Wireframe Bonus Episode: Good Design According to You

Wireframe’s Airstream Trailer at Adobe MAX 2018

Bad news: We’re already halfway through the six episodes planned for this first season of “Wireframe.” Hopefully we’ll be back—if you want another season, be sure to let us know.

Good news: while we were at Adobe MAX 2018 in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, the folks at Gimlet and I recorded a special bonus episode, and here it is. We actually set up a makeshift recording studio inside of a brand new Airstream trailer so that folks walking around the show floor couldn’t miss us. We invited a whole bunch of MAX attendees to step inside, sit down with us and talk about what good design means to them. The answers were great, so we put them together in this five-minute episode. Yes, it’s basically a clip show, but it’s pretty entertaining nevertheless. And we’ll be back next week with the back half of the season, all in our signature full-on storytelling style.

You can listen to the entire episode above. Be sure to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcatcher to get each episode as it’s released.

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique, high quality design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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The Ride to Vote

Earlier this month I was pretty hard on Uber and Lyft in a blog post about the deleterious effects of ride hailing on, well, everything. But credit where credit is due: this Election Day, Tue 6 Nov, both companies are helping to get voters to the polls by offering discounts on their services.

Lyft is offering half-off rides to your voting place. Just get a coupon code at lyft.com/theridetovote. Weirdly, that URL resolves to a Buzzfeed page where you can enter your zip code, apparently so that millennials won’t think voting is somehow uncool or something. Fittingly, Uber has a more complex approach which involves partner non-profit groups and selecting the cheapest ride option available—I couldn’t figure out all the rules but maybe you can at this page.

It’s not clear to me how much these companies want people to actually know about these promotions though. I haven’t seen mention of them in the Lyft app (I never use Uber) and really only became aware of this while walking around Manhattan’s Lower East Side yesterday, where I came across the billboard/installation below. It’s papered with what are meant to be representations of the millions of ballots that did not get cast in 2016 when voters simply opted our of their right to vote. It was pretty eye-catching and well done, even if it was hidden at a not particularly well trafficked corner of the city.

Lyft Billboard for Rides to the Polls
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Demoing Voice Live at Adobe MAX 2018

For the record, here is the entire keynote address from last week’s Adobe MAX 2018 conference in Los Angeles. Jump to about forty minutes in and you’ll see the demo that I gave of what’s new in Adobe XD.

In a post last week I went into some detail about the groundbreaking new voice design and prototyping features included in the latest release, but this demo also shows a slew of additional major improvements: seamless import of Photoshop files (also works with Illustrator files); linked symbols now working between documents; a painless new approach to responsive design that we call “responsive resize;” two plugins from XD’s brand new plugins ecosystem (which already features dozens of third-party developers); a whole new approach to effortlessly creating microinteractions called “auto-animate;” and the aforementioned voice features. (That’s just the design segment of the keynote; there are tons of other products announcements if you watch the whole thing.)

As an added bonus I also showed a preview of a voice feature coming next year: the ability to run your XD prototypes directly on an Amazon Echo Show. For both that segment and the earlier part of the demo where I show voice interactions for the first time, you might notice a sincere moment of genuine relief when the features actually work as expected. In truth I was less intimidated by the nearly 12,000 attendees in the hall watching my demo than I was by the relatively unknown quantity of demonstrating voice on stage. The medium is so young still and so there’s no great playbook for how to handle a technical malfunction. You also don’t get a lot of cues as to what might be going on when voice fails—did the system fail to understand what I said, or did it fail to produce a response? It’s hard to tell, and really frightening to demo.

This is the new reality though—before too long voice is going to be a common feature of most product demos. More than that, voice is going to change the world around us. I was speaking to an architect recently who talked about how designs for new workplaces are already starting to anticipate a future where we’ll all be speaking to our computers. Immersive media is going to bring about new norms in how we think about our physical world. There’s a certain inevitability to it, and that’s why it’s so important that designers start working with this stuff now, when the rules are being written for the first time.

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Wireframe Episode 3: Good Design Is 💩

The other day, a designer who I admire greatly described my new podcast “Wireframe” as something “like investigative journalism crossed with UX/UI case studies.” That is a really flattering characterization that reflects our ambitions for this whole series. So much goes into the production of each episode in terms of research, reporting, fact-checking and editorial review that I’m not afraid of saying there’s no other design show like it out there.

