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Louis Rosenfeld on how UX design can close the gaps between people

We hear how his IA and UX experience informs his publishing and curating decisions at Rosenfeld Media.



You’ve probably heard the parable of the six blind men and the elephant: One touches the trunk and says, “It’s a snake.” Another, touching a leg, disagrees: “No, it’s not! It’s a tree.”

Another feels the ear and mistakes it for a fan. The one touching the body is sure he’s run into a wall. The one with tail in hand knows he’s holding a rope. And the last one, with his hand on a tusk, is certain he’s touching a spear. Only by communicating their different experiences of the same object, do they realize what is truly in front of them.

We’re living in a moment when information feels dangerous, when social media seems to be ruining our ability to trust each other and to feel like there’s a future. It’s easy to feel pessimistic, given the scale, the complexity, the misinformation.

But Louis Rosenfeld wants to change that. As the publisher and founder of Rosenfeld Media, he works with authors and speakers to try to make sense of the user experience and how it can make the world a better place. A former librarian, Louis founded Argus Associates and co-founded the Information Architecture Institute and the IA Summit. He’s also had a direct hand in the authorship of five books, including Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and Search Analytics for Your Site.

I caught up with Louis for a conversation that ranged from our moral duty to make information more accessible to his approach to curating conferences.

Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

We have to learn how to actually make information work for us. For Louis, it starts with a commitment to doing good – and establishing a set of morals that you follow no matter what.
UX designer are creating worlds, and people live in those worlds. How do we design to foster a sense of community?  We do it by closing distances that our technologies have just opened.
Each speaker at one of Lou’s conferences is supported by a group of subject matter experts and a professional editor. Louis tells them: “Don’t show up with a talk. Show up with an idea. We will work with you over months iteratively to develop that idea. And then we’ll have you work with a speaker coach.”
At a conference, a canned talk is always obviously a canned talk. But if the talk has been modified or written for a particular conference, it just sings. It works well with the other talks, because they were designed together.
If you’re going to actually do design, especially in a large organization with lots of design challenges and lots of complexity, you have to have operations in place to support those designers. That includes design systems, pattern libraries and guidelines, but it goes beyond that. By professionalizing the process, you can amplify what a design organization can accomplish.

If you enjoy our conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

Building with information

Jonathon: Lou, I’m so excited to have you here as a guest on Inside Intercom. Thanks so much for joining us. Can you start us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Louis: Sure. I am someone who started as a librarian and then became an information architect and then became a UX person and then became a publisher and then became a conference producer and podcaster. Somewhere in there, I wrote some books, and all of it has to do with helping people have better experiences, typically with information. Nowadays, my main role is at Rosenfeld Media company. I started it – gosh, it’s already been like 14 years. We started off as a company that published books for UX people, and we continue to do that. We’ve since expanded into the conference-production business. We also provide training. I like making things out of information, so whether you’re doing books or conferences or teaching or training or any of the bunch of the fun things I’ve been able to be involved in, it all involves taking information as a design material and making it into things that people can hopefully benefit from.

“Why not show librarians that there was a whole exciting future where they would be valued?”

Jonathon: I love that. Making things out of information has been a big part of your work over the last several decades. You were a coauthor of what we call the Polar Bear Book, or Information Architecture for the Worldwide Web, and you also set up Argus Associates. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Louis: Oh, gosh. I mentioned that I started off as a librarian. That’s only partially true. When I went to what was then the Library School at the University of Michigan and got my master’s degree back in 1990, a lot of us were really being preached to by people among the faculty about the information revolution, which was nigh and upon us. You know, that sounded really exciting, but I don’t know if anybody really exactly knew what it meant for librarians. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a librarian, but I wanted to bring librarianship to new settings, like this big information world we were constructing out of digital stuff. Not only has the broader world begun to appreciate what librarians could do, it but also brings it back to the librarians, who were on the defensive and feeling like libraries were being underfunded or defunded. People didn’t have a lot of respect for the profession of librarianship.

