29 May 2023

Short books for an inquisitive young fella

I do not simply endorse everything in these books — not by a long shot — but they are provocations which were powerful for me when I was a young bloke

  • Kieth Johnstone, Impro
  • James Carse, Finite and Infinite Games
  • George Leonard, Mastery
  • Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising
  • Lao Tzu, Tao te Ching
  • Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body
  • Alan Watts, The Book: On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
  • Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit
  • Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
  • John Whiteside Parsons, Freedom is a Two Edged Sword
  • George Orwell, Why I Write
  • David Deida, Instant Enlightenment
  • John Stewart Mill, On Liberty
  • Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps

17 May 2023

Nonviolent Communication, abuse, social justice, and ... communication

The Nonviolent Communication toolset is powerful and useful in many situations. I think everyone can benefit from learing its fundamentals. I have benefitted immensely from exposure to it when I was very young.

And I think everyone needs to understand its limitations. I recommend the Real Social Skills essay Nonviolent Communication can hurt people as a helpful examination of this problem.

That approach is useful in situations in which people basically want to treat each other well but have trouble doing so because they don’t understand one another’s needs and feelings. In every other type of situation, the ideology and methodology of Nonviolent Communication can make things much worse.

I would expand on the description of where NVC serves well to say that all parties in the conversation must have a commitment to working in good faith toward a resolution which serves everyone, and must feel deep confidence that everyone in the conversation shares that commitment.

Those conditions do not apply in relationships with abuse. Lee Shevek <@ButchAnarchy> explains the abuse pattern:

If your conflicts with someone close to you (partner, family member, friend, etc.) regularly result in you feeling confused about the nature of the conflict, you may be in an abusive relationship. Seriously, it’s not spoken about as often as it should be but if your conflicts with someone are regularly leaving you confused / keep you confused throughout the conflict, it is very likely by design.

Your confusion is not, contrary to the other person’s assertions, a result of your own weakness. It is that you are engaging with someone in the assumption of good faith when there is, in reality, no good faith present, and doing so is a wildly confusing experience. You engage in conflict with the assumption that the person you’re in conflict with is raising whatever concern they have raised in good faith because that is the basis upon which mutual relationship is formed. But that is not the basis of abusive ones.

Abusers engage in conflict (and create conflict) in order to dominate and to win, and they do not recognize fair terms of engagement. While you’re still engaging in the assumption of good faith, their only actual goal is to undermine you and gain your submission.

It was exceptionally hard for me to come to a point of understanding my past relationship as abusive specifically because me ex’s particular form of abuse was all about covert manipulation and subtle attacks on my trust in my own perceptions. So while I often felt extremely hurt, anxious, fearful, etc. the overarching emotion I had in our conflicts was intense confusion because I assumed she approached our conflicts with the same mindset I did: to collaborate and come to a mutual decision. I assumed also that her random criticisms, the conflicts she initiated that seemed to aping up from nowhere and spin in circles until I was too fatigued to hold my own ground anymore, etc. where about the subject matter at hand, when they were really just tools of control.

For clarity: occasional confusion and misunderstanding is a part of all relationships. But it should be occasional, and it should also be able to be cleared up via communication and explanation. If it is a consistent feature of your conflicts with someone, it is a big red flag.

Another essay from Real Social Skills, NVC can be emotionally violent, focuses on such systematically abusive people weaponizing NVC patterns.

This abusive partner’s honest expression of his feelings is actually part of how he is abusing his partner. NVC has no way of recognizing the ways in which expression of genuinely felt emotions can be abusive. It also has no recognized way for someone to legitimately say “no, this is not a conversation I want to engage in” or “no, I don’t consider that feeling something I need to respond to or take into consideration.”

Part of what it would take for NVC to stop being an abusive culture it to recognize that NVC-style dialogue and emotional intimacy require consent every single time people interact that way.

I wish I had comparably lucid descriptions of how NVC breaks down with social injustices. I have some incomplete understanding from my own experience.

NVC teaches avoidance of language offering “objective” judgement in favor of describing one’s subjective experience. (I-statements!) But speaking this way from a privileged position in a world which overwhelmingly values the feelings of the privileged over the experiences of the oppressedsocial injustice implicitly centers the perspective of privilege. We must diligently avoid this on the merits. And as it generally offends the heck out of people in a marginalized position when they hear it, degrading the conversation.

Consider a white person using the NVC template and saying to a Black interlocutor, “When you told me that my actions were racist, I felt very uncomfortable.” Even if that white speaker does not hold Black people responsible to ensure their emotional comfort, or to ensure the ease of white people in general — even if the Black listener has direct experience demonstrating this commitment by the white speaker — in a world which insists on white comfort every turn, the painful inference is unavoidable. In a position of privilege one must actively counter the expectation that the oppressed must be deferential to the concerns of the privileged. NVC’s grounding in a presumption of goodwill cannot address this need.

NVC’s method of empathetic listening — asking about an interlocutor’s experience, listening, then reflecting back one’s understanding of what they say — can fail badly coming from a position of privilege. I have been in conversations in which I have tried to say that I support the legitimacy of a marginalized person’s anger, saying back my understanding of what the anger was about, and asking that person to tell me more to improve my understanding ... and had it read as arrogating my right to decide whether the anger was legitimate, demanding details of the circumstances before I would consider it justified to my satisfaction, which I understand because denying both of those is a familiar pattern I am sure my interlocutor had experienced in countless other interactions. Our conversations cannot set aside the context of a world which makes unreasonable demands on the marginalized. Pervasive injustices makes an uncharitiable reading of privileged speech and thought natural, even a necessity for survival in a hostile world.

Jeeyon Shim adds a sharp observation about NVC as a style of communication:

It’s also painful to see NVC used in contexts that add racial codeswitching as an element, too. I think of NVC as a very, very white way of speaking, and all that implies.

One very clear cut example is in conversations where not every participant might speak English as a first language. I’ve witnessed this firsthand because my dumb ass, excited by hearing about the technique for the first time from very, very white friends, tried it on my mom. One day I was like, “When you say I need to bring home better grades, I feel like you are exerting parental pressure on me to fulfill unrealistic performance standards.”

She literally said to me, deadpan in English, “Jeeyon, did you forget how to speak English?”

Obviously she is very funny and that was a very fucking funny joke, but also how many times has that gone in a way where people got really hurt? How does NVC perpetuate white standards of behavior and protocol that, ahem, for people of color are often unrealistic performance standards?

Because of early training in nonviolent communication, am working to break my habit of reflexively turning to its patterns in fraught conversations. I have bitter experience from how it breaks down in social justice conversations. I confess that this comes with a frustration that social justice advocacy culture has not developed a stronger set of protocols for people in privilege to engage responsibly and effectively in hard conversations, much less a practice with the the crisp, teachable quality which NVC has.

We rightly point to an obligation to step carefully when we stand in a privileged position. Much of the discussion around that addresses a long list of land mines to Not Step On, and I think much of that right and necessary. And we need more positive practices, more clarifying principles.

Too often I find myself in moments of confusion. Should I keep my big yap shut? Or is that leaving the work to the marginalized? Should keep my emotions out of this particular point, to avoid an implied demand for caretaking? Or will that land as intellectualizing painful experiences when I should engage from the heart?

How should the privileged act in good faith with people who have every reason to presume bad faith? The liberal-as-in-Isaiah-Berlin tradition does not offer good answers. This requires principles, commitment, and skills. And while the privileged have the greater obligation to change and invest energy in correcting these breakdowns, I presume that a better protocol for the privileged would have to interlock with a matching protocol for the marginalized. I do not have good resources to turn to in cultivating them.

I hope that such practices are possible. I am struck that Charles Lambdin’s essay Listening Creatively: Killing Giants and Catching Shapeshifters addresses related problems in talking about facilitating workplace collaborations where it can be very tricky to cultivate goodwill and equally difficult to spot and respond to hostility.

