Digital places with Jorge Arango

A transcript of Episode 202 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Lisa Welchman talk to Jorge Arango discuss concepts from the physical world of architecture and buildings and apply them to the world of digital design.



JAMES: You’re listening to UXPodcast coming to you from Stockholm, Sweden and Baltimore in the USA. We’re are your hosts James Royal-Lawson…

LISA: And Lisa Welchman.

JAMES: We have listeners in a 181 countries from Austria to Italy. Today we’re talking to Jorge Arango. He’s an information architect, strategic designer teacher of the California College of the Arts and co-author of the 4th edition of what is known as the Polar Bear Book.

LISA: His latest book, Living in Information; Responsible Design for Digital Places draws upon architecture as a way to design information environments that serve humanity. We’re going to talk to him today and find out a little more.

So, Jorge, I was really, really struck by these three components that you’re talking about; system, sustainability and structure. And so systems is near and dear to my heart because we all live in and operate in a system. How did you sort of just settle on those three?

JORGE: My background is in architecture, as in the design of buildings. And I approach design from the perspective of somebody who is trained in the design of environments. And when you consider how buildings are designed, these things – not artefacts that you design like you would design an object. I think that many people, when they think about design they think about the aesthetics of the thing or what it looks and feels like. And that is really a component in building design, you know, the building will have a form that will manifest in the world.

But there are many, many other aspects to it – for a building to be able to be a thing, there are many different systems that need to work together, there is a structural system, there is a heating and air conditioning system, there is an electrical system. There are navigation flows that need to be accommodated, there is a context in which the building will sit.

And when you’re trained in architecture, you’re trained to consider all of these things together and that’s the approach that I have brought to, I guess, what we now call UX design, when I started working on we hadn’t quite gravitated towards that name yet. And that’s the kind of systems and also the structure part of it. The sustainability part of it has come about as it’s become evident that we’re spending more and more of our time and doing more and more of our work operating in the software based environments and that we need to think about how they’re going to sustain us in the long term.

If we’re going to move key parts of our social interactions to these things, we have to vie for our societies to be around. And I think that we need to introduce this subject of sustainability which again has been a part of the discussion in architectural design. You know, in architecture you have this concept of lead certification that has emerged as a way of guaranteeing that a structure is going to be sustainable and is going to be respectful of its environment.

And I think we need to start embracing similar concepts in the work that we do.

JAMES: Sustainability in Digital Places – you used the phrase digital places and physical places to complete the analogy between the architectural world and what we work with. But I think we’ve grown into over the years or being forced into, maybe, a disposable environment when it comes to our digital places. We joke about how websites get rebuilt every three years, we’d never think of doing the same thing with your home. You wouldn’t pull it down to the foundations every three years and build it up again.

JORGE: That’s right. There’s that famous op-ed piece by Mark Andreessen where he said that software is eating the world. And software has several characteristics, one of which is very malleable, right? It’s very easy to make a change that impacts, literally, hundreds of millions of people overnight. I don’t know if it’s in the book but I remember speaking about this at ` when Apple changed the design of iOS, when they moved to iOS 7 which introduced this kind of flat aesthetic, that was a change that impacted the experience of many millions of people, literally, overnight. And it changed that experience considerably.

To your point, we don’t experience such changes in our buildings. And yet, whenever there’s a major redesign of an information environment you go online and you see people complaining it about it. It’s not that recent but within recent memory that Gmail was redesigned pretty considerably and there was a lot of complaining about that.

And often at times it subsides and people get used to it but I think that we do bring that impulse to it which is these are environments where we’re spending a lot of time and we want some degree of solidity there.

LISA: Right. I want to push on that a little bit and maybe disagree with both of you a tiny bit.

JORGE: Sure.