Put another way, this is a serious production—even if the title of today’s post contains a, um, a poo emoji in it. That’s right, poo. Sometimes design journalism just takes you to unexpected places.

In this case, as we dug into the design history of emoji and how they became an essential part of our communications in this century, it was hard to ignore the auspicious place that that particular pictogram occupies in our collective imagination. If you’re grossed out though, don’t worry—the entire story is actually not particularly bathroom-focused. It covers the origins of this funny iconic language, explores its linguistic evolution, and shows how design can take some unexpected paths to success. Like I said: serious very stuff. Plus there’s 💩.

You can listen to the entire episode above. Be sure to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcatcher to get each episode as it’s released.

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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Movies Watched, September 2018

Still from “Crazy Rich Asians”

Late summer 2018 was a huge breakthrough for Asian-Americans in film and I was there for it. Sort of. First, “Crazy Rich Asians,” became an instant hit and a cultural touchstone despite a late-August theatrical release, not usually a time for huge box office numbers. Almost concurrently, Netflix released “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a charming teen romantic comedy in the John Hughes mold with an Asian American girl as its lead. And then Asian-American actor John Cho, one of the best performers of any ethnicity working today, starred in the innovative and superbly reviewed “Searching.”

That’s three better-than-average movies where Asian-Americans figured prominently in front of and/or behind the camera. I still haven’t been able to watch “Searching” but I did get to see the first two, both of which I started with great enthusiasm and then finished with decidedly mixed feelings. Though “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” are drastically different kinds of films, they both ask discerning movie watchers to choose between celebrating breakthroughs in ethnic representation in film or criticizing their narrative shortcomings.

This amounts to a terrible choice, especially in the case of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is a triumph in so many ways. It can’t be overestimated how meaningful it is to have a major Hollywood studio film with the first predominantly Asian cast and crew in twenty-five years. And the fact that the film was met with such popular and financial success makes its achievements all the sweeter.

But “Crazy Rich Asians” is hardly a well-honed example of filmmaking craft, even for a romantic comedy. At best, I would call it only nominally romantic and only mildly comedic. Mostly, it’s just regrettably shallow and tediously meandering which, to be fair, is about par for the course. For decades, the romantic comedy genre has been essentially defined as an exercise in lowering its audiences’ expectations.

Where “Crazy Rich Asians” is markedly worse than what we could have hoped for is in its treatment of class. Romantic comedies have a long-standing fascination with the courting rituals of the rich, it’s true (and granted, for this film, that’s advertised up front in the very name). This has been with us since even the golden age of screwball, when the combination of romance and comedy resulted in some of the most enduring cinema in Hollywood history. But classics of the genre like “Holiday” and “The Awful Truth” (two of my all time favorites of any genre, by the way) merely took their upper crust milieus as a way of contrasting the humanity of their protagonists against the lack thereof in their antagonists. Those movies often rejected wealth, or found their resolutions in spite of it. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” there is a disturbing unwillingness to choose between disdaining the trappings of extreme wealth and also embracing its vulgar excesses. The film is determined to have it both ways, repeatedly lampooning rich Singaporeans while also giving its characters no agency outside of their riches—every emotion, every expression, every plot point rests on the articulation of money. Even the class divide at the heart of the conflict isn’t between rich and poor but between the mega-rich and the upper-middle class. And, spoiler alert, in the end, no one winds up a cent poorer. It’s gross.

Worse, “Crazy Rich Asians” is egregiously evasive about race. Its setting in Singapore is strangely monocultural for a tiny city-state where a quarter of its population are ethnic minorities. And yet the world of “Crazy Rich Asians” is almost exclusively ethnic Chinese. Or, to put a finer point on it, light-skinned. There’s hardly a dark-skinned figure on the screen at any time.

You could say that this film is a moment for ethnic Chinese representation specifically, and not every breakthrough movie should be held responsible for carrying the full freight of underrepresented minorities. That would be a reasonable defense. And yet, I lived and worked in Singapore briefly, and what I recall was that any given day was full of chance encounters with ethnic Malay and Indian residents, to say nothing of the countless foreign nationals in the expatriate community. You really had to go out of your way not to see the wider spectrum of racial diversity in the country, and that’s what I found so galling about “Crazy Rich Asians.” They say there are no accidents in what makes it into a film, so we should be clear that it was no accident that “Crazy Rich Asians” went out of its way to exclude ethnic Malay Singaporeans, specifically, and other ethnicities, broadly. For a film that’s supposed to be representationally progressive, that’s disappointing to say the least.