The second Protean game Sanford calls “The Bird in the Bushes.” This has to do with veiled remarks. Here, someone makes a comment, and you sense an undercurrent, an added, implied meaning. It is like you hear something in a nearby bush that flutters and chirps. You assume it’s a bird, but to really know … you would have to go look in the bush.


Learning to look “in the bush” is, to me, one of the most powerful metaphors in Sanford’s book. It is far more helpful than the oft-repeated nugget of corporate wisdom that you should just “assume positive intent.” Though well-meaning, this advice is naïve. It ignores both the reality of corporate politics and frankly human nature. The fact is that colleagues do not always have your best interest at heart and sometimes do not want you to succeed. Further, at times you must work with toxic people. Another common piece of advice is to “trust your gut.” Well, often you cannot do both. When your gut tells you there is a “bird in the bushes,” to just “assume good intent” is to pretend otherwise.

I want to get much better at this. I want all of us to get much better at this.

15 May 2023

Blockchain in 10 minutes

I wrote this for Twitter and since that may implode at any moment, here is my clear, simple, no-BS explanation of Bitcoin and blockchain for civilians.

I promise not to explain any math. You do not need it.

The basic thing

Think about the Visa card people. When you use your card to take some of your money and give it to that Etsy account to buy a cool Whatever, Visa records the change in a database in a secret cave somewhere:

  • –$25 you
  • +$25 them

You have to trust the honesty of Visa. In theory they could give money to their friends in the database, which is bad for obvious (and not-so-obvious) reasons. Ultimately, the government checks to make sure.

OK, let’s say you are a libertarian goldbug. You want government entirely out of the money business. But how? Someone has to make sure the ledger of Who Has How Much Money is honest, right?

Bitcoin solves this using a new technology called a “blockchain”. It means that no, we do not need to trust the people who maintain the database with the list of who has how many Bitcoins, the way we have to trust the Visa people. The blockchain uses multiple synchronized databases checked against each other. They prevent cheating with the same basic cryptographic math which already makes it possible to safely send data like your credit card number over the internet.

Blockchain technology can maintain a trustworthy ledger of any shared information, not just Bitcoin, without needing a trusted agent to maintain the database. It seems like this must be useful for something, right?

A lot of nerds who understand the math are working on potential applications. Many are goofy. Many are scams. Many — like Bitcoin — are based on trying to create a scarce commodity so that early players win at a gold rush. And a few are … intriguing. It may be that none of these pan out. If one does, it could be huge.

That’s it.

Must a blockchain wreck the Earth?

Bitcoin uses an approach to the necessary math called “proof-of-work”. This makes computers sweat hard, which uses a lot of energy. And a lot of our legacy electrical generators put carbon in the air, contributing to climate change. The energy cost of Bitcoin is not just high; it increases with every transaction, making it unsustainable as a widely-used currency. (This is one reason why I am not a millionaire now. I knew early on about Bitcoin and expected that it would get big — though I had no idea how big — and concluded that investing in it was not ethical.)

In theory, blockchain tech does not necessarily have to work in such a compute-intensive (and thus energy-intensive) way. There are alternatives to proof-of-work, like proof-of-stake, which should use far less energy. But proof-of-work has a big head start, alternatives have not yet proved themselves, and many existing blockchain applications — notably including Bitcoin — cannot migrate away from it.

NFTs: non-fungible tokens

NFTs are a blockchain technology. They create a ledger

Bitcoin is designed as an artificial commodity which shares many of the characteristics of gold. It is fungible: one Bitcoin is the same as another, just as any ounce of gold is equivalent to another. But one could create a ledger listing unique things: non-fungible tokens with unique IDs.

In theory, one could use an NFT blockchain to assign a unique ID to any set of unique things: say, a database which knows who owns each Vermeer painting. For now, most NFT ledgers have no enforcement mechanism at all, so “owning” an NFT has as no more significance than the hokey certificate I have from a registry saying that there is a star named after me. Many scammy NFT systems do not even attempt to point to physical things, just invented commodities like ugly digital images.

Blockchain enthusiasts imagine that someday we will use NFTs to keep track of every thing in the world. No more arguments about whose soda that is in the fridge, who holds the title to that abandoned lot on the edge of town, et cetera; the database will know all.

A word about geeky politics

One can recognize in blockchain technology an idea familiar from decades of idealistic and naïve tech geek politics. Consider John Perry Barlow’s breathless 1996 Declaration Of The Independence Of Cyberspace:

We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. [⋯] Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications. Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live. We are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

I do not think I need to explain how that is not quite working out the way that Barlow and countless other tech nerds imagined.

Tech nerds have a longstanding tendency to assume that de-centralized technology structures inherently produce democratic, egalitarian, liberatory social consequences, protecting individual rights and freedom. An instructive 1995 essay, The Californian Ideology, explores and criticizes that assumption and others from the culture and cultural politics and politics politics of “tech”. and other assumptions.

On superficial reading, the writings of the Californian ideologists are an amusing cocktail of Bay Area cultural wackiness and in-depth analysis of the latest developments in the hi-tech arts, entertainment and media industries. Their politics appear to be impeccably libertarian - they want information technologies to be used to create a new ‘Jeffersonian democracy’ in cyberspace in its certainties, the Californian ideology offers a fatalistic vision of the natural and inevitable triumph of the hi-tech free market.

But history teaches otherwise. Aside from the example of Barlow’s failed dream of an internet without prejudice, or the way that Bitcoin created — by design! — its own inequality concentrating wealth in the hands of early enthusiasts, decentralized designs tend to not work even on the technical level.

11 May 2023

ROI & faustian bargains in design

Erica Hall says:

The “ROI of UX” is a thought terminating cliché.

The working assumption that business interests and user interests are inherently aligned (they are often not) prevents designers from doing the work that would be more likely to bring those interests into alignment.

Amen. I think user experience designers do need to be smart about about the relationship between user needs and business interests, but simply accepting creation of that alignment as part of designers’ mandate is a dangerous idea.

I like to describe UX design as offering a kind of benign faustian bargain.

Hey, Corporate Organization, I will figure out some things which will serve users well. Surely you can find a way to make money from that.”

Which is okay-ish to a first approximation. But. There are subtleties.

It is irresponsible and ineffective for UXDs to simply throw cool product & service ideas over the wall to The Corporation to figure out how to make them viable business ideas. UXDs have a distinct role of user advocacy, but that is not wholly separate from the business. Doing the work properly requires deep engagement in the business without simply becoming a servant of the business only. Hall underlines this distinction between informed engagement and simple-minded service in pointing to how creating profitable-but-bad user experiences is, unhappily, what many digital designers do with their day:

The historical ROI of being shitty to people is quite impressive.

If UX designers simply understand our role entirely as a way to Deliver Business Value, we become not user advocates but user manipulators. I reject the tech industry, public, and even many members of the profession seeing our work that way.

As various folks underlined in replies to Hall’s Twitter post, the question of “return-on-investment of design” is a pernicious instrument of people holding corporate power who resist design disrupting their comfort. We ask for many proofs of ROI in business but do not ask that the professions of management or executives or IT or countless other org roles justify their existence as professions this way. A Twitter thread by my old boss Alan Cooper raises this point …

Where is it written in stone that designers need to know business? Why don’t business people have to learn about design?

There are a lot of fine businesses out there, but there is a distinct shortage of well-designed products. I’m saying that the critical ingredient in successful products isn’t middle management but rather design.

And when I talk about good design, I’m not talking about white space and the color wheel, I’m talking about knowing what motivates the user and then giving it to them.

Isn’t that, in fact, what a good business does? They find their user community, figure out what they are trying to accomplish and why, and then give it to them. That’s design, not business.

Remember when Apple kicked out Jobs and hired all those great business people? That didn’t really work out for them. When Jobs finally came back, he made the user the most important thing, and they succeeded.

