day. I was at the grocery store the other day and heard the cashier talking about going home to stream and making a little money doing it. Both of these random experiences made me think about how I experience the world day-to-day and how it evolves rapidly.

I mean to explain the ways people experience the same society in dramatically different ways. This stratification has always existed between rich and poor, or because of people’s gender. The information age, coupled with free trade, has changed the landscape to the point where there’s a bit of a monoculture that permeates everyday life. People in far-flung places are culturally aware of what’s happening in dominant markets, whereas 30 years ago, the information flow was slower, less fragmented, and more localized.

In local markets, this manifests in ways where people can operate substrate without anyone knowing that’s a way to live at all. For someone with an office job who lives in the suburbs today and who might be over 40, they have no idea there are people younger than them who experience the world in very different ways than they did or even their parents did.

People growing up before the information age had relatively similar experiences, despite the improvements in nutrition technology and social advances. But in the information age, there are no common shows” that bind people because it’s possible to never listen to the radio and find your music through alternative sources. TV shows are streaming, and live sporting events are mostly on cable, leaving out people who don’t have access to those services or can’t get them from elsewhere.

It’s possible to do what you once did, but it’s harder to find community when people walk around with earbuds, and it’s harder to initiate a conversation about common topics because these things were always difficult, but it’s even harder now.

We need to be thinking not only about how these bifurcated modalities affect us but also how they impact our ability to develop empathy about how other people—our neighbors, fellow travelers, and others—experience the world.

July 30, 2023

The endless cycle of blogging

I’ve been blogging for more than half my life at this point. My first blog platform was Movable Type, and then it all went from there. Most of my blogs vanished either because I deleted them when I outgrew them or because of my penchant in the early 00s of letting domain names lapse. I bought my first domain — changeamerica.org — in 1996 and I had to mail the money to InterNic to get it, but I naturally let that one lapse too. Kinda silly, huh?

The hardest part of blogging when you know how to build a website, roll your own CMS, and have opinions on a web stack is getting started. If I had a dollar for how many times I started working on a site, only to get distracted by setting up something in the back end, I’d be able to buy a nice meal. Over the years, I’ve opted for easier solutions because ultimately, I just want to get ideas out. For a while, Twitter was useful for this because it mostly served the purpose of what a blog would do, I grew a decent sized audience for a nobody and so, there was no real point in creating a captive space for anyone.

Well, we all know how that worked out. So I’ve been pondering all year about getting back to owning my own blog” again, but rinse, wash, repeat the cycle from the second paragraph. Not to mention, when your job is web stuff and your hobbies are also on the internet, a bit of fatigue can set in at times.

So here we are now, trying this once again. My main goal is to write for myself. I always find that I do better when I’m using a blog as a documentation engine, rather than trying to gain a audience” or worrying about what people want to read from me. It’s an easier habit to keep up that way and I’ve been practicing by using my long dormant Substack about music to get back into the habit of writing about something. It’s still a chore at times, even when you’re writing once a week roughly, and it’s just for your friends, but the habit is still good nontheless.

I’ve already spent more time continuously in Portland than I have anywhere I’ve lived and I’ve been at my job longer than any single job I’ve ever had in my life, by a longshot. While this is all cause for a bit of celebration — yay, Ron is putting down roots” — it’s also been very jarring for me to make sense of what I’m doing, where I want to be, and most importantly, how I see the world.

The last few years, talking and writing about Consequence Design has given me an opportunity to think about my work from a different lens. Mostly, I have increasingly more opinions about the work, how we work, and how our framing of the work changes our perspectives about 1) how we frame problems 2) what we think is possible and 3) the lengths we’re willing to go to solve the problems, but this 4) assumes that we think there are problems at all.

Me doing an in-person event last fall during the Portland Design FestivalMe doing an in-person event last fall during the Portland Design Festival

At some point, I got tired of talking about it and just retreated to buy more books than I feel like shipping, and coupled that with my own understanding of history. I’ve become more observational, and think about design in broader terms than before. I’m less concerned about the minutia of design systems, and while I still geek out about good layouts, typefaces, and literally have a whole instagram account full of neon signs I like, (another area where I have opinions) I think that designers — people working in tech broadly — and public servants, and really everybody — need to have some discussions about what’s being done in our names and whether we’re going to have a say about it or not.

So yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot. There’s no guarantee I’ll share any of this stuff. But in theory, I’d like to write a lot and release my writing in the form of talk-style chap books. I’ve enjoyed when folks like Keller Easterling and Dan Hill did that with Strelka and I want to do it myself. There’s nothing like Strelka in the US, and I’m not an architect. (No, information architects don’t count, but we are real…)

Usually, the things I’ve started were because no one else did it first. Or I was part of a thing they did and it wasn’t very good. But I’m almost always inclined to be a joiner than a starter, but over the years, people would put me in the okay you’re gonna be in charge of this” role often enough that I’ve gotten fairly accustomed to it. It works okay, but I’m usually inclined to put the power back into their hands in key ways. I’m not so much interested in consensus, as much as I want to work with people who believers.

So I figure it’s time for me to get on the record (once again) about what i believe.

July 27, 2023

Why I keep coaching

Players have to earn trust, but I like building a culture where players have agency to help direct their practices. I’m very vocal about asking players things they want to work on, I’m not shy on abandoning ideas that aren’t working. As I’ve gotten further into this, I’m a lot more directive about what I’d like to see in matches, and I can be very reflective about the ways we need to improve.

My practices are fluid. Throughout my career, I’ve leveraged both technology and video as tools to help players improve. It’s harder to do in high school because of the resource-intensiveness of tennis (basketball teams can all be on the court at opposite ends, whereas 12 tennis players on one court is a lot.) but we make it work.

A lot of programs are pretty rigid about varsity status. In that, once the tryout” period is over, you can try again next year. If I ran a program at a school with cuts, or if it was a hyper-competitive, state championships above all culture, I’d have to adopt some of these methods too because of sheer practicality.

Because I’ve run a no-cut program that past few years, at a school with only tennis and track as spring girls sports options, I end up with a fairly large JV bench every year. Half of those JV players aren’t interested in playing competitively, but like practicing with their friends. The other half end up comprising our B-team and depending on their progress and who our opponents are, I’m very liberal about bringing them up to varsity. I’m especially this way about seniors, who through their participation and commitment earn that sort of reward if they’re showing up and putting in the work.

I operate a ladder out of necessity, but challenge matches on our team are rare because the season isn’t really comprised of enough time to make it worthwhile. Injuries, school assignments, trips, and other things will often shift the lineup on its own. If two players are particularly close in level, we leverage opportunities for them to test themselves in a higher spot or to pair together and try doubles.

Our best players are often ones brought by their friends to a practice to see how we operate. Players say people assume that a championship winning team must have a scary culture, based on their experiences with other sports, and when they see how chill” it is but that we still perform, entices them to come back and stick with it. After they get match action and realize how much progress they make in a short period, they sometimes become year-round tennis players.

I run a program that I’d want to participate in. It doesn’t mean it’s always easy. You don’t get what you want all the time. You can earn trust, role changes, and opportunities to try new things. I just don’t think it makes sense for a sport that’s so individual to be rigid, so I work to keep things interesting throughout the year.

Last year before the state tournament, I changed our entire pre-state week routine. We did our usual practice setup for the week of state (it’s different than the regular season, but I’m not telling you about it here) but I also changed up the normal routine with different activities at the end of each practice. One of those was bringing in a friend who teaches yoga to help us with flexibility. It was less about the yoga practice — though it went over well — and more about getting us off the court and focused elsewhere.

What brings me back year after year are the people. Not only my players, the parents, or our administrators. But the rival schools, seeing opposing teams kids grow up and improve too. So much of my professional life is through screens, tennis gives me an opportunity to switch up contexts and I learn as much about myself, as I think my players do.

May 19, 2023

Back in 2016, I made a booklist of interesting books I’d read over the years that were worth sharing, because at that time there was were way fewer people doing teach-ins” on twitter and so forth. The list used to live on Goodreads, but I deleted that account and never remade it.

Thankfully, Storygraph preserved the list and I added new books to it. I’m too lazy to add the new books, but you can track the whole list here on Storygraph.

