Sunday, February 8, 2015


I can't remember the last time a TV spot during the superbowl made me choke up. The ad by Always #LikeAGirl did just that. It was a great spot about how the phrase is insulting to women and supports the need for people to change.  I tweeted my approval to the world and read that others disapproved for some unfathomable reason.

Why is the phrase " a girl" offensive to women? Let me explain in very basic terms. I've learned by raising two sons. If you don't practice something, you don't get good at it. Watching my kids learn how to throw, hit and run in little league baseball showed me it's not easy. It took 2-3 seasons for them to lose that awkwardness around catching a baseball while wearing a mitt. Hitting a ball with a bat is so hard that the first year they have a device that holds the ball in the air for them to swing at (the "t" in "t-ball"). Even then, they miss a lot.

The conclusion? Everybody "throws like a girl" until they learn not to. In my family, girls weren't really encouraged to learn sports. As a kid, my brother was signed up and supported to play football, baseball and basketball before he decided that soccer was his preferred sport. I was enrolled in ballet. Although I was a natural at swimming and loved the water, I didn't recognize that my swimming was considered "athletic" until well into adulthood.

If girls don't participate in sports, they don't learn to throw, kick, hit, catch like boys do. Thanks to Title 9, that is changing. This amendment legally gave equal access to sports for both genders. It was controversial. It passed in the 1970's but wasn't fully enforced until well into the 2000's. My cousin gave up a shot at Olympic skiing because of the impact Title 9 had on him in college. Despite that, I find it hard to express the inner freedom I feel when I see more laws like this put in place, and more attitudes changing as a result. Women growing up now may not ever have to know what it was like to be excluded from sports and the subsequent inequality that follows us through adulthood (anyone putting up with sports metaphors when talking shop in the boardroom knows what I mean... really, when's the last time you heard a childbirth metaphor used at work?)

My world is slowly transforming to make more space for the contribution of women, but we are far from a place where equality and respect flourish. I could cite plenty of statistics on how women earn less than men, own less land, hold fewer positions of authority around the world, etc. The Always superbowl ad displays to the world that we still have a long way to travel before womens' contributions are valued and recognized.

For anybody who thinks "throwing like a girl" is an insult, I'd like to set the record straight. May you, and all whom you know, be able to:

  • drive like a girl, Danica Patrick
  • fight like a girl, Laila Ali
  • kick like a girl, Brandy Chastain
  • hit like a girl, Venus Williams
  • lead like a girl, Hillary Clinton

I know there are many examples of women doing amazing things in your community. May you celebrate each and every one of them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Surviving and thriving in an extroverted world

I heard a rumor about a book written recently that extolls the virtues of being an introvert. I knew immediately that I must read this book, since I strongly identify with all possible definitions of introversion. Every personality test I've ever taken confirms this identification. This blog post summarizes what I've learned from Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.  I found it to be enlightening, educational and enjoyable to read. The author lays out with meticulous detail, supported with credible research, what it means to be an introvert vs. an extrovert, and how each of these can function ideally. Rather than cast one as "right" and the other as "wrong", she merely states that they are "different" and anyone who can recognize and respect the differences will benefit. Since introverts make up 20% of the population, there's a chance you may be one or know one.

Introverts and Extroverts

Public opinion states that we should all be gregarious and comfortable in the spotlight. Taking action quickly, risk-taking, exuding certainty, workings well in teams and socializing in groups will take us far in life. It helps to "put ourselves out there" in order to get ahead in life. Some people struggle with this ideal, thinking they are less-than, broken or wrong. Maybe others have been told, or think to themselves:
  • You're thinking too much about this
  • You're so boring
  • You need to come out of your shell
  • Promote yourself more!
  • You're so shy
  • Why don't you go out and make more friends

These are questions asked by extroverts to anyone who doesn't conform to the extrovert ideal. Why aren't we all outgoing and confident? We live in a highly urbanized society where the first impression is of extreme importance. It pays to be magnetic, stunning, forceful and energetic. That's what's been reinforced for the last 100 years, and its different from an era when more of us lived in smaller towns, we knew each other, and one's character was the most important currency. Reputation communicated who we were and guided others about who to befriend, marry, hire and respect.