Look at a company like Nest. Running a thermostat company is not a great challenge. Designing a thermostat that changes the entire thermostat business is. The critical ingredient is user-centered design, not business.

All this talk about designers needing to know business is a lot of crap perpetuated by people who have learned that business is much easier than design is.

To paraphrase an old comic book, Design will get you through times of no business, better than business will get you through times of no design.

I too would ask why we hear so many demands that “designers have to understand the business" but few that "businesspeople have to understand design”.

… and I want to frame that a little differently. I too would ask why we hear so many demands that “designers have to understand the business” but few that “businesspeople have to understand design”. Everyone in a business organization needs to operate in a way that is generally aware of the concerns of the business, but it is striking that there are special calls for designers in particular to deeply understand the business.

Designers must admit that part of the issue is that there are some “designers” who do work which is almost willfully unconnected to the needs of the businesses they serve. They are a disgrace to the design profession and all too common, poisoning the water for all of us. When a client tells me that they are keen to get “actionable” design, often it means that they have experienced irresponsibly useless “design” work. (And of course now they are stingy with time and money, having sunk both into work they could not use.)

But that plea for “actionable” design which “understands the business” can also reflect narrow-mindedness: “I want a design which does not disrupt my business model, development process, or marketing. And make sure it is easy to implement.”

So ... don’t innovate. Great.

The most business-savvy design work I have ever done has not always gone over well. “Why are you talking about the business model?!?” Well, my user research showed you were planning to sell the wrong service; I designed the right thing, and the business model was part of it.

Considering how well I understand the business of my clients, and how poorly the business people I work with understand what I do, I share Cooper’s resentment driving him to say that the business really needs to work to better understand design more than vice versa.

“Design needs to understand business” reflects the absence of true product management, which is why I sometimes say that strengthening PM is one of the best things we can do for the profession of UXD and the UX of the systems we create. Yes, UX designers need to understand the business, technical, and marketing context of their work, but I disagree profoundly with the common contention that aligning UX design work with business objectives is UX designers’ responsibility. Creating that alignment is the function of product management. PM aligns all of the product team members with the biz goals (and each others’ efforts).

That gives UXDs at least the potential for a clean place to stand, acting as a full-throated advocate for users and people at large in the systems we work on. You may have heard of a company headquartered in Cupertino, California which tries to follow this model and even without always doing it well has won the biggest market capitalization of any corporation in the world.

But the ground is difficult. Hall reminds us:

Anyone who calls themself a designer, particularly a UX designer, has to confront the fact that what is good for business/investors and what is good for humans—even the rarefied tranche of the population that gets elevated consideration as "users"—is divergent and trending worse.
Mauricio Mejía asks:
Has it ever been convergent?
Answering this (to what extent do business interests/capitalism and human welfare ever converge) requires way more than a tweet. The fundamental premise of UX design is that the goals can converge.

Financialization in particular splits use value from exchange value.

Hall expands on the bind financialized market capitalism creates for ethical design:

A design education is incomplete unless it provides the tools to determine to what extent the needs, objectives, and incentives for an organization are in alignment with those of its audience, customers, users, partners, employees, etc. The entire field of UX needs to be rethought from the perspective that perceived/actual value to the user and perceived/actual value to the business are often very deeply at odds.

Power analysis is a critical part of this. Value to people with the most power in a system is not always financial, even if the system is nominally a business.

[Gestures around]

So, the idea that you can just make a case for user-centered design in terms of ROI is naïve.

If you’re in a public company, it’s about whatever makes the market happy—often the narrative more than the fundamentals (see: layoffs) at least in the short term.

If you’re in a private company, it depends on the goals of the owners.

Welcome to the worst case scenario.

I hope the UX design profession can find a way through.

04 May 2023

Credit cards as a fae bargain

Dreading Twitterpocalypse, I am transcribing this thread by Avery Alder

Here is how credit cards work:

Imagine stumbling into a fairy ring that belongs to the fairy mafia. An enchanting being appears, smile wide enough to reveal rows of sharp and glistening teeth, and it remarks, “Why, traveler, you look positively destitute! I have just the thing!”

It turns its palms up, revealing fistfuls of gold coins. Gold coins falling to the moss below. Gold coins all around you.

“Borrow whatever you’d like! Just bring it back by the next full moon, alright, my sweet?”

That’s when you notice its necklace of withered human fingers.

You take a handful of gold coins, because you really do need the money. As long as you pay this strange creature back before the next full moon, nothing bad will come of it.

Now, obviously the fairy is trying to trick you. You know that! But you’re confident you can outwit it.

You borrow what you need, and you return it to that magical forest place before the moon fills. All is well. Better than well! The fairy grows fond of you, leaving you larger and larger piles of gold to borrow.

Other fairies begin to make offerings to you as you walk the woods.

One month, life is particularly cruel to you. You can’t pay back the gold you borrowed.

On the night of the full moon, the being appears. “Don’t worry, my sweet. I am merciful. Just give me what you have today, and pay the rest by next moon.” It strokes its gruesome necklace.

“I’m sorry,” you say. “I’ll earn the money. I’ll pay back the debt!”

“Don’t worry at all, precious darling! All in due time. Things have a way of working themselves out.” And then, before disappearing in a puff of smoke, whispered under its breath: “that’s the first finger.”

The fairy keeps leaving you bigger piles of gold. The temptation grows stronger. Eventually, you come to think of it as your gold.

You borrow too much sometimes, and can’t pay it back. “Two fingers,” it whispers without sound. Then three. It keeps letting you take more money.

One day, you realize that regardless of whether you make good on your debts, you can’t stop borrowing more gold. Not only because you’ve built your life around it, but also because if you ever stopped borrowing it would make the fairies very angry. Not just this one. All of them.

You look around you at the world. Your fellow villagers have all fallen under the sway of the fairies. Borrowed fairy gold runs your whole town. People only do business with others if they are known to be in the favour of the fairies. Every day, more hands with missing fingers.

The savvy villager knows just what to do: borrow small amounts of gold regularly, to attract the attention and good graces of the fairies, and always repay it in full before the next moon, knowing it is not their gold. Get charmed and keep their fingers.

Few villagers are savvy.

Anyways, “sinister temptations from the fairy mafia, who will love you dearly if you play their game right” is the framework that helps me make my best credit decisions. Maybe it will be helpful to someone else out there too.

03 May 2023

The punk paradox of tolerance

Capturing this Twitter classic by Michael B. Tager <@IamRageSparkle> for convenience, legibility, and defense against Twitter crashing:

I was at a shitty crustpunk bar once getting an after-work beer. One of those shitholes where the bartenders clearly hate you.

So the bartender and I were ignoring one another when someone sits next to me and he immediately says, “no. get out.”

And the dude next to me says, “hey i’m not doing anything, i’m a paying customer.”

and the bartender reaches under the counter for a bat or something and says, “out. now.” and the dude leaves, kind of yelling. And he was dressed in a punk uniform, I noticed

Anyway, I asked what that was about and the bartender was like, “you didn’t see his vest but it was all nazi shit. Iron crosses and stuff. You get to recognize them.”

And i was like, ohok and he continues. “you have to nip it in the bud immediately. These guys come in and it’s always a nice, polite one. And you serve them because you don’t want to cause a scene. And then they become a regular and after awhile they bring a friend. And that dude is cool too.

And then THEY bring friends and the friends bring friends and they stop being cool and then you realize, oh shit, this is a Nazi bar now. And it’s too late because they’re entrenched and if you try to kick them out, they cause a PROBLEM. So you have to shut them down.”

And i was like, “oh damn.”

and he said “yeah, you have to ignore their reasonable arguments because their end goal is to be terrible, awful people.”

And then he went back to ignoring me. But I haven’t forgotten that at all.

This thread took off unexpectedly. Support your local antifa and black lives matter people. You know who they are.

