“10 principles for design in the age of AI” and other edicts

Not a fan of Yves Béhar or self-promotion packaged as a high-falutin’ design manifesto, and feeling generally ornery, so just one-sentence reactions:

1. Design solves an important human problem

There are millions of design challenges, not every design does or needs to solve an “important human problem”.

2. Design is context specific (it doesn’t follow historical cliches)

Yes, design is contextual, but some contexts benefit from historical references and familiarity for fast and wide adoption, e.g. iPhone intro.

3. Design enhances human ability (without replacing the human)

Some design problems are better solved by getting the human out of the equation; we’re not work animals.

4. Good design works for everyone, everyday

There’s pretty much nothing that “works for everyone, everyday“.

5. Good tech and design is discreet

Being discreet and solving a design problem can be orthogonal.

6. Good design is a platform that grows with needs and opportunities

Not all design needs to be a platform and not all growth is beneficial in the long run.

7. Good design brings about products and services that build long-term relationships (but don’t create emotional dependency)

The driver of manufactured “emotional dependency” isn’t always design; it’s often a business model that requires it, e.g. Facebook, Zynga, Candy Crush, etc.

8. Good technology design learns and predicts human behavior

Algorithms are by definition exclusionary and mostly normative: “learning” and “prediction” aren’t without a price, e.g. aggressive surveillance by Facebook, Amazon, Google, etc.

9. Good design accelerates new ideas

Not all design requires elaborate contemplation, especially for commodity products.

10. Good design removes complexity from life

Complexity is in the eye of the designer and removal is normative, e.g. Trumpworld.

Incidentally, much of this has nothing to do with “AI” brutally slapped onto the title.

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Stop the presses!

A decade ago, before iOS vs. Android, there was one of the bloodiest wars of attrition of the early web: online music stores. Microsoft, Real and myriad others tried to dethrone Apple’s iTunes through bare-knuckle competition, press battles, lawsuits and hacking…all in vain.

As we enter the streaming media era, the last of these battles, and undoubtedly the most inane, has ended with a unanimous rejection by a jury in just three hours on Dec 16. The trial had long become a circus act, as have many of the cases involving Apple, notably in the court rooms of Judges Lucy Koh, Denise Cote and Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers. Indeed, this ended up being a 10-year old class-action case without a single plaintiff! As one law professor put it:

Frankly, I find that flabbergasting, that in a universe of eight million potential plaintiffs, the two that were selected were disqualified. That really tells you a lot about this trial.

About a dozen days prior to this inevitable conclusion, the lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that Apple had deliberately and secretly deleted competitors’ songs from users’ iPods. That’s what the lawyers who couldn’t find two qualified plaintiffs out of eight million prospects said. Here’s what the media reported the next day as fact:

pressclips

There were dozens and dozens of versions of this ‘fact’ syndicated in a zillion outlets: “Apple had deliberately and secretly deleted competitors’ songs from users’ iPods”.

Of course, it takes exactly two words to rise above click-bait headline framing:

Here’s how Apple’s lead lawyer reacted to it in his closing statement:

There’s not one piece of evidence of a single individual who lost a single song, not even a complaint about it. This is all made up at this point.

This is clearly a simple example, and yet this is how it happens: one story at a time, thousands of times a day, every day. Yes, journalism isn’t exact science, but from epidemiology to space exploration, from technology reporting to business coverage, the sheer amount of fact-free, opinion-framing ‘news’ is now exceeding our collective ability to notice, care or correct. Yes, journalism has always been messy, but the speed with which it’s generated, aggregated and distributed may now be overwhelming us. Yes, we have ever growing access to filtering software to shape our own sphere of coverage, and yet tens of millions of people read, and likely most believed, that Apple had deliberately and secretly deleted competitors’ songs from users’ iPods, an impression which may never be sufficiently corrected. Yes, we’re getting better tools to find and check facts, and yet the incentives to not deceive readers through disingenuous headlining and packaging are clearly not in place. How many headline corrections have you seen in this case?

Paradoxically, in the age of oncoming vertically integrated digital-media companies it may become easier, and certainly faster, to ignore the facts.

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“Give monopolists a chance”

dcohen

Following last week’s Obfuscation by disclosure: a lawyerly design pattern, just a few more points on the Comcast acquisition of Time Warner from WSJ:

  1. “[Comcast Chief Executive Brian Roberts] sits on a presidential jobs council, has hosted President Barack Obama and top presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett at his Martha’s Vineyard home and has also golfed with the president.”
  2. “Mr. Roberts and his wife, Aileen, have donated $417,290 to Democrats over the past 25 years, compared with $116,150 for Republicans”
  3. “[Comcast] one of the most visible players in Washington…spent $18 million on lobbying in 2013, making it the seventh-highest spender overall”
  4. “Comcast employees made a total of $6.5 million in campaign contributions during the 2012 election cycle, including $466,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $305,000 to the president’s campaign for re-election”
  5. “Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen is a major bundler of contributions for the Democrats, and has hosted a number of prominent fundraisers featuring the president at his home and other venues. Of the almost $870,000 Mr. Cohen and his wife, Rhonda, have donated to campaigns, 79% has gone to Democrats, while just 9% has gone to Republicans.”
  6. “Comcast’s lobbying and regulatory team includes Meredith Attwell Baker, a former Republican FCC commissioner who voted in favor of the Comcast-NBC Universal acquisition four months before she joined Comcast.”
  7. “One firm representing Comcast is Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, which last year hired former top antitrust official Jon Leibowitz, who served as Mr. Obama’s first chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC shares antitrust authority with the Justice Department.”
  8. David Cohen: “we’re not afraid of the government review process. We know it will be stringent. We believe it will be fair and open. All we’re asking for is an opportunity to make our case.”

