My guest today is information architecture and user experience pioneer Peter Morville. Alongside Lou Rosenfeld, Peter co-authored Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, the first of several books Peter has produced that explore how we deal with information. In this conversation, we discuss a more mindful approach to dealing with the information in our lives.Listen to the full conversation
Jorge: Peter, welcome to the show.
Peter: Hello, I’m happy to be here.
Jorge: Well happy to have you. So you and I have known each other for a long time, but for those folks listening in who might not be aware of who you are, can you tell us about yourself?
Peter: Sure. So my academic background is in library and information science. I went to the University of Michigan’s program back in the early 1990s. And then with Lou Rosenfeld I built a company and wrote a book known as the polar bear book on information architecture and we, you know, we essentially helped to build what became known as the field of information architecture. And since about 2001 I’ve been doing independent consulting, helping a wide variety of organizations with their information architecture and user experience challenges.
Jorge: Lou was the very first guest on the show and I had the opportunity to say on air just how important the polar bear book, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, has been to my career. So I want to thank you as well.
Peter: Thanks for saying that.
Jorge: Like you were saying, you’ve had a varied career where you’ve done the running of a consulting company and you’ve also been doing independent consulting and you’re also a very prolific author, right?
Peter: Yeah, it’s about five or six books.
Jorge: And all of them highly recommended. I’m going to put all of them on the show notes for this episode. The latest one is about planning, which is a subject that I think a lot of people think about, but don’t delve into. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?
Peter: Yeah, so I wrote the book partly because I realized that I’m a professional planner, right? Information architects help organizations plan their websites and software and experiences. Partly because I realized that I’ve been kind of addicted to planning and thinking about the future since I was a little kid. I’ve always been someone who is kind of focused on what’s next, what’s next. And yeah, I think planning is something we do every day and it’s immensely important to our lives. And yet most of us never take a course in school about planning, so I think it’s under studied and kind of misunderstood. Planning doesn’t need to be just the big upfront planning and then kind of rigid adherence to the plan. It can be very flexible and involve improvisation as part of it.
Jorge: I think that when a lot of folks hear that a book is going to be about planning, they think that it’s going to be very hands on and tactical. “This is what you should do and these are the tools you can use and this is an approach for doing that.” And the book definitely has very specific suggestions of things you can do, but the thing that I love the most about it is that it also provides a framework that, at least for me, prompted asking the question “what are you doing this for?” Like why? Why are you doing this? You know?
Peter: Yeah, yeah. The way I defined planning in the book is that planning is the design of paths and goals and you know, I very much believe that we need to think as much about the goals and the beliefs that underpin those goals. Our belief that if we achieve this goal we will be happy or successful or what have you. We need to question the goals and the beliefs every bit as much as the path or the specific steps to achieve the goal.
Jorge: I remember feeling very much like the book was an invitation to contemplate what you are planning for. Right? Like this idea of delving a bit deeper and I was hoping that we would focus our conversation on that. Like are there ways that you have discovered to do that?
Peter: Yeah and I think that ties into the theme of your podcast, the informed life, right? Because if we think about the questions around, you know, how we manage information, what tools do we use to manage information for our personal and professional interests, and then we try to apply metrics or evaluation, am I using these tools efficiently and effectively? Are these the right tools? It begs the question, the right tools to achieve what? Right? You know, is it just about productivity, right? Am I being efficient in my job or is it about learning? Right? Are these tools and the way I’m managing information leading me in a positive direction where I’m learning and changing? I don’t think we asked these questions very often, but I think that if we want to sort of talk about the tools that we use to manage information, we have to be mindful of what is the purpose behind that.
Jorge: I think that when we use the word tools, folks can assume that we’re talking about things like software or a notebook or like some objects, some artifact that becomes the fulcrum around which your productivity function works. Right? But I think that tools, when you’re talking about tools, you’re also talking about patterns or mindsets or techniques rather than artifacts. Is that a fair statement?
