government posts

Innovation for Introverts January 19th, 2012

We here at Portigal are diverse practitioners, particularly when it comes to the polarizing spectrum of introversion and extroversion. Many a delicious dinner have been sprinkled with questions about how our preferences impact our practice. Steve, who identifies as more of an introvert, was interviewed by Gerry Gaffney for his User Experience podcast late last year and discussed the context of interviewing as a place where this gets manifested and managed. This topic is not new, but some recent articles remind me how important it is for innovation efforts that we acknowledge the valuable differences between those who draw energy from within and those (like me) who draw energy from the people around them.

The Rise of the New Groupthink [NYtimes] – Collaboration is the new black and, not surprisingly,¬† it is not without its discontents. The author cites a range of studies (and Steve Wozniak as an exemplar) for why uninterrupted alone time is necessary and brainstorming in groups is not as effective as solo ideation. It doesn’t take loads of creativity to cherry-pick studies and successful individuals that support your case, in fact I think that’s called confirmation bias.¬† Most disappointing is the characterization of collaboration as Groupthink which implies assembled individuals are stifled creatively and unable to reach their maximum creative frequency of Flow. Rather than supporting the case that collaboration isn’t worthwhile, I see a need for better communication, alignment, and understanding of diversity by the individuals that make up the group. A gifted facilitator, dedicated to stewarding collaborative creative processes and balancing different ideation styles, may offer a valuable remedy for this divergent diagnosis.

One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone – and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” In other words, a person sitting quietly under a tree in the backyard, while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, is more likely to have an apple land on his head. (Newton was one of the world’s great introverts: William Wordsworth described him as “A mind for ever/ Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”)

Woz on Creativity: Work Alone [brainpickings] – My favorite source of cognitive candy offered a lovely, gentle rebuttal to the above article. It suggests, as do I, that creativity benefits from collaboration because fantastic things happen when ideas bang against each other. Neuroscientists tell us that new ideas are born of cognitive dissonance (when the brain struggles to hold two seemingly contrary concepts in the mind at the same time). This process has various monickers (forced connections, ideas having sex). In my experience it is guaranteed to produce innovative thinking and often works best when those two dissimilar ideas come from different people.

This, of course, should be ingested with caution – when taken out of context, it could easily become a distorted extreme. As Steven Johnson argues in Where Good Ideas Come From, innovation happens when ideas collide with one another, which can’t happen in isolation – an environment conducive to such collisions is essential for combinatorial creativity.

Federal Buzz: Does the government need more extroverts? [The Washington Post] – If you don’t have time for an in-depth study of the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) then this article offers a quick little lesson in some key distinctions between introverts and extroverts, as well as why there can be confusion and cases of mistaken identities.¬† The article is a response to the argument that the government must hire more extroverts if it has any hope of fostering innovation. Plenty of voices chime in to dispel myths of introversion vs. extroversion and illuminate the challenges of employee retention within a work culture that neither nurtures nor rewards innovative contributions.

Several [introverts] also professed to being mistaken for extroverts because any personality type can exhibit the qualities of a good leader. Explained Kenneth Wells, an employee with the Navy, “I have been in positions where I had to act like an extrovert and make decisions quickly and decisively. Just remember that person who you think is an extrovert may be an introvert. All he or she wants is to get the job done, and then spend a little alone time to recharge and work on the next assignment.”

Stockholm’s School Without Classrooms [Architizer] – The Swedish Free School Organization Vittra is innovating the learning landscape with a new school designed to inspire creativity and community. The interior architecture is reminiscent of design studios (which are criticized in the above Groupthink article for lacking personal spaces). I, for one, drool at the thought of my son getting to attend a school designed to promote openness and interaction. Of course, my son is an extrovert like me so he would likely flourish in a school without walls. How is this kind of open environment experienced by a more introverted child?¬† How do the teachers nurture and honor diverse creative kids in this context? I acknowledge my own confirmation bias here in suggesting that the teacher-as-facilitator seems like a viable anecdote for ensuring the students learn to stretch and shine, both alone and together.

