Moment Prisons, and How to Escape Them

Louis Rosenfeld
Rosenfeld Media
Published in
11 min readOct 26, 2019

--

I’m presenting this talk at Interaction Latin America 2019 in Medellin, Colombia. I’ve never before given a talk that was first written as an article; should be, umm, interesting to convert it into a presentation. (I’ve had it translated into Spanish and Portuguese, the two languages spoken by most of the conference’s attendees.)

Disclaimer: I am not a physicist or, really, a designer. But in this talk, I’m going to talk a lot about time and space and how, somehow, they screw with and screw up designers.

We’re not very good with time

It’s not surprising that most of us have such a hard time understanding Einstein’s theories of relativity. They require us to stretch our understanding of how time works, but we can’t even manage the plain old Newtownian notion of time that guides our lives.

When you add space to time, things get messier. Take calculus, for instance. You need it when you’re trying to get things (like warships) to hit things (like other warships) with other things (like cannonballs). All these things are concurrently in motion, and that’s hard for us to understand. Artillerymen: respect!

The Battle of Jutland: living and dying by real-time calculus, with no computers. Oy.

We humans are also notoriously bad at understanding the consequences of our actions, and that might also have something to do—again—with our difficulties with time. It’s hard for us to think ahead when we can barely comprehend the past. Our short term memories are easily distracted, and our longer term memories are famously faulty.

When we do take serious stabs at comprehending the future, we use tools like predictive analytics, based on probabilistic thinking, which itself is also very difficult for most people to understand. Even when we’re confronted with data that suggest factual accounts of the past and sound predictions of the future, stories inevitably trump these data.

For example, you remember the famous story about how the 80s band Van Halen refused to have brown M&Ms backstage. It continues to serve, decades later, as the gold standard example that proves what prima donnas rockstars really are.

The famous M&Ms rider, from The Smoking Gun.

Actually, it proves no such thing. Van Halen used this clause in their contracts to ensure that concert venues were paying close attention to the band’s requirements, many of which addressed critical safety issues. But we’d rather believe the narrative that rock stars are insufferable jerks, even when presented with facts that suggest they’re actually astute businessmen. Many of us apply this same narrative-over-evidence thinking when confronted with data that predict future events, like climate change.

Forcing time into moments

I don’t pretend to be good at calculus (I dropped it in high school), probabilistic thinking, interpreting evidence, or even keeping my own narrative lens in check.

I am, like most people, OK at understanding that we need to plant flags — to pin down moments—that help us navigate the swirl of the universe and its wacky time-space continuum. Moments are small, digestible packages of time and memory. And they’re useful: we can remember enough about our moments to make sense of our experiences. We expect them to flow in a tidy sequence, from past to present to future, until they run out.

Billy Pilgrim, the hero of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five, experiences moments very differently: he becomes “unstuck in time”. His moments flow in an unpredictable, non-linear way. Past, present, and future moments happen concurrently. (It’s a trippy concept, and if you haven’t read the book yet, stop that.)

Billy is aware that he’s unstuck in time, and learns to appreciate that his experience lacks a narrative arc. The rest of us, on the other hand, are stuck in time. We expect our moments to line up neat and orderly, to reveal our lives’ experiences, to tell our stories. In reality, it doesn’t work that way, because we’re just not good at working with time. And we’re terrible at remembering how moments should be sequenced, what truly happened in each moment, and which moments are worth remembering at all.

Worse, when confronted by our poor memories and our inability to understand the big thing—the arc of our experiences—we double-down on the little things: our moments. Those little things are simply too small, by themselves, too confining to reveal much that’s meaningful.

Moments are prisons.

How do we free ourselves from moment prisons so we can better understand our world, our lives, and our work?

Today I’ll tackle a few of the moment prisons that confine our professional careers. As someone who’s an author and publisher, my advice is mostly about words, and how to push back against them.

Definitions as Moment Prisons

First, let’s talk about how we define what we do.

You’re likely too young to remember what was perceived as the death of information architecture. And that means you’re definitely too young to remember when IA was in its glory days, before its supposed demise, 15–20 years ago. Having co-written this book, I got to experience that glory firsthand.

