Interview with Peter Morville: Planning for Everything in Times of COVID-19

Peter Morville is one of the pioneers of information architecture and user experience, working with clients including AT&T, Cisco, Harvard, IBM, the Library of Congress, Macy’s, the National Cancer Institute, and Vodafone. His books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Intertwingled, Search Patterns, Ambient Findability and, most recently, Planning for Everything: The Design of Paths and Goals.

With a background like that – and more than a quarter of a century’s experience in helping people and organizations to plan – I was keen to talk with Peter about what he was learning from the turbulence of the COVID era. We spoke early in October 2020.

Peter Morville

A man writes a book called Planning for EverythingHow has this year affected your paths and goals?

2020 is a special year, in all sorts of terrifying ways, but I think that the trends towards unpredictability have been growing for us in recent years. It’s not just 2020, right?

In my book, Planning for Everything, one of the biggest encouragements is for people to be mindful of the balance that we strike between planning and improvisation. Even though it’s a book about planning, part of my message is that we should have humility when we think about the future, and our ability to predict or control it.

I remember several years back talking with a friend who was spending some time in Rwanda. She said that, when she was there, it was a country where it was harder to plan that it was in the United States. There were more unexpected things that happened, you couldn’t count on stability, even down to the level of deciding that next Wednesday was going to be a good day for your coffee date, because something might come up.

Stability has been unevenly distributed around the world, probably forever. In countries such as the UK and the United States, many of us have been fortunate to enjoy significant amounts of stability and predictability, where we can say, “I’m going to plan a vacation in three months, or a wedding in nine months.” Many of us have a lifetime of experiencing that the things we plan, happen! 

The last few years have really eroded our sense of confidence in our ability to plan for the future. I would say in the United States right now, I’ve never experienced a period where there’s so much uncertainty, whether that’s from COVID-19, climate change and wildfires, the upcoming presidential election, civil unrest…Planning a vacation three months from now seems a bit crazy!

Sometimes instability creates opportunity as well as jeopardy. Obviously one wouldn’t wish this pandemic on the world, but can you see opportunities arising from the current moment?

I’m positive there are. One that comes to mind for me, selfishly, is that we moved from Michigan to Virginia in August. We sold our home that we had lived in for 20+ years, and it felt like a pretty good time to sell. Part of my plan, which has all sorts of uncertainties embedded in it, includes the hope that next year in 2021, I’ll be able to buy a home in Virginia at a fairly low price because the COVID-19 pandemic may precipitate the collapse of the global asset bubble. With a bit of planning and a significant amount of good luck, there are opportunities even in investment right now.

Beyond that, there is an invitation for us all to try and live a little more in the moment, to be grateful for what we have. I essentially live in the future, always thinking about what’s next and where things are going. I miss opportunities to reflect on the past and enjoy nostalgia for times gone by, and I also have to be mindful of trying to live in the present for at least some part of the day. Taking my dog for a walk is good for that; it makes me notice what’s right in front of me.

In the book you talk about your plans for Sentient Sanctuary, a kind of rural retreat “in a land of rivers, hills, meadows, and trees. On a summer’s day, you may see folks seek shelter in the shade of a solar barn. Cats, dogs, chickens, horses; it’s a little like Noah’s ark. As a boy plays with a goat, and a girl with a robot, we all explore the meaning of sentience.

How does that part of the journey fit into what’s going on this year?

Ever since I wrote that, I’ve been developing this idea of an animal sanctuary. The timing was connected to getting our daughters off to college, and looking ahead to life beyond the milestone of my fiftieth birthday. The move to Virginia is pretty much on schedule in terms of steps towards building this sanctuary, and I currently hope to buy property for that in 2021. If I can start off with some chickens and goats, I’ll be very happy.

We first thought about Colorado, took trips out there, did a lot of research. There were two major reasons we ended up not moving there.

The first was that it has wonderful cities and beautiful natural spaces, but it’s hard to bring those two together. They’re spread out, and the few places which do exist in that sweet spot are expensive.