LISA: In a way that I work with organizations, I often see the opposite. So I agree and – how about that, this is an and? I often see digital properties deteriorating on servers. So it’s like abandoned buildings, if we want to keep up this architectural analogy. They’re all over the place and they confuse people or they only partially take down the building because they didn’t know there was an annex or all of those other sorts of things as well, which I think, sort of, isn’t really debating what you’re saying but what do you think about the idea of that? Of just sort of waste? We’re talking about sustainability, the waste that is out there and online.

JORGE: Absolutely. You are spot on, it’s not as though everyone keeps their digital properties up to date, right? Just before jumping on this call, I was going through the process renewing my Flickr Pro membership. Flickr is an information environment that used to be quite popular a few years ago. It’s popularity waned after it was acquired by Yahoo and Yahoo has since been acquired by Verizon, right?

And in each subsequent acquisitions, somehow, it’s moved kind of further and further from being one of the environments where I spent a lot of time to, kind of, the periphery. And it’s become kind of this – not abandoned because my understanding is it’s being taken private again. But it’s an environment where I don’t send a lot of time anymore. And I was debating; should I up my membership again and all this stuff?

Yes, it’s not evenly distributed. Some environments are changing very fast, others are not and it varies. And the main point, though, is that we do spend so much time in these things and we bring to them many of the same types of expectations that we have of other designed artefacts where we spend a lot of time.

JAMES: Rightly Lisa, of course, with the way that we treat digital places, you either – kind of disposable; get rid of them, rebuild them or you don’t see them, you don’t need to worry about them, they’re not the pretty little thing or the buzz word anymore. So you can move it to the side. But I do think the analogy is really good. And I like using the architecture building analogy myself. Sometimes I like to think about how if we map it the other way around – imagine if buildings did change as much of websites or were neglected as much as some websites, what an utterly awful place it would be to walk around. If we went to that town you would never go back.

LISA: Unless you like that sort of thing.


JORGE: There are, of course, physical constraints why buildings don’t change like that. It would be very disconcerting to walk into a physical place that changed that radically. To this notion of disposability, there are kind of architectural popups, places that we go that we know are going to be evanescent. I’m thinking of things like fairs or –

LISA: Rock festivals.

JORGE: Rock festivals, for example. That’s an excellent one. That’s a community that –

JAMES: Pop-up stores.

JORGE: Yes. So these things do exist. I think that we come to them with the understanding and the expectation that they are there for a small period of time. I think, Lisa, to your point about disposability, one of things about digital is you can spin these things up and leave them out there. I mean, I myself I’m guilty of this. I’ve started projects over my career that didn’t have the energy that I expected would generate and I’ve kind of forgotten about them and they’re still laying around – these kind of abandoned hulks of things that no one is paying attention to anymore. And I suspect that there’s a lot of those round.

JAMES: I found one of mine the other day; a website I created like 8 years ago. It’s still there. I suppose it’s not hurting anyone but it’s, maybe, lost its context and lost its attention.

LISA: Yes, and it’s in your hand as well. I mean, when you have the opportunity to switch your mobile phone you realize just what’s on it. The app you haven’t used for three years, all of these other things. Your contact lists which are kind of squirrelly. There’s just all of this kind of dust and nonsense said. As you said, Jorge, if it were in your home, unless you like to live in a mess, you just wouldn’t tolerate it.

JORGE: Yes, there’s this tendency to accumulate digital detritus, some sort. I’m thinking of Gmail – prior to Gmail I think many of us were very careful about how we stored out email and we created folders in our IMAP accounts and all these stuff and developed kind of very personal archiving systems. And Gmail was interesting in that, it encouraged us to not do that and to just use Google’s fabulous search, right? And I kept up the practice of labelling my messages for a while and I realized, you know what, these are a search away and I just started archiving them.

And at this point I have over a decade’s worth of email in that system that I would say 80% of it or something of it or something like that is just completely useless to me and it’s there. I’m not going to spend the time to prune it or anything.

LISA: Was there a time or is there a time when people do similar things with buildings and do you grow out of it? What historically do you think happened with architecture and can you see any parallels to what is happening with our digital places?