24 March 2023

Neoliberalism (n.)

I finally got around to indexing a bunch of commentaries on this useful and necessary term of art.

I consider economist Brad DeLong’s Principles Of Neoliberalism an ideal introduction to the subject. It provides a sympathetic, lucid description of what neoliberalism is and why its supporters support it. (Yes, that’s me DeLong credits for cleaning up the formatting of his old archive; you can find that effort in an earlier post.) It starts with a tidy summary:

Neoliberalism is many things. It is:
  • a counsel of despair with respect to the possibility of social democracy today (outside of the global economy’s industrial core).
  • a counsel of hope with respect to the prospects for rapid market-generated economic development outside the global economy’s industrial core — if governments adopt market-conforming policies.
  • a bet that improvements in transportation and communication — the shrinking world — “globalization” — gives us today an extraordinary opportunity to rapidly reduce global inequality by incorporating more and more people and more and more more regions into the global economy.
  • the only live utopian program in the world today.

That said, I am a lefty who bitterly opposes neoliberalism. My comrades on the left are often vague in naming what we mean when we talk about it, so the point of this post is to index some good critiques, especially rescuing some of them from the potential implosion of Twitter.

A few key articles:

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power.

Neoliberalism: the idea that swallowed the world

The word has become a rhetorical weapon, but it properly names the reigning ideology of our era – one that venerates the logic of the market and strips away the things that make us human

“Neoliberalism” isn’t an empty epithet. It’s a real, powerful set of ideas.

In economic circles, however, “neoliberalism” is most identified with an elite response to the economic crises of the 1970s: stagflation, the energy crisis, the near bankruptcy of New York. The response to these crises was conservative in nature, pushing back against the economic management of the midcentury period. It is sometimes known as the “Washington Consensus,” a set of 10 policies that became the new economic common sense.

The Collapse of Neoliberalism

Although neoliberalism had little to offer, in the absence of a new ideological framework, it hung over the Obama presidency—but now in a new form. Many on the center-left adopted what we might call the “technocratic ideology,” a rebranded version of the policy minimalism of the 1990s that replaced minimalism’s tactical and pragmatic foundations with scientific ones. The term itself is somewhat oxymoronic, as technocrats seem like the opposite of ideologues. But an ideology is simply a system of ideas and beliefs, like liberalism, neoliberalism, or socialism, that shapes how people view their role in the world, society, and politics. As an ideology, technocracy holds that the problems in the world are technical problems that require technical solutions. It is worth pointing out what this implies: First, it means that the structure of the current system isn’t broken or flawed; it thus follows that most problems are relatively minor and can be fixed by making small tweaks in the system. Second, the problems are not a function of deep moral conflicts that require persuading people on a religious, emotional, or moral level. Instead, they are problems of science and fact, in which we can know “right” answers and figure out what works because there is consensus about what the end goals are. Together, the result is that the technocratic ideology largely accepts the status quo as acceptable.

When Neoliberalism Was Young: A Lookback on Clintonism before Clinton

Now, neoliberalism, of course, can mean a great many things, many of them associated with the right. But one of its meanings—arguably, in the United States, the most historically accurate—is the name that a small group of journalists, intellectuals, and politicians on the left gave to themselves in the late 1970s in order to register their distance from the traditional liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society. The original neoliberals included, among others, Michael Kinsley, Charles Peters, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Bill Bradley, Bruce Babbitt, Gary Hart, and Paul Tsongas. Sometimes called “Atari Democrats,” these were the men—and they were almost all men—who helped to remake American liberalism into neoliberalism, culminating in the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.

A Quick Follow-up on the previous article

It’s important to distinguish neoliberalism in this sense—that is, neoliberalism as a political program—from neoliberalism as a system of political economy. Scholars and activists on the left disagree, fundamentally, about the latter, with some claiming that what we call neoliberalism as a form of political economy is merely capitalism. I’m deliberately side-stepping that debate in order to focus on neoliberalism as a political and ideological program.

The Market Can't Solve a Massacre

Neoliberalism is at once a subspecies of capitalism and a model of governance, a vision of what politics can and should be. It sees political and social life almost exclusively through the lens of the free market, and asks us to consider ourselves and our fellow citizens primarily in terms of our economic activities: as consumers, as workers, as competitors, as human resources. Under neoliberalism, in other words, the individual is less a human subject with rights that entail obligations from the government, but rather a variable in a broader calculus of efficiency, a site for maximizing revenue and minimizing expenditure. Simply put, neoliberalism is about the withdrawal of government responsibility for political problems in favor of market-based “solutions” and individual “choices.”

Wendy Brown’s In the Ruins of Neoliberalism (a review)

In Brown’s account, the novel attack on democracy that we see today is largely the unanticipated consequence of neoliberal economic theory, which she primarily interprets through analysis of the writings of the Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek. Neoliberalism refers to a nebulous branch of social and economic thought associated with economists such as Hayek and Milton Friedman, and exemplified in the political arena by the anti-regulatory regimes of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The movement is also associated with reduced government and laissez-faire economic policies, and, to a slightly lesser degree, with globalist policies intended to reduce international barriers to trade.


Neoliberalism, then, is not economically liberal, in the sense of advocating for state regulation of markets, it is politically liberal in the sense of aggressively seeking to curtail the reach of the state to intervene in individual choice.

I have several resources from explicitly leftist sources, and I fundamentally concur with their critiques as right on its consequences, but first I must note two key quibbles I have:

  • Leftists are right to see a devil’s alliance between fascists and capitalists who foolishly dread socialism more than fascism, but are wrong when they suggest that fascism is fundamentally an instrument of capitalism. Fascism emerges from its own driving impulses. Since fascism is an ideology about culture and governance, radically disinterested in policy questions, it is a different kind of thing from neoliberalism which is an ideology of economic policy.
  • Leftists often equate the policy ideology of neoliberalism with the governance ideology of liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. I have some hard questions for leftists who reject liberal democracy as an ideology defined by capitalism.

Ben King <@grimeandreason> offers a cornucopia of useful commentaries:

Ellie Baker <@Lashesxx> offers an outline of the drivers and history:

The neoliberal movement is probably the least understood and the most important-to-understand movement in the last century precisely because people believe so much of its BS without even knowing what it is and was - and how they came to believe this bullshit in the first place.

Neoliberalism can be traced to the 1920s.

During WW1,cooperation between government and industry conferred a new legitimacy on state regulation, supervision and planning. Neoliberalism arose not to rehabilitate free markets but to “inoculate capitalism against the threat of democracy”.

In the view of neoliberals

  • The state must enforce property and contract law and accommodate a bare minimum of working-class demands while expediting the movement of capital and commodities.
  • The state must not only refrain from regulating business; it must desist from providing social welfare, since the workers of the world must be united in submission to the fluctuations of the world economy.

Though ostensibly democratic, the neoliberal state must not be an instrument of popular will; it is more like a police station charged with managing and if need be, repressing any uppity rabble: unions, especially, but any form of popular mobilisation to tame/eradicate capitalism.

In the 1940s, a rising bloc of business leaders, intellectuals, and politicians began an eventually successful crusade to re-impose unfettered accumulation. For three decades the relative prosperity and tranquility of “the golden age of capitalism” stymied their efforts.

The global economic crisis of the early 1970’s created the perfect conditions for an assault on New Deal liberals and western European social democracy. The state’s main focus had been on maintaining a high level of demand, capital now began to insist on more attention to supply. The “supply-side” entailed a dramatic lowering of personal and corporate taxes, draconian cuts in social spending, deregulation of business activity, and the weakening if not crushing of unions.

Thatcher and Reagan centre stage: their argument was that the enterprise and innovation unleashed by these policies would increase aggregate wealth that would “trickle down” from capital to increasingly unorganised workers.