Why not show librarians that – if they were willing to free themselves from the traditional setting of the library as it was defined back then – there was a whole exciting future where they would be valued? And so that’s how Information Architecture for the World Wide Web came to be. Peter Morville, who was also a grad of that program, had been my student. We thought, “All right, let’s take the principles of librarianship and some other areas and put them together in ways that would be accessible to people who were struggling to organize information in the era of the Web.”

“I started Argus Associates back in ’91 to teach people how to use the internet, how to find information on the internet”

I started Argus Associates back in ’91 to teach people how to use the internet, how to find information on the internet. Then as it became a real business, we flipped that around to show people how to organize information, how to aid the companies that were either agencies or companies with their own web presences and help them do a better job with making their content easier to manage and easier to find and access. So that’s what Argus did. We were a very successful company for a very short time in the late ’90s, and after we shut down, I was a solo consultant for better part of a decade, and I did some more writing. I got involved in a lot of volunteer efforts around the Information Architecture Institute and the Information Architecture Summit, both of which I co-founded. There was also something called the User Experience Network, which didn’t quite ever succeed, but I see people still trying to do it today. In the mid-2000s, I decided we needed a UX-focused publishing house, so I started Rosenfeld Media. I think that gets us pretty much up to where we are today.

A moral duty to make information accessible

Jonathon: One of the things you’ve talked about a bit here is this idea of helping people find information and then also, from the other side, structuring that information so that it can be found. When we were talking before the show, you mentioned something that really stuck with me, which is the idea that librarians have a moral duty to make ideas accessible. Is that some sort of driving force behind all of your different sorts of work?

Louis: There used to be the saying you’d hear, especially in the early days of the internet, when we weren’t even sure if it was going to be commercialized or not, and that saying was, “Information wants to be free.” I always thought it was funny that we would interrogate information and ask it its perspective. But actually, my take on it is that information wants to be used. It’s dangerous, right? Information is a dangerous thing, and it’s also a wonderful thing.

So where am I going, here? Well, we are in an era where information is going to be out there. It’s going to be more sophisticated than before. It’s going to be at a scale greater than ever before. I look at how my kids grow up being able to just access so much information via Google, and they take that for granted. I remember meeting Larry Page when he was still a grad student. It’s changing so quickly, and we’re just driven by this intense explosion of information. My professors back in the day were correct. What do you do in that context? You can’t not have information.

“We have to learn how to actually make information work for us – despite the scale, despite the complexity”

Given that, what are we going to do to make information better? To make it easier to understand? To make it more helpful and maybe more importantly, to make ourselves better at understanding it, at creating it, at figuring out what’s worth keeping and what’s not? How do we understand the processes that get us to create and publish information, as individuals, not just as companies, publishers or larger entities? That’s really driven by the principles of librarianship. If you look at what the American Library Association’s philosophy is, it’s really about using information for good. Now we’re in this really weird time where we see technology as destroying us, and social media are ruining our institutions and our capability to trust each other and to feel like there’s a future. You know, it’s easy to feel pessimistic, but I think it’s a matter of catching up. We have to learn how to actually make information work for us – despite the scale, despite the complexity, despite the lies. It can be done, but we just haven’t quite gotten there yet. I think it starts, to some degree, with just committing to doing good and committing to having morals that you follow.

“We have to figure out ways to bring people back together, and we have to use technology to make that happen.”

Jonathon: You mentioned earlier that good UX humanizes technology. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means to you?

Louis: Technology is just a tool, right? Maybe it doesn’t feel that way, because whenever we interact with a technology, we’re interacting with this huge, complex array of tools that are all working in concert. It’s a dehumanizing feeling, and it’s dehumanizing because technology, in many cases, creates both time and distance between us as humans. So we are connected, and yet we are feeling lonely and more disconnected than we did before technology was foisted upon us in the way it has in the last 25 years. It just creates this tenuous ability for people to be in contact despite the fact that they are farther apart in time and space than ever before. In that context, we have to figure out ways to bring people back together, and we have to use technology to make that happen. I think that maybe the primary goal of people in the world of user experience isn’t to make things usable and delightful. I think it’s to actually close the gaps between people through their experiences, which are typically with the technology.