JORGE: That’s a fascinating question. I think that the main difference is that the artefacts that the architects work on; buildings or towns – let’s consider, kind of, at a larger scale, urban architecture. These are artefacts that are designed with the long term in mind I think that for most of architectural history, I don’t know if it’s true anymore but for most of architectural history, when you embarked on the design of a building, you did so with the expectation that you were making something for the ages, something that was meant to stand the test of time. And you did so with the knowledge that what you were making was going to serve as an environment for people to carry out their lives.

I think that if I would characterize the core of this book, I would characterize is as an appeal to thinking more long term about this sort of work that we’re doing because in many regards, the digital products and services that we’re designing are serving many of the roles that buildings use to play. And in thinking about them as disposable, to use your term, Lisa, kind of short term popup things that are so malleable, that are so prone to changing, we designed the differently and we don’t think about the long term.

And it’s very counter-intuitive, it’s against the nature of the materials that we’re working with to think about them as durable things. But if we are to use them to support our purposes in the longer term, we have to start thinking of them as things that are durable, somehow.

JAMES: Which is an excellent point. I really enjoyed the chapter about transparency when I was reading the book. That got me thinking a huge amount. I think it connects with this – we’ve created a mismatch, a misalignment, I think, in many situations between what’s been sold by websites or companies with digital places and that’s been perceived to be brought by the users on the other end.

JORGE: That’s right. There is a lack of understanding of what the product being sold is, right? And there’s this cliché that if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product. It has become a cliché in our field but I don’t know how many people who interact with information environments realize the degree to which that is true.

JAMES: I think we’re still joking about it, I think we’re aware of the phrase and people are joking about it. But I seriously don’t think most people truly understand the price that they’re being asked to pay or how they’re paying it. Partly, perhaps because the price doesn’t’ stay still after the point of contract.


JAMES: I say contract – I mean, as in the moment that you can perceive as the point of exchange. It doesn’t always stay still.

LISA: I think one of the dynamics that’s happened, just naturally – I’m showing my age, but one of the old school things was to say clicks and brick. And there’s this alliance and this substitution and this reuse of language that you use in the real world to talk about digital places, but they’re not the same. So we’re trying to substitute concepts in the real world for concepts in digital which there some similarities in the Venn diagram but then there are these new possibilities which is what I think James is alluding to and there are concepts that people have not wrapped their minds around. They don’t even understand that these things are possible.

And so that sort of goes to the social and relationship element that you really stress a lot in the book that we’re building relationships online and these new social paradigms. And, I think, we’re sometimes trying to draw analogies to what’s going on in the real world. And it’s kind of the same, but kind of not. What do you think?

JORGE: In many ways we’re entering a territory that we’re not – I’m going to say it’s completely unfamiliar but I will say that we’re kind of unaccustomed to. I think most of us, kind of intuitively think about our kind of commercial transactions, something relatively clean and simple. I mean, think of a simple commercial interaction were you buy something, you hand over cash and are given a product in return. That’s an understandable thing that folks have been doing for a very long time.

And we are moving into situations where we are entering into commercial transactions that we may not be privy to, that we may not be aware of. I don’t know if you’ve seen this, James, I don’t know how much play it’s gotten in Europe. But one of the items that’s in the news here in the U.S. as of the past few days is that the main mobile carriers have been selling user’s location data surreptitiously.

JAMES: I’ve been screaming, “You guys need GDPR.” It’s actually shocking that they are still allowed to do so.

JORGE: Yes. And it’s something that as someone who pays for my – I have a mobile contract with one of the carriers here. There’s nowhere in that transaction that when I become a paying customer of the carrier that I use, I don’t remember seeing anywhere that they were going to be selling my location data. We kind of are falling into these things because there’s this misalignment between our interest, our expectations as users of these systems and as customers of these systems, and the interests and incentives of the companies that operate them.

JAMES: Is this what you’re describing now with the mobile operators? Is that the modern equivalent of the newspapers that started selling adverts in order to lower the price?

