With the majority of the earth’s population now living in cities, Richard Saul Wurman realized there was a yawning information gap about the urban super centers that are increasingly driving modern culture. In this keynote presentation from the 2010 IA Summit, Mr. Wurman discusses his 19.20.21 initiative: an attempt to standardize a methodology to understand comparative data on 19 cities that will have 20 million or more inhabitants in the 21st century. He encourages the design community to take initiative and solve big problems rather than make small changes incrementally.
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Dan Klyn: “Publishing Company” was accustomed to this. Paper and print and periodicals. What they were up against is digital.
They had adopted digital a long, long time ago to make printing paper things more efficient, easier, better and that sort of thing. They did it in a timely fashion. They had no shortage of digital technology to make the paper happen.
They didn’t embrace the medium of digital as a publishing medium and they needed to catch up. They felt like they were being forced, this is 2011, they’re being forced to transition to digital as a publishing medium.
They hired a UX consulting company, a famous one from one of the coasts who we won’t name, to build them this bridge from print world, the print medium to the digital medium. Those people did a pretty OK job.
They had a launch of this new digital version of what had been a print product. This print product had started being sort of, became a thing in the 1840s. They had a very long tradition of doing their business in print.
They cut the ribbon on their new digital thing, and it was OK. It was OK. But what they’ve found out, there was a mix of people working on this thing and they had a blend of traditional publishing people and digital people.
The digital people knew how to measure the use of the new thing. What they found was disquieting, to say the least. What they found was that when people first came to this new digital thing, this digital version of something they were accustomed to in print, they liked it pretty OK the first time. But the more that they used it, the less they liked it. The less engaged they got.
That’s a big problem when your whole business model, at least the print version of the business model, is based on continuous repeated use.
What they had on their hands was kind of like a turkey. At Thanksgiving, we all dream of eating that turkey. When we sit down after a year of being away from that turkey dinner, it’s great. But then, five, six days later, when you’re having your 16th turkey sandwich, you don’t like the turkey anymore.
One of the people who worked at this company, we’ll call her Doris, was concerned about this pattern. She knew it was at odds with what the business needed to do to succeed. She was lying in bed at night with her husband, we will call him Rock, and she was sharing her concerns. Like, our company, this isn’t, we cut the cord, the people came, it was great, and now it’s not. It’s kind of a turkey. It’s not doing good.
What Rock said to Doris was, “Have you guys tried information architecture as part of this making of this thing?” She said, “What is that?”
The people who built them their bridge from print to digital were an end-to-end UX provider who started with visual pictures of what the new digital thing would look like. When they figured out a picture of it that everybody liked, or thought they liked, then that same company built it and launched it.
So, laying in bed, worrying about this thing, her husband introduces this idea, the information architecture. Have you done that? Is that maybe what’s missing in your problem? He said he knew a guy and that happened to be me.
We had this company, this new company called TUG, The Understanding Group. As I’m talking with my acquaintance’s wife, Doris, about what they need, she was becoming increasingly excited about this idea of what we were offering, which wasn’t a whole new big process, it was, let’s figure out what you should do.
You have a thing, it performs OK, we know there are some problems. What is the plan for what you ought to do next? We’re not going to talk about what it’s going to look like and we’re not going to talk about how we’re going to build it. Let’s just build a road map. Let’s build a set of plans and that’s a great idea.
As information architects, we’d like to invoke the metaphors and ideas of architecture. That picture of, wow, I could be working with the architect and we would have this great plan. We would figure out the plan before we do the things.
That sounded pretty good to her and to us, as well. We engaged for a project to build them a road map for what they ought to do.
What we learned was, there was a cast of thousands on the stakeholder team. We had been told that there were a lot of stakeholders and that it would be a pretty involved process. But there were 11 people who were deciders on this thing, and it wasn’t 11 Dorises.
It was a weird mix of people from the old print part of the business, people who were new digital people who got brought in. Planning together the “we” of who is going to be planning was pretty complicated. It was this grand group with all these weird things that they were interested in.
Our plan was, because they had said to us…There’s a HIPPO in here, there’s a couple of HIPPOs. Do you guys know HIPPO? This might be a Jared thing, right? Did you make up HIPPO? Highest paid person in the organization? I learned it from him, at least.