So that’s what we have to do. We are creating worlds, and people live in those worlds. How do we create a sense of community? How do we reconstruct a social contract between the people in the worlds we create? We do it by closing distances that our technologies have just opened. And I think that’s really what UX, if it’s not for today, that’s hopefully what it’s going to be for tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s UX should close gaps between people

Jonathon: Now tell us how you apply those ideas at Rosenfeld Media. How do you bring these to life?

Louis: It’s funny. Here I’m seen as a UX person, an expert, and when I talk to who I see as the “real” experts, I always feel a little embarrassed, because I don’t even build websites really anymore. And they’re doing amazing apps. And service designers are doing these incredibly complex experiences. And I feel a little embarrassed to even comment on it. That said, what I do work on are experiences with books, with conferences and with communities. And through all those things, I try to make sure that as a company, we practice what we preach. So we use user research – and not only user research, but we try to incorporate a diverse set of perspectives into everything we create.

“These two pillars: the user research and diversity of perspective. That’s something that’s really emerged more recently. They’re both so important”

This is actually an interesting thing. These two pillars: the user research (which we’ve been talking about for years) and diversity of perspective (which we haven’t been). That’s something that’s really emerged more recently. They’re both so important. I just want to make a point about the last one, about the diversity perspectives. We’ve always had as our logo the elephant. I’ve always loved the fable of the blind men and the elephant: a group of blind men encounter an elephant and one touches the trunk and says, “Oh, I found a snake.” And another touches the elephant’s leg and says, “No, it’s a tree.” And so on and so forth until they have a conversation and synthesize their findings and arrive at the true insight that it’s an elephant. That’s fundamental to what we do.

To make this more concrete, we decided for various reasons to launch a new conference. It’s called Advancing Research. It’s going to happen in New York toward the end of March or early April of 2020. We didn’t just say: “We’re going to do a conference. Let’s go find a bunch of speakers that we like, people whose names we might recognize.” Instead, we started with a survey that got about 720 responses and put a huge number of hours into analyzing those responses about what people wanted, what would benefit them, especially from a conference experience. We’re using what we know and what we preach as UX people first to help us understand what the demand might be. Then we did a second thing. We put out a call for proposals. And the call for proposals was designed in a way to be very open ended – not to tell people what we wanted them to speak about, but to give them a broad enough scope that they could tell us what they wanted to speak about and give us some information about formats and so forth.

That’s in effect the supply. So first, we went out and we researched the demand. Now we’ve got about 230 responses in just about a week. We just closed the CFA. We’ve got a picture of the supply. Now we’re analyzing the talks, not just individually, but collectively. What is zeitgeist of all those ideas that have come in? And now our job is to put them together by using user research to create something new.

“Don’t show up with a talk. Show up with an idea”

Jonathon: That’s fascinating to me, because you have a really different approach for putting together these events that a lot of other conference organizers don’t have. This seems like it was influenced by your IA and your UX experience. How did you get to this point of curating your shows this way?

Louis: Well, it’s funny because as an author and as a presenter at conferences, sometimes it’s very personal. I’ve had personally some bad experiences, where I didn’t really get much support. I felt set up to fail. And I didn’t want my authors or my presenters to ever feel that way. I’ve always wanted them to have extensive support from a a group of subject matter experts and a professional editor. For our conferences, we say: “Don’t show up with a talk. Show up with an idea. We will work with you over months iteratively to develop the idea. And then we’ll have you work with a speaker coach.” Because I’ve shown up and given talks where I thought about it for a day or two, and I paid the price, and so did the audience.

“I see creating conference programs or an editorial agenda for a line of books as definition exercises”

It’s this personal desire to not put people in positions to fail. But it’s also that conferences, books, whatever we do – they’re products. Why would we do it any other way? Why would we just go ahead and pull something out of thin air? “Oh, this sounds like a great bunch of speakers. They’re my buddies. Let’s get them to be the conference program, and hopefully people will like it.” That doesn’t really advance anything. That doesn’t really get at what people really care about. It doesn’t really push the field forward.

I see creating conference programs or an editorial agenda for a line of books as definition exercises. I don’t like definitions of UX or IA or whatever it is that are like two sentences long. I like definitions that say here’s the program of a conference that’s basically a snapshot of the practices of the moment. It’s the zeitgeist of now. That is definitional. And working with different people to come up with those programs and people who represent different perspectives makes it even more robust as a definitional exercise.

