This is a fascinating story of psychological manipulation and internal politics. It leaves me feeling queasy about the amount of power wielded by individuals in one single organisation.
Friday, May 3rd, 2019
Thursday, March 7th, 2019
I have no doubt that showing just the top outrageous tweets leads to more engagement. If you’re constantly hitting people with outlandish news stories they’ll open the app more often and interact and post about what they think so the cycle continues.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2019
Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
An Event Apart in Seattle continues. It’s the afternoon of day two and Beth Dean is here to give a talk called Unsolved Problems:
Technology products are being adapted faster than ever. We’ve spent a lot of time adopting new technology, but not as much time considering the social impact of doing so. This talk looks at large scale system design in the offline world, and takes lessons from them to our online work. You’ll learn how to expand your design approach from self-contained products, to considering the broader systems in which they exist.
Fun fact: An Event Apart was the first conference that Beth attended over ten years ago.
Who recognises this guy on screen? It’s Robert Stack, the creepy host of Unsolved Mysteries. It was kind of like the X-Files. The X-Files taught Beth to be a sceptic. Imagine Beth’s surprise when her job at Facebook led her to actual conspiracies. It’s been a hard year, what with Cambridge Analytica and all.
Beth’s team is focused on how people experience ads, while the whole rest of the company is focused on ads from the opposite end. She’s the Fox Mulder of the company.
Technology today has incredible reach. In recent years, we’ve seen 1:1 harm. That’s when a product negatively effects someone directly. In their book, Eric and Sara point out that Facebook is often the first company to solve these problems.
1:many harm is another use of technology. Designing in isolation isn’t new to tech. We’ve seen 1:many harm in urban planning. Brasilia is a beautiful city that nobody wants to live in. You need messy, mixed-use spaces, not a space designed for cars. Niemeier planned for efficiency, not reality.
Eichler buildings were supposed to be egalitarian. But everything that makes these single-story homes great places to live also makes them great targets for criminals. Isolation by intentional design leads to a less safe place to live.
One of Frank Gehry’s buildings turned into a deathtrap when it was covered with snow. And in summer, the reflective material makes it impossible to sit on side of it. His Facebook office building has some “interesting” restroom allocation, which was planned last.
Ohio had a deer overpopulation problem. So the solution they settled on was to introduce coyotes. Now there’s a coyote problem. When coyotes breed with stray dogs, they start to get aggressive and they hunt in packs. This is the cobra effect: when the solution to your problem makes the problem worse. The British government offered a bounty for cobras in India. So people bred snakes for the bounty. So they got rid of the bounty …and then all those snakes were released into the wild.
So-called “ride sharing” apps are about getting one person from point A to point B. They’re not about making getting around easier in general.
Google traffic directions don’t factor in the effect of Google giving everyone the same traffic directions.
AirBnB drives up rent …even though it started out as a way to help people who couldn’t make rent. Sounds like cobra farming.
Automating Inequality by Virgina Eubanks is an excellent book about being dropped by health insurance. An algorithm did it. By taking broken systems and automating them, we accelerate disenfranchisement.
Then there’s Facebook. Psychological warfare is not new. Radio and television have influenced elections long before the internet. Politicians changed their language to fit the medium of radio.
The internet has removed all friction that helps us behave cooperatively. Removing friction was once our goal, but it turns out that friction is sometimes useful. The internet has turned into an outrage machine.
Solving problems in the isolation of our own products ignores the broader context of society.
The Waze map reflects cities as they are, not the way someone wishes them to be.
—Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze
From bulletin boards to today’s web, the internet has always been toxic because human nature is toxic. Maybe that’s the bigger problem to solve.
We can look to other industries…
Ideo redesigned the hospital experience. People were introduced to their entire care staff on their first visit. Sloan Kettering took a similar approach. Artwork serves as wayfinding. Every room has its own bathroom. A Chicago hostpital included gardens because it improves recovery.
These hospital examples all:
- Designed for an intended outcome.
- Met people where they were.
- Strengthened existing support networks.
We’ve seen some bad examples from urban planning, but there are success stories too.
A person on a $30 bicycle is as important as someone in a $30,000 car, said Enrique Peñalosa.
Copenhagen once faced awful traffic congestion. Now people cycle everywhere. It’s the fastest way to get around. The city is designed for bicycles first. People rode more when it felt safer. It’s no coincidence that Copenhagen ranks as one of the most livable cities in the world.