JORGE: Yes, I believe it is. There was another news item recently and I forget what industry it was in. You know, CES just happened in Las Vegas, the big annual consumer electronics show. And I think it’s in the context of that that this came up – this notion that, for example, T.Vs – I think it was T.Vs, the issue where it came up where all of these products are expanding their customer base by reducing the entry price but then they have to make up for it in other ways, right?

And one of the ways that they make up for it is by selling advertising. And it’s the same business model as the newspapers and the advertising-supported newspapers. There’s a fabulous book by Tim Wu called The Attention Merchants that traces the history of advertising. I referenced the book in my book because it does a very comprehensive job of tracing that history where newspapers – the news of the day used to be a relatively expensive product that most folks could not afford.

And the way that the cost of entry was lowered was by opening it up to people who were looking to persuade the readers of the newspaper for commercial lens, right? I think that is at the root of many of the problems that we see, particularly in today’s information environment. It’s certainly at the root of all of these problems around Facebook and what happened in the 2016 elections that we keep seeing in the news. It’s like, well, the business model that drives this thing is based on the notion that we are going to use this profile that we’re developing about you to sell your attention so that you can be persuaded to whoever is willing to pay for it.

JAMES: If we’re thinking about we perceive things; we use to look in adverts and understanding that there’s an advert there and it’s pitching something at me and I cannot respond to it. Either knowingly or unknowingly I’m going to take in some branding or so on, T.V adverts. But by and large, these have been very simple transactions, still. Whereas – you know, when we start seeing the first adverts online, they were also reasonably simple. They just started appearing –

LISA: Right. Well, there’s an underbelly that many people who do not work in industry don’t understand. There’s a complexity under the covers that most people aren’t getting. And so I think that’s a huge differentiator. Jorge, you mentioned that – or both of you all mentioned newspapers. And so I was really taken and I’ve heard this analogy a lot but really taken by the visual at the top of the book. It was either intro or first chapter where you’re talking about commuting on BART and people staring at their screens.

And so there’s even some meme out there of people doing that. And we know that people have been absorbed in reading material forever while they commute. They’re either reading a book – so I’m not moved by the fact that people are staring at something that they’re holding in their hand and consuming some type of entertainment. What’s different is that they go through the device and into another world, which I think is what you’re being in and asking where are they and where do they go. And I think we all wonder, are we going to spend more time there that we spent here? I’m really interested in that and the concept of this social spaces and this emphasis on the social. Why did you pick that particular concept?

JORGE: Well, first of all, I think because it is so relevant to what’s going on in today’s world. Remember, this book was written – at this point it’s been about 18 months ago which is kind of right after the major world transforming events of 2016. I’m referring to Brexit and the U.S. Election which –

JAMES: I was thinking you we’re going to say David Bowie. I can see those two as well.

JORGE: Yes. Not to kind of pin a date on this recording but that happened three years ago yesterday which kind of blew my mind.

LISA: Wow. Really?

JORGE: Yes. It seems like it was yesterday but it’s been three years. And I think that 2016 will come to be seen as a watershed year for this stuff because I think it’s the moment – that serves kind of like a wake-up call that something important was happening here that was not just people staring into their phones but it was actually changing the course of our society in very important ways. And it’s the time when these things started really gaining some mainstream visibility. The fallout of that, we have the leaders of some of these organizations having to go up and testify before congress because of the role that their systems play in shaping public opinion.

So I think it’s a subject that has become incredibly relevant. And the social aspect of it – I can sometimes come across as being very critical of these things but I also want to be sure to mention that there are incredibly exciting and interesting aspects to systems like Facebook. The example that I often use to talk about this is a website for a bank, for example and comparing that to a visit to a physical bank branch. When I go visit my bank – I do my banking with Citi Bank and whenever I go to a Citi Bank branch I get to interact with other people. There’s usually folks waiting there in line to see the tellers and I have to stand in line and I eventually get to interact with the teller there or the ban officer.

