Alex Schmidt – Deliberate Intervention

Alex Schmidt – Deliberate Intervention

My guest in this episode is Alex Schmidt, author of Deliberate Intervention: Using Policy and Design to Blunt the Harms of New Technology published by Rosenfeld Media.

Alex has pursued interests in public service and design through different avenues over her career. As an award-winning reporter and producer for NPR and others, she covered arts, business, technology, and urban development. Alex has published work in The New Yorker and The Los Angeles Times , among other outlets. Her writing about UX, privacy, and other design topics has appeared in A List Apart and The Columbia Journalism Review.

As a researcher, strategist, and UX designer, Alex has worked both for agencies and in the public sector. Her greatest interest lies in the wicked problems inherent in enterprise design and the mysterious ways of large systems.

These are all areas she has delved into as a product strategist for The Federal Reserve Bank of New York.


Note: This transcript is machine-generated and may contain some errors.

[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: Welcome to Power of Ten, a podcast about design operating at many levels zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organisational transformation, head on to changes in society and the world. My name is Andy Polaine. I’m a service design and innovation consultant, coach, trainer and writer.

[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: Hi, and welcome to Power of 10, a podcast about design operating at many levels. Zooming out from thoughtful detail through to organizational transformation and onto changes in society and the world. My name’s Andy P. I’m a service designer and innovation consultant, design, leadership coach, educator, and writer.

My guest today is Alex Schmidt, author of Deliberate Intervention, using Policy and Design to blunt the harms of new technology recently published by Rosenfeld Media. I. Alex has pursued many interests in public service and design through different avenues over her career as an award-winning reporter and producer for NPR and others, she covered arts, business, technology, and urban development.

She’s published work and The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, and her writing about UX privacy and other design topics has appeared in a list part and the Columbia Journalism Review. As a researcher, strategist, UX designer, Alex’s work for both agencies and in the public sector. Her greatest interest lies in the wicked problems inherent in enterprise design and the mysterious ways of large systems.

These are all areas she has delved into As a product strategist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Alex, welcome to Power of 10. It’s so

[00:01:19] Alex Schmidt: wonderful to be with you. Thank you.

[00:01:21] Andy Polaine: Thanks for joining. I know it’s, I know it’s, um, early morning for you to make my, uh, earlier afternoon here.

[00:01:25] Alex Schmidt: Yes, yes, yes.

[00:01:27] Andy Polaine: So I mentioned the Federal Reserve, but your views are your own.

[00:01:31] Alex Schmidt: Yes, that’s right. Thank you. Um, I am not representing the Fed in this conversation. I won’t really be talking about them. Just wanted to put that out there.

[00:01:39] Andy Polaine: So, before we get started, and we’re gonna mostly talk about the book, I’m always interested to know, I mean, I’ve read a little bit of it before there, your journey to kinda where you are now.

I’m always fascinated to hear about what people thought they were gonna be doing to, to what they ended up doing. So what’s been your pathway?

[00:01:54] Alex Schmidt: Yeah, it’s been, it’s been quite a journey and I’ve, I’ve overused that word in describing. My writing of the book, but it also goes for my career cuz my undergraduate degree was in art history of all things.

Um, I was an arts reporter for in the public radio world, as you mentioned in the intro. Um, but I had always kind of had an interest in tech for a whole bunch of reasons. I went into the tech world, um, worked for big clients like Motorola, tlc, Verizon. And now I kind of consider myself being back in the public sector.

You know, I would, I sort of see journalism as the public sector. Um, and, uh, now working for my nation, central bank, I consider myself to be back in the public sector. So, um, you know, people sometimes say, oh, you were a journalist, now you’re doing ux. And I think it’s actually really a natural transition. I still.

I interviewed people as a journalist, I interview people as a researcher. So much of my work is about, um, packaging ideas and selling them. Um, and that was the case when I was a reporter, and it’s the case now as a researcher.

[00:03:04] Andy Polaine: So there’s usually an itch that everyone’s trying to scratch or there’s a kind of pressure cooker that goes on when someone writes a book.

About, you know, there’s some things I’ve been thinking about for a while and I, I feel the need to get them out there. Um, it sounds ridiculous cuz So, whilst we’re recording, uh, now, cause I dunno when this will quite come out. Twitter is currently in its sort of meltdown phase. There’s just been all the tech layoffs.

Um, we are in mid-November in 2022. Um, so it kind of seems like a stupid question in a sense, but I know that you would’ve been working on this for a while, so, What was the genesis of, of this book? Why this book around using policy and design to blunt the harms of new technology.

[00:03:42] Alex Schmidt: Well, my initial interest, um, actually goes back many years to when I was working for these large clients who I mentioned.

I really got interested in the topic of privacy. Um, and I see a lot of other design folks kind of. Try to sometimes use privacy as a way in to understanding what’s wrong. Um, and I kind of followed that pattern. I wrote a bunch about privacy and I think it sort of has its limits, um, when it comes to like explaining what’s going on.

Um, and some years later, Lou, Lou Rosenfeld actually approached me and said, do you wanna write a book about privacy? And I was like, no, I really don’t. And I can go into why. But, um, it took me about a year to come up with another frame, um, which ended up being about policy. Um, and you know, the, the reason I really wrote the book is because I wanted to kind of explore complicated questions that I had about.

How this all happens, you know, like stuff gets designed, it goes out into the world, and then our society kind of responds to it. And that’s really what I explored in the book. I didn’t know the answer to that when I started writing it. I wrote the book because I wanted to explore, um, those questions. So I think different from a lot of other Rosenfeld books.