The Reality:

  • stagnation of real wages for four decades
  • increased worker productivity
  • Himalayan levels of personal debt to make up for wage stagnation
  • a shift in the trajectory of capital away from production to finance
  • a massive upward redistribution of wealth
  • lower growth rates

The 40 year assault on unions and the welfare state issued in a resounding victory for corporate business, brought to a head in the late 1990’s with Clinton and Blair. The parties traditionally considered the vehicles of working-class interests rapidly recast themselves. “New Labour,” as Blair anointed it, redefining their objectives, not as regulating or abolishing capitalism, but as making the transition to a fully marketise world less painful and disruptive than it might be.

Thus, when Thatcher was asked what her greatest achievement had been, she said without skipping a beat, “New Labour.” Neoliberalism has been “a political project to re-establish the conditions for capital accumulation and to restore the power of economic elites.” In 1994, David Rockafeller wrote:

The world is ready for a world government. The supranational sovereignty of an intellectual elite and world bankers is certainly preferrable to the national self-determination practiced in past centuries.
We are on the verge of a global transformation. All we need is the “right” global crisis and the nations will accept the New World Order.

Noam Chomsky says:

One of the most interesting reactions to come out of 1968 was in the first publication of the Trilateral Commission, which believed there was a “crisis of democracy” from too much participation of the masses.

Quoting Tiberius <@foo>:

There is no neoliberal left. Neoliberalism is a right-wing ideology.

The right: fascism, conservatism, liberalism (hierarchy-based)

The left: socialism, communism, anarchism (equality-based)

“Socially left, fiscally right” is oxymoronic drivel to make liberals feel good.

Case in point: liberals vocally support race/sexuality/gender/sex equality under law, but won’t challenge the fundamental economic systems that prevent true equality due to the White heteronormative patriarchy holding all the wealth/power.

Some key articles:

Why Neoliberalism Needs Neofascists

The neofascist assault on democracy is a last-ditch effort on the part of neoliberal capitalism to rescue itself from crisis. The only solution is a decisive retreat from globalized finance.

The Death Of The British Imperial State

The answer is that neo-liberalism has succeeded in destroying societal values, to the extent that anti-social and even sociopathic behaviour no longer appears peculiar.

Finance Capitalism’s Self-Destructive Nature

So basically, finance capitalism is a predatory international economic policy aimed at draining the rest of the world all to pay the leading one percent of wealth holders in the U.S. and their satellite oligarchy in England and a few European countries

13 March 2023

Undo is the king of interface idioms

Undo is is the king of interface idioms.

Undo is so important that they built a hard button for it into the Apple Newton. It enables strong actions with a single gesture throughout the interface. It makes users more willing to explore and experiment. It enables users to get into flow because they can act with confidence. Jonathan Baker-Bates wisely reminds us:

Remember that the worst problem that can ever affect somebody using a computer is lost work. No other usability issue comes close. Design to prevent or at least minimise that, or face the rage that will ensue when it happens.

Simon Pitt has a beautiful ode to the magic of Undo.

In many ways, I regard the undo button as the computer’s most creative feature. It is a digital do-over, an ever-present safety blanket, reducing the cost of failure. We are free to experiment and play, knowing that a single keypress can restore the current state. Our fear of losing our precious work is lessened, if not appeased entirely. There is no need to freeze or choke at a pivotal moment. Our hand doesn’t need to shake or sweat as we make a key mark. Less hampered by the luck of individual actions, we can try each step over and over until we get it right. I sometimes wonder at the years of healthy life undo may have saved by lessening our collective stress.

It is not a v2.0 feature, or even a v1.1 feature. Build it in from the beginning.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball calls Undo support the key sniff test for whether an application is good.

There’s nothing cosmetic about Undo support. It’s a red flag. You open a container of food and it smells foul, you throw it out. You try a new app and it doesn’t support Undo, you throw it out. And you empty the trash immediately in both cases. Get it out of the house.

Fake Undo is the queen of interface idioms. Too many defenses of counterproductive confirmation dialogs come down to an inability to see that even Fake Undo is worth building. If you cannot “really” undo a delete, you can cache the entity and re-create it, which achieves what your user wants ...

But you should build strong real Undo.The event model that supports Undo is going to have so many useful applications. Retrofitting it later will be brutal or impossible. Build it from Day One.

Dorian Taylor reflects on ideal version control and imagines a glorious re-framing of all software architecture and user experience lurking in the promise of Undo.

What would a future look like, in which everything had an undo button that went back arbitrarily far? In which the act of creating new digital content did not mean destroying what was there before? Something like Google Docs offers us a glimpse. Changes are transmitted over HTTP requests, as messages that only express the content of each individual change itself. On the server side, what would otherwise be encapsulated as a file — in Rich Hickey parlance, a mutable and therefore volatile place for data — could instead be represented non-destructively, as a time-stamped log of accumulating changes, which could be projected into a snapshot at any stage along the way.

To bring about that future, we would likely have to move away from files — at least as anything other than bulk payloads of instantaneous freeze-frames of the state of a system. It would, ironically, mean going back to a client-server model. But who controls the servers? Well, you could, I mean, it’s not that outlandish a proposition.

Capturing a Twitter thread I started in 2015

10 March 2023

UX designers must own design judgment

This post captures and refines a Twitter thread from 2017.

Let's talk explicitly about user experience designers’ ownership of design judgment.

As a UX designer, I am happy to lose a thousand arguments over what the UX of the product should be because of other considerations. “Let’s make this compromise to the UX so we can have it ready in time for the Big Trade Show.” I may believe that any number of these decisions that compromise users’ experience in the name of technical convenience, marketing advantage, or whatever are wrong for the product, but that’s okay, balancing all of the competing priorities is not my job. (This is product management’s job, by the way.) Indeed, heaven forbid UX designers always get their way in shaping the product. That would be unbalanced and wrong.

But I hate having an argument over what serves users best. If a PM overrules me saying, “no, the users will like it better if we do X instead,” that is a deep professional insult which is bad for the development process.

That does not mean I don’t want others to bring their UX design ideas to the table. I have proudly stolen UX ideas from programmers and PMs and marketing folks and others countless times. But saying “you’re right, that is better for users” is my call as designer. If judgment about what is the best UX is not located firmly in designers’ hands, that diffusion of authority means spending organizational energy on discussion and persuasion and “spinning” about it, instead of the other hard work and hard decisions which must be done.

I am not claiming designers’ judgment is perfect. We should always implement UX in a spirit of experiment, looking to learn where that judgment was surprisingly right and wrong. But wasting energy second-guessing UX designers is a bad mistake. Even if your designers don’t have superior skill and talent to the rest of your team (which they should!), they are the only ones spending all day every day thinking about their domain. That should mean they can be trusted to be more reliably correct about it. If your designers’ judgment really is weak enough that trusting their judgment is too risky, then the remedy is that you fire them and hire someone else.

On their part, UXDs must be forthright and honest in discussing implications of UX options. UXDs must equip product management with a clear appraisal of what is most important; deciding among compromises to shape the product is PMs’ job. “If we do this to make it easier to build, that's a usability sacrifice on mobile, but users should be understanding about desktop being better for this function.” A UX designer who is a proper professional will not sandbag, saying every little compromise to UX is the end of the world. A sandbagging culture will severely compromise an engineering team — they hate lies and will feel constantly disoriented by it — and it will crush designers, who cannot deliver anything if we cannot tell the truth.

In the long run the ethos I advocate here leads to better UX results. Sure, there will be occasions when other people in the org turn out to have been right when the UXDs were wrong. But most often UXDs will be most right about UXD. Play the odds.

More importantly, when you do not simply accept UXDs’ judgment in their own domain, you have added work for everyone to do. Designers need to persuade everyone on the team that they know what they are talking about, and everyone else bears a burdern of responsibility for evaluating that. It should be UXDs’ responsibility to work to persuade stakeholders that good UX is good for the product; but if they must also work to persuade everyone that their proposals are good UX in the first place, that means time & energy absorbed by that persuasion instead of thinking about better solutions: stakeholder involvement theatre, user research theatre, slick presentations, et cetera.