The principles of the Vittra School revolve around the breakdown of physical and metaphorical class divisions as a fundamental step to promoting intellectual curiosity, self-confidence, and communally responsible behavior. Therefore, in Vittra’s custom-built Stockholm location, spaces are only loosely defined by permeable borders and large, abstract landmarks. As the architects explained, “instead of classical divisions with chairs and tables, a giant iceberg for example serves as cinema, platform, and room for relaxation, and sets the frame for many different types of learning,” while “flexible laboratories make it possible to work hands-on with themes and projects.”

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ChittahChattah Quickies December 12th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] The future of books is a real page-turner [Sydney Morning Herald] – [With so much prognostication going on, this government effort to foster a conversation about the future of books is refreshing] When in electronic form, storytelling may benefit in ways that no one can yet articulate. This is one reason why the Book Industry Strategy Group, established last year by Kim Carr, the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, is seeking public submissions about the future of the industry. It is seeking ideas from writers, educators, librarians, publishers, retailers and – most importantly – readers about how to enhance the Australian publishing industry as an important sector of our economy, society and culture. Will the "deregulation" of the publishing industry, where anyone can self-publish, result in more stories of highly variable quality? Of course it will – just as the printing press did. But it may lead to some new and innovative ways of storytelling, ways that engage the reader in different or deeper ways. [Thanks, Wyatt!!]
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ChittahChattah Quickies August 17th, 2010
  • [from steve_portigal] The opposite of user experience design [Jorge Arango] – [I've experienced the bewildering confusion of bureaucracy in another country but have always assumed implicitly that for "those people" it was tenable. Jorge's tangible frustration and brilliant insight puts the lie to my ridiculous parochialism] One of the advantages of living in the developing world is that I am exposed to a wide variety of UX disasters. If you find it hard to define UX, try dealing with a Panamanian government office. You will quickly see what a lack of UX thinking looks like, and this will in turn aid your appreciation and understanding of good UX. A few weeks ago I had to go to the Panamanian immigration office to take care of some paperwork. When I got there, I found chaos…I’ve come to understand that the opposite of UX design is not shitty design, thoughtless design, or piecemeal design. It is anarchy. Only strong leadership with a clear user-centric vision can transform the organization’s culture and improve the experience of its constituents.
  • [from steve_portigal] Please vote for our SXSW 2011 Panel – Mommy, Where Do Good Products Come From? (with Gretchen Anderson) – [Thanks for your vote!] Business case studies are the ultimate in reductionism: A complex business activity rooted in a specific context of people, company culture, time, and place is boiled down to a few key ideas. People confuse the terms innovation and invention; looking for breakthrough ideas sends companies into a frenzied search for "new" things not great or disruptive things. In this session, we will explore some different pathways to creating great product ideas. As designers and researchers, we're experienced enough to know that design research isn't the only approach or even always the best approach (a point of view that Don Norman vehemently argued in recent writings). For instance, design research wouldn't be sufficient to create a disruptive innovation like Gowalla. We'll outline a framework that looks at different approaches to idea generation, including corporate competencies and culture, customer needs and cultural context, and technological innovation.
  • [from steve_portigal] Please vote for my SXSW 2011 Panel – Diving Deep: Best Practices For Interviewing Users – [Thanks for your vote!] The skill of getting the right information from users is surprisingly complex and nuanced. This session will focus on getting past the obvious shallow information into the deeper, more subtle, yet crucial, insights. If you are going to the effort to meet with users in order to improve your designs, it's essential that you know how to get the best information and not leave insights behind. Being great in "field work" involves understanding and accepting your interviewee's world view, and being open to what they need to tell you (in addition to what you already know you want to learn). We'll focus on the importance of rapport-building and listening and look at techniques for both. We will review different types of questions, and why you need to have a range of question types. We'll also suggest practice exercises for improving your own interviewing skills and how to engage others in your organization successfully in the interviewing experience.
  • [from steve_portigal] The Minds Behind the Mind-Set List [The Chronicle of Higher Education] – [Freshmen in 2010 have never known a world in which a website can't get a book deal. Yes, the Mind-Set List book is coming] Mr. McBride, a professor of English and the humanities, says the list started on a lark back in 1997—some old college hands unwinding on a Friday afternoon, musing on how much freshmen don't know about recent history and culture. But such blind spots are to be expected, they had agreed, given the relative youth of the incoming class. They had concluded that professors should be mindful of how very different their students' life experiences are from their own. With colleagues, they had brainstormed about the cultural touchstones for that year's entering freshman class, whose members would have been born in 1979. That was the year of the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Three Mile Island. The resulting list was passed around and eventually found its way into the hands of a Wall Street Journal reporter, who subsequently wrote about it.
  • [from steve_portigal] Beloit College Mindset List 2010 – [The annual list, in time for this year's freshmen, telling us older folks how our view of the world differs in key and/or bemusing ways]. For most of their lives, major U.S. airlines have been bankrupt. A coffee has always taken longer to make than a milkshake.
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ChittahChattah Quickies July 6th, 2010
  • [from Dan_Soltzberg] Book review: In the Loop – Knitting Now [we make money not art] – [Another form of handheld diversion – knitting. No chargers or connections necessary. Check out Mark Newport’s wonderful superhero pix halfway down the page.] In the Loop shows the different aspects of contemporary knitting practice and transforms our understanding of knitting away from retro hobby to mainstream craft and artform.
  • [from steve_portigal] An Evolution In The Data Collected By Economists [ABC News] – [Recalling the adage "You manage what you measure"] The US is deluged with economic data, yet figures cannot conclusively answer even the most fundamental questions. A handful of data-loving economists are pushing for alternative measures to provide a clearer picture of how well the economy is working. No one is talking about jettisoning the GDP, the broadest measure of the nation's economic output. By combining that information with deeper understanding of how people live, work and feel, officials hope to identify economic trouble spots more quickly and make better policy decisions. Two new sets of statistics are due to be launched next year. The Labor Department is working on an enhanced time use study to track what Americans do all day and how they feel about those activities, a project that draws on Krueger's academic research. The Commerce Department is planning a new poverty metric it hopes will provide a more up-to-date measure of which groups are struggling to meet basic needs.
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An idea so crazy it just might work? April 3rd, 2010