A compromised racial outlook also undermines the otherwise perfectly entertaining “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a suburban teen comedy with a thoroughly delightful Asian-American lead in actor Lana Condor. Unfortunately her charms are not enough to drown out the movie’s deafening silence on the mixed-race, Asian/Caucasian ficitional family at the heart of the film. The mother is Korean and the father white but Condor and the actors that play her two sisters look like they were born from entirely different ethnicities. The script compounds this problem by conspicuously failing to address the disparities altogether, ignoring race almost entirely. Aside from a single rudimentary mention of her Korean-American heritage early on, there’s not a single character trait in Condor’s role that is specific at all to her racial identity. Not one of the boys she has a romantic interest in is Asian, and in fact there are no substantive parts for Asian males altogether. Also, coincidentally, Condor’s mother is dead, handily dispensing with the need to actually represent her heritage more fully.

This approach struck me as disturbingly Orientialist, a hallmark of which is the tendency to group different Eastern ethnicities together as generically “Asian.” Maybe it’s really true that, to some American audiences—and maybe to some American film producers?—all Asians look the same. Or maybe the filmmakers were under the misapprehension that the best way to handle race is to pretend it doesn’t exist at all, deferring instead to a blandly pervasive notion of “American” identity. Either way, for me, the lack of nuance in respecting Asian identity was fatally distracting, like one of those restaurants where they serve sushi and General Tso’s chicken at the same buffet. Those places are fine and all, but if one comes to your town, don’t mistake it for progress.

Here is the full list of twelve films I watched in September.

If you’re interested, here is what I watched in August, July,
June, May, April, March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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Wireframe Episode 2: Good Design Is Good Civics

If you enjoyed the inaugural episode of “Wireframe”, you’ll love this second installment, just released today. The title is “Good Desgn Is Good Civics,“ and it looks at how the city of Boston tried to package its municipal government into app form, and what it learned along the way about how design serves its people. You can listen to it above but be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, the focus is on stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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Designing and Prototyping with Voice in Adobe XD

A Slide Announcing Voice in Adobe XD
A graphic announcing voice features in the newest version of Adobe XD during the Adobe MAX 2018 conference keynote.

This morning, during the keynote address for Adobe’s MAX 2018 conference, I demoed the latest enhancements to our Adobe XD design tool for UX/UI designers. One of these enhancements is something that I’m particularly excited about—and also personally proud of. That’s the new ability to design, prototype and share with voice as a medium.

Let’s say you’re designing a product that has a voice search feature built into it, perhaps something similar to Spotify’s mobile app. Now, in addition to being able to design and prototype the visual layout, you can also define the actual voice inputs and outputs for that assistant. That means you can just type in the exact phrase that you want the app to listen for—XD will actually listen for you to utter the text that you enter and, when it hears it, will advance the prototype. And it also means that you can type in the actual responses you want to hear back from the app—this latest version of XD includes the powerful Amazon Polly text-to-speech service right in the app. It’s ridiculously easy to build these voice interactions; the video below demonstrates this in action.

The upshot is that Adobe XD is now the only design tool that allows you to create realistic voice prototypes that emulate any voice-activated system or voice assistant. Even better, because this is integrated into XD alongside the app’s more “traditional” design tools, it becomes incredibly easy to revise and refine your voice designs very, very quickly. That ability to iterate has been the missing link in voice as a medium. Even as Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and other voice assistants have taken off like wildfire, designers working in voice have been stymied by the nearly complete lack of voice tools oriented around the design process. All that changes today.

The launch of these voice features is especially satisfying for me for two reasons. First, I’m a big believer in the idea that voice is well on its way to becoming an integral part of experience design. This just seems like a foregone conclusion to me. Smart speaker growth is already torrid, and voice assistants are becoming a natural way for a new generation of users to interact with technology. What’s really exciting about this is that voice as a medium is still so young. There are lots of challenges still to be resolved with voice, and it’s designers who are best suited to forge these new solutions.