Old List

In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528-1990, Quintard Taylor

Education of Blacks in the South 1860-1935, James D. Anderson

Trouble In Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow, Leon Litwack

Black Picket Fences: Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class, Mary Patillo

Rising from the Rails: Pullman Porters and the Making of the Black Middle Class, Larry Tye

The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia, Tim Tzouliadis

We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity, Tommie Shelby

Other People’s Children, Lisa Delpit

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, Geoffrey C. Ward

Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”: A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity, Beverly Tatum

The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality, Thomas Shapiro

Race and the Invisible Hand: How White Networks Exclude Black Men from Blue-Collar Jobs, Deidre Royster

Black on Red: My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union: An Autobiography, Robert Robinson

Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation 1968-98, James Cone

Blue-Chip Black: Race, Class, and Status in the New Black Middle Class, Karyn Lacy

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, Paul Tough

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority, Tom Burrell

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson

Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, Kenneth T. Jackson

Programming note, Forestry does not support full-post sharing RSS natively, and with it being phased out this month, I’m likely to look for a different solution for GUI blogging. This site does support blogging in a code editor and that’s fine — these are just markdown files — but I kind of prefer a CMS interface for whatever reason.

June 20, 2022 booklist

So this talk is really an anti-design designer talk. It was borne out of years of frustration from hearing speakers tell people — at least in the US — that all designers are bad, that they’re contributing to a larger problem, without really implicating the larger systems at play. This means people walk away feeling pretty terrible about the talk they just listened to, and don’t feel empowered to do much about what they see as problems themselves.

So this talk won’t do that. Instead, we’re going to reflect on the ways that structures and systems have failed us, because they’re built on an artifice of bad decision decisions. We’ll interrogated those decisions from the lens of the Designer’s Share of the problem.

In his influential book, Victor Papanek diagrams for us the Designers Share of the Problem which is only a sliver of the real problem. Of course, for most of us designers we think the opposite is true of this diagram. That if people just listened to us more, we’d often solve the problems. One part of this assumption is indeed true, that designers should be heard from more — not less — and I don’t mean in pithy tweetstorms that only encourage the rest of us to post our own. But rather, heard from quietly through the design of better experiences. What do I mean?

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What the Pandemic wrought

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It occurred to me when we started seeing arrows on supermarket floors in the US that service design had missed its moment. No service design book is equipped to prepare you for the world melting down, all of the dystopian movies you watch didn’t give you the tools to design ourselves out of crisis. Why? Because service design — at least in the US — is largely the domain of consultants trying to use post-it notes to convince folks to change stuff, but no one in the room has the power, the political capital, or the will to really change much of anything.

So where does that leave service design? Or interaction design? Or user experience? Will we be having the same boring UI vs. UX conversations in the next decade?

The problem with most design frameworks is the presumption of good. There’s an undergird of all design that implies that everyone is doing their best and implores us to assume good intent. The problem is, bad actors exist everywhere. These bad actors are not interested in your beneveloence, they’re concerned with their warped world views or heavily invested in their own myopia. They’re designing experiences for the people they know, the circles they live and work within and they’re pretty unconcerned with anyone else.

How does this manifest itself?

The Designers Share of the Problem is Liminal

Transition states aren’t owned explictly by anyone. What are we talking about? The liminal experience between interactions. Why do we still receive emails from a company we made one purchase from over a decade ago? A failed closure experience. Envision a universe where the right of a customer to break up is embedded in the process? Instead of a sales funnel that’s aimed at growing repeat customers, what if our goal was simply to provide the best experience one time and not tracking whether they’ll come back or not?

I realize this all signs a bit like heresy. After all, you’re probably in the business of growing clicks, views, eyeballs, or whatever else. Here’s the problem, most of your customers aren’t coming back no matter what you do and all of the reasons you presuppose they’re not are probably wrong, too.

The pandemic turned these liminal interactions on their heads, too. Overnight, we saw shops refusing to accept hard currency, restaurants being forced to leverage third-party systems to deliver food since they weren’t equipped to manage it, people remapped their habits and in many cases, stopped working in-person. There was no way to service design our way into this scenario, besides in some abstract war game or simulation event. Simply put, all of our assumptions were wrong and we’re still dealing with the fallout.

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Design isn’t equal

It’s worth noting that the examples I’ve presented above probably don’t resonate with you here in Norway. Local and EU laws are totally different than what we have in the States, and so any of you who visit the US semi-regularly or have family there will note how backwards we are with regard to many of the services and systems that you enjoy here like health care, worker protections, data privacy laws, and a host of other issues.