Scandinavian prisons use a concept called restorative justice. The staff plays badminton with the inmates. They cook together. Treat people like dirt and they will act like dirt. Treat people like people and they will act like people. Recividism rates in Norway are now way low.
- Design for dignity and cooperation.
- Solve for everyone in a system.
- Policy should reflect intended outcomes.
The deHavilland Comet was made of metal. After a few blew apart at the seams, they switched from rivetted material. Airlines today develop a culture of crew resource management that encourages people to speak up.
- Plan for every point of failure.
- Empower everyone on a team to solve problems.
What can we do?
- Policies affect design. We need to work more closely with policy makers.
- Question access. Are all opinions equal? Where are computers making decisions that should involve people.
- Forget neutrality. Technology is not neutral. Neutrality allows us to abdicate responsibility.
- Stay a litte bit paranoid. Think about what the worst case scenario might be.
Make people better curators. How might we allow people to assess the veracity of information for themselves? What if we gave people better tools to affect their overall experience, not just small customisations?
We can use what we know about people to bring out their best behaviours. We can empower people to take action instead of just outrage.
What if we designed for the good of the community instead of the success of individuals. Like the Vauban in Freiburg! It was squatted, and the city gave control to the squatters to create an eco neighbourhood with affordable housing.
We need to think about what kind of worlds we want to create. What if we made the web less like a mall and more like a public park?
These are hard problems. But we solve hard technology problems every day. We could be the first generation of builders to solve technology’s hard problems.
Tuesday, February 19th, 2019
Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.
Bruce Schneier on the blockchain:
What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure.
Sunday, January 27th, 2019
In isolating your body but simultaneously trying to simulate your body’s natural state — natural head movements are echoed in the game world, but your actual head is still trapped inside what amounts to an ergonomically considerate box cutting you off from the world — VR puts you in a place where everything reminds you of your body’s limitations. Every time I see some disembodied ping pong paddle waving around in front of me mimicking my real hand movements, every time I see a mech pilot’s legs locked in place in a cockpit I can freely look around, the effect is the same. All I can think about is how, in this virtual world, the only thing that actually exists is me. My body is trapped, but my ego feels immortal, immoveable.
Monday, October 1st, 2018
This talk from Peter—looking at the long zoom of history—is right up my alley.
Thursday, August 16th, 2018
A web of anxiety: accessibility for people with anxiety and panic disorders [Part 1] | The Paciello Group – Your Accessibility Partner (WCAG 2.0/508 audits, VPAT, usability and accessible user experience)
Enumerating the anti-patterns that cause serious user experience issues that don’t get nearly enough attention:
While such intrusions can be a source of irritation or even stress for many people, they may be complete showstoppers for people with anxiety or panic disorders.
I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up post.
(I was going to say I was anxiously awaiting the follow-up post but …never mind.)
Thursday, May 17th, 2018
Robin Sloan smushes the video game Fortnite Battle Royale together with Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem trilogy and produces a perfect example of game theory, cooperation, and the prisoner’s dilemma.
Based on my experiments in the laboratory of Fortnite, I think Liu Cixin is wrong. Or at least, he’s not entirely right. Fortnite is more Dark Forest theory than not, and maybe that’s true of the universe, too. But sometimes, we have a lever against the vise of game theory, and in this case, it is a single bit of communication. I mean “bit” in the programmer’s sense: a flag with a designated meaning. Nothing more. My heart emote didn’t make Fortnite cuddly and collaborative, but it did allow me to communicate: “Hold up. Let’s do this a different way.”
Thursday, May 3rd, 2018
The nature of human nature is that it changes. It can not, therefore, serve as a stable basis for evaluating the impact of technology. Yet the assumption that it doesn’t change serves a useful purpose. Treating human nature as something static, pure and essential elevates the speaker into a position of power. Claiming to tell us who we are, they tell us how we should be.
A great piece from Charles C. Mann from five years ago, where you can see the genesis of The Wizard And The Prophet.
For hundreds of thousands of years, our species had been restricted to East Africa (and, possibly, a similar area in the south). Now, abruptly, new-model Homo sapiens were racing across the continents like so many imported fire ants. The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.
Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018
Navigating Team Friction by Lara Hogan
Lara started as a developer, and then moved into management. Now she consults with other organisations. So she’s worked with teams of all sizes, and her conclusion is that humans are amazing. She has seen teams bring a site down; she has seen teams ship amazing features; she has seen teams fall apart because they had to move desks. But it’s magical that people can come together and build something.
Bruce Tuckman carried out research into the theory of group dynamics. He published stages of group development. The four common stages are:
- Forming. The group is coming together. There is excitement.