I’m especially proud of voice in XD because I was able to play a role in making this all happen. Early in 2017, I was introduced to Mark Webster, who was then the founder and CEO of Sayspring, a startup building a design-oriented voice prototyping tool. As soon as Mark demonstrated Sayspring to me, a light bulb went off in my head—I recognized immediately that what he and his team were building was something every designer should have in his or her toolbox.

Readers of this blog may remember that later that year I published an extensive interview with Mark about the challenges of designing for voice. That interview was my way of evangelizing the importance of a design-oriented approach to voice. This was intended for the design community at large, but it was also not so subtly intended for an audience within the halls of Adobe as well. I started lobbying my colleagues to consider voice as a new medium that Adobe XD should address, and pointed to the interview as a kind of primer on the concept.

Then, in October of last year, Mark joined us at Adobe’s MAX 2017 conference in Las Vegas, where we found time for him to sit down for a private meeting with Paul Gubbay, Adobe’s vice-president for design and web products, Andrew Shorten, senior director of product management for Adobe XD, and me. Mark demoed Sayspring, showed us how to build a voice prototype in minutes, spoke commands to an Echo device and we heard it respond. Immediately Paul and Andrew saw the potential that I had seen. That kicked off a series of discussions that eventually led to Adobe acquiring Sayspring in April of this year. Mark and his team then moved into Adobe’s New York offices (not far from my desk, actually), rolled up their sleeves and began working like mad to build the voice features shipping in today’s release.

This whole journey has made for one of the most interesting years of my career. Working on Adobe XD was already an invigorating challenge, but to get to play a small role in bringing a whole new kind of design and prototyping to millions of designers, that has been truly amazing. For me, it all reflects the rich possibilities that exist at Adobe. Not just the ability to move at scale and to make strategically unique acquisitions like we did with Sayspring, but also the willingness to look ahead and anticipate changes in the very nature of design. Voice was already one of those transformative technologies on a path to wide acceptance, but it’s also very much one of these media that will be catalyzed in wholly new ways with the participation of designers. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Wireframe: A High-quality Storytelling Podcast about Design

Today marks the debut of “Wireframe,” a podcast about user experience design brought to you by Adobe and Gimlet Creative—the host is yours truly. You can listen to the first episode embedded above, but be sure to subscribe to the podcast so you don’t miss each week’s new episodes.

There are a ton of podcasts about design out there, but almost every one of them follows a standard interview format: the host welcomes a famous designer, asks him or her about how they got their start, goes over their background, their job, their challenges etc. Some of these podcasts are terrific; I’ve been lucky enough to have been interviewed by some wonderful hosts on shows just like that.

“Wireframe” is different though. Its format is the kind of high-quality, deeply researched storytelling you might be more familiar with from public radio, or shows like “This American Life.” There are interviews, of course, but instead of a single interview subject, each episode might feature snippets from interviews with as many as four or five different people. What brings these voices together is the theme for each episode. In the first episode out today, the theme is the role that user experience design has played in some near-disasters in American history, and how that has influenced the way we all think about design and technology. Future episodes will cover design’s role in city services, the origins and impact of emoji, the controversy of addictive design, and more. In short, this show is about stories, not résumés.

The ambition here is twofold. First, we wanted to elevate the discussion around design so that it’s treated with the same seriousness, thoughtfulness and sense of fun as any general interest subject matter—arts, culture, technology, sports etc. It’s surprisingly uncommon to hear or read about design in this manner, as we’re much more accustomed to how-to tutorials or inside-baseball articles. It’s much rarer to find stories about design that are exhaustively researched and fact-checked, that are produced to professional broadcasting standards, and that take a “big picture” view of the impact of our craft. And it’s no wonder why; each episode of “Wireframe” took dozens of hours of research, writing, recording, editing and production.

The second goal here is to talk about design in a straightforward, engaging way that draws in not just seasoned designers but also a wider audience of people who are curious about our craft. Put another way, we wanted to show how design is relevant to the world at large.