I wasn’t writing it to share my expertise. I was writing it because I was confused.

[00:05:07] Andy Polaine: I think it was you who wrote, and it’s, or we talked about this, um, in the sort of pre-chat that you kind of don’t really know what you’re writing about until you’re about halfway through it.

[00:05:15] Alex Schmidt: Exactly. Oh, no. Until you’re done.

Really, and actually until you’re done. I think that’s what you said. Yeah. Yeah. And I don’t know if this is the case for you, but I. You know, I’ve been like giving talks about the book and you know, having, people are asking me questions, I’m like, my opinions are changing about it on a daily basis, you know, I’m like, oh my goodness.

Like, you know, there’s this other dimension to it and there’s this piece and I think that’s a good, like, you know, fertile place to be, I guess. But like, you can’t. Possibly put it all in. And of course your opinions are gonna change. And I don’t know if you feel that way as a book writer, but

[00:05:49] Andy Polaine: Yeah. Well, you know, when we wrote the service design book, kind of product design hadn’t really happened.

Mm-hmm. It, it came out in I think 2014, but we obviously were writing it before then. So by which I mean digital product design since known now. So the whole product thing hadn’t really kind of boomed. And so obviously now I think, you know, I, I spend quite a lot of time talking about service design in the context of, of, of that context.

And I guess the recent events in tech kind of more generally probably would’ve. Or may have changed, um, your sort of lens through which you’ll kind of look at this because there’s obviously been, there’s now a lot of massive government interest and, and maybe we’ll get to that in a minute. I’d like to kind of, I’d like to go back a little bit actually and, and sort of talk about the beginning of it.

Cuz you know, when we talk about policy now I’ve heard this phrase and, and I, I think it’s a, I think it’s from a German philosophy, I can’t remember which one it is. That, you know, policy is the technology of bureaucracy. Can you talk about what, what is policy.

[00:06:48] Alex Schmidt: Yeah, so I, I’m going to, well, I have a, of course I define it in the book, you know, how, how could I not?

Um, so I’m actually looking for a quote that I have, um, which is, you know, I actually, I don’t even need to look it up cuz I think I basically remember. But, um, the quote is something along the lines of, um, policy is an array of collective actions intended to design the world in which we wanna live. So, um, and who are the like actors that you know?

Create those actions. It’s not only government, government that creates policy. They’re u usually three kind of actors are defined, which are government, uh, so public sector markets, private sector, and civil society, which is basically like a catchall term for everything else. It in can include, you know, citizens, you know, going on marches and nonprofits and whatever.

So it’s these three kind of actors that create policy about. That, um, end up creating the world we wanna live, we, the world that we live in and the world that we wanna live in. And my book is really, my book focus is in on government policy and how that interacts with the private sector. Um, but that is sort of the writ large definition of what policy is.

[00:08:10] Andy Polaine: I sneakily searched for it. Whilst you That was the Michael Walton

[00:08:14] Alex Schmidt: That’s right.

[00:08:14] Andy Polaine: Right From, yeah. Uh, from Harvard Kennedy School. Mm-hmm. Um, so yeah. And there’s a, there’s a, actually a line that I, I had highlighted before, kind of just after this, which you said, you know, policy is not something, uh, generated only by government.

You know, it can be created or implemented by any of the policy actors above, you know, the markets, governments, civil society. But you go on to also say, It could be, you know, refund policy. Um, it could be about shaming others for not wearing masks during the pandemic. And, and of course of government, government policies as well.

And I was kind of really interested in that, in that sort of broader term of policy, cuz I, some of the stuff you are, you are touching upon there is what, uh, would otherwise be talked about as kind of social conventions, right? Or social norms, I should think that’s probably better. That may be a better term that those are in themselves.

Policies, right?

Yeah. I, I suppose, um, yeah, somebody shaming someone else for not wearing a mask, doesn’t think of themselves as, you know, implementing a policy obviously. Um, but. In this underlying idea that you’re, you’re doing something that is hopefully resulting in the world in which you wanna live.

Right? I think that’s sort of the, the, the theme there. Um, and so, you know, in a way it is, but you know, the book doesn’t really touch on like, tho those ideas of, you know, Those things equating policy, but they certainly can be, you know, um, I think, um, another example which is mentioned in the book, um, about with civil Society mm-hmm.

Is, um, You know, the activism of people, um, who pushed in the US for the ada, the Americans with Disabilities Act, um, to basically modify all public spaces so that they were, um, You know, uh, accommodative of people with different physical abilities. Um, and, um, a lot of their work could be viewed as policy because they, they pushed for it to happen.

I mean, and then government kind of, you know, followed suit. But, um, you know, these things all interact together, um, and end up, you know, creating the future really.

So I teach a service design masters and I, um, and I’ve, over my years I’ve taught a lot of well-meaning, uh, design students who have wanted to.

Make the world a better place and, uh, on all of that stuff, in whatever form it is. And it’s changed over the years. Actually. I say all of that stuff like really glibly, but it’s, you know, it is changed from sometimes it’s been environmental concerns and it’s swung to ethical concerns or it’s, it’s talked about marginalized communities and all, all the, all of those things.

And there is a, I, I’m going to be mean. If any of my students are listening, there’s sometimes a little bit will come to eye rolling that happens among faculty when a student kind of, um, has a project like this. Cuz on the one hand, Yes. We want students to, to work on those and tackle those things cuz these are the, the, the issues of the future, the wicked problems of the future.

Or around the past, but also, um, they’re sometimes fairly naively tackled from a design standpoint of like, well, if kind of, you know, the shorthand is, if designers around the world, then everything would be fine. Right. And, and for those not seeing Alex at the moment, she just did the, the eye roll that I often did.