I don’t want to dismiss UXD communication in this critique of UXD persuasion. Making clear how and why a UXD solution works the way it does is a demanding and important part of the work. This clarity is different from selling.

Nor do I want to blur the distinction between what UXD is right for the product versus what UXD is right for users. What is right for the product is a contentious question, informed by multiple stakeholders, owned by product management; UXDs must confer with and serve the team. UXDs must own the narrower question of what is right for users. It is not just because it is insulting and demoralizing to present design work that took a few weeks of skullsweat to prepare and have someone look at it for ten minutes and say blithely, “No, we are going to do it another way because I have an idea which I am sure is better for users”; I would counsel that designers swallow their pride and roll with having their expertise disrespected if I thought it was better for users or better for product success. But it isn’t. Designers serve the organization when they demand their ownership of design judgment.

UX designers must advocate for clarity about this distinction between UXD judgment about users’ needs versus UXD decisions about what serves the product as a whole. We must own the first thing, and advocate vigorously for product managers owning the call about what UX actually gets built into the product.


After the initial thread, I added references to commentaries by others which I found topically relevant.

Wouter Walmink comments:

Amen, and that goes for all roles in a product team. I’ve experienced the best teamwork when each member's ownership and authority of their domain is respected by the others (and everyone understands that this doesn't mean always getting your way).

Yes! It astonishes me how often people read me as arrogating some kind of godlike wisdom and power to designers when I am advocating for nothing more than giving every role in the team ownership of their appropriate domain. Nor am I advocating designers isolating themselves from the rest of the team; I am advocating deep engagement with an expectation of professional respect.

Pavel Samsonov, one of my favorite design commentators, has a great comment about why I harp so often on the distinction between designers’ ownership of design judgment and PMs’ ownership of product design:

Expanding a design org always threatens incumbent power centers. People unfamiliar with how design works will defend their own authority and ways of knowing.

For this reason, it’s important to explain not only what you want the design org to do, but also what it will not do.

“Design is making decisions” is confusing to stakeholders who see it as a power grab from the picture-drawing people. Unless you have the power of a huge consultancy behind you, you probably won’t be able to convince them that they have been designers all along.

Designers are no more CEOs than PMs are. When jockeying for the “seat at the table” it’s crucial to show that you’re not taking over the entire table. Even though UX is affected by everything from backend tech to the business model, a tight initial focus will be an easier sell.

Erika Hall of Mule Design, another designer I greatly admire, observation about resistance to the role clarity I advocate:

One of the snags is that explicitly defining roles and responsibilities can be very uncomfortable to guess culture people in the relevant domain. Being able to guess is often seen as a proxy for care, concern, and expertise in that domain/membership in group.

Scott Berkun, whose book How Design Makes The World I vigorously recommend as an introduction to What Design Is, offers a good description of my point about the distinction between UXDs’ and PMs’ roles.

Product managers confuse revenue with design quality. Product designers confuse design quality with success.

Asked another way: Can the marketplace really decide what is the best design for something? We assume yes, but forget how many factors impact popularity that are unrelated to quality: marketing, hype trends, timing, biz partnerships and more.

(And I must note that revenue is not the only product success target: clearly naming what “success” you want is executives’ job!)

Berkun also has a good meditation on the pragmatics of designers needing to communicate to non-design colleagues persuasively about our work and our role, and our frustration at how much of that we must do. We must live in the world we have while we work for a better one.

Designers are hired to change things. The challenge is we want change on our terms, using our methods and beliefs. This creates a natural conflict with coworkers and executives. It makes sense that designers feel ignored, misunderstood or even lost.

Miriam Isaac observes how designers often confuse their correct frustration at having their design judgment dismissed by the organization with a need to get positioned to control product decisions:

Sorry to tell you this my dear designer, but becoming a product manager will not solve your problems.

Most designers think if only they became a PM they would finally be able to design in the way they see fit!! But in actuality, it will take them away from the craft they dearly love.

They may just need mentoring in articulating design decisions and how to lead / advocate for design in their company. Most designers think if only they became a PM they would finally be able to design in the way they see fit!! But in actuality, it will take them away from the craft they dearly love.

Shreyas Doshi has a few tweets about what UXD expertise entails.

While scrolling Twitter it’s easy to forget that a typical product team makes 100s of micro-decisions about the user experience & trade-offs. It is impossible to validate every one of these with user research, metrics & tactics. That is why Product Sense is such a vital skill.

Product Sense = Cognitive Empathy + Domain Expertise + Creativity

Domain Expertise arises from hardwork, interest, general IQ, openness, and experience. Experience is a major factor there.

Experience plays a role in Cognitive Empathy & Creativity, but it is a much smaller role.

I believe every product person can (and should) get much better at Product Sense, and every product person can get very good at Product Sense. Though to be really great (say top 5%), the innate factors are critical. Just like not everyone can be a great artist, musician, etc.

Looking at replies to it, I find it heartbreaking to see so many people not only unable to imagine having their professional expertise respected, but unable to conceive of it as a possibility.

This tweet from a good thread by Louie Bacaj offers a deeply frustrating framing of a good point:

As a software engineer, you are not there to take requirements blindly. You are there to partner with your business and product partners. That means you have to earn an equal seat at the table on product decisions.

A software development professional should not have to “earn” a seat at the product definition table; respect should come with the job. And roles at that table are not simply equal; they have different authority and responsibility.

Matt Murray makes a tragic observation about energy wasted on justifying one's professional expertise.

Yeah, one day it hit me — I’m an outside consultant. The person who got the funding to bring me in must have made a successful case for the value. So why is most of this project just decking up my reason for being here?

The inspiration

The thread which became this post was inspired by discussion emerging from another tweet, me saying:

When you say “everyone on the team is responsible for X” I hear “nobody on the team has ownership of X” and “expertise in X is not valued”

Patrick Sauerwein replied:

Misinterpreted, the world is not black and white. It’s shared ownership and responsibility and everybody should take care of this. And this doesn't mean that expertise in X is not valued.

I responded:

People say that. In my experience, it is generally not true.

Sauerwein replied:

Sad to hear. The best example I heard is with code ownership which is a shared responsibility for those who have the expertise to contribute. So why should writing code not be valued?

I responded:

The example in my mind is UX design. As a professional UX designer, it usually means that since “everyone” has “responsibility” for it I am just one vote at the big round table.

Sauerwein replied:

You’re the leading “dev” expert in the team with the best experience. Don’t interpret that hard, as mentioned it’s not black or white. Go and lead the team in UX, your role is very important to the team and it’s outcome. Educate, consult and lead UX.

I responded:

My point is that I end up spending a lot of time and energy at those big round tables persuading others that my design judgment is good. That is a waste of attention that should go to me actually solving design problems.

Henrik Johansson <@dahankzter> replied to that:

What if there are other experts as well? Often there isn't just one expert per area

Which Sauerwein underlined with:

Might be the case, in our discussion there is one expert not heard and valued. Challenge in UX: everyone has an opinion. Leading and fighting for your way is hard work.

And Johansson built on that:

I agree that fighting for your idea is hard sometimes but if no one ever challenge the status quo there will be little evolution. UX is special just because everyone knows a lot in the sense that we all use a lot of software. Maybe authority is good here.

I responded:

I am wary of the suggestion that “everyone knows a lot about UXD”. Many people think they do. But people who are not specialists typically have terrible judgment, which is why so many things have bad UX!

Johansson replied to that:

But UX is connected to visual design and thus taste. If a stakeholder doesn't like it esthetically it doesn't matter if it's sound UX. This applies to everyone on and off the team which is why communicating the general idea, architecture if you will, so that understanding exists

I said:

I could not disagree more. If you think UX design concerns “taste”, I conclude that you do not understand UX design.