And we have a transaction that is – yes, I’m transacting with a system but I’m doing so through a human agent. And I have this kind of human interaction that is happening here. Whenever I visit I may be there alongside, hundreds, thousands, maybe tens of thousands of other people, I don’t know. I wouldn’t know because there are no signs of people there, I’m just kind of completely transacting with content, with services, kind of, anonymously. And there is a personality, you could say to that particular bank brand. But I’m not interacting with a human personality.

And systems like Facebook – information environments like Facebook and Twitter are all about human interactions that’s why they’re so compelling. Because we can go on there and see what our friends are up to can catch up with their lives. They kind of bring humanity back into these information environments which I think is really interesting and I keep wondering what would it take to bring more of that into environments like my bank.

LISA: It’s funny to you say that because I am a USAA member, I’m ant army brat. And so several years ago they introduced a social component to online banking where you could basically go talk – once you’re login behind the firewall, talk about the product and services, chat – not chat-chat but talk back and forth with each other about them and what you liked and didn’t like. And I thought it was kind of; one, risky to do something like that too. But my response was, no, I’m not going to do that in this environment. My visceral response was I don’t do that. I am the chat-you-and-align person. I am that person who will turn around and talk to you in a long grocery line or in a bank or whatever.

But I was not interested in having that conversation with people that I couldn’t see, I couldn’t make eye contact with. And so that’s interesting that you have a similar experience but a slightly different set of expectations or questions around it

JORGE: That’s a great observation. We are much more willing to be social in some context rather than others. And some of us, more so than others. Other example of, kind of, a social experience in a physical space is visiting a post office and doing the line at the post office especially when it’s busy season. If you stand in line at a post office and see what folks are there for, you get to see kind of like a cross section of who your neighbors are and what they’re up to.

And it might be that you’re not there to socialize. I know I’m not. I’m not there to hang out with those people. But getting exposed to them and who they are and to see the knowledge that I’m surrounded by folks who have different backgrounds, who have different interests, who have different political perspectives, for example. These are things that physical places have served for a long time and which we risk losing when we move out social interactions to online places that let us kind of be in our own private Idahos to a degree, right?

LISA: I agree with you on that. One last things, James, and I’ll stop yapping for a second. Some of the stuff you’re talking about really points to inclusiveness. I’m not zeroing in on our different perceptions about banking and online banking and what you would do and not do, or what I will do and not do. And so just to draw back a little bit, what responsibility does a developer, any kind of developer who develops digital spaces have to everyone to make sure that these spaces are inclusive, that they do account for the introvert who might really enjoy chatting about banking experiences online because they’re comfortable doing that from their home but doesn’t want to talk to anybody in the line.

And the other person – and it may even be introvert and extrovert who’s the line chatter but doesn’t want to talk. How do we make sure that that happens not just from that particular binary thing but on the full continuum of all of who we are? I guess, I’m talking about just this inter-sectional approach to development. How does that fit in?

JORGE: You know it’s a fascinating question, Lisa. And one that I’m thinking a lot about especially now because I’m working on a presentation that I’m going to be giving next month at World IA Day around this very subject. And our default – I’m not going to generalize here – but I think that for many of us are rude impulses to say we want to make this environment as personalizable as possible and we want to make it as accumulating to folks from all sorts of different perspectives, all sorts of different backgrounds, all sorts of different abilities.

And I think that’s an incredibly noble and important direction to aspire towards. But I also think that we need to acknowledge that at the end of the day we have to establish some degree of common ground for the place to be able to be coherent and to be distinctive and to set itself apart from other parts of the world. This conversation that we’re having would be challenging if the three of us were speaking in different languages, for example.

We have come together to speak – and we’re speaking in English. That entails some degree of, I guess, giving up of parts of our identity. English is not my native language, and it’s something that I do willingly to be able to participate in this conversation and to have it be a fruitful and flowing conversation. And I think that this notion of accumulating different folks stands in tension with the notion of creating a degree of coherence of developing some kind of group identity that allows us to identify as a certain banks customers or members of a professional community or what have you.