In an extroverted world, it may seem strange to encounter people who prefer a quieter atmosphere, work alone rather than in groups, have fewer friends, think deeply and don't speak up unless there's something important to say. Without a viewpoint like Cain offers, we might follow society in thinking that something is "wrong" with these quiet people, we might manufacture drugs to "calm their nerves" or "give them confidence" so that they can emulate gregariousness and confidence, no matter how painful it is. 

Cain, however, asserts that there are a number of famous, brilliant, strong leaders who were, and are, introverts. And the introvert ideal has something tremendous to offer anyone who wishes to cash in on its wealth of assets.

  • laugh at your jokes, 
  • are more assertive, 
  • think out loud, 
  • prefer talking to listening, 
  • are rarely at a loss for words, 
  • blurt out things they don't mean to say, 
  • are comfortable with conflict
  • don't like solitude.
  • can be serious, sensitive listeners, 
  • prepare in advance for situations, 
  • avoid conflict,  
  • ponder deeply before making decisions, 
  • listen more than talk, 
  • think before speaking, 
  • find expression better in writing than in conversation, 
  • don't like small talk but enjoy deeper discussions. 
People in creative professions are more likely to be introverts. Famous leaders (Gandhi) are introverts. CEOs can be introverts (Bill Gates), as can famous inventors (Steve Wozniak, Nikola Tesla). However, the world today is set up for extroverts both in schools and at work. Business schools reward the extrovert ideal, reinforcing gregariousness over deep thinking, even though studies show that both introverts and extroverts make excellent leaders. In fact, introverted leaders are more successful in companies comprised of self-starters who innovate and jump at opportunities to do new things with little managerial encouragement. Extroverted leaders are better with teams that are more passive, requiring managers who talk more and provide more explicit direction. 

Cain points out that our economy could have strongly benefitted from more introverts within leadership in the financial sector during the years leading up to the Great Recession. She outlines a strong trend in rewarding quick decision-making with little attention to details and nuance of the surrounding environment within financial and banking companies. We all paid the price for that mistake. 

In school settings, we know that introverts and extroverts are measured as equally intelligent. However, studies show extroverts thrive more in elementary school, but introverts fare much better in higher education, which favors deep thinking and independent learners. 

When viewed objectively, introverts are seen as serious and careful, good at school, watchful and quiet, devoted to love ones, loving intellectual problems, sensitive to their environment, thinking and feeling deeply (which brings nuance to experiences), who concentrate with intensity and are capable of complex emotionality.

Cain spends chapters outlining how introverts function at work and at home, in school and in relationships (both romantic and friendships). She even outlines extroversion and introversion between the East and the West on a cultural level. "Americans are some of the most extroverted people on earth" (186), and within our nation, Congress typifies the extrovert ideal, preferring flash and bang over deep quiet thinkers who will say something once then remain silent. 

What can we learn from this book?

  1. If you know an introvert or are an introvert, realize that these traits are to be celebrated, not scorned. Look for environments where an introvert can thrive: lower levels of stimulation, time and space for quiet reflection and deep thinking, opportunities to speak up without threat or intimidation (either explicit or implicit), opportunities to speak with other 1-on-1 about meaningful topics. Identify how your current environment rewards both introversion and extroversion and ensure there is a balance to accommodate both styles. 
  2. Understand that both introverts and extroverts have limits. People who tend to be quiet can be outgoing and gregarious in the pursuit of a passion, as long as it is meaningful to them (more money or vacation time is rarely the best reward), just as extroverts can occasionally think deeply and pause to reflect on their actions. However, requiring too much of this from someone who isn't comfortable with it can actually bring harmful results (yep, studies show that, too). 
  3. Even though we have limits, it makes sense to push on the boundaries of our comfort zone. Be willing to engage with large groups of people, to learn how to make small talk, to worry less about what others think and feel. It is especially helpful to understand your passion and pursue it. Do you care about the environment? About educating others? What is standing in your way and how might you adapt in order to reach those goals? Cain's book is full of examples of people who have found ways to thrive as an introvert in an extroverted environment -- they push their limits, then find ways to retract and recharge. As long as you are pursuing your passion, its possible and fun.
  4. The better we understand our own personality, the better our chance of operating in a world that may or may not accommodate us. Understand that "quiet" does not equal "bad", and we all have something powerful to offer to those around us. Find a passion and pursue it. Thrive. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