The other is climate change. I grew concerned about drought and wildfires. I became convinced that the entire American west is going to be a risky place to live in the next fifty year. Looking at the WUI, the wilderness-urban-interface, the place between cities and wild spaces, I could see those places were most attractive but also the most dangerous from a fire perspective. This year’s news, from Colorado and California, helps to reaffirm my decision.

Your daughters going off to college affects the timing of these plans. How does parenthood change your relationship to time?

To get through the teenage years, we created this imaginary line where our girls would be grown up and go off to college, and we’d be able to live more for ourselves. In the past, perhaps that line existed, but these days, our offspring don’t really “leave the nest.”

Text messaging and phone calls mean you remain closely in touch, helping to solve problems that maybe we were forced to solve for ourselves back in the day, but also, more literally, our daughter Claire was doing a semester abroad in Australia. She was in Tasmania when the University of Maryland said, “You must come home.” They even insisted she install a tracking app on her phone so they could monitor her return to the United States.

Claudia, our other daughter, came home from the University of Colorado, Boulder, and suddenly the two girls who are both off to college are back home, and we’re all trying to figure out how to live together.

Right now, many college students in the US are living under what is basically house arrest; trying to plan with your daughter for whether she goes back to college next semester, or what she could do instead if the pandemic endures, presents its own challenges. Even with the whole world as an option, there’s no obvious, safe corner to choose.

That Maryland tracking app is interesting too. You talk in your book about your concerns with what you call “dataism”, surrendering our data to the algorithm and automated systems. What does that look like, to you, during the pandemic?

We’ve always been aware technology is not neutral. It can be used for good or evil. We’re living at a time of powerful surveillance technologies, and my concern is this: if it was just that we had these tools, and COVID, it would probably be okay; but we have increasing forms of authoritarianism, which we see exhibited at multiple levels. We see it in the political fears around the current US administration, but we also see it in a university telling a student who is paying them tens of thousands of dollars a year, “You need to install this tracking app on your phone, and pay thousands of dollars to fly halfway across the world, because we said so.”

The intersection of technology and authoritarianism is concerning when an emergency provides an excuse for extra powers; this was true of 9/11 and it’s also true, to some extent, of COVID-19.

Are there things information architects can do to counterbalance this, promoting democracy, equity, and justice through their work?

Firstly, they can work within the systems that already exist. If you’re working as an information architect or user experience designer at Google, Facebook, Capital One, or wherever, you can advocate for whatever constituencies you imagine – I’m almost hesitant to just say “your users”, because it’s not just about users or customers but all of the people and environments on which your work is having an impact. Are there ways to go about your work which seek to reduce harm? There’s a lot we can do within our contexts, even if the steps are small.

I also think that people within these broad communities of information architecture, user experience, and digital design have the skills to effect change socially and politically. The ways we structure conceptual spaces and work with language are incredibly powerful, and our community has a lot of potential for engaging socially and politically with activist causes.

There’s a tremendous amount of compassion in our community but not enough courage. People really care about others and are moved by the suffering of others, but in order to effect change we also have to stand up for something and push. That’s harder to do, especially if standing up creates risk to your career, or your health.

When you stand up alone, there’s a greater risk to your job, compared to a community standing up together. 

You’ve played a major part in creating the information architecture community. What’s it  been like seeing the term “IA” come into the world and seeing that community grow around it?

Back in the 90s, Lou Rosenfeld and I were writing and speaking about this thing that we started to call information architecture. The “polar bear book” – Information Architecture for the World Wide Web – came out in 1998, and it did provide a language and structure for this intellectual space. Lots of folks had been practicing part or all of what we talked about, but our book gave it a name.

Lou took the lead in organising the first IA Summit, which has now evolved into the current IA Conference, an annual, international gathering of information architects. We were in the right place at the right time. We were lucky, but we were also able to catalyse and build a community of practice that has its own language and structure. 

The people who practice within our community can do that again, by working with others to address areas that urgently require attention right now.

What was it like, the birth of IA?

