Me: Weathering 2020. Ambivalent about 2021.

2020 has obviously been a very different year—I’m grateful my situation has been largely uneventful, somewhat repetitive throughout. I’ve cherished working from home and not missing the daily commute, learning how to bake sourdough bread, spending more time with my family, and gradually doing up the house.

I did break up the monotony by attending several conferences and workshops this year, namely SofaConf and Primer (my post-event ramblings here), then Interaction Design Day, which I helped co-organise with many other talented local leaders. The two workshops I attended during Primer conf—SystemViz and Layers—opened up new perspectives for me on speculative design and systems thinking. I was also fortunate to be in Milan for Interaction20 (again, post-event ramblings from me), before the lockdown happened, and I will attend Interaction21 fully remote in February.

Locally through IxDA London, Jason, Tanya, Jill, Igor, Giuseppe and I have organised 10 events this year, covering topics from Interaction20, systems thinking, strategic design, art and IxD, somewhat-smart and autonomous things, and designing for an uncertain future. We even managed to maintain our annual movie night run despite going virtual. A few weeks ago, a small group of attendees joined us for our final event of 2020 – a quiet, end-year reflection of the year and some smart guesses towards what we’ll face in the coming months and years – a nice way to wave the year goodbye.

My mostly routine, mundane, daily work-at-home life feels unfair amidst challenges people are facing due to the pandemic, not to mention climate change and other complex issues the world has to weather over the coming years.

It’s got me thinking more broadly and towards future horizons, and investing more time and effort into systems, organisations and strategy. This began last year when I attended CIID’s organisational change through design course and MapCamp 2019, and am now extending in 2021 via Acumen’s Systems Practice course and CIID’s turning people into teams.

I’m not quite sure where this will lead me in the next few years, but I feel like I’m learning a lot of new things again, just like how I did when I first started out in UX and design. One thing is sure – I can no longer look at design in the same way I used to, which is somewhat scary because I’m still designing but I feel like I’m starting all over from scratch.

For example, how can I take what I’ve learnt from designing large-scale websites to designing for organisations and ecosystems?

I feel everything has to be turned upside down for me to answer this question.

It’s obvious to me that websites are byproducts of organisational culture (e.g. Conway’s law), so I spend more time thinking about the organisation in order to shape its websites. And because I have learnt about value chains (e.g. via wardley mapping), I also see how value gets transformed within and through the organisation to users and customers and back again, meaning that the real complexity isn’t at the level of its website, but in terms of how the organisation transforms value—i.e. fix the transformation to fix the website, not the other way around.

Then, systems thinking helps me see how various activities inside and outside the organisation affects each other, especially activities that are linked together to form loops that continually persist, producing externalities. Because of this, fixing one part of the website creates a problem for another part of the website, and on it goes around and around, year after year. Without taking the wider system into consideration, we are perpetually shifting and inducing spaghetti-like complexity over and over again, quarter after quarter, year after year.

If any you who are reading this have sage advice to give me or have perspectives to discuss around systems, organisations and strategy, please drop me a line (LinkedIn / Twitter). I know there is a long journey ahead of me, and I am looking to connect with people who understand this space.

The lockdown has accelerated my habit of buying more books. Although I’ve bought more than I’ve read, I’ve thankfully made my way through a number of them this year.

On strategy and business

  • Strategy Safari: a good overview of strategic management practice across 10 different “schools”. It has provided me some key foundations for strategic practice and thinking.
  • The Visual MBA: A fun, visual, condensed walkthrough of an MBA. Written and visualised by a Jason Barron, product manager who received his MBA from Brigham Young University.
  • What CEOs need to know about design: Want to know what one author thinks CEOs need to know about design? Well, there’s a book for that. If you’re well-versed in design, there’s not much new here but it’s always good to see a different perspective.
  • Business Thinking for Designers: InVision’s free book by Ryan Rumsey is an easy introduction to business for designers.