What Every CEO Should Know About Designers

How do we manage creative people? “Let them be unproductive until they are.” Don Draper, Mad Men

Two decades of working as a designer in business has provided many lessons learned over the years. I'd like to pause, momentarily, and put forth this short list of insights for my fellow workers in the business world. Specifically, you who lead the business world and shape the direction of products and services we rely on daily, these are the things I'd like you to know.

What makes me good at my job won't always make me good at fitting into your enterprise.

As a designer, I naturally challenge the status quo. I find new ways to solve existing problems. I deal in the novel, the possible but not yet realized. This approach challenges stasis, balance, routine, ultimately nudging people out of their comfort zone. It's not always fun for those who aren't ready for change. Often, I hear "what's wrong with how we are doing it now? It seems to be working." Sometimes they have some data to back it up. From last week, last month, or last quarter. But I'm looking into the future, and I usually take the long view.

I design for people.

I care about people. Real, flesh-and-blood people. Not markets. Not audiences. Not segments. Not nameless, faceless groups that you talk about in order to improve margins and, ultimately, make more money. I care about one person at a time, and I eventually group like ones together (into a tool that I use, called personas). I need a name, a face, emotions, motivations and goals. Once I get that, nothing can stop me from thinking creatively about their needs and how we can meet them. Or their pain, and how we can remove it.

I'm not so much motivated by money.

Don't get me wrong. I love money. Having it means I have a place to live, a car to drive, care for my kids and occasionally take a vacation (woot!). However, if you want to get me to do something great, give me a cause, a purpose, a reason.

Before I got into this line of work, I set my sights on social work, non-profits or academia. All have a reputation for benefits other than money: changing people’s lives, offering a cause to believe in, providing mental stimulation and camaraderie. These are all things that drive me.

Yes, I could change my career path and go do those things. But, ultimately, I'd find myself back here, because you control the look and feel of my smart phone, my online banking experience, my car's navigation system, how I buy different products and services online. I can add value to what you want to do. But first, I have to survive in your company.

Understanding what I do will ultimately serve you.

I have a passion for what I do, and that can benefit you. As long as I feel part of a larger cause, making a difference, I can dedicate my time to working very, very hard. And my work doesn't stop when I leave the office. I'm always on, even when I don't look like I'm "at work". Design is about problem-solving, and I solve some of my hardest problems while on the treadmill, taking a shower, or fixing dinner. I never know when that flash of insight I need will hit.

You don't see everything I put into my work. 

Very few people do. I problem-solve all the time. I learn new things by doing non-work-related activities. A lot of my efforts are spent understanding the complex and the confusing (networks, information, systems, people). I ask a lot of questions. Listen to others. Gather information. In the end, I assemble something to discuss: a model, a report, a poster, a drawing. The final thing is usually beautifully elegant... which is what you hired me to do. But that's not the sum total of my work. It's just the part of the iceberg glistening above the water.

If you expect me to do great work, understand that it’s more than just the result. Design-work is hard. For all the ways it looks effortless, elegant, simple, and clear, everything that goes into it takes a lot of time and effort. Without them, my best work goes untapped.

I can learn to fit in.

I am a professional. I can learn the language of business, adopt your jargon, and take on your work style of hour-long meetings throughout the day, in order to get stuff done. I enjoy working with others with similar goals, who also want to solve problems for your customers.