Argus Associates was me and Lou in 1994; by 2001 we’d grown to forty people, and then suddenly we had to close. It was a tough and stressful journey, but it was also exciting and ego-gratifying. You’ve got people working for you who are ten or twenty years older than you, you’re running a multi-million dollar company which counts Microsoft and HP among its clients, and you start to realise you’ve created a new field. In the midst of that exhilarating experience, it’s easy to lose yourself and your sense of what you want.

The end of Argus was tremendously painful for the six months we were trying to save the company and then closing it, but from a personal perspective, and the health and happiness of our family, it was a huge blessing and led to my freelance career.

You write in your book about words having power, being tools. You’ve mentioned Argus Associates, which makes me think of the hundred-eyed Greek giant; how did that business and your own freelance firm Semantic Studios get their names?

Argus had been founded by Lou Rosenfeld and Joseph James; they did things like database consulting as a part-time endeavour and brought me on as part of the effort to develop it from just being a side gig. There’s a building in Ann Arbor named for the Argus Camera Company, which was a big popular camera manufacturer in the twentieth century. Lou used to walk past the building regularly, but when we were at Argus, we actually thought a lot about Jason and the Argonauts. Argus was the builder of their ship, the Argo. After the company closed, we stayed in touch, and one of the team made the point that even when the ship was gone, the people were still there, and still recognised themselves as a crew.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Semantic Studios came from Tim Berners-Lee’s essay “The Semantic Web”. It really irritated me! It seemed like typical artificial intelligence handwaving, where there would be a miraculous future where all devices were going to speak to each other in the same language. As an information architect, I knew how unrealistic that was. Would all these different companies and industries with their own languages and technologies take on the challenge of getting everything speaking to everything?

I named Semantic Studios in part to reclaim that word from the artificial intelligence folks. It’s about language and meaning! My argument has always been, “IA before AI”. Language and structure are the food you give an artificial intelligence for it to understand a part of the world.

At the time of our interview, the news in the UK is that thousands of cases of COVID-19 may have been missed because of an error with an Excel document on which the data was being stored. Ian Makgill made the point on social media, however, that this clearly dubious solution might have arisen because of the difficulties of building bridges between every software package and configuration being used to capture and share that information.

Information literacy is one of the most interesting aspects of library science. At library school, you learn all about evaluating information from different perspectives, deciding what is authoritative, can we trust it, is it up-to-date, and so on. 

I’ve seen so little progress in this area. It seems crystal-clear that democracies would be healthier if every school child was taught information literacy. Right now we’re facing a generalised problem of information literacy: nobody knows, regarding COVID for example, who to trust, which information is accurate, when there are bad actors spinning disinformation.

These wouldn’t be problems, and those bad actors would have less success, if we had a well-educated populace who could sift the trustworthy from non-trustworthy sources. On this topic, librarians have been saying, “I told you so,” forever – yet we still haven’t found a practical way to effect change.

It isn’t enough for the library to be a trusted space; information professionals can’t retreat to the role of being a gatekeeper, because that’s just trying to restore authority rather than empower a community.

I think this is a major blocker of information literacy education. There are some success stories – I think of the Finns – but the challenge is how you find folks and institutions that will teach information literacy in a non-partisan way. In the USA, the government funds education, so it’s unlikely to encourage programmes which might lead students to criticise or distrust government information! “You may not be able to trust what the Centers for Disease Control are telling you about COVID; how would you know if the government’s lying to you?” is difficult stuff to get onto the K-12 curriculum.

I’d be happy to teach kids to be critical and less unthinkingly trustful of authority, but how do you scale the teaching of something that is inherently destabilising, in the sense that it takes a critical approach to institutions like the church, the government, teachers? Most institutions don’t feel comfortable putting out the message, “You’ve got to think for yourself.”

Teenagers in the States today are growing up in an environment where it’s hard to be sure which reports of the President’s medical condition to trust, if any. (And to some extent, perhaps that’s nothing new). If you grow up in a world where it’s patently obvious that information is being massaged in some way, could a kind of grassroots critical thinking and information literacy might emerge? Do Creative Commons or the Open Education movement provide models or inspiration?