Johansson replied:

Ah come on! A useable feature is often also a beautiful feature and that even before considering pure design elements. Saying that UX is completely orthogonal to taste is just plain wrong.

I commented

Saying that UXD is not a matter of taste is not saying that it should not be beautiful.

Johansson replied:

And beauty is in the proverbial eye of the beholder and thus taste.

Frustration with that exchange spawned the main thread which became this post.

09 March 2023

Agile and UX design

This captures and refines a Twitter thread from September 2020

Doug Collins asks:

Do #UX and #Agile really mix? Why or why not?

Nick Finck responds:

Agile is a way of thinking that was turned into a process. If you read the manifesto you’d think “sure this works with design” but somehow the execution (process) was misunderstood as “shipping fast” thus compromising quality & effectiveness of good research & design.
We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

I think there is a lot of implicit hostility to UX design in the Agile Manifesto.

“Responding to change rather than following a plan” accepts — commits to! — a world in which there is no way to out-think the tendency of “customers” to have “changing requirements”.

I see Agile as a response to software development teams getting jerked around by a failure of leadership to deliver clear, consistent product / service direction. “Fine. We will release attachment, and just get good at thinking short-term and responding to capricious direction.”

A lot of software developers have had their fingers burned by half-baked attempts at UX design. They tried it with the wrong people, incentives, or timeline, and reasonably (but incorrectly) concluded that the coherent vision UXD promises is simply impossible. The Agile Manifesto rests on this assumption that this clarity of product vision is impossible, or at least doomed. Most folks in the industry simply cannot conceive of what good UXDs can do given time and opportunity.

But a dev org still must decide what the product / service / process will be & do. Agile culture locates this in a “product owner”. The PO is expected to deliver clarity & direction ... which is the thing that is still missing from most projects and organizations.

I believe in the product owner role: it is what product management should do, properly understood. Good product management is, in my humble opinion, the most important thing you can do to get products with good UX design.

Even with all those hesitations, as a UX designer I love a lot of things about the Spirit Of Agile. I want to do UXD with a spirit of experimentation. I want to solve the countless onesey-twosey challenges in conversation with devs instead of through a formalized process with heavy documentation.

But I also know how powerful it is to step back with one or two colleagues and spend time — weeks, months — to sink deep into wrestling fundamental product design questions to the ground and pre-visualizing them well enough that everyone is clear on what we want to make.

You can make a film Mike Leigh style, workshopping with actors with a camera running until it turns into something, and get magical results that way. But most movies start with a nerd or three writing a screenplay, and maybe drawing storyboards, before the expensive production.

Agile reflects a pragmatic adaptation to dev org leadership not merely abdicating their responsibility, but in many cases being actively hostile to anyone trying to take it on. UXD seeks to deliver an instrument which enables responsible leadership giving clear direction.

To my mind, the core tragedy of Agile is that it simply accepts the abdication of responsibility by organizational leadership. There is a lot to admire about Agile methods, but there is only so much one can do for the Titanic from inside the engine room. Someone needs to stand on the bridge with a map.


Dorian Taylor’s Agile As Trauma says a lot of things about Agile which I had tried to say, only much better than I could say it, plus a lot more.

The Agile Manifesto is an immune response on the part of programmers to bad management. The document is an expression of trauma, and its intellectual descendants continue to carry this baggage. While the Agile era has brought about remarkable advancements in project management techniques and development tools, it remains a tactical, technical, and ultimately reactionary movement. As long as Agile remains in this position it will be liable to backfire, vulnerable to the very depredations of bad management it had initially evolved to counter.

Miriam Posner’s Agile and the Long Crisis of Software is extremely insightful.

What I discovered was a long-running wrestling match between what managers want software development to be and what it really is, as practiced by the workers who write the code. Time and again, organizations have sought to contain software’s most troublesome tendencies—its habit of sprawling beyond timelines and measurable goals—by introducing new management styles. And for a time, it looked as though companies had found in Agile the solution to keeping developers happily on task while also working at a feverish pace.

I concur with Steve Denning’s Why Agile Needs To Take Over Management Itself that orgs have resisted any of the deep cultural, role, process changes they need. But. It contains not one word about users or designers. It complains that “Agile” has had its meaning corrupted, but offers no explanation of what the correct meaning is. Terrifying to a UX designer like me.

Alan Holub offers a short Twitter thread which reflects the best of Agile’s spirit, which I genuinely admire … and shows how it reflects an adaptation to management’s fundamental distrust of developers and disrespect for what they do and how they do it.

A traditional “agency” contract is adversarial to its core. You argue about price, you argue about scope, and as the work begins, you argue about changes (and argue more about scope and deadlines and cost). The agency is worried about going broke. The client wants work that they don’t pay for and gripes about paying too much for work they can't see. The negotiation is constant, unpleasant, and an expensive time sink. The risk is very high. It’s a war.

Compare that to an Agile contract, which is about collaboration. We collaborate on what to do first. We build it and collaborate on the details as we build. We then collaborate on what to do next. We deliver frequently so the client knows exactly what they’re paying for. We get paid for the work we do, and the client doesn’t pay for things they don’t need. It's a fundamentally social arrangement. There is very little risk.

When Agile Manifesto is talking about collaboration over negotiation, this is what it’s talking about.

I am delighted to be in the heavy company of designers and other mentioned in Agile vs Waterfall And Other Obfuscations, which argues that agility is of course good ... while Agile-in-practice tends to eschew the well-considered-plans-held-lightly which enable agility.

The larger the initiative, the more PM will reside above the level of dev teams. To raise the agility ceiling, then, UXD must be similarly raised. And yes, this higher-level UXD work will largely take the form of research. There is a bizarre irony in rejecting such upfront research as being somehow anti-Agile “BDUF” (Big Design Up Front).

My page Executive Responsibility, UX Design, and Product Management picks up on the problem identified by Agile and offers the integration of a strong UXD practice into software development organizations as an alternative solution.

The History Of Agile And Its Manifesto is an index of resources which I found by way of Christina Wodke, who observes that the folks indexed there are all men.

#AgileKillsKittens (or Agile In Their Own Words: The Problem With Agile & Scrum) compiles numerous critiques of Agile.

An Agilist provocation

Rob Donoghue responds to “I also know how powerful it is to step back with one or two colleagues and spend time — weeks, months — to sink deep into wrestling fundamental product design questions to the ground”:

So, turning this one over, because when I think about the list of challenges to working with UXD, there are a ton of antipatterns I have to go through first before I could even judge the interaction with agility.

Yes I remain optimistic.

So, here's the question I’m dwelling on: Is UXD substantially different than other fields which benefit from deep expertise, time and focused work before picking up the tools? How does it compare to architecure, or other fields of design in this way?

And to be clear, I don’t really have an answer - they seem similar to me, but that's from the outside, and I’m sure there are nuances I miss.

On the design front, I am much more likely to encounter situations where design resources are stretched so thin that all the good intentions in the world wouldn't get us the kind of deep thought it would deserve. But architecture is something we can do. Sometimes.

And agile hat on, it kills me when we don’t do that work or take the time to do it. It makes the work feel like walking on thin ice, and it's not the push for working in sprints that keeps it from happening.

Now that gets me thinking: One of the reasons we at least carve out a space for architecture is that it’s already in the wheelhouse of the devs, at least in theory. Other areas of deep work don't get the same attention, and some of that may be an agile problem.

Not because of any intrinsic resistance, but because of the emphasis on cross functional teams. As much as we love to talk about stacks, the reality is that deep domains also tend to be specialty domains, which are hard to fit into a cross functional team.

This shows up a lot with designers. It might be great to embed a designer in the team, but it’s only cost effective in certain situations, so we build weird half measures to try to include design, but it's usually flawed.

Same is true of almost any specialist.