That’s why we partnered with Gimlet, a company with a fantastic track record for creating hugely popular general interest podcasts. They brought an invaluable journalistic sensibility that focused the whole effort on telling stories in clear, compelling language that anyone, regardless of their level of design expertise, can listen to and actually enjoy. It’s a fine line to walk between conveying the myriad of complex ideas behind design and portraying its wide reach in plain, accessible terms. But in my view it was exactly the right challenge. As I’ve said in the past, the more lucidly design can explain itself to the general population, the more the world will value its benefits.

This podcast has been a true passion project for me over the past several months. More goes into each episode of a show like this than I ever had any idea, and it was so humbling—and fun—to learn a bit of it from the folks at Gimlet. I honestly think you’ll get a kick out of it. Please give it a listen, subscribe in Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts, and let me know what you think.

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Uber, Lyft, Taxis, Design and the Age of Ambivalence

Photo of Taxis and Cars by Antonio DiCaterina

The massive disruption that ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft have visited on the taxi industry stirs up so many conflicting feelings for me. I use these services all the time but the larger impact of my patronage has been weighing on my conscience more and more lately. Not least because, from a certain perspective, it’s clear that design lays at the heart of both the genuine innovation and the disturbing dissonance of this transformation in transportation.

It’s no secret that Uber and Lyft, in order to justify their exorbitant market valuations, are barreling towards a future in which the way we move about cities is reinvented by autonomous vehicles. It’s at that point that they’ll be able to do away with the pesky expense of human drivers. And it’s also at that point that the companies will have decisively made the shift to true technological innovation.

Until that yet-to-be-determined date, the frank truth is that what propels these companies forward is not really technology innovation so much as design.

Of course, the ability to hail a car on your phone and then have your request instantly dispatched to a driver in your vicinity is an impressive technological feat. But the actual ride, the core of the value, is still technologically unchanged—you’re still being driven in a combustion engine vehicle by a human. (Even if your driver picks you up in a hybrid or electric car, that technology wasn’t brought to you by the app or these companies.)

The real innovation that Uber and Lyft have brought to bear is in the transformation of the user experience of your ride: the ability to gauge your driver’s distance from you; the presentment of the driver’s name and the make and model of his or her car; the option to follow along with the route to your destination; and then the prompt to rate and review your ride at the end. These are the kinds of things that make an Uber or Lyft ride fundamentally different from stepping off the curb and waving down a taxi. They rely on technology, of course, but really they amount to “designing the ride,” or the application of user-centric thinking to enhance the experience of being driven across town.

Uber vs. Lyft and Beatles vs. Stones

In a way ride hailing as a technology was commoditized almost as soon as it was birthed into the world. You can see this in how the basic functionality of both Uber and Lyft’s apps have largely stayed the same over the years while the design and branding approach of both apps has been updated and enhanced with great frequency. This doubtless reflects a recognition on the part of both companies that their technology is virtually indistinguishable from one another, at least to consumers. When a business finds itself in a position like that, one of the best ways to compete is with design.

All of this has yielded a kind of user experience boon to ride hailing customers. The apps seem to be continually, breathlessly one-upping each other with new interface features and slicker interactions, and they’re overhauled periodically with ambitious and sometimes dramatic redesigns. Put simply: the design of these apps is getting better all the time. It’s one of the closest equivalents to a Beatles/Stones rivalry that we’ve ever had in interaction design, and it’s been exciting to watch.

In the short history of our craft, you would think this could be regarded as an unalloyed success for the profession, and certainly as a triumph over the legacy taxi industry’s stodgy resistance to design. Before Lyft and Uber taxi and limousines had operated virtually unchanged for decades. (It was a big deal in the early 2000s when you could start using a credit card in New York City cabs, a laughingly incremental innovation.) And the experience of being driven by a hack was often erratic and inconvenient, to put it mildly. I recall ruefully the annoyance of trying to hail a taxi on busy weekend nights while at least three or four other people were doing the exact same thing on the same street corner. That’s when they’re available; hailing a cab in inclement weather has always been one of life’s least noble chores. And of course taxis and limousines have, at best, spotty reputations for picking up passengers of color, or for being available or timely in low income neighborhoods.

It’s almost as if, once we added design to the equation, everything got better. All of a sudden you could reliably get a ride on any street corner, at any time, almost without regard for how many other customers are competing for rides of their own. Rides are cheaper now, too, both because each Uber and Lyft transaction is essentially underwritten by investment capital and because you can know the cost before you even hail that ride. Taxi drivers can no longer “show you the park,” as they used to say when they took unsuspecting out-of-towners the long way round to their destinations.