But while I’ve talked a lot about the consequences, let’s talk a little bit about the vision for what could make these things better? To do that, we’ll look at two industries that I don’t imagine interaction designers are spending much time contemplating — bar pilots and integrity engineers.

Wait, you let pilots run bars in America?

No, not those kinds of pilots. Bar pilots is master navigators whose help navigate ships through tricky waters based on their experience navigating ships. In this example, the Columbia River Bar is one of the world’s most trecherous stretches of water anywhere.

All vessels engaged in foreign trade are required to employ a Columbia River Bar Pilot licensed by the State of Oregon when crossing the Columbia River Bar. Each Columbia River Bar Pilot must hold an unlimited masters license and have served a minimum of two years as master of oceangoing vessels. Once aboard, the pilot assumes navigational conduct of the vessel using his or her experience and local knowledge to safely navigate the restricted channels of the Columbia River, and over the bar to and from sea.

https://www.loom.com/share/b9f17bee847e4e0da67841dc4b2f7682

What can designers learn from bar pilots? They know the terrain because they’ve been there before. I read a quote that said bar pilots can’t afford to be wrong.” Why? Because some 2,000 vessels and 700 souls have been lost on the Columbia River bar. That’s a lot more lives than your last retweet and design twitter still hasn’t cooked up a controversy this significant.

I imagine there must be some amount of ego lost in knowing someone else is going to jump onto your ship (and jump off) to help you navigate waters, and the whole thing sounds a bit crazy from the outside looking in. But think about the implications of having a system setup that says look, you might be trained but you’re not trained for this terrain and the unpredictability it’ll toss at you. So we’re sending help to ensure you make it out.”

People keep asking me what I mean when I say Consequence Design” and that’s precisely what I’m talking about. There has to be a way for us to get to the crux of these important experiences without spending more hours in hamhanded conversations about what UX is and what UI isn’t. I’m not asking for a bar association for designers — that’s the last thing we need is more gatekeeping — but we do need an acceptable standard for what the rules of the road are, in accordance with whatever flies in the country we’re operating in. It’s long overdue.

Offshore integrity engineers have a complex job, but the high-level is simple. There’s a recognition that there’s a lot of potential risk and loss from offshore oil and gas rigs (as well as wind farms and such alike) and these folks have the job of managing that structural integrity so that there’s less loss. Turns out, even if this job is done well there are still going to be oil and gas spills because that’s the nature of the business. The gig here isn’t to prevent them from happening — unless you know of a weather control device I’m not aware of — it’s to minimize the damage that’s caused when these events do happen and to ensure that they’re rarer than if this wasn’t in place.

Service design, interaction design and the like presuppose that every use is essentially equal. It gives the (false) impression that we’re all working through the doors the same ways and that we’re valued by the service provider similarly. This doesn’t account for all of the fast-lanes we build within service experiences to segment customers based on their desirability. While we’ve all likely designed personas and talked about who we think our audience is, the reality is a lot more diverse and complicated.

Service blueprints do not account for this complexity, nor do we ever see the design of backstage/frontstage interactions for the liminality within complex interactions. We need a cadre of designers — master designers — who are trained in things besides just design. Policy analysts, lawyers, accountants, health care and more. These skillsets coupled with practitioner level experience actually building things can help us better build more resilent services and systems. It’ll take work, imagination and a lot of buy-in. But the status quo isn’t the future of the craft.

While Trust and Safety are part of social media mitigation strategies, the issue is right now we’re still being very reactive to the risk and harm wrought by bad service & interaction design because best practices are focused solely around design and not the stuff that happens after the sites go live. Not to mention kiosks, self-checkout lanes, or other integrated systems that are designed offsite and foisted both on users and the companies that have to use them.

The Hidden Cost of Everything

So many important parts of the design experience simply aren’t measured, so we ignore them or conflate them with other parts of experiences.