- Storming. This is when we start to see some friction. This is necessary.
- Norming. Things start to iron themselves out.
- Performing. Now you’re in the flow state and you’re shipping.
So if your team is storming (experiencing friction), that’s absolutely normal. It might be because of disagreement about processes. But you need to move past the friction. Team friction impacts your co-workers, company, and users.
An example. Two engineers passively-aggressively commenting each other’s code reviews; they feign surprise at the other’s technology choices; one rewrites the others code; one ships to production with code review; a senior team member or manager has to step in. But it costs a surprising amount of time and energy before a manager even notices to step in.
The Hulk gets angry. This is human. We transform into different versions of ourselves when we are overcome by our emotions.
Lara has learned a lot about management by reading about how our brains work. We have a rational part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex. It’s very different to our amygdala, a much more primal part of our brain. It categorises input into either threat or reward. If a threat is dangerous enough, the amygdala takes over. The pre-frontal cortex is too slow to handle dangerous situations. So when you have a Hulk moment, that was probably an amygdala hijack.
We have six core needs that are open to being threatened (leading to an amygdala hijacking):
- Belonging. Community, connection; the need to belong to a tribe. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense—we are social animals.
- Improvement/Progress. Progress towards purpose, improving the lives of others. We need to feel that we do matters, and that we are learning.
- Choice. Flexibility, autonomy, decision-making. The power to make decisions over your own work.
- Equality/Fairness. Access to resources and information; equal reciprocity. We have an inherent desire for fairness.
- Predictability. Resources, time, direction future challenges. We don’t like too many surprises …but we don’t like too much routine either. We want a balance.
- Significance. Status, visibility, recognition. We want to feel important. Being assigned to a project you think is useless feels awful.
Those core needs are B.I.C.E.P.S. Thinking back to your own Hulk moment, which of those needs was threatened?
We value those needs differently. Knowing your core needs is valuable.
Lara has seen the largest displays of human emotion during something as small as moving desks. When you’re asked to move your desk, your core need of “Belonging” may be threatened. Or it may be a surprise that disrupts the core need of “Improvement/Progress.” If a desk move is dictated to you, it feels like “Choice” is threatened. The move may feel like it favours some people over others, threatening “Equality/Fairness.” The “Predictability” core need may be threatened by an unexpected desk move. If the desk move feels like a demotion, your core need of “Significance” will be threatened.
We are not mind readers, so we can’t see when someone’s amygdala takes over. But we can look out for the signs. Forms of resistance can be interpreted as data. The most common responses when a threat is detected are:
- Doubt. People double-down on the status quo; they question the decision.
- Avoidance. Avoiding the problem; too busy to help with the situation.
- Fighting. People create arguments against the decision. They’ll use any logic they can. Or they simply refuse.
- Bonding. Finding someone else who is also threatened and grouping together.
- Escape-route. Avoiding the threat by leaving the company.
All of these signals are data. Rather than getting frustrated with these behaviours, use them as valuable data. Try not to feel threatened yourself by any of these behaviours.
Open questions are powerful tool in your toolbox. Asked from a place of genuine honesty and curiosity, open questions help people feel less threatened. Closed questions are questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”. When you spot resistance, get some one-on-one time and try to ask open questions:
- What do you think folks are liking or disliking about this so far?
- I wanted to get your take on X. What might go wrong? What do you think might be good about it?
- What feels most upsetting about this?
You can use open questions like these to map resistance to threatened core needs. Then you can address those core needs.
This is a good time to loop in your manager. It can be very helpful to bounce your data off someone else and get their help. De-escalating resistance is a team effort.
Listen with compassion, kindness, and awareness.
- Reflect on the dynamics in the room. Maybe somebody thinks a topic is very important to them. Be aware of your medium. Your body language; your tone of voice; being efficient with words could be interpreted as a threat. Consider the room’s power dynamics. Be aware of how influential your words could be. Is this person in a position to take the action I’m suggesting?
- Elevate the conversation. Meet transparency with responsibility.
- Assume best intentions. Remember the prime directive. Practice empathy. Ask yourself what else is going on for this person in their life.
- Listen to learn. Stay genuinely curious. This is really hard. Remember your goal is to understand, not make judgement. Prepare to be surprised when you walk into a room. Operate under the assumption that you don’t have the whole story. Be willing to have your mind changed …no, be excited to have your mind changed!
This tips are part of mindful communication. amy.tech has some great advice for mindful communication in code reviews.