Curation as orchestration

Jonathon: When you talk about “the zeitgeist of now”, everything you’re talking about goes back to that thought about humanizing technology. So quickly with that curation model, do you find that there’s some feature, some key attribute, you look for in speakers or in the writers you work with when you’re putting together these things?

Louis: They have to understand the collaborative nature of developing information problems, which is what a talk is, which is what a book is and so forth. For example, if an author comes to me and says: “I want to publish a book with Rosenfeld Media. Here’s the manuscript,” I will say: “Thank you, but that’s not how we do things. I want your idea. I want to see if the idea has legs. I want to put it out there. I want to test it out. I want to get people’s perspectives. And if it’s something I feel strongly about, let’s join forces, and let’s go ahead and develop that idea together into a proposal and then into a book.” And so on. That’s important, because if we join forces, we’re going to develop the content more effectively, and there are things we know as publishers about the audience and the market that the authors don’t know and vice-versa. And that means it’s also going to help us collectively market it much better. The same is true with the first presentation. If someone just has a canned talk, we tell them, “Based on our evaluations in the past, canned is panned.”

“A canned talk is always obviously a canned talk. But if the talk has been created custom or at least modified for a particular conference, it just sings. And in fact, the talks sing in unison”

Jonathon: I love that.

Louis: A canned talk is always obviously a canned talk. But if the talk has been created custom or at least modified for a particular conference, it just sings. And in fact, the talks sing in unison. They just work well together because they were designed together. We find sometimes speakers come to us, and especially if they’re bigger names, which does happen sometimes, they get grouchy because we keep bugging them. We say: “We’re having meetings. We’re going to go over your talk ideas with your other speakers, your colleagues. You’re in a cohort. Let’s go through it, and let’s do this a few times over a number of months.” And sometimes they say: “I have my talk. It’s ready to go. Stop bothering me.”

But often those same people come to us after the conference and say: “You know what? My talk is so much better now. And I’m so happy with how it was received. I really feel like it changed things. The process really helped me.” And often they leave the process with relationships through working with other speakers, because we have them work together, and they have these great friendships that are really beneficial to them for the rest of their careers.

Jonathon: That’s fascinating. It’s like information curation as orchestration.

Louis: Oh, I like that.

“I can tell you that people really want to go beyond the questions and move more toward the answers. They want the concrete practical takeaways, the tools, the techniques, the case studies”

Jonathon: It gives us a lot of insight into how you put these events together. Speaking of which, what’s the next conference on your agenda?

Louis: We are doing the Design Ops Summit from October 23rd to 25th here in Brooklyn, New York. I live in Brooklyn, so it’s nice to have a conference in my backyard, and this is the third edition. It’s really exciting. I’d never heard the term “design ops” until March 2017, when Dave Malouf dropped it on me. It just blew my head off. And then by November of that year, we had our first conference on it. It sold out. We did another one last year, sold out. Those first two conferences were very much about what is design ops, what’s the scope of it, what are the basic bones of the practice? This year, based on user research, I can tell you that people really want to go beyond the questions and move more toward the answers.

They want the concrete practical takeaways, the tools, the techniques, the case studies. So we’ve selected talks, and we’re really pushing the presenters to really focus on those concrete things that people can learn right away and take away back to the office the following week.

Reaching a critical tipping point with design ops

Jonathon: Can you give us a quick overview of design ops as a discipline and why is it important for design teams to know about?

Louis: Well, design operations isn’t something that’s brand new, but we’ve reached a critical tipping point in the last few years where we finally got to see the table. Organizations are finally saying: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, we get it. Let’s spend some money on this.” And then there’s a next step to take from this. If you’re going to actually do design, especially in a large organization with lots of design challenges and lots of complexity, you have to have operations in place to support those designers and the researchers as well. Those processes, those operations have to cover not only the tools and the design systems, pattern libraries and guidelines that designers and researchers and writers need to do the work, but it goes beyond that. It goes into the challenges of actually building your team, both recruiting and onboarding and keeping them growing while they’re inside your organization. It also goes into the topic of where the expertise is located in the organization, how it’s centralized and decentralized. How does it work with the methodologies for creating products? You might have to be thinking about how your organization is part of an agile process.