There may be frustrated designers doing some important government work. In what reads like an Onion article, this story describes how investigators submitted 20 phony products to the US Energy Star certification program. Three were ignored, and 2 were rejected. An 18″ x 15″ alarm clock (model name: Black Gold) that runs on gasoline was approved. As was the room air cleaner pictured above, made up of a space heater with fly strips and a feather duster. Maybe the Energy Star folks were giving extra points for bravado and “made us laff.”

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ChittahChattah Quickies January 15th, 2010
  • What’s this? A kinder, gentler IRS? [Consumer Reports] – On Monday the IRS introduced a redesign of nine of its form letters, or "notices," to be more consumer friendly, or, as they put it, "as part of their ongoing effort to improve the way it corresponds with taxpayers." In the true spirit of our bloated bureaucracy, this initiative was the result of the "Taxpayer Communication Taskgroup" which started its work way back in July of 2008, and, other than the nine (9!!) newly designed letters, the Taskgroup's efforts also resulted in the establishment of a new office, the "Office of Taxpayer Correspondence." You can find a link to a pdf comparing the original and redesigned letters on the Consumer Reports link… what do you think?
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ChittahChattah Quickies January 9th, 2009
  • Mexican Government Runs A Contest To Expose The Hellish Depths Of Bureaucracy – "Ms. Pardo said she thought the competition would not by itself guarantee change. But she said it helped not only to highlight the problem, but also encouraged Mexicans to speak out to try to force change, rather than just accepting the status quo. “Chileans don’t let this happen to them,” she said."
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User-Centered Government March 19th, 2008


Student Protest, Bonny Doon, CA 1987

Today is the 5th anniversary of the current US military involvement in Iraq. I heard Army Major General Mark Hertling speaking on NPR this week about helping members of Iraq’s central government figure out what people in the different provinces really want and need.