It first came out in 1998. People read it at a time when they knew what they were doing went beyond what we called being a “webmaster”. But they didn’t have the right word. The book came out, and suddenly people were excited: there was a word for what they did. They began calling themselves “information architects”.

Flag planted. Yay!

Yet almost right away, the term “information architect” became a moment prison. It was so imperfect that information architects quickly broke into two camps. Google “little IA and big IA,” and you’ll see what I mean. “Little IA” was about metadata and taxonomies, and “Big IA” was about systems and experiences. Apparently, these things couldn’t co-exist, and eventually the “Big IA” folks split off, some reframing themselves as UX designers, others as interaction designers. This lead to much friction and much hand-wringing. People even fought about this — enough to break up friendships.

Many people asked me if I was sad about the “demise of IA”. I don’t know why. Maybe they thought it meant that IA was a failure? Or maybe I was a failure? Whatever. The only negative, in my opinion, was having had to hear 15 years of people bemoaning the “Death of IA”. Simply because the use of the job title shrank:

Information Architects, sorry: nothing more for you to do. All the world’s information problems have now been solved.

Now I’m hearing about the “death of interaction design”. And look: the trajectory of the job title “interaction designer” is, according to the evidence, not much different than that of “information architect”:

Interaction Designers: y’all are screwed too.

Everyone, you’re attending an IxDA conference. So now you should go be depressed. Very depressed, right? Suicidal, perhaps?

You should be. Just like you replaced us information architects, you’re about to be replaced by… “product designers”:

Product Designers are coming to take our jobs.

ALL HAIL THE EMERGING AGE OF THE PRODUCT DESIGNER!

And: OMG!

A job title is a moment prison.

The problem here is we plant a flag, to create an understandable moment. To make sense of a new thing, or an ambiguous thing, we resort to one-line definitions and 200 word job descriptions. In those moments, we create prisons that we can’t yet imagine. And those moment prisons will annoy, constrain, and literally harm us in the future.

We can do better than that. Here’s an idea: first, acknowledge change. Maybe you don’t have to accept change, but you have to at least be willing to give it a sharp look right in the eyes. Go back to the time/space thing: everything is changing always. This is literally the calculus of our particular industry.

Then let’s try to reimagine of the concept of definition against the backdrop of change. What does it mean to define the slippery? Can we plant a flag knowing that we’ll be planting the same flag again and again in different spots? Even the north and south poles shift over time; Amundsen and Peary’s flags are already off their marks by at least some inches. (And apparently the magnetic poles have shifted about 2,000km in less than two centuries.)

I’m trying to do that for UX in a couple ways. I help curate three UX conferences (and started another one). Each year, we do tons of user research to determine the zeitgeist of each topic or practice area. In other words, a conference program serves as a working definition of its topic.

Here’s the conference program for Interaction Design LA 2019. Take a close look at it, for it is literally a working definition of interaction design. A year from now, it’ll be different—and that’s a feature, not a bug.

I also publish books on UX; over time, they’ve moved from method-focused to conceptual and cross-disciplinary. It’s fascinating — and, yes, definitional — to witness that change, as well as see what hasn’t changed. Both conference and editorial agendas are definitional exercises — but they’re really only useful because we know, from the very start, that they will change regularly.

Job titles and descriptions haven’t historically worked that way. Why can’t they? We know that they do need to change, but we feel embarrassed when they do, as if we can’t get them right. That’s unnecessary. It’s like being embarrassed about being a mammal.

Whether you realize it or not, you are constantly trying to define yourself. Your resume, your portfolio, your skillset, your tribal allegiance: all will become moment prisons if you allow them to. Can you instead see these things as part of sequences, as unfolding stories of you? Will that make you more comfortable with change?

As a publisher of UX books, producer of UX conferences, and self-styled UX guy, I can promise you that I will abandon that term the moment it becomes constraining. Because I don’t want to find Rosenfeld Media stuck in a moment prison.

Metaphors as Moment Prisons

Let’s talk about another kind of moment prison: metaphors. Here’s an oldie: “portals”!

Years ago, much of my professional life revolved around the word. My clients asked for help with portals. They all wanted one! I even had a gig as an expert witness for the defense in a US$17,000,000 lawsuit that revolved around the definition of “portal”. (We won.)

