February 8, 2009 | design

Sunday Musings

I’m reading a book right now called Sketching User Experiences which is all about the degree to which Design is both extremely necessary and also extremely overlooked in a lot of businesses (primarily in software businesses) and some thoughts about how to address the problem. Anyway, in a chapter about the social nature of sketch artifacts in the process of ideation, I hit the following quote:

Humans create their cognitive powers by creating the environments in which they exercise those powers. At present, so few of us have taken the time to study these environments seriously as organizers of cognitive activity that we have little sense of their role in the construction of thought. (Hutchins 1995; p 169)

I think it’s entirely fair for me to pull that out of the context in which Buxton is using it and encourage everyone to contemplate it in relation to where and how they work day to day. Joel Spolsky has a lot to say on the topic of how crucial the environment is to productivity, in his case of software developers, and this has always resonated with me. As a business owner, you may “save” a ton of money by buying less office space and cramming it full of short wall cubes, but I’d argue that in the majority (maybe the vast majority) of circumstances the permanent and ongoing loss of productivity brought about by uncomfortable, cognitively-unfriendly work environments is going to wipe out those savings and more in relatively short order. It’s not coddling your work force out of some froofy good-guy mentality. Joel supports his opinion on the basis of actual dollar figures from the business he runs and is convinced that the costs of providing his employees with their unquestionably glorious workplace (not to mention the ancillary perks of socialization opportunity, free catered (and good) lunch, etc) are significantly less than the productivity he gains from happy, motivated workers.

I don’t necessarily claim to agree that this model can scale all the way up to multi-thousand employee companies directly, but I absolutely agree that the comfort, appearance and convenience of the workplace absolutely directly relates to productivity. Thus, to the extent that some aspects of your work environment are under your control, it’s absolutely worth it to figure out what can be improved. You’ll be happier at work (and therefore happier in general) and ultimately get more done. And if you’re in a place that’s intractable, it’s time to quit.

Well, maybe not right now, but as soon as is financially safe. As for me, I have a fairly meticulous desk in my bedroom that I work at most days, with sunlight and a view of mountains, trees and snow. I’m happier than ever.

Changing topics, my dad and I were going through boxes that he’s had in storage ever since clearing out our old house (where I grew up) last year to put it on the market. In one he found a scrapbook he’d made as a teenager full of newspaper clippings, concert stickers, photographs and so on…

It made me think about the fact that (despite a fairly vibrant scrapbooking subculture) the modern equivalents for that sort of thing are a bit scattered and present a very different set of experiences. We save thousands of digital photos, and bookmark or locally save interesting articles, but these things are often silos, not integrated in a clear way and to a large extent, many more of our activities are transitory and don’t produce tangible objects that can become memorabilia.

I’m not really sitting here pining for “the good old days”, but I’m curious how the digital culture we’re still kind of in the infant stages of will respond to the same impulses for personal recollection and sentimentality that led my father to create his scrapbook. How can the software and systems we have improve upon or enable that kind of stuff in ways it doesn’t now?

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