So, you know, can you talk about the relationship between design and policy and could you talk about also they have similar. Similar processes, bits of different outcomes as well.

[00:11:49] Alex Schmidt: Yeah. Oh my God, there’s so much I could say right now. I, maybe I’ll start by just saying that I do think people in the design world have a bit of a savior complex, um, and.

It’s sweet, right? Like it’s a very nice, you know, I know like I’m being, so, what’s the word? Condescending. Um, but uh, it’s very, it’s very nice, um, that, you know, so many people in the design world wanna, you know, do good. But like you said, a lot of people who do design are in the private sector and they’re inside of capitalism.

And I think if there’s maybe. Not one thing, but a major thing I want people to get out of this book is that that’s okay. Um, and, you know, pr finding product market fit, uh, which a lot of tech tries to do is really hard and interesting and you know, that’s a good thing to focus on, but you kind of can’t focus on policy and big picture societal changes that you wanna bring about when you’re trying to find product market fit.

So I think that’s kind of like the crux of it. You know, it’s like you’re trying to figure out how some technology fits into society. If you’re doing that, you can’t also at the same time think about what is the final outcome of society later on down the line gonna be, and how do we need to react to this technology?

Um, they’re really different lenses and different frames and like, one of the ways that I think about it is that, Design is kind of like at the level of the individual, um, whereas policy is at the level of society. Those are different and very complimentary frames. And so I think if you are, you know, designing at the level of the individual, again, just to, I’m, I’m, I’m restating the same thing.

You can’t really, at the same time think about the level of society. It’s very hard. Um, and. Again, that’s okay. So I do think there’s a lot of things, interesting things that designers can do to, you know, lessen the harms of the things that they create. And I also think they can be involved, like in the policy space, but I kind of see it as an extracurricular, you know, it’s like not.

Maybe the main thing you’re doing, but it’s like a side thing that you’re doing. Do you know what I mean? It’s like not, it’s, it’s like a, it’s like, it’s like a, an an area of interest that you can kind of work in. Yeah. But it’s not like your main design work.

[00:14:23] Andy Polaine: So I, I guess so from a service design perspective, and I know . Um, my colleague, uh, where I teach Sabina Junginger has written quite a lot about service design and public policy would probably take a little bit of issue with that kind of definition of a, where you kind of place design, because Yes, I think tradition, you’re right, the design, you know, in design, I’ll say design.

I guess we’re talking kind of human centered design when we talk design here and, and, um, He does po uh, position itself as championing the user or, or the citizen, right. So it is down at that level. I think one of the things about service design and, and why this podcast is called Power of 10, actually after the Eames film, is this idea of zooming in and out of different layers, right?

So, You know, even if we think of within, within insider an organization or a business, there’s a lot of service design in, in public services. The interplay between how does a shift at that zoom level, that sort of pestle zoom level of political, economic or economic social and all the rest of it, uh, you know, that.

Ripple down into the individual touchpoints, the, the, the small things people design and vice versa. How does, can one small change down that, that individual or, or kind of human level, touchpoint level, how can it make a difference? And this used to be, uh, for me, this is a kind of fundamental skill of service design, is this, be able to mentally zoom in and out, uh, of this and facilitate groups of people working on these things to do that too.

Because I think a lot of the, um, You know, so much misalignment comes from people talking across purposes where someone’s talking at the kind of big picture thing and someone else is getting really bogged in the detail of vice versa. For that, covid was a gift. Awful as that sounds that I used to find it very, very hard to kind of explain the idea, but the idea now that.

A small thing, mainly the virus, but even things like, you know, social distancing, wearing masks and a couple of other things, they would, you know, those touched, they changed loads of touchpoint. Like I’ve got a picture somewhere of an ATM machine, which is just got a sheet of paper, uh, on it saying, you know, out of use due to covid, you know, because you can’t have people touching the screen, right, right.

At the beginning of it, no one really knew what was going on, and so all these little things, They shut the world down for a year. And at the same time, obviously government policy in different parts of the world, depending on those regulations, it had a ripple effect all the way down. So I kind of really unite that as a, as.

It’s so useful to be able to kind of refer back to that. I dunno if it’s fair to say that design sort of operates only at that individual level. And I guess after that little speech, my, my long, my question to you really is what do you think it is that designers should. You know, if I’m rare reading your book or what’s the thing that they should really engage in that’s perhaps a blind spot for, um, for a lot of design folks when they engage in this kind of work, when they’re thinking about, Hey, I, I feel I can use my design skills to, you know, make the world a better place in some way or another at a kind of broader societal level.

Where are they? Where are they mostly blind in your experience?

[00:17:22] Alex Schmidt: Well, let me just respond to, um, to what you’re taking issue with, which I think is totally fair. Mm-hmm. Um, and I think that, you know, I should say, I have a whole chapter of the book on what I call cons, designing constrained spaces, policy constrained spaces.

Mm-hmm. Which is about, um, designing in the health. Care, finance and construction domains. Um, so in those spaces, we understand a lot about the harms of those domains, right? We know a lot about fire codes, the fire codes that are needed. They’re, they’re kind of the same around the world because we’ve figured it out, right?

We, we know a lot about, you know, Electronic health record software is kind of horrible as it is, and annoying as it is. Like it has a lot of policy baked into the interface because we understand the harms that can be created if like doctor patient conversations don’t go well, et cetera. So I do wanna say that like it’s not exactly true that all designers aren’t impacted by policy and don’t need to think about policy.

