Understanding humans – Leah Reich

18 de Oct de 2017
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
Understanding humans – Leah Reich
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Understanding humans – Leah Reich

Notas do Editor

  1. In 1922, Max Weber posthumously published a collection of essays he’d been working on before his death in 1920. The collection was entitled Economy and Society and it contained what is arguably one of Weber’s most famous essays, called simply “Bureaucracy.” In “Bureaucracy,” Weber details what he considers to be the “ideal-typical forms” of both public and private administration. Among other characteristics, such a bureaucracy would have a more formal hierarchical structure, a clear division of labor, trained subject matter experts, advancement based on technical qualifications as determined by the organization, and so on. He was not a fan of bureaucracy, per se, but he saw it as an efficient necessity for organizing society and for rational-legal authority.
  2. Nearly fifty-five years later, an organizational theorist named Karl Weick gave a talk at a conference, which he subsequently published in 1976 as a paper entitled “Educational Organizations as Loosely Coupled Systems.” In his paper, Weick argued that, contrary to popular belief, an organization does not in fact accomplish whatever it manages to accomplish based purely on all of its rational plans and procedures and hierarchical structures. Instead, he explored the idea of an organization as a set of loosely coupled systems. On one side he placed the structure of the school system, with its administrators, procedures, systems, and budgets. On the other, he placed the classroom, with its teachers and students. In theory, one system should reflect the other, but in practice, in real live complicated life, that’s almost never the case. Imagine a school field trip as imagined by an administrator especially an administrator who will not actually be on that trip and has never been on such a trip. The reality will be different. Sure, some basic characteristics will be the same, like the bus, the chaperones, the location, and the number of students. But in order to make the not-always-rational reality happen, it has to be loosely coupled from its idealized-rational form. If the teachers adhered only to a strict field trip structure, not a single field trip would last beyond the first 10 minutes of getting everyone on the buses, right?
  3. We’re now nearing the 100-year anniversary of Weber’s magnum opus. It’s been 42 years—my entire lifetime—since Karl Weick presented his paper. And the problem is that, at least in tech, we’ve moved to the far end of the spectrum. It’s not just that we’ve tried to free ourselves from the tyranny of bureaucracy. It’s that we’ve untethered ourselves from consistent human infrastructure more generally. We’re no longer loosely coupled but mostly uncoupled. And this is a major problem.
  4. You probably don’t believe me. Okay, let’s think about your work. How many tools do you use to communicate at work about work? Email, Slack, Workplace, Google Docs, Trello, Asana, Confluence, a wiki, Dropbox, Box? All of them? Maybe you don’t think a document is a form of communication but there you’d be wrong, and anyway people often leave comments in a Google Doc that are then referenced in Slack and again in a Trello card. Right? How easy is it to find what you need? Pretty hard, because not only are there are all these places, there are different spaces within these tools things could be found: Folders or channels or whatever. And who is doing the work of organizing all these tools and all this work? Everyone is, based on a system that maybe was articulated a handful of times but you’re not clear whether the latest and most canonical version is pinned to a Slack channel or in the Google Drive of someone who recently left for another company.
  5. I saw this a lot at Slack. People would ask me why Slack worked well for teams of 20 or 30, or even 50, but once you got bigger it started to feel unwieldy. Well, think about it in terms of Dunbar’s Number. Dunbar’s Number is the number of people you can successfully maintain stable, functioning relationships without going into cognitive overload. Let’s set aside the idea of the strength of weak ties, and the value of knowing or being connected to in a friendly, social way more than Dunbar’s Number of people, because we’re not talking about social media or networking here. And anyway, the strength of weak ties doesn’t take into account the ways in which being connected to more people means you can stretch your energy and cognitive abilities pretty thin. Because that’s what starts to happen in Slack if there’s no one—as in, human beings—to be the connectors of people and the collators of information, so your brain goes into overload trying to stay organized and keep on top of everything.
  6. What this speaks to is the idea of trust. What and who can you trust in a system like this? Can you rely on the system itself? Is there even a system? Do you know the people who are there to help you, do you know who to ask, do you know what everyone does and how to connect their work with yours? Or is everything sort of siloed, both in terms of the work itself and the way it’s communicated? I heard a lot of people, especially at large companies, talk about how tools like Slack helped overcome some of those siloes and barriers. It’s an incredible tool! But even incredible tools, especially tools geared specifically around human communication and interaction, need humans to keep them running smoothly. And a lot of times, the tools we design actually make those humans’ jobs harder. When we don’t design for the people whose job it is to keep us all organized in groups that are larger than 20 or 30, we’re not really designing with empathy, are we? Certainly not for those people or for the organizations they support, but also not for ourselves, because eventually we’re going to suffer too.
  7. Consider the opening paragraph of Weick’s paper: Imagine that you're either the referee, coach, player or spectator at an unconventional soccer (football, sorry he’s American) match: the field for the game is round; there are several goals scattered haphazardly around the circular field; people can enter and leave the game whenever they want to; they can throw balls in whenever they want; they can say "that's my goal" whenever they want to, as many times as they want to, and for as many goals as they want to; the entire game takes place on a sloped field; and the game is played as if it makes sense. Weick uses this example to highlight educational systems, but when I read it, you know what it sounds like to me? Work. Also Twitter and the internet more generally.
  8. Without some kind of rational, structured, hierarchical system on one side, what are we loosely coupled to? Without a systematic way to organize, manage, and govern ourselves, how do we get anything done? How do we, as teams, organizations, and societies, function successfully? We do so by straining the limits of our own cognitive capacities, the limits of our non-hierarchical, networked organizations, and often the limits of the people we ask to keep us organized and functioning. Technology cannot replace bureaucracy. No matter what, we need human infrastructure, but we need it to not suck. This uncoupled way of working isn’t sustainable. We need to get better at designing and scaling human infrastructure as we scale the technological systems that supposedly make our lives easier. Because when we don’t, all that happens is we create new complexity and new problems to solve, which we try to do with yet another product.
  9. When we design and build products, we try to do so with the end user in mind. In recent years, we’ve been asked to empathize with the end user, to design for a wider range of users, to get out of solving our own problems and creating products that work best for people who are just like us. I’m not going to say we’ve nailed that part yet but we are getting better at it, slowly. But as I hope you’re starting to see, the two types of users we forget about most of the time are: The Admin and The Organization These two users are deeply intertwined. And this entire talk is a plea to all of you: We have to remember those users and design for them starting yesterday, or we are going to screw ourselves for a very long time.
  10. I hope you will forgive me for using the word “admin” as a catch-all, especially those of you who fall into this category, but I’m using admin both for brevity and for real functional reasons. I’m talking about people whose primary work it is to keep things running, whether IT admins at enterprise companies, executive admins who are the gatekeepers to major decision makers, project managers who keep people and projects organized and on schedule, and so on. They are the glue in most of our systems, the people who deploy internal tools and the people who can tell you where to find a document or the answer to a question, now that many of us have approximately five different places to reach one another in any given company and ten different places organized by 1000 different people in which to find documents and other resources. We have never designed for them, and we have rarely designed for actual groups of people in the way that actual groups of people operate.
  11. Here’s a visual aid: Imagine you run a company that employs 1000 people. Your entire company is moving into a new high rise office building, and there are some other companies already in there. You open the doors to the building, tell your employees they’re located on floors 2, 14, 33, plus 48 through 50. They’ll find some desks and some rooms in various places. All their shared work is accessible to everyone else in the company, because shared work is now organized by ad hoc committee. That’s all they need to organize themselves and structure their work, right?
  12. One of the best examples I know of a company that thought deeply about human infrastructure was Flickr. Yes, the company founded by the same guy who founded Slack! Probably not a coincidence. I don’t know how many of you used (or still use) Flickr, but I was a pretty devoted user. Flickr had one of the best communities, online or off, that I’ve ever been a part of. And one of the reasons was that Flickr took community seriously. Community isn’t something that just happens, facilitated by some cool technology. Community, like culture and like other parts of a functional, non-terrible everyday existence, requires work. Human work. Flickr had rules, and these rules were enforced by humans who worked at Flickr. What was fascinating about this was that it didn’t happen in a hidden way. There was transparency, long community discussions, arguments, and more. I remember feeling bad for many of the community managers, and I also remember thinking some of the rules or the ways they were enforced didn’t always make sense or seem totally fair. But you cannot design a system for the individual. You have to design it for the whole.
  13. Let’s look at a different example: Facebook. Do you ever think about how Facebook works? Probably a lot, since they’re in the news all the time, especially in recent months thanks to the US election. But I mean how it actually works in a more human way. Like, have you ever been in a Facebook group? The Facebook groups grows and suddenly people are posting all kinds of stuff other people don’t want to read, and then people are fighting, and the group owners are trying to establish guidelines and enforce them with such tools as “delete” and “block.” Similar to Twitter’s block and mute features, the tools feels a lot like a system that was patched on after the fact, rather than one that was considered in the broader context of “how humans actually behave.” But one aspect of this has been pretty well thought out, and it’s not one you probably notice, because the human infrastructure in place to deal with it is literally invisible. You don’t see dick picks and people being tortured on your Facebook pages, but not because of the algorithm. It’s because there are people, tucked away in office buildings in places like the Philippines, whose job it is to look at the absolute worst, most horrifying things humans can try to post on Facebook, and remove them.
  14. Unlike a visible community moderator, and in fact like most of the human infrastructures whose job it is to clean up human mess or to keep systems running smoothly so the rest of us don’t have to be bothered, this infrastructure is invisible. It grinds on in the background, grinding the humans in it down. Those are the people who bear the emotional and psychological brunt of having to deal with awful things so the rest of us don’t, and they do so while being paid a fraction of what the rest of us make, the people who build the technology. One of the most astonishing things to me is how much we celebrate good design, the kind of design that seems effortless and almost invisible. We know how hard that is to accomplish, and we know how much work goes into it. The same is true of human systems. Do you think this conference magically appeared overnight, built by elves? Do you think any event or system that runs seamlessly doesn’t have a massive team behind it, ensuring that all the bits fit together and all the unexpected mishaps have a solution? All of these have a rational-ideal plan and a real life manifestation of that plan in which humans have to make a lot of decisions that in no way reflect the expectations of the people who designed the plan.
  15. Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince people that intentionally designing human systems is as sexy as doing any other kind of design or development. It does not sound cool to have a design sprint in which everyone sits down for the work of defining, setting, and policing boundaries. In fact, it sounds creepy and bad, like we’re coming up with some kind of horrible rigid structure or fascist system. But what I’m asking is that we sit down and find ways to redesign bureaucracy with as much empathy and care as we claim to use in creating apps. Structures, guidelines, and tools, so we can avoid that rigidity, that tight coupling—but also so we can avoid being totally uncoupled and staring into the everyday chaos of a cobbled together system of insane spreadsheets that only a few people understand. Culture takes root whether or not you’re intentional about it, and so do communities. The problem is when you have no boundaries or guidelines, no tools or processes or ways to support the people who populate your platforms and use your technology, you have no recourse when destructive cultural elements set up shop. All you have are lines drawn in the sand and a fat tidal wave of “it’s too late” headed for shore.
  16. That shore is populated with our users, the people who use our products and whose lives are affected by them in countless ways. If there is anything you and I know about users, it’s that they will in turn come up with countless ways to use our products that we never imagined. None of these ways are wrong. But what is wrong is to send the product out into the world without any sort of tools, guidance, or assistance that helps admins and teams use our products in functional, very human ways. It’s wrong to think organizations can just deal with the human part and we’ll focus on the technology part. It’s all intertwined, and it always has been, we’ve just chosen to ignore it, much to our great discredit. Building and supporting human infrastructure isn’t cool and sexy. It doesn’t have a tangible thing you can point to and say “I made that,” like an app. But none of our products are free of bias or opinion, so start having an opinion about how organizations and societies can best use your products, complete with toolkits that will enable them to do so. Have an opinion about what is and isn’t okay, and support your users—not just the individuals who look like you but the individuals who support you and the teams in which you are embedded—in developing and growing processes and cultures that can be sustained. Otherwise, we’re designing for our own downfall.