15
Sep

On Planning and Design: An Interview with Peter Morville

Peter Morville is a pioneer in the fields of Information Architecture and UX and the author of numerous bestselling books including Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (affectionately referred to as “the Polar Bear Book”), Intertwingled, and Ambient Findability. We’re super excited to have Peter join us at Fluxible this year for not only a talk on the importance of planning, but also a half-day workshop on “Planning for Strategic Design”.

Team Fluxible’s very own Hans Kao caught up with Peter to learn more about what brings him to Fluxible 2018, his latest book, Planning for Everything, his thoughts on the evolution of design, what he’s excited about going forward, and other topics in between! The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

On Planning for Everything

Hans: Thanks for being here, Peter. Let’s start by talking about your latest book, Planning for Everything. This is your fifth book. What inspired you to write it and who did you have in mind when you wrote it?

Peter: There are a few reasons. The first comes from a frustration with the state of the world — business context and otherwise — that we see today. There’s been a pendulum swing away from doing big planning and big design work upfront. Now, recognizing that we live in a fast-paced world and we need to be adaptable to change, there’s a lot of good to that swing. But I feel in some aspects, the swing away from planning may have been so far that there’s now an aversion to planning altogether. I’m hoping the book will get people to think a little more deeply about what’s the right balance between planning and improvisation.

A second reason comes from my own background. I’ve always been a planner. And we’re never really explicitly taught how to plan, but from childhood we learn by watching others, and we find a way of planning that sort of works for us. And so I felt like in writing the book, I might help people to be more mindful of possible ways of planning and have them explore other ways to do it and maybe even find a better way.

The swing away from planning may have been so far that there’s now an aversion to planning altogether.

My intended audience really was a general public. This book was not written specifically for a UX audience. My stretch goal for the book is that parents will read it and hand it to their teenage kids and say, “you need to read this because you could really benefit from being better at planning!” And that their teenager kids would actually read it and say, “you know, that was actually helpful.”

Hans: And we’re seeing this in startups and small businesses where the cost of redoing things is becoming lower. Do you see this generally applying to society as well?

Peter: Even in the software world, we tend to underestimate the cost of redoing things. A startup that’s working on, say, a mobile app, can rapidly ship a Minimum Viable Product into the market, get feedback, and iterate on it. But when you start working on large, complicated systems and websites, it becomes very complex. Not just because of the complexity of the software, but because software and the web have become a big part of how we work. There are lots of different people involved with different expectations. And so change becomes hard.

People are amazingly good at learning how to use a bad system. So even if you change a bad system and improve it, people will get frustrated and upset because they now aren’t able to use it like they had learned to.

In the face of all this complexity, my argument is that there is no single right way to plan, and that we need to consider the context of whatever it is that we’re dealing with — what are we trying to accomplish? Whether you’re building software, or a skyscraper, or going on a family vacation, deeply consider the context and figure out what’s the right balance between planning and improvisation.

My argument is that there is no single right way to plan.

Advice to Designers

Hans: As a designer, planning is a big part of what what I do. Is there any advice from the book that you would give to a junior designer who’s new to the field of UX?

Peter: There’s this phrase that I love — I think it was Brian Eno who first said it — about “the Big Here and the Long Now”. So, to the young designer, the Big Here would be about not just looking at this small piece of the world you’re responsible for, but looking at the larger context. And the Long Now, I would say, speaks to looking not just at this particular agile sprint you’re on, but looking a year or five years down the road, and thinking about the change you’re affecting.

Young designers typically get told what to do and in effect are put into a box of “the small here, and the short now”. So my advice would be to keep pushing against that box that and think about how you can stretch, and how you might be able to build skills so that you’re no longer in the box. So that you can affect larger, organizational change.

Hans: And any advice to more senior designers?

Peter: I think part of the job of senior designers is to recognize an organization’s set of assumptions that they’re operating on and to learn when to push back on them as a means to help the organization get unstuck and move forward. One of the ways they can do this is by being exposed to other ways of doing things from other senior practitioners.

This is one of the values of going to conferences: you can learn from others and synthesize those perspectives with your own and think about how you might be able to make impact in your own organizations. I like to say that the role of senior practitioners is to find those levers — those small changes that can lead to big impact — to really affect change outside your job description.

The Evolution of IA and Ethical Design

Hans: I wanted to get your thoughts on how Information Architecture has evolved over the years and how the role of UX designers has changed. What’s your take on that?

Peter: I was practicing information architecture in the 1990s when organizations were doing their first websites and those sites were just seen as add-ons to the work of the enterprise. The nice part of that was that we got to focus.

On the other hand, the content was secondary to the mission of the organization. It was the marketing or some support content, but it wasn’t mission critical.

Over the span of the last 20 years or so, Information Architecture and User Experience and all of the work we do in digital has become mission-critical. It’s now not just part of the enterprise, it’s often the most important part.

You don’t get to practice Information Architecture without worrying about politics and governance and culture anymore.

So now the upside is that we have a seat the table. We have tremendous resources. Big companies have hired entire UX teams and support them. The downside, however, is that now governance, culture, and politics become big influencers. And we have to learn how to work with the organization and bring stakeholders onboard in understanding what you’re doing and why. You have to learn how to compromise.

You don’t get to practice Information Architecture without worrying about politics and governance and culture anymore. If you try to, you will fail.

Hans: Looking forward, what excites you about the future of the industry and design as a whole?

Peter: I’m starting to see the signs that that there’s a readiness to get back to taking that deeper, longer perspective. I think for a while in the last 5 to 10 years, we had been operating in the “Move Fast and Break Things” way of doing things. And that led to a mess of local optimizations that we had to fight our way through. Nobody had the time to take a broader and deeper look at the overall customer journey.

But I think now there’s some increasing readiness for that longer and more thoughtful view of the broader picture.

Another thing that’s exciting is that I’m seeing more talk about ethics. People are increasingly asking whether we’re doing the right thing and are we really helping our customers. As UX teams have become embedded in organizations, tough compromises were made in designing user experiences that arguably had benefited business metrics at the expense of trust and long-term loyalty. If we want to be successful in the long run, we need to take our customers and their experiences more seriously, and I’m starting to see people explicitly talking about ethics.

People are increasingly asking whether we’re doing the right thing and are we really helping our customers.

Being at Fluxible

Hans: We’re excited to have you give a talk and facilitate a workshop at Fluxible this year! Could you share with us a little bit about that.

Peter: Yeah, I’m really excited to be to be speaking at Fluxible. It’s one of those conferences that I’ve heard all sorts of great things about but have never been to! I could tell that Fluxible was one of those events that’s really about community and sharing and learning from each other while having fun, and so I wanted to be a part of it.

My talk is going to be based loosely on my book, Planning for Everything, and I will also be doing a half-day workshop, “Planning for Strategic Design”. I’ll be sharing some of the principles and practices from my book and then getting people into small breakouts, having them brainstorm together and share what are our challenges around planning and how might we do it better with tremendous positive energy. I’m really excited for that!

Hans: So are we! Thanks so much for spending some time with us and sharing your thoughts. We look forward to seeing you at Fluxible!

Peter: Thank you.

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