A lot of designers do, you know, and they need to, right? So, um, What my, what I was more referring to as more like emerging technology where we don’t really understand the implications of it yet. That is very difficult to kind of design at the societal level that we’re talking about. Right. Once you’re in a space, like Covid is a great example of like, you know, one of these domains where harms are more understood, which is healthcare, um, versus, you know, something like, Facial recognition, you know, where we’re kind of still figuring it out.

We don’t exactly understand it. We don’t know exactly what it’s gonna lead to. And, um, so that, that, I wanna make that distinction. And it’s not true that all designers don’t design within bigger sus societal spheres. Yeah. But to your question, which I think was.

[00:19:15] Andy Polaine: About their blind spots. So, you know, there’s a sense of kind of good intentions Yeah.

In the eye rolling kind of bit. And, and yet, you know, obviously with that comes, uh, certain naivety as well, I think. Yeah. And, and what their kind of blind spots might be.

[00:19:28] Alex Schmidt: Yeah. I mean, I think this is really, again, to go back to this idea that, you know, designers shape the world. And so do policy makers. That I think is like the big blind spot that I’m trying to kind of get across with this book is like, you’re not doing it alone.

There’s other people who are thinking about this from another level. Um, and. Perhaps it’s worth thinking about that and considering how the policy sphere is also trying to shape the world. That’s really, that’s what the whole book is about. It’s like, yep, you’re doing design, it’s great and there’s, and you’re shaping the future.

And other people are also tasked with doing that, um, from a different lens. Um, that’s really the blind spot that the book is about. And the book is like, you know, I had to say many times writing this book that it’s not a how-to, um, it’s like more how to think and hopefully how to think maybe leads to how-tos and stuff, but it’s kind of, I don’t know, like there’s not that much writing that’s.

Like super similar to it. And so I, I see it maybe like, maybe it’ll lead to some interesting stuff and people are like, Hey, this is how I work with policymakers, or this is how I think about policy interacting with my work and all of that. So I don’t have a checklist for designers to go through and be like, I did it.

You know, I’m, I did my good thing and like, now I understand how policy interacts, you know, whatever. But, um, yeah,

[00:20:54] Andy Polaine: yeah, it was less, it was less, you know, I guess the how to than the blind spot. Yeah. And I, I guess, You know, the, in the other direction, what would you feel that, uh, you know, policy makers, blind spots are with regards to design?

You know, what is, what is, uh, really what I’m asking here actually is where do these two language groups, uh, struggle to understand each other at the beginning?

[00:21:16] Alex Schmidt: Great question. I think one of the, I mean, there’s a lot, but one of the, one of the things that policy kind of doesn’t always do well, or policy makers don’t always do well is they don’t actually talk to users.

And, um, I think that’s, you know, one of the really obvious places where design. Is so important, you know, is bringing it down, whatever, you know, anecdotal stories you have to tell about how X impacts a person. So that’s a big blind spot, I would say for a lot of policymakers, not all. Another one is that, you know, sometimes if policy is overly prescriptive about how something should be executed, um, it can be really harmful.

Um, and there’s a great example in the book of, um, designing for ballots. Uh, for voting. Um, where, you know, I believe it was Minnesota, you know, their ballot system. Somebody named Whitney Quesenberry, who’s this amazing, um, leader in the voting design space, let’s say. Um, they redesigned, um, how ballots should be.

Designed, but that then had to be written into law. So because it was the, the law was overly prescriptive and it led to a bad design, they then started with the design and said, actually, this works better and now can you change the law so that it reflects this better design that we created? And so that’s a good example of, you know, maybe the people who were doing the voting system, they were following this prescriptive law, but it was like, not.

Actually leading to a good outcome. So I think overly prescriptive, um, policy is like one place that, you know, design can help. And so, I mean, those are just like a couple of couple of examples.

[00:23:09] Andy Polaine: Yeah, I think there’s a, there’s a quote about this idea of not just set a rule, make a rule, set a rule, and then enfor and, and enforce it, you know, from government, but rather to think about how might government intervene, you know?

And I think that is this idea of. It contained in there as that idea of kind of working out, well what’s the problem space, or what’s the sort of behavioral context in which this thing is going to actually exist? And you know, because you see often in public services, a thing that comes often up in service design projects is this idea of, you know, um, Basically translating a form into a workflow as a service, you know, and where a, the history of form that Whitney wouldn’t know about this obviously used to be a, we had a conversa, you go somewhere and you have a conversation with someone, you know, immigration officer ever.

When in the days when that used to be a conversation. And then that person would write stuff down and make some decisions and you could kind of have a conversation and then it got turned into a standardized form and then those things went digital and kind of not much has really changed in in, except that the relationship has got very asymmetrical where it’s just like, we demand all of this stuff from you and you don’t get to have a conversation anymore.

And one of the things that happens in that is that there are all these little kind of blind alleys, like, oh, so you need your birth certificate in order to apply for this, that, and the other. Right? There was a, you know, maybe some, uh, welfare support of some kind, but the reason why that person might be going on need that support, um, or that benefit is because they, uh, live in an abusive household and they’ve left home or whatever, right?

And so they cannot go and get their birth certificate and all those kinds of things where you’re kind of tracing these, um, these problems down. I think designs. Really obvious, but often overlooked by designers themselves. Their secret superpower is the ability to make something abstract, tangible, right?

To take an idea on whether that’s a sketch or whether that’s a storyboard, or whether that’s just a thing where we can act that out to actually understand how will this thing. At this high level be implemented. You know, what, what’s the experience of this? When we actually run this through, and you actually have, you have a, a quote from, uh, Angelica Quickie, who’s a, an ex-colleague of mine from Accenture Fjord days.