What you sometimes see is that in attempt to be cross functional, you get people who might know a little about a given discipline. Sometimes that works out ok, but in some fields it's arguably worse than nothing.

Now given all that?

I’m honestly not 100% sure what agile + UXD should look like, because my experience is with only half the formula. But that experience tells me that the main blockers are just knowledge and intent.

(But I’m also optimistic).

Executive responsibility, UX design, and product management

A capture and refinement of a Twitter rant from December 2022

I was provoked into this rant by a reference Jim Highsmith’s essay 18 Years Of Agile Manifesto For Software Development #1: History:

This type of situation goes on every day — marketing, or management, or external customers, internal customers, and, yes, even developers — don’t want to make hard trade-off decisions, so they impose irrational demands through the imposition of corporate power structures. This isn’t merely a software development problem, it runs throughout Dilbertesque organizations.

There you have it: Agile is an adaptation to software dev teams getting jerked around by executives and managers: “if y’all cannot give us clear direction then we have to work in a way that makes this less painful”.

Agile accepts this failure by managers and executive as a given, and then in actual Agile practice, it turns out that the need re-surfaces. We see this in Scrum’s dream of a Product Owner role.

Fred Brooks put his finger on this problem in The Mythical Man-Month half a century ago, and what he said then remains true: we need to think very clearly about what we want and need a system to do before we try to build it, which is difficult but possible.

The “hard trade-off decisions” are not fundamentally about feature prioritization, allocation of time and resources, technical architectures, et cetera — looking away from those choices flows from a deeper well, an inability to think clearly about intent and desired results. If the organization could think and talk very clearly at the strategic level, about system intent, then it would be clear how to make those tactical decisions. The decisions would still be hard, but they would be possible, and development organziations would face them rather than avoid them.

In an organization with a clear strategic vision of system intent (what should this thing be?) and tactical planning of development (how shall we create & deliver it?) then the radical flexibility of Agile — implied in the name “Agile”! — would not be necessary.

Since this manifests through Executive And Mangers Jerking The Developers Around — an abdication of responsibility — it is tempting to say simply that executives and managers need different skills / tools / methods. But the root problem is the lack of clarity and I don’t think that executives & managers can get to the needed clarity alone.

This is part of why I am a partisan for the importance of product management and UX design as roles, org functions, and disciplines which enable this needed clarity. I am a UX designer and I believe that UXD Properly Conceived is the carbon in the steel which makes it possible for a software dev org to forge and wield the Blade Of Clarity

Almost everyone in software development assumes that the only way to really see what you are making is to make it. It is as though the construction industry believed that the discipline of architecture were impossible. (This metaphor here has significant limitations; I recognize how dangerous it is to imagine that software construction can directly parallel building a house. But with that caveat, it is still useful.)

If we imagine a world which builds houses like we build software, one would go to a building contractor who would ask for a feature list for your house. How many doors and windows? How many kitchen cabinets? How many stairs? Then they get to work. When the house is half-framed, the future occupant finally gets a look, and has to ask why the bathtub is in the kitchen. The contractor replies, “Well it stands to reason with the plumbing.”

After that angry exchange, the contractor walks away shaking their head thinking there you have it again, “customers” always change their minds about what they want, they cannot name it until it is mostly built, there’s nothing to be done.

The resulting houses all look like they were drawn by Dr. Seuss.

An architect from our universe would be taken for crazy. “You want to draw up ‘plans’ first, before we start construction? You are dangerously naïve! Who can afford that extra expense? Don’t you know how customers’ ideas constantly change?”

There are profound reasons why the industry does not try to visualize a working software system in advance in the way an architect tries to visualize a house in advance. People do not just assume it is impossible; it does not even occur to them as a thing to reject as impossible.

But visualizing a software system in advance is not impossible. It is merely pretty darned hard. That craft is UX Design Properly Conceived.

With UXD as a touchstone, execs & managers can actually engage with strategic and tactical decisions. Do we want to make this? How will we make this? Hey development team, make this!

Now there are at least two big reasons why executives and managers resist the introduction of UXD to enable Clarity.

First, they simply cannot imagine UXD as a thing. Propose it and for good reasons they reject it as impossible.

Second, once UXD is on the table, that Clarity implies scary change to the whole development process. It requires running things differently — different org structure, different processes. And it puts puts executives and managers on the hook for the strategic and tactical decisions which it reveals.

If the organization attempts a clarity-driven development process, then any failure for any reason will be attributed to that attempt. As Archibald Putt will tell you, executive or management failure in the tech industry is rewarded ... if one fails for the right reasons. But seeking clarity is not among those. So why take on risk?

So, bringing all this back to development process on the coding side.

In my long experience as a UX design consultant, programmers are understandably dismissive, skeptical, and resistant about my craft. They cannot conceive of the clear system vision with deep structural implications which UXD produces when done right. They have never seen that. They just expect UXD to just add a thin “good user interface”, to “make it pretty”.

Programmers are rightly skeptical. Any efforts to find the kind of clarity I am talking about which they have seen have probably failed catastrophically. They may have seen UXD efforts that were undertaken without time or expertise or other necessary resources. They have almost certainly seen executives and managers run away from clarity. They expect to continue to get jerked around.

Programmers feel a deep sense of responsibility to deliver a good system. They resist UXD because they initially see it as an incursion on that territory. And sometimes they care about UXD and have taken to programming as the necessary place to stand in order to work on it.

But when I deliver Clarity-enabling UXD, programmers are thrilled by it. At last the crisp vision they have needed in order to plan and work effectively! This has complicated political implications in the org. Developers then say to marketing, management, executives, “Hey, you want to tell me what to do? You ought to give it to me in this form”. And since those folks don’t know how to produce that kind of clarity? Fireworks.

Executives find it threatening when UXD explicitly locates Product Vision in something they do not do. They imagine that Product Vision is their job! As people temperamentally drawn to holding authority, executives cannot conceive of someone with UXDs’ capacity for Vision not making a bid to usurp executive authority. But we don’t! We just want to crack the problem!

(That’s not a knock against executives. I have a temperamental resistance to systems of authority but I recognize that exectuives’ inclination to seek it is not simply a bad thing. Someone needs to own strategic decisions, and there are obvious reasons why it helps if that person wants to, if they make good ones.)

Understand that in this dream, UXDs propose product vision and are custodians of it, but UXDs’ authority & responsibility (“ownership”) is not the product as a whole but more narrowly advocating for users. It should be product managers who own the product vision ... answerable to business goals set by executives and informed by user needs identified by UXDs, customer drives identified by marketing, and technical opportunities & constraints identified by engineering.

UXDs often demand to Own The User Experience because that sounds natural and is the only way many of us can imagine delivering good UX. (And this draws a lot of UXDs to shift implicitly or explicitly toward product management, in hopes of wielding the necessary power.) But that steps outside of what UXDs’ role should be, into what product management should do.

Product management should hold the imperator of product ownership to decide conflicts between the various constituents in the greater development organization — UXD, marketing, programmers, et cetera. But in practice when done well PM is not the exercise of authority to play umpire most of the time.

Product managerment done well is 98% collaboration, with the PM communicating, translating, and facilitating the exchange of thinking & planning among these various constituencies. “Hey, Ms. Programmer: Marketing says customers ask for X. UXD says that is best addressed with Y. I don’t want us to grind on this, so if that turns out to be tricky, I will put you in a room with the UXD to hash out a solution almost as good which you can deliver more quickly.”

Looking in the other direction, up toward executives, PMs need to link product visions to business goals. “We have talked about growth, but there are different product directions. X should get us the most users, Y should get us the most sales revenue, Z should get us the most profit. Which do we want?”

A diagram named 'dev org roles' with a Venn diagram showing three overlapping circles labeled …

• UXD — users
• marketing — customers
• dev (development) — tech (technology)

... inside an arrow labeled …

• execs (executives) — business goals