I wish it was possible, but I don’t know. Even Creative Commons, which was quite successful in certain ways, isn’t something which your average person on the street is aware of. It has some purchase in specialist communities, places like Flickr really latched on to it, but I’m not sure if that’s the same thing as what you’re talking about.

As our girls have grown up, I’ve seen them develop a staggering level of online connectedness with their peers, texting, Instagramming all the time. They’re exposed to so many non-authoritative sources of information, but there’s that critical piece, which is about giving people the intellectual tools to differentiate information of varying qualities. While there’s a value in being buffeted from all these different sides, exposed to so much, for the most part, we retreat into our different bubbles. Our girls, for example, are in a liberal bubble – it means we can be on the same page with them, from our similar bubble, but there’s not a perfect correspondence. There are aspects of the liberal bubble which I don’t agree with, and saying so causes consternation and this can pierce the bubble generated by consensus.

People are talking at the moment as if the US is on the brink of civil war. I’m not sure if that’s true, but what’s getting us to that point is people in different bubbles with completely different sets of facts. I think there’s a minority of people in the US who are able to think for themselves beyond their bubble; it’s a small percentage.

I recently spoke with John R. Parsons, the Australian anthropologist who went on patrol with the US volunteer border militia for eleven months, deliberately looking inside a different and very extreme bubble. But it obviously takes great efforts to walk alongside people in this way and start to understand the narratives by which they’re making sense of the world.

Given that it’s not always easy to get outside of our bubbles, how did you develop such an ability to think critically?

Having lived in different countries and cultures helps, but I’m also a bit of a contrarian, more likely to argue with things the first time I hear them than accept them. I’m also not a big joiner of groups, and if you have a strong urge to be included, that will give you an incentive to adopt their beliefs. That’s not something I’ve felt, and apart from the IA community to some extent, which I helped to create, I’ve felt free to have my own ideas; I think of myself as someone who likes to dwell on the edges of a number of different groups.

I see people in my life right now who are living by different beliefs and sets of facts which are irreconcilable, and there’s too much emotion around those to even try and bring them together; a person you may know has a bunch of beliefs that you think are kind of crazy, but there’s nothing you can do.

How do you understand the emotional aspect of information?

My main talk at the IA Conference this year was called “Gentle Change”, and it was about addressing the urgency of the situation without knee-jerk responses and emotional acts that try to solve all things at once, and instead set off a harmful back-and-forth.

Now, more than ever, we need to take a long view, make a strategy, and then take tiny steps in that direction. One of the things I argue is that folk in the IA and UX communities try to solve everything with information; information is our hammer.

But the last four years have taught us the limits of information. Massive bodies of scientific knowledge are failing to convince people!

If we can change the information environment, people’s behaviours and beliefs will then shift. 

My riff on Peter Drucker is: “Environment eats information for lunch”, as a method of change.

Language is an environment. There are things we can do with language to change how people perceive issues and options. We can also address the natural environment, the built environment, even the rules and laws and norms within which we operate. 

Those folks down at the southern US border who the Australian anthropologist visited, if we could take away their sense that immigrants are a threat, the hostile feelings and behaviours would change – in a way that thrusting information and statistics about the benefits of immigration at them is not going to achieve.

He speaks about it in terms of competing narratives – a Trumpian narrative of border-crossing migrants as violent folk involved in the drug trade versus one which is about compassion for the suffering which drives migration, and the suffering which is endured in a border crossing. Those narratives sound like the environments you’re describing; worlds within which we think and act.

The therapist Jeffrey Kottler, in his book on change, talks about someone visiting a nature reserve where this lion is sitting majestically on a rock. The visitor expresses amazement that the lion chooses to sit in such a photogenic pose, and the guide admits that they artificially temperature-control the rock so that it is warm or cool to attract the lion. 

Maybe that’s the equivalent of environmental control for information, but I have a concern which arises from the work of behavioural insights teams and “nudge” psychology among policymakers. The statistician Gerd Gigerenzer has written that, “As a general policy, coercing and nudging people like a herd of sheep instead of making them competent is not a promising vision for a democracy”.