And she says, you know, she’s got an urban planning background, but I don’t think you can plan behind a desk. You know, you need to go out and, and actually be familiar with, you know, how it’s implemented in, in, in situ. And that feels to me like, uh, one of the things that is the. The most important contributions that designers can make, and it’s actually kind of still fairly plainly designerly, I guess.

And it’s not so much about them trying to become sort of policy makers.

[00:25:45] Alex Schmidt: I definitely agree with you on that and, um, There’s a whole chapter of the book on, you know, design making policy making better. Mm-hmm. Um, and I think that what you’re saying, you know, fits into that perfectly. You know, if you wanted to kind of join the public sector as a designer and add your skills and expertise, I think it’s needed and welcomed.

Absolutely. It, I think, you know, just to reiterate, um, a lot of the book is written. From the perspective of like designers in the private sector and how like the public sector interacts with that. Mm-hmm. But now we’re talking about designers explicitly entering the public sector and helping make that process better.

And there’s so much need and there’s such a place for that. So I, I, I absolutely agree with you.

[00:26:38] Andy Polaine: There’s another section of the book, which is about policy design or, or it’s, it’s enterprise design. And the policy space. Do you wanna talk about that a little bit? Oh my gosh. Cause I think quite a lot of people, including me, so I mentioned Accenture before Accenture is, is, well when I was there it was like 550,000 people.

I think they’re like 700,000 people. So, you know, the city I live in is 65,000. You get the sense of the, the size of, of that as an organization and you know, it’s a classic, uh, you know, brunt of many a joke about sort of enterprise policy and how hamstrung it is and everything. So could you talk a little bit about that section of the book?

[00:27:14] Alex Schmidt: That was a very cathartic chapter to write. I’ll just say. Um, I can imagine. Yeah. I do think when you sort of start getting into these bigger questions of like, you know, how society is shaped and all of that, you somehow, you inadvertently kind of enter. Enterprise, let’s say. So you’re in these spaces that are big.

Um, they’re complex. They’re often dealing with legacy systems. Um, and there’s a lot to think about and talk about, um, when you’re in those types of spaces. Um, and I don’t think a lot of design is well prepared or many designers are not well prepared to. Um, help out in those spaces. Unfortunately, and believe me, I’m, uh, exhibit A, um, where I feel that I’m lacking certain skills and certain knowledge.

Um, to do that better. One example of that, I would say, and I don’t even think this is in the book, this is something that I’ve thought about even more recently, um, which is that people design and like how teams are structured and roles and all of that is so critical and I do not feel well prepared to opine on.

Restructuring teams and roles and responsibilities, you know, um, so, you know, that’s just one example of where I think a lot of design folks aren’t super well prepared to deal in these big, messy, complex spaces. So…

[00:28:59] Andy Polaine: There’s a thing that you, you talk about, which is sort of rethinking the metrics of that stuff in a situation where, The users have no choice.

Right? So the stuff that we are, you know, I guess we were sort of talking about the difference between private and public sector, you know, in public sector. Obviously as a citizen I have, I can’t go to an alternative. Passport application office that is better than the one I have to go to, you know, when I’m doing those kinds of things.

Nor can I decide to pay my taxes at a different tax department who is, you know, offer more competitive rates and a better user experience. Right. But the same is very true, obviously, with Inside Enterprise. Yep. So, you know, you asked this question, I’m, I’m gonna sort of ask it back to you, which is, you know, how do, how might we reimagine those metrics that, that value, say user centricity.

When people have no choice to the tool in question.

[00:29:49] Alex Schmidt: Uh, yeah, I wish I knew the answer to that. I’m having a hard time with it. Um, believe me, I’m having a hard time with it. But, um, you know, I, I think one, some of the things that, that I talk about, you know, where I sit is, um, quality of insights. You know, that’s a metric that I sometimes talk about.

Yeah. Um, Obviously like efficiency, you know? Sure. Are you getting something done more quickly is something that is a good one to look at. Um, employee satisfaction, you know, I don’t know how much employers really care about that, but, um, yeah. So. It’s tough though, like I don’t really know the answer. Like a a, somebody actually mentioned the example of like a McDonald’s employee at the, at the little console.

You know, checking people out with their, the software that they’re using. You know, like what are the metrics that those software designers use to see if it’s like going well? Um, man, I’d love to know that, you know, it’s probably speed. It’s probably speed, right? It probably is.

[00:30:56] Andy Polaine: Speed and, and you know, and, and control and things.

And, and I guess brings me neatly on actually to a thing I wanted to talk about. Cause you talk about speed and I talk about speed quite a lot, um, in, in the beginning about how the cycles of these things. Are very different. Can you talk to that a little bit? There’s a, there’s a, I think a quote also from, I think it is from Whitney, isn’t it? Queensbury.

[00:31:15] Alex Schmidt: Yeah. Yep, yep, yep. Um, yeah. So there’s this idea of the pacing problem. Yeah. Which basically des describes this idea that, um, technology moves much faster than policy formation and. You know, I think there’s, there’s some good reasons for that and then some not, some not as good reasons. Um, a good reason is exactly what I said before, which is that it sometimes takes a while to understand the problems that technology is going to bring forth.

Like, you don’t always know when you put something out there, what it’s going to lead to. Right. You actually need time to observe that and understand. You also don’t even know which technology’s gonna have uptake by society, right? Like there’s all these experiments happening, like some get used, some get some don’t.

You know? So like policy needs time to observe the world and react, right? So I think there’s some good reasons. There’s also like not good reasons, which is like bureaucratic. You know, lock where things just move slowly for not good reasons. You know, it’s like when you see that stuff has happened, like you should be able to respond to it in a nimble way.