Peter: Yeah, I think our brain and our body and our environment are the most important information management tools. The, you know, the mindset that we bring to prioritizing what information am I going to pay attention to, what information do I want to completely shut out? That starts in our brains and then we can use more traditional tools, software or pen and pencil and paper to implement those sorts of strategies that come out of our brains. But you know, I think of the sort of the technological tools for information management being secondary, right? So what I use to manage information and manage my day are things like my email inbox, my calendar. Basically, it’s like a list in a calendar. And I use Trello a little bit, but I wouldn’t be too upset if I couldn’t use Trello because really everything I’m doing could be managed in a little black book. So I don’t, the one big step forward in my lifetime that I am very aware of in terms of how I interact with information is the world wide web and the fact that I have access to nearly unlimited information at my fingertips so that when something new pops up, I see a word that I have never seen before or an acronym or something I feel I should learn more about, I can immediately do that. And that’s not how it was when I was a kid growing up with a very limited set of books.
Jorge: This idea that technology impacts brain, body and environment is something that I want to poke at because I suspect that there are ways of mindfully managing your information to be more productive that do not rely on technology and tools in the traditional sense.
Peter: Yeah. And let me go on a sort of an odd direction for a moment because I think it’ll tie back into this. So before we talk about how to improve our information management, I think it’s worth talking about how we avoid making it worse because that’s part of what I see going on in our technology saturated world today. At one extreme, you have folks who are on Twitter and Facebook and Instagram all the time. Constant state of interruption and distraction, embracing the internet of things in the smart home and Amazon Alexa, you know, using voice to turn on and off light switches and then a device I know you’re fond of the Apple Watch, right? You’re strapping technology onto your body where you can have a 24 by 7 interaction with people and data. All of that stuff in the media sphere is kind of spun as positive, as exciting as, you know, we need to keep people feel that they need to keep up with technology and you know, don’t get left behind. Most of the stuff that I just talked about, I tried to keep it arm’s length. I don’t think it’ll make me more productive or happier, but there are seductions around that. So I actually think the first challenge in living in today’s world is not to get worse at information and managing information.
Jorge: Well, that’s a provocative statement right there.
Jorge: Can you unpack that?
Peter: Sure. Yeah. And I think that it’s all about trade offs, right? There’s absolutely value in having more instant information, instant access to information and knowing what’s going on now and being prepared to respond to that. But I think that we like to live in a kind of a dramatized world where we think that we’re going to save our lives or save our loved ones with this text that comes in on our watch and we respond quickly. But for the most part, what we’re sacrificing with that instant access is the ability to think deeply, to reflect, to be more mindful of priorities, what really matters, what really needs to be done today. And so I think that we’ve revved ourselves up into this really fast paced way that work, in our work and living environments operate that isn’t particularly healthy or productive really. And I see it in the organizations where I consult, but also just in people’s personal lives, you know, watching our teenage girls interact with technology. It’s hard for them to read a book because they’re so used to speed and interaction.
Jorge: Yeah. I have certainly noticed that in myself. Like it’s becoming harder for me to sustain the concentration needed to read long things. Because we’re used to this 280 character snippets of stuff. Now, it sounds to me like what you’re advocating for is kind of eschewing information technologies altogether or at least reducing your exposure to them kind of on a permanent basis. Is that right?
Peter: I think it’s, in the end, it’s all about balance. I did delete Facebook, but I’m still on Twitter. As I said, I value immensely my ability to access the web and learn about things or keep up with news on a daily basis. But I do think that we’re living in a society where there are seductions that are not good for us. So talk about food for instance, right? We’re living in a society where we have almost 24 by 7 access to fast food, right? Like, “Hey, it’s midnight and you should get McDonald’s or Burger King and get your fix, get your sugar and caffeine and fat.” And that’s not good for us. It’s not healthy for us. And our society is getting sicker because of people’s diets, right? People do things that aren’t good for them because it’s hard to resist these seductions that didn’t exist for most of human evolution. We’re not prepared to resist. We don’t have the discipline. And I think the same is happening with information. You know, the stuff that’s been going on politically exposes the degree to which people don’t know which sources to trust, who to believe. And we have polarization where folks at both ends of the spectrum are believing some pretty crazy stuff. And it’s like we’re living in an environment that we did not evolve for and we haven’t figured out the personal or societal defenses to protect us from ourselves.
Jorge: Yeah. And in both cases, this analogy between fast food and… I don’t know if to call it fast information but this, kind of seductive information as you’re describing it, one of the challenges with it is that they, in many cases, are designed to provoke that response in you, the whole keeping you engaged in the environment. That’s something that doesn’t happen accidentally. It happens by design.