“Design operations people are also finding themselves in the position to think about the principles that drive the design organization, that actually glue the processes and the people together”

Design operations people are also sometimes finding themselves in the position to think about the principles that drive the design organization, that actually glue the processes and the people together. And it’s not that these things weren’t being done. It’s not that different leaders and managers may have already been doing it. They have been, but it’s actually taking all this stuff and professionalizing it so that you can really amplify what a design organization can accomplish.

One of my co-curators for the Design Ops Summit is Kristin Skinner, who coauthored that wonderful book Org Design for Design Orgs with Peter Merholz. I get to work with Abby Covert, and really in some respects the godfather of design ops, Dave Malouf. Those three and I are the curators of the Design Ops Summit, so it’s a total pleasure and honor to work with them. Go to designopssummit.com for tickets. We had a really great turnout this year. I know half our workshops have already sold out, but there’s room for more and I’m sure we won’t turn you away if you want to join us, and it’s going to be a great experience, and New York this time of year is lovely.

Jonathon: Fantastic. I’ll start walking from Ireland now. So before we wrap up, Lou, is there a business or design leader who you follow closely for inspiration?

Louis: I mean, it’s not my favorite person.

“I wish I could reanimate Mr. Disney, so to speak, and ask him: “How do you tie all these things together? What kind of map did you draw?” I’ve seen some of his maps, and I still can’t quite see”

Jonathon: I love this already. Where are we going?

Louis: But he’s dead, so… Walt Disney. We understand his genius in storytelling and animation and appropriation to some degree. But my limited understanding is that while he had built quite an amazing organization and an amazing record of cultural achievement by the late ‘50s, it wasn’t until then that he had some kind of vision for a broader ecosystem of Disney that included not just the cartoons and the films and the characters and the whole animation process, but the theme parks and the product lines. And I’m not sure if he was thinking about the cruises then.

But if you think of what Disney is now, it is really this unbelievable integration of products and services at both the broadest level that I’m sure makes his service designer’s head spin, and at the most micro level. I remember being on a Disney cruise and noticing the mouse ear trim on the lampshade in the state room. I wish I could reanimate Mr. Disney, so to speak, and ask him: “How do you tie all these things together? What kind of map did you draw?” I’ve seen some of his maps, and I still can’t quite see. My brain isn’t big enough to grasp how he connected all these things, both big and small, dynamic and stable. It’s amazing. And that it changed over time. So he must’ve had a roadmap in there, too. I’m just trying to figure out how to tie together books and communities and conferences and a few other things, and it makes my head spin.

“It’s a great time to be alive, because you don’t have to be Disney to work on these kinds of ideas. Thank goodness”

Jonathon: It sounds like you’re doing something similar with Rosenfeld Media and linking together all of these different kinds of information as products creating this sort of shared universe.

Louis: You know, I realized that just in the last few weeks. That’s what I’m trying to do, and actually in one way or another, it’s the product of a good 25 years of thinking and work – mostly unconscious. I didn’t realize I was working on this, but now that I am, it’s all I want to do. It’s a great time to be alive, because you don’t have to be Disney to work on these kinds of ideas. Thank goodness.

Jonathon: Lou, where can people keep up with you and your work and all these events, books and communities?

Louis: Rosenfeldmedia.com is our website that has all of our books. We have a whole bunch coming out in 2020, I’m excited to report. We also link to our conferences:  advancingresearchconference.com, signupsummit.com and enterpriseexperience.net. We also provide the information on our training there, and we have three communities that are free to join on enterprise experience, advancing research and design operations — all linked from there. I tweet occasionally @LouisRosenfeld, and I’m known to post a thing or two on LinkedIn and Medium.

Jonathon: Brilliant. Lou, thank you so much again for joining us, telling us all about your vision for connected information and humanizing technology.

Louis: Jon, thanks for the opportunity. I really enjoyed it, and you got me at a good time, because I really literally am just brimming with excitement right now and I just stay up all night every night and work on these things.

 

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