On systems thinking

  • The Fifth Discipline: Peter Senge’s thesis on learning organisations and how systems thinking helps people to tackle complex challenges together.
  • The Systems Thinker: I’m still working through this but I’m already highlighting lots of reference material from this. It’s a good manual for systems practitioners.

On service design

  • Good Services: After a few years of doing product work, my work has recently skewed towards service design again, so picking up Lou Downe’s book was a refreshing read and worth dipping into now and again.
  • Service Design for Business: I should have read this years ago. It’s an accessible and pragmatic book on service design practice credibly authored by LiveWork’s founders.

On working with and understanding people

  • Beyond sticky notes: This is actually a book on co-design, and I’m only halfway through it but it has given me really good perspectives about working and designing with people, particularly marginalised people in society. I love that we have books like this that isn’t corrupted by a mindset that celebrates fast-paced iteration and data informed product development. This, on the other hand, celebrates and includes humanity across the broad walks of life, especially those who are furthest from us.
  • The making of a manager: I wish I had read this book when I was a line manager, but Julie Zhou had not written it yet. Though I’m an individual practitioner now, I’ve found it a worthy read. It’s one of the more friendly books managers will enjoy reading. I still think (good) line management is one of the more challenging things one can be doing.
  • No hard feelings: A book about emotions in the workplace. I don’t remember specific things from this book, but the broad point is that emotions play a big role in everything we do, especially work. I’ve made a lot of highlights so I can go back to them.

On our futures

  • How to speak machine: As a former software engineer, I appreciated John Maeda’s encapsulation of computation in a designerly way of looking at the world, where almost anything can be represented as a medium to be designed. In this case, that medium is computation – a particularly unique kind of medium.

On parenting

  • How to stop losing your sh*t with your kids: because parenting is hard.
  • Playful parenting: because parenting should be fun and this makes sense when you see the world through the eyes of a child.
  • The book you wish your parents had read: because sometimes you just want another sane, more experienced adult to talk to with all the sage advice about parenting. This one is written by an experienced psychotherapist, but it reads like you’re actually listening to and confiding with one. Very therapeutic and grown up.
  • Wild Things: A book about boys. I have one. I have been one. And yet, I’ve never quite understood what that means. I haven’t yet found the best book on boys but this was one I started with.

With the embrace of remote working, I’ve become more intimately invested in my use of Evernote and Simplenote. The former for hoarding things I want to keep and my go-to place for synthesising my thinking, and the latter for very rapid notes on a virtually lag-free app.

A few days ago, I bit the bullet and purchased annual subscriptions for Roam and Readwise. The former because my brain is a bag of mush now, branching across diverse topics like systems thinking to parenting to what to cook for dinner tonight—Roam has thankfully enabled me to keep my wandering and expanding thoughts inter-connected. Then, Readwise because over the years I’ve highlighted so many things, I now need a better way of reviewing, remembering and connecting to them—so now my highlights from Kindle and a few other sources are now in Roam and Evernote. And for cooking and recipes, I’ve recently purchased Paprika—its page-scraping functionality does a good job of grabbing just what you need.

I try to work with the tools I have, keeping things fairly minimal and adapting things around my needs and contexts. I think it’s when I find natural limits to my own abilities that I start to reflect on other approaches, so it’s refreshing to see some of these progressive tools picking up, suggesting we have more room towards enhancing our abilities in more accessible ways.

Overall, I’m looking forward to various opportunities at work to support big and necessary changes, working with talented people and reaching into my systems / strategy / org / service bag of tools.

I suppose I should hope for the best, and prepare for the worst.

I hope to travel again and see my parents.

I hope we find better ways of supporting each other and the planet.

I hope we can live to tell good stories.

Written by

Principal UX designer at Elsevier. IxDA local leader and board alumni. Strategy. Systems. Visual thinking. Design. Has a brain in his stomach.

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