And we can’t always, right. Because of a million gazillion Yeah. Red tape, you know, hurdles that, that policy makers have to get through to try something and we, it’s hard to kind of create prototypes for policy and all that. I meanwhile, technology in the private sector is like putting stuff out. All the time.

So that’s the essence of the pacing problem

[00:32:47] Andy Polaine: you talk about, well you mentioned Donella Meadows, uh, a few times in the book. And obviously systems thinking, um, throughout is a pretty major part. And one of the, the key ideas in there is this idea of delays, right? Is the of, of feedback loops and delays. And so this problem that I guess governments always have of, well, the problem with the feedback loop and delay is this idea that by the time you.

We have got the feedback about something and you start reacting to it, it’s, it’s too late. And so you push perhaps too hard in one direction and it you over index and so you end. That’s why you end up with those kind of sine wave like cycles of like almost everything. And you know, one of the mentions things she mentions about gdp, actually there’s a, there’s a quote in, um, one of her books about, from her about, um, you know, GDP is a thing that.

Has brought great quality of life as a kind of metric of, of how, uh, an organization is doing. And so there’s this push, oh, no, growth actually is what she was talking about, uh, growth and to a degree. But if we just keep growing, keep growing, we obviously find ourselves in the, in the situation we’re currently in.

I guess one of the things that is the design lesson from say Lean is this idea of shorting those cycles from putting a thing out there in a world and. Getting some feedback on it and then adjusting and putting, you know, uh, things out in the world and rather than taking the mu moonshot approach, and yet there are constraints on that, right In, in the public sphere.

Um, sometimes it’s about, uh, equity and, and equality in the sense that, well, we can’t, we can’t sort of ab test this cuz that would advantage or disadvantage as, as a certain group of citizens or that simply the sort of the scale of it prevents that from happening. Have you come across any. Ways of good, ways of addressing that.

[00:34:35] Alex Schmidt: The idea that, um, that government can’t respond in a nimble way, basically.

[00:34:41] Andy Polaine: Well, how can you Yeah. And how an experiment, I guess, how does it, how do governments experiment without, um, causing harm?

[00:34:48] Alex Schmidt: I think there are some good examples of it actually. Um, well, I just attended the Rosenfeld Civic Design Conference last week and heard from some very interesting people mm-hmm.

In the public sector. And there was a woman, um, in Israel who was talking about, um, they wanted to do some interventions on cost of living problems. And they did a whole, they did a research project to find out what were the areas that. You know, were possible to intervene on. And they ended up, um, honing in on, you know, where the cost of food was won.

There was another one that was this cut, whatever. And they ended up intervening on after school activities because they actually felt like they could do something there. And they did pilots around the city that, you know, included putting, um, you know, playgrounds in certain places, providing, you know, after school things here, there, whatever it was, right?

And they were able to, like nimbly do a pilot of this intervention on this cost of one root cause. Of problems with cost of living. And I mean, I, there are ways to do it. Do you know what I mean? But I think you do have to have a leader. You know, it’s dependent a lot on that. You know, who’s the person, who’s your stakeholder, and are they willing to push and believe in you and let you kind of try a thing?

Um, so I do think it sometimes comes down to that, unfortunately. But it’s not impossible, you know, like it’s totally possible. Of course, it has to be done in an equitable way. Like all design, you have to think about. Where do you put these interventions? What parts of the city are they going in? You know, how do you make sure that it’s distributed evenly?

Of course, that’s part of it, but, um, I, I think it’s something that can be done.

[00:36:29] Andy Polaine: There’s a very nice quote, and I’m, I’m, I might read the whole thing actually from Charles, uh, Lind Blo, uh, from the Science of Muddling Through where he says, you know, making policy. Is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves.

A wise policymaker consequently expects that their policies will achieve only a part of what they hope. And at the same time will produce unanticipated consequences they would’ve preferred to avoid. If they proceed through a succession of incremental changes, they avoid serious lasting mistakes. This, for me, feels like it’s set against the context of either the genius billionaire, uh, supposed or the kind of genius, visionary politician feels like this is just a massive contrast, right?

Because in, in, certainly in in sort of political environment, The idea of, I’ve got an idea for something and we’re going to try it out, and then we’re gonna reflect on that and go, oh, that bit didn’t work, and that bit did work. That’s just not in the political language at all. I never hear, hear, you know, world leaders talking in that way, and yet they, they so should.

[00:37:43] Alex Schmidt: Yes, you’re, you’re so right. You’re so right. You’re so right. And, you know, perhaps, perhaps, I, I do think, you know. Okay. One of the things about, you know, design and the public sector is that a lot of design. That we are aware of originated in the private sector, and I think a lot of the wisdom of lean and UX and agile is just starting to trickle into these perhaps darker, trickier, mm, trickier, trickier corners of society.

Um, and as sad as it is, but it’s the reality. It is newer. Um, and perhaps with some time you will see that actually bear fruit. You know, I’m not, I obviously am not talking about where I work, but. This is, you know, this is true across the public sector, you know, it’s newer. Um, mm. So, I, I, I wouldn’t say like they’ve, they’re, they’re just stuck in their old ways.

They, I mean, they are, but change is happening, you know, and I, I do think, again, to come back to this idea that there’s a place for design in the public sector explicitly. They, the they know, they know they need to change, you know? And I, that at least is, is a, is a thing, you know? So, um, maybe they haven’t changed yet, but a lot of them know that they need to.