In this group, there was the highest paid person in the organization, the second highest paid person in the organization, and then everybody else. They didn’t want the bosses to just make a decision. What they wanted was a planning process that was inclusive and that channeled the collective intention and will of this group in order to make that plan for what we should do.
Our process for doing this was, well, we need to isolate them. We need to talk with them individually, figure out what each of them is about and what their priorities are and what they need.
That’s Abby Covert and that’s me and some of our other team members. Then we’re sorting out the notes from all of these interviews. Our expectation is that we will be able to prioritize and figure out common threads and stack the paper and make the piles and we’ll figure out what the plan is.
But that was a challenge. There were all these contradictions, seeming contradictions in what the people wanted. Some of the people wanted to focus on things like customer acquisition and if that was the problem.
This problem of losing engagement and interest as you use it more. Well, maybe we attracted, we acquired the wrong customers. If we acquire more digitally savvy customers, maybe that population will be better for our business. Other folks are like, no, we need to service the customers that we have.
As we work through these stakeholder interviews, all these seeming contradictions, we wanted to make a tidy little plan that everybody could agree on and have consensus around. But contradictions optimize what we’ve already built. They had built a ton of features.
Should the plan be optimize what we have and make the features we have work better? Would that help our engagement problem? Or should we keep innovating? Is there something missing from what we offer now, and ought we focus on that in our plan?
A huge one for them, based on the patterns that Jared talked with us about this morning, there’s this, wow, they had a really poor mobile experience, all this pinching and twisting. They didn’t have anything specifically for mobile.
Should our road map, should our plan be about what we’re going to do for mobile now? Or should we just say screw it, we don’t have a mobile anything right now? Rather than stopping the gap against the basic expectation for mobile, let’s build something awesome for mobile that will be our future thing.
Then a really big one sort of, how are we going to measure success with this? Are we going to try to talk about building engagement? Because we started to look at the analytics, and while there was some problems with engagement, there was maybe some evidence that conversion was pretty good or could continue to be one of the ways that they could focus.
All these seeming contradictions. How do we sort this out? Because we have this perseverative interest in information architecture among our crew, we like to think in terms of architecture.
If we were building a physical space to accommodate all of these contradictory needs and goals, we might end up with something like this. In order to even make something like this, you would have to be able to change the laws of physics and gravity and stuff.
What are we going to do? What I usually do, so back to the storyline of this project, we had been engaged for a couple of weeks, they were expecting us to deliver them a roadmap for what, all the things that they should do, the plan. We had a meeting to show them the results of what we had learned that their intentions were in about a week or so.
We had been expecting to be further along in that process and to have an orderly way to talk about what the plan is going to look like, and we had nothing. We just had all these contradictions and complexities.
As I often do, rather than digging into the problem, I procrastinated and ran away from it.
In addition to all of this weird consulting work that I do, I do research into the life and work of a guy named Richard Saul Wurman. Anybody here familiar with the TED conference? The guy who invented the TED conference is an architect and I’ve been studying his work at the point in the story in 2011 for about 4 years.
Rather than dealing with this project problem, I turtled into my happy place of this kind of stuff, the work that Richard Saul Wurman is doing in architecture in the 1970s. La la la. [laughs]
This is great. But what I found was, I had this gift of synchronicity or coincidence or whatever. In this book from 1972, which is the year of my birth, so 41 years ago, Richard Saul Wurman writes a book. It’s called, “The Nature of Recreation,” and it’s about Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect. It’s about how do you design and plan parks and recreation?
In the middle of this book is this concept that he introduced that he calls, “performance.” What is so peculiar to me at this time trying to avoid my work problem by perseverating on what this guy was doing with architecture is his description of how you can make the planning of parks and recreation in the built environment be good isn’t about bricks and mortar and sod, or…It’s not about any of those things. It’s about language.
His contention in this book is that the reason just what’s possible for us to build starts with the language that we use to describe our intention of what we think is going to be good to build. What he observes is people know how to ask for a product of something that they’ve already seen, but they don’t have a language to describe what they actually want or need. They can say, “It’s kind of like Pinterest for dogs.”