We would have to start with a real democracy. I’m not entirely sure which corners of the world meet that criterion right now. The US wasn’t designed to be a real democracy. The Founding Fathers felt they couldn’t trust the people to vote directly, and so they put a check on that; you learn this in high school.

One of the points of tension in the US right now is the gap between what most people want – things like proper health care – and what they get; we have a President who didn’t win the popular vote.

Making a democracy is a fascinating design challenge. How do you design one that is impervious to sociopaths? You have to frame it that way, because any such institution will immediately be attacked by the most powerful, ruthless sociopaths on the planet in their pursuit of power and money. The US is starting to crumble because our system of government is struggling under that onslaught; it’s an imperfect design.

Once you’ve got a real democracy, then you can build new things. How do we live in a world where it is safe to move money around the world online, but you can’t vote online, even on the smallest issue? I’ve never even had the chance to hit a button to say “More money for parks”, or anything like that. Even a small experiment with direct democracy would be welcome!

If you get the foundation of a true democracy in our lifetime, then there is so much capacity to do new and wonderful and innovative things on behalf of citizens. You’ll still face the tricky part of whether we can trust most people to make decisions that are good for them, but that’s a leap of faith inherent to the notion of democracy. It’s a question we’re always asking.

Designing information systems for democratic societies quickly takes you to these philosophical questions about human nature. I wonder if one of the possibilities is to build something very small at the local level; I was in Ann Arbor early in the Trump presidency and someone told me, “Who’s in the White House matters, but so does who is on your school board, and who is elected to city government.”

It also speaks to foresight work; whether we could bring together small communities to imagine different futures. I do scenarios work, helping institutions and communities to look at their blindspots when it comes to the future.

When you say that information architects need to take a longer term future, as a part of the move towards gentle change, is there space for foresight work? UX is so anthropological, you observe the present and gather data; it’s hard to do speculative UX work.

Is there a tension between the imagined future and the observable present in this regard?

Within the UX community, information architects tend to be the folks who are more future-oriented. A ton of people practice UX reactively, updating sites, changing navigation pages, and they don’t manage to get their heads above water to do that longer term work.

When I’m brought in to a consulting engagement, the situation is genuinely right for looking out at a horizon of three to five years, and thinking how to design for growth – content doubling or quadrupling, new kinds of content being added.

However, that’s still fairly linear. Executives are still not big on scenario planning, in my experience, or imagining alternative futures. If a year ago, I’d said to my client, we need to think about what happens if a pandemic hits, and none of your employees can come into work, they’d have told me to stop joking around.

There is going to be a really abrupt cliff when all of the long-term stuff which we saw coming, but didn’t get inside the window of consideration, suddenly arrives. 

As Richard Rumelt says, people only really start doing strategy when the wolf is at the door. The hard part is getting them to imagine the wolves that might be heading their way.

Photo by Steve on Pexels.com

This long-termism also connects with the notion of patience, which comes up time and again in your book. You speak of various hiking trips in difficult conditions, some of which demanded that you give up on a challenging goal, and you talk about how failure taught you to cultivate patience. 

What does patience mean to an information architect?

It’s all relative. I was an impatient kid, but I’ve become more patient with time; somewhat naturally, but also through meditation and reading Buddhist philosophy. Even writing the book about planning helped me to explicitly acknowledge the dance between planning and improvisation.

Impatience often arises when our plans don’t go the way we want, or aren’t according to schedule. I’ve become aware of the ways in which things can go unexpectedly better than planned. Anger at having your plans disrupted can get in the way of seeing, “Oh, this could actually be better!”

Some of it is taking the long view, and getting through unpleasant patches, and some comes from recognising that you’ve got to be aware and mindful in order to note that things may be unfolding in a way that’s better than what we thought was going to happen in the first place.

Now that’s a nice optimistic note to end a conversation on. Let’s hope that by being attentive, we can find and cultivate those things that are turning out unexpectedly for the best in these turbulent times.

You can see more from Peter Morville on Twitter or at his own website, Semantic Studios.

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