[00:39:08] Andy Polaine: Someone once said to me, um, I’ve completely forgotten who it was actually, but age is gonna say the phrase though, that stuck with me. Which was, um, a guy called Simon Penny actually in Australia. Um, and he said about interdisciplinarity is really about deep. Professional humility. You know, this idea that you absolutely have to be prepared to go to the other person’s profession with great humility.

Like, I have no idea how you do what you do. Um, and the both sides then find each other, uh, and find a third way that way. Because it feels to me if we took the tech industry, you know, the other end of of, you know, taking ages to make decisions and so forth, is obviously move fast and break things right.

Um, or, or just break things. If you’re Elon and you’ve got this, both sides, acknowledge the fact that you break things. But obviously the scale of, well, initially the scale of harm is at the governmental level, was, uh, perceived to be a far greater than, you know, a tech startup, uh, making mistakes. And now we know that’s not, uh, not the case.

You know, the scale of harm can be vast on both sides. It feels like there’s a, a language around speed. Is problematic there, that there’s a kind of move just fast enough to carefully possibly break some stuff, but know how to undo it if you can. You know, there’s, there’s, there’s a, a middle language there that I feel is, is, is missing.


[00:40:31] Alex Schmidt: I love that. I, I really resonate with so much of what you just said and I completely agree and I kind of wish I’d put some of that in my book, but, um, you know, it’s sort of. There, there’s a point when I say like, make reactive policy as proactive as possible. Yeah. Uh, cuz policy is kind of like by nature, reactive, um, for the reasons that I talked about before.

Um, but I, it can be better, right? Yeah. Um, absolutely. It can be better. Do we want it to move fast and break things like meta? No. No, we don’t, we do want it to be somewhat deliberative. Yeah. And thoughtful. Um, but it can be better. Yeah.

[00:41:17] Andy Polaine: So you mentioned, you know, I wish I’d put this in the book. I, there’s always a thing, as you said, you find out at the end what it is you’re writing about.

I remember, of course, it’s too late to do sort of massive changes to it, and then it goes out in the world. It becomes its own thing. So are there, is there any parts of this that you wish you had put in and have you been. What’s been their reception like? What’s been their reaction to it? Like

[00:41:42] Alex Schmidt: I mentioned this to you when we chatted before, but there’s this idea of.

If you fundamentally modify the nature of how things are built, like at a more fundamental level, maybe. Mm-hmm. Even than like design folks operate at that, that then has real consequences. So, great example, so I touch on this in the book, but not in any great deal, um, is what’s happening with Twitter and Mastodon, right?

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Um, and this idea that. If you get back to sort of a fundamental, decentralized configuration of, in this case, our public square where we talk and communicate, that that is going to lead to all of these outcomes such as people not being jerks online and, you know, negative things, not taking on virality in the same way.

Um, so that there’s that idea, you know, that. It’s even like, it’s sort of like outside what I even wrote about in the book, but I think that that’s really interesting and I do think that there’s a lot to explore there and there’s gonna be more to explore there going forward. And I could say more, but I’ll just, maybe there’s a lot of other things that like I didn’t do that I maybe wish I had done, but that’s one, that’s just one.

[00:43:07] Andy Polaine: And have you been, uh, pleased or, uh, surprised by any reactions

to it? Um,

[00:43:11] Alex Schmidt: well, you know, I don’t have that many examples of reactions to it. I have the Amazon reviews, um, and I have like questions that people have asked me at conferences. Mm-hmm. Um, I could honestly die happy based on the Amazon reviews. I really.

So relieved because I don’t know how you feel, but I was like, does this book suck? Like up until, you know, I still kind of wonder, you know, like I just, I don’t really, really know. And so people saying that they got anything out of it is like, like I said before, I could die happy. Um, I do think that this idea that my book is not a how to.

A lot of folks in the design world, not in an explicit way that’s conscious, but like is problematic. You know, um, and I think that, you know, I, like I mentioned, I spoke at a conference, whatever last week with a lot of like, design professionals and they wanted like better takeaways than I provided. Um, and I understand why, you know, I think I would be annoyed too, you know, like you, you’re, you’re, you’re saying all these problems.

You’re not telling me what to do about it, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. So, Um,

[00:44:27] Andy Polaine: I would argue that’s part the problem though, right?

[00:44:29] Alex Schmidt: What do you mean?

[00:44:29] Andy Polaine: Well, the, you are taking, there’s, these are wicked problems. These are not things that are easily solvable with a set of kind of takeaways.

[00:44:38] Alex Schmidt: Yeah.

[00:44:38] Andy Polaine: That’s the whole point.

[00:44:39] Alex Schmidt: I know.

[00:44:40] Andy Polaine: That this isn’t something you can just, that there’s a new tech that’s gonna fix this for us. Right. You know, never does always makes work things just more complex. Right. Or it is simple. Otherwise we, you know. They would’ve been done. Right, exactly. And I think, you know, I think that’s, that’s, if I was to argue about what the blind spot there is, you know, is this idea of design, seeing the world as just the set of solutions that need to be pro solved, uh, problems that need to be solved.

And, and then we are, then we are done. Huw wrote a nice piece about this the other day, you know, that we just need to work out what the problems are and then solve, solve them. So what’s the framework for this? Then we’ll just go off and do it. You know, if it was that easy. It wouldn’t be so messy.

[00:45:18] Alex Schmidt: You’re right.

[00:45:19] Andy Polaine: It’s a sensibility.

[00:45:20] Alex Schmidt: You’re right. You’re right. And so, you know what? Nevermind you’ve, I did okay. I don’t know, you know, like, but I really…

[00:45:28] Andy Polaine: I’m sure you did.