Peter: Absolutely. For quite some time, I followed the work of Lawrence Lessig or Larry Lessig and he introduced me to the concept of the root striker, right? His organization for awhile, it was called The Root Strikers. And it came from, I think it was a Henry David Thoreau quote that thousands of people are striking at the branches, right? To things that are closest to them and most visible. But if you really want to solve the problem, you have to strike at the root. And in my opinion, the root of a lot of problems that are going on in society today is kind of a corrupted form of capitalism. And what’s coming from that route are perverse incentives, right? And so organizations have incentives to take advantage of people, right? To sell them the fast food even if it’s not good for them, to make the bigger burgers, bigger sodas. And again, the same is going on within the information world, the incentives that Silicon Valley companies like Facebook and Twitter have or that media organizations have, are not in line with the long-term interests of people. I don’t know how to solve the problem, but I believe that without striking at the root, without kind of getting to the source, you can punish Facebook for bad behavior, but they will repeat it as long as the incentives stay in place. And all of this trickles down into the information environment that we live in.
Jorge: I love this image of the root striker and as I think through my friends, I consider you one of the most thoughtful people about this stuff. Someone who is looking at dealing with the root of these problems. And I’m wondering if you have any practices, any tools, albeit conceptual ones perhaps, that help you do that?
Peter: Yeah, so partly it is mindset, which is a word you mentioned earlier. So when I wrote Ambient Findability back in 2005, that was a fairly techno utopian book. And so that, I sort of see that as the end of my kind of unquestioning positivity towards information technology and the direction of human civilization. What I wrote Intertwingled a few years later, I made a conscious decision to lean the other direction. To question culture more, to question technology more. And for better or for worse, that has stuck. You know, that was a decision I made for writing that book that has then had consequences for me beyond. And so I think the first step in protecting yourself from the information deluge, is to understand and accept that nobody’s looking out for you, that you have to protect yourself, that it’s not all good. You’re not going to take any steps to protect yourself unless you feel that you have some something you want to protect yourself from. So once you have that shift in mindset, then I think it’s just a matter of being mindful of your practices and not letting yourself get sucked in too deeply. There was a period for me after the 2016 election where I got sufficiently sucked into the political sphere and that I think I went overboard. My family was getting upset with me for being too emotional about what was going on and so I actually took a social media break for I think three months, something like that. And I think that was really healthy. I needed that at that point in time. And when I came back I was able to be a little bit more calm and sort of selective about how much I pay attention to what I pay attention to. I think meditating is super helpful for learning to be mindful and questioning your own behavior and your own habits.
Jorge: Are there any particular meditation practices that you can recommend for our listeners?
Peter: I’m still such a beginner with meditation. I meditate for about five minutes a day. I just try to focus on my breathing. I aspire to getting more serious about meditation, but even that five minutes a day I feel has been really helpful. And I also read quite a lot about Buddhism and meditation. I feel like there’s the practice of meditation, but there’s also a really wonderful, rich body of wisdom that has been written over the last few thousand years surrounding Buddhism and meditation that helps me think about thinking.
Jorge: That’s the key, right? Think about thinking. Thinking this shift in perspective where you are not somehow caught up in what’s going on, but you can step back and see how the immersion into that space is happening.
Peter: Yeah, and what’s funny is I’ll kind of correct myself a little here. I love the word sentience or sentient because for me that brings together thinking and feeling, right? A sentient being is a being that engages in some combination of thinking and feeling. As a child of Western civilization, I’m prone to focus more on the thinking side at the expense of really connecting with feelings and I do think that that’s part of meditation and mindfulness. And also getting better at managing information is being in touch with your emotions and recognizing that they actually play a much larger role in our behavior and in our planning than we often are aware.
Jorge: Yeah. That’s one thing that as a parent has really come home to me like, pardon the pun. I’ve become really conscious of that sometimes one of my kids will be super cranky and just being “difficult,” right? And when I stop to think about it, it’s like, “Oh, you know, he or she hasn’t had breakfast yet. And this is not necessarily something conceptual that is angering them. This is their body is low in blood sugar.” Right?