I ordered a pizza a few months ago, but rather than pick it up as I normally do, I had it delivered. Last week, I ordered a pizza. Normally, I pick it up, but I was feeling especially tired last week so I had it delivered. The post-COVID world has done one significant thing for me and that’s made me super aware of how poorly everyone doing service work is generally paid. As a result, I’ve been extremely liberal about how much I tip. I don’t think I was particularly bad at tipping before, but now where I’d maybe tip a $1 at the ice cream shop, I’ll just double the price of the ice cream as a tip. Partially because I can afford to do this, but also because of all of the money I save by not playing anymore skeeball. (This is mostly a joke.)

Anyway, as my pizza arrived and I tipped the driver in cash she seemed surprised and said thanks. Then she texted me again and I got an alert that she was working for DoorDash before her text to again say thanks you and wished me a good day. Here’s the thing, I ordered from a local independent pizza shop.

Part of why I didn’t tip the driver through their website is because I wanted to pay the driver cash, since I wasn’t sure how their pay arrangement worked and whether they’d be cashed out from my credit card payment at the end of their shift. Here’s the thing, I understand there are costs to all these things. But certainly in Finland — and probably here in Norway — this extends to sites like Wolt too, that are third-party layers that assume part of the interaction design of services without us knowing we’re often in a relationship with someone else.

From the start of the so-called sharing economy, I’ve always wondered about the precarity of it all. I mean, just thinking about strangers being in my car and perhaps puking would make me break out into hives. On the other hand, I have been in situations financially where being able to use a resource at my disposal — my car — and put it to work for me immediately so that I could balance out of a rough patch would have been quite helpful at different stages of my adult life.

What does any of this have to do with service design? With designing interactions? How do we make sense of the spaces we find ourselves? What is the designers share of the problem and how do we embrace our role?

Conclusion

Designers need to claim responsibility. If we’re going to continue to shirk responsibility for what users interact with, we’re going to continue being used to create experiences that demonstrable ruin the lives of people, while we benefit materially.

Apologies for typos, this is just raw notes

June 20, 2022

I traveled to Vimpeli, Finland for pesäpallo playoff game. Vimpeli, who are two years removed from back-to-back Finnish championships were taking on the defending champs from Joensuu, about 4.5 hours to the east. As this was the third game of the best-of-five series, tensions at Saarikenttä — Vimpeli’s home ballpark — were high.

Because Saarikenttä is built on an island, it produces unparalleled drama when the ball gets hit into the creek, where it’s still considered in play.

A few years ago, I first wrote about my Finnish baseball story. Over the years, it’s evolved from something I’d talk about at parties, to something my friends tell strangers when I first meet them. It usually leads to rabbit hole of follow-up questions:

  • Wait, they play baseball in Finland?”
  • Why are all the bases in the wrong direction?”
  • How did you find it?” This is crazy!?”

I’d been watching Pesäpallo off and on for almost a decade. Even before I wrote about it, I’d learned about this odd Finnish variant of our national pastime and found myself transfixed.

Until a few years ago, it was still quite difficult to get any information about the game in English. It’s still not the easiest sport to follow from abroad if you’re not a Finnish speaker, but social media — specifically the Superpesis (Finnish MLB) embrace of it — has improved things dramatically.

So what’s a Finnish baseball game like? Well it’s faster-paced than our baseball, but it’s not speedier at all. Games are divided into two 4-inning double headers. If you win both, the match is over. If you split the series, there’s a 9th inning tiebreaker. If you’re still tied, there’s a penalty-kicks” style scoring contest where pairs of 5 batter-runner groups attempt to score a run to break the tie. (Needless to say, I never felt more America in finding this part of the game a really unsatisfying way to end a long contest)

At the end of the day, Pesäpallo is really just baseball. Seeing it close didn’t dissuade me from that notion. Sure, the pitching is way different. But it’s still got a lot of nuance to it. Pesäpallo is also a game where every pitch does count, but I’ve described baseball as an opera” at times, and Pesäpallo has similar arcs that a baseball fan would appreciate once you know the rules.

It was very rewarding to finally get to see a game live. To witness it at the home stadium of my favorite team — even though they lost — still had a lot of meaning. I caught up with two of the people who first helped me learn about the game, answering my questions about the sport online. It was a very full circle moment.

The first trip won’t be my last. Pesäpallo is such a unique way to experience Finland. Driving 4.5 hours each way to watch a game was a really fun way to do something off the tourist path. I’m looking forward to visiting for years to come.

Possibly more!

June 20, 2022 Finland pesis