[00:45:28] Alex Schmidt: I really do think, you know, just to come back to this idea, like it’s sort of, I do see it a little bit as like an opening salvo, and I do think there’s things designers can do, but like, I couldn’t get that far because it’s like, it was so hard to write this book as it was, you know?

And you know, there’s more ideas that I came up with like, Why don’t designers focus in on like one known harm? You know, like that’s not something like, we know a lot of the harms, like right now, you know, abuse, online harms of bias, harms of autonomy, all of this stuff. Like why are people talking about ethics when we already know the problems, you know? So like, I, I, I think ethics is like a lot about like preventing new problems and it’s like we already know a lot of the problems. So like, why don’t you focus in on one of those? So anyways, I have a lot of, there’s sort of things that have sort of popped to mind that I’m like, I didn’t put in the book and I, you know, maybe could have.

[00:46:20] Andy Polaine: I think what designers certainly design students, but designers of lots of different exp levels of experience fined with that is th that stuff very quickly goes out of their domain of in or sphere of influence. Right. So some of the things you were talking about, we were talking about the sort of structural differences between say, Twitter and, and Mastodon or, um, you know, the original sin of the internet, that there was no payment micropayments built in, and therefore advertising became the dominant thing.

That these aren’t just design, I mean these, they’re not just design problems, right? Designers I think do absolutely need to be aware of those, but then also the collaboration is the most important thing. And I think one of the things that people can really take away from your book, from both sides is this idea of, hey, you know, here’s how you, these both these sides think if whichever side of this you’re on, Um, you can and should work together.

[00:47:11] Alex Schmidt: Absolutely. Well said, well said.

[00:47:14] Andy Polaine: So we’re coming up to time. Where can um, well, the first, first thing is, as you know, the, the, the podcast named after this, uh, Ray and Charles Eames film about, uh, the relative size of things in the universe, and that’s where the whole kind of zooming in and out of levels comes from.

Um, so the question I ask every guest is, what one small thing do you think has been either overlooked or underdesigned that would make a a outsized difference to the world?

[00:47:42] Alex Schmidt: My answer to your very great question is double the number of women’s restroom stalls to the number of men restroom stalls.

Because I am so sick of being oppressed by the number of restroom stalls. I can’t, it’s just unbelievable to me that this is still the world we live in where women. Wait in these insane lines to use the bathroom. It should be at least double the number in every building. I, how is this not a thing? Like, oh my God. Okay, so that’s my answer.

[00:48:15] Andy Polaine: Too many male architects. So there’s an, there’s an episode of Power of One with my friend Chris Hayward, who, um, is a, an anthropologist proper ethnographer and works in design. And he, he worked with some architects about this actually, and had this exact question for them, which was, why have you just got the same number of toilets for, for men and women? Because when I go to the airport, I see these huge lines and, and they’re, oh, it’s just, you know, that’s one of those policy things. It’s kind of like in the spec. It’s just, oh, well that’s just, you know, how the building was designed and. It’s a kind of a shrug of, well, that’s just kind of how it is. And yet, as of course, you know, if it was the other way around, if men had to wait a long time, that would be a solved thing already.

[00:48:54] Alex Schmidt: No doubt.

[00:48:55] Andy Polaine: That’s a, that’s a great one. Thank you very much.

[00:48:57] Alex Schmidt: Well, I, I’m, I’m glad to know that other people are thinking about it. I did not know that other people have been thinking about it, and I’m glad to know that I, it just, you know, occurred to me because, and I, I think a lot of women don’t even stop to say, Hey, this is messed up.

You know, a lot of women are just like, this is just the way it is. Like we take longer, you know? And it’s like, well, no it doesn’t have to be that way.

[00:49:16] Andy Polaine: Imagine where you were getting your coffee and they said, okay, you need to join the women’s line. It takes twice as long.

[00:49:20] Alex Schmidt: Right.

[00:49:21] Andy Polaine: You know. Yeah. You’d never, you know, it would be a lawsuit straight away.

[00:49:25] Alex Schmidt: Absolutely.

[00:49:25] Andy Polaine: So, where can people find you online?

[00:49:28] Alex Schmidt: Uh, well, Mastodon, I mean, I do have a Mastodon account, but I’ve barely been using it. I don’t know. Um, I guess for now, stcik with Twitter, because at least I’ll like, kind of reroute people to where I’m mm-hmm. If I go somewhere else, which is, I’m at Alex Schmidt, um, I’m on LinkedIn, you know the book you can buy at the Rosenfeld Media website or you can get it on Amazon, of course.

And, um, yeah, those are, those are the main places I would say.

[00:49:57] Andy Polaine: And you, you’re at the more formal too?

[00:50:00] Alex Schmidt: Oh, yes. I have a, I have a personal website. Yep.

[00:50:05] Andy Polaine: How quaint! A website.

[00:50:07] Alex Schmidt: Right. Who goes to those?

[00:50:09] Andy Polaine: They’re gonna gonna be all the rage all over again

[00:50:11] Alex Schmidt: I know. I know.

[00:50:12] Andy Polaine: Thank you so much for being my, my guest on Power of Ten

[00:50:15] Alex Schmidt: Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoyed the conversation.

[00:50:20] Andy Polaine: As I’m sure you’re aware, you’ve been listening to Power of Ten. My name is Andy Polaine. You can find me at @apolaine on Twitter, or where you can find more episodes and sign up for my newsletter Doctor’s Note. If you like the show, please take a moment to give it a rating on iTunes. It really helps others find us. And as always get in touch. If you have any comments, feedback or suggestions for guests. All the links are in the show notes. Thanks for listening and see you next time.