Mindful communication won’t solve all your problems. There are times when you’ll have to give actionable feedback. The problem is that humans are bad at giving feedback, and we’re really bad at receiving feedback. We actively avoid feedback. Sometimes we try to give constructive feedback in a compliment sandwich—don’t do that.
We can get better at giving and receiving feedback.
Ever had someone say, “Hey, you’re doing a great job!” It feels good for a few minutes, but what we crave is feedback that addresses our core needs.
|General||Specific and Actionable|
The feedback equation starts with an observation (“You’re emails are often short”)—it’s not how you feel about the behaviour. Next, describe the impact of the behaviour (“The terseness of your emails makes me confused”). Then pose a question or request (“Can you explain why you write your emails that way?”).
observation + impact + question/request
Ask people about their preferred feedback medium. Some people prefer to receive feedback right away. Others prefer to digest it. Ask people if it’s a good time to give them feedback. Pro tip: when you give feedback, ask people how they’d like to receive feedback in the future.
Prepare your brain to receive feedback. It takes six seconds for your amygdala to chill out. Take six seconds before responding. If you can’t de-escalate your amygdala, ask the person giving feedback to come back later.
Think about one piece of feedback you’ll ask for back at work. Write it down. When your back at work, ask about it.
You’ll start to notice when your amygdala or pre-frontal cortex is taking over.
Talking one-on-one is the best way to avoid team friction.
Retrospectives are a great way of normalising of talking about Hard Things and team friction.
It can be helpful to have a living document that states team processes and expectations (how code reviews are done; how much time is expected for mentoring). Having it written down makes it a North star you can reference.
Mapping out roles and responsibilities is helpful. There will be overlaps in that Venn diagram. The edges will be fuzzy.
What if you disagree with what management says? The absence of trust is at the centre of most friction.
|Commit||Mature and Transparent||Easiest|
|Don’t Commit||Acceptable but Tough||Bad Things|
Practice finding other ways to address B.I.C.E.P.S. You might not to be able to fix the problem directly—the desk move still has to happen.
But no matter how empathic or mindful you are, sometimes it will be necessary to bring in leadership or HR. Loop them in. Restate the observation + impact. State what’s been tried, and what you think could help now. Throughout this process, take care of yourself.
Remember, storming is natural. You are now well-equipped to weather that storm.
Monday, April 2nd, 2018
Perspectives other than our own bring a breath of fresh air. They open doors and allow light to flood in. They wrap us in a warm, comforting blanket by letting us know other people go through similar struggles. There is a tonne of writing out there that exists because the author suffered through something. Suffering tends to give you a strong desire to prevent others experiencing similar pain.
Monday, September 4th, 2017
Here’s Amber’s great talk from the great Material conference last month in Iceland.
Amber Wilson worked in the field of Psychology for many years and is now a budding Web developer at a design agency in Brighton. New to Web development, she is continually eager to improve her skills.
(The silhouettes of Jessica, me, and Joschi in the front row make it look like Mystery Science Theater 3000.)
Sunday, January 29th, 2017
A proposed syllabus for critical thinking: Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data.
Our aim in this course is to teach you how to think critically about the data and models that constitute evidence in the social and natural sciences.
Friday, October 14th, 2016
The dreadful headline makes this sound like another pearl-clutching moral panic, but there’s some good stuff in this somewhat hagiographic profile.
Harris is developing a code of conduct—the Hippocratic oath for software designers—and a playbook of best practices that can guide start-ups and corporations toward products that “treat people with respect.” Having companies rethink the metrics by which they measure success would be a start.
Friday, August 2nd, 2013
I was interviewed for this article on psychology in web design. The title is terrible but the article itself turned out quite nicely.
Thursday, March 21st, 2013
A truly fascinating and well-written article on how changes are afoot in the worlds of psychology, economics, and just about any other field that has performed tests on American participants and extrapolated the results into universal traits.
Given the data, they concluded that social scientists could not possibly have picked a worse population from which to draw broad generalizations. Researchers had been doing the equivalent of studying penguins while believing that they were learning insights applicable to all birds.
Wednesday, March 13th, 2013
Science Fiction Film as Design Scenario Exercise for Psychological Habitability: Production Designs 1955-2009
A white paper that looks to sci-fi films as potential prototypes for habitats for humans in space, with an emphasis on dealing with the psychological issues involved.
Thursday, September 27th, 2012
I like this skewering of the cult of so-called-neuroscience; the self-help book equivalent of eye-tracking.
Monday, July 2nd, 2012
There is a there there after all.