To conclude:
I know you have a business to run. That's hard work. I know, because I've seen businesses thrive and fail. I'm not going to tell you how to run yours. I can only tell you how I add value. Working together, we can both succeed powerfully as we do what we love.

“We're going to sit at our desks and keep typing while the walls fall down around us because we're creative - the least important, most important thing there is.”  Don Draper, Mad Men

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Generative Art

My concept of art usually involves taking raw materials (canvas and paint, or rock and chisel) and using them to create something beautiful. However, I appreciate generative art, that uses already existing items (not raw materials), recombining them in new and different ways to delight and surprise. 

I often must use what already exists, and create something new and different that adds value to the company that has paid for my consulting services. I don't create from scratch. I must have existing information to work with, and access to the people who use it, to understand their thought process. From that, I create a framework... new perspective that is useful to others. So I identify with this style of generative art. Here are two examples that I really like.

Example 1: @Pentametron

I've blogged about him before here and here. This creative soul has automated a way to detect tweets that are in iambic pentameter, pairs 2 unrelated tweets that rhyming and republishes them.  He would have nothing without the original tweets, but taken out of their original context and paired with other, seemly unrelated things, he has created something original.

Example 2: Blackout Poetry

Austin Kleon will black out all but a few words of a newspaper article. The result is a work of poetry that is topically very different from the original work. He states he must do that in order to avoid legal action.


This twitter poster is awesome. He's written an algorithm that detects tweets adhering to iambic pentameter, and pairs them up for small poetry lines. I've  posted a few lines from January 3, 2014.

*@O_gentil*   I will a live in yellow submarine.
*@kiera2tall*  Fresh out the shower feeling squeaky clean.

*@AleexDirienzo*  My little sister has the loudest snore.
*@SavannahRuhl*  Not even gonna bother anymore.

*@liamcross_*  I never get invited anywhere.
*@GaurdGirl*    I really want a giant teddy bear.

*@AdrianaSophia_*  I'm always hungry. Im an endless pit.
*@MaisieJohnston*   love how luisa doesn't give a s**t.

*@xChops*   Not everyone deserves a second chance.
*@PaulaStone2*  I'm so excited for the snowball dance.

Read a few of the latest, generative twitter poetry: @pentametron. After a while, the laughter becomes contagious.

The Post Office in need of Design Thinking...

The news recently showed a local union boycotting Staples because the box store has started offering postal services in select locations. Typically I will root for the working person. I support the ideal of a living wage and putting food on the table for middle-class families. But this time, I may have to side with Staples.

My local post office is not a place I want to go regularly, nor do I enjoy my time when I'm there. The hours are inconvenient, the lines can be long, and some very "interesting" characters helping me out from time to time. I'm often reminded that the post office is a government organization. It looks, smells and acts like it. My local post office is drab, smelly, boring, and unpleasant during the holidays. That's not true for all post offices. In a nearby city I get to wait in line and enjoy historic architecture, or admire collectable stamps while I stand in line. But they are not close by, so I rarely get to participate in that experience.

I like the idea of going to a box store to mail packages, get stamps, and do other things. I'd be willing to pick up packages there that are held for me, and fill out those silly forms for holding my mail. It is very appealing to me. I'm more likely to shop for other stuff as well. Why not pick up stamps at the same time?

And why has the US Post Office been so slow in adopting and updating its services? I know they've tried some things over the years. Such as stamps-by-mail, the ability to make purchases online, and I really enjoy their self-service booths. I can weigh my package, pay for the right postage and post it without any help. The machine is easy to use, so I don't mind multiple upsell messages. I get free boxes for overnight or priority packages. What's not to like?

Who is examining the post office's holistic customer's experience? Who has reviewed at the average consumer experience and applied design thinking to update services and find innovative ways to do more with less? I'd like a post office in my local grocery store. It has very convenient hours, I'm there often, would happily pick up packages & buy stamps. Heck, I'll even tolerate standing in line for a long time when it's busy. Oh, wait... I do that already.