So it’s not an easy clean-cut answer, you need to figure out where you need to lay on that continuum between establishing group identity and allow individual to flourish.

JAMES: I think another aspect of this. The social side of things that we talked about now is good, I’m all for it too. And I think it’s best to have the people on one side who talk to people in the queue and so on. But what worries me and I think what causes a major problem with these spaces and these interactions are the recommendation engines that a lot of services and sites have, especially when you compare it to the physical world. So the way that we impact upon social interactions and the social dynamics of groups through other things we present the recommendations engines corrupts those places and distorts them in a way you wouldn’t have on such a large scale in the physical world.

A supermarket, a store is not automatically based on what you’ve seen and what you’ve consumed earlier, rearranging things in the shelves in front of you as you wheel your trolley around the store.

LISA: Mine does.


You don’t have that in Sweden?

JAMES: Really? You’re so far ahead of us in Baltimore.


Okay, they’ve got digital signs on some of the shelves, I can update, but they actually don’t physically move all the stock around chasing ahead of me. But that’s exactly what we see in some of these digital spaces, the things that have been presented to me. My social group might stay the same over a short space of time. But the things that pushed into me are based on what I’ve liked before and this polarised and forces us to extremes and corrupts the social space that we’ve inhabited.

JORGE: Well, the word corrupt is kind of loaded, right? But I do think that saying that it influences how we think is certainly apt, right?

JAMES: Probably a much nicer way of putting it, thank you.

JORGE: This is why I talk so much about alignment between the incentives of the organization that is building the environment or the goals of the people who are using it, right? I can sometimes come across as hammering very hard on advertising and it is more nuanced than this because some environments are better aligned for persuasion than others. But if what you’re trying to do is tailor an environment to be as persuasive as possible to me as an individual, you’re going to try to make it as personalized as possible and you’re going to want to tailor it as much to my interests to keep me engaged there.

It’s almost as an advertiser I’m trying to drill down to this demographic of one where if I show you the exact things that you want to be shown, you’re going to be much more prone to be persuaded than if I’m kind of blanketing you with messages that are designed for a very broad audience.

JAMES: Excellent. Well, I think we’re going to have to wrap it up there. It’s been absolutely excellent talking to you today.

JORGE: It’s been my pleasure.

JAMES: And so many wonderful topics, as usual. I could speak for hours about all these things. It’s really relevant and important.

JORGE: Well, fantastic. It’s been a pleasure talking with you all. Thank you.


JAMES: Many topics that we brought up there that we could keep on talking for hours about. But one aspect that we didn’t cover completely is just out of time that we – you’ve mentioned maturity before, we’re a very young industry, and buildings. They’re really old things that take time to build; churches take hundreds of years to build, supermarkets they take a long time to build – planning and setting it out. Whereas, we’re now in digital places working with agile, working intrusively. We’re being forced to push things out and learn when it’s out there as opposed to have the time, the reflection, the design, the moment to design before its released.

LISA: Yes, I agree with that. It’s different but at the same time it’s the same. I like that you mentioned churches because maybe we’d be better off thinking that we’re building a cathedral and inside that cathedral are many small artefact, large ones, systems that are broad, tall, whatever the case may be. And we have to understand who we are in the making of that cathedral.

And so agile has a place. Maybe there are some things that need to be made quickly but I think what’s missing is the larger context and the sense of time.

JAMES: Absolutely. And I think even persuasion has a place. Making a connection to religion; religion isn’t devoid of persuasion.

LISA: No, it is not. It’s part of the system. It’s just proper place, proper time or as the Zen Buddhist liked to say skillful means, remember to keep moving.

JAMES: See you on the other side.


JAMES: Knock-knock.

LISA: Who’s there?

JAMES: Noise.

LISA: Noise who?

JAMES: Noise to see you!


This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Lisa Welchman  and Jorge Arango recorded in January 2019 and published as Episode 202 of UX Podcast. 

Transcript kindly provided by Qualtranscribe.