Unintended Consequences

All these improvements were made possible by design, and they’ve made a difference—a huge one. There would be no “unicorn” valuation for Uber or Lyft if they hadn’t employed designers to fundamentally improve the taxi experience.

But of course, this isn’t the whole story, not by a longshot. The lightning speed with which ride hailing apps have captivated consumers has also brought some substantially troubling unintended consequences.

Rides have gotten cheaper for passengers, but it’s been shown repeatedly that driving for Uber and Lyft is not a great way to make a living. Drivers can often earn less than minimum wage, and there is a disturbing trend of suicides among economically struggling drivers.

To compound that problem, there is no path forward from driving into ownership. Cab drivers in many cities can eventually become licensees or medallion owners, building equity in their professions. In the past this has been a reliable trajectory for many immigrants who have been able to start as taxi drivers and become owners of small fleets of cabs, propelling them into middle class life. With the advent of Uber and Lyft, the value of medallions in New York City, for example, has fallen off a cliff, effectively wiping out the financial futures of countless drivers.

Whether you look at this disruption as either an unfair attack on a working class profession or as a basic and perhaps inevitable outcome of free market evolution, it’s much harder to dismiss the effect that Uber and Lyft are having on our physical world.

Where they once promised to lessen traffic, it’s now become clear that these services instead increase congestion—precipitiously. In a study of nine major metropolitan cities in the United States—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington—researchers estimate that ridership is adding as much as 5.7 billion miles of driving per year to streets.

This likely stems from the fact that customers aren’t hailing Uber and Lyft instead of driving their own cars. In fact, that same study suggests that at least half of the rides hailed on these services would not have been taken by car at all; they are journeys that customers would have taken by foot, bike or public transport, or perhaps even not at all. The gas consumption—and attendant pollution and environmental damage—required to support all of this additional driving is staggering. But think also about all of the fossil fuels that are required just to allow Uber and Lyft drivers to continually circulate around a city so that that there will always be one near you when you need it.

You Can Never Go Back (to Taxis)

Earlier I contended that very little of the innovative value of these services could’ve happened without design. Well here is the other side of that coin: At some point the total civic benefit of these services begins to look less like a misguided convenience and more like a lavish extravagance that none of us can afford. And the rapidity of design’s success here, combined with how lasting it’s likely to be makes this look more and more like a design-led calamity.

Uber and Lyft rose to prominence so quickly—in roughly just a half decade—but it seems unlikely that a solution to this predicament will happen nearly so quickly. As American society has proven again and again, it is unwilling to use roads less, only more. The habits that we’ve all formed so quickly around on-call, near instant ride-hailing are going to be incredibly difficult to reverse.

It’s not an option to just go back to the way taxis and limousines operated a decade ago. That legacy industry is not just in an economic shambles today, but it remains as problematic as ever. Even as it functioned as a gateway to the middle class for countless drivers, it’s been historically rife with transgressions and corruption. If anything, the design innovation in Uber and Lyft only served to highlight how generally unfit for the public the whole industry has long been.

Furthermore, even if there were some kind of a public campaigned waged to return to traditional cabs (and it would have to be an incredibly successful one to make an impact), the bell of ‘good design’ can’t be unrung. We’ve now seen how design can remake the experience of a cab and there’s no going back.

One of the most powerful aspects of the Uber and Lyft approach is the dual rating system for drivers and passengers. It’s been remarkable to me how it’s influenced my conduct as a passenger; I’m much less prone to being rude or even giving negative feedback directly to drivers knowing that they’ll be rating me as well.

But when I get into a taxi cab, not only do I find that I’m less personable with taxi drivers, but I also find that the reverse is true, too. In the past year, I’ve taken rides with yellow cab drivers who conduct private conversations on their phones and ignore me entirely; who disregard my requests to take certain roads to my destination; who cite their need to make short return deadlines as reasons why they can’t add stops to a trip; who are flagrantly untruthful about fare estimates; and who are just plain rude. If you have reservations about Uber and Lyft, the user experience of yellow cabs are not a compelling alternative.