Peter: Absolutely. I mean, sleep and diet and exercise are probably the top three tools for better information management.
Jorge: Well I’m glad you mentioned that because I want to go back to the Apple Watch.
Jorge: And I’m glad you called that out. O ne of the reasons I like the Apple Watch so much is that it does open up my body as a source of information and I can… I know how many steps I’ve walked and how many calories I’ve burned and with the latest version, there’s this idea that it’s monitoring my heart rate. And I also am going to bring this to the conversation and just let you be horrified. I also have a device that I use for meditation that does the same for the meditation practice. So it’s a headband that measures brainwaves while you’re meditating and it turns the meditation practice into a quantified experience somehow. And I’m wondering sometimes when I do that both for the Apple Watch and this headband thing is like, am I completely just missing the point of this? You know, by trying to turn it into an information exercise.
Peter: Yeah. So I’m not horrified. This is where I feel a bit of a division between my own thinking and feeling from an intellectual perspective. I think the Apple Watch and the sort of biofeedback headband that you’re talking about are fascinating and professionally I feel some, you know, some drive to be a little bit more of an early adopter and really understand what’s possible so that I can better help my clients take advantage of things. From a feeling perspective, I’ve always been sort of drawn more towards the natural world than the artificial. And so I don’t really, I don’t wear any watch or any jewelry other than a wedding ring. I don’t like to attach things to my body. And I’m also just, I guess I have just a certain wariness of the kind of second- and third-order effects of having this information. And I guess finally I’ll just say over the past 10 to 15 years, I increasingly got into running as a form of exercise and to eating healthy and I, through some combination of discipline and just enjoying exercise, I have no need to measure my steps or to provide other external incentives. But you know, I appreciate that other folks get value from that sort of quantified self piece of this. And as I was thinking about this interview and this notion of the informed self, it occurred to me that there’s a first impulse to try to explain how the way that I manage information as the right way, right? Like, you know, we all have to some degree this, take pride in how we do things and want to share them with the world. But I think in some ways how I manage information is the result of privilege. For instance, I rarely answer the phone unless I know who’s calling and actually, I never answered the phone unless I know who’s calling. And you know, I don’t have a boss. I’m not in a situation where I just need to open myself up to the world in that way. And I’m aware that other folks aren’t in that situation. You know, some folks have to answer the phone for a variety of reasons and that’s a huge… That could be a huge interruption in your daily life. So one size doesn’t fit all, right? Like we all have to figure out what works best for us given our preferences and our context.
Jorge: That’s why I love so much this idea that you’ve brought up of the root striker. I’m parsing that as an invitation to think, to examine more broadly your life situation. And it’s not just about managing information, it’s ultimately what are you doing? You know, why are you doing and what are you doing and what is it in service to?
Peter: Yeah. And as you and I have talked about before, I have this not completely formed plan to buy some property and start an animal sanctuary and create a place that can be helpful to people and animals. And that comes from that deep questioning of what do I want to do with my remaining time here on planet earth? And while I get a lot of intellectual satisfaction from consulting with big organizations, I’m not sure, if I look forward to the next 25 years or so, that that’s going to fulfill my need for a real sense of purpose and meaning. So I’m kind of looking at a fairly large shift in my life in the future that comes from that reflection and thinking about, you know, root causes and what’s really going on.
Jorge: I’m hearing what you’re saying as an invitation to step out of the melee and really examine whether the life you’re living is aligned with your values and if not then to adjust course.
Peter: Absolutely. We, as far as I know, we only get one chance at this and we’re not here for that long. So you know, again, there’s a certain amount of privilege in being able to switch gears at this stage of life. But I think we all have more freedom to choose our own path and goals than we often admit.
Jorge: Well, that’s a beautiful place to wrap this conversation, Peter, thank you so much for that invitation. I consider it an invitation to self-examination. Where can folks find you and follow up with you?
Peter: Well, my websites are semanticstudios.com and intertwingled.org and as I mentioned, I’m still on Twitter.
Jorge: And don’t try calling Peter. We already know that.
Peter: That’s right. Don’t try calling.
Jorge: Well thank you so much, Peter. It’s been a pleasure having you on the show.
Peter: I enjoyed talking with you, Jorge. Thank you.