So what is a portal?

No one really knew. But everyone had to have one! Even though it was unnecessarily expensive. And almost always useless. But the metaphor seemed to pin things down in a way that made people feel comfortable. Narrative over evidence. Everyone literally wanted to pay huge amounts of cash to lock themselves in their own moment prisons!

So this is what I found useful: I would meet with clients, sit down and make a rule: we’d ban the use of the word “portal”. If they used it, I’d fine them $1. If I used it, I threw $5 on the table.

This made my clients uncomfortable. After all, they had to have a portal! They’d been talking about portals for months, even years, and were so excited about finally getting one.

But the ban forced them to confront the problems underlying their assumptions about portals. And then, when they understood their real problems, they found that they could actually solve those problems. Often very easily, effectively, and very inexpensively.

Problems solved! And it had nothing to do with small, round windows!

Let’s be careful with metaphors, folks. We traffic in so many, often without realizing what we’re doing. The term “information architecture” is, for certain, a metaphor that can really box us in. I’ve found that I do my best IA work when not framing it as architecture.

Speaking of IA, you might have heard recently about the demise of the Information Architecture Institute, which I co-founded in 2002. Again with the death of IA!

I loved the IAI. It’s painful to see it go down. I’m grateful to many, many smart, kind, and generous people who put their all into making it succeed as long as it did. And it’s remarkable, given that it survived for so long when it was destined to fail almost from the start.

Not long after it started, somehow it was decided that a recognizable operational model was needed. One that people could grasp. As it was serving a community of professionals, the professional association model was adopted—not as an actual structural business model, but as a guiding metaphor.

The professional association model was created in the 20th century — or maybe 19th? It worked well for an era of siloed disciplines, academic tenure, expensive travel, and an absence of social media and cheap telecommunications software.

But those days are long past. The metaphor did provide a language and structure for how the IAI could operate, but it was confining and ultimately broken. There are plenty of other reasons that the IAI failed, but I continue to believe that the biggest one was our communally-created moment prison. We planted a flag years ago on the professional association metaphor, and never moved it enough to save the organization.

What would the IAI have become if — early on — we’d banned the use of terms like “professional association” from our planning discussions?

The Internet Public Library was a wonderful thing, but the metaphor was taken just a bit too far here.

Metaphors are fire. They’re useful, but man, they can go south on you quick. Like definitions, they’re the bricks and mortar of moment prisons.

What metaphors are you relying on to make sense of the world or, let’s focus a bit, your career?

Are you a builder? A general contractor? Are you your team’s conductor? Or its psychologist? Those are all useful concepts, but they’ll only get you so far. So respect their half-lives. Make a habit of re-evaluating those metaphors. Often. Maybe once a year, just like when you go to the dentist. In fact, do it while you’re sitting in that chair — you might need a good distraction.

Down with Particles!

To wrap up, I’m going to go back to abusing my minimal knowledge of physics—in this case, quantum mechanics.

When it comes to understanding complexity, it seems that the rules of the universe are stacked against us. At a quantum level, we get to understand the stuff of the universe as behaving as particles. Or as waves. But never, ever as both at the same time, according to Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for those of you who understand ideas through formulas.

Moments are the particles of our memories. Stories that unfold over time are the waves. We’re pretty good at the former, and godawful at the latter. That’s got to change.

When it comes to understanding the complexity of us, we need to account for both time and space, for both moments and momentum. It’s time for us to break out of our moment prisons, begin to accept change, and get better acquainted with the drivers of change: principles, beliefs, and deliciously disconcerting uncertainty. We need to explore the calculus of narratives, of overlapping cadences, of the winding passage of time that we experience as humans together.

Let’s stop, as a profession, wasting our time arguing over moment prisons—especially over definitions and metaphors. That’s energy wasted that could instead be spent solving the huge problems that our planet needs us, as designers, to address right now.

Regardless, let’s please not overuse “moment prison”. We don’t want this moment to become… a prison.

Thank you.

--

--

Louis Rosenfeld
Rosenfeld Media

Founder of Rosenfeld Media. I make things out of information.