Disruption vs. Design

Any sober assessment of this situation would likely conclude that there are elements of both traditional taxi service and ride hailing apps that are desirable. On the one hand, we want taxi driving to be a sustainable profession, with hack licenses and medallions distributed in reasonable quantities so as to mitigate congestion. On the other hand, we also want a good experience for our rides, we want technological innovations, and we want a mutually respectful relationship between rider and passenger. Right now the prospects for achieving that balance seem very remote.

The widely dissatisfactory nature of this current situation suggests to me that design as a force for “disruption” is deeply problematic. If you look at this mess we’re in, it’s pretty clear that all that we’ve done here is disrupt the status quo. While there is merit to that, as a profession we’ve allowed ourselves to be swept up too easily by the enormous emphasis (read: economic value) that the tech industry has placed on the concept of disruption.

It’s reasonable to look at the Uber and Lyft experiment as an attempt to redesign everything about taxis. In some ways the attempt has been unexpectedly successful—if you had told me a decade ago that this market would become one of the most consequential proving grounds for design ideas ever, there would have been no way I’d have believed you. But that’s what it’s become.

Design has disrupted taxis in a massive, almost unprecedented way. But good design doesn’t merely aim to disrupt—it should set out to actually build viable solutions. Designers shouldn’t look at a problem and say, “What we’re going to do is just fuck it up and see what happens.” That’s a dereliction of duty.

But in a very real sense, that’s just what design has done with this challenge of how people get driven across town. Design has focused on the details: on the challenge of getting the interface just right; on “optimizing the funnel” for new and lapsed customers; on fine-tuning the choreography between app notifications, driver interactions and payment; and on outfoxing the competition. Meanwhile, the bigger picture has gone largely ignored.

Responsibility

It’s difficult to write a post like this without implying bad behavior on the part of the teams, past or present, who work on these products. That’s not my intention.

There’s a tough discussion to be had here about responsibility. That includes the question of “To what extent should the Uber and Lyft design teams, past and present, be held accountable for the creation of this inescapable new challenge of modern life?” But we should also ask, “To what extent should the entire design industry be held responsible for peddling our relentlessly sunny prognostications of how design can improve the human condition, all without regard for deeper discussions as to the meaning and impact of our work?”

If anything, this situation reflects poorly on the entire design industry—and on our inability to connect our work with the larger context of what we put into the world. I’ve argued before that as a profession we’re inexperienced at this level of discussion and thoughtfulness. There is a long road ahead to being able to incorporate this kind of awareness into our work methods in a way that’s productive and complementary, rather than at odds, with the companies that employ us.

By the same token, that hardly absolves design in the present. The teams at Uber and Lyft have a responsibility to engage in a dialogue, privately and publicly, about the impact of their work. And we all have a responsibility to ask questions about that very same subject, to hold all of us, together as an industry, responsible for the outcomes of our craft. We can’t think of ourselves merely as disrupters. When we take on a challenge, when we endeavor to apply our tools and thinking and labor to problems, we have to commit ourselves to producing complete, viable and sustainable solutions. We have to finish the whole job.

Photo by Antonio DiCaterina on Unsplash.

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Movies Watched, August 2018

Still from “BlacKkKlansman”

I try to post these roundups as soon as I can after each month closes but I’m barely getting this one in before October. And it does seem like a long time ago that I saw Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” at the theater, but the disappointment still lingers.

It’s not wise to walk into any of this director’s movies expecting perfection, but I’ve come to expect, at least, a kind of thrilling audacity, a go-for-broke sensibility that bends narrative and polemic together in unexpected ways. That’s what Lee’s 2015 film “Chi-Raq” was like: not altogether successful, but still wildly ambitious, and pretty amazing to watch.

By contrast, “BlacKkKlansman” is almost shockingly…conventional. Its crazy premise—an African-American cop fools the Ku Klux Klan into accepting him as one of their own—never reveals itself to be anything crazier than the way it’s described—no new layers are peeled back, no unexpected twists are presented. It’s just kind of boring, actually. And by the end, when Lee hastily motors through various plot resolutions and tries to tie the movie’s historical milieu into present day events, the total effect feels slapdash. A missed opportunity.

Here are all fifteen movies I watched way back in August.

If you’re interested, here is what I watched in July,
June, May, April, March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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