“We call it reverse helicopter governance – bringing the ministers to the provinces.”

This starts to sound a lot like the kinds of contextual research we use to inform product design. Going out and talking with users in their own environments. Seeing what people’s needs really are, rather than making assumptions.

There’s been a thorny debate in the Anthropology community about doing anthropological work in military contexts, but this is a different type of situation. Hertling is talking about facilitating Iraqi ministers to do contextual research on the people they are charged with serving as government officials.

What would it look like to take a further step, and take a design approach to creating a “user-centered government?”

One important aspect of design is a spirit of playfulness-in the sense of “serious play.” A spirit of willingness to reassess the meaning of a problem and the range of possible solutions. To prototype rapidly and try multiple approaches.

Michael Schrage, the author of Serious Play states that

“…the real value of a model or simulation may stem less from its ability to test a hypothesis than from its power to generate useful surprise.”

Ideation and design processes have been used to solve some pretty complex problems. Steve wrote last year about introducing empathy and user-centered design into government. Participatory processes and contextual inquiry have become much more prevalent in development work.

What could be done to bring more of the spirit of serious play to bear on the ways that problems like civil and international conflicts are framed and addressed?

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Not seeing the light February 9th, 2007

I blogged before about the missing-the-point push approach to getting energy-saving but unappealing fluorescent bulbs adopted. Now, a California lawmaker is going to introduce a bill that will ban incandescent bulbs, forcing people to make the switch. Sure, it won’t get very far legislatively, but disappointing to see effort wasted in forcing rather than fixing.

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Poor gov’t usability May 29th, 2006

Some bad government usability on a notice we received from the county

The aplication requests an Off-Street Parking Exception to allow for 1 uncovered tandem parking space within the existing driveway, where 1 free-and-clear arking space is required for a second dwelling unit. The application has requested this exception to allow the required parking space to be located in tandem to existing covered parking spaces.

I read this several times, looked at the diagram on the back of the page, walked over the house in question, read this again, and I’m still really confused. Really confused.

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Supervisors to pay a $1 fine for using bureaucratic lingo June 22nd, 2005

This type of rule may be largely symbolic, but the issue at question does deal with the meaning and usage of symbols, so perhaps it’s appropriate. It’s interesting to see a stand taken for effective communication and creating a smoother more usable “interface” to an organization. Organizations – the more bureaucratic, the better – become very focused on their insides, and not their outsides, thinking about their own processes and nomenclature and expecting their customers to adapt to their systems. It’s unfriendly, takes more effort, frustrating, distancing, and ultimately requires more work on their part to actually clarify or correct mistakes.

Contra Costa County supervisors who use certain dirty words during weekly meetings will have to cough up $1 fines. Under a new policy unanimously adopted Tuesday, bureaucratic acronyms like EIR, LAFCO, ABAG and RFP will be verboten in the board chambers in Martinez, not just from the supervisors’ podium but also in all written materials for board meetings.

‘We throw them around all the time,” said Supervisor John Gioia of Richmond, who proposed making Contra Costa the first county in California to adopt the anti-acronym stand. Politicians and bureaucrats there now must use phrases instead — environmental impact report, the Local Agency Formation Commission, the Association of Bay Area Governments and Request for Proposals.

He asserted that the public, whether sitting in the chambers or watching on television, can be confused when government officials engage in alphabet-soup discussions of programs.

Link

Just last week I received a letter from the Canadian passport office. It was a piece of paper with 2 dozen check boxes available, each indicating a different type of problem. The problem with my form was checked, a couple of words appended, and a pointer to a code (“see PPT 0S1″ – although was that 0 or O was unclear) – but no indication of what that code was, how to find the information in that code, and ultimately what to do with the information and card they sent me. No return envelope or instructions about where to mail it. I filled out the attached card and went to the web and found the mailing address and put it in the mail. When it arrives, will they be able to link this supplement with the information they have on file? I never found PPT 0S1. Really crappy experience for something as crucial as a passport. And this is, of course, typical. Especially for governmental agencies.

So, kudos to Contra Costa County for a SITRD! (step in the right direction)

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