Maybe someone is already thinking about all this. It's hard to tell, because I'm still unsatisfied with my retail post office experience. So I'll keep hoping, and keep my fingers crossed for Staples.

2014 Information Architecture Summit -- Reflections

I've just returned from the 2014 Information Architecture Summit, the 15th one. I first attended this event in 2001 in San Francisco, and I've been going ever since (barring illness).

I've pondered in the past why I keep going to the IA Summit. Most of my career inspiration has come from outside the field. There are no academic classes or tutorials offered. I don't hear about new research that expands our field. The program is nice, and there are some presentation that I enjoy, but its not the real reason I go to the summit.

The people are the real lure for the IA Summit. This is my tribe, these are my people, the one place I can go where I never, ever have to explain what I do. I don't have to apologize for being an introvert, for sitting back and listening. The structure of the summit supports people like me, with plenty of coffee breaks, hallway conversations and shared lunches. We welcome new people and have interesting conversations over food.

The 2014 IA Summit has changed many things for me.

In addition to hanging out with my peeps, I also heard many powerful messages. Some were formal presentations, others were hallway conversation. Until now, I thought I'd moved beyond IA. I thought my career growth would come from outside this domain and community. If I went back to school, I assumed it would have to be in another field.... Business administration. Cognitive Psychology. Computer Science. These aren't bad fields, and the knowledge they offer would be very beneficial to me. What troubles me is that I'm an information architect. I'm not an interaction designer, sociologist, psychologist, anthropologist, cognitive scientist, computer scientist or designer. I like those things and find them interesting, especially as they lend me tools to use to do what I do what I do best. But I don't identify as those things.

I'm an information architect. I framework. I listen. I understand. I explore. I clarify. I get overwhelmed by complexity. I doubt if things will ever become clear. I talk with others. I listen some more. I construct hypotheses. I build models. I wrangle oceans of information. I talk with users, customers, participants, members. I sketch. I ponder. I give up, but never for very long. I ask lots of questions. And I framework. Document, share, update, repeat.

What have I heard at the 2014 IA Summit that has provided me such relief? I heard that we've moved beyond the web but have kept our identity as information architects. I heard about reframing IA, designing for understanding, emphasizing context and many other things. Rather than talk about deliverables, we are talking about principles. We are demanding more substance from academia to clarify and extend these principles.

Andrea Resmini told me that IA's entered the mainstream when the web was born. We learned how to build intelligent navigation and search, promoted faceted classification and taxonomy. But we stagnated for a while and forgot to grow. Now, we are discovering that we don't just build navigation, we support wayfinding. We don't draw site maps, we show context. We don't build models, we support sense-making. And we can do this anywhere. We started with digital environments and are expanding from there. For example, I've architected future plans for non-profits, and revised messaging platforms for emerging startups, My current project is to create a culture of customer experience in a growing company, extending the company's vision within a framework centering the business around customer needs and goals. It's a messy project, with lots of ambiguity, false starts, and course corrections. But it's clear we are making a difference, helping others to make sense of how they fit in the company's vision and figuring out how to find their way within the organization.

This is the path I've taken, and until recently, I thought I was alone. I thought I needed to leave my chosen field in order to pursue the Next Step. But the 2014 IA Summit set me straight. Peter Morville summarized my feeling well:

"...there’s something about the summit that’s unsettling, and it’s not just that it’s hard to be new or that many of us are kinda off the map on the introvert scale. No, it’s deeper than that. People come to the summit and have a good time, but they leave with this uneasy feeling that they somehow missed something important. They don’t talk about it much. It’s actually a little embarrassing, so they bury it deep. And I feel bad for these folks. I want to reach out. I want to tell them a secret. You’re not alone. Really. Nobody understands information architecture. We don’t even know what it is. And that’s okay. That’s why we’re here."