But what an opportunity! The parties are so sure that this deal will pass through the regulatory charade that Time Warner did not even bother asking for a breakup fee from Comcast should it fail, as is customary in such M&A activity.

Since cable/telecom markets are practically rigged, wouldn’t it be a test of faith to put Comcast’s contention that this deal is “pro-consumer, pro-competitive and strongly in the public interest” to a national referendum? It won’t happen obviously, but a useful mental exercise to remember why big business so loves regulated markets and regulators.

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Obfuscation by disclosure: a lawyerly design pattern

This is not earth shattering news. Not even news per se. It’s what you get if you were to slow down the insane rush of ‘news’ just a split second to see how the sausage is made. In this instance, how the news (Comcast acquisition of TimeWarner) is packaged, from a quick, high-level design point of view.

What we have here is a legal document dressed as a press release masquerading as a blog post presented at a corporate website in a section called “ComcastVoices: A Place For Conversations With Comcast”. In other words, it’s lobbying collateral raised to the level of public conversation.

(tl;dr: According to Comcast, the merger is “pro-sumer” if you “get past some of the hysteria,” it’s “approvable” by the regulators and won’t “reduce consumer choice at all”. Will it raise prices? “not promising that they will go down or even that they will increase less rapidly.” Given the historical record of the industry, it’s Comedy Central material.)

comcast banner

Unless you’re in this industry, you’ll likely never read it: it’s 2,480 words. If you’re a civilian and do read it, you won’t understand most of it. It’s not meant for you. How do you know that? If you look at the large introductory banner (above) you get your first design clue: “public interest benefits and undertakings”. It highlights the good stuff: “public,” “interest” and “benefits”. All good. How about “undertakings”? Well, as a promise of potential future positive actions, it sure beats “anti-trust concerns”. Since “public interest benefits and undertakings” is the only part highlighted in color in what’s otherwise an ocean of gray type, you can read this framing statement and be done with it. It perfectly encapsulates the rest: This merger is good for you. Any questions you may have will be taken care of. Thanks for stopping by.

Of course, if you’re really careful, you’ll also notice that it’s bylined by David L. Cohen not just as Executive Vice President (which is what he uses pretty much everywhere else and most notably at the official Comcast Executive Biographies org-chart) but also as Chief Diversity Officer. Yes, “Diversity”. Now you know you’ve really hit on the corporate heavy-gun of choice against discrimination, anti-trust and class warfare charges.

It would be very tempting, at this point, to go into the sausage factory and do a point-by-point walkthrough dealing with the creation of a media/internet/communications colossus that’ll dominate a third of the nation and all the anti-competitive network effects of such consolidation, but that too would be old news. Also, I promised this would be quick, high-level and design oriented.

If you read a lot of contracts or are involved in writing corporate legalese, you already know that it’s important to segregate the good parts from the bad and the mundane, even in those droning tomes set in monospaced fonts like the ubiquitous Times Roman or Courier. Type size, line length, leading, margins, bullets, lists and boldface can subtly lead the reader to pay unequal attention to selected parts. Of course, it’s best when this is done with a delicate touch for maximum surreptitious effect. Like so:

pro

It’s all pro, it’s all good. “Benefits” repeated 4X? Check. Segmented and bulleted? Check. Boldfaced talking points? Check. Inviting? Check. But what about the cons?

cons

Well, we already lost the boldface emphasis and the sound-bite friendly talking points. First comes “certain competitive concerns might be raised.” (“Might be” as if this M&A deal will sail through without any competition/anti-trust questions?) Then comes the yes-but mental priming before we get to deal with “certain competitive concerns”. (Not as memorable as the pro section above, is it?)

But if you really want to lose your audience, you’d best bring out the biggest gun of all: the text-soup with no paragraphs, no segmentation, no bullets, no highlights, no boldface, no nothin’. And dare your readers to read it…forget understanding or recalling any of it.

app1

app2

“Important Information” and “Cautionary Statement”. So “important” and so “cautionary” as to be served as text-soup. Unfortunately, they are not for the “benefit” of the corporation, so glance-and-forget-it.

Am I being naive here? After all, this is a corporation putting its best foot forward, isn’t it? I know. (In another life, I’ve done this for some of the largest corporations in the world.) My point is actually as obvious as it’s depressing: perversely, there is good news in